My sister installs a suggestion box in my back after I tell her I’m open to anything.
“You say you’re doing well,” she says, “but there comes a time in your life when you should give other people a chance to say how you’re doing.”
She stands behind me and takes a photo. Then she shows me the photo so that I can see the box. It’s pine green, and lovely.
“I think I’ll enjoy this,” I tell her, and I smile at her because she has made the time to install the box and my sister is usually very busy.
I’m not as busy as my sister, but I’m doing well. I sell classified ads for the local newspaper. Most local business owners know me. I live in an apartment with hardwood floors, and I receive postcards from my friend in Belgium every summer. I remember other people’s birthdays. I floss. I make pumpkin bread without looking at the recipe. Next summer, I’ll visit the ocean. I have a pleasant relationship with the mute woman who lives down the street.
“I know you don’t like to ask for other’s people’s opinions,” says my sister, “but I think this will be good for you.”
In high school, my sister had the prettiest hair, and she understood geometry. The rest of us struggled with people and numbers. We knew my sister had exciting things ahead of her, and we were right. Now, my sister works at the local car dealership. Every night, she chooses a new vehicle from the lot and drives it home. She drives past my apartment, and she always looks like she’s going somewhere very important.
My sister lives with her boyfriend in a house they bought on one of the better streets. Her boyfriend is smart, like a professor or a bank teller. He is the lead mechanic at the car dealership, and he can take apart an engine and put it back together. My sister says he understands other things, too. She says his brain is a textbook, and that he could probably learn to speak Spanish in a week. I studied French in high school, and I don’t remember the words I learned, except for nerveux. This is the word for nervous.
The day after my sister installs the box, I leave my house and distribute the suggestion cards to everyone I meet. I give the cards to my co-workers, my boss, the postman, the local business owners, the mute woman down the street. When I give them the card, I say, “Your feedback is important to me.”
I’m pleased when I see each one of them write something on the card. They seem satisfied when they drop their feedback into the box.
That night, my sister comes over to my house to open the box and read the cards. I’m doing well, but opinions have given me trouble in the past, and my sister says it’s best if she reads the cards. She stands behind me and clears her throat. Then she opens the box and begins to read:
- Yellow is a color, but it is not your color.
- You always say “kit gloves” but it’s “kid gloves.”
- You drive a used car and I know that you didn’t graduate from law school. I think you should remove that university decal from your rear window.
- Please stop e-mailing people you don’t really know. My sister in-law only invited you to her candle party because she knew you’d buy things. She says yesterday you e-mailed her to ask her if she’d like to take swimming lessons with you.
- Sometimes, I don’t want to listen to you. I listen because I am polite.
- I’m almost certain you have a vitamin deficiency. Eat more carrots.
- You smell lonely.
- I think you would do a good job in a place where people blend together. Maybe the Amish country. But you probably don’t know how to use a hammer.
“Stop,” I say, and turn around.
“That person didn’t mean that,” says my sister. “They probably meant you’d do well as a Mennonite. The two are often confused. Mennonites can use cars, you know.”
“Some people didn’t even write down suggestions,” I say. “Some of them just wrote statements.”
“Try to read between the lines,” says my sister. “I think these people are really saying something. I think you’re having trouble understanding them because you don’t know them very well.”
“You’re the only one I know very well,” I say, because it’s the truth. I know other people’s birthdays. But other facts about people are lost to me, or never given in the first place. “Maybe you’re the one who should be filling out a card.”
My sister blinks. “You don’t want that.”
“I do,” I say. “Write down what you think these people are saying about me. Or write down what you think they should have said.”
My sister looks at me, puts the cards down, and then goes to the pile of blank cards on the counter. She pulls one from the stack and uses a pen from her pocket to write something on it. Then she folds the card, stands behind me, and drops it into the empty box.
“I care about you,” she says quietly, “but this is what I think.”
We stand there in silence. The box feels heavier now, heavier than before when it held a dozen cards, so heavy that I can’t speak, so heavy that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to turn around and see my sister’s face.
So I don’t turn around, and I don’t look at her, and I don’t see her expression when I ask, “Are you going to take it out and read it to me?”
She clears her throat.
“I don’t think that would be a good choice,” says my sister.
My sister knows all about choices. She chooses a car from the lot at the dealership every evening and drives it home to her apartment. I could never choose like that. I’d walk back and forth between the rows of vehicles, first drawn to red, then green, then small, then large. I’d wander the lot for the entire evening. I don’t think I’d ever make it home. My sister has never wandered, or been lost, or walked alone in any place. My sister has visited the neighboring states with her boyfriend, and after every trip, she’s given me the maps they used to get there. But eventually, she takes the maps back. She tells me that I would get lost in unfamiliar places. This isn’t what she wants for me. She says I wouldn’t really like the ocean. She says the waves are louder than I imagine, and that seagulls are only beautiful in paintings.
“Do you think it would be a good idea to just destroy all of this?” my sister asks. “The cards and the box, I mean.”
“Yes,” I say, because I’m doing well, and because I don’t know what to do with all this feedback anyway.
At the local park, my sister pulls the box from my back and places it in a fire pit. Then she produces matches from her pocket. My sister can produce anything. After a few moments, children from the neighborhood show up and ask my sister if they can roast marshmallows over the flames. She walks towards the woods to help them find the best roasting sticks.
When my sister is out of sight, I look at the fire. I tell myself the words on the cards have been lost. The flames will scrub the cards clean. I won’t remember the words, and no one meant them anyway. People don’t mean things. And people don’t know things about me, about the way I am, and the fact that I’m doing well. My friend from Belgium once sent me chocolates shaped like seashells.
But when my sister returns and gives me the smallest smile from across the flames, it’s like I’m reading the card, the one that she wrote. It’s like the words aren’t hers, but something taken from me. It’s like my sister overheard a conversation in the depths of my chest, and then pulled it out to transcribe it. We look at each other from across the fire, and we read the words she’s written.