“What do you want?”
His eyes bulged slightly as he looked me over. His question was rudely spoken, the way jaded shopkeepers speak to poor students. He stood behind the counter leaning against a wall of books, their spines covered with sinewy gilt Arabic. Turkish silver coffee sets and brass knick knacks were displayed carefully under the glass in front of him, glinting tiny reflections of the light pouring in from the shopfront window onto his face, into his bright eyes. While I was waiting on the sidewalk for my bus, I noticed the Moorish geometry on the book jackets in the window, and with my hand cupped over the glass to peer inside, I was easily lured by the coolness and peace in the shadowy depths of the store to walk in and escape that harsh Roman sun.
“I don’t know yet,” I replied coolly.
Out of boredom, or perhaps by design (who knows now after all this time whether my conversation with him was an accident that created ripples into my future, or whether the conversation was designed to initiate a future I did not want) he asked me questions about my travels. I told him I was American. This seemed to make him hesitate ever so slightly, his eyes lowered to look at his bushy white mustache. Great, now he probably thinks I’m rich. What was he going to try to sell me, I wondered.
As I leafed through volumes of Rumi lovingly laid in neat stacks on a table, I told him I was on my way to Sri Lanka, to study Buddhism, and those twin moon-eyes of his lit up the dark shelves of the bookstore, and his mustache arced into a crescent showing his smoker’s teeth.
He said excitedly, gesturing to follow him, “In that case, come with me.” He led me to the back of the store, up spiral stairs to a second floor completely devoid of furniture and flooded with afternoon light. The only objects in the room were tall black cylindrical hats along a long shelf on the wall. Underneath the hats, hanging on pegs, were billowy white robes with bold black embroidery.
“This is where we dance our dance,” he said excitedly, and then he tilted his left arm down, fingers straight out and pointing to an invisible dot on the floor. His body rotated around this point, like a gyroscope after you pull the string. I watched him demonstrate with obvious pleasure these hypnotic turns for a few minutes, and I imagined how he and his friends would fill the space spinning like electrons around an imaginary nucleus, charging the room with some sort of mystical current.
I remembered my watch. I gasped, and made my way downstairs, rushing to the street where my bus was parked. As I pulled open the shop door, he gently held my arm, looked directly into my eyes, and asked me, “What do you want?” I knew this time it was a question of a philosopher, not of a bookseller, and not directed toward a poor student, but toward someone starting an unusual and potentially dangerous journey.
I wanted to say “Love,” for that is what I truly wanted, but I thought that would sound too trite, too prosaic. I wanted to let this dervish know that I was more than an archetypal American, I wanted to impress upon this man I had just met, and who I would never meet again, my specialness, my superiority to the rest of humanity, what I thought was the right thing to say.
So I told him “The Truth, I want to know the Truth,” and his eyes dimmed a little, although he smiled and said that was good, the Truth is a worthy quest. I felt the tiniest twinge of disappointment from him. Although his words told me my answer was a noble one, I felt somehow that I failed, and even more, that I was now locked into some metaphysical commitment to find the Truth before I could ever find Love.