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Harley Hahn

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(February 5, 2002)

"There is no place more lonely," thought Kristyn, "than a big city."

Usually, she liked Christmas in the city, but this year was not a good one. In many ways, her life was unfolding comfortably — slowly most of the time; in rapid, jerky sideways movements at other times; but this year — this Christmas was not a good one because Mike was slipping away.

She was twenty years old. She often felt much older, but she didn't know why. Later, Henry would look into her eyes and see the soul of a woman, and he would tell her so, and at that moment, that very moment, with Henry penetrating deeply into her eyes and soul, she would briefly look into herself and wonder how anyone so young could feel so timeless, so wise and still so confused.

But that was later, and this was now. And now, she had yet to meet Henry. Now, she was a twenty-year-old woman-child with a twenty-one-year old boyfriend who would not talk to her.

This Christmas was not a good one for Kristyn, because Mike was slipping away. She could feel it happen, and she found herself walking down a long staircase in slow motion. She hoped there was a door at the bottom of the staircase, or better yet, another set of stairs to climb back up. Sometimes she would push Mike away a tiny bit, and sometimes she would pull him closer a tiny bit, but he was oblivious to the long dance of disengagement they were sharing.

She found herself wondering how someone she had loved so much could be so oblivious— but such thoughts led nowhere and she tried to not indulge her weaknesses. "Why can't I be in love in a movie?" she would think. "In a movie, everything always works out."

Later, Henry would sit next to her, and she would be merged with him in a way she never felt before, and he would say to her, "I don't want to just be in love, I want to be in love in a movie—" and she would complete his thought, "—because in a movie, everything always works out."

But that was later, and this was now. And now, she had yet to meet Henry. Now, she was a twenty-year-old bookstore clerk who would be late for work if she didn't stop daydreaming.

"That's my problem," she thought, "I love to be distracted. I live in a movie, and I can't wait to see what's going to happen next, and I love to be distracted."

She walked along the busy boulevard, striding with sure, automatic movements, while her eyes and ears strayed to the sights and sounds of Christmas all around her. Usually, she liked Christmas in the city, but this year was not a good one.

"There is no place more lonely," thought Kristyn, "than a big city."

Kristyn was a good worker.

She was always on time, she easily mastered her duties, and she honestly loved books. She couldn't remember a time when she wasn't reading. Even when she was alone, away from her books, she was always reading something inside her head. To Kristyn, working in a bookstore was so natural and so normal, that she wondered how anyone could work anywhere else.

If she had one flaw, it was that she was so easily distracted. She would become intoxicated walking among the books. She had a fantasy in which she was alone in an endlessly large bookstore, surrounded by old books and new books, and books she had never imagined existed. She would sit on the floor and read; without sleep, without food, without pause, she would read endlessly.

But Kristyn was a good worker, and she knew that a bookstore clerk could not sit on the floor and read. She would walk around looking for books, putting them on the shelves, taking them off the shelves. She would dutifully work at the counter, smiling at the customers, putting books in bags, and making change. Still, whenever she could, she would walk the aisles looking with longing at the books, and she would talk to people.

It was Wednesday night, two weeks after the beginning of the new year, when she saw them, the three of them, standing halfway down the aisle from where she was putting away something or other.

The man and the boy were talking. The boy was complaining. He didn't like school because there was too much homework. Although he was just a young teenager, he was saying that he would rather work than go to school. The woman, his mother, was clearly listening to something she had heard before.

Kristyn joined the conversation effortlessly. "I didn't like homework either," she said to the boy. "After I finished high school, I worked for a couple of years, but I realized I couldn't get very far without more education, so I went to college."

The man looked at her. He smiled.

Kristyn felt something inside her, a frisson of hope and passion. She glanced into his light blue eyes, but she refused to be drawn in.

She kept talking. "Once I found myself taking classes that I really liked, everything was different. I didn't mind doing the homework and studying."

The man asked her what she studied.

"Math, music..."

The man looked surprised. He looked at her and told her he loved math. He started to talk to her about math and music, and she found herself babbling about trigonometric formulas and calculus. What was this man saying? That mathematics is like poetry? She had never heard anyone say this before, although she had felt it at times.

She found herself talking about music, about harmony and counterpoint and Bach second movements. Kristyn didn't know what to do. Who was this man? Why does he keep looking at me that way? What would happen to me if I looked into his eyes?

They started to talk about movies. He seemed to have seen every movie she had ever seen, and he remembered every detail that she remembered.

But who was this man? The woman was his friend but they were not married.

"What do you do?" she asked him, and he told her. He was a writer. In fact, some of his books were in her store.

"I think I recognize you," she said. "Weren't you in here last week, doing a reading?" He said no, and he walked her over to where his books were displayed, not twenty-five feet from where they had been standing. She said, "I recognize your books. I sold several of them myself. Now I'll sell even more, because I know you."

And then she heard herself being paged. "I have to go back up front." And then she was gone.

A few minutes later, as she was working at the front counter, they approached her cash register. They waited patiently for her to finish with the customer ahead of them. Kristyn pretended as if they hadn't just spent the last twenty minutes talking. She changed to her perky bookstore-clerk mode and smiled. "So, did you find everything you were looking for?"

"Almost," said the woman. "Not exactly," smirked the boy as he walked away. The man just smiled, and they all walked out.

But he came back. About 20 minutes later, he came back by himself and he found her working at the front counter. "Can you talk for a while?" he asked, and she nodded, "Yes, it's time for my break", and she took him next door to a small cafe.

They talked and talked and talked, far longer than she should have. The end of her break came and went, and still they were talking.

His name was Henry, and he was far too old for her, but she felt a rapport that she had never felt before in her life. She told him about Mike and her fading relationship, and she could tell he understood. He was going through the same sort of thing himself, he said.

She talked to him about movies, about books, and about poetry. Their conversation flowed and swirled, and she became immersed in something she didn't expect. You're so unexpected, she wanted to say. Who are you, and why are you here? Where did you come from?

She found herself completing his sentences. "I babble a lot," she told him, but she knew it was more than babbling, and he knew it too. He saw something deep inside her, something that no one had ever seen before. She tried to think of Mike.

Instead, a different thought popped into her head, a sentence from a book. Someone had once told her this sentence and she had always remembered it. It was the first sentence of a book, and it was so engaging, so seductive, that she knew, one day, she would have to read the entire book. But she didn't know the name of the book, and she had never been able to find it.

So she told him, and she wrote it down for him on a piece of paper. She wrote in small, deliberate letters with tiny flourishes.

"In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar."

She realized she had to go, and so she left. She jumped up from the table, and like a butterfly shying away from an unexpected shadow, she was gone.

And she never saw him again.

But she talked to him again. A few days later he called her at the store. One part of her was hoping he would go away forever, and leave her with a small memory to keep hidden inside her. A memory to recall from time to time when life was quiet and she could be alone. A memory she could examine and cherish, and hold dear inside. Another part of her wanted to meet again with this stranger, this man, this person who touched her and invaded her so briefly and so well.

But she was twenty years old, and she knew how to be practical. She told herself it was nothing more than an interesting experience. One has interesting experiences in life, she explained to herself, but she had a boyfriend to deal with, and the last thing she needed was to get involved with someone older who could do nothing but make her life more complicated.

She thought about his eyes and the rhythm of his voice, and the feelings he created in her for an instant, and she was glad she didn't respond. This is wrong, she told herself. This would be nothing but trouble. Let him pass in and out of my life, like a warm summer ocean breeze, and let that be enough.

But something had changed. The city had changed around her: the people, the sounds, the smells, her very feelings as she walked to and from work. She began to feel a sense of comfort.

Something unexpected had burst into her world, something that flared and died in an instant, but in that instant she stopped feeling lonely, for she knew that there was something about this man that would always be with her.

"There is no place more safe and warm," thought Kristyn, "than a big city."

A few days later he called her at the store. "I have your book," he said.

"My book?" she responded. "Which book?" But she was stalling for time. She knew which book.

She was at work, and she had to get back to her customers. She wanted this man to stay out of her life. She was too young, and she knew it. She could not allow him to open her and enter her heart. She was too young, and she knew it. She didn't even know what real love was. She was still in school. Half the time she couldn't even fathom her own feelings. And, right now, she was at work and she couldn't talk. She was too young, and she knew it.

"I have your book," he said. "'In Watermelon Sugar'."

She never asked how he found it and he never told her, but she thought back to that night in the cafe, and she realized that she had never doubted, not for a single moment, that he would find the book for her.

"I have to get back to work," she said. "I can't talk."

"I wrote a story," he said. "Would you like to hear it?"

No, she thought to herself. No, I don't want to hear your story. If I listen to your story it will be like letting you inside me, and I won't do that. If I listen to your story, it will touch me and make me cry, and I can't do that right now. No, she thought, no, no, no, no, no.

"I would love to hear your story," she heard herself say. "I'll start my break now. Just let me pick up the phone in the back room."

Although she was alone in the room, she could feel the eyes of the other clerks watching her through the window, and she turned her back.

No matter what happens, she told herself, I am not allowed to cry. Please God, don't let me cry. Not in front of all these people. Not in front of this man. Please just let him read his story, hang up, send me the book, and vanish forever from my life.

So he started to read: "'There is no place more lonely,' thought Kristyn, 'than a big city...'"

—and she began to cry.

Stories by Harley Hahn

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