When my phone vibrates for the third time within 10 minutes, I glance from drying nails to handbag, considering whether to jeopardize freshly painted paws to reach in and find out who’s calling. Predictably, I succumb to my digital addiction. Perky Purple manicure somehow still intact, I digest the foreboding message printed on my cell’s screen: You have three missed calls from The Pentagon.
My parents’ number has long been logged as The Pentagon in my address book. Partly, it amuses me to nurture a false sense of self-importance, but mostly this is the case because many of the calls I’ve received from home in the past have, in fact, been extremely urgent.
The subject of pressing calls has always been my older sister, Céline. For roughly half a decade, Céline suffered from liver disease, the debilitating effects of which were aggravated and/or caused by a prolonged battle with alcoholism.
Her illness meant that she was heavily medicated by a host of drugs which clouded her natural wit and disarming spirit, that she was often blasted to the point of collapse at Starbucks at 1 pm, that the green bile her liver couldn’t filter radiated through her skin and the “whites” of her eyes.
Before her passing in 2009 at age 30, Céline’s sickness also meant that my parents frequently rang my younger brother and me at odd hours to alert us to near-death episodes and ambulance rides.
Not since the devastating day we lost Céline have I received such a frantic series of calls. What could have happened now, I think to myself. She’s already gone.
As when Céline was still alive, I hesitate to call back, wishing to delay whatever truth awaits. But Mom’s dire tone in her voicemail moves me more than I wish it could. So I gather my belongings and leave the salon to call The Pentagon. One ring before Mom answers.
“Melanie,” she says, introducing Bad News with my full name. “I cannot believe the cruelty.”
“We received a letter. Your father and I. It’s just -- it’s so disturbing. Why would anyone?”
“A letter from who?”
“What does it say?”
“They cite the upcoming anniversary of Céline’s death as their impetus for writing.”
“It better be in sympathy, then, or attached to a bouquet of flowers.”
“They say awful things. About your father and me. That we are terrible parents. That Céline’s death is our fault. ‘Her blood is on your hands,’ it reads. ‘Céline’s long desire to kill herself is directly correlated to your failure.”
Mom pauses here, because I’m laughing. It’s not that I find any aspect of this funny, but that this is how I cope instinctively. Whenever Céline was bedridden at the hospital, I would draw weird cartoons on the white board at the foot of her bed and tell inappropriate jokes. It’s just what I do.
Sensing maternal disapproval, I regain my bearings. “In a way I’m grateful for the absurdity, Mom, because it means that we can’t take it seriously. You can’t let the ramblings of a total loon bother you.”
“Who do you think it is?”
“I don’t know, but whomever it is sucks more than syphilis.”
“The bulk of it is actually about you,” Mom confesses.
“Well, some of your work is mentioned. The article you wrote for Elle about being a woman on Wall Street, and the one from Vanity Fair about marital infidelity. Your father and I agree that this letter is very much aimed at you. The segments about us, while troubling, seem like decoys. We’re afraid this might escalate. Someone is angry at you, Melanie.”
“Read it to me,” I demand.
“Are you sure?”
Deafeningly robotic. “Can Melanie be far behind Céline? Have you read the articles she publishes? She exploits herself in every manner possible. Her admitted affair with a married man and her struggle choosing whether or not to sleep with her boss are surely destined for literary immortality.”
Continuing, “She is clearly worse than Céline ever was.”
“Her hateful nature and destructive path is clear to all except those who use and exploit her. One can only hope that your children decide never to procreate and the dysfunctional lineage dies with them. Your sickness is apparent to all who look closely. How do you live with yourselves?”
“It’s awful, Mel. Who would do this? Who could?”
“I don’t know, Mom. The most ridiculous thing is that whomever wrote this is inherently more terrible for doing so than we are for whatever we’ve allegedly done wrong.”
“It’s so cruel.”
“The timing’s certainly screwed up. Mom, I’m sorry, but I’m running late for a dinner. Please don’t let this get to you. It’s not worth your time and energy to dwell on it. Otherwise, he wins,” I say, perhaps more to myself than to her.
“Let’s talk again this weekend.”
“I love you. And remember, you’re an excellent mother. How else could I have turned out so awesome?”
“Right,” she says, though my jesting does little to soothe her. “Love you, too.”
While dressing for the night in my studio apartment, I ponder the contents of the letter. As a writer, this isn’t my first encounter with invective. I know from reading comments on my work that anonymity emboldens assholery. I also know that however hard you try to ignore such venom, it can compromise your sense of self.
Whether or not I’m successful at preserving my mental health, the more disturbing reality is that my mom, who isn’t the regular recipient of rancor, is naturally shaken. I know this letter will prevent her from sleeping. She will mull over every word. Linger over the sad reality that someone is capable of doing such a thing. She might even reevaluate her role as a mother to Céline, my younger brother, and me. She will judge herself because one spiteful, misguided human acted inhumanely.
I hate that letter.
My parents have since encased the despicable thing in a plastic bag and locked it in a file cabinet. I know what they’re thinking: potential criminal evidence.
In an ode to my sister, I refuse to be scared. That said, the window above my bed that doesn’t lock properly suddenly seems a whole lot more foreboding.
Melanie has written Céline's story in her new book, "Surviving In Spirit: A Memoir about Sisterhood and Addiction."