The Birth of Esther P. Higgenbottom (or What is Real?)

By Suzanne Scanlon

Scene One

Esther rode the elevator from the lobby up to the fifth floor, feeling the light tug of inexplicable loss. The day was blue and bright, her mood level — and yet the moment she saw the light signaling arrival on the fifth floor, she could feel a small part of her die.

Until her 29th birthday, she had lived with a debilitating fear of sunlight. Dr. Marya Wiggins, her analyst, whom Esther had been seeing since her 19th birthday, explained that it had to do with her mother’s early death, the warmth of the shining sun reminding her of a life she refused; a life of which she felt unworthy. This prosaic explanation for her paralysis did little to relieve the sense of terror that would envelop her as she’d walk outside, or sit near a window, or, some mornings, simply open her eyes to the promise of a new day.

Though she’d long outgrown that particular oppression, on this morning she had just finished a long writing project, the completion of which left her feeling, as endings often do, weighted down by emptiness.

The walls and carpet appeared aggressively in neon orange. She walked through a hallway filled with Eames chairs, a design innovation implemented along with the paper’s rebranding in the early aughts, until she came to her shared, windowless office.

Shared is perhaps an elevation of the situation here. The writers in the room came and went irregularly; Esther didn’t know the names of the others. They didn’t know her name.

Occasionally, one or another offered a smile or small talk surrounding work, life, job insecurity; but mostly they all pretended the others did not exist. Each sat at a desk, stared into a screen, with his or her back to the many others at a desk, staring into a screen. Sometimes Esther walked out of the room into a hall. From the fifth floor she could see falling objects, plastic bags floating as in dance, carried by wind.

Only later would she attribute the creep of vague horror to vestiges of memory linked to fifth floors, to the opening and shutting of elevators, to Charles Demuth’s The Figure 5 in Gold. Only later did Esther realize that working on that fifth floor was linked in her subconscious to a certain painting, a poster reprint of which hung over the molded Eames chairs, which the office’s location required she pass each morning.

On this particular morning, as she logged onto the server’s hard drive, Esther inadvertently came upon the first line of a post she had written for her column at Alt­X:

Someone began a flirtation with me last fall for reasons that I realized at the time were purely professional but I was vulnerable.

Esther deleted the line before posting, or thought she had, though the draft remained on the server’s hard drive; this moment of self censorship, she explained later to Marya, echoed her inability to write My Fucked Up Twenties, the memoir she’d begun writing when she knew Harold, but still hadn’t completed; the book she began not-writing in the nineties.

It was an error. I took two tests. My doctor told me that the feeling — that I did not want to be pregnant — was not a real feeling; it was the Voice of Depression talking, she said.

What is real? I wished to ask the doctor. How does one know what is real?

What she discovered: it is easy to write confessional prose on an internet blog. She had no idea. Or, at least, it is easy when you have been given a pseudonym. Before this, Esther had been employed part time at the paper (this when it still existed in print) as Lifestyle Editor, which meant she spent lots of time posting pictures of celebrities and writing various gossip below, most having to do with who did or did not get plastic surgery. She was paid 17K a year before taxes for this, until she was laid off — not enough to live on, so she kept her gig with Hands On Stanzas, teaching poetry to fourth graders at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows, a job she’d held since college. This year — Esther told herself every year — will be my last.

It turned out that every actress she admired as a girl had been ruined not by age, but by surgery — Esther nearly cried when she had to post pictures of Meg Ryan (whom she’d adored in When Harry Met Sally) or Melanie Griffith (Working Girl). It sickened her that she’d used her degree in Women’s Studies to participate in a system that blamed these women, whom Esther viewed as victims, for their own vanity and complicity, albeit pathetic. On the same day that Cameron Diaz, turning forty, noted morbidly that, as she put it, “the only alternative” to getting older was “death,” Esther’s editor sent a report lifted from a competitor gossip blog — of a comment Sharon Stone had made about Meryl Streep (who had seemingly foregone all surgical intervention) — that she (Streep), in this “aesthetic” choice, looked like “an unmade bed” — a quote Esther posted, but only after affirming in editorial notes (below Streep’s picture) all the ways she admired and still wished very much to sleep in Streep’s bed, unmade or not; her boss found her crying later, her head a lump in an elbow, a loose ponytail falling over and down onto the keyboard; he asked if Esther might like to be involved with a new “experimental” column, as he described it.

The column was to be on the newish blog (which was where the paper was headed, toward online-only content, he explained) and written by a young woman; she was no longer exactly young, but her alter ego would be; she suggested the name Esther Higgenbottom as alias, and the blog’s title My Fucked Up Twenties, which was the name of her unpublished memoir.

Unwritten, it is perhaps more accurately described, but more on that later.

Though she believed that many readers knew she was the author of MFUT (as it came to be known), few said anything about it and so the construct made it impossible for, say, her mother-in-law to make the link.

Suzanne Scanlon is the author of Promising Young Women (2012) and Her Thirty Seventh Year, An Index (2015). She lives in Chicago.