A few years ago, I was driving north on the Garden State Parkway after attending a full-day graduate class. I was tired, and the trip home would take well over an hour. I harmonized with the radio to keep awake.
Halfway home, I was startled by some nearby honking. An SUV had pulled up beside me, and the long-haired young woman driving it waved to get my attention, then began making a series of gestures I didn’t understand.
At first, I thought she was trying to alert me to a problem with my car, a flat tire, maybe, or a piece of Parkway jetsam trailing the bumper of my Civic. But the car seemed normal, and when I turned off the radio, I couldn’t hear any scraping or rattling. When I looked back up at the SUV, the girl was still trying to communicate.
She needs help with something, I thought, but what can I do? Her tires weren’t flat, and her car looked fine. Remembering a few terrifying urban legends, I wondered if she were in danger, if some maniac crouched in her backseat with a knife waiting to slit her throat as soon as she stopped, or whether a violent ex-boyfriend was tailgating her. Did she want me to call 911 for her? But her expression was cheerful, and her gestures, whatever they meant, weren’t a cry for help, though it was hard to interpret them while trying to keep my eyes on the road, taking only half-second glances in her direction.
I shrugged at her and slowed down a little. She slowed down, too, then pointed to a sign ahead for a rest area. She pointed to herself, then to me, then to herself, and mimed drinking from a large cup. She mouthed her words in the most exaggerated way possible, until I finally got the message:
“Do. You. Want. To. Have. Coffee. With. Me?”
She pointed again to the sign ahead.
There was little time to decide. The rest area was only a mile or two ahead. Did I want to have coffee with her?
Well, did I?
The better question was why she wanted to have coffee with me.
I ran through the possibilities. The first was that she was a religious fanatic who had claimed the Garden State Parkway as her unique mission field, adding the risk of high-speed collision to the otherwise staid business of saving souls, one driver at a time. The second was that she wanted to sell me some Herbalife or a fantastic opportunity in multi-level marketing. Or was she, maybe, a serial killer? It’s rare among women, but not unheard of. Hers would be the perfect crime: no one would know where I was, no motive would connect her to me, no witnesses on the highway had seen our sign language. She could experience the deranged thrill random killing provided her with almost no risk of discovery. Still, a rest area is pretty safe–well-lit, filled with people, frequented by police—hardly an ideal spot for her purposes. And it was still daylight. No, she probably wasn’t a serial killer.
Maybe she was just ordinary crazy. After all, what kind of person asks a stranger on the Garden State Parkway if she wants to pull over at a rest area and have coffee? Maybe she was so intensely needy and lonely that this was the only way she could think of to connect. Did I have anything left to offer someone like that, given the responsibilities I already had? I had just given my precious Saturday to a dull course in school finance. I had homework to do for the Tuesday class, a full-time job, two children waiting at home who needed my attention after being away from me all day. I hadn’t a moment for myself, let alone a stranger.
She was a religious fanatic, I decided, and I needed to get home.
Acting classes taught me never to say no in an improv. Teaching, marriage, motherhood, and writing have taught me that every day is an improv, and that yes is almost always a better answer than no. I have a post-it note on which I once scribbled, “Say yes, then do it well,” slapped on the side of my computer at work. Unfortunately, I don’t have a note like that in my car.
I gave her what I hoped was a friendly, regretful wave, communicating, at just over the speed limit, the idea that were this a more convenient time, I would like nothing better than to begin what would surely have been a mutually satisfying relationship over hot beverages on the Garden State Parkway, but that, sadly, my other responsibilities precluded this delightful prospect and that I wished her health, good fortune, and success in the future.
She waved back, then shifted lanes and was gone.
And from that day to this, I wish I’d said yes, because a woman who asks a perfect stranger on the Garden State Parkway to pull over at a rest area and talk for a few minutes is someone worth hearing out. If her intention had been to proselytize, it certainly would have been the most interesting attempt I’d ever experienced, and if she had been lonely, it would have cost me nothing to give her ten minutes of my time. And if we’d hit it off, we might have had a friendship with an origin story worthy of a classic screwball comedy. No one ever met cuter than that.
An experience is a better story than an opportunity that one thoughtfully considered, then declined as impractical or inconvenient or insane. Even if the meeting had been a social disaster, rife with conflict or long awkward pauses, it would have made a great story, a story full of yes, alive with possibilities, rich with the beautiful strangeness of the human race.
It would have made a far better story than the one I’ve told you today.