THE CRITIC Theodore Manikin claims that my prose centers on identity and the inherent self-aggrandizements and delusions that shadow us all. “In the tradition of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth,” Manikin writes, “Gabriel Mason’s stories are often narrated by Gabriel Masón, differentiated from the author by the slight flourish of an accent on the ó, highlighting and reinserting—with that pesky little mark—the author’s paternal Franco-Mexican roots (less than a quarter’s worth). The accent originally disappeared somewhere en route to assimilation.”
My colleague at the private college where we teach in Los Angeles, a well-known poet I’ll gift with the name Lorenzo Lucia, likes to remind me that we’re both Latino, though his background is more indigenous.
A man in his fifties, untidy and sleepy-looking, handsome, stout, thick silver-hair, big chunky turquoise ringed fingers actively tweeting and social-networking his dubious Lorenzo-myth (political prisoner, prison rape victim), Lorenzo is far more popular, handsome, and successful than I am.
I’m a lonely man, especially in a roomful of professors and academics. My ally in the department—a sober drug addict acclaimed for his stark, disturbing, and wildly popular memoir Out of my Mind—was recently fired from the flourishing creative nonfiction division, caught from several angles by various video cameras in the parking structure hunched and taking a crap on the cement between an SUV and a Volkswagen.
A misunderstanding, I’d argued to deaf ears. A harkening back to his homeless junkie days, though he prefers to call himself an “outdoor enthusiast.”
Emotionally wounded people flock to creative writing programs. Outcasts. I don’t mind—I’m one myself—but the problem is that nine times out of nine and a half, the students can’t write.
There are worst things in life, I tell myself often, mid-workshop bullshit-session, when a more honest display of my feelings toward the prose being discussed would be the covering of my face with my hands and a slide from chair to floor to fetal position.
Let’s be clear: On paper now, I’m Gabriel Mason and not Gabriel Masón, because what I have to write is what happened to me this last year: how my student’s son—an orphan she adopted from Calcutta, India at age three-months—now a twenty-six-year old man, became me, after his mother/my student passed away from her third battle with ovarian cancer; that is, he became Gabriel Mason, to show me what it was like to have a writer crawl into your insides and write you into the open.
My student’s name was Denise Woodman. A social worker, she’d spent the majority of her career aiding those in mental institutions, and at age sixty-eight, she’d retired. The first time she came to my office, she wore a blue silk scarf wrapped around her head, and she sat before me, crossing a skinny leg across the other. She set a large utilitarian-looking leather satchel beside the chair.
Steely-eyed and serious, Finnish background, with the no-nonsense attitude of a longtime caregiver, she intimidated me. Usually students don’t bother me during office hours. They flock to Lorenzo—a line outside his door, some of them sitting at the floor. They love him, especially females. I’ve been waiting for someone to file a sexual harassment claim. Massages, some handholding, a kiss now and then. Everyone seems to know—he has a reputation—yet no one complains.
“Can I help you?” I asked, setting aside my salad (office hours coincided with lunch that day).
“I don’t have much time,” Denise said, her voice reedy and tight. Then she folded her thin frame, withdrawing from her satchel a bulky manuscript—at least 700 pages—and came back up, setting it on my desk.
I slid the beast toward me—no title, only her name—thumbing through its pages, hoping beyond all hope that she wouldn’t ask me the favor of taking it home to read.
After I’d thumbed to the final page (853!), I lifted my eyes to hers and said: “We all feel that way, Ms. Woodman.” I suddenly remembered her application story, a startling and graphic S & M depiction, revealing, if not her aptitude for writing, a deep-seated and hard-earned hostility toward the opposite sex. “But you’ll have time beyond the program to write,” I said. “This is just the beginning,” and on and on, the usual conciliatory spiel about writing being a lifelong craft, etc., etc., but she just gave me that grim stare.
Then she unraveled her scarf from her head. She set it on my desk and bent her head forward for a second. My heart banged, realizing that the scarf hadn’t been a decorative choice, but a means for covering the scant hair remaining on her chemo-bald-head. Tufts of swirling gold-white dotted her scalp, reminding me of duck feathers. Her head came back and she gave me that leveling stare.
I put the plastic lid on my salad and scooted it to the side. I’d dealt with all kinds of students before, but nothing like this.
Her look changed—softer, kinder—and she said, “I’m scaring you. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t speak, but my expression must’ve asked what she wanted from me, because she answered, “I want to write something deep and real and honest before I die. Even if it’s just one thing. That’s all I want. Something real. Something that’ll last.”
A hurt pang went through me, and I remained silent with intense identification. That was what I wanted! It’s still what I want!
She set her bony-fingered hand on her scarf (a silver ring had been bound with tape to fit on her finger), and smoothed the material on my desk. Then she said, “A collective story. Yours, mine? A blending. If I can’t write it, maybe you will.”
A grave rumbling cough-noise came from my throat.
We listened to the screech of a chair in Lorenzo’s office next to mine. The low hum of voices.
She stared at the wall as if she could see Lorenzo and she said, “What a fraud.” Her expression remained blank, as if he wasn’t worthy of an emotion crossing her face. “A showman, not a writer,” she said, facing me again. “He wasn’t raped in prison. He’s a liar. I’ve worked with the traumatized. I know the difference. A good liar, but a liar nonetheless.”
I kept my face in a neutral position, but she got no arguments from me.
“A con man,” she continued. “I hope,” she said, “that there’s more to writing than being a really good liar.”
“We lie,” I said, “to get to deeper truths.”
“I met with him first,” she said, in a tone of admission. “Caught up in the hype, but then I came to my senses, and decided to come to you.” A trace of a smile crossed her face. “Did you know,” she said, “that he drinks tea and coffee from a straw?”
My head went back in a questioning gesture.
“He told me that he doesn’t want to”—she took on his deep voice—‘‘‘stain my teeth.’ There’s a rumor,” she said, “that he bought a nose job with his stipend, along with an ergonomic chair.”
Surprisingly, a protective hot gust of compassion shot through me, thinking of the layers of vanity and arrogance and deceit in all of us, and somewhere hiding within it all, there was truth and dignity—there had to be!
But then the gust passed, and I said, “Ugh.”
In serendipitous timing, we heard cackling female laughter from his office, and Lorenzo’s responsive deep chuckle.
“He’s a fraud,” she said, winding the scarf back on her head.
I flipped through the pages of her manuscript, stopping to read:
With my first husband, I hadn’t liked the anal stuff. It hurt. I’d felt silly getting up on my knees. He’d expected me to act out his fantasies of rape. That memory still frightens me.
I looked up. Her skin was pale—veins visible along her neck—and sparse white hairs flecked her chin and the corners of her mouth (why hadn’t the chemo obliterated them?). She had watery-blue eyes, almost the color of ice.
When I didn’t speak, she said, “I know it’s not great, but at least it’s honest, and I’m willing to reveal myself. It’s not just sex stuff. I had an illegal late-term abortion in Mexico when I was in my teens. You’ll have material. I’ll be dead soon.”
I’d depleted my autobiographical source-material, and I’d been having trouble summoning the energy to write.
“Don’t you dare write about me,” my girlfriend often says, when she notices me observing her with a predatory stare. Our relationship is teetering. I won’t be surprised if she dumps me. If you continue reading, you’ll understand why.
Denise died three months after she graduated (too weak to attend the ceremony, already on hospice), leaving me all of her journals (forty-six of them) and her 800-plus-page autobiographical manuscript, detailing not only the sexual peccadillos of husbands number one, two, and three, and boyfriends four, five, and six, but also her late-term illegal abortion in Mexico (which left her scarred both emotionally and physically, unable thereafter to conceive a child); the adoption of her son Nathanial from India; their close and loving relationship; her fiftieth high school reunion; and her work at three mental institutions.
A year and nine-months after her memorial—where I first locked eyes with Nathaniel, or Nate as she called him (thin, tall, a lean and sad face) and felt that I knew him (Om tattoo on right shoulder, homosexual, vegan, lived with mom in Silverlake)—my third novel was published, a gritty, realistic account of a woman’s late-term illegal abortion in Mexico, and the emotional ramifications this event has throughout her life.
I wrote true-ish stories about her and through her, naming myself Diana Woodsmen, and one got published in the New Yorker—a story about Diana at her fiftieth high school reunion, where she seeks revenge on an old boyfriend who quasi-date-raped her, long before there was the term date rape. She tries to seduce him, only to find that he’s become impotent.
One afternoon not long ago, I came home to find my girlfriend sitting on the couch, reading the winter issue of an obscure literary journal. “How could you write this?” she said, looking up from the page with cold and wounded eyes. “How could you do this to me? It came in the mail.”
“I didn’t,” I said.
She shook her head and set the magazine on the coffee table, the journal cracked open to keep her place.
I had no recollection of submitting to that journal, and wondered if I’d done so a long time before, only to hit publication now, and to receive in the place of monetary compensation the obligatory complimentary issue and a yearlong subscription as payment.
“How could you?” she asked again.
Much shaken, I had no answer.
I sat next to her and picked up the journal and saw a story titled “Witness,” written by me that I had not written.
“It’s not me,” I said, “look—the character doesn’t have an accent on the o.”
I’m obliged to keep my girlfriend out of this (she’s a far better person than I, and a privacy-loving one), so from this point she’s exiting my narrative—just as she exited the room that afternoon, beginning to cry.
Before reading the story, I flipped to the author bios and read a stripped version of my own, but with the added sentence, “He is losing his hair.”
“Someone stole my name!” I called out.
The story isn’t awful; if it had been, it wouldn’t bother me as much. Gabriel Mason’s girlfriend becomes unexpectedly pregnant and has an abortion. Mason writes the story as a “compulsory witness,” against his girlfriend’s wishes.
“To be a writer,” he decides, “you have to gorge on people and cannibalize their lives. There are over seven billion humans, each with a distinct cosmos of thoughts and desires, unique and valuable, but none so much for the writer to exploit as his or her loved ones.”
I won’t go into the story, except for this disparaging description of me:
Gabriel had never been handsome, not even in his youth. He led an ordinary life as an assistant professor, respectable and secure, and he kept his ambitions in check. He didn’t like himself, distrusted his own personality, and he avoided mirrors. Plump, sullen, broad-hipped, a caved-in body, stooped shoulders, sagging pants; a constant sad expression, losing his hair each day, a rapid deterioration.
Soon after, my cell phone vibrated with a text message from Lorenzo. We’d swapped cell phone numbers years before, never to use them. I rarely get phone calls, emails, or text messages, and when I do, it startles me.
That afternoon, Lorenzo texted: Why are you doing this to me?
Doing what? I texted back.
I’m serious, I texted.
You dumb fucking overbearing gloomy brooding piece of shit.
A single-spaced, three-page letter of complaint from Gabriel Mason about Lorenzo Lucia, I soon learned, had been emailed as an attachment to everyone in our department from an account in my name, as well as to the college newspaper, casting doubt on the Lorenzo-myth, particularly that of his rape in prison, and also detailing Lorenzo’s affair with a student named Sheila Smith (everyone knew about them!), a poet and former dancer, soulful-eyed and with vivid black hair.
It didn’t take long for me to understand that Nate had become me. After all, Denise was the only one who knew my girlfriend had had an abortion. I’d opened up to her after she’d opened up to me, finding it nearly impossible not to share the information.
Could a spectral Denise be haunting and writing from beyond? Of course not. It had to be Nate. She told him everything.
Denise could’ve written the story and composed the email before her death, instructing Nate to send them after a certain amount of time post-mortem.
But she wasn’t that good of a writer.
Why, I wondered, hadn’t Nate used the accent on the o in the story? Was its omission careless?
Not likely, since his fiction was thoughtful and deliberate. Obviously he wanted to make sure I knew that it was me in the story, and not Gabriel Masón.
Nate denied it. But not so I believed him.
We met at a coffee shop where Denise and I used to meet, near the home that he’d shared with his mom, and where he now probably lived with his boyfriend.
In a folder on the table next to my decaf macchiato, I had a document for him to sign, stating that he had sent the email, absolving both Lorenzo and me from further investigation.
Long and slender, Nate had thick-lashed dark eyes, and he had the habit of touching the hair on the back of his head with his fingers.
We sat outside: one of those golden hazy afternoons where the sunlight seems dusty.
A woman at the table next to us chattered into her cell phone, bending and offering water from a tilted plastic cup to the two Chihuahuas at her feet.
“I know it’s you,” I said, deciding to try flattery, “and you can actually write. My students”—I shook my head (I chose not to include his mom in the equation)—“not so much. But you, you can.”
He shut his eyes for a moment.
“She said that she’d give me a sign,” he said, looking away from me, “some way for me to know that she’s still here.” He spoke in a measured, calm tone. “I talk to her,” he said, “as if she’s alive. Last night while reading, I felt her stroke my cheek. I’m not a writer,” he added, “I’m an engineer.”
I wanted to ask about his boyfriend Rajiv—Denise had called him her other adopted son, and I knew that he had a matching Om tattoo on his left shoulder—but I decided I’d better not.
Nate took a sip from his tea and set his glass back on the table. “She told me,” he said, his eyes giving me an odd look, both reproving and sad, “that you would come to me and that we would talk. This is my sign. She said, ‘Tell him that maybe writers lie to tell deeper truths, but to be careful. He’s doomed if that’s all that he does.’”
“I don’t understand,” I said, a panic beginning to rise. My face had heated, and I felt Denise—grim, reliable, honest, direct—judging and pitying me, death having absolved her from the mundane realities of life.
Just then, my cell phone wobbled in my pocket, startling me. I jumped a little in my chair, pulling the cell from my slacks, Lorenzo on caller ID.
“Go ahead,” Nate said, with a slight uplift of his head, “answer.”
Mechanically, I complied.
“Hey, man,” Lorenzo said, his voice inside my ear, coursing with the blood, while Nate held my gaze, “did he sign?”
With my sleeve, I wiped the sweat on my forehead with my other arm. “I’m with him now,” I said.
“Oh jeez, sorry, bad timing,” said Lorenzo, his voice lowering and tightening. “How’s it going?”
Nate held out his hand, and I said, “Hold on,” and passed my cell phone over.
“Ringmaster,” Nate said into the phone, “maestro,” a pause, “convinces people they’re exceptional, brilliant, exciting, and tricks them into loving him.”
Nate smiled as he listened, and with his other hand, he briefly touched the back of his head. His eyes filled with what looked to be contrasting tenderness and sorrow. “Is there nothing else,” he asked, the enthusiasm gone from his voice, “between birth and death? Is life simply a means of getting attention? An illusion of worth?”
His head went down as he listened, and his smile was gone. He seemed to be concentrating. Then he said, “I know that there’s good in your heart, and so you must struggle.”
He looked up at me. “I know it. There’s more, there’s good,” and he passed me back my phone.
“You okay?” I asked Lorenzo, not knowing what else to say.
A long pause—Nate lifting from his chair and leaving me—and then Lorenzo said in pure wonderment, “What the fuck just happened?”
Indeed, what did happen? I’m not so sure. But I try to balance the entitlement and arrogance and daring of writing with a submissiveness that comes from awe. Still appropriating the lives around me, sure, and myself, but with an added measure of respect and openness, and a realization that the infinite and reality connect as naturally as death attaches to life. I no longer try to conceal the mass of fear and curiosity throbbing inside me, at the cusp of nothingness. In other words, I know nothing, and this terrifies me.
As for Lorenzo with his plume-like silver hair and his robust ego, he’s not a bad guy. Would it surprise you to know that I admire him? Because I do and I don’t, and then I do again, and then I don’t. But he’s something like my friend.
Despite his lawyer’s recommendation, Lorenzo refused to press charges against me for libel, making it difficult for the college to fire or discipline me, and he hasn’t been fired or disciplined either. His reputation flourishes, aided by the controversy and attention from the college’s inconclusive investigation, and the articles—both pro and con—that dot the ever-expanding wasteland of the Internet.
As for me, not much happened, or happens. That’s it. No more Gabriel Mason stories and emails, so far, except if they come from me.
Gabriel Mason needs me, as does Gabriel Masón. I have no choice. So I keep writing.