It was my last appointment at the Perfectly Smooth Laser Hair Removal Clinic, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. My procedure was finished, it was successful, and I had managed to keep it a secret from everyone I knew. I didn’t want people to know about my procedure at Perfectly Smooth, because I knew how they’d react if they found out that I was going to a laser hair removal clinic: they’d think I was an incredibly shallow person. I had used those words in the past to describe someone I knew who was going to a laser hair removal clinic — not Perfectly Smooth, because I never would have gone there had I known that a friend of a friend was a patient there, too — but he was getting the hair on his legs lasered off and that does seem incredibly shallow, especially compared to my “condition,” as the clinic staff politely referred to it, which was unsightly and humiliating and quite possibly the reason why I had not allowed myself to be in an intimate relationship with another human being since I turned thirty, the year my “condition” first revealed itself. When I say “relationship,” I actually mean to say “encounter,” because I’ve never been in an intimate relationship that lasted longer than an encounter, before or after turning thirty. And when I say “human being,” I actually mean to say “man,” which was another reason why I didn’t want anyone to know that I was a patient at Perfectly Smooth. Another gay man getting his hair lasered off — that wasn’t the case at all for me.
As I walked out of the clinic for the last time, I felt proud of myself, giddy even, and I thought about some of the things I now would be able to do without embarrassment — go to the beach, take a lover — when I looked up and saw a familiar face. It took me a moment to place it. First I thought he was a partner at the law firm where I temp, which would have been fine, because I don’t talk to anyone there, and he wouldn’t recognize me. Then I thought it was a celebrity, which would have made for a great story — “Guess who I saw going into the Perfectly Smooth Laser Hair Removal Clinic?” — except for the fact that I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing at the Perfectly Smooth Laser Hair Removal Clinic. Then I realized who it was: it was my analyst.
“Dr. Adler?” I said.
When I say “analyst,” I actually mean to say “psychoanalytic psychotherapist,” because technically I wasn’t in analysis, I was in therapy. Analysis requires at least four sessions per week. I saw Dr. Adler only twice per week — more than enough for a person like me — but his training as an analyst meant that our sessions were predicated on an intellectual rigor not normally associated with “therapy.” It also meant that Dr. Adler never said anything during our sessions. He didn’t say anything, either, as he walked through the door I was still holding open into Perfectly Smooth.
I walked away from the clinic as quickly as possible, telling myself that the man I saw wasn’t Dr. Adler but a man who looked exactly like him. I knew this couldn’t be true, though, because any other person would have said, “I’m not Dr. Adler” — or, at the very least, “thank you,” for holding the door open — so then I tried to convince myself that Dr. Adler was visiting a doctor in the clinic not as a patient but as a colleague, perhaps someone he had met at a medical conference. (The clinic’s slogan was “Smooth Body, Smooth Mind.”) But Dr. Adler, I knew, was too good an analyst to associate himself professionally with a laser hair removal clinic (and, anyway, if he did, I wouldn’t want to be his patient). In fact, Dr. Adler was so good, so smart, that it was possible that he was in the doorway of the clinic at that moment precisely because he knew that I was going to be there. He wanted to destabilize me and analyze my reaction. He wanted to see if I would mention this incident in my next session, or if I would not mention it, because what I chose not to talk about with Dr. Adler was just as revealing as what I did talk about with him. That’s how analysis worked, especially for me, since I chose not to talk about so many things — sex, my family, my desires, and, yes, my “condition” — so how could Dr. Adler have known that I was a patient at Perfectly Smooth?
My mind was racing: what procedure was he having done there? Did we suffer from the same “condition”? So Dr. Adler is gay. I wished that I hadn’t said his name out loud because then I could pretend at my next session that I hadn’t seen him in the doorway of Perfectly Smooth, and then I wished I could repress the whole event, which is what I would do naturally if only I could stop thinking about it, which, of course, I couldn’t. This was exactly the sort of thing I would have not talked about with Dr. Adler in my session, but I wouldn’t be able to not talk about it with him now, because I’d never be able to see him again knowing that he was a patient at the Perfectly Smooth Laser Hair Removal Clinic, too.
I kept walking — fast — feeling shocked and a little sad. I had often fantasized about how my analysis would come to an end, imagining everything from a few kind words from Dr. Adler to his sudden tragic death in a plane crash. Once I dreamed that I discovered Dr. Adler was a terrorist, and I turned him over to the authorities after one of our sessions. (I did not share this dream with Dr. Adler, of course.) But I never thought it would end this way, especially since I had been so careful, so deliberate, when looking for an analyst, finally choosing Dr. Adler because: a) his office was located in a neighborhood I did not frequent, and b) it wasn’t located on the Upper East Side, the neighborhood of analysts. That way, there was little chance of my running into Dr. Adler outside of my sessions or anyone else I knew going to or from his office — and if I did run into people I knew, they wouldn’t assume automatically that I was in analysis, which embarrassed me at the time.
I had planned on telling Dr. Adler about all of this eventually because my attitude towards analysis, since I started seeing him, changed significantly and showed remarkable personal growth. In fact, six months later, when I researched laser hair removal clinics, I chose Perfectly Smooth primarily because it was located on the Upper East Side. If I ran into anyone going to or from the clinic, I knew that I could tell them convincingly and without embarrassment that I was up there to see my analyst. That’s how comfortable I had gotten with myself and analysis and seeing Dr. Adler — and now it was over.
I stopped and looked around, wondering why I hadn’t come to the subway yet. (Proximity to the subway was another reason why I chose Perfectly Smooth.) I must have turned the wrong way down the street when I rushed out of the clinic, walking further east instead of west, because I was standing in front of the Iris Langer Public Library, a branch of the New York Public Library that I had never seen before. I had never even heard of the Iris Langer Public Library, which was surprising, since, as a library user, I was always on the lookout for convenient branches where I could return my books. Tricia, the psychic file clerk at the law firm who was constantly trying to do energy work on me behind my back, would say that the universe put the library there, because I was upset and needed a place to calm down and collect myself. I knew the library was there because it was a rich neighborhood, and libraries in rich neighborhoods are never shut down by the city, however few patrons they serve, but I did need to calm down and collect myself, so I decided to stop in for a moment before going to work.
Whenever I enter an unfamiliar library, I am reminded of the famous American language poet, perhaps the most successful living American language poet. (Her books usually landed briefly at the bottom of the extended New York Times best-sellers list, though I doubted anyone actually read them, except for Susan Sontag when she was still alive.) In a radio interview this poet said that when she was on book tours, she liked to spend time wandering through local libraries, losing herself in the books, making discoveries, finding things, ideas, and characters that she hadn’t heard of before. This, she said, excited and relaxed her. I wasn’t like that at all. For me a library was an overwhelming number of choices, missed opportunities, and frustrations. I would never be able to read all those books, I would never be able to find the book that was most right for me, and so on. (This was something I had not talked about often with Dr. Adler.) When I went to a library, I had to know exactly what I was looking for — and that day I did: Peg Wilson’s novel, Cold Dark Matter. I figured the library would have several copies of the unattractive, recently re-issued hardcover that had become so popular with book clubs ever since Peg Wilson was selected by that “literary” magazine as one of the 50 most neglected writers of the twentieth century. And while on principle I refused to buy this new edition of the book and had refrained from even looking at it in bookstores for fear of reacting to it in some unexpected, embarrassing, and inappropriate manner, it had been a traumatic morning, and I thought it would be okay just this once to look at it in a library, especially in a library as empty as this one. I made my way to the Ws.
Peg Wilson is my favorite writer, and Cold Dark Matter is my favorite book, so I was thrilled when I saw her name on the most neglected list. She was number 38, between number 39, Hal Burke, the Canadian nature poet, and number 37, another poet whose name, appropriately enough, I have forgotten. Even though I didn’t understand how the editors quantified neglect, and I still cannot believe that their list did not include my other favorite writer, Jane Bowles, who, if she is remembered at all, is remembered for her curious marriage to Paul — author of the magazine’s fourth most influential novel of the twentieth century — and not for her small, difficult, bold body of work, I agreed wholeheartedly that any list of the most underappreciated, most under-recognized writers had to include Peg Wilson. I felt vindicated as a longtime fan and champion of her novel, and I sincerely hoped that this “honor” would finally bring her the attention and recognition that she deserved.
Then it did.
When the publisher announced that they would be reprinting Cold Dark Matter, I was ecstatic. I had been searching for it for years, in used bookstores and Salvation Armies, at stoop sales and on the Internet, and I had come to the conclusion some time ago that anyone who still owned the first and only edition of Cold Dark Matter would never part with it. I kept looking for it — I couldn’t stop myself — but I knew that I’d never find it. I’d never own it. Suddenly, finally, now I would.
That’s when the magazine published the profile of Peg Wilson by Nicholas Saunders Smith, one of the 25 most important writers under 30. (Lists, apparently, sell literary magazines). He claimed to have “rediscovered” Peg Wilson after finding a copy of Cold Dark Matter behind the dusty row of books on the forgotten bottom shelf of the Patricia Highsmith library at Yaddo, and critics began to credit Smith for rescuing Peg Wilson from obscurity. Then the publisher included Smith’s essay as the introduction to the new edition, which featured his author photo above hers on the book jacket, and people were reading Cold Dark Matter everywhere I went — on the subway, in the elevators at work — and friends whom I had recommended the book to many, many times in the past were recommending the book to me as the “Nicholas Saunders Smith pick,” and soon the backstory and the publicity and the marketing push for the new edition were overshadowing the novel itself, and I decided that I could never allow myself in good conscience to support this hype in any way, which meant, unfortunately, that I could never buy this book, even though I had wanted Cold Dark Matter for so many years, even though Peg Wilson was my favorite writer first. All of this made me very angry, and as I got closer to the Ws that morning, I was getting angry all over again, and I was beginning to think that ducking into the Iris Langer Public Library had been a huge mistake, that going to the Perfectly Smooth Laser Hair Removal Clinic had been a huge mistake, that most everything in my life up until that moment — except for my analysis with Dr. Adler, which was now over — had been a huge mistake, when I looked down and saw, misshelved between books by Patrick White and Tennessee Williams, two first editions — two! — of Peg Wilson’s Cold Dark Matter, and I immediately heard that voice in my head, the petulant voice, the rebellious voice, the voice that called Dr. Adler names in our sessions that I would never repeat to him — Terrorist! Fraud! Thief! — and that voice was articulating a thought that I had never had in a library before, and that thought was: Steal this book!
And for the first time in a long time, maybe the first time in my entire life, I listened to the voice. Steal this book, it said, and I thought, yes, steal this book! I deserve it! She was my favorite writer first! That’s why I ran into Dr. Adler in the doorway of Perfectly Smooth; that’s why I turned the wrong way down the street when I left the clinic; that’s why I ended up in front of the Iris Langer Public Library: so I’d find this book! The universe put two copies of Cold Dark Matter here today for me. Steal one now, because otherwise someone else will steal it, only to turn around and sell it on eBay.
It made perfect sense to me, and before I could rethink the entire scenario and convince myself why it didn’t make sense, why, actually, stealing a book from the public library was the wrong thing to do, especially for a library user, I snatched one of the first editions off the shelf and headed for the circulation desk.
I presented Cold Dark Matter and my library card to the librarian, who, I noticed, was reading a book that I already had read.
The librarian looked at me. “This isn’t your regular branch,” he said.
“No,” I said. “It’s not.”
He waited for me to say more, which I thought was peculiar and didn’t reflect well on him, given the fundamental rule of any library, but I didn’t like to be rude, so I added, “I usually go to the main branch. It’s not very convenient for me, and it’s usually very crowded, and you have to go past a guard just to get in, but I have a slightly better chance there of getting the books that I want, so…”
The librarian nodded but still did not check out my book. He hadn’t even looked at it yet.
“Plus,” I continued, “I didn’t know this branch existed.”
“Nobody does,” he said. “ Iris Langer’s the best kept secret in the city library system. It’s never crowded, always quiet.”
“That’s nice,” I said, but, really, I was upset, because I was thinking how ironic — how typical — that now that I had found a quiet library in the city, I would never be able to visit it again.
“How’d you find it?”
“I was walking by.”
“Walking by?” the librarian said. “In this neighborhood? This far east? Nobody ever walks by here. Nobody our age, at least.”
I didn’t owe him a response, but he was sitting there waiting for one, so I said, “I was visiting a friend.”
“Oh, I see,” he said, not ending it, because he said it in a way that implied I was up there for Craigslist sex with some old man.
“Actually an aunt of mine who is very sick.”
“Is she a library user?”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Well, not really. She was never much of a reader, even before she got sick. Actually, most of my family aren’t readers, and none of them is a library user. But sometimes her nurse reads magazines to her, and she seems to like that.”
“I meant it’s too bad that she’s bedridden.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “We’re just so used to it by now, her failing health.”
It occurred to me that this was probably what traditional talk therapy was like — a seemingly friendly conversation peppered with challenges, insinuations, and shame. All it did was force me to come up with lies.
The librarian picked up Cold Dark Matter. “You’re going to love this,” he said, as if he knew me. “Did you see the interview with Peg Wilson in…”
“No,” I said.
“Oh! Well, there’s an interesting interview with her in…”
“Yes, I know, I read the interview.”
“But you just said you didn’t see it.”
“No, I thought you were implying that I was getting this book out of the library because of the interview with Peg Wilson in the magazine, but I’ve read Cold Dark Matter many times before — and long before she got on their list.” I didn’t know why I was going into this with the librarian, and I was afraid I was becoming too memorable by having a long conversation with him. “Anyway, it’s one of my favorite books, and it has been for a very long time.”
“So you know they re-issued it?”
“I do,” I said. “But I refuse to buy that version of the book.”
“I completely understand,” the librarian said, but not in a mocking way, which caught me off guard.
“Anyway, there are two copies on the shelf,” I said and immediately regretted saying it. Also, I was using the word “anyway” far too much.
“I’m not saying you can’t check it out,” he said. “In fact, I’m supposed to encourage that sort of thing.” He laughed. I didn’t. There was an awkward pause. “It’s just the kind of book that people — that readers — like to own.”
That’s when I laughed, not because I thought it was funny, but to dispel the awkwardness. The librarian looked confused. I coughed to cover up the laugh.
“Are you all right?” the librarian said.
He handed me the book and my library card.
“We’re finished?” I said. “I can go?”
He showed me the receipt in the book. “It’s due in three weeks, but you know that. Can I help you with anything else?”
“No,” I said. “I just didn’t realize you’d checked the book out, because I didn’t hear the machine beep.”
“I hate that beep,” the librarian said. “I keep the machine on mute.”
“That’s very thoughtful,” I said, because it was, and then, because I had nothing else to say, “Anyway” slipped out, and then, because I didn’t want to end on that word, “Bye.”
“Bye,” he said.
I dropped Cold Dark Matter into my bag and walked from the circulation desk to the exit, where, like a first-time library user, I had to take Cold Dark Matter back out of my bag and present it for inspection to the guard. He barely glanced at the receipt as I passed through the security gates. When he handed the book back to me, I said, “Thank you,” which seemed to alarm him. I shoved the book into my bag and left the library through the revolving doors.
I turned east, then south, and walked ten blocks to the subway. I was going the long way, because I didn’t want to walk past Perfectly Smooth and risk running into Dr. Adler again, especially with the stolen book in my bag.
I arrived at the office excited and happy, which must have shocked all of the other temps on my floor whom I never talked to. I called Carmine upstairs in accounting. He didn’t care for books or libraries, so of all people I thought he would appreciate the fact that I had stolen a book from a library.
“All you’ve done is check it out,” he said. “You haven’t stolen it yet.”
“But that was the hard part, Carmine. I had to face the librarian and make small talk and get past the guard while acting like I wasn’t stealing it.”
“Steven, the hard part for you is going to be next week, when you don’t return your book on time, because I’m sure you’re one of those people who always does.”
“Of course I do,” I said, “because I believe in the library system, but library books aren’t due for three weeks.”
“Even worse,” Carmine said. “You’ll have all that time to anticipate and anticipate and anticipate not returning the book and you’ll paralyze yourself and make everything much worse than it actually is.”
“Like Jane Bowles,” I said, because that was just the sort of thing that she would have done. She wrote about it all the time in her letters.
“Is that her name?” Carmine said.
“Who?” I said, surprised that Carmine knew Jane Bowles, but, of course, he didn’t.
“The new receptionist on 41. I keep telling her she can’t worry about missing important calls. She’s not going to get fired, especially after the last one, but she won’t listen to me, so she never leaves her desk, not even for lunch, not even to use the bathroom, all because she’s afraid she’s going to miss one call. That kind of person should not be on phones.”
“You’re right,” I said, and laughed, though not at the new receptionist on 41, whose behavior I understood perfectly. I laughed because I caught a glimpse of Cold Dark Matter — the first edition! — in my bag.
“What were you doing uptown, anyway?” Carmine said.
“Analysis,” I lied.
Carmine sighed, and I knew what was coming — the same old argument. “Twice a week is therapy, Steven.”
“Right, Carmine, but not for me, because Dr. Adler is a trained analyst.”
“I thought you went on Mondays and Thursdays?”
“I do,” I said. “I went today, too.”
“So you are in analysis now! For real? Four times a week?”
“Well, no, that’s just three times…”
“Anything more than two times a week is analysis,” he said. “Oh my god — analysis! Actual analysis. Why didn’t you tell me? You shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. I think it’s amazing and courageous and brave. Analysis! That’s serious. Three times a week? I told you you had a lot of problems.”
“I don’t have that many problems,” I said, but Carmine had hung up the phone, hopefully because there was an emergency in accounting and not because he had to tell his colleagues that I was in analysis, not that any of them would know who I was.
I swiveled in my chair to hang up the phone and saw a woman standing in the workroom doorway holding some papers. She must have been a new temp, because she was overdressed for this office in a dark blue suit, and she was wearing her security nametag on her lapel. No temp wore his nametag beyond the first week. Also, she seemed to have a purpose.
She looked at the pile of papers in her hand and then at me. “Are you…?”
“No,” I said, because she couldn’t have been looking for me. I wasn’t full-time, and I was the only temp paralegal working on my case.
“Then do you know where….”
I shook my head, put the phone back to my ear, and to counter any conclusions the new temp might have drawn about me from what she might have heard me say to Carmine, said into the phone, “At court, I mean. I don’t have that many problems at court.”
“Oh, sorry,” the new temp whispered before she wandered off down the hall.
The librarian called me the day after Cold Dark Matter was due. He left a message on my voicemail.
“Hello, this is the librarian from the Iris Langer Public Library. My name’s Ed. I don’t know if you remember me, but I checked your book out three weeks ago, and now Cold Dark Matter is overdue. Just one day overdue, your fines are still low, but it’s a very popular book right now, and we need it back as soon as possible. I know this isn’t your regular branch, but I would appreciate it if you could return it directly to us today. Thank you.”
He called again the next day.
“Hello, Steven, this is Ed the librarian calling again from the Iris Langer Public Library. How are you? I hope you got my message yesterday and will be returning Cold Dark Matter to us later today, but in case you didn’t, Cold Dark Matter is two days overdue, and library users in my branch have reserved it. There’s a waiting list, actually, and these ladies are not used to waiting for books, waiting for anything, really, so I’d appreciate it if you could return it here, to me, as soon as possible. Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you soon.”
And he called the next day, too.
“Hello, Steven. Ed from the Iris Langer Public Library calling again. Are you getting my messages? This is my third message and you still, I notice, have not returned Cold Dark Matter to the library. It is now three days overdue. I also notice from our records in the system that it is very unusual for you to return books late. Perhaps you’ve mixed up the due date? In any case, please let us know when you will be returning Cold Dark Matter — and if you bring it back soon and while I’m here, I’ll forgive your fines. Plus, if you return it to Iris Langer, you could pay your dying aunt a visit. I’m sure she’d enjoy that. Thank you and have a good day.”
On the one hand, I admired Ed the librarian for his dedication to his patrons, his devotion to the books, and his belief in the library system. On the other hand, Ed was stressing me out. I stopped listening to my voicemail. I hid Cold Dark Matter in the back of my closet because seeing it on my desk when I woke up in the morning or when I came from work now inspired guilt and dread instead of elation. I began to worry, too, particularly when he mentioned my aunt, whom I had completely forgotten about — and whose condition he’d downgraded from “bedridden” to “dying” — that Ed the librarian knew what I was up to all along, that he had figured out that I had planned on stealing the book from the very beginning, and that he would get me banned from borrowing books not only from the Iris Langer Public Library, where, I imagined, patrons always returned their books on time for fear of being admonished in their own living rooms by Ed, but from all of the branches in the New York Public Library system.
Carmine was also stressing me out, but for the opposite reason. He was making me feel bad, because I couldn’t bring myself to actually steal the book. After never caring about a library book in his life, he suddenly cared a lot about this one and made a point of calling me every day from accounting to ask about it.
“Did you steal the book yet?”
“When are you going to do it?”
“It’s already past due, isn’t it?”
“How many days?”
“Seven. Yesterday it was six days overdue, and today it’s seven.”
“You sound defensive.”
“I’ve told you I’m going to do it. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
“So what are you waiting for?”
I didn’t know what I was waiting for. I woke up each morning intending to go to a library to confess to some librarian — not Ed, of course, because I could never face Ed — that I had lost Cold Dark Matter on a business trip to Paris, that I had called the airline and the hotel, that I had even placed an ad on Craigslist (which I did do, because a thorough librarian like Ed would check), and that nobody could find it, on either side of the Atlantic, and thus, unfortunately, and to my great embarrassment, the book was lost. But by the end of each day, I still hadn’t done it. It made me think of Jane Bowles. She always wrote in her letters about starting out each day wanting and planning to write, but as the day passed and cocktail hour arrived, she never managed to get any writing done. Even so, she remained hopeful that she would complete her work eventually, despite feeling blocked and paralyzed all the time — and then she actually was paralyzed, and it was too late. These thoughts didn’t make me feel any better.
“Isn’t the library near your therapist?” Carmine said. “Why don’t you just stop in after one of your sessions?”
“I always forget to do it when I’m up there,” I said.
“Now, that’s interesting,” Carmine said. “That’s very interesting.”
This was the other reason why Carmine was making me feel bad, though it wasn’t his fault. I hadn’t told him yet that I had ended my analysis, because I couldn’t come up with a plausible reason why I wouldn’t be seeing Dr. Adler anymore. I couldn’t tell Carmine the real reason I’d stopped seeing him, because then he’d want to know what I was doing at the Perfectly Smooth Laser Hair Removal Clinic, or, worse, he’d tell me in great detail from where on his own body he’d had hair removed.
“What did your therapist say about stealing the book?”
“He didn’t say anything about it, because he’s an analyst.”
“Oh, right! How’s that going?”
“Fine,” I said, sorry to have brought it up.
“Maybe that’s it,” he said. “Maybe analysis makes it harder for you to steal the book.”
“That’s not it.”
“You have to face him every day? A father figure? He’s going to be very disappointed in you.”
“I have to go.”
“No you don’t.”
“There’s an interview on the radio I want to listen to.”
“Who is it?”
“Never heard of her.”
“She wrote the book that I stole.”
“You didn’t steal it yet.”
“I’ll call you later.”
“Wait! Have you ever talked to your therapist-I-mean-analyst about the radio?”
“What about it?”
“About how you’d rather listen to people talk on the radio than talk to people? About how you sit alone in that workroom all day and listen to the radio — not music, just people talking? I think it’s weird — not weird, that’s judgey — but curious. It’s curious. You should tell him. I bet there’s something there.”
The curious thing was I had talked to Dr. Adler about the radio, or more specifically, about the radio host. (This was early on in my analysis, when I still felt like I had to say something every few sessions.) I thought it was interesting that I was a loyal listener to a person I couldn’t stand listening to. He asked all the wrong questions, then rarely allowed his guests to answer them, and when he did, he didn’t ask an appropriate follow-up question, because he never listened to what his guests had to say. It was maddening, I said, so why did I put myself through it? Dr. Adler didn’t answer, of course, which prompted me to share with him one theory that I had come up with, i.e., that perhaps I kept listening to the radio host, because I was waiting for the day when a guest finally called him on his boorish behavior and stormed out of the studio mid-interview. Then I stopped talking, and the silence between us became very uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than usual, as it became painfully obvious to me what Dr. Adler was thinking, i.e., that I was really talking about us, about our relationship, about what I wanted to do, about his boorish behavior. At that point, I realized I wasn’t ready to talk about the radio host in analysis just yet and made a mental note to revisit the issue sometime in the future, perhaps in another six months, when I would be prepared to discuss it. That turned out to be the last thing I ever said out loud to Dr. Adler until I ran into him in the doorway of Perfectly Smooth.
I turned up the radio. Nicholas Saunders Smith was speaking. He was on the program, too, and the radio host was much more interested in hearing what Smith had to say about Cold Dark Matter than in hearing what Peg Wilson had to say about it. He then asked Smith about his own novel and the movie rights that were sold to actor Shaun Siegal, and what was Shaun Siegal like really, and whatother books did he find in the Patricia Highsmith library, and what went on at Yaddo really, and who else was there, and did he prefer Yaddo to MacDowell or vise versa, conversations that Peg Wilson could not take part in since she had never been on the literary circuit. In fact, when the radio host remembered that she was on the show, too, and asked for her opinion of Yaddo, Peg Wilson said, “What’s Yaddo,” which got a big laugh from the insensitive host and launched him into a story about his oft-cited-on-the-air cruise-ship interview with Saul Bellow, his hero, after which he asked for Smith’s thoughts on Bellow — “one of the greats,” etc. etc. — but not Wilson’s. Then the interview was over, but not before Peg Wilson jumped in and announced over the show’s closing music that she’d be doing a reading and book signing on the Upper East Side the following night.
I decided to go.
I arrived at the bookstore forty minutes early to flip through the magazines I refused to subscribe to, but there was already a sizable crowd sitting in the chairs that had been set out for the reading, so I decided to take a seat right away instead. I scanned the audience. In the front rows were the eBayers, middle-aged men with bags of books angling to be first in line for the signing. Behind them were the book clubs, groups of married women and gay men chatting amongst themselves, excited to be part of a “literary” event. Then came the emerging writers, MFA students and new Brooklynites set to dominate the discussion with questions about process and publishing for Nicholas Saunders Smith, who was on hand to introduce Peg Wilson and to sign his own books, too. Or perhaps they came to see Shaun Siegal, who was on hand to introduce Nicholas Saunders Smith, his favorite author and screenwriting partner, though Siegal definitely wasn’t signing anything. According to flyers that had been posted all over the store, those items that Siegal would not be signing included books, DVDs, CDs, magazines, and any other memorabilia. He would not be posing for photographs, either, though cell phone pictures from the audience would be allowed.
Scattered in the back rows, apart from everyone else and from each other, were Peg Wilson’s longtime readers. I recognized their discomfort at being caught in the bright lights of a chain bookstore, their indignation towards people who considered literature a group activity and reading a spectator sport. But I sensed their excitement, too, at getting the chance to see and hear Peg Wilson, and I suspected that, like me, some of them had a first edition of Cold Dark Matter tucked away in their purses and backpacks for her to sign after the reading. I sat with them, but not too close to any of them, on the end of the second to last row.
It was because of the reading that I’d finally stolen Cold Dark Matter that very afternoon. I left the office early and went to the Haskell Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, where, I figured, perhaps insensitively, the librarians were more understanding and the patrons lost their books all the time. I rehearsed my Paris story over and over again on the subway, but I didn’t have to use it in the end. The librarian who barely talked to me was the opposite of Ed. She didn’t care about how, when, why, and where I’d lost Cold Dark Matter — or about my Craigslist ad. I doubted that she cared about the blind and the physically handicapped. It was the end of the day, and all she cared about was getting out of the library. She took my library card, looked up the book on the system, and told me how much money I owed. I paid her, and that was that. The book was mine.
“Are you here for the reading?” a woman standing next to me said a little too loudly.
“Yes,” I said without looking up to discourage her from sitting with me.
“All these people?” She laughed and tapped me on the shoulder with a book as if we were sharing a joke. “That Nicholas Saunders Smith,” she continued, “he can do anything. He can work miracles.”
I ignored her. I could feel Peg Wilson’s readers glaring at us, two book club fugitives sitting in the wrong section of the audience.
“It’s amazing. When I did these things alone, six people came, some of them homeless, none of them bought books, and that was my lucky night.”
That’s when I looked up and saw that, yes, I was talking to Peg Wilson, or, rather, she was talking to me. I wasn’t talking yet. I didn’t want her to move on and talk to somebody else, so I said the first thing that came to me — shrieked it, really: “I’m such a huge fan of your work!” In all of the conversations I’d had with Peg Wilson in my head, I’d never said that.
“Oh,” Peg Wilson said.
She sounded bored more than annoyed, or maybe she was embarrassed, too, so I kept talking. “I read Cold Dark Matter every year, at least once, because I think it’s so brilliant. Anyway…” I didn’t want to say this to Peg Wilson, either.
“The new edition is beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yes,” I lied. “I mean, I have a first edition, but it’s really good that they finally re-issued it, so that other people can read it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I really needed the cash.”
I nodded and thought about some of the things she had said in interviews, i.e., how she couldn’t afford health insurance all those years; how she had been able to get her teeth fixed only after landing on the most neglected list; how Linda, her beloved dog, had needed a new hip. Thankfully, I managed to keep these thoughts to myself.
“Will you be doing any other readings in the city?” I said.
“If they want me to,” she said, and added, “I’ll go anywhere with Nicholas,” thus preventing me from asking my next question, which was: will these readings be at independent bookstores and without Nicholas Saunders Smith?
“People are nuts about him. They buy my book just because he says he likes it. Probably none of them reads it.”
“These people?” She looked around the audience. “No way.”
“You’re probably right,” I said.
I laughed and then Peg Wilson laughed — her teeth, I noticed, looked great — and while I was enjoying myself laughing with Peg Wilson, I suddenly remembered reading somewhere that she was a Jane Bowles fan, too. I quickly turned that bit of information into the perfect question: “Don’t you think the list — the most neglected list, I mean — should have included Jane Bowles?”
But before she could respond, the room erupted in cheers and applause. Shaun Siegal and Nicholas Saunders Smith had arrived. Peg Wilson went to join them. I was disappointed that she hadn’t answered my question, but I was pleased, too, because it gave me something to follow up with her about at the book signing.
The crowd snapped cell phone pics of Shaun Siegal and Nicholas Saunders Smith alternately talking to each other and waving to their fans. Some of the eBayers took the opportunity to rush the stage with memorabilia for both men to sign — and I did see Shaun Siegal sign a few copies of Cold Dark Matter that, in all the confusion, Nicholas Saunders Smith had handed to him.
When Peg Wilson made it through the crowd to the stage, she was stopped by one of Shaun Siegal’s handlers. She was only allowed through after Nicholas Saunders Smith interceded on her behalf.
As expected, the line for the book signing was long and slow moving. Not only were the eBayers clogging the front, but customers also had to purchase Peg Wilson’s and/or Nicholas Saunders Smith’s books before they would be allowed to proceed to the signing table.
I decided to give my purchase to Carmine, not because I thought he would read it, but because every time he saw it on his desk at work — and I knew he wouldn’t even bother to bring it home — it would remind him that, in the end, I had stolen Cold Dark Matter, just like I said I would.
I was reaching into my bag to pull out my first edition, when I heard a familiar voice say, “So you decided to buy the book after all.”
It took me a moment to recognize Ed the librarian from the Iris Langer Public Library. He was much taller than I remembered, but the only time I’d seen him he’d been sitting behind the circulation desk. I closed my bag so he wouldn’t see the book inside.
“I’m buying it for a friend,” I said.
“That’s very thoughtful,” he said in a not unkind way, which made it all the more unsettling, since I knew he was alluding to my dying, bedridden aunt. “You’re a very thoughtful person.”
“What do you want?” I said.
“I’m Ed, the librarian from Iris Langer. Do you remember me?”
“Yeah, I remember you.”
“I wasn’t sure you would.”
“I remember your voice from my voicemail.”
“Oh. I’m sorry about all that.”
“That’s all right. I understand. You were just doing your job and all that.” I was using my temp voice. It usually made people run away from me, but not Ed. After years of collecting late fines at the Iris Langer Public Library, he was inured to this treatment. I decided to be downright rude. “Nice seeing you,” I said. I did not smile.
I was four people from Peg Wilson, and Ed wouldn’t leave. Luckily, the line had stopped moving again, because a woman was telling Nicholas Saunders Smith how much she enjoyed Peg’s book.
I continued to ignore Ed, but the longer he lingered, the more difficult it was for me to stay silent. It was exactly the opposite of my experiences with Dr. Adler. While his prolonged silence only made me more determined to say nothing, Ed’s silence made me want to talk, and eventually I did, and I said exactly what I didn’t want to say: “I didn’t steal that book.”
“I don’t think you did,” Ed the librarian said.
“It certainly seems like you do,” I said. “I’ve never had a librarian harass me like you did. I lost that book on an airplane. Why don’t you believe me?”
Even as I said this, I was thinking to myself, who cares what Ed the librarian thinks? I paid for that book. It’s mine. I could pull it out right now and there was nothing Ed could do about it.
“I do believe you,” he said.
“Good,” I said, a bit taken aback, because now there was no way I could pull Cold Dark Matter out in front of him. Meanwhile, the line was moving again.
“I’m not here about the book,” he said. “I wanted to apologize for lying to you — and harassing you, I guess, with all those calls. Nobody else wanted that Peg Wilson book. Nobody had checked it out of the library in years, and now it’s available in hardcover so everyone can buy it. They don’t use the library on the Upper East Side very much since they all have the money to buy books.”
“Thanks. That’s nice of you,” I said, but I was thinking, “Leave!” There was only one person between Peg Wilson and me.
“And actually what I really was calling about,” he said, “what I really wanted to ask you all those times if you had answered the phone, because I didn’t want to ask you on voicemail, was if you would have a coffee or something with me sometime?”
My first thought was: is Ed the librarian asking me out? My second thought was: I’m glad I got my “condition” taken care of. My third thought was interrupted by a bookstore employee ushering me away from the book-signing table.
“But Peg Wilson didn’t sign my book yet,” I said.
“She did,” the bookstore employee said. “They both did. It’s in your hands. Now move along. There are a lot of people in line behind you.”
I opened the book that I didn’t want and saw that she was right — both Peg Wilson and Nicholas Saunders Smith had signed it. I turned to ask Peg Wilson my question about Jane Bowles, but she was fighting with the customer behind me. He had ten books that he wanted her to sign, but only one new edition of Cold Dark Matter. Peg was saying she’d only sign one book in addition to the book he bought, because the whole point of the event was to sell books, and if she did this for everyone, she’d be here all night.
“Move along!” the bookstore employee chirped at me. “Thank you! Move along!”
I moved along. So did Ed the librarian. He was still next to me, and he was waiting for an answer.