When I think about the way the story could have played out my breath gets caught on the intake. I have to close my eyes and push the stuck air into my lungs and pull it back out.
Imagine a girl walking on a lonely highway, stumbling in the ditch when vehicles speed by. She’s in the ditch because there is no shoulder on the road. She discovered that like a punch in the face as soon as she started the walk. She’s also in the ditch because she realized she doesn’t want to be seen. The stretch of asphalt is just wide enough for two cars to pass. It’s a dark night in the middle of winter or a dark night of the soul depending on your vantage point. The wind is whipping calling with a low howl. The air smells dirty, snow and ice mixed with diesel fuel, from the semis that sporadically roll by.
She’s wearing Doc Martens, Levi’s, crop top under a flannel jacket. Her long black hair is at the mercy of the wind hiding most of her face. If she were being honest, she’d say she’s really dressed in different shades of fear, anger, frustration, resentment. That’s the uniform she’s worn most of her life. She’s fueled by booze tonight and most nights. The booze is what made her think the walk home was possible. A marathon by mileage. When she’s not gauging it by miles it’s much longer and she’s aware of what she’s gotten herself into.
An SUV passes. She catches a glimpse long enough to register it’s a Ford Explorer. She stumbles down the steep ditch waiting to find flat footing while walking at a precarious angle. Nothing flat. This is the kind of angle that twists ankles. She sees brake lights up ahead. The SUV slows and turns around. It returns to the place where they first spotted her. She’s blinded by headlights. The vehicle stops. Not the best road to around on or to make a complete stop to pick someone up but I guess they were motivated.
I always take a minute to let the possible scenarios play out in my mind. What does this story look like on the 5 o’clock news? There was opportunity for me to disappear. There was opportunity for me to be pulled into a car with someone who’s intentions weren’t so nice. The truth is, on that night there were two angels on the highway. In that Ford Explorer. The car that came back for me. It feels like a lifetime ago and for some people it would be. 25 years. The passenger leaned over into the darkness of the ditch where I stood. The interior light illuminated a face that glowed while having no recognizable features. Or maybe the view was blurred by the liquid that coursed through the veins of my lost soul.
The question came, “Are you ok? Do you need help?” “No. Yes”, wrenched out through sobs. This was my pattern. No…Yes…No…rinse…soak in more booze…repeat, and many more tears before I would accept real help. This was not the beginning or the end of being swept away into the flow of this life, this river I had created…drowning…surfacing…swimming…drowning. A river that raged and dragged me down holding me under until my lungs felt ready to explode or I literally exploded. Then I’d go limp, lose consciousness to sink, float, and surface again. There were deep stagnate pools in this river filled with memories that pulled me into the lurking rank stillness. Slowly sucking the life from me. I did my best to stay out of these places, but they’d move so slow with no current to carry a person forward or backward. Simply an endless, swirling, mind numbing drift.
That night, at that moment, I reached for the lifeline, of the handle to the back door of a Ford Explorer, and got in. The driver was silent. The passenger spoke, “Is there somewhere safe we can take you?” she whispered.
Even when my plan sucked, I always had a plan and I had already thought this one out. At first, I thought I’d walk all the way to his house. Then I decided I’d call him to come get me when I got closer. “The first gas station with a pay phone when we reach town.” I replied. I made a call from a pay phone that night. I laugh about it today. That confirms that this was a lifetime ago. I was walking home on a cold winter night in the middle of almost nowhere with no cell phone, no way for anyone to know where I was. I had lied to the friends I was with at the bar we had driven to after our party at home grew boring.
We were miles from home. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to go home. They wanted to stay. When I decided I wanted to leave and they asked “How are you going to get home?”, I told them I was calling him to pick me up. Another lie. I knew what I was up to as I threw myself an internal pity party. Things hadn’t gone well with us earlier in the night and things hadn’t been going well for a while mostly due to my behavior. I mean he was human and had participated in our dance in his own way, adding fuel to the fire but these days I can only focus on my side of the street. Where was I wrong? What were my mistakes?
I pretended like I made a call and then acted all perky about how he would be picking me up soon. In my mind I toyed with the idea that he was done with me. Finally, done with me. I burned with shame to think of the hell I regularly put him through and the hell I now found myself in. I kept asking myself, “Why wasn’t he ever done with me? Would tonight be the night?”
There was a quiet conversation going on in the front seats as I sulked in the back. I learned they were brother and sister, these two angels. Going where? Doing what? They never said. She talked to me. Small talk. Nothing memorable. He drove. The Lion King soundtrack played, and Elton John’s voice carried a harmony of hope. “Can you feel the love?” Over and over. “No not really, Elton. Not right now.”
We reached the gas station. I got out. “Will you be ok?” one last question from the woman that rode shotgun, her kindness penetrated my eyes, burned through me. I smiled with a shrug of the shoulders, “Sure.”, in my people pleasing voice tainted with phoniness that probably stunk like the booze oozing out of my pores. I turned to the pay phone and made the call. The angels drove away. Thank God. The divine intervention was wearing on me. It would wear on me for years. And then one day I would understand it had always been there, caring for me, protecting me and I would fully accept it.
I closed my eyes and pictured safety on the other line. There to pick up. Always there to pick up and pick me up. Hold me. Love me. Wipe the tears. I already felt his presence. He’d wrap me in a big bear hug, cocooning my tiny body with his massive muscular build. His beard rough and familiar like a favorite blanket against my face. Shame and sobs wracked my body as he answered and knew it was me. He didn’t say it, but I heard it in his tone, concern frosted with seriously, WTF. “Where are you?” “At the gas station on 19th. Please, come get me.” “I’ll be there soon.”
I sat on the curb looking at the cigarette butts in the parking lot, the random oil stains patching a pattern together. I smelled gasoline and wished for a cherry slushy spiked with rum. The truck pulled up. Boots and legs like tree trunks emerged. I lifted myself to my feet. Stood at the curb swaying. He towered over me. This was the feature that first drew me to him. The height. The solidness. The tangible strength and confidence.
In the parking lot on that winter night, I looked up and up and up until I met his eyes. Twinkling, golden brown sugary eyes. A smile mixed with sadness and relief that I stood in front of him. A brow furrowed with emotion that I could never quite read.
Like other people in my life who drifted with me during the darkness, this one would come and never really go. They’ve all haunted me over the years. In dreams. In memories. In the times I drank to drown it all out. In the moments I’ve felt I didn’t deserve love. Those are few and far between these days. I was lucky to get the good people. The ones who even while they were being dragged into my self-imposed prison managed to help me stay out of the solitary confinement where my demons lived, the ones that managed to stay on the fringe and keep me safe and alive in the moments I wanted to die. The ones who stuck with me through all the years of drinking, hitting my bottom and finally learning how to navigate the river that I had created. Now I can hit the rapids, use the eddies, and enjoy what’s reflected in those still pools.
He stepped toward me, and it’s exactly as I imagined. I’m safe, embraced, loved, the tears are wiped away. I feel I don’t deserve it, any of it, but tonight I’ll take it. I get in the truck and know I’m going home to a release of everything I’m holding. Then deep sleep wrapped in arms with the strength of oak roots anchoring me to a place I feel like I’ll never belong. Just like I didn’t belong on that highway when two angels came along and carried me away.