We were just like Thelma & Louise, except not at all.
I met her at a truck stop. Her name was Ruby Tuesday. “I was named for the restaurant, not for the Stones song. My brother is named Applebee’s. Yes, with the apostrophe.”
Of course she was lying.
I had gone into the convenience-store part of the truck stop to take a leak and buy a Blizzard at the Dairy Queen counter. She was trying on sunglasses. She had on a pair with heart-shaped frames. I paused, she paused. She lowered two red hearts down over her face.
That was it. How could that not be it?
I took a leak in the men’s room, and I purchased a Blizzard in peppermint chip. She was flipping through a trophy-hunting magazine. She seemed to have nothing better to do. I asked if she wanted a ride. I don’t know why. I never do things like that. But I did.
I left without paying for gas.
Not because I meant to — because I forgot. I was thinking only of her when I left there. What to say, where to go, what to do. I wasn’t thinking straight.
Just like that we were outlaws.
You want me to tell you we stopped and bought weapons. You want me to weave you a tale of the West, of red-rock formations and starry skies and canyons so freeing to the Eastern eye accustomed like I am to traffic and offices, Gap khakis on casual Friday and Starbucks every morning, every single morning, every goddamn morning.
“Same as always?” my local barista asks me.
You want me to tell you of sex in motel rooms. You want to know more about the girl, her quirky life story, of the time she paid her way across Eastern Europe busking in subways, sitting on steps with a view of both Buda and Pest as foreign coins tumbled into the open guitar case. You want me to tell you she wears sequined leopard print on a Tuesday at two in the afternoon. You want to imagine her played by Zooey Deschanel, reigning Manic Pixie Dreamgirl of the silver screen. You want her to open my eyes to what life can be.
You want us to both get away. Or to Thelma-and-Louise it right over the edge.
I am sorry to tell you the cops caught up with us at the next exit. I heard the siren and saw the lights, and pulled over like I always do, as if I’d merely been going six miles over the posted speed limit. “What seems to be the problem, officer?” I ask like the polite boy my parents raised me to be.
“The PROBLEM,” he said, leaning down to my window, his face in shade, “is that you stole gasoline.”
You want me to gun it, to floor the accelerator, pedal to the metal, to spit in his face. To drive into the sunset cackling, then later the girl and I will hoist beers in some bar near the border, in a land where the sun’s still up while back home has gone dark.
I didn’t do that. I didn’t even entertain the thought. I told him I was so sorry, that I had totally forgotten, that I had just met this girl and was nervous. I almost cried. I promised to turn right back around. I told him I had no “priors” (I must have gotten that term from a stray episode of “Cops” caught late some night in my apartment).
He gave me a break, said he’d follow me back there and make sure I paid. I could see him in all of my mirrors as I prudently drove us back to the station, a sad humbled caravan headed back East.
The cop walked with me to the cashier, a livid Indian man who accepted my debit card but grudgingly. I kept saying I was so sorry.
“I didn’t realize,” I lied. And you know, they don’t care if you lie as long as you fall into line.
What happened to the girl, you wonder? Your guess is as good as mine. Once back at the truck stop she vanished. I admit I was partly relieved. I could tell you she was some kind of ghost, or spirit-guide, my Tyler Durden goading me to misbehave like I deep-down wanted. But I know she was real. For one thing, I’m not crazy. For another, she took her hair down in the car and left a rubber band, covered in aqua fabric, the kind you buy in packs for holding ponytails. I found it much later in the plastic nook of the passenger door. It clung to three long, curly, strawberry-blonde hairs.
I could tell you I did something creepy with them, coiled them up in an Altoids tin for one day when Science could build me a clone, or made some kind of voodoo-doll Franken-girl, or even just that I sometimes still hold the hairs up to the rays of the setting sun and watch them glint golden before the light fades away. But I never did any of that. For one thing, I wasn’t in love with her. She was just some girl. I threw the rubber band away last time I vacuumed my car.
“Same as always?”
*Title shamelessly stolen from a Stone Temple Pilots song, because didn’t you know the ’90s are chic again?