When the words on the page began to bleed together and her eyes stung from fatigue, she closed the book and leaned her forehead against the spine to breathe in the musty smell of years on a shelf.
of the masses, the self.
The library was darker now that evening had settled on the city, and the rain hadn't stopped; she could hear its muffled tattoo on the glass ceiling, as though it was shut away in another room, another world. The patrons who were there when she opened the book had long ventured back into real life, and, glancing around, she didn't recognize any regulars. But then—
She was surprised when she saw him sitting across the room from her, leaning back in an overstuffed easy chair in the fiction section, a pile of books on the table beside him. With a start, she recognized the collection of Neruda poetry she'd returned that afternoon third down in the stack. His stringy silver-lined hair, still wet from the rain, hung past his shoulders and paper towels skirted out from the bottom of his left pant leg. His shoelaces were the knotted-together remnants of several mismatched and broken pairs and beside him were his overflowing shopping bags of belongings.
the one made of concrete
She couldn't smell the city on him from this distance, although she could see the cardboard corner of his well-worn sign tucked away in one of the bags: "Ugly, homeless and sober." She always admired the poetry of those lines; stark, no pandering for change or pleading for pity. Just the truth. That was why she had put a dollar in his cup every day since she moved back to Boston, when she passed his corner of Beacon and Joy en route to work.
She stared at him, struck by his concentration as he read lines and turned pages, wondering how many times her fingers had grazed his Styrofoam cup in the morning. She knew him by sight, by his city stakeout, by his inked sign; she didn't know his name or his story or anything beyond what she could see on a street corner. What right did she have, then, to be surprised to see him in the library? To assume him unread and undereducated because he slept on the streets? Her Ivy League diploma lay at the bottom of a bottom drawer, abandoned under a pile of never-worn sweaters. She didn't want to hang it because it made her feel elitist and condescending—but wasn't this the same? And where was her interest in this man coming from? The only thing to which she could liken her fascination was when, as an eight-year-old, she saw her third grade teacher in the grocery store buying frozen peas. An everyday act for someone she saw everyday, but entirely without the recognizable context.
She left the library and took the T back to her apartment, blending into the crowded platform and fading into her window reflection. No one here knew her, no one afforded her a second glance. Even in the pallid lights of the train, the crowd seemed too vibrant, a color photograph in which she, a damaged negative, did not belong. She stared at her reflection as the tunnel slid by and the train turned on its tracks: when did that line appear in her forehead? When did her lips thin into that permanent frown? Her eyes were deeper, her face wan. She couldn't remember the moment when she started to disappear, but she now saw only a shade of herself looking back.
At the door to her apartment, she turned the key in the lock and, unbidden, a pang of the familiar anticipation of homecoming twisted in her stomach, as it did every night in the split second between the door's unlocking and its opening. Those months and years when the dinner he cooked for her tantalized her nose and mouth as she fumbled up the stairwell, struggling for five flights to manage an armful of textbooks and notebooks; when their apartment was bright and idyllic and romantic in its dilapidation; when they joked about recounting these days to their unborn children as the time when they were struggling students and the ceiling leaked into a bucket when it rained or the reclusive tenant upstairs drained the bathtub; when a rat the size of a small dog skittered across the sloping floor and she refused to come down from the countertop until he had removed it from the building and promised that he had, ever-so-gently, set it free over the bridge and into the Charles; when, in the winter, they wore every item of clothing they owned to keep from turning up the heat, layers of sweaters and t-shirts cushioning their fervent embraces, woolen-stocking feet entangled in each other's and the blankets.
She took it for granted then, their conviction in their own immortality and immunity, couldn't imagine an end. And then the end happened. The lock clicked now and the door opened on a respectable apartment that wasn't coated with lead paint and didn't smell faintly of mold, but that was dark, lonely, and too clean.
The lone occupant, she spent the time after work and before sleep in this place, but it never felt like home to her. That was why she spent hours in the Boston Public Library—something about the place made her feel like she belonged, be it the comforting weight of a book in her hand, the close proximity of familiar stories she never tired of, the unchanging mustiness and quiet she could depend on. Tonight she shook some stale crackers out of a box and poured herself a glass of wine. While she sipped, she walked from room to room, allowing herself for once to compare her two Boston lives; though separated only by three years, they were completely contradictory existences. She ran her fingers over the rarely-used stovetop and remembered that unreliable gas oven they had to light with a match on every use, walked the perfectly arranged wooden floor and yearned for cracked tiles and squeaky, warped boards. Vulnerable because of the wine, she let herself see the omnipresent man's shirt laid across the back of the armchair in her room. The shirt was the only reminder of her previous life, and the first thing she had placed when she moved in.
With the tips of her fingers, she lightly touched the worn cotton. She regarded the third buttonhole missing its button, the one she promised she'd sew but kept forgetting. The collar was frayed at the fold, after years of wear and money spent on necessities rather than new clothes. She gathered the shirt in her hands, clenched her fists, buried her face in the soft, cool cotton. She breathed him in, just as she had when she nestled into the soft spot behind his left ear that was made to fit her nose and lips. But, after so long, he wasn't there anymore. The shirt smelled more of her than of him—her laundry, her fragrances that caught in the air as she got ready in the morning then settled on surfaces throughout the day, her unfamiliar apartment. Maybe there, at the bottom of the breath, she could sense him in the fibers. But maybe she was imagining it, convincing herself of something that had already gone.
She pulled the shirt away from her face. She didn't know she was crying until she saw the watermarks on the shoulder. All she wanted to do now was sleep so, without undressing, she curled into bed and methodically sealed every emotion that had seeped tonight. In between sleep and awake, when the sound of the bus at the corner stop joined with her awaiting dreams, she thought of the man in the library and wondered if he had shelter from the rain tonight. Her last thought before giving into sleep was that she hadn't said a word that day.
She avoided her normal way to work the next morning, detouring the intersection of Beacon and Joy altogether. By her lunch hour, though, she was curious enough to return to her fellow library patron and give him her daily donation. Perhaps he had seen her watching him in the library, had recognized her from their morning routine. He sat on his regular stoop in the noontime sun, cup at his feet, having one-sided conversations with passers-by. As she approached, she looked for a hint of recognition in his face but found nothing. She pulled a dollar out of her wallet and dropped it in his cup, lingering a half-second longer than she normally would. When she straightened up, she offered a small smile and asked how he was. He blinked at her, maybe surprised at the attempt, and after considering her, thoughtfully murmured, The one who wanted to go far away, always further away. She waited, but he didn't say anything else.
or didn't want to leave or remain on the island.
Confused, she hesitated slightly then turned to continue down the street. When she glanced back, she was almost sure she saw him give her a single nod before boisterously complementing a short-skirted college girl.
Interest piqued, she returned to the library that evening and, after briefly skimming the shelves, found the Neruda collection they had in common. She flipped through the pages, looking for the lines he quoted when they last (and first) spoke. Once fruitlessly through the book, she turned it over and over in her hands, searching for dog-eared pages, bookmarks, underlined stanzas, anything that could confirm that she wasn't imagining this connection, that there was something fated here. Nothing appeared. Disappointed, she slipped the book back into place and turned to walk away. In her distraction, she stepped into the man browsing behind her, and the force of the collision sent her backward into the shelf. Mortified that she was going to break the silence cast over the library, she frantically turned to catch any books before they thudded to the floor. Only one fell—with a crack disproportionate to its size that echoed off the high ceiling—and with a hint of satisfaction, she saw again their collection of poetry.
the infinite look of the granite prism,
the circular solitude all banished him
It had fallen open to a verse almost in the middle of the book, where the spine was cracked and the pages were rippled with the warm hold of many fingers (or, she thought, perhaps it was just the same pair of hands that had worried these pages innumerable times). Annoyed again that she couldn't read the original Spanish—choosing to study French in high school had seemed romantic at the time—she followed the English translation.
After her first time through, tears in her eyes, she found a chair at the end of the aisle, sat, steadied herself, and began again. And again. And again. Until her eyes no longer registered the words and the delicately arranged stanzas became a solid block of indecipherable text. She sat there—in the same chair, at the end of a row of never-ending bookshelves, holding a page she had stopped reading—until the library closed and the night doorman asked her to leave. She checked their book out and stepped into the street-lit city night, breathing in cool darkness.
How did he know her so well? It was like he had guessed her history, her reasons for leaving and returning to Boston, her desperate surrender to a solitary life. How often had she sat alone for lunch since returning, feeling like a stranger in a sea of natives, searching crowded and laughing tables with a refugee's eyes? She longed to see that face, eyes squeezed shut, head thrown back, caught in open-mouthed laughter. She ached for the familiar gaze to accept her and let her in, the skin around those blue beacons only just beginning to crinkle like crepe paper with age. Without that, she had no foundation in this city, nothing solid on which to stand.
But, her feet had remained planted though her knees had buckled. The relation with the man on the street had unearthed something she had taken such care to bury. She could feel it, faint and fragile, but steady and tentatively hopeful. When she arrived at her apartment that night, she gently folded the well-loved shirt and tucked it away in her closet. Tomorrow she would start. She knew this thick and carefully crafted shell would not break easily, that it would take time to recolor her half-lived life, and that it would never be as vivid as it had been. But she would begin by taking a step.
She decided to thank him, her man on the street, learn his name, ask how he knew her. But he wasn't there on her way to and from work for the rest of the week. She retuned her books to the library and found herself, while browsing, scanning the floor for his silver hair and patchwork clothes. He was never there, and the following Monday a different man shook his cup hopefully at her from the corner of Beacon and Joy. Then, three weeks later, as she wrestled with the other morning commuters, she saw his sign in the gutter, cardboard swollen with rain, running ink staining the surface of the road.
he returned to the agony of his native land
to his indecisions, of winter and summer.
Incorporating the text of "The Weary One" by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)