Meeting of the Minds

She drove through the dark country road carefully, under the speed limit. She’d been on this road many times, and the blind curves, the stretches with shoulderless edges, the deer that sometimes wandered out, the limits of her headlights, made her cautious.

She wheeled around a curve, which she knew from long familiarity was followed by a pull-off area for slow or troubled cars. And sure enough, a car was there, a compact, with a man leaning against it, head on his forearm. As the headlights shone over the road and illuminated him, he raised his head and desultorily stuck his right thumb out.

In the quick view in the flash of headlights, she saw the flat rear tire, his haggard and hopeless look, and suddenly on an impulse against her more cautious nature, she braked and swung into the pull-off area ahead of his car.

What are you doing? You know better than to pick up a strange man at night. But he’s obviously in trouble and needs help. Right. Remember those people who staged a car in trouble just to hijack Good Samaritans who stopped?

He appeared at her window, and she rolled it down a quarter of the way.

Why are you rolling it down partway if you’re ready to give him a ride anyway?

“Thanks for stopping,” he said, and his strained look was eased some with obvious relief and softened by being out of the harsh glare of her headlights. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. Can you make a call for me or just stop in town and have someone come out?”

Yes, those are perfectly safe, reasonable things to do. But if he were after something else, would he really be that considerate? He’d just come and get in the car.

“It’s no problem,” she replied. “Cellphones are almost useless here. I’ll give you a ride into town.”

His expression relaxed yet further. “Thanks so much,” he said. He walked around, tried the door briefly. It was still locked, and he took a half step back.

Now’s your chance to change your mind. Just drive off and make the call.

She hit the remote switch, followed by the clicks of the doors unlocking. He opened the passenger door and folded himself into the seat. “If I can just get dropped off at my apartment. It’s in the southwest part of town.”

“Perfect,” she said, checked her mirror, confirmed that the deserted road was just that, and pulled out. “I’m northeast. You’ll be right on my way.” She accelerated out, and glanced at him. “Seat belt, please.”

“Sure,” he replied, and reached up to pull the belt down.

Was she checking me out? She saw me, I’m alone, she’s alone, and she stopped to give me a lift. Was she checking me out?

He clicked it in.

Good. He’s a little restrained.

“Thanks,” she said. “It’s a rule in my car.”

“And a good rule.”

He seems nice enough.

The car rolled through the valley road for a few minutes, the occupants quiet in the first few moments of two strangers meeting, when conversation is trying to find a purchase for the first foothold.

He’s waiting for me to start. I’m the driver, and I’m a woman.

“I thought I saw a flat tire on your car. Was that the problem?”

Oh, good. She started the conversation. She’s nice looking. I was hoping we’d talk.

“Yeah,” he replied. “My spare’s flat, and just bad luck that they went out so close together. I should’ve had the tires changed by now, but,” he shrugged, “I’m new to town, just got a job, hoping not to spend too much at once. You know how it is.”

New to town. Not much money. He’s a drifter? Did I pick up a drifter?

Her tone was offhanded. “Sure, I remember those days. It can be tough sometimes.” She peered down the road as they came up to another curve. Slowdown, mild jerk to the left as she turned the wheel.

Oh, great, she’s doing just fine for herself, and you just gave yourself away as a broke-ass guy. Really impressive. For God’s sake, change the subject.

“So how long have you been in town?”

Is he making conversation or trying to find out about me? Let him know you’re established and it would be dangerous to do something with you. No, just stop it. He’s on the road and down on his luck and just trying to make conversation. Stop being paranoid. Better to be paranoid than raped and killed. Just stop it! There’s nothing like that going on. Still, don’t tell him too much.

“My parents moved here when I was in seventh grade,” she said. “Been here ever since.”

How long ago was that for her? She looks maybe late 20s, early 30s. Always guess on the side of too young.

“So you’ve been in town about seven, eight years?”

How sweet. How typical. He’s trying to be nice. Give him that one. As long as he’s not trying to crack the door open.

She laughed, adding a lilting tilt to sound relaxed and happy. “That’s funny.”

Was I way off? If she’s in college, I’m gonna throw myself out of the car.

He smiled back, which she didn’t see with her eyes on the road, but he kept quiet, not reading whether she was complimented or amused.

The road stretched out to straighter lengths, the trees thinning out. Appearing in the field of the headlights were hints of grassland hillocks dotted with rocky outcroppings. They came up and over a slight swell in the road, and as they crested, the sparkling, neatly organized lights of the urban landscape came into view.

Such a beautiful, romantic view. I wonder if he appreciates it.

Damn. The ride with her will be over soon.

“I can almost see my place from here,” he said quietly, wistfulness in his tone.

He does appreciate it. And you’re safe now. If he was going to do something, it would be when we were secluded.

“I’ve always liked the view coming over this hill at night,” she replied. “How do I get to your place?”

I like the sound of that. Does she mean anything? Say something! She’s nice, she’s attractive, and if you don’t, you’ll never see her again.

“Third stoplight in. Just past that on the right is the parking lot entrance to my apartments.”

Oh, good. We’re close.

“Perfect. I know right where you’re talking about. Those are pretty nice apartments, aren’t they?”

Downplay it. She’s not going to be impressed with your apartment life.

“Oh, they’re fine as a transition before I get settled into my job and start looking for a house.”

Is he trying to impress me? He’s got a broken-down car that he can’t afford to fix.

“Prices keep going up,” she said. “Better to look sooner rather than later.”

Are you going to fill up the rest of the time with useless chatter? Say something to her!

“Good advice,” he said. “Thanks.”

I could ask him if he’s got a down payment from his last house. But if he is just trying to impress me, that puts him on the spot. Don’t make him defensive or mad.

“The way the town is going, sometimes you can get a better deal on new construction.”

They came to the first traffic light. It was green, and they passed through without slowing.

You’re too pathetic to talk to her. You’ll never get anywhere with anyone.

He moved in his seat and turned his head to face her. He had the most complete view of her now that he’d yet seen. Lighting from headlights, business signage, and streetlights illuminated her face in white and amber tones. She wasn’t a modeling beauty, but her features had an evenness that was attractive and compelling to him.

“Look, you’ve been really nice, and I really appreciate this. Can I help with gas money or anything?”

Save your money for new tires. No, he’s being nice. Wait, is he being too nice?

“No, that’s fine. It didn’t cost me anything. You’re right on my way.”

The next light turned yellow as they approached, and she accelerated to make it through.

Of course she would say that. Try something else.

“I had to ask. I’m really grateful. I was just so depressed and felt so helpless, being stuck with the car like that, and a few seconds later, a really nice person comes out of nowhere and helps me out.” A small chuckle that belied his tension. Just say it! “And a pretty girl at that. It turned out to be a decent night after all.”

Oh, shit, he’s trying to flirt. Well, I don’t have to respond to that part. Just let it slide. But what if he’s building up to something more? I’m going to be letting him off at his place. What if he tries to do something there?

“It’s really nothing,” she replied. “I just saw someone in trouble, and I’m happy to help.” Appeal to his better nature. “And it was nice to help out someone who’s so gentlemanly.”

The third light was red. She slowed down to a stop at the line on the brightly lit street. The intersection was deserted except for them.

She’s approving of me. She likes me. But I can’t just jump to asking her out. Not there yet. Keep talking.

“That’s really sweet. Thank you. I try. Hey, I guess sometimes fate works out, throwing two well-meaning strangers in a car together.”

He took it the wrong way. He’s trying to build it. To what? If I say something dismissive, will it set him off? If I say something agreeable, will it be encouraging? There’s no one around. Can I ask him to get out here and walk the rest of the way? No.

She forced a short laugh. “Obviously, you don’t know me very well.”

The light turned green, and she pulled away from the stop with just a little too much acceleration, and his head jerked back.

She’s putting herself down. Maybe she’s fishing for a compliment, or trying to get me to find out more about her.

“Well enough to know that it takes a nice girl to pick up a stranger in need, gentlemanly or not.” He grinned. “You’re obviously very nice.”

She flicked the turn signal later than she should and turned in to the parking lot. It was dark, with one building off-center to it. She headed to what looked like the main door of the building.

Is he saying he’s not gentlemanly? He’s trying to keep the conversation going. It’s dark here. This doesn’t feel right, not at all.

“Thank you for that,” she said, her voice as casual as she could muster. “Drop you off at the door there?”

We’re there. Time’s up.

“That’s the one.” The car came to a slow stop in an empty handicapped-only spot opposite the front door. She put her left hand high on the steering wheel, right hand on the floor shift, ready to back up.

He turned to her. “Hey…”

If he reaches out, he touches me, I’m going to scream, jump out, fight, scream more, wake up the whole gaddamn neighborhood, if that’s what it takes.

She turned to look at him. The light laboring to get through the night shadows revealed half his face to her. “Yes?”

If she reaches over for a hug, I’m going to ask if I can see her again. Maybe she’ll give me her number.

Then he noticed her left hand high on the steering wheel. The ring finger sported a diamond.

Damn. But still, she seemed interested…

“I don’t know that I’ve actually said thank you, but I wanted to make sure I did. Thank you, very much.”

Is that it?

Relief washed through her. She gave a wide smile in return. “It’s no problem. Good night, and good luck with your car.”

She’s not extending the conversation. Or even a handshake. She’s not even close to wanting a hug.

“Thanks,” he said, opened the door, stood, and tossed back a “Good night” before shutting the door behind him. He turned away and ambled up the sidewalk.

Behind him, he heard the whirr of the car in reverse, then a stop, the transmission clicking back into forward gear.

She’s probably looking your way.

He stopped and turned, hoping for a last smile, a cheery wave.

In the gloom, he saw her through the driver’s side window. She was looking straight ahead, through the windshield. Her car pulled away, through lines of dark and empty cars, to the parking lot exit. The brake lights flashed brightly.

He sighed and, heading to the stairway. His apartment was on the third floor. He had a long climb to make.

— Grandpa

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