Paul and I stood side by side. It was a dreary winter afternoon, and as lifelong bookworms, we were spending it together in an old house that had been converted into a used bookstore, with each room dedicated to a different genre. We were scouring the shelves, poring over every author and title looking for books we’d been wanting to add to our respective collections. At the exact same moment and in near-perfect unison, we both squatted down to inspect the lower shelves.
It was a sign.
The written word was already a staple of our budding relationship. Paul and I first met when our younger brothers, friends in high school, graduated. He was quiet and reserved, and at a celebratory dinner afterwards with our brothers’ other friends and their families, he stayed with his younger siblings while I, the oldest of the bunch at just shy of 21, had the honor of joining the table of proud parents. I caught his eye, and as we crossed paths over the summer, we talked more and more, eventually staying up late into the hot summer nights exchanging messages about anything and everything— life as college students, pop culture, our summer jobs. He was interning for the summer at a local machining company and was a materials science major, while I was an English major working as a stringer for our local newspaper.
“I write, too,” he said late one night.
I stared at the message.
“Maybe you could read some of it sometime?”
I saw two outcomes. One, I would read his work only to discover he was a terrible writer, and although I wouldn’t be harsh about it, I’d be honest, he’d get angry, and our relationship would be over before we were Facebook official. Two, I would read his work only to discover he was a terrible writer, but I would lie and be trapped in a relationship with a bad writer as long as I could stand it.
And as I nervously opened a file he sent me and began to read, I realized a third possibility— he was good.
Just weeks after finally going on a few proper dates, the summer ended, and Paul and I went back to school—I to my dorm at a campus nearby, he three hours away to another part of the state. But we were still inseparable, at least in a sense, glued to our computer screens and cellphones again. Neither of us had a car, but once a month or so, he’d catch a ride back with a friend or I’d borrow my dad’s car for a weekend visit.
We spent our weekends in his apartment, venturing out occasionally to shops and restaurants, and I found favorites we visited every time I was in town. We’d have lunch at my favorite restaurant, then walk down the street to a used bookstore and café. Like before, we’d scan the shelves closely, ultimately leaving the store with stacks—I’d quit looking when I couldn’t physically carry one more book. He prided himself on finding old, worn sci-fi paperbacks which cost a fraction of the already low cover price,and I would spend double what he did on hardcover first editions from my favorite writers.
Our stacks went home to others still waiting to be read, and on top of that, we started a book swap—we eagerly shared our favorite books from our personal collections. He gave me C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and Michael Ende’s The Never-Ending Story, which I wished I would’ve read as a kid. I gave him David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
We shared more of our writing with each other, too. I’ve read Paul’s short stories and encouraged him as he spent evenings working to finish a novel. He’s the first person to read an article or essay after I finish it. We challenge each other on word choice and phrasing, sometimes acquiescing to each other and sometimes fighting for our creative choices. Yet our writing lives never interfere with our relationship. No disagreement over word choice or sentence length carries over away from our computer screens. And we’re both adamant that nothing can be seen by the other until it’s ready, out of the creative realm and as polished as it can be.
After five years—countless books and works in progress exchanged—Paul moved into my apartment, stacks of books in tow, including the occasional book we both owned. Our collections melded, and soon, our shelves were double-stacked and overflowing into piles on the floor. We decided to get library cards, and our afternoons in book stores turned into walks to the library, save for the occasional splurge.
Then, one freezing New Year’s Day, Paul took me to the mountains, and on a bridge overlooking a river, he presented me with a pink sapphire ring and asked me to marry him.
“I guess we can get rid of our book doubles now,” I said when we got home.
As we approach 12 years together, almost five of them married, the walls of our home are lined with bookshelves packed with worn paperbacks and pristine hardcovers. He’s still my first editor. We still give each other reading recommendations.
Janelle Sheetz lives with her husband and their son in the Pittsburgh area, balancing a job in the closed-captioning industry with freelance writing. Her work can be found in Paste, HerStry, Ms. magazine, and more.