The Color Grey by Liu Bushi and James L. Secor
I liked living with my grandmother, very much a part of my culture, a culture in which both parents work, not so much because with only one working there would only be poverty but because money is God. The people in my country do not know what to do with themselves if they are not working, filling up their lives with work; there is no understanding of free time or its value, only that it does not make one money. Money, for the worker, was freedom and, occasionally, a showy opulence so satisfying that they did not bother over the fact that the bosses and the owners were thousands of times more monied and in possession of free time. Quite ironic considering the founding of worker ownership, sharing of the profits of labor and egalitarianism–a concept often confused with equality–was supposed to rid the world–our world–of this inequity. At any rate, it is because of this obsession with work and money that I lived with my grandmother, for people who are obsessed with acquiring money–equated to a better life–have no time to raise the socially obligatory child. My parents cheated and had a second child–unfortunately, even in these modern times, another girl, a boy being still seen as a better get. Only in a small way is this desire for a boy child related to passing on the family name. Passing on the family name, the man’s family name, is an out-dated tradition, for there is no more social standing to be got by name recognition. A social myth. A hangover from former times that denigrated women, for with a girl child, like me and my mother, the family line is considered to have ended, as if women have ceased to exist. Society is a cruel beast. Cruel and duplicitous. Ironic. But with the present easy flow of money, money that no one had before, the irony is extended: there are a plethora of beggars on the streets. This was supposed to cease. I look at people spending money and acquiring things without a care in the world and I see the Roaring Twenties of America, the fury and the sham and the inevitable end when, once again, everyone is poor. Then, then the family name becomes something to hold onto, an empty icon of comfort and substance, a reminder of better days–the good old days. The fact that men do make more money than women and rise far easier in society will be meaningless as well. There will be true equality, as there always is with poverty. Yet men will hang onto their superiority even while the social obligations that go with it drive them to ruination. Martyrdom? The ironies never cease.
The emotional involvement of parents with their children is curtailed because of this rush to get rich. In truth, the harder truth is that the open expression and public show of emotion is frowned upon in my world, so much so that there are set-in-stone social behaviors and means of expression governing behavior with others: we simply do not know how to interact with people, we have no interpersonal skills. If it isn’t done this way, it is inappropriate, wrong, unacceptable–incomprehensible such that a response is impossible to come by, other than to label the person a rustic, a rogue, a reprobate. We are naturally reticent to show our emotions, probably due to a long history of oppressive authority and its attendant secret police. But added to this is the belief, not without foundation, that people will use this type of information against us in order to get ahead, more money and/or status. There is, however, another element to this. That is that with the coming of the new regime, emotion was given a bad name; it was taboo. Emotion was considered selfish and a travesty against the socialist state. Emotion, a public display of affection, was seen as being unequal, as if to say, “We are better than you.” All of this life and living had to be expressed in set phrases in a language ill-fitted to the job: no language and no expression of life and living is discursive. But lives depended on not showing affection. Such oppression had its effects on interpersonal relationships over time such that the dry, cold, stilted language became also the standard behavior within the family, within the home. Everyone in their place, everyone equal. My grandmother and, to a certain extent my parents, grew up in such an environment. I grew up with this. Though my time is looser, the pressure and archaic behaviors are still with us.
The only exception to outward shows of emotion is old people. Culturally revered but socially written off, forgotten, useless but for taking care of grandchildren, assuming there was more than one; many people in the city did not cheat, a combination of law and the bother of raising children–birthing and feeding them initially being a necessity but, too, a loss of income. By law, if a married couple were found breaking the law of one child per household, they both would lose their jobs, a surefire way to increase poverty and death. . .in the name of population control and the betterment of the state. No one is above the state. As soon as mom is able to go back to work, the child is sent off to grandma’s house, often enough not to be seen again but for visits until old enough to go to school. Not kindergarten, Primary school. The school system here is the great socializing force in the country. School squeezes you into a box of propriety. Even more than proper behavior, proper thinking is beat into you. The amount you are supposed to know is pre-determined and the teacher’s word is sacrosanct. How I survived with any semblance of personhood and mental agility is a mystery. My grandmother only went as far as middle school, there being no reason to educate a girl any further, as much because of social class pressure as a girl in high school much less in college was foolish, girls being intellectually wanting. My grandmother was from the country, a working class town. Opportunities were built into the system and working class country people had a certain ceiling and a limited view of the possible.
Until I was 10, I thought my grandmother was my mother and that my father had died. When my actual parents came to take me away, I refused to go with these strangers, not for one minute believing them and cursing my grandmother for selling me. After a torturous time, I adjusted to my real parents, whom I rarely interacted with anyway, as I only saw them at breakfast and dinner, and to this day there is no love lost between us. I am only respectful because society requires it. So stressful is this that I rarely go home or talk to them on the phone. I used to run away and try to find my way back to my grandmother’s, a difficult task until later when I paid attention enough to remember the way, for the family did return for visits upon occasion. Grandma was often ill with one thing or another. Nothing serious. This was nothing new. When I lived with her, she had the same complaints and she would occasionally take to her bed. A neighbor lady would come over and take care of things. Auntie Jun I called her. An entirely different sort of person: lively and quite talkative and colorful like a peacock. She had no children of her own. She was everyone’s auntie, often spending her days at the park watching over and playing with the children.
I never felt safer or more comfortable than with my grandmother–even into my 20’s when I went off to college, more of a means of satisfying my whim, as my parents saw it, and hoping I’d outgrow my foolishness in believing I could achieve anything, girls only being fodder for marriage and the begetting of a son, a grandson. They failed and I succeeded. I’m not accorded as much recognition as my male peers in the teaching profession. I get around this by hiding myself in my specialty and shining on my own, only by-the-by gaining the university any notice, which is really what we’re there for or else simply to maintain order, being a kind of warm body. I was not good at this. I brought undo notice to myself but as I had a name for myself via my specialty the deans could do little about it. The more I do, the more I must hide myself away in my little corner of academia so as not to show up my male peers, so childish their schoolyard jealousies and power-up manipulations. Do they ever grow up?
I did get married, though it was considered foolish and socially undignified because I married for love and passion. Neither set of parents would talk to us–until we had their first grandchild. We cheated and had two children, children that we took the time to raise, showering them with the parental version of the love we shared. But this story is not about me. It is about my grandmother.
My grandmother’s name was Gu Ting. Her friends called her Tingting. She had a few foreign friends who called her Montana–lord knows why and lord knows how she met them. As a toddler, I thought these foreigners were monsters, their faces were so ugly and unlike real people’s faces. I would run and hide under the table until they’d gone. Grandma told me that I overcame my fear and tears because she made sure her foreign friends hugged her in greeting, believing–rightly–that if Ma can embrace these monsters, they must not be monsters. She told me she learned this from a foreign friend who said that in his country this was accomplished by a kiss on the cheek, something no self-respecting Chinese would ever do. I did not learn these and other things of her life until I was in college and in the years thereafter, for Grandma, for all her leniency in raising me, was not an open woman. Indeed, she was stiff as a board; her movements were not loose and free, I guess is the word. She had no rhythm. She appeared to be fending off the world, controlling herself, as if something, some emotion or wild animal inside her might break free. A continual reining-in. Do not get me wrong, she was a pleasant person and never imposed such corralling on me. She set boundaries and as long as I abided by them I was fine. I tested, of course, and paid the consequences. But grandma never showed any malice. She was not strict as so many parents and grandparents, ever vigilant for some bad behavior and ever ready to punish. Their standards were more confining than my grandma’s. Perhaps this is why those children misbehaved so much. But for all that, Grandma did not go out much, just to do the shopping and go to the pharmacy. Otherwise, she stayed at home looking out the window. And she always dressed in grey. No black. No white. Just grey. Except that as she got older and suffered more and more illnesses until she couldn’t really care for herself, I found in caring for her that she wore lacy black underwear and a black satin chemise that would have shamed any high class courtesan or stripper.
“Grandma! How can you wear such things?!”
“They make me feel good.” I waited for her to continue. “They remind me of someone.”
“Hardly,” she scoffed. “Give me my nightgown and fold those carefully. Hide them in the third drawer in the wardrobe.”
She stared at the mirror and her eyes glazed over. I went to get her white cambric nightgown, another surprise. White. Cambric, an expensive fabric. When I returned, Grandma had returned, in a dreamy sort of way, to her usual withdrawn self, though she was staring at herself in the looking glass. She was flat breasted, what we call fried egg breasts: brown aureole, nipple. Grandma did not wear a bra. My mother was not much bigger, judging from the bras she wore, so where did my breasts come from? A full B-cup. I did not have to wear a padded bra. Holding onto the footboard, she stood up and I saw she had quite a bit of pubic hair, an anomaly for a Chinese. In the communal showers at school, I never saw so much hair. I stared at her.
“Please. My gown.”
As the gown slid over her head and arms, she mumbled, “Don’t call me ma’am, Keke.”
“That’s okay, dear,” she said when her head appeared. “We all forget who we are sometimes. . .or we should. Help me to bed, Keke. I’m tired.” I did as she asked. “Give me a kiss goodnight like a good little girl.” I did, turned out the light and quietly pulled the door to.
I stood in the hallway marveling at what I’d seen: my Grandma in sexy underclothing! And how could she feed–if indeed she did–her child, my mother, with such breasts? Would a man find such breasts–or lack thereof–attractive? If so, would it be because her figure was so girlish?
“Go away child. You’ve already seen more than you should.”
* * *
Always in grey. And always sitting in her creaky wooden rocker looking out the window as if waiting for someone to return, for someone to show up. There was nothing outside that window but concrete houses and concrete yard spaces and concrete roadway. I suppose, when she moved in, this was considered modern progress. The four-room house was concrete, concrete over brick. We still build like this. Funny how different generational eyes see the world differently and then, as people grow older, see it differently again. House to house concrete meant no more mud to wade through and none drug in by children and cleaner dust. The women of the neighborhood swept up around their houses and the street before, carefully scooping up the dirt and depositing it in the area trash pile that mouldered some until the garbage men came by, maybe once or twice a week. There didn’t seem to be much of a schedule, much of a hurry or much of a desire to do a good job. There was always something left in the garbage cubicle itself if not in the road. Things have changed a bit, though nowadays with the neighborhood being mostly old folk, there’s not as much garbage. The public WC isn’t cleaned as often, either, but most people have gotten their own little outhouse–some, an actual in-house WC. Not Grandma. She kept to that outhouse outside on the balcony; she did have an in-house shower room, about 1.2 metre squared, which made the ceiling seem miles higher than it was. Just a concrete box with a faucet, a showerhead and a drain. Grandma had two towel racks put in, one very low for me. I still use it when I am there. We must have showered together but I have no recollection of this. I do, to this day, however, enjoy the smell and feel of another wet body–what a surprise it was to my husband when I joined him in the shower! We shower together often, whether we have sex or not, though I must admit we do make love more often than not. I prefer the Western “make love” to the Chinese “have sex” as our way of expressing this most intimate and passionate of embraces takes all of the humanity out of it, making sex no more than a passionless animal rutting. What my foreign friends call “just a fuck.” This fits, though, with my Grandma’s era; I hear still the phrase “have sex” amongst the youth. Difficult it is to override cultural imperatives. Indeed, society still pressures an arranged marriage but with a twist: the girl can turn down the suggestion until she is satisfied with the suggested man. There are, too, more love matches. Mine was a love match. My parents’ was arranged, as, of course, was my Grandmother’s. As I say, I never knew my Grandfather. This was, in the matter of memories or emotional development, not a loss at all.
My actual Father was very strict and very disappointed that I was a girl. There was not a day that passed that, if he did not ignore me, he criticized me, often in the most abusive language. I did well in school until about age 10 when I began to live with my parents and began to hate school; my grades fell and I got into alot of trouble. I think this was because of the increased squeezing of the life out of me, the freedom and creativity, in order for me–and everyone, though my classmates seemed more amenable and accepting of the pressure–to fit into some preconceived mold of what I ought to be and how I ought to act. I think, too, it was because of the prior 10 years of my life when I was always successful with Grandma; when you are never allowed to succeed, you generally do not. My grades in college were not that good, either, and it was some time before I learned that my father’s teachings of failure were not correct. Although the beatings stopped during high school, the cascade of verbal abuse increased. My mother made up for it out of my father’s sight. She told me once that she could not stop him, though she wanted to, because she was his wife and it was her duty to be loyal. All through middle school and into high school, I only found true solace with my Grandma. She never said much. She just left me to my own devices, listened to me and sat with me. For some reason I cannot quite grasp, this is what I remember the most: sitting alone with Grandma. Touching her and having her touch me. I became very calm at those times. I know I must have gone into a reverie, for occasionally I woke to her stroking my hair, whispering wishes and with tears in her eyes. I did not break into her elsewhereness–well, perhaps it was her nowness, the coming out of her grey shell and moving about like a snail from its shell, horns attentive to the least fluctuation of conscious intervention. It wasn’t until years later that she became audible and included me in this other world, more by way of telling me things or asking rhetorical-suggestive questions. It was during my senior year of college that I learned of both her physical hardening and her grey exterior. Still, it was a surprise to find her wearing sexy black underwear that first time I had to help undress her. More than once she caught me caressing the chemise.
“Feels good, doesn’t it?”
I started and froze. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Not at all. You should buy some yourself. Or perhaps you should wait til the right time.” She paused and her voice took on the far-away quality I was so familiar with. “There is a right time, you know. . .”
“When is the right time, Grandma?”
“When you fall in love. You’ll find just what it is he likes.”
“You loved Grandpa?”
“Certainly not! Come. Put on my gown. Then you may lie next to me and we’ll fall asleep together. We used to do that, you know. Fall asleep together. Mostly,” she paused as I slipped her gown over her head, “out near the window.”
When she was comfortable, she told me to turn out the light and patted the bed next to her.
“Wait. I’ve got to find you in the dark.”
“You didn’t used to have trouble.”
She opened her arms to me. “That’s my girl. Do you remember those times I would tell you that we could write a story of love?” I snuggled closer. “Well. . .I’m going to tell you a tale of love. . .” Her voice trailed off. The darkness of the room closed more tightly against us. Around us. Closed about us and took us into its arms, its world full to the brim of the solitude of people, the lives they spill out into its vast depths, depths full of acceptance, of silent approval, depths that can only give back to the one with hands full of the water of life of so many. Only the storyteller has the key. And that storyteller can only unlock her own roomful of life. Full of life. A private and safe place. Grandma opened that door to me. Her door. Her room. Her darkness-held secrets.
“I do not have such good posture because I was taught to sit up and stand erect. I am hard and sharp in my movements because of Grandpa. Your Grandpa.”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“Yes. I suppose so. Now he may be. But he hasn’t always been. Just as I have not always been trapped in this. . .hard body.”
“Shhh! Listen to my story, Keke. You have seen my secret clothing, you might as well have the rest of my life. You are the only one to know. I cannot speak to everyone. Anyone. It is hard for me to talk, you know. Most people have nothing behind their words. There is. . .too much in me. . .”
A pause in time in the dark lasts forever. I held my breath and waited, interminable darkness and the lost room floating around me, my grandma behaving strangely. I could feel her tighten against me. Something was trying to get out. Something was trying to stop it. Ghosts and spirits and demons float about at night. Could grandma be possessed? With a huge out-rush of breath, like a dam breaking, cracking, the first rush of water spurting out, grandma spoke.
“There was no love lost between your grandpa and me. We married because we were supposed to. We had sex because we were supposed to. We had a child as we were supposed to. Your mother. And then we had nothing to do with each other. Not that that’s what I wanted. I wanted something else. I expected something else. I expected love or at least the development of a similar feeling over time. I expected care. I expected respect. I expected loyalty. I got none of this. Of course. It was an arranged marriage in a time when emotional attachment was still a shameful, selfish thing.” Grandma paused. She gripped my hand tightly, lifting it and patting it down again and again on her thigh, not quite able to smash the dam. Her life could only squeeze itself out, this life she had boarded up in order to live. She whispered, “It is not. It is not. Do not forget that, Keke. It is not. It is the most human thing about us. Emotion is humanity. And when it is dented. . .” She sighed. “What I discovered was that I was chattel. I was social status. I was no more than a baby-maker. All of the formality and expense was a front. An empty case, for when I opened it there was nothing. I have put myself in there instead. I am all crunched up and cannot straighten myself out. You see, humanity was stolen from me. He might as well have gotten one of those blow-up dolls for all I mattered. There was no care or consideration. He spoke to me roughly. Ordered to do this or that. He handled me roughly, only touching me if I got in his way or when he wanted sex. Then, he just mounted me and pounded me until he spent himself, lay atop me panting for awhile and then rolling off to immediately go to sleep. I know you do not understand this but. . . when you have sex. . .you will want more than just sex. The animal arousal and slaking. As I did. His body touched mine and he pushed himself inside me, hurting me, but he never touched me. I closed my eyes and held my breath until he finished. Every time. Why was I alive? This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. I was just a thing for him to use. I was left burning inside, not just the first night, the night he took my virginity, but every night thereafter. For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt no satisfaction. I felt an anvil inside me, a weight that wanted to be smashed with a hammer so that the pieces would explode and fill me with piercing joy. . .but it never did. I’d been lied to. The stories and things people had told me. Lies. No joy. No burst of passion. Luckily, while I was pregnant, he did not touch me. For the baby, he said. But that was just a handy excuse. He had done his duty by me. I was no further use. All I wanted was to be touched, to be held, to be caressed. I wanted to feel human. He did not like me or respect me. He would come home smelling of another woman. And then it was the smell of one woman. The same woman until the day he left. Yes, child, he left. As soon as your mother graduated high school and was accepted to university, he left. His obligatory duty was done. There was no need to continue the pretense of duty to me or have his way with me because he’d not been able to see his woman whore bitch cunt fuck.” She beat her thigh with each word. Horrid words coming from her mouth. It was awhile before she was able to overcome her furious, gasping breathing. I held onto her as she shuddered back to her usual tightness. “I suppose it was a blessing. I clenched up, I steeled myself every time he touched me. I clenched up whenever he did not come home until late. I clenched up against the insulting, disrespectful life I was given. I could not express my anger and hatred. It would have been socially inappropriate. . .and I would have hated myself. Behaving in such an unacceptable way. I was his wife. This was my lot. I hid the hurt and the shame. I turned to stone. For protection. Still, somewhere beneath that hard exterior, was the belief that I was at fault. For what I was not sure. But I must have done something wrong, I told myself. Society told me. Guilt. Unknown guilt. Eating like a gluttonous bug. You know what you’ve done wrong, it would say to me. Like my father. You know what you’ve done wrong. You just think about it. I thought and I thought. But I couldn’t find it. I hardened to that, too, for I did not want to admit a wrong when I felt so wronged. I was wronged. I was battered. I was abused. By the time I figured this out, that the man I was told to marry was a bad man, it was too late to become unbound. He was gone. Good. . .no more touching, no more abuse. But no more touching of any kind. Even if it is an unwelcome touch, it is a touch, it is notice that you are there and someone is paying attention to you. But suddenly there was total emptiness. Total silence. Just me in this bond that I respected. I could not break my promise even though the bond, the social contract, was hollow. My respect, my belief. . .oh, my! Never to know love. . .I brought it upon myself because I believed what I’d been told. I believed society and. . .I had my duty. I could not abandon my duty!” She hugged me to her and stroked my hair for a long time. She played with it. She gathered it up and held it to her nose and breathed deeply. “Your hair is so soft. So soft. . .like his hair. . .”
“You said my hair was soft like his.”
“Yes. . .perhaps I did. Perhaps I did. . .”
I waited awhile. The darkness billowed up and I felt I was lost in a cloud I did not understand–or belong in. I could feel its touch and its hush. I was only 22. What was I doing standing in the breath of this great opening?
“Grandma?” I whispered.
“I did. I brought it upon myself. That horrid marriage. For once I had love. . .I held love. . .it was all I wanted and I ran from it.”
“I’m a coward.”
“Grandma, that’s no excuse.”
“No, perhaps not. But it’s true all the same. I was overwhelmed by the warmth, the heat that flooded into me. And the need for him. The need to have my tingling nerve endings stilled and thrilled. The need to have him inside me–I imagined this. He was so big against me, I almost felt him inside me. I felt him filling up my emptiness. I felt. . . how frightening it was to want a man so much. To want him touching me. I was so young. To want to hold onto him. The smell of him. I was frightened. I think I was ashamed of having these feelings. How could I cope with this drowning passion? Lord, child, I thought I was losing myself. And that. . .and that. . .” she was trembling against me. “Oh, tian! I ran.” She took a deep breath. “This is what it’s all about. This that I ran from. Running from what you most want. What a fool. He wrote me letters. Poetry. He opened up his soul. He threw himself away to me. Coaxed me to love him. I believe he was crying. Anyway, he said I had stolen his life from him but there was more. I threw them all away and then went through the garbage and found them and put them in a box and locked it. That was the end of any chance of love.” She cleared her throat. “He said the same thing. Last chance for love. So you see? I am first hard as a board because of your grandpa and second because of my own cowardice.”
“Is he dead? This man?”
“I expect so. He was older than me. We would have never been able to marry anyway. Older. . .the wrong sort. . .but I’d have had the time of love. Something real and human to hold onto in the face of social obligation. I’d have known what it was to feel like a woman. I hurt him terribly. . .and I am ashamed.”
My Grandmother did not speak again.
That night I let her voice and her memories fade as an ethereal atman and purusha and buddhi and jiva opening up into the darkness, the darkness of the boxed-in room. There were no stars there. No moon. But as she fell into sleep, she relaxed her hold on herself and on me. This darkness held her memories. This was her humanity chamber. Private. Silent. All hers.
Grandma was cremated when she died. They said she burned brightly, a flash of fire like a dry plank of wood.
I have her letters. They are still in the box, locked. I don’t have the wherewithal–the courage?–to open it and disturb her memories. There are times, though, when the passion with my husband is so great, so overwhelming, that I choke and cry and want to run away so I can find my breath, my bearing, for I am lost to them. There is no me. Me is lost. And I remember grandma and, tears in my eyes, I drown in that vortex for her. Because this is what it’s all about, grandma. Can you feel it? Can you feel me? I am full to overflowing. There is enough love here for you, too. At these times, I am loving not only for myself but for grandma’s loss and the loss of so very many others who only have dreams.
(c) James L. Secor, 2015