I sent the email late one afternoon while working at my family’s antique store. An hour later, a response arrived in my inbox:
You just have to ask for help and give people a way out.
I staggered. My diary, depository of my deepest shames, had answered me. The track lighting hanging in the gallery of the store was blinding. I answered automatically, without thinking.
I’ll try that, thank you very much for your advice!
Only then did a wave of thoughts, doubts and fears crash into my brain. Had Jeb read my other emails? Romantic confessions? Had I sent her a description of that weird Technicolor sex dream I’d had?
I was also thinking about what he had written. The tips were really helpful. And that clarified, in my mind, why I had written to him in the first place. Jeb Bush had an easier way out than anyone I could have contacted. Friends feel obligated; therapists are paid; priests have a divine vocation. Jeb Bush doesn’t need to answer my emails.
But now he had. Oh, my God, I thought. I will never write to Jeb again.
Recently, I started writing a new novel. I didn’t experience a great epiphany – just a flicker of the same spark that I remembered years ago, the fun of making art. I started getting up early to write. And, for the first time, I felt able to admit to people that a few years ago, on my first attempt, I had written a novel that no one wanted. I started writing an essay about it, this one.
As the draft took shape, I realized I had to figure out if I had actually corresponded with Jeb Bush all this time. I wrote to the usual email address and this time asked for an interview. He replied the next day.
I don’t know how I can help you with your essay since I didn’t do anything!!! Happy to talk or email, but not sure what value I can add.
I told him that I would still like to talk and that we could do it on Zoom. He was more flexible and accommodating than my immediate family members: less than a week later, just over six years after sitting in a Vermont laundromat with an egg on my sneakers, I slipped into a tasteful sweater and sat down at my kitchen table. My laptop screen flickered, and there he was, calling from “Jeb’s iPad (2)”. The iPad’s camera was low angled and there was a map of the world behind it on the wall. Her curtains were mostly closed against the sun. He wore a black polo shirt. “Hello,” he said.
I did my best to tell my side of the story. Jeb explained that he started giving out his email address in 1999 – in fact, he wrote a book collecting the emails he received as governor of Florida. He self-published it, an approach I had never considered for my own work. When he shared the email address during the presidential campaign, he continued, something changed in the messages he received. “I remember a lot of stupid people – or people with stupid thoughts, let’s put it that way, trying to be cool with their friends, probably.” He seemed to have become a minor cult figure among internet nerds. “For a while there were a lot of kids with Cheeto stains on their T-shirts, basically.”
I glanced down at my sweater with momentary concern. He noticed it and we both laughed. “I don’t get as many now,” he said, with what struck me as a hint of melancholy. I asked, a little shyly, if he remembered responding to my email asking for help.
“No, I don’t remember saying it, but it’s really good advice,” he said. He had no memory of me, it turned out. I told him that his email had been helpful. I also told him that I generally found it easier to contact him when I was in crisis, rather than talking to my friends.
“I’m not sure that’s particularly helpful,” he replied firmly. “I think you should ask your best friends for advice.”
“Is there anyone you ask for advice?” I asked.
“I go to my wife, of course. And I go to my older brother for certain things – my much older brother, George W.” He thinks about it a little more. “I usually find out things on my own,” he said. not. It’s a bit weird. I didn’t think of that. He looked away. “I’ll have to start thinking about it now.”
I tried to describe how, while my novel didn’t sell, my public self became separated from my private identity. He said he didn’t have that experience, that his private and public selves remained unified when he ran for office. He added that this “could explain why I was not a good candidate”.
Then he flipped the interview and asked me a question. “So you tried,” he said. “If you hadn’t tried, how would you feel?”
“Worse,” I said, instantly.
“Yeah – or maybe not,” he replied, surprising me. “You tried, and a lot of people don’t, and you should feel good about it. And look, man, life goes on. It’s a journey, man. It didn’t happen,” he said, apparently reverting to his election failure without my being prompted. “What am I supposed to do? Go into the fetal position and suck my thumb and hold my little blanket and say, “Woe to me!
I retrieved the first email I wrote to him, from the laundromat, and read it aloud. I asked him what he would have written to me if he had noticed.
“I’m glad I didn’t say that at the time,” he said, “because you seem to be in a deeply pessimistic state. I would have said, “Put on your big boy pants, dust them off and get back to the game, man.” ”
“It’s good you didn’t say that,” I agreed. Far more useful to my life, it turned out, was Jeb’s silence. This left room for me to gradually overcome my failure.
Our chat on Zoom ended pleasantly. The next day, a package arrived at my apartment in a Priority Mail envelope, with a Florida return address. Inside was Jeb’s self-published email book. He was out, I saw him, in October 2015, shortly before I wrote to him the first time. It’s a strange, dryly recursive book, with an introduction by Jeb’s wife, Columba.
There was also a note:
Nice to talk to you today. Here is the answer to everything I mentioned during our conversation.
I never answered. ♦