Story — From the March 2014 issue

The Toast

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Last week I received, via Priority Mail, a card inviting me to a wedding that I’d very much like to attend. After eighteen years of partnership, the card said, Ms. Leala Kroger, Esq. — my older sister — and Mr. Mattathias Williams, Esq. — my older sister’s boyfriend — were getting married on the island of Oahu. Two days after the card arrived, my sister called from her Colorado mountain home and said that she wanted to tell me herself that she and her partner-in-life, best friend, and the father of her six- and eight-year-old daughters were getting married in Hawaii in the second week of May 2014, and that in order to attend the wedding I would need to reserve a room this week using the code krogerwilliams2014, and I said, “Wonderful.”

“People in Love,” by Pakayla Biehn. Courtesy the artist and Park Life Gallery, San Francisco

“People in Love,” by Pakayla Biehn. Courtesy the artist and Park Life Gallery, San Francisco

The wedding, my sister said, would not be fancy. However, there would be a hair-metal band, a five-course local organic vegan dinner, and a life-size fair-trade chocolate baby elephant. I’m afraid that my sister went on explaining details about the wedding, and I stopped listening; this is because I caught Lyme disease five years ago and have neurological damage that makes it difficult for me to listen when people talk, especially when what they’re saying isn’t interesting.

It was an eighty-degree November evening in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I was sitting at my oak desk in my attic apartment. I had a nice apartment. One room, true, and in an attic; but cozy. The window looked over the owner’s garden. I was fond of its wide orange floorboards and the mice that pattered out from beneath my futon whenever I ate buttered crackers. On my desk was the stack of student stories that I needed to read for the next day, and next to them was a letter from a collection agency.

“So you’ll come?” my sister said.

I considered what to say. I knew that even if you’re an unmarried forty-year-old woman who steals reams of paper from her workplace and collects unemployment compensation illegally, there are things that no one who’s decent does, and I knew that skipping your sister’s wedding was one of them.

Also, I wasn’t broke. There was room on my Platinum MasterCard, and on my Capital One card. But I owed $1,200 in rent, $820 in credit card bills, $1,275 in overdue student-loan payments, and $13,756.46 to the collection agency.

So when my sister said, “You’ll come?” I scratched my nose.

I figured a plane ticket to my sister’s wedding in Hawaii would cost $2,000.

I could not tell her I was broke. Last year, when I quit my job as a creative-writing teacher at an Ivy League university, my sister said, in a disapproving way, “Why are you giving up your job?” When I explained that I’d enrolled in a program to earn a degree as a health coach and planned to help people transform their lives by helping them eat healthful diets, avoid toxins, and exercise, my sister said, in her attorney’s voice, “You should keep your job.” My sister also said, “Sonya, you used to be a writer. You used to talk to me about your writing. Now all you talk about is fluoride.” She reminded me that it would take years to get enough clients to support myself as a health coach, and that once I did get clients, I’d be sued. She said my ideas about health were odd, and predicted that if I gave up my position at the university, before the year’s end I’d be broke. I told my sister not to worry and that no matter what, I wouldn’t ask her for a loan. But I’d failed, since graduating from the health-coach program, to get enough clients, even though I offered free consultations to all the fat, hormonally imbalanced women I met in local health-food stores and sent “You need a health coach” emails to all my former Ivy League colleagues. So now, after my sister announced her wedding and repeated in a sobby voice, “Please come,” I told her, “I’ll try.” Then I said the only thing that, given the circumstances, I could: I said I’d won a fellowship to a writing colony. I’d won a “special fellowship prize” to “Yaddo,” I told my sister, and I needed to “go there and write all next May.” I’d try to change my dates, but the “Yaddo people” would not let me, I said, because it was impossible. Yaddo was a rare opportunity, I said, and there was no way any writer could pass it up.

In reality I would never go to a colony to write, because in my apartment I have a desk, and I have a pen and paper. I wouldn’t go to Yaddo unless I wanted to have sex with some lousy-in-the-sack, fluoride-drinking writers. But I knew my sister would believe me if I said I was blowing off her wedding for a colony.

“I really want you at my wedding, but I know it’s important for you to get writing done,” she said, probably because I hadn’t written anything in five years.

“Thanks,” I said, and just as I was weighing health-coach-y things to say in return, like “I’m glad you’re getting married in Hawaii, it sounds like that’s an important thing for you to do,” my older sister’s voice got high like a girl’s and she said, “Maybe you could write something.”

And I said, “Eh,” because recently she’d told me that the book I published six years ago was “bad,” “needed more plot,” and made her sick.

“No,” she said, “I don’t mean a story, I mean a note for Matty, something we could read at the rehearsal dinner so it’d be like you’re there. You know . . . ” she said, “a toast.”

“Oh,” I said.

She said, “It wouldn’t have to be good.

“Oh,” I said.

She said, “I mean it wouldn’t have to be fancy. You don’t have to spend more than ten minutes on it.”

I stretched at my desk. Because I was still teaching one writing class as an adjunct professor at the Ivy League university, there were sixteen student stories on my desk that I needed to read and type praise about. Also, because I needed cash, I had resolved to log on to an online forum where women posted descriptions of their menstruation troubles and to write emails to all the women offering to make their menstruation troubles go away. So I had work to do. But it’s hard to turn down a small request when one has just rejected a large one.

“Okay,” I said.

My sister’s throat cleared.

“Of course you know this,” she said, “but the toast needs to be appropriate.”

“Of course,” I said.

Then she said, in a weighing-options-thoughtfully voice, “It’s my wedding, so the toast should probably be funny and light.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Everyone will be making speeches,” she said, “all my friends and Matty’s friends and everyone I love.”

She paused.

“I mean everyone I love besides you,” she said.

I said, “All right.”

She repeated, “I’m thinking ‘light and funny,’ some ‘light and funny’ anecdote would be nice.”

I could tell that part of her was glad I wasn’t coming to the wedding.

She said, “Maybe you could write about something funny that happened when we were kids. Something Matty hasn’t heard.” She paused. “But please don’t lecture about the dangers of fluoride and mercury. For just once, I would like you not to be a health coach, and just to be my sister.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Because when you’re a health coach,” she said, “you can be annoying, and not everybody is interested in hearing about the effects of fluoride.”

I told her I supposed that was true.

“You know,” my sister said softly, “don’t ever tell Matty I told you this, but he thought you wouldn’t come to the wedding. He didn’t know it was because of Yaddo. He thought you just wouldn’t care about the wedding. He thinks you don’t like him.”

I tried not to think about which of my credit cards were about to accrue late-payment fees, and to think instead about my sister’s future husband, who is an anti-immigration lawyer for the government. I said I liked him.

“That’s why a toast from you to him would be really nice,” my sister said. “To show you like him.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You know,” my sister said, her voice knowing and pea-flavored, “in the eighteen years I’ve been with him, you and Matty have never talked much. I mean really talked. He’d love a note from you. He’s a thoughtful person.”

So I said I wanted to be closer to my sister’s boyfriend, even though I’ve never met a man who is more of a walking pancake. Don’t get me wrong, as a health coach I try to see people’s inner strengths and auras, and I do, when I squint; my sister’s boyfriend is a nice man, a better man than me, since I’m a woman. He’s a smarter-than-average guy who’s managed to be loyal to my sister for eighteen years and who will put up with anything, it seems, but that’s not his fault, because he’s an A blood type. The A blood types evolved when agriculture began, and they can digest grains, which is more than an O can say. They also have a strong mind–body connection, and I’ve noticed that a lot of them crave stinky cheese, even though it forms mucus in their gut and gives them allergies, and they also crave tomatoes, even though those give them arthritis, and they think they like steak, a lot of them, even though their intestines are too long to digest it in a timely fashion and it putrefies into impacted fecal matter in their colon. Worse, the whole crowd of A blood types are followers, and when it’s time to punch a man who needs to be punched, they’ll just sit there and smile as if everything is all right. Truth be told, I felt bad for my sister’s boyfriend. After college, when my sister told him they were moving in together, he said he did not want to, but my sister told him he was doing it, so he did. A year later, when they were attending the law school my sister selected for them, my sister said she wanted a dog, and her boyfriend said he didn’t want one, so my sister bought two Great Danes, and whenever I visited her she’d yell, “Matty! Go pick up the poo in the yard!” Once my sister got pregnant, she told Matty that they should move all the way up to Boulder and commute an hour back to Denver for work, and he said he didn’t want to do that, but they did it, and once my sister had two babies, she’d yell things like, “Matty! Someone needs to put the chains on the Subaru and drive over the Front Range to get the girls at playdate!” and he’d do it, or “Matty, I need you to make dinner!” and he’d make it; but then, my sister’s bossiness was because my sister “saw” all the things that needed to be done around the house that her boyfriend didn’t “see” because he was watching soccer on TV, and my sister did 80 percent of the things that needed to be done herself and merely forced her boyfriend to “see” the other 20 percent. I was ready to be friends with my sister’s boyfriend, but he was boring. I had no animosity toward him but no interest in him; and he had never (as perhaps he had no reason to) shown any interest, not even of the fraternal kind, in me.

I’d heard him say to my littlest niece once, “Your aunt Sonya likes to say funny things. That’s because she’s a writer. Writers make stuff up, so we take her stories with a grain of salt.” I’d also heard him say, to my other niece, “Your aunt Sonya went to school to be a health coach. We hope she gets some clients, so she doesn’t have to come live with us.”

I didn’t have jack to say to my sister’s boyfriend. So after I got off the phone with my sister, I wrote responses to two of my students’ stories. One story was about a student who has angry feelings toward his old-maid writing teacher. The student says to the teacher, “How old are you? Your 40, I found you on Facebook. Your an old maid,” and the teacher responds, “Yes, I have hair on my face. I’m not a good writer so I teach. Now my prime is done, I wish I were dead,” and the student says, “Every dog has it’s day,” and pulls an automatic rifle out of his pocket and shoots the teacher in the head. I typed two pages of praise about the story’s energetic language. Then on the manuscript I wrote, “Jacob, great story. Please avoid clichés such as ‘Now my prime is done.’ B.” Then, in a fit of pique I knew would get me fired, I added a minus to the B. The second story was about a woman who marries her son. They are both the same age, twenty-three, because the woman dies after giving birth and is reborn. After typing up a paragraph of praise, I scrawled on the manuscript, “How awesome that the protagonist’s fiancée is his dead mother who died giving birth to him and was instantly reborn in the same town! Great plot. B.” I tried to think of a topic that would interest my sister’s boyfriend and provide a light, toast-appropriate anecdote about my sister.

Even though my sister is the person I’m most disappointed in in the world, I try to stay positive, and when I considered my sister’s many feats, like the fact that at age seventeen she scored five goals to bring our high school’s lacrosse team to an all–New England championship, and at eighteen won first place in a national debate competition even though she once had a lisp, and that unlike me she owns three SUVs, a Boulder mountain house, a small yacht, three dogs, one horse, and two daughters, it all — and by “it” I mean her accomplishments — came down to the fact that she’s my older sister.

According to www.firstborns.com, firstborns are alike in that they’re bastards, or more often, at least. Beyond that, they achieve, always within the framework of the orthodoxy. Even when they think they’re “insurgents,” they work within the system. I don’t know how many times I explained to my sister that, though she defends wrongfully terminated chambermaids and textile workers when they get laid off, she’s a cog in the corporate machine; she says, “No, I go against the system!” and I say, “Leala, without you the system couldn’t exist.” Lawyers like her “defending” workers, I explained, is what makes a system in which so many are wiretapped and underpaid seem acceptable, and if we didn’t have token “defendants,” we could see our democracy, I told her, for what it is: an ant farm in which humans are milked like aphids.

My sister, like all firstborns, is unable to question received ideas. For example, even though I’ve explained to her that the fluoride in America’s water is a radioactive waste product of aluminum manufacturing that causes cancer, thyroid problems, wrinkles, and obesity, and that rather than protect teeth, it makes them break, she says, “But Sonya, I still think it’s good for me.” She is unable to conceive that the world might be “upside down,” so to speak, and this is because, even though she’s not some grain-eating, crowd-following A, she’s an oldest child, a firstborn, and got the shit beaten out of her at a very young age.

Oldest siblings, I learned on firstborns.com, disappoint their parents when they pop out from the vagina looking not-as-expected; soon, if they’re not retarded, they sense their parents’ disappointment, and in reaction they achieve. All the first American astronauts to fly into outer space were firstborns. Oldest children are disproportionately represented in law, medicine, banking, and engineering. Two thirds of all entrepreneurs are firstborns. Oldest kids average two points higher on I.Q. tests. Oldest children are more self-righteous, insecure, and self-deluded than any other kind of offspring. That wasn’t on firstborns.com.

I jotted down the stats from the website. But after I did it, I realized that it was not good toast material. Also, I realized, my sister’s boyfriend would have no interest in it, because he’s a firstborn.

So I gave up. I had no interest in my sister’s boyfriend or in his marrying — a stupid move — my sister. I recalled how when I was angry at her as a kid, I used to hit our dog, because I lost in our physical fights, because she was bigger, but if I hit our dog, a docile English sheepdog, she would let me have whatever I wanted, as long as I didn’t hit the dog, and it became a tool of mine, when my sister was being obtuse I’d hit the dog’s gray rear, and my sister would say, “Don’t hit the dog,” and her gray-green eyes would glisten and she’d grab my arm, but I kept pounding the dog’s flat hind, the dog had hip dysplasia and a keen would emit from her black lips and I’d pound her rump until my sister said, “Okay, you win,” and I remembered how when my parents killed the dog, my sister was ten, I was seven, and the dog was three, and my sister tried to construct a human blockade, she wanted me to stand in the front door of our house and hold hands with her so that our parents would be unable to drag the dog — to whom my mother had become allergic — through the door to the car to drive it to the pound. “Come on, Sonya,” my sister said. “It will work, a human chain, we can stop them!” and I said, “They’ll just use the other door, idiot,” and went to read a book in my room. Fortunately, the death of Almond — oh, Almond, who licked my father’s hand every time he stuck it forth even though once he threw a wrench at her head and knocked her flat — reminded me of a usable anecdote.

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is the author of Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money (Harper Perennial). Her essay “Herbal Remedies” appeared in the August 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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    Interesting extended allusion to Salinger’s “To Esme with Love and Squalor”.

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