The first time I saw her, I noticed her but she barely registered. It was a morning somewhere between Monday and Friday, and she was sitting at a table inside a neighborhood café with her books spread out all over the table. Buried in her reading like that, she looked lost. There was no chance of her seeing me. I watched her read through the glass, admiring the near perfect shot. Her wild blonde curls spilled over her shoulders, and her face looked like porcelain. She flipped a page and jotted something down in her notebook with a Sharpie. No way would she notice. I pulled my Nikon out of my bag and set up the shot. I clicked, and she must have sensed something because right then she looked up. Terror morphed into surprise and then into joy as a large smile spread across her face, all in the span of seconds. She smiled like she recognized me, but we’d never met before.
I returned her smile, slipped my Nikon back into my bag, and rejoined the throng of pedestrians on the sidewalk. She sure was beautiful, but beauty was the norm in this part of town. I never expected to see her again. The shot turned out, though. It was good enough that it made the cut into my gallery. My followers thought so too and pretty soon that shot was all over the place. Of course Vivi noticed. “She’s pretty,” she announced, glaring at my laptop with one eyebrow raised. “Who is she?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Just some girl on the street,” I pointed at the filename and wrapped my arms around Vivi. “Are you jealous?” I joked.
“Jealous?” Vivi asked, like she’d never heard the word before. “Why on earth would I be jealous?”
“I have no idea,” I answered, kissing her neck.
“She has fantastic hair, that’s all,” she nodded towards my laptop, oblivious to the nuances in my photo, as usual. She touched her own short dark hair, perfectly arranged and sprayed in place, as if to reassure herself that it was still there. “And people sure like her. Look how much attention she’s getting,” she whined, pointing at my stats. “Don’t forget, we’re meeting Emma and Greg for drinks after class,” Vivi squeezed out of my arms and buzzed around my kitchen, helping herself to a wooden spoon and a small skillet, which she tossed into her large purse.
“Hey, what are you doing? Don’t take my stuff,” I tried to grab her halfheartedly as she breezed past.
“Props for rehearsal,” she called on her way toward the door, as if that explained everything. “See you later, Jason darling,” she grinned from the door, then tossed her leopard-print jacket over her arm and opened the door. “Emma and Greg tonight, around nine,” she said as the door closed behind her.
“Whatever,” I said under my breath. I looked at mystery girl on my screen and sighed.
Weeks went by, then months, and I kept up my pace. Hundreds of new photographs made their way into my gallery, mostly gritty street scenes, and I’d be lying if I said I thought about coffee shop girl. No, I’d forgotten all about her.
Vivi started a fashion design class and I took up a new hobby: hanging with her study group at the library. Libraries weren’t my thing, but Vivi liked to show me off. Happy Vivi meant horny Vivi, and I liked horny Vivi. She’d usually be hanging with her group in one of the study rooms near the back, planning out the week’s designs, but one night she was nowhere to be found. When I didn’t see her crew, I wandered around the stacks. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the blonde girl sitting alone at a table in the corner, deep into her reading. Six months disappeared and for a second it was like I was back there on the sidewalk looking into the café. She didn’t look up when I came closer, and for a second I thought I might be mistaken, that she was someone else. I set my camera bag down on the edge of her table.
“Mind if I sit here?” I asked. She shrugged and nudged her books closer to her as I sat down. The table was small and I kicked her shin as I took my seat. She gave me a sharp look, which turned into surprise when she saw my camera bag on the table. “Hey,” she said with a smile. “It’s you.”
If I’d known then how much trouble a smile like that can cause, I’d’ve grabbed my camera bag and moved on. I’d’ve combed the library for Vivi, stupid Vivi, who only cared about fashion and fuck-me heels. I should’ve known better. Since I didn’t, I sat there and got drunk on her smile. “Jason,” I said stupidly, offering my hand over her pile of books.
“Thanks for introducing yourself this time,” she said. “Eden,” she said her name like an afterthought.
“Big exam?” I asked as I turned one of her books so I could get a look at the spine.
“Actually, yes,” she grinned. “Psych.”
If there was ever a sign that I should hit it, it was that. But I loved her smile so I sat there. “Go ahead,” I grinned, “Try to diagnose me,” I said, leaning back and crossing my arms over my chest. “You’ll probably be disappointed. I’m not very complicated.”
“Everyone is complicated,” she answered. She sounded pretty damn sure. A minute passed as she jotted more notes. “So, how did my photograph turn out?” she flashed me a quick, knowing smile.
I told her the truth. “It was the best photo I’ve taken all year. And I take a lot of photos.”
That made her smile again, bigger this time. Hell, this girl was really getting to me. Too bad that just then I heard Vivi’s voice coming from the lobby. I sank down in my chair.
“Are you okay?” Eden murmured.
She glanced in the direction of the Vivi’s shrill laughter. “That’s your girlfriend, isn’t it?”
I looked. I could see Vivi standing in the lobby, surrounded by her group. Even from where I sat, her animal-print jacket was unmistakable. “Yeah,” I admitted.
“You should go.” Eden dismissed me with her hand and returned her eyes to her work. Of course she was right, my girlfriend was expecting me. But damn, I wanted more of Eden’s smile. Her smile did something to me, and getting more of it suddenly seemed very important.
Still, when a girl tells me to get lost, I take the hint. I stood up and slung my camera bag over my shoulder. I noticed a pen lodged under one of Eden’s books, and I used it to scrawl my number in the margin of her notebook. “You can write upside-down,” she squealed with surprise, her smile returning. “Cool.”
I shrugged off the compliment. “I’ll take you to dinner to celebrate acing your exam,” I hedged.
“Only if you break up with your girlfriend first,” she turned toward the lobby and then met my eyes. “Thanks, though.” She returned to her books without another smile, and I made my way up to the front and put my arms around Vivi.
“Hey, Jase,” she sang. “Where have you been? We’ve all been waiting on you,” she rambled. “Did you get lost in here, or what?”
I was looking back towards the study rooms, trying to see Eden. She was hidden behind the books. Vivi held me by the shoulder.
“Are you alright?” her eyes were brimming with fake concern.
“Let’s go, Vivi,” called a girl with dyed green hair.
“Come on, Jason. Drinks with the girls,” she took my arm and tugged it but I did not move. “Jason, what’s wrong?” she whined, tugging harder.
My feet were suddenly rooted to the spot, so I leaned over. “You go on,” I said into her ear, then I kissed her cheek. “Call me later,” I said and gave her a small wave.
“Are you sure, baby?”She pressed her wrist to my forehead. “You sure are kooky tonight,” she glared at me, a mask of concern hiding her anger. She turned and skipped over to the door. “Hold on, girls,” she called, then blew me a kiss. “Feel better,” she called.
When she was finally gone, I sank down in a chair in the lobby to wait. I set my camera bag on the floor by my feet and watched the students come and go at the circulation desk while I waited for Eden. I thought about what I would say to her and I considered taking her advice and actually breaking up with Vivi. We’d had a good run, Vivi and I, almost a year now. Saturday nights were never boring with her, that much was true. She knew how to have a good time, but her hair never moved. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me.
I must have fallen asleep. I opened my eyes and found Eden kneeling in front of me, her hands on my thighs. I straightened up and rubbed my eyes. “Hi,” I said.
She didn’t say anything so I continued. “I was waiting for you,” I told her.
“I know,” she murmured, giving me a small smile. “I’m glad.” She tilted her head back and raised her eyes to meet mine in a way that made my ribcage close in around my lungs. I tried pressing back into the chair to put a little more space between us, but she had me trapped. I couldn’t move without kicking her in the chest, so I sat still and looked into her silver eyes. My air intake slowed to a trickle.
Some time passed like that, neither of us talking. I looked away first, when I noticed the stares we were getting. I wondered how long Eden intended to kneel like that. Just then she bent down, and then she was holding my camera to her eye, trying to take my picture.
“Hey, don’t,” I said, suddenly angry. She clicked the shutter as I tore my camera out of her hands, revealing a large, gorgeous, show-stopping grin. I saw it and forgot my anger. I dropped my camera into my lap and reached for her, grabbing a handful of hair and pulling her head back gently, just to get a better look at that smile.
The security guard shook me awake. I sat up, shocked. He and I were alone. I rubbed my eyes and looked around, but Eden was long gone.
“Library’s closed, sir,” the security guard said. “Time for you to go.” He busied himself setting the locks on the front doors, then stood there holding the last door for me, waiting for me to leave.
I stood up and stretched, then bent down to grab my camera bag. Sure enough it was long gone. Shit. “Someone took my camera,” I said to the guard.
“Musta been your girl,” he said knowingly.
“My girl?” I asked, thinking of Vivi while I walked around the chair once more to make sure I hadn’t overlooked it. Nothing.
“Blonde, about this high?” he held his hand out palm down, in the vicinity of his sternum. “She told me to look out for ya. Nice girl,” he shook his head in approval.
“No,” I started to correct him, but then I remembered pulling Eden’s hair. “Wait, did you see her with me?” I lowered my voice even though we were alone. I moved closer. “Was she kneeling?” I whispered.
He shook his head and boomed, “You musta been dreaming, man.” His laugh filled the library.
“You sure she didn’t leave with my camera on her shoulder?” I snipped.
“I don’t know, man. Take it easy,” he held up both hands. “Just ask her, she’s probably got it safe.”
I started to say that I would if I could, but it dawned on me how ridiculous that sounded. I pushed past him out onto the quiet sidewalk and started walking toward the train. I checked my phone for messages on the way. Only a text from Vivi: Missed you tonight. I hit delete and shoved my phone back in my pocket as I headed down the steps into the station. I was home and crawling into bed before I realized that I ought to file a police report if I ever expected to see my camera again.
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