By Caroline Leavitt
Today, after two years of silence, an email arrives from you and my hands are shaking when I read it. I despise you. You are dead to me. I want nothing to do with you. I hope you have a miserable life and you know the same brutal suffering you have caused me because you are evil. You are pathetic and unlovable.
As always, you put your words in all angry bold caps, each one carrying an embedded sting, meant to hurt. You think I have done something unforgivable, something horrific to you. But I’m not certain what it is and why I am the target of your ire. All I know is that your personality has totally changed and I don’t know how to be with you any longer.
It wasn’t always this way, was it? You and I grew up together as sisters, you three and a half years older than me, but we were more than that, more than friends. We both were big readers and we both wanted to be writers, and we walked all the way to the Star Market and back to buy big block pads that we would write in together and illustrate, novels, we called them, always about a girl who had adventures at camp, or at boarding school or on a schooner. We worked on our stories all the time because hey, we planned to be famous, cool authors. As we grew, so did all the adventures we had together, going to movies and sneaking into double features, walking to Belmont to go to Filene’s and shop. You were the one who taught me how to iron my curly hair, and dress cool in lace-up the leg sandals of yours I got to borrow. And you were the one who protected me from my father’s brutal moods, his screaming, who kept me from my mother’s endless rages about how I was too fresh, too independent, too messy and ugly and of course I didn’t get in the school play because who would put someone who looked like me on a stage? I never knew why, but our parents left you alone, so I stayed closer to you, so maybe they would leave me alone, too. And they did.
As teenagers, we were so joined at the hip, that you invited me on your dates with your boyfriends, introducing me to clubs and fancy restaurants, letting me wear all of your clothes, which were much hipper and cooler than anything I had in my closet. You made me feel special and a part of your world. When men stopped you on the street because you were so beautiful, you ignored them, focusing on me.
But then things changed dramatically, and I couldn’t figure out how or why. They say a personality change can start at adulthood and maybe that’s true, maybe that’s what happened to you. You, who could have had any guy you wanted, dropped out of college one credit shy of a degree, and married at 19, a dull, critical boy who was so wrong for you that I wept, “Don’t do this,” at your wedding right before you stepped onto the alter and bonded your heart to his. And then boom, boom, boom, you moved to a stomach cramp of a town away from Boston and boom, boom, boom, you got pregnant, with a son and then a daughter. And when I came to visit, beaming, happy to see you, the air felt charged. You were different, overwhelmed by motherhood. The spark was gone and worse, you wouldn’t speak to me. You snapped and asked me when I was going home. You yelled when I picked things up in your apartment to look at them. “Put that the fuck down,” you said. Later, you said, “I’m just unhappy.” You told me you never should have married, that the kids overwhelmed you. “You can leave,” I told you. “You can live with me or live with our mom.” You shook your head. “No,” you said. “I can’t.
Okay, let’s be honest here. I didn’t really realize the depth of your unhappiness back then. No, I was busying being young and selfish and wild at college, sleeping my way through the alphabet at Brandeis because I was so astonished that here were men who not only liked me, but wanted to share my body. You didn’t approve and said I should be more stable, but you didn’t approve when I moved to New York City, either, which you said was dirty and dangerous. You didn’t like it when I experimented with drugs and you and your husband both yelled at me. “I’m disappointed in you,” you said. “You never used to be like that.” Your disapproval stung.
I stayed away from you after that, still young and selfish, I admit, until your daughter went into third grade and suddenly there was a story she had written in my mail box, about a lonely little girl who goes to see her “crazy aunt in New York City,” and who is rescued by a mouse. “Is this me?” I asked you, wondering what you had told her about me, why you used the words crazy. “Of course not,” you said, “the mouse is the hero, not you,” but still I wondered. I called your daughter to tell her how I loved the story. Her voice was soft and shy, and I heard you yelling at her not to tie up the phone. Poor little sweetie, I thought. Maybe I should get to know her.
But I was still busy being wild, and I didn’t want to come to your small boring town. I wanted you to all come visit me in Manhattan, but suddenly, you who had been so brave, so adventurous, were afraid of everything. You wouldn’t fly or drive or travel. You wouldn’t even pick up the phone for food to be delivered. You who had once been a stellar teacher now couldn’t hold down jobs and were fired for what you said were mysterious reasons, but you wouldn’t say what those reasons were. One by one by one, your friends fell away. “They betrayed me,” you said, but you couldn’t tell me how. You began to snipe harder at me, your casual cruelty about my looks, my writing.
I tried to help, to make you happy, to try and fix things, but none of it went over well. When I sent you books I loved, imagining you pouring over them, lost in their worlds, you told me they all stunk. When I sent you clothing, you tore up silk shirts and linen pants with scissors and then mailed them back to me with notes that said: you like this, I don’t. I had a necklace designed and made for you, and you tied it into knots and threw it in an envelope to me. One day on FB, you attacked all my friends over a discussion about how much we all loved thrift stores. You called them stupid middle-aged bitches who should get jobs. When people protested or tried to explain, you used all caps to tell them to all go fuck themselves because you would not be silenced. But you were, because I blocked you then, and that made you furious, too. “Why are you so angry at me?” I cried.
We didn’t speak for months after that time. Not until my fiancé died, and I fell apart and called the one person who had always been my anchor when I was so young: you. I begged you to come and be with me, you said you couldn’t, that your daughter had a slight cold. It wasn’t until our mother, still alive then, got on the phone, her voice sharpening, that you did come, but you stayed for just half an hour, and then, while I was crying for you to stay, please stay, because I needed you, you got your coat and took a plane back home. You didn’t come to the funeral or call me or even talk to me for a whole year while I drowned in grief, and in the end, because I missed you, I still loved you, I still wanted a relationship with you, I called you. You listened on the phone, but you never apologized. Instead you blamed me because you said I hadn’t been appreciative enough that you had come at all. You said only, “I’ll try to do better.” I loved you, so of course I believed you.
You didn’t do better for me. But surprisingly, inadvertently, your daughter did. When she was fifteen, she called asking if she could visit me and my new husband Jeff. “My mom says it’s okay,” she said, which surprised me. When she arrived, her face tense and miserable, her hands thrust into an old army jacket that I recognized as mine. Of course we took her in! She was your daughter, wasn’t she? Of course we fed her and let her stay all that long weekend, checking in with you to make sure it was okay, and after a day or two, she got relaxed enough to tell us the part of your story we didn’t know. She told us how unhappy she was, how she was supposed to act as a conduit to you, even when she was little, calling people you were unhappy with. She took the blame for the things you did wrong. You shouted at her constantly and berated her. She couldn’t go anywhere, have any friends, make any decisions.
Why had you let her come here? Did you feel better about me? Did you actually love me? Your daughter shook her head. It was because you wanted time alone. That was when Hillary told me how you talked about me. I was no good, you told her. You actually used that word: evil. I was selfish and cruel to you and Hillary should have nothing to do with me because I was a terrible influence. She told us she wanted to be a writer, but you wouldn’t let her touch your computer because you said it was your thing, and she should find something of her own, but then again, you weren’t writing anymore. You didn’t like the way she looked and you called her loser, idiot, worthless piece of slime. You told her not to be a slut because she was dating. You told her she was just like me. “But maybe that’s a good thing,” your daughter said quietly, and I hugged her and stroked her hair.
Your daughter went home. I spoke to you on the phone, aghast, but you denied saying any of the things that Hillary had said. You denied that she was unhappy. “She lies,” you insisted. But that sorrow of hers was palpable.
Suddenly, your daughter and I were like two lonely planets thrown out of your orbit, adrift in space, and we began to feel each other’s gravitational pull, to use it as a safety harness. Sometimes it felt like we were the only two who knew what it was like to grow up in your company, where everything was our fault, a world of screaming and sniping and gaslighting—and that was the thing we clung to, the thing that seemed to save us and keep us steady. You’re not crazy, we told each other. It’s going to be okay. Things don’t have to be like this. We began writing each other, getting closer, as if at we recognized something in each other. The way we were both afraid all the time, the way we were desperate to be liked, to know this wasn’t our fault. The way we were always terrified around anger, especially when it was uncontrolled. The more I helped your daughter, the more I was really helping me.
And that was when you screamed, “you need to step away from my daughter.” When you called me and slammed down the phone repeatedly. When you told me you had a heart attack and it was my fault, even though our mother later told me it was a panic attack, that was all. You called with dire medical reports that turned out to be nothing, with reports of a head on car crash that had never happened. When you hacked into your daughter’s email and read the messages we sent each other, you demanded they stop because they were all lies, because nothing I said had ever happened. But how could I stop connecting to the person who was saving me who made me feel valuable because I was, in my own way, saving her?
But it wasn’t just your daughter you didn’t want me to see. When your daughter married and then had babies, you wanted me kept away from them as well. Your daughter and I refused to listen and we met up at Ocean City where you called me, furious, screaming into the phone. You acted as if we had committed a crime. Did I think you were a fool that you didn’t know what I was scheming to take your daughter away from you, you screamed? I invited you to come with us, I tried to explain, but you hung up the phone.
I am a Pollyanna. It’s true. I have always been the fixer of the family, the one to make things right when there’s been discord, to try to help. I tried with you. I begged you to see a therapist because I wondered if it was some sort of illness that could be helped with medication, and you said you would. I offered you writing classes. I would help the people I loved.
That included your daughter, especially when she shyly asked if she could show me some writing. Of course I said okay. Or course I didn’t think much would happen. She had told me only that you hadn’t wanted her to write, that you had insisted she had no talent, that it would be a waste of time and money. “My mother says I’m totally untalented,” she told me. “She says I’ll never amount to anything.”
“You know that’s not true,” I said.
“No, I don’t.”
I read the novel in one swoop, gobsmacked. I could have written it. It was as if we shared the same DNA. When I told her how good it was, she shook her head. “No, No, I’m really awful,” she insisted. So I showed her that she was not, pointing out gorgeous passages, showing her the pages that had made me cry out loud. I took the novel to my agent, who never looked at any one’s work that she didn’t cherry pick herself, who had only once before taken on someone I had suggested. My agent called me within a day. “I want this,” she said. And it’s now out on submission.
“Tell your mom,” I urged her. I imagined how happy you would be, and how happy that would make me. I imagined we’d all get close again, but instead, you shouted. You accused me of writing it, not your daughter. You hung up the phone, your voice curt.
“She doesn’t see you anymore,” my husband told me. “And the person you loved growing up isn’t here anymore. Let go. You cannot make someone love you who doesn’t.”
“Why can’t you?” I said.
It’s been two years now, and you have not seen or spoke to me or your daughter or your grandkids. You refuse to answer my calls, my emails. Yes, it’s terrible and tragic and painful every day. When the occasional angry email messages come, less and less these days but always like little electric shocks, I don’t have to explain the pain, the longing to your daughter because she knows and has experienced it all herself, and when your daughter calls me upset from a snipe you made to her, or a nasty blaming email, I get to help her, to empathize, to tell her she’s been conditioned to think it’s true, but it’s not.
So this is it, the end of our story, maybe.
I lost you.
But I found your daughter.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.
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This is almost too painful to read; I can’t imagine how it must be to have lived with it and through it. I’m so sorry. My own sisters and I have a great long distance (especially now) friendship, which I will value even more having read this piece.