“Jen! Hi! I thought that was you. Oh, it’s good to see you!”
“Carrie! Wow! I can’t believe it! How long has it been?”
“Oh, like two years at least. Not since I left the agency.”
“Has it really been two years since you left? I can’t believe it. How’s your new gig?”
“I love it, Jen. I love my accounts, the people I work with are great. It’s awesome. How’s things with you?”
“Great. I shifted roles a bit after you left. Now I’m working more on the creative side.”
“That’s awesome, Jen. You always wanted to do that. We totally need to grab coffee or lunch or something. We need to catch up.”
“Yes, as soon as possible. I’d love that.”
“Awesome. I gotta run, but I’ll text you and we’ll find a time.”
“Sounds great. Bye, Carrie!”
“See you soon, Jen!”
Jen smiled and set down her pen. She read the lines over in her head. Yes, it was a good conversation. She leaned back in her chair and gazed out the tall, narrow window to the city street beyond. The lunch rush was coming to a close, the crowds thinning out. Those still out were scurrying to get to wherever they needed to be.
Time for Jen to get back to work, too. With a sigh, she closed her notebook and slipped it into her bag, next to her latest mystery novel and the remains of her chicken Caesar salad.
She checked in the day’s pile of returned books and lined them up on her cart to be returned to their shelves. As she worked, her conversation looped through her head. Perhaps it would be better if she, Jen, hadn’t seen Carrie in four years, instead of two. They might have more to talk about then. Maybe she, Jen, had gotten married, or maybe Carrie was dating someone. And broken up. That’s it, thought Jen. Connecting over something like that could turn a casual coffee into a long lunch, maybe dinner. It could revive Jen and Carrie’s friendship. They’ll start hanging out again. Their friendship will deepen. They’ll become lifelong best friends, there for each other in good times and bad. Celebrating with each other, crying with each other. Warmth bubbled in Jen’s chest. Yes, she thought.
She’d make those changes tomorrow.
Jen’s phone tinkled with harp music at six a.m. Time to wake up and shower. But there really was no point. She turned her phone’s alarm off and went back to sleep.
At seven, she talked herself out from her blanket cocoon, tripping over the piles of books on her floor. She brushed her teeth, washed her face. Pulled her straight brown hair back in a ponytail. Good enough. Makeup was unnecessary.
She tugged on her usual relaxed-fit khaki pants and white oxford button-down. Always the same, except in the summer when she switched to a white t-shirt. She laced up her red Converse sneakers. It didn’t matter what shoes she wore. But these made her smile.
She didn’t bother with a final check in the decorative mirror next to her apartment door. There was barely anything left to see anyway.
Jen’s condition was known as Fading. The first signs had appeared during puberty. The translucent patches, the occasional drop in volume of her voice, the strange sensation of having others look right through her. But they were momentary flashes. Jen could ignore them, pretend nothing was wrong.
By college, though, it was obvious something was very wrong. When she raised her hand in class, professors didn’t call on her. Her roommates didn’t talk to her much. On the rare occasion she went to a party, no one noticed her. She just stood in the corner of the room and watched all the people, laughing and talking and flirting and getting drunk, her hand gripping her Solo cup of flat beer, her throat burning from unspoken conversations.
She began crying a lot. Another symptom of Fading. She lost her appetite. More signs. Her clothes began to hang on her, her cheeks hollowed out. Her voice became just a whisper. Doctors were useless. A stubborn condition, was all they said. Some grew out of it eventually. Some didn’t. One doctor suggested she take a public speaking course, to see if it made a difference. Jen couldn’t think of anything more horrifying.
She floated through her college days, like a haze in the wind. Sometimes the edges of her caught someone’s notice. Just enough to glance her way before moving on. But that was all.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, a fierce defiance would fire in her veins. She’d fight this. She’d make herself be heard. She’d walk into a room and be seen. She planned what she would wear. The perfect skinny jeans, a floaty bohemian peasant shirt. Her hair would be down, her wouldn’t-you-like-to-know-me-better bangs swept to the side. Her eyes lined in a perfect cat eye, she’d raise her hand and answer a question in class, surprising the professor with her eloquence, making him wonder, “Why have I not noticed this girl before?” He would call on her all the time after that, and she would show everyone in class that she was worth listening to. They’d have to talk to her then.
But by morning, the fire would fade to an ember. What was the point? It didn’t matter if her hair fell just right, or if she had the right jeans or the best answers.
No one would talk to her.
It had been years since she even bothered to think about being seen.
Jen zipped up her black puffer coat and walked out into the winter wind. A job as a page in a library wasn’t exactly the career she’d always dreamed of, but as long as she got everything on her boss’s lists done, she was left alone. Exactly what she wanted.
Jen rolled her cart to Earth Sciences. A local school must have their kids working on a research project about earthquakes. She’d never seen this many books about earthquakes out before.
The morning dragged. She checked the time on her phone a dozen times, at least. She drank an extra cup of coffee, but that actually made the time pass even slower. She was buzzed, but not to put books away. To get back to her conversation. She thought about her notebook, in her bag in the breakroom. Jen and Carrie’s next conversation, where they bonded over coffee and Carrie’s breakup, was already forming in her mind as she pushed books into place.
“I can’t believe he did that to you, Carrie.”
“Oh, Jen. I never saw it coming. He never did anything to make me think he wasn’t happy. (Sigh) The invites were ordered and everything was booked.”
“At least you hadn’t sent them out yet.”
“Yeah, I guess. I gave him back the ring and he was like, no, you keep it. As if I want a memento of how you ruined my life.”
“Why do guys always think the girl wants to keep the ring?”
“Yeah, how about just not giving me the ring in the first place, since you’re clearly not done dating yet…”
Jen checked her phone again. Twenty more minutes till lunchtime. Close enough. She slipped into the break room and grabbed her bag. Her boss never even looked up from her laptop.
She sailed past the information desk, where Mara, as usual, was glued to her smartphone. Facebook, probably. Or maybe Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. All of them, at once. Jen rolled her eyes. She wound through the library to her usual lunch spot in an out-of-the-way corner. There was a little reading alcove there that no one seemed to know about, with a comfy brown tweed chair and small wooden side table. And, best of all, the tall, narrow window with a view of the city street.
She rounded the final row of shelves, her head filling with conversation, but came to a stunned stop. Someone was in her chair. A mayonnaise-slathered sub wrapped in loud yellow paper sat on her table.
Jen backed up and glared at the man through a crack in the shelf. She recognized him. Brian? Brandon? He was the new guy, an environmental-something graduate student. All she knew about him was that he was not familiar with either a razor or the inside of a barber shop.
Jen paced behind the shelf, furious. She tried to think of somewhere else to go. But there was nowhere else. She couldn’t eat out in the main area of the library. There were people in the breakroom. She needed to be alone. At that window. She needed to see the crush and the bustle. She needed to see people walking in pairs, in groups, running into each other, waving goodbye. She couldn’t imagine it all otherwise.
Fuming, she hid in the Religious Studies section. It was quiet enough. And she’d be done with her salad soon enough. She could read, she supposed. She was in the middle of her favorite kind of mystery, the kind where an ordinary person gets pulled into extraordinary events and then finds strength and cunning they never knew they had. But she was too mad to read. The noise of her conversation buzzed in her head, demanding attention. She pulled out her notebook. But without the inspiration people on the street, the lines she wrote fell flat. She scribbled them out, the nub of her pen tearing through the paper. She dropped the notebook in defeat.
There was nothing she could do but go back to work, her conversation fading like the rest of her.
This will not happen again, she promised herself as she jammed books into their spots on the shelves that afternoon. Brian/Brandon was going to have to find a different place to eat his lunch tomorrow.
Before she left for the day, she put her bag on the chair. After some hesitation, she pulled out her notebook. She held it in her hands for a moment, took a deep breath, and opened it to the page she’d written yesterday. Her conversation with Carrie, when they first run into each other on the street. She put it on the table and laid her pen on top. There. Tomorrow, Brian/Brandon would see it and assume that someone was working here. He’d have to go somewhere else.
Jen checked the time every ten minutes. Lunchtime, finally. Bag in hand, she headed to her spot.
He was there again.
Jen grit her teeth. She took a breath, told herself to calm down. Maybe he was almost finished.
But his sandwich sat untouched on the table. And to Jen’s horror, he was holding her notebook.
He was reading it.
Jen wrapped her arms around her head to contain the fury building in her chest. No screaming in the library. She did the only thing she could think of. Walk away. She ate her Caesar salad huddled in Middle Grade.
The next day he was there again. Reading her notebook again.
Jen jabbed at her salad with her fork in Art History.
On the fourth day, Jen took action. With a shaking hand, she wrote DON’T READ MY NOTEBOOK before she placed it on the table. At lunchtime, she spied on him through the shelves. He smiled when he saw what she’d written. Jen seethed. Did he think it was funny? He pulled out a chewed-on pencil and wrote something.
That’s my notebook! she wanted to scream. Stupid quiet rules. She stomped off to Picture Books.
At the end of the day, she snatched her defiled notebook from the table.
That’s what he wrote? Why not?
BECAUSE IT’S MINE! She wrote it even bigger this time, then slammed the notebook back down on the table.
On the fifth day he wrote, “Are you a writer?”
She answered. “NO.”
The sixth day. “Then why do you have all these conversations written down?”
“Because I like to make up conversations.”
And the seventh day. “Why do you keep leaving your notebook here?”
“Because this is MY spot. I eat my lunch here. EVERY DAY. I watch the people out the window, and write conversations. You have stolen my lunch spot. Find a new spot.”
On the eighth day, she watched from the shadows of the bookshelf as he wrote.
“Why do you eat lunch in the library every day? And no, I’m not going to find a new spot. I like sitting by a window. It makes me think I’m outside, instead of cooped up in here.”
Her fists balled as she read his words. It wasn’t his fault he hadn’t seen her, but that didn’t take the sting out of it. Nothing ever did.
She pulled out her pen. “I eat lunch here everyday because I WORK here. I like sitting by a window too. I imagine I’m one of the people rushing by, going somewhere.”
The next day. “You work here? What’s your name? What part of the library do you work in?”
Jen’s pen hovered a moment.
“I’m Jen. I check in returned books and put them away.”
Jen slipped into the shelves, ready to spy on Brian/Brandon as he read her last line. But the chair was empty. Puzzled, Jen sat down in the chair. Her comfy brown tweed chair. It felt different. She looked down at her notebook, her last words floating at the top of the page, nothing but blank space below.
Uneasy, Jen stared out the window at the usual lunch rush. She held her breath as two people waved hello to each other just beyond the glass. There was always such surprise, joy even, when people recognized each other. There were handshakes and hugs and smiles and a few minutes to chat before continuing on their way.
Jen blinked away a tear.
Harp music. Six a.m. Jen leaned over and tapped the alarm off. Usually, silencing the harps was a relief. But today the quiet roared in her ears. She got up and took a shower. She should probably blow-dry her hair. It was cold outside. She fumbled with her brush, her strokes rusty. She hadn’t realized how long her hair had grown.
She pulled on her khakis, her button down shirt, her red shoes, her black puffer coat. Bag in hand, she hurried out of the door. She wanted to get to work as quickly as possible. She needed to add something to her notebook before her shift started.
First, she checked the work schedule in her boss’s office. The man’s name was Ben. Then she slipped back to the alcove where she’d left her notebook. She added on to her last line.
“Your name’s Ben, right? How do you like working here?”
Then she waited for lunchtime.