The door was locked.
Elaine’s heart stopped, then started racing.
No no no no no!
Her stomach churned as she rattled on the heavy door that refused to open. Maybe whoever locked it was still there. She squinted through the glass panels but saw nothing except the warm light falling in through the entrance door onto the marble tiles at the other end of the hall. Illuminating her way out. No movement that could have hinted at the janitor still doing his evening check-up.
I’m still in here, she wanted to scream, but didn’t.
Elaine gave the door a last begrudging nudge, that made the glass panels rattle in their iron frames. She took a deep breath, trying not to think of the implications of this situation and thinking of them anyway. She should have predicted this when she had entered the impressive gothic building that mocked her with her memories.
Instinctively she reached into the pocket of her jeans but found them empty. Right, she had left her phone at home. Goddammit.
She took another breath of the heavy dusty air, straightened her blouse with an impatient gesture as if to brush away her fears.
The door was locked. A fact. There was nothing she could do about it. A glance at the gilded clock behind the empty librarian’s desk told her that it was half past nine - the librarian and probably the janitor as well long gone. There was no use in making a fuss and getting worked up, she told herself but her heavy breathing betrayed her.
Why had she allowed herself a last stroll through the aisles?
She turned around, away from the door, facing the place she had to spend the next nine hours in. The tightly stacked shelves that reached far beyond her head almost touching the arched ceiling. Thousands of book spines facing her, some of them so familiar. Through the glass facade at the very end of the room the last rays of golden sunlight spilled onto the polished parquet, highlighting the specks of dust in the still air. How many times she had wandered these aisles, her hand safe in his, his soft laughter trickling through her every cell.
Her fingers intertwined without her permission, tightened until her knuckles hurt.
She was trapped in her memories. The next breath she took was shaking.
She should never have come. Asked Laurie to return the book she had been so eager to get rid of. Why had she come herself? Her eyes brushed over the shelves, further down the corridor ahead of her, knowing where it would lead her. In her mind she saw the tightly curled winding staircase, the upper level filled with shelves of books and more books. The oriels lined with cushions, offering a hint of privacy and a view above the busy streets.
Elaine swallowed. She simply wouldn’t go there. Resolutely she turned and walked down the corridor that would lead her past the librarian’s desk. At the desk she stopped, a sudden thought occurring to her. She reached around the bulky computer and grabbed the old-fashioned receiver of the landline. A sudden surge of hope flooded through her when she pressed the receiver to her ear.
They probably turned it off after hours, she guessed, ignoring the
bitter disappointment settling in her stomach. As calmly as possible she put back the receiver and straightened her cuffs, fleetingly brushing past her gold bracelet, the small pendant she hadn’t found the courage to take off yet. A lump formed in her throat.
She remembered the day he had given it to her, the small café he had invited her to. His favourite because they added a hint of cinnamon to the hot chocolate. She saw his smile as he stirred through the foamy drink, the milky clouds being swallowed by rich brown. It had been raining all day but in those few minutes the sun had broken through the clouds, glistening in the dirty puddles on the sidewalk.
“Because you’re my world,” he had said with one of his cheesy smiles, briefly showing the dimple on his left cheek that she knew he hated. The tiny pendant in the shape of a golden planet, the continents indicated by delicate lines, dangled from the bracelet as he fastened it around her wrist. His thumb had rested on the sensitive skin on the inside a heartbeat too long to be by accident. She had smiled and turned the pendant between her fingers over and over again while it had felt like soft flowers blooming gently in her chest.
They had wanted to travel the world together. Had even made a list of all the countries, cities, and places they had wanted to see, coloured them in on a map that she had given him for his birthday.
They had never made it past the city, not even once, not even on a small weekend trip together. Now Elaine wondered if he had ever even meant it.
Perhaps he had seen it coming, the breakup, that all of their plans - all of their dreams - would never happen apart from in her imagination. Perhaps-
A car honked outside and pulled Elaine out of her memories and back to the small, stained counter and the pile of books where theirs was sure to be as well.
She turned around, a trembling hand resting on the wooden desk, and breathed. The heaviness didn’t lift from her chest.
Another glance at the clock. Quarter to ten. Another heavy breath that sounded more like a gasp.
She had to find something to do.
She hurried past the rows of shelves and stopped in front of the glass facade that looked out over the busy main road. The sun had set, the last glimpses of gold gone. The streets were grey again. Would someone see her if she stood here long enough? Would they make a call and help her get out of this place? Without thinking Elaine placed a hand on the cool glass. Outside a soft rain had started and slowly blurred the lights of the passing cars and flickering streetlights. People opened their umbrellas, linked arms with their loved ones pulling them closer and out of the rain.
Was he one of them? With another person by his side?
Had he already found someone new? Was that why he had broken up with her? All his reasons and explanations excuses and lies?
The flowers in her chest suffocated her. The cold of the glass crawled over her skin and up her arm. She let it. Maybe, if it reached her chest, it would numb the pain.
Dull the images that had escaped the little box in her mind where she had locked them up the Friday before last. She wanted to burn them all. She thought of the small wooden box that she kept in her dresser, right next to the scarfs, that was brimming with tiny pictures she had collected of the two of them. Just two weeks ago she had stopped at the window of a vintage shop at the sight of a mahogany casket, decorated with colourful carvings of roses in full
bloom. You’ll need a bigger one, she had thought. So much she had accumulated in just one year.
One year and thirty-four days, exactly.
Some things you think will last forever. Elaine had never dreamt of the possibility that he may not share this thought.
She would never buy the casket, never collect more pictures of them reminding her of the fun they had had together. The smiles, the laughs, the kisses.
The box was still there, in her dresser, waiting for her to get home. She would have to get rid of it eventually. She couldn’t hold onto it forever. The memories. The pain.
First she had thought he would change his mind, but he never had. He wasn’t someone to make decisions on a whim, and she was right. He hadn’t called, hadn’t answered her texts, her pleas to reconsider. After four days she had stopped.
The pain was still the same, but it didn’t feel as fresh anymore. More like a wound after you have already changed the bandage a couple of times but the cloth still turns out red. Maybe Elaine would be changing bandages forever.
Abruptly she let go of the glass. The sudden silence of the room sent a shiver down her spine. Feeling restless she turned towards the nearest shelf. Let her fingertips wander across the uneven spines, slipping into cracks and empty spaces. Instinctively she closed her eyes. In her mind she could see him, smiling at her, a familiar sparkle in his cloudy-grey eyes. “Stop”, she imagined him whispering and she stopped and looked at the book she was
‘A Journey Through Prague’ it said in plain bold letters and Elaine
opened the worn cover. Her chest tightened. She had read this book, several times. Most of those times with him. It was one of his favourites and he had always tried in their little game to direct her to the ones he liked most. Her eyes immediately skimmed the first lines and she could almost feel him near her, reading over her shoulder and smiling at the opening scene he loved so much.
But when Elaine looked over her shoulder, she was alone.
She shut the book and shoved it back to its place. A few rows over, she found one of her favourites and tucked it under her arm. A fairy tale collection she had loved as a child. The princess always got the prince. But maybe she wasn’t the princess.
Her thumb stroked over the wrinkly cover as if she were greeting an old friend. On a padded bench near the windows, she sat down and stretched out her legs. They felt stiff, her muscles sore. The tension was still in her bones.
It wasn’t the bench they had sat on so many times. That one was on the other side of the windows, the cushion faint red and stitched up at the right corner.
This one was blue.
She opened the book, read the first sentences but her mind kept
wandering. To the staircase, the shelves above. The hidden corner at the far end of the gallery, a small oriel filled with cushions and offering a sheltered view onto the square in front of the library. How many hours they had spent there reading.
With a sigh Elaine closed the book. She didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to dive even deeper into her memories. Still, she stood up.
The book tucked under her arm, like a shield she was ready to use at any moment, she went to the staircase in the corner. Fragile iron vines decorated the brass banister, wound their way upwards in a tangled embrace.
Elaine’s hand trembled when she placed it on the railing. In the blueish darkness it seemed like a way to another world.
The quiet tap tap of her shoes accompanied her up the staircase,
round and round until her head was spinning and the benches and shelves and the rain-fogged windows seemed miles and miles away. She imagined him taking her hand and guiding her the last few steps up, making sure she didn’t trip over the thick red carpet like so many times before.
He wouldn’t catch her this time.
The gallery was entrenched in grey shadows, pierced by slender stripes of white light creeping in through the oriel windows. One hand still on the railing, gently tracing the brass with her fingertips, Elaine let her feet guide her. They led her further down the gallery, past dozens of shelves covered in darkness. She didn’t need to see the books or the small sun-bleached signs to know where she was.
She found the oriel - their oriel - and almost expected to see him there, resting on the red and green pillows, a book in one hand, the other softly tucking on his hair to keep him focussed.
But when she turned the corner, the place was empty. The waning moon and spotlights on the outside of the building illuminated the space, the emptiness almost painful. Elaine leaned against a bookshelf, her shield of cardboard and paper pressed against her chest.
She was alone.
Maybe that was the most terrifying realisation of all.
Her legs felt weak when she sat down on the cushions. Without intending she had left half of the oriel empty, the half where he used to sit. The space seemed too big for just one person even though he had always pointed out how crammed it was for two. Or maybe that had just been an excuse for scooting a little closer to her.
She missed his scent.
It seemed like such a silly thing but she missed the smell of peppermint and lime, the taste of chocolate and cinnamon kisses. Would hot chocolate always remind her of him? Or would the memories fade, the facts muddled in with other trivialities and the trod of daily life until she wouldn’t be able to remember that he left the blinds a few inches open every night and always smiled at the sight of sunflowers?
The familiar pain in her chest again. The throbbing that she hadn’t been able to numb.
Elaine leaned her head against the window, greeting the cold that
distracted her from the pain. Her glance wandered outside. The streets were a little emptier yet still busy. Cars rushing by, quickly casting their lights over pedestrians ducking heads to escape the rain. Slick umbrellas glistened under streetlights.
“It was supposed to rain all day and so many are still unprepared.” She could almost hear him scoff, shaking his head incredulously.
“Not everyone’s a planner like you,” she wanted to reply. He had always been prepared for anything. How long had he known their relationship wouldn’t last? Weeks? Months? The thought sent a sharp pain through her body.
Elaine hadn’t brought an umbrella. She hadn’t even bothered to look at the sky when she had left the house for the library. Too eager to get it over with.
What signs had she missed? There must have been signs, right? There always were.
A half-hearted smile when there should have been a real one. Quickly escaping a touch, seemingly absentmindedly, one ‘I’m busy today’ too many.
Her gaze found the statue in the middle of the square in front of the broad stairs leading up to the entrance. The creamy marble glistened with rain.
Two lovers frozen in a kiss, bodies pressed together, faces in a perfect side view, tilted in the moment.
The reason why he had picked this spot out of the dozens of oriels on this floor.
“You can see their pain”, he had said.
“The pain of the last kiss. That’s the name; ‘Last Kiss’. I looked it
up.” He had flashed her a grin that had made her stomach somersault.
Elaine had never seen the pain he had talked about until now. She wished she had kissed him longer. Let her fingers intertwine with his more, his warm, hers cool, tracing the freckles on the side of his thumb.
She wished she had known beforehand that it would be the last time. The last kiss, the last hug, the last touch. What would she have done differently?
A tear dropped from her chin and pulled Elaine from her thoughts. She hadn’t noticed she was crying. She wiped them away with the back of her hand, forced the sting in her eyes down until it formed a lump in her throat. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them as if they could save her from the reality of all that she had lost.
Would it always be like this? Her stuck in her memories while he went on with his life? Found someone new, new dreams, new plans, new memories?
Elaine's grip tightened. Who would she make memories with? She turned the pendant between her fingertips.
“I’m sorry.” His voice had cracked but she could have imagined that. “I’m sorry but it’s better for both of us.”
He hadn’t even given her a reason why he wanted to throw away all their plans. Maybe he had never wanted any of it. The thought made her heart clench.
What did she want?
Outside, raindrops painted crooked lines on the glass, like roads on a map. Elaine traced one of them with her fingertip.
She loved maps - in books with tiny fantastical creatures on the
margins, in thick atlases with yellow pages, on her phone where they had set little colourful pins in all their dream destinations.
The destinations they would never visit.
At least not together.
She turned the pendant between her fingers, the gold shining in the light. Elaine’s head spun with the endless possibilities before her. She stretched her legs out and filled the space he used to take up.
Some things you think will last forever. But they hadn’t. And suddenly, she felt a little more okay with that.
Elaine didn’t need someone to take her on adventures. She had herself. And all her plans and dreams and aspirations. The beautiful landscapes she painted inside her head. She picked up her book and opened the cover. The pale light fell in through the glass and illuminated the colourful illustrations. Her thumb traced the outline of a map, a smile blossoming on her lips.
Maybe it was time to take herself on adventures.