Sometimes I would watch her get ready in the morning after I helped her out of bed. She would stand in front of the mirror and unbutton her white cotton nightgown, letting it fall to the ground around her feet. She would observe her naked body for several minutes, poking at her varicose veins and pulling at the loose skin that was lopped around her arms and legs. She stared at her body, as if she didn’t belong to it.
Sometimes, she would catch me watching, and beckon me to come over with her hand. “Song-Ling,” she’d say. “Did you know that men used to come up to me and tell me that I was the most beautiful girl they ever saw? Once an artist said he wanted to paint me. Paint me! But of course George wouldn’t have that. We were already engaged, you see.” And I’d nod and smile as I bent over and picked up her discarded nightgown, as if I had never heard the story before.
Her children would call the house once a week to check up on her. They could never visit because they were busy with jobs and their own children, and they rarely wanted to speak to her, even though I always asked if they wanted to. They just inquired about how she was doing, if the house was still in good shape, if there had been any hospital visits.
She would often take me out to the ice cream shop down the street to get banana splits, even though she couldn’t eat them anymore with her bad teeth. I told her I could pay, but she was insistent. “I can pretend you’re my granddaughter,” she’d say. I’d laugh and respond that no one would believe that I was her granddaughter. “Adopted granddaughter, then.” Then I’d tell her I’m too old to be her granddaughter. “All you Oriental girls are blessed to look young at any age,” she’d respond, as if settling the matter.
Once, the ice cream shop was closed for the day, so she took me to the coffee shop next door. When we sat down, I couldn’t help but notice that an older gentleman with horn-rimmed glasses and shiny leather shoes kept glancing over at our table. She noticed his looks, and periodically turned her head to see if he was still watching. He was. I didn’t blame him, because she looked very pretty that day, with a long blue and white patterned dress and an off-white cashmere cardigan. I wasn’t surprised when he put down his newspaper and walked over to our table.
“Hello, my name is Alan,” he said, extending his hand. He had a very nice speaking voice and thick wisps of silver hair on his head.
“I’m Laura, it’s nice to meet you Alan,” she responded, taking his hand, giving him a small smile. “This is Song-Ling,” she added, gesturing at me with her other hand.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything Laura,” he said, after nodding at me with a friendly grin.
“Oh not at all. Would you like to join us?” she replied, gesturing at the chair in front of him.
He sat down, and talked to her like a gentleman should, just the way I knew she liked. They talked about the things they liked to do and their favorite books and movies and restaurants. He was knowledgeable about many things. I could tell she liked him. The way she put her hair behind her ears and adjusted the sleeves on her cardigan showed me that she did. She would periodically include me in the conversation, but I was happy to sit back and watch them talk. She was more cheerful than I had ever seen her.
She continued seeing Alan several times a week, sometimes even without me. He sent daisies to the house, her favorite kind of flower. “How did he know?” she asked. I shrugged, even though I was the secret informant. He took her out to dinner, movies, and called her on the telephone every so often. She would smile into the phone, daintily nodding and giggling at the things he said, and when it was time to hang up she seemed reluctant. After one particularly long phone session, when I was putting her to bed, she whispered, “Oh, Song-Ling, I think I’m falling in love,” into my ear, with a dreamy look on her face. I smiled to myself as I turned off the light.
But then, for a few days, we heard nothing from Alan. When she was at the doctor’s for a check-up, his nursing home called and told me what happened. When I hung up the phone, I knew I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t know how.
I liked seeing her this happy, brushing her hair every morning until it shone, applying her brown eyeshadow, humming to every step that she took. Every day, she asked me if he had called, and we even went back to the coffee shop, where she would look up at the door every time it opened, waiting for him to walk in. I couldn’t tell her. She needed to stay happy. I told her maybe he was busy with his grandchildren. She told me he didn’t have grandchildren. That he was never married.
Days passed, and she started finding flaws on her body. On Monday, she said she found a patch of missing hair on the back of her head. I told her we could cover it up with a hair clip. On Tuesday, she said an ugly group of pock-marks developed on her left cheek, next to her ear. I said that her skin-paste and powder could easily cover it up. On Wednesday, she said that her deep smile lines made her look like an ugly toad. I told her not to be silly, that she couldn’t help that her smile was bigger and more beautiful than everyone else’s. On Thursday, she pulled on the skin that was wrapped around her arms and cried. I cried with her. On Friday, she said she wanted to die, that she wanted to take a knife and cut out all of her varicose veins so that her skin could be peachy and soft like it was sixty years ago. I said nothing.
Another week had passed, and she still received no word from him. She was silent. One night, she told me she wasn’t feeling too well, and asked me to draw a bath for her. After I finished the dishes, I waited in the bathroom so I could help her into the tub, but after a while she still had not come in. I went into her room, and found her standing in front of the mirror, naked, holding her arms rigidly at her side, her face blank.
“Miss Laura, your bath is ready,” I said softly.
“Song-Ling.” She whispered, holding her arm out, gesturing me to come closer. I slowly walked over.
“Song-Ling. Do you see? Look at me,” she said.
“Look at me,” she repeated forcefully. I was scared, scared of how hollow she sounded. “This is not my body. Those young men used to come up to me, handsome young men would approach me, they would tell me that I’m beautiful, that my eyes are bright and bluer than the sea and now my eyes are yellow like old paper. My arms and legs are blue with these disgusting veins, my skin is like cheap leather. You know, an artist, a real artist, wanted to paint me once? He said I could be a model.” A tear dripped from her chin to her breasts. “Look at me now, Song-Ling. Look at me.”
“Miss Laura, you are beautiful,” I whispered, softly.
“I’m empty. I’m filth, Song-Ling.”
“No, Miss Laura.” There was a pause.
“Take me to the bath, please.”
“Okay Miss Laura.”
I took her hand and led her to the bath, and lightly held her side, lowering her into the tub. She made no effort to move. Her body sunk deeper and deeper into the water, propelled by nothing but gravity, her tears mixing in with the soapy bath water.