Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 6 months, 2 weeks, 4 days
Juliana sucked in a deep breath and marched up the stairs of Community Library with her head high, new attitude and butterflies in her stomach. Steady clicking of her heels counted down to a new era. Many elements of her new charge remained to be discovered, making her uncertain, but similar to her walk into the library, she would take it one step at a time.
She didn’t arrive as early as she planned. Psyching herself up for the day took much longer than usual, but she still arrived before Trish which is what she wanted but just barely. Community Library patrons showed a sense of urgency that morning. Someone followed Juliana in, and minutes later, Trish trailed someone else. Juliana had faced the wall and attempted to have one last moment alone, but the hairs on her neck and arms stood when Ms. Henning arrived.
“Oh…good, you’re back,” Trish said.
Juliana took in a deep breath once again before turning to address her coworker. “Good morning.”
“Nice suit,” Trish said stiffly.
Juliana flashed a quick smile. “Thank you.”
The front door opened again, and a woman walked through. Juliana wondered why so many had come so early.
The woman waved. “Mornin, Juliana!”
“Good morning.” She had seen her many times but never asked for her name. Harriett knew everyone’s name, but she had nearly three decades to get to know them.
Trish walked away to begin her day, and Juliana panicked. She didn’t spend the morning psyching herself up for Trish to get away.
Juliana heard a loud sigh before she faced her.
The butterflies in her stomach felt like they multiplied three times. She wiped her moist palms on her trousers and swallowed a large knot in her throat. “Uhh…”
She had an idea of what she wanted to say, but the words got stuck at the back of her dry mouth. “You are a good librarian…”
“I know you don’t care for me. But, I can’t change what happened.” Bitter bile crawled up her throat. She swallowed the sensation. “I have to learn things, and…and I need you here. We have to communicate better and work together.”
Trish grew increasingly more frustrated with every word that exited Juliana’s mouth.
She tried to calm her nerves and swallowed a few more times before saying the next part. “I know what librarians are supposed to do…” She paused to let her words sink in a bit. “I need you to do those things. I will help, but I need to be in the office more to learn how to do this.”
Trish’s chest rose and fell quickly. She looked like a growling dog. “Yeah, ok. Whatever. Are we done here?”
Juliana’s patience with her attitude wore thin. If she were bold enough, she would have given her a few pieces of her mind. But, she had to keep it professional and refrain from stooping to Trish’s level. She had a reputation to uphold, but no one but Juliana regulated what happened inside her head.
Trish did an about-face and dashed away, probably fuming as she always was. Perhaps, one day–in her own way–she’d find the courage to tell Trish what for. She found the thought amusing and even looked forward to it.
To begin her morning, she retreated to the office not to hide but to embark upon a journey of epic proportions. During her time off, she made a list of questions to research. She also began going through all the papers in the drawers and folders on the wall. Surely Harriett left everything she needed to know in that room. She simply had to look for it and piece all the information together.
After a few hours, her brain was so mushy, she thought it might slide out of her ears. She took a break and walked around the library just as Harriett used to do, greeting the patrons and checking on everyone. She borrowed a bit of confidence as she smiled and spoke to people. Hillary sometimes said, “fake it ’til you make it,” she remembered. At first, she didn’t understand what that meant, but she got it. She needed to keep borrowing confidence from somewhere until it came naturally–or at least didn’t cause so much stress.
Around the corner, in the computer room, Juliana heard loud rapping of keys and laughter. The voice and noise belonged to Trish beating her Blicbloc score. Did she not hear anything Juliana said earlier? Did she really not care? Thankfully, no one needed assistance, and the books stood tall and upright in the shelves thanks to Juliana’s need for order and neatness. Everyone needed a break every now and then, but she wished Trish would have told her she was taking one. For the moment, she let the offense ride, but soon she would deal with her.
After her rounds, she manned the front desk. She was comfortable there and knew the job well. Sometimes, Trish often contradicted herself by saying Juliana didn’t need to be so visible in the library now that she was–for all intents and purposes–the manager but at the same time refused to do any of the duties Juliana, the library assistant, did. Perhaps that was her way of telling Juliana they needed to hire another person, but that should have been her decision as the librarian. Juliana couldn’t decide if she wasn’t a good librarian or she had gotten used to Harriett doing everything. Either way, she could not win with this woman. She was damned if she sat up front and damned if she hid in the office. It was a new day, however, and Juliana sat there almost daring Trish to say something. If she came at her the wrong way, Juliana would take some of that borrowed confidence and put Trish in her place.
Later on, Juliana noticed she couldn’t hear Trish’s heavy footsteps stomping around the aisles. She hadn’t gone to lunch, and she wasn’t in the bathroom. Juliana decided to go upstairs to look for her. It was rare for Trish to retreat somewhere for privacy. She found her looking out the window with her arms wrapped around herself.
“Are you ok?” Juliana asked.
Trish growled and attempted to go back downstairs.
“Trish…if something is–”
“You’re so freaking annoying! Are you my shadow? Leave me alone!”
Trish may have openly said hateful things about Juliana and didn’t hide her displeasure with her, but she never yelled at her. Something was wrong.
“Ok! I was just–”
“LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Trish stomped down the stairs. “I’m going to lunch!”
Juliana let out a sigh of relief. She wasn’t sure how to deal with her and sat in the chair behind her to recover from the explosion. Learning the ropes would have been an adventure on its own, but this? Pity mode attempted a comeback. Everything would be much easier if she claimed she couldn’t handle it and watch everything go up in flames. Going back to that dark place was not an option. Especially not while she sat on hallowed ground. Over her shoulder, she saw the desk she and Harriett used to sit for her Simlish lessons. Those times were hard, but they were good times too. A smile crept on her face as she made the connection. Times could be both hard and good, not one or the other. She didn’t have to let Trish’s antics get to her or become overwhelmed by all she needed to learn. Juliana needed to do exactly what she did with her lessons: practice, study, and never give up.
While she sat, she heard someone else coming up the stairs.
“Are you ok?” the man asked. “I don’t mean to be nosey, but heard ol girl yelling.”
She appreciated the concern. No wonder Harriett loved that community so much. They were such good people. Some of them.
“I’m fine…but, thank you.”
“Aight. Just let me know. I ain’t afraid to tell her what’s up!”
She laughed and went back downstairs with him. It was almost 3:30, and she had someone special to see.
“Hi, Miss Juliana!”
“Hello, Manu! Did you enjoy school today?”
“We had to take lots of tests. I don’t want to go to school for a long time!”
She laughed. “Awww, probrecito! I hope tomorrow is more fun.”
The little boy stared at her for a moment.
She smiled nervously. “What?”
“You’re so pretty, Miss Juliana. If I was big, I’d make you my girlfriend.”
She laughed heartily. “No girlfriends for a long time, ok?”
“Would you be my girlfriend? If I was big?”
It was the craziest day. It began tentatively with lots of tension, an explosion in the middle, and now she was being asked out by a 10-year-old. What else did this day have in store for her?
She didn’t want to crush him and side-stepped the question as best she could. “I can’t. I am the girlfriend of someone else.”
Those words felt weird coming out of her mouth. She and Kevin had only been together for a week and a half, and they hadn’t seen much of each other. During her time off, she didn’t want to see him. With Trish doing less and less work, her days stretched longer and longer. Kevin had a business trip the previous weekend. Sometimes it didn’t feel like she had a boyfriend, but she knew how loved she was. They stayed in constant communication.
His little face melted her heart. Just as she attempted to comfort him and do damage control, he changed gears.
“Well, maybe when I’m big you won’t be his girlfriend anymore.”
She laughed again. He was probably right. She and Kevin would probably be married by then, but he didn’t need to know that.
“We will see. Do you want to do your homework?”
During the bad times, those short moments with Manu were the ray of sunshine in her very long, dark days. She lived for those moments and was glad he enjoyed them as well although she learned he enjoyed them a bit too much.
When his mother picked him up, and all the other kids had gone home, Juliana retreated to the office to do some last minute tasks before locking up. It had been a slow day, despite the rush in the morning, and she managed to re-shelve books throughout the day. For the first time in a long time, she would leave shortly after closing time. She had two extra hours added to her night, and she wanted to enjoy the rare gift with Kevin. To her surprise, however, as she exited the office, he entered.
“Oh! Hi!” She grinned. “I was going to call in a few minutes.”
He grinned too. “Lucky me.”
Her new look startled him. She told him about some changes related to work, but he didn’t expect a change in wardrobe. He didn’t mind what she wore, but he loved seeing her dressed up. She looked so…grown.
“Wow. You looking amazing.”
It was hard to take his eyes off her. She looked so beautiful and confident, almost like another person yet still her. The staring probably made her uncomfortable. She kept looking at her shoes.
He cleared his throat and snapped out of it. “Umm…I’m glad you’re not working late tonight. I was hoping we could grab dinner and hang out for a bit.”
Her eyes met his again accompanied by a dazzling smile. “Of course.”
“Ok.” He grinned like a schoolboy, but he didn’t care. He was so happy to be with her again. “We can go some place close by.”
He took her to a restaurant in the Town Center area which used to be known as “downtown.” Long ago, Willow Creek was a tiny farming community. The farmers would have to go down into town to shop, be entertained, and conduct business. All the buildings in the area were the originals minus Villa Bovine, the restaurant they went to. The museum used to be a municipal building where the courthouse and police department used to be. The Blue Velvet Nightclub was a saloon, the gym was a general store, and the library had served its same purpose the entire time. Over time, the community grew and sprawled around downtown and making it the center of town. When the skyscrapers and apartment buildings came, all the official city offices moved there. The dense urban area became worthy of the title “downtown.”
“Good evening,” the cheery host said.
“Hello. A table for two, please.”
She tapped the screen a few times. “Right this way.” She led them to the first table in the dining room. “Is this ok for you?”
“Oh yes, thanks. It’s lovely.”
“Awesome. Your server will be Salim, and he will be with you shortly.”
Cooking was not Kevin’s thing, so he ate out almost exclusively. He knew almost every restaurant in Willow Creek, Oasis Springs, Newcrest and Windenburg. The man knew food and had favorite dishes he ordered from each place. He almost never looked at the menus, and tonight was no different. He knew exactly what he wanted and watched Juliana discover all the dishes he had tried eons ago. She didn’t read the menu aloud, but he could tell when she saw something that excited her. A jolt of glee made her eyebrows raise and a tiny grin pop up.
They had shared many meals together, but this was their first dinner as a couple. An official date! After all the turmoil he went through, he was dating Juliana and could not believe his luck.
Kevin didn’t know what to expect from being in a relationship with her. She was so young and inexperienced. On top of that, he knew the cultural differences might create bumps in the road as well. And then he had his own demons. To be honest, sometimes they scared him. Sometimes he felt more like a wrecking ball pummeling through Juliana’s life knocking down her hopes and dreams of whatever she wanted her life to look like. He wanted to help not hinder her. Whenever he felt those old excuses forming, he reminded himself that their situation was completely new, he wasn’t the person he used to be, and it was normal to be scared sometimes.
A man donning a smile strode to their table. “Good evening. It’s good to see you back, sir.”
Kevin smiled back. “Of course! I can’t stay away from here long.”
Remembering faces was not one of Kevin’s many strengths, and he felt bad for not remembering him. The conversation, however, was a reminder of why he loved Villa Bovine. It was a fine dining establishment, but it still had that homegrown feel. The ambiance and decor was posh enough to be special, but not stuffy and pretentious like that germ-infested health hazard in the Magnolia Promenade. He would need a very compelling reason to ever consider eating at Chez Llama again.
“Nice to see you in here with a pretty lady too.” He winked at Juliana.
Kevin almost laughed as he recalled all the past incidents when people assumed they were together and he would smash those assumptions with a quickness. Now, of course, he understood why people thought that. They were together. He just didn’t realize it.
“Yeah…it is nice to take my girlfriend out.”
It felt so strange to call her that. It had been eons since anyone held that title.
“I’m happy for you. Are you ready to order?” Salim asked.
He nodded. “Juliana?”
She nodded too.
“Cool. I’ll have a rack of lamb and a simopolitan.”
The server chuckled. “I should have known. And, for you, miss?”
“Pasta Primavera and lemonade, please.”
“What a beautiful accent! Where are you from?”
“Oh! Well, that’s great.” He hovered over the table and pretended to whisper. “Don’t judge us too harshly on the food.”
They all shared a laugh.
“I’ll return shortly,” he said. “Can I bring you some bread while you wait?”
“No, but thank you, Salim,” Kevin said and turned his attention back to Juliana. “So! Tell me about this transformation!”
She blushed. “Oh…” Her eyes wandered around the ceiling tiles as she considered her answer. “I got a letter from Mamá, and I thought about what you said to me…. I remember something Trish said to me too.”
“Juliana, don’t let her bully you!”
“No! Listen. I’m trying to figure out what I’m saying.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
He often interrupted her all in the name of trying to swoop in and save the day, but he did need to listen to her more. Sometimes she spoke so well he forgot she still struggled with the language. He wondered if it would help or be a hindrance for him to learn her’s. He could have learned it long time ago when he went to her country for charity work but learning foreign languages were also not on the list of his strengths.
“I need to be serious,” she said.
Kevin stifled the urge to snort. Juliana was one of the most serious people he knew even in her silly moments. Why would she think she needed to be more serious?
“I mean, I need to be important.”
His heart swelled. “You are important.”
“No! Like…” She let out a frustrated sigh.
“You mean you want to look like you’re important…so people know you’re important?”
Finishing her thought probably wasn’t a good idea, but she seemed to really struggle with it.
She looked relieved to be understood. “Yes! Like that.”
“Makes sense. People tend to respect you more simply because you’re wearing a suit. You could be, like, the janitor or something, but if you wear a suit, people will assume you’re important and know what you’re doing. That’s a good strategy…and I love your suit.”
“Alrighty…” the server said, lugging a tray of aromatic deliciousness and placing plates in front of them. “How’s it looking?”
“Everything is perfect, thank you,” Kevin said.
“Alrighty! Y’all enjoy now.”
Kevin savored a few sips of his favorite drink and the succulent meat before prodding Juliana more. “So how did it go with Trisha today?”
She rolled her eyes and continued eating. His heart sunk. He thought for sure Juliana would put her in her place and the library saga would be behind them. How could anyone dislike her?
“I can talk to her if you want.”
A sweet smile softened her face. “I need to do it.”
He returned her smile. “Of course you do.”
Salim came back and grabbed Kevin’s empty glass. “Let me take this for you. Can I bring you another?”
“No, thank you.”
They had such a good time. He didn’t want to keep her out too late, but time escaped them anyway. Most nights she went to bed very late despite having to wake up so early and endure 13+ hour days. How did she do it? Her youth probably helped.
Kevin paid the check and left a generous tip. On their way out, he asked her if she felt like going for a short walk. She agreed. She always agreed. They strolled down the alley between the restaurant and the nightclub to get to the boardwalk. She cradled his arm in hers. He loved having her so near.
Juliana gasped and broke away. “A lighthouse! Can we go down there?”
He chuckled. “Of course we can.”
They left the safety of the cobblestone sidewalk and traipsed down the dirt path toward the bank. She hurried in front of him. Her excitement tickled him although he was afraid she would stumble. She wore low, thick heels, but sometimes the path was rocky.
“Is it far?” she asked.
“Uhhh…not really. Too far to get to tonight.”
A breeze blew the humid air around making it a bit more bearable. The crickets and cicadas did a duet. Or, maybe they were competing in a contest. The fireflies danced like cheerleaders but not for one side or another. Standing there, looking out over the river with his lady by his side, Kevin felt so at peace. He also felt like redeeming their last moment together.
He grabbed her hands. She smiled nervously.
“Juliana…I want to kiss you.”
She flashed that dazzling smile again. “So kiss me.”
Although he initiated the invitation, his heart pounded in his chest; he was much braver last time. Dropping her hands, he drew her into an embrace and planted a tender kiss on her soft lips. Her tentative hands found their places around his waist and behind his shoulder. Hot, electrical pulses coursed throughout his body as their lips gently massaged each other. Some called it fireworks. He was just glad it was happening. Kissing Juliana liberated his spirit and broke the remaining chains on his heart and mind. His previous fears seemed so silly. He wanted to kick himself for not realizing his feelings sooner. Juliana had already brought so much happiness into Kevin’s life, but kissing her took happiness to new heights. He was finally free! He forgot what that felt like.
He held her a bit tighter, drawing her closer. She seemed to enjoy it. Her rigid posture loosened with the deepening of the kiss. His tongue swept against her bottom lip, asking for permission to entertain hers. He probably should not have done that on the first kiss, but he couldn’t help himself. It had been ages since he kissed anyone, and even longer since kissing someone he loved. He needed this.
Juliana had always been a quick learner and he was pleased to see how well she caught on. To his surprise, she accepted his invitation and parted her lips ever so slightly. Heeding his own advice, he behaved.
She pulled away first, as he expected she would; she needed a breath. Before they separated, he held her and gazed into her beautiful brown eyes for a bit. He didn’t quite know what to say, and neither did she. His smile gave way to nervous laughter, and so did hers. This night marked a turning point in Kevin’s life. The ghosts of his past were banished, never to haunt him again. The new era belonged to Juliana, and only she could dictate what happened and where they went in the future. Not fear. Not doubt. Certainly not other people’s opinions. Only Juliana.