Without a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed my keys, wallet, phone and a few books on tape and embarked upon a 2,839-mile trip from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Brentwood, California. I needed no GPS; I’d simply head toward the setting sun. It, like Al Cowlings’ white Ford Bronco on June 17, 1994, led to Brentwood.
Thirty-six seconds into the drive, I had to pee. I refused to be bested by my bladder, however, and I soldiered on. I made good time, too, hitting every light green in Pennsylvania. Somewhere in Ohio, I popped in the first book on tape, Green Eggs and Ham. The tape lasted 2 minutes, 47 seconds.
An hour or so later, I really had to pee. I had foolishly held it too long, like a scrambling Michael Vick, ball in left hand, waiting … and waiting … to make a big play. I stopped at a roadside diner in Howe, Indiana, and made a beeline for the restroom.
My bladder, once emptied, matched my stomach, so I moseyed over to the counter and the waitress toiling behind it, Tegan. I remember her name because my attention to detail and my memory are as sharp as the picture on a Sony 4K OLED TV. I ordered the tuna melt. Or was it the pulled pork sandwich? Perhaps it was the chicken fried steak. Anyway, while fueling my body for the remainder of the trip, I overheard a Jennifer Love Hewitt doppelganger speaking with Tegan. Sighs peppered the young woman’s every sentence as she told Tegan about discovering Edelweiss online and desperately wanting to get to Brentwood. Today, it turned out, was her lucky day. And mine.
I introduced myself to Love’s look-alike, Riley. She was 19, maybe 34. (Guessing ages isn’t my strong suit.) We hit it off, and when I told her where I was headed and offered to give her a ride, her reaction was no Rorschach test, open to interpretation. She was more positive than a proprietor reviewing his own restaurant on Yelp.
Our first few hours together were as warm and comfortable as a pair of sheepskin slippers. We listened to my second book on tape, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus. It passed the time, and we learned a great deal, though we both felt it was drab, dull, matter-of-fact, prosaic. Riley regaled me with story after story. The one about the time she was a freshman in college and hung up on a crank caller, after cussing him out, only to find out it was her roommate’s grandfather, who had a tracheotomy, had me in stitches. The one about the time she made out with another woman while trapped in an elevator had me in stitches, too — 14, to be exact. As she shared the Dear Penthouse Forum climax of her story, I lost control of the steering wheel and we swerved. I grabbed the wheel and overcompensated in an effort to stay on the road. In doing so, I slammed the left side of my face against the driver’s-side window, which was rolled down a few inches. The blood started somewhere near my auburn hairline and flowed like lava down my cheeks, still flush from Riley’s racy tale. Riley, a bit shaken but not the least bit angry, saw red.
I don’t remember much about the visit to the walk-in medical center. Riley said I held her hand as the doctor sutured my wound. I kept my left eye closed and kept my right eye on her, muttering something about wanting to listen to Aerosmith’s Pump album when we got back in the car.
In less than an hour we were on the road again, Willie Nelson style. I had a headache, so Riley drove and told more stories — nearly a dozen in all — as I slumped in the front seat. She told the elevator story again, fulfilling an audience request.
As our manifest destiny inched closer and closer, the state welcome signs popped up at a brisk pace, the duration between them growing shorter and shorter, much like the generations of the iPhone.
IOWA: COME FOR THE CORN, STAY FOR THE ADDITIONAL CORN
NEBRASKA: BETTER THAN SOUTH DAKOTA
COLORADO: GET HIGH ON OUR MOUNTAINS
UTAH: IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR T&A, IT’S IN ‘UTAH’
ARIZONA: WELCOME TO THE GRAND CANYON STATE — NOT YOU, ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
CALIFORNIA: WE HAVE BETTY WHITE. SUCK ON THAT
Crossing into the Golden State, home of America’s favorite Golden Girl, I could almost taste the small, round pieces of chocolaty heaven. Riley, like Los Angeles’ Millennium Biltmore Hotel, had only 11 stories, so I inserted the final book on tape, a little something called Risk Management and Analysis, and pressed ‘play.’
Chapter one. In order to manage risk, we must first understand risk.
How do you spot risk? How do you avoid risk, and what makes it so risky?
To understand risk, we must first define risk. Risk is—
We found the subject matter captivating, but the guy reading it sounded just like me, and I hate my own voice. To avoid the risk of driving off the road again, I managed to turn off the tape, and after a few games of 20 Questions, we drove the homestretch in silence, marveling at California’s natural beauty. As we neared the Cloverfield Boulevard exit off Interstate 10, I embodied Clark Griswold approaching Walley World. (In my mind, I was running, in slow motion, to the instrumental strains of Chariots of Fire.) At the bottom of the exit we turned right onto Cloverfield and then made a quick right onto 26th Street. Two miles later we reached Brentwood Country Mart, a charming marketplace popular with Hollywood celebrities.
We parked in the lot and headed to the upper courtyard. With Edelweiss in sight, Riley grabbed my arm, pointing wildly and shouting, “I think that’s Jennifer Lawrence! Is that Jennifer Lawrence?” She said she was going after her, and that’d we’d meet later. How, I asked. Riley pulled a slip of paper from her purse, jotted down her phone number, folded the note and slowly placed it in my shirt pocket, gently running the side of her hand along my chest as she did, lingering for a moment in my space. She smelled like jasmine. Or honeysuckle. I don’t know. All I know is, she smelled nice. She looked nice. She was nice. Those Amaretto truffles wouldn’t be the best things I picked up on this spur-of-the-moment trip. Not even close.
Riley smiled, cooed “see ya later” and was off in a flash. I heard her say something, to no one in particular, about arriving in Hollywood and becoming the next Carole Lombard. The name didn’t ring a bell. My attention turned toward Edelweiss, just a few doors away.
Once inside the store, time, like a Hershey’s bar on a hot day, melted away. I grabbed two boxes of the assorted truffles. After traveling 2,839 miles, however, I wasn’t leaving without choc-a-lot of chocolate. A pound of marshmallows coated in dark and light chocolate? Yes, please. A dark-chocolate sampler? That’s a must. A basket of assorted solid chocolate? Sign me up. Chocolate-covered raisins? Uh-huh. A chocolate bar shaped like a computer? OK, I’ll “byte.” By the time I grabbed a few foil-wrapped chocolate hearts at the register, for Riley, 45 minutes had passed. Time flies when you’re having chocolate.
I finally made my way to the parking lot and … my car was missing! Was it stolen? Who’d want a beat-up ’93 Accord? Was it towed? I was a paying Brentwood Country Mart customer. I panicked. Then I noticed the sign in front of the now-empty spot and did what anyone in my situation would do: I dialed 310. After a few seconds of silence: beep-beep-beep-beep. Busy signal. I tried again and got the same results. Strange. My options were limited. I decided to give Riley a call, to let her know what had happened and ask if she had any ideas. I pulled out the note, which had a hint of honeysuckle … or jasmine, and unfolded it. It read: Riley (260).
By the end of the day, all the chocolate was gone.
Special thanks to my sweet-as-chocolate friend Lindsay for supplying today’s main photo. You can reach Lindsay via her blog, IAMNOTASTALKER, or by calling her at (626).