“How can I help you?”
The librarian behind the reception counter was slightly younger than me, maybe in her mid-twenties.
“Something to read while I’m waiting for my car to get serviced, please.”
“Anything in particular?”
The library must have had zero dress code. The librarian was wearing a pair of huge mirror shades, a white beach hat with a wide brim, and a worn, oversized long-sleeved shirt. The ID badge card that hung around her neck was flipped over so I couldn’t see her name.
“A page-turner? Just out of print?”
“We have several of those. What’s your pleasure? American contemporary? Medieval horror? Japanese psychological thriller?”
She modulated her smooth melodious voice with trained precision. I was in the mood for American contemporary – her “horror” sounded promising – but a special note she added to her voice when she said “thriller” enticed me the most.
“I’ll go with a thriller.”
“Sure. Let me grab it for you.”
The librarian turned and walked to a room behind the glass wall of the service area. Her long baggy skirt was a perfect addition to her oversized shirt, but her clothes didn’t hide her straight posture. She carried herself with the grace and ease of a schooled dancer.
It was late morning, and the library hall was almost empty. Looking around, I didn’t catch when the librarian brought me the book.
“She’s a cutie, isn’t she?”
“She?” I turned to the librarian.
“The girl that you were just looking at.”
“The one in the corner.”
Indeed, there was an attractive girl who was sitting at a table in the corner of the hall, but I hadn’t noticed her till that moment.
”Do you want me to introduce you to her?”
The librarian said it in the same polite, matter-of-fact way she used when offering me help with finding a book.
“Is that part of your duties?” I asked her. “Introducing strangers?”
The irony in my voice didn’t embarrass her one bit.
“Just trying to be helpful,” the librarian said softly, handing me the book. “I’m not sure if you’d prefer to read a book or to chat with a pretty girl.”
Several possible answers crossed my mind, but looking at her thin smile, I realized that whatever I said would make me feel even more awkward and that she would enjoy that moment. I turned and walked through the hall. I was sure the librarian was watching me, and I did a weird thing. Instead of finding a chair, I walked straight to the girl in the corner of the hall. Normally, I would never cross a room to introduce myself to a girl who didn’t know I existed. It was odd, and I knew it, but I did it anyway.
Up close, the girl was even more attractive than she’d looked from a distance. This girl was a slim, slender Barbie-like blonde with a radiant face. She was reading Machiavelli.
“Do you have plans to run for a seat in Congress?” I asked her.
She looked at me with a brief smile. “My fiancé would have a better chance.”
She wasn’t wearing an engagement ring, but her reply sure didn’t sound like an invitation to a conversation, so I started looking for a graceful exit.
“He’s majoring in Political Science. I’m just helping him with his school research.”
The way out was right there.
“He’s already a winner,” I told her. “With you, his future is bright.”
She gave me another, this time a bit friendlier, smile and returned to her reading.
I walked away and found myself a comfortable chair. Why did I let the librarian play me into that silly act? Trying to overcome my embarrassment of what had just happened, I opened the book and started reading. The book was in Japanese. It was titled “Mizutamari no kage” (“A Shadow in the Puddle”). I had almost finished the first paragraph when it struck me. What was the chance that a white guy like me would know Japanese? “…thri-ler” She played me here, too. She wanted me to choose a book I wouldn’t be able to read. Should I surprise her and keep reading? No. A minute ago I was embarrassed; now I felt challenged. The play of the ludicrously dressed librarian with the velvet voice and sashay gait intrigued me. I decided to save my surprise for later and drifted back to the reception counter, curious to see what her next move would be.
“Something went wrong?” A pale lipstick that the librarian was wearing made her thin smile barely visible.
“The book you gave me is in Japanese.”
I expected her to say something like, “Sorry. I should have asked you if you know Japanese.” Instead, she asked me, “And ?…” And waited in silence.
“And the girl is already taken.”
“Well, we can fix it.”
She turned her head and gestured down the hall. “In the next room, there’s a brunette. Her aura is burning with loneliness. I bet she’d be happy to have a little chit-chat with you.”
“You’re sure she’s my type?”
The librarian pretended she hadn’t caught the irony in my voice.
“She’s everybody’s type,” she said convincingly, her voice deep and slow. “An eye-catcher.”
I kept staring at her in silence. Instead of her eyes, I saw my reflections in the mirror shades — a funny little man shrunk to the size of a chess pawn.
The librarian flashed me another razor-thin smile.
“She’s sitting next to the window. You won’t miss her,” she said.
I noticed when I was walking that the library floor was made of black and white tiles, resembling a big chess board. A pawn, for sure — this is how the librarian must have perceived me while I was crossing the library hall.
In the next room, I instantly spotted the brunette girl. She had a short haircut and a slender, athletic build. She was wearing a sleeveless shirt to show off a dagger-through-skull-blood-dripping-down-arm tattoo on her right shoulder. I named her GI Jane.
As I came closer, I noticed “Freud: Unconscious Mind” on top of the pile of the books she had selected.
“So, who would you vote for?” I asked her. “Freud? Jung?”
Jane briefly took her eyes off the book she was reading and looked at me.
The tone of her voice was anything but inviting. Under the circumstances though, I couldn’t let her bounce me so easily.
“You don’t like books, do you?” I asked her.
“I hate them.”
“Why suffer? There are other roads.”
“My dad pays my bills,” Jane told me. “All of them.”
“Let me guess. Your dad is a psychologist?”
She looked at me, waiting.
“And he promised you a nicely paid job at his office?”
“My dad promised me a Harley. If I graduate.”
I wanted to say, “Whoever your dad is, he’s a very good psychologist.” Instead, I said, “I have one in my garage.”
That was a home run. Jane closed the book she was holding, her eyes alight with interest.
“You have a Harley? Which one?”
“That’s a nice ride,” she said, a note of excitement in her voice. “Do you drive it often?”
She kept looking at me and was about to put the book on the table.
I was so tempted to say, “I do. Wanna go for a ride?”
Her probable yes would deliver me a sound victory in my game with the librarian. I imagined riding my Harley with Jane on the back seat, clinging to me tightly from behind, and enjoying the twists and turns of Trabuco Canyon Road or the Ortega Highway in the golden amber light of a Southern California afternoon. It was so tempting to say “I do...” But I didn’t want to fake it. I looked at her tattoo. I knew for sure that I didn’t fit Mad Max’s shoes, and I didn’t want to.
“It’s my Dad’s bike,” I said. “I drive a car and read books.”
“That makes two of us,” she told me in a flat voice.
She opened the book she was holding.
“Nice talking to you,” I told her.
“Take care,” she told me coldly, without looking at me.
It was an unpleasant moment, but I was sure I’d done the right thing. Almost sure.
On my way back to the reception counter, I realized that I was still holding the Japanese book in my hands.
“How did it go?” the librarian asked.
“She likes riding Harleys, and I have one.” I put the book back on the counter.
“Well, congratulations, then! I’m so glad that...” she began enthusiastically, without a hint of sarcasm in her voice. I interrupted her.
“None needed. I didn’t offer her a ride.”
I shook my head.
I just looked at her.
“You mean you had a chance with that girl, and you passed it up? Without even trying?”
“I don’t think she and I are a good match.”
We continued to stare at each other, without saying a word. I could sense from her silence that she was both surprised and impressed with my move.
Not a pawn, a player.
“It’s not that I care...” she started slowly, but at that moment a tall, willowy girl entered the library and grabbed our attention. In her late twenties, she had a mass of long red curly hair, wore a tight amber dress, and stylish high-heeled shoes. She walked with quite the swagger and appeared to be foreign to the library. She was about to stop at the reception counter, but then apparently spotted what she was looking for and walked straight to the bookshelves.
The librarian didn’t miss a chance to make her move.
“Smokin’ hot. Now, does this one fit your dream girl?”
“Isn’t she a bit out of my league?” I asked.
“You both drive the same make of car.”
“How do you know that?”
“Most likely, she came here from the same place you did,” the librarian said. “Waiting for her car to get serviced. Didn’t want all that extra attention in the service department lounge.”
“You could be right.”
“Don’t be shy. Who knows? Behind the haute-couture camouflage, you may find an affectionate woman with a tender heart,” she said.
“I doubt it.”
“Never doubt yourself. Here, take this.” She picked up the Japanese book from the counter.
“How’s this gonna help me?”
“In several ways.”
She tilted the book slightly, as if she was presenting it to me, and turned on the persuasive power of her well-articulated velvet voice.
“The cover. Red, white, and gold. Her colors. She’s gonna love it. Also, it plays well with your shirt, tie, and her dress and hair. In her mind, subconsciously, it will connect you both. On top of that, a Japanese book will intrigue her.”
“You think she knows the difference between Japanese and Chinese?”
“Not likely, but don’t correct her if she asks a wrong question. Be wise and play nicely.”
She assertively handed me the book.
“Don’t drum your fingers on the book while you’re talking. It will annoy her.”
The moment I approached the table behind the bookshelves, the redheaded girl was browsing through a pile of architectural magazines. She glanced at me, and I thought I noticed a moment of interest in her eyes, but I misread it. Away from the crowd, in the quiet corner of the library hall, this striking redhead didn’t mind entertaining herself a little bit with her own game. I didn’t sense this — and walked right into her trap.
“Are you an interior designer?” I asked her.
“No,” she told me. “I’m just picking up some ideas for my future house.” Her quiet voice projected relaxed confidence.
“And you’re…” She briefly glanced at me again. “A lawyer?”
“What made you think so?”
“A white shirt and a tie — you work with clients. The two hundred dollars Italian tie and Invicta — am I right? Invicta vintage gold watch. Too fancy for a car salesman. Perhaps, a men's clothing rep? Unlikely, with this Japanese book in your hands — and that red dust on your Bruno Magli shoes.”
“How does dust qualify me for a lawyer?”
“There is a narrow, red dusty trail I crossed while walking here from the Lexus dealership. A Lexus — and you’re not even thirty. You might have been in a family business, let’s say accounting or finance, but my gut feeling is that you’d prefer a legal argument to formulas and numbers. Of course, I could be wrong.”
“I’m a lawyer, and so is my dad. Different firms.”
I felt completely disarmed and didn’t know what else to say.
She slowly turned over several pages.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” She pointed to the picture of a slick, modern beachfront mansion. Then she paused, turned her face towards me and gave me a long, enigmatic look.
“If you had ten million bucks to spare, would you buy it for me?”
She slightly turned her body, wrapped in a tight, open-shouldered dress, and sent a jolt of seductive electricity straight to my spine.
I stumbled for a second.
“In return for five kids,” I told her.
“Why so many?”
“With a house that size, we’re gonna have a big happy family, no?”
She smiled. After a short pause, she said slowly, adding sultry overtones to her voice, “If you buy that house for me, we will.”
She laughed, and again I returned to the counter.
“How did it go this time?” the librarian asked.
“She asked for money.”
“Ouch!” For a second the librarian became serious. “Is she a hooker?”
“No, she asked for a lot of money.”
The librarian laughed but managed to cover her mouth with her hands before I saw her smile.
At that moment, the dealership called me. My car was ready.
“Well, thank you for all your help,” I told the librarian and put the book back on the counter.
“You should learn Japanese,” she told me. “This book is worth it.”
The next day, I was determined to turn the tables on the librarian. I took an early lunch break and drove back to the library. The library hall was almost empty. The librarian was standing at the reception counter, and her neck-strapped ID badge card was again flip-flopped.
“Hello,” she greeted me coldly, as if we had never met before. “How can I help you?”
“I saw you in my dream last night,” I told her.
“You did?” her voice remained uninviting. “I hope I helped you choose the right book.”
“You were teaching me how to handle a knife during hara-kiri properly.”
She burst into laughter, quickly covered her face with both hands and turned away. I waited.
“Am I so bad?” she asked me, with her back still turned.
“In my dream…”
She quickly turned back. “You’re sure it was me?”
“Pretty much. Although . . . let’s check. Would you please take off your hat?”
She looked at me in silence.
She paused, then took off her hat and let her light brown hair flow down to her shoulders.
“Now your shades.”
The librarian took off the shades and tilted her head forward, letting her hair curtain her face. Then she raised her face, her eyes hidden behind her fall of hair. Then she shook her hair from her face and calmly looked me in the eyes. She wore no makeup. The soft curves of her oval face highlighted her big smiling hazel eyes.
We kept staring at each other in silence. She savored my reaction to her transformation.
“Do I look like the girl from your nightmare?” she asked me.
“Shall I take it off, too?”
“No, that won’t be necessary.”
I enjoyed being in charge now.
“Just tell me the color of the bikini you’re wearing.”
“Mostly red,” she said. “Matches your dream?”
“So, at night you work as a Bikram yoga instructor, right?”
Her smile melted away.
“How?” she said quietly.
“I just guessed it.”
“Your stance, your moves — first, I thought you’re a dancer, but then... My friend dates a yoga teacher. She often apologizes for a commanding tone of her voice — a professional habit of a class instructor. So, I did my math again — your stance, your moves, your voice, and this fashion choice of yours. I bet it thrills you — losing your covers and showing off in your bikini in a sauna-hot room in front of — what? thirty people?”
“Eighty. It’s a big studio.”
“Well, yoga wrecks my original plan,” I told her.
“I was going to invite you to a wine bar, but with yoga...it sounds more like a juice bar now.”
“I’d prefer a wine bar with live music,” she told me. She wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to me. It was her name and phone number.
“I just gave my phone number to a stranger,” she said.
“A stranger? After yesterday? Seriously?”
I introduced myself and gave her my business card. Now it was time for a little surprise.
“I want to take this book home,” I told her. Then I added, “I want to read it in its original language.” In Japanese.
She didn’t look surprised, though.
“I’m glad you finally made up your mind,” she said in Japanese while handing me the book. “To enjoy this book, you need to be a very attentive and patient reader.”
“Am I not?” I asked.
“And you need to take good care of the book.”
I turned towards the exit, took a step, then turned back.
“You’re not going to scan the book?” I asked her.
“It’s my own book,” she said and flashed me a bright smile.