A Short Story by Kira Rosemarie
Why would you tell me that?
Why would you tell me that? She repeated. I sat in a stammerless silence, lips folded together like they could suck back what I said. I put my hand on hers but she pulled it away, resting it awkwardly on the fold between her lap and her belly. Her wrist strained uncomfortably but she couldn’t move.
I’m sorry, I said. But it shouldn’t be too surprising. I had tried to say it gently but her flushing cheeks gave the impression I had slapped her. It was a moment that should have made everything still. The coffee cups clinked on their small-dish cousins, the other cafe patrons giggled, whispered, and hummed as they read their papers. Outside, trucks and cars sloshed by through the graying leftovers of the weekend’s icy Chicago snow. Nothing slowed for us.
It’s just… I tried to continue.
Don’t. Just don’t, she said. She tucked a phantom strand of hair behind her ear out of habit and smoothed her red waves in front of her shoulder, running them between both hands as if she could straighten her hair that way. I twisted a stray curl around my finger, then tucked it back into my topknot. Leaning forward with my elbows on the small, circular table, I brought my hands together and pressed them to my lips. I closed my eyes and pushed a long breath through my nostrils and onto the backs of my thumbs.
When all the breath was out, I started counting. One, two,
Excuse me, could I reach by you real quick? A woman asked. Our table was in front of the bookshelf that spanned the left wall of the cafe.
Hm? Oh, yes, yeah, sorry, no problem, go ahead, she said. The woman shot a prim smile at her and reached over our cups and pastries to take a slim volume of poetry from the shelf. She had used her finger to wiggle the top of the book backward at an angle before grabbing the edge and yanking – the exact technique that, had I still been in library school, I would have been mercilessly called out for in front of my peers. It damages the spine and binding of any book, even one as small as that.
I eyed our interrupter with mild annoyance. I hadn’t been the one to move for her reach, only the one to curl my lip at the way the woman grabbed the book. But I wondered what that stranger had seen. Two young women having a nice conversation? Two young women in the middle of an argument? Two sisters, two friends, two lovers?
I looked back across the table at her, but she was looking at the shelf now. The twin of the book the woman had taken remained on the shelf. Her face was less red now. Maybe she was in the acceptance stage.
She scanned the couple of rows of books at eye level, then put her finger on the top of the lonely twin’s spine, pulled it toward her at an angle, and yanked it off the shelf. It wasn’t even a necessary abuse to the binding. Since the other book had been removed, there was no tension left to necessitate the new scuff on the bottom edge of the spine, or the soft poke to the glue holding the pages together, like a manicurist pushing back the cuticle.
She knew it wasn’t necessary, she knew I’d seen, and she knew I knew that she knew exactly what she was doing.
I remembered the time in my apartment when I had just moved in and she came over to celebrate. She looked at the one, tall bookshelf that almost touched the ceiling with what I would have thought was mock awe if I hadn’t known her like I did. But I knew she was indeed impressed.
So pretty, she said. And you found this shelf on the street?
Yep! I replied. I couldn’t believe someone was ready to throw it out. She traced the crude carvings on the side. It did kind of look like someone’s failed carpentry project, but I didn’t mind. That’s just the way I like things to come to me – as projects.
Is this a new book? She said. Then it happened in slow motion: the finger on the top of the spine, the rough angular pull, the tug away from the shelf.
Don’t! I said.
What? She said, looking up at me from where she had squatted before the shelf with an expression like a homeless person had just screamed something incoherent to her on the street.
No, I mean, yes, it’s new, but, yeah, I would…I’d like to keep it that way, and if you take it off the shelf like that, it can really mess up the binding in the long run. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, it’s a habit from school.
I thought you focused on rare books, not new ones. Wouldn’t the new spines be less fragile? Like, don’t they have better glue or something now than they did in the seventeenth century?
Yes, it was rare books, I said.
But every book is rare to you, she said, smiling. That was the thing I liked about being around her. When other people may make a joke of some old librarian hag like me, she understood, at least as much as she could. Or, no. It was less an understanding of the value of the books, and more an understanding of the value they had to me. With an understanding of the value of books, she may not have pulled the volume of poetry off the shelf like that, right in front of my face, right in public where she knew I was less likely to react.
And she was right. I did nothing, at least nothing she could see. My elbows hurt from how harshly they were digging into the tabletop. She leafed through the book and tried to seem unaffected. Did she even like poetry? It was hard to remember. I let some of the tension release from my jaw in another long exhale.
Hey, she repeated. I opened my eyes, a little unsettled. How long had they been closed?
I’m going to go now, okay? She said. Her pupils were swimming in the dim light of the cafe and the soft refraction of fresh tears. Her bottom lip trembled.
Are, um…are you sure? I can walk with you, I said. She nodded and looked down.
Yes, It’s fine.
Um, I can –
No, I already paid. It’s fine, okay? We’ll talk later.
Oh, I said. Okay. She wrapped her scarf back around her neck and avoided looking at me while she took her coat off the back of the twisted wire chair and cocooned herself back into the parka. She fished inside the wide pockets until she found her slim, velvet gloves, the ones her father had given to her. After she put them on, she paused with the tips of her fingers together, like a little pangolin taking a break from looking for its next meal. She looked back up at me. Then back at her fingers. Again, her lower lip trembled, but no tears fell below her lashes. She gave me a quick wave, then turned on the heel of her boot, pulled the faux-fur trimmed hood around her head, and left, her small messenger bag bouncing on her hip as she walked away down the street.
I watched her until I could no longer see her through the window without straining my neck. I looked down at the table. Two half-eaten croissants and barely-sipped cappuccinos. A sigh, a sip, and a bite later, I decided to pick up the book of poetry she had left next to her plate.
I picked it up carefully. Part of me – actually, most of me – wanted it to be something symbolic. Something somehow celestially ordained to be here, just for this moment, just to connect her to me, whether it was the last time or not. I read the title: Limericks to Share with Friends and Kids. The interrupter woman passed in front of me, child in her arm as she headed for the door. Her toddler held the book’s twin and beat it against his chest, singing to himself as she waved goodbye to her friend.
I tossed the book toward the shelf, meaning for it to land lightly on the table. I miscalculated, and the book landed partway in her now-cold coffee cup. The next owner would just have to accept this piece of sticky, accidental marginalia. I tucked the now-coffee-stained limericks back into the bookshelf, where the pages curled as it leaned sideways where its partner should be.
Kira Rosemarie is a writer and artist from Kentucky currently living in South Florida. She writes short fiction and poetry and was last published on Sad Girls Club Literary Blog.