Café Bonne Chance

The late afternoon sun flickered through the trees and played a shadow game along the pathway in front of my sidewalk café in the park. It was near closing time, a time to relax and reflect on years gone by, so I sat down at one of the empty tables, lit a cigarette, and gazed at the young couple as they headed off arm-in-arm. It had been a good day.

     I'd bought the café four years ago when I retired from the corporate world and saw it as my refuge from the rush and worries of modern life. I fixed it up gave it a new coat of paint, and two years ago I gave it a new name. The café had always attracted lots of customers from all over northern Europe who came to relax and socialize, especially during the spring and summer months. But I must say, ever since the name change, the number of my customers has jumped considerably. I think my wife Angelica had something to do with that.

     I met Angie right here in this very spot, forty years ago. It's funny how a woman can change a man's life in a positive way. She sure did mine. At that time, I was surely headed toward perdition. I couldn't settle down, didn't have many friends, and drank too much, but Angie, bless her heart, must've seen something good in me. She was a natural born optimist who always saw the good side of people. That's why, when she passed away two years ago, I decided to rename the place Le Café Bonne Chance in honor of her mission in life—to make people happy— which has now become my own. So, when I succeed in putting a smile on the faces of my customers, it really makes my day. Of course it doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, it's as if Angie's somewhere up there sprinkling her good luck dust on all of us.

     That seems to be what happened just a few days ago when I spied a well-dressed man in a dark business suit in his mid forties, sitting at one of my outside tables talking to one of my waiters and slowly sipping a beer. He looked like an American. You can usually tell by the way Americans dress and talk, more open and less restrained like us Europeans, but I wasn't sure. A bouquet of roses lay on the table beside him. He seemed in a relaxed mood, but kept checking his watch, like he was waiting for someone. I wondered who it might be – a long lost friend, his wife or maybe his lover? Whoever it was, I wished him good luck, but I had other things to do inside, the usual cleaning, mopping and setting tables. So I let my assistant, Leo, handle him and the other customers. Almost two hours later, I came out again to straighten tables and chairs on the terrace and was surprised to find him still waiting, but now he wore a worried look. It was late afternoon, and we had only a few remaining clients to serve, so I walked over, excused myself and asked him if he was waiting for someone.

     “Yes, I am,” he said and stared again at his watch.

     “Maybe your friend got stuck in traffic. This time of the day is nearing rush hour”

     He looked up at me, a bit depressed and said, “She's an old but cherished friend. She told me she'd be here at 5:00 p.m. I arrived a tad late, and it's now past 7:00. I'm afraid I may have missed her.”

     “Maybe I can help, what does she look like?” I said.

He pulled a photo of her from his pocket and handed it to me. “I haven't seen her in twenty years,” he said. “She mailed me this photo a week ago.”

     I looked at the photo. She was indeed a very attractive woman, with short cut brown hair, pale skin, a graceful smile and beautiful hazel eyes. “She's a very pretty woman,” I said.

     He looked up at me and nodded hopefully.

     “Unfortunately, I haven't seen anyone as pretty as her pass by. Had I seen her, I would definitely have remembered her.' I said.

     The stranger gazed at the roses on the table. “She's very special to me,” he said.

     “What makes her so special, if you don't mind my asking?”

     The man looked down at the bouquet of flowers, then at me and said: “It's a long story. I see you're closing up, but if you have the time, sit down and I'll explain.”

     “Sure I've got the time,” I said and sat down.

     “You might be surprised,” he began, “but it happened right here at this very spot twenty-two years ago.”

     “Now that's a coincidence,” I said.

     “It was on my first trip to Europe, he began. “Three of us decided to spend our summer vacation traveling and hitchhiking around Europe. We had the itinerary all mapped out and wanted to see as much as we could before going back to college. After hitting London and Cologne, we took a train to Copenhagen. Our plan was to first head north all the way up to Narvik, Norway just so we could brag to our friends back home that we'd made it all the way up to the Article Circle before seeing the rest of Europe. Tivoli Gardens Park in Copenhagen seemed to be a good spot to take a short break before we headed north. We'd heard rumors at the youth hostels we stayed at that scores of unattached young Scandinavian girls often came down to the park to celebrate their summer weekends in search of unattached males like us. Being three healthy young males, we thought why not? We might get lucky.”

     I grinned in agreement, “Ah yes, Scandinavian girls. Brings back warm memories of my own.”

     The American then continued with his story. “Our plan was to drink enough beer to be able to talk to some of these Scandinavian girls and by Jove, we did: three attractive Swedes, two blondes and a slightly smaller one with light brown hair and a lovely smile.”

     “So, what happened?” I asked.

      “Well, we paired off, and I ended up sitting next to the smaller one with the lovely smile. She looked slightly different than her two blond haired, blue-eyed friends, with short cut light brown hair, hazel eyes and paler complexion, but as far as I was concerned, she was the cutest of the three. Her name was Sara and she spoke excellent English. After some awkward moments as I explained to her our interest in seeing Europe, she told me she'd come down for the weekend with her two drama school friends to escape the boredom of spending all summer stuck in her small hometown in northern Sweden.”

     “How far north was that?” I asked her. “Not many people live up there, I've heard.”

     “She told me she lived with her parents in a small village called Sorsele, just south of the Arctic Circle in Lapland, and during the winter months she worked there as the town's only telephone switchboard operator.”

     “Probably didn't get too many calls, I bet.”

     She laughed. “You're right, not too many, but it keeps me up to date on what is happening in town, breaks the loneliness and what is happening in the rest of the world.”

     “I can see you have an urge to travel more.”

      She smiled at me and nodded. When we locked eyes on each other and began to talk more, I could tell something clicked between us, as if we both knew there was a slight chance that we might meet again. I told her about our plans to visit Narvik, and to my surprise, she invited me to pay her a visit on our way back south to Stockholm, explaining that there was a local rail line from Narvik to Stockholm that ran right through her town.

     That all sounded very exotic to me – a visit to a small town in the middle of Lapland to spend a day with a beautiful Swedish girl. My friends had other sights to see, so I told them that I was going to pay her a quick visit and I'd catch up with them in Stockholm.”

     “How did that work out?” I asked.

     “Well, I left my friends in Narvik and traveled south on a spur line that ran parallel to the main line to Stockholm on a small diesel-powered train to her home town of Sorsele, a tiny lumber center of less than a thousand inhabitants in the middle of Sweden's sub-artic wilderness. It was a long, ten-hour journey through sparsely populated artic tundra and forest land, punctuated by occasional stops to clear foraging reindeer from the tracks.”

     “Sounds like Lapland to me,” I said. “That could be one reason why she looked a bit different from her friends.  She probably had some Suomi blood running through her veins,”

      “She probably did. Anyway, I met her parents who were very kind, and even spent the night there, although there wasn't much of that because at that latitude in the summer there was only about two hours of darkness. She took me to her room, and we talked for hours about my plans for the future and hers, about her interest in the theater, and her desire to see the big world. I don't know if it was her first sexual experience, but it sure was mine. We held each other closely and kissed, and it felt wonderful, you know, like all first love must feel.”

     “I know what you mean” I said with a sigh.

     The stranger began toying with the bouquet of roses next to him. “Deep down inside, I think we both feared this embrace would be but a fleeting moment in our two young lives. Nevertheless, we solemnly promised to write each other, and we kept that promise, year after year. I left the following day, sad, but still holding a glimmer of hope that some day, somewhere, somehow we would meet again.  

     “Our lives then moved in different directions. I went into the Navy for four years, then to business school, and finally to a job working with an investment firm in New York City. She pursued her own acting career. As the years floated by, our letters grew less frequent; then hers finally stopped. The last one I received mentioned that she'd moved to Stockholm to pursue her acting ambitions and had this dream of going to Hollywood to try her luck. She was certainly good looking and talented enough to do that, but I was disappointed because I knew that if she did decide to go, I'd never be able to compete with Hollywood. So I wished her good luck, and pushed on with my own life.

     “I got married, bought a small condo in lower Manhattan and for three years things were great, then the problems arrived. My wife didn't like living in New York, and she wanted children, but I didn't. So to solve her problem, she had an affair with my boss and got pregnant. I felt betrayed by both, and we ended up getting a divorce. That was six years ago.”

     “Sorry to hear that,” I said.

     “So I shifted employers, and buried myself in my work to ease the humiliation and the pain. I had other relationships, but that didn't cure my unhappiness or cynicism about the world. I drank too much, got depressed, and one gloomy New Year's afternoon even contemplated suicide. I had walked out onto the tiny terrace and looked down, fourteen stories below. It would have been so easy, but when I thought of the mess I'd make plunging through the plate glass roof of the restaurant below and looking back on my life and those two sun-filled days I'd spent with Sara, my hope that I would eventually find the happiness I so longed for, miraculously returned.

     “Then a month ago, something incredible happened. I'd gone home to see my parents–they live in a small town in Maryland where I grew up. When I arrived, they told me they had received a phone call a few days before from an old childhood acquaintance of mine, someone whom I barely remembered, a neighborhood kid I hadn't heard from in more than thirty years—I found that weird but out of curiosity, I called him anyway to find out what he wanted.

     “He explained he'd just returned from California where he'd met this very attractive Swedish woman who seemed to know me. They'd gotten to talking over a few drinks about their own disappointments in life— his failure as a photographer in Los Angeles and her disillusionment with the film business and plans to return to Sweden in two day's time, then about their own first amorous encounters with foreigners. It was at that point that she mentioned her encounter with a young American tourist from Annapolis, Maryland.

     “'Cripes, that's my hometown! What's his name? I might know him,' he said and then she mentioned my name.

     “She was surprised, too and told my friend she definitely wanted to get in touch with me again. He gave her my mailing address, and then she gave him her mailing address in Sweden to pass on to me. I was flabbergasted by this strange act of fate, and immediately wrote Sara a letter. I told her that I would be traveling to Copenhagen in three weeks' time on a business trip, and wondered if we could meet right here at the very same café where we'd first met fifteen years ago for an unforgettable reunion. To my amazement, she agreed.”

     “Sounds like a scene right out of a Hollywood movie,” I told him.

     He looked at me with mournful eyes. “But as you can plainly see, she didn't come. I tried again to phone her, but couldn't get through. I wanted to see her so badly.”

     “Why so badly? I asked.

     “'Because my life is in such a mess. I hoped she could help me fix it. I was a fool to think she would really come.' He looked down at the roses again, then at his watch. He kept nervously glancing at his watch. 'No, I can't wait any longer,' he said, and got up to leave.

     “After all you've told me, you're giving up?” I was disheartened. “Where are you going?”

     “'Back to my hotel.'

     “Why don't you come back tomorrow and check. You've waited this long, why not wait a little longer? Maybe she got held up in traffic or got the date wrong. Don't give up hope so quickly.”

     He gave me this disheartened look. “I don't have enough time. I've got to go back and pack. My return flight leaves in two hours, otherwise I'll miss my flight,” he said. He looked once more at the unclaimed bouquet on the table, and then got up from his seat and hurriedly walked off, shaking his head.

     “What hotel are you staying in?” I shouted at him as he departed.

     “The Commodore!” he shouted back without turning his head.

     As I saw him disappear, I muttered to myself, “Another bon chance down the drain.”

     Then, low and behold, less than fifteen minutes later, a lovely woman with finely cut light brown hair, dressed in a stylish grey two-piece suit walked onto the terrace and took a seat at a table. She surveyed the premises nervously, as if searching for someone. Then she noticed the bouquet of roses on the empty table. She checked her wristwatch and cursed her tardiness. When I walked up to take her order, I recognized her. She wore a close resemblance to the photo the stranger showed me less than an hour before. I was convinced she was the woman he'd been waiting for.

     “Are you expecting someone,?” I asked.

     “Yes, I am,” she said in a worried voice, “but I'm awfully late.”

     I gave her an understanding smile and pointed to the bouquet of flowers the stranger had left two tables away from her. She looked at me strangely.

     “I'm sorry to say your friend was here moments ago, but left a discouraged man.” I could see she was crestfallen. “But if you hurry, you might be able to catch him. He said he was staying at the Commodore Hotel but would be leaving for the airport shortly. If you want to try to catch him, his hotel is about two blocks down that street, but be careful crossing the street. Traffic's heavy this time of the afternoon.

     “Oh, thank you so much!' she said, her eyes sparkled and her spirit lifted.

     She snatched the bouquet, flashed me a quick smile and ran off toward the hotel. I stood there scratching my head, hoping that this time Angelica's good luck dust would work its magic.

     Minutes later I heard the sound of screeching brakes and shouts, not an unusual thing to heard during rush hour and didn't think much about the event until two days later day when the same American and the Swedish woman, both brimming with happiness, walked up to my café. I couldn't help noticing she was walking with a slight limp.

     “I just wanted to thank you for what you've done, said the American holding the hand of the Swedish woman and smiling warmly at her. “Had it not been for the quick reactions of my taxi driver,' he said, 'we might have hit Sara as she tripped crossing the street, but our potential bad fortune turned into good luck, and we were able to meet again.'”

     I smiled at them and said “You are indeed a very lucky pair, but don't thank me. Angelica is the one to thank.