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Elisa Albert
www.elisaalbert.com

Etta or Bessie or Dora or Rose

AP Photo/CSA-Printstock, collage 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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O, Small-bany!

Illustration by Senne Trip

Elisa Albert | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,229 words)

They poisoned the water in the lake again. It’s actually more of an enormous pond. They poison it a few times a year. I’m not listening to music, for a change. My battery’s at 10%, anyway, and I want to eavesdrop. Washington Park’s full of people. Just like the Seurat painting, minus the class status and pointillism.

There’s a black man fishing with his tiny son crouching beside him. The man’s biceps are impressively built and inked. The boy says, “Tell me when you see a fish.” There’s a middle-aged white couple with a contented aura, walking a mid-sized grey mutt. There’s a very petite brown woman in tight blue athleisure berating a man who is pushing a baby in a stroller. Not a status stroller. Athleisure woman is on this man about something. He hadn’t been on time to pick her up. He is playing it cool (“Well, I came, didn’t I?”) but she is unrelenting (“Not when you said you would! Not til after you…”) and then they are out of earshot. There’s a young white mother from the nearby cult (I’m sorry: Intentional Community), holding a toddler’s hand. The Intentional Community manufactures the kind of old-fashioned wooden toys for which my bored mom friends and I go wild. They live and work in a huge brick mansion near the park. There’s free literature about their intentionality to be had in a little kiosk at the entrance to their driveway. Books about making peace with death and living in accordance with the laws of nature. When I was a new mother, I used to loiter around that kiosk. Should I join? They wear homemade clothing and raise children communally. I yearn deeply for the latter but I have a quasi-sexual weakness for fashion, and ultimately I’m not much of a joiner. The young mother in her homemade ankle-length skirt and bonnet is talking to a black man on a bench by the boathouse. He rests one arm on yet another stroller (not status), in which sits a toddler with a delightful head of tight, ombre ringlets. The man reaches out his hand to me.

“Hello!” he says, like we know each other; I don’t think we know each other.

“How are you?” he wonders.

I smile, nod: fine, fine, thank you, and you? I do this intuitive sort of bow, and continue on my way. The cult woman slightly glares at me from under her bonnet. Her glare (real? imagined?) trips some anxiety about running into people I’m not fond of, by which I mean people not fond of me. There’s this one woman in particular, your standard bad-vibes-in-small-town situation, and my nervous system goes insane every goddamn time.

***

Officially Albany is a city of a hundred thousand, but it feels like a very small town. Which can make it hard to take a walk sometimes. Small-bany, some call it. Shmalbany, I prefer. Albanality, a friend of mine says, but the syllables don’t work out. There’s not that fantastically freeing anonymity of your big exciting status places. State capitals are often kind of weird places. It’s a small goddamn town. So much chit-chat always waiting to be had. Just around that bend? Just over this hill? Just past that tree? I arrange my face in a blank mask and bland smile, practicing. I catch myself doing so, catch my thoughts circling this dumb anxiety; shake it off. You are safe, I tell myself. My whole goddamn sympathetic nervous system gets caught up in small town anxiety. It’s hard trying to be friends with everyone all the time. It’s okay if not everybody likes you. I used to kind of seek out people with bad energy, try to make them like me, but that only makes them like you less. I learn slowly.

You are safe, I tell myself, and it works. I am safe. Relatively speaking. More often now I seek to avoid or minimize encounters with people who don’t like me, people who bring out the ugly. This is progress, according to the meditation teacher.

Isn’t this the kind of inner drama we all share? Useless, banal. Best kept to oneself, only then how are we to take comfort in the knowledge that we’re all the same!?

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