Dear sister,

There was once a time when I loved you. It lasted about four minutes.

At all other times I hated you. I was already suspicious of you before you were even born. You were Mama’s then, eating her up from the inside like a little cancer. She became yellow. She lost chunkfuls of hair. Her teeth softened to chewed-up chewing gum. She sat in that deep blue bathtub in our old apartment, crying and scratching her elbows raw. Papa brought her batteries of canned peaches, the only thing she could hold down. It was you, wasn’t it, who nagged her for those peaches day and night? You didn’t care that they were impossible to find in our small Siberian town. You didn’t even technically live there yet, you were outside of history. You wanted what you wanted.

I waited for you with a dull stomachache, a dumb premonition of a true but illiterate psychic whom no one believes. I watched Mama – still only mine – wash and iron my old onesies and coveralls. She even ironed the woolen socks Baba had knit for me. They were small as soupspoon bellies, my initials embroidered on the soles. 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. When Mama announced that in less than a month I’d be ironing your – my! – clothes and sheets, I ran to still-only-my room and slammed the door. The magnet letters fell off the metal spelling board. I had nothing and too much to say to you.

Calm down. No need to call the wedding cops or the shrink, this isn’t my maid- of-honor toast. 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. I do think J is a perfectly reasonable first husband for you.

But back to the story of us. Remember your first photograph, taken in front of the hospital? 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. Papa is holding you tentatively as though you are a consolation prize. Mama is next to him with an umbrella, straining to cover us all. They look at the camera, not at you. I’m wearing that stupid turbanish green hat with a brooch, an olive raincoat and heeled rubber boots (heeled! imagine that, on a four-year-old. I was fashionable first.) I am looking at the rainy asphalt and crying because my life is forever changed. 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. You’re crying because you don’t know any other activities available to a human being. What if you’d suddenly slipped out of Papa’s arms and rolled onto the road, streaked with rainy cars?

In your life, you’ve passed through many hands – some dirty, some clean. For a while, like all stereotypical babies, you were Mama’s. You, a fat smiling gnome, gnawed at her breasts until you were two. You, a village fool, smiled at everyone, eliciting the same declaration from relatives and friends: how distinctly different you were from me. As a baby, I was skinny, neurotic, angry. I bit people’s hands and stuck my fingers into people’s eyes. You were the cherub; I – one of those hairy things from Gremlins.

I practiced the violin. The skin on my left fingertips turned to leather only to be sliced by strings like an ingredient for Olivier salad. You drooled and pointed your comic fingers at movements or at nothing at all. I ironed, ironed, ironed your tiny shirts and nappies until my insides turned to hot metal. I wrote stories with paints, illustrating them along the way. You were the baby-in-distress character in all of them. I decided to become a writer, while you sucked on your thumb, its tiny nail shiny with saliva like an ocean pearl. I cried the first time I showered by myself, convinced I’d drown in the bathtub unnoticed. My tears washed down the drain with the shower water.

You belonged to the doctors for a month. Meningitis. Oh, how I supremely hated you then. Everyone praying nonstop, and we weren’t a gram religious. 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. Pathetic.

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. 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. In stickfigureland. 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. I picked up a cold, dirty stone, my hand aching to throw.

I haven’t decided whether to give you this letter.

You were cured. Thank god. A ghost sister is even worse than a live one. 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. Life went on. I wrote stories where children of various birth orders died in freak accidents or were imprisoned in the bodies of house pets. These plots made me cry. My bones were growing out of their minds, confirming my suspicions of me being a werewolf cub. I cried and drank bizarre amounts of cold milk. 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.

I obviously must have already apologized for this.

For a while you were solely Papa’s. You rode on his shoulders, steering him by the hair, shaping the M of his receding hairline like a maniacal gardener. I was already too big. He ran after your bicycle. By then I could ride mine without training wheels. He pulled you on skates, skis. Against Siberian wind. You let Papa hold your hand and didn’t drop it before the school doors. He bought you all the toys you asked for. You rewrapped some and gave them to me, taunting me with your dopey generosity. Someone needed to teach you survival.

I got excellent grades through sixth grade, then discovered the twin sea mines: chemistry and physics. I wrote imitation Pushkin, Shakespeare. I could touch the stovetop burner with the fingertips of my left hand and not feel pain. My violin teacher said I was student-good, not future-career good. Who said I wanted to be some fiddler? Plus: you’d quit violin, piano and clarinet in quick succession. Quitter. One day you decided to make jewelry out of play dough. You sold thirty-four unwearable, falling-apart pieces around our neighborhood. No one could resist your dimples, your status as a child-who-almost-died. Plus, you could sell, which we’d soon find out, was the most important skill of all.

You were Baba’s in the summers: chasing chickens and fattening up on country pancakes. You began to smoke. I told you to quit and you quit. Quitter.

Seriously, don’t you dare start again. I’m gonna kill J if he misses the moment of relapse.

We immigrated to America. Yee-haw! For one interminable weekend we stumbled around Costco like moles, blinded by fluorescent lights and sniffing a thousand new smells in the wild air. 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. You marched up, staring fearlessly at her with your blueberry blue eyes and snatched five cups in one swoop. One with your teeth, like a dessert marine. And we ran behind the battery of canned peas to eat them in hiding. My heart cymballed, my stomach filled with warm, swirling ecstasy.

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. We attacked the economical clerks with our gibberish Russian, our refugee eyes. When we couldn’t win, we stole. I remember every American bite we took that elastic, well-illuminated day, beginning with the sweet gold of the waffles. The source of our happiness was one, the outlet – one.

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. But no. Next morning time galloped out of the gates. You learned English freakishly fast. You learned it pure, completely circumventing, unlike me, the acquisition and shedding of an accent. 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.

This singularly unremarkable Gabriela gained complete possession of you. You did cliché girl things together: went to the mall, volunteered at a pet shelter, kept a shared diary. Snore. You lost your famous baby fat, took Spanish, starred in musicals.

Apparently you had a good-enough voice for parent audiences, plus none of that pesky accent. You and Gabriela watched Titanic seventeen times. I couldn’t reach you in your little happy instant America. I wrote adventure stories about kid detectives and rogue nannies.

I went to college on the East Coast. Wind seemed to blow in my face twenty-four-seven. I didn’t understand the cult of ultimate frisbee. My classmates wore black Prada coats and non-pilling sweatpants to class. What would be a good major for an immigrant? I wasn’t good at science, I wasn’t interested in economics. American History would have to do. I was as mildly interested in that as sorority life or puking in the bushes. I hated studying at the library. The cells of my stomach lining kept asking philosophical questions neither I, nor anyone around me on those green quads, could answer. I wrote comedic vignettes about single American girls in Paris. I didn’t show them to anyone.

Yes, now you swear you would have read them. But I knew you’d laugh. I myself laugh so hard, I cry.

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. 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. 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. Perhaps birth control pills cause depression? I had excelled at tests, but I could give them no satisfactory answers either.

You begged me to tell you all about college. But how could you relate to an experience that was completely internal to me and, probably, abnormal? I cringefully manufactured some platitudes about people of mostly disappointing nature. You didn’t pry too hard, and not because of tact. You couldn’t wait to see for yourself.

In high school, instead of rebelling and alienating yourself, you became Mama’s again. She got up at six to crimp your hair before school. She bought you maxi pads. She warned you that boys were stupid and stayed up nights when you were out with those stupid boys. You starred in all the predictable high school musicals: Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls. You were everyone’s favorite Russian, the only one available at school after I graduated. Though since I didn’t talk much to anyone besides the teachers, many didn’t know I was Russian. 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. What I was – am – though, is harder to define. Gusting winds tear back and forth inside my skull. I am mentally changed, constantly.

Why is it so hard for me to be happy?

With you moving on to college, our childhood was suddenly officially over. Thanks a vermillion. You belonged to your sorority sisters next. You smuggled cranberry juice from the cafeteria in blue or gray Nalgene bottles and mixed it with vodka. A big tacky deal. Mostly you needed one another to reduce the inanity of your presence in the frat house basements. Another collegiate classic. But the inanity prevailed, by definition. You said it was good for me to have skipped all that floor-washing with my hair. I guess. But couldn’t this have been juicy fiction material? Plus, even this inane difference pushed us farther apart, I know it has. At any rate, many pictures from those halcyon days made their way where they shouldn’t have, shaming our family and especially me. Because we look so alike. I am the twin locked up in the attic. Things get assumed.

Meanwhile, I moved to New York City, worked some job, wrote stories about problems in suburban marriages. You promised to read my novels when they were published. Stories, I said. Okay, you laughed. I laughed too: because you lost your virginity in a silly context. I told you, it doesn’t change your life. At least not for the better. Still, we stayed up on the phone all night. A small part of you now belonged to some boy. You’d joined a club, the dubious value of which lay in its clandestinity. 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. Although a line had been erased between us, this only made us more alien to each other.

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. 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. Your sunglasses sparkled like the glass skyscrapers in Midtown. How did you, born in a frozen potato patch, know how to do it?

Remember, we took the subway from deep-south Brooklyn where I lived to Central Park for a SummerStage concert? It was sauna-muggy. You wore a short jean-skirt and a black sleeveless blouse with white cherry prints. In the seat across from ours sat a middle-aged gentleman, notable only for his excessive life wrinkleness. Then I realized with horror that he was staring unabashedly at your crotch. 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? 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? 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. ‘Cross your legs,’ I hissed and you turned red, a six-year-old caught stealing. I held your small hand with its fashionably manicured black fingernails and hated you for causing such a stir. The polish on your left ring fingernail was nicked off in the shape of a half-moon. You were thoroughly mine all the way uptown.

Parroting me, after college you moved to the big bad city. Not New York. Oh, and not just Los Angeles: fucking Hollywood. To become a fucking movie star. Bleach your hair and take a number. After all those New York envy talks, I almost felt betrayed.

I wrote about the violent imaginary worlds of children and their mothers. Mostly I kept getting older. 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. Four pointless years later, it turned out you were right. 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?

Concerning the rest of the penis-holders: a veritable show-and-tell fest of Mr Wrongs. I was too embarrassed to show-and-tell: you would’ve skewered them all with the acerbic wisdom characteristic of those not directly involved. Whenever I found myself in shit-messy situations, which was all the time, I’d often wonder: what would you do? and do it. And, well, the result was still shit-messy. For this I blamed you. Sorry, I guess. Like everyone else, I’d fallen into the black hole of your influence.

You ran around in short skirts and high heels and supposedly didn’t sleep on casting couches. You sent me your audition tapes, asking me in a squiggly voice whether you looked fat or ugly or stupid. You often did and I told you so. Only an utterly egomaniacal person could so ruthlessly pursue her dreams and plain refuse to give up. You jokingly said that when you’d make it big you would produce my stories, which you’d never read, into movies. I jokingly said okay. I hated that I never believed you’d make it big. We deserved each other.

As if to spite me, you started landing guest roles on shows, then multiple-episode story arcs. Then parts of ex-girlfriends and best friends. You starred in your first indie film, then in your first non-indie. By pure luck, you starred in your second, in your third, your fourth. In every movie: a different name and quirky occupation, same everything else. Strangers kissed you, touched you, saw you partially naked. You breathed in the breath of our aged teen idols. You described the experience to me, not in too much detail. I didn’t pry too hard, and not because of tact. You appeared very, very distant at only inches away. You made more money than our entire family tree, branches of which we could trace back to the penultimate czar. People gave you free clothes, wrote down what you said. You were one of the smartest in your category, thank god, otherwise: shame on our family tree going back to the penultimate czar.

And/but congrats!!!!!!

You are the leading lady of the moment’s blink and you belong to your fans. Or more accurately, to the paparazzi. Though you’d probably claim, it’s the art of the cinema that owns your heart and soul. What will be left when they finally tire of you?

I’ve been your paparazza since your birth.

While you pranced around Tinseltown, I gave up writing (before it drove me unreservedly bonkers) and became an insurance recovery litigation lawyer. It was least complicated for everyone that way. Our aging parents are proud and less worried. You have an answer for your famous and regular friends. Though maybe – ha ha! – it’s not too late. Maybe I could write a tell-all about you. Like Madonna’s brother.

But honestly, I can pay my way through dinners and nights out. Even the fourth drink and unshared cab home.

You don’t invite me out when I’m in town. You don’t invite me to your premieres, or introduce me to famous and/or beautiful people. Instead, you give me week-long passes to spas, cooking classes in Tuscany. All expenses paid, for five. Have you forgotten that I’ve always had trouble making friends? First, because of my accent, next because college was stressful, then because between the job and writing I didn’t have the time. But mostly, because I am me. And now perfect strangers want to be friends with me because you’re famous. What’s my costume now?

You bought our parents a house; you offered to pay off my law school loans and buy me an apartment. No one asked you, thank you very much. I can afford it myself. But I’m not sure I want to settle down in New York. I hate this place. In fact, I think I’ll join the Peace Corps and/or get caught muling drugs and go to jail. Quite a human interest side-story for a documentary about you on those loud entertainment channels.

Sometimes I look at the pictures in the gossip and fashion rags and hardly recognize you. Is that manicured hair of yours the same hair I pulled during our childhood fights? Are those airbrushed nails the nails you used to OCD-ishly scratch the Disney stickers off our wardrobe doors? Those are definitely not the same breasts you stuck the baby doll to in imitation breastfeeding. Are we strangers yet?

Remember that scandal right out of US Weekly?

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. She had found out, he had left you. I scoured the city for things you in your state and with your status required: special crystals, special candles, special algae. They were hard but not impossible to find. It wasn’t like I lived in Akron, Ohio.

I stared into strangers’ faces and tried to access whether they recognized a bit of you in me. I wore your sunglasses, your bag, your coat, your watch. I used your credit card. 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. It was frightening, skin-stripping. I didn’t envy you, though I’d thought about your star before, as any self-respecting aspiring writer would. Correction: a formerly-aspiring and no longer self-respecting.

Your makeup-less face was raw and translucent from crying. 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. The onion looked so used and useless, tasteless, lonely. Why didn’t she just throw it out right away?

I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen you cry as an adult. Mostly from exhaustion and rejection. Almost never because of a boy. Never because of me.

I tucked you into my bed and went to sleep on the couch. You’re lucky: I didn’t even have a couch until two months prior. I didn’t live in this apartment. I didn’t have a shredder or a salad spinner.

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. You want the room to be cold like our Siberian hometown in the winter. You sleep under all the available blankets. There’s never enough heat for you; you never share the heat you get. You need the room to be dark like when our town had power outages during long winter nights. I nailed three sheets over the window, into the walls the landlord forbade to nail anything into. I brought you vitamins and water and yerba maté tea and all your pills, the orange bottles like industrial Christmas lights. Do you really need them all? Couldn’t we just go somewhere, just the two of us?


Remember how we used to skate in those frozen-leather skates until our feet burned? 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.

I held your small hand, your chipped fingertips. You were mine for the night. That was the thing the star-struck cashiers missed, how much smaller your hands are than mine.

You were tired, you said, you wanted to quit. You went through all this shit to make sure our parents didn’t go hungry or homeless in their old age.

Oh please, I said. That wasn’t the reason. There were other ways, being a lawyer, for example.

You laughed. I hated your life, which was also mine. I’m not smart enough, you said.

Maybe not, I said, but you’re way, way, way braver. Why don’t you quit? Quit! You’ve quit things before.

You looked at me with addict eyes and said, tomorrow morning.

I stayed up all night, unable to fall asleep on the couch that was really a love seat. I read something. It might’ve even been the over-translated Anna Karenina. In the morning they found you, your keepers: the paparazzi, the pulp journalists. I hated that they were the published writers of your life, not me. They overnighted some of you to LA. You stayed another week, decorated my apartment. Your agents and managers got to know me well over the phone. But I could see that you were already gone. We didn’t go skating.

And after you left again, I sat in the bathtub until the water turned cold and thought so many whys. Is this, all of this, normal? My therapy bills shot up.

So this is where we are now, neither young nor old. Well, in my profession I’m still quite young. In yours, you’re definitely pushing old. I plug away at briefs and memos deep into the night. I still look, in the swept up corners of my apartment, for my true destiny. We make money. We’re good immigrants. You, the hypocrite, are about to marry J, though you spent all your twenties telling anyone who’d listen about your nonbelief in monogamy. I wonder what you two pretty skinny people are not telling each other in the dark pockets of the night.

Speaking of romance: you never belonged to a boy or a man for more than a few weeks. Or maybe half an hour. I hated you for this because I always dove into the well headfirst. Now J looks at you with love in his puppy eyes (set too close for my taste). He pretends you are his. Fool. You turn your waxed cheek towards his chapsticked lips. Your fingers sparkle. He has many, many muscles that are visible through his clothes. I wish you two the best. I won’t be able to handle another heartbreak of yours. You know this without the letter, I hope.

At one point I suppose you’ll belong to your children. Babies are in right now in Hollywood. Though, who wants stretch marks and a prolapsed pelvic floor on top of all the responsibility, right?

When you are an old woman, you will faithfully belong to your illnesses. Look at Mama and Papa. Look at all those you never notice.

This is all great. Or sad. Or regular. Depending on whom you ask. But, as I mentioned earlier, once upon a time, for four minutes you were just mine truly.

We were at Baba’s, driving around town on errands. At one point, Mama put you in my arms and stepped out to talk to an acquaintance. You were sleeping, a cruelly real six-month-old doll, weighing down the nook of my four-year-old elbow with your real head. Your expression was worried, as though you’d already seen the whole world in your baby dreams.

I stared. You were pure wonder. Me – just a pillow, a lucky bulk. We lived together in an egg: I was the white and you were the yolk, the life. The soft sun of you shone in my world and bleached everything out. I could’ve poked your eyes out or smothered you. I could’ve thrown you out of the car or given you to a stranger. Put you in a trashcan. 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.

A magpie landed in a tree next to the car. A bubble of shiny drool popped in the corner of your mouth, then another. Suddenly I remembered that magpies liked to steal shiny things, spoons, diamonds. And at that moment you were the shiniest of all.

I couldn’t roll up the windows because I held you with both arms. 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 threw myself over you to distract the magpie with the earrings in my newly-pierced ears. Your neck smelled of sweet and sour cottage cheese. Two hearts pounded in my chest.


Photograph © Richard P J Lambert

Morwari Zafar | Is Travel Writing Dead?