Why me and not them? Why couldn’t that guy have died? Why am I not here right now with Ben looking at a sad woman pacing on the street, on the edge of a nervous breakdown? What right do they have to be happy? Why does everyone in the world have to be happy in front of me?
I go back inside and tell nancy I’ll be in the native american section. I tell her I’m researching the aztecs for next month’s display. I stand in the aisle, running my fingers over the spines, feeling the cellophane crackle as I touch it. I watch as the dewey decimal numbers escalate higher and higher. I try to focus only on the numbers, only on the spines. It works for a moment, for a moment I don’t feel like I want to get a gun. But in that moment, I crash face-first into someone else.
“Oh! I’m so sorry,” he says to me, picking up the book he’s dropped. He’s my age, maybe a bit older. He has black hair and what is probably a permanent five o’clock shadow. He is tall with a firm body and broad shoulders. He is dressed in a faded t-shirt and jeans. I notice his brightly colored Chuck taylors as he picks up his book. I move to get out of his way, but he seems to want to stop and talk.
“Brett,” he says and puts out his hand. I shake it, trying to move on.
“Elsie,” I say.
“Sorry to bump into you like that,” he says. “I’m not that familiar with this library, and the librarians here aren’t very helpful.”
“I’m a librarian here,” I say. I don’t care if he feels awkward.
“Oh.” He laughs shyly. “that is embarrassing. I’m so sorry. again. Wow.this isn’t going well for me, huh?”
“No, I guess not,” I say.
“listen, would you let me buy you a coffee, as an apology?” he asks.
“No, that’s okay. It’s not a big deal.”
“No, really. I’d like to. It would be my pleasure,” he says, and now he’s smiling like he thinks he’s cute or something.
“Oh,” I say. “no, I really should be getting back to work.”
“Some other time then,” he says. Maybe he thinks I’m being demure or shy. I don’t know.
“I’m married,” I say, trying to end it. I don’t know if I’m saying that because I think it’s true or just to get him off my back, the way I used to say “I don’t think my boyfriend would like that” when I was single and hit on by homeless men outside convenience stores.
“Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry, I didn’t . . . I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Yeah, well,” I say as I lift up my hand and show him.
“Well,” he says, laughing. “If it doesn’t work out with you and your husband . . .”
That’s when I punch him in the face.
I’m surprised at how satisfying it is to make contact: the crack of fist to face, the sight of just the smallest trickle of blood out of a nose.
you are not supposed to punch people in the face. you’re especially not supposed to punch people in the face while you are at work. When you work for the city. and when the person you punch in the face is kind of a baby about it and insists that the library call the cops.
When the cops get here, I can’t do much to defend myself. He didn’t hit me. He didn’t threaten me. He didn’t use incendiary language. He did nothing to provoke me. I just assaulted him. so, as embarrassing and over the top as it is, I am being arrested. they don’t handcuff me. one cop even seems to think this is funny. But apparently, when the cops are called because you punched someone and they show up and you say, “yes, officer, I hit that person,” they have to at least bring you down to the “precinct.” one of the police officers escorts me to the backseat of the squad car, reminding me to duck as I get in. as he shuts the door and heads to the front seat, Mr. Callahan comes outside and catches my eye. I should be ashamed, I’m sure. But I just don’t care. I look at him through the backseat window, and I see him crack a smile at me. His smile slowly turns to laughter, a laughter that seems to be equal parts shock and newfound respect, perhaps even pride. the car starts to pull away, and Mr. Callahan gives me a sly thumbs-up. I find myself smiling, finally. I guess I do remember how to do it. you just turn the corners of your mouth up.
When we get to the police station, the cops take my things and book me. they put me in a cell. they tell me to call one person. I call ana.
“You what?” she says.
“I’m at the police station. I need you to come bail me out.” “you’re kidding, right?”
“I’m entirely serious.”
“What did you do?”
“I punched someone in the library stacks, somewhere between 972.01. and 973.6.”
“Okay, I’m coming,” she says.
“Wait. don’t you want to know why I punched him?” I ask. “does it matter?” she asks, impatient.
It feels like hours until she’s here, but I think she actually gets here pretty quickly. I see her standing in front of my cell and . . . ha-ha-ha, how the f**k did I get here in a jail cell? she’s with the officer that arrested me. I am free to go, he says. We’ll wait to see if Brett presses charges.
Ana and I exit the building and we are standing outside. ana hands me my bag of things. I now think this is really funny. But ana doesn’t agree with me.
“In my defense, Mr. Callahan also thought it was funny,” I say.
Ana turns to me. “the old guy?”
He’s not just an old guy. “Forget it,” I say.
“I called susan,” she says. It’s almost a confession.
“I called susan.”
“Because I think I’m out of my league here. I don’t know what to do.”
“So you told on me to my mom? Is that it?”
“She’s not your mom,” ana says, sternly.
“I know that,” I say. “I just mean that’s kind of what you’ve done, right? you don’t want to deal with me so you’re trying to get me in trouble?”
“I think you’ve gotten yourself in trouble.”
“He was being an ass**le, ana.” she just looks at me. “He was! How did you even get her number anyway?”
“It’s in your phone,” she says, like I am stupid.
“Fine. Forget it. I’m sorry I called you.”
“Susan will be at your place in about an hour.”
“She’s coming over? I have to work until five,” I say.
“Something tells me they won’t want you back at work today,” ana says.
We get in her car and she drives me to mine. I get out and thank her again for bailing me out. I tell her I’m sorry to be difficult and that I will pay her back.
“I’m just worried about you, elsie.”
“I know,” I say. “thanks.”
I drive myself home and wait for the knock at the door.
Susan knocks, and I open the door. she doesn’t say anything. she just looks at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I don’t know why I’m apologizing to her. I don’t owe it to her not to get arrested. I don’t owe it to anyone.
“You don’t need to apologize to me,” she says. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
She comes in and kicks off her shoes. she lies down on my couch.
“What happened?” she asks.
I blow out a hard sigh and sit down.
“This guy asked me out,” I say. “and I said no, but he kept at it and I told him I was married—”
“Why did you tell him you were married?” susan asks.
“I tell people I’m still married all the time, and I do it for the wrong reason. I do it so I can feel married. so I don’t have to say out loud that I am not married. Is that what you’re doing?”
“No. Well.” I stop and think. “I am married,” I say. “I didn’t divorce him. We didn’t end it.”
“But it ended.”
“Well, but, not . . . we didn’t end it.”