Reads: 328

Dublin, 2010

After Natalie finished reading The Tale of Genji, she decided that she no longer believed in love.

"I don't believe in love," she announced to Thomas, the German college student she hired last week.

He paused in the middle of stacking books. "Oh," he simply replied, then resumed stacking. Thomas barely spoke English, so he probably had no idea what she was talking about.

Natalie sighed and placed the old book back in the "Romance" section. On long, lazy days like this, when the bookshelves have been stacked and re-stacked, the floors polished twice, and the number of customers was less than five, Natalie allowed herself and her employees to do whatever they wanted to. Elizabeth, the elderly woman who should have retired from working twenty years ago, was listening to soap operas on the old radio while breezing through Bitch magazine. Thomas continued to reorganize the shelves and tidy up the store, even though Natalie already said he could leave. She, on the other hand, found an old romance novel set in imperial Japan that was irresistible. The Tale of Genji might have been the opposite of most romance novels she has read, full of failing marriages and love affairs, disaster upon disaster.

The truth was, Natalie wasn't a non-believer in love. Although with the way things have been going lately, she shouldn't have had any faith stored in love. So far, her relationship with Jason from Deutsche Bank was going downhill. He liked chocolate, she hated it. He wanted to spend Saturday night at a party with her, she would rather be at the movies. He wanted to move in together, she didn't. They were going to be together for almost three months now. It wasn't that Jason was a bad guy. He was great. He was neat, wealthy, easy to get along with, maybe only a little good-looking, and he treated her perfectly. But she just wasn't in it.

He tried awfully hard. Natalie knew he probably sensed that their relationship wasn't going anywhere. He'd show up with so many roses, she wasn't sure what to do with all of them. He called her three or four times a week, trying to see if she was okay and if she needed anything. She felt terrible.

"Just stop leading him on and break up with the lad!" Natalie's best friend Carrie would tell her blatantly. Yet Natalie simply couldn't. For the past two years, she had been on-and-off dating with several men since Aiden from Serious Relationship Number Two broke it off. Finally, she finds Perfect Jason and manages to hold on to him. She couldn't let this go, because it had taken so long to nab someone who treated her with such kindness she could only read about in the books she sold in her store.

"You're brooding again, darling," Elizabeth suddenly said, without looking up from her magazine.

"I know," Natalie said quietly.

"You mustn't brood. You'll sprout a thousand gray hairs for every hour you do that."

"How do you know?"

Elizabeth patted her naturally auburn, never-dyed-before grayless hair. "My husband died with a head full of white hair. He worried too much."

"So you don't brood? You don't ever stop and worry about how things are going? What's going to happen in the future? Maybe what you're doing wrong and what could and should have happened?"

"I never brood!" A small, dainty smile spread across Elizabeth's wrinkled face.

No one knew where Elizabeth had come from. Two and a half years ago, she had shown up wearing pink Wellingtons and saying she wanted to work at Natalie's book store. She rarely spoke about her own life, so Natalie did not know whether or not she had family and friends. But she was incredibly kind and helpful to the customers. They all loved her charm, advice, wit, and idiosyncrasies.

It wasn't until a year ago when a tall man in his late thirties came in, asking for Elizabeth. Natalie awkwardly led him to her. The old woman took the man's hands and grinned. The two of them had tea by the window until closing time. It turned out that the tall man with auburn hair the exact shade as Elizabeth's was her son. She invited him and he came to tell her that he and his wife were expecting. After that, Elizabeth sporadically received more and more visitors throughout time with whom she had tea with by the window. They would come by themselves or in pairs and Natalie would listen to them laugh delightfully as they exchanged stories and touched hands with Elizabeth. It turned out, that those people were her unspoken of friends and family. She would see them off at the front door of the bookstore, waving jovially to her guests as they left. Natalie soon came to realize that Elizabeth seemed to view the bookstore as more of a home than her real house.

Elizabeth had been Natalie's first and longest employee. The bookstore was small, so Natalie decided that there only needed to be two vacancies for employees. For some odd reason, the second spot was often vacant with interchangeable employees. First, there was Mr. Porter who rarely spoke. He was a frequent customer who could become easily engrossed in novels he would never buy. He soon became an employee, but it was only so he could get discounts and finally buy the books. He often ignored the customers and rarely helped them, so Natalie had to fire him. Then there was Macy, a single mother and artist, who came shortly after her divorce. She was Natalie's favorite, they became close friends before Macy met her fiance and moved to Cork. After those two, many other people came and went, until Thomas arrived. He fit in well, laughing at Natalie's jokes even when he didn't understand them and keeping the store in tip-top shape. Natalie found him fascinating just as she found Elizabeth fascinating. He wore neatly pressed, preppy clothes, but kept his dark blond hair messy and mop-top style. She didn't know much about him, except that he was studying finance at Trinity, he loved reading French philosophy, and that he may or may not have OCD.

After he finished arranging the anthropology books in alphabetical order, Thomas went up to Natalie and said, "I think I'm ready to go."

"Oh, okay. Yeah, you need a break. You've done more than enough, Thomas."

He shrugged and smiled sheepishly.

"See you tomorrow!" she called.

"Bye," he said with a nod, before shoving his hands in his pockets and quietly heading out.

Silence. "You know what? Now is a perfect time to close up. There's no one here, let's all go," Natalie said to Elizabeth, who closed her magazine.

She packed her stuff, turned off the music and the lights, and stepped outside. "Have a good evening, Natalie. Don't stay out too late," Elizabeth said with her knowing smile.

"I'm staying in tonight, Liz," Natalie said, staring at sidewalk.

"Oh, I see. Well, good night." Elizabeth ambled away, leaving Natalie to lock up the store.

Natalie wrapped her scarf round her neck -- it was eighteen degrees in June -- and pulled out her key and cigarette. She twisted the key into the keyhole, then pocketed it. As she began walking away, she lit her cigarette and took a quick drag, exhaling smoke and despair. She knew she shouldn't smoke. It had been a couple of months since she last had one. Tonight was the same as all the other nights, but something about it felt different. Natalie realized she had fallen into a mundane pattern. She would wake up, run errands, open and close the shop, head home, and then wake up to start the same day all over again. She hated it. This wasn't how things were supposed to be. This isn't what she wanted.

Sometimes, she would hear her mother responding back to her thoughts. Do we ever get what we want, Natalie? No. Life does what it wants and expects you to follow. Natalie kicked a tiny street stone. Her life wasn't what she planned or expected, but it wasn't bad. She had good friends and loved her bookstore more than anything. How could she feel so disappointed in herself?

As Natalie entered her unwelcoming, dimly lit apartment she had to call home and stared at the emptiness around her, she knew why. She slipped off her shoes, dropped her purse on the counter, and walked over to the picture of her mother that sat on her end table. She frowned; then opened the drawer and pulled out a soft fabric. She gently dabbed the glass and slowly wiped off the dust.

"Maybe things would have been different," Natalie said softly. She left out the "if" and the last part of her sentence.

Submitted: August 09, 2010

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