Monday, March 28, 2016

Chance Encounter

This is an entertaining short story about a little romantic encounter based loosely on a lady I met on a plane while traveling to the west coast...



“Flight 58 now boarding, Gate 33.”
The intercom announced the words in a garble of tones as Natasha pulled her suitcase down the wide corridor of the airport. Her long hair was braided and gathered at the back of her neck and silver hoop earrings dangled as she walked. Her feet were tired in the flat shoes she chose to wear, thinking that they would be quick to slip in and out of while she went through security, but she walked on choosing to ignore the pain. The flow of pedestrians was fast so she kept walking quickly, without feeling as if she had to slalom through the slower travelers. The gate was just one more section of the moving sidewalk ahead, and she stepped confidently on the slatted track. The jerk of her suitcase on her arm startled her and she turned instinctively angry thinking that someone was trying to grab it from her. It was only the wheel of her suitcase that stuck on the edge of the hand wall but before she could set it free, a man reached down and lifted it by its leather handle.
“Thank you,” Natasha said quickly, slightly embarrassed.
“No problem,” he said, standing in place behind her.
She stole a quick glance in his direction. He stood at least a foot taller than her and had short brown hair similar in color to hers but with a little more red. She knew he must have been French, just by his accent.
The walkway ended just a few yards from her gate and she stepped up to the line of people already forming. There was no way for her to see that her acquaintance had stopped also at the same gate area but was sitting on one of the benches waiting for his ticket section to be called. The casual observer could see that he watched her but more out of curiosity than intent.
“Natasha?” the gate attendant said to her as she read her boarding pass.
“Yes. Thank you,” she said as she took the slip of paper back. Natasha entered the corridor that led up to the plane and quickly walked to the back section of seats and lifted her suitcase into the overhead compartment. She seemed to know what she was doing as she settled into her window seat, fixing her belongings in place at her feet. There was no indication that she was expecting anyone to travel with her. She was spending more time looking out the window at the planes as they landed or took off from the runway, than watching the passengers fill their seats around her. If she had paid attention, she would have seen the tall gentleman pass her and take a seat three rows behind her.
“Hello. I think this is my seat. 28E?” A portly gentleman wearing a baseball cap said to Natasha as he looked from the boarding pass to the seat markings overhead.
“I’m Natasha,” she said as she held out her hand.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Bob,” and their conversation stopped. He settled into his seat, obviously cramped in the close quarters, taking off his jacket to reduce a little of his bulk. Another gentleman came behind him to sit in the third seat of their row.
Natasha pulled out her laptop, plugged in her headphones and stared at the screen. She clicked away at the keyboard from time to time as if she was corresponding with someone. There was nothing exciting about the boarding time and within a few minutes they were airborne.
An hour into the flight, Natasha excused herself as she tried to extricate herself from the tight row and made her way back to the bathroom trying not to look at the faces looking up at her. As soon as she disappeared from sight, the tall gentleman stood up into the aisle and walked up to her row. He leaned over and talked to Bob for a second who shook his head in agreement, got out of his seat and then took the empty seat three rows back. By the time Natasha came out of the bathroom, everyone was sitting quietly. She paused next to the guy on the end seat and he immediately stood up to let her in.
“Hey,” she said as she saw the tall gentleman also stand to let her pass by to get to her window seat.
“Natasha, I’m Lars. I’m sorry to surprise you but Bob was happy to change seats with me since I had the aisle seat,” he said as he held out his hand in greeting.
“But, how do you know my name?” she asked.
“I heard the gate attendant when you boarded the plane. I’ve been sitting three rows behind you waiting to introduce myself,” he said in a thick French accent.
“Oh, okay. Nice to meet you, Lars.” She said it as if she wasn’t sure if she should trust him or not, and then looked out her window.
“So where are you from?”
She took a breath and paused as if she was almost irritated.
S'il vous plait, please forgive me. I don’t mean to be rude. I am just, how do you say, tres impatient. Why not talk? We have nothing to do for two more hours.” He leaned forward to talk to her more comfortably.
Natasha smiled, “I suppose it won’t hurt me,” she paused for a couple of seconds. “I am from Philadelphia from a little town called Wallingford, just south of the city.”
“What do you do?”
“I like to call myself a manager, but I train dogs,” she answered.
“What do you mean, you train dogs?” he turned himself in his seat to face her more directly.
“Well, it’s a long story but I train seeing-eye dogs, at least most of the time. Now I manage the West Coast division.”
“But,” he paused, “you are not blind. How can you train the dogs?”
Natasha smiled again. “No, I am not blind anymore - although my vision is still pretty bad. I had an operation about six months ago that gave me back my sight. Now I have implanted lenses which give me enough vision to see pretty well.”
“But, s'il vous plait, forgive me for asking so many questions, I saw you looking out the window and on your computer. Can you see me now?” Lars was studying her face intently as he questioned her.
“I try to hide my poor vision,” Natasha explained, her fingers tracing the top of her laptop. “Airplanes are very predictable so I don’t need my dog or a cane. Actually, I rarely use a cane anymore since I had the operation - it is just a habit from using it for so many years. My computer is sound based, so I can hear what others see. I look out the window to feel the light on my eyes and the sun on my face, not so much to see, although my vision is improving.”
“I am so amazed,” Lars said. “But hey, let me introduce myself. My name is Lars and I am from France, as you can probably tell.”
“Nice to meet you, Lars. I hope to be able to see better as the nerves to my eyes heal over time. Why are you flying to Louisiana?” she asked.
“I am a chef and I am supposed to review a new restaurant there - the Brassiere. And you?” he asked.
“We have a convention there every spring with all the divisions from across the nation. I am supposed to give a speech - which I am not looking forward to,” Natasha responded.
“No, I do not like speeches. I am sure you will do fine,” he said as he patted her hand on the armrest between them.
Their conversation went on for another half an hour or so before Natasha rolled up her jacket and set it against the wall to use as a makeshift pillow and closed her eyes. Lars rested his head against the back of his seat, and kept his face turned towards Natasha and the window.
The plane landed in New Orleans without incident. A dark-haired stewardess came and asked Natasha if she would like to disboard early and Lars jumped up to help her with her luggage.
“I hope your speech goes well,” he said, handing her her purse.
“Yes, and I hope your restaurant review goes well. Nice meeting you, Lars,” as she leaned in for a quick hug before following the stewardess to the front of the plane.
Natasha picked up her seeing-eye dog, Audrey and left the terminal to stand in the bright sunshine. The skies were bright blue but the air was already quite heavy with humidity. The van from the convention center was ready and waiting for her. She climbed in as the driver took her bag to put in the back, glad to not have to worry about flagging a taxi. Audrey sat at her feet quietly.
“You going to the Convention Center or the hotel, Ma’am?” the driver asked as he shifted into gear.
“To the hotel, please. I have a little time.”
Natasha let her thoughts wander to Lars, wondering if she would ever see him again, and if he was as nice as he seemed. On the surface, he seemed trustworthy, but that was taking him at face value and although she hadn’t any reason to suspect otherwise, she was not convinced. It seemed surprising that he hadn’t made any effort to ask for her cell number or a way of getting in touch with her.
The van pulled up to the front of the hotel. Television vans were parked along the front entrance, blocking much of the circle.
“What’s going on here?” she asked the driver.
“I think there is a television celebrity coming in today. It’s not that uncommon here. Just ignore the camera guys - they shouldn’t bother you.”
Natasha handed the driver a tip and took her bags into the hotel. There was a lot of commotion and workers were orchestrating setting up their cameras and tables in the lobby. She was only too happy to check in quickly and escape to her room to go over her speech on her computer and make sure she had it well memorized. By the time four o’clock rolled around, she was fresh and ready to grab the ride to the convention center. The elevator door opened and she could hear the business of the lobby. A large sign caught her eye, followed by a quick jolt of surprise. There was a large almost real-life size poster of Lars staring at her. As she looked around the lobby, she realized that he must be the celebrity the van driver had been talking about.
“Oh, what a beautiful dog. I am so excited Lars Beowulf is coming here!” a lady looking over her shoulder said enthusiastically. “Don’t you love his show?”
“Yes, this is a dog in training and about Lars’ show - actually, I have never seen it. I guess he is pretty well-known,” she said wondering if Lars had thought it comical that she didn’t recognize him. “Is he here now?” she asked, realizing that she didn’t even know they were staying at the same hotel.
“He came in about an hour ago and I got to shake hands with him,” the lady said. “He might come back through again, so I am waiting, hoping that I can get a picture with him for my grandkids.”
“Oh,” Natasha smiled at her, suddenly realizing that she was nervous about seeing Lars again. “Good luck.”
The first meeting at the conference was scheduled to start at five, followed by a catered dinner in one of the conference rooms so Natasha went to the information desk to ask about local restaurants. She had no intentions of going to the planned dinner, knowing it would involve a lot of sitting and talking with complete strangers as well as the typical bland food. 
The lady behind the desk was pleasant enough and named several restaurants that were within walking distance.
“Do you eat at these restaurants?” she asked, trying to find where the locals frequented.
“Well, no, not usually. I like a little hole in the wall about three blocks up. It’s a little plain in ambiance, but their food is outstanding. Even their entrance is a back door with no big signs or light, but the chef is amazing.”
“Perfect. That’s what I am looking for,” Natasha said as she jotted down the name of the place. “Thanks very much.” She dialed the phone number on her cell phone and quickly made reservations for six o’clock.
Her speech went smoothly and she gracefully stepped back down to her seat after thanking the audience for their applause. She had a slight headache and was ready to call it an evening. She wasn’t used to traveling and the stress of talking to so many people. Quietly, she gathered her papers and waited until the audience started clapping for the next speaker. She walked purposefully to the back of the room, taking the time to shake a couple of outstretched hands and then slipped out into the hall.
There was still plenty of light outside so she decided to walk the three blocks, giving her dog a chance to get some much needed exercise. Although Natasha could see pretty well, it was a new area to her and it was reassuring for her to hold Audrey’s handle and let her guide her over the intersections until she arrived at the restaurant.
She seated herself at one of a row of two-top tables lined up along an inner wall, sitting with her back to the brick wall. The cool air was refreshing while the smells permeating the room were almost intoxicatingly delicious as she realized she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. A young girl brought her a menu and a glass of water.
“Natasha!”
She looked up from the menu, startled to hear her name and at the same time recognizing the French accent of Lars. Unconsciously, she stared at him with her mouth open, not saying anything.
“I thought you were giving a speech tonight. What are you doing here?” he asked as he pulled out the chair at her table.
Natasha laughed slightly and collected herself. “I think I should be apologizing. I had no idea you were a celebrity when I met you on the plane.”
“No, that was so wonderful. So many people act friendly to me just because I am on television and famous. But you, you were real and sincere. I don’t like all the noise and agitation from people. It is too crazy,” he explained as he waved his hands in the air. “Oh, please forgive me,” he half stood. “May I sit with you? s'il vous plaît ?
“Yes, of course,” Natasha motioned to the chair. “Don’t the people here know you are a celebrity?”
“Oh, but of course, but they are my friends and take care of me. Why did you come here? This is my favorite place to eat in New Orleans.” Lars looked at her with a look of amazement.
Natasha smiled, relieved that she could trust Lars to be more than just a stranger on the plane, and secretly happy that their paths had crossed again. “Okay! Let me answer. I gave my speech at five, but before I did, I made reservations here for dinner. The lady at the information desk at the convention center mentioned that it is one of her favorite places to eat because the tourists haven’t found it, so here I am.” She stopped talking when the waitress came and set two glasses of wine on the table.
“I hope you like red wine. I always get this when I come. It goes si bien, perfectly with the seafood.” Lars kissed his fingers with gusto, making Natasha laugh.
“Oh, yes, I love red wine, but what about you? I thought you were doing a review at a restaurant, the Brasserie?” she asked.
“Yes, but that’s tomorrow. Tonight I am with you.” He reached across and covered her hand with his and lifting his wine glass with the other. “Santé,” he said.
“Cheers to you, too.”
“So, please tell me more about yourself, the blindness and your operation. I find it intriguing,” Lars said after he told the waitress to bring a couple of the chef’s specials.
The evening continued and they talked easily with each other, laughing and ignoring the others around them. Lars talked about his cooking life and Natasha talked about the accident that left her blinded. A simple trip to the drug store to buy eye drops for her tired eyes after working as a nurse all night. A quick lift of her head and a few drops later left her almost completely blinded. Lars watched her quietly, listening intently as she explained that someone had tampered with the package and the eye drops had been replaced with drain cleaner.
Before they realized it, the evening rolled into the early morning hours as she described the rollercoaster ride of her emotions as she lost her nursing job and had to come to terms with being blind, only to find out that she was a candidate for an experimental surgery to try a new lens and then experiencing the fun of being able to see again.
“Let me drive you home,” Lars looked at his watch and stood up abruptly. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“No. It can’t be one-thirty! I am so sorry,” she exclaimed as she rustled Audrey from her sleeping position on the floor.
“Do you think I am sorry?” Lars asked her with a smile. “This has been such a wonderful evening. I could keep talking all night with you.” He waved to the chef at the back of the restaurant. “Pierre, vous êtes merveilleux, je vous remercie...”
A few minutes later, their taxi pulled up to the hotel entrance and they stepped out together.
“Well, thank you for such a wonderful dinner,” Natasha said as they entered the lobby. “Will I see you again?”
Lars laughed and kissed her on the lips before she could respond. “Of course! Do you think I am going to let you just disappear?”
“Well, wow, that was nice of you. Okay…” but before she could make a suggestion, Lars kissed her again quickly. “I will see you in the morning, mon cheri. Be ready around eight and we can get a bit of breakfast at a nice place I know. Good night.” And he walked off down the hallway as she stepped into the elevator.
Natasha fell asleep wondering in amazement of the odds of her chance meeting with Lars and the evening they shared.





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