An unexpectedly eventful lunch with my favorite author. (1000 words)
|"Hello! You must be M! Happy Birthday!" he said, gifting me with an ear-tickling smile and reaching his hand towards my mid-section expectantly. I got stuck in the bubble of time around me like a mosquito in amber. I watched in wonder as dust particles swam slowly on sunbeams into his perfectly tussled feather-duster of hair. It felt as if my feet had sunk into the cement of the cafe floor. I was frozen. My hands hung dumbly at my sides, clearly having forgotten their purpose. My mouth agape and eyes the size of dinner plates, I tried desperately to recall how to respond to this alien gesture. What was he reaching for? Did I owe him money and had somehow forgotten? It struck me that when I made the wish, I hadn't specified that I wished for a FREE lunch with Neil Gaiman. I shook the ridiculous notion loose from my web of thoughts and watched as it sank slowly to the floor in front of me.
"Are you alright?" he asked, a twinkle of concern in his eyes, smile unchanged. His hand was still stretched out in my general direction. Time began to sprint towards me and raced past with a distantly heard *whooosh*. Reality swatted the top of my head with a newspaper and I came to. My hand shot out to take his and I shook it violently up and down exactly 12 times too many.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Gaiman. I...yes I'm....I'm sorry, I promise I've never been star-struck before." He chuckled melodiously as he pulled out my chair and gestured towards it.
"Oh," he scoffed, "stuff and nonsense. No need for any of that." I sat down robotically. He sat in his own chair across the table and leaned forward, his hands laced together on the table in front of him. “And please, call me Neil,” he added, smiling but with very serious eyebrows.
“Neil,” I parroted with a nod. I was clearly still a bit dazed.
“So, M, how are you?” he asked, and I could tell that he genuinely wanted to know.
“I think I may swallow my tongue.” The words shot out of my mouth before my filter could even put its lips to the whistle. He chuckled with his shoulders and reached into a pocket hidden inside his jacket.
“Here, have a sherbet lemon. That should keep it distracted.” It was my turn to laugh. I reached out and took the tiny hard candy.
“We don’t have these back home. I’d actually never heard of them until...well, you know,” I stuttered, words failing me. I unwrapped it and popped it into my mouth in hopes it would plug the leak. It was, of course, delicious. Just then a waiter approached holding a clear, glistening teapot on a tray with milk and sugar, the teacups and saucers already on the table.
“OH,” he bounced, “yes!” with a clap, as if he had forgotten something important. “I ordered the tea already. I presume you drink tea?”
“Of course!” I said a bit too loud, afraid to disagree (not that I would have).
“Wonderful.” The waiter sat the tray on the table. I watched with interest as he lifted the teapot in the manner with which one might lift a minutes-old kitten. He slowly spun it around 3 times clockwise, waited a moment, and spun it 3 times counter-clockwise. “You want to stir it a bit, but you don’t want to bruise the tea leaves,” he winked knowingly. I imagined a clumsy tealeaf banging its shin on the coffee table and laughed. I watched him perform the rest of this sacred ritual, nodding yes at the offer of sugar and milk.
“Thank you so much for coming Mr. Gai-...Neil. I know you’re crazy busy.” He swatted at an invisible fly dismissively. He leaned towards me conspiratorily.
“I had to have lunch somewhere, didn’t I?” he nearly whispered. I scrunched my shoulders and let my head sag to one side in defeat.
“Good point,” I admitted. The need to fill the potential silence with noise pushed its way up my esophagus. “So what should we talk about?!” He shrugged and nodded toward me as he sipped cautiously at his tea.
“You’re the cap’n of this ship, I’m afraid,” he said with a smack of the lips.
“I’m sure I had two-thousand questions before I came in here,” I said to the spoon still bathing in my tea. “That must be so strange for you,” I realized aloud. “Having so many people want to know a billion trivial and exhausting details about you and your life?”
“Eh. With great power...” he gestured an ellipse into the air. We both had a laugh at that.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like inside your head.”
“Well, I could tell you,” he paused. A devious look peaked out from behind the curtain of his expression. “Or I could show you…”
He looked up at the ceiling of the cafe just as it split in two and opened like a rocket hanger. Above us was a ship. A real, made-of-wood-and-barnacles ship with billowing sails, floating and bobbing in the air as if this were any old Monday. He placed two fingers tightly between his lips and blew. A piercing whistle permeated the air around us, almost visible. At that, a ladder made of rope and planks unfurled without an ounce of grace, tumbling excitedly down towards our heads. It stopped just short (thank God) and swung gingerly from side to side. Neil planted one foot on top of the table and pushed himself up onto the ladder with the other. Unfortunately, the milk fell from the table as he went. He turned around and, yet again, reached his hand out to me expectantly with the most voracious grin I’d ever seen.
“Quickly now!” he shouted above the wind.
Well...it IS my birthday… I thought as I stood up and grabbed his hand.