It started in the summer of 2008. The Multnomah County library in Portland, Ore., wanted me to return its Russian translation of Stephen Hunter’s thriller “Dirty White Boys.”
I wouldn’t have minded owing something to the Multnomah County library; it would have meant that I was residing among Oregon’s temperate splendors instead of broiling through another July in Manhattan. But despite a long-standing obsession with the West, I had never visited Oregon.
I stared at the e-mail, confused—my e-mail address, my name—until I saw it: The different street address of a different Boris Fishman in Beaverton, Oregon.
I tried to reason with myself. What’s in a name? A rose by any other name. . . But what if the tulip starts calling itself a rose? Who’s what then? I heard myself raving like the clerk Golyadkin, who is menaced by a namesake in Dostoevsky’s “The Double”: The order of things is predicated on the willingness of the tulip to forego doing just that!
I scoured the Web: How many other Boris Fishmans were out there? Was my Oregon doppelganger also being mistaken for me? Perhaps he was collecting all those grants and fellowships to which I had applied with no answer, spending my paychecks on rafting trips down the Columbia River Gorge?!
No, this was too much. I had to fix the error and blot this upstart Boris Fishman from my mind, as Golyadkin tried to do with his double. Golyadkin went mad; my e-mail to the Multnomah County library bounced back.
For the next year, I watched late notices for Boris’s thrillers pile up in my inbox. He was giving me a reputation as a middlebrow truant with eyes bigger than his stomach. I realized I was stalking the man through his library card. Who was the identity thief? I was getting worn out by my self-obsessiveness. I had to reach out to him.
After a day of Web research, I was hopped up on information about Boris Fishmans the whole country over. You can take a Boris Fishman out of Russia. . . but, except for a single self-reinventer who had settled in Florida, every one of us was making a home in a place that froze in the winter: Chicago, Michigan, Pennsylvania. I learned that my namesakes dabble in everything from law to the occult, and that Boris Fishman is the 2,443,370th most common name in America. But I was no closer to finding the contact
information I wanted.
So I did what they did in the ’80s. I called directory assistance in Boris’s area code. With an out-of-body frisson that was becoming a little too familiar, I told the operator that I was trying to reach Boris Fishman. Please hold for the number, she said.
Boris Fishman is a 73-year-old retired construction engineer from Baku by way of Israel. He and his wife live in Oregon because a daughter and her husband work at Intel, which explains why there are so many Russian-language books in the library. (Russians are to computer programming as computer programming is to Intel.)
Boris Fishman handled my arrival in his life with more equanimity than I had his in mine.
“A sapling yet!” he exclaimed when I told him I was about to turn 32. “Are you married?”
“No,” I told him.
“Shame,” he said. Alas, his oldest granddaughter was only an undergraduate.
Did he ever get things meant for me, I asked? No, he did not. Did he ever come to New York? Once, but it only affirmed his affection for Oregon. “We have all this greenery, no noise, empty roads. New York is a crazy house.” I asked what he was reading. “Detective novel,” he said.
“I’m a journalist,” I said. “I want to write a story about you.” This intrigued him considerably less than my marriage prospects.
Boris said he would get the library to fix its records; he said the staff must have taken down his e-mail incorrectly. What was his e-mail address anyway, I asked? Identical to mine, he answered, but with a 9 at the end. Why a nine?, I asked. “Because,” he said, “you took the one without it!”
What I didn’t tell the other Boris Fishman is that I had visited Oregon, as part of a West Coast road trip one radiant week last September. I had been meaning to call him for months; I just hadn’t gotten around to it.
Portland felt familiar, but the coastline was more beautiful than anything my overactive imagination had conjured. At one point, I was within 15 minutes of Beaverton. I thought about dropping by, sharing with Boris a glass of vodka and a laugh about our coincidence. Perhaps it would be the start of an amusing new friendship.
Then I decided against it. In this brave new world of ours, we stalk each other and ourselves to spiritual exhaustion. We have so much more information, but as little clue as always. I would not drop in on Boris Fishman even if I could.
Staring at the blue shoulders of the Cascades, it was enough to know that he was out there somewhere, a secret sharer, and amid all the information about him that I had received and invented, it was a pleasure to know that he would remain a mystery—for a little while longer.