Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Everyman’s Library (Knopf), 1998. Print.
Given by my Parisian-born step-mother, for a birthday present or Hanukkah — the occasion is conflated with other such potential occasions. This was after my step-mother, then my father’s girlfriend, had (in the footsteps of so many debutantes and wards of the state) come out with an affair. She had been a colleague of my father’s, in the same field, with an appointment at the Sciences Po in Paris. Obtaining a visiting professorship at my father’s academic institute in Pittsburgh, she had disembarked for a term with a suitcase, no arranged living situation, and a particularly vicious feline named Lola (whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, said my dad, attending to a laceration on his arm, executed by an unkempt claw). He arranged for her to stay in my part-time room at his house — I was only there once a week at best, he reasoned. I slept in my sisters’ room, switching beds on rotation. A temporary matter became an indefinite pause — it was hard finding a place that would permit a cat. I arrived one morning at my father’s house on a weekend he had custody, a schedule affirmed by family court. Forgetting my future step-mother’s residency at the time, I stumbled into my room and found it empty, the bed made, stippled with dust motes. I sought out my father and asked of her whereabouts. She had just returned from a jaunt back home to Paris to visit her mother, who we all imagined to be some sort of Norma Desmond recluse with a French accent. She’s sleeping in my room, said Dad, she was dosed with jet-lag. So where did you sleep?, I asked. Some fumbling with a coffee mug. She slept in my room. I was not to tell my sisters. Soon after this — and after my future step-mother gave me The Stranger — after my sisters were told, I came down with a case of the flu. The bedroom was mine again; my future step-mother had gone back to France, and she and my father embarked on what would be a trans-continental engagement. I was quarantined. My father, who has always had an aversion to illness of any kind — especially childhood illness, that quick foxtrot with mortality — left a can of Manischewitz chicken broth on the kitchen counter and told me to help myself when I felt like it. The only thing that assuaged me was the conjuring of an Algerian beach, a stretch of white, contingent sand, and a fevered heat roiling me into comfort.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Herschel Parker. 2nd ed. N.p.: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.
Purchased in college bookstore. After the completion on my graduate thesis on Moby-Dick, I took a trip to Boston with my paramour to visit some old college friends. I brought my copy of Moby-Dick along for no given reason, other than the theory that it had become some sort of transitional object. Most nights, I slept with it under my pillow, willing a synthesis of the text through osmosis and ambiguous New Age ritual. The first night, we pre-gamed at my friend Derek’s apartment in East Boston, where three friends, my old college roommate K included, met us. We discussed job prospects, online dating, sports statistics, favorite programming. Half-drunk, K began to talk about some chronic chest pains she had been having recently, plattered with short breathing and dizziness. Her girlfriend had taken her to the hospital. Did you have a panic attack?, I asked, one of those landed me in the hospital on my birthday last year. No, it wasn’t a panic attack. First there had been a blood panel, sealed in vials lined like pill boxes. Then some sort of X-ray, an MRI. There was a growth across her chest, they had done a biopsy. She had cancer, Hodgkins lymphoma, stage four. The stages weren’t a death sentence, but an appellate court; the cancer was treatable, there were new trials; the chemo had already started, would continue for six months, I could come up and see the oncology floor at Mass General, they had a beautiful healing garden with patches of fauna and twined flowers, you could see the Charles, stippled with sailing boats, lined with algae-eaten docks, you could see the sepulchral domes and hubs of Cambridge, it was a beautiful view. She wanted to tell me in person. I sat on Derek’s stoop and called my mother, it wasn’t fair to cry. We went to a dive bar around the corner from a saloon that advertised a tripe special on Fridays. This was old news to everyone else. At the bar, a woman celebrated her thirtieth birthday and was drunk enough to treat us all to her store-bought cake. I thought of a night during my freshman year of college, with K and I in her bed, swaddled together under her covers in an unspecified clause, in a platonic embrace. I went to that memory and willed myself to live inside it again, the apotheosis of a friendship, a place of warmth and safety, liminal, without an expiration date, unmedicated, uninformed, a state of mere being. I put my copy of Moby-Dick back on its place on the bookshelf and have not touched it since.
Moody, Rick. Demonology. London: Faber, 2001. Print.
Purchased in New York City, circa 2004. The first writing workshop I ever took was at a pre-college program at both Barnard, where I went for morning classes, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I went in the evenings. The workshop was a Barnard affair; our instructor, with a coiffed halo of blonde hair, leaned on the table towards the ten of us in the course and revealed that writers were the greatest of liars. On a field trip to a Vivian Gornick reading, combined with both her morning and afternoon classes, I met N. During intermission, the two classes introduced themselves; N marveled at my hair, and we both commiserated over the ruddiness of both our cheeks. I admitted that I preferred Rick Moody and Chekov to the other reading assignments we had been given, I liked their prosaic desperation, their instinctual thirst. The need to be touched. She liked the William Maxwell novel, she thought it was poignant. Like a Rockwell painting, she said. A gaggle of my classmates came back to my dormitory afterwards (I can’t remember their names, N has taken center stage in this memory, blurring faces in the periphery, fashioning those lost never-friends into ghosts), and I made excuses for N to stay behind, some sort of roundabout, adolescent reasoning. She was gay, and I told her that I thought I liked girls, too, but I would deny it if she told anyone, so please don’t tell anyone, okay? She laughed, penned a list of counter-cultural hallmarks. Angelina Jolie was sexy as all hell in Foxfire, Rubyfruit Jungle is a book every lesbian should be required to read. I kept the list under my mattress, parallel to my resting heart. I found excuses to walk the Barnard premises, I cited aesthetics, the Italian Renaissance massing and Colonial-influenced architecture, the exacting cascade of ivy in ratio to wall, the potted plants. “I had been given chances and I had squandered them. I had done my best to love,” wrote Rick Moody. After the program ended, I wrote her an e-mail. She did not respond.
Orgel, Doris. The Devil in Vienna. New York: Penguin Group, 1988. Print.
Given by my mother, time indeterminate. I was always told that anyone with the last name “Orgel,” my great-grandmother’s surname, was related to me by blood, and that The Devil in Vienna, most likely based on true events, was a representative chronicle of my family’s experience during the Holocaust. When I began to embark on the writing of my own novel — some of which concerns a Viennese family during World War II — I remembered the book, and became curious as to the whereabouts of the author. Another writer in the family, I thought. I found an address listing on the Upper East Side, complete with telephone number. One afternoon, alone with two or three empty beer cans, I dialed the number. After four or five rings, a punctuated click announced a receipt at the other end of the line, followed by a warbling, worn voice. Hello?, it said, unaccented, I’m late for my walk. I fumbled, my tongue thick and anxious. I gave her my name, my age, my occupation, I’m related to you, I had read her book during my formative years, it impacted me greatly, on par with Lois Lowry; I’m a writer too, I’m related to an Orgel directly, I’m related to all Orgels, apparently, which means I’m related to you, I have family in New York, after all, I guess, I thought I didn’t have any. I’d like to meet and discuss the book and its origins, if you don’t mind, it would be great to meet some family. Orgel wasn’t her given name, she said, it’s my husband’s, he’s the one you’re related to, dear. He’s out right now, she said, but he would be available tomorrow. In my mind, she looked like Cynthia Ozick, hair a translucent white, cut in fringes and chunks. Veins roped around her fingers like tinsel wire. Her glasses weighted her face. Yes, I said, tomorrow I’ll call. I never did. To this day, I assume she’s alive and well.
Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. N.p.: Harper Collins, 1964. Print.
Voices reading in unison. My mother and grandmother’s hands, for the last time. Since then, I have never felt as warm.