The door is closed and even though I’ve been here only twenty minutes (distracted by texts and Facebook and email and the first pages of the books I’ve just checked out), the room is already stuffy. On my laptop screen, the cursor has turned into a flashing mental stoplight. I’m about to run it, but just when I start to bolt out into word traffic, a voice on the other side of the study room wall invades my quiet space.
“Yes, uh-huh.” It’s a woman’s voice, an older lady, I think. “And how do you get there? Okay. And the room number?” Her voice comes through the wall and bounces against my ears as if I’m attempting to write in a racketball court. I try to ignore her. I try to think deeply about humanity as my fingers curl into claws over the keyboard. I haven’t typed a word.
Does she not realize I’m on the verge of having a profound writing experience? This is supposed to be a quiet room. I open my door and and read the sign on the door, “Quiet Please, Study Room.” Yeah, lady! I leave my door cracked, tip-toe over and peek into her room through the door’s small glass window.
The woman is hunched over her room’s wooden desk talking on her cell phone. Her shoulder-length gray hair fluffs out over the collar of her tan jacket. Next to her leg is one of those roll-around suitcases that is yellow and printed with cartoon hearts and Eiffel towers and the word, “Paris” written in curly letters diagonally over and over.
Her voice is higher than a normal speaking voice and I think she is trying to make a good impression on whoever it is she’s talking to. Her call is probably important.
I groan and shuffle back into my tiny space where I listen to her recite her phone number, each digit is pronounced slow and carefully. Then she does it again. Slower. I consider calling the number, but my deeper impulse is to hit our shared wall with my fist, like an old man in an apartment when the kid on the other side is playing his music too loud. Turn it down! I’m doing something important over here! It’s about humanity! And you wouldn’t understand…
She’s wrapping things up. “Oh yes! Thank you,” she says. “I’ll see you at three next Friday.” Pause. “Have a good day!”
Silence. Sweet relief. I breathe deeper and glide my fingers over the keys without actually pushing any of the lettered black squares. This is me revving my engine.
“Hello? Yes. I’m looking to make an appointment…” Now her voice is even LOUDER than before. Oh! The humanity!
The call lasts about a minute, and when she hangs up, I’m waiting at her door, watching through her window.
She turns, eyes wide beneath tinted glasses circa 1978 with lenses that fade from shade to clear and cover half her face. They’d be retro cool if a twenty-year-old were wearing them. When she opens the door, I force a polite smile. “Are you gonna be on the phone long?” My words come out tight and high-pitched, and sound eerily similar to this woman’s phone voice.
“Well, I’m in the other room and can hear. And it’s really loud.”
“Oh.” She smiles, which makes her seem younger than the sixty-something I’d judged her to be. Her lips are pretty and her face looks used to smiling. She tugs at her shabby coat and reaches for her rolly case. “I’m sorry. I can go outside,” she says as she snatches possibly the oldest cell phone in America off the counter.
“No, no.” I back away. I’ve made a mistake. What if this is the only place she can do her important business? She could be arranging job interviews or doctor appointments for her sick child or chemo treatments for her cancer-fighting father. Real life stuff. “No, really, I just… I just wondered if you’d be long. I don’t mind moving out into the library. I’m only writing.”
“I have two more calls to make…but I’ll go outside. You should be able to do your writing, and I need the fresh air.” She says it nice, as if I’m doing something deep and profound.
“Really, I don’t mind moving.” Please, lady. Let me move. As penance. I don’t even feel like writing anymore.
She shakes her head and stands. “No. The girl said I might need to move if I disturbed people with my calls. These rooms are for studying. You go on.”
I fix my eyes on the floor and give a little nod, hanging my head as I walk back to my tiny room. Humanity shmanity. I start typing, erratic. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m a mess, swerving around like a drunk driver.
I write about the woman, because now she’s all I can think about: the endless permutations of her life, dividing and expanding in my mind, each representing a new and profound way in which I have failed her.