When I was twenty-one, a sailor I knew invited me to San Diego for Valentine’s Day. He bought my ticket, saying we could work out sleeping arrangements when I got there. Nobody had ever flown me anywhere, much less across the frozen country from my New England college to a city on the ocean where Santa Anas blew air like heating ducts.
We danced to “Take on Me” by Aha and ate fajitas; he smelled like baby shampoo along the edge of his hairline, and his hips brushed mine with a promise when he spun me on the dance floor beneath lights that made everyone look like pictures from a magazine. Three times the rose girls stopped by our table and each time he chose a red one. I had never seen a woman selling roses from a basket except in old movies like My Fair Lady. Our waitress flirted with him, letting her fingers trail across his wrist when she took his money for the check. He stared back, longer than I liked. He was a giant carnival prize if I could manage to carry him home.
Driving to the hotel, his hand heavy on my thigh, the car filled with smoke. We pulled into a grocery store lot where he burned his hand lifting the hood. Flames chewed and hissed like feral cats along the underside and across the engine; we watched as strips of insulation worked themselves to cinders. A man older than us came across the parking lot with a gallon of water.
“Thank you, sir.” The southern in his voice made me think of a front porch swing and his hands sliding down the highway of my body. “But it’s nearly done.”
The three of us stared as the final embers dropped onto the car’s insides, and the flames spit to an end. They inspected what they could see of the engine, pulled at a few hoses as men do and spoke in agreement about parts I didn’t understand.
“Just have to try it,” he said. “Can you start it up?” Behind the wheel I scooched forward.
“You sure it’s safe?”
“Nope. But what choice do we have?”
Turning the key, I let myself trust him.