I sometimes wonder, at every fork in the road of my life, would I be as happy as I am now? Of course, the definition of happy is all relative to where you are in your life at any one time. But I tend to over think the decisions I’ve made in my life. If I hadn’t stopped taking piano lessons at twelve, would I be a virtuoso now? If I had gone on that movie audition that my theater teacher said I was a shoo-in for, would I be an actress now? If I hadn’t decided to move to Las Vegas three years ago would I have even met my future husband as easily as I had?
I met him exactly forty-eight hours before I was supposed to get married to my former math professor. I met him at a very important point in my life. This is my story.
* * *
I was struggling with bags from Target again. Damn, I love that store. But the one closest to my house didn’t have the clothes I needed for the honeymoon. When I get nervous, I shop. Usually for stuff I already have. Ryan says it’s one of my more endearing qualities. Of course, he made that keen observation early in our relationship, before spending his first and last afternoon shopping with me. That was before a huge final exam in Psychology (which I passed, thank God).
The Target I ended up buying the vast array of t-shirts, jeans, and other girlie items was on a bad side of town. But it was bright daylight, so I just kept my chin up, made sure to keep to myself, and walked back to my Toyota from the front doors.
I didn’t see them from the corner of my eye.
“Heyyy,” said a creepy male voice from my right side. There were two guys about my age, one black, one Hispanic, nicely dressed, but there was a look in the eye of the one who spoke to me.
I glanced quickly, and walked a little bit faster.
“Where you going, little sister?” he said, as they caught up with me. I hate when other minorities feel it appropriate to call each other by demeaning nicknames like that. My almond-shaped brown eyes stayed the course, and clutched my car keys a little bit tighter. I was prepared to start swinging.
“Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?” said the other. “When someone says hello, you should say hello back.”
I ignored them, pressing the button to open the trunk of my car.
“Maybe we should teach her some manners,” said the first, reaching out to touch me.
This was like a bad Lifetime movie of the week. And like an appropriate cliché, his voice bellowed out from behind us.
“There you are honey!”
The three of us turned to look when a skinny, pale white kid, twentysomething, with a pair of piercing hazel eyes and a military style haircut, came bearing down on us.
He leaned over to help me with my bags, placing them in the trunk and taking the keys from my hand, squeezing it in the process in such a way to make me think… something. I don’t know what. My heart was pounding in my chest, but for some reason, I wasn’t afraid. Like when Rose first met the Doctor. It was one of those moments.
“I tell her I’m going to the bathroom and to wait for me, and she goes and leaves me like this!” he chortled, shutting the trunk.
“This is your girl?” said the Hispanic one.
“Can’t you tell by the ring on her finger?” the white kid said easily. “Good day gentlemen.” He unlocked the car doors and motioned for me to get in.
They nodded, and shuffled away.
He started the car, and we left the parking lot in one piece, getting back on the highway.
“I’m sorry. Who are you?” I asked.
“Your savior,” he joked. He made a lane change, and turned the radio on low.
“Um, where are we going?”
“I need a ride to the bus depot,” he said, as the scenery whipped by. After a few minutes, I realized that he was taking us downtown. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“A little bit.”
“Well, I didn’t want to miss my bus and since I saw you needed a little bit of help, I thought I would seize the day, and all that.”
“You’re not – kidnapping me, are you?” I was debating on whether or not to grab the knife my dad gave me that was hiding in the glove compartment above my knees.
“No. All I need is a ride. Then you’ll never have to see me again.”
“I suppose it’s the least I could do, since you did save my life.” Why the hell was I being so calm? There was something about this guy, and I didn’t know what.
* * *
Halfway to the bus station, I had to take stock of the situation. There is a strange man in my car. I have a cell phone, and a knife, to protect myself if necessary. However, he has not made a single move, or said anything but sung along with the radio.
“What’s your name?” I inquired.
“Ahh, no names,” he said with a wry smile. He had a nice smile.
“Why not?” I asked. “My name is…”
“No names,” he repeated, leaning over to turn the radio louder. It was “Buddy Holly” by Weezer. I hadn’t heard that song in ages. He sang along, slightly off-key but obviously enjoying it.
I sat back in my chair, as the depot loomed out from the busy downtown street. “How far are you going?”
“Southern California. I have some business there.”
“Why?” he asked, looking at me from the corner of his eye.
We pulled up to the parking lot of the bus depot in one piece. He shut the engine off and handed me the keys. After I took them, he kept his hand outstretched and I shook it politely.
“Thank you miss. Good luck with your wedding.”
He opened the door and got out. I hesitated and unbuckled my seatbelt to switch to the driver’s seat.
“Wait!” I yelled after his retreating form. “How did you know I’m only engaged?”
He stopped and turned around. “Let’s just say I know an engagement ring when I see it. Good day,” he said curtly, with a nod of his head.
“Wait!” I yelled again.
He turned around with a crooked smile. He really did have a nice smile.
“Why,” I began. “Why don’t I just – take you to Southern Cali?”
“Wouldn’t your fiancé mind?” he replied.
I shrugged. “Maybe. But the way I figure, you can ride in a nice car, or smelly bus. I know it’s a Toyota, so it’s not much, but I think a clean Toyota is a vast improvement over public transportation.”
He smiled, and came towards me. Then he leaned in to look deeply into my eyes. It was like he was looking inside me. “Are you sure?” he said, his voice low.
I almost lost my nerve, but I nodded.
“Are you sure you’re sure?” he repeated. He smelled really nice. Come to think of it, that was an odd observation to make, but mind you, you think of these things in retrospect.
I nodded because I had suddenly lost my will to speak.
* * *
We drove in silence for the hour it took us to get to the state line. Just then, the highway station began playing “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears. He started singing under his breath, and feeling fearless, I joined him. He smiled, nodded, and kept singing, his voice getting louder. We sang the whole song together at the top of our lungs, completely off-key, as the lights of the city became a speck in the distance that we had put between us and it.
The DJ started speaking after the song when my fearlessness got the best of me. “You have to tell me your name,” I said eagerly.
“What did I tell you? No names,” he replied. “Do I have to turn the stereo on louder?”
We stopped for gas almost three hours later. We sang most of the time; he didn’t seem keen on talking. I went inside to pay, and he stayed by the pump. I decided to stock up on snacks and soda, since I wasn’t quite sure where we were going. Nor did I know how long it would take for us to get there.
“I didn’t know what you wanted, so I got a little bit of everything,” I said, holding up the cheap plastic bags as a peace offering.
“I’m down,” he replied. “Thing gets good gas mileage, huh?” The pump clicked just then.
We hit the road in silence again, only this time it was filled with sounds of crunching chips and slurping soda noises.
* * *
I fell asleep somewhere between where we stopped for gas and where we ended up. It was in a relatively nice neighborhood, in the L.A. area for sure. I could tell by the faint smog cloud on the horizon. It gave that familiar burning feeling in everything you saw. The air was different too. I hadn’t been to California in so long though. Maybe that’s what prompted me to encourage this car thief to come with me? Or was it the other way around? I don’t remember now. It’s been so long.
But no matter how many times you’ve left and come back, you never forget that you’ve been to California before, even if it was a dream.
“I have to run in really quick, and then we can leave,” he said, pulling into the driveway of a house that looked like it had seen a ton of war stories. “You can come inside if you want.”
“No, that’s okay. I’m going to sit here with the doors locked and my dad’s knife, if you don’t mind.”
He laughed. “Suit yourself.” He unfolded his long legs out into the driveway and left me alone. He rang the doorbell, and the door opened. An older, dark-skinned woman greeted him with a smile and a hug.
It felt like hours before he came out. There were two curtained windows facing out into the street, and both had perfect views of the driveway. One window was lit the whole time, and I could hear muffled sounds of laughter and conversation. But the other window was dark.
That is until a light lit up the dark room. Someone pulled back the curtain to stare outside. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman, child or adult. But they sat on the windowsill and I got a sense of incredible sadness from them. Then I felt them searching the car with their eyes. I scrunched down in the seat, and willed the nearby street light not to show me there.
He came out soon after, alone. No last goodbyes from whomever he was powwowing with in there, but he came back with a big goofy grin on his face.
He silently started the car, and sang along with “Janie’s Got a Gun” on the radio.
“Thank you,” he said, as he pulled out into the traffic from the street.
“What for?” I asked.
“For this. You didn’t have to do this, offer me a ride and everything,” he explained. “I’m surprised you did.”
“I know I didn’t. But there was something about you…” I trailed off.
He put the car in neutral at the first stop light we came upon. “Something about me?” he said gently.
“It’s hard to explain,” I replied.
“Not until you tell me your name,” I said, looking at him with my eyebrow raised.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Do you want to go back to Vegas?”
I looked at the clock. It was nine already. If we went back to Vegas, we would get there by midnight at the earliest. “Why don’t we just rent a room for the night?”
Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow at me. “A double, you pervert.”
“There’s a Best Western around the corner.”
“If we split it, I think I can pay for half.”
“Split it? That wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of me, would it? I’ll pay.”
“So gracious,” I said with faux fawning.
“At your service, madame.”
* * *
We got the hotel room without further incident. We bought necessary toiletries from the hotel gift shop, and went to the room. At my Target spree, I had enough clothes to last me two weeks if necessary. I ripped the tags off and watched the local news as he commandeered the bathroom first.
I had to keep my eyes off of him as he came out wearing only a towel around his waist, and his clothes in hand.
“Your turn,” he said, grinning, tossing his clothes on the other bed in the room.
“Indeed,” I said, trying to sound as neutral as possible.
I locked the door behind me, and slipped out of my clothes. I let the hot water wash away the unnatural sexual thoughts that seized me. ‘You don’t know this kid,’ the voice in my head counseled. ‘I know,’ said the other one. Like the proverbial devil and angel on the shoulder bit, the two voices went at it as I soaped up and cleaned off. They couldn’t come up with a solution – or even a compromise – so I just finished showering and shut them off along with the shower head.
“Good night,” I said quickly. I had dressed in the bathroom, and refused to look at him. He wore nothing but a pair of men’s pajama
bottoms, the ones I had meant to give to Ryan for the honeymoon. I wanted nothing more than to run my hands over the stranger’s bare, muscled chest. This situation was straight out of a shitty romance novel. It was almost too perfect. Here we were, two nameless strangers in a hotel room, traveling from and towards a common goal.
“Why? Stay up and talk to me. I’m wide awake,” he said, stretching out on the bed and turning the television on low.
“Wide awake? After all that driving you did today?” I asked doubtfully.
“Yup. Actually, I’m really fuckin’ tired, but talking helps me calm down.”
“Okay,” I said, slipping under the covers but turning to stare at him.
“Let’s play a game. You have to answer every question I ask, and I’ll do the same. The only rule is you can never ask me my name.”
I raised an eyebrow at him, but said, “Okay, fine.”
“Good, I’ll start. Where you getting married?”
“In Henderson. At the Catholic church on Boulder Highway.”
I looked at him. “Where are you from?”
“I was born in Seattle and raised there until I was about eight. Then we moved to L.A. Then, fate brought me to Las Vegas.”
* * *
It went like that for a good twenty minutes. By the end – and I could tell it was the end because his voice was becoming heavy – I knew everything I wanted to know, from his favorite coffee (black, one sugar) to his favorite music (everything but country) to his favorite food (Indian). Everything but his name.
“Why won’t you tell me your name?” I began.
“I thought I said no names!”
“No, you said I could never ask your name. I asked ‘Why?’” I said.
“Touché,” he replied. “When you tell someone your name, you give them a part of you.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Your name is your identity, right?”
“And at the heart of it, it’s the one thing that you can be known as. No one can ever take that away from you, not even in death.”
“A little morbid, but all right. Still doesn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t want you to know because saying goodbye will be easier.”
I pondered that for a moment. He was right. Day after tomorrow, I was getting married. I didn’t have to see him ever again. Before he could ask me a question, my cell phone vibrated on the bedside table between us. I lunged for it.
It was Ryan.
“Honey, where are you?” he asked.
“Hi Ryan, I’m in California,” I replied, turning away from the stranger to face the wall.
“What? California? What are you doing there?”
“I – had to get away,” I replied.
“I don’t understand. Do you need me to come get you? What’s going on? You’ve got me worried sick.”
“Ryan, don’t worry. I’ll be back in town tomorrow.”
“What? You’re not coming home?” I could hear the worry in his voice.
“No love, I’m not. I’ll call you tomorrow when we leave.”
“We? Who’s we? Where are you? Who are you with?”
“Ryan, I can’t talk right now. I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said firmly.
“Honey, wait…” Ryan said as I pulled the phone away from my ear. I pressed End, and turned off the phone.
“He doesn’t know you took off?”
“It’s not like running away with you was something I planned. I would’ve called if I knew this was something I was going to do.” I looked at my phone and engagement ring, both looking sadly abandoned on the nightstand. I looked at him, looking for a distraction from his question. “When we first met, you said that you had seen a lot of engagement rings. How many times have you been engaged?”
“Officially? Four times. Unofficially, seven or eight.”
“Seven or eight?” I asked hesitantly.
“I had a tendency to propose marriage to women I had only known for a few hours. My sister said it was because I had a great need to get married. Our parents divorced when I was six, and both got married a few times between them. I kinda got it in my head that a wedding would fix everything bad in my life.”
“Yeah, that’s what they said when I explained why I proposed in the first place. A lot of them thought it was cute, endearing even, the rest of them thought it was creepy. Which is why I count them as unofficial engagements. They weren’t ready to be wives to someone so emotionally needy.”
This conversation was getting too heavy. “Favorite book?” I said after a prolonged silence.
“On the Road by Jack Kerouac. You?”
“This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen.”
“Whoa, I can’t answer that.”
“Why? I didn’t ask you who you lost your virginity to.” My face flushed. “I just asked who your first kiss was.”
“Okay, okay. Paul O’Connor in the third grade, on the way home from a Halloween party at school. You?”
“Adele Powers in kindergarten. Beneath the jungle gym. My very first engagement, actually.” We laughed, finally breaking the tense
air between us.
“You, if you’d let me.”
I looked at him bewildered. But I didn’t make a move towards him. We didn’t speak again for the rest of the night. I slept fitfully, and dreamlessly. Before I knew it, it was morning.
* * *
With little conversation, we got dressed. We had the free continental breakfast the hotel provided, checked out, and hit the road.
The radio began playing “American Pie” by Don McLean as we drove out of Los Angeles, and back home.
I saw the bright California sun shining fiercely in the rearview mirror as we drove away. It was as though the sun was trying to tell me something. I knew that when I came back, I would never look at her the same way again.
* * *
I woke up just as we were hitting the state line. “Henderson?” he asked as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. It was eleven in the morning.
We drove on in silence, listening to “All These Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers as we hit the hill that would propel us straight down and through the valley.
“How about Green Valley Ranch?” he asked.
An hour later, he pulled into the cramped parking lot of Green Valley Ranch and into a parking spot on the top floor.
“Is there somewhere I can drop you off?” I asked, speaking the longest sentence of the whole day.
“No. You’ve already done enough,” he replied. He shut off the engine and unlocked the door.
I placed a warm hand on his arm, causing his hand to linger over the driver’s side door handle. “Please, before you go, I have to know your name.”
He sagged. “Do you have to?”
“I’ve been with you for over twenty-four hours. I think I’m entitled to know your name.”
He shook his head, and got out of the car without another word.
“What the hell?” I yelled, throwing open the passenger door. I lunged at him, angry, for some reason. I hadn’t slept with him, and he didn’t take advantage of our situation in the room last night. I’m not quite sure why I was so angry.
“Just tell me!” I screamed. He turned and took the blows I inflicted calmly. Tourists were looking at all the noise we were causing. “Why can’t you tell me, you coward? Bastard! I hate you!” And in moments, he restrained me as gently as he could, and took me back to my car.
“Get in,” he barked, gently pushing towards the passenger side. “They’ll call security.”
I did as he said, because I knew he was right. He started the car again and left the casino parking lot, heading farther down the 215 into Henderson.
He took the exit for Boulder City, and we listened to “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles in silence.
He finally stopped at a quiet parking lot off Horizon and the 95. He turned to me. “I knew you were getting married. I didn’t want to interfere with whatever you had going on with Ryan, is that his name?”
I nodded, emotionally drained all of a sudden, like a bathtub with its plug pulled.
“And I knew if you knew my name, you would always have my memory. I don’t want you to have my memory. Memories ruin lives.”
“Is that what you think? How many times have you had your heart broken?”
He refused to answer.
“So you just want to add me to your pile of bones, is that right?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, sweetheart. I just – I just thought it would be easier.”
“You thought wrong,” I said, turning away.
“So what happens now?”
“You get the fuck out of my car, that’s what.”
He did as he was told. I didn’t even get out of the car; I scrambled over the gear shift and drove away. I didn’t look in the rearview mirror this time.
* * *
I got hell when I got home. Poor Ryan. He seemed confused when I explained that I had to get away for a day. The stress of the wedding was getting to me; I had lied, and said I needed a getaway. He was still confused when I said “we.” I laughed it off, and said me and my car. He knew I referred to my car as Rouge (in reference to her dark red color), and talked it as if it were a person sometimes.
And my family? They were furious. Ryan had called them to see if they knew where I was at. They had blown up my phone, filling my voice mail box with messages of increasing levels of pure fury. They were happy I had come home in one piece.
So the wedding went ahead without a hitch.
* * *
I was late to my own wedding. Can you believe it? Someone had misplaced my bouquet, so we tore apart the house that Ryan and I had bought together, our first official purchase as a couple.
We roared down Boulder Highway in the limo to get to St. Peter’s on time. Luckily me and my bridal party got there in one piece. We hopped out of the limo, and made our way for the side chapel, which had been set up by my aunts earlier in the day for our use.
I huffed and puffed as everyone took off for the chapel. My niece Teddy was helping me with my train. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him.
“Teddy? Go ahead and wait for me, okay? I’ll catch up.”
Teddy nodded. Bless her. She was so excited. This was her first wedding, her first chance at being a flower girl, and I was undoubtedly her favorite aunt, so she would do whatever I told her.
I stood and waited for him to come to me.
“You look beautiful.”
“Thank you,” I said politely.
“I don’t want to ruin anything. But you’re right. I owe you my name, at least.”
“What about that whole spiel from the other night?”
“I think we’re past that. My name is Bill. Bill Sumner.” He stuck his hand out. I took it and shook it firmly.
“Nice to meet you. My name is Kay.”