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
* * *
She had decided to ride her bike. It helped her relax. It was three hilly miles from her new apartment to the Naval Academy where she was meeting a friend of a friend's. He was a Plebe, a first year cadet at the Academy. Though most were fresh out of high school he had spent one year in the Peace Corps.
They had met at a church social: He was from Waldorf, on the southeastern tip of the state.
Though two years younger than her he had immediately caught her attention. He was physically robust and personally charming. His mission with the Peace Corps was more than just an empty attempt to build up a resume. He was decent and his motives altruistic.
Bobbie Rae's boyfriend had died eight months earlier. She was still grieving his loss when she met this dashing chap.
By then her parents had convinced her to move in with Melissa, her friend from St. Mary's City.
Though she had never been attracted to younger men, this one stood out.
Most of the Plebes realized that the possibility of deployment after graduation was not remote. He embraced the possibility.
Bobbie Rae had asked him how he could on the one end spend a year with the Peace Corps and then turn around and join the military.
His answer was revealing: "Sometimes the best way to help the good is by fighting the bad." She thought it a bit dogmatic but his conviction was nevertheless impressive.
The Plebe year is notorious for its physical demands. He was confined to the Academy grounds most of the time. Bobbie Rae took every opportunity to spend any available time with him. They enjoyed each other's company.
His had been her first date since her boyfriend's death.
She had felt guilty after that first kiss and had cried before falling asleep later that night.
But when she had woken up the next morning it was as if her first love's spirit had been exorcised from her. She still loved him, still kept a tender spot for him in her heart. But his was no longer the key to her lock. It was probably the kindest thing he could have done for her. To set her free to carry on with her life.
Since July she had been spending more and more time with her new companion and although the old one's memories were not forgotten, they were no longer the first thing she recalled after waking up.
Life is for the living.
They sat on the pier, holding hands, staring at the seagulls.
A gentle breeze caressed her hair.
After lunch they biked around downtown and then went all the way up to the stadium where the football team was starting its summer practice.
On her way back from the Academy that evening she had remembered about the National Geographic which was laying in the front basket of her bike. The two of them had had a bet: He swore that Bach, like Beethoven, had composed while deaf. He was convinced he had read it in last April's National Geographic. She knew better and had set out to prove him wrong.
Now that she had won she would have to return the magazine.
It had been a long day spent mostly in the sun.
It would have been nice to go home to a shower.
The library was two miles away from the Academy, adding a total of four miles to an already late evening bike ride.
She could just as easily wait a few more days.
* * *
How had this girl who he had met once, and only briefly, done this? He did not know the answer. It was not physical attraction, for many prettier faces had walked through those doors. It was not the desire for wealth or power, for neither she nor her family had either.
Was it his desire for a companionship which up to now had evaded him? If that was the case, why this girl? Why not any of the many other girls who had asked him for help, some much more flirtatiously.
He could not provide himself an answer. Perhaps a biologist could scientifically analyze it and conclude that she led to the release of some chemicals in his brain associated with overwhelming joy. And the biologist would probably be right. But the question which confounded him remained unanswered: Why?
Instead of explaining it he decided to describe it. And so came that first story. They were his feelings when describing the girl's emotions towards the guitar player: Her jealousy of the guitar. Wishing that hero would be paying attention to her with the same tenderness, he was describing his need for Bobbie Rae's attention. Perhaps it was too direct.
But Troy was also coming to another realization. Regardless of what the future held, regardless of what Bobbie Rae were to think of this older, engaged boy, regardless of their ultimate destinies, he felt the need to create something which would live on forever as a memorial and testimonial of his feelings towards this girl. He knew that if he did not the regret would accompany him to his grave.
Perhaps most challenging was his need, so far unmet, to reconcile his feelings with the realities of his life: He was engaged to a wonderful person who he had never been in love with. In his heart of hearts he knew, as did she, that they were not destined to live happily ever after. But, then again, not everyone gets to live happily ever after. He desperately wanted to do the right thing. But if the right thing meant wasting away in a life void of merriment and happy companionship then it cannot be the right thing, can it?
He knew what the right thing was: He had to tell his fiancee how he felt. There was no moral ambiguity on that front.
This was precisely where Troy's faltering moral courage failed him.
The most fancy love stories cannot veil the reality of wronging another human being.
* * *
Seven weeks and two stories had passed since their last encounter. He had written the stories, mailed them off, and anxiously awaited a response.
None had been forthcoming. Nor had she dropped by the library. His initial enthusiasm was turning into frustration.
The days were starting to get shorter and cooler now as the official beginning of Autumn had come and gone. The library hours remained the same but the flood of visitors changed its pattern: The days were quieter but the after-school hours saw a surge of students. Most came on matters related to school work. Some found it a convenient place to meet and banter. Still others came to roam the cavernous hallways in search of a literary distraction.
Troy was also suffering from distraction, but of a different sort. He missed Bobbie Rae: Every time a girl who frame matched hers walked into the library he would look up and for a split second anticipate the possibility of imminent exhilaration, only to be disappointed. Like a mother who sees the face of her missing child in every other child in a crowded mall, the anxiety and possibility of never seeing her became more real as more strange faces passed through the majestic entrance of the library.
Two more weeks passed. He could feel his creative energy dissipating. It had taken him almost three weeks to complete his last short story. He did not think it to be his best. The plot was too sentimental, he felt. But he could not avoid sentimentality as he thought of her. He wished to use his written words as a vehicle to reach into her soul. The results, to his chagrin, were beginning to give him the air of desperation. The intervals between manuscripts were increasing.
Another month passed. Halloween was approaching and the library was decorated accordingly. It gave it a festive feel. But Troy's eyes revealed other emotions. A sad hue had overtaken him. It was getting too cold for spontaneous bike rides in downtown. The library was overheated and this increasingly irritated him. His temper was becoming short. Though he never raised his voice, students were not as ready to approach him as they may have been a few weeks earlier.
His fiancee could sense him crashing back to his laconic ways. He was never unpleasant to her but she sensed a certain disappointment in the depths of his persona. She knew him well enough to be certain something was not right.
But she, too, was not perfect. She, too, lacked enough moral fiber to consider approaching him to offer a listening ear. She, too, took the immediate and easy solutions even they if meant silence in the face of his obvious melancholy.
* * *
Bobbie Rae walked into the library the first week of November. It was quiet and the sound of her entrance was minimal. He was absorbed in checking the inventory and first noticed a shadow followed by a gentle tap on his shoulder.
"Hi," she said, a twinkle in her eyes. "Do you remember me?" she said as she took her wool hat and gloves off.
Her cheeks were flushed. She smiled. She was not smiling at him, but at her surroundings as she looked around.
She was happy, he could tell.
"Yes, Bobbie Rae, right?" he tried to feign a casual attitude.
"That's right. Good memory! You must have so many people come through here..."
The tip of her nose was red, like an alcoholic's.
"You look like you're freezing," he said.
"I know, some day I'm going to move to Texas or Florida!" she answered playfully. She looked at him, sizing him up for a few seconds. "So what's new with you?"
"Nothing new. Everyone's pouring in to get their term paper's turned in before Thanksgiving. It's gonna be awful busy here the next couple of weeks." He looked at her, trying to read her expression. Had she received any of his stories?
Was she here to talk about the stories? To tell him how beautiful they were... Or to tell him that he must stop writing them... Was she dating someone?... Or had she just broken up?...
"I need to ask you a favor," she said, smiling widely, displaying a perfect set of teeth.
Troy's heart skipped a beat. "Sure, what's up?" He did not want to seem too eager but was sure he had come off that way.
"I've got a friend who is a Plebe and I want to check out a book on Naval history."
With those words she had taken the last breaths of the wind out of his sails.
He felt a wave of sadness overtake him.
He could not help being just a bit mean when he said, "You should go to the Naval Academy's library. I'm sure he can show you around." He realized he sounded like a child who was told he could not play with the toy trains behind the display counter and was now throwing a temper tantrum.
She looked at him quizzically. His answer appeared to have thrown her off.
"I'm sorry?" she said.
They were both quiet for what seemed like an eternity.
"You know," she continued, "I can't check out books from that library." She was trying to diffuse the tension.
"Sure! I forgot about that. Silly rule, isn't it?" he said, faking a smile. He knew he had gone too far and hated himself for it. "Let me show you."
As he led her to the Military History section he had no doubts about one fact: She had never read any of his stories.
* * *
That night he could not fall asleep. He told his fiancee that he felt sick and was going to turn in early. Despite the fact that she had moved in with a new roommate two and a half months earlier he had yet to visit her. She had always come to his place. He hated having to interact with her roommates.
As emotionally drained as he was he realized he had to make a decision: Either stop writing and give up on the whole thing or continue writing and use the process as a catharsis to rid himself of the overwhelming helplessness and hopelessness which had overtaken him.
He tried going to bed but could not. He tumbled over and over. He got up and tried to watch some television but even this failed to distract him.
Finally he sat behind his desk, grabbed an ink pen and a few sheets of paper, and started writing.
He wrote non-stop until sunrise, around six thirty in the morning.
He had written about pain and love. About love unrequited. About strength and the willpower to create it. About the need to find happiness in one's own heart and not in the eyes of another.
There were many scribbles and corrections but he kept these and decided against re-writing a clean draft. He placed the writings in an envelope, stamped the envelope, wrote Bobbie' Rae's address on it and dropped it off in the mailbox.
By the time he was finished it was eight in the morning.
He was exhausted. He went to bed and showed up late at work where he was told another girl had been looking for him.
* * *
Melissa could be ruthless, but also calculating.
So it was that when she had received the first short story, one week after Bobbie Rae had moved out, she decided to inform neither the sender nor the intended recipient.
Bobbie Rae had never updated her new address at the library.
Melissa did not know the sender personally, only that he worked at the library.
She had read the story and found it captivating. She felt the angst of the girl and sensed a twinge of excitement at the conclusion.
Though easily distractible and rarely able to complete reading a single newspaper article without interruption she read the entire story in one sitting. The ending was satisfying but the story seemed too short. She actually read it over a second time before tucking it away in her desk.
Things had been getting hectic. Between Bobbie Rae's moving out and her new roommate moving in there was a lot of commotion. Her new roommate was engaged to be married the following spring. She seemed a nice enough girl. She had agreed to pay two rent payments upfront.
She did not talk much about her fiance, except to say he was in the literary field. She kept busy with her new job as a child psychologist for the Anne Arundel County health department and spent most of her time in the middle and high schools. The job, she told Melissa, could be very stressful but was also quite rewarding.
She especially liked the rare assignments she got at the elementary schools because she felt at that stage she could make a real difference. By the time students had made it to high school their psychological make-up was already complete. Therapy at that stage was only a temporary treatment, never a cure.
Melissa sometimes got the sense that her roommate was not necessarily in love with the fiance. She picked up on an air of indifference and found that quite ironic given her roommate's field of work. The girl had been talked into marriage more by her family than her future husband. Why the rush? She shrugged it off. It was not her problem.
When a month later Melissa received the second story she was surprised. She savored it. Again she tucked it away.
The third story was even better.
One morning she impulsively decided to visit the library in search of the author. This was an extreme departure from her normal stoic, methodical self. Something had drawn her to him.
But he had not been there.
She left disappointed but also a bit shocked at herself. She had stayed away ever since.
It was the fourth story that truly captivated her. The shortest story, it was her favorite. The angst was palpable in the black ink dotting the parchment paper it was written on. It made her shed tears.
And so it went on for another year, once every couple of months or so. She would look forward to the stories, clearing her schedule the day after receiving one. She would stay home, make herself a cup of tea, and read it. It usually took an hour.
* * *
Troy's fiancee was searching for a stapler. She had just completed writing a progress note for one of the rare fourth graders with whom she worked. She found her job much more satisfying when it dealt with the younger students. It made for a much more satisfying and lasting intervention. The high schoolers, especially the upperclassmen were often lost causes. They were ignorant enough to be confident in their sense of righteousness. The biggest losers were those who did not believe they had a problem. It is impossible to help a student unless they first realize they have a problem.
She had been giving some serious thought to asking for a focus on the pre-adolescent population. But there was a paradox: Even though it required an additional certificate which could take three months the pay was less. She did not understand it. Perhaps everyone else found working with the younger ones also more rewarding and therefore there was more demand driving down compensation.
She had tried to talk to Troy about it but he had seemed to be another world the past year. They had almost broken up a few months back but neither of them had had the guts to figure out what their problem had been or, should the problem be fundamental and not amenable to correction, to proceed with a clean break before marriage and, most worrying, children came along.
Where was her stapler? She always kept it on her desk or in the drawer. She looked all over her bedroom, ransacking her desk and its drawers two or three times before giving up on it.
She then turned her attention to the rest of the apartment she was sharing with her roommate.
She looked around the living room and kitchen first. It was a cursory and unrewarding search. She knew the stapler was almost certainly in Melissa's room but want to go through the perfunctory process of ruling out the other locations before trespassing into her bedroom.
She entered with her sight fixed on her desk. It was fake oak (like so many other things about Melissa, she thought wryly) and had three drawers arranged in a column on either side. Two drawers in between formed the keystone.
She checked the room thoroughly. She even looked under her bed and in the bathroom before focusing on the desk.
She felt guilty about prying but promised herself that she would ignore and forget anything other than the stapler.
Her hands were almost trembling as she opened the middle two drawers: They contained nothing of interest. Nor was the stapler to be found.
She stopped and was about to leave the bedroom when she decided she was going to check the top left drawer. It was slightly ajar.
Slowly and with great trepidation she opened it.
The stapler was inside. She felt a sense of relief.
She took the stapler and was about to close the drawer when, through no effort and despite her best attempts to ignore its contents, she caught sight of an envelope.
And then she had a mental disconnect. She was not as much in shock as in disbelief. The handwriting with its extreme slant was unmistakable: It was Troy's. He was left-handed and wrote with an extreme overhand angle which led to a marked rightward slant.
Why had Melissa tucked away his letter to her?
And then she noticed the intended recipient's name on the letter.
* * *
It had been one year since he had first layed eyes on Bobbie Rae. Twelve long months since she had walked through the doors of the main branch of the Annapolis Public Library.
She had stopped by infrequently but regularly, without any ulterior motives. They would talk about things. She never again brought up her friend at the Naval Academy.
He had told her he was engaged, but also that there were days that he had his doubts. Perhaps this was not the right thing to do, but he felt that he had to let her know. As time went on he realized that his had not been an infatuation. He enjoyed every moment with her even if they were discussing the most mundane subjects. He never tired of her company, casual as that companionship may have been.
He told her of his fiancee because, at the age of thirty-seven, he was finally beginning to develop the beginnings of what could be called moral courage.
Unfortunately for him, he had met the right person after his engagement. More importantly Bobbie Rae had never given him the slightest clue to having any interest in him.
He had continued to write because he did not know what else to do. Not writing was not an option.
She told him she had moved but would not volunteer her new address since she had stopped checking out books. She would simply come and browse the library every couple of months, sitting down by herself for an hour or so to read a particular section. He did not want to ask for her address because, he reasoned, if she started receiving the stories it would have meant she had not received the previous ones. The most desirable assumption was that she had been receiving the stories all along. Perhaps they were being forwarded to her. The logic was flawed but so was his perspective. In our lives the most pleasing assumptions are usually the least likely to be true.
It was in mid-August of the year after he had met Bobbie Rae. He had written her eight stories.
On a Tuesday evening as he was getting ready to supervise a session for high schoolers on how to find reference materials in the library he heard loud, forceful foot-steps. They were angry foot-steps.
He looked up.
It was his fiancee. She was crying and screaming at the same time. Her neck veins were protruding through the skin. Her face was as white as a bed sheet.
Thinking that she had come to him for help or support he immediately got up and held his hands open to give her a hug.
She approached him and before he could say anything reached back with her right hand as if a side-armed baseball pitcher in his full wind, gracefully arced her arm in a perfect semicircle, her fingers completely extended, and landed her hand in a whipping motion to complete a resounding and humiliating slap of his left cheek. It sounded like a firecracker. It was a wet slap. Her finger marks left their red imprints, as if a series of lipstick glossed kisses had been pecked on his cheek.
Troy had never been slapped before. It was physically and emotionally jarring. His left ear was ringing. He could only hear the sound of his heartbeat as it swirled, blood rushing in his chest, up his neck into both jaws and ears. He was stunned. Every eye in the library and the newly minted coffee shop above was on them. He did not know which was more embarrassing: The slap or the stares.
"How could you? You have no shame?" she was screaming hysterically.
Snot was running down the sides of her mouth. Her usually stoic eyes were bloodshot.
He was dumbfounded.
"Do you think I'm an idiot? Sending those letters to the girl who stayed in my apartment before me? I can't believe you," she was almost incoherent, taking deep breaths between loud pangs of crying. Every time he thought it had stopped it became obvious that she was merely breathing deeply before another chorus of tears and screams.
He wished he had never been born.
"You thought I would never get these?" she pulled a pile of sheets out of her pocket and laid them before his eyes. To his horror they were the envelopes in which he had mailed his stories.
He would later find out that Bobbie Rae had been Melissa's roommate prior to his fiancee moving in. He would also find out that their apartment's street address was based on the archaic system used in Annapolis, such that the back entrance which was on the adjacent street and never used was the official mailing address. He had never figured out that the address he was mailing the stories to was the same as his fiancee's new apartment. He had thought he was mailing the letters to an apartment in the street next to hers.
"Why didn't you ever write me a love story?" she was pounding on his chest. "Was I never good enough? I didn't deserve one?!" The pathos was turning into rage.
He hated himself.
"Why didn't you tell me you don't love me? Why?" she was running out of tears.
"Three goddamn years we've been together and I've never gotten so much as a flower. You didn't even get down on your knees to propose to me. How could you do this to me?"
He could not think of an answer.
The answer, of course, was obvious: He was afraid to fight the current into which he had been thrown. Afraid of the consequences of telling her and others how he felt. He had been weak and selfish.
He sat down and put his head in his hands, tugging on his blond wavy hair.
All he could say was a pathetic, "I'm sorry." He figured it quite reflected him as a human being.
Years later he would look back to that moment as a realization of what happens when you let the tides of life run you over: While less resistive for a brief moment you will eventually drown.
His moral compass had been turned upside down. He realized that the deceit and self-serving he had displayed made him a lesser man. That he had hurt another human being who did not deserve such hurt. That two lives were ruined.
She stormed out of the library and his life without another word.
* * *
Fall descended on Annapolis fast and furious that year. By the end of September the first frost had struck, making crystalline statuettes of the grass and vegetation in the pre-dawn hours.
A hurricane had hit the Chesapeake coasts of Virginia and Maryland in the third week of the month, the latest on record. The damage was not dramatic but decidedly inconvenient. It was enough to force his father to halt work for a week or so as he reset his traps. Anyway crabbing season was waning. The drop in his catches had been precipitous. All blamed it on the unusually cold weather.
The library, too, had been shut down for a few days before and after the hurricane. There was no structural damage but the county needed it to pass inspection before re-opening.
It was dead winter in Troy's life.
His fiancee had moved out of Melissa's apartment and moved closer to Glen Burnie, halfway between Annapolis and Baltimore. She still worked for the county but wanted to get away from the memories and keep her parents at arm's length. She blamed them for much of her misery. She had come to the realization, however, that no one was to blame as much as Troy and herself.
She had cried herself to sleep for the first couple of weeks after finding the letters. But she was not in the deep, dark depression that had overtaken Troy. Within a month she had actually started to smile again. She wondered if this was a reflection of the fact that she, too, had never really loved him. Were cultural roles to be reversed she doubted that she would have ever kneeled down, asking for his hand in marriage.
As time went along she recognized that the sting was more of jealousy than anything else. She hated Troy but only for a few weeks. And perhaps more because he had favored another girl than the fact that he did not love her. Her spirit was resilient. This was facilitated by the knowledge that she was squarely to blame for much of the trouble between herself and Troy.
Troy, however, was completely miserable.
Bobbie Rae had not visited him anymore. He had completely lost contact with her.
His parents were humiliated by his actions. His father had muttered something about his failure as a father.
His job, one of his few sources of confidence and bravado, was at risk: Two customers had reported the incident with his fiancee. He had to appear before the City's Master Librarian to explain his perspective.
Both he and his father's income were at risk.
His fiancee had moved away. She had yet to try to contact him.
He had not pursued the matter.
His self-esteem was non-existent.
If there was any redeeming features to his situation it was that he had learned an important lesson: He would never again allow fear of conflict to compromise his honesty.
Perhaps thirty-seven was too late of an age to come to such a realization.
Still, if things went according to the law of averages, and if he did not take up smoking, he had another fifty years or so of life to apply this lesson, he thought to himself dryly.
More than anything else, however, Troy was brokenhearted.
Time had proven to him that he was in love with a girl who, when falling in love with, he had met on only one occasion. He recognized that most perceptions of love at first sight are illusions. But he had proven, through time and letters, that his may have been an exception. Why that particular girl? He would probably never know.
Whatever had happened he knew that he had to have the strength to drag himself out of this hole that he had dug for himself.
He had started by putting an end to writing stories.
He threw away the few tokens of her that could serve to open the fresh wounds: Her handwritten application for the library card. The note she had left when returning the National Geographic more than a year before.
He really did not have much else.
He wished her well in life.
Now, if only he could begin to live his.
* * *
The unseasonably cold September had carried on thru October and November.
But early December had been different.
A southeasterly front had formed in equatorial Atlantic Ocean and had sluggishly pushed its way up, hugging the east coast all along the way. Temperatures were breaking the sixty degree barrier regularly. Some had decided to taking to the Naval Academy's public golf course in T-shirts. Others had decided to break open their speedboats and go for a rare December ride on the Chesapeake.
The sailors, of course, were too smart to be fooled. Though the weather may have seemed relatively balmy, they knew that water temperatures followed a more predictable pattern and that any exposure to the waters of the Chesapeake could prove catastrophic. No sailboats could be seen in the early December rendition of summer water sports.
Troy always preferred it to be colder outside when working at the library. It gave it an air of coziness and familiarity that bordered on the quaint. And these days he could use anything that provided a sense of comfort.
The last few weeks had been particularly difficult. Other than his parents and some high school acquaintances, he had few friends. Most of his and his fiance's friends had broken contact with both of them after the break-up.
He had never particularly enjoyed their company. Their social gatherings were forced displays of public affection for him and his fiancee. He had always wondered it would have been like to go out with someone he had really loved. He had been envious of couples who had obvious delight in each other's company. In mimicking their affections he had only increased the emptiness in his heart. He had to be ever cautious with his words and actions. And since his fiancee sensed the absence of genuine pleasure in mutual company, any misspoken joke or offhand comment would rapidly take a serious tone with untoward consequences. She was extremely defensive and not without reason.
Good riddance, he would think of the get togethers. But memories of the past have a way of favoring the few bright moments over the numerous dark ones.
Troy would regularly struggle with the little things that would jog his memory: Music was particularly powerful. One of their few genuine mutual passions was music. Every time he would hear a favorite tune of theirs it would give him pause. Often he would even shed a tear. They had never been enemies or disliked each. Maybe it would have been easier if they had.
December was always one of the slowest months in the library.
But this year had been different. Anne Arundel County had decided to build an extension to the library in the form of a coffee shop and bookstore. The library, after all, was located in prime real estate, right in the middle of the compact downtown area. It was walking distant from the Maryland State Capital and St. John's College, and only a short bike ride (albeit a hilly one) from the Naval Academy. As one of the oldest libraries in the country it commanded enough recognition to be registered as a Historic Site. The fact that it had been a pet project of Benjamin Franklin's only increased its desirability as a destination for many an out of town visitor.
The county, in a cash crunch, and making no bones about the fact that they had stolen the idea from other more well known companies' playbooks, had wisely decided to add a section where visitors could browse the library or bookshop, perhaps purchase a book, or sit down and read a few chapters over a cup of chamomile tea or, as the season were, hot apple cider. Unlike the rest of the library, particular attention was payed to amenities such as temperature control and lighting.
The coffee shop had a separate entrance so that the visitor could easily bypass the sometimes extremes of temperature and damp odors of the library and gain entrance to the bookstore which was perched about thirty feet above the cathedral like library. There was enough space that a third level could have been constructed, if needed.
A customer could go directly to the bookstore, purchase and sit down to enjoy a cup of coffee with a magnificent view of the library below and the Chesapeake harbor and the State Capital visible beyond the extensive windows. One could almost imagine a budding Capote sitting in one of those seats, sipping on espresso after espresso as he would contrive his next web of delight.
It had all proven to be a brilliant financial move. The bookstore/coffee shop had opened in the spring of the year after Troy and Bobbie Rae had met. Though at first more of a curiosity, within a couple of months the number of visitors had doubled. Within four months additional coffee shop space had to be opened. By November parking had started to become a real problem. On the Friday after Thanksgiving there were more sales in that particular bookstore than the two busiest bookstores in Annapolis Mall combined.
Troy wished he could get a cut of the sales. But instead he was greeted with the busiest December on record for the library. Were it not for the fact that he actually enjoyed his job it would have been a nightmare.
The city, once again demonstrating its economic acumen, realized that you do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. You take good care of it. And so it came that a new assistant was hired to work directly under Troy's supervision.
Her name was Kelly and she had graduated from the University of Maryland the spring of that same year. She was from Cape St. Claire, where Troy and his parents lived.
She immediately hit it off with Troy. She was an avid reader and loved to discuss books with him. She was also a quick learner and very efficient at work. She helped Troy immensely as the number of visitors at the library, even in December, was becoming too much for only one Assistant Librarian. She had a general cheerfulness about her that seemed contagious.
Nor was she not easy on the eyes. She had actually been approached by one of the coaches about her interest in being a cheerleader while walking to class one morning.
Students and customers routinely made an extra effort to catch a glance at her. She was striking. Tall, with auburn hair, her natural physique elicited the extra attention of men and women who came in contact with her.
Perhaps she was friendly or maybe she had a dash of flirtatiousness, but others would have sworn that she had developed at least a scintilla of attraction for Troy.
This was quite an oddity because to most objective individuals it was obvious that Troy's physical attributes, while undoubtedly not subpar, was not routinely a source of inspiration for most women who came in contact with him.
There was something about him that she had found interesting, almost captivating. Something which at first had gradually piqued her attention. Something that gravitated her in his direction.
That something was Troy's apparent obliviousness.
Kelly was used to men feigning attraction. She could immediately detect those who pretended to not notice her.
But it was not often that she would interact with men who truly did not appear to demonstrate at least a superficial attraction for her.
Troy appeared to have been one of these.
* * *
The temporary reprieve from winter was over by the time the second week of December had arrived.
And just in time:
For there are few more beautiful places on the face of this earth than the City of Annapolis during the Christmas season.
The entire downtown area was decorated with Christmas lights. The downtown area is not large, encompassing an area of four by six city blocks in a circular pattern around the State Capital and is surrounded by the Naval Academy and St. John's College. None of the buildings, save for the adjacent State Capital, are more than three stories high.
The State Capitol's front lawn itself was turned into a massive Christmas tree.
There seemed to be a Salvation Army donation drop-off bucket at every other street corner.
One could smell the apple cider and cinnamon emanating from the coffee shops while walking down the streets.
While much shopping was going on, the task did not seem to overwhelm those walking the streets. Annapolitans seemed to be in a more festive and less hurried mood when walking through their small downtown. The sound of laughter was gently muffled by the now increasingly frequent snowfalls. The Academy, St. John's, and State Capital each had a skylight directed upward. Whenever it snowed they would coordinate to triangulate the beams over Main Street in downtown. Passerbys walking on the cobblestone roads of downtown could look upward and see the snow drifting downward, reflecting the beams from the skylight, as if putting on the high beams while driving through a blizzard. It was enchanting and hypnotic.
Both the Naval Academy and St. John's choirs were regularly putting on outdoor performances.
But undoubtedly the most beautiful and unique feature of Annapolis in Christmas is the Susquehanna Outdoor Skating Rink located between the downtown pier and the Academy. It actually stands on Academy grounds but was donated to the city as a token of the Academy's gratefulness to the citizens of Annapolis.
It is vast, almost the size of a football field.
It sits on Auer Cliff, one hundred twenty-two feet above the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean. At night floodlights engulf the rink, and by extenstion the cliffs below, allowing the skaters to catch a glimpse of the howling wintry Atlantic while skating and listening to one of many eclectic Christmas songs on the loudspeakers imbedded within its perimeter walls.
More recently a walkway was carved within the cliff which allowed the adventurous to walk down and get close enough to the Atlantic so as to be sprayed upon on even the most tranquil days. It is a treacherous trek full of warning signs. But there had been great popular interest and the city had finally acquiesced.
Susquehanna Rink is frequented by Annapolitans of all walks of life. Families with children barely old enough to walk frequent it during the weekends. Would be lovers go there on a first date on a given weeknight in hopes of kindling a fire. It is often on this rink that they timidly hold hands for the first time. Young boys still in middle school have their parents drop them off or ride their bikes so they can meet up like a pack of young lion cubs and roam the rink. Young girls holding hands with each other, giggling as each takes a turn falling on the ice. The brokenhearted or rugged individualists who enjoy the clarity of mind afforded by skating in the outdoors as a brisk salty wind blows in their face.
About a hundred feet off, on southwest end of the rink is a small pastry shop, somewhat uncreatively called The Pastry Shoppe by its long-time owner, that is home to the best pies on either side of the Mississippi. Few things build up the appetite like an hour on the skating rink. Like the small fish that feed on the remnants of food between a shark's teeth, The Pastry Shoppe is the chief beneficiary of its coexistence with the Rink. Without a doubt, however, it also enhances the skating. At least a fraction of the rink's denizens go there in anticipation of visiting The Pastry Shoppe afterwards.
And so Susquehanna Rink welcomes all.
Few leave it without an increment in their level of happiness.
* * *
It was seven nights before Christmas Eve.
Troy had finished work as the library, though not the bookstore and coffee shop, was now closing earlier in anticipation of Christmas and had decided to make a dash for Susquehanna Rink before going home. The rink had opened when he was seven years old. His parents had taken him and his sister often. Skating came naturally to him and although he never played on a high school or college hockey team he had played a year of club hockey while at Anne Arundel Community College.
He enjoyed skating by himself and during the winter months, when the rink was open, he would visit at least once a week.
It was almost seven o'clock and the sun had already been vanquished by a luminous moon.
He carried his skates in his duffle bag during the twenty-five minute walk between the library and the rink.
Thankfully the rink was so vast that it rarely became congested. His favorite thing to do was to simply accelerate down the stretches and into the turns, angling himself as close as possible to the frozen surface. He also loved the music. The exhilaration eliminated all distractions.
The night started with clear skies and a full moon. Its reflection on the rink and the Atlantic's mist was breathtaking. The Ocean, tugged by the moon, was violently pounding against the rocky shore. The spray from the Ocean easily reached those staring down while skating on the rink above.
Far away the blinking sultry lights from the five mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge, one of the Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World, connecting Maryland's Eastern and Western shores could be seen.
The rink was sparkling tonight. The Zamboni machine must have been operating with all gears in full blast.
It made for a fast pace, especially as Troy would pick up speed when approaching the turns.
He usually spent an hour or so before going for his favorite pie at The Pastry Shoppe along with a cup of cappacino.
He felt close to normal for a couple of hours afterwards and if lucky would be in bed before melancholy would start taking over.
Troy had just finished his second lap, had slowed a bit to avoid a couple of skaters when, as he was down to a plodding pace, he felt a tap on his left shoulder.
Thinking someone had accidentally brushed him he ignored it at first.
Five seconds later he felt another tap, this time a bit more rushed and intense, on the same shoulder.
Mildly annoyed, he turned around.
* * *
Troy had never been religious. Experience had taught him that there was, in all likelihood, an overarching force greater than he could ever come close to comprehending. Of the presence of this force he had little doubt. And if you wanted to call it God, then by all means go ahead. But he was not sure if this force cared much about the day to day lives of others.
But if God, of whose presence he was certain, were to have made a heaven then surely this moment was the closest thing he would ever experience in this life.
It was Bobbie Rae.
She gave him that same half smile she had given him that sweltering August day two summers ago when she had walked into his life.
She was wearing a pink wool hat which almost completely covered the golden curls she had packed underneath. Her hair was so thick she could barely fit her locks.
The hat came down on either side and ended immediately above her ears which she had covered with a pair of light green ear muffs. She was wearing a bandana across her forehead. It was drenched with a salty combination of sweat and ocean mist.
The green eyes, those windows into her angelic soul, whose iris' spasmodic motion had first enthralled him, whose gaze had flirted with his being, whose image was the last thing he thought about before falling asleep the last eighteen months, were focused on him.
And unlike their first encounter this time she did not smile through him or around him. This time she smiled at him.
Her long lashes had a hue of frost on their tips.
Her blemishless face was flushed, almost beet red.
She was wearing a pare of pink gloves and a crimson jacket.
His heart was racing, but thankfully the unnatural surge of adrenaline which would have normally accompanied such an encounter was overwhelmed by the natural surge of speed skating. It made him less uneasy. Perhaps a tad bit more confident.
She was the star of the Show and God, its director, had decided to let her have the spotlight to herself: The full moon was focused on her resplendent face.
Her breath steamed visibly as it streamed through her nostrils and mouth.
"Hi Troy," she said without any fanfare but with tranquility.
"Hi Bobbie Rae," he, too, responded calmly, as if he had just finished a cup of chamomile tea.
Clearly less comfortable on skates than Troy, Bobbie Rae's knees jostled and her arms were slightly extended as she tried to maintain her balance.
"Been a while..." her voice drifted.
"Yup, it has." He nodded, somewhat awkwardly.
They were now walking on their skates and heading to the periphery of the rink where the slower skaters clustered.
Bobbie Rae started holding the perimeter wall with her right hand as they walked in a counterclockwise direction around the rink. He was to her left, closer to the center of the rink. They were almost touching.
"A lot's happened, hasn't it?" she said looking at him. It was clear she wanted to let him know that she knew more than he thought she knew.
He bent his head downward, staring at the tracks made by the various skaters' blades.
"Look at me," she commanded.
He was startled.
"Why are you always so afraid to look me in the eyes?" she asked with genuine wonder. She had stopped walking and was now hugging the perimeter wall with both hands. "Do I make you uneasy?" she asked.
He gulped a nervous gulp. He had wanted to tell her something but had never had the confidence to do so. Time, though, was slipping away. How many more times could he count on the "next encounter"?
He almost did not hear himself when he blurted, "Your beauty makes me uneasy."
She moved her head in a state of complete bewilderment.
Neither said a word or moved a muscle.
They were staring each other in the eyes.
And then she giggled. "Now Troy Anthony, I believe that's the biggest, corniest bull I've heard all day long. And believe me, people are feeding me bull all the time," she said, her charming Southern drawl purposely more pronounced than ever before.
He had never told her his middle name.
It was now or never.
"You know Bobbie Rae, it's been a shitty year and a half," he raised his voice ever so slightly. She probably did not even notice.
She looked at him, not saying a word. She, too, had been waiting for this moment. For Troy to finally speak at least a fraction of what had been on his mind.
But then he clamped down again.
She wisely decided to change the topic. Only by her easing up would he open up.
"My ankles are getting sore, why don't you do a couple more laps and then we can walk down to the Ocean," she suggested, referring to the track from the rink down to the Ocean.
He knew he would feel more calm after a couple of more runs around the rink.
She watched him from the seats as she changed back into her boots.
As he skated he would occasionally throw a glance in her direction. She was sitting in the stands, her elbows on her knees, slightly slouched over with her hands against her chin. She never took her eyes off of him.
He completed three laps. Once done he quickly changed, put both their skates in his duffel bag, and threw it over his right shoulder.
He had been down the path dozens of times but it was her first time going down to the bosom of the Atlantic Ocean.
On a night like this, with the ferocity of the waves, the pavement was quite slippery.
Sure enough they were about fifty feet into the dark, misty, track when Bobbie Rae slipped and fell. Her right hand cushioned her fall.
"You OK?" Troy asked with concern.
She smiled back at him. "I'm a tough gal," she said as she held her left hand out for Troy.
He was only a split second late, but still Troy was a bit embarrassed that he had not offered assistance before her asking.
He gently held her hand and helped her get up. It was their first physical contact since the sweaty handshakes in the library.
They walked side by side without another word for a minute.
The moonlight reflected over the Ocean. Bobbie Rae had always been afraid of the Ocean at night. But tonight it looked like an old friend as the moonlight reflected off it.
He broke the silence.
Without breaking stride he turned his head in her direction.
"You know my fiancee broke up with me," he said. It was one of the first times that he had thought of his ex-fiancee without feeling like breaking into tears.
She looked at him, gently nodding but saying nothing.
"Do you know why she broke up with me?" he asked. He stopped walking.
They gazed at each other in the cold December moonlight. Saltwater was spraying over both their faces. A sentimental onlooker, not knowing any better, and perhaps overwhelmed by the natural beauty surrounding them, would have said that for the briefest of moments they seemed entranced in each other.
"I'm sorry?" He was incredulous.
It was her turn.
"I know why she broke up with you." She refused to elaborate.
"Did Melissa tell you about everything?" he wanted to know. How he hated that girl.
"No," she said calmly.
"Then how..." His voice drifted away in a sea of incomprehension.
"Your fiancee, she wrote me." Bobbie Rae reached into her jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. She had brought it because she knew she was going to have this conversation on this night. When she opened it Troy immediately recognized his fiancee's handwriting.
"What does it say?" he asked, not believing his eyes.
"It says not to tell you what it says except to tell you that she has forgiven you. And that IF, and she capitalized it and underlined it, IF you and I were meant to be then it would be selfish of her to be the reason we do not. She also wanted me to tell you she is tired of being selfish." She waited for Troy to comprehend the enormity of what had just transpired.
"I just wanted to pass along her message."
"Troy, she is never going to contact you again." She folded the letter and put it back in her jacket. She had kept her promise to his fiancee. Which was more than he had managed to do, he thought bitterly.
In a way he wished that Melissa had told Bobbie Rae what had happened. Because that would have implied that Bobbie Rae would have at least learned about his short stories.
But he did not know Melissa well enough. She was too sinister and conniving.
Perhaps his fiancee had told Bobbie Rae about the stories.
He asked her point blank.
"Did she tell you about my stories?" he asked.
Bobbie Rae showed no surprise.
"No she did not." She replied flatly, without any emotion.
They continued walking another winding fifty feet. The trail was about a thousand feet long as it snaked and zig-zagged across the cliff, gradually descending towards the Ocean.
They could hear the joyful screams of the skaters above.
Troy stopped in his tracks. He gently put his hands on Bobbie Rae's shoulders and turned her in his direction so that they could see each other face to face.
"Look, Bobbie Rae, I know that this has not been easy. And God knows we have plenty of differences here between the two of us. Shoot, I had a fiancee up to a few months ago and you were dating a Midshipman last time I checked. And we weren't exactly classmates in school. Heck, we are not something anyone expects to happen..." He stopped. This was not going the way he had hoped it would when they were silently walking a few moments earlier.
She needed to say what had been on her mind for far too long.
"Troy, don't be what your fiancee said you are: Please don't be selfish. Look at where I'm coming from. I lost my love, my best friend in war. It may seem like something that happened a long time ago. But I'm still haunted by it. The hurt is real, Troy. I'm going to sound cruel, but losing him was ten times worse what you went through." She was trying to hold back her tears.
"At least you have closure," she continued. "At least you know that your ex-fiancee is living her life. And probably doing a better job at it than you are." She knew she would regret some of what she was saying but, like Troy, Bobbie Rae realized that these were things that needed to be said.
They were quiet again. The waves were picking up below.
Troy did not take his eyes off Bobbie Rae's face.
A tear cascaded down her cheek.
He took a towel out of his duffel bag and tenderly wiped her face. She did not protest.
"Bobbie Rae, I've never been a big believer in God. I'm not sure if He's sitting there analyzing every move that I make, handing out merits or demerits. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that there is a Force which is bigger than all of us. And this Force, or Karma, or whatever you want to call it has blessed us with life.
"Look at us. Here we are standing under the full moon, with the Atlantic Ocean below. As far as I know we are healthy, and have loving families. Don't you think God would be unhappy that you, his child, has been given all this and yet you are still not strong enough to overcome that sadness which has been brought upon you? I really think He only gives us one shot at this thing called Life. A hundred years from now you and I will be gone. And another couple will be standing by the Ocean, both of them brokenhearted. What would you tell them? You damn well know the answer: You would tell them to enjoy and savor every moment without harming another of God's creatures. If you can do that, then you have achieved Happiness.
''My biggest fear in life is someday as I'm laying in my grave and God asks me 'Did you do it right?', that I would say no. But I look around and so many people are living it the wrong way. It's awful. But you and I, I know we can do it the right way.
"You know Bobbie Rae, I got one other thing I wanna tell you. You may be scratching your head wondering if all this writing and jazz isn't just some silly phase I'm going thru. If it is, it's lasted damn near two years now. And I don't know why it's you. I just know, that as messed up and complicated as everything is, I just know in my heart of hearts, that you will never find someone who will make you happier.
"If you and I were to ever think it would be easy for us to make it work then we would both be idiots. But there are real obstacles and then again there are man-made ones.
''I'm not someone who cares about name or religion. I would change either without any hesitation to be with someone I love. That's because I know neither defines me. What defines me is this,'' he tapped his head, ''and this.'' He tapped his chest. Each twice.
''And now you know how those two feel…''
He was done. He had told her what he had been trying to convey in every one of his stories. There was little else that he cared to do or say.
She looked up at him with her heavenly eyes. He could see the moon's reflection in them.
She took her wool hat off, gently shaking her head. Her locks flew in every direction. The moonlight gave them a bluish silver hue. She was absolutely glowing.
Many years later, as he lay in his deathbed, Troy would recall Bobbie Rae's image at that precise moment. It would be his last thought before dying.
Bobbie Rae had much that she wanted to tell him:
It had been a long winter in her life, too. The hurt of losing her best friend and lover to war had absolutely devestated her.
She had just gradually begun to allow her heart to open itself, to allow herself to enjoy sunrises and sunsets and poems again when she had found out her new boyfriend had befriended another. Harsh, hurtful words had been exchanged. Her sense of self-worth had been severly challenged.
Surely her heart could never heal after two such devestating events.
Someone needed to throw her a life raft. She prayed more than ever before.
And then, as if by divine intervention, she received the first of those letters…
Three weeks before the dreadful news of her new friend's infidelity, three weeks after moving out of Melissa's apartment, Melissa had sent Bobbie Rae a short story to consider for publication.
Bobbie Rae had not gotten to reading it until after learning the news of her boyfriend's disloyalty. And only then because she desperately needed a distraction.
But, even in deep despair, Bobbie Rae had noticed something: The guitar player of the first story had been trying to complete Bach's "Jesus, Ode to Man's Desiring". Only a few weeks earlier she had checked out a National Geographic to see if Bach, like Beethoven, had been deaf. There were only three people who knew of this: She, the Plebe she was dating, and Troy.
No one else.
Melissa, it turned out, had been an aspiring and frustrated writer. And Bobbie Rae was now working for a renowned publishing agency headquartered in New York City.
Bobbie Rae had read much of Melissa's older work. She simply was not wired to be a writer.
By now Bobbie Rae was in the depths of despair, having ended a second relationship which had started with so much hope.
Was love truly a mirage? Did it really exist on this bleak planet? How could it be nurtured in the midst of so many forces against it?
Those stories gave her an unequivocal answer: Yes. Love is real, and so is goodness of heart. But finding it requires journey through an often winding path.
Melissa's well-documented failings as a writer made her next two submissions, which made Bobbie Rae fall in love for the first time since the death of her boyfriend, even more suspicious. The question which beckoned Bobbie Rae: Fall in love with whom?
And so on that fateful summer afternoon she decided to test the hypothesis that Troy was the author.
Perhaps a bit cruelly, but quite brilliantly, she let it be known to Troy at the library that she was dating a Plebe. In reality they had broken up, of course.
The tone of the following stories shifted dramatically: The melancholy and aching of the writer was apparent. Only then did she know for certain that Troy was their author.
She made a difficult decision to let the charade go on. Melissa kept sending her the stories. And Bobbie Rae kept raving about them to Melissa, asking her to send a few more. Bobbie Rae realized she required nine or ten stories to complete a manuscript which would get a serious chance at publication.
She had visited Troy at the library infrequently but often enough to keep him guessing. She felt guilty but realized that, Troy, too, had been dreaming of a masterpiece. This would be her gift to him.
But in spite of her brilliance Bobbie Rae had neglected one important fact: Troy, however unlovingly, was engaged to be married. Such a commitment could not be ignored. Bobbie Rae knew that because of the peculiarity of Melissa's mailing address Troy would never realize he was mailing stories to his fiancee's new apartment.
She had been there that afternoon when Troy's fiancee had confronted him in the library. She would often go to the bookstore and gaze at him from above and at a distance. He could never see her from that angle.
Everyone had heard his fiancee's screams.
When she had stormed out Bobbie Rae realized that the game must come to an end.
She stopped visiting Troy.
Her conscience forbade her from approaching Troy, an engaged man, even if his fiancee had broken off with him. Perhaps it was subconscious, but Bobbie Rae realized she had crossed a line when by unwittingly toying with Troy she had abetted in the disentanglement of his engagement.
And so all their lives were in a holding pattern until Bobbie Rae received the letter from Troy's fiancee. She knew Bobbie Rae's name and address from the envelopes. It was only after the letter that Bobbie Rae felt she could approach Troy.
And so here they were.
Bobbie Rae was nearly omniscient, but she, in turn, had been unaware that Troy had remembered her description of her boyfriend's death.
That he had remembered the poem she had never received.
He often thought of the sense of joy which overcame him when he simply looked at her during their casual conversations. Her sight was the essence of his happiness.
If God gave him a choice: Long life or Bobbie Rae, which would he choose?
And so the poem:
If God above would say to me
"Ten thousand breaths I give to thee
And thereupon there shall be none"
Each breath earth's orbit 'bout the sun
But each time that I see your face
My breath's taken without a trace
Not one- or ten-hundred times,
But one-hundred one-hundred times
And so He hath offered the chance
To live ten thousand years or glance
In your direction for one bit
But then this planet I must quit
I tell my Lord: "My choice is She!"
For when I gaze my eyes on thee
The joy that your sight brings to me
Exceeds lives of eternity...
"Troy, let's keep walking down. This is what Christmas weather is supposed to be: Frightful and delightful!" She was excited as she grabbed his left arm.
They walked to the end of the path.
The Ocean was drenching them both.
That was when Troy realized, for the first time, that despite the showering he had taken from the Atlantic, there was no itching or rashes. The curse that had prevented him from working in the Bay with his father was no longer.
He put his left arm around her shoulders.
By guiding him away from the waters of the Chesapeake and into the arms of the library what had been a curse may have been the greatest blessing Troy had ever been bestowed with.
Maybe God did care, after all.
He turned his head to his left and stared at her.
"You know The Pastry Shoppe has the best coconut pie in the world," he said calmly and confidently.
She looked at him without saying a word.
"Roberta Rachel, will you share a slice of coconut pie with me?" He smiled.
She kept her upward gaze at his face, slowly clenching her fists against his chest.
The moonlight continued its serenade.
And then she smiled back.