Posted inEditor's Pick

Etta or Bessie or Dora or Rose

Elisa Albert | Longreads | May 24, 2018 | 5,706 words
Posted inFiction, Story

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.
AP Photo / CSA-Printstock, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

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.)

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