The morning light lay across their ribs, a single band of warmth that caused sweat to bead. He couldn’t believe she had stayed. Especially not the whole weekend. He didn’t want to stir in the wide bed, afraid she would dematerialize, sink through the mattress like smoke, and be just another college dream after too much booze. She turned to face him. “I slept like garbage.”
She smelled like garbage. He didn’t care. She was here. “Really? I slept like a rock.”
“I noticed.” She fell back onto her pillow, her hair fanning out like a perfect picture. She fell into mock snores that sounded like they hurt.
“Sorry. I know. It’s always been a problem. My parents had to move me out into the hallway when I was a baby so they could sleep.”
“I think I’d like to move you into the next apartment.”
He just smiled and laid back. They hadn’t even had sex. He hadn’t wanted to, not at first, in case she was searching for some reason not to stay. The less he gave of himself, the less she had to criticize. Not that he had anything to worry about. He was remarkably attractive, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a neat beard. For how often he got hit on and smiled at by complete strangers, he was illogically unsure of himself.
He was feeling expansive. Like anywhere in the world would be his home, everywhere, even. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get out of here?”
“And go where?”
“Anywhere. Rome, Perth, Huntington Beach, Mars.”
“I’ve always wanted to travel the world. Just throw a dart at a map and go wherever it lands. Deserts, rainforests, the middle of the Indian Ocean.”
“The thought of that terrifies me.”
“But you just said you wanted to get out of here.” She rolled up on her shoulder and put a hand on his stomach.
He enjoyed the warmth of her fingertips, suddenly bold. “Let’s do it.”
“I thought you wanted to wait.”
“No, I mean let’s go. Let’s get out of here. Throw the dart. Make a new home somewhere other than this hole.”
“I actually quite like this city.”
He stared at the ceiling. “Corntown. Where dreams go to die.”
She sighed and sat up, leaving five cold spots where her presence had been. “What did you come here for?”
“I’ve lived here my whole life. I didn’t have a choice. Born here, raised here, seeded and rooted here.”
“But why are you here?” She looked past her mussed bangs at him, and he couldn’t make words form right away.
“Why are you here?” he asked, sitting Indian style on the bed in his white and blue striped boxers.
“My family has ties to the school. I get a huge tuition discount.”
“What if that weren’t the case? Where would you be?”
“Oxford?” The word felt like a shoe in his mouth.
She nodded. “It was where I wanted to go, but…you know…money.”
“Well, I guess it’s not all bad. We wouldn’t have met, had you not come here.”
“It remains to be seen whether that is good or bad.” She brushed her hair out of her face and fixed him with a smile, just the one corner of her mouth, though.
“Let’s get breakfast.”
The motorcycle sputtered underneath him, shaking the smile he plastered on his face. He probably should have bought a helmet to go along with the bike, but his last few rupees went to the man who seemed all too eager to part with the rattletrap dirt bike. The wide Indian countryside opened in front of him like a buffet. This dirt path was his entree, but every hill and valley, every scrub pine and thorny bush was his for the taking, his to explore. He didn’t leave the dirt path at first, afraid of running afoul of some kind of militant or another. He wasn’t sure exactly who he had to worry about, but he was sure it was someone.
After several miles of the same path, the same vistas, he craved something more. Adventure. Something to sit in the blood and make a home inside a glorious story of mishap and luck. He swept his view side to side, looking for the most passable terrain that wasn’t actually laid out in front of him by someone who had come before. A few miles down the road, there was a small rise. Adam pulled the bike from the path, kicking up loose dirt and scaring some small rodent he couldn’t identify.
This was it. Adventure. He’d travel in this direction until he found something. It would be an invitation to fate. A temptation of all the muses in all the universe to make him a story. Hopefully not a cautionary tale, but he was open to the whims of whatever was out there. Without anyone to answer to, the world was his to explore.
After a few hours, the sun sunk lower in the sky. He started to hope adventure hurried along. Being caught out in the Indian countryside after dark didn’t seem like the sort of thing he would enjoy. But he continued. The sun, as it was wont to do, sunk below the horizon, opening up a great expanse of sky. The stars were a garter of diamonds on the silkiest of bare legs, and he longed desperately to run his hand over them, to collect them in his palm and keep them close to his chest to remind him of this feeling. Everything was going to be okay.
His thighs chafed as the bike bucked and bounced underneath him. The horizon was bare in all directions, not a single flickering flame or man made light was to be seen. He didn’t dare stop, despite his weariness. The rumbling of his bike was surely keeping hungry beasts at bay, and a moving target is much harder to hit.
The broken gas gauge troubled him more than the rust spots and lack of any visible indicator of how fast he was moving. Surely this couldn’t go on forever. But the bike continued through the night. The sun, having completed its sweep over the parts of the world he was familiar with, joined him again, bringing no messages, offering no secrets. A gleam of glass caught his eye an indeterminate distance away. He angled the bike toward the gleam, ready to be down. He was sure his crotch was bleeding by now. After another mile or so, the bike sputtered in protest. Adam tapped the gas gauge, a useless gesture, and looked ahead of him. He cranked the throttle, but the bike sighed and went silent, tires grinding the dirt underneath more and more slowly until it stopped. Adam planted his feet, laid the bike down in some bushes, not sure if he would ever come back to get it, and set out on foot toward what he hoped was a village where he could get some food and a good night’s sleep.
Her friends sat around the table, looking at Adam like they were shopping for cars. He felt exposed, hood lifted and trunk sized for space. Sure, they smiled at him, but he knew they were making their judgments.
Gwynne was oblivious, chatting about her classes and about mutual friends. Adam sipped his drink and tried to be clever, interjecting when he could get a word in. Mostly they steamrolled the conversation, since they all had so much back baggage to share. He got to hear about old friends, professors, girls that none of them could stand, and finally, ex boyfriends.
Pam, Gwynne’s oldest friend, turned to him with a dishy smile. “Has she told you about Todd?”
Adam looked at Gwynne. Gwynne looked at her beer. The beer effervesced silently.
Pam gasped. “You haven’t told him?”
Gwynne shot a withering look across the table. “No. I haven’t. Now back off, harpy. Contrary to what you think, not everyone needs to know all my business right away.”
There was a brief silence, and then they were back to talking about high school and who was pregnant or married or, god forbid, divorced. Adam was left sipping his beer and wondering just exactly who this Todd was. Gwynne had shut that conversation down like a health inspector discovering roaches in a Mexican restaurant—one sign in the window to let everyone know exactly how unwilling to allow access inside she was. He allowed a brief moment of wonder to linger. She was so undiscoverable, but so undiscovered. Her whole past lay behind her, the subject of late night conversation and the source of friction in future feuds. She laughed at something he had missed, and he smiled at the way she blasted one good “HA,” a flare in the night to let someone know she’d gotten their intended message. There was so much country to get to know. He hoped she allowed him to explore it.
On the walk back to his apartment she was mostly quiet, recharging from a night of being on. Cars zizzed by on rain-slicked pavement. The smell of wet city clung to them, a third member of the party. They passed by a pizza place set behind a small parking lot. The lights were still on, despite it being well past midnight. He loved a town that stayed up later than his cravings.
She didn’t pause. “I don’t want to talk about Todd.”
“What…I…” How had she known?
“I knew it would be the first thing you’d ask about. I know you inside and out.”
“Because it’s not something I’m that proud of, okay?” She stopped and faced him. “Please. Just drop it.”
But he couldn’t drop it. There was a fenced off lot in her landscape, and he had to know what lay behind the slats, even if it were a ferocious guard dog with a taste for blood. He let her have her silence all the way back to his apartment. Once inside, he opened his mouth.
“Don’t,” she said, dropping her purse in his recliner.
“I just don’t see why…”
“Because you don’t need to know that about me right now.”
“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t tell you, though.”
“There isn’t anything I would pry out of you, though, if you didn’t want to tell me.”
He felt like a jerk, but he had to know. Todd rang in his head like a bell, resonating over and over until he stopped counting the hour and only wanted silence. He let it drop, aware of an edge in her voice that made him wary to continue. Once in bed, though, he couldn’t sleep. He tossed from one shoulder to the other, trying to let the thoughts drip from his ears and into the bed of sleep. To no avail.
Gwynne sat up on one elbow. “You’re not going to sleep, are you?”
“No. I’m sorry. Not knowing is like an itch I just can’t scratch away. I’m trying.”
“Will you let me sleep if I tell you the story?”
“Fine. Todd was my fiancee once upon a time, in a different life.”
“We met a few years back through a mutual friend. He was charming and smart and handsome. When he proposed, I was too afraid to say anything but yes. The rest of my life. It was a pretty big thought. I tried to be happy. I pictured us, our kids, our families being united by our relationship. All I ever got back was dread, uncertainty. He was perfect. Great job. Nice teeth.”
“Nice teeth?” Adam scoffed.
She stared at the ceiling. “Shut up. Yes.”
After a pause he was afraid would close the gate on this fenced off lot, he asked, “So what happened?”
“We never got married.”
“Well, obviously. But…what happened?”
“I just couldn’t do it. My family didn’t understand my hesitation. His family didn’t understand anything. But when it came down to it, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t see myself as a wife, not with him, not then.”
She was silent. He let her be. A car horn issued from outside the apartment. “I left him there, a week before our wedding. They all hated me. I’m sure some of them still do.”
“What happened to him?”
“He moved on. I don’t know. We never really spoke after that. It was as if we’d never known each other. I moved back home. He moved out of the state. Like some kind of terrible dream we both thought was real until we awoke to find another day of the same old mess.”
Her words opened in Adam an inconsolable cavern of loneliness and doubt. He wasn’t sure he would ever sleep again. She sat up on the side of the bed.
“Where are you going?”
“I think I’m going to go home.”
“Oh.” Adam’s heart deflated even further. He forced himself to ask the question he didn’t want her to answer. “Like…forever?”
She stood up and grabbed her shirt from the hook near the door. “For now.”
Her answer didn’t make him feel any less hollow.
He let her go, listening to the way she eased the apartment door closed from the outside. He loved her, of that he was sure.