Pursued by H


First Person

Finding a letter in a burrito.


Femme au Burrito, an 1875 painting by Auguste Renoir modified by Chili’s for a 2015 ad campaign with Buzzfeed. Image via Buzzfeed

I was somewhat delirious when I found the letter H in my burrito. I had two weeks to finish translating a difficult novel, and I was teaching at two different universities, one so far away it took three trains and two hours to get there. I was also writing a novel at night instead of sleeping.

And now, here, in the burrito I’d bought for lunch, there appeared to be an uppercase H in nine-point font stuck to a piece of tomato. I brought the burrito closer to make sure I wasn’t simply reading too much into a pepper flake. But no, this was definitely a piece of paper with a tiny letter on it, part of a typewritten word. I unrolled the tortilla to see if there were more letters inside; maybe a piece of newspaper had gotten sautéed with the onions. But I found only salsa, beans, tomatoes, and that solitary H

I considered my options, and—perhaps from lack of sleep, or to bolster my suspicion that staying up late to write a novel was shortening my life, or just from love of language—I ate the H, the diced tomato it was stuck to, and then the rest of my burrito.

Soon I felt violently ill. And absurd—my lack of sleep was clearly beginning to affect my cognition. Who keeps eating a burrito after finding a scrap of paper in it? A more reasonable person would have stopped and questioned what that letter revealed about the food-safety practices in the kitchen.

But I’d never been inclined to reasonable behavior. I had agreed, after all, to translate a dense, long, metaphysical novel in less than a year, for a sum of money that—and this is true of any translation, I realize—failed to compensate for even a twentieth of the time the project required. It was a novel I’d been rereading for more than a decade with a reverence approaching the religious. I couldn’t say no. But saying yes meant I had to teach to pay my rent. I had a child to raise, too. And yet the secret, spider-quiet hours I spent spinning the web of the novel left me exhilarated. Even so, after eating that H, I decided for sanity’s sake to take a few nights off and get some sleep.

That evening I came upon the second H. It was in my bed, which was unmade as usual in the damp, den-like darkness of my first-floor apartment. My son had slipped one of his wooden alphabet blocks between the sheets. On the other three sides of the block were a hat, a horse, and a hamburger. I started to feel a little hunted.

But also triumphant. If the first H had been a bit of random noise from the universe, the second H was a pattern, a sign. I took it to mean I should carry on with this novel even if it was leading me, deliriously, to eat bits of language in my lunch. It made me happy. And isn’t it often the case that the primary source of one’s happiness is also the most unsustainable?

A few days after that second H, I came across an article critiquing a recent study that had attempted to calculate America’s gross national happiness. The study was a waste of time, the writer said; happiness was impossible to measure with any accuracy. When surveyed, people might be inclined to lie—a lack of happiness, in America, is so often treated as a sign of a weakness. And defining happiness was a murky business anyway, he argued. It was too abstract and loaded a word, its definitions too varied and personal. This seemed a valid argument. I couldn’t think of anyone else who would find staying up to write a novel about a translator whose author disappeared into a tree as crucial to her daily sense of happiness.

Yet as unreliable as the results might have been, I understood why someone was compelled to assess the general level of happiness in our gun-ridden strip-mall of a country. Pascal said happiness was the motive behind every action of every man whether he recognized it or not. Which is why, although it left me delirious, I continued staying up later and later until I finished the novel.

And as ill as I’d gotten the last time, I went back for another burrito. After every bite, I peered at the beans and rice inside it as if I were Werner Herzog gazing at the cave drawings of prehistoric man, trying to grasp the primary questions of our species. For all I searched, I couldn’t find any more letters of the alphabet to ingest.

Three months later, the sanitation department shut down the restaurant. It’s too bad, my neighbor said after it closed, their food made me happy.

Idra Novey’s novel Ways to Disappear is out this week.