By Gregory Tan
There I was, standing in front of a bookshelf in a bookstore of a mall on what seemed to be a lazy Sunday afternoon, as the store workers were either idly meddling with their little oblong screens as they stared into it with droopy eyes, or simply deep within the dreams of an afternoon nap, drool seeping its way down the side of their mouths. The store itself wasn’t crowded; a couple of children with their parents – worn, exhausted and withering like ghastly undead cadavers (which is unsurprising considering they were very likely soaked in a midlife crisis), browsing the stationery section or in a panic looking for materials for a last minute school project; and a few others, like me, trapped in ‘decision-making purgatory’ within the aisles of the endless labyrinth of bookshelves.
And there went my mind wandering off again, poking fun at other people’s business.
Where was I? Oh right, there I was, stuck in potentially eternal damnation of having to choose between two books: “The Bell Jar”, the only novel written by the ever-talented and tragic poet, Sylvia Plath, and “Beren and Lúthien”, a love story restored from J.R.R. Tolkien’s myriads of unpublished manuscripts. If I could I would have just bought both books, but unfortunately I could only afford one – which reminded me of an excruciatingly boring economics concept I’d learnt ages ago that still surprisingly managed to etch a mark in my skull.
I believe the term ‘opportunity cost’ perfectly described my predicament in that moment. The idea that due to the limited amount of resources that I had, I could only choose one of many options for which my resources could be put to use because I did not possess the sufficient resources to choose all the variables available.
And that was exactly the situation: I had two choices, and only possessed enough resources to make a singular choice. So what was it going to be?
Now obviously I could have picked one and moved on with my life because it didn’t really matter which book I chose. I would have adored either one anyway, but my brain being my brain decided for me that just randomly choosing one was too simple.
That left me standing for, say a few hours perhaps, my legs going numb but my mind going everywhere except acknowledging the fact that my legs may be in need of medical attention soon if I didn’t sit down.
I kept picking up and holding each book alternatingly, looking at their front and back over and over again. Thankfully the books were wrapped in plastic. They could have been corroded by the acidic oil from my fingertips due to the excessive amount of time for which I held each book.
Then I decided to use this strategy instead: I began staring at each of their front covers, deciding which front cover had a better artistic illustration for which perhaps I could make my choice. Then the fact that no one should judge a book by its cover hit me and conjured a slight sense of guilt that began gnawing away at the back of my mind. Though in my defense, I would without a doubt fancy the content of each book, and I was in desperate need to make a choice, else I would literally die here in the bookstore and my spirit would haunt this very bookshelf, probably still deciding which book to buy instead of regretting having not made a decision.
So anyway. I looked at the front cover of “Beren and Lúthien” for the thousandth time, analysing it to the slightest detail: it was a whimsical illustration of the titular characters, painted in a palette of soft warm colours. I did the same for “The Bell Jar”, and well… there was a bell jar. What was I expecting? But it did suit the melancholic tone the book is supposed to have, so I presumed it was a suitable front cover. But also I was buying a book to read and not to stare at its front cover after all.
My hand then involuntarily reached out for “Beren and Lúthien”, so I guess I preferred how that book looked – not that “The Bell Jar” was any less aesthetically visually pleasing – but it’s not like I have all day to decide.
Then my brain did an annoying thing, like always.
“So you’re gonna cop out now eh?” my brain whispered.
“What do you mean?” I replied, in my head, to my brain.
“You’re gonna judge a book by its cover now huh?”
“I thought we’ve already established the fact that it didn’t matter in my given situation?”
“I don’t remember establishing anything.”
“It’s not like I have to listen to you all the time.”
“But aren’t you fond of Sylvia Plath’s poems?” my brain taunted. “Now imagine reading a full novel written by her.”
My brain had a point.
“Well if you put it that way, I guess I’ll pick ‘The Bell Jar’ then,” I replied.
“Then you’ll miss out on Tolkien’s latest posthumous work,” my brain said. “Not to mention you’re a Tolkien fan too.”
“Why do you keep doing this to me?”
“You actually mean ‘why do you keep doing this to yourself’, because I’m really just you.”
“Yeah, I need a break.”
The unfruitful conversation with my brain was then interrupted by a sudden uncomfortable ache: I had to pee.
That left me with another decision to make: either I could use the restroom first and then come back and continue to suffer, or I could make a decision and buy whichever book now before heading off to the restroom (which was on the other side of the mall). Needless to say the first option was obviously better, but once again I was stuck in another dilemma. Since I was already in the store, the second option seemed more efficient. I would have to walk less. Was I really that lazy? Apparently so. But the second option would only work best if there wasn’t a queue at the counter. I took a brief glance towards the counter, and sure enough, it was empty save for the napping cashier. It was, after all, a lazy Sunday afternoon.
There I was, still standing in front of the bookshelf, but now with extra agony from the building pressure of piss in my bladder that felt like a ticking time bomb. Except this ticking time bomb may not explode but instead solidify into an unbreakable piece of rock within my bladder, which would then require a surgery or I’ll die a slow and painful death.
Since the stakes of this newly-emerged crisis were much higher as my life may well have been on the line, I had to make a decision fast. Now of course with a clear mind, the first option would be the wiser choice… but I did not have a clear mind.
I went with the second option.
In a haste, I snagged “The Bell Jar” off the bookshelf and dashed away straight to the counter. Thankfully there still wasn’t a queue, but the cashier was soundly asleep.
“Excuse me,” I said. The cashier then awoke as if he was brought back from the dead, slurping back the drool that was oozing down from his mouth. I handed him the book to be scanned.
He avoided eye contact out of embarrassment. “That’ll be thirty-five ringgit and fifty cents please.”
I took out my wallet that was snuggled cosily deep within the tunnel of my pocket for the past few hours – all nice and warm. I only had a fifty ringgit note. He returned the change.
And there were coins. I hated coins.
Nervously, I tried to unzip the coin compartment in my wallet, but the zip became stuck half-way. I struggled to force the zip to completely open while feeling the anxiety build from the judgment of the people behind me as they witnessed me incompetently trying to keep money in my own wallet. Not looking behind me, I managed to open the zip and swiftly stuff the coins into the compartment.
I still had to keep the notes. At least they’re easier to manage. Or not. The notes wouldn’t fit into my wallet for some odd reason, so I kept trying and trying to fit them right in. The anxiety became worse. I could feel the disappointment of the people behind me. If I continued this any longer, they would start yelling at me. A drop of sweat made its way down the side of my forehead. Thump. Thump. Thump. My heart was pounding. Still not looking behind, I shoved the notes into my wallet after unsuccessfully trying to fit them in nicely, crumpling them in the process. Finally, it was over. I looked behind.
There was no one. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. And the cashier fell asleep once more.
I took the book off the countertop and headed for the store’s entrance. There were a few anti-theft devices placed at the entrance. I always wondered if I would be unlucky enough for it to make a sound as I walked through them, even if I’d already paid for my book or was carrying nothing. As I approached the entrance, I held my breath and braced myself for a sound that was unlikely to be made anyway. I took a step past the entrance.
No sound was made. I let out a breath of relief, but I’d already paid for my book: I wondered why I even worried about that. Instead, there was a sharp sting reminding me of that important something I’d miraculously forgotten: I had to pee. I stood there wondering if the piss had already started to solidify into the agonizing kidney stone that would murder me slower and more painfully than life itself – which then reawakened my dormant existential crisis that I’ve spent ages trying to bury in the volcanic wastelands of my mind by convincing myself that life had no purpose whatsoever and my very existence is meaningless, and that the knowledge of that should not be depressing but rather liberating.
Then it occurred to me that in all the time I’d spent having a meltdown, I could have just walked to the restroom.
I staggered over, struggling to think about anything other than the fact that I was in desperate need to use the restroom. Channelling whatever energy I had left, I kept a clear mind of things and felt momentarily empowered that I finally possessed the ability to control my own thoughts.
Then my brain did an annoying thing.
“You should have went for ‘Beren and Lúthien’.”