Matthew turned the book over in his hands, worried that Joan would recognize immediately the motivation behind this gift. And also that she wouldn’t. Or that she would read something even more horrible into it. After all, Joan was almost half Matthew’s age, and Lolita wasn’t your run-of-the-mill novel. But Nabokov was her favorite author, and this slim volume was autographed.
And Matthew had been in love with Joan for years.
It was too much, emotionally and financially, he thought. He held the book out toward the antique dealer, who grasped empty air when Matthew pulled it back into his chest.
He turned it over again, flipped open the cover to gaze at the autograph, unable to either surrender it or commit to buying it.
A purchase like this could be the bomb that destroyed their friendship, making every word and every glance unbearably awkward. It could ruin everything. Joan had no idea how he felt about her, that he loved her, that he had been in love with her since the first day she showed up at book club.
But she was in book club. She was a bookish person. She could appreciate this one-of-a-kind gift without reading anything deeper into it, even though it did go so much deeper than just a birthday present.
Matthew reached for his wallet. His hand froze on his back pocket.
But what if she did know? What if she knew all along that he had fallen for her? What if she had spared his feelings by never bringing it up because she did not feel the same way about him?
A gift like this would force her to say it out loud.
Matthew didn’t think he could bear hearing her response. It would undoubtedly be some cliché: “I don’t think of you that way.” “You’re like a brother to me.” “It’s not you, it’s me.”
The antique dealer cleared his throat, cocked his head, raised his eyebrows.
Matthew set the book down on the counter and flattened his hands on the glass on either side of it. The antique dealer sighed.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said. “This is kind of a big gift for me.”
“If that’s your way of haggling, you’re not very good at it.”
Matthew grinned in spite of himself. “It isn’t the price,” he lied. “I can afford it. It’s the … the meaning behind it.”
“Lolita has hardly changed meaning in the last 60 years.”
“No …” Matthew faltered. Something in the back of his mind told him that if he talked it out, maybe he could come to a confident conclusion. Or at least to a conclusion. “It’s a gift. For a woman.”
“Not a minor, I trust.”
“No, no. She’s …” Matthew caught the look on the old man’s face and realized he was joking. “Nabokov is her favorite author. She’d absolutely love this, I’m sure.”
“Then what’s the conundrum?”
“It’s kind of a big gift to get someone who’s, you know, just a friend.”
The old antique dealer tapped his thick-knuckled index finger to the side of his nose. “But she isn’t ‘just a friend,’ is she?”
Matthew’s face warmed noticeably. Was he this obvious around Joan? He stared down at the book, avoiding the old man’s gaze. “I’ve never been able to tell her …”
The old man breathed deeply through his nose, as if trying to inhale Matthew’s youth. “To be young and in love. I remember it well.”
A few moments passed in silence.
The antique dealer said, “So you’re worried that purchasing an indisputably lascivious novel — even one with such a history and pedigree as this — for your young lady will give her the wrong idea about what you, shall we say, desire in return?”
“I don’t want anything in return,” Matthew said. “I just want —”
“Utter rubbish!” the old man interrupted. “Of course you want something from her. But you’re worried that she won’t recognize your intentions to capture her heart. You’re worried she’ll think you’re after something … a bit south of that.”
Matthew opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“Is she a bibliophile?” the antique dealer asked.
“Yes. In fact, I met her at a book club.”
“Good. I will make this easy on you. Close your eyes.”
“Close your eyes!”
Matthew wrinkled his eyebrows together but did as he was told. He heard the old man’s knees pop and then the soft thud of something being laid on the countertop.
“Now keep your eyes closed,” the old man said. “I have found that many of life’s problems fail to be problems once placed into a larger perspective. I have placed before you two more books, both classics. I believe you will find this particular juxtaposition will calm your mind and make your decision much simpler, if not predetermined. All three of these books are for sale, of course, but I believe you’ll be interested in only one. Now, young man, open your eyes.”
Matthew opened his eyes. The old man had the look of a professor waiting for a student to answer a rather complex question in class. Matthew looked down.
He saw first the autographed copy of Lolita.
Beside that lay a first edition of Little Birds: Erotica by Anaïs Nin. Matthew’s face flushed again.
Next to Little Birds was a signed copy of Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex.
Matthew exploded with laughter. The old man had been right.
Matthew imagined Joan unwrapping either of these two new books. Imagined the shock and embarrassment on her face, the jeers and eye rolls of the other book club members who would be there when she opened it. Imagined his own faltering, red-faced blubbering when she asked him point blank: “Why did you buy this for me?”
Lolita, by comparison, was the perfect gift.
He opened his wallet and handed the old man a wad of bills. “Thank you,” he said.
“No, thank you,” the old man replied, ringing up the purchase and sliding the book into a paper bag.
Matthew imagined Joan’s response when she unwrapped her autographed copy of Lolita, a stark contrast to the previous scene that had flashed through his mind. He imagined her smile, her excitement, the glint in her eye. It was the perfect gift for her.
And it was only a book.
The antique dealer wished Matthew good luck as he handed him the paper bag. Matthew thanked him and turned to go, but a new thought stopped him.
What if it was only a book to Joan? What if this was his one great chance to truly let her know how he felt about her? What if, after all this, their relationship returned to what it already was — stolen glances, words unsaid, a secret longing — because it was, after all, only a book?
“Is there something else?” the old man asked.
“Um, yeah.” Tentatively, Matthew asked, “What’s your asking price for Little Birds?”