We hadn’t seen each other in more than a year, so when we meet for lunch at a Chinese restaurant, we go straight for the hug, then a table, then the buffet.
At the table, we spend a few minutes of time with, “How’re the kids,” and “How’s your wife,” and other such questions. Then, for the next two hours, we two seventy-something-year-olds, share our aspirations and fears about aging, and supporting our families.
Our plates empty for the second time, and I say to him, “I’ve always admired how you stay involved with different groups and promote your consulting business.”
“All I do is put myself out there and see where it leads,” he says.
“I worry much more about where it will lead before I put myself out there.”
The waiter comes to the table with the customary, black plastic tray with two cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies resting on top of the check.
“Those cookies are waiting for us to open them,” my friend says.
“Maybe yours is, but I don’t think I’ll open mine.”
After giving me one of those “Whatever” stares, complete with a shrug of the shoulders, he opens his cookie, pulls the paper from the half it was hanging out of, and reads it to himself. Smiling, he unbuttons his left, shirt pocket and puts the little slip of a fortune safe inside.
“Go ahead and open yours,” he says, patting his pocket. “They’re never bad.”
“What the hell. Alright.”
At that second, a memory, a warning of sorts, occurs. I’m in a hotel room trying hard to tear open a cellophane-wrapped bar of soap. After repeated failures, and eschewing the use of my little travel scissors, I think it’s a good idea to adopt an Inuit women’s traditional method of softening animal hide, which often resulted in teeth worn to the gums. I suffer no more than a broken front tooth and frantic calls until finding a dentist to perform a temporary repair before my lunch meeting, at which I settle for a bowl of broth and extra napkins, which catch what I don’t.
This time, the cellophane on the fortune cookie tears easily between my fingers. I crack open the pale yellow crescent, and cup both halves in my hands.
“Why did I open this goddam thing?”
“What’s it say?”
“They always say something.”
I hand him the halves, which he inspects like a gemologist using a loupe, only to learn what I already know: the cookie is empty.
We laugh a little, but like the cookie itself, he says nothing as he hands the pieces back to me. I remember with irritation that when we had worked together for a couple of years, he often had kept his thoughts to himself, when I wanted or needed to hear them.
I say, “I’ll buy this time, you get the next.”
His response is like the empty cookie. I put the cash and tip on the plastic tray. Outside, we shake hands, promise to meet again “soon,” and walk in opposite directions toward our cars.
Before I pull my car into traffic, I take a moment to think of those many millions of cellophane-wrapped, crescent cookies, one of which holds inside what was supposed to have been my fortune, but now is destined for some other lucky soul:
“Much success on road in front, but taking great care where stepping.”
Mindful of the fortune that should have been mine, I drive with great care, obey the speed limit, make complete stops, and ignore the other drivers who blast their horns and, if I didn’t know better, seem to be waving a one-handed hello as they pass.