Fifty Shades of Grey stood on salient display. Lazily reclining against slim steel stands, two particular paperback copies lay side by side, the pages of one tickling the spine of the other. Their covers flapped simultaneously with the gentle inhale or exhale of the revolving oak door at the nearby threshold of the Major Book Retailer. They were in love.
Lost in their cozy nuzzle, the pair of novels awoke each morning to the scent of fresh paper. Every afternoon, they watched the whirlwind of the lunch-hour rush. By infant evening, sunlight flooded the store like a riptide, and in the oncoming ocean of dusk they sighed in unison, endeared by their eternal togetherness. To be separated was unbearable; several times a day, prospective readers wrenched them apart, rifling through crisp pages in search of an especially lurid passage. But they always ended up back together and closer than ever. When they drifted apart, a kindly man with a goatee and a lanyard set them straight.
The entire Fifty Shades trilogy being bundled elsewhere at a discount, there was no surplus of interest in the overpriced original. Distinguished specks of dust accumulated on the lovers’ heads. Soon their covers buckled subtly outward, no longer youthfully flush with the geometry of their pages. One evening, the man with the goatee wheeled over a squeaky pushcart; The Casual Vacancy was coming out. He scooped up excess stock in his tattooed talons, adding it to rows and rows of unread fiction. He plucked the first copy of Fifty Shades of Grey from beside its heartsick soulmate and, pivoting, made a hasty play for the second.
His grip failed. Falling forever away from its twin, the paperback smacked shellacked linoleum. The man swooped in, but the serrated edge of his silver marijuana-leaf ring caught the binding at its base and etched morse grooves up to the nape of E L James’ attribution. Muttering an apathetic expletive, he placed the maimed book against its partner on the cart. Huddled together erect atop the rickety contraption, the pair was ferried to the back of the store where sunset disappeared behind an overstocked bookshelf.
There was nothing romantic about their first cover-to-cover encounter. Reciprocally asphyxiating one another, the disgraced couple was sandwiched between a third copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and its inferior sequel, Fifty Shades Darker. Unloaded from the cart and crammed onto the lowest tier of a towering penitentiary, the two were consigned to ankle observation, each day a grotesque carnival of mismatched socks and varicose veins. Inevitable despondency set it. Gone were the days of playful tickling, replaced now by careless embrace. Intimacy worked against them, and in their mutual boredom the flame of their love flickered. As days bled into indistinguishable nights, the books stewed in standoffish silence.
Christmas. Tender moments few and far between. A carousel of customers revolved around the store in animated pursuit of the perfect gift. The two novels now secretly longed for the oily touch of flesh upon their covers, for any respite from their insufferable codependent predicament — to prove to themselves that they could stand alone even though they literally couldn’t. And so it went until the mid-December morning when one of them was sold.
Tendrilous alien fingers penetrated the inky shadows and danced atop the two unhappy convicts. An enormous amorphous form stood before them. Settling on the unscathed copy, the appendage of the great visitor snatched its prey and jetted out, up, away. Gone. Regret settled in its wake. Replaying the fleeting friction of their separation stirred forgotten longing in the abandoned paperback. In the spacious recess of the shelf, it collapsed against Fifty Shades Darker feeling more alone than ever. Suddenly that once abhorred intimacy seemed a luxury repossessed. Loneliness grew dense, swallowing optimism like a hungry black hole.
Time too grew fat, waddling by with a tray of tear-battered hors d’oeuvres whose myriad tastes made the loveless a connoisseur of the melancholy. Months floated by suspended in formaldehyde. The rows of surrounding books seemed like so many tombstones and the shelf itself a coffin. This was uncharted territory. In the mind’s mine, the torn novel turned each treasured moment over and over obsessively for some gem of hidden meaning. Then it would imagine impossible futures.
Where was that other copy of Fifty Shades of Grey now anyway? Was it happy? Had it found love? Did it think about the bookstore sometimes? The questions throbbed, then faded. Eventually, perspective transformed the shelf from a cellblock into a string of suites. It morphed the mismatched socks into the native flags of distinguished multinational guests, and the varicose veins into connect-the-dot constellations streaking across the hemisphere of a time-lapse sky.
It was beautiful. In amity with past and present, place and patron alike, the paperback soon felt the first fleeting pangs of enthusiasm for its uncertain future. And then, as if by sheer willpower, it ascended from the dark shelf. Overcome by ebullient weightlessness, it rose higher and higher in the hands of a radiant young woman with almond skin and jet-black hair. The vast expanse of the bookstore presented itself, here rising into great square mountains and there falling into green, carpeted valleys. And soaring above it all in the divine hand of its new owner, the novel finally touched down at register. As it passed across the counter and into a crisp sleeve of crinkling plastic, it glimpsed the man with the goatee one last time. He smiled.
Next stop, Eden. Sprawled out on a verdant quilt, the almond angel eagerly parted bag and book. Painted amber by the bedside lamp, the novel basked in the opulence of the room, from the rustic antique armoire to the collage of photographs, playbills, and other little keepsakes pinned to a corkboard against the wall. The faintest scent of cinnamon weaved its way through the warm evening air.
Crack! The girl cruelly bent back the cover of her new copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, forcing the contorted paperback to kiss its own humiliated ass. But the real torture was still to come; askew opposite helter-skelter tampons and toothpicks and Q-tips, the novel pitched in a pitch-dark handbag as nickels hailed down from an unzipped compartment amid the deafening cacophony of jingling keys and cellphone bleeps. Chapter one, creased corners and increased duress. Chapter three, coffee stains and croissant crumbs. Chapter eight, soiled on the toilet by unwashed fingers. Chapter fifteen — O, to have been born a Kindle!
Cataclysmic sounds and sour smells. Chapter twenty-six. Jostled by turbulence, the paperback slipped from slack fingers and stuck fast to the tacky floor of a crowded subway car. Tsk; the girl pried it loose and hastened to re-find her place. She scanned the dwindling paragraphs, fighting the urge to hurdle whole sentences en route to the imminent conclusion. Faster and faster her pupils chased each consecutive period, fingers poised impatiently behind each page. And then it ended. Her eyes and the train came to rest. She hurriedly gathered her things and disembarked for home.
Fifty Shades of Grey haunted a new shelf there. Years yellowed the tips of its pages. The bent, broken, and abused novel slipped into oblivious sleep, startled occasionally awake by the sudden ache of solitude. Christmas again. In atrophy, it was hoisted into a plastic bin, which the girl dumped unceremoniously onto the curb outside her windswept apartment. Giant snowflakes descended, kissed its cover, and dissolved into tiny puddles. In the chill of the naked breeze it waved like a flag, white against white.
2063 — fifty years later.
Time vanished like surf in spongy sand. In a vacant boardwalk bookstore, the withered copy of Fifty Shades of Grey now topped a heap of old paperbacks in a bin labeled 5 For A Buck. The stubbled old Geppetto who served as shop proprietor heaved a strained sigh as he carried a stack of new arrivals over to the untouched collection. A barrage of sharp corners and bellyflops entombed the now geriatric novel and snuffed out the sunlight.
But in the dark, groping for orientation, a familiar tickle. Though the pages that brushed against its scoliotic spine were curled with age, there was no mistaking the paper stock! Blinded by the canopy and irrevocably altered by a life’s hardships, it was impossible to conclude whether the encounter was a serendipitous rendezvous or nostalgic counterfeit. The two strangers rejoiced all the same, and laid side by side in blissful harmony in the darkness of Geppetto’s bargain bin. And they lived happily ever after there because no one reads anymore and no one remembers Fifty Shades of Grey.