It’s about 2 AM; that time of night where I try to get my last 1-2 rides as the bars begin to close. I’m driving down 635 to hit the 75 down to Dallas, where red splotches of increased demand from smoke-free bars disgorging their drunk and slovenly are already beginning to form. My phone is pinging around a pin placed right off of 635. I crane my neck to check my blind spot as I maneuver my car across the empty freeway to the exit.
As I got off the freeway, the pin seems to drop on an office building near the Gatekeeper Motel; a roach trap situated between some office buildings and an IHOP. I call my passenger. “Omar.”
“Hey, man. Are you at the Gatekeeper?”
“Hi. Nah, it’s not me. It’s a friend of mine. She’s at the Ramada.”
To myself: “F-ing Uber F-ed up the location again. Incompetent D-wads.”
“I don’t see a Ramada here, dude. I see a Hyatt across the street. Is it near there?”
“I don’t know dude. Let me call her and call you back.”
I hang up and drive around for about 5 minutes, and determine that the only hotel near the pin is the Gatekeeper. I realize that his friend is a bit unaware of her surroundings. She’s at the Gatekeeper.
As I pull up to the awning, I see a man; could be Hispanic, could be a really tanned white guy. Can’t quite tell. Tank top. Two sleeves full of tats. Crew cut. Goatee. Standing next to him is a diminutive, unnaturally skinny blonde woman – barely a woman; practically just a girl – wearing platform heels and a short skirt, and a spaghetti strap blouse and a purse.
“Of course. That’d be her.”
I roll down the window and call her over.
“Are you waiting on an Uber ride for Omar?”
“Omar? Not sure. I am waiting for an Uber. I’m going to Eyer-ving.”
“You mean ‘Irving?’ Not from around here, are you.”
She has a nervous, conciliatory, slightly desperate smile. As if she’s used to being at the mercy of every man she encounters; their approval of her being key to her continued survival. I raise my eyebrow at her a bit and catch myself shaking my head ever so slightly.
“Get your shit together, woman.”
“Alright. What’s your name.”
There’s that desperate smile, again. I call Omar back.
“Hey man. What’s your friend’s name?”
“I don’t remember, man. But she’s short and blonde.”
My body is about to go into shock from incredulity and impatience. “WTF, dude.” I let out an audible sigh of impatience.
“She’s here, man. We’re on our way.”
I hang up.
The tattooed man calls Ashley over and seems to give her some final instructions, to which she nods. She walks back over to the car and gets in the front seat. As I hear her seatbelt click, I pull back onto the feeder. As I merge back onto the freeway, she asks:
“Can I smoke in here?”
“No, sorry. For the sake of my other passengers.”
We drive in silence for a few moments.
“So… Where are you from?”
“That’s cool. What brings you to Dallas?”
“I’m traveling. Decided to stop here to see some family.”
“Sure, you are.”
She has a tendency to let out a soft, plaintive laugh at the end of sentences.
We drive in silence for a couple more minutes.
“So you have some smokes?”
“You know, I tell myself that so long as I actually don’t buy a pack, that I’m not actually a smoker.”
There’s that sad little laugh, again.
“If you’re willing to share one, we can pull over and smoke one.”
She gives me another one of her melancholy little smiles.
“How long have you been without? Have you been good? I don’t want to be a bad influence.”
“Oh, I bum them from friends all the time. I just don’t actually buy them myself, or smoke them when I’m not hanging around friends that do.”
“Ok, yeah. I really need a smoke.”
We’re on the tollway, at this point. I exit to the feeder and find an empty bank parking lot. I put it in park and step out of the car. She comes around and pulls out her cigarettes.
“Do you smoke Menthols?”
She pulls one out and hands it to me. I pull out my lighter and inhale until I can feel the smoke polluting my lungs, and I can see a trail of smoke rising past my nose. The nicotine rushes to my head, as I exhale a cloud of smoke. I extend my lighter to her. She maneuvers her tiny hands around it to protect it from the wind, but it blows out twice. I rest my forearm on her bony shoulder and lean in. Our faces are about four inches away, as I let her light her cigarette on mine. She doesn’t give even the slightest bit of indication of nervousness as I do so. This kind of invasion of personal space isn’t that uncommon for her, I guess.
I see the ember glow off the end of her cigarette, and I back away, and lean against the side of my car, inhaling deep drags off of my cigarette.
“Is this your last client of the night? Do you actually get to go home and sleep after this?”
She gives me an innocent grin.
“What do you mean?”
I roll my eyes at her.
She gives me an acquiescing nod.
“Yeah, I’m gonna sleep over at my friend’s place. I usually just hang out and play on my phone until I can’t keep my eyes open. I don’t ever remember falling asleep.”
There’s that classic little Ashley laugh again.
“Yeah, I hear ya.”
I take another drag.
“Then I wake up, have breakfast, and I’m up and good as new, ready for my day.”
As she describes facing the new day, something in her voice suggests something subtly different to me from the impression she’s made up until now. A sense of having survived. Just a hint of genuine happiness; a sense of safety and rightness; hope. A new day. A new chance to get things right. Even though she fully intends to face the next night the same way as she has every night for God knows how long – still – this day, just maybe – might be different.
“What’s for breakfast?”
She gives me a quizzical look. Friendly, aimless, benign small talk is like a foreign language to her.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what do you usually have for breakfast.”
“You know, I really wish I could cook, but I’m usually on the road. So usually IHOP or something.”
The nervous smile and laugh are back, like a ragged, but familiar winter coat.
“So you’re traveling.”
“Where to next?”
“Chicago.” Her face lights up a bit with excited curiosity and enthusiasm. “I can’t wait to see it.”
“Funny you should say that. I actually have a good friend in Illinois. We’ve sort of been talking, but it’s not serious, yet. We’re still trying to figure each other out. Plus… Illinois. It’s so far away. Not that that’s a deal killer for me, necessarily.”
She gives me a look of vicarious romantic hope.
“Well, if it’s meant to be, it’ll be.”
“Not really. If you want something to happen, you have to act. Not exactly what you’re ready to hear at the moment, though.”
“I really wish I had something like that. I’d love to be with somebody I care about.”
“It’ll happen for you. Once you’re ready for it to.”
She gives me an incredulous look. She talks a little more assertively as a way of pushing away a dangerous challenge by citing an incidental obstacle as an excuse.
“Well, yeah, but the right person has to come along, too!”
“Yeah. You’re getting the sequence of events mixed up, there, sweetheart. You’re not going to have a lot of great options come along before you start getting your shit together.”
I keep that thought to myself. Not exactly what she needs to hear just now.
“Yeah, of course.”
I finish smoking mine before her. I toss it on the ground and stomp it out. As she watches me do so, she says:
“Where’s a trashcan when you need one?”
I give her a sardonic grin.
“I can’t believe you’re gonna shame me into holding onto my butt. Fine.”
I reach down and pick it up.
She gives me laugh of soft, genuine amusement.
“No, it’s fine.”
As she finishes smoking hers, she deftly flicks the smoldering butt half-way across the parking lot, which makes me chuckle. I toss my cigarette butt into the grass at the end of the parking lot.
We stand across from each other, looking at each other rather collegially, enjoying the lingering high of the nicotine. I feel an instinct that I usually only feel when I see one of my soldiers on deployment going through something traumatic or tragic. My arm stretches around her shoulders and pulls her in. I press my lips onto the top of her head and hold her for just a moment. Her shoulders slump as if she’s releasing a massive burden, palpably betraying an emotional change from forced friendly banter to a relieved release into sadness and despair, mixed with an appreciation for this brief moment of comfort. I let her go, and we get back into the car.
As we get back into the car, I hear her cough to mask a sob, followed by periodic sniffles. I pretend not to notice.
I approach Omar’s house and start to drive more slowly. She calls him, and he comes out. He’s wearing a straight-billed ball cap and an over-sized shirt. As I pull up, her mood palpably changes to one of harsh determination to survive what she’s about to go through. I come to a stop, and she gets out of the car.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“Thanks for the smoke.”