The author of The Great American Novel is helping me move. The author of The Great American Novel came over at 11 and carried some of the lighter boxes before holding the door for the guys I hired, who carried my mattress out.
The author of The Great American Novel hung around after we got everything into my new place while I ordered pizza, then smoked a joint on my new fire escape after we ate. The author of The Great American Novel told me that he might love me too. I was ecstatic.
The author of The Great American Novel is named Walter. He followed me to New York after grad-school when I tried to get a job in the publishing industry. His parents were wealthy and willing to support him, so long as he made an effort to work on getting published.
He is tall and thin, with a mop of red hair that he always waits too long to get cut. He loves his parents, but hates that they gave him such an antiquated name. I might be his only friend, he never really mentions anyone else. I know he had a rough experience in high school and he never talks about undergrad except when he gets drunk and a few things slip out. People always thought he was gay because he liked reading more than anything else, but I know that is not true.
I am in love with the author of The Great American Novel, and I told him this often. We met in grad-school when we were study partners for a theory class on the differences between post-modern literature in the Eastern and Western worlds. The class was kind of bullshit, everyone knew it, which gave the author of The Great American Novel license to goof off during our study sessions.
One day he met me in the library carrying a goldfish in a bowl. It was a gift, he said, he wanted to know what I would name it. I always was good at naming things and he liked to watch me do it. I studied the fish swim around for a second before saying the first thing that came to mind: Mindy Kaling. The author of The Great American Novel did not know who that is, but thought it was a great name anyway.
So there were the three of us on the night of my move, on the night that the author of The Great American Novel told me he loved me. I sat on the couch, carefully taking clothes out of a box; Mindy Kaling swimming circles around her bowl, looking at the new surroundings; him standing on the fire escape, listening to the sounds of my neighborhood.
"This is nice," I say.
"What is?" he asks, sticking his head back through the window, lit joint still in the corner of his mouth.
"You, me and Mindy Kaling, sharing a moment together. The hum of the city. You telling me you love me. All of it is, well, it is just nice," I say.
The author of The Great American Novel ponders this.
"You should write a story about us in this moment. You could call it 'A Nice Silence'," I say.
Stepping through the window, the author of The Great American Novel walks past me to get his note pad.
"I will start on it right away," he says as he sits down to write.
The story will become his first novel. It ends up having nothing to do with him, me or Mindy Kaling, but he keeps my title. The book will be published within a year, but receive less than zero response from readers or critics alike. The disappointment his parents express at the book's failure will be the last straw before the author of The Great American Novel cuts ties with them for good.
One night, lying in bed awake next to him at 2am he will ask me to marry him. I say yes. The next day we go down to city hall and have a small civil ceremony. I wear the dress I wore on the day I moved. Mindy Kaling acts as our only witness.
Without his parents' support, money gets tight and I take on a second job teaching night writing classes at a community college. He is not happy about this, thinking he should be supporting the two of us, but he cannot hold down a job. His lack of success frustrates him to no end, but he refuses to consider talking to anyone about publishing his work. Tired of hearing him give me the same rant night after night, I confront him about it.
"I know you think you have to self-publish to maintain your integrity, but you have to admit that it is not working. And I know you got burned by your experience with the first book, but they all loved you and tried so hard," I say. He does not look at me but I know he is listening.
"Besides, the market has changed in the last five years. Literary fiction has made a huge resurgence, now is the time," I say.
"I am never going to give those people another minute of my life," he mutters, still not looking at me.
"Never can wait," I say, and after a moment my brain makes the leap. I continue, "you should write a story called that."
"Huh," he says, still not looking at me. Two weeks later I find a manuscript with my old boss's phone number stuck on a post-it note.
This book will do better. He will get some newspaper reviews and the publisher will want to build off of that and send him on a short book tour. He calls me from the road every night, describing in intricate detail the people who come to his readings. He tells me how they speak, asking him the same questions every night as though they were original, doing imitations of their voices with funny accents. I can tell he is miserable, but the book sells well enough that the publishers offer him a reasonable advance for his next book. He has waited too long to say "no".
On the last night of the tour, my phone rings. He is in Indianapolis, and as soon as I pick up the phone he says "I want to have a baby."
"Oh, well hello to you too," I say.
"Have a baby with me. Have my baby. Being out here, seeing all these people, I feel like we need to get our genes back out there in the pool," he says.
The next day, as soon as he enters the apartment we set to work. I can tell that the trip has worn the author of The Great American Novel out, but the sex we have that afternoon reminds me of the first night we slept together. It was the night he helped me move, we did it on my couch. I remember looking over at Mindy Kaling who watched us from her tank.
We try and we try, but it doesn't take. I go see a fertility specialist who tells me about in vitro, but we cannot afford it. Even with his advance, I am still working two jobs to make ends meet. I meet with an adoption agency, but our chances are slim.
Eventually the stress gets to me and I collapse in the middle of a class. I wake up two days later in a hospital bed, a doctor telling me I had an ulcer that required massive surgery. As the doctor leaves the room, the author of The Great American Novel walks in. He tells me that he spoke to his parents for the first time in years, that after I get out of the hospital, he wants us to move in with them in Connecticut.
Two weeks later we pack up our car and drive out of the city. The mother of the author of The Great American Novel greets us as we pull up. I realize I have never met her, my mother-in-law, before.
Staying with his parents is nice. It lets me relax for the first time in a long while. One night I wake up to find the author of The Great American Novel missing from our bed. As I walk down the long hallways of his parents home, I find him in a study, furiously writing into a notebook. There are piles of notebooks stacked around him, I can tell he has been writing for a long time.
Usually he always took something I suggested as a title and wrote a story to fit, but this was different. When I confront him the next morning about it, he acts defensive. I decide not to push.
A year goes by. His parents are getting older, his mom is doing less around the house and I pick up the slack. His father offers to hire some help, but I refuse and roll my sleeves up. The author of The Great American Novel spends his days with his father, carving wood and catching fish in the pond behind the house, as they did when he was a child. He spends his nights writing and writing.
One day, a delivery man drops off a package. Without thinking, I open it and find a proof of The Great American Novel. As I thumb through it, I immediately know why he was so protective while writing this one: it is about me.
I take The Great American Novel into the attic of his parents house and read it cover-to-cover. Initially I find myself angry that he would use me in his book. Not just using me for a stand-in, but mining all the things I ever told him about myself. The embarrassing stories from childhood I never told anyone else, replicated on the page. And as I progress through the novel, I find that he has written my inner monologue perfectly, in most cases for times when I never expressed how I was feeling to him at all. In many places he says things better than I could have said them to myself, nevermind that I never said them aloud to him.
When I finish it, I find him at the dinner table with his parents. Putting the book down on the table, I ask them to leave us. I am sitting across from the author of The Great American Novel as he has a worried look on his face.
"Walter," I say.
"So you found out. Shit," he says as he tries to avoid eye contact.
"I did," I say.
"Well look, you understand why I could not tell you…" he says before I stand up and wrap my arms around his head. I hold him close to me until he stops talking.
"I just have one question," I say, looking him in the eyes. "Why is it called 'Untitled'? You always said I was good at naming things."
Without missing a beat, he says "I took everything you have ever given me and put it into that book. The last thing I wanted to do was ask you to do one more thing for me."
In fifty years we will both be dead, me from pancreatic cancer and him not long after when his heart gives out. When word spreads of his death, a literature professor at Columbia University will re-examine "Untitled" and declare it a masterpiece.
Soon after, it will be heralded as a modern update to the classic literary canon; a contemporary look at life in the mid-21st century. It will be celebrated for being both of its time and far ahead, while keeping an eye on the past. Movie adaptations will be made, stage productions will be held, soon every high school student in America will read it. But no one ever knew why it was called "Untitled". The title made no sense in the context of the story; and time quickly forgot us, leaving only the book and its mysterious title.
For as long as I have known him, I was worried that I could never give the author of The Great American Novel what he needed. I could never give him the success he deserved, or the child he wanted. At least that is what I thought. I know now that I was wrong. And really, we both knew it all along, and that is why he named The Great American Novel "Untitled" for me. So it could remain our secret forever.