A Tale of Two Sisters

Last August, when I received a phone call from a Houston number I didn't recognize, I felt a burning pit in my stomach. My heart stopped. I held my breath. I always knew that if this day came, there would be very bad news. And I was right. 

"It's me," the voice said dryly. "So... Mom might've died in a car accident."

It was my sister, and I didn't recognize her number because we hadn't spoken to each other in over a decade. Admittedly, there are times I forget she's my sister at all. Judging from what she said–and, more importantly, how she said it–I knew that she hadn't softened one bit over the years. 

"I'm not here to console you," she said, flatly, "You can go to your friends for that. I'm only making a courtesy call."

My blood shot up to a rolling boil. Instinctively, I wanted to retaliate verbally. But I couldn't. Her ongoing silent treatment had effectively numbed me. When we hung up, instead of throwing my phone against the wall and breaking every window in sight, I slumped down on the floor feeling completely incapacitated. Worst of all, her manner of delivery triggered an eruption of anger that overshadowed any grief I could feel for my mom. 

To give you context, we couldn't be more different from each other. She's fair-skinned while I'm olive-skinned. She inherited our mom's sharp facial features while I took on our dad's rounded ones. She hated any sort of sport or outdoor activity; I used to go for daily runs in the neighborhood. She excelled in school; I skirted by. She slept on her back, with her hands clasped on her stomach; I slept on my side, hugging a pillow. She was never afraid to stand her ground while I was a pushover. We're also opposite of each other in the astrological sense–she's an Aries; I'm a Libra. (Even our zodiac signs are positioned exactly 180 degrees apart, for goodness sakes!)

My memory of the incident that launched her silent treatment is hazy and vague. I was visiting from New York, so it must've been around the Christmas holidays. What year, who knows. I might or might not have been in college at the time–I can't really say. I do remember that she agreed to pick me up from the airport.

Now that she had her own place, I felt like we'd finally become grown-ups. Her more than me, clearly. I think I was sharing an apartment with a few friends in the West Village then. If she's the early bloomer out of the two, consider me the late one. To this day, I've still never lived completely on my own. But, then again, she's always been ahead of me ever since we were kids. She even learned how to tie her shoelaces before I did, which made me feel so hopeless I thought I'd have to wear Velcro shoes for the rest of my life!

But, back to that day...

I lugged my suitcase through her kitchen and into her bedroom. The kitchen, I remember clearly, was a little bit of a mess. "I didn't have a chance to clean yet," she explained matter-of-factly. She'd recently bought a fondue set and had hosted a dinner party the night before. There were breadcrumbs all over a wooden cutting board, wine glasses clustered together on the counter, and a mess of plates in the sink. She informed me that she was getting into wine now and had a book about wines to prove it. (Years before, she had vowed never to drink alcohol.) She's becoming so sophisticated! I thought. I also remember thinking that I wanted to clean up her kitchen for her after she left for work the next morning.

When we got to her bedroom, she slid open the mirrored doors to her closet and proudly showed off her wardrobe. She was a clotheshorse and loved shopping. It was probably dangerous that she lived so close to the Galleria. She had a very snappy sense of style and wasn't afraid to pay retail for it. Mine was either boring or all over the place. I remember looking forward to the night during my visit where we'd get dolled up for a nice dinner on the town. I was most likely going to try to borrow something from her. But, first things first, we had to go visit our mom.

She told me about her relationship as she drove on the freeway. I had missed this sort of girly catch-up with her since she so rarely allowed such intimacy. But then I unwittingly made some kind of disapproving remark about it and questioned his intentions. I had crossed some invisible line in the sand and that was the end of it. She never wanted to speak to me ever again and she meant it this time, she yelled. Next thing I knew, she announced that we were going straight back for my suitcase because she didn't want me staying with her anymore.

"You can stay at Mommy's house," she declared, cuttingly.

And that's exactly what happened. She didn't say another word to me the entire way. After I pulled my bags out of the trunk and shut the door, her car screeched off into the night.

Surely, she couldn't be serious. We'd gotten into crazy blowouts before but always managed to repair things after cooling off. I tried calling her later that night to apologize but it rang and rang until I got her voicemail. I tried again and again to no avail.

When I got back to New York, my emails went unanswered. A couple of years later, I tried a new tactic of just sending her a very short quip with no emotional content. "I went to Barcelona and tried anchoas for the first time," I wrote, attempting to reel her in through her love for Spain. To my surprise, she took the bait and wrote back. She said she had a thing against eating small fish. But the stick was firmly planted in the mud. She ended her email with: "I hope you've changed by now." Nothing got past her.

For years, I carried around an immense sense of guilt–just an overall terrible feeling about myself. I became even more cautious, self-conscious and accommodating, as to not drive people away with my very existence. "Maybe you should try harder," everyone urged me, further reinforcing that this devastating divide was entirely my fault. She was punishing me and I felt very punished indeed.

While she wasn't exactly a warm person, she was caring in her own way. When I was struggling during my early days in New York, she used to send a check here and there for $50 or $100. I was touched by her gesture, for she was struggling herself in Houston. It should've been the other way around, though, shouldn't it? The older one caring for the younger one? I'm sure she shored up some resentment over it, especially since I'd come home with some hundred-dollar haircut or an eighty-dollar Prada skirt I found at a consignment shop which, I'll admit, was irresponsible. At the same time, I was young and living in Manhattan. What can I say? I felt a constant pressure to keep up appearances with my peers. 

If I reach deep enough, I can tell you of one instance in which I had total confidence that she didn't hate me completely. We were teenagers at the time and there was a rumor spreading about me while we were at a party together. I can't believe now how affected I was by it then, but people were calling me "superficial" because I'd apparently turned some guy down the week before "because of his looks". There were whispers and dirty stares going around the room. "Snob!" "Who does she think she is anyway?" "She's not even pretty enough to be a snob." 

For the record, I turned him down because I thought he was creepy. Tell me, what kind of a guy drives 45-minutes across town, in the middle of the night, to deliver a red rose and a handwritten card confessing his feelings to a sixteen-year-old girl he's never even spoken to? The gossiping ate away at me. (Having my actions grossly misunderstood and misrepresented is one of the great curses in my life.) But my sister stood up for me. She stood in front of that crowd of older kids and demanded they stop spreading rumors about me. "My sister is a good person," she said, through her tears. "She is a good person."

I felt like a failure witnessing my sister's boldness. Could I ever come to her rescue as fearlessly as she was doing for me? I wasn't sure I had it in me. In fact, I was such a coward that I prayed such a situation would never arise. Today, there'd be no question. Like I said, I'm a late bloomer.

For the longest time, my dysfunctional relationship with my sister was a source of great shame. I was afraid that it would be reason for anyone I met to write me off. "She must be a truly deplorable person if her own sister refuses to speak to her!" It's a temptingly easy piece of information to tuck away as future ammunition.

At this point, though, I've come to accept that perhaps this is her only mechanism for coping with her emotions–or lack thereof, rather. It's the most compassionate explanation I've found. After all, her history of unleashing years-long silent treatments has extended to our dad, one cousin that I know of, and God knows who else. Her insidious hostility goes beyond my own character flaws, you see.

So, no, I don't know my sister's phone number and I didn't bother to save it. I don't know what she does or where she lives. We no longer have any significant ties to each other. What moments we did live through together are nothing more than a pile of ashes now: indistinguishable, delicate and disintegrating.

But maybe burning through it all is a form of healing in itself. As reflected in Nature, controlled burns are necessary in dense forests because they create the environment for regrowth. With the overgrowth cleared, the sun is able to filter through the remaining trees; its rays can penetrate beneath the foliage. The hope is that those sparks of light will awaken all of the hidden seeds to grow into new flora and greenery.

But I'm not holding my breath for it.




Is That All There Is? Que Sera Sera.

I've been reading my daily horoscope on a near-religious basis since I was eighteen years old and there's only one astrologist that I turn to for these forecasts: Holiday Mathis. She's masterful and wise and eloquent. I haven't found a better written horoscope column than hers, though, I can't take full credit for discovering it.

It was the year 2000 and I was hostessing that summer at a swanky restaurant in Downtown Houston to make extra money before moving to New York that August. I noticed that an attorney from L.A., who was in town on a three-month long case, would ask for the Houston Chronicle every time he came in for lunch. He told me that, despite traveling far and wide, he had never read a better horoscope column than Holiday's. Like him, I became hooked.

What I love about the way Holiday Mathis writes her forecasts is that there's always some guiding principle in it. She never says bogus things like "You will meet your one true love at the coffee shop around the corner at 3 p.m. on Friday." Her words paint a bigger perspective about life, and the beauty in her art lies in how she connects all of that greatness to you as an individual. "How does she know?" you'll wonder.

There are indeed times where you wish she didn't know. Like on the morning of Wednesday, June 19th, 2013, when I read this:

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 23). It goes something like this: You stray from the boring path, get lost, struggle, think you know where you're going, wind up worse off, try again, find your way back and are happy for the adventure of it all.

I mean, the woman summed up my whole adulthood in one sentence! If that's not talent, I don't know what is. I couldn't have said it better myself. You'd think she had to have lived a hundred lives to be that wise.

Please, oh please, tell me that this is not the story of my life, Holiday Mathis. 

This particular forecast really scared me because it's true. If you were to follow my life story up until now, you'd find that it's a bunch of scribbles instead of a strong, steady line. If you want to experience what that might feel like, imagine a really bad parallel parking job where you have to make a million minor adjustments before fitting into a parking spot. Yeah. That. It gets to the point where you wish the universe will just throw you a bone. Or, better yet, a fortune cookie. With the answer to all questions inside.

Then again, I'd have no material for this blog. (Could enough scribbles become a masterpiece? Like a Cy Twombly?)

Anyway, point is, I'm taking matters into my own hands. I'm going to consult a psychic. 







The Rothko Chapel


This image was taken from the book The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith by Susan J. Barnes as no photos are allowed inside.

3900 Yupon Street
Houston, TX 77006

I moved away from Houston, my hometown, in 2000. Every time I come home, it feels like a pilgrimage of sorts–a journey that reminds of where I'm from and how far I've come. These trips are marked with one very significant visit and that is to The Rothko Chapel. 

How can I explain what this special place is? The plaque outside of it states that it is "a sacred place open to all, every day." While it is a chapel, it's not religious, per se, but rather spiritual. Inside of this octagonal Philip Johnson-designed structure are fourteen large black and purple paintings by Mark Rothko that were commissioned by philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil. Intimate yet expansive, it is truly a gift to the city that keeps on giving.  

After a major break-up three years ago, I briefly moved back home and visited the Rothko Chapel quite often. There were times where I'd be driving elsewhere and somehow find myself pulling up on that leafy tree-lined street and parking the car. My sanctuary. I would sit on one of the benches and lose myself in the void of those big black canvases. y whole being would swell with emotion and, with every exhale, my mind would feel more at peace. Lighter. Freer.

From then on, whenever I'm in Houston, I make it a point to come here. Whether it's for gaining clarity or emptying out loads of anxiety, my initial thought as I get back into the car is always this: "I feel so much better now."


F*ck Weddings

One night, while I was making dinner in the kitchen with my friend Lulu, my housemate nonchalantly mentioned that he had committed to attending a total of six weddings this year–not realizing that he had simultaneously kicked a hornets' nest, opened a can of worms, and released the millions of imps inside Pandora's box. 

"Think about how much of your income you're spending towards everyone else's wedding," pointed out Lulu, as she ate a forkful of pasta, "It's not just about the wedding either. It's about all of the other events surrounding the wedding: the bachelor or bachelorette party, the bridal shower, the travel... If I had a wedding and my friend couldn't make it because she couldn't afford to, I would totally understand." She paused, dangling her leg off the side of the ottoman. "First of all, I would never make my friends go through that! People should just invite people who are 'into weddings' to their weddings." 

 "I know! I mean... Do I even look like I'm into weddings?!" I asked rhetorically, in an angry manner to nobody in particular.

Weddings. Who knew they'd be such a touchy subject amongst single girls.* 

My friend Preston says that, while he does not believe in marriage, there are only two reasons why people should have a wedding: (a) to get a green card, and/or (b) to celebrate their commitment/love amongst their family and/or close friends. The ideal wedding here being JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessett's secret ceremony on Cumberland Island, which had all of 40 guests in attendance. (See also: Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big who tied the knot at City Hall and had brunch with a table of friends at Junior's in Brooklyn.) Some weddings feel like obnoxious, overblown, over-the-top affairs, complete with fairytale princess themes. And I only know this because sometimes I spend evenings watching wedding videos of strangers on my laptop while drinking questionable red wine.

Like Carrie Bradshaw, I am under the suspicion that I may have been born without the bride gene. I don't have a secret "first dance" song. I haven't picked out a color palette for my bridesmaids' dresses and I don't know what flowers will go into the table centerpieces. However, I have had the occasional flashes of fantasy when it comes to wedding stuff, so let me indulge just this moment...

Click through the gallery and roll-over for captions: 

*This, of course, has already been covered by Sex and the City in an episode titled "A Woman's Right to Shoes",  in which Carrie Bradshaw expounds upon it further:

“I did a little mental addition. And over the years, I have bought Kyra an engagement gift, a wedding gift, then there was the trip to Maine for the wedding, three baby gifts—in total, I have spent over twenty-three-hundred dollars celebrating her choices. And she is shaming me for spending a lousy 485 bucks on myself?! Yes, I did the math. And if I don’t ever get married or have a baby, I get what? I get bupkis?

Think about it... If you are single, after graduation, there isn't one occasion where people celebrate you. We all have birthdays–that's a wash. I am talking about the single gal. Hallmark doesn't make a 'Congratulations-you-didn't-marry-the-wrong-guy' card. 

The fact is, sometimes it’s hard to walk in a single woman’s shoes. That’s why we need really special ones now and then, to make the walk a little more fun.”


Cortado with Orange Blossom & Chocolate Pound Cake

6 East 7th Street near First Avenue

A cortado, according to the barista at Abraço, is a short cappuccino. The ratio of steamed milk to espresso is 1:1, and it's sometimes topped off with microfoam. The first time I had one was last Christmas at the home of my friends Michael and Tricia in Houston. Michael is an expert at making them, so his lucky wife Tricia gets a freshly made cortado every morning!

Since then, I honestly hadn't thought about it until I saw it scribbled on the mirrored menu at Abraço. I ordered one out of nostalgia's sake and also tried a thick slice of the orange blossom & chocolate pound cake. It's fragrant with the perfume of orange blossom and studded with rich bits of dark chocolate and crushed almonds, semi-sweet and dense with just the right amount of texture and crumble. After tweeting and Instagramming the above photo, though, everyone told me that the olive oil cake is where it's at, so, duly noted.