When I first met David Sedaris at one of his book tour readings, I had a plan. While most of the well-heeled attendees prepped for the event by sipping wine and exchanging mock pleasantries, I joined a group of fans in front of a small folding table where David was graciously signing books and offering genuine smiles of appreciation. Tactically waiting until the house lights flickered, I was the last to approach and handed him a manila envelope with a bright blue pack of Kool Milds — his preferred cigarette — taped to the front and one of my better short stories inside.
I hastily explained I was a writer seeking to add the word “published” to my somewhat fraudulent title. In return for the pack, I asked that he grant my story one cigarette’s worth of time reading it and respond with anything he considered warranted. While delivering my plea, I noticed his gaze never wandered from the cellophane-wrapped box. David would occasionally nod in apparent agreement to my ongoing proposal, but I wasn’t sure he was actually listening. Eventually overcoming his menthol-laden kryptonite, he slowly and silently looked me over and slid the envelope into his worn leather bag.
As I walked away, I imagined him reclined on the sofa of a posh hotel room, later that evening, entering our exchange in his renowned diary.
A man in a black suede jacket approached me with a box of cigarettes affixed to a manila envelope. Normally, manila envelopes signal the arrival of some wannabe writer’s crappy story, and normally, I’d politely accept it, perhaps read it, perhaps not, and that would be that. But the cigarettes were a new twist, and as much as I tried, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The man was speaking, and I wanted to look at him, listen and smile, but all I could think about was ripping the box open and lighting up for a long, satisfying drag. I had been signing books for nearly 45 minutes and was starting to sweat and fidget under the weight of too much oxygen. Finally breaking the trance, I thanked him, dropped the packet in my bag, and slipped into the back alley to smoke quickly and secretly like some teenager at a distant cousin’s first communion. Refreshingly light-headed, I approached the podium and began to read.
About a week later, I received the return envelope I had included, and in it was my story and a signed letter from David. After stating that he rarely replies to such queries, he offered some praise for my writing skills and a few constructive criticisms for improving the story’s length and structure. Though pleased with myself for garnering a personal response from the world’s preeminent humor author, I more or less ignored his suggestions, other than shortening the story by 1,000 words rather than the 3,000 it truly required.
This was not due to pride but rather to envy because I not-so-secretly wanted to be David Sedaris. I considered my short story something he himself might have written, and consequently, I decided he was criticizing my hilariously witty story in a diabolical attempt to make it less like his own. He was defensive because he realized he had been parading as the great humorist I truly was, all fraudulence now transferred to him. Yes, he had stolen my spotlight and understood that, long ago, had I been a SantaLand elf, all that was now his would instead be mine. In my delightful daydream, I was the famously wealthy author who lived in France, traveled the world in support of yet another best-seller, and inevitably, met struggling writers sheepishly proffering manila envelopes.
Fast forward seven years, when I again met David at another reading event in Santa Cruz, CA. After some initial chit-chat, I handed him a manila envelope with a cutout from a Kool Milds advertisement pasted to the front (David is finished with smoking). With little expectation, I asked if it brought anything to mind from past book-signing experiences, but he only said he recognized the brand. I recounted our first meeting — the captivating blue box, my petition for one smoke, his encouraging letter — and I thanked him for his previous kindness. As I spoke, he looked a bit perplexed, as if trying to solve a riddle while the clues were still being given. For a moment, he stared at the virtual pack of cigarettes, much as he did the real one before, causing me to question if his habit was truly kicked. Then, with an amiable smile and sufficient eye contact, he accepted my envelope and renewed request by slipping them both into a worn canvas bag of French origin.
And now, as before, I wait and wonder what will come of that meeting, like installments in the Linklater trilogy Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight, our version on seven- rather than nine-year increments. Our first interaction showed promise and led to an unexpected yet enjoyable reunion, but will that second encounter remain a cordial conversation at a book store or will it lead to something bigger and more exciting?
Then, in true Sedaris form, I pondered which of us would be played by Julie Delpy in the film version of our story, deciding in the end that it must be David, not because he is any less masculine, but because he has lived in France, and that makes all the difference.
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