It was in this moment, about halfway through Nella Larsen’s novel “Quicksand,” that Andrea realized that she had left her husband. She was sitting in a red-lined ornate chair at a carved mahogany table at the Chicago Grand library, a thing she did most Saturday afternoons. But unlike many other Saturdays, she had packed a small satchel of her personal effects, especially things she might sell. She had given herself an alibi, claiming that she would be spending the weekend at her cousin’s estate. All she had known when she left the house was that something was irrevocably new, that a strange, horrible dream had ended. She realized now, through Nella Larsen’s fiery prose that she was done with Rick Astor. She was done failing to be his perfect, white-passing wife.
A few days ago, in another lifetime, she’d been sitting at her table in Astor’s grand sitting room, pointed red toe tapping on marble, a new electric fan spinning overhead and a light fixture casting shadows as it rocked back and forth on its axis, coffee in a porcelain cup at her elbow so strong it gave her a contact high. She was reading an article in the Chicago Tribune about how some homeless were 'abusing' the library. She remembered one line in particular, about an elusive underclass of deviants who had by their own volition exited society, staking their claim in the shadowy corners of the public library system. These ingrates should have known their place, the article said. The article laid out their misdeeds which included falling asleep in public, loitering, and generally seeming to be uninterested in the goings on of society. They were apparently supposed to surrender themselves to the mercy of a charity house, where a surely well-meaning society matron would insist that they be introduced to the workhouse, or screened for the asylum, or trained to behave “in a way appropriate to their station in life.” She had imagined that Americans had left this behind when they had escaped the caste system of England, but if you were poor or wanting for anything, there was no shortage of wealthy folk who would let you trade your dignity for a meal.
To think that an honest person struggling on their luck would be turned out, but someone like her husband could stride in anywhere, welcome, respected. It made her feel sorry, as if she were unwittingly complicit in the whole thing. She had always felt that way, thriving as she had on the merits of her good looks. She had won society’s genetic lottery, looking neither too Jewish nor too Black to pass amongst the well-to-do.
Andrea’s mother’s family had come to Chicago by way of New York, and to New York by way of Poland, only thirty years ago. Her father had been one of the only black physicians ever to be allowed to finish medical school. Her grandmother had been beautiful, and married into the rich Wendel family. As such, Andrea had grown up comfortable. And she had stayed comfortable, right up until she had married Rick Astor.
Maybe that was why she had married Rick Astor. Because she had always had things she shouldn’t have, and now here was another one—a man from so much generational wealth it made her head spin. Someone entirely “out of her station.” But from the very beginning, he had punished her for it—for not knowing how to be his wife, for not winning the favor of his mother, for not shining like a jewel in society, for not having children. Of course he had known that she was Black and Jewish before he married her, but over time these facts had turned into barbs that he flung at her daily. She had not been raised to be ashamed, but nonetheless the shame of her otherness had been part of the milieu of society life, the river that fed the illusion of respectability. If she was acceptable, it was only in how she was the exception.
Lately Rick had taken an even darker turn. He’d told her that he was grateful she’d never been able to have children, that this had saved him from having children with bad blood. At which point she could no longer conceive of how the trappings of wealth could make up for the horrors of being associated with that man. She wasn’t sure why he had ever been charmed by her, only that it had not lasted very long.
She could see through the library’s tall windows that the daylight was beginning to fade. The library would close in about two hours, and then she would have to think of her next steps. But what could she do? She couldn’t go to her family yet. Maybe she couldn’t ever. The women’s shelters were a horror, designed to train women that they would be lucky to have someone like Rick, and that they needed to do their best to never anger him. And besides, such places were for the working class. It would be nothing but endless scandal for her to turn up at a place like that.
She just needed a little more time to think. She would come up with something, some way to reset her life. Suddenly she felt overwhelmed by exhaustion, and by the singular drive to find a quiet, isolated place to rest. She found a table tucked into a back corner of the library, behind a door that had hours posted for when it was reserved. It was open, so she let herself in. She had Nella Larsen’s book tucked under her arm, which she placed on the table in front of her. She had it open to the part where Helga Crane realizes that her dark complexion makes her an an exotic, dazzling Jewel in 1920s Copenhagen. And soon after she would realize that this was almost no better than being despised for her darkness. That it would be far safer to be invisible.
She awoke some time later, her face pressed into the pages. She could see out of one eye by her compressed cheek that she had made a huge fold in the page. She sat up, trying to wipe away the crease between two fingers. She was frantic to fix it, a wave of panic rattling in her chest. It took her a moment to realize that she was afraid Rick would notice that she had, yet again, marred a book in his study with the disgrace of having been actually read, and another moment to realize that that was a ridiculous thing to worry about. After another moment she processed that she had fallen asleep in the library, and that she had no idea what time it was, and that the lights were dimmer than they had been when she entered this little room. A little light still passed through the glass of the door. She hadn’t noticed the beautiful ornate glass, like that of a church window, colorful with an image of books flying open and their curved pages morphing into the wings of birds. She thought it was strange that such a beautiful thing would be tucked into such an obscure corner.
When she opened the door, she knew for certain that the library had closed, and that somehow she had been overlooked by the night guard or whomever was responsible for ensuring that the space wasn’t ‘abused’ like the article had said. The remaining light came from a few dim overhead bulbs, and the moonlight filtering through the highest windows from the tall ceiling—and it struck her then that she had somehow not noticed this before, that the entire building had these delicate, beautiful mural windows, with the motif of the book becoming the bird present throughout. She stopped a moment to take it in—how much this space felt like a holy one, a true refuge. It was utterly quiet except for the slight hum of electricity. She knew that the electric light would fade some time in the night, when the power company had their nightly outage to cut costs. She had often found herself awake in that moment, the only time within her marriage that she could be alone, unperturbed, and truly herself. In the darkness her eyes played tricks on her, and the birds seemed to actually be flying around the room.
It had been so easy to fall asleep in the library. She still didn’t have a plan worked out, and the idea of spending another night in the library was gaining appeal. She would need to scout out a more discreet place to rest, and then determine where the neighborhood’s laundry services were. She had some money and some jewelry that she could sell. If she carefully wrapped her hair, wore her hat low over her eyes, and donned a mourning veil, maybe no one would recognize her.
She saw an old, somewhat rickety ladder leaning against a wall of books. It led to a balcony and a curved wall that used to house more books, but now held only empty shelves. Andrea shook the ladder, determined it was sturdy enough to hold her weight, and climbed up to the balcony, taking a moment to curse her fashionably slim heels. The upper level was a dark, unused space, with wooden school tables covered in a thin layer of dust and rows of empty shelves. She could smell wood polish and, strangely, coffee and tobacco.
Following her nose, she turned a corner and came upon what she could only describe as a sort of shanty home, erected between shelves the way that her and her sisters had sometimes built blanket forts in her father’s study. There were pillows along the ground, and rugs, and at the center a low table with a few lit candles on its surface. Andrea peered around a fold of blanket and saw a beautiful middle-aged woman sitting on the floor, her lustrous skirts pooling around her legs.
“So you’ve found me,” the woman said through a haze of pipe smoke. “You’ve stumbled upon my little sanctuary.”
Andrea might have expected to find other people here, especially after that scathing article in the Chicago Tribune, but she had not expected this—a woman in fine, if disheveled dress, drinking coffee and smoking a pipe in the middle of the night. This woman had the countenance of Andrea’s late grandfather in his favorite chair by the fire. Her hair was a mess, sloppily wrapped up in a silk scarf.
“Amelia Carlisle,” the woman said, extending a hand to Andrea. “Resident queen of the Chicago Grand Library. Welcome.” There was a tinge of humor in her curled lip as she smiled. Andrea didn’t know what else to do but to crawl under the canopy and extend her hand. “Andrea” she said, wary of revealing too much of herself. Amelia blew smoke off to the side so as to avoid blowing it directly into Andrea’s face.
“So what brings you to the Chicago Grand?” Amelia asked as if they were sitting in the lobby of a fine hotel. “I’ve been here a few months, it's nice—great view from the windows, good people watching over the balcony,” she continued. “And of course an endless supply of reading material. A nice cafe around the corner, too. The one thing I was lacking was good conversation, and now here you are! Hopefully you're a decent conversationalist?” Andrea shrugged, uninterested in indulging an opportunity to be impressive.
“I just came here this afternoon to think a while, and then I fell asleep. I didn’t intend to stay,” Andrea said. Amelia waited as if there were more, giving her a sly, knowing look. Her eyes darted down to Andrea’s hand, where she had been unwittingly spinning her wedding ring around and around. When Andrea said nothing, Amelia frowned slightly and then gestured towards a glass carafe full of dark liquid.
“Coffee?” She said, picking up a teacup from under the low table and handing it to Andrea. “I have to apologize because it's cold. I’ve gotten used to it cold, you will too, I think…” Amelia gave her a coy wink.
Andrea almost started to explain that she really wouldn’t be here long, but stopped short. If not here, then where?
“You’re married,” Amelia said, gesturing towards Andrea’s wedding ring.
“I am,” Andrea said icily.
Amelia lifted her hands and wiggled her bare fingers at Andrea.
“I sold mine,” she said conspiratorially. Andrea said nothing, though she imagined she might do the same. It held no sentimental value to her.
“I don’t mean to bother you, Andrea. It's just that, as far as I can surmise, we both find ourselves in much the same circumstances, and as such don’t we make the most natural of allies? At the very least, you are here now, and you might as well sit with me a while.”
“Won’t we need to leave? Before the library opens?”
Amelia scoffed. “Of course not. You think I set up my camp every night? No, I have an arrangement with the library staff.”
Andrea did sit, and she accepted the coffee. By and by she listened to Amelia’s story—how she had fled her marriage with the temperamental John Carlisle, how she lived on coffee and sandwiches from the cafe down the block and feasted her mind on books about everything from animal husbandry to electrical engineering, how she had been slowly selling off her possessions, until she had read enough books about estate law to be paid to review papers for the court. She posed as her own secretary in those cases, making errands about town and collecting payment. Andrea quickly realized that she liked this strange, clever woman, that she was beginning to envision an entirely new life for herself, a life outside of society. She thought again of the article she had read, a foreboding feeling in her gut. Amelia’s idyllic lifestyle seemed doomed to end. Andrea told her so.
“And so what if this part of my life does have to end? I’ve done the hardest thing. I’ve made myself invisible to the devil. If need be I’ll do it all over again,” Amelia said.
“Invisible to the devil,” Andrea repeated, savoring the thought. Was this what she had been seeking her entire life? It clicked in her somewhere like a missing puzzle piece. Invisible to men like Astor. Invisible to the other girls in her finishing school. Invisible to the gossiping ladies at tea. Invisible to the wicked banality of those who had plagued her family for generations.
“Lets live in the moment, why shouldn’t we?” Amelia said. She had been watching Andrea’s face, no doubt privy to that spark of mischief that must have ignited her features when she realized that she wanted in on Amelia’s grift. Andrea had been told ever since she was a small child that her features betrayed every rebellious thought she had.
Andrea lifted her coffee cup, smiling broadly. “Lets do so,” she agreed. Amelia touched her cup to Andrea’s and winked again.
“Today, we read,” Amelia said. “And tonight, we graduate from coffee to wine.”
For the first time in a long while, Andrea felt at home.