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I bought a bottle of beer and sat next to a woman I found attractive at the bar. She was alone and reading a book. I finished the beer and introduced myself. She told me her name was Meg. She was reading The Sun Also Rises and I asked her what she thought of Hemingway. Meg took a sip of her own beer and said Hemingway was good but not as good as Fitzgerald. I joked whether she meant “Ella,” and bought us both beers and we talked some more about writers and books. When she got up to leave I asked for her number and she seemed sincere as she wrote it down on a napkin. Two days later I called her and got the answering machine for an airport limousine service.

A few weeks later I spied a great looking blonde in a halter-top at the bar. She was dancing in place near the jukebox with eyes closed and I imagined for a moment she resembled a French harlot from a Maupassant story I’d just read. I downed a tequila shooter and introduced myself. Her name was Claudine and we found some common ground talking about books. It turned out she really liked Jack London. She also liked tequila. After a few more shooters she said I would look good in a parka. I agreed and made a move to kiss her. We had sex that night and started dating.

Things were good in the beginning with Claudine, but by the end of our second month together I sensed her interest waning. Trying to stem the tide, I started to wear heavy snow boots, even though it was the summer. I also bought her a copy of The Sea Wolf. It didn’t help. She kept the book and broke up with me.

The next weeks saw me every night at the bar. I pined hard for Claudine, writing love poems in my head and doodling pictures of her face on napkins. I thought several times of putting on my snow boots and trying to win her back, but a mixture of pride and cowardice held me back and kept me rooted to alcohol.

One night, deep in a funk, I met Talia. She was taller than me and approached with two shots of Jim Beam in her hand. She gave me one and we talked. I learned she played basketball for a local college women’s team. She was also an English Major. When I asked who she liked to read she didn’t hesitate: “Somerset Maugham.” She spoke for a half-hour straight about his work. I found her passion erotic and suggested we go somewhere more private to talk about Maugham. Talia must have sensed my real purpose because she told me she had a rule never to have sex with a man until he first watched her play basketball. She said her next home game was three days away.

I marked my calendar and waited. But right before I was to leave for the game Claudine rang me. She told me she had been reading Jane Austen and was feeling romantic. She thought now I would look good in aristocratic clothes. I told her I had a tweed jacket with denim elbow patches in my closet. She asked me to put it on and come over. I did.

A few weeks later I was at a bar when Talia tapped me on the shoulder. “You never came to my game,” she said. She pulled a book out of a knapsack and passed it to me. “I’ve been holding this for you,” she said. It was Of Human Bondage.

“Maugham’s best,” she said.

“What’s it about?”

“Read the book. Then come see me play. I like you.”

Claudine and I continued on a good patch for another month before it fell apart again. It coincided with her new interest in Gertrude Stein. She even quoted Stein’s Stanzas for Meditation a few times in a letter she handed me explaining her reasons for breaking up a second time.

I fell into another drinking depression. I brought Of Human Bondage to the bar each night and began to read it while I downed shots. I was moved by the story about a man who fights to break free from the hold of passion an abusive woman has over him. The day I finished the book I looked up the schedule for Talia’s team. They had a game that night. I got there early and bought a ticket not far from the court. The two squads came out and I spotted Talia. She looked sexy in the lay-up line, in her uniform and kneepads. I waved and shouted her name. I got excited when she turned and looked into the stands. But then I realized it was someone else who held her attention. He was standing a few rows below me. He was tall and skinny and was wearing a jersey with her number on his back. And in his hand, which he waved with joyous frenzy, was a book. I craned my eye to make out the title.

John McCaffrey received his MFA from the City College of New York. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared regularly in literary journals and anthologies, including Flash Fiction Forward. A former New York Times fellow, he lives and teaches short story writing in New Jersey.

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