“Whatcha got there, sonny?” My nosy neighbor looms over his barley soup like a hairy peak full of prehistoric caves where ancient earwax waits to be discovered. I’m so glad I’ve just asked for the check.
“I was bored, so I wrote on my napkin while I was waiting for my sandwich. That’s all.” I crumple the napkin to minimize the chance he could somehow read my words of tender devotion addressed to some fantasy princess who doesn’t exist. If I want to write fairy tales about love, that’s nobody’s business but my own.
My waitress arrives to save the day with the check. No one wants to be friendly with you at the moment you get the check; otherwise you might get ideas about friendly favors.
“I can take your plate, too, if you’re done,” she says. Sounds like she’d rather be crocheting a monogrammed noserag with briar roses.
I look at her for the first time as her arm sweeps too close to my shoulder to fill my nose with eau de vanilla sugar sweat, then whisks away the plate with half a stale sandwich still on it. Messy black hair that can’t decide which direction it’s growing, big brown eyes too shy to look in mine, a galaxy of freckles. Her name is Cindy.
My soup-eating mountain of a neighbor watches me watch her walking away. Chuckles. “She took your precious napkin,” he alerts me gleefully.
I could run into the kitchen, grab the thing and burn it – or use it to collect the grit on the soup-eater’s beard – but that’s not my style. So I just figure I won’t come back to the diner for a few weeks, wait for Cindy to get laid off, then this will all blow over.
I’ll never see the girl again.
Shawn wanted to go to the mall to look for Christmas presents for his girlfriend, so I let him drag me along, having nothing better to do on an unemployed and slightly hungover Sunday afternoon. So we stroll through the hall of glass windows and shiny things neither of us could dream of buying while Shawn educates me about the difference between girl boxers and boy boxers.
Chic Cherie. Probably the last store I’d be caught dead walking into… except there’s a familiar girl in there among the crowd, trying on a dress in front of a mirror. I should just forget about it, should’ve forgotten a long time ago, but I didn’t, which is why I hustle into the store, leaving Shawn hovering in the doorway between sanity and a fashion madhouse.
All I can see is her.
An angel stands between the clearance racks, ready to elevate in a white gown that could be in a fairytale except for the skull-and-crossbones brooch holding one of the gossamer sleeves on. Her halo is a nest of messy black hair. Freckles twinkle on her nose like celestial leprosy. She catches me in the mirror and turns around. Her brown eyes meet mine expectantly; a flash of recognition sends chills down the nape of my neck.
“Sorry,” I mumble. “I don’t mean to bother you. I’m just being a creeper, I should go -“
She reaches into her coin purse and pulls out a napkin. The thing’s clearly been crumpled, then tenderly flattened, then carefully folded to fit in her bag. She looks at my face, at the words I know are on that napkin, back in my eyes.
I’m terrified she might start reading off the napkin, here in front of all these people. So I recite the first few lines to prevent her: “Dear (name to be determined later), I was slushing through loneliness and you appeared, a crystal sculpture in ice, a tiny snowflake to tickle my eyelashes with kisses and remind me that there is love to be found in the winter, even in this crummy city.”
She’s coming closer, so close I can taste the sweaty vanilla sugar on her tan chest blooming within the confines of the white silk. Her chapped lips part to recite, “If you can afford to rent a white horse then I will gladly ride away with you into the sunset, and leave this all behind for a palace on a hill somewhere where you can see stars at night. I’ll pay you back later for the horse.”
My words out loud on her lips, in her voice like hot chocolate melting the frost away.
“It was stupid,” I say. “I was just fooling around, waiting for a sandwich.”
“I was waiting for a prince,” she counters. “But he never came, and I can’t ride into the sunset with a sandwich.”
I feel like our souls have lived in the same house for years, though our bodies have never touched. I reach out to smooth her hair and miss. She takes my hand, then drops it and looks away. In the background, a grandmother shoots us a look as she picks through the tweens’ section.
Suddenly Cindy’s bounding across the store like it was a ballroom. She brushes past Shawn, crossing the threshold, and alarms are chiming like wedding bells and I know I’ve found the one at last, so I follow her down the up escalator.
“I have enough gas to get us to Bennington,” I say. “Got a buddy there who doesn’t ask questions.”
“Well, it’s not a palace, but I suppose I’ll tolerate it for now,” she giggles, breathless. She was locked in a tower; this is the first time she has tasted the sun. A true princess if I ever saw one.
“I wrote you some love letters too,” she confesses when we get on the highway. “I didn’t know they were for you at the time, but…”
I promise myself to make her show me the letters, to memorize them, to frame them on our bedroom wall even if they’re written on paper napkins.
Never underestimate the value of being bored on a napkin in a restaurant – it could help you score your happily ever after.
Image credits in order of appearance:
“AN OLD-FASHIONED HAY RAKE, ONCE PULLED BY POWERFUL HORSE TEAMS, SITS IDLY IN A PASTURE DURING THE WINTER – NARA – 555534” by Cooper, Jane, Photographer (NARA record: 8464740) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AN_OLD-FASHIONED_HAY_RAKE,_ONCE_PULLED_BY_POWERFUL_HORSE_TEAMS,_SITS_IDLY_IN_A_PASTURE_DURING_THE_WINTER_-_NARA_-_555534.jpg#/media/File:AN_OLD-FASHIONED_HAY_RAKE,_ONCE_PULLED_BY_POWERFUL_HORSE_TEAMS,_SITS_IDLY_IN_A_PASTURE_DURING_THE_WINTER_-_NARA_-_555534.jpg
By Laslovarga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Andy.jackins (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons