“Marry a girl with two names,” John’s mother had often told him. Even as a young child, he’d watch her cut the crusts from his peanut butter and banana sandwiches during a brief indoor respite from summer sun and she’d say things like, “The more, the better. Sue Anne. Bobbi Jane. Twice the personality than some single name.” And John would grab his sandwich halves in separate hands, toss back a pandering “Okay, Mom,” and sprint back to the outdoors to play with dirt and watch ants form a black cloud over a rogue banana slice.
But over the years, her words stuck him, as most of them did. He’d find himself ordering the same dinner at the same restaurant on the same first date. With the cute, shy brunette from whom he regularly purchased his morning coffee whom he finally managed to ask out after a few months. Or the blonde coquette that’d stop by the restaurant every few days just to see how many men would stare, setting her sights on John because he set his. Or the fake librarian-dressing woman who fought the curve and dressed ten years older than she was instead of ten years younger (and yes, it often worked). And the conversation would always turn to their names.
“Erica,” the brunette said. “Named for my grandmother. My father’s mother. I never knew her.”
“Huh,” John said, wanting more but not knowing how to ask.
“Celeste,” the blonde said. “It means ‘heavenly’ in, like, Greek or something.”
“Huh,” John said, wondering if it was actually French.
“Jill,” the librarian-dressing woman said. “Hey, Jack and Jill.”
“Huh,” John said, remembering how much more he liked fairy tales than nursery rhymes.
“Mary Beth,” she said, her elbows on the bar as she swirled the straw against the inner walls of her glass, the ginger ale bubbling over and under and over itself. “Mom and Dad liked both and couldn’t decide, so they just combined them.” She took a sip from her drink. “They were big into compromise.”
John smiled as he wiped off the bar, his rag leaving a streak of bleach water across the lacquered oak. “We’re closing up here,” he said, tugging the string of the front neon sign, leaving the restaurant front dim and spare, “but would you like to grab a drink somewhere else? As soon as I’m finished up?”
"I'm very flattered," she said, "but I've got a boyfriend."
"I don't think I could afford his drink, too, but I guess he's welcome to come if he wants to go dutch." He yawned. "Or if he wants to buy mine."
She smiled and her porcelain teeth flashed like an open door. "I'm sure he'd appreciate the company, but I'll have to say no. On his behalf."
"Got it," John said, humbly finishing the wipedown. "Have a good night."
That night, John dreamed of a pretty girl riding a parade float of ants through the rows banana plants on a farm somewhere. When he woke up, he somehow knew, in that way that everyone somehow knows once they wake up, where the farm was located, and he spent the majority of his morning daydreaming about what September was like in southern Florida.