Among the Stacks
“Is there room for two at this table for three?”
That was how Ben introduced himself to Laurel. Except “introduced” is the wrong word. The library was crowded that day and Laurel was sitting in the middle seat at a long table with three available spots, the best table in the entire library, the one overlooking Alpine Park across the street, the table with the six-plug power strip tacked to the wall above the table’s surface for easy access, the table where two of the three hard-backed chairs had seat cushions.
Laurel was, as previously noted, sitting in the middle seat of an otherwise unoccupied table and had, as was not previously noted, her shit spread out everywhere. She was, without question, hogging the table, daring anyone who came along to try and annex a third of her ill-gotten real estate. When Ben rounded the corner of the “Technology | Self-Help | Religion” shelf and came upon this scene of wanton aggrandizement, it rankled him. It made Ben’s blood boil.
That Laurel was attractive made things even worse. That a single cigarette — a loosey — sat among her scattered possessions was worst of all. A smoker. Gross. Ben had already fled the library’s basement computer room due to the heavy stench of cigarette smoke radiating from a scruffy dude watching YouTube videos on one of the ancient PCs. Public library cum public ashtray. Librarians are empowered to tamp down noise pollution but what about smell pollution? There’s nothing you can say to a malodorous individual to get him to stop emanating his noxious funk. “Shhhh” does not apply.
These were the things Ben was thinking about as he stewed in the corner of the library opposite the good table, working up the nerve for a confrontation with the pretty/greedy/selfish/squatting girl, test-firing opening salvos in his mind. What he settled on was, “Is there room for two at this table for three?” He liked that it left some room for interpretation — not overtly hostile, potentially flirtatious, and something that could be hearkened back to years (decades?) later when a mutual, clearly jealous friend asked Ben and Laurel how they met. Laurel, nuzzling her head into Ben’s strong, warm chest, would turn to this friend and say, “He marched right up to me and said, ‘Is there room for two at this table for three?’ I felt like I was being scolded. But he had this twinkle in his eye. I didn’t know whether to pack up and leave or curl up in his lap and stay there forever.”
Except that when Ben finally did march over to Laurel, totally psyched to give a note-perfect line reading, all he managed to get out was, “Is there room for two …” before Laurel’s glare shut him down. Ben immediately realized that without “… at this table for three” his zinger lost all zing, all gravitas, all accusatory righteousness and dissolved into something, well, kinda cheesy.
While Ben went about setting up his laptop and plugging in his phone (near dead from playing Pokemon Go all day), Laurel soon thereafter did indeed pack up her stuff and leave — without pushing her chair in, it might be added, which only served to get Ben even more steamed. If Laurel had deigned to glance at Ben on her way out she would have been met with a heaping dose of side eye and a mighty sneer. But she did not look back. And Ben did not look at her. In fact, Ben and Laurel never saw each other again.
Within 30 minutes two other patrons joined Ben at the library’s best table, the one with the exemplary power strip and the pleasant views of Alpine Park. It was very easy for these newcomers to get situated, as Ben had been quite conscientious about occupying no more (and possibly a little less) than his allotted third. Each newcomer was quite respectful of the library as a shared public space and both gave off a palpable aura of gratitude at scoring such a prime spot on such a crowded day. And while the gentleman at the other end of the table from Ben did clear his throat what seemed like every 30 seconds and the woman between them did turn out to be one of those borderline violent typists, these seemed to Ben highly forgivable behaviors, and nothing his headphones, now at max volume, couldn’t drown out.
And then it started raining, which suited Ben just fine. “It’s harder to smoke in the rain,” he thought to himself. “Not impossible, but certainly more difficult. Heh.”
Across the street, out of Ben’s line of sight, Laurel took shelter under the eaves of the park’s public restroom, lit her cigarette and inhaled deeply. She loved the feeling of smoking in the rain, the air’s moisture and the cigarette’s smoke battling it out inside her lungs. And if this was to be her last cigarette — as she’d been vowing for weeks it would be, on this her 27th birthday— she wanted to literally suck the most enjoyment out of it as possible.
Twenty-seven, the age that took out Kurt, Jimi, Janis, Jim — even Jesus! Or had he been thirty-three? She couldn’t remember. She wasn’t sure about the others, either. She could go back to the library and look up the Rolling Stone article that listed all of the dead 27-year-old rock stars, but that guy might still be there. Mr. Opening Line. And guys like that, well, Laurel had had enough of them. No matter how blatantly she spread out her stuff, how obvious she tried to telegraph with her meager physical possessions that she just wanted some space, that she just wanted to be left alone, guys like that always seemed to find her, secreting some weird mix of moralistic outrage and faux charm.
She would have bet the seven dollars in her back pocket that he had one of those misleading nice guy names like Christian or Noah or Ben. Like how could you possibly find fault with a guy named Ben? He calls his mom once a week. He’s a good uncle to his sister’s kids. Always shakes hands with the other team after his intramural coed soccer games — even when the other team wins, especially when the other team wins, especially when the other team has a couple of hotheads who need to be taught a thing or two about sportsmanship. Good old Ben. Gentle Ben. Screw that guy.