Tom was tiring of hot, dusty central valley towns, shifting down for each, looking around and sometimes stopping before twisting the throttle as the old highway opened up again. He wanted to be done with this and over the hills to the forested valleys. Yet, he resolved not to be tempted by the interstate. The old highway was a motorcycle road, the interstate, all destination bound, speeding cars. A few more hours and he’d be camping under the redwoods.
The new bike, shiny and silver, smooth and quiet, was already part of him. It was funny how he’d toyed with the idea for a time and then, walking into the dealer, he’d fallen in love with this machine, buying it on the spot, costing him almost as much as his wife’s new, sensible, compact sedan.
Mid life crisis his friends had said when he’d pulled up to the office on it. They were probably right, the bike and the growing dissatisfaction with domestic life. The kids were both in college, and he and Meg were starting to deal with their separate lives.
She compartmentalized her life: tennis each Saturday at ten, the gym at six am, three days a week, her bridge club every Friday night, book club on Wednesday.
He was freer, more spontaneous with his sudden urges to jog on the beach, hike in the woods, join his cycling friends for an all day ride, or swim in the ocean. The office was regulated enough; his free time should be open ended.
Since the kids had moved out, they’d passed in and out and through each other’s lives, not really connecting very often. He felt she took him for granted, and he supposed he was also guilty.
The bike made him feel young, single and sexy, and it was a liberating feeling. For the next two weeks, while Meg was at a dude ranch, he had the freedom of the road, no itinerary except to push north, to wind along rivers, through trees and to towns he hadn’t seen in years. This ride had memories and some subtle fantasies embedded in it, and those keep him looking around, not seriously, but as a game.
He needed gas, and if some place looked interesting, he would stop for lunch. The downtown streets were almost deserted. Sundays in small towns seemed to be that way. Two gas stations were actually closed, and he stopped at the first open one.
As he filled his tank he noticed a young woman walking up. She stopped and was just staring at him. She was wearing a plain, beige flowered dress, and her dusty brown hair was pulled back in a bun. She had a vague, multi-ethnic mix look about her. She was a plain “any woman,” but she could, he guessed, be pretty with make up, hair down, better clothes. For a moment that foolish fantasy bubbled up, and he saw her laughing, hair flowing, riding off with him into the proverbial sunset.
There wasn’t anyone else on the street, the station attendant, the girl, two other customers. She didn’t seem to have a car, just walking by he supposed.
She wasn’t smiling, really, just looking with some far away mournful longing, a look that made him sad. He smiled and nodded. She walked up to him.
“Nice bike you have, mister. Looks new.”
“It is.” He answered. “Bought it just before this trip.”
“Where are you headed?” There was just a hint of urgency in her voice.
“Just north. Oregon, Washington. Seattle would be nice, but if interesting things happen, who knows.”
She stepped in a bit closer. She was maybe half his age, and as the dry summer wind blew her dress, he noticed that she had a nice figure. She was more attractive than he’d first believed, maybe because she was almost smiling now. “Wow,” She said. “No plans, just on the road. That sounds so romantic.” A momentary light came into her sad, brown eyes.
He didn’t know how to reply, so he asked, “You live here?” When she nodded, he asked for more details. She’d lived here all her life, and now she worked at the local drug store, had an apartment a few blocks away, had a boyfriend, but they’d broken up months ago, and not many single men around.
On impulse, he asked her if there was a good place to eat near by, and she said the coffee shop on the next block was not bad. “Would you like to join me, tell me more about yourself and your town?”
Her sad eyes brightened again. “Gee, that would be nice.” He parked the bike behind the station, and they started to walk. On the way, she stole nervous looks at him from the corner of her eye. She was a head shorter than Meg, who was almost as tall as Tom. She was also cute and endearing in a melancholy way.
They had scarcely ordered when she came to what was bottled up inside her. “I hate this town. I feel trapped. Everyone I grew up with, my family, my job, my future, thousands of days just like this.” With that she gestured with her arms and looked absently out the window. “I’d give anything to be as free as you are, no obligations, no roots, no one to tie you down.”
He almost corrected her, almost told her about the good paying but stressful job, the wife, the mortgage, the kids and their expensive tuition, but he didn’t want to ruin her fantasy, and it felt good being that person, that vagabond, that dashing adventurer. Instead, he asked her why she didn’t just pack up and move to a city, Sacramento, maybe even San Francisco. Life there would be exciting; there would be friends, lovers, culture and parties.
She shook her head slowly. “I wouldn’t know how to go about it. I live from payday to payday. I can’t afford to get an expensive city apartment, and who would hire a small town girl with a high school education?”
He stared at her, through her. She was maybe two years older than his oldest son. The boy was living away from home, taking on the world, soon would be an engineer, living who knows where. And this girl, stuck, so young, yet helplessly stuck. He wanted to reach out to her, change her life, convince her to embrace everything. Then the fantasy ripened. He suddenly wanted to hold her, make love to her, be her knight in shining armor, take her away from all this.
The ceiling fan above them thumped a regular beat as they stared into each other’s eyes.
With every comment, they’d been honing in on the unspoken, and it hung dark and heavy in the heated air between them. Tom was surprised he hadn’t said it. It would have been so easy. Invite her to come along, taste freedom and the road. They would have two weeks of passion, and then… Well, and then what? Would he just drop her in Portland or Seattle? Would he find her a job, stake her to an apartment? Might he throw away over twenty years of marriage to make some crazy new life with this girl? He knew all he had to do was ask. The answer was already in her eyes.
He was afraid, not afraid of rejection but acceptance, afraid to step into the role she imagined for him. But his fear made it more enticing. This could even be his ticket out as well as hers. He saw now how empty his marriage had become, how routine the job. He had the skills and education to work anywhere. Most of the young guys in his field changed jobs with the changing seasons. This was beyond fantasy. This was doable. She’d be there, totally committed to his world. There would be no bridge games, no Saturday tennis, no going into another room to read. He would be her whole world.
Why couldn’t he just ask?
He looked up at her to speak, and she snapped to attention, waiting. He paused, then asked if she wanted dessert. Her eyes looked down, and her smile dissolved like dust on a window at the first rain.
Grab her; kiss her; promise her passion and excitement, the voice in his head shouted. But nothing came out.
Then she said it: “Take me with you, anywhere, please.” A huge desperation rose out of her, like some possessing spirit, and it made him feel heavy, empty and cold. God, he felt sorry for her, painfully so, but now there was no longer any lust, nor fantasy. It was all he could do to keep from crying.
“I’m sorry dear. I have this short vacation, and then I have to go back. I can’t give you… I have nothing to give.”
Causes Meade Fischer Supports
Big Sur Land Trust, Wilderness Society, Ventana Wilderness Alliance, State Parks initiative, Nature Conservacy