Kyle saw the woman’s reflection in the large convex mirror in the corner of the convenience store. She entered through the front door, and as she breezed past him at the cash register, she winked and held up two fingers in a peace sign. In a small town like Rawlins, Wyoming, it was pretty rare for anyone to come into the store whom Kyle had never met before. And he would definitely remember a girl like her. Her black hair hung in long, loose waves halfway down her back, with small pieces braided and tucked behind her left ear. She wore a faded pink t-shirt that said “Namaste” and old, worn-out jeans with sandals. Everyone in this town wore cowboy boots or work boots. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw pink painted toes.
She wandered through the store for a while, intently reading information on the labels of various items she picked up before setting gently back on the rack. She also looked at the spinning rack of sunglasses and souvenir magnets.
“They never have my name!” she said in a cheery voice, running her fingers over the display of personalized Wyoming license plate keychains.
“Do you have an unusual name?” Kyle asked from behind the register.
“Yeah, we don’t have too many Celines in Rawlins. I’ve definitely never seen a Celine keychain.” Self-consciously, he ran a hand over his hair to flatten out his cowlick. These days, his hair was more gray than dirty blond. He wished he’d put on a clean shirt that morning, suddenly remembering the grease stains on his button-down from fixing the truck last weekend.
“That’s too bad. I would definitely buy one.” She gave the souvenir rack one last spin, as if by chance she’d stumble across a Celine hidden in the ‘S’ section. After a moment, she approached the register with a bottle of iced tea, an energy bar, and a banana.
“Are you passing through?” Kyle scanned her items slowly and carefully, hoping to draw more conversation from her.
“Is it that obvious that I’m not from here?” She smiled, which made her warm brown eyes squint. Small freckles dotted her nose. It reminded Kyle of the map of a constellation of stars.
Kyle smiled back. “I know most people here. I was born and raised in Rawlins.”
“I’m going to a yoga retreat in Colorado, and I thought I would make a road trip of it. I live in Portland.”
Kyle whistled. That’s a long ways. Are you driving it all by yourself?”
“Yeah.” She was playing with her car keys in one hand, and Kyle noticed a tan line on her ring finger, but no ring. “I wanted to see what it would be like to do a solo road trip. I’ve never done one before. Have you?”
Kyle thought about it. “Just to Billings. Nothing as far as what yer doin.’”
“You should try it. It’s been amazing.” She swiped her credit card in the self-service machine after her total flashed on the screen. “It can feel a little lonely, but only at first. It’s incredible that the places your mind wanders to when you have all of that time alone, with no one to talk to or distract you from your thoughts. I’ve been thinking about memories I’d almost forgotten. I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve been alone.” She laughed lightly. “It actually feels pretty good. It reminds me that I’ll be OK, no matter what. Like that old saying, paddle your own canoe, you know?”
Kyle thought of his home, a one-bedroom trailer down the road with no neighbors except the feral howls and yips of coyotes in the night. He thought of his old plastic clock radio phone, the same one he’d had since high school, and how it never rang. He’d never bothered with getting a smart phone; who would bother calling him? He had a prepaid cell phone in the pocket of his jeans for emergencies, but rarely ever re-upped his minutes. Before she had entered the store, he’d only had two customers since 7 a.m.
“That sounds nice.”
Almost every minute of his life, Kyle ached with loneliness. It felt tangible, wrapped around him like a blanket. Sometimes when people came into the store, he’d talk their ear off, grateful for just a few minutes of human interaction. He wished that Celine would cancel the rest of her trip and stay in Rawlins. He could show her around, take her to the butte at dusk so she could see the red clay dirt against the pink sky, the way the sky expanded like a giant dome over the land, curving in infinite cyan in every direction. She could sit outside the trailer with him, two lawn chairs set up around a campfire, and they could talk and wait for the stars to come out. You could see so many stars in Rawlins. He bet that Celine would love it.
“Well, I better get back on the road.” Celine scooped up her plastic bag full of items. “It was nice talking to you, mister.”
“Have a good one, Kyle!” She waved with her fingertips, then slid a pair of large sunglasses back onto her face, concealing her friendly eyes. From the window, he watched her walk out to the parking lot and hop into a jeep with a Life Is Good™ cover on the spare tire. She drove away, her jeep kicking up a cloud of dust. Kyle stared out the window until the dust had completed settled.
Down the road, there were no cars coming.