The glow of weary streetlamps flashed past each of the car’s windows before retreating to tiny immortal specks in the distance behind. The sedan was moving slower than the average car would in the middle of the night on an interstate, but it had not passed another vehicle for hours so its driver could take her time to enjoy the silence and solitude of the highway’s darkened land. There was an indescribable draw to it, a bond between driver and pavement unlike any other, and alone at night you could feel the excited energy of the road without interruption.
Melissa had always felt that the road held a promise, a promise of things to come and a worthwhile way of getting there. “Always” was not entirely accurate, but Melissa thought in these terms and could not seem to remember the time not even six months ago when she had believed differently. Indeed, the whim of adventure was not nearly as fundamental to Melissa’s character as she would have people believe, but as far as she was concerned, the open road had called to her since she was a child. So it happened that Melissa, barely more than a child herself, bought a car that was older than her for less than the price of the schoolbooks waiting in a stack behind her bedroom door and packed it with the bare essentials, leaving plenty of room for souvenirs. After graduation she had ceremoniously removed her graduation gown and handed it off to her parents before running back into the school to trade her sundress for a carefully selected outfit consisting of shorts, a fitted T-shirt, and sneakers. An effortlessly minimalist style. Melissa had stood in front of the mirror in the empty school restroom, listening to the happy chatter outside with a smirk as she tied her hair into a tight ponytail high up on her head and donned a pair of Target sunglasses. She had scoffed at the excitement of her classmates and the significance they had placed on that one arbitrary day; For Melissa knew that it was she who had real excitement to look forward to. What was the thrill of greeting a roommate in a dorm room in Pennsylvania next to meeting an innkeeper and his wife at a hostel in Mexico? What was eating chicken wings at a college bar compared to eating street noodles in Singapore? To be fair, Melissa did not plan on crossing any oceans this time around, but that did not in any way dampen her smug self approval.
Melissa drove now down the interstate through what she was pretty sure was Alabama, tapping her fingers on the wheel to the rhythm of her “Road-Trip 2014” playlist, occasionally sipping the barely warm coffee she had purchased from a gas station sixty miles ago. Her face was arranged into what she hoped was a taunting, carefree, secretive half smile as she gazed dramatically through the windshield, contemplating what a wonderful resemblance her life bore to a movie.
Six streetlamps away, standing like an apparition was a small speck of a man, at least, he looked like a man. Melissa craned forward in her seat to attempt to make out the figure. Five street lamps away and he was definitely human, four to go and there was no doubt he was a man. At three lamps away she could make out his innocent posture, the comfortable way he held his hands in his pockets and the upturned face that Melissa could only assume was watching the stars. He was not a young man, that much was clear, but he held himself in a way that suggested only his body had been touched by age, such was his confidence and ease. Melissa slowed to a turtle’s pace when she was two streetlamps away from him, and after a brief internal debate pulled the car smoothly over to the side of the road. Perhaps it was foolhardy, but what was the purpose of the trip at all if Melissa was to deny herself these experiences?
Melissa leaned over the passenger seat and rolled down the window. The man, possibly in his early to mid-forties, at that time turned his face down as if just noticing she was there, though in the silence of the night and the solitude of the road he must have heard her coming from a mile away. His face startled her. It was not the short cropped dusty blonde hair streaked with grayish-brown, matching silver stubble, or smile lines drawing his face out from each corner, but his clear bright blue eyes that shone in the white light of the streetlamp. There was a backpack slung over one of his shoulders, the generic inconspicuous kind that would be a nightmare to try to recognize from a luggage carousel but would shrink the target on your back in a crowded bus or on a busy street. It was worn and gray and faded green. If backpacks could talk that one would have its fair share of stories to tell.
“Need a lift?” Melissa called out the window after turning her car stereo down to a murmur. The hitchhiker’s face broke into a grin, further giving the illusion of youth.
“What’s your name?” he said delightedly.
“Melissa,” she responded after an imperceptible hesitation. The man’s grin widened jovially and he continued in a friendly voice.
“Nice to meet you Melissa, pretty name I might add. I’m Randy, pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Melissa nodded uncertainly, trying to match the enthusiasm of Randy’s smile. His voice was puzzling at first. Melissa was shocked to realize near the end of his sentence that the faint accent she had attributed to him was completely imaginary; she must have invented it to match her preconceived archetype for the words he used which were laced with all the charm of a perfect Southern gentleman. Though he wore a pair of average looking jeans and a T-shirt bearing a logo Melissa did not recognize, he seemed out of place in the modern world, like he belonged in a small fifties diner greeting the waitress with a “Howdy Ma’am,” and a tip of his hat.
“Melissa, where might you be headed on such a fine night? Have you seen the stars tonight?” Melissa shook her head and tried halfheartedly to crane her neck to see them. Randy made a noise of disbelief and leaned his head back with closed eyes, clutching his heart in mock pain. “Well they are simply gorgeous. Come on, get out and see! You don’t see a sky like this every night, Miss Melissa, do you? Where are you from?”
Melissa climbed out of the car smiling and stood leaning her wrists on the frame of the open driver’s side door. Randy still stood on the opposite side of the car clutching the rim of the open passenger window.
“Phoenix,” she said, raising her eyes to the sky. “Phoenix, Arizona.”
“Ah,” Randy sighed knowingly. “Then I bet the last time you saw a sky like this you were no taller than a shoot of grass!”
Melissa stayed silent because she did not know exactly how to respond to that. In truth she had never really thought about the sky, or lack thereof. They stood quietly for a moment, studying the stars. Melissa could pick out the constellations of Orion and the Big Dipper, but after that her mind drifted to the awkwardness of the situation and she began to feel very confused and uncomfortable, though she tried to be open minded and just go along with it. After what felt like an eternity to Melissa, Randy sighed and leveled his chin.
“Where did you say you were headed, Miss?” he asked.
“Next stop’s Birmingham. Why, you on the way?” she said smiling, glad Randy had broken the silence.
“Hmm, Birmingham...” he mused. “Why not! Must be pretty warm this time of year. You don’t mind if I tag along, do you? I’ll chip in for gas, of course.”
“Yeah! Thanks, but you don’t have to come to Birmingham with me you know, where are you trying to get to? I’m sure I could take you if it’s not too far out of the way, I’m just staying on I-40 the whole way.”
Randy laughed and shrugged. “I’m not trying to get anywhere, but as of right now it looks like I’m going to Birmingham. What about you? What’s waiting for you in Birmingham?”
“Why don’t we talk in the car? I passed Exit 7 about thirty minutes ago, so I think we’ve got about three hours to fill.”
“So I have to ask, what were you doing out there in the middle of nowhere so late at night? Where are you from?” Melissa said glancing at Randy before promptly turning her eyes back to the road. Randy laughed.
“Well that’ll fill three hours!”
So the story unfolded. Randy grew up in Colorado with his parents and his little sister Mindy. His family spent a lot of time together outdoors: hiking, camping, rafting, and playing all sorts of games together in their backyard. The summer after Randy turned sixteen, he left home by himself for the first time. He had planned his trip on the premise that he would go to Mexico, but when he was halfway there he changed his mind and decided to go to Canada instead. When he was nineteen he married his childhood best friend, Julie. They traveled the world for five years but then when Julie was twentyfour she was diagnosed with a terminal illness (Randy did not specify which one and Melissa did not want to interrupt him to ask) so they returned to the United States. Julie lamented the fact that they would never have the chance to settle down and start a family together, so without telling her Randy worked odd jobs for a couple of months until he was able to buy a house in New Hampshire with a white picket fence and a Golden Retriever named Pat. They were happy to make the most of the time they had left. They still had adventures together: exploring the Eastern seaboard to find tiny clam shacks and secret gardens. Then Julie’s condition worsened, and she could no longer leave her bed. Randy moved their bed to the patio so she could still be outside in the fresh air. They were still happy. He would go out early in the morning before she woke up and come back every day with a different kind of flower and some crazy story about how he had gotten it. They would play checkers and talk all day. On the morning of Julie’s last day, about eight months after first being diagnosed, they could both tell right away how the day would end. Randy carried her to the beach and they spent the whole day laughing and playing in the sand. When Julie died Randy was heartbroken, but he knew that it was her life that was over, not his. He was determined not to stop living even if he could not live with her. He sold their house at a huge loss, and took his dog and one bag to San Francisco where he met a little girl that fell in love with Pat. With her mother’s consent, Randy left the dog with them, glad to see the child so happy. He had been traveling on and off ever since, sometimes staying with family or friends, sometimes in a place of his own, or often just living out of his backpack. At the age of forty three, he decided to take a walk to look at the stars and just kept walking. Hours later he found himself in the middle of nowhere on a highway and with a perfect view of the milky way, and that was when Melissa drove up.
Melissa was speechless after Randy’s story. She could not believe the way he could talk about these things that made her want to cry as if they were nothing. When he spoke of Julie, a wistful smile would cross his face and a hint of sadness entered his voice but he told it the way he lived it: without missing a beat. Melissa did not find him coldhearted, for it was obvious that he could still feel the sadness; But he addressed the pain in a way that was healthy, as something to feel not something to be consumed by.
The conversation did not end there. They continued talking for hours, and when they passed Birmingham they both saw the exit but said nothing. After Randy’s extreme willingness to share such personal information, Melissa felt almost like she owed him some degree of honesty on her part. Their conversations ranged from favorite bands to their worst fears and everywhere in between, and by the time the sun began to rise Melissa felt that she had known this strange hitchhiker her entire life. But throughout their time together Melissa continually tried to deduce the source of Randy’s impenetrable happiness. There was no other word for it, the man was simply happy. Melissa did not wish to admit it, but she deeply envied him. As sure as she was that she knew what she wanted from her life, Melissa was crippled by the nagging doubt that she had no clue and she knew it.
Finally at around six in the morning Randy sighed contentedly and remarked, “This has been quite a drive. Isn’t this just perfect?”
Melissa wanted to argue that the drive had been anything but perfect. She was tired, crashing from the copious amounts of lukewarm caffeine that had been chugged so reluctantly, her playlist was playing through for the third time, and her body ached with fatigue and the restless urge to just stand up and move. But instead of saying any of these things she just gaped at him and cleared her throat subtly. “What makes you say that?”
“Well I don’t know, everything! The night was quiet, the stars were out... I got to hear all of your lovely stories and tell you some of mine; It seems to me that any night you meet a new friend is a perfect one. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Everything that Randy said was true, the stars really had been spectacular and she had never met someone so interesting in her life. But Randy must be just as sore, right? And had he not been awake just as long as she? It occurred to Melissa that Randy must just be one of those irritating optimists, the kind that could be starving and homeless and remark on how nice it was not to have to pay utilities. But surely Randy and others of his kind could not be immune to sadness, and it was the thought that their undyingly bright outlook was purely intentional that made them so infuriating. Melissa thought with a sort of bitter satisfaction that she had figured out Randy’s secret once and for all. Yes, Melissa thought gleefully, there was nothing wrong with her. Of course she was not as content as the hitchhiker, because it simply was not possible. Of course if you only comment on the good and the nice then you would come across as such. Of course she would think he was happy! You can never really know a person past what they say and how they act, for all Melissa knew the world was inhabited exclusively by hypocrites!
She sat there wallowing in silence for the better part of ten minutes, working herself into a spiteful hatred of the pleasant man sitting beside her. He stared out the window, blissfully oblivious of his irate companion. He broke the silence at the peak of Melissa’s internal rant to comment quite politely,
“I think I would like to get out now if that’s alright with you.”
Melissa broke off mid-thought. “Wait, what?”
“I’m ready to get out of the car now,” he repeated clearly. His gaze had not left the window and a smile was still present on his face, though what he was looking at was a mystery to Melissa for all they had passed for a while had been trees and farmland.
“Why do you want to get out? We’re in the middle of nowhere!” she asked baffled.
“Well this has been quite the adventure, but I’ve just decided that I’m ready for a change of pace. You understand.”
Melissa did not understand.
“Okay then, Miss Melissa. If you wouldn’t mind pulling the car over now.”
She did as she was asked though the motive still confused her. The crunch of gravel under the tire marked a very strange end to the arguably stranger night, and Randy exited the car. Ducking his head through the still open door he smiled boyishly and waved to Melissa.
“It’s been a pleasure. Have fun on your drive!” He then shut the door and continued to wave until Melissa hesitantly pulled back out into the road and began to drive. She shook her head and watched the small figure with the green backpack retreat in the rearview mirror.
“What a freak,” she muttered under her breath before resigning herself to never think of the strange man again. Then with a groan she made a U-turn and drove right past the smiling man again because she remembered that she had passed Birmingham hours ago. But something about seeing Randy sitting in the dirt reading a book made her stop and pull out a road atlas. Melissa found the highway she was on and traced her finger until she hit another town. She smiled and turned around yet again, passing the hitchhiker for a third time. What was so special about Birmingham anyway?