Hello, Miss Wang.
Hello, Mr. Li.
How are you today, Miss Wang?
I’m well. And you?
I too am well.
That makes three of us, then, who are all well, thanks, Mr. Li, thanks Miss Wang, here in this small car on a Friday morning in late September, heading west.
You have a 500-mile round trip overnight ahead of you, and in preparation you went to the library –first having combed through your children’s rooms in search of their library cards, hoping that one of theirs, unlike yours, would be “clean,” clean defined as having less than a $10 fine attached to it– to borrow some books on cd, the better to educate and entertain yourself as you drive.
You made it to your underground neighborhood library five minutes before closing –how typical– and the very kind librarian let you scurry over to the books on cd section anyway, where you chose:
Breakfast for Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (you know you read this in high school, but you don’t remember a word of it, and what with all the Vonnegut talk these days you figure it’s time to re-up your acquaintance).
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, because it’s a cool idea –a virus wipes out the humans and then what happens?– and it sounds as if it might leave you a bit more knowledgeable, always a good thing.
Fierce Pajamas, a collection of New Yorker humor writing from long ago right up through now. Funny! You love funny.
Beginning Mandarin, Level One. (Or Two. Or Three. Could it possibly have been Four, even?) You spot this quiet little unassuming book-on-cd and scoop it up, for reasons that are not clear. You already know Mandarin at a Level One/Two/Three/Four, so what’s the point?
And off you go, books on cd scattered on the passenger seat next to you, bright and early on Friday, the better to give yourself plenty of time to mosey about on your way west.
Time enough to stop in a diner on the way and partake of a giant diner breakfast, time enough to stop and cash in your winning South Dakota powerball ticket ($3!) that you bought last August.
Time enough to get to the conference you’re speaking at with hours to spare before your lecture begins. Imagine that, hours to spare. What a new and exciting experience that would be for you.
(That plan is dashed to pieces 200 miles into the journey, when you realize that the conference is taking place in Sioux Falls, as opposed to Brookings. How ever did you manage to screw up so badly? This fact is discovered over a big greasy diner breakfast somewhere between Minneapolis and Brookings, necessitating an immediate and panicky departure from said diner in order to find a gas station, buy a map, and reconfigure your journey so that you have a prayer of arriving there on time for your lecture, which people are paying you good money for, a fact which only increases your anxiety.)
Breakfast of Champions: you listen to the whole thing, hoping that at some point something in you will click into gear and you will like it. That does not happen. Did you, in fact, read this book in high school? If so, did you like it back then? Moot and unanswerable questions.
You move on to Fierce Pajamas. You lean back in your seat as you speed along, endless prairie undulating as far as you can see, ready to laugh. Ready to dispel your how-could-you-screw-up-the-city-where-you’re-supposed-to-be-giving-the-lecture-so-badly self-recriminations. HA!
But the selections in Fierce Pajamas seem only mildly funny. At best. Have you lost your sense of humor entirely? First Vonnegut, now Fierce Pajamas. Two strike-outs in a row. You are a loser.
Perhaps it’s time for a little self-edification. Your hand hovers over The World Without Us. Should you? No. You are too worried, too angry at yourself (once again: what in the world made you think this conference was in Brookings? Did you not receive the conference materials months ago? Can you not read?), too focused on glancing in the rearview mirror to see if any cops have caught wind of the tiny wild car hurtling itself toward Sioux Falls. As opposed to Brookings.
And that –this combination of worry and distraction and loser-ness– is how you end up listening to the young Chinese couple as they attempt, over and over and over, to make plans for the evening.
Hello, Miss Wang.
Greetings, Mr. Li.
Ah. . . here we go. This is just the ticket. Mr. Li has such a peaceful, deep voice. Miss Wang is serious, well-spoken yet not at all ponderous.
Do you have any free time tonight, Miss Wang?
Yes, I do, Mr. Li.
How nice. What might Mr. Li have in mind? A movie, perhaps? Maybe a stroll in the park, followed by a bite to eat? Judging from the innocent bubble that seems to comprise his and Miss Wang’s world, there will surely not be anything more than that.
Would you like to get something to eat tonight, Miss Wang?
Maybe, Mr. Li. What time were you thinking?
Aha. Exactly as you had assumed. Mr. Li and Miss Wang will be dining together tonight. How happy this makes you. They seem like such nice people, and look how polite they are to each other, carefully considering the other’s schedule, hoping for a date but making no assumptions.
How about 9 o’clock, Miss Wang?
I’m sorry, Mr. Li. That’s a little too late for me.
You’re sorry to hear this. But how can you blame Miss Wang? You yourself wouldn’t want to sit down to a meal at 9 p.m. You’d have to drag your food-filled belly to bed only a few hours later, and you prefer to go to bed empty-stomached. Well, maybe a little Jim Beam. But a big dinner that late? No. Sorry.
Do you have free time tomorrow, Miss Wang?
Perfect! Kudos to you, Mr. Li. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But please do re-think that 9 p.m. dinner time.
I might have some free time tomorrow, Mr. Li. How about you?
Oh, Mr. Li, this is your lucky day. How about 7? That’s a more reasonable dinner time.
The miles roll by. The minutes tick away and the time of your lecture draws ever closer, but where is Sioux Falls? The tiny car speeds ever faster, and the rearview mirror gets a visual workout.
Do you have some free time at 7 p.m. to get something to eat, Miss Wang?
Yay! You drum your hands on the steering wheel in happiness and relief.
This, the knowledge that Mr. Li and Miss Wang are both willing to work together to make this date happen, is the only thing keeping you sane right now.
Think about it. Mr. Li was turned down for dinner tonight –and rightly so, given the lateness of the hour– but Miss Wang is willing to give him a second chance. And who in this life doesn’t want a second chance? Here in this tinny little car, on the last 100 miles of this hellbent drive, there is hope for the future. If Miss Wang and Mr. Li can do it, so, perhaps, can you.
Sioux Falls is somewhere out there, somewhere on the horizon. Onward.