Alex woke at dawn.
It took her a moment to realize where she was, that all of this was really happening. In the passenger’s seat of the car, with him. They were in a town somewhere. Pink sky still hung over the mountains.
“Hi,” he said. As she sat up, he smiled at her. “We’ll be in Missoula soon.”
“What’s in Missoula?” she asked. She supposed that she hadn’t really thought any of this through. Still, she thought of was waiting for her back at home, or rather, what wasn’t, and was confident that she’d made the right choice.
“A new life for us,” Jay said with a smile. Us. He wanted her. She’d only known him for two days, and yet, it felt like she’d known him her entire life. From the way he looked at her to the way he said her name. Alexandra. Her parents had picked it because they thought it sounded royal. And yet, the night before was the first time in a long time that she’d actually felt it.
The car didn’t have heat and it was cold. She pulled her hands inside her sweater. He noticed when he pulled over to get gas, and wrapped his jacket over her. “I’ll be right back,” he said. He kissed her for a long time, deeply.
After he pulled away and got out of the car, she caught a girl her age staring at them. She turned away and disappeared into the store when Alex met her gaze. It was an odd thing, to think that she was the envy of someone else when as recently as three days ago she wondered if anyone would love her.
She looked at Jay through the window, and he smiled again. It was wide, beautiful, and warm. Looking at him, nothing else seemed to matter.
He got back into the car and kissed her again. None of this felt like it was really happening. He was so handsome, so worldly, she had no idea how she could have gotten so lucky. She could have gotten lost in his eyes, blue like the sky on a perfect summer day, forever.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. Then, she saw he was looking at a diner across the street, beckoning with light and warmth and the smell of pancakes and coffee.
They pulled the car across the street, and he put his arm around her as they went inside. Despite being early, the diner was already fairly busy. The Chordettes’ Lollipop played on the radio, and the song made her think of Carolyn, of the long after school hours they’d spend at Kingston’s.
As the hostess seated them, Jay kept his arm around her. Alex had no idea what time it was. They were close to Missoula. While she slept they’d driven two hundred miles. She wondered if Marcia or her father were awake yet and had read her note. If they would try to find her. She doubted it, though.
As they sat down, Alex suddenly felt herself shaking, and it wasn’t from the cold.
This isn’t happening, she thought. Jay could have undoubtedly had any woman he wanted, and It didn’t make sense that he would pick her.
“Jay?” she asked. “How old are you, exactly?” She wasn’t sure why she was asking, what it mattered, but her curiosity got the better of her.
He hesitated for a while before responding. “I’m thirty-four.” So there were sixteen years between them. “Is that a problem for you?” he added.
“No,” she said. She felt her heart start to race. There was a lot she wanted to ask him, but she waited as she looked at the menu. They ordered. Eggs, blueberry pancakes, bacon, coffee and orange juice for him. Just eggs and toast for her. The waitress walked away. As hungry as she was, her stomach was in knots and the thought of eating much daunted her.
“Why me?” The words came out of her mouth before could think.
He laughed. “What do you mean?”
“Why did you come back? That day?” Since the bookstore.
“Because, I wanted to see you again.” It was so matter of fact, so definitive that Alex couldn’t help but believe him. None of the boys her age were like this.
“What?” There was his smile again. His gorgeous smile.
“Yesterday was my first time,” she said. Privately, she wondered if she’d actually had sex before Carolyn. Even though she’d been with Paul for a year and a half, she had always said she was waiting for marriage, and Alex had no idea if that was still true.
“That doesn’t matter to me,” Jay said.
“I don’t think I’m that interesting of a person,” Alex said, barely audibly.
“I think you’re very interesting.”
Alex was bright red now.
“And that you’re beautiful. And smart and caring.”
She couldn’t help but smile now. As he reached out and took her hand, the song changed to Mr. Sandman. Another song that reminded her of Carolyn. But, being here with him, the song itself took on a new meaning.
Sandman, I'm so alone
Don't have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Their food came and they began to eat. Alex was hungrier than she realized, and the blueberry pancakes Jay had ordered smelled so good. Jay must have sensed this because he gave her one of his. As they ate, she realized they had yet to discuss their actual plans. They had $300 from Alex’s savings from the bookstore and another $150 from Jay. It would get them an apartment and probably enough to live on a month, but sooner or later they’d have to work.
It was odd to think of all she’d left at home, but at the same time, it was freeing. She’d brought a few clothes. The picture of her mother. And Ariel, her favorite collection of Sylvia Plath poetry. That was all she really needed. She was sure they’d figure the rest out. Jay was smart. He’d take care of the two of them.
“So, why Alexandra?” he asked then.
“Why did your parents name you Alexandra?”
“Oh,” Alex said. “My mom thought it sounded royal. Edward VII, his wife... she was an Alexandra. A Danish princess. She was considered one of the most beautiful women of her day.” Alex found herself blushing again, her heart racing. He doesn't care, she thought. No one except you cares about obscure historical figures from a hundred years ago.“And your middle name?”
“Jean. After Jean Harlow.”
“A princess and a movie star,” he said. “You should use it. Be proud of it.” Alex blushed again, but couldn’t think of anything else to say. The only time anyone had used her full name before was her father or Marcia, and only when she was in trouble. But she liked the way it sounded coming from him.
“And you love England, don’t you, Alexandra?”
He wasn’t wrong, but she still wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to. Maybe the Beatles pin on her backpack, or the sticker on her notebook. But she was fascinated with English culture. The music. The clothes. The history.
“I’ve always wanted to go,” she said. “My dad has been. Multiple times.”
“So, where have you traveled?”
“Uh, Wyoming. I have family there. Idaho.” She may have just imagined it, but she could have sworn Jay tensed up. “South Dakota. My dad and I flew to Chicago once. But that’s it.”
“I’ve never been on an airplane,” he said. “Would you believe it?”
“I liked it,” she responded.
“How would you like to travel the country?” he asked. “Who says we have to stay in Montana?”
“And end up where?”
“Well, that’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to end up anywhere. Alexandra, how many people do you think always say they’re going to go on a trip or talk about doing things they know they’re never going to do because they know they have a mortgage, or whatever ridiculous excuse? We have none of that. We’re free.”
She said nothing, only because she’d never heard this kind of thing from anyone before, because he was so intelligent and handsome and perfect. Where had he been all of her life?
When they got back towards the car, Alex offered to drive so that Jay could rest. He declined but told her he’d take her up on her offer later. She turned on the radio, settling on Bobby Vinton and his version of Moon River.
She’d never heard it before, and it was beautiful. By now it was daytime, and the sun was out. Between them, the forest and the mountains and the road, everything was perfect. She reached for his hand. He gripped hers for a moment before letting go.
She put her hand on his arm, desperately wanting to feel his touch again.
“I have to drive,” he said curtly.
Alex sat back in her seat, deflated.