For a side project, I’ve been scouring over the notes and bibliographies of books I haven’t read in some years. For example: Cooking, Eating, Thinking, an anthology of philosophical approaches to food studies which I came across early in my research and haven’t revisited since, though I thought it was a solid collection. As I opened my copy, my fingers brushed against a familiar texture: an embossed seal on the first page, the kind that an overzealous bibliophile might use to stamp her name in books she’d prefer not to lose. Okay, to be specific: I have such an embossing tool, a gift from my mom actually, and I impress “Library of Sara Elizabeth Davis” on any book that I lend.
I had no recollection of lending this anthology, so I looked closer and saw that the seal was not mine at all: it reads “Library of Sarah Lucia Hoagland.” I realized that I must have ordered a used copy of this book online some time ago, and I didn’t give it further thought as I paged through the bibliographies.
But because I was looking so closely at the notes, I came across a familiar name at the end of one chapter:
Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value. Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988.
I flipped back and forth between the front page and bibliography. How did this happen? Did she just happen to buy this book that cites her work? That seems unlikely. Did she get a gratis copy for reviewing it? I don’t see such a review online. Was it perhaps a gift from the editors, were they friends? That seems plausible; the previous owner of my book and one of the editors of the book were both publishing in the same feminist journals in the late 80s, perhaps they knew one another. But then why give it away?
I cull my bookshelf mercilessly every time I have to move, particularly in the last few years. I had amassed a large collection of assigned reading for graduate school, and at first I kept all of the books, believing myself to be building a library of selections for the survey and intro courses I would inevitably teach. But my life changed course, and I shed classic and canonical texts like a distressed bird sheds feathers. Did I press my mark into any of them? Is anyone reading my former schoolbooks, wondering who SED is and why she gave them away?
Will my brilliant, talented, published and to-be-published friends and I ever get to a point where we’ve given each other so many of our own books that each book is not a little miracle but something to be disposed of or replaced?
One day my gentleman friend came by for a visit with a T-shirt and a story. “I’m not sure if you’ll want this…” he began, tentatively, but the story is that he was hanging out with some friends of his in a bar (one of my favorite bars, too) and one of his friends found the shirt, just abandoned at one of the tables littered with curled-up menus and plastic spider rings. The friend thought she’d keep the shirt, but she forgot to take it with her. Thus the shirt passed into the gentleman’s possession, and he took it home and laundered it and brought it to me, because it advertises The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, an awfully bad movie that I enjoyed an awful lot and gleefully reenact whenever I have the opportunity.
Astonishingly, the T-shirt fits. It is designed for women but is not a babydoll tee or similar horror; it accommodates my figure and has long enough sleeves to cover my shoulder tattoos.
What are the odds? Where was this T-shirt last time I was at that bar? Are there often T-shirts just lying around there? (This would not be surprising, actually, but I have never witnessed such a thing.) Who left this shirt there and where did she get it (and are there more of them, because my friends want some)? Why did she take it off or drop it? Does she miss it? Because I’m not sure I would give it back. This shirt is Relevant To My Interests. I love the happy accident of it, the ridiculous serendipity.
Here’s another story I like to tell about serendipity. When I last looked for a new apartment, I had some difficulty with a realtor who advertised some amenities that the apartment didn’t have, and then waffled about when and how he would go about adding them. I wanted that apartment badly: it was located on a convenient corner in my comfortable neighborhood, had gorgeous parquet floors, an extra little room for a study. I gave the realtor an application and a partial deposit for the apartment, telling him that I would be happy to sign the lease just as soon as he committed to adding the promised amenities and put an outside date for that in writing.
A busy week went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I gave the realtor a call. I could come pick up my deposit at my convenience, he said, as he’d rented the apartment to another tenant.
This left me in a bad position, since it was near the end of the month and I’d already put in my notice on the apartment where I lived. I got back on the market in a hurry, calling realtors on my lunch break and visiting apartments after work every day. I had my eye on one apartment above a nice restaurant, but the realtor wouldn’t take me there until the tenant moved out, saying that he was rather bad-tempered and she didn’t want to rile him up.
But a day or two before I was scheduled to look at the place, I walked past the apartment to catch a bus and saw the bad-tempered tenant moving out. I apologized for interrupting his move but wanted to ask him a question or two, since I’d be seeing the apartment in a couple of days. He was actually quite friendly and offered to show me the place himself. So while movers came and went with his boxes, he walked me through the narrow but pretty apartment, talking about the good points and bad. The realtor was included among the latter, and he told me about the troubles and frustrations he had when the property was bought up by an aggressive neighborhood company. “Oh, I could tell you about frustrating rental experiences in this neighborhood,” I said, and offered up the story of my lost parqueted apartment.
When I finished, he was quiet for a moment, then asked me if the address of that apartment was ### Nearby Street.
It was, actually.
I was touring the soon-to-be-former apartment of the tenant who became the lessee of the apartment I thought I had put a deposit on.
I told this story to a coworker shortly after it happened. “Wow!” she replied, then paused. “So are you dating that guy now, or what?”
I thought this was a hilarious question, so I told it to another friend. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I was gonna ask the same thing.”
I suppose that would be a fair question if we were in a book or a film, in which two worlds never collide except in service of an overarching plot. This would have been an excellent premise for such a plot: the man had inadvertantly taken away something I wanted, offering the perfect excuse to start a pointless rivalry that devolves into attraction, or to form a forced team in pursuit of real estate justice.
Even if we abandon the narrative tropes of romance, we still expect a certain amount of plot resolution from our coincidences. In a book or film narrative, if your plot arc coincides with the arc of another person or thing once, it will likely do so again and again. Fictional coincidences are the sign of a cosmic arrangement or a divine sense of symmetry that brings together what fits together. Insignificant choices would be proven significant by virtue of a shared trajectory: the book is a foreshadowing of an academic future, the shirt is the trace of another geeky girl’s past.
In reality, a coincidence happens precisely because different trajectories don’t intersect at more than one point. The arcs only cross once, and the only thing I can be definitely said to have in common with the owners of the book and shirt is that we inhabited the same place once, albeit at different times. I marveled and wondered at my used book and my rescued shirt, but they don’t make really good stories because the questions they raise must go unanswered.
So here is what happened after the momentous apartment coincidence was revealed. I sincerely wished the not-actually-bad-tempered tenant good luck with his new terrible realtor, and I moved into another nice apartment above a flower shop, leased by an entirely different company. As for the tenant, he presumably moved into that apartment with the lovely parquet floors, and may still be there. Perhaps the backstory I shared about the slippery realtor became a shield or a weapon he could use to insist on his tenant’s rights. Perhaps he never had an issue with the place and never gave it another thought. But I never saw him again, so I do not and may never know.