Summer reading special: 1st place fiction contest winner

How do I explain it? The truth is, you don’t. Who could you tell who would believe it? You meet in grad school and from the very beginning you’re best friends. This seminar, that seminar, you read each other’s work, share advice on conference papers, and dissertation defenses, and publishing, and job talks. She gets a tenure track position in upstate New York, the following year you get a tenure track position somewhere in the Midwest, and pretty soon she’s got a book contract too. You fly east for her wedding, and they drive out for the naming of your first child. And then one day she calls you, and even the ring of the phone seems ominous, and when you pick up her voice is all small and you know something is wrong and you say to her, it’s okay, tell me what’s wrong, and meanwhile you’re running all the possibilities through your head, sure you can support her whatever it is: she’s unexpectedly pregnant, they can’t get pregnant, he’s leaving her, she had an affair with a student, a fellow faculty member, a dean, a dean’s wife, she got lousy teaching reviews, her book contract fell through.

And then she starts to cry on the other end of the line, and you say it can’t be that bad and she says yes it is and you figure it has to be the dean’s wife or probably the book contract, and maybe you even squelch a tiny moment of schadenfreude that now you’ll get tenure first, because really you love this person, she’s like the sister you never had, not a competitive relationship at all. I’m a failure, she’ll wail, and you’ll say, no, you’re the smartest person I know, and mean it, and since you’re both academics, you really do think you know a lot of smart people. I found a lump in my breast, she says, or rather her husband felt it while they were making love, but you’re too shocked to think too much about that latter fact or to be grossed out by it. So she has surgery, and starts chemo, and her doctors are cautiously optimistic so you are not as cautiously-as-you-should-be optimistic. She e-mails you pictures of herself without hair, and you send her packages of chocolate and silly hats and even once a Cher wig that you find on sale the first week of November. For a little while, her whatsit count (you’re in the humanities, not the sciences, you can never remember all that medical jargon) goes down, or up, or whatever it is that you want it to do, and you forget to be cautious at all in your optimism. She’s editing her book, and thinking about applying for a better job at a better school in a better location. But she starts getting pain in her legs, and the doctors find a new tumor at the base of her spine, and then at least three in her liver. They start one last round of extra strength chemo, but no one is optimistic at all now.

You don’t say to her, what will I do without you, but she knows you’re thinking it. You’ll be okay, she says, I promise, and you want to say, No, I won’t, but you don’t, because that would be unfair; this isn’t her fault and it’s not like there’s anything she can do about it. And then two weeks later she develops pneumonia because her immune system is so weakened, and her husband holds the phone up to her ear but she can’t talk to you because of the ventilator and you don’t know what to say because goodbye is so final, and two days after that the doctors take her off the ventilator because it’s only prolonging the inevitable, and she dies.

For a while you can’t write. You’re supposed to go to the annual conference in your field, but when the program book comes in the mail, you read the paper titles and they all seem meaningless. Worse than meaningless, a scam; for the first time you think maybe you understand why next month the Wall Street Journal will run an article making fun of offerings like “The Phenomenology of the Female Phallus in the Folios of Philo,” even though they didn’t bother to send a reporter to cover the conference. Maybe you’ll cancel your trip. Won’t the university be happier if you stay and teach those days?

But then you see that you’ve also gotten a package in the mail. Her book has come out, and her husband has sent you a copy. It sits on your shelf for a week or two; you aren’t ready to read it. Finally, you tell yourself, you’ll read the acknowledgments at the front of the book, look for your name, which is sure to be there. And it is, but there’s also a little superscript number,1, a note; you’ve never seen that in acknowledgments before. So you flip to the endnotes at the back, and the note says, “See ‘The Phenomenology of the Female Phallus in the Folios of Philo,’ unpublished conference paper.” Unpublished? It hasn’t even been given yet! But suddenly you think, I guess I will go to the conference, and more than that, although you feel both eager and sheepish, you go to the paper with the strange title, arriving ten minutes early but also staking out a seat at the very back of the room. You sit through two uninspiring presentations, breathing in the dry, recycled air of the civic convention center, trying to find diversion in observing the way in which the hanging crystal rods decorating the light fixture over head have a prismatic effect on light of the fluorescent bulbs hidden underneath, fighting the inner voice telling you this is crazy, leave now. And then finally the moderator introduces the speaker you’ve been waiting for, and your heart speeds up, and within two paragraphs it’s practically running the Kentucky Derby — this person is on to something! This is the theoretical insight you need! You find yourself rooting frantically in your bag for a pen, and despite all your difficulties lately, you’re still enough of an academic that you always carry at least one with you at all times, and now you’re scribbling notes into the first blank paper you see, the margins of the conference program. When the session is over, you try to push your way to the front of the room — now you’re sorry you chose to sit at the back — and by the time you get there, the speaker has left, gone out of your life as mysteriously as she came into it.

You go out to the lobby and find a cart selling coffee, and sit somewhere rereading your notes, letting your latte go cold and oblivious to the people flowing past you on their way to other sessions. Who was the Greek guy who supposedly jumped out of the bath and ran outside naked yelling “Eureka”? That’s how you feel now, except that throwing off your clothes here in the middle of the conference would be sure to be seen, and only kill any chance you have of getting a position at a better school someday. You go up to your hotel room, open your computer, and start writing, and only stop when your husband calls to remind you that it’s your daughter’s bedtime and she wants to say nightie-night to Mommy. I’ve been writing, is all you say to him, and he says, Yeah? That’s great, honey, what about? And you say, Just some random ideas I had after a paper I went to, because you suddenly think you might jinx things if you say anything more.

When you get back to your small, Midwestern town after the conference, you know you need to begin right away at the library. Unfortunately, your school’s collection is less than large; you’re also already contemplating when you can make the two hour drive to the state school up the interstate, or whether you’ll have to wait on the unpredictable arrivals of interlibrary loans. You’re a little afraid to pick up your friend’s book; what if the note is not there, and it was all some strange delusion? But you’re also drawn to the book, and sure enough, the little 1 is still there by your name. When you turn to the back, though, something has changed. The note now reads, “As ______ has written…” and there is exactly the long citation you need from an article in a major journal in your field that you know your library does not subscribe to. Things continue like this, and each day you write two or three new pages.

After a week or so, you remember that you ought to call her husband to thank him for sending you her book. I only just recently started reading it, you say, true and untrue all at once. Have you read it, you ask him, and you listen to his pause, before he opts for diplomacy, It’s not my field so I tried, but I really don’t understand it, and although he’s a PhD, his degree is in chemistry, so you guess that too is true and untrue all at once. What unsatisfying rational theory would his scientific mind invent if you tried to tell him what you’ve been reading? I’ve found it thought-provoking so far, you say, letting him take the hint if he wants, but you’re also experiencing a frisson of pleasure in the idea that whatever emanation of her spirit it is that she put into the book is for you and only you.

You keep her book handy as you continue your work. One day your footnote is a dead-on critique of the latest book by a senior scholar in your field, a pompous blatherer left behind by the turn in theory twenty years ago. Inwardly you thank her for sparing you the effort of reading it carefully yourself, and actually enjoy pondering whether copying out her language would be plagiarism. Another day she points out some typos in your most recent writing, and you scamper off sheepishly to correct them. And so on. For a while, things flow. Her book is always nearby, but suddenly you realize you haven’t had to consult it for quite some time.

And then, inevitably, you come to a sticky part in the chapter you’re working on, and one day you write only one page, and you’re not sure it’s a very good page at that. Well, but you know what to do, right? You’ve left her book on your desk at home; you can hardly contain yourself during your afternoon class, rivaling the students today in your eagerness to be outta here and on the road already. But then, when you’re actually there at your desk, holding the book, you find your palms suddenly sweaty, your heart pounding, what if it’s not there anymore? Maybe she’s angry that you haven’t checked in with her in a while? But wasn’t it always like that, maybe you didn’t talk to each other for a while, but then when you did, it was like you hadn’t left off the last conversation at all. Surely it’ll be okay? And in the end, what else is there to do?

With trembling fingers you flip the pages, and you literally go weak at the knees with relief when you see the superscript 1 floating there by your name. And as you flip pages, the book practically falls open to the notes at the end, the spine unbroken in the middle. A long note today. Quickly you scan down it, and then you slow, and then you stop, and after a few deep breathes, start over from the top. She’s got her reviewer’s hat on again, and the subject is you. And not just typos either. Sure, she knows what’s wrong with your stalled chapter. Only you don’t need a reference, or a citation, or an inspiring reading assignment to make things right. There’s a fundamental weakness in your argument, and she’s all over it, like a mountain lion on a slow, old elk.

But, but, but… She doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do here. You always argued about theory anyway. How dare she!

Well, yeah…, but, but, but…, maybe you really ought to have read some of what’s in the actual body of her book, which you still haven’t gotten to, and not just the acknowledgments with your personal footnote. What is she, just an info ATM?

Be honest. It’s not how dare she critique your work — it, and you, will be stronger for that. No. How dare she die. How dare she leave you. And for the first time in months, you cry, truly cry, body convulsing with the force of it, book clutched to your chest.

Finally, when the storm passes through you, when there’s nothing left to give, with fingers still trembling, damp and salty, you turn back to the front of the book, and open to the page that reads “Chapter One,” and begin. After that, the work of writing your chapter, your book, your life without her.

Gail Labovitz is a Conservative rabbi and associate professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University. She dedicates this short story to the memory of Dr. Elka Klein.