The One That Got Away — I Hope

How One Rideshare Became a Night of Danger and Seduction.

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, December 2013. She was calling about a rideshare to Los Angeles that I had recently posted on Craigslist. I’ve paid for my road trips this way, many times out of sheer need. This was one of those times.

After dozens of passengers over a decade, I know that most trips are uneventful. The people are 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 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 you really should answer to in these situations: My address, my car, when I planned to leave, what other passengers I had, where I was going to. I told him everything. 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, shaking my hand professionally as if this were a sales meeting, but we left immediately — didn’t even get coffee.

She was plainly dressed in loose fitting jeans and a plain dark blue shirt. Just a small backpack. No make-up, no hair styling; on the tall side and physically fit, around thirty years old. A unique if not pretty face: deep set brown eyes, long brown hair, full lips, a long nose, and a natural semitic complexion (she later told me so). 

I agonized over filling the tank with the cheapest possible Tucson gas, which is some of the cheapest 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 flatlands 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 cuts, but she really liked Tool.

In retrospect, I must have sounded like a mansplainer. I overcompensated. I think like most men, I flout my flawed 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 both the rise of ISIS in Syria and the Department of Justice investigations into the financial meltdown of 2008, which had JPMorgan Chase in some hot water. To me, everything is connected.

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.” Pretty soon, I was divulging too much.

“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 believe I was under surveillance for drug trafficking. Let me explain.

Diane listened to the following, attentively nodding her head or gazing at the jagged rock mountain faces drifting along the horizon.

I had just moved out of a rental 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 to friends. I was probably paid attention to.

In 2012, along the way to the famous SXSW festival, I was arrested by the Border Patrol in Texas for marijuana possession. They “lost” my car key. I drove away with the copy. The charges were mysteriously dropped, so far as every criminal background check I’ve been through has told me.

Combining all that background with a road trip through California during the annual marijuana trimming season, I am almost sure that 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, 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. And he always left just ahead of me. That is beyond peculiar.

I had a rideshare with me, a 19-year old male artist, and he was more than a witness; he caused me to pay attention to the man. The man was first in the bathroom stall with the excited kids while I used the urinal. The kid pointed out how noisy the kids were, as we observed them get in their SUV. In Ashland, again the kid pointed out the same man with children as we ate slices of organic pizza on Highway 99. The final time, over an hour later, he actually sat at the pump for several minutes as my passenger got coffee down the road. This time I saw him. I scowled at the SUV for about five-seconds before it drove off.

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, and there was no house on that block.

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, for about six months, but I couldn’t remain associated with those folks, and I quit. 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 targets.

I learned back then that the investigator has been “made” if the target spots them more than twice. There are many ways to avoid this, so whoever followed me didn’t care about being made. To employ a such lame surveillance officer in the digital surveillance era seems like bad law enforcement. 

It makes sense only 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. It is a routine tactic in law enforcement.

After telling her that story with all the surrounding details about my life, she began to open up. Rather than judge me a whacko, she wanted to share more 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?” I urged 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. It was a giveaway that she was hiding something, but she wasn’t about to carry on.

I pointed out a mountain in west Arizona that I had noticed before; its silhouette looked 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, until my rational mind shut that down. I was driving, after all.

“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’m sorry,” I said, proceeding with greater sensitivity. But she voluntarily 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 was seriously injured. She ran away and could hardly talk to family anymore. 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? You know, no matter where you go, there you are.”

“Maybe I could find a bouncer to travel with,” she teased, chuckling with me.

“Probably a good idea,” I admitted.

She continued, ”There’s a school in San Rafael I’ve been looking at.” 

I forget now what she wanted to study, distracted as I was with that non-physical attraction felt over the phone. The feeling had been mounting as every hour, every small revelation tightened the sexual tension. Diane was bottling a secret, and as we shook things up the pressure would eventually burst. Without so much as touching her hand, like a teenager I had what we call “blue balls.” I had to use meditation to calm it down. It became tantric.

She 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, crucially learning how to recognize and follow 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 desires, 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. We were suddenly parked with no GPS on an empty street. The universe, I believed, was waving me in. So I leaned in to kiss her, landing 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. “You kiss like a rock star.” My phone was finally back on. There was a Red Lion hotel on a sprawling property right there.

“Would you stay with me if I got a room?” I offered, knowing damn well I only had a hundred bucks in the bank.

“If you want to,” she said.

I leaned in again, she kissed back, then 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 reflection 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 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 thought I was now in a position where my iPhone had been copied and my position was being tracked. These fears were rushing through me.

She admitted to spotting that car throughout the drive, and that she had seen phones freeze and reboot like that before. I demanded we both switch our phones off.

“You have to tell me whats going on!” I urged her. “They aren’t for me, their for you!”

Finally, all the bread crumbs laid throughout our day-long conversation were leading to the loaf. She had been employed by JPMorgan in Chicago. She had access to major accounts and 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 within weeks of the Department of Justice announcement of their settlement with the fraudulent investment bank, for $13 billion dollars. If Diane was under surveillance, it wasn’t law enforcement or national security, it was corporate.

Driving into the night, toward city lights through the 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, exactly the direction we were driving. My thoughts racing, wondering how far I wanted to run away with her, how far down this rabbit hole I could go, I wanted to throw her out because my life was suddenly in danger.

I procrastinated. We drove around Echo Park. I didn’t want to take her to my destination, my friend Jean-Paul’s house. We call him JP. I would have to eventually tell her “we’re going to see my friend, JP.”

And I still 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,” said the fugitive.

She read my fear, witnessed my poverty, and nearly left on her own, walking down some hillside in Echo Park. But when I turned around and got to the bottom of the hill, she jumped back in. She was more afraid than 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 like somebody else. We bought 22 ounce beers and walked around for a while. Phones still shut off, she explained that 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 had to go.”

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. 

By this time, the night could only fill in from this gaping hole in the matrix. Back at Vons where we left the car, we sat a while in the parking lot.

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 sat there adding our own dialogue. The girl was helpless while the guy was dopey. 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 setup.

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 were parked, leaving its headlights on, motor running, it stayed 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 they needed to go, and worked, and was involved with him at school, in sports. 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 hugged.

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

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 like a different woman. Suddenly, she carried herself as a hot item on the town. I told her so, and she reminded me of the grand wardrobe of her previous life.

“Everybody wants Diane!” She exclaimed, recalling her status in Chicago.

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 nothing was quite right. There was a DJ that night, and a small dance party packing up the room. We danced. We drank.

Diane didn’t need to remain sober enough to drive, just me, and she was soon visibly drunk. Her remarks were off the wall, centered on the greedy, the wealthy, even bringing up her dead son to strangers. For the first time, I saw the desperation. If she was an actor, I was applauding the play.

By the time we got to JP’s house and the floor-bed was made, she collapsed right beside me. I still had blue balls, but I just let her sleep.

I woke up first, that morning, nudging Diane to wake up. Her eyes searched for safety, determining where she was, remembering the night before. She seemed at ease looking at me. 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 to get online to coordinate 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 an alternative universe. If I saw what I saw, and she was truly on the run, then I had no business in it. My purpose was fulfilled, I guess.

I stayed in Los Angeles for about a week. I felt 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 when a police helicopter starting circling above me. In LA, there’s always a chopper in the sky, but they don’t always behave like this. With every loop, the apex of their flight path remained just a few hundred feet directly above my head, keeping my walking pace. I found myself staring at it in disbelief as I strolled along. By its fourth loop, I stopped, pulled out my phone and started shooting. It turned west immediately.

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 was since deactivated just weeks later. 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 online.

To entertain the idea that we could have been a couple, or that I could have stood by her side, is to peer into a completely different life, one totally unexpected and with unpredictable consequences. But I’ll always wonder what could have been, had I stayed by her side. She’s the one that got away — I hope.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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