Working at the [Houston Public] library, among all those books, was really great. There was nothing I appreciated more than good literature, and at the library I found I could encourage that appreciation in others.
A few hours into my shift, my cell phone rang. It was Charlie.
“Hey Meredith,” he said, “How’s it going?”
“Oh,” I sighed, “It’s going! What’s up?”
“Oh, not much,” he replied, “Just going to do a little sight-seeing with Fred Winston and my sisters today.”
I smiled; good thing I was away at work. “That’s nice,” I told Charlie.
“Say, would it be okay for us to meet up there at your library?” Charlie asked casually. “It would be less of a drive for Fred, and it’s a nice central location between here and Beaumont. Would that be okay with you?”
I almost choked. No, that would not be okay! “He’s coming… you’re meeting him here?” I spluttered.
Charlie laughed at my reaction, “No need to get all bent out of joint! Do you have a problem with that, Meredith?”
“Um,” I backpedaled furiously, “No, that would be fine; it’s fine; that’s okay. Thanks for letting me know!”
“That’s right; I knew you wouldn’t mind. Say, keep an eye out for him, would ya? He might overestimate Texas traffic, and Beaumont is closer to Houston than Austin is. He might be there early, and if he does, just keep track of him and let me know where he is when I get there, ok?”
Great! So not only was Fred coming, but I might have to face him alone! What could be worse? “Okay, I’ll do that, Charlie.”
“Thanks, Mer. See you later.”
I hung up the phone and slipped it back into my jeans pocket. I resumed my duties at the library, always keeping a wary eye on the front doors, glancing toward them every time I heard them slam. After much deliberation I decided that perhaps the best course of action would be to see if I could avoid Fred’s sight, when I saw him. I could still keep an eye on him for Charlie—it just probably would be better…easier… if he didn’t see me.
At about eleven o’clock, I had relaxed considerably, and now weaved between the shelves, re-stocking the returned books. I had a book that needed to return deep into the Nonfiction section. I made my way to the correct shelf, past row after row—
I stopped as I passed one aisle in particular. Part of me wanted to move on, to pretend I hadn’t seen what my eyes and my mind registered that I had, but my body would not respond. The next aisle was the home for the book in my hand. My heart beat feverishly as I slowly made my way down that aisle to the right place for the book. As I replaced it, I glanced through the gap at the back of the shelf, and I could just make out a shock of dark-blonde hair above a forehead I would know anywhere. I felt icy-cold, then burning-hot all in a moment. He was here! He was right there in front of me, reading some book, with no idea that I was staring at him! I heard the pages rustle, and I looked away so he wouldn’t know I had been staring at him. Besides, I hadn’t been staring at him; I only saw his forehead, and the whole thing probably took less than a minute. It wasn’t staring.
I pushed the cart of books out of the aisle and prepared to continue before Fred left his aisle.
I stopped; too late! I turned to face him.
Fred Winston stared at me; the moment between us seemed to last a whole hour. I could see his blue eyes scanning me in his old, keenly perceptive manner, from head to toe. His jaw fell.
“Meredith?” he gasped.
“Hi,” I responded. It was all I could manage. I didn’t even know what to call him. Frederick? Just Fred? In the height of our relationship, I started to call him Freddy—but that was years ago! Wouldn’t he be too old for something like that? I blinked when I realized Fred was speaking.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me, “I thought you moved.”
I fought to make my voice come, “I—I work here,” I tried to answer his questions. “I’m going to join my family in California later in November.” Fred was frowning as if he was trying to figure something out. Why wouldn’t he smile at me? Should I not expect him to smile at me? Was he waiting for me to say something else? What else should I say? “Congratulations on—on your graduation,” I said, automatically sticking out my hand.
Fred shook it. “Oh, yeah, that,” he shrugged mildly. “You didn’t come to the party—“ he began to say, but then he looked at me and raised an eyebrow, “did you?”
“No,” I answered. What had been the purpose of his comment? Did it really matter that much to him that I wasn’t at the party? He didn’t seem to notice until now, and even now he wasn’t sure if he had seen me there or not. Evidently he hadn’t even been looking for me last night. I watched him glance around the room, searching, I knew, for Charlie and his sisters.
After a few more excruciatingly awkward moments, he finally asked me, “You know Charlie Mangrove, right?” I was about to answer, when he caught himself, “Of course you do, your sister Cassandra married him, now I remember. Sorry,” he was still staring around the room, and around my head, never at my face. Obviously, he was wishing for Charlie to get there so he could leave. Sure enough, Fred asked me, “Have you seen him yet? I was supposed to meet him here.”
“No I haven’t,” I answered, not daring to say anymore. I waited for him to say something else—but what would two one-time friends reconnected out of the blue say to each other that we hadn’t already said? “How are you?” We’d passed that point in the conversation, hadn’t we? Now we were just standing there, two feet apart, saying nothing, not making eye contact. It moved beyond awkward and became just plain lame.
“Well, I need to get back to work,” I finally sighed, when it didn’t appear that Fred intended to say anything else.
He blinked as if he hadn’t even realized it, then nodded, still not looking at me, “Um, right, uh—I’ll just—“ he didn’t bother to finish his sentence as he dove down the nearest aisle and left me alone.
I pushed the cart to the next location. Did this mean he still hadn’t forgiven me for breaking it off with him all those years ago? He certainly didn’t seem too torn up about it; at least, he still talked to me—if you could call making short, terse remarks with very little acknowledgement to what the other person said or felt talking to someone. And yet, as I continued to return books and think about our meeting, I couldn’t find it in myself to blame him for treating me so distantly. He had done nothing wrong by me; I had broken it off for no other reason than to give him the freedom he needed to decide for himself if I was the right one, or if there might be someone else for him whose family could love him as she did. Now here I was giving him that chance again.
I moved to the service elevator at the back of the second floor of the library, the whole of which was the “Nonfiction Section.” There was another one that the public used, but this one was reserved specifically for employees like me. It landed and I moved on through my work, confident that soon Charlie would arrive and Fred would leave, and the worst would be over. As I was around behind the large Reading Nook at the center of the first floor, in the Young Adult Fiction section, I heard Helena’s and Lily’s voices above the hushed hubbub of the normal library crowd. They chatted merrily away as if they were in a shopping mall, not a library. I knew Charlie would be with them, and I thought about approaching them and letting them know Fred was upstairs, but I still hadn’t even seen them when I heard Helena ask, “Where’s Fred Winston?”
“There he is!” Lily cried out. Then, to my horror, I heard her yell, “Yoohoo! Winston!” I heard several people shush her, and I suddenly felt that, as much as I loved the Mangroves, I didn’t exactly feel like associating myself with them just now. I furtively went about the shelves, knowing that I was safe as long as they were upstairs, and hoping that I would be able to stay out of sight till they left.
I finished returning all the books and I was pushing the empty cart past the public elevator, when the bell rang and the doors opened. Lily came blasting out the minute she saw me.
“Oh Meredith!” she cried, grabbing my hand and pulling me away from the cart. “We found him! You have to meet this guy!”
She pulled me over to where Fred had just exited the elevator and stood with Charlie and Helena. She grabbed Fred’s hand just like mine and said, “Fred, this is Cassandra’s sister, Meredith; Meredith, this is Fred W—“
“We’ve already met,” Fred interrupted her shortly. All three of the Mangroves looked surprised; none of them knew of Fred’s and my previous relationship, nor that we had just come in contact with each other upstairs. Fred looked me in the eye and smiled, as if the whole surprise meeting had not happened, and he was the same congenial, mannerly person everyone thought he was. “How are you, Meredith?” he asked, extending his hand.
“Fine, thanks,” I answered, shaking his proffered hand; the handshake had been nothing more than a quick grasp upstairs. Now it was a firm, businesslike grip. Why was he doing that? He dropped my hand, and picked up Lily’s and Helena’s. They happily stood on his either side. He looked at Charlie, “Shall we go?”
“Oh, let’s!” Helena cried.
“Tallyho!” Lily crowed.
The trio marched gaily out of the library.
Charlie turned back to me before following them. “See you tonight, Mer,” he told me.
I stood numbly for several minutes after they left.
What in the world had just happened?