Roman gets my phone number off an application for employment at the West Portal Bookshop in San Francisco. I imagine him taking my application off the stack and going to stand outside in the grey with his ankle showing tight black pants, jacket and long black hair.
“Hi. No. I’m not calling about the job.” Roman is, tall, olive skinned, he rocks back and forth when he stands with his hands in his pockets. “Would you like to go for coffee?” he asks.
I tell him, I’ll meet him at eight.
The Blue Danube Café is in the Inner Richmond District, between the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park. Inside there are little twinkle lights and small walkways; we join the lines of people waiting to order and pick up.
Roman is attractive and repulsive; I see vulnerability in his weighted shoulders: he smells familiar. Like cigarettes.
“Everyone who applies to the bookshop writes,” Roman says. “What do you write?”
Can I assert I write anything?
There are two eras in my life: BE, before emphysema and AD, after death. My father died of emphysema two years ago, after his diagnosis before his death, I shared only a few small things I wrote with him. Every day of my life, since I can remember, I have written fragments of poems, stories and ideas. In AD, my poems and prose are meditations on breathe.
Besides, I have never been published and isn’t that really the question?
I do not say any of this to Roman, instead I tell him I write stories about my life and take care not to mention my father’s passing, particularly the bit about emphysema to my smoking companion. I refer to my dad in the present tense; I do not trust people I do not know with privileged knowledge. At twenty-two years old, people I meet do not expect me to have experienced the loss of a parent. Besides, what do you do with that kind of information? Sorry your dad’s dead? People become weirdly condoling or they shrug off the information like it is not a big deal and I haven’t decided yet which response I disdain more.
Roman listens as I ramble on about my stories. He holds his paper cup of spiced hot chocolate and tells me to look up Joan Didion. “You’ll like her, she writes like that.”
“Like what? Rambling narcissism?” There is a hole in the left leg of my jeans and I pull on a thread, subsequently widening it.
He tells me to just read her work and I’ll get it.
I ask what he writes and he says poetry; so we walk up Clement Street to Green Apple Books. Entering the bookshop, we pass a used book on Salvador Dali, my father’s favorite painter, opened to an image of Jesus Christ suspended on a cross made of blocks, my father’s favorite Dali. We walk up the staircase and resist the temptation to leaf through sections labeled psychology, sociology, philosophy—books packed into floor to ceiling bookcases and overflowing into piles on the hardwood floor. The smell of book musk is as lovely as childhood, which is to say it holds a bittersweet nostalgia for my father’s house—that reeked of old books and cigarettes.
With the great wall of poetry in front of us, Roman hands me Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. He watches me page through it. I recall my father’s story of dropping acid and listening to Bob Dylan for the first time, when he was the age I am now. My dad told me it was like the world caved in. So I read Pessoa’s July sixteenth, 1930 entry: “You can feel life like a sickness in the pit of the stomach, the existence of your own soul like a muscular cramp.” And inside Pessoa’s words, the world is caving in.
Roman leans towards me to kiss; I move to bar his advance.
I smile and feel friction in my face and gut.
*Books and Cigarettes was first published in the Pink Panther Magazine, Issue 21.