“I’m thinking of painting the front porch,” my grandmother said. “Maybe a bright spring yellow.”
I trapped the phone against one ear with my shoulder. “Gram? Did you hear what I said?”
“I said, ‘I have something to tell you,’ and you said, ‘Me too’ and I said, ‘I’m gay,’ and you said, ‘I’m thinking of painting the porch.’”
“Maybe next weekend,” she said. “The skies are supposed to be clear next weekend.”
I could imagine her in her tiny white house. She’d be puttering in her kitchen, looking for some wandering pasta strainer or spatula; or she’d be tugging at dandelion heads in the cracks of her sidewalk; or she’d be sitting on the couch that was shaped like a marshmallow, flipping through channels in search of The Great British Bake-Off.
Perhaps I had caught her at a bad time. A distracted time. But my grandmother’s life had been swirling with distractions for all the twenty-five years I had known her. I had explained this to my girlfriend Rachel only a few weeks after we started dating, when I was trying to tell her what kind of family I came from. She always has at least two projects going, maybe three. Her house is a treasure trove of clutter—boxes of crochet needles and wisp-edged feathers and beads, stacks of precariously-perched plywood in the corner, pastel scrapbook paper fluttering under the living room lamp, abandoned French dictionaries gathering dust next to the VCR. She’s tiny, like a foot shorter than you—hey, Rachel had interjected—but she’s fierce.
Rachel knew everything about Gram. Gram knew nothing about Rachel.
I hadn’t done a lot of coming out, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to end with the come-outer (the out-comer?) listening to the other person debating paint colors. I could see only one way forward. “Gram,” I said. “I’m dating someone.”
I steeled myself for the inevitable exclamation of joy. In my grandmother’s version of the world, I’d been unattached for too long. I had well and truly gotten her attention, and I winced in the crossfire of her unbridled approval—she was so happy for me, who was he, what was he like?
“Well,” I said, “see, the thing is, Gram, she’s a woman.”
The phone hung dormant for a moment beneath my ear. Then Gram said, “I think the line’s going out.”
* * *
“At least she didn’t get mad,” Rachel said later as she sat on our living-room floor surrounded by graphic design textbooks.
“She didn’t even hear me.” I slumped next to her. “She just kept going on about the porch.”
“I don’t think yellow’s a good idea,” Rachel said, exactly as if she and my grandmother had continued the conversation in my absence. “It’ll wash out. It’ll also show dirt really easily.”
The stupid thing about all of this, I thought, was that Rachel and Gram would get along so well if they ever met. “It’s really not about the porch,” I said.
Rachel laughed sheepishly and wrapped an arm around me. “Sorry, I get carried away.” She glanced down at the colorful graph on the page. “I just don’t want to see her make a mistake.”
I closed my eyes. I had been erasing Rachel for almost two years. Every week, I had talked on the phone to Gram, describing the apartment she thought I lived in alone, mentioning that I might be moving soon, but I didn’t know quite where—Rachel’s hours bent over Ph.D. applications erased; Rachel dancing to hip-hop in the kitchen, erased; Rachel sprawled in bed in the morning, her hair crumpled across the shoulders of her oversized Hello Kitty T-shirt, laughing and coaxing me to bring her a cup of coffee, erased. Rachel never seemed to mind being erased, but I was tired of being a person who erased.
“Rachel thinks you should try something darker,” I told Gram the next time I talked to her. “Something that won’t show as much dirt.”
Gram said, “Hmm.” She didn’t ask who Rachel was. There was a long moment in which I wondered if the line was going out. “Like a forest green? Would that work?”
“Sure,” I said. “That would work.”
* * *
A few days later, Gram emailed me pictures of nine paint samples, most of them dark, with a note that said Ask your friend what she thinks of these.
“Is this progress?” I asked Rachel.
She shook her head, staring at the computer. “I don’t know,” she said. “I think maybe now she’s gone too dark.”
I began a reply that read MY GIRLFRIEND THINKS and got stalled by writer’s block after that.
Rachel pulled up a chair next to me at the kitchen table. Her hand curled over mine, and for a moment, we sat like that without speaking. Rachel’s fingers moved toward my keyboard, as if she were asking Can I? I shrugged. She pulled the laptop toward her and began to type.
Hi, Mrs. Cobb. I hope you’re having a good day. I think Paint Sample #1 is pretty, but it could make the porch feel smaller. Have you thought about using a darker color on just the trim?
A lump rose in my throat as I watched her type. I could see a way forward, and it was painful and freeing at once. It involved me telling Gram about Rachel, mentioning her hobbies, her opinions, the dinners she cooked. Rachel made stewed tomatoes last night. Rachel and I are going to the mountains next weekend. Stewed tomatoes sound nice, Gram would say, or, Oh, I love the mountains. Occasionally, maybe, she would slip: You two have fun; does she have the recipe? But it didn’t matter what Gram heard, what Gram said; it mattered that Rachel existed. It mattered that I had the freedom to say Rachel’s name.
Rachel’s fingers laced through mine. “What do you think?”
I leaned my head against her shoulder. “Don’t forget to sign it,” I said.