Post Road Magazine #18

The Next Scott Nadelson

Scott Nadelson

A few years ago, when I was still living in Portland, single and shadowed by a persistent and unaccountable sense of failure, I gave a reading in a downtown bookstore. It was late winter, and I didn't expect anyone to show up. The store, tucked away on a side street, with only a small sign to mark it, was run by a mother and daughter who maintained one of the best collections of literary magazines in the city and an enormous poetry section. To no one's surprise, they were struggling to stay in business. I didn't think they were helping their cause by inviting me to read, but of course I accepted without hesitation.

Six months earlier, in the summer of 2004, I'd published my first collection of stories, about a Jewish family in suburban New Jersey, and it had been received with the kind of silence most books receive, especially first books by unknown writers. Since then it had won a couple of small awards and gotten a few positive reviews, particularly in the Jewish press, but still I had a hard time convincing myself that I'd done something worthwhile, that I'd ever do something worthwhile. This, I can see now, had less to do with the story collection than with my life generally. The previous June, a week before the book came out, and a week after wedding invitations had arrived in the mailboxes of our friends and family, my fiancée fell in love with someone else. I was left reeling and broke, living in a furnished attic apartment whose ceiling was infested with squirrels. Not long after, my car's brakes went out, and I discovered that my cat was dying. Everything was falling apart, as far as I could tell, and for the past six months I'd been stumbling around in a fog of sadness that refused to lift even when I received an invitation to do a reading. How excited could I get, after all, knowing that I'd be one more nail in the bookstore's coffin?

But to my surprise, the reading drew an enthusiastic crowd, more than two dozen people, most of whom had seen my name in the local Jewish paper. They listened attentively, clapped, and asked questions about how much of the book was autobiographical, to which I replied that I'd promised my parents not to say. Afterward, an aging hippie wearing a yamulka woven with the colors of the Jamaican flag came up to me and growled, "You're the next fucking Philip Roth." I smiled and thanked him and didn't bother to remind him that Philip Roth had published his first book at twenty-six and won the National Book Award, that by the time he was my age—thirty-one—he was starting to work on Portnoy's Complaint and was soon to be a household name. I was happy enough to take the compliment, more pleased, actually, than I wanted to admit, and I signed the old hippie's book warmly and shook his hand.

In fact, he wasn't the first person to make the Roth comparison. It was inevitable, I suppose, for a young, male, Jewish writer from New Jersey, especially one who wrote about family and generational conflict. Most of the reviews in the Jewish press had mentioned Roth, usually saying something along the lines of Scott Nadelson isn't Philip Roth—he's not as fierce, or as funny, or as Jewish—but he's not terrible. Even my father had joined in, saying I must have read Goodbye, Columbus every morning before sitting down to write.

The fact was, I didn't know much of Roth's work. Unlike my father, a devoted fan who read every new title as soon as it hit the shelves and who was outraged every year when the Nobel went to someone else, I'd only ever read three of Roth's books. It was true that Goodbye, Columbus had meant something to me when I was in college, as had Portnoy and The Ghost Writer in the years following, and that Roth had been an early inspiration for my picking up a pen, but really, I thought, he wasn't so relevant anymore, not to someone of my generation, whose response to the pushy, loudmouthed Jews he'd grown up around wasn't to agonize and torture himself but to pack up and move west, as I had ten years earlier.

It was true, too, that for the past ten years I'd dated only non-Jewish women, and that I'd almost married one, but this was simply coincidence. I'd been attracted to plenty of Jewish women when I was younger—girls from my Hebrew school and youth group, olive-skinned soldiers I'd seen on my two trips to Israel—and I wasn't opposed to getting romantically involved with one now, though it wasn't a priority, either. I wasn't some pathetic Portnoy running away from his mother. In fact, my mother had been as excited as anyone about my wedding and had treated my exfiancée as a daughter, though she did lecture me about the importance of tradition and of not forgetting my roots; she couldn't bear the idea of her grandchildren not celebrating the holidays and singing all the songs I'd sung as a kid, though I myself hadn't sung any of them for more than a dozen years.

Still, the old hippie's words had an unexpected impact on me, and my fog of sadness lifted enough that when the bookstore owner—the daughter, who was a few years younger than me, a small, bright-eyed girl with punky hair and sleek glasses and a sweet, lopsided smile, certainly not a Jew—thanked me and praised my work, I invited her to have a drink at a bar around the corner.

She'd love to, she said. Only her boyfriend's band was playing in a few hours, and she had to help him load his gear into the club, but thanks again for such a great reading…

"Of course," I said, and even then the fog of sadness only hovered above me, keeping its distance. Not only was this the first forward step I'd taken in six months, the first time that it occurred to me that I could take a step forward, but I saw in the daughter's expression a little thrill of flattery, maybe even of attraction, a look that said that if she didn't have a boyfriend whose band was playing in a few hours she would have a drink with me, that given different circumstances who knew what might have happened. The look even seemed to suggest that circumstances might not always be the same, that she might, after all, not always have a boyfriend. "I hope it's a good show," I said, though of course what I really hoped was that the band would flop, that the daughter would recognize her mistake in turning me down. I gave her a smile I wanted her to take as acknowledgment of her look, a signal that should circumstances change she shouldn't hesitate to let me know.

Only when I'd left the store and walked a block alone, my book under my arm, passing the bar where the daughter and I might have shared a quiet drink under different circumstances, only when I pictured us in there together did the sadness return, and the anger that always came reluctantly but with terrible force, the fog enveloping me so completely that soon I was blind with despair and rage. Not because she had a boyfriend and turned down my invitation, but because she might one day not have a boyfriend, because one day she and I might have a drink together, and then who knew what would happen? Maybe we'd love each other and plan to get married and then change our minds after sending out the invitations. Maybe I'd be the one to fall in love with someone else this time and cancel the wedding—who knows? The thought infuriated me. It made me want to kick things, as I'd recently kicked the hollow-core bathroom door in my attic apartment, leaving a hole I'd have to repair if I ever moved out.

But what was worse than imagining what might happen between us was recognizing that I couldn't know how things would turn out, that everything was so uncertain, every moment bursting with possibilities. I cursed myself for having taken that step forward, cursed the old hippie for his compliment, cursed Philip Roth. By the time I made it back to my attic, I decided I'd never leave again.

I'd been so unprepared for suffering that when it blindsided me the previous June I went down in a heap, with no chance to catch my balance. It had never occurred to me that my fiancée might fall in love with someone else, especially not after we'd mailed our wedding invitations, though when she told me, she said I should have seen it coming, that I couldn't possibly have failed to recognize how unhappy she'd been, and really, wasn't it at least partly my fault for not understanding her needs? Her words stunned me so completely that I didn't argue. I just made teary phone calls to my friends and family, packed my clothes and books—I didn't own any furniture—and brought my cat to the attic atop a narrow old Victorian whose roof sloped so steeply that I had to sit down to pee.

The apartment's best feature was a grimy skylight over the bed. I spent whole days staring at it in the weeks and months after I'd moved out of my ex-fiancée's condo, lying on sheets she'd insisted I take, no matter how many times I refused them. She knew I didn't have money for good linens, and she couldn't bear the thought of me sleeping in cheap K-Mart sheets with a ridiculously low thread—I might as well sleep on canvas— and anyway, she couldn't imagine sleeping with someone else in the sheets we'd shared. She sobbed as she said this, tossing things out of the linen closet, making a heap in the middle of the bedroom floor. "Take whatever you want," she said. "Take it all." She was getting new sheets, she was starting everything fresh.

The sheets were light yellow and incredibly soft, inappropriate for a bachelor's apartment, I thought, inappropriate for a person in so much pain, though if she hadn't given them to me I might not have bothered with sheets at all, not even with a low thread count, not even canvas. I would have just slept on the bare mattress. That would have been appropriate, stripped down as I was, my nerves so exposed that even the air felt abrasive.

Nevertheless, I used the sheets. For months I hardly got out of them, listening to the squirrels scurrying in the ceiling, watching the seasons change through the grimy glass overhead, blue skies giving way to clouds and then to rain. I thought I'd just lie there until the sheets shredded beneath me, until they turned to dust, and I'd watch the seasons turn and turn and turn, until I no longer knew which summer I was in, or which winter, because, really, why should I care?

To my surprise, though, I did care, and not long after the reading in the downtown bookstore, I found myself spending less time in those sheets, which had in fact begun to fray at the edges and had even torn along one seam. Two and a half seasons were enough, and now the fog of sadness that had enveloped me so completely, that I thought would never lift, dispersed so quietly that I was shocked to find it mostly gone.

Now it was early spring. Wet cherry blossoms plastered my car, and red-headed finches frolicked in the eaves outside my windows. Ordinarily the birds would have driven my cat crazy. She would have taken up vigil on a windowsill, pacing and making odd bird-like sounds, sounds that were more envious than threatening, as if she wanted to join them in their frolicking rather than eat them. But now she hardly ever left her spot on the couch, curled up on a sweaty T-shirt I'd long since given up hope of retrieving, just as I'd hardly left the bed for the few months prior. It was as if we'd traded off keeping watch on the place, sentinels on extended guard duty, and just as she'd kept up a cheerful front while I'd slept my long, dreamless sleep, a constant reminder that life still persisted even if I denied it, now I paced in front of her, occasionally scratching her head, coaxing her with treats, telling her she'd be feeling better any day now, while she glanced up at me with huge mournful eyes, her emaciated face giving no sign that she believed me, that she had any hope for the days to come.

Part of me worried that my sadness had rubbed off onto her, that the months I'd spent in bed had brought her to this state, though rationally I knew that sadness didn't bring on diabetes, which was what had caused her to lose half her body weight and made her drink a gallon of water a day. Every twelve hours I injected her with insulin, pulling up the loose scruff on the back of her neck, which smelled faintly of cotton candy, though the needle robbed her of all sweetness. She didn't protest, didn't register any pain, but still I felt cruel and guilty every time I pressed down the plunger, more so since the shots weren't doing any good. Her sugar levels were erratic, the vet told me. She must be insulin-resistant. Diabetes had killed my maternal grandmother, when I was too young to know her well, and now I was sure that the disease was a plague on my family, that the vet was wrong about what had caused it—it wasn't the cheap grocery store cat food loaded with carbohydrates but my genetics, or more likely, my terrible luck, my habit of misfortune, my uncanny ability to make everything I touched fall apart. Even though I hadn't sired the cat, she was, after all, my family, maybe the only family I'd ever have, and now I was losing her, too.

So I was left to watch the finches alone. They danced under the eaves, chirping, diving down to pick up sticks and bits of trash, the redheaded males weaving and singing, the brown females watching coyly, and then pairs disappeared behind the gutters to do intimate things I could only imagine, with piercing envy, as I listened to the rustling of wings and the soft clanging of aluminum.

And they weren't the only ones doing intimate things. My downstairs neighbor, whom I'd met only a few times in passing, a short, roundish, plain-looking girl with crooked front teeth, who always wore corduroys and fleece jackets and workboots, had recently begun bringing someone home to bed, and to my surprise and horror and fascination, she turned out to be a loud and energetic lover, with a range of noises I could hear plainly through the floor, beginning with a soft, squeaky moan that might have been the bed springs, then rising to a series of staccato cries—Oh shit oh shit oh shit—and finally ending with a guttural nonsensical shout that sounded to me like Mamele! Mamele! but might have been her lover's name, or more likely just a vocalization of a pleasure I couldn't imagine at all, though I tried to replicate it in my own bed, my hand a sad substitute for the plain, chubby girl a few feet below me. Her partner didn't make any noise at all, not until they'd finished, and then he started what sounded like a monologue, a low rumble of words I couldn't make out, without any answer from the girl, who must have exhausted herself with all that shouting.

I tried to picture them, to imagine how they were lying together, whether her head was on his chest or shoulder, whether his hand moved up and down her spine, and I tried to imagine what the girl's silent partner did to provoke her noises, whether he moved in response to her cries, or whether her cries were sparked by each of his movements. What an odd thing, crying Oh shit oh shit while he moved inside her, as if it were all too much to bear, as if she were afraid of what was coming next. I wondered if her partner thought it was strange, too, if it evoked an image in his mind—as it did in mine—of someone hunched on a toilet seat, and if he ever felt an aching desire to run to the toilet the moment after he pulled out of her, as I sometimes used to when I pulled out of my exfiancée, the urge for one release following another, and if he held back for the sake of his lover, as I always did.

But of course I couldn't know any of these things, any more than I could know what the finches did behind the gutters, and all I was left with instead was my spent penis in my hand and a sticky mess on my belly.

It was actually my penis that re-awoke to the world first, before the rest of me was ready to rise from that long, restorative slumber. Every morning that past fall and winter I'd open my eyes to the muted light through the grimy skylight, the drifting clouds, the drumming rain, and for a moment I wouldn't be sure where I was. It was almost a blissful feeling, until my mind caught up with my senses, and I remembered the attic and the furniture that wasn't mine, and the wedding invitations that had gone out in June, and the cheerful responses that came back in the mail the very same day that I had to call all my friends and relatives and tell them to cancel their flights and hotel reservations, to return their gifts, to put off polishing their shoes or pressing their suits. And then I'd shake my head and think, This isn't my life I'm remembering, this hasn't happened to me, and I'd pull the blanket over my head, while my cat pawed at me, begging for the cheap grocery store food that was destroying her body.

But now the cat didn't paw at me anymore, and though I watched the same grimy skylight and drifting clouds, and remembered the same wedding invitations and phone calls, I woke every morning with an inexplicable erection that lingered even after I got up to urinate, and that threatened at unexpected moments throughout the day, as I wandered through the grocery store or stood at a bank teller's window. With it came a dreamy, directionless desire that didn't fit with the belief that this wasn't my life I'd awoken to, that I should just keep my eyes closed until I could no longer remember wedding invitations and teary phone calls, or that several miles away my ex-fiancée was in bed with someone else. It seemed unfair for a part of my body to rebel, standing up straight when the rest of me was hunkering down, and I resented my penis with all its selfish, unrestrained appetite, for forgetting that I'd given up wanting anything.

Or if I did want anything, it was never to want anything again. Wanting was what had landed me here in the first place, though now, some mornings as I heard my downstairs neighbor clinking dishes in her kitchen, I was unreasonably hungry. I imagined making myself eggs and pancakes and sausage, though all I usually ate for breakfast was half a bowl of cereal and two cups of black coffee. Damn you, I thought, glancing down at my erection. Leave me alone.

Didn't it know what kind of trouble it was asking for, what it would take to satisfy its craving? Didn't it realize that to make it happy I'd have to meet another woman whose smell made my throat close up, whose laughter made me want to pick her up and swing her around? Didn't it realize I'd not only have to meet this woman but coax her into loving me—or at least liking me—enough to take off her clothes, that I'd have to buck up to my own shyness, my worry that I wouldn't satisfy her, that I'd be too clumsy or too quick, that she wouldn't like the sound of my breath in her ear or the way I kissed her nipples or stroked her hair? Didn't it know she might impulsively ask me to marry her in the middle of a restaurant on Valentine's Day, and then just as impulsively decide that marriage was too conventional for her, that she'd never wanted to be anyone's wife, that she'd fooled herself into believing she could sign on to something so permanent, into believing her heart was capable of remaining constant, that she could reign in its need to wander, to explore, to experience what the world had to offer? Didn't it know she might love me for three years and then fall in love with someone else?

Didn't it know it was asking too much?

It didn't know, or if it did, it didn't care. For the first time in my life I understood the demand for prostitution, a perfectly rational service for heartbroken men with unwanted erections, and if I wasn't terrified of disease and of being ripped off and beaten by a drug-addled pimp, I might have called one of the dozens of escorts who advertised her services in the back of the local weekly paper.

Instead I perused the dating websites. This was something my mother had been encouraging for months, though she referred only to the Jewish sites, telling me about her friend's daughter, who'd met the man of her dreams online—an Israeli, no less—and had just gotten married. As excited as she'd been about my wedding, I'd always known her enthusiasm was at least partially a mask for disappointment. I would have been the first person in our family—including my brother and all my cousins—to have married a non-Jew. Even though my mother was from Philip Roth's generation—in fact, she was ten years younger than Roth— she hadn't rebelled the way Roth had, and neither had my father. They might as well have been from Roth's parents' generation. Even though they were mostly secular, attending services only on the High Holidays, all their friends were Jewish, and whenever they left the East Coast they seemed lost somehow, their Brooklyn and New Haven accents growing thicker, puzzled looks crossing their faces, as if only then did they realize they were living in a predominantly Christian country. I suspected that my mother was secretly relieved that my ex-fiancée had left me, that she'd even seen it coming, though of course she never said so directly. What she did say was "Relationships are easier when you understand the other person's background. There's a solid foundation from the beginning." Then she tried to set me up with her bridge partner's niece, who'd just moved to Portland.

My father didn't weigh in on the dating question at all. When my mother handed him the phone, he talked sports and then told me about The Plot Against America, which he was reading for the second time. "Haunting," he said. "You really believe it could have happened here. Just imagine. There wouldn't be a single one of us left in the world. The guy's a genius." There was no reason to put much stock in my father's judgment of good writing. He'd spent his career as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry and hadn't even written articles for science journals since graduate school. But still, he was a voracious reader, especially now that he was retired, and I felt compelled to tell him what the old hippie in the bookstore had said. For a second he didn't answer. When he did speak, he sounded more worried than amused. "Those are big words to live up to, kiddo. You've got a lot of work ahead of you." Then, before he hung up, he said, "Mom wants me to remind you to call Jackie's niece. She's expecting to hear from you."

I didn't for a second believe that my break-up had anything to do with my ex-fiancée's ethnic or religious make-up—English and Irish Protestant, with a touch of lapsed-Mormon—but given what I'd suffered as a result, my mother's words lingered in my mind enough for me to wonder if dating a Jewish woman really would make some kind of difference, if in fact I'd been missing something all along. So I tried her suggestion. But her bridge partner's niece turned out to be a lesbian— her aunt was in denial, she told me over the phone—and the dozen or so local women on the Jewish dating websites were looking for men who owned their own homes, who had a minimum annual income of $50,000, who observed Shabbat or went to shul at least once a month. It's not that I wasn't attracted to any of them—there was a particularly cute one in the mix, though she looked too much like one of my cousins for me to imagine kissing her or taking off her clothes—but when I moved on to the general dating websites I found myself suddenly aroused at the thought of shopping for a romantic partner. Before long I moved on to porn sites, where the women I looked at all shared my ex-fiancée's light hair and pale skin and high cheekbones, and when I finished, exhausted and ashamed, I thought that maybe fucking Philip Roth had my number after all.

I went back to the downtown bookstore on a weekday afternoon about two months after the reading. I had no real business downtown, or anywhere else for that matter. My only paid work at the time was a shuffling deck of part-time teaching jobs, and my classes were all at night or online. My days were open, boundless, and to keep myself from taking long afternoon naps or pacing my attic, I hopped on the number 15 bus after lunch most days and made my way across the river, where I'd wander crowded shopping streets or through the park alongside the art museum and the university and stop into coffee shops, slowly coming alive to the world I'd thought I'd given up.

There was a bookstore in my own neighborhood, in the southeast quadrant of the city, and plenty of coffee shops, but by then I was consumed with the idea of cutting loose from all ties, real or imagined, of leaving things behind. On the bus heading west I could pretend that I was off to a land new and unfamiliar, a place of fresh starts and rich possibilities, and I could forget momentarily that I had three months left on my teaching contracts, six on my lease, that my credit card was charged close to its limit and my car's brakes were still shot and my cat was still dying. West had seemed like a magical direction when I'd first set out from New Jersey ten years ago, and even though the notion of heading west to seek one's fortune was a tired cliché, and even though the bus was filled with clients of a nearby methadone clinic who discussed the best spots to score H or Oxy—nothing, I overheard one say, beat a post-clinic fix—and even though I knew I'd return the same way a few hours later, on the inbound number 15, I always worked up a small glimmer of expectation, a vague hope that I was moving in the necessary and appropriate direction of adventure or discovery or flight.

On my way to the bus, I passed my downstairs neighbor's kitchen window, which looked onto the stairwell up to my apartment, and lingered for a moment, despite the steady drizzle. The curtain was open, and I could see that her kitchen was everything mine wasn't: clean, orderly, well-stocked. On the counter was a bowl overflowing with fruit. Pictures of friends and family were stuck with magnets to the refrigerator. An unopened bottle of wine sat on a shelf above the sink. I could see far enough into the rest of the apartment to confirm that it was all this way, her whole life tidy and discreet, no hint that a few hours earlier she'd been shouting Oh shit oh shit oh shit, or Mamele! Mamele! or that she and her lover—a chub like her, I guessed, feeling mean-spirited and faintly superior—had rolled to their backs, a sweaty, tangled mess, as disorderly as anything could be.

And somehow knowing what this orderly surface belied bolstered the sense of hope I felt as I left my apartment. Maybe I, too, could hide the truth behind a calm exterior. Maybe my morning's shave and shower, my recent haircut, my reasonably clean though mildly wrinkled clothes were enough to mask what was really there to see. Maybe a casual passer-by glancing my way would fail to recognize someone slowly emerging from suffering, someone whose sadness had kept him in bed for most of the summer and fall and winter, whose occasional, reluctant surges of anger had once made him kick a hole in the hollow-core bathroom door.

And I remained hopeful even as I passed my car plastered with wet cherry blossoms—its brake pads worn as thin as those flower petals— even as I reached in my wallet for my bus pass and saw the credit card that was nearly maxed by veterinary bills, even as the bus stopped in front of the methadone clinic and a dozen gaunt, disheveled addicts filled the seats around me. I was heading west, moving forward into an undetermined future, and now it didn't matter that I'd followed this same route nearly three years ago, driving straight into the sunset to visit my exfiancée, who wasn't yet my fiancée but only my lover, and though now it was gray and drizzling, I could picture the way I'd driven nearly blinded by the fire of the horizon, how I'd squinted to see the car in front of me, afraid that I'd accidentally drive off the bridge before I could get to her. It was as hard to believe that this had once been my life as the one I was living now, that I'd once arrived full of confidence at my ex-fiancée's condo in the northwest quadrant of the city, a tidy, orderly space well-stocked with food, and that we'd fall into a sweaty, tangled heap on her bed, the fulfillment of my fantasies, only in my fantasies I was always so much more assertive than I was in reality, never intimidated by the responsibility of it all, never worried that I'd be too quick or too clumsy, never so eager to satisfy that often enough I satisfied myself before either of us was ready.

By the time the bus neared the bridge, the hope I'd felt outside my neighbor's window was fading. That sense of failure crept up on me again, and despite my shower and shave and haircut, I was suddenly sure that everyone could see the suffering plainly on my face, that my notquite-clean and somewhat wrinkled clothes gave me away entirely. In front of me one of the clients of the methadone clinic was complaining about his back pain, and I caught a snippet of a story about how he'd injured it on a job site, something to do with a crane and a concrete pipe. He'd been married then and had a house, but his disability checks didn't cover the mortgage, and he'd lost it. His wife took the kids. Why shouldn't he fill himself with H or Oxy, I thought, even if the state was paying for his methadone treatment? Didn't a person deserve to do whatever he had to do to make himself feel better? In the face of suffering, shouldn't everything be fair game, including hiring a prostitute or looking at porn?

Just before the bridge, the bus passed a series of brick warehouses, the last belonging to a liquidation company that had in its window a handwritten sign: School Desks $10. And past the sign, behind the sooty window, was a jumbled stack of little desks with little chairs attached, the kind whose wooden top flips open so you can store your books and pencils and ruler inside. It looked as if there were hundreds of them, the entire top story of the warehouse, floor to ceiling. Who would buy so many desks? Who would buy even one?

I had an image of some commuter seeing the sign and having a sudden vision of his future, an ecstatic, bewildering moment in which he'd decide to give up his miserly corporate job to start a school for needy children, bankrolling it with his 401K, the price of the desks the first downpayment on a life full of meaning. How satisfying to be that person, to live only for greed and consumption and then to discover a charitable spirit and make up for past sins. How easy and enviable! Why didn't we all want to be Scrooge, and have the best of both worlds? Why be compassionate from the start, full of feeling and goodwill, with no potential for change, no ecstasy, no means to fund a school?

The handwriting on the sign was shaky and childlike, as if one of the little people who'd once occupied the desks had written it, and I pictured a row of dirty children waiting quietly for their school to open. But of course no corporate miser was going to slow down before the bridge and notice the sign; I saw it only because I was on the bus and didn't have to concentrate on driving. And anyway, there weren't real-life Scrooges out there waiting to be transformed, because Scrooge was the most unrealistic character in all of literature. His story was ridiculous, Christian and sentimental. Give me a good Jewish story, I thought, full of wrath and undeserved pain, Job and Lot's wife and the seduction of Samson, the dirty children left to fend for themselves.

Of course I couldn't help but picture myself among them, my books and papers stuffed so carelessly inside my desk that it never closed properly, my clothes always a little crooked, my hair fraught with cowlicks, my smile shy but eager, and I wondered what had happened to this little Jewish boy, so bright-eyed and full of hope, so open to whatever might come. How could he be thirty-one and on a bus surrounded by heroin addicts, his marriage failed before it even started, his cat dying, his only set of sheets torn and frayed?

The bus hit the bridge and surged upward, into merging traffic, toward a wall of downtown office buildings full of people with purpose to their days, with families to go home to. Below, the river rippled around pylons. The addict who'd injured his back and lost his house had fallen asleep. I pressed the button for my stop.

The daughter was out when I arrived at the bookstore, but I chatted briefly with her mother, who at first didn't recognize me or remember my name when I offered it, and I resisted the impulse to ask if any copies of my book had sold since the reading. I told myself I didn't care that the daughter was out, that I hadn't come in because of her. Rather, I wanted to break up my routine of wandering through parks and sitting in coffee shops, to show my support for the struggling store, and to convince myself that failure wasn't the defining feature of my life, that despite my attic apartment and wrinkled clothes and canceled wedding, I might consider myself something of a success.

The mother was friendly enough and even acted pleased to see me when I reminded her that I'd read here two months earlier, though she was obviously still struggling to recall who I was. But she was in the middle of putting in an order, so I left the counter and scanned the literary journals and then wandered over to the fiction section, browsing alphabetically, taking my time getting to the Ns. And then I felt a little zing of pride to see my book tucked in there so happily, right between Nabokov and Naipaul. With such weighty, serious company, how could anyone fail to think that it, too, must be weighty and serious, that it must be worth the price listed on the tag? I pulled out a copy and reread the blurbs on its back cover and reassured myself that someone had believed it was worth paying for, that someone believed it belonged on a shelf, though maybe not in the company of Nabokov or Naipaul. When I replaced it, I left it sticking out an inch, as if that might entice someone into picking it up, or as if it might snag like a burr onto someone's clothing and ride with him to a new home.

Then I sidled down to the Rs, thinking, as I had for the past two months, of the old hippie's words. The next fucking Philip Roth. I counted the Philip Roth books. Eighteen, and the store didn't carry all his titles. There was no point in being envious, but I consoled myself anyway by thinking that someone who produced so much had a higher percentage of garbage in his work than someone who labored over each book for years, and that it was harder to find the gems when you had to wade through pages and pages of muck. Not that I knew much of Roth's muck, since I'd read only the three books. What came to mind instead was the precision of those early stories, the rebellion, the anger that seemed to come to their author easily, swiftly, though of course it had probably cost him plenty of effort, and I wondered if that was what my father loved about Roth's books, since he, like me, was slow to anger even when it was justified. It was two months after my ex-fiancée left me before I kicked a hole in the bathroom door, and then only because my therapist told me it was dangerous to keep my anger bottled up, that it was bad for my health. I deserved to feel it, she said, and deserved to express it, though when, a week later, I told her how I'd expressed it, she said shouting would have done just as well and would have been less expensive.

Whether or not Philip Roth had anything to offer me, I'd avoided his books soon after deciding I wanted to write myself. He was standing in my way, I thought. You couldn't be a Jew from New Jersey and write fiction without changing your name and taking on a new identity, without moving to the Balkans and writing about war and suffering in Bosnia and pretending that the people you knew best were Semsa and Huse Kovacevic of Sarajevo and not Lois and Harold Kornreich of Morristown. I spent several years writing about Edinburgh, where I'd lived for six months after graduating college, and though my Scottish characters were wooden and cartoonish, saying things like "Ach, you wee beasties!" and smashing each other over the head with beer glasses, I felt a certain freedom in trying to disappear into another culture, imagining that I was treading across relatively untouched ground.

And it was disheartening to discover that if I was capable of writing at all, it was only about those Morristown Kornreichs. No one would ever come up to a young Jewish writer from New Jersey and say, You're the next fucking Scott Nadelson, no matter how many books I wrote, no matter how successful I was. The phrase didn't even sound as good. The alliteration wasn't as punchy, and neither was the rhythm. This other young Jewish writer from New Jersey would just be the new next fucking Philip Roth, one more in a long series of next fucking Philip Roths, all of us lined up from now to the end of time, or until New Jersey was swallowed up by the rising sea, and none of us would really be the next fucking Philip Roth, because there was only one fucking Philip Roth, now and forever.

I picked up a copy of Portnoy and studied the photo on the jacket, gripped by the sense of failure that had plagued me for the past nine months. I decided now that it had less to do with a canceled wedding and an attic apartment than with this photo of the thirty-something fucking Philip Roth, whose nose was bigger than mine, shoulders broader, arms hairier, who was altogether more Jewish than I was. I was happy that my hairline hadn't begun to recede as early as his had—was that the cost of all his anger?—but still I felt inadequate. As fiercely as he'd rebelled, as furiously as he'd ridiculed his own people, they loved him for it. He gave my father exactly what he wanted, a reflection of the world he knew so well, providing the anger and outrage my father didn't have to feel himself. And maybe this was why the old hippie's words had had such an effect on me—I, too, wanted to be the revered outlaw, the heretic who received invitations to speak at every JCC in the country, though by the time I started writing there was no longer much to rebel against or much to ridicule that hadn't been ridiculed a hundred times before.

The truth was, even though I didn't read his books, I'd always had a fantasy that my work would somehow reach Philip Roth, that he'd recognize something special in it and take me under wing, as his character Nathan Zuckerman is taken under wing by the older, more prominent I.E. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer, as Roth himself had been taken under wing by Lonoff's real-life model, Bernard Malamud (or, depending on which critic you believe, I.B. Singer or Henry Roth). But of course Roth had probably played Lonoff to some other Nathan Zuckerman by now, maybe a dozen other Zuckermans, all those next fucking Philip Roths who were far more prominent than I was.

I was sick of fucking Philip Roth anyway, sick of seeing his name in reviews of my book, sick of hearing about him from my father, and I put down Portnoy and went on to his neglected European relation, Joseph Roth, who'd written nearly as many books in half the time, though the store carried only one. I preferred the photo on the back of The Radetsky March, of a squat, froggy man with a shaggy mustache. There was nothing to envy here, nothing to struggle against, and I decided that it was much better to be neglected, nearly forgotten, read only by the initiated. No one would ever call a young Jewish writer from Galicia the next fucking Joseph Roth, though what an admirable thing to be, how preferable to being one more in a series of next fucking Philip Roths, writing one more failed imitation of Goodbye, Columbus. To write a failed imitation of The Radetsky March, now that was something worthwhile, something to strive for, and when I heard the bell on the shop's front door jingle, I took a copy of Joseph Roth's masterpiece and headed for the counter, though I already had one at home.

The daughter had returned. I knew it as soon as I heard the jingle, and knew, too, that she was the only reason I'd come back to the store, that I'd been fooling myself to think otherwise. No one else had come in since I'd arrived, and I worried that the store wouldn't survive much longer, that the daughter would disappear before circumstances could change. At the counter she was shaking rain out of her glistening hair and wiping her glasses. She took off her jacket, and on her upper arm was a tattoo I hadn't noticed before, of a rose strangled by its own thorns, dripping blood. It was just coincidence that she shared some features in common with my ex-fiancée, I told myself. I would have been attracted to her even if she didn't have the pale skin, the light hair, the high cheekbones, even if she were dark and Jewish, because what drew me to her was the look she'd given me, the bright, lopsided smile, the way she'd praised my work and talked hesitantly about her boyfriend's band. Of course I didn't know anything about her, but I had the feeling that we had something in common, a potential spark that went deeper than skin or cheekbones. I wasn't Alexander Portnoy, after all, and this wasn't 1969.

When she put her glasses back on, she seemed startled to see me there, smiling stupidly at her, holding out The Radetsky March and a literary journal I'd grabbed on my way to the counter. She greeted me warmly, said how nice it was to see me again, and told me she was still thinking about the story I'd read two months earlier. All good signs, I thought, along with the lopsided smile she gave me, and I tried to detect a hint of that suggestive look she'd offered the night of my reading, some sign that circumstances had changed. She hoped I was working on a sequel to my book, she said. A novel, maybe? In fact, I was working on more stories, unrelated to those in the first book, but nodded anyway. "I can't wait to read it," she said.

I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed the tattoo before, though I remembered clearly that she'd worn a tight black T-shirt the night of the reading and that her arms were long and wiry and elegant. It bothered me not to have noticed, because I had a suspicion that this was a pattern in my life, that despite being a writer and priding myself on paying attention to details, I was always looking in the wrong direction, oblivious to what was actually there to see. Should I have known, as my ex-fiancée told me, that her falling in love with someone else was inevitable, that I should have seen it coming from miles away? Had my heartache been forecast, and I'd simply missed the signs? And if so, did it matter? Would it have been any less awful if I'd known what was on the way?

The daughter looked younger than I remembered. Twenty-five, maybe, or twenty-six. Too young for me, really, though if there was a spark that went deeper than skin and cheekbones, I supposed age shouldn't matter, either. I wondered what a bleeding rose choked by its own thorns might mean to her, what it could possibly symbolize to a twentyfive-year-old whose fiancée likely hadn't left her for someone else a month before her wedding, who likely didn't have a broken car or a dying cat. The image struck me as powerful and mysterious, an insight into beauty and pain that was beyond her years, and if I wasn't already drawn to her face, I would have been drawn to that rose. It suggested that we did in fact have something in common, that we might understand each other, and even though she looked too much like my ex-fiancée for me to trust her, I was glad I'd come back to see if circumstances had changed. She must have caught me eyeing the tattoo, because her fingers went to it, just for a moment, touching it lightly and then moving down her arm, a graceful, inviting gesture that suggested someone older, experienced, aware of her power and poise, even if it was wasted on one of the hundreds of scruffy Portland kids pretending to be a rock star.

I handed her my books, hoping she might recognize The Radetsky March, that she was one of the few who'd read it, and in recognizing it, she'd recognize something in me, too, something more profound than what she'd heard in my story, something beyond a failed imitation of Goodbye, Columbus. I wanted her to say that she thought she was the only one who read Joseph Roth, and wasn't it a shame he was so neglected. But she rang up the books without any sign of recognition. I asked if she'd ever read The Radetsky March, and when she shook her head, that sandy hair gleaming against her pale neck, I said, "Oh, you should. It's fantastic. He's the real Roth. Much better than Philip."

She smiled again, but with restraint, and I realized I'd said the wrong thing. Was she, too, a devotee of fucking Philip Roth? Did she like my story only because it reminded her vaguely of him? Was that why she'd been flattered by my invitation to have a drink, why she'd given me a suggestive look? Had she pictured herself in a bar with the hairy-armed author of Portnoy, whose fierceness was matched only by his popularity? Did she hope to end up in his next novel about an angry Jew running away from an overbearing mother and lusting after cute shiksas with high cheekbones and bleeding rose tattoos?

When she handed the books back, I asked, casually, how her boyfriend's band was doing, trying to suppress the longing in my voice. "Great," she said, and took a step backward, crossing her arms so that one hand covered her tattoo. "They just cut a deal with Touch & Go."

"I'll have to check them out," I said, trying to sound sincere, and the look she gave me then was a pitying one, that said that circumstances wouldn't change, or that if they did, I wouldn't be part of new circumstances, and really, it would be better for everyone if I quit imagining the drink we'd have together, if I quit hoping for possibilities that didn't exist, if I quit expecting a happy life. I glanced down at the photo of Joseph Roth on the back of the book I already owned, and his sour, froggy face gazed up at me in disappointment. Didn't I know already how hard the world was, how unforgiving? How many times did I have to learn it?

I paid the daughter, took my change, and slipped the book under my arm.

By the time I headed back to the bus, after wandering through the park and stopping at a coffee shop, it was nearly four o'clock. The eastbound number 15 was scattered with office workers going home early, all of them well-dressed and nicely groomed, and they gave me a wide berth, as if I were one more ragged client of the methadone clinic whose shave and haircut and slightly wrinkled clothes hid nothing of his suffering.

I was impatient to get back to my apartment, to bury myself in the frayed sheets. West was the wrong direction for me, I decided. Maybe after all these years it was time to backtrack, to trace my steps and discover where I'd made a wrong turn. Maybe I really belonged in New Jersey, in those monotonous suburbs I hated, surrounded by pushy loudmouths Philip Roth had once written about with such precision, who all seemed stuck in 1969. Maybe if I lived there, I could write about someplace else, Scotland or Galicia or the war-torn Balkans, though as the bus crossed the river, passing the warehouse full of school desks no one would ever buy, rolling slowly in the direction of my father, who was beginning The Plot Against America for the third time, and my mother, who was scheming to set me up with a friend's lesbian niece, I knew I wouldn't go any farther than the Victorian on Portland's east side.

When I got there, my downstairs neighbor was in her kitchen, scrubbing dishes in the sink, and she waved a soapy arm as I passed her window. And behind her was her lover, chopping vegetables at the counter.

To my surprise, he wasn't a chub at all. His arms were sleek and muscled, his skin dark. Not the dark of a Jew, but of an Indian or a Pakistani. And it struck me as bizarre that of all the women in this city he'd chosen a plain, chubby, white girl who wore corduroy and fleece, though I suppose it wasn't bizarre at all, just as ordinary and mysterious as my being attracted to a bleeding rose tattoo. I wondered whether his family knew about her, and whether they told him outright how much they disapproved or just pretended to accept her rather than show their disappointment. Did they tell him that he and this white girl could never fully understand each other, that relationships were easier when you and your partner shared a similar background? Did he answer that nothing so trivial could matter, since they gave each other such pleasure, since he never had to worry whether or not he was pleasing her, since her cries told him all he needed to know?

Within half an hour of entering the apartment, just after I injected my cat with the insulin that took away her cotton-candy smell but did nothing else, I heard those cries again, and at first I was furious. They were tormenting me on purpose. They'd seen me pass and decided to set their dinner aside and harass the lonely shlub upstairs, to rub his face in their ecstasy. But somehow the girl's cries didn't sound superior or boastful. They were defensive, rather, as if she needed to prove to me how much pleasure her lover was giving her, how well suited they were to each other.

And then I wondered if her cries had something to do with his parents, and their different backgrounds, and the gulf between them that could never be bridged, the ways in which she could never know him. It was an appropriate response: Oh shit oh shit oh shit. But it wasn't just about being lovers with someone from a different background, it was about being lovers with another human being, the gulf that always existed, that could never be bridged, no matter how open you were, no matter how honest. In all his raving, this was what Portnoy never said, though I was sure fucking Philip Roth must have realized it at some point, and maybe he'd even written about it, though I'd never know since I refused to read his books. It didn't matter if you were in love with a shiksa or another Jew; there were so many things you could never know about another person, even with his penis inside you, even with her straddling you and moving her hips in rhythm with your thrusts. Crying Oh shit oh shit oh shit was the only thing you could do when you really thought about it. It covered everything that needed to be said, and now I wanted to cry out, too.

But then the girl's cries changed, growing faster and fiercer. They no longer sounded like Mamele! Mamele! but just blind, thoughtless utterances, empty of pleasure, empty even of desire. The cries were angry, or pained, and I imagined her expression, mouth working furiously, chin puckered, a sharp vertical line appearing between her eyebrows. She was angry that the pleasure would soon come to an end, I guessed, that nothing lasted forever, and I was angry for her. Why did everything worthwhile have to be so fleeting?

As soon as it was over, her lover started talking in his low rumble, and I imagined he was saying something about his family, preparing her to meet them, maybe, or explaining why they'd been so cold to her when she had met them. And I imagined that she was inconsolable, wondering how they could ever stay together when there was such a gulf between them, even if they gave each other such pleasure, thinking that maybe it was easier to move on from person to person, to let her heart wander, rather than have to face that same gulf every day for the rest of her life. And her lover kept remembering her cry, Oh shit oh shit oh shit, and didn't want to talk at all. What he really wanted was to get up and go to the toilet, to release everything at once, and the longer he held back, the harder it was to hide his frustration.

Or more likely he was just talking about his job, or about a TV show, or about the dinner they hadn't finished preparing, and she was lying on his chest, drifting in and out of sleep, unable to raise her head, just as my cat was unable to raise hers from my old T-shirt when I scratched her behind the ear and began to tell her again that she'd soon be feeling better, that everything would soon be okay. This time I couldn't stand the words. I'd never believed them, and I was tired of being dishonest. Instead I pleaded with her not to die, just as I'd pleaded with my exfiancée not to leave me even though she'd fallen in love with someone else. And here was my real failure, I thought: believing I had any influence over things that were beyond my control, that I was to blame for the world being so unfair.

Soon, my neighbor's lover quit talking. Even the finches were quiet now. The only sound was rain drumming on the skylight. I tried to read The Radetsky March, but couldn't get past the first line: "The Trottas were a young dynasty." It was so simple and perfect, I thought, capturing the essence of the entire book in a single stroke, the nostalgia for a lost world whose underpinnings were entirely flimsy. I couldn't imitate it if I tried. I just read it again and again, thinking about my father and the old hippie and the lovely bookstore owner with her lopsided smile and enticing tattoo, all wanting what I couldn't give them. Nothing I'd ever written or thought or felt was original, I knew, but I'd go on writing and thinking and feeling those things all the same. They were mine, and they were all I had.

I put the book aside and went to my computer, where I browsed the personal ads again, and soon found myself back on the porn sites, looking at more pictures of women who resembled my ex-fiancée. My penis didn't care that I wasn't Portnoy and this wasn't 1969; no matter how much I wanted to wallow in despair, it would continue to prod me onward, into new attempts at living or into further humiliation. The couple downstairs had gone back to making dinner, laughing and clattering pots and pans. The finches began singing again in the eaves. My cat teetered to her water bowl to slake her unquenchable thirst, and I reminded myself that suffering was as fleeting as anything else, no different than pleasure or contentment or love. Whether it faded, or you overcame it, or you lived with it until you died, one way or another it ended.

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