From the immediate family
Last night I told you it could be hard for us today and you said why and I said because you will be married and grown up and you said I was grown up and gave me a look that I’ve never seen in any face other than yours, a kind of mischievous pride that wavers between the certainty of your own truths and whether you can get away with it.
I was supposed to be with our mother and help pick up the bride, your wife-to-be, but instead I went to your corner of the Mexican restaurant during the rehearsal dinner. There was a red piñata over your head and behind you was a large dark window that had held up the beach a few hours ago. You were surrounded by our father’s friends holding a beer that was just as much on display as the piñata; What you probably wanted was just an ice cold cola. The other hand was in your trouser pocket and you crouched a little in your collared shirt, happy to be noticed, somehow the focus, but unsure how to deal with your body. A month ago you had called to ask if I would give you a speech. When I saw your name I wondered if you were calling to apologize, to sort things out between us, but instead you got straight to the question. That’s exactly how you said it: Do you want to give me a speech?
I listened carefully to your voice because I haven’t heard it that often these days, and instead of being upset as I thought I was, I was amazed at the feeling it made like no time had actually passed how bad things weren’t happening or maybe they still were and no matter where we were, back to our old selves. A speech? I said. Isn’t that a groomsman thing? And you stated that your best man withdrew from the speech, maybe even the wedding, and you didn’t want to talk about it because it was a long story and please. You said twice please, please hold the speech, you were in a bind. Otherwise would you really ask your sister?
Did mama make you do it? I said, and you breathed a loud sigh into the phone, like those short gusts of wind from Northern California that come out of nowhere out of the sun and stroke all your hair on your face and unsettle an otherwise pleasant day. The sigh made you sound like you had a long, hard life behind you, even though you were twenty-eight years young and seemed to lose your responsibility like a sock in the wash.
So it’s a speech for the best sister, I said.
I guess you said, and before we hung up I reminded you that I didn’t confront you at my wedding and you reminded me that I didn’t ask.
When we were young you wrote to me; I would find messages in my shoe or my lunch box. All of your letters back then were a characteristic combination of feeling and formality that I miss very much.
To my sister: you are the best sister in the whole world. By Danny Larsen.
Hello, I love you HEPPY BIRTHDAY Sincerely your sibling
Even now, as an adult, I still hear it on your voicemails. It’s me Danny, you always start out like I don’t recognize the number or the tone of your voice.
I wrote you this angry letter once when you were a teenager – do you remember that? I was home from college and gave it to you to work on Christmas Day. You tossed it on your dresser, where it stayed unopened for the rest of the week, and since I was remorseful, I took it back and tore it up.
The letter was about money, of course, as most of our fights would end. You took cash from our mother’s underwear drawer a few days ago and bought a silver bracelet for a blonde girl at school. (How much could I say in the speech about your lifelong appreciation for blonde, blue-eyed girls.) When our mother discovered the bracelet in your backpack, you pretended that the gift was for her, the dangling hearts, so clearly not for you Mother. In reality, you hadn’t got anything for our parents for Christmas, and I just wrote both of our names on everything I had. When you asked me what the letter said when I was packing my car to go back to school, I said it explained what I thought of you when you did that.
Your body calmed down in that statement and from across the driveway I watched the words come through your ears, your frown, your throat, your heart into a strange shape for the journey ahead.
Well, after a moment you said what do you think of me? You said it so seriously that we both couldn’t help but smile. The question seemed absurd after so many years together, and I didn’t answer until I hugged you goodbye.
You asked me what it was like to be married, what we did at home when we didn’t have a TV.
Talking, I guess, I replied, and your eyes widened like it was the last line of a ghost story.
I’ve thought of us many times over the past few years trying to become a mother. I was thinking of easier times: when our parents went out and we had pizza delivered and you pressed the blue cheese dressing onto our plates for dipping like I taught you to do. We went to see whatever you went on Blockbuster because in about thirty minutes you’d be asleep. Sometimes you still fall asleep with the pizza in hand, your little legs crossed on the couch; I was probably about fourteen, that would be eight. Your head slipped back, your mouth opened, and when I took your plate, your body slid over to me, its own weight on my shoulder or lap. At that age there was no longer any physical closeness in our day; I no longer picked you up, swung you around, or carried you on my shoulders like I used to. I was fourteen and the bodies became new territories for me, mostly my own, and I no longer touched people unconsciously. But on nights like this I would let you comfort you in your sleep, I would cover you with a blanket and finish your pizza and occasionally when you stir I would rub your back. What surprises me after all these years is the fear I still feel when I talk about your body, a body I’ve known for so long and lived next to, a body that I hugged and pushed and carried and cleaned.
Have there been easier times? Has anything ever been easy for you?
I tell myself I can’t worry about the speech. Can’t worry about the speech in a place where everyone has had too much to drink and you will be so busy being famous for a day that you will barely remember the words. I tell myself that I am a last minute substitute who should keep expectations moderate at best. I tell myself that the success of a marriage does not depend on the success of the speech, and if it were, there would be many more hapless marriages in this world.
Perhaps I’m worried because for the past six months I’ve watched our parents plan with their bride as money is turning back into care. Where have you been? Maybe I’m worried because I want to be good for the three of them, because I refused to do anything just for your sake. I helped with the cake, the color scheme for the bride, the backstage acting, who would sit next to whom. I helped with the flowers and looked for a tie, cutlery, chicken or steak for our father; I admitted to wearing whatever the bride chose. I tried to help with the bride’s parents’ absence and how our parents pay for it, but too often I got angry and rude and consequently no help. I was mostly angry because of course I still loved you, because everything was always done for that reason, despite what I said to myself.
When you called about the speech a month ago, I realized that I had never been able to put this kind of love, or more precisely our kind, into words, and that it had always felt a little different from everyone else’s. I didn’t know how to point it at the light to see through it, and instead I longed to just buy the cake and wear the dress and show up in time to declare that I love you. After all, what did I know about what facts should be gathered or buried in a person’s story? What right did I have to talk about your life?
Excerpt from Immediate Family by Ashley Nelson Levy. Copyright © 2021 by Ashley Nelson Levy. Reprinted with permission from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. All rights reserved.
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