Goodbye, Johnny


He was a bookseller. During my third visit to the bookstore, I learned that his name was Johnny and no, he wouldn’t like a coffee, thanks.

One of Johnny’s co-workers was going to lunch, and wanted to know if she could bring him anything back. The dialect of their exchange told me that they got on well, that this was something she had asked him many times before. He smiled as he politely declined, smiled at customers as they came in through the glass door, smiled as he folded my Elena Ferrante into a paper bag.

One of the first things I notice upon meeting someone new is their hands—the shape of them, how they move. If I meet someone over dinner, I find myself watching the way they hold cutlery or how they raise a glass. On the one hand, these rudimentary observations are born out of the fact that my deferential shyness in the presence of new people precludes me from maintaining eye contact, and to instead direct my attention to a different physical feature. But a part of me also likes to think that a person’s character can be gleaned just as much from their hands as it can from their facial expressions. When I met Johnny for the first time, I was buying a copy of The Model Millionaire and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde. He was standing behind the counter, clicking around at something on a computer screen. His hands were long, slender, delicate. They were hands built specifically for gentle, precise procedures – threading needles, tying ribbons, wrapping books in brown paper. When I did make eye contact with him, I found that his hands and his face were not so different – he had neat closely cropped hair, his eyes bore that same gentleness, and his voice was suffused with warmth as he handed me the book and wished me a nice day. I smiled, said “You too,” and stepped out onto the street, feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me.

For the next two years, I made semi-regular visits to the bookstore, buying books I thought might endear me to him. I scoured his list of recommendations on the bookstore’s website, researched the canonical works of the subgenres his online bio cited as his favourite. The next day, I would go in and purchase a book that was one or two degrees removed from that which he had recommended or favoured, hoping that the book might act as a bridging of the gap between him and I, between a topic on which he was well-versed and about which I was ignorant, yet eager to learn. Each time, we would fail to amount to any such exchange and I ended up with several books that were far from commensurate with my reading taste — short story collections by Borges, works of critical theory on Western cultural aesthetics, and Marxist theory.

Being the gay, lovesick twenty-year-old I was, my reading tastes felt somewhat perspicuous — I read Douglas Stuart, Mary Gaitskill, Christopher Isherwood, Sally Rooney. I would’ve sold my soul to be seventeen again and reading The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time in the back of the school bus. Realising that I still preferred reading about class consciousness when it was viewed through the lens of Connell Waldron’s fictional struggle rather than the very real struggle of an entire social class, Johnny’s books were often superseded on my to-be-read list. Nonetheless, I sometimes found myself taking the copy of Borges’ The Aleph off my shelf, if only to hold it in my hands for a moment before placing it back and gingerly taking Young Mungo off the shelf again instead.

On New Year’s Eve, I had some time on my hands before a house party. Having checked the bookstore’s website the night prior and learned that they were still going to be open, I decided to pay a visit and see if Johnny was in. He was.

It might’ve been the kind of reckless optimism, the greater willingness to give oneself over to new beginnings and experiences, brought on by the prospect of a new year that made me think today’s visit was incumbent on some more intimate interaction between Johnny and I. After browsing for twenty minutes and picking out a copy of The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg (two degrees removed from his recommendation of The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy), I went to the counter.

As he scanned the book Johnny looked at me and said, “You come in here a lot, don’t you?”

I nodded. He’s noticed, I thought.

“Would you like me to put you in the system?”

“Uh, sure.”

He asked for my name and number, and I stumbled my way over the digits, forcing myself not to comment on the fact. Thought you’d never ask.

“Any plans for New Years?” he said, his fingers having finished tapping at the keyboard and now being engaged in the delicate tasks of wrapping, folding, taping.

“Just doing a barbecue with some friends. Should be pretty quiet. How about you?”

“A quiet one for me, too. My girlfriend and I just got back from visiting her family in Adelaide, so—"

When faced with an inexplicable situation during a social interaction, I sometimes begin to hope that a violent act of destruction might suddenly occur nearby. Such an act would have no bearing on me or the people I’m with, but would nonetheless serve to break an awkward silence, and direct attention away from the fact that I want to crawl out of my own skin. Here, now, hearing Johnny say this, I suddenly want to charge headfirst through the glass front door. I want those delicate hands to take up the nearest available sharp object and spear me in the chest.

“Oh, uh, nice,” I say. “Enjoy.”

This is not happening.

“Yeah, you too.”

On New Year’s Day I get home at three o’clock in the morning. Too tired and too drunk to sleep, I turn on the lamp on my bedside table and set about unpacking my bag. I pull out my copy of The Little Virtues, briefly consider doing something dramatic like going outside and setting it on fire in the driveway, decide against it and make room for it on my bookshelf next to The Aleph. In the low light that the lamp throws around the room, I can see that the receipt and the complementary store bookmark are still poking out from the crevice between the front cover and the first page.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

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