My job at the bookstore felt like occupational therapy. That was a little joke I told myself. Except only sometimes it was a joke, and sometimes I told it to myself like it was a joyous revelation, as though I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I had found myself in an occupational therapy program. It was a simple job. I only had to be there on time, open the store, put the money in the register in the morning, sell books to customers, keep the displays looking nice. The job felt gifted to me. As though the daily completion of these simple, straightforward tasks were the first steps to living a normal life. It’s true that eventually the small joys of these daily accomplishments would slowly deteriorate. The key taken away from me because I was late too many times; arguments with coworkers; then the new ones didn’t like me. And I knew the job could not last forever; the pay was barely enough to support me. It was not a ‘real job’. But there was a window of time where it seemed like I could maintain it. And there was another window that existed for me, smaller but more infinite; not of time, but of what I could hold onto.
I had recently moved into a new apartment by the bookstore. It was small and cold. A white ceramic rabbit sat on the windowsill of the apartment diagonally across the courtyard from mine. Above, I sometimes saw the shadow of a woman’s hand smoking a cigarette. In the apartment below, I’d see a man sitting on a couch, doing nothing.
You’d think neighbors would bump into each other once in a while, but I never saw him outside – only when he was inside his apartment, sitting on the couch by this window. A painting, one I have loved my whole life, hung above the couch – El Greco’s View of Toledo. I never saw a woman come over, or another man. He sat on his couch and watched television. Sometimes in his underwear. I liked it when he was in his underwear. I liked it when I could see the outline. He was tall. He had very dark hair and a beard. Sometimes he wore glasses. He never noticed me.
My co-worker Bonnie once said, When his lights are out, that’s when he sees you. But I didn’t know. I told Bonnie, He doesn’t seem like the type who wants to experience intimacy in the way that I do. Someone at the bookstore overheard this conversation and said that looking at someone through a window isn’t intimacy. Talking to someone at the bookstore is; making a real friend. Through the window is intimate, I said calmly, so long as the other person looks up. You’re the only two there. Even more meaningful, I thought, because you have gotten through an extra barrier, communicating through something that was only meant to be looked out of. Perhaps I did not say it so calmly. In my head I thought this person incapable of many things, many emotions and ways of knowing.
Howard was singing on the street again. To most people walking by he was a man you looked away from. One of those crazy men who sing and talk about God. But to me Howard was not a crazy man and I did not look away. I felt joy when I saw him singing on the street. Sometimes he danced too, discreetly. Two of Howard’s favorite songs to sing were ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’ and ‘The Impossible Dream’, from Man of La Mancha. I hadn’t known that song until I heard it from Howard: To dream the impossible dream . . . to fight the impossible fight. Often, he entered the bookstore singing. On good days he sang, and on bad days he ranted about God or the Bible. He would come into the store with his arms raised to either side of his head, shaking, as though something might drop out of the sky at any moment and crush him. His arms looked like they were there for protection, but their shaking made it seem like something was already falling.
Once Howard was ranting about the Bible in the children’s room. I hated when he ranted about the bible. Howard, please stop, I said. The Bible is false! Then, in a low hiss: And it’s sexist! Howard ignored me; he was in his own world when he was ranting. A ‘hello’ was the only thing, it seemed, that could break his trance. Howard was always cordial, Howard always returned a hello.
A woman and her child sat in the otherwise quiet room. The woman was visibly disturbed; she kept looking at Howard with a look of disgust and fear and anger. I could not be sure if the anger was partly directed at me, the employee, for not taking a stronger stance against Howard.
Howard, I said then, plain but firm, the emotion gone from my voice, You can’t stand there. He did not look at me, though he must have heard. He did not stop mumbling, but wandered off to the bathroom in the back of the store. After he was gone, the woman addressed me. I’m sorry you have to deal with that, she said. It was strange how she said, ‘have to deal’ and not ‘had to deal’, as though it appeared to her that this episode was a daily part of my life and something to be pitied. But did she feel sorry for Howard or for me? For us both? I felt a disturbance growing inside of me. I could feel my face beginning to look at her the way the way she had been looking at Howard. But I stopped myself. I smiled. It’s okay, I said, and turned from her. I felt I had betrayed someone, but I did not know who had been betrayed, the woman or Howard. It was the woman, I decided. I had betrayed the woman in favor of Howard. I felt guilty about it, because she had a young child. And it seemed that a woman like me, who could also have a child, ought to have some sort of allegiance to women who did have young children. We ought to be on the same side. But I wasn’t on her side.
She couldn’t have been much older than me and I knew – the way she spoke, the expensive stroller – how much she had, and how easy it must have been for her to obtain the life she led. So effortless it could be defined as normal. There is a moderate amount of success attributed to people by the mere ease with which they’ve acquired all the components of a so-called ‘full life’. I busied myself with some books on the other wall and didn’t look back at her again. Faintly I could hear Howard in the back room. And that polarity spread inside me until I despised her and her diligence at living the ‘correct way’.
It was in moments like these that I knew my face was a deception. Maybe I was born with this face the way moths are born with the ability to blend in with bark, to survive. They always said I had an innocent face, angelic. My face deceived everyone except Howard.
I once went on a date with a psychiatrist who, over dinner, told me that Howard was considered ‘unwell’ because he didn’t ‘contribute to society’. I must have been wondering out loud, questioning the nature of Howard’s problem. I enjoyed interacting with him more than with the ‘well’ people. But what the psychiatrist said wasn’t true. I was part of society, willingly or not, and Howard contributed to me, to my existence. Howard gave to me, immaterially.
Going on the date with this psychiatrist reminded me of what Bonnie had said to me when I was briefly seeing another psychiatrist – ‘professionally’, not romantically. You don’t need a psychiatrist, I remember her saying. You need a boyfriend.
After dinner with the psychiatrist, I went back to his apartment. He had the largest apartment of anyone I had ever gone on a real date with. The elevator let us out right into his home. The apartment looked empty, even though I saw a couch and a table. It was such a big apartment, with many large spaces and tall ceilings and long windows and no doors – except for the bathroom – and each piece of furniture seemed to be placed singularly in its own room. Tall shadows fell on the open floors from the outside buildings. A silhouette slinked by in another room. That’s when the psychiatrist informed me that he had two very large cats. I never saw them close up, only their shadows and their outlines, lurking in the corners. The psychiatrist told me he had trained his cats to use the toilet. They can really use the toilet? I asked. He was so proud of himself. I didn’t have sex with him, but I stayed in his bed for a long time, his arms wrapped tightly around me. When I got up to use the bathroom I felt free, as though I had escaped. I knew then I should go.
Everything in the apartment was dark and shadowed and neon. Sitting on the toilet I saw neon glowing lights, and as I peed my eyes drifted to the corner, where there was a puddle. Yes, a small puddle that seemed to be growing. Then I realized it was a massive puddle, that half of the bathroom was wet with what I could only imagine was cat urine. I finished and told the psychiatrist I had to leave. I think your cat peed on the floor, I said before I left. Other than those four things – the dinner, his apartment, being in bed with him but not having sex with him, and the cats – nothing else about that night has stayed with me. I think I only remember the night at all because of what he said about Howard.
Once Howard did give to me materially: a packet of bobby pins. It was a cold night, just days before New Year’s Eve, and I was working in the bookstore. I was stationed at the main register, other register, the one next to the front door and the large windows that faced the street, not the children’s register in the next room. This register was perched on what felt like a pedestal – and, in fact, I felt regal on this particular night: it had started to snow, and I was wearing velvet. As I leaned over the countertop absent-mindedly, I saw Howard approach, and our eyes met from where I stood at the elevated register. Howard in his black winter coat, his hat, his gloves. He held up a small plastic bag that looked to be from some drugstore or another. I have a present for you, he said, his eyes bright against the wood surrounding us. I was surprised, and stepped down from the register to meet him. What is it? I asked. He handed me the small plastic bag and I opened it. Inside was an entire sheet of new bobby pins. I needed these! I said, and thanked him. I wanted to give something to Howard, and thought of the promotional pins for the Grinch that we had at the children’s desk. A small pin with the Grinch in a red-stocking hat and the words ‘I Grew My Heart 3 Sizes!’ I gave the pin to Howard and he pinned it to his jacket.
After that, we would meet in the street, or at the bookstore, wearing our respective pins. Howard always wore the Grinch pin, fixed to his jacket. And I always wore the bobby pins in my hair. We didn’t do it on purpose. We both needed these pins for different reasons. Even now, when you see us, we’ll have our pins.
Howard wasn’t homeless. I didn’t know that much about his life before all this – the bookstore and the singing. But I knew that he lived with his mother. He had grown up in this neighborhood and lived there his whole life. Howard told me that he had done bad things before, he had been down the path of temptation, the devil’s path. He attended the Church of Our Lady of the Snows every Sunday. He helped unlock the gates and doors in the morning, and he helped hand out the programs. I don’t know what Howard’s temptations, or addictions, had been. He would sometimes talk about the girls at the nail salon, or at the cafe. He’d say something like, those are nice girls over there. Do you know those girls? They’re very nice. I’d roll my eyes. I disliked when men talked about other girls to me, as if I were supposed to share in their objectification. It was the same the other way around: if a woman said the same thing about a man, I would often find myself disagreeing. The difference being women rarely did this, and men did it all the time. I don’t know what Howard was trying to get at exactly when he spoke of girls like that, saying they were ‘nice’. A sheepish look would come over his face, and his shoulders would hunch a little further forward. I’d say, Oh, so you hang out there a lot too? All the shops are the same to you? And he’d say, no, not like here, I just know them from the neighborhood.
He would sometimes complement a certain color I wore. He liked when I wore stripes. He liked when I looked like I was from another era, like the 70s, like when I wore a fitted colored shirt with sleeves that went to the elbow. Stripes are good for you, he’d say. Or, blue is a very nice color on you.
Sometimes Howard would stop while he was speaking to me and chuckle a little, shaking his finger half at me, half toward the sky, and say, ‘Sometimes I don’t know about you!’ I would stop what I was doing or saying and exclaim: What? What don’t you know about me? But he would only shake his head and wander off with a smile. It seemed the type of thing you would only say if you actually knew someone, and a thrill would go through me. Because when Howard said this, I felt he really knew me.
From my apartment, I could hear people having sex nearby. I heard a man and I heard a woman. They were both very loud, and the sounds echoed through my back walls, where I had the window that faced the rabbit. It was odd to me, because I had never before heard these sounds echoing through the back walls. I had never heard other people having sex while in this apartment, and I have never heard them since. This seemed suspicious, however I looked at it. Even the sounds, in my memory, appear insincere. I stared out the window for an instant, as if looking into the darkness would direct me to an answer, but the sounds ricocheted against the building’s wall, and I could not detect from where they came. I stared solemnly at the white ceramic rabbit across the courtyard, and then down at my neighbor’s window. His curtain was drawn, a pale blue. The curtain had been drawn for days. I turned away, disturbed.
I couldn’t imagine my oblivious neighbor from across the way being so passionate. All he ever did was sit there, and never once did he look up. For as long as I’d been staring at him, he’d never looked up. It has always been hard for me to imagine oblivious, apathetic people having sex. Apathetic men didn’t deserve to have sex; they should either genuinely care or pay for it. It’s not very hard to care, I thought. No, it’s not very hard at all. At that exact moment, my neighbor’s curtain moved quite abruptly, and was pulled to the side. I crouched low and held my hands to my heart. Then, still crouched, I slowly moved up so that my eyes peered over the windowsill into his apartment. He was gone, the sounds were gone. All that remained was the View of Toledo. It was in that moment that I let go of my neighbor. I still maintained the belief that intimacy was possible through a window – if the other person looked up. What I had, instead, was the painting. I took out my notebook and wrote:
The View of Toledo has always been the painting that shadowed my life. Its image seems to have been part of my consciousness since the beginning, though I can’t remember where I saw it first. Probably in one of my mother’s art books, which were always strewn about. I was never that interested in art, in paintings, but the ones that found me seeped into my being, like they were an experience that would stay with me forever. When I was a child, the View of Toledo was a home for my dolls. When I was fourteen and read Wuthering Heights, it became the moors, ghostly and beautiful. Now it’s returned again, a dark landscape waiting for me behind a curtain. A landscape I’ve always known and have always loved.
In the spring, sitting outside felt new and alive. On Sunday, my day off, I took a walk around the neighborhood; petals were falling through the air. I sat across the street from a small park with many brightly-colored tulips; orange, pink, yellow. In the distance there was a circular stone structure, like a fountain, but inside it was filled with flowers – more tulips. Red ones. The table I sat at was red. The cafe storefront was red. The French men next to me were laughing. The bench we were all sitting on was shaking. I felt a little joyous for them, and, suddenly, for myself. It was like a reminder that there was joy in the world, like laughter was waiting for me right around the corner. For now, it was a shaking bench I just happened to be sitting on.
I saw Howard emerge from the park. He approached mumbling the words, Pain, God, suffering . . . and joined me on the bench. I wonder which one is the real me, he said, the me that suffers, or the me that is happy. The Bible always reminded Howard of song lyrics. That day it was the line from a Patsy Cline song, Oh stop the world and let me off. He asked me if I knew it. Yes, I said, I love that song. That’s how I feel sometimes, Howard said. Me too, I said.
On another Sunday at the park, Howard sat down at the circular table where I was sitting. He was carrying his lunch – pasta and chicken with tomato sauce. He had a paper bag and he handed it to me. Do you want a strawberry smoothie? he asked. Really? I opened it. Is there a straw? Howard went searching through his other bag for a straw. Where did it come from? I asked. It comes free with the lunch, Howard said, they gave it to me. I went to the bookstore looking for you, he said then. I saw Ruth, asked if she wanted it, she said no. Another woman said no, she was scared. But you were the one I wanted to give it to.
I took the strawberry smoothie and left Howard to eat his lunch at the circular table. I walked out of the park and halfway down the block. When I was alone on the street, I stuck the straw in and took a big mouthful. The smoothie was good, very creamy, made with lots of milk and the strawberries were very sweet. It was cold but the sun was bright, turning the street into streaks of white and yellow as I held the straw in my mouth; it was too good to stop. Together, the strawberries and the sun were miraculous. And I think I stood on the street corner for a long while, looking back to see if Howard was still in the park, eating his lunch.
Near the bookstore, there was a very small chapel through a gate and down a little stone and dirt pathway. I discovered it one day as I was walking home, and made a small ritual of visiting. I never went as much as I wanted to, but I’d go from time to time and sit alone on my way home from the bookstore, which was usually in the later part of the afternoon. Nobody was ever inside the small chapel. Stained glass windows to the left overlooked a small, unused garden. Religious figures, the size of children, stood on the windowsills. I liked looking into their large, expressive eyes full of yearning. They had a look of distressed passion. It was so distressed it was melancholy. And it seemed to make sense, that passion should lead one to this state, and so their expressions comforted me. There was a large cardboard box by the lit candles. The candles didn’t have real flames, they were electric, but still you had to pay a dollar to light one. I hoped to run into Howard in this small chapel, but I never saw him there. I never saw anyone in that chapel.
In December, the bookstore owners announced that the bookstore would be closing for good on New Year’s Eve. I hadn’t seen Howard in some time. I had moved back in with my father, I didn’t live in that neighborhood anymore. But because of the bookstore, I imagined it could always feel as though I had never left, as though everything would remain the same. And everything did, for the most part; even December proceeded like normal, up until New Year’s Eve. I was working that day. Because this was the last day the bookstore would ever be open, there were no more books to fill the shelves; half the shelves were empty, and as the night progressed, the shelves became hollow. People mulled about, walked in and out, it was crowded and bustling. Howard wandered in. I saw him and we stood together on the floor in the midst of the crowd. Howard never bought books. He used to wander in to use the bathroom, but then the bookstore owners stopped letting the public use the bathroom. Still, Howard would wander in. Now here he was on this last day of the year and of the store’s existence, wandering around like normal. It felt like a cemetery scene, but I didn’t feel sad. Everything was festive and happy. Howard had his pin on his jacket, and I took a photograph on my phone of him with his pin, against the warm brown wood and the half-filled shelves of books.
Doesn’t this feel like a book or a movie? I said, The way the bookstore is closing, and nothing will be the same again? Howard put his hands over his head as if something might tumble from above and fall on him. That’s why I get knots in my stomach, he said. It is like a book! And a book is also like a painting. I paused then. My eyes had been moving around the room, watching with excitement as everyone went by, but I stopped and looked closely at Howard. His panic from a moment ago was gone, and a new look of calm had spread over his face. I wanted very badly to ask him why he had just said that. Why was a book like a painting? What made him say that? Had I ever spoken to him about the View of Toledo? I had so many questions for Howard. Lauren, he said then, you’re a good person. I’m glad I met you in my life. Then he wandered off into the crowd. I wanted to stop Howard and tell him, I’m not that good! I preferred it when he said, I don’t know about you! And I didn’t know why he had to say farewell like that, as though just because the bookstore was closing, we would never see each other again. But somehow Howard was right to say goodbye this way.
I’ve tried to find Howard since then. I was in the neighborhood some years later for a job interview, and had a plan to find Howard afterwards. I walked up and down the street, but I didn’t see him. I saw Dennis the UPS driver and asked him if he’d seen Howard. He was here in the morning, Dennis said. I went to the bagel cafe and ordered what I used to: scrambled eggs on whole wheat bread with a little bit of ketchup. That’s what Howard used to get. One day I saw him eating it and thought it looked good, then I began to eat it. But he wasn’t at the bagel cafe. Some elderly ladies who knew Howard were there, and I asked them about him. A priest was sitting with them that day. They told me I could find Howard at the church. Service is at 8 a.m., the priest said. But I never went to the church. I wasn’t a real churchgoer and I would never be able to get there so early. I should have tried harder. I only walked up and down the block, imagining he would appear in the next moment. But he didn’t.
One day, I promised, I would arrive early on a Sunday. I’d go to the church, roam the streets. I’d wait around on benches, in the bagel cafe, the park. Retrace my steps. Except one step: the bookstore, which did not exist anymore. It had been torn down years ago. All this time had passed and the bookstore was now just an empty hole in the street. One day it will be turned into a bank or a fancy clothing store. All these years later, it remains a vacant hole, with wood and scaffolding around it. It would be easier if the bookstore still existed. I could leave Howard a note. He might leave me a note. Maybe we could converse in notes. I would know where to find him, then, if I needed to see him.
I think if I ever found Howard, I would ask him about that final day. I wonder if he would remember what he said. And we’d sit on a wooden bench on the same street, or maybe we’d be in the park, by the flowers in the fountain. Howard would still have his pin on his jacket. It would be almost exactly like it used to be, if only I didn’t look around too much, and focused on the flowers and Howard’s clear eyes. Why is a book like a painting? I’d ask. And he’d say, I don’t remember saying that. But if I did, he’d begin, It’s probably because, well, certain things just seem to last forever, don’t they? Sometimes it feels like this life will last forever, God help us, but it’s just an illusion. It’s the devil playing tricks on us, you know. But is the devil really so bad? I’d interject. I’m just thinking of some things that feel good, even illusions; why does the devil have to be so bad if the feeling is good? Howard, how do you know that those things don’t take us even closer to what’s real and true?
It was only religion that said that a life without physical, sexual expressions was a holier, more spiritual life, closer to God. I secretly despised all religions, because they were created by men, for men. But how I loved to sit inside a church or a temple. I loved stained glass. I loved saints and wooden pews. Sage and smoke and quiet stone walls, the echo of voices. I loved bright, gaudy colors, and I loved disappearing from the world while simultaneously being connected to another. But that was as far as my appreciation for religion went. What would a religion be like that honored the sexual, the physical? I wondered. That saw a woman’s pleasure as a form of meditation? With myself, alone, it happened all the time.
And this is when it would happen. Howard’s expression would change, he’d shake his head side to side. He’d look half disappointed, half amused, the face of knowing someone for many years. He’s more amused than disappointed, though, I can feel it. Howard is about to start dancing. But instead he begins to wander off down the block somewhere, to the bagel store, or another bench on another street, and he’s shaking his finger, looking up to the heavens, almost laughing now. Sometimes I don’t know about you! I can hear him saying. Sometimes I just don’t know.