To Make You Essential to Me
Love finds for us what we do not know we want. —Henry
Books don’t change people’s lives, not like everyone thinks they do. Reading The Razor’s Edge while flying in first class to a meditation resort or The Sheltering Sky on a postdivorce hike to see what’s left of the snows of Kilimanjaro won’t make you any more enlightened than spinning in the teacups at Disneyland. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth of it. And the used books here at the Dragonfly aren’t infused with any more wisdom than the virginal new ones at Apollo Books & Music. Our books are just cheaper and more tattered. But people keep coming. They keep asking me for elixirs of paper and words to soothe their disappointments and revive their smothered passions. They come because they believe a book transformed my life. Not one of them understands. It wasn’t the book that did it.
Looking back, it’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment it all began. I could say it was the day I was laid off by ArGoNet Software, or when I first met Hugo, or even further back when I left South Carolina for Silicon Valley. But I guess the bare truth of it is that everything started on that Friday afternoon with me and Hugo sitting on those two springless armchairs on that creaky wood platform in the front window of Dragon- fly Used Books, on Castro Street in Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley. The passersby, dressed in shirts with dangling Google, Yahoo!, and Intuit badges attached, saw Hugo, bald- ing and with a long ponytail in back, reading a threadbare copy of the first Waverley novel, next to me, a thirty-four- year-old in terrible need of having her roots done, wearing an ex-boyfriend’s holey Rush T-shirt over a pair of jeans that had become too tight with unemployment pounds. It was an odd place to sit, right there on display in front of God and everybody. But it was also the only place in the Dragonfly with enough floor space to fit a couple of chairs. Everywhere else, lord help us, there were only books.
In Silicon Valley, that summer of 2009 wasn’t like the one of 2001, when moaning zombies of dead dot-coms roamed the land. This time, companies didn’t fail. They just laid off half their employees, offering “involuntary separation from payroll” to give everyone the chance to “pursue new oppor- tunities.” Me, I was hiding in Dragonfly Used Books reading historical romance novels and waiting for the Next Big Thing. I’d been through this before.
But it’d been six months since ArGoNet Software shipped my job to India. I’d given up pedicures, eating out, and, finally, cable TV. Hugo told me I was listening for the universe to present me with adventures I could never have imagined. My mother told me I was loafing.
I was reading The Defiant, just one of the romances I’d har- vested off the Dragonfly’s stacks that week. There had also been The Redemption, The Bandit, and The Pirate Queen’s Deceit. No chick-litty books with cocktails and spiked heels on the cover for me. I wanted swashbucklers, with their virile chests and bursting bodices. I guess I was just old-fashioned that way.
When I’d arrived that morning, I’d picked up The Defiant out of a cardboard box full of books by the front counter. romance, $2 a bag, read the sign. The cover showcased a stunning redhead with cleavage brimming over the top of an Elizabethan dress. A shirtless man with an ’86 Bon Jovi hairdo stood in the distance and glared at her menacingly. Or was it passionately? I swear I just couldn’t tell sometimes.
Sure, I read other kinds of books. Lots of them in just about every genre you can imagine. But I loved romances. There was something so comforting about knowing the whole story just from looking at the front cover. First, a political intrigue to keep the hero and heroine apart. Next, conflicting loyalties, hardened hearts, and possibly a forced engagement to an eco- nomically advantageous but physically and morally repulsive suitor. Several interrupted encounters, until finally they find themselves trapped in a cave, a barn, or a shepherd’s cottage during a violent rainstorm, and then you’d have your general bulging breeches, pink-tipped breasts, and primal rhythm as old as love. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it sure beat LinkedIn as a way to kill an afternoon.
I’d gotten to a climatic duel when I saw the owner of the card shop a block away stop in front of the Dragonfly’s win- dow. She beamed at Hugo and knocked on the glass, but he didn’t move. I nudged him. He noticed Card Shop Lady, smiled, and blew her a kiss.
“Does she know you’re cooking Squid à la Hugo tonight for that real estate agent who was in here earlier?” I asked.
“Maggie, when you reach our age, you’ll find that ignorance is often liberating,” he said as he returned to the dramas of Sir Walter Scott, balanced on the soft pudge above the belt he’d loosened after a dim sum lunch. I’d never seen him in anything other than jeans and worn cotton shirts rolled up at the sleeves. In his late fifties, he peered through black-rimmed reading glasses that made him look like the headmaster at some faraway boarding school where children in English nov- els are sent. Mr. Chips in Birkenstocks.
I returned to The Defiant. The Dragonfly was an eager dealer for my romance novel habit. I found them everywhere: wedged between an owner’s manual for a ’61 Valiant and a guide to tantric sex. Under the front counter next to the wooden recipe box where Hugo kept index cards to keep track of customers’ accounts for books they’d traded in. In a paper- back landslide created by Grendel, the Dragonfly’s cat, who didn’t maneuver between the shelves as deftly as he once did. The Dragonfly’s stacks were a labyrinth of L-shaped sections that curled in on themselves like the shells I used to hunt on the Carolina beaches as a child. You could spend hours, even days, searching the stacks trying to find the one specific book you were looking for. Generally, it was much easier to take what you found rather than to try to find what you wanted.
I could knock out two or three of these romances a day. Reaching the half-blank last page gave me that little meth-y thrill that’s the Holy Grail every software coder wants their user to feel, like killing it on “Sudden Death” in Guitar Hero or earning the strawberry cow in FarmVille. “At last,” your inner addict says, “I did it. I can stop now and spend my hours solving world hunger.” But you don’t. There’re more fake gui- tars to play or a neon henhouse to buy or, in my case, a pirate to seduce, and what in the real world can compete with that?
My habit drove my last boyfriend crazy. To Bryan, an iOS coder who wrote a barcode image-processing library that up- loaded the nutritional info for packaged food that he sold to a bunch of different diet apps for a truckload of money, ro- mance novels made about as much sense as a PlayStation did to a hummingbird. “You’ve got to make success a daily habit,” he’d say to me. “Finding a job is your new job.” That made it hard for me to tell him I was playing hooky from my “new job” at the Dragonfly. So I didn’t. Then we’d have sex. It’s near impossible for a man to concentrate enough to point out the inefficiencies in your time management when the two of you are going down the horizontal ski jump. We were together two years, until he moved to Austin a couple of months ago with- out ever bringing up me going with him. He was a nice guy. They’re always nice guys. But no one comes to Silicon Valley to fall in love.
I was getting on to my duel when I felt a kick in the back of my chair. I turned around the side to glare at Jason, his black Babylon 5 T-shirt billowing around his toothpick arms, his fin- ger holding his place in a paperback the size of a hay bale with futuristic knights on the cover. He seemed colorless to me—dark wiry hair, skin like the underbelly of a catfish—and his head looked as though it had been pressed by a vise. Barely five feet tall with a slight limp, his appendages sticking out at odd angles, he had the look of someone who’d been half- trampled by a runaway horse and buggy.
“Done yet?” Jason asked.
“Chair. Are you done with the chair?” He overenunciated each word, letting me know exactly how much of a twit he considered me. There were only two chairs in the Dragonfly: the pea-green relic with the fabric worn through in spots on the arms that I sat in, and its partner, Hugo’s blue wingchair whose dropped bits of stuffing had become a part of the car- pet.
“Three more pages in this chapter.” I turned back to my duel.
Jason came around the chair and hunched over me like a gargoyle.
“You’ve been here all day.”
I looked around him at Hugo, who sat focused on his book, pretending we weren’t in the same room.
“I’m a customer,” I said to Jason.
“Bullshit. You’ve got to buy something to be a customer.” He had me there. Hugo let me sit around the Dragonfly
all day without ever expecting me to buy anything. As my landlord in the small duplex a few blocks from the Dragonfly where we both lived, he had a right to worry that I’d traded in my job search for romance novels. Rent didn’t just pop out of pantaloons. But he never brought it up. All that might change after the first of the month if I couldn’t stretch out the last of my savings, and if this week’s unemployment check from the bankrupt state of California was late again.
“I’ll be done in a minute,” I told Jason and turned back to the duel I was enjoying at no charge.
Jason yanked The Defiant out of my hand, stomped over to the front counter, and held it out to a woman digging through the $2-a-bag Romance box.
“Got this one, Gloria?” he asked her.
Gloria pressed her armload of finds against the appliquéd cat on her sweatshirt while she read the back cover of my book.
I leaped from my chair and swung around the railing like Captain Blood on a masthead.
“You don’t want to read that,” I said, landing in front of Glo- ria. “Seriously, the heroine’s got acne and the hero’s short. The villain is only mildly disagreeable. I’d say just a bit grumpy really. Doesn’t make for a good read. Let me find you some- thing in a surly Irish rebel who’s trying to avenge his father’s murder while resisting the temptation of his enemy’s beautiful daughter.”
She blinked at me, while Jason rushed past me and plopped into my chair. I turned back to Gloria in time to see her stuff The Defiant in an NPR tote bag already overflowing with other books. She slapped two dollars in dimes on the counter and trudged out the door onto Castro Street.
Hugo hoisted himself out of his chair and gave me a have- patience-and-the-universe-will-provide pat on my shoulder before heading to the counter to add Gloria’s change to the till. I grabbed A Devil’s Heart from the bargain box and scurried over to his vacant chair.