Pen name: WriteOnTime
Rating: T (for some mild language)
Title: Cash Only
I am a selfish waster of natural resources, and I don't care. I'm about as environmentally-unfriendly as it's possible to be without actually owning a Hummer.
The commute down to Manhattan from White Plains is easily accomplished via Metro North train - thirty minutes to Grand Central Station in relative comfort and peace, because Westchester commuters are generally polite and respectful of the "quiet" time craved by those around them. The trains are clean, the cost is reasonable, the station locations on either end are infinitely convenient to both my office and my apartment.
And still, I drive in every morning, inching my Volvo through endless lines of traffic for at least an hour and a half and spending a truly insane amount of money to park it near my office on 48th and Madison. I'm not a glutton for punishment, and I don't like wasting money, but I really have no other choice.
Because she works at Toll Booth #3 on the southbound toll plaza at the Triboro Bridge. And if I don't see her every day, there's no point to anything else.
I sound like a creepy stalker guy. To look at me, you'd never in a million years peg me for a stalker. I'm a pretty smart man, and reasonably successful. I'm not hard to look at, judging by the reactions I get from the women around me. My family's totally respectable - in fact, my mother works for the EPA, and she'd be furious if she knew I was driving into work every day. I'm new to the whole stalking thing. I suck at it, too, because I can't think of a way to get that girl out of the toll booth and into my life.
She's on the young side, I think - maybe in college, still. My theory about that is backed up by the fact that every time I see her, she's either got a book in her hand or one very close-by. This week, it's Charlotte Bronte. She looks smart, and thoughtful. I wish I could watch her read, but I don't want to be a jerk and delay the people behind me, so I take as much time as I'm comfortable taking without being rude and then I drive through the gate.
It's kind of remarkable that I noticed her in the first place. I had to drive into the city about three weeks ago because I had a huge mock-up of an ad I was working on at home, and I didn't want to schelp the portfolio on the train with me. It wasn't until I was approaching the toll plaza that I thought to look for my EZ Pass, and then cursed myself when I couldn't find the stupid thing. I was pretty unhappy when I steered out of the fast lane and headed toward the cash lanes. I almost moved into the lane for Booth #2, but then some idiot in a pick-up truck with Connecticut plates cut in front of me, so I turned the wheel and lined up for Booth #3.
Of course I didn't have exact change, either, so when I got to the window, I had to fork over a twenty. It wasn't until this delicate hand in fingerless gloves reached out to give me my change that I looked up and saw her. She had the nicest smile; just big, and bright, and genuine. "Here you go," she said, and gently shook the bills in her hand to remind me that we were in the middle of a transaction. I shook my head and muttered "Sorry" as I reached out to take the change from her. She laughed and said, "No problem. I'm always dreaming that I'm somewhere else, too. Have a terrific day."
I worry that she's cold in there. It's early January, and I don't think the temperature's gotten above freezing for several weeks now. I think about doing things like buying a little space heater and handing it to her, or maybe handing her a thermos full of hot chocolate. That's clearly a stupid plan, because who would drink a thermos full of ANYTHING handed to them by a stranger who could just drive off and never be found again? But still, I worry about her being cold. I don't even let my head go to a place in which I imagine other ways I might keep her warm, because seriously, I should at least know her name before I start in with that shit. She's not just some random on the street to me.
I can't keep this up. It's mental. I either need to figure out a way to talk to her and see if we might go somewhere for a drink or something, or I need to let this - okay, I'll just be honest - this obsession go and start taking the train again. She's the first woman to really catch my eye in I don't know how long. There's just something quiet, and real, and lovely about her. Most of the women I meet or work with have all these hard edges to their personalities. I mean, I get it, they're ambitious and in a hurry to snag themselves a corner office. Maybe some of them are different when they're off the clock - but the ones I've dated and socialized with always seem to be in such a hurry to get somewhere. With their jobs, with me, with life. I hurry enough - what I'm looking for is someone who doesn't mind slowing down a little during our downtime. I don't want to go and do and see every night. I want to hang out in the park on Saturday, or maybe spend four hours eating dinner, or just curl up in front of the tv, or play some Scrabble. You know, unwind. Just "be" for a little while. I can't find anyone who thinks that sounds like fun. Maybe Toll Girl won't think it's fun, either, but I feel strongly compelled to find out.
It's Thursday morning, and again, it's cold as hell outside. I decided last night that I was going to make some kind of gesture in her direction and see if she responded in any way. I don't want to just come right out and ask her if we could maybe get together sometime, because I don't want to be that loser who freaks her out. But then again, it's possible that guys hit on Toll Girl all day long, every day. I picture truckers and lawyers and bass guitar players and grandfathers and cab drivers and every other man under the sun coming on to her, and it pisses me off. I Googled this stuff earlier in the week: about two hundred thousand cars cross that bridge every day. Divide that between northbound and southbound, and you have a hundred thousand cars going each way. There are something like eight EZ Pass lanes on the plaza, and let's say that each one handles ten thousand of those cars. That still leaves about twenty thousand cars using the three "Cash Only" lanes with toll collectors. And more than six thousand drivers potentially stopping to chat with Toll Girl every day is waaaay too many for my liking, even if half - or more than half - of those drivers are women. All it would take is one slick guy in a nice new Maserati to do some serious damage to my aspirations. I'm not too scared of the bass players, because they rarely see any kind of action. It's all about the lead guitar and drums.
So here I am, snaking my way toward Toll Booth #3, with a bunch of daffodils wrapped in pale pink tissue paper sitting on the passenger seat. I was going to give her tulips, but the lady in the florist shop started going off on the various meanings of flowers and she seemed really confused on the tulip issue, so I played it safe and opted for the daffodils instead. She said one daffodil was bad news, but a bunch of them was either happiness or new beginnings. Both of those seemed like decent messages to send to Toll Girl. I hope that lady knew what she was talking about.
I finally reach the booth, only instead of seeing the beautiful girl with the long brown hair and the smile made out of sunshine, there's a cop sitting there, all mustache and terse efficiency.
"Oh," I say stupidly, as I hand him a twenty. I only use twenties or fifties now, because it gives me extra time with Toll Girl while she makes change for me.
"Something wrong?" The cop doesn't sound particularly mean, and my curiosity and disappointment get the better of me, so I have to ask. "No - nothing's wrong. Just - where's the girl who usually sits here? I had something I wanted to give her."
The cop stops counting my change and gives me a seriously intense glare. "You mean my kid? She had to take a quick break, so I'm filling in for her for a few minutes. What were you going to give her?"
Fantastic. I don't even know her name, and I'm already meeting her father, and now he thinks I'm Pervy Car Guy With Bad Intentions. But I stuck my foot in my mouth and told him I had something for her, so I hand him the bouquet of daffodils. It's not like I can give him the cigarette lighter from my dash board and create any kind of reason for that.
"Hmmm," his voice rumbles as he takes the flowers from me. "Why are you buying my daughter flowers?"
As I'm trying to come up with some kind of logical explanation for the flowers, Toll Girl suddenly appears next to my car. "What's up, Dad? Problems?" She glances curiously from her father to me, trying to figure out what on earth we might have to chat about here in the middle of rush-hour traffic on the toll plaza.
The cop stands up, but doesn't take his eyes off of me. "Here," he finally says, handing Toll Girl the daffodils. "This guy wanted to give you these." Toll Girl's face is priceless. Her mouth drops open in shock, and she puts the daffodils up to her nose to smell them, even though daffodils don't actually smell much like anything. "They're beautiful. Thank you very much! But why...?"
Why? Shit. I probably should have thought of a reason to give her, but I didn't, so now I'm totally unprepared. "Uh, it's just - you're always really nice, and that booth looks like a pretty bleak place to spend the day," I answer lamely. The cop shifts out of the booth and stands aside so Toll Girl can climb back in. He's still looking at me with suspicion, so I keep both of my hands in plain sight on the steering wheel.
Toll Girl smiles at me, and I suddenly don't give a crap about how the cop is looking at me. "You just made my day," she says shyly. "Thanks again, uh..."
I realize she's sort of asking me for my name. "Edward," I finish for her. "It was my pleasure,..." I figure if she can do that, so can I.
"Bella," she answers, with another smile. The cars behind me decide that this would be a great time to start an annoyed horn symphony, and I know my time with her (and her father) is up. "Okay," I say. "You - have a great day." She pushes the button to raise the gate, and I start to drive under it. "You too," she calls after me. I turn my head to the side to catch one last look at her, and she's still holding the flowers in her hand and smiling.
The next week passes in a far different fashion than the previous three or four weeks have. Every morning, I roll my car up to Toll Booth #3, and Bella greets me with a huge smile. She always uses my name, too. It could be my imagination, but she seems to count the change more slowly than she did before, and we trade little snippets of information about ourselves while she does so. My suspicion was correct - she's a senior at Barnard, studying English Lit. I tell her I went Ivy too, only Dartmouth. I find out that she's sharing an apartment in Chelsea with two of her friends. I tell her that I moved out of Turtle Bay about a year ago because I wanted to be closer to my brother, who lives in Briarcliff Manor. I don't tell her I moved up to White Plains because Manhattan just got to be too noisy and busy for me, and I really wanted to live somewhere "off campus" so that I could feel as though I was actually going "home" at the end of a crazy workday. I tell her I work as a creative director at a boutique ad agency; she tells me that she's been offered a paid internship at Time Out New York, which should start later on in the spring. I hope we can move these discussions out of the toll plaza before then, because I have no reason whatsoever to be wandering the halls of that magazine in search of her. At least now, I have some legitimate excuse to see her every day.
I'm trying to come up with some way to ask her if she'll maybe meet me for coffee, or drinks, or dinner, or a movie, or anything which won't involve me in my car and her in a metal box with bulletproof glass. Everything I come up with sounds lame.
Friday rolls around, and the weather's decided to really take a turn for the worse. High winds are blowing cars all over the Bronx River Parkway, and small snowflakes are rapidly dropping from the sky, pushed into an almost horizontal pattern by the fierce winds. My car crawls along the last stretch of the Bruckner before I hit the toll plaza, and I can literally feel the solid, earthbound vehicle around me consider sprouting wings and flying off the roadway. I'm not a nervous driver at all, but this kind of wind makes driving a kind of hairy experience.
I'm one car away from Bella's toll booth window when suddenly, all the lights on the plaza go out. The signs which advise the "Cash Only" customers to stay to the right are blank. The "Cars: $5.50" sign is blank. All of the florescent lights on the plaza flicker and die. I notice the lack of light and sign information first, but shortly thereafter, I realize that all of the toll booth gates are stuck in whatever position they were in when the power went off, and the gate at Bella's booth was closed, which means that we're not going anywhere until someone can figure out how to power those gates back up because my car is already trapped by the concrete and pylons on either side of the toll booth lane.
I am possibly the only person on earth who is delighted by that information. The gods of high winds and modern power supply are clearly sending me a message. I don't intend to ignore it, either.
Pushing the driver's side door of my car open, I step out into the screaming wind and wrap my coat more tightly around myself. Crap, it's freezing out here. I've been outside for a grand total of ten seconds, and the sensation in my nose is already dulled. I slam the door shut behind me and shuffle up to Bella's window, where she's placidly sipping on something in a travel mug and thumbing through another book. I knock gently on the window to attract her attention; the noise startles her and she looks up in surprise.
"Oh - Edward - hi!" She offers me that smile, and whatever the weather's doing, everything about me instantly warmer. "Why are you out of your car? You must be freezing!"
I shake my head. "I'm good," I promise, fighting the urge to hop up and down to keep the blood from freezing in my veins. She looks at me expectantly, as though she senses or maybe hopes that I have more to say, but I can't immediately find the words I want to use. Instead, I ask her about the power outage. "What's going on - do you know?"
She tilts her head to the side and shrugs. "I guess the power went out. It's happened a few times this year, although never during rush hour, thank God. Until now, obviously." She picks up a walkie-talkie and adjusts the channel upwards. "Dad? What's the story?"
Her father's voice comes squawking back when she releases the "talk" button. "Power's down here and in most of north Astoria," he says. "Transformer trouble at the plant near Riker's. We're diverting incoming southbound traffic to Willis Avenue, and the northbound traffic to the Henry Hudson bridge. We've got to clear the span, too, because the mid-span wind sensor is registering gusts of about 55 miles per hour. You okay?"
"I'm fine," Bella answers. She starts to lift her thumb from the "talk" button, but then depresses it again to add, "I'm with Edward."
"Daffodil guy? That Edward?" Oh, awesome. I have the worst nickname EVER. My balls might as well just pack up shop and head for more masculine pastures.
Bella blushes and nods, even though her father obviously can't see the nod. "Yes, Dad. Daffodil guy. He was in line when the power went down." I'm almost knocked off my feet by another sudden gust of wind - it bites at every exposed bit of skin and makes me suck in my breath at the sharp, stinging sensation. I can see Bella shiver slightly, and I know there's no way I'm leaving her sitting in this drafty, cold, powerless booth for another minute.
I hold my hand out in a silent request for the walkie-talkie and hit the "talk" button. "Uh, sir? Sorry to bother you - it's, uhm, Edward. Daffodil guy. Anyway, I was wondering if it would be okay with you if I asked Bella to wait with me in my car? It's freezing out here, and there's no more heat in the booth."
His voice squawks back at me. "I don't like it, son. Nothing against you, mind - just the idea of her getting into a stranger's car - any stranger's car - it doesn't sit well with me. She can wait in the plaza office."
Bella rolls her eyes as he's talking, then grabs the walkie-talkie out of my hand. "Dad, I can walk two feet and be warm, or I can cross eight lanes and dodge angry commuters on my way to the plaza office. I'm sitting in Edward's car. I'll take the radio with me."
His voice comes back. "I need his last name and the license plate number." He sounds angry and resigned at the same time. I give him all the information and include the name of my company and my home address, just to prove to him that I'm not hiding anything. "Let's go," I say to Bella, and she opens up the half-door to the booth so that she can step outside.
We trot back to my car and I open the passenger door for her. My car's not a Maserati, but it's reasonably clean given that I'm a single guy in my late twenties, and it has heated seats. There's only one empty Starbucks cup in the console, and a few balled-up receipts for stuff in the change holder. She slides into the passenger seat and pulls the door closed behind her as I crank up the heat and make sure her seat warmer is turned up to "high".
"Let me know if it gets too warm," I tell her. There's a brief moment of awkwardness, which Bella promptly erases when she turns to me and just says, "Yes." Well, it was really a bit of a scream, actually.
She laughs, and it's a genuine laugh, full-throated and big and amused, ending in a bit of a squeak. "Sorry," she gasps. "I don't know what's wrong with me. Ignore me, please. I'm begging you." She makes a motion with her hands as though she wants to erase the last five seconds of time, and is clearly embarrassed by something. Then she covers her face with the hand that was just waving aimlessly in front of her and groans.
It's fascinating. I have no idea what the hell just happened, but she's got this whole crazy thing going on and I'm totally outside of the situation, with no clue what I just did and why she's acting so strangely. So, yes, fascinating, and pretty freaking adorable, too.
"Uhm, what just - what was that, Bella?" I don't want to embarrass her further, but now it's like a science project and I kind of need to know.
She shakes her head, her face still concealed by her hand, but she spreads two fingers so that I can just see one of her big, brown eyes peeking out at me. "I'm such a spaz," she laments. "It's not as though Rose and Alice haven't drilled me on this a zillion times. I'm just hopeless. Sorry."
"Hey," I respond, and gently peel her hand away from her face in the hope that I'll be able to have a conversation with more than just her eye. "Quit apologizing, okay? In the first place, I have no idea what you're apologizing for, and in the second place, as far as I can tell, you haven't done anything wrong."
"You mean aside from screaming at you for no reason," she amends, and I can see that her hand is migrating back toward her face, so I just go for broke and grab it to keep it somewhere around the console area between us.
"Well, yeah, I don't know what that was about. Care to explain?"
She shakes her head and presses her lips together, as though something bad is attempting to escape. It suddenly dawns on me that instead of just letting me grab her hand, she's actually grabbing my hand back, and we are legitimately holding hands now. I'm not Rico Suave, but I've had enough women in my life to know that they don't generally grab back unless they're into you. The gate might be down at the toll booth, but I'm pretty sure I just got a green light in the car.
"So, listen, I was wondering if you might want to-"
"Yes," she says again, and then whips her free hand up to cover her mouth. "Shit! Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," she babbles, even though it's kind of muffled and the sound is leaking out from around her fingers. "I'm just never talking again. I suck at it. Also, I'm moving to Algiers."
"But you haven't really said anything," I tell her, because aside from the "yes"s and a bunch of rambling, she hasn't. "I was just going to - hey, Bella?"
She nods her head up and down to indicate that she's listening to me.
"Yeah, I was just wondering if maybe you wanted to, you know, do? Something? Like get some dinner, maybe, or, I don't know, maybe catch a movie, sometime?"
She nods again, just once, first up, and then down. "Mmmhmmm," is all the sound I get out of her.
"Now would be a good time to use one of those 'yes's you're so fond of," I grin.
"Yes," she whispers as she turns her face to look at me, and she looks so happy that the joy in her face absolutely takes my breath away. "Wow," is all I can think to say.
"Oh, I've been hoping you might do that for weeks now," Bella laughs. "My roommates both thought I was crazy. They've been torturing me about Daffodil Guy for a solid week, ever since I brought home your flowers."
"Well, I kind of had no choice," I smile back. "I've been driving in every morning just so I could spend a minute looking at you, and I've been feeling really guilty about not using mass transit. If you knew my mother, you'd understand that I'm breaking every law she ever gave me regarding responsible behavior as a citizen of planet Earth."
We just kind of stare at each other for a minute without talking. This feels like the beginning of something pretty awesome; I'm going to be late for work, my BlackBerry is probably filling up with nervous messages and emails from people who need stuff from me, and I'm stuck in a toll plaza in the bitter cold, burning fossil fuel as I idle the engine and spew pollutants into the atmosphere. I honestly can't remember the last time I was this happy.
The walkie-talkie on the dashboard starts to squawk again, startling us both out of our staring contest.
"Bell? You there? Come in," her father's voice grumbles. "Power's back up in a minute or two. I'm on the Bronx span, walking back to the plaza. Is that guy still with you?"
Bella shakes her head a little bit and then picks up the walkie-talkie with her free hand. "Hey, Dad. Yes, I'm still in Edward's car."
"You okay?" He manages to sound concerned, and loving, and extremely suspicious at the same time. That's some talent right there.
"Better than," Bella smiles into the walkie-talkie as she's looking at me. "Hmph," is his response.
"I should get going," she sighs. "I'm not off for another two hours, and I've got two classes this afternoon." I haven't let go of her hand yet. I really don't want to, either, because this whole thing has gone better than I ever imagined it would, and how the hell am I going to concentrate at work now that Bella's been in my car?
"Okay, wait, though. When can I see you again? I mean, when can I see you out of the booth and off of this bridge?" I feel like I need to nail down the details immediately. That imaginary slick guy in the imaginary Maserati might only be a few cars behind me, and he probably plays lead guitar.
She thinks for a moment and then laughs again. "I've got an idea. You up for a trip to a museum?"
She's just said the magic word. I'm a creative director. Art and words are my whole life. "Always, and especially with you. What'd you have in mind? There's that landscape exhibit at the Met - I haven't gotten over there yet, and I think it's only open through the end of this month. Or, if you'd rather check out something more abstract, there's the Bauhaus exhibit at MOMA?"
Bella shakes her head at me and gives me a sly grin. "Nope. I'm talking about a different kind of museum. How about the transit museum in Brooklyn? Maybe it's time to see how the other half lives."
"Oh my God, that's like penance for the past month of ecological havoc I've been wreaking," I laugh. "I love it. When?"
"Uh, is - would tomorrow be too soon? It's okay if it is," she says quickly. "I just can't go during the week, because between work and classes, I'm usually not free until after six, and the museum's probably closed by then."
I squeeze her hand. "Tomorrow's not soon enough, as far as I'm concerned. It's a deal. It's a date."
The lights on the plaza suddenly flicker back on. It should break the spell we're under, but I'm not sure anything could at this point. The driver in the car in front of us honks his horn, anxious to have the gate raised so that he can get on his way. I'm guessing the drivers in the cars behind us feel the same way. I'd be happy to spend the next two hours right where I am, but the Con Ed workers in Astoria are much too efficient for that.
Bella releases my hand and hops out of the car to run back to her booth. She presses the button to release the gate, and the car in front of me cruises through, so I pull up to take his spot. I roll down the window and hand her a fifty, and she laughs at me. The laugh is as beautiful as the smile which frames it.
"Here you go, sir," she says, handing me back my change. On top of the bills is a little piece of paper with her name and a telephone number. "Two o'clock tomorrow, maybe? We can meet in front of the museum."
"Two o'clock," I confirm, quickly grabbing one of the balled-up receipts from my change holder and scribbling my phone number on the back of it and handing it to her so she knows how to reach me. "Call me if you decide you want to ride the train in together - I can meet you at the station closest to your apartment, if you'd like." She nods and the car behind me starts to get all honky and irritated, so I know I have to go.
"See you tomorrow, Bella." This has been the best power outage ever. The little hole I burned in the ozone layer is a small sacrifice as far as I'm concerned. I give her a small wave and then roll up the window again as she presses the button to raise the gate.
I know that this bridge will take me to the FDR South, which will take me to 49th Street, which will take me cross-town to Madison. And while that's where most of me is headed at the moment, the important parts of my brain and my heart are already on a Brooklyn-bound #4 train, anticipating what I hope will be the first of many, many dates with the girl in the toll booth.
# # #
A/N - I have cold water from the tap in my kitchen sink. My kid is warm, and clothed, and healthy; he's well-fed and sleeps in a comfortable bed. My family and friends are safe. I'm rich beyond words because of these things, but the fact remains that one random act of capricious plate tectonics could take all of this away from me, too.
Thank you so much for donating to this effort.