My grandparents lived in a one-bedroom apartment a block away from the main plaza. Their beds were in the living room, each at an angle from the small TV set. Soap operas and news programs blurred by on half-volume. My grandmother brought me tea, cakes, peeled apples browning in the dust-filled sunlight from the one uncurtained window over the upright piano. This was not my country, and I didn’t speak the language.
I slept on the pull-out couch in the bedroom. Four locked wardrobes blocked the windows facing the street. On the walls were watercolors of city landmarks, photos of my grandmother in an army uniform and my grandfather dressed as Don Quixote with his mouth wide, singing. Magazine cut-outs of girls danced in white dresses and red shoes. On the table, a vase of dead flowers and a pale yellow cloth.
The toilet was in the high-ceilinged stall by the kitchen. It was nice and cool in there and smelled like pee, and like an old stone cave. I could not reach the little wooden pulley to flush.
“Hello,” I called out down the long, dark hallway. “I can’t reach.”
I was, though tall for my age, just seven years old.
The first few days I scribbled between the lines of coloring books with a black ballpoint pen. Then I discovered the balcony outside the kitchen. I went out there and let the ants crawl up my arms in the afternoons.
One day my grandmother gave me a drink made of tap water and orange syrup. I watched her plunk plums into a pot of boiling water, roll pastry dough across the table.
The next day she gave me another drink, this time fizzy salt water. When she plucked the feathers from a chicken, I took one and put it in my hair. I wanted to know why I’d been left all alone with these people. “Where’s my mother? Where’s my family?” My grandmother fed me milk and sausages. She gave me wine. She let me dig out the eyes from a fish before she threw it in hot oil. They were hard and gummy. I rolled them between my fingers, then threw them onto the balcony. I watched the ants carry the eyes off into a crack in the concrete ledge.
My grandfather took me to the zoo one day.
On the corner I was given a cone of soft raspberry ice cream. Women passed with maroon hairdos. The sun blazed down on the white stones of the plaza. Birds overhead cast small black shadows. There weren’t any dogs or squirrels. A bronze sculpture of a man on a horse seemed to seethe, ignored. A bell donged. My grandfather took hold of my hand.
“No no no,” he said and pointed to the ground at the tram tracks, then up at the approaching tram. He smiled like an idiotic child, lifting his elbows in dance. “Fa la la,” he sang, skipping over the rails, mocking me, it seemed, though I hadn’t done anything.
The tram approached and blew its horn. My grandfather halted in fake, paralyzed fear, laughed, and waddled off the tracks.
“No,” he said, two fingers pointing at his own eyes, then down at the rails, then up at the tram, then poking my shoulder. “No.”
The tram took us out of the old city and up a hill.
“Table for two!” tooted my grandfather as we approached the zoo gates. As we stood in line for tickets, I saw peacocks running free on the other side of the iron bars. Blanched weeds poked through the concrete and tickled my ankles. A gray duck walked up and looked at my grandfather.
“Shush,” he said, and kicked it away.
At the elephant cage, my grandfather picked up two chunks of broken black pavement and hurled one through the bars. The elephants stumbled back and forth, squelching.
“You,” he said, handing me the other chunk.
I let it fall to the ground, looking at him as I did it.
We trudged slowly toward the primates. My grandfather’s belly bounced into the back of my head.
One sad, potted palm tree stood in the middle of the habitat. A single gorilla leapt from the corner shadows and came towering toward us. My grandfather wiped his eyes and sighed, speechless with glee. The gorilla retreated back to the shadows, sat splay-legged and fiddled with a child’s broken toy.
That day at the zoo there was a little carnival. A clown with no makeup walked around on stilts handing out paper flowers. He bent down to give one to me: a small assemblage of red tissue and wire. Then he knelt down to my grandfather, gave him a yellow flower, removed his hat and kissed the top of my grandfather’s head.
“No, no!” said my grandfather and pushed the clown away. But then, regarding the yellow flower, he softened. The deep wrinkles in his thick, bald head flattened out. He stood there, hatless, absorbing the sunshine. He put his hand over his heart.
“Mama,” he said, lifting my chin with his finger.
A brown bear cub walked by, pulled on a chain by two zoo-workers.
“What about her?” I said.
He made believe he was crying, twisting his fists at his eyes, wiping invisible tears away with a handkerchief, then looked at me and said, “No.” With his stubby pinky fingers, he pushed the corners of his mouth up into a smile.
I fed my flower to a passing goat.
We took the tram back home.
He advertised that he regarded women as playthings. He was my best friend. I kept a cross-indexed record of his transgressions, ready for citation, in my head. I wrote him long letters excoriating him for the harm he had done to himself and others.
One day my husband sent flowers: blue hydrangeas studded with thistle and greenery. I took pictures of the flowers, then later did a few studies of them on paper.