I stepped up to the counter, 9:15 on a Saturday night. Not having eaten since early that morning, I was unusually hungry, and I probably should have been somewhere other than the local McDonald’s with the kind of hunger I was feeling. But I was in a little bit of a hurry, with less than a half-hour until I was supposed to meet a couple friends at the local cineplex.
The girl behind the register was unusually pleasant. At least that’s what I thought on my first glance, so I greeted her smile with as much of a pleasant tone as I could find. I ordered my food, she recited the cash total to me, after which I handed her a ten. She informed me that she was out of fives, but that she happened to have a two dollar bill, in case I didn’t want all singles for my change. I told her that was fine. Then she gave me my change and my order, and I sat down to eat for about ten minutes.
While I was finishing my food, she made her rounds in the dining area, wiping off table tops. She was at the table next to mine and she asked how I was. I said, “Fine, and you?”
“I’m good. What would bring you to a fast food restaurant alone on a Saturday night — if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m on my way to meet some friends, but I’m starving a little too, so here I am.”
“Oh, what are you gonna’ do with your friends?” she asked.
“We’re gonna’ see a movie,” I answered.
“Which one?” At this point she may have sensed herself intruding a little too much, and she continued by disclaiming her curiosity, “Oh, you know what? You don’t have to tell me your whole life’s story — I didn’t mean to pry…”
“No, it’s okay,” I responded, because it really was okay with me if she wanted to keep talking. I was actually enjoying the attention, and to be honest, she was very attractive and I had no personal reason not to flirt with her a little bit. I went on, “We’ll probably see some stupid comedy, you know, the kind that’s best enjoyed with people whose company you can enjoy even if the movie sucks.”
At this point, I noticed her name tag, and unsure how to pronounce the name, I asked, “Your name, U-M-E — how do you say it?”
“Oh, just say ‘you’ and ‘may’ together quickly, and you’ll pretty much have it nailed,” she explained.
To confirm her pronunciation lesson, I repeated it for her,”So it’s ‘you-may’, right?”
“Exactly,” she smiled back. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, I’m Bill,” and almost unconsciously, this response was followed by my outstretched hand, which she promptly shook.
“Well, Bill, it’s really nice to meet you, but I should probably get back to real work before my boss thinks I’m harassing patrons.”
“Okay. It was nice to meet you.”
Then she paused and turned back to me before walking away, “Do you want my number?”
I was slightly surprised at this question, but extremely pleased also, “Um, sure…”
“Here, I’ve got a pen,” she pulled one of those blue and white BIC’s with the four different ink colors from behind her ear (I hadn’t noticed it before that point, probably because it had been obscured by her long, dark hair. “Do you have a piece of paper? A receipt or something?”
I didn’t have one, of course, and before I could put even that much into words, she said, “You still have that paper money from the change I gave you. How about the two dollar bill? That way you’ll be less likely to accidentally spend it.” She winked as she said the word “accidentally”, and she went on, “Besides, I always see phone numbers on money, especially working at a cash register, but I’ve never actually written my phone number on money before — so this could be a first for me.” She said this smiling, as she reached her hand out, presumably for some paper money on which to write.
I fumbled into my wallet for the same worn two dollar bill she’d given me earlier. I handed it to her, she took it and scrawled her name and phone number on it, folded it, handed it back to me, and smiled. Then she walked away.
I left the restaurant, feeling quite full of myself, having extracted a beautiful girl’s phone number without any forward effort on my part, and I went to meet my friends at the theater. The movie, as I had half suspected, was bad, the company was good, and all night, I couldn’t shake thoughts of my encounter with the inexplicably pleasant girl whose number graced the two dollar bill in my wallet.
I managed to wait all of a day and a half before calling that number, at which point I was somewhat relieved that she actually answered the phone. Upon realizing who was calling, she expressed mock anger that I didn’t call her sooner, closely followed by a brief burst of laughter.
We spent a good bit of time together over the next few months. During that time I learned a lot about her, like the fact that she wasn’t a local girl, but rather a college student who’d be going home at the end of the current semester. Knowing this probably kept me from enjoying her company as much as I might have, but still, I enjoyed the time immensely.
She explained that “Ume” wasn’t her real name, but it was what people called her. She tried to explain the meaning of the name to me. Apparently it was a somewhat informal name, and of foreign origin to boot, so the explanation was imprecise to a certain extent. As best I can recall, it meant that she was like a pleasant dream that was easy to forget — or something like that. The pleasant dream part made perfect sense, though I remember wondering how she could be thought of as forgettable in any way.
In the time since, though, I’ve noted to myself how I still remember her with extreme fondness, but I do find it harder to remember details about her — whether it be her face, her playful smirk, the way her eyes made a modest squint whenever her expression turned to smiling or laughter.
And maybe this gradual amnesia regarding the details has been helped by the fact that I have no photographic evidence whatsoever that she was ever here; that was the one strange piece of the whole experience to me, that she didn’t like having her picture taken. Whenever I asked her about this, she expressed such displeasure with her own appearance that I was always left dumbfounded. I wondered exactly how she could have maintained such a positive persona while having such a poor view of herself. I never saw whatever it was that made her feel this way about herself, but for the most part, if I avoided talking about her appearance, she seemed able to ignore the topic as well. And aside from that, I rarely found her to be anything less than infectiously spirited.
But it’s been so long now since I’ve seen her or heard her voice, I have to confess that she has come to perfectly fit what she told me about her name.
And from that reverie I shift back to reality, where I find myself pulling up to a deserted turnpike toll booth at about three in the morning. The toll is $1.75, and I fumble through my wallet to find the cash for the toll.
“How you doin’ tonight, champ?” The collector greets me in gruff but friendly voice.
“Fine, and you?” I’m tired, but I extend the banter as I hand him the ticket and the cash.
“Peachy — hey, a two dollar bill! I haven’t seen one o’ these in a while. And look — somebody wrote a name and number on it. I should call, maybe she’s cute…”
“She is,” I respond, “but she doesn’t live there anymore.”
“Oh, ain’t that a shame. Well, have yourself a good night there.”
“You too,” I say as I drive away, leaving behind the last piece of physical evidence of a pleasant, but fading dream.