When I first saw her she was standing under a flickering fluorescent bulb, staring into the face of one in a long bank of vending machines. She was pretty in the way that comes with youth, but that wasn’t why I noticed her. Time and experience had rendered women a blur to me. No, what interested me was the fact that she was alone, and obviously distracted. Completing the picture was the large, expensive-looking purse: supple leather, full of promise. It had been a long night and cold. My decision came easily.
I looked around quickly and got up from the bench where I’d been sitting for the last three hours. I quietly made my way toward her. She leaned over, peering at the bottom half of the machine, hands flat against its surface. One of the purse straps slipped invitingly down her arm. I closed in on her. Twenty feet, fifteen, ten.
“Have you ever tried one of these?”
I stumbled back, tripped and nearly fell. I stared at her, my dumbstruck face bearing a strong resemblance to a carp. She stared back, her dark eyes wide and expectant.
“Uh, whaa?” was all I managed.
“This.” She tapped a knuckle on the scarred glass, dark eyes still waiting. I felt like I’d been slapped. Everything was bright; the fluorescent bulb glared accusingly at my face.
“I drove through dinner and needed a snack, but this stuff looks like it might do damage,” she scoffed. She squinted at me, and for a moment I thought I was free from the vise that was her eyes. I was wrong. “What about you? Did you eat?” she asked.
“Umm, no… I, no.” What was happening here? My heart pounded. I knew she could hear it, maybe even see it. I glanced around nervously. She began to dig through her purse. The opportunity was lost on me. Two minutes ago I’d have been running with it under my arm, the leather creaking in protest. Instead, I stood watching her, idiotic expression intact.
She retrieved two dollar bills and fed them into the waiting mouth of the machine. With a nail-bitten thumb, she jabbed the buttons in sequence and was rewarded with two bright orange bags.
“Here, I hate to eat alone.” She thrust the chips at me. She wore a thin smile, but I noticed the hand that held the bag was trembling slightly. I stared at that hand for a long moment, then at the purse. My gaze rested on her face. She looked pointedly at me.
“Are you going to take it or not?” The thin smile was gone. I stared at her again. She looked at the chips in her hand, then back at me.
“No… or… I mean yeah, sure, thanks,” I stammered. I took the bag.
She sighed and smiled, fuller this time. She took a few steps to the right, away from me. Once again she rummaged through the purse. Another dollar later and she presented me with a Coke. Again, I took what was extended toward me. It seemed I’d relinquished control over my actions tonight. She opened her drink and took a sip, watching me over the rim of the can. I did the same and there we stood, in the greenish glow of the light. Sipping and watching. I thought we’d stand there forever. I realized with shock that I was waiting for her to tell me what we were going to do next.
She walked over to a table and sat, never quite turning her back to me. I suddenly felt something, a rush of warmth in my cheeks, a heaviness in my stomach. I don’t know what it was, but it felt bad.
“What brought you to this place?” she asked, her voice low and careful.
“What do you mean?” I countered.
She looked around, shrugged. “Here. This rest stop. Where are you going?”
“I’m just waiting for someone,” I mumbled.
“Waiting for someone,” she echoed. She looked down at her feet. “Then what?” She picked out a chip, examined it, popped it into her mouth.
“I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.” I couldn’t very well tell her that not too long ago, I had envisioned myself in the strip of trees surrounding the rest area, dumping her belongings. Even now, I could see the three dollar bills she’d produced fluttering to the ground. I felt that hot feeling again. “What about you? Don’t you know better than to hang around a rest stop after dark, especially by yourself?” I chided.
“I guess the voice in my stomach was louder than the voice in my head. You’re probably right, not such a good idea.” She turned towards me, and fixed those high-powered eyes on mine. “But you’re here, so I wasn’t alone, was I?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. We sat there for awhile. I don’t remember much else about the conversation. It was mostly small talk; but you know what I do remember? I remember how her hand shook when she held out that bag. I’ll always remember that.
She finally stood and tossed the crinkled bag into the trash. “I have to go,” she said. “Thanks.” There was her hand, reaching for me. Smooth as cream, pearly pink.
“Thanks for what?” I took her hand, held it briefly; the tender flesh of her palm was a salve over the callused crevices of my own. I could feel life in there, pulsing, heat radiating, infusing from a place of much into a place of none. It was new, fresh and hopeful. We let go, but some of her stayed. I was stained with her, I knew. I hoped it was permanent.
She raised those eyes at me one more time and said, “For not leaving me alone.” She turned, walked away. I watched her leave. The wonder of it: her back was turned to me. I smiled. She opened her car door and slipped in silently. I never heard her voice again. I ached seeing her go; I wanted to talk to her just a little more, only to have those eyes see me. I felt she could teach me things, things I had never cared about learning. I knew it was selfish; she’d given me more in five minutes than I deserved for the lifetime I’d wasted. The last I saw her, she was driving slowly away. As she turned down the highway, she didn’t look back, didn’t wave, but I saw that hand once more, pressed against the window, warding off the darkness and hailing hope for those lucky enough to see it.