THE EARLY BIRD SPECIAL

 Copyright, 2018, The Early Bird Special, Frances Metzman

Cory stood on the balcony of her grandmother’s apartment in Miami Beach,Florida. She recalled how Ryan, her boyfriend of three years, had asked to come with along on the trip to visit her grandmother. Cory objected. When the time to leave came, he drove Cory to the airport and tense silence had rebounded between them. The pained look on Ryan’s face had forced her to look away.

She stared at the rust-crusted snow that had been plowed curbside on the streets of New York City. If Ryan had a temper tantrum it would have been easier to handle than his thick, suffocating silence. He dropped her off at the airport terminal with only a nod. 

            “Cover up.” Her grandmother’s raspy voice startled her. “I can see your tush.”

  Cory closed her eyes and held her face up to the sun and basked in the Florida warmth.

            Cory tugged at her short-shorts and hiked up her halter top. Grandmother Ruth warned her once again that her ninety-year-old neighbor was out on his balcony again with the binoculars trained on Cory.

Cory leaned over the balcony ledge and waved at him. “At ninety he’s earned the right to do some harmless looking,” Cory said, laughing.

            “So, when are you getting married, Cory? You’re thirty years old now, and you’ve been going steady three years. What’s with the going steady?”

            “Why get married when I have you, Grandmom?” Cory stretched and inhaled the flowered scents lacing the topical air as she tried sidestepping the turmoil she felt inside.

            Ruth led Cory into the living room. Cory noticed how much older Grandmom Ruth looked. It made Cory feel older, too – and sad.

The verbal dueling in her last argument with Ryan echoed in her head. He’d stood in front of her, blocking her way to a fast exit.

“I don’t understand why you don’t want me to come. I like your grandmother and she likes me,” Ryan had insisted. “We can have a nice holiday away.”

“I’m worried about her. I need to see her alone,” Cory had explained, not sure why. Ruth was fine, but the urgency to see her grandmom had gripped her so fiercely, she’d been at a loss to understand why.

            “Please talk to me,” Ryan had said in exasperation. Cory had shrugged and Ryan just stared at her. Once she had pushed past him, she emptied the broom closet and began scrubbing the bathroom.

            Now Cory tuned into her Grandma’s story that she’d heard many times.

            “Your poor Grandpop never lived to enjoy this,” Ruth said, sweeping her arm in a circular motion. “Look at this beautiful place, and we always wanted to retire to where it was warm. Grandpop never saw a palm tree before we got here. Who could know he would drop dead at the settlement for this place? Soon it will be two years since he died.” Ruth adjusted pink silk flowers in a chrome vase. “I got my dream home with lots of heartache.”

Cory noted that the cocktail utensils were in the same position they were two years ago as were the liquid levels in the liquor bottles. Ruth removed a white hankie from inside her ample brassiere and walked toward the mirrored bar to dust. Wrapping the cloth around her stubby fingers, she obliterated a spot on a Lucite ice bucket.

Cory saw how Ruth, her mother, and herself escaped pressure through fierce housecleaning.

“Your mother doesn’t call much. So, how is she?” Ruth asked.

It angered Cory that her mother was so wrapped up in her own activities she tended to ignore Ruth. She thought of her mother as an emotionally distanced, cold woman.

Before she could answer, Ruth asked, “And how come you don’t mention the boyfriend’s name for two days now?”

            Usually amused at Ruth’s carousel conversations, Cory now felt irritated. “Let’s talk about something else. Cut me a break.” Cory gazed at the regulation wheat and white bread colored room, punctuated with beige pillows. Hollow lamps filled with seashells sat on Plexiglas tables. A painting of seagulls coasting over ocean waves hung on the wall.

            Ruth hobbled into the gleaming white kitchen. Arthritic knees and bad eyesight did not hamper her adeptness at cooking. Ruth yanked and clanged her beloved old pots like a determined chef.

As a child, Cory had often visited Ruth’s apartment in an old, dingy part of the city. Her mother eagerly dropped Cory off on the way to her twice-weekly bridge game.

Cory closed her eyes and imagined the scent of breads and cakes that seemed permanently imbedded into those ancient plaster walls of Grandmom’s home.

            “Cory? Breakfast is ready.” Ruth shouted as though Cory were three blocks away. Cory opened her eyes just as Ruth dislodged bacon and eggs from the mammoth frying pans onto large plates. She also put out a platter of smoked salmon, cream cheese and whitefish. Ruth planted herself on a dining room chair and spiked her fork into a perfectly round egg yolk.

            “Eat. You’re too skinny,” Ruth said. “I still use lots of butter and cream.” And then in a whisper, as though divulging top secrets she said, “Don’t tell your parents.”

            “You’ll make me fat,” Cory said, laughing and nibbling on a slice of bacon. Ruth always presented a potpourri of foods whether they went together or not. But she made each item herself, even smoking the salmon and she had a gourmet touch that made it all taste wonderful. Sometimes, when Cory needed comforting, she made Grandmom’s marinated herring. For Cory, it beat chocolate or fudge.

            She realized how much she’d missed her grandmom’s feisty humor, and that this visit was about seeking a safe harbor, but now she worried more about Ruth getting older.  One day she would die and what would she do then?

            Then Cory imagined losing Ryan. Her heart smashed against her chest. She loved that big bear of a man who soothed her hurts and made her laugh. The problem was that every time he mentioned wanting to get married all she could envision was the indifference and bitterness between her parents.

Marriage seemed unnecessary. It often changed the rules. The courtship was great, but she worried about changed expectations after signing that legal document. What if he expected her to do most of the domestic chores? Now he shared cleaning and frequently cooked. Her friends all snickered, saying that will end with marriage. Half of her girlfriends were already divorced. In most instances, power playing developed right after marriage. What if Ryan wanted to control her? There were so many ifs.

Ruth expelled a loud shuddering sigh. Cory’s internal alarm went off, knowing it usually meant trouble.

“So, you gave up a week of great sex to come see your old grandmother.”

Cory choked on her food. “Grandmom, I wanted to see you.” Cory began stacking dishes, but remained seated. Where was this coming from she wondered?

“Your grandfather was no big deal in the sex department, but he was a good man, and I miss him.”

Laughing nervously, Cory listened to Ruth demolish the established boundaries of acceptable family chatter. She glanced at her seventy-eight year old grandmother and said, “Grandmom, what’s gotten into you? That’s pretty hot stuff.”

Ruth dropped her large, rounded shoulders and brushed crumbs into her hands. “Sophie next door is hot, not me. Sophie wants dates with men, and she said she likes to do it.” Ruth dropped the crumbs on her empty plate and waved her hand in disgust. “Fey.”

Pity for her grandmom soaked into Cory’s body. Was Grandma simply lonely? Afraid of death? Cory looked away, fastening her eyes on the monotonous seagull painting.

While Cory groped for ways to ease the tension, it struck her that Ruth delivered her off-beat anecdotes with the same monotone she’d use to recount a recipe. It was as though she tried to suppress a tidal wave of emotion. Suddenly, Ruth looked pained as she seemed to search for words.

“I never talked to your mother much, Cory. I should have. She was not a liberated woman, but it was my fault.”

“Grandmom, I didn’t know you were into women’s issues,” Cory laughed stiffly, trying to turn the conversation into a joke. She suspected they’d have to open a few veins if this conversation got any more serious.

“What? I know women’s issues. At the supermarket old people take forever to write a check or find their coupons. So I read those magazines with all the brazen articles. They tell personal secrets to the whole world now. How they do sex, what they do and how often. Can you imagine? Once you didn’t even dare think of it let alone whisper about it.”

Ruth folded her hands tightly, her knuckles white, and threaded with blue veins. “I taught your mother that she had to be a good girl until she got married. That’s all the personal talk we ever had. Your poor mother had no one to talk to, no friends, and no relatives. She didn’t go out to play with the other kids.”

            Broaching intimate subjects with her mother had always been like trying to cut through an iceberg with a butter knife. Cory had grown up bottling her feelings and found it hard to open up. Ryan encouraged her to dig deeply into herself, and she’d gotten better at it. But it had never been a comfortable fit.

            Cory battled an urge to jump up, wash the dishes and dust all the items already spotlessly clean. She told herself to sit and listen to how she continued the legacy of denying emotions. 

            All motion and sound in the room seemed suspended. After a few minutes, but what seemed like hours, Cory touched the top of Ruth’s papery, wrinkled hand.

            “Your grandfather, may he rest in peace, wouldn’t like this silly talk.” Ruth pointed upward, breaking the strained hush.

            As Ruth had aged, she’d developed a sharper edge. If the words tumbled into her head, they jumped off her tongue. Only now Cory sensed the gloom. Ruth’s dwindling options in life had to be terrifying.

            How long since Ruth had made love or been wrapped in a man’s arms? Thinking of her grandmother as a vital, sensual woman unsettled Cory. She’d always been Grandmom who couldn’t possibly have the same needs or fears as a younger person. Ruth had erect posture and was built like a large rectangular chunk of rock. That was how Cory always viewed her – a rough surface but solid underneath – opinionated but dependable. Cory stared at Ruth and saw glimmers of beauty, the kind Ruth possessed before wrinkles defeated her face. She’d once been a young woman with secret longings. Men had desired her.

            “Grandmom, why are you unhappy?”

            Ruth’s sad smile softened the blunt tone. “Sophie always wants me to go to dances for the old, single women. She goes to a dermatologist who pumps poison into her face until she looks like a dolphin. She wants to be happy. It’s too late for me. I should have tried to make changes, make your mother have more understanding and feelings, but I can’t do it now. All I want is for you to be happy Cory. I think things are not right with you.”

            Cory looked down at her folded hands and said nothing. Ruth started talking again as though afraid of losing her momentum.

            Ryan’s invitation to share his inner life and future had sent her running for cover. Ruth looked as vulnerable as Cory felt. “Grandmom, you’re so smart, and you have these flashes of brilliance.”

            “My darling, Cory. The only flashes I’ve had are hot ones.”

            Ruth’s humor cut like a surgical laser. The worst and the best of Cory’s legacy opened before her. She looked into her grandmother’s watery, blue eyes and was met with unblinking directness.

            “Ryan…I mean…we do have issues. Actually, it’s my problem. You’ve helped me so much, Grandmom. You made me see Mom differently. Thank you.” Cory felt her eyes tear up.      

“I didn’t do right by your mother, and then she didn’t do right by you. You’re young. You can grab hold of life, not shrink into it like we did.”

            “I love you so much.”

            “I should just play mahjongg and go to the early bird specials for dinner instead of jabbering,” Ruth said, her regret seeping into the air. “It’s what I didn’t get in life that haunts me. The last time you were here I watched this Ryan look at you, and I envied you.” Ruth took a deep breath as though trying to clear the fog of remorse, clogging her lungs. “Long ago, most men did not expect wives to enjoy certain things – like sex. So I killed my desires and feelings.”

            Cory took Ruth’s hand in hers.

            “Survival was hard enough. Your grandfather worked like a dog and didn’t know from magazine talk about erotic zones and organisms.”

            “Orgasms,” Cory said, smiling.

            “Orgasms, shmorgasms. We just existed. I once had a lady friend who was very close to her husband. She told me such things I never heard of, such private talk.” Ruth hesitated. “What shocked me was that it sounded like fun. I told Grandpop, and he wouldn’t let her come back.”

            Ruth smoothed the tablecloth. “I’m very lonely, Cory. My head woke up too late. It forgot my body is nearly dead.”

            Cory winced. “Don’t say that…”

            “It’s okay. You’re lucky to be living in this new world, but more important you know how to live it. Go back to this Ryan of yours. Tell him what’s in your heart. I know you love him.”

            “I’m afraid if I marry Ryan we’ll wind up like Mom and Dad. They hardly speak to each other.”

            “You can do much better, and you can’t be afraid to try. The more you run away the worse it is. It kills everything inside of you.” Ruth groaned. “I should know.”

            How ironic, she thought. Her grandmother, of all people, had been the one to make her confront herself. But poor Ruth had done everything correctly, and still had been cheated. Even Cory had cheated her by not recognizing her secret yearnings.

            “Thanks for coming to visit me, my darling child. It makes me feel good.”

            “Are you kidding? You’re my best friend,” Cory walked over to Ruth and hugged her. A strange mixture of helplessness and happiness suffused Cory. Then she let go and walked toward the bedroom to prepare for the beach.

            “Cory?” Ruth called out.

            Cory stopped and turned.

            “Do you have good sex with this Ryan?”

            Cory laughed, slipping finally into a comfort zone. “Great sex, but there’s always room to get better.”

            “Be good to this Ryan. Marry him.”

            “I might just do that. And thanks.”

            From the distance Ruth looked radiant and youthful.

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