I never really know if I’m behaving myself.
I sit amidst the long ruffles of tissue paper that litter my grandmother’s trailer as she unwraps another thing and offers it to me. I pretend she does this just because I’m moving to take that job I’m not sure I want as someone’s P.A. in a start-up fashion house. She’s not sifting through possessions because she’s old and making sure I get what I want before she dies, before the rest of the family swoops in, because I’m her favorite and I’m leaving Arizona.
“Great Uncle Raphael’s knife?” she asks, and tilts her head. “Bone handle, silver blade. Very sharp.”
She weighs it in her palm before wrapping it up again and placing it in my box. “It’s good to keep the history,” she says. “And to keep robbers out. Just pin his hand right to the windowsill with the blade down, like so.” I nod and swallow my laughter—she’s serious, but she’s also in her late-eighties, but also, very serious.
“I thought Roma are supposed to burn a dead person’s possessions,” I say before really thinking about how it sounds, like I’m teaching her. I cringe hearing myself but she doesn’t take it that way.
“Everything changed after the war.”
After the war means after the Nazis, after our river Gypsies stopped going up and down the Danube and went into camps instead, after she ran way with an American soldier when she didn’t speak a word of English so she didn’t notice he was schizophrenic. That man tortured the family at gunpoint like some fathers play catch with their sons, and it’d be a lie to say we didn’t sigh relieved when he slipped his favorite rifle in his mouth. When we cremated him, no one wanted those ashes, his boys still bruised, his girls (and me) still shaking from what he slipped to us in the dark, all still burning from the bomb in his chest, and my grandmother from those charred memories before: playmates, cousins, neighbors all gone up in Germany’s smoke stack, devoured by a demon no one wanted to name. After all those burning bodies, she means, how could you set one more thing alight?
Everything changed after the war, she says to me, and I know what she means. Everything changes after violence.
“Is it because I have dirty blood?” I asked her after my first day of school. I was bloody, and red dust from the long, blazing walk home masked my face. Some kids had invited me to play with them behind the cafeteria. “Come over here, Coco. Want to see something?” and then pelted my face with rocks.
“No, that’s not your fault. That’s not why they did this,” my grandmother said from her throne-like recliner, not smoothing my hair, not hugging my shoulder, but looking at me solemnly with a fat-bellied teapot full of strong, sweet tea between us, piping hot.
“But aren’t I bad?” I whispered. I thought the kids threw rocks not only because I was Romani, but because my blood was mixed, which seemed more dire, or the worst of all my fears, because they could read my dead grandfather’s fingers on me, trailing badness up my thigh. He was the demon that none of us knew how to cast out, and though he died the season before I started first grade, I still dreamed of him every night. His ghost lingered in the mourning-white halls at school, halls that shimmered and whispered, bad girl, bad girl as I walked spooked like a horse, too-aware of my limbs, all the way my classroom where my teacher waited to accuse me of giving the evil eye to Bridget, a popular girl with dirty-blond hair and skin so white she was blue.
“Girl, if we followed all the taboos we’d be dead,” my grandmother said. “My blood isn’t dirty and neither is yours. We wash in running water. We eat bitter bread and cleanse our souls. We do the important things. Something bad happened to you just because bad things happen to people. The wind doesn’t recognize whose wagon it blows over. And those kids don’t know shit.”
Now, full-grown and planning my life elsewhere, I want to ask her again if I’m bad, even though our war was years ago and she’s been a lucky widow living on her own. Even though she thinks that some taboos are just stupid. Who can argue with an elder? Especially her, with her clear spooky eyes that know that death is the beautiful woman who comes for us all. My grandmother could probably point her out in a crowd, greet her like a sister and compliment her complexion, as sure and calm as a pot of tea. Hell, I’d have tea with O Beng if I had to, she told me once. I can be that nice if I want. I’m sure about the devil part but not sure about nice. My grandmother is a good woman, but being nice is a choice she has to make, which makes sense when you look at everything together. I like this about her—if she’s good to you, it’s because you’ve earned it. I notice that I’ve given myself a compliment here but I need it.
You have to scald the pot first, I suddenly remember her telling me. She chose that day that I came home bloody to start teaching me our family trades, of which there are many. We do everything from sewing to fortune-telling. It sterilizes the pot and makes a better-tasting tea, and blesses the vessel for reading leaves. But I can’t scald my vessel—I can’t wash-out that feeling of knowing what I’m supposed to do and being afraid to do it. I keep thinking of my last check-up (the first in seven years) and the doctor who massaged my breasts under my shirt so he could “listen to my heart” and was outraged when I told him to stop. “I’m a doctor!” he said. “This is standard practice. What do you know about anything?” And feeling like the poor Gypsy girl I was, stupid and unworldly, I sat unbreathing on his examining table and let him keep doing it, feeling like this couldn’t be right but far too used to taking it … from my grandfather, teachers, from classmates, from the men down at the rowdy hookah bar where I dance. I won’t know what to do with myself in L.A. What do I know about anything? Who can I ask? My mother sits on the porch all day, mostly silent, still in shock from her life at gunpoint. And my father’s been out of town for years, just another white man who fucked us over.
I could take the job and learn to market a line, maybe my own line, of clothes. Or I could stay here and sew up this town’s drooping seams. I wonder if I wear my hair in braids and sew coins into my skirts then suddenly the world will make sense. But my grandmother’s dresser has pictures of our ancestors like this, and if anything, it cut their world short. I look at my palms and trace the little rivers running over.
“Don’t read your own palm. No good comes of it,” she says, slapping my hand to my side. The slap is surprisingly hard for an old woman.
“I don’t know if I want this job,” I say to her. “I don’t know if I’ll be happy in L.A.”
“Let me give you some advice: There’s nothing for you here. What are you going to do in the desert? Watch us die? Go to the city. Take the job. Be happy.”
I don’t want to leave, but I can’t tell that to a woman who left her entire family, or what remained, fifty years ago for an uncertain chance at something on the arm of a loose-cannon stranger. Roma are supposed to wander, I want to tell her. We run from violence or for opportunity, but in a band, like some rambling half-myth. Yet my family stays, and I’m supposed to go.
“You’re supposed to go places,” she says, like she’s listening to my thoughts. But when I think about it, that's just something she’s always said. She may as well have told me, “You’re supposed to pick hyssop when the moon is fattest.” Which, of course, I do. I pick it out of the terracotta pots on my mother’s porch where she talks to crows like our ancestors used to, but she does so in an unsettling, desperate way: Oh little sister, please pry my soul from my body and carry it to my husband. I want him to die of fright. Hyssop promises safe travel in a pouch around your neck and purifies the soul when baked into bread.
“Do you want this teapot?” my grandmother asks me now. It’s the teapot we practiced tea leaf reading with, the fat-bellied beauty. “Don’t you have anything to make tea in?”
I want to tell her I do, which is a lie, so she will think I make tea every week in my apartment, and read all my friends’ tea leaves like I’m supposed to. She can’t know that I microwave water in a mug for three minutes. I remember hearing once that it’s a sin to lie to another Rom, but that might just be something we say to outsiders because O Devel knows all people everywhere lie to god and themselves and the world at large just to make it through one more day. Some things aren’t determined by blood.
“Can I have it?” I ask. “I like it better than the one I have now.”
She hands it to me, and is quiet for a moment. I think she knows I lied. My chest balloons with explanations but nothing comes out. I can’t even exhale. I wonder if she can see the men shoving dollar bills into my cleavage at the hookah bar; it must be written on my body. I wonder how much longer I can stomach that job if I stay here—but how can I afford food and shelter for us all when my grandmother’s bones are bad, my mother’s dead inside, and it’s just me? A seamstress can’t make that much in this town! What if I can’t send back enough from L.A.? My grandmother was so proud when I told her I was dancing, just like our ancestors, a lie that fell like a calculated insult to the dead. But now my grandmother simply twists her loose hair back into a knot, grizzled like a horse’s tail, and asks me, “Do you still have Great-Grandmother Mathilde’s thimble?”
“Of course,” I say, reaching over to my purse and digging out the tiny, slightly warped thing. Mathilde was quite famous in her day—we have a portrait of her in her dancing costume, serene and classy. I bet no one groped her in exchange for a ten dollar bill. I thought of my mother weeping to a crow for days on end about her father: the rats fought to the death in the walls while he panted over my body. I try not to be angry that she forgets he used me too, that she left me with everything, that I want to leave them both. My grandmother can take care of the woman who couldn’t care for me. I want to ask, am I bad? But having the thimble, after all these years, must mean something, must restore me somehow. The thimble sits flat on my palm, and I push it under her face, waiting for her approval.
“You’ll be fine,” my grandmother says, flaring her nostrils as she exhales, certain and forceful like a horse. I think of the wild white horses she told me about as a child. They live in the South of France, she said. Such marvelous creatures. Some stories I heard said they were women in mourning. I think they were women broken loose.
“I want you to keep going,” she said. “Don’t linger for nostalgia’s sake. Nostalgia is worse than opium for drugging women dumb.”
My grandmother never got to see those horses—it wasn’t safe for her to travel during the war, lest she and her family be caught by the Nazis like so many other Roma and Sinti, and the boat she took to America with her crazy soldier did not skirt horse territory in the South of France. I saw plenty of a wide, sick ocean though, she assured me, but that wasn’t quite enough for her. That day I came home bloody from rocks, we drank our tea and I told her there was a horse in her teacup, which meant she would go on a trip someday, a big trip for fun like she always wanted, though I was unsure whether I saw or wished this from the leaves. She flared her nostrils then too, revealing I’d hit a mark, and confessed: I always wished to see those moon-colored horses, pale and strong, with the salt marshes sucking at their hooves as they gallop through and keep going.