About the Author
Jessica Lott is the author of The Rest of Us and Osin, which won Low Fidelity Press’s Novella Award. She has an MA in creative writing from Boston University and an MA in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She writes for Art21, and her art reviews have appeared in Frieze and New York Arts. She lives in New York City.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Rest of Us CHAPTER ONE
From The New York Times:
Rudolf N. Rhinehart, Pulitzer Prize–Winning Writer, Dies at 56
Rudolf N. Rhinehart, a noted cultural critic, literary scholar and poet, was the author of six books of poetry, including the acclaimed “Midnight, Spring,” published in 1999 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. “Midnight, Spring,” which the New York Review of Books praised for “creating an entirely new idiomatic register,” was widely lauded, claiming numerous international prizes and achieving a level of commercial success rare for a book of poetry. A profile on Mr. Rhinehart for The New York Times Magazine in 1999 attributed the book’s bestseller status to its “finding portals of transcendence in the unceasing repetition of our daily lives.”
Mr. Rhinehart described his own working life as “alternating periods of grandiosity and self-sabotage.” Although a prolific poet throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he stopped writing poetry in the late 1990s, and was later known for his nonfiction and essays. He was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic, and was the editor of seven poetry anthologies, and four critical volumes. The recipient of many literary awards and fellowships, Mr. Rhinehart was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He held honorary degrees from seven universities, as well as a Chair in Poetry at Columbia University.
Mr. Rhinehart is survived by his wife, Laura Constable, and two stepdaughters, Cindy Mithins of Asheville, N.C., and Annabelle Mithins Ross of Durham, N.H. About his early life, little is known. Born in Ukraine, he immigrated to the United States with his mother at the age of five . . .
It was the beginning of November. Exactly fifteen years ago, I’d been nineteen, and in my junior year of college in upstate New York. I drove a rattling Nissan and wore the same pair of maroon corduroys every day—they were split in the left knee, and in the cold, the wind would slip in and deaden the skin. I sort of liked the sensation, but Rhinehart feared frostbite, and bought me thermals I refused to wear, and a bright green beret that he styled perched on the back of my head. I pulled it down, like the droopy cap of a straw mushroom, so that it covered my ears. My ears were a source of embarrassment to me, the way the tips protruded from between the strands of hair, which was a nice brown and long but too straight. I mostly wore it up with bobby pins that dislodged and were scattered around the house, he said, “like feathers from a rare bird. They let me know where you’ve been.”
“You keep it too neat here. Otherwise you wouldn’t notice.” Except when he was writing, the only mess was stacks of newspapers and journals, the occasional used coffee cup, or jelly jars stained red in the bottom from wine—the living room of the house he rented for the duration of his time as a visiting writer at my college. This was what he had chosen—an old house with creaking doors and a bathroom under the staircase. He’d brought some of his furniture, striped low-back couches and an enormous featherbed that he’d dragged his library into, so that we often kicked books onto the floor when making love. He was working on the collection of poetry that would win him the Pulitzer, through miserable fits of self-doubt and manic intensity that made life even more exciting for me than it already was.
I’d met him at an artist lecture in town that summer, two months before he’d started his appointment at the school. We’d started talking about our mothers, both of whom had died when we were young. Slightly embarrassed, he’d revealed that he’d just attended a séance in Manhattan, and described the cramped, overheated room into which his mother didn’t appear. I reached into my pocket and showed him pebbles that my mother had collected from the beach near our house. It was bizarre and superstitious but sometimes, if I was feeling nervous, I’d carry them around, knowing she had once touched them. She had died when I was three. Unlike other people, Rhinehart didn’t assume that because I couldn’t remember her, I didn’t miss her.
Afterwards, I knew he was someone I wanted to be around. If I hadn’t been in the grip of some sort of magical thinking, I would have recognized that he was in his forties, nearing the height of his career, and a professor. I would have been intimidated, rightly. I would never have had the guts to pursue him. I told myself, I’ll just try and get to know him better. But it wasn’t as easy as all that. It took me weeks to distinguish myself from the other young people milling around town that summer. We did become friends, but by then I felt we should be together and said so. He had discovered that I was a college student and was reluctant.
I plowed ahead, too confident in the connection between us to be dissuaded, and in the end I was right. Once he’d overcome his own objections, we’d moved very quickly from dating, to falling in love, to being in a relationship. He was continually amazed by how visual I was—it made his powers of observation “crude by comparison.” When he’d said this, I’d been crouched down on his floor, studying a spiderweb spun between two storm windows, and the shadow it cast. I was a photographer, or an aspiring one. That fall, I was often at his house, shooting—the slim white birches just beyond the porch, sun on the floor, Rhinehart’s fingers gripping a pen, the blond stubble on his face. I had almost too many ideas. In the morning, I’d disappear on my bike to take pictures in the woods, returning to a large, silent afternoon indoors, steam hissing up from the radiators. We’d sit on opposite ends of the couch, Rhinehart crossing out lines in a yellow memo pad, while I sketched future projects, and the fickle sun moved back and forth in the doorway. Occasionally, when he wasn’t looking, I’d watch him. I had been excruciatingly happy. For months, I walked around with a foolish smile on my face. Everywhere, even in the bathroom.
· · ·
The obituary had appeared online, and I printed it out to show Hallie. She’d been my roommate throughout college and after, when we first moved to Manhattan. I still lived in the apartment we had shared for years.
She was already waiting for me in a café on Jane Street. “What’s the big mystery?” I took the obituary out of my purse and passed it to her.
“No way.” Both of us stared at his photo. He was in profile, looking at someone out of the frame and smiling. “When was the last time you saw him? College?”
I nodded. Rhinehart and I had been together less than a year. He took a job at Columbia University the fall I was a senior and moved to the city. After I graduated, I moved here, too, but we’d never met.
I watched her read, her lip pinched between her fingers, her floating green irises like planets. Next to hers, my face had always seemed plain—like a farm girl’s I used to think when feeling down. We’d grown up together on the North Fork of Long Island, but while my father had greenhouses, hers worked in Manhattan. She had spent overnights in the city, knew how to make us sexy ripped T-shirts, and sneak on the Orient Point ferry without paying.
She put the paper down. “How are you taking this?”
After the shock of it, I was depressed. Also incredibly disillusioned. “I was so sure we would see each other again. I can’t believe how wrong I was.” But then again, I’d been wrong about other things. My future as an artist. I’d basically stopped shooting, if you didn’t count my job at Marty’s portrait studio. I hadn’t even noticed until about a year ago. Where had all that time gone? It was as if New York had swallowed it, along with my twenties. I’d revolved through possible solutions—sketch out some ideas, take a class at the ICP, buy a new camera. Instead I agonized and then did nothing. How effortless making my own work used to be. That’s what I remembered of that time. That and what it had felt like to be lying on Rhinehart’s bed, shirtless, in my corduroys, giggling.
Hallie was revisiting my relationship history. She’d often said she couldn’t understand why anyone would bother to get married. Until she had her own lavish wedding and bought a house out in New Jersey with her husband, Adán, last year. Now she was bent on converting me.
After ticking through a list that included my boxing instructor, several bartenders, as well as a guy I’d made cupcakes for, slept with, and never heard from again, she concluded, “You haven’t had a serious relationship since Rhinehart.”
“You left out Lawrence. We dated for over a year.” We’d even discussed living together, and in a roundabout way, marriage. I was white and he was African American and some people, including his parents, were convinced the relationship would fail because of this. It was not something we were ever actively concerned with. We were fixated on other, more pressing differences—such as our career ambitions, or his law-school-trained style of argumentation that used to make me flounder around in a self-incriminating way, or how each of us felt about living in New Jersey.
“I knew that wasn’t going anywhere,” Hallie said. “You were too much like pals.” Maybe she was right. I hadn’t felt the same type of passion, that soul-bearing intimacy that I’d felt with Rhinehart. Towards the end, I was also beginning to feel some pressure. He had wanted reasonable things, things that most women my age wanted—children, a nice home in the suburbs. I wanted to want those things, too. But I didn’t. Instead I began to feel claustrophobic.
“Terry, you’re coming up on thirty-five. Not a good age to be single.”
I wanted to point out that statistically, in New York, I was likely in the majority, but Hallie had developed a theory. “I think this entire time, in some subconscious way, you’ve been comparing men to Rhinehart.”
“But I haven’t even been thinking about him. Until recently.”
“I said subconscious. You need to have a little ceremony. Write down what you would have said to him if he were alive, a goodbye speech to the relationship, and then bury the piece of paper.”
What would I say? How there existed a time that whenever I saw him, I’d want to touch him affectionately, encouragingly squeeze his arm. That even though he was older than me, I felt that protectiveness. That I still remembered the sweetness of being with him. I hadn’t even been invited to the service. If I did memorialize Rhinehart, I would have to perform some private, self-serving ritual in front of my apartment building. I imagined myself dressed in black, trying to bury a piece of paper with my feelings on it in that strip of dirt between the sidewalk and a tree.
· · ·
But then, two days later, for the first time in a couple of years, I got out my old Minolta and two rolls of black-and-white film and took the train up to 116th, Columbia University, and stood outside the gates, where I used to linger, hoping to run into him. The camera felt heavy and foreign in my hands. The light fading, I shot the route I had walked, ending up at the bookstore. The bar where I’d once sat and had a beer, looking hopefully out the window, longing to see him, or for a future in which I no longer cared about him as much as I did.
· · ·
The second part of Hallie’s advice entailed buying new clothes, and then, Internet dating, which I didn’t plan on doing. But I thought she might be right about the shopping, and a couple of weeks later, on impulse, I decided to go into the Bloomingdale’s in SoHo. Once inside, I remembered why I avoided department stores, especially in late November, their atmosphere of repressed panic and desperation, the overheated crush of people and sale signs and mirrored lights and the heavy, artificial odor that hung over all of it. As a teenager, I would spend several agonizing hours circling the racks clutching the Christmas money my father had pressed into my hand before dropping me off, saying “treat yourself.” I longed for a mother the most then, for her to prevent me from making the mistakes I always made, buying something overpriced and too trendy, so that when it went out of fashion two months later, I’d have to lie to my father when he asked why I wasn’t wearing “the pretty new top.”
After scanning the floor and checking out the price tags, I decided to try my luck elsewhere. I was in the cosmetics department, headed for the doors, when I saw Rhinehart. He was standing in front of the Estée Lauder counter.
My entire body began trembling. I recognized him instinctively, the way I know desire or fear or my own face when passing a mirror. And he looked exactly as I expected him to look, but older than he had been in the obituary photo. His hair had gone completely white and he’d grown a short, academic-looking beard. I was hallucinating. I’d been far more affected by his death than I was able to admit. I willed him to vanish. But he didn’t, and I stood there gaping. When he started to move off, I followed, targeting his wide back, taking in details. His coat was cashmere, expensive. He was carrying three bags, one was awkwardly shaped like it contained electronics. I circled around a counter to get a better angle, but he kept himself half-turned away, as a celebrity would.
I had moved in close enough to smell him, even in this olfactorily confusing place. He wore the same aftershave. Reaching out, I grabbed him as he approached the escalator.
He turned, squinting slightly, and looked at me.
“Tatie!” He dropped the bags and pulled me towards him, kissing me on the face. “How are you!”
I returned the embrace, shyly at first, and then with force. I clung to him for an embarrassing length of time. And then, out of nowhere, I started sobbing. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. As if with other ears, I heard myself—I sounded like a large drowning mammal. I was wetting the front of his coat, hauling in my breath, conscious of him rubbing the back of my head in a soothing, concerned way. A woman came up and asked if I was all right. “I think I’ve just surprised her,” Rhinehart said. “It’s what she does sometimes. When startled.”
I laughed and began apologizing, trying to disentangle myself. I was fishing around in my pockets for a tissue. Rhinehart was peering into my face, holding it in both his hands so that I couldn’t clean it.
In my defense, I said, “I thought you were dead! I read it . . .”
“I know—it was released by mistake. The paper called it a technical error, by which they mean human. They write these things in advance. But it was pulled the same day. You didn’t see the correction?”
I shook my head, and he said, “Are you all right?”
I nodded, and he let go of me, smiling. “It feels good to know I was mourned.”
Someone bumped me from behind. The bustling shoppers, who had parted to give us space for our scene, had closed back in. He said, “This time of year is awful. My wife makes me participate.”
I sucked in my breath at the mention of her. “I read you and Laura married.” And then, “I didn’t realize you’d kept in contact.”
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