“What you seek is seeking you.” –Rumi
My oldest friend and I share a dull Midwestern hometown and have cursed it longer than we have known each other. After a decade of itching for bigger cities (and sating) then sunnier, coastal cities, we finally moved West.
It’s been a year since she and I relocated and, still, we have failed to meet a kindred spirit. We have met convenient people. Coworkers, who like the same teams or movies or bands as us, who share similarities like appreciating money, beer, the beach, music, but–alas–no soul sisters. As Irving Stone wrote, “There are no faster friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”
In the Xerox room, a green aluminum file holder perches on the shelf. Several books lean in its arms. Of these mostly lackluster books, one, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, hooks my eye. I reach for it. I hold it in my hands. I flip through it. 65 is dog-eared, the third page of “Remember the Alamo.” I see no marginalia, no underlinings, no stars or hearts. I obsess over the simple mystery. What made this person bend the page? I feel grief. My own. Maybe theirs too.
Sandra Cisneros is dear to me. I first encountered “My Name” in an introductory writing course. Like the protagonist Esperanza, I am my great-grandmother’s namesake:
It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse–which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female–but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.
My great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn’t marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That’s the way he did it.
In two paragraphs, Cisneros had shaved away a little of my pain. My name pain. My Chinese pain. My female pain. Pain I thought would never leave or lessen. I drove straight to the bookstore, bought the book and read it cover to cover.
Pre-Cisneros, certain books spoke to me (the misfits and the hope of possibility in A Wrinkle in Time, the art of letters and the salvation of friendship in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; the pains of new places and feeling like the only one in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.), but The House on Mango Street rendered me stunned. In the first self-titled vignette, I underlined the passage “Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. This was the house Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket and this was the house Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed.” On the next page, I underlined half of “Hairs,” and the rest of the book goes like that. “People write about this?” I said over and over, the question drenched in wonder. Her words were an open invitation for me to write about my experience. In my beloved copy, I dog-eared ten pages. In my beloved copy, a receipt holds my place, so I can easily revisit a passage that I love again and again. The bar tab is from May 7, 2008 for $20.90 at our downtown watering hole.
Where I fell in love with writing, I also fell in love with some writers, drinking after workshop. We frequented spots with the music low enough so we could hear each other. We exchanged stories, we shared books, we divulged and kept secrets, we gushed, we challenged each other, we inspired each other, we tore pens out of our bags to record things on napkins, and the ones of us that kept in touch drove highway miles and flew in planes after we dispersed to reunite again and again because no one can replace them in those parts of our hearts and brains they own.
For a bibliophile, book abuse (folding the top and bottom corners, breaking bindings, ripping pages and tattering covers) and graffiti (the happy faces and scrawled notes in blank spaces) draws a line from the book to us. What Cisnerosism made them look inside themselves? Or, what part of them is always waiting at the surface, listening? What phrase or sentence or sequence cut to their core? Was it “Say it. Say you want me. You want me”? Was it “Then he sent the ring, little diamonds set in the shape of Texas”? Was it “Smoke in the mouth”?
For a bibliophile, loving the same phases, sentences and sequences makes us belong to each other. Is my literary soul mate working just offices down from mine? Can we meet at a bar, where the music is low enough so we can hear each other’s histories? If I ask you again and again what you have underlined, starred and hearted, or scribbled in the margins, will you love me for it? Or is it better for two coy people to never know each other?