When I was about 10, I was at the gas station with my dad when I noticed the woman in the car next to us was crying. I couldn’t understand why she’d picked a gas station to cry in – of all the good places there are to cry. But there she sat, behind the wheel of her car, tears running through her fingers that were folded across her face.
After my dad pumped our gas, he walked over to the woman’s car and spoke to her quietly through the window for a few moments before filling her tank with gas too. He then reached into his back pocket and handed her several folded up bills before returning to our car, starting it up and driving away without saying a word.
I’m thinking about that afternoon right now, standing on the side of the road next to my car as I inspect it for damage.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she cries. “I don’t know what happened. The dog … and the sun … I’m tired … I’m running late … air conditioning …”
I’m barely catching phrases in between the hiccuped sobs that wrack her small frame.
“It’s fine,” I try to assure her. “Just calm down, we’ll figure it out.”
It’s actually not fine. This girl – who can’t be more than 17 or 18 years old – rear-ended me on my way to work this morning. In my brand new car. In the middle of rush hour traffic. It’s not fine. I’m upset. She’s clearly upset – I chance a look back in her direction.
She’s standing a few feet away from me leaning up against the hood of her rusted out car. It’s got to be older than her by about a decade. We are stark opposites. She’s barely over 5 feet, and dressed in a worn out tshirt and jeans, flip flops on her feet, her long brown hair tied up in a knot on top of her head. Makeup is streaked down her cheeks from her tears, which are still falling from her eyes. My heels make it seem like I’m towering over her and the draft from the passing cars is whipping my yellow dress around my legs.
“I can’t pay for this!” she nearly wails. Not at me, but I startle all the same. “I’m barely affording car insurance as is, I can’t afford school, I’m doing odd jobs all summer …” she’s still mumbling but she’s turned away from me now and the cars that are whizzing past us drown her out.
I just now notice there are 5 dogs hanging out of the back seat of her car. Apparently one of her odd jobs is pet sitting? Dog walking? The dogs are panting heavily.
It’s hot. No, it’s sweltering. The air is still and the heat is thick and it’s pressing heavily down on us as we stand there on the side of the interstate. A police cruiser with lights flashing pulls over behind us and the officer gets out to asses the situation.
Again I look to the girl who is still sobbing uncontrollably into her hands, and then I look back at the indention her front license plate has made on the bumper of my brand new car. The car I work so hard to afford. The car that I’ve only made three payments on.
“So what are the damages, Ma’am?” the officer asks, peering at me from behind his mirrored sunglasses. At least I think he’s looking at me. What’s with cops and mirrored sunglasses?
I look at the young girl who is now stroking the head of one of the large dogs who is panting and hanging his head out of the car window.
I pull my bottom lip into my mouth and chew on it before looking back at the officer.
“No damage,” I say.
“No damage?” the officer questions and peels the sunglasses from his face. “You understand that if you don’t report this now, there’s no going back later. You have to report any damages or potential damages caused from the collision to me now.”
“I understand,” I tell him and raise my hand to wipe the sweat from my forehead.
“So nothing? No damage to your vehicle?”
“Nope,” I say and walk over to the girl who has collapsed into the driver’s seat in exhaustion.
I shut the door, closing her into her car and lean through the open window. With no air conditioning, the inside of her car is hotter than the sweltering temperatures outside and suddenly it feels like I’ve stuck my head in an oven.
“What happens now?” she asks me, fear etched in her features only made worse when she mistakes my grimace from the heat as something else entirely.
“You go home,” I say as I relax my face.”Get those dogs out of the heat. It’s brutal out today.”
“I go home? I don’t understand.”
“Yes,” I say. “You go home. And you’ll understand one day.”
And I leave her there and walk back to the police officer.
“Thanks for stopping Sir,” I tell him. “You try to stay cool this afternoon.”
“You let her off the hook,” it’s not a question. It’s a statement.
I shrug. “I guess I did.”
“Do you know her or something?”
I offer him a small smile before climbing inside the refuge of my air-conditioned (if not slightly roughed up) car. “Yeah, I know her,” I tell him. “She’s me.”
As I continue my drive to work I think about how mad my dad would be if he knew I hadn’t gotten a police report.
“Irresponsible,” he would say, and maybe in some ways it was irresponsible of me.
But then I think about that day at the gas station with my dad.
“Why’d you give that lady money” I asked him as we drove away.
“Because,” he said, “sometimes people just need to catch a break, to be let off the hook. They need just one person to be kind to them. Just one person to cut them some slack.”
“Do you know her?” I asked, my 10-year-old brain still slightly confused.
“Yeah Sweet Pea, I know her,” Dad said. “She’s me.”