To Name Something and Call It Her Own
Art by Kim Salac
The package was heavier than she expected. She ripped the flimsy duct tape from the seams of the box and pulled out what was inside: a book. Paperback, pages tattered, worn from overuse. The corners of her lips mirrored the curled page corners as she started to smile and hugged the book close to her body. It had been a month since she subscribed, but she wasn’t upset by how long it had taken. All that mattered was it was finally here.
Falling back into her plush, jade green armchair, she let her fingers flutter through the soft pages. The book naturally settled on one page near the table of contents; it was clear it had been opened here many times before. Filling the normally blank page was a column of black ink scrawled in fine, thin handwriting. The individual letters were embellished with the precise loops and flicks of a practiced hand.
"I made spaghetti today. I don’t know what else to say. I made a family size portion of spaghetti today and ate it alone in my apartment. Maybe I'm sorry. For the tomato sauce splatters on the pages. I couldn’t put this book down, not even to eat."
“I made spaghetti today. I don’t know what else to say. I made a family size portion of spaghetti today and ate it alone in my apartment. Maybe I'm sorry. For the tomato sauce splatters on the pages. I couldn’t put this book down, not even to eat. I made a potful of spaghetti today and I didn’t have anyone to slurp the last noodle with. Not that that’s a thing outside of movies. But anyway. I made spaghetti today and had no one to share it with.”
She reread the writing a few times, ran her fingers over the words to make them more tangible. How strange, to find such an inscription within a random book the online library subscription sent her. Something about the note stirred a feeling deep inside her, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. It was like taking a deep breath after a long run in the cold: aching, almost sharp. Buried at the base of her sternum.
Her phone buzzed with the arrival of a new notification; she was late for work. She flung the book on the table and hurried off. The message hung in the back of her mind for her entire shift.
She read through the novel in a matter of days. There wasn’t much else to do, in the cold, dim winter light. She didn’t have any roommates to keep her company, and all her friends were away at school. She had signed up for the service on a whim after stumbling across it amidst her daily email spam. The premise was simple: every month, a new book would be sent to her. All she had to do was read and return them before the end of the year and she wouldn’t be charged anything.
As she tried to figure out who wrote it and why, she imagined a plethora of people. An old man perpetually waiting for his kids to visit him. A middle aged workaholic coming home alone each night to a pristine and empty condo. But somehow, the voice felt more familiar to her.
January wore itself out like an unkept New Year’s resolution. The words of the message floated around her head like bumblebees from flower to flower. Every time she threw together spaghetti for dinner, she thought of it. And mostly, of its author. As she tried to figure out who wrote it and why, she imagined a plethora of people. An old man perpetually waiting for his kids to visit him. A middle aged workaholic coming home alone each night to a pristine and empty condo. But somehow, the voice felt more familiar to her. She had a gut instinct the author was young and in their twenties, like her. Just trying to sort things out. She couldn’t know for sure, though; a cascade of faces flitted through her mind.
February: the next book arrived. She involuntarily held her breath as she opened it, her eyes scanning over every page in search of the smallest hint of ink from an outside source. Nothing. The emptiness could swallow her whole. She knew she shouldn’t be disappointed, that this was to be expected. After all, the books were sent to her at random. Lots of other people used the service, too. Surely she had just received one with writing in it by accident.
She felt like she was waiting. She didn’t know what for, just that it hadn’t arrived yet. But maybe she needed to seek it out. To pull it into existence from out of thin air. To name something and call it her own.
She set the book on her coffee table and went to her room, overwhelmed by a swirl of emotions. Unsure how to process them, she pulled on her running shoes and stepped onto the hazy, humming city street. Her lungs prickled as chilly air filled them; this was going to hurt. At first, each step felt like unsticking her feet from wet cement; but as she built up speed, she shook off the tightness and fell into a natural rhythm. Settling at a steady pace, her thoughts unfolded, twisting out like a Fibonacci spiral. The note was the first time in so long that something had happened to her. Something exciting, the start of a story to tell at parties. Something to disrupt the muted desperation of a mundane life. Maybe this was a sign that she needed to take more initiative. To make something happen. She felt like she was waiting. She didn’t know what for, just that it hadn’t arrived yet. But maybe she needed to seek it out. To pull it into existence from out of thin air. To name something and call it her own.
Panting as she reentered her apartment, she couldn’t help but glance at the book lying on the coffee table. Only this time, she noticed something she hadn’t before: its dust jacket had slipped down, exposing a curl of writing along the inside of the back flap.
Her eyes widened in disbelief. She grabbed for the dust cover, pulling it off the book entirely. The same handwriting as before. Her heart pounded as her eyes swept over the message:
“I was making coffee this morning, when a thought startled me: I don’t have a word for so many things. Like the other day, I was at the metro station. And this woman tried to say something to me, but she didn’t know English. And I didn’t know what she spoke. The look we gave each other upon realizing the language barrier. That we wanted to understand, but couldn’t. I have no idea what that’s called. Or if there’s even a name for it. It’s kind of lonely, not knowing what to call something. When something is named, it means that someone else has thought about it before. Someone else felt the way you feel. When I can’t find a word for something, it makes me wonder if I’m the only person ever to have thought about that something before. But that can’t be true. Hasn’t anyone else been struck by that look before? By that longing?”
She felt her life turning into something new. Something materializing in the sky and getting ready to fall, like clouds before a snowstorm.
She stood there for a while, still in her sweaty running clothes, speechless. She didn’t know what to do, or what she had stumbled upon. And while she felt for the author, she was more awake than she had been in weeks. She had that same feeling in her chest again, and she wasn’t sure if it was from her run or from what she had just read. But it was lighter this time. Each breath expanded her ribcage and made her fingers tingle with possibility. March and another book and the closeness she felt. She read the message again and again, pausing on each word to give it room to breathe, in the hopes that she could make sense of them. She felt her life turning into something new. Something materializing in the sky and getting ready to fall, like clouds before a snowstorm.
Winter thawed into spring bloomed into summer ebbed away into fall. On the trees around her apartment, leaves rusted from green to red. Meanwhile, the books came like clockwork. And there was always a message.
They were sprawled on her bedroom floor, open and in the order they were received, amidst the clutter of worn T-shirts and dirty socks. Even though she had long since finished them, she couldn’t return them. Not yet, not until she made sense of the unexpected notes within. There wasn’t much time left. Her subscription ended in December. Only two books to go.
The messages didn’t give much insight into their author. They were unconnected and random, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and always worth the wait. Her favorite was July’s, a single sentence that read: “Have you ever noticed that when raindrops hit dark pavement they look like stars twinkling against the night?” She wasn’t sure how she could feel so close to someone and yet know nothing about them, or have any way of meeting them. Her anticipation grew as the days got shorter. The year could not end soon enough.
Rays of sun leaked through its pores; it was so radiant, she almost thought it might catch aflame between her fingers.
November’s novel came on time, but its message was sparse: it only said “Keep” next to a deep red-purple leaf. Holding it up to the light, she realized that there was gold paint lining its veins. Rays of sun leaked through its pores; it was so radiant, she almost thought it might catch aflame between her fingers.
Shuffling through her closet, she found a glass box to preserve it in, which she placed above the books so she could consider it against everything else. She had no idea what any of it meant.
It was a week from New Year’s and a book for December had yet to arrive. Every day she ran down the stairs to check her mailbox, and every day she was met with her own defeated reflection in the empty metallic cavity. She didn’t know what was wrong—she had checked her subscription online, even called the library, but they didn’t have any answers. All they said was that whoever had it before her must have the only copy and still be hanging on to it.
In a fit of frustration, she started picking up random books and shaking them, flipping them upside down and every way in between in the hopes of finding a sign. Dust shimmered in the afternoon light as her frenzy intensified, books flying through her hands like hummingbirds escaping pursuit.
The only option left was to use the previous notes to figure out where the book, or more precisely, who its owner, was. She was getting nowhere. None of the notes made any sense together.
In a fit of frustration, she started picking up random books and shaking them, flipping them upside down and every way in between in the hopes of finding a sign. Dust shimmered in the afternoon light as her frenzy intensified, books flying through her hands like hummingbirds escaping pursuit. She was so present in her body; she needed the world to feel her physicality, too. Spinning about the room, she was a helicopter seed wafting away from its mother tree: uncontrolled and undirected, on the cusp of becoming something new. She knocked over empty water bottles and her half-full laundry hamper, and amidst the chaos, saw a slip of dark brown paper launch into the air from the crevices of May’s book. She grasped for it, trapping it between her fingers and feeling its smooth, glossy surface. “Ray’s Coffee Shop.” She immediately knew what she had to do. Grabbing her notebook and laptop, she plopped down on her floor and got to work, opening a new tab and typing in the information from the card into the search engine.
Three days until the year ended and she was having no luck finding the author. The coffee shop was part of a local chain, so she needed to check out multiple locations before ruling out the option entirely. Her list of potential stores, once long and potent with possibility, was quickly dwindling. With each visit, she added another line to her already lined paper. There was only one store to go.
After navigating using Google Maps, and getting lost along the way because of a random detour, she finally saw it: the last Ray’s Coffee Shop that could have produced the card. It was a long shot. The odds that the author was the one who put the card in the book and would be at one of its locations were miniscule. But she had to try.
A rush of warm air infused with the intoxicating smell of fresh espresso beckoned her inside. She started scanning the shop, eyes darting from the comfy, burgundy armchairs to the inky wooden tables. Although she didn’t know who she was looking for, she looked anyway.
The bell jangled against the front door as she opened it. A rush of warm air infused with the intoxicating smell of fresh espresso beckoned her inside. She started scanning the shop, eyes darting from the comfy, burgundy armchairs to the inky wooden tables. Although she didn’t know who she was looking for, she looked anyway. She somehow understood that she would recognize the author upon first glance.
Not finding them from her initial perusal of the cafe patrons, she approached the counter, running through the rehearsed set of questions she had asked at all the other shops: Do you know if anyone who comes or works here has been writing in these books? Does this leaf seem familiar? Do you recognize this handwriting?
Before she could even say hello to the barista, he called out to her: “I love that leaf. It was one of the best ones he made.” Startled, she looked down at the sliver of red in her hand.
“Do you know him? The one who painted this?” she asked, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice.
“Of course! He used to work here. Until last year, I think. How do you know him?” Elation building in her body, she explained everything that had occurred in the last year: the books, the notes, her quest to find him. After she finished, the barista, enraptured by her tale, told her everything he could about his former coworker.
“I wish I could tell you where he works now, or give you his phone number or something, but I don’t have anything else. He was a great guy, but a ghost. From the first day he started working here, he was one foot out the door. He might as well have been already gone.”
She lugged the overflowing bag to the library, struggling to carry it up the steps and through the door. This is what she got for keeping the books for so long.
Heaving the bag onto the return counter, she smiled at the librarian, who greeted her warmly. As she started taking books out and stacking them, she was struck by a pang of sadness. It was March. She hadn’t figured out the mystery. Months of scouring the internet based on the information she had, and she couldn’t find a single photo or social media account. It was like he didn’t exist at all.
"Sometimes it’s too soon to part with a book, even if you’ve finished it. Unfortunately, that comes with a price."
She opened her purse and pulled out her wallet, grabbing her library card and some cash. She had racked up a hefty sum of late fees. In the wallet’s clear pocket, a hint of the red leaf was visible. It was the only piece of what happened that she could hold onto. She carried it with her everywhere, just in case. Handing the card to the librarian, she muttered, “Sorry these are so overdue. I got a bit...caught up in them.”
The librarian nodded: “I’ve been there before. Sometimes it’s too soon to part with a book, even if you’ve finished it. Unfortunately, that comes with a price. But let’s see what I can do for you.” She began going through the books, one by one opening them to their inner flaps so she could scan their barcodes before putting them in the bin below her desk. When she got to the first book, the one from January, she saw the note. The one that started it all. And she looked up at her.
“Yes. Oh my god, yes. Thank you so much.” Her hands were shaking.
Writing the information down on a sticky note, the librarian looked up at her with a knowing smile: “And don’t worry about the fees.”
It would be a quiet, but satisfying night. If only there wasn’t the nagging feeling he got as he fell asleep each night. That something was missing.
Light filtered in through the full cafe windows, shaping shadowy patterns and spots of sun along the floor and tables within. Midafternoon was his favorite time to work, when the morning and lunch rushes were long gone and there was a lull until evening. As he polished the mixing jug, his mind was elsewhere. On what he would do when he got home. Make dinner, take his dog on a walk, read his book. It would be a quiet, but satisfying night. If only there wasn’t the nagging feeling he got as he fell asleep each night. That something was missing. If only…
His thoughts were disrupted by another order: iced coffee with a splash of oat milk and a ribbon of caramel. He scooped the ice into the cup, filled it up, and drizzled in the golden sugar syrup. As he placed it on the pickup counter, he wondered what it was all for. Everything that he had done, that he had written. Even though he loved to create, sometimes he questioned why he was doing it. If despite it all, it didn’t matter in the end. And he was just trying to affix meaning to his life when there wasn’t any. And even if it did matter, could it have meaning if no one else read it? If it was only for him, what was the point?
Just then, a young woman stepped forward. She was dressed in muted autumnal tones, a long jacket layered over a chunky purple sweater and black jeans. She looked up at him as she reached for the drink, her face bright and open. When they made eye contact, she inhaled and her mouth pulled into a smile. And then he saw it. In her hand. A red paper leaf, gold veins glinting.
With the hint of a smirk blossoming on her face, she murmured, “I’ve wanted to talk to you for over a year. But first: I’m still waiting on the last book.”
It couldn’t be.