Chance Encounters

The End of Breakfast at Madam Vuillard

The End of Breakfast at Madam Vuillard

14 November 2013
11:57 PM


Yesterday, I took a breather. I went to look at books at a warehouse sale. A bit bizarre, as if I was in a strange time and place. A part of me says that I shouldn’t even be there–that there are other, more meaningful things to do. Other warehouses where I should be, down on my knees in the dirt, packing relief goods. A part of me says that it was unacceptable, having these few hours for myself–that there is a better use of my time, my money.

Then another part of me is just–I was so tired. I couldn’t function anymore. Worry has eaten my nerves, I think. Was slowly devouring my resolve to be strong. It’s been what–five, six days since the typhoon, and I haven’t heard from people I know. I am thisclose to letting myself begin to think about the possibility that they might not have survived–and this is maybe the first time that I’ve ever dared to write that.

I found myself standing before rows and rows of books. It was my mind trying to take care of itself, I suppose. Trying to keep the wolves from coming in. Trying to tell myself that I can do it, if I could just hold on a little while longer. I only ever turn to books at a time like this–grief and uncertainty, I mean.

All morning I looked for titles. Hunted for authors’ names.

Oh, I felt the irony. Only hours ago I was going through every person finder there is, scouring for news, for names. Wondering if they are dead. Or dying. And here I was–up to my arms in books, as if my world wasn’t crumbling. I felt small. I felt wrong. I was disgusted with myself. But I was also–

What I meant to say was–as I was down on my knees brushing away the dust from spines, I was perhaps looking for my life. I was perhaps praying. My lips were murmuring titles, but my mind was screaming, chanting, save them save them save them save them save them save them please please please.

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These were the ones I was able to save from piles and piles of neglect and disarray. It’s laughable now, to think I am ‘saving’ books. I want to save people, but who am I, in the end, really?

The damage to my pocket: about $50. That amount could feed a few families for days.

Was this an exploration, I wonder, as I also reflect on what I was supposed to write for the next few days, or simply a conversation with myself, or maybe a window I am throwing myself out of? Maybe an exercise in futility, too?

I realise that I was giving myself a hard time. Was it punishment, do you think? And why? It is because I feel guilty that I am here, and people I know are over there, and the discrepancy between the states of our lives is vast and cruel and unforgivable?

Here’s a chance encounter, a kindness from a stranger:

I stood before a table and spotted 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. I grabbed it, thinking, I can’t believe this is here. Someone was standing beside me, and I felt him turn his head. I looked at him; his arms were full of books. Books I liked. Some of which were in my cart, too. He was looking at me with his mouth half-open. And then I realised–

This was his book. The stack in front of me were his books. He was taking an inventory of what he had in his cart so far, and from the looks of it, he has made some great choices. Everywhere around me people were fascinated with different things: travel, vampires, magic, nursery rhymes, business. What are the odds that I would (sort of) bump into the one person who has a similar taste as mine? I hurriedly apologised and slowly backed away, too polite and awkward and shy to say anything else. He smiled and resumed his task. I went to the next table, but two things were gnawing at me: where did he find 2666 in this maze, and the notion that he might be the love of my life. I stood paralysed for a few minutes, racked with indecision, holding a copy of the A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six.

Don’t be a fool, I told myself. I took a deep breath. I started to push my cart forward, further away, onto the next table. And then I stopped, tentatively circled back. He was still there. I went to one side and examined Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I dropped it, moved to the side opposite him, and perused another book. I can’t remember what exactly, because I saw that he was holding an Atwood and all I could think about was how in the world was he able to find all these good titles?!

I felt like I had hit the jackpot when I was able to complete Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series. I also found a hardbound Nabokov. And yet this guy. I moved again. I was almost at his side. Suddenly I realised that he can see me, that I was just in his periphery. I picked another book and buried my nose in it, panicking inside my head. Took another breath. Saw I was holding A Jane Austen Education. Put it down.

Finally, after some minutes of busying myself with my cart, and probably after I have circled the table a few more times, I was able to approach him and ask about 2666. He smiled and pointed me towards the right direction. Just up ahead. Okay, got it. I nodded my thanks, sighed my relief, and walked away. Ah, M. Human interaction is not one of my strongest suits, I suppose.

I was turning over the simple exchange in my head when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was him. In his hand was another copy of the book. I was flustered, pleasantly surprised, and in love with the world for that one insane moment. In love with him, in love with a stranger who offered me kindness, in love with the universe where books exist, in love with reading and people coming together to celebrate words and language, despite the realities outside of this one event. I received it with a silly smile on my face and said thanks. Before I could say any more, he was gone, and I stood in the middle of everyone and everything, holding a book in my hands, all nine hundred-plus pages of it–and it was as heavy and as light as my heart.

Later on, I discovered a shelf at the far corner, hidden from common view. I found another Bolaño title, The Skating Rink, but I was over my budget. I glanced around, saw him across the room. Walked up to him. Offered the book. He looked at it, saw the author, and said, “Again?” Then he shook his head, and put it down.

I shrugged, smiled, and walked away, the magic broken.

It’s midnight, and I am back to replaying that day, if only to delay thinking about other things. I hear an echo of a poem: Midnight the pain is almost.



2 thoughts on “Chance Encounters

  1. Isn’t it remarkable how books save us? When all the world is tumbling down around our ears, there is refuge, solace, and even joy. I am reminded by this of Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

    • Yes, to all of this, Sue. Thank you.

      The experience was disorienting, I admit, as I was battling with all of these emotions. But in the end, as I sat on the floor and looked at my books, I think I learned to forgave myself a little for being there that morning.


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