Cruising down the long stretch of highway, a single lane in each direction, the eye could only perceive towering trees in both directions, like walls on either side of the road. The situation Gina found herself in felt about the same, with the walls closing in faster than she could handle.
With country tunes blaring from the red convertible, the boisterous wind was refused admission. Seated beside Gina was her best friend. Staring forward, lacking any emotion in her eyes, she supposed that was to be expected given Beth’s situation.
She had been dealt an awkward hand to play in the past week. The decision by her employer to outsource her position overseas left her without a paycheck. That was enough by itself. However, couple that with the unexpected death of her sister and the rift it created given the hidden secrets of her family’s past, and Gina could see why there was no emotion in Beth’s eyes. It had all been poured out in the tears that had now evaporated from existence.
In a desperate measure to help Beth cope with some of the overwhelming grief and disappointment that had been unfairly injected into her life, Gina arranged a weekend road trip to a resort on the coast. With a full spa and winery on site, there were therapeutic opportunities, of the physical and liquid variety, to help appease the pain. She had it all planned out.
Gina had always been good with actions, not so good with words. She was thankful for the loud music and wind. The less she needed to speak, the better it would be. It’s not that she didn’t want to talk. Gina just didn’t know how. She grew up in a family governed by strict rules and lectures. There was no questioning authority, ever. The consequences were proof of that. The scars on her psyche lived on for much longer than the lacerations on her back.
When given the opportunity to escape that physically and mentally abusive atmosphere, she fled with resolute intent. Working her way through college and graduate school on her own dime, she relied only upon herself. Trust, of anyone, was an issue for Gina. Rising to the executive level of her manufacturing company, she had earned the right to call the shots. Her motives, however, were misaligned. She didn’t thrive on the thought of being a leader. Rather, she feared the possibility of being controlled as she had in her childhood years. And so it had been for the past twenty years of her life, living a life based upon fear, doing everything in her power to remain free from the grips of authority.
The two hour drive to the resort was an opportunity for Gina and Beth to talk, but they didn’t. Beth was one of the few individuals in Gina’s life that she truly trusted. And yet, she had never fully confided in Beth. The countless thoughts racing through her mind never stopped long enough for her to grab on to them, to vocalize them. Or, at least, that was her explanation, even thought it sounded more like an excuse.
As they passed the wooden sign painted with white block letters, they left the national forest behind, the thoughts and secrets of the past fifty miles absorbed by the canopy of green foliage. The landscape morphed from towering trees to open land, the coastline less than thirty five minutes away.
Peeking over at Beth once again, Gina could see a solitary tear running down her cheek. She didn’t see how there could possibly be any left. Compelled to do what a friend is supposed to do in these situations, she attempted to persuade herself to reach over, turn off the radio, and actually have a conversation. Back and forth, she battled with her psyche to overcome her inner demons, but her two hands remained locked at ten and two on the steering wheel. As it turns out, that was a very good thing.
Gina had never heard a gunshot in close proximity to her. But what she heard could have been nothing else. Except it was something else. The compulsive urge for her car to veer over the white centerline towards the ditch on the left side of the road sent her instinctive action oriented mind into overdrive. Keeping her foot on the gas pedal and steering through the blowout, she slowly eased off the gas and gently applied the brakes until they came to a full stop on the left side of the road.
Staring at the manufacturer’s logo in the middle of her steering wheel, it took a few seconds for her mind to catch up with the crisis played out in the last thirty seconds. When she came back to her senses, she glanced over at Beth and shakily spoke, “Are you okay?” Beth, abruptly extracted from her trancelike state, responded in an unsettled voice, “Yeah, I think so.”
This is where Gina excelled. There was a problem that needed a resolution and she was already planning the required steps in her mind: get the vehicle off the road, assess the situation, and replace the tire. With Beth shadowing her, constantly asking how she could help, Gina kindly refused any assistance. She had it all handled. And, as it turned out, in a matter of twenty minutes, the spare tire was carrying them forward, if not towards their final destination.
It became perfectly clear after less than a few miles that something was amiss. The intermittent hiccup expelled from the vehicle’s belly became more frequent, like it had succumbed to the inevitable indigestion after a cheap and disagreeable burrito. They were miles from civilization. This was not the type of therapy on the agenda for the weekend. Uttering a silent plea beneath her breath to the powers that be, Gina coaxed the limping car forward, each mile requiring more persuasion than the last.
Just ahead, in the distance, Beth noticed the flashing light. “What is that? Up there?” she pointed to the blinking amber light. “I’m not sure,” said Gina, squinting and craning her neck three inches forward as if that would bring the object into focus. As the distance between the two friends and traffic light decreased, so did the cooperation of their vehicle. Sputtering more frequently, it gasped its last breath and rolled to a stop, wheels creaking as gravel crunched beneath them. Looking around, it appeared that those silent pleas were answered with a significant degree of sarcasm.
Their vehicle had rolled into the entrance of a small town, one of those proverbial “blink and you will miss it” towns. The service station about a hundred yards ahead looked to be dormant for the last half century. The old-style gas pumps, the broken pane of glass, and the bedraggled exterior showed no evidence that this unscheduled stop was going to be useful.
As she put the car in neutral and opened the driver side door, she began to simultaneously push on the car frame with her left hand while steering, if that’s what you call it, with her right hand. Despite her desire to resolve yet another situation on her own, Beth was pushing with all her might on the trunk. Gina didn’t have any other choice.
As the gimpy car was ushered into the parking lot, rolling over the black hose, a familiar dinging sound signaled their arrival. Not expecting any sign of life from this sleepy establishment, it was even more surprising when the elderly gentleman emerged from the front door. Wearing tattered overalls and a newsboy cap reminiscent of the early 20th century, his five ‘o clock shadow looked more than a few days old, various shades of white and gray peeking through.
In a gruffly voice indicative of long tobacco use, he cordially introduced himself, “Name is Joe. How can I help you ladies?” Wiping his calloused hands on the shop towel, he extended his hand in greeting, a lost token, Gina thought, in modern society. “Where are we?” Beth interjected rather quizzically. “This lil’ town here ain’t even on the map,” Joe offered in return. “Well, our car seems to have broken down after we blew out a tire a couple miles back and we’re not sure what happened,” returned Beth.
“Well, lemme have a look at her,” smiled Joe as he circled around the vehicle. “Well, you done run outta gas ladies,” he said as he pointed with his index finger to the puddle of gasoline now leaking from the bottom of the car. “You musta hit somethin’ when you blew out that tire, cut your fuel line. What’re the odds of that?” he ponders to himself as he shakes his head. You’re telling me, thinks Gina, can’t we catch a break?
Although his elementary grammar school teacher would have been appalled at Joe’s use of the English language, there was something magnetic about him. There was an intangible charm to his persona. There was no better proof for this than the words that came pouring out of Gina’s mouth next.
“Can you help us?” And as those four words were formed by her vocal chords and uttered out into the free world, she wished she could reach out with her hand, grab each syllable, and retract them, stuffing them back into the safe and silent confines of her psyche. Alas, she could not.
“Can do,” says Joe confidently. “Got me the gasoline right over there, but it might take a day to get a new fuel line in.” He could tell by the dejected look on their faces that this was not the news they were looking for. In a feeble attempt to save grace, Joe offered, “Got us a newly renovated place to stay just up the road. Tell Lenny I sent ya, he’ll give you a good deal. Stop back tomorrow afternoon and y’all be good to go.”
These are the situations that had always plagued Gina with doubt, anxiety, and apprehension. Instead, she felt an unfamiliar calmness and peacefulness wash over her. Asking for help from close friends and acquaintances had always been a challenge, and here she was accepting the generosity of someone unknown to her fifteen minutes ago. The air around her became lighter, the invisible weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and an appreciative smile spread across her face. “Thank you,” she exhaled. And in the proclamation of those two words, in the closing of a pact with a complete stranger, a new door was opened to her. That corner of her heart kept under lock and key was free to make its presence felt. Trust had emerged from Gina’s soul for the very first time in her life.
As they settled into the modest hostel up the street, a new radiance began to illuminate everything around her, and Beth noticed it. Although the events of the past several hours had helped distract her from the problems still plaguing her, she felt somehow different about everything in the presence of her best friend now.
Taking a seat in the makeshift lounge adjacent to the lobby, Gina and Beth sat in the dilapidated excuse for chairs, fabric frayed from overuse in a previous life. The house wine they were sipping from plastic cups was not on par with the high end chardonnay and expensive goblets they envisioned at their intended destination. That world seemed an infinite number of miles to the west. But, it didn’t seem to matter. As the second hand turned round, thousands of times, minutes into hours, Gina opened her heart and let the emotions pour out. The floodgates had been opened.
Not only did she empathize with Beth about her job, her sister, and her family’s past. Gina also bared her own soul, sharing her fears, her dreams, and her insecurities. There were sympathetic tears, there were knowing smiles, and there was bubbling laughter. Most importantly, there was a connection.
During a brief gap in their conversation, as if in a momentary pause to catch their mental breaths, Beth looked up with heartfelt eyes. Her hands wrapped around the plastic cup, her emotions wrapped around Gina’s heart, she expressed “Thank you, really. I know this weekend didn’t work out as you planned. But, I think this is exactly what I needed.”
Thinking to herself that she couldn’t agree more, Gina offered up her plastic cup in a toast to Beth. “Hey, that’s what friends are for,” she proclaimed as their cups met. And although she had uttered these empty words so many times before, for the first time in her life, Gina finally understood what they truly meant.