The Elm

by Chris Campanioni

This is a story that doesn’t end well. It doesn’t begin well either.

I received the first suicide letter in 2014. Maybe it was a year earlier. Maybe it was 2015.

You hardly know me, the notes often began, but I feel as if I know you so well, better than anyone.

I don’t know why they’d chosen me. Maybe—like they wrote—they felt they really knew me. Better than anyone. Maybe they felt I really knew them too.

I had been going around the country telling people things, mostly getting paid for it and writing books, too. Writing books, signing books. I wasn’t telling people how to live, I was only telling people how I live. I got pretty good with my penmanship. Pretty good with a pithy note that meant so much more (how much?). Pretty good with a signature reduced to a swath of repeating letters. Pretty good. One picks these things up. One picks up on things too.

I was 29, living in a spare studio and almost always broke, spent, simultaneously broke and spent, more prone to suicide—or at least writing a suicide letter—than anyone I ever met on my travels. Anyone I ever heard from in the letters I began to receive, sometime after 2013. In those days, everyone I knew either lived off their parents or with them, or both, so I figured I had achieved something, whatever that was. Living in a spare studio on the edge of Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street.

It wasn’t a bad existence. It wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be. I was writing every morning. Every morning, every evening. Nothing to do but to do it, and the rest of my life to do it…

This is what I do in the dark, I told a packed amphitheater once, standing at a lectern with my book in one hand and with the other, making emotive gestures which mimicked, I think, the dialogue in the passage. I hardly ever use microphones, something about the way the transducer alters my voice; something about the way the machine changes me.

But the truth is I do it in the light, usually the morning sun but also the light produced by the three strobes above my desk in the spare studio. Suffering but also smiling, on the inside, at least, smiling and singing to show you something you already know, something that has been there all along.

The goal of the novelist is to tell you about yourself.

And then, of course, to tell you who they are. That’s where I come in. That’s where I let you in on a little secret: you learn more about the novelist by reading their fiction than by actually meeting them. It’s a kind of confession. Every time I write anything. I can never get away from myself. I can never get away from confessing my experience.

You hardly know me, the letters often began. No name, no return address. You hardly know me.

I often looked into people’s faces, not just at them. Zigzagging across Sixth Avenue or riding the 4 train, hands clasping the cool steel. You could be anyone, I would think. You could be right across from me, looking into my face, too. And if I could find you, I could maybe even save you. I could maybe even save you from a self-imposed destruction.

But the only eyes that ever looked back into my own were my own; my own half-held reflection in the darkened window as we hurtled on.

You could be anywhere, I’d think. Anywhere, anywhere.


When I landed in Dallas, a round little man greeted me. He had a thick mustache and thinning hair and he was standing at the bottom of the escalator, close enough to touch each arriving passenger. He was wearing a cowboy hat and big-rimmed eyeglasses, which he lowered when he saw me; when he saw me raising my index finger in recognition.

“I’m Donnie,” he said, folding up the sign with my name penciled across the center. The i’s, I noticed, were missing their dots. “Campus Event Coordinator,” he added, shaking my hand with gusto. “Pleased to mate you.”

“First time in Texas?”

I shook my head.

But every time is always the first time, I thought, when you think about it. When you think about it, experience is only a series of first times which start to look similar, more or less, the more you think about it.

“Wail,” he said, in his exaggerated twang, “betcha never been to Warrentown.” When I looked back at him he was smiling, almost uncontrollably. Like he was trying to stifle his excitement, which made me smile too. It almost made me forget about the letters, the most recent of which had arrived in my mailbox the day before I left.

“We got a lotta great things in this hare little town,” he added, rubbing his nose with his knuckle as he turned the keys in the ignition and popped open the trunk. Maybe he wasn’t exaggerating after all. “We got the most beautiful elms in the whole state.”

All his sweat ended up on his nose. That’s what I remember most. That’s the thing I think about when I see his face, when I see his sweaty nose.

“Just you wait,” he continued, lifting his cowboy hat and lowering his eyeglasses and looking right at me as we drove off, cars zipping past us and around us and behind us into the afternoon sun.

So I waited.


“This is nice,” I said, walking from the campus quad onto Main Street. “In New York City, you see so many people, whom you don’t know at all. Here, you see such few people, but you really see them.”

Donnie nodded his head, wiping his nose with his knuckle, pointing out more things; people and things. I wondered if he’d heard me, or if he was only nodding his head, genuflecting beneath the soaring, majestic elms, which blanketed half the street in shade.

We passed a 7-Eleven and a Dunkin’ Donuts and a CVS, and another church. AUTUMN LEAVES, JESUS DOESN’T was written on a board outside its entrance and I thought about writing that down.

The reading at Warrentown College had gone well. As well as could be expected. I even had the opportunity to talk to students afterward, which is when the real conversation, the real contact, takes place. Alone, unseen, unrecorded. Off the record.

Almost everything about me goes unspoken, except that people are always speaking for me. Introducing me. Saying things like, “This is a guy who wears many hats,” or calling me “an inspiration” or “a role model,” or even worse, simply “a model.” I worked as one for several years, if you could call it work. But it was exhausting; it was strenuous and disconcerting, like most jobs, so I suppose the slipper fits. It just never fit on me, or at least my idea of me, that image you have of yourself which might not even be the one you see in the mirror.

I never was one to see myself as others saw me. The whole author-thing, the novel and everything it brought with it, the guest speaker posts, the adjunct lecturer positions, these only complicated things further. My image became muddled, hazy, like how your reflection looks in the moment before slipping underwater. People scratched their heads, smiled, shook my hand, moved on, feeling as if they were in the presence of something interesting— something they could re-tell over a martini at happy hour or a family picnic—but what that was, they hardly knew. Only enough to shake my hand. Only enough to smile and move on.

Never imagining the face when it comes up for air.

It was nice, like I’d said, about walking through a town, walking through the same three or four streets, and recognizing almost everyone I saw. Warrentown was small and the college was smaller, more like a high school, a high school with a burgeoning MFA program and enough endowments to pay to hear me talk. My walks were far removed from the lengthy, brisk canters I had in New York City, in which I never saw anyone I knew unless I didn’t want to see them.

Usually, I’d put my head down. I’d put my head down or my headphones on or I’d push my cell phone up against my ear.

I always felt a little bit like Patrick Bateman during these encounters. I never killed anyone. Not in real life, at least. But I was always in a rush, always in a hurry to be somewhere else. Here, I had no excuse; I had nowhere else to be.

Another signpost, another church. Lucy, Luke, Jim, and Jane walking in my direction from across the street.

This is a scene, I thought. This is a great setting for a story, because when everything looks ordered and arranged and manicured, and everybody fits in their own place, there is always something off; there is always something deranged and unexpected and thrilling, and beautiful because of it.

The makings of any good story, I remember thinking, as I strolled from Main Street to Mill Road and back, is the relationship between fear and yearning. Warrentown had it all because it had none of these things; one had to find it. One has to always look for it, like a secret river or the earth trembling under our feet.

“Your trunks tired yet?” Donnie asked, wiping his nose with his knuckle. He had me by the hand this time. You know that thing elderly women do where they grab the top of your hand with just the tips of their fingers and lead you around? That’s what he was doing, pointing out more people and things like a tour guide or a tourist. “Most beautiful elms,” Donnie chimed in again. “Most beautiful elms in the whole state. Amirite?”

It was more or less the same conversation with every group of people. Even the attempts to say something interesting. They’d ask me what it was like to be on the cover of a magazine, or to be on set with Susan Lucci, or even what it was like to live in Brooklyn. And the truth was, working as a model or as an actor wasn’t like anything. It was just work. The truth was, nothing interests me very much except words, or at least nothing is very interesting for very long. Maybe a week, or ten days, and if I’d gotten past a month and things still move me, it’s bittersweet, because the end of that affair is inevitable.

Boredom is the great plague of my generation, the one unavoidable disease. There is no cure for the kind of boredom I feel; the kind of boredom we all (I deeply believe) feel. But is there any distraction better than fame?

“Everyone, have you met our new guest? He was at the college today. He’ll be at the bookstore tomorrow. Have you met him yet?”

I would turn and smile and shake hands and say something interesting. At least I would try.

“He’s come all the way from New York City!”

Everything sounded rehearsed because it was. Maybe they felt as if they needed to play a certain role: Hospitable Escort, Inquisitive Student, Wide-Eyed Reverend…or maybe that’s only how I felt.

Either way, it looked and sounded like a different performance. Maybe it was just the unguarded Texas air, the wide, open streets. Or maybe it was the loneliness, the deep, percussive sadness I felt when I was in New York City, in the center of the world, surrounded and alone. That kind of emotion is always addictive, for the simple reason that it reminds us of our purpose in this life. To yearn. To strive.

“Such a long way he’s come!”

Eventually, we found our way to a bar, which doubled as a gun range and a barbershop. The windows were plastered with faded photographs of men and women looking grave, their swooping cowlicks and hoop earrings preserving them under a 1985 halo.

I drank a few beers, one or two, sampling each tap, until I, too, was smiling uncontrollably, stifling my delight as I was introduced to more members of the community—how Donnie announced them—and some faculty members and students I recognized from the reading and discussion earlier. Gunshots in the distance. The snip-snip-snipping of hair.

I don’t know what I was affecting. Maybe youthful exuberance. Maybe just a man who could hardly drink two beers without smiling uncontrollably. Youthful exuberance.

I think I gave off excitement, and that was enough to satisfy my fascination with impressions, imprinting the idea of something in the head of another, their camera eye. Another round of gunshots. Another round.

What else had they recorded? I remember thinking. I always think about that; I always ask myself the same question, so used to making a record that I bestow the same compulsion to curate on everyone else, too.

What else had they recorded?

I had an idea about at least one person’s thoughts, because I had received another letter. It arrived between the morning and the afternoon, probably right after the reading, handed to me by a nervous-looking clerk at the hotel on Mill Road where I’d been checked in the day before.

Had it been written by the Lifestyle Editor? She had freckles under her pale blue eyes and red, almost auburn hair that fell down to her narrow shoulders. I wondered where she had her hair cut, where she went if it wasn’t here, surrounded by those grave expressions, those faces that were probably worn-in and wrinkled now.

The Elm had sent her, along with an assistant and a photographer to cover the event, and the story was already online, brimming with comments and responses which I’d been browsing, refreshing the page every two or three minutes.

She had misquoted me—printing the line, “brought and sold” instead of “bought and sold”—referring to a commodity, to self-commodification—during an overlong, mostly overthought discussion in which I took great care to say exactly what I wanted to say—the same way anyone who knew they were being videotaped and tape-recorded at the same time would—and I wondered, Maybe this is why she wanted to kill herself? Although if it were, I think she’d be taking a mostly minor gaffe (everything seems minor in retrospect) a little too hard.

She had asked me about why I’d written the story as a novel and not as a memoir.

“There is no such thing as memoir,” I said. “All writing is memoir.” (Another prepared statement.)

I elaborated, explaining that there are literal truths and emotional truths, and that skin and sensation and memory, which were certainly real, or real enough, those are the marks of all writing. I talked about writing as inoculation and writing as incrimination. I wrote about a culture of narcissism and made myself the main character.

“Imagine that,” I said, cracking a smile, a real smile. A nervous laugh. Another smile. She took it all down and it seemed like everyone else did, too, everyone who was sitting and standing in the library as I stood above them, feigning confidence and intelligence in equal measures.

I could probably remember her name if I had to. I never thought I’d have to.

After the reading and Q&A, we met again, this time without a tape recorder or a camera, outside on the wooden benches that formed a perimeter around the campus quad. The benches were half-hidden by the towering cedar elms, their golden sun-burnt leaves that almost matched her hair. Our faces were half-hidden in the shade of the leaves, which made it hard for me to look into her eyes, both of them, at the same time.

I wanted to ask about her major, her favorite class and why, the last good book she’d read, her favorite cereal as a child, whatever it was she wanted to do with the rest of her life. I wanted to ask her, Which Disney princess are you? Because that’s the question that was radiating on my cell phone, the headline of a BuzzFeed News article, Princess Jasmine staring at me from the edge of the table, unless I was the one who was staring.

“The fact that you are a model,” she said, “a journalist, and have the same name as the protagonist adds a layer of stomach-tightening,” she paused, uncrossing her legs, looking at my phone now, too, Princess Jasmine and her glossy, long black hair, “to any uncomfortable situation in the story. You blur the line between character in the novel and character in real life.” She looked up, half her face shaded, half her gaze. “The question is, why?”

“I told you,” I said, scratching the back of my scalp, the back of my ear. “Critiquing a culture requires implicating yourself. There’s no halfway.”

But the real reason, I was thinking, is that I wanted to prove a point. A point about art and artists, and especially, artifice. In memoir, we believe the material is true. In fiction, we believe the material might be inspired by true events or completely imaginary. Those boundaries are discarded when we are always destabilized; when we are always questioning what is real.

“You begin with a question,” she said. “I mean, when you write, when you begin writing,” she pointed to a notepad on the table. A leaf was falling in between us and I watched its slow descent. “That’s what you’d said.”

I nodded, thinking about the suicide letters, the jagged edges of each Elm, the ribs I’d had for lunch, all the sweat on Donnie’s nose, Princess Jasmine, whether she uses Pantene Pro-V or Head & Shoulders, the impossibility of ever looking at someone or something without already writing them in.

“Well,” she started, leaning closer so that her whole face was in the light. “What’s your question now?”

I had been thinking about all of this while I was at the bar that doubled as a gun range and a barbershop. Another round expelled. Another round. Someone else’s hair was splayed across my shoes.

I was nervous, anxious, a little bit drunk. I had chewed the inside of my upper lip to the point that it hurt to smile, which worked out well, or well enough, because everyone was so used to seeing me unsmiling, usually with a serious look on my face that sometimes looked poignant but sometimes, also, accidentally stern. That author photo meant to convey something to the reader who had just slogged through a story that was really just what I’d been thinking about at the time, sitting at my laptop and rubbing the small of my back or the back of my neck. The closest thing to metempsychosis one could ever get.

But getting back to the inside of my upper lip, or the lack of one.

I have a number of habits, not all of them bad, but all of them tied to some degree of abandonment. All those photographs, being photographed, running in the rain and snow, in the dark of dawn, in the moment between sleep and waking, between recognition and forgetting, and most of all, writing. All these acts require the same act of self-immolation: Bare yourself, dissolve yourself. At the same time. And you have to be willing to do both. You have to be willing to recede into the ether at the very moment you reveal your soul.


The first thing I remember about New York City is the smell, at least at a certain time: five-six-seven-eight…the smell of a city which was really the smell of people, of bodies, of bodies passing bodies, which was so much more profound, so much more penetrating and haunting than anything I ever smelled in suburban New Jersey, where everything seemed to have the same scent; where everything and everybody looked alike.

I was looking for a way out. So I looked forward to our weekend trips in the Volvo station wagon; I looked forward to the smell, which was probably also heavily laced with smoked sausages; kapusta and kiełbasa. After all, we’d always arrive at the same place. Diamond Street, Greenpoint, where my babci lived. The only place I really ever knew in the center of the world. The only place worth knowing at the time.

My parents had met each other in the center of the world, too, where they’d arrived from opposite ends of the world. They promptly moved to New Jersey to raise my brother, and eventually, me. But I’d been born in Manhattan. And I was, as my father noted, “un chico de la ciudad.” Unlike my brother, unlike anyone else in our polyglot family: a mix of Polish and Spanish, pierogi and pernil, somewhere in the middle and on the fringes. I’d only ever been half-there. I’m still only half-here.

I remember sitting in the backseat, staring so intensely out the window at everything we passed, everything that passed by us. Maybe not even seeing what I was looking so intensely at, the way it is now.

Even then, I was writing. I did not know it, but I was.


The people I had studied writing with in grad school were probably not all broke and spent, but they were all writing books with horrible titles. Consequences of Desire, Imperial Designs, The Way We Were, The Revel and the Rapture (that one wasn’t so bad, but a touch too erotic for my own tastes), A Simple Love, The Day Off, Three Days Later, A Gentle Obsession…

One former classmate had saved a baby sea turtle by guiding it to the Atlantic Ocean with the light of his cell phone. Now he was writing about it. Writing about it but mostly blogging about it, posting on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and even YouTube—a video re-creating the moment. Miracle (on the Hudson) with the parentheses, just like that.

Everything becomes a joke that gets spun off and recycled and eventually re-told, under different circumstances. And the laughs keep coming. Even the fake ones, the faint titters and raised lips curled into a leer.

I was watching television. Really, I was only listening to the black box radiating some more white noise as I suffered at my laptop (another story, this one stranger and more familiar than the last), until I turned around and saw his face. Maybe I heard his voice, which made me turn around. Whatever the reason, I saw his face, and then the rest of his body, sitting, cross-legged, talking to Kelly and Michael on Live! which had actually been taped an hour earlier.

“This story is about faith,” he said, looking first at Kelly and then at Michael, enunciating very slowly. “Faith and love,” he intoned, “and conviction, you know. Universal human traits.”

It looked like a shoe was stuck in his mouth. There’s no other way around it. His mouth was shoe-like and glaring.

“I think we all could use a little more conviction. Not just America, but the whole world. I think we could all use a little more..” he paused, reaching for the hardcover that Kelly was holding on her lap, “miracles.”

And I thought of the store on Smith Street that listed LIVE SIMPLY as one of its daily aphorisms on the storefront chalkboard and yet sold $85 shorts that were once $25 jeans, torn and shredded at the seams.


It was like the time I’d had the misfortune of watching Fox News—in the middle of an intense five-minute sprint on the treadmill, no less—and one anchor said to another, “If you look a certain way, you should be treated a certain way.”

It was just another paradox. News. Living simply. Life. But life was a paradox in 2014. Probably 2013 and 2012, too, but definitely 2014, in which I was one year older, one year closer to death and disappearance, one year more familiar with anguish, disappointment, aging, regret, heartbreak, love, envy, grief, delight (not necessarily in that order), rage, lust, and everything else that often makes you scratch your head, metaphorically or otherwise. Always on the tip of something, up against it, eyes closed.

What happened next is uncertain.

When I opened my eyes, I was looking at another torn envelope, another letter.

This one was more hopeful, optimistic, describing the consolation of music, love as brief and undivided as a couplet, encounters that never occurred but which could have (which you could say about everything), the dream of flying, at least figuratively, soaring over the homes and people the writer of the letter had grown up with. Which made the rest feel even more tragic.

Sometimes I pretend to see myself and sometimes I pretend to see only a dim and solitary silhouette taking haven…

But this time, after their solemn declaration, after they wished me “good-bye” and folded the letter in half, they wrote an address. A street name and number. Somewhere I could find them, if I wanted to. And I began to realize that this was for real and that it was too late to turn back.


I remember walking through DUMBO shortly after moving to Brooklyn, walking through DUMBO and talking with one of my professors amidst another bout of existential angst (it was graduate school after all). She was holding a stack of crumpled papers in one hand, folding them, rolling them. I couldn’t make out any of her notes, but that didn’t stop me from looking, swinging my eyes toward the letters scrawled in red every time she swayed.

“Why are you so desperate, so restless?” she asked me, probably not expecting an answer. “You appear infinitely. Who else can say that? In this culture, what better mark of accomplishment…what better mark is there?”

We continued walking down, curving closer to the water, and she continued talking, reassuring me of my novel, or at least of my life, never accounting for the notion that maybe I didn’t want to appear so often. Not taking into account that maybe what I wanted was to disappear.

I shouldn’t show you this side of myself.

But the other goal of literature is to make human beings forget that we essentially live inside ourselves; that loneliness is the only universal human condition. Not conviction, not faith or love. Loneliness.

And in this way we are so much more alike than we are different, which makes me smile, which makes me want to sing, or put that voice into words and write it in.

Whenever I return from my trips, wherever I go, I keep the people I meet inside of me, feeling a part of them is still with me and a part of me with them. Feeling that they’ve become part of the narrative as much as anyone else. As much as me. Much more than me. Feeling in my own way inseparable from the people I’ve met; the people who have touched me in ways they can’t even imagine; in ways I can’t even imagine. Until I begin writing again. Until I begin re-living it, maybe re-learning it too.

When I was young, I didn’t realize the effect of words, the effect of a single word. I didn’t realize that every word and feeling was finding its own home within me, to be relived in another place, at another time, infinitely, or at least until my senses dissolve; at least until the home in which my soul abides dissolves.

Those words, those feelings…

I sometimes feel as if these words and feelings will be mine forever.


The address the letter gave was the university’s thirteenth floor, the classroom where I teach two days a week, surrounded by books and their authors.

The Wild Boys, Great Expectations, Three Trapped Tigers, The Balcony, Journey to the End of the Night, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Palace of the White Skunks, Blow-Up, Heartbreak Tango, The House of Mirth, The Story of an African Farm…

I keep my favorites there, for others to pick up, borrow, or steal. For others to lose or get lost in.

I walked quickly to Court Street, pushing past bodies and bounding down the stairs, underground. I don’t think I took a breath until I saw the geometry of light in the distance, announcing the arrival of the 4 train.

It whistled like it always does before it sputtered to a stop.

Without knowing why, I thought about the vanity of writing, the responsibility of creation, the god-guilt and self-hatred, the denial and confession.

Literature was great and vast and beautiful and literature had saved me, literature had been my savior, but literature was also capable of horrible things, things that were unalterable and irrevocable and resolute…

Things which elicited fear, a fatal resignation, abject misery, things that were separated from the work of art itself, from its author, and yet inextricable all the same. And destruction would always be linked with creation. Violence would always be linked with life.

I was looking into everyone’s face, as I always do, looking into them, or trying to, hands clasping the cool steel.

Maybe the notes weren’t suicide letters after all, I whispered. Maybe they were love letters.

You could be anyone, anyone. But the only eyes that looked back into my own were my own; my own half-held reflection in the darkened window.

Love, I murmured. Love letters, love letters.

Maybe I didn’t take a breath until I exited the train, sprinting up the steps and into the center of the world. Maybe I was still breathless when I saw his face, when I saw the gun.

You could be anywhere, I thought. Anywhere, anywhere.

I never thought where I’d be, I never thought where life would take me, or how I’d make a living; how I’d make a life. When I was younger, I only knew that I wanted to try as many things as I could, pick them up, try them on. I only knew I wanted to re-imagine everything. I never got bored of that. I would never get bored of that. I was the child of two immigrants after all, two people who learned to live by imagining the possibilities of something greater.

You could be anyone, I thought. Anyone, anyone.

As I thought this, I realized that he was not the one holding the gun.

Chris Campanioni is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and new form journalism at John Jay. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013 for his collection, In Conversation, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best First Book for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He is also the author of Once in a Lifetime, a book of poems from Berkeley Press. Find him in space at or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.