“Places are not places. Places are our experiences of places.”
The smell of books vanished; his wish came true. He turned around and looked at himself in the mirror and could feel a palpable, almost human presence, of the absence of libraries. He stood up, grinning victoriously. No more will he pass by libraries and remember. They were gone and soon enough the memories will be gone too.
“You know that professor is so annoying, she always assigns us the most difficult research papers just one week before they’re due. I hate her,” said Lin.
“I know it sucks, but we still manage to get an A every time. Don’t we?” winked Adam.
It was Friday afternoon and they had just been dismissed from their last class. A new research paper was definitely not the way to start the weekend but Adam was looking forward to it. He always looked forward to spending hours and hours with Lin, even if they were spent researching amidst piles of books in the library.
“Yes, yes we do. Well it looks like we must start researching tonight if we plan on getting another A this time. See you at the library in an hour?” said Lin.
“Alright, I’ll see you there,” replied Adam.
He walked out of his house and into a free world. A world free of shame, of secrets, of that sleazy smell. The smell of books. He was already feeling better, as if the cells in his body had died and were reborn today, in the free world. His mind was racing with possibility. Is he going to be successful? Is he going to be confident? Is he finally going to be happy? Happiness. That feeling he’s been deprived of ever since he last set foot in a library. That feeling everyone had talked about in fairytales and poems. That feeling, will it finally be his?
Adam decided to head to the library early and wait for Lin there. When he arrived, the library was eerily desolate. There were only two other people inside, the librarian – an old lady of eighty-two years of age with recurrent episodes of amnesia and epilepsy – and a bald man with a ginger beard pretending to read Goethe’s Faust. The sun was setting and light could barely make it through the grimy glass windows. Adam felt an abrupt pang of panic, reminiscent of the sudden jolt a camera makes in suspense films right before the killer is revealed, but he dismissed it as paranoia and found a seat two tables away from the ginger man.
He was one block away from the library, or where it used to be. What would be occupying that space now? Will it be an empty piece of land as if the gods had struck the library down instantly? Or will they have replaced it with another building to fill in the void left behind and prevent any noticeable alterations made by his wish? He took every step forward confidently, enthusiastically; impatient to witness the banishment of the library that had haunted him for years.
Adam always mentioned that watching people was one of his hobbies. He could go to the park and sit there for hours doing nothing but observing the people around him. Their little details – their clothes, their eye movements, hand gestures, and facial expressions, everything about human beings – made them constantly interesting to observe. However, with only two potential subjects in the library it was rather difficult to enjoy this activity. But Adam persisted, he thought of it as a challenge. He took it upon himself to spend more time and attention examining the most intricate details of the librarian and the ginger man, just until Lin arrives. “This will be fun,” he thought. He started with the librarian. He could only see her from the neck upwards because she was sitting behind the wooden counter, like she has been doing every day for the past thirty years. He noticed her curly white hair; it stood still and stiff on her head, petrified of making any sudden movements in fear of falling. Her eyes were dark brown and revealed no emotion whatsoever from behind the thick framed black glasses resting on her small nose. In fact, the only aspect of her face that made a striking impression was not actually part of her face: those thick framed black glasses. Her cheeks were pale and wrinkly, her chin unremarkable, and her lips thin and seemed to disappear completely whenever she talked; were they swallowed by the words vocalized or did they shy away from speech altogether? No one knew but with such small insignificant features, it was mainly the thick framed black glasses that stole Adam’s attention. He tilted his head slightly to get a better look at her ears but didn’t want to look like an idiot so he stopped staring and moved on to his next subject: the ginger man.
As he took the last step and turned the final corner, it was rising within him; a feeling of anticipation mixed with victory. It was no longer there. He broke the library that had broken him. The library he had despised and blamed was gone, replaced only by the most colorful and delectable bakery shop he’s ever seen. It was called The German Pie. Adam wondered if the shop sold only pies, and if so, were they really made by a German? He approached the shop slowly, in a daze of disbelief and apprehension; he was afraid this perfect moment would disappear and he’ll wake up, realizing this was all a dream – that there are no wishes, only libraries where wishes are lies licked and labelled “Classics” on the dirty spines of old books. As he pushed the door open, the smell of freshly baked pies ambushed him – it was definitely real. He stepped inside and greeted the small woman behind the counter with a grin; she had a pretty face and short silver hair although she couldn’t have been over thirty. His curiosity was satisfied when he found out that the shop did not only serve pies but other baked pastries like croissants, muffins, and quiches. He ordered a chocolate muffin and sat down to eat it. He enjoyed taking every bite voraciously as if intimidating the past with his sharp teeth, ones that used to bite down on a stranger’s palm and can now finally enjoy the plush texture of will.
The ginger man seemed quite captivated by Faust but Adam knew it was all an act. After all, it was the original copy of the play and Adam highly doubted the ginger man knew German; he was also holding the book upside down. Reading or not, the ginger man was completely hidden behind the book and only his fingers, grasping its edges were open to Adam’s scrutiny. The challenge was getting more difficult, he was considering giving up when the ginger man suddenly lowered his book and glanced over at Adam’s table. Their eyes met for an awkward three seconds then Adam stood up and scurried away to a random book shelf out of the ginger man’s view. “I hope he didn’t think I was staring at him…although I was,” thought Adam. Just as he was picking up a book about memory and the brain, he was startled by the ginger man’s face popping from behind the book shelf, looking at him straight in the eyes. Adam panicked and dropped the book. He bent down to pick it and put it back on the shelf but when he stood up the ginger man had disappeared. He looked around several times but found no one. Was he seeing things, in this case, a weird bald man with a ginger beard? He sighed and walked towards the back of the library: the History section. Somehow this section was quieter than the rest of the library. The book shelves were silent and the books so neatly organized like they’ve never been touched. Adam felt nervous yet at home. The calm atmosphere was a familiar setting for his mind despite the fact that he’s never been to this section before. On the other hand, the extreme silence was unnerving especially when preceded by a mysterious disappearance. “This really does feel scary,” thought Adam. He checked his watch; it was almost time for his meeting with Lin. Since he was already walking around, he decided to start searching for books about their research topic: the effect of women’s rights movement on female political participation in the twentieth century.
Lin loved him. They met while she was still in college but soon after graduation they got married and left town. She always wanted to live in a European city so after their honeymoon was over, they traveled to Berlin where he got a job as a theatre manager. It was not hard work for him; he enjoyed every moment spent within the theatre’s vicinity and atmosphere. Lin enjoyed theatre as well and every month one of their date nights would be spent watching a new play. But more than theatre, Lin had a magnetic attraction to books. She knew every bookstore and library in Berlin and visited at least one of them every week or so. She was never too fond of being an official employee of any company or organization and had therefore decided to employ her own passion for books as a way to make, not earn, a living; a life worth living. A frequent visitor; she had acquainted herself with all the bookkeepers. They recognized her effervescent smile and limitless enthusiasm as she walked around and rummaged through all the bookshelves, examining random books with strange titles or colorful covers. After a thorough exploration, she would select a single book to buy – sometimes it was the longest book, at others it was the least interesting one, but regardless of her absurd selection process, she would always go home with one book to read. She only chose one book at a time because she was a slow reader, a habit she was unusually proud of. “Why rush the journey? Better read only a handful of books in a lifetime heartily than a hundred hastily,” she always said. By the end of her first year in Berlin, Lin had over fifty books neatly lined in, what she called, Lin’s Library. This library was a simple wooden closet with four shelves and after every book was completed, Lin would place it carefully in her library. As proud as she was of her reading habits, Lin was more so of her own library.
After twenty minutes of studying endless bookshelves of history books, Adam found only one book that seemed relevant to the research topic. He had had a long day of classes, he felt tired and Lin still wasn’t there yet; it was a bad start. He flipped through the book but wasn’t ready to read or work at all. Surrendering to his exhaustion, he grabbed the book and decided to head back to his table and wait for Lin there. It was completely dark outside and this section of the library wasn’t well-lit, but as he was dragging his feet behind him he stopped and could clearly see another pair blocking his way. He looked up and found the ginger man staring down at him, with a disturbing subtle smile on his face.
Lin was almost halfway through her latest book, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, when she heard a strange sound coming from her library. It sounded like a light thud. She suspected that one of her books might have slid and fell but as she stood up and approached the closet, her heart sank. She couldn’t understand what was happening, her mind was unable to process this abrupt glitch in her environment but her heart did. Her heart felt an earthquake of sorrow rattling the ground beneath her feet yet she was still as a rock. Her heart felt a void instantly born, engulfing the substance of all hope and joy. Her heart, not her nose, felt it: the smell of books, it was gone!
Adam’s mind was scattered: now that he had a clearer close up on the ginger man’s face, he could finally study each of his features meticulously but should that be his priority? Shouldn’t he be wary, if not troubled, about the ginger man’s forwardly manners? For some reason, Adam didn’t feel scared or surprised as he was by the ginger man’s first sudden appearance among the bookshelves earlier. Was it the darkness, absorbing all the panic? Was it the silence, swallowing all the fear? He wasn’t sure but he noticed that the ginger man was not unnerved by Adam’s stillness either. It felt like a silly staring competition except it was not silly; it was real. The intense ambush of a stranger’s face close to Adam’s was almost fantastical at first – he had doubted his eyes earlier – but this time was different; he was certain it was real, piercingly real. The ginger man’s beard extended from his temples and covered most of his cheeks, crawling downwards to his upper lip, and finally nestling on his chin. His full, wine red lips were carved crudely but flagrantly amidst the orange canopy of his beard. Adam wondered how the ginger man’s face carried all this color, all this heat. But he soon raised his eyes upwards to find that the ginger man had more than just red and orange; his eyes were light brown that shifted to a subtle shade of green, even in the meagre light around him. In fact, Adam was suddenly hit with a realization: the dominating darkness that dwelled in the History section had somehow spared the ginger man’s face, freeing it from the veil of night. Doubts seeped once again into Adam’s mind. Was the ginger man really standing in front of him right now in complete stillness and silence? Or was he hallucinating? There was no way to know for sure but Adam decided to end his scrutiny and go back to his table. He moved to the left, trying to avoid contact with the ginger man but he was also nervous he might knock out the books on the bookshelf right next to him.
“Excuse me,” said Adam apprehensively while still squeezing himself between the bookshelf and the ginger man’s body.
The ginger man remained still, observing Adam’s discomfort apathetically with the same disturbing smile on his face. It was when Adam finally managed to get past the ginger man that he felt a sudden forceful grip pulling him back. The ginger man held Adam by his shoulders and pushed him on the dusty floor of the History section. Adam’s yelps were stifled by the ginger man’s sturdy, sweaty right hand while the left one slithered downwards attempting to unbutton Adam’s pants. Adam tried to squirm from underneath the ginger man’s bulky body but his legs were trapped.
Lin ran to her library, swung open the wooden closet, and gasped at the empty shelves inside. All the books were gone. Her precious library had vanished, leaving nothing behind. Not even the slightest hint of that ambrosial smell of carefully flipped pages and gently tickled spines. She dropped to her knees and felt them screech beneath her. What was happening? Why did her books disappear? Lin couldn’t understand this mysterious crime against humanity, all she could do was sit on the floor in front of an empty wooden closet and weep.
I was pressing my legs tightly against his. The boy couldn’t move.
After I pulled down his pants, I got rid of mine.
I tightened my grip on his mouth and used that force to thrust myself inside him.
I liked it.
I liked it in the dark, my sweat rolling down my thighs and crashing on to his backside, his tears splashing on my hands.
I felt his tongue pushing against the palm of my hand and his teeth rammed together to taste my skin. I liked that too.
My sweat, his tears, the wetness of it all.
But soon afterwards, the boy stopped jerking and was absolutely still underneath me.
I finished, put my pants back on, and left him in the dark.
As I exited the library I thought, “I like him.”
He came back from work and found Lin on the floor, crying. He ran and held her tightly, wiping her tears.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” he asked frantically.
Lin pointed to the empty closet then buried her face in his chest, sobbing breathlessly.
“Where are your books? What happened?” he asked again.
“I don’t know, they’re all gone!” panted Lin, her voice muffled by tears and the great grief crushing her chest.
He still couldn’t understand what had happened but he knew talking to her wouldn’t help. He hugged her then carried her to bed. Gradually, Lin stopped crying and fell asleep. He wondered about the missing books, but more importantly he worried about how he’ll make her feel better when she woke up. As he watched her sleep, he got an idea.
Adam couldn’t see anything. Complete darkness. He was still lying face down on the floor and felt his exposed body violated by the darkness. Complete darkness. Struggling to get up in the dark, from the dark, he groped blindly until his hands landed on a nearby shelf. He clutched it tightly and finally raised himself to a painful standing position. Adam’s pants were still at his knees, cowering below his shameful hips, and as he reached to pull them up his hands shook convulsively and he toppled on the floor. Once again, his face squeezed against the floor, he couldn’t see or feel anything – even the pain faded in the presence of the pungent smell of dust and sweat and old books. The aroma of pure paper bound in virgin vintage leather fused with the stench of sullied secrets slayed in sex and slime, in spicy silence slicing souls; in vain. The harassing torrent of odor hijacked his senses and soon this horrid hybrid of paper and pain, books and blood, became one. One smell, one sensation scorched in his mind forever.
When he came back, Lin was still asleep. He tiptoed quietly into the room but her eyes fluttered open and her hands reached for his, pulling him to bed. Embracing her from behind, he kissed her neck gently and cradled her warm but woeful body.
“Lin…I still don’t know what happened. Do you want to talk about it?”
“My library. It disappeared. All the books…gone.”
“I don’t understand how that can happen…was there a burglary?”
“No! You don’t understand! I was there, I was right there when it happened. Something snapped and they were gone. It’s…over.”
“Lin. I tried. When you were asleep, I went out so I can get you a new book. I wanted to start a new library with you. But when I walked to the bookshop down the street…”
His voice trailed off into somewhere scarier than sound. Lin turned around only to find a puzzled look on his face, almost pathetic, certainly helpless.
“What happened? Tell me,” urged Lin.
“The bookshop was not there. I walked back, thinking I might have missed it or made a wrong turn but it was simply not there anymore. What was even stranger is that right in its place was a pet shop. I don’t know how it happened, I’ve never seen that pet shop before but it was there! And no one around me seemed to notice anything! People just walked by!”
Lin’s earlier misery morphed into a serious confusion, a grave affliction. She was no less confounded than saddened by this strange spell that not only removed books from libraries but entire libraries from the world. A flashing reel of all her visits to libraries and bookstores raced through her mind, in Berlin, in Santorini during her honeymoon – she had come upon a small bookstore one night and insisted they visit it together after dinner; she bought Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from there – and the one back in her hometown…the reel got stuck at her hometown’s library, as if on a loop, and she remembered that day. She pulled him closer and held him tightly.
Adam woke up the next day still abandoned in the History section of the library. Did he fall asleep? Did he black out? He had no recollection of the past several hours. Where did the time go? Where did he go? The sun rays seeped through the greasy glass windows above him. He managed to button his pants, stand up, and exit the yet unoccupied – except for the librarian who was struggling with her computer too much to hear anyone around – library without being noticed. When he came back home, both of his parents had already left for work. He went to his room, collapsed on his bed, and cried.
He wrapped his arms around her gently and kissed her head.
“I have an idea. Why don’t I make you some jasmine tea, put on that record you like, and we can go through our album? That’s all I want to do tonight. Just lay in bed with you.”
Lin’s energy had dissipated; she had no will to do anything. Lin felt like giving in and so she nodded silently. She unclasped her arms from around him and sank back in bed, watching him as he got up to boil the water. Then the music started playing. Soon afterwards, he came back with a small cup of hot tea and a white photo album: their album. He slid in next to her and she slowly sipped her tea. Their album was a collection of all their photos together, since their second date at the movies all the way to last week’s play.
“Oh I really like this one,” said Lin.
It was an old photo from when they were still seeing each other back in her hometown. They were at the park. She had asked him if she could take a picture of him and after some negotiation, he finally agreed. He was sitting on a bench and looking at the sky. The sun was shining and his ginger beard glistened.