Dear McSweeney’s: Two Letters from Stephen Elliott
Below we’ve reprinted two letters written by Rumpus Founder and Editor-in-Chief Stephen Elliott. The first appeared in McSweeney’s Issue 12, published in November 2003, and the second appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in 2005.
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–Marisa Siegel, Managing Editor
I write to you for two reasons. The first is to compliment you on Issue No. 11, minus the typos and triptych your strongest issue yet. The second is from mind-numbing loneliness, a hole below my ribs so deep and impenetrable that if you looked inside of it you would go blind.
I’m in Hong Kong as I write this. I’ve been traveling for two weeks and people prone to the kind of thoughts I’m prone to should never be alone out in the world. Hong Kong is a monster of a city, a soupy mess of British greed gyrating impatiently against China’s tiger economy, buildings erupting from the sea and the hilltops while the boatman keep watch. From my hotel room I can see the traffic twisting its way and then disappearing into this foreign landscape. The American dollar is about 7.5 HK. The congee with pork is good.
The big question, I suppose, as I turn the final page on your fine book, laying its pleather spine against a fruit bowl filled with yellow oranges the size of babies’ fists: If I had a nickel for every time I accepted a lie as fact, a dime for every passive insult hurled my way, a quarter for every time I mistook a friend’s motives for something they weren’t, and fifty cents for the last evening I spent in her strong unwashed arms—what would the exchange rate be on that? What does the WTO have to say about despair? Will there ever be an APEC Summit on loss, a treaty on neglect?
Kow Loon, Hong Kong
Date: Fri, 28 Jan 2005
From: Stephen Elliott
Subject: Dear McSweeney’s
I’m writing from New York, which is where you used to be before moving to San Francisco. I live in San Francisco, which is where I know you from, but I’m in New York this week promoting a book, one that you originally published in hardcover but is now out in paperback. But that’s not why I’m writing.
I’m writing because I’m on a train and last night I asked a woman to marry me. She’s a member of the Bloomberg administration, an actual appointed official. We’ve been flirting since we met at the Democratic Convention, because everybody in the Bloomberg administration is actually a Democrat, even Bloomberg.
Chloe was wearing pink pants, a pink sweater, and a purple vest. She looked like she was going skiing. We were at Andy’s Tavern and she was having just one more drink, though she should have left an hour earlier. There was a snow emergency. It was a Sunday. The F train wasn’t running. The city had been buried. The bar was practically empty, people were staying inside. I couldn’t blame them at all. It was so cold out it went straight to your bones and stayed there.
Chloe was telling me how much she liked children, how that was the most important thing to her. She told me a story of a woman who’d had a child and was so in love with her child she couldn’t see anything else. She was in love for the first time in her life. Chloe would be like that.
Anyway, we had already eaten at one of those trendy New York restaurants, the type with a steel dish of olives and smoked almonds on your table, the kind where you sit on a stool instead of a normal chair with a back. It was rumored Bill Clinton went there, and that he was still cheating on his wife. At some point during my third drink, fueled by Chloe’s passion and charisma, her clean cheeks and full lips and her hair which is like silk, I said, “Why don’t we get married and have children together.”
She kind of laughed. Partly, I think, because she knows I don’t actually want children. I don’t even like children. I’ve never been good with kids. Children are loud, and selfish. But I was having visions, there was a moment where it all made sense. Chloe and I would have this nice home in New York, a small place like the rest of them, but nice. Our sexual problems would dissipate over time, the way they do, and we’d become comfortable. I would love her, her political connections would help my career, and I’d enter into this period of normalcy that would end one day when I woke up in a panic, shared a nervous breakfast in the nook with my wife and two children (a third on the way), got dressed, left for work, and never returned.
After that I would stumble around the Midwest. I’d stay in cheap hotel rooms, the kind Richard Ford writes about. I’d live with a view of truck stops, step over potholes filled with pools of oil reflecting the street lights in orange-tinged rainbows like a liquid TV tuned to the channel of static. At some point I’d arrive in Chicago, where I grew up and saw my hard times. I’d look up old friends; find out who was in and who was out. No doubt a few of them would be dead, but the ones who weren’t, the ones who hadn’t succumbed to a drug addiction, would have settled into a routine. I would arrive at the realization that most of us end up in the same place—a spot to live, a means to survive, a spouse, a child. Most of us, but not me. Maybe I’d have a rapprochement with my father.
All of this was interrupted by Chloe reminding me of the time she came to visit in San Francisco. “We didn’t see each other the first night,” she said. That was true, but it wasn’t my fault. I had flown in early in the morning and had been on a television show. I walked right on to the morning news carrying a venti cup of Starbucks coffee, then I tried to get up and leave before the commercial break. The whole thing was a disaster. Then I went to my friend’s house and watched football for six hours and drank some beer. She was at a hot springs on the other side of the Golden Gate with a friend and was stuck in traffic coming back to the city. By the time she returned, after nine o’clock, I was headed to sleep and said I would see her the next day. Which I did.
“You should have seen me that night,” she said now. I looked at her quizzically. I was on my third drink and she was on her fourth. We weren’t coming from the same place. I wasn’t dressed warm enough for the weather, and it would take me an hour to get back to where I was staying. “And you didn’t hang out the next night either, after the reading. Where did you go?”
I didn’t know where I had gone. I don’t have that kind of memory. My dreams of what I would call The Comfortable Years were replaced by a vision of a woman who kept tabs on my whereabouts, questioned my motives. A person who was going to demand being treated well, whatever that means, and who had the confidence to demand respect. Someone with a long memory, capable of sustaining a grudge. I can’t stand it when people are mad at me. Chloe would be mad at me all the time. Then, of course, there was the whole birthing process. Sure, I would love the children, and in later years I would sleep on a lonely, guilt-lined bed with nothing but their pictures in my wallet to remind me, but she would love them more. She would love them with a love that burned. She wouldn’t need me. A relationship can survive anything except contempt.
“Where did I go that night?” I pondered. We were finally leaving the bar. I was going to catch the A train into Brooklyn, no sense in trying to find a cab in that kind of weather, with the streets as slick as ice rinks. I almost made it to the train without incident, except Chloe needed help taking off her boots so I went inside with her. In her living room, her roommate stood at the window, speaking on a cell phone. She assured us over her shoulder that she would help Chloe with her boots; I wasn’t going to be needed. I returned to the pavement, slipped underground into the subway. And I was gone.
New York, New York
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.