Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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We Edwards women are proud of our bodies. My mother has a lovely ass. My aunt has champion ankles. My cousin has long, thick hair worth climbing. And Mae Edwards, my eighty-seven-year-old grandmother, still has the world’s most magnificent breasts.
I’m a woman, and I will soon be a wife. I live with a man and a cat in a haunted house in north Florida. The ghosts grow bold when I’m home alone — so bold I can see them from the corner of my eye, following me from room to room. I spill wine on the floor and hope they’ll slip. The cat sees them, too. She charges like a bull from one end of the house to the other, as if the ghosts are holding red capes for her, egging her on.
When I was a kid, my grandmother Mae loved to catch me naked. She’d come into the bathroom while I showered, under pretense of looking for her watch or a tube of toothpaste, and she’d pull back the shower curtain and squeal, Oh, you’re coming along! No knockers yet, though. Well, that’s not my fault.
Then she’d shimmy, too delighted by the impressive force of her own knockers to get discouraged by the absence of mine.
Mae says knockers and tits. She says cunt and twat. And because I learned these words from her, I didn’t understand how raunchy they were until I started using them at my friends’ houses or in middle-school classrooms. But they fly from Mae with a brazen, contagious confidence. Her motto is: Knockers up! Walk tall, lead with your tits, and take no prisoners.
We Edwards women keep our men. We do not divorce. They say it’s because we can cook; we know how to feed and pet our men.
Mae believes I’m too old to be single, and my status as a perpetual student confuses her.
What’s wrong with you? she asks. I thought you were smart.
I left home for college nine years ago, and I’m still there, teaching and completing my degree. Nine years ago she lived in Tucson, Arizona, and her husband was still alive. She could still drink and smoke and walk. She thought I’d become an engineer, like her husband.
Mae has two sons-in-law. One is a petroleum engineer, and one — my father — is a retired teacher. She says the gas business is ugly, but it makes the world go around. Mae wants to know: How does teaching pay the bills? How does writing put food on the table?
My mom sells mattresses to newlyweds in Texas. She has an eye for the strength of other people’s relationships and tells me over the phone which couples will and won’t make it. Apparently the too-sweet ones are doomed.
I’m drinking three-dollar wine and watching my bull-cat race through the Florida house. How many laps will she go? How long can this little animal last?
I ask my mom, The too-sweet ones?
Exactly, she says. It’s the women who give it away. They smile thin. I’m a salesperson, she says. I know a half-assed smile. I know what it means to pretend to love something.
I think this is a small, mean observation. My cat stops in the middle of the room and cranks her head back, her eyes on the ceiling. There’s a ghost above us.
I visit Mae at the senior facility where she lives. It’s called the Summit, a name that evokes mountaintop resorts where diplomats meet — or perhaps heaven. It takes the guarantee of a few illicit Virginia Slims to lure Mae into conversation. I wheel her outside, and we smoke together, which pleases her. Troublemakers like company.
Mae wants me to promise I’ll get married before my twat starts to smell. I remind her that I am already engaged. Never one to admit being wrong, she just says, Good.
Then she gives me the rules for how to keep a husband:
I don’t think these rules genuinely reflect my grandparents’ marriage. They don’t genuinely reflect any relationship I’ve seen. I go against all Mae’s advice.
I’m a terrible nonsmoker. I smoke. I aim not to hide my vices. My almost-husband is interchangeably angry, disappointed, and silent about my smoking, all of which deepens my shame and doesn’t improve my discipline.
We hide almost nothing from each other at this point. We keep the bathroom door open. We frequently praise the attractiveness of strangers. We pick our noses. We sleep like kittens, limbs overlapping. At 4 AM I wake up sweating to the sound of the cat chasing ghosts into the bedroom, but my man barely moves. I grab the cat, pull her under the covers with me, and whisper into her pink ear folds. Speaking in my mother’s anxious voice, I ask her:
The cat wraps her paws around my arm and gnaws on my wrist with her dagger teeth. She starts rabbit-kicking, and I release her back to the ghost hunt.
My dad used to be a drinker. I would wait for him to get soggy with vodka before asking why he thought my mother hadn’t left him yet. I was young and cruel, and it felt as if I were evening the score.
I don’t know why, he said, but I sure am grateful she hasn’t.
Since my father quit drinking, he and I haven’t talked very often. I’m afraid to ask if he remembers the question I used to ask him. He’s probably afraid to ask what I remember at all. In truth I don’t recall much: bursts of fun and anger mashed together. When he was happy, we’d ride the bus downtown to the library. People grinned at the sight of us. My father taught me to smile at strangers. He also taught me not to expect good people to do good things. He was the sort of drinker who still took out the trash and paid the utility bills on time. And he was a teacher. Everyone loves teachers.
Lately my dad doesn’t answer the phone when I call. He’s moping, my mother says, about his back. A series of spinal surgeries has left him nearly immobile. He turns off the lights and watches Twilight Zone marathons.
On the phone with my mother, I’m reminded that she’s not an unkind woman. She’s strong, capable of doing a never-ending list of tasks for other people: She takes care of Mae, who is cranky and mean to her. She takes care of my father. She feeds the neighbors’ chickens. When a friend’s elderly mother needs food, my mother cooks a meal and brings it over to her. She waters a colony of toads in her backyard. (She says they get thirsty.) She sends my cat gifts: toy mice stuffed with catnip. She helps me plan my wedding.
The Edwards women call my mother Crazy Wizard Monkey, a title she gave herself in the middle of the tough summer we moved Mae out of her home in Arizona and into the Summit. It fit so well we throw it at one another now. Both praise and insult, it stands for all of our Edwardsness:
Does the struggle to decide where each family member should sit in a restaurant stress you out? Crazy Wizard Monkey. Does your desire to satisfy other people cause you to revise over and over the simplest of plans? Crazy Wizard Monkey. Do you frequently stop what you are doing so you can check on loved ones? Is your sleep plagued by thoughts of other people’s problems? Do you not know how to love yourself?
I think my man might be a Crazy Wizard Monkey, and I think my dad might be one, too, but for some reason we women save this title for ourselves.
We Edwards women have a history of not returning to our homes once we leave them. A child of the Depression, Mae grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but she never went back after she got married. My mother was born in Philadelphia but left when she was six months old, in the crook of Mae’s arm, and somehow ended up in south Texas eighteen years later. It was 1974. She loved Jasper Johns paintings and bell-bottoms and “Sugar Magnolia” by the Grateful Dead. She wore eyeliner so thick that her eyes were like two black holes. The other students at Baytown High gave her a wide berth in the hallways. I enjoy thinking of my mom as a badass weirdo, pre–Crazy Wizard Monkey. After she graduated from high school, my grandfather sent her to the University of Texas to find a husband. He made her promise not to major in painting.
Mae has turned senile with age and sour from sobriety. Her hair is dyed a terrible urine-gray color that comes in a box she buys on field trips to Walgreens. I can tell she’s slipping, because the back of her hair is permanently matted. I don’t know whether this embarrasses me or not. In her prime she owned hundreds of pairs of high heels, each stored in the original box with a corresponding Polaroid taped to the front. She had the same sequined beret in twelve different colors. She repainted her nails every Sunday for five decades. I recently realized her nails are bare of their usual alternating-green-and-red polish for Christmas. When I asked why, she said, What’s the point? I have nowhere to go anymore.
Mae whispers in a tired, mean voice to people I’ve never heard of. I try to ask her who they are and what they want. Does she talk to them out of a desire for retribution or exoneration, or is she just coming unhinged?
It takes several glasses of wine to get my mom talking about her life before me. I’m obsessed: I want to know about her misses and regrets.
Mom had curves like Betty Boop. She loved two men before my father.
I ask about them: Which one did she love the most? When did she know she’d marry Dad?
Mom calls me out on my eagerness. She refuses to let me romanticize her past.
She met my father at a party. It was a full moon. There was rock-and-roll and drugs, and I’m pretty sure the whole damn group took their clothes off to dance under the Texas stars. The next morning my mom woke up with my dad next to her. She went to work, and when she got back, he’d spent the whole day fixing everything in her apartment. Now she’s spent her whole life trying to fix him.
My almost-husband and I plan for our future. We lay out photos of our grandparents and wonder which ones our children will take after. His paternal grandparents live in a metal-roofed house in south Texas with a red macaw named Max. They’ve been married for nearly seventy years, but his grandmother doesn’t recognize her people anymore. When family comes to visit, she serves them takeout fried chicken in bowls of water as soup and throws someone’s wallet in the trash while cleaning up.
The people pictured in front of us all look strong-jawed and mysterious. The cat observes while we take turns pointing to the pictures and making pronouncements about whoever is in them: Bipolar. Excellent cook. High blood pressure. Lazy. Religious nut. Genius. Perfectionist. Adorable. Depressive. Generous. Anarchist. Stubborn as shit. Obnoxiously affectionate.
We point to each other: Stubborn. Petty as all get-out. Insecure. Possibly an idiot. Snores. Belly fat. Getting wrinkles. Absolutely hilarious. Lovely. Bad breath. Kind. Hardworking. We point and point, coming closer and closer until we fall on top of each other, laughing. The cat runs around us, swatting at the air. Crazy man! Crazy woman!
At the Summit I catch Mae staring at the arched veins in her hands with tears in her eyes. She still has lovely knockers, but the rest of her body astounds her. She grabs her stomach and declares, I’m so fat! She says her twat smells and accuses one of the nurses of stealing her feminine-hygiene spray.
She regards my body suspiciously. Her eyes squint. You have nice legs, she says, spitting the words out like vinegar. I regret wearing a dress. I tell her she has nice legs, too.
Oh, shut the fuck up, she says.
I laugh. She leans back and hisses at me, her eyes as round as twin full moons.
I hiss back: You shut the fuck up. Anyone can see you’re the coolest bitch in here.
Mae holds her pointer and middle fingers together and poses like a child with an imaginary cigarette.
You know what? she says. I am.