I read. I want to read, but they’re first, so I just stand there. And the woman says, she says, “You’re next”. And the boy starts reading. Boy. He’s a boy to me. In his twenties, lanky. “Read the last two chapters”, she says. He stammers a little, nervous. Then opens up, chest out. Proud. I can’t listen. I want to, can’t. Something...it’s scary. What if they tell me it’s horrid, what if...or not. Who knows. What can I do? Wait. It slips out of my hands. Sweaty. I press it to my breast, my left breast, where the heart. He’s not done yet. He got into it. What rage. Primitive. His sentences are primitive. Not the good kind. The stupid kind. Is that okay to think? Stupid. I’m stupid. What am I doing here? How did I get here? I can’t remember.
The books on display. All those famous authors. And me. What? I want to fall through the floor. The boy. He’s still reading. Saliva, sputters. Arms, left, right, swings them, like he’s about to hit me. Boring. It’s something about, a traveler? An explorer? Pompous. The turn of the prose is pompous. He’s trying too hard. I want to say, “You’re trying too hard. That’s bad. Don’t...” but I don’t say anything, just stand in the corner. By the books. Shelves. Piles of, something. Manuscripts. Paper. I smell paper. He forgot he’s here. I can see it. His cheeks flush. The woman frowns, not a good sign, she frowns. Her hair, her dark colored hair. It’s to her shoulders. And her sweater. Why such a sweater? Coral. Did she knit it herself? Not appropriate for her age. Wants to seem more, better. Younger? Turgid lipstick. She scalds him with her eyes. I can see it’s over, in her eyes. Over. She’s polite, nodding. The boy, encouraged.
I forgot. I forgot my name. Horror. Horror of...she looks at me. Just a glance. Curious. They always do. Are you the one? Is she the one? Can you? Can I? I don’t know. What do I know? Nothing. Why do I stand here? What’s the use? I take a step. His hand, though. Firm. Stops me. With love. “No, you’re not going anywhere.” His voice. I nod. Can’t say anything. He’s next to me, so I can lean on him. If I need to. Has he noticed? “Have you noticed?” I whisper. “Yes.” He says. “Shhh.” We listen.
The boy is close. Then, finally, the end. He waits. The woman, there is a spot in the armchair, a place, an indent. She left it. An indent, it speaks more, speaks of haste. He wants to see, I think he can see, and he refuses. So young. I was this young, like that, I believed. I see he does, he’s decided against his instinct. Waits, triumphant. And the girl he came with, she’s blonde, plain and blond. She smiles, too. “That was...”, the woman says, “something.” The boy, “Please, tell me.” “Please,” picks up the girl. “Don’t hold anything back.” She doesn’t, of course, why should she? “No.” she says, sharp. “We can’t accept it.” “But...” He begins. I can see his face slacken, slacken and slide off him. “But...” He stammers, again, not nervous now, appalled, crushed, from this high up all the way down.
The floor here, it’s parquet. It creaks if you push right on that spot right there, and I push it, with the tip of my toe, of my shoe, black dusty shoe, I test it. It speaks to me, something, in its floor language, it says, it saw so many of us here, hopefuls. It laughs at me, almost, as if it wanted to ask what I’m doing here, how did I end up here. I can’t form a single coherent thought. They’re a jumble. The light, the ray of light, and jumble. And my shoes. I need to clean them, polish them. With that rag, where did I put it, I can’t remember.
The boy and the girl left. Then, the woman’s breath, on my shoulder. The office, her office, it’s a room with books. Not her books, other books. “Go ahead,” she says, pushes me a little, impatient. She has a schedule. I don’t have a schedule, but she does. She’s busy. “I’m listening,” she says, fingers steepled. And I take a step. Where? Somewhere. It’s important to take a step, it’s a beginning of my journey. Just one step, and I stop, and I open my book. My book, the book I wrote. Did I write it? Did I really write it? I can’t say a word. Can’t...
“The last two chapters, please.” She says, waiting.
His hand, behind me, his hand, it’s all I need. “You can do it,” he whispers. “I know.” I take a breath. Look. It’s the wrong book. My tongue, glued to my teeth. The wrong book. I’m holding the wrong book in my hands. Someone else wrote it, the pictures, the name, other name, not mine, how...I clear my throat. Back. Back to mine. It’s mine. Just...nerves. “Go on.” She says. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m...anxious.” “It’s okay,” she says. I can see it’s not. She’s looking at her watch. Expensive golden watch. I don’t have a watch, I have nothing. My books, my rags, and nothing. No. I have him.
I open, leaf through.
“How does it end?” She prompts, to keep talking, to fill the air with talking. The pause is too much.
And I freeze. The end. How does it end? I can’t remember. My own book, and I can’t remember. Paralyzed. I look up, he smiles. He almost laughs. This happened before. He draws a circle, with his hand, a circle in the air. “There is no end,” I manage, “it goes around and around, it ends where it began.” “How interesting,” she says. I look down. Sentences swim. They break and swim and letters jump and my heart is about to die. My heart beats so fast it will burst any second. It slips from my sweaty fingers, the book, I catch it, tear pages, press it to my breast. She studies me. “Well?”
I clear my throat, cough up my heart, I’m afraid I’ll cough up my heart. I read, “He wrote her a letter.” One. I managed one. One sentence. I look at the words, they stack. The hate me, my words, they hate me and stumble, on purpose. “He...” I try again. I think I will choke on my tongue. It’s fat, dry and fat and it fills my throat and...his eyes. He gives me thumbs up. I look down, at the page, at the place where I hold it open. My book, I hold it open, with my thumbs. They made an imprint. “He wrote her a letter,” I say, stronger now. “She didn’t answer. He wrote another. And another. Like leaves, leaves of the maple that stood in front of her house, yellow and dead.” I stop, swallow, or try to. It doesn’t work. Nothing works in my mouth. My hands shake so hard, I think I will lose it, drop my book and lose it.
The woman, her face? Did it clear? A little, did it? Like a light, a passing of light. Better not to think. I go on. Try to go on. I read. I want to read, and I read. I read them, sentences, one after another. They listen, at last, they stopped fighting me, my words, and they listen, they’re tied to my rhythm. “Thank you,” I want to say, “thank you.” But I’m reading. I hear something, a noise. I stop abruptly, lift my eyes. The man. In his fifties? Something. He joined her, the woman, they both look at me. Expectant. Like I’m now supposed to deliver. And I lose my voice, it won’t come. Two of them, it’s too much. I claw at my throat. It won’t come. It won’t come, it won’t come, it...he catches me. He caught me. Steadies me. “They like it,” he whispers. I can hear laughter in his voice. “Do they?” I move my lips. “Yes, I think.” He pushes me up, upright.
I’m in my story. Or my story is inside me. Which is which? Does it matter? They listen. That’s all that I can think about, all I can see. They listen. Their mouths are open. The man, he’s on the edge of the seat. The suit he wears, the folds where he leans, the tie. So official, and I’m so ragged. Who am I to be here? So ragged. But I read and they listen. And now I can’t stop. I don’t care. I don’t care anymore. I just read.
And the woman, she’s happy. And the man. And a piece of paper. They give me this piece of paper. I can’t see it, because...I can’t see it. What if it’s fake? What if I see it, and the words on it, what if they yell at me something? What if it’s a trick? What. I don’t know, my face. My face in his chest. And my tears. They accepted. My tears. And he holds me, rocks me a little, and holds me. Words, spoken, some words, something about a contract. That piece of paper, a contract. And I press my hands, my book, to my heart. I press.