Coelacanth

I lived in Seattle for a few years in my 20s, in a crappy studio across the parking lot from the coffee shop where I worked. Outside of work, I just wrote and hung out with friends and said yes whenever someone asked me out. Then I crushed so hard on a pedal steel guitar player that I moved to Brooklyn. After several years I wound up in Seattle again.

Not long after I moved back, a customer from that old coffee shop sat down next to me on the 44 bus. I hadn’t seen him in years, hadn’t kept in touch. He was an odd duck, lived alone with his cat, worked from home. There was always the sense that he gleaned a large chunk of his social nutrition each day from our smiles of greeting, the fact that we knew his name, the casual exchange of basic pleasantries. I respected that he was like a creature that lived near a deep sea vent—the solitude and simplicity of his life wouldn’t be for everyone, but he was well adapted to it. This was back when I viewed myself as young and full of possibility. Others as old, limited, gone round the bend. I was a smug, ponytailed angel of customer service.

When he sat next to me on the bus, he didn’t say hello or make eye contact. I was older and thicker and squarer. I figured he didn’t remember me. He was still staring straight ahead when he said, “Did you ever read that book about coelacanths that I told you about?”

I had no recollection of the fish, the book about the fish, or the conversation about the book. My mind was blank except for the way the syllables in the word itself knocked against each other. That I remembered like a song that gets stuck in your head for a whole summer. I laughed his question off and then it was my stop.

Only later did it come swimming back to me: I did read the book. I must have. Why else would I know so much about coelacanths and their rediscovery?