Note: The following story was published in the 2012 short story collection "The Other Side".
Like all great romantic stories, mine had started with ice cream.
The summer of 1972 had overstayed its welcome. The leaves were ready to fall, but the trees were waiting on a sun that just wouldn’t set. I was walking down the street to try and find some shadowy reprieve when I stepped into the white sludge that I immediately identified as molten vanilla ice cream.
It’s not that I’m a roadkill connoisseur, but I was relying on the memories of a dozen overturned ice creams from days past. There was nothing so singularly tragic in my youth as the sight of spilled sugary goodness slowly making its way across the pavement. I was twenty-three now, but that feeling surged back into my mind with sweet intensity. Two feet scuttled into my view, and I looked up into the eyes of the poor girl that had suffered the bitter defeat of gravity.
“A shame,” I mumbled as we surveyed the damage together. The air was heavy with a profound sense of loss. She kneeled down, put her hand on her chin and sighed. “That was my last twenty cents,” she said.
Her eyes cast a mournful look on me and I became a man disrupted. I had wanted to offer my condolences, but my shoulders tensed, my knees locked down, my face was contorted in an unflattering expression, and my cheeks flushed so quickly that I might as well have joined the melting ice cream on the ground. Wordlessly, I grabbed my wallet and took hold of a five dollar bill. She shook her head and smiled at me. I wanted her to stop. I was trying to think.
“I have money,” I finally managed. “So I see,” she smiled. “But it was my own fault, and I’ve never depended on the kindness of strangers.” I nodded. “You’re like a reverse Blanche,” I said. She stood up and stared at me quizzically. “Who’s Blanche?”
“You know,” I tried again, “It really is no trouble. I’ll even join you.” She had steely eyes, porcelain skin and deep auburn hair. The girl looked familiar somehow, although I was convinced I had never seen her before in my life. “What time is it?” she asked. I looked at my watch and shook it a few times. “I’m afraid it’s not working,” I said. I looked at the sun above us. It was the kind of summer where afternoons could last all evening.
“I really have to go,” she said apologetically. “Catch a bus.” She started to back away. “Wait,” I called out. “You can’t afford a ticket.” She shrugged and laughed in that distractingly wonderful way. “I’ll figure it out,” she said, and she turned away from me, putting her hands in the pocket of her jeans.
“I need to know your name,” I said. She stared at me, nonplussed. “Why?”
“Why?” I began. “I don’t know, because it’s a summer afternoon and you dropped your ice cream. There’s no why. Do you live around here?” I struggled to catch up with her.
“I used to,” she said. “Now I’m taking a bus, and I’m not coming back.”
“Where to?” I demanded.
“Doesn’t matter,” she sighed. “I’ll take this one step at a time. Here’s an idea,” and she suddenly smiled at me. “Why don’t you join me?”
“I don’t have the time,” I immediately said. “Your watch isn’t working,” she pointed out. “I don’t know your name,” I repeated. She stopped and shook my hand. “Ellie,” she said.
“Is that short for Eleanor?”
“It’s not short for anything.” We started to walk again. I had not yet fully recovered from the mental whiplash of this meeting. She wanted to travel together. The only thing I wanted was to buy her ice cream. “Don’t you want to know my name?” I asked, slightly disappointed.
She laughed. “I can’t make one up?”
I shrugged. “Seriously though,” I said, “Someone’s going to be very angry tomorrow when I don’t show up for work.” She gently touched my arm. “They’ll get over it.”
For the second time that afternoon, I experienced a stir in my memory. I knew that there was no way a girl like Ellie would ever fade from my mind, and yet everything about this seemed familiar, as if we were reciting our lines from a script at the edge of consciousness. Unfortunately, I reflected, it seemed to be a script straight out of the Twilight Zone. The truth was that I had never met someone like her before, and I would rather jump on the bus than go home and think about what could have been. Work could wait for a few days. The people there probably wouldn’t even realize I was gone. I hoped that this decision to join her seemed cool and impulsive, although a part of me realized that it was awfully fickle. So be it. The worst that could happen was that the bus would go without me.
And yet leaving my life behind, if only for a few days, was something I felt uneasy about. I would have to call my boss, my mother, some of my friends. I had a lunch meeting tomorrow, I reminded myself. I had responsibilities.
“If you want to leave that badly,” I said, “Why buy an ice cream and not a ticket?”
“I wanted something sweet,” she said simply. “Busses will come and go, but ice cream on a summer afternoon? That’s all too rare. Besides,” she smiled, “I’m sure I can work something out.”
“You dropped your ice cream,” I pointed out. “You never got to taste it. Anyway, I could buy you a ticket. At least you’d have gotten something out of this.”
“I am getting something out of this. Company,” and she pointed to the end of the street.
The bus had arrived. It was a double-decker covered in scarlet plating. There was no sign on the front indicating its destination. It pulled up and the sound of the engines died down. I noticed that there was no branding or advertising of any kind. This made me feel uneasy. Apparently, it wasn’t going to the kind of place where people liked money.
“That’s not right,” I said.
“There’s supposed to be an ad on the side of this bus. Bellman Tours.” I had no idea what made me say this. As far as I could remember, Bellman Tours was a local company that wouldn’t have the money to put a sticker on a lamppost, let alone a national advertising campaign.
“You’ve been here before?” she asked.
“No. I mean maybe. It’s the heat,” I explained, although I wasn’t sure whether this was true. In fact, I was no longer bothered by the sun or the humidity. I looked at Ellie again. Something seemed far too familiar about this moment. “We’ve met before,” I said finally.
“You dropped your ice cream. I offered to pay for it.”
A distant memory came back to me. It felt like a Kodachrome photograph, faded and over-saturated. There we were, waiting on the bus, ready to set off on a great adventure. The destination was Las Cruces. The bus driver had sported a handlebar mustache and the air had been heavy with the scent of menthol cigarettes. It was the summer of 1972, and I still remembered the heat. I looked around again. I realized that there was a dreamlike quality to my surroundings and, ever the skeptic, decided to pinch myself. Nothing happened. Ellie just stood there, radiant, smiling.
“I didn’t get on the bus,” I said. “I never saw you again.”
She nodded solemnly. Behind her, the door to the bus opened and I could catch a glimpse of the driver. The scent of menthol passed over me. He beckoned us over, ready to resume his trip.
“I missed you,” she said, ignoring him. “It was a great trip, but it could’ve been more.”
“I went back to work the next day and regretted it,” I said breathlessly. “I tried to look up the Ellies in my area, then the Eleanors. There was nothing. Not a trace.”
“And here I am,” she laughed.
“Here you are,” I repeated. “Bellman Tours went international in 1973. I remember being surprised when I saw this bus for the first time. There’s no advertisements now, though.”
“Don’t need them where we’re going,” Ellie said. “Don’t need money, either.”
“I understand,” I said. “When did I get here?”
She shrugged and looked into the distance. There was an absolute silence now. The world was still with anticipation. “Doesn’t mean much here,” she said cryptically. “What matters is when we leave.”
Suddenly, the bus’s engine fired up. The rumble caused a flock of birds to quickly vacate a nearby tree and a single leaf fell on the sunburnt road.
“It’s funny,” I said. “I haven’t thought about you in decades. And somehow, I always expected clouds.”
She raised a hand over her eyes to shield herself from the sun. “I think it’s time to leave.”
I looked at the bus driver again, who was rolling a cigarette with great patience. The other end of the street beckoned me with comforting familiarity.
“What happens if I don’t?”
“The same things,” she said, her expression unreadable. “But you’ve been down that road before.”
I had lived a good life, I knew, but it was an existence measured in nine to fives and Sunday afternoons spent in front of a television. It had been comfortable and kind, but perhaps it was time for something else.
“What do we do once we get there?”
She shrugged. “Paint our hair. Listen to new music. Make love in a public place,” she laughed. “After that, we’ll take another trip. There’s a world full of new experiences out there. Too much for a lifetime,” she added wistfully. “So time for another one.”
I took one more look at my watch. The hands weren’t moving, but I now understood that it had never been broken. Ellie touched my hand, resplendent in a sea-green dress, and moved closer to me. I held my breath for a moment.
“Let’s do it,” I said, taking one last look at the road behind me. More leaves were falling now. She beamed at me, and as she moved in for a kiss, I closed my eyes and every sense exploded with the smell of summer, the sound of her laughter and the taste of ice cream.