Knowing that life is life, not mood

I’m not too easily embarrassed. But I don’t need the drama of trying to use a credit card when I know perfectly well that there is no money available there for me to use, and I’m not the type of person who’s so mortified that I will offer the cashier, my companion, and the other customers in the line behind me an explanation as to why my credit card was declined.

So when, on my way out a bookstore the other morning, I swiped my debit card to pay for a pile of books and found it declined, I didn’t turn red or shuffle my feet apologetically or stammer a possible explanation for that unexpected turn of events. But I did raise an eyebrow and say confusedly, “That’s so weird. I know my deposit cleared,” because a quick phone call just five minutes beforehand had confirmed that I did indeed have money available in my bank account.

I was in the bookstore because I can never pass up the chance to duck inside one. And because I love bookstores and their wide floor-plans, comfy armchairs, café tables, window seats, and, of course, the endless array of bookshelves to wander through, fingers trailing along the books’ spines as I hold my head to the side to read the titles.

I really wasn’t expecting to buy anything, until I came across Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story, a memoir that my father had loved and made the entire family read and had raved about to friends and strangers for weeks afterwards. Turning it over in my hands to skim the back cover, I smiled to myself, remembering an email I had written to a friend in July 2002, soon after reading the book myself:

There is a passage in the book, where the author is talking about Pashto, and I was remembering your IM to me the other day that your friend dictated in Pashto. (Pashto is a kickass language, for reals.) I thought you and your friend might find this amusing:

“Pashto was the language of the ruling clan and the official language of Afghanistan, and no one was allowed to make fun of it or insult it. My father infuriated the authorities by going the other way. He championed Pashto too much, loudly proclaiming it ‘the mother of all the languages.’ He drew up lexicons of words in Pashto and other languages that sounded similar, and drew forced etymological connections. The name Mexico, he claimed, derived from the Pashto phrase ‘Maka sikaway’. Pashtuns, he explained, had discovered Mexico but didn’t like it, and when they came home, they told their friends, ‘Maka sikaway’, which means, ‘What are you doing? Don’t do that.’”

Isn’t that hilarious? I think the Afghani Pashto is a little bit different from the one we speak at home, because we would say it as, Muku sukaway. Or actually, in the real order, it would be, “Sukaway? Muku!” But that whole thing about “Mexico” being derived from Pashto just totally made me laugh, though.

I switched Ansari’s book to one hand, knowing that I wanted my own copy. Continuing through the bookstore, I stopped eventually at a table where books were selling for a fraction of their usual prices. I found a 2003 collection of Alice Walker’s poetry, Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, and flipped through the pages for a few minutes:

Loss of vitality
Is a sign
Things have gone

It is like
Sitting on
A sunny pier
Wondering whether
To swing
Your feet.

A time of dullness
Sodden enthusiasm
This exists
At all.

The sticker on the back said it cost $5. I held onto both books and continued down the table, breathless with surprise and delight when I came across Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Fifth Book of Peace. Four hundred pages, hard-covered, for $5 again. Months ago, I had stood in a different bookstore as rays of late afternoon sunshine drifted across the carpet, having just picked out a card for HijabMan, and reading the first twenty pages of Kingston’s desperate rush into the Oakland-Berkeley hills in a failed attempt to save her home and her material possessions. Everything she owed, including the manuscript of her novel-in-progress, was lost as the hills were ravaged by fire in October 1991 just as she was driving home from her father’s funeral. I remember driving up through those winding roads with my own father soon afterward, on one of our endless trips to the Children’s Hospital Oakland, as he gravely explained to me about the fire, while I, ten years old and terrified of losing my home, gazed out the car window at the blackened hills I loved even then.

I had been sorely tempted to buy Kington’s book that first day I came across it, but I had had only enough money for one book, and that had to be The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, as edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, for which I had been searching for days and had finally found on the bottom shelf of a bookcase, somewhere in my bookstore journey between the revolving card-stand at the window and Kingston’s book on the table in the back. So Rilke it was, an identical copy of the book I love, true to the original German and beautifully rendered into English with both languages displayed on facing pages, clean and smooth compared to my own mercilessly dog-eared copy, the perfect gift for a new friend who possesses amazing wisdom and clarity of vision and who was about to leave on an inspiring journey. And I don’t even give books as gifts. But that’s how perfectly fitting Rilke’s book was.

So that was all a few months ago. On this day, then, I had three new books picked out, which is usually enough to make me giddy, because that’s just how much a nerd I am. To celebrate yet further, I scooped up a few Lindor truffles from the little bowl at the end of the register counter while waiting in line behind a lady with two young children.

When it was my turn to pay, I piled the books onto the counter and laid my truffles next to them. I chatted with the girl at the register as she rang up and bagged my purchases, she asking about my headwrap and I smiling a lot because it turned out she was Pakistani and her name was the same as that of one of my aunts. And then, as mentioned before, my debit card was declined, much to my confusion. “That’s so weird though.” I swiped it again, and again the same. The girl looked apologetic. I shrugged unconcernedly. “Can I put these on hold and come back for them in the afternoon?”

“Sure,” she said. She grabbed a pad and pen to take down my name.

From behind me, I heard a voice say, “I could pay for those.”

I turned in surprise. The man behind me in line was perhaps in his thirties, and so completely nondescript that I cannot now remember anything about his appearance, except how very grim and solemn he looked.

“I can pay,” he offered again.

“Oh no,” I said. “I couldn’t let you do that.”

“I’m paying for my stuff anyway,” he pointed out. “I can just add yours to it.”

“No, really,” I protested, “Don’t worry about it.” He shrugged, still unsmiling, and I looked at him and the counter girl helplessly, torn between laughter and awkwardness and pure amazement at his generosity.

The girl stepped back from the counter, throwing up her hands in surrender. “I’ll let you two fight this out,” she said in amusement.

“Look, it’s okay, it’s not like it’s a hardship for me,” he said, holding up his hand, “I have a gift card, see?”

Oh yeah, I thought, I have one of those, too, suddenly remembering that the university’s Women’s Resources & Research Center had given me one the other day as a thank-you for designing and facilitating the women of color discussion circles this quarter. Flattered and touched at the gesture, I had slipped the gift card somewhere in my messenger bag and then promptly forgotten all about it.

I smiled and said out loud, “I really appreciate the offer, but don’t worry about it, I’ll be back later for all this.”

He stared at me for a second, and I was disconcerted by the juxtaposition of his gruff demeanor and generous offer.

“You sure?” he asked.

“I’m sure,” I said firmly. “But thanks so much for the offer. I do appreciate it.”

He shrugged expressionlessly, holding his hands palms-up in what could be construed as a gesture of defeat. Or an unsaid, Your loss.

“Have a beautiful day!” I said, moving away from the counter.

He nodded brusquely and turned away to place his books next to the register.

For a split second, on my way out the door, still moved by this unexpected kindness from a veritable stranger, I looked back to see him standing at the counter, face blank and eyes shuttered, and wished I had let him pay after all, if it meant he would have smiled.

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