It was so cold that most of the flea market’s usual vendors hadn’t shown up. The blacktop playground was bare. Customers were so scarce that one seller chased us down the street offering ever-lower prices on a painting. We said no thank you. We didn’t need it.
Then, indoors, after flirting with a wide velveteen belt and a souvenir spoon, I came across a stall selling books. I picked up a copy of the Little Golden Book Pantaloon. “You’re not old enough to have read that,” said the seller, who was wearing a woolen cap. “I can guarantee that.”
“I wasn’t around when it was written,” I said carefully. “But I read it.” My gaze sharpened on a stack of cream-colored spines. These were old Harlequin romances from the seventies and eighties—the best era, as any connoisseur of the genre knows. This was a good selection, too. The heroes were appalling, the cover fashions amazing, the scenarios ludicrous. I read over the cover copy avidly. “Inconsiderate, unreasonable, and dogmatic was how Ann summed up her new employer, the head of St. Cyprian’s school … ” “Hired as a publicist for the Duval salon, Sara was caught up in the rivalry between aging couturier Henri Duval and his son, Paul, a brilliant new designer … ” Well, those were no-brainers.
“I’ll take these,” I said.
“You women and your romances,” said the guy.
“No, I like to collect the silliest ones,” I said. “There was this one moment when they got really interesting, in terms of dynamics, I think as a backlash to the women’s movement—”
“You don’t need to make up excuses,” he said indulgently. “It was the Fifty Shades of its time.”
My husband came by just then. “I’m going to the ATM,” he said, “I’ll be right back. Do you need me to grab you some cash?”
I looked from the vendor to the pile of books in my hand. I wanted to leave. And yet I picked up another: “As far as Alix was concerned, Quinn Tennant was obnoxious, conceited, and he had a habit of showing up everywhere! She discovered he was her new boss, her landlord, and even the judge at the competition where she entered her dog.”
It had to be mine!
“Yes, thanks,” I told my husband. He walked away.
“You married an older man,” observed the guy. This was rapidly becoming intolerable. I tried to think of a comeback that would reestablish my dignity. “I’m older than I seem,” I said coolly, which I don’t think did the trick …
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.