You could call it an Oriental restaurant; it called itself an Oriental restaurant. But it was a very American Oriental restaurant. What I mean is, its Eastern influence, like a car dealer's patriotism, floated on the surface and made endlessly fascinating ornamental designs. It never went deeper than the surface, or even seemed to realize that there was anywhere deeper than the surface to go.
Kimonos and green tea, pu-pu platters, plastic Buddhas, Balinese shadow-puppets, fortune cookies and chopsticks and painted ceramic Bonsai trees -- anything Asian or even vaguely Asian was fair game, and abducted into the decor. Like those lawns you see at Christmastime: Jolly Saint Nick with his bag of toys, poised as if about to leap through the six-foot Star of David, while the reindeer pokes his glowing nose over the Virgin Mary's arm, sniffing suspiciously at the Christ Child. Nothing illuminated at less than sixty watts. Like I said, very American.
Katya could never understand how I, as a professor of Asian studies, could love this place, knowing it for what it was. I guess it's just nice to have a place where you can look all around you and feel completely real, even if it's only by comparison.
"Happy birthday to you," Katya said, handing the present to me over the pork fried rice.
I unknotted the ribbon and left it coiled by the edge of the plate, and unfolded the single sheet of rice paper. She had bought one of those elegantly bound blank books and on each page in neat calligraphy had inscribed a koan -- a Zen question asked for the purpose of not finding an answer. On the first and the last pages I found the story I had told her on our first meeting: "I, Chiang Tzu, dreamed that I was a butterfly until I awoke. Tell me, am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?" I smiled and touched her hair, and she trembled.
"Happy last day," she said.
"What do you mean?" I watched her turn a fortune cookie over and over in her fingers and finally break it open before she answered. There was no fortune inside.
"I mean that the papers went through today. It's final. I'm no longer married." She made an odd half-gesture with one hand. "Last day of the marriage, I guess I meant."
I reached out to take her hand, and she drew back. "Katya, what's wrong? That's what you wanted. Wasn't it?"
She suddenly made her hands busy with her chopsticks, and looked at the Bonsai tree and not me.
I stood and walked around to the back of her chair, put my hands on her trembling shoulders. The trembling grew worse. "Katya --"
"I don't want to."
"Don't want to what? I haven't said anything yet."
"The trip. I don't want to go." For almost a year, we had been talking about the trip to Japan we would take, when she could get vacation time. When I was through therapy. When the divorce was final. Now all three of those things had come true, and she didn't want to go.
She had told me that she had always longed to see Japan. She had told me a lot of things. I had only been four months out of the Valley of the Shadow of the Breakdown; I hadn't questioned it.
"What do you want, Katya?" I asked.
"Whatever you want," she said immediately.
"But I want to know what you want."
"I don't know," she said, turning her head to the side. "I guess I just want what everybody wants."
"But what is that?" I asked. "You don't want to go back to Don, do you?"
"I don't know," she said. She said it quietly, and repeated it. "I don't know." A tear fell on my knuckle. She got up, picked up her purse, and walked quickly to the door and out, never once looking back at me.
I sat down, empty, at my chair. I picked up the fortune cookie at my plate, broke it open. There was no fortune inside. I broke open the three others. I called over the waitress, a geisha with cornrowed hair. I asked her why none of the cookies had fortunes. She apologized, and offered to get me more. "Never mind," I said. "It's probably better this way." I don't think she understood what I meant, either.
Driving back, I wondered why the cookies had gone out without fortunes. I wondered what it meant that they had come to our table. I wondered why Katya trembled, and what she wanted.
I didn't want to wonder. I didn't want to look for answers. The book of koans shifted in my lap and fell to the floor, under my heel as I braked. That was how I had gone from a full professorship into a full-fledged breakdown: asking too many whys, asking questions that were supposed to have answers and never finding them. Trying to make sense of things that didn't make sense. But I was well now. Wasn't I? I had healed myself. What was beneath the pretty ornamental designs she let me see on the surface?
As crystal and sharply-edged as a koan, enlightenment came: I was a newly-molted butterfly, gazing in doomed love at a cocoon.