Asa spent what spare time he’d had this past week getting ready for Betsy’s visit—dusting, mopping, scrubbing and putting out enough roach motels to accommodate a convention. It was while putting out the last of the roach motels that he decided he’d have to tell her about the kiss.

Since Betsy wasn’t getting in till late he’d said he’d have dinner ready. She’d often cooked for him when he’d visited in Charleston. Yet when it settled on him what he’d committed to, and counting himself among the cooking impaired, he’d panicked. After a phone consultation with his mother, who talked him down from his culinary ledge, he decided to go for something simple—baked chicken with rice and green beans. For hors d'oeuvres he bought port wine cheese and a box of ak-mak crackers. He splurged on a couple of eight dollar bottles of wine that the clerk had said were even better than Mateus.

Friday evening, he set out the folding chairs and card table he’d bought especially for her visit and covered the table with a checked tablecloth. He dug out a couple of candles and set the table. Then he went back to his kitchen to check on the chicken. It was the first time he’d used the oven other than to heat his apartment. With the oven light burned out, he had to use a flashlight to inspect the browning chicken pieces then he turned off the beans so as not to overcook them and checked the rice, which his mother talked about in almost moral terms: “You want the individual grains to maintain their integrity.”

With everything under control, he opened one of the wines, poured himself a jelly glass full and took a sip. He wasn’t a connoisseur, not by a long shot. He couldn’t have told the difference between a merlot and a cabernet if his palette depended on it. Betsy liked wine, especially with meals, and as he took another sip and swished it around in his mouth, he was sure that the clerk had been right—definitely better than Mateus.

He went back out to the main room, turned off most of the lights and lit the candles. He carefully slid a record out of its jacket, making sure not to get fingerprints on the tracks. Asa gently set the record on his turntable. He’d come across the Wendy Waldman album in Little Five Points at Wax N Fax, the used record store a couple of blocks up from his apartment. Wax N Fax was in a cluster of little businesses with Eat Your Vegetables, the only vegetarian restaurant this side of Atlanta; Charis Books, the lesbian bookstore; a shoe store called Abba Dabba’s and The Little Five Points Pub.

Asa sat on the old plaid sofa, sipped his wine and took in the room. Candlelight did miracles. The place looked warm, cozy, downright inviting. In fact, the sum total of the candlelight, his cleaning and the table set for two was a chic shabby romantic, like that scene out of Lady and the Tramp.

Waldman’s voice was a scratchy, urgent, sexy growl. He and Betsy had first heard her on the University of Charleston’s radio station the night they’d met back in March. He’d come to interview for a tenure track job, a job he didn’t get. Betsy, a grad student finishing up her M.A., had been assigned the odious task of taking the job candidate out to dinner. That they’d ended up sleeping together was a source of continual wonderment to Asa, and that she’d called him a couple of weeks later asking if she might visit him in Chapel Hill had positively mystified him. She was funny and down to earth, not to mention unnervingly beautiful. What in the world did she see in him? He of the big ears, crooked nose and a post-acne battlefield complexion. “Yours is not to reason why,” Sam, a fellow teacher at Georgia State and his best friend here in Atlanta, had told him one day over a beer at The Pub.

At the time Asa’d come to Charleston for the interview, he’d been living in Chapel Hill, where he’d been adjuncting his way deeper into poverty. After his failed interview, Betsy and Asa began taking turns visiting each other every month or so.

He’d moved to Atlanta in August where he’d gotten a two-year gig teaching comp to wall-to-wall freshman. He liked freshman. He liked their energy and their openness even if their writing left something to be desired. With benefits and actual wages, the job was a modest step up from occupational penury, yet it was adamantly non-tenure track, so much so that the ad in The Chronicle had set off “non-tenure track” in all caps.

Since his move to Atlanta, he’d discouraged Betsy from visiting. He worried she’d take one look at his hovel and hightail it back to Charleston and never be heard from again.

“You underestimate me,” she’d said last week in a phone conversation that had brought all this to a head.

“I don’t do any such thing.”

“Then why won’t you let me visit?” she asked.

“I live in squalor.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed Charleston has roaches too,” she said. “Except here we call them palmetto bugs and they’re so big they scoot the furniture around. And crime, are you kidding? Charleston’s the violent crime capital of the South. We have murder and mayhem down to a science.”

“Why’s it so important that you visit me here?” he asked. Since his move to Atlanta, theirs had become a one-way relationship with him driving to Charleston. Betsy lived in an airy, renovated carriage house she rented from a grandmotherly woman who lived in the main house on the other side of a lush courtyard and who smoked, drank scotch and was the spitting image of Eudora Welty.

“I want to observe you in your natural habitat,” Betsy said.

“If this is my natural habitat,” he said, “I must be vermin.”

“Asa, if you don’t let me visit, I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Serious as a heart attack,” she said.

“Really?” he asked.

There was silence on the other end.

“Well maybe not that serious,” she said. “But pretty serious.” She paused. “Serious as a bee sting and I’m talking about a bee sting for someone who’s allergic.”

“Okay,” he said sighing. “Okay.”

“Do I detect capitulation?”

“Come ahead. Come see the comp-teaching drudge eek out an existence in his grim little tenement in its blighted, crime-ridden slum where break-ins and muggings are a way of life, and rapes and stabbings are such pedestrian occurrences that if they do happen to be written up in the paper, they’re buried behind the stock reports and beneath the weather map.”

“I’ll be there Friday about nine,” she said cheerfully and hung up.

It was bad enough scrambling to make his apartment presentable. Then, to make things worse two nights ago, an old girlfriend called out of the blue, and said she was in town for a conference and wondered if he’d like to meet. The last time he’d seen Elly was two years ago. She’d just snagged a job at a little liberal arts college in the mountains of north Georgia.

They decided on Manuel’s, a bar on North Highlands. Elly was a pale, thin waif with curly hair and big glasses, overly serious but sweet and kind. One of those girlfriends he liked more in retrospect. At Manuel’s their conversation centered on the trials of teaching. But as the pitcher of beer between them drained she asked more personal questions, including was he seeing anybody.

“A woman from Charleston,” he’d said.

“Good for you,” she said.

“How about you?” he asked.

“Not at the moment. I have my eyes on the prize.” Her eyes lingered on him and he grew suddenly uncomfortable. “I’m up for tenure,” she said.

Finally, he walked her out to her car, the buzz from the beer had him feeling nostalgic. He opened her car door for her, and she turned back to him, and he was reminded why he’d been attracted to her. In the right light, from the right angle she reminded him of a Woody Allen heroine whose name escaped him. He leaned in to hug her, at least he was fairly sure that had been his intention, but somehow they veered into a kiss. It wasn’t a long kiss, in fact it was more of a graze, but it startled him. She smiled and said, “Take care of yourself Asa.”

“You too Elly.” They hugged, he closed her car door and she drove away.

*

The record player clicked off. Asa checked his watch. 9:05. He decided he didn’t need to tell Betsy about the kiss since it had meant absolutely nothing. Telling Betsy would be overindulging his overactive conscience, which his $25-an-hour intern doctoral student therapist had pointed out was his way of distracting himself from what mattered.

He went back to check on the chicken, and as he walked through the apartment, he had to admit he’d done a good job getting it in decent shape. Sadly, it wasn’t within his power to clean up all of Little Five Points or even Seymour’s building. Asa’s landlord, a tall skinny, bushy bearded sociology professor named Seymour Schulman, kept stacks of P.G. Wodehouse paperbacks in the cramped shag-carpeted hallway and went jogging late at night with a little headlamp. A couple of times Asa had been walking back from the Pub late at night and seen the bizarre figure of Seymour, in too short jogging shorts, lurching down Euclid Avenue and disappearing into the dark. Seymour’s apartment, which Asa got a snoot full of whenever he went by with the rent check, reeked of patchouli and curry.

“I told you not to go to a lot of trouble,” Betsy said when she arrived and saw the candlelit table. But he could tell by her smile that she was touched. “Something smells really good,” she said.

“Baked chicken,” he said, taking her little suitcase.

“You actually cooked dinner?” she asked.

“I said I’d have dinner ready for you.”

“I thought you meant takeout or something.” She shoved him gently. “Aren’t you full of

surprises?”

“Ready to eat?”

“I’d like to see the rest of your apartment first.”

“Oh the rest,” he said. “I hope you have a little time.”

He showed her into his bedroom setting his suitcase on his double bed, which took up most of the room. His desk took up the rest. On his desk sat his IBM electric. This tank of a typewriter, weighed forty pounds and would’ve survived a nuclear blast. A formidable piece of machinery, it had seen him through six years of grad school, its motor’s sweet little rumble keeping his spirits up during the rise and fall of a handful of predominantly scholarly, bespeckled girlfriends not to mention his two-year slog through the Dali-esque landscape of dissertation composition.

He showed her his bathroom. “I call it ‘Phone Booth with Shower.’” Then he directed her into the kitchen so small he had to stand in the bedroom doorway while she checked it out.

“Cozy,” Betsy said.

“That’s one word for it.” He had her carry the opened wine bottle into the living room. He served their plates and carried them into the main room, where he found her standing by the stereo, looking at the album cover. He set the plates on the table.

“Wendy doesn’t look like what I expected,” she said as he came over and stood behind her, looking over her shoulder at the album cover. Her hair smelled of Herbal Essence, a smell he could never get enough of.

They sat down and as she put her napkin in her lap said, “I think your apartment has a lot of character.”

“That’s not all it’s got,” he said, filling her jelly glass with wine.

A siren wailed in the distance then grew louder. From where they sat, they couldn’t see the police car, but the blue lights flashed off the apartment building across the street and they could almost feel the displacement of air as the car whizzed past.

She picked up her glass and held it out as if to make a toast. “To life in Atlanta.”

Whose life? His or theirs? He didn’t dare ask. Instead he held out his glass and they clinked.

She took a sip. “I like this wine,” she said turning the bottle so that she could read the label.

“It was recommended.”

“Thank you for making such a nice meal.”

He smiled. “Pretty basic,” he said.

She buttered her rice, then cut a piece of the chicken, pausing to look at it in the flickering candlelight. “Chicken almandine,” she said. “You’re quite the chef.”

“Almandine?”

Mystified, he leaned over his plate to take a closer look in the dim light and saw little brown ovals glistening in the candlelight. He grabbed her arm that held the fork on its way to her mouth.

“What?” She examined the bite of the chicken on the end of her fork, then set the fork down slowly as if it were a loaded gun. “Close call.” She leaned over her plate. “I can even see their little antennae.” She said this calmly, as if taking a scientific interest. “They must’ve crawled onto the chicken in the oven while it was cooking.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said, mortified.

“What an awful way to go,” she said.

“Well I don’t think it would’ve killed us,” he said.

“I mean for them,” she said, nodding at the charred roaches.

“I’m really sorry,” he said, carrying the plates back to the kitchen. A week’s worth of preparations undone by a few miscreant roaches. Whatever had given him the idea he could pull off a nice meal, especially in this place. He should’ve had the sense just to take her out. When he returned with a plate of cheese and crackers she stood at the window, looking down on Euclid Avenue and drinking her wine.

“Who is that guy down there trying to push over the telephone pole?” she asked.

Asa came to the window. There in a circle of streetlight was Seymour, doing his post-run stretches. “That would be my slumlord.”

“He looks like a stick insect in jogging shorts. What’s with the headlamp?”

“That’s how he illuminates his underworld.”

She turned to Asa. “This place is starting to take on a certain Kafkaesque air.”

“Now you’re getting the picture.”

They sat down on the plaid couch, an old sleeper sofa Asa’d bought from Sam for $50. When Asa, in an effort to get his friend to lower the price had commented on the mattress stains, Sam had said, “Don’t worry Asa, they’re all in the family.”

Asa held out the plate with the cheese and crackers to Betsy. Her hand hovered over the crackers then retreated to her lap. “I’ll stick with the wine,” she said.

“I’m really sorry,” he said. “Why don’t we go out to eat?” He started to get up but she pulled him back down.

“First,” she said, let’s sit here and finish our wine.” She took his hand and they sat in the candlelight, listening to the music. How lucky he was to be with this woman who, upon being served chicken garnished with roach, had not made a beeline back to South Carolina.

Out in the hall they heard Seymour trudge up the stairs and then the slam of his apartment door. Through the wall, they heard water run, then it stopped and a familiar scrabbling sound started up. It always sounded to Asa like the scraping together of metallic parts, like metal legs or claws, but he could never puzzle out what it was.

“What’s he doing in there?” she asked.

“I have no idea but he makes that noise a lot.” Asa pounded the wall and the scrabbling stopped.

She laughed, putting her hand over her mouth.

“I warned you.” But then he smiled. The wine had begun to relax him and in a little while he leaned over to kiss her and she kissed him back and he forgot about everything until, in mid-kiss, she laughed.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I keep seeing the horrified expression on your face.”

“Not every guy serves up chicken a la cockroach to his girlfriend.” It was out of his mouth before he knew what had happened.

“You called me your girlfriend.”

“I heard that,” he said.

They’d been sleeping together for months, talked on the phone at least once a week, and yet this felt somehow presumptuous. He’d blundered across some tacitly agreed upon line.

“It was the wine talking,” he said.

“You didn’t mean it?” she asked.

He looked at her. “Do you want me to mean it?”

“Do you want me to want you to mean it?”

He paused counting the ‘wants’ on his finger. “Do you want me to want you to want me to mean it?”

“The question is,” she said, “Do you want me to want you to want me to want you to

mean it?” The smile on her face was the same as when she’d just laid down a seven-letter word.

“I give up.”

“Oh, don’t give up.” She stood. “Let’s go get something to eat.”

As he picked up the cheese plate to carry back to the kitchen, a roach that had stowed away under a few ak-mak crackers hurled itself off the plate and skittered under the couch.

“You see now why I didn’t want you to come?” he said, conscious of raising his voice. “This place is a dump!” He shouted toward Seymour’s wall, where the scrabbling had resumed.

He went into the kitchen and grabbed one of the plates and passing back through the main room, opened the door, walked down the hall and banged on Seymour’s door. The scrabbling stopped, the door opened and there he was, still wearing his headlamp which shone into Asa’s eyes.

“I tried to cook dinner for my girlfriend and this is what I ended up with.” Asa shoved the plate toward Seymour who took it and bent over it so that his headlamp spotlighted the baked insects.

“Oh that’s gross.” He handed the plate back to Asa.

“Isn’t it?”

“Yes, really gross.”

“Just to be clear,” Asa said, “this was cooked in in my oven in this very building.”

“Wow,” he said, shaking his head.

“Seymour, this is your building.” Asa held the plate toward him again. “These are your roaches. Is that all you have to say to me?”

“You didn’t eat any, did you? Now that would be really gross.”

Asa groaned, slammed Seymour’s door and walked back to his apartment, through the main room and into the kitchen where he tossed the contents of both plates into the garbage and then angrily began washing up pots and pans.

Betsy appeared in the kitchen doorway.

“Did you hear that?” he said.

“I expect everyone in the building heard.”

“He has to be the lamest landlord in the greater Metropolitan Atlanta area!” He yelled at the wall. “Possibly in the entire state of Georgia!” He dropped his head to his chest and sighed.

“Let me help with the dishes,” she said, squeezing in beside him.

“There’s no room.”

“Let’s go eat then,” she said. “I’m hungry.”

“That’s hard to believe,” he said. “After what you’ve been through.”

Outside, the November night was chilly and leaves scuttled across Euclid Avenue, as they walked up the sidewalk toward Little Five Points. Asa felt himself calm in the evening air. She shivered and pulled herself against him. “It’s colder here than Charleston. I like it.”

Even so, it being a Friday night many apartment doors were open and people sat out on porches, talking and drinking and laughing, stereos blasting from open windows.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “I wanted to make you a nice dinner.”

“You did,” she said, shaking his arm. “You made a very nice dinner.” She paused. “The roaches just beat us to it.” She fought a smile.

He rolled his eyes.

“You know you did it again,” Betsy said.

“Did what?”

“Called me your girlfriend.”

“I did?”

“You told Seymour you were trying to make a nice dinner for your girlfriend.”

“Oh, I guess I did,” he said. “I suppose I was trying to raise the stakes on him.”

“Raise the stakes?”

“I guess I was trying to make him feel guiltier by leading him to think something more was riding on the meal.”

“Was something more riding on this meal?” she asked. “Besides the roaches.” She shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

They ended up at the Rainbow, an all-night diner cattycorner from The Pub. The Rainbow was cheap and good and Asa had become a regular. Correcting papers could be a lonely way to pass an evening so he liked doing it at the Rainbow, among strangers as they ate, drank, talked and laughed, the whole of it melding into a steady, convivial din.

They both ordered the vegetable plate. He liked watching Betsy eat. When she chewed, her jaw did this little popping sound every now and then that he found endearing.

They were finishing up the last of their buttered corn muffins when the waitress, a black woman who waited on Asa a lot came over and topped off their coffees. She turned to Betsy. “Glad to see he brought something in beside his papers tonight.”

Asa felt his face flush.

She peeled off their check, put it on the table and to Betsy said, “I hope we see more of you.”

“Me too,” Betsy said.

They sat and sipped coffee and talked about what they might do tomorrow. Betsy had always wanted to see the High Museum. She’d heard there was a new Chagall exhibit. And a friend in Charleston had told her about the DeKalb Farmer’s Market where they sold food from all over the world. She wondered if maybe he’d like to go to see Out of Africa which was just out and playing at the old Fox Theater downtown. She thought it would be great to see on such a big screen...

“I kissed a woman two nights ago.”

It didn’t really register that he’d said it aloud until he saw her frown.

“Come again?”

He sighed. “I kissed a woman.”

“Oh?” she said her face hardening.

He told her about meeting up with Elly and the grazing incident. “It didn’t mean anything.”

“Is that why you haven’t wanted me to come?” she snapped. “Because you have something going on here?”

“No. This woman called me out of the blue. We barely dated.”

“Just like you barely kissed?”

“I’ve felt bad ever since it happened.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, pushing her empty plate back. The look on her face had gone from angry to something else.

“It’s been nagging me,” he said. “You’re such a great girl and when you’re away I find myself telling myself, who am I kidding that she would want to be with me.”

“Asa,” she looked up at him. “I’m not a great girl.”

“I mean woman. A great woman and I’m sorry I let that happen but I didn’t want to keep it from you. My therapist says I tend to let my overactive conscience distract me from what really matters.”

“You see a therapist?”

“Georgia State has a clinic, sliding scale,” he said. “He says I spend so much time feeling guilty about every little thing that I let the big things, in this case you, pass me by. I don’t want you to pass me by.”

She smiled at him but then looked away. “Don’t give the grazing incident another thought.”

“I feel like I betrayed you.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m married.”

He laughed. “Very funny.”

She wasn’t smiling.

As they looked at each other, it seemed the conversation level in the restaurant rose several decibels. A guy bussed a table behind them, the dishes clattering so loud it sounded as if everything was breaking.

They walked back to the apartment in silence. It had gotten colder and no one was out. The doors that had been opened before were closed and whatever was left of the music was only distant thumps muffled by closed windows. Aware of Betsy shivering he couldn’t bring himself to hug her against him.

“We’re separated,” she said. “We haven’t lived together for two years and for a whole year of that time, he’s lived with another woman. In South Carolina you have to wait a year before filing for divorce.” She stopped walking. “It’ll be final next month.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“I didn’t tell you when we first met because I didn’t want to scare you off and then as time passed I didn’t tell you because I thought you’d be angry and then as more time passed I thought you’d be angrier.”

“Why are you telling me now?”

“It didn’t seem fair not to.”

They walked along a little bit further and he stopped again. “Wow,” he said, “You’re married.”

“We’ve covered that,” she said.

He was quiet, not knowing how he felt or what to say. He knew it had all been too good to be true.

“But it’s just for three more weeks,” she said.

Finally, he said, “But all this time you’ve been married.”

“Why do I suddenly feel like Mrs. Robinson?” she said, her face going stony.

“I don’t mean to be weird but…” He looked at her. “But it changes everything. Doesn’t it?”

“I guess if you let it,” she said.

He didn’t know what to say. Somewhere in the distance a siren wailed.

“I told you I haven’t lived with him for two years,” she said, sounding frustrated. “And if you must know, I’d written off men altogether till you showed up with your fucking sweet, endearing ways.” She blinked back tears. “Want me to get a room somewhere tonight?”

“Of course not.”

They walked a little further.

“I’m sorry I lost my temper,” she said. “You have every right to be upset. I should’ve told you from the beginning.”

“How long were you married?” he asked.

“Not even a year.”

“Kids?”

“No. Thank God. He would’ve made a terrible father.”

“I’m sorry if I’m being weird,” he said. “I guess I’m feeling a little confused.”

She sighed. “Who wouldn’t, Asa? Who fucking wouldn’t?”

That night Asa insisted she sleep in his bed while he slept on the pullout sofa with Sam’s familial stains. He lay awake on the sofa staring up at the ceiling and listening to the scrabbling sound through the wall. How quickly everything had unraveled, all his preparations for her visit now seemed a sham. Married. Why had it bothered him so much? Like she said, she hadn’t lived with the guy for years. Why did it even matter? Had he studied so many Victorian novels he’d internalized their strictures? Was he going to forfeit this spirited, beautiful woman to a fusty set of mothball mores? Was he at heart a self-righteous judgmental prick right out of a Thomas Hardy novel? Upset with himself he banged the wall with his fist and the scrabbling stopped.

The next morning, he woke to a knock at his door. He crawled out of the sofa bed and opened the door where he found Seymour standing in his street clothes, an envelope in hand. Eviction notice. He’d banged on Seymour’s wall one too many times.

“I’m sorry to bother you but I wanted to apologize about the roaches.” He handed Asa the envelope. “Here’s a little something to take your girlfriend out to a nice place. I meant to leave it under your door last night.”

Asa opened it and found three twenty dollar bills. “You didn’t need to do this.”

“Guess you’ll have to wait till next time to use it,” Seymour said.

“Next time?”

“I ran into her out on the street a little while ago, and she was putting her suitcase in her car.”

Asa glanced back toward his bedroom, the bed was made. He groaned and slumped back on the sofa. She’d slipped out on him.

“I hope the roaches didn’t run her off,” Seymour said.

Asa held his head in his hands. “I ran her off.”

“So that explains it,” he said. “She asked me where a good breakfast place was and I wondered why you weren’t with her.”

Asa looked up. “Where’d you tell her to go?”

“The Flying Biscuit,” he said.

“That’s just down McClendon, isn’t it?” he said jumping up and pulling on his jeans.

“Five blocks down on the right.”

Asa was out the door and headed down the apartment building stairs when Seymour appeared with his bike. “Take this, it’ll be a lot quicker.”

“Thanks,” he said. Asa jumped on, wobbled for a minute as the pedals spun, and then finally clicking it into gear, started pedaling down Euclid in the direction of what mattered.

He hadn’t gone far when Seymour called out. “Tell your girlfriend I’m getting the exterminator in here first thing Monday!”

TOMMY HAYS’s first YA novel, What I Came to Tell You, was chosen as a 2013 SIBA Okra Pick. His novel, The Pleasure Was Mine, was a Finalist for the SIBA Fiction Award, and has been chosen for numerous community reads, including One City, One Book in Greensboro. His other novels are Sam’s Crossing and In the Family Way, winner of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. He has published stories in Redbook, Smoky Mountain Living and The Chattahoochee Review. He is Executive Director of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Core Faculty for the MLAS program at UNC Asheville. He also teaches in the Converse College Low Residency MFA. For more information go to www.tommyhays.com.