by Melissa Leddy
The college library had a Food Zone. You walked in through the front door, and on the right was a rectangular room with windows stretching across two of the four walls. The sign at the entrance announced “Food Zone,” clip art of a hamburger accompanying the Helvetica text.
If you wanted to eat while you studied, or wrote a paper, or texted your friends who were sitting next to you, you had to stay there. You couldn’t continue into the library, through the double doors, past the Reference Desk where a librarian wearing a Staff badge sat, alternating between skimming through a literary journal and keeping watch.
The first time, Heidi had ventured past the double doors after looking over a bookshelf of obscure DVD titles. She needed to use a restroom. The Food Zone had a vending machine, an assortment of tables and chairs, and plenty of natural light thanks to all the windows. . . but no restrooms. So after hanging out for a while, that first time, Heidi had walked through the double doors, in search of a place to pee.
The librarian at the Reference Desk noticed her immediately. He was middle-aged, overweight, bespectacled. He wore a tweed blazer and tie, even though the other librarian Heidi had seen—the one at Circulation and Reserves—dressed more casually (untucked dress shirt, jeans, Birkenstocks: quintessential New England hipster).
Tweed Blazer and Tie took his job seriously, Heidi could tell. And he could tell she didn’t belong there. She wasn’t a student at the college. So as nonchalantly as she could, she doubled back to the double doors and walked back outside into the crisp fall morning.
She liked the library, though. The location was good—just a short walk from the building where Billy had his appointments. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Every week.
Heidi had been bringing him to that building, the other one, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for two years now. Two years of sitting in the floral-wallpapered waiting room, flipping through months-old copies of magazines that probably would cure her persistent insomnia, should she smuggle them home in her tote bag. FamilyFun, Golf Digest, Woman’s Day—zzzzz.
The library was something different, a change of scenery. Thus, the next time she brought Billy to his appointment—it was a Friday—she checked it out again.
At this college, only the residential buildings had secure access. You had to be a student, with a pass code, to get into those buildings. But the other facilities, like the library, anyone could enter, at least during the day.
Just because you could get in, though, didn’t mean you were welcome. It didn’t mean you belonged. Heidi knew that feeling all too well. So that Friday morning, she entered the library but stuck to the Food Zone.
There were a few other people there. Heidi sat at a small table in a corner. The table had a lamp; Heidi clicked it on. Then she noticed that the group of girls at a nearby table had kept their lamp off. Heidi clicked hers back off.
The girls were college students. They had backpacks, water bottles, laptops adorned with bumper stickers. One of them wore a hooded sweatshirt with the college’s name branded across the front. All four of them had long hair.
When she was in college, Heidi had long hair too. It had been reddish brown; now it was reddish brown streaked gray. Reddish brown streaked gray, in need of professional attention.
In another corner of the rectangular Food Zone sat an older man with a sleeve of Carr’s crackers and the daily newspaper. He took his time nibbling the crackers and reading the newspaper, as if he had all the time in the world. Maybe he did. Maybe he lived somewhere close, and he liked coming here to read. Obviously, he wasn’t a college student—and probably not a professor—but nobody bothered him. He was, Heidi was sure everyone thought, harmless.
Heidi tapped her fingers against the table. Well, so was she. Harmless. Just sitting, taking a break.
(“From what?” Heidi could almost hear Tim asking her the question—not unkindly, but with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. From what did she need a break?)
The girls nearby began laughing. “I did not!” one of them exclaimed. But Heidi had a feeling she did, whatever it was.
Heidi had gone to a college like this one. Private, preppy, expensive. Her parents wanted the best for her, their only child, and took out a second mortgage to make sure she got it.
They shouldn’t have.
Heidi had changed her major several times before settling on psychology. All her former classmates had gone on to get graduate degrees. Now, they were esteemed clinical therapists, professors, and psychiatrists. One of them might be the next Dr. Phil. Every now and then, Heidi saw her on a Today segment about natural stress relief remedies or “being present in your life.”
Heidi hated Zen-y catchphrases like that: “Being present in your life.” She was here, wasn’t she? God.
Heidi wouldn’t be taking over for Dr. Phil anytime soon.
“Did you drop this?”
Heidi blinked and looked up. An early-20s guy was holding a wristlet out to her. It was small and black, and had the characters from “Peanuts” ice skating across the front. Really?
“No, it’s not mine.” Not her style at all. “But thanks for asking.”
He drummed it against his leg. “Do you know whose it could be? Maybe a friend’s?”
Heidi looked at him. He was tall and bulky, and wore his baseball cap backwards. “I don’t know.”
He scanned the Food Zone. “Where’s the Lost and Found?”
“I don’t know,” Heidi repeated. She let her eyes scan the Food Zone too. “Is there one?”
He slipped into the seat adjacent to her and leaned against the table. “There’s always a Lost and Found,” he said, his voice low, as if he were telling her a secret. “There has to be.”
Heidi mimicked his body language, leaning against the table herself. “Then maybe you should go find it,” she whispered.
He laughed. Heidi smiled.
“I don’t think we’ve met before,” he said. “I’m Jamie.”
Jamie nodded. “Cool. What year are you?”
“Uh…grad student.” What? Why had she said that?
Jamie smiled. “Cool,” he said again, before adding, “I’m a junior. I could be a senior, but…well, it’s complicated.”
It probably wasn’t, Heidi knew. He probably needed to retake some courses, or was suspended for a semester or two for an honor code violation. (That happened to her once.)
Not that complicated.
She glanced at the clock hanging next to the single TV in the room: 10:06. “Uh, I have to go,” she said. She really didn’t, but suddenly she felt trapped at the table, trapped in conversation with the chatty college student.
Heidi didn’t do well with trapped.
Jamie rose along with her. “Well, the next time I see you, I’ll let you know where the Lost and Found is.” He tapped the lost little bag against the table.
“Ok.” Heidi smiled. “Take care.”
That should have been goodbye—Heidi had thought that would be goodbye—but Jamie laughed. “‘Take care?’” he repeated, falling into step with her as she exited the Food Zone. “Only my grandma has ever said, ‘Take care,’ to me.”
Outside, the wind whipped through Heidi’s half-hearted ponytail. She looked at Jamie. He held up his hands. “Sorry,” he said. “Comparing you to my grandma doesn’t score me any points.”
“Actually, I’m probably in negative territory, right? Minus seven or something?”
Heidi cleared her throat. “Umm…”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Jamie said again. He smiled. “I think you’re cute, Ok? The team and I—I’m on the hockey team—we’re having a party at our house tonight. Can you come?”
Heidi couldn’t help but smile. “What?”
Jamie smiled back. “Is it such a stupid thing for me to say? ‘Please come to my party, Heidi?’ Or do you have a rule about not dating younger guys?”
Heidi looked at Jamie again. Could he really not tell (was he that stupid?) that he was much younger than she was? That she didn’t belong here? “Thank you for the invitation. . .but I can’t.”
Jamie raised his eyebrows. “Come on, really? We’ll even have food.”
“Even food, huh?” Heidi smiled. “It sounds fun, but I can’t.”
Jamie nodded. “I hear you.” He hoisted his backpack higher on his shoulder. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Maybe.” He was nice. And so Heidi added, “If you do see me around, let me know about the Lost and Found.”
Jamie nodded, then walked away.
Heidi watched him walk away. Damn. The flirtation had been unsettling…and it had felt good. Tim hadn’t been that attentive toward her in years. And…vice versa.
An older woman pushing a cart filled with fresh flowers in vases rattled by Heidi, en route to the dining hall. Heidi wandered along behind her. She still had an hour to kill before Billy would be ready for her.
Things used to be different between her and Tim. They had met in the frozen food aisle of a grocery store. Tim was loading Tombstone Original pizza box after Tombstone Original pizza box into his cart. Heidi wasn’t a health nut—she had just tossed a couple of Hot Pockets into her own cart—but man, that was a lot of Tombstone Original. It didn’t even taste good. Heidi considered herself a connoisseur of frozen pizza brands—not that that was anything to brag about—and she favored Freschetta; Tombstone Original was gross.
Tim had noticed her grimacing at him, and looked over, his eyebrows raised in amusement. “You’re judging me,” he remarked.
Heidi flushed, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, but, Tombstone Original?”
Tim laughed. He was a few years older—more than a few—and, as Heidi would find out, had an impressive job and owned a spectacularly restored brownstone, but had the diet of a frat boy and an aversion to most physical activity. Tim also had an ex-wife and two middle school-aged children, to whom he diligently distributed child support.
Heidi wasn’t a health nut, and she didn’t feel particularly strongly about exercise either. At first glance, she and Tim may have seemed an unlikely couple. But she was adaptable (or, indifferent). She didn’t mind (or, care) if they spent a whole weekend watching TV and ordering takeout, venturing out of Tim’s house only for coffee from the Starbucks around the corner. She didn’t give him a hard time if he canceled plans last-minute because of work (his first wife had) or forgot to buy her flowers on Valentine’s Day and her birthday (Heidi hated holidays).
Tim, for his part, was happy to have someone around again. Not exactly a partner, but more than a companion. Someone to sleep with, and next to.
They got married. They had Billy.
Things became harder, as they usually do. Kids.
The lady pushing the cart of fresh flowers found her destination, the dining hall. She headed in.
Heidi stopped. She glanced back to where Jamie had been. He wasn’t there anymore.
The wind whipped through her hair again. This time, it unraveled most of her ponytail. For a moment, Heidi let her streaks-of-gray hair flail in the wind. Then she pulled out the rubber band and raked her hair into a tighter ponytail.
Heidi made her way to her son’s building, two blocks away. If she was lucky, the floral-wallpapered waiting room would have an old copy of Entertainment Weekly. She would sit with the other parents—mostly moms, but some dads. She would pretend to read the magazine. Pretend things were getting better.
Pretend to be like the other people who were there.