The Girl on the Garden State Parkway

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.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and In the Meat Department: A Novel, one of which may even be published someday! She is a former candidate for New York State Senate and Rockland County Legislature, and would be only too happy to tell you all about it. You could at one time follow her on Twitter, but she's done with that all that now. Please connect with her on Mastodon instead: Mastodon
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16 Responses to The Girl on the Garden State Parkway

  1. Ceil Kessler says:

    Opportunities like that ARE rare. And I love people who shake us out of our paradigm. “What? I’m *driving*? Coffee? Huh?” But maybe you can make yourself feel better by pretending that she had a problem like “See, I have this head in a bag. Do you know what to do with those?” And for some reason, you were the perfect person to answer that question!

    Or perhaps look at it like this: Because you DON’T know her intentions, the possibilities ae endless! What a great jumping-off point for a story.

    I once met a couple of guys on the parkway (maybe it’s a thing?) and they really didn’t have much to say. They thought it was funny to ask someone to meet them while driving, and at the end of the day just wanted to know it could be done. We exchanged destinations, a few polite words, and continued on our journeys.

    • Ah ha! So this is a “thing”! That had never occurred to me. And you said yes. I’m jealous and proud of you, even if the guys were lame. If she had been a man, I wouldn’t even have thought about it. I would have just said no.

      • Ceil Kessler says:

        They were young (as young as me, at the time) and it was daylight. And, as you pointed out, a well-used rest area is barely the place to commit the perfect crime! 🙂

  2. fransiweinstein says:

    I am sure I would have reacted exactly as you did. And then it would have driven me nuts trying to figure out why she wanted to talk to me. I don’t know either one of you, I wasn’t there and I’m sitting here running various scenarios through my mind. I wonder if she thought she’d met you somewhere, some time. That’s probably the most obvious, but still, it is so bizarre to ask someone to exit off a highway and have a coffee. Could be the start of a great mystery novel or a movie, though. Then you never know, she might read the book or see the movie and contact you through your publisher or production company. You could ask her what she wanted, blog about it and we’d all be put out of our misery. Think about it.

  3. Brian Hanson-Harding says:

    Great story! I can’t believe you’d never mentioned this before. And this is a pretty bizarre incident; I’d never heard of anything like this happening to anyone. The other thing that struck me about this story was the post-it on your computer: “Say yes, and then do it well.” I totally understand the thinking behind that, and I can totally see how that would be the philosophy of someone with all energy, drive, and optimism that you have.

    • Thanks, Brian! I don’t think A.H-H. knows this story, either. I guess I must have been saving it.

      I wrote myself that post-it note when I realized that my first response to being asked to take on a new project was to think things through aloud, wonder if and how it could be done, if I had the time, etc., and that this made me feel and sound like I didn’t have confidence in myself. The end result is always that I do it, and do it reasonably well, so why not just say that from the outset? It feels better and makes a better impression on whomever is doing the asking. I can fret about the details on my own.

      • Ceil Kessler says:

        So, I am chronically over-committed. I love your post-it note, but I am afraid of it. Advice?

      • I dunno…try writing to that Ask Ceil lady?
        Seriously, outside of work, I say no to things these days that I will not learn anything from, that will drain me rather than revitalize me, that will be more frustrating than rewarding, that will probably leave me with no sense of accomplishment.
        At work, I say yes to almost everything.

      • fransiweinstein says:

        Maybe this is a new blog post?

      • Maybe! I almost didn’t post this week because I was low on time and ideas.

      • fransiweinstein says:

        Well, I’m glad you decided to post. And look what’s happened. A great post, that resulted in lots of good conversations and some new ideas. I think that’s what I love most about blogging. The encouragement and dialogue that comes out of it. The meeting of the minds of total strangers. And that could be a whole (no pun intended) other story. Ideas are everywhere. Time? That’s another story. And the subject of my blog post yesterday.

  4. Dian says:

    I often find it hard to go have coffee and hang out with people, even ones I know. I would probably have done exactly as you did, but I would WANT to have had that coffee and met that girl, and to be the kind of person who sees an unusual opportunity and grabs it. Maybe this will inspire me (and you!) to grab the next chance, if it ever comes.

  5. I have to disagree with your ending assertion. Had you completed the (what is now) fantasy, your story would likely have been similar to Ceil’s – short and sweet. It may have sparked the odd exclamation or perhaps a recollection or two…but this story is so full of possibilities! Just look at the responses. Imaginations are on overdrive – a hugely positive effect.

    I am going to copy your motivational post-it. I often have exactly the same reaction as you described when asked to do something out of the ordinary. The first thought that runs through my head is, “Oh, but I’m already much too over-committed” and my initial, unnecessarily ambiguous response is more likely to inspire guilt than relief in the requester once I inevitably agree to the project. Not the reaction I need to provoke. So – thanks for that too.

    • I didn’t think of it that way, but you’re right! Several people commented to me on Facebook that I should use this as a writing prompt and write the end of the story, but I don’t really want to. Nothing I could come up with is as intriguing as the mystery of it.

  6. Nice story, I understand your reaction, better safe than sorry, that’s at least my opinion

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