When I come across a writer I like, I like to connect, though I know not to expect too much. I can’t waste calories worrying what social media executive is marrying a pediatrician, what writer is hooking up with which musicians, the ones with the photogs who used to fuck PR execs or ones who marry former copytrixes and assistants-slash-designers who don’t threaten their sense of—today I could walk outside in perfect sixty-five degree clear-ass weather and end up getting asthma that whistles me to my grave. Can’t overinvest. And yet somehow, through seven yrs of research including in-person interviews with his friends and colleagues, writings and hundreds of online archives—I chose not to footnote for fear of scarin’ y’all—Richard Heiner and I became… entwined.
About six months after matriculating to public health school, I met the novelist Richard Heiner at a Cambridge, MA bar called Backer. To my best knowledge, Heiner doesn’t remember that meeting, which took place in earlyish November 2008, though several other people who were there found record in their drafts box after the fact. His buddy, a left-wing writer from the North Shore of Chicago, had invited me, a left-wing student from Evanston who reads. It was in sort of that in-between time between Halloween and Christmas, fall crisp, except crisper by this point reminds me of gene splicing not produce and a girl there that night had some thing about plant-driven diets (also, spring). And I had recently become more attentive to inaccuracies in cultural representations of nutrition. Anyway, New York is superweird that time of year.
I remember thinking he looked like Stanley Kubrick a bit, acted like he wanted to look like it. We barely talked. There were no pics. When I re-activated, it turned out there was a pic. A member of our extended circle took a Polaroid of us together in a sort of “see no evil” set-up and handscanned it in, a photo I later screenshot and saved to my harddrive so as not to be caught downloading, which I couldn’t even do anyway from a second-degree friend’s account. We’re private people.
So I forgot the pic, and Heiner entirely, until winter 2010, when I came across his short story “Good Grief Sherif” in a big-ish mag (some hip-hop imprint Ihavenoidea). I can’t memorize anything to save my life, but I committed much of “Sherif” to memory on the spot, probably because anytime I read it I heard Joe Strummer wail “He fundamentally can’t take it!” “Sherif” reminded me of a Kubrick film, in that I had never seen one in full but could visualize Rick quoting it to me while I was doing something else. I bought the story and tore it out. I recommended “Good Grief Sherif” to everyone I knew, none of whom knew him that I knew of. One did, which somehow never came up. Stuff was less searchable then.
In spring 2012, Heiner and I met-met at a party for my college classmate Declan Heaney-O’Connor (hereafter, “DOH”), whose first documentary film describes the activities of whoknows. I’d had little interest in fiction in college, despite having then been Declan’s friend friend. Back in school Deck and me had always had a fruitful exchange of ideas, waved en route to postwar 1945-prez., nothing that ever amounted to anything too frequent or cray in terms of later one-on-one hangs, but enough so that whenever we ran into one another at mutual friends’ parties we never lacked for things to talk about. We share a dataset, an understanding of the residential planning that dictated the organization of our Mid-Atlantic scholastic awards and youth sports. Via an acquaintance online said we shared, and I messaged, I found out Deck had grown up like three towns over from my first cousins to whom my parents wanted me to be close but their parents didn’t. At some point Deck and I met for a fun few hours to discuss him potentially going into urban teaching. So I was very interested in Declan then, “as a friend,” and it never went any further, not that I would have been averse.
Deck used to call his blog Department of Health, which was not a blog per se. He never called it a blog. I called our other friend HOD, and this other guy who didn’t know HOD or DOH OHHDAMN, and Declan Declan. Never Deck. I’d arrived to this event late in a white coat and my second pair of scrubs from the machine, all worried I’d gone to the wrong part of the bar, even though there is no other place to go in that place, which dead-ends. So I hear kids, right, kids, and then I hear not Deck, but Rick’s voice, reading a story. Rh Factor (Richard Heiner) was introducing DOH.
Throughout his interminable opening, Rick kept apologizing. He was reading for the first time from drafts of what became The Rh Factor, a story about a medical administrator/grant writer named Rhys who gets hit by a bus and, in hypovolemic shock, hallucinates a series of increasingly elaborate apologies to an ex he accidentally impregnated, who is also dying of a placental abruption in the same trauma bay. There was a dumb joke about RhoGAM, like look at the gams on that as she bleeds out. I remember thinking as he kept on that he was quite the nutter, and most of the others in the room agreed. Then I remembered Rick from the bar. Vaguely. Felt his presence very acutely. Glasses, mostly. The kind you couldn’t possibly see anything sensible out of, little square-type things (whatever is the opposite of roundie or pince-nez). The one time I’ve seen Rick without glasses, I didn’t have my contacts on. I couldn’t tell you what he looked like. I felt as if his eyes were boring into mine, looking like mine for an exit, the one in which I was standing.
Your writing’s terrific, I told Rick on the way out (paraphrase). He demurred, which I took as a sign he agreed. I left Rick Rick to DOH (I hesitate to say “friend”) and E-mailed him (Heiner, hereafter “RICK”) an hour later to reiterate what I could not bring myself to say IRL, which was what I liked about his story. Through Deck, I knew we shared a coupla biographical deets and characterological deficits, which I saw as future complementary strengths. Improbably, Rick remembered our meeting, and that we’d been in the same graduating class. Probably he pretended to have barely remembered me and saved the draft. As I TextEdit this TextEdit, I’m reminded of bloggers who publish moving obituaries to famous figures. I never want to be that person, but I was here. Which makes me that person!
Us ‘n me: It’s a headscratcher…
(draft to [email protected] from [REDACTED], 22:56 CST/23:56 EST, deleted from drafts/unsents)
Over the next 24 hours, Rick and I E-mailed back-and-forth. We arranged to meet. I was trying hard to make no statement. On the commute I went into this total tailspin about how I should play it if I was running late, like should I give the bartender my fone to charge, see how much of a magazine I could get thru by candlelight, that night a downtown music mag with a brief blurb on Rick with a scarf thrown over his face like he was trying to prevent himself from windburn or recognition, not that they’re different, but. In the pic, he was like 6’5” and blond, sorta Aryan looking, which struck me as really subversive until I realized nothing was subversive anymore, nothing like Kubrick, who would’ve taken a better photo, none of himself.
And dammit, Rick beat me. He was at a front table reading a chunky novel from a bodega trashbag. There was a forty in there, a pack of ~40 cigs, also, Iforgetwhichbrand. To pretend I remember which ones would come off as editorializing. Work escapism, 10:30 at night, on a Tuesday! Might Rick want me to be that potential, even potentially?
Through a series of convos and a pre-date look via the Wayback Machine at his old Friendster profile—Deck and I were, I’d forgotten, friends–it became evident that Rick and I, via Deck, were both into the NFC East, print periodicals, this new emerging trend of megacelebs claiming them acting like assholes was just performance art about them being assholes, the NBA, plant-based diets but, like, the economic hypocrisy of those diets, and psychosexual guilt-driven narratives more generally, and, jumping off of that, these couple of noirish popular for New York B-list writers from the Sixties with strong sadomasochistic narrative content. It was enough to sustain my fantasy that we would one day, one day not just, like, hook up, but I was reading this website one time, years ago, that crossed out the vowels in “soul mates” like it was a dirty word.
Like most things in our relaish (RH—sp.? w.c.?), the subject of doctors and writers soon came up organically—apparently his former roommate was an OB-GYN.
“I bleed on the page,” he said.
“You bleed need.” I sipped what had been topped off. “I’m sorry. I’m nervous. I talk too much when I’m nervous.”
“Don’t be nervous. I’m having a good time.”
There were family connections to Chicago/Detroit—you know where I’m going with this. Had we not later kissed, we’d have at least swapped single nucleotide polymorphisms equivalent to a buccal swab. He opened the door for me, not professionally, this not being what that/us were “about.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said. He smiled. Smiling was big of him. To get him to smile was just the best—he stopped talking.
“Well, I’m spent,” I said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Going to bed?”
“The medical center’s, for now.”
“I don’t want you to do anything you’d regret.”
“So what do you want to do tonight?” he txted another night.
“Do you have clinic tomorrow? Would you like to mink in person?”
As my reply (“*mink”) I fell asleep with two “THINK” lamps sandwiching me. Does he believe anything in or out of the mouths of doctors?
I did not reply. Another night evolved.
“I’m not Jewish,” I said. “I hope that’s okay.” That came out wrong. Rick wasn’t Jewish, nor did I have any reason to think he might ever have been, save the Kubrick of it all. I segued into this story about how, earlier that day, I’d cut open the uterus of the man who wrote that massively popular (I was trying to deidentify). Friable polyp, fibroids and shit—heavy. HIPAA violation. Endometrial Ca subcat with a fair prognosis. He told me about a zippy Prado privy fuck from his past (“I don’t know if you wanna follow me in here, unless you wanna follow me in here”), how his brother called it Los infantes terribles del bano, and, who knows, what if it had gone that route with him and me, right? We had an opening. He shared positive feedback. What was it he said when he was trying to tease me after?
“Beware of inpatients,” he said. “They always want to get inner.”
“Do you want to get inner?” He never said. So many words were had: to interviewers, he hated authority, said what I was already thinking, said what I was thinking claiming he thought it—so much not to like. Humiliating, to share stories with a man who has so many innards he writes hours a day to run them out and won’t talk up a one. What do I do as a woman, weigh him down? In subsequent interaction(s), I apologized, apologized for apologizing, all but stopped talking. If only I’d stopped talking!
The word “friendship” became so inapt (in-app—sp?) for what the interaction (“inept”?—Ed.) became. I put myself in front of Rick repeatedly, and he never said no, and yet I never saw. Like, one time I saw Rick do a talk down the street from my place (1.1 mi, 11 mins vs. 0.9 mi 9 mins, T 17 mins every 10 mins). The town was Boston, a town for people of the book, like real books books, Harvard, Harvard the Harvard that still believes in the square (26.2 mi?), the book and the mom and pop popup, The Rh Factor next to massively popular person’s book in an overstock section. Rick gave some talk that bored my guests who majored and hono(u)red in English, had read literature at Oxbridge. Writer people I knew and hated from way back, ‘cept Rick, who I still wasn’t sure if I liked. We went out for drinks and smokes en masse (4 +/- 2-5 squad, 95% C.I.). It had snowed. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. Rick was wearing a peacoat and skullcap. He smokes and drinks.
“You look like a sailor,” I said, extraneously.
“Where’s my boat?” A cigarette or a cocktail straw was dangling out of the side of his mug. Was it not a hotel pen? We were in a hotel lobby.
“WHERE’S MY BOAT?!”
It really made me smile—the best! I prefer “Where’s my boat?” to ~95% of the published oeuvre, negative to positive infinity confidence index. Had it been a man and a woman alone in Hush bar, she’d’ve kissed him mid-syllable smack on the schnoz. I loosed cackles reserved for close relations or Simpsons reruns. Anyway, gravy. (Was the coat gray or navy?) Was it because I was not foine, that I started clanging, and clung to porny wordsalad? I was… not fine.
Here is what Richard Heiner writes in The Rh Factor about disease, quoting Kubrick—no, Costello—without attribution:
Changing words while the ink is still tacky
He’s absolutely indispensable
He keeps the other boys in suspense
Oh, he’s Doctor Luther’s assistant
He’ll close in when he seems so distant
Rick and I hadn’t talked for a while—I hadn’t typed at Rick and hoped he’d type back, talked to his friends about him hoping they’d talk about me with him behind my back, hadn’t received a brief and polite thanksbutnothanks, not a polite but brusque if vague thatsjusthowrickis—having achieved a silent détente, inasmuch as we were still cordial online and enthusiastic about each other’s shares. Soon enough, one of those shares was The Rh Factor (disambiguation), followed by the ebook annotation at location xxx. I made a point never to ask Rick about said book when we were hanging, not because I wanted to read, really.
The day Rick was released—changed essensch deets—it was 3:30 a.m. with the light maybe coming up, which you couldn’t see from where I was. I was minding mines, mulling over a problem-based learning exercise when I randomly got a txt from Ella, 15, a magnet hs sophomore whose AP bio GIFs I came to know while searching for how I feel when you say non-ABO antigen—
“zomg. check tny.”
“!!!” I at-ted, unaware of the item, nor the publication in which the article (piece?) appeared. Ella admins the sourceblog, which had a newsle (“whose second book…”—clickthru for 134 news sources) saying total bellwether in the canon… is it avatar, the correct word? So it had been a while since I’d seen Rick in the flesh, yes, but it hadn’t been, like, an obscene amount of time where it would be almost, like, legitimately odd to give him a congrats.
Rick’s book party was in the lobby of a local teaching hospital, for attention. Open invite—soft open, you had to know to be there. Spread was dece. They had cupcakes and melon hors d’oeuvres or like canapés, crudités. Rick might have written about them, had he not moved onto nebulous spiritual themes. There was a ginormz publicity poster that really confused me which was supposed to be, like, a pathology report:
Say the novelist Richard Heiner swallowed his pencil and was accessioned into our records system as RH-15-6980: Specimen label agrees with container. Received fresh labeled with the patient’s identification (initials RH) and designated “pencil” is one intact tan-yellow cylindrical rod measuring x cm in length by y cm in average diameter. There is a label on the surface “#2.” Placed in foreign body box #19 (2015). Gross examination only.
Diagnosis: Generational talent consistent with pencil.
On this occasion, Rick emerged from an antechamber wearing I don’t even know kewt what the ever loving fuck. Not that important. I came in scrubs, carrying Rick as my Internet window. In order to keep it up top I had to rub my phone awake, like making out with my pillow.
“I was hoping you’d dedicate my book to Richard Heiner,” I said.
“Are you serious?” The eye contact avoidance, through the glasses!
He cast down his eyes so the lower half of his face opened (thatsjusthowrickis!). Would he sign the article I was reading for work about Rh incompatibility transfusion protocols, I asked. He laughed the big big, like I’d landed on a passage about an unusually persistent narrator who is named, who… oh, I just flipped to the frontispiece:
—Richard Heiner, The Rh Factor (pub. 2015, 1st ed., p. xiv, limited ed. 6 of 10,000)
Was I welcome? I bought the damn book, Rick!
If only I’d brought the boat.
Maureen Miller (doctorwritermaureenmiller.tumblr.com) is a pathology resident in New York.