This piece is part of our "Reading in Public" series, a collection of first-person essays about love, literature and missed connections. Submit your own story by emailing the editor at email@example.com.
Let’s say his name was Joshua. That’s not true, but everything else here is. It’s true that we met because we knocked into each other on the stairs leading up to Emerson’s library, a meeting that is more from the world of romantic comedy than the actual world. It’s true that the collision made us both drop the books we were holding. It’s true that I was holding Pale Fire and that he was holding Infinite Jest, and it’s true that some of the first words we spoke to one another were, “That’s a really good book.”
That night, I sat on my suite’s dingy couch, eating Pizza Goldfish crackers and reading his book review blog in total and complete rapture. I was a sophomore in college, still deeply committed to the breed of crippling elitism specific to college sophomores. Less than two years earlier I had been in high school in South Florida, where the dating pool included a sea of guys who used “u” instead of “you” and had not yet managed to master the difference between “to” and “too.” But then there was this guy. And he had a book blog. And he had read Pale Fire. And he was reading Infinite Jest. I imagined us walking the streets of Cambridge, discussing David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, which I had read as a senior in high school (though, admittedly, with little to no understanding, a point that did not at all strike me as germane at the time).
Two days after our initial meeting, Joshua sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to go to a reading with him at the Harvard Bookstore that weekend. I typed out a message that I hoped would read at the delicate balance between smart and flirtatious, but not too eager. After I sent it, I spent the rest of the day imagining our whole narrative arc.
Here’s what I remember about that first date: We saw Nathan Englander read from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and my nerves had me sweating so much that I had to keep rubbing my palms against my black tights; it was late February, and Boston had become a picturesque image of snow-covered benches, the sky a vibrant shade of blue. I do not remember what Nathan Englander talked about.
I remember that, when the reading finished, we went to a nearby bar that notoriously did not card and I felt more adult than I had ever before. It only took half a glass of the house white for me to confess to having noticed Joshua before our collision, reading alone in the window of our school’s cafe. I may or may not have giggled and made a remark about how he appeared to me as “interesting and smart.” Joshua admitted to having noticed me, too. He even mentioned the book I had been reading a few weeks back. I share this not to provide evidence that we were destined for each other, but to show how badly we wanted to be. What a good beginning our story had. What fascinating first few chapters these were.
A week later, I went to Joshua’s apartment, a studio in Boston’s Back Bay. He showed me his prized possession: a library organized by genre, then sub-genre, then alphabetically. He picked up a copy of The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace’s first novel, and asked if I had read it. I shook my head.
“Well, then, here. It’s my favorite.”
When we said our goodbyes, I walked back to my room and silently hoped that this would be my favorite book, that we would talk for hours about it.
I did not love The Broom of the System. I did not hate it either. In fact, I wish I had hated it. A response that strong would have given Joshua and I something to debate at least. Instead, I just felt … nothing. I dismiss the idea that, in order to be in love, two people have to love all the same things, but the idea that Joshua’s favorite book did absolutely nothing for me was unsettling.
Looking back, I realize that it’s more than possible that, with the intense pressure I had put on The Broom of the System (“This book will catalyze me in an edifying, literary relationship!”), it was impossible for me to have enjoyed the novel. I wasn’t reading it to fall in love with the book; I was reading it to fall in love with the person who had given it to me and, even more so, to have him fall in love with me.
When we met up to discuss the novel, this time at cafe-slash-indie bookstore on Newbury Street, I had decided that I would lie. I would tell him that, yeah, it was my favorite, too. I would show him that we had so much in common. I would play my part, so that he could play his and so that we could continue living out our story. But when Joshua asked what it was that I loved about The Broom of the System, I realized that I couldn’t lie to him.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I actually didn’t like the book. But I still really like you.”
Joshua’s face fell. Both of us were interested in the idea of each other, and I had just tainted his idea of me.
Shortly thereafter, our onanistic, short-lived non-relationship ended, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I was able to sort through exactly what had gone wrong. Ironically, it was David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview that provided answers for me. In it, Wallace says:
It took years after I’d graduated from Amherst to realize that people were actually far more complicated and interesting than books, that almost everyone else suffered the same secret fears and inadequacies as I, and that feeling alone and inferior was actually the great valent bond between us all.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29 and The Topaz Review. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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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