national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

The Glasses

Katherine Bove  • 
Emerson College

I was nine years old when I got my first pair of glasses. They were round and thick and wire-framed. When I remember that day, I’m not particularly struck by the way the optometrist’s office smelled (dry, like Kleenex), or by the way the uneven nubs on the periscope-like eye-checker dug red ovals into the bridge of my nose. Instead, all I can clearly remember is sitting on the swing back home, after the appointment, and my Yiayiá leaning over the flowerbeds.

The swing set, with its yellow, nylon-rope swings and splintery monkey-bars, was set back from the house, where the backyard met the thin saplings and pricker tangles of the woods. The rest of the yard was framed by the barn—a pale, chipping grey with ivy kinking up over the cracked windows of the woodshed—and by the flowerbed. I was swinging and looking off into the woods through my new lenses. The leaves seemed to stand out, each an individual, curved shape, not just part of a mass. The sun filtered through the gaps between the leaves in sharp little shafts, not blurry blocks, and each wood-chip I kicked had its own knots and texture.

My Yiayiá was over for dinner, but instead of listening to her mumble in Greek, I’d decided to mope about my glasses on the swing. At the time it didn’t seem selfish or wrong. It was just grown-ups planning poorly or something—how could I devote time to my grandmother when I had four eyes to deal with now? I hadn’t seen her in a while. I wasn’t quite sure why, exactly, but she never watched my brother and me anymore. I was thinking about how I’d have to compose myself, compose my bleary, stupid, dead eyes, and go try to talk with her, but when I looked over at Yiayiá from the swing and saw her short, hunched form leaning over the freshly-mulched marigold beds, I was scared.

Before school started, I was at my grandparents’ house all of the time. My Yiayiá had always been a cheerful person. I don’t think I ever heard her yell. I remember sitting on the edge of the steps and drawing chalk dogs on the sidewalk while she swept the stoop. I remember holding her sleeve and walking down the block to a convenience store where we’d buy Funyuns and rip into the greasy, yellow bag before even leaving the store. But, mostly, I remember watching her cook. She bustled around the kitchen, sometimes in socks, singing and laughing with the TV turned down low on some soap opera.

Her skin was cold and smelled of flour a lot of the time, and sort of hung in places—her elbows and chin—and it was so white that the blue veins in her wrists stood out; I thought she was like dough, especially in the way her jaw muscles would knead the rest of her face into a big, floppy smile. I don’t remember the way her hug felt; even her voice is indistinct. When I think back to my time with her I just feel my unsocked toes digging into the couch cushions and the stolen meatball hidden in the pocket of my cheek like a warm pit. I hear TV static, crackly, peanut-brittle singing, and the under-hum of the fridge and the way that hard, flat, fuzzy sound carries through the creaky yellow linoleum.

There was something warm about that kitchen. Every room in the house led into it, was just a pit-stop on the way there. The buttery smell of tiropita made me feel drowsy and comfortable in a November Sunday-evening kind of way: clear sunlight hanging in the windows, and nothing and everything balancing on the promise of nightfall.

The last time I remember really being in my grandparents’ kitchen was different, though. It felt like it was only a few months before I got my glasses, but it had been more than a year before. Yiayiá was kneading cold dough with a wooden dowel in the half-light until it was thin as flakes of mica, and I was watching from the green sofa, sockless toes dug in between the cushions, while Pappoús sat patiently at the kitchen table, slicing grapes in two and flicking the seeds out with the tip of his knife (and they bounced, as always, into a little bowl or fell down on the linoleum and rolled under the sink cabinet, becoming the tile-pattern) as he watched the TV flicker; Yiayiá was singing in her crackly voice, but then she turned around and said to me, “Ana, can you hand me the ladle—” and I just sat there thinking my name is Kate, and a purple shadow fell across Pappoús’ face. He knew that something had taken a bite out of Yiayiá’s brain, kneaded it to mush and static, so that now she stands in a wrinkled navy dress, looking down into marigolds and into her watery reflection in the birdbath, and I wonder if she recognizes her own nose, but as I walk over, away from the swing, I try to push that thought away, and instead I think that maybe she is looking for a jewel in that water, precious and red that she has dropped, or maybe a shell because she looks as soft and wide-eyed as a child drawn to a tide-pool in search of ripples to catch. I feel cold suddenly, so I say kalispéra and hold her hand, and we sit on the blue slate stoop and she calls me Ana.

And I don’t know if I want to cry or yell, but I know I can’t stand the way my glasses are reflected in her glasses and hers in mine, and that we can see each other’s faces so clearly, but she doesn’t know who I am, and I’m forgetting her too. And I know I can’t stand the way the mint plants are flopping over and casting purple shadows across our ankles because the shadows remind me of something precious being swallowed. I want to say something more, more than ti kánete? or S ‘agapó, but I can’t. Her eyes, brown maybe, are searching the yard, the sky, and finding nothing.

And now Mom is calling us in for dinner. It’s probably chicken kebabs (I’ve definitely asked her at least six times, but I haven’t once listened to her response). We’ll sit down and maybe say grace for formality’s sake, but maybe not, and my brother will dump ketchup on his plate and my dad will chide him for condiment waste, and I’ll think about eating broccoli while wearing glasses for the first time, and Mom will help Yiayiá cut her chicken, and I’ll pretend it’s just the arthritis, those crumbly joints, but really it’s something else, something I can’t see.