Levon Page knew something was different about Trisha Lovely from the moment he met her. She didn’t seem prepossessed with the typical things that possessed women his age. Levon wasn’t many things, but he was a man who wanted someone to love him unconditionally, someone who wasn’t fixated on physical ideals or wealth. The world owed him that at least. He’d done his best with what he had, and he didn’t complain. What he wanted was very simple.
Short and somewhat pudgy, Levon didn’t fit the physical stereotype that most women expected of African-American men. He wasn’t lean and athletic, nor did he play any sports. He’d never enjoyed them when he was in school and only felt compelled to participate as part of the physical education requirements. He preferred to read and he loved bookstores like Powell’s in downtown Portland. He could spend hours browsing the shelves there, and he never left without a new book that he would usually devour inside a week.
But most women didn’t understand that, at least the women he met and took on dates. Once they realized he wasn’t interested in going to a Portland Trailblazers game and that he preferred the intellectual over the physical, their eyes started to drift until eventually they fell by the wayside and moved on. Levon had grown to expect this, sadly, but he still longed to connect with someone who could appreciate his intelligence and look past his apparent physical flaws.
He thought of this every day when he walked from his condo in downtown Portland to the lab where he worked just west of the Willamette River. He enjoyed the half mile walk no matter the weather. He had lived and worked in downtown for five years and had walked the beaten path to his office in all kinds of conditions, but regardless of whether it was raining during the late fall and winter or sunny and chilly in the spring or early summer or hot in the middle of the summer, he felt a rush of gratefulness every time the revolving door of his complex deposited him on the chipped, gray sidewalk. He felt grateful because he saw the worst that life had to offer in his lab, and no matter how lonely he felt or how desperate for love he became, he still had a good, healthy life.
As a senior research scientist at a local biotech company focused on finding a cure for cancer, he often encountered people struggling to survive, and many times, he only met the remains of their lives after they had passed and the biopsies of their cancers were reviewed, discussed, and probed like they were an abstract academic subject. He didn’t have to deal with the people much because his job primarily focused on the science of cells and uncontrolled growth. Powerful microscopes and computers were his audience along with his fellow research scientists who worked for him. Nevertheless, he could not quite escape the human element of the disease, and it gave him an ingrained gratitude for his own health.
While his work satisfied his thirst for intellectual challenges in spite of its dour nature, his love of bookstores provided an outlet to escape the threat of cancer and what it could do to a person’s life. He worked long hours, but he always made time for Powell’s. Even at the end of a long day, he’d hail an Uber and take the short ride over to the bookstore. Once there, he’d browse the endless shelves looking for anything that piqued his interest. He loved literary novels, the likes of Khaled Hosseini and Wally Lamb, novels that captured the essence of life in beautiful words strung together in a captivating narrative. He often imagined his own life as a literary novel, a man searching for that one connection in his life in a sea of unrealistic expectations.
He felt alone, disconnected, as if he had fallen overboard and was slowly drifting out into the ocean without a life preserver, paddling frantically to stay afloat. He had a small group of friends with whom he hung out on occasion, but his work kept him busy, and his interests did not involve sports or concerts. None of his current group of friends really found books as fascinating as he did. Some of them didn’t even read now that they weren’t forced to do so by university coursework, but he joined them for dinners and some outings, if only to have some companionship outside of his coworkers.
During one late-night trek to Powell’s, he stood alone in one of the deep aisles of the old part of the bookstore eyeing the spines of an endless row of books when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He glanced down the aisle and that’s the first time he saw Trisha. She, too, stood alone studying the book spines. At first, she didn’t notice him, but after a few moments, she looked at him and gave him a faint smile before she returned to her search.
Something about her smile and the way she slightly moved her lips as she read the spines of the books made Levan curious, hopeful even. As she glided along the row of books, she moved closer and Levan stayed put. Finally, she was right upon him.
She almost bumped into him, but she stopped just before her shoulder touched his. She seemed startled that he didn’t move, but she smiled when she looked at him. “Hi,” she said. A glimmer of hope surfaced within him.
She stood slightly taller than him, at least in the heels that she wore. Even in the harsh overhead light, her caramel-brown skin glowed. Levan took in the whole of her. She wore a nicely-tailored, pale green dress that fell just below her knees and hugged her slender hips. The dress had a high neckline with sleeves that hung just past her shoulders. Her arms were smooth and muscular. She moved oddly for a woman, less gliding and more ambling, but what she lacked in grace, she made up for with beauty. She had a nice lean face that glowed with youthful exuberance. She wore a lot of makeup, something that Levan normally did not like, but it looked good on her. She had a smaller nose than he had expected and gorgeous full lips that shined a bright red with her lipstick.
“Is there something I can help you find?”
“Do you work here?”
Levan laughed. Normally, he’d be offended by a question he heard too frequently, but not this time in this situation. “No, but I come here a lot.”
She seemed a bit perplexed by his offer to help, but then she smiled again and said, “I’m looking for this book called ‘The Cancer Diet’ by Dr. Richard Myers.”
That word, the one he tried to escape outside the office, ricocheted through his mind. He stumbled a moment. “Oh…I’m sorry. Do you have cancer?” he asked. It seemed like an intensely personal question, but it popped out of his mouth before he had a chance to reconsider it. He had to know if this beautiful woman lived under the threat of this terrible disease.
She stopped eyeing the bookshelf and really looked at him with an expression close to pity. She shook her head. “No, my mom does.”
“She’ll be fine. She’s beat it before; she can beat it again.”
“She’s been in remission?”
“Yes. She has breast cancer. The last time she had a mastectomy and they got it all, but now it’s back.”
“Is she getting chemo?”
“Yes, but it’s killing her this time. She’s ten years older. She’s not eating well or much at all really.” She turned her attention away from Levan and looked at the bottom of the shelf in front of them.
“Have you tried the diet section?”
“It’s not just a diet book. It’s a self-help book. Dr. Myers believes that diet is one way to fight cancer and keep you healthy when you’re going through cancer treatments. I read a review of his book online. I think it will help her.”
She moved to the shelf to his right and scanned the top. He watched her as she moved along the top shelf and down to the second one, her lips continuing to move as she read the spines.
“Here it is!” She reached to the third shelf in front of her and pulled a book from the crowded shelf. She cradled it in her hand and cracked it open to read the inside flap of the dust jacket. A picture of a smiling white man in a suit took up most of the flap.
Levan smiled as he watched her read in silence, subtly moving her lips. “I hope it helps.”
“It can’t hurt,” she replied, still focused on the book.
He waited a moment for her to read the short blurb on the dust jacket and then introduced himself when she briefly looked up. “I’m Levan.” He prepared to extend his hand but she seemingly ignored him.
She flipped to the first page of the book and then stopped as if she just had heard what he said. She closed the book and put it under her arm before she extended her hand. “Sorry, I wanted to make sure it was the right book. I’m Trisha. It’s nice to meet you, Levan.” He held her hand for a moment longer engrossed by the soft, warmth of her palm and fingers.
She smiled back at Levan giving a big toothy grin that revealed perfectly straight, bright white teeth behind her full red lips.
“Do you come here often?”
“Are you trying to pick me up?” She laughed when she said this but Levan blushed. He felt nervous all of a sudden as if he were out of his element, but he was in his element.
He gave a hesitant laugh. “Maybe.” He didn’t say it with confidence and in his mind he kicked himself for being so weak in front of a woman that clearly interested him. His thoughts felt naked.
Trisha was still laughing, but she didn’t seem to be laughing at him as much as with him. She seemed nervous too, shy even.
“I come here a lot. I love this place,” she said as if she needed to explain why she was there.
Those words were music to Levan’s ears. “I do, too. I’m surprised I’ve never seen you. I normally recognize regulars.”
She smiled. “I’m usually here during my lunch break.”
“You work nearby?”
“Just down the street. I’m a paralegal for one of the law firms.”
“Nice. I work downtown near the Hawthorne Bridge. I do research.” Levan kicked himself for being so vague and uninteresting. Normally, he could drone on endlessly about his work making it sound so much better than it probably was, but as he looked at the beautiful woman before him, he lost himself in her eyes, her brilliant smile, and coherent words eluded him.
“What kind of research?”
“Okay…any particular area?”
“Oh, yes, sorry…I do cancer research…” He kept chastising himself for being so spacey, but she perked up and eyed him suspiciously.
He scrambled around in his head as if he had actually lied because the truth seemed so coincidental given what she had told him about her mom. “Yes, I work for Biologics. It’s a small biotech start-up that’s working on cures for specific types of cancer.”
“Really? What types?”
“Pancreatic, prostate, breast, and lung cancer…those are our primary focus areas.”
“What do you do for them?”
“I’m one of the head research scientists for their lab here. We have labs all over the country, but this lab is the biggest in the company since it’s based here.”
She seemed excited but in a state of disbelief as if his response were an elaborate pick-up line, but he’d never been good at pick-up lines and he wanted to tell her that to help her understand, but he stopped himself. He let it sink in.
“This is almost surreal. I’m here looking for a book to help my mom deal with breast cancer and I meet someone who’s trying to cure it. Wow.” She mouthed the last word in an exaggerated fashion that almost seemed mocking to Levan, but he just smiled at her.
“Are you close to any treatments that can be used on people?”
The air rushed out of his chest as he sunk into himself. “No. We’ve made some progress, but we are years away from any trials.”
He could feel the hope drain from her as if she were a balloon that had just been untied. He struggled with what to say to keep her talking to him. She fingered the book under her arm and finally pulled it to her side like she was prepared to walk away.
“That’s too bad. My mom could really use something right now.” She seemed despondent and disappointed like many of the women who floated into and out of his life.
“Well, I should get going. My mom will be worried if I’m out too late, and I should check on her anyway. It was nice meeting you, Levan.” She extended her hand again and he took it gratefully, still enamored by how soft it was. He didn’t want her to walk away.
“You never know though. Things happen all the time in the lab,” he said. He immediately wanted to kick himself for blurting out such nonsense. The work in the lab was slow and tested the patience and intensity of even the best scientists. Progress could be years away. He usually told everyone this, but he grasped at anything he could say to stay in the presence of this woman aptly named Trisha Lovely.
“We can always hope.” She smiled weakly at him and turned to walk away.
He frantically thought of other things to say. “It was nice meeting you. I hope your mom gets better. I really do.”
She looked back at him, her radiant smile brightening the entire aisle. “Thank you. See you around.”
She turned her back to him and walked down the aisle disappearing around the corner in an instant and it felt like she had not been there, that she was an apparition. Levan stood in his spot still searching for something to say that would bring her back, but he was at a complete loss. He wavered in his spot as if her absence would knock him down. He closed his eyes a moment and replayed their short conversation in his head.
He thought of grabbing a book and following her to the checkout so that he could continue talking to her, but he feared looking like a fool, and that fear held him back. It always had with women, but more so with Trisha. Her stunning beauty and infectious smile paralyzed him. Why would she ever want to go out with him?
Minutes ticked by audibly in his head until he outlasted his fear and rushed to the front of the bookstore. He had to talk to her for a moment longer and at least get her to consider going out with him. The path to the checkout seemed longer than he remembered as he darted among the browsers rehearsing what he would say. He took one final turn around the last aisle and rushed to the front. The checkout line was empty. A cashier looked at him and saw that he had nothing to buy and turned his attention to the other cashier nearby. Levan felt deflated. He had let Trisha slip away.
He rushed through the doors onto the street whipping his head each way hoping to catch a glimpse of her walking away, but the crowd, although relatively sparse, seemed to block any view of a woman in a lovely green dress. He dropped his chin toward his chest and sighed. He’d never find someone to love.