The Thunderbird was the kitschy paradise of my childhood, a middle-class resort with aquarium-blue swimming pools, where temporary friends showed me the water games they played in Los Angeles and Chicago and New Jersey as we commiserated about the boring days we were made to suffer in our grandparents’ smoky, glistening living rooms. The mass exodus of Jewish grandparents to Fort Lauderdale generated an entire family-reunion-based economy. When I was a kid, the Thunderbird was always teeming with families like ours, on their own dutiful pilgrimages. It was an alternately stultifying and exotic place, but I loved it for its utter perfection of the brochure-cheery image of retirement, the promise of the sunny rewards of old age. I also loved the gaudy style that my Grandma Mimi and her ilk cultivated, what my mom aptly calls The Primitive Jewish American School, that bizarre amalgam of Victorian porcelain tchotchkes, TV-ordered collectible keepsakes, and the 1970s’ prismatic vision of our pleathered future.
Ten years ago, when my family last visited the Thunderbird Beach Resort, it still stood as one of the great triumphs of the Primitive Jewish American School, full of motorized waterfalls, ghostly black mirrors, vintage American automobiles and life-size statues of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. But now the whole compound is flaking, cracked and tarnished; the property seems to have lapsed into provisional housing for recent Eastern European immigrants, and the Cabana Bar seems to have become a place for hard-luck businessmen to score aging Russian prostitutes, with their catcher’s-mitt skin and their yellow hair, bleached to the verge of incandescence. The Thunderbird seems doomed to follow its old neighbours to demolition, to make way for the massive, curvilinear condo towers rising everywhere, like enormous bellicose robots massing to enact the apocalypse.
I think that I feel a faint vibration of the phone in my pocket, and so I fish it out and flip it open. Even now, several weeks since I’ve spoken with her, I expect to find a new message from Celeste. But I see that it was just my imagination; my cell phone shows only the time and date over a background of Celeste on the coast of Maine, which I still cannot bring myself to change. A month ago, Celeste, my girlfriend of five years, came back from her new life as a graduate student in California (I’ll move there soon, soon, I had been promising for months, without setting any firm date) to celebrate my twenty-fifth birthday with me in Brooklyn. As we lay in bed on the last night of the weekend, Celeste put an end to my procrastination and also to our relationship.
Is there somebody else? I pleaded. What if I moved out there right now?
I think what I want is just to date other people, Celeste said. We’re young! Wouldn’t it be fun to date?
You want to date? I asked. But is there anyone in particular?
Stefan. I just want to date!
And so it went for an hour or so, until Celeste squeezed my knee twice and rolled over, her way of signaling the conversation’s conclusion.
A few weeks later, an unsettling album appeared on Celeste’s Facebook profile, photos of Celeste and her new boyfriend, euphoric and entwined in dewy California vineyards.
On the ride from the Thunderbird to Grandma Mimi’s house, I court my gloom, downloading Celeste’s winery pictures onto my phone, each new jpeg a masochistic jab at my heart. When my mom asks what I’m looking at, I tell her, My email.
The only upside of my fresh heartbreak: I’m an adult now! My pain is private adult pain!
My father turns our rented Sebring off Ocean Drive into the entrance of Grandma Mimi’s building, The Prince George: a high-rise rendered in the Tudor style, faux-wooden beams crisscrossing the whitewashed stucco. An English country home, supersized.
The doorman announces our arrival, and soon we’re ascending in the elevator.
Here goes, my father mumbles.
Grandma Mimi’s voice greets us as we knock on the door of her seventh floor condo.
Open the door! No not that door! The other door! I want you to come in through the kitchen! I want you to bring me some babka!
We find the pastry resting on the kitchen counter, and I carry it into the vacuumed, scrubbed living room, with its mirrored blinds, its estimable collection of faux-nineteenth century baubles and cheap crystal knick-knacks.
There, before the rear window, sits Grandma Mimi. Lit from behind, the platinum beehive of her wig is an ironic nimbus, haloing a face that holds the twin X-rays of her glare and a mouth only nominally arranged in a smile.
You’re late. You should have some babka, I made it myself, she lies.
Grandma Mimi has survived the deaths of two husbands, a number of boyfriends, her siblings and parents, and a great multitude of friends. She is ninety-two now, and her cohort’s Technicolor vision for their golden years has all but given way to a new and unrecognizable city. And yet, Grandma Mimi remains as she always has been, dressed in a lamé evening suit, bing-red press-ons perfectly applied, her costume jewellery clunking over her skeletal frame, lending her an aspect of a comic book super-villain. I startle when she sets her gaze upon me.
What’s the matter with this one? she asks. A girl maybe.
Maybe, I reply, and then I try to employ a laugh to mask my astonishment at her borderline-telepathy.
Maybe? she says.
Grandma Mimi’s glare works upon your private thoughts with the physics of a microwave oven; after a minute of direct exposure your secrets burst forth like Jiffy-Pop.
Oh, no, no, I say. I mean yes. Definitely. A girl. Yes.
My grandmother gives me the grin of an immigration officer who has just discovered a bogus visa. Then she waves her hands, as if fanning away an offending odour.
Bah! That one? She wasn’t worth your time. The sea is full of fishes, yes? Let’s eat.
We spend the balance of the weekend in the retail and dining equivalents of the Thunderbird Beach Resort: a strip-mall, crumbling in the shadow of the new megamall, where Grandma Mimi and her friends buy their knock-off polyester purses; an adobe shack, concealed behind a brand-new Starbucks, where Grandma Mimi purchases a dragonfly hair clip that disintegrates before the day is over; and the weekend’s climax, La Paloma Restaurant, a great masterwork of the Primitive Jewish American School, where vacant-eyed porcelain doll heads stare out from their cluttered china cabinets, glimpsing themselves in the everywhere tinted mirrors. Trying my best to be a good grandson (or maybe it’s only fear?), I keep to myself my discovery of a flyer advertising Marytini’s Tranny Spectacular!, which La Paloma will host later that evening.
Over dinner, Grandma Mimi informs me that La Paloma is world–famous, and then she pinches my polo shirt and implores the heavens, Is this what they wear these days to such a place? Bah!
I can’t believe you never met Grandma Mimi, I thumb a text message to Celeste, in La Paloma’s bathroom. I consider it one of the great failings of our relationship. Then, just before pressing send, I erase it. I slump against the mirrored wall as I try to think of Celeste’s wine-country romance in an attempt to rekindle my fury (Just want to date!). But the truth, less pleasurable than that fury, is also more insistent: Celeste finally left me because I refused to leave New York.
I slink back to my chair, and silently eat my noodle kugle. I don’t even manage a rebuttal to Grandma Mimi’s postprandial decision that it’s time for me to apply to law school.
After dinner, we return to The Prince George, where Grandma Mimi announces that we have to go so that she can get some rest. We won’t have another chance to see her before we leave town, but Grandma Mimi’s goodbye is unsentimental, almost casual. I’m hopeful that her drastic claims of her declining health were only a ploy to force our visit.
My parents kiss her goodnight and exit, but I turn back to ask if she needs any help getting into bed.
Grandma Mimi sneers with insult and shakes her head.
You’re the one who needs help, maybe?
Your girlfriend. You have to stop carrying on like this, you make everyone miserable.
I’m sorry, I didn’t know –
Listen, she says. You know how you live to be so old? You forget the schmegeggies. Who needs such suffering? Bah! You just think about what you want and you make things that way.
I smile at her, and it’s the last time that I ever will. The next summer, my brother, my cousins and I will carry her coffin to its resting I don’t even manage a rebuttal to Grandma Mimi’s postprandial decision that it’s time for me to apply to law school. place near her childhood home, in Cincinnati. The coffin, in the Orthodox style, will be unvarnished and unadorned, and I will not quite be able to comprehend how such a plain little box could hold Grandma Mimi. As I fumble through the transliteration of the Mourner’s Kaddish, I will think about this moment in 2007, my last glimpse of her: shrunken and stooped with age, dressed and made up as if for a tranny show, amid her kaleidoscopic gallery of glittering bric-a-brac. Out her window, the new towers loom.
I’m small, Grandma Mimi says. But you see? I’m mighty.
Photograph by John Curley