by Ben Nardolilli
I was on the sidewalk, looking for a brunette with a bowler. She told me it was the way she would stand out from the crowd. I knew she was being serious because I had seen pictures of her online. After the email confirming our meeting, I wanted to know what she looked like, and if the internet could reveal it, as well as her hobbies and pastimes. The research turned up images of her smiling, not with a beret, a bonnet, or a pork pie hat on her head, but a bowler. In her apron and petticoats, it looked like she was a housewife from an early Irish novel. I told her about my looks as well, since she would have to find me in the crowd outside Filament Books. However, I was less direct.
I thought it would be good to describe my own looks in anecdote. The previous week I had been walking home from Curry Hill (from a Kosher Indian restaurant incidentally) and was stopped by a short man. Looking at my black coat, beard, and hat, he asked me if I was Jewish. I jokingly told him that I only play one on television and he left me. He mumbled something to me about a savior as I walked down the street. For time’s sake, I turned around and briefly responded to him, not to judge everyone by what they wear.
The reason for our gathering was to have my picture taken so that those reading my interview for her website would have a face to put with the words describing my adaptation to recent economic troubles. More specifically, so they could imagine my mouth, lips, beard, jaw, and all, moving to sync up with the words that they were processing. Lizzie was the picture taker for the project. Hugh was responsible for gathering the words, and since he had already gotten what he needed from me, it was Lizzie’s turn to hunt me down and find me in my natural habitat to capture for the camera.
That was why she had suggested Filament Books. I told Hugh I was a writer and if there had not been a recession going on, I would have been working in publishing. Of course the industry had imploded, albeit less spectacularly than several other ones. It was a volcano compared to the supernova banking went through. However, the crisis did give me more time to write and it gave Hugh the time to put the project together to showcase all us unemployed and overeducated young people. It also gave me the opportunity to meet Lizzie Adler, at Filament Books, on that Saturday afternoon.
I had decided that morning I was going to try to ask Lizzie for coffee after the shoot. Normally I am not one to slowly inoculate my affection for a woman that way. I prefer a more existential approach, several excursions, and bare-all adventures fueled on some combination of other people’s alcohol. It seemed that maybe it would work with Lizzie, since she was a creative type, but I felt a different approach would be safer. There was something about the fact she was taking pictures of me that made me want to treat her as a colleague, a client, even a business partner. In what sort of business, I had no idea. A casual reintroduction seemed necessary, and there was an opening I could take.
The plan was simple. Since it was the afternoon, I could claim to be tired and show it by yawning. There was be a good chance that I would naturally be exhausted and in need of a warm shaking to wake me up. Even if I was secretly excited, anxious, and bouncing off the bookshelves, I would still be able to convince her I was tired, and only wanted company. If she said yes, good, if she said no, then no great effort was expended and I could go and drink coffee by myself. It was not like offering an already purchased ticket to a concert.
It was a little warmer than usual for late February. A slight increase in temperature and the absence of clouds had earned the afternoon the right to call itself “good.” It was turning into the kind of day that everyone tries to get you to enjoy. What has come before it has been so terrible that it is an excuse to get out of the apartment or the house, and stroll around if nothing else.
So by the time I got to Union Square, every available space was filled. Benches were packed and I expected to see a person in the middle simply pop up from the pressure. No one did, but I kept looking. Merchants, legal and illegal were stopping traffic and the tourists did their part to clog the passageways too. Leaving the park was no relief, because I had to move down Broadway, which was foggy from the smoke of burnt meat circling in the air. It made my steps and breathing seem greasy. It was the worst possible greasiness. The viscous feeling, the stickiness, the immobile stains were all there, but it felt harder to move because of it. The air was thick, it did not help me to simply slide along to Filament Books.
I only hoped that Lizzie was not a vegetarian. If I showed up and extended my palm for a handshake, only to smell of chicken skewers, sausage, and hamburger, it would probably make her sick. I would remind her of a slaughterhouse on legs. When I got to Filament Books, it was crowded too. All the people who had thought it was a good day to go out were realizing that although it was nice, it was not a great day to simply go and try to feel the sun and air as if they were suddenly new again. There was still some cold left and it was windy.
I looked at my cell phone and saw that I was early. I decided to go inside. No matter how many people Filament Books filled up with, I could count on three things. The first was that there would thirteen miles of beaten, thumbed, fingered, and slightly-unused books inside, put back to back and stack to stack, packing all the space not used for walking. This was something everyone else who stuffed the spaces between the bookshelves could count on. They would also be able to enjoy the second truism of the place. The smell. Filament Books smells, of course, like books. The paper is aged, experienced, confident of itself and the words that it contains. It gives off a musk that mixes with the covers and their scents, old plastic, paperboard, and leather.
But the third thing I can always count on at Filament Books is that the poetry/plays section will be empty. Not desolate. But compared to the discounted discount bins, or the racks where they sell bags with the triangle logo of Filament, it is not the most popular place in the store. The only problem is that it is buried so far in the back that all communication signals stop, and with it, my tenuous connection to time. But I figured that if I flipped through three books of poetry I would eat up the necessary fifteen minutes. I practice the sixty-nine rule: turn to page sixty-nine and read around there, because the author usually knows what they are doing by page sixty-nine. This process of paratrooping into a book and leaving typically takes me five minutes of intense gleaning every time.
The fifteen minutes went in its predictable way, but I was happy they did. I wanted everything around me to be as normal as possible so I would be at ease asking my eventual question to Lizzie. If my foundation was off, it would make the request for a coffee date more a challenge than necessary. The bookstore did not disappoint and confuse. There were the books oozing everywhere and demanding to be read. I took a whiff of the Filament and imagined small bits of atomic-sized particles of paper with microscopic words written on them flowing into my nostrils. I was taking in my Albee, Tolstoy, Miller, and Nabokov just like cocaine. And finally, the expected piece was in position, the poetry/plays section was graced by only a few people.
It was a sight that only I could welcome. I went past all the familiar plays and took to examining the spines of poetry books. The space was narrow and I had to embrace the bookshelf to make a gap big enough for someone else to slide through. A few titles got my attention and I put my rule in effect, cracking open a small book and reading the contents. Nothing was horrible, but nothing moved me. I was still aware of how much time was supposed to be passing outside of my signal-free zone. The lines were good enough, but nothing worth stealing and feeling clever about later.
After four books, I decided that enough minutes had passed and left the poetry/plays section. From my position, I almost had to declare the time by fiat. There were no windows, no clocks, and cell phones were useless. My instinct told me fifteen minutes had passed. I entered into the more popular sections of the bookstore, where the crowds managed to turn everything into a maze. Eventually I was able to meander through ten centuries of literature until I came to the cash registers. Since I was not buying anything, I could slip out. There’s little in the way of security, since they are all too happy to get rid of their books. I would not be surprised to see the clearance bins one day gotten rid of and replaced with ones for shoplifting where customers can test their skills at taking a five finger discount.
The smell of the books left me, but I knew I would be coming back into it. I walked outside to where carts of books were going for a dollar, and mostly for a good reason. There were tour guides to East Berlin, East Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, and which cars to buy for the year ending 1987. This was where I was supposed to meet my girl in a bowler hat. I planted my feet at the corner and looked in three directions for her.
She had to come up and introduce herself to me. She was wearing a green knitted beret in place of the bowler hat. Instead of introducing myself, I let my surprise do the talking for me.
“What happened to your bowler? I was looking for a bowler hat.” I caught myself and had to show that I was not angry. I made a smile at Lizzie. She smiled back at me.
“I thought today it was just too nice to wear a bowler.”
“Yes. Shall we go in the bookstore? Where do you want to take pictures?”
“Let’s find the old books, the ones with the nice binding.”
So we went into the bookstore. Walking alongside her, I could see the features that the pictures of her bowler had hid. The hair color was the same, straight and brown, but her frame was more distinct, especially since she was wearing tighter clothes than in her assorted online images. I could clearly consider her petit. I also could tell that she was a hair taller than me. The first ember of doubt started glowing inside me and I tried to smother it. Height is not a criteria for me, but I know for other people it is different. I have seen many personals ads that had limitations in terms of height. The excuse usually had to do with shoes, or clothes, or dancing, but the restrictions nevertheless remained, as if the person was an amusement park ride.
She had gone to the same school as me, and she was in theater. I thought about how much height could really matter to her. She could not have been that picky. As long as they were male, breathing, and straight, they qualified as a potential mate. But now we were both graduates and the situation was different. For instance, I could date younger than before, and she could begin turning away suitors asking her to a share a cup of coffee with them.
We went up to the second level of Filament Books, where the art and photography books were and fewer tourists dared to venture. As we went up the steps, Lizzie would occasionally talk about the new camera she had bought and about the project; I had given the interview for. Then she started to ask questions about me, based on what I had told Hugh.
“So you’re leaving New York?”
“Probably.” She knew I could not be a long-term prospect, though there was a chance I could be persuaded to stay. I had to make it look like I was leaving for something else, pastures of some kind, though not necessarily greener. “I am teaching kids theater this summer back home. They decided that they wanted me again.” I smiled nervously, but her back was turned. Yes, I had to convince her I was only departing to make the big bucks.
Usually I would let out with a stream of unconscious inside jokes about the past summers I had worked for them. But I held back. We were in the city, in a bookstore, there were covers and spines stuffed with paintings and photographs around us. There had to be something better to talk about. However, conversation was not needed at all. We went straight to a corner and Lizzie began taking pictures of me. I posed, fixed my scarf, and tried to follow her as she slowly swayed from one position to another. She laughed and I wondered if it was me. She sensed my self-awareness.
“No, no, we have to move, your head is blocking that book’s title, look,” her thin finger came out from her hand like a thunderbolt. I had to obey it. Turning around, I saw that the word “Association” had been reduced to “Ass.” It was not good to have it hovering over me. Lizzie suggested the classical section downstairs, where the volumes were finely bound and rarely touched. I joked and told her I had to get my smoking jacket and pipe. Her dark green eyes widened a bit.
“Do you really have those?”
“Well, not on me, I left them back home.” I did not want to tell her the pipe was glass with swirls on it. Nothing valuable (or legal) and certainly not part of the sophisticated burning look the books demanded.
We found a place that looked good enough for me, would-be writer of future tomes, to pose. I did my best to look natural, as if this was where I would go to hibernate. I tried to relax, even imagine the shelves as a future tombstone, where my name would hang in ink and paper. Lizzie disappeared behind her device and I felt like she had been the bait for a trap that snapped and flashed in her hands. I drew my lips back slightly, trying to smile, and look confident. I kept thinking of how to show I was tired and badly in need of coffee. I looked at her smooth hands crawling like spiders over the camera and wished they were infesting me instead.
As she told me how to pose, where to look, and when to wait for a flash, I felt as if she was somehow touching me. As she pressed buttons and turned knobs on the camera to manipulate my image, it seemed like she was fixing me physically. It was an odd feeling, but pleasant in a strange way. It was as if she was combing my hair with her distant fingers, putting every follicle in place. The more her face was focused on the image in the camera, the more I could almost feel her breathing on me, using the exhaling to change the color in my face and the position of my collar over my vest. Gradually I noticed that my back was less tense and I felt as tall as her. The idea of her playing with a smaller version of me created a sense of security. I gave her a big smile.
“You’re very natural in front of the camera.”
“And I think you are the first person with brown eyes that I’ve photographed.” She looked up at me and I saw hers.
“If I have to hear another joke about blue eyes, ‘recessive’ genes, and unemployment, well, I guess I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Color everyone’s eyes brown. Be a reverse Nazi.”
Lizzie laughed a little. Then she began to pack up her equipment.
“Did I offend you?”
“Oh no, no, you’re good.” She looked at me. “We’re good. I got what I need.”
“I guess I need a cup of coffee.” I let it out as naturally as a normal yawn. I was doing good.
She slung her blue bag over her shoulder. “Oh I forgot. My boyfriend says hello.”
“Your boyfriend?” It really was two questions in one. On one level, I was asking her if she really had a boyfriend, but I was trying to let it come out as if I was trying to figure out who he was, since he apparently knew me. I wanted to make it seem that it was perfectly natural she was seeing someone else.
“Oh.” I tried to not sound disappointed. “Yes, yes, I remember him.”
“You lived together on a hall.”
“Freshman year.” I thought of old Phil. The first memory that came to me pretty much blocked all the others out. It was the crown jewel of them all. I remembered him running around on Halloween in a star-spangled Speedo and drunk humping any open door frame, his wrists limp as wilted palm branches. I thought that now he was in New York City there was no need to cover up who he was and who I thought he was into. Not that there was anything wrong with him being gay. If he was gay. If he was ever gay.
“How,” I stopped. “How is he doing?”
Lizzie smiled and showed all her porcelain pale teeth this time. “Good. He’s catering now.”
“Catering to you?”
Lizzie laughed a little bit. “No, he’s in the party business. He caters parties.”
“Of course. Of course.” I said it as if I knew Phil well enough for it to be a natural choice for him.
When we walked through the cash registers and headed out the door of Filament Books, she held her hand out. The spider had become a very solid wave of fingers, palm, and bone. I took it and wondered if she would like me more if I shook it firm, or weakly, barely touching the skin. That was how I imagined Phil greeted her.
“Have a good afternoon. I hope you enjoy this weather.” I wished her the same with my brief nod. Lizzie began walking towards Union Square and I decided to take the long way home, the same general direction, but without the crowds and the awkward moments of walking next to her. Before I turned to take my street less traveled, I watched her slide away. First, the crowds did their best to cover her up, and then the smoke from the meat vendors filled in the gaps as she disappeared into their Halal mists.