Books were something they had in common. And also, how they’d both come to them sideways: unschooled, hard-earned.
One day they walked from their small apartment to the downtown library and took out a book of stories by Ray Carver. They sat outside in the plaza on a low brick wall and read to each other. They were alone, the way people can be in a city when they’ve found a small spot; the street noises muffled but other sounds, like birds or laughter, growing sharper.
First, he read. She watched his mouth forming the words, then giving them to her. Then it was her turn, and she could feel him listening intently, like the words meant more because she was saying them.
In one story, a man and a woman are arguing. He’s moving out. It’s late. It’s dark. The woman watches from a window while he loads the car. Suddenly, a horse shows up on the lawn, shining and beautiful. The horse stands for something, it changes something between them. Then it’s gone.
That day outside the library, they kept reading stories to each other. The clouds shifted in the sky, shadows came and went. Love seemed to filter down like the sunlight falling between buildings. Simple and bright, inevitable.
Months later, she found a poem by Carver, the start of that same story, with all the loss in only a few lines. She walked through the apartment to the kitchen, holding the book. He’d been in a bad mood, spent the day mostly in the bedroom, door closed, but now stood at the stove looking down into a pot of soup. He turned to her, face blank.
She started to speak, about the poem, the story, the memory of the day at the library, but it came out confused. He continued to stare like she was a stranger and when she held the book out to him, he crossed his arms on his chest like there was no way he was going to take it. No way at all. She felt like an idiot, standing there with her hand extended. So she shook it, shook the book hard in front of his face.
He shrugged, as if that’s exactly what you’d expect from someone like her.
Carver’s story ends badly. Most of them do: defeated, desperate, resignation like a blanket pulled over everything. But each has some small slice of hope, an offering of a way out. No one ever takes it. The horse appears, lights things up for a moment, then leaves. The people are the same as when they started. Maybe worse.