There is nothing more uncomfortable than driving down a deserted stretch of highway with a full bladder. Guys have it easy. They can pull over anywhere, discreetly pull it out and go. Women, on the other hand, have a production of untying, zipping, pulling and who knows what else. Not to mention we have to worry about some freak jumping out of the bushes, but I couldn’t hold it anymore. In hindsight, I should have just peed my pants and kept going, but how could I know that he’d come my way when I hadn’t seen anyone or anything for the last fifteen miles?
He stopped just about a yard from my opened car door as I crouched next to it holding onto the door through the opened window to keep steady as I relieved myself. “Having car trouble?” He asked, seemingly oblivious to what was actually going on.
“Um, no.” My face reddened and I hoped he didn’t notice the puddle of urine forming at my feet.
Upon realizing that I was peeing on the side of the road and not having car trouble, he respectfully turned so his back was to me and he continued talking. “My car broke down about two miles back. I was hoping to find some sort of service station on this road, but it seems nothing is within close walking distance.”
I wiped myself with napkins from my glove compartment, stood up and fastened my jeans quickly. “There isn’t anything on this road for miles,” I said to his back. Although he was wearing a dress shirt, I could tell his back was muscular. I knew where this conversation was going. He wanted a ride somewhere. I briefly thought of all the stories about people who ended up dead picking up hitchhikers on this stretch of road growing up as a young girl, but the hopeless romantic in me thought this could be the start of some sort of happily-ever-after love story so I took the bait. “Where are you headed exactly?”
I closed my car door and he turned around. “I’m headed to Carlisle. It’s at least another hundred miles from here.” He tugged at the corner of his shirt that was carelessly hanging out of his slacks and I noticed his hands looked rough and there was dirt caked under his fingernails which seemed out of place for a man dressed in business attire.
“I guess you’re in luck. So am I. You can ride with me.”
“I just need a ride to a service station. You don’t have to take me that far.”
“Well, most of this area is deserted so the closest working service station would be in Carlisle. Guess you’re stuck with me,” I laughed and extended my hand, “I’m Blanche Tonto.”
“Russell Schwindler.” His hand felt like sandpaper in mine, yet there was gentleness in his touch that was welcoming.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Schwindler. Hop in. We have a long ride ahead of us.”
“You may call me Russ. Thanks. I’ll definitely fill your tank up once we get to Carlisle.”
I suddenly felt nervous as I got back into my car to travel with a stranger I met on the side of the road. I nestled into my seat while fastening my seatbelt as Russ did the same on the passenger side. I studied him out of the corner of my eye while pulling out onto the road. He had this quiet confidence about him as if his disheveled appearance was deliberate rather than a result of a two mile trek along the road. His jawline was beautifully structured in a masculine way and covered in facial hair that seemed to not have been shaved in at least a week or two. His hair was cropped short and a dusty blonde color that perfectly matched his deep-set green eyes. “So are you from Carlisle? Only people from Carlisle travel this road. Everyone else uses main highways.”
“Not exactly.” His response was short, indicating he didn’t care to elaborate, but that just made me want to know more. Who was this ruggedly handsome man sitting just inches to my right? He looked out the window as we whizzed by trees and shrubbery, but it seemed as if he wasn’t looking at them, but through them. It was as if there was something heavy on his mind and I wanted to get inside his head.
“Not exactly? What does that mean?” I took a quick glance to my right to see his reaction to my question, but he seemed not to be bothered. His demeanor was calm so I didn’t feel too bad about prying further.
“I’m originally from Redford. I lived in Carlisle for five years before leaving a few months ago…” His voice trailed off as if there was more he could have said, but he got caught up in some painful memory that caused him to stop speaking. The distance in his eyes returned and I could tell there was more to his words than what appeared on the surface. The more I wondered about him, the more I felt myself drawing closer to him as if I knew him my whole life.
“You don’t have to continue if you don’t want to,” I put my right hand on his forearm and squeezed. The exchange was rather inappropriate for strangers, but I felt he needed it and in a strange way, I did too. Unexpectedly, he put his hand on mine and squeezed as if to say thank you. His touch was electric and caused a smile to form on my lips. There was an undeniable chemistry between us; at least, it was undeniable to me.
After a few moments of silence, he continued, “I loved her.” I instinctively retracted my hand and placed it back on the steering wheel. A wave of jealousy flashed through my body, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I think I loved her more than she ever loved me and that was my mistake. I moved my whole life to Carlisle just to be with her. We were happy. Well, I was happy and she pretended to be.” He clenched his fists and it was like I could see the anger surging through his fingers which didn’t match the despair on his face.
“What brings you back to Carlisle?” It was the only question I could think of. The only thing I could say without my feelings becoming so transparent that he’d regret ever saying a word to me.
“To be honest,” he began rubbing the back of his neck, “I shouldn’t even be headed to Carlisle, but I heard that she gave birth to the baby and I had to be there. I have to see her.”
“You had a baby? Congrats!” My enthusiasm at the revelation was borderline sarcastic and I was hoping he didn’t pick up on it. The little pieces of his life he was sharing with me made me desire him even though his heart belonged to another. The idea of his unavailability made him all the more desirable.
“Not exactly. The baby isn’t mine. Well, she says it isn’t, but I don’t believe her. I won’t believe her until I see that baby.” His voice wavered as if he were on the verge of tears, but from what I could see out of the corner of my eye, his face was eerily stone-like. He looked straight ahead at the stretch of road in front of us which seemed to go on forever into nothingness. “Love is funny; sometimes a cruel joke even. You go through life looking for someone you can grow as a person with; a person who can look at your flaws and quirks and still see beauty. Someone who is understanding, open, honest, and secure in who they are. That one person who you can look at each day and marvel at who they are and who they have yet to become. I used to think that she changed. That she was different than the woman I had fallen in love with, but she hadn’t. I just woke up from the ignorant slumber I blissfully rested in and saw her for the first time in the entire stretch of time that I knew her.”
I could feel in my gut that he was on his wits end. He was a broken man and I wanted nothing more than to fix him. It was a weird mix of feelings swirling inside me that I hadn’t felt for anyone ever and here was this stranger making me push good judgment to the side for what may be nothing more than a cheap thrill. I felt I owed him something. Some sort of consolation to let him know that he’d be okay. “In life you’ll meet people who say one thing and mean another. You’ll meet those who are full of themselves and do nothing, but crush others. However, in the midst of all those low quality personalities, there are the few that’ll come into your life that make you believe your ‘one’ is out there going through the same crazy search you are.”
It was the most I said the entire car ride and it seemed to be the first time he actually noticed me. “You’re beautiful.”
I blushed at his words. So simple a statement, but it meant so much to me. “Thanks.”
“What’s in Carlisle for you?”
The question took me by surprise. We spent the entire car ride talking about Russ and where he was going that my own plans were forgotten and pushed off to the side. I suddenly felt exposed and naked as if telling him my reasoning for going to Carlisle will reveal my innermost thoughts. “I used to live in Carlisle as a little girl. My grandmother passed away recently and left me her house.”
“Sorry for your loss Blanche.”
“Thanks. I didn’t know her well. Now that I think about it, that’s sort of sad because we lived in the same town. She was like a stranger, though.”
“That can happen sometimes, you know,” Russ said leaning back in his seat, “The people who should be the closest to us are the furthest away.”
I felt bad all of a sudden. I didn’t even have the decency to go back to Carlisle for the funeral and here I was, headed back now, to claim a house I barely visited when I used to live just across town. I felt as if Russ could see my thoughts and he was judging me for my past transgressions. “I’m not a bad person, you know. Life just happens so fast sometimes that you don’t realize it’s moving so rapidly until it stops.”
“I don’t think you’re a bad person Blanche. We sometimes lose sight of what’s important when we’re focused on other things. We can get tunnel vision. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re human.” I appreciated his words, but I still felt horrible. I was embarrassed. “So are you moving back to Carlisle or are you going to see what you’ll be doing about the house?”
I pondered over his question unsure of how to answer. Originally, I had no intentions of keeping the house, but now it seemed like something I must do. “I’m not exactly certain if I’m moving back just yet, but I will be keeping the house. Do you know what you will do if the baby is yours?”
“I’ll be moving back to Carlisle. No doubt about that.” That was the answer I thought he’d give and I found myself secretly hoping the baby was his. “We’re not that far from Carlisle now. It’s just another forty miles or so.”
My heart sank when I realized how close we were and that the ride would come to an end. While I hoped we would see each other again, I didn’t want to fool myself into believing this was more than just a car ride shared between strangers. Once we reached our destination, though, something in me knew we’d part ways and remain just that, strangers. “I bet you’re anxious.” I hoped he didn’t notice the hint of sadness in my voice.
“Part of me is dying to know and another part of me is hoping I never find out. There is a certain comfort and security in not knowing.” I nodded my head unsure of what to say. The closer we got to Carlisle the further away I seemed to get from him.
The rest of the ride happened so quickly and the conversation was more cordial than anything else. We were in Carlisle within an hour and I was pulling up to an apartment building I used to pass on my way to school every day as a young girl. “I can’t thank you enough for this Blanche.” Russ said, unbuckling his seatbelt and preparing to get out of the car.
“It was a pleasure Russ. You were great company,” I grabbed a scrap piece of paper and pen from the console and scribbled the address of my grandmother’s house and my cell phone number. “If you’re ever in town again or need a ride just give me a ring or stop by.”
“Will do,” He flashed me a smile, took the paper and got out of the car. “Bye Blanche.”
I waved, unable to form the words that would be a proper goodbye to such an alluring man. He disappeared into the building and a piece of me went with him. I watched another minute before pulling away and headed to my grandmother’s house.
A week had passed and still there was no sign of Russ. I’d driven past the apartment building I dropped him off at multiple times, but I never caught him going in or out of the building. Maybe he had already left Carlisle. I couldn’t help, but feel sad that nothing more came of our encounter. I was certain there was something between us. He consumed my thoughts and I knew I had to let it go, but I didn’t want to without seeing him at least one more time.
I sat on the couch in my grandmother’s living room and turned on the television to get my mind off of Russ and his mesmerizing green eyes. The news was on and I stared at the screen blankly, barely paying attention until a familiar face flashed across this screen. Could it be? I picked up the remote control and turned up the volume.
“Residents of Green Oak Apartments described a man looking like the sketch you see on the screen being the last person seen leaving the apartment where the young mother and her new born baby were found slain. Police are asking if anyone has any information on this man, please call 914-345-9876” the newscaster’s voice become nothing more than muffled sounds as I dropped the remote control in complete disbelief. The sketch was a dead ringer for Russ, but he couldn’t have done this. I refused to believe it. I was dumbfounded and, in a sense, I felt betrayed. He was a good guy. He had to be. I needed him to be.
I snatched up the remote and turned the television off. I looked at the coffee table where my cell phone sat and stared at it. I once looked at it as a beacon of hope that one day Russ would call and put me out of my misery of wondering whether he thought about me at all. Now I wanted nothing more than for him to lose my number and address. I got up from the couch, suddenly paranoid, and began locking windows and doors. How could I be so stupid? Happily ever afters didn’t exist. They were simply stories that weren’t finished yet.
There was a huge weight on my shoulders that felt heavier as time ticked on. Should I call the police? What did I really know about him? What if he didn’t do it? After thirty minutes of going back and forth with myself, I decided to sleep on it.
The next morning I had decided against calling the police. I felt slightly responsible for the two lives lost. If I hadn’t given him that ride, maybe he wouldn’t have made it to Carlisle. Maybe that young woman and that innocent little baby would still be alive. I felt like I had blood on my hands, but I was too much of a coward to come clean. I didn’t want to be involved.
I opened the front door and picked up the newspaper waiting on the front porch and quickly shut the door, locking it. On top of the newspaper was taped a folded piece of white paper. I opened it up and the color drained from my face as I read:
The baby wasn’t mine.
- – R. S.