He strode forward, soles scraping the soft carpet, ears pricking at the sound of a few typewriters and hushed voices hidden behind shelves of books. Books were everywhere. The place reeked of them: fresh ones, musty ones, sharp and pungent ones, dark and mellow ones…. It was enough to set anyone’s teeth on edge. Walking past Reception (where Wilma gave him a knowing nod), he set his face toward the back right corner. That’s where she’d be. He could see her now as he had many times before, and the thought made his blood boil. Didn’t she know what was good for her? Didn’t she know what was expected—no—absolutely required of her?
Ten minutes later he was still walking toward that corner, steamer hotter every second. The room was a veritable maze of bookshelves. Nothing was done in a straight line, but thrown together higgledy-piggledy. The impossibly high shelves curved and crooked, forming narrow warrens in one section and expansive avenues in another. It was entirely unpredictable. Hans liked city streets. Laid out in a grid, uniform, self-conscious, clean, honest and trustworthy. This city of books was the precise opposite. Its avenues were uncoordinated and shady, old and broken like a beggar’s teeth. The smell wasn’t so bad when the books were all shut up on their shelves, but if he passed by a loiterer with an open book in hand, his nostrils were assailed with a dizzying variety of odors. This place called itself a hallowed hall of learning, and made much of its antique woodwork, soaring ceiling, enormous chandelier, and ridiculous crown moulding, but Hans saw it for what it really was. A relic. A vestige of old times that was in need of a good wrecking ball. No one wants to eat moldy leftovers or drive a broken-down vehicle, so why did this institution insist on existing?
She was right where Hans had expected to find her. Curled up in a frayed green armchair, her knees tucked up under her and head bent down so that her hair covered her face, she looked utterly at home in this awful place. Hans wondered if he should have brought a crowbar to help pry her out of her seat. “Freida! The garden party starts in two hours and I see no hat, no pearls, no skirt or even heels. How do you expect to be ready in time when you’re decomposing in a place like this?” No answer. “We’ve talked about this, darling. A library is no place for an up-and-coming socialite with contacts to make and a career to establish. Going blind reading every novel ever written is a pointless pursuit that I’ve demanded a hundred times that you stop immediately."
The head tilted up and a pair of light green eyes slid up Hans’ tall form, from his patent leather shoes to his suit jacket to his stiff collar to his creased forehead. He was always worried about her, poor papa. Stuck in a world of efficiency and automatons, he had never understood the library’s charms. “What if I didn’t plan on going to the garden party?"
“Then I would be very disappointed in you."
“What if I said my high heels broke, I spilled wine on my skirt, and my hat got crushed? And I’m incredibly nauseous and couldn’t stomach a single canapé?"
“I’d say you were manufacturing excuses and that you would attend the party in a pair of dungarees if that’s what it took to embarrass you into good behavior."
Freida heaved a sigh and looked back at the book in her hands. It was a thrilling novel that she’d been searching for off and on for months. It had been referenced in a memoir by F.A. Winsel, and as soon as she’d heard of it she’d been possessed with the need to read it cover to cover. But, as with every book she read, it was interrupted by Reality with a capital “R”. She buried her nose in the spine one last time, drinking in the fragrance of honey and French wildflowers and a spicy, mysterious scent that she couldn’t quite place. That was the most exciting thing about it—that mystery that was baffling even the hero of the story. But it would come out in the end, she was sure. It always did in books. Not always in real life. She couldn’t imagine how her own story would end happily. A corner office and a trophy husband and trips to the seaside every year were probably her fate. But wouldn’t it be lovely….
Hans took the book out of her hands and snapped it shut. Dropping it onto a table like a rotting thing, he reached for Freida’s hand. She took it with a sigh, already tasting the champagne and vapid conversation which would soon be swirling all around her. She walked hand-in-hand with her father (probably looking rather like a naughty runaway child) all the way back to the immense front doors. She tried to catch a whiff of each aisle they rushed through. One section smelled strongly of burned rubber (racing stories, probably), another held the warm leathery scent of amber, and she could swear a chocolate cake was baking in one of the cookbooks on the topmost shelf. Her fingers itched to grab more than a few, but she knew they’d never be allowed over the threshold.
Thirty minutes later, Freida stood in front of the long mirror in her bedroom, hoping that the image would impress her father, or at least keep him from shaking his head in that discouraged way. She’d put up her auburn hair in a twist a the nape of her neck, donned a string of pearls, and even gone to the trouble of applying lipstick. What more could even the most demanding father expect?
Downstairs the caterers were chinking glasses and shouting orders, and Frieda could almost hear the cries of tender young snow peas being blanched and stuffed with Boursin and mint. Freida had an active imagination, rendered all the more fanciful by all those heady hours spent in the library, soaking in the smells and words of centuries. It was that bothersome imagination that was making her own life so stifling. When the salt spray of distant oceans and the cries of sirens called her name, and frigid mountaintops and isolated tribes and strange new flavors beckoned, how could she be content to exist in one skin, in one lifestyle, and especially one as cramped as this? The garden parties were all the same, the snow peas all the same, the music and guests and even her studies and holidays and trips to church were all the same. How could life get any duller? If only she could dive into a book and live out the life of a true heroine.