When my phone vibrates for the third time within ten 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 across my Blackberry’s screen: You have three missed calls from The Pentagon. Fuck.
My parents’ number has been logged as The Pentagon in my address book for years. 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, Camille (not her real name). For roughly half a decade, Camille suffered from severe liver disease, the debilitating effects of which were aggravated 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 1pm; that the green bile her liver couldn’t filter radiated through her skin and the “whites” of her eyes. Before her passing, on April 5th, 2009, at age 30, Camille’s sickness also meant that my parents frequently rang my younger brother and I at odd hours to alert us to near-death episodes and ambulance rides.
Not since the devastating day we lost Camille had I received such a frantic series of calls. What could have happened now, I thought to myself. She’s already gone.
As when Camille was still alive, I hesitate to call back, wishing to delay whatever truth awaits. But Mom’s dire tone in her message moves me more than I wish it could. I gather my belongings and leave the salon to call The Pentagon. One ring before Mom answers.
“What’s up, Mom?”
“Melanie,” she says, introducing Bad News with my full name. “I cannot believe the cruelty.”
“What’re you talking about? Tell me.”
“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 Camille’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 I. That we are terrible parents. That Camille’s death is our fault. ‘Her blood is on your hands,’ it reads. ‘Camille’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 Camille was bedridden at the hospital, I’d draw weird cartoons on the white board at the foot of her bed and tell inappropriate jokes. What else was there to do?
Sensing maternal disapproval, I regain my bearings and say, “Mom, clearly we’re dealing with a complete loon here. In a way, I’m grateful for the absurdity because it means we can’t take it seriously. You can’t let the ramblings of an insane man bother you.”
“You think it’s a man?”
“That was my sense.”
“Me too. But who?”
“I don’t know,” I say without over-thinking. “But whomever it is sucks more than syphilis.”
“You didn’t let me finish. The bulk of it is actually about you.”
“Really? What did I do?”
“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?”
Mom takes a deep breath. Her voice deafeningly robotic, she recites, “Can Melanie be far behind Camille? Have you read the articles she publishes? She exploits herself in every manner possible. Her admitted affair with a married man for two and a half years and her struggle choosing whether or not to sleep with her boss are surely destined for literary immortality.”
“Oh, snap!” I say, my sarcasm half-hearted.
Continuing, “She is clearly worse than Camille 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?”
“Damn. That’s downright shitty.”
“It’s awful, Mel. Who would do this? Who could?”
“I don’t know, Mom. The most ridiculous thing is that whomever wrote this bullshit 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 fucked up. Mom, I’m sorry, but I have to bail now. I’m late for a cocktail party. 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.
“Okay Mel. Let’s talk again this weekend.”
“Yes. 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. It cannot offend you, I remind myself. It was borne of unfounded fury. However believably I can pretend not to be bothered by it, though, it has shaken my mother. Tonight, she will not sleep. She will mull over every word. Linger over the sad reality that someone is capable of doing such a thing. Inevitably, she will reevaluate her role as a mother to Camille, my younger brother, and me. She will judge herself because one spiteful, misguided human acted inhumanely.
I hate that letter.
Then, it strikes me. Although I am by nature an annoyingly people-pleasing, middle child type with few foes, there is one person who might have cause to be so angry at me, and, by extension, my family. I am thinking of a person from my past, who was the focus of the article I wrote for the December 2009 issue of Elle, entitled “Doll Street” and mentioned in the letter. Carl, I called him (that’s not his real name). In the piece, I address the decision I made to exploit my feminine wiles while working as a woman in a testosterone-imbued financial subculture. I admit to flirting with Carl in a calculated fashion and toiling over whether or not to sleep with him. I also reveal that Carl fucked me—not literally, but figuratively—by stiffing me on my bonus check.
When “Doll Street” was published, it spread across the Street and got picked up by financial blogs and websites. Anyone I knew while during my years working on Wall Street was inundated with emails and phone calls from curious colleagues. Many speculated about who Carl was, and some got it right. Nevertheless, I maintain that I did enough to shroud Carl’s identity. Revenge never has and never will be my game. I simply reserve the right to tell my story.
Curious to know what Carl has been up to since the “Doll Street” fiasco, I decide to reach out to a few of my remaining contacts in finance. Several sources soon confirm a titillating piece of intelligence: Carl is no longer employed by a top shop on the Street. One former associate urges me to keep my distance from Carl. Another begs me to explain why I took any of the blame for what went down between us. He urges me to keep my distance from Carl, because, he suspects, “this is the tip of the iceberg of what he is capable of.” Carl is infamous for stepping on people throughout his career while plowing the hypothetical path to Master of the Universe. In spite of (or because of) his ruthlessness, he was promoted time and again, to the bemusement of anyone who knew his profit-and-loss record. If he were to deem me responsible for his recent fall from (dis)grace, of course he would resort to vitriol, or more.
Arguably, however, it is impossible to ascertain whether “Doll Street” had anything to do with Carl’s departure. It is not feasible to determine the exact origin of the letter, either. (Since the mail doesn’t contain an explicit threat, the police in my parents’ home town refused to get fingerprints from it.) What I do know is that a man who probably considers me his enemy no longer rakes in millions of dollars a year, and that he may attribute his current lack of employment to an article I wrote. Is the sudden loss of a staggeringly high annual salary sufficient motivation to draft a despicable letter? I do not have adequate proof to make an accusation. To use Wall Street Speak: I feel comfortable placing a sizeable bet, given the market color.
My parents have since encased the letter in a plastic bag and locked it in a file cabinet. I know what they’re thinking: potential criminal evidence. I chuckle at the possibility of further acts of vengeance, but laughter is, admittedly, still my defense mechanism. I can sense that crazy Carl’s wrath is simmering. 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 more foreboding.