South

I didn’t get far the first day. I needed cash, so I only hitched about thirty miles down the road, which took the better part of the morning into early afternoon. Just south of Rockland was my first ride, and in two hops I’d covered enough of Route 1 to feel ok stopping. When traffic bottlenecked going into Wiscasset I got out and walked.

It was a late-blooming summer. The air was finally warming up but the wind skated across the Sheepscot River carrying a chill along with the salty grit acquired from the incoming tide.

I went restaurant to restaurant until I found one where a bus boy had called out. They agreed to let me work the dinner shift for cash under the table as long as I could keep up. It was a busy night and I got ten percent of my section’s tips.

“Come back tomorrow, we might train you to wait tables,” the manager said, handing me an envelope. Fifty bucks.

I told him I’d think about it, but the truth was, I hadn’t made it far enough south yet. After closing I hung around, nursing a shift beer until, like I expected, someone started talking about having a party and I got invited. Not that I wanted to get crazy or anything; I needed a place to crash.

I rode out with one of the veteran waiters. He was a guy named Jeff, probably just turned thirty, but still had a smug, frat-boy charm about him.

“You didn’t sound like you’d be coming back,” he said.

“I’ll think about it.”

“You’re the kind of guy we could use on the floor every night,” he said.

I twisted my lips and nodded rather than thank him, even though I knew he meant it as a compliment.

He shrugged. We stopped to buy beer.

The party was loud when we arrived. There was a screened-in porch with patio furniture where people could smoke. My breath caught when I recognized Sophie across the room, and she saw me before I could duck out.

I walked across the porch.

“I thought you hated Wiscasset,” Sophie said so only I could hear. The hug she gave me was so light I barely felt us touch.

“I do.” She looked good, and I almost never think people look as good as you remember them. With Sophie though it wasn’t about the physical. She was too skinny and always dressed in baggy, generic clothing that made her look like an orphan. But I’d forgotten about the way she could size a person up with a glance, destroy or enrapture you and either way leave you addicted.

“So what’s the deal?” she asked. She smoked cigarettes between her thumb and index finger, palm up. It made her look thoughtful when she took a drag.

“Pit stop,” I said. “I’m headed south.”

“Portland?”

“Boston,” I said, “maybe Amherst. I’ve got some friends there.”

“Traveling light?” she nodded to my backpack.

“Always.” I laughed and then we were quiet.

Sophie looked from the glowing end of her cigarette to me. “Ever get around to quitting?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Eleven months now.”

“You want one?”

I nodded.

Sophie fed me cigarettes from a numberless supply of Marlboro Reds in her purse. I sipped my beers and we told stories about old friends we didn’t know any more. Sophie said she’d drive me to her place. I knew what was coming and I told myself I didn’t want to go.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “You don’t have to do that.”

“My car’s down by the road.” She rolled her eyes and started down the driveway without me. I nodded to myself, felt that old tightness settle into my chest, and followed.

The ten minutes to her apartment were an eternity. I spent the ride trying to come up with a way to avoid sleeping with Sophie, but the best I could do on the spot was make lousy conversation.

“I heard it’s supposed to rain next week,” I offered.

“We’re here,” she said. Sophie lived in a small, four-unit apartment building. It was dark, but I could tell the place was new, not one of those old houses people renovated into separate flats. She led me up the stairs to her door.

Inside I found controlled clutter: thousands of CD’s and books she’d run out of shelf space for. I walked over to one of the stacks while she checked her messages and noticed that all the authors in the pile were from Minnesota. Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis; there was even a Peanuts book at the bottom. To the right was a stack topped with Jim Harrison and below that Hemingway. Michigan and Illinois.

“Are you sorting your books geographically?” I asked loud enough for her to hear in the other room.

“Well,” she said, suddenly close behind me. I turned. “It seemed more rational than the order in which their last names are spelled. The alphabet can be so… faceless.”

I nodded and realized I hadn’t devised a plan yet. She was less than arm’s reach away now, tilting her head and smiling that lazy, confident, half-smile that’s an invitation to move closer. Her arms akimbo, she rocked her weight forward.

I feigned a sudden interest eastward, mumbled something about Steven King, and took two clumsy steps to find the Maine pile.

“Maine has it’s own bookcase,” she said, sounding tired now. She pointed to the wall. I noticed her shoulders drop and her posture relax. Turning toward the kitchen, she asked if I wanted a glass of wine.

“I’ll take some water,” I answered. She came back with two glasses, gave one to me and slumped onto the couch. Now that it was safe I went and sat beside her. Sophie lit up, tossed the open pack on the table in case I wanted one.

I immediately regretted not kissing her. We hadn’t, when we’d known each other before; each of us had always had some other commitment to hold us back.

“You still haven’t told me why you’re leaving,” she said, exhaling smoke from the side of her mouth.

“Change of scenery.”

“It seems like you’re riding out of town on a dark night,” she said, “or however the saying goes.” She shaped her ash in a ceramic tray on the coffee table. “You’re running away.”

“And if I was?” I asked.

Sophie smiled. “I won’t judge you,” she said. “You can be my fugitive.”

So I told her about Rebecca and her shitty, old-man husband. And how he never really beat her, but always made her think he might. And how he slept in the guest room of their house, and how lonely that made her.

“So you screwed her?”

“Of course I did, but worse than that.” I lit another one of Sophie’s cigarettes. “I didn’t really love her either, and I wasn’t very good at pretending.”

“She probably knew that going in.”

It occurred to me that Sophie’d known before me that we wouldn’t be sleeping together tonight.

“So why’d she end up with him, and why’d she bother with me?”

“Because being able to tell isn’t always enough.”

I stood up and then sat back down. I wished I were tired because it was almost four and I wanted to leave early in the morning.

“I never thought I’d do that to someone,” I said. “Be the other man. I never thought it was in me to be that kind of selfish.”

“So what are you up against?” Sophie asked. “Does he know?”

“No,” I said. “He’s an idiot. But I can’t be there anymore.” We examined our cigarettes in silence for a while. I could feel it building up in me, something I’d been thinking about.

“Things have to be different now,” I said. “Give me a new town and I’ll make new friends. I’ll buy a car for once, and stop wearing jeans every day.” I looked at Sophie but she didn’t say anything. “I’ll start doing crossword puzzles and dating girls named Maggie, and we’ll go apple picking together in the fall. We’ll keep a Norman Rockwell print framed in our mudroom, and we’ll talk about having kids. I’ll stop reading guys like Kafka.”

“Don’t stop reading Kafka,” she said.

“I will. I have to.”

“Look. You can do all of those things and anything else you want,” she said, and there was an annoying sympathy behind her smile. “Won’t work.” She shrugged, “pretty much, people just don’t change.”

I stood up to pace, found there wasn’t enough room, and sat on the arm of the sofa instead. “I’ve changed. I’m not the same now as I was five years ago. I’m sure as hell not the same as one year ago, and you should know that more than anyone.”

“You think running away from me last year was taking the high road?” She held my gaze tight, then lowered her eyes. “It’s always fight or flight with you.”

“That can’t be it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. Sophie leaned forward on the couch and gave me a look I hadn’t been expecting. “Please excuse my skepticism as you sit there waxing nostalgic about girls named Maggie and khaki slacks.

“Besides,” she said reclining again, “it isn’t like you can unread Kafka.”