Ellen watched the dark-haired woman standing on the street corner. The woman clutched her clipboard tight against her small frame, her eyes hopeful as they met each passerby. “Are you registered to vote?” she asked anyone who’d listen. A gust of wind whipped through the air and the woman pulled her too thin cotton jacket tight around her neck and tucked her long hair behind her ear for the millionth time, only to have it blown loose again moments later.
Most people hurried past her, like she wasn’t even there, but her perseverance didn’t waiver. Occasionally, someone grunted a response. Ellen was on the patio of her favorite neighborhood café, thankful for the warmth of a nearby heat lamp, and she could barely 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 smiled when a tall thin man finally stopped to talk to the woman. He had to bend down to hear her, and after a while, she handed him her clipboard. As she watched them, Ellen considered registering herself. She’d only been in Virginia for a few months and hadn’t gotten around to registering at her new address. She was registered in Colorado, the state where she’d grown up and gone to college, but she wouldn’t be anywhere near there on election day, and up until this moment, hadn’t planned to vote in the upcoming election. When the tall thin man moved on, Ellen rose from her chair, tossed her coffee cup in the garbage and took a few tentative steps toward the woman. “I’d like to register,” she called out.
The woman paused her canvassing and treated Ellen to a full dimple smile. “Okay, great.” She handed 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 started 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 tilted her head to the side and lifted her hands in the air. “Yeah, it can be, but I keep at it because it’s so important.”
Ellen nodded her agreement and turned back to the registration form. When she was done, she handed the woman back her clipboard. “There you go.”
The dimples came out again. “Thank you so much. Now, don’t forget to vote!”
“Um, I won’t.” Ellen bit her bottom lip. “I’m Ellen, by the way… Oh, but I guess you know that,” she said with a laugh, gesturing at the form she just completed.
The woman extended her hand. “Nice to meet you Ellen. I’m Layla.”
“Oh my gosh,” Ellen said when their fingers touched. “Your hands are like ice cubs, you must be freezing.”
Layla shrugged. “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 waved toward the café. “I’ve got a little bit of work to do. I’ll be inside if you change your mind.”
Layla slipped into the seat across from Ellen thirty minutes later. Ellen signaled the barista and two minutes later, a piping hot cup of coffee sat in front of Layla. She gripped it with both hands. “Ah, warm. My fingers feel like they’re about to fall off.”
Ellen watched as she took a slow sip from the cup. Her dark brown eyes closed slightly when the warm liquid reached her lips. “So, how’d it go out there?” Ellen asked.
Layla set her cup back down on the table but kept her hands curled 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 shows up to vote.”
“What drives you to do it, to stand out in the cold and register people?”
Layla took another sip of coffee before responding. “I read somewhere that like half the population doesn’t vote. 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 replied. “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 drained her coffee cup and the barista quickly replenished 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 cast their ballot.”
As they talked, Ellen found Layla’s passion intoxicating. She was so damn earnest. It was adorable.
It was well after dark when the barista started sweeping the floor around their table. Ellen leaned toward Layla and whispered, “You think he’s trying to give us a hint?”
Layla laughed and glanced 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 pushed back her chair and stood. “Are you in school?”
“Sort of. I work full time but I’m also working on my master’s degree.”
Ellen was impressed. “Do you spend all your free time standing on street corners trying to get people registered to vote?”
Layla chuckled. “Well, not all of it, but I—”
“So you might have a little bit of time leftover to have dinner with me?”
If Layla was taken back by the question, she didn’t show it. She grinned. “I might.”
“How about tomorrow night?” Ellen asked.
Layla gestured toward the street corner. “I plan to be back out there tomorrow, but um, maybe after that.”
Ellen slipped 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 gave Layla a one-armed hug. “Same here.”
Ellen smiled when she saw Layla walk in to the café just before seven the following evening. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her cheeks were flushed from being out in the cold. She looked incredibly beautiful. “Hungry?” Ellen asked.
“I know this little Italian place around the corner.”
“Do you want to warm up a little bit before you go back outside.”
Layla shook her head and tugged 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 were seated across from one another at a small table near the window. As soon as they’d placed their orders Ellen asked, “So what do you say to people in order to get them to register?”
Layla reached for the basket of bread on the table. “I ask people what issues they care about.” She broke off a piece of bread, layered it with butter and popped it into her mouth. She held 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 fiddled with the edge of her placemat. For some reason, she was really nervous. She’d only known Layla for twenty-four hours but was already totally captivated by the woman. She was desperate to get to know her better, understand what made her tick. “So, what do you do when you’re not standing on the street corner?” she ased. “You mentioned you work full-time…”
“Yeah, I do. I’m a teacher. High school algebra.”
Ellen laughed. “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 math 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 said and popped 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 returned with the beers they ordered. Ellen picked up her glass. “Here’s to high voter turnout.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Layla said. She clinked her pint against Ellen’s and took 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 blushed as soon as the words are out. “Sorry, sometimes my thoughts come out of my mouth without asking my permission.”
Layla gave her a tender smile. “It’s okay. I think you’re pretty amazing too.”
After dinner, Ellen walked Layla to the bus stop. They stood back away from the street while they waited. There were very few pedestrians that time of night and a nearby tree shaded the sidewalk from the streetlights.
“I want to kiss you,” Ellen whispered.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
Ellen didn’t respond. She slid her arm around Layla’s waist and placed a soft kiss on her lips. She began to pull back, but Layla slipped a hand into her blonde hair and brought their mouths back together. The lights of the bus quashed the fluttering in Ellen’s stomach. “See you tomorrow?” she asked hopefully.
Layla stepped on the bus and turned back to wave goodbye. “I hope so.”
Ellen watched longingly as the bus pulled away from the curb. She was pretty sure she’d just been swept off her feet.
Ellen walked into the café late the next afternoon and was surprised to see Layla sitting at a table in the corner. Her back was to the door and her head was bowed down, like she was reading something on her phone.
Ellen gently tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey, I didn’t expect to… Oh, gosh, are you okay?” It was clear Layla had been crying. Her eyes were red and moist, and there was a smudge of mascara on her cheek.
Layla gave her a weak smile. “Hey, yeah, I’m fine. Just a rough day out there.”
Layla dabbed her eyes with a wadded-up paper napkin and gestured 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 pulled a chair up next to Layla. “What an ass.”
“I tried to explain to him,” Layla said, “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 welled 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 rubbed her 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 nudged Layla’s shoulder with her own—“and bodyguard.”
Layla’s face lit up. “You’d do that?”
Ellen nodded and slid 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 was out there with Layla the next day, and the next, and the next. She was amazed at the easy way Layla had with people. She was so patient as she listened to them talk about their issues. Even when a person had a different viewpoint from hers, she encouraged them to register.
Each night after they were done, Ellen and Layla retreated to the café for a beer and a bite to eat. Ellen often found herself doubled over in laughter courtesy of Layla’s dry wit. She was always sorry when Layla had to hurry home to do schoolwork, forcing their night to come to an end.
One night, it was pouring rain when they stepped outside the café. “How about I give you lift home,” Ellen offered.
Layla pulld 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 flipped up the hood of her raincoat. “Don’t mind at all.” She threw her arm over Layla’s shoulder and they ran through the puddles to her car.
When they turned down a narrow tree-lined street, Layla pointed out the window. “It’s the white house, the one with the porch light on.”
Ellen pulled in the driveway, put her car in park and shifted in her seat to face Layla. “Have a good—” Layla’s lips were suddenly on hers. They felt so good, so warm. Their tongues came together briefly before Layla pulled back. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”
Ellen flashed her a grin. “Feel free to do that anytime.” She leaned in to bring their lips together again, but Layla held 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 said with a laugh. She leaned back against her seat, willing the ache between her legs to subside. “Don’t mind me, I’m just dying over here.”
Layla gave her one last peck on the lips and climbed out of the car. “Just so you know, I want nothing more than to take you to bed,” she said before she shut the car door and trotted up the steps to her house. Ellen let out a groan and backed out of the driveway.
After a week of canvassing together, Ellen and Layla bumped up against the state-imposed deadline to register—voters had until mid-October to register if they wanted to vote in the upcoming election. Much to Ellen’s delight, the deadline happened to fall on a Friday and she insisted on making Layla a proper home cooked meal.
Ellen watched as Layla expertly twirled pasta on her fork and sucked it into her mouth.
“What are you looking at?” Layla asks once she finished chewing.
Ellen blushed. “You. You’re incredibly beautiful, you know that?”
Now it was Layla’s turn to blush. “You’re incredibly sweet, Ellen.”
Ellen reached across the table and squeezed Layla’s hand before turning back to her meal.
After dinner, Ellen gave Layla a tour of the garden behind her house. It was a clear night and there was almost no moon. The pathway lights casted a dim glow over the plants bursting from their raised beds. Ellen stopped by a small fountain and took Layla’s hands in her own, bringing their faces inches apart.
“Thank you for dinner,” Layla said. “It was delicious.”
Ellen placed a hand on the nape of her neck and brushed her lips over Layla’s. “You, are, welcome,” she managed between soft kisses.
At first, their kisses were tender, like those they’d shared before. Ellen skimmed her fingers over Layla’s cheek and ran them through her hair, wanting to touch every part of her. As their kisses grew more heated, Ellen pulled Layla tight against her. Her body shivered as Layla’s fingers ran up and back down her back. She pulled away slightly. “Inside?”
Layla nodded. She grabbed Ellen’s hand and led her back to the house.
Within moments, Layla was straddling her on the couch, peppering her with soft teasing kisses, on her lips, her neck, her cheeks. Ellen moved her hands into Layla’s hair and kissed her thoroughly. Minutes passed before they pulled apart.
Layla stared down at her, her brown eyes full of desire. “Will you take me to bed?”
They rolled off the couch and slowly made their way up the stairs, leaving discarded clothing in their path.
Ellen woke a few hours later and smiled when she felt the warm body curled up next to her. It was still dark outside, but there was a hint of orange in the sky. Layla was sleeping soundly, her breathing slow and shallow. Ellen couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and touch her. She brushed her finger over Layla’s cheek. She smiled but didn’t open her eyes. Ellen nestled her head against Layla’s shoulder and feel back asleep.
Ellen got called back to her regular flight attendant duties much earlier than expected. Suddenly, she was gone for a few days at a time which made it even more difficult for her and Layla to find time to spend together, but Ellen was not deterred, she was all in as far as their blossoming relationship went. Sometimes she and Layla only had time for a quick cup of coffee before one of them had to dash off somewhere, but occasionally, they managed to have dinner and a nice quiet evening at home together.
It required a little juggling, but Ellen arranged her flying schedule to ensure she’d be in town on election day. She wouldn’t even fly the day before. She didn’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 had come and gone, and after all the time she and Layla had spent trying to get people to vote, nothing was going to get in the way of her casting a ballot.
On election night, Ellen and Layla huddled around the TV to watch the election results as they trickled in. They were at Layla’s house with a few of her friends. Everyone cheered when the results for one especially close state race were announced. With ninety-eight percent of precincts reporting, their candidate had just pulled ahead and was now leading her opponent by 103 votes. Some of the other local races were nearly as close. Not all of the races were going the way Ellen and Layla wanted, but overall, it was a good night.
“Talk about some serious nail bitters,” Layla bemoaned.
Ellen laughed. “One of the joys of living in a swing state, eh?” She put her arm across Layla’s shoulders. “You know, all that work you did, all those nights you pounded the pavement, it very well may have impacted 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 kissed Layla gently on the lips. “I can’t wait to get back out there with you next year.”