“OK,” he said with a broad baritone laugh. “Come for a walk, then. It’ll be nice.”
I shook my head. Alarm and skepticism warred with spreading, unsteady warmth behind my collarbone. “Walking around in the freezing dark with a total stranger is not nice,” I said. I tipped a glance to the well-worn gaiters. “Planning to do some cross-country skiing?”
“Riding my bike,” he said, and then added without apology, “I’m between vehicles.”
He held the heavy door open expectantly. I moved the pepper spray from my purse to my coat pocket and followed my heart out under the clear, cold stars.
“What are you reading?” I asked, because that question always opens doors of its own. I was in the habit of asking the nuns at the bus stop, a barber who paid me to scrub his floor once a week, elderly ladies and children at the park. To this day, I ask people who sit beside me on airplanes, baristas at Starbucks, exchange students standing in line with me. Over the years, “What are you reading?” has introduced me to many of my favorite books and favorite people.
The bear had a good answer: “Chesapeake. Have you read it?”
“No, but I love James Michener,” I said. “When I was 12, I fell in love with Hawaii and vowed that if I ever had a daughter, I’d name her Jerusha after the heroine.”
“Big book for a 12-year-old.”
“We didn’t have a TV. And I was a dork.”
He laughed that broad baritone laugh again. “Literature: last refuge of the tragically uncool.”
“Same could be said of bicycling in your ski gaiters.”
The conversation ranged organically from books and theater to politics and our personal histories.
Having embraced the life of an artsy party girl, I was the black sheep of my conservative Midwestern family, thoroughly enjoying my freedom and a steady diet of wild oats. He’d spent a dysfunctional childhood on the East Coast. A troubled path of drug and alcohol abuse had brought him to one of those legendary moments of clarity at which he made a hard right turn to an almost monkish existence in a tiny mountain cabin. He’d built an ascetic life that was solitary but substantive, baking bread at a local restaurant, splitting wood for his heating stove, staying out of trouble.
“That probably sounds pretty dull to you,” he said.
“Agonizingly dull, but don’t worry,” I said, and then patted his arm. “Maybe someday you’ll remember how to have fun.”
He shrugged. “Maybe someday you’ll forget.”
We talked about the things people tend to avoid when they’re trying to make a good impression: hopes subverted by mistakes, relationships sabotaged by shortcomings. My bus was leaving in the morning, and we would never see each other again, so there was no need to posture.
Fingers and chins numb with cold, we found refuge in a Four B’s Restaurant and sat across from each other in a red vinyl booth. We had enough money between us for a short stack of buckwheat pancakes. A few morning papers were delivered to the front door, and we worked our way through the crossword puzzle, coffee cups between our hands.