Authors: Tanya Altbridge
By Tanya Altbridge
Copyright © 2015 Tanya Altbridge. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
I fell in love with my husband, Paul, right away, the very first time I saw him. I remember the lecture on twentieth-century American poetry where Paul turned out to be a professor’s assistant. At the end of class, as everyone was leaving, a tall blonde walked up to him. She asked him something, and Paul blushed. The flush that covered his cheeks wasn’t really red – it was something more like scarlet, cherry-colored stains. For some reason, that made a real impression on me. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist and any unusual color gets to me, or it could be that, up till then, I had never met a man with such an exotic blush. In any case, at the next lecture, I spent almost two hours staring at Paul, and trying to sketch out a portrait of him. By the end of the semester I had filled with sketches of Paul a whole album. That album was in front of me when one day, at the end of class, he walked over to pick up my exam. Paul looked at his own portrait and – what else? – started to blush. After class that day, he asked me out for coffee. And that is how we met.
From the very start, our whole relationship was surprisingly easy, simple. It was as if we had always known each other and just hadn’t spoken for a while. There was no inhibition, and no fear of somehow saying the wrong thing. No shyness. Mostly, I’m quiet and reserved. But when I was with Paul, I immediately felt like I was with an old pal. And he enjoyed being with me. It was clear that everything about me fascinated him. Pretty soon I was desperately dependent on him. I craved the presence of a person who could look at me, listen to me closely when I spoke, smile at me, and laugh at my jokes like he did. Apparently, he needed me, too, because when I graduated, Paul proposed, and asked me to move in with him. Which is exactly what I did – straight out of the university dorm.
I think I’ve been painting my whole life. I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but my Chinese grandmother was constantly telling me that a career was supposed to feed you and put a roof over your head. My head was always full of fog and foolishness, and everyday truths had to be hammered into me. However, my grandmother was plenty stubborn, and she pounded that wisdom into me with admirable persistence all the years I lived with her.
I don’t know how my grandmother made the leap from communist China to California. She didn’t like to dwell on that period of her life, and she never seemed to miss her ancestral homeland. I suppose she had to endure a good deal of toil and hardship in order to survive. She had no education, and the only work she was able to find was as a maid in office buildings and private homes. So she kept cleaning and sweeping until she was very old, even once it became difficult for her to bend over and her eyesight started to fail. She didn’t teach me Chinese, preferring to get her point across in English. Actually, my grandmother never formally studied English. She had a very strong accent and would always make a lot of mistakes, yet, she was still fairly fluent.
I don’t know who my grandfather was. My guess is that it was one of my grandmother’s employers. I asked her a few times, trying to find some photographs or documents, but she would never talk to me about it. One thing is certain: my grandmother hadn’t wished for children, but once she knew a child was on the way, she took a philosophical approach to the idea. My own mother hadn’t planned on children either. She had always wanted to “live a real life,” as my grandmother put it, so after school she moved straight to the East Coast. God knows what was her definition of a “real life” or why the East Coast was the only place to have it. When I was born, she brought me to California to live with my grandmother and returned to the East Coast. I have almost no memory of her and no idea if she is still alive. The last time my mother came to visit us, I was just three years old.
My grandmother didn’t want me to repeat the mistakes she and my mother had made. She thought the most important thing was to learn to
something that would always be useful and make money. She was willing to forgive me for a lot if I brought good grades home from school – but she yelled and scolded nonstop when I got lazy. My grandmother had beaten it into my head that I needed to go to college. I’d be the first one in our family. Education was supposed to open up a door to another, better world. And for that, I would need a college scholarship, so she made me study all the time.
School was easy for me, though. Hardly anybody from my local high school went to college. The girls in my grade mainly worked building up their portfolios to become models or actresses. The boys, if they even went to school, didn’t take much interest in their studies. Many of them were already working, some legally, most under the table. My teachers were so happy with my enthusiasm, and so glad that I showed up regularly and even did my homework, that I quickly became one of their favorites. Our art teacher, who was the first to notice my artistic talents, considered it her duty to make sure I received a scholarship and got into a good college.
My grandmother, I believe, was extremely skeptical about my artwork. Of course, she thought that way about everything in life. Yet, in the end, when it came to art, I managed to win. If I was going to continue my education, I insisted, I would become an artist. I didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or virtuoso musician. There was a simple reason I couldn’t be a musician – I had no ear and no voice, a fact which was revealed, much to my grandmother’s dismay, almost immediately, when I was little.
Later, according to my grandmother’s plan, I would have to graduate from college and marry well. By “marry well,” she meant my husband would have to make a lot of money, not run around on me, not beat me, and respect me. The most important thing, however, would be to actually
a husband. That was another area in which I was supposed to be the first in our family to succeed. Words like “love” or “passion” were not in my grandmother’s vocabulary. She was too pragmatic for that, and hadn’t read enough books.
I had no objection to marriage, since I had seen all too clearly how hard it had been for my grandmother to spend her whole life alone. But among the people I knew, at school and at work, nobody gave marriage much thought. They did talk about sex, though – often and in great detail. Sometimes in too much detail. My grandmother had brought me up in such a way that I had a mostly negative view of sex. And my knowledge of it was strictly theoretical, with no practical experience. I was too busy. We never had much money. I started working when I was twelve. The men I met never triggered any particular emotional reaction in me… except for some that just disgusted me.
For example, there was one guy, Ryan, who worked with me once clearing tables at a restaurant. When I took out the garbage, or stepped outside to have a drink of water or a breath of fresh air, he would often be lying in wait for me, ready to try to squeeze me into some corner and feel me up. It was vile, really repulsive. I ended up carrying some fingernail scissors in my pocket. They turned out to be very useful for situations like that, as they didn’t take up much space, but were able to do a lot of damage, especially if applied to the right part of the body. Apparently, I hit the right spot the first time, because Ryan never bothered me after that, aside from scowling at me when he saw me in the kitchen. If it hadn’t been for his clumsiness and extra weight, most likely I wouldn’t have been able to slip out of his grasp without trouble. Fortunately, he soon got wrapped up in a successful love affair with one of the cashiers and forgot all about me.
When I was little, I loved Disney movies, especially Cinderella and Snow White. They had hard times, but then, when the handsome prince showed up, all their problems disappeared in an instant, and the story was over. This gave me an idea that if I did everything right, the way it was supposed to be done, and if I suffered just the right amount, then everything would definitely turn out well. Suffering was a requirement. Take Cinderella, for example. Everyone laughed at her and made fun of her, and forced her to work, and nobody loved her, and then – boom! – she had it all. Love, a family, a place to live, and all the best things in life. Or take Snow White. She humbly washed and cleaned and cooked for those dwarves. And then the prince came, kissed her, and that was that. A happy ending!
My grandmother always grimaced in scorn when she saw me watching that nonsense. She never placed much hope in the appearance of a handsome prince. She was probably the least sentimental person I have ever known. With time, I came to appreciate her pragmatism. Books and movies certainly helped me to handle difficult situations and to escape for a while from my joyless existence. Soon, though, I started wondering what happened next. What exactly was it like, their happily ever after? And what precisely did it mean to live happily?
For my grandmother, the answer to that question was very simple. Happiness was when you had a steady job, enough money for a place to live and for food, and a man in the house who could move furniture, lift heavy things, and fix anything that was broken. She always had work and had long ago forgotten to think about men. She assigned me the task of improving our financial situation. I was her lucky ticket to a comfortable future. My grandmother’s philosophy of life was simple: Prepare for the worst, and if the worst passes you by, be happy with that. She taught me not to build castles in the clouds and not to hope for miracles. “Rely only on yourself, and always be ready for your plans to go wrong. Nothing’s going to fall down on you from the heavens.” She firmly planted this idea in my head.
My grandmother died in my sophomore year of college. They called me at work. She had fallen down at the supermarket with a brain hemorrhage. The next day she passed away, never regaining consciousness. After the funeral, I threw out, gave away, or sold all of our (not very many) household possessions and moved into the dorm. It was easier that way.
I’m ashamed to admit that I wasn’t too distressed over my grandmother’s death. Not as much as I probably should have been, anyway. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her. Of course I loved her! After all, she was the only person I had really been close to. She had cared for me as well as she could my whole life. Yet, my love for her was mixed with fear. Most of all, I was scared of letting her down and of becoming one
disappointment in her life. For example, she hardly ever expressed any disapproval of the career I had chosen, but I could frequently detect a hint of sad resignation in her eyes. After she died, I breathed easier. Now I was responsible only to myself, and no longer had to achieve all the things she thought I needed to achieve. Still, often, I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head scolding me and pointing out my mistakes.
So that was my life. On the one hand, I was completely on my own, and on the other, I was engaged in a constant mental dialogue with my deceased grandmother.
I wasn’t totally friendless, but I never let my few friends get too close to me. It’s just that my grandmother had worked hard to convince me from an early age that people were not to be trusted, - that they would either betray or deceive you. That meant I always tried to keep my thoughts to myself. And my feelings, too.
In my freshman year, I suddenly started to have a love life. Well, not a love life, exactly, but an attempt to understand what my girlfriends talked about so earnestly and what people wrote about in books.
I went to a party, dragged there by a girl from one of my classes. She was fighting with her boyfriend, and she needed to prove that she was just fine without him and didn’t care at all. So she absolutely needed to go to this party where he was also supposed to make an appearance. And she couldn’t go alone. She wanted me to go with her. Her explanations were so long and convoluted that I finally gave up and agreed to go. I couldn’t follow her logic anyway and didn’t have time to argue. I was already late for work.
At the party, the girl I was with almost immediately decided to patch things up with her boyfriend. As soon as he showed up, anyway, and walked up to her to give her a hug and a kiss. That hello kiss lasted unbelievably long and I thought I’d better step aside so as not to interfere. Then this guy sidled up to me. Steve. He was tall, although compared to me even somebody of average height seems tall. Still, height is very important to me. I like tall, thin men. Blonds with blue eyes.
Steve had dark hair, and his eyes were brown. It was pretty dark in there, though, and he was a lot of fun, always joking. There was beer, loud music, dancing, and more beer. I woke up in Steve’s room. At first I was terrified, but then I found a used condom and felt better. That meant everything was okay and I probably wasn’t pregnant. As Steve told me later, I had acted so worried about getting pregnant the whole time that he almost changed his mind about having sex with me at all.
“What made you do it?” I asked. I really hardly remembered what had happened that night, and was terribly ashamed that I now needed to coax the details out of Steve.
“Well, I was basically already set up for sex. And you have a very nice ass.”
I felt flattered. Steve looked even more handsome in the morning than he had in the dark at the party. I asked him for a repeat of what we had done before, this time in the light of day. With a condom. He said that he had practice in half an hour, and was out of condoms, anyway. On the other hand, he also said that we could get together next weekend and do it again.
That’s how Steve and I started to date. He was an athlete and always away at practice. At first I loved having sex with him. I finally had a personal life! One I could never tell my grandmother about. Steve wasn’t very demanding, and never pressured me when I didn’t have time for him. He took a very pragmatic view of the relations between the sexes.