Mehdi Razavi is a cardiologist in where he specializes in treatment heart rhythm disorders and directs the innovations laboratory for new medical devices at the Texas Heart Institute. Writing has been a lifelong passion and source of creativity. He lives with his wife, Joanna.
Ten Thousand Breaths
The ordinariness of Troy's thirty-six years of life ended when Bobbie Rae walked into the main branch of the Annapolis public library on a steamy August evening. The boy -- for despite his age there was no mistake that he was a child at heart -- was smitten. It was past supper but the sun was still out, albeit flirting with the horizon, casting long shadows on just about everyone that walked through the arcing doorway into the musky library. The library was like a humidor with its stagnant air. Ceiling fans sputtered overhead with the intermittent sound of insects' fatal collisions providing an element of unpredictability to the repetitive rattling.
The library was one of the oldest buildings in the city: Benjamin Franklin had christened it. It had been his belief that those who inhabit the confines of a house of books are as close to the Almighty as those who kneel at the altar. He had asked the architect to make the building resemble a cathedral. Towering windows adorned it all angles save for its northwestern aspect. This had allowed for the library to stay open for most of the daylight hours in those early years.
Troy's father still toiled in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, rising up well before sunrise to fetch his harvest of the best crabs nature had to offer. He would sell his catch to any of a number of establishments dotting the Bay's inlet on the southern tip of the United States Naval Academy. The summer months were the busiest in terms of both supply and demand. It was more than a mild embarrassment to both father and son that Troy had been afflicted with a skin malady that caused him to break out in red itchy splotches once it came in contact with the Bay's waters. It was not the salt or the water, but what it was was not known.
Better to have him work in a setting with at least some intellectual reward. The mother was well ahead of her time, having completed two years of schooling after graduating from high school, and had insisted that he be not far removed from books. He, too, had obtained his Associates degree from Anne Arundel Community College but had foregone further schooling in favor of a job as the copy editor of the Daily Annapolitan. He had planned to pen his masterpiece within a couple of years and thought the exposure he would get by working in the prestigious daily would offer benefits that would far outweigh formal schooling.
That had been eleven years ago. More than once he had thought of moving to Baltimore, D.C., or even Philadelphia to work at the more established newspapers in those markets. But fate had intervened on each occasion. He had found it easier to be subservient to inertia than to generate it.
He had met the daughter of one of his Mother's friends at a crab feast organized by the one of his Father's customers. All had thought it a splendid idea for them to marry. And so they were planning to do so.
His fiancee never knew the excitement of being proposed to, and he never the anticipation of a response while on bended knees. They lived a monotonous life, more colleagues in the journey than lovers or partners. They were the victims of their need to satisfy their parents, to seek validation in others' eyes. In their innocence they maintained the belief that their parents knew best, never recognizing that life's most important decisions can only be made by those who have to live with the consequences of those decisions.
Now by no means was their relationship devoid of happiness. To the contrary, they were the closest of friends. But while most successful marriages evolve to such a relationship, they invariably do so after having passed through a more raw phase. Troy and his fiancee had never experienced this. Like many other aspects of his life, he simply followed the path of least resistance unaware that the end of that path rarely leads to happiness.
* * *
Troy had been working at the library for the last year and had achieved the rank of Assistant Head Librarian, managing its day to day operations. It fulfilled his needs as he kept close to the books, made a decent living, and interacted with a calmer crowd. He was good at his job. Rarely was a patron's question or concern not fully addressed. He found pleasure in being a problem solver. It gave him a sense of authority and confidence that life had otherwise refused him.
He could help find the back copy of the most arcane journal or a copy of a text which had been out of print for years. He knew the procedures required for inter-library loans and was aware that his proximity to the three Big Cities gave him great power to utilize their resources. He was pleasant but firm with those repeat offenders who did not make it a priority to return their books on time.
Confidence had been something that had alluded him. Its absence contributed to a number of maladies, none more severe than the fear of creating his own path. Lack of self-confidence was the genesis of his need to satisfy others. This invariably meant he never achieved self-satisfaction and in turn led to general unhappiness.
So it was that the library served a critical role for this delicate young man: It offered an island in which he felt some degree of authority, to which he owed some sense of commitment, and for which he had developed a sense of responsibility.
* * *
Bobbie Rae had come in search of the back issue of the National Geographic. It was the eleventh day of August, Troy's Mother's birthday.
His heart skipped a beat the moment she walked through the main entrance. It was not the unpleasant, nervous skip which had dogged him for most of his life.
This was different: It was pleasing. It was not the frightening rush that overwhelmed him when in the company of strangers. It was a sensation that made him feel, for the first time in his life, excited to be alive. As if going down a roller coaster while listening to Ode to Joy but more personal and private and with a greater element of happiness. He had never experienced anything like it before. The sound of the insects hitting the fans above became musical. The smell of the library's old wood became that of a rose garden.
Though the sun was setting behind her, and though the lighting was poor at best, he saw every feature of hers as clearly as a crisp painting with exuberant colors and all its shades of detail.
Her light brown hair was pulled straight back magnifying deep, curious light green eyes that sparkled even in the library's cavernous lighting. Her face was milky smooth.
Her lashes were long and curved, almost tickling her eyebrows as she gazed intensely around. Her cheekbones were high but not in an obtrusive or distracting way. Her lips were red and full as if she had just eaten a cherry Popsicle. Her cheeks had a feverish hue to them.
Her eyes were now scanning the library. She was looking for help.
It had taken Troy almost a year to gain a sense of confidence, something he had struggled with all his life. The library had become his refuge. It was the one place where he was comfortable in his own skin.
Now that confidence, so delicate and fragile, was being severely tested.
She approached him gracefully, as if she were an angel, not really touching the ground as much as floating over it.
His heartbeat continued to accelerate.
This was worse than the first time he had shown a bouncer a fake ID.
He felt that unwelcome wave of warmth encapsulating his drenching palms and armpits, putting beads of sweat on his forehead.
"Hi," she said cheerfully. "I'm Bobbie Rae." She extended her right hand.
He discreetly wiped his hand on the side of his jeans before shaking hers.
"Can I help you?" He sounded like a frog choking on a bumble bee.
"I need last April's copy of the National Geographic," she said matter of factly. Her eyes were staring at his. He could see the green spokes of her irises contracting as her pupils were adjusting to the relative darkness of the library.
"Better get yourself together boy," he thought to himself.
"Why is that?" he asked, recognizing that the question was too probing as the words came out of his mouth.
She kept her gaze on him.
"It's part of my job."
He was beginning to wonder if she ever blinked.
"Oh..." he responded, sounding somewhat less intelligent than a complete buffoon. He realized it, and this only intensified the sense of panic which was beginning to overtake the initial pleasant feelings.
Finally she blinked. To Troy's great relief there was nothing odd about it. No bizarre tics.
"So... You think you can help me?" she felt the need to redirect the conversation.
"Uh-huh," he replied.
"Two strikes, young man, and you're half way through your third swing on a pitch in the dirt," he thought to himself.
He tried his best to gather himself.
"It's in the Natural Sciences section, under N," he pointed her in the right direction.
She blinked again, their frequency now normal.
And then she did something that would be ingrained in his psyche for the rest of his life.
As she turned to walk away, ever so briefly and ever so mysteriously, and not necessarily in Troy's direction, she smiled.
* * *
After she left to find the back issue of interest Troy bolted for the bathroom where he splashed water on his face and managed to calm himself down.
When he came out he found her at the counter, magazine in hand, ready to check out.
He asked her for her name.
"Bobbie Rae..." she started.
He couldn't control the quizzical look on his face.
"It's short for Roberta..." she began to explain.
"Sure...Sure..." he nodded understandingly as he took down the information.
She must have been from Southern Maryland. Somewhere in St. Mary's county he guessed.
She proceeded to give him her address. She lived in Annapolis. So maybe she had moved. He did not have it in him to ask any more questions. He had done enough damage for one day.
Still, he needed an opening line and fast.
"You know, I used to be a copy writer for the Annapolitan..." He thought it a clever line.
She smiled broadly. "Really? Did you have any bylines?"
"Nah, never quite made it that far..." he was quickly deflated.
She picked up on it. "Doesn't mean that much anyway. Look at all the good ones: Faulkner, Poe, Hemingway... They started at the newspapers but never made big it until they left. Consider yourself lucky." She looked at him.
There was something about this young man.
A pregnant pause followed.
"Well, maybe I'll see you around," she said as she walked away. "Thanks for the help."
As he looked at her leave Troy felt a pang of guilt and shame.
He had never experienced the same sense of exhilaration and bewilderment for his fiancee.
* * *
Bobbie Rae's had not been an easy life. The oil of joy had eluded her of late. It seemed that the eye of envy had taken its toll on her. The God given physical beauty had extracted a difficult and painful price. She did not let it show to the casual observer. But it lurked under the surface: The occasional loss of focus when she would fail to blink as the past flashed before her.
The first and only man she had ever loved had been taken from her by strangers in a war far away, in a land whose spelling she did not learn until after his death.
She was twenty-two. He was a year younger. The day after Thanksgiving she had received a call from his parents. He had been killed in the line of duty.
He had written his parents telling them that he had composed a poem for her.
For three months the sound of the postman's steps triggered a sense of anxiety and trepidation that this erstwhile carefree girl had never experienced.
She had never received her poem.
She cried herself to sleep every night through the Holiday season. Her parents became concerned about her health and had her move in with her friend for a few months.
The friend was more of a comfortable acquaintance than anything real. They had known each other since grade school in St. Mary's City. But that was the extent of their bond. She was not someone Bobbie Rae could count on.
She got a job with an agency headquartered in New York City. The frequent trips to the Big Apple were relaxing. But in her heart she continued to feel a void. The emptiness drove her to cry often and for no apparent reason.
Work was therapeutic. Reading helped her escape to worlds far away from the one in which she felt trapped. A world in which there was no hurt or difficult situations. A world in which if there was hurt or difficult situations there was always an easy solution.
One week after her visit to the library Bobbie Rae's roommate informed her that money was very tight. She told Bobbie Rae she was increasing the rent.
Bobbie Rae was forced to move out in the third week of August when the ad for a new roommate was answered by a girl who was engaged to be married the follosprinter
* * *
So now he had her name and address and he knew exactly what he was going to do with the information.
He was going to write her a short story: One every few weeks and mail it to her.
Since they were for her, inspired by her, in essence of her, he would mail her the originals, not keeping any copies for himself.
She could do as she willed: Burn them or save them.
Three weeks after their first meeting he started penning the first story. It was about a young man who was learning to play the guitar. He was gifted, able to pick up the tune of a piece simply by listening to it. He had heard Bach's "Jesus, Ode to Man's Desiring", aka the Wedding Song, at a his older cousin's wedding and thought it the most beautiful piece of music.
He would sit at the street cafe, next to the train station, strumming his guitar to its heavenly tune. But he could never quite make the transition into the final stanza. It was the transition which lent the piece its divine inspiration.
There was a girl who would walk by on her way to school and who, day after day, would listen to his failed attempts.
But the music nevertheless touched her. She loved how he leaned over his guitar, back slouched, head bent down, as if caressing a lover. Nothing else existed in his world.
Though she attracted many glances she never captured his. She would slow down as she approached the cafe and there he would be, always in the same table, with a half empty cup of cappuccino and a small hour glass next to it.
She found his persistence irresistible and though she had yet to make out the full profile of his face she was beginning to feel attracted to this boy who was so passionate about his music.
As the days went by she would make sure to pass by, always slowing down as she approached him. Always throwing a furtive glance in his direction. Always noticing his inability to achieve the masterpiece's climactic transition. He never looking up to acknowledge her. Never noticing her. Never distracted from his devotion to his guitar.
Slowly her curiosity turned to anticipation which turned into intrigue which turned into attraction which turned into desire. Oh that she would be his musical instrument, that he would caress her the way he caressed his. And yet, she had not seen his full face, much less said a word to him.
When the first rain of autumn was sneezed by the Almighty above she figured he would be inside. She could have taken a different route, bypassing the cafe, but desire harnessed her in her familiar path.
Sure enough, he was there. She reflexively slowed down and was actually starting to walk away from him when he looked up. She stopped in her tracks.
As he looked her straight in the eyes he unlocked the musical tune to her heart, completing the piece perfectly.
He had, he told her over a cup of coffee a few minutes later, noticed her the first day she had walked by. Her image was reflected from his hour glass to his eyes to his brain to his heart to his soul. He had kept the hour glass in its same position everyday, looking forward to the brief encounters. But he had promised himself not to look up until he mastered the music.
So it was that at the precise moment on that wet September day that she walked by, the circuit between his heart, brain, and fingers was completed.
Only then had he looked into her eyes.
Troy thought Bobbie Rae would like that story. He wished that Bobbie Rae would feel the same for him as his heroine did for the hero.
He meticulously hand wrote it, placed it in the envelope, wrote her address, stamped the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox.
It was the seventh day of September.
* * *
It would not be until five weeks after their first meeting, one week after he had mailed his first story, that Bobbie Rae would return to the library. It was another sweltering day, giving nary an acknowledgement to imminent Fall.
Her hair was down this time. Golden moisture-soaked locks poured down the sides of her face, their thick curls a halo around her sun tanned complexion. They added an inch to her already above-average height but also accentuated her thin, nearly frail, physique.
She sought out Troy and handed him the National Geographic.
He noted that she did not drop it in the drop-off box and that it was one week late.
He could not be sure if the tardiness was the reason she had returned it personally.
She gave him a soft half-smile, the right side of her mouth gently arcing upward as her right cheek slightly rose up. She was gazing at him and not without blinking.
"Thanks," she said simply as she handed over the magazine.
He had now rehearsed this moment many times and was better prepared than their initial encounter.
"Was it helpful?" he asked, matter of factly.
"It was great," she answered, the half-smile still on her face.
It calmed him and gave him a bit more confidence.
"Yeah, National Geographic is the best. Their pictures, I think, are even better than their articles."
"Agree, although you can't beat their articles, either. I actually ended up using one of the articles as a reference."
"Oh, are you writing a term paper or something?" he asked, sensing an opening.
"No, nothing like that. I was just doing some fact checking."
"Are you a teacher?" he asked.
"No, nothing like that," she repeated.
"Cool," he said. It was his favorite term when he was stalling to think of other things to say. In this case, however, it was not for lack of things he could think to speak of, but for time to process his many thoughts appropriately.
He looked into her eyes gingerly.
Had she received his story?
"Are you from around here?" he asked.
"I grew up in St. Mary's City," she replied, vindicating his instincts.
She would not take her eyes off him. "You?" she asked, the half-smile metamorphosing into a full one.
That small move, the simple act of lifting up the left corners of her lovely lips, was enough to make Troy overjoyed.
"Born and bred in Annapolis. We live off Cape St. Claire," he answered, trying his best to hide his delight.
"That's nice. I moved up here a few months ago."
"For school or work?" Troy asked. Though he thought it a benign question her face immediately clouded. The smile disappeared and with it his confidence. He was not sure how to react.
"Neither, really," she said. She was not rude or brusque, but it was apparent that the conversation had strayed in a direction she did not feel comfortable with.
He sensed this.
"Cool," he said again.
"Well, it was nice to see you again. I'm gonna head out," she said. She extended her hand.
He shook it. Much to his surprise his was not drenched in sweat this time. Her hand was beautiful and felt as smooth as it looked.
The handshake took just a split second longer than average.
She let go first.
As he watched Bobbie Rae walk away Troy thought that she had either not received his story or that she would make the best poker player in the world.
* * *
TO BE CONTINUED