It could have been any toll bridge looming before us in the middle of the night. It was there, standing between what we left behind and where we hoped to be; unseen in the blackness of the night, yet we could hear its presence in the sound of tires switching from asphalt to metal. It was the last major hurdle before I would deliver my friend, devastated by a breakup, into the care of his big brother. It could have been any bridge; but in our case it was the Tobin Bridge and our destination was Boston.
Trevor1 lived across campus, but somehow, even with 5,000 undergraduates separating us, we had met and our friendship had grown. Perhaps it was because we were both tall, gangly, and just a wee-bit nerdish, but whatever it was we were pals. We rarely hung out, but when we did it was as though we had known each other since childhood. It was an undramatic Friday night in Spring, somewhere between mid-terms and finals; that pause in college life when you might be thinking of home, or you decide to stay in to do laundry. I had to work on Saturday morning, not early, but as a basketball cheer-leading coach for Junior High girls, I knew I had to be ready for the astringent smells, loud bouncing balls, and yelling. I needed to be on my game if my girls would be on theirs. So I was in my dorm room, folding laundry when Trevor called.
“I’m a mess, I need help,” he said. “I’ve gotta see my big brother.”
“Talk to me, tell me what’s going on.”
“My girlfriend and I broke up, and …” I could hear his voice break on the other end. “I just wanna see me brother.”
“Okay, okay, so where does he live.”
“Who’s gonna take you?”
“My friend has a car, he’ll let me use it.”
“You can’t go alone.”
“Will you take me? I have to see my brother.”
I looked at the clock: 11:00 PM. It would be at least 1:00 AM when we arrived at his brother’s. I don’t even know his brother. This, I knew, was not a good idea.
Twenty minutes later I was pulling into a gas station, filling up a car I didn’t own, to drive to Boston. Trevor and I pooled our money. After putting a couple of gallons of gas in the tank we had enough change left for a couple of emergency phone calls. This was before cell phones and if ATMs existed, they never seemed to have any money to give me. We would have to survive on the few quarters and dimes we had left. When I asked how we would get back he assured me his brother would give him money for the trip back and he promised I would be back for my game. I believed.
I remember little of the ride to the Tobin Bridge. Trevor talked about his girlfriend, how he loved her. He talked about how his brother would help Trevor navigate this nightmare. I probably thought about how nice it must be to have had a serious relationship, how tired I was, and hoping we wouldn’t get lost. I know I was worried about Trevor, and soon I was worried that we weren’t going to have enough gas to even make it into Boston.
“Trevor, this thing eats gas. We have to stop soon.”
We traveled for a few more moments, both watching for an open gas station and seeing none. Then, at the same time we saw the sign for the Tobin Bridge, we saw a gas station. Tension drained from my shoulders as I pulled to the pump. Trevor went to the plexiglas window and handed a shaggy-headed guy all of our change. I stepped from the car and spun open the cap. Within seconds another gallon had trickled into the tank and the pump clicked off. We looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. Would we even have enough gas to get to his brother’s apartment?
Trevor went back to the window. I stood next to him. The air was cooler here by the water so I shifted my weight from foot to foot and rubbed my arms with cold hands.
“Hey, do you know how far away this address is?” He pushed a paper toward the guy. The guy looked and nodded.
“Not far at all. Just cross the toll bridge and it’s another five minutes.”
Trevor sighed in relief and then panic hit us both. We said it in unison: “Toll Bridge?”
“Yup. Just a buck-fifty.”
Now it might have only been fifty cents. To tell the truth, I can’t remember. All I knew was we didn’t have a dime. We went back to the car, oblivious to all around us. He opened his side; I opened mine. We lift rugs, opened ash trays — the real kind with cigarette butts and the little silver hole to snub out the butt. Nothing. Not a penny.
And there we were in the blackness of the night, and like the invisible bridge ahead of us, we were suspended between where we had left and where we needed to be. We did not have enough gas to return to our campus. We did not have enough money to continue on to Boston. For a brief moment, I no longer believed it would all be okay.
“Hey you kids. What’s going on?”
A man approached Trevor. He had a serious look, like a cop, or worse, one of our Dads. Trevor told the story: his girl, his brother, his friend (that’s me), the money, the gas, the toll. The man reached in his back pocket and pulled out a five and handed it to Trevor. We looked at it like it was a million bucks.
“Let me go get change.”
“Nah, keep it.”
“Then please, give me your name and address and I’ll reimburse you,” said Trevor, following the man to his car.
The man stepped into his dark sports car, shut the door, and rolled down his window.
“Nah. I’ve got a thousand of those for every dollar you have. See you later.”
He drove away.
It’s a simple story really. Two kids in need and a kind stranger. The five dollars was nearly nothing to the stranger. But for us two kids, one broken-hearted, the other losing faith, it was a gift from heaven.
We made it to Trevor’s brother’s apartment where I slept in a warm bed while the brothers talked through the night; and the next day, true to his word, Trevor and I made it to the smelly, loud, basketball game. And all was good.
1) Name changed.
In case you had fun reading this, here’s another Cool Encounter.