Girl Reading Book



Jerome Turken

When Lou got on to the FDR Drive the sun appeared low in the sky directly in front of him and kept vanishing behind high-rises and appearing again as he took the curves driving downtown.  Just like her, in and out of my sight all spring, all spring dominates my thoughts and the only contact I make is to blurt out an absurd sentence of five words.  Aa, should have been more aggressive.  Should have made a direct approach, who knows, she might have responded.   Should have!  Might have!  All the way downtown he kept recalling sights of her—her face, her body, her gestures, just the way she moved.

Funny how one gesture, one expression, a movement even, can get you interested in a girl.  Interested?  Obsessed!  The first time he laid eyes on her, that day he left his coat behind in the library and went back to get it after the lecture, she was sitting at the same table in the chair opposite, writing in a notebook.  Sitting there, looking at the ceiling and  popping a blown-out cheek with her pen then jotting something down.  Purposefully scrape my chair on the floor to get her attention.  She glances up and I give her my five brilliant words.

Hello.  I forgot my coat.

Gives me a little on‑off smile, looks at her watch and goes back to her notes.  I sit down, open a book and watch her over the pages.  She looks at the ceiling to think.  Pop, pop, pop.  Writes.  Thinks at the ceiling again, pop pop pop.  Writes.  Looks at her watch.  Writes.  Too occupied now, maybe when she gets up to leave.  A commotion in the hallway, the end of the period.  She finishes writing a last thought, claps her notebook closed and throws it into her oversized bag, gives me another on‑off smile and out she flies before I could even smile back.  Good‑bye, interesting girl, good‑bye.  What were you thinking at the ceiling?

He found a parking spot a few blocks from the school and after a quick hamburger and beer at the Blue Gate, there was barely enough time to make tonight’s lecture.  Still, he took a walk to Sullivan Street to look into Pippin’s Coffee Shop, where he sometimes caught sight of her. She wasn’t there so he continued on to the park.  He’d seen her there several times, either sitting alone reading, or with this Dr. Taub, a celebrity in the English Department by virtue of having contributed a chapter to a book on the metaphysical poets.  A tall, thin guy with a short, trimmed beard and Chekov glasses.  Whenever he caught sight of her she was either with him or in a hurry to get somewhere.  He’d often seen them walking in the street together and once followed them just to keep her in sight that much longer.  She had a lively, lilting step and a natural swag of the hips that was accented nicely by shifting folds of her coat.  Swish‑swish, swish‑swish.  Legs on the athletic side. Guess who was doing all the talking.  And she glancing at him with such heavy attention, reverence almost.  Followed for three blocks, right back to the school entrance I had just come out of.  Then one day noticed her come out of the English office and walk into a classroom a few doors away.  Asked a student working in the office about her. Who, Miss Terry?  An instructor in Freshman English Literature.  Gives a course on Elizabethan and Middle English Poetry.  Her first name?  Miriam.

Miriam Terry.  Whatever the ingredients are, she has them.  Looking up at the ceiling, eyes unfocused to think.  Writes.  Pop pop pop.  The folds of her coat, swish‑swish.  Staples in my memory.  And all spring I’m in a should have, could have and why didn’t I.

She wasn’t in the park either.  Walking back to the school he was trying to decide whether to attend whatever remained of the lecture or to go home and do some reading or listen to some music.  As he passed by Pippin’s again he took another look through the window.  She was there this time! sitting by herself at a table for two, reading a book.  He went to the menu in the window and pretended to look it over as he gazed in at her.  She had the book, with a large clip of some sort holding the pages in place, propped between the ketchup bottle and a glass of water, tilted to the light of a candle in a small glass, the shifting expressions on her face reflecting degrees of amusement or interest in what she was reading.  Ought to be frozen in time and space that way: Girl Reading Book.  On the table was an empty dessert dish, which the waitress had just come to take, and when she turned to the waitress he noticed that one side of her hair was held back with a barrette while the other side was hanging loose.  The other barrette was the clip on the book!  There were two four‑place tables empty now.  He went in behind three men who took one of them.  He made a move to take the other one, then hesitated at her table. She looked up at him.

“Excuse me, miss,” he said, “but would you mind if I sat here?  It’s still dinner hour and it doesn’t seem right to occupy a large table by myself.”

She turned to scan the room then turned back and gave him a look—of what?  Amusement?  Polite annoyance?  But a hint of a smile.  “It’s not taken,” she said.

She watched him sit down, smiled a demure little on and off smile and went back to her book.  But not with the same animation; no motion in her face now.  Too conscious of me.  Trying to look like she’s concentrating now, like she’s working on a crossword puzzle.  He dipped his head to read the title of her book on the edge binding.  She held it up.  The Canterbury Tales.

“Ah, Chaucer,” he said.

She smiled.  “Have you read it?”

“Only the Prologue and The Wife of Bath,” Lou said.  “And in modern English.”

“You lose the music,” she said.  “Try reading it in Middle English.  It would be worth the effort.”

The waitress came with a cup of coffee for her, and silverware, a menu and a glass of water for him.

“I’ll just have coffee and some apple pie,” he said.

She had moved the book and the support arrangement to make room for her coffee and now was having trouble stabilizing it again in another position. A little smile broke into her face and she looked at him.

“It’s because you’re staring at me,” she said.

“You know, you have something right above your cheekbones,” he said.

She brought her fingers to one of them.  “What?”

“A lovely pair of dark eyes.”

Her smile was wet and open‑mouthed.  Her front teeth were slightly irregular and one of them had a small chip.

“I was watching you through the window while looking at the menu outside,” he said.  “If I were a painter I’d want to do a painting of you that way: Girl Reading Book.  And I’d hang it in my living room and never sell it.”

“Oh my,” she said.  “Girl Reading Book is struck dumb.”

“Did I say something inappropriate?”

“Not at all,” she said.  “I don’t mind a little shower of flattery now and then.”  She put a bookmark in her place and closed the book and looked at him, amused.

“No, I meant it,” he said.  “You were so absorbed in the book.  Your expressions were beautiful.”

“My God!  This is becoming a deluge.”

“Especially on a pretty face.”

“Help, I’m drowning.”

He laughed.  “All right, no more water.”

The waitress put his coffee and pie and their checks on the table.  That antic stance of hers, juicing out her words.  Delyooj.  Drowooning.  Moore oowater.  Her lips, what do you call lips like that?  Fleshy, pouting.  Succulent?  Especially her smile, toothy, big‑mouthed.

“I suppose you thought I was a bit forward he said, “asking if I could sit down like that.”

“When you were looking at the menu in the window you were staring at me.”

“You noticed?”

“But when you came in I didn’t expect you to come right over and ask to join me.”

“You don’t remember,” he said, “but I’m the one—”

“Who forgot his coat in the library.”

“You remembered!”

“You were paying more attention to me than you were to that book in your hands.”

“I was.  My name is Lou Morris.  And you are Miriam Terry.”

She gave him an inquisitive smile.  “How did you know that?”

“I saw you walk in and out of the English office one day, and I went in and inquired.”

“I’m flattered again.”  She rose.  “I’d better be going.  I have a staff meeting.”

“Would you mind if I walked you?”

“If you want to.”

Outside it had begun to rain.

“If you wait here I’ll get my car,” he said.

“It’s not necessary,” she said.

“It’s coming down rather hard.”

“Why don’t you go on to your car,” she said.  “I’ll just walk.”  She smiled.  “A little more water isn’t going to kill me.”

“Me neither,” he said.  “I’ll walk with you.”

They hurried through the rain silently.  At a corner where a puddle had formed she hesitated.  He leaped it and extended his hand.  She took it and leaped, and after steadying herself quickly released it.

“Would you join me for another cup of coffee after your meeting?” he said.

“You’d wait?”


“It’s bound to be a long meeting, an hour, an hour and a quarter, sometimes longer.”

“I’ll wait.”

“But I can’t.  I’m meeting someone.”

They reached the school entrance.

“Well, good night,” she said, and made a move to go in.

“Wait,” he said.  “Can we get together again?  How about Sunday afternoon.  If it’s a nice day maybe we can go for a walk, or something.  Have some lunch.”

“Can’t Sunday.” she said.  She thought a moment.  “But you can call me during the week if you want.”  She took a pen from her handbag.  “Do you have some paper?”

He took his notebook from his shirt pocket, turned to an empty page and handed it to her.  She wrote her phone number on the page then wantonly flipped the page back and read an entry aloud: “‘The stairs squeaked and groaned as they went down.  Coming up she hadn’t noticed it.’ Are you a writer?”

“Yes,” he said.  “Trying to be one, anyway.”

“Really?” she said.  “Maybe you’ll write about girl reading book some day.”


He let a week go by then called her.  When he identified himself, she said:

“Oh hello.  I’ve been thinking of you.”

“You have?”


“Can we get together some time this week?”

“I can’t,” she said.  “In fact I have something to tell you.  I’ve been seeing someone pretty steadily, and to be truthful I don’t want complications.  I enjoyed talking to you, but giving you my phone number was a mistake.  I’m sorry.”

“Can’t we just meet for a cup of coffee or something?” he said.

“Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

“Yes, but what harm—”

“No, I really don’t think so,” she said.  “Besides, I’m working on a paper and I’ve got a deadline.”

“Come on, I won’t take up much of your time.”

“Why are you so persistent?” She said.  “We had just one little encounter.”

“Because you appeal to me and I’d like to spend some time with you,” he said.

“You appeal to me too, in a way.  But no, I don’t think so.  Besides, nothing will come of it.”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, I know.”

“Not even a friendship?”

“Friendship?” she said.  “That’s a good one.”

A complete about face.  A mistake to give me her phone number!  But she didn’t hesitate to take out her pen, did she?  Do you have some paper? with her dark, smiling eyes.  Was she thinking of her boyfriend then?  Now I’m a complication.  Nothing is going to come of it.  But she didn’t sound so nothing is going to come of it in the restaurant, did she?  Sounded a bit merry, in fact.  With that go along smile and a promise in her eye and her fresh air   mannerisms.  Girl Reading Book.  May be an academic but there’s a little girl quality about her too.  The way her eyes smile.  Widens them and puffs out her cheeks.  She’s listening, then she’s thinking.  Has the feel of woman and girl at the same time.  Aah, what’s the use.  You’re going to horn yourself in?  Music not for your ears.  Although would she have given me her phone number in the first place if she was so locked into this guy?

What is it that draws you to a girl you’ve seen around and had a few words with anyway?  And then go into mourning at her loss?  What’s the name of that quality?  Merry Miriam one day, minus Miriam the next.  The metamorphosis of Miriam. Should haves.  But remembered me all the way from the library.  And she did give me her phone number.  I must decipher Miriam’s merit system.

He had some time before her class ends.  He walked up West Fourth Street toward Washington Square Park.  The week-long heat wave had broken some time during the night and the day was comfortable with low humidity.  And now the evening dusk, still orange tinted by the setting sun gave you that go ahead feeling again.  He waited for a day like this to give it another go.  How to approach her?  If she comes out alone.  Big if.  Oh, hello, how’ve you been?  You may not remember but … A bright splash of color.  Flowers on display outside a supermarket he had just passed.  He went back and picked out a small bunch.  Hello there!  I was just thinking of you.  How have you been?  Do you have time for … Oh, these are for you.  Flowers yet.

In the park he wandered over to the chess players, where a small crowd was gathered around a table with two older men playing in the meager light of a park lamp.  They were moving and slapping a timer with such speed that he couldn’t get a fix on the game.  Outside the park he found space on a bench right opposite the school, a short distance from the entrance.  Just say, You’ve been on my mind, and I’m giving it another try, that’s all.  Can I buy you a cup of coffee?  Can I.  Miss Harris looking at me with glowering eyes: I should think you can climb the fence to get the ball, Louis.  But you may not.  The flowers, give them to her first?  If she’s alone.

The other side of the bench was occupied by two girls in muted conversation.  A short, skinny guy strumming a guitar came along singing something about taking over the world and mandating love and peace.  He paused in front of the girls and faced them with his song.  He had a weather‑ roughened face and an unkempt red beard and was in full regalia: jeans, frontier jacket, bush hat, head band, bandana and plenty of beads.  The girls stopped talking and listened dutifully and when the guy finished he gave them a nod of a bow, then looked at Lou and pointed to the flowers.

“You got the right idea, cousin,” he said with a pleasant, twinkle‑eyed smile, and walked off starting his song over again.

The period ended and people started to spill out of the entrance.  Presently the flow thinned and went back to normal.  Out of luck?  Or did he get the time wrong.  The summer bulletin said seven to eight-thirty, he was sure of that.  But where?  It didn’t say where.  He just assumed it would be in the main building.  Maybe her class was located in Judson Hall, or in one of the buildings on Washington Square North.  But suddenly the door was flung open and Miriam almost sprang out carrying an oversized bag and hurried up the street in his direction, her heels clicking the pavement urgently.  Ah!  Alone.  Lights up a street by just walking out into it.  Hair pinned up this time, bangs feathered her forehead.  But as she got closer he could see anger in her face.  He got up and approached her.  Sees me.  She slowed and then stopped altogether and stood watching him.  He hadn’t the slightest idea what was going to come out of his mouth beyond hello.  Before he reached her he saw Taub emerge from the same door hugging a few books and a bunch of folders and, when he caught sight of Miriam, break into a trot to catch up.  Just as she turned to see who Lou was looking at, Taub reached her and snagged her under the arm.  Both upset.  Arguing?

“Miriam, please, you’re acting like a child,” Taub said.

“Let go of my arm, please,” she said, pulling it forcefully from his grasp.

Lou was now standing about ten feet in front of them.  Taub, following Miriam’s stare, turned and looked at him.

“Yes?” he said.  He glanced at the flowers in Lou’s hand.

Lou looked down at them.  “I just … “

“Are you selling them?” Taub said.

Miriam was staring at Lou stone‑faced.  “I think you’d better leave,” she said.

Lou answered Taub.  “No, I’m not selling them.  As a matter of fact I’m giving them away.  To pretty girls.  It’s little peculiarity of mine.  Every so often I get an urge to buy a few bunches of inexpensive flowers and wander the streets looking for pretty girls to give them to.  You should see some of the looks I get.”

“Uh‑huh,” Taub said.  “I see.  Some of the looks you get.”

The look on Miriam’s face was pure fury.  Directed at whom?  Lou stepped up to her.

“These are for you,” he said.

She took the flowers, more in reflex than acceptance.

Taub stared at Miriam incredulously.  “Do you know him?” he said.

“Yes,” she said.  “I’ll explain later.”

“Let me introduce myself,” Lou said, offering his hand. “My name is Lou Morris.” Taub offered a tilt‑headed, goggle‑eyed look in burlesque outrage.

Miriam was glaring at Lou.  “You’re having a lot of fun, aren’t you?”

“Who is he?” Taub said.

“I said I’ll explain later,” Miriam said.

“I’d just like to know what’s going on,” Taub said.

“Absolutely nothing’s going on beyond what I told you,” Lou said.  “Absolutely nothing.  I simply … “  He was stopped by a tacit but urgent intercommunication that seemed to be taking place between Miriam and Taub, who was standing there somehow looking like a cross between an indignant man of distinction and a woman on the verge of tears.

“Oh, Jonathan, please,” Miriam said.  “We just happened to be sitting at the same table in Pippin’s a few weeks ago and had a casual conversation.”

“I see,” Taub said.  “Just happened to be sitting at the same table and had a casual conversation.  And he just happened to show up tonight and just happened to have flowers in his hand.  I’ll tell you what.  Why don’t you go right ahead and just happen to sit together at another table and just happen to have another casual conversation.  Because I just happen to have a few things to take care of.”  He abruptly turned and marched up the block.  Miriam flung the flowers at him.  They scattered on the ground a few feet behind him, and he took a hurried step in reflex and kept walking.

“I can’t believe I did that,” Miriam said.  She glared at Lou.  “Why did you do this?”

“Wait a minute,” Lou said.  “You came out alone.  If I thought you were meeting someone I would never have walked over.”

“But I made it perfectly clear that I didn’t want to see you again, didn’t I?” she said.  “Didn’t I make it perfectly clear?  I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.”

“I don’t exactly know what I’m trying to accomplish either,” Lou said.  “I was just thinking of you and I wanted to spend some time with you and I came here to see if I could find you and I passed a supermarket that had flowers on display outside and I just got it into my head to buy a bunch and give them to you, that’s all.  It was the purest of feelings.”

“Aah, go on with your purest of feelings,” she said. “Either you’re playing some sort of game or you’re a little wacky.  With that stupid pretty girl routine.”

“Well he was—”  He looked into her rigid, angry face. “You have me all figured out, don’t you?” he said.  “You have me all figured out.  You can read my mind like a book, can’t you?”  His outburst surprised him.  He expected her

to walk away.  But she stood there glaring at him for a moment, then let out a

shoulder‑dropping breath and her face relaxed and softened.

“Now what?” she said.

“Now how about a cup of coffee?”

“I think I can use a glass of wine,” she said.

“So can I,” he said.  He looked at the flowers spread on the sidewalk.

“I can also use flowers right now,” she said.  She went over and picked them up and arranged them in a semblance of the original bouquet in its paper

sleeve.  Then she waited for him to lead the way.

He was already a bit giddy with her sudden reversal, and now he had to hold back an impulse to laugh at the way she was holding the flowers, gripped in her hand in front of her chest, as they walked up University Place toward the Blue Gate.  Like a sad little beggar girl to whom someone given a small bunch of flowers for solace.

“What’s running through your mind now?” he said.

“I’m not quite sure,” Miriam said.  “Things are quite jumbled.  Maybe the wine will give me some clarity.  How was the lecture tonight?

“I quit attending those things two weeks ago.  I came here specifically to see you.  And please don’t say you’re flattered.  Flattery is not my object.”

He guided  her past the crowded Blue Gate bar to the rear, where there were still a few empty tables.  At one of them he pulled a chair back for her.  She seemed undecided about what to do with the flowers.  She finally carefully placed them on the table and sat down.

“They have a very decent dry house wine,” he said.

“That’s fine,” she said.

When the waitress came he ordered two glasses of wine and a dish of

cheese, and when he turned back to Miriam she seemed lost in thought.  Say something.  But he could think of nothing appropriate.

“I have to apologize for the way I acted before,” she said.  “It was irrational to let my anger overflow to you like that.  I feel so foolish.”

“I showed up at a very inopportune moment,” Lou said.

“Boy, did you.”

“So maybe your irrationality was justified.”

“Irrationality is never justified.”

“Sometimes you hit a dead end with reason,” Lou said.  “Sometimes you’re better off going with instinct, even if it seems irrational at the moment.”

The waitress came with their wine and cheese and a small, narrow vase half filled with water in which she placed the flowers.

“Oh my, thank you,” Miriam said.  When the waitress left they picked up their wine and gestured a toast.  Miriam’s first draft amused him.  Like taking a drink of water.  She forked a cube of cheese.

“I suppose you’re wondering what it was all about,” she said.  “Between Jonathan and me.”

“I was curious,” Lou said.

“When I came down to the lobby he was talking to two men,” Miriam said.  “They weren’t part of the faculty, I’d never seen them before.  He introduced me as one of his students.  One of his students!  I was one of his students two years ago.”  She took a few sips of wine.  “Jonathan wasn’t too

rational either, about you and the flowers, I mean.”  She emitted a little giggle.

The wine was loosening her up.  She looked at him with a wanton little smile.  “What would your reaction have been if someone came over to your girlfriend … do you have a girlfriend?”

“Well, until recently I’d been seeing a girl rather often.”

“Oh,” Miriam said.  “Well if you did have a girlfriend, a special one I mean, what would you do if a rather good‑looking fellow approached her and offered her a bunch of flowers?  I mean, how would you react?”  She sipped her wine while waiting for his answer, finishing off the remainder in her glass..

“How would I react?” Lou said.  “Let me think,”  He picked up his glass and said, “I’m thinking,” as he slowly emptied it.

The waitress, who at that moment had been passing, stopped and gestured at the empty glasses.  “More wine?”

“Yes,” Lou said.

“Well? Miriam said.  “How would you react?”

“It depends on the girl,” Lou said

“Come on, come on,” Miriam said.  “Don’t evade.”

“Well, all right,” Lou said.  “If a rather good‑looking fellow approached my hypothetical special girlfriend and offered her a bunch of flowers, I have to admit I’d get a little jealous and a little irrational.”

The waitress returned and replaced the two empty glasses with two full ones.

“You would?” Miriam said, picking up her glass and taking a good swallow.


“I didn’t take you for the jealous, irrational type.”

“Well I am,” Lou said.  “Under certain circumstances I get jealous and irrational.  Now, one thing I would not do is ask a good‑looking fellow who gives my hypothetical special girlfriend flowers if he is selling them.  He might not appreciate the sarcasm and give me a punch in the nose, or something.”

“Did you want to punch Jonathan in the nose?”

“Yes.  But I could never do it.  My violence is strictly covert.”

“I see.  You are covertly violent.

“Yes.  And another thing I wouldn’t do.  I would never walk away from a flower giving scene like Jonathan did.   If my hypothetical special girlfriend has a good arm I might get a bunch of flowers in the head.”

“Ha!” came from Miriam’s gut in a single burst.

“And besides, if I left her alone with this good‑looking flower‑giver he might sweep her off her feet altogether, and then where would I be?  Especially if she were a bit adventurous.  Are you a bit adventurous?”

“Yes,” she said.  “But not—” and she gave him a nod “—overtly.  My imagination is capable of all sorts of exploits.”

“For instance,” he said.

“For instance when I was fifteen I was Marlon Brando’s mistress,” she said. “He picked me up with his motorcycle one night and we drove to his ranch in Nevada and lived happily ever after on horseback.”

“Now that was adventurous,” Lou said.  “I’m pretty adventurous too, you know.  When I was twelve I learned how to play love songs on a guitar and traveled to Spain and successfully serenaded a beautiful infanta.”

“Really!” Miriam said.

“Yes,” Lou said.  “She listened to my song from her balcony then climbed down a vine‑woven trellis and took my hand and led me to her father’s orchard, where we kissed under a pear tree.”

“Oh, how lovely,” Miriam said.  “I recently took a trip to the North Pole and married an Eskimo.  I loved the way he laughed.  And the ice on his mustache!”  She giggled, and picked up her wine and took a few more sips and placed the glass back on the table with exaggerated care and looked at Lou, her lips pursed and her brows crimped in a caricature of serious thought.  “Would you ever introduce your hypothetical special girlfriend to someone as one of your students?” she said.  She was beginning to show the effect of the wine.  Her eyelids were limp and her speech had lost its crispness.

“Are you Jonathan’s girlfriend?”

“Am I Jonathan’s girlfriend,” Miriam said.  “That’s a very difficult question,”  She looked up and closed her eyes then opened them again.  “Let me see.  Am I Jonathan’s girlfriend.  Hmm.  Am I Jonathan’s girlfriend.  I think

I am. Yes, I am.  I am definitely Jonathan’s girlfriend.  And I think Jonathan’s girlfriend is somewhat inebriated and would like to go home.  Will you walk Jonathan’s girlfriend home?”

Outside she said, “I live on Thirteenth Street and I think I need some support to get there.”  She took his arm.

They walked the three blocks uptown in silence and turned into Thirteenth Street and in silence walked the remaining distance to Miriam’s

house, a neatly renovated brownstone.  She turned to him. He searched her eyes

for a some kind of sign.

“Jonathan is one of the most high-minded people I know,” she said in a sudden burst.  “He really is a very unusual person.   He has a certain purity of mind and he’s very generous   It was through him that I got my job on the English faculty.”  She opened the gate and smiled.  “And I’m falling asleep standing.  Did you accumulate some material tonight?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Probably.  I’d like to see you again.”

A long moment of silence.  “That’s something I have to think about,” she said.  “I have to think about a lot of things.  I enjoy your company but I need time for things to settle.  Please, don’t call me.  If you give me your number I’ll call you.”

He wrote it on a page of his notebook and tore it out and gave it to her.

“Goodnight.”  She turned toward the door, walked a few steps, then turned back and surprised him with a kiss on his cheek.  Then he watched her walk to the door and turn again to wave goodbye before disappearing inside.  He looked at the closed door a moment, then voiced in a half-whisper: “Well, a least the day ended better than it began.”