Snow had been falling since mid-afternoon, but now the wind was kicking in. Ice gusted against the windows. It had turned dark early. The streetlights came on one after the other. The snow fell thicker, wetter, but continued driving down hard in the shadowy light. Sophie looked out the front window again, searching the empty street. Her breath fogged the glass, then frosted over.
A small dark car turned the corner, at the far end of the block, slipping and sliding, and she thought it might be them, but couldn't be sure. The car slid past the house without a pause, as if the driver knew the way and was too intent on getting where he was going to worry about how he got there.
John stepped into the doorway. "You should have gotten a definite answer. Now we have to wait." He tapped his foot.
"I'm sure they'll call if they're not coming."
"You should have asked me before you invited them. I don't have time for this." He turned and walked back across the hall to his study.
Maybe they wouldn't stop. Maybe they'd drive right through. Des Moines was only about halfway, and they were in a hurry to get to her brother's place in Jackson Hole. Sophie thought about a week of skiing, but of course it was out of the question. She pressed her forehead against the cold windowpane. It was out of the question. She had a job of sorts and a husband in medical school. She let the curtain drop into place over the window and sat back against the sofa, chewing the cuticle on her thumb.
She heard the tap tap of ice against the window. It was getting colder. A branch weighed down with snow scraped the side of the house. She wondered where they were right now. The company would be nice. It wasn't that she was lonely, exactly. John was so busy with school, and the clinic, and his friends. His friends, not hers. But that was her choice, he said.
A drawer slammed in John's study. "How long do we have to wait? I have a test tomorrow."
"It's only six. Let's wait a little longer." No response. "I made chili." Silence, then another drawer slammed.
She pulled the curtain aside again and stared out, as if looking would make them appear. Nothing but swirling snow and ice. She straightened the curtain, smoothing to iron the wrinkles out. She'd sewn the curtains and painted the walls and decorated the room with bright colors and pillows and an Indian bedspread thrown over the sagging sofa. She wanted it to look like home, though Des Moines seemed light years from Jersey, a small town plopped down in a vast, empty plain. Sometimes she felt like a stalk of wheat, blowing in the Iowa wind.
Brakes screeched outside and she started to stand, but it was just a UPS truck. John's footsteps thumped down the hall. He walked heavily, but then he was a big man. Husky. Half-Irish, half-Italian, and those genes asserted themselves in unmistakable ways. The face and black, curly hair were pure Irish, but the body had soft, blurred Mediterranean lines. Too much sitting and studying, and too little exercise.
"You'd think they'd call," he said, coming into the living room. "I've got to eat."
John had been in one of his moods ever since Sophie had told him Matt might stop over on his way to Wyoming. John was an only child, and took himself a bit more seriously than her brothers and Matt were used to. Matt once had jokingly asked John if he preferred to be called doctor in bed, and John had not forgotten.
"John, Matt's like—"
John dropped to his knees in front of her. He picked up her clenched hand and kissed her fingers, one by one. "I know, I know."
Sophie was reading when John came in the second time. He stood over her, hands on his hips. "Why don't we just eat? The least they could do is call."
"It's only one night. If they come at all."
"It's not that, Sophie. It's just—"
A loud knock sounded from the front hall.
"Hey, anybody home?"
Matt pushed open the unlocked door just as Sophie started pulling from inside, and both guys kind of fell through the open door, with a whoosh of snow and wind and ice that chilled the cramped hall. They stamped their feet and threw off their boots and pulled off wet wool gloves, dumping everything on the throw rug, Matt talking a mile a minute, just like always.
"Man, is it nasty out there. Sorry we didn't call, but my cell died, and of course Ben forgot his," he said, giving Sophie a hug. "Oh, yeah, this is Ben."
Ben had been standing off to the side. The first thing Sophie noticed was the bushy red moustache. The second was the pale gray eyes, like the ocean in early spring.
"So," John said. "It's nice to see someone from home. I know Sophie wishes we were closer."
"I wasn't sure we'd make it, it's pretty nasty out. But we're anxious to get to Thomas' place." Matt turned to Sophie. How's he doing?"
"Better, I guess."
"He needs an antidepressant," John said. "But he insists the mountains will do the trick."
John's spoon was full and halfway to his mouth. He turned to Ben. Sophie watched a red bean fall off the spoon onto the blue tablecloth, but John didn't seem to notice. "What are you, a senior, Ben?"
Sophie reached over and picked up the bean, put it on John's bread plate.
Ben looked at her and smiled. "No, I'm sort of a junior, or almost. I haven't quite figured it out."
"Oh," John said, his mouth full.
"My father complains I'm on the seven-year plan." Ben smiled again, and rocked back on the legs of the chair. "I guess I am."
Sophie laughed. "No point in rushing a good thing."
Ben laughed, too. "Right. I'm like a fine wine."
"Oh." John frowned and returned to his chili, dipping a thick crust of bread in his bowl.
"He's an artist," Matt explained. "Different drummer. What can you expect?" He laughed.
John opened his mouth to speak but Sophie jumped in first.
"An artist, that's great," she said. "I was an art major, too, before I switched to English."
"Commercial art? Art can be risky," John said.
"Sculpture, some painting." Ben's gray eyes were bright, the corners crinkled. "I tried business and it sucked and I don't do science. But don't worry, I'll figure something out."
He was looking at Sophie, not at John, and she was staring back.
"Good for you," she said.
Matt shook his head slowly up and down, tapping his chin. "Uh huh." He turned to Sophie. "What about you? You gonna be the doctor's wife or a writer, or what?"
"Not just a doctor's wife. Maybe a writer. I—"
John glanced up from his bowl of chili. "Right. Something you can do at home."
"Because, you know, the kids will come first."
"Well . . . "
But John was already halfway across the room. "Gotta study, guys. Later."
Matt and Ben helped Sophie clear the plates. They talked about their trip, about skiing, about Thomas' breakdown and Sophie's life in Iowa and next summer at the beach, slowly at first and then faster, revving up, more at ease. Ben mostly listened.
"Thomas told me it was more than just the drugs," Matt said.
"I know. He feels so much pressure about getting into medical school. He's thinking of moving to Vermont, maybe try making furniture."
"Yeah. And there was a girl," Matt said. "It didn't work out. Hit him pretty hard."
"He didn't tell me that."
They drank wine and listened to music and laughed, getting into the rhythm of things. Of each other and the late hour and the storm outside. For a moment Sophie wondered at the promise and expectation that came with meeting someone known and someone unknown halfway across the country, as though for a moment the world was new, and her place in it was new, too. She thought of the dream she sometimes had now. Row after row of black birds standing on a frozen pond in parallel lines, waiting, then one bird lifts off, and another, and another, until the birds are swirling like dust in the sky, and somehow she is standing there, and she knows that if she just unweights herself and let's go, she can fly, too. And she does. For a moment, just a moment, she is flying in circles across the night sky.
Later John came in to say goodnight, and Matt decided he'd had enough, too. He wanted to hit the road early. Ben wasn't tired yet. Neither was Sophie. Ben poured them each another glass of wine and they sat for a time without talking, sipping the wine. They sat at opposite ends of the sofa. Sophie reached over and turned off the lamp on her end table. Only the small one beside Ben was still lit. It cast an amber glow.
"I like to watch the snow. You can see it better in the dark," she said, pushing open the curtains.
Ben didn't say anything, just watched Sophie watching the snow. She could see him out of the corner of her eye. Men did that sometimes. Watched her, studied her. Usually it bothered her but it didn't this time. She didn't know why.
"You're very pretty, but you probably know that."
She turned and looked at him, then looked away. "I don't really see it."
"Sorry, does it bother you? I don't usually say things like that."
"I'd like to draw you," he said.
"You mean a portrait? My face?"
"Yeah. Maybe." He moved closer. "Your body, too."
"Oh." She closed her eyes.
"In life class we get these men and women with rolls of fat. Ugly, but interesting. Grotesque. You're different. Obviously. God, I sound moronic."
"Yeah, you do." She smiled.
"Well . . . you can draw me if I can draw you. How's that?"
"It's a deal."
He grabbed her hand, pulled her to her feet. They stood facing each other.
"I've got my stuff in my backpack. I'll be right back," he said.
"Me too." Sophie ran down the hall to her desk, grabbed a sketchbook and drawing pencils. When she returned Ben was standing at the window, looking out at the snow.
She stopped in the doorway, then moved to stand next to him in the half-light. "Snow's still falling," she said.
"But not as hard. It's easing up."
She leaned close to the window and pressed her hot cheek against the cold glass. Ben turned and looked at her. "Like that. That's how I want to draw you, just like that."
"Oh. Well. I have to tell you, I feel more than a little weird."
"I know. Just relax. It's just life class, that's all."
He took out a piece of charcoal and opened his pad. The pungent smell of charcoal filled the room, along with memories of family barbecues, summers down the Jersey shore. Drawing classes. She thought of the possibilities that once existed when she held a small stick of burnt wood. Thought about the fact that there was no ocean in Iowa, only wave after wave of wheat, far as the eye could see.
She turned slowly as he rustled in his backpack. "Here." He handed her a long, hand-knitted scarf. Black and gray wool, with stripes of varying widths, probably taller than she was. Sophie wondered who had knitted that scarf. Who had taken such painstaking care for this man.
"Wrap that around your neck. The textures will be great."
"The contrast," she said, nodding. She draped the scarf around her neck and down her silk shirt. The red shirt was open at the neck, her skin white.
He reached out and pulled gently on the scarf, straightening it. Ran his fingers across the open expanse of skin at her throat. "Your cheek, against the rough, bristly feel of the scarf. I hope I can draw that."
She closed her eyes, perched on the edge of the sofa, and leaned her other cheek against the window once again.
"Turn toward me, just a bit. So you're three-quarters."
She shifted, her eyes still closed. At first there was no sound but Ben's breathing, and her own. Then the wind whistled through the pane. She heard the sound of Ben's charcoal moving quickly, surely, over the page. It made a slight squeaking sound. One she remembered so well. One she loved. Then it stopped. When she opened her eyes all she could see was the spreading fog her breath had made on the glass.