I looked into the sun that came through the glass door of the Beauty House and did not think about any truth while I waited for my grandmother’s perm to set. No one made small talk with me in the plastic waiting chairs. The light drew blank yellow squares on my eyes when I looked at the magazine spread my grandmother pointed to. She was talking about the celebrities inside. Look how fat she’s gotten, she said.
I made mhm-hm noises with my throat, because she didn’t care what I said, only that someone was listening. Outside, magnolia blossoms fell apart on the sidewalk. They opened too far and cleaved away from their sprouting place to become a brown putty staining the concrete.
While we read the magazine I waited for a text from a married man back in Boston. Oh, I know, I said, Her calves are huge. Until a few minutes before, I did not know he was married. He wrote it out in the middle of a conversation. By the way, I’m married. I had just told him of not belonging here, no matter how I wanted to–that everyone could still see I was made someplace where humbleness isn’t enough a virtue to become a weight.
My grandmother laughed with a woman in the neighboring chair. They talked about her adult son, who had some problem with his intestines that reduced him to crawling around his house on his hands and knees but would not enter the hospital. The woman glanced at me and kept her eyes moving. She knew that I was born in a coastal city and had developed infant asthma from exhaust fumes and got on a commuter train by myself as a first-grader and had to be picked up by the police in Saco. Nothing like that, nothing that happened to people who were alone, would have happened to her children. When her son couldn’t stand up from the floor she sat there with him and fed him oatmeal and said that he didn’t have to go anywhere if he didn’t want to.
Married, I repeated while my grandmother’s chemical curls were removed from their rollers. Married. The idea wouldn’t come together in my mind. All along he had been part of that real life I couldn’t seem to break into, and it wasn’t even enough for him.
Real life, to me, was an ascendant state of being given to certain people, a reward one either earned or was born for. I called it the Midwest Belonging and I envied it terribly. Everybody else in the Beauty House had received it with the rings they wore. Rather Protestant of you, he would have said to my bare hand. I had this recurring dream of touching a man’s elbow through his sleeve. Other than that, I didn’t think of anything.
My grandmother looked at her face in the mirror around the setting curls of her hair. My mother made me say that I loved her once on the phone and she hung up. She often told me she’d have died to be born with my naturally curly hair, although it wouldn’t have made a difference, of course, because then she’d be dead.
We walked to the car and she held my arm. I told her the permanent wave looked beautiful. They charge fifty dollars now, she said, But it’s the only place left to get a perm! Her hair was thin. Under the fallen magnolia petals, the sidewalk had been poured in one long slab with lines pressed into the concrete to give an illusion of the expected separation.
At home my grandmother turned on the television. I sat at the kitchen table and put my head on my hands. The birds she fed on her deck fought over the end slice of a brownberry bread loaf. I had asked the man what his wife was like and he hadn’t answered.
I couldn’t understand what it all meant and I felt further away from the center of things than ever. Once at a living history museum the shape of my head was measured by a hatmaker’s tool and came out looking like a jelly bean. I wasn’t sure I would ever earn a real life. Not here, where nobody knew they had one, and not in Boston, where nobody wanted theirs.
Kind, intelligent, beautiful, he said.
My grandmother turned the volume up on the television. It played loud enough to hear through the wall. Whenever I called her from my rented room on the shores of pride and wealth, before I came back, I heard her TV in the background, but she thought that I didn’t, and neither of us spoke of it. She could always carry a conversation like her eyes weren’t on something else.
My friends in college wanted to know if I was having fun in the country, if I had explored any cool abandoned buildings. If I was eating eggs at outdated diners or walking around dead shopping malls. If I was touring someone else’s places not worth living in but good enough for a weekend.
I asked him what he was doing. I meant it in the moral sense, but he wrote back I’m sitting in a parked car on 35th street, reading. Thirty-fifth street might be anywhere.
Do you want some crackers? My grandmother came in to ask. Some dip with our crackers?
She didn’t have enough food growing up so she kept everything in her fridge until long after it went sour. She could eat it all without getting sick but sometimes I had to sneak outside in the dark to throw up.
In the dream I had that night, I was somewhere else again and her and I were talking on the phone, and she had the television on in the background but I did too, and I said I love you, goodbye, and hit the button before she could reply.
E.N. Walztoni’s writing appears or is forthcoming in The Hunger, The Meadowlark Review, The Dodge, West Trestle Review, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, and elsewhere.