Barnes & Noble, North Dallas.
Wednesday evening . . .
I’m wearing a black t-shirt, cruising the self-help section of the book store that Ricky always goes to for coffee. He likes the Mochas, and I like the smell of coffee mixed with books. Why I’m wearing a black t-shirt is because the blood from my tattoos would surely stain anything else. Black is salvageable.
Why I’m at the self-help section is because I am in one of those self-improvement moods. I cleaned my room, and rearranged the refrigerator at the loft. My shoes are lined-up in neat parallel rows under my bed. The sink is spotless clean, and my aromatherapy soaps are clean and free of dried bubbles and whatnot.
I need to make myself better. To become what Uriel thinks I am. There is a big deficit between peoples’ expectations of me, and what I can deliver. And I know that this will be my undoing eventually. So I want to read the kinds of things that might make me a better . . . whatever it is I am.
Right now I’m looking at the sixth version of Tomato Soup for the Soul. As I thumb through it I notice somebody kind of beside and behind me. I figure it’s Ricky so I say something he’ll respond too, “This is a book written by fags, for fags.”
And this girl laughs behind me.
“It’s not that bad,” this girl says as I turn to see her. She’s wearing a green polo shirt, with a name tag that says, Angela. “It’s just that these kind of themes are geared towards people who need a softer, less brazen approach to spiritual improvement. Injured people, you know.”
She’s got big brown curious eyes, and light brown skin. Her hair is black, with little bits of red at the tips. She is thin like a model, or a college student with unpaid loans living off of dry noodles and bubble gum. And she is shorter than me by a couple of inches.
Oh, and she is fairly attractive. She’s that bridled, secret, librarian attractive. The kind of girl you could introduce your parents to, if you knew who they were.
“Are you searching for a specific topic?” she said, her voice as smooth and soft as silk. She sounds like a girl. Like a girl is supposed to sound. And there’s no pretense to the way she’s looking at me. She’s not looking at me like I’m a lunatic. Or at least, she’s good at concealing it.
I put the tomato book back on the shelf. “I don’t know where to start.”
“What’s your problem?” she asked politely, but getting right to the point as if she’s my shrink. She smiles, realizing that what she said might have seemed crass. “What I mean is, what kind of issues are you trying to resolve?”
If we had all day and all night I couldn’t answer that question to satisfaction. I look at her, trying to figure out if she sees I’m some kind of different human. “I want to be better than I am.”
“Better how?” she says, cocking her head to the side a bit, as if she really wants to know what I’m talking about. Sensing my hesitation she adds, “I work here part time, but I’m studying psychology at the University of Dallas. That’s why this is my section. I mean, I help out with this section,” she said, her eyes looking around as she fumbles for words. “You know what I mean.”
Then she extended her hand, “I’m . . . ” she pointed to the name tag, “Angela.”
Gently I shook her hand. Her palm and fingers were small and warm, and it felt good to touch her. Not that giving Ricky high-fives isn’t cool. Just that, it’s different being around a girl. Good different.
I’m Jack, I say.
She smiled, “Okay, Jack. What can we do to help you be better than you are?”
“You don’t look broken.”
I find myself wanting to smile, but not wanting to look like some goon. My eyes dart from her to the books so that I don’t stare. She’s more than just a little pretty. I know she’s just being socially nice to me.
Ricky told me all about chicks that work at bars and restaurants and book stores. He said they’ll seem like they’re coming on to you when they aren’t. And then you’ll say something monumentally stupid, and she’ll file a restraining order. And I don’t want that to happen because I like this store.
I clear my throat, “I have problems with my past. You know, my history?”
She blinked a few times, and kind of squinted her eyes at me, “Alright.” She kneeled down, looking for some book that must have been at shin level.
And just for a split fraction of a second I glanced down at her. She’s wearing these khaki pants that are tight enough to let you know she is in great shape. She must be in her early or mid-twenties.
She pulled out a book with green and white words on the jacket. “This is about dealing with our parents, and the baggage they’ve left us.”
“Oh, no,” I stop her. “Not that kind of history.” This is complicated enough without having to beat around the bushes. “I mean, like . . . my past . . . transgressions.” That’s a good word. A 10-dollar word.
She puts the book under her arm and stares at me again. And now, it’s like she’s really studying me. And I know this sounds stupid, but I think she’s really looking at me. Not as a customer. Not as a guy in the self-help section. But as a person.
But even though she’s a part-time clerk at a book store, and I’m living in a five-thousand dollar a month loft, I know that she’s way out of my league.
“You have innocent eyes,” she says.
My heart is thumping more than when Ricky almost gets us killed every time we drive.
“Unique,” she says. “What is your ethnicity, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I shrug. I tell her, “I’m not sure. I don’t know a lot about myself. That’s why I’m here talking to you, Angela.”
She looks like she’s considering something. “You’re different.”
Oh, shit. Can everyone in the universe see something I can’t? Do I have a sign on my head that says, Wacko who walks among the dead?
And just as she’s about to say something, Ricky interrupts our comfortable silence.
“What’s up, Jack? You find anything worth keeping?”
Yes, I answer. And both her and I know I’m not talking about books. But neither of us say anything. She just hands me the book, and almost smiles at me.
Ricky notices us kind of looking at each other, and I think he thinks a restraining order with a 200-meter boundary is just moments away. “We gotta go, brother.”
I nod. “Thanks, Angela,” I say. “It was very nice to meet you. Thanks for the,” I look down and read the title, “Dealing with Your Parents Laundry.” I realize that I have said thanks twice, and that I look like a complete goober, so I make my way uncomfortably out of the isle, with Ricky in tow.
As I turn towards the registers I notice Ricky stop and turn back to her. He’s probably apologizing for me, making sure I’m not hauled in tonight by the local police. He looks out for me on stuff like that.
After I pay for the book, Ricky and I head to his Porsche SUV—which, itself, is a rolling contradiction—and he slides the keys into the ignition, looking over at me.
What? I say, putting on my seatbelt.
He grins, his lips closed and flat.
“You were flirting with that girl.”
No, I wasn’t. She was helping me with a book. She was doing her job as a sales representative, helping a customer find what he was looking for. She’s probably like that with everyone.
“She’s cute,” he said as his eyebrows danced up and down a few times.
I smiled, “Well, sure, but . . . “
“But nothing, dude. That chick was flirting with you, too. She was looking at you, for real.”
“No she wasn’t. That was just professional courtesy. You’re reading too much into it,” I say, and even as the words to the contrary pour out of my mouth, I’m hoping he’s right.
“For a guy who can see the dead, you sure are blind.”
We pulled out into evening traffic, heading to the ALG office.
A few minutes later I ask, “Do you really think she was hitting on me?”
Ricky smiled, “My man, Jack, has a crush. That’s cute.”
I sigh, wondering why I even asked him.
“Who knows, dude, maybe you’ll see her again.”
If it’s in the cards.