Cowboy, Take Me Away: Falling in Love on Interstate 5

September 1999

Hey, can you play that song again?

Dara and I are in my pickup truck, driving north on I-5, headed home from a weekend in San Diego.
 
 Dara and I have been dating a month. She’s 22. I’m a decade older. For a change, she is not a former student of mine. Dara and I meet at the gym, where she teaches kickboxing and spinning classes.

After a month, the physical chemistry is sweetly intense. The sex is both excellent and frequent. It’s not just lust, though. We make each other laugh, have long talks about religion, and are almost ready to meet the other’s parents.

When it comes to her future plans, I try not to mentor her. Dara is 22, four months out of undergrad at USC, utterly unsure what she wants to do next. She’s a fitness trainer, and that brings a little income. She’s thinking about grad school in Cognitive Science, but isn’t sure she wants to make that commitment. 
 
 And Dara is also a trained lyric coloratura soprano who has been singing seriously since she was 8. She’s sung with a variety of companies, opera as well as choral music, but rarely lasts long with any. “I don’t play well with others,” Dara says, a quality she blames on being a Scorpio with an Aquarius rising and an Aquarius moon. (Dara and I share a high tolerance for woo.)
 
 Though she says she misses choirs, Dara “gigs” a lot, looking for opportunities to perform alone. One Saturday, I come to hear her sing at a wedding service in a park. The couple is middle aged, and judging from the vows, agnostic. It doesn’t stop them from having Dara sing “Ave Maria” and then John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” She is as mesmerizing as the wedding is bizarre.

So, back in the truck on that September Sunday, we’re taking turns choosing CDs. I’ve just endured her Fatboy Slim, and am responding with my new Dixie Chicks album. Dara slouches in her seat, puts her feet on the dash , and flips through a Vogue. I feel a sudden flash of insecurity as she retreats into herself, and I force myself to leave her be.

We pass San Juan Capistrano, and the traffic suddenly slows to a crawl. Dara looks up and sighs, then takes my right hand and puts it on her upper leg.
 
 The third song on the album, “Cowboy, Take Me Away” starts to play. It’s already my favorite track, but at the moment, I’m more interested in how Dara’s responding to my touch than I am to the music.

Halfway through the song, Dara sits up. She holds my hand steady, listens intently.

When it’s over, she asks me to play it again. 
 
 “It’s such a great track,” I start to gush, “just so –“ 
 
 “Shhh” says Dara, as she leans forward, releasing my hand. She closes her eyes. I shrug inwardly. Who knew she’d fall for the Dixie Chicks?
 
 When it ends, Dara asks me to turn off all the music for a moment. We inch along towards Mission Viejo in silence. I’m wondering if there’s some deep-seated family trauma that the song has uncovered, and wondering when I should ask, when Dara looks over at me. 
 
 “Play it one more time.” Her voice is very firm.
 
 I press play on track #3 again. And just as Natalie Maines’ voice hits the speakers, Dara’s voice joins. On top of Maines’ solid country alto, Dara layers a dazzling soprano, first a deliberate beat ahead, now a beat behind, rising effortlessly on the chorus, so ethereal that it seems to pull Maines’ voice right on up into the heavens. 
 
 Dara has heard the song twice. And yet Dara knows every word. Dara knows every measure, every stop. She knows the harmony. Dara’s eyes are straight ahead, focused on the road, but she is somewhere else. She is not sitting next to her boyfriend in an Orange County traffic jam. 
 
 The only explanation is that Dara is channeling something, a gift both immense and incomprehensible. I’ve seen other artists do it from afar. I’ve never had anyone do it in the passenger seat of my pickup.

Maybe this is all my romantic projection. 
 
 “Cowboy, Take Me Away” lasts four minutes and 47 seconds. During the 4:47 that Dara sings, I fall in love with her. It is long enough for me not only to fall in love but to know I’ve fallen.

Everything is different now, I think. What a fool I was not to see her for what she really is!

The song finishes. Dara sags back against the seat, puts her feet back up on the dashboard, gives a long, slow whistle.
 
 “Sweetheart, that was absolutely incredible,” I rave, taking her hand. “You need to do that for me again.”
 
 Ooops.
 
 Dara glares, pushes my hand away. We don’t say anything for several minutes.

At last, she sits up, leans over, and puts her hand on my leg and whispers harshly in my ear. “I don’t ever need to do that again, not for you or anyone. Music doesn’t work that way.” 
 
 I nod, eyes on the road. “Sorry.”

Dara softens, kisses my cheek. “So many other things you can ask for, though,” she says, her voice throaty and low.
 
 I am relieved.

Dara leans back in the seat, puts her feet on the dashboard once again. She takes my right hand in her left; with the other she lifts the waistband of her shorts. “I know a really good way to pay me back,” she says softly.
 
 And as we push north, my eyes on the road, pay her back is what I do.

****************

Without prompting, Dara will sing “Cowboy, Take Me Away” to me three or four more times before we break up in January 2000.
 
 It will be five years before I’m able to hear the song again.