I find him sitting on the steps of the motel, elbows on his knees, hat tipped forward over his eyes, a shield against the evening sun. Yesterday, I’d have been thrilled to see him there, my very own cowboy, all legs and shoulders and work-worn denim.
‘London?’ he says, lifting his head, an eyebrow arched. He pulls a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. ‘You’re going back to England?’
Damn. This is not how I’d wanted this conversation to start. I reach for the paper, the boarding pass I’d asked the manager to print for me. Dale whips it away, holds it above his head.
‘Let me guess,’ he says, grasping the rail and heaving himself to his feet. ‘It’s not me it’s you?’
My mind fumbles for a response. ‘Yes. No. I mean. It’s time. That’s all. You know I was only ever passing through. I never meant to stop this long. I only meant to …’
What? What had I meant to do? I’d meant to leave Ian and my two-up-two-down-nine-to-five-very-British life. I’d meant to cash in my savings and see the world. I’d meant to buy a car and drive across the States. It was supposed to have been the road-trip of a lifetime, a Shirley-Valentine-meets-Thelma-and-Louise adventure, except without the shooting, stealing and driving off cliffs. Ian had said I was having a mid-life crisis, told me I’d be back. I’d said I was finally living my life, told him to sod off.
‘Nicky.’ Dale takes off his hat and spreads his arms. ‘What’s going on?’
I shake my head. How can I explain? He’ll think I’m mad. Hell, I think I’m mad.
‘Come on, darlin’. Talk to me. Was it something I did? Something I said?’
Yes, I want to shout. Yes, it was both: we’d been to the rodeo, spent the afternoon watching men roping cattle, wrestling them to the ground, wrangling them into pens. It had been loud and hot and dusty; our clothes had glued themselves to our skin.
‘Wanna cool off?’ he asked afterward. ‘I know a place.’
We swam for hours, nothing between us but water. We lay on a blanket, nothing above us but sky. He talked about the plains and the mountains, all the places he wanted to show me. I listened, painting pictures in my mind.
As the air cooled, he leaned over me. ‘How much that motel costing you?’
‘Not much,’ I replied, shrugging.
‘Must be eating up your money though.’ He slipped his arm beneath me. ‘They’re hiring at the diner.’ He pulled me against him, circled his other arm around me. ‘And I got plenty of room at my place. You could save some coin if you come stay with me.’
I look at him now – all legs and shoulders and work-worn denim – and part of me wants to stay, but as he steps forward and reaches for my hand I find myself stepping back, and all I want to do is run.
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