Continued from last week.
“Here we are,” I announce.
This is my favorite section of the store because of all of the music books are here, too.
Lark Blackwood looks glorious, surrounded by all of the covers blazoned with the greatest works of art by the greatest artists. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus looks pale, insipid, dull compared to Miss Blackwood, with her red-gold hair streaming down, her perfect face. Her ears are hung with pearl studs, but she is twenty times more beautiful than the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Even La Gioconda’s famous smile and visage become sallow and paltry when Lark Blackwood is there for comparison.
She picks up an oversized volume on the Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, flipping through the bright pages. “I have two pieces by him,” she remarks, offhand.
“You do?” I can’t help being impressed.
“Mmm. His work is extremely in demand. I was at the opening for his exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.”
“In Spain?” I remember she told me that’s where her father and stepmother now live.
“Yes.” She puts the book down, and then picks up another, her hand smoothing over the cover print of mad, dancing sunflowers.
“Do you own a Van Gogh, too?” I can’t help asking her.
She smirks at me. “One can dream, Sebastian Stone.”
“Just- just Bash is fine,” I stutter. Again, I have that uncanny feeling that she’s always two steps ahead of me.
“Do you have a favorite artist?” she asks me in a gentle susurration.
I indicate one of the opened pages of the book she’s holding, stars and swirling blue sky over wheatfields of impossible golden-yellow splendor. “I do like Van Gogh,” I admit. “His work is so… spiritual. Transforming pain into beauty this way.”
“You’re very perceptive, young Mr. Stone. I couldn’t agree more. There is something quite… ecstatic about Van Gogh’s work, isn’t there?” She pronounces his name different, softer, with a throat-clearing sound, so it sounds like Van Guff.
She is so cultivated and cultured, so knowing.
I try to show her that I can be, too. I recall a specific detail that has always stayed with me, something that I’ve thought about trying to put into music someday. “He died because he ate yellow paint,” I tell her, my voice hushed. “It was as if his loneliness and depression had gotten so bad that he was trying to paint himself from the inside out with the bright colors he loved in order to save himself. Instead, it ended up killing him.”
“Lead poisoning,” she says, so very softly. “I’ve often wondered if he was driven by rational irrationality. Who knows what demons lurk in us all? What demons we’re trying to blot out?”
Our eyes are locked, and I can scarcely breathe. “Maybe we all need to find more yellow paint in our lives,” I whisper. I can’t believe I’ve said something so personal, so sentimental, to L.E. Blackwood, billionaire CEO.
“Perhaps….” She almost breathes the word.
I close my eyes, savoring it.
At last, Miss Blackwood puts down the Van Gogh book and picks up another, one with fantastic, exotic gold-leaf symbols over two naked, embracing bodies.
“Although he’s not as popular as newer artists, I find Klimt intriguing,” she says, opening the heavy tome, and I’m enthralled by the sensuous images. “A little ostentatious, perhaps, but so passionate. Erotic. Almost wanton.” Her voice, her eyes, are all smoky.
It’s like she’s giving me a secret message.
I am a quivering mass of rampant hormonal overload at this point.
“The woman’s body is the central focus,” she goes on, “reveling in her sexuality and nakedness.”
I can’t help my eyes from wandering over the way Lark Blackwood’s silk blouse drapes over her woman’s curves.
She closes the book, but is giving me another secret smirk, cocking her eyebrows.
“Do- do you want to see the rare books now?” I manage, my face incinerating at this point.
“Oh, perhaps after you show me the music selection,” she says, lips pursed, “since that is your specialty, isn’t it?”
She’s making fun of me again!
“They’re right over here,” I peep.
She picks up a book about music and its effects on the brain, flipping pages. “I surmise you spend a great deal of time in this section of the store?” she postulates.
“I guess I do.” She already knows so much about me. Too much?
“Music and books,” she muses thoughtfully, reflectively, tipping her head to one side. “Those are your primary interests?”
No, you are my primary interest! my Id shrieks at top volume, a barbaric yawp for the ages. I redden yet again at the thought that she might hear.
“You make me sound dull,” I can’t help saying. And I agree with her assessment.
Something almost impish lights up her eyes. “Not in the least, young Mr. Stone.”
“You don’t need to keep calling me ‘Mr. Stone’,” I tell her almost petulantly. “You can just call me Bash. Everyone does.”
I notice that she hasn’t requested I call her anything but “Miss Blackwood,” either.
“Isn’t that your name?” she parries, a twinkle in her eye.
“Tell me about your favorite book in this section,” she asks me, disarming me.
Holy smokes, her smile is glorious. My breath snags in my lungs yet again.
My favorite music book? Unhesitatingly, I point out a gorgeous, glossy collecters’ book on vintage guitars.
She takes it down, handling the oversized tome with easy grace. “Interesting,” she murmurs. “Do you own any vintage guitars, Sebastian?”
I shake my head.
“What do you play?”
Miss Blackwood is just making polite conversation, nothing more, my Superego lectures me from behind his podium, his pages of notes scattering. Don’t read too much into any of this, you dolt!
“Um, she’s a Blueridge BD-16.”
“She?” Lark Blackwood repeats. Is it my imagination, or do I hear that freezing tone coming back into her voice?
I remember how she iced me out and walked away just two days ago, leaving my heart and soul in tatters, and my stomach churns. “I, uh, I know it’s really stupid, but I… named her ‘Gypsy.’ Sort of, uh, like how B.B. King named his guitar Lucille?”
“Ah, yes. Or Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’?”
“Yeah. I guess it sounds dumb for me to- Anyway, Gypsy was my thirteenth birthday present from my dad, not too long after-” I break off again.
Maybe I imagined the coldness before, because now, there is something almost… gentle in her voice now. Coaxing.
“After my mom left,” I admit.
“I see.” She pauses for a moment, then continues “And is a Blueridge BD-16 a good guitar?”
I nod. “Yeah, it’s pretty good. I mean, she’s not a Martin or a Gibson or anything, but Gypsy and me have had a lot of years together. It gets to be like an extension of your own body,” I say, and then stop, aware of what I’ve just blurted to her.
My cheeks go scarlet again. At this point, I should just call myself O’Hara and move to Atlanta.
Thankfully, although Miss Blackwood seems amused by reaction, she doesn’t comment on it.
“How does a guitar like that compare to a Martin or a Gibson?” she queries.
“There’s no comparison, really.” I indicated a page that she’s holding open. “This is a vintage Martin, like the kind Dylan plays, ones from before 1969, when they were made with Brazilian rosewood. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be able to play one of these myself, to bring music to life on an instrument like that.”
“Playing songs of loneliness and heartbreak?” she murmurs in an undertone, repeating her words from the other day.
“Yes, exactly,” I say, like a confession. Our eyes meet again, and I can’t help myself from smiling widely at her.
For a second, she looks startled. Almost as if she’s lost. Forlorn.
I can hear her soft hiss of breath as she inhales.
But I must be imagining it. After that fraction of a moment, she closes the book she’s holding and hands it to me. “I think I’ll take this one, too,” she says.
“Yes, ma’am. Would- would you like to see the rare books now?”
“By all means, Sebastian.”
She’s just as beautiful against the backdrop of gold-embossed, leather-bound books and polished wood shelves. The glints in her bronze hair are brighter than the gilded lettering, and I’m completely enchanted by her just as she moves around the elegant room.
This environment, all expensive art and antiques and elegance, suits her.
Much as she did downstairs, she flicks her eyes over the shelves’ contents in a leisurely way. I expect her to go to the literary first editions, perhaps, the early volumes of Joyce and Twain that cost a small fortune. Or maybe the autographed collectables.
Instead, she moves over to a small section of volumes on the shelf labeled “Erotica.”
“How interesting,” she says in that smoke-and-dark-chocolate voice that makes me weak in the knees.
She takes down something called 120 Days of Sodom. “This is a… beautifully bound volume,” she tells me, lingering over the words.
I don’t know why I go all hot again, but I do.
Thankfully, she doesn’t ask me if I’ve read it. Nevertheless, the books she selects are enough to make me want to run and hide, or cover my face, or something. May’s Account of Her Introduction to the Art of Love; Venus in India; The Farce of Sodom, or The Quintessence of Debauchery.
“These will do,” she says, and I notice she hasn’t looked for or asked about prices. She smooths one hand over a bookcover, and my stomach trembles. “Compelling social commentary, don’t you think?” she asks me, with that air of being in on a joke that I don’t know about.
I don’t know how I manage it, but I arrange to have the items she’s selected here added to her others at the register, my voice squeaky and nervous even to my own ears.
With that patrician smoothness, Lark Blackwood hands her credit card to Tanmoy, another one of the employees here. “Please go ahead and ring everything up, and wrap them carefully,” she instructs him. As soon as he leaves, she turns back to me.
An ache fills my heart. Once she’s paid for her things, the only thing left for her to do is leave.
I try to prolong it, asking, “Can I… help you find anything else?”
“No, thank you, Sebastian,” she says in a voice like a caress.
“How- how about I get you a cup of coffee?” I hear myself blurt.
Her beautiful eyes cloud over. There is something sad and bleak in them. “No, Sebastian,” she says again, even softer than before.
My heart cracks in a dozen places. Stupid, stupid, stupid me.
Oh, God. It would have been better if she had gone all cold and distant again when she refused me. This lost, pained look is like a poisoned spike in my heart
Unwittingly, I’m reminded of how she sounded just two days ago. “I don’t do the whole relationship thing.” “You’re too naive.”
My hopes, so recently revived, smash, yet again, around my feet into a billion fragments. After this coincidental encounter here, she’s going to walk out of my life again. Forever.
I turn away from her, stumbling, practically hearing the sound of my soul breaking-
“Bash!” she cries out suddenly, grabbing my arm and yanking me back to her as, just where I was, several heavy shelves give way, tumbling down in a cacophony of metal, wood, and books. “Oh, shit!”
It’s happened in one breathtaking instant: she’s pulled me close to her, saving me, holding me against her.
I can feel the softness of her hair against my cheek, smell the scent of her, a heady combination of luxury shampoo and bespoke fabrics, lightly starched linens and delicate, expensive cologne.
I breathe in her intoxicating scent, committing it to memory. My own heart is pounding like a jackrabbit’s.
She is holding me against her body.
Her arms are around me, and my hands are on her arms.
“Are you all right?” her eyes search mine anxiously. She’s still holding me tight, and she raises one hand to touch my cheek.
Her fingers brush over my lips. I can’t breathe, and to my amazement, I hear her breath catch, too.
Kiss me, I think, before I can stop myself. Kiss me, Lark Blackwood, please, please-
It’s the first time in my life that I’ve thought such a thing, had such a reaction to a woman. I stare at her perfect mouth, hypnotized. I’ve completely forgotten where we are and everything that’s happened.
Her arms are around me. Her eyes are locked with mine.
Kiss me! I’m here for you, do anything you want with me, just kiss me-
“No,” she whispers, as if in pain, her expression desolate.
Oh, fuck, had I said it out loud? Were my thoughts so obvious that-
Her face hardens. “You should stay away from me, Sebastian, stay far, far away.”
“No,” she says, firm and cold. “I’m not the woman for you, I’m-”
Abruptly, she lets go of me, pushes me away.
I stagger, bereft of the loss of her arms around me, the feeling of her holding me close to her. She’s still gripping my shoulders, though, and I berate myself for taking this kindly concern as something more. She was just making sure you weren’t hurt, that’s all.
“Are you all right?” she asks me, eyes searching my face.
I hang my head, and stare at the pile of broken shelves, damaged books. It reflects my own soul.
“I’m fine-” is all I can say before I hear Paul, Pete, and Karen all rushing over to see what’s happened.
“Bash, are you hurt-”
“Did you get hit in the head? You look a little woozy. Should we call an ambulance-”
Lark Blackwood takes a step back away from me, her hands letting go of my shoulders. At that, I actually feel the sting of childish tears in my eyes, and blink them away before anyone can see them.
I shake my head, still dazed. “I’m fine,” I repeat to the store managers.
“Perhaps an ambulance is a good idea,” Lark Blackwood suggests quietly, in a firm, no-nonsense tone.
“I don’t need an ambulance,” I protest, but Miss Blackwood has already directed Karen, the assistant manager, to go make the phone call.
“I sincerely hope you do something about this dangerous working environment,” she says to them in that arctic voice.
They all scurry off to get me a chair, place calls, whatnot, and I’m left staring at Lark Blackwood, weak-kneed and thoroughly humiliated.
I swallow. “Thank you,” I finally say in a whisper.
“What on earth for?” she frowns.
“For saving me.” I gesture at the broken shelves, the heavy, scattered books that would have buried me had she not been there.
She scowls. “Your managers should be ashamed, letting you work under such conditions. I can’t imagine what might have happened to you if-” She breaks off, and that look of desolation is back in her blue eyes again. “I should go,” she murmurs.
More the fool, I. Disgrace and degradation swaths me. I don’t say anything. What’s the point?
“Sebastian…?” There is pain, real pain in her voice.
But she doesn’t say anything else, and my own indignity pools under my skin. What does she want? Does she want me to beg her to stay? Does she want me to grovel?
I am such a laughingstock, and I have only myself to blame.
“Thanks for stopping by, Miss Blackwood,” I say, almost matching her frigid tone with my own sarcasm. “Enjoy your books.”
At a distance, I can hear an ambulance siren growing closer.
“Bash, come sit down in the back office,” Paul is calling to me.
Lark Blackwood’s eyes search mine. “Thank you for your attentive and thorough customer service,” she murmurs, “and I wish you luck on your job interview.”
“I appreciate it,” I snap, and steam away from her. All I want is to get away from all of this, and try to pick up the pieces of my shattered hopes and dreams, my shattered ego.
MBO playlist, track eight: Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs”