Authors: Claire Cook
TO OLD FRIENDS,
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
I SAILED INTO THE COMMUNITY CENTER JUST IN TIME TOâ¦
“GREAT GIRLFRIEND GETAWAYS,” I SAID INTO MY HEADPHONE as Anastasiaâ¦
ANASTASIA HAD NIXED THE KISS AT THE BUS STOP AROUNDâ¦
I CERTAINLY DIDN'T NEED ANY MORE CAFFEINE, SO I skippedâ¦
I JUMPED OUT OF CYNTHIA'S TUB FAST ENOUGH TO GETâ¦
WHEN I GOT TO STARBUCKS, BILLY SANDERS AND TWO ventiâ¦
WHEN ANASTASIA AND I OPENED THE DOOR TO GO OUTâ¦
WE WERE HEADING FOR MEHICO. ALL FIFTEEN WOMEN AND threeâ¦
“WOW,” BILLY SAID. “NICE JOB.” HE POINTED TO THE
ANASTASIA PICKED UP A ROUNDED TRIANGLE OF CHICKEN and blackâ¦
NOT THAT I WAS AN EXPERT, BUT IT SEEMED TOâ¦
“ALOHA,” A WOMAN'S VOICE SAID AFTER I FINISHED MY GGGâ¦
NOW I KNEW WHY JAMES TAYLOR WROTE THAT SONG aboutâ¦
“HEY. YOU MUST BE ASIA.”
DREW'S FAMOUS HAWAIIAN LUAU PARTY MUSIC WAS cranked all theâ¦
BILLY SANDERS STOOD UP AND BOWED. I TRIED TO KEEPâ¦
SOMETHING WAS DIFFERENT. THE RUSTY METAL RAILINGS leading to myâ¦
CLEARLY, I WAS OVERTHINKING. I'D TRIED TO TALK BILLY Sandersâ¦
“I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU BROUGHT AN AKIRA FOR ME TOâ¦
ANASTASIA PLOPPED SOME OF THE CASSEROLE I'D MADE with communityâ¦
“HEY, KIDDO,” JONI SAID. SHE WAS SITTING AT HER DESKâ¦
LOY KRATHONG IS TRADITIONALLY CELEBRATED IN THAILAND on the fullâ¦
SETH YAWNED. HE STOOD UP, PUT BOTH HANDS ON HISâ¦
I WOKE UP JUST BEFORE MY ALARM WENT OFF. IFâ¦
I CALLED SETH THE MINUTE I GOT OUT TO MYâ¦
I MADE SURE I WAS WAITING ON THE FRONT STEPSâ¦
WE WERE SITTING AT THE OUTDOOR CAFÃ, AND I HADâ¦
BILLY HELD THE TRUCK DOOR OPEN FOR ME AND PUTâ¦
MAYBE I HADN'T DONE A LOT OF SMART THINGS INâ¦
THE PLAN WAS TO MEET UP WITH THE GROUP ATâ¦
I'D FORGOTTEN HOW MUCH I LOVED AIRPORTS. ESPECIALLY at theâ¦
THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS PASSED OUT THE COSTA RICAN Immigrations/Custom Formâ¦
I STOPPED FOR A MOMENT TO LISTEN TO THE PIANOâ¦
“BINGO,” JONI SAID. “LOOKS LIKE YOU FOUND IT.”
CYNTHIA'S LUGGAGE HAD SHOWN UP AT THE GRAN HOTEL justâ¦
“CALL ME ISMAEL,” OUR SURF INSTRUCTOR SAID BY WAY ofâ¦
CYNTHIA WAS SITTING ON HER BED, READING ELIN Hilderbrand's Theâ¦
IT TOOK US A WHILE TO GET TO THE POOLSIDEâ¦
I STARED UP AT THE CEILING OF MY BUNGALOW, WONDERINGâ¦
“GREAT GIRLFRIEND GETAWAYS,” CYNTHIA SAID. “FEISTY and fabulous mantasy escapesâ¦
I SAILED INTO THE COMMUNITY CENTER JUST IN TIME TO
take my Lunch Around the World class to China. I hated to be late, but my daughter, Anastasia, had forgotten part of her school project.
“Oh, honey,” I'd said when she called from the school office. “Can't it wait till tomorrow? I'm just leaving for work.” I tried not to wallow in it, but sometimes the logistics of being a single mom were pretty exhausting.
“Mom,” she whispered, “it's a diorama of a cow's habitat, and I forgot the
I remembered seeing the small plastic cow grazing next to Anastasia's cereal bowl at breakfast, but how it had meandered into the dishwasher was anyone's guess. I gave it a quick rinse under the faucet and let it air-dry on the ride to school. From there I hightailed it to the community center.
Though it wasn't the most challenging part of my work week, this Monday noon-to-two-o'clock class got me home before my daughter, which in the dictionary of my life made it the best kind of gig. Sometimes I even had time for a cup of tea before her school bus came rolling down the street. Who knew a cup of tea could be the most decadent part of your day.
I plopped my supplies on the kitchen counter and jumped right in. “In Chinese cooking, it's important to balance colors as well as contrasts in tastes and textures.”
“Take a deep breath, honey,” one of my favorite students said. Her name was Ethel, and she had bright orange lips and
I Love Lucy
hair. “We're not going anywhere.”
A man with white hair and matching eyebrows started singing “On a Slow Boat to China.” A couple of the women giggled. I took that deep breath.
is one of the best ways to experience this,” I continued. “Literally,
means âdrinking tea,' but it actually encompasses both the tea drinking and the eating of dim sum, a wide range of light dishes served in small portions.”
“Yum-yum,” a man named Tom said. His thick glasses were smudged with fingerprints, and he was wearing a T-shirt that said
TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR A DIFFERENT SHIRT
“Let's hope,” I said. “In any case,
has many translations: âsmall eats,' of course, but also âheart's delight,' âto touch your heart,' and even âsmall piece of heart.' I've often wondered if Janis Joplin decided to sing the song she made famous after a dim sum experience.”
Last night when I was planning my lesson, this had seemed like a brilliant and totally original cross-cultural connection, but everybody just nodded politely.
We made dumplings and pot stickers and mini spring rolls, and then we moved on to fortune cookies. Custard tarts or even mango pudding would have been more culturally accurate, but fortune cookies were always a crowd-pleaser. I explained that the crispy, sage-laced cookies had actually been invented in San Francisco, and tried to justify my choice by adding that the original inspiration for fortune cookies possibly dated back to the thirteenth century, when Chinese soldiers slipped rice paper messages into mooncakes to help coordinate their defense against Mongolian invaders.
Last night Anastasia had helped me cut small strips of white paper to write the fortunes on. And because the cookies
had to be wrapped around the paper as soon as they came out of the oven, while they were still pliable, I'd bought packages of white cotton gloves at CVS and handed out one to each person. The single gloves kept the students' hands from burning and were less awkward than using pot holders.
They also made the class look like aging Michael Jackson impersonators. A couple of the women started to sing “Beat It” while they stirred the batter, and then everybody else joined in. There wasn't a decent singer in the group, but some of them could still remember how to moonwalk.
After we finished packing up some to take home, we'd each placed one of our cookies in a big bamboo salad bowl. There'd been more giggling as we passed the bowl around the long, wobbly wooden table and took turns choosing a cookie and reading the fortune, written by an anonymous classmate, out loud.
“âThe time is right to make new friends.'”
“âA great adventure is in your near future.'”
“âA tall dark-haired man will come into your life.'”
“âYou will step on the soil of many countries, so don't forget to pack clean socks.'”
“âThe one you love is closer than you think,'” Ethel read. Her black velour sweat suit was dusted with flour.
“Oo-ooh,” the two friends taking the class with her said. One of them elbowed her.
The fortune cookies were a hit. So what if my students seemed more interested in the food than in its cultural origins. I wondered if they'd still have signed up if I'd shortened the name of the class from Lunch Around the World to just plain Lunch. My class had been growing all session, and not a single person had asked for a refund. In this economy, everybody was cutting everything, and even community center classes weren't immune. The best way to stay off the chopping block was to keep your classes full and your students happy.
I reached over and picked up the final fortune cookie, then looked at my watch. “Oops,” I said. “Looks like we're out of time.” I stood and smiled at the group. “Okay, everybody, that's it for today.” I nodded at the take-out cartons I'd talked the guy at the Imperial Dragon into donating to the cause. “Don't forget your cookies, and remember, next week we'll be lunching in Mexico.” I took care to pronounce it
“Tacos?” T-shirt Tom asked.
“You'll have to wait and see-eee,” I said, mostly because I hadn't begun to think about next week. Surviving this one was enough of a challenge.
“Not even a hint?” a woman named Donna said.
I shook my head and smiled some more.
They took their time saying thanks and see you next week as they grabbed their take-out boxes by the metal handles and headed out the door. A few even offered to help me pack up, but I said I was all set. It was faster to do it myself.
As I gave the counters a final scrub, I reviewed the day's class in my head. Overall, I thought it had gone well, but I still didn't understand why the Janis Joplin reference had fallen flat.
I put the sponge down, picked up a wooden spoon, and got ready to belt out “Piece of My Heart.”
When I opened my mouth, a chill danced the full length of my spine. I looked up. A man was standing just outside the doorway. He had dark, wavy hair cascading almost to his shoulders and pale, freckled skin. He was tall and a little too thin. His long fingers gripped the doorframe, as if a strong wind might blow him back down the hallway.
He was wearing faded jeans and the deep green embroidered Guatemalan shirt I'd given my husband just before he abandoned us seven years ago.
I'd dreamed this scene a thousand times, played it out hundreds of different ways.
I'd kissed him and killed him over and over and over again, violently and passionately, and at every emotional stop in between.
“Jill?” he said.
My mouth didn't seem to be working.
That's my name, don't wear it out
popped into my head randomly, as if to prove my brain wasn't firing on all cylinders either.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” he said.
My heart leaped into action and my hands began to shake, but other than that, I couldn't feel a thing. I remembered reading that in a fight-or-flight reaction, deep thought shuts down and more primitive responses take over.
I picked up the bowl. I gulped down some air. I measured the distance between us. I tried to imagine my feet propelling me past himâout of the building, into my car, safely back home. Flight was winning by a landslide.
“No,” I said. “Actually, you can't.”
He followed me out to my car, keeping a safe distance. I clicked the lock and balanced the bowl on my left hip while IÂ opened the door of my battered old Toyota.
“How is she?” he asked. “How's Asia?”
is Anastasia,” I said.
But the damage had been done. In one nickname, four letters, he'd brought it all back. We'd spent much of my pregnancy tracing our family trees online, looking for the perfect name for our daughter-to-be. In a sea of Sarahs and Claras and Helens, Anastasia jumped right out, a long-forgotten relative on Seth's side of the family. Since we didn't have any details, we made up our own. Our daughter would be Anastasia, the lost princess of
Russia. Sometimes she'd have escaped the revolution only to be frozen to wait for the perfect parents to be born. Other times she came to us via simple reincarnation. We'd curled up on our shabby couch in front of our hand-me-down TV and watched the animated
over and over again, until we could do most of the voice-overs right along with Meg Ryan and John Cusack.
When she was born, Anastasia brought her own twist to the story. From a combined ethnic pool swimming with ancestors from Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy, and Portugal, she'd somehow inherited the most amazing silky straight dark hair and exotic almond-shaped eyes. We nicknamed her Asia, a continent we loved, the place we'd met.
I closed my eyes. “She's ten,” I said. “She's fine. I'm fine. Leave us alone, Seth. Just leave us the fuck alone.”
By the time I opened my eyes, he was already walking away.
It wasn't until I went to put my hands on the steering wheel that I realized I was still holding my fortune cookie. It had shattered into pieces, and the thin strip of paper inside had morphed into a crumb-and-sweat-covered ball. I peeled it off my palm.
Something you lost will soon show up
“Thanks for the warning,” I said.