There’s something about the smell of old things — used things — that can be addictive. Perhaps it’s a person’s residual presence, the way their hand held that item for years, or the scent of their cologne that still lingers on the aged leather of a briefcase. Whatever that feeling was, it was the reason Charlotte Smith couldn’t resist the pull of antiques. They spoke to her. Each weekend she’d spend hours hunting for just the right treasure to add to her collection. She fancied she had a special gift, an ability to feel the gravitas of that particular thing as it related to its previous owner, and so those were the little trinkets that she often picked up and placed in her one-bedroom, New York flat. They were the items most people overlooked when acquiring the pre-worn: gloves molded to a delicate hand, a camera with dial markers no longer legible, and, her favorite, a little glass deer with eyes blazing blue and a missing antler. These were the used things, objects whose lifespans were nearing the end of their existence. The love and care they received were apparent, and it was that which Charlotte was desperate to feel close to. She longed for a similar attachment, and so created them with objects. It was easier to cling to collectibles loved by the ghosts of the past than seek a similar affection for herself.
You could say collecting was her hobby – but that’s such a common way to phrase it. No, for Charlotte, it was an affair into which she poured all her humanly needs. It was simple: her relationships were with the items she collected. They were her lovers and her children. She’d spin stories for how they added to her life. A miniature portrait wasn’t merely an item that hung in her bathroom; it was a life that surrounded and added to her own, a companion to witness her existence. To the collectibles, she could be honest and share her secrets out-loud. Not that she had many. When Charlotte was a teenager, she dreamed of a New York City apartment full of memories rather than one full of things, but she gave up on those ideas like she had given up her childhood: without looking back. Thus, a life of collecting seemed to suit.
Which is how Charlotte found herself that Sunday, sorting through the vintages of an antique shop upstate. It was a dive of a place, forgotten and old as its hinges, which hung crooked and loose on the doorframe. The mangled little barn off the country road was not worth a second look.
Inside, dim, yellow light peeked out from under a mildewed shade, casting the small room in a dated glow. The shop looked tired. It’s tranquil inhabitants lined the walls and covered every surface throughout the room. Stacked on shelves and forgotten in corners, the items were left to wait during the perpetual winter of being lost and useless. The porcelain didn’t seem to mind the years of sediment that had collected on their backs, nor did a baseball glove pay attention to its laces slowly loosening. There was nothing else to do but wait, which is what the clerk did in front of a long glass display case. He sat rigidly behind the counter, arms pitched out, reading a newspaper. A presence as stony and rigid as a block of granite. Since Charlotte’s admittance, he hadn’t looked up, but she knew better than to assume he wasn’t paying attention. Most shopkeepers had eyes on the back of their heads.
Slow, crackled jazz sung from an old record player while she idled at a small table, picking through a collection of delicate, turn-of-the-century pins. It was odd to have such collectibles strewn about, but in the world of estate sales and liquidation, one could always find these hidden caches, the wealth clumsily thrown together and sold for a few dollars at a time. With each flick of her hand, dust particles swirled and then resettled to rest among their friends.
The shop held the private collection of an old farming family whose wallet had seen better days. Charlotte had stood at the peeling wooden door, shoulders hung in anticipation of being turned away when the man unexpectedly grunted admittance. It wasn’t pure luck – collectors recognize each other and the hungry look in their eyes when catching a glimpse of old things. Once inside the store, she felt giddy, as if she had slain a great beast or disarmed a guarding troll.
Entry gave her a high each time.
After years of honing her antique hunting, Charlotte had it down to a science. Start small, make quick decisions, haggle loosely, and smile. It was often the smile that saved time in a bargain with the sunburnt woman at the local flea market, or the wretched seller unwilling to part from his collectibles. You see, with a friendly smile, and a small frame, she gave each adversary a sense that they were arguing over an item with a child. It had worked countless times, and Charlotte knew to use her ace when a beloved object was struggling to be free from its captor.
Her eyes narrowed on a rhinestone brooch. The turtle’s bejeweled back caught the light and flashed prisms about the space. She considered. Its backing was worn, the pointed lance nearly dull, but the coral colored gems swirled over the shell in a pleasing way. It was a diamond in the rough. Charlotte was sure about the first item – one she’d likely wear on her overcoat. She plucked it from the black velvet case and cupped the treasure in her hand. Yes, it would do. With a swift stride to the seller, she placed the jewelry on the murky glass counter with a small click and continued on.
A few dusty hats, a small lamp that was unlikely to work, and a pile of photographic magazines later, she approached a display of sunglasses. They were eccentric-looking things, mostly from the 1950s with cat-eyed shapes, molded details, and milky plastics. And there, in the middle of all the flashy pairs, was a set of perfectly ordinary brass-rimmed spectacles. They were old and out of place amid the polished cotton candy colors. That was what first brought her gaze to them. The glasses were too normal to be amid such peacocks and stood out — aching to be rubbed bright. Another lost jewel, looking for a home.
She ran a hand along the delicate slope of the frames and casually picked them up. The man at the counter coughed suddenly, and Charlotte’s body jumped to attention. The peace had lulled her into feeling alone, but the remembrance of the foreboding presence made her feel like a mouse, waiting for a cat to pounce in the darkness. She turned, but the attendant had already gone back to his reading. With more courage and composure, she pinched the delicate stem of the frames and brought them up to her face for inspection. Was it her imagination, or did they buzz? Or was it a hum? Perhaps the heating had turned on in the room because it suddenly had become very hot and she couldn’t account for the sensation between her breasts. She looked over the glasses. Again, they were not strange and indeed not unusual enough for a second glance, …but still, there was something peculiar about the shape. Or was it the glass, that made them feel sticky in Charlotte’s slender fingers? She had settled her mind on many items that had attracted her less, so with a swiftness of mind, the glasses’ fate was quickly determined.
A flush of the cheeks and a glance at her watch later, she realized it was time to go. Hours had gone by quietly poking through trays of items, and after finding several keepsakes, there was no sense in prolonging the trip back. The fabric of her dress brushed past the narrow rows of dormant doodads and stirred the air one last time. Charlotte placed herself at the base of the monolithic cash register. The clerk was still behind his newspaper, undisturbed by the staring presence of the young woman. She sucked on her bottom lip, determined to awaken the pillar with a friendly remark, but she didn’t have to – he abruptly folded the barrier and looked down at her. Through the yellow light, she saw the large pores of his blotchy face and a pair of grey eyes that were not kind.
“’s that it?” He gestured to the pile she had placed on the glass cabinet. She nodded, seeing his eyes settle on the wiry spectacles. “These too?” He yanked them out of the arrangement, dangling the frames from the crook of a pinky finger. Feeling the cool anxiety of confrontation in her stomach, Charlotte mumbled about how they had reminded her of a pair her grandfather once cherished. The teller’s eyes bore into her face, unconvinced.
“We weren’t gonna sell these, ya know.” He squinted as the lenses dangled. “They’re special. Got to make sure these go to a nice place.” A smile spread across his face, each discolored tooth flashing like a sinister flag.
“Oh,” she replied, “well, I’ve many antiques, and I take very good care of my things. These glasses will be cared for.” Charlotte shuffled her feet, preparing for a fight.
“You married?” His sour breath wafted towards her face as he accentuated the d of married.
“No.” Annoyance washed over her, but she held firm. “Though I don’t see why that should matter.” She was fierce against the face of judgment, though for a moment, it disarmed her.
“Just wondering.” The man shrugged. The blue checkered shirt stayed crumpled by his neck where his shoulders had been.
Charlotte’s response seemed to settle him because he gave her a crooked smile and began to tally the purchases. Two dollars per magazine, ten for the broken lamp, a couple each for the hats.
Then there were the lenses.
“A hundred, for these.” He pointed to them, resting innocently on the counter.
“Twenty. They’re useless.”
“Eighty, then. They got style.”
“Twenty-five. They’re out of date.” Charlotte smiled while delivering the slight.
“Lady, you run a tough bargain.” He looked at her, considered, then spoke in a near whisper. “What if I told you these glasses could change your life? What would they be worth to you then?”
The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Change wasn’t always good. In fact, for Charlotte, it was usually the opposite. But the man’s tempting words enticed her. What would she pay to change everything? More than a hundred dollars, to be sure.
“Thirty dollars. That’s all the cash I have.” A brazen bluff, but she tried her best at bravery in the face of danger.
The man laughed hard and deep, throwing his head back. Charlotte could see the angry bristles of his nose hairs, but his face came back humored and calm. “Fine, but you’re getting the better deal.” She knew from his eyes that he saw right through her.
Her fingers fluttered with excitement as she rifled through her wallet for the bills, already calculating the future placement of each item in the apartment. And just as abruptly as she arrived, Charlotte found herself renewed, clutching the delicate shopping bag of old, new loves she’d just triumphantly won.
The bus back to the city was bumpy and dull, grey skies penetrating the grey interior and giving a bleakness to the vehicle and its passengers. The plastic seat dug into Charlotte’s spine with each jolt, and she peered around the space to help pass the hour-long ride back to the metropolis she called home. In the row ahead, a punky teenager glanced over his shoulder, sizing her up. Meanwhile, an elderly couple sat close to each other in the front row, peacefully gazing out the window in companionable silence. The last passenger was a man on the down-and-out, his worn clothes wrapped around him as he dozed deeply across three seats. All was as Charlotte expected it to be — this trip taken more times than she could count.
In an instant, the bus swerved, and the bag of wares she had so carefully positioned on the floor between seats, fell over. Precious items spilled onto the ground here and there, but she was able to gather them all rather quickly. Except for the pair of brass lenses. They sneaked away under the seat, dancing towards the careless soles of the boy in the row ahead. As his feet tapped to a silent rhythm, Charlotte watched the worn rubber shimmy closer to the glass artifact. He would likely crush her new purchase, bending the metal into an ungodly form and rendering it a useless bit of old trash. But she refused to let that happen. As awkward and uncomfortable as it was, Charlotte threw herself onto the bus floor, sacrificing a pristine sleeve to snake a hand under the seat and recapture her riches. The glasses made a lucky escape.
Upright and shaken, she looked down at the back of the spectacles in her hand. Close up, they were beautiful. Would they really change her life? A slight color sheen coated the glass, catching the light with an iridescent shimmer. The flickering fluorescents of the bus reflected with a flurry of color, and she felt mesmerized, enchanted by the pulse. Charlotte knew it was silly, but it felt like they were teller her something. Put me on. And so she did.
As she slipped the rims over her nose, the cry of shock was just as much a surprise to Charlotte as it was to those around her. Everyone on the bus turned to see her staring, and for a moment, the masses focused on the little woman with the brass lenses, waiting for an answer to the question they were all asking with their eyes. Then, without satisfaction, the routine resumed. The boy in front thought she was an oddity. The elderly couple slumped their shoulders back towards each other, perturbed by the disturbance. And the homeless man continued to sleep, his right foot now stretched out into the aisle.
But none of them could see what Charlotte saw. Bright colors, everywhere.
So bright that it felt like she was seeing for the first time. Beautiful rainbows of vivid light were moving in and about the world around her. Blues and pinks, oranges, and purples lit up her vision, superimposed on the normal world, which was moldy grey in comparison. It was a kaleidoscope — a rainbow of glittering shades vibrating through the bus like apparitions. Charlotte watched the spectacle of lights marching inside the frames. Soon the colors seemed to settle down, becoming orderly and organized. She followed a sapphire blaze above her head as it floated down to the shoulders of the boy in front. The neon blue buzzed and jumped, but clung to the outline of the teen’s greasy hair like an etherial crown. It was hypnotic and mesmerizing. She stared for a while, absorbing the overwhelming sensory experience.
Next, Charlotte’s attention was drawn to the homeless man at the other end of the bus. An evergreen glow rested along his slumped back like a curved casino sign. It wavered darker and lighter but then steadied on a deep jade.
Even the bus driver had a color – pink. Seeing the serious, plump man covered in a cotton-candy shade was silly, and Charlotte contained a snort when the man turned a sneer to the somber bus.
All at once, the colors felt like too much, and Charlotte dipped the glasses down her nose, checking the scene against clear eyes. She rubbed her lids to be sure she was not in the throes of macular color-blindness or some such affliction. The sterile bus was mundane in real life. Humdrum. A typical public ride. But then she pulled up the glasses and the air was colorful, like a painter’s palette had taken to the wind. What could it mean? Charlotte considered, gleeful that she had indeed discovered something of real value among the discarded remains of a previous life. And if anyone asked why she collected, there was an easy answer to give: she had found treasure.
The elderly couple was still gazing out the bus window, wrinkled palms intertwined. It was then she saw their unique color: a shade of orange engulfed their cozy form. Charlotte speculated on her find. What did the colors mean? Why were different people chased by a distinct light? Then she recalled the man in the shop, his awful breath steeped in the memory. “You married?” She considered the keeper’s question. Perhaps the glasses showed personalities or gave insight into relationships. At that moment, the old man reached down to tie his shoes, revealing the separation between the couple. They were both orange. Separate and together. It must be love that I’m seeing. Maybe it’s how much they love each other – or compatibility. But there weren’t any more clues than the dancing sunset hue encircling the wizened bodies.
Charlotte sighed. Of course, if anyone would find love spectacles, it would be her, the person incapable of finding love. She thought about how useful these glasses would have been to warn her of the treacherous relationships she had as a teenager, of the poor friendships she’d had as an adult, and the bare feelings she’d found as a lover. She felt a tug on her heart, sorting through her failed connections like a highlights reel in her head. The pain welled up, but she pushed it down and came back to the scene in front of her. The bus had stopped, and a group of people soldiered on, taking up the various space remaining on the shuttle.
New colors emerged in waves, tidal gradients awash with pigment ebbed and flowed through the atmosphere. There was one color Charlotte honed in on. A moody looking girl had just plopped herself down in a window seat. Hair dyed black and tied into a messy ponytail, she slouched in her jacket, a brown blazer that looked worse for wear. The girls’ feet swam in heavy black shoes. She was blue, just like the teenage boy. Charlotte stared in anticipation. Would their colors unite? What would happen when they noticed one another? And as if she thought it into being, the boy turned and looked at the girl, curious and interested. The punk let out a deep breath and shifted in his chair, while the girl could sense someone staring at her. She turned, looking directly at the boy, and Charlotte observed the swirls of blue light joining and mingling. They matched. The girl smiled at the teen. A little vibration of color. He smiled back.
She was sure, then, that this was attraction. Love spectacles for watching love weave in and out of people’s lives.
It was magnificent.
For the rest of the journey, she kept the glasses on, watching the colors of people passing on the street, the other patrons on the bus. Some glowed outrageously bright, while others were barely discernible. She wondered about those people, the ones with the dim lights. What happened to their heart? Do they no longer feel or seek love? Could she help them in some way? Before she could ask, the bus halted, and people began to disembark at her stop.
Charlotte took off the glasses, placed them into her purse, and walked off the bus with a completely different view of the world.
Back at her apartment, she found space for each new item. The vintage magazines went into the paper caddy by her couch, already brimming with periodicals. The lamp nestled by her bedside table in anticipation of a fix. And Charlotte stuck the turtle pin to the lapel of her overcoat that she’d be wearing the next day. The color went perfectly with the tweed, complimenting the taupe buttons and silk of the interior.
After brushing her teeth and turning down the bed, she went back to the glasses and held them in her hands. Could she find love with these? She hoped so. For a moment, Charlotte closed her eyes, holding her breath as she had done as a child. Then, with a click of the light, she put the spectacles next to her bed and dreamed in colors.
The next day at work, Charlotte slipped the lenses out of her purse and placed them on her desk. Was it wrong to wonder about her co-workers? Maybe. She eyed them. What about her boss? She’d been his secretary for six years, and despite being married, never talked about his wife. He did, however, spend a lot of time casually flirting with every assistant and temp. Without much to do, she tidied her already immaculate desk, stopping to gentle rearrange each item that was slightly askew. She looked at the lenses, placed near a column-like pen holder. Their presence tempted her. The office was dull, easy work, wouldn’t the glasses make everything seem a little less mundane? Her fingers tingled as she reached for them, anticipating the enticing information about those she worked with. What colors would they emit? Who was attracted? Who wasn’t interested? Her palms heated with eagerness.
A finger touched the cool brass. The electric pulse of the glasses welcomed her, and a warm relief spread up her wrist. Then someone popped up in front of her desk, and Charlotte tossed the frames back down in surprise.
“Morning, Charlotte.” It was Jack Bell, the perfectly coifed IT guy who was too good looking to be smart. Hands in his pockets, Jack followed her outstretched arm. He nodded at her hand. “Are those new? I didn’t know you wore glasses. Keeping secrets from us again?” He smiled.
Charlotte cleared her throat with a croak like she’d been caught doing something naughty. “They’re new. Well, they’re vintage, but new-ish. Did you need something?”
“Just a peek at your unit, there’s an update to fix some problems we’ve been having with the network.” He came around behind her desk, hovering over her shoulder and looking at the display of quirk. “You always have the most interesting things in your cubicle.” His finger touched the top of a porcelain cat, frozen licking her paw, neck wrapped in a pink bow.
Charlotte watched his finger tap the cool ceramic and then reached for the glasses under his outstretched arm. “I’ll go for a coffee in the meantime.” The air hung between them over the desk when she stood.
“Ok. I’ll be done in a few.” Jack sat in her chair.
As she retreated to the break room, Charlotte relished the fresh air on her cheeks, never knowing why she couldn’t relax around Jack. It wasn’t a crush. Jack was genuinely friendly, and one of the few people in the office who made her feel seen. Maybe that was the problem. She didn’t really like being seen. Jack noticed the collectibles around her cubicle and often asked about where she got them. Charlotte always stumbled around her answers. And when he made sure her boss remembered Secretaries’ Day, he showed the whole office the small bouquet of flowers. It was humiliating. And worse, when he came by to fix her computer, she felt a bit musky, like her skin was sweating pheromones against her will. His looks made her sweaty, and Charlotte didn’t trust good looking. But, he was the only casual friend she considered at the office, and so she quietly tolerated him.
Though now that she had the glasses, she vaguely wondered who he would match with. I wonder if it would be…
“CHARLOTTE.” At the bellow from her boss’s office, she stopped mid-stride and swiftly headed back towards his door. Jack looked up from her desk at the disturbance. The boss shouted for her regularly enough, but this time he seemed more angry than usual. There he stood behind his desk, red-faced and spitting, shaking a fistful of crumpled papers. “Where are the notes I asked you to take last week?” He gestured to the overwhelming number of sheets on his desk while Charlotte cowered behind her bag. His pink cheeks were blotchy, and his eyebrows flopped up and down. Dry throat or not, Charlotte swallowed the stress and answered.
“I left them on your desk like you asked me to.”
“Well, they’re not here.” He eyed her suspiciously, lifted a stack of papers, and dropped them midair. Without prompting, Charlotte put her bag down on the couch and began sorting the mounds of accounting documents again, knowing exactly what each stack meant and where it was supposed to go. Fredrick Hemmingstone was a total slob. But it was her job to keep him organized, and so she did. Impeccably so. She reshuffled his papers every afternoon, knowing they’d be jumbled and out of sorts if she let them be. People looked beyond the mess because of his okay looks and fancy way of dressing, but he never impressed Charlotte. He was a bully, and his slick hair made her think of car salesmen or those guys who sold stolen goods off the highway.
Within a few seconds, Charlotte had dislodged a collection of papers and handed them to Mr. Hemmingstone without a word. He snatched them and sat back down. She wasn’t needed anymore, so she picked up her bag and walked back along the carpeted floor, passing by Jack again, who gave her a little frown. Charlotte shrugged. This was the reality of her life. People took what they needed from her, and nothing more. It was no wonder she spent her time collecting things, rather than friends. There wasn’t anything to do about her boss; she just handled him and coped.
But this was before she found the glasses. Now, she had something else to keep her busy.
At the office break room, Charlotte poured herself a small coffee from the pot, distracted by the anticipation. She idled around the empty room until she found a seat with just the right vantage point and sat at a table on the far side. The door that looked out to the bustling accounting firm was wide open and framed the scene like a television set. She slipped on the lenses and began sipping the bitter drink, waiting for a soap opera to begin.
Here in the office, the colors crept. They lacked the same exuberance as the bus ride, but they were still there, edging in and out of the corners of the door frame, slow as molasses. Cindy, the middle-aged receptionist, sat directly in Charlotte’s view, her hair a beehive of hairspray and curls. The woman’s exuberant pink nails danced and jumped along the keyboard as the lenses revealed the color that hovered delicately above her robust frame – a flaming red that clashed with the green dress she wore. Cindy said something, the corners of her mouth punctuating her general disgust, and another woman, Lily, the intern, shot up behind her with a bundle of manilla folders. Charlotte could see was that the color that hovered above Lily was a warm gray. Like the feathers of a dove, with the tiniest hint of red.
Other people walked in and out of the scene, some she recognized, but most she didn’t know by name. The atmosphere in the large office space wasn’t cordial, rather people came to work, focused on their job, and went home. Accounting didn’t attract exciting people, and that suited Charlotte just fine. She had been disappointed by her last workplace, where people were close and friendly, so she preferred being detached. Work friends wanted to know more about you, your family, or what you’re doing on weekends. Charlotte was usually too ashamed to answer those intimate personal questions. No family – not anymore, anyway – no real friends or lovers, just a studio full of things that would scare anyone away.
It had before.
She once made the mistake of bringing home a woman she befriended on the subway. After several coffee meet-ups and joyful conversations, the lady visited her apartment to watch a television special. But after arriving, the friend looked around, muttered some excuses about a sudden task she forgot to do at work and left without looking back. Charlotte never heard from her again. She supposed her decorative style was not for everyone: flowered wallpaper was the backdrop of shelves that held trinkets and showcased vintage objects. There was the feathered headpiece that hung in her entrance hallway, a collectible she picked up from a trip to Santa Fe. Then there was a pair of roller-skates arranged against the wall as if they were gliding down the sidewalk. Her displays were funny, and she thought quirky, but after that sad encounter, Charlotte kept her life to herself.
Too many disappointments.
Suddenly, a green glow tangled its way above the tiled ceiling, and there was now a show to watch. The electric light hovered delicately above a pair of desks across from each other. There, the energy engulfed the shoulders of the man and woman. They weren’t familiar to Charlotte, but the fingers she spied were bare, so she presumed them both unmarried – she hoped so, anyway. The woman, a short and pre-occupied sort of person, was carefully paging through a stapled report. She looked up expectantly at the man across the way, and when she did, the light brightened and danced above their heads. Her desk-mate didn’t notice, burrowed in his work with a furrowed brow, glasses tipped on the end of his nose.
Charlotte finished her coffee, pulled the wired frames off the bridge of her nose, and focused more closely on the couple. Maybe she could nudge them a little. It was odd because she wasn’t a meddler, but something about the glasses made her hungry to act. They made her feel brazen. If she was destined to be an outsider looking in, the least she could do was be a maestro that directed the players. She wandered out of the break room and stood before the woman’s desk.
“Hi, I’m Charlotte,” she pronounced, shoving her hand at the woman’s face.
“I’m Fredrick’s – I mean Mr. Hemmingstone’s assistant. I was wondering if I could chat with you in the break room for a moment?” She pointed over her shoulder to the space.
Bridget lifted a brow and put down her pencil. “I guess so.”
They wandered the few feet in silence, and Bridget stopped inside the door, folding her arms over her chest.
“What is it?”
Charlotte was at a loss for a moment, eyeing the woman’s mussed cardigan, momentarily distracted by the bits of fuzz pilling along the shoulders.
“Um, I can see you and your desk-mate have something special going on.”
The woman’s face turned blotchy red, the flush rising up her throat to her temples. Bingo.
“What do you mean?” She stammered over the words. “We’re not together, or anything.”
Charlotte feigned a look of misunderstanding. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought— I just saw how nice you two look together and just assumed! I wanted to get ahead of anything that Mr. Hemmingstone might hear, you know, because he prefers all office romances to be reported.” This was true, the man did insist it, though what he did with the knowledge, she wasn’t sure.
“No, we’re not together.” Bridget looked back at the man working. “Mitchell barely notices anyone.” She sounded wistful.
“Oh, that’s a shame. Perhaps that’s for the best.” Charlotte lifted a coy shoulder to her ear, “most office relationships don’t work out anyway. But I guess some end happily ever after too.” She laughed, trying to sound casual, rather than unsure of where to go. “If I were you, I would ask him to lunch.”
“Of course! But if you’re not interested…I just might…” She knew the hint of competition worked to motivate some people. “I mean, he’s quite a catch.”
As if he could hear them, Mitchell glanced up at the ladies. It was then that Charlotte wasn’t sure whether she had obtained other powers from the glasses. It was not usual for her to wedge into people’s personal affairs so recklessly without plan or procedure. Mitchell unsteadily went back to his work.
“I just haven’t worked up the courage. I thought coffee would be a nice start.” Bridget interlocked her fingers and cracked her ring finger with a twitchy pop.
“Sounds like the perfect beginning…”
Back at her desk, the morning continued to go slow. Jack had rearranged the files on her desktop, making it difficult to find her active worksheets and notes on the week ahead. She still had two trips to schedule and plan, along with ground transportation and a minimal selection of restaurants. Mr. Hemmingstone was a pain, wanting to know everything about a client trip before he flew, including a list of each hotel’s amenities, whether they had an adequate pool temperature, and which restaurants were worth being seen in. It was a lot of information gathering, but it kept Charlotte busy enough that she could stomach keeping the job. Sometimes she daydreamed about visiting the hotels herself – tasting the delicacies of each locale while talking business to important people. And then, like the shining brilliance of a lightbulb turning on, she wondered what the glasses would teach her about her boss. If he ever loved anyone, or just himself.
Charlotte crept the glasses up her face and peered through the open doorway of Mr. Hemmingstone’s office. There he sat at his desk, polished feet up as he lounged back into the chair – the leather cradle where he ruled his world. The phone call sounded heated, but like he was shoving, whoever was on the line back into their place. Charlotte could see him clearly, and the black of his heart. Literally. The color that swirled over his body was synonymous with death and omens, unlike the divine lights she had seen surrounding so many others. Mr. Hemmingstone’s inky aura hung over his head like a foreboding presence.
The glasses were right, it suited him.
Usually, Charlotte ate lunch at the office, it sometimes being easier just to bring a bag and find a corner to read a magazine, but today she wanted to go somewhere where there’d be people. Lots of people. So she headed to the most significant place she could think of, just around the corner from her office: Grand Central Station. The gaping center was a pleasure to look at, the stone, and shapes all elegance and style. She rested herself on a ledge, nudging her tush against the stone, and placed her bag on the floor beside her. Without care for her lunch, she took out the glasses and began watching.
Colors vibrated around the room. It was lovely and soothing. There, in the anonymous cavern of New York City transportation, Charlotte found hope for the future. Surely if so many people could find love, attraction, or friendship, she could too. Her heart welled up, and her eyes suddenly pooled with tears. It was painful to hope. The emotion seemed to strum every aching strand of her heart as it worked its way forward. But Charlotte felt different this time. A little more alive and a little more heartsick – yearning to be cared for and loved.
She sat there for a while, watching the colors. This was a pleasurable pastime, to see that love truly was everywhere. In every corner of the busy train station, there were matches. Women holding onto other women in peacock-colored glows, teenagers angsty and smitten in a grey haze, and elderly couples, savoring the joy of being alive in a yellow cloud. You could see who waited for each other – one color coming up the platform like a rocket to be met with the force of the other. You could see who was a family, standing alongside each other with a range of similar hues floating around nearby, an ombre of similarities.
But then, there was the darker side. And here in Grand Central, Charlotte saw it where she sat. Instead of paired couples with gorgeous matching auras, she saw them mismatched, colors repellent and opposite to each other, rebuffing against their pair with effort. This was true for one couple that she observed closely. The man regularly looked over his shoulder at women who passed by, and his wife seemed disinterested either way. Charlotte could tell they were married, and it made her sad. Many of these mismatched couples seemed normal, happy even. As she pitched her lenses down her nose, she couldn’t know by looking that they were wrong for each other. On the outside, they always seemed like content couples together for a long time. It made her wonder about her parents and whether they had been in love. No matter how many times she flipped through her own memories, she wasn’t sure.
There was also the issue of what she now thought of as “dim” people, those that had little glow of any color around themselves. Some of these people were paired up, while others were walking adrift, to and from work or errands. What happened to those people? Do they not feel? How do they fall in love? Are they not awakened? She had so many questions and worries. What if she, herself, was a “dim person.” She shook off the thought. Charlotte knew she had feelings – deep, deep emotions that were often hard to push down. Surely someone like herself wouldn’t be dim.
She glanced casually at her watch to check the time and quickly realized an hour and twenty-three minutes had passed beyond lunch. Shocked, Charlotte snatched her jacket and purse off the cold slab and hurriedly returned to the street.
Back at the office, Charlotte couldn’t get the idea that she might be “dim” out of her head. So after placating her boss and assuring her work was finished early, she slipped the glasses into her palm and headed to the bathroom.
It was a bit startling that she hadn’t thought of it before. Whatever color she could see would help her find a match. It would be life-changing, just like the man in the antique shop had foretold. There were only so many colors in the spectrum, so few hues and tints, she simply must be able to find someone who was a match. Charlotte began to sweat with excitement, passing through the rows of cubicles. Near the windows, Jack leaned over the intern’s desk, Lily’s dusty brown hair pin-straight and shining in the sunlight. All around, the office buzzed with indifference, no one knowing the importance of this moment to Charlotte. Her nerves were tight like her fist, where the glasses were poking imprints into her right hand.
She pushed through the ladies’ room door and found herself in a crowd. Several co-workers stood in a huddle, discussing something urgent. They turned together to look at Charlotte when she walked in, their lively talk suddenly cut off by the intrusion. Charlotte was in haste but wanted solitude, and so she slipped into a stall and pretended to use the restroom as she waited for the hive to leave. The ladies continued with their chatter, the bottoms of their legs appearing through the gaps in the stall.
“I heard he was dating Lily, the new intern who is only twenty-two.” Someone said in a whisper, though the bathroom was too small for any discretion. The sounds simply bounced about the room, from the metal dispenser that held the towels to the mirrors that made you a little skinnier than in real life.
“I heard he was single, and only dates models. I think he probably was one.” Charlotte’s ears got hot as she listened to the office gossip. She wondered who they talked about, but had her suspicions.
“Someone in the tech department told me he leaves work at 3 pm on Tuesdays – I think it’s because he picks up a kid somewhere. That’s the time school ends.”
“I wouldn’t care if he had a kid.”
“Me neither. Makes him more attractive, actually.” The group of four giggled and swayed, excited by the possibilities.
“Well, I think Suzy should ask him. He’s always at your desk fixing things!”
Charlotte couldn’t hear the response through the giggles, but she frowned. Of course, they were talking about Jack, the tech Adonis. It was only a matter of time before the office storm of women snagged him. They were hungry here in accounting.
Someone washed their hands, and the rest filed out. The door swung back on itself, and the bang sealed Charlotte in alone. Lifting herself off the downed toilet seat, she emerged, assessing her reflection in the fluorescent glow. She was pretty, she supposed, but her eyes seemed too big, and her mouth too small. It was easy to hate the way her cheeks stood out, wanting her skin instead to cling tightly to a classic bone structure. But this was what she looked like, and she accepted it as best she could. It didn’t matter much – men like Jack paid her no mind. There were much flashier, prettier ladies about, who had friends over for cocktails and planned sailing trips to the beach. She wasn’t one of those. A wallflower was what she was – the same flat texture that blends in with the paint.
Charlotte pushed aside the negative thoughts and focused on the glasses. She stared down into her hands at the brass rims, full of excitement and anticipation. They held a new power. What will she find with them? Who would she match? The cold metal stared back, noncommittally. She rubbed the rim with her thumb. So much promise and so many answers were about to be given. With a deep breath and a toss back of her hair, Charlotte slipped the glasses on and stared at herself in the downward, blue-tinged light.
She opened and closed her eyes, but nothing changed. She took the lenses off, gently wiped them with the corner of her red sweater, and placed them back over her ears. Her nerves were acting up, but she tried to keep calm. Staring into the mirror, it was obvious that there were no colors.
It was worse than she feared. Rather than a dim, loveless light, she was a complete blank. Her hands gripped the edge of the laminated counter, leaning in for a closer look.
“Work!” She demanded under her breath, watching the space above her flyaways for any sign of color. Her breath caught, and she yanked the pair from her face, wanting to throw the glasses on the tile and smash them.
The rage surged and ebbed. Breaking the antique wouldn’t change anything. She was a muted tone. It was hard not to be crushed. Unlovable. It was a grim pill to swallow. No matter how many people she met, she’d be a blank to them, a negative hue. Not even white or black had made an appearance above her head. She thought at worst she would be a dull gray or a dim brown, but to not find anything made it so much worse. No matches ahead, no searches for long lost colors in subways and grocery stores, no daydreams of running into love by chance at the movies.
Hope was lost.
A lone tear trickled down Charlotte’s face, and before it fell, she quickly wiped it off with the back of her hand. She was annoyed that she had bothered to hope. The glasses were telling her something she already knew. It was silly to have expected anything different. Stupid. She ran the cold tap and splashed water on her cheeks to soothe the redness around her eyes and nose. No use crying over old milk, she told herself and fixed the tiny bit of makeup on her face. Charlotte gave herself a hard look in the mirror, pulling the years of strength and resilience back into place. If she could not find love, she would make it her duty to find it for those around her. It would still feel like she was a part of something important, even if it was a little hard to take.
The fresh air hit her face through the restroom door, and Charlotte was resolved to be strong and stupendous in her matchmaking duties. Already she could see, as she walked back to her desk, the desire and excitement that was spreading between Bridget and Mitchell, the couple who shared desks near the break room. Mitchell was catching glimpses of Bridget as she twirled the end of her ponytail, reading a looseleaf.
Yes, there was definitely love a-brewing. Just not for Charlotte.
For the next few weeks, Charlotte found herself meeting co-workers through meddlesome schemes. When the mission and focus were about someone else, she didn’t hesitate to involve herself; instead, it felt like a duty she was obliged to perform.
Love was in the air and everywhere.
Since Bridget and Mitchell’s outstanding match (they had announced their romance to the office a week past), Charlotte was proud to have orchestrated six other whirlwind love stories. There was the man, Jerry, who dropped off the sizable water jugs every week – the perfect match for Ursula, a woman in the Human Resources department who always wore some version of purple. Then, there was the couple that Charlotte toppled over in the break room, pretending to trip and pushing them into each other. The two had bumped heads, found themselves sent to the MediCenter, and bonded over a love of old movies and sushi. Her latest success, however, was two-fold. It involved destroying one office romance in the hopes of a better match. Lindsey and Bill were the two designers who worked at the firm, mostly formatting presentations and necessary documents for clients. However, according to the glasses, they were a terrible match. Their colors were incompatible: her mauve repelled his pumpkin orange.
On top of that, they didn’t seem happy. But it was only when Charlotte saw that one of the unmarried executives in charge of finance glowed mauve, did she really feel compelled to act – asking her boss if Lindsey was better spent designing financial reports. He agreed, and so, the set up was orchestrated.
There was one other snag: three women in the office all had the same color. It was a vibrant mint reminiscent of pistachio ice-cream and bobbed about their heads wherever the ladies went. At first, Charlotte thought there was something wrong, that the glasses were broken until she realized it was, in fact, real. These three attractive women were all attracted to each other, and it wasn’t apparent if it was love, friendship, or both! They must have had some idea, however, because they all spent time together at their adjacent desks, chatting non-stop. Charlotte wasn’t sure any action was needed, and so she decided, in this case, to leave it be.
With all the successful matches, there was only one problem: the overwhelming number of gleefully in-love employees at the office. Most everyone was on cloud nine. Charlotte was even able to match a “dim” person, who soon became a brighter energy once coupled. She wasn’t upset that Henry was happy, merely that she had lost a comrade, someone she thought was a lost cause like herself. It also didn’t help to see him skipping and bounding for the printer like a teenager — just another sign of how alone Charlotte was. She prayed she wasn’t the only one left. Without a color for herself, there was no hope she could resurrect a hue and no expectation that she’d ever find anyone.
It was a dilemma she pushed around, like the chilled salad she found herself playing with, rather than eating. Yes, it was essential to come to peace with what her life was, but there was a sliver of her heart where hope still existed. Maybe if I’m a better person, she thought, or if only I could change and be more outgoing. The weeks of arranging so many love stories was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. She plotted and pursued making the matches, but each time she set the couple off, she was left to see their love bloom at a distance.
Always the outsider.
On top of that, the usual things that brought her joy were no longer making her happy. Vintage shopping had lost its luster, no longer igniting a passionate response. Meanwhile, the antiques in her apartment began to feel like an army of ominous children holding her back. The things served to emphasize the judgment and isolation she already felt alone in her home. They sat on their shelves, peering down at her as she made dinner, noting each lonesome movement and each pathetic spoonful she devoured in silence. And so, Charlotte began to spend more time at work, opting for longer days to keep her mind from spinning out of control.
There wasn’t much use trying to eat, so she laid her metal fork on the tabletop and looked out on the office from her favorite seat in the break room. Her “love seat,” she called it. It was there she could see out across the vast space and watch the figures stop and start along the floor, sitting, chattering, and moving every minute of every day. Charlotte noticed a familiar blob of hair across the room and spied Jack crouched next to the new intern again. The young beauty flipped her hair and looked out from a pair of thick black lashes. So the rumors were true.
Usually, she would jerk her glasses out from her purse and begin planning a behind-the-scenes romantic gesture, but there was something about seeing Jack laughing and flirting with Lily that devastated her, the last slash to a shredded rope. For weeks she had avoided looking at Jack through the lenses, knowing that a soft, dove gray with a hint of red would be a gut punch in her belly. And if she took one look at them now, their perfect match would be confirmed.
Suddenly, Charlotte couldn’t bear to see one more set of colors. It was too much. Too painful. Too hopeless. Too lonely being who she was.
The glasses had broken her.
She felt the first tear coming. Her emotions had laid dormant for so long that she was shocked by the sudden release. She packed up her lunch, but by the time she left the break room, big droplets of salty tears were gushing from her eyes. Charlotte batted them away and covered her face as best she could, but her co-workers watched her flee the office, heaving and gasping as she went. The questions swirled behind her in whispers.
Alone in the sanctuary of the elevator, Charlotte praised her luck at finding it to herself. But just as the doors began to close, a hand reached in, jolting the panels open and exposing her heart-wrenching pain into the hallway beyond. Only one person was standing there, and it wasn’t anyone expected.
There in the blue carpeted hallway was Jack Bell.
He stood there for a moment, hands in pockets, and as the doors began to close again, he pushed his way into the elevator. Charlotte’s mouth fell open, the tears slowed, and she looked down.
“Are you okay?” He leaned on his side against the metal at the back of the elevator, looking at her. “What’s wrong?” He almost whispered it, tilting his head to the side to see her face.
“Nothing.” Charlotte murmured to the floor.
“It’s not nothing.” He pushed the button for the first floor and, after a moment, asked, “want to talk about it?”
His presence made her feel warm and altogether not like crying. Here he was, being kind to her again. She looked Jack in the eye, stunned by their closeness — never sharing this level of intimacy in all their years of knowing each other. They had always been friendly strangers.
Charlotte realized she had no one else; had no one for years. This pressure that had built up for the past few weeks had made her feel more isolated, and she was desperate for the release. And just like that, she caved under the weight.
“I have a secret,” she gestured to her bag. “I’ll show you.”
When the elevator made it to the lobby, he followed her the few blocks to Grand Central Station in silence. Once the two made it to the center of the bustling historic depot, Charlotte pulled the lenses from her purse.
“Put these on and look over there.” She pointed to the crowd of commuters walking to and from the platforms.
Jack slowly eased the glassed over his ears and looked around, startled, his head spinning. “What is this?” he gaped.
“Do you see the colors?”
“They’re everywhere.” The two were quiet for a moment. Jack considered the room, overwhelmed by the things he was seeing. He tipped the glasses down and looked at the frames. “Are these magic, or something?” His eyes held doubt and mischief. He seemed unsure whether Charlotte was playing a trick on him.
“They show you love compatibility, or at least, I think that’s what it does.” She shrugged, watching him silently for another few seconds.
“Where did you get these?” He started to narrow his focus on certain people and couples, watching them through the lenses, pulling them down and up on his nose.
“An old shop, upstate.” Charlotte blotted her face where the tears had been. Now in the presence of Jack, she felt ashamed at her previous outburst – she wasn’t so lonely after all. “Have you seen how many couples have fallen in love at work?” she asked. He was watching a particular couple consisting of one older woman, and a young guy then took the glasses off and handed them to her.
“Yes, I guess I had been thinking there were a lot of new happy couples lately. Did you use these?” He turned to look at her.
“I thought I could help people be together with them,” she stated. “But—, you see— the problem is that no one wants to be with me?” She flushed and looked down, emotions rising to the surface again. Jack reached a hand under her chin so she’d look up at him. His warm fingers emitted lighting bolts of sensation. They had never touched before.
“What makes you say that?” He gazed into her eyes, and Charlotte could see the delicate green that lined his irises.
“I don’t have a color around me.” She looked out to the people passing by in Grand Central. “Even the unlovable people have colors, but I don’t have one.”
“How do you know?”
“I looked at myself in the mirror with the glasses. They showed that I was blank.” Charlotte felt herself numb to it. “Even Mr. Hemmingstone has a color…”
“That can’t be true.” He gestured to her hand. “Give me the glasses.”
“No, it’s okay! I don’t want you to see me. Not with these.” She shook her head feverishly, clutching the glasses to her chest. He gave her a look and kept his palm out. “Besides, I already know who you match to…”
Jack’s eyebrows drew in at Charlotte’s declaration. “You looked at me with these?”
“I didn’t have to. You and Lily…” she began.
“Are just friends.” He couldn’t have said it more clearly.
“Yes, but you’re always at her desk, and I can see…”
“Only because she’s always breaking something. Christ, Charlotte —” he ran a hand through his hair. “Give me the lenses. We’re going to settle this right now.”
A few seconds of resistance and Charlotte complied, handing over the spectacles. As he was putting them on, she said, “you know, you don’t have to.”
“I want to.” He turned to look at her clearly through the lenses. She held onto the closeness as he peered at her face.
“You know, you’re right; you’re a total blank Charlotte.” She reached back to grab the glasses off his face, tears threatening their sting as he laughed. He caught her hands. “I’m joking!”
Holding her fingers in his palms, Jack said in earnest, “Charlotte, you have the most beautiful light radiating around you, brighter than anyone else I can see. It’s like a rainbow that shimmers in all directions. I don’t know what you were worried about. It’s clear you’re quite lovable.” He kept looking at her for a moment; she couldn’t help the tear that escaped.
“Now it’s a deep blue,” he looked down and around at himself, “which seems to be surrounding me too.”
Her heart leaped into her chest. “Let me see.”
“No.” He stated, catching her hand as it reached for the lenses again. “I’m too busy looking at your colorful glow.”
He smiled and leaned close to her lips.
“I think you found your match,” he whispered.
Charlotte’s stomach did little, fluttering flips. “Have I?”
“Turns out, I was right in front of you all along.” She closed her eyes just as his lips came down on hers. It was the sweetest thing she ever tasted, and Charlotte knew, after that moment, that she’d never be alone again. The glasses had made sure of that.
Thank you so much for reading and Happy Valentine’s Day!