What happened on the second Tuesday of July was a simple thing, and it started like so.
The boy wore a large velvet blazer and was swallowed by his ancient copy of Jane Eyre; the copy that smelled like his grandmother’s perfume and felt like butterfly wings between his calloused fingers. He sat alone on a park bench that day, much like the other days, and he waited for something to happen. Not in his book, he already knew how that ended after having read it seventeen times, but in the park there were several things that could happen. The small boy throwing a ball to his father could decide that he would rather pretend to be a cow, chew up a large chunk of grass, and promptly vomit all over the ice cream stand upon learning that humans aren’t meant to eat the lawn. The pretty young couple sitting across from the velvet blazered boy could suddenly realize they were no longer in love, jump apart from tenderly aggressive face contact, and roll in separate directions until they rolled right off the ends of the earth. Those things could both happen. The hot dog cart by the corner could explode. The dog sleeping under the bench to the direct right of the velvet blazered boy could wake up and bite his shins until he was left to be a bleeding husk of human.
Those things could all happen, and the boy was waiting for them to occur, but they didn’t. He tilted his book back up and continued to read, yawning. He was quite the pretentious character, if I am to be absolutely honest, and he didn’t care if people thought of him that way. He read large, classical books and toted them around slung across his chest in a brown leather satchel he had borrowed from his great uncle’s library. It smelled like mothballs, and he loved it all the same. His hair wasn’t too long, like some of the skaters rolling by with their hair mussed this way and that and flaming in the wind, and it wasn’t dreadfully short, either.
It hung pleasantly in dark curls, framing his delicately sharp features and complementing his stained eyes. There was a certain fullness to his lips that made it impossible for him to seem completely happy unless he threw his hands up in the air and grinned like a lunatic, in which case those same lips graced his face quite well. The boy, of course, wore his black velvet blazer everywhere, rain or shine, day or night, come hurricane or food poisoning, even in the dead of summer when the temperature usually scraped ninety seven degrees. The blazer was joined by thickly material suit pants, crisply ironed undershirts, shining in the summer sun church shoes that crunched his toes when he walked too quickly, and, on occasion, a faded pocket watch that swung from his hips.
He was an attractively pretentious boy, as some of the worst ones are, but he didn’t mean to be. Not really. He was just that kind of person whether he liked it or not. See, it wasn’t an active choice, like he woke up one morning and decided to be the model citizen for alluringly intelligent and impeccably dressed young men, but that’s what happened. And on that day, while he sat on that splintery wooden park bench and read his favorite book in the world, I happened to be on my way home from the 24/7 bookstore downtown.
All the worst for me, reader, because of course I had to stop and look curiously at this chump. Oh, that’s right. I was the idiot who decided this would be a worthwhile roadside attraction, and I was caught.
“Excuse me, has something bothered you?” He put down his book and looked at me blandly. It was one of the things he was best at, because the truth was he was so absorbed in the world- in music and books and traveling and languages and poetry and everything- that he sometimes had to pretend he didn’t care about a thing at all. But he did, and he had to. It was just how he was born, I suppose.
“Um, no.” I shifted the bag of books on my shoulder and blinked. He had a fantastic set of teeth. I didn’t tell him that, obviously it would have been frowned upon, but I thought it as loudly as I could. “I’m not bothered. Sorry, I was looking at your book.”
“Mmm, yes. That’s what they all say.”
My cheeks flushed pink and I pressed the strap of my bag further into my shoulder blade. “I was, though. Jane Eyre is a great book.”
“It’s my favorite.”
“I love it, too, but it’s not my favorite. Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea?”
“Yes.” He patted the seat on the bench next to him. “Sit, would you? I’m always up for a conversation about books. Especially ones that catch the eyes of pretty girls.”
For a moment, I was confused about what pretty girls he had seen around, but then I realized he meant me and I almost cackled. I was on my way home from the 24/7 hour bookstore; I hardly was a put together sight. Though, compliments never hurt anyone. I sat down quickly and put my bag beside me. “Have you been to the 24/7 bookstore? It’s wonderful.”
“You smell like lemons.”
“Oh, yeah, well, that’s what the bookstore smells like cause they had to spray it down and that’s what they fumigation spray was scented as. Lemons.”
“Thought it might have been your shampoo.”
I laughed and dragged my hands through my frizzy, voluminous hair. “I use baking soda, actually, never lemon shampoo.”
“It suits you. You should thank the cockroaches for having to get fumigated.”
“Think they were ladybugs, not cockroaches, but okay.”
He moved closer to me on the bench and then leaned back on his hands. “I wanted to talk about books, not bugs. What do you like to read?”
“Science fiction, mainly, but obviously I read the classics too. I like Anna Karenina. And Alice in Wonderland. Byron’s poems are always a treat.”
“Those are three entirely different categories. You can’t lump them all together. Besides, we’d better get out of this park before it gets too hot. There’s supposed to be another heat wave passing through at noon. Care to stop for coffee with me, or are you more of a tea girl?”
I didn’t know his name, but something about the way he asked made me want to say yes. Also he offered to buy coffee and/or tea, so I was in. He had me at “get out of this park.” It was funny to go for coffee or tea in the dead of summer, but so was wearing a velvet blazer in the middle of a public park.
It wasn’t like he was headed to a suit and tie affair. There usually wasn’t one in town, unless it had to do with someone coming from out of town. “I’ll go with you, sure.” I picked up my bag and stood up. “What’s your name?”
“You’re wrong. You wouldn’t be him at all. You’re dressed more like Jay Gatsby.”
“Oh, please. No. Anyone but him.”
“Not a fan of that one?”
He stood up from the bench and took his book with him. “Not in the slightest. My name is Chester, then.” He waved the book. “As in Rochester, maybe.”
“Good thing I’m not a Jane, then.”
He stepped closer and I felt the eyes of the park people on us. The interaction must have been strange for them. It was stranger for me. Stranger than Harry Potter’s first trip to Hogwarts. Wilder than Lucy’s first steps into Narnia. More bizarre than Dorothy’s first tornado tour of the land of Oz. And yet, like all of them, the absurdity of the situation was accompanied with a sense of all encompassing wonder. Just like Mary and her secret garden, I was compelled to go onward. I wasn’t about to leave this randomly dropped Mr. Darcy in the park all alone. No, that would be preposterously barbarian. Captain Underpants level kind of stuff.
I followed him out of the park, across the street, and hoped for a brave minute that this would be the beginning of my own never ending story. It was silly, sure, but after years and years of avid reading, I had inflated ideas of adventure and romance and I found the smallest things to be magical. It was a side effect, I suppose, of being a child who felt made more of paper and ink than of flesh and bones at times, this being one of them.
“Not a Jane, see if you’ll catch this one, who is a monstrous vermin?”
That was easy. I devoured Kafka. “Gregor Samsa. Metamorphosis.”
He nodded in approval. “Okay. Light of my life, fire of-”
I didn’t let him finish the sentence. “Lolita. The book is Lolita.”
“What year were there no marigolds?”
I shrugged, pretending I had no clue. But then, “1941.”
“You are better at this than I thought, not a Jane.”
“My name is Harbor. And yeah, I know I’m good at this.” We stopped for three cars, all minivans probably on their way to a campsite. “There’s a coffee shop there.”
“Let’s go, then.” His fingers brushed against mine and I realized how close we had been walking. Interesting. We turned around the street corner and stepped into the coffee shop, all at once immersed in the air conditioning. At least I knew Chester as in Rochester or whoever he was wouldn’t be cold in here. He’d be warm and toasty and still manage to look like a GQ magazine model. He ordered peppermint tea and I ordered chamomile and when the cups were set down in front of us all steaming and hot he looked across the thin table and said, “It was a pleasure to burn.”
“Fahrenheit 451.” Most people knew these books. I chuckled to think they had read them like I had, though, like the ink was oxygen and I had to breathe in all I could before the last page was turned and the cover was closed. “My turn. What are the seven rules of Animal Farm?”
“What are the rules of Fight Club?”
I blinked. I was never a fan of that book. I leaned across the table though, and said, “Shh, you’re not supposed to talk about it.”
He nodded again, hair shaking loose from the starched hold it had been subjected to. “Last one for now, because I want to ask you if you have a phone number, but what is the answer to the ultimate question?”
I traced the answer on the side of my tea cup.