There were two girls walking along the Interstate as I made my way back to Minneapolis from western North Dakota this past October. I’d passed their car on the side of the highway just before I saw them. They were young and skinny; either the wind or a predator will take them, I thought, so I pulled over and waited. I looked at my phone to text someone to let them know I was picking up two strangers, but there was no reception.
One of the girls turned back while the other kept coming in my direction. I had both the passenger and driver side windows down when she reached my car and talked to me through the driver side—the traffic side, the dangerous side. She said they’d run out of gas and were walking to find a gas station. I offered to give them a ride and she slumped into the passenger seat.
Her friend was still walking back to their car, where they’d forgotten their money. When there was a lull in traffic, I drove in reverse down the interstate to meet her part way. Suddenly, their car lurched forward and passed us.
“What?” she asked of no one. “I don’t understand, we were out of gas. I guess you should just follow them.” Them. Apparently they were with a male friend.
I wondered what kind of game this was, whether I’d be driving her seven hours to her home in Milwaukee that night. Or worse.
“Are your friends assholes?” I asked with a note of panic in my voice.
“No,” she said. And then she touched my arm and said, “This is a strange way to meet someone, on the side of a road, but they’re not assholes.”
They’d let her get into a stranger’s car and hadn’t even seen me before they took off ahead of us. I wasn’t convinced.
The car ran out of fumes so we pulled up behind it. The other girl got into my car with a small, red gas container. She asked if I’d prefer it in the trunk. She has good manners, I thought to myself. Or maybe this happens all the time.
We drove for seven miles before we reached a gas station, leaving their male friend in the car. I told them to get a roadside assistance plan for the future, or to wait for the police to come.
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” said the second girl.
They weren’t much older than 25 and they couldn’t have weighed more than 125 pounds. One drew blood for a living and the other was “figuring out her life.” They didn’t talk much, possibly because they simply couldn’t muster the energy. They’d had a “crazy weekend” in the boomtown of Williston, North Dakota, where the first girl’s brother works, they told me.
“Good crazy or bad crazy?” I asked, knowing the answer from their eyes and bodies and the faint smell of something not quite right when the first girl got into the car.
“Let’s say both,” the first girl said in a defeated voice.
“Don’t tell your parents you got into a stranger’s car,” I told the first girl. “This wasn’t a wise decision for either of us,” I continued.
“Yeah, they’d kill me,” she said. I was relieved to hear she had family that cared.
“I hope it’s enough gas to get us to the station,” one of the girls said as we made our way back to their car.
“It will be plenty to drive seven miles,” I told them, “but I’ll follow you to the exit to be sure you get there.”
I asked more than once if their friend is nice, feeling intensely protective of these wispy girls from the side of the road.
They said they live in Milwaukee, but one was originally from Houston, the other from Michigan, and the car’s license plate was from Tennessee.
“Is your friend from Tennessee?” I asked.
“No,” one responded,
“Oh, I just wondered because the car has plates from Tennessee,” I added.
“The car isn’t…” She trailed off at the end of her sentence. I didn’t press further.
I declined their offers to give me gas money for taking them to the station. “Are you sure we can’t give you gas money?” they asked again before getting out of the car. They really were polite.
It didn’t add up. I recorded the plate number and the girls’ first names, at least the ones they gave me, as the man they were with poured the gas in the tank. I didn’t know what I’d do with the information, but it made me feel better.
When I was about their age, my car broke down on that same stretch of road and I was by myself. Cell phone reception didn’t matter then, because I didn’t have a cell phone. But I didn’t worry for my safety when a man stopped to take me to a service station to get help.
I suspect that he stopped because he wanted to help, because he wanted some sense of resolution as a result. And he got it, because my car was fixed and I continued on my merry way just after I tucked a paltry $20 bill in his shirt pocket.
But resolution isn’t guaranteed in life. Sometimes we just hope that we’ve done something helpful or that our assessment of a situation is wrong, because we don’t want to believe how desperate it really might be.