She always wanted to be the type of girl who wore red lipstick. But now she was a grown woman. One morning as she got ready for work Kelly broke the seal on one of the tubes she kept in the cabinet above the bathroom sink. Every few months as she did her grocery shopping she would turn down the cosmetics isle. There she would browse the many shades: Scarlet Sensation, Ravishing Ruby, Always Blazing, Sailor’s Delight and today’s selection: Forever Blushing.
Her skin had darkened slightly and her blonde hair lightened over the past few years. The red enhanced these changes. It didn’t look bad, but it did not look like her, she thought as she put the tube of lipstick in the pocket of her short flowered dress and left the house.
Kelly worked part time at Key West Island Books. Her regular shift was six to nine o’clock Friday through Monday nights, the busiest nights for tourists. The owner was on vacation and the manager had a family emergency so for these last two weeks of August the hours were reduced and she was working ten to six o’clock every day. It was hot and slow at this time of the year. Kelly usually spent days inside her air-conditioned house reading, she could do that at the store as easily as she did it at home. It was actually better to be out during the day. Kelly had decided early on to make sure she left the house each day. As the summer thickened this was harder to do. Most mornings she would leave the house just before sunrise and walk to the White Street Pier. Mornings were the best—quiet and still, hot but bearable before the sun rose. It was good to be outside but she usually did not see anyone during this time.
She rode her bike to a local coffee shop before work. At the counter she ordered a medium black coffee and raisin muffin from the girl, who she noticed, wore no lipstick. Kelly sat at a table by the window to read. She was reading her way through books she had collected in different east coast states as Jake transferred from one Hyatt to another every few years before this stop in Key West. It was supposed to be a quick one year stint in order to train a new head chef. But that was three years ago and now Jake was gone.
She placed her book mark in the book and gathered the muffin wrapper and napkin. She looked at her mug. There was a red lipstick print on the rim. She was momentarily confused, wondering whose lipstick was on her mug. Then she remembered it was hers. She was the one wearing red lipstick. She left the mug on the small table liking how it looked, as if a stranger had joined her for a cup of coffee.
Nearing ten a.m. the sun was already high, bright and hot. The windows of the bookstore were painted dark green with white lettering and picture of Ernest Hemingway. There were small cutouts for displays of local guide books or classic novels by local authors. The owner said the painted windows saved the books form the Key West sun. Today Kelly felt the painted windows would save her as well. She made her way carefully to the back room, stepping between tall wooden bookcases and piles of paperbacks on the floor. She turned on the lights and lowered the thermostat of the AC before going back to the front of the store. She unlocked the register and propped open the door to roll the combination book and postcard rack outside then prepared to hang the OPEN sign that would swing over the sidewalk.
“You’re not Craig.”
“No, he’s gone for the next two weeks.”
“Oh, right. He’s on vacation. Need some help?”
He looked young, maybe early 20’s and tall enough to hang the sign with ease.
“Sure.” She handed him the sign.
As she went back in the store she heard movement from behind the shutter doors separating the bookstore from the record store next door. The young man came in and moved to the classics section. He sat on an old kick stool and picked a book off the shelf.
“Morning Percy,” she called to the owner of Rainy Day Records. The shutter doors between the two shops snapped open.
“Oh, hey Kelly. Craig left already?”
“Early this morning.”
“Nope, you’re the expert.”
Kelly never really knew much about music, just what she liked. She was surprised to find an actual record store next door when she started working at the bookstore a couple of years ago. Apparently there was still an audience for vinyl. She heard David Bowie starting to sing about changes as she sat on the stool behind the counter and went back to her book.
The morning passed with a few tourists buying postcards, guide books, or The Key West Reader. After a couple of hours Kelly went to the bathroom at the back of the store. She passed the young man who helped with the sign. She’d forgotten he was there but engrossed in his book he looked safe enough to leave alone for a few minutes.
As she washed her hands a flesh of color caught her attention. She looked in the mirror and stopped. She’d forgotten about the lipstick. This time she noticed how the shade matched some of the flowers on her dress. She reapplied and her lips became darker and smoother. They felt thick. She was very aware of her lips and wondered if this would pass if she continued to wear lipstick.
The young man stood to stretch just as she walked by. His foot knocked over a pike of paperbacks.
“Oh sorry,” he said as they both bent to gather the books. He had put the book he was reading on the floor. It was in French, L’Etranger by Albert Camus.
“Thank you,” she said as she straightened the pile. She smiled up at him “Maybe one day we’ll sell enough that I can fit these on a shelf.”
She went back to the front and organized the journals and address books. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed he did not sit down right away. Before she could stop herself she wondered if he was looking at her.
At about 5:30 the young man stood to leave. It was quiet in the store. The record store closed at five.
“See you tomorrow.”
Kelly looked up from her book. He was standing just inside the door looking back at her.
“I come here most days and hang out to read. Craig doesn’t mind. It’s more interesting than the library where everything is so organized.”
“Oh, okay,” she said.
The next morning Kelly applied lipstick again before leaving the house. As she rode her bike to work she remembered a Dalmatian barking in front of the supermarket while she was waiting in line a few weeks ago A woman probably about Kelly’s age with her dark curly hair pulled into a loose bun and very red lipstick stopped just as the doors slid open. The woman turned and went back to the dog. She spoke and Kelly could hear a French accent. The woman kissed the dog on top of the head and he sat. As Kelly passed the dog on her way out of the store she noticed a red lipstick print amongst the black spots on the dog’s head.
When she arrived at the store the young man was there. He helped with the sign again. Later she was dusting the tops of the poetry books next to the classics section. He stood as she approached. She angled her head a bit and noticed he was reading The Mayor of Cambridge by Thomas Hardy.
“Have you read much Hardy?”
She looked from the book to him. He had blue eyes, very light, behind glasses with thick brown rims. The frames were darker than his hair which was longish on top with a bit of a wave.
“No,” she said.
“He’s really very contemporary, well his writing style, not so much his subject matter.” He shrugged.
“I’ll add it to my list.”
She went to move past him. He turned to make room then followed her to the front of the store.
She turned to look at him. He had a plaid shirt over his dark tee and cargo shorts. She did not realize she had spoken out loud.
“Oh, it’s just how I decide what to read.”
He kept looking at her. She licked her lips and felt the different texture, reminding her again of the lipstick.
“I’ve worked in bookstores for almost 25 years, since graduating high school. I collect books I hear other people discussing that sound interesting, of if I find the people discussing them interesting. That’s how I decide what to read.”
He nodded. Kelly sat on her stool and picked up her book. The young man leaned on the side of the counter facing her.
“Woolf?” He said, nodding toward the book in her hands.
Kelly looked at the cover, flipped the pages.
“I worked at a bookstore in Portland Maine about ten years ago. These two girls came in one evening. One was saying a really cute guy in her Contemporary Critical Theories class had said To The Lighthouse was his favorite book. So she wanted to read it.”
Kelly remembered the girls suddenly, both laughing and speaking quietly while they browsed the fiction. One had a black velvet hat that was spotted with melting snow. The other wore dark pink lipstick. Kelly enjoyed watching them, their excitement and joy about reading and this cute boy.
“I’ll bet the cute guy was lying,” The young man said.
Kelly laughed. “Probably. I’m having a hard time with it, but I could see throwing out the title if I was trying to impress someone.”
“Exactly,” he said.
This was unlike any exchange she’d ever had with a customer. But considering the young man had yet to buy anything and did not appear to be shopping she figured he did not count as a customer. In actuality this was unlike any conversation she’d had with anyone in a very long time. Kelly was not used to talking to people. Jake had been the talker. He was the point of interest in most situations, the talented chef, the star of whatever dinner or party they were attending. Kelly tended to blend as Jake shone. She would stay by his side smiling, making small comments. But she rarely found anyone to actually talk to. Food, recipes, restaurants, those were the topics of most evenings.
The music next door changed. She usually was not aware of it until it stopped. Now Morrissey’s lyrics floated through the air.
She nodded slightly. The young man smiled.
“I’m in college,” he said. “I think it’s a requirement for graduation to have an appreciation for both The Smiths and Morrissey in particular.”
“Most of the independent bookstores I’ve worked in had radios tuned to the local college stations.”
“No college for you?”
“Nope. I just like to read. I don’t need to pay someone to do that. I’ve tried book clubs but they usually end up as drinking or crying sessions.”
“I get it.”
“You said you were in college?”
“Senior year, University of Central Florida majoring in English Literature. You know, reading.”
She wondered if she were blushing.
He smiled and she thought she was definitely blushing now.
“No problem. I’m Matthew by the way.”
The next morning he was looking at books in the window displays when she pulled up and locked her bike.
“You know I’ve never read this.” He was pointing to Ninety-two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane.
“Why read it when we live it every August when most days it is 92 degrees in the shade.”
“I don’t know, fishing, the water, I’ve lived here my whole life but can count on both hands the number of times I’ve been out on a boat.”
“I know. I love the beach when it’s cooler but at this time of the year I really just want to hide inside. If I go out during the middle of the day I feel like the sun is scorching me.”
He waited while she went inside. When she came back out with the OPEN sign he took it without a word. This would be their routine for the next 10 days. Matthew was there as she opened and each night until just before she closed.
Over the next few days they spoke about books or commented on the music from next door. Gradually they shifted from standing by the front counter while they talked to both sitting on the floor by the classics and poetry sections. Kelly would return to the register whenever a customer came through. A week later Matthew was sitting a few feet away from her with his legs stretched out into the isle.
“There is no way you are 42,” he said.
She looked up from her spot on the floor. She had been flipping through a book of Anne Sexton poems. “When did I tell you my age?”
“I did the math. The second day you were here you mentioned graduating from high school almost 25 years ago. There is no way you are 42.”
She shrugged and started to bite her lip but stopped. Of course she had read romance novels over the years. And while she had no problem with the genre and the majority of them were very well written, what bothered her was the constant lip biting by so many of the heroines. Although now she thought she might understand the impulse. What do you do when someone is looking at you, really looking at you?
“Well I guess the crinkly gray hairs get lost amongst the blonde curls but they are there. Trust me, I am 42, actually closer to 43.”
She closed the book and put it back on the shelf. She looked at him. He had shifted to face her and was now sitting crossed legged leaning against the lower shelves of the disorganized history section. She had to ask.
“And you? Based on what you’ve said you should be about 21?” She hoped she was off, way off.
“I’ll be 26 in December.”
She smiled, older than she thought, but still so young.
“It took me a while to figure out the college thing, to go or not, then to finish or not. There was trouble at home and I felt I was needed here. I had completed two years at the community college and was working nights stocking shelves at Winn-Dixie. One early morning when I got out of work it was pouring. You know one of those summer squalls.”
“So I called a cab. I’d had way too much bucci during my break so I was jabbering at the driver about my family’s troubles and my doubts about finishing college. And this guy, this cab driver, told me, ‘finish college, get a degree. Once you have that, no matter what, no one can take it away.’ And that made sense to me. So the next month I moved to Orlando, not exactly a hot bed of culture but they offered me a scholarship and it was away from here, off the rock as they say.”
“That’s as good a reason as any I guess.” She reached up for The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence.
“So, do you have a husband?”
She held the book in her lap. She wasn’t sure what to say, how to describe Jake now, Ex-husband? Dead husband?
“No longer married,” she said as her thumb automatically went to her left ring finger to twirl and push a ring that was no longer there. She had removed it three months ago, not really sure what was the appropriate time frame. And right then she had to ask.
“No, been out of a long term thing for a few months. She complained that we never went out. So she went out alone. Then she went out with others. And then she went out with just one.”
He took the D.H. Lawrence book from her and she went up front to cash out the register.
“That’s a slightly different shade,” he said the next morning as she handed him the OPEN sign. He lifted a hand towards her face as if reaching to touch her bottom lip. She pulled back and went inside the store.
“It was on sale,” she said as she turned away. She moved over to the paperback mystery novels, grabbed some from a pile on the floor and started to shelve them. Her hands were shaking slightly. This morning as she applied the new shade, Cherry Kiss, she wondered if he would notice. She had hoped he would notice. But now she felt uncomfortable, and silly.
The owner would return in two days and she would be back on the evening shift. She wanted to mention this but wasn’t sure what she expected, or wanted, his reaction to be.
He moved past her to his usual spot in the classics and she kept working with the paperbacks. She kept shelving around the shop as jazz filtered in from the shop next door. Within an hour she had forced as many books as she could onto various shelves and was sitting across from him on the floor, reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He was back with the Camus.
Later a customer came in to buy postcards. Kelly stood and Matthew stood with her. He put his hand on her waist as he turned to let her past. She felt the warmth of his palm through the thin rayon of her dress. She hoped he could not feel her tension. It was such an intimate part of her body, one that had not been touched in a long time. She hurried to the register where a young woman in cutoffs and a string bikini top waited. When Kelly finished the transaction she looked at Matthew. He was just lowering his head back to his book. She figured he’d been looking at the young woman.
After she sat back on the floor she looked at him for a moment and then said, “He died.”
Matthew looked up.
“Yes, he was the Head Chef at the Hyatt. We were heading for a divorce, then he had a heart attack one night at work and died. I’ve yet to figure out what to call myself. Divorcé? Widow?”
“Did it happen a while ago?”
Kelly shrugged. “A few months. The divorce had been coming for over a year.” She flipped through her book. “He was ready to move again. The Hyatt wanted to transfer him to D.C. But the Café Marquesa offered him a job and I wanted to stay. I usually just went, would go when he said it was time. I basically did whatever he wanted but I was getting tired. Jake never really asked much of me, and it was a pretty easy life. I’ve always been more comfortable alone and he worked so much. I don’t know why but I feel like I fit here and I wanted to stay. Now I can. It just feels strange, I’m sad he’s gone, but now I can do what I want and I’m not sure what to do. Other than what I’ve always done.” She held up the book.
Matthew didn’t say anything. Kelly went back to her book.
Later after Kelly had locked the register Matthew stood by the counter. For the past few days he had been staying until she closed the store.
“It’s all I’m good at too.” He handed her the OPEN sign. “Reading saved me in high school. Teachers probably could have been fired for some of the books they gave me to keep me interested, then a full scholarship for English Literature, and basically promised a job at the community college library if I return to Key West. Books are what I do best.” He smiled.
The next night as Kelly was getting ready to cash out Matthew approached the register.
“So I’m actually going to buy something today. I head back to Orlando tomorrow.” He put the worn paperback of L’Etranger on the counter.
“Another one for my list.” She smiled even as she felt her stomach drop. She was no longer conscious of her lips. She was used to wearing the lipstick. “But I’ll start with the English translation.”
“And these,” he said and placed two copies of Ninety-two in the Shade on the counter. “I’ll be back at Christmas. I thought we could read it together then. It should be cool enough in December. Maybe we could even go outside, sit at Ft. Zach?” He smiled.
She couldn’t look at him; she looked at the books on the counter.
“Okay,” she said. She wasn’t sure what else to say.
He paid for the books and left one on the counter for her. He browsed the bestsellers while she cashed out and locked the store. He had taken down the OPEN sign and brought in the rolling rack as she turned up the thermostat and turned off the lights. This had been their routine for the last several days. Then they would each go different directions. Kelly would ride her bike down the street and Matthew would walk to his car. But this was their last day. Tomorrow she would go out alone for an early morning walk before returning to her house until it was time for her evening shift.
“So, I’ll see you in December?” He asked.
She looked up at him. He was not smiling, he was just looking. Her stomach did a little flip. She took his wrist and gave it a tug. He bent down to her. She placed her hand on his cheek. It was cool from the air conditioning and so smooth. She placed her lips on his other cheek and kissed him. When she pulled back he had a lipstick mark on his cheek. She smiled and then he pulled her to him. He wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her on the lips. She briefly wondered about the lipstick. He didn’t seem to care. He moved his hands to grip her sides. When she pulled away he was looking at her intently. She could not help wondering what he saw—the cluster of gray hair over her left ear, the tiny lines by the outsides of her eyes, the lipstick? She rubbed her thumb over his cheek but did not disturb her mark on him.
“I’ll see you in December,” she said.