“Give me back my husband!”
With these words, a tall, strong-boned, middle-aged woman entered my office one rainy morning and hit my desk with her umbrella.
“Excuse me, who are you?” I said. “And what would I need your husband for?”
“It doesn’t matter who I am. As for my husband… What you need him for is no mystery to me. It’s for your vocation.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Isn’t that obvious? You’re a writer. You need characters.”
“So, what has this to do with your husband?”
“Every-thing!” the woman said and dropped an opened envelope on my desk, out of which fell a piece of paper, on which was written with a felt-tip pen the following:
Irina, sorry but I can’t go on like this anymore. Don’t judge me too harshly. And don’t look for me. I’m gone into literature.
“Well, why specifically me?” I said. “Why do you think I have anything to do with this?” . “It wasn’t easy,” my visitor sighed. “It took some effort, but I figured you out eventually…. Do you recall the artist retreat at Banff? That’s right, the one in Canada, in Alberta province. At the foot of the Rocky Mountains… Yes, Banff… With two ‘f’s… August 1999?”
“Well, yes, I do recall that. I was there.”
“I bet you were. My husband and I lived nearby then. He’s always been obsessed with literature, maniacally in love with it, and he’s never missed a public reading in Banff. For some time now – why, it’ll soon become clear to you – I never let him go to those readings alone. I always went along. That evening, you read some of your stuff there, at Banff. As soon as the reading was over, he rushed up to you. Devil only knows how I got distracted for a sec. I waved to my girlfriend whom I had spotted in the crowd, and he seized the moment. ‘May I ask you for a favor,’ he said quietly, so that no one would hear, ‘please don’t make me a character in any of your stories.’”
I began to recall something….
“Well,” I said, “how do you know what he whispered to me? You yourself are saying that he spoke quietly. So how could you hear him?” …
“I didn’t need to hear it. I know that from experience. Over the years of our marriage — quite stormy, to say the least – I know my scoundrel in and out. Know all his moves. Even to the point of the tone that he invoked when talking to you. He said it ingratiatingly but without much hope. As if it was his destiny…. As if he’s been doomed… He’s quite thorough when it comes to details.”
“Well, most likely you were surprised to hear such a strange request,” the woman continued paying no attention to my reaction. “But, he knows how to press his point. I bet he said something along the lines of ‘I know, I know, it’s not a conscious process. You’ll put me in one your tales not right away, but after a while. After I get nestled into your subconscious.’ What can I say? He’s really good at drawing a writer’s attention,” the woman sighed. “Yes, yes, don’t think you were his first. In the same year, also in Banff, there was a writer’s workshop for beginners. They gave them an exercise: choose someone they encounter in the nearby village and write a short piece about him or her. And what do you think? Seven thousand people lived there at that time, but out of a dozen of new writers, three of them picked him. Well, of course! His nose is bluish. Means he drinks… Half-bald… Half gray haired…. Has a Canadian accent. Plenty of room for imagination. Those beginners were from the U.S. and the UK. It’s a known fact: the farther you are from your native land, the more your imagination grows.”
“But still, how do you know that he’s run off into some book…” I said.
“Oh, stop it, please. As if that trick is new to him! I’ve seen him do it more than once. Once he even left the same note,” the visitor pointed her umbrella at the envelope on my desk, “and he sneaked into some beach novel. You know, the kind of light read people take along when heading for a summer vacation. And what else would you expect? He got involved with some bleached blonde there. You know yourself the kind of goods one gets mixed up with. I barely pulled him out of there…. Then, next time, he got into some thriller and came back missing two front teeth, his rib broken. Can imagine the medical bills I got stuck with!”
She spoke so convincingly that I rushed to my old manuscripts and began flipping through everything I had written from the time spent in Banff.
Soon, I came across a character that was somehow reminiscent of the man who, back in my Banff days, had approached me with a strange request. Frankly, he did stick in my memory, and, a few years later, he wound up in my novel. I thought about him when I needed a prototype of one of the minor characters in my novel. Then, imperceptibly, he grew into an almost major protagonist.
It’s true that literary characters often go rogue and begin carrying on as they please. Sometimes, they are capable of such pranks that the author can only scratch his head in bewilderment. However, with great difficulty, I persuaded the man with the bluish nose to return to his wife.
At first, he resisted rather rudely.
“Get lost,” he said. “You want me to do it, but you don’t know my wife. If you knew her, you would not be pushing me. If not out of male solidarity, then, at least, out of sheer charity… If you think she’s so sweet, you marry her.”
In the end, I prevailed and sighed in relief.
A few days later, I got a phone call from the man’s wife. She thanked me for the favor and said that her newly restored husband was taking her to Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. “He says, it’ll be like a second honeymoon.”
I congratulated her with the happy turn of events and was about to hang up, as she said:
“By the way, do you happen to know? I checked it out on the net, but sometimes they organize these things at the last minute… One can’t be too careful…. Do you happen to know, if, in the next few weeks, there, on Maui, there’s going to be any writers’ conference?”
Professor of Russian at Hunter College, Emil Draitser has authored twelve books of artistic and scholarly prose. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals. A three-time recipient of the New Jersey Council on the Arts fellowships, he’s currently at work on his memoir “To Laugh or Not to Laugh: Writing Soviet Satire.”