The Celebration of Johnny’s Yellow Rubber Ducky, Part 2

 

YRD201: Basic Fate History

 

The Past (Nine Weeks Ago)

 

He was supposed to meet his friend, Barney, at the Parisian café to celebrate Barney’s purchase of a new home, but Barney was running late—the irony, of course, was that Johnny, thanks to his Oxford residency and complete reliance on multiple transport systems, was also running late. Johnny agreed to hold the table once he got there, but he had agreed to it while he was still in transit. He had no idea when he would actually get to the café, or what the state of the dining room would look like once he got there. Just like his college coursework, he had to guess what would be the most practical decision for the situation once he actually got inside the building.

Johnny made it to the café just a little after seven. As soon as he stepped off the bus, he raced through the rain across the small puddle-soaked parking lot, stopping only briefly to allow a couple to park in the space he was about to cut through. He was trying to get there before the others who had gotten off the bus behind him could head him off, but the car slowed him down. By the time he reached the door and a rather large man about Johnny’s age came lumbering out with a fistful of cash and a stupid grin on his face, the others had caught up to him, and he dutifully held it open for them to pass through. A girl in a checkered skirt was the last in line. She had short dark hair under a violet beret. The hostess seated her last before all the tables finally filled. Thanks to his politeness, Johnny had to wait at the bar for the next available table. Another bad decision.

Ten minutes later, a two-top opened in the main room to the left of the bar. The hostess led him over, handed him two menus, and offered him a glass of champagne while he waited for his friend to arrive. Johnny didn’t feel like dealing with the sleepy effects of alcohol during his ride back to Oxford, so he took water instead. While he waited, he scanned the room for some food ideas. He took immediate notice of his former bus companions, who had taken up half the tables in the room. The girl in the violet beret was in the table adjacent to his. She had just been served her appetizer—a biscuit doused in strawberry jelly. On the table, next to her plate, was a curious item, something that did not adequately fit the café’s décor, and was probably something she had brought along for reasons that probably made no sense. She had just inches from her left hand a yellow rubber ducky.

The rubber duck was pretty typical for the most part. Low to the ground, so-to-speak, with a wide frame, eyes set to the side rather than out front, and an orange beak. What made it different, however, besides the fact that it was not sitting in a bathtub or a fountain, was that it had a long chain necklace wrapped around its neck. Attached to the chain was a flash drive.

Johnny had been watching the yellow rubber ducky for nearly a minute when the girl caught him staring. Whether she did so out of self-consciousness or spite, she moved the duck behind her bag, which was also sitting on the table, out of sight. Then she went back to nibbling on her biscuit, as if what she’d just done was not the slightest bit odd.

The hostess brought Johnny his water and informed him that a server would be along to take his appetizer order any moment. He told her not to hurry; his friend was still on the way.

A few minutes later, Johnny noticed the girl in the violet beret sliding her hand behind her bag. She pulled the rubber duck back into view. Johnny noticed a faded black marking under the duck when she tilted it slightly away from him. The sight of it made his heart leap slightly, but he wasn’t entirely sure why. He looked off in another direction, just to make sure it couldn’t trigger anything inside of him. He wanted to keep his head clear.

Even though he was now looking at the wall, he could hear the girl setting something heavier than a book on the table. Then he heard a familiar electronic whir, followed by a chime. He looked back to see her empty biscuit plate brushed aside and a laptop taking its spot on the table’s surface. She uncapped the duck’s flash drive and inserted it into a port on her computer. A moment later she was reading something on the screen.

As curious as Johnny was to find out what she was doing with a rubber duck, and why she bothered to keep the flash drive attached to a chain around its neck rather than in her bag, he didn’t pry. He just continued to sit there, waiting for the server to approach with an appetizer menu, waiting for Barney to finally show up and celebrate the new Parisian home.

But Barney never made it to the café. He called twenty minutes after seven, telling Johnny he had to cancel. Apparently the new home had an awful leak, and it had been raining in Paris that day. He apologized for the short notice and asked Johnny to reschedule.

After he disconnected with Barney, Johnny returned to the hostess and informed her that he would be eating alone and that the server could take his order any time. That was the moment the hostess presented him with an unusual request.

“Pardon, Monsieur,” she said in her best English, which was well-spoken but came with a thick French accent. “Would you mind a companion tonight?”

Johnny was generally polite, but he didn’t know how to receive this question.

“I’m sorry?” he said.

“We are having a many people come in out o’ ze rain, and we have nowhere for zem to zeet. Ze more we can zeet now, ze better for zem.”

Johnny scanned the café’s waiting area, which was small to begin with. It had definitely filled up since he had passed through the doors twenty minutes earlier, but the people who were stuck outside were trying to crowd it even more. Even though he was annoyed with his friend’s cancellation, he didn’t think it was proper to inconvenience someone else by making them stand in the rain. Likewise, he didn’t think it was fair for the earlier arrivals to have to cram in.

“All right then,” he said.

As he returned to the table, the hostess consulted her list for the next patron in line. To Johnny’s weird luck, the hostess brought to him one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, and certainly the most beautiful he had actually met.

The woman’s long dark hair was still damp from the rain, and her pink tank top straps were splotched with drying rain spots. Her mascara encircling her blue eyes was also running slightly. But she was lovely. Lovely and clearly frustrated with her situation.

“I’m not sure I approve of this arrangement,” she said in an English accent similar to his own. “But I guess it’s for the good of humanity.”

While she was figuring out what to do with her handbag, she failed to notice Johnny holding out his hand in greeting. He held his hand in front of her for several seconds, patient as ever. As soon as she straightened her back and looked up at him, she flinched and put her hand to her chest.

“God, please,” she said. “You startled me.”

“Johnny,” he said, hoping to start their conversation off right, assuming she was on board with speaking to him while she ate.

She hesitated to respond. Then she looked down for a split-second. When she looked up, she gave him a piercing gaze.

“Claire. Cheers.”

She took his hand, or more specifically, his fingertips, held them lightly for a second, and released. Then she lifted a plastic bag full of napkins and plasticware off her lap and set it on the table. She had also brought her own straws.

“Care for a nappie?” she asked.

Before Johnny could answer her, she reached back down into her bag and produced from it a handful of wet wipes. She passed one to him.

“Number one cause of disease is shaking germs on an unclean hand,” she said.

“Quite.”

Johnny took a wet wipe out of its packaging and applied the alcoholic solution to his skin. This seemed to please his new companion.

“You haven’t got your food yet?” she asked.

“No, still waiting for my appetiser.”

Claire looked off toward the rest of the dining room, her face tilted downward a little, her mouth slightly crooked. The news seemed to irk her a little, but Johnny didn’t let it get to him. He was glad that he could have dinner with someone lovely, especially after the long trip he had taken to get here.

“You come by yourself?” he asked her.

She looked at him with an expression somewhere between challenge and disbelief.

“I don’t generally sit with strangers when I go places with friends.”

Johnny pat the tabletop in a calming gesture.

“I was supposed to meet a friend tonight. Celebrate a new home here in Paris. Bloke discovered a bad leak in the ceiling, so now I’m alone. Just wondering if you had a similar fate.”

She shook her head.

“I’m passing out of Paris on my way to London tonight. Got hungry. Here we are.”

“You don’t seem happy about it.”

Once again she looked downward, this time to her lap. When she looked up again, her eyes were softer and her lips more evenly spread above her chin. She was beginning to relax.

“Had a bad experience this afternoon,” she said. “Well, for the last week in fact. Don’t want to talk about it. Not your business. But yes, I’m not happy about it. I shouldn’t be alone right now.”

“Well, you’re not alone, actually.”

At this, she smiled slightly. Only slightly. It lasted for about three seconds. She had lovely teeth, perfectly straight, save for one molar that appeared a little off-center.

“Apologies. I’m being rude. Tell me about this friend who stood you up.”

They spent the next twenty minutes getting to know each other, superficially of course, but that’s how the best relationships normally began. Johnny kept this in the back of his mind with every question he asked her, and with every one of her questions he answered. Eventually they got their main dishes. Claire had ordered a biscuit platter topped with various soups. Johnny had panicked at the menu and told the server to bring him whatever she thought was good. The server brought him an untested dish called a “Grape Crepe Su-Steak.” The chef had just acquired the rights to the recipe not even an hour earlier, and Johnny was the first café guest to try it. With the meal came a note wishing him luck.

“Would you like to try my steak?” he asked Claire.

She gave the steak the once-over and shook her head.

“Doesn’t look appetising if I’m honest,” she said.

Johnny agreed with her. It was essentially a cooked T-bone steak covered in grape jelly. He regretted ordering it the moment it had arrived at the table, even though the first bite wasn’t so bad. Each consecutive bite got a little better as his taste buds adjusted to the flavor, but the dish acquired numerous stares from patrons sitting at the tables nearby. One even dared to ask him “What ze hell eez zat?” in a thick French accent.

But in spite of the rocky start and the ugly dinner, Johnny’s impromptu date with Claire gained momentum in charm, and by the time she had ordered a glass of champagne to wash down her biscuits and soup, she had become warm toward him.

“Ah, to ze loverz,” said the bartender, as he popped the cork on the bottle. He had left the bar area to serve them personally. “May your futurez be brilliant and heureux.”

Johnny could feel his cheeks warming up as he watched the bartender set the goblet before Claire, and the heat had spread into his neck as the bartender poured the golden liquid into her glass. When the bartender walked away, Johnny immediately regretted not ordering a glass for himself.

Claire took the goblet by the stem and swirled the champagne around. The liquid reached close to the rim, but she kept tight enough control that it never spilled over. Then she took the first sip. A relaxed smile stole the tension from her luscious lips after she pulled the glass away. A sparkling drop remained on her lower lip and Johnny desperately wanted to drink it off of her.

“In all things considered,” she told him, “I’m glad I got seated with you.”

Then she raised her goblet in a toast. He felt a slight pang in his stomach as he reached for his water glass and raised it to hers. She tapped her glass against his.

At that moment, the girl in the violet beret walked by. She was finished with her meal, and now had her bag and everything she was carrying tucked under her arm. Claire watched her until she disappeared into the crowd by the door. She had a puzzled look on her face as she kept her focus on the young woman.

“You see that girl who was just sitting there?” Claire asked, pointing at the empty table adjacent to them with the messy plates covering its top.

Johnny nodded.

“You see her with that rubber duck?”

“Yes.” He had certainly noticed. The sight of that duck had triggered something inside of him, something that awakened an old memory, something he didn’t want to remember. He was better off not thinking about it.

“French girls are so weird, aren’t they?” Claire asked. Johnny noticed her shifting to the side as she asked this, and her voice was slightly off-pitch. Both changes were so minor that he had nearly missed them.

“How so?”

“Who carries around with her a rubber duck? God, imagine the stories that duck must tell.”

Johnny smiled at her. He knew that he should take offense by her comment, but he’d shut that side of his heart down years ago. Instead, he decided that she was the girl of his dreams, and the one he’d want to spend his life with, and anything she said was ultimately inoffensive. Never in his life had he met someone so intoxicating, so on-the-nose. She was refreshing, if not disquieting in her vocal opinions. He knew in that moment that he needed to stand up, lean forward, and kiss that champagne right off her mouth.

But he stopped himself as he rose. Then he lowered himself back into his chair before he could lean forward. He didn’t yet know how she would react to something so spontaneous. The last thing he wanted was to upset her the moment she had become friendly with him.

“You all right?” she asked, as she watched him sit back down.

“Yes, just needed an adjustment.”

“Ah, yes. My legs are getting tired, too.”

She stood up and sat back down, mirroring his actions perfectly. Now he wished he had followed through with his original intention.

Johnny was feeling unrest in his heart, but he was also running out of things to say. It suddenly occurred to him that they were reaching the end of their meals, and that if he were to see her again, ever, he needed to say something in line with his thoughts. He didn’t know what exactly to say or do—efforts to begin a relationship with lesser women had gone badly before, and he still hadn’t found the working formula to win one over, perhaps because every woman was different from the one he’d tried dating before and there was no variable he could learn from—but he knew he would have to give it another go. The only certain ending he knew was the one where she’d walk out of his life if he didn’t make some effort to keep her in it.

“You still driving to London tonight?” he finally asked her.

“Yes, of course.”

His knees began to bounce in anticipation of his next question. His stomach knotted. This level of boldness was unbecoming of him. But he had to do it. There was no other option. His decision had already been made for him by fate, and for once, fate was standing in his corner.

“Would you like some company?” he asked her.

She smiled at him. Then she rested her hand on top of his, gently stroking between his knuckles. His heart leapt at her forwardness. The sensation of her skin touching ever so softly his affection-starved fingers sent a strange kind of electricity that he had rarely ever experienced. This was the touch of a human goddess, packed with as much voltage as the grandest of any Greek female deity. His knees nearly lost feeling, and most of it raced upward toward his pelvis. And her eyes…so striking, so piercing. She stared directly into his. Her gaze was paralyzing, but in a pleasant way. The awakened coma he found himself in was one he could stay in for as long as she wanted him there. It was at that moment his neck and back began to sweat. She was starting to lean toward him. That bead of champagne was still glistening off her apple-cherry lower lip, and it was coming closer to his lips. If Claire didn’t respond in the next second, Johnny was likely to pass out from sexual tension overload. Please tell me your answer, you loveliest of dangerous creatures! he could hear his brain screaming at her. And then, as if among her many celestial gifts she could read his mind, she spoke.

“No,” she said, sweetly. Then she straightened her back.

Johnny was taken aback. Even though he partially expected her response to be negative, he was still hopeful that fate was on his side. After all, it had brought her to his table tonight, and that was possible only because it had rained on Barney’s leaky roof.

“Pardon?” he said. He knew it sounded lame the moment it came out of his mouth, but he couldn’t stop it. The surprise came on him like a spit bubble that refused to stay hidden on his tongue. It popped on him just as quickly.

“I appreciate the offer,” she said, “but we don’t really know each other. I can’t travel with someone I just met, even if we do live within an hour and a half of each other.”

Johnny was crestfallen by her logic. But she was right. If he was to see her again, he needed to take a different path to their future together.

“Perhaps I could just ring you sometime?”

Her hand was still on his, and once again she stroked his knuckles.

“Let’s get through dessert first, then we can decide what we want.”

The server had come to their table with the dessert menu less than five minutes later. Claire ordered a pecan pie. Johnny’s stomach was too tense to eat anything more. He offered to share hers if she needed help. She assured him that she could finish the whole thing.

When the bill finally arrived, Johnny noticed that the server had put both of their meals on a single ticket. He showed Claire the breakdown in items and prices. He kept his hand out as she scanned the list, expecting her to return the bill to him, but she drew the slip of paper in closer to her. Next thing Johnny knew, she was pressing her credit card in with the bill.

“You don’t have to pay,” he said.

He had actually wanted to treat her as a gesture of appreciation for her not only joining him but for staying at his table long enough to finish their sudden date. He wanted to show her that she was worth treating, and leave it in her mind that he was in good standing to do it again if she’d meet him again soon. But she seemed to miss the message. Instead, she wrapped the bill around her card and set it at the edge of the table. Then the server appeared out of nowhere and stole it off the table’s surface before Johnny could object to Claire’s charge and was gone into the depths of her serving station before he could call her back. Claire smiled at him when Johnny gave up and looked back in her direction.

“My treat for your being so sweet,” she said.

Once the card came back, and it was time to finally leave the café, Johnny jogged Claire out to her car, a rose-colored Fiat, in the steady rain. He reached out to open the door for her, but realized as he pulled against the handle that he had no way to unlock it. He shrugged at his faux pas.

“Again, thanks for being sweet,” she said, as she patted his cheek and smiled. “But I got this one.”

Teardrops from the sky bounced off her raised shoulders, and Johnny suddenly realized she was even more beautiful under the floodlit rain. And he was overcome with the fear that this might be the only time he’d see her this way if he didn’t insist on seeing her again. He had to insist. He had to.

Claire reached into her handbag for the keys. When she pulled them out, she brought them up to her perfectly sculpted chest.

“Well,” she said, “I enjoyed our meal together. Thanks for the company.”

Johnny didn’t say a word. Instead, he reached out for her hand, the one holding the handbag, since the one holding the keys was still pressed to her breast and that might’ve been too forward. As his fingers tried to find a hold under hers, which was difficult given how tightly she kept her handbag pressed to her stomach, he smiled at her. Then he leaned in, carefully, assessing her reaction to him with every inch he gained on her. Then, as his lips got within a foot of hers, she released his hand and quickly pecked him on the cheek. When she pulled away, after a second, she smiled back.

“Too soon for that,” she said. “But maybe one day it won’t be.”

Johnny nodded, secretly disappointed that she rejected his advance. But he was relieved by her words. They were laced with promise.

“That mean I can ring you?”

Claire looked up to the sky, which was still dumping moderate amounts of water on her head, and then turned to her car door. She unlocked it and quickly got into the driver’s seat, out of the rain.

“Do you believe in love?” she asked him.

“Of course.”

“What about destiny?”

“Sure.”

She flashed him her teeth.

“What is it they say about love?”

Johnny shrugged.

“Dunno. Don’t talk about it much.”

“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be.”

Johnny felt a pang in his chest. He didn’t speak much about love, but he had definitely heard that saying before. And he had definitely experienced the reality of what happens when something isn’t meant to be. The promise in her voice was rapidly transforming into potential, and he didn’t want potential. He had to salvage this conversation before it turned into something even worse. He had to see her again. Had to. He had never met anyone like her before, and twenty-three years was a long time to go without someone so amazing in his life. There was no way he could stand another twenty-three without her. Fate had brought her here for a reason, just as it had brought him! He needed promise! He couldn’t let fate screw him over again.

“I want to see you again, Claire. And soon. Dinner with you was the best thing to happen to me in a long, long time.” He was surprised by his sudden boldness, but he could hardly credit it to courage. He was basically on autopilot now. Self-preservation.

“I’m glad,” she said. “I enjoyed your company, too. Perhaps fate will favor us again.” She looked at a clock in her dashboard. “Well, I must be going. Need to get to London before bedtime.”

Johnny was about to speak up, about to plead for her phone number once more, but she closed the door and locked it. Less than a minute later she was out of the parking lot. He stood there in the rain for the next ten minutes hoping she would turn around and come back and profess her rising love for him. She didn’t.

 

The Past (Yesterday)

 

Johnny sat at the café bar for more than an hour, but his night with Claire could not be duplicated. Fate had not brought her back to him, nor had it brought to him anyone like her. He placed his forehead on the bar top. This was the third time he had returned to this café hoping to find her again. The only memorable thing to happen here since that night was hearing that loud bang outside and watching that rugged coffee server leap over the guardrail that fenced in the outdoor tables, clearly looking for a quick exit, or perhaps trying to catch an errant guest who had tried skimping on his bill, or to escape whatever had made the loud noise. Johnny was too upset about Claire that day to really watch where the guy was headed. And he was upset now. How many times and how many ways could fate tease him, just to pull the rug out yet again? The problem with love was that, eventually, everything would remain set free.

 

Read Part 3

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The stuff that keeps me awake at night.

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