This piece is the first installment in our new series "Reading in Public," a collection of first-person essays about love, literature and missed connections. Submit your own story by emailing the editor at email@example.com.
If he gets off at 14th Street and transfers to the L, I’ll give him my number, I promised myself.
It was around 11 P.M. on a weeknight, and I was alone on the 1 train with the man of my dreams — well, at least some of my dreams. He wasn’t sporting the first flattering neck tattoo the world has ever seen, I wasn’t sure if he wanted between four and six children, and there was no helpful flashing sign letting me know that he was Jewish, but he did have some of the traits I stubbornly associate with my future soul mate: He was lanky, had on a moderately trendy pair of glasses and was wearing Keds. What really got me, though, was the book he was reading: The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. I don’t think I need to tell you it was a tattered, worn paperback.
Had I been familiar with Fanon’s work at the time, I would’ve dismissed my dream man with the same special eyeroll I reserve for men who read James Joyce in public. It’s not that I have a problem with literature that some would call pretentious; it’s more that you shouldn’t attempt to read Finnegan’s Wake while a baby is crying two seats away and some woman’s handbag is repeatedly slapping you in the face as you barrel towards 42nd Street. But I had never heard of The Wretched of the Earth before and began to associate the title with every single one of my favorite books: Fanon was probably the male Carson McCullers, I told myself as we passed 34th Street.
When the as-yet-unnamed twenty-something-year-old and I both got off to transfer to the L, I made sure I was on the same train car as my subway-crossed lover. As he slowly turned the pages of his paperback, taking moments-long breaks to look off pensively into the distance, I found a scrap piece of paper in my wallet and scribbled my number on it. As we sped further toward my stop, I decided that a 10-digit number alone wasn’t enough to awaken the fire within my almost-husband, so I wrote across the top of the note in ballpoint pen: “I want to hear about the book you’re reading.”
Asking which came first, the literary attraction or the physical attraction, is a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. But I will say that, as I choked out “This is for you” and tossed the scrap of paper onto my confused co-traveller’s lap before running off like the wind, I really was wondering what The Wretched of the Earth was about, partially because I wanted to know if I should pick up a copy myself, but also because, to me, literary taste is an indication of what type of person someone is. My last boyfriend, for example, favored T. S. Eliot over all else and had never heard of humor essayist Sloane Crosley. (See why it didn’t work out?) Besides, as graphic T-shirts from the early 2000s love to inform us, reading is sexy. It wasn’t so much the way this somewhat sweaty guy clenched a paperback as it was the thought that he loved to read — and read the same kind of books I was interested in — that really turned me on.
He didn’t text that night, but at 11 A.M. the next day my phone vibrated: “That was bold. Hi Adina, I’m David.” Thus a 12-hour texting romance began. David’s introduction (“filmmaker,” “lower middle-class white guy”) didn’t do much to convince me to send him a titty pic, but with the memory of his tattered copy of The Wretched of the Earth still fresh in my mind, I kept talking. Timidly, after an hour and a half or so of somewhat witty banter, I asked, “So, do you like the book?”
This was supposed to be our moment. I hadn’t even googled Fanon in anticipation of this very second, worrying that Wikipedia might dim David’s spotlight. He was going to tell me, in some subtly poetic sentence, about how much The Wretched of the Earth had stirred his heart (and thereby stir my loins). He wrote, “It’s okay. I like it.”
I like it? I LIKE it? I like watching Netflix. I like the Trader Joe-brand beer and their $1 mac and cheese. I don’t like literature; I fall head over heels in love with it, and books had been my boyfriend far longer than some self-described white guy. It wasn’t until a year later, when a friend who was reading Fanon for a course informed his entire class of my past heartbreak and they all burst out laughing, that I realized it’s douchey to read The Wretched of the Earth in public. Even if I had known at that moment, I think I might have been able to let it slide had David said something other than “It’s okay.”
He didn’t, though, and by doing so he confirmed that we weren’t meant to be. As much as I appreciate the well-orchestrated neck tattoos of this world, there are a few guidelines for my future spouse that I would be willing to compromise on. A love of literature, that’s not one of them, and the good sense to save the books that make you seem like an asshole for when you’re at home alone is a close second. I learned my lesson that day: a tattered, intelligent-sounding book does not necessarily a soul mate indicate.
Two weeks after my texting saga with the whitest boy alive, I found myself on the Manhattan-bound L train, bored and staring at my feet as I contemplated all the men I’d never hit on. I found myself fixated on the tote bag next to me. I knew that bag. I glanced a half an inch over. I remembered those shoes. Slowly, travelling up his skinny jeans until I was looking at the side of his face, I recognized David. So I did what any reasonable adult woman would do: I got off the train and waited for the next one.
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
Have a first-person essay recalling your own bookish missed connection? Submit it to our "Reading in Public" series by emailing the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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