When I leaned back in my chair in the dusty old bookstore, I could easily follow the line of the end of the bookshelves all the way to an old, polished chair sitting at a coffee table. It was easily the most interesting thing in the entire bookstore.
The old legs were polished to a shine, but one could still see the scratches in the legs if they looked hard enough, the old jagged trails of lighter wood telling the story of some ornery cat trimming its claws or an impatient dog begging for some attention. The arms, which were upholstered with fabric from some kind of gaudy curtain from the Victorian era, had cigarette burns in them where someone must have occasionally dropped their tobacco or flicked their ash astray. There was a stain along the back of the chair that I didn’t want to know about, let alone go into theorizing about, suffice to say that many brave fabric cleaners had come to try their hand at the beast, and all had died nobly in the process.
The most remarkable thing about this heinously ugly chair was the fact that it was rarely empty. Something about it enticed the wayward reader to sit down on this upholstered deformity and take their fill of words while relaxing against its spring-filled back. I liked to think it was special for some reason that wasn’t apparent, and as a result, it was revered by people far and wide—peddlers and kings alike would travel great distances for a chance to sit in the scratched mahogany wonder that was that old chair.
Perhaps it was an ancient heirloom of a long lost king—maybe that was why that old scholarly man (who I later learned was a professor of history at the local university) always sat in it while perusing his George R.R. Martin novels with quite a serious look on his face. Or, maybe within it were a thousand gems embedded into the squeaky springs, and that’s why the lavish woman who often came in to read about Foucault lounged across it so gracefully, turning the pages with her pinky fingers and removing her shoes, sitting them patiently at the left leg of the chair. Perhaps it was a time machine, and the youth with knee-high socks for all occasions and a penchant for tan dusters would flop into it while looking through an old dusty volume which simply read “RADIO” on the spine.
All sorts of characters have sat in that chair, and at this point, I had gotten used to the regulars. But today, when I leaned back, casually looking away from my perusal of Robinson Crusoe for a moment to breathe, I didn’t see anybody I recognized, not even vaguely.
Instead, sitting in that blasted chair was a lithe looking man with a shaved head. His legs were crossed, his left leg moving slightly as crossed legs tend to do, the polish of his black shoes reflecting the light. He looked utterly at ease in that chair, and he was bent over the book resting in his lap, his finger skimming along the page, occasionally reaching up to push his glasses back onto his nose.
I blinked twice. The entire scene was surreal, for some odd reason. In all my time here, I had seen a lot of people sit in the chair, but they never looked like they belonged there. Yet here, against all odds, sat a man who looked like he was made for the chair, and the chair for him.
It boggled my mind. It boggled my mind so much, in fact, that I stood, walking toward him and standing over him. It took him a few moments to look up, but when he did, I could very clearly make out the glowing oaken brown irises of his eyes and the strong edge of his jaw.
He cleared his throat, and said, with a light accent that I could make out as Irish, “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” I replied, adjusting my own glasses. “Why are you sitting there?”
His eyes immediately widened a little. “I’m sorry, did I take your chair?”
“No,” I said, and he furrowed his brow.
“Well, then why did you ask?”
“Because normally, when people sit in that chair,” I began, taking a seat on the coffee table and making sure not to rumple my suit, “they don’t look like they belong in it. It’s a heinous chair. Have you really looked at it?” I gave the chair a once-over. “Dreadful.”
His eyes did not leave mine. “I thought it was a lovely chair. That’s why I sat in it.”
I gestured wildly with my hand. “There, see? Nobody in the world thinks that’s a lovely chair. Nobody. I would rather sit in an electric chair than this bloody thing. Everybody sits in it like it’s about to swallow them. Did you see the stain on the back? I sincerely hope whatever made that wasn’t infectious or all that chair’s occupants are doomed to a life of, I don’t know, diabetes.”
His lips upturned just slightly. “Diabetes isn’t catching. The flu, however, is.”
I nodded in agreement. “Precisely. The chair is probably infected with a number of cruel diseases that no poor soul simply wanting a read should ever be subjected to: the cold, the flu, polio, and so on.” I pointed at him. “You, on the other hand, sit here without a care in the world. You dare to call the beast ‘lovely.’ I think it spares you because you also fit that description. You’re too nice to the damn thing.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, but he was still smiling in that small way. “And you say that’s why it spared me? How do you know for certain I’m nice?”
“Well you called the bloody thing ‘lovely,’ now didn’t you? You’ve unlocked Pandora’s box in terms of that thing. Now it’s spoiled rotten. Nothing more than kindness will do now, and that’s less than it deserves, by any human standard. Now it’s going to attack the rest of us when we try to treat it as we normally would.”
He still watched me, the book in his lap now forgotten. He linked his hands together, still leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. “Well, then,” he said, “what shall I do about it?”
I sighed, crossing my arms and giving it a thought. “Nothing, I suppose. You’re its master now. You can do as you please, you have it under your command now. I only pray you spare the rest of us mercy.” I looked at him for a moment before huffing a laugh, looking at a bookshelf off to my right. “Honestly. It’s impossible that you actually look like you belong in that chair, let alone that you think it is lovely. And combined with your looks? You can’t be real.”
A breath of a moment passed, and then his grin bloomed into a smile. “I’ve an idea.”
I looked at him. “Well, tell me, then. I’d love to hear it.”
“How about, in exchange for my hospitality and not sic’ing this evil chair of potential bacterial and viral doom upon unsuspecting bookstore patrons, you take me out for coffee.”
I watched him for a moment, taking in his beautiful eyes, noting the crow’s feet at their edges, and the way his hands enfolded one another. I traced the pattern of his sweater with my eyes, catching, just under his jaw, a bit of stubble he missed while shaving. I examined that smile closely.
I gave a smile of my own. “Alright, then,” I said, and he smiled, closing his book and standing up, flipping it over and examining the back as I came to a stand of my own. He followed me as I walked over to my belongings, deciding to leave Robinson there. I hated colonialist novels, anyway. As I shrugged on my suit jacket, I turned to him.
“I think I might buy this,” he said, examining the cover with some interest, his brows furrowed in concentration. I couldn’t help my smile.
“What is it?” I asked, having realized I didn’t know what he’d been reading.
In response, he held it up, flipping it around so I could see the cover. A Guide to Cooking Indian Cuisine, it read.
I smiled, delighted. “Well, that’s adventurous.”
He shrugged, but he was smiling again. “I enjoy trying new things. Never too late to give it a go.”
“I’m sure you’ll be great,” I said, and we moved toward the counter to pay for his things.
While he paid for the book, I tore my gaze away from the bookmarks by the counter to look at that old chair. Despite myself, I couldn’t help but smile.
Now I know why that chair is so important. And, eh, maybe it’s lovely after all.
I’ll never say that out loud, of course.