I’m supposed to meet Gabe at the movie theater in half an hour.
I want to be excited over this (possible) date, but I’m not. I’m so unexcited that I don’t even change out of the blouse and skirt I wore to the library today for work. I brush out my hair, but I don’t spend half an hour in front of the mirror, trying to figure out how I can arrange the strands to make it look fuller on top, where my scalp is partially burned.
I just… I don’t really care.
All I can think about is Colin.
It’s stupid—I know it. Colin and I are not a good match for so many reasons. He’s clearly gone through an ordeal recently and probably isn’t ready for a relationship with anyone, much less a girl who’s never been in a relationship before and won’t know what the hell she’s doing.
And then there’s the embarrassing fact that he doesn’t know what I look like. I mean, obviously he can’t ever know what I look like, but he doesn’t realize I’m the sort of girl people stare at when I walk into the room. He doesn’t realize people look at me like they pity me. He doesn’t realize there’s a woman trying to get me banned from working with the children at the library because she’s worried my appearance will frighten them.
If he knew, how would he feel about me?
Maybe he’d be fine with it. He can’t see, after all, so why would he care what I look like? But I’m sure he’d mind that other people see me as some sort of deformed monster. And even if he doesn’t mind that, he might mind how brittle my hair is or how the skin on my face and chest isn’t smooth like most women’s skin. Neither are my lips.
Out of everything, I’m most self-conscious about my lips. I’ve had so many surgeries on my lips, but they still don’t look much like real lips. One boy in middle school used to call it my “mouth hole.” He was trying to be mean, but it wasn’t entirely inaccurate.
When I was in fifth grade, I went to a party where a game of spin the bottle broke out. My friend Patty convinced me to play, and I was almost going to join the game, but the boys all decided as a group that they would refuse to play if I was playing.
“You’re a bunch of jerks!” Patty yelled at them. I could tell she wanted to make a big deal out of it, but I dragged her away. It was a mean, awful thing they did to me, but they were ten-year-old boys. I understood why they didn’t want to kiss me.
Would Colin want to kiss me?
The thought of it makes my heart speed up. Funny how the guy I’m daydreaming about isn’t the one I’m about to go on the date with.
Just as I’m pulling on my heels to leave the house, my phone starts buzzing. It’s Gabe.
“Hey, Soph,” he says.
“Hey!” I chirp into the phone. I’m trying to psych myself up for this date. Gabe’s a nice guy. The Colin thing… it’s not realistic. “What’s up?”
“Listen,” he says, “I gotta cancel tonight.”
I pause, my shoe half on my foot. “Oh…”
“Yeah, my dog isn’t feeling so good,” he says. “So I don’t think I should leave him.”
“Oh,” I say again. A sick dog? Really? Is that like the new “sick grandma” of excuses?
Well, I suppose his dog could actually be sick. Dogs do get sick.
“He’s probably okay,” Gabe adds. “I just feel bad leaving the house.”
“Um,” I say. “If you’re stuck there, I could, like, bring you dinner or something?”
“Nah, that’s fine,” he says quickly. “I’m just microwaving a burrito.”
I let my shoe slide off my foot. “Well, I guess we’ll do it some other time then… like, maybe next week?”
“I’m pretty busy next week,” he says vaguely. “Let me get back to you.”
He doesn’t have a sick dog. That liar.
After we hang up the phone, I feel a twinge of relief. I wasn’t excited to go out with Gabe. I didn’t want to go in the first place—Natalie was the one who talked me into it. I thought it might be a fun evening, but I wasn’t expecting much. So I’m glad instead of a tense night of wondering “does he like me or not,” I can veg out and read or watch TV.
Except on the other hand, it was a clear rejection. And even though I wasn’t expecting much, it still hurts.
I’m sure the right guy is out there somewhere.
You know what? I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m only twenty-eight, but that’s old enough to know how men see me. Men are incapable of looking at me as a potential partner. Gabe was scared of even being in a situation where I might get the idea he was interested.
I don’t need a man. I don’t.
But I’d be lying if I said the thought of being alone the rest of my life doesn’t sometimes get me down.
Steve calls me into his office first thing on Monday morning. When you’re boss asks to see you with a grave expression on his face, it’s never a good sign.
I follow him to his small office like I’m being led to an execution. Steve drops down into the seat behind his desk and I settle gingerly into the chair in front of his desk. There’s a deep crease between Steve’s eyebrows. God, I hope I’m not about to be fired. I may be the only person besides him here who has an advanced degree, but I’m also the newest employee.
“Sophie,” he says with a sigh, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
I clear my throat. “Okay…”
I’m not in the mood to hear whatever it is he has to say. It’s been a rough weekend. I spent a lot of it feeling sorry for myself because Gabe canceled on me. I hadn’t even wanted to go on the damn date, but the rejected still smarted.
And Colin kept invading my thoughts too. Did I blow it with him by letting on I was going out with another guy? Is our little flirtation over? That thought upset me more than anything.
“Do you remember that woman, Dawn Sheehan?” Steve asks. “The one who claimed she was a friend of the mayor?”
My jaw tightens. I don’t want to admit my history with Dawn, so I just say, “The one who lodged the complaint about me.”
“Yes, that’s her.” Steve grimaces. “Look, this is just in the early stages and I don’t want to worry you, but I think you need to know that Mrs. Sheehan is putting a lot of pressure on me about you.”
My mouth feels dry. I knew Dawn didn’t like me, but I didn’t know she was ready to take action against me. It’s like third grade all over again. “Oh?”
“She feels strongly that you… that children might…” He looks away from me. “She’s just putting pressure on me to keep you either in the adult or the reference floor.”
Right, so Carrie can rule the Children’s Floor. Carrie, who makes children cry, is a better librarian for kids, in Dawn’s opinion. Because Carrie, at least, looks pleasant.
“I’ve defended you,” Steve adds. He offers a crooked smile. “I know you’re great with the kids. Hell, it was my idea you do Storytime in the first place, right?”
I nod, unable to smile myself. “Yes, you did.”
“But…” He shakes his head. “Mrs. Sheehan’s got all this paperwork from some crazy child psychologist saying you’re traumatizing the kids. You should know, Sophie, that she started a petition. She’s planning to go over my head.”
The news hits me like a slap in the face. A petition? It’s one thing to imagine one uptight woman having a problem with me, but the thought that multiple women are signing because they don’t think children should be subjected to me is…
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “I wanted you to hear it from me.”
He’s right. I’m glad he told me first, because Carrie surely will find a way to bring it up.
“Dawn Sheehan is a spoiled bitch,” Steve spits. “She and her husband both come from money. They think all they gotta do is snap their fingers and they should get whatever the hell they want. I’m not going to let them do this to you, Sophie. I promise.”
“Thank you,” I say, knowing if the mayor orders Steve to relocate me, he’ll have no choice. I don’t want him to get fired over this. I can always quit this job and go somewhere else, but he’s got a house in Dorchester and child support to pay.
His brow furrows. “You okay?”
I nod wordlessly. I can’t decide if I’m furious or heartbroken. Maybe a little of both.
I stumble more than walk back to the Adult Floor. I can’t believe this is happening. Of all the prejudice I’ve faced over the years, this could be the worst. They’re making a petition. A petition to keep me away from children.
It’s all I can do to keep from bursting into tears.
When I get back to the adult library, I see a figure standing there. My legs freeze when I see that white cane, the one that’s become so familiar to me. Colin’s here. Despite how awful I’ve been feeling since coming out of Steve’s office, my heart soars. How does he do this to me?
“Hi,” I say as I round the desk.
He lifts his head, but I can see him hesitating to respond. Then I remember and say, “Hi, Colin.”
“Hi,” he says back, his face breaking into a smile that’s only a fraction of what it was last time I saw him. “I, um, finished all the books.”
“Really?” I’m impressed. Even though they were essentially four short stories, that’s still a lot of pages for someone who is a beginner at braille. It must have taken him forever. “That’s incredible.”
“I spent the whole weekend reading them,” he admits. He adjusts his shades on his nose. “Didn’t have too much else to do.”
“Well, I’ve got three more books for you,” I say.
“Thank you,” he says, somewhat stiffly.
I hesitate, choosing my next words carefully. “So in case you were wondering, my ‘date’ canceled on me.”
His mouth falls open. “Are you kidding?”
“Yeah.” I shrug to show I don’t care, even though he can’t see it. It’s just as well, since the truth is that I do care. “Sick dog, apparently.”
“Oh, shit,” he says. He shakes his head. “What an idiot.”
“You think he’s an idiot?”
“Well, yeah.” He raises an eyebrow at me. “I mean, he’d have to be to cancel a date with a beautiful girl, right?”
“Yeah,” I mumble. “It’s fine though. I didn’t really want to go anyway.”
“I guess…” I pick at some lint on the mousepad. “I didn’t like him that much either, so…”
Colin is quiet for a moment. Finally, he says, “Did you find that copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?”
He still wants it. I feel better than I have since Gabe’s phone call. “Yes, I did. You still want it?”
“Of course I want it. It’s your desert island book.”
I laugh. “What if my desert island book was something by Jackie Collins? Would you still read it?”
He smiles. “If your desert island book was something by Jackie Collins, I don’t know if we’d be talking.”
I laugh again (even though I actually sort of like Jackie Collins if I’m in the right mood) and pull the new books for him from below the desk. I slide them over to him and let him feel the titles. Again, they’re all short fiction, the longest of which is “The Body” by Stephen King. Colin’s quicker now at deciphering the dots. He smiles when he feels that one.
“I read this,” he says. He touches the second book, and I watch his expression. “‘The Lottery.’ I read this one too.”
“I’m sorry.” My face falls. “I wasn’t sure…”
“It’s okay,” he says quickly. “It’s been at least ten years since I read them. I’d like to read them again.” He feels another title. “‘Brokeback Mountain.’ I saw the movie. It was long.”
“Yes, but it’s based on a short story.”
“You read it?”
“I’ve read all of these.”
He smiles again. “Have you read everything?”
“Not everything,” I say, “but a lot. I try to read two or three books each week.”
I love books more than almost anything. I love escaping into a story, immersing myself in an entirely different world for a brief period of time. My real life, in many ways, has been somewhat dull—I’ve traveled very little, I’ve never had a boyfriend, and I’ve only ever worked as a librarian—but I honestly feel like I’ve experienced more from the things I’ve read. A good book is like a trip you never want to come home from.
“That’s impressive,” Colin says. “When I was in the states, I used to be able to read about one book a week, but when I was deployed, it was a different story—sometimes I only made it through one book the whole time.”
I take the books and put them back in a pile for him. “It’s not very crowded now. Would you like me to bring these books to a table for you?”
His brows furrow. “I can carry a few books,” he says, defensiveness edging into his voice.
“I know,” I say quickly, “but this way, I can tell you if the table is empty.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, based on the way his cheeks color. “You saw that?”
“The Wicked Witch of the Dorchester Library? Yes, I saw.”
He laughs at that. “I was surprised how angry she got.”
“Want to hear a secret?” I say. He nods. “She was trying desperately to use the computer the other day and she couldn’t figure out how to log in. All you have to do is enter your library card number and password on the login screen, and she was insisting she’d done it.” I snort. “Well, she’d just jammed her library card in the CD drive. She thought that was how you logged in.”
He laughs again. “What did she say when she found out?”
I snort again. “What do you think? She blamed it all on me.”
I round the desk so that I’m at his side. Like when I led him to the bathroom, I touch his hand to let him know I’m next to him. He takes my arm, but this time his grip is less tentative. He leans very slightly against me as we walk.
I lead him to an empty table that’s not near anyone who’s reading. I put the books down on the table for him, and he sits in an empty chair. I watch the way he feels for the chair before he sits down. He found it so quickly, it makes me wonder again how much he can see.
“Do you have any vision at all?” I blurt out.
He blinks a few times fast, as if startled by my question.
“Sorry,” I say. I sink down in the seat beside him, and his eyes drop to where my face is. Again, I wonder. “That’s none of my business.”
“No, I don’t mind you asking,” he says. “I just didn’t expect it at that moment. But believe me, plenty of people ask.” He pulls off the tinted glasses so that I can see his green eyes. They look almost normal, but not. In a lineup of people with normal vision, I’d be able to pick him out as the one who couldn’t see. “I can see dim shapes when I’m within about two feet of them, but nothing small. No details and no colors. I can tell when the lights are on or off. When the lights are off or it’s night, I can’t see anything at all. Total night blindness.”
I hesitate before asking my next question. He seems comfortable talking about it, so maybe it’s appropriate to ask. “How did it happen?”
He smiles wryly. “Do you want the whole story or the abridged version?”
I look over at the desk, which is empty. Nobody is waiting. “Tell me the whole story.”
“I heard it secondhand later, unfortunately, because…” He raps a fist against his skull. “I got knocked out. It happened during my last deployment to Iraq. Apparently, I was driving a Humvee and we got hit by an RPG.”
“Rocket-propelled grenade.” He winces. “It was a direct hit. Lots of fumes, shrapnel, all that sh… stuff. I was knocked unconscious, and someone pulled me out—I don’t know who. I don’t even know who saved my life. Anyway, the next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital with a tube down my throat and my entire face bandaged.”
I can relate to that memory. How many times have I woken up in a hospital with my entire face bandaged?
“There was shrapnel in my both my eyes that damaged my retinas… they took it out, but…” He shakes his head. “There was too much damage. My lungs were damaged too by the fumes from the blast. I was on a ventilator for a month.” He touches a little divot at the base of his neck. “I had a trach for a while. It was bad, but it healed.”
I had noticed that scar before, but never imagined what it could be from.
“There was shrapnel all over my face too.” He touches the sexy scar I noticed below his hairline. And now that I’m looking more carefully at him head-on, I see another faint scar below his right eye and one on his chin. Those pale jagged lines are so freaking sexy. “I have some scars from it, as I’m sure you can see. I… I was told they’re not too bad. Hopefully, it doesn’t look too shocking.” He laughs nervously when he says it, as if he’s not entirely certain. I don’t tell him that if his face resembled mine, he’d certainly know it.
“No, it looks fine,” I assure him. He seems relieved.
“One thing I remember is I didn’t put on my EYEPRO that day,” he says. “I didn’t think we were at high risk, so I didn’t bother because… well, it’s a pain the ass to wear them. It’s hard enough to see when you’ve got a huge Kevlar helmet on and then the EYEPRO on top of it. If I hadn’t been driving, I probably would have worn them. And if I had, then…”
He shakes his head, his brow furrowed. I know what it’s like to regret your actions. I also regret an injury I can’t remember.
“You don’t know what would have happened,” I point out. “Maybe a few months later, you would have gotten blown up and killed.”
“Or maybe I would have been fine.” He closes his green eyes for a moment. “Anyway, it happened. I did some good out there in Iraq. Two of the guys in my platoon owe their lives to me.” He opens his eyes again. “I don’t regret serving my country.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” I say.
I glance at the desk, where there’s a woman waiting to check out a book. I’ve been talking to him for too long—it’s too easy to talk to him. Or maybe I just like being with him too much.
“There’s someone waiting,” I tell him. “I need to go.”
“Right, of course,” he says. I stand up and his eyes lift again, watching me even though I know all I look like to him is a fuzzy blob. But that’s probably an improvement over what most people see. He doesn’t seem to mind, anyway. “Thank you for the books, Sophie.”
I rest my hand on his shoulder. I meant to just keep it there briefly, but I end up leaving it there far too long. He smiles up at me, and my heart skips in my chest. I’m not sure what’s going on between me and Colin, but I haven’t blown it—that much is certain.
I came into the library telling myself I would not flirt with Sophie. She wasn’t interested—it was very clear. I was done making an idiot out of myself.
She went out of her way to tell me her date didn’t happen. I wasn’t imagining that. And then she sat with me and we talked for a long time. She doesn’t do that with all the people in the library—no way. She couldn’t possibly. And then she kept touching me.
I think I have a chance with her. I really do.
Back before, I’d lay my eyes on a girl and immediately feel attracted to her or not. This is something entirely different. I like everything about her except for the way she looks, because I don’t know how she looks. I like her sweet, girlish voice. I like the way she smells like flowers. I like the way she talks about books, with the same passion I feel about them. If she lost her sight, I bet she’d want to learn braille.
I want to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, just so I can discuss it with her.
Shit, I really like her.
I start making my way through “The Body,” a novella I read back in high school, but I don’t remember much about it. It was made into a movie I never saw—I always figured I’d see it someday. Now I can’t—not in the true sense of the word. But that’s okay. I can live with that.
I’m reading faster now. I know most of the symbols by heart so I don’t need to keep consulting my reference book, but I’m still very slow. I still hesitate on many of the words, searching my brain for what each symbol means. It takes me an entire day to finish reading one of those short stories, which I probably could have read in half an hour before I lost my sight.
I sit with my book, hoping Sophie might come back to talk to me. I try to concentrate on the characters on the page, but there are sounds in the library that sometimes distract me—especially people talking about me. I hear a child say loudly, “Why is that man feeling that book?” His mother murmurs a response I can’t hear, but I assume it’s something along the lines of, “He’s blind, stupid.”
I’d prefer to read at home, if not for the possibility of Sophie returning. That is a very strong incentive.
My phone rings, and I fish it out of the pocket in my bag, where I placed it so I’d be able to easily locate it. I have different ring tones for people I know, so before I answer, I know it’s my mother. Not that anyone calls me besides my parents and Dan.
“Colin,” she says, “I’m just finishing up at the grocery store then I’ll pick you up.”
“That was quick,” I say quietly, trying not to disturb anyone who’s reading. “Didn’t you have a bunch of places to go?”
“Well, I haven’t gone to the florist yet,” she says. “I thought I’d get you first, then we could go together.”
I groan, still trying to be as quiet as I can. “Ma, no. Just go without me.”
“What’s wrong with going to the florist?”
“You always take forever in there. And the old guy who works there always hits on you.”
Ma giggles. “No, he doesn’t.”
He does. And that’s why it always takes forever.
“Just go without me,” I murmur.
“Please don’t be difficult,” she sighs. “The library is on the way to the florist. I don’t want to have to double back.”
“So I’ll just make it home myself,” I say. “I’ll call for a taxi or take the bus.”
“Did you bring money?”
Actually, I didn’t. After what happened last time I was here, I only brought five dollars. So it looks like I’m taking the bus. But she doesn’t need to know this.
“It’ll be fine,” I say. “Ma, I gotta learn how to do this.”
“I don’t think you’re ready.”
“I think I am.”
“Well, when the fuck will I be ready?” I snap, forgetting not to swear in front of my mother. “I’m not going to be living with you guys when I’m forty, you know.”
“Would that be so horrible?”
Is she joking with me? “Yes! It would be horrible!”
“No, this is getting ridiculous.” I know the volume of my voice is rising. I’m probably being outright loud. I hope people aren’t staring at me. “I can get home myself. I’ll be fine.”
There’s a long pause on the other line. “Okay, you think you can make it home yourself, big shot? Fine. Knock yourself out.”
And then she hangs up on me. My own mother hangs up on me.
Shit, how am I going to find the bus stop?
To be continued.....