“Dear God, I hope so,” I whispered back. “I can’t take any more of it.”
“Me neither.” He tucked Emma in carefully and we sat with our backs to one another to pull on various articles of clothing. I found my stockings and boots and tiptoed to the door. Martin followed me, buttoning his dress shirt.
“Do you think Peggy would mind if I swiped the kettle and tea bags?” I mouthed.
“I don’t think Peggy would mind anything you did,” he answered. “Is that the bathroom over there?”
The kettle was boiling in the kitchen when I heard the bathroom door open, but Martin didn’t appear by the time I’d set the tea to steeping. Searching around for him, I saw him standing silhouetted in the doorway of the library, still and quiet.
“These are the books to be catalogued?” he asked without turning around.
“You spend your days in this room, looking at these books, as part of your daily routine?”
“Yes. I haven’t done much lately, though.”
He stepped into the library and gazed around him. The library had become familiar to me after long use. I had forgotten how it could appear to one encountering it for the first time. The weariness had dropped from his shoulders and his eyes were kindled with the delight of one who returns home after a long journey to find old friends calling to him from every side. He passed his hands along the shelves and ran his fingers along the spines, brushing the cloth and leather bindings reverently. I sat at the table and watched him.
“Most people would love to be in your position, yet you talked about it last night as if it were something to be ashamed of.”
“I’m not ashamed of working with the books. But what happens when I’m done? I live on the generosity of my family and of Emma. I can’t spend the rest of my life dependent.”
“It seems to me that they might be dependent on you.” He pulled down a book. “The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne.”
“Modern Library edition, 1952. Binding cracked. Signed by two previous owners.”
He looked at me. “Very good. You described the book. But have you read any Donne?”
“ ‘Now thou has lov’d me one whole day. ” I declaimed.
To morrow when thou leav’st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then Antedate some new made vow:
Or say that now
We are not just those persons, which we were?’ Now you.”
He grinned. “ ‘And now good morrow to our waking soules,
Which watch not one another out of feare;
For love, all love of other sights controules,
And makes one little roome, an every where.’ Here’s another Modern Library, The Poems of Longfellow. ‘This is the forest primeval.’ “
I smiled. “ ‘Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?’ ”
He bounded to another shelf and chose an old brown volume wrapped in a clear protective cover. “Okay, here’s Can You Forgive Her?”
“Anthony Trollope. First American edition, Harper & Brothers, New York. Bookplate and inscription by John Spencer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dated Nov. 1865.”
“You’re only describing the book again.”
“The only Trollope I’ve read is The Warden. Oh, that tea!” I stood, dismayed. “I completely forgot.”
“Never mind the tea!” Martin dismissed hot beverages out of hand.The booklust was upon him now, and he prowled the shelves looking for old favorites and whatever might catch his eye, pushing his light brown hair out of his eyes as he nosed among the volumes. “My God, look at this copy of the Rambler!”
“Be careful with that,” I warned. “It’s from 1793.”
He carried it cautiously to the table and sat down across from me. Gingerly he lifted the spotted leather cover, which came off in his hand. He flinched and froze, but I burst out laughing and sat down again.
“Don’t look so guilty! It’s not your fault; it was about to fall off anyway.”
“Now I’m afraid to touch it.” He nudged it delicately to one side and picked up a book on the table. “Jane Eyre. Is this the one you mentioned last night, that had been written in?”
“You have a good memory.”
He opened to the flyleaf and read. “To Emma, an extraordinary reader. Gorgeous girls and gorgeous books belong together. Is it yours or your aunt’s?”
“Hers,” I said stiffly. “She gave it to me when I was fourteen, but I don’t think of it as mine anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“For years I thought that she had written the inscription herself, for me. But it seems her ex-husband wrote it for her when he gave it to her. It was nice that she didn’t have to alter anything when she passed it on to me.”
Martin turned the book over in his hands. “Did she lie to you about it?”
“No,” I admitted, pushing back petulantly from the table.
“Why does it matter so much that it was second-hand?” He studied me intently. “You already knew you weren’t the first owner. It became yours when she gave it to you, didn’t it.”
“But it was never really mine!” I cried, trying to make him understand. “That inscription, that sentiment was given first to her. Now whenever I see it, it always reminds me that I was the afterthought, the second-best Emma. There’s nothing unique about it anymore.”
“And yet it fits you as much as if it had been meant for you from the beginning.” There was a harshness in his voice. He pushed back his chair and rose from the table. “It’s almost 7 am. Do you want to go to early Mass?”
Martin fetched his jacket, tie, and coat while I shook Peggy awake to ask if she’d stay a bit longer with Emma.
“Yes, you two go ahead,” she yawned. “Emma may not be up to going out today anyway, poor thing, and John and I will go to 11:00.” She was asleep again before we left the room.
Once again the parking lot was almost filled. “Let’s not waste time looking for a spot,” Martin declared, and again my car was double-parked.
The clouds of last night had blown over, leaving the morning crisp. As we entered the church we were greeted by the faint lingering aroma of incense mingled with crushed pine needles. The frantic anticipatory atmosphere of the vigil had given way to the tranquil calm of the Madonna contemplating her child. Martin and I, standing in the back of church, both sighed, instinctively exhaling the stress and anxiety of the night.
“Shall we take our same seats again?” I asked, heading for the last pew.
“No more back of the church,” he said firmly, taking my arm. “This time we sit up front.”
We marched to the very first pew and genuflected toward the burnished gold tabernacle in its setting of gleaming marble. I could almost touch the creche on the bottom step of the altar. The infant Jesus, thoroughly swaddled, reached out his arms. I was unsure whether this gesture was one of divine benediction or human desire to be picked up and cuddled.
“Give me your phone,” Martin whispered in my ear.
“Because nothing can possibly happen to Emma with Peggy sitting right there.” I handed it to him, and he turned it off and put it in his pocket.
“Fair is fair,” I hissed. “Give me yours then.”
“Yes.” We tussled silently, but I managed to snatch it out of his coat pocket and set it to vibrate. “You can have it back after Mass,” I told him, putting it in my own pocket.
The Mass was serenely beautiful in contrast with the chaotic proceedings of the night before. Once again I followed along in with Martin in his missal as our voices raised and blended in ancient chants and hymns, watching his hands as they gently ruffled the onionskin pages in the beautiful book. As I drifted through the homily, I clasped my hands in my lap, fighting down an impulse to twine my fingers through his. The joy of Christmas day welled up within me like the smoke that billowed out from the censer swung by the young acolyte, and the ringing of the bells at the consecration seemed to echo in my ears as Martin squeezed my hand and wished me peace. My communion prayer was fervent, and I sang Joy to the World with angelic clarity.
After Mass we emerged from a press of people in the back of church, but this time there was no rush. We let the crowds disperse around us as we stood on the steps to bask in the rays of the imminent dawn. The purity of the radiant morning light cast a prelapsarian glow over the frosty grass and icy branches, reflecting off Martin’s glasses and turning his hair a deep shade of gold. The tension in his jaw had melted away, and I contemplated the easy curve of his lower lip.
“What?” he asked, catching me watching him.
“Nothing. You look younger in the morning.”
“I feel younger in the morning. How old do you think I am?”
“Under thirty?” I hazarded.
“Twenty-eight, although I guess that’s antiquated to you.”
“You still have your life ahead of you.”
“I wish I had breakfast in front of me. What does your aunt keep to eat?”
My mental survey of the refrigerator was interrupted by a vibration in my pocket. Automatically I pulled out the phone and glanced at the screen. “Why is a Grace calling me at 8 am on Christmas morning?”
Martin silently took his phone from my hand and considered it for a moment as it buzzed at him several times. Then, turning slightly away from me, he answered and said in an absurdly bright voice, “Hey, baby, Merry Christmas.”
I stood very still watching the sun break over the trees.