Goin' South

by Manish Kothari

I’m a sucker for fortune cookies. Not that I wet my pants or anything – just pure, simple, anticipatory pleasure. And so when I’m done with my broccoli and cashew nut chicken, I crack the cookie open: “You will meet with unexpected happiness on a trip south.”

And somehow that weekend, I found myself on a train heading south to San Diego. All the while, thoughts keep invading. It’s not that I’m unhappy – I have friends, the occasional lover and a cat that I share with my neighbor. Flexibility and fun. I’d have to say I’m pretty happy. So what did the cookie mean?

The train was quite empty, most of the inhabitants being lovestruck couples making a vacation out of the trip. I mean, c’mon, who would take an eleven hour train ride when you could get there for seventy nine bucks on Southwest in an hour. I purposely chose a seat with someone sitting opposite me. He was thin, but looked out of shape with a pale anemic face and unkempt hair. I put my books – Kite Runner and Freakanomics, my water bottle, my apple and the fortune down on the table.

“Hi” I said, “Going to San Diego?”

“Yes” he said, and went back to reading his book, the second in the self-professed Dune prequel trilogy, in hardcover.

Actually he turned out to be a good conversationalist. Well, at least for a while. He was a scientist, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore Labs, where they make bombs and do nuclear stuff. We talked about string theory, global warming, Iraq, WMDs and modern space flight. “Why are you going to San Diego?” he asked. I showed him the fortune. “You mean, you’re going all the way to San Diego for this fortune? I can’t believe it. Are you unhappy? You don’t seem unhappy? Or irrational, for that matter.”

Outside the sun was setting, and the cabin was awash in a rosy glow. Couples were snuggling and kissing. A guy had taken out his guitar and was strumming chords as his girlfriend sang. It was all really beautiful.

I tried to explain. I really did. That it was the word “unexpected” that had hooked me. Unexpected happiness. Not big happiness, not life-changing happiness. Just unexpected. And that my life, however happy and rational, had become very deterministic, very predictable. I needed some positive random probability.

He appreciated the scientific metaphors, and stumbling, stuttering, offered to kiss me – an offer that was so definitely unexpected, but one I couldn’t see bringing any happiness.

It was quiet, dark and awkward after that. He read Dune, and I read the Kite Runner to the end. And he looked uncomfortable when I started crying.

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- June 24, 2007 11:05 AM // Fiction