My sister finally wrote home two months after she moved to Utopia.
Now, it is important to say that she wrote back.
A month after she left, Father had written to her, and I don’t think she’d have bothered writing us if she hadn’t received his letter first: she was living on her own for the first time, and certainly would have wanted to come across as a capable adult.
Her letter came on a Tuesday. That evening, Father asked Mother and me to the living room, his porcelain pipe sending weak smoke upward as he read the letter to everyone’s hearing:
How’ve you been? How’s everyone at home? I miss you guys so, so much. Utopia is a wonderful, wonderful place. The population here is exactly five thousand. Five thousand people and nothing more. Everyone knows everyone else; this is a tight, tight community.
Outside the City Gates, there’s a long, winding queue of people who want in. They hold their documents in hand and stand, hoping that somebody’s demise or expulsion grants them entry. It’s crazy, just crazy. I am so very glad I made it in.
Utopia itself is a marvel. The roads are tarred with polished gemstones. Fountains mark every street corner and every junction. The buildings are symmetrical, a tangible evidence of harmony in the city’s design. Sunlight is the sole source of electricity, and waste products are efficiently recycled; from pee to plastic.
I’ve found a job as the concierge of a small hotel. It’s a great, great job. I like it. I’m doing my best at it. And I’m saving to buy a brand new scooter so that my commute is flexible and easy. I miss home and I miss you guys. So, so much. My regards to everyone.
Your ever-loving daughter,
Father beamed as he folded back the letter. He dragged on his pipe and puffed a circle into the room.
“This is great,” he said, tucking the letter into the breast pocket of his shirt.
“Yes,” Mother added, smiling. “I’m so glad she’s doing well.”
When Father wrote to Utopia, he did it alone, under the bright candle chandelier in the dining room. He smoked his pipe as he wrote, and would occasionally ask me to bring him a mug of tea. He never read out his letter. Not to me. Not to Mother.
By the next morning, he would stand on our front porch, waiting for the Postman to make his rounds. He’d give the Postman three gold coins for a letter, and one silver coin as tip. He’d stand there long after the Postman had gone, staring into the horizon.
The second time a letter came from Utopia, it was on a Wednesday, three weeks and a day after the first one. Father could not wait till evening to read it.
I am glad everyone is doing good. I have been learning a lot down here. The city thrives on astute egalitarian administration, with every citizen holding an important vote over each and every political and societal issue.
I have been instructed to improve my speaking and writing, discarding any unnecessary repetition and the use of short forms. These, they say, are beneath the vocabulary of a citizen of Utopia.
There is a lot of unlearning and relearning to do. I hope I am up to the task.
I trust everyone is doing great at home.
This second letter did not delight Father like the first one did. He said nothing at all after reading it. Mother heaved a sigh, and retreated into the inner rooms to prepare for her day at the shop. And without being told, I understood what my parents were feeling.
You see, when I was thirteen or fourteen, there was an all-boys club in our town, founded by the reverend of one of the neighborhood churches. He called it The Gentleboys’ Club. The Clergyman advertised it as a forum to teach discipline, decorum, and etiquette to teenage boys. Around town, the boys walked with a peculiar swagger, moderated their voice when they spoke, and kept company only with each other.
The good reverend visited our home one bright morning, and asked that my father allow me join the club. He said he had been observing me, and felt I was a right fit for the club. Father thanked him and asked him to allow us time to think over his offer.
That evening, after supper, Father sat me down and told me why he didn’t want me to join the club.
“The way I am raising you and your sister, I want you people to be your own persons, not influenced by others, not lumped into groupthink,” he dragged his pipe and puffed two small circles.
“Your sister talks a lot, cho-cho-cho. People call her a talkative, but I nicknamed her, Parrot, because I like it. It’s who she is. You can always tell where her heart is, because she never hides her intention; she will tell it.
“I’m not saying that the Reverend’s club is a bad idea, still, I fear it will rob you of who you are. Do you understand?”
I nodded. I did understand. And I never joined The Gentleboys’ Club.
For a while, we didn’t receive any letters from Utopia. And I couldn’t tell whether my sister was angry with Father (for I was certain that he must have expressed his reservations in the response he had sent her), or if she was so busy that she hadn’t found the time to write us.
When the Postman made his rounds, Father stood by the front porch, perhaps to make himself visible, in case the Postman forgot his duty to us. Yet, everyday, the Postman crossed our building and shook his head at Father, indicating that we didn’t have any new mail.
Our letter came on a Thursday. Three months after the last one. Mother was already out at her jewelry shop and Father asked me to go fetch her. He simply couldn’t wait to read the letter.
When I arrived at her shop and announced to Mother that a letter had come, she shut her shop’s front door and hurried home with me.
The letter read:
I apologize for having not written earlier. The last couple months have been dramatic for me.
First of all, some good news. I have gotten my scooter and motorcycle license. Commute to work is swifter now. Sometimes, a colleague joins me at close of shift, and I drop them off before heading home. It feels good to help people this way.
I say the months have been dramatic. I know you wonder how. Riding to and fro work does not necessarily qualify as drama. Well, several weeks back, the city experienced a tragedy. A little boy, while walking home from school was hit by a car. He dislocated his left knee and has had to walk with the aid of a crutch since then. The entire city has gone all up in arms over this. The driver of the vehicle has had his driver’s license revoked, his car impounded, his job taken away, and now, he faces expulsion from the city by The Peoples Court.
Every citizen is mandated to vote on this matter in a fortnight. The general disposition is that he will be expelled. I am deeply worried by this; by how the city handles mistakes. This was clearly an accident, with no malicious intent and no fatality, yet everything has been stripped away from this driver.
I am hoping to vote against his expulsion, yet I cannot express this among friends, neighbors, or colleagues, as they all feel he deserves this punishment. It all makes me wonder, should I be involved in an accident with my scooter, would this be my fate?
So, as you can see: drama.
I trust everyone is doing well. I hope to hear from you soon.
If the last letter had rendered us speechless, this one turned us mute. Neither Mother nor Father raised up the issue in conversation, yet I knew it deeply worried them. It deeply worried me as well. I wondered what kind of place Utopia was, where errors were unforgivable.
Father spent three nights writing his response, mostly after supper, and after Mother had retired to bed. I couldn’t go off to sleep while Father wrote because I had to serve him tea at intervals. So, I brewed his tea and watched him write.
I wondered what he wrote as he scribbled across the sheets of brown paper sprawled before him. I wished he would ask my opinion, or request my help with spelling a difficult word, but he never did.
When he hit a wall, he smoked some more, and asked for more tea, and grunted to himself, and murmured alone, until the walls came down and his words began to flow again.
After the third night, he was done. The next morning, Mother made chicken sandwiches for breakfast, and Father had his in the front porch, waiting on the Postman. He offered the Postman some of his food as he handed him the letter. The Postman remarked on how very gracious Father was, and took all four of letter, sandwich, pay, and tip.
The fourth letter came a month after the third. The Postman delivered it on a Friday and as was now customary, we sat down to listen to Dad read it.
Thank you for the words of encouragement in your last letter. These past few weeks, I have had to turn to them for solace as things moved from the dramatic to the absurd.
The city voted to expel the guilty driver. I voted against this. I felt it cruel and unnecessary. If we cannot offer second chances to people who make mistakes, what does that say about us?
Everyone else—my neighbors, my colleagues, my friends—voted for the expulsion, and they have since criticized the position that I took. I said, absurd, and you may wonder why. Well, what is absurd is the way they treat me now. There is a palpable level of disdain and dismissal in the way I am regarded these days, like they wish to punish me somehow for voting against the expulsion.
I am hopeful that this will pass, but it has left me wondering . . .
Enough of my troubles. How are you? Is anything new? How is Mother, and sales at the jewelry shop? How is my brother? My regards to everyone.
Mother heaved a loud sigh and snapped her fingers. Across her face was a frown I hadn’t seen in years. Father stretched his arm to take Mother’s hand in his. He caressed it to extend comfort. On his face, however, just like Mother’s, there was an unfamiliar frown.
Later that evening, he neither smoked his pipe, nor asked for tea as he wrote his letter.
The last letter we received from Utopia came on a Saturday, two weeks after its predecessor. We had no idea it was to be the last.
Father unfolded it and read:
I have come to a decision. And I hope that the family shall support me in this.
Yes, I have learned a great deal here. To be professional in my work. To be refined in my speech. To aspire to the best life can offer. These are lessons that will not depart from me. Yet, I am conflicted by this tradition of perfection, of infallibility, and have decided that I will not participate in it any longer.
I have given the hotel my two weeks’ notice. I have notified the building manager for the apartment where I reside. I will sell off properties I do not require, and return home as soon as I am able to do so.
Those who know me here, having learnt of my decision to leave, have begun to plead with me to reconsider. I cannot take this in good faith knowing how they have treated me these past few weeks. I have found that Pretentiousness is a close cousin to Perfection.
Your kind words have been the most keeping me going. Your letters gladden my heart. I wish, however, that you do not write me anymore. Until I am back. I fear that you will ask me to soldier on, here. I do not want to.
Send my best to Mother and my brother. I will see you all very soon.
Your ever-loving daughter,
Father refolded the letter and tucked it into the breast pocket of his shirt. Once again, we were stunned to silence after a reading. This time, however, there was no sigh from Mother, no frown on my parents’ faces…only gentle smirks conveying the profound confidence they felt towards the fine daughter they had both raised.