Organic Multiberry Tea
“Do you want to talk about your time with Faye?”
“We’ve talked about it. You mean details? Where should I begin?”
“Well, Howard, I have always found that the best place to begin is the beginning. Tell me about it.”
Howard sank a little deeper into the soft sofa in Dr. LeMane’s study and thought. He struggled in terms of where to begin because he was not sure where the beginning was. After all, he thought, the end of one event is usually the beginning of another. Of course, some events are random. There was the time I saw a taxi jump a curb and crash into a newsstand. That was a singular event, a singularity, but, no—that event had been caused by some other event.
Sensing that Howard was unsure about how to begin or reluctant to do so, Dr. LeMane said, “Let me ask you this: When and where did you meet Faye?”
Since that was a concrete question with a definite, immutable answer, Howard unhesitatingly replied by telling Dr. LeMane that one day in 1992—actually, it was April 24, 1992, a dark, cold Friday afternoon—he did what he had never done before: he closed the store early and took a walk in the rain. He had always liked rain—not because of the symbolism involving growth and rebirth to which writers and others frequently allude—but because of the sound raindrops make when they hit surfaces, such as sidewalks and window glass. On this particular day Howard had a brain-splitting headache that had been caused by an incident in his store: a woman and her husband or boyfriend had engaged in a screaming/pushing/slapping/punching confrontation in the Art section, during which they knocked over a display of ornate, expensive books. At first, Howard, who had never been able to stomach arguments of any kind, remained behind the sales counter, too alarmed and befuddled to act. Then, when the woman pushed and slapped the man, calling him “the lowest piece of crap on Earth” and he responded by punching her in the jaw, Howard yelled at them to stop. He threatened to call the police. That’s the point at which the man pushed the table filled with art books toward the woman. Howard gasped as two beautifully illustrated volumes on Impressionism fell to the floor. He heard himself call out, “Stop! Please stop! My books!” The combatants froze and looked at Howard in surprise for a second, and then they both began pushing the table toward each other in a kind of reverse tug-of-war. With each push, more books fell to the floor. At one point, Howard cried out in terror as the man and the woman stepped on and slid off some of the books, tearing and shredding their slick covers in the process. Then, with one powerful, furious shove the man knocked the table over, causing the remaining books to spill to the floor.
Howard ran over to retrieve the volumes. The man, thinking that the store owner was going to tackle him, swung a large fist at Howard, who had already fallen to his knees to rescue his precious possessions. The man had put so much energy into his swing that when he missed Howard he lost his footing and fell, crashing sideways into a bookcase and landing heavily, back and head first, on the floor. He lay there for a moment. Then he sat, up, stunned, holding his head with both hands. The woman laughed and strode triumphantly from the store.
Howard was too focused on picking up and examining the books for damage to pay attention to the man. After gently smoothing the wrinkles from their decorative glossy paper covers, he carefully arranged the books in piles on the floor according to their condition. He was relieved to see that most of them were undamaged; some of the pages in three of the books were wrinkled, but they had suffered no serious damage; he knew he would be able to sell them as discounted items. However, he was overwhelmed with grief and a sense of unbearable loss to see that two books, one about Renoir and another devoted to Pissarro, had been crushed and mutilated beyond repair. He sobbed and rubbed his moist eyes as he carefully turned the ripped, smudged pages of the injured books. He tried pushing the edges of a few of the torn sections together, but many of the leaves had suffered such serious damage in terms of gouges, splits, and severe crumpling that Howard knew in his heart of hearts that they were in critical condition. He feared they could never be made whole again. He sat on the floor, head in hand, almost in imitation of the man, who had not moved from his spot a few feet away.
After Howard had righted the table and placed the undamaged books back on it, he told the man, who was now sitting up, his back to a bookcase, that he had to leave. The man slowly stood up and dizzily made his way to the door. Then Howard brought the damaged books to the back room and gently placed them on the table that he used for his meals and for book repairs. As he tenderly handled them, more thoroughly evaluating the damage, he grieved. He knew that the two most severely damaged books would have to be destroyed. He thought he might wrap them in fine white cloth and then bury them in the tiny unkempt garden area behind his store, but not yet.
Aside from the financial loss that he would suffer because he would not be able to sell them, Howard grieved for the irreparably injured books as if they were his friends. In truth, they were; at the age of nine Howard began considering books his most reliable—in fact, his only—companions. The characters, settings, and themes of the roughly 2,000 novels, short stories, and collections of poetry that he had read during the course of his life were part of him, more so than his actual surroundings; the topics of the numerous non-fiction books that he had read—politics, the environment, history, science, philosophy—were the themes of day-long mental debates; and the subjects of the many biographies that he had read were more substantial to Howard than the customers who he served in his store. He thought about books all of the time and loved all of the ones he owned. One of the reasons he liked owning the store was that it allowed him to proudly display his possessions as if they were his offspring. Even though he sometimes wished he could keep all of those books, new and used alike, he understood that he had to sell them. However, Howard was always on the lookout for customers who he thought might not take proper care of the books they intended to purchase. On several occasions over the years, he had refused to ring up sales for people who roughly handled books or threw them on the sales counter. One day, he told a large, unkempt man whose dirty hands had smeared and stained a beautifully bound vintage copy of War and Peace that the book was not for sale. When the astonished customer asked why that was, Howard simply said, “I choose not to sell any books to you.” He could have told the man that the volume was on reserve for another customer or that it was filled with typos or that a newer, less expensive edition would be coming out soon, but Howard never engaged in prevarication. He knew only truth (as he understood it) and did not employ white lies or subtle deceptions. Gray did not exist for Howard; every situation and every conversation involved black and white. He was sure of what he thought, and that was all there was to it.
He sat on a wooden chair in the back room, staring sorrowfully at the fatally injured books, ignoring a customer who was calling from the sales desk. Then he slowly, forlornly stood up and walked into the store. He looked around. For the first time ever, he was not pleased to be there. His head and back hurt and he felt sick to his stomach.
First he whispered it. When none of the customers moved, Howard said in a husky, slightly louder voice, “I have to close the store now. No more sales. No more browsing. You have to leave. I will reopen tomorrow at 8 a.m.”
Once the store was empty, Howard locked the door, put up the Closed sign, and returned to the back room. Again, he lovingly ran his fingers over the mutilated covers and grievously injured pages of the severely damaged books. Then he carefully placed them in a small cardboard box and put it on a shelf. He did not have the heart or strength to dispose of the books.
His head throbbing and his stomach burning with a surge of corrosive acid, Howard returned to the store and looked around again. Once he had made sure that he had fully cleaned up the mess resulting from the confrontation between the man and woman, he put on his raincoat, shut the lights, and exited the store, locking the door behind him. It was too early to return to Brooklyn; in truth, he no longer wanted to live there. He was 28 years old and still living with his parents. True, he did not spend much time with them; he went to the house each night to sleep and to bathe in the morning. Even though he had a not-unpleasant relationship with his parents he had long ago decided that he had nothing in common with them, except for ties of blood. He was so dramatically different from them in every conceivable way that he sometimes wondered whether they were his biological parents. At times, he told himself that he must have been adopted, but he had never cared enough to ask them. After all, what difference would it make? At his age, he did not need parents. Neither did he need friends. He never had.
As he walked along the chilly, rainy streets of Morningside Heights with no destination in mind, he attempted to convince himself that, despite the scuffle in his store, nothing in his life, other than the sadness he felt at the destruction of two of his most beautiful books, had occurred. Lost in thought, he wandered. It was not until he reached Riverside Park, where he sat on a wet bench, that he realized how cold he was. He did not mind the feeling, but then he thought about how upset he would be if he were to become ill. During the six years that he had owned and operated the bookstore he had been open every day. He had never been sick. In fact, Howard thought, he had not been sick since the seventh grade, when he had endured a painful inner ear infection.
Closing the collar of his raincoat and holding it tightly against his damp neck, Howard stood up and walked east in search of a place where he could get a cup of hot tea. He turned onto Claremont Avenue and walked into a small juice bar/coffee shop called FancyFruit. He was instantly overwhelmed by the warmth, the cloying smells, the jarring colors, and the noise level of the popular establishment. Since he purchased all of his food in neighborhood convenience stores, fruit markets, and health food shops and ate all of his meals in his store, he was alarmed by the sounds and continuous movement in this popular lunchtime spot. He stood in the doorway, unsure about whether he should remain. At that moment, the skies opened up and the light, steady rain turned into a heavy, pounding, menacing storm. He looked around the shop at the tables, the people, the chairs, the lights, the brightly colored walls, and the richly polished parquet floor. He closed his eyes and told himself that it was a nice place and that he should stay.
He found the artistically arranged display of fruit, yogurt parfaits, pastries, cookies, and muffins under glass at the counter inviting, so he joined the line. After impatiently waiting his turn, continuously reminding himself that he had to observe the rules and conventions of the situation, he ordered a cup of Organic Multiberry Tea and an oatmeal cookie. As he paid and took the paper bag, he saw that all six of the small, round tables were occupied, so he walked toward to door, deciding he would eat his food in his store. But now, sizzling bolts of lightning were flashing, followed by repeated deafening thunder claps; the rain was coming down in violent dangerous-looking wind-driven sheets, slamming heavily against and rattling the plate glass windows of the shop. The overhead lights flickered two or three times, and then they went out. Howard remained where he was, holding his take-out bag from the sides in both hands, as several patrons, as if on cue, said, “Oh!” Then someone said something—Howard could not make it out—and someone laughed, and then a few other people joined the laughter. Howard did not understand what was funny about being in a crowded, semi-dark juice bar during a pounding thunderstorm. Then the lights came back on, startling him.
He heard a small voice: “I think you should wait until the storm lets up before you go out.”
Looking at the rain slamming viciously against the shop window, Howard replied, “No. I can’t stand being in here.” Then he turned and looked down at the woman who had spoken. He was instantaneously electrified, strangely energized, and heated, as if one of the bolts of lightning had shattered the store window and struck him. The dull headache and gloomy lethargy that had held him prisoner for two hours lifted in an instant and he felt giddy as he stared, unable to turn away from this heart-stoppingly beautiful woman who was clearly not from this plane of existence. He was overwhelmed by a surge of tingly warmth and an electric charge that invigorated him. He wanted to whisper, “I want you. No one else can have you,” but he did not. He sensed that was not the appropriate thing to say, although he did not know why. Neither did he understand how he knew not to utter those words.
The woman turned away from him and sipped her juice. Howard, transfixed, frozen to his spot, tightly squeezed the bag in his hands. His fingers felt hot and wet and he was aware of the fact that they hurt, that they burned—or was it someone else’s hands that hurt? He was not sure, because it was a distant, unreal, dream-like pain. At that moment, all of his physical and psychic energy was devoted to studying the woman sitting at the table next to where he was standing. He wanted—he needed—to hear her voice again. He hoped she would look up at him so that he would be able to see her face a second time. He was staring at the top of her head, mesmerized by the tiny gem-like raindrops dotting the strands of her sumptuous raven-black hair. He wanted to see her eyes again. During the few seconds that she had looked up at him he had seen that they were large and expressive and enigmatically dark, but she kept her head down and continued to sip her drink. He wanted to reach down and pick her up and throw her over his shoulder and—
A voice interrupted his thoughts: “Hey, fella, your bag is leaking.”
Howard turned to the man, not comprehending what he said. Then the woman said, “Oh, yes. Look ... it is leaking. Put it down here.”
Howard turned back to her and then he looked at the bag, but did not move. The woman reached up, gently took it from Howard, and placed it at the edge of her table. Then she wiped her hands with a napkin and offered one to Howard. Pulling himself back to the here and now, he wiped his hands, surprised that they hurt so much. Then, without asking permission, he sat at the table, near the wet bag, across from the woman, who, although she was surprised, smiled at him. He felt another surge of warmth course through his body, but then he shivered. Smiling weakly at her, he clumsily opened his sodden bag and retrieved his cookie and the crushed, almost empty cup of tea.
“Here—use these to wipe up the mess,” the woman said as she handed a bunch of napkins to Howard. He wrapped the cookie in a clean napkin and put it down on a dry spot on the table and then he wiped the outside of the cup and placed it next to the cookie. After looking down, confused, he compressed the saturated paper bag and napkins into a ball, sopped up the puddle of tea, and pushed the mess to one side of the table. He looked up at the woman. After taking a sip of her drink, she said, “You should finish what’s left of your tea before it’s too cold.”
He pulled it near and took a sip, enjoying the fruity warmth. Since most of the tea had spilled onto the floor and the table, there was only enough for one more small sip. Without saying a word, Howard got up and walked to the counter of the store; he quickly returned, picked up the wet garbage, and dumped it in a trash pail. Then he stood on line again to order another cup of Organic Multiberry Tea.
When he returned to the table, he saw that the woman had stood up and was buttoning her raincoat.
“Don’t go. I want to talk to you,” he said.
“Oh? I ... I hope you enjoy your tea. I have to go.”
“No. Don’t. I mean, please don’t. I don’t want you. ... I mean want to talk to you. Can’t you sit for another minute or two?”
“Well, I guess I can.” She sat, but she did not unbutton her coat.
Howard started to open the lid to his tea. Then he stopped. The woman smiled warily. He knew that if he did not speak she would leave. He wanted to touch her hand, but he knew that would be inappropriate; he had to wait for her to give permission. Now, because he had to say something to keep her near him, he was overwhelmed with confusion.
“Well, what did you want to say? I don’t normally talk to strange men who sit at my table without asking.”
“Oh. That was wrong. I should have asked first, but there was the lightning and the blackout and the tea and—”
“That’s why I didn’t object, but, listen: I don’t know you and I really do have to go. I have to get back to my job.”
“Oh. Where do you work?”
“Uh ... nearby. In any case—”
“No. I shouldn’t ask where you work. I’m not going to follow you or bother you. I ... I don’t always know what to say, but I ... my name is Howard. I own West Side Booksellers. It’s a few blocks from here.”
“I’ve seen the store. It looks nice.”
“It does well, because it’s the only store in the neighborhood. I sell new and used books, specialty books and other things.”
“That’s nice. Okay. So, what did you want to tell me?”
“I want to tell you that I’m ... I’m attracted to you and ... and that you have ethereal beauty, the kind that is rare, the kind that has, for ages, inspired the most exquisitely lovely poetry.”
“Wow! That’s a good line. I applaud you, but I’m not interested.”
“Why? I’m sure you’re very nice and very smart and a good catch, but I don’t like men who use those kinds of lines. It never works out.”
“It’s not a line. I don’t know how to do that. It’s the truth.”
“Okay. I’ll accept what you said as a compliment, but under these circumstances, where we don’t know each other and you just plopped yourself down, it sounds like a pick-up line. I’m sorry; it just does.”
“I am sorry too. I have never known how to speak to women.”
“Okay. I understand, but—”
“I mean. …”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I’ve always been successful in school, business, and everything else, but not with women. I know why that is, but it is too complicated to explain. I just have to tell you that you are so like a divinity, so otherworldly. There’s more that I’d like to say.”
At that, she laughed. Then she said, “Okay. You’re beginning to interest me in a wacky, goofy way. I’ve never done this, but I’m trying to look at life and men differently. I’ll give you one minute to convince me that we should get to know each other; then I have to get back to work.”
Howard looked at his watch. Then he said, “I have been on only two dates. I have had sex with only one woman—two times—but I was not interested in her. She tried to steal books from my store—”
“Was that before or after you had sex with her?” the woman asked with a wide grin on her lovely face.
“Oh. That was before,” Howard explained in a serious tone. He looked at his watch. Then, after thinking for exactly three seconds, he said, “I think … I believe we should get to know each other. I don’t go out on dates. It never seems worth the effort, but when I look at you I feel things I have never felt before. I feel that I want—”
“What? My minute isn’t up. I have nine seconds more.”
“It’s okay. You don’t need more time, and you definitely should stop talking before you say something that scares me.”
Howard waited. He was not the least bit sure about whether or not he had convinced her. In any case, even if she agreed that they should get to know each other, she had to go to work, so he would have to wait for another time to talk to her, to touch her, to see her naked, and to satisfy other desires and needs that had rarely entered his book-cluttered consciousness before that moment.
“Okay, Howard. I’ll go out with you, to dinner tonight. Meet me at Maxwell’s at seven. It’s right down the street. Dinner only. Nothing else. We can talk and get to know each other then. My name is Faye.”
Howard watched her walk out the door and into the violent, wind-driven rainstorm. He saw her look both ways and then cross the street. Little by little, as she walked, hunched over, holding a wind-blown black umbrella, she disappeared from sight as if she had been dissolved by the storm. Howard sighed with a combination of longing and uncertainty. After a few seconds of aimless thought he looked down and began eating his cookie and drinking his Organic Multiberry Tea.