Marie-Helene Bertino Buys a Bookshelf

Marie-Helene Bertino


For reaching a human milestone, I am given five credit card gift certificates, imprinted with numbers, each containing a different amount of money. Sensing improved finances, my bookshelf surrenders against the weight it’s been expected to carry, sending books tizzying across the floor. I ask everyone, where should I buy a new one? Shelf Barn, everyone says.

I find a good looking model on Shelf Barn’s website and add it to my virtual shopping cart. I check out. The credit card gift certificates are stacked by my elbow: five festively plumed birds. When it’s time to employ, however, the payment field will only allow one.

I call Shelf Barn and reach Alex, a customer service rep whose voice contains a pleasant sizzle. She says she wants to help and I believe her. Alex, can you input the five cards from your official desk on what I imagine is a giant shelf that perches above another shelf where another service rep sits, over another, and so on, down a never-ending barn wall, poised above a main floor where shelves on dollies zoom gaily by?

No dice. The payment field will only accept one card, Alex says. It’s a one-card kind of field, monogamous.

Where do you find that kind of loyalty these days? I say.

Alex doesn’t know but has an idea! She instructs me to buy five separate Shelf Barn gift cards using the five credit card gift certificates, then apply them to the bookshelf. The gift card field has a more progressive idea of commitment and accepts multiple entries.

It’s a brilliant work around. Even Alex seems stunned by it. I imagine a sun beam bursting through the barn ceiling and lighting her at her desk.

The line breaks. Marie-Helene? She says.

I’m here, I say.

Alex wants to know if there’s anything else I need. I say no, and she wishes me a good day. I wish her the same. She thanks me, I thank her. A few more go arounds of gratitude and we hang up, feeling incredible.

I return to Shelf Barn’s website and purchase five Shelf Barn gift cards using the five credit card gift certificates in five separate transactions in my name.

Within minutes, email acknowledgements begin. This is to notify you that the gift card you bought yourself is being created. Congratulations, you! You’ve received a gift from yourself! The gift cards arrive—five much touted courtiers in a parade of pomp and virtual circumstance. Containing five replications of letters sliding out of five replications of envelopes addressed from me to myself. I open one and immediately receive a new email. Dear you, you are currently viewing your gift. I buy the bookshelf using the enlightened gift card field. Emails collect like flotsam in a shallow inlet. My vision swims. Alex and her simple fixes seem very far away. A new email: Everything is in process! I hurl a stone into a lake I’ve walked to without realizing. My image fractures into an endless array of shelves, I mean, selves. Paused halfway down a tree a squirrel meets and holds my gaze for 3 to 5 business minutes. Marie-Helene? it says, multi-voiced. Are you there? I return home to an email from my shelf: I am on my way. But am I giver or receiver? On the transitional firmament post-purchase but pre-delivery I build a home with two souls. I stare into the vast expanse. Hours pass. Sleepless, I fear I’ll miss my shelf and be forced to leave a note for every failed attempt at delivery: Sorry I missed me. Sorry I missed me. Sorry I missed me. Who do I think I am? Business days pass into business weeks. I keep waiting by the door for myself to arrive but if I do, how can I ever accept?


Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas and Safe as Houses. She teaches at NYU and in the low-residency MFA program at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts). For more information, please visit