Carmen was sitting on the rug, pulling books out of recently delivered boxes and checking them off against her order sheet. This was not the part of the job she liked the best. Neither, it had to be admitted, was the proofreading sideline. The English language had its rules and she had met very few clients who didn’t think they were uniquely blessed with the license to break them. To her it was never about the writer. She had tried, but never succeeded, to venerate some author or other. She’d made an effort to put herself in her clients shoes and understand that what they might need, more than a stern red pen, was encouragement and confidence. But if she had that organ inside her, she’d never managed to engage it. What she loved most of all was the pleasure of opening a book, paging to the first chapter, and submerging in the text. When it was good she could float, cradled in the delicious miasma of the narrative, for hours and hours. As if the language itself were the best of all lovers.
She wasn’t a snob; as long as the writing was skilled, she’d read anything. Literary or detective fiction, poetry or sci-fi, or even a well-executed autobiography. They were like lovers, with different bodies and minds, with exotic tasting skins or familiar and comforting flavours. Indeed, she’d tried reading two books at the same time and found it upsetting. It gave her feelings of guilt. As if she were betraying each book by giving the other too much attention. Carmen would have liked to be a different sort of reader, flitting and faithless, but she couldn’t manage it. Once she picked up the tome and began to read, she was loyal to the very end.
But what she loved best about books was that they did all end – well or badly, in a blaze of violent conflagration or a poignant walk into a melting sunset, all tied up in a neat package, or with the characters dangling there in the wind, it didn’t matter -there was always a last page, a last word, a full stop.
Then she was free to pick up another.
She wished it were like that with human lovers, but they had no plot, no character arc. They arrived and they loved her and then, when any well-written book would have ended, they stayed and clung and dragged all their miserable history around behind them and into her life. Carmen had never learned the knack of ending the thing herself. She just waited, growing cold and cranky and quietly cruel, caring for them a little less each day, wishing it would be over. If only people crafted the ends of their affairs the way that writers finished novels. If only they knew, from the start, how the thing was going to end, love would be more satisfying. The sex would be better, too; nothing stokes passion like an impending departure. But she could not end it herself anymore than she could stop reading a book before the last page.
So when the little tinny bell above the door rang at three o’clock, and he walked in with a tray of coffee, Carmen looked up from her labours, offered him a genuine smile, and thought: this is a man with a wife and a child. He has an end – that is his end. Perhaps I will seduce him.