Dead Letters

Caite Dolan-Leach

February 28, 2017 
The following is from Caite Dolan-Leach’s novel, Dead Letters. Dolan-Leach is a writer and literary translator. She was born in the Finger Lakes region and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the American University in Paris. Dead Letters is her first novel.

A born creator of myths, my sister always liked to tell the story of how we were misnamed. She was proud of it, as though she, as a tiny blue infant, had bent kismet to her will and appropriated the name that was supposed to be mine. My parents were trying to be clever (before they lost the ability to be anything other than utterly miserable), and our names were meant to be part of our self-­constructed, quirky family mythology. A to Z, Ava and Zelda. The first-­born would be A for Ava, and the second-­born would be Z for Zelda, and together we would be the whole alphabet for my deluded and briefly optimistic parents, both of whom were located unimpressively in the middle: M for Marlon and N for Nadine. My father was himself named for a film star, and with his usual shortsighted narcissism he sought to create some sort of large-­looming legacy for his burgeoning small family. Burgeon we would not.

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Born second, I was destined for the end of the alphabet. But my sister was Zelda from her first screaming breath, wild and indomitable until her final immolation. A careless nurse handed my father the babies in the wrong order, so that his second-­born was indelicately plopped into his arms first, and I was christened Ava. I say “christened” purely as a casual description; my mother would have thoroughly lost her shit had any question of formal baptism been raised. My parents were good pagans, even if they weren’t much good at anything else.

Clearly delighted with this strange twist, my father insisted that we keep our misnomers; he said that the family Antipova would turn even the alphabet on its head. My mother, predictably, lay surly and despairing in her bed, counting down the seconds until her first gin and tonic in eight months. Even now, I can’t really blame her.

The seat-­belt light dings, and I unbuckle in order to root around in my bag for my iPad. I’ve read the email so many times I have it memorized, but I still feel a compulsion to stare at the words on the shimmering screen.

To: littlea@gmail.com

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From: noconnor@gmail.com

June 21, 2016 at 3:04 AM

Ava, honestly the whole point of you having a cellphone is so that I can call you in an emergency. Whicf this is. If you’d pick up your goddamn phone, I wouldnt have to tell you by EMAIL that your sister is dead. There was some type of fire following one your sisters drunken binges, and apparently, she didnt make it out. If you leave paris tomorrow, you might make it time for the service.

I can’t really tell whether the misspellings are because a) Mom is drunk, b) she never really learned to type (“I’m not a fucking secretary. I didn’t become a feminist so I could end up tapping out correspondence”), or c) the dementia is affecting her orthography. My money is on all three. I’ve never seen Nadine Antipova, née O’Connor, greet any kind of news, either good or bad, without a quart of gin in the wings. The death of a daughter, especially that of her preferred daughter, has probably rattled even her. My guess is that she was already three sheets to the wind when they told her, and she wasn’t able to get through to me on my cell because she either couldn’t remember the number or misdialed it. She would have had to toddle upstairs to the decrepit old MacBook gathering dust on what used to be my father’s desk. She would have lowered herself into the rickety office chair and squinted at the glare of the screen. After several frustrating minutes and false starts (and probably another slug of gin), she would have located Firefox and found her way to Gmail, if she didn’t try her old and defunct Hotmail account first. She probably would have sworn viciously at the screen when asked for her password. Nadine would consider the computer’s request for her to remember a specific detail as personally malicious, a couched taunt regarding her slipping faculties.

She would have tried to type something in, and the password would have been pre-­populated, because Zelda had, in her own inconsistent and careless way, tried to make our mother’s grim life a little easier. And then, drunk, aggravated, angry, and frightened, my mother wrote me a bitchy email to tell me that my twin sister had burned to death. And if that’s how she told me, I can only imagine how my father found out.

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My first thought on reading the letter was that Zelda would have appreciated that death: This was exactly how she would have chosen it. It was a fitting end for someone named after Mrs. Fitzgerald, who died, raving, when a fire destroyed the sanatorium where she had been locked away for a good chunk of her life. How Bertha Rochester dies, in rather similar circumstances. As children, we played Joan of Arc, and Zelda built elaborate pyres for straw dolls decorated as the teenage martyr (Zelda was Joan; I was always cast as the nefarious English inquisitors). Death by fire was the right death for visionaries and madwomen, and Zelda was both. My dark double.

But then, because I know my sister, I read between the lines.

The whole thing was so very Zelda. Too Zelda. When I finally reached my mother on the phone, she slurrily told me that the barn had caught fire with Zelda trapped inside. The barn out back that Zelda had transformed into her escape hatch when she could no longer stomach being in the house with our ailing, flailing mother. I knew she liked to retreat to the apartment on the second floor, to stare out the window and chain-­smoke and drink and write me emails. The fire investigators seemed to believe that she passed out with a cigarette (Classic, Zelda!) and the wood of the barn and all the books she kept up there caught fire in the dry heat of the June day. Burned alive on the summer solstice. With the charred remnants in plain sight of half the windows in the house, where my mother can’t help being reminded of Zelda, even with her brain half rotted and her liver more than half pickled. My sister couldn’t have contrived a more appropriate death if she had planned it herself. Indeed.

The drinks trolley rolls by, blithely smashing into the knees of the long-­limbed. Compact and travel-­sized, I have plenty of space, even in the cramped and ever-­diminishing airline seats. I secure myself a bland Bloody Mary in a plastic cup, wondering for the dozenth time about the name of this precious, life-­giving elixir—­related to the gory bride we conjured in mirrors as girls?

I swirl the viscous tomato juice among too many ice cubes and not nearly enough vodka, sipping through the tiny red straw. I love these thin mixing straws. I love their parsimony. I’m trying very hard not to think about what I’m leaving and where I’m heading. Traveling this way across the Atlantic has always seemed cruel; you leave Europe at breakfast and arrive in the United States in time for brunch, exhausted and ready for happy hour and dinner. The sun moves backward in the sky. You face your bushy-­tailed friends and relatives having been awake for fifteen strenuous hours, having spent those hours exiled in the no-­place of airports and airplanes. Forever returning to Ithaca. Or Ithaka. I will be collected from the tiny airport and brought to my childhood home, fifty yards from where my twin sister is supposed to have crackled and sizzled just a few days earlier—­all before dinner. I wonder if the wreckage is still smoldering. Does wreckage ever do anything else? We have been twenty-­five for nearly one month.

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I will walk into the house, instantly accosted by the smell, the smell of childhood, my home. I will walk upstairs, to my mother’s room. If it’s even one minute after five (and it likely will be, by the time I make it all the way upstate), she will be drunk or headed that way, and I will sit with her and pour each of us a hefty glass of wine. We will not discuss Zelda; we never do. Eventually (and this will not take as long as “eventually”) she will say something devastating, cruel, something I can’t really brush off, and I will leave her. If I’m feeling vindictive, I will take the wine with me, so that she will have to carefully make her way downstairs for another bottle, risking cracked hips and the possible humiliation of failure.

I’ll walk outside with that bottle of wine, and I will look at blackened timbers of that barn. I will scrutinize that dark heap of ashes. And then I will start trying to unravel my sister’s mystery, and I will find her, wherever she is hiding. Come out, come out, wherever you are. What game are you playing, Zelda? She has always been so bad with rules.

To: littlea@gmail.com

From: zazazelda@gmail.com

September 5, 2014 at 8:36 PM

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Darling Sister, Monozygotic Co-­leaser of the Womb,

Well, is Paris all and everything? Does it glimmer the incandescent sparkle of mythology and overrepresentation? I’m betting yes to both, at least as far as you’re concerned. Let me guess what you’ve been up to: You landed, disposed of your baggage, and went immediately for a triumphant stroll along the Seine—­you know how you always must be near water in moments of jubilation, a genetic gift from our maternal forebears, beach striders all—­you strode, nay, frolicked along those hallowed banks until your blisters popped, and then, because you are our mother’s daughter, you promptly sought out some sort of cold alcoholic beverage. And, because it is very important to you to blend in with the locals but also to feel historically rooted in “authenticity,” I bet that drink was . . . Lillet! Or, very possibly, Champagne, but I would put money on the chance that both shame and frugality prevented you from slapping down sixty or seventy euros for an entire bottle of the bubbly. I’m betting you sipped your Lillet, tried out your perfectly acceptable French, basked in your escape, pretended you didn’t want anything else to drink, and bought that Champagne from some charming “authentic” wine store on your way home to the tiny shoe box you will be living in until you get this Francophilia out of your system (or until you squander Dad’s hush money and must retreat home). All the while resolutely not thinking of what happened before you left us. Why you left us. I’m right, Ava, n’est-­ce pas?

Well, I’m very happy that you’re fulfilling your dreams and whatnot, even if it did mean forsaking your beloved twin sister, whom you left languishing in the hammock with a touch of the vapors at the thought of bearing sole responsibility for our matriarch. I know you always say that she prefers me, but GOOD GOD, you should see how she’s moping around without you. I really think she thought that you were bluffing, that you weren’t serious about this whole graduate degree thing and were all along planning to settle in with her out at the homestead, to mop her brow and hold her hand as she trembles through the daily DTs, slowly losing all sense of self. Oh, but her bug-­eyes when your suitcase came down the stairs! She can’t remember much, but she remembers THAT betrayal. Jilted, she kept waiting for weeks in quivering, agonized suspense, disbelieving that she could be abandoned with such a flimsy explanation!

I’m not trying to guilt you (I would never! Not. Ever. Not after everything that happened . . . ) but am instead attempting to sketch a portrait of how life will proceed hereabouts in your absence. I’m going to stay in the trailer (I will! No one can force me out! Not even that damned bat) rather than move back to the house on the vineyard. Mom’s in iffy shape, true, but I’m planning to be there every day, as you know, and she’s still lucid enough to manage in the nights. I think. The Airstream is less than a mile away, in any case—­I should be able to see the plumes of smoke rising if she burns down the house, ha ha! I’ve considered hiring someone to stay with her a bit and take care of the more unsavory activities (diapers are just around the corner, really), but I’m reluctant to dip into the dwindling Antipova/O’Connor pot o’ gold. Barring some sort of harvest miracle with the grapevines, I think the years of a profit-­yielding Silenus Vineyard might be behind us, Ava. Seriously. But at least the failing entrepreneurial venture gives me the illusion of a profession, which is very useful at the few grown-­up cocktail parties I attend, and almost nowhere else. And it ostensibly gives me somewhere to be. And obviously keeps me in wine. No wonder the proto-­satyr Our Debauched Father was so enthused by the prospect of running a vineyard. He was not entirely foolish, that man.

Well, I’ve been rambling—­I’m sitting and typing on this antique laptop, here on Dad’s old desk. I’ve been trying to teach Mom, but she can barely remember to pull up her undies after she pisses (better than the other way round, I suppose!), so I imagine I’m mostly trying to entertain myself. When I finish, I will have to go collect Mother from her sun throne and tempt her with just enough booze to get her inside without a battle. Time to rip off the Band-­Aid. I’m sure you have some Brie and baguette to feast on—­but remember, not too much! Never! If she were (t)here, our mother would remind you that she recently noticed a slight wobble in your upper arm, and at your age, you can’t afford to overindulge. The irony.

In all seriousness, I miss you madly. Surely you WERE joking about this whole graduate degree thing?! And surely we can start talking again?

Eternal love from your adoring twin,

Z is for Zelda


From DEAD LETTERS.  Used with permission of Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Caite Dolan-Leach.

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