Yoharie: Breaking Up Together (part three)
Breaking Up Together
“She baked a cake once, and it cratered in the middle, and she filled it with this big blob of icing…and it wiggled, carrying to the table. And Mike said, what you baked in there, the cat? He was stabbing the cake with his steak knife.”
“Too hilarious,” Savannah said.
“I know, your grandma loves her kitties.”
Rae said: “Oh, hey! We get to have Steve! It just kind of sunk in.”
“Um. I think she’s worried about Beatty, and had some deal in the works with Mrs. Denbow…”
“No.” Savannah found herself too loud, too shaky, but no, Grandma wasn’t giving away her cat. “It’ll work. Beatty never bothers anyone. It’ll work.”
“Separate rooms,” said Rae.
“Okay. So we would go to the outlets at Jeffersonville, and…this story’s a little involved. Irene found some clearance wallpaper, and she said, Mike, I can do the bathroom. And he said, you’re never gonna do the bathroom. So the paper sat in the cupboard for two or three years. We would be at supper, and Mike would say, I’ll do the dishes, Irene, you go paper the bathroom. She decided one day… I mean, the whole plan was to take an afternoon while Mike was at work, and spring it on him when he got home…so, basically, not a plan. The rolls came short, she had an eighteen inch strip of wall, and the corner around the light switch, with the old paint sanded down, which, I mean… She was going along with the instructions. She wasn’t stupid. She went to Kmart and bought a fiberboard cabinet, like off the shelf. Except what they loaded in her car, sorry but obviously, was a long box. She didn’t have time to construct a piece of furniture, so she propped the box in front of the gap— Now, now, I hear giggles. Put yourselves in Irene’s shoes. After she’d wrestled the box up there, she decided she needed to go back to Kmart, and she bought an artificial fern to stick on top.”
“I know that fern,” Savannah said.
“Everyone knows that fern. Then she got busy making spaghetti, the quickest thing she could. Your grandfather’s joke was he had to inspect the house whenever Irene made spaghetti. He would take people upstairs, put on an act like a museum guide. What else? One time she got the car detailed, and the stuff they polished the seats with was, I don’t know, strong. Mike had some pretty offensive quips about going to the office with perfumy clothes… Her People magazine, that she likes to subscribe to. He thought celebrities were a dumb, housewifey thing to care about, so he made them somehow Irene’s fault. Like, ‘You really think that guy’s sexy?’, or, ‘Who you gonna read about now they killed Princess Di?’ You see what I mean. The way Mike would deal with anything, I mean anything, was to joke about it. And all the joking put him in a frame of mind to look for faults, find something embarrassing to point out. The jokes got institutionalized, Irene and baking, and DYI projects, and the time she looked all over for the cat, and…I think that one was called Patrick…she told Mike he was in Heaven, talking to her in a dream, and it turned out Patrick had followed her to the attic. He was fine, Rae. I could give tons more examples. How do I even know these stories?”
“I feel like the bathroom has two kinds of paper…?” Rae asked. “Am I picturing it?”
“That was Zack. For years, the cabinet just leaned there, in its box, and the fern was on the floor by the toilet, and… Last chance for hamburgers, guys.”
Greased and oniony, and even less funeral perfect, they piled back in the car.
“Don’t start,” Rae said. “I’m pouring this coffee in my thermos.”
Here was where Savannah would have hummed a tune of peril, like a TV show’s. And the reason they were making this trip was not the reason she checked herself. “So, grandma…”
“So,” Shawna said. “You’re getting ready to do something, something you like, look forward to, want to experience… Rae? Time’s a little short.”
“You get punched. That’s physical abuse. It stops you. You get yelled at. That’s verbal abuse. It stops you. When you learn to expect abuse, you learn to stop yourself, stop trying. But there’s another kind of abuse. Grandpa Mike was a manipulative personality. You can see how his belittling of Irene had the effect of hijacking her autonomy. He treated every choice she made like she needed his permission, his approval. And he didn’t give his approval. This whole Silly Irene character was Irene being stopped, and jerked around, and never having the chance to learn anything. So many of my kids would almost die…maybe straight up would…to have their parents find out they failed a test! They don’t get hit at home, they don’t get yelled at… It’s the words. It’s trying to please and being rebuked. It’s trying to please and being ridiculed. It’s being told you’re wrong, and when you try to fix it, you’re still wrong. It’s having the mistakes picked at, and the successes ignored.
“But I’m not just saying be patient with your grandma. I want you to think about your Dad. I talked to Kate a few times, after, Savannah…”
“Oh, I know. I messed up.”
“You’re Jeremiah’s daughter.”
It sat, this statement. Rae bounced the thermos lightly on Savannah’s knee.
Breaking Up Together
(2022, Stephanie Foster)