Jack always let me walk home alone and he never tried to follow me. I thought he knew me better than most. I thought he understood I didn't deserve kindness, or loyalty, or luck. Then one night Jack brought me flowers, a handful of fading daisies he'd picked up at a farm stand, but flowers all the same. That was the end; that was how he ruined everything. The minute Jack acted as though we were anything more than two strangers who had a shared interest in death and sex, it was over. As soon as there was the possibility he might actually care for me, I stopped seeing him.
Without Jack, my life was completely uneventful. When the time came, it made sense for me to be the one to tend to my grandmother as she was dying. My brother was busy with his own life in Florida and I had no life at all, only the library, only walking home by myself at night. It was my duty, after all, and my responsibility. My grandmother loved me, truly and deeply, even though the only thing I had given her in return for her affection was chicken soup, toast with butter, pot after pot of English breakfast tea with honey and lemon, and an endless supply of library books. Our house was littered with booksin the kitchen, under the beds, stuck between the couch pillowsfar too many for her to ever finish. I suppose I thought if my grandmother kept up her interests, she wouldn't die; she'd have to stay around to finish the books she was so fond of. I've got to get to the bottom of this one, she'd say, as if a book were no different from a pond or a lake. I thought she'd go on reading forever, but it didn't work out that way.
"You should be enjoying your life," my grandmother said to me one night while I was helping her with her nightly cup of tea. Even drinking tea was difficult for her. She took little sips, like a bird. I had to hold her head up; she smelled like lemon and dust. I felt like crying, even though that was impossible for me. Crying wasn't like riding a bicycle; give it up and you quickly forget how it's done. Look in the mirror and make faces, cut up onions, watch sorrowful movies. None of that can bring back tears.
That night my grandmother's sudden advice took me completely by surprise. I'd assumed that she of all people understood I'd been ruined long ago. I didn't deserve to be happy. Didn't my dear grandmother understand that? I had already passed the age my mother had been on that icy night when she drove off to meet her friends. Who was I to enjoy anything?
"You're always so negative," my grandmother said.
"You got all the positive genes." Amazing, considering her condition, considering the condition of the world.
Toward the end of her illness, even my grandmother had to face sorrow. She cried in her sleep. I couldn't stand to hear her suffering. I left the cat I'd adopted to keep watch over her, curled up on the hospital bed I'd rented, and I went to stand outside, where I could breathe in the brackish air. It was spring and there was pine pollen everywhere; things had turned a sulfury yellow. That night I wished that my whole life had been different and that I could start all over again, in Paris or London, in Italy, even across the river in New York City, where I'd gone to school. I was still young. I wished I could shed my skin, walk away, never look back. But starting a new life was not my expertise. Death was my talent; before I could stop myself, I wished my grandmother's pain would end. I wished that this world would no longer have a hold on her.
From The Ice Queen, pages 3-31 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2005 by Alice Hoffman. Reproduced with the permission of Little, Brown & Co.
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