Saturday, December 15, 2012

Flash Fiction: "Fortune Cookies"

Haven't posted stuff on this blog in forever! Wrote a new short story/flash fiction piece called "Fortune Cookies," partly inspired by "House on Mango Street," partly inspired by those hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants every Asian kid is familiar with, partly inspired by Lana del Rey, partly inspired by Hollywood and Woodland Hills and Malibu. Weird amalgamation, but stick with me here.



Fortune Cookies


She comes every night for fortune cookies.

Of course she comes for something else too— hot tea, wontons, and green tea ice cream— but all of us waiters know it’s mainly for the fortune cookies.

Lana. A slender girl in her twenties who makes a pilgrimage to our restaurant every night. She sings in the bar around the corner, scraping the tips jar empty for rent. I’ve heard the stories. They’re all different. A rich lover and a house in Malibu where you can see sunsets drain over coves and canyons. Then rumpled sheets, a suitcase, and an apartment on Xpello Street that looked like a ragged cigarette on a highway. And if that isn’t romantic enough for you, Lana can be a foreign princess escaped from a war-ravished country. Or she can be disowned by the proud family that lives in the mansion on Forest Avenue. Sometimes I drive by that Victorian castle and see the family’s enormous dark eyes, exactly like Lana’s two inkwells of sorrow. But I don’t know if I believe that story.

She comes to our restaurant at nine p.m. every night, just as the last batch of tea is brewing. She sits in the corner booth, long waves of cappuccino hair falling over the menu, even though we all know what she’ll order. She’ll flip open her phone, and when I write down her order, I can see her staring intently at her messages. I remember being a teenage girl in shorts and cheap pink lipstick, staring at the emails on my computer screen, everything hanging by a silver chain, grainy pixels, a boy’s fingertips. But maybe Lana wasn’t just waiting for a boy. The fathomless melancholy welling whispers at something more. Maybe it was that one person you meet who makes your body tingle electric. Or maybe it was tortured courtiers in some distant desert palace, or a father with eyes of steel.

Anyway, she comes in every night, studies her phone, selects a fortune cookie. She stares at it with those abyssal eyes. Searching for something.

“Your true love will show himself to you under the moonlight.”
“A clean conscience is a soft pillow.”
“You will soon receive a gift.” “
Whenever possible, keep it simple.”
“Your dearest wish will come true.”

Words of tinsel exotica, like the Zen songs she sings at the bar, like her cloud of rumors and mystery, slightly tinged with passion fruit. She will read the message sent from the carnival-game of Fate, give me a smile with her sad dark eyes, and leave.

When I was younger, and things were better, we used to visit Dad’s cousins on their farm. There was a backyard well that was a hundred feet deep. We kids weren’t allowed to go near its cavernous mouth. But once in a while, when the adults weren’t looking, we’d sneak over to the hydrangea bush next to it and collect pebbles. Then we’d take the round stones, throw them into the fissure, and wait in suspense until the faraway splash was finally audible.

Sometimes I think that’s how profound and mysterious Lana’s sadness is. That sadness mixed with an aching longing for something perhaps even she cannot define. That lachrymose craving in her eyes that burns through the fortune cookies’ shallow wittiness. So convoluted and deeply burrowed into her being that no affection or humor could root it out. It would be rooting out her soul.

And I know that look of pure sadness and longing, because every night when I play my violin after closing hours, shooting Beethoven’s heart to the ceiling, my mother looks like that. You can see it as she stops mopping the floors, raison-wrinkled fingers still gripping the yellow bucket, suds clinging to her tired skin, and raises her closed eyes to the music. A longing for some remote Elysium. A filigreed paradise half-faded with distance. Missing a golden idol without a face. Mystic sweetness almost undetectable. Sehnsucht.

“We thought we would be lucky,” my mother says often, fingering her cracked jade bracelet. Her eyes roam far into the corridors of the past, fingering the infinitesimal between the moment her foot left Chinese soil and stepped onto the immigrant ship.

Hao yun. Fu. Luckiness and blessings. A dream crashed into the greasy crater of a cafĂ© in ghetto Chinatown. Two buoyant phrases whispered so often by my family, whispered between whiffs of cigarette smoke and tealeaves, you begin and then stop wondering whether they actually exist. Two evanescent emeralds, within arm’s reach when my mother sees me filling out college forms, when the floor of the tips jar is almost covered, when Lana leaves the restaurant with a smile, still rolling sour cookie fragments over her tongue.

Lana is about to leave tonight, and she picks a fortune cookie from the plastic jar on the counter that reads ORANGES FROM THE SOUTH 30% OFF. She unwraps it slowly, rolling the thin plastic between her fingers with a psychic air. She breaks the cookie into two tangerine halves, and draws that fateful slip of paper out. For some reason, I always look away at this point.

I don’t know why, but I busy myself with clearing the tables, straightening the menus, whatever. I notice that everyone else does too. My brother drops his eyes to the cash he is sorting behind the counter. My mother turns her head to the wall. I listen to Lana crunch the cookie meditatively as she reads. I wait in tight suspense for her to tap me with her white fingers before leaving.

“Goodbye, Jing,” she says in a clear, high voice. Her expression is unreadable, and I try to make mine just as hard to decode. I smile widely and bow her out, wondering what she has been reading lately in her inbox,

in a lover’s arms (or the dream of his arms,)
in dim bar lights and atonal Zen notes,
in the mysterious tomes of her past,
in fortune cookies.




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Sehnsucht, as defined by C. S. Lewis: "That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves."

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