My sister chose petal pink and lilac for her wedding. She was a coder. She was going to be the breadwinner. Her groom, René, had been a chef in Austria, where he’d grown up. The first time I met him, he cooked us dinner. The meat came out elegantly plated on top of the sauce. I remember him holding a dark-purple potato in his palm, working it back and forth and touching it with his knife and carving a perfect rose.
René was finely built and masculine, like a soccer player, and he shaved his head though he wasn’t yet balding. He didn’t seem to mind at all about Nan’s petal pink and lilac, despite the colors clashing. He didn’t mind that he would have to wear a petal pink tie and lilac pocket square. He really loved her. He wanted to support her. He wanted to let her do whatever she wanted.
It was hard to feel bitter toward Nan about finding love. She herself never expressed happiness; she didn’t really express her feelings. My bitterness had more to do with money. Right out of college, a books-focused social network snatched her up. I approved of that job and her boss, Joe, who was known for his advocacy for the printed word. I visited Austin to go to a company party with her. There was a pergola wrapped in wisteria, cookies decorated with book covers, and many men in novelty sunglasses, all somewhat evenly spaced from each other, dancing with vertical movements. I met Joe, who was the CEO, and he told me I was smart. Bearded, in hiking boots, a halo of wealth around him, and just like that, “You’re smart.” Just because we’d talked for one minute about printing presses. He offered me a The Sound and the Fury cookie.
Later I spotted him in the pergola and, as I proceeded toward him to give him my letterpress business card, Nan took my arm and pulled me away. I thought she said it was because I was too pretty. “I’m what?” I said.
“You’re too tipsy,” she repeated. She pulled up my corset top and told me that I needed to learn how to be alone.
Soon she quit for one of the biggest companies in the world. At my letterpress, I earned ten times less. I was so fretful about money that I could barely look at her face.
“I’m poor,” I told René, when I visited Austin to help her find a dress.
“You’re not poor,” he said.
I knew what he meant. Still: I didn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t afford my own place. I couldn’t afford therapy, though everyone kept telling me it would help me. Nan couldn’t understand this, the scarcity. Trying to make it comprehensible to her, I told her it was like playing Oregon Trail: should I bring medicine, bullets, or food? Because I didn’t have space for all of them. And she sighed and said, “Well, Nora, at least you’re doing what you want.”
I asked René, “What do you like about Nan?”
“She likes underdogs.”
“She’s not superficial,” I assented.
“You can tell that,” he said, “because I’m her trophy husband.”
René. I couldn’t figure out what he saw in her, which made him opaque to me. He loved animals, the great apes especially. As a kid he was obsessed with the idea of assisting Jane Goodall, he said, except he gave up on school after dropping out of his undergrad in wildlife zoology and went to kitchens instead. We watched an interview with Goodall saying in her clipped voice that she used to think chimps were better than people, kinder, but after witnessing a yearslong war between two tribes, after seeing how chimps left their own brothers to die alone, she concluded that chimps are just like people: “They have a dark side.” This was a sound bite that she used in several interviews. So I thought of chimps, their casual hands and toothy grimaces, as evil. “That’s not what she’s saying,” René said. “They have two sides. They’re good and bad.”
It was November when I came to Austin to help Nan find a dress.
When I arrived, she was at work and René was cooking a meal for me. He chopped an onion, swiftly and silently. One second it was a shining yellow-green bulb, and the next it was collapsing open into thousands of tiny dice. I couldn’t believe it. René told me he once cut part of his finger off when he was chopping onions at his restaurant on a Friday night, but he kept working. He said, “My hands are all covered with parts that can’t feel anything, or parts that always hurt.” He said his worst injury came years ago, “before Nan, before America,” when, chopping onions, he’d gouged his palm. He put down his knife and stretched across the kitchen island to show me the white scar, which looked like another lifeline. “When you stroke it, it tingles,” he said.
I looked up at him. His eyes looked dark, like a cat’s.
I asked Nan how she was feeling about dress shopping. We were getting Starbucks first. She said she’d buy me one as advance thanks, so I ordered a Frappuccino with six syrups. Our mother hadn’t been available to help.
“I’m worried they’ll pressure me to buy a dress,” she said.
“I’ll take care of that.”
“Oh,” she said, surprised it was possible.
The store was inside a pink mansion and carried both vintage and new dresses. The saleswoman, Susanna, gave us stiff biscuit cookies with a layer of chocolate and nuts on one side. And pink lemonade, which tasted thin and sour after my caramel whipped cream. “And who is my lovely bride?” she said. When my sister pointed at herself, Susanna said to me, “Don’t worry.” She had silvery hair, high at the crown of her head, and thick glasses, and long earrings of blue oxidized metal. No traits at all like our mother, who wore her blonde hair short and had perfect vision, the kind that always notices you in a misdeed.
“Look, Susanna,” I said, “we’re here to explore our options a bit, but it’ll probably take us a while to decide, you know?”
But even as I was speaking, she was overlapping me—“Just take a look around, try a few things on, you’re on a lovely voyage.”
Susanna asked Nan for her budget, and Nan said, “It doesn’t matter.” Nan wore only free T-shirts that she’d received from various tech initiatives. She wore sports bras and played lacrosse. I’d always been the delicate one.
My sister stood on a podium in front of the three-part mirror, in a silk sheath, in smocked cotton, in a lace dress with a mermaid tail. Each dress got a “lovely” from Susanna. I finished all the cookies and the lemonade.
I remembered my mother telling me, “René spends too much time cooking.”
“He’s a chef,” I had said. A life could still be made working with your hands, cooking or printing. Making things for people like Nan. “When are you going to get serious?” my mother liked to say to me. Years ago, she’d never let me take care of our parakeet; only Nan was responsible. Kiss Nan, kiss Nan, the parakeet liked to say.
Outside the window, rain came down on the sidewalk, then the rain stopped and the butterflies came out. I googled Joe, my sister’s former boss, the CEO of the book social network. Maybe, since I was in town—but I found months-old news of his resignation and accusations from a few women. “Hey, did you know Joe was pushed out for misconduct?” I said.
“I’m trying to do these dresses,” she said, looking peculiar in a bustier gown, with Susanna pulling her hair across her shoulder.
“Let’s keep an open mind,” said Susanna. I couldn’t tell in response to what.
Eventually Nan tried a lemon cream dress with a huge circle skirt. “Oh my,” Susanna said. She called “Janie! Betsy!” and two younger women came down the stairs. “Now,” Susanna said to them, pointing.
My sister spun around to show them. She lifted up one leg, then the other, exposing the crinoline, a froth of white under the hem. They exclaimed, applauded. I wondered if they were sisters.
“Nora?” said Nan.
“Well? Does it suit me?”
It was so far off from what I knew of Nan; it didn’t suit her, she was an unrecognizable person.
“You look fantastic,” one of the girls said. Nan bought the dress.
René’s bachelor weekend was in March. He flew from Austin to Brooklyn to go out with his two best friends. They were going to have oysters at a speakeasy I’d recommended, where I’d once watched the bartender chip a crude brick of ice into a gleaming dodecahedron.
And they did go out and eat their oysters and drink their drinks. I wasn’t invited.
It was the next day. The next day René and I met up to look for wedding favors. Nan wanted him to find something special—maybe Austrian chocolates, she said, but only if they came in ornamental tins. At an Austrian store we bought mustard but couldn’t find anything ornamental. At an Italian store we bought thirty tins of Pastiglie Leone in lavender and anise. They didn’t taste good, but the tins were just right.
We took two babas and went to eat them in Madison Square Park. It was a cold day and I felt stiff in my layers of wool. The rum syrup oozed all over my chin and hands, and René gestured to it, handed me a napkin. We were careful, or so it seemed to me, to give each other a bit too much space. When we set off again south, a cold wind broke around the Flatiron.
He didn’t talk about Austria much, so I asked him about it. He said he grew up in a small town in the mountains. The Germans saw Austrians as a bunch of hillbillies, and it was true, where he came from.
I said, “Does the war come up much?” It felt inappropriate to ask.
“When I was young, a guy came to talk to us about his parents’ experiences. That was when I thought, ‘I need to devote my life to chimpanzees.’”
“If you weren’t marrying Nan, would you be deported?”
He laughed. “Is that a friendly thing to say?”
I asked him if he was happy about the wedding, but he didn’t answer. He said Nan was going to get a lemon cake with real pink and purple flowers pressed into its icing, and then she was going to have a table full of pies on the milk glass stands she’d been collecting from Goodwill. He knew every single detail. She was sponge painting an unfinished cigar box for each bridesmaid, finding them each a different moonstone necklace. “She’s so happy,” said René.
My heart sinking, I made fun of him for his pronunciation of “happy.” “Surely it’s a bit much,” I said.
He said the only part he didn’t like was all the extravagant fresh flower bouquets. He didn’t mind the tableware; all that they could use onward into the future, or donate. “Why not just wildflowers?” Most flowers were imported from faraway places in clouds of pesticides and carbon dioxide, and then they all just died the next day or so.
“Tell her no,” I said. “She shouldn’t be allowed to have everything she wants all the time.”
He didn’t answer. He asked me how I was doing printing the fans, programs, and menus. At the letterpress, wedding invitations were my main source of income, but Nan didn’t hire me to do hers; she wanted a letterpress business that could do foil. So I just did the less important pieces for the ceremony itself. I was doing a rose ink I mixed custom on an antique-lilac paper. She never should have picked those two colors. The fans said, “Joy! René and Nan.”
We walked on into the ugly sunset. On the Lower East Side, we picked her out some golden staple earrings that weren’t her taste. He held them on his palm.
“Is that the scar from cooking?” I said, looking at the white mark.
He nodded. I pinched up both earrings and set them down. I reached back into his past, before Nan, before America. I touched down the long white line.
“See,” he said, “my whole hand is tingling now.”
That evening, he was supposed to go out to dinner with his friends again, but when they called, he told them he couldn’t make it.
Then he said, “Come on, Nora.” And brought me deep into Brooklyn. I wondered why he’d asked me for my bar recommendation when he knew my city better than I did. We ate dinner at a tiny Mexican restaurant. Raw fish piled high on tostadas. Corn sprinkled with red powder.
He said, “Isn’t this nice? Isn’t this beautiful?”
It was right after daylight savings; the sky remained gray for an enchantingly long time. Dusty little cacti in the center of the picnic tables, candles, painted-skull tiles here and there in the walls. But the kitchen was a closet, lit by a terrible bluish fluorescent—like someone was in a cage in there—my heart was in my throat.
We drank tequila, mescal, mixed drinks with lime, salt, hibiscus. The tin ceiling rose and vanished into the heavens. Seatings came and went; the evening took on the pace of a stroll, but we were definitely headed somewhere.
“So what’s it like, being Nan’s sister?”
“She was pretty rude when we were children,” I said. I thought about her not letting me feed the parakeet—a chore that Nan took as an opportunity to dominate me. She liked the responsibilities our mother had given her and obtaining perfection under our mother’s constant gaze. And she’d continued on that way, achieving spectacular grades doing every pointless thing assigned to her, and then on into a field that just happened to be glutted with wealth.
“Ah, are you still mad about how she was as a child?” he said.
“I would just like her to face some adversity, you know?”
His leg was pressing into mine. In truth, I made the contact first. I felt deliciously drunk. If we kept our eyes on each other, we could continue to make this contact and pretend that it didn’t exist, which characterized all of my interactions anyway—always ignoring something.
“That’s not very nice, Nora,” he said.
“Or I wish she’d blow all her money on a mountain of coke,” I said. My laughter came out hard and choking. “Or that she’d donate it all and try living in a ditch. I wish she hadn’t met you. You justify her whole way of doing things.”
His hand bumped mine. Startled, I looked for an expression. He was saying something about foraging. Mosses and lichens, pried off rocks, served on slates. The taste of basalt, of loam. Charcoal as a dessert, he said. A splatter of bloody marrow on the plate. A puff pastry filled with Carpathian raspberry air. I didn’t think he’d ever told all of this to Nan. This wasn’t how he’d wooed her, I thought. This was for me. The restaurant was closing and we stumbled out the door onto the water-swishy street.
We woke in my apartment and lay silently. It was the hottest morning of the year, scorching, the air was thick and salty, the budding branch whamming itself into my windowpane. A neighbor was grinding coffee and someone was conversing on the fire escape above us, shrieking with laughter. René’s eyes were open. I saw he’d put his shirt back on when I was sleeping, and for a moment he was any other man I’d known, hastening to leave me.
It was important that I be the first to speak. “Good morning,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Good morning.”
“Don’t leave her,” I said.
“Of course not,” he said, talking over me.
“You two are a great match,” I said.
He stood to look at a print on my wall. It was a print from an old plate I’d gotten from a closing convent. I’d bought a whole set of them, Jesuses and lambs. The print he was looking at was a pair of praying hands. He ran his finger over the hands, which I’d sunk into the paper. “It used to be that a deboss like that was a sign of an inferior printer,” I said. “But now people like it because it shows that someone made it.”
“Right,” he said.
Not knowing what else to do, or else to torture ourselves, we went for breakfast at a conceptual coffee shop called Linger that was clearly on its way out. There were no real tables and chairs, only couches, settees and poufs, and no customers besides us. I felt jangly and giddy, and the food was weird and bright and delicious, the salad with fluffy pink flowers that tasted like chives, the melting dollop of whipped cream, the enormous raspberries and tiny strawberries.
We talked about Nan’s office. Her company had expanded so rapidly that it just took over the previously constructed low anonymous office blocks. Then they tried to make the offices creative and cool with accent walls and diverting installations. A fake trolley car, a panoramic array of enormous screens on which you could zoom around nature scenes. Fancy cafeterias, prosciutto that tasted like the pickles it was sitting too close to. In the cafeteria, we had both seen a barefoot man with long, draping hair and beard. René called him a “Jesusy fellow.”
“Nan’s little playground,” I said.
“It’s her job,” he said. “I keep thinking about how you want her to face adversity. I think the Joe stuff was enough.”
She did not like her former CEO, she’d told me, because he kept guilt-tripping her about not working hard enough. “I work really hard,” she’d said flatly. So she moved on up to the big company.
“Well, she needs to learn to stand up for herself a bit,” I said. I sucked my drink and smiled up at René.
He sat back and crossed his arms.
“You think I’m being unkind?”
“She must not have told you the whole story,” he said.
“She said he didn’t appreciate her.”
“Is that really what she told you?” he said, gathering his face into a smile.
“I might not remember perfectly, but that’s the gist,” I said. “You know. Nan loves compliments. Not to knock her, of course. She likes to be acknowledged.”
René took a long, demonstrative sip of his coffee.
“What,” I said. “What?”
“It’s not my story to tell.” He paused. “I love her.”
“It doesn’t have to be a big deal,” I said, “if we don’t want it to be.”
“It was nothing.”
“But we can’t say it was just the alcohol.”
“But it was.”
I didn’t like this. It was a waste to have to conceal this the rest of our lives, unless there’d been real passion.
“But wasn’t it interesting?” I said.
“Nora,” he said, a sharp edge of warning in his voice. I wished he hadn’t. These sharp parts of him, they were too nice. “I don’t want to be mean to you,” he said.
And we didn’t speak anymore. Well, we said “Maybe I’ll grab another latte” and “I’ll walk you to the train” and “See you in Texas, then,” but nothing of substance, and nothing that relieved me from the panic I’d started to feel.
René’s bachelor weekend had been in March. The wedding was in September.
Before the rehearsal dinner, we took photos in a rose garden. Nan wore a goddess-style dress in lilac crinkled-silk chiffon. I wore a blue polyester sheath that was too low cut for a bra. René was occupied with his groomsmen. His look seemed understanding to me and seemed to say: we will neither have another conversation nor be brought to justice and so all that could have happened between us is hollow now.
We sat on a bench. The photographer tried three times to tell our mother to relax her face and hands.
After the photos, most of the wedding party went to sit around the hotel pool. Nan went to use the bathroom and never came back.
After an hour, my mother said, “Go check on her. She’s not responding.” I wondered if they’d fought.
“Where’s Nan?” I asked René.
“She has a sore throat,” he said.
“Go get her,” I said.
“I don’t want to disturb her.”
He said nothing.
I sent the concierge from the hotel, who knocked, but she didn’t answer.
Finally I texted her. “I’m coming up.” I brought along a honey from the tea station for her sore throat. But I couldn’t go without our mother.
“Why don’t you go alone?” said my mother. She pulled up the front of my dress.
“I want her to feel really loved,” I said.
I wasn’t even worried Nan was onto me: I was worried I would find her dead on the bed.
We knocked and announced ourselves. Nan came to the door and undid the chain. “Okay, she’s in there,” our mother said, and turned around and left.
I entered her room, brushing past the lemon tulle gown. The blackout shades were drawn and a documentary about owl rehabilitation was on the TV.
I asked, “Are you having second thoughts about René?”
I sat down next to her on the bed. “Do you have a sore throat?”
“I don’t know.”
She wouldn’t look at me. There was makeup on her face like a paste. She was secretive in her way. She could not acknowledge the things that did not fit in her life, they just rolled off her, and that was how she had so much luck. She looked at the TV. “Owls are interesting,” she said.
I opened the honey for her because I thought she was more likely to swallow it that way. “What part of getting married most excites you?”
“The being married part,” she said.
She was like that. She always wanted to know if I was in a relationship and how serious it was. I always told her it was serious.
She jabbed her tongue into the honey and I thought about her kissing René. I asked her how she knew he was the One.
“I like that he likes me,” she said. “Guys always liked you.”
“But he doesn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. She patted me on the head.
Owl eyes are the shape of tubes, intoned the narrator.
“I wish I had an owl,” she said childishly, and I wondered if, in her structured way, she thought of René like a pet.
“But emotionally, I mean, how do you know if someone is the One?”
“I don’t think much about emotions,” she said. She laughed and seemed sad to me. “I guess that’s a good sign.”
“Can I fluff your hair?” She always wore it too flat against her head.
“Okay,” she said. I pulled on some of the strands, trying to ease them out of the tight ponytail. I pulled the hairband backward and forward. We both looked at the TV. A barn owl blinked its black shiny eyes. The narrator said If we had eyes the size of owls’ eyes, they would be as big as oranges.
“Are you mad at me?” I said.
“Stop talking,” she said, “or we’ll have our first argument.”
We ate the rehearsal dinner on the private patio of an Austin trattoria. The purple air was thick, shimmering and fluttering through the palms, the aloes, the blades of aggressively large cacti. The moths filled in the space between. We drank plain wine. Tomorrow the bottles would have custom labels.
Once again, René and I gave each other too much space. Across the candle-laden tables, we smiled at each other. I wanted to tell him, don’t stray again. You’re not allowed. I will kill you if you do.
I left the patio between the cheese course and dessert to take a call from the man I’d started seeing. I’d been trying to make him work for it, but I found myself unable to screen his call now, at this inappropriate time. I paced the sidewalk, peered through the silvery cedar planks that walled off the patio.
“In the airport, thinking about you,” said the man on the phone. “In the family restroom, looking at the Koala Kare koala.”
I said, “Thank you.”
Waiters were coming around, delivering shaking panna cottas. In the candlelight, in silhouette, Nan was soft. Her hair loose and glamorous, a gentle smile as she listened to her bridesmaid, none of the usual ambition, frugality, or focus. I couldn’t see who she was, only who she appeared to be. She was hard, but she appeared to be soft. She was cruel, but she appeared to be kind. She was her own person, but she appeared to be someone else’s. She so badly wanted it to be a success.
Around midnight, she made me carry a few boxes of leftover cheese courses to her room. She hated waste. In the room, she sighed and shook out her hair. Took off her silver sandals. Put on her Keens.
I wanted to ask how she was, but it felt dicey.
“Let’s go do a bachelorette thing,” she said.
“I’ll alert the bridesmaids,” I said nervously.
She shook her head. “Will you come with me?” she said. “Bring the cheese.”
“For snacks,” she said. She zipped a hoodie from her tech company over her purple dress.
I wondered what exactly this mood was.
The air out the car window seemed to be sucking my face off. We were halfway there when she told me to put the raptor rescue in the map. I looked it up. “They don’t accept nighttime drop-offs.”
“Good,” she said.
Within ten minutes we were in the countryside; ten more and we reached a brown barn painted with a red-tailed hawk. She took out one of the snack boxes. The crostini and grissini and decorative violets were all caught in the bleu cheese and chevre.
A dim moon, a gravel path, the scent of pines. We lit the way with our phones. For a moment we couldn’t see any way in. She tried the door, tried to lift a window. Then we went around the side and ducked under a chain. On the other side, I had to put my boobs back in my dress.
The enclosures had wooden frames and tight dense chain-link walls. The birds were enormous dark growths on knobby boughs. Almost everyone was sleeping, but sometimes we saw a slit of shiny eye. Diamond shadows of chain-link played over ravens with their thick hunched beaks. Peregrine falcons with tabby fronts. A golden eagle the size of a dog.
She pointed up, where smoky clouds dimmed the stars. We could just make out the shapes of dozens of vultures in the trees. Former patients, or just drawn by all the others? She shone her light up at them. Their feathers phosphorescent black. “Put it down,” I whispered.
She reached the cage of a great horned owl named, according to the plaque, Lacey, who was rescued after crashing into the Pennybacker Bridge. Lacey was awake.
Nan took out a breadstick and pushed it through Lacey’s chain-link wall.
“Don’t!” I said.
“It’s not too unhealthy,” said Nan.
I remembered our mother telling us not to touch any wild animal, living or dead, not a squirrel, a deer, or even a robin’s egg on the ground. When we were children, we used to see such things in the young pine forests behind our house. We never talked about those days; we’d left and we were never going back.
Nan had pushed her fingers into the cage to try to get the breadstick closer to the owl.
“It’ll bite you,” I said.
“Google if owls like cheese,” she said.
Just then Lacey darted forward and my sister withdrew with a shriek. Her finger was bleeding so fast, black drops falling.
She sprung around and extended her hand towards me. “Suck it off, Nora! Suck it off!”
“What the hell,” I shouted. “That’s for snakes.”
She put her finger in her own mouth.
“Didn’t you know this was coming?” I said. Above us something was starting to caw.
“I thought it would see that I was friendly,” she said.
Once when we were children, I lost track of Nan and ran around for a while looking for her. There is nothing like the fear and exhaustion of being lost in a forest. You can lose your mind quickly. Finally I came to the top of a hill and I spotted her touching some soft brown animal, it wasn’t a dog, I saw as I got closer, but a deer, either dead or very sick. She sat beside it, cradled it, smiled down at it, patted its head. And I was running toward her, yelling at her to leave it. It was damaged, with parasites, with rot, with flu, all the things our mother warned us about. She had forgotten.
Rumpus original art by Samantha Wang