The First Letter
My sister, Xander, causes a scandal practically everywhere she goes. Even funeral receptions, I now know.
I’m the quiet one. I spent the whole time wandering around our house, kind of dazed, an overwarm glass of lemonade clenched in my hand. Never much at ease around a bunch of people, I tried to go unseen, unnoticed, as I watched the guests serve themselves cake, or more wine, whispering together over some anecdote about Mom. As if they really knew her.
I had to admit, Grandma knew how to throw a proper funeral. She had hung huge family portraits around our living room, pictures of Xander and me with Mom and Dad at the beach, on Thanksgiving, and at the dinner we threw celebrating Dad’s tenure. That was my favorite, because it captured Mom laughing, her blond head thrown back, her mouth wide, eyes screwed shut, cheeks red.
Over the archway between the living room and dining room Grandma had hung a huge banner that said, in big, scrolled letters, "Bon Voyage, Marie." She’d chosen quivering violin music to play over the stereo, and she’d gotten the best caterer in town to serve dim sum, cold sesame noodles, stir-fried vegetables, and some kind of chicken kebab with a mysterious sauce that seemed to separate the moment it hit your plate.
People kept coming at me, hugging me, rubbing my back. I wanted to scream.
Xander never had much problem letting loose. She and Adam were both drunk from the bottle of wine they’d stolen. They were sitting on the floor in the sunroom, Adam’s tie loose around his neck, Xander’s fine blond hair in her eyes. She had taken off her black heels to wriggle her toes. Her dress was hiked up above her knees, and she twisted the ball of her foot into the floor, staring into space as Adam whispered in her ear.
I wove through the crowd. Aunt Doris and Nancy, Mom’s best friend, were huddled over a photo album. Doris was pointing out a picture of Mom from grade school. Mom’s two front teeth were missing, and apparently she used to do some trick with her tongue while Doris sang a song about a little worm coming out of its hole. "If we tried it now," Doris said, "it would be positively lewd."
It was supposed to be a joke, but it made both of them cry.
Through the screen door I watched Dad sitting on the porch steps smoking a cigarette. I’d never seen him smoking, and it was strange watching him because he was an expert at it. He sucked the blue smoke into his mouth, let it hang between his lips in a compact cloud before pulling it all the way in. His boss, the chair of the English department, was sitting with his hand on his shoulder, telling him to take some time off. "You’ve been wanting to write your next book for ages, James," he said through ridiculously chapped lips. "Take next year. Mason can cover the Romantics, and we’ll put some grad students on your intro courses."
Dad nodded, took another mouthful of smoke, held it, held, and released.
I felt a presence behind me and turned to see Grandma standing uncomfortably close. "Well, I think this has been a success," she said. "Just the way Marie wanted it. Not too gloomy."
"You should mingle," she told me. "Some of these people drove for hours to get here."
"I don’t like parties."
"You call this a party?"
"What else is it? People are drunk."
"I’m not drinking."
"No, of course not, why would you?" I spat. I didn’t care about hiding my dislike for her. Not today.
"Don’t be nasty, Athena," she said.
"It’s Zen, Grandma. I’ve been Zen for years."
Her bloodshot eyes traveled to the corner where Xander and Adam were sitting. Xander had closed her eyes and was leaning her head back against the windowsill. Adam stared at her, fascination pulling his lightweight frame toward her while something else held him back. Grandma cleared her throat. "A letter came in the mail yesterday, for you and Xander. I found it in your father’s bills."
"Put it with the other cards."
"No. You should see it. Go get Alexandra."
"Grandma—" I started to protest, but she held up a hand.
"Go. Get. Her." Her wrinkled lips pressed together.
I marched toward Xander, as much to get away from Grandma as to obey. "We’re being summoned," I said to her.
Xander’s dark eyes shifted from me to Grandma, who was standing in the middle of the room, her arms folded over her skinny frame. "What does she want?"
"She said a letter came for us."
"Ack." Xander rolled her eyes. "Tell the Droning Crone to—"
"You tell her," I said, and marched off to the kitchen to throw out the lemonade and pour myself some Coke instead.
I’d barely had a chance to rinse my glass before Grandma came barreling into the kitchen, pulling Xander by her wrist. Xander stumbled after her, her face curdled and pouty. "I don’t see why it can’t wait!"
Grandma went to the pile of unopened mail that sat on the ceramic tiled counter, shuffled through it, and pulled out one thin envelope. "I think you’ll want to see this," she said triumphantly.
Xander glanced at it, squinted, peering at the address. "Zen," she said, her voice urgent.
I took the envelope from Grandma. It was addressed to both Xander and me in Mom’s uneven, sloping handwriting.
Xander whipped it out of my hands and tore it open.
"Be careful!" I yelled, afraid she might rip whatever was inside.
Xander unfolded a single piece of Mom’s light blue stationery and read it in one great gulp. I tugged the corner of the paper closer and read over her shoulder.
I suppose I owe you an apology for dying on you before you’re all the way grown up. I hate leaving a job unfinished. With that in mind, I’ve been writing you both lots of letters, and have arranged with someone to send these letters on special days for the next few years. The identity of this person will be kept secret because I don’t want you calling up, pestering to get all your letters at once. (This means you, Xander.) There won’t be much of me left on this earth for you. What there is, I want to last.
Don’t feel sorry for me. And don’t let anyone feel sorry for you. Pity will just make you both feel weak, and you need to be strong. Cry as much as you want, but no pity, self or other.
Even though this is the first letter you’re getting from me, it’s the last one I’m writing. That’s because I’ve been trying to think of something wise to say. The problem is, now that I’ve had time to ponder the great beyond, I’ve grown to realize how overrated wisdom is. Or at least, I’ve become wary of people who pretend to have it. So, I guess that’s my advice to you. The second someone pretends to be wise, run. But do listen to the people who care about you. They’re the ones who will steer you right. Listen to each other.
Always remember how much I love you, and how much you’ve meant to me. Zen, you’re my little chickadee, and Xander, you’re my jaybird. Chase away the crows for each other, girls, and keep your nest warm.
As I read the last words, Xander slammed out the back door, ran to Mom’s shriveled strawberry patch, and started screaming every obscenity known to humankind at the cloudy sky above. The party quieted down as people listened to her, shocked.
Grandma started to go after her, but I pushed her aside, ran down the steps and across the overgrown grass. Xander was twirling around, screaming such a streak of blue language that even I felt the need to shut her up.
"Xander, for God’s sake!" I yelled at her.
She stopped twirling and faced me, a crooked grin on her lips. "That felt good."
"It didn’t sound good," I spa...