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In the Presence of Books

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It’s a slow day, but Sundays always are. On the day other shops do the sensible thing and close their doors, Delirium Books firmly stays open. Amanita supposes she shouldn’t be surprised considering the store prides itself on being radical in every way possible. And with a name like Delirium…

Yeah. Pretentious. Duh.

But she does like the place. She’s always been a bookworm, and even if the political books that the store specializes in aren’t really her thing, there are plenty of mysteries and history books. The fact that it’s smack in the middle of Castro street means that it’s gay as fuck. Which she likes.

There’s a comfortable, dusty vibe that makes the shop seems like she shouldn’t really be there, that she’s exploring something ancient. And when afternoon sunlight streams in through the front window the way it’s doing now, she can see the dust motes dance. They create shadows on the floor which, if she squints, look like fairies dancing on the edge of her vision.

All told, it’s not a bad job. Not really.

But working on Sundays still blows.

The bell above the door jingles and Amanita forces herself to stand up straight. She can just see the top of a blonde, ponytailed head bob above the bookshelves, pausing every so often as the person it belongs to takes a book out and looks it over. Amanita smiles. She’s always been fond of customers who touch the books, even if they don’t end up buying them. It’s got something to do with the uninhibited curiosity, the tactile desire to reach out and know something with your fingers before knowing it with your eyes. She’s found that those are the customers she ends up liking the most. Probably because she has something in common with them.

Or maybe it’s because this person is most definitely a tall blonde. She is only human after all. And a tall blonde on Castro street will usually have homosexual tendencies. Or at least be a little curious.

Amanita eyes the step stool next to her and briefly considers using it to get a glimpse. But that might be too obvious? She’s a good actress, but she’s not good enough to hide what she’s doing if she gets caught. But…

Fuck it.

She stands on tiptoe and cranes her head in the direction of the shelf the blonde disappeared behind and she’s really not as thirsty as she looks, honestly, but god it’s been awhile since she’s talked to anyone other than her manager or the women in her feminist discussion group.

She could really use a few good orgasms, too.

She leans her elbows on the counter and looks as hard as she can and she will never forgive herself if she pulls a muscle because she was being a creep and-

“Excuse me.”

Shit. Amanita pulls back and affects the most nonchalant expression she can muster. She just happens to be leaning over the far side of the counter. Totally normal. Not weird at all.

Of course it’s the blonde. Of course the blonde is tall and thin and has beautiful green eyes. Of course.

“Hi.” Amanita puts on her best smile. Smiling, she’s been told, is one of the things she’s best at. “Can I help you?”

The blonde looks a little concerned. Like she’s about to open her mouth and say, “Actually I was going to ask you the same thing, you fucking weirdo.” Her eyebrows (very pretty eyebrows) knit. “Yeah,” she says. “I was actually looking for a book.” She stops herself, as if she wants to say more but isn’t sure.

Amanita smiles. She’s seen this before. People come in all the time looking for things they don’t want to say aloud, but can’t find easily on the internet.  She likes to imagine that it’s one of the reasons she was hired in the first place, because she has no problem talking about what others might deem taboo.

She tucks away her lizard brain and replaces it with her Professional Sales Lady Brain.

“Well, you’re definitely in the right place,” she says, gesturing to the shelves. “We have lots of those. Were you looking for anything in particular or should I just spin around and pick randomly?”

The blonde blinks, and Amanita wonders if maybe she’d been too harsh, but then she breaks into a smile. And for a second Amanita thinks that maybe the sun goddess her mother is always going on about is real and standing in front of her.

“I’m sure that would be fun,” the blonde says. “But it’s kind of specific. I wanted to see if you had anything about the effects the internet has on gender expression, particularly transgender expression. I’m blogging and wanted to see if there were any sources I could use.”

Amanita raises an eyebrow. It’s definitely not as scandalous a request as she’d thought. “Really?”

The blonde’s expression darkens. “If you don’t have anything it’s okay. You can just say. I’ve been to a few other places and they’ve all been pretty TERF-y too so-”

Shit. Don’t make the blonde sad. That will make the blonde go away. Bad.

“No! Sorry, that’s...that’s completely wrong.” Amanita holds her hands up, placating. “Not that you’re wrong, or anything, it’s just. I’m not a TERF. Or at least I don’t think I am. I was just...surprised.”

“Really?” the blonde asks.

Amanita winces. “That bad, huh?”

The blonde crosses her arm over her body and scratches her wrist, looking more nervous than she probably means to.

“Kinda.” She pauses. “I’ve been to a few other places today that haven’t all been nice. So if I’m a little defensive you can blame them.”

“Oh, believe me, I do.” Amanita rolls her eyes. “Some people think they own oppression.”

The blonde’s smile returns, not as brilliant as before, but just as sweet, soft. “Tell me about it.”

Amanita nods, a bit lost. It really is the loveliest of smiles.

The blonde shifts. “So the book?”

“Right!” Amanita claps and turns around, stepping towards the shelves. The book. Her job. The reason she’s here in the first place is definitely not to make people suffer through idle chit chat. “So we have a lot of books about specific trans people and the political and socio economic issues that are currently happening where gender is concerned, but nothing revolutionary or internet based. However…” She walks along the back wall of shelves, finger out in front of her as if it’ll help her read better. It won’t, of course, but she reckons it makes her look more professional. And, though she’ll never admit it to those who call her an attention hog (everyone), having the blonde’s complete focus is thrilling.

Come to think of it, it’s been awhile since she’s been the center of anyone’s attention. She misses that.

“Right here!” she says, pulling herself out of her thoughts as she finds the book she was looking for. She takes it off the shelf and presents it to the blonde with a flourish.

The blonde squints in the dim light and takes a step into Amanita’s space. She hadn’t noticed before but the girl is tall. It makes her head swim.

“Gender Outlaws?” she asks, sounding skeptical. She looks at Amanita over the rim of her glasses, and suddenly Amanita knows she’s going to have naughty librarian fantasies for the next month. Her eyes really are unfairly gorgeous.

Amanita clears her throat. “It’s a collection of essays by people who live outside the gender binary,” she clarifies. “The title’s a little gimmicky, yeah, but it’s good. And from what I remember there are a few parts where technology is mentioned.”

“Hm,” the blonde hums and reaches for the book, brushing Amanita’s index finger as she takes it. Amanita represses a shiver. They’re standing pretty close, enough that Amanita can smell the blonde’s body wash, or possibly perfume? Whatever it is, it’s rosey and soft without being too cloying. It’s lovely. The blonde flips through the book, taking care not to crack the spine, and god if Amanita wasn’t crushing hard before she certainly is now. Careful book handling practices are important.

The blonde hums. “The table of contents looks promising at least.”

Amanita manages to nod. “It is. There’s an essay on trans male pregnancy, one on being an AFAB genderqueer drag queen, reconciling religion with transness. Even if it’s not exactly what you want, it’s still - “

“Interesting,” the blonde says. She looks up from the book and smiles, wide enough to create a small dimple appear on the left side of her mouth. “I think I’ll take it.”

Amanita can’t help but smile back at her. “Awesome! I can ring you up now, or you can look around some more.”

“No, I think I know what I want,” the blonde says, her voice low. It sounds oddly intimate in such a small space, in the dim light of the stacks. And Amanita could be imagining it, but she’s pretty sure that was a come on.

Amanita swallows hard. “Did you-”

“The book,” the blonde says in a rush, blushing. “I mean the book. The book is what I want. I”

Oh god, she’s awkward, Amanita thinks, a beautiful awkward goddess with legs that go on for days and pretty eyes and beautiful hair and glasses. She’s too good to be true.

“You sure about that?”

The blonde hesitates, looking embarrassed and uncertain and adorable. “Yes?”

“That’s the worst yes I’ve ever heard,” Amanita says and thank god the blonde laughs. Some people don’t take well to being flirted at. She keeps going, “I never did catch your name.”

“Oh, I didn’t give it,” the blonde says. “I’m Nomi.”

“Pleasure to meet you. I’m Amanita,” she says. “Nita, or Neets, if we’re friends.”

“Are we friends?” Nomi asks, raising an eyebrow.

Amanita shrugs. “Depends on what you call me.”

“Well then it’s good to meet you too, Neets,” Nomi says, an amused spark in her eye.

Amanita feels her face heat. Friends. We’re totally friends. Yes.

“Good,” she says, her voice more choked than she means it to be. She clears her throat and turns back towards the register. “Let’s get you settled then.”

Walking away from the dim light of the bookshelves feels a little like walking out of a dream. It gives Amanita the urge to grab Nomi and charge back. Their conversation had seemed more conspiratorial, more private before. Even though it was only a rather one sided conversation about a book, it felt...nice. A lot better than any conversations she’s had lately. And Nomi seems like the kind of person who really opens up after a drink. Or two. Plus, having to endure the rest of her shift with the possibility of never seeing Nomi again is a thought she’d rather not entertain. Too depressing.

Amanita settles herself back behind the cash register with Operation: Ask Nomi Out firmly in place.

“So do you live around here?” Nomi asks. Amanita’s not sure if she’s imagining it or not, but she swears there’s a hopeful look in her eyes.

Amanita nods as she scans the book’s barcode. “I do! The commute would be hell otherwise. I have an apartment with a few friends just a couple blocks away.”

She doesn’t mention that it’s not the nicest of buildings. Working in a bookstore in San Francisco doesn’t exactly leave her with buckets of money once the rent is paid.

“That must be nice,” Nomi says. “I live by myself, but sometimes I swear I’d kill for a roommate. Just someone to talk to without having to call or text, you know?”

Amanita pauses in putting Nomi’s book in a bag. She blinks, thinking she must have misheard her. “You live by yourself?” she asks, barely succeeding in keeping the incredulity out of her voice.

“Yeah.” Nomi says, distractedly going through her purse. “How much did you say it was?”

“Twelve bucks, but wait,” she narrows her eyes. “You live by yourself?”

Nomi looks up. For a second, something that closely resembles fear crosses over her face, quickly replaced by what looks like resignation. Whatever it is, it makes Amanita’s stomach twist.

“Why do you wanna know?” Nomi asks, her voice harder than before.

Amanita flounders. Talking about money isn’t usually polite when you’ve only just met someone, right? Leave it to her nonexistent filter to fuck everything up. “Well, it’s’re...It’s San Francisco and houses are… You know.”

Nomi raises an eyebrow, waiting. “You think someone like me couldn’t get my own place?”

Amanita’s brain comes to a grinding halt. “Wait,” she says. “What?”

“Because I’m trans,” Nomi says, like the bravest warrior queen who ever walked the earth. “I thought that was obvious.”

And suddenly everything clicks together; Nomi’s exasperation at being met with hostility from other bookstores, the blog she’s writing, her defensiveness. Of course she’d think Amanita was insulting her if everyone else has been.

Amanita opens her mouth to reply, but Nomi beats her to it. “Forget it,” she says, slapping money down on the counter, and taking the book. “I’ll just go. Thanks for the book, I guess.”

Amanita panics, not wanting Nomi to leave. Not yet. She has a plan dammit and she’s not going to let one misunderstanding fuck it all up.

“Nomi, hold up,” she calls, nearly tripping over her own feet to go after her. Nomi pauses with her hand on the door, then slowly turns to face Amanita. Her jaw is clenched hard, and the warmth that had been in her eyes when they were talking before is gone. It’s a look Amanita never wants to see from her again; not if she can help it.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her words coming out in a rush. “I wasn’t implying that at all. Really.”

Surprise flits over Nomi’s face, before she covers it, looking hesitant to believe. “Really?”

Hope flutters in Amanita’s chest. At least Nomi’s listening to her, even though she doesn’t have to. That’s a good sign. “Yes, really,” she says, nodding. “I didn’t even know that you were trans.”

It’s the truth. The women in her feminist groups don’t ever talk about transgender people unless they’re complaining. It’s always rankled her, but she never thought it was a big deal. They were working for a better future for women. That should take precedence over everything.

But if they excluded people like Nomi was it really worth hanging out with them? Was that the kind of group she wanted to be a part of?

Amanita feels very sick suddenly. Sick, and angry.

“Then why did you act so surprised that I had my own place?” Nomi asks, still looking skeptical. Her voice brings Amanita back to the present. There would be time for anger later.

She shakes her head. “I live in a shitty apartment with six other people I don’t even like. Living alone sounds like a dream. I wasn’t so much surprised as…”

“Jealous?” Nomi asks.

“Kind of,” Amanita admits, sheepish.

“So you...don’t care that I’m trans?” Nomi asks. Her tone careful not to give anything away. It’s very well practiced, though it doesn’t help Amanita’s anger. She shouldn’t have to deal with people like that in the first place. She shouldn’t have needed practice.

“No!” Amanita says, glad for the chance to explain herself. “Plus it made me wonder what you do. For a living, I mean. Not on a daily basis or anything, I’m not that creepy, but it’s...expensive. Living, that is.”

She’s pretty sure she’s never sounded more like an idiot in her life. If Nomi actually says yes to a date after this, she’ll faint.

Nomi bites her lip as if to stop herself from laughing. Amanita’s not sure if that’s an improvement.

“Well, I could tell you,” Nomi says, eyes gradually melting their cold stare and becoming warm again, “but I’d have to kill you.”

And that really shouldn’t be a turn on, but hell, Amanita’s always been kinkier than she gives herself credit for.

“Shit, really?” she asks. “Are you like, a government agent or something? Blogger by day, super spy by night?”

Finally, Nomi laughs. It’s small, but it sounds genuine enough to make Amanita think she hasn’t completely ruined her chances.

“Not exactly,” she says. “I’m more of a hindrance than a help to the government at this point. It’s fun.”

As if Amanita didn’t already have a hard on for rebels. “That sounds amazing,” she says. Then, deciding to take a leap, “And I’d like to hear more about it. Maybe...over drinks? Or coffee?”

“Oh.” Nomi’s eyes widen in surprise. The blush appears again, making her cheeks look rosy and sweet. “Um.”

Amanita’s heart sinks, but she soldiers through, desperate to make this up to Nomi somehow. “I know I acted like a total cock, but I do really think that we could be, I don’t know-”

“Friends?” Nomi supplies, still looking a bit shellshocked. And who wouldn’t considering the way Amanita’s been acting?

Amanita nods. It’s not exactly what she had in mind, but if she being friends means spending more time with Nomi, then she’ll take it. “Friends is a good start.”

Nomi chews on her bottom lip, looking Amanita over carefully, considering. It’s not the most piercing look that anyone’s ever given her, but it’s heavy; as if everything in Amanita’s life depends on Nomi’s answer.

“You said coffee?” Nomi asks finally. And Amanita exhales, unaware that she’d been holding her breath.

She grins, heart pounding. “Or a drink.”

There’s caution in Nomi’s returning smile, but it’s a smile nonetheless. “Let’s start slow,” she says. “I know a place that does a really great espresso.”

“Espresso it is,” Amanita says, feeling like she’s actually going to faint with relief. “You can text me the details if you want. I can give you my number.”

Nomi shakes her head, her smile twisting into something a little more sly. “No need. I already have it.”

“I didn’t give you my number,” Amanita says slowly, unsure. She wouldn’t forget something like that, would she?

Nomi holds out a hand and Amanita takes it automatically. It’s a little odd to shake someone’s hand after agreeing to go on a sort of date with them, but it’s contact. And even more, it’s contact with Nomi.

Instead of shaking, Nomi simply squeezes her palm for a too brief second. Amanita can’t help but think that her fingers would be perfect for holding.

“I’m a super spy, remember?” Nomi says, letting go of Amanita’s hand. She turns to leave. “I’ll see you soon, Neets.”

And then she’s gone.

Amanita watches her go until she disappears into the crowd. It’s still Sunday. The sun is still shining and the dust motes are still dancing in the front window. It’s as if no time has passed at all. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think that she fell asleep at the counter and that the whole thing had been a dream; some supreme Shakespearian fuck up.

She checks her phone for the time, just to be certain, and blinks dumbly at the text from an unknown number already shining on her lock screen.

I’m free tomorrow afternoon.
Have you ever been to Reveille Coffee Co.?
xx Nomi

Amanita puts her phone back in her pocket, not quite capable of words at the moment. She looks at her hand, the one that Nomi had held, and clenches it.

One day, she thinks, I am never going to let that girl go.