LA VIE EN ROSE
Does your neck hurt? my mom asked my grandmother.
I’m fine, my grandmother croaked. Because I’m fine, I’m sorry, Yes (please), No thank you and Come again? were the only phrases left in her verbal repertoire. Before the disease, my half-German grandmother swore like a sailor. She spat out her words on the curb. She laughed with her mouth open. Her breath smelled like mint gum and lukewarm beer. She moved faster on her cane than people half her age, and almost got arrested for reckless driving while trying to simulate her race car driver days with the family’s old Mercedes.
Today, she sat propped up on the stiff pink chaise lounge, once in a while craning her neck mechanically. The pink chaise lounge had been there in that house for almost as long as she had. Sixty years? I think it had once been pink gingham, but the old thing was now so worn and faded, I couldn’t really tell.
My mother and I weren’t even sure if she meant what she said when she said, I’m fine. But she would only repeat the same things over and over again with increasing volume, in the same robotic voice. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. My aunt would often smile sadly and say Alzheimer’s had gone and done the impossible: made our grandmother polite. But I think it robbed her of her spirit.
My mom and I trash talked her sisters for a while for being cheap, for refusing to chip in to get my grandmother a better reclining chair. One that wouldn’t hurt her neck like the pink chaise lounge with the debatable gingham pattern was obviously doing. Money was tough to bring up in my family.
The only thing I’ve ever seen my dad steal—as far as I’m concerned, the only thing that my dad has ever stolen—was a Best of Edith Piaf CD. He nicked it from a forgotten rental CD collection left in our bungalow at the beachside resort we stayed at when I was about eight. I don’t recall if it was in Krabi, Koh Tao, or Samui. Back then my family went scuba diving in the southern islands a lot, and everything sort of just blurred together. Just one endless expanse of infinity pools and blue skies and the sparkling Andaman Sea, somehow all connected.
I don’t remember much, but I’ll always remember staying in the private pool until dark, watching my wrinkly hands come aglow in the pool lights, while Madam Piaf’s silvery crooning voice threaded through the night sky. My dad would come out to sit in the open patio, light a cigarette, and hum along to “La Vie En Rose.” There he was, the businessman himself, without his tie or his briefcase. Just a Marlboro Light and his full, deep voice. That was something he always did well: sing. Singing and cooking, my father did both like a romantic. He did everything else like a businessman.
On the trip home, we listened to Mrs. Piaf and my dad sing a duet. I never saw my dad so relaxed. Throughout the years, he stopped humming along to the radio. On long road trips down south, which is usually when he’d put on his favorite collection of Sinatra and the like, he shushed me and my brother for making too much noise, saying he needed all of his concentration for the road ahead. He was getting old. Sometimes, we rode in silence. The trips themselves became less frequent. At the time, I hadn’t known that I’d probably never see my dad as relaxed as he was then, sitting by the pool, listening to “La Vie En Rose.”
My grandmother’s name, Ngarm Prim, in Thai, means Pretty and Prim. Whenever my grandmother cursed out loud or waved her cane angrily at a squirrel or something, my grandpa used to exhale her name in a mock exasperated voice. My primrose, he’d tease her. Everything started going downhill for my grandmother when Grandpa passed away. They were a pair. The fiery, stubborn redhead and her loyal, quiet, gentlemanly sidekick. Everything in the house was kept as is, the way my grandmother wanted it when she was well. She sometimes stared at the same spot in the room for hours, pausing only to blink and to shift her neck uncomfortably.
I wonder what she was thinking about. Which memories had retained some of that Ngarm Prim obstinacy and latched on against the currents. Where did she go when she gazed out into empty space from that pink chaise lounge?
Money is a tough thing to bring up in any family, but my dad, the businessman and son-in-law, didn’t bring up the price of the new chaise lounge. He just bought it. We draped a new pink tapestry over it to make her feel like nothing had changed. When I squinted closer I realized that the gingham pattern was, in fact, the buds of tiny pink roses.
Naphisa Senanarong grew up in Bangkok, Thailand but is residing in Boston. She received her BA English concentration in Creative Writing at Boston College. Her work is published or forthcoming in Bennington Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Mikrokosmos Journal, and Oracle Fine Arts Review. She won the McCarthy award for best collection of creative writing at Boston College, and also received the Devers Fellowship: a grant awarded to the student who shows the most promise for a career in writing.