I drove away knowing I shouldn’t have. My foot eased off the accelerator, pressed down, then eased off again. In the rearview, the exhaust drifted up through frigid air creating a smoky curtain between my eyes and the shivering woman receding into the night. A few flakes of snow danced in the December darkness. Rounding the curve towards town, the bank sign flashed 13° F. She had hoped I was heading south on the interstate. She pleaded, saying that she needed to get to Concord. From there she’d go to Florida by bus or however. She’d just left her two kids with her parents; she’d run away and could never go back. She’d been walking for three hours and emphasized—her voice choked with urgency—that she was really, really cold. I apologized. I wasn’t going south.
A few years prior, I had lived car-less in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which wasn’t a problem since I got by riding the free bus around town. What made my car-less-ness a predicament was that I lived in a home on the side of a mountain about a mile off the bus route. I could cut the mile by two-thirds by tramping directly uphill, but being Colorado and winter, the hill I had to ascend was always getting buried under fresh snow. Twice-a-day, every day, for three months, I’d post-hole up and down the trail between home and bus stop, treading precariously, trying to avoid the inevitability of sinking hip-deep in the powder. Eventually the trail packed down and I developed a sense of satisfaction in my daily hikes, fancying this more elemental relationship with the natural world. I’m certain now that my gratification was firmly grounded in the knowledge that a warm bus or cozy home was waiting. Cold and snow are much easier to endure when comfort is close at hand.
Mid-April to mid-May is the cruelest month in Steamboat: mud season. When more than three-hundred inches of snow melts, mountains remain wet for weeks. While I had come to appreciate stomping through snow, I cultivated no interest in trudging through mud. I decided I’d rather treble the distance of my hike and take to the road than spend days with boots and pant cuffs brushed with the mountain’s brown palette.
And wouldn’t you know it, on my first trek up the steep incline of Fish Creek Falls Road, a friendly motorist stopped and offered me a ride. I thanked him and said he could drop me at the turn-off for Tamarack Drive. Once up the hill, I wouldn’t mind walking the flat and winding rest of the way home. But the driver insisted and delivered me to my doorstep, waving off my profusion of thanks as if his gesture had been no inconvenience.
In that muddy month, while the trail between bus stop and home dried to dust, I regularly caught rides up the hill. I never once jabbed a thumb towards traffic. Every ride I received was offered. Had I known Steamboat was populated by so many Samaritans, I’d probably have bummed rides all winter. But I didn’t know and so I never took those rides for granted.
The next October, after the first snows had fallen, I contemplated how three-hundred inches is another way to count twenty-five feet and how I faced not three months, but six, of cold trudging up and down, up and down. So I finally bought a car. Once mobile, I resolved to pick up anyone walking uphill. It just seemed like a nice thing to do.
Now I was living in Ashland, New Hampshire. There was no free bus; people drove. On the rare occasion I saw a pedestrian on the road, the thought always crossed my mind to offer them a ride, but I never failed to fabricate an excuse for passing them by. I wondered what had changed. The circumstances were certainly similar. The moral dilemma was the same. Maybe my imagination had fallen prey to our culture’s paranoia when it comes to hitchhikers: People walking along roads aren’t regular folks in trying circumstances. Hitchers are scapegraces. Creeps and weirdoes, at best. At worst? Axe murderers and serial rapists.
In the rearview I saw the woman scramble up the slope next to the I-93 overpass. She moved beyond the narrow frame of the mirror and out of sight. I leaned forward and raised myself in my seat to see if I could regain my view of her, but instead came face-to-face with the reflection of my own bespectacled eyes. In that moment of self-confrontation I considered what my girlfriend of two years would say about me picking up a strange woman. Then I imagined two scenarios. The first: a tired driver speeding along the dark highway, drearily veering towards the shoulder and unwittingly running her down. In the other, the woman hesitates on the high bridge over the cold, shallow Pemigewasset River just south. What might stop her, after having insisted she could never go back to her family, from making that promise an irreversible fact?
When I caught up with her, she stopped ambling south—toward the Pemigewasset, Concord, and Florida—and staggered to my car. I climbed out and approached her. She was weeping and shivering.
“I’m so cold,” she managed between tears and whimpers, drawing out the O’s for emphasis.
I said, “Get in.” Gentle but non-negotiable.
“Are you taking me to Concord?”
“No. I’m just not leaving you out here to freeze.”
“I’m not going home,” she insisted—as if I knew where she lived.
“We’re going to my house. You can warm up there and use the phone to call whoever you need to.”
In the car, she stormed through a disjointed account of her evening, alluding to arguments with her parents and her best friend. Beer was mentioned, along with a great day spent with her boyfriend before something had gone wrong. She gloved away tears and made a bewildering remark about getting fucked so hard that her nose might be broken. She mentioned her children, a four-year-old son and eighteen-month-old daughter whom she professed to be the center of her world. Now she’d left them with her parents, whom she reviled. Staring out the window, she affirmed, again and again, that she’d never return, that she wasn’t sure what happened, and that it would all be solved if she could just get to Florida to start a new life.
Nearing my apartment, she asked if I’d stop at the gas station and buy her a six-pack of Bud Light, saying the beer would calm her nerves. Knowing alcohol was the last thing she needed, I said I was broke, but did have some beer at home. I hoped she wouldn’t be interested in my dark, English-style homebrew. We pulled onto my street, and when she saw that my house lights were already on, she tensed in her seat. Her right hand clenched the door handle.
“Do you have a roommate?”
“Who is it?” she snapped.
“Brian,” I answered, realizing we hadn’t even introduced ourselves yet.
Her tension visibly eased. “It’s just that I knew a guy who used to live here. It’s a bad association.”
We got out of the car—back into the cold. As we crossed the lamplight shining through the front windows, I caught my first clear glimpse of her face. She was pretty—despite the dark circles under her eyes, which I would soon find out were bruises from something that had impacted her nose. I hesitated on the ramp up to the door.
“I’m Kevin.” I offered my hand.
She took it and said, “Angie,” then anxiously looked away.
Once inside, Angie kicked off her boots and shed her coat. I could see bare skin through the holes in her jeans. She stuffed her hands into the front pocket of her baggy sweatshirt and left the wool cap atop her head, which spilled a mess of sandy hair down her back and along the sides of her face.
“Let me get my phone so you can call someone,” I said.
Angie followed me into my room and immediately took a seat upon the queen mattress lying on the floor. I gave her the phone and some privacy.
My roommate, Brian, was in his room talking via internet phone to his girlfriend in Trinidad. I told him about our guest.
“Kevin picked up a crazy broad and brought her home,” Brian summarized into his headset.
I almost objected, anticipating the obvious interpretations that his tone implied. I wanted to make it clear that I was helping someone in need.
“Just wanted to give you a heads up,” I said instead and returned to my room.
Angie was still on my bed, her hands clutching the phone, her legs stretched out before her.
“Any luck?” I said.
She looked up at me. “There’s no one to call.”
“There must be somebody who could give you a place to stay.”
Hiding her face in her hands, Angie reclined onto her back. I almost sat on the bed to offer her comfort—then I thought better of it. Instead I invited her to join me in the living room.
She curled up on the couch, covering herself with a throw that had been draped over the armrest. I sat in the swiveling rocker near the big picture window that looked out on the front yard. Except for the TV, the room was quiet. Angie didn’t care what we watched. I thumbed through channels and eyed her to see if her expression betrayed any interest in the sampled programs. She remained sullen but seemed oddly comfortable.
She snuggled further beneath the blanket.
“Do you want to talk about anything? I mean, if you feel like venting.”
“How about that beer? You said you had beer.”
Reluctantly, I got up and went to my room. I returned with two one-liter bottles of bitter. “All I have is some homebrew I made. They’re warm. I’ll put them in the fridge for a while.”
“You made it?” She seemed annoyed. “What’s it like?”
“Oh, just a dark ale, kind of sweet, kind of bitter.”
“So not like Bud Light?”
“No, not like Bud Light.” I laughed but Angie didn’t.
“Put it in the freezer,” she said. “It’ll chill faster.”
Or outside, I thought.
We sat and watched TV, and I encouraged Angie to continue making phone calls. The few times she reached someone, the conversations quickly became arguments and ended with an abrupt disconnect. She tried to call her ex-step-dad, with whom she had grown-up and was supposedly on good terms. He lived in Massachusetts—a good three hours away—which didn’t seem promising as a source of immediate aid. Call after call, message upon message, Angie never got through to him. She levied complaints against his new wife, who didn’t like her for reasons that remained unexplained. Between calls Angie cradled the phone beneath the fleece throw as if it were hers. I made a mental memo to make sure I got it back.
We opened the beer and began drinking faster than we should have. I knew alcohol wouldn’t help her in the way she needed or in the way she thought it might. The ale was still a bit warm. I didn’t mind, but Angie hated it.
“It’s potent though,” she conceded. “I like potent.”
I relented to her pleas and added two more liters to the fridge.
Brian joined us at intervals when his girlfriend was away from her computer. More than once, Angie asked whether Brian or I had any weed. When we told her we didn’t smoke, she pouted then began smoking cigarettes even though I told her I preferred she didn’t. I couldn’t very well tell her to go back out into the cold.
When her step-dad finally called back, he tactfully said that she couldn’t stay with him and that he couldn’t help her out with any money, but to keep in touch. With every other resource exhausted, Angie asked if I could lend her bus fare to Concord or to Florida. “It’s just like forty bucks.”
I said no and Angie cried some more. I invited her to crash for the night if she needed to. Brian got up and went back to talk to his girlfriend.
The more we drank, the more Angie’s story emerged. Her mood brightened too, and she tossed the blanket aside. “I’m getting hot,” she proclaimed, and shed her sweatshirt. She was twenty-nine—a year older than I—and lived with her mom and her mom’s third husband. They had a house across from Squam Lake’s Golden Pond, only a few miles from Ashland. Angie and her kids lived upstairs. I got the impression her family had money. Houses near and on Golden Pond—setting of the classic Henry Fonda film—are generally big and desirable.
“Do you work—um, I mean, or do you stay home and take care of your kids?”
“I used to be a model, you know,” she said, with a kind of smile. A nice kind of smile. “I’m still really pretty—I look like shit now with my busted nose and ratty hair. When my hair’s combed out it’s beautiful.” She doffed her wool cap and hastily attempted to arrange her tangled locks.
It seemed really important for her to make it clear to me that she was pretty, because she said it again. She even stood up and, cinching her loose tank top and baggy jeans closer to her body, posed in profile to highlight her admittedly nice figure. “And I appeared on four episodes of the Drew Carey Show.” She curled up on the couch again. “That was like five years ago.”
“Wow.” I tried to sound sincere, though not overly impressed.
“I was one of Drew’s short-lived girlfriends.”
The way she said it, I knew it was the truth.
She wouldn’t say what had happened to her acting and modeling career, but I guessed it ended when she became pregnant with her son. I got the impression that Angie truly wanted me to see her for what she was, or, at least, what she once was.
Her momentary cheer disappeared; we drank more beer; she went off to the bathroom.
When Angie came back, she asked for another beer. I topped us off and, when Brian appeared, poured one for him. I’d been reluctant to confront Angie about the specifics of what had happened earlier, but Brian began questioning her with his characteristic directness. Angie’s responses seemed honest, though some details she provided were vague. She had spent much of the day with her long-time, on-again-off-again boyfriend, who was also her kids’ father. Her family and her best friend despised the boyfriend. Angie admitted to loving him even though he wasn’t a good dad and wasn’t always good to her. She asked Brian and me if we knew what it was like to love someone.
Yes, we said. We knew.
It had been a good day, she said. Like it used to be. She and her boyfriend had walked by the lake and gone out for lunch. There’d been lots of laughing, a little drinking, some smoking. At some point an argument arose, though she wouldn’t pin down about what. He’d pushed her around some. She didn’t want to fight so she tried to make up. They had sex. It wasn’t clear how she had hurt her nose (A fist? A wall? A headboard?).
“Why do you want to be with an asshole who abuses you?” Brian demanded.
“You can’t let people treat you like that,” I urged.
She mumbled about him being her kids’ father, about loving him, about knowing deep down that he loved her too. She wanted to show us that love was bigger than any single act.
“The love I know doesn’t come with black eyes,” I said.
Angie grew quiet, stared at the television. Brian was annoyed; he went back to his room to try and resume the conversation with his girlfriend. Angie asked about my girlfriend. “Do you love her?”
I hesitated. “Yes. Yes, I love her.”
“Where is she? If you love her, why isn’t she here right now?”
“She’s in England, studying abroad. She’ll be back in twenty-three days.”
“When did she leave?”
“Two months ago.”
“Do you miss her?”
“Have you been faithful?”
“My boyfriend isn’t faithful.”
“Well there’s another reason you shouldn’t be with him.”
But she was done with that subject. “So you haven’t been laid in over two months?”
“Damn. I couldn’t go that long. I like sex too much.”
Brian’s girlfriend must’ve not been around because he returned with his beer. She questioned us both about sex. Was it hard remaining faithful to girlfriends in countries thousands of miles away?
“If you love someone you don’t violate that trust, no matter how difficult it is.” Brian said.
And I thought: this from someone who just last night returned from two weeks with his girlfriend in tropical Trinidad. But when Angie prodded me for an answer, Brian interrupted and made it clear she’d taken her line of inquiry far enough.
Angie continued with her story. After the fight with her ex, Angie’s best friend had given her a ride home. Hints surfaced that their relationship wasn’t entirely platonic—sex never simplifies situations. The two women argued all the way. Upon arrival home, Angie’s mother and her husband confronted her about her lack of maternal responsibility. Angie insisted that she loved her kids and that she was a good mom. Eventually, the argument ended with Angie asserting her hatred for her parents, saying she didn’t want their help, and promising to leave—without the kids—and never come back.
I was unsure how to respond to Angie’s story. It was hardly my place to pass judgment on a stranger’s life, but Angie needed more than a ride and a place to warm up. What had begun as a simple gesture of kindness had evolved into something more complex. Bringing Angie into my home had, to a certain degree, made me morally invested in her well-being. But what Angie needed least was the advice of a lonely young man who found her attractive and gave her beer.
I told Angie about my friend Erin, with whom I worked at a restaurant. Erin volunteered for Voices Against Violence, an organization offering a hotline for abused women. They also ran a small safe house and counseling center that helped women to escape bad circumstances and get back on their feet. I asked whether she’d be willing to talk to Erin about her situation.
Angie shrugged, rubbed her hands together, and stared at the floor, as if she were contemplating consequences.
“Would you like me to call her and find out more about her organization?”
“I don’t care. You can call, but I don’t feel like talking about it anymore tonight.”
I stepped outside into the frigid night to call Erin. After summarizing Angie’s story, I tried to convince Erin to talk to Angie about options other than running away from her family.
Erin couldn’t talk to Angie because it went against the protocol of the organization. Women had to contact them. Like alcoholics, Erin said; if she doesn’t admit there is a problem and come for help on her own, she won’t stick with the recovery and will leave the program. I pleaded for Erin to speak to Angie for just a moment in order to convince her to call when she was ready, but Erin couldn’t. With numb hands I scribbled the hotline number onto a scrap of paper.
Back inside, Brian had again gone off to his room. I tried to convince Angie to call the hotline, emphasizing that their services were free and anonymous.
“Maybe later” is all she said, before going to the fridge for a refill.
It was the first time she hadn’t asked for more beer and then expected to be served. She simply indulged. Bringing the bottle with her, Angie came over and filled my glass then returned to perch Indian-style on the loveseat.
“So why Florida?” I asked.
“I’m sick of the New Hampshire cold. I want to be where it’s warm, where I can start all over, and not have to worry about all the shit here. Besides being away for a couple years, I’ve lived in the same shitty house in the same shitty small town my whole life. Everybody knows me, everybody hates me, and I’m sick of it.”
“Where would you go—what town?”
Angie’s demeanor suddenly transformed from bitterness into the sort of delight brought about by contemplating pleasurable scenarios, like winning the lottery or finally seducing a long-time crush. “St. Petersburg. It’s fucking awesome there. Right by the beach.”
“Yeah, I used to go to St. Pete every year with my family. My grandpa lived an hour away.”
“See, you know it’s nice. I just need bus fare—it’s not much and I swear I’d pay you back.”
I’d already rejected her pleas for bus fare a few times so I ignored it and tried to insert some realism into her fantasy.
“What would you do? I mean, how would you survive?”
“Anything. There’s tons of clubs I could dance in. I’d make a good stripper. I dance great and I’m still pretty and I got nice tits—not huge, but nice. Don’t you think I’m pretty?”
I made a slight nod. I didn’t want to encourage her. I tried to fixate on her black eyes.
“And I’ve got a nice body don’t I?”
I just sipped my beer.
Angie was waiting for my answer. She looked straight at me—the most penetrating look she’d summoned all evening. “Don’t I?”
With those eyes, with all she’d been through—and despite the truth it might admit to her—I nodded again.
She smiled and continued. “There are always ways to make money. If I had to, I could give blow jobs.”
I decided it best to head her off before she could make the pass. I tried to be stern. “That’s absurd. You can do better than that. There are ways to make money without compromising your dignity.”
“I’ll do what I have to,” Angie persisted. “Besides, I’m good at giving blow jobs. They’re, like, my specialty.”
I squirmed in my seat.
“Yeah, I could make good money giving blow jobs. Do you like blow jobs?”
I gulped more beer.
“Have you ever had a really good blow job?” She hesitated for just a beat. “Do you want one?”
I did—who wouldn’t?—but I didn’t say so. I looked at her. She was being perfectly sincere. I’d spent the evening trying to do the right thing, trying to help her. She may have been something of a damsel in distress, in need of a place to lay low and regain her sense of self, but the self Angie was recovering wasn’t helpless or innocent. While no one deserves the treatment she had endured, she must have been somewhat complicit in putting herself in situations with people willing to take advantage. Why had I gone back for her? Why had I picked her up? Couldn’t part of my selfless desire to help be attributed to other, more selfish desires?
I attempted to project a cool façade, to convey that I wasn’t shocked or excited by her offer. It would be unconscionable to take advantage of a woman who may have been verbally, physically, and sexually abused as recently as six hours ago. The right thing was to take her home or to a friend’s house. But no one would take her calls. And she’d asked me; I hadn’t solicited or seduced her. She’d gone straight for my bed the moment she entered the apartment. And I’d been lonely for more than two months—my girlfriend, on another continent, would never find out. A strings-free blow job didn’t sound so bad. Of course characterizing the opportunity as strings-free would be naïve. Angie may not have been toting any bags when I picked her up but she certainly carried plenty of baggage. Did I really want to be sucked further into the vortex of her life?
Her question now hung in the warm air between us. I fixated on her dark, expectant eyes but pictured those more familiar myopic eyes which had returned my gaze from the rearview mirror. Morality, it seems, is always negotiable, always subject to revision. Maybe the question is not whether an action is right or wrong; the real question is whether we can live with our decisions.
“I’m good,” I said, taking the final swallow of bitter ale.
“What do you mean?” Angie was genuinely surprised. “You mean you don’t want—“
“He means you’ve overstepped your bounds.” Brian was suddenly standing in the entryway between living and dining rooms. He took a seat and we all turned towards the flickering television.
Eventually, Brian went off to bed. Angie and I conversed intermittently; polite, superficial chatter. I knew I’d made the right decision, but what would have happened if Brian was still in Trinidad, if he would be returning tomorrow instead of yesterday? Would I have stuck to my “I’m good”? Maybe that’s why I stayed up with Angie, to prove to myself that even without his influence I could maintain my self-control, stick to my decision.
When it was time for bed, I made Angie a mattress out of the big lounge cushions on the floor and gave her a pillow and another blanket. I asked if she was okay.
“Yeah,” she said. “I think so.”
“If you need anything, let me know.”
She nodded and I went off to bed. I usually slept with the door closed. That night I left it open. I’m not sure why.
Later, I heard a soft knock on the open bedroom door. I wasn’t sure what time it was. I hadn’t been sleeping well or deeply. Angie peeked her head in and then walked in wrapped in a blanket. She was ready to go.
“Can you take me home?” she said.
“What? Yeah. Sure.” I rolled out of bed. It was almost 6 a.m.
We drove a few miles down the road, but Angie wouldn’t say exactly where she lived. When we got to Golden Pond, she asked me to stop and drop her off. Along a road, just as I’d picked her up. She said it was so she could sneak into her house without her parents hearing the car and knowing she’d come home. I figured there might be other reasons, but didn’t bother asking.
Angie climbed out and said, “Thanks for the ride,” then shivered. The morning air was icy crisp.
I reached into my back pocket and handed her a piece of paper. On it was the Voices Against Violence hotline number. I told her she should call and get some help.
I knew she wouldn’t call—not anytime soon anyway.
I pulled a U-turn and headed home, watching her recede in the rearview behind a screen of rising exhaust.