Catch me at www.myspace.com/fiestaroad and www.andimarquette.com
I finished my sandwich and sat watching an RV pull into the rest area. Fall traveling season, and this place was jumpin’. As rest areas go, it was actually pretty nice, offering shaded tables and grills. A variety of picnickers, a few with dogs, occupied most of the tables. I stood up, stretched, and checked the lid on my small cooler before I headed back to my car. In three days, the moving truck would leave Orlando and head north as well. I had tried Florida. Four years, five months, two weeks, and three days. That’s trying enough. My cell phone rang. I checked the ID. My good friend Liz, in Seattle.
“Hey, girl. What’s up?” I answered.
“I’ve figured out your new career.”
I had to laugh. Liz could come up with some funny-ass stuff. “What this time? Police dog nail trimmer?”
“No, but I like that! Good one!” She snorted. “Where are you?”
“Outside Macon.” I leaned against my car door and set the cooler on the roof.
“Where the fuck is that?”
“Georgia. Near Atlanta.”
“Holy Christ. Get out of there.”
I could hear her looking through some papers. She must have been at work. She covered the phone and said something to someone else before addressing me again. “Okay, go directly west and dip down into Texas for your new job as a rodeo cowgirl and bull rider extraordinaire!”
I unlocked my car. “I can’t ride a horse, let alone a bull.”
“Whatever. It’s like riding a bike. A big, fuzzy bike. With four legs. You have the perfect name for it. Plus, you’ll get those giant belt buckles and you’ll wear your tight Wranglers and a cowboy hat. The ladies love the hat. Sarah will be so pissed she ever left you for that hussy.”
I grinned and adjusted my shades. “Hon, Sarah dumped me almost two years ago. She doesn’t care about the hat, the jeans, or the belt buckle. And neither do I.” And I really don’t want to think about Sarah. That wound had scarred, but sometimes it was still a little tender.
Liz sighed in mock frustration. “Okay, I’ll think of another career.”
“What? Editor at a groovy Seattle publishing house isn’t sexy enough?” I opened my car door and stood, watching vehicles come and go, some sliding into nearby parking slots.
“It’s kind of like a librarian,” Liz said gravely. “And how many editors do you know named ‘Codie’?”
“One. Me. And I think librarians are freakin’ hot. Especially if they’re wearing glasses. Yum.”
She giggled. “Well, good luck with that love in the stacks thing.” Pause. “I’m really psyched you’re moving back here, girlfriend. I missed you. Florida is so not you.”
“Now that is something I totally agree with.”
“When will you get here?” She sounded plaintive.
“I don’t know. I’m being kinda mellow. A week, maybe? Longer? My job doesn’t start ’til the end of the month. Don’t worry. I’ll check in.”
She made a noncommittal noise. “Cool. Drive carefully. Ciao.”
“Later.” I hung up and clipped the phone onto the waistband of my shorts. Though it was October, Georgia was still hot, hanging on to a touch of humidity. Macon sits in the guts of the state, smack in the middle of its low-slung plains. I will not miss this, I thought as I reached for my cooler. I picked it up off the roof just as a four-door maroon sedan pulled into the slot next to the passenger side of my Jetta. I probably would’ve ignored it except Salma Hayek’s sister appeared to be driving.
I watched as she unbuckled her seatbelt and did all the things you do before you exit your car in order to visit a bathroom at a rest stop. She opened her car door, got out, and locked up. Damn…nice butt. Cute shorts. And then she turned and looked at me. Busted, I thought, as I managed a quick smile and nod at her. I quickly lowered my head and put the cooler behind the driver’s seat, knowing I was blushing. My neck was on fire. Really smooth, Codie. Well, whatever. It wasn’t like I’d see her again.
I settled into the driver’s seat and buckled up. As I was closing my car door, I glanced out my windshield. Salma Junior was halfway to the bathrooms but she flashed a quick look over her shoulder and caught me looking again. She smiled—at me?—and continued on her merry way. I started my car and backed up. No way. She wasn’t looking at me. That was the kind of stuff that only happened in lesbian romance novels.
As I reversed, I caught a glimpse of a sticker on the left side of her bumper. It looked like the chick logo for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. I couldn’t see the license plate—I would’ve backed up farther, but a guy in a minivan was waiting for my space. Salma Junior drove an Accord. I filed these details where I file all the other useless trivia in my head. I gathered speed in the merge lane and shot back onto I-75 northbound. I was hoping to make Illinois around ten but figured I’d stay in Paducah, Kentucky if I had to.
I got comfortable and sang along to Sarah McLachlan, watching the miles roll past. At least I’d make Atlanta before rush hour. Not that it mattered. Atlanta was always clogged with traffic. My cell phone rang. I checked the number. Mom. I’d call her back later. I was planning to stop in Portland for a couple of nights to visit my folks. I knew she was checking in, totally excited that I was moving back West. Join the club, Mom.
I eyed the increasing traffic and dialed my iPod to some Tupac and took a sip of my iced tea. It would probably take at least an hour to get through Atlanta. Well, whatever. It wasn’t like I was behind schedule. I rolled down my windows and watched the other cars inching along with me. I like to make up stories about people when I’m traveling. A beat-up green Chevy truck with an older African American man eased past on my left. I wondered where he was going and if he was from the area. Maybe he was an undercover cop on his way to a stakeout. I rolled my eyes. Whatever! He’s probably on some boring work errand.
I watched vehicles breeze past in the left-hand lane. A maroon sedan cruising past caught my eye. I looked closer. It was the hottie from the rest stop. And…I was right. The left-hand side of her rear bumper sported a Righteous Babe sticker. A small rainbow-colored lightning bolt sat in the lower right-hand corner of her back windshield and a Human Rights Campaign equal sign sticker graced the right-hand side of her rear bumper. A little thrill jitterbugged down my spine. Well. A sis-tah on the road. This was fertile ground for all kinds of fantasies. The horrendously long cross-country drive just got a bit more interesting.
I watched as she pulled farther ahead. Did she throw a glance my way? Please. Like that would happen. Hundreds of cars clogged the interstate, bunched together like corpuscles in a vein. Like she noticed mine out here. I checked her license plate. Washington state. Now that was special. I wondered if she was on her way back. Maybe she’d take the same roads. How cool would that be? I’d write a story about it. I grinned and turned up my music. I wondered if she noticed the sticker on my back window. It’s a rainbow-colored skull and crossbones.
The next day brought me to the Illinois-Missouri border. I gratefully took the I-255/I-270 interchanges around the city. Next to Atlanta, I’d vote St. Louis as having some of the most heinous traffic in the country. This other interchange shoots you slightly north and hooks up with I-70 just west, which is fine because then you miss the snarled hairball that is the city’s downtown. Negotiating St. Louis interstates must be what it’s like for food particles to navigate an intestinal tract. You’re not really sure where you’re going, there’re all kinds of twists and turns and suddenly, you’re shit out the end of something.
On I-70 at last, I wasn’t able to exceed fifty miles per hour but at least I felt like I was moving. I glanced in my rearview mirror, singing along to Keb’ Mo’. A maroon sedan was following me. Nuh-uh. I looked again. Yep. The Honda hottie. Whoa. She was bobbing her head and her lips were moving. I wondered what she was listening to and then I wondered what it would be like to have her lips moving right up close against mine. I watched her for a bit, careful to watch the road, too. She had her sunglasses on and her dark hair was pulled back. She was maybe one car-length behind me. This is too weird. And I am such a perv, I thought, thinking about her lips again.
On impulse, I waved, watching her in the mirror. She waved back and smiled. My grin nearly split my head open and butterfly wings tickled my stomach. Traffic in my lane slowed to a crawl and I turned my head to look at her and give her a thumbs-up. Cheap thrills, I thought, as she pulled into the left-hand lane and passed me. She waved again as she did so, looking at me and grinning.
“Right on,” I muttered. Here’s hoping you stay on I-70 for a while. I watched as the distance between us increased. But I had memorized her license plate number. I filed this info in the “potentially useful trivia” box in my head and dialed my iPod to the British duo Frou-Frou. With Imogen Heap’s ethereal vocals in the background, I started writing the story about the Honda hottie in my head and by the time the western edge of Missouri slid into Kansas, I had three different versions going. I started another as Kansas’s eastern hills started melting into plains.
For those who have not had a Kansas driving experience, it’s the ultimate westering experience. Kansas can be brutally flat, and you can see the lips of the horizon trailing the sky’s edge. In some sections across the middle, small rolling hills offer a bit of rest from the relentless plains topography. Kansas is thus raw material for rumination. You can’t help but take a few side trips through your past. Or other people’s pasts. This time of year, the landscape was wind-buffeted and forlorn in the shift of seasons. Shades of tan, grey, and matte yellows signaled the first nips of autumn and towns jutted like surprises from the hard, flat soil, most of them too stubborn to know that nature had their number.
Whenever I drive across Kansas, I think about the thousands of people who braved the terrain on their way to better days, possessions and dreams stuffed into their wagons. Watching the wind bend what few trees they had planted, I could almost taste the madness that gripped some of them, sent them mumbling from their homesteads into blizzards. And that’s why I thank God for motels. I steered onto an exit ramp in Salina and found a Super 8. “Cheap and easy,” as Liz says. “Like my women,” she’d add.
The next morning, I conducted a final check of my room and grabbed my bag, slinging it over my shoulder. I picked up my iPod and walked down the hallway to the exit where I pushed through the door to the parking lot. Eight AM and fairly brisk outside. Good thing for jeans and sweatshirts. I opened the trunk of my car and tossed my bag in. I closed the trunk and walked to the driver’s side door. A piece of paper was shoved under the windshield wiper. Sighing, I reached for it. Some damn flyer probably entreating me to find Jesus. Well, if you’d quit losing the poor guy…Wait…black ink. Handwriting. A nice, strong print with harmonious edges to the letters, like what an artist or architect might use. Liz is an architect and she has handwriting like that. I read it and my jaw dropped:
“Hey, Florida. You’re a long way from home. Let me be the first Westerner to buy you a cup of coffee. 206-443-9874. Denver? ”
I stared. First at the note then at the Starbucks coupon, which was nestled within the folds of the paper. She had signed off with “Washington Road Pirate.”
“Shut up,” I said aloud. “Holy shit.” I glanced around out of habit, but knew I wouldn’t see her. She was headed toward Denver. Insane. This is totally insane. How did she find me? She had been way ahead of me after St. Louis. Hadn’t she? I got into my car and started it up. Little tingles of anticipation tickled my abdomen. Should I call her? I flipped my phone open and looked at the number on the paper. I chewed my lip. I closed the phone. Too weird. Right? It’s too weird. I’d keep the coupon as a souvenir and write yet another story in my head. I kept a roll of duct tape in my glove compartment. I taped the note to my dashboard as a nice reminder and for creative inspiration.
The rhythms of the road are funny. If you’ve driven long distances across this country, you’ll realize that you and at least two other people are on the same travel cycle. You tend to stop at roughly the same intervals and you tend to pass each other every once in a while. As a testament to my theory, I’d been hanging out with a blue Ford Explorer since Kansas City. The driver must’ve stayed in or near Salina, as well, because I hadn’t lost him yet. We were just now looping north with I-70 toward Denver, slowly leaving the rolling eastern plains of Colorado behind. I couldn’t see through the Explorer’s rear window, it was crammed with so much luggage. A hundred and fifty years ago, the driver would’ve been coaxing a team of oxen toward the Queen City of the Plains, the animals straining against a creaking, swaying wagon, patiently hauling it along the ruts hundreds of predecessors had carved in the dry earth.
I was singing softly along with Shawn Colvin as I followed the Explorer. It was actually kind of comforting, knowing that someone else was sharing a journey with you, whether they noticed or not. It’s a human need, I guess, to hold onto the illusion of community when we’re traversing the unknown.
I automatically thought about the Honda hottie. I had already written several stories in my head about her. In some we met. In others we didn’t. I longed for the first, expected the second, and thought again about calling her. Something told me to give it a shot, but my right-brain logic always kicked in. “It’s weird! Maybe too weird!” I punched my accelerator and zipped around the Explorer, knowing I might see it again. An older white guy was driving, accompanied by a white woman I assumed was his wife.
I settled into the right-hand lane and clicked into cruise control. One thing I could not afford were speeding tickets and this stretch of I-70 was often ruthlessly patrolled. My iPod changed to a Putumayo mix of Arabic groove music. I was writing yet another version of the story of the Honda hottie in my head—I can get obsessive—when I automatically glanced into my rearview mirror.
“You are shitting me,” I muttered as I watched the maroon sedan approach in my mirror. She eased closer and waved. I could see her grinning. Damn. I felt tingly all over. She started to pass me. She was gesticulating at something. I watched as she pulled into the left-hand lane and sped up until she was even with my car. I glanced over at her. She was holding up a piece of white paper with large black letters on it: “Call me?”
Whoa. Under some kind of spell—possessed by hormones, more likely—I overrode the cautious side of my brain and grabbed my phone off the passenger seat. I flipped it open. What the hell am I doing? I carefully punched the numbers in with my right thumb, glancing at the piece of paper on the dashboard and out the windshield to make sure I didn’t end up a feature on a topo map.
I held the phone to my ear, nervous but excited. I could hear it ringing. One…I watched as she dropped the piece of paper. She seemed to be looking for something. Two…she flashed a thumbs-up at me and grinned. Three…
“Hey!” She answered. She gunned her engine and shot ahead of me. She had a pleasant voice, on the border of alto.
“Back atcha.” Jesus, this is weird. But kinda cool. “Hey, thanks for the coffee. I haven’t cashed in yet. Salina is sadly lacking in the Starbucks department.”
She laughed. “Where are you headed?”
“Portland to visit my folks, then Seattle.”
Pause. “No shit?”
I liked her already. “Nope. You?”
Sweet! “Where are you driving from?”
“Visiting my brother in Orlando.”
The theme from Twilight Zone echoed through my head. “That is too weird. That’s what I’m leaving behind. Why’d you drive?”
“Oh, I flew down. My bro moved and took my car down there. I went to go get it. So are you from Orlando?”
“No,” I said. “Portland. I moved to Florida about four years ago.”
“You’re from Portland? Then I’m not the first Westerner to buy you a cup of coffee!” She was laughing again. She had a great laugh. I could hear faint music in the background. I tried to figure out what she was listening to.
“No…” I started. Though you’re definitely the most exciting. “You are the first to use my windshield like that.”
“Well, there you go,” she said.
And then we hit a dead spot and I lost the call. “Shit,” I muttered, watching her pull away. I accelerated slightly. The minutes crawled past. I swore a few more times. My phone’s screen registered “no signal.” Then it gamely wavered on one bar. It beeped. Text message. I flipped it open, pressed the appropriate button to read it:
“Sry! Whr U hded 2nite?”
I laboriously typed an answer. It’s hard to do this when you’re driving. I don’t recommend it. But these were extenuating circumstances:
“Ft. Collins. U?”
I sent it, waited. My phone clung desperately to a one-bar signal, like a rock climber to a sheer 5.10 ascent. It beeped. I vowed to build my phone a shrine.
“Btr thn WY. Dinner?”
Oh. My. God. I re-read the message, chewed my lip. Well, why the hell not? I responded, swearing when I pressed the wrong button and had to re-type:
“4 shr. Dwntwn. Call me?”
I pressed send and waited. She clearly had a heavier foot than mine, as she was way ahead of me now. I heard a beep:
Unreal. I watched as her car shrank in the distance. One of the tricks of the eye out here is that no matter what time of year, it always looks like heat waves are bouncing off the asphalt. Something to do with the sun, the lack of hills, and other mysterious forces that converge on the Plains. It’s worse in summer, but even now in the cool fall air, it looked like her car was disappearing in a July mirage. I set my phone in the cup holder next to the gear shift. I could not believe I might have a date in a few hours. I turned the music back up, feeling excited and weirded out all at the same time.
Ten miles south of Fort Collins, Colorado, the distant Rockies marked my view to the west, out the driver’s side window. I had picked up I-25 northbound in Denver. A sunset fired the mountains pink and orange and sent shadows lancing across the road. Peter Gabriel’s So echoed through my speakers. I was singing along with “Your Eyes” when my phone beeped with a text message from what was fast becoming my favorite number, 206-443-9874:
“<g> um RU singl?”
I laughed out loud. That’s a damn good question to ask, depending on your motives. Which I hoped were ulterior. I carefully pressed buttons with my thumb while I held the phone with one hand:
I pressed send. The seconds dragged past, morphing into minutes. My phone rang. I glanced at the number, smiling as I answered. “Hey, Washington. Where are you?”
“Hey, Florida! Downtown Fort Collins. You hungry?”
“Yeah, these work days on the road just wear me out.”
She laughed and the sound made me a little giddy.
“How about the Stonehouse Grille?” I suggested. “It’s on South College Avenue. One hundred block.”
“Sure! I see it, actually. How long before you get here?”
“I’m just coming into town now. Twenty minutes, maybe?” I steered around a truck, watching the city limits approach.
“Cool. I’ll be outside. Bye!”
“Bye.” I hung up, noticed my palms were sweating and my stomach was wrapped around my lungs. This was way better than any of the stories I had written in my head. I slowed down as the interstate hit the outskirts of town. Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University. A smallish city that looks out over the eastern Colorado plains but hunkers in the shadow of Rocky Mountain foothills, it’s a borderland between western gearhead outdoor sportsters and old-school agriculture and ranching. Throw into the mix some granola-types, average college students, a large Latino population, and a burgeoning white retirement community and you’ve got the potential for some odd social tensions but also strange, dynamic alliances.
It’s quirky and real and it feels comfortable, like a favorite t-shirt. The downtown features a refurbished artsy district with restaurants, galleries, bookstores, and nice pedestrian areas. The Stonehouse Grille was a recent addition, so I hadn’t eaten there. I looked online when I was planning my route because I knew I wanted to stop in Fort Collins and I thought a restaurant with Scottish food would be a hell of a lot of fun. Besides, they serve Skull Splitter Ale and I, of course, must try a libation with a name like that.
My phone beeped with a text message. I sat on the exit ramp waiting at a red light behind a massive Ford truck. The light changed. I turned left into a bit more traffic. The message would have to wait. I cruised west down Mulberry and turned right onto College. I immediately began searching for a parking space and found one near Mulberry. I filled it, knowing that they tended to disappear down here, even on weeknights. I shut my engine off and checked my message:
“Yay! IM singl 2. CU soon!”
A huge grin pulled at my face. I exited my car, remembering to grab my sweatshirt from the passenger side. An October night, though not unbearably cold here, was still sweatshirt weather. In the drier climate, the day’s heat dissipated quickly with nightfall. I put my sweatshirt on as I walked. The Grille was located a couple of blocks away. A little bit of nervousness inched down my throat and started digging at my guts. I mean, how often did stuff like this happen? For me, never. Not before this, anyway. I tried to calm myself as I neared the restaurant, reciting Mama didn’t raise no fool in my head. A little mantra to cut through the freak-out that percolated in the logic part of my brain.
I saw her, standing outside the restaurant, hands in the pockets of her grey fleece jacket. She wore loose faded jeans and tan hikers. She looked like the quintessential outdoorsy Westerner. Her hair was pulled back. She was slightly taller than I am and she was way cuter than Salma Hayek. Maybe Mama did raise a fool. Shit.
She smiled when she saw me. “So we meet at last,” she said, laughing a little. She sounded nervous, too. I found that comforting. She offered me her right hand. “I’m Aimee. With a weird spelling.”
I smiled. “Codie. Also with a weird spelling.” I shook her hand. Her grip was warm and firm. Thank God.
“Codie. That’s nice.” She relaxed. “Wow. So…you ready?” She released my hand and motioned toward the entrance.
“Definitely.” I went first and held the door for her. The hostess seated us immediately at a table next to the front window. The place had a lot of wood. Sort of Euro-sleek. Nouveau Scottish, I supposed. Whatever the hell that implied. Aimee ordered a 90 Shilling and I took a Skull Splitter.
“Sort of goes with your sticker,” she said when the server left. She was smiling again. It lit up her whole face and sparked in her dark eyes.
“Oh, you noticed.” I grinned sheepishly.
“At the rest stop in Georgia.” She took her fleece off and turned to hang it on the back of her chair. She turned back and sat regarding me shyly. “I think you’re really cute.”
That caught me off guard. The server brought our beers and retreated politely when Aimee asked for a few more minutes of consideration.
“Thanks,” I said to her, hoping she couldn’t see the flush on my neck. I cleared my throat. “You’ve been the ‘Honda hottie’ since Macon,” I admitted.
Her smile became a grin. “Wow.” She sat back, obviously embarrassed but pleased. “Wow,” she said again. “Thanks.” She fumbled with her menu, I with mine. The server
returned and we ordered. I waited until he left again and I lifted my mug.
“Here’s to safe journeys, good times, and nice people.”
Aimee lifted her own mug, gently tapped the side of mine with it. “So far, so good.”
We both took sips and set our beers down.
“So—” I started.
“What—” she said at the same time. We both laughed. “You first,” she said.
“Okay. What makes you a road pirate?”
She giggled. That’s where the conversation began. Two hours later, we were still talking like we were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. She was thirty-four, a year older than I am, and she worked as a graphic designer at an ad agency in Seattle. She gave me one of her business cards: Aimee Ochoa, at Trent and Overton. She was originally from L.A. She’d done her B.A. and M.A. there in art and design and then headed north, tired of the L.A. scene. She’d lived in Seattle about three years and so far, loved it. Her folks still lived in California but her brother, as I already knew, was in Orlando. He had gone corporate, as Aimee called it, and did marketing for the Hyatt.
“So why’d he need your car for the trip?”
“He didn’t want to have his giant gas-hog SUV in Florida, so he sold it and he’s buying a beamer or something in Orlando.” She rolled her eyes. “He’s kind of an alien in our family, but he’s my bro and I love him.”
I had to smile. My sister was teaching physics at Ohio State University. Nobody in our family knew where her mindset for that came from. But she loved her job and her husband was a nice guy, so it was all good. The server appeared.
“Dessert?” Aimee asked.
“Bread pudding.” I said. “Split it?”
“Oh, for sure.” She grinned.
“Large,” I told the server.
“And two spoons,” the server concurred. “It’ll be right out.”
Aimee sat back. “This has been really fun.”
I nodded. “Yeah, it has. Thanks for taking a chance.”
“Well, you didn’t have to call, you know.”
I smiled again. “Yeah, actually. I did.” It’s true. I did. Logic be damned.
The server returned with dessert and we dug in. It was amazing. We ate the whole thing, talking about anything and everything. Throughout the whole meal, I had this nice warm feeling all over my body. Really comfortable but really exciting. The server brought the check. Aimee reached for it but I beat her to it.
“No. Please, let me. I haven’t had such a great time in…well, it’s been a while.” I took my wallet out of my back pocket, pulled a credit card out and slid it into the check holder. The server returned. I handed it to him and he took it to the servers’ station.
Aimee was watching me, a funny little smile at the corners of her mouth. “Well, thanks. I really appreciate it. And thanks for this evening.”
The server dropped the receipts off. I signed, leaving a big tip. “You’re welcome.”
“So you’re going to Portland.” She sounded thoughtful.
“Yeah. I’ll catch I-80 tomorrow. Which means I’ll have to go near Salt Lick City. Oh, joy.” I rolled my eyes for dramatic emphasis.
We stood at the same time, on the same wavelength. She put her fleece on and I slipped my sweatshirt on over my head. We exited the restaurant and stood looking at each other outside.
“Can we do this again?” Aimee asked, hopeful. Her hands were in her pockets and her words formed small puffs of steam in the cold night air.
“Absolutely. Can I call you?” I hoped I wasn’t coming across like an over-eager teenager.
She looked relieved. “Not to sound weird or anything, but every chance you get would be nice.” She cleared her throat, shifted her weight.
“So you wouldn’t think I was stalking you if I did?”
She laughed. “Nuh-uh.”
“Where’s your car? I’ll walk you.” Without thinking, I held out my hand and to my immense surprise, she took it, interlacing her fingers with mine. Sparks danced up my arm and shot right into my chest. I felt warmth between my thighs.
She pulled me gently up the block. “Not far.”
At this hour on a fall weeknight, pedestrian traffic was light. And she was right about the distance. The maroon Honda was parked just up the block. She stopped near the meter but didn’t let go of my hand. She looked down at her feet, then at me. She smiled, shy, and cleared her throat. She sounded as nervous as I felt. “I don’t want to seem forward…” she started.
“But…” I added for her, returning her smile.
“I really want to kiss you,” she said softly.
“And ruin the mystery?” I teased, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt.
She let go of my hand. Both of her hands were suddenly on my face and she was staring into my eyes. I had absolutely no power beneath the onslaught of her expression. I slid my arms around her waist and pulled her against me. She brought her face closer to mine and her breath was hot on my lips. My heart was pounding so hard I was afraid it would rip right out of my chest. I closed the distance between us. Her lips were warm and soft. Smoldering. Beyond sexy. I felt a deep ache work its way from my mouth to my toes. My bones erupted in goosebumps. The way she moved her lips against mine…I’m going to pass out, I thought as blood roared in my ears. The tip of her tongue ghosted across my lower lip. I couldn’t breathe anymore and then our kiss deepened. Her hands dropped to my waist, pulled me harder against her. I imagined I could feel heat from her jeans and I wondered if mine were on fire.
She released me, pushed gently away and looked at me again. “Wow,” she whispered. “Where’ve you been?” She was stroking my right cheek with the back of her left hand.
“Florida.” I couldn’t stop staring at her.
“That’s too far. Please call me.” She stepped back, pulled her keys out of her right jeans pocket. “Drive safely.”
I nodded, knowing I had a huge, dorky grin on my face. I watched her get into the Honda and buckle up. She turned on the engine and sat looking at me through the windshield for a long time, smiling. I waved. She put the car into reverse, air-kissed me, and backed up. I watched her car until a small SUV pulled out behind her and I couldn’t see her anymore.
I slept late the next morning and didn’t get on the road until eleven. No biggie. I’d spend the night in Ogden, Utah and continue on up to the junction of I-15 and I-84 after which I’d head northwest on I-84 all the way to Portland. I had left my phone in my car, I had been so out of sorts the night before. There were two messages. One text, one voice. I checked the text message first:
“I want 2CU again.”
Goosebumps. Even my hair had them now. I checked my voicemail. Aimee had called earlier this morning. She hoped I got on the road okay and that the drive was nice. She thanked me again for last night. Then she laughed and said she hoped I didn’t think that she was stalking me. I smiled and started my car, opting for Mickey D’s for a chicken sandwich. Not the healthiest of choices, but I wanted to get going. I ate as I drove. Aimee was probably almost through Wyoming by now, nearly hooked up with I-90. I called her. She answered immediately.
“Hey! Late start?” She was teasing.
“Your fault,” I shot back. “Not that I wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat.”
She chuckled. “What’s your travel situation today?”
“I’ll stay over in Ogden. God help me. Save me from the Mormons. If they find out I’m coming, they might get their ex-gay ministries all ready.”
“I’ll save you.” Aimee’s voice washed over me, warm. “And keep you gay.”
Damn! “That’s a tad out of your way, but thanks for the thought.”
“I had a really good time last night,” she announced, changing the subject.
“Same here,” I responded. Nothing more articulate than that came to mind.
“I want to do it again.”
“Yes, please. Maybe when I get to Portland…?” I was hopeful.
“Just keep calling. We’ll see what we can work out.” She sounded like a promise.
“Definitely. Drive carefully.”
“You, too. Bye.”
“Bye.” I hung up and stared out the window at the rolling hills of southern Wyoming. I looked for antelope and thought about the stories I’d been creating about Aimee. I started re-working the endings of a few. Thoughts of the previous evening left me hot one minute, chilled the next. This is a beautifully strange situation and I don’t want it to end. I sent my dreams winging over the Bighorn Mountains, hoped they’d catch a ride on Aimee’s bumper as she entered Montana.
I got a slightly earlier start from Ogden. I talked with Aimee twice more the day before and Liz once. I opted not to tell Liz about my little side trip. I wanted to see how it played out. The conversations were quick, as phone service can be iffy in these parts. The Wasatch Mountains encircle Salt Lake City and continue north toward Ogden. Stunning to look at, but hell on cell phone signals when you’re driving. I had the Dixie Chicks playing on the iPod as the landscape billowed and flattened into the high and dry plains of southern Idaho. I planned to stop in Twin Falls and make a sandwich then continue into Oregon, where I’d spend the night. My phone beeped with a text message. My heart sped up as I checked it:
“I miss U.”
Whoa. I drove for a few miles, absorbing that before I texted her back:
“I miss U2.”
Strange, but true. I thought about it. How can you miss somebody you just met? What’s up with that? It wasn’t like I was some teenager caught up in some crazy crush. Where exactly were we going with this? Were we dating? Was this the beginning of a relationship? What the hell? Real life doesn’t work this way. Does it? My phone rang. I had already entered Aimee’s number into my phone book and her name popped up on the small screen. I answered.
“Hey, Washington! Where are you?”
I vaguely noticed that she pronounced it like the locals: BOY-see. The thought was superseded by the realization that I was nearly choking on my heart. “What—”
“I’m at the Grand Breaks Bed and Breakfast.” I could hear her smile through the phone. “Take I-84 to Broadway and head downtown over the river. Left onto Idaho Street. It’ll be on your left. Broadway comes at Idaho at an angle, so be prepared, girl scout.”
I wasn’t sure I was still breathing. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope. I want to see you.”
“I’m in Twin Falls,” I stammered. “It’ll be another couple of hours.”
“I don’t care.” Laughter danced in her voice. “As long as you get here. Now please drive carefully. Bye.”
“Bye.” I hung up, lightning zipping through my chest. Holy shit. I pulled over for a quick break at a gas station and to collect my thoughts for a few minutes. I threw a sandwich together though I suddenly wasn’t hungry. I was back on the road in ten minutes. I had a text message on my phone:
“IM xcytd 2CU!”
I could barely swallow. I texted her back:
Shit. How was this happening to me? It was insane. What was I doing? I didn’t even know her. I gripped the steering wheel so hard my knuckles turned white. “Breathe,” I said to no one in particular. I could keep driving. I could rip past Boise and make the Oregon border before I had time to reconsider. What if she’s some kind of psycho? I thought about Fort Collins. I decided that I was the psycho because I knew I’d be taking that exit onto Broadway. I sped up a little.
Ninety-eight minutes later, I pulled up in front of the Grand Breaks Bed and Breakfast, a stately structure, comfortable in a rambling Victorian-Queen Anne style. I parked behind Aimee’s car. A few stubborn autumn-splashed leaves clung to the trees that held court on the manicured lawn. A covered porch with slender pillars graced the front entrance. She was sitting in a chair near the front door, holding a mug. She stood up when she saw my car. She put the mug down on the end table next to her chair and descended the five steps to the walk. I got out of my car.
“All right!” She said as she approached. She sounded relieved. Before I could say or do anything else, she was hugging me. She felt like home.
“God, I’m glad to see you,” she whispered.
“Same here,” I said against her neck. How is it that this feels so right?
She broke our embrace. “You wanna go sight-seeing? Get something to eat?”
“Yeah. And yeah again…um…could you drive?”
She smiled. “Of course.”
We settled into her car, which was immaculate, and she pulled away from the curb.
“So…Seattle?” I asked as we cruised through the Boise historic district, riddled with Victorian buildings and tall trees.
“I couldn’t wait that long to see you.” She flashed me a grin and turned left.
My stomach turned a somersault. “Wow. So there you were, about to hit the Montana border, and you…what? Turned around?”
She shrugged. “Not even. Cheyenne. And I turned left.”
We both laughed and talked about anything else that came to mind. Eventually we ended up downtown at Cazba, a Greek and Mediterranean restaurant. As at the Stonehouse, we were there for nearly two hours before we ordered dessert, a plate of baklava with two forks. She took a bite. “This is so good.”
“This day has been so good,” I responded, delicately digging my fork into the filo dough.
She sat watching me, a hint of a smile in her eyes. “I’ve never done anything like this.”
“What? Eat baklava in Boise? That’s a new one for me, too. Actually, that would make a good song. Baklava in Boise.” I started humming.
The smile broke across her face. “You know what I mean.”
I stopped humming, watched her eyes. She reached across the table and ran her fingers lightly over the back of my right hand. I forgot how to speak for a moment.
“I don’t know why I’m here with you,” she said quietly. “I don’t know what’s making me do this.” She held my gaze. “I mean, I don’t even go out on blind dates. But…here I am.” She pulled her hand away and sat back. “At the rest stop in Macon, I thought it would be fun to talk to you. I liked your smile.”
I swallowed. Hard.
“I kept seeing your car,” she continued. “Kept wondering…” her voice trailed off. She laughed softly and continued. “I wasn’t sure that was your car in Salina. Until I saw the sticker on your window. I figured if you didn’t call, well, I don’t mind buying a fellow traveler a cup of coffee. But I hoped you’d call.”
I reached for her hand and took her fingers in mine. “I kept writing stories in my head. Kept hoping I’d see your car again.” I took her other hand. “I wondered what I’d say if I ever met you.” I smiled at her. “I wasn’t sure whether to call you that morning. I wondered if you were some kind of freak.” I shrugged apologetically.
She giggled. “I thought the same thing about myself.”
“But then, I’m some kind of freak, too. ’Cause here I am.”
“And here I am.” She squeezed my fingers, pulled hers slowly from mine as the server came by with the check. Once again, I beat Aimee to it.
“You drove all the way to Boise,” I said at her expression. “It’s the least I can do.”
After I completed the payment, we left and pulled some of the interior warmth with us as we entered the crisp Idaho night. “Whoa. Forgot about seasons,” I said, as I buttoned up my jacket. Aimee giggled. She held my hand to the car. We were silent on the ride back to the inn, listening to a music mix from her iPod pour through her car system. She pulled in ahead of my car and shifted into “park.” She put her hands carefully in her lap, keeping her gaze studiously on her fingers.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. She raised her head to look at me.
I saw beginnings in her eyes, but echoes of endings as well.
She brushed a loose strand of hair out of her face. “This…has been an amazing trip. Thanks for sharing it with me.”
“It’s not over.” I glimpsed possibilities in her expression. “Maybe it hasn’t even really started yet.”
Her slow smile pulled at her lips, lit up her eyes. “Will you come in?” She caught herself. “I mean—I understand if you don’t want to.”
“Yes.” I said it firmly. “Oregon can wait. I can’t.”
She turned the car off and collected her iPod. We got out and she waited as I retrieved my bag and iPod from my car. I followed her inside. Any doubts I harbored didn’t make it past Denver. She led me down a corridor to the “Governor’s Suite,” according to the plaque on the door. She had left a light on. The room had a nice feel to it. Dark green walls, oak furniture. Nice clean lines, nothing too frilly. She took my bag, set it in a corner, and removed her shoes. I placed my jacket on a chair. I took my shoes off, too, and put them next to hers. Aimee lit a pillar candle that stood on the bureau and then hooked her iPod up to a small portable speaker system. She selected some music and took off her fleece. She turned off the overhead light and the room filled instead with candlelight that bounced off the walls and across her face.
I watched her and wondered, not for the first time, if I was dreaming.
“Dance with me?” She asked softly, holding out her hand.
I stepped into her embrace, fell into the easy, liquid rhythms of a Catie Curtis song. I rested my head on Aimee’s shoulder, reveled in the feel of her body against mine. She smelled faintly of cloves and hope, moved like tall Kansas grass in an early fall breeze. My body conformed to hers and heat built between us like flames from embers. She sang softly in my ear, held me close, breathed me in and breathed herself out across my cheek. She pulled away slightly at some point and regarded me, intent but maybe a bit unsure I ran my fingers along her jaw, watching expressions shift in her eyes. My hand slid to the back of her neck and I pulled her face closer, tentative. My lips brushed hers and she responded avidly, ending my timidity and sending fireworks through my veins. Our hands quickly became explorers, blazing trails beneath our shirts and testing boundaries between jeans and underwear.
I invited her tongue into my mouth and filled my lungs with her breath and I didn’t know where my lips ended and hers began, couldn’t tell whether the need and moisture between my legs was all mine or somehow part of her. It didn’t matter, ultimately, because we’d share that as well. Our clothing began to decorate the floor and I worked the tie out of her hair and gently pulled her head back, exposing her neck. I ran my tongue along the hollow of her throat. She moaned appreciatively. My hands journeyed across her breasts and her nipples hardened against my palms. I slid my fingers down her abdomen to her hips. She pulled me tighter and moved backward toward the bed, easing me onto its surface. I felt the expanse of her skin meld with mine, demanding my touch.
I lost myself in her kisses, struck by her beauty, by the poetry of this moment, and the promise that arced between us. Her tongue flicked my earlobes, traced my jaw, coaxed a yearning from my nipples. Her thighs locked me against her and every move we made spread sweat across our legs and bellies. I straddled her, leaned down so I could feel her heart match the pounding of mine. She kissed me harder, marked her territory on my neck and chest with her tongue and teeth. I felt her shudder beneath my hands and hips, felt her match my rhythms and breathe my name against my shoulder.
She was at once gentle and unbridled, vulnerable but assured. There was trust in her eyes, hope and desire in her moans. As I watched her, as I touched her and ached for her, I put the scars of my past into her hands that night, knowing somehow that she would burn them clean beneath her fingers. And when she entered me, I groaned aloud, echoing the growl on her lips and sparking something primal between us. She saw the expression in my eyes, smiled fiercely and spread her legs, allowing me entrance as well, welcoming my fingers into the miles we’d shared, into the heat of a thousand stories. “I want you,” I said against her ear, my voice catching in my throat at the feel of her fingers thrusting within me.
“I need you,” she gasped as my own fingers in her depths matched her strokes in me.
We rocked and swayed, eyes locked, completely connected from fingertip to fingertip, bone to blood, like lines on a map. I could feel her tremble within and I slowed my fingers, felt her do the same. We hovered there, on a shared edge, staring at each other. I watched clouds building in her eyes.
“Codie,” she whispered. “I’m so close. Stay with me…” her voice trailed off as I resumed thrusting. Gentle. Deep. The coil within me unwound and I watched the storm break in her eyes.
“I’m here,” I breathed. “Right here.”
We crested the road’s rise together, exploded as one, caught each other on the way down. The tears on her cheeks mirrored those on mine. Candleglow glistened on her skin. I gathered her in my arms, held her close as our bodies shifted, redefined themselves, separate but shared. I stroked her hair, kissed her shoulders and neck. Her arms enclosed me and I had never felt so protected, so wanted. So completely myself.
“How did this happen?” She whispered. “Who are you, to make me feel like this?”
I watched her face, let my lips follow the path of her tears. “A fellow traveler who took a chance.”
She kissed me again and I knew the night had only just begun.
I stood on the porch, watching another night fall with the Seattle rain. My coffee mug was nearly empty. Cars crawled along the street in the dusk, slowing as they neared each other, squeezing past the vehicles parked along either side. My phone beeped from a battered wooden end table I kept out here, next to two equally rustic chairs. I set my mug down and picked up the phone:
“I missed U 2day.”
I texted back:
Long minutes ambled by, unfurling Boise in my head. I heard a door slam from somewhere behind then footsteps on the wooden floors inside. I smiled. The security door opened behind me. I didn’t turn around. Not yet.
Every nerve ending fired. I turned then. “How was your day?”
The look in her eyes burned a path through my heart. “Good, but excellent now. Yours?”
“Same. Happy Friday.”
She bridged the short distance between us, hugged me close. I wrapped my arms around her, breathed the smell of rain from her hair.
She kissed me and it was all too familiar, all too captivating. She pulled away, brushed a lock of hair out of my eyes, and grinned. “Uh-oh. You’ve got that look again.”
I laughed. “You read me like a book.”
“No,” she said, stroking the side of my face with the back of her hand. “Like a map. How about the Redwoods over Halloween? We haven’t…enjoyed anything there yet.”
My breath caught in my chest. “You want me to drive?” I managed.
“Yes. That way I can watch you.” And she kissed me again, reluctantly stopping after a few delicious moments. “You hungry?”
I smiled. “Dinner’s in the kitchen. With that wine you like.” I watched the expression in her eyes shift, felt heat build in secret places between us.
“I’m forever grateful to Macon,” she said softly. “And not just because you cook.” She pecked me on the cheek. “Come on, babe. It’s cold out here.” She pulled me inside, closed the door. I watched her go upstairs to change and then I started setting dishes on the table. My phone beeped. I picked it up off the counter:
“I love U.”
I thought about Fort Collins and our first kiss, about Idaho and the way things begin. I heard her come down the stairs. She appeared in the doorway, looked at me. I caught her eyes with mine, echoed her soft smile. “I love you too, Washington.”
“Oh, man. This is such a good story.” Liz put the pages down on the coffee table. “I mean, I might be a slut and all, but I love a romance. Wow.” She took a sip of her beer. “I am so glad you moved back. I missed you, dammit.”
“Thanks. I’m glad to be back.” I took a sip of my beer as well.
“How many different versions did you write?”
I shrugged. “Shit, I don’t know. At least five, though I probably thought of a thousand. In half of them, we didn’t meet.”
Liz laughed. “No, you have to meet. Totally. There are tons of lezzies out there who will want to read this. We’re all a bunch of hopeless romantics.”
“Even the slutty ones?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Definitely.” Liz raised her beer bottle. “That scene in Boise. Oh, that gets me. That just gets me. I like how you ended with her standing on the porch inviting you in. So we don’t really know if you did or didn’t. But something had to happen. Or that last scene in Seattle wouldn’t work. But you leave it up to the imagination.” She sighed. “Wouldn’t it be great if things like that really happened? I mean, do you even know anybody that’s happened to?” She shook her head. “I don’t. How did you even think of that? I mean, Boise. Of all places. You could have picked Yellowstone or Eugene or something. But no. Boise.”
Liz sighed. “My most romantic evening was getting caught in the rain outside a bar in Portland. With Ann. Remember her?”
“Yeah. Now she was hot.” Liz took another swig of beer. “Too bad she was married.”
“Oh, no you didn’t…You never said…!”
Liz rolled her eyes. “And put up with a lecture from you?”
I was about to say something when the back door opened. We both looked up. “In here!” I yelled.
Aimee appeared in the doorway and took her jacket off. “Hey, you two.”
I got up and took her coat so I could hang it on the coat rack by the front door. “Hi,” she said softly as she leaned over and kissed me. Her lips sent tremors down my back.
“Ewww…PDA,” Liz teased. “So, Aimee, I read this great story that your girlfriend here wrote.”
“Oh, yeah? Hold on.” She went back into the kitchen and I heard her rummaging in the fridge. “You want another beer, babe? Liz?” She called.
I answered in the affirmative but Liz declined. I could hear the snick of bottle caps. Aimee appeared again with two beers. She handed one to me. “So what’d you think?” she asked Liz before she took a sip.
Liz sighed and pretended to swoon. “Amazing. It’s so fucking romantic.”
Aimee smiled. “Well, your best friend is so fucking romantic.” She blew me an air kiss.
“Damn. Missed my chance,” Liz laughed. “So you’re okay with being in a story like this? I mean, she uses your first names.”
“I actually like that.” Aimee flopped down in a nearby chair.
“So how did you really meet? Codie’s being deliberately vague with me.”
Aimee shrugged. “Read the story again.”
Liz made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “Okay, for real. Who introduced you? Or did you meet online?”
I caught Aimee’s eye and we both laughed. “Okay, busted,” she said. “We were introduced.”
Liz took a sip of beer, triumphant. “I knew it!”
“At a rest stop in Macon,” Aimee finished. I snickered.
Liz rolled her eyes. “Fine. Whatever. Secrets from your best friend.”
Aimee’s phone rang. She looked at it. “My bro. Let me take this.” She stood up and went out onto the front porch.
“I have to go,” Liz announced. “I have a date, you know.”
“Oh, that’s right.” I gave her a hug. “Call me about this weekend.”
“Duh! Catch you later. Bye, Aimee!”
“Bye!” Aimee called from the porch.
I followed Liz through the kitchen to the back door and shut it behind her. I then set to work at the kitchen counter, where I put some pasta in a bowl with a couple of meatballs so I could heat it up for Aimee. I washed some dishes and dried my hands on a dish towel. My phone buzzed from the counter with a text message:
“thinking of Boise.”
I felt my heart slam against my ribs and I texted her right back:
She appeared in the doorway and leaned against the jamb. She held her phone up with my message and smiled, her lips curving deliciously. “How about we go for a drive?”
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