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Island Girl



Published November 30, 2011 at 11:17 a.m.

“Oh, my God,” said Brittney, the young woman texting in the backseat of my taxi. “I think this is, like, a booty call! Well, he is my boyfriend, so I don’t think that counts.”

We were on the causeway, slicing through the cold November air en route to North Hero. On a busy weekend night, an out-of-town run like this is generally a net revenue loser — I can make more money flitting around Burlington — but I accepted this fare precisely to escape the hubbub for an hour or two.

“Did you grow up on the islands, Brittney?” I asked, after seeing her place the cellphone back in her bag. I know that texting and talking simultaneously is second nature to one of the digital generation, but addressing her still would have felt like interrupting to me.

“Yup,” she said, “I’ve lived here since I was born. Can you believe it?”

“I can. So where did you go to high school? Island kids get to go to any school they want, do I got that right?”

“Yeah, ’cause there’s no high school on the islands. I went to Essex, along with a lot of my friends. It was crazy — there were 24 kids in my graduating eighth-grade class. I went from that to my freshman year at Essex, which had a class of over 400. I was pretty much a stoner all through high school, to tell the truth. My parents divorced when I was 14. That might have had something to do with it, if you know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean. Divorce can be a train wreck for the entire family, particularly the kids. Did you manage to graduate?”

“Oh, yeah — about five years ago. I work as a chef in Alburgh. That’s where I met my boyfriend, Jeff. He cooks there, too.”

“Sounds like a movie. Love blossoms over the bubbling marinara, something like that?”

“Yeah, exactly like that,” Brittney said, chuckling. “But here’s the thing. Jeff is moving to Philly in about two weeks. He got a great job offer down there, a real step up for him. So I, like, know that I’m about to have my heart broken. I’ve seriously fallen for this guy. I shouldn’t even be going to his place tonight. When I left my girlfriends in Burlington to jump in your cab, they all thought I was making a mistake. I’m really, like, torn.”

“Any possibility of you joining him down there?”

“You mean moving? It wouldn’t really make a whole lot of sense. I’ve got a good job up here that I like, and all my family’s in Vermont. Family means everything to me.”

We reached the town of South Hero. I get up here a lot — more so in the summer, and mostly dropping customers at the ferry. But when the destination is Plattsburgh or another New York town along the northern tier, I get to actually ride the ferry. On the crossing, I’m like a 6-year-old, abandoning my customer in the cab to run to the bow. I wave to folks in passing boats, and I’ve been known to chat with hovering seagulls.

“Not that everything is perfect with Jeff,” Brittney said, suddenly picking up her thread of thought. “We do get along great, but he is older than me.”

“Really? How much older are we talking about?”

“Actually, he’s never told me, but I’m pretty sure he’s, like, 35 or 36.”

“Well, yeah — that is quite a bit older. But, you know, there aren’t really any rules when it comes to love. Every relationship comes with its own set of challenges, right? If it isn’t an age difference, it’d just be something else.”

In the rearview mirror, I watched Brittney crook her head, considering my idea. She was a comely young woman, with hazel eyes and blond-streaked brown hair. She seemed sturdy and eager, two qualities, it occurred to me, that make for a good cook. In a commercial kitchen, the prima donnas quickly wash out.

“There’s another thing, too,” I continued, seamlessly slipping into the role of Dr. Phil on Wheels, God help my poor customer. “If you’re meant to be with this guy, you’d go with him to Philly. If the pull was that strong, I’d bet you’d do it. The other thing is, maybe the separation will just be temporary, and you’ll get together some time and some place down the road, when you’re older and wiser.”

Brittney, I could see, had tuned me out, and I couldn’t blame her. It’s probably healthy to avoid relationship advice from random middle-aged cabdrivers.

“No, I couldn’t go to Philadelphia,” she said, now speaking quietly. “I just couldn’t leave my family. A couple years ago, my 3-year-old niece drowned in a swimming pool. She was a beautiful little girl. I had a special connection with her. Anyways, the accident brought the whole family together. I just couldn’t leave. I wouldn’t want to.”

A few miles north of the drawbridge, we took a left and soon arrived at Jeff’s house. As she paid the fare, Brittney’s eyes were moist. “Maybe continuing to see him is a mistake,” she said, “but I can’t help myself. It’s my heart.”

I knew what she meant, and who could fault her?