Alex stumbled into the only open store he could find just as the snow storm started to worsen, trying to get somewhere warm to wait it out. It was a quaint little bookshop on the corner of Main and 5th that felt so out of place amongst the built-up city surrounding it.
‘Welcome to Beethoven and Books,’ a sweet voice called out from somewhere at the back of the shop as the little brass bell chimed, announcing his arrival, ‘how can I help you today?’ A young woman appeared from behind a row of books wearing a beaming smile that made her ice blue eyes sparkle. She was dressed rather oddly in a dusty yellow sun dress despite the freeze temperatures.
‘I, uh, actually I came here to wait out the snow storm, if that’s okay? I couldn’t get my car started a few blocks down, so I was looking for somewhere warm to wait it out,’ Alex replied apologetically.
‘Of course, stay as long as you need. I just put the kettle on. Tea or coffee?’ she asked cheerfully.
‘Coffee please,’ he replied, watching her head toward the kitchenette at the back of the store. Alex marvelled at the bounce in her step and how cheerful her disposition was. She was like the last day of summer, unfazed and unconcerned about the cold world around them.
‘I’m Claire by the way,’ she called out as she pulled various tins from shelf, searching for the instant coffee.
‘Alex,’ he replied leaning against the counter watching her pull out two chipped and battered mugs.
‘I’m surprised you walked in, you know there’s a snow storm coming,’ Claire mused as she popped a teabag into her own cup. With a quick stir of the coffee she handed Alex the pipping hot mug.
‘Thank you,’ Alex replied huskily taking a small sip, ‘as glad as I am that you are open, why are you open? Everywhere is closed’
Claire looked at him with a quizzical expression before letting loose a wild chuckle. ‘Well I could ask you why you were walking the streets during a snow storm? I always open up because you don’t know who will walk in needing something, whether it’s a book or a cup of coffee.’
‘Well thanks again,’ Alex added, taking another sip he took in his surroundings. It was a wild bookstore if ever he’d seen on. Rows and rows of tightly packed wooden bookshelves lined either side of a central walkway, teetering on the edge like they’d collapse onto one another. The emerald green carpet was dull and well worn from the thoroughfare of customer. To one side down a row of books he could spy a roaring fireplace that kept the place warm, with two armchairs either side of it, set up for those who wanted to stay and read here.
‘This is certainly something,’ Alex mused, running his hand along the spine of a few books near the counter.
‘Isn’t it!’ Claire beamed like a child in a candy store, ‘feel free to grab a book to read.’ She picked up her cup of tea and a book she’d left on the kitchen bench and wandered down the bookshelves, plonking herself into one of the armchairs. She curled herself up in the chair with a blanket and continued to read the book she’d already started.
Alex followed her and sat down in the other chair, pushing his feet towards the fire. ‘I actually don’t like to read,’ he stated, ‘I always found it so boring.’
Claire’s jaw nearly hit the floor. ‘Don’t like to read?’ she gawked, ‘I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like to read. It just means you haven’t found the right book yet!’ She sat back into the armchair, muttering under her breath, ‘don’t like to read. Pffft.’
‘Sorry I disappoint you,’ Alex sighed as he sunk into the armchair, ‘I seem to be good at disappointing people today.’
Claire frowned, turning her whole body to face him. ‘That’s a load of shit.’
‘Excuse me?’ Alex balked, surprised by her sudden change of disposition.
‘You heard me. Firstly, you haven’t disappointed me. You’ve set me a challenge,’ she grinned. ‘Secondly, who care’s if you disappoint others, as long as you haven’t disappointed yourself why do their opinions matter.’ With that she stood up and started walking down the isles searching for something.
‘Don’t you care what the people around you think of you?’ Alex questioned as he watched her almost dance with enthusiasm down the rows of books as she scanned the shelves.
‘No. Why should I?’ Claire responded, ‘I’ll live my life the way I see fit, and if people don’t like it then that is their problem, isn’t it?’
Alex groaned, staring back at the flickering flames briefly before closing his eyes. If only it was that simple. And nothing in life was ever than simple he thought.
‘Does this have something to do with why you were walking around in the middle of one of the worst snow storms we’ve had this season?’ Claire asked calmly as she returned to her chair with several books stacked in her arms. She sat down and started flicking through each of them.
Alex cocked his head towards her, ‘how did you know? I didn’t even say anything,’ he replied hesitantly.
‘Perhaps not directly,’ she said with a half-smile. ‘Perhaps it’s not a book you need, but a conversation. Something is clearly eating at you,’ she said putting the books she’d been flicking through on the floor, giving Alex her undivided attention.
Alex shifted uncomfortably in his chair, unable to find the words to express what he wanted to say.
Claire gave him a comforting smile, ‘how about we start at the beginning just like all stories with once upon a time…’
‘Are you serious?’ Alex snorted, ‘my life isn’t some fairy tale in one of your books.’
‘Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. All stories started from some real-world truth,’ Claire replied, unfazed by Alex’s rudeness. ‘Tell me or don’t. I was just trying to help.’
‘Sorry,’ Alex grimaced, ‘I didn’t mean to be rude. I… I don’t like talking about how I feel. Especially to people I barely know.’
Claire nodded her head and picked up one of the books from the floor, once again flicking through the pages. ‘It is never easy you know,’ she purred, ‘if talking about our feelings were easy I think the world would be a far better, far happier place.’
With that they both sat in silence. The snow storm outside had settled in for the long haul, the air still biting with a touch of ice despite the roaring fire keeping them warm inside. Claire had resigned to reading a collection of essays by Emerson while Alex sat in strained thought.
As an hour fluttered by, and several more cups of tea later, Alex finally broke the silence between them.
‘I feel lost,’ he mumbled, his eyes shadowed with a mixture of loss and regret. ‘Every choice I make seems to be the wrong one and I don’t know how to fix it.’
Claire considered his words carefully, taking another sip of her tea before she spoke. ‘Why do your choices feel wrong?’ she asked quietly.
‘I don’t know,’ said Alex with a frown, ‘I’ve done everything I thought was the right thing to do but I am still a disappointment. I am never good enough.’ With a sigh he threw his head back, his shoulders slumped into the back of the chair.
‘Ah,’ Claire sighed, ‘let me ask you a question. Do you live your life to make them happy, or to make yourself happy?’
‘What do you mean?’ Alex replied slightly confused by the question.
‘I mean is the life you are living the one you want to live? Or are you living a life that others wished for you to live?’ she clarified.
Alex had never really given it a thought before. His life had ultimately been steered by the push of his family and friends’ expectations up until now. He thought it was what he wanted.
‘I don’t need to know your story to know how you are feeling right now,’ Claire continued, ‘you feel torn between respecting what your loved ones want for you and what your heart wants to do. Am I right?’
‘I’ve been there myself,’ Claire said with a bittersweet smile, ‘it isn’t an easy road to walk down.’
‘What did you do?’ Alex asked.
‘I stopped putting pressure on myself to meet other people’s expectations. I figured I had two choices. I could let the world define me, or I could define what kind of world I would live in.
‘People never stop telling you who should be and what you must do. Everyone has an opinion about what kind of life you should lead. But it’s up to you to decide what you want. I had to learn that. I was scared, I thought I’d lose family and friends because of my choices. And I did loose a few. But I asked myself, if they don’t support my pursuit of happiness, the dreams I wanted to achieve or the path I’ve chosen, then are they worth holding onto?’
Alex leaned forward, ‘and?’
‘I let them go. It didn’t matter how old or deep the connection was, if they decided to tear apart the things that made me happy I decided they were not good people to have influencing my life,’ Claire grinned. ‘You say you are a disappointment, well so am I. But I don’t let their disappointment in me make me feel guilty for being true to who I am.’
‘How? You seem so sure of yourself. I feel like I don’t even know who I am anymore,’ Alex groaned.
Claire moved closer to him, taking his hands in hers, ‘it took a long time for me to feel confident with who I am and what I wanted from life. You’ll get there eventually, but it takes time.’
Alex gave her a weak smile as she stood up to tend to the waning fire. He watched as she stacked three more logs in the fire place. Something flickered inside him, a sense that fate had brought him here. A worn-out hero seeking guidance from the wise witch. Ironic since he gawked at the idea earlier when she treated his story as a once upon a time moment. ‘What were you doing that made people disappointed in you?’ Alex asked nervously, hoping that Claire wouldn’t think him rude for asking such a question.
‘I dropped out of medical school to open this book shop,’ she shrugged like the question was the kind she regularly answered. ‘My parents spent my whole life setting me up to become a doctor, while I spent my whole life in love with the written word. My mother cried, and my father kicked me out of the house. Labelled me selfish for all they had sacrificed to help me become someone they wanted me to be.
‘This was my dream,’ Claire continued, gesturing to the room around them, ‘ever since I was a kid. I went to med school to make my family happy, but I’d never been more miserable. It was hard, I won’t lie, especially financially, to walk away from that. Thankfully I had my girlfriend, who let me move in with her and after years of saving I eventually had enough to get a loan to buy this place.
‘I made my own happiness in these four walls. For a long time, I thought it’d be impossible to ever feel happy with myself after seeing how disappointment my family were. But in the end, I had to remind myself that we only get one life, so why was I living it their way?’
‘I wish I had your self confidence to do that,’ Alex mumbled, ‘I don’t think I could do what I want just because I wanted to.’
Claire raised her eyebrows. ‘Haven’t you been listening,’ she snapped, ‘the only person holding you back in you. Not your parents, family or friends. It’s you. You’re scared of what they will say if you ever decide to grow a backbone and take hold of your own life. And they will talk, good and bad, to your face and behind your back.
‘In the end they talk because they are jealous of your bravery to put your happiness first, while they are too afraid or stubborn to change their own miserable lives. Let them be disappointed, but don’t let you disappoint yourself by bowing to their desire to shape your life how they see fit. If you do you aren’t living your life, they are,’ she continued.
‘You love the sound of your own voice don’t you,’ Alex mocked, ‘not everyone can just do what they want in life.’
‘Why not?’ Claire challenged, ‘what is it you wanted to do with your life?’
Alex clenched his jaw, averting his eyes from her gaze.
‘I don’t really care if you listen to me or not Alex, but at least listen to yourself and what your heart wants,’ Claire sighed.
‘I wanted to go to art school,’ Alex replied hesitantly, ‘but my father made me follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer.’
‘Ah, there it is,’ Claire hummed. Slowly she turned to walk to the counter at the back of the store to retrieve a book she had kept hidden underneath the register. ‘Why didn’t you go to art school?’ she questioned as she returned to where they had been sitting over the last two hours.
‘I just said why,’ Alex argued.
‘No, you didn’t,’ Claire replied calmly, ‘your father couldn’t make you follow in his footsteps, you chose to. It was always your decision.’
‘You’ve never met my father, what the hell would you know about it. My decision. Ha. If I could’ve I would’ve gone to art school. End. Of. Story,’ Alex snapped back at her like a pissed off teenager.
Claire simply relaxed into her chair and folded her arms across her chest. ‘Following your heart is never easy, if it was everyone would pursuit the dreams they keep secret from the world. You didn’t go to art school because you were too scared to fail, that it would be too difficult and so somewhere, at some point, you decided it was okay to sacrifice your happiness for comfortable mediocrity.’
Alex’s jaw dropped at her frankness. Who they hell does this woman think she is, he thought.
Claire smirked, ‘You’re scared of being yourself. But you don’t have to be.’ With that she handed Alex the small leather-bound book she’d collected moments ago.
‘The Art of Life: Lessons in Personal Happiness,’ he mumbled as he read the cover. Alex looked up, but Claire had disappeared, leaving him alone beside the fire. He twisted around to see which way she went but couldn’t see her anywhere. ‘What is this?’ he called out.
‘That is the book,’ her sweet voice floated through the stacks, ‘remember the challenge you set me.’ Silence fell over the bookstore once again, interrupted only by the singing winds of the snow storm.
Alex twisted back, opened the book to page one and started reading. Hours and hours seemed to pass as he ploughed through the book, sitting alone by the fire. Claire was right. Reading could be wonderful if given the right book. As he read he reflected on their conversation.
She was right.
He’d always been too afraid. Too afraid to trust himself and take a risk. He’d wasn’t happy with his current position, and perhaps art school wouldn’t make him happy either. But how would he know if he never tried? If he was honest with himself he’d always know it but never wanted to acknowledge it.
It’s easy to tell someone they don’t understand, but she did, and that was what scared him, what made him so defensive. She understood the struggle between head and heart that he was going through.
Alex got halfway through the book before he put it down to look for Claire. He found her perched on a stool behind the counter lost in the works of Charles Dickens. She lifted her head as he approached and offered him a knowing smile.
‘I think I understand now,’ Alex smiled, ‘you were right, and I’m sorry for being an ass to you. I just… I never thought I could do it, you know? Say no to what they wanted me to be.’ He tried to hand Claire back the book, but she pushed it back into his hands.
‘It’s yours,’ she insisted, ‘and all I said was the truth you already knew in your heart but was too afraid to tell your head.’
Alex chuckled, ‘you’re very perceptive, has anyone ever told you that?’
Claire’s eyes sparkled as she grinned, ‘oh they tell me all the time.’ She moved from behind the counter towards the front door of the store. ‘I’m so perceptive that I can even sense that the storm has passed,’ she laughed, opening the door, sticking her head out to peer up and down the street. ‘It seems the worst is over.’
Alex joined her and marvelled at how beautiful the snow shone in the afternoon sunlight. ‘Thank you,’ he hummed, ‘for giving me a new perspective.’
‘I think it’s time you decided what you want for yourself,’ Claire replied stepping back inside. ‘It’s your life, so make the most of it by doing what you love.’
Alex turned to where she stood in the door way. ‘I will,’ he agreed, ‘thank you, for everything.’
Claire just smiled and waved as he started to make the slow journey through the snow back to his car, book in hand and a glimmer of hope in his eyes.