Standing Water (2)

Continued from Part 1

There is water everywhere. Even on her. I’m fighting a losing battle.

We’re nearly to the library when she sees some friends from work. They spot her first and call to her, crossing the street when traffic slows. She looks up and stiffens, then puts on her public face — the face she uses to tell the world she’s safe and they’re sane; to tell the world what isn’t true. Her friends dash up to her, flushed and moist and chattering about the weekend.

I want to pull back — away from her, away from them. I don’t know them, have never met the; though she’s mentioned these two — Missy and Kim — now and then. I’m not sure if she’s ever mentioned me to them. I’m not sure how much she’s said about me to anybody at work; if she hasn’t said much, I don’t want to start a conversation that hasn’t/shouldn’t take place. But I stay where I am, close behind her, holding the wide umbrella over her, shifting angles with the changing wind.

Missy and Kim turn to me. “You must be –” and they put out their hands. I pull my free hand out of my pocket, warm and wet, and shake, as my girlfriend introduces us properly all around. We exchange pleasantries, make small talk, comment on this crazy weather, catch our breath after slogging headlong through the elements, and part ways amicably, smiling, flushed with our discoveries of each other.

I look over at her as we enter the library. “They seemed nice,” I grin.

“They are,” she smiles and squeezes my arm as I lower and close the umbrella, and we push through the front doors of the cavernous public library.

It’s late. We’re late. The library closes for the week in only 15 minutes, and at the counter where folks get their library cards, return their overdue books and pay their fines, no one is to be found. We cough, stomp our feet, open and close the zippers of our coats and bags, hoping to generate some sign of life back in the office.

We can hear voices back there.

“Hello — ” I call. It’s getting late.

A young Chinese woman appears, apologizing for the wait with a thick accent. I step forward, pulling out my wallet; I hand her my library card and a five dollar bill.

“Six thirty-five,” she says, scanning my card under the red-beam sensor and tapping computer keys.

“When I called last week, I was told $4.65,” I protest. “I renewed my books then. I was told $4.65.”

“Sorry — it’s in the computer,” she shrugs, still looking sleepy. “Six thirty-five.”

I turn to my girlfriend. “Do you have a couple bucks?” She hands me a five, and I turn back the Chinese woman, puzzled, wanting to fight but knowing it avails me nothing. I’ve been down that losing road before. The computer is always right.

“Want to renew this book too?” she asks, taking the money and pointing to the screen. She swivels the monitor around so I can see what she’s pointing at. I remember now — I checked a book out for my girlfriend, the last time I came. It’s been overdue and adding up fines, too.

“Yes, please,” I sigh. She hands me my change, as I pull a pen and piece of scrap paper out of my coat pocket and jot down the title. The paper is wet in spots and the ink smears.

I thank the woman and turn to my girlfriend. “Remind me to return this,” I say, handing her the paper.

She glances at it and shrugs. “Sorry. Keep the change.”

“No, that’s okay –” I press the money into her hand. “For your books…”

Standing in the front lobby of the public library, we watch the rain intensify as we zip up our coats. I don’t want to go out, and neither does she. It’s warm inside, and we’re both chilled from the exertion of getting here.

I follow her over to one of the tables against the wall where free newspapers are stacked. Free weeklies for senior citizens and neighborhood folk. Free back issues of queer press newspapers. Flyers about upcoming events. We pick up copies of the queer papers and page through the articles on queerbashing, workplace discrimination, AIDS, domestic partner benefits and other sundry conflicts. We graze through the personals and read intriguing ones to each other, laughing aloud as passers-by glance hushingly towards us. The rain isn’t letting up, and we’re both getting antsy.

“How long will your bookstore be open?” I ask, looking at my watch. The guards at the front entrance/exit are getting animated, talking in loud, relieved voices, as library visitors file past them, their packs and attaches open for inspection. Over the intercom, a drowsy voice gives us a five-minute warning.

“Another hour,” she says, fidgeting and sounding uncertain. “I’m pretty sure.”

“We should get going then,” I say, and head for the door. She is close behind me. I can smell the warm dampness of her coat, her hat, her woolen mittens. Her breath is light — but tired — and I remember she hasn’t slept well — or much — since her parents surprised us both last week. I want to get her to the bookstore, so she can buy her books. So she has something to look forward to, as she settles in to read each night, before she goes to sleep. So she can take her mind off her folks and thei rnext bid to get her to settle down with a nice boy of their choosing. I want to make it up to her, that her parents are selfish, pompous bastards who disrespect her, that she has to be the one to govern their relationship and set boundaries, that she has to be harsh, because they are soft and weak and still worry after all these years about what the neighbors might think. I want to make it right for her — all right for her — again. I open the umbrella, and she steps through the door into my shelter.

Out in the rain, we make tracks to her bookstore. Crossing streets between parked cars, weaving through stopped traffic, jumping out in front of slowing cars, we carve a path through the dank city streets as the last of the sunlight fades. The streets are hotter than the air, and steam billows up from the asphalt. In five minutes, we’re standing across from her bookstore and watch with dismay as the owner turns the OPEN sign over to CLOSED and begins to turn off his lights.

With a low cry, she dashes across the street. My heart leaps in my throat as she cuts off a cursing bike courier and honking cars and races up the steps to the door two at a time. Through the glass, she has an animated, pleading discussion with the owner, brandishing her book list like a coveted prize. After a minute, he relents and lets her in, closing the door tightly behind her. She disappears into the stacks.

My heart pounding, I cross the street more cautiously and trudge to the store entryway, where there’s shelter from wind and rain. The owner motions to me that he’s closed, but I point to my girlfriend, as she carries her seven books to the cash register. He nods, turns his attention to her, and makes the easiest, most unexpected sale of his day. He double-bags her books in plastic sacks, turning the inner one over, so no opening will expose her booty to the elements. He smiles, she thanks him, and when she rejoins me on the stoop, I take the bag from her mittened hand, glad. The rain has slowed, but the wind is up.

“Which way home?” she says, sounding lighter. We can take the short way along the main thoroughfare we took in, or we can go out of our way and stroll the wide, tree-lined promenade a few blocks over that parellels that route.

I suggest the latter, and she smiles. “Yes.”

With a short laugh, she jogs down the steps and jumps into the rushing gutter, looking up at me with clear, light eyes. “C’mon –” she waves me down, and I join her in my own puddle on the pitted sidewalk.

The whole way home, we splash through standing water — puddles, backed up drains at intersections, sheets of shiny black asphalt we can’t distinguish from puddles. The trees overhead sway in the wind and drip-drip-drip-drip onto us, as I hold the umbrella over her head and carry her bag of books held tight in my free hand. Her arm is in mine, and she pulls me close under the umbrella with her. Our feet are soaked, our toes are cold, and it’s already dark. She hums a low tune under her breath, and I squeeze her arm each time we step into a deep gutter flowing with street runoff. When we reach the park, we turn down the path that takes us home, still arm-in-arm, still watching the streets for cars stalled out in small floods, marveling at the small ponds where only hours before dry land had been.

As we stand at the last curb before her block, waiting to cross, another car drives the wrong way up the one-way street. She does nothing, but lets them pass, standing water swirling around the tires and exhaust pipe.

“Hope they don’t stall out,” she says, stepping off the curb into six inches of a week’s runoff.

Finis

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