Starość nie radość, Helena says. Don't get old. All you get is shitty underwear.
It's true. The underwear is parachute-shaped and the color of a dusty lozenge. It is American underwear, the sad kind from a pack that understands the wearer has given up. The bra is handmade and older than I am, but even its pre-war hardware is falling apart. I guide the straps over her shoulders and pull it closed with some effort, hook it shut with the only hook still attached. I laugh.
See? You wanted to be fat.
I know, she says.
In the pictures my grandmother is skinny bordering on gaunt. Razor jaw, high cheekbones, thin lips. Sinewy. If it were now she could've been a model. But it was then and she was a schoolteacher and there was a war, and besides that the standard of sexy was different. You didn't see anyone salivating after bones. You had to look like you could get through a winter.
The murmur was nothing but the hospital mandated a cardiac diet, though she refuses to eat if she can't eat what she likes. We go to the kitchen one step at a time. I make her sweet coffee and runny eggs like she likes them and she stares at the birds while I stare at the screen.
The murmur was nothing but the hospital mandated a cardiac diet, though she refuses to eat if she can't eat what she likes.
Every month I make a calendar on butcher paper and nail it to the wall. Every day I stand in front of it for longer than normal in case I'm forgetting an important date, a deadline or someone's birthday. I worry that things will roll off of me because I'm not all the way conscious. Perhaps the paranoia itself a form of consciousness. My mother has never allowed me to nail anything to the wall so I tape four sheets of paper together and stick them there instead.
Since I got here in June I've done this six times.
Every day I write one thing I did in the little square. Something to remind me I inhabited my body that day. If I write, I write down the number of words that I wrote. Sometimes it's seven hundred and sometimes it's seven. The seven are usually harder to come up with. If I read, I write down the number of words that I read. If I weigh myself, I write that down too. I write down 135 and 133 and 137 and wonder which are the parts of me that keep expanding and contracting to make all those numbers possible in one day.
Every day I write one thing I did in the little square.
I write down the crazy things too.
For example: last week I almost bought a goddamn candle for $7. They have all these candles that are for different things, any area of your life that needs help, Motivation Creativity Sex. There's even one that says Manifest A Miracle. Is that the emergency button for candles? I think about that but decide it should probably be reserved for the terminally ill, children with cancer and people going bankrupt. Anyway.
Every time I go shopping I stalk the Money candle. It's green and smells good. Like citrus and clove. Like things that are supposed to get you energetic about making money. I place it in my basket every time, then take it out. I do this about once or twice, wanting to ask the universe for a book deal, or another job, but then there's the reality of spending $7 on a fucking candle.
I walk away, itself a form of asking.
Helena is in the living room, the blue TV glow illuminating her face. The soap operas run several times on repeat because she forgets that she watched them. The stack of cards is in front of her on the table, dirty with curling edges. She reaches for them every now and again, picks up one or two before dropping her hand back into the folds of her sweater. The show goes to commercial and she picks up the stack. In the glow her veins are violet.
Postawie Ci pasjansa, she says. I'm going to read your cards.
Pasjans is the one that answers yes or no questions and you have to be careful how you phrase them because the universe is very particular. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and if you don't like your answer you keep tweaking the question until you get one that sounds good. What you do with your belief system is up to you. I pick up the stack and hand it to her, move the coffee table close to her knees.
I think. Questions I'm afraid to have answered: Will I get published? Move back to New York? Will she make it another year? I choose the most important and tell her to start. The cards go down, one on top of another, king-king pairs, jack-jack, everything paired up and set aside until they're all divided up in two stacks. She does the final lineup then, row of six on row of six. Two aces match up, then two kings, two queens. As promising as it could get. You only need it once.
What did you ask?
It's a secret, I say.
She smiles. She knows. Saying kills the magic.
Saying kills the magic.
In high school I would walk home from school on the days my boyfriend walked home from school and we could be together for a moment without anyone asking where we were. By the time I got home the sweat would be pouring down my legs. I dropped my backpack on the floor, poured a glass of ice water and sat down on the couch next to her. The deck of cards was splayed out on the coffee table, the king of hearts in the "love" position. This was the reading that showed you what its subject wouldn't say. I asked who the king of hearts was supposed to be.
Tajemnica, she said. It's a secret.
And then: Let's read yours.
My boyfriend was young with light hair and not serious about many things, so for him we chose the jack of diamonds. She shuffled the cards and the cards went down:
Loves, a little, mutually, secretly, very little, not at all. This is repeated until the chosen card appears.
Kocha: the jack of diamonds. I exhaled in relief and my mouth spread into a grin. She laughed and shook her head. The jack of diamonds was loud and had no future.
The cards lie sometimes, she said. Again.
The cards lie sometimes, she said.
There's a picture of me on my first birthday, an assortment of objects around me in a wide half-moon. Pen, stethoscope, spoon, test tube, Bible. This ritual is Polish tradition: what the child chooses first on their first birthday is what they were born to become. This is how we read our destiny. It's foolproof until it isn't. My mother picked a compass, but I think this is how, in a family of chemists, I managed to become a writer.
This ritual is Polish tradition: what the child chooses first on their first birthday is what they were born to become.
My hands are dry and crosshatched with creases, the large veins dark teal in the shade. I watch them as I layer the cards over and over, the wind at their edges, a maze on the deck. Yes, yes, yes, no, nothing. Loves, loves a little, it's a secret, not at all. I do this over and over. I ask things I have no right to. I am exhilarated by the knowing, the assurance of this imprecise magic. No, yes, yes, no. It's all here and it isn't. Point me, I tell the cards. This is being born-again, the surrender of control. The jack stares with his white face, an icon reflecting its supplicant. No one surrenders without a promise. What do you want most.
A good yes. I smile and decide to believe.
I smile and decide to believe.
You Got To Burn To Shine is the book that mentions preparing for death. John Giorno wrote it. One of the essays describes his friend, an artist, who wore white and sat in a chair, stilling her mind for transfiguration. I don't remember her name but Robert Mapplethorpe was also in it, clinging to life with his fingernails.
I don't remember her name but Robert Mapplethorpe was also in it, clinging to life with his fingernails.
The death flared up one day before breakfast, when my mother came home early for lunch. Helena got dressed but wouldn't eat anything, not even sweet coffee and runny scrambled eggs. She sat at the table, quiet.
I'm going to die, she said.
My mother said, No.
We put her down on the couch, legs up, a pillow under her knees. The shadow rose and fell and rose again and my mother said, Go find a match. Somehow she was already holding the death candle. It wasn't even a real death candle. It was my First Communion candle with the shaky hand-drawn cross, and how she managed to find it with half the house in storage for remodeling was a mystery. I ran through the rooms, wishing again I hadn't quit smoking. Eventually I returned with a grill lighter but by then it's okay, just dehydration, low blood sugar, a nap.
She tries this again on a bright Sunday morning, threatens death to get out of a shower. I watch her but know not to worry. The cards have not marked it this month.
Mila Jaroniec is the editor of drDOCTOR. She earned her MFA in fiction from The New School and her first novel, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, is forthcoming from Split Lip Press in November 2016. Tweet her @milajaroniec.