The Simmons public library was a melting pot of the haves and have-nots, a mixture of homeless people and the wealthy older residents of the nearby neighborhood. This was no surprise to the woman sitting in the plush red armchair. Her hair pulled into a ponytail so tight, it might tear off her scalp. The library was in a “rejuvenating” community as the city liked to call it. Which meant the library was both a place for local housewives to bring their toddlers in the morning, and a place for the local urban homeless population to take refuge from the relentless summer heat in the afternoon. Without regulation or reformation, the Simmons Library was just another corner of the city the local government had abandoned. No, the library itself was not surprising.
What was surprising was that he wanted to meet here.
Her eyes shift upwards to take him in once more. He looks younger in the book jackets; she decides. His eyes had a sunken quality that was not conveyed in his photograph. But it was more than just depth- A certain weariness plagued his features, conveying a deep sense of exhaustion. Well, the authors always look different in their pictures, she reasoned. A wrinkle smoothed here, or a nose minimized there. The only thing that changed was the name. This time around, the author is an older gentleman. In high regard for his novels, both in the literary world and out. Perhaps that was why it was so shocking he chose to meet at this library.
It was a mystery that caused her some unease. When most authors found out that the magazine would pay the bill, they typically picked upscale restaurants. Occasionally a particularly reclusive author would request to meet at a private café, or even at the magazine’s office itself. On an especially remarkable occasion, the young journalist had interviewed an author in their private hospital suite.
But this time was different. The location had unnerved her from the start, despair soaking into her as she stood before the tall, imposing brick building. It was less a library, and more a fortress. Not a single hopeful shine from a glimmering window marred the crumbling brick walls. Halfway up those long stairs, she realized she had been here once before when she was younger. A neglectful friend who had a penchant for overdue assignments and books had lured her into the building, promising to only take a minute. She didn’t remember much from that visit, not even her friend’s face, which remained a blank void in her stuttering memory. All she remembered was the scent of rotting books and the feeling of waiting for a very long time.
The reporter shifts in her chair. In hindsight, it must have only been a handful of minutes. But at the time it felt like an eternity as she stood by the door, glancing at the brightly colored magazines a few feet away.
The library had not changed much since then, save for the large skylight that loomed over them like the moon. She was grateful for the natural light, rooms without windows often left her unsettled. They were unlucky, her mother had told her when she was young.
‘The entire world could burn and you would never know.’
She shook the thought away, resuming her inspection of the space. Several small tables scattered the central seating area, tall bookshelves surrounding them. One table featured a student, several books stacked high on either side, scribbling away into a notebook. A few tables away from them, a man with ragged clothes slumped over the table, fast asleep. A scene befitting a wall in an art gallery somewhere.
“Is it alright if I record this meeting Mr. Fuji?” Typically, she did not bother to ask if it was alright to record the interview, only stopping if the respondent voiced concern. But Jacobi Fuji was a household name, she had already been advised several times that this meeting should hold Jacobi Fuji’s comfort foremost, at all times. So, if Jacobi Fuji wanted to meet at a public library, she would meet him there. If Jacobi Fuji wanted to sit in the darkest part of this windowless library, she would sit with a smile. And if Jacobi Fuji so much as frowned at the small metallic box in her hand, she would not record him.
“That is fine.” His voice deep, without a tremor. Still, his voice came across rather soft, as if the recipient may crumble at the sound of his voice at its usual tenor.
She had heard the rumors, that he was difficult and aloof. To which she always thought; as is his right. If the only choice in this world was between quality or quantity, then Fuji was the golden goose that gifted both. At the beginning of his career, he had a new book on the shelves every season. Libraries and bookstores dedicated entire shelves to him, and scholars dissected his works in their dissertations. He was a whirlwind from another world. His influence in the literary world began to subside in his old age, ‘these hands don’t work like they used to’ he had joked on a television program, but not before amassing several awards and recognitions.
However, as the young journalist asked him about his life and his writing. She could not see a shadow of his intellectual privilege. He answered all her questions slowly and carefully. Putting purpose behind every word. His gaze often remained fixed on his hands, only flickering to meet hers after he had answered her question. She felt a certain warmth radiating from him. His scent felt familiar, like a place she had visited long ago. His presence was so comforting, she almost forgot this was an interview.
Perhaps it was because he felt so familiar that she dared to ask her next question.
“Why did you choose to meet at this library?”
She immediately knew she had made a mistake. Jacobi Fuji said nothing for two very long minutes. His mouth pursed into a straight line, eyes pinched in displeasure. It had become apparent that the question was impolite at the least and unprofessional at the worst. She felt all the blood in her body rush into her face, scrambling to find her tongue and thoughts so she could fix her detrimental error.
“I will tell you,” he trailed off. For a moment she could not process a single word, as if he were speaking a foreign language. She sat dumbstruck, unable to believe her luck. “but you must first turn off the recorder.”
She nodded, her heart drumming behind her ears. The embarrassment had not yet worn off, her hands trembling violently under his watchful gaze. Finally, after fumbling to hit the correct buttons several times, she kept the device on the table in front of him. The small red light in the corner faded into a lifeless grey.
Jacobi Fuji looked at the small metal box for several long seconds. When he finally looked at her once again, in that same gentle voice, he told her how he had not one original idea in his mind.
She glanced to see if anyone else had heard his declaration. But the student to the far right was still studying. And the homeless man beside them still asleep, a thin line of drool ebbing into the large pool of saliva on the table.
The reporter feels her eyebrows knit together. What correlation does that sentence have to this library? She feels a lightning bolt run down her spine. Was Jacobi Fuji admitting to plagiarism? She shook her head, the thought itself laughable. Surely if he was plagiarizing material, or even if he had a ghostwriter, there would be a rumor running rampant in their industry.
Still, he had said he did not create a single idea. She was leaning towards an explanation reliant on his humble nature. She was anticipating an answer along the lines of ‘there are no original ideas, just original interpretations’. Already she was imagining how she would fit it into her article. Her thoughts come to a stuttering halt, as she realizes she’s getting ahead of herself. Her mouth felt dry, and her voice came out in a croak, trying and failing to maintain a semblance of professionalism.
“Can you elaborate further?”
His mouth twitched, the wrinkles on his face creasing further as he eased into his smile.
“I married young, I had just graduated from college and gotten a job engineering machinery for airplanes. I worked long hours. For much of my young life, I either worked or slept. It is for these reasons; my wife likely took a lover in the middle of our marriage.” His thin lips folded into themselves, forming a straight, dissatisfied line. She wondered if this was a wound that remained fresh, even after all these years.
“It gives me no pain now,” He assured her, noticing her budding sympathy “however, at the time I was distraught. I had noticed the signs but cast them aside. We talked for many hours, about why she had done it, how many times, and with whom. We talked until dawn, and when the sun crept over the skyline, she told me she would stay with her family for some time.”
“I remember little from those days, other than the sheer anguish I experienced. I was distraught, unable to eat or sleep. At some point I had resigned from my position, I was unable to continue living as I had for the past thirteen years. Despair followed me wherever I went, to rooftop bars, or grocery stores. I became so familiar with this despair that it became my closest companion. I would wake up, and then it and I would wander throughout the city.” He pursed his lips once more, eyes flickering to his hands. A deep arch slowly formed on his forehead, eyes narrowing until they shut.
“I cannot tell you why I felt compelled to do this, to loiter in arcades, or shopping districts,” His eyes slowly opened, tracing up from his hands, until they met hers once more. “I can only tell you I felt a great purpose to do so.” A deep sigh left him, and his hands folded together. The smooth lump on his throat bobbing up for a second as he gulped, before it disappeared into the inner flesh of his neck once more.
“On one such occasion, I found myself at this library. Back then, it was known for being an art gallery the city had bought to repurpose into a library. Back then there was no skylight, it was before the renovation project.” Her eyes trailed to the sliver of light that bathed the center of the library in a bright yellow hue.
“I am uncertain how many hours I spent here that day. I had neglected to put on my watch that morning, and there were no windows. It was as if I had entered a place completely cut off from the flow of time.”
“I remember taking a book, but I never read a single word. Instead, I sat in this chair and dreamed for hours. I dreamed about my marriage, and how if I had done this differently, or said that instead, how my present could have changed. Soon my dreams grew bigger than my present. I dreamed of traveling to a different city or dating another woman. I even dreamed about being born to a different family and becoming a whole new person. These dreams came to me with all the grace of an intrusive thought. Most came violently and involuntarily. They became so painful, at one point, I thought my head would split open.” His hand moved to his balding head, thin long fingers pressing hard into his temple as if remembering had caused the pain to resurface once more.
“Then all at once, the pain subsided. I faintly recall walking outside, drenched in the golden cast of an afternoon sky.” His mouth crinkled slightly from the fondness of the memory.
“I was mesmerized, it was as if I was a completely new person, in a completely new
It was not such a strange story; he had gone through a traumatic experience that changed his outlook on life. Once again, she began to favor the ‘original interpretations’ answer she had already prepared, picturing which pieces of his story she would emphasize.
“When I finally reached my home, my wife was in the kitchen, cooking dinner.” Her thoughts came to a screeching halt. She had not realized the story was far from over. A moment of silence passed between the two as if he were giving her time to recollect her thoughts. So, she did, she thought about how his wife may have returned to reconcile, this morsel of personal information would lo--
“She heard me come in and briefly told me I had a call from work about documents for my meeting tomorrow. When I glanced in the mirror, I found my face without a single wrinkle, completely unblemished.”
The young journalist finally understood why Jacobi Fuji had requested to turn off the recorder. Disarmed of her professionalism and purpose, she was left only with acceptance. All she could do now was listen.
Jacobi Fuji sighed once more as his eyes closed. The young journalist once again saw a certain weariness in his features. The way his entire face seemed fatigued by a persistent ache that had troubled him for many years.
“I should have been surprised; here was the wife who had left me, reminding me of the responsibilities for a job I no longer had, and a face that had been lost in the waves of time. But it wasn’t. It was the most natural thing for this body. That evening, I had dinner with my wife for the first time in months, after which, I fell asleep beside her into a dreamless sleep.
“It was foreign to me; I had dreamt every night until that point. Even in my boyhood, I recall dreaming of boats and adventure. Even in my despair when I could sleep, I dreamt of my wife. But after that visit to this library, that peace was stolen from me. Instead, I found that I could only dream with my eyes open. While I typed in spreadsheets or designed a generator. To some dreams, I gave titles like ‘A Sunset in Namibia’ or ‘Cloudless Shore’, the rest I try to forget.
“I don’t regret coming here, all those years ago.” He shakes his head, his eyes looking past her, at the patch of light that drifts down from the skylight. “But I still like to come here, as a sort of tribute, for everything I’ve gained.”
In the back of her mind, she knew she should try to salvage what little time they had left for the article. The executive editor would not be pleased if this was all the material she returned with. Especially if all she had to show for months of currying Jacobi Fuji’s favor was a story that belonged on a fiction bookshelf rather than in their magazine. At the very least, she should question why he was telling her this of all people. After all these years, why say anything at all?
A deep exhale causes her chest to heave. Would anyone have done as long as they had ears to listen?
No. Her worry is unfounded. She remembers the pointed look he directed towards the recording device that lies between them. The shape of his gaze as his eyes peered into her as she stumbled from one question to the next as if they were searching for something. A scar or a mark, not a mark on her skin, but something deeper.
“Tell me,” She had not noticed he was looking at her, watching her reactions as her eyes remained fixed on her hands. Her mind in deep concentration, attempting to recall why his story felt so familiar. Why such an unbelievable story, was so easy to believe. At the sound of his gentle voice, her dark brown eyes rose to meet his. “Have you ever found yourself feeling as if you were in a new body, in a completely new world?” Despite her situation, she found the corner of her mouth arching up. Shouldn’t she be the one asking the questions?
She recalled her faceless friend, a friend she was sure was immensely important to her in her youth. And yet, try as she might she can’t seem to even remember their name. All she can remember is the bright pink of that magazine. The color lingering in the back of her eyes long after she had left. Her eyes trail up to the skylight that hangs over them, the pale white light that filters in hurting her delicate eyes. She wonders why she feels a lonely ache reverberate through her chest as she looks at it. Like she’s lost something important, that she’ll never be able to get back.
“Perhaps I have.”
Simran Bhakta is an emerging writer from Texas. When she's not writing she moonlights as a Financial Analyst and serves on The Adroit Journal's managerial board.