Neither a borrower…
I have to remind myself it was only a book – mass-market paperback, pristine condition though bought used.
I lent it to an acquaintance; I do not say she was a friend, because she was not. She was an acquaintance. At the time I would have compared her to a whirlwind, for wherever she went chaos and confusion invariably followed. She had a talent for capturing the affection, the admiration, perhaps even the love of other people. Though lacking beauty in any strict sense of the word, her energy and heedlessness – a sort of helplessness born of irresponsibility – drew people to her. In this sense, she was attractive.
She had no difficulty in asking favors, either, and people almost instinctively granted them. That, in fact, was how I met her. She asked if she could sleep in my room, because she had forgotten her key and needed a place to stay until her roommate returned to open the door. At the time, I shrugged, having no objections. That was the first favor she asked, and it seems to me there were so many others I cannot remember them all.
There was, for instance, the time she came to dinner, uninvited, with the latest young man in tow. An eager puppy of a fellow, he was embarrassed to intrude, but so besotted with her he could not help but follow withersoever she led. At the time, the sight amused. I fed them rice and other foods, made them tea, and chatted idly over the sound of Prokofiev.
She often called on me, after that, to accompany them, as chaperone, and prevent the young man from making a scene or asking too many questions. It would not do, you see, if he made a fuss when she asked him to drive her to Boston, to visit one of her lovers at MIT. It would not do at all. A third (or perhaps a fourth?) was needed to diffuse the tension; and such was I. How could I mind, though, when they were young and vivacious, and the boy had such a beautiful neck?
She wanted to borrow the book, to read over the weekend. She was not what I would call a reader, for she read neither widely nor discriminately, but she liked to have read what her friends had read – if the title piqued her interest. With no misgivings, I lent her the book.
When she returned the book a month later, I didn’t recognize it. The cover was mangled and torn, the pages dog-eared, thumbed (was that a spider I see squashed there at the cover – oh, it is, how nice), and the spine broken. All the life had gone out of it; the very words on the page seemed weary and plaintive, their phosphorescence worn away. The book, in its mute injury, seemed nearly as bitter and exhausted as that young man, the boy with the beautiful neck, who hadn’t even lasted the winter at her heels.
I didn’t get a chance to finish it, she said, I didn’t have time.
I handed the book back to her. Take all the time you need. I’ve finished with it long ago.