When I saw her walking along the interstate and clutching a paper bag, I thought she was a teenager. She had long black hair and was dressed in black, so it was easy to mistake her for some goth-inspired runaway.
I pulled over and rolled down my window.
"Hey," I called. "You know, what you're doing isn't safe."
She turned to look at me and the hopeful face I saw wasn't that of a kid, but of an older woman who - when I asked her name - identified herself only as Cynthia.
She'd just gotten out of the local jail, she said, where she'd spent the last six nights. The way she told it, she'd landed there after the judge at her traffic hearing had ordered a drug test that showed positive for cocaine. The boyfriend who'd promised to pick her up on the day of her release had been a no-show. Cynthia really needed a ride. Could I help her?
I was hesitant.I knew that judges didn't order drug tests in routine traffic cases. But I also knew that when I got to work I'd read enough wire copy of rapes and murders to regret it if I didn't give her a ride.
I made her take off her coat and turn all her pockets inside out to show me she wasn't carrying drugs or weapons. My sympathy is tempered with reason. She obliged and even dumped the bag out on the side of the road. Court records, medical records, a half-pack of Marlboro cigarettes - that's all she had.
I told her to get in.
As she buckled her seatbelt, I stole a glance at her. She had high cheekbones and green eyes. At one time, Cynthia was probably a beautiful woman. Now she looked hard, tired and used.
I didn't ask for her story, but got it anyway . She spewed a tale in the manner of someone who thinks if they talk fast enough they'll be believed. She stumbled over her words, backtracking several times in an attempt to redress and correct glaring contradictions. She had a boyfriend but the night she was arrested she'd been drinking with someone else. She didn't do drugs but couldn't remember what happened after the third shot of tequila. She had five kids who were with their dad. They really wanted to be with her and they would be, if she and her boyfriend didn't lose the trailer they shared, which is exactly what would happen if he couldn't get his child support reduced.
I finally stopped her and told her it was OK. She didn't have to say any more. I'd done plenty of things in my past I wasn't proud of myself. She could chill out. I wasn't her parole officer. I was just someone giving her a ride.
I did ask her , though, why her boyfriend didn't show. She said he must have gotten delayed at work. He was driving a burgundy Mazda and was probably on the way. With anxious eyes she scanned oncoming traffic, looking for his car. We never saw it.
I called my boss and told him I was giving someone a ride home and that I'd be late. He said that was cool, but I never got the chance. Cynthia began fretting that her boyfriend - who didn't have a cell phone - would end up riding the roads looking for her all night. She asked me to pull over and drop her off. I refused to pull over on the busy interstate but took the next exit, hoping I could convince her to let me take her to a convenience store where there would be lights and a phone. It would be dark soon. I was worried about her.
But she wouldn't listen. She got out, but before she did gave me a hug and told me how much she appreciated the ride. Did I know how many people she'd asked who'd refused before I came along? About five, she said.
I pulled away, watching her in the rear view mirror as I did. I never saw the burgundy car. But I'll never forget the vision of Cynthia standing there, waiting for it to come.
When I got to work, I was pretty bummed out. On a break, I shared this story with my friend John, who has a lot of insight into people.
"My life has been far from perfect," I told him. "Lord knows I've had my share of missteps. So what's the difference between me and Cynthia?"
John took a drag off his cigarette and gave me a smile.
"You stopped waiting for guys in Mazdas," he said.
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