The Author, Her Story
In the third grade she did a book report on Number of the Stars. While other kids were making shoe box dioramas and glue stick posters, she wrote a page-long poem about the heroine's beating heart in the rocking boat in the dark night hiding from the shadow-clad Nazis. She got an A and a sticker and her mother hung it on the fridge.
At Beth Shalom Synagogue, the sixth graders put on a fundraiser play every Mitzvah Day with varying degrees of success. Though her brother, two years her senior, had put in the minimum amount of time selling intermission concessions, Hannah played an impressive Mrs. Frank in a cut-to-PG rendition of The Diary of Anne Frank. She read the book cover to cover even though her brother, who had read it in his seventh grade English class, warned her it was gross.
In four years, her tenth grade confirmation class had dwindled from a eighteen person Bar and Bat Mitzvah group to five dedicated scholars. Two of them-- Sarah Goldstein and Mark Landis-- had parents on Board and had no choice in the matter. Same for Jonathan Lesh; his mother ran the Sisterhood. Jordyn McKaffrey's mother had remarried and her family celebrated Christmas, but her father was Israeli so there that was. Hannah Rosenbaum was there for the synagogue sponsored trips. The last week of Christmas break, they piled into Rabbi Leo's minivan and went to Washington, D.C. They didn't have much to say to each other on the drive down, but in the last room of the Holocaust museum, surrounded by whiteness and candles and prayer, they fell into a different kind of silence. After almost decade of being tolerable acquaintances, they held each others hands and each others backs and knees like friends. Back at the hotel, while the other girls went for a swim, Hannah sat on the floor between the beds and wrote in her journal.
At Williams Hannah tried to be academic about it. She learned German over the course of two summers. She took classes on propaganda and sociology. She took a class on the Great Depression following WWI. She took a poetry class, she wrote for the school newspaper. Her final thesis was on theater in Nazi Germany. The cases of censorship terrified her; the revelations of subversion thrilled her.
She moved to New York with half of her graduating class and wrote for some magazines. She had a roommate and a post office box. She also had a cat named Lola and a lot of books. She was happy.
When her grandmother suddenly died, she went home. She half sat shiva and half took care of her parent's house. She spend a lot of time with the cat, Lola, who she had smuggled onto the train in a large canvas purse. She meant to stay for a week at home, but she stayed for three, working over that new and wondrous mail you could send over the phone lines.
Before she and Lola left again for the city, her mother presented her with the thin gold ring that had been in the family for generations, the ring that made it through hell on mud-covered toe, under a parched and papery tongue, slipped in the most secretive places of the self.
Hannah washed it a little guiltily, then hung it from a thin chain around her neck so that it fell just below her heart.
On the train she turned the ring over and over in her hands. She took out a steno pad and started a list. She titled it “Holocaust book.” She started writing down chapter titles.
When she got to the city, she took Lola home, greeted her stoned or sleepy roommate and headed back out to the library. She returned six hours later with three plastic bags bulging with borrowed books.
Three years, two roommates and a boyfriend later, she had a manuscript she titled A Holocaust Story. She dedicated it “To Nana, for the stories and the ring and for Lola, for staying” Exactly seven people knew Lola was a cat, though only six would admit it. Marissa, Hannah's editor, swore that if anyone asked, she would tell them Lola was the name of an old great-aunt.
It took them two years, but the book was eventually published by subdivision of a publishing house with clout. It was unabashedly heart-wrenching--maybe that's why no one wanted it for two years-- but when People magazine called it one of the best books of the year, the reading readers of People responded with their wallets. A Thin Gold Ring, the book's final title after a stack of e-mails and hours of phone calls, sold like milk before a snow storm.
Hannah was asked to do an early morning news show, and obliged. The wardrobe people put her in a gray suit. The hair people defrizzed her hair, the make-up people rubbed off her drug store lip gloss in favor of a mature nude. She spoke quietly and eloquently and after the taping signed a few books outside of the studio.
Two weeks later no one recognized her walking down the street, though she still got some very nice letters and invitations to speak at libraries and colleges in the city.
This is her two hundredth lecture. No one has been counting but Hannah. The talks were thrilling at first, what a rush to have them hanging on your every word, to have fans. By the fortieth lecture, they weren't all fans, but they were all readers. By the hundredth lecture, she could tell by their SAT structured questions that someone had made them read the book before hand. Fifty later and she was sure she had answered every possible question about A Thin Gold Ring and had explained her process to every undergraduate English major on the east coast. But that's the funny thing about college students, they just keep coming.
The book had been out for six years. Lola remained, fattening with age. Embarrassingly, she carried a picture of the cat in her wallet. Lola looked out the picture window at the front of the house every time she loaded up her '96 Honda Civic and drove wherever the tides of academia bid her.
* * *
She is eating lunch with Marissa, long-ago editor and long-time friend. Marissa is eating a chicken Cesar salad with the dressing on the side. She is methodically picking out shards of cheese, croutons, and chicken, nibbling at the accidental lettuce leaves that grace her fork.
Hannah is thinking about the memoir she is going to write, about how maybe Marissa should be in the dedication. “To Marissa, dissector of salads, long time friend, and fearless editor” Marissa isn't really fearless, but the phrase demands an adjective. Friendly? Nit-picky? Well-dressed?
Marissa is talking about her kids, but keeps looking over the rims of her two-hundred-eighty dollar glasses. Though her mouth goes on about her son's Halloween costume, her eyes says something more like, “Well go on, Hannah, out with it,” They both know this is a business lunch, and not just because Little Island Publishing is paying for it.
Hannah takes a gulp of seltzer and opens her mouth to speak. “Marissa. I'm going to do a memoir next”
“Oh, Jesus, Hannah.”
Hannah is sick of giving the same lecture every time and she says so.
“I just so sick of doing the same lecture every time”
“I know,” says Marissa on the other end of the line, “But that's your niche”
“I don't want a niche”
“Don't be such a brat, Hannah” Marissa tucks the phone between her head and shoulder and slides in front of her computer. She punches the “on” button.
“I know, I know,” sighs Hannah with same head-neck phone-tuck. She flips through the mail. She gestures to no one with the electric bill, “I just hate being the Holocaust golden girl. Of course it's serious issue, of course we need to keep talking about it, but can't we all take turns talking about it?”
“You know about a thousand Judaic studies majors would kill you for saying such blasphemy”
“Not to mention my mother”
They laugh the way old friends do.
“Hannah, I know”
“--when I finish the memoir--”
“Hannah, just, hold on”
“You're going to love it,”
“But this weekend, Hannah, this weekend. Amherst College, Wednesday night. You're still going,”
In her house, Hannah flops on the couch provoking a waking frown from Lola, “Yeah, I'm going,”
“I really appreciate it. Dr. Kurakowski is so excited; he's been e-mailing me like every day. I wish I could come, back on the old stomping grounds”
Fat Lola frowns as Hannah rubs her head. “You totally could, you know everything I could possibly say. Fax me directions?”
“On their way,” says Marissa, punching in Hannah's number by heart.
She’s trying to figure out what to wear. Not so much what to wear today; she will be in the car for while and it doesn’t really matter, but what to wear tomorrow and the next day and on the way home. Packing has always stressed her out, even for pleasurable vacations and of course this is far from that. This is business, a business trip. She sighs into her shallow closet.
She packs a gray wrap and stretchy dress pants. Nana's gold ring hangs from her neck as ever, though she's shortened the chain twice over the years. There was a time she might have worn it proudly outside of her clothes, look everyone, here it is the real thing. But if she's sick of even talking about the book, goodness knows she's sick of people staring at her necklace like she ought to be in zoo.
She brings two extra pairs of underwear, an extra pairs of socks, and an extra white dress shirt. You never know.
She still has a few things to do before she goes. She needs to buy some snacks, she needs to pick up a book on tape from the library, she needs to make a cup of coffee and pee, possibly twice. In her head she will hear her mother “It doesn't hurt to try” She 's thinking about purposefully forgetting her notes, then maybe she can say what she wants to say, about writing as an art, about her life, instead of what they want her to say, about writing as a science, about her mother's life, about her grandmother's life, about a lot of dead people she's read about and a lot of nearly dead people she's talked to.
She knows she's in the town before she even sees the school, not just because of the signs but because of the air, or something in it. The weather worn posters, the trendy coffee shops, even the trees ooze with high-nose college hippie yuppie goodness. She's too early to check in to her assuredly quaint bed and breakfast, so she parks her car in sets out to walk around. There's a fair or something going on in the middle of town and she decides to browse, trying to take note of student-aged faces that she might see again.
At the fair, there are people selling things, woven bags and ponchos, little glass sculptures, paper for rolling cigarettes.
She sniffs the air and it makes sense. No wonder everyone is just laying around in the grass. Only in Massachusetts. She laughs to herself and buys a cupcake from smiling girl in dreadlocks.
In her too-cold and too-expensive room late that night, she writes out her notes on the bed and breakfast stationary from memory. Down to the size of the bullet points they look identical to the notes for every other college-level lecture she has given of this kind. Short reading, true story, craft, research, emotions, questions. In and out. She is a pro. The only difference is the stationery's heading and the name of the people she should thank, which she will print neatly and phonetically at the top of the page.
In a fresh gray knit suit and open-toed dress shoes, Hannah stands before a small auditorium half full of sleepy looking college students and comfortable looking professors. The room seems to be sorted by age, with the adults in the front and the blank faced freshman in the back.
She drinks deeply from the provided glass of water.
She is being introduced by the department head, that Dr. “Koo-rah-cow-skee”
“Please join me in welcoming Ms. Hannah Rosenbaum”
There is polite round of applause. She folds her notes and slips them carefully in her pocket and clears her throat daintily.
“If it's alright with you,” she said says with too much breath, “I'd like to start with a story that has nothing to do with the Holocaust, my ancestors, or the golden ring,”
“I wore lime green to my junior prom. My mother hated it and I think that's why I bought it. Cliché, I know, but the dress was beautiful. It didn't fit me very well, but it was so pretty on the hanger I was determined to make it work. My mother begrudgingly took me to the dry cleaners across town, the only one owned by white people.
There was a particular woman there in charge of fittings. She was the smallest, grumpiest woman in the world, and ancient. When I emerged from the little box that served as the changing room, she snorted: 'What a color'. I merely smiled. 'It doesn't really fit' says this awful woman, so I just said, 'Welp, that's why I'm here' She told me its wasn't a very good shape for me, that it would never fit right and that I had big hips and smacked them, as if I didn't know where my own hips were.
I was so embarrassed and offended and upset. I cried the whole drive home. But you know what, that dress looked awesome. Now, I couldn't get my left leg in it now, but its still the first dress I think of when I need get something fancy. I'll be standing in the dressing room, trying on 'Missus' dresses and I'll still think of my green prom dress. No one thought it would look good, but it turned out great”
“Are there any questions?”
“Yeah, can you talk a little bit about the golden ring?”
“Hey, is that it? Are you wearing it now?”
Hannah leaves early the next morning and does not stop until she gets home. She drops her bag, calls in take-out, and turns on the water for a bath. The message machine's light flashes. Hannah presses play and scoops Lola off the window sill, hugging her for a moment and placing her on the ground. It's Marissa, using her stern mother voice:
“Hannah Rebecca Rosenbaum, you call me back the second you get home”
Without a moment's hesitation, Hannah picks up the phone and dialed.
“...totally unacceptable behavior...”
“...an embarrassment to yourself and to me...”
“...what were you thinking?”
“...without even telling me, without even telling them...”
“...word will get around fast...”
“...the reason they hired you...”
“...again with the memoir...”
“...don't speak that way to me...”
“Excuse me, what did you just say to me?”
“I said, 'Well then, maybe we should end this professional relationship. Sure, Marissa, I'm 'breaking up with you'. We can still be friends, but as soon as we can fix the paperwork, you are not my agent any more. Yes, I'm serious. Of course not, I just got home, are you kidding me? Hannah. I'm fine, I'm fine. I just don't want to talk about the goddamned Holocaust anymore. Do you hear me? It's been almost a decade. I want to talk about something else.”
She's kicking it old school. She tries to be nostalgic about it instead of just sad. She's licking envelopes and sticking stamps and remembers the last times she did this you still had to lick stamps. She using all her dimes on the library copy machine and double-checking addresses and names. Some of the magazine have moved and she has to call around old friends.
“What happened to Marissa?” they ask when she finally gets a hold of them.
“We had a disagreement, we're just taking a break”
Sometimes they cluck their tongues and sometimes they sigh, thinking of the breaks they have taken. “Well,” they say, and clear their throats, “well, send it on over and we'll see what we can do”
“It's funny,” Hannah chirps, “you'll like it, it's funny”
“Just send it over and we'll see” they say. Sometimes they say, “No promises” and hang up the phone without saying goodbye.
It's a Monday. It's raining. Hannah left the heater on the morning, so when we walks into the house with a bag of groceries, two dry cleaned shirts, and today's mail, it feels like an oven. Lola is hungry and mews to tell her so. She drops the groceries on the counter, drapes the dry cleaning over the couch, and stands in the middle of the kitchen, holding the day's mail. She hasn't taken her coat off yet, and it's got to be like eighty degrees in there. Lola mews and snakes between her corduroyed legs. Hannah flips through the mail. Junk. Junk. Bill. Junk. Bill. Ah!
A postcard from Off-Beat. Their logo, a titled abstract beret in bright blue, flashes in the otherwise rain-gray kitchen. She flips it over.
“We regret to inform you that we have decided not to...”
In one fluid movement Hannah tears the paper in half, pops open the garbage can with her foot, and drops the two halves of rejection. They flit like dead butterflies into the can.
Lola mews and Hannah goes to feed her.
Two editors have the decency to hand-write her rejection letters. “We would really love to publish you,” she reads between the lines, “because you're famous and we could put your name on the cover”
But a rejection letter is still a rejection letter, “However, this isn't funny or insightful or any of the things an autobiographical essay should be, so we have to say 'no'”
The other sixteen publications send pre-printed form rejections, flat as old soda and generic as toilet paper.
Suddenly it's May, and Saturday. She goes to the bank and the flea market to hide from the mail. She gets a coffee and sits flipping through a magazine for hours. Even when she drives home she sits in the car for an extra ten minutes, feigning for herself interest in the news story on the radio. It has been eleven weeks since she fought with Marissa.
Eventually she realizes she should probably turn off the car and go in the house. And get the mail.
Six more. She should be used to the rejection by now, right? Was it this bad last time or have the time really changed that much? Is it hope that keeps her going or something less poetic, something like delusion or just stupidity.
She throws the letters out. She feeds Lola. She falls on the couch and flips on the television.
She doesn't believe in signs from the universe and reminds herself of this. She even says aloud to herself, or maybe to Lola, “I don't believe in signs from the universe”
Life is Beautiful plays on the television.
She crawls into the back of the spare hall closet and pulls out a dusty and disintegrating box. Under programs and notebooks and curling paper certificates, she pulls out a poorly aging high school year book. By-passing the sports pages and the clubs, the dazed looking portraits of freshman and sophomores, until she opens to the junior prom collage. Where is it, where is it, where is it? She knows it's there somewhere, she remembers. Ah yes, small and in the corner, but well visible in good light. She and three girls she hasn't spoken to in years have their arms around each other and are dressed to the eleventh-grade nines, they in different shades of blue and she in bright green.
She sighs aloud because everyone was right. The dress is ill-fitting and hideous. She coughs on the dust that rises when she slams the yearbook shut.
“Hi, Marissa. It's me. It's Hannah. I was wondering if we could grab lunch this week. I've been thinking a lot about propaganda, Nazi propaganda, you know? There might be something too it, maybe not. But