I wasn’t East of Eden, I was at the University of Madison’s library and another hand was reaching for the the only copy of the book my aunt needed. Now I know that his eyes are blue but in the gloom of the stacks they were black and determined. The hand in front of me was a pale, luminescent white. My hand was under his, the frigid cold had reddened my skin. Later I found out that a healing cut across the back of my hand was what made him pull his hand away from the book. Criticism on Steinbeck is by no means unheard of, if the book had been for me I probably would have let him have it but I had told my aunt I would pick up the book for her. Originally our plan was to go into Madison together. She went to school there, we were going to walk down State Street and meet up with some of her friends at the Mediterranean restaurant someone she knows owns. At the last minute my aunt called to tell me she had a migraine.
Snow had been forecast, driving down the roads were slick and if I wouldn’t have needed books for a paper I was writing I would have skipped the trip entirely. At the library the man to my left gave the book in my hands a long, lingering look before walking away. "If you give me your name and number I’ll let you know when my aunt is finished with the book." The dark of his scarf matched the blue of his coat, he had a mop of curly black hair and the shadows under his eyes were the kind you get when school is your life. Without turning around he dropped his backpack to the ground, pulled out a notebook and scribbled a name and his number on a sheet of college ruled paper. Carefully I folded the paper into fourths. I opened my bag to retrieve a pen, before I could pull one out he handed his to me. Everything about him and his body language told me that he was uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how my aunt would feel if I gave her personal contact information to a stranger. The guy standing next to me seemed impatient, I wrote my name on the bottom of the sheet, added my phone number, tore the sheet in half and handed it to him.
Why I felt compelled to call around looking for other copies of that book is something I still don’t know. I think it was the look in his eyes when he stared at the book, as if he was hungry and the book was his idea of Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the reason I called my aunt, she in turn called one of the librarians at school. There was another copy of the book at a school down in Racine. My aunt’s father-in-law agreed to go pick up the book. It turned out to be a lot of chasing around for a book we already had but since my aunt is a teacher she’s sensitive to the idea that people need certain books for class or a paper that they’re writing. Probably the funniest thing about the situation was the moment I found out that the guy in the library had picked the book up for his roommate because the call that it was available came when his roommate was in class. Standing outside in the freezing cold I was furious with myself for misreading the situation. I couldn't believe I had spent so much of my time chasing after a book for someone I didn’t even know. This time I was the one who walked away without saying a word.
Parking is notoriously hard to find around campus, especially when the weather is bad. Trudging back to my car I noticed that the slush on the roads was beginning to freeze. A hand on my arm stopped me. Annoyed I jerked my elbow free. The look on his face was hard to read. "Thanks for finding another copy of that book. That was sweet of you." I nodded as if driving an hour out of my way to drop off a book was no big deal. We were across from the library on the lake side. During the summer you could buy ice cream from one of the vendors on the terrace but at this time of year all the food was sold indoors. When he asked if I was hungry I shrugged even though it had been a while since lunch. We ended up at a soup and sandwich place. During the meal I found out that his roommate was an English major which is why he was looking for criticism on the works of Steinbeck. I also found out that one of the reasons the man eating soup was willing to pick up a book for his friend was because his father taught English. By that time my food was gone, I left some money for the tip on the table. After gathering our things together we went outside.
On the walk back to my car I told him that my father had recently lost his job. Ten percent of the faculty had been let go when the enrollment numbers dropped for the fifth year in a row. My mom had a good job, it wasn’t like we were going to starve or anything but it hurt my father’s pride that he was one of the ones let go. Instead of stopping at my car we kept walking. Near the lake he started down the path that follows the shoreline. He was walking so fast I had to run to catch up with him. It was slow going in the snow, his legs were longer than mine. I made it to the boathouse before I sat down on a rock. I thought he'd keep going but when the path started curving he stopped. About three minutes passed before he apologized. For some reason I kept my mouth shut even though normally I would have told him not to worry. It was obvious that I had struck a nerve. Another couple of minutes passed before I told him that I should get going. I was almost to the edge of the dock when he told me that if I wanted to hear a story he would tell me one.
That piqued my curiosity. I thought he would tell me that his father had been let go but the story was about his brother. His older brother was a high school teacher, when he said the name of the school his brother taught at it was one I recognized. I’ve never been one to follow the local news but the papers were full of rumors about the high school math teacher who had been charged with touching a teenage girl inappropriately. Sitting on the rock my body was cold. I stood up, brushed the snow off and told him that I needed a drink. That wasn't the night we sat on the roof of his apartment building talking and drinking until three in the morning. It wasn't the day his truck crossed the center line of the freeway, rolled over and landed upside down. Nor was it the day he called me from Scotland wondering if his ankle was broken or badly sprained. It wasn't the day we stayed up crying because his mother was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. It couldn't have been the day that I called to tell him that my sister was going to Iraq and I was afraid she wasn't coming back. That was the day he told me that he had been accepted into the PhD program at Georgetown.
Today I've been married twice while he's still single. From time to time I call him up. Less frequently he calls me to see what's going on in my world. I've had apologies from him when he's been a jerk. After a fight we had he was the one who called me to see if we were still friends. The day after my apology was the day I passed out in the bathroom when we were Christmas shopping. When I told him I was having a girl he was the one who suggested we name her after my sister who was overseas. We've never gone out with each other. Either he has someone or I do. If I made a list of my best friends he would be on it. We've been friends for almost thirteen years now. Quite frankly I can't imagine life without him. I love him, I have his picture in a place of honor on my desk. He has a picture of the two of us stuck in a book he keeps next to his copy of Tortilla Flat. At one point in time the book was blank, now it's a poetic record of storms and joys we've weathered together. When his sister asked why he kept the picture in there instead of putting it in a frame he looked over her head, smiled at me and told her: "None of this would have happened had not Steinbeck introduced us".