They have potent loneliness at their disposal, marmalade jam and hot buttered toast that scents the air in the breakfast morning, and so they bow down with their mother tongues deleted. The narratives stream in. Charmingly unstable like glass ceilings, empty park benches. Piercingly stable like empathy. Sequins. Cold air every time the door swooshes in there are geometries made out of uninvited winter guests. Every book is a postcard. These women wired to illness that ticks. Meditations resonate. Whiteness of teeth. What lurks inside a woman who becomes a library worker? Cool librarians. Rooms filled with books. They crawl across lava, across winter, across larger cities, backyards, swimming pools filled with leaves, temperamental children filled with jazz. The women who become library workers have the blues. They survey other mother’s progeny. Can read the war signs of infertility. Can picture the kaleidoscopic pleasures of glaciers off the coast of Alaska. Can picture imagination. The imagination behind the writers of the books in the rooms of the library. These women are charming when they take your books with their phantom limbs and stamp them. They are delicate. They are beautiful. Their limbs are lovely. Their brains are elegant. It is like listening to American music repeatedly. Memories resonate.
One woman is blonde. One is brunette. One took the curlers out of her hair that morning and brushed the curls out of her hair with her fingers. One has highlights. One is a redhead. Men move in this world differently. They do not haunt the library as these women do. They do not meditate on the books or the pages of fashion magazines. They do not seem as lonely and as out of place. The men do not dream of faraway cities. Their heads are not filled with future postcards. The women’s heads are filled with prose, postcards, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, novels about loneliness and love, and French for beginners. Summer wrinkles their clothes, their perfect hair. Alba (the blonde-haired woman) always senses a great darkness when she wakes up in the morning. Fragments of a great darkness. It always haunts her when she walks through the doors of the library in the morning. She does not think she is pretty although she is extraordinarily beautiful. She does not think she will ever marry although she will. She thinks her life is ruined. She drinks too much coffee. Her self-pity is made of steel. She eats her sandwiches alone. Sometimes she eats her sandwiches with Vincent. Vincent lives with his mother, his Indian wife and their two children. Vincent’s mother has a heart complaint. These women are collectors. Not one of them are mothers yet.
Not one of them are wives yet. All the men (even Vincent) think about is sleeping with these women. Sometimes they think about pornography. What these women would look like with their articles of clothing removed. These men seldom think about war. Then suddenly the minutes become joyful to these men. Alba has brought figs with her today. She eats them with the skin on. The plums are cold and delicious. The other women watch her. Fadwah (the brunette-haired) and Alexis (the woman with curlers in her hair who brushes her fingers through her hair) smile at each other when they watch Vincent make a beeline for Alba. They know his situation. Unhappily married. Two children. A mother who is now an invalid. He is exposed. They know that sometimes Vincent and Alba will go out and eat their lunch at a restaurant not very far from the library and return in fifty minutes time. When Alba and Vincent come back, the men have their coffee and lunch in a separate room. They want to know everything. What position does she prefer? What does she or rather Alba’s body look like? They use words like climax and orgasm like there is no tomorrow. As if, those words have no sensibility. Alba becomes an object to them. A sex object. They laugh raucously. Everyone in the library can hear them laughing. It sounds dirty. Vincent spills the beans.
‘Melon, Vincent?’ Alba asks quietly.
‘No, thank you. I have brought butter chicken with me today. Leftovers.’ Vincent smiles crookedly at her.
‘I wish I had the patience and the guts that your wife has when it comes to making good home-cooked meals.’ Alba said. ‘I have the money but I just don’t have the time. It is so hot in here today. Is the air conditioning not working?’
‘Good home-cooked meals. It is all a part of family life, Alba’. Vincent answered. ‘I don’t know. I do not feel the heat all that much. The chief librarian will probably take a look at the air conditioning later on.’
‘What did you this weekend and how is your family, your lovely wife?’
‘We went to the beach. Had some steak. Sirloin. All good. All good. The family is well. My mother is the same. Thank you for asking.’ Vincent began to eat his butter chicken.
‘I planted those marigolds just like you said Vincent. Thank you for the pomegranate tree and the tomato plants are growing nicely. The garden is luminous. Nothing is fleeting. Everything is intricate. From the stalks to the stems, from the giant tap roots to the fissures.’
There are stories in every room of the library. From Alba to Vincent. Vincent kisses Alba’s soft skin. Strokes the mole on her right leg. Caresses lyrically her décolletage, her arms, her shoulder blades, the nape of her neck, her stomach and Alba feels a pang. She thinks of the new dress she bought and of how Vincent’s eyes lit up when he saw her walk through the doors of the library that morning wearing it. All of the anger and grief that she felt, the panic like a comet and the angst briefly disappeared. She greeted Fadwah and Alexis and they nodded good morning. She knew that she would never win them over completely and this hurt her. She never had had lasting female relationships in her life. She had always regretted this. She is needy. She is filled with regret. She thinks of the anti-depressants in the cupboard in her bathroom. She thinks of Lithium and Sodium Valproate. She thinks of Melatonin. Of how much she needs her sleep. Of how many times Vincent told her she must go to the beach. Take off her shoes, walk in the sand, and feel out of time in the cold, pure air. The beach is not political. You will only find cohesion there. Cohesion between gender and class. You will feel the sensation of arrows running up and down your spine, causing chills up and down your spine. Is this a love affair she once asked Vincent and for a long time he did not say anything and this made her feel frightened and lonely until he finally said, ‘I don’t know.’
‘Are you damaged?’ Vincent asks Alba quietly.
‘Yes, yes I am damaged.’ Alba replies without meeting his stare.
‘Who damaged you?’ Vincent asks authoritatively.
‘Where do I begin?’ Alba says in a small voice.
‘At the beginning. That is usually best.’
‘My father damaged me.’ Alba answers honestly.
‘Did he not love you? Did he neglect you, or did he abandon you? Did he not love you enough or loved you too much? Did he destroy you?’ Vincent’s forehead is wet with perspiration.
‘Can a father love a daughter too much?’ Alba turned her face away from Vincent’s gaze and began to cry.
Vincent began to make love to Alba.
‘What is the time?’ Alba asked hesitantly
‘We have all the time in the world. Forty minutes. Five minutes to get dressed and five to walk back to the library.’
Alba could often be found with a book when the library was empty, when interlopers were reading newspapers or sleeping in the warm, comfortable armchairs. When schoolchildren were studying. She often read Virginia Woolf. She could almost feel the waves in her identity, in her ego, in her psyche, in her intellect, in her intelligence, in her mental faculties. Making love was just for fun but reading was complex, much more complicated than that. She was Jane Eyre. She became Orlando. Her body was a mass of black butterflies. Her depression was a silent meadow. Her depression had high cheekbones. Her depression was made out of bare chicken bones, high roads, cut throats, turning points, exes, lessons, Australian accents, flowerpots, stalactites, the bark of black dogs, apples, roasted meat and potatoes. Water. The weight of water. She remembered the very first time she felt this hidden sadness. It happened to her when she was a child. When her mother was screaming at her. Screaming at her to get out of the motor car and leaving her beside the side of the road to walk home. The house was not very faraway but still she remembered her mother’s cruelty. The world-shape of her mother’s cruelty. Her mother had wanted her to go into the chemist to buy sanitary pads. Her tongue felt like confetti. Her hair felt like a veil. Her hands felt as if they were interrupted somehow.
As if, she held a knife in one hand and an apple in the other.
‘What are you reading that for? Why don’t you read Cosmopolitan?’ Fadwah asked her.
‘It makes me happy.’ Alba replied honestly.
‘Sad books make you happy. You are very strange or you must have had a very strange childhood.’
All Fadwah wanted was children and a husband. Fadwah did not read.
‘Virginia Woolf was a clever woman.’
‘Virginia Woolf. She killed herself, you know. Drowned herself in the River Ouse. She was a brilliant, complex, complicated woman.’
‘Oh.’ Fadwah said regretting that she had said anything in the first place. Fadwah did not believe in depression or suicide. It was not her religion.
‘Well, the latest magazines have come in if you want to take a look at them before we put them on the shelves.’
‘Oh, I will. Perhaps later on Fadwah.’ Alba replied.
‘Suit yourself. It is not good to read books like that. It will go to your head. The blues.’ Fadwah said. ‘I don’t believe in the blues but nothing good can come from reading subject matter like that. Beneath the surface is a flaming shore of suffering, of young women, darkness, under that depression, and under that illness. Mental illness, suicidal illness, terminal illness, and addiction. I know what I am talking about. Take it from someone who knows. It runs in my family.’ Fadwah walked over to where Alba was sitting and squeezed her free hand. ‘I know we do not see eye to eye often but I know what I am talking about.’
Alba remembered Vincent asking her if he was her first lover. She did not know whether to laugh or to cry but she did know what he was really asking her. She nodded her head. He asked her if she had ever seen a man naked before and she did not know whether to laugh aloud or to cry but she did know what he was really asking her. She shook her head. There was the lecturer at film school, there was the English teacher in high school, there were boyfriends in high school (but does fumbling, something that is half-finished really tell). Does something that is an inconvenience really tell at all? How did she feel afterwards, Vincent asked her? Did she feel safe? Did he make her feel safe? She cried and that was enough of an answer for him. Vincent thought that Alba was innocent. ‘What is this understanding Vincent?’ Alba asked him when they were putting on their clothes.
‘What understanding? I have a wife. I have children. Responsibilities. You are an innocent. I could have either destroyed you or loved you and I chose to love you instead of destroying you, is that not enough for you?’
‘Yes, you are right. I am an innocent, Vincent. Innocent of the world around me.’ Alba replied as she put her brassiere and underwear on. ‘You missed a button on your shirt Vincent.’
‘Do you love me Alba or is this just lust?’
‘Yes, Vincent. I love you but does it matter.’
‘Of course it matters Alba.’ Vincent sounded cross. No, he sounded more agitated than anything else did really.
‘I do not understand why you are angry with me. Who seduced whom? I thought I was the only unhappy one, the lonely one in this relationship. We do not have to be married to be in love.’
‘Touch me, Alba.’
‘We’ll be late Vincent.’
‘I don’t want to be late Vincent.’
‘You are asking me to do the impossible. Already there is gossip. My reputation. Fadwah.’
‘Touch me. I promise. It will only take me five minutes.’
A man picks up a woman. The woman is mad but the man does not know this yet. Her hair is freshly washed. Rinsed with perfume. He cannot wait to get her out of that dress. Unfasten the zip. Unhook her brassier. Her anatomy is a bribed flaw. Her anatomy is twice blue. Her songbird anatomy once found itself in a hospital in the eyes of a hospital gown in a bed spread with hospital sheets and pharmaceuticals. Her heels leap midair over his skull. Her anatomy quickly found itself in his arms, in his throat, quickly found itself examined by his teeth and his hands. Her anatomy is feeding the storefront of his lust and the envious stares of his kneeling friends who are beginning to worship him. The light has flesh. The light has a thick stem made out of blood. The light has a shell, which has a territory, teeth, a slick history, ruins, and streets. The light has workers. They whistle while they work. They whistle and catcall at women while they work. These tomcats beg, and they swagger because that is the moth currency they deal in all day long. The men want to hear all about it. Alba’s desire. The room mocks all of them. All of the men. Books, dead poets, living writers, computers whirring, moveable feasts, curling narratives and dreams, feathers, penguins and cats. A sangoma, medicine men and women in their white lab coats, stethoscopes around their necks.
Her anatomy begs to be taken a picture of so he asks her to unhook her brassiere. He wants to take a picture of her. At first, she thinks she will say no, put up a fight.
‘It is so warm in here.’ Alba says. ‘Vincent, I said it was warm in here.’ He is fiddling with the gadgets on his camera. He looks funny. Focused, concentrating on the present.
‘Vincent, I am hot. I am melting.’ Over the months, she has grown in confidence. She ignores the looks the other women give her. She even flirts now with the other married male librarians.
It is nearly time for her repeat prescription. Half of her wants to flush the anti-depressants down the toilet and the other half of her is thankful for the stability it gives her. Vincent does not know about the anti-depressants. Sometimes Fadwah comes and sits with her before Vincent does and the two women eat their lunch together. Alba is grateful for this. They made a date for this Saturday to go to the beach. This is the first time that Alba and Vincent will be seen together outside in the public. They will be exposed. She knows that the men have put him up to this but why does she not mind in the least? Her anatomy is sacred but she is willing to do this. Why? It has birthed another hunger. Popularity. She is chained to Vincent’s ankle and now to all the men. They will all glance at this picture. Her back straight. Her breasts like melons honest. Her thighs will fall quiet. She will be a skeletal vision. A ghost. She will haunt all of them as they go home and make love to their wives in the evening, as shadows fall against the walls of their bedrooms. She will be a landscape and a shroud. She will have starved herself for nothing because does the woman who suffers from self-pity and a lack of self-love not only have an eating disorder as well. Anorexia Nervosa. Bulimia. Already Vincent has said she is too thin. She is getting too thin. Lit bones. Lit up from the inside. A head that is in both exile and a volcano. She knows she will outshine all of those wives. Children brats everyone.
‘Do you like the beach Alba?’
‘I don’t know Vincent.’
‘We don’t have to sit here and eat something. We can walk right down to the water’s edge.’
I nearly drowned once. Did you know that Vincent? Alba said nothing.
‘I will hold your hand if you want me to but I do not know why you have to be scared. You are acting like a petulant child. Are you cold?’
‘A little.’ Alba lied.
‘Do you not want to share your calamari with me?’
‘I will save you some.’
This is hell for me Vincent. Alba still said nothing. Vincent was preoccupied as well. He had chosen an out of the way place and had to drive further out than he usually did with his family. He was angry with Alba because she did not seem happy. Her thoughts were elsewhere. He wanted her thoughts to be with him. Whenever they were together, he wanted her thoughts to be with him.
‘Fish and chips, Alba.’
It is too early to bury the good-looking sea, anonymous affairs, dancing, flesh, and glory. It is too early for all of these things.