Early on in my publishing career, which was still early when it ended, I looked up what “congenial” means on my phone but it autofilled “congenital” into the dictionary due to prior use. In this way I came to believe “congenial” means having an essential condition or deformation present since birth. By the time I realized my mistake I’d already migrated from the world of reputable words to that of hidden ones, the subterranean backchannels of search engine optimization where I earn my living today.
Now I’m about to turn thirty and have only lately realized that I never actually knew what “congenital” meant either, not really, although it was one of those words I deployed constantly in my twenties like “dude” or “Bushwick” or “Timothée.” I thought it was a poetical way of saying “post-coital” that had a plain physical connotation along with boundless metaphorical uses. “Congenital warts” I would say, “a congenital appetite for cigarettes in bed.” I wrote in the margins of the copy of Rebecca I reread several times during my years in publishing that its narrator “smacks of the congenital effulgence one encounters in first love.” It got worse since I was always saying things like this out loud in public to industry types, but nobody ever corrected me. So naive was I in matters of semantics that I’d tear up whenever I encountered the phrase “congenital heart disease” in the news. In those moments I pictured iconoclast doctors boldly affirming within their limited sphere of influence that one’s health could be seriously troubled, if not conquered for good, by a needy and unprotected heart.
How thoroughly I have been prone to error. It is only now dawning on me that it was perhaps due to this tendency to err in pursuit of my delusions that I became hotly in demand, business-wise.
In my department at a commercial imprint in Manhattan they started me off straight out of college mastering Outlook and transcribing the meetings. It shocked me to be promoted in just sixteen months. I didn’t do much and hadn’t asked for anything, so it was difficult to see this ascendancy as virtuous or deserved.
In fact, I knew I was quite bad at my job, not much needed, sitting in an upright trance that would persist without food, water, or interest but break at the slightest insinuation of an order. And insinuations they nearly always were, very opaque, like that I should spice up the meeting notes with my own observations. Managers used “spice” liberally, like they were on a ’90s sitcom (in some ways it was still the ’90s in that office).
Other than that, I filled in the virtual calendar with meetings and promotional opportunities my coworkers forwarded to my inbox. Nobody checked it. I may as well have held a Moleskine in my mouth, breathed concertedly through my nose, and improved my posture for eight hours a day. I assumed that’s what reviewers meant when they described our books as depicting “a slice of life.” Eight hours, maybe ten, and you’re out of there.
At the time of my first promotion I was seriously considering quitting. The job wasn’t a good fit, and I didn’t see how it could lead anywhere else because everyone but my supervisor on one of her Xanax days had long forgotten that I worked at the company, I thought.
In time my reservations eased up. I came to accept I had made it, simply by hanging on a little longer than I expected to. It was as if I’d gone through a disappointing rehearsal only for the curtain to go up at the end revealing a full house of audience members, wiping away inappropriate tears of emotion and applauding.
I met with booksellers, dazzled authors with my corporate card, attended literary readings and book fairs, recited my social media handles to grateful or impassive people whose lives I could theoretically improve. Everyone wanted to improve their lives. Also, they were “living their best life.” You could speak to your watch and nobody in your life would say a damn thing about it.
For about five years I was certain it was my vocation, and this devotion to my career made me feel indispensable, as if I were a plumber and every last promotional party were thrown in Mick Jagger’s bathroom. I bounced about like a manic dog straining to lick his tired owner on the mouth the moment he walks through the door. This meant staying on the clock all the time and clearing my evenings for social-work-play.
It seemed like my coworkers and I were all under the same spell, primping and posturing for an enigmatic stranger who always left the party too early or arrived too late for any of us to glimpse her. The novels had titles like “Epiphany” and “Girl Shopper” and “Mr. Xavier’s Unwholesome Foot.” A woman wearing glasses with translucent frames came up to me after one of our authors read from his novel about a woman who sits in a hotel room until it’s time for dinner and asked me if I could recommend books to her about “women in trouble.”
At parties such as these — fishing expeditions in bookshops, dive bars, and gallery spaces conspicuously low on work — I’d wonder how my mom managed to come away from comparable events she’d attended in her own youth with actual stories, and simultaneously hate them so much. (I didn’t hate them at all, in fact. They just made me feel like shit sometimes.)
These stories of hers never materialized in print, neither ones about the parties nor those said to be set in old-timey bank vaults, though she advertised herself as a promising writer of short fiction. That was her role: not a buyer or a seller, but always “at work.” As if to distract or momentarily defect from the commercial pursuits that continued to pay for groceries and rent by the time I came along, she persistently advised me to determine what I was passionate about as early as possible and go after it. Then she’d add, “Be sure you are ruthless about it.” Such advice was never solicited by me, a child who faked increasingly subtle muscle pains in order to lie in bed all day doing nothing. Nonetheless, it was her answer to all kinds of seemingly unrelated queries I might have, like if I’d done well in my role as The Moon in an elementary school play, or if I should continue being friends with a fellow middle schooler who teased me for not having breasts. (I couldn’t see how passion would swell my breasts until every last one of my enemies had been defeated by them, and believe me, in that desire I was ruthless.)
“Passionate,” “ruthless” — what were these but tones of voice, dissonant when played together? In my publishing days it occurred to me I didn’t need to be so single-minded as she had advised, that I could coast for a while and enjoy life in a community of people who shared my devotion to literature, committed to understanding not just the language but how it’s made, what it costs.
Then the job went sour and so did I. At the age of 27 I began rising from bed with a bad taste in my mouth that hasn’t let up for a single day since. I asked for more creative control and was given a “juicy assignment” — all my superiors referred to it as such — a surefire bestseller by a former secretary of state. It was a thriller in which a former secretary of state solves mysteries with the help of an Afghanistan war vet who suffers from PTSD. I told my manager I thought it was an execrably written novel in poor taste with mercenary ambitions and the politics you’d expect of a man who’d successfully advocated for wars that killed tens of thousands under the guise of promoting democracy. My manager said he understood my reservations but he was doing me a favor in letting me be the one to say ‘yes’ to it. The bet had been placed and I was to have my hands warmed by a perfumed breath as we cast the die for a bid at literary history. And then we would win.
This morning I woke up from a dream in which bowtied men with enormous erections had danced and twirled batons for me. The batons were like putting an exclamation point at the end of another exclamation point. Initially I felt threatened, a little self-conscious, sensing a one-woman audience amounts to a one-woman show, even if ten to twenty men with startlingly developed musculature are swinging their dicks around in the same room. But eventually I realized that what these guys were doing was beautiful, an expression of a genuine and generous impulse to share themselves. To share and to flaunt were indivisible in that moment.
Waking to my tidy studio apartment with its leafy plants and gray furniture I thought I had hallucinated buying until giant, spectral boxes began showing up at my door, I wished the men in my head would return me to them. Would return me to myself. But I am alone in this Brooklyn dwelling and doomed to be thirty in a few days.
The only people I know who still leave voice messages on my cell phone are my boss at my new job — the one I left publishing for a year and a half ago that has me writing SEO for a women’s interest website — and my dad. Everyone else is a scam robot pretending I’m a car owner with a deep fear of having my car seized by the government. Whatever they need to think to get them through the day. I reserve my least vibrant emotion — pity — for all the robots out there slowly wearing themselves down to nubbins with their self-defeating illusions. The roombas that crash into walls and table legs all day, the security bots that grow despondent and drown themselves in fountains by accident, the inundated news algorithms that warble “Alex Jones… Alex Jones says…” at their masters before being permanently disabled.
Everyone left me a voicemail last night, even the humans. My boss to tell me she couldn’t let me take my birthday off because we’re two weeks out from Thanksgiving and our partners in e-commerce want to “ride this online shopping craze to the max.” My dad to say, “Hi this is your dad, I’m just sitting here watching Fellini [his lizard] devour flies, wondering if you have plans for your birthday. Come over if you feel comfortable taking the subway and I’ll pick up a lasagna from Don Angie. I have a gift for you, of course.”
I called to take him up on his offer. I’ll honor the actual day with a few friends but nobody unexpected will show up because of the pandemic that has taken hold of the city. It’s dawned on me that the unexpected people are the ones I would most like to see.
The most predictable people of all being, of course, celebrities, with their steadily improving faces, quarantine relationships, and outlandish redecorating schemes. That ever-widening circle of unrequited acquaintances I approve photos of and dash off copy about. Sometimes I wonder if my own unimpressive, sorely neglected memories will wither entirely before the splendor of a Marvel star’s wedding or even a designer sex bench. And yet today, in a surprising reversal of my psychic current, a request for an evergreen listicle on reality TV contestants with celebrity doppelgangers reminded me of my own long lost twin. I mean literally.
When I was ten my parents accompanied me to my schoolmate Camilla’s birthday party. Most of the kids in my class lived as I did on the Lower East Side in walkups roomy as snail shells, but Camilla had a backyard, which was huge, as was the rest of her garden-level apartment in Brooklyn Heights. It made an impression as one of the only elementary school birthday parties where all the parents who brought the kids stayed and mingled because there was space to do so. Most of my grade was there, and a few kids I’d never seen before. The invitation had a more-the-merrier attitude so a few people brought their siblings, friends from other schools, out-of-towners. It was a really grown-up event for everyone involved, parents included.
Camilla’s family had hired a shabbily styled woman to practice palmistry on the guests. A long line of children filed ahead of her station with itchy hands and curiosity. She was propped up on a stool knocking her shins together like a loner who’d just been crowned prom queen. I was pretty sure she was a witch. I believed in witches then. I did not yet know what it meant to be an amateur.
“Water hand,” she proclaimed when it was my turn, “you’re emotional.” I explained that my hands were always sweaty. “I can tell,” she said in a dismissive way, adding, “long life” “oh great” “depends how you look at it — you like ducks, kid?” “Well… yeah” I demurred, secretly thrilled that she knew all about my passion for feeding the ducks in Central Park. “You like boys?” she added. “Ok yes!” I exclaimed, the ball had really gotten rolling now. “Good for you,” she said, “next!” Then she coughed violently and I brought her a cup of water, feeling she’d just done me an enormous favor.
In a buoyant mood I joined a social circle by a big shady tree with a few girls from my school I wasn’t close with, and one I didn’t know at all. That was Rachel. The talk of teachers we found gross or crush-worthy quickly petered out and then we were the only ones standing there anymore.
In her light blue smock dress with puffy fabric sleeves Rachel looked like a daughter of Captain Von Trapp, far too prim for a children’s birthday party on the eve of Y2K. Her expression was bored and sullen, like she was forever reading a novel with no magic in it. In fact she seemed like a tiny adult! Resigned to parties like this. Suddenly I was aware of how many birthday parties I’d been to before, always balloons, always cake, so prosaic. From across the lawn I spied my parents acting like they were in their own living room, talking only to each other, using their hands as puppets and so on.
Because she clearly didn’t go to my school I asked Rachel how she’d gotten to the party. “Um, my parents,” she replied. “Duh. How did you get here?” I told her. “How much money do your parents make?” she asked. A snob, I thought, setting herself apart without any special knowledge or fun of her own to offer. Well, I’d better be nice to her all the same. Her main trick was that she infuriated me and at ten that was enough to get me to hang out with you all day in an apartment full of people I actually considered to be my friends.
She attached herself to me just as reluctantly. We both wished to appear reluctant. Although she was rolling her eyes and sucking her cheek every other sentence I had to admit I liked being asked all these pointed questions about my life. She asked if I liked flowers and I said, “Yeah.” “Any animals?” “Ducks.” “And our president?” “He’s a loser.” Eye roll. “Yeah.” Eye roll eye roll. “Would you smoke a cigarette?” “Got any?” “No, I was only testing you.” I liked being tested this way — and this way only! Teachers weren’t crush-worthy, they were gross. “What’s the meaning of life?” “Figure out what you’re really passionate about and pursue it ruthlessly — I guess.”
A couple hours passed like this before I began to notice we resembled each other physically to an incredible degree. I had cultivated a hazy notion of how I appeared to others in those years approaching adolescence, quite on purpose. God, I just didn’t want to know. There were halcyon days not far behind me when you could trace your hand, call it a self portrait, and some teacher would hang it on a wall. If anyone had asked for a physical description of me at that party I might have said, “Like Arthur from the cartoon Arthur, with a nose,” although he was an aardvark, and I had even less of an idea of what those really looked like than what I did.
But looking at Rachel, my self-awareness expanded and grew tendrils. She was like an underfed, more manicured, much-aggrieved version of me. I gathered from our conversation she had parents who kept a merciless eye on her, acute anxiety cases with rules always handy and a touch of xenophobia, whereas I’d passed my few years beneath the fructifying regard of artist parents who tipped their hats to me as if I were a tiny gentlelady, produced a shot glass of wine at dinner time, and generally left me to pursue my impulses. Her pale sticky skin emitted a laboratory light; I was steamed in hothouse vapors. We were a pair of paper dolls disintegrating in unlike substances. I pointed this out to her, not in so many words. She suggested the twin theory, but qualified, “I’m small for my age. I’m probably older than you think.” Then it came out we were both ten and born on the same day. Both only children. Both small for our age.
The plot thickened, the old rules fell away to accommodate it. We spoke eagerly in awed whispers as if on opposite sides of a parterre garden hedge. It all came out: how she’d always wanted a sister, and lived in a big white house with hardly a thing in it, and both of us couldn’t stand the taste of cilantro, which as everyone knows is “hair-ready-tary.”
Which set of parents did we belong to, then? It was determined they must be mine. I assured her I looked a lot like my parents and of a piece with several cousins (we were a family of cute aardvarks as far as I could tell) while we went on a wild detour about how she’d never seen a picture of her mom pregnant or been allowed to meet her only living grandparent. Her dad refused to let her see Nancy Meyers’s remake of The Parent Trap — which had been released in theaters the previous summer — due to its mature themes of ear-piercing and divorce. She went on and on, referring to us as siblings, not facetiously. To me she did not seem like a sister but more like a little girl I’d just discovered was a mermaid and needed my protection. The moments you pass with a person as they enter into your secret life are painfully rare; but you don’t recognize them at the time, you think only of extending them with inexhaustible misadventures.
Then she vanished, quite unexpectedly. We’d agreed to meet again under cover of night, to engineer a private language in order to keep in touch, and research how to give each other stick-and-pokes — but something unabashedly regular happened instead. I went to the bathroom. It was late. I looked all over the dwindling party and didn’t see her anymore. My parents had long tired of performing patience around the punch bowl and insisted on our going, though I was kicking my elbows up in rebellious fury against it. “We’ve been here for five hours!” shouted my mom, understandably plastered. “Darling,” said my dad, “honestly, what gives?”
In the days that followed, I asked everyone at school if they knew Rachel. I tried to do it without revealing the secret, worrying my sixth grade classmates might find it controversial. “Did you meet a girl, my height, looks like me but sickly, blue dress, not fun to talk to, at your birthday party this weekend, Camilla?” “Yeah… I mean… like… no.” “Ok cool.”
Undeterred, I continued for years to casually allude to Rachel’s existence in conversations with new acquaintances. A feeling trapped me, as surely as anger, exaltation, or thirst, that Rachel was always one step ahead of me, or to the side, doing everything I did but in her own way. Between kissing expeditions with Ned Scoldman in the bathtub at my friend Dana’s senior year house party, I asked him if he’d ever made out with a girl who looked like me before. “Like, a ghost?” he said. “Do I look like a ghost to you?” “My bad, I thought you were talking about ghosts.”
The only people I definitely couldn’t bother with my mad quest were my parents, who were probably the masterminds behind this whole drama, and would try to convince me I had watched The Parent Trap too many times, which was also their fault. They made me this way, full of shady secrets and huge romantic burdens. They had their “passions,” I had my shame and confusion over who I was and what I was meant to do about it. Literature came later, and it helped, but if I’m honest it never really won out.
My father was an artist for hire, and still is; my mom was something else, for she prized the work she barely did far above the work she was paid for. There was “money work” and then there was vocation, which involved her soul and was like digging a grimy tunnel toward something more ennobled. For pay she wrote travel features for leisure magazines with ethereal budgets. Her real writing was scrawled on tunnel walls.
She had so much style. And her style had so many rules. Bathe in cool waters, enjoy fruit with the thinnest skins, marvel at art so magnificently bitter it keeps you looping from ecstasy to depression, never meditate or wallow, never sleep for more than six hours after sunset, and if you snore, tape your mouth shut to encourage better night breathing habits (poor Dad). Vices are not faults; tape won’t work, nothing will. One must aspire neither to live nor to die but towards “completion.” To be a completist of one’s own life.
It was as if I fell beneath these standards without bravely flouting any, a double offense in her eyes. I perceived her disapproval not in any particular words she uttered, but in this density of rhythm our household was in thrall to. I wanted to stand against or in the way of something, for her sake, but whatever meager obstinacy I summoned only ever tripped me up like a school bully. I’d deny myself pleasures and sulk. Whereas she was so adamant that colors knew right from wrong as well as governments do. Ideals were imparted to textiles, imperiled by bad fits. Objects had souls and in silence would read your life back to you. Her style was consciousness of the most insurmountable parts of me, and of anyone she met.
Another of her pet theories: that one should be able to pack at a moment’s notice and survive anywhere in the world. She thought she could do that. All it took was education, money, sense, none need be furnished in great quantities. If only one knew how to drive, knew the names of flowers, the peculiarities of poisons, what real estate is worth in Quebec and which countries border Nigeria, one should be “alright” in what was, for her, the most general sense of the word.
She died getting somewhere, too. Reporting out a hotel story in the Italian Alps when she suffered a brain aneurysm. It was quick, I’m told, she fell down flat on her back into the snow which was six inches deep. A catcher’s mitt of snow holding, suddenly, an object.
By the time I’d left my third job in publishing I’d been told I was on the precipice of doing meaningful, literary work — or that I was already doing it — so often that I’d become a totally future-orientated creature, obsessed with producing buzzy new releases, asking for more responsibilities, organizing Instagram shoots of influencers holding our books, advising my authors to get bangs. I was a bundle of anticipation subsisting on iced coffee and my colleagues’ unbridled encouragement. Throughout it all I honed an attitude of tireless positivity, which, when I went back on the market for an offer in any other field, turned out to be my most coveted asset.
Now that I’ve hitched a ride on the SEO express I just sit back, look for signs of deterioration in my houseplants, and wait for my boss to message me with a request for edits to an article that will make it easier for Google to read, or for a headline our readers will click on.
Maybe it’s just a job, although it feels as if I have learned to breathe underwater and now spend my days in silence flicking sand around the ocean floor. The novelty of inhabiting this depleted environment has faded, but the disappointment lingers. I try to avoid going into the dirty details of it with my dad, who rarely leaves his rent-controlled one-bedroom in the East Village anymore, a habit that held true before the city blossomed with airborne infection. Long before — he moved there as I was leaving for college and it’s been his way ever since to maintain the tightest ambit possible, primarily across his living room floor which is piled high with birding magazines, fashion photography books, mixing bowls full of drugstore sunglasses and other diminutive crap, chambray shirts he wore to jobs he hasn’t shown up for in fifteen years. It’s an intimidating topography of cardboard crates sagging and spilling their contents, of spiral notebooks gnashing their coils together, and pencils sticking out at angles from the fray like downed trees.
He isn’t the sort of hoarder who enjoys accumulation for its own sake, nor to revel in the vision of his past delicately laid before him peachy as a fossilized picnic. There’s no sparkle in any of it, no interest even, only perseverance, the dignity of a knot that won’t ever come undone. No rummaging takes place here, it’s practically an archaeological fact that it doesn’t. The pile strikes me, rather, as the richest possible evidence of a burial.
He keeps himself afloat doing illustrations for advertisements and magazine stories, all of which he somehow manages to produce out of this tiny apartment, but he’s lost the manic energy he had during my childhood. Instead he completes the fewest possible number of commissions required to make rent each month, choosing to spend the bulk of his time communing with his twelve-year-old gecko Fellini, looking at old family photo albums, practicing tai-chi, and smoking out of his seventh-story window. He’s a sweet man with a lot of integrity who’s hardly dated in over a decade and misses my mom an unholy amount. I picture him as a man trapped in a village built around her ankles and feet.
Last night I went over there as promised. He was standing in the doorway holding a small plastic grocery bag. “Happy birthday!” he said, whipping out a 12” x 16” canvas wrapped in brown paper, which he’d decorated with a pattern of Van Gogh-like swirls using a felt-tipped pen. “That better not be the lasagna.” “In the oven reheating! It’s so good to see you, I’ve really been looking forward to it.” “Better than looking backward!”
It was a portrait of Arthur from the TV program Arthur done in oil paint in the style of Velazquez’s Infanta Margarita. “I can’t believe it,” I squealed. “Well you loved that show.” “This is insane. Why would you do this? It’s one of the most beautiful objects I’ve ever seen, thank you.” As he beamed over me I realized however that the cartoon character in the blue dress with exaggerated hoop skirt reminded me of Rachel and my suspicions were renewed. Was his gift a veiled nod to my secret sister? Penance on his part for yielding to my mom’s divine trickery? An admission of guilt? Sometimes the repressed impulse will surface in a work of art, as we all know.
We quickly drank our beers. At the end of the first bottle of wine these questions still lay heavy on my mind. My dad was describing the commissions he was slowly working on. One was a subway advertisement for laminated books you can read in the shower. Another was a cartoon to accompany the caption “Help, police, there is a tiny Communist under my bed!”
“The editor wants me to file by Tuesday but I still don’t have the concept totally worked out, I mean, if the Communist is under the bed do we see them? Should they have a race or a gender or just be a pair of spooky eyes?”
“Maybe they can have hammer and sickle pupils.”
“I’d have to make the eyes pretty big — but I’ll consider it, that’s not bad.”
“Although what if the readers think it’s a comma with, like, a slash running through it. ‘No commas,’ like, ‘no smoking.’”
“That’s why you’re in advertising, I suppose! Still, I think readers will get it? We’ve been raised on cartoons to see dollar signs in eyes, so why not the hammer and sickle?”
“I’ll take up your suggestions with Fellini. You haven’t asked about him by the way!”
I rolled my eyes and made the motion of putting out a cigarette on my right temple.
“Sorry — sorry I don’t ask about your creepy lizard who uses his own skin as furniture.” His eyes welled up with genuine emotion for the tender skins of his companion.
“Never mind. I was only kidding.” Sure. I put another slice of lasagna on my plate but made no move to eat it, choosing my moment. My dad began nibbling on some crudité that had been sitting on the table since I’d arrived.
“Dad,” I asked, “did you ever know of a girl who was my age, blue dress, sourpuss on, sallow skin, kind of rude —”
“Don’t be a jerk,” I countered, playful but serious. His eyes were full of attention.
“Alright then, just give me the tombstone details,” he said. My response was in the cribbed style of an Elizabethan courtesan, which is how we talked to each other when the mood turned heavy.
“If you insist,” my reply went, “well-met at my friend Camilla’s tenth birthday party, bedecked in blue dress, matching my description perfectly, same height, appearance, and birth date, our beloved Rachel.”
“That sets off a memory,” he continued in his undecorated voice, placing me in the momentary disgrace of overenthusiasm. “One of those kids your mom tutored on the side for more money than reporting ever rewarded her with. Her parents the Kramers — or the Kaners? — Kanters? — well, they were one of the countless to commission a painting of their family dog from me. A spaniel I believe. Quite ordinary but cross-eyed.”
“Dogs can be cross-eyed?”
“It appeared so.”
“Well she never mentioned to me that she knew Mom.”
“So she got embarrassed?” he suggested.
“No,” I stayed firm.
“Your mom invited her?”
“No! Maybe she would though? Why so defensive?”
“Not so sure I’m the one being defensive, but if I’m getting ahead of your story, just say so. What would I have to be defensive of?”
“Oh now I need to spell everything out? We were twins separated at birth!! I’ve got a handle on it, I’ve long suspected it, it’s all out in the open now. And I’m glad, it feels good. My mom, your wife, our matriarch who is lost to us, birthed two of me, one real and strong, the other treated as a faint copy merely. For all I know you weren’t even in on it. She faked the sonogram and coerced the nurses and the doctors into some pretty unethical adoption mayhem and voila my sister is raised by barren, overbearing middle-class professionals, like in Westchester or something. One child was handful enough – remember she’d say it often! – two would tie her to the home more solidly yet. Unable to abandon the mark of her treachery entirely she tracks down the copy and convinces her parents that she should become her biological daughter’s English tutor. She charms the girl and wins her trust, easy enough, and the next step is too tempting for her not to take. She invites Rachel to my friend Camilla’s birthday to flaunt her.” There it was, the truth. Yet even as I said the words it was as if the truth were draining out of me in the same stream where secrets and evasions make their home. Funny thing, catharsis. Dad was looking at me like I had just delivered a religious sermon and he, a non-believer, was doing his best to be spiritual. He spoke as if his words were wending their way down a staircase in the dark.
“I remember that girl,” he said. “She was pale, sickly looking, and lonely, with a fevered imagination. Couldn’t focus on her school work for even a moment, but you’re right she was raised in a claustrophobic household with controlling parents not much around. She clung to your mom, who was paid above-market rates to quiz her on The Red Pony and whatever else you read at that age. What it really amounted to, I think, was therapy for a very inward girl. Rachel asked all about her life, and your mom obliged. What exactly she was doing at that party I don’t know any better than you, and the only other person who perhaps could have told us is, as you say, ‘lost to us.’ What I do know is the child felt an intense bond which wasn’t much returned, only sympathized with. It was obvious Rachel would have preferred to be your mother’s daughter than to go on with the situation she was brought up in, but her protective parents hadn’t given her much latitude for make-believe.”
I asked him how he had come to grasp the situation so well.
“Please,” he cut me off, “You know when it comes to my life with your mom my memory is beyond reproach. These fantasies of running away from home, towards another life, are common in children. Don’t you think it’s possible you were both… acting out?”
“Well, that’s what I remember. I didn’t know you two ever met, but then, you never told me.”
“She looked just like me!”
“Your mom did mention she was small and a bit awkward. But, darling, though you’re small you’ve always carried yourself with such panache! I don’t quite see why you get so down on yourself, how you could compare –”
I was about to shout at him about the birthday Rachel and I shared, but I figured she might have been lying about that too. When he asked soothingly if I’d really been wondering about her all these years I detected the tremor of pity in his voice.
“She could have invented the birthday stuff,” I admitted.
“I’m sure she wanted to be close to you somehow.”
“It wasn’t that. She wanted to be close to Mom, the way you tell it.”
A brief pause ensued in which I noticed Fellini had gone to sleep.
“Did you see her other than at the birthday party?” asked Dad.
“None of my friends knew who she was.”
“You could have asked your mom. Or me!”
“I didn’t want to let on that I knew! Like in The Parent Trap.”
“So you see my mistake.”
“I certainly do, it’s totally reasonable.”
“No it isn’t. There’s something deeply wrong with me,” I cried.
“Oh God it’s on the surface then, isn’t it?”
I’ve been practically living at a little French grocery store a short walk from my apartment. Their croissants are the envy of all North Brooklyn and like eating delicious tissue paper. I’ll get a piece of cheese and eat it with a plastic knife, sit at one of their makeshift street tables if one is open and spitefully read whatever novels my former colleagues are producing this season, mask lowered, a little worried for myself. The store is always in demand, attended by a trail of yuppies waiting to load up their totes with patisserie.
Today, on a prime Saturday baking morning the weekend after Thanksgiving, I entered to find no line, no one at the register or inside at all. I had a bad feeling about it, like someone was going to pop out from behind a shelf and ask me to sign a petition. There was just one small French lady in a branded apron sweeping the curb. “Can I ’elp you?” That’s when I noticed a terrible smell was emanating from the bakery. It was sulfurous, with notes of ham and roquefort. “What happened?” I asked. “The oven,” she sighed, “it ’as a gaseous leak. All the croissants are in ruin.” “Your beautiful croissants!” “Yes, it is such a sad morning.” She really did look crushed, a young face wise to sorrow. “Is it dangerous to go inside and order a sandwich?” “Dangerous? No, it just smells like garbage. Please do not order your sandwich on a croissant, they ’ave all become ashes.”
I sat and ate my sandwich at one of the regular tables. Putrid smells are transporting. You take a bite of freshly baked bread and you could be at a bakery in Paris, but nearly choking on fumes you could be practically anywhere else in the world. Disgust flooded my senses and advertised many escape routes I did not take. The more I sat the less the smell seemed to dissipate, the less I got used to it. I could feel my pores shouting sweat all across my body and shuddered.
To quell my nausea I pictured the snow-pure Alps, the clean mountain air, the peaks that were once the depths and are crowded with the remains of sea creatures, shells, bones, ancient kelp. These fragments await us with the utmost patience, their absence hardening into a kind of beauty that’s poetic, mysterious, persevering through time. But when I squeezed my eyes tight to go on imagining, there I was back in the tunnel. The one that chases down the light yet remains murky for the long haul, streaked with intimations unproven in action. Didn’t she write her odes, her epigrams, her pop songs to the mountain on the walls of tunnels? If only I could go back and find them, read her broken and unfinished stories by tender torchlight: the love plot, motherhood, the Rachel yarn, itinerant reflections on the cutting room floor.
The heights that are so clean and deathless seem to glitter. Beauty beckons, a gesture in the dusty distance. But what if nobody is there? I’m alone down here too, wishing I could send up just one line between us. How do you throw a rope up a mountain so that a person living in your imagination can catch it?
I lingered outside the little French grocery store until I couldn’t stand the smell any longer, and recorded some brief thoughts on the nature of beauty in the crossword puzzle of the newspaper I was pretending to read. One needs, to begin with, a form.
Hannah Gold is a critic and fiction writer based in New York City. Her most recent work has been published by Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Washington Post.