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I stopped short. My cart filled with books in plastic covers screeched against waxed tiles. Had the South Carolina heat melted my brain? Was I hallucinating and hearing things? I must have been, because someone could not have just called me that.
My head snapped toward three teenage boys sitting at a row of computers under a skylight as the blazing July sun streamed through the glass and onto their hair. I'd seen them before and knew they went to Charleston High. I hadn't been a student there for six years, but it seemed like yesterday.
"What did you say?" I asked in a stern voice.
One of the boys shrank into his seat. His hair was dark and his eyes were blue, and he reminded me of someone. "I wanted to know what time the library closes tonight," he answered.
"And how did you address me when you asked that question?"
"Library Lady," he said meekly.
So I hadn't imagined it. They obviously saw me as one of those dateless women who dress in costumes for Renaissance Festivals and knit sweaters for cats and fret about the possibility of their lady parts rotting if they don't get some use soon.
I almost fell over. Except for the Renaissance Festivals and the cat thing, that was me.
"Dear Lord," I muttered through my fingers, wishing I hadn't twisted my hair into a bun that morning. I'd forgotten that a pulled-tight bun was part of the official Library Lady uniform.
The dark-haired boy's friends laughed at him. "Don't let her use that tone with you," one of them said, shooting me a condescending smirk. He had dark-blond hair like mine, a Confederate flag tattooed on his wrist, and a supersized Coke in a cup beside his keyboard. Cokes weren't permitted in the library. I usually hated enforcing that rule and all the other ridiculous, nitpicky, uptight regulations. But I didn't mind now.
"Get rid of that," I said. "No drinks allowed in the library."
He sneered. "Don't tell me what to do. You're not even a real librarian."
It was bad enough that I hated my job. I didn't need criticism from some snarky teenager. "How would you know that, smart-ass?" I asked. I'd been told since I was old enough to talk that swearing was unladylike and ungodly and rude and crude and I should never do it. But that rule often felt suffocating, and cusswords were sometimes just necessary to describe certain people.
Blondie pointed to my blouse. "Well, it's right there."
How embarrassing. I'd forgotten about the laminated name tag pinned to my shirt that outed me as a lowly library assistant. My job title shouldn't have slipped my mind, since the genuine librarians never let me forget it.
I tried to maintain dignity. "So you can read," I said, lifting my chin. "How shocking."
Blondie's face fell. I supposed he was the bullying type who was used to dishing out crap but didn't enjoy the taste of it. "I'll bet reading is all you ever do," he said. "I'll bet you curl up with a book every night because it's just so lonely in your bed."
Damn that little bastard. Why did so many guys believe the theory that any woman who has a brain and values quality literature can't possibly attract a man? And why did this theory have to be right when applied to me? Not that it had always been that way.
"Hey," the dark-haired boy said sharply. "Cut it out."
I stared as mid-afternoon sunlight beamed down on him. He was handsome and sturdy, with big arms and a strong jaw and Charleston High Football printed across his shirt. I'd had a boyfriend like him once—a boyfriend named Jamie with sapphire eyes and a gleaming smile. His breath had always smelled like Original Mint Scope. But things had ended between us two years ago. We'd wanted different things. And now he was getting everything he wanted, while I shelved books and got harassed by teenagers.
"I'm sorry," said the dark-haired kid. It was probably meant as an apology for the entire group even though the other boys had gone back to the Internet and didn't seem the least bit remorseful. "I didn't mean to insult you with that Library Lady thing, ma'am."
What nerve. "Ma'am" was for mothers, grandmothers, and decrepit spinster aunts whose biggest thrill was church on Sunday. "Don't call me that, either," I said. "Do you know I was a cheerleader at Charleston High? I dated a quarterback, but that doesn't mean I was an airhead. I was on the honor roll all four years. I wanted to be a writer and travel everywhere, and I will if I ever get the chance. This job is just temporary. So don't make assumptions about people and put ugly labels on them. You have no idea how much that can mess with a person's self-image."
He looked at me with a bewildered stare as the other guys dissolved into a fit of laughter. I'd gone from Library Lady to Crazy Library Bitch. I'd always hoped people saw me as Sexy Librarian, but who was I kidding? I'd been neglecting myself. I didn't have time to blow-dry my hair and devote the time to makeup application like I used to. These days, all I did was a rush job on my mascara during my morning ride to the library and I spent so many working hours under fluorescent lights that my skin had turned deathly pale. I was exhausted and disheveled, but this wasn't the real me. Checking out books and nagging teenagers to shut off cell phones hadn't been my plan. It had just … happened.
"I didn't know what else to call you," the dark-haired boy said. "I couldn't read your name tag from here. I'm sorry."
Another apology. He was about sixteen and I was twenty-four, and he'd probably been taught to respect his elders and to call women ma'am. It was the southern way. I'd been taught good manners, too. I'd just been pushed far enough today to forget them.
"You can call me Savannah. And the library closes at six. If you came in just to use the Internet, you've got a half-hour limit," I said, and then pointed my finger at Blondie. "I told you to get rid of that Coke."
He kept his eyes on the computer screen. "Don't you think you're wasting your life enforcing meaningless rules that nobody cares about?"
Every single day.
"It isn't a meaningless rule," I said, walking around the table to stand beside him while he tapped at his keyboard and ignored me. "Cokes can spill, and they can wreck books and computers. You wouldn't want to be responsible for that, would you? So throw it away."
He stared at sports scores. "Go screw yourself. You've probably had a lot of practice."
I wanted to crack his jaw, but instead I casually skimmed my hand across the top of his cup, tipping it over. Coke and ice cubes splashed across the keyboard, dripped down the table, and soaked his crotch.
He jumped out of his seat, brushing ice off the front of his shorts as his friends laughed at him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he shouted in my face.
Showing you who I really am. "Don't raise your voice in the library, young man. Bad things happen when you break the rules."
I walked away, leaving him cussing behind me while I savored feeling good about myself. That was an unusual thing lately. I glanced over my shoulder and saw him complaining to my boss—a card-carrying Library Lady who had a mop of frizzy gray hair, a lazy left eye, and a failed relationship with Jenny Craig.
I sped up to flee the crime scene. The past few minutes had given me a throbbing headache and I needed peace and quiet, so I pushed my cart to a secluded corner with shelves marked Adult Fiction, where I jammed novels into tight spaces.
I remembered an old dream of seeing my name on a cover and my words on pages. A novel by Savannah Morgan—that's what I used to doodle in the margins of my notebooks while my mind wandered during biology and algebra. Back then, I didn't know that Charleston High was so far from the real world. I didn't know that dreams don't come true, happy endings only exist in fiction, romance never lasts, and all the fantasies that authors put into girls' impressionable heads amount to nothing but lies and deception and unrealistic expectations.
I was tempted to shred every page of Pride and Prejudice that I held in my hand.
"Savannah," said a monotone voice behind me.
I put the book on a shelf, turned around, and looked at my boss. She smelled like coffee and always had a piece of hard candy in her mouth.
"Some boy told me you threw a Coke on him," she said. "Is this true?"
I touched my head. There was my man-repellant bun. I yanked out the elastic band, and my hair flowed over my shoulders and down my back. It had been flaxen when I was younger, but over the past few years it had turned into a shade that Mom called golden wheat. She had a name for everybody's hair color. She was a beautician and she worked out of our house, which we'd been struggling to keep.
"No way," I said indignantly, trying to figure out if my boss was looking directly at me. Her wayward eye drifted so much that I was never sure. "I told him several times that having a Coke in the library is a violation of our rules, but he wouldn't listen. He spilled it himself."
She crossed her arms over her torpedo-sized boobs. She seemed doubtful, which was no surprise. She was always on my back about something, and I never met her standards even though most of what I did was brainless labor.
I didn't care—or at least, that's what I always told myself. I just needed a paycheck, although a little gratitude and encouragement would have been nice once in a while.
She slurped her candy. "You don't have proof of that."
"No," I said, "but you should believe me anyway."
The candy cracked between her molars. "Actually," she said, "I don't. So I'm putting you on probation for the next ninety days. I'll keep a close watch on you and see if there's any improvement."
Could I be degraded any further? I wiped my hand across my sweaty, aching forehead.
"You do that," I said, "and I'll quit right now."
I meant it. But I hoped she'd cave. My knees shook beneath my skirt as I thought about everything Mom and I could lose if I stopped bringing home a check.
She shrugged. "Go ahead. I'm not changing my mind."
"I'm not, either," I said as I unpinned my name tag. I tossed it onto the novels in my cart, where it skidded, dropped to the floor, and landed on her practical shoes.
* * *
Tina Brandt pulled her car to the curb. It was a white BMW convertible that had been a gift from her father for her last birthday, and she'd covered the bumper with stickers that said things like Dixie Chick and Keep Calm and Get Your Diamond On.
I opened the door and slid onto the front seat. The car smelled like a cross between the inside of Victoria's Secret and an ashtray. A Marlboro Light dangled from Tina's mouth, which was smeared with a hot-pink lip-plumping gloss. She didn't need to plump anything, though. She also didn't have to wear so much liner around her big green eyes, clip extensions into her wavy brown hair, or keep the push-up bra industry in business. She was even more beautiful without all the fakeness, but she didn't seem to think so. Not that she'd ever say it out loud—even to me, her best friend since kindergarten.
I snatched the cigarette from her lips and flicked it out the window. I wished she'd stop smoking, because I didn't want cancer to take Tina from me like it had stolen her mother when we were in fifth grade. The only proper female guidance she'd gotten since then was from me and Mom, but she rarely took our advice.
I pointed my finger at her. "Give up that nasty habit or I'll tell your daddy that you haven't really quit."
She stared at me for a moment. "Jeez," she said. She'd been raised in a no-cuss zone like I had, and we both believed that uttering Jesus Christ or God Almighty might get us struck by lightning. Jesus was one word we couldn't say out loud unless it was in the sacred sense. "What's your problem?"
I let out a heavy sigh and leaned into the cushy leather seat. "Sorry. I had a bad day."
This wasn't news to Tina. She was used to hearing about my bad days. "Well," she said, "maybe this will cheer you up: It's over with the latest."
She meant her latest boyfriend. There'd been so many since we were kids that I couldn't keep track. She didn't hide them from me like she tried to keep them from everyone else—especially her father. She'd spent years crawling down the trellis outside her bedroom window so she could meet guys waiting in cars. She'd started that when we were fourteen, and she still had to sneak out at night because she still lived at home.
She knew I didn't care for the latest. I didn't care for any of her men. And I wished she wouldn't give herself away so easily and so often. "I'm sorry to hear that," I said, which was only half a lie. I wasn't sorry she'd broken up with that waste of air, but I felt bad that she hadn't once had a boyfriend who was decent to her. "How did it happen?"
She grabbed her cell phone from the dashboard and showed me a text message that said
I don't want you. I don't need you. I never gave a shit about you.
My heart sank. Tina had a knack for finding the meanest and most worthless men in Charleston. She met most of them at the country club where her father played golf and her stepmother organized ladies' luncheons, and the latest had crossed her path while she was answering phones at Mr. Brandt's accounting firm downtown. He'd given her the job the autumn after she dragged herself home from Davidson College in North Carolina, where she'd been accepted only because Mr. Brandt was a friend of the Dean. Her performance in high school hadn't been anywhere near good enough to get her into such a prestigious college, and she'd promised not to let anybody down.
But she did. Just like in high school, she didn't live up to her potential. She blew off studying in favor of her football-player boyfriend and all-night parties, and her abysmal GPA got her kicked out after one year. When she came back, she seemed even more disappointed than Mr. Brandt did. Then she whiled away the summer doing nothing but frequenting The Spa at Charleston Place and tanning beside her pool. Sugar, her stepmother, Crystal, had said, just because you're not college material doesn't mean I'll let you do nothing but loaf around my house like a useless socialite.
"Tina," I began, ready to say something encouraging and sympathetic about how the latest wasn't worthy of her, but she cut me off.
"Who cares," she said with her deep, throaty laugh that sounded like it belonged to a much older woman. She tossed her phone onto the dash and turned up the radio to blast her favorite Dierks Bentley song. "I was fixin' to dump him anyway. He was below average where it counts."
She drove away from the curb and sped down the street with a stiff smile and a clenched jaw. Tina always pretended that nothing bothered her, but I wasn't fooled.
"Thanks for leaving work early to pick me up," I said.
She pressed a button on the dashboard to open the roof. "It was no problem. Daddy never puts up a fuss if I leave before five or take a day off. So why'd you want to cut out early today?"
"I have to apply for a new job … at the mall," I said, forcing the words from my throat. I felt like hurling myself out of the car.
Tina glanced at me as she swerved to avoid an armadillo splattered across the road. She didn't care for critter guts on her brand-new tires. "Did you get fired? If they fired you, you could sue. You do a good job … you're always filling in for everyone, and—"
"I didn't get fired. I quit. And I don't want to talk about it."
She stopped at a red light and lifted her naturally high-arched eyebrows. "Okay," she said. "But don't you think you should take a break for a little while? You could use some time off. And you can always ask my daddy for a job."
I shook my head. Her daddy was the last person I'd ask for anything, but I couldn't tell her that. "I don't want to bother him. I can't take time off, either. I need money."
Tina had a constant cash flow, but unlike most of the girls I'd grown up with, she'd never been snooty about the fact that I didn't. She nodded, the light changed, and she hit the gas. "You mean you need money to get your car fixed? Don't worry about that … I'll take you anywhere you want to go."
"I know. I appreciate it, but I'm not going to keep imposing on you. I need my own car, and I also need to help Mom. Business has been slow … the bills are piling up."
Tina drove me to an upscale outdoor mall where I handed in applications at Sephora and Banana Republic and eight other stores before catching up with her at the bridal shop where we'd planned to meet. She was leaning against its front window and twirling her hair.
"Maybe I should apply here," I said, peeking in the window. Tina was covering part of it, and all I could see was half of a mannequin dressed in a white organza gown.
She shook her head. "I don't think that's a good idea."
I kept trying to look into the store, but she blocked me. "Why isn't it a good idea? And what are you doing?" I asked impatiently. "Get out of the way."
She folded her arms over her low-cut blouse and didn't move. "Forget this place, Savannah. It's filled with snobby women like Crystal. You don't want to work here." She draped an arm around my shoulders, shoved my head down so I was staring at cement, and led me away.
The smell of her mango perfume was suffocating in the heat, and I wasn't in the mood for whatever game she was playing. I disconnected myself from her and headed back to the store.
She tried to stop me, but it was too late. I stared through the bridal shop's window at a pretty redhead admiring her reflection in a full-length mirror. She wore a flowing wedding dress, and her mother and a saleslady beamed at her. She looked like a princess. Cinderella. Somebody's dream.
I swallowed. This was why Tina had tried to keep me away.
She was beside me. "It doesn't matter. It isn't what you wanted."
That's what I'd thought two years ago, when Jamie bought a diamond ring and asked me to marry him. He was in law school at the University of South Carolina then. He'd wanted to tie the knot when he graduated, buy us a house in a fancy area nearby called Mount Pleasant—where Tina lived—and have babies together, in his own words, ASAP.
Only that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to go places, see things, and write award-winning novels that would fly off bookstore shelves. I'd thought that none of those things would happen if I became what he expected: a stay-at-home mom who ate lunch with attorneys' wives and spent her free time getting massages and manicures.
It had been so hard to end it. But he just wouldn't wait, and I couldn't blame him. I knew how it felt to want things. The problem was that lately I'd been thinking that everything I wanted was never going to happen. I'd been wondering if I'd made a terrible mistake.
"I didn't know they were getting married so soon," I said, my voice raw and tight. But I should have known. Jamie had graduated recently. Maybe I'd been blocking it out.
I'd heard about the engagement a while back. The bride was a girl from my high school class who'd been on the cheerleading squad with me and Tina, but Jamie was a year ahead of us and had barely known her then. Now she worked as a paralegal at a law office downtown and the rumor was that they'd hooked up when he clerked there.
"Yeah," Tina said. "I heard about it last week."
I turned away from the window. "Thanks for not telling me."
She smiled. The bells on the bridal's shop door jangled, the door swung open, and there was the redhead with the saleslady calling after her, nervously warning against stepping outside because the sidewalk would dirty her hem.
The bride went by two first names. She'd been one of those pageant contestants with a pushy mother who'd dressed her up in high heels and a thick layer of makeup like a six-year-old prostitute. She'd also been my nemesis from eighth through eleventh grade. Now she gave me a phony smile and spoke in a sugary voice as she lingered in the doorway.
"Savannah, are you stalking me?" she asked.
"Don't flatter yourself, Eva Lee," I said.
"Seriously," Tina added. "Savannah has better things to do."
Sure, I thought. I have better things to do, like resume my desperate search for a minimum-wage job while this empty-headed debutante gets ready to marry the only guy I've ever loved.
"Of course she does," Eva Lee said in her saccharine tone, moving her steel-blue eyes from the run in my panty hose to my smeared mascara. She'd always been so calm and cool and polite, like a shady version of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes from Gone with the Wind. And it killed me to think that she and Jamie were going to make the most beautiful children.
It had been bad enough imagining them together at the law firm. She'd probably batted her false eyelashes in his direction and pretended to drop pens so she could bend over in tight skirts to pick them up. Maybe she'd offered to help out when he was working late for the sole purpose of tempting him to nail her on a desk covered with pleadings and contracts.
"Are you still working at the library?" she asked.
"No," Tina answered for me. "Savannah's pursuing better opportunities."
Eva Lee touched the string of pearls around her graceful neck. "Like what?"
My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I just stared at the cute spattering of freckles across her delicate nose and her bee-stung lips. I couldn't even hate her, because this was my fault. She hadn't stolen Jamie from me. I'd let him go.
Tina hiked up her blouse to stop her satin bra from sticking out. "None of your business, Cinderslutta. You can put on that well-bred, Miss Priss act all you want, but we've known you long enough to see what's behind it. So spare us the phony conversation."
Eva Lee cocked an eyebrow. She was still touching her pearls, and the massive, marquise-cut diamond on her left hand glinted beneath the sun and practically singed my retinas. It wasn't the ring that I hadn't taken from Jamie. This one was an upgrade. Maybe he thought she was, too.
"I've known you for a long time, too, Tina," said Eva Lee, completely unmoved. "Do you still sneak out of your daddy's house after dark like an oversexed alley cat?"
All the color drained from Tina's bronzed skin. She didn't talk about her late-night doings with anybody except me, yet it hadn't kept word from trickling out. But even when we were whispering, she always held back. She tried to turn things romantic when I knew they weren't. Her stories always ended before they got too personal, like when a couple kisses in a movie and the screen goes dark just as they open a bedroom door. But when Tina had a few drinks in her, the stark truth flowed from her mouth.
Eva Lee shifted her eyes from Tina to me and widened her fake smile. "I'm sure I'll see you around, Savannah."
I was sure she would. I was sure we'd run into each other for the rest of our lives.
When she was gone, I sighed and my shoulders slumped, and Tina put her arm around me as we headed toward the BMW.
"Jeez," she said. "What a snotty B."
"There won't be any hellfire and damnation if you swear, Tina. And I know Eva Lee's a bitch. She's been that way since junior high. But she's smart … unlike me."
Tina stopped walking and looked into my face. "You're very smart. You've got a college degree in English literature. And the stories you write are some of the best I've ever read."
Tina had been my unofficial editor since we were kids. She was the only person I trusted not to snicker and criticize first drafts straight off the printer. For years, I'd been pacing nervously in the hallway outside her bedroom while she curled up on her window seat with my work and her Sharpie, writing things like Beautiful imagery and I'm not clear about why the aunt doesn't get along with the sister. I just wished she'd used her smarts at Davidson.
She looked at me more closely. "If you're thinking about Jamie, it's only because the right guy hasn't come along yet. You just have to get back out there and meet someone else. I mean … Jamie's the only guy you've ever slept with."
I rolled my eyes. "Say it a little louder, Tina. Somebody across the street didn't hear."
She covered her mouth to smother her husky laugh. "You have a lot to offer," she said, bending her elbow around mine. "Don't forget it."
I'd forgotten it a while ago. But I was lucky that I had her to remind me.
Copyright © 2013 by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal