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Originally broadcast on NPR's "All Things Considered", 1993
It was a Friday night. I had spent most of my day in divorce court -- an experience that can leave a person feeling that if this ever ends (and for me so far, it's been four years) she'd sooner stay home alone for the rest of her life, than risk finding herself sitting in another airless courtroom ever again, with a person she used to love, in the middle of another bitter parting of the ways. Love is just so dangerous.
But on this particular Friday night, I happened to have a date for dinner with a man I'd recently met, who lives an hour and a half north of my small town in New Hampshire. And so I'd left my teenage daughter in charge of her two younger brothers and headed out on the highway in a red dress and a pair of red spike heels.
My drive took me out on Route 91, heading north into Vermont. It had been a few years since I'd driven this spectacularly beautiful stretch of highway, but every time I do, I think about the first time I travelled this route. I was eighteen years old, the summer after my freshman year at college, and I made the journey to see a man I'd fallen in love with, through the mail. Twenty-one years later, I can still remember the excitement I felt as I made my way north to meet him: the sense that my life would never be the same again. Which turned out to be true: I spent the next year living with this man -- never returning to college -- and when it was over, I thought I could never be happy again. I was nineteen years old, and I supposed I was done with love forever.
But there I was last Friday night, almost forty now, with one marriage behind me, three children, several heartbreaks, a thirty thousand dollar legal bill, and a red dress on, singing alone in my car to the words of a Portuguese song in my tape player, as the sun set over the Connecticut River. Te amo. Yo yora. I love you. I cry.
Then suddenly an astonishing sight came into view. Just up ahead, pulled over along the shoulder of the highway, a car was engulfed in flames.
I slowed down and pulled to a complete stop behind a long line of other drivers. There was no policeman present, and no firetruck or ambulance. One man who had been pulled over several minutes reported that the car appeared to be abandoned. A trucker had evidently radioed for help. And so the big question that lay before us was whether it was safe to drive past the burning car and proceed along the highway. What if the car exploded -- as it seemed bound to do -- at precisely the moment when our own vehicle was passing alongside it?
Nobody talked about this. We were all looking for someone to say whether this was OK or not. But nobody was in charge.
The flames were leaping even higher by now. Just a few feet beyond the burning car, an overpass crossed above the highway. "You think that bridge will be safe if the car explodes?" I asked -- still looking for an authority figure.
"I sure wouldn't want to be on it when the thing blows," the woman said.
And then an odd thing happened. One man climbed back in his car, turned on the motor, and drove on. Instantly, a whole line of other drivers followed him.
Now, in many ways I consider myself a risk-taker and an adventurer, but I just couldn't bring myself to drive past that burning car. One other woman evidently shared my feeling. So the two of us stood there, watching it burn, as other drivers passed by.
"This has been a very weird day," she said. "It seems fitting that it would end this way."
In a funny way, I said, the same was true for me.
There beside the highway, watching the flames curl around the sides of the car and shoot towards the darkening sky -- and not even knowing each other's names -- we spoke with the curious intimacy of total strangers thrown briefly together in a moment of crisis, with the knowledge that we would never see each other again.
"I'm going to be late for something very important," she told me. "But I just can't drive past that car."
"Me too," I said, thinking of the man waiting in the restaurant, who would be looking at his watch. But then I pictured the car exploding, with me beside it.
"Today's my son's 18th birthday," she said. "Things are very bad between us. He says he's leaving home. I was going to try and stop him."
"I've been in court all day," I said. "My children's father and I are at war. It's a terrible place to be." She nodded as if she might have been there herself once.
Just then we heard the sirens of the fire trucks, and within a minute, the firemen had their hoses attached. Whatever it was they sprayed on that car, the flames disappeared as suddenly as if someone had turned off the burner on the stove. All that was left was a charred sedan. A late model Oldsmobile.
Back in our drivers' seats again, with our heads stuck out the windows, we wished each other luck as I set off along the highway again -- on my way to true love, devastating heartbreak, or maybe just dinner. It's a risky business alright, going out on the road.
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