“One time I set fire to a mattress,” Jill says.
“What is, why you’re not allowed within 500 feet of any WalMart?” Hess says.
“Ding, ding, ding!”
They’re in a booth at the Waffle House off I-65, just south of Louisville. 3 a.m. They don’t know why.
“One time I pickpocketed a cop in Paris.”
“What is, you’re a terrible liar?”
Hess is significantly older than Jill. She’s twenty, in-between community colleges and friend’s sofas, in-between believing the myth of Older Man/Younger Woman, in-between understanding that the quality of sex is more important than the quantity. Hess proves aptitude in neither category. He is tall, graying (but still mostly dark-haired on top), drinks cranberry juice exclusively (perfect mixture of tart and sweet, like your skin), and considers himself worldly, possessing a Ph.D. in both hard-knocks and Theoretical Physics.
“I’m not saying I’m a bad-ass. I’m just saying,” Jill says.
“What are we doing here?”
“I don’t know. You called me, remember?” Jill wears a tank-top emblazoned with the Louisville cardinal, and flip-flops, maroon, the cheap kind found at drugstores. Her eyes are puffy with sleep and her hair is pulled back tightly in an athlete’s ponytail. She is no athlete.
She continues, “I don’t think it’s weird. Do you?”
“Not weird, no. But I am pretty tired.” They’ve been seeing each other since they met in line at PetSmart a few months ago. Hess lives alone (except for every other weekend when his kids visit) above an Italian restaurant downtown. Two bedrooms. Two baths. Gas stove. Hand-carved wood finishings. Columns and built-in bookcases. He teaches at U of L. Finite equations. Something about light and graphs and how fast the universe expands, if it expands, how could it not be expanding, always.
“Maybe we just take a break then?” Hess asks.
The waitress arrives with their waffles. Jill picks up her knife and fork and begins eating.
“So you’re not upset by this then?” Hess asks.
Between bites Jill says, “No. I am. But I’m hungry, too.” She sits cross-legged in the booth, her elbows on the table, syrup dripping off her knife. Hess’s waffle grows cold.
Hess knows this thing with Jill won’t last forever, but being with her now makes him viable, makes him a part of something he longs to understand but can’t. He watches her peers all day every day walk through their lives unafraid, unpuzzled by marriage, divorce, kids, bills, but he doesn’t envy them their lives. He just wants to warn them about his.
Jill perks up: “One time I tied myself to a sequoia in California. You know, to save the trees.” She stabs a piece of waffle with her fork, but sets it down. She hurts too, maybe.
“What is, you’re right.”