Plus, even this inane difference pushed us farther apart, I know it has. I wrote stories with paints, illustrating them along the way. When Mama announced that in less than a month I’d be ironing your – my! Her teeth softened to chewed-up chewing gum. I had excelled at tests, but I could give them no satisfactory answers either. I wish you two the best. Put you in a trashcan. Stories, I said. But I knew you’d laugh. You majored in an empty major, communications or some such; you knew how to look shabby-rich, the style in vogue behind your college gates. I am mentally changed, constantly. But I’m not sure I want to settle down in New York. I wrote comedic vignettes about single American girls in Paris. Like Madonna’s brother. I couldn’t reach you in your little happy instant America. We’re good immigrants. Your fingers sparkle. Maybe I could write a tell-all about you. You starred in all the predictable high school musicals: Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls. I stared. Your agents and managers got to know me well over the phone. Quite a human interest side-story for a documentary about you on those loud entertainment channels. Because we look so alike. You learned English freakishly fast. I remember every American bite we took that elastic, well-illuminated day, beginning with the sweet gold of the waffles. In the seat across from ours sat a middle-aged gentleman, notable only for his excessive life wrinkleness. Those are definitely not the same breasts you stuck the baby doll to in imitation breastfeeding. One day you decided to make jewelry out of play dough. Mostly you needed one another to reduce the inanity of your presence in the frat house basements. Parroting me, after college you moved to the big bad city. She got up at six to crimp your hair before school. Concerning the rest of the penis-holders: a veritable show-and-tell fest of Mr Wrongs. I myself laugh so hard, I cry. As if to spite me, you started landing guest roles on shows, then multiple-episode story arcs. Your makeup-less face was raw and translucent from crying. You didn’t even technically live there yet, you were outside of history. We went to the one church in town (those were the days of nationally mandated atheism), bought up all the snot-yellow, honey-smelling candles and stuck them, lit, in front of the long-suffering icons. Or regular. Plus, you could sell, which we’d soon find out, was the most important skill of all. I won’t be able to handle another heartbreak of yours. We immigrated to America. Remember how we used to skate in those frozen-leather skates until our feet burned? Who said I wanted to be some fiddler? We fished and hunted for other samples around the store – turkey meatballs (we’d never tasted turkey before), spring-shaped pasta with olive rings and pencil-erasers of feta, a mysterious thing called yoghurt. She even ironed the woolen socks Baba had knit for me. First, because of my accent, next because college was stressful, then because between the job and writing I didn’t have the time. You don’t invite me to your premieres, or introduce me to famous and/or beautiful people. You rewrapped some and gave them to me, taunting me with your dopey generosity. You belonged to your sorority sisters next. I laughed too: because you lost your virginity in a silly context. My therapy bills shot up. Though you’d probably claim, it’s the art of the cinema that owns your heart and soul. She warned you that boys were stupid and stayed up nights when you were out with those stupid boys. I could’ve thrown you out of the car or given you to a stranger. We lived together in an egg: I was the white and you were the yolk, the life. You breathed in the breath of our aged teen idols. Strangers kissed you, touched you, saw you partially naked. I cried the first time I showered by myself, convinced I’d drown in the bathtub unnoticed. It was least complicated for everyone that way. No one asked you, thank you very much. You looked at me with addict eyes and said, tomorrow morning. Though since I didn’t talk much to anyone besides the teachers, many didn’t know I was Russian. She became yellow. They look at the camera, not at you. Of course you wouldn’t remember actually us taking it: you were just a crying blob wrapped in a white sheet, a hunk of Ukrainian lard at a market. You are the leading lady of the moment’s blink and you belong to your fans. I haven’t decided whether to give you this letter. Mostly from exhaustion and rejection. Though I still wasn’t terribly used to you at that point and I could’ve certainly welcomed having my room back all to myself. How did you, born in a frozen potato patch, know how to do it? Snore. A big tacky deal. You said it was good for me to have skipped all that floor-washing with my hair. He has many, many muscles that are visible through his clothes. You were everyone’s favorite Russian, the only one available at school after I graduated. I was already too big. I wrote imitation Pushkin, Shakespeare. Apparently you had a good-enough voice for parent audiences, plus none of that pesky accent. It was frightening, skin-stripping. Calm down. Speaking of romance: you never belonged to a boy or a man for more than a few weeks. Another collegiate classic. I told you to quit and you quit. Then I realized with horror that he was staring unabashedly at your crotch. My classmates wore black Prada coats and non-pilling sweatpants to class. What would be a good major for an immigrant? That little speech, perfectly calibrated for ab-tickling laughs and sinus- clearing tears, is tucked safely in my black-tie casual purse, ready for its moment in the nerve-singed limelight. When we couldn’t win, we stole. I didn’t envy you, though I’d thought about your star before, as any self-respecting aspiring writer would. Or sad. I hated you for this because I always dove into the well headfirst. You were cured. Someone needed to teach you survival. In high school, instead of rebelling and alienating yourself, you became Mama’s again. Though maybe – ha ha! You rode on his shoulders, steering him by the hair, shaping the M of his receding hairline like a maniacal gardener. She bought you maxi pads. I still look, in the swept up corners of my apartment, for my true destiny. Why didn’t she just throw it out right away? You and Gabriela watched Titanic seventeen times. You’d also said then, ‘You need someone who understands why the music of ice-cream trucks makes you sad.’
By the way, does J understand why you are afraid of June bugs? Your sunglasses sparkled like the glass skyscrapers in Midtown. I’ve been your paparazza since your birth. In yours, you’re definitely pushing old. Thanks a vermillion. Okay, you laughed. The onion looked so used and useless, tasteless, lonely. Like everyone else, I’d fallen into the black hole of your influence. Have you forgotten that I’ve always had trouble making friends? We deserved each other. This is all great. I brought you vitamins and water and yerba maté tea and all your pills, the orange bottles like industrial Christmas lights. Why don’t you quit? I jokingly said okay. You belonged to the doctors for a month. Do you remember how I came up to him, leaned over as if to better see the subway map on the wall, then screwed my heel into his foot – as if accidentally but really with all the rage I had? I didn’t show them to anyone. You need the room to be dark like when our town had power outages during long winter nights. Life went on. And we ran behind the battery of canned peas to eat them in hiding. It reminded me of the whole onion Mama used to boil in the chicken soup for flavor, which she would always fish out before serving the soup and leave on a plate on the counter. You made more money than our entire family tree, branches of which we could trace back to the penultimate czar. And after you left again, I sat in the bathtub until the water turned cold and thought so many whys. I watched Mama – still only mine – wash and iron my old onesies and coveralls. I was too shy to ask the aproned and hair-netted clerk for a sample of tiny waffles with blueberry jam and a puff of whipped cream tucked irresistibly into a tiny paper cup. Plus: you’d quit violin, piano and clarinet in quick succession. I hated studying at the library. After all those New York envy talks, I almost felt betrayed. You’re crying because you don’t know any other activities available to a human being. I am the twin locked up in the attic. And at that moment you were the shiniest of all. I waited for you with a dull stomachache, a dumb premonition of a true but illiterate psychic whom no one believes. Papa brought her batteries of canned peaches, the only thing she could hold down. You promised to read my novels when they were published. With acupuncture needles sticking out of your ears, you hid in my tiny apartment and read Anna Karenina of all things, as though it would take one classic to cleanse you. The skin on my left fingertips turned to leather only to be sliced by strings like an ingredient for Olivier salad. I didn’t have a shredder or a salad spinner. She lost chunkfuls of hair. I read something. Your neck smelled of sweet and sour cottage cheese. Seriously, don’t you dare start again. But how could you relate to an experience that was completely internal to me and, probably, abnormal? While you pranced around Tinseltown, I gave up writing (before it drove me unreservedly bonkers) and became an insurance recovery litigation lawyer. Wind seemed to blow in my face twenty-four-seven. I hated that they were the published writers of your life, not me. I can afford it myself. For a while, like all stereotypical babies, you were Mama’s. Whenever I found myself in shit-messy situations, which was all the time, I’d often wonder: what would you do? He squealed like a dog, and every single person in the car turned to look at what happened, trying to figure out, as a kind of sport (New Yorkers!), what brand of dysfunctional relationship the two of us could possibly be working out at that moment? Now J looks at you with love in his puppy eyes (set too close for my taste). For one interminable weekend we stumbled around Costco like moles, blinded by fluorescent lights and sniffing a thousand new smells in the wild air. He bought you all the toys you asked for. You want the room to be cold like our Siberian hometown in the winter. I didn’t live in this apartment. You were one of the smartest in your category, thank god, otherwise: shame on our family tree going back to the penultimate czar. Mama named me as a girl, years before my birth, and you – it took them two weeks to finally settle on a name that wasn’t overused that year or offensive to the grandparents. I hated your life, which was also mine. You went through all this shit to make sure our parents didn’t go hungry or homeless in their old age. Or maybe half an hour. Things get assumed. What will be left when they finally tire of you? Oh please, I said. Meningitis. The source of our happiness was one, the outlet – one. No need to call the wedding cops or the shrink, this isn’t my maid- of-honor toast.
Photograph © MWAHAHAHAHA CREDIT PERSON HERE You ran around in short skirts and high heels and supposedly didn’t sleep on casting couches. But couldn’t this have been juicy fiction material? Or more accurately, to the paparazzi. Everyone praying nonstop, and we weren’t a gram religious. I stayed up all night, unable to fall asleep on the couch that was really a love seat. American History would have to do. Yee-haw! Mostly I kept getting older. Suddenly I remembered that magpies liked to steal shiny things, spoons, diamonds. Pulled out your tongue and you would’ve never said all those things to me – some that made me laugh till I peed, some that made me bang the door and cry, made me want to hit your face, made me want to kill anybody who had ever made you a gram unhappy. Not New York. I went back home on holidays and breaks like a cosmonaut from a mission to the moon, still human but also already a little extraterrestrial. I went to college on the East Coast. A ghost sister is even worse than a live one. But back to the story of us. You were the cherub; I – one of those hairy things from Gremlins. You didn’t care that they were impossible to find in our small Siberian town. Though, who wants stretch marks and a prolapsed pelvic floor on top of all the responsibility, right? You were pure wonder. Gusting winds tear back and forth inside my skull. I threw myself over you to distract the magpie with the earrings in my newly-pierced ears. You jokingly said that when you’d make it big you would produce my stories, which you’d never read, into movies. This singularly unremarkable Gabriela gained complete possession of you. In every movie: a different name and quirky occupation, same everything else. You couldn’t wait to see for yourself. You, a village fool, smiled at everyone, eliciting the same declaration from relatives and friends: how distinctly different you were from me. Maybe not, I said, but you’re way, way, way braver. You know this without the letter, I hope. I wore your sunglasses, your bag, your coat, your watch. I’m not smart enough, you said. He ran after your bicycle. I wonder what you two pretty skinny people are not telling each other in the dark pockets of the night. Quit! No one could resist your dimples, your status as a child-who-almost-died. Yes, now you swear you would have read them. I cried with Mama in the kitchen; I cried with Papa in the car, drawing unintelligible shapes with confusion and snot on the mass-produced gray panel of our Mazda. Sometimes I look at the pictures in the gossip and fashion rags and hardly recognize you. Papa is holding you tentatively as though you are a consolation prize. For this I blamed you. Remember that scandal right out of US Weekly? The food Mama cooked felt too fatty, the bed too soft, the carpet conspired to suck my feet back into the blind bog of childhood. You began to smoke. All expenses paid, for five. Are those airbrushed nails the nails you used to OCD-ishly scratch the Disney stickers off our wardrobe doors? Thank god. And how that pervert didn’t say a word, how he stared at his brown Eastern-bloc sandals (worn with gray-striped dress socks) till the next station and limped out. – it’s not too late. When you are an old woman, you will faithfully belong to your illnesses. I was already suspicious of you before you were even born. I cringefully manufactured some platitudes about people of mostly disappointing nature. You were the baby-in-distress character in all of them. You got yourself a cliché middle-school best friend named Gabriela, the first Mexican we’d seen, excluding the soap opera actors we’d grown up with. I nailed three sheets over the window, into the walls the landlord forbade to nail anything into. You sold thirty-four unwearable, falling-apart pieces around our neighborhood. I cried and drank bizarre amounts of cold milk. I bit people’s hands and stuck my fingers into people’s eyes. The polish on your left ring fingernail was nicked off in the shape of a half-moon. I held your small hand, your chipped fingertips. You drooled and pointed your comic fingers at movements or at nothing at all. Couldn’t we just go somewhere, just the two of us? You laughed. ‘Cross your legs,’ I hissed and you turned red, a six-year-old caught stealing. I got excellent grades through sixth grade, then discovered the twin sea mines: chemistry and physics. Quitter. There were other ways, being a lawyer, for example. I wrote adventure stories about kid detectives and rogue nannies. She had found out, he had left you. I used your credit card. You were Baba’s in the summers: chasing chickens and fattening up on country pancakes. I held your small hand with its fashionably manicured black fingernails and hated you for causing such a stir. I’m wearing that stupid turbanish green hat with a brooch, an olive raincoat and heeled rubber boots
(heeled! My tears washed down the drain with the shower water. Our aging parents are proud and less worried. What I was – am – though, is harder to define. Depending on whom you ask. In your life, you’ve passed through many hands – some dirty, some clean. You often did and I told you so. You lost your famous baby fat, took Spanish, starred in musicals. I was too embarrassed to show-and-tell: you would’ve skewered them all with the acerbic wisdom characteristic of those not directly involved. You marched up, staring fearlessly at her with your blueberry blue eyes and snatched five cups in one swoop. In stickfigureland. Is this, all of this, normal? Oh, how I supremely hated you then. It might’ve even been the over-translated Anna Karenina. But honestly, I can pay my way through dinners and nights out. – clothes and sheets, I ran to still-only-my room and slammed the door. I didn’t pry too hard, and not because of tact. But, as I mentioned earlier, once upon a time, for four minutes you were just mine truly. One with your teeth, like a dessert marine. My bones were growing out of their minds, confirming my suspicions of me being a werewolf cub. A small part of you now belonged to some boy. I’m gonna kill J if he misses the moment of relapse. Perhaps birth control pills cause depression? I could’ve poked your eyes out or smothered you. In fact, I think I’ll join the Peace Corps and/or get caught muling drugs and go to jail. At all other times I hated you. What if you’d suddenly slipped out of Papa’s arms and rolled onto the road, streaked with rainy cars? You learned it pure, completely circumventing, unlike me, the acquisition and shedding of an accent. I ironed, ironed, ironed your tiny shirts and nappies until my insides turned to hot metal. I decided to become a writer, while you sucked on your thumb, its tiny nail shiny with saliva like an ocean pearl. You’d joined a club, the dubious value of which lay in its clandestinity. But no. That was the thing the star-struck cashiers missed, how much smaller your hands are than mine. Is that manicured hair of yours the same hair I pulled during our childhood fights? Are we strangers yet? I hate this place. An oval sun, a square cloud, Papa flying astride an airplane, Mama sticking her head out of a window (head bigger than window), you and I riding one bicycle together. The cells of my stomach lining kept asking philosophical questions neither I, nor anyone around me on those green quads, could answer. These plots made me cry. I can still see the small red leaf, like a splash of blood, like a little heart, stuck on a pebble and quivering in the muddy rivulet. Pathetic. But mostly, because I am me. Against Siberian wind. You, a fat smiling gnome, gnawed at her breasts until you were two. I obviously must have already apologized for this. You’re lucky: I didn’t even have a couch until two months prior. In the morning they found you, your keepers: the paparazzi, the pulp journalists. Although a line had been erased between us, this only made us more alien to each other. You wanted what you wanted. She sat in that deep blue bathtub in our old apartment, crying and scratching her elbows raw. It was sauna-muggy. Even the fourth drink and unshared cab home. Quitter. In fact, more than one person had told me that when they heard me talk (with my fucking accent), they’d assumed I was mentally challenged. And now that you also knew what everyone did in bed and judged what pleasure I may or may not have been getting out of it all these years, the mystery, the wholesomeness of my person had been irreversibly reduced in your eyes. Why is it so hard for me to be happy? Then parts of ex-girlfriends and best friends. Babies are in right now in Hollywood. To become a fucking movie star. We didn’t go skating. I picked up a cold, dirty stone, my hand aching to throw. You were tired, you said, you wanted to quit. Oh, and not just Los Angeles: fucking Hollywood. This also explains the two year spell when I beat you up, then tearfully begged for your forgiveness while you hid in the dust mounds under the bed. And, well, the result was still shit-messy. Well, in my profession I’m still quite young. A bubble of shiny drool popped in the corner of your mouth, then another. Mama is next to him with an umbrella, straining to cover us all. Your expression was worried, as though you’d already seen the whole world in your baby dreams. He pulled you on skates, skis. And/but congrats!!!!!! The magnet letters fell off the metal spelling board. I plug away at briefs and memos deep into the night. I told you, it doesn’t change your life. You didn’t pry too hard, and not because of tact. At any rate, many pictures from those halcyon days made their way where they shouldn’t have, shaming our family and especially me. He pretends you are his. Still, we stayed up on the phone all night. Almost never because of a boy. I was fashionable first.) I am looking at the rainy asphalt and crying because my life is forever changed. You were thoroughly mine all the way uptown. As a baby, I was skinny, neurotic, angry. By then I could ride mine without training wheels. You described the experience to me, not in too much detail. I hated that I never believed you’d make it big. You sent me your audition tapes, asking me in a squiggly voice whether you looked fat or ugly or stupid. Instead, you give me week-long passes to spas, cooking classes in Tuscany. Remember your first photograph, taken in front of the hospital? Only an utterly egomaniacal person could so ruthlessly pursue her dreams and plain refuse to give up. You turn your waxed cheek towards his chapsticked lips. You were Mama’s then, eating her up from the inside like a little cancer. You thrash in your sleep, you put your legs on people, you kick them in the face, you murmur lines from your movies and/or nonsensical things in Russian and Spanish. There’s never enough heat for you; you never share the heat you get. The soft sun of you shone in my world and bleached everything out. You have an answer for your famous and regular friends. We were at Baba’s, driving around town on errands. Oh the look some cashiers gave me: I was God, the latest iPhone for free, a meat and potatoes stew on a cold hungry day and a string of orgasms with the one you love all in one gift bag. Two hearts pounded in my chest. I could touch the stovetop burner with the fingertips of my left hand and not feel pain. For a while you were solely Papa’s. They overnighted some of you to LA. I wrote stories where children of various birth orders died in freak accidents or were imprisoned in the bodies of house pets. At least not for the better. I practiced the violin. That wasn’t the reason. Correction: a formerly-aspiring and no longer self-respecting. You wore a short jean-skirt and a black sleeveless blouse with white cherry prints. I guess. Skating! I scoured the city for things you in your state and with your status required: special crystals, special candles, special algae. It wasn’t like I lived in Akron, Ohio. Never because of me. I didn’t understand the cult of ultimate frisbee. Meanwhile, I moved to New York City, worked some job, wrote stories about problems in suburban marriages. Then we’d limp home, holding onto each other like Napoleon’s soldiers retreating from Russia, stick our feet into the red basin filled with hot water and watch dubbed Disney cartoons, the bones of our feet trying to untwist from their joints and defect to the capitalist enemy. At one point I suppose you’ll belong to your children. The Unmailed Letter
There was once a time when I loved you. In the moment the bird took air I saw that it wasn’t just black and white like in books – the tips of its wings shimmered with blue and the tail was iridescent green. I do think J is a perfectly reasonable first husband for you. You don’t invite me out when I’m in town. It was you, wasn’t it, who nagged her for those peaches day and night? But the inanity prevailed, by definition. You drew pictures with your fat, tired hands and Mama, who stayed with you at the hospital and communicated through the glass because you were contagious, taped your masterpieces face out onto the windows of your room. My heart cymballed, my stomach filled with warm, swirling ecstasy. Look at Mama and Papa. I wrote about the violent imaginary worlds of children and their mothers. I wasn’t good at science, I wasn’t interested in economics. You starred in your first indie film, then in your first non-indie. Sorry, I guess. I had nothing and too much to say to you. By pure luck, you starred in your second, in your third, your fourth. You begged me to tell you all about college. Me – just a pillow, a lucky bulk. People gave you free clothes, wrote down what you said. When you came to visit me in New York, you confidently bought European-sized clothes at boutiques and rapid- fire ordered salads at salad bars. With you moving on to college, our childhood was suddenly officially over. But I could see that you were already gone. You bought our parents a house; you offered to pay off my law school loans and buy me an apartment. You appeared very, very distant at only inches away. They were small as soupspoon bellies, my initials embroidered on the soles. You smuggled cranberry juice from the cafeteria in blue or gray Nalgene bottles and mixed it with vodka. Next morning time galloped out of the gates. At one point, Mama put you in my arms and stepped out to talk to an acquaintance. What’s my costume now? Remember, we took the subway from deep-south Brooklyn where I lived to Central Park for a SummerStage concert? I couldn’t roll up the windows because I held you with both arms. I hated that you predicted from the fact that my boyfriend ordered lunch just for himself while you and I were in the cafe’s bathroom that he didn’t then and would never love me. My violin teacher said I was student-good, not future-career good. I tucked you into my bed and went to sleep on the couch. Four pointless years later, it turned out you were right. and do it. And now perfect strangers want to be friends with me because you’re famous. You’ve quit things before. Bleach your hair and take a number. You, the hypocrite, are about to marry J, though you spent all your twenties telling anyone who’d listen about your nonbelief in monogamy. Fool. Look at all those you never notice. You did cliché girl things together: went to the mall, volunteered at a pet shelter, kept a shared diary. It lasted about four minutes. You let Papa hold your hand and didn’t drop it before the school doors. You were mine for the night. You were sleeping, a cruelly real six-month-old doll, weighing down the nook of my four-year-old elbow with your real head. You stayed another week, decorated my apartment. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen you cry as an adult. They were hard but not impossible to find. A magpie landed in a tree next to the car. You sleep under all the available blankets. We make money. We attacked the economical clerks with our gibberish Russian, our refugee eyes. I was as mildly interested in that as sorority life or puking in the bushes. imagine that, on a four-year-old. I stared into strangers’ faces and tried to access whether they recognized a bit of you in me. Do you really need them all? So this is where we are now, neither young nor old. Every night Papa and I went to look at them, as though they were stained glass at a cathedral, showing us simpletons the proper way to a happy life. I thought that maybe now you’d be mine, considering you didn’t speak English and had no one to talk to except for us at home.