It Was a Deal-Breaker, But I Ignored It -- And I'm Glad
Rodrigo didn't have books. Not a single one. I had been at his apartment before to cowork -- the staple past-time of urbanites who toil on largely solitary projects and like to pretend they still have some semblance of a social life -- but you don't notice these things when you're working. You notice how clean a space is. You notice if someone has air conditioning or heat, depending on the season. You notice their wi-fi speed. You notice the number of outlets. You notice the kind of coffee they serve and how they make it.
Rodrigo's apartment was pristine, he seemed like one of those people who left apartments and made the building managers wonder whether anyone had ever actually lived there. He had a network so airtight, you'd think he was running a satellite unit for the Department of Defense. His wi-fi was impeccable; he had eight outlets on a long strip under his couch so the cables didn't need to stretch all over the apartment when people came over to work. His coffee was a delightful Ethiopian brew, French pressed and he always seemed to have brownies and other treats even though he didn't strike me as having much of a sweet tooth.
I'd noticed all this. But I'd never thought about the books. I hadn't looked. I hadn't had reason to look. Now I had reason. As I walked in the door -- with nothing under my coat -- the books suddenly became very relevant. The alleged quote from John Waters scurried across my mind: "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them." I scanned the place for books. Any books.
For nine seconds anyway. After he closed the door behind him, I let the coat fall to the floor and soon we were on the floor, too.
Afterward, noticing the bipolar California autumn day had cooled considerably, he wrapped me in a blanket and cooked me breakfast, somehow knowing that my favorite food in the whole wide world is bacon and I like it best in the late afternoon. He set up a little table for me, fed me, cleared the table, set up my laptop, got me an ashtray, and poured me some coffee. He let me write for hours without bothering me, stopping by now and again to empty the ashtray and refill my coffee -- with just the right amount of sugar.
At nightfall, he turned off his computer and asked me to join him on the couch. He turned on the television and began to scan his digital archive of movies. The man has more movies than I have books. I wondered briefly, with some disdain, whether he was one of those L.A. characters who couldn't say anything without alluding to a movie ("it's how dad did it, it's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far." Yes, he was) and I was judging him because I am one of those characters who can't say anything without referencing a book, and these conversations never end well.
I don't really watch movies. My interest in film is limited to Fellini's art cinema era and campy post-Depression film noir, with the occasional really bad action or apocalyptic movie -- the bigger the explosion, the better.
Books, meet movies. Stretched out on the couch with my back against his chest as The Bourne Identity began to play, I wondered how many movies I'd seen that were better than the book. I could only think of two: Death in Venice and A Clockwork Orange -- the latter only if we were talking about the original version of the book with the incongruous last chapter.
There is no way I could have known that one day I would add my modest handful of Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini and Raymond Chandler-inspired class of flicks to his huge repository, or that one day my shelves would surround his furniture. All I knew is that I was getting involved with a man who didn't read. Clearly, this would never work out.
I'd had this feeling. When we first started talking about dating, I'd done my best to sabotage the effort. On our first date, I'd taken him to a diner at an ungodly hour -- because that suited my schedule, and who cares if he has work the next day? Undeterred, he delivered an incredible monologue about his love of diner coffee, suggesting that the terrible, watered down and simultaneously burned-tasting dark liquid was the only certainty we had in the world.
It was so funny, we ended up driving around the city until an even more ungodly hour, talking about physics. Rodrigo, it suddenly dawned on me, had an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything. I couldn't comment on anything without receiving an explanation about the inner workings of that thing. It was like spending time in meatspace with the Google algorithm.
I loved it, and I resented that I loved it. I resented it because he'd never told me he could be my personal search engine. I'd gone into this thinking that I was going to try to date a geek, which made sense, since I lived on the internet and I placed a high value on someone who knew what I meant when I said I was having a "honey badger" kind of day or suddenly jumped up on the couch and screamed, "Charlie! We’re going to Candy Mountain!"
This meme-version of Tourette's scares people. I have an image to manage -- I can't have people thinking I'm insane. I didn't care if I found someone to laugh along with me, I just needed him to not feel he needed to have me committed. Which meant I needed someone who spent as much time on the internet as I did. Hopefully, this would also make him less likely to resent me for always being on my laptop. Fingers crossed.
And here was this man, one who knew the memes and was on his gadgets as much as I was on mine, and all along he'd been hiding this other thing, this amazing, panty-dropping talent for regurgitating data. And he was trotting it out like it wasn't a big deal, like every human being came equipped with the ability to cache every bit of information he ever heard or read. He could tell I was very surprised and completely fascinated, which was annoying, as clearly this was more awesome than any lingerie I owned.
On our second date, I invited him to a terrible Chinese place and -- just to offend him in case his information superpower rendered me half-naked at some point during the evening -- I wore mismatched lingerie under my clothes. Just to get the point across that he wasn't that awesome.
He noticed that, and not because I ended up half-naked. He is just one of those people who notice everything. He kissed me once that night when he dropped me home, but between Chinese and my apartment, he'd made me orgasm so hard, I couldn't remember my apartment number on my way up. I sincerely wish I were exaggerating.
It wasn't dangerous enough that he was a living arsenal of facts and I'm a data fiend, he also had the ability to make my body melt. You don't understand: I live for information. I stayed in academia for seven years because of this, and only went into journalism because it assured me that I could research to my heart's content as a job and ask people questions every day for the rest of my life. This stuff is very powerful and on top of that he could make me orgasm harder than I'd ever orgasmed in my life? He was winning, and despite the mismatched underthings, which I'm sure made his OCD cause his face to twitch, he was still circling.
He sent me a message telling me he was taking me hostage for a week. He didn't ask, he informed me of this and told me to pack a bag with necessities. It was on. I had two secret powers he didn't know about yet called the Reverse Asian Cowgirl and the Pile Driver. (Please don't Google these with the kids around.)
Once I was in the door of his bookless apartment, I dropped my coat and it was on. By the time the weekend came to a close, I wondered how he was going to walk, or manage to drive his car to get to work. I telecommute, so fortunately, I would be able to convalesce -- mostly in a fetal position on a corner of the bed, in some kind of a sex-induced haze, watching Pi over and over and sniffing the sheets to curb the withdrawal symptoms.
As he drove me home a week later, it was unclear who had won, or if this was about winning at all. I felt blissfully blank going home that afternoon, suddenly aware of what Buddhists mean when they talk about being full and empty all at once. Full and empty, despite the fact that my muscles resembled ground beef more than actual body parts.
Once home, I sat at my desk trying to find a place to start the story -- I had to write about it. But the compulsion to write was buffered by the intensity of the experience. When writers write, they distill; they connect the dots and tie loose ends. Most of the time, they know the end before they begin -- and I knew the end. Yes, the lack of books were sufficiently compelling evidence, but the truth was that I'd written this story a thousand times before. This story played out with different characters and cities, with the only certainty being the impending doom. The great tragic ending was so perfect and ritualized, it almost felt like a Hollywood formula.
I decided sometimes breaking the narrative means not writing the story. This story would have to tell itself.
On our fourth date, Rodrigo instructed that I wear "comfortable shoes" -- an ominous sign, as it indicated he was planning to force some activity upon me, Queen Sloth of Leisurely Stillness, that would obviously require movement, most likely outdoors, a notion I found highly repugnant.
It's not that I am a spoiled city child that hates or fears nature. I grew up on a tropical island: I can skin dive along reefs filled with wondrous, if somewhat dangerous, creatures; I can climb palm trees to rival better-suited primates; and I have soles that can walk on glass without causing me much discomfort, thanks to years of running through the jungle barefoot.
So I'm not a spoiled city child. I'm a spoiled jungle child. When I go into nature, I go into nature. I do not tolerate people walking their dogs, doing yoga poses on their mats, pushing strollers or playing Frisbee in my wilderness. I do not tolerate people at all in my wilderness, except maybe scientists, because they have a lot of data and we've established I'm a sucker for any and all information, especially if it involves copious note-taking.
Most importantly, I strongly resent having to wear shoes -- in fact, I really resent wearing clothes. I dress up to go to the grocery store to make up for the fact that I have to live among people and wear clothes. Pretty things give me something to look forward to as it regards the odious task of getting dressed. It's not so hard to maintain a level of common decency in a city if clothes are an extension of my creativity and especially since our species is so terrifying I can't trust them to keep to themselves. But when I am alone in the wild, I just find it impossible not to strip and jump into the nearest river or ocean.
Needless to say, this business about "comfortable shoes" did not at all sit well with me. I donned a pair of sandals with somewhat reasonable heels, about three inches or so. He arrived, smiled at my shoes (or my obstinacy, or both), put me in his car and drove me to San Diego, where we stopped for a coffee, had a very heated philosophical argument about love, and then drove out to Coronado Island to Hotel del Coronado.
It was late in the evening when we arrived. I couldn't figure out why I needed comfortable shoes for a rendezvous at a hotel. It crossed my mind that Rodrigo might be some specialized fetishist who liked to ravage women in cross-trainers, but before I could further develop the conjecture, Rodrigo took me up the stairs and began telling me a story.
On November 24, 1892, a 20-something woman checked in to the Hotel del Coronado, known by locals as "The Del" (which, both of us knowing Spanish, caused much amusement, as there could not possibly be a better name for anything than "The Of"). She arrived unaccompanied, without luggage, and checked in under the name Lottie A. Bernard. She didn't mingle with guests and the staff that attended her reported that she continuously asked whether she had received a telegram from a brother said to have been a doctor who was traveling with her but who had been called away from the journey between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Five days after her arrival, she was found dead on one of the hotel's outdoor staircases that lead to the beach. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the right temple. After the inquest, it was found that her name was, in fact, Kate Morgan. She had in her possession handkerchiefs embroidered with the name Louisa Anderson, not Lottie. She was believed to have traveled around the country using different aliases.
Investigations also revealed she had no brother and it was speculated that she may have been traveling with a lover. Her companion on the train never came forward. Her husband was identified as a man who resided in Iowa, and who was known for his gambling habit. The mysterious man to whom Morgan sent a telegram the day before she died to pay her hotel bill, a certain G.L. Allen in Iowa, was never successfully interrogated about his relationship with her. He said only that he was a schoolmate of her husband's and sent her the $25 -- a nice sum of money at the time -- simply out of charity, and that he did not personally know her.
Staff reported that Morgan seemed to become progressively ill as the days passed. At some point, she left the hotel saying she needed to go to San Diego to attempt to procure her luggage -- her brother, she said, had inadvertently left the train with her baggage ticket. There was, of course, no luggage. Instead, Morgan stopped at a local gun shop, bought a .44 American bulldog and some cartridges and had them wrapped. A Christmas present, she explained.
Her condition worsened and the staff attempted to convince her to call for a doctor, but she refused. Instead she sent for matches. When the bell boy asked whether she needed him to run downstairs and get her a matchbook, she told him she simply needed one so she could burn some papers in the fireplace.
The following day, an electrician turning off the hotel lights found her body early in the morning. The revolver was later discovered nearby.
The story of the mysterious woman captured the imagination of the nation in 1892. Newspapers became obsessed with learning more about her, the "Beautiful Stranger" as they called her before she was positively identified, and the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide at this luxury sea-side hotel.
"Her reasons were never discovered, if she committed suicide, that is," Rodrigo told me, in closing. "This veranda is one of the last places she was seen alive. It is said that her ghost still haunts the hotel grounds and even today some hotel staff refuse to work alone in the room she occupied 119 years ago -- room 302, which today is room 3327."
We picked up a book at the hotel bookshop detailing the events and retraced her steps, going over articles and testimonies, trying to figure out what had happened. It was an interactive, real-life form of research that depended as much on the ability to distill, retain and organize information as it did on imagination.
As we sat on the steps leading to the beach where Kate Morgan had been found, it dawned on me that this man understood me. Not because he had spent any time studying me or somehow knew me, but because he was inherently like me. He liked information as much as I did, though he collected it in his mind, as opposed to shelves. And he was as curious and creative as I was -- if not more so.
If this had been a war, I would have waved a white flag at that point. But since it wasn't, we went to dinner, then home. It's been a little less than a year since then -- did he really take me there in November?
This is what I mean -- I discover little details behind his reasoning every day. How could I ever get bored? I can't, I don't have time. There is always something new. He's this book you don't want to finish reading, only you don't have to pace yourself because it's as endless as you are.
Last night we were in bed, reading -- he's taken up reading, and reading real, physical books -- when his free hand found my free hand. We were reading and holding hands. It is the most insignificant thing in the world, but it isn't. I've done a lot of things -- I mean it, a lot -- but I have never held hands while reading. The best part is that it wasn't a call for attention, it was an affirmation. It said, "I'm here and so are you and I like that."
It reminded me of that John Waters quote which I saw again a few weeks ago making the rounds among book snobs on Tumblr, one of those simple, streamlined blogging platforms. What if I'd decided that having no books and being seemingly uninterested in reading was a deal-breaker? What if receiving a nod when I alluded to some obscure passage had won out over what would eventually blossom into this?
My knowledge of films has expanded beyond the 1970s thanks to Rodrigo. And now he reads every night, which is a lot more than a lot of book fiends I know.
Today, in an effort to confirm that John Waters had actually made the aforementioned statement and try to give it some context, I Googled the quote. I didn't find any information that proved he'd actually said this or much context, but I did find what appears to be a letter:
We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them. Don't let them explore you until they’ve explored the secret universes of books. Don't let them connect with you until they've walked between the lines on the pages.
Books are cool, if you have to withhold yourself from someone for a bit in order for them to realize this then do so.
John Samuel Waters
I don't know whether he did write it, or who he wrote it to, but I like this version better. This version doesn't suggest we should discard people who are not like us, but to try to show them the joys of things we love. I don't know that holding back is the way, but to each his own.
In the end, the people who may be the most like us may not make their similarities manifest in the same way as we do and it's these very differences that have the power to enrich our world, not the similarities.