Alex held every door they encountered open, from the cab ride off campus, to the front door of The San Remo. He let her in the elevator before him, up to the 14th floor to his parent's lavish apartment.
But he couldn't resist the awkward feeling that snuck up from out of nowhere, as Sophie's golden eyes rolled around in their sockets, taking in the sights.
She laughed a little bit. "Unbelievable. You live here?"
"My parents," he tried to explain. "They like this kind of...stuff."
"Stuff," Sophie mused. And stuff it was. Bright white, wall-to-wall plush carpeting, completely synchronizing furniture. Alex much preferred his dorm room to home. Home was like living in a catalogue.
He made some peppermint tea for the two of them, as her mind continued taking in the sights, then he ushered her out onto the brick terrace balcony. It overlooked one corner of the park, and had a great view of the surrounding buildings. They sat down on the two wicker chairs, as Sophie sighed with content at the sight of the cityscape.
Alex fished a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and offered her one, which she politely refused. So he left the pack unused on the little glass table between them.
"Tell me about you," he began. "I feel horrible, I don't know anything about you."
Sophie's pink lips smeared into a childish smile, as she rolled her spoon between her index and middle fingers. "What would you like to hear?"
"I don't know," Alex searched her face, desperate to find out all the secrets that were trapped under her skin and into her skull. The kind of things she worried about that kept her awake at night in her bed across town. The kind of things she took pride in, replaying events and moments over and over in her head. The kinds of things she giggled about and whispered to her friends back home, wherever home was.
"Where are you from?" he decided.
Their eyes were locked, but she suddenly flicked them down into her tea. She began to stir furiously, nervously.
"I'm from New Jersey," she said hesitantly. "I grew up in a place called Estelle, in Atlantic County. South Jersey, you know? Really tiny town, by the shore."
Sophie spoke like she didn't like the flavor of the words. But Alex listened intently, and it made him smile.
"By the beach? Did you like it there?"
"No, not really. It was very..." She searched for the words. "Unappreciative."
"Of what? You?"
"Of me, of anyone in general."
She seemed sad then. But when she looked out she saw the mass of points from the tops of the surrounding buildings and smiled.
"I had to get out of there," she continued. "I was too good for that place."
"What about your family?" he offered.
"It was just me and my parents." She glanced over at him. "My family has no money," she quickly added, unsure if that was what he was implying.
"Well, what does that have to do with anything?"
"Yours does," she explained. "Clearly."
He had nothing to say to that. But it was true, and there was no denying it.
"So, that's what brought you to New York?" he asked, trying to steer away from the subject of money. But his words sounded stupid as they dangled in the air. "Just the fact that you...'had to get out of there'?"
"I guess. I mean, that town would have killed me if I stayed there. I couldn't stay there. So I worked myself to the bones for three years trying to get out. And I pretty much just enrolled in school here and left." Her voice floated with enthusiasm, seeming fond of her decision.
"You knew what you wanted," he smiled.
"You should always know what you want. That's the only way you'll ever be happy." Sophie furrowed her brow as the sky began to get hazy from the early evening sun. "Let me tell you about a kid I knew back in Jersey. He was valedictorian of the class that graduated two years before mine in high school. Incredibly smart kid, his parents were friendly with my parents. The kid got into Yale University, early decision. Planned to study some sort of mathematics or physics or engineering, I have no idea. I saw his speech at the graduation ceremony, kid talked like a cross between a lover and a dictator. The entire crowd hung like criminals at his every word.
"So, the kid goes off to Yale, the apple of the entire town's eye. And here's the point I'm trying to make, it's that you don't really know who a person is, until you take them out of their element. This kid went to Yale thinking he had every right to be full of himself, and for such a smart kid, that was a really dumb mentality to have. He was nothing, nothing but the valedictorian from some hardly-decent public high school in south nowhere New Jersey, which is, if I do say so myself, the armpit of the American union. In that godforsaken town, he was something special, but at Yale, he was completely run-of-the-mill.
"First day there, finds out that not only was his roommate the valedictorian of his high school, but so were the kids next-door, and the kids across the hall, and he quickly found out that probably one out of three people at Yale were valedictorian of their high school. So within his first night at Yale he learned the most important thing he was ever going to learn: 'I am nothing special anymore.'
"Midway through the spring semester, he vanishes. Kid dropped out of school without a word to dear old Mom and Dad back home, nonetheless a word to anybody. Police get called in, not a lead whatsoever. Nobody knows if he's dead or kidnapped or who knows what? Three months pass, and the police finally track him down. The kid's in a town called Belisario Dominguez, in Mexico, working as a corn farmer in a little clay hut among the poorest of the poor. The locals called him 'El Blanco.'
"American police tried to take him back, couldn't get him back across the border before they found out he had surrendered his American citizenship. Too smart, he was too smart. So, the police go back empty-handed, and the kid finally sends a little postcard to his parents back home. It said:
'Dear Madre y Padre,
Mexico is a lot better than Connecticut. I've never been so happy in all my life. It might be hard for me to come back to your country now, but you're welcome to come visit me in el Mexico bonito.
P.S. I guess the Spanish tutor really paid off!'"
Sophie laughed and laughed, until she silenced herself by lighting a cigarette, taken from his pack wordlessly.
"I told you, I don't smoke. I didn't smoke back home, this is new." She took a long drag and sighed, lounging back into the bench as if exhausted from her story.
"That's the point," she continued. "The point is, know who you are. And know what you want. Don't do what everybody's telling you to do. That was his mistake. He was valedictorian because his parents made school a nightmare for him. He went to Yale because there was no other option but the Ivies. He had his whole life planned out for him, since the hour he was born. And it's a shame it took him nearly twenty years and a ton of his parents' money to realize it.
"You see, I'm here because I want to be here. I don't want to be anywhere else. I did my time, I paid my dues. My parents are furious at me, and they really, really shouldn't be. My only mistake was waiting too long to follow my heart." Another thick drag. "My only mistake."
The sunset made her skin look firm and pink like an infants'. He couldn't resist himself and reached out to touch her cheek. Her eyes closed, relishing his touch.
"You are," Alex smiled. "Incredible."
"Only because I'm happy. You wouldn't like me if I was at Yale. I'd be a mess. Una vida perdió¬ ¡nd I all but failed Spanish."
Without another word, she brought her head to rest on his shoulder. Her hair smelled like smoke.
She flung her cigarette to the terrace. "I don't like those, I told you, I don't smoke."
He started to work his fingers through her hair, blond from a bottle. His fingers brushed her scalp, and her secrets were there underneath, so close he could nearly touch them.
"Absolutely incredible," he whispered, as the sun disappeared behind the colossal buildings that surrounded them.