I’ve told this story many times in the last two years. Everyone loves it. Like most of my stories in La Cuadra, it was just a captured moment in time. I came to learn that the Estonian told this story, too. It worked for her and it worked for me. When she started coming back, visiting the bookstore, it was this story that bound us to each other. I knew I would write it eventually, but circumstances dictated that I do so now.
I was sitting on the stool at the desk one quiet, sunny afternoon about two years ago. Business was slow. She wandered in, gave me a warm smile, but said little. She was stunningly beautiful. Young twenties, blond wavy hair, wonderful smile. She started looking in the fiction section.
I let her look.
After a few minutes, I tried to start up a conversation, but she wasn’t biting. She seemed to be enjoying herself. She gave me a couple more smiles. She was full of herself, and expressed it with a self-assured coquettishness. I had a feeling this was going to end up memorably.
Finally, she decided to engage. She walked up to the desk and turned to face me. She was very close. The desk is only about two feet wide. She leaned in. I didn’t know what to expect. She was smiling broadly now, with the slightest hint that she knew something that I didn’t.
She asked me, “Do you have anything in Estonian?”
Her expression indicated that she was sure she had me there. I would be stumped. She would be all the more self-satisfied.
I didn’t answer her. I didn’t even smile. I knew she had overplayed her hand. I wanted to extend the anticipation for a moment. I looked at her with a neutral expression. I could see her confidence waver briefly, but she recovered it and continued her teasing smile.
I turned away from her and without getting up, reached over to the foreign language shelf to my right. I knew exactly where it was. I grabbed it and handed the book to her.
She seemed confused. She opened the book, and exclaimed with a combination of astonishment and dismay, “It’s in Estonian!”
“Uh huh,” I deadpanned.
She raised her eyes to me, recovering from the shock of realizing she was on the wrong end of the joke she had devised. Then she found her smile again, and said, “I guess I have to buy it now, don’t I?”
“Yep,” I said, smiling broadly to let her know I enjoyed the joke as much as she had intended.
She bought the book, and I started telling that story when people would come into the store.
She walked back into the store about a year later. I didn’t recognize her at first.
“Do you remember me?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I confessed.
“I’m from Estonia.”
“Of course, I remember now. I sold you that book in Estonian. I’m surprised to see you again.”
“That’s right; that was me. My name is Olivia.”
“Are you visiting again?” I asked.
“I never left. I’ve been living up at the lake, in Santa Cruz.”
We had a nice conversation. She was a joy to speak with. I told her that I had told the story of the book many times. She got a real kick out of that. She said she’d told it to friends a number of times, too.
I said I would come up to visit her sometime. It was good to see her again.
About six months later she came in, this time with two other young women. Again, I wasn’t quite sure if it was her.
She asked, “Don’t you remember me?” I hesitated. She added the now-familiar introduction, “I’m Olivia, from Estonia.”
“Of course I remember you,” I replied. “How is everything up at the lake?”
“It’s fine. These are my two friends who just arrived from Estonia to visit.”
She introduced them.
“I brought them here to meet you because I’ve told them the story of the book.”
“Wow, I’ve never had three Estonians in the shop at one time!” I exclaimed.
We all had a good chat about their visit. I told them I would try to come up to the lake to see them. They welcomed that.
As they were leaving, I told Olivia, “You know, I think the reason I didn’t immediately recognize you this time was that your appearance has changed a little.”
“How’s that?” she asked.
“You’re changing from a pretty girl into a beautiful woman,” I told her truthfully. They all liked that, Olivia beaming the most.
Three weeks ago, in early December, two young women walked into the store. They acted like they knew me.
“Do you remember us?” they asked. “We’re from Estonia.”
“Of course! Where’s Olivia?” I asked expectantly.
They weren’t smiling. I sensed something was wrong.
“Olivia passed away,” one of them said.
“How?” I asked in shock, not fully believing what I had just heard.
“She got sick, alone, and there was no one there to help her.”
I didn’t want to ask too many questions at that moment. They seemed like they were barely in control of their emotions, and I knew mine were equally unhinged.
“Was there a service?” I asked. “Was she buried up there?”
“She was cremated. The service was a few days ago. Her mother was here. We brought her mother to see you yesterday, but you were closed. She left this morning. She wanted to meet you because Olivia told everyone the story of the book, and how much she liked visiting the store and talking with you.”
With that I pretty much lost any control over my emotions, and began to get teary eyed.
“Olivia was so full of life and such a friendly, kind person. Everyone who knew her felt the same,” the first one said.
Her friend then added. “We want to give you this book. It’s a guide to Guatemala in Estonian. We thought the bookstore should have another book in Estonian since Olivia took the only one you had.”
And so, the book sits now on my desk. I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m certain I couldn’t ever sell it. I’ll put it up on the shelf where the other one once was.
I’m confident that the right moment will arrive and that moment will reveal when to pass it on, and to whom.
And so, Olivia, I’ll continue to tell the story of the Estonian in the bookstore just the way I told it before. As I do, maybe someone will catch just a tinge of melancholy in my voice. It’s not necessary, except for this one time, to tell the true ending.