My grandmother who is always smiling spends most of her time with a man in the basement. It is a huge basement, big enough for more than one man, but my grandmother says these days one man is enough for her. My grandmother is half-Spanish and half something else I don’t know. She still wears the old Spanish shawls and tucks her hair into a silver bun on top of her head. When she walks though the house like she’s hunched over a secret, she smiles and mutters to herself que curioso es el mundo, que bien curioso.
My grandmother tells me this means, “How strange is the world, how very strange.”
When she’s not in the basement my grandmother spends time in another room filled with paintings of people she says belong to “her father’s side of the family.” They look sad and heavy and serious and it’s hard for me to imagine that my grandmother could have come from them.
My mother tells me not to believe everything my grandmother says.
“Life’s bad enough without your grandmother feeding you stories about what she’s got in her basement,” my mother says. My grandmother says my mother takes after her father’s side of the family.
My grandmother has told me she would show me the man in her basement when I turned fifteen. I am fourteen and three quarters now so that shouldn’t be too far off. I’ve tried more than once to find the key to the basement but when I do this my grandmother simply sits back in her chair, rocking back and forth and laughing softly at me, repeating, “Muy curiosas son las ninas, muy curiosas,” which she says means, “How very strange are little girls, how very strange.”
“Is the man naked?” I have asked her more than once. “Does he speak English?” “How old is he?”
I have been asking these questions of her all my life and each time I get a different answer, or none at all. Sometimes she tells me he’s quite handsome and wonderful, other times that he is a no good annoying louse that planted himself in her basement years ago and never left and still other times she says he’s half-shark, says the basement fills with water and he swims around at night with his sharp teeth open, waiting for her.
I have never told any of this to the other kids at school. It’s a secret that’s well kept inside my house. The other kids and I don’t get along too well anyway. They say I read too many old books and wear the wrong kinds of clothes. I have always preferred a simple, classic style –white blouses and dark skirts, though my mother who is much more stylish than I am is always trying to get me into more modern things.
Lately I have taken to wearing one of my grandmother’s shawls, which she gave me last year for my birthday. “When you meet the man in the basement,” she said. “You must look very beautiful. I will give you this now and you’ll have a whole year to let your body speak to it and make it yours.”
When I look at myself in the mirror I think that I must look very much like my grandmother did when she was fourteen and a half. My eyes are dark like hers, my hair is long and black, the way hers used to be. The only thing I haven’t been able to imitate is her smile. “You look so serious trying to look happy,” she says, laughing. “No te preocupes — don’t worry about it. When I was your age, I was very serious too. It took me a long time to learn to laugh the way I do now.”
I wanted to ask if the man in the basement had anything to do with this, but I bit my tongue.
“How old is my grandmother?” I asked my mother.
“She is very old,” my mother said.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “Stop asking questions.”
I suspect my mother has been married to my father for twenty years and sometimes I think she is jealous of my grandmother, who has been with many men in addition to the one in the basement.
“How many men?” I asked my mother.
“I don’t know,” she’d say, a thin line setting in where her mouth should be.
“Enough. Too many. More than seemly.”
Once I made the mistake of asking my mother which one of them was her father, and she almost slapped me.
“I only asked you a question,” I said.
“You ask too many questions,” she said.
So I went and asked my grandmother instead.
“Oh,” she said. “Ese. That was Alfredo. He couldn’t help it, but his mind was like the inside of a potato. And she my pobrecita daughter came from her father’s lineage.”
My father is by no means a potato head but it’s true that he doesn’t have a lot to say for himself. When I ask him about the man in the basement, he says, “Your grandmother is crazy and you are crazy for believing the things she says.” Sometimes he acts like I belong more to my grandmother than I do to him.
I think my mother on the other hand believes in the man in the basement, even though she says she doesn’t. In all the years we’ve lived in this house–which is as far back as I can remember—neither she nor my father have ever gone down there. Only my grandmother has the key. And late at night we have heard her walking down the steps and we have heard laughter and sometimes music coming from down there.
Two days before my fifteenth birthday. My grandmother has been walking slower than usual and her eyes have been sad above her smile.
“Why are you sad, grandmother?” I ask.
“Because,” she says. “When the man in the basement sees you, he won’t want me anymore. And once you go down there, I will have lost you both.”
I walk up to her and put my arms around her thin but elegant shoulders. I can feel the warmth coming from the shawl she has wrapped around them — she has worn this shawl a long time and the years have spoken to it and made it hers. But underneath the shawl she feels suddenly to me like a little child, not like the tough sturdy woman I have known.
“I won’t stay down there,” I say. “And I’ll tell him that if he wants me, he’ll have to take us both.”
She stiffens and her eyes burn at me in a way I have never seen before. Then her eyes soften but they soften into a kind of glaze that seem to belong not to her but to an old woman I don’t know.
“Yes,” she says, quiet and unsmiling. “You tell him that.”
I wish afterwards that I hadn’t noticed those things about her because they make me sad and until then I had not been feeling sad but eager and excited about meeting the man in the basement. So I try to cheer her up by playing the question game I had always played with her before.
“Is the man naked? Does he speak English? How old is he?”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes. He is all those things.”
And then she sits back in her chair with her shawl on and her smile gone and she begins to tell me things about him that she hasn’t told me before, things I didn’t want to hear. She tells me that many a time she has told herself she would not go down there, and she did anyway, getting up late at night and creaking heavily down the stairs.
“When the stars come out sharp and clear at night something rises in me like a heat, like a fever,” she says. “Then this whatever it is begins rubbing against my bones and I can almost hear it inside my skin, gnawing, like sand, irritating and inexplicable. Then I stare at the ceiling and the faces of all my lovers are there and finally this thing moves my bones out of my bed and down the stairs to meet him.”
She tells me that long ago she offered to open the basement door and set him free, that she has wanted to be rid of him, but he has refused. She has begged and pleaded with him to leave, but still he had refused. “No,” he says, “I will live here and you will continue to come down and see me until your granddaughter is old enough to come. And she will continue to come and see me until her daughter—or her granddaughter—is old enough. And you and your granddaughter and her granddaughter will die but I will live here forever.”
As my grandmother tells me this in her small upstairs room, the firelight flickers on her face, making shadows appear in the hollows of her cheeks.
“But how did it happen that you began seeing him?” I ask.
“It just happened,” she says. “We moved into this house shortly before you were born. I went down to the basement and there he was. Y asi empezo. And so it began.”
“So,” she says, turning to me with the entire history in her eyes. “Do you still want to go down there and meet him?”
“I’ll think about it,” I say.
She took my chin in her hand. “You think too much,” she says. And then she smiles.
I go back to bed with a knot in my stomach. Is my grandmother trying to discourage me because she has suddenly become afraid to let him go? Is she genuinely trying to warn me? Is it–as my mother claimed—only a made up story and am I foolish to believe it in the first place? “Your grandmother is crazy and you are crazy to listen to her stories,” she says. Suddenly I don’t trust the one person in the house I have always trusted.
The next day I go to school in my white blouse and dark skirt and sit alone in the cafeteria and then I come back to the house and sit alone in the living room. My grandmother is nowhere to be seen. I hear laughter and noises coming from downstairs.
My mother and father come home and we sit down to eat.
“Tomorrow is your birthday,” my father says, loudly. “What do you want?”
“I don’t know,” I say, a piece of food suddenly caught in my throat.
Later that night, the stars outside my window come out sharp and bright as glass, and I lose myself in the dark places between them.
On the morning of my fifteenth birthday I go upstairs to my grandmother’s room. She is sitting very quietly in her shawl, her eyes still and dark inside her head.
“Well,” she says. “Have you made up your mind?” Her voice is flat.
“Yes,” I say. “I want to go.”
My grandmother sighs. “I thought so. Asi son las mujeres. That’s the way women are.” She smiles, but her eyes are still sad. “Tonight then. At midnight.”
“Tonight,” I answer.
“You are very brave,” she says.
“You mean after everything you’ve said?”
“You are brave to go after everything I’ve said. And you are brave to go and give yourself to something no one believes in.”
“Is that why you can’t stay away?” I ask. “Because no one believes in him?”
My grandmother smiles. “You ask far too many questions. ”
Then she reaches in between her breasts and pulls out a key on a chain and hands it to me.
My mother gives me a subscription to Seventeen magazine. My father gives me a cookbook.
As I lay in bed that night I stroke my belly and breasts underneath my nightgown. My skin is warm but my breasts feel small and my fingers are cold. I watch the hands of the illuminated clock across the room move slowly towards midnight.
When it is time, I take the key from under the pillow and walk to the small door in the hallway. I listen to the silence of the house, and it feels for a moment like the entire house is breathing me downstairs. I turn the key in the lock.
The stairs are cold on my bare feet. I am wearing a flannel nightgown with my grandmother’s shawl over it. The damp air of the basement moves up my nightgown and touches the inside of my thigh. I shiver as I get to the bottom step and stop.
I look around the room. I see nothing in the darkness but a dusty floor and some old jars of preserves sitting on the shelf.
My stomach sinks and my cheeks burn in shame and anger. My grandmother has been lying to me all along. She has lied to me my entire life. She has been doing nothing down here but canning preserves and laughing to herself with the memory of an old lover. What a gullible idiot I am. My eyes begin to sting with tears.
Then the feeling that I had before that the house was breathing me gets suddenly stronger and I realize that this breath is on my neck, and it is warm and sweet.
He doesn’t say anything. He touches the back of my neck lightly with his fingers, then moves both hands down to my waist and draws me around to face him. I want to keep my eyes open to see him but my eyelids have grown heavy and I am unable to keep them open. The sound of his breathing continues as he runs his fingers along the still damp lids of my eyes, then along the sides of my face, the way a blind person would do if they were getting to know you. Then the breathing sound stops as his lips meet mine and his hands unbutton the front of my nightgown. He strokes my breasts. He pulls my nightgown up over my thighs and slips his warm hands over my bare hips. He pulls me closer to him. The breathing begins again. I can’t tell if it is mine or his.
It feels like I am down in the basement for days. There is dust and dark and light coming in through a crack in the wall. We follow the heat of each other with our tongues and our lips and our skin and it feels like the smell of my body is permanently changed.
I finally go back upstairs and crawl into bed. I want to go to my grandmother’s room and thank her, but I am too tired. Tomorrow, I say to myself, my heart pounding in drowsy excitement, my body warm as melting butter.
The next day I wake up late to find my mother and father both in the living room. My mother has Kleenexes piled around her.
“You’re grandmother is very ill,” she says. “She took sick late last night.”
I run up to my grandmother’s room. Her skin has faded to the color of white chrysanthemums that have been sitting in a vase too long. Her voice is weak. But her eyes are smiling, they are still in the room.
“Well?” she says.
“Yes.” I say.
“Bueno,” she says, with a tremendous sigh that seems to drain all the remaining color from her skin. “Now I can leave.”
At my grandmother’s funeral, I weep, and my tears fall onto her coffin. “I didn’t mean to take him away from you,” I whisper, but only the empty voice of the wind replies.
After her death I go back to the basement a few times, and wait for the man to reappear. But so far the room has always been empty and the floor has always been cold beneath my bare feet. Sometimes when I stand in the center of the room I can hear what sounds like whispering or laughter coming from the walls, but maybe it is just a branch scraping the window outside.
My days are getting busier since the night I went to the basement. I have overheard some of my relatives say I am blooming like a sunflower, and some of the kids at school are even beginning to talk to me and invite me to parties.
“There is a hidden place,” my grandmother once said, “where all our private dreams touch each other. It is a place that is huge, and full of love and sacrifice, a place that frees us from our own weight.”
This never made much sense to me before but every day I seem to understand a little more. I can still feel the heat rising in my body and the breath of my grandmother’s lover on the side of my face. At night when I am lonely and fall into the black spaces between the stars I touch the key around my neck and I hear my grandmother’s voice, saying que curioso es el mundo, que bien curioso, how very strange is the world, how very very strange.