The Bookseller

Slowly, he said, “No, I . . . no, I suppose not. Good night.”

“Good night,” I replied. And we both hung up.

I hold the letters, the papers, the file folder. I sit in my desk chair, staring out the window. My lips are pressed together. A little hot burst of anger forms under my skin.

Because that was it.

He never showed up for our date.

Chapter 3

Of course, it’s all just silly. I imagine things like that happen all the time. Dating through the personal ads was a bumpy business. I learned the hard way that there are a lot of strange birds out there—men who might sound perfectly normal in letters, even on the telephone, but get in the same room with them, and you realize that something is off. Maybe they have no notion of what it means to be a gentleman. Maybe they have a girl already. Maybe they think they want to be attached, but what they really want is to be able to tell their mother or sister or whoever that they are trying. But deep down, they just want to be left alone. The last thing they want is a steady gal—or, heaven forbid, a wife.

So I was disappointed, but not all that surprised, when I sat alone in that coffee shop eight years ago, dutifully drinking my coffee, waiting it out for fifteen minutes, twenty, thirty-five. Through the plate-glass window, I people-watched. Couples strolled by, old ladies with little dogs on rhinestone-studded leashes, mothers with chunky infants in prams. I wondered if Lars was sitting in his car across the street, hunched down, watching me. I guessed that he could be deciding based solely on my looks—which weren’t all that bad, I told myself rather contritely; just that afternoon I had gotten my hair done, and I’d spent extra time on my lipstick—that it wasn’t worth squandering an hour of his time to have coffee with me.

Finally, two refills later and my coffee cup again empty, I stood. I pulled on my coat and walked out the door with my head held high. I put a bright, brave smile on my face. If he was watching, I wanted to be sure he knew that I didn’t care.

After dinner, I spend an hour stripping the masking tape from my bedroom’s windows and baseboards. I pull up the newspapers from the floor, rehang the curtains and shades, and consider moving the furniture by myself, ultimately deciding that it’s not worth the effort. Instead, I climb into bed and fall instantly into a dark, initially dreamless sleep.

And then I am there. In the green-wallpapered bedroom. Grayish morning light filters in, and through the patio doors I can see that again small flakes of snow are falling. Does it always snow in this place?

Lars and I are spooning, his right arm around me. I can feel the solid weight of his forearm on my waist, his warm breath on my neck.

I turn slightly to look at him. Who are you? I ask him in my head, afraid to speak aloud and wake him. What am I doing here with you?

As if I have spoken, he opens his dazzling blue eyes. “Good morning, love,” he says, turning my face toward him so we can kiss. His kiss is warm and instantly familiar. I feel as if I have been kissing him daily for years.

“Good morning,” I murmur. It feels so good; I want to enjoy this for as long as I can.

I turn and press against him, feel his hardness against my thigh. I hesitate. And then, remembering that I’m only dreaming, and therefore nothing I say or do actually matters, I ask him, “What time is it? Do we . . . can we . . .” I stammer, not sure exactly how to find the words, even in this not-at-all-real world.

“If we’re quick.” He smiles. “I love Saturdays.”

And so we begin to make love fiercely, furtively, the way I imagine married couples do when they find themselves with a few moments to spare in the early morning. They must do it quickly, before the children awake.

He caresses the length of me, tenderly, with experienced, gifted hands. Unbuttoning the top two buttons of my nightgown, he presses his lips to my nipples. I arch my back to meet him, moaning softly. I had forgotten how miraculous this feels.

He places himself fully inside me, and I move my hips—slowly at first, and then gaining momentum as I become at ease with the feeling of his length inside me. My climax comes hard and fast, more powerful than any other sexual moment in my memory. I am astounded at how strongly I feel the sensations of it, all the way through my body. I cry out, and then I bite my lip, afraid I might be making too much noise.

He goes on, his breath quickening, and I can feel his heart pounding against my chest. And then, abruptly, he slows his pace until he is almost, but not quite, still.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, alarmed. “Are you all right?”

He speeds up slightly, his strokes quicker but not nearly as rapid as before my climax. “I’m okay,” he says. “I just needed to . . . slow down . . .”

I am silent, moving with him, altering my rhythm to the change in his.

After he comes, he slides off me, adjusts the fabric tie of his pajama trousers around his waist, and lies quietly by my side. I pull my nightgown down over my legs, curl up next to him, and put my hand on his chest.

His heart is pounding. “Are you all right?” I ask him again.

“I’m fine.” He smiles, turning to face me. “You know how I have to slow down sometimes . . . it’s easier if I do . . .”

“Easier . . . how?” I ask carefully.

He taps his chest, his fingers warm against mine. “Easier here,” he says. “It’s easier on my heart.” He draws me close and whispers, “You know this, love.”

Neither of us says anything for a moment. I watch him carefully as his breath slows to a regular pace.

“It was wonderful.” I tell him. “It felt so . . . satisfying.” I grimace. He must think I’m nuts.

“You were intense,” he said. “As if it had been a while. But it hasn’t been.” He looks thoughtful. “Only a few days, right?”

If only he knew. “Well, I suppose it just feels that way for me sometimes.”

There is a hesitant tap on the door, which is ajar. A small voice says, “I knocked. Just like you want me to. I remembered, and I knocked.”

Lars smiles. “Come on in, buddy,” he calls.

The door opens fully, and towheaded Mitch sidles in, coming directly to my side of the bed and standing next to it. “It’s after seven,” he reports.

“So it is.” Lars glances at the alarm clock on his nightstand.

“I waited, just like you asked me to.”

“Good job,” I say.

I am not sure if this is allowed—who am I to know the rules of this house?—but nonetheless I am overtaken by the urge to snuggle with this child. I throw back the covers and invite Mitch in. He eagerly climbs onto the bed, wraps the coverlet around his legs, and puts his arms around my neck.

“Did you go potty?” I ask him, at the same time wondering what gave me the presence of mind to even think of something like that. Mitch nods.

“You’re the only one up?” Lars asks, and the boy nods again. Lars rises from the bed. “Go get a book, buddy,” he says. “Mama will read to you in bed. Won’t you, love?”

“Of course I will.” I lift myself up and get comfy against the pillows.

Lars leans over to kiss me. “I’ll get breakfast started.”

And so it is that I find myself in a charming, stylish bedroom, with a soft snowfall outside, snuggled with what has to be the most delightful little boy on the planet, reading a book about transportation.

Vehicles, it seems, are Mitch’s thing. All kinds of them. Airplanes. Trains. Antique autos. Ocean liners. “I’m going to be an ocean liner captain someday,” he tells me proudly. “I’ll sail around the world, and my family will come along and you’ll have first-class cabins.” I smile and hug him a bit tighter.

We are deep in the evolution of train travel—did you know that the first steam engine was built in 1804 by Englishman Richard Trevithick? I didn’t, before today—when the door opens again and Missy enters the room. “Daddy says it’s almost time for breakfast,” she tells us. She twirls for me in a pink nightgown with a princess in a yellow dress appliquéd on the front.

She leans over for a kiss. After obliging, I ask her, “How was your first night in your new princess gown?” How did I know that?

Her grin is enormous. “It was swell. It’s so comfy, and when I woke up in the middle of the night and the princess was right there on my tummy, it made it so easy to go right back to sleep.” Missy gives me a quick squeeze. “Thanks again, Mama,” she says. “You’re the best sew-er-er!”

“Seamstress,” I correct her.

Except that I am not. Not since the days of Home Ec class, more than twenty years ago, have I sewn anything more complicated than a loose button on a blouse. Yet in this life, I have made (or at the very least attached an appliquéd princess to) a child’s nightgown. Where did I acquire such a skill?

“You two skedaddle,” I say to them both. “Tell Daddy I’ll be out shortly.”

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