Celica twisted the water from her hair and pushed back the shower curtain for her towel. Its loopy fibers felt soft against her skin, soaking up the water from her arms, her legs, the area under her breasts.
She wiped off the excess water, and wrapped the towel tightly under her arms, tucking the corner carefully across her chest; it stayed in place as she reached for another towel, bent over, and wrapped it around her head like a turban.
She walked to her dresser and wiggled her underwear carefully up under the towel, and then stepped into a pair of black yoga pants. She pulled a camisole over her head, clearing the second towel and stretching it down before she pulled the first towel out from under it. Carefully adjusting herself, Celica carried the towel to the hall, opened the washing machine, and dropped the first towel in. Then she unwrapped the second towel from her head. She bent over for a final shake of her hair and dropped that towel into the washer, too.
She started the washer and returned to her bedroom to throw on a gray t-shirt. She brushed her hair straight, put it in a ponytail holder, and grabbed her sketchbook while she waited for the washing machine to finish.
Today, she drew the rose on her kitchen table, its petals wrapped tight against themselves. She focused on the line where one petal’s edge lay against the center of the next, the way the shadow formed under the single thorn the florist failed to snip, and on the leaf resting on the rim of the narrow glass vase.
She drew with a regular mechanical pencil. She carefully outlined her subject and then added layers of shadow and light until she saw a perfect black and white image of the rose in front of her just as she remembered it.
The loud buzz of the washer pulled her back into the darkness of the morning. She peeled the two towels plastered against the side of the washer and tossed them into the dryer with a sheet of unscented Bounce. She pushed the start button and listened for the hiss of the old dryer’s heating element to join the hollow tumble of the wet towels.
Celica poured another cup of coffee and moved through her comforting routine. Each morning the same, ending with the buzz of the dryer, lining up the corners of the warm towels, folding them, and returning them to the rack beside her shower.
Celica walked the three blocks from her apartment to the Ashland library. The scent of old books drifted out to meet her in the vestibule as she dropped her keys back into her bag.
She made the first pot of coffee and settled in to catalog the new books that had arrived yesterday, scanning them into the library’s computer system, carefully stapling the packing lists to the proper requisition forms before placing them alphabetically by vendor in the Accounts Payable Pending Invoice file.
Before Celica came to the library, these would have been thrown into a pile that Miss Jennie would thumb through anytime a bill arrived, but Celica found that highly inefficient. The investment of a few extra seconds now meant saving several minutes once it was time to cut the checks. Miss Jennie just didn’t understand.
The morning progressed as every morning did. People drifted in and out of the library. Celica covered the checkout desk for Miss Jennie’s break, scanning the patron’s card, then each book. “These are due back in three weeks.” She politely smiled and handed over the stack of books.
Returning to the front, Miss Jennie chattered away with the patrons, nosing in, asking about the books they returned. “Did you like that one? Wasn’t the hero just dreamy?” Celica rolled her eyes from her desk around the corner and wondered what point there was to the idle talk. She focused on her work and tuned them all out.
Just after lunch, though, a Northern accent at the checkout desk hijacked Celica’s concentration. She jumped, her chair rolling hard against the wall behind her desk. Her fingers tightened around her pencil and the balls of her feet settled squarely on the floor. As quickly as she noticed this, her mind ordered her feet to relax and pull the chair back under the desk, then it visited each finger in succession, releasing her death-grip on the pencil.
“It’s not him. Not here. Not now. I am breathing in. I am breathing out.” She cradled her warm coffee mug in both hands and breathed the mantra quietly until her heart slowed and no longer pounded against her ribs.
“New books just came in! I can’t wait to dig into these!” Celica looked up and saw the glee in Miss Jennie’s eyes. She always seemed excited for the new books, but Celica just saw them as another task, more items to be put in order. Celica never read the books she catalogued; she much preferred to draw.
Celica reviewed the open requisitions and sent out several overdue notices before the end of the afternoon. Except for the excruciating hour covering the checkout desk while Miss Jennie ran story-hour for the elementary school kids, Celica’s work-day was normal.
After the library doors were locked, securing the millions of words that yearned to break out and run roughshod through the town, Celica tightened her jacket around her shoulders and walked downtown.
The EssenHaus was not yet crowded. As she did every evening, Celica settled into her corner booth against the glass front wall of the diner, facing the door. Acquaintances from the library nodded to her as they walked in; she smiled and waved at each of them. Life in a small town was built on such pleasantries, and as long as she was careful to play along, they didn’t dig any deeper.
Old Hank sat at the counter, chatting up Colleen, who had been waiting tables here since before Celica was born. Hank’s wife had died several years back, and the whole town quietly prayed he would work up the courage to ask Colleen to join him for the church fish fry.
Rusty and his boy sat facing each other, two booths down from Celica. Rusty came to the library before opening time twice a week so Miss Jennie could help him learn to read.
Celica glanced around. While everyone in town seemed to know everyone else’s business, an unusual level of discretion was extended to her. They accepted her brief explanation of how she had arrived in Ashland and asked no further questions of the quiet library assistant. While the other tables filled up and latecomers took any open seat, Celica thankfully remained alone, tapping the tip of her knife against the tabletop.
A tall, broad-shouldered man came through the door and scanned the crowded restaurant. He stepped up to the counter, leaning in to speak quietly to Colleen. Colleen stood on her tip-toes, found no other options, shrugged, and pointed across the tables to Celica’s booth. The stranger nodded.
Celica’s shoulder blades pressed against the back of the bench-seat. She struggled to keep her breaths coming in and out of her lungs. He stopped a few steps from her table and gestured toward the open seat opposite her.
“Of course.” Another deep breath. Irrational fear was no excuse to be impolite.
“Celica. Please, sit.” She hoped he wouldn’t notice her hand shaking as she quickly waved at the seat and then picked her napkin up off her lap and began to pick at a corner of it.
Dan took a menu from the stand against the window and quickly scanned it. “What’s good here?”
The accent. She looked at his face, instantly memorizing every detail, scanning the inventory and noting every difference. Dark hair, not blonde. Kind eyes, not cold. She took another breath. Breathing in. Breathing out.
“Everything, but they tend to run out of the meatloaf first.” Celica pointed at the half-eaten meatloaf on her own plate.
“Then meatloaf it is.” Dan waved at Colleen; she shuffled over to take his order and to freshen Celica’s coffee.
Dan waited, wondering if Celica would show any interest in his presence at her table. He waited a while.
“So, I’m new in town. Obviously,” he tried.
“You’re not a big conversationalist, are you?”
Celica snickered. “You’re perceptive. Sorry, it’s nothing personal. I work at the library. I’m not used to talking without being shushed.”
Dan returned the laugh. “I don’t think I’d last very long there. I’m an attorney. If I don’t talk, I lose.”
Another one. Celica sighed, not hiding it well.
“Let me guess. ‘Two lawyers walk into a bar…’ Or, ‘what’s the difference between a lawyer and a shark?’ It’s OK. I’ve heard them all.” He shrugged.
“Sorry again. I guess it’s not fair to hold the entire profession against you, but your peers haven’t done much to gain my trust.”
It was Dan’s turn to sigh.
He stayed silent until after the first bite of meatloaf. “Wow, good recommendation. This tastes like I always wanted my Mom’s to.” He slopped a puddle of ketchup beside the meatloaf, stuffed another bite into his mouth, and continued on. “Do you eat here often?”
“Do you talk with your mouth full often?” Celica raised an eyebrow at him, but immediately dropped it and smiled as if she had been joking. She knew she was pushing the limit; young women in small southern towns were supposed to be nice. Welcoming. She took a breath and dropped back into character. “Sorry, sometimes I forget my own manners.”
“That’s ok. Obviously, so do I. Can we start over? Hi. I’m Dan. I’m new in town, I’m just out of law school, and I’m clerking for Taylor and Sumner until I can pass the bar. Which means I’ll be here for a long, long time. And you are…?” Dan grinned his most charming grin and held out his hand.
Celica shook it with a half-smile. “Ok, Dan. I’m Celica. Local library assistant and spinster-in-training. I plan to start my cat collection next year.”
She took a deep breath and noticed how even his eyes laughed at her attempt at a joke.
The full moon hung large above the trees when Dan walked Celica the four blocks to her apartment. She stopped at the driveway to her building, thanked him, and watched him turn and begin the walk back to the EssenHaus to retrieve his car.
She shivered and pulled her jacket around her, climbed the stairs, and dug through her bag for her keys. As the door latched behind her, her eye landed on the red rose.
Its petals were loosening. By tomorrow, she would be able to draw a rose in full bloom while she waited for her towels to wash themselves clean.
Photo Credit: Ian Sane via cc