The Thin Line Between Us

One midday not long ago the phone rang while I, a working writer, was standing in the kitchen of my Greenwich Village apartment in the glamorous writerly act of opening a can of tuna fish.

“Michele Herman,” said a friendly female voice.  “This is Michelle Herman.  I thought it was time we talked.”

Hear the extra ‘l’ in Michelle?  I did, loud and clear.  Feel the heartland breeze blowing in from Ohio where, I happened to know, Michelle-with-two-l’s lives?  It sent both a thrill and a shiver through me.

I’ve known about Michelle Herman longer than she’s known about me.  That’s because right around the time I was turning 30, she did something terrible, something that sent me into a long funk: had a story published in an anthology called 20 Under 30.  They were all in there, all the promising young voices of the 1980’s  – Mona Simpson, Lorrie Moore, Susan Minot.  And there was she, or should I say elle, exactly where I longed to be.

The book got a lot of attention, her story got singled out as one of the finest, and I had to take the calls.  Thanks, I told neighbors, friends, relatives, the one-upping girl from my eighth-grade class.  But no, I spell Michele with one ‘l.’ Yes, I know.  It’s weird.  Her story does sound just like something I might have written.  Who could blame them for the confusion?  I can never keep Kate Winslet straight from Cate Blanchett (or is it Cate Winslet and Kate Blanchett) and I’m a writer – I live for detail.

Michelle and I hit it off.  Talking to her felt as comfortable as talking to myself.  I already knew our basic similarities: we both write fiction and nonfiction and we both teach writing.  She has a university job, at Ohio State, which I don’t, but I live in the Village, where she used to live and wishes she still did, so I figured we were even there.  Soon we fell into a game I remembered from elementary school, when it was important to be as much like one’s girlfriends as possible.  So you’re short too!  And have dark brown hair!  And your daughter is nearly the same age as my son!  We might have been long-lost cousins, if not for the fact that I come from a short line of Hermans (and a line of short Hermans) that began with my grandfather Herman Gostinski, who, for obvious reasons, reinvented himself as Henry Herman.  When I go, the Herman goes with me, which is one reason I didn’t take my husband’s name.

My little pile of chopped celery turned brown around the edges.  To tell the truth, I was flattered that she had sought me out.  If the other me was calling me, I reasoned, I must be somebody to be reckoned with.  It was just the kind of thing I might have done if I had thought of it first.

Then she delivered her latest writing bombshell: she had two books coming out at once.  One was a memoir about motherhood and the other a novel about a dog called Phil, named in honor of the protagonist’s favorite literary Phils, like Roth and Levine.  Dogs and motherhood: need I even mention that they were the subjects of my two most recent personal essays?  When we said goodbye, she was gracious and wished me well in my long attempts to make my material cohere into a book of my own.

I’ve since read the novel, which I found charming, and the memoir, which I think is honest and brave.  I also learned from it that her grandfather lived a few blocks from mine in Brooklyn.  She had a livewire father and an undemonstrative mother for whom she overcompensated.  Ditto, ditto.  Her husband’s name is the same as a major character in the novel I’m working on.

The day after our conversation, Michelle e-mailed me, a little spooked.  The day after that she e-mailed again, telling me she had read one of my dog essays online and thought it was very, very good.  In a gentle way she admitted to wishing I would start using my middle name or initial.  Being a nice guy, the kind that finishes last, I reassured her.  “Don’t worry,” I wrote.  “I always figured a time would come when I’d have to.”

The trouble is, my middle name is Henrietta.  What choice did my parents have, what with my paternal grandfather Henry and my maternal grandmother Henrietta?  It took me years to embrace my inner Henrietta, but I haven’t yet evolved quite far enough to flaunt her.  As for ‘H,’ it’s my least favorite letter.  If you didn’t know how to spell H, you’d write “ache” or “ach.”  To pronounce it you have to expel breath as if you’re about to clean your eyeglasses, or put your voice in it and say “huh.”

Until her twin book release, I could Google my name and easily find evidence of myself and my own writing career (along with Michele Herman the director of intellectual property for Microsoft and Michele Herman the mental health professional).  But lately Google has grown lax in its spelling and shoved me out of the way to make room for interviews with her and positive reviews of her books.

I can’t change my name at this stage in my career, the Gostinski precedent notwithstanding.  I could hyphenate, although my husband also happens to bear a heavy Germanic name that sinks like a torpedo when combined with Herman.  I could give the Henrietta a French pronunciation, Ohn-ri-ette, which would match the Michele and might make it seem less like the name of a chicken, but that would sit about as comfortably on me as a bustier.  I guess what I’ll do is finish my tuna sandwich and get back to my own book.  At least that’s what my favorite writing teacher, Phil, would advise.

— Michele Herman