I am in line to return library books to my college’s library. Picture me in jeans and a black sweater, rolling up a long handknit scarf and stuffing it into a battered black bookbag, sniffling with the remnants of an early cold.
The librarian at the desk is a woman, middle aged with glasses, graying hair and no makeup. She wears a cardigan of green wool and has the face of a person with a sense of humor about life.
“I need to return some overdue books,” I say. “And they’re damaged.”
I begin lugging a thick hardcover book and a paperback book of photography of my bag.
“Before I tell you how they are damaged,” I say, “I would like to ask you a question.”
She waits for me to do so.
“Do you have cats?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “I have dogs.”
“Ah. Well, then perhaps you will sympathize,” I say, as I lay out the books on the counter, “when I tell you that my cat vomited on these books.”
I show her the interior of the most damaged book, with pages warped and stained brown from an aqueous solution of semidigested catfood.
She reaches for the books gingerly.
“How do they smell?” she asks, and rightly so.
I answer honestly.
“Like catfood,” I say.
If you are a parent or a pet owner, you are no stranger to upchuck. And pet puke, unless you are dealing with puke involving a half-digested small animal, is actually not that bad. Cats usually puke up nothing worse than hairballs and a mush of half-digested kibble, which takes surprisingly little effort to clean up.
Unless, of course, your feline has selected, as its vomit theater, your dining room table. And not just your dining room table, but the small stack of college library books on your dining room table you checked out to help you write your Humanities paper on the 19th-century Chinese politician Lin Zexu.
One is a thick, purple-bound hardcover that only received a damaged cover and stained pages. The book of photography about the British East India Company, which laid in a pool of sick for hours, has its last pages warped and stuck together.
The librarian politely suggests that you replace the books.
She explains that when library books need to be replaced, it is usually cheapest to just buy the books online and give the replacements to the library. You agree, and ask her to please renew the vomit books.
As you pack the books in your bag (they are clean and dry, though stained and smelling faintly of catfood), the librarian helps another student.
“Thank you for doing that,” she says as she scans out a book.
“Me?” I say. “You mean thank you for being honest about what really happened to the books?”
“Yes,” she replies.
“Oh, it was nothing,” I say. “I’m sure that if your dog puked on my books, you’d do the same for me.”
Here’s hoping those books are still in print or at least still available for purchase online.