I liked the way she said "balloon." She said it as if she were blowing bubbles. That's how I'd like to remember my grandmother; sitting at her vanity, putting on her make-up and fixing her hair in the classical chignon she'd always worn. Classical, just like her lipstick; the crimson color seeming almost other-worldly. I remember her lips puckering with the word, "balloon" as she applied first one layer, dab with a tissue, then a second.
Her memory faded from time to time, but she always had the same bright smile. I'd meet her for tea several times a week, then several times a month as I grew older. We'd sit in the same fading chairs by the front bay window as we'd sat time and time again. She could still hold the teapot steady to pour, although it was taking her longer and longer to get things just so, and the ritual was slowly becoming more my chore than hers.
As the years passed, I got used to her lapsing back 30 or 40 years. Hearing about this person or that person and events that happened back then. She'd be in the middle of telling a story and then stop suddenly, look at me sipping tea across from her then come back to today; asking me about how my work was coming or if my sister had divorced that "good for nothing" mechanic yet.
I didn't make much of it, but then she seemed to get better for a time until on Tuesday she asked me the most peculiar question. We had just settled down in our chairs, and I was foregoing my diet to eat a couple of the Lorna Doone's she had set out earlier. Just as that buttery goodness was about to have its "moment on the lips" my grandmother asked me why I had broken up with Fred.
The cookie hung in mid-air while my brain searched my mental Rolodex. Fred? Fred who?
I put the cookie down on the plate and looked at my grandmother. Her eyes were bright as she casually took a sip of her tea and almost reflexively wiped the ruby stain from the lip of the cup with her thumb. "Well," she asked, "I'm waiting for your answer."
I put my teacup down and tried to come up with a response. I never dated a Fred. I thought back to all the Freds I had ever met, and was in the process of performing almost a roll-call of my college dorm mates which I might or might not have ever mentioned to her, when she came out with, "How could you forget the time Fred went to the car wash and never came back?"
Now I was dumbfounded. Ok, what year were we in? Car wash? Ok, that put it in a smaller frame of reference covering only several decades. But, still... What?
"He was the nicest boy. Driving that big Mercedes of his grandfather's that you loved so much, and you had to go and just chase him away. Sending him off on foolish errands. Who sends someone to the car wash when it's much sexier to put on a bathing suit and wash the car in the yard?"
I could not speak. I could only stare at my grandmother wordlessly while she continued to sip her tea and look at me accusingly. She just smiled in that charming way that told me she was holding all the cards and don't dare lie to her because she'd know.
I was in the process of coming up with something resembling a response when she suddenly frowned. She then shook her head and asked if my sister was divorced yet. I was sure I'd lost the opportunity to learn more about Fred, the car wash, and why my grandmother said, "balloon" as she applied her lipstick. Now, they would always be just another mystery about my grandmother I would never know. But, still I wonder.