This time it wasn’t a Hemingway novel that won her a date in the bookstore, but a tiny little blue book called The Happiness Project. The fourth aisle from the left was her favorite because the shelves came up just high enough to make her lost in the novels, her head cocked to one side as her eyes scanned and deciphered the spines and her hands reached carefully, slowly sliding out, to peek at the front and judge the book by its cover. She was guilty of it, true. She also judged by title, by author’s last name, by whether the back had an excerpt or a list of reviews. She judged what the page numbers looked like and to whom the novel was addressed. Then, sometimes, to spice things up, she would pick one randomly, with no pretense of knowing anything about it before she settled into her recliner in her one bedroom apartment with a cup of milk and a fresh new bag of Oreos. The Happiness Project was one of those books, a random catch, a diamond in the rough, a lucky draw that made her confident enough to later purchase her first lottery ticket since the one she’d bought five years ago when she turned eighteen.
She slipped the book below the three others she had methodically chosen earlier, delighting in its grainy, cardboard texture touching the smooth backing of the other. She righted her head and stood up, content with her four selections, which might last her until Monday if she tried to take her time. The stranger stepped out from a travel aisle directly in front of her path, his own hands empty, and smiled at her as she scooted past him, but she hadn’t made it out of earshot when he inquired as to what she was carrying. As much as she loved books, she was rarely compelled to talk about them. They were too private and individual. She was private and individual as well, and when combined with a healthy dose of both reticence and passion, it was much easier for her to simply reach out her outstretched arms towards this stranger and indicate that he was welcome to read the titles for himself.
He picked them up one by one, examining each one closely as she stood there wide-eyed, examining him examining them, like a scientist observes a pinned butterfly. The one he lingered on was the last, the one she had selected on a whim, and by far the most potentially embarrassing. The corners of his mouth turned slightly down as if he were frowning, but he nodded his head, approving at last. Then he turned each book so they were all facing the same direction and placed them gently back into her hands. She smiled and shifted her weight onto the other foot, wondering when was the appropriate time to wish him luck and make her exit.
“That happiness one looks incredible,” he said. He fiddled with the sleeves of his sweater, trying to rebutton and fold over the ends of the shirt he wore under it.
She nodded. “It should be a good one.” She looked down at the cover. A big yellow sun shone over the city, putting smiles on the cartoon people’s faces. So much for not knowing anything about this one until i open it at home, she thought. She begrudged him that.
“If I gave you my number, would you let me know how you like it?”
She looked up to gauge his sincerity. When she was sure he was being genuinely friendly, she tilted the books to lean on her left arm and reached her right hand into her back jeans pocket, tugging on her phone. She thought she heard him laugh and then his hand was there with hers, freeing the phone from the confines of her denim, and she was blushing and too surprised to be anything but amused that he had practically touched her butt within five minutes of meeting her.
She typed in the passcode to unlock her phone and managed not to meet his gaze even as he was spelling his name and rattling off his number. He suggested that she text him, so that he would have her number as well.
“Hi,” she sent. She heard his notification go off when he received the message and left him there at the end of the row of books on Italy and Costa Rica and France.
As she placed her books on the checkout counter and prepared to pay for them, she received his reply: “Happy yet?”
She smiled. Not yet, she thought, but she felt certain that the project had just started.