Ellen watches the dark-haired woman standing on the street corner. The woman clutches her clipboard tight against her small frame, her eyes hopeful as they meet each passerby. “Are you registered to vote?” she asks anyone who will listen. A gust of wind whips through the air and the woman pulls her too thin cotton jacket tight around her neck and tucks her long hair behind her ear for the millionth time, only to have it blown loose again moments later.
Most people hurry past her, like she’s not even there, but her perseverance doesn’t seem to waiver. Occasionally, someone will grunt a response. Ellen’s on the patio of her favorite neighborhood café, thankful for the warmth of a nearby heat lamp, and she can just make out their muffled retorts.
“Have you listened to the news? My vote doesn’t matter.”
“Why bother, it’s all rigged.”
“Who has time for that, honey?”
Ellen smiles when a tall thin man finally stops to talk to the woman. He has to bend down to hear her, and after a while, she hands him her clipboard. As she watches them, Ellen considers registering herself. She’s only been in Virginia for a few months and hasn’t gotten around to registering at her new address. She’s registered in Colorado, the state where she grew up and went to college but has no plans to be anywhere near there on election day, and up until this moment, just figured she wouldn’t vote in the upcoming election. When the tall thin man moves on, Ellen slowly gets up out of her chair, tosses her coffee cup in the garbage and takes a few tentative steps toward the woman. “I’d like to register,” she calls out.
The woman pauses her canvassing and treats Ellen to a full dimple smile. “Okay, great.” She hands Ellen her clipboard. “You just need to fill out this form. It’s as easy as that. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Ellen starts to enter her information, pausing briefly to glance up at the woman. “It’s really great of you to stand out here and do this. I bet it’s tough to stop people on the street and get them to register.”
The woman tilts her head to the side and lifts her hands in the air. “Yeah, it can be, but I keep at it because it’s so important.”
Ellen nods and turns back to the registration form. When she’s done, she hands the woman back her clipboard. “There you go.”
The dimples come out again. “Thank you so much. Now, don’t forget to vote!”
“Um, I won’t.” Ellen bites her bottom lip. “I’m Ellen, by the way… Oh, but I guess you know that,” she says with a laugh, gesturing at the form she just completed.
The woman extends her hand. “Nice to meet you Ellen. I’m Layla.”
“Oh my gosh,” Ellen says when their fingers touch. “Your hands are like ice cubs, you must be freezing.”
Layla shrugs. “Um, a little, but it’s not too bad.”
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
“It’s sweet of you to offer, but I really should try and get a few more people registered before I call it quits.”
Ellen waves toward the café. “I’ve got a little bit of work to do. I’ll be inside if you change your mind.”
Layla slips into the seat across from Ellen thirty minutes later. Ellen signals the barista and within two minutes, a piping hot cup of coffee is sitting in front of Layla. She grips it with both hands. “Ah, warm. My fingers feel like they’re about to fall off.”
Ellen watches as she takes a slow sip from the cup. Her dark brown eyes close slightly when the warm liquid reaches her lips. “So, how’d it go out there?” Ellen asks.
Layla sets her cup back down on the table but keeps her hands wrapped around it. “Not too bad. I think I registered almost thirty people today.”
“Wow, that’s awesome.”
“Yeah, I just hope at least some of them show up to vote.”
“What drives you to do it, to stand out in the cold and register people?”
Layla takes one more sip of coffee before responding. “I read somewhere that like half the population doesn’t vote and I was flabbergasted, but it wasn’t until the recent travel ban that I decided to try and do something about it.”
“Yeah, the travel ban really got people fired up, and for good reason.”
“It was more than that for me. My dad’s American, but my mom is from Iran and she still has some family there. When the ban was announced, I joined a bunch of the protests, and what really struck me was the fact that some of my fellow protesters weren’t registered to vote even though they were eligible.”
“Wow,” Ellen replies. “You’d think if people were out there protesting, they’d be totally motivated to vote.”
“Yeah, you’d think. You’d be amazed at the excuses people come up with. A lot of them are disillusioned about the whole process.”
“Sometimes, I can’t say I blame them.”
Layla drains her coffee cup and the barista quickly replenishes it. “It’s one of those cases, what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Politicians know who votes and who doesn’t. They cater to the people they know go to the polls. We might actually see a shift in policy if more people voted.”
As they talk, Ellen finds Layla’s passion intoxicating. She’s so damn earnest. It’s adorable.
It’s well after dark when the barista starts sweeping the floor around their table. Ellen leans toward Layla and whispers, “You think he’s trying to give us a hint?”
Layla laughs and glances at her watch. “Wow, I didn’t realize it had gotten so late. I should go. I’ve got a bunch of reading to do.”
Ellen pushes back her chair and stands. “Are you in school?”
“Sort of. I work full time but I’m also working on my master’s degree.”
Ellen’s impressed. “Do you spend all your free time standing on street corners trying to get people registered to vote?”
Layla chuckles. “Well, not all of it, but I—”
“So you might have a little bit of time leftover to have dinner with me?”
If Layla is taken back by the question, she doesn’t show it. She grins slightly. “I might.”
“How about tomorrow night?” Ellen asks.
Layla gestures toward the street corner. “I plan to be back out there tomorrow, but um, maybe after that.”
Ellen slips on her coat. “Cool. I’ll be here at the café tomorrow. Come find me whenever you’re ready.”
“Okay, will do. It was really nice talking with you.”
Ellen gives Layla a quick hug. “Same here.”
Ellen can’t help but smile when she sees Layla walk in to the café just before seven the following evening. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and her cheeks are flushed from being out in the cold. She looks incredibly beautiful. “Hungry?” Ellen asks.
“I know this little Italian place around the corner.”
“Do you want to warm up a little bit before you go back outside.”
Layla shakes her head and tugs at her coat. “No. I had the sense to wear something a little warmer today. It seems like we went from summer to fall overnight and I think yesterday threw me a little off guard.”
Ten minutes later they’re seated across from one another at a small table near the window. As soon as they’ve placed their orders Ellen asks, “So what do you say to people in order to get them to register?”
Layla reaches for the basket of bread on the table. “I ask people what issues they care about.” She breaks off a piece of bread, layers it with butter and pops it into her mouth. She holds up her finger to signal ‘one second’. “Like today, I talked to a Hispanic woman. She’s a US citizen, but many of her friends are not. Immigration is a hot button issue for her. I convinced her to register so she could vote for candidates who share her views on immigration. A few of the people I talked to had kids in tow, and for them, education was a big concern.”
“That makes sense.”
“Yeah, the key is to connect with people.”
Ellen fiddles with the edge of her placemat. For some reason, she’s really nervous. She’s only known Layla for twenty-four hours, but she feels totally captivated by the woman. She’s desperate to get to know her better, understand what makes her tick. “So, what do you do when you’re not standing on the street corner?” she asks finally. “You mentioned you work full-time…”
“Yeah I do. I’m a teacher. High school algebra.”
Ellen laughs. “Ah, everyone’s favorite subject. I bet people run from you at parties.”
“Ha, yeah, people usually cringe when I tell them what I teach. Most people have terrible memories of high school algebra class. What about you, what do you do?”
“I’m a flight attendant for Logan Airlines.”
“Oh, wow. That’s got to be a tough job. No way I could do that. You must have some stories. I mean, people can be so awful.”
“They can be, and I do encounter my fair share of obnoxious idiots, but for every one of them, I meet a hundred people who are kind and interesting.”
“I bet you travel a lot,” Layla says and pops another piece of bread in her mouth.
“Normally, yes, but I’m not flying much right now. I’m helping to train new hires at a facility out near the airport.”
The waiter returns with the beers they ordered. Ellen picks up her glass. “Here’s to high voter turnout.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Layla says. She clinks her pint against Ellen’s and takes a big swig of her beer. “So, what made you want to be a flight attendant?”
“Growing up, I never had much money, but I’ve always dreamed of traveling the world, meeting people from different cultures. Working for an airline seemed like a good way to make that happen.”
“I hear you. I taught English in Tanzania for a year for much the same reason.”
“Geez, just when I thought you couldn’t get any more amazing.” Ellen blushes as soon as the words are out. “Sorry, sometimes my thoughts come out of my mouth without asking my permission.”
Layla gives her a tender smile. “It’s okay. I think you’re pretty amazing too.”
After dinner, Ellen walks Layla to the bus stop. They stand back away from the street while they wait. There are very few pedestrians this time of night and a nearby tree shades the sidewalk from the streetlights.
“I want to kiss you,” Ellen whispers.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
Ellen doesn’t respond. She slides her arm around Layla’s waist and places a soft kiss on her lips. She begins to pull back, but Layla slides a hand into her blonde hair and brings their mouths back together. The lights of the bus quash the fluttering in Ellen’s stomach.
“See you tomorrow?” Ellen asks hopefully.
Layla steps on the bus and turns back to wave goodbye. “I hope so.”
Ellen watches longingly as the bus pulls away from the curb. She’s pretty sure she was just swept off her feet.
Ellen walks into the café late the next afternoon and is surprised to see Layla sitting at a table in the corner. Her back is to the door and her head is bowed down, like she’s reading something on her phone.
Ellen gently taps her on the shoulder. “Hey, I didn’t expect to… Oh, gosh, are you okay?” It’s clear Layla has been crying. Her eyes are red and moist, and there’s a smudge of mascara on her cheek.
Layla gives her a weak smile. “Hey, yeah, I’m fine. Just a rough day out there.”
Layla dabs her eyes with a wadded up paper napkin and gestures toward the street corner. “This guy started going off on me, accusing me of trying to ‘poison’ people about the current administration. He was really belligerent.”
Ellen pulls a chair up next to Layla. “What an ass.”
“I tried to explain to him,” Layla says, “that I was just trying to get people to register, regardless of whether they’re red, blue, or somewhere in between. I work so hard not to be partisan. I just want people to vote, to participate in our democracy.” Tears well up in her eyes again. “I’m sorry. I’m just overtired. I think it might be time to throw in the towel on this voter register thing. I did what I could.”
Ellen gently rubs Layla’s back. “It’s okay. I don’t blame you for being upset, but gosh, you’ve done so much, I’d hate to see you give it up because of some jerk. I feel like you’d be rewarding him for being an asshole.”
“I know, but I’m just not sure if I’ve got it in me to do it anymore. Most people ignore me anyway. It can be so—”
“Maybe I could go out there with you tomorrow? I can be your moral support”—she nudges Layla’s shoulder with her own—“and bodyguard.”
Layla’s face lights up. “You’d do that?”
Ellen nods and slides an arm around Layla. “Yeah, I’d do that. I bet you and I will make a mean voter registration team.”
“Wow, I don’t know what to say.”
True to her word, Ellen is out there with Layla the next day, and the next, and the next. She’s amazed at the easy way Layla has with people. She’s so patient as she listens to them talk about their issues. Even when a person has a different viewpoint from hers, she encourages them to register.
Each night after they’re done, Ellen and Layla retreat to the café for a beer and a bite to eat. Ellen often finds herself doubled over in laughter courtesy of Layla’s dry wit. She’s always sorry when Layla has to hurry home to do schoolwork, forcing their night to come to an end.
One night, it’s pouring rain when they step outside the café. “How about I give you lift home,” Ellen offers.
Layla pulls an umbrella from her backpack. “Thanks, but I don’t mind taking the bus.”
“Don’t be silly. My car’s parked just around the corner. Plus, an umbrella will be useless in this wind.”
“Okay, if you really don’t mind, that would be great.”
Ellen flips up the hood of her rain coat. “Don’t mind at all.” She throws her arm over Layla’s shoulder and they run through the puddles to her car.
They turn down a narrow tree-lined street and Layla points out the window. “It’s the white house, the one with the porch light on.”
Ellen pulls in the driveway, puts her car in park and shifts in her seat so she’s facing Layla. “Have a good—” Layla’s lips are suddenly on hers. They feel so good, so warm. Their tongues come together briefly before Layla pulls back. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”
Ellen flashes her a grin. “Feel free to do that anytime.” She leans in to bring their lips together again, but Layla holds up her hand. “I can’t. If I don’t stop now, I’ll never get any work done tonight.”
“I know how you feel,” Ellen says with a laugh. She leans back against her seat, willing the ache between her legs to subside. “Don’t mind me, I’m just dying over here.”
Layla gives her one last peck on the lips and climbs out of the car. “Just so you know, I want nothing more than to take you to bed,” she says before shutting the car door and trotting up the steps to her house. Ellen lets out a groan and puts her car in reverse.
After a week of canvassing together, Ellen and Layla bump up against the state-imposed deadline to register—voters have until mid-October to register if they want to vote in the upcoming election. Much to Ellen’s delight, the deadline happens to fall on a Friday and she insists on making Layla a proper home cooked meal.
Ellen watches as Layla expertly twirls pasta on her fork and slides it into her mouth.
“What are you looking at?” Layla asks once she’s finished chewing.
Ellen blushes slightly. “You. You’re incredibly beautiful, you know that?”
Now it’s Layla who blushes. “You’re incredibly sweet, Ellen.”
Ellen reaches across the table and squeezes Layla’s hand before turning back to her meal.
After dinner, Ellen gives Layla a tour of the garden behind her house. It’s a clear night and there’s almost no moon. The pathway lights cast a dim glow over the plants bursting from their raised beds. Ellen stops by a small fountain and takes Layla’s hands in her own. Their faces are inches apart.
“Thank you for dinner,” Layla says. “It was delicious.”
Ellen slides a hand up to the nape of Layla’s neck and brushes her lips over Layla’s. “You, are, welcome,” she manages between soft kisses.
At first, their kisses are tender, like those they’ve shared before. Ellen skims her fingers over Layla’s cheek and runs them through her hair, wanting to touch every part of her. As their kisses grow more heated, Ellen pulls Layla tight against her. Her body shivers as Layla runs her fingers up, and back down her back. She pulls away slightly. “Inside?”
Layla nods. She grabs her hand and leads her back to the house.
Within moments, Layla is straddling her on the couch, peppering her with soft teasing kisses, on her lips, her neck, her cheeks. Ellen slides her hands into Layla’s hair and kisses her thoroughly. Minutes pass before they pull apart.
Layla stares down at her, her brown eyes full of desire. “Will you take me to bed?”
They roll off the couch and slowly make their way up the stairs, leaving discarded clothing in their path.
Ellen wakes a few hours later and smiles when she feels the warm body curled up next to her. It’s still dark outside, but there’s a hint of orange in the sky. Layla’s sleeping soundly, her breathing slow and shallow. Ellen can’t resist the urge to reach out and touch her. She runs a gentle finger over Layla’s cheek. She smiles but doesn’t open her eyes. Ellen nestles her head against Layla’s shoulder and falls back asleep.
Ellen gets called back to her regular flight attendant duties much earlier than expected. Suddenly, she’s gone for a few days at a time which makes it even more difficult for her and Layla to find time to spend together, but Ellen’s not deterred, she’s all in as far as their blossoming relationship goes. Sometimes she and Layla only have time for a quick cup of coffee before one of them has to dash off somewhere, but occasionally, they manage to have dinner and a nice quiet evening at home together.
It requires a little juggling, but Ellen arranges her flying schedule to ensure she’ll be in town on election day. She won’t even fly the day before. She doesn’t want to risk getting stuck in some far-flung city due to bad weather or an aircraft needing maintenance. The deadline to mail absentee ballots has come and gone, and after all the time she and Layla spent trying to get people to vote, nothing is going to get in the way of her casting a ballot.
On election night, Ellen and Layla huddle around the TV to watch the election results as they trickle in. They’re at Layla’s house with a few of her friends. Everyone cheers when the results for one especially close state race are announced. With ninety-eight percent of precincts reporting, their candidate has just pulled ahead and is now leading her opponent by 103 votes. Some of the other local races are nearly as close. Not all of the races are going the way Ellen and Layla would like, but overall, it’s a good night.
“Talk about some serious nail bitters,” Layla bemoans.
Ellen laughs. “One of the joys of living in a swing state, eh?” She puts her arm across Layla’s shoulders. “You know, all that work you did, all those nights you pounded the pavement, it very well may impact the outcome of some of these races.”
“You’re very kind Ellen, but I don’t think I registered that many people.”
“You never know. Maybe some of the people you spoke to went home and talked to their family and friends, and maybe they got some of them to vote. You should be really proud of yourself. I know I am.”
“Thanks, that really means a lot.”
Ellen kisses Layla gently on the lips. “I can’t wait to get back out there with you next year.”