I met Zoe in the library near the biography section. I was sitting in one of the big, overstuffed chairs by the window reading People when I looked up and saw her staring at me. She sat in the chair opposite me. She wore a long flowing dress the color of a summer sky, her legs tucked under her, her brown leather sandals lined up neatly on the floor. Her eyes were the same color as her dress and they watched me, unblinking. She held a book but I couldn’t make out the title because she had it turned face down in her lap, as if watching me were infinitely more interesting than reading a book. I was flattered and annoyed. The library is my sanctuary. I don’t go there to get cruised.
Funny thing is, I was never much of a reader before her. In fact, I’d only been going to the library for two or three months when I met her. I’d never been to the big Ft Lauderdale branch library, even though I grew up three miles away. One day I was paying a ticket at the courthouse down the street, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and pick up some tax forms at the library. By then, it was already the middle of March. I’m a bit of a procrastinator.
I had no idea how wonderful the library was. Once I got out of high school, I made it a point to avoid all things academic. But that first visit made me a believer. I’d make a trip to the library once a week, maybe two, not for the books but for the silence, the utter sense of solitude. Everyone whispers in the library, everyone is deferential to your need for peace and quiet. It was so unlike my job as a waitress at one of the clubs on the strip , I couldn’t help but return again and again. I’d have been happy to sit by the window on the second floor and watch the traffic go by, but the librarians gave me funny looks. Sometimes homeless people go to the library to cool off in the summer. I didn’t think I looked like a homeless person, but I figured if I had my nose stuck in a magazine, they’d leave me alone.
I looked up from an article about the summer blockbusters to see her still watching me, her finger stuck between the pages of the book, marking her place. Her hair was long and loose around her face, a halo of dark, wavy ringlets shot through with strands of silver. She was a few years older than me, I thought. It was hard to tell. She had an exotic look, maybe Indian or Saudi, all sharp angles and good bone structure. Her eyes threw me, though. They were blue as blue can be. I wondered how that recessive trait had popped out.
I realized I’d been staring at her and felt myself blush. I’m as fair as they come, pale skin, short spiky red hair, light green eyes the color of sea glass. It was a funny joke God played on me, making me be born in a state that has sunshine three hundred and twenty days a year. I skulked about in long sleeve blouses, long pants, sun screen and sunglasses, protecting my pale flesh from the harsh rays that would turn my creamy skin into a mottled canvas of freckles. My last girlfriend, Maggie, used to bitch because I never wanted to go to the beach. But I never heard her complain when she explored every inch of my sun-free skin.
“Aren’t you hot?” the woman across from me said finally.
I flinched. Her voice seemed to echo throughout the wing. No one else seemed to notice. I shrugged. “Not really.”
“I’m hot.” She hiked her dress up to mid-thigh and fanned her face with the hem. “It’s usually forty degrees in here, but today if feels like they’ve got the heat on.”
She was appealing, but I didn’t want to talk about the heat. I wanted to read about the summer movies. I wanted to be left alone. I raised the magazine up and covered my face, hoping to discourage any further conversation. I didn’t give in to the temptation to peek around the glossy page and see if she was still watching me. I finished reading about Jude Law’s newest flick and moved on to a fascinating tale about liposuction in Hollywood.
I heard the swish of fabric and was almost disappointed that I’d run her off. I jumped when she pulled the magazine away from my face. “That shit will rot your brain,” she said.
She dumped the book she’d been reading in my lap and then crouched by my chair. “A is for Austen,” she whispered close to my ear.
I flipped it over. Sense and Sensibility. I shook my head and tried to hand it back to her. “It’s not my style.”
She pushed it back at me. “Try it, you’ll like it.”
“I don’t have a library card,” I blurted.
When she laughed, I shivered. “It’s okay, I already checked it out. Just have it back in two weeks.”
Then she was gone, her dress billowing out behind her like a blue cloud, her sandals slap-slapping across the floor. I watched her until she walked through the door. Then I remembered to close my mouth.
By the time two weeks had rolled around, I’d gotten through Sense and Sensibility. I still wasn’t convinced I was cut out for that literary crap, but I was kind of surprised it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected it to be. I dropped the book in the slot in the lobby of the library and headed for my favorite chair.
She was already there, looking resplendent in a sleeveless red sun dress with a gold Batik design scattered across it. She looked up at me from the book she was reading. Another book lay in her lap. “Did you like it?”
I shrugged. “It was all right. I’m not really into that highbrow English stuff.”
She arched an eyebrow. “You’re going to be a tough nut to crack, I can tell.”
I played it cool. I sat down across from her and thumbed through the magazines on the table by my chair. I picked up Cosmo. She looked as if she was going to blow a gasket. I smirked over the top of the magazine. “I’m tougher than you might think.”
It was part challenge, part bravado. I was intimidated by her exotic beauty and her obvious intellect.
She didn’t disappoint. She glided from her chair and put both books on the arm of my chair. “B is for Bronte. Two books, two weeks.”
There was no way I was going to read two books in two weeks. Before I could tell her that, she was gone. I looked at the books. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I vaguely remembered Wuthering Heights from high school. Actually, I remembered reading the Cliff’s Notes.
Somehow, I got the books done in two weeks. More amazing, I really liked Jane Eyre. I showed up at the library, puffed up like a peacock, and returned the books. I grinned when I saw her sitting in her usual chair, dressed all in white. White shimmery blouse, white skirt with silver buttons up the front, white sandals showing off white toenails.
“Well?” she asked, looking up from the book open on her lap.
“I liked Jane. She had balls.”
“Like you.” She arched an eyebrow. “And Cathy?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Too whiny.”
She nodded. “I’m Zoe, by the way.”
I was surprised. I figured she’d go on being the mysterious woman from the library. “Amy,” I said.
She studied me, her dark lashes blinking slowly, languidly. She stroked the pages of the book in her lap with a delicate white-tipped nail. I felt my nipples tighten as the pages fluttered softly. Her gaze never shifted from my face, but by her quiet smile I suspected she knew the effect she had on me. She stood and crossed the narrow expanse between our chairs. She knelt, placing the book in my lap with a gentle caress of my khaki clad thigh. “C is for cunt,” she whispered, and I could have sworn her tongue slicked hotly against the rim of my ear.