But For Now, This
By Lisa Gordon
We’re walking by one of those Asian markets, with the fruits and colorful boxes and that smell I can never pinpoint, when I notice it. That strange tingling in my hands.
I ignore it. We push through the sidewalks, crowded as always. It’s the only way to get to the bookstore. We have a book to buy, and even though I know they’re holding it for us, I’m worried it won’t be there. Books, for us, are like organs. And we’re leaving today.
“What even is bubble tea?” Rake says as we push through a throng of high-school-aged girls sipping from large orange straws.
“Tapioca?” I say, but I’m not sure. It always seemed gross to me. Gross, and possibly a choking hazard.
“Can’t they make one of those apps where they can deliver anything you want?” Rake says. I know what he means. It’s foggy and chilly and it’s Sunday. People are everywhere, the street is closed for what must have been some sort of farmer’s market, and nothing feels good.
“I think they do,” I say, only to be argumentative.
“No looking,” Rake says. “Book. Done.”
I nod, but I’m preoccupied with my hands again. They feel sort of hot now. A few days ago, when I noticed this the first time, I shoved them under the cold faucet until they were bright red.
“What?” Rake says.
“Nothing.” I don’t want to worry him. He becomes preoccupied with what preoccupies me. It’s one of the best things about us—being entwined like that. When we first became—our way, I guess you could say—people caught on quickly. A friend of mine said it was palpable. We took this as a compliment.
The bookstore is narrow and crowded and exactly as it should be: smelling of wet cardboard and employees who don’t shower enough, who give you the impression they stay up all night reading books the way starving people eat food. We’ve discussed this before, Rake and I, knowing it was politically incorrect, to say the least, but, as writers and people who generally wanted to be artists, it was something we wanted, maybe needed to believe in. We approached bookstores the way I imagine food reviewers approach restaurants: in love, but exasperated by all of it.
We walk to the counter. We’ve been linked at the arm, as we usually are, but the store is too narrow to allow this. So we unlink, and stand side by side, waiting for the customer service person. “I don’t think we can hold hands right now,” whispers Rake, our inside joke, and we smile inside our faces, the way best friends can.
Finally, we’re approached by a tall man about our age with a fading hairline and a dirty t-shirt. “Yes,” he says. “And?”
“You have a book on hold for us. For Sayer. Back Roads of—”
“Oh yes, of California, right,” he says, nodding vigorously and making a few strokes on the computer. “That artist guy…”
“What artist guy?” I say, but he furrows his brows and looks at the computer.
“So, we were wrong. We actually don’t have that.”
“Wait,” Rake says, stepping in front of me. His hands are doing that flappy thing they do sometimes when he’s suddenly frustrated. “But you said—”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. There was a mix-up.”
“But you reserved it for us.” We’d called every bookstore in the city that we knew. This was, we believed, our last resort.
I’m glad Rake is taking over, because usually it’s me who performs the attitude stunts for the customer service people whenever rendered appropriate. But by now the tingling in my hands has worsened, and I’m worried my preoccupation has reached near full-blown status.
“It’s out of print,” says the man with the dirty t-shirt. “You understand these are difficult to come by.”
“Hence the reservation,” Rake is saying, “or is your customer service good for nothing? I thought this was the best bookstore in the city?”
And already I’m thinking of alternatives and I start shaking my hands furiously by my side, the way you do when a body part is asleep. Shake shake shake, furiously. And it feels good and yet you can’t wait for it to end. I hit a woman wearing a backpack when she tries to shimmy by me and apologize.
“Look,” t-shirt guy says, his eyes like slits, “no need to get all—flappy.” He leans in toward us as if telling us a secret. “There’s a bookstore down by the water. In one of those side buildings near Fort Mason. Pretty great. Bet they have it. Smells like the 18th century in there.”
We’re caught off guard by this, the bait-and-switch of it all. He’s letting us down while giving us exciting news: a secret bookstore that smells like the 18th century! We leave the store arm in arm, my hands burning. I go to blow on them, but stop.
“We need that book,” Rake says. “We can’t go today without it.”
There’s a whininess to his voice that he’d only use with me, and me him—it’s a ‘things aren’t going our way and we can only complain to each other’ kind of thing. We live in a silo, but we crave the outer world, even though when we’re in it, like today, we hate it. It’s a game we’ll never win.
A man pushing a baby carriage is coming for us and we duck aside. Rake watches him as he passes. There’s no shortage of attractive baby daddies in San Francisco. If Rake had the wherewithal to create a blog about it, he would. But it probably already exists, and even if it didn’t, he’d never keep it up. He has a problem with follow through. Then again, so do I.
We get into the rental car, a red thing we’ve named Baby Girl, and when I turn the keys the tingling turns to prickles. It’s painful in that way that makes me want to itch my hands off. I make a grunting noise but thankfully Rake isn’t paying attention. I roll down the windows—it’s another 65 degree day in San Francisco—and alternate which hand I keep on the wheel and in the wind.
“We must acknowledge that it might not be there, and that we won’t have it for the trip,” I say, adopting a mock English accent for affect. “And what will we do then?”
Rake leans his head against the backseat and closes his eyes, making his hands into fists. “We’ll survive.”
We’re leaving soon for our annual trip to the coast, which makes us sound like the kind of people who vacation as a verb. Which we sort of are, except we’re the kind of people who don’t make much money but spend it frivolously on weekend getaways, a large portion of which goes to renting the car to do so in the first place, as well as good food and booze, neither of which we skimp on. There should be a term for our kind of lifestyle, but neither of us have thought of one yet. We’re 32 and 31 years old, respectively; our families live across the country, and within the last 5 years we’ve knitted ourselves together as a family of our own. It raises many questions among the people who know us as well as those who don’t.
The trip will be at an inn we discovered off a tiny road in northern California, a mile or so from Mendocino, in a town called Little River, where there’s nothing to do except look at the ocean and drink cocktails and read books. The innkeepers have a greyhound dog named Jem who appears in our dreams sometimes. She’s beautiful and large but embodies splendor and stares at you with big open eyes in a way that snakes right through your soul. We’ve thought about getting a dog but what would we do with a dog? Plus we don’t live together, even though everyone thinks we do.
The book is called Back Roads of California and is a hand-illustrated and hand-written exploration of California back roads. There’s an entire section on the San Francisco Bay Area and we intended to use it for our trip. We envisioned encountering the same small pleasures—wagon wheels with mailboxes affixed to the top, trees with hand-made swings—as the author. It was published in the 70s and is now out of print, but we believed it was created for people like us, who simply want to drive and get lost and be affronted by coastal beauty.
Next week, it’ll be something else. But for now, this.
By the time we’ve pulled into the massive parking lot and I roll into a metered space, I’ve lost some feeling in my fingers, which now seem to have swollen up and turned red. I know it’s getting to the point where it’s turning into something, but sometimes hope can transcend everything else, so I tell Rake to go ahead and manage to pull some change out of my wallet and squeeze the coins between my fingers and pay the damn thing before heading into the store, which does smell like the 18th century. I find Rake in a corner where two bookshelves meet, kneeling down and running his fingers across the spines of books. Toward the back, I see a counter with an older woman sitting on a stool.
“We’ll never find it,” he says. “We’ll just have to live here, going through all the books, one by one, until we’ve found it or we’ve turned 70, whichever happens first.”
I smile, enjoying the fantasy of it all. Living in a bookstore. But my hands won’t let me fantasize for long, and I’m aware of wanting to find it and go home and get on with our lives.
I begin to make my way for the travel section. We both know there really is a good chance we’ll be here for hours, combing through the shelves. If only we could set our minds to more productive things, we’d accomplish half the projects we dream about. Or at least we’d get more done.
The travel section is tucked away in the corner of the store. Apparently no one wants old travel books, and though I know this makes sense from a practical perspective, I grow more propelled by our idea to follow an old travel book, and begin thinking of all the other places we might try it out in, and when I go to select a book on China, my hand—it’s as if it’s vibrating. Pulsing ever so slightly, as if it’s alive in its own way. I place a fingertip in my mouth and bite down. It eases the tingling where my teeth are, and I begin exploring with my tongue. Wetness seems to make it sizzle, and when I pull away, it feels slightly numb. I’m growing more and more worried.
“HANNAH!” I hear Rake cry, and then him take in a deep breath, having just remembered to stay quiet in the ancient bookstore. We are, however, the only ones here, other than the shop woman. I know he’s found the book. And when he discovers me, hand in mouth, he hardly notices anything’s strange. I suppose I could just be biting my nails.
“She has it. The lady. Come!” He waves me on with barely a glance, but with his disappearance I reach for my phone and Google “tingling hands”. I know I shouldn’t do it, but there I am, reading about the conditions or diseases I suddenly surely had: multiple sclerosis, diabetes, shingles, something fascinating called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.
Rake comes around the corner again. “What are you doing?” he says, exasperated. “Come on. I want to get on the road!” He’s running his hand through his hair the way he does when he needs something to do with his hands but doesn’t have anything to do with them. It’s nervous energy he’s expending, and it subsequently always makes me nervous. This is why I usually don’t tell him when I’m sick or anxious or in pain. It ruins the trajectory of the day, and since I usually end up being fine in the end, it’s often not worth it. Rake calls me Hannah-chondriac.
But suddenly I blurt out “I have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease,” unable to help myself, and it occurs to me to look it up in this bookstore. An old book about the ancient disease I have. It has to be ancient. It just has to be. “It really hurts,” I whisper, and I’m only about 70% lying.
“She’s in the California history section,” he says. He reaches for my upper arm and—BAM—as soon as his fingers squeeze around my muscle, I feel something in the center of my body, like a small firecracker that leaves behind dull pain. It knocks me out, and my knees give way, and I grab onto the lower lip of a bookshelf, doubling over.
“What the fuck!” Rake cries, bending to help me. “What just happened! What is going on?”
“It’s been weird all day,” I say.
“This weird tingling in my hands.”
“Are you in pain? Why didn’t you say anything?” He’s helped me to my feet again but it’s no good. My panic has taken over, and my heart has begun to race. “Hannah, seriously. We don’t really have time for this.”
“We actually have plenty of time,” I say. “It’s our own useless schedule we’re abiding by here.”
“Everything okay over here?” says a timid voice. The bookshop lady peeks her head around to corner to find Rake holding me up by my shoulders, a crooked elbow in the palm of his hand. We must look like a pile of hipster scarecrows, eyes open wide like we’re being pecked apart by the very thing we’re meant to fend off.
“I’d like to see a book on ancient medical diseases,” I say, taking in a deep breath, but looking her right in the eye, so she’d know I was serious.
“No,” Rake says, “we’re fine. Just the California back roads book, please. And then we’ll stop wasting your time.”
But the shop lady is coming toward me with concern spreading across her face. She adjusts her glasses and clears her throat and approaches me with a seriousness I find comforting. “What afflicts you?” she says.
“My hands,” I say. “It started with one, and now it’s two. They’re tingling, and I feel all these bizarre sensations.”
“Bizarre sensations,” she says, “my favorite.”
Rake is staring at her with the blankest look I’ve ever seen him make.
She reaches for one of my hands, then stops. “May I?” she says. I nod. Rake removes his own hands from mine and, though I can’t see him from behind me, I know he’s rolling his eyes.
“My husband is a doctor,” she says. She holds my hand like it’s a small, baby animal, and begins to stroke it, ever so lightly, as if petting. “Well, he used to be. He used to make house calls. He believes in a different sort of care than what they’re manufacturing now. He stopped back in the 80s. Now he writes disease fan fiction.”
I don’t ask her what disease fan fiction is. I don’t ask what she means by manufactured care. I don’t ask what kind of house calls he used to make, what kind of doctor he even was. All I know is that the way she’s touching my hand—whatever it is that she’s doing—is wondrous. I’d like to close my eyes, but I don’t. I purposefully don’t meet Rake’s eyes, either, because I can feel his impatience emanating.
“Does this help?” she says, and aligns her body with mine, holding my hand in front of both of our chests. She’s short, and sort of fits into my body in this strange way, as if she were a grown child. I haven’t seen a face this up-close in I don’t even know how long. It’s possible I’ve never seen a face this up-close in my life. I’ve had one long-term boyfriend who I didn’t really like and a wide variety of lovers, but never have I been in the position to have nothing else in my direct eyesight for so long except another person’s face. I can see the whiskers on her chin and the soft padding of hair on her cheeks, the tiny legs of some broken blood vessels snaking their way to her eyes, the pinkish, papery skin of her eyelids, the dirt around the small screw visible from the hinge of her glasses. I never knew my grandmothers and, though she’s not old enough, probably, to be one, can’t help but feel familial toward her in this peculiar moment.
“It really does,” I say.
Rake makes his way in front of us, puts his elbow on the bookshelf and rests the side of his head against his hand. How long is this going to take, he says with his eyes, but I ignore him, and close my own eyes despite having willed myself against it only moments ago. You’ll be fine you’ll be fine you’ll be fine, I think, and I hear Rake slip away.
“I have your book,” the shop lady says to me in a near whisper. “I’ll be sad to see it go.”
“Oh?” I say. “How come?” I was hardly paying attention. Her light touches on my hand—she’d since moved to the other—were spreading slow pulses of calm up and down my arms and through my torso. I felt a warmth in my core, like a perfect campfire.
“We knew Earl,” she says.
“Oh?” I say, and she can tell, from the inclination in my voice, that I don’t know who Earl is.
“The artist. The writer. Your book.”
“Oh!” I say.
“He was from San Francisco.”
“Oh!” I say.
She drops my hands and takes a small step back. “His work is very coveted, you know. They sell on Ebay and Amazon and the like. If you’re not appreciative…”
“No no, we are, we are,” I say. And then, “Rake!”
We stand there as she stares at me and I try not to know that I know she’s staring at me while we listen to Rake come closer and closer.
“Why sell it at all?” I say, missing her hands on mine.
“I have others. And when you do what I do—” and she gestured around the store—“you learn to part ways with the cherished; you have to accept there’s only so much you can control.”
Rake arrives and finds us standing facing each other. “Ready? You okay?”
“She knows the author of our book. He also illustrated it. He’s from San Francisco.”
“Oh!” says Rake.
This is exactly the kind of thing that we love—a direct connection to a relic of the past, the very creator of this self-induced project we’re about to embark on.
“He is dead,” she says, looking between us impatiently.
“Oh,” we say, quietly.
“I know his children,” she says, growing more and more angry, it seems, by the second. “I read the very book to my children. You kids with your city clothes and your fancy degrees and you think you like books, you think you care about the art and all that came before you, because it’s vintage, or something, but it’s people’s lives you’re messing with here, people’s lives!”
“Umm,” Rake says.
“We didn’t mean to,” I say. The tingling feels sharper, too sharp. “We’re meaning to follow his book, the roads he laid out. It’s an homage, if you think about it.”
“It’s nothing of the kind.” She shakes her head vigorously. “Those roads don’t even exist anymore, most of them. They’ll take you right into a ditch, or some mansion on a hill.” She closes her eyes and takes in a deep breath.
“What are we supposed to do then?” I say. “Didn’t you just tell me—”
“May we see the book, please?” Rake says. “Then we’ll leave you alone.”
She sighs and makes for the counter, then waves a hand in front of her for us to lead the way. Rake’s touching my elbow, trying to move me along faster, and I pull back, the prickles starting to burn. “You okay?” he whispers. He links his arm with mine and I wince, but hide it.
“No direct touch,” she snaps, and pulls our arms apart very lightly. “Sensitive.”
Rake gives her an eye, wanting to say something to her. He moves his hand to my back instead as if protecting me.
“How much is it?” I ask, as we approach the counter. The book is lying there perfectly, faded around only the edge of the cover, as if a smaller book sat on top of it for years.
I want to touch it. But the pain has grown, and now both of my hands felt swelled and heavy, too heavy for my arms.
“Priceless,” she says, and spreads it out on the counter in front of us, flipping cautiously through its pages.
“Listen,” Rake says. “If you’re not going to give it to us, just tell us now. We’ve come a long way and we have a long way to go. We’re good people.”
The lady stares at him and I reach for the book, unable to help wanting to feel its cover, its smooth pages, knowing I’ll feel nothing. She lets me touch it, but she places her hands over mine. Instant relief. Cool numbness spreads up my arms. I wish we could take her with us and she could just hold my hands, hold my hands forever.
“I’m not going to give it to you—”
Rake makes an exasperated noise and throws up his arms, lets them hit the sides of his legs, making a slapping sound.
“—But I will make a deal with you. If you leave something here with me as collateral, I’ll let you have it for your trip. But you must return it. Upon which you’ll get your item back.”
Rake and I look at each other with wide eyes. “What do you want?” we say.
“It’s not up to me to decide what’s important to you. But it must be important, otherwise why would you come back?”
I think about telling Rake, leave me behind. Take the book, and leave me. Go off on the trip and find the magical roads, the beautiful hidden lakes and ponds and vineyards, the knobby trees and expanses of sun-filled fields. I’ll stay here with this crazy, wonderful woman. It might just be tingling hands now, but it’s bound to be something else eventually, I want to say. It always is.
But instead, Rake and I face each other, looking the other up and down, itemizing in our minds what the other has to offer. We have nothing, nothing at all. And I want to say it, but I don’t.
And years and years later, after reading the book to my son for the hundredth time, he’ll turn the page to the epilogue. I’ll tell him to read it to me, and he will, and I’ll brace myself for the words. “On the backroads of California I rediscovered the pleasure of driving. It had nothing to do with haste, and everything to do with taking the time to perceive…” and I’ll get up, suddenly restless, and he’ll go on reading, even though I’ve left the room.
Lisa Gordon has been published in Paper Darts, Brilliant Flash Fiction, the Rumpus, and others. She has an MFA from California College of the Arts.