Sydney sat on the park bench, hands tucked deep into the pockets of his trench coat. He checked the path again — No Miss Parker — and slumped into thought.
He had been having what he called “disturbing” dreams again. He had them in sets, from time to time, usually in the spring, when the sky was clear and bright, and the air soft, and flowers scented the breeze. This was such a day, and here he was, in a park, on a bench overlooking the bay, and beauty was all around him. The dreams would be unendurable tonight. Last night had been bad enough….
He was walking along a pavement. He didn’t recognize the street but, in the dream, he knew he was in Paris. He was the only man in sight; everywhere, there were women. Walking beside him and toward him and away from him, standing still, sitting at cafe tables, lounging in doorways, leaning from windows…. Women of all ages, shapes, and nationalities, and each beautiful, each in her own way. No standard, impossible, toothpaste-ad dolls in his dreams — that would be too easy to dismiss when the dreams were over. He felt a fleeting jab of despair, even as he dreamt, knowing that he would wake to see this beauty all around him through the day: typists, executives, waitresses — all lovely, and all beyond his reach.
The dream claimed him again, everyday life was forgotten, and he was happy. Each woman he passed looked at him, her eyes (blue, gray, green, violet, brown, hazel) full of mischief, her smile laced with tender secrets. He walked through a garden; he had only to stretch out his hand to pluck the gentlest blossom, the most exotic bloom….
So the dream had ended. They were all like that, variations of that. Or, sometimes, there would be one specific woman, a woman he saw every day, perhaps, and those dreams were the worst. The next day, he would try to catch the woman’s eye, thinking that he might have unknowingly picked up a signal she had sent him, that she might be waiting for his response. The woman would not feel his gaze or, if she did, she would meet his look with blankness or (if she worked in the Centre) suspicion.
He had learned, after years of these sets of dreams, after two or three disastrous attempts to bring the core meaning of them to life, that his only course was to wait them out. Eventually, the dreams would stop, and he could insulate himself again from the tug of the heart.
There had been the lovely girl, when he was a boy in France — Annik. They had played in the dust together, some historical battle, and she had slapped him when he had insisted her side had lost in truth. Another day, a hot day in August, she had kissed him, and his heart had opened like a bouquet when the florist’s paper is unwrapped. The Germans had taken him away in the night. He hadn’t said goodbye. She was killed during the war. He hadn’t asked — hadn’t wanted to know how.
The camp did not bear thinking of. He had lived in his mind. There was no beauty, no vitality, and that had come to seem right. He had emerged from the camp with blinders on — worse, with his sight itself impaired, and with his feelings, as if they were activated by light, equally shut in the dark.
Ah, but they were there! The dreams would come and, with his own unconscious hand, he would open a door, a window, and the light would stream in. The feelings would burst into flower unseen, in the basement, the attic, some room of his soul where no-one ever cared to come.
And once, or twice, or more than that, he had found someone who seemed to want take his hand and explore those recesses of his self, but never had her interest lasted. Or never had she been able to overlook the clinical detachment that had become so much a part of him. Why couldn’t they see? Why couldn’t they see that the one was him, as well as the other? Why couldn’t a woman love the calculator, the manipulator, the note-taker, the scientist, when he was the same man who stroked her hair, her hands?
A pair of young women passed, chattering and laughing. Sydney watched them out of sight then turned away, scowling savagely at himself.
“Hope you aren’t thinking about me, Syd,” said Miss Parker, dropping onto the seat beside him.
Sydney’s black mood broke, and he chuckled. Of all the women in the world, he thought, only with this dear and terrible child did he feel free of all threat of desire.
“Any luck, Parker?” he asked.
She shook her head. “You were right. False alarm.”
“I’m…sorry I lost my temper. I haven’t slept well lately.”
“You’re the man with the prescription pad,” Miss Parker said, lighting a cigarette. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I didn’t say I hadn’t slept. I said I haven’t slept well.”
Parker looked hard at Sydney, eyebrows drawn together in the frown of concentration he remembered so well from her mother. “Dreams?” she asked.
“The past? The…the camp?”
He shook his head, relieved that she hadn’t guessed, that it didn’t show. But, then, that was the problem, wasn’t it? “It isn’t important,” he said. He drew a deep breath. “I think I’ll take a walk. Go to the library.”
“‘Kay.” Miss Parker still looked concerned, a mother hen in a black leather miniskirt. “See you tomorrow.”
There was a small branch library at the edge of Bay Park. Only one large room, but it had some odd volumes, and a shabby collection of children’s literature. Painful and sweet to handle the old, hand-worn books and pretend he had read them to his son, to a boy like Jarod, to Jarod.
The library doors were standing open, the ones to the front steps and the ones to the reading terrace. Behind the check-out desk, the librarian was speaking with a patron. As Sydney approached, removing his trench coat and draping it over his arm, the patron’s voice raised:
“…precisely controlled climate. Fresh air is the worst possible thing for books.”
“Yes, sir,” said the librarian, with a meek voice but a direct look. She wore a jersey dress with wide, vibrant, horizontal stripes, belted at the waist with a soft twist of gold cloth. She was — what? — forty-five? fifty? Her mouse-brown hair was touched with gray. Crinkles at the corners of her hazel eyes confessed that the freshness of her youth was past. Past, but had been spent without too much regret.
“But you see, sir,” the librarian said, “this is the last branch in line for acquisitions. All our books are discards from other libraries. If all these books fell to pieces, no money would be lost, no literature would be lost that couldn’t be found at other facilities. When the doors are closed, we have five patrons a day — in fine weather. When the doors are open –” She waved a hand, indicating the dozen or so people wandering among the shelves or seated at the tables, the several others sitting on the reading terrace. “Besides, the wind is from the southwest today at five miles an hour, gusting to ten — blowing toward the bay, not from it. Humidity is at three percent. The library weather advisory is optimal today.”
“The library weather advisory. I called the toll-free number before hours this morning, and I monitor it hourly.”
“Ah. Good. Well…I suppose that’s all right, then.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you for your concern.”
The patron left the counter and the librarian turned to Sydney with a wicked smile and a wink. His heart jumped and hammered.
No, he thought. No. This was his haven from the world. This woman — he didn’t even know her name — was all but invisible, was only the librarian, pleasant but genderless and bland. Now he stared at the roundness of her arms, as she pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, stared at her hands, at the rings on her hands, none of them a wedding ring….
“You again,” she said, a mock accusation. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Sorry it’s a little noisy today, but it was just too nice outside to keep the place all stuffy.”
“Especially as the library weather advisory was so favorable,” Sydney said, answering her smile with one of his own.
A child came in, and the librarian’s attention shifted. “Hello, honey!” she said.
Sydney drifted away from the desk, slowly and reluctantly, like a ship cut loose, not wanting to leave its harbor. His heart was still thudding. He felt like a fool. But she had noticed him! And she had seen past his suit, past his silence, had seen him as a man who would like to share a joke. Perhaps she thought he was attractive. He wasn’t so old — and she wasn’t so young. Some women found him attractive; he knew that. He straightened his tie, smoothed his vest, tugged at his jacket. He hung his coat on the back of a chair and sat, only then realizing he hadn’t chosen a book.
“Now, how did you know?” The librarian tugged a wheeled cart over to Sydney’s table. “I just processed these; I thought you might like first crack at them.”
“What are they?” He touched the books, ran his fingers along the soft binding, the irregularities of the spines, and avoided the woman’s hazel eyes.
“Just some unusual stuff. Freeman’s ELIZABETHAN ECCENTRICS, Goddard’s study of the Kallikak family, Bakker’s THE DINOSAUR HERESIES…. That kind of thing. Off-beat stuff. What fun.”
In spite of himself, he looked at her, asking, “Have you read them?”
She laid a hand on his shoulder and leaned toward him saying, in a conspiratorial voice, “I not only read them, I bought them. Where do you think the wacko stuff we keep here comes from? I donate it.”
He almost took her hand, almost reached up and took it in his own, almost kissed it, kissed the back, the fingers, the palm.
Then, with a light laugh, she was gone.
He was nothing to her; a funny patron, that was all; a joke, like the man who wanted climate control for a room full of discards. Blindly, he took one of the books from the cart and paged through it, hot shame at his own foolishness blocking his concentration until, at last, the print came into focus and he could read.
Defiantly, he came again the next afternoon. He wore his chocolate brown turtleneck and his driving cap. He rather fancied himself in them, felt they made him look dashing and devil-may-care.
The librarian waved to him as he entered, a sunbeam glinting off the metal of her bracelet. She wore a royal blue suit over a jonquil-yellow blouse. Two buttons undone, he counted. One more would have been his own undoing.
The phone rang. He hesitated by the counter, listening.
“Bay Park Branch Library, Rose Ventura speaking. May I help you?”
Rose Ventura — Ventura…Latin for well-met — was it an omen? Of course it wasn’t, no more than last night’s dream had been….
The library was closed, but he walked through the closed doors. She sat at the check-out desk, which was also a mirrored dressing table, brushing her short, feathery hair. She was dressed for bed, in brightly striped pajamas. “Hello, honey,” she said, when she saw him, and held out her arms. He walked through the desk and she rose to meet him, soft and warm and welcoming.
“Professori, mi amori!” he heard her say in pidgin Italian. Incredulously, he looked around. She was speaking to someone else — what had he expected? — a boy, possibly in his thirties. She fluttered her eyelashes in mock flirtation as the boy came around the counter.
“Give it up, Rosie: I get the degree, and I’m gone.”
“Ah, you men are all alike. All you think about is your steenkeeng careers.”
“Was Tom like that?”
The boy passed behind her and sat at the counter — another member of the staff. Sydney turned back to his book, but kept his eyes on Rose, saw her face soften and sadden, heard the shield below the lightness of her reply:
“Oh, yes, God rest his soul, Tommie was just like that.”
“Kinda takes the sting out of being a widow,” said the boy.
Sydney winced. The cruelty of the young. But how could the young man know, how could he possibly know, the depth to which love and pain send roots, send taproots, deeper by the year?
He closed his book and carried it to the desk, ignoring the boy and handing it to Rose.
“I’d like to check this one out, please.”
The boy reached for the volume, but the phone rang, and Rose said, “You get that, I’ll do this.”
Sydney slid his card across the counter. Now she would know his name, as he knew hers. It was a step, a step closer. It was an intimacy, learning one another’s names like this, obliquely, a sort of game they played.
He wanted to say, “I heard. I’m sorry.” But he said nothing.
Rose handed him the book with a watery smile. A single tear-drop, so small it had escaped her notice, glistened on the skin beneath her eye. Involuntarily, he brushed it away with his fingertip.
The woman gasped at the contact.
In for a penny, Syd thought, in for a pound. “You mustn’t weep in a library,” he said tenderly. “It’s bad for the books.”
To his dismay, her eyes filled and overflowed. She snatched a tissue from the box on the counter and blotted the burst of dampness away.
“Random acts of kindness always take me like this,” she said, laying her hand — so light, so small, so soft! — on his.
Before he could tell her it wasn’t random, she had hurried down the stairs (the sign above said OFFICE).
That night, he had the worst dream of all. The worst. The very worst….
He was sitting in the library, reading. Suddenly, Rose was next to him. He felt her fingers on the back of his neck, stroking downward, then lifting. He stood, and she moved into his arms. Her arms were around his neck, urging him closer. His lips touched hers briefly, tenderly, then again, lingering this time. Again, and he and she were lost in one another; he felt himself dissolve in sweet union….
And woke alone.
Thank God for work. Objectivity. Detachment. Parker commented on his uncommunicativeness, a flippant remark, with a probe in it. Sydney thawed a little, safe in the icy heart of the Centre. This was his proper environment.
Later, he returned to his quarters and showered and changed. The dream still haunted him, filled him with frustrated energy. He didn’t know whether to be irritable or giddy.
He would stay home this afternoon. He would go out to dinner, then come right back. He would stay in and cook. He would go for a walk first. It was overcast — no day for a walk. Overcast days were pleasant, too.
He put on a white shirt with blue and brown pinstripes and his gray suspenders. He put on a fawn-colored vest. Unbuttoned, very casual. And his cap. Not his cap. Yes, his cap.
The library doors were closed against the cool, damp air.
Climate control, Sydney thought, smiling.
“Well, hello,” Rose said, as he entered. Today, her dress was bittersweet, buttoned from hem to throat. “You’re getting to be a regular customer.”
The library was empty except for himself and Rose and the boy.
“Nobody home but us chickens,” the boy said.
“Finish the book already?” Rose asked.
“Book?” He remembered, too late to recover the mistake, that he had checked a book out the day before. “Uh, no, I… just thought I’d see what else I could pick up…check out…. Another book, perhaps.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding. “Another book.”
Was that a smile? Was it a smile of understanding, of complicity, of anticipation? Or was it a smile of mockery? Or did he only imagine she reacted to him at all?
He chose a book and sat as far from the desk as he could, slouched in the chair, his legs stretched full length, like a sullen schoolboy.
Heavy footsteps trotted down the office stairs.
She was next to him, right beside him. Sydney felt paralyzed, afraid to move, afraid to give himself away more than he already had, afraid to break the spell, to frighten her away. She had only come to tell him something about a new selection, he knew that, he knew that.
Her fingers touched the nape of his neck, stroking downward, sliding under his collar. He closed his eyes and sighed. The dream. The dream had come true.
With a beatific smile, he stood and swept her into his arms, one arm around her waist, one around her shoulders, holding her close, at first just reveling in the embrace, in the sensation of her body against his. Her hands on his side, on his shoulder, slid around him, and she held him tightly, shivering in his arms.
Slowly, he pulled back just far enough to kiss her ear, her chin, her lips. As in the dream, he felt himself dissolve in happiness.
The boy’s thumping ascent alerted them, parted them. Rose turned to a nearby shelf, and Sydney sat and retrieved his book.
“Rose,” the boy said, “I need you to sign this.”
She hurried to the desk.
The boy strolled over to Sydney’s table. “Oh,” he said, “I see she already told you.”
“Told me what?” Sydney looked up, puzzled, distracted.
“That your care tag was out.”
“Your care tag,” Rose said, bringing the signed paper to the boy. “You know… handle with care… press gently… that sort of thing.”
Sydney dropped his head into his hand as the boy, his good deed done, went back downstairs. When Rose didn’t say anything, Sydney stood and, not looking at her, pushed his chair in and walked toward the door.
She took his arm in both her hands, her hands encompassing his biceps, stopping him with her touch.
“Why didn’t you tell me I was making a fool of myself?” he asked, still looking away.
He looked at her then, with her enigmatic smile, her smiling eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing? What you’d done? I thought… I thought you were….”
“So I gathered.”
She pushed him, a little, turned him to face her. He put his hands on her shoulders, slid them slowly around to her back, ready to retreat if she should flinch or laugh or stiffen. She did none of those things, but gently flexed her shoulders, as if every bone and muscle were ready to respond to his lightest caress.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he whispered.
“You’ll never know,” she whispered back, moving into his embrace. “My lips are sealed.”
“No, they aren’t,” he murmured, and then he proved it.