Maria Sandberg looked through her office window at the Minnesota sky. She was debating about her upcoming Thanksgiving plans. She missed her parents. A tall man in his thirties came in and put his arms around her. “Sweetie, you are always worried. What is the problem?” Maria’s face changed miraculously. “Oh it’s nothing, dear. Come over to my place tonight at 7 pm.” Her bright smile belied her internal conflicts. Rick Van Ens puckered up his lips to give a flying kiss. They had to follow proper decorum at work.
They had first met at a dating site. Later on they stumbled upon each other at the cafeteria. Since then their relationship had been going steady. They met over lunch. During the weekends they enjoyed dinner and movie, together. It had been almost six months. Today was a special day and she was getting nervous. She was not sure about her commitment. Ricky was a nice guy but he was occasionally a perfect goofball. This made Maria very uncomfortable.
Maria looked stunning in her knee-length dress and black high heels, rambling in the parking ramp adjacent to the Mall of America. Her long coat was unbuttoned, showing a fashionable scarf. She was carrying a GUCCI bag on her right shoulder. Many shoppers saw her distressed face, on their way to and from the mall. They sensed the panic that was slowly gripping her. Some of them thought of asking her if she needed any help.
It might be a feminine thing to worry about unexpected problems, especially, when everything was going well. Just to be more prepared, Maria often imagined agonizing situations and thought out possible solutions in her mind. But this time, she was clearly searching for something more substantial. Her eyes browsed through the mixed bunch of cars as she did a few rounds on level 3. There were cars of various sizes from sleek smart cars, medium sized sedans, to huge SUVs and pick-up trucks.
By the time Maria got back from shopping, many cars had left. Other cars of different shapes and colors had taken their place. Maria had forgotten where she had parked her SUV. She had recently purchased a fully-loaded Rav4 from a dealership. She questioned if she had locked the car properly when she ran off hurriedly to pick a gift for her boyfriend. She tried to remember some of her earlier actions.
She had gotten out from work and driven straight to the mall. She had been talking to her friend, June, on the phone when she pulled into her parking spot. They were discussing gift ideas and planning for a surprise party. After she hung up, she grabbed her purse and coffee cup before getting out of the car. But she could not remember herself locking the car.
A friendly store assistant had helped Maria pick the perfect gift for Ricky. In an effort to make small talk, he complained about sales being down. This was probably an aftermath of the economic meltdown. With the increase in unemployment rates and corporate cost cutting, people were forced to lower their spending. Many people were going through monetary hardships, she had thought. Maria had been lucky to survive a big layoff, six months ago. As she pondered over that, it dawned on her that someone could be lurking around the parking lot and checking if any cars were unlocked. “Maybe the thief found the car unlocked and drove it away. The wretched security system was useless!! ” She still had her parking ticket in her purse.
Maria who face was flushed. How was she going to get home in time for the surprise party for Rick ? A light drizzle had started when she had left work. She looked outside through the opening above the sidewalls of the parking ramp. By now, white snowflakes were coming down at a crazy rate in all possible directions. The forecast was six to ten inches, tonight. Maria had invited a dozen of their mutual friends for the party. The guests would have to wait outside in snow for her return. She had doubts that it would make the birthday boy, practically, fly off the handle.
“Why was this happening to me? ” She had been taking the utmost care to make this surprise birthday party special for Ricky. “He will be so impressed that he will propose me,” she had thought. It made her feel so irresistible. But instead, she was standing in the freezing cold with no transportation to get home.
With her attention focused at a far direction, she missed a paper cup lying on the ground. Apparently someone dropped their slushy drink before it was finished. The spill made an icy patch on the ground. Maria stepped on it and lost her balance. “AARRRGH!” She fell on her back and bruised her elbows. She used her scarf to brush off the dust. Blood oozed out from the wounds. She picked up her shopping bag and looked inside for the gift. Out of the layers of multicolored tissue she fished out the box, wet and fragrant. The bottle inside might be broken. She put it back inside with a heavy sigh.
Maria’s eyes welled up. Tear droplets joined together and started journeying down her ruddy cheeks. She was shivering from fear and cold. To suppress a moan, she hid her face in her left elbow. As she turned her head, she saw a middle aged man with questioning eyes. The man was wearing a shabby overcoat and a skull cup. He had a calm demeanor as if he had nothing to lose.
The man took the last puff from his cigarette and dropped the butt near his feet. He extinguished the fire under his feet and let the smoke out through the corner of his mouth. He took a few steps forward and approached her. With a sympathetic smile, he asked her, “Hey girl, what’s wrong? ” The young girl was waiting to be helped. The man pulled her up on her feet.
Without much thought, Maria blurted out her story, stopping to cry in between. From her purse, she took out the parking ticket and showed him. He took it from her hand with a smile and briefly looked at it before shoving it in his pocket. “Does your car have a remote?” “Yes!” Maria’s face lit up. “Why didn’t she think of it, before? She could go around and try listening for her car’s response to the remote.” The gentleman volunteered to help. Maria was so relieved that she did not think twice when she handed him her car remote. As she followed the man she thought she heard her car’s faint response. “All is not lost” she reassured herself.
The stranger also got excited and started walking briskly towards the sound. The distance between them was increasing. Maria fell behind. She looked in the direction of the sound and saw the head lights of her Rav4 blinking in reply. “What a relief. Her car was here all this time. She laughed at herself and was about forget the grueling last half hour. But what is this?” She noticed that the man was running towards her SUV. She was shocked to see him get in the car and drive away in a flash, leaving her behind. She stood there unable to react.
Maria was hit over her head by this unexpected development. “This could not be REAL!” Impulsively, she pulled out her cell phone and called 911, to report her stolen vehicle. June had told her how convenient Uber cabs were. She called one and walked down the steps to wait for her ride. Maria felt drained but she was not giving up. Within fifteen minutes, a white cab arrived. She breathed easily as she looked at her watch. She could be home just at the nick of time.
“I am running a little late, June. Do you think you can reach my house in the next fifteen minutes?” she called. Maria also checked with the restaurant for the food delivery. The cake shop was on her way. She carefully opened the gift box. The DOLCE & GABBANA bottle was leaking from a slight crack at the top. Maria would have to explain the damage. Part of herself revolted at this idea. She could not help it. Things were clearly not in her control. If someone was blind to that, then may be this was not meant to be.
Maria tried to keep things simple in order to relax. “I will follow up with the police after the party,” she thought. However, her mind, unintentionally, kept wandering back to her best-loved car. On her way home, the cab took an exit and got on the freeway. Maria saw a police car, with its lights and siren on, cross them at a very high speed. The police car was on a chase. She could also hear the rumbling sound of the helicopter right above her. “Were the police saving her Rav4?” Her heart skipped a beat.
A few minutes later, Rick called her. “Hey honey! I am just about to start towards your place. do you need anything? ” “No. I don’t need anything, ” sighed Maria. “I am sorry I messed up everything.” She took the opportunity to relate about her car theft and his damaged gift. Maria knew she was being extremely tactless but she did not care. It felt good to vent it out. She was tired of being Ms. Perfect for him.
Rick spoke after a long silence. “It was sweet of you to arrange the party…..We all make mistakes.” Then he started to laugh out loud. “I kinda like this bungling Maria. Will you marry me ?”