I'm looking for something on the take menu at this Chinese joint my family likes. It's all pretty familiar, sturdy Chinatown stuff.
In the kitchen a tired looking guy is glancing up at an order slip. He squirts something into a wok, reaches down and the fire suddenly explodes to satanic heights, flames lighting his face up like a devil. I study how he works the wok. I have this feeble electric stove at home. I could never get that kind of terrifying heat going.
The woman in line ahead of me is finishing up her order. There’s something about her. I can’t see her face yet. From the back she is slightly shorter than me. She wears sweat pants that droop over her sneakers. She has longish blond hair with streaks of gray hanging lankly to her shoulder blades; her ears poking out. Her red flannel shirt is darkened on the shoulders by rain from walking across the parking lot without an umbrella. How would those fragile shoulders feel with my warm hands gently caressing them under a blanket? I'm wondering what she would be like standing placidly in the shower with me rubbing soapy lather on her nude back, and reaching around and spreading soap under her breasts until her nipples tense out. I'm wondering if she would taste like Hunan Seafood with Spicy Garlic Sauce down there.
I get a sudden whiff of old cigarette smoke when she turns around. Her face is worn, lines around her thin lips and the corners of blue eyes. The sides of her jaw line sag a little and there are wisps of hair with gray roots draped ahead of her ears. There is strength and character in the way she carries herself, in the quiet aura of peasant stubbornness that radiates from her. My shower fantasy - yes. Definitely. Then I’d rub her feet for an hour in front of a log fire then a long, luxurious back massage, to console her spirit. This careworn thing is gorgeous beyond words to me.
I order my Hunan Seafood to go with an egg roll and some chicken wings. I sit down across the aisle from her table where I can sneak looks at her face while pretending to look at my phone.
If I could only go over, look into her eyes and ask her story. Maybe she would tell me about her darling little granddaughter, the love of her life, who has been dumped on her by this useless asshole who knocked up her daughter and left her with this kid. Or maybe her third husband who had a heart attack just when things were starting to get good for them again. I would invite her for a beer and a look of fear would cross her eyes, not because of me but because alcohol was a curse on her. No, mister. Not anymore. Not since she accepted Jesus as her savior. Can't kick the cigarettes though.
But that deep, complex, crone's face, desperation has given her, that tough face. I want to kiss that strong face with my lips; open my mouth and lick those map lines of her life and steal her pain, inhale the ashes in her hair and tickle with my breath inside her ear as I whisper that I want her.
I reach back and take out a very small, brown leather notebook, worn down and a little greasy and flip it open. The steel rings inside have pressed their shape into the leather as I've sat on it continuously for thirty years in three different countries. I reach into my jacket pocket and take out a black Esterbrook L-Series fountain pen which I bought with my last dollar at a little stationary store in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1975. The faded engraving on the barrel says “Lord and Garcia” a reference to God. The raw heat of beat down small towns and highways in the deep south have warped the shape of it and the cap doesn’t screw on straight anymore.
In Japanese art and Zen there is a concept called "Wabi Sabi". I'm not sure there is a concept like this in western art or even in modern western culture.
Wabi Sabi, or “Omoshiroi”, is the beauty of being interesting, imperfectly repaired, and that includes the heart. As though beauty itself were a patina to be refuted by the truth of inevitable brokenness.
It is about the movement towards or away from becoming, such as the melancholy impermanence inherent in relationships between imperfect people, especially the ones you try so hard to keep. A loved teddy bear with an eye replaced by a button. A chess set with a salt shaker in place of the white queen. Or a woman with the eyes of a tired angel waiting for her take out.
She’s talking into her phone now, looking down with a hand over her ear, annoyed. “This is starting to sound like another broken record, Annie,” she says.
I hear the cashier call her name. A Russian name ending in something - "cevic". I think. She stands up and glances at me, holding my eyes for a second and I feel an electric zing as though she’s cast a spell on me. She knows. I don't want to seem like a creep, but she knows my eyes have been on her, quietly evaluating her. A woman knows. But does she know how she really looks to me? Is this how a demon regards the vulnerable, with odd affection and lust?
The cashier calls my name. I’m still writing in my old notebook with my old pen. I just can’t stop. The notebook and pen won’t let me stop.
We were never taught how to fail in those days, to fail well, which is an art a young man has to learn. And how to disappoint people. Especially women.
I was in spiritual bondage to strange ideas. The best thing we ever did was to fail, so that others didn’t have to believe what we did.
And yet and yet and yet . . .
Wasn’t that the time when I had it all?
I had my God. My God and I loved each other. I had the people and things I needed all around me, all the time. And best of all, most rare of all – Life made perfect sense.
We all got broken records, sweetie.
There must be, then, that quality of Wabi Sabi in faith and love most of all. Broken beauty which silently accumulates as you learn how to fail gracefully and your heart opens to the beauty of ordinary people because everybody fails. Maybe the eulogy you want when you die isn’t that people should say “He was a great writer” or “He was a successful man.” Maybe what you want is - “He was an idiot. He was lonely. He was foolish. He had terrible regrets that couldn’t be fixed. He loved and everybody knew he was an idiot and they loved him right back.”
I want to wait until she passes so I can linger on her a last minute more. She hesitates in front of me, puts the brown bag on the little table beside mine, inches away. I can smell her smoky funk as she peeks inside to make sure the stuff’s all there. Close enough I could reach my arms around her skinny waist and pull her hard to me. Bury my face in the cheap flannel shirt that hides her breasts and hug her tight as I search for her belly button with my tongue.
She closes the bag, pushes the glass doors and disappears in the dark and drizzle. The man at the register calls my name again.