Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Fortune Cookie

By James Swingle

"Everything's interconnected," Rebecca said.

I felt that familiar pain behind my left eye.

"The whole universe," she continued. "That's not some woo-woo belief, David. Science says that. Like when someone sees a light wave become a photon, and another light wave on the other side of the universe turns into a photon at the same instant."

"Rebecca, that's not exactly what science says..."

"Well, why did I get this particular fortune?"

"It's just chance. It doesn't mean anything."

"What does that mean—chance?" Rebecca picked up the slip of paper containing her fortune. "At the point this was sitting in front of me, the message wasn't suddenly going to change. There was no chance at that point." She pointed at our waiter. He started toward the table; she shook her head and he stopped. "While our waiter was carrying the cookies to our table, one message wasn't suddenly going to dematerialize, and another appear within the cookie. At each point, what happened was specific. A series of specific events brought this particular fortune cookie to me, not another one."

"Yeah, uh," I ran my fingers through my hair. Who the hell puts ‘A lover has been unfaithful' in a goddamn fortune cookie anyway?

"David, please," Rebecca said, "Just tell me. What's going on?"

"Nothing is going on," I said. "You can't seriously be asking me to answer to a fortune cookie. This is absurd." How could she possibly hold me responsible for something she read in a fortune cookie? I felt a self-righteous anger rising within me. I was being accused based on the most stupid, the most trivial...Okay, granted I would have felt a lot more self-righteous if I hadn't been cheating on Rebecca for the last three months. But still, there was no connection between the fact I had been cheating and the fortune cookie. She was attacking me based on a coincidence, not based on the facts.

"Then why did I get this fortune?" she asked.

"What do you mean, why did you get this fortune? There's no question, there."

"Of course it's a question." Her voice was growing louder. I glanced at the tables around us. "What else is it but a question?" she said.

"Yes," I paused. "It's a question. But—"

"Well, then why can't you just answer the question?"

"It's a question, but what I mean is, it doesn't have any content. You're not saying anything."

"I'm not saying anything?" Her voice was loud now. The couple at the next table, who had already seemed aware that we were arguing, now turned their heads and looked at us.

"Shh," I said. "I just meant—"

"You're shushing me? First I'm not saying anything? Now I should just shut up?"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." I made 'keep it down' gestures with my hands. I leaned in and lowered my own voice to a just above a whisper. "I didn't mean to say you didn't say anything. It's just, you're asking me to answer to a fortune cookie. Fortune cookies aren't real." I glanced over at the next table; they had turned back to their meals but I knew they were still listening. "So, uh, isn't that you didn't say anything. It's that, since your question is based on a fortune cookie, and a fortune in a fortune cookie isn't real, what you said doesn't have any real content." Crap.

"Oh, no content." Rebecca said. She lowered her voice, imitated my inflections. "She's cute, but nothing there."

"That's not what I meant. You know I think you're intelligent." That was a bit of a lie. I often thought she was an idiot, like that time she put bamboo stalks in my computer room, because she said it was located in my house's love area.

She continued imitating my voice. "Intelligent—check! I can tell all my friends I have an intelligent girlfriend. Now she can just shut up, because I don't actually want to hear her ideas."

Oh, if it were only that simple. I took a deep breath. "Rebecca, I think you are smart. I love to hear your ideas. I'm just frustrated because you are blaming me based on a fortune cookie. Fortune cookies aren't real. I mean, the fortune cookie is real, of course, but the fortunes aren't."

Well, technically, I thought, the fortune itself is real; it just doesn't have any relationship to reality. No, no, I was getting sidetracked here. Just stick to the point. "There are ways to perceive reality." Yeah, I knew that wasn't the point, but I couldn't keep myself from going on. I was making an argument. "We perceive reality through our senses, through instruments we create to extend our senses. And based on that evidence, and logical extrapolation, we can construct theories about what is going on."

I looked at Rebecca. She stared back at me.

Please, just stop talking, I thought to myself. "Fortune cookies don't do that. They're not based on evidence, on logical extrapolation of what has been observed. They're just, whatever comes into someone's mind."

"What about the kinds of things that physicists come up with?" Rebecca said. "What about superstrings? Are they based on observable evidence? Can anyone see them?"

"That's different. They're based on mathematical models." For the love of God, David, please stop talking, I thought. "Science progresses by coming up with theories that are falsifiable—there has to be a way to prove them false, or they aren't science. Fortunes aren't falsifiable."

"Sure they are. Are you cheating on me?"

"That's not what I meant." As I spoke I noticed the vague image in my head of a man on a life raft, and every time a rescue ship came near he waved it on because he was in the middle of a sentence. "I meant the way that people talk about fortune tellers and all this New Age stuff, there's no evidence they will accept to prove that their ideas aren't true."

Part of me just wanted to say, Yes, I'm cheating on you. But Rebecca looked really good—really good. Frankly, she looked out of my league. I saw the looks on my co-workers' faces when they met her. And Don, the CEO of the company I worked for, who was having a party in two weeks, I saw how impressed he was when he first saw her with me. She was the kind of wife that a Senior Manager had, which made me a Senior-Manager type as long as I was with her. Diane, the woman I was having an affair with, was fun, and, honestly, a lot smarter than Rebecca. But she didn't show like Rebecca did. Diane was, unfortunately, a Middle Manager's wife.

"Why are you avoiding the question of whether you're cheating on me?" Rebecca asked.

"I'm not avoiding it. But we were talking about the fortune cookie, and why it doesn't mean anything."

"You might be. I'm talking about whether you are cheating on me or not."

I picked up the teapot; I'd pour us some more tea, buy a little time...Empty! Yeah, the universe is interconnected; its governing principle is, how much can I screw David?

"I am not cheating on you." I had been resisting the outright lie, but now that I said it, it actually felt fine. "I have never cheated on you. I love you very much." Yes, yes, I thought. This is going quite well. Just stonewall. "I'm sorry I got going on about the fortune cookie and science and all that." Don't go with logic; go with emotion. Women want emotion. Just tell her how upset you were. "I was just really upset that you were accusing me, and I felt really frustrated and. It just seemed so unfair, because I didn't do anything. And just because of that fortune cookie..."

"You're right. I'm sorry, David. I shouldn't be attacking you."

"Yeah." Good. Now, let it go, I thought. Resist the urge to milk it. "It just made me feel really bad that you would think I could cheat."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that."

OK, now's the time to stop. "I mean, the fortune cookie didn't say who was unfaithful. For all we know, it could have been referring to you."

Rebecca looked up. She met my eyes, then looked down at the table.

Oh my fucking God! I couldn't believe it! She was cheating on me. "Rebecca." The word burst from my mouth, whiney and desperate. I hated the way it sounded.

"I'm...I don't know what to say." She sighed. "Maybe that's why I almost wanted to find out you had been cheating on me. So it would be both of us. We were both just ready to move on. And I wouldn't have to feel so guilty."

"I can't believe..." I looked at the next table. Damn! They had heard. I knew they had heard. They were forcefully not looking at us. They knew I was getting cheated on. "Is it...Is it anyone I know?"

Rebecca paused, looking down at her plate.

"Who?" I couldn't help it; my voice was rising. "Who was it, Rebecca?"

"It's... Someone you work with."

Oh no. Oh no.

"It's... your CEO. Don."

Oh no. I couldn't believe it. If I had a steak knife, I'd have just slit my wrist and been done with it. Of course we had to be at a Chinese restaurant, with no damn steak knives; that's what started this whole thing in the first place, this stupid Chinese restaurant. I looked down at my chopsticks, one grain of rice stuck to the end of one of them. That's it, mock me, universe, mock me. I wondered if I could puncture my wrist with a chopstick.

"Well," I said. "Since we're being honest. I am cheating on you."

"David, don't," Rebecca said. "I know I hurt you, and now you want to hurt me, but don't just say things." She looked at me with pity.

Oh! Great! Fucking great! Now she won't even believe I'm cheating on her. "I'm not just saying things. I'm cheating on you. For the last three months."

"David. Please." She looked down, not wanting to meet my eyes, embarrassed for me.

"Look..." I started to speak, then realized I had no idea what I wanted to say. "So, what does this even mean? Are we going to try to work this out?" I wasn't even sure I wanted to work things out, but I had started a sentence, and felt the need to say something.

"I...I think it's best for both of us if we just move on," Rebecca answered.

"You mean, it's over?"

She reached across the table and put her hand on mine. "I'd like to stay friends—"

I started to roll my eyes.

"But!" she said, seeing my eye movement. "But...I realize that isn't always possible." Rebecca stood up. "I'll call, and figure out a time when I can bring your things over, and pick up mine." As she passed me she rested her hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry."

And then she was gone. I looked down at the table. My fortune cookie sat there, unopened. I might be alone, but at least I was right. Fortune cookies don't mean anything—it was just a coincidence. I broke my cookie in two and pulled out the fortune: Unexpected turn at home brings downfall at work. God I hated the universe.


James Swingle currently is a trainer and consultant in New York City.
However, he will soon be relocating to Canada to be with his wife, whom he
met on a website devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The TV show, not the
movie. James is editor of Noneuclidean Café.

Photo "Postcard Style Hearts," courtesy of Ann-Kathrin Rehse, Göttingen, Germany.

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