Water of Life

Marla had little use for philosophy, but a boy named Albert from her survey course lived for it. In their discussion section Friday afternoon, he delivered a critique of Rawls’s theory of reflective equilibrium with such nuanced reasoning and spitting passion that even the instructor, a graduate student who struggled to command the room, was left speechless. In the silence, it occurred to Marla that Albert might prove useful with the twenty-page paper on Plato’s allegory of the cave that she needed to write over the weekend but had yet to begin.

So she waited for him in the darkness after class, shivering beneath the leafless sycamore outside their freshman dorm. When he ambled by with his awkward briefcase she stopped him, complimented his argument, swore she’d seen him gag over the waffles at breakfast. That wasn’t him? Well, he could take her word for it, they tasted like cardboard. She invited him to join her at Foggy’s, where they wouldn’t get carded. His eyebrows lifted, then he accepted so softly she almost didn’t hear.

Foggy’s smelled of sawdust and forced-air heat. Christmas lights twinkled on the walls. Marla led Albert through a forest of dangling snorkel gear to the bar, where they found seats right away because, she noted, they were early. A jazz quartet was just setting up at the back of the room. They ordered shots and chasers from a fat bartender. Whenever the front door jingled open, blasts of frigid air swept the room.

Albert fixed his attention on a dish of Chex Mix. He was lanky and ashen, with unruly black hair and a prominent Adam’s apple. A Jew, perhaps. Marla hadn’t known any Jewish people before college, but now she’d met so many she couldn’t keep count. Beneath the pretension of his coat and tie Albert owned the hungry, pimpled look of most other freshman boys. Normally, Marla made it her business to ignore them. She poked her finger in the Chex Mix, causing him to look up. His brown eyes swam helplessly. First she would ask what he was doing for the holidays. She came from Findlay, Ohio, where people prized the niceties.

Albert planned to spend Thanksgiving at his family’s summerhouse in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. This was something. The houses Marla knew were either brick or wood, one story or two; none was assigned to a season. Summerhouse implied an ethos more than a building, a world to be ogled across a moonlit glaze of water. It implied The Great Gatsby, which she brazenly said aloud. Albert smiled for the first time.

The bartender returned with their drinks. Marla threw her whiskey back and shuddered as it blazed down her throat. Albert produced a Bic lighter and held it to his shot glass until blue flames licked the surface. Then he dropped it into his mug of beer and chugged. He was full of surprises.

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