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.

One time when I was three years old and my sister was six, our mother wanted to comb our hair, so first she combed my sister’s hair, and then she chased me all around the house, saying, “Come here right now or you’ll get a punishment,” and, “As soon as your father comes home he’s going to give you a punishment.” Her best and only friend in the world, Haven, was coming over, and our mother wanted her friend, whom she hadn’t seen in ten years, to think that her life was a good one, and she thought that Haven would not think this unless her girls had combed-out tresses.

We lived in Massachusetts then, of course, in the Colonial my parents built in the Seventies, in a hay field midway up a pine-covered mountain in the Berkshires.

Now you, my future brother-in-law, are low-key, relaxed, and reasonable. But perhaps you know how it is to be anxious about a problem-scenario-upcoming, and to get fixated on the perfection of one detail, and to begin to believe that if it’s tilted just so, at the right angle — which is infinitesimally different from all others and is correct — that its rightness will right the whole. My mother wanted to convey to her best and only friend that she, Jordan, the girl Haven had loved in junior high, was happy, safe, and living in a well-kept house.

My mother has trouble making friends. In all her life — during the thirty-three years I knew her, when she spoke to me — in all that time, when she spoke of friends, she spoke only of Haven. In my early years, there was no occasion to refer to friends, because her world was ours: she, my sister, and I lived together in the house on the hill through winter and summer. Sometimes our father was home and sometimes he was “on a trip”; speech was about him — “when your father gets home — or else us: “You need a bath”; “I want you to play quietly”; “What do you want for lunch?”

My friend Haven” was reserved for the highest order of discussion when she was talking to us (Leala and me), although perhaps she was also talking to herself. Our mother did, from time to time, in an effort to relate to us, reveal facts from her childhood.

She told us — the most memorable story she told — about mean girls who made fun of her hair at recess, the leader one day approaching her, walking with the others to where she stood alone, and saying to the others, “Look at Jordan’s hair.”

She told us about the leader walking up to her hair. Touching it.

“Stay still, Jordan,” the leader said.

Our mother did. Our mother was short, dark, and had moles on her neck.

Her hair was black, curly, thick, and dry.

“Jordan,” the leader said, “where did you get your hair? Is it African?”

“Look at her hair,” the leader said to the others — her hands were in it — “Jordan has Negro hair.”

Then the leader yanked our mother’s hair.

“Ow!” our mother said.

“I had to test,” the leader said quietly to our mother, “to see if it’s real.”

“Watch out, girls!” the leader yelled. “Jordan’s hair’s got bugs in it!”

Then the girls walked away saying, “Bugs, bugs!” and after that no girl went near my mother if she could avoid it, and if by seating arrangement a girl was forced to she’d say, “Oh no, bugs!”

“After that day,” our mother told us, “I went home and begged my mother to comb my hair. But she didn’t always have time. So, many days I went around with my hair wild.”

These stories were lessons. But occasionally, if she was in the best mood, our mother would say, “My friend Haven . . . ” and it was only ever a snippet, and I couldn’t even tell you the stories, because they weren’t memorable. Haven and she used to go to dances together in high school. They didn’t like any of the other girls, so they would get ready together at Haven’s house and go together as “dates” and even dance together too, if they felt like it. For a while, in high school, she and Haven double-dated. And Haven ended up marrying her high school sweetheart, although my mother did not marry hers. They went to a Catholic high school in Montpelier, Vermont, and there were nuns — not memorable ones — and Haven came from a lower-middle-class family, and her parents were divorced, and she lived with her mother. Haven had two older sisters and an older brother and my mother liked to spend time at her house.

You, my brother-to-be, will have heard the story of how our mother’s mother died of cancer when our mother was ten and her father was put in a mental hospital. A boring story: when our mother was ten, her mother died, her dad went in the bin, and our mother and her sister were sent to the neighbors’. By the time my mother met Haven, she would have been living for two years with “Auntie Frances” — Frances who had four of her own girls and worked as a nurse and whom my mother has hardly spoken of since, not to me, not to Leala. She said, for example, of her childhood, “I spent most of my time at my friend Haven’s house,” not, “When I lived with Auntie Frances, I often spent the afternoon at my friend Haven’s.” There was no Frances.

She once said, “Haven’s family didn’t have much money, but their house was a fun place to be. It was always lively. They were always doing some project or other.”

A statement full of clichés and generalities.

“It’s because of Haven that I love crafts,” my mother once told us. She was helping us make Christmas ornaments with her sewing machine. My sister and I designed the ornaments from old panty hose, which we cut with scissors into the shape of old ladies and stuffed with cotton; our mother sewed together what we made. She had gotten out the sewing machine for this.

“Haven was a very talented painter,” she said. And Haven could sew, she even made her own clothes, beautiful clothes, as good as the ones in the stores, and knit scarves. Haven did pottery. Haven was very talented.

We thought our mother was talented. On occasion she would draw us a picture, if we begged — say, of a bunny rabbit — and her pictures were always better than ours. But more than that: her rabbits seemed about to leap.

“I’m not talented at all,” our mother said. “I’m not good. You should see the things my friend Haven used to make.”

So we knew very little of Haven, who was now coming to visit, except that Haven was our mother’s bosom buddy.

“We were inseparable,” our mother said. “The mean girls at school used to say, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you two, are you lesbians?’ ”

Eventually, we learned, Haven got a car, and she gave my mother rides to high school so she didn’t have to walk two miles and take three buses; and when my mother turned sixteen and her Auntie Frances finally said, “There is no room for you here. I’m sorry, but I’ve housed you this long. I have my own daughters and expenses — I’ve got your younger sister to take care of too, now, and that’s all I can manage. You’re sixteen, find a place, ask a friend if you can live with them,” my mother knew immediately that she would ask Haven, and she did, and Haven threw her arms around my mother’s sixteen-year-old body, horsey, I guess, fit but muscular, our mother didn’t play sports but she walked a lot, she was only four feet eleven inches tall, and dark-eyed, tan, with that wild black hair, and Haven said, “That’s a fabulous idea,” and they planned girlishly how to persuade Haven’s mother to take our mother into the house, and though there was no money and no room, somehow they did.

Everyone worked. Haven’s mother worked as a secretary full-time and then she came home and made dinner; Haven’s older sisters worked after school (her brother was already in college); Haven worked at a clothing boutique most weeknights; my mother bused tables at a lobster shack. The house was a house of girls and chaos and my mother lived in Haven’s room with Haven.

“I always knew I could ask Haven and she’d say yes,” our mother told us. “She was that kind of friend.”

“And she was very beautiful, Haven was, and many boys liked her, but Haven was tough and didn’t wear dresses, she wore jeans and smoked cigarettes and ignored them all.”

And then our mother went to college at the University of Vermont, and Haven went to college, too, but somewhere else, out of state, a liberal-arts college where she’d won a fellowship, and our mother met our father, and Haven married her high school sweetheart and moved with him to upstate New York and our mother never — or almost never — saw Haven again.

In her presentation to us of this matter, our mother and Haven were exactly as good friends now as they always had been. They exchanged Christmas cards each year, and about the many cards we received — that got taped, forming a decorative frame, to the door of our hall — our mother would not remark, except for the one from Haven. When it came, she would say, “I got a card from my friend Haven!” and we would have to come look at the card, and then she would tape it up.

“Oh, Haven!” our father would say, if he was home and had been made to view the card. “How’s she doing? Hope she’s well!” But he had met her only once.

Sometimes in a blue moon, our mother would say, “I got a letter from Haven, my friend Haven,” and she’d be in an odd mood the rest of the day. She’d think of a craft project for us to do, Leala and me, and take a nap on the couch in the living room, with a heavy afghan pulled up to her neck.

“Haven loved Snickers bars,” she once said.

At any rate, although they hadn’t seen each other in ten years, my mother still spoke as if she and Haven were as close as ever. For example, if Leala referred to her best friend, Juliana, who sat next to her in second grade, my mother would respond, “My best friend is Haven.”

All this — the existence of the apocryphal Haven — was the reason that my middle name was Haven, and that “Haven,” whoever she was, was Leala’s godmother — twice gifts had arrived on Leala’s birthday, from “Haven” — it was the reason our mother now chased me through the halls yelling, “Come here right now and let me spank you, don’t you run from me”; she could not bear for Haven to arrive and see that her two daughters — Leala, skinny, big gray eyes, black hair, and myself — had uncombed hair.

Our mother lived alone most of the time. Our father often did six-day stints “on alert” at Pease Air National Guard Base, flew refuelers for bombers in the Falkland Islands, visited bases in Japan and Guam. Our mother got fat and became depressed. She protests, when I (Leala will not) claim (or used to claim) that she was unhappy. “I’m very happy!” she says. “I was happy! I love my life!” But Leala and I remember days when she washed and ironed every curtain in the house. “The curtains were terrible,” she told us, “so much dust.” Every two weeks she washed, waxed, and buffed the wood floors of the kitchen, the dining room, and lower halls inch by inch on her hands and knees. “Water is wood’s worst enemy,” she told us. “Wood hates water.” She took an hour-long nap each day on the couch with the afghan pulled over her and said, “You girls play outside.” Every week she made double batches of chocolate-chip cookies, and once they were laid out on paper towels on the kitchen counters we asked, “Aren’t you going to have one?” and she’d say, “No, I’m on a diet,” and later eat three.

But that morning she rose at six a.m., weeded the strawberry garden, dusted the house, and drove us to Shop ’n Save and bought a roaster, then drove to Dairy Queen and bought an ice-cream cake, even though we only had $30 to last us until the end of the month, because our mother had remembered that Haven liked ice cream. Now our mother redusted the baseboards while Leala and I danced in the den and peered out the windows, squinting into the sunlight at the white disappearing end of our dirt road in anticipation of the car that would be Haven’s.

This story is boring, I apologize.

Leala was her first child, which is what I want to tell you, and responsible for everything. It was to Leala that our mother said, “I chose to stay home with you and be a mother to you, because I wanted you to feel you had a mother. And I don’t regret my decision. But if I hadn’t had you, I could have had a career.”

“I would have gone to medical school,” our mother said to Leala. “I was a biology major in college and I got all A’s. I wanted to be a doctor, and I am still interested in medicine to this day.”

Which is just to say that Leala was not the only, but she was the first and the cause. She accepted this. At five years old, Leala set the table for dinner. She’d walk down our half-mile-long driveway to get the mail and bring it back. She would dust all the windowsills, all the banisters and furniture, and then fold the laundry, and if my mother said, “It’s time to comb your hair,” Leala would sit and wait for it. Our mother would yank. She’d yank yank yank as she combed, and Leala would sit there with her legs crossed and tears streaming down her face but she wouldn’t move, at most she’d say, “Ow,” or, “Go softer, please,” and my mother would say, “Sit still”; and by the time she was done, Leala might have said, “It really hurts!” but she’d still sit there, her face puffy and streaked.

Not me. The second I felt a yank I was up and running. She’d say, “It needs combing,” and I’d say, “I don’t care!” and she’d say that as soon as my father came home he would spank me, give me the spanking I deserved, and so forth; I didn’t give a shit — though in the end she might catch me and spank me herself and I’d say I hated her, it was not untrue, and she’d say, “I’m not going to comb your hair, you don’t deserve it,” and in the end, if it ended my way, Leala would comb my hair.

I sat in the middle of the dining room, and Leala stood behind me and combed. If she caught a snarl she stopped, held the chunk of hair carefully, tight above the snarl, but loose from the head, and took the snarl out with a pick. I only ever wanted Leala to comb my hair, and this fact, which was mirrored in everything — if it was bath time, only Leala could bathe me if it was night, only Leala could put me to bed — enraged our mother. Sometimes she gave in to it. “Fine, Leala can comb your hair.”

Other times she’d say, “Leala’s not your mother, I’m your mother, and I’m combing your hair.”

Leala was the one who, when the house was a mess and our mother was on the couch with a headache, said to me, “Let’s clean up the house before Dad comes home,” and, “Mom’s tired, let’s make dinner.”

She was also easy to take advantage of. I wanted nothing more than to play with her all day long. We had a wooden dollhouse, four feet tall, handmade and painted red, and we’d play Barbies. I’d take the two new Barbies that were hers and give her two old scruffies, I’d take Ken, and my Barbies would rape her Barbies. My Barbies got the Barbie car, the horses from the ranch — which they had sex with — and the gauzy pink gowns. When Leala got tired of Barbies I’d say, “No. More Barbies!” and she’d say, “Ohhhkay,” and my Barbies would rape her Barbies again.

Other days, we’d play Monopoly and I’d buy everything I landed on and lose money until Leala went upstairs to pee and I stole cash from the bank. If we played checkers, when I lost I’d point and yell, “Look out the window!” and when Leala looked out the window I’d move my pieces to better spots, and when she said, “Why’d you tell me to look out the window?” I’d tell her there’d been a deer outside but that she’d missed it.

She was the only one I allowed to comb my hair, which I’ve said.

But it occurs to me now that I’ve remembered wrong, or re-pasted another memory over this one, because Haven arrived, and both our hair was uncombed, and this was part of — if not all of — our mother’s anger and shame.

“Their hair’s not combed,” our mother said. “They wouldn’t let me.”

“Oh,” Haven said, “they’re adorable,” and “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” and so forth, which Leala answered politely, I grudgingly, and eventually Haven said, in a halting voice, “I’ll comb their hair, if they’ll let me.”

“They would love for you to comb their hair,” our mother said, “wouldn’t you, Leala?” and Leala nodded.

(Who was this woman? Her godmother. She’d received gifts wrapped in glossy, thick paper. Atop them, slipped under velvet ribbon, there was a hearts-and-glitter-decked card, inside of which was written, “To Liora Leala, from your Godmother, Haven.”

“I want her to be my godmother,” I said when the presents came. A doll with a white porcelain face and real black hair and a turquoise Spanish dress — the best doll either one of us had — sat on Leala’s bed, and I wasn’t allowed to touch it because it was from Haven.)

That morning, several hours later than expected, a tan sedan had made its way up our driveway — slowly, as if not sure it’d got the right house — and a tall, elegant woman with shoulder-length, silky brown hair that turned up at the ends stepped out. She wore a cream-colored suit: a narrow skirt and a tailored jacket that cut in at the waist and dashed out and bore a shiny band around its smallest part. The jacket had cloth-covered buttons.

Our mother wore a plaid skirt — which she’d made herself from a pattern and fabric bought at Fabric Mart — and a turtleneck.

Leala and I pressed our faces against the den’s windows when the car came.

Our mother went down the path toward Haven and said, “You’re here!”

And Haven paused, threw her arms open as if to indicate the world — the empty field around the house, the forest — and said, “What a wonderful house!”

The two hugged, they came inside, tea was made. Haven made much of us, and Leala allowed Haven to comb her hair. I refused, and this was the worst thing that happened during the visit, it was the thing to which our mother later attributed its failure — “You were rude to my friend Haven,” she said. “It’s inexcusable.” And I replied, “I didn’t want her to comb my hair.”

Haven, at the time, had said, “It’s okay, I don’t have to comb her hair . . . she doesn’t know me, I’m a stranger.”

Haven was seated in our dining room. Her back was straight in the suit, her legs were elegantly crossed. Her tea sat unsipped beside her. She had not wanted ice-cream cake. Had they run out of things to say? I don’t know. She’d been taken upstairs and shown the rooms — that took five minutes — and she had seen the strawberry garden. Leala sat at the dining-room table, having had her hair combed, and drew with crayons on paper, a tall, big-eyed woman with pretty hair who was probably Haven, and a short, fat one who was our mother. Our mother stood nearby and watched.

My mother yelled at me: “She wants to comb your hair, let her comb it!”

Her voice was very angry. I knew quite well that she was concerned about the impression her friend would have of the house, her rude daughters, a miserable failure, tangled daughters, messy house, plaid skirt. I knew how she wanted Haven to love her.

“No,” I said.

Haven said, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

Our mother said, “If you don’t let her comb your hair you are going to get a punishment when your father comes home.”

I said, “I don’t care.”

Pause.

I said, “Leala can comb my hair.”

“Really, it’s fine,” Haven said, “really.”

Our mother said, “Leala’s your sister, she’s a child, let Haven comb your hair, she’s an adult. Now go sit still so she can comb it. If you are rude to my friend Haven” — her head had lowered like a bull’s — “I will take you up to your room and I will spank you so hard that you will be sorry.”

Haven was handed the comb. I steeled my nerves. I cannot describe the pain of being a little girl and having your hair combed. Why it is so painful is a mystery. The fact of the pain invites disbelief and seems ludicrous.

Haven asked every ten seconds, “Does it hurt? Does it hurt?”

She combed and yanked. My hair was snarled with all the things I’d touched or eaten that day: bubble gum, pine pitch, Elmer’s glue, boogers.

“No,” I whispered.

At length my sister and I were told to play outside, so our mother and Haven could reminisce. They reminisced for thirty minutes — I have no idea what was said — then we were called in to say goodbye to Haven, and we said goodbye with that child’s feeling of knowing that someone is supposed to be important but that they are nothing, a dust mote about to disappear into the stratosphere — and our fat mother hugged Haven, and Haven stepped in her suit down the walk and got into her car, and the tan sedan rolled down the driveway, because she had a long trip ahead of her, after all, and had only stopped by our house on her way to the White Mountains, where she would see family. Our mother’s references to Haven were fewer after that, but on the occasions she did refer to her, she’d add, “You met her.”

Whenever our mother said, “You met her,” Leala’s eyes acquired a blank look. Noticing that Leala had put down her book, our mother would say, “You loved her,” because of the gross thing Leala did as Haven left, to save the visit.

In the following years, Christmas cards still came from Haven, and occasionally our mother’s voice would firm up and in reference to something she’d say, “My best friend, Haven.” Soon Leala had a perm, the rage among ten-year-olds, but she still played with Barbie dolls because I demanded it, though often she’d say, “I don’t want to, I’m too old,” until I would come up to where she was lying on the couch reading a book and say, “I have an idea. Let’s play The Mystery of Who Decapitated Barbie,” and she’d say, “How do you play that?” and I’d hold up her decapitated Barbie.

Which is all just to say that it was only Leala to whom our mother said, when she was ten, “Why do you read books all day? Don’t you have friends? Are you a loser? Why don’t you get on your bike and ride it to a friend’s?” although we lived on a lonely mountain road, such that any bike ride to a classmate’s involved a steep, blind-curved ten-mile descent and a ride home uphill, but our mother cleverly placed the emphasis of her challenge in such a way that Leala responded with the only possible answer: “I have friends.”

And our mother would say, “Then ride your bike to them.”

And so Leala got on her bike and rode it to see her friends, except there were no bike paths and twice she got hit by cars and sent to the hospital.

And it was only Leala to whom our mother said, “You’re gloomy, you pout, the reason that you have no friends is that you’re unlikable,” and, “You have bad posture,” and, “Your teeth are yellow, you have yellow teeth.”

And it was Leala who at ten years old cooked a thousand dinners and cleaned up afterward too, in hopes of making anyone happy, and who during each dinner was told by our father that she was not sitting correctly, because she was hunching. “Sit up straight,” he’d say, and it was she who was told by him each night that she was “picking at her food” and told, “You’re lying,” when she claimed she felt sick.

She had worms, of course, from age six to fourteen, Leala, pinworms slipping through her intestines and colon all night, laying eggs and eating her blood and undigested food, and tapeworms, which was why she hunched in pain at the table, but she was too stupid to figure it out, too stupid until one day she looked back at her poop in the toilet and saw one lift its long white head and peer at her, and even then she had to go and ask our mother what it was.

Only Leala was criticized during dinner and only Leala was told she was sickly-looking, ungrateful for not finishing her meal, a loser.

I don’t know what it is to be a firstborn. But I know that when my older sister fell ill, no one helped her. She had to go to five doctors to get a correct diagnosis for Lyme disease, to persuade a doctor to prescribe the one year of intravenous antibiotics she needed to recover, and she had to sue her insurance company to compel them to cover the cost of her medications. She did this while working full-time, and while very sick, by herself. After my sister recovered, she believed, for years, that other people with Lyme disease would want to use the legal documents she’d used to compel their insurance companies to cover treatment, but no one she offered the documents to ever wanted them, including me.

Oldest siblings. Stubborn, deluded, retarded in the cosmic sense.

It was 2006. At the time, I had just been hired for a prestigious full-time job teaching creative writing at the Ivy League university. I was putting the finishing touches on a story about a beautiful woman who is set up by her thoughtless older sister on a blind date, which goes badly because the date turns out to have acne. The story had been accepted for publication by a magazine, and the editor and I had decided that the bad blind date should not only have acne, he should be psychotic, and that the older sister should have chosen the psychotic date for the younger sister on purpose, because she is jealous of the younger’s beauty.

“I have a question,” my sister said on the phone, out of the blue. “Yes?” I said.

“Well,” my sister began, “I’ve been reading your stories.” She meant the ones in my book, which had just come out.

“They’re . . . good,” my sister said, “I mean I enjoyed them, even though I don’t understand literary fiction, but I noticed that a lot of the stories feature older sisters, and that the older sisters are always horrible.”

“What do you mean?” I said. I paged through the galleys of the story about the bad blind date.

“Well,” my sister said, “in one story, the older sister tries to murder the younger sister by feeding her to wolves. In another, she murders her by feeding her to monsters.”

“Well,” I said. “Monsters, that’s silly. Monsters aren’t real.”

“In another,” my sister continued, “the older sister kills some homeless men with a gun and then tries to kill her sister.”

“What’s your point?” I said.

“I don’t mean to attack you,” my sister said, “but why, in your stories, are the older sisters always horrible? Am I horrible?”

“Of course not,” I said.

I immediately felt guilty. I had made the older sisters in my stories horrible. I was not sure why. To cover this, I launched into an explanation of how literary fiction works. I included a sublecture about the need for drama, the use of distortion, and the distinction between fiction and reality.

“Okay,” my older sister said, “but in your stories, all the older sisters are evil. I could understand if it was one story, but all of them?”

I moved my galleys around and wondered whether the sexy bit where the psychotic blind date tries to titillate the protagonist’s nipple through her sweater would be used as a pull quote.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It’s fiction. And,” I paused grandly, “some of those stories were dreams!”

“Okay,” my sister said. “I know I don’t understand fiction.”

I examined my galleys, let my pen hover, and crossed out a line. The line was, “Oh please, don’t. I’m not ready for that!” The protagonist says it when the psychotic date, a law student, gives her a shoulder rub while they stand in line to buy theater tickets. I looked at the line. I decided the protagonist should tease the psychotic law student. I changed it to, “Mmmm. Is it raining out? I think I’m wet!”

It was not the fault of literary authors, I said, that they wrote fiction, and fans — including relatives — should not confuse fiction and reality.

“My art is beyond my control,” I said.

There was a pause.

“Well, I would like it,” my sister said, her voice smaller than usual, lower, “if it’s not too much to ask — I mean I know you can’t control inspiration — if just once, at some point, you could write a story in which an older sister is a good person.”

I shifted my galley.

I added a line. “ ‘You are incredibly beautiful,’ the law student said, shifting the knife in his pocket. ‘Falling asleep next to you would be a big big privilege.’ ”

I shrugged. “I’ll try,” I said.

“It’s okay if it’s dark,” my sister said. “But not depressing, okay? I’m interested in female protagonists who overcome adversity, like in a fantasy novel, and maybe feel a little, you know, joy.”

“Hmmm,” I said.

That week, my sister put an ad in the Denver paper (titled lyme patients!) that offered, for a one-dollar postage cost, copies of her template legal letter to anyone with Lyme disease, so that they could use the documents to get insurance coverage for IV antibiotics. No one responded.

So this is the dark but joyful part of the story. The time changes, and the characters do, too — that is, I’m still around, but I’ve disguised myself so cunningly that not even the cleverest reader will recognize me.

It was six in the evening in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a month after the stock-market crash of 2008. Creative Writing Professor X, lecturer status on the faculty of an Ivy League university, was in her room on the fourth floor of the brownstone in which she and some journalists in their twenties rented space. Professor X was seated at a messy writing table, rereading the fifth paragraph of a manuscript titled “Jenn’s Day at the Mall,” which she had already read three times. Professor X had Lyme disease, and although she had done two years of daily intravenous antibiotics, she was not getting better. She was wearing leggings, two pairs of sweatpants, two thermal shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt, a wool hat, and three pairs of socks. All her clothes were dirty. The left sleeve of the sweater, thermal shirt, and sweatshirt were pulled up to her elbow so that she could reach the lock mechanism on the plastic tube attached to her PICC line, which was hooked up to an IV bag. She adjusted the lock mechanism every few minutes and the liquid in the bag hanging from the IV pole dripped faster or slower, and every time Professor X adjusted the tightness of the lock, she stared at the clock in front of her, wrote down the position of the second hand, counted the drops that fell from the IV-pole bag in one minute, wrote down the number of drops, and then wrote the time again. On the desk in front of her were several dusty, unopened parcels, two empty coffee cups, a stack of bills, a landline phone, and dozens of empty packets of nicotine gum.

Professor X reread the fifth paragraph a fourth time: “ ‘Jenny, what a great sample sale,’ Miranda said. ‘All the samples are my size! I’m a two! I hope I’m not fat!’ ”

“Lively language here . . . ” Professor X wrote in the margin. She paused, fighting back nausea. She took a sip of water, opened a bottle of prescription antifungals, and put five in her mouth.

X’s cell phone rang. X looked at the phone and, feeling sly, saw that it was the man assigned to her by the collection company, and did not answer.

She peered out the window. In the yard below she could see her landlord, a short, heavyset Haitian woman pruning flowers in her garden. Above the treetrops, at eye level, a flock of crows sailed into blue sky through white clouds and telephone lines.

Professor X read the manuscript for some time.

Eventually, Professor X wrote on the manuscript in front of her, “I wonder what the dresses at the sample sale look like? I wish I could see them. Except I am not a size 2, ha ha! Maybe we could see a physical description?” She made a smiley face on the manuscript. Then she realized that the smiley face was a frown face. Then she realized, with fright, that what she’d written was illegible. The liquid dripping into her PICC line had increased speed. Feeling nauseated, Professor X leaned forward and vomited. The vomit was the color of the green cucumber drink she had drunk that afternoon, according to her doctor’s orders. Some vomit dripped down the desk’s front onto the floor.

A knock came at the door.

Professor X glanced at the tube in her left arm. “Wait,” she said, but the door pushed open.

The landlord walked in.

The landlord was sixty-five years old, a single woman with two grown sons. She’d never married, worked for forty years in a factory, and saved enough money to buy a brownstone. The landlord was bipolar, sometimes bringing X fried plantains and chicken and sometimes entering her room without warning to yell at her. She reminded X of her mother.

The landlord held up a yogurt container. “I found this. Look!” she stepped into the room and shook the container.

X recognized the brand of yogurt that her roommate Y, a culture journalist for the Wall Street Journal, ate at night while watching Gossip Girl.

“I happened to be looking over the trash, to make sure it was ready for the garbagemen, and sitting right on top of your trash I found a recycle, again, I told you, if they find recycles they’ll fine!” She was yelling. “I don’t want them finding recycles in the trash in front of my house, once they find it in the trash in front of your house, once they mark you, I want my privacy, when your skin is like mine they already watch you, I don’t want them in my —”

She looked at the girl, X. “Oh, you have your thing in.” She stared at the IV bag. “How long are you doing that for? You’ve had it in a long time now, haven’t you? When are you getting it out?”

“I don’t know,” Professor X said.

“Well, I hope you get it out soon, you —” the landlord stepped into X’s room. She looked at X’s unmade bed and messy desk. She saw the vomit. “What’s that? Oh, you threw up. Are you sick? Why don’t you clean it up? You need to clean it, you can’t just leave it there. I just put on a new layer of varnish on those floors, just before you moved in —”

“I’m sorry,” Professor X said. “Look, it just happened, I’ll clean it, but look, I want to talk to you —”

“About what? Don’t you get ornery with me. Are you going to be rude again?” The landlord stepped into the middle of X’s room.

“I thought,” Professor X said, looking at her PICC line and then the door, “I mean, we talked . . . this part of the house is my private space . . . ”

“I knocked,” the landlord said, taking five steps forward, until she was two feet from X. “Don’t you try that with me. This is my house, and I just happened to be going upstairs to the roof to investigate some noises I heard up there, and I knocked and you said, ‘Come in.’ ”

X replied, as calmly as possible, that she had not said, “Come in.”

The landlord lifted the yogurt container. “Don’t tell me what I heard,” the landlord yelled. “Are you calling me a liar? I heard you say —”

“Oh my God.” Her eyes shifted to the space heater on the floor. “Is that one of those things? You know better, it’s in the lease, no space heaters! That will start a fire in my house! I know a woman who owned a house, one of her tenants used a space heater, her whole house burned down. That is what happens, I give you privacy and never go in your room and look what you do, I can’t trust you!”

Professor X unplugged the space heater.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“What’s wrong with you?” the landlord said. She crossed her arms over her bosoms. “Why are you dressed in so many clothes and a hat, like it’s winter? Are you trying to make me feel bad about the thermostat?”

Professor X said she was not trying to make the landlord feel bad. She paused. “Do you mind . . . I’d like to talk later . . . I’m working now.” She held up the student manuscript with her scrawlings on it. X realized that the paper was tinged with vomit. “I’m sorry about the recyclable,” Professor X said.

The landlord stepped backward. She eyed X, the IV pole, and the vomit. She uncrossed her arms.

“I go to church every day, and the Lord keeps me well,” she said softly. “My pastor says every illness is an illness of the mind. It may be physical, but it starts” — she tapped her head — “here. Cleanse the mind and tell your sins to God and he will make you well. You are not ill because you caught something, you are ill because you are sick. Any physical symptom we have is a manifestation of something we have done to make God displeased. When our mind is sick our body registers the problem, do you get me? Do you go to church? Do you pray? I will pray for you.”

“Thank you,” Professor X said.

“I need a rent check. Tomorrow. In the morning, before I go to the bank.”

“Okay,” Professor X said.

The landlord shut the door behind her with a click.

X’s landline rang. X glanced at the caller I.D. and saw that it was Claude Valdenmorten, the man from the collection company. She did not pick up. But his voice clipped through the speaker. “This is Claude Valdenmorten. Professor X,” Claude said, “I have called you eight times this week. You need to call me. This is not going to just go away, Professor X. You can’t just pretend that it doesn’t exist —”

Professor X hit “silent.”

She unhooked her IV bag, walked to the bathroom down the hall, brushed her teeth, and drank tap water.

Her phone rang.

“It’s Gail Jones, the nutritionist,” the nutritionist said. “I got your blood work. You have aluminum poisoning.” The nutritionist went on to say that X’s alkaline phosphates were low and her BUN in the tanker. Didn’t X feel cold? Was she having difficulty remembering words?

Professor X asked the nutritionist how she could have gotten aluminum poisoning.

“Tap water.”

“Tap water?”

“From the fluoride,” the nutritionist said. “They put it in tap water. It’s very reactive. It combines with metals in water and carries them into your brain.”

Usually, the nutritionist said, fluoride didn’t give people dementia until they were seventy. But X was on IV antibiotics, so she’d gotten it faster.

“What should I do?” Professor X said. “How can I get it out?”

“You need a good water filter,” the nutritionist said.

Professor X looked at the nutritionist’s most recent bill, on her desk, and beneath it the letter from the collection company. She asked what kind of filter.

“I can’t recommend any,” the nutritionist said. “They’re all faulty. Just don’t get the activated-alumina, the coconut shell, or anything with a carbon-based medium . . . none of those work. You’ll have to do your own research.” The nutritionist didn’t know what kind of filter, the nutritionist said, because she lived in Reno, one of the last cities in America that didn’t fluoridate. The nutritionist spoke with a Western accent, like a cowboy. Professor X imagined her wearing chaps and a wide-brimmed hat, riding a horse into the sunset.

If the nutritionist could just tell her what kind of filter — the cheapest that would be effective — she was low on funds, she said, but she’d do what she —

“You also need to do heavy-metal chelation,” the nutritionist said.

Professor X looked out the window. The sky had darkened. In the garden below, the landlord walked between her flower beds.

Ten minutes later, having used the last remaining credit on ten different credit cards to buy the best water filter she could find, Professor X began reading the sixth paragraph of “Jenn’s Day at the Mall.” The words did not make sense. But the fault lay with X, not with the manuscript.

A flat blue envelope lay on the table. It was postmarked Boulder, Colorado. Professor X felt a certain trepidation. Professor X opened the envelope. Inside was a jar of Dr. Bronner’s Virgin Coconut Oil. Beside the coconut oil was a box of yerba maté tea. A twenty-five-dollar Amazon gift card fell out.

Professor X put the card down. So, she thought. It’s come to this. She’s written me off with a twenty-five-dollar Amazon gift card. It wasn’t the amount that bothered X, but the anonymity. She didn’t want to take the time to choose a gift, Professor X thought. This is the gift that says, “Go eff yourself,” Professor X thought.

Professor X looked at the enormous box under her desk, full of IV bags of costly Rocephin, bandages, surgical masks, medical tape, PICC-line tubing, bandage-change kits, supplies for the home-care nurse to use when she came, as she had every week for the two years of X’s use of intravenous antibiotics, $250,000 worth of care, paid for entirely by X’s insurance company, coverage that X’s sister’s letter and documents, sent to the company by X’s sister, had almost certainly gotten her.

X’s phone rang. She saw that it was the student whose extra story she hadn’t read yet. She pulled her wool hat down over her ears.

Dear Sonya,

Please forgive the lateness of this gift. I’ve been mired in hearings, and I also wasn’t sure what you can and can’t eat right now, or what you’d want, so I’m sending an Amazon Gift Card. I hope you like coconut oil. I used to put some in my bathwater, and when I came out my skin would feel soft. Not greasy at all! It melts in. It smells good too. It was one of those things that helped me get through my illness. Remember, when I was sick, I had days of immense pain and days of less pain, and sometimes that’s a good way to think about it. You’ll get better — you’ll see — I know it.

Love,

Yo Sis

p.s. For the rest of your present, I would like to pay for you to come to Boulder, and for you to see Dr. Claroux again, and get whatever supplements you need from the visit. I know she’s helped the most so far, so maybe she’ll help again. The weather here now is perfect for hiking, and there’s some gentle trails if you’re up for it. The girls would love to see you. They have been asking when Aunt Sonya will visit.

Professor X put down the letter. A wave of fatigue swept over her. She lay down joyfully on her bed and went to sleep.

So you see, my future brother-in-law, when you’ve got a really stubborn older sister, you’ve got a good chance of making it through an illness.

It was Leala to whom our mother said, when Leala was seventeen, “Leave this house, if you want; I don’t care. I won’t miss you.” Weeks later, after Leala’s repeated demurrals (“No no, I love you”), our mother insisted, “Leave. Get out. You are not a daughter of mine,” for I forget what offense, perhaps the girl returned home ten minutes past curfew, contradicted our mother, or refused to go to her room. Leala was, of course, an A student, a student-council member, an athlete who never smoked a cigarette, etc. etc.; the point being the precariousness of it all fell on one girl, the same girl whose godmother was a woman who would exist like magic, until one day she appeared and disappeared back into the stratosphere, and on that day it was Leala, aged six, who sat still to have her hair yanked and then said, “Thank you, Haven,” eyes glistening.

And it was me who on yank three said, “Stop!” and leaped up. And ignored our mother, who said, “You are going to get a punishment.”

Haven said, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

And I said, “Leala can comb my hair.”

The white doll with the china face sat on Leala’s bed through her teenage years, long after the tan sedan had disappeared down our driveway, long after our mother had ventured to say, daring on the front step slowly to raise her head: “Already? But you’ve only been here an hour. I thought you were going to spend the day”; and Haven had sighed, fingering her pearls, her eyes large, not insincere, and said, “It’s been good to see you, let’s not let it be so long the next time,” and stepped in brown heels down the flagstone path to her sedan.

Our mother stared at the car as it left. My sister, who stood in the door of our house as directed, intuited, by a shoulder spasm, that my mother was crying and flew down the path, and even though our mother said, “Go inside, I don’t want you” — words I heard while biting a chunk of ice cream I’d excavated from Haven’s cake with a salad fork — my sister wrapped her arms around our mother from behind and stuck her face in our mother’s rear — a sight I glimpsed from the doorway while chewing — and said, “I love you,” and when our mother muttered, “Go away,” my sister said the finest thing she could think to say. “I love Haven.”

This was decades before our mother stopped answering the phone when we called and stopped returning our messages, even if such message should say, “I totaled my car, I’m at the hospital,” and started returning the packages we sent with the word refused written on them, which she meant to seem an official postal negation but which was scrawled in her handwriting in blue pen; and, as you know, it was only Leala who sent those packages, birthday presents for our mother, one a keepsake box, hand-painted with roses, encrusted with white shells from Hawaii, which came back to Leala broken because someone stomped on the box; it was only Leala who made the phone calls, Leala who flipped over the guardrail on a high pass in a storm in the Front Range and almost died and called to leave a message. I’d say those precipices are unimaginable but you’ve seen them.

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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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  • Kang Sheng

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

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