I bought my bus ticket in Des Moines with confusion and paid for it with remorse. Bobby would soon be far behind. Whether it was something he said or something I did was of no matter. My future lay on the highway out of town.
The few people aboard my Greyhound — locals — would get off shortly. Maybe they were lovers whose hearts were still intact on the eve of Valentine’s Day. I had misplaced my emotions in the ruins of a relationship.
Settling into my magazine, I felt eyes staring intently at me. I looked down, but not so quickly that I didn’t see the boy’s smile. I battled to ignore him. He’d speak to me soon, and what should I do? Keep my promise of no more entangling alliances or indulge in a roadway affair? On the one hand was a history of might-have-beens, on the other my gnawing loneliness.
I hadn’t settled the question when I was startled by his soft whistle. I looked up summoning outrage, but my irritation vanished before his smile. Without a word he crossed the aisle and sat down next to me.
I can’t explain what followed as he began speaking to the highway outside my window — and to me.
He talked of the loneliness of the Midwest — but I saw it through his eyes, a boy of the prairie who described beauty in things I’d counted cruel. He pointed out how the snowflakes had been cut in their beautiful shapes by elfin scissors and described wheat fields that flowed like the sea when the wind blew. He talked of books we had both read and loved. And he told me his story. His name was Gordon Andrews. His father had died two years earlier and he was helping his mother carry on at their Iowa farm. Now, with his mother’s health failing, he was taking her back to her own people in Cincinnati. I had to believe that a son who was so kind could make a fine husband — the kind I’d hoped Bobby would be.
“You know,” he said, “I liked you the minute I saw you get on the bus.”
“I saw you looking at me,” I answered lamely.
“I always thought I’d fall in love that way. That all at once I’d see the woman I want to marry.”
“But, I don’t know anything about you, except what you’ve told me,” I blurted, worried we were both becoming capricious. “And you don’t know anything about me.”
“I don’t need to know any more. And you can have time to find out all about me. I can’t marry now because I have to care for my mother, but even if it was years I’d come and get you. Wouldn’t you wait?”
“I can’t promise. You or I might see someone else we liked better. We’d forget each other.” Bleak memories of Bobby gnawed at me.
His fingers gripped mine. “I won’t forget.” He considered the future, then shook off the mood and said, “I’ve never been engaged before.”
“Engaged?” The stream of infatuation had turned into a cataract.
“I’ve got enough to take care of you. My mother and I own two farms and as soon we’re settled I’ll come for you. I’ll be there on the 15th of February — the day after Valentine’s Day. I’ll be twenty-five. It’s a good age — and a nice month to be married.”
I should have told him about Bobby and the years we’d invested, but I was overwhelmed by his overture. I murmured something inane about February being beautiful.
My heart was beating with perversity as we stood on the brink of this crisis and talked of common things. The miles fell behind as we rode with our fingers locked. From time to time the driver called the stops, but even when he shouted “Cedar Rapids” I didn’t know that our liaison was ending — not till I heard a voice say, “Gordon, this is where we change.”
The woman explained, “My son’s taking me back to Ohio. He’s gotten so attached to a new face he seems to have forgotten his duties as a son.”
I’d thought of the whole affair as an innocuous flirtation, but Gordon had been earnest. He sat up stiffly and said: “Mom, this is the lady I’m going to marry. It’s all arranged.”
Her startled eyes questioned me.
“I never meant it to go so far,” I murmured. “I haven’t had much to say about it.”
She reached over and put her hand on mine. “I always said I’d love Gordon’s wife like my own daughter. We could understand each other beautifully.”
She moved down the aisle, but Gordon lingered. “Don’t forget. I’ll come for you. You’ll write?” I nodded dumbly, and then he was gone.
He left my life as quickly as he’d come into it, and there were so many things I didn’t know. I opened the bus window, needing one more final word. I glanced up and down the platform. The bus was backing away from the terminal as I saw his mother standing by a taxi stand.
“Mrs. Andrews,” I cried. “You know he’s coming for me on his twenty-fifth birthday, but he didn’t tell me — will it be soon?”
“No, ten years yet. He’s only fifteen now.”
She was still waving as the bus took me away.
So, Gordon Andrews, if you hear my story, forgive my never writing. But you should know you gave me a fantastic Valentine present — a reminder of what I’d left behind.
I got off at the next stop and waited for the bus that would take me back upstream.
published 12 February 2014