“She’s the best in the East!” John hooted yet again, pounding on the dashboard with a fist. He was well into getting-on-my-nerves territory with his repeated expression of near-frenzied anticipation, although it didn’t seem to bother Roger, who smiled briefly and remained focused on navigating the I-95 morning traffic.
I decided to say something to John — his excitement (and its associated uncouth hooting) would assuredly only grow during the remaining two hours of our road trip.
“John?” No answer; I must have been drowned out by the road noise and the radio.
“John!” I repeated, with more force.
“Yes, Alan?” he replied, turning around to look at me in the back seat.
“Hey, do you mind not…” I kind of shrugged my shoulders, and half-raised my hands, fingers splayed. “…not being so crude about it?”. John stared at me for a long moment, before breaking into a decidedly mean laugh.
“Crude? Are you kidding me?? Crude???”
“Alan, we are driving a hundred and fifty miles from Maryland to New Jersey to meet up with a girl who is going to have sex with all three of us. At the same time. I don’t want to hear you complain about crude!” I sighed, and played the conversation forward in my mind. John wasn’t going to relent; this whole affair was really his doing, and as a friend of Roger’s and only an acquaintance of John’s, I was somewhat of a fifth wheel (metaphorically, but certainly not mathematically), so I decided to change the subject.
“How do you know this Samantha, again, John?”
“It’s Sammi, not Samantha. And she’s a friend of my cousin. I met her over Christmas when I was in Jersey visiting family.” I didn’t reply immediately, wanting to avoid the next, obvious, conversational topic with John in which he would enumerate the number, frequency, and quality of his sexual encounters with Sammi.
“This can’t be a normal situation” I said, more to myself than anyone else.
“What do you mean?” John asked.
“Well, I mean we’re driving all the way to New Jersey to meet with her. It’s not like I…we…know people like this back at home.”
“Who cares if it’s normal. It’s freakin’ awesome!” he replied, pounding the dashboard again while concluding his sentence with an especially energetic “She’s the best in the East!”
Later, after many tedious conversations with John, we finally exited the highway. As we did so, John looked through his bag for a few moments before turning to me.
“So, Alan, do you have your “gift” for Sammi?”, he asked, using his fingers as air quotes.
“Yeah, I brought something.” I replied “but why are you using air quotes? Are they gifts, or “gifts”? I mean, if they’re “gifts” then they’re not really gifts.”
“Hey, what’s wrong with giving a girl a present?” Roger asked, joining in the conversation.
“Nothing!” I hastily replied. “It’s pretty normal, and even a good idea, to give your girlfriend a present, but she’s not our girlfriend, she’s more like a…” I paused, and metaphorically swerved away from the oncoming dark and unpleasant conclusion . “…it just feels very transactional.”
“You’re overthinking things, Al” John replied, with a bit of an edge. “You just need to need to be in the moment, relax, and enjoy it. After all, she *is*…?” gesturing at me to fill in the blank.
“I know, I know…the best in the East” I answered, annoyed at being forced into saying it.
Sammi lived in a grey, weathered ranch house in a neighborhood of similar homes; small yards separated by chain-link fences. Roger pulled the car into the driveway, parking behind a Chevy sedan that despite its age, looked to be in remarkably good shape.
“Here we are!” John announced, unnecessarily so in my opinion. “Ready for some fun?”
Roger and John practically bounded out of the car, while I followed them up the driveway and into the carport at a decidedly slower pace. By the time I reached the kitchen door, Sammi had already opened it and begun greeting John and Roger. She was shorter than I’d expected, blonde with dimpled cheeks, wearing a white logo t-shirt and pink PINK shorts. She was definitely attractive, I had to give John credit for that, at least.
“Hi John!!” Sammi enthusiastically greeted him, putting her forearms around his neck and giving him a long and deep kiss. After detaching himself, John dug into his bag and handed over a colorful tissue-wrapped package to Sammi.
“Hi, this is for you.” Sammi nodded, surreptitiously weighing it in her hand as if to assess its worthiness, and smiled at him.
“Thanks!”, she replied, doing an adequate job at feigning surprise. She turned to Roger, who introduced himself, had his muscular arms complimented, and received an equally generous hello kiss. He blushed, and handed Sammi a similarly-wrapped, similarly-sized package. She smiled, nodded, and turned to me.
“So, hi! You must be Alan!”, looking at me with intense blue eyes, as she reached toward me for a hug.
“Yes, hi” I said, unconsciously taking a half step forward, drawn by sheer social (and perhaps animal) magnetism before I stopped myself short. I stood frozen by a momentary, horrible vision of Roger and John (mostly John) endlessly relating and replaying this group encounter to a variety of audiences, a dark strand of film stretching forward in time. I closed my eyes and chose my pathway. “I…no…listen. Uh, I’m not coming inside.” The three of them stared at me silently, unmoving. “Roger, give me the keys, I’m going for a drive. I’ll be back in a while.”
Sammi’s town had a surprisingly large, green park, with some hilly wooded trails that made for a pleasant and invigorating hike. And I found an independent burger place, drawn in by its enticing aroma from nearly a quarter-mile away. I think they’d invested in an extra-powerful exhaust fan and let it do their marketing for them.
I walked in, immediately discombobulated by the cashier who bore an uncanny resemblance to Sammi (including dimples!). I glanced around, starting to sweat just a little, but fortunately none of the other patrons or employees looked at all like Sammi. This was not going to be my own personal Tell-Tale Heart.
“Hi, can I help you?” she smiled at me. “Audrey”, read her name tag.
“Oh, uh, hi Audrey.” I forced myself to breathe, and smiled back. “Yes, please! I’d like, oh, eight cheeseburgers with everything, and six orders of fries.” Roger and John could eat, and I was getting hungry too. Plus, Sammi might want a burger. Audrey stared at me for a moment, before asking, deadpan:
“For here? Or to go?” I looked at her, and we both started laughing at the same time.
“You’re funny, Audrey – it’s for a group of friends.” She winked at me, and replied
“I figured!” After she’d rung me up and called in the order, she returned to the counter where I was waiting.“So, are you from around here?” she asked me, half-leaning on the counter.
“No, ah, I’m from Maryland. My friends and I drove up for the day”
“Oh, what are you doing in town?” What, indeed? I quickly chose a pathway of dishonesty; it was the right choice.
“We’re helping my friend’s uncle move. We all know him from Maryland.”
“Oh, well that’s very nice of you guys!” Audrey replied, believing my little white lie.
“Yep, we’re – I’m a nice guy!”
“I can tell” she replied, flirting as she handed me the two bags of food. “See you around!”
I smiled as I walked out the door, looking back one last time. Goodbye, Audrey
I drove back to Sammi’s house, and sat on the trunk of Roger’s car with the bag of food next to me. It was a warm and sunny day, and this spot was a far better place than, say, going inside the house. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to play this out. Should I knock on the door? What if they were still in the middle of…something? I didn’t want to interrupt. In any case, l was hungry so I pulled out cheeseburger and took a bite. It was as delicious as the enticing aroma had promised, and I mentally saluted Audrey as I took a second bite. At that exact moment, a well-used white van pulled into the driveway, “Macpherson Electrical Contractors: Residential and Commercial”, and parked to the left of Roger’s car.
I sat, frozen, as I heard the driver slowly get out and walk around the truck. I gently put my burger down onto its wrapper next to me on the trunk, swallowed, and waited. No choice. A middle-aged man in jeans and a dark blue work shirt appeared in front of the van, his right forearm in a bright white cast suspended on a sky blue sling. As soon as we made eye contact he paused, rubbed his handlebar mustache with his left hand (still wearing a hospital bracelet), and spoke to me.
“Who are you, and why the hell are you in my driveway?” I heard the expected anger and aggression, but his voice was surprisingly weary, cracking slightly. I replied almost without thinking, choosing a pathway that scared me a little bit even as I spoke.
“It looks like you’ve had a bad day.” The man nodded, and seemed to deflate just a touch as he looked down at his right arm. “I got some cheeseburgers” I continued, reaching in and offering him one from the bag. “Why don’t you sit down and have one? I think that’d be better than going inside right now.” To my surprise, he gingerly sat down on trunk next to me and took the offered burger. This was a far better outcome than (for example) him punching me in the face.
He took a bite of burger and closed his eyes before nodding at me and quietly stating
“This is good.” I nodded back, and we sat silently, eating together. Finally, he spoke. “How old are you?”
“Eighteen” I replied
“Just like my daughter”, nodding toward his house. Pause. “Do you ever get in trouble with your parents?” I half smiled. This was a weird situation, and I decided just to fully embrace it, and be myself.
“Ever? That’s a pretty strong word. I think every normal teenager would have to say yes.”
“Fair enough…but I think you know what I mean.” I paused.
“Yes. I’m into computers, and I recently got suspended for hacking the school Wifi network – which isn’t what I did at all! The whole thing was based on a lack of technical understanding about what I was doing, which was passively monitoring network traffic just to learn from it. Anyway, my parents refused to take my side with the school administration, and then they took away my computers.” He nodded, prompting me to continue. “I think they wanted me to see that actions have consequences, but what I really learned was that authorities will punish people just to demonstrate their power, especially related to things they don’t understand, or simply fear.”
“Have you tried to talking to your parents about this angle?” I crossed my arms, shook my head.
“It’s like talking to a wall.” He took the last bite of his burger, crumpling the wrapper and wiping his fingers with a napkin.
“I think you need to try, really try, to talk to them about this.” I thought quietly for a few moments before responding.
“You’re one hell of an insightful electrical contractor.” He shrugged.
“My job isn’t that mentally demanding. I have a lot of time at work where I can think. My dad died when I was 15 – lung cancer – and we never got the chance to understand each other.” I nodded quietly.
“What about you and Sammi?” He looked down at the ground.
“It’s not easy. It’s just her and me, and she’s…rebellious. Her mother isn’t part of our lives.” He glanced up at me, explaining this with a word: “Heroin”. I didn’t have an answer, and we sat quietly, until I asked him a question.
“Is this normal for her…having guests over like this?” He hesitated before replying.
“I…I don’t know. I think so. I’ve been afraid to ask.” I sensed some commotion behind me, and turned to see Roger and John in the shadow of the carport, whispering to one another before darting back inside. A few moments later, Sammi burst through the kitchen door with wet hair, sweatshorts and a t-shirt.
“Dad? What are you doing at home?” He got down from the trunk and held up his right arm, showing the cast to Sammi.
“I had an accident at work. The air compressor fell off the truck and I stupidly tried to catch it.”
“Oh my God, are you OK?” He smiled weakly.
“Well other than having a broken arm, I’m fine. But you and I need to talk. “
Sammi froze. I could see the gears turning in her head, considering pathways. Her father continued, gesturing to me with his good arm.
“Your friend here was nice enough to share a cheeseburger with me. But now it’s time for these boys to leave.”
Roger, John, and I quickly piled into the car, and drove off. I looked back as we turned the corner, and caught a glimpse of Sammi and her father hugging, leaning hard on one another. John broke the silence.
“Alan, I don’t know what you said to him, but I think you just saved us from getting our asses kicked.” I nodded, and replied quietly.
“Consider it my gift to you”
Author’s Notes: This story is a bit of a departure for me, as it’s centered primarily on character and feelings, with only a loose information security/hacker angle. Nonetheless, I’m happy with the results.