(About a 9 minute read)
“American’s are impossible to understand.”
Everyone of us at our table turned to look at him where he sat at a table next to ours. He was a young man, in his twenties, with short, almost crew cut hair, a wide smile, and a white T-shirt, and jeans.
“Why do you say that?” I asked after a few moments during which we sized him up, and he sized us up in return.
“Please allow me to introduce myself”, he spoke a bit in too formal tones with a strange accent, obvious foreign. “I am Nathan, and I am European, from Belgium. Perhaps you can help me to understand your country. Why are Americans so nice in person, yet so aggressive abroad?”
“Do you mean American tourists are aggressive?” I asked. There were four of us at the table, but I seemed to be the only who wished to speak.
“I mean your country’s foreign policy. You think you are the police of the world. How do you think makes the rest of us feel?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know much about America’s foreign policy. Could you be more specific?”
“Everywhere you go in the world, you behave like John Wayne. You have one and only way to solve all problems. Bang! Bang! Shoot them up!” He gestured with both hands as if shooting recoiling pistols.
I no longer recall where the conversation went for the next few minutes, but at some point, we invited him to sit with us, which he consented to do. I had foolishly taken his criticisms of American foreign policy a bit personally.
I wasn’t sure what our policy was, but I didn’t want to think of it as like John Wayne. I thought we couldn’t be so bad, at least not as aggressive as he said. It seemed to me more likely at the time that our policy was never to start trouble, but to respond with force only when pushed to it.
This was before 9/11, which in retrospect now looks like an age of innocence to me, an age when it was still possible (or so I thought at the time) for even an informed person to believe America was not an imperialistic aggressor running amuck in the world.
Nathan turned the conversation to what we “did in this town for fun”. At that point, the others found their voices, and so everyone was joking about hanging out at the coffee shop was the least boring of all the very boring things to do in the Springs. But then Doug mentioned his passion in life, road trips.
“Can you take me with you on a road trip?” Nathan immediately asked.
Doug immediately replied, “Sure. Where would you like to go?”
I at once knew Doug was serious. Our group was in the habit back then of jumping off on a trip — even one a few days long — within minutes of deciding to take one.
“I would like to see the mountains.” Nathan nodded his chin towards the Front Range of the Rockies in the distance.
Everyone looked at everyone else. Interest and consent seemed present in everyone’s eyes, so I said, “Let’s do it, then!”
Just before we reached Doug’s SUV, I looked back at the coffee shop. Harriet had just turned the corner. “Wait! Let’s see if Harriet wants to go.”
I had met Harriet just the year before, when she was 15, and strikingly beautiful — “The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in the coffee shop”, Luke had called her the first night she’d shown up there. “She holds herself like an African queen.” He’d added.
It was true. Harriet was half-white, half-black, and sometimes went by the name of “Grey”. A few months after I got to know her, he mother had hunted me down to ask for help. Harriet had been talking about dropping out of school, which bored her. I asked Liz, her mother, why she had come to me for help?
“You don’t know? Harriet talks of almost nothing else but you these days. What you did, what you said to her — each evening when she comes home. She idolizes you. She’ll listen to you about staying in school.”
Harriet was so shy, she’d given me absolutely no indication of how she felt about me. All I knew is she came to sit with me whenever we were in the shop together. I was close to actually shocked by the news.
That day, Liz arranged with me to invite Harriet along the next time our group took a road trip to Valley View, a clothing optional resort up in the mountains. She also asked me to unobtrusively keep an eye out for Harriet, protect her from any dangers.
Afterwards, I made an effort to include her in our group, and she quickly fit right in, becoming one of us.
The evening we met Nathan, Harriet readily agreed to road trip with us. Doug decided to take the Rampart Range Road into the mountains. It was very much the “scenic route”: A winding, two lane, gravel road with sharp bends, 200 foot drop-offs on one side. But Doug was such a good driver, and so familiar with the road, that I wasn’t the least worried that he took it at speed. But I did wonder how Nathan felt about that. I couldn’t see, however, because he was in the back seat, and I was next to Doug in the front.
It was full moonless night by the time we got to the Reservoir. In the darkness, the stars seemed infinite in number. There was a slight breeze from across the water, and a chill in the air. Testing the Reservoir, we immediately recoiled at how icy it was despite it had been a warm month 4,000 feet below in the Springs.
So the group of us stood in a circle on the pebbly beach, and naturally the conversation centered on daring each other to be the first to take a plunge into the ice water. “I bet it’s as cold as the North Atlantic. You can’t live longer that about a minute in those waters.” Someone said in a tone of self-aware exaggeration.
“Yeah”, a couple others agreed. “That’s mighty cold water. Mighty cold.”, Brett said in his best funny voice. Brett was the same age as Harriet. The rest of our party, except me, were in their late teens, or — like Nathan — in their early twenties. I was the only one in his 40s.
Soon the dares came. “You go first.” “After you, I must insist.” “It would be my pleasure, good chap, if you were to lead the way.” And so forth. No one really wanted take a dip, but — being mostly guys — we could not bring ourselves to declare it was just too damn cold.
That went on for a few minutes, during which time I suddenly realized Harriet had left the circle.
I lifted my eyes to spot her about ten yards or so down the beach, almost completely nude. By the time she took her panties off, everyone had noticed my gaze and had turned to follow it.
Once fully nude, she stood for a moment artfully erect like a magnificent bronze by a master sculptor. Then she moved.
It had always been hard for me not to catch my breath each time I saw Harriet’s graceful walk, but that night, the beauty of her stepping across the beach was almost intense enough to be painful. I was wearing shoes, but I could still feel through their soles how uncomfortable the pebbles were. Yet there was not a hint of that in Harriet’s stroll. Her curvy but slender body glided over them as if they were merely a plush red carpet, and she was walking the aisle to her coronation.
I was suddenly proud of her. Only sixteen, and she was showing her “elders” — all men — how it was done. But I think we all must have been spending too much time in near awe of her for any of us “macho sorts” to feel embarrassed that a “mere girl” was showing us up.
After everyone but me had taken a necessarily brief plunge (I suspect I was the only male on the beach who absolutely felt no need to prove his manhood that night), we joined up again in our circle. Andy — who was a fringe member of our group that seldom took road trips with the rest of us — started talking about how his U.U. youth group used to entwine elbows in a circle like ours so that they could all lean way back at once and stare nearly straight up into the infinite night.
Sounded like a good idea, so we did it. It felt like falling upwards into the sky.
The singing soon started, most everyone joining in for one popular song after another. Nathan took the lead then, calling out the songs and starting in on each, while the rest of us followed.
At some point that night, I sensed Nathan was now to some significant degree, one of us.
Much later, Doug drove down the mountain even faster than he’d driven up it.
It turned out Nathan was in town for two weeks, scouting the Springs for a minor Hollywood movie that was to be filmed there in few months. In the evenings and on the weekends he was usually at the coffee shop and we met up frequently while he was in town. We didn’t take anymore road trips during those two weeks, but we didn’t need to: The night we’d taken our one had been magical enough — Nathan was one of us now.
He felt the same way about us. Within a week of the trip, he made plans to come back to the Springs in a month with his fiancé. “I want the honor of introducing her to you, Paul. I want you two to meet.” He didn’t say it, and maybe I only imagined it, but each time he brought up our meeting each other, I got the impression he was bringing her to the Springs for the sole purpose of meeting me.
True to his word, he came back with her almost a month to the day he left town. She was every bit as charming as him.
Naturally, a road trip was suggested and agreed to. New Mexico’s hot springs. But I couldn’t get time off from work for the three or four days the trip was expected to take — a misfortune I felt with nearly the force of a tragedy.
Brett later told me the trip had been a disaster. They had failed to find the hidden hot springs known mostly only to locals, the locals when asked, had jealously guarded it by directing them to a mud puddle of a springs, and to seal matters, Andy had tried once again to overcome his feelings of social awkwardness by talking non-stop from start to finish.
Even Brett — who is the most pacific of men — told me he himself wanted for endless miles to toss Andy from Doug’s SUV. Under Andy’s insensitive and rude onslaught of rambling words, everyone had retreated into shells to suffer in silence.
“How did Nathan and his fiancé take it, Brett.”
“Like everyone else, Paul. Like everyone else.”
If by slim chance you’re reading this, Nathan, my deepest apologies. I should have quit the job — I could have gotten another one easily enough, and then taken Andy’s place on the trip. I would have loved to have gone with you.