Unfortunate Fortunes found in Cookies:
- You’ll never reach the door alive.
- Your children are not safe at home.
- She poisoned your egg fu yang.
- Your husband is cheating on you.
- You may have power or love, but not both.
I nod. “Just one. Yes.”
The Asian teen smiles at me, pulls his bangs out of his face as he grabs a pack of chop sticks and a menu. “This way, please.”
We go to the back of the restaurant, a space seemingly incongruous with the strip-mall storefront that lured me inside. I don’t care what people think, the best food is American, and all food is American, and America happens in strip-malls and taquerias and corner stores with their own churros. Those little stands and huts, out of the way bistros devoted to a specific cuisine with their own signature plate, reflect the owners’ family and faith, often with a small shrine behind the counter to some foreign deity, a quaint reminder of the American dream.
But this place feels forced. Jade and brass figurines from half the world leer out from off corners. Ebony and redwood screens cut the large room into a maze of nooks and crannies, isolate booths and tables where couples engage in intimate conversation over platters of fried rice and beef lo mein. Red silk drapes with golden tassels spin from a central chandelier to create a second, interior ceiling over the dining room as Chinese lanterns float over the images of gods and demons from across Asia and the South Pacific.
Cacophony, a ham fisted effort to produce the illusion of the exotic, of luxury, and nothing more. Definitely not what I wanted.
“Here, please.” The boy looks Vietnamese–tall, lean, sad eyes set in an otherwise happy face. That’s a stereotype, but show me a Vietnamese person who doesn’t look like a Buddha and I’ll show you a Laotian. That’s also a stereotype. But so is this place, though I shouldn’t hold it against the kid.
“Thanks.” I take the menu. “Tea.”
“Hot or cold?”
“Very good.” He moves off, leaving me in my shuttered-off cranny, alone at a table for two.
The gentle pulse of quiet conversation, the soft laughter of delighted people somewhere else in the labyrinth, and the occasional cough betray my isolation. Just out of sight, hidden by the folding screens and red silk drapes, a woman gasps and a man whispers the magic words. She sobs her reply, a glowing and warm acceptance, and after a moment two glasses clink. More laughter.
The waiter returns, places the teapot in front of me, and takes my order. The menu offers a broad range with few options. Pho, General Tso’s chicken, pad thai, rainbow roll, egg fu yang, and an assortment of other popular dishes round out the entrees, while the appetizers boast nothing out of the ordinary.
I order the pu-pu platter and the Mongolian beef. Both arrive within a few minutes, neither proves spectacular. Even a healthy dose of crushed red pepper and soy sauce does little to improve the flavor. Bland, like the decor.
The waiter returns with a second pot of tea, a fortune cookie, and the bill. I stuff a $20 into the faux-leather sleeve and hand it to him. “Jee-oo see-oo thay doy.”
His brow furrows. He says nothing.
“It means ‘Keep the change’,” I explain. “I guess my Vietnamese isn’t as good as I thought.”
The kid shakes his head, the fold above his nose remains. “I’m Cambodian, not Vietnamese.”
“Ah.” Dirty lying Laotian asshole.
A headache forms just behind my eyes, the second pot of tea presses against my bladder. I squint, rub the bridge of my nose. “Where’s the restroom?”
I open my eyes and the waiter has vanished.
The fortune cookie proves stale and bland. I eat half out of a sense of obligation–as if the fortune won’t come true unless I partake in some mock-communion–and unfold the slip of paper.
You’ll never reach the door alive.
I choke, spit out part of the cookie, laughter and offense rise in equal measure. As jokes go, this one couldn’t get much darker, but it suits the place.
The fortune in my pocket, I step into the maze and aim for the front of the restaurant. Around me, the hushed din of countless unseen diners enjoying their bland lives over equally bland meals.
A turn takes me past a small row of occluded cubbies, and a connecting set of blinds brings me to the end of the line–a small table for a family of four, somber and lit by small glass oil lamps, white and black and consoling in its out-of-the-way spot. I double back.
More rows of secluded tables-for-two, lovers’ nests for proposals (and I wonder if I’ll bump into the happy couple on my way out) and quiet conversations over food everyone can eat–nothing exotic, nothing with the eyeballs and brain still attached, nothing too genuine because you don’t want to tarnish the mood.
This place probably makes its yearly food cost on Valentine’s Day.
A small table with a lamp, a pencil and a few pads for taking orders. I slip past and follow the screens away from the sound of the kitchen. Another dead end, another group table but larger, twelve seats, and the promise of a happy birthday, a wonderful Bar Mitzvah, a joyous ten-year anniversary. I turn again, and aim for a wall.
Surely corridors run along the wall. The place couldn’t pass fire inspection otherwise.
The narrow paths between the recesses for private dining meander, terminate in larger tables, force me back, down even less trustworthy off-shoots, around tight corners that offer more leads but no resolutions–neither wall nor door emerges. Panic sets in, the pressure on my bladder grows.
In my desperation, I press against a panel and discover that, despite the apparent flimsiness of the material, the wood and paper can take some stress. I lean against one, put all two hundred pounds of my weight against it, and it holds firm.
“Um…waiter?” I call out over the din.
No response, just the soft churn of friendly words against the air conditioning.
“Waiter?” I call out louder.
The din rises, glasses clink, in the distance a mix of foreign languages as the kitchen staff chat with one another, and the sound of running water hissing over dirty dishes. A whiff of ginger and garlic, hot mustard and sweet sauce.
“WAITER?” I shout.
The din falls away at once, calm voices turn slightly frantic, a ripple of panic flashes through the room and then someone laughs. The laughter catches, spreads like fire through the screened-off tables, dies down as the baseline murmur returns, the gentle ebb and flow of the recounting of life’s little details.
I run through the maze now, check the time on my phone–12:24 PM. I dart around corners, double back immediately when I come to the end of the line, resume my search for the exit.
I run, pause, yell for the waiter, listen to the ocean of invisible patrons around me respond, and renew my search. Desperation mounts, the pressure on my bladder demands relief, it feels like hours but always the time reads 12:24 PM.
Need overtakes decorum. I come to the end of a row and find a table festooned with baby’s breath and pastel bows. A champagne bucket sits beside the chair at the head of the table. It proves too tempting a receptacle. I unzip and urinate into the ice.
Startled gasps and horrified squeals erupt all around me. Patrons moan and complain at the impropriety of my actions, but I don’t care. Let them call the cops.
Afterwards I find the pressure hasn’t disappeared, but merely shifted position, lower, in my bowels. No. Not that.
I resume my search for the door.
After what seems an hour, I scream. I threaten the unseen assholes playing the joke on me, tell them enough is enough and I want out.
The speaker system in the ceiling clicks on and Muzac filters in, muffled by the hanging red silk. The Girl from Ipanema. I’ve heard this song recently, and not that far away. A memory surfaces.
I’m in a strip-mall at the bank branch at the corner. The bag is open, the barrel of my gun shoved into the cheek of the branch manager as Jenny grabs the cash. The balaclava scratches my face, makes me itch, too warm for mid-July.
Jenny whoops in triumph and I shove the manager to the ground, kick him in the ribs for good measure. She opens the door, motions me through, and the shot rings out, a slug enters my side, right lung. The barrel of her gun smokes, green eyes behind a dark blue mask meet my own, wink at me.
I stumble down the walk, past the beauty salon, and take another bullet in the back. Double-crossing little bitch. I stagger to the side, push against the door of the generic Asian bistro–Chinese, Japanese, Thai–I can’t tell.
The waiter greets me and seats me. I order and find the whole experience supremely unsatisfying.
I return to my quest for the door, for the restroom, for the kitchen, for another living soul, sure now that I won’t find anything but what I’ve come to know as my own personal Hell. Lost forever in a sea of poorly chosen images, bad music, lesser lives, and bland food.
Or maybe this was the best I could’ve ever hoped for in life?
The realization panics me, motivates me anew as the pressure in my gut grows, as the recollection dissipates, as the memory of the heist, of being shot, of dying scant feet away vanish as the song fades out.
I turn down a narrow passage and try to find the exit.