I liked to visit my local library occasionally to pass some time in peace, but whenever this one gatekeeper librarian was on the service desk he greeted me with a glare, as if I emitted a distinctively foul odor that reached his nostrils as soon as I walked through the door. I’d only spoken to him once before and had said nothing to provoke him. I was wandering the floor when our paths crossed. He’d just finished helping another customer, and I asked him where I could find back issues of magazines. He sniffed at me and gripped both sides of my jacket and pulled it open. His eyes went to the area around my belt and then scanned the inside of my jacket.
Everything seems to be in order here, he said.
I didn’t ask what he meant, but the question stayed with me as I walked in the direction he’d pointed. Typically he walked to the shelves with customers and I’d noticed that he was unfailingly polite to them, but in my case pointing was a sufficient level of service.
He never spoke to me or touched my clothing again, but his glare endured and he never missed a chance to register his silent disapproval of my existence. What was this guy thinking? Did he know me or think he knew me? What were his connections? I’d done some things, but what could he know of that? He had the attitude of someone used to questioning people. Maybe he’d been an attorney before he became a librarian and he’d seen too much of the worst of people and couldn’t take it any more and wanted a less repugnant life. Then I strutted into his realm and his former life came back to him, the sight of me enlivening memories he’d hoped to forget. Whatever his personal history, I didn’t like his attitude, his look of judgment and exclusion. Something had to change, but I wasn’t about to avoid the place because of him. Nothing could stop me walking through the door of a public library if I wanted to, least of all this mid-life do-gooder with his righteous stare.
So I headed straight to the desk early one afternoon, not much floor traffic, his glare intensifying as I neared him. He failed to ask if he could help me.
You’ve got something in your eye, I said.
He didn’t believe me. He waited.
I want to know what it is.
Which eye? he asked.
Both of them.
Nothing’s in my eye. Not in either one of them.
I can see it.
I don’t feel it.
Tell me what it is. I want to know right now.
I don’t like feeling threatened.
What do you mean? Is that what’s in your eye? Whatever it is, it was there before I walked up. It was there the second you saw me.
I feel it more now.
Why? What do you think is going to happen? What do you imagine? Your answer might help me understand what’s in your eye. You’re a librarian, you answer people’s questions, so why won’t you answer mine?
I won’t be intimidated.
You’ve got nothing more to say than that? Afraid to face the consequences? I admit I’m surprised by your cowardice. You think you’ve got the nerve to glare at me, but do you really? I think you know what’s in your eye, but since you’re still not in the mood to talk, let’s try it another way. What were you looking for when you looked inside my jacket?
What jacket? Why pretend you don’t remember the jacket? The jacket I was wearing. You pulled it open and looked inside, at my belt and other places. What were you looking for?
Nothing in particular.
So you do remember.
I’d forgotten the jacket, but now I remember pulling it open.
What message were you trying to send me? What image was in your eye when you opened my jacket?
You’re lying. Are you letting yourself be driven by fear? Look at me. What were you imagining you might see? You had something in mind before you touched my jacket, didn’t you? Don’t deny it. I’ll know it if you lie to me.
What if I do lie to you? So what?
You want me to think I’m wasting my time? I think you’re not trying hard enough, so I’ll have to try harder.
This conversation is over. I’m tired of it. Please step aside so I can help the next customer.
I turned to look, but no one was waiting behind me.
There is no next customer, I said. I hope that doesn’t embarrass you. Why are you afraid of me? Sorry to ask, but as I said, I want you to try harder. Your eyes make me think you’re looking at something dirty. You can see how that would bother me, can’t you? I hope this isn’t too intimate. If you have something you want to say or ask, then go ahead. Why not just come out with it instead of all the looks? What’s on your mind? Nothing? Are you carrying handcuffs? Are you undercover? No? Then get that thing out of your eye.
You’ve got something in your eye, the librarian said.
He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small hand mirror. He held it up to my face. I had something in my eye that he’d put there and that looked too much like him at a younger age. I put my fingers on top of the mirror and turned it around so that he could see his own image. He didn’t like what he saw. Maybe he thought he already knew what he looked like and didn’t need to see more or maybe he didn’t want to see something that looked like me staring back at him.
I didn’t care for him sticking a mirror in my face, trying to mock me with it. Did he think he wanted to provoke me? Had he mistakenly excluded the possibility of regret? Did this God-like man have a learning disability? He had his job to consider, and if he triggered an uproar and had to write some kind of incident report, how would he justify antagonizing me with the mirror? Would he claim he couldn’t tolerate the way I looked?
He sensed a change in me and backed down. He put the mirror in its drawer, his glare subsiding. Suddenly I could smell him, his breath and skin and a whiff of sweat through his clothing. I wanted to yank him up by the lapels of his jacket and bite his ear to finish him off, but we were in clear view of others and I wouldn’t be able to talk my way out of it.
You can’t stand looking at either one of us, can you? I said.
I walked away from him and took a seat in the magazine area where I pretended to read, though I kept thinking of the smell of him and turning the mirror back on his glare.
He avoided the sight of me when I left.