August Book Club Pick: Close Family


From Close family

Last night I told you that today could be a difficult day for us, and you said why, and I said because you will be married and all adults, and you said that I am already an adult and you looked at me that I have never seen on any a face other than yours, a kind of mischievous pride that oscillates between the security of your own truths and the question of whether you will get away with them.

I was supposed to be with our mother, to help argue about the bride, your soon-to-be wife, but instead I made my way to your corner of a Mexican restaurant during rehearsal. Above your head was a red pinata, and behind you was a large dark window that had held the beach for hours. You were surrounded by friends of our father, who held a beer that was just as exposed as the piñata; what you probably wanted was just iced Coke. The other hand was in your pocket, and you huddled a little in the collared shirt, happy to be noticed, to be somehow in the center, but not sure how to handle the body. A month ago you called to ask me if I would give you a speech. When I saw your name, I wondered if you were calling to apologize, to set things up between us, but instead you moved on to the question. You just said this: Will you give me a speech.

I listened carefully to the sound of your voice because I hadn’t heard it so often these days, and instead of being as upset as I thought, I marveled at the feeling it carried with it, as if it hadn’t been a while, like bad things didn’t happen or they may have happened though and no matter what we were, we went back to the old way again. Speech? I said. Isn’t that a godfather? You explained that your godfather withdrew from the speech, maybe even from the wedding, and you didn’t want to talk about it because it’s a long story and please. You said twice, please give a speech, you were at stake. Otherwise you would really ask your sister?

Did your mom talk you into this? I said, and you took a deep breath into the phone, like those brief gusts of Northern California wind coming out of nowhere from the sun and pushing all your hair into your face, disturbing an otherwise pleasant day. The sigh sounded like you had lived a long hard life even though you were twenty-eight years old and seemed to have lost responsibility like a sock in the wash.

So that’s the best sister’s speech, I said.

I guess, you said, and before we broke up, I reminded you that I didn’t put you in place at my wedding, and you reminded me I didn’t ask.


You wrote to me when we were young; I would find messages stored in my shoe or lunch box. Back then, all your letters were a combination of an extraordinary feeling and formality that I greatly missed.

To my sister: Your best sister in the whole world. From, Danny Larsen.

Hello, I love you HEPPY BIRTHDAY Sincerely, your brothers and sisters

Even now, as adults, I still hear it in your voice messages. It’s me, Danny, you always start, as if I will not recognize the number or sound of your voice.


Once, when you were a teenager, I wrote you that angry letter – do you remember this? I was home from college and handed it to you on Christmas, for effect. You threw it on the locker where it remained unopened for the rest of the week and, until then feeling guilty, I took it and tore it up.

The letter, of course, referred to money, because most of our struggles will take place. You took cash from our mother’s underwear drawer a few days earlier and bought a silver bracelet for a blonde girl at school. (As much as I could say in my speech about your lifelong appreciation of blonde blue-eyed girls.) When our mother discovered the bracelet in your backpack, you pretended it was a gift for her, such hanging hearts that were so obviously unintentional for the mother. In reality you haven’t gotten anything for our parents for Christmas yet, and I’ve just put both of our names on everything I have. When you asked me what the letter said as I packed the car back to school, I said it explained what I thought of you while you were doing such things.

Your body settled into this statement and from the other side of the driveway I watched the words twist into some weird shape for the journey ahead, through your ears, your frown, your throat, your heart.

Well, you said after a while, what do you think of me? You said so seriously that we both couldn’t help but smile. The question seemed absurd after so many years together, and I didn’t finally answer it before I hugged you goodbye.


You asked me what it was like to be married, what we did at home if we didn’t have a TV.

I spoke, I suppose, I answered, and your eyes widened as if it were the last line of a ghost story.


I have often thought about us in the last few years as I tried to become a mother. I was thinking of simpler times: like when our parents were going out and we were delivering pizza, and you would be squeezing a blue cheese topping onto our sauce plates like I taught you. We would watch everything you choose on Blockbuster because you would fall asleep in about thirty minutes. Sometimes you would fall asleep holding a pizza, legs crossed on the couch; I was probably about fourteen, which would mean you were eight. Your head would slide backwards, your mouth would open, and then, when I took your plate, my body would slide toward me, falling on my shoulder or lap. In these years our days no longer contained physical intimacy; I no longer lifted you, swung you, or carried you on your shoulders like I used to. I was fourteen and my bodies were becoming new territories, mostly mine, and I no longer touched people without consciousness. But on nights like this, I’d let you take complete comfort in your sleep, cover you with a blanket, and finish your pizza, and occasionally, if you stir, I’d rub your back. What surprises me after all these years is the fear I still feel talking about your body, the body I know and lived next to for so long, the body I hugged and pushed, carried and cleansed.

Were there simpler times? Has anything ever been easy for you?


I tell myself I can’t worry about speech. I can’t worry about speaking in a place where everyone will drink too much, and you’ll be so busy being famous one day that you’ll have a hard time remembering the words at all. I tell myself I’m a last-minute replacement, which should at best maintain moderate expectations. I tell myself that the success of marriage does not depend on the success of speech, and if that were the case there would be many more unhappy communities in this world.

Maybe I’m worried because I’ve been watching our parents for the last six months planning with your bride how money has turned into worry again. Where have you been? Maybe I’m worried because I want to be good for the three of them, because I refused to do anything just because of you. I helped with the cake, the color scheme for the bride, the drama scene about who would sit next to whom. I helped with flowers and finding our father a tie, silverware, chicken, or steak; I admitted to wearing whatever the bride chooses. I tried to help in the absence of the bride’s parents and how our parents bore the costs, but too often I became angry and generous, and therefore did not help. I was angry most of all because, of course, I still loved you, because for that reason it was always done, despite what I said to myself.

When you called about speech a month ago, I realized I had never said a word about that kind of love, to be exact. ours kind and how he always felt a little different from everyone else. I didn’t know how to point it at the light, to see through it, and instead I just longed to buy a cake and put on a dress and show up in time to explain that I love you. Because, what did I know about what facts should be collected or revealed in the story of a person? What right did I have to talk about your life?

Taken from Close family by Ashley Nelson Levy. Copyright © 2021 by Ashley Nelson Levy. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. All rights reserved.

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