“Have enough courage to trust love one more time; and always one more time.”
He was already at the restaurant; sitting at a corner table, dressed in a blue tee shirt with a casual grey blazer and black jeans, he looked effortlessly handsome. Celine paused in the restaurant foyer to take in the beauty of this man. His dark hair was just untidy enough to give that casually sexy, slept-in look. He was strongly built, but had no defined muscles.
Women these days wanted their men to be ripped. She, however, had never liked the rock hard abs; the sharp edges and bones were so unromantic!
A flutter of unease crept into her thoughts. Should she just ditch this date and go home? Jesse had seemed like a good guy; but could she really trust the ‘online persona’? You are being foolish. You’ve been speaking to him for a month. Besides, the fact that he looked exactly like his profile pictures, had to count for something, right?
Their profiles had matched shortly after she had registered on Tinder*. To say that they had caught on like wood and fire, would be an understatement. They had so much in common! Books, TV shows, Marvel movies. In no time at all, they had exchanged numbers and were talking till the wee hours of the morning. He was smart, intellectual, and blessed with a brilliant sense of humour.
It’s one date. If it doesn’t work out, at least she’d have tried. Granted, her previous relationships had been disastrous; but it had been four years since she’d been with someone. How long was she going to mope? Breathe, she told herself. It’s going to be okay.
Excitement coursed through her as she made her way towards him. Jesse looked up and she felt a tiny burst of pleasure when his mouth fell open.
She was dressed in a sequinned, knee length, green dress with flowing sleeves. The green against her skin gave her an otherworldly glow; and she looked like a mermaid amongst lesser mortals. She had long, black hair that fell to the middle of her back. Several pairs of eyes followed her progress. He couldn’t blame them; she was mesmerising.
“Jesse,” she shook his hand, slid into the booth, and sat facing him.
“Celine.” He said, slightly breathless. “You look… amazing!” Her shy smile seemed to light up the distant, forgotten corners of his being.
The evening went by in a rush of heightened euphoria. He had been out of the dating scene for almost three years now. His last relationship had ended brutally; heartbroken, he had spiralled into a deep depression. Only recently, with the untiring support of his friends, he had managed to take back control of his life.
Now, sitting across from Celine, he could not believe he had put off meeting her for a whole month! By the time the remains of their dessert were cleared away, they had polished off two bottles of Dom Pérignon. The pleasant buzz of the wine coursed through him like a second heartbeat.
“So, I’ve got a crazy idea,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “It’s freezing out there! In case you’ve forgotten, we’re still experiencing one of the longest winters we’ve ever had!”
“Technically, it’s spring. And well, here’s the thing. I like talking to you and I don’t want this night to end so soon. Do you?”
Colour rose up in her face and he resisted the urge to reach out and put a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “What if you turn out to be a psychopath who lures women into dark alleys and murders them?” She asked.
Jesse gasped, “Miss Celine! What if you turn out to be the psychopath? I’m told women can do everything men can, these days. Surely, you do not mean to be sexist!”
She laughed; a tinkling sound of pure joy, and Jesse was struck by a strange desire to keep making her laugh.
“Tell you what,” he said, extricating his wallet and phone, and dumping them on the table, “take these, as insurance. All my money and identification is in there. If you feel like things are getting dangerous, you drop ship and run like hell.”
“Alright Mr. Wallace, you’ve got yourself a walk.”
The night air was uncommonly chilly and it whistled through their coats and hair as they set off. The Tarmac was wet with drizzle; scattered rain puddles reflected the twinkling lights of the high rise buildings, like tiny little pin pricks of stardust.
To their right, a paved promenade led away from the restaurant, around the boundary of a public park. To their left, a set of fifty or so, magnificent stone steps rose towards the entrance of the State Central Library.
“You know,” Celine said, nodding towards the structure. “I pass this place everyday on my way to work and I have never gone inside.”
She shrugged. “There’s never enough time. I’m always rushing to catch a train, or late to a meeting. By the time I come home, the place is closed.”
Jesse turned to face her and started walking backwards. “The way I see it, you must never leave the things you want to do, on the back burner. I don’t have time – is an excuse for lazy people.”
Celine poked him playfully. Looking at the library, she’d felt an intense longing within her. She loved books. Why hadn’t she gone in there yet?
“All right!” Jesse’s voice woke her out of her reverie. “Come on, let’s go.”
“What? Inside? Now? But, we are walking,” she said, indicating the promenade.
“So? It’s clear that you want to go. Why delay?” He offered her his hand.
Celine looked at him uncertainly. “Oh, Mr. Wallace, you’ve no idea how I get around books. Are you sure?” She asked, amused. Jesse nodded and she clasped his hand. “On your head be it then.”
They pushed open the doors and were greeted with a gust of warm air, which was quickly overpowered by the cold wind that blew in behind them. They hung their coats and gloves in the antechamber and walked inside.
The library was bathed in a golden light that emanated from the many bulbs affixed to the high, ornate ceiling, and situated in niches along the walls. The atmosphere inside was ethereal, almost spiritual, like that of a temple or a church. A smattering of people sat at wooden desks, perusing books, or newspapers, or talking in low murmurs.
“Whoa! This place is huge!” Jesse said, looking around in awe. His voice carried loudly in the stillness and Celine shushed him. He reached out and held her hand, feeling a thrill of pleasure when she intertwined her fingers with his and gave him a radiant smile. His heart drummed its approval as they walked deeper into the library.
The bookshelves were wooden and gleamed golden brown. At least thirty were arranged in parallel rows, with just enough space between two adjacent rows for two people to walk shoulder to shoulder. The shelves almost touched the ceiling. Jesse craned his neck and wondered how they managed to retrieve the books at the very top.
The mystery was solved as they entered the rows marked O – P. A long rolling ladder stood at the entrance. Celine jumped up on it with unrestrained delight and pushed off towards the other end squealing, beauty and the beast!
Jesse couldn’t take his eyes off her. Amidst the deliberate order of the library, she looked like a wild thing. Her dress was wrinkled and wet in patches from the mist outside. Her hair was frizzy with humidity, and curls hung loose around her face like a halo.
She was a mess; but, oh lord, what an enchanting mess she was!
“This. Is. Awesome!” she whispered as she stepped off the ladder. Jesse gave her the most charming smile she had ever seen on a man.
Together, they busied themselves by perusing the books. The titles she knew of, jumped out at her from the spines – Of Mice and Men, Othello, Odyssey, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Jesse was similarly engrossed, his lips moving silently, head tilted to the side the better to read the titles. Her heart hitched for a beat as she looked at him.
“Jesse,” she said and he turned to look at her. “Why do all love stories have such tragic endings? Pain and heartbreak and death. Why can’t they just live happily ever after? And, I don’t mean only in books; it’s the same in real life. I don’t know anyone who is in a happy and loving relationship. Do you?”
“Er. No, actually.” He shook his head. “I mean, I know people who’ve been with each other for a long time, made a family together and everything. Like, my parents. But, are they happy? I’m not sure.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I think they started out with good intentions, and love; but things changed and life happened, and now I think they just lie to each other. To maintain some semblance of order in their lives.”
Celine glanced at the hard bound copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in her hand, and suddenly felt old and alone; like she had aged a hundred years. “It shouldn’t be this difficult,” she said. “Loving someone and being loved. Isn’t everything we do in life, a way to be loved? Why is it so hard?”
Jesse leaned on the bookshelf, his dark brown eyes, trained on her. “What does it mean for you, Celine? Love?”
She laughed softly. “The truth? I’ve no idea. I was raised by a single mom who focused all her energies into making me a strong, independent, career woman. I have spent my entire life being taught to not be dependent on the whims of a man; believing that there’s nothing a man can do, that I can’t.”
She placed One Hundred Years into its place on the bookshelf, and rested her shoulder next to Jesse’s.
“And I’m so grateful to her for that. But, how do I fit love in this narrative? How do I explain to her or even myself, that strong, independent women also want love? We need it, just like we need air, or food or water.
“I can’t deny that despite everything else I’ve achieved, love and companionship mean the world to me. I want to be wanted, to be loved by someone. Will I be playing into the patriarchal oppression of women, if I let a man kiss me, with every single fibre of his being, if he wants to, and I want him to? Is that love?”
The dim light of the overhead bulbs twinkled in Jesse’s eyes. The way he was looking at her, her entire body trembled in anticipation; and for the first time in forever, she wanted time to freeze over. He leaned closer and his lips parted slightly; invitingly. He was waiting for her.
Oh god! She thought, if this was a dream, then let me never wake from it!
“Things are getting dangerous, Jesse.” she whispered.
The yearning in his voice as he said her name sent shivers down her back. In one swift motion, he pulled her against him and kissed her. The touch of his lips on hers, was existence and oblivion at the same time. The world around her dissolved, and she felt her heart physically leave her body and reach out to his; connecting, merging, becoming one.
Her eyes fluttered close, and she melted into his embrace. A soft moan escaped her and she pulled him towards her, clutching at him as if her life was in danger and only he could save her from floating away.
“Oi! What the hell? This is a library for god’s sake!”
Startled, they broke apart. An extremely disapproving library orderly was staring at them from the other end of the bookshelves.
“Sorry!” Celine squealed, blushing to the tips of her hair. Jesse seized her hand and pulled her towards the exit. “Let’s get out of here.”
They passed the orderly, who was still giving them the stink eye, muttering their apologies and inadvertently breaking into nervous giggles, as they collected their coats and made their way out into the night.
Outside, it was drizzling again and they huddled on the stone steps of the library, under the shade of an overhang. For a long time, they sat gazing up at the stars, pointing at the constellations.
“So,” Celine said, picking up the thread of their conversation. “What does it mean for you? Love?”
Jesse elapsed into a thoughtful silence. How should he put it?
“Well,” he said after a lengthy pause, “You know how these days, people are all about these grand romantic gestures? Expensive gifts, flowers, singing from the rooftops and all that?”
Celine nodded, “I wouldn’t say no to a box of chocolates or flowers, honestly.”
“Yeah, totally,” Jesse added. “I mean, nothing against gifts or flowers, they are nice. For me though, love is in getting to know someone. Truly. I’ve heard so many people say that when you know someone for a long time, the novelty wears off; the relationship becomes this routine thing.
“For me, that’s the most exciting part. The poetry of every day. Like, when you are old and you know the story behind every single one of those wrinkles on the corners of her eyes. The laugh lines around her lips, imprinted on your heart like a map of your life together.”
“The poetry of every day,” Celine breathed. “That’s beautiful.”
He smiled and took her hand in his; if he looked into those eyes any longer, he would lose himself. Was this really happening? He couldn’t trust the vigorous affirmation of his heart.
“So,” he said, mastering his emotions and looking at her again. Infuriatingly, she was smiling as if she knew exactly what he’d been thinking.
“Would you like to meet again? Maybe go on an actual date? One where I don’t have to surrender my belongings, and we’re not thrown out of libraries by angry librarians?”
“What are you talking about?” Celine asked in mock surprise, adjusting her dress over her knees. “As far as I am concerned, that was the best part,” she winked.
As they sat together on the cold stone steps, the inky blackness of the night sky gave way to the blush pink of new dawn. They bought a cup of steaming hot tea from a nearby hawker, and huddled together, talking, laughing and crying, passing the cup between them.
It never occurred to them to buy two cups.
*The title is taken from – It Happened One Night – a 1934 pre-Code American romantic comedy film, directed and co-produced by Frank Capra.
*Tinder is an American geosocial networking site and the world’s most popular online dating application. It allows users to anonymously swipe, to like or dislike other profiles based on their photos, a small bio, and common interests. Once two users have “matched”, they can exchange messages, and meet new people.
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