by Alina Grabowski
“I wish my sweat smelled as good as yours,” Nellie told her grandmother when she was little. She still remembered asking, sitting on her grandmother’s lap on the porch, carving a frozen Hoodsie cup with a wooden spoon.
Her grandmother laughed. “That’s not sweat,” she said. “It’s perfume. Bergamot.”
“What’s bergamot?” She liked the way the word was unfamiliar in her mouth, a new twisting of the tongue. She whispered it when she said it—it seemed like the kind of word that held secrets.
“A bit like an orange, a bit like a lemon. We don’t have them in the U.S., really.” Nellie hadn’t realized there were things that didn’t exist here. Everything, it seemed, was contained in the world that stretched from her house to her grandparents’.
“How do you know what it’s like, then?” She stabbed her Hoodsie cup again, eating the chocolate half-moon first because she liked it less than the vanilla. Her grandmother reached a thin arm over her shoulder and hooked a finger into the ice cream, then lifted it to her mouth. Nellie could smell the musky sweet scent as her wrist glided past her.
“When your grandfather and I traveled to Turkey for our honeymoon we had bergamot marmalade with our toast. I bought the perfume there,” she said. “You can borrow it whenever you like. Especially if a boy’s involved.” She mussed Nellie’s thin hair, her fingernails pleasant against her scalp.
“Ew,” said Nellie, scooping out a taste of vanilla. “Jenna says Lisa’s front tooth fell out because Bobby kissed her on the slide. She says if it happens again her lips could melt off.”
“You know what I heard?” Her grandmother wrapped her arms tightly around Nellie, pulling Nellie’s arms to her own ribs. Nellie liked being this close to someone.
“What?” Nellie asked, taking the last bite of ice cream and tossing the plastic cup onto the pollen-dusted table beside them.
“If you tell them secrets, your heart starts melting, like a candle.”
“Does it stop?”
“I’m not sure,” her grandmother said. “I’ll let you know.”
Nellie used her grandmother’s perfume for the first time at her grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary party. It was a warm August day and everyone was outside under the tent her mother had rented, but she snuck into her grandmother’s room instead. She opened the drawer and found the perfume beside the rice paper facial blotters and spongy make-up triangles. The drawer smelled like oak and baby powder. It wasn’t until she twisted off the golden top that she smelled the familiar crushed flowers and fruit. She plugged the bottle’s open neck tightly with her fingertip as she turned it upside down, the honey colored liquid cool on her skin. She swiped it quickly over her wrists, her collarbone, her neck before returning the bottle to the drawer. Then she went to find her neighbor, Sammy Travers.
She had her first kiss with Sammy that afternoon, in the hull of the above-ground pool her grandparents hadn’t bothered to fill in years. They sat with their backs pressed to its metal frame, which stretched a few feet above their heads. They were both thirteen. The age you got kissed.
They had picked pea pods from her grandfather’s garden, but Sammy couldn’t split his because he had no nails. Nellie took the shell from him and pried it open easily, hoping he would notice the red nail polish she’d stolen from her mother. “Hold out your hands,” she said.
Sammy cupped his hands beneath hers and she plucked the peas from their boat, dropping the tiny green beads into his palms. They weren’t ripe yet, smaller than pebbles.
“You want one?” he asked, holding up a pea caught between his thumb and index finger.
“Sure,” Nellie said, and kissed him as he leaned in to hand her one. His lips were thin and flaky. The metal frame of the pool was burning her back, exposed beneath the knot of her halter-top, and she pulled away. She looked at Sammy and suddenly felt like she had to get as far away from him as possible. She felt as though something she hadn’t realized was inside of her had collapsed. She stood up and put one hand on the pool ladder, one foot on the bottom rung. Sammy was still sitting down, touching his fingertips to his lips. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“I have to pee,” she said, hoisting herself over the lip of the empty pool and scrambling down to the lawn. She ran into the woods bordering the house to avoid the tent, following them around the right side of yard, weaving between the trees and mossy rocks. She tripped over a tree root and fell to the ground, her palms grinding into the damp earth. She stayed still for a moment, listening to her own breathing, loud against the silence of the woods. Then she hoisted herself up and wiped her hands on a rock in front of her, the dirt like coffee grounds on her palms. She heard something crunching in the grass behind her and held her breath.
“Nell?” someone in the distance called. It was her grandmother’s voice.
Nellie stood there, saying nothing, moving nothing.
“It’s just me.” Her grandmother’s frame came into sight, pulling her red skirt up as she stepped over roots in her black heels. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Nellie moved to sit on a low, rectangular rock nearby. “Just taking a break.”
“I saw you running, I thought something was wrong.” She came and sat down next to Nellie, kicking off her heels into the dirt. Nellie watched them land on a cluster of dandelions a few feet away. “Do you remember these?” her grandmother asked, holding up one of the papery helicopters that had spiraled down from the maple trees.
Nellie nodded. The red seedpods were scattered all over the rock, and reminded her of the display of insect wings at the science museum, fragile pairs torn from their host.
“Your grandfather and I used to collect these. I still do.” Nellie’s grandmother handed her one. “Open it.”
Nellie watched her grandmother split open the tip of the pod with her nail and then peeled open her own. It was sticky on the inside and her grandmother stuck the helicopter to the bridge of her nose, nodding at Nellie to do the same. “Why did you start collecting them?” Nellie asked, gluing the wings to her face. She was afraid to take her hand away for fear they would fall off.
“It was a game we used to play before we got engaged. If the seeds stuck, we were together forever. If they fell off, we weren’t going to last.”
“I guess they stuck, then,” said Nellie. There was a warm breeze and she could smell her grandmother’s perfume, which wasn’t a smell anymore but the time they threw cookie batter at each other, the time they climbed over the fence to the neighbor’s pool, the time they held each other when the hurricane rattled the house.
Her grandmother pulled the helicopter off her nose and spun it between two fingers. “We should go back,” she said, standing up. Nellie noticed that the hem of her dress was brown with dirt. “It’s my party, after all.” She held a hand out to help Nellie up. “Well, sort of.”
Nellie barely knew her grandfather. He was obligatory hugs at family gatherings, $20 checks on holidays, balloon-printed cards on her birthday.
He spent all of his time in the garden or a wooden shed next to the garden. He was there even during the winter, when it sometimes became so cold and windy at night that he would sleep there instead of venturing outside. “He’s got a space heater and some blankets,” her grandmother would say as the icy wind puffed through the cracks beneath the windows and doors.
“Can I see the shed?” Nellie asked her grandmother once when she was little.
Her grandmother laughed. “I haven’t even seen the shed.”
“What do you think he does in there?” Nellie asked.
“I know what he does,” her grandmother said. “He paints.”
“Oh,” Nellie said. “Why?”
“He wanted to be an artist,” her grandmother told her. “Once upon a time.”
“Huh.” Nellie thought about this for a moment. “What does he paint?”
“The garden, the house. And he paints little trinkets for the church fair every year. Ornaments, toy boxes.”
“What if it’s all a lie?” Nellie asked when she was older. “What if the shed is full of dead bodies? Or guns? Machetes?”
“Your grandfather is not a violent person,” her grandmother said. “Just a cold one.”
He died when Nellie was sixteen. The day of the funeral she got ready at her grandmother’s house, pulling on her dress and brushing her hair in the room that had once been her mother’s. When she went to use the bathroom her grandmother was standing at the sink, running her wrists underneath the stream of the faucet.
“What are you doing?” Nellie asked.
“Washing off my perfume,” her grandmother said. The water was so hot it was steaming, and Nellie could see that her wrists were a bright pink. “The smell is making me sick.”
Nellie hid in the bathroom during the funeral reception. She sat on the closed toilet seat eating chilled shrimp she had smuggled into her dress pockets. Neither her mother nor her grandmother cried that day, but her father couldn’t stop, and she could hear him through the bathroom walls. We didn’t even know him, we didn’t even know him, he kept saying.
“Pull yourself together,” Nellie heard her mother hiss when she slipped into the hallway and passed them near the coat closet. “He wasn’t even your father.”
Nellie drove her grandmother home afterwards. “Don’t let her stay long,” her mother told her, “Just let her pack a few things, then right back to our house.”
“Okay,” Nellie said as she parked the car. “Quick in and out? Yeah?”
But her grandmother didn’t walk towards the front steps when she opened the car door. She took a right turn and headed around the garage, saying nothing.
“Gram?” Nellie called, slamming her door shut and watching her move through the weak beam of the automatic porch light. “Where are you going?”
She followed her to the shed, stepping over the wilted strawberry bushes that surrounded it. Her grandmother was fiddling with the lock on the door, spinning the dial with shaky hands. “I don’t know it,” she said when Nellie came to stand beside her. “I don’t know it.”
“Did you try his birthday?” She nodded. “His birth year?” Another nod.
Nellie stepped in front of her and tried, her grandmother clenching her shoulder with small fingers. The lock dropped down and Nellie slid it off the door and into her pocket.
Her grandmother squeezed her shoulder. “What was it?”
“Your birthday,” Nellie said.
They pushed the door open together. The interior space was small, no larger than a walk-in closet. There was a twin mattress in one corner, covered in pillows and thick blankets, and a small space heater plugged in beside it. Directly next to the mattress was a small desk and chair, pushed tightly together. Nellie couldn’t step further inside without having one foot on the mattress.
The desk was covered in glass circles the size of a palm. Some had light blue circles rimmed with white painted on them, a bulls-eye of navy in the middle. There was a palette set to the corner covered with dry, clotted paint and thin brushes. An empty jam jar stood beside it, still filled with murky water.
“He said he was working on something new,” Nellie’s grandmother whispered.
“What are these?” Nellie asked, picking one up.
“It protects against the evil eye,” her grandmother said, leaning forward to take one. There was so little space that they had no choice but to touch elbows and ribs, and Nellie could feel her grandmother’s breath on her neck as she spoke. “We got one as a souvenir in Turkey, but he dropped it when he opened the box back home.” Her grandmother traced the circle of the eye with her finger again and again. “I said we were cursed after that.”
Nellie placed one of the eyes back on the desk. “Were you joking?”
Her grandmother held the eye up to her face and looked at it like it was something she didn’t understand. “I think so,” she said.
A week after her grandfather died, Nellie’s grandmother fell down the stairs and broke her hip. “I knew this was going to happen,” her mother said, pacing up and down the fluorescent hallway outside the hospital room. Nellie didn’t bother saying anything, because she knew her mother didn’t want to be comforted. Her father knew this, too, and made himself useful by buying Ding Dongs and Fritos from the vending machine. They ate them while they sat in the hard, floral print chairs in the hospital room and watched Nellie’s grandmother sleep. The only sounds were her snoring and the rustling of the plastic wrappers.
“I’m tired,” her mother finally said.
Nellie wanted to say Me, too but knew they were the wrong words.
Her father pulled his chair closer to her mother’s and patted his shoulder. She dipped her head to meet it, and he tipped his cheek to her forehead. They both closed their eyes.
Nellie started doing nightly checks on her grandmother when they let her leave the hospital. “But the nurse is there until eight,” Nellie said.
“It would make me feel a whole lot better,” her mother told her, pressing the car keys into Nellie’s palm.
“Why don’t you do it, then?” Nellie asked, already opening the door to the coat closet.
“Nell,” her mother sighed. “Just do this for me, please?”
Her grandmother thought something was wrong when she answered the door, leaning forward on her walker suspiciously. “Is your mother sick?” she asked as she unlocked the screen. “Your father?” Nellie shook her head twice. “Did you get kicked out?”
“Gram,” Nellie said, taking her grandmother’s arm and gently guiding her farther into the house. “Let me in, please.”
Her grandmother shuffled away from the door but wouldn’t let Nellie take any further steps into the hallway. “Are you pregnant?”
“Gram, no.” Nellie unbuttoned her coat and slung it over the banister. “Mom wanted me to check in on you.”
“What am I, a teenager at an unsupervised party? A toddler at a subpar daycare?”
“You know Mom. She worries.” Nellie found herself scanning her grandmother for new bruises, cuts, scrapes.
“God knows she gets that from her father, not me.” Her grandmother was wearing a lilac bathrobe, and she tightened the fabric belt around her waist for emphasis.
Nellie slipped past her grandmother and into the kitchen. “Come sit down, I’ll put on some tea.”
They sat on the couch with mugs of chamomile, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire playing muted on the television.
“It’s a Friday night,” her grandmother said, putting her tea down. “You’re sixteen. Go get into some trouble.”
Nellie laughed. “What kind of trouble?”
Her grandmother shrugged. “Sex, drugs, rock and roll.” She took a sip of her tea. “I broke into a mattress store once after hours with my guy. We jumped on all the beds like we were five years old.” She took another sip. “And did some other stuff, too.”
Nellie pretended she hadn’t heard that last part. “With Grandpa?”
Her grandmother laughed. “God, no! That man was scared of everything. He yelled at me when I didn’t wash fruit before eating it.”
Nellie put down her tea. “Do you miss him?” she asked quietly.
Her grandmother stared straight ahead at the television. “Now what kind of question is that?”
Nellie took her grandmother’s wrist and squeezed it. It was so thin she felt like she was touching bone. “I should get going,” Nellie said. “Do you need anything else?” Her grandmother shook her head. When Nellie leaned in to kiss her, she smelled like fabric softener and hydrogen peroxide. It was a scent she didn’t recognize.
Nellie’s grandmother recovered from her hip, but a blood clot formed in her leg six months later. When she was discharged this time, she didn’t go home. She went to Nellie’s.
She moved in during January, right before the blizzard hit. They moved the treadmill and weights out of their extra first-floor room and into the basement, then filled it with a bedframe and dresser instead.
“You know you’re in trouble when they put a baby monitor in your room,” her grandmother said, playing with the white walkie-talkie on her bedside table.
“It’s not a baby monitor,” her mother said. “It’s a safety alert system.”
Blizzard Boreas hit in early February. He brought snow packed dense as brown sugar, heavy drifts that pinned doors to their hinges and pounded roofs to their breaking point.
The power went out and Nellie and her mother lit candles while her father brought cans of baked beans and SpaghettiOs up from the basement. Her grandmother sat in her bed, wrapped in her bathrobe and two knit scarves. “What a way to go,” she kept saying.
They couldn’t leave the house for three days. When they lifted the curtain covering the sliding glass doors to their porch, all they saw was white.
Nellie sat in bed with her grandmother to keep warm while her parents sat in their bed upstairs.
“I want you to have something,” her grandmother said, putting down the peanut butter and jelly sandwich they had been sharing. Nellie took the plate and balanced it atop her blanketed knees. Her grandmother reached over to the bedside table and opened the drawer where Nellie already knew she kept her perfume. She knew because she borrowed it every time she had a date.
The amber-colored liquid sloshed inside the perfume bottle as her grandmother held it with quivering fingers. “This is my last bottle,” she told Nellie. “I bought ten of them during our honeymoon. I didn’t think I’d ever be back.” She handed the perfume to Nellie. “And I was right.”
“I can’t take this,” Nellie said, rolling her fingers over the glass ridges of the bulb.
“I’m not giving you a choice,” her grandmother said.
All of a sudden the whole house shuddered. The windows and doors clattered like they were trying to break free of something, and the bed slid forward despite its locked wheels. They’d found the brass bedframe at a local yard sale—it was an old rollaway meant for guest visits, and the stops on the wheels had begun to stop working.
“Sandwich, please,” her grandmother said. Nellie handed her the nibbled half she had been eating before, crumbs scattering over the blanket that was already stained with the morning’s oatmeal they had made in the fireplace. “Do you know why I bought that perfume?” her grandmother asked, a wet glob of jelly clinging to the corner of her lip.
“Why?” Nellie asked, still turning the perfume bottle over in her hands.
“It was one of the few things your grandfather and I both liked,” she said, wiping the jelly away with the back of her hand. “We were scared of agreeing with each other.”
Nelly brushed some crumbs off the blanket. “Why?”
“We got married so young.” Her grandmother leaned back into the pillows and looked up at the ceiling. “I think we were afraid we’d become each other instead of becoming ourselves.”
Her grandmother started forgetting things. First, the small ones: where the sugar was kept (in the drawer with the tea boxes), which type of water removed grass stains (cold), what you called the time of night after the sun set (dusk).
Nellie came home from school one day to find her grandmother on the floor in her room, swiping a hand beneath the bed skirt. “I’m looking for my glasses,” she said when Nellie asked.
Nellie laughed, dropping her backpack to the floor. “They’re on your head, Gram,” she said, bending down to tap the wire frames buried in her white curls.
Her grandmother withdrew her hand and sat up, leaning against the foot of the bed. “Ha!” she said, laughing. “God, I’m one of those old ladies now, aren’t I?” And then suddenly the laughing became crying, and she shook her head at Nellie’s extended hand, pulling the collar of her sweater up over her face to hide her wet eyes.
Nellie stood there for a moment, wringing her hands like her father when he didn’t know what to say, and then picked up her book bag and walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. She walked to the front door and sat outside on the step, where she could see her young neighbors practicing bike riding in their driveway, endless halting loops on their tricycles.
Nellie started keeping a list of what her grandmother forgot.
Apple crisp recipe
Where I go to school
How to use the washing machine
What our car looks like
The Lord’s Prayer
She found her mother crying at the kitchen table one Saturday. Her arms were folded on top of a placemat and her face was pressed to them so all Nellie could see was the back of her head. “What happened?” Nellie asked from the doorframe. Her mother never cried and seeing it made her feel anxious in a way she never had before. “Where’s Dad?”
Her mother said something that got lost in her arms and the table.
“What?” Nellie knew she should enter the room but felt like she couldn’t. Her mother didn’t make any attempt to repeat herself. “What did you say?”
After a moment her mother yanked her head up to look at Nellie. Her face was bright pink, as though it had just been splashed with hot water. “She didn’t remember my name!” She dropped her head back to the table.
Nellie slowly entered the room, stepping lightly on the wooden floor. She pulled out the chair beside her mother, which made a scraping noise that echoed through the entire house. “I’m sorry,” Nellie said, placing a hand on her mother’s spine, which felt wrong, and then moving it to her shoulder blade, which felt a bit more right.
Her mother lifted her face again, rubbing her dripping eyes with the back of her thumbs. “You know whose name she remembered?”
Nellie didn’t say anything.
“When is Nellie coming home? I have something to tell her. Where’s Nellie?” A wobbly strand of mucus hung from her nose and she made no effort to wipe it away.
“I’m sorry,” Nellie said, pulling her hand away from her mother’s shoulder.
“Don’t be sorry! I hate when people are sorry for nothing.” Her mother took a napkin from the center of the table and blew her nose.
Nellie didn’t have anything to say to this, so they sat in silence for a few minutes while her mother wiped her face with another napkin and pressed her fingertips to her closed eyes. “You know what I wish you could have seen?” her mother asked.
“She and your grandfather used to have this beautiful, tiny cabin on a lake in Maine. We went up there every weekend during the summer and went fishing and swimming.”
“That sounds nice,” Nellie said.
“My dad was a quiet man, as you know, but up there he was a chatterbox. Completely different person. You know what he told me one night when we were grilling?”
“What’d he say?”
“That he was saving up for another trip to Turkey. It was going to be a surprise for Mom’s birthday.”
“But it never happened?”
“No, he lost his job a few months later. We had to sell the cabin. He got even quieter after that.” Her mother was looking out the window, at the frost-tipped March grass.
“Still a nice gesture, though.” Nellie patted her mother on the shoulder and got up to put the kettle on.
Her mother gave a little laugh, which came out sounding choked. “My dad was good at gestures, if nothing else.”
“Kind of like Dad,” said Nellie, opening the cabinet to look for two mugs.
“I guess,” said her mother, folding one of her napkins into a tiny square. “But your father is always telling us he loves us.” She flicked the square across the table like it was a paper football. “My father was never very good with words.”
Nellie waited for the day when her grandmother wouldn’t know her name. It came in mid-May, when the peonies were speckling the border of the driveway pink and the neighbors were playing daily games of wiffle ball. “Excuse me?” her grandmother had called from her bedroom when Nellie walked past her open door. “Yes, you dear—do you know if this place has any iced tea?”
That night Nellie couldn’t sleep and knocked softly on her mother’s door before she opened it. Her father was out of town on business, and her mother looked small in the bed alone. “Do you mind?” Nellie asked from the doorframe.
Her mother didn’t try to hide the surprise on her face. “Of course not.”
Nellie climbed into the bed and pulled the blankets tightly over her shoulders, facing away from her mother. She could hear both of them breathing.
“I’m right here,” her mother said, touching her back.
Nellie turned over to look at her. “I know,” she said. She fell asleep with her head on her mother’s chest, listening to the constant thump of her heartbeat.
When June arrived her grandmother was somewhere else.
She spent her days in bed watching the television Nellie’s father had moved from the living room to her bedroom floor. She watched game shows, and knew the answers. She didn’t know the day or the current president, but she knew the Scottish word for lake, the address of the prime minister of England, the 1939 Best Picture winner.
Most of the time she was on honeymoon in Turkey. Nellie drove to a Turkish bakery an hour away to find the bergamot jam her grandmother demanded. When she brought her grandmother a plate of toast smeared with the orange jam her grandmother blinked twice, as though she didn’t trust her eyes.
“What’s this?” she asked, holding the toast so close to her face that the jam got on her nose.
“The jam you wanted,” Nellie told her.
“I had this with my husband yesterday,” her grandmother said.
“Really?” Nellie sat on the edge of the bed, careful to avoid her grandmother’s thin legs and feet.
“We never order the same thing, but everyone loves this stuff.” Her grandmother took a large bite and Nellie leaned forward, holding a paper napkin under her chin to catch the crumbs. “Do you have anyone special in your life, dear?”
Nellie laughed. “Not in the way you mean.”
“That’s a shame,” she said between bites of toast. “You wouldn’t believe how much other people teach you about yourself.”
Nellie nodded. “I can imagine.”
That night Nellie took the perfume from the drawer in her nightstand and rubbed a drop into her wrist. She held it up to her nose and tried to remember how her mix of skin and scent was different from her grandmother’s. When she fell asleep she dreamed a bergamot tree was growing in her grandfather’s garden, growing evil eyes like apples. She tried to pick one, but it was just out of reach.
Alina Grabowski grew up on the south shore of Massachusetts. She is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has received the Phi Kappa Sigma prize for best undergraduate writing. Her story “Scorcher” appeared in Cleaver Issue No. 5.