Seventy-three cents doesn’t buy you much, but the price of love is difficult to measure. Take Ben and Anna for example. They’d met in San Francisco, at a café called All You Knead, when Anna had dumped a plate of spaghetti in Ben’s lap. Fortunately, he hadn’t been horribly mad. In fact, he’d found her apology charming.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my first week here, and I overbalanced and… can I make it up to you? I could pay for your dry cleaning?”
“They’re jeans,” Ben pointed out. “No dry-cleaning required. A new plate would be fine… and maybe a towel?”
“Sure thing.” And she’d gone into the kitchen for new food and a clean towel, returned with both, and thought no more about it, until later, when she’d gone to bus the table and found he’d left a tip of only seventy-three cents and a note that read, “You’re wonderful, but this is all I had. Call me?” His phone number was scrawled at the bottom.
Anna never called him – to be honest, she’d stuck his note in her pocket and forgotten it, but fate had something planned for the pair, because he bumped into her – literally – at the laundromat a few days later.
“Hey, it’s you!” Ben said, and his smile caused dimples in his cheeks.
“It’s me,” Anna said. “Oh, you’re washing your jeans, right?”
“Um… and other stuff… and I have other jeans, obviously.”
“Oh, right, sorry.” She hesitated, the offered. “Well, let me treat you to a load? I really am sorry about the spaghetti incident…” She reached into her change purse to give him some coins for the machines, and blushed. “I’m out of quarters,” she said. “I’ve only got seventy-two – no, seventy-three cents left. Here, take it… I owe you two cents.” Her dark eyes were glowing with amusement. “I swear it’s not the same seventy-three cents you left me.”
“God, that was the worst tip ever,” he said.
“Well, I sort of deserved it.”
“True. Look… I’m gonna be here a while, but there’s a café across the street. If you’re willing to keep an eye on my stuff while you’re folding yours, I’ll get us each a coffee.”
“It’s a deal,” she said. “Cream, no sugar.”
Their laundromat coffee-date ended up lasting until the owner strongly suggested they take their bins of folded clothes and go home, so he could. He even held the door open for them, and he never did that.
Anna shoved her laundry basket into the back seat of her vintage VW Beetle, then turned to lean on it. “I washed your number…” she told Ben. “I stuck your note in my pocket and got busy… I go to the culinary school and between that and work, it’s exhausting…. And then I washed the jeans I’d been wearing that day…”
“Well, I could give it to you again.”
“Come home with me and I’ll cook a meal for both of us.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
That dinner turned into dating, and an engagement, and marriage. During those years, Anna finished her program at the culinary academy and Ben got his business degree. Not long after their marriage, they inherited an old diner from Anna’s aunt Molly, and turned it into a coffeehouse with an art studio in the back. As business grew, they expanded their menu from coffee and pastries to bistro fare – soups, salads, and sandwiches. One thing that never changed, however, was that you could get a regular cup of coffee and a lemon cookie shaped like a crescent moon for only seventy-three cents.
Their coffeehouse wasn’t the only thing that flourished. Bella Luna became a sort of community center of the funky beach town where they lived – less than an hour from San Francisco, but a completely different world – with live music on Friday and Saturday nights and pick-up Shakespeare on Sunday afternoons. Their patrons weren’t just customers, they were friends, and even chosen family, and when Ben and Anna had their first child, a dark eyed, curly haired girl they named Marin, the coffeehouse folk became her aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers.
Life wasn’t always perfect. The first year of the coffeehouse was a struggle, and they both took side gigs to bring in cash. Ben sold paintings and gave art lessons – business school had been a concession to his parents – and Anna took special orders for bread, rolls, muffins, and cookies.
The year Marin turned two, there was a tragedy of another sort. Anna always swore she only turned away for a second, and all of a sudden, the toddler had toppled the Christmas tree, and was on her ass in the middle of the bent branches and broken glass ornaments, crying her heart out.
Anna didn’t blame her daughter. Accidents happen after all, but some of her ornaments had been family heirlooms and couldn’t be replaced. While drying her child’s tears, Anna cried her own. The pair were still sitting on the couch when Ben came home.
They cleaned up the mess, had dinner, and put Marin to bed. “We can get new ornaments,” Ben assured his wife. “We can create our own heirlooms.”
And they did.
Each of the artists and students who used the studio created an ornament for Ben and Anna’s tree. Anna (with Marin’s “help”) made paper chains and strung popcorn and cranberries. The end result was eclectic, but also charming, and very real.
“It doesn’t shine, though,” Anna said. “I shouldn’t complain… but I miss the way the glass ornaments caught the twinkle lights and reflected them.”
“We could use tinsel.”
“No, if Marin or the dog get into it, it could be dangerous.”
“I’ll think of something.”
But the tree remained as it was until Christmas eve.
That night, Ben came home from closing the coffeehouse with a wrapped shoebox in his hands. Marin was already in bed, but that was okay. His gift was for Anna.
“Sweetie… you didn’t have to buy me anything.”
“I saw this at the church gift store… you know they’re always selling wreaths and ornaments during Advent. Old Gladys insisted on wrapping it. Open it, please?”
“Okay,” Anna said. And she ripped open the paper not much more daintily than Marin would have. Then she opened the box. Inside were a bunch of tree ornaments (hooks thoughtfully provided), all of the same type. Faintly pearl colored, mostly translucent, with a hint of glitter for shine. “Icicles!” she said. “You found icicles…”
“I saw them on the sale table and had to get them to you. You need your tree to shine.”
“How many are there? It looks like a thousand,” Anna said.
“Not quite,” Ben said. “There are thirty-seven.”
“That’s a really odd number for a collection.”
“Gladys said there were originally fifty, but some got lost over the years. She said make sure you count them before and after you put them on the tree.”
“After you remove them,” Ben explained. “Some were lost because they sort of hide within the branches. They never thought to count.”
“Makes sense. Help me put them on.”
And so, Ben and Anna hung the thirty-seven icicles on the tree. When they were done, Ben brought peppermint tea to their couch and they sat and watched the way the tree seemed to shine from within. The icicles weren’t obvious. They could barely be seen unless someone was looking for them. But they added the final touch that Anna had been missing.
They sipped their tea and caught up on the rest of the day’s news, sharing special things that had happened, and knowing their daughter would wake them up at dawn.
As they finally headed for bed, Anna mused aloud. “Thirty-seven icicles. You know thirty-seven is the reverse of seventy-three?”
Ben paused in the hallway and pulled his wife close. “See, it was fate. We were meant to have them.”
It”s not often you get to “witness” the birth of a charming tradition… Lovely story.
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This story is so sweet – I love it.