Paul was not at all prepared for the woman of his dreams when she walked into his life one annoyingly classic spring afternoon.
It was a Wednesday, and Paul was home during spring break from college. Having been stood up by a blind date arranged for him by a friend the previous evening, Paul had decided to drown his sorrows in ice cream--and since there wasn't any place in town that served ice cream which could meet his high culinary standards, he drove out to the Stratton Dairy Park, where they made the best ice cream in the world, period, no arguments, you want hot fudge with that?
Had the place been located in Los Angeles or New York or Seattle or some other mecca of trendiness, the decor would have been pretentious, but here in the Midwest it was an honest attempt to preserve the simpler ways of bygone eras. The counter, the stool, the chairs and tables, even the wagon-wheel chandeliers were made of highly polished wood. A brass railing (which, according to the plaque hanging on the wall nearby, had been taken from the dining car of an 1866 passenger train) separated the dining area from the counter.
The employees wore bow ties and Vaudevillian-style straw hats, as well as white shirts with thin red stripes and puffy sleeves with arm garters. If a person didn't know better, it would be easy to think you'd walked into a mass audition for a local production of The Music Man.
Paul ordered a hamburger, a root beer float, and an extra large chocolate sundae with double whipped cream and nuts, then found a table near the Park's "museum"--a small hallway in the back that displayed photos of the Park's mill, documents recording its history, artifacts made by the Hopewell Indians, and, of course, little trinkets and souvenirs that visitors could buy to take home and remember the experience. Corny though it was, Paul always felt better for being exposed to it. It was one of the few happy places from his childhood that neither Time nor Progress had been able to alter for the worse.
He dove into his meal as the Victrola-style jukebox started playing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart". The rich flavor of the root beer float slid a cool path down his throat and he smiled, looking out one of the windows at the clear blue sky. For a minute, one of those rare and precious minutes that become all the more priceless once you pass over the threshold of twenty (Paul was now in the college senior's no-man's land of twenty-three), he felt nine again.
Then the door opened and a young couple walked in (stormed in, at least as far as the young woman went) trying not to argue too loudly and failing.
Paul sat open-mouthed at his table as his gaze locked on the girl. Before he realized she was about the same age as himself, before he saw her soft blonde hair, her wonderful button nose, and her smile, he saw her eyes. Green, full of intelligence and fire and humor, but lurking somewhere behind their sparkle were remnants of disappointment and loneliness, maybe even a touch of bitterness which she never allowed to surface; amazing eyes, unblinking and full of strength, the eyes of someone who genuinely listened to you -- not only to what you said but the unspoken implications behind your words, as well.
Then he realized with a start that he recognized her; he'd passed her on campus several times this year, and had always been left breathless with his heart beating a little faster for having been near such perfection.
Vanessa, right? Yes--her name was Vanessa. He lifted his hand and almost called out a greeting, but was stopped cold by something in her face.
She exchanged a quick unreadable glance with her date as she told him what she wanted, then leaned against the railing. After a moment she turned slowly to the left and saw Paul staring at her.
Don't smile, he thought. If you smile, I'm done for.
The ice cream in his mouth dribbled out and slid down the center of his chin. He tried to hide his reddening face behind a napkin.
She suppressed a laugh, started to turn away, gave him one last, quick, mischievous look, then joined her date in line.
Crestfallen, heartbroken, humiliated, damn near suicidal but unwilling to waste perfectly good ice cream, Paul finished his meal, purchased a bag of popcorn, and went out in the now-mocking sunshine to feed the ducks in the pond.
Tossing out handfuls of kernels, Paul stuffed a few into his own mouth as he listened to the sounds made by the giant paddle wheel at the side of the mill as it churned through the water.
(You really blew it in there, pal...)
(...you'll never get another chance like this after today...)
The ducks and geese joined in, quacking and honking in perfect opposing rhythm to the languorous movement of the paddle wheel.
(...lonely, old, and bitter, that'll be you...)
(...you'll be like that guy Everett Sloane played in Citizen Kane, babbling on about the girl he saw only once but thought about every day for the rest of his life...)
(...nurses will feed you oatmeal and it'll dribble down your chin and you'll tell them about this day in every detail, then they'll wipe your face and smile and say it's time for Arts & Crafts therapy, now be a good boy about it....)
A stunning white swan cut a path through the center of the pond, its grace and beauty taunting the man upon the shore.
And then She came outside, her date in tow, both of them shouting.
"I told you nothing happened," said the man Paul had already christened Gargoyle Boy.
"Do you have any idea how long I waited for you to call? You said you'd call at seven, so there I sat, staring at the phone. Seven turned into eight, then eight-thirty, and still I sat there, staring at the phone. The longer I stared at it, the more it didn't ring. Funny how that works."
"C'mon, Vanessa! I broke up with her over two years ago. She just, you know, popped in. She was in town for the weekend and wanted to get together. Nothing happened."
"I see." The look she gave him could have frozen fire. "So that black lace chemise hanging on the shower rod in your bathroom is a gift for me, or is there some secret about your dressing habits I should know?"
Paul, fascinated, continued throwing bigger and bigger handfuls of popcorn, unaware of the near-riot he was causing among the ducks.
"Hey, I don't deserve that," said Gargoyle Boy. He reached out to take her hand but she pulled away and started marching toward the pond.
Gargoyle Boy came up fast behind, grabbed her arm, and spun her around. "I don't see what right you've got to act this way. It's not like you and me are a steady thing!"
"I'm not going out with anyone else."
"We didn't go out."
"Yes, I gathered that you stayed in."
He began stroking her arms. "C'mon, babe. It didn't mean anything to me."
Paul flinched and thought: Ohboy--MI-STAKE!
Vanessa pulled away and drew back to slap Gargoyle Boy but didn't. Paul cheered her restraint. Not that Gargoyle Boy didn't deserve it, but she was obviously not going to sink to his level just to win an argument.
"Go away," she said. "Go far, far away."
"Go to the nearest airport, buy a plane ticket, fly to the Equator, disembark, then put on a blindfold and run in a straight line until you drop from exhaustion. Then you might be far enough out of my life. Is this confusing so far? I could start again and talk slower, or am I using too many multisyllabic words for you?"
She started to walk away again. Gargoyle Boy grabbed her wrist and tore a small silver bracelet from it, which he threw out into the middle of the pond.
"Damn you!" shouted Vanessa. "My grandfather gave that to me!"
"Then maybe he'll come out here and give you a ride back into town. I have to leave. I got a plane to catch."
And with that, Gargoyle Boy walked out of her life, hopefully forever.
There you go! thought Paul
Now's your chance!
So just stand here and do nothing, that's good.
Whether he is willing to admit it or not, every man harbors a secret fantasy that he'll someday get to play Sir Lancelot and rescue a fair maiden in distress. Life seldom offers the opportunity to fulfill such daydreams, but on those rare occasions when the chance for genuine heroism does present itself, most men are too busy scratching themselves in embarrassing places and wondering how silly they'd look if they tried. They often talk about this later, after a lifetime of bitterness and regret, while nurses spoon oatmeal into their mouths.
But not Sir Paul, not this time. He saw the way Vanessa looked into the pond, saw the tears brimming in her wonderful eyes, and realized just how much that bracelet meant to her. She looked up and caught him staring at her for the second time that day, only now there was no laughter in her eyes, no sparkle at all, only a deep hurt--and that made Paul furious, filled him with righteous indignation and brought to the surface every stinging memory of every injustice, great and small, real or imagined, that he'd put up with all his life and never had the nerve to do anything about.
Which is to say he was about to do something very, very stupid.
He looked toward the center of the duck pond (which didn't seem like it'd be all that deep; maybe four, five feet at most), saw the ripples where the bracelet had gone under, and stomped into the water still clutching his bag of popcorn.
The ducks and geese, already whipped into an ugly popcorn-lust frenzy, saw the bag he held in his hand and descended on him in what Paul would later think of as der Billkrieg.
By the time he reached the center of the pond and saw the glint of silver beneath the surface, there were at least eight ducks and five geese after him, a storm of flapping wings and snapping bills. The Ninth Circle of Dante's Hell could not have been any worse.
As he bent down to grab the bracelet, his head submerging into the water, two of the ducks decided to use his back as a boxing ring. By the time he came back up to the surface, holding high the bracelet (the Doofus in the Lake offering Excalibur), he had no fewer than five ducks attached to him.
A large crowd had gathered around the pond now. Shrieks of laughter--a lot of laughter: All Hail the Conquering Bonehead.
He tried to shake off the ducks but their bills were clamped tightly to his clothes. One duck in particular had a deathgrip on his thumb while another was hellbent to get between his legs and clamp onto his banonga-loo-loos. As he shook, what was left of the popcorn scattered in all directions, bringing on more web-footed assailants.
As two more ducks clamped onto his person, Paul began scrambling toward shore, Vanessa's bracelet held high and safe above his head.
He'd managed to shake off most of the monsters when two little boys near the edge of the pond decided to have some fun. Laughing hysterically, they scattered two bags' worth of popcorn in front of Paul, and the ducks went for it.
He was surrounded now, and his path of escape had been blocked.
The horror, the horror.
Closing his eyes and releasing his best Macho-Man-On-The-Rampage scream, Paul plowed through the enemy forces with action hero-like resolve and threw himself face-down on the ground, drenched and panting.
The crowd applauded.
Then he felt something snapping at his heels.
The ducks were still coming. Out of the water, waddling up to the DMZ of land, snapping and quacking angrily. One of the larger ducks seemed remarkably ticked off, as if Paul had personally offended it. Hopping onto his leg, it marched defiantly up the back of thigh and bit him squarely on the ass.
Howling in pain, he scrambled to his feet and ran toward the safety of his car. The duck held onto his ass for a good two yards before letting go.
Within moments, Vanessa was right next to him. "Are y-you...all r-r-right?" She was laughing so hard she could barely get the words out.
"The ducks!" he cried. "They're killers!" He got to his car, unlocked the door, and jumped inside, barricading himself.
Still, the ducks came.
Vanessa knocked on the passenger window. Even though his thumb was swollen and bleeding, Paul reached over and threw open the door. Vanessa climbed in.
"Shut the door! Oh God, shut the door!"
Vanessa slammed her door closed, then doubled over laughing.
A few feet in front of the car, a line of ducks stood angry and recalcitrant: This town ain't big enough for the both of us.
Paul stared at the laughing woman next to him. "Are you finished, or should I send for a tank of oxygen?"
Her answer was an even more deafening explosion of screeching guffaws.
Humiliated to the marrow of his bones, Paul tossed the bracelet into her lap. "I'm fine, thanks for asking. Don't worry about this, by the way,"--he held up his wounded thumb--"I love to bleed. It's sort of been my life-long hobby."
She took a deep breath, steadying herself, then cradled the bracelet in her hands, looked at him, and smiled. "My hero." Then she doubled over again and howled until her face turned red and tears streamed down her cheeks and her breath came out in strained, ragged wheezes. In the midst of her seizure she managed to reach over and take hold of his unwounded hand. Paul felt the sudden rush of electricity that everyone feels when they are touched for the first time by someone they hope will become important in their life.
"I feel really stupid," he said.
"You can't feel half as stupid as you looked out there!" Then again with the wheezing and guffawing.
That did it. They'd been together less than two minutes and she'd insulted him.
And sitting there--drenched, bleeding, in tremendous pain and covered in duck shit--he fell in love with her.
Ten months to the day after they met, Paul stood in a rented tuxedo watching Vanessa approach him from the far end of the church's center aisle, unspeakably lovely in her wedding dress; then she was by his side, both of them readying to exchange their vows.
It was as he was about to repeat the "I, Paul Howe, do take thee Vanessa" part that he noticed she'd styled the back of her short hair into a duck tail.
The minister never did figure out why the groom couldn't stop giggling throughout the entire ceremony, nor why the bride whispered, "Quack, quack," just before they kissed.
Such are the mysteries of love.