Lila Francis sat at the bus stop holding the book close to her chest with sticky hands. She nudged her glasses back up her nose as she read. Her bag sat next to her, the strap wrapped through her elbow. She did not hear the traffic or the music of the afternoon rush hour. She did not smell the exhaust mingled with humidity. People hurried past on the sidewalk, streaming around the bench where she sat, talking in groups or on their phones.
In her hands she held the library’s only paperback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. Earlier that day, another librarian, Marilee Bishop, whirled into the breakroom and dropped it facedown on the table where Lila sat alone, eating leftovers and thumbing through a tattered copy of National Geographic. “Look what I scored.” Marilee’s voice was husky.
“What is it?”
It’s pretty much the hottest book in the library.”
She stopped her thumbing and chewing. With one eyebrow raised, she looked up. Marilee’s face and cleavage were flushed.
“So, what is it?”
“Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“Never heard of it.” Lila lied. She smiled and returned to her lunch.
“Come on, you’re full of it. Everybody’s read it. Even my mother read it.”
Marilee rolled her eyes.
“Well, it’s not my thing,” Lila said.
“No kidding. You could probably use it.” Marilee pushed the book over to Lila. “Take it. It’s our only copy, and there’s like a hundred holds on it, but I grabbed it from the return bin before it could be checked in. There’s three days left before it’s due. Happy Birthday.”
“Ha. That was two weeks ago. If you wanted to give me a present, you could have bought me a copy.”
“It’s more fun this way. Take it. But bring it back ASAP.”
“Some gift.” Lila picked up the book. It seemed to vibrate in her hand.
“I want a full report when you’re finished.” Marilee winked. One of her false eyelashes was coming unglued. Lila thought about sharing this tidbit of information and decided against it. After all, wasn’t like the girl had a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of one of her spiked heels.
After Marilee left the break room, Lila stood to clear the table. She picked up the container that had held her leftovers and went to the sink to rinse it. The camera on the wall next to the refrigerator blinked. Why they needed a security camera in the break room was a mystery to Lila. “Excuse me, officer,” she imagined, “but someone stole the ham out of my ham and cheese sandwich.”
“Let’s run the security footage.”
She shook her head at the scenario. Even so, when she was back at the table, she packed the container in her bag and casually picked up the book. Feeling slightly ridiculous, she went into the camera-free bathroom, slipped the book into her purse, washed her hands, and went back to work. As she was leaving at the end of the day, Marilee winked again, eyelashes no longer askew, and mouthed “Happy reading.” Lila smiled, nodded, and headed to the bus stop.
Now, here she sat on the bench, a solitary figure on a fine summer evening. Might as well check out what all the excitement was about. No sooner had she opened the book when a woman sat next to her.
“Oh my God. I LOVED that book. Couldn’t put it down. And let me tell you, my husband is a happy man.”
Lila closed the book. “Good for you,” and faced the woman. She had to be at least fifty, ancient by Lila’s standards, chunky and bosomy. The bright coral lipstick she wore had wandered over the border of her lips. Lila waited to see if the woman was going to continue talking. After a few seconds of silence, Lila returned to page ten of the book.
“Oooh, you’re just at the beginning. You’re gonna love it.” The woman punctuated the sentence with a shiver.
Lila nodded, kept her face buried in the book, and read the same sentence again and again as the woman introduced herself. “Betty.” Lila was prepared to say her name was Anastasia Steele if asked. Just to see what Betty would do. But the woman never came up for air. “Wait until you get to the elevator scene. Donny, my husband, I almost broke him in half after that one.”
Lila made a sound that she hoped sounded like a laugh. What was it about some people that enabled them to tell a total stranger their most intimate secrets? She prayed that the bus would hurry up. When it didn’t show, she prayed she would spontaneously combust. Better yet that Betty would. The bus finally arrived.
That was yesterday.
Lila had spent the night reading. In the morning her eyes burned. Her mouth was dry and her stomach queasy. When she looked in the mirror, there were dark shadows beneath her eyes and her complexion was sallow. If she was going to finish the more than five-hundred-page book in two days, she was going to have to read fast. Not that it was heavy reading. But how many throbbing penises, dancing tongues, and inner goddesses could one encounter before they lost their zing?
She wasn’t one to start what she couldn’t finish, and she would not have a repeat of the Betty incident. Lila downed a cup of scalding coffee while hastily covering the book in brown paper. Then she packed her lunch and jogged to the bus stop. The sun was bright and the air heavy. The bus was already there. Panting, she climbed on board, her shirt stuck to the sweat under her arms and her hair stuck to her neck. No air conditioning. Great, she thought. She made her way to the back, sat on a warm plastic seat next to an open window, and settled in to read.
“Pretty steamy stuff there,” a man’s voice said into her ear.
What the hell? A guy in tight black tee-shirt with gold chains around his neck had snuck into the adjoining seat. A wave of heat creeped up Lila’s neck and settled on her face. She quickly slammed the book shut. It tumbled to the floor. At the same time a cyclist bolted in front of the bus causing the bus driver to jam on the brakes. The cyclist pedaled off. The book skittered forward into the valley of feet and grime.
“Oh, come on,” Lila groaned.
“Sorry I startled you. You were really into it.”
Like this is my fault, Lila thought. “I have to get that book.” She leaned forward in her seat to look, but there wasn’t enough space to get a good angle so she could see. She reached her hand down, hoping to connect with the book. All she came up with was a dirty tissue with a wad of gum stuck inside. Lila shook it off her hand and the bus moved forward, sending her back into her seat. She nudged the stranger with her elbow.
“Excuse me, let me out.”
The guy turned sideways with his legs in the aisle so Lila could wrangle her way past him. He put his hand on her back to steady her.
“Don’t touch me,” she glared.
“Whoa,” he held his hands up. “Easy there.”
Lila stood in the aisle, smoothed down her skirt, and took a deep breath. “Sorry. No sleep.”
The guy nodded.
Lila staggered between the seats with the motion of the bus. How far could it have gone? The seat in front of her was occupied by two people, eyes closed, and both wearing ear buds. The book probably slid further than that, Lila thought. She moved up. In the next row was an elderly couple. They smiled at her. Lila smiled back. “I dropped my book and it slid forward.” I think it might be somewhere around your seat.”
“What?” the man said in a loud voice. “Speak up.”
“She dropped her book and thinks it might be under our seat,” the old woman said slowly and loudly in the man’s face.
“Why’d she do that?” the man shouted back.
Lila started to reply. The eyes and ears of the other passengers burned pinpricks on the back of her shirt. The woman answered, “Leo, what does it matter? Let her look for her book.”
She smiled at Lila in an apologetic way, then said, “What are you reading, dear?”
“Something for a class I’m taking.” There was a guffaw from two rows back. Lila ignored it and vowed to find out gold-chain man’s name and ban him from the library for all eternity.
“Oh, that’s nice,” the woman answered.
“Sorry, but my stop is coming up. Could I just look for my book?”
“Get up, Leo, let her look,” the woman shouted at the man.
“You don’t have to shout, Vivian.” Leo struggled to get up. He moved around Lila.
Oh my God, Lila prayed. Please let it be here so I can be done with this. She crouched in the aisle and looked under the seat. The book was stuck between Vivian’s shopping bag and the side of the bus. “It’s right next to you. If you wouldn’t mind,” she said.
After perilous contortions and heavy breathing, the old woman managed to pick up the book. Lila let out long breath and reached out her hand. “Thank you so much.”
With shaky hands Vivian opened the book. Her lips moved as she read silently. “Oh my, young lady, this is no textbook.”
“I’ll take that.” Lila tried to grab the book.
Vivian clutched it and kept reading.
“What is it?” Leo yelled. He stood directly behind Lila, who cringed.
“She’s reading smut.”
“What? Speak up.”
“I said, she’s reading smut,” Vivian shouted.
“Oh,” It was the first syllable Leo uttered softly. Lila heard appreciation in his voice.
“What’s the name of it?” Leo yelled.
The pinpricks of heat on Lila’s back seemed to burst into flame. “Please,” her voice was weak, “just give me the book.”
Vivian ignored her. “I don’t know. She has it all covered up. It’s no wonder why.” She began to tear at the cover.
“Excuse me,” Lila said, her voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “That’s my book and I want it back.”
“Tear it off, Viv,” Leo shouted.
The thought to manhandle the book from Vivian’s hands flashed through Lila’s mind. She looked around. Faces stared back, unblinking. The bus stopped at a red light and there was silence.
Lila reached in and yanked at the book. Vivian held tight. “Help,” the old lady yelled. “Somebody help me.”
Leo shouted in Lila’s ear. “Let go. What’s wrong with you?” He pulled at her arm. There was a tearing sound and Lila was left holding the cover.
Vivian held the book up over her head. “Fifty Shades of Grey, Leo. It’s Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“Atta girl,” Leo yelled.
There was a collective moan of disappointment from the rest of the passengers. “Let go of me.” Lila pried Leo’s fingers from her arm and closed her eyes. “Fifty shades of big deal,” someone muttered. She opened her eyes. People were back to their reading or music or conversation. She took the book from Vivian’s hand.
“That’s a nasty book, for a nasty, lying girl,” Vivian said.
“And you’re a judgmental witch,” Lila said.
Lila wiped the sweat from her forehead. “You’re a judgmental witch.” She turned to face Leo, “You’re both crazy.”
Lila looked straight ahead and marched to the back of the bus. The seat next to the gold-chain-wearing man was still open.
“Move please,” she said. “I need to sit down.”
Without saying a word, he stood and Lila slid through. She sat, watching the scenery go by, the book unopened in her hands, wishing a plague on Marilee Bishop, the bearer of bad birthday gifts.
“You okay?” the man with the gold chains said.
“Am I okay? No. I didn’t sleep last night. I’m sweaty and gross. I’ve been accused of reading porn, on public transportation no less, and almost came to blows with an old lady. Plus, yesterday some strange woman at the bus stop gave me disgusting details of her sex life. All because of this stupid book.”
“It’s not so bad.”
Lila eyes were slits. “Really?”
“Well, some of it is. But I mean the book. I actually took it out of the library, so it can’t be that bad. Just returned it yesterday as a matter of fact.”
“Oh.” Lila swallowed. “Did you finish it?”
“Nope. Never even started.” He moved closer to Lila then whispered, “I thought my girlfriend might, you know, get something out of it.” He winked.
Lila shifted toward the window. I’ve had it, she thought, and shoved the book into her bag. “I can’t imagine why that didn’t work out.”
“She didn’t touch it. Said she doesn’t like to read. Pretty weird for a chick who works at the library. I even offered to read it to her, you know a romantic kind of thing. Candles, rose petals, the works. But Marilee wanted nothing to do with it.”
Lila choked back a gasp. She wasn’t going say a word to Mr. Romantic. But she sure as hell was going to have a chat with Ms. Marilee Bishop. She pushed the yellow strip for the next stop. “This is where I get off.” The bus slowed to a stop. Lila gathered herself with as much dignity as possible, then stepped on gold-chain man’s foot as she got out of her seat, and smacked Leo on the back of his head with her bag as she made her way to the front of the bus. “Hussy,” Vivian hissed. Lila turned and glared at the old woman until she looked away.
Once outside the bus, Lila took a deep breath. The feeling that she’d escaped an alternate reality made her giddy. Her bag bounced against her hip as she jogged across the street. Almost there, she thought. A blast of cool air greeted her as she opened the door to the library. Lila took the book out of her bag. She dropped it into the return bin and imagined it falling to the center of the earth. Never to be seen again.