American Airlines flight 1532
Chicago, IL to Washington, D.C.
Mulder is reading to me. We have decided to take the red-eye flight rather than stay the extra night. Another late night confined to lumpy seats, surrounded by dozing flyers in the dim light. I glance out the window on my right but all I can see is our reflection. Mulder is slouched into the seat next to me, his leg stretched into the dark aisle. He holds the book in one hand, propped open with his thumb. I pull the plastic shade down halfway and contemplate the phone in the seat in front of me.
It's folktales this time. But I'm not listening to the words so much as the sounds of the words. His soft warm monotone, the sound of my breathing, the muted hum of the plane. Mulder leans close enough to read without annoying everyone around us, close enough to hypnotize me with tales of giants, fairies and ghosts. Resting my head against the back of the seat, I close my eyes and listen.
FBI offices, Chicago, IL
Kersh is jerking us around more than usual lately. Two days ago we're told to drop everything, fly out here and assist in interviewing people about events they barely remember. That was bad enough but we haven't even finished, and now we are to return to D.C. immediately, to resume our usual mindnumbing assignment. What is the point of yanking us around like this? Just to prove he can? Mulder stalks over to the desk, spins the chair around, and throws himself into it. Glaring at the screen, he bangs out a few sentences on the keyboard. If he had a tail, it would be snapping side to side. He grabs the mouse and shuts down the program.
I walk over and touch his elbow. "Mulder, don't. Let it go." We look at each other. He looks frustrated. Yeah, me too.
His eyes flick toward the door when someone walks by and he stands, pulling the car keys from his pocket. "I'll drive."
One of the friendlier local agents on the taskforce had mentioned an interesting university bookstore on the way to the airport, worth a visit if we had the time. Hell, we have nothing but time these days, and it's better than nursing a drink under the fluorescent lights of an airport bar. Not that we ever do that. In fact, we almost always end up waiting for flights in bookstores. Maybe I should add this to my list of things to reevaluate, courtesy of Kersh.
We never would have found this bookstore without stopping to ask. When I step out of the car, I recall immediately why I hate snow in the city. There is nothing quite like stepping out of a warm car into an icy slushy mess that slops over the sides of my shoe. It's a good thing my mother can't hear me. I curse again when my foot sinks into a snowdrift thrown up by a plow. In my next life, I'm going to have longer legs. Mulder, of course, waits on the sidewalk already, looking across the street at the Gothic university architecture, his back to an old church.
The bookstore is in the basement of the church. I suppose it was just a convenient location for a bookstore but it makes sense, in some strange way. Faith, grounded by reason. We pause inside the door, shaking snow from our shoulders and our shoes. Dim winter light smudges our shadows across the stone walls and flagstone floor. It's a little medieval in here for my taste, too gray and remote. Relief beckons from a narrow doorway to our left, a warm embrace of light that illuminates stairs down to the basement.
The bookstore has made good use of the oddly shaped rooms under the church. The cashiers are tucked into a grotto at the foot of the stairs and every conceivable space is covered in books. No trashy romances or self-help books here. I eye four entire shelves near the cashiers dedicated to different translations of the Iliad. Strategically placed for those last minute impulse purchases, or so highly coveted that they worry about shoplifters?
The overheated air smells like damp wool. Cozy. Maybe my feet will warm up a little. I trail my fingers over the books displayed on a long wooden table in the center of the room. They settle on a sepia-toned painting of bearded explorers in coonskin caps. The Lewis and Clark expedition. I think I read a positive review of this one not too long ago in the Post. Out of the corner of my eye I see Mulder disappear into one of the rooms off to the left. Psychology or biographies, if I had to guess, though he'll read anything if he's desperate enough. I'll bet he has the message from the American Dental Association on his toothpaste tube memorized. If the light in his eyes is any indication, Mulder is in heaven here.
I open the book to a random page and read until I come to a map of their journey. I never realized how long it was. A dark line traces their route across the country, cataloguing swamps, mountains, and Indian tribes along the way. I have always loved those old maps you see from the Age of Exploration, dragons and hydras lurking on the edge of the known universe: there be monsters. I could map New Jersey the same way, a nice pen and ink drawing of flukemen and beast women on parchment. Lovely.
I wonder if Mulder would like this book. I wonder if I could talk Mulder into reading it to me. A picture of last week's late-night stakeout replaces the map in my hands, a mental snapshot of the two of us in Mulder's car.
I blink and shake my head. Snap out of it. I am not picking out books with my partner in mind. The image lingers, though.
As usual, we were assigned to the periphery of the case, so it didn't matter if we took turns watching the warehouse. I was reading a funny book about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I guess I snickered enough to make Mulder ask what I was reading. It would have taken longer to explain than just to read it out loud. He laughed, too, and asked me to keep going, a soft request that I think surprised him as much as me. So I did, hoping to hear him laugh again. When it was my turn to watch, he read. It was fun. Relaxing, even.
It takes longer to read aloud than to read silently, to speak every word in every sentence. And listening means surrendering to the unhurried rhythm of the reader, allowing the warm sound to insinuate its way into the brain and along the spine. There is something undeniably sensuous about being read to, drifting in the velvety low rumble of a quietly amused voice in a dark car. It's not necessarily sexual, though it could be. I did briefly contemplate what Mulder would do if I had brought the book of erotica Melissa gave me for my birthday one year as a joke. Thank God it was dark in the car.
"What did you find?"
Mulder materializes over my shoulder, close enough that I can feel his breath on the side of my face. I flip the front cover over to show him without turning around.
"Oh, I remember reading everything I could find about them when I was a kid. So did my friends. We spent a whole summer pretending we were fearless explorers." He pauses, lost in a memory. "I haven't thought about that in years. Hey, if you think about it, Lewis and Clark didn't have such a bad life. How would you like to have had a blank check from the President to explore new worlds?" I can hear the smile in his voice.
"Actually, Mulder, I was thinking about the scientific purpose of their trip. Did you know they documented 178 previously unknown plants and almost as many animals?"
"Only unknown to the west." He moves off toward another of the small side rooms. I look back down at the map. Perhaps that is what Mulder and I are doing these days, mapping our territories. Revisiting boundaries marked by the hills and valleys of natural temperament, and by the strong fences that are less organic but no less fundamental features of the landscape.
He would probably like this book. But what am I going to do, buy it and ask him to read it to me? I can't even imagine how I would ask. "Mulder, it's a long flight and we don't have the new case file to read yet and ..." No, I don't think so.
We have read aloud to each other before, but only autopsy results or peculiar astronomical phenomena. Imparting factual information. This was ... different. This was sharing a story for no other reason than to entertain each other.
We just don't do these normal friends things. We don't even spend time together outside of work. It's one of those boundaries we set early on, like calling each other by our last names. We are both independent people, used to being alone.
I need the time and the space to reclaim my internal rhythm. Not that I find Mulder oppressive, but his consuming intensity can't help but draw me in, his demanding need summoning my persistent skepticism to ground him. Alone, I can hear myself think, dance with abandon, do whatever, unrestrained by how others see me and how I think I should behave when I am with them. Daughter, sister, agent, partner, friend. I love these bonds, these people, but I also need the peace that only solitude brings.
These days, though, without the pressure of the X-files, I have been feeling less adamant about guarding my privacy. That still doesn't explain two hours of reading aloud, of performing and being performed for. Then again, technically, we were still at work.
Lord. As rationalizations go, that was pathetic.
I look at the book in my hand. Would he pick out a book with me in mind? No. He probably hasn't thought twice about any of this.
This is ridiculous and I have lost my mind, along with the X-files. I am reading too much into this. What is with me today? Not too long ago, I thought I wanted a job that didn't eat up 100 percent of my energy. Now I wonder if boredom isn't just making me demented.
We were bored at work and read to fill up the time. End of story. We haven't mapped territories and we haven't crossed any boundaries. Melodrama doesn't suit me.
I wander past bookcases packed with books whose titles I don't recognize. It would be too easy to get to know Mulder on a casual basis. But I have to believe that someday we'll get the X-files back, and I will need the few hours I'll have to myself. My insomniac partner has more hours in the day to find the solitude he craves. I need more sleep than he does, and it isn't hard to see where this would lead. My inevitable withdrawal would be awkward and, as stupid and contradictory as it sounds, my feelings would be hurt when he returned to obsessing about work.
I walk back to the table and put the book down, straightening the stack of books underneath. I'm starving. Maybe Mulder will be ready to find dinner. I'd rather not eat in the airport.
I find him reading in the next room, kneeling on the floor, sitting back on his heels beside a small stack of books. I move close enough to throw a shadow on his book, to catch his attention without startling him. "Ready to grab some dinner?"
"Almost." He looks up, his eyes soft and far away. I'm not the only one daydreaming the afternoon away. I wonder if this place reminds him of Oxford. "Just give me another couple of minutes."
"OK. Meet you by the cash register in twenty minutes?"
He nods and turns back to his book.
It's too bad this place doesn't have easy chairs scattered around like some bookstores. Probably not the most hygienic idea, but that hasn't stopped me from flopping into one yet. I'd be asleep in a second, considering how warm it is in here. Then we would definitely miss our plane.
I head for one of the rooms I haven't been in yet. Religion, mythology and folktales. Someone with a very secular sensibility must have decided how to group topics by room. I'm too tired for anything serious, which rules out religion. Japanese folktales, Persian, Tibetan. Are they really all that different? I thumb through a thick book with stories from around the world.
"In here, Mulder."
His head pops around the corner before the rest of him. How long have I been in here?
"Hey. Ready to go. Did you find anything?"
"I think so. How about you?" We move toward the cash register.
"Yeah, I found a couple of books on abnormal psychology that look interesting and, um, Reading the Forested Landscape."
"Never heard of it. What's it about?"
"It is about how to read clues in a forest to understand its past. For instance, if you see a lot of old, tall trees and a lot of small saplings in a glen but nothing in between, you can work out that something happened -- like a fire or blight -- around the time the missing middle-sized trees would have been young and vulnerable. You never know, maybe it will come in handy the next time we're lost in the forest."
The thought crosses my mind that the book sounds like something I would pick out but it passes quickly enough. I am tired and it's warm in here and I am letting my mind drift too much. This is Mulder, after all.
American Airlines flight 1532
Chicago, IL to Washington, D.C.
The plane is dark and quiet now that the flight attendant has finished collecting everyone's empty soda cans and pretzel bags. The small circle of light from overhead barely covers both pages of my book. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting old, but I think these lights are getting dimmer every year.
I hear Mulder's bones crackle as he arches his back and stretches his arms over his head. He peers at the book on my lap.
"What are you reading?"
"Any good?" He settles back in his seat.
"They're not bad. The writing itself is a little tedious - the stories are part of an oral tradition, after all, so the language is kept pretty simple. What is interesting is how different cultures developed similar stories, as if the lessons they are intended to impart are universal. Perhaps there are certain themes to which we as humans and not as members of a particular culture return to over and over. Then again, they might just have been spread through trade routes or other contact."
Mulder gives me a look. What was that for?
I read for awhile longer but I'm getting tired. My eyes feel gritty. I lean my head back and shut them.
"Want me to wake you when we get there?"
"What?" I open my eyes. "No, no. I don't want to fall asleep until I get home. I'm just resting my eyes for a bit."
"Okay. Can I take a look at your book?"
"Sure." I hand him the book, open to the page I was reading. It wasn't a hint, I swear.
Again I get the odd look, cut short when he glances down at the book and back up at me. He holds my gaze for a moment, strokes it gently and hands it back. Takes a deep breath and starts to read. Aloud.
I think I'll drop by the bookstore tomorrow and get that Lewis and Clark book.