Why I Don’t Use Arnica

My first semester of freshman year in college, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with cancer. This woman was my hero and I was crushed. She was a fierce, strong, bad ass and probably one of the smartest people I ever met. She was the classiest of dressers and a foodie before it was cool, and whenever it was time to take a picture instead of saying “cheese” she would say “shit” and when a woman in an hermes scarf says shit, everyone laughs. She liked whiskey and wine and watching golf on Sundays and she never did my grandfather’s laundry because he was a grown man and he could do it his damn self. She raised four kids, lived in seven countries and visited well over a hundred. For the last 20 years of her life, she battled some very determined cancer and when it came back the last time, her response was essentially “Nope, we’re done here. I’ve lived a good life. Give me the vicodin and make it snappy.” She was ready but I was not.

I got to visit her one more time before she died. We watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Singin’ In The Rain, two of our favorites. We ate cookies and drank coffee and played Scrabble. Not one for saccharine gestures, she spent my visit directing me from her bed on what books and trinkets she wanted me to have and tolerated no tears or heartfelt talks. That said, I’m pretty sure she took it easy on me in Scrabble because I was winning for like, two turns before she came back and brutally trounced me, even while high on painkillers. My cousins and siblings all have profound stories of whatever she said in their final goodbye. I don’t remember that. I just remember her kicking my butt in Scrabble one last time.

The next summer, I was home for a week when my mother and sister started talking about my grandfather. My sister asked if my mom had heard from him.

My mom said, casually, “Not yet. I know he’s planning to propose while he’s visiting her family in Mexico, but I doubt he’ll report back until he’s stateside again”

“Wait. What??” I interjected.

My mom explained, “Well, Dad has been dating Luci for a little while — “

“Who is Luci? What do you mean a little while? Mimi just died! Like, just!” I was not pleased. I got some more information, and it only made me more upset. It seems that this “Luci” character had been my grandfather’s secretary for many years when he lived in Mexico. Apparently, they had started dating at some point that spring, less than six months after my grandmother died. I was livid. His secretary? Was this some sort of like, Nicholas-Sparks bs for the olds? Boy meets girl. Boy is married and catholic, their love can never be, they pine for each other for 35 years until the boy’s wife dies, then they marry?

My grandfather remarrying was rude enough, but to learn that they had known each other for nearly forty years was more than I could handle. My overactive imagination started concocting images of illicit affairs and hot sex in my grandfather’s office. Further insult to injury came with this harlot’s name. My grandmother’s name was Lucy. So not only was my grandfather marrying some secret flame from his past, but she was like some off-brand version of my grandmother.

Apparently, the protests of a whiny 19-year-old grandchild weren’t enough to stop their love. They married that Thanksgiving, exactly a year and a week after my grandmother died. My mom took me to the department store to buy an outfit for the wedding and I settled on something in black. My grandfather may be ready to jump in bed with some other woman but I was still honoring my grandmother with a reasonable mourning period. In the end, I didn’t even attend the wedding. I did not meet my new step-grandmother in person for another year and a half. But, after a little while I started to swallow my pride and reach out. I would call my grandfather and take some time to talk to my new “step-abuela” on the calls. I had grown up bilingual so at first it was just an opportunity to use my Spanish that was growing rusty in my homogeneously white college town. Eventually we progressed past “como estas? Bien y tu.” Luci and I would talk about what we were reading, she would tell me about growing up in Mexico and I would tell her about my classes and my cat. Soon, we were talking at least once a week; we even started sending each other books after we finished them, which in my family is basically the ultimate symbol of love.

A year or so later, my parents planned a trip to Colorado for the three of us to visit my grandfather and my step-abuela, who I had still yet to meet. As the trip approached, I somehow badly injured my tailbone in an overly-ambitious yoga pose. Let me tell you, this is not a comfortable injury. For a supposedly vestigial body part, it’s involved in a lot. Sitting hurt, moving hurt, standing hurt; pretty much anything that wasn’t laying still on my stomach hurt. It kind of felt like the bottom of my spine had been replaced with a hot curling iron.

About a week later, I was on the four-hour flight to Denver, desperately trying to find a seated position that didn’t make my eyes water; just me, my curling-iron-coccyx, Tylenol and four hours in a Delta window seat. We arrived at Denver airport and my grandfather picked us up in his standard issue old-man-boat-car. My step-abuela stepped out of the car and gave me a big hug and what I consider far too many kisses. I found this behavior disconcerting to put it mildly. My family has never been a particularly physically affectionate one. I’m a big hugger now, but at the time, I still operated like most of my family and avoided physical contact with anyone I wasn’t having sex with. Even then, I would often irritate girlfriends with my generally minimal physical affection.

We got in the car, I got the back middle seat between Luci and my mother. Luci promptly grabbed my hand and held on the rest of the ride. She would switch between just laying her other hand on top of mine or stroking my hand and arm. This was basically my idea of torture. If you had put a statement confessing I was the Zodiac Killer in front of me in that moment, I would have signed it if it would make the touching stop. As we pulled onto their street, I felt some relief, thinking I could put some space between us. I didn’t realize that seatbelts and my grandfather’s terrifying driving style was limiting actually Luci’s touching. As we parked and started walking, I attempted to throw my mom under the bus, trying to get her between Luci and I but Luci was too quick and my mom had already learned how to dodge her physical affection. Luci pulled my arm around her waist and then put hers around mine. She held my left arm on her hip with hers while she intermittently patted my hip with her right hand.

The first day of the visit progressed somewhat uneventfully from there. I managed to improve the art of avoiding my handsy step-abuela. I opted for single occupancy chairs, avoiding any bench seating or couches. When standing, I would just move around a lot, like how you run in a zigzag to escape an alligator. I enlisted my father as a buffer. But all the while, I’m also nursing this tailbone injury. I managed to keep my pain to myself for the first day, but the day after, we took a day trip to a little town north of Denver and after sitting in the car for a while, I made a little yelp when I stood up. I didn’t fully understand the gravity of my error in the moment. She asked me what was wrong and I briefly explained. She assured me she had something for that at home and I forgot about it.

When we returned to the apartment, she beckoned me to the master bedroom, explaining that she had arnica in the bathroom and it would help with my coccyx-distress. I was in enough pain that I forgot my painstaking designs to avoid the touching. She retrieved the arnica and I reached out my hand to take it from her, when she instructed me “Quitate tus pantalones.”

“QUE DICES?” I responded.

“Take off your pants”

“No, I understood, just, what?”

“I put it on for you”

Hear me when I tell you I am not good under pressure. Improv has never been my strength. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the situation. It didn’t occur to me to say “no thank you” or “Thanks, I think I’d prefer to do it myself” or to just fake sudden, violent diarrhea. So, heart racing, I did the only thing I could think to do. I dropped my pants.

“Y tambien tus chones, your panties”

And that is how I ended up bent over the bed where my grandmother died with my exposed rear end in the air while a woman I met the day before rubbed some homeopathic cream between my intergluteal cleft. While the position was not unfamiliar to me, the context was traumatically untenable. We spent three or four days visiting, but I swear that moment lasted weeks. The emotional discomfort was so strong that, seven years later, the smell of arnica brings it back to me in seconds. I don’t know how much experience you have with strangers kneading the skin stretched over your tailbone, but it’s not relaxing. I would rather take a calculus test or discuss my sexual history in a job interview than again suffer this woman’s fingers fondling my exposed flesh. For hours, days, weeks her fingers massaged the real estate bordering my back door. The last time someone’s fingers had probed my posterior like that, I had been in diapers but age had been kind enough to save me from remembering any of those experiences…not this one.

Three months later, the torture session was complete. “Vale,” she said, “sientes mejor, no?” I agreed, pulling my pants back up with a speed normally only seen in teenage boys when their girlfriend’s dad gets home. I retreated to the second bedroom, mumbling something about a nap, only to pass an hour staring at a wall and questioning all my life choices that led me to this moment. I cannot tell you if it helped. I cannot even tell you how the rest of the trip went. I can only tell you I’ve never used arnica again.

My grandfather and Luci have been married nearly nine years now. We’ve had our ups and downs as we navigated this new family topography. We talk often and visit a couple times a year. My dad still pretends he doesn’t speak Spanish to avoid conversations and I have gotten very good at protecting my personal space in Luci’s presence. But I’m uniquely grateful for her too; I know she’s given me many more years with my grandfather thanks to her attentiveness and love him. And as long as she never puts her fingers near my butt crack again, I’m glad to call her family.

*Originally told at a Story Club Cleveland. See the video here.