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The Parts You Get to Keep

Published: July 18, 2014

Sketch of a brown paper bag, a glass eye, and a row of false teeth. Illustration by Karen Donley-Hayes © SEPS

Illustration by Karen Donley-Hayes © SEPS

My grandfather looks like that because he has a glass eye, and he can’t help it. He’ll remove it, along with his whole set of teeth, if I ask him to. He’ll be a hollow faced grandfather, if I ask sweetly enough and if he feels up for it.

I traveled once all the way from Raleigh to New York City in the back of my parents’ 1987 Toyota Station Wagon with Laura Newton, who also had a glass eye. She’d lost her real one to cancer when she was a baby, but had a handheld portable television that showed fuzzy programs in black and white, which made up for it.

It felt lonely, staring at that tiny screen while my parents sat quietly in the front seat, fielding bumps in the road and stalling too long in heavy traffic along I-95, my father cussing beneath his mustache while my mother rubbed the top of his hairy paw on the clutch to calm him down. But watching that buzzy little television screen felt like doing something, and it felt novel. Cut the stretch of hours and highway ahead of us into something digestible.

What’s funny is that my grandfather also has cancer, and also has a glass eye, just like Laura, which makes me think they’d have a lot to talk about if they ever met each other. I’m always thinking of ways to make people less lonely, and I think part of this—in this case, at least—involves introducing them to people also missing things in their faces.

I tell him this, standing small by his hospital bed, with its gray-blue and tucked white and antibacterial, band-aid-y smells, and he smiles big which makes his big cheeks even bigger, and the little red spots he had all over his body stand out more red, almost pulsing. He told me once that when you get old enough, the universe gives you red spots, to celebrate your years, alive, on earth. A kind of skin confetti. He was full with spots, especially on his chest, beneath his plot of thick white hair. There must have been hundreds.

My mother is starting to get them, too. I saw three the other day while she was driving me to school; her sweater slipped down her shoulder, revealing the top of her chest and a small bit of her bra, which was bland and beige and utilitarian. Two of the spots were very near each other and the third several inches away, like it had done something to displease the other two and had been ordered away to skulk on its own private patch of skin.

Rabbit and Jo and I were like this. We switched off allegiances by the calendar year; there wasn’t space enough yet in any of our hearts to properly entertain two other people, so one was always forced out. This also provided the other two—the lucky two, allowed their girl-love—games to play at the expense of the third.

Rabbit and I liked to write scripts that we’d plan to send to the Nickelodeon show “Are You Afraid of the Dark” in which we were twins and Jo was our ugly and evil red-headed nemesis, who we were charged to defeat and who always ended up either imprisoned or dead. We’d cackle at each plot twist. Rabbit would suggest “and HERE’S where the red-headed jerk falls in the middle of the haunted field and chokes on a cow pie mixed with her stupid red hair and a bunch of bird bones!” and our eyes would light up because we were so smart, and so good at being cruel. There were other nights we’d kiss each other, just to see what it felt like, or remove all of our clothes and compare our bodies in the coy amber light of her room.

And then it would be me and Jo, secreted away in Jo’s house across the road, throwing pennies at the railroad tracks as we heard the trains’ chugging, lumbering approach, waiting for our change to get smashed flat and wide so we could rub it between our fingers and feel we were holding something rare and extraordinary to keep in our pockets and brag about the next day at school.

Or it was Rabbit and Jo, and I would be the one told to leave their game of Kangaroo hopscotch because it was only meant for two, in the patch of uneven dirt and grass behind Rabbit’s small gray house. Her mother had also painted the door gray, and put in a small row of concrete steps, so the whole place looked somewhat sunk and dead. Like it was always sleepy. I decided I didn’t want to be there anyway, when my own house was pale yellow, with a blue door and a wooden hanging of birds on the door-knocker my mother had found in a catalog from China. It always bothered me, though, that the two baby birds always had their mouths open for something that never came, except when it snowed, and then they just looked cold.

*****

We didn’t see it coming—that we would grow older and go to different schools and become like the triad of small red dots I noticed on my mother’s back a different evening, months after the first time—each one separate from the other by great stretches, like they’d all turned their backs at a common point and walked away.

I’d see Rabbit through the window of my room, which faced her house, walking with a tall prep-school boy to his car and speeding away. We went to different schools, and she’d gotten prettier than I had and it made me jealous and also wonder at how our bodies would compare now, if we’d stripped nude and stared at each other again in the calm hum of lamp light. Like we used to, before it meant anything. I realized I wanted to do that, not necessarily with her, but with others like her. People I didn’t know yet, people I might see as different versions of the self I could have become, had I been different than what I was.

Some years later, my grandfather died. The red dots had made his body their night sky, in summer, in the country, where everything is clear and black behind them. They covered him, his frail little body. I wondered what they would do with the parts of him that weren’t his. His glass eye and fake teeth. I asked one of the nurses if I could have them—his removable parts—and watched her shoulders rise all the way up to her ears. More than anything, she looked worried, and very sad, as she stared at me. They were the only parts of my grandfather I could pull out of him and keep; I had to try to keep him.

My family crowded around his body in the hospital bed, and my aunt kept pulling the blanket further and further up his chest, so he wouldn’t get cold, even though he was dead and that meant he would probably always be cold from now on.

Before we left, the nurse handed me a paper bag; inside it were the bottom set of his teeth and his glass eye in a plastic sandwich bag. I don’t know what changed her mind; maybe she realized, in his pine box in the dirt, he wouldn’t miss them. He and Laura would never have the chance to meet, but, if I ever saw her again, I could show her. Maybe I’d move her to tears, and I’d get to see what it looked like—one eye crying. I’d never seen my grandfather cry. He was of the stoic generations that preceded the generation of my father, who cried all the time, with both eyes.

Rabbit and Jo both came to the funeral, but we’d grown past the point of easy conversation. We moved in different circles now, and I’d started kissing girls, and someone at a party had spotted me and Elena Gunderhurdt pressed into each other against the side of Jacob Wexler’s parents’ garage, and rumors were spread. Most people viewed me like I had a disease they might catch, if they got too close. They didn’t even know about my dead grandfather’s glass eye, watchful on my bookshelf, and still I was ostracized. Jo was cautious, and Rabbit even more so, because of what we’d done together.

What was obliterated was the fact that I kissed boys, too. I kissed them both, when I got the chance. But no one cared about that. All they cared about were the girls, and the infection I held. I didn’t want them to have it. It was painful and wicked, wrapped around my insides with a split snake tongue that jabbed at my heart every so often and doubled me over. I felt cursed, and wished I could be anything else, but it never happened. I was never anything else.

Jo and her family moved away from North Carolina at the end of summer, and we barely hugged goodbye in our cut-off shorts and tube tops in the roundabout between our houses. The Millers’ mailbox sat knocked to its side and smashed on their lawn behind us. Through my bedroom window, I’d seen one of Rabbit’s friends bash it hard with his open fist and hoot and run away into the night like a meat-headed lynx. I’d seen her father drinking on the front porch, rocking in their unpadded swing and swinging his bottle of Jack through the gray air that seemed to come off their gray house like factory steam.

*****

By the time we’d finally reached New York City, on our long trip in the 1987 Toyota Station Wagon, Laura’s television had run out of power. I watched her glass eye to see if it reflected the gray-blackness of the tiny screen differently than a real eye. But it didn’t, really. She just looked ashamed, and then relieved when we reached her aunt’s apartment on the Upper East Side. Even her scoliosis-back, disappearing inside the gold light on the other side of the door, seemed relieved.

I watched Pet Cemetery and read The Phantom Tollbooth, terrified and elated, in my parents’ bed in the hotel room while they went to dinner and walked through the wet streets of New York Autumn, my mother’s heels spearing leaves through their center and dragging them back with her where they split and crumbled along the hotel carpeting. I pretended to be asleep when they came in—drunk, whispering and kissing.

My father lifted me from their bed into his arms and carried me to my cot. His leather jacket was still on and smelled strongly of itself, which was also the smell of him. Raw and spice and safe. Old leather father smells. He shut the light off and hummed “Riders On the Storm” as he pulled the standard-issue hotel blanket up to my chin and I lay awake for a while after that, listening to the sounds of him and my mother enmeshed in nighttime ritual, cataloging the sounds of that particular night spent being alive.