The Red Circle
by Kristi Petersen
He was obsessed with maps. She had met him at a party at a mansion on the beach, and the next morning she got into the car with him and a bag of short dresses and silk scarves that would not wrinkle. She did not know where they were going, but after two hours the smell of evergreen pervaded the car and the aqua scarf knotted loosely about her neck whipped around in the strong cool breezes. He wore khaki shorts and a dark green shirt with the sleeves rolled over a forearm that bulged as he downshifted.
"Do you know how to get to where we're going?" She leaned back in the seat. Her tan skirt hiked up a bit above mid-thigh.
His eyes were fixed on a point far ahead of them. "Map knows where we are and where we're going. Most important instrument in your car." He adjusted his aviator glasses and smiled, embracing the panorama of shimmering lakes and tree-carpeted mountains.
The map was jammed between them in the seats. She felt it. Like the love-worn pages of a book, it was delicate as onion skin; small tears feathered its edges. A circle in red marker bled across the soft, dirtied folds and collared not a town or city, but a blank spot in the open wilderness.
She wondered if he were a pilot or a professional driver. Or a scientist. She had asked him at the party and could not remember if he'd answered her.
"That right there is as valuable as the memory of a man's exact words. A source. Should be the most important item in a traveler's bag, one to smell like leather and cigarette smoke," he said. "You've got to have that. And the more detailed the better. You don't need to think or create a world. One already exists."
She did not understand his obsession. She studied the map and saw blue and red lines that weaved their way through towns with dull names.
She studied him. His eyes were curious globes with no paths to anywhere apparent on them. No red lines of pain, no blue of boundaries. The cut of his jaw was jagged like mountains. No, she did not understand what he saw in maps. She reached over and settled her fingertips in his stiff crop of dark, curly hair.
"I'm hot," she said, sticking her arm out the open window. The map slid off her lap to the floor.
"I brought you some champagne," he said. He settled a hand on her. The hairs on her arm stood at attention as he stroked her collarbone with his fingers.
She turned in the seat to balance on her knees and peer into the back. Her short skirt stuck on a sheen of salty sweat as she opened the lid on the black cooler. A bottle of champagne and a bag of strawberries swam in a sea of melting ice. When she popped the cork, bubbly fizzed over on to the cloth of the car seat, the stain a spreading lake or grease pool.
He laughed, cordial and deep. "You're violating open container law," he said.
She poured the champagne, watching it cascade into the tall crystal glass. "Have some."
He shook his head, checked the speedometer. "No," he said. "I'm the pilot." He worked the gear shift. The engine screamed.
She leaned back and sipped from the glass. Her cheeks flushed, her tongue was made tender from the spicy taste. The toll gate to the Northway was a stoic monolith, wavering in the nauseous haze of dust and heat. She watched him fondle the ticket, caress it with hands that were small, bony, almost too delicate to be the hands of man; he lifted the ticket to his nose and inhaled as though he expected a high, a fix, an opium rush. "They used to have a wonderful smell. Think it was from the ink they used to print them," he said. "When I was growing up, on all the family trips we took I would secretly smell the tickets. They would think I was crazy." He stroked the cheek with the point of card stock. It crackled against the thin layer of stubble. "I moved out west. They don't have toll roads. I missed that smell for many years."
Silence. He fanned his neck with the ticket. "So I moved back east. By the time I came back, the old magic was gone. Sure, it's the same cardstock, with that great, smooth, solid feeling to it. But the modern printing techniques have wiped it clean of the good smells."
"It's paper and words, isn't it?" She breathed. She shifted and settled her legs just apart in the seat. She wanted the air to come from the window and dry off the dampness between her legs. "I used to hide in bookstores and smell the bindings and ink when people were not looking."
He reached over and used the corner of the ticket to push little indents on the tender skin at the inside of her right thigh. She spread her legs a little further apart. "I would clutch them to me and move toward the register as though I were properly buying them, and at the last moment I would creep to some out of the way corner where I knew no one would look." He pushed the hem of her skirt up to expose the soft
aqua lace of her panties. "I didn't want anyone to see me and misinterpret the joy in my eyes at such a delightful scent," he said.
She laughed, a rich bounce of fondness. The edge of the ticket burrowed beneath the elastic, went down to seek the moisture of her sex. Goose bumps burst from her skin in prickling waves. She threw her head back, sighed. "Hmmm," she murmured. "Smelling books." She saw a younger version of herself dim in the side view mirror. She lolled her head to the side to look at him. His eyes had not deviated from the road, but a tight-lipped smile played at the corners of his mouth. A stray brown curl ruffled in the breeze from the open window.
She wrapped her arm about the head rest and arched her back.
Then the ticket was beneath her nose. "Here," he urged her. "Inhale deeply enough; you'll see what I mean." She did. She closed her eyes, let air rush into her nostrils with a great hissing noise. She smelled nothing.
He rubbed his leg with the palm of his hand.
"Oh, yes," she said, nodding in superficial agreement. "There's the faintest hint of it there. How sad, they've got to modernize everything."
She could see that he was satisfied: he thought she had shared the latent odor. But for as many times as she had traveled through toll gates with her family, she had never smelled the tickets. Her parents would have worried, perhaps subjected her to therapy. Or they never would have let her touch the ticket in the first place: if it had been lost or damaged, it would've cost Daddy more money. She suddenly realized her childhood had been full of don'ts.
She studied his distinguished profile under his five o'clock shadow and wondered what other kinds of smells of words incited him to madness on the open road. She emptied her second glass of champagne, and the mountains were towering cakes with clouds of frosting, edible Hudson Valley School paintings that loomed nearer as the hum of the tires on the pavement slowed down and the car came to a stop in the shoulder.
Her companion's hands rested on his lap, fragile, dead tree limbs brittle from years of traveling paper roads.
"What?" She asked.
Wordlessly he took off his sunglasses and reached over to the glove-box. His arm came near her nose and filled her nostrils with the scent of soap and evergreens. He squeezed the latch on the box.
Piles of maps poured onto her lap. His face expressionless, he seized two maps and compared them. He opened each, held them up to the window next to each other. Then he folded them neatly again and tossed them aside, forced the car door open with seemingly nary a thought to other cars that might be traveling on the highway, and left her, descending the hill.
She reached up and twirled a lock of her hair and turned her neck thickly through the molasses of anxiety. He was loping down the hill toward a lake with a surface of broken glass, his shirt willowing in the breeze. Tall, mustard-colored flowers whipped around him in the fading red sunlight of dusk.
She picked up one of the maps. It had a red circle. She picked up another. It, too. All of them. They all had red circles.
She got out of the car, making a firm stance where the pavement met the grass, watching him. He stood with his back to her, hands on his hips.
She went down to him, letting the mustard-colored flowers whip her legs. She settled her hands lightly on his back. He turned to her, reaching down to brush a stray strand of hair away from her face. He traced the lines of her eyebrows with his gentle fingers.
"Where are we?" She whispered.
"This is where it happened," he said. His blue-gray eyes were watery.
"An accident," he said. He turned away from her and sat down in the tall grass.
She shivered. The mountains would soon wrap them in the chill of a summer night. She licked her lips and noticed a small scar beneath his right eyes. That had gone ignored in last night's rosy candle glow. She knelt down next to him, and the grass pricked into her knees, like pins. "What kind of accident?"
He wrapped his hands around his knees and pressed his lips together. The goldenrod danced in the mirrors that hid his eyes, and he pushed them pack up on his nose. Then he said, "she died here."
She touched his cheek. "Who?"
He did not answer. The breezes chilled her and she tried to warm her neck with her hand, but her fingers were discontented spiders.
"She looked like you," he said.
She bit her lip, but said nothing. "I'm not her," she whispered. "But I could be."
He settled a hand on her head. "Some of us are just trying to finish the trip," he said. "We don't care how long we have to be on the road as long as we can keep riding it until we get off on the right exit."
He came after her with his lips, his tongue a butterfly that sought a new home in her mouth. And he eased her down in the tall grasses and untied her scarf, teasing her bare legs with it, bringing her to orgasm with only the touch of his soft fingers. And some places, she thought, he did not need any maps to find.