Detail from a lithograph of a micrography Book of Jonah completed in 1897 by Moses Elijah Goldstein of Frankfurt am Main. (Photo/Library of Congress)
Detail from a lithograph of a micrography Book of Jonah completed in 1897 by Moses Elijah Goldstein of Frankfurt am Main. (Photo/Library of Congress)

Novel excerpt: ‘Forget I Told You This’

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In Bay Area author Hilary Zaid’s forthcoming novel “Forget I Told You This,” a queer, single mother and aspiring artist named Amy Black dreams of a coveted artist’s residency at Q, the world’s largest social media company. When a stranger asks Amy to transcribe a love letter for him, his disappearance leads her straight to Q — with the chance to style herself a 21st-century Jewish ritual scribe — and to a group of data privacy vigilantes who want her to burn Q to the ground.

Sandy Jensen, whose hair was, aptly, a sandy shade of blond — thick, a little messy, longer than her shoulders — and whose voice, too, rasped with the mild roughness of waves against sand, propped her hands back against her hips. Her hands were large and thin-fingered and bare, her hip bones thin and sharp.

I could feel the force of her curiosity between us like a magnetic field, waiting for me to respond. Staring at a stranger in the halls of Q and not looking at their badge must have felt to Sandy Jensen like having her cell phone buzz in her pocket and not checking for messages, a practically epic test of will. I held her gaze, daring her to break it. Were her cheeks flushing against the pale, downy hair? Or was it the reflection of light off a nearby tangerine pod? I felt guilty. It wasn’t her fault I wasn’t supposed to be here.

I stood up: “Amy. Black.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to lie. At least my name was common enough to spawn a few dozen doubles. Sandy Jensen crossed her arms, shifted her hips, nodded. She was waiting for me to give my title. I fumbled, trying to come up with a title that matched Q’s twee vocabulary — Cueist, Evangelist. Thinking about the residency I’d wanted so badly for so long, I coughed: “Art-ist.”

Sandy Jensen propped her hands on her hips, elbows out, angles everywhere. “You’re awfully early for the ball.”

Ball? I smiled and turned to fish my bag out of the pod. It was time to make my escape. “Sorry — I’m in a bit of a rush —”

“Me, too.” Sandy fell into step beside me. “Come on.”

The quickness of my step as I hurried to keep pace with her storkish stride matched the quickening in my veins at the certainty that I was being marched back to someone’s office, marched to security, marched straight off campus, and told never to return. Or worse.

Cover of "Forget I Told You This"We entered a large atrium in which two men were playing a game of chess with pieces as tall as a five-year-old atop a holographic chess board projected onto the floor. Sandy confided: “Once, very late at night, I saw a group of women in here using it as a Ouija Board. You should have seen the way they jumped when I came in! I’d been eating a powdered sugar doughnut.” She laughed again, that scattering of colored petals.

Walking through the halls that morning, I hadn’t so much as seen two women together. I wondered where these witches had come from, and whether they were an incarnation of the mysterious Department of Arts & Letters. I imagined the atrium floor awash with moonlight, a coven of women circled around a huge plastic pointer picking out letters until they spelled out a message from the dead. “What message did they receive? H-I-R-E M-O-R-E W-O-M-E-N?”

Whatever I had to lose, I’d probably already lost it, so what was a little cheek?

Another gale of laughter burst from Sandy Jensen’s thin frame, a bold note from a reed. “You’re funny.” But her face pinked up in a way that made me wonder what it was like for her to be a woman there. Light from the open ceiling was twinkling off her hair and her badge and her shoes, and now it winked off her glasses, hiding her eyes. Though I didn’t know her at all, I felt bad for her. I wanted to hear her laugh again.

I nodded toward the chess board: “I’m one of the witches. Don’t you recognize me?”

I’d asked Connie once if she thought I was a flirt. She didn’t answer me out loud, but picked up a pen and scribbled in the margin of the book she was reading: It’s much more serious, darling. You’re a romantic.

I’m one of the witches. Don’t you recognize me?

Sandy Jensen’s fingertips brushed my arm. “I bet you are.”

What if I was flirting? We were strangers; it was a lubricant. With any luck, she wouldn’t ask me any more questions and maybe I could still get away without a fuss. At the end of the atrium, a wide hallway beckoned, and a set of doors, and whichever direction Sandy Jensen took, I planned to take the other. In the meantime, I would flirt.

I dropped my voice and Sandy leaned a little closer, as if she were prepared to cradle any word I uttered in the delicate cup of her ear. “I’m the spell keeper. I write them all down in teeny, tiny letters and use the letters to make pictures, so no one will notice them, even when they’re out in plain sight.” One day, after hours studying the beautiful illuminations in Hildegard of Bingen’s book of visions, I had been stricken with a vague sense of disloyalty about being moved by Christian religious art when I wasn’t a Christian. That day I’d Googled Jewish writing and discovered this: a ninth-century Jonah walking a gangplank into the mouth of a fish — man, boat, and fish all strung from lines of tiny letters. Micrography, the entry said, the only original Jewish art form. The art of scribes.

I was just flirting. But I hadn’t learned how to flirt without substance. I felt heat rush to my hairline.

Sandy stopped walking. She looked me up and down, black turtleneck to black skirt and boots. I took the opportunity to look her up and down as well: a thin person, she was taller than I was — average-height taller, but her long, thin legs made her look longer, like a long-legged bird. She wore glasses, clear glass circles floating on a pleasant, pale flatness, the white half-moon of a smile, reflections in a pond. “Micrography? Is that what you do?”

We had reached the far side of the atrium; we stood submerged in the thick, golden light that gathered there like water at the deep end of a pool. Sandy spent a long minute studying my face, as if the two moles over my eyes, the feathered lines of my eyelashes, the dark curls of my hair had all been penned in micrographic letters, too. “Don’t look so surprised, Little Witch. It’s my job to know everything.” She tugged the badge on her lanyard. “Are you coming?”

Over our heads, a brash Awooga! shuddered through the atrium, the klaxon of a submarine, the warning of a dive. Above and beside us, monitors flashed ALL HANDS! I winced, the word terrorist still fresh in my mind. Double doors behind Sandy burst apart, releasing an entire phalanx of humans. They pushed past and through and between me and Sandy Jensen, streaming and pressing through the hall, whirlpooling together and apart, heads and legs and arms, a blurring of bodies.

I hated crowds, avoided crowds, went out of my way to stay out of crowds.

“Hey! Jensen!” a chorus of voices called out over the heads between us. People swirled around us, checking phones, talking loud and fast, calling out.

For a moment, she was distracted. This was the moment to escape.

She knew micrography. My fingers plucked the sleeve of Sandy Jensen’s sweater. “I’m coming.”

“Forget I Told You This” will be published on Sept. 1. There will be a launch party sponsored by JCC East Bay on Aug. 31.

Hilary Zaid
Hilary Zaid

Hilary Zaid is a Bay Area writer. “Forget I Told You This” is her second novel.