Last night, coming home after a late meeting with a colleague where we tried to finish up a report from work (unsuccessful): dark road, trees casting shadows in the light of the moon... a sudden flash and a woman leaps in front of my car, arms waving... She trembles, "Can you take me to a gas station? I need to make a phone call."
"Sure," I say, and I move laptop bags, man purse, and back pack from the front seat to the back. She gets in. Even in the dull light of the car, I can tell she's been crying. And, she's been drinking. Had I a match, we'd both burn up in a burst of fire and flame.
The story comes tumbling out. Ex-boyfriend keeps bothering her, will not leave her alone. Today he punched the manager where she works, and she's been fired. Last week she lost her apartment. Her soon-to-be-four-year-old son is at her mother's home, but her mother will not let her see the child. More tears. The ex-boyfriend stole all her money, aside from the, er, $30 dollars she had stuffed in her bra.
Ah, a movie pass there, too.
The road is passing slowly; I'm almost coasting, listening to the story pour out. More tears. Her husband left her last month; thought she was having an affair with the ex-boyfriend... who returned home several months ago after spending four years in prison. Her brother is doing 30 years for "accessory after the fact" for a murder.
I'm thinking Jerry Springer. I am Steve, after all.
We stop at the 7-Eleven for fuel. I get out of the car, and still the story spills out. I shut the door and then lean in to hear each detail, wondering how much of it is real, how much is alcohol induced, how much is pure fantasy.
The only thing she has left in the world are her clothes -- including a pair of low rise jeans pasted to her tall frame -- her son's diaper bag, and a broken cell phone (which the boy friend had disconnected).
I fill the tank as she sits quietly in my little car. She'd wanted to smoke a cigarette earlier, first asking if it was okay, and then a question if anyone ever smoked in my car. I told her to go ahead, roll down the window first, but she didn't. She still had some wits about her. She sits demurely in the car, her legs crammed under the dash, the blue diaper back, a small purse, and a jacket.
I'm thirsty and offer her a drink. She asks if she can come in. I laugh, "Of course, I'm not holding you hostage in the car."
I buy her a green tea and a tall Slim Jim; I get a Diet Coke for myself. Back in the car, she buckles up and turns to me, "I don't usually cry in front of people."
"Go ahead," I think. Were I her, I'd probably need it. And then I realize that in ten minutes, I've listened to her story, been non-judgmental, bought her a snack... all without even a hint there's anything in it for me. And I wonder when the last time anybody just listened to her.
Being a man, I go into problem solving (see Men are Mars, Women are from Venus). Enough of this listening to her, allowing her to vent. I need to get home, and I need to get her to some safe place for the night.
A little pressing and she lets on that she has a friend a bit a ways where she can make calls to find a place for the night or crash there. We're off... and the stories continue to stream out, one Springer-like tale after another. There's a part of me that wants to help make it all right; there's another part that wants to get away as fast as possible.
The second me wins. I drop her at her friend's apartment, my car idling outside until the door opens and she goes inside, a little wave to me before the door closes, the light from inside snuffed out; her car is dead in the parking lot in front of the apartment, the victim of sabotage by her former boyfriend.
Question: If she'd been a toothless old hag, rather than a recently-fired Hooter's Girl, would I have bothered to even pick her up? Would I have just dropped her at the nearest pay phone? Or would I have gone out of my way to make sure she made it to friendly territory?