“It’s safe, mom, I promise.”
This was me a week before I launched off on my first solo traveling venture: a road trip up the east coast. I was trying to explain to my mother that Couchsurfing—a service that entails exactly what its name indicates—is as safe a means of lodging as anything else. But all my careful rationalization did little to assuage the death-by-serial-killer scenarios in her head.
“You don’t really know these people,” she complained. Her concern wasn’t completely unwarranted. Not because Couchsurfing isn’t safe, but because, being my mother, she knows how I’m wired.
Where it comes to people’s intentions, I usually assume the best. I know that theft and murder occur every single hour in this country. Somebody somewhere is being bamboozled at this very moment, and if the bamboozler is lucky, their target looks a lot like me—helplessly amenable, willfully naive.
“Please be careful,” she pleaded for the twentieth time. I answered her with a twentieth “I will.”
Shortly after, I left for my home in Gulf Shores. I wasn’t five minutes away from my parents’ house when I came upon a hitchhiker.
Anatomy lesson: the amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for managing fear. It is a structure that has served us for eons, protecting us from saber-toothed tigers, drawing us away from tyrannical rulers, and terrifying us toward long, happy lives. When I saw the hitchhiker—long black dress, smooth black hair, glossy black jacket—my first thought was, “Geez. It’s way too hot to be dressed that way.” A sweltering eighty plus degrees in chronically humid Grand Bay, Alabama, it was way too hot to be dressed that way. So while my mother’s hovering conscience kicked helplessly at my comatose amygdala, I pulled off the road and let the hitchhiker in.
“Thanks, sweetie,” she said.
Then she pulled the front edge of her dress all the way up to her waist.
Alarmed but unassuming, I did what any good southern gentleman would do: I tilted the air vents down and turned the AC to full blast.
She met the current of cool air with an elongated “mmm,” and then an airy, “that feels so good,” to which I awkwardly said, “I’m glad! You’ve got to be really hot,” to which she replied, with a pause and a smirk,
It occurred to me here that my new hitchhiker friend might have a motive, but I tried to shrug that feeling off.
“Do you have any kids?” I asked.
“Mhm,” she answered, and then added: “Three. Three angels, my whole world! Oh, my sweet babies.” Her hands grabbed at my right shoulder as she spoke. “I’ve got until the end of the day to come up with rent, or me and my sweet babies are homeless.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“The truckers… they just don’t pay like they used to, you know?”
“You work with truckers?” I asked.
“Of course!” she said. “Sometimes they pay good money, great money. But you never know. One guy took everything. My purse, my phone, everything.”
I glanced over to get a better look at the stranger in my passenger seat. Thick red lips, long curling eye-lashes. Then I realized that beneath her leather jacket, she had nothing on. She must have noticed my noticing.
“Would you like,” she whispered softly, “to see them?” My face immediately started burning.
“Uh. Well, thanks, but no, that’s okay. I’m—”
“Shy, sweetie? It’s fine, not a problem. The truckers are shy sometimes too, but it doesn’t take much to get them relaxed.”
In the next few minutes, I learned more about heterosexuality than I ever intended to know. When I finally found my voice, it abruptly said, “So… where do you live?”
“You can drop me off at the next exit,” she said, “At the Shell. Are you a musician?” She saw the guitar in my back seat.
“I sure am! Do you like music?”
“Honey,” she said, “I love music.”
That’s all it took. For the remainder of the drive, we talked bands and songs, favorite concerts and karaoke. “I can kill the karaoke,” she said, “you should see my moves.” She simulated her “moves” in the seat, and we both laughed. “Let me write down my favorite songs for you,” she said, “You can look them up on YouTube later.”
When we arrived at the gas station, she wrote on a napkin the names of two songs and handed them to me. “I know you’re short on time,” she said, “but if you’re ever interested in my services, I can give you my number.”
“Not necessary,” I said.
“Ah. You’re a good boy. Girlfriend?”
“Nope. I’m gay.”
Her voice instantly dropped an octave to a nasally growl: “WHAT? Well, ya coulda told me that fifteen minutes ago!”
Before she slammed the door, I asked for her name. “Paulina,” she said.
“I’ll see you around, Paulina! Maybe we can do this again?”
“I hope not, hun,” she winked. “Thanks for the ride.”
And that was it—my mother’s fears realized, and somehow, my own willful naiveté made more stubborn in the process. I’m gonna be just fine, I thought. New England, here I come.
Note: The hitchhiker’s name has been altered for anonymity.
I had an eerily similar experience in Koh Tao a year later.
This is part 2 of a series. If you haven’t already read it, go back and read The End of the World Often Comes (part 1). The road trip begins in the next post: Couch-surfing with Elizabeth Gilbert (part 3).