City Paper is not for tourists
On the ninety-seventh time Trina dialed the number, somebody answered. There was a sound like the opposite of suction, and then, more like an echo than an actual voice, she heard hello?
Trina had not been prepared for this, so she pulled the phone from her ear and looked at it, looked at the number to be sure it was the right one. She put the phone back to her ear but pulled it away, fast as a cockroach, as she heard again, definitively, hello?
Trina coughed abruptly, maybe just to hear the sound of her own voice still working, and, in a panic, pressed end on her phone. She shook her head and just said the word no to no one in particular. She descended into the metro at Columbia Heights on slightly shaky knees.
It happened every Friday without fail. Around three or four on winter afternoons, when the sun set early, and closer to six or seven in the summertime, when the dark took its sweet time, Trina would unfold her phone out of habit, go to her Favorites, and call her Grandma Bea. She was too stubborn to trade in her flip phone for something sleeker, and too stubborn to delete Grandma Bea’s number. Or too superstitious. Or both. The fact was that Grandma Bea had been dead for three years.
Trina could still remember the first time she’d ridden the Metro on a Friday night past sundown, making her feel invincible and like she could do anything now that she was no longer bound by the laws of her faith. This was in her early twenties, when her lipstick was darkest and her glasses were thickest, a delayed adolescence of sorts. She had moved from the Silver Spring suburbs where she’d grown up in the Orthodox Jewish community to Washington, D.C., which felt more like the big city than anything she’d ever experienced before, trying desperately to outgrow her religion.
Here, she forgot everything and remembered herself, maybe for the first time. She moved into a tiny apartment and bought her first pan and spatula, with which she would learn to perfect her over-easy technique. She was no chef, but she knew that grownups owned things like pans. She remembered choosing a red lacquered one, because, for the first time, she realized, no one could stop her.
Trina’s parents had understood her moving away, at least a few miles, but they could not understand the things that came with this new distance – skirts becoming shorter and then becoming pants. Friday night dinners becoming less frequent, and then nearly forgotten. For a time, Trina had disappeared from Friday nights altogether. After all, it had been a Friday night when she’d met Slim.
Slim was a woman and she was not slim by any stretch. It was just that her given name, Melissa Slimkovitz, had never really fit. She was stout and handsome and her short hair was prematurely gray. She laughed louder than anyone Trina had ever met, and she didn’t shave her legs or anything else, for that matter.
The first Friday night Trina skipped Shabbos dinner at her parents’ house, she went to a party in Adams Morgan with her co-worker, Amy, instead. Nervous, Trina had worked on her outfit for hours. Could she wear her tightest jeans? Would people be able to tell how new and unbroken they still were? She settled on a short skirt with tights and a tunic top she’d taken from her sister Mirah years ago. Trina had never learned to put on eyeliner, and she was sure there was no faking that, so she put on extra mascara to compensate, angled into her pea coat, and walked out into the cold.
When Trina and Amy had arrived at the party, Trina saw Slim immediately. She was a statue of a silhouette, swigging a beer and clapping her hand against someone’s back with the gusto of a pirate. She saw the two of them come in and grinned warmly, looking at Trina directly. Trina felt something dizzy twist through her then, and suddenly felt small and scared in her giant tunic. Slim ambled over.
“Hey ladies,” she said. “Allow me to take your coats.” She took Trina’s coat and handed her a beer in return. Trina didn’t like beer, but she began drinking immediately. After tossing their coats on the radiator, Slim returned and started regaling them with tales of the food that had been polished off before they’d arrived. Trina found herself unable to listen, distracted by how struck she was by this woman, how she laughed, how she towered.
“So, Trina, right?” Slim winked at her after bragging about her Guinness chocolate cupcakes. “Do you cook?” Slim was the kind of person who could wink and get away with it.
Trina’s head rushed with all of the things she couldn’t cook.
“I make a mean matzo ball soup,” she lied, taking a long and unwelcome swig of beer.
Slim grinned broadly. “Well that works out well,” she said, charming everyone in sight with every monosyllable. “I haven’t had a proper Shabbos dinner since my bat mitzvah.”
Later that night, Trina tumbled into her tiny apartment and peeled off her tights. She yanked off the tunic, finally alone, and looked at herself in the mirror, no shirt and short skirt only. She liked her collarbone. She liked her thighs. She remembered hearing it was unusual for a woman to like her thighs.
Trina had never had a boyfriend. Ever since junior high school, her Grandma Bea had asked her about it every Friday night, soon as the candles were lit and everyone was just sitting down to dinner.
“Nu, Trini, you have a boyfriend?” Just like that, a stand in for how was your week?
“No Grandma,” she’d say, her face burning. “But how are you?”
Grandma Bea grew up Beatrice but she’d always hated that name. Makes me sound like an old lady, she’d say.
Grandma Bea loved without sentiment. Every compliment came with an edge – you were doing well in school, but you were getting too fat. You were sweet to call, but you hadn’t written. She had been married twice and both husbands had died. Trina wondered how you could still believe in anything after losing like that.
She would hear her friends’ stories about their plump, rosy grandmothers, the ones who sent cakes and cookies, the ones who smothered with kisses and smelled like just-baked challah. Grandma Bea smelled like Chanel. She hated dogs. She loved classical music. Grandma Bea had been a first chair violinist as a girl, but had retired the violin once she realized that it was impractical for a woman to play. She’d taken up teaching instead, and when anyone brought up her talent, she changed the subject.
There was a time when the fierceness started to fall away and Grandma Bea started to seem just sad. Trina couldn’t remember exactly when this unraveling began. Was it during Grandma Bea’s first health scare? Or was it on the first anniversary of her second husband’s death? Whenever it was, there had been a moment when Grandma Bea had stopped offering her unsolicited opinions about everyone’s weight and prospects and stopped laughing sharp like she did. She still came over on Friday nights, but she’d dulled. She’d stopped talking much. Mostly, she’d sit in the corner and read. Eventually, she stopped coming over at all.
By this time, Trina had mostly stopped coming to Friday night dinner, too. Most Friday nights she was out with Slim, at a D.C. Drag Kings show or eating wings and drinking beer, both of which she was learning to love. Even though it didn’t make sense, she still made the ritual blessing on the chicken wings and refused to dip them in the dairy ranch sauce, as Slim laughed at her, reminding her that she was already too far-gone to be neurotic about Kosher rules.
They weren’t dating, at least Trina didn’t think they were, because they hadn’t kissed, and Slim was anything but shy. But since the night they’d met, they’d been inexplicably inseparable. Slim made Trina feel new things, things she liked. Trina felt bigger and louder around Slim. She felt like she could do anything she wanted. She felt beautiful. She stopped hiding in Mirah’s big tunics and got a tattoo across her collarbone.
After awhile, Trina’s father called.
“Trina, honey, how are you?”
“I’m fine, dad,” she said. “Just busy.”
“Sure, sure,” said her father. “Your mother and I have been busy, too.” A pause. “But Trina, we miss you. We haven’t seen you on Shabbos in awhile. Would you like to come this Friday night? I think Grandma Bea would really love to see you.”
Trina’s mind began spinning excuses. She and Slim had plans to get drunk and go see the new Angelina Jolie movie that night. But a worry she couldn’t quite place caught her words before they fell out.
“OK,” she said. “I’ll be there.”
It was that Friday, when Trina walked into her parents’ home wearing tight pants instead of a skirt, hoping to be able to catch Slim after the movie, that she saw Grandma Bea in the corner, reading. Grandma Bea didn’t ask Trina about boys or about anything for that matter. She just sat there, silently in the corner, looking at her book, only looking up to have a bite of challah or to answer amen to a blessing.
That night, when Trina emerged from the Metro in Columbia Heights, she didn’t call Slim like she’d planned to. She walked home and lay awake in her bed. She thought about what could happen in a matter of weeks, what you could miss. She thought about everything she could get away with now, and, when she really thought about it, how much that scared her.
The next Friday, Trina called her Grandma Bea. She had never called her grandmother before, but she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her sitting there quiet and strange in the corner, and thought that calling was what a good Jewish granddaughter might do.
“Hi Grandma Bea, it’s Trina.”
“Trina!” Grandma Bea had sounded actually delighted.
The conversation was awkward at first; after all, they’d rarely talked on the phone before. And when Trina asked her grandmother questions about herself, she’d evade them. So Trina just talked. She did her best character voices, guffawed like she’d been doing since Slim had told her what a great laugh she had, told Grandma Bea she’d learned to make matzo ball soup finally and that she was also learning how to wear eyeliner.
“Trina, make sure you’re being modest,” her grandmother said, only the slightest bit sternly. Somehow, it made Trina feel noticed. It made Trina feel closer to everything about her family than she had in years. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she could hear some of the salt returning to her grandmother’s voice.
“I will, Grandma,” she said. “I promise, I will.”
The next week, Trina called Grandma Bea again. And the week after. By the fourth week, Trina could tell that her grandmother had come to expect her calls. On the fifth week, Grandma Bea picked up.
“Trina sweetie, you have a boyfriend yet?” Trina closed her eyes and thought about Slim. She laughed.
“No, Grandma,” she said. “Not yet.”
By the time Grandma Bea died suddenly of lung cancer, Trina barely came home for Shabbos anymore at all. She’d moved to a bigger apartment and sometimes hosted Friday night dinners herself, though they often featured pork rib or lobster rolls. Slim would come and tease Trina mercilessly for her insistence on lighting ritual candles in the face of such heresy.
But Trina called Grandma Bea every Friday still, without fail. Sometimes she felt sentimental about it. Sometimes she dreaded it. But always, it felt right. It felt like showing up.
The Friday after Grandma Bea’s funeral, Trina was walking home from her office in Dupont Circle. She remembered being in a rush that day, because she was going to meet Slim’s new girlfriend. She hated when Slim had a girlfriend. She hated feeling jealous and then also having to pretend she wasn’t. She wanted, at the very least, to get her eyeliner exactly right for the occasion. Her face felt the sun going down, though, and, without thinking, she pulled out her phone to dial Grandma Bea.
The Verizon Wireless message started before she remembered that Grandma Bea was gone. She listened to the entirety of the message anyway, a little bit comforted by the presence of any female voice on the other end. Then she hung up and shook it off. She burst into her apartment to steel up and get pretty.
Tonight, Trina got out of the Metro at Silver Spring. Her heart was still pounding, not only because she had invited Slim to join her at her parents’ house for Shabbos dinner for the first time, but also because she was still spooked. Grandma Bea was dead. Dead people did not pick up phones.
Trina took a deep breath and pulled out her phone again. The sun was sinking fast. She went to her Favorites and dialed Grandma Bea’s number one more time.
It rang. And rang. She waited.
And then, again, the voice.
“Hello?” It said.
Trina wasn’t sure her voice would work.
“Hello?” It came out like a whisper.
There was a long pause, but nobody hung up. Something on the other end sounded like the wind. Trina wasn’t sure what possessed her, but she spoke again.
“How are you?” A pause.
Trina couldn’t tell whether the well was an answer or an expectant prompt. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly, afraid to know what was really happening.
“Grandma Bea, is it you?”
Again, the frenzied crackle. The voice almost disappeared. No discernible words then, but Trina could have sworn she heard yes. And then silence. No crackling, no nothing.
Into the silence, Trina whispered, “Grandma, I think I have a girlfriend.”
“This is Verizon Wireless. This number is no longer in service. Please hang up and try again.”
Trina pulled the phone away from her ear and looked at it, as though waiting for something else to happen. She stood and just waited. Suddenly, she surprised herself by laughing. She laughed loudly and felt the echoes of her laughter disappear into the darkening sky, to somewhere else.
She snapped the phone shut and put it in her pocket. She felt oddly light on her feet and started to walk faster. It wasn’t just that Grandma Bea was no longer in any corners, and it wasn’t just that when Slim had finally kissed her the week before at the zoo, she’d actually felt new vertebrae forming in her spine. It was that she remembered. She remembered herself and she remembered Friday night and she remembered the sound of her grandmother’s voice, loud and sharp and surprising and not sorry. After all, Grandma Bea never stayed quiet for too long.
As she turned onto 16th Street, Trina pulled the phone out of her pocket again. She opened it and looked at the number one more time. Then she deleted Grandma Bea’s number. She wouldn’t need it anymore. She put the phone back into her pocket and walked the rest of the way to her parents’ without stopping.