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The Paper Elephant, A Story of Overcoming
My Paper Elephant
It was the paper elephant that caught my eye. Not his face. Not the cute way his eyes were hibernating behind sunglasses at 3:00am. I remember the feel of the carefully folded bill in my apron pocket and the smile on my face. It was only five bucks, but it was the best tip I had gotten all night.
He was drinking coffee, quietly and his friend’s eyes were drinking me in. His friend, unfortunately, was not so quiet.
“So, are you married? Do you want to be?” Nonchalant, the man was not.
I was insulted by the remark and made a mental note to use stale coffee my next trip by the table. The rest of the night I was at the mercy of his half empty cup.
I stood at the end of the kitchen, peering out at the two men. The cuter of the two sat there, head in a book, like a woman soaking in the sun. He never looked up, despite the comments that were blazing from his company’s mouth, trying to cut between him and the pages.
It was Dickens. I recognized the cover right away and was baffled by the fact that someone with such good taste would be with such distasteful company. Something didn’t fit. Why was he here in this little cafÃ©, sitting at my table, reading my favorite book, and being so polite? I wanted him to leave.
I rang up his check and dropped it on his table as I walked by. I made sure not to give his friend an invitation to conversation by quickly turning toward the kitchen, but the man grabbed my arm as I passed and caused me to almost lose my balance.
“Where ya goin’ Doll? What’s your hurry?”
I got control of myself and turned to slay him with my anger, but something stopped me. Dickens lay open on the table and the handsome man that I had so desperately wanted to leave was up at my side.
“Get your hands off her, man! She ain’t interested, all right? The last thing we need in a scene.”
But it was a scene, a scene I would play in my mind again and again. I was overcome by the way his warm body came between me and the man that represented so many men of my past, my life.
I stepped back, waiting for his friend to turn, or fight. I stepped back, in my mind, realizing how long I had wanted to stand up for myself, but was too afraid.
A loud laugh blared through the room. The rude man stood, laughing at himself and his friend.
“Sit down man! You’d think she was your girl! She’s just a floozy waitress, just someone to get my kicks out of and go home. Ain’t trying to start nothing, just wanting to have a good time, a good laugh.”
My hero rushed to my defense immediately. His words were soft, but firm. His arms were hard and ready to fight. I could see his anger pulsating in his knuckles.
“I hardly think you should be comparing her to your mother, and I’ll be damned if you’ll get your kicks out of insulting her. I’d suggest you leave before I change my mind about letting you walk out of here like the man you wish you were.”
I turned to run to the kitchen to call the cops, but before I could, the man surrendered, by grabbing up his leather coat and heading for the door. By now, a crowd had formed and all eyes were on me. I fled to the bathroom as the tears streamed down my face.
I hated him for defending me. I hated him for doing what no one else had ever done before. I hated him for making me uncomfortable in a situation that had become a daily ritual for me. But most of all, I hated him for not being there. I returned to find an empty table with two half empty coffee cups and my paper elephant.
The next several weeks I took my paper elephant everywhere I went, and along with it, I took my new attitude. My customers noticed my change. Most of them respected it, a few complained. But most importantly, I was happy for the first time in my life.
I called my dad, whom I hadn’t spoken to in years and told him to go to hell. He was so surprised. I had never spoken to him with disrespect. I had never told him how he’d ruined my life by leaving my mother or how much I’d hated him when he cut down the tree I spent most of my childhood playing in. I even reminded him about how he’d lied his way out of coming to my graduation. By the time I hung up the phone he was a madman and I was crying. It was the first time I ever cried from being happy.
My paper elephant helped me through college and out of that greasy cafÃ©. I’d have to say it was the best tip I was ever given. To me, it wasn’t five dollars, but a symbolism of my strength within. The only thing missing was the man behind it all.
I spent years wondering where he was and why he had never returned to the cafÃ©, never returned to me. I think I must have made up a million different excuses to pacify myself, but nothing seemed to fill the void that my paper elephant man had made.
Eventually, my paper elephant became rather frail around the edges, rather flimsy, from the wear and tear of my pocket every day. My attitude, however, was to remain changed forever. I realized that nothing could stand in my way. Overtime, I even began to get over the memory of the man I had expected I would never see again.
I was flying out to Boston on a business trip when I saw him. I watched him as he boarded the plane. I watched him as he made his way down the aisle and placed his attachÃ© above his seat. I watched his every move.
It was his handsome face that caught my eye. Not the paper elephant in my pocket. Not the memories that I had carried with me since that night so long ago. His eyes were blue, a detail I thought I would never know.
I made my way toward him, only to discover that my seat was directly across from his. I slowly took my seat, realizing that to confront him would be insane. What would this man think of me to know that I had carried a silly paper elephant in my pocket all of these years? What would he think, to know that I had carried his memory with me, not wanting to let go of all the strength that he represented to me?
He sat there, head in a book, looking as he did that first night I saw him. He didn’t look up, despite the rough take off. I watched as he turned the pages. I watched him, as I had, all these years in my mind.
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It was Clontz. He was reading my book! I noticed the cover right away. I gasped, and he looked up. As our eyes met, the plane stopped moving. The world stopped spinning. He reached out and touched my hand.
“It’s you! I can’t believe it’s you! I thought I’d never see you again, until of course, I saw your picture on this book. Where have you been?”
I wanted to scream out how I’d dreamed of this moment. I wanted to tell him how I’d lived my life hoping to one day, somehow find him, but I couldn’t find the words.
“Thank you. I mean, thank you for the paper elephant.”
What? What was I saying? What about thank you for standing up for me? What about thank you for helping me to believe in myself? How could I possibly ruin this wonderful moment by bringing up the paper elephant?
“You mean you got it then? I’ve told myself all these years that you never got it, that someone had picked it up before you returned, or that you hadn’t seen it and it had been accidently thrown away. But you got it. How that changes everything!”
He slowly closed the book and placed it to his side. His face fell to the floor, as if he couldn’t bear to look into my eyes again.
“Of course, I got it. What do you mean? Changes what?” I questioned.
His eyes met mine, hurt. The pain said it all and yet I knew nothing of what I had done to hurt this man I had grown to love.
“I have to know. Why didn’t you call? I’ve thought of you all these years, hoping to meet you again one day, to have another chance.”
I was confused. I didn’t understand what was going on. What was he talking about? I felt as if I had been pushed from the plane. Everything was flying by so fast. I was falling and there was nothing I could do. Then I stopped.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the one thing that had brought me to this point, the one thing that had meant so much to me, my paper elephant. I stared at it through tears. I stared back at the past and how I had longed for this moment to be with him again, and I realized that I had my hopes and dreams in my pocket all along.
As I slowly unfolded the five dollars that had changed my life, I read- Give me a call- #555-2365. Love Tom.