The next morning, he was there at ten, but I was busy with a group of tourist customers, looking for maps and history books about the city. They got me really busy for at least an hour, but in the end, I managed to sell something to every single one of them.
He was smiling. “You are very skilled in dealing with people.”
“No. I am a total wreck in dealing with people.” I wasn’t mentioning his request purposely, to give him ground to back off.
He looked at me, with his smile – that I would have found attractive, had I been the least interested, or at least still sensible to male charms – and asked, “What was your decision, then?”
“You said my conditions, right? I would choose where, when and how, right?”
“Yes, I said it.”
“Well, in half an hour, lunch break, I have an hour and a half, by walking, in the small restaurant there.” I pointed across the road. “And each one pays for themselves.”
“Wow! I can’t say you don’t know what you want. Deal! I bet the conversation will be worth even if we were going to eat on a bench. Care if I wait here? In half an hour I can’t do much anyway, I’ll check some books.”
I answered, “As you prefer.” With my mind already focusing on the next client.
At lunch, when I was about to close the shop, Mary reminded me of my ‘non-date’ that I had forgotten already. I was about to go up in my room to prepare a light meal. I thanked her, and exited the shop by the main door, instead of closing it from inside and going up to my room. He was out there waiting for me.
I joined him and we crossed the road. The restaurant was nice and I knew it was cheap enough for me to afford every now and then, but also that the owner was an old guy who loved cooking and treated his customers well. The advantages of a neighbourhood which was still an old-fashioned place. The conversation was enticing, his knowledge about books wide, and it was he who told me it was time to go.
“Oh, sorry… I was so focused on your speech that I didn’t realize time was passing.”
“May I hope to have some other meals as pleasant as this one?” He asked when we entered the bookstore. Mary was there already.
“I don’t know… let me think about it!” I teased with a spontaneous laugh, which was something that didn’t happen to me for years.
Before leaving, he whispered, “You are beautiful when you laugh, it’s like if the sun started to shine.” Then he left, leaving me as red as a tomato.
Mary looked at me and said “You are red and embarrassed. I bet he made a comment on your smile. It’s the first time I see a spontaneous smile on your face in three years, and it made you beautiful. If someone stole that smile from you willingly, they must be heartless!”
“They are…” I murmured, tears starting to wet my eyes. Then I reacted, run in the bathroom to calm myself down, and started to do my job.
Mary was aware that books were going to sell lesser and lesser, so she accepted one of the suggestions I made, to transform the bookstore in a half café. She got the license easily and for a reasonable price, since there weren’t any around in the area, and we passed several days moving the books and freeing a side of the bookstore. I then discovered that the empty ambient next to it was hers also, so the bookstore was doubled in size when the works were done.
We had a full café part, that connected to the library and a more ‘living room’ ambient, where groups could meet and discuss. Students from the neighbourhood and nearby high school and college started to frequent the place, and soon it became a place for the quietest students to meet and sometimes to study in the two-seat tables in the bookstore, as if it was a library. They, of course, consumed something, and started to buy books from us, or to get their schoolbooks from us. We also hired young female students who needed some income to pay their rent while studying to graduate at the nearby college.
In those months Robert took the habit to visit often, at least twice a week, but at a certain point, I had to start refusing most of his invites. He was puzzled, because when I accepted we enjoyed ourselves a lot.
One day he discovered the reason by chance, because he was coming to ask me out again and overheard me speaking with the grocer and telling him I would pay at the end of the week, when I’d get my pay. The man knew me well by then, and accepted.
Robert waited for me to be back at the bookstore and then entered and when I was alone he said that he heard, and understood then why I was refusing to go out with him. I spent all of my savings for that, and now I hadn’t enough to pay for my own food. I was ashamed. “Please, leave. Go away. Please.”
“No way. It was my fault. I have a good job, and paying for two wouldn’t have made any difference for me. I asked you out, and was always the one insisting. And I enjoyed our time together more than you could imagine, thus it is my fault that you find yourself in this difficult situation. I have a solution, anyway. Wait.”
He left, and half an hour later was back with two big bags of groceries. He moved to the back of the shop, that by then he knew well, and put them next to the door leading to the external entrance and the stairs for my room.
“Your solution is to have pity of me and do some charity?” I asked coldly. By then he knew quite well my pride – and my diffidence in accepting anything from anyone – and I can’t say he disliked it.
“The opposite, Julie. I decided to exploit your situation to pass more time with you, while we cook together the things I buy. Or you can cook for me, if you prefer, as a payback.” He smiled.
I was dumbfounded. Then I got his joke and started to laugh. I don’t remember I laughed that loud in my life, ever. I could see Mary watching what was happening and when she saw me laugh, her severe look softened with a small smile. I recomposed, and told him “Ok, fine, you won. Do not expect a chef, get ready to eat salads and burned toasts.”
I wasn’t that bad at cooking, but I wasn’t a chef either. Let’s say I was decent at most.
And so, we started to have lunch in my small flat, where I rigorously kept all my private things hidden and the bedroom door locked. After a while, he came to visit on Saturdays or Sundays, and we chatted from morning through lunch and dinner, until it was late night and he had to leave.
We were getting friends, but it was slow and he sensed I still couldn’t trust people. It took him almost ten months to soften me enough to tell him my story, which happened one Saturday evening after dinner. He was shocked, and when I told him how I lost my baby, he had tears flowing.
“Julie, now I understand why you are so shielded and wary against people. I can’t blame you. Those people would deserve to be ruined and live on the streets. I bet none in that stuck-up family worked a day in their lives, but the most despicable are your parents, they – sorry if that could offend you – are really the lowest of the scum. Anyway, I don’t think they could treat you that way, without breaking the law. You could sue them and get loads of money as reimbursement, you know?” I answered that I’d rather forget about them, and wasn’t interested in money anyway, my life was fine as it was: I owed nothing to anyone, and was able to live by myself.
I needed cuddling that evening, and he stayed longer than usual. He was caressing my hair while I was crying for my lost baby, and at a certain point, all my defences broke. I took my courage and kissed his lips. He responded, and soon we were kissing passionately. At a certain point, after a while, I was unbuttoning his shirt, when he stopped me. “No Julie, that’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong? You don’t want me?”
“Oh, you can’t imagine how much I want you. But in this moment you aren’t yourself. You would hate me and yourself tomorrow and I would hate myself as well. And I can’t afford it.”
“I’m that disgusting because I’m dirt poor? Then you can take your charity food and your sorry ass and disappear from my sight forever!” I coldly told him, tears again streaming down my face