The One That Got Away — I Hope


How I drove through the matrix on the way to Los Angeles.

She called when I was in the car with my Mother, with a trunk full of groceries, two years ago. I was on my holiday-season road trip to Tucson in 2013. These have become routine social and financial breakdowns for me. It seems like every two years, I enter some kind of crisis, and coming from a philosophical background, it becomes an existential one based in the fear and trembling of life in corporate America. Every cycle, my income grows, yet forward mobility feels more like collapsing stairs.

She was calling about a ride to Los Angeles. Using Craigslist rideshare pages, I’ve paid for the road trips, many times. After dozens of passengers, I know that most are uneventful folks, somewhere between poor and middle class, between intelligent and neurotic. I always weed out the creeps, and the desperate. Some people are bigger than their problems, however.

Her voice sounded emergent. I wasn’t sure yet how, or why.

“What’s your purpose for travel?” I probed.

“I’m on… a spiritual journey. I’m going to northern California.”

I took it, because ultimately, I’m learning how people respond to questions, not expecting real facts. “Sounds good, I can dig that,” I said. “Can you meet downtown?”

She sounded solid. But I felt creepy. I was attracted to her over the phone. This is why women almost never ride with men on Craigslist. I think that’s wise.

An hour later or so, I received another call for a ride, from a man. He asked a lot of questions. Usually I ask the questions, but I was letting my guard down intentionally, because I had paranoia about surveillance and wanted to challenge my fears. As it would turn out, my fears were appropriate.

He asked for more details than most people would desire. My address, my car, when I planned to leave, what other passengers I had, where I was going to. I told him too much. If I was under surveillance, he knew where to start and what to watch for.

“Okay, I’ll call you back to confirm.” But he didn’t, because he never intended to be in the backseat.

Diane and I met up at Spark Root cafe the next morning, on Congress Boulevard. She was there when I arrived, seated in a chair, leaning forward, eyes straight ahead. She looked ready to leave Tucson, to get somewhere, to flee, to find something else. Maybe it was this eagerness that helped me spot her.

“Diane?” I asked, pointing at her.

“Hi!” She rose, shook my hand professionally, and we left immediately — didn’t even get coffee.

She was plainly dressed in loose fitting jeans and a dark blue shirt. Just a small backpack. No make-up, no hair styling; on the tall side and definitely fit, around thirty years old. A unique if not pretty face: deep set brown eyes, long brown hair, full lips, a long nose, and naturally tan. She was a good sport as I agonized over filling the tank with the cheapest possible Tucson gas, which is usually the cheapest price range in the nation. I might have saved a dollar. We finally left Tucson for a 500-mile journey at 65 miles per hour in my 1986 Toyota Tercel.

The long flatland from Tucson to Los Angeles can open up a great deal of solar-powered energy for conversation. If she said she was on a spiritual journey, I was down to learn about it. But I found myself gushing as we let the music cascade on shuffle. She didn’t have much taste for my obscure music, but she really liked Tool.

In retrospect, I must have sounded like a mansplainer. I overcompensated. I think like most men, I flout my false views when trying to seem sure of myself for a woman. But for me, politics and religion are small talk.

“I’ve been an activist for ten years. I assume the government has everything about me….” At that time, I was unnerved by the recent Snowden revelations.

I went on, “the billionaires are the ones really benefiting from all that information. That’s what these wars are all about….” I was following the Department of Justice investigations into the financial meltdown of 2008, which had JPMorgan Chase in some hot water.

Diane was careful with her words. She played dumb to this stuff.

“I’ve been hearing about that stuff but I don’t know anything about it.” Should would concede, allowing me to blather on.

“Yeah, it’s crazy. You know I was under surveillance on the first day of my trip? Seriously, but I’m not sure why. I know the Scientologists are following me.…”

I’ve been able to work that out since. It’s true that I was a child Scientologist, and my parents are formers, and that they keep files all formers, but actually, I was under surveillance for drug trafficking. Let me explain. I also told Diane about this.

I had just moved out of my house, where I lived alone. My next door neighbor dealt with a wide variety of substances. He had some valid stories and reasons to believe he was under surveillance at just that time. I too, prior to Oregon’s marijuana legalization, participated in small time distribution, though we mostly kept separate, but I was probably paid attention to. In 2012, I was arrested by the Border Patrol in Texas for marijuana possession, but the charges were mysteriously dropped. Combining all that with a road trip through California during the annual marijuana trimming season, I am sure I was under surveillance on the day that I left Portland. But here is what happened specifically.

I first spotted a young man wearing Converse All-Stars with two children in a new SUV with moderately tinted windows. He was spotted on three occasions in 250 miles. First, in the bathroom at a central Oregon rest area, then outside a pizzeria in Ashland, then at a gas station in northern California. My car is slow, I take long road breaks, yet this guy was right with me for hundreds of miles in his new SUV with kids. Peculiar. He always left just before me as well.

I had a rideshare with me, a 19-year old male artist kid. The man was in the bathroom stall with the excited kids while I used the urinal. The kid pointed out the man there. In Ashland, I was oblivious, but the kid pointed the man out again as we ate pizza. The final time, over an hour later, he actually sat at the pump for several minutes as the kid got coffee down the road. This time I saw him. I scowled at the SUV, then he left.

I wonder if the kid was an informant, after all. He admitted to weed trimming for a living, but he said that he was done with that. Eventually I dropped him off on a random block in Lincoln, California. He said his parents were nearby, but I didn’t watch him go anywhere, so who knows.

As a surveillance investigator for a Scientologist owned, insurance-related investigation firm, in 2001, I tailed insurance claimants in an SUV, staking out their movements. It was my job — but I couldn’t remain associated with those folks. I learned a lot of things though. I learned how to extract personal information over the phone under false pretenses, relating back to that mysterious caller. And I learned how to tail my subjects.

I learned that you’ve been “made” if you’ve been seen by your subject more than twice. There are many ways to avoid this, and whoever followed me broke all of them. To employ a such lame surveillance officer in the 21st Century seems like bad law enforcement, but it makes sense when you consider broader strategies. If I was guilty of drug trafficking, I might have freaked out and dumped my load. I forget the term for this, but the idea is to psych out the suspect and to catch them red-handed; very common tactic.

After telling her that story with all the surrounding details about my life, she began to thaw. Rather than judge me a whacko, she wanted to share intimate details of her life as well.

“I gave up all of my possessions. I walked away from the furniture, the computers, the car, everything,” she told me. “This phone was given to me by the people I stayed with in Tucson.”

“But isn’t that extreme?” Urging the question. “You know, Buddha espoused the middle path. You can have those things, as they are of necessity, but the key is not to be attached.”

“I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she said through a subtle smirk which gave away that she was hiding something.

I pointed out a mountain in west Arizona that I had noticed before; its silhouette looks eerily like a native American face. She could see it too, then started pointing out faces I couldn’t see. “If you want to see what I see, then just see,” she commanded. For about two-seconds, the baron rocky landscape became a malleable illusion, but my rational mind shut that down.

“So what do you do next?” I asked.

“I was in Las Vegas for a while. I was looking for work… but… I don’t think I want to live there.”

“Yeah that place is crazy. Why didn’t you like Tucson?”

I forget her reasoning, but it had to do with style, like “too many cowboy boots” or “too many pastels” or something. She actually had a witty, ironic sense of humor.

“In Chicago, I had everything,” looking right at me before turning to look out at the road. “It was the life everyone wants; I had the best apartment, I was totally put together.” She paused. “But then I lost my son. He was killed in a car accident.”

I didn’t know what to say, but I saw things a little more clearly. “I’m sorry. Now I see this isn’t just another spiritual journey, is it?”

We were several hours into the ride now. The conversation was interjected with small talk, silence, but it also got more intimate. She went on to explain that her husband walked out, and she suffered another accident, more recently, and was hospitalized with her Mother, who recovered. She ran off and could hardly talk to family anymore, but didn’t explain why, satisfactorily. I was amazed at how she held herself together, despite everything.

Concerned she was on a self-destructive path, I asked, “What do you hope to find in California?”

“I could find a bouncer to travel with.” We chuckled.

“Probably a good idea.” I admitted.

“There’s a school in San Rafael I’ve been looking at.” I forget now what she wanted to study.

That non-physical attraction felt over the phone was mounting as every hour, every small revelation tightened our sexual tension. Diane was bottling a secret, and as we shook things up, like carbonated sexuality, the pressure would eventually burst. Without so much as touching her hand I had “blue balls,” like an anxious teenager. I had to use meditative concentration to calm it down.

She wasn’t “hot” per se and wasn’t seducing me. I couldn’t seem to help it; this was a sexy person. I knew it, because by age thirty, I stopped chasing women, and crucially, learned how to recognize their subtle advances. This gave me valuable platonic experiences, on the one hand, and helped me get laid, on the other.

She wasn’t waving me in. So I approached the situation platonically, because sometimes it crosses over. I was sensitive to the fact that this woman had apparently avoided men since her husband left her, and yet, I knew she had repressed cravings, especially for honest intimacy.

We were less than an hour away from Los Angeles when I took an exit I thought would lead quickly to a bathroom. We drove for miles, into a college campus to find one. The moment felt imminent. On the way back to Interstate 10, I missed my turn. The roads were so weird around there that I decided to pull over and route GPS. At that moment, things got strange.

I thought it was a glitch in the matrix, or a staged situation like The Truman Show.

My iPhone froze and shut off, despite strong battery life. The universe, I believed, was waiving me in. So I leaned into kiss her smack on those full lips. She kissed back, then pulled back. I kissed her again, she kissed back, then pulled back again, looking behind me this time.

“We’re popular,” she said.

A red car with tinted windows had stopped itself parallel and across the street from us, as if watching, headlights on, motor running. I couldn’t see anyone inside. I pulled my car a block forward, it drove away.

I parked under the shade, kissed her again, she kissed back, and pulled back again, looking behind me. She said that I kissed “like a rock star.” My phone was back on. There was a hotel on a sprawling property right there.

“Would you stay with me if I got a room?”

“If you want to,” she said.

I leaned in again, she kissed back, and pulled back, staring behind me, eerily. This time I looked and saw a different car stopped across the street, as if staring at us, headlights on, motor running. This one was jet black, windows so tinted that I could only see my Toyota Tercel in their windows. I could feel its eyes on us.

“Is that for you, or for me?” I asked, searching her eyes for knowledge.

“I’m don’t know,” she said, still holding her cards.

I started the motor and pulled forward quickly and turned around — kind of ballsy actually — like my old car was about to engage in a chase. Laughable, but they scurried away. I realized immediately that they would just stay ahead of us the whole time. I was now in a position where my iPhone had been copied and my position was being tracked. These fears were rushing to me.

She admitted to spotting that car throughout the drive, and that she had seen phones freeze and reboot like that before.

“You have to tell me whats going on!” I urged her. “This isn’t for me, this is for you!”

She had been employed by JPMorgan in Chicago. She had access to accounts and that she assisted in fraudulent activities, “…Like Walmart, I could just go in there and enter numbers.”

“I had a second job interview in Las Vegas, and I knew I had the job, my qualifications were exactly the right fit — I never had a problem getting a job — but they couldn’t confirm my employment.”

All ties to her and JPMorgan had been cut. And it just happened to be the case that the Department of Justice was wrapping up their investigation of the fraudulent investment bank, announcing a $13 billion dollar settlement within the same week. If Diane was under surveillance, it wasn’t law enforcement, it was something more sinister.

Driving into the night, into the bright lights and endless sprawl of Los Angeles, with a fugitive from the 1%, I was living a fantasy I never knew I had. This was a story for Hollywood, unfolding in East LA. I started wondering how far I wanted to run away with her, to see how far down this rabbit hole I could go. Or I wanted to throw her out because my life was suddenly in danger. We switched off our phones and continued on.

I procrastinated. We drove around Echo Park. I didn’t want to take her to my friend’s house, whose name is actually JP. Imagine that, if I told her “we’re going to see my friend, JP.”

And I wanted to make out with her. It was too much. But she wasn’t standing for less than a decent room.

“You severely lack romance, if you think I’m going to fuck you in the back of this car.”

She read my fear, witnessed my miserly attitude, and nearly left on her own, into the night on some hillside in Echo Park. But when I got to the bottom of the hill, she jumped back in. She was as afraid as I was.

I took Vermont south, parking at the Vons near JP’s house. She put on a hat and a jacket, and in 15-seconds she looked almost like somebody else. We bought 22 ounce beers and walked around for a while and continued to talk. After her son died, everything started to fall apart.

“My apartment was broken into without a trace left behind. My computers were taken, anything with personal information. I couldn’t stay any longer.”

I tried to poke every hole through Diane’s story, but it didn’t change, it just got more detailed. It sounded like she had an official job title with an unofficial job, and she didn’t understand what exactly she was doing. I was skeptical, judgmental, but the key was that she didn’t need me to believe her, and she needed me nonetheless. We returned to the car. By this time, the night could only unravel from this gaping hole in the matrix.

We watched a young man and woman with two newish cars clumsily attempt a jumpstart, for the better part of twenty minutes. It seemed staged. We just sat there adding our own dialogue. The girl was helpless while the guy was dumb. They seemed to enjoy being clueless. Maybe that was just flirtation. I still don’t know. Typically, I would have gone over and helped them out, mansplaining how batteries, and starters, and jumper cables work.

“Why don’t you?” She probed me.

“I’m going to practice non-interference on this one,” I quipped. The truth is, at the time, I thought it was a glitch in the matrix, or a staged situation like The Truman Show.

That fiasco ended, and she decided to have another beer. I was driving, so I abstained. I watched her walk into the grocery store, then I watched the parking lot.

I spotted a black car with fully tinted windows pull in, stop at the back-center lot where few cars parked, leave its headlights on, motor running, and stay there until about five-seconds after she emerged from the store. Then it scurried off. I suggested we take a walk together.

We came dangerously close to JP’s house. This is when she revealed some very troubling details.

“I think my husband was involved with heroin smuggling. I don’t really know, but….”

“Do you think that’s why he fled?”

“Probably… I was super mom! I drove him, my boy where he needed to go, and worked, and was involved with him. He had anything he needed.”

At this point she was crying, for the first time. I hugged her. “I haven’t told anybody this.” I hugged her for as long as she wanted to be.

I was now beginning to trust her. But all I could really do was rationalize this bizarre story. This was still a stranger from Craigslist! I could only proceed with caution.

Her brief presence in my life forever blew a hole into my perspective.

JP was working at the Ham & Eggs, a dive bar downtown. He invited me over. We arrived, she gave me one last chance to let her walk away, but I didn’t. She removed her hat, put up her hair, changed her top, put on a touch of lipstick, and in one minute looked almost like a different woman. Suddenly, she was hot. I told her so, and she reminded me of the grand wardrobe of her previous life.

“Everybody wants Diane!” She said, narrating her past life.

JP greeted my unusual companion with the open mind I have come to expect from him. Then he tossed beers and wine our way. I wanted to feel at home in a dive bar indie music venue, but everything permeated mystery, seediness, or just plain ignorance. There was a DJ that night, and a small dance party packing in the room. We danced. We drank.

Diane didn’t need to come off sober, just me, and she was soon visibly drunk. Her remarks were off the wall, centered on the greedy, the wealthy, appearing more off-radar than on-point. She was talking about her dead son to strangers. For the first time, I saw her desperation clearly.

By the time we got to his house and the floor-bed was made, she collapsed right beside me. I still had blue balls.

I woke up first, that morning. I watched her wake up. Her eyes searched for safety, determining where she was, remembering the night before. She felt safe with me, on that floor. She let me flirt with her, but that tension had disappeared, so I didn’t pursue it. She was now concerned purely with survival, and she knew I was about to abandon her.

We walked back over to Vons. I got her coffee. We sat at the round table out front, in plain, public view. I got directions to a library for her. She wanted to continue on to San Rafael and would need a new rideshare. I thought about walking with her, but I knew where the line needed to end.

If I wasn’t going to protect her, I had to let her go, and I wasn’t about to get enmeshed in whatever was going on in her life, or psyche. If what I witnessed was all a trick of the mind, then she has a powerful psychosis happening, one capable of dragging me right into it. If I saw what it looked like, and she was truly on the run, then I had no business in it. My purpose was fulfilled.

I stayed in Los Angeles for about a week. I was like a ghost. I was afraid to talk about it, yet I felt like it changed everything. Her brief presence in my life forever blew a hole into my perspective. Now, I am absolutely certain that surrounding us at all times, there is a force keeping things within the status quo. There are things we choose to ignore.

The next day, I was walking back from Vons, trying to forget, when a police helicopter starting circling above me. In LA, there’s always a cop in the sky. With every loop, the apex remained just a few hundred feet directly above my head, precisely keeping my pace. I found myself staring at it in disbelief as I walked. By its fourth loop, I stopped, pulled out my phone and started shooting. It flew away.

The day after that, I called Diane. She told me she was in Sacramento and that she was okay. In less than a minute, she excused herself from the call, and that was it. Her phone number has since been deactivated. Although I looked at her ID, I failed to get the name down in full proper spelling, or any other identifier, and have never confirmed her existence.

I never believed we had the potential to be together, but I’ll always remember her. I’ll always wonder what could have been. She’s the one that got away — I hope.

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