Every Thursday night grandma’s house coat comes off and her body expands like a gas to fill every part of the bathtub. I set a bucket of soapy water to my side and dip into it a cloth coated in eucalyptus oil. She says it helps with the stinging feeling she feels in her bones. Kak khorosho! Rub that spot, right there, yes, just for a little longer. Just like that. I run the cloth across her body and trace the constellations of liver spots, new and old.
When I was a kid, all the Ukrainians used to get together every week; that’s back when it was just a bunch of first-generation, fresh-off-the-tarmac types, and they would throw extravagant parties, crazy shindigs in my step-uncle’s unfinished basement with booze and sliced meats by the steam shovelful. There was no such thing as the kid’s table back then; we sat with the adults, conveying shot glasses back and forth. I remember still, between the slap fights and awkward whirling dances with the older girls, the way all the men looked at grandma with their sailors’ faces. And at the breasts she wore like a piece of heirloom jewelry.
She has disavowed her body now. It is no longer hers, but some formless thing she has been saddled with. Everything except her breasts. She still takes a special pride in them, their size and slope, their largesse, as if they are two children who had grown up to be doctors or lawyers. She still boasts about how they had helped her win over grandpa from another woman, still lets her bras ride the clothesline in the backyard longer than the rest of her wardrobe.
I turn on the water and she lets it fall through her hair.
You need a woman, she says.
A good woman, she says.
With a good head on her shoulders and a large family.
I let the faucet run until the tide starts pooling up around her. Her belly floats on the water like a far-flung island.
Once the adults started singing war ballads, we knew it was time to scram upstairs. We bounced and scattered like loose particles across the house, some on the first floor, the second, some in the backyard. For me and Vicki, it was the room lined with dubbed-over VHS’s of every movie you could imagine. Labeled: name, date, running time. This was how my step-uncle made a little extra green on the side. I never asked how they all came to be. I just assumed they had always been around.
Inside was a single rolling office chair on a plastic mat, and we sat there doubled up on it like a couple of horned-up Tetris blocks. She hardly even looked back to see if I hadn’t melted into the leather or if I was staring at her with some serious weirdo vibes. Just watched the static edges of a little TV with its built-in VCR. When words fade, you remember the sounds: the chair exhaling every time Vicki adjusted her hips, the whine of Euro-pop filtered through the vents. You feel the bass and what must have been love in the hearts she’d bedazzled on the backside of her jeans. Then the sickly sweet bouquet of days-old deodorant. Eventually you remember things more by what didn’t happen than what did.
Look at your grandpa, he can’t cook a damn thing.
But he’s got me.
Have you been eating? she says.
I scrub grandma’s neck and behind her ears. I tell her to reach for the moon and the stars, the way she used to tell me, and I scrub under her arms. Back then I was just bone broth soup floating around in the tub, no matter how much food she put on my plate.
One night grandma came barging in the room with a guy I didn’t recognize, probably new enough to the country that he was still spending down his resettlement money, attached to her hip. Vicki loped right off of me and pretended to peruse the collection. The guy, he must’ve gotten a kick out of it because he had beer dribbling down his chin from trying not to spit it out laughing. She didn’t say a word, grandma. Didn’t do anything except politely closed the door back up. We never talked about it, just drove the usual route home with grandpa sloshed in the backseat. I knew it then, that I was never going to see any of those tapes again.
I scrub her chest and across her collarbones, and move down to the breasts that slalom off to her sides. I lift their loaves and scrub underneath and around, and that is when I feel it. She is still reaching when I push harder, deeper, trying to describe the outline of a space rock that she has pulled down, that has fallen and landed inside her right breast, just under her nipple.
Your grandpa and I are married for 57 years.
Uh-huh, I say.
I push from different directions, angling for a simple explanation, hoping I am not feeling what I am feeling. She complains that I come here too often. She insists that they’ll be just fine, that I need to spend more time being young.
I put the cloth back in the bucket. She looks at me, her face red as spilt borscht from the heat.
You need someone to take care of, too.
Life is easier that way.
After all, she says, I will not be around forever.