Welcome to the Wide, Wide World

By Alice Duncanson (02BA), 2019 Write Now Finalist

Adam knew Sophie was out of his league after their second date, when she'd pressed a mixed tape into his hand as he left the Dodge Street house she shared with eight other people, including men who looked to be well into their 30s. He'd acted cool, planting a quick kiss on her lips that were painted a shade his mother would likely have called "corpse," but when he turned the corner to head up Iowa Avenue, he stopped near a streetlight to read in her curly handwriting--a bit girlie for her, he thought--the names of the bands and songs she'd curated for him.

Guided by Voices, Souls of Mischief, PJ Harvey. He thought of his own stack of CDs back at the apartment he shared with a friend he'd known since high school: Pearl Jam, Oasis, No Doubt. There was a lot he didn't know about music or art--the cool bands didn't make tour stops in his southwest Iowa hometown; but he knew enough to know that when it came to matching Sophie's knowledge of music, film or books, he was screwed. Screwed but intrigued.

Because for some reason, the young woman he'd met in Professor Holstein's Quest for Human Destiny lecture--a course he'd taken on a whim to check a box so he could graduate next year--had struck up a conversation with him on their way out of class. With her nose piercing, dyed red hair, and very strong opinions about Salinger's Catcher in the Rye ("Adolescent crap," she'd called it, cursing the professor for assigning it), she was different than the other women he'd met at the university. She was different than everyone he'd ever known.

Which is why he'd somehow summoned the nerve to asked her out, and why now, he stood next to her uncomfortably, wooden, as she caught up with her friends outside the Tobacco Bowl during their third date. They were supposed to be alone, but as they strolled through the Ped Mall after dinner, it quickly became apparent that Sophie knew everyone. Or everyone with a tattoo, a piercing, or a clove cigarette, it seemed.

First they'd encountered a group of friends from West Des Moines, Sophie's hometown, on their way for pitchers at the Deadwood. Adam noticed that a couple of the women in the group had the same nose piercing as Sophie; they had talked like her too, with a confidence that he himself lacked.

As soon as they'd extracted themselves from that group, a guy in an ankle length trench coat summoned her, hollering, "Soph!" Smoke hung in the air above him. "Where've you been? I haven't seen you around all semester."

"I changed majors," Sophie said, lighting up a smoke of her own. "I was doing the po-mo lit thing for awhile, but sometimes you just want something authentic, you know? Something earnest. I switched to film."

"Yeah, earnest is underrated," the guy nodded in agreement. "Oscar Wilde was onto something."

"The Importance of Being Earnest," Adam heard himself interject. Trench coat guy and Sophie turned their gazes to him and he felt his cheeks start to redden. He cleared his throat. "I read that in high school," he said. "I thought the point was, uh, that people aren't earnest. That they're leading double lives or something." Sophie, who had limply held her hand in his, squeezed his palm supportively.

"Aren't we all," said the guy, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Have we met?"

Sophie cleared her throat and tugged at her hoodie strings. "This is Adam," she said.

"Adam, Matt. Adam's an engineering major. Electrical?" She looked at Adam. "I've known Matt forever. Currier Hall, baby." She and Matt high fived.

"Nice to meet you, Matt." Adam extended his hand. "It's environmental, actually. Environmental engineering."

It was Saturday night, and as the November sky darkened, the Ped Mall filled with voices of those filing in and out of restaurants and bars, lights reflecting off the brick pavers, the scents of grilled meats, the sting of cold air blowing off the Iowa River.

Adam heard Sophie tell Matt that someday, she'd like to direct a musical based on her grandmother's diaries from World War II. It took him back to their dinner conversation, over chianti and lasagna at the Brown Bottle, as he listened to her talk, her face illuminated by the drippy candle on the checkered table cloth. She had so many ideas, so many creative things she wanted to do; he could have listened all day.

When Sophie wrapped up her conversation with Matt, she and Adam walked hand-in-­hand toward the fountain, shut down for the winter. They found an empty bench, not sure where to go next, and not really caring. Adam gestured toward the city library. "I went there, you know. To check out some of the albums you put on my mixed tape."

Sophie smiled, big.

"The librarian was like, 'You're dating someone way cooler than you, right?"' Adam teased.

Sophie laughed, punching him lightly in the arm.

"You're pretty cool yourself," she whispered, tracing an imaginary circle on his thigh. "I mean, you argued with me about Salinger the first day we met. I love a boy with strong opinions." That made him laugh.

"Which song did you like best?"

"Hmmm," Adam sighed, his brows furrowed in thought. "The angsty one, I think." Sophie laughed and feigned offense, so he kept going. "The one with the guitars and the singer who was like, upset about stuff. Which one was that again?"

Sophie nodded knowingly. "Oh that one," she said. "It's my favorite, too."

Check out all of the 2019 finalists.

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