Polaris

He’d been awake for hours – long enough that his eyes had adjusted completely and the dark room was a mix of dark blues and grays. Even with the air conditioner rattling along on its highest setting, the room was sticky hot and she’d shoved the covers to their feet. He could count each of her ribs when she breathed, each slowly rising and falling as she slept. On the flesh above her hip was a tattoo of a compass rose; her version of true north was now pointing west. Without moving, he spoke.

“What does the compass mean?”

She didn’t answer, so he shook her by the shoulder. She groaned something he didn’t catch.

“Hey. What does your tattoo mean? “

She rolled over to face him, the burn of her breath catching him off guard when she answered.

“You woke me up to ask about my tattoo?” she asked, her voice heavy and drowsy.

“I couldn’t sleep and I was curious.”

She groaned again, blasting him with another wave of foul breath. They’d both been drinking bourbon, but she smelled more like rotten melon. He reached for the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand and offered her one to mask the smell. They lit up, sharing a match, and he asked again.

“Jesus, what is it with you and the tattoo? It doesn’t mean anything – I just thought it looked nice.”

“Oh,” he said, “I just thought maybe it meant something to you. Like a symbol or something.”

She shook her head no in the dark. He took a drag, knocking loose, gray ash onto the sheets. Without turning on the light, he swung his legs off the bed and fetched a glass from the bathroom, offering it to her as an ashtray.

“When I was a kid, I used to like compasses. I used to take my dad’s into the woods and wander around with a map, trying to get lost.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, slumping back down into her pillow again, “Why would you want to be lost?”

“So I could find my way home.”

“That seems asinine.”

He bristled slightly in the dark.

“Maybe,” he said defensively, “but I could never manage to get lost, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”

She ditched her cigarette in the glass, leaving more than half of it to smolder like incense.

“Really? How hard is it to get lost?”

“Harder than you think,” he said, abandoning his smoke as well and turning onto his side to face her.

“You start out down a path and take a few turns at random until you’re in a part of the woods you’ve never been in before. The trees, and rocks and clearings all look different than any you’ve ever seen before, and you get that little thrill that tells you danger is near. But then, as soon as you turn around back the way you came, it’s all familiar again – like you’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs and finding your way is the easiest thing in the world. You just do the opposite of what you did in the first place and you’re home.”

He thought for a moment he could actually hear her thinking this over, but it was just the air conditioner rattling more cold air into the room.

“I guess that makes sense, but if it’s that easy, why do people get lost and freeze to death in the woods all the time?”

“Maybe they just didn’t pay enough attention on the way in.”

He knew it was an insensitive thing to say as soon as the words left his lips. For all he knew, her father could have died on a hunting trip after chasing a deer too far into the field. Or maybe she’d been mugged in a part of the city she had never meant to end up in, losing her money and dignity in an alley far from her normal haunts. He opened his mouth to correct himself, but the moment had passed.

“You want to know what I think?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“I think maybe you should worry less about being a philosopher and more about the naked woman in your bed.”

She curled a leg around his and took hold of him below the waist, stirring his passions for a final go before dawn struck. She found his mouth and slid her sour-tasting tongue between his lips. He rolled her over and pointed her south. With a small thrill, he entered her with one hand on the compass and the other in the small of her back.

 

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