Copyright 1998 Robert G. Ferrell

Romance is an Island

The air was opaque with water. Sheets of rain which defined Torrential Downpour in the clearest possible terms cascaded all around him, and would very probably have swept him away into liquid oblivion had it not been for the (relative) shelter of his little car. He involved previously untried facial muscles while squinting in an attempt to penetrate the pluviose drapery which seemed to have descended upon the world. At best, he could make out only ghostly and insubstantial images of the urban landscape he knew was there. His car and himself seemed to be the only solid matter in a watery universe.

Pulling over to a curb or into a parking lot and waiting out the worst of it would probably be the most prudent course, he decided. The trouble was, in order to pull off of the road, he first would have to be reasonably certain of just where the road was. If he slowed suddenly, or changed course, someone behind him who had to this point avoided any collision with him might cease to do so. He bit his lip and struggled onward through the deluge.

His reason for braving the elements (Hydrogen and Oxygen, in this case) was a restaurant. Not just any restaurant, as though he had run out of food and at home and was out desperately foraging, but a very specific restaurant. At this very specific restaurant, he was to meet with a person of the totally opposite sex. Missing this rendezvous for anything short of open-heart surgery was not, he felt, in his best interests. The lure of the liaison can scarcely be overestimated.

They had spoken for a long while, that evening several days earlier, about a great many topics. She had been witty, charming, and (most importantly, to him) undeniably female. He indulged himself in her every syllable, lost in the glistening magnificence of her lips. Unfortunately, he paid very little attention to what those lips were saying, only that they were saying it, and saying it to him. He was therefore rather ill equipped for this search to which he was now committed, and paying thereby the price of his indulgent reveries. He could recall only that his destination was on the second floor of a building somewhere north of the river. He wasn't sure if he could distinguish the river from any other aspect of the landscape amidst this raging precipitation, but doggedly he went on.

He was coming from the southern tip of the city, and given that the river cut a swath which divided north from south, it should be a simple matter to find it merely by keeping an eye on his dashboard compass. Seldom do things work out to be as simple as they seem, however, and soon he found himself in a part of the city he never remembered having seen before.

Without warning, a terrifyingly large shape loomed out of the murk and blundered across his path with disturbing proximity. He managed not to make contact, and in fact the narrow miss proved to have its benefit. The bus that had nearly bisected him bore the luminous green legend "N. Congress." It seemed to him only logical that following this behemoth would take him north of the river and thence to victory. He slid in behind the bus with a sense of accomplishment.

The pursuit fizzled pathetically after only two blocks, when the bus turned into a great fenced-off parking lot, displaying its "Out of Service" notice to him in large, smug characters. He was instantly annoyed, but ignored it in favor of being almost totally disoriented. He could see nothing but heavy gray wetness; the city itself seemed to have dissolved under the relentless aquatic assault.

Finally, despite a series of profoundly graceless maneuvers, he found a bridge. It was a typical Austin bridge, surfaced not by a smooth coating of asphalt, as one might expect, but rather by a jumble of basically adjoining slabs, none of which were really parallel to the river below. He jiggled his way across the structure, and found himself north of the river at last.

Phase I of his plan had been completed. He was forced now to come to terms with the fact that he hadn't gotten any further in visualizing Phase II than determining that it would follow Phase I. Freed thusly from the shackles of a coherent strategy, he decided simply to cruise.

Now that he was presumably in the correct district, it was only a matter of finding the right building; how simple everything was. He knew that it had more than one story, after all. This fell a little short of being the definitive identifier, he realized: the vast majority of structures in this part of the city were oriented vertically, in the manner of buildings occupying absurdly expensive real estate. It was a way of eliminating a few candidates, though, and he frankly needed all the help he could get.

Despite the gloom of deluge compounded by receding daylight, he could pick out the taller buildings here and there. Making his way to any one of them in particular proved oddly difficult, however. It was as though the bits he could see were merely pinnacles rising through the mist of far greater hulks hidden within a vast and intricately tangled swampland; the impression made him feel impotent.

He found himself entwined within a hopeless miasma of one-way streets, diabolical detours, and maddening road construction that would confound even the most seasoned urban navigator, under ideal driving conditions. In the otherworldly atmosphere of a torrential downpour at twilight, the area took on a positively nightmarish aspect of treacherously shifting perspectives and unlikely topology that made him vaguely sick.

No matter which piece of architecture he chose to target, he found that the roadway fronting it was one way, and that way led consistently in the other direction from the building. He tried going beyond his objective on an adjacent street, then doubling back, only to find that all connecting avenues led to the freeway, or were completely blocked by monstrously snarled utility projects. In short, no matter where he wanted to go, he couldn't get there from where he was.

Once in a while he would accidentally find himself passing a potential candidate, but invariably it would prove to be abandoned, occupied by strange avant garde museums and workshops for trendy pseudo-oriental philosophies, or overrun entirely by law offices. He spotted one promising old building over the roof of a seedy used car dealership, only to discover upon arriving at its location that it was no longer there, having presumably taken off on business of its own ... it's that kind of town.

After over half an hour of increasingly frantic wanderings, a pay phone rose unexpectedly out of the misty gloom before him. He swerved to miss it, and had a corner of his front bumper redesigned by a bench.

There was no directory, of course. It became apparent to telephone companies that people found directories useful and worse, informative; this lessens the carefully nurtured mystique surrounding the operation of telecommunications equipment (so helpful during rate increase negotiations) and cannot be tolerated, at least at a public phone.

He called Directory Assistance with his only quarter.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not allowed to give out addresses." The voice was polite enough, but had a mechanical air about it that he found irritating.

"Look," he began, reasonably, 'I'm not asking you for the address of some poor old lady whom I may then burglarize, I'm asking for the location of a commercial concern. A restaurant, for heaven's sake. Surely no business can possibly object to potential paying customers knowing its whereabouts, don't you think?"

The operator was not only unmoved by this argument, she seemed not to have heard it at all.

'I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not allowed to..."

'Yeah, okay, skip it. Just give me the number."

The telephone kept his quarter.

Several days later, having made no headway in his attempts to explain why he had stood up a date who was then forced to walk, hungry and through rain that bordered the supernatural, to a distant bus stop, he was in the north end of town with an entirely different girl.

They had intended to see a movie, but found that the printed schedule of showtimes bore little, if any, resemblance to the times the movies were actually shown, and was instead apparently a sort of theoretical best case which was never realized in practice. Having missed the movie, then, they decided to find a bookstore and graze.

The store upon which they settled was a large one, located on the south side of a multi-laned, divided boulevard which had been the object of road "construction" for a period of time that approached the geological. They were in his car, travelling west, and missed the cryptically disguised crossover.

"We'll just take the next one and turn around," he said in answer to her unspoken but palpable inquiry, "No problem." She looked doubtful, but maintained her disapproving feminine silence.

There was no 'next exit.' The avenue suddenly and smoothly became one component of a vast, Escherian tangle of overpasses, ramps, and enormous concrete pylons that looked like core samples of Hoover Dam. He considered this, but failed to react in time to negotiate the turn. To cover his failure, he announced gruffly that the exit they reahy needed to take was the one coming up. He could feel the exasperation of his companion, and wanted to apologize, but his ego would have none of it.

She saw the sign warning that the ramp he intended to take was closed; he did not. She waited until a split second before he could not possibly have failed to notice the striped barricade approaching at near-relativistic velocity and said, with exquisitely calm understatement, "The ramp is closed." He turned to look at her as she spoke, then jerked his attention back to the road when her meaning sank in. He spun the wheel sharply and managed to avoid hitting the barrier by driving awkwardly up onto a grass embankment, amid a cloud of surprised dust. The maneuver was harmless to vehicle and occupants, physically, but psychologically it constituted a world-class catastrophe for him. He blocked all memory of the grim drive back to her apartment from his bruised psyche.

Despite an almost overwhelming urge to get the hell out, he walked her to her door. He waited until she had located her keys and unlocked the door with a resounding click, then mumbled "goodnight" and turned to leave, or rather, retreat. He took two steps.

"I had a good time, thank you," she announced cheerfully, "Call me next week?"

He stopped in mid-stride and frowned incredulously at the plumes of fog his abruptly halted breath left hanging in the crisp night air. He turned to face her, slowly and almost reluctantly, as though he half expected to be attacked by a grizzly bear.

"You want me to call you?" He tried to say it, but all that came out of his clamped throat was "Yuuuuuggg?"

She understood this, somehow, and replied, "Yes..that is, if you want to. You don't have to."

He spent several frantic moments trying to coordinate the suddenly independent workings of his lips, tongue, and teeth, and finally gasped, "I want to. I definitely want to." His cynicism where females were concerned leapt up and kicked him.

"Are you sure you want me to call you?"

She smiled a patient, reassuring smile.

"Yes, I'm sure. Goodnight."

With that she stepped forward and kissed him, briefly but promisingly, and vanished into her apartment.

He barely made it back to his car before his knees gave out. The drive home was a kaleidoscopic blur. The world, which until recently had been an eight thousand mile diameter quagmire trying to pull him under, metamorphosed into a dancing paradise of euphoria. Life was, after all, worth the trouble.

Later, in bed and poised contentedly on the brink of a truly inspired slumber, he realized that he didn't have her phone number.