My earliest lessons about the fickle nature of femininity came from my grandmother. She was extravagantly, almost inappropriately gorgeous. She could have been an actress. Her name was Maria Pura Adastik, and she was born on a ranch on the outskirts of Mexico City. She possessed the kind of looks that made powerful men on both sides of the border pant like two- month-old labradoodles: at five-six, and with carefully sprayed auburnish hair, brandy-colored fawn eyes, and what now would be called F-cups, she once caused the great Mexican comic Cantinflas to screech his limousine to a halt when he saw her walking down the street in Distrito Federal.
“He said I was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen,” my grandmother told me one morning in the bedroom of her new Rossmoor house, which she’d purchased with my Michigan-born en- gineer stepgrandpa, Walter. She and I stood in front of her closet, studying her luxurious wardrobe and dreaming of styles that I might want to affect when I achieved the TV and film stardom that had eluded her.
She pulled out a three-quarter- length white fur coat, which had a blue satin Bullocks label stitched on its lin- ing. “He said that I could do anything I wanted. That I could be a queen or a princess. That I could be in movies …”
“So why didn’t you?” I asked. I ran my fingers through the pale fur. Grand- ma wore a camel-colored sweater and brown polyester pants. She had turned fifty-four that year. Her breasts heaved forward like rockets, bursting with catastrophic sexual power from behind a bra that was as reinforced as a bullet- proof vest. Her healthy hips bloomed out from a still-small waist; her bottom was peachlike and velour-soft beneath its girdle.
My grandmother learned early to shrink her extreme proportions. Since the age of fifteen, when a family friend impregnated her, she had forced herself to mince her steps, to only half-sway her hips. But still, the bedroom seemed almost too small to fit her. The crappy leaf-patterned brown wallpaper glowed dully; the small dresser glinted with half bottles of perfume purchased at garage sales. The brilliant clothes that she scattered across the bed, too, were all flea-market purchases, though chosen with her expert eye. She let me play with a slinky black wrap dress, a gold Chinese-cut gown, a cream cashmere tunic, a blue Dior A-line.
Grandma selected a red spaghetti-strap cocktail dress and held it against her flaming curves. She shook her bottom a little. “A girl has got to walk like this, like this,” she laughed, shimmying. “Never too much.”
“No, really, why didn’t you become an actress?” I pressed, crushing the fur coat under my knees as I kneeled on the bed.
I was desperate for a commonsensical answer that would help me navigate the already-fraught misadventures in femininity that I’d embarked on as a child beauty queen and budding Hollywood actress. Maybe she’d say something good this time, though I had never quite trusted her judgment. My grandmother had always seemed frantic and spacey. All of her gifts, her feminine wiles, never really worked out for her: the caged breasts flared out, always embarrassingly too much; her temper exploded, too. She should have run off with Cantinflas and become a chorus girl, because her life couldn’t have turned out any worse. The rape by the family-friend crushed her. She hated men. And in the second half of her life she seemed to revile Walter most of all.
Maria was a single mother and mail-order bride at the age of thirty when she and Walter married in Tijuana after a short correspondence. For the rest of their decades-long marriage, she suspected Walter of cheating with a mythical black maid. Not long after our bedroom conversation, Grandma issued two restraining orders against my mother and saw a green man and the devil walking out from the walls of her home. The last thing that I remember her saying to Walter was that she was going to punch his teeth into his mouth.
Back in her bedroom, Grandma looked down at her red cocktail dress and began weeping. “I have suffered so much,” she sobbed.
I patted and hugged her, still on my knees with the fur beneath me. Grandma’s clothes shimmered and sparkled on the bed. She did have good taste. A cream silk blouse buckled under my knees, glowing like a luxurious cushion that a worthy kneels on before being dubbed or beheaded.
Grandma pulled herself away from me, glaring at me like an owl. She wiped her tears and scowled.
“But you, you’re a star,” she said. “You’re going to make it.”
Oil on wood
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