My older sister Nan makes promises. Promises to visit, promises to talk soon. Drops “luv yas” in, hasty afterthoughts. Texts that she’s proud of me too, even if they’re in sentence fragments.
But the promises keep rising and rising. Talk tomorrow, visit next month, two months. Promises are splayed across my consciousness.
Nan absolutely promises to visit for my birthday. She even apologizes for the absence in communication, the words slow, almost broken. She’s been busy with teaching duties, fighting egos in the departments, and bolstering prospects of tenure. This she pronounces with precision, a precision that connotes pride.
And I’m happy, a wellspring that rises within, natural. Wide. I imagine Nan striding to classes, her gait precise, the clickety-clack of her footsteps resounding like gunshots. Words spilling from her with grace, filling a classroom, theories and principles falling into place.
Cue the birthday morning. Not a message or an email. Refresh, refresh. Turn the phone off and on again and again.
But I know it’s time to bust open the Moscato, sweet and peachlike. I can feel it, blasting Tchaikovsky’s “Festival Coronation March” to fill the room with some pomp. Some purpose. Might as well feel like a king. No, a tsar.
I hold off, though. The day is early. I don’t want to be that guy who drinks before noon.
I’ve made it thirty-four years. I’m an editor, a writer, a man who’s not a natural self-promoter. I’ve had to piece together each strength bit by bit, like a puzzle. Fit them into place with tenderness. Good vocabulary, good eye for historical detail, a conciseness in my own sentences even though I stutter trying to speak them aloud. But even absorbed in a manuscript, Nan rises to my mind.
I envisage Nan’s scent of lavender perfume and pot, childhood, Nan sneaking in late at night after one of Dad’s lectures, his words hanging over me like a sulfuric stench. She cursed out Dad, told me to take from life. Fight. Illuminate my strengths like a neon sign. She gestured into the world, arms reaching out with grace and verve. And she taught me the value of cursing, the power of an f-bomb to connote power.
I guess for some, promotion swells to the top. Everything else gets buried, things you don’t know how to resuscitate, or have time to. But I wish I could pinpoint when hugs and shoving, smiles and laughter faded. I can’t even remember the last movie we went to. The Hangover? Or was it Get Him To The Greek? But I do remember sharing voluminous tubs of popcorns, shared smirks, laughing in unison at humorous moments, the closeness of our otherwise uncomfortable seats.
I wait for a text. A call.
The phone stares at me while I arrange my clothes, my bookshelves, even the fridge with its Vienna sausages, hummus, and onions. Must rearrange in order of relative health or in order of poisonous effects on my body. I go with the latter. Nan would insist upon it.
The phone still shimmers with electronic silence.
I want to think she got caught up in a meeting, a teaching emergency. I want to think she feels a certain sorrow, absorbed in grading students’ stories or essays on Richard Yates. I really want to think she’s murmuring contrition, hands posed over the phone, but releasing it back into the world.
But I can’t think, the apartment still smelling of onions and musk and vastness. I won’t think of her, eyes on tenure, everything else a kind of blur. I won’t think of Nan looking into the future, a point on the horizon I can’t even see.
I spray lavender air freshener. Try to dust. But the cloth slips from my hands, the ferocity of movement drained.
I sink into the sofa, its blackness illuminated by the midafternoon sun.
I draw the curtains, fill a wine glass to the top. Swirl it. Take one long, precise swig.
Cheers. Another swig, another refill. Must leave nothing bare.