Julia Travis sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes. Her fingers fumbled to hoist the straps of her bag further onto her shoulder. She shuffled her feet and the red light still did not change. I’m a New Yorker! She screamed in her head. Who waits for street signals?
She stepped into traffic behind the last vehicle and darted across in a power walk. Her back was straight and her steps, lively and harsh like a Russian soldier. She was reminded of her younger sister living in Los Angeles who often sauntered down a street. And that memory triggered the memory of her doctor’s advice. He’d encouraged her to live a stress free life – move away from New York and the “greater” that demands the very essence of being for occupants’ livelihood and success. She slowed her pace. The diagnosis was Borderline Anxiety Disorder (B.A.D). Her breathing grew rapid. In spite of the cool, Colorado spring, she fanned her armpits (with the front flap of her wrap), where a sudden burst of heat flared. Before the symptoms grew worse, Julia took the small bottle of pills from a pocket, popped the cap and tossed one into her mouth.
Spring was definitely the best time to move. This way, she was able to avoid struggling through New York’s fierce winter snow and the upcoming summer’s scorcher. A mating call in the form of a whistle soared over her ears.
“Hey Baby, all dat yo hair?” Someone yelled from a moving car on the street. “Lemme give you a ride!”
“Shove off!” She yelled in a huff, not exercising much of the doctor’s advice. Julia remembered that she had not braided her hair in the usual, conservative pony tail and thought of her sister again. She had been right. Men do yell out of their windows more at flowing hair. This was her first time wearing her hair down in a long time. All the career builder references she’d read stated that wearing hair off the face was the most professional style. And she was a professional after years of watching her mother pound the pavement in pants suits and hair buns.
Julia gasped and missed a step when her hand landed on her purse. There she was telling someone off without her can of mace. She’d left it on the nightstand in her newly rented apartment. Yelling at the driver made her think of the doctor’s words again and those helped Julia to remember the mountains of Colorado and how she visited them once, a long time ago. Perhaps she’d find time to visit again since her recent move to Colorado. And thinking of her sister’s words, she could not believe how right Melissa had been. Perhaps she should be conducting research on what men are quick to holler at instead of the lame article, “Love at the First Sight,” for Kiss Me magazine. Besides waiting for red lights, the idea of love at first sight was another reason to roll her eyes. Kiss Me was a cheesy magazine but she had just been hired after the long and humiliating journey of job hunting – following up on what felt like one hundred resumes and applications. She was determined to show off her expert editorial skills. She had been a writer since age nine and even served as editor in chief in high school.
The only men she ever encountered were the kind who panted after her like dogs after bones. Their eyes filled with deceit and their touch saturated with distrust – hands that always lead some place that she did not want them to go. Their smiles were smirks and their clothes, tainted with a strong enough cologne to climb one’s nostrils and get stuck inside. Their very nature, obvious – wolves in sheep’s clothing to say the least.
One thing she hated about herself was that she always found herself responding to men’s corny and obvious lines. She enjoyed battling wits so much that she had to answer whatever came her way. But love at first sight belonged only in the fairy tales.
The library was of average size in the college town of Fort Collins, Colorado. Julia gave the heavy glass door a tug and stepped inside. She strolled toward the reference desk. She took in all the vibrant colors that stimulated inquiring minds. The silence was loud. The creative, diagonal position of the stacks, plush carpeting and cushioned seats around large, round tables made her even more eager to get started on her work. Engulfed in the modern décor, Julia managed to stumble over a bulge in the carpet and dropped her shoulder bag near a row of tables. The few books she held in her arm smacked the floor.
A gentle voice whispered. “Need some help? I could shove this stack of magazines onto the floor to make a wonderful sound of fluttering pages throughout the library.”
Julia grinned. “Yes, why don’t you? I could use some help. She answered without raising her head from the floor. Assistance was immediately at her side. She finally turned to meet the brown, sensitive eyes that she could not resist smiling at.
“It’s okay.” She too, reached and her hand landed on his. She quickly withdrew it from grazing the warm flesh and grabbed the bag by both handles, ignoring the shock of electricity that seized her when her hand touched his. She caught a soft expression fixed on her.
Man, please let me go. She thought as he supported the bottom of the bag with one hand while the other clutched her arm as she rose to her feet. Julia could not dismiss the warm sensation that stirred beneath the palm that rested against her, nor the six foot, four inch stature that he rose to.
Okay, what’s going on? He hasn’t used a ridiculous line on me yet. She thought.
His broad shoulders served as their own padding for the casually nice blazer that he wore, with a polo shirt of fine material and slacks. Julia subconsciously soaked him in as she did the décor only moments earlier. Only a faint scent of his Black Suede cologne mixed with the aroma of books. Once Julia appeared to be situated with three books in one arm and the shoulder bad hanging on the other, the gentleman extended his right hand.
He looks like he wants to shake hands. Thoughts of concern bombarded her. Oh no, do I have to touch this man again? She extended her hand to meet his.
“I’m Kenneth, the librarian.” Magnetism ran from Julia’s hand through her arm and triggered tingling throughout her body. She blushed. Kenneth embraced it, holding onto her hand a little longer. He could not avoid smiling at the rosy hue forming in her light brown complexion.
Why won’t this man let me go? She thought. All at once, she managed words.
“I’m Julia,” She said, dropping a book. Still holding her hand, Kenneth kneeled to retrieve it from the floor.
What am I nervous about? I’m a New Yorker! Julia silently reminded herself. New Yorkers don’t get nervous! And she thought quickly of something to say.
“I see that you’re in the habit of bowing before a queen when you see one.”
Kenneth looked up, “Queen of noise pollution I presume?” She raised an eye brow and smiled at his witty challenge in lieu of some lame line. He stood, shaking the fallen book at her when he finally decided to release her hand. A part of her felt relieved and that same part fought against the enjoyment and longing that began to develop from the heat that his touch generated.
“Hey, whatever you rule, rule it well, right?”
Kenneth smiled. “I guess so.” He attempted to give her the book but withdrew it when she reached for it. She raised an eyebrow. He only stared at her as he pulled the same stunt again.
Julia sighed. “Must we play these school yard games, Mr. Kenneth?”
He released a stifled laugh, enjoying her quips. “I’m sorry…no.” He answered, handing her the book. “And that’s Mr. James…the last name is James…”
“All right then, Mr. James…”
“Please, call me Kenneth.”
Julia paused. Her eyes darted away then back again. “Kenneth,” She said with a single nod. “And I’m Travis…Julia Travis.”
He maintained a smile. “So, may I help you, Queen Julia with anything else today?”
“By all means…I could use a cozy little hideaway and any articles you might have on love at first sight between the years 2000 and 2005.”
“Certainly,” He returned the single nod. “Follow me this way, my lady.”
“So, Queen of romance and love at first sight, huh?” He sauntered ahead.
“If I were, I wouldn’t be researching.”
“C’mon, don’t tell me you haven’t fallen at first sight.”
“Nope, don’t believe in it.”
“What do you mean you don’t believe in it?” Kenneth looked back at her, over his shoulder, frowning.
“I mean I don’t believe in it. It’s never happened to me.”
Kenneth answered, “That doesn’t mean it won’t.” They were upstairs now, and they continued on, toward a more private section of the library. Just a couple moments more and he stopped, turning to face her. “Here you are…” An outstretched hand pointed to her newly established work station. Julia moved toward it, beginning to place her things on the table. “I guess I’ll leave you alone now.”
“Thanks again.” She said.
“No problem.” He turned on his heels.
He’d led her to a corner where Julia had her own booth-like desk with just enough space for her laptop, books and papers with ample writing space. Approximately ten minutes had passed when Kenneth returned with several documents recording the statistics on love at first sight in the years Julia had specified. He found her in a peculiar fashion: she was breathing deeply and massaging her temples.
“What’s wrong? Is the peasant desk not to your liking, my lady?” He smiled.
“Oh it’s just a little headache young Kenneth…a case of stress and anxiety trying to…KILL ME.” She shot him a look with wide eyes then relaxed. “I’ll be fine.”
“Stress.” He dubiously countered.
“That’s right,” She sighed. “The Doc said I needed a change of scene – preferably a slow, quiet one…that’s why I’m here in Colorado.
“Where are you from?” He leaned an elbow on the desk’s partition.
“…The Big Apple…”
“What?” An open mouthed grin seized him. “A savvy New Yorker couldn’t handle New York? What is the world coming to?” Her eyes were daggers on him. “I’m sorry,” He chuckled with palms raised as if under arrest. “I’m glad you’re here – you can’t get anymore quiet and slow than Colorado. I’m going to have to convince you to accompany me to the Rockies one weekend. The scene is guaranteed to relax you.”
“Thanks, but not a chance lover boy…I’ve got lots of work to do.” She looked down at the desk to rummage through her piles.
Another smile curled his lips as he left the desk and leaned against a stack, behind her. His lingering gaze held the beauty of her light brown hair, shapely figure and work ethic. His regard for her was an adhesive that he could only slowly pull free from, leaving her to the task set before her.
Kenneth could not help thinking of Julia. He’d enjoyed the playful conversation she’d participated in with him. He’d experienced too many women giving him the brush off because they automatically assumed that he was making a pass at them – as if a man couldn’t talk to a woman without coming on to her. He’d recently felt like giving up on women – feeling like many of them had undergone too many hardships to laugh again, to smile, to hold conversation, to be human. He sensed that Julia, a tough, savvy independent was close to being dumped into that pile but her sense of humor saved her. Julia had been…a breath of fresh air. He wondered when she’d return to the library and if he’d ever see her on the street – frequenting some grocery store or shop of some kind. There was no doubt that Kenneth wanted to see her again. Julia was refreshing.
“There she is…” Leslie Carol, the exuberant editor in chief of Kiss Me magazine sung as she greeted Julia with open arms. It was a bustling atmosphere of down to earth workers sprinting from various departments such as photography, graphic arts design and the like. Leslie was a known writer with the experience of two other magazines under her belt. She’d worked for Kiss Me for the past three years because she loved its cheesy flare if there is such a thing and its appeal to younger readers. She’d been recognized by the Eddie and Ozzie awards for best editor and prided herself on her work. “How’s my most recent recruit?” She threw her arms around Julia.
“I’m great and research all done.” Julia pulled a folder out of her bag and offered it to Leslie.
“Wonderful!” She took it. “I knew you were a star editor. “Adrienne!” She yelled away from Julia’s face then faced her again. She pointed an index finger. “I have another topic for you.”
“Cool…lay it on.” Julia smiled.
“Hi Julia,” Adrienne arrived in seconds.
Leslie directed her attention to Adrienne and handed the folder to her. “Here’s a new article for you – let’s get movin’.”
“Cynthia!” Leslie yelled, walking away. “What’s that new topic we were playin’ around with? Julia’s here!”
Cynthia poked her head out of an office door smacking gum and blowing bubbles. She was an interesting character – something of a Goth, minus the white face powder and blood shot red or black lipstick. “It’s African-American Women and Stress.” She noticed Julia and Adrienne talking in the hallway and decided to join them.
Adrienne was exuberantly bubbly. If the sun didn’t shine for a week, she didn’t care. “So Jules,” She continued. “Where’d you get the research done so quickly?” She liked Julia and although she realized this was just small talk, she wanted to keep the conversation going.
“The public library on Peterson…” Julia answered, eyeing both ladies alternately. “You two know the librarian there?”
Cynthia’s eyes rolled over Julia from top to bottom as if she’d reverted back to her school days – like she wanted to say, she think she cute. But she did look pretty in the classic ensemble: a light gray pants suit and soft pink camisole peeking from beneath. Double strand fashion pearls adorned her neck and wrists. Acrylic nails were not her style but she wore a natural, fresh manicure with dark brown polish and black pumps. A bit startled by Julia’s question about knowing the librarian, she answered dryly. “No.” Who asks about knowing a librarian?
“Yeah right!” Adrienne popped in. “Only that he’s the sexiest professor at Colorado State!”
“What?” Julia’s eyes began to grow wider.
“Kenneth James, right?”
“Yeah, he helped me gather my material.”
“Yeah, Kiss Me ran a contest last year – vote for the sexiest professor and since our readership, we suspect, lies within the college, the women voted for him. Oh! And because he does so much for women to…”
“I have work to do.” Cynthia sucked her teeth and turned to walk away.
“What do you mean?” Julia asked.
“He runs some women’s club at the campus – I think I have some literature I can give you.”
“Julia!” Leslie yelled.
“You have more time for this next project – about two weeks – it’s going in the next issue.
“I’m on it!” She nodded at Adrienne. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
She nodded back, smiling. The moment Julia turned to walk away, sharp pain struck her forehead and temples. She immediately applied pressure with her fingertips and began deep breathing. With slow, deliberate steps, she walked toward her office where her purse contained her pills.
Julia finally looked forward to some rest – today is Saturday. She’d moved to Fort Collins two weeks ago today and had gone right to work. In the food department, the kitchen was looking a bit skimpy – it only held staples. The cabinets held hot and cold cereal (one box each) and there was milk and a couple of choice fruit in the refrigerator. She’d been eating out for lunch and dinner. She took a trip to the nearby A & P for actual grocery shopping and enjoyed some sights along the way.
When the automatic double doors slid open, she immediately grabbed a basket from the train of baskets near the entrance and began scanning the over head signs that dangled above every aisle. Perusing aisle after aisle more like she was on a tour, Julia filled her basket with dry beans, onions, garlic, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain cereals that were sweetened with evaporated cane juice or honey, rye bread, some herbal teas and water. She had not eaten junk food or any other refined this or over processed that since her recent enlightenment on healthy eating. This had been one of her main focuses for the past year – she’d been in hopes that this healthy diet would somehow ward off the bad headaches and panic attacks but nothing of that sort happened thus far. There was the supposition that proper diet was not a panacea after all. In her final search, she turned onto the canned and bottled juice aisle hoping to find blueberry juice for its high antioxidant content. After sauntering half the aisle, she spotted large, twenty dollar jars up top but the top shelf was unusually high. She proceeded to reach anyway but suddenly stopped when startled by a man’s voice.
“My mom used to say, ‘never reach over your head for a potentially dangerous object.’”
Julia faced him smiling and sung out, “Well…It’s Kiss Me’s sexiest professor…”
“Are you sayin’ I’m sexy Ms. Travis?” He bumped her lightly on the arm and fixed his eyes on her. He seemed to inch closer. Julia thought for a moment that he was going to kiss her…or had she imagined him kissing her? It was nice seeing him out of the suit but somehow in a black T-shirt and jeans, he still looked refined. She lowered her chin to her chest and cleared her throat. What? No sassy remarks from Julia Travis? This man certainly was different from what she’d been accustomed to. What had he done to her? Kenneth simply grinned at her flushed cheeks and reached for the bottle. “…Blueberry, right?”
“What?” She quickly sucked in air. “Oh, yeah…” She positioned her hand to receive it. “Thank you.”
“So when will I see you at the library again?”
“Monday,” She said, digging for a handful of nuts in one of the bags. She was startled by how quickly she’d told him when he’d see her again.
He nodded at her action. “Are you hungry?”
“Mm…yeah…and there was hardly anything at home that I wanted.”
“Let me buy you lunch.”He leaned slightly on his own grocery basket.
“Lunch? Oh, I don’t…”
“Just on the other side of the store…” He interrupted, making it known that she wouldn’t have to go anywhere with him, since they’d just met. “Don’t tell me you missed the deli.”
“…The deli? Hm…I guess I did.”
“…So how about it?” He scanned the items in her basket learning what she fancied. “They have rye bread…” He smiled.
Julia hesitated, toying with the belt loops on her jeans. Kenneth couldn’t help noticing every curve. She soon nodded. “Okay.”
Approaching the entrance from her car, Julia pulled the black, wool, knee-length sweater over her white shirt and black slacks. Just as she assured Kenneth, on Monday afternoon, she paid the Peterson Street Library another visit. She did her best to scan the lower level inconspicuously. There was no sign of Kenneth James – not behind the front desk, the information desk or the librarian station. She felt a dull pain of disappointment in her gut – she was really looking forward to seeing him. She marched to the information desk and interrupted the person at the computer with one of the most common imperatives: excuse me, please. She requested medical books and journals on African-American Women and Stress. Having received a short list of call numbers, she ascended the stairs and found the enclosed desk in the corner, that she’d used before. Rather stunned, she stood staring at the small, hard plastic tent that read, reserved. Julia released a harsh sigh – great, another disappointment. She raised her arms laterally, then quickly let them bang against her hips. She immediately felt hot and a slight trace of beaded perspiration formed over her brow. She suddenly felt cut off from the air around her and began to pant. She placed her bag on the table with what little strength she had left to find her prescription. Her fingers fumbled over it and she grabbed it, popping the cap. She dumped a couple into her mouth followed by a few gulps of water from the bottle that she also had in her bag. She stood leaning on the table’s partition, staring at that reserved sign until she calmed. She scanned her surroundings on both sides looking for a comfortable table and found nothing she was interested in. She looked behind her, then snatched her bag and moved toward the long table there, which already seated about six people. She plopped into a chair. Julia looked down at the list of reference materials again, and then looked up to find a familiar face.
“Well hello there,” Julia couldn’t help giving Kenneth a wide-mouthed grin.
He stepped very close to her and bent at the waist (until they were almost cheek to cheek), to whisper in her ear. A flutter stirred in Julia’s chest at their proximity. She almost felt the need to move away but chose to remain close to him.
“What are you doing sitting at this table?” He asked.
She continued whispering. “Well don’t look now…but a reserved tent is staring at us from my table.”
“Yeah, it’s wondering why you didn’t push it out the way and sit there…” He pulled back a little to look into her face and discovered her expression of surprise. “C’mon,” He began to gather her things and carried them to the other table. He too especially liked this choice because he could talk to her without using a complete whisper given that it was somewhat secluded. Its funny how no one else needed the librarian’s assistance whenever she was with him as if their togetherness was fate. And it had to be more than coincidence that they were dressed alike today. Like Julia, Kenneth wore a basic black suit with a white collared shirt.
“You reserved this table for me?” She smiled.
“Yeah, have I earned brownie points with that gesture?”
“Definitely…I was so worried that I’d have to stay at that other table.”
“Well relax my lady; your knight has rescued you.”
“So what’s on the to-do-list today?” He leaned on the table’s partition.
“African-American Women and Stress…”
“Ahh, my specialty…”
“Really? I only found some abstracts on line so I wanted to come and check out the Psychology of Women Quarterly, more in depth.”
Kenneth pointed an index finger at her. “Good choice, but I can get you some other stuff if you’re interested…”
“I am…” She nodded. “…Very interested.” She placed the bottle of pills next to her computer.
“Cool, and I wanted to give you something too. What are these?” He snatched the bottle. “Lorazepam?”
“What?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Borderline Anxiety Disorder…they help to keep me calm.”
“Sure they do – throw some poison on top of any other problem and it’ll knock it right out by killing you – then you won’t feel a thing.
“C’mon, they can’t be that bad.”
“Why not, because a doctor gave them to you?”
Kenneth narrowed his eyes on her. “Sweetheart, stop taking these, please.”
She bit her bottom lip. He just called me sweetheart. She thought.
“If you stay on this stuff, you won’t be able to come off of it without undergoing seizures. I’m sure you’re already experiencing headaches and maybe some dizziness, right?”
Julia nodded. “Headaches…”
“I know you are. You don’t need this for borderline stress.” He returned the bottle. “Now sit tight please – I’ll be right back.”
Julia watched Kenneth as he walked away swiftly and disappeared between the stacks. He returned as quickly as he’d left and retrieved a stool from somewhere. He handed her a sheet of paper and sat on the stool beside the desk, resting folded arms on top a portion of the desk’s partition. He stared down at her endearingly. She caught his expression and nervously offered a glimmer of a smile then redirected her attention to the flyer he’d given her.
“You know,” She started. “I think my co-worker gave me one of these…you have some kind of women’s club, right?”
“Yeah, I teach an evening class, The Stress Free Woman, on Friday’s at the college – you should come – It’s all about women and stress and I offer some innovative tips on how to handle it.”
“Oh,” Julia was nodding.
“It’s become a kind of concentration for me since I double majored in and now teach women’s studies and psychology – Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“You like women so much you had to go study us, huh?
His head swayed from one side to the other. “Oh well,” He reached between his legs to hoist the stool in, closer to Julia, leaned a single arm on the partition and propped the side of his face against his fist. “You already know that I’m a playful person, right?”
She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Some would call it annoying.”
“Ahh,” His head slightly reeled. “Okay, okay – But not my Queen Julia, right?”
“No, not me.”
“Well, for the most part, that’s the way I greet a lot of women or at least the way I used to greet a lot women until I was attacked by this…” He curled his fingers toward himself like talons. “…Great influx of nasty responses.
Their conversation, intimate, stirred an unusual yearning for more, in Julia. She assumed an attentive, forward lean. A soothing, warmth seemed to emanate from his body and she wanted to feel as much of him as she could.
Kenneth continued. “Some women rolled their eyes in disgust, some looked at me like I had bird crap on my face and others treated me like I was invisible.”
“I’ve seen situations like that on more than one occasion.” Julia added.
“Yeah, so up until about six months ago, before punishing myself by staying away from women altogether,” He chuckled. “I figured many of them were just stressed and needed some assistance. So this is my way of addressing the problem.”
Julia surprised herself by her next statement. “I’m glad you’ve abandoned the idea of staying away from women.
A smile curled his mouth and highlighted the honesty in his eyes. They sat in silence a couple of seconds, both holding the gaze like star watchers. Kenneth felt like cupping her chin tenderly but abandoned that idea too. “Well, I better let you get to work and I need to get back to work.” Julia nodded but was disappointed to see him dismount the stool and leave. She rubbed her arms and wrung her hands, touched by his sharing a piece of himself with her.
About thirty minutes into reading through a medical journal, a stirring thrill charged her body in stinging sensations when an arm brushed the top of her shoulder, reaching over it. Kenneth had returned and whispered, “Shh…don’t tell anyone the librarian brought you lunch.”
Julia looked up at him then smiled at what he’d left on her table: a sandwich wrapped in plastic and creamy coffee.
A long day at work made Julia late for Kenneth’s class, on Friday evening. She was approaching the door on Kenneth’s last statement. “Remember ladies, stressors are the worrisome issues that makes your smile disappear: negative issues at work, insufficient funds, various roles you have to play, bad relationships or challenged good ones…” Julia entered and took the first vacant seat. Kenneth continued. “Do not let it get to you – do not let it get you down – stay relaxed and think good thoughts knowing that you got this and that everything will work out.”
As the women filed out, Kenneth and Julia’s eyes met and they exchanged smiles. Julia walked to the front of the class. “I’m so sorry I’m late.”
“Better late than never is the cliché, right?”
“It should be, better to stay away if you’re late to avoid eyes of hate…”
“You don’t believe that…smart lady like you…”
“No I don’t.”
“Anyway, don’t worry about it; I’m just glad you came so I can tell you about next week.”
“What’s going on next week?”
“Instead of Friday evening, we’re meeting here Saturday morning – we’re leaving promptly at 5am…”
Julia frowned. “Five?”
“Yeah, we’re boarding a bus to take a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park – about an hour’s drive. I want us there for sunrise – It’s beautiful.” Kenneth’s eyes fixed on her face on that last word.
“A field trip so early!”
“Yeah, think you can make it? I’d love for you to come.” He gathered his things off of the nearby desk.
“Yes, I’d love to go! Do I need to bring anything?”
“Ah, average hiking gear…a backpack filled with water, snacks, emergency rope, flashlight, first aid kit, maybe a change of clothes.” Julia was nodding. “Oh, and dress in comfortable jeans but very warm, okay? It’s still very cold out there this time of year.”
“Okay, can we exchange numbers in case we need to call regarding the trip or something?” Julia asked.
Excited to finally get her number – without asking, “By all means,” He said.
She placed her free hand to her head.
“What’s wrong?” Kenneth asked.
“Oh, I rushed from work ‘cause I really wanted to come – I got a little headache searching for parking and racing across campus.
“That poison at work, no doubt…”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Having acquired each other’s number, Kenneth took her by the elbow and proceeded to escort her out. “Where did you park?”
“Uh, on the street – somewhere close.”
“Would you ride with me to one of the restaurants down the street?”
“Uh…” Julia had to think about that for a moment.
“You can rest a little and get some food in you before driving home.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Julia was both surprised and elated by his gesture. Kenneth James was caring for her. And he’d showed concern for her health. What was happening here?
“Jules, check this out!” Adrienne had lunch with Julia on Monday. They enjoyed excerpts from an old Kiss Me magazine. This says, ‘One sure way to tell if you’re falling in love is the spark of electricity that makes you feel all tingly inside.’ Wow, have you ever felt that, Jules?”
Julia frowned spooning another mouthful of vegetable soup. “Just once actually,” She answered blankly beginning to think of Kenneth – she had been since Adrienne started reading but now even more so. “But I didn’t know what it was then.” She thought of the day when she first met him, remembering the proximity they shared, the conversation and how she felt about him that moment. He was such a gentleman.
The Greyhound bus arrived at 6am outside of the entrance to the park. Kenneth invited two other male professors to accompany him with the group of ten women. He wore a large, hip length, puffy coat over blue jeans. Julia noticed that there was something sexy about how his black beanie complimented the artistic, black lines of hair on his face. The sideburns, connected to a goatee and mustache, outlined the regal angles that of an African king – an air of rugged strength combined with confidence that said he could handle anything. He stood and raised a hand high to get their attention and made a speech before they exited the bus.
“Ladies,” He bellowed. “I brought you here to get you away from the mundane stressors that we face daily. I want you to enjoy what you see out here and get some perspective – this world of nature is a lot bigger than what we deal with in the city and I want you to allow it to relax you. Let it help you to smile at whatever else comes your way after you leave here. So with that in mind, let’s get our hike on!” The women cheered as they gathered their bags. He caught a glimpse of Julia watching him differently than the others, from the seat next to him. As he turned from the crowd, he looked down at her, gave her half a smile and winked. “Let’s go.”
They traipsed through dew drenched tendrils, weeds and sprouts of grass. Although much foliage especially those in pastels assume a softness in appearance, the terrain was rough. The first eighth of a mile into the hike enveloped them in darkness – just before the first point of light which seemed to appear within the next thirty steps they took. Through a clearing of blackened trees, peeking over a mountain ridge, the sun’s highlights illuminated shadows in the clouds. They continued along the path in a kind of circular formation with a few lingering behind. They happened upon a lake – black trees were the horizon between blue sky and patches of orange cirrus clouds. It was 7am now and sunlight began to stretch over the earth like a blanket gradually covering a bed. About a mile and a quarter brought the group closer to the massive mounds; the morning sun turned the mountains and trees a glowing crimson. They stopped to admire the beauty. Graceful elk stepped into the scene for a drink of water. Three more miles carried the group onto a mountain where they sat and rested. They had sips of water and small snacks before they started back.
Julia lingered behind as the group approached the clearing where the bus was parked. She thought of the clear atmosphere and how its translucence brought about the sense of purity. She thought of her sister and how Melissa often encouraged her to relax and take it easy – she told Julia that she didn’t have to respond so much to foolish lines or get upset about anything else for that matter. In the spirit of the purity before her, Julia finally admitted to herself that she is too uptight about a few things: work, maintaining her lifestyle and yes, loneliness. But in a man’s world, how could she get ahead and do all that she needed to without being tough, snappy at times and uptight? She heaved a petulant sigh.
The group continued toward the bus when one of the women glanced back and noticed Julia gasping for air. “Professor James,” She called out, hooking a thumb over her shoulder. “She doesn’t look too well!”
Kenneth stopped in his tracks and turned to watch Julia a few seconds then started walking toward her. “Ms. Smith, you go on back with the others. I’ll take care of her.” He finally arrived at Julia’s side. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Julia tore through every section of her bag. “I don’t have it.” She panted.
“My medicine…” She scanned her surroundings in distress. A flood of questions rushed her mind. How could she be so careless? What was she going to do? Kenneth saw her grab her throat and then her heaving chest. He placed a hand on her back. She felt her lungs constrict – at least she thought they were constricting. Am I about to fall out? What’s going to happen to me?
Looking as though she was about to double over, she glanced at Kenneth and whispered breathlessly. “I feel like…I can’t get any…air.”
His hand slipped from her back to grab her hand. “Squeeze my hand if you have to, but I want you to look out there.” Kenneth pointed to the surrounding mountains, trees and flowers – a particular scene he had not drawn the group’s attention to previously. “Focus on that beauty.”
Still panting and squeezing his hand, she whispered again, “I can’t.” She frowned, shaking her head.
Kenneth stepped in front of her, placing his free hand on her shoulder. “Repeat after me,” She looked into his eyes and nodded, grabbing his forearm (of the hand that was on her shoulder). “I can do this…” He said.
“Ican…dothis.” She huffed.
He repeated the affirmation reassuringly. “I can do this.”
She inhaled quickly and spit the words out on a single exhale. “Icandothis.”
“I got this.”
He resumed his position at her side. “Good, now do it…you’re a tough New Yorker, right?”
She inhaled deeply and released her breath on his name with a bit of a whine. “Kenneth…”
“I’m right here.” He squeezed her hand. An appeasing excitement overcame him at the sound of her calling his name. It was almost sensual. Subtle excitement coursed through him. “Clear your mind of everything but God’s handiwork out there. Focus on that beauty. Breathe it in.” Kenneth turned and watched her eyes blink repetitively as if by some mystical gesture to silently invoke the power of oxygen and will it into her lungs. He felt her grip tighten on his hand. His sight zoned in on her chest rising and falling slower and slower as she labored. He suppressed the strong desire to rest his palm on her to aid in applying additional calming warmth to her heart.
It’d been a long time since Julia enjoyed the mountains of Colorado and it was an exquisite day for a hike. She was completely engulfed by all that she saw. Lush greens and sun-painted flowers framed a snow speckled mountain that stood against an unusually clear blue sky. The lake mirrored every bit of majesty that she witnessed, connecting the base of the inverted reflection at the horizon.
When it seemed Julia had the situation under control, Kenneth turned away to enjoy the scene once more. He noticed the grip on his hand loosened after a while and faced her again to discover her regulated breathing.
Disappointed at the thought of finally releasing her hand, he squeezed one more time, just to hold her hand tightly again and to get her attention. “Feel better?”
“Yeah,” She nodded. “Yeah, I do.” She almost cracked a smile. “How embarrassing…I’m sorry…”
Kenneth frowned. “Embarrassing? Ah, no,” He was shaking his head. “This is what we’re out here for, right? To learn different ways to cope with stress…Here,” He reached for a water bottle in his back pack. “Drink this.”
“Oh, thank you but I have some.”
“Okay,” He shrugged and broke the seal as she retrieved hers and they shared a few sips before returning them to their packs. He nudged the small of her back when Julia was stricken with the odd feeling that she wanted to experience more of his touch. “We should get back to the bus.”
Her eyes widened on him when he wasn’t looking. What had just happened? Of course, she realized that she had calmed without her pills but…there was something more – something special that she couldn’t put her finger on at that moment. She thought of how he held her hand until she regained her wind, renewed strength, almost as if she withdrew it from him. And she’d just met Kenneth James. Why that odd feeling? Why the yearning for more of his touch? She remembered how she’d experienced that same stimulation throughout her body when they shook hands at their first meeting just some weeks ago. She remembered what the Kiss Me article said about those funny sensations. To her surprise, Julia was realizing that she’d become a victim of what she’d been disbelieving for most of her life and this incident among the mountains had confirmed it: she had fallen in love with Kenneth James – and at first sight.
He took her arm as she stepped up, into the bus and he was right behind her. “Do we have everybody?” He shouted when one of his fellow professors answered “yes” and that they already took a head count. Kenneth nodded and took his seat next to Julia. “You should lie your head back and get some rest.” She was obedient and enjoyed a quiet moment with her thoughts. Kenneth inhaled deeply and rested also.
Her frightened voice came back to him. Kenneth…
He thought of how she called for him in her moment of distress and weakness. She’d looked him in the eyes without demanding an explanation of the impact that eye contact has in communication. She’d listened to his instructions and obeyed without questioning his authority on the subject. She’d held onto his hand for support and was receptive to his touch with an unwavering trust. Ever since being caught in the lie he’d told as a young man for fear of losing his job, he’d worked harder than anyone else to gain the trust of those around him. He thought of how he’d wanted to caress her, take her into his arms and hold her until she relaxed. She had trusted him completely – without reserve – and he loved her for it.
Julia Travis was driven by curiosity on Monday afternoon when she marched into the library like a jealous girlfriend entitled to some answers to her questions. She went directly to the front desk and asked for him by name.
“I don’t know where he is,” The clerk began. “I believe he’s shelving books upstairs.”
“Thank you,” Remembering how she saw him disappear into the stacks on the second floor before, Julia swung around and fled up the stairs. Once there, she searched each row of stacks until her eyes fell on a cart loaded with books in one of the most undisturbed areas in the library. She craned her neck around the cart to find Kenneth kneeling beside it.
“Kenneth,” She called out, approaching him.
He stood to greet her and grabbed another book. “Oh, hey! How are you?”
Julia stepped unusually close to him. “How did you do that on Saturday?”
“Hello Kenneth, I’m fine, how are you?” He teased, glancing at her with a smile.
“I’m serious Kenneth, how did you do it?”
“Do what?” He took another book and started his search up top for the call number.
“On Saturday, you got me to calm down without my medication – how did you do that?”
His arm was ready and in position to shelve the book. He looked down at her without a glimmer of a smile. “I didn’t do anything.”
She stood closely, next to his shoulder, staring into his dark eyes. “But there had to be something ‘cause I…”
“I didn’t do anything.” He calmly interrupted. “I told you to clear your mind and you did it.” She watched his eyes slowly scan the soft lines of her face. “I told you to focus on the beauty…” He emphasized the word beauty as if using it in reference to her. “…And you did.” Julia saw his eyes fall on her lips and swore he was inching closer. And he was this time. Kenneth leaned closer and closer until his lips rested on hers. He pulled back a little after a few seconds and heard her heavy breathing amidst a look of surprise. Tilting his head, he went in for another. When he felt her kiss him back, he wrapped a single arm around her, softly taking her into a one-sided hug. His gentle arm across her back pressed her body firmly against his hip and torso. She wrapped her arms around him, under his suit jacket, finally able to feel the curvy muscles beneath those fine threads.
That kiss was the beginning of regularly shared lunches and dinners and hiking on the weekends. Julia even made sure not to work late on Fridays so that she could attend Kenneth’s class. He loved watching her “pig out” on the right foods – the idea that she cared about herself that much, pleased him – let alone the fact that she stopped using the medication at his advice. On their hikes, he enjoyed leading her through the most challenging terrain as another opportunity to hold her hand, arm or even slip his arm around her for assistance. She was pleased with and had come to rely on his support. She smiled whenever she felt his touch and expected it. Julia sat like the model student in his group sessions. He was a great orator and teacher – so down to earth, comedic and informative. She was completely enthralled by how they traveled into the past of women in various cultures, experienced their duties and roles they played and discussed why stress was and is so prevalent among women (African –American Women especially) and how they can better gain control over it. Every now and then, she caught his eyes wandering over her during his lectures. He loved how she’d always sit up front – like the eager student ready to learn – and yet, she was. He’d noticed how her hair draped softly over her shoulders, the full lips he wanted to kiss again and the shapely legs – one crossed over the other, with a heeled shoe on a pointed foot. Sometimes Kenneth couldn’t help thinking of Julia as he went about his daily tasks. Even while strolling the streets of Fort Collins, a gentle breeze or the crisp refreshing air would bring Julia to mind.
This evening, Kenneth rushed to complete his tasks at the library. He was meeting Julia for dinner. He hadn’t seen her in the afternoon – she hadn’t any research to conduct. But he’d told her that he wanted to talk to her about something – and discussing it over dinner would be best. Kenneth dashed into the library employee parking lot. Searching for his car, he suddenly remembered he’d parked across the street after he went out for lunch earlier. He made his way to the front of the building. He looked in one direction for oncoming cars and down at his watch, stepping into the street. He did not notice the traffic from the opposite direction and a car traveling at 40 miles per hour crashed into him.
Where is Kenneth James? Thinking of all the wonderful times they shared, the idea of just standing her up was unfathomable. Julia subconsciously poked out her bottom lip and looked at the time on the cell phone she’d retrieved from her purse for the fourth time. She’d been waiting for an hour and a half already. She felt like they had become so close that she didn’t know whether to leave or continue waiting. Julia sighed.
He said he wanted to talk to me about something. She thought. Was he breaking up with me?
The comfort of the breezy evening could not crack the barricade of the stream of consciousness that suddenly attacked – an emotional cocktail seized her. Anger leapt on her. Where is he? She asked no one through gritted teeth beneath a narrow scowl. And she could just hear his pleading voice. I got stuck at the library…shelving books…I ran into one of my group members who needed my help alleviating stress…I had a meeting after work or the unforgiveable, I forgot. Julia felt a banging heart and a headache coming on and calmed herself the way Kenneth taught her. She thought about their romantic moments together and how he genuinely seemed to care. Julia inhaled deeply and worry rested on the exhale. Having left the restaurant, her eyes scanned her surroundings as her heart welled with hope that he would appear out of nowhere, from somewhere with an apologetic hug so that she could feel the soft hairs of his chin brushing over her forehead and a sensible explanation: I’m sorry I’m late, my phone died and I didn’t have my charger. But that didn’t happen. What if something awful happened? She began torturing herself and reasoning the ill away. He’s a strong man; he could fight his way out of a bad situation. What if somebody…her thoughts trailed off into the next one…But he has no enemies. Where is he?
Julia could not wait to get to the library – where they shared their first kiss among the stacks. The moment she noticed his absence from the librarian’s station, de ja vu threw her back into the recent past when she found him on the second floor. She bounded up the stairs with a swelling heart of hope and walked the aisles peering down each row between each stack. She felt a flutter around her heart when she spotted a book cart – just hoping he was kneeling beside it. When a stranger stood with a book in hand, a whole new meaning for disappointment emerged. Julia felt her entire disposition fall. Where is Kenneth James and why doesn’t he call?
Each day at the library – for the next few days was the same. She retrieved information that she needed and did not linger until she decided to inquire about him.
A saddened Julia approached the front desk on Friday afternoon.
“May I help you?” The clerk asked, smiling.
“Hi, I hope so… I was wondering…is the librarian, Kenneth James out sick?”
“Oh, I guess you could say that – he’s been in an accident!”
Julia’s heart sunk – especially since she’d allowed herself to go through a period of anger.
“Are you a friend of his?”
“Yeah,” She started, not wanting to go into their romantic relationship. “…And I attend his classes. Do you know…?” Julia hesitated not certain if he was confined to someone’s hospital. “…What hospital he’s in?”
“Yeah, he’s right there at the one on Lemay!”
“Lemay? That’s like…down the street and around the corner from here!”
“Yes it is!”
“Thank you, thank you so much!” Julia darted out of the library.
Unaware of whether or not friends were allowed to visit, Julia didn’t waste any time trying to figure it out and simply told the nurses at the front desk that she was Kenneth’s sister. When she found his room, she froze. For the first time in the short amount of time that she’d known him, he looked so frail and helpless – and he was the one always helping her. His head leaned back on a pillow, his eyes closed. He was in a hospital gown with his leg in a cast, raised high, in a sling. She noticed his chest rising and falling as he rested – calm breathing like he taught her to do and she breathed with him. Will he be able to hike again? Her mind’s eye brought their adventures to her remembrance. Then her hope brought to mind what she wanted to share with him. Julia couldn’t help thinking what it’d be like to lie in his arms, their limbs like silken rope, binding one to the other. Her head would reel in clouded pants as Kenneth’s hands clutched hers, their fingers weaving in pulsating pleasure.
A man’s voice tugged at her and pulled her from her fantasy – she blinked Kenneth back into view. His eyes were open, his arms outstretched for her. “Aren’t you tired of standing over there?” His voice was strong as ever.
Julia stepped lively and fell on his chest when she reached him. “I thought you were unconscious.” She said as audibly as possible with her face buried against his neck.
“Naw, I was just snoozin’.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you.” He cradled her head and squeezed her closer until she was off the floor and in bed with him.
“You don’t have to apologize. You were hurt…”
There they lay in quiet (with the exception of the beeps of the machines) in the hospital bed just holding each other for a few moments.
“What actually did happen anyway?” Julia finally asked.
Completely cradling her in one arm, Kenneth used his other hand to lightly stroke her hair then traced the curvature of her face with a finger. He gazed longingly into her coffee browns as if to apologize a thousand times. He kissed her – again and again. With a pensive expression she caressed the nape of his neck.
“I was hit by a car the night I was rushing to meet you.”
She gasped. “Hit by a car? Did the driver run a red light?”
“No, I wasn’t paying attention – my light must have turned red the moment I stepped out.”
“Well that was an adventurous way to prove your love for me.”
“Yep, got the broken leg to prove it – impressed?”
Resuming seriousness, she moaned dubiously. “Mm…so what else? You didn’t call…”
“Well you know I have been in…”
“Pain!” Julia interrupted.
“Not to mention drugged up for the pain – I know – that was insensitive of me.”
“That’s all right, you’ll pay for it later.” He kissed her.
“Mm…what did you have in mind?”
“…Waiting on me hand and foot.”
Julia cut her eyes at him. “Hey, what did you want to talk to me about that evening?”
“Oh, I just wanted to tell you how much I love you and ask if you could see yourself hiking with me for the rest of your life…”
Julia immediately remembered how she thought that maybe he was breaking up with her and smiled. “I sure can.”