Exaggeration and Blank Verse

Hers And Hers Alone

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The branch library wasn't close to anything- not the gallery or the apartment or Buffy's school- and that was why she liked to go there. She never bumped into anyone she knew among the books; it was hers and hers alone, a place where she was simply "Joyce who loves Jane Austen" instead of "Joyce, Buffy's mom," or "Joyce, assistant manager" or "Joyce, Hank's wife."

She loved being simply book-loving Joyce here, and did her best to leave all the other Joyces in the car. She never cried here, in her little refuge. Bookish Joyce had no need to, after all.

Sometimes she wondered what would happen if she ever did cry here, but she thought she knew: that sweet-faced young librarian with the dark hair would probably just slip a box of tissues and a new Joyce Carol Oates onto the table next to her and silently move away with a gentle smile.

She was such a nice girl.
***
Winter imperceptibly warmed to spring, as it tended to do in LA. Joyce found her trips to the library increasing from once a week to twice, and then nearly every afternoon as Buffy became more rebellious and withdrawn, and Hank more cold and angry. It was her refuge, her sanctuary, her place of peace, where it didn't feel like her world was flying apart.

She'd put her library card under her maiden name, just on a whim. It furthered the illusion that the Joyce strolling through the stacks was different than the Joyce who had been told that her daughter was out of control, the Joyce whose husband had told her that he didn't want her to be his wife anymore. As it all fell apart, she could cling bitterly to the fact that at least her library-self wouldn't have to change.

"Joyce?" Miss Burkle was standing next to her chair, shifting her weight uncertainly.

She wondered how long she'd been sitting there staring into space and ignoring the poor girl. "Yes?"

"Are you all right?" She looked down at the books in her hands. "You look like...something's wrong, maybe."

"Oh." She bit her lip and stared at the shaft of sunlight cutting in from the window. The afternoon was wearing on. "I just have some...things going on, you know how it is."

The librarian blinked and nodded slowly, shifting the books against each other. "I have a break in a few minutes. Would you like to go next door and get some coffee?"

Joyce opened her mouth, then closed it again. She looked at her watch. She had an appointment with Buffy's principal- "the absolute last time," he'd said on the phone. It wasn't for another hour.

"Sure," she said softly. I'd like that.
***
It became another part of her library afternoons, another little refuge. Coffee with Winifred Burkle- Fred, she insisted Joyce all her. She liked that, liked having secret first-name-basis friend to discuss literature and philosophy instead of art prices or cheerleading uniforms.

Fred was unselfconscious and young and full of hope- a bit silly, and firmly placed in the world of books and theories instead of harsh reality, but full of the confidence and optimism of youth. Being around her reminded Joyce of her own college days, though she'd been bubbling over with enthusiasm for books and art history instead of particle theory and theoretical symmetry. She drew strength from it.
***
Spring began to fade towards summer. The high school gym went up in flames. A final court date was set; papers were signed. No refuge could hold.

Poor Fred- she was talking about some nice young man in her physics lab that she thought might be working up the nerve to ask her out. So young and happy, still believing in love, and all of a sudden her companion was sobbing into her coffee.

"Joyce!" Fred cried, startled. She reached out and caught the older woman's hands, eyes wide with concern. "What's wrong?"

She wanted to pull away, to laugh it off, to go back to talking about music or books or anything else in the world. But it was like something had snapped inside her, all self-control was gone, and she just sobbed and sobbed as the other customers in the cafe turned and stared.

Fred took the situation in hand with a cool authority that few had ever had cause to see from the docile librarian. She dropped a handful of bills on the table, put her arm around Joyce's shoulders and steered her efficiently from the cafe to Joyce's worn little car parked in front of the library. Somehow the keys moved from Joyce's purse to the young woman's hand.

Joyce was still sobbing too hard to see or think or even breathe, only dimly aware of streets passing by, and then a stairwell and hallways, until she came back to herself seated on a couch in a cheap but determinedly cozy apartment.

Fred pressed a chipped coffee mug into her hands. "Here, drink this."

She sniffed at it numbly. Tea. She took a sip and gasped, eyes going wide- tea and a considerable dose of whiskey. Fred smiled sheepishly.

"My aunt Rosie's remedy for whatever ails you, physically, mentally, or otherwise. Sip it slowly."

She nodded stupidly and obeyed. Her brain was still too raw and focused for independent thought. "Is this your place, then?"

Fred nodded and ran her fingers through her hair, glancing around self-consciously. "I knew you needed to go somewhere and have a good cry, and I just didn't know where else..."

"But you have to go back to work." Joyce went to set the mug down. "Your break must've ended ages ago."

Fred shook her head and caught Joyce's wrist, gently forcing her to hold on to the drink. "It's fine. Don't worry about it. I'll just tell the library I was helping a friend." She smiled, warm and wide and sweet, and Joyce blinked back fresh tears. "It's fine."

She nodded slowly and took another sip, glancing around the tiny living room. A poster of a man in tight jeans and a cowboy hat hung on the opposite wall; she looked at it blankly. "Who's that?" she asked, just to break the silence.

Fred glanced at it and smiled again. "Oh, that's George Strait. King George." She laced her fingers together over one knee. "We listen to country music where I come from."

Joyce took another sip. "He looks nice." The whiskey was settling into a warm knot in the center of her chest, slowly spreading and filling her body. Blissful.

"He's wonderful." Fred looked down at the carpet. "Look, Joyce, it's none of my business, and you certainly don't have to tell me anything, but you might feel better..."

"I'm getting divorced. I am divorced." She stared down into the mug like the answers to where it all went wrong were hidden in tea and whiskey. "We were in court today, signing things. In a few months it'll be official." She took another, mechanical sip.

Fred bit her lip. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, that's not all," she said, brittle bitter cheerfulness in her voice. "My daughter got herself expelled from high school, after a delightful year of delinquency ending in burning down the gym."

Fred rubbed her hands together, shifted in her seat, said nothing.

Joyce felt her fingers tightening on the mug, heard her voice rising up in bitter hysteria. "So I'm going to have to move- leave my job and my life and my home and be a single parent in some miserable little town up north- Sunnydale, if you can believe that name- live alone with that girl I don't understand anymore-" Tears were pouring down her face again, tears of fear and frustration and anger that she didn't even try to stop. "While he lives in our house and goes to work every day like nothing changed at all-"

She doubled over, losing herself in sobs again. Fred was out of her chair and next to Joyce on the couch, a gentle arm around her shoulders, a soft hand tilting her face to let her cry it all out into her blouse, a murmuring voice saying it would be okay.

Joyce finally caught her breath again and pulled back, looking up into the compassionate pale face to thank her for her kindness.

Fred looked down at her, hesitated for a second, then cupped her hands under Joyce's chin and tilted her face up into a kiss.

Whiskey and tears and sorrow and a simple unfeigned act of kindness. Joyce closed her eyes and softly squeezed Fred's hand.

They crossed the tiny living room and slipped into the even tinier bedroom, letting the door drift shut behind them and leaving George Strait's knowing little smile to watch over the cooling tea on the end table.
***
Joyce splashed cool water on her face and looked at herself in the mirror. She was horribly late; Hank was long gone to a motel, but Buffy would ask a lot of questions.

She wasn't sure she owed her problem child any answers, frankly.

She shook off the thought and dried her face. They'd start things fresh in Sunnydale. New job, new school, new friends, new life...she'd leave all of the old Joyces behind. Single-mom Joyce now. Sunnydale Joyce.

She heard light footsteps outside in the kitchen as Fred made herself dinner, and smiled sadly. She'd miss being library-Joyce, a little bit. There probably weren't any kindhearted librarians with gentle hands in Sunnydale.

Fred glanced up as Joyce headed for the door. "Oh! Wait, I have something for you."

She paused and touched her hair as the young woman hurried into the other room. Better this way, to walk out the door and become another Joyce. This afternoon never happened, out in the real world. Sunnydale Joyce would never even meet Fred.

She came back holding a CD. "This is a group from back home," she said, holding it out. "They're just breaking out into the big-time now. They're wonderful."

Joyce looked down at the smiling women on the CD cover. "The Dixie Chicks," she read. "Thank you."

Fred shrugged, slipping back into the kitchen to drop a packet of frozen tortellini into the boiling water on the stove. "Something to listen to on the drive up to the new homestead," she said, smiling back over her shoulder.

Joyce looked at the picture on the cover again. One of the women was holding a banjo. Buffy wouldn't listen to this if the alternative was being set on fire.

She curled her hand around the case and slipped out the door. She'd keep this just for herself, then. Some music and memories, a handful of secrets, hers and hers alone.

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