We used to put Percy in our dresses, and when he started to crawl Nell tied her jump rope around his neck like a leash. I think about that now when I meet his girlfriends. One day I'll mention this to one of them, but first my brother will have to date someone long enough for us to remember her last name. I figured we'd talk about this problem of his over the Labor Day weekend, when we all met at Nell's house in Memphis. He was coming up alone from Austin, driving north through the night to avoid the holiday traffic. I had shown Nell's girls how to wave the welcome signs we made with glitter pens. As the youngest Vanderhoff, Percy likes a show of love. Nell said the twins wouldn't go to bed if I got them all wound up about their uncle's visit, but I hadn't seen my nieces in more than a year, when they were still too much like grub worms to be any fun—not the little monkeys they are now, so easy to train to clap and blow kisses and chatter on command. Of course, my dog, Ditto, is still more civilized; crazy how much longer it takes a human being than a dachshund to learn to come when called and not to pee on the carpet. I mentioned this to Nell, and she said if I kept it up she'd petition the church to revoke my godmother status. As the second-oldest Vanderhoff, Nell likes a show of obedience.
There are four of us—Percy is twenty-nine, I'm thirty-one, Nell is thirty-eight, Sue forty-one—and during any given week one of us will talk to another about all the rest. If asked, we fall all over ourselves gushing about how tight we are, but in truth I've visited Percy in Texas and Sue in Connecticut only twice, and Percy has met Nell in Houston and Dallas when her work has taken her there, but as a group we rarely get together, just the four of us, the Vanderhoff kids. I suppose we were just waiting for someone to plan it, because when Nell called we all agreed right away on the details.
"I guess we're not as busy and important as we thought," Percy said. We were trying to figure out if the amount of time it takes to plan a trip is directly proportional to the amount of fun one is bound to have on that trip. That's my theory, but Percy says I have it all wrong, that the inverse is actually true. Nell would side with me, I'm sure. She had planned the whole thing, which included a photographer to take pictures of our sibling weekend, no doubt followed by professional photos of her children for their family Christmas card, which Nell mass-mails the week before Thanksgiving to beat the rush. (She had planned even what we should wear for the pictures: fall outfits, "for seasonal uniformity.") Last year her holiday card was a snapshot from their trip to Napa: Nell and her husband, Dalton, kneeling in a dusty vineyard aisle, the twins' baby heads rising like double suns over the clumps of grapes in their parents' hands. The girls were looking at each other, profiles identical as the pages of an open book, while Nell and Dalton looked at the photographer or, more likely, at the suckling pig feast that had been set out under the olive trees by a team of Mexicans. In any case, their smiles said, Happy Holidays! We're clearly faking it!
I took the card off my refrigerator after a guy I'd met at a club said it freaked him out.
"Do they always look like that?" he'd asked. "Like they're trying to cram in all the happy before they die?" He was the kind of guy who could spend Thanksgiving alone in his apartment, pretending it was any regular day. He was the kind of guy I try not to date anymore, the kind mistaken for an orphan—with all the tender and complex qualities one might imagine an orphan to have—until it becomes clear that he's an orphan by choice. Most of my friends in Boston, and nearly all of my ex-boyfriends, are only children, which is sort of like being an orphan. "A disease unto itself," as my therapist friend says. I find their tiny families and their tiny-family problems exotic, and since only children are the only people on Earth who find other people's siblings exotic, my friendships have a satisfying reciprocal quality. We are mostly unmarried pet owners, my friends and I, and chronic over-sharers when it comes to our family members' private lives. Marriage, I've been told, changes all that, breeding a kind of caginess and propriety and drying up all the juicy family talk. My divorced friend says that's not even the worst part: "You're this secretive jerk, and then one day you just lose it. Once you start telling your friends the truth, it's all over." I find this comment helpful when I think of Sue and Nell, with their kids and husbands, and consider that the only permanent thing in my life is a tiny tattoo on my shoulder blade that I haven't seen in years and don't particularly like anyway.
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