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thomas millot

Flat tires and young love. Photo by Thomas Millot

It was Christmas Day, clear and sunny in south Florida, the sort of weather that makes even the most curmudgeonly among us entertain the notion that the world just might be rippling with unseen magic and possibility.

This was around 20 years ago. I lived in Miami then; my beau lived in north Florida. Christmas Day is his birthday, and in late morning, I set out for the five-hour drive to share a holiday meal and a birthday cake with my sweetie.

Traffic was sparse on the interstate. About 90 minutes into my drive I whizzed by a car on the shoulder with its hazard lights flashing. A very young man in a suit—a teenager perhaps?—held a lug wrench and stared at a flat tire. A very young woman in a sparkly dress and precarious high heels leaned against the car biting her nails. Something about the befuddled look on his face. Something about their fancy, ill-fitting clothes. Something about the uncertain way he held the wrench. Something. What were the millions of data bits I sifted through at 70 mph that lead me to decide to turn around?

I circled around behind their car, parked and approached. They drew close and held hands. They looked like high school seniors on their way to the prom. “Merry Christmas,” I said. “Having trouble?”

She remained silent; he ma’am-ed me at the end of every sentence: “Yes, ma’am. Flat tire, ma’am. I don’t know how to do this, ma’am. We got a spare but I’m not sure what to do, ma’am.”

When I was in college I took an auto mechanics class. I suspected then that I was destined for a succession of dodgy used cars as I made my way into the adult world, and I wanted to know how to handle minor repairs on my own. What was also true was that I had the hots for the auto mechanics teacher. My plan: Take the class. Do well. Become teacher’s pet. Capture his fancy with my prowess and ignite a romance.

My scheme didn’t include the ending I had fantasized about, but I did learn how to change a tire, and the skill remains a point of pride. Pride, my mad skills, weather intoxication, the anticipation of some good loving later that day, the spirit of Christmas—all factors converged like a Hollywood film plot line. “Let me do this for you,” I said. Merry Christmas and God bless us, everyone.

After feeble, perfunctory refusals, they acquiesced with obvious relief and a long string of thank yous. As I loosened the lug nuts and fiddled with the jack, they stayed close by, watching. “Where are you headed?” I asked. “North,” they said. “Me too.” I told them I was going to see my sweetie. With this they smiled.

“What about you two?” I asked. “You headed someplace special for Christmas dinner?” They exchanged looks as if they were uncertain how to answer. “No, ma’am,” he said. A minute or so of silence, and then he spoke again: “We’re headed over the state line to Georgia.” And then she spoke for the first time, their secret unleashed. “We’re in love and we’re going to get married. Today.”

I looked up. “Married? Well, that is big news,” I said. “Congratulations to you both.”

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Their smiles widened. “Nobody knows,” she blurted. “Nobody but us and you. When we told our parents that we wanted to get married, they told us we were too young even though we’re 18. They told us to wait, but we don’t want to wait. We are in love. We want to be together forever.”

I looked up at them again. Forever is a long, long stretch of highway.

“So you are eloping?” I asked.

“Yes, ma’am. We are.”

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“And you’re sure that this is what you want to do and how you want to do it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “We’re sure.”

As I wheeled their spare tire from the trunk, I wondered if she was pregnant, if this decision was borne of desperation, if their parents knew where they were. I wondered where they would spend the night. Would there be room at the inn? Had I stumbled into an allegory, a parable or a fairy tale?

They stood close and talked between themselves. I tightened the lug nuts—the final step. He rolled the flat tire toward the trunk and handed me a rag to wipe the grease off my hands. “I don’t know how we can thank you,” he said. “You were kind of our Christmas angel.”

I wished them both well and meant it. They asked if they could give me a hug. We said our goodbyes and then started our cars and pulled out onto the interstate. I went first. After a little while they passed me, and the girl blew me a kiss and waved. On they went toward their future, toward their forever.

I wonder where they are today.

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Originally a flatlander, Laura Kelly is a journalism professor who teaches writing and storytelling at the American University in Bulgaria. She lives in Flagstaff during the summer months and calls the city one of her homes. She uses Mary Oliver’s words as her manifesto: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

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