I can feel someone looking at me. Worse, it’s an ‘I’m about to try to start a conversation and it will be annoying’ type look. Please stop with the looking. Can’t you see I’m reading? Quietly? Quietly reading? Emphasis on qui… “Hi!”, no discernible pause, abrasive American accent, “Watcha reading?”
Jesus. Here we go. Without looking up, “Umm….”, I close my book slightly to give the appearance of showing him the cover – he’d have to be either an owl or a contortionist to be able to read it from where he’s sitting, but my care factor is… well, let’s say low. “David Foster-Wallace. A series of short… ummm, stories I guess, some quite funny, others… well… not so much… He’s a bit hard to explain. Utterly brilliant… This isn’t the book I’d start with if you’re interested in reading him though… yeah, probably not this one.”
“Is he anything like David Sedaris?”
Utterly involuntary but deeply suppressed guffaw, cleverly disguised by self mid guff as a slight but I’m certain completely natural sounding clearing of throat – kind of a HA! …hem, cough cough… cough. Pause while I pretend to struggle to swallow some throat obstruction, lightly finger tapping my larynx to add authenticity, all no doubt highly convincing. Why such an elaborate display when care factor is in negative territory, I struggle to explain. “Ummm, no, not really. Yeah, not so much… kind of the opposite actually… Sedaris is funny, and also very smart, but he’s quite light.” Turning my book over, pointing to an image on the back cover, “This is his seminal work, I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re interested…” I cringe inwardly at the cheesiness of ‘seminal work’, but recover quickly because I fundamentally don’t care.
Annoying American interrupting guy tilts his head on an alarming angle to try to read the book cover I’m barely holding up for him, “Infinite…?”
“Jest.” I turn the book slightly, as a gesture of good will. “But like I said, it’s not light… and it took me a year to read… the first time… and that was pretty much full time… as in I wasn’t reading anything else at the same time… it’s a bit long… utterly brilliant as I said, hilarious… but I formed a whole new relationship with my dictionary…”
Fearing that direct eye contact might prolong the conversing, I feign a return to reading, whilst employing my well-honed peripheral vision to assess the Sedaris reader. He is engaged with his tablet, presumably looking up David Foster-Wallace. I turn furtively to see who I’m talking to: 50ish, longish greying hair, glasses, some kind of hippy shirt I suspect he’s recently bought from one of the market stalls here in Ubud, long-black coffee, some book with what I’m pretty sure is Sanskrit on the cover, cheap cotton (hemp?) shoulder bag with what looks suspiciously like a bottle of kombucha sticking out of it.
“Have you ever read any Chopra?”, asks Sedaris. I guess he’s seen me checking out his book.
The avoidance of eye contact is no longer possible without obvious insult. I switch to Plan B – responses that offer zero opportunity for any follow up questions. Umm… yeah, when I was 17, along with The Aquarian Conspiracy. “No, can’t say I have.”, I lie. Chopra!… Jesus Christ. Now I’m actively thinking of ways to terminate conversation with ageing hippy and return to blissful quiet reading and coffee drinking.
After another few moments reading, “It’s 12 hundred and 50 pages!”, announces he in his hideous accent.
Long pause while hippy continues to read about DF-W and I return to reading same. Eventually, I see peripherally that he is packing up his stuff to go. Kombucha, check; Chopra novels, check; beads and daisy chains, check. I wait till I can see him scrabbling around under the table for his sandals before I decide that eye contact is now safe. “See you later.” It’s the first time I’ve initiated any conversation with him, and disturbingly when I do, I get the distinct feeling that I’ve seen him around before.
“Yes, see you, and thanks for the tip. I appreciate it!”
Smiling, “You’re most welcome, I hope you like it as much as I did.” I’m feeling pleased with myself for giving him a genuinely good book tip, cutting the conversation short without blatant insult, and because I’m now able to return to my reading.
Nagging feeling that this guy is familiar continues however, reinforced dramatically when I am able to study him at a distance, in profile, as he pays his bill. “Is that…? Who the hell is that guy? He looks like that pop scientist… American… hangs out with Brian Cox… I think. Kushman? Kleinman. I’ve read one of his books!” Googling ‘Popular Scientist, Cosmology’ “Krauss!” Studying his picture, “Fuck me if that wasn’t Laurence Krauss! What would he be doing here? Krauss reads Chopra!? Surely not. How profoundly disappointing if so. Pffttt… No way that was Laurence Krauss…Chopra! You have got to be kidding me. But then, if it’s not Laurence Krauss, I better call Laurence Krauss and tell him that someone is trying to utterly destroy his credibility, by wandering around looking exactly like him and telling random people to read hippy drivel! How can someone study their entire life to become a world-renowned cosmologist/physicist, write a book like ‘A Universe from Nothing’, and then turn up in Ubud guzzling kombucha and spouting Chopra!”
“But then,” I argue with myself, “he’s a cosmologist, not a literary figure, and to get to the top of the field of cosmology must take intense focus; maybe he doesn’t have time for anything else. Maybe he’s on some kind of…I dunno, spiritual quest, and has to start somewhere… Maybe he’s stoned out of his mind…” More pondering, and doubt is creeping in. “You Idiot! What if that was Laurence Krauss, and you had a chance to talk to him, and you, you snooty ass, cut him off, gushing like some fucking groupie about David Foster-Wallace instead of asking him about String Theory, alternate universes, black holes, gravity waves, aliens etc. You actually said ‘seminal work’! This is his ‘seminal work’, you said. Jesus Christ! Laurence Krauss is out there right now, walking back to his hotel and laughing to himself about what a douche bag you are.”
“But, come on, he was reading Chopra! How was I supposed to know that one of the foremost cosmologists in the world is gonna read Chopra! Anyone would have made the same mistake….not to mention the kombucha! I’m sure it’s just some old hippy burnout who’s on his way to the Yoga Barn for a combined fucking… harmonic crystal healing and chakra realignment session as we speak – he’ll probably throw in a coffee enema and some naked tribal drumming for good measure.”
“You’re an arrogant fool, and your closed mindedness has led to you missing out on a chance to speak to one of the smartest men of our time, who specializes in a field that is endlessly fascinating.”
“Alright, well…maybe. Fine, if I see him around again, I’ll ask him.”
“If it was Laurence Krauss, you won’t see him again. He’ll be off tomorrow for a presentation to the…fucking… International Cosmological Society on his latest research; probably some ground-breaking research… research that he would have discussed with you, at length, if you’d only been open minded enough to ask him a single question you prat…”