Spring 2013, Volume 14

Fiction by Anna Lindwasser


Last week, the R train broke down. Avery found himself monologueing at a beautiful woman about airplanes. Since then, they've spoken twice on the phone, five times on Facebook Chat, and once on AIM. Today, they're meeting at Strand bookstore, for what Avery hopes is their first date. He worries that Tegan will expect to be taken somewhere romantic. There's a chocolate-themed restaurant one block away, and there's a movie theater winging the closest corner. Union Square is packed with romantic opportunities, but he works at a dingy little clothing shop around 20th Street. He doesn't have the cash for romantic, and he doesn't have the nerve to force himself into a crowded restaurant like clothes into an overstuffed suitcase. Strand has books, and Avery likes books. He doesn't know if Tegan does, but he knows that she doesn't like Barnes & Noble. Too corporate, she says. Maybe she'll like Strand because it's not. Maybe she's pretentious for hating something just because it's corporate. Maybe she's too pretty for Avery to care if she's pretentious.

It's four o'clock. Tegan is a paraprofessional at Washington Irving High School, which means she spends the day taking notes for a teenager with cerebral palsy. He doesn't read the notes she takes for him, which pisses her off, because her wrists cramp up from the effort. Avery doesn't get why she expects the boy to read them. He's fifteen, he's got other things to do. She's committed to his education, more so, she says, than his teachers. She should have gotten out of work by now, and it should only take her ten minutes or so to get to Strand. Night is beginning to drape itself across the square. He shouldn't have asked her out in November. The bitter air is weighting his lungs. The leather jacket that he hastily slung on this morning isn't enough. Each gust of wind sends shivers leapfrogging across his skin. He should wait for her inside, but he's scared she won't remember the name of the store.

Fifteen minutes stagger by before Tegan makes her appearance. Her thin, oval face is hidden inside a cloud of fake fur, and her left shoulder is weighed down by a neon pink computer bag. She smiles, showing off the gap between her front teeth. “Hi Avery,” she says, waving to him with the purple mitten clutched in her right hand. “Sorry I took so long. They're assigning me to another kid who's in the same class as Claude, so I had to meet with her mother and the school counselor about her needs. I don't think I have to actually do much, just make extra copies of the notes I take for Claude, and fill out some paperwork, but anyway, that's why I'm late.” Tegan gives him a smile that shows off her gums, and begins flipping through the book racks in front of the store. After a brief look, she draws back, and gestures toward the store itself. “We should go in,” she says. “It's freezing out here.”

Avery trudges in after her. Once inside, his extremities defrost, and they ache and sting with the effort. He notices Tegan shucking off her coat, so he offers to carry it. She agrees, so he slings it over his shoulder, along with his own. A purple mitten flutters to the ground, and they stoop to pick it up at the same time. Someone crashes into Avery as he's standing up again. They don't look back, or apologize. Avery doesn't want to get angry in front of Tegan, so he bites his chapped bottom lip and picks up a book. Which book it is doesn't matter, he doesn't even look. What matters is holding a rectangle world in his hands, and knowing that he could shut out everything on earth if he opened it. Holding the book, he doesn't care about the horde of humans lunging around the store. They're all better than him, but they aren't holding the same planet that he is. If he reads this book, they will not inhabit it with him. Maybe Tegan will. He twists his fingers around hers, and hope she won't snatch her hand back. “I'm going to buy this book,” he says. “Do you want to read it when I'm done?”

“I didn't know you cared about Russian politics,” she says, the fingers of her free hand fanning over her smirking mouth. “You said before that you thought the Cold War was boring. But sure, I'll read it if it's any good.”

“I never said that! I just said that my high school history teacher's lessons were as dry as stale bread. Maybe this book will make the Cold War seem more interesting.” Avery blushes. It probably isn't noticeable mixed with cold-induced blotching, but he wants to hide his face all the same. He does find the Cold War boring, and he doesn't want to buy the book. He puts it down. How stupid to imagine that any book at all could swallow him whole. He is standing in a bookstore swarming with people, next to a woman he might fall in love with if he doesn't ruin it by acting like an idiot. “Are there any sections that particularly interest you?” he asks, gnawing on his numb left knuckle. “We could look at art books. Well, if you like art. Do you like art?”

Tegan likes art, but she'd rather look in the fiction section downstairs. That's where the human beehive is the densest. The Strand isn't usually so crowded, and he feels betrayed by that. He tries to think of a compromise. Maybe they could take the elevator up to the third floor, and look at the rare books. They're fiction, but they won't be swarmed with people turning pages with their sticky hands. Tegan agrees to this, tilting her head sideways with her black hair swinging past her collarbone.

The third floor. Avery was here once when he applied to work at the Strand. They didn't want him in their palace of books, and at first that thought made him shy away from the store. After two weeks of sulking, he ran out of books, and he ran out of things to do with himself once Harmony's Shirts & Pants closed for the evening. He couldn't go to Barnes & Noble. He didn't care if it was corporate, but he cared if it was crowded, and it was always crowded. And so even though he wasn't worthy, he found himself back at the Strand.

He's never spent much time with the rare books. Like the book about the Cold War, they are detritus of the past. All the doors to his past have been closed, and he has no interest in ransacking someone else's. He wants the world of the present, the world where Tegan might agree to be his girlfriend. The past is dead weight in his lungs.

Tegan is choking on it. When she opens one of the yellowed tomes, a small cloud of dust bursts forth. She  coughs, and her moisturized hands curl over her rubber band mouth. “Excuse me,” she says, then puts the volume back on the shelf. “I hope they're not all this dusty, otherwise I'll be coughing and sneezing all through our date.”

If it's 'our date', he doesn't care if she bursts into flames. Tegan's body rejects the past, and she's dedicated the present to a date with him. “They might be,” says Avery, clutching at the back of his neck. “Sorry. I didn't think you'd be allergic. I should have asked. I didn't even realize it'd be dusty.”

Tegan laughs. “We could go downstairs again. There's less dust in the newer books. Is that okay?” After asking, she takes a tissue from a travel pack that she dug out of her computer bag. She blows her nose softly, one nostril at a time. Like you're supposed to. Emphasizing to Avery that this is not where she belongs. They take the elevator down again, Avery's heart playing his ribcage like a piano.

One day, he hopes to bury his fear of crowds with all the other filth and waste that lies behind him. He will bury himself in modern books, and Tegan.

The crowd has begun to thin out. Apparently, a poet had given a reading, and it was winding down when they arrived. He'd been hunching his shoulders so that they felt wrapped in twine; now the twine loosens. He can meander through the store without crashing into anyone, he won't be suffocated by the herd. Tegan plucks a book from a display table, and holds it up to her nose. “No dust,” she says with a sun bright grin. “What do you want to do after this?”

After this. He doesn't have the cash for after this, doesn't have the nerve to face the crowds. Today was a good business day, but a hard day with a lot of customers at Harmony's Shirts & Pants. After browsing and possibly buying a book, he wants to lock himself up in his apartment, and he wants to ask her to join him. He wants to show her his blank walls and his bookshelves crammed with rectangular worlds, and the picture frames with photos of his cats instead of his family. Taking her home would be more forward than he means on the first date, but he can't stand the public marching around on his skin like ants. He wants silence, wants the Strand when it's closing, wants to do more than just hold Tegan's hand. None of this answers her question, but he doesn't have an answer that she'll like. “Isn't this good enough?” he asks, a hysterical hitch in his tone. “It's already late, and it's nice here. Do you really need to go somewhere else?”

“Well, I guess I don't need to, but I just assumed that we would? Why, are you getting tired?” Tegan flips a hank of hair behind her back, then re-adjusts her computer bag. “We can call it a night if you want.” Avery doesn't want to call it a night, so he grabs her by the wrists and pulls her toward him. Her eyes widen, but she doesn't say a word. Immediately, he wishes he hadn't pulled her. She'll think he's crazyviolentwrong and then she won't want to see him again. He drops her wrists, and stares at a stack of books to the left of her. He tells her he isn't tired, then gnaws his lip and can't figure out what to say.

He gulps, squeezes his eyes shut, and gulps again. “Tegan,” he rasps. “I'm not saying I want this to end. I like you. I just can't... I'm not good at doing things with lots of people around, and I don't have any money, and I just...I don't know. I'm sorry, this can't possibly be fun for you. Maybe you're right, maybe I should just go home.”

The overhead lights bear down on them like a spacecraft. Sweat brews on his scalp, and trickles past his ear. Tegan puts the book back on the display table, then flashes him a shiny bright smile. “I'm not good with crowds either,” she says. “I mean, I can handle it. But I'd rather go someplace quiet. It's nice to know that you feel the same. Let me just check if they have anything by Ryu Murakami, and then we'll head to my place. Does that sound good?”

“Incredible,” breathes Avery. A man in a stained duffle coat just brushes past him, three teenagers with pierced eyebrows are chirping to each other, and there's a salesgirl pulling books out of a cart near the fiction section.  Avery leads Tegan past all that.





BIO: I am currently studying to be an English teacher in New York City, while also trying to build a writing career. My work has appeared in The Shine Journal, Downtown Brooklyn, and Black Heart Magazine.