“Why not smile for us, pretty girl?” The man across the street shouts to my mom.
I open my mouth to shout back in retaliation, but my mom grabs my wrist, firm.
“Frida,” she warns. “Leave it.”
I don’t want to, so I flash him the finger behind my back. He grins, his gray teeth looking more like a rat’s and less like a human’s. I try not to gag, and my mom opens the door to the bookstore for me. “Come on, Free.”
The welcoming jingle of the bell on the door signals our leave from the cruelness of the outside world, the entrance of a safe haven for readers and women like us. Books are everywhere, lining shelves and tables in a carefully organized fashion, and everything smells like paper and comfort and, well, books.
“Free!” A girl’s voice comes from the back. “I thought I saw your head pop in.”
“Hello, Charlie.” My mom smiles as Charlie comes bounding around the corner of the children’s fantasy book shelf. “How’s your grandma?”
“Oh, she’s doing pretty good.” Charlie tugs on her short, curly hair, which barely reaches below her ears. “Taking her meds, reading a lot, the usual. She’s visiting my brother with my mom and dad, so she isn’t here.”
“All right, I’m just here to pick up a book on gardening.” My mom shakes her head. “I think I need some help.”
“I don’t know what’s more desperate for help,” I smile at her. “You, or the cucumbers.”
Charlie laughs. “Sure, Ms. Jocasta. You know where they are, right?”
My mom squints her eyes, thinking. “Remind me?”
“Sure.” Charlie nods to me. “I’ll be right back; you know where everything is.”
“Thanks.” I turn right, head through the employee’s hall (which is small and drafty) to cut from the kid’s section to classics. I’m glad I’m wearing a jacket, because it’s surprisingly cold in the bookstore for a sunny June morning. Some indie music plays quietly from the check out desk, and the notes float into the classics wing. I thumb through copies of Antigone with highlighted, dog-eared pages (likely from someone’s long forgotten school assignment). Romeo and Juliet is falling to pieces on one shelf, so I set it gently beside me, and hope I don’t forget to tell Charlie. She always tries to save the broken books. She’s my best friend, which is either because we both love reading so much, or because we just seem to understand each other really well.
“Boo!” A deep voice says close to my ear, and I jump, falling into the shelf.
“What the hell?” I spin, and the guy smirks, leaning back on the wall.
“Hello.” His voice is smooth, and his hair is curly, and something in the pit of my stomach hates the way he’s looking at me, like I’m some sort of snack. “Long time, no see, Frida.”
I’m terrible with remembering both names and faces, so it takes me a second before I recognize him, and even longer to figure out how I know him.
“We had Chemistry together in middle school. Eighth period with Dubach, remember?” He's wearing a shirt for a band I don't recognize, one with a very revealing and highly sexualized outfit on the lady singer in the background of the picture. “Does the name ‘Matthias’ ring any bells for you?”
“Oh, right.” I glance over to the front desk, and then to the door that heads into the employee hallway, but I don’t see anyone else. “You got taller.”
Matthias stands up straighter when I said that, which instantly makes the words feel sour in my mouth. “And you grew up, too.”
If he’s talking about my boobs, I’m so going to sock this idiot in the f- oh, yeah. Yeah, he’s talking to my boobs.
“So, what brings you here?” I ask. It’s no secret that Charlie works here, but she’s lesbian, which is clear enough from the rainbow stickers she plasters on every spare surface and the pictures she posts with her sweet Scottish girlfriend. It isn’t much of a secret that I’m here almost every day, either, but I’m guessing Matthias isn’t here to find a nice book on gardening.
“Looking for something new.” He drags one bony finger along the spines of the books behind him. “I write songs, you know.”
“Ah.” Of course he does. “So you’re looking for inspiration?”
“If you know of any.”
Creep. “Yeah, well, what do you want to write about?”
He snorts. “Damsels in distress, of course.”
I refrain from sobbing dramatically and sarcastically. Predictable. “So you’re, like, Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
“Oh, yeah. I relate to him a lot.” Matthias brags, oblivious to Demetrius’ character flaws. (Demetrius, it just so happens, is also a guy who believes he has knows everything, and persists after women who are clearly uninterested.) “Anything else I should look into?” And then he stares- blatantly, disgustingly, and hungrily- right at my chest.
“Actually, yeah. There is.” I can feel the heat rising to my cheeks.
“Does it happen to include your number? Because if so, I’m totally down.” He flashes me a grin.
“I was going to recommend you look into the definition of ‘respect’, actually.” I cross my arms, staring back at him with what I hope is a truly hateful look.
Matthias laughs. “Come on, Frida, you know I’m just playing with you.” He reaches toward me like he’s going to pat me on the shoulder or something, and I duck away, fast.
“You’re being a disgusting creep.” I inform him. “You should pay for the books you want and leave.”
His laugh is more of a single ‘ha’ now that he’s unsure he’ll get what he wants. “Oh, Frida, don’t be so sensitive.”
Fight or flight, my brain whispers. Nothing to fight with but tattered old books and words, nowhere to fly with him in the way. “Matthias, I think you should leave.”
Now he narrows his eyes. “Really? So, I come in here, and you’re happy enough to flirt and give me help with my music, but when I want you to be my gir-”
“I never flirted.” I grind my teeth. “I answered your questions about good books for inspiration, that’s all.” And I answered it ironically, since you've likely got less in your head than you've got in your pants, at least metaphorically.
“You know what?” He throws up his hands. “Whatever. You’re kinda ugly, anyway.”
I have to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing out loud. Ugly and fat. Looks are the only things that appeal to these types of boys, so it’s all they know to insult us. Our ability to appeal to them. As if that’s some kind of reward, dating one. Yuck.
“Why are you so worked up, anyway?” He leans closer, and I really wish the book in my hand had a hard cover. You never know how far these boys will go. “You should have been glad I gave you an opportunity to be my girl. You’re so desperate, and you have no reason to reject me.”
“Actually, I do have reasons.” I tell him, standing up taller.
“And what are they?” He narrows his eyes back at me, his face steel. “Why won’t you give me your number?”
“Because I said so.” I can feel my eyebrows narrow, and I’m aware suddenly that I’m smirking. “Matthias, I don’t think I’m the desperate one here.”
He snorts, backing up. “Seriously? You’re bigger than this store. Fat chance you’ll be single for life with this attitude.”
And there’s the ‘fat’ insult, and the ‘you aren’t worthy of our relationship’ remark, and that completes the BINGO for a misogynist boy. “Okay.” I shrug. “Have fun jerking off to your own pathetic soundtracks.”
He flips me off, storming out the door (and brushing past a surprised looking Charlie) swearing enough profanity to light the roof in flames.
“Damn.” Charlie looks at me. “What’d he want?”
I roll my eyes and gesture to myself. “This ugly, desperate-for-male-attention figure, and my number.”
She groans. “Disgusting. And, of course, typical.”
“Sorry I wasn’t here.” She nods toward the front of the shop. “Bella came in, and they needed an easy book-report book for their senior thesis paper, but they didn’t want it to be a classic.”
I laugh. “What’d you end up recommending?”
“It doesn't matter." She moans. "They chose Harry Potter. Bella could’ve had Yes No Maybe So or Red White and Royal Blue or literally anything in the world, but they chose Rowling.”
“They coulda taken Fitzgerald and talked about how his protagonist is one giant, pathetic, simp with no respect.”
Charlie sighs. “Men. What else is new?”
“The #notallmen movement.” I point out. “That’s new.”
“I’m telling you, Free.” She shakes a finger at me. “If I made a ray gun that shot every guy that didn’t respect women with glitter, America would be a very exciting place to live.”