When Lila and I arrive at the coffee shop, the book readings are well underway. We slink our way around the wrought iron chairs and mosaic tables at the front and find a couple of empty folding chairs that had been set up at the back for stragglers. There’s a large woman with lots of curly hair and thick glasses at the microphone reading from a stack of papers. Just as we sit, she finishes, and the audience begins clapping politely. Looking pleased with herself, she puts the mic back on the stand and makes her way to her seat.
Lila and I join in on the applause even though we have no idea what she just read. I am scanning the room for any sign of Harrison, and then I see him.
Lila spots him at the same time and says, “Jackpot!”
He’s heading up to the mic.
He isn’t wearing the driving cap today, and I can see that his hair is thin and blond on top. He’s wearing cotton pants and a vintage Police band T-shirt. He pushes his glasses up on his nose as he takes the microphone and begins to speak.
“As most of you know, I’m Dr. Paul Goodman. I’m going to read a little excerpt from a novel I’m trying to publish. I hope you enjoy it.”
“See, he is a professor!” Lila hisses at me, clapping enthusiastically.
I guess I can’t call him Harrison anymore.
Dr. Paul Goodman begins to read, the fingers of his right hand flicking the corner of the stack of pages as he does. I wonder if it’s nerves, but he looks calm. His voice is deep and warm, friendly, gentle. He tells the story of a Portuguese sailor, an indentured servant on a ship owned by the Virginia Company, heading from Europe to the New World in the 1600s. The passage he reads is pulled from the middle of the book, obviously, because Demetrio, the main character, has his eye on another indentured servant– a Spanish girl named Montserrat.
His voice trills over the foreign words, and I realize that he has written a historical romance– my favorite genre. And it’s good. He’s good.
As he reads of the sexual tension between Demetrio and Montserrat, his fingers continue to play the pages as if they were a musical instrument.
When he finishes the few paragraphs and steps back from the mic, I realize I have been holding my breath.
“Holy cow,” is all Lila can say. Then she adds, “I’m taking my wedding ring off.”
“Don’t you dare,” I retort, a little too harshly.
We listen to three more people read poetry and fiction, but I find I can’t concentrate. Something has awakened in me. I feel silly and obsessive. I keep looking at Harrison, no, Paul, sitting three rows up at one of the mosaic tables. He’s tapping his foot in time to the iambic pentameter of the poet in the spotlight. I can see the back of his head, the shoulders of his black T-shirt, the steam from his mug as he takes a sip of his beverage. I want to tell him how amazing his excerpt was. How I want to hear more. About Demetrio and Montserrat. And about him.
I don’t even need Lila’s encouragement when the readings are over and half of the audience begins filing out. Paul stays behind, chatting with some of the other writers. Next thing I know, I am standing next to his table, waiting for a chance to speak.
The writer he’s talking and laughing with at the next table glances up at me and doesn’t look away, which makes Paul turn his head and see me for the first time. I did dress up since Lila and I were going out, but since I don’t really think of myself as all that pretty, I was surprised at the looks the two men were giving me. Most of the time when people look at me, their eyes just keep on going, as if I’m not interesting enough to stop their gaze, like I’m a wall or a refrigerator or a family sedan parked on the curb. But the look they were giving me was different. In my black top and skinny jeans (I had lost a few pounds since starting karate) with my sparkly silver sandals and chocolate-covered-cherry lipstick, I could tell they really saw me.
“Hello,” Paul says. His friend leans back in his chair, giving us space.
“I loved your reading. It was . . .” I wished I had thought up a good adjective before opening my mouth– this guy was a writer after all. His coffee on the table smells good– sweet and spicy. “It was delicious,” I finish.
“Thank you,” he says graciously. He moves his hand to indicate I should sit down at the table with him. I do. “I’m Paul,” he says, holding out his hand.
“Claire,” I say, taking it. It’s warm and dry and firm. I feel like I’m in a movie, and for once I’m not the comic relief.
“Are you a writer?” he asks.
“Oh no,” I say, “I just came for the reading. But I’m a fan of historical fiction.”
“You look familiar,” he says, and from his smile I can tell he knows exactly where he’s seen me before.
I nod. “Yes if you’re into coffee shops or karate, you may have seen me,” I joke.