She usually loves secondhand bookstores, but tonight she finds the musty smell of old books oppressive. Everything seems to unhinge her: the dust, the old ladders leading up to the ceiling, and the haphazard way books are stacked not only vertically but horizontally too. The place is so cluttered that the lower shelves spill onto the floor. As she meanders through the stacks of tattered books, she imagines herself a lost minor character in search of a juicy novel where she can finally do something daring, exciting, even immoral. And the word immoral arrests her as she thinks of Helen. Helen, whose friendship goes back over twenty years to their high school days. Helen, who taught her that you could cross men with impunity, but you never crossed a girlfriend. Helen, whose favorite saying was, "true girlfriends are more precious than diamonds." How can she do this to Helen, and yet what has she done? Nothing--yet.
There has only been that unexpected phone call this morning and, at the other end, Luis's deep, smoky voice. "Ethy, my love, I am in your windy city and a little bird whispered to me it is your birthday very soon."
"Luis. How wonderful. You're here on business?" The word "wonderful" had just slipped from her tongue like a dangerous suggestion.
"No, what business? I'm here only for you, my dear. I have made reservation for two at this little gem of a restaurant . . ."
She knew he was lying through his teeth, but it delighted her. She needed so badly to feel desired. Lately she had hit a dry spell with men. Blind dates were getting worse and worse. She was now getting to the bottom of the barrel, sex-starved men on the rebound, unattractive and insecure dorks, or diehard judgmental bachelors. Even her friends seemed to run out of leads and prospects for her.
She finds herself standing in a tightly packed row of thick books. Her eyes jump from title to title, and she absentmindedly picks up Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, maybe because the title speaks to her mood. The word "underground" has connotations of confessional, hidden secrets. She sinks into the threadbare sofa of the small dingy reading section. She has always been a great believer in serendipitous encounters with books, and the synchronicity of what they have to say. Maybe the universe will provide her with some guidance. Today, she needs all the help she can get. She feels a bit anxious and takes a deep breath. The book rests on her lap unopened. Her eyes go out of focus, crossing somehow into a soft double vision. In front of her, the giant poster of an old film, a palm tree in the foreground and beyond it the vast, brilliant aqua of an ocean. She enters the frame and feels herself back in time, in Mexico, visiting Helen. When was that? A year ago?
Helen had been sitting like a queen in her summer palace sipping espresso, checking messages on her BlackBerry while showering Ethel with advice like cheap handouts. How did the roles get reversed? When did it happen? Instead of enjoying the warm sun, the stupendous view of the ocean from the veranda, this special moment with her best friend, Ethel couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy and resentment towards Helen's newfound confidence and success. She felt that Helen had siphoned off her personality. In college, she had been the adventurous one, the bold one, the one with infallible charm. Her way of dressing was emulated, her mannerisms and affectations copied. Helen had been her faithful companion, her sounding board, her sidekick. Now the tables had turned, and she could no longer stomach Helen's insouciance and simplistic assessments.
"Okay. Your love life is in the pits. You hate your job. So what are you going to do about it?" Helen pontificated as she tore open a small packet of raw cane sugar.
"Listen. It's not easy. What else can I do with a teacher's certificate?"
"Why don't you go back to school?"
"Who's going to pay the rent?"
"Duh. Evening courses."
Ethel remembered grimacing at her friend's easy solutions to everything.
"After spending a whole day with thirty-five screaming ten-year-olds, I'm so exhausted. I can't possibly imagine sitting in a class and being lectured to. Oh, Helen, please. I'm going to be forty. Why can't I just meet someone? Find a bit of happiness, security."
"You have, Ethy, so many guys. It is not the lack of guys that has prevented you from marrying. It is you who refuses to compromise. Romantic love is a myth, Ethel. Gosh, when are you gonna wake up. What about Paulo? You didn't like Paulo?"
Paulo is a friend of Luis, a forty-something, overweight accountant with a stutter that would make Mother Theresa spit with impatience.
"Paapaappaaaulo?" Ethel remembered, blowing out her cheeks in derisive mockery.
"So, you put him on a treadmill. He is a good man. He is intelligent, sensitive, with a great sense of humor. That counts for something. And such courage! Did you know that, after his stroke, he went sailing around the world? The guy is amazing."
"I'm not attracted."
"Ethel. Not everything is about sex."
"Maybe not for you, Helen. But for me sex is such a big part of a relationship." She remembered Helen rolling her eyes.
"Don't you think you're a bit obsessed and immature?"
"No. And how are you and Luis doing? I noticed you didn't even touch, let alone dance together last night."
"So? We are an old couple. Oh, Ethel, don't even go there."
"Do you guys still fight as much?"
Helen's BlackBerry suddenly rang and interrupted the conversation. She raised her left thumb as she identified the caller on her screen and whispered delightedly, "yessss."
Ethel had her answer; Helen didn't need sex, she was on a power trip. Her P.R. company had expanded a hundredfold in the last few years. She now traveled in the rarefied air of the movers and shakers of Mexico City. She imagined Helen having orgasms as deals were sealed, hands shaken, contracts signed. In high school and college, Ethel remembered worrying that Helen would become an old maid. She was forever trying to fix her up with chess geeks, even her ex-boyfriends. How ironic. With Helen, the attraction started between the ears and worked its way down. Helen was a seductress of words, the femme fatale of witty repartee. Luis, she knew, had fallen in love with Helen's mind. Helen was not a beautiful woman, but after one talked to her a bit, she cast her spell and transformed herself into this charming woman, lovely in unexpected ways. She was the embodiment of the belle laide. As she studied her friend pacing the veranda engrossed in conversation, she realized that Helen had never looked so good. She was perfectly made up, wore the latest Vera Wang business suit. She had probably lost twenty pounds since their college days. She looked trim and fit.
Ethel felt suddenly self-conscious in her baggy pants and plain white t-shirt; she was letting herself go. Her free spirited, easy-going image was starting to wear thin. In college, the fears that always loomed large were those of the bag lady and the old maid. Ethel had the sinking feeling that she was becoming both. In Helen's voice, Ethel sensed the intensity, the excitement of a new project. The conversation must have taken an intimate turn because Helen blushed and disappeared behind a palm tree at the other end of the veranda.
A sudden splash of cold water on her back startled Ethel. It was Luis, dripping wet from his morning swim, his swim trunks glued to his body, his thick jet black hair falling on his forehead in tiny ringlets. He was handsome, short and compact. His tanned skin and square jaw reminded her of the recent newscast of a famed Colombian drug lord. His dark brown eyes looked inscrutable, dangerous, forbidding. He looked like Antonio Banderas.
"So how did you sleep, you, beautiful and white maiden?" And before she could answer she felt his kisses on her cheek and then on her neck as they both heard Helen's laughter. Ethel felt Luis hands moving down her back. His caresses sent goose bumps all the way down to her crotch. She felt like a slut as Luis whispered in her ear sexy words in Spanish, and then "Ah, Ethy, it is you I should have married. Tell me it's not too late for us."
"Luis, stop, really." It was, of course, a perfunctory order.
Before Luis could answer, Helen abruptly pivoted on her heels and skipped toward them like a little girl, a broad smile on her face. "I got it!"
"Congratulations, Honey." Luis opened his wet arms. His voice was cold.
"No. Do not even think about it. I'm all in silk. Stay away." She laughed, "Ethy, come on, let's go. Forget about breakfast, we'll have a power brunch with this guy at the club."
Luis tried to volunteer to show Ethel around, take her on a sightseeing tour of Todos Santos, but no one ever won an argument with Helen. She felt the intensity of Luis's eyes on her back as she followed Helen out of the verandah. Unable to resist, she remembered turning around and seeing Luis winking at her, a mischievous smile on his lips. And she imagined him, a bit like Vronsky, following her with a look in which were blended desire, longing, and mystery.
Hushed tones and laughter come from the front counter where a young man is haggling over two grocery bags of used books. Ethel thinks the older woman must be the owner of the store. Who else would name a store the Aspidistra? Only lovers of words, lovers of plants, or lovers of George Orwell. There is wholeness in the woman's demeanor that she finds compelling.
On a table next to her she notices lukewarm water and cheap tea and she thinks that what she really needs is a stiff drink. Life is so unfair; she can't believe she's still single at thirty-nine. Can't believe another birthday is coming.
She takes a sip from the cheap Styrofoam cup and thinks about what she teaches to her fifth graders about the importance of making moral choices.
It could have been she who first met Luis at that party in Mexico City instead of Helen. She remembers the fleeting uncertainty in Luis's eyes at his own wedding, that look that lasted a bit too long. Life is a toss-up and yet isn't it so ironic--Helen seems unhappy and Ethel is sure they both have separate affairs, or at least that Luis has. No, on second thought, Helen does too; she is sure of it. Luis is, and always has been the epitome of the Latin playboy. The man who loves women too much. It is part of his charm. Their marriage always seemed on the rocks and yet after seventeen years they are still together. Who can really tell? Each marriage is such a secret. She glances at her watch. A half-hour has passed already. If she is to meet Luis, she has to extract herself from the deep armchair and walk to the restaurant. She feels paralyzed by inertia and indecision. Maybe she should just leave, forget about the whole burgeoning affair and find an excuse later. Forget about the restaurant and Luis. How can she let herself be dragged into a situation like that? How can she act so selfishly, so irresponsibly against her friend? What to do? How to live? She doesn't know anymore. Maybe she has never known.
She glances back at Notes from the Underground on her lap. Fyodor is decidedly too depressing, too full of self-hatred. Out of boredom she leafs through the book in search of some dialogue or anything to visually distract her mind, and a neatly folded piece of paper falls out. She bends and picks it up. She has to laugh to herself. The things you find in secondhand books. She has found grocery lists, notes, school essays, reminders of all kinds, but never a letter. She carefully unfolds the old piece of paper. A letter started but never sent, dated March 12, 1975. Almost thirty years ago. Her heart skips a beat. Maybe this was the message she was waiting for. Her eyes focus completely on the tight, flowery handwriting.
My very dear Lisa,
I know this will come to you as a shock, but your father proposed to me last night with the most beautiful ring. I believe it was your mother's three-carat diamond. It feels awkward to ask you if you mind if I keep it. I remember you never really cared for it, you thought it too gaudy, too nouveau riche. I know deep down that when you gave me the green light to accept your father's advances, you thought it'd be a pastime, a way to fend off loneliness for both of us. And I felt the same, I suppose. But things developed, I know a bit fast, five weeks. But he is seventy-three already, every day counts for him.
As for me, I'm not getting any younger. Life becomes a compromise after a while. I have to think of myself. Which brings me to the conversation we had a few weeks ago. You told me, "I don't care what you do with my father, just don't get pregnant." A request I now find myself un . . .
The letter stops right there in mid-sentence. Everything is left suspended . . . and so is Ethel's imagination.She rereads the letter quickly. It is as though a window has opened to another woman's soul. And the view from that window looks incredibly familiar.
She reads between the lines, filling in the gaps. She reads, Lisa how can you be so selfish? You, who have everything?
She reads, I'll try not to be an impediment to your inheritance, but this may be my last chance and I will seize it.
She reads, I feel so lonely. So desperate. You have no idea . . .
The woman in the letter is like her, a scavenger waiting to steal crumbs of happiness, morsels of security, remnants of love left behind by others. And yet, what is wrong with that? She hopes for the woman's sake that she never did send that letter, never did call her friend, Lisa. For what could be more destructive than a daughter's jealousy.
No, Ethel thinks, life is too short to encumber oneself with obsolete morality. There is something powerful between her and Luis, and she knows it is not all sex. And even if it is, so what? She glances at the book on her lap and remembers the novella's ending; maybe the message is not to act like the man in the underground who never takes a chance, who never takes a leap of faith in his life.
She wonders what happened to the woman in the letter. It had been thirty years.
She wonders how her life turned out. Did she ever marry the old man? Was she pregnant? Did she have a child? And where is she now, happy and secure or alone in a shabby apartment, plagued by regrets of what could have been? Ethel feels it is so true, growing older does add a sense of urgency to life. And yes, in the end, age and experience does call for a different sort of moral courage.
What is this self-imposed dilemma between her friendship with Helen and her entitlement to a bit of happiness? Helen's marriage is doomed. She doesn't love Luis. And it's obvious; Luis is so bored with her. So why does it matter so much? Maybe she should just be open with Helen, but the idea is repelling and ridiculous. And where would an affair with Luis lead? She has always considered herself a free spirit and yet she feels that incredible burden of guilt towards Helen. But Helen has everything--money, business savvy, charm, and a confidence so powerful it makes you doubt yourself. Such an inflated self-image. Yet, she knows, no matter what, Helen always seems to land back on her feet, like a cat. Things may very well turn out for the best. Helen may find somebody she really loves, somebody who will be completely turned on by her intellect, and her by his.
Luis, she thinks, needs a real, sensual, vulnerable woman at his side. Does she really want to look back at her life and realize how wonderful it could have been if only, if only . . .
The new self-help posters she has recently tacked up in her classroom keep popping into her mind like, "Carpe Diem," and the one she found by Soren Kierkegaard, "To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself." Ethel thinks about the woman in the letter, "I have to think of myself." And the words resonate within her.
She closes the book with the letter in it. She closes her eyes--yessss, she will go out on a limb and say yes to adventure, to Luis; and a fuzzy feeling envelops her. She closes the book with the letter in it and is about to replace it on the shelf when she changes her mind. No, she will buy Notes; it holds good karma. But as she grabs the arms of the chair to pull herself up, she feels the warmth of two big hands over her eyes.
"I knew I would find you here, my little bookworm, my little teacher."
She feels her heart skip a beat. "Luis!" she cries, and before she has time to realize it she is in his arms, enveloped by the citrus scent of his after shave and the prickly sensation of his new mustache on her face. She feels the unrestrained passion of his tongue and hears the permanent click of a door in her mind. She is melting into his short, muscled arms. Everything around her disappears, the old books, the smell, the bright lights of the Aspidistra. She feels his hands descending the curvature of her hips.
"Maybe we should forget about dinner? What do you say? We'll order room service at the Drake."
"A bit too fast don't you think?" Ethel whispers, breathless.
"It is what you want, Ethy. Trust me. I know you as I know the palm of my hand. We are cut from the same cloth, you and I."
The remark surprises her. It is arrogant and presumptuous. And as she gently pushes him away, a bit dizzy, there is this smirk on his face. This unmistakable smirk. That smirk she has witnessed over and over again. In a flash, she understands that she is the flavor of the day. She is the convenient one-night stand that leads to nowhere but humiliation. He is not in love with her. He is in love with conquest. Easy sex . . . Yes, she has to agree, they have much in common; they share the same weakness, the same spinelessness.
How sad that she has let this huge battle rage in her mind. It is just as when she explains to her class the fight between the T-cells and the invading bacteria in the blood. A fight that almost always ends up in fever and delirium until there is finally a breakthrough, the T-cells' victory, and the body's salvation.
Everything is boiling, bubbling over in her mind until the clichés, their rationalizations, their consequences spill over and disappear, leaving nothing but a dirty stain. How stupid and misguided she has been.
"I see wild things going through your mind, Ethy. Tell me."
"Don't even try Luis. This was all a mistake. Good-bye. Have a safe trip home. Give my love to Helen, will you?"
"What? What's going on? What's the matter with you?"
"Here. That should keep you warm for the night." And she shoves Notes from the Underground under his arm.
Ethel runs through the aisle of the Aspidistra. She is choked up. Tears are welling.
"Sorry you didn't find anything, but do come back soon. We get new shipments all the time."
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