My new novel THE CHRISTMAS LAYOVER is about friendship among strangers. While the terms friendship and stranger seem more like antonyms than synonyms, that is (happily) not always the case. In my book, a small town opens its arms to an airliner full of strangers at Christmastime, and, in my own life, I’ve had similar experiences. On more than one occasion, those that didn’t know me from Adam reached out with the hand of friendship and drew me into their lives just when I most needed to feel included. One such occurrence happened long ago in a college town called Athens, Georgia. I’d like to share it with you.
I’d seen her around campus long before I pledged the Kappa Sigma fraternity the winter of my sophomore year. I’d admired her from afar—the epitome of the untouchable college beauty. I’d decided that if I were forced to choose one perfect girl, she would be the one. Even though our paths crossed several times a day, I felt as if she lived in some remote corner of a distant universe. I was sure she had no clue I existed.
She was there the night, several weeks into my pledgeship, when I was invited to join the frat brothers at a local honky-tonk. A favorite band was playing that night, and I welcomed the chance to get out of my stuffy dorm room and away from the grind of studying.
I arrived late and took a seat at a table alone in the back of the room. The others didn’t notice me from their front row of clustered chairs near the stage, but I didn’t care. I was in no mood to socialize with the same slave drivers who made me scrub the floors and take out the trash. I made a pact with myself to hang out for fifteen minutes and then beat a hasty retreat.
I heard a familiar laugh. . .. Then I saw her. She was sitting among them, and I wondered who had made her laugh, wishing it had been me. She seemed to shine, making everything and everybody else in the room fade to insignificance. I looked around and wondered if anybody else saw her, but they all seemed too caught up in their corners of conversation to notice. How could they not? She was stunning. Radiant. I discovered that if I shifted my chair a little to the left, I had a clear view of her. I could watch her surreptitiously—the band in front of her providing the perfect cover.
I imagined myself sauntering up to her and asking her to dance. What would she say? Would she just laugh or simply look right through me? Maybe my voice would crack, and I’d turn and slink away as if it had all been a mistake. Then I could simply spend the rest of my college years going around corners and taking roundabout routes to avoid seeing her.
At that moment, she turned toward the back of the room—her eyes searching as if she’d felt my thoughts on her. I blushed bright red when her gaze rested on me. I saw her lean over and whisper something to one of the brothers, and then she got up and weaved her way back through the cluster of tables. She was coming toward me.
For a moment, my heart began to race, thumping so violently I was sure she could see the fabric on my shirt moving. I looked over my shoulder and saw the “Restroom” sign. I breathed a sigh of relief. Who was I kidding? I took one last sip of my ginger ale. It was time to go home.
“Hey, Rob, what are you doing back here all by yourself?”
I looked up, and she was standing right in front of me. She was smiling as if we’d known each other all our lives. I swallowed hard. My voice vanished into thin air. She pulled out a chair and sat down at my table.
“How’d you know my name?” I finally managed to mumble, several octaves higher than normal.
“I asked around,” she said with a twinkle in her brown eyes. “I always make a point of knowing the names of all the cute guys on campus.”
I flushed a deep crimson, and even though I’m sure she noticed, she didn’t mention it. She took a sip of my ginger ale and began to talk. She told me all about herself. Where she grew up. What her family was like. Her favorite movies, what she liked to eat, her hopes and dreams and disappointments. Fifteen minutes turned into a half hour, an hour became two. We talked and laughed like old friends. There were people all around and a band playing somewhere behind us, but I’d long since lost consciousness of the din of voices, the music, the smell of smoke. We’d slipped into our own world—one where a new friendship was being born.
By the time the band finished its third encore, Kim Lattanze had stepped off the pages of my imagination and into my life. She bid me good night at the door and walked off into the night.
We became the best of college friends in the months and years that followed. On graduation day, we hugged goodbye and promised to always stay close. We faithfully kept our pledge with cards, letters and numerous phone calls. Sometimes we’d run into each other at some alumni gathering or football game. She’d take me by the hand and pull me to a corner, where we’d take up right where we left off as she’d pepper me with questions about my family, career and love life. We’d always leave with a promise to be a little better at staying in touch.
“Where’s Kim? I thought she’d be here.”
I was standing in the middle of a crowded ballroom at the large southern wedding of a college fraternity brother. I wondered why I hadn’t seen Kim. We’d both talked about the wedding in our letters, said we looked forward to seeing one another, to catching up. I asked a college friend a simple question in that ballroom, and his answer forever changed my life.
“You didn’t hear? Kim was killed. Car accident. I’m so sorry you didn’t know.”
It was in the days before the internet when it was still possible to simply be left out of the loop. Everybody else thought somebody else had told me. I felt as if someone dropped a bowling ball on my chest. I immediately walked out of the wedding, found a quiet spot and broke down. I wept unabashedly, shaking and sobbing, holding nothing back. Kim was gone. She was gone forever, and she wasn’t coming back. The letter I’d gotten from her not so long before, sent on flowered stationary in a peach-colored envelope, would be her last.
Nearly thirty-five years later, my thoughts sometimes still drift back to those college days. I recall an evening—a moment kept alive in the memory of Kim’s smiling eyes. One small but unforgettable minute in time. A shy boy, a beautiful girl and the precious gift of friendship she’d brought to my table that night.
And now, when I invariably find myself scanning the corners of rooms at parties, I stay vigilant—always on the lookout for that timid stranger who might feel a little out of place, a little left out. I can recognize myself in those bashful souls, and then I think of Kim. What would she do in a situation like this? I walk over and say hello.
The weather forecasters said the snowstorm would miss the eastern seaboard. They were wrong. When Ally Henderson’s flight from Southern California to get married in New York City for Christmas gets diverted to the tiny Midwestern town of Bethlehem, she’s desperate to get back in the air and back to the Big Apple. But with all the airports closed, she’s forced to rely on Midwestern hospitality to wait out the storm. And she soon learns that she has a storm of her own to weather. One that could shatter her life.
Living with a kind stranger is one way to spend a snowed-in Christmas, but when she meets the local diner owner, Jake, sparks fly. Only, Ally’s a big-city girl with big-city dreams, and Jake will always be a Bethlehem boy.
About Robert Tate Miller
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Robert Tate Miller was raised in Hendersonville, North Carolina where he started writing at a young age. Rob has written many screenplays and has had six movies produced for the small screen. His TV movie credits include Three Days, Secret Santa, Hidden Places, Farewell Mr. Kringle, Christmas Cookies and Love Struck Café. Rob wrote the novels Secret Santa (Atria), Forever Christmas (Thomas Nelson), and The Christmas Star (Waterfall Press). Rob graduated from the University of Georgia with a BA in Journalism/Mass Communications. He lives in Los Angeles, California.