Who Is . . . ?

Who is Steven Millhauser? I was first introduced to his fiction when I was 22 and in graduate school; the book was Martin Dressler, the city New York, and if you write a dreamy, magical-realist take of Manhattan a century ago, you’ve got me at the first page, even way back then.

Then, years later, I have a very visceral memory of reading Steven Millhauser’s story collection The Knife Thrower.

Then I spend my morning reading his short story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” from his new collection Dangerous Laughter. Most of my own stories are about disappearance and escape—just a reoccurring theme, don’t take it too literally… or should you? Anyway, with his story he’s taken out pieces from my own mind, and written them far better. I can’t even be jealous.

He, too, loves short stories. This is from an interview from failbetter:

My heart lies in short forms, in stories and novellas. I don’t reject novels. But I’m suspicious of them, those big noisy things that don’t know how to stop. Most novels remind me of a drunk at a party, the sort of guy who puts his arm around you, leans in close, and can’t shut up. Novels are the skyscrapers of literature, the Wal-Marts of literature. It’s a particularly American obsession: size as power. It’s as if a work of literature, in America, is supposed to be the size of the entire country.

So, who is he? Sometimes I feel like he can see into my mind.

* * *

Who is the person who propped up the naked, armless mannequin in the middle of the empty floor of the abandoned storefront that had once been Canal Jeans, pointing one detached arm at its far-off body, claws up, reaching…

No, really, who was it? I appreciated the setup and would like to know.

* * *

Who is our upstairs neighbor, she of the vacuum and the loud shoes? What does she do on the floor to make it so dirty? Does she think of the people who live below her? Does she wake up at night, after I’ve had a nightmare in the loft bed so close to the ceiling where above I imagine is her bed, because she’s heard my screams?

* * *

Who will be reading the stories I just submitted to literary journals this weekend? Will one (all I need is one) give me a shot?

* * *

Who is the mystery girl in my novel and why does she keep running away from me?

* * *

Who is my nemesis?

All I’ll say about her is that she does exist—though she may not know I exist, which makes her even more solidly my nemesis—and she once starred on TV.

* * *

Who is it I thought I was all this time? If called on to describe myself at age thirteen I would have said “painfully shy.” As I remember, I was the girl who never spoke up in class or in groups of people, spinning in my own thoughts but not saying them aloud if more than two people were in the room. I was awkward. Confused. Intensely unsure of myself. And yet—this is strange—it seems that I am remembered another way.

To this day I have one friend I still see from one of my previous lives: E.S., my best friend in junior high school who lives in Manhattan, just finished her master’s program, and just got a job teaching high school English at a school downtown, yay! Somehow we’ve stayed friends all these years, going from getting in trouble in French class for passing each other notes that experimented with awkward uses of French profanities to a shared fashion sense of all-black ensembles decorated with rows of safety pins (why? don’t ask) to reading Anne Sexton in graveyards to both going off to the strangest colleges we could find (mine was Antioch; hers was Hampshire).

She knew me at my most awkward. So I thought for sure she’d remember me as the quiet one in the corner, too shy to speak, because, after all, that’s how I was at age thirteen, right? But no. What she remembers is this one afternoon, when we were in the car with her mother and got stuck in a huge traffic jam. Apparently I somehow talked my friend into getting out of the car and going down the line of cars, stopping at each window to say hi to every driver.

Her mom remembers it, too. Every time I come up in conversation, she brings it up: “Remember when Nova got you to go say hello to everyone stuck in traffic?”

So that was me? The thirteen-year-old girl so sure of herself she went around saying hi to strangers on the highway for no reason? Is this really something I once did? I wonder if my memories of myself are completely distorted, like when you look in the mirror and see something else from what the world sees. That could be it.

Either that or the girl in the traffic jam was some other girl entirely. I wonder . . .

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