A few years ago, before I’d even met my wife, a
young woman came into the bookstore. She browsed around, then came
to the front counter to buy a paperback she’d picked out. She
seemed shaken. Her hand was trembling. I think she was trying very
hard not to cry.
We got to talking.
“I just found something out about my boyfriend.
We’ve been living together for a couple months at the Crown Hotel.
I found out …”
“What?” I asked her.
“I didn’t have any idea. I should have.”
“Idea about what?”
“His friends. He goes off with his friends. They
kept away from me. He spent long times in the bathroom. He didn’t
say what he was doing. He didn’t want to eat. And something else…”
“He didn’t care much about making love. It’s like
it didn’t matter to him.”
Then after a heavy pause she said: “I learned from
his friend that he’s a heroin addict.”
When she said this, I just didn’t know how to
respond. I was thinking I didn’t believe her. I just couldn’t
believe she could live with him and not know. Hadn’t she seen
needle marks or something?
“I love him,” she said in almost a whisper. “I
don’t know what to do.” Then she did start to cry.
The way she said, “I love him,” seemed to express:
“I am doomed. I can’t be with him but I can’t escape. I don’t want
to escape but I must.”
She promised to come back and talk to me again but
she left and never returned.
One year a middle-aged man came into my store. He
was dead broke and wanted to sell some books he was storing in a
friend’s garage. He had recently broken up with someone and had no
place to live, no place for his things, and no money. He had
colorful tattoos all over. Even on his shaved head and face. He
wore a roughed-up black leather coat and looked a bit scary, but
he had the most delicate, literate, and sweet manner. He was a
poet, an artist, and a life-long journal writer. He was in his
early 40’s, and he’d started keeping a journal when he was
fifteen. He’s filled 200 blank books with art, writing, dreams,
I went to see his books and they were exceptional.
He had read all of Gertrude Stein. He spoke at some length about
the wonderful service Yale University Press had performed by
bringing out so much of Stein’s work. He loved them for it. He
knew and loved dozens of great writers. I bought a few boxes of
books and about three months later he started working at my
bookstore a couple days a week. He was so good to be around, he
was so positive, so perceptive, such an extraordinary listener, so
well read without being snobbish about it. He was a super smart
Teddy bear. Covered with tattoos.
He painted a composition in the bookstore bathroom
using an entire wall. Select words in white floated (with some red
and green accents) on a black background. The words and meanings
seemed to dance and play with each other. I think it’s amazingly
subtle, understated. It is like a page from one of his journals.
One week he told me that he had been walking past
the Apollo Market down the street from the bookstore, when a woman
made a rude comment to him about his looks. He made a rude comment
back to her, and next thing she spoke to a man in the store and
the man came out of the market and threw him to the ground. His
head hit the sidewalk so forcefully he was knocked out. When he
awoke, a group of teenagers were staring at him, laughing and
making fun. His glasses were broken. He just couldn’t believe
those teenagers could make fun of him that way. He sat up. Got the
pieces of his glasses. Got the things he had been carrying. Stood
up and walked away. Nobody helped him.
He said many things like this had happened to him
during is life. The reason was because he was different. People
found that threatening. He explained that for years he was ashamed
of his uniqueness, but he had grown older. Had moved to San
Francisco and was celebrating his individuality. But still these
things would happen.
A few months after he was thrown to the sidewalk,
something much worse happened. The lover he had spilt up with (the
reason he had come to me to sell books) had tested positive for
AIDS. He had lied to him about it. They had been having unsafe sex
for a year and a half.
A week or so after he found out his former partner
had lied, he learned he was infected too. I remember him telling
me shortly after his test came back, his glasses that made his
eyes so big, his face full of suffering. He was stricken by so
much pain I felt so bad for him. He was like a child,
inconsolable. Helpless. Unable to understand the cruelty of what
had happened to him or what he was suppose to do now. I recall he
told me, “Scott, it wasn’t just anyone. It was my lover.
The love of my life. He lied to me.”
time later I noticed he had made changes to his artwork in the
bathroom. The words across the top said: “Of Pitchfork Love” As I
study those floating words, I see they are a self-portrait.
Sometime later he stopped working for me. I saw
him walking on the far side of the street one time in five or six
There are other rooms and other stories. Stories I
hear about and carefully collect in a protected corner of my mind
because they are happy. For example, a story I read in the paper
about a man who went every day to sit beside his wife in the
hospital. She was in a coma, and the doctors felt she had been
down too long to come back up into consciousness. They could only
feed her and wash her and wait for her to die. But one day after
her husband had come daily for months and months, sitting with her
and holding her hand and talking softly, lovingly to her, her eyes
opened and she came back. They expected recovery. I guess it was
such a rare thing and that’s why it was in the newspaper.
There was the famous prime minister who had spent
decades being loud, active, and strong. His wife died
unexpectedly. He retreated into seclusion, alone in his grief and
unable to continue. Then he died. He must have felt there was no
reason worth going on with life; then his body gave out.
I keep stories like that. Unconditional love. Love
that is durable. Love that resists the harshest tests. The love
that endures. Somehow all of it is captured in the look of the
eyes and a smile. Peace and sweetness in a howling dark storm.
Love and safety.
remember sitting with my wife, Khadija - aside from what she did to
me, she is a warm, goodhearted person - and looking at her. I just
felt like smiling. I was so happy to be with her. I remember her
singing in her room or in the kitchen. I remember how we’d joke
and get each other laughing. She was so amazingly patient. From
the way she is now and from all the court papers, you’d think she
hated me and I was some kind of brutal monster. Not at all.
She ardently believed in her religion and I did
not. I thought her holy book wasn’t God but human (all too human).
Then there was 9/11 and she hardened. She felt it was her
religious duty to get rid of me because I was such a strong
non-believer and had the nerve to voice my doubts. So she simply
did what she felt it was her religious duty to do. Silence me,
never speak to me again, and humiliate me as much as possible. For
all her friends to witness. To purify herself of me and my
questions. For her God. The one she said was the most merciful.
I felt if I did love her then, at whatever
price, I had to be fully honest with her. Clear.
Compassionate. Direct. Not to have her adopt my thoughts but to be
complete and true to her.
To do less was less than love.