Etta or Bessie or Dora or Rose

From Elisa Albert’s acclaimed 2006 collection, the infamous short story that turned Philip Roth’s playbook inside out.

Elisa Albert | How This Night Is Different | May 2018 | 23 minutes (5,706 words)

October 2004

Dear Philip,

You must be aware of the intimidation factor inherent in anyone’s writing to you, but I wonder if maybe the paradigm is similar to what happens when a stunning woman walks into a room: no one approaches her, she’s simply too beautiful; everyone assumes they have no shot. Maybe you don’t get many letters. Maybe you haven’t received a truly balls-out, bare-assed communiqué since 1959.

You once signed a book for me. That’s the extent of our connection thus far, but it’s something, isn’t it? The book was The Counterlife, but I had yet to read it when I presented it to you for signature. You were unsure of the spelling of my name, and so there’s an endearing awkwardness, a lack of flow, to the inscription. For E, you wrote, and the pen held still too long on the page, leaving a mark at the point of the lowest horizontal’s completion while you waited for me to continue spelling. L, you continued on, and then, again, a spot of bleeding, hesitant ink before the i and the s and the a, which proceed as they should before your slanted, rote, wonderful autograph. I remember being all too aware of the impatient line behind me, people clutching their copies of Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus, The Human Stain, the odd Zuckerman Unbound. I tried to meet your eye, I tried to communicate something meaningful. The others, of course, didn’t get it. I wanted you to know: I got it. Later, when I found my way to reading the book, I actually purchased a whole new copy so I wouldn’t sully my signed paperback. I cherish our moment of eye contact, your pen hovering over the title page, my name circulating in that colossal mind of yours.

But wait. This is no mere fan letter; no mere exercise in soft-core intellectual erotica constructed for your amusement. I have an objective. How old are you now, Philip? Early seventies, is it? You are, of course, notoriously private. I have the books, sure, like everyone else. And the reviews of the books, each of which mentions the notorious privacy. And there’s the Claire Bloom debacle, which I hesitate even to mention, given its complete disrespect of the notorious privacy (though you might be happy to know that I couldn’t find “Leaving A Doll’s House” in any of the four sizable bookstores I checked and had to finally order it on Amazon). And The Facts, which I made a point of reading after the Claire Bloom, for balance. A graduate school friend of mine was your research assistant for a few years while we pursued our MFAs and it took her almost a year of post-workshop drinking to slyly confess, to a rapt audience of salivating young writers, her association to you. (Otherwise you’ll be happy to know she was loyal; she professed total ignorance of your life, your private matters, even your address. She seemed, in retrospect, somewhat terrified of you. I half-seriously offered her boyfriend a blow job if he’d get me your address. The table of young writers giggled madly and took big sips of beer.)

Yeah, so I’m a writer. Aspiring writer. And, could you have guessed…? I write fiction about Jews. Jews! Imagine that. When I queried agents I categorized myself thusly: A lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick lit. They liked that. I had a lot of offers of representation. I’m almost done with my debut collection, which has yet to find a publisher. And as for the inevitable debut novel, well. That’s a bit of an issue. I had an idea, see. I spent almost a year fleshing it out, taking notes, outlining, writing scenes. It was going to be so fucking great, Philip; my God was it going to be great! It was a good idea for a novel, a truly good idea, literally stumbled upon and embraced immediately as worthy of however many years of toil it might take me, after half a dozen years crafting clever little ten-pagers featuring women sitting shiva for relatives who had molested them, women sucking their first uncircumcised cock (then going out for bacon cheeseburgers, natch!), women feeling left out and misunderstood at Jewish sleep-away camp, to write a novel. A Great American Jewish Novel.

It happened like this: I was walking along Washington Place, east of the Washington Square park, in the village. A block I’d traversed countless times before, only a stone’s throw from my apartment. It was early spring, still cold. I came upon a huge pile of white carnations just piled – heaped — on the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection I noticed that each was affixed with a small sticker nametag. And then, for the first time, despite having passed it quite often, I saw the bronze plaque affixed to the building just above eye level. It was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the very sidewalk where dozens of barely post-pubescent immigrant girls had landed in a charred heap after having leapt from the all-consuming fire, where now their names were affixed to ostensibly representative cheap white carnations. A hundred and fifty of them, Esther Goldsteins and Yetta Fichtenhultzs and Gussie Rosenfelds and Ida Jakorskys and Rosie Shapiros and Celia Gettlins and Annie Novobritskys and Unidentifieds, commemorated on the anniversary of the catastrophe that at once embodied and betrayed their naïve, perhaps even as-yet-unarticulated American Dreams. It was perfect. I immediately whipped out my oh-so-writerly Moleskine notebook (thirteen bucks at your local independent bookstore) and began to copy down the names and some notes, impressions of my oh-so-writerly wheels a-spinning.

You once signed a book for me. That’s the extent of our connection thus far, but it’s something, isn’t it?

I got to work that very day, March 25th. I went to the library, looked around online, gathered information about the fire, about New York at the turn of the (last) century, etc. I put together a bibliography. I envisioned something grand, something all-encompassing, something at once contemporary and historical, intricately crafted to reveal a core of overlapping themes of American Judaism, the century-bookending phenomena of people falling en masse from tall burning buildings in lower Manhattan, my own rampant post-adolescent malaise and fear, housed not three blocks from the site in a two-bedroom I shared with my fiancé until I broke my engagement and kicked him out a few months later. It was going to be great. The potential was endless and unbelievably exciting. I was out for some Safran Foer blood, man. I would get a grant, I would go to an artists’ colony, I would sell first serial to the Paris Review, I would have a stunning black-and-white portrait taken by Marion Ettlinger, I would sell the collection in a massive two-book deal which would warrant a clipping in Shtetl Fabulous magazine, that glossy, much-hyped bi-monthly effort to turn cultural Jewish identity into the coolest shtick on the block, the new black. I could not have been more excited, more – if you’ll excuse the expression in this context – fired up.

Anyway, it goes without saying that I love you. I first read you in high school (Goodbye, Columbus — don’t remember it so well, but the chick who played Brenda in the movie was pretty hot, wasn’t she?). I flipped through Portnoy shortly thereafter, disgusted and bored. It enraged me like it had enraged all the good dumb Jews thirty-odd years earlier. I was so idiotic, Philip. This, admittedly, had less to do with your much-maligned opus than with the relatively few years that had elapsed since the end of my own unfortunate, romantically unsuccessful tenure at a particularly vile Jewish sleep-away camp. All I could see in Portnoy was the specter of all those pathetic fucking guys who didn’t want to fuck me, Philip. That was my tragedy at seventeen: no one wanted to fuck me. My Camp Ramah might as well have been your Newark, fifty years later and in Southern California, for all its Jewish insularity and provinciality. The people with whom I came of age in that pseudo-ghetto aspired to meet, screw, and marry each other (but not me!) without ever moving in any respect beyond the psychological, emotional, and intellectual borders of those well-funded, gorgeously landscaped five acres. They have motherfucking alumnae weekends, Philip. I get letters soliciting donations.

“Roth,” I would spit contemptuously whenever the subject of your books came up, “Yuck.” Yuck because in the defensively perceived Shiksa-obsession and sexual dysfunction and casual dismissal of Jewish women and mockery of everything religiously, spiritually meaningful in Judaism itself, I was transported right back to Ramah, to being ignored and overlooked, to being made to feel freakish for my aesthetic, my sensibility, my desire for connection and friendship and love, to the weekly advent of the holy Sabbath as purely an opportunity for us girls to look our prettiest and amass sexually explicit Shabbat-O-Grams from heavily-gelled-and-cologned boys, to the years-long, unrequited torment of a crush on a smarmy staff Rabbinical student whose engaging smirks of dismissal I took as signals of subverted lust. Yuck because in Roth were Justin Steinberg and Eric Landsman and Ron Frank, those United Synagogue Youth fuckwads with their hemp necklaces and hackey-sacks and Phish tickets and body-hair aversions embodied in a universal fetishization of Asian women. I didn’t matter. I was powerless. I was overlooked. I had to hate you. I had to play that easy, tired “misogynist” card. Hating you made me feel better about myself, my Jewish-ness, my femininity, my mattering, the possibility that somewhere, sometime, someone would want to fuck me. In that way, of course, the trajectory of my (one-sided) relationship with you is not unlike that of the world at large, do you see? Because after some years of relaxing into myself and accepting my innate worth and spending lots and lots of my parents’ money on therapy and electrolysis, after finding many men who did indeed want to fuck me (who, in fact, wanted very much to fuck me! So there!), I could pick up The Human Stain and then Operation Shylock and then The Ghostwriter and then American Pastoral and then Sabbath’s Theater and read you simply as the fucking astonishing genius that you are. Substitute the assimilation and success and general relaxing-into-the-safety-and-prosperity-of-the-second-half-of-the-Twentieth-century of American Jewry for my own sexual liberation at the hands of (mostly) non-Jewish men and there you have a rather interesting parallel in terms of our collective eventual appreciation of the writer Philip Roth, no? At present writing, The Plot Against America is number one on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller list. Mazel Tov.

So. I am a young Jewish writer who idolizes you, cherishes your books and reads them slowly, considers you the father of us all. Ah, yes: the father of us all –but not actually a father yourself, Philip, so far as I know. Why is that? Do you yourself know? Is there an answer? I realize life is more complicated than that, but still, I wonder. Again and again I find evidence of child-longing in your books. In The Counterlife, especially, our tenuous link, we find pregnant Maria a-glow with Zuckerman’s life growing inside her, the narrative changing and changing until she vanishes from reality, taking Zuckerman’s potential offspring with her. When she reappears at the end of The Facts, she’s still pregnant (more so, even), but there is no birth, no bearing, no fruition.

And in American Pastoral, there’s our man Zuckerman at his Fortieth high school reunion, reporting (obsessively?) on the names and ages of his classmates’ children and grandchildren. “…I seemed alone in having would up with no children, grandchildren, or…’anything like that,’” he says. And one former classmate regards Zuckerman’s reality with what I found to be the saddest two words in that whole tragic book: “Poor Skip.” Poor Nathan, poor Philip.

Nihilistic Mickey Sabbath, too, adds his voice to this sad chorus, commenting on the fact of his having “…never [been] blessed with children,” and, furthermore, “children never blessed with [him].” (p. 326)

And what’s that? Alexander Portnoy? Speak up! “Why then do I live by myself and have no children of my own? …What have I got to show for myself? …Children should be playing on this earth who look like me!” (p. 229)

Bloom, discussing your happier times together, recalls your regret that you hadn’t married earlier, when you and she “might have had a child” together.

Perhaps it’s my own baby-longing that effects mere projection here. Perhaps I am just blinded by my own maternal desperation. I’m twenty-six, Philip. That must seem impossibly young to you – I am, after all, almost half a century your junior — but I don’t feel particularly young. I recently broke up with a guy (the aforementioned fiancé) who I thought I’d be with forever. I am the youngest child of rapidly aging parents who have no grandchildren. One of my older brothers is dead, the other is useless. I have a condition (thanks to the aforementioned ex-fiance) that predisposes me toward cervical cancer (no one knows this Philip; no one except for my gynecologist and now you). I feel doomed. I feel done for. Do you know what I mean? Or do I seem short-sighted and utterly without perspective? I wonder sometimes if my pessimism in this regard is related to the despondent logic that disallows me from reading and carrying around and “wearing out” my signed copy of The Counterlife. No, twenty-six is not seventy-six. If all goes well (but why should it?) I have a great many years still folded unsullied before me. Books are for reading. Clothes are for wearing. Life is fatal for all of us. Sound wisdom, sure. But I feel ripe; I feel about to rot.

What happened with my fiancé, if you must know, is that he flipped out about his representation in my fiction. He looked for himself in all of it, and he found himself in all of it. He couldn’t handle it, couldn’t handle me and my big fat Jewess mouth, told me I was judgmental and ungenerous (translation: that I portrayed “him” negatively). I patiently tried to explain that those qualities are the very ones that confer any prowess I may have as a writer in the first place and that furthermore I was never going to get published anyhow. What’s odd is that I actually always took significant pains to disguise both him and his bizarre-ass family. But he couldn’t see that. He found himself implicated everywhere, in every critically-viewed male, on every sarcasm-laced page. He was a self-obsessed infant of the highest order (and here I’m not disguising him whatsoever, finally, but only because no one but you will ever see this). So even though he was also a big hot strapping Jew – and himself a highly successful veteran of my very own terrible Camp Ramah — I chose the fiction over him. Fiction is forever, Philip. I know you agree. Facts dissipate with changed perspective, reality is ephemeral; Viva la Fantasy! I chose my banal stories and the promise of redemption with my precious Shirtwaist Fire girls over a traditional partnership with a terribly limited man next to whom I’d lie awake sobbing at night, horrified by the stultifying limitations of the life I’d somehow chosen for myself.


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I had been chipping away in relative secret at my Triangle Shirtwaist novel for almost a year when I found out I was too late. This guy in my workshop, AJ, turned in a story about an ambivalent Jew dressing up as Santa for a Christmastime gig at Macy’s, and talk turned, in much the same way it always does, to the quality and quantity of contemporary Jewish fiction. A British girl commented on all the “similar stories” we MFA kikes persist in composing. She was, ostensibly, referring to all my ten-pagers, all my little Jewish-chick-meets-uncircumcised-dick narratives, to AJ’s tired Jewish Santa, to a guy named Dante’s Leon Uris inflected action-adventures featuring Shin Bet.

“All your stories are the same,” she said, waving vaguely toward AJ and Dante and me, we representative Jewish writers. This girl was working on a novel based loosely on the courtship and marriage of her great-grandparents in late 19th Century Oxford.

“It does seem like there’s a lot of this kind of thing out there already,” offered a sweet asian guy helpfully.

“Well, Jews buy a lot of books,” I snapped, somewhat harshly.

“Yeah,” said adorable Andy, my favorite, with a wink. “Jews buy a lot of everything. You have all the fucking money.”

“There’s a big market for Jewish fiction,” Dante said earnestly. On one enormous bicep he sported an elaborate tattoo memorializing the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. “There are a lot of specifically Jewish book awards and stuff.” The English girl looked annoyed, shrugged dismissively.

“I just feel like I read the same stories over and over again from you guys. They’re great and all, but.”

And then it happened. Someone whipped out a copy of Publishers’ Weekly and we conducted a brief poll, flipping through to informally count up all the reported recent book deals overtly by or about Jews.

Dante, hovering over the issue with Anglophile, let out a manly squeal. “Jesus H. Christ, what’s the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? Some woman named Alana Orenstein just got mid-six-figures for a ‘genre-busting historical novel’ about it.” The word FUCK, which as I’m sure you know is also an emotion unto itself, in all caps, just like that, crash landed in my brain, in my heart, over my eyeballs, in my bowels. FAH. UCK.

What else was I to feel? My whole year, my entire endeavor, rendered pointless. A waste. My brilliant idea, my literary jackpot, my huge undertaking. My Ettlinger portrait, my Vintage trade paperback, my Safran Foer smack-down: all sucked right back out of the realm of possibility as if by some mysterious, capricious, Biblical-scale force of weather. Alana Orenstein was probably, at that very moment, sitting for Ettlinger in stark, beautiful, black-and-white half-shadow. I’d felt something resembling this large-scale FUCK once before, years ago, when I first read Nathan Englander’s heart-wrenching story about an agunah’s endless electrolysis and had no choice but to bury my own greatly autobiographical burgeoning novella about my own heart-wrenchingly endless hair-removal trials.

All I could see in Portnoy was the specter of all those pathetic fucking guys who didn’t want to fuck me, Philip. That was my tragedy at seventeen: no one wanted to fuck me.

I numbed out. I let Andy buy me a drink (read: five) and then I let him take him home and join me in my very own bed, surrounded by the dozens of index cards I’d put up on all four of my walls bearing the names of my sweet Triangle Shirtwaist babes. I had papered the room with them in an effort to truly live with them, those entrancing names: Yetta, Esther, Gussie, Minnie, Celia, Bess, Pearl, Rosie, Ida, Fannie. Quaint names, evocative of the old ladies those girls had not become.

Andy — “my favorite” because he is more than a man, more than a friend, more than a fuck-buddy: he is my favorite of any man, any friend, any fuck-buddy, and that, in a life full of men, friends, and fuck-buddies, is meaningful — blamed his sub-par performance on feeling freaked out by the names, though it was more than likely that his six whiskeys were to blame. Or, come to think of it, the fact that my bed had been only semi-recently vacated by that man I was supposed to have married, a man so “right” for me and yet simultaneously so heinously wrong for me that I can now hardly think of our engagement as anything more than a valiant attempt at arranged marriage.

Anyway, I didn’t mind Andy’s impotence at all. Fucking him was mostly an excuse to be just that close to him, to have him in my space, to feel his arms around me and feel momentarily understood, briefly gotten, in a way that is most rare indeed (somewhat like I feel when I read you, Philip, it must be said). When I’m with Andy I want, more or less, to wrap myself around him and crawl into a deep, dark hole with him and die with him. Have you ever been with someone like that? Amazing. The truth, anyway, is that I was too inebriated and distraught to be feeling genuinely sexual anyhow. So after that sloppy, comical effort at intercourse, Andy and I held each other (this is probably anathema to you, buddy; I apologize) and he passed out while I gazed drunkenly, dumbly around at those proliferate names, my Etta Kornbluth, my Dora Kirshenbaum, my Minnie Gluck. All still obviously long dead, but somehow even more dead now than before, snatched from me (snatched from the beautiful and infinite resurrection I was planning for them) by Alana Orenstein, by my own tardy, common inspiration. I had so wanted to breathe life into those names, Philip. I had experimented a little with their individual ghosts keeping company with my alter-ego protagonist (a twenty-five-year-old high school teacher by the name of Audrey Rubens who’s just broken it off with her immature and abusive fiance) as she traverses the sometimes-rocky terrain of her post-adolescence in Greenwich Village. Yetta-as-patron-saint-of-marijuana, Gussie-as-patron-saint-of-alcohol, Pearl-as-patron-saint-of-career-confusion, Minnie-as-patron-saint-of-one-night-stands, Unidentified-as-patron-saint-of-the-search-for-love, and so forth.

There I was, Philip, all of twenty-six years old, my hard-won infant novel worthless, my broken engagement still haunting and heartbreaking, my parents still aging and aging and aging without the great reward of grandchildren, my cervix a ticking time-bomb, no health insurance in sight, my beloved graduate program almost over, my agent sitting on my collection until Ploughshares agreed to publish a story (read: indefinitely), temp-agency paperwork waiting for my signature. And the thought that kept me awake that entire night was simply that I could not find the strength within myself to start over on any count. Not on another novel, not on another stultifying relationship which might or might not have led to another engagement/marriage, not on any one of the many, many temp jobs lined up like dominoes as far as the eye could see. And yet I want the same things I’ve always wanted: a life of books and writing and writers, a second chance at rescuing and creating a life for those poor fucking Triangle Shirtwaist kittens, and a family of my very own. So here’s the solution to all of the above, Philip; here’s what occurred to me while I stared into the receeding darkness that night, curled up on the edge of the bed to avoid the wet spot, Andy in a whiskey coma beside me, names, names, names on white index cards circulating in my peripheral vision; here’s my objective, finally, the stage set: I want to bear you a child.

I had so desperately yearned to breathe life into those names, Philip. But now I’ve figured out an even better way to do that; a way to produce something literary and lasting; a way to prove, once and for all (while we’re at it) the existence of God. I want to have your child. If I can’t be the heir to your literary throne, I’d like at least then to be the vessel for the manufacture of an actual heir, flesh-and-blood proof, once you’re gone and the books are all that’s otherwise left of you, that you were here, that I read you, and that it meant something special, something singular and personal and only between the two of us. (The overtones here of traditional groupie-hood and falsely-empowering femininity are hard to outrun, but quite frankly, and I hope you can buy this, I really don’t give a shit.)

Last semester, Dante wrote a farcical novella called “Getting Rid Of Roth”, about a group of young Jewish writers who privately enlist ex-Mossad agents to track you down and murder you so that they can be liberated out from under the long literary shadow you continually cast. I suppose you could say my literary response to your legacy (how very post-post-post-whatever) is the flipside of that coin, no?

Okay, now. The practicalities. I don’t want any money. I have a small, livable trust fund courtesy of my paternal grandmother (who I never met, and who invested cannily in the stock market, and who, it would seem, continues here the theme of long-dead would-be old ladies assuming center stage). My sweetly clueless parents, confronted with their only daughter pregnant by no man in sight, will surely help me in any way they can. Frankly, given the awful dearth of naches they’ve gotten from their three children (again: one dead, one useless, and me, trying now to make good after my spectacularly humiliating broken engagement), I expect full-onbubbe/zayde joy, the mystery of conception notwithstanding.

You can change a few diapers or you can be completely absent. You can watch her grow in monthly or annual or bi-annual pictures or you can take her to a Yankee game now and again (I heard about your big abandonment of the Mets) or you can have her up at your house in Connecticut summers. Or winters. We can live with you or near you or we can live across the country. I don’t care. It can be strictly our secret or you can send a press release to the New York Times. You won’t have to worry about a goddamn thing, Philip. I’ve got me some nice birthing hips (apple-shaped, like my mother’s, which she claims makes child-bearing relatively easy) and I’ll be a wonderful, loving, responsible mother. I’ll grow roses and herbs and bake delicious vegan cookies. Send her to alternative day school alongside Hebrew school, sing her Free to Be…You and Me when she can’t sleep, read her books and books and more books, disallow more than an hour or two of TV a week (but not in an arbitrarily authoritarian manner), teach her to be kind, generous, self-aware, inquisitive, ethical, shrewd. Laugh a lot.

The big question, though, is whether you still have the capacity for ejaculation. Did prostate cancer leave you the way Zuckerman’s left him? Has Cancer (or age) made, at long last, a cuddler of you? And if so, (I know I’m grasping here) did you by any lucky spot of foresight (or optimism) take the step of putting away some semen in some lab/clinic/whatever? This strikes me as something you might have done, you freaky old man. We won’t get into the cosmic irony that may have wrested from the century’s most unabashedly virile writer (that was not meant pejoratively) his power to orgasm, his power, even, maybe, to get hard. Isn’t that just like the goddamn universe, though? Christ, Philip. But these technical matters we’ll discuss later. Science is still pretty far from allowing a scenario where we might simply skin your elbow for some DNA, etc. But who knows? Let’s burn that bridge when we get to it.

Anyway, your teacher and friend Saul Bellow sired a daughter when he was a good deal older than you are now, Philip. And no disrespect, but he wasn’t half the writer you are. (Am I implying that he had thusly less of a right to procreate? That the world needs his offspring not as much as it needs yours? Maybe.)

I like Dora, or Celia. Or Etta. Pearl, too, or Yetta. Bessie’s nice. And Rose. Minnie, I think, because of the automatic suffix “Mouse”, would make her life fairly miserable, as would Gussie, for disparate, less concrete reasons. But I’ll let you pick. I will send you the list and you can choose.

I’ve figured out an even better way to produce something literary and lasting; a way to prove, once and for all (while we’re at it) the existence of God. I want to have your child.

I can plainly see that you yearn, even fleetingly, for offspring. I can see that it’s a hole. The longing is there, plain as day, right there in your work, in you like it’s in me. I’m quite perceptive that way, literarily (even my high school English teacher said so!). There were all those abortions, all those near-misses (there really were quite a few, Philip, come on). Your sweet and tender step-fathering of your first wife’s daughter. You yourself were named for two dead uncles, and there’s a pride in that, clearly. And I can hear the voice of Nathan’s self-righteous prick of a brother Henry, in Zuckerman Unbound: “I have a son! I know what it is to have a son, and you don’t, you selfish bastard, and you never will!” You knew just how Henry could get at Nathan where he lived, didn’t you, Philip, because you invented them both? Well, fuck Henry. Fuck Claire Bloom, fuck Alana Orenstein, fuck Safran Foer, fuck the hipper-than-thou editors at Shtetl Fabulous who’ve rejected every single one of my retarded, inconsequential stories, fuck my nutbag fiancé, fuck my sadly lacking family, fuck, even, finally, Andy, my goyische, alcoholic favorite. Fuck the provincial, unimaginative Jews who made both our lives living hell for so long. Fuck Cancer! Fuck the capitalist pigs who locked a hundred and fifty teenaged girls into that fucking factory! Fuck the unions for not mobilizing until after the fact. Fuck death!

Listen. Portnoy had it right. What do you have to show for yourself, you stubborn misanthropic fucking codger? Children should be playing on this earth who look like you! Children should be playing on this earth who look like a lot of people, asshole, and life isn’t the least bit fair. So do your part to make good on your existence while you still have the chance.

Because it’s not too late. It’s not at all too late! Until they put you into the ground you still have the chance to make something real, something alive, something no one can burn up: not in a stack of dried-out paper and ink, not in a grimy locked factory, and not even in a motherfucking gas chamber, you shriveled dickhead. Why would you pass this opportunity up?

A week after the Alana Orenstein bombshell – a week during which I did very little other than watch television, read Star magazine, smoke pot, eat candy, and sleep — I had the following dream: I was eight months pregnant, hugely with child, visiting a midwife for checkup. The midwife, in full white-lab-coat regalia, turned out to be none other than Lorrie Moore, whose story “How to Be A Writer” (from Self Help, 1985) made, at fourteen when first I read it, a writer out of me.

“Lorrie Moore!” I exclaimed. “Oh my God! I love you!” She was inspecting my chart and seemed unimpressed by my recognition of her. Then I had a thought, realizing that Birds of America came out almost six years ago. “Do you still write?” I asked. She looked up at me with those sweet sad eyes of hers.

“Nah,” she said. “Not really. I mostly do this now.” Then she went back to my chart before the obligatory, not (in dream-land) entirely unpleasant pelvic exam. (I have gone resolutely against the dictum of ‘write a dream, lose a reader’ in this instance because a) this dream really did occur! Truly! And b) it’s extraordinarily, perfectly telling, and I am just not writer enough to resist that. If you’d been born to ever-so-slightly different first-generation American Jews and raised on Long Island you’d be Billy Joel, okay dude? So don’t be so goddamn hard on everyone.)

In the dream I left the appointment buoyed, as happy as I’ve ever been conscious, but as I walked (bouncing more than walking, on soft, rubbery earth) I began to hear the ending of that famous Strauss piece (you know the one – Also Sprach Zarathustra, it’s called, relegated now by Stanley Kubrick to ubiquitous diaper commercials and the like?). It was the ending, with its mournful group call and response: violins, harp, oboes, and flutes versus trombones, cellos, and contrabasses, which sounded to me as it grew louder and louder more and more like a Please? answered by No followed by another beseeching please? and another resonant no and then yet another please? until finally there are those three unassailable ending bass answers: no, no, no. It was my alarm clock, set to classical radio, awakening me. And as I came fully into consciousness I was aware only of those last three nos, putting an end to my dreams, to my hopes, to that unconscious joy, evocative of the loss of everything I’ve ever sought: the novel, the marriage, the boyfriend at summer camp. And this too, probably. I’m not stupid. At most, maybe I’ll twist things around and have a funny meta-story with which to close out my collection, if it ever finds a home. And someday maybe I’ll have some other man’s baby, give her some thoughtlessly co-opted, vaguely ethnic, trendy name, write book reviews for my local Jewish weekly, lie awake at night marveling at the stultifying limitations of my life.

Kinky Friedman never had any kids. I’ll write to him.

Fine. I’ll just tear a page from the Roth playbook and simply turn this letter into a kind of post-modern “story” (and I’ll even leave this part in to further confuse and complicate, to experiment with implicating myself, the “Elisa Albert” alter-ego, in all these ways you yourself are so adept with, see how it feels, how you must feel, when people assume fact is fiction and fiction fact, when people read your writing and assume they know you. Am I guilty of that, too? I suppose I am, and I’m sorry, Philip. It’s just that I love you). I’ll write it to Nathan Zuckerman from Audrey Rubens.

In an interview I read somewhere once you speak of writing and publishing fiction as akin to packing a suitcase and then leaving it in the middle of the street, powerless to control its fate, its safety, its order, its intention, its meaning. And that’s what this is. That’s what any human interaction is, isn’t it? “People are infallible,” you wrote in American Pastoral. “They pick up on what you want and then they don’t give it to you.” (p. 278). Isn’t that just what you meant? Anytime you seek connection, want something, make an attempt to explain yourself? A suitcase left in a bus station. So it is. I am the fiction; the suitcase is myself.

 

Yours,

Elisa

 

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Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different. She is at work on short stories and a new novel.