Carla’s studio was on the same street as the bookstore. Prime real estate off Spring Street. A real artist would have killed for a quarter the space. Nathan held the lease on it and Carla created illusions in it, expensive ones for magazines. It was February – the day before Nathan’s birthday, a little before noon. Carla dispatched a piece of artwork and left the studio for the cafe at the other end of the street. She ate a supergreen salad with a skinny latte and, by the time she came out, a threatening storm cloud had turned the air gothic grey. She only made it half a block before a growl of thunder and a jag of lightning startled her into a dash for the nearest storefront. Within seconds rain was sheeting down, pelting her forehead and splattering off the sidewalk and over her long suede boots. She sheltered under the canopy of the bookstore as the rain sluiced the street into gridlock. It showed no sign of abating, so she darted inside.
Drenched umbrellas filled a basket at the door. Carla was breathless and warm, despite her jeans sticking to her thighs. She unzipped her jacket. The bookstore had an old-paper sort of smell and was quiet as a bowling green, a world away from the street where she’d just run. Heads bobbed up and disappeared again between the bookshelves. Muffled voices hummed as if through cotton wool.
Carla found her way to Architecture. That was a start. If the rain wouldn’t let up, it was at least a chance to find a gift for Nathan. She wanted to get it right this year. She wanted it to be perfect. She eased a volume off the shelf and took in one of the glossy spreads: ‘This simple dwelling emerges organically from a stark landscape’. The photography was impressive – shot in Spain or South America. It was certainly a maybe, but as she reached up to replace it while she looked for another, somebody passed her in the narrow aisle and knocked the book clean out of her hand. She swooped to pick it up and came near to colliding with a broad shouldered man in a flannel shirt.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said in a deep, not quite American voice. ‘Here, let me get that.’ Clutching the books he was holding, he reached forward and his arm brushed her knee. ‘Clumsy of me,’ he said, gathering up her book. ‘But no harm done.’ They stood up and he smiled, his green eyes fixing her for a moment. ‘I see you got caught in the rain.’
A blush prickled her cheeks. ‘It was quite a downpour,’ she said, peeling a strand of damp hair from her forehead. He wasn’t wearing a jacket and his unruly reddish-brown hair was quite dry. ‘You look like you missed it.’
‘Yeah. I’ve been here a while.’
Conscious of him, she let her eyes fall past the friendship bracelet at his wrist to the frayed hems of his Levi’s. He was wearing heavy-duty boots. Wherever he came from, it wasn’t Manhattan.
He handed her the book. ‘So you like architecture?’
‘I suppose,’ she said. There was something about his voice. She wished he would keep talking. ‘Though I was thinking of it as a gift … you have quite a selection there.’
‘I like to stock up when I’m in town.’ His voice caught distinctively on the word stock and she wondered if he was a Midwesterner, but it didn’t quite fit. She glanced at one of the books he was holding.
‘You like sailing?’ she said.
‘Sure. When I get the chance.’ He stared for a moment into the middle distance. She was close enough to see the dusting of tawny freckles on his skin and the way his hair curled over the collar of his shirt. He smiled at her again, his irises catching the light and something flickered inside her like the wing of a bird.
‘Okay then,’ she said, gripping the book about Spanish architecture.
‘Okay then,’ he said in his lilting voice and her heartbeat tumbled and righted itself while she made a show of looking at her watch.
‘I’ve got to be somewhere,’ she said, but she remained rooted to the spot.
His stillness seemed to search her and she felt a pull, a desire to look at him for longer and take in his intense yet strangely open face. He stood back to let her pass and she caught the warm scent of his shirt, like cedar. At the end of the aisle, she looked back. His eyes were still on her.
Back at the studio, Carla took off her wet things. She opened the closet door and stood in front of the mirror in her sweater and panties. Her thighs had a blue tinge from the dark denim, making her long legs appear morbid and weirdly detached from her torso. Her hair fell in dirty blonde tendrils over her collarbones. She peered into the glass, half expecting to see somebody else. She wiped a smudge of mascara from under her lashes. Her face, blank of make-up, had a kind of light in it. What just happened in there? Why was she feeling so lightheaded as if the energy had drained out of her and come surging back in? He was only some guy in a bookstore. He’d caught her eye, that’s all. It happens. But thinking about him sent a shimmy through her, like a ripple through water. She reached into the closet for a dry pair of jeans and caught her reflection – she could see how skinny she was. She leant into the mirror and puffed out her cheeks. Is that how she’d look if she were pregnant? She let out the air. Silly. She so had time for all that. She began to pull on her jeans and stopped, grabbed the leather cushion from the recliner and wiggled it under her sweater. She couldn’t help it. She turned sideways, thrust her bony hips forward and waddled – a full-blown mama – in front of the mirror.