The old library reminds me of pictures from a century ago with the dark mahogany paneling and green shaded desk lamps. A few people whisper, muffled sounds of books being replaced on shelves. Out of the way, in a far corner is an overstuffed chair with worn brown leather that has grown thin over the arms and headrest. I’ve got to get off my foot. The cart holding my books acts as a walker while I push toward the corner. I feel old, especially on a day like this. In two years I’ll turn thirty. Over the hill.
My name’s Mary. I'm mostly miserable what with my leg problem and all, crippled since my accident, which to be honest happened a very long time ago. I look down at the deformed ankle with its wonky bend and twisted foot. Today it’s especially achy. Sometimes with a change in the weather, the ankle hurts a whole lot more, but today it’s probably because I've been standing too long. My eyes feel like I have sand in them, they are that dry after being up half the night, worrying about my house. The floors are being refinished today, so I have to stay out till I hear from the workmen.
It's time to sit down. I hope I can stay awake for a few more hours.
What if they call and I don't hear the phone? They’ll screw it up, I just know it, use the wrong stain or something. Last week they left a half wall between the living room and kitchen. I yelled at them, "check the goddamn plans". That one guy muttered "what a bitch". Seems like everyone makes me mad these days.
The overhead lights buzz behind their glass shades which hang from the ceiling by antique-bronze pipes. A musty scent fills the air between rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling book stacks. I lean heavily on the three-wheeled cart and push past the rolling ladders after picking easy-to-read books like the album of Diana's life and a self-help book--I can use some help, ha ha. My cane balances over the metal cart's rack. Time crawls as I check my watch for the umpteenth time.
How far along are they? I wish I had a spy camera. I hope it’s going to be worth it. Probably something will go kafflooey. It always does.
I pull out my phone, open the photos app, and scroll through pictures of the daily progress. My favorite is this one, with the sunlight coming through the front windows and into the kitchen over spaces in the floor where the walls used to be. Until I turned the oval area rug, I didn’t know how ready I was for a change. From there, it was as if I touched a line of standing dominoes, one thing led to another.
After my accident nothing interested me, for twenty years I hadn't cared about much of anything. I never would have imagined that I’d have it in me to take on these major home improvements.
A young couple, handsome high school kids, with clear skin, shiny thick hair, and slender bodies sit shoulder to shoulder leafing through a soccer magazine, each one wearing headphones – the tinny distant sound of Metallica’s rage comes from them. They both glance up as I limp by, their flat mouths fixed tight. I'm used to these dull expressions and return the glare, then catch my reflection in a pane of glass.
My face has a permanent sag from years of pain and despair. Am I scary? I should practice smiling. But what is there to smile about?
In the corner, I pivot and flop onto the seat. Years of body heat and oils have worn down the material making it slick and shiny. My ankle is swollen, more so than normal. I wiggle in the chair trying to scoot back, making the leather squeak as if it's passing gas. Embarrassing. I want to yell, "That wasn't me."
My hands push against the arms, I try to be quiet but the footrest thumps out and a white haired librarian turns in my direction, then looks away when I give her the stink-eye. My feet are held out in front of me, my right leg straight, the left one bent and twisted inward. The leather gives off a faint animal scent and reminds me of the saddle I rode the day I had my accident.
I hardly ever think about it anymore, about myself as a girl, headstrong, I paid no mind to the rules. It was summertime, between fifth and sixth grade when I visited a friend’s horse ranch. Rich people boarded their animals at the country estate where pristine stables housed riding horses. A white Arabian mare was finely groomed with her mane in braids and hair brushed till it gleamed. The owners had registered her for a show. She seemed like royalty and even standing in her stall, I knew that she was special. A fancy decorative sign on the stall had her name written in cursive letters, Her Majesty. The other horses were so ordinary, so drab, and plain next to Her Majesty. They looked more like serfs or servants next to a queen.
Every morning I ran to visit her first thing. She and I had a connection. At least in my mind, we did. My father worked at the ranch during the summer and had warned me, “I’ll bet you’re going to try and ride that white horse. Maybe someday when you’re grown up. But if you climb up there, you'll be sorry. She can be feisty. I can’t keep you out of the barn, but you are not allowed to take her out."
One day, I wandered into the stable and found that the mare had been saddled, ready for the trail. I wanted, more than anything to sit atop that saddle. I listened for sounds of someone nearby but there was only the magnificent horse's snuffling. I walked around her once, put my hand on her neck, and whispered, telling her how beautiful she was. She seemed like a horse in a fairytale and I imagined her inviting me to climb up onto the box, throw my leg over and take a few steps around the barn. That's not taking her out, I reasoned. I had ridden a half dozen times, but never without an adult standing by and never on a horse of this size. She snorted and shook her mane. I wasn’t afraid. I knew she wouldn’t hurt me.
I lift the books from the cart, place them on the lamp table next to me and flip on the green-shaded reading light. I tap my pocket where the phone is safely tucked, ready for the workman’s call. The largest book is first, an album depicting Lady Diana’s life. Diana’s story and her beauty fascinate me, like a glamorous film heroine who came alive right in front of us. I’ve seen all of this before, but still spend several minutes on each page escaping for those moment into that fairy tale world. The princess’ wedding pictures take my little girl-self right into the scene with the bride’s ivory silk taffeta gown and overflowing rose bouquets. And here is Diana on horseback in her riding costume, elegant and sporty at the same time.
The rain is coming down harder and splashing against the window above me. I begin wishing for a coffee to help me stay awake. A small sign next to the chair announces in small letters, that patrons should limit their use of the reading chair to thirty minutes when someone is waiting. No one appears in the room near me and I hesitate to give up my spot, regardless. I’m not taking a chance of getting up for coffee. The Diana book is finished and I exchange that one for the next.
The book’s cover shows a middle-aged man, clean-shaven, wearing glasses and a deep red wrap that crosses his chest. He looks directly out at my own eyes, his mouth is in a half-smile. The book is titled, The Art of Happiness, a handbook that is authored by his holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, MD. I’ve read this sort of self-help mumbo-jumbo before; a feel good that lasts only as long as I’m reading it. Today I’m okay with that. I'm just killing time.
My one shoe drops on the floor (I’m not showing the deformed foot!) and there are my new yellow socks decorated with colorful party hats. I let out a sigh and relax with my foot up, lay my head back against the chair and rub my ankle, check my watch once more. My ponytail pokes at my skull against the headrest, so I pull off the scrunchy and loosen the long hair. I feel my body melt into the chair.
The Happiness book chapters are divided into parts. Part One The purpose of life. Chapter one, The right to happiness.
Yes, we have a right to happiness. So, when does mine show up?
Throughout the book are snippets of interesting facts and vignettes. One is about a man in a therapist’s office complaining bitterly about his ex-wife's transgressions. The doctor asks how long he has been divorced. The man answers, seventeen years.
A very long time to hold onto anger. I can relate.
There is more advice: use your time wisely. That there are no guarantees. All of us are imperfect in this imperfect world.
I have reached the middle section. The chapter is titled Self-Created Suffering. At the top of a page is the heading, But it’s not Fair! – and I stop there, reacting to the words of my own broken record. I read every page. One passage says to look at the incident from a different angle. Maybe find your own contribution to your suffering. The attempt to search for one’s hand in a problem allows the shift of focus to break through the narrow patterns of one’s mind, leading to destructive feelings of unfairness. Yeah, right.
My eyelids droop and I squeeze them tight, trying to stay awake.
The foolishness of a child; a youthful urge and false confidence, disobeying my father. I hold onto the horse’s muzzle, petting her nose.
Lady Diana’s voice, complete with a British accent, seems to whisper from behind me. I turn to see her. It is so real that I step down from the hay bales and look in the other stalls. The mare lets out a whinny. Through the cracks in the barn’s siding, the wind is whistling. The horse scrapes the sawdust floor with her hoof and snuffles. She looks at me sideways through those enormous globes and blinks, eyelashes in a straight line from her eyelids. I walk toward the bales next to her. I’ll just stand beside the saddle and feel her heat.
Diana’s voice again, practically inaudible.
“Don’t,” she says. “I took chances. We can't undo the past…” her voice trails off.
I wait for more advice; then untie the reins and climb up onto the horse. My legs are too short to reach the stirrups and her breadth hurts my thighs. She dances a little. I've never been on a nervous horse and talk to her nice and easy. The mare walks through the stable and out the door. I'm holding the reins and begin to relax, feeling important, planning to show off my skill and prove my father wrong. But she spooks and is too much for me. I am thrown off. My foot catches in the stirrup as I go down; she runs in frantic zigzags to free herself, twisting my ankle, breaking it in three places. I'm in bed all summer and the next, having surgeries, fighting infection. Talk of amputation. I cry, no, no, don’t cut off my leg.
The faraway voice of an elderly woman reaches into my mind, drags me back. Louder, she calls, “Miss. Miss. We are closing. You have to leave now.”
Coming to my senses, I wake up, confused. The dream seemed so real. The book lay open on my lap with the bookmark-ribbon holding place on a page with the header Guilt. Self-blame and self-hatred serve no purpose except to make you suffer.
The handsome high school couple stride by, backpacks hanging off their shoulders. The boy yawns largely and makes a human's roar then sees me in the chair.
“Oh, excuse me,” he says and smiles. “I didn’t see you before. Have a wonderful evening.”
“And you do the same,” I say and with no effort at all, I grin and wave. My phone beeps with a text. You’re all set. I'll leave the key under the mat. I think you’re going to be very happy.