“You know what your New Year’s resolution should be?” Josh asked, half drunk, “To return these books to their rightful owners!”
Lying on the other couch in our living room, wine in hand, I rolled my eyes lazily before I fell asleep.
This was the last day of 2021. The last night.
On January 1st of 2022, I woke up with a friendly headache. I gasped a little when I looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I’d never gone to bed without washing my makeup, brushing my teeth, flossing and applying my night creams. I was never a drinker, either, so it was disconcerting to me that I’d chosen to wash 2021 down with three glasses of wine and a whole lot of whine.
I heard Josh snoring as I passed the guestroom, so I tiptoed down the stairs to make my morning coffee.
I sat by the window, holding my mug in both hands to keep them warm. The aromas of coconut milk, turmeric and cocoa mixed with coffee wafted up my nose and slunk into my head, promising to replace the slumbering headache. I blew on the coffee to prevent it from forming that leathery layer I hate and took a sip looking outside at the empty streets of London, quietly gleaming in the rain. Not a soul out there, just charred remnants of fireworks and empty bottles waiting to be picked up.
Suddenly, something on the shelf caught my eye. What did Josh say the night before? Something about New Year’s Resolution and book returns?
I kept staring at them without actually getting up to take a closer look at them individually. I wasn’t even sure what they were or who they belonged to. I closed my eyes for a moment. As if in a trance, the books’ colours, red, blue, white, grey, all swirled in my mind’s eye and mixed with random fragments of titles, while people’s faces, ghosts and sparks from the past melted into the whirlpool behind my eyes.
I heard Josh trundling down the stairs and yawning audibly.
“Morning,” he said, still yawning.
“I’ve decided to take your advice!” I said as I opened my eyes.
“What? What advice?” he said, peering over my mug to see its contents. His nose crinkled. He never approved of my concoctions.
“Yesterday!” I said, “you said the thing about the new year’s resolution!”
He gave me a vacant look.
“You know, about me returning those books to the people who lent them to me!” I said, incredulous that he had zero recollection.
“Did I say that?” he scratched his thick, ginger mane, “and do you like that idea? Only then will I own up to having come up with it!”
I made space for him beside me on the couch and held my hand out to him.
“Tea first!” he said, pointing at his head, “Terrible headache!”
I got up and followed him to the kitchen. I rested my mug on the counter and declared, “By the end of 2022, I will have returned all those books to their rightful owners…”
“Okay, I…,” he was awake now.
“By hand!” I interrupted.
“Hmmm, that’s rather ambitious, given that many of your friends move around quite a bit!” Josh said, forever the rational.
I hadn’t thought about that. I hadn’t even determined who those people were, but I was caught up in the excitement of that decision.
“But that’s the whole point!” I could already see us having exciting encounters in 2022.
“Sounds fun!” he stroked his stubbly chin.
“Erm, I thought we could do this together… as a little fun project! Could be good for us!”
Josh looked at me for a few seconds while the kettle was filling up, “But this is your resolution! I have some important ones of my own, Lydia.”
I shrugged and went back to the living room to look at the books. I knelt on the carpet, took a deep breath and looked at the first book.
The Rosie Project from Nadia. Oh!
Lady Chatterley’s Lover from Sam. Oh, dear me!
And so it hit me why I’d never returned these books. These books warranted difficult conversations, in one way or another.
I put the books away and went to do the kitchen, which was a mess after last night’s New Year’s party with our neighbours. Josh was on his way to his study.
You always do this, Lydia. I thought while I loaded the dishwasher. You always avoid confrontation. It’s about time you tackled some stuck matters. You’re almost forty! Enough hiding behind your thumb! Just clean out that closet in your head…you might just be able to move on.
I threw the kitchen towel on the counter and stomped back to the book pile.
I took out the books and started sorting through them. I ranked them from least to most “difficult”. Some were difficult because the owners moved away, but some were even more difficult because the relationships with the owners fizzled or ended badly. At least one of the books’ owners was dead.
The plan was to start with the easier ones and work my way through them, ensuring I was done before January 1st, 2023.
The first few books proved to be easier to return than expected. When I returned the first two (to the same friend), it was awkward but funny because I’d never found the will to finish them, not even in the nine years I’d held them hostage. I was able to explain that without being embarrassed. Already getting better at this confrontation business!
The third one was awkward (not in a funny way) because I’d spilt coffee all over it when the train I was on years ago came to an abrupt halt. I tried to duplicate the hardcover copy in vain, so I bought the paperback and took them both as a peace offering to my friend Gina. She wasn’t exactly impressed, but she pretended to be, and I was relieved to have the coffee-stained collection of poems, proof of my inadequacy, out of my bookshelf.
Then I moved on to the least daunting in the “difficult” category. I started with my first boss’s book because, well… he was dead. His daughter was easy to track on Facebook and greatly appreciated having her father’s Far From the Madding Crowd back. I invited her to a coffee at a little cafe in Camden and she told me that Russel had read it with her when she was a teenager, in retrospect, as a warning of falling for the wrong fellow.
I reiterated that advice. From bitter experience.
The fifth book belonged to my first roommate Jacqueline. She and I were inseparable during our university days in Canterbury, until she kissed my boyfriend–and later married him. When I wrote to ask her if she was willing to meet me, she was very excited to have that pang of guilt finally put to rest. She invited me to her home, which she now shared with her second husband. I took the train there one April Saturday and she met me at the station. I surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, had a fantastic day walking around my old campus, sipping coffee and eating scones on the high street.
But the best part was my time with her toddler and husband. I watched in awe, and a pang of envy, how her husband adoringly talked to her and made sure her guest’s every wish was realised. Then with a kiss, he took the little girl and left her to catch up with her old friend. It was so great that I almost forgot to give her the Blue Beard picture book, which had a personal message from her grandmother. I remembered why we had been so close, so that alone was worth the trip, but it also served as a confirmation of the doubts I was having about Josh. When was the last time he kissed me or even brushed his hand against mine in passing?
Next was the flight to Zurich to return The Power of Now to my cousin Sandra who was less excited than I was about this whole thing. I suppose some family feuds are forever embers under still coals, despite the types of books we lend. But I did feel better when I got on the plane back. My book load was getting lighter and so was my feeling of helplessness.
“Out to visit my mother. I’ll have dinner there, so don’t wait up! Safe travels. xx” was the text I received from Josh when I landed at Heathrow.
Perhaps it was naive to expect him to pick me up at the airport, but was it too much for him to maybe have dinner with me? I picked up a sandwich at the airport and took the train home.
The seventh book on my list was Nadia’s. This proved more difficult than I’d anticipated. I was aware she was struggling with breast cancer, but the last I’d heard was that she was in remission. Nadia used to be the supermodel of our office. You know that one employee fit for a beauty pageant? The one every straight man covets and every straight woman envies? To make matters worse, she was the kindest soul on earth that we all wondered if she had any idea just how breathtaking she was.
To see her without her thick auburn curls was heartbreaking, but her magnificent grey eyes, though tired, were full of hope and goodness. We had herbal tea and a slow, deep conversation about life and its ridiculous elusiveness. John, her doting boyfriend, provided the comedic effects to lighten up the mood. This man thought he’d found the most beautiful woman he’d seen, and instead of bolting when things got rough like everyone feared, he reduced his working hours so he could take care of her. Again, I caught myself envying her–a woman battling for her life– but thoroughly thrilled for her to have such enveloping love in her life. Something I dreamt of my whole life.
When I got home, Josh got up from the kitchen table and peered his head into the hallway, arms crossed, “Hey! How was it? Is Nadia doing better?”
“She’s a fighter!” I said, kicking off my shoes and going into the kitchen to get myself a glass of water, “But I suppose having a man who loves her so fiercely helps!”
If he knew I meant it as a jab at him, he didn’t show it.
I rolled up my sleeves and started making dinner.
“So, where will the next book return take you, Mrs. Magellan?” Josh asked over dinner. I looked past his shoulder at the yellow-gold fallen leaves twirling in the neighbour’s garden. I always wondered how autumn managed to surprise me with such melancholy magic every year. Who knew endings could be so beautifully sad?
“Lydia?” he repeated.
“I’m not sure. I’m stuck on the eighth book!” I said, concentrating on stabbing my chicken, “I can’t track Mrs. Jacobs, my year seven theatre teacher.”
“Maybe you should ignore that one, then,” he said, trying to make eye contact.
“I think I’ve ignored things long enough,” I gave him the eye contact he so desperately wanted.
He flinched. Looked at his plate.
A few silent minutes later he said, “All I’m saying is that it’s November and you still have three more books to return before the end of the year.”
“Hmm? I thought there were eleven?” his hazel eyes quizzical.
“Well, I think I’ve discovered a twelfth one,” I whispered into my wine glass.
After a few more weeks of desperate attempts, I decided to keep Mrs Jocobs’ book on body language. I hoped that she would forgive me if she was still alive.
Books number nine and ten belonged to Sam. Sam was my first long-term boyfriend. We lived together in Brighton for about two years. I truly loved that man, but we were both broke and dealing with loss, so we ended up breaking up, amicably.
The first of the two books he had lent me was on the art of job interviews, and the other was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, lent to me for obvious reasons. I held on to them because they reminded me of some happy days, but they had to go too, so I went to Manchester and met him for lunch.
“I don’t need these anymore, Lydia!” he laughed, revealing those dimples I used to melt every time they appeared.
“Oh, I know! But as I said on the phone, I’m going through a purge. Marie Kondo and all that, you know!” I smiled as I slid them across the table.
“Lyds,” he stopped the books mid-table, “I may not have seen you for over what… ten years? But I still know when you’re not telling the truth. What’s going on?”
A tear formed in the corner of my eye.
“I’m getting really worried here!” he whispered when the waiter cleared the table and turned around.
How was I supposed to tell him that three years ago, I married the man I’d secretly been in love with for over three years but was somehow at my most miserable?
How was I supposed to tell him that everyone warned me he was too closed off to be relationship material, but I insisted?
How was I supposed to tell him that the man never told me he loved me, but I still slipped his wedding ring on my finger?
Josh was in charge of training me when I started at the company six years prior, and from day one I was enamoured of him. I loved everything about him, the smell of his citrusy aftershave as he leaned over my shoulder to show me something on the screen, the hazel colour of his eyes that reminded me of autumn mornings, the deep, low voice he commanded any room he was in with, the rare but kind smile he favoured you with when you said something witty. For three years, I dressed up for him, constantly changed my hair colour for him, invented work problems to have him save me and strived to excel so he would praise me.
I found him arresting. Mysterious, I thought.
He was oblivious, lost in his world of words and figures. Until one day, he was walking me home after a work party and I told him I loved him. He stopped in his tracks like a deer in headlights.
“Lyds?” Sam jolted me out of my thoughts.
I dabbed at the corners of my eyes with the napkin and smiled.
“Oh, just a rough patch,” I said.
“Choose happiness!” was all Sam said as we pushed back our chairs and went our separate ways.
When I returned to London on Sunday night, Josh looked over his laptop and asked how my “date” was.
“As if you care!” I snapped as I unwrapped my scarf and set down my small suitcase.
“I care very much!” he said, clearly wounded.
On the last day of December 2021, I dressed up for a night out to celebrate with our friends. I was pleased with how I looked in my sequined dress and long, wavy hair.
I walked over to where he was sitting at the dining table, but he barely looked at me. Not a flicker of acknowledgment in his eyes.
“Ready?” he asked.
I walked over and knelt before him. He turned around in his seat to look at me.
I held his warm hands in mine.
“Do you not like me anymore?” I whispered, trying to stop the tears from flowing.
“Of course I do!” he was clearly bored with this question. “Lydia, we’re late!”
“Then why don’t you touch me anymore?” I said, now tears rolling down my embarrassed cheeks.
“I don’t know!” he whispered and got up.
I sat on the floor for a minute, mascara running and face flushed.
Then I got up, took the eleventh book, put my coat on and drove to Putney to see my mother.
This time I didn’t arrange anything in advance. I felt that the house I grew up in was the only place I didn’t have to call first to visit.
“Lydia?” my mum gasped in disbelief.
I stood there for a few seconds until she registered that it was really me.
“Well, come in!” she beamed.
The last time I saw her was three years ago. On my wedding day to be precise. She had repeated some remark about how I would be miserable and how it was not too late to change my mind. And I snapped.
“I was blind, mum!” I said, burying my face in her neck.
“Oh, little sweetie,” she stroked my hair, “I know! Love does that sometimes, doesn’t it?”
I cried for what seemed like an eternity, and the tissues kept coming.
“I should’ve listened,” I managed between gasps.
“Is he still emotionally constipated?” she asked, rocking me back and forth.
I snorted a little snot-filled, bitter laugh.
I spent that night in my mum’s bed, where my dad had left a dent in her mattress and a hole in her heart.
The next day, the first day of the year, I took the same book I was supposed to be returning to my mum, carefully carved a hole in the first hundred pages, and went to see Josh.
“Where were you the whole night? I was worried sick!” he rushed to hold me but I shrugged him off.
Funny how I ached for him to at least hold me for over one and a half years. Only now that I’m here to end it all, he actually remembers to touch me.
I silently gave him the book.
“Gone with the Wind?” He looked at me with eyes full of dread and confusion.
He opened it to look for a message but found a ring instead. Returned to its rightful owner.