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Letter to My Sister

I lack some imagination because when I think about where you’ve gone I imagine you are wearing a white robe and sitting cross-legged in a Southern California desert. Your leader is a white man with long brown hair who wears sandals. When he’s not leading prayer circles he’s getting you all pregnant. Everyone has given up their money because who needs money when you’re on your way to Planet Heaven. I know—it’s not the 1970s, and this brand of cult is passé. I know you’ve found something that fits your style.

Do you remember in college when you would crawl into my bed the morning after you fell in love with someone? You would pierce my warm cocoon with your cold feet and thrash around, lovesick, as you told me about the beautiful girl with owl glasses who kissed you when you followed her outside the party, or the boy from your music class who played the violin and knew how to use his fingers. I’ve been wanting to tell you about Amos since the moment we met—months before I told any of my friends. Before you left you always wanted to know how my Tinder dates went—and they usually went badly. I know it was a strange time, and the election ushered in an even stranger, sadder, surreal time. But you left before you could meet Amos.

I wish I had told you then so that I could have a record of the falling. Now it’s so easy to overlay history, to believe now that the night Amos and I met we fell in love. How absurd, you would say, you were strangers. If you had been here you could have watched us fall. You could remind me that we aren’t static; there was a time before we were in love. I like remembering that time because I like the action.

For example, last night Amos and I had sex but also at the same time we had a conversation. I lay down with two pillows, one under my head and one under my hips. Amos settled himself between my legs and licked me slowly but we kept chatting—he kept lifting his head to respond. “Remember the time I hit your head with my pelvic bone?” I said. When we were first dating he liked to tease me when we went down on me. He would trace his tongue over me so lightly that I would tremble and sweat with frustration, and once I bucked upward so violently I thunked his forehead with my pelvis. He laughed as I reminded him of this. I could feel his laughter humming through his mouth and tongue.

Mom thinks you’re back in LA and that you’re spending all your money on sci-fi psychology to work your way up the ranks of the Sea Org. That they’re turning all your secrets into ammunition, holding you hostage with the promise of an explanation for the world—an alien paradise at the end of the climb. At first we would argue. I said how is a cult so different from any other religion? She won’t talk about you anymore when we power-walk together down the streets of the southeast neighborhoods. We stay on the small streets to avoid the blooming high-rises. I fantasize that she’s right, and some nights Amos and I plot daring rescue missions before we fall asleep.

Despite our differences I can feel myself turning into Mom as I get older. I keep seeing birds everywhere. I’ve started walking for exercise—on my own, not just with Mom—and when I see a bird I stop—oh, look at that bird with its little red breast plate! I wish I had brought my bird book! From our apartment I can see the roof of a church that is covered with crows. At night I step out onto the balcony and tightrope across the telephone wire to the rooftop. I tell the birds to fly south to California and so they do, but when I wake up I’m annoyed with myself because I know from the USPS stamps on your postcards that you’ve gone back east.

Amos and I have discussed it, and we’ve decided it’s probably not a cult at all. Given all the facts, it must be a coven. I read an article today—I would send it to you if I knew where to send it—about a woman who went from being a left-leaning teenager to a prominent white nationalist. They say in the article that to be susceptible to extremism you have to have a weakened immune system and exposure. We seem to have a vaccination problem in this country. While this cult has been spreading you’ve been off swimming naked with your coven. Are you the ones who put a curse on the President? Or would I have seen you paddle-boarding down the Willamette on Halloween if I had bothered to look closely? Amos and I scroll the news together from our bed—that one made us laugh.

The first summer we were together was the first summer you were gone. On the day of our first anniversary two men riding the MAX were stabbed to death by a white supremacist when they tried to stop him from harassing and threatening two Muslim teenage girls. I read the news in the morning but couldn’t process it all day so I left it sitting in my stomach while we walked around the city on a day-long date. I felt like I was dragging around a rock. When we lay on Amos’s bed in the afternoon heat I finally told him to read the news. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” he asked me. We had been trying to draw a line, I think, without realizing it, between our love and reality. We skipped dinner and went instead to a vigil at the MAX station. Hundreds of people holding candles in the hot evening sun stood silently around the families of the victims and the two girls. We were packed in tightly like a penguin colony so we could hear them speak. There was something wrong with the microphones so we didn’t catch much, but none of us moved.

On election night, right after you left, I kept thinking about you as Amos drove us home from the bar. He let me drink as much as I needed to drink but when we pulled in the driveway I wasn’t drunk. He asked if I wanted to talk about it and I said no. I was walking on a tightrope in my head and to think about anything too hard would tip me over into a pit. Were you even watching the polls? I thought then that you were totally lost, that you were barefoot in the desert preparing to make a baby for that man in sandals. He was re-organizing your brain so slowly you didn’t notice like that frog in the boiling pot.

I don’t want to embarrass you with the sticky details of what Amos and I did that night, but I want to tell you some of it. That may have actually been the night we fell in love. We did stuff we hadn’t done before, he touched me in indecent places, he fucked me until I forgot about our enormous loss in the vibrancy of an orgasm that shook me open. I remember that orgasm the only way my brain knows how—as colors—dark blue and gold. We did stuff that night that would embarrass and enrage the Vice President, which is a small triumph over someone who wants to regulate our bodies out of our control, but it tickles me anyway.

And you were out that night, I bet, on the prowl. I bet that was the night your wings sprouted out of your back like budding plants in a sped-up video and you and your raven-eyed women took to the sky.


Eleanor Howell grew up on the coast of Maine, and has lived in the Pacific Northwest for several years. While living in Portland, Oregon, she worked as a pastry chef and baker while writing stories and non-fiction. She is now an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Western Washington University.

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