Saturday, October 15, 2005

Fortune Cookie

Well I was out in California with my boyfriend when my ex emailed me that he was having a party, and would I come along with everybody else in what I’ve taken to calling our tribe, the tribe that shifted like a piece of flaky shale after our divorce, even though everybody kept trying to act like everything was the same but really it wasn’t, and then finally one by one people would drink a little bit too much at some party and say, “It’s not the way it used to be” and I’d shift from one foot to the other and feel guilty, because I thought I might have started it all. My ex suggested that we all bring a gift for his new girlfriend who just got accepted into some master’s program, and we would celebrate that and the new paint job (plum, school bus yellow, rust red) in the rooms of the house where my ex and I got married in what I’d have to say was a sweet event even back when the walls were ivory and cream.

Then later he wrote to me again and asked me not to come.

Something about her mother being there and how you couldn’t expect an 83-year-old to understand.

I didn’t tell anybody else in the tribe that I had been disinvited. Back home from California, alone that Friday night, I decided I would party by myself. I was in a dangerous mood, bound to prove I could be just fine on my own. I told myself I wanted to be alone. I wanted carry-out Chinese: there’s something about those generous little white boxes, the piles of rice, the feel of the sticks on the teeth, the clean taste of the delicate wood. I went to a place I hadn’t been to since we split up, Young Sing, on the grimy East Side.

I used to go there with him – there first, then the movie store. It was how we spent our Friday nights. But now I felt like a female Frankenstein, walking in, awkward, clunky. I wanted to order what I always used to order, but I couldn’t think of the name of the dish, the way to ask for those crunchy noodles. I used to get them here, there used to be a woman who spoke English behind the glass window who knew what I liked. Where was she now? Confused and startled that my mind would not help me remember the name of that dish, those noodles, I sputtered, oh, okay, just give me beef and broccoli. I didn’t want to act like I had to buy my Chinese food from some American to get it right, and I sure didn’t want to make their Friday night harder by not knowing what I wanted, but I did want something. But what were those crunchy noodles called? I was struggling, fumbling one more time to explain myself.

I sat down at a cold linoleum table to try to find what it was I wanted on the menu. Surely it would pop out at me, but it was if it had disappeared, a star that used to be in the sky but wasn’t anymore, a mystery. I felt crazy and upset. Two black women were eating mu shu at the next table, talking about work, their lousy boss who’s going through menopause. They looked at me out of the corners of their eyes.

I want the crunchy noodles, I said one more time. Then, finally, a spark: It’s the Cantonese-style chicken chow mein. That’s what I want.

Crunchy, then, the Chinese woman said, visibly rolling her eyes at the Chinese man in the hot kitchen behind. Or did I just think she did? Forget the beef and broccoli? Just the Cantonese-style chow mein, then? No beef and broccoli?

That’s it, Cantonese-style chow mein, I said with relief. That was the dish I always used to get. The black women wiped the corners of their mouths delicately and re-applied their makeup. They both had earthy bodies and they were dressed in their work clothes and they looked great, comfortable in their curves and big earrings and their beautiful fancy round hairdos. They seemed like old friends, relaxing after a hard week. They seemed competent and spunky. I was envious of their obvious ease. I was in my grey sweat pants and a tan sweatshirt and I realized there was a spot of something on it, right between the breasts, as if something had dribbled off my chin. My hair kept falling into my eyes.

So I waited.

On the table, an April 1993 New Yorker. A Donna Tartt story about a child actor, now grown, who had to visit kids at a cancer hospital. I thought this was the same New Yorker that had always been here, all those times I came with my husband, the one single New Yorker, as worn at the edges as it had ever been, but not particularly more so. What was a New Yorker doing here, anyway, in this shabby neighborhood where half the girls are fast and the other half are pregnant with their second kids and they’re not even 21? Knife fights and drive-by shootings around here hit the papers every Sunday morning; not long ago one teenage twin thrill-killed the other in somebody’s basement.

Right down the street was Angelo’s, a local coney joint where they once had to close the place down because of a grease fire. I once took my new boyfriend when he was here from California, and I wanted him to see how campy it was and to savor along with me the local color, the tattooed guys and the senior citizens with oily pony tails and the waitresses biting their pencils and chewing out the trade. But that time the place was just awful, bits of cigarette ashes and egg yolks on the table, everything dirty and depressing, and he said, “Why did you bring me here?” and he didn’t want to touch his food.

And down the street from Angelo’s, a funeral home where I’d mourned two suicides and a grisly fatal accident, Johnny Johnson and Bruno Valdez, one dead musician each in the creepy side-by-side rooms. I can’t believe I just remembered their names, those great musicians, blasted into forever by some drunk.

And a bar, the El Toro, where I once tried to order sparkling water with a bunch of my slumming artsy friends and the waitress popped her gum and spat out, “No sparkling water, honey, this is the East Side.”

So the New Yorker on the table at Young Sing was a miracle, that one ten-year-old New Yorker, something made and sent out and saved from way before my life changed, way before 9/11 changed everything, a piece of innocence, I almost wanted to say, a curiosity. I felt anchored after all. If that New Yorker was there, I knew I’ve been here before. I knew there was a dish there that I wanted, that one with those crunchy noodles I couldn’t get anywhere else in town, the dumb old town I’d lived in way longer than I ever thought I would. Maybe I was one of those ones who never got out. But, there was a New Yorker on that table, and I read it again, turning its pages sacramentally and emotionally as if it was the Gutenburg Bible.

Then I had my Cantonese-style chicken chow mein and a box of crunchy noodles, two white boxes in a brown bag, and I was back in my car. Pulling out there was always a problem for me – I was always scared of turning left, but this time, going to my new house, it made more sense to turn right – a blessing that I didn’t have to turn left out of Young Sing’s and risk losing my re-arranged and measly messed-up life.

Back in the house, I moved the easy chair around because I couldn’t yet figure out the feng shui and I didn’t have it all set up right to watch TV. I couldn’t decide yet where everything should go. I poured a glass of merlot from a half-empty bottle somebody left at the housewarming two months before. Settling down, finally, I watched “Laurel Canyon,” about a bunch of cool people who really weren’t so cool, and I ended up crying when they reconciled around the swimming pool. The part where the son grabs his mother’s toe and holds on, like a baby might, got me going, and I cried and cried.

And that’s when I opened the fortune cookie. The little white strip read, “You will be welcome at any gathering.”

God. I said it out loud. I didn’t bother to crack a smile – who cared – it would have come out like a clownish grimace and I thought, who needs fiction. And then I poured myself another glass of wine and toasted to the East Side.

Sitting there, I knew that when I called my boyfriend who was in California and didn’t have any history to speak of with the East Side, I was going to cry about it all again, and I knew what he was going to say. He would say, you feel what you feel – let it flow through you. He’s a great guy, my boyfriend, an old hippie, the best. He would say, every time you’re sad you’re letting some of it go. Don’t stop. He would tell me, that’s the classy way to handle it, to have your merlot and feel what you feel. But in the meantime I read my fortune again. I was going to be welcome at any gathering. But then I just kept crying and crying, tears dropping on the chicken chow mein and chunky noodles in white boxes on my lap, in the Laz-Y-Boy, the credits on the sad movie rolling.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Portuguese Bend, On the Pacific Coast

“drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.”
Robert Creeley, “I Know a Man”

I started feeling like a local
when I could drive Portuguese Bend
without gripping the wheel, past
signs warning “Landslides” and
“Extreme Caution" and
“Constant Movement."
Every day road crews block
the lanes, propping up and patching
where nature resolutely takes a dip,
and we locals know to slow to ten
when the sign says “Bump.” The cliffs
are steep beside this belly dancing spot.
Rocks at the bottom are black and jagged
and the plodding ocean doesn’t care.
It’s sort of thrilling, going over
the Portuguese Bend, and if
you make it you can stop
at Wayfarer’s Chapel to thank the Lord
or reflect on your survival
at the neat Narcissa Gate. But I
just like to keep on driving, over
the reassuring, risky shifting
of the earth, its constant change
a lovely stubbornness.