Years ago a friend from college, Doug McAllen, invited me to join him on a special road trip. He was going up to see his older sister and wanted to make it a fun experience. The energy in his voice was compelling as he talked about what he had in mind.
He wasn’t describing a fantasy excursion that could never be real, but something better: a relaxed and pleasant adventure. We planned to be gone for several days, possibly a week.
I immediately agreed to join him on the trip. We had finished university just a month earlier and neither of us had found new jobs as yet. We were still living on what remained of our stipends. A kind of dim cloud had been hanging over me at the thought of not seeing my friends ever again. We had scattered to the ends of the earth, as we knew would happen. Those days of adventure, deep friendship and freedom had been the richest time in my life, some of the greatest memories I would ever have. I’d been sad for many long days.
So, naturally, I was excited to spend this extra time with Doug. It was clear to me that we were going to have a blast. It felt like we were still in school! Dim cloud? Gone.
On the appointed day we stowed our things in the trunk of his car. We had packed small duffels and a couple of day packs. We knew how to travel light. The simplicity of that lifestyle is great: it forces us to trust the circumstances and focus on the experience. I’d learned that these were the only things that mattered.
We started out early, before dawn. As we rode the smooth blacktop, threading through thick forested hills, we watched the sun slowly rise up through the trees. It made me want to stop time.
After several hours we stopped at a diner along the road for breakfast. The coffee was good – strong and hot. We ate soul food – at least our version of it – and avoided any talk of where we thought life might take us. After a while (there was no rush), we climbed back into the car and headed upstream again. It was probably just me, but we seemed to travel the rest of that day through country that elevated my perception of the beauty of life itself.
As the sun was descending toward late afternoon, we came into a small, clean, pleasant-looking town. Our eyes moved over every bit of architecture, flora, and fauna that went by.
Finally, we arrived at her door: Doug’s older sister, Joanne. She had agreed to let us stay with her. Doug hadn’t seen her for over a year. During the drive up he’d talked about her. She had an excellent career and had a comfortable lifestyle. “She isn’t married yet,” was the way Doug had put it. He’d shared a few stories about their childhood that were fun to hear.
“Welcome!” she said as we entered the house. It was a two-story colonial-looking red brick affair, two doric columns guarding the portico. Thriving shrubs in large urns adorned either side the double doors, with knobs made of burnished brass. The place looked sturdy but not blockish. It was nicely adorned but not overdone in Victorian frills.
We set our things in the guest bedrooms. Doug hadn’t mentioned children, but photos of three young people were on the walls and sideboard. Two girls and a boy, all of them handsome and intelligent looking. It was clear that Joanne lived alone. I had assumed she was single and had never been married. Perhaps that was the case, although I doubted it.
I was taken immediately by Joanne’s appearance: she didn’t look nearly old enough to have three grown children. It was also clear where her kids had gotten their looks. I’m not ashamed to say it: Joanne was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. It wasn’t a magazine beauty, either; it was the attractiveness confidence of a woman who who knew exactly who she was.
We stayed there for most of a week, taking day trips while Joanne worked. We usually met up in the evening as she was getting home. The first two evenings she prepared delicious meals for us. She seemed capable and comfortable with the occupations of hospitality. The rest of the time we fended for ourselves, enjoying the local cafes and pubs. During that entire week it was increasingly difficult to take my eyes off Joanne. She had to be at least twenty years older than Doug or I, possibly more. He hadn’t said, and my eyes didn’t care. There was a natural agelessness about her that was captivating.
When it was time to head home I felt the same as I had since graduation: sad that the time was ending and wishing we could stay longer…or that time would slow down. I liked Joanne very much. Apart from her thoughtful ways and natural beauty, there was an intelligent grace about her that was just as attractive as her dark blue eyes and wavy dark hair. I thought we could be great friends. I thought perhaps one day I might kiss her. I secretly hoped she would invite us to stay longer.
But as we sat talking that last day (it was a Sunday), she said, “Well, it’s time for you both to be on your way, huh? I need to get on with things here, and you need to make plans for the rest of your life.”
I was stunned. I had never heard anyone talk that way. If she noticed the look on my face at that moment, she never gave it away.
Later it occurred to me that her forthrightness perfectly matched the rest of her, but I couldn’t see it at that moment. All I felt was deflation and pain. She was dismissing us summarily – maybe not out of spite or relief to have us gone, but simply out of a basic truth: life moves on.
Still, for months afterward it was impossible for me not to feel I had been deprived of what should have been a wonderful opportunity. But it would be years before I realized I had been spared what may very well have been a living hell of my own making.