Dear Ms. Gordon,
So I was thinking about you, the literary agent reading this, and somehow you made me think of a time machine. Here is how you made me think of it, actually: We’re both under the same stars, with the same planets orbiting some of them, and among them there just has to be a pure world where anything can happen, where one doesn’t need connections to get a book into the right hands… Where there are no books yet even, just potential stories. A world with clear water in large lakes with gorgeous reflections at night…
If we had a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on the reflection of Earth in the water molecules of the planet Osiris in the Pegasus galaxy (which I understand is rich in liquid water and ice) we would see Earth as it was 300 years ago. Just thought of it right now. See, that’s how long ago the reflection left Earth. Osiris is 150 light years away.
When an astronomer in the future, who has a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on details in Earth’s reflection like you and I reads this book (which is going to be all about this query letter, forget the pages I’ve attached) and designs a contraption for zooming in on Earth’s past, he will look at us right now, at the moment of the idea’s conception. Perhaps he has figured out a way to look inside, and he is looking at you. Perhaps he has found a way to interact, and is altering your future as we speak. Imagine the present moment drifting away at the speed of light into a reflective glacier in another galaxy and bouncing back into the lens of an inquisitive mind enriched by 300 years of progress and evolution that wants to know about you…
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Dear Mr. Gemdjian,
I must admit part of the reason I’m responding so quickly is that I’ve never received a query emailed from a J-Mail account. It took me a Google search to discover that J-Mail is a prison email service. I learned that inmates like you submit hand-written letters, the Corrections Officers scan them in, then disperse printed copies of the replies, all for $10 per month. I was fascinated, and I figured I’d better respond quickly, as this sounds like a time consuming process.
I apologize in advance for sounding so forward and being so frank, but I must confess that your letter found me precisely at the moment of a tragic crossroads in my personal life. My husband of four years perished in an intentional overdose just before I left New York last year, and I’m just coming to terms with this now. It feels like he did this as a result of my decision to be honest with him. His terminal rejection of my truth was all I could think about until the few moments it took me to read your letter, which introduced a witness to my ghastly predicament, a tragedy that still resonates in me so far away from my home.
Right now I’m looking at a sunset. It’s coming through the gap between two brutalist communist-era apartment buildings in a place where I can live cheaply. You’ve probably found me at the top of an agent list because I sold The New Dead series to Random House and optioned it to Paramount for the Trident Agency, but that was a year ago. I’ve been working for myself since then and it hasn’t quite panned out. So here I am, still in the northern hemisphere, under the same stars, though looking at a sunset eight hours after you’ve seen it, a field in the distance with a wisteria-covered museum in honor of a Hungarian nobleman who gave his life failing to stop the Ottoman Turks from conquering Varna, this ancient Bulgarian city, and from dominating the Balkans 600 years ago.
Everyone smiles at me in the elevator because I’m American, and because they don’t suspect I’m not exactly… straight (which I’m sure you know about, if you move in our niche literary circles). This is Eastern Europe after all. Will it still be strange in 300 years, at the time your scientist is watching us through his time telescope, that otherwise conservative people who never speak about sex can’t stop thinking about it if they suspect that your preference is sufficiently different from theirs?
I remember New York, your town, as it was, across the East River, where I would wake up every Thursday with breakfast in bed that my late husband made me. His name was Sebastian Briglia. He was an author and once started a story he called Free Range Humans with the phrase “A last breath is all there is.” The idea was that if it is crueler to eat free-range animals because they enjoy life, where as animals tortured by industrial farming actually want to die, where does that leave humans? Heard of him? Nobody has.
I decided to become a literary agent during one of those breakfast-in-bed mornings. Sebastian made those a tradition every Thursday after his night off, as a part of an ongoing apology for working the graveyard shift at the news bureau and for leaving me alone most afternoons while he slept. It was on such a morning that he died… It was also on such a morning that he proposed. The morning I’m speaking of, however, the morning I decided to become a literary agent, was three years after his marriage proposal. He hadn’t started hearing buzzing sounds and chasing them yet… Which should have given me an immediate clue that he had relapsed last year. The stories he had written about creative shoplifting to finance his “dragon-chasing” that included stuffing ground meat into his shirt (thinking it worked because it made him appear chubby when in actuality it was effective because the blood soaking through made him appear wounded), stopped being entertaining once that happened.
You know, Mr. Gemdjian, Briglia means bridle in Italian. That’s the headgear used to control a horse, the same thing your name means in Armenian. Do you believe in coincidences, or do you think the scientist watching us from the future had something to do with that? You suggested that perhaps he has found a way to interact, rather than just observe us in Earth’s reflection. Tell me, Mr. Gemdjian, how does he do that? This detail is essential if you’d like me to sell your novel. As for me, I’m an idea woman but I’m known to jot a few things down, like this essay about the morning that made me want to represent literature. I posted it on my writer-advice blog, but I will smoothly incorporate it into my email here through the magic of cutting and pasting (not a luxury you enjoy in prison, I’m still shocked to have found out).
That morning National Public Radio was playing, as it always did at the beginning of my author-husband’s traditional “sorry I’m not successful yet” breakfast in bed day. There was a news item on about a cancer treatment that has extended the life of rats but does not work on humans.
“I have an idea for a sci-fi novel,” he says. “It’s a realistic post-apocalyptic story. Scientists are trying to make humans immortal, test the serum on rats, and make the rats immortal. It doesn’t work on humans. Now we are overrun with rats that can’t die of natural causes and keep reproducing, relentlessly fulfilling their rat duties of gnawing and nesting and depleting resources. You know, as a background story, instead of zombies.”
“What?” I roll my eyes. “That’s not interesting… You have to make them intelligent. Intelligent lab-rats that try to escape from the scientists. Two of them. They get separated and reunite in the end.”
“That’s just plot, who remembers plot? Think about it, really old rats, older than any human, like ancient trees. You can kill them, but just the fact that they’re so healthy they can’t die of natural causes creates a problem. Get it? It’s just an idea for a back story; there can be a dramatic plot with humans, a realistic one…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about anymore” was my response to that, but I wrote my version of the immortal lab rats on experimental cancer medication story, where they are in love, get separated and reunite. With zombies. I sold it, under his name. He had never received payment for fiction before, only as a journalist, and my sassy prank just rubbed it in his face. From that point on life became a countdown to some inevitabilities for both of us: me turning away from teaching third graders, getting an entry level slush pile job at Trident and working up to having my own client list, and his relapse. Though my husband’s actual relapse happened a few days after I told him that the reason he has never met my parents was that not only did I run away at 14 to work for a photographer in Boston, but also that the photographer financed a not-so-legal sex change operation for me. Yes, I was a boy up until the age of 14, which is why I don’t look like I’m trans now — I was prepubescent. Sebastian became very quiet after that, and started hearing insects… But that’s another story.
This might betray an unfulfilled motherly instinct on my part, but considering the possibility that your unborn astronomer from the future is observing me at this very moment is giving me a reprieve from the resentment of losing Sebastian at its most painful. You see, at the very moment I began to read your query letter, my late husband’s thorough rejection of my true self, it just… And I don’t mean his rejection of the pre-pubescent boy I was, not of the woman I believed owed no explanations, no, his rejection of my true, transgendered me with meat-and potatoes literary tastes that finds his work pretentious and sub-par — that rejection of his (including his rejection of my rejection) still had me so distraught that I was about to give up on the future all together. As I read your letter, I realized much of the loneliness I felt in a meaningless universe could disappear if that very moment were witnessed by a future that cared.
It would be wonderful if this possibility came true, but you would have to write such a compelling piece about the moment I read your query letter that future generations would consider it a classic. That’s the only way we can be sure 300 years from now an astronomer with a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on our reflection on the planet Osiris would be looking at us.
Judging from the pages you sent, however, this will not be the case, unfortunately. Your turn of phrase leaves much to be desired, English is clearly not your first language, and your insights are mostly unrelatable to the general public. Please don’t stop reading, I may have a solution. It occurred to me to write a book about this, to steal your idea as it were, but in the unlikely event that you do write this book and it does become a hit, the astronomer from the future would perceive me as the villain, a possibility I can not possibly allow. So I have decided to assist you in writing this. You see, the secret to a successful novel is a dose of candid reality. I want you to write a story about a moment in your life that you never speak of. We can incorporate that into the astronomer-from-the-future-witnessing-our-lives premise.
I’m looking forward to reading it. I really do hope that you take my offer. My future depends on it.
Dear Mr. Gemdjian,
Let me assure you that while what you’re doing now may be something Sebastian would have wanted, whatever prank the two of you were working on before his death is wildly inappropriate now, do you understand?
What you have sent me is clearly his autobiographical work. At first you had me convinced there are an incredible number of parallels between your life and his, but as I read your story and the similarities kept mounting, it dawned on me that you’re merely having a go at me.
The very reason I settled in Varna, Bulgaria is that Sebastian was born here, apparently much like you, you’d have me believe. I vividly remember his descriptions of communist bread stores and authoritarian kitsch. What you sent me sounds like a transcript of my memories of hearing him speak. Here, spend some more time with your plagiarism, think of what I felt like reading my late husband’s nostalgia presented to me as yours:
It’s a sunny, beach-scented day in mid-80’s Varna, Bulgaria. I’m in first grade, so the extent of my homework is drawing a crayon picture of my favorite form of transportation, which I’ve already done (a ship, though I had never been on one). I tell my mom I don’t have homework, but I want to just keep working on my pictures.
“Go outside,” she says. “Find some friends…”
I figured I’d drag myself to the playground, swing by myself for a while and come home, as usual.
“I want you to spend at least an hour outside. Go to the store and pick up some bread while you’re at it. Don’t forget to count the change.”
This last part deflated me because it meant I had to talk to strangers. I waited in line, imagining in my mind slapping the money on that counter. Then I did. I slapped it on there, and looked up. Is the clerk-lady going to mutter “Just get out of here, kid” at me through her teeth? She could, if she wanted to, just keep my money and kick me out. Who is going to believe me? I’m just a kid. The wood paneling in the bread store gave me a warm, though institutional feeling. It really was a bread store, not a bakery. There were bakeries downtown, but not here, among what we called “The Blocks” — no cakes, no pastries, no oven. Just white and rye, and the expensive country style bread. They delivered the bread from a huge factory bakery with chimneys and rows of hangars with triangular roofs and lots of smoke and ladies with babushkas taking it out of the gigantic ovens with enormous wooden paddles. At least that was what the art deco mural on the back wall had to say about it.
“White or rye?” I don’t know. I need a story if I get it wrong. My mom probably told me, I forgot, my mom will get mad because I always forget, so I need a story. I’ll say they only had white, they were out of rye if I was supposed to get rye.
“Rye.” Why did I say rye? When do we ever get rye? No one ever eats rye. They probably just make it for decoration. I can’t change my mind now. The lady will get mad and kick me out.
On the way back I saw the old man that always sits in his first floor balcony and talks to himself.
“Hey champ,” he barked. He called me champ. That made me smile. “Show me your pee-pee.” He is a nice man, I thought, I feel bad I’m not allowed to show him my pee-pee, I hope he doesn’t think I don’t have one.
“That’s not all the change… And when do we ever eat rye?”
“I stopped by the playground, mom, maybe it fell out of my pocket when I was on the swing.”
“Did you play with friends? Go to the playground and find the change if that’s what really happened.”
My parents would have me hang out with Jarvis, the kid across the hall, who was a few years older and apparently a trouble maker. He was loud. I decided to work on making friends, so I hung out with him and his friend, a big boy. Jarvis called him Tanker and he definitely had a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Tanker was old, maybe ten, and would catch bees and hornets, tie strings around them and take them for walks with us in the woods. Now that I see him in my mind’s eye, I remember the infernal gleam of a proto-drug-addicted me in Tanker’s pupils as he pulled the strings of his flying insect minions.
Did Sebastian instruct you to send this to me as he was planning to leave me, before he overdosed, along with the idea of a future astronomer finding me in Earth’s reflection in a lake on Osiris? He always had a cold, almost sociopathic sense of humor, and I’d have to assume yours is identical:
When I was six I used to have a blinking tic. A psychiatrist said it’s not a big deal; I just have a difficult personality. At the time I thought this meant I was challenging myself subconsciously to keep blinking, and succeeding, out of sheer steadfast moxie. It turns out he meant that I was looking for attention and should just be ignored. It went away. My brother developed a stutter temporarily. The consensus about that was that it was my fault, when I was seven, and it was preceded by a literal whipping by my mom on my bare ass with a plastic sword, for letting Tanker pressure my three year old brother Ari to defecate in bushes that left thorns in his underwear.
However, having now donned my literary agent hat, I must say that while passages may have read better than anything Sebastian had churned out while alive, the writing is still sub-par, the structure is loose and the focus is at times completely lost.
Also, how would your mother, or Sebastian’s (who would also recognize his style I’m certain) feel after reading this? Publishing it under a different name is meant to solve that problem, I suppose. I loved him to death but he was such a cold, calculating man sometimes. And at other times he was a sweet putz… His clumsiness, a sure sign of being self conscious, pointed to his over inflated ego… I wouldn’t be surprised if Sebastian Briglia was not his real name. No Bulgarians have names like his, not even gypsies. Think of your mother reading the passage you sent me about how she spanked you, something that is exactly the type of thing that would have happened to Sebastian, whose entire personality seemed to have bloomed out of mommy issues. I must admit this paragraph I’m about to make you re-read redeems you a bit, though you lose the credit you’ve gained at the end by implying that your addict personality was the product of a “metaphorically” incestuous union through a beating with a plastic sword… That’s the kind of thing that might make a reader throw in the towel, Mr. Gemdjian:
The stress of having to deal with a seven-year old with a “difficult character” while protecting a three year old in a time and place when it was not outrageous to send your children out roaming the neighborhood at a young age was enough of an exonerating circumstance for my mother, but all actions have consequences. My criminal-minded addict alter ego was conceived then, a product of that plastic-sword-beating-officiated metaphorically incestuous union.
You know, I swear to the Future Scientist as he looks down upon us, at times I felt as if Sebastian could have killed me. Not for being a transgendered woman and not having told him in advance. For continually rejecting his writing, which he was convinced he was too much of a genius to rewrite.
Speak to you soon,
Dear Mr. Gemdjian
This is not the original email that I wrote you. That one failed to save as a draft for some reason, and expressed my incredulity at realizing that you have not been receiving my emails at all.
Apparently the pages I thought you sent in response to my request for a candid, real story from your life were another attachment in your original email.
I suppose the officers scanning your hand written pages made two attachments, instead of including everything in the first one, and it mislead me. Which means you have not responded to me at all.
This left me feeling I was simply not leaving an impact on you at all, like a ghost… I calmed down and convinced myself your prison’s Corrections Officers were just taking too long to bring you printouts of my replies. I was less than inspired to rewrite the email at that point. But then things changed.
I realized that no one, not a family member, friend or social media connection, sexual or otherwise, has responded to anything I’ve sent lately. The sexual connection part is the one that made me really suspicious — I’ve had estranged lovers with whom I’ve ended things rather aggressively respond immediately upon my sending them a questionably “artistic” personal photo. Yet these normally effective snapshots seem to have lost their allure somehow, suddenly failing to secure any response at all.
Perhaps my panic at being ignored is compounded by the fact that I’ve chosen to let the world forget my birth by starting over with a new gender at 14. Maybe this is what a ghost is: Someone whose death is remembered but whose birth has been forgotten. When that happens perhaps death takes the place of the ghost’s birth by default and that last moment of panic stretches out for countless lifetimes of being stuck in limbo. Maybe mistaking death for birth is what a soul is too.
My car inexplicably won’t start, the mechanic doesn’t understand me on the phone and I could have sworn he spoke English before, the bus doors close in my face leaving me in the cold morning in the glow of the sunrise coming in behind the mountains, abandoning me at the bus stop in front of the forever greening foundations for an unknown construction project next to the museum honoring knights that failed to hold back the Ottomans 600 years ago. I almost gave up trying to reach you. But then…
Then my eyesight problems began. I keep zooming out. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at myself over my own shoulder through my kitchen window and into my tablet when I’m checking my email, and I feel I have to be by the window or outside to see anything that I’m doing. The further away I am from a window indoors the grayer the world becomes… You know what I’m getting at, Mr. Gemdjian. Or should I say Sebastian? I’m beginning to identify with the future astronomer’s perspective.
Last time I saw you your eyes seemed frozen, fixed at a bathroom ceiling, lungs collapsed in an empty tub, skin blue-green from a heroin overdose.
You always talked about how the only way to truly erase your past was to fake your own death. And what is this, revenge? You finally figured out what kind of story would get me truly invested in your writing, and to get me back for having chosen to identify as a woman early on, you got me to identify as a man now, the Future Astronomer, even if it kills me. Sounds paranoid, yet I wouldn’t put it past you, Sebastian.
Or was that me lifeless in the bathtub? Was I the one who died in New York that morning, because yes, I demanded a taste of your relapse when you told me about it, and the moment before I stopped perceiving may have stretched into an infinity, perhaps in the middle of you reading me this very story.
Hoping we both enjoy our new identities, whatever time span they occupy,
As you step back from the first temporal reading telescope prototype at the Vasar National Collection Library, read this message slowly, and please do not rush disengagement. Remember, as this artifact is the very first temporal telescopic book ever devised, the software is primitive, and we have let it remain unchanged for authenticity.
Backing away from the viewfinder will be accompanied by a sudden acceleration. When you begin to find yourself on the other side of a 21st century interactive device with a sense that you’re fragmented into six billion pieces please lean forward until you find the exact moment at which this email dissolves into the sound of my voice. At that point it is safe to disengage and re-join basic deja vu reality. If you have failed to do so and are now drifting back into the content (i.e. emails you’re reading over the character’s shoulder) all you need to do is make sure the text version of this first ever temporal telescopic novel is published within its own reality while you’re trapped in it. Once it is, you will find yourself at this prompt again.
Remember, the Vasar National Collection Library is supported by lives like yours.
Thank you for your time.
The Future Astronomer
Short Bio of Sebouh Gemdjian
As a child Sebouh Gemdjian wanted to be American, and luckily for him at the time, so did his parents. They emigrated from Bulgaria in 1991, not long after the fall of communism. As an adult, he toyed with the idea of being Bulgarian again, though unfortunately for him at the time Bulgaria as he remembered it did not exist anymore. Later he began to suspect that Bulgaria as he remembered it never existed.
As a journalist, he has written for The Highland Park Mirror and The Dateline Journal in North New Jersey, as well as for New York City’s Bulgarian community paper Nedelnik. He wrote under a pen name at The Italian Tribune News in Newark, NJ, where he worked as a staff writer over a decade ago. He currently works in public relations, writes about meditation and marketing (http://www.burrellesluce.com/freshideas/2013/12/just-add-mindfulness-the-right-way-to-multitask/) and plays guitar in two New York bands: Like Herding Cats (http://www.likeherdingcatsmusic.com/) and Memoirs of Addiction (http://www.memoirs-of-addiction.com).