No matter which way she piled the piles, the slick cover of the paperbacks made the books slide one way or the other until Harriett was peering out from between a slack hill of volumes. It had been a long time since she had been doing this type of thing and she had forgotten how much work it was to attempt to do something nice for someone else. Maybe she didn't have the proper depth of humanity to muster it--maybe she didn't have the heart. Nah, she thought, I do, I know I do.
Harriett peered around the small, dark room and everywhere she looked there were books. Books and the occasional throw pillow or ratty afghan she'd had since her undergraduate days. This was not a home befitting a grown-up but rather the kind of odd hiding place of some recluse in a Tim Burton movie--the strange town misfit, a new-fangled Boo Radley, living with inanimate objects filled with words that could lift her spirits, teach her lessons and transcend the all-too-ordinary life she was leading in the outside world. With a double lock on the door and a small accountant's lamp, she could live inside her head in the manner in which she knew she would never literally become accustomed.
It wasn't that Harriet loved things--she lived without plenty of stuff. She had had moments when something would inspire grand gestures from her but recently a new desire had snuck into the mix. She found herself trying so hard to do nice things. She had reached her personal tipping point. It was a person. A real live person. Someone she loved. And not in some old Hollywood movie way, with vampy glances and the tapping of long fingernails on some elegant champagne flute--no, this desire was completely COTTAGE LIVING magazine desire. The need to cozy up with books and throw pillows and ratty afghans and this person, in low light, eating ramen noodle soup on a cold Saturday afternoon. Real life love. She finally got what all the fuss was about.
The Christmas holiday was three weeks away. In fact, she had found a little chalkboard shaped like Santa Claus and taken great delight in writing the number of days left before the holiday on his prodigious belly. Santa's massive white wooden beard framed the board and a small piece of white chalk hung from a string that dangled from his little traditional red-and-white hat. The number today was exactly 21. She knew her mother had already completed her Christmas shopping--after all, she started at the outlets in April or May and was done by the end of the summer. Harriet thought it was odd that this was one of the practical habits she had not acquired from her mother. The repetitious cleaning of bathrooms, the tiny bouquets of handmade soaps in a lusterware dish, the sprigs of dried eucalyptus stuck here and there in small vases around the house--these little touches were part of her DNA, the lady-like DNA that had filtered through to her naturally from her mother's very soul. But the idea of getting Christmas shopping done early in the year (and with deep discounts) was foreign to her.
Harriett had become convinced (after much consideration and a few uncertain hours spent on a therapist's threadbare couch, recounting moments that seemed to lose their intensity as soon as the words she used to describe them wafted into the air) that it was her large family that had caused her to enjoy her self-imposed hermit living. After all, with seven siblings, two overprotective parents and a close-knit community of friends, there had been few times in her life in which Harriet was left alone. At all. Entering puberty gave her the stupid courage to lock doors, to force others to acknowledge that maybe right now she didn't want to play Stratego or dress a doll or take the dog for a walk or do her homework. Fully clothed, she would slip into the bathtub (the shiny porcelain a testament to her mother's ravenous need for cleanliness), close her eyes and ponder . . . nothing. The idea that she could sit still, be quiet, not have to be "on" for minutes felt completely blissful. She was happy, content, undemanding. She was alone and she liked it.
The idea of being an accountant suited her in the same way. Words followed by numbers, spreadsheets and an unending array of things to organize and manipulate--the work of accountancy was so well-suited to her that it made her feel bad. After all, it wasn't a glamorous job, it wasn't going to make her famous or rich or . . . but it did make her happy. Down-to-the-bottom-of-her-soul happy. Did that make her a sad person--choosing productive contemplation over clubbing and Cosmopolitans every night? Maybe. But if her mother hadn't recommended her to a family friend, she never would have set foot in the television studio, she never would have tripped that same foot over that fat annoying cable and she never would have met Charlie.
They had been together for eight months and counting. There seemed to be no stopping the cascading feelings she had for him and he had for her--sometimes the immensity of their caring hit them like a sudden meteor and, devastated by its power, they found themselves tongue-tied and short of breath. Charlie even went so far as to go to a doctor to complain that he had panic attacks but the doctor diagnosed it as love pangs and sent him away with a smile and some Valium. And now they were preparing to spend their first Christmas together . . . and Harriett was having some panic attacks of her own, thinking what intensely meaningful object she could present to him on that all-important day, what type of thing would be able to reveal to him how very happy she was that she had had to travel all her life just to find him--how he made every bad grade, every fight with her mother, every snub from some other silly boy, every humiliating gesture she had ever suffered in public, every lost job mean nothing. Or mean everything, because they were the markers that had led her to this place, to this life with him.
The economy was bad, there wasn't a lot of work and she was struggling to hang on to her lease for the tiny one-bedroom apartment she had filled with all her belongings in the hopes that it would become her "home." Whenever she went to her parents' house to visit, her father would remind her with a pointing finger that "this is your home" and that no nest that she could create for herself would be good enough to be considered a "home." But this year she realized one thing--if she had Charlie in one place, then that was home. There wasn't any question that he was the missing link between Harriett and her very own sense of where she belonged.
Harriett's practical side won out and she had decided to sell as many possessions as possible to bring in income and make space for Charlie. And to get him a gift, a really special gift, for Christmas. She knew that she would have to sacrifice something and she realized what that was, for better or worse.
She had sold all sorts of books, first editions, advanced readers' copies, beautiful illustrated children's books--but there was one volume that she hoped would not have to leave her collection. As a student in London during her junior year in college, she worked for an antique bookseller. The old man greatly appreciated Harriett's help and gave her more money under the table than was necessary at the end of each week, so grateful he was for her attention to detail and her skill with numbers. At holiday time, just before she shipped back to the States, he presented her with a small but elaborately wrapped gift--gold bows, jacquard wrapping paper, very fancy. Harriett opened it carefully and there, amidst the gold tissue, was a small leatherbound book with gilt edges. There was a picture of a man on the cover and inside was information that caused her to go speechless. It was an original copy of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." A rare and heavily-desired collector's item. The bookseller said it was the only treasure he had worth sharing with someone who would appreciate it as much as he did. And she appreciated it. And took care of it. Until now.
She had been selling everything on Ebay, that wonderful internet service, where your junk was what somebody else was searching for all their life (well, sometimes that was true!) She was actually making quite a bit of money, too. Harriett even cleaned out her closet and got rid of clothes that she had bought but never worn, like the suit from Bergdorf's from some interview with a brokerage house that she had had many years ago. She didn't take the job and she never wore the suit again. Someone had just bought it for enough money to cover her cable bill this month. Harriett thought that was a sign that she was doing the right thing, clearing out and cleaning out.
But there sat the little book. "A Christmas Carol" with its perfect pages and hand-painted illustrations. It may as well have been the Gutenberg Bible, as far as Harriett was concerned. It was a most treasured volume with a long history and deep attachment to the whole of the English literary canon, if not the world's. But if she managed to find a good home for that, she would be able to afford the one thing that she knew Charlie wanted more than anything else and pleasing him meant more to her than this lovely volume that she had hoped she would have forever.