I went to an independent bookstore. I know it was an independent bookstore because there was a chalkboard sign outside that said, “Yes! We are a real independent bookstore.” I love independent bookstores; however, my loyalty is generally with my friend’s bookstore, The Book Cellar, or with the feminist-focused Women and Children bookstore. I had been avoiding this particular independent bookstore because a former neighbor worked there. My grudge against this former neighbor was all about reciprocity. She judged me to be the wrong type of feminist and I, in turn, decided she was the wrong kind of snob—the kind that didn’t like me. I set aside all of this and went to this particular independent bookstore because my amazing friend Dr. Deborah Siegel was speaking there. Deb coaches at Girl Meets Voice. She was interviewing her friend Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train, about her new bestseller, A Piece of the World.
I was feeling pretty good about myself because I’d taken a seat where I could set up my phone to film the entire discussion for Deb by propping it on a display. While my phone recorded, I would interrupt me silently congratulating myself for being a good friend to click the photo button and sip complimentary wine.
I saw seven copies of a book a friend wrote next to me on the shelf. This guy took me to lunch to ask me to come to one of his book signings with a very famous friend of mine. He suggested that my friend would be delighted to be my date anywhere and so would love to be my date to his signing. I explained that my famous friend wasn’t interested in the topic of his book (an easily googled fact) and, as a result, I wouldn’t be inviting him. I also pointed out that my famous friend liked to date his wife. I suggested, as an alternative, that I bring my stepdad. My stepdad is very interested in the topic of his book and, being retired, he can attend events in downtown Chicago in the middle of the day. He dropped the idea of me coming to his event. On a side note, my stepdad read this guy’s book and said that he could have written it; which was not a compliment but the darkest of insults. Incidentally, when I saw copies of this guy’s book, I did not buy a copy.
Christina and Deb were amazing. They were witty and interesting and engaging in the exact way you expect New York Times bestselling authors to be. Nearing the end of their discussion, Deb mentioned that they both had something else in common: they’d both had breast cancer. Christina discussed the experience of touring for Orphan Train while wearing a wig, seeing the people she met in cancer treatment die, and many other heart-stopping parts of her journey. It wasn’t until she said, “Cancer is capricious and random,” that I burst into heaving, retching sobs. For fear that my friend Deb would see me upset and get upset, I hid my face for the rest of the discussion and silently poured tears onto my empty plastic plate and cup.
After the program, attendees lined up to buy books and get them signed. I looked forward to giving Deb a hug like she was made out of chocolate. She asked me to stay to chat but I told her I had to go and blew her kisses. The truth was, I wanted to leave before I broke down again. I feel like I’m the Bermuda Triangle of grief. I keep sucking people into my pain and that’s selfish and unfair. Deb was trying to enjoy the wonderful job she did and I was not going to take that from her.
In the line to Christina, I had to physically turn my back on the dried apricots because I was eating them off a silver three-tiered dish like they could fill the hole in my heart. I wish I could tell you that I don’t remember what I said to Christina because it was incredibly embarrassing but I assure you that I do. I said I didn’t know she’d survived cancer, and then I corrected myself recalling that she didn’t like the word “survived,” and so I apologized. She said that she felt “survived” wasn’t the right term because she didn’t know if she’d survived it yet or not. She said that people survive boats sinking. I concurred and said, “Yes, and they learn never to get on a boat again.” Like everything funny I say, this was true on many levels. For example, yesterday when we saw a woman gesturing emphatically with her smartphone at an elderly homeless man on the ground and I asked my Lyft driver, “Do you think homeless people ever get sick of having white women be condescending to them?”
For reasons, I will only extract from myself after hours of self-punishment and emotional degradation, I said to Christina, “My daughter died of a brain tumor in March.” Christina apologized to me and asked how old she was. I said eight and then mentioned how Constance would have had a birthday. I told her about how amazing Deb was at Constance’s dedication and how I couldn’t have gotten through it without her. Christina gave me a hug and then asked for my address so she could send me a book that she thought might be helpful. I wrote it down and then rushed out of the store to send Deb the images and video.
I don’t know how supporting your friend at a bookstore is supposed to go but I’m 99% sure it isn’t supposed to end with you getting a free book sent to you from the author. Any good karma I might have gained by showing up and filming it, I probably lost. I cried in my car about an hour past when Deb texted me “thank you.” The night was a standard shit show but I resolved to be better the next day. The first step toward that was fulfilling my promise to the bookstore manager to go on their website and sign up to their newsletter. It was my first action after I got back on free Wi-Fi, even before I opened a bottle of wine and a jar of hot mustard.