Fortune Cookie Dreams
In the unnatural afternoon darkness of the Crabtree Valley Mall’s enclosed parking lot, I fidgeted in my Honda… in fear. My previous life of repetitive drama was concluding. No more post-college angst. No more reckless binge drinking. No more ridiculous mistakes with girls. In the matter of four whirlwind months living in Raleigh, North Carolina, I had recreated myself – all because of her.
Just ten months earlier, I had met Emma in a college writing course at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For weeks, her beautiful green eyes and illuminating smile tempted me to take a chance, but it wasn’t until one of the class’s final meetings that I found the nerve to ask her on a date. Our relationship blossomed from there; upon graduating, we relocated south.
Now, the old Scott culminated with this action: I had finally saved enough money for the engagement ring. In my Brooklyn-ingrained habit, I scanned the parking lot for looming robbers. Then I pulled out the velvet-red ring box and opened it. In my hands, I held the most assertive decision I had ever made. I couldn’t wait to put that little diamond ring on Emma’s finger. I knew she would cry; my outstretched thumb would wipe those big tears off her cheeks. With that image, tears welled in my eyes. No chance I’m waiting for Christmas or New Year’s. I’m doing it this weekend.
I peeked at the ring one more time. Although the diamond weighed less than a carat, it was so sparkly, so precise. Closing my eyes, I listened for God’s voice. After all those years of apathy and cynicism, I finally wanted God to speak to me, like they all talked about at Emma’s church. However, I heard nothing but my own voice, repeating that line I picked up from Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life: “I want to make God smile.”
Saturday night, I chose a cute Thai restaurant to unfold my well-rehearsed plan (complete with props). While Emma dipped her summer roll into the tasty peanut sauce, I continued to play out the engagement surprise in my head. With the arrival of the main course, I imagined myself on one knee, reaching for Emma’s hand as the waitress assisted with my first prop. Instead, at that moment, Emma rubbed my thigh, her hand inching too close to my pocket. “Don’t touch me there,” I snapped, shooing her off my leg. My cat-like reflexes had protected the surprise, but I sensed that I really hurt Emma’s feelings. Strike one!
On the way home, it happened again when Emma rested her hand on my lap. “Too full,” I said, moving her away again. When we returned to our apartment, a food coma knocked me out. While Emma removed her makeup in the bathroom, the engagement surprise slept in my pocket. Another miss.
Sunday morning, I weighed my chances. Before church? Too early. At church? Unrealistic. After church? During Pastor John’s 45-minute sermon, I didn’t hear a word. As I concocted the perfect scenario, my own voice filled my head, coaching me, motivating me, freaking me out. This is it. Get engaged, get married, and give Emma a perfect life. Emma squeezed my hand and whispered, “Thanks for coming to church with me again. I love you, punkin’.” You love me now? Wait ‘til you see what’s coming up next!
“I love you, too,” I said instead.
After service, Emma tried to exchange greetings with her new friends. Purely focused on my mission, I briskly led her to the parking lot and sped straight to our favorite nearby lake. “Why the lake, Scott? We’re not in workout clothes.”
“Don’t worry,” I said too aggressively. “Just let me take you to the lake.”
“But I want to clean the apartment.”
“We’ll clean it in a little while. I’m taking you to the lake.”
“To show you something!”
Once at the expansive lake surrounded by the thick fall foliage, I guided Emma to the perfect bench alongside the picturesque gazebo. The birds chirped. A line of turtles swam by us in size order. “Oh, look at the little family,” Emma said. “So cute.”
We held hands. I took a deep breath. Here we go, Scotty. From my peripheral, I noticed a plastic fork sticking out of a half-eaten can of Vienna sausage. Gross. OK, no big deal. Forget about it. Deep breath.
Emma also noticed it. “Ill. Dis-gust-ing!” She pointed to the can. “Let’s go home, Scott. I want to clean before tonight’s group.”
Emma had attended her church’s community group for two months now; the week before, I had promised that I would join her for the first time. As anxiety about the touchy-feely, too-religious encounter set in, I was reconsidering the whole engagement idea for the day. Come on, Scott. Let’s go. Grab her hand again. Good. Look into her beautiful eyes. Take your other hand and feel for the ring. OK, deep breath.
“Scott! What’s that guy doing over there?”
“That guy!” I followed her eyes to the other side of the gazebo. An older, portly man ogled us while shoveling into his mouth what appeared to be Vienna sausage from yet another can. With the mood gone, we jetted for the car, drove home, and cleaned the apartment.
I scrubbed the bathtub; I Windexed the mirrors; I cleaned that bathroom to a shine. Meanwhile, the ring remained in my pocket. “Nice job, honey,” Emma said. “Let’s clean that light fixture.” She looked up at the dome-shaped glass protruding from the bathroom ceiling.
“Emma, that´s gonna be such a pain. We have to get a chair, unscrew it, forget about it. Who’s gonna notice that?”
“Look, there are dead bugs in there.”
I pulled out the wobbly folding chair from the pantry closet. Emma helped me balance as I unscrewed the screws and removed the filthy dome. Once clean, I repositioned the dome in its place; just then, her hand brushed against the ring box. “What’s that in your pocket?”
“Nothing.” Trying to avoid any further questioning, I rushed to re-secure the dome.
Less than an hour later, Emma coasted into a parking spot in front of Ken and Brenda’s house. I already smelled the aroma of barbecue coming from the backyard. This community-group thing won’t be so bad. I smiled at Emma. “Thanks for inviting me.”
For the next hour and a half, I enjoyed one of the best times in a while. Inside the cozy, IKEA-decorated home, a few guys played Halo on the X-Box, couples mingled over chips and dip, and I leaned off a couch with an inviting half-smile. To my relief, interacting with Emma’s new friends came with little effort. We chatted about U2 and Pearl Jam; we joked about episodes of South Park; we discussed the three-act structure in movies like Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, and the Matrix.
Emma threw her arms around me. “You’re my precious angel,” she whispered in my ear. All evening, I felt relieved, secure, and aware of myself. I’m supposed to be here.
“OK, everyone,” Ken announced. “Before people start saying their goodbyes, let’s meet for a moment.” It was happening – touchy - feely prayer time. About a dozen guys and girls meandered into the living room, finding space on one of the couches or resorting to the floor. I tucked myself behind Emma.
“I’ll start,” Ken said. “There’s this guy that I work with, great guy, but he’s always making fun of himself and downplaying his accomplishments. He is proud to say that he’s been burned by God and will never seek Him out again. I’d like to pray for him to find peace.”
My head slunk into my chest. I felt like Ken was talking about me.
“I’ll pray for your friend,” one of the girls said.
About five or six other people asked for prayer for a sick family member or a distraught friend; each time, someone volunteered to pray for that request. Then, each person took his or her turn praying aloud. Emma’s cover protected me from any prayer-related interaction, although I sensed that no one would ask me to do anything I didn’t want.
“Hey, Scott,” Ken called on my way out. “Bring your X-Box controller next week. We’ll play some John Madden Football.”
Driving home, I rambled to Emma about how much fun I had at Ken’s. “I told you so,” she teased. “But you kept saying no.”
“Well, now I like it.” I started to put together the pieces. “Hey, Emma! Did you ever ask them to pray for anything?”
“We prayed for you, honey… just because I love you so much.”
When am I going to ask her to marry me? Not tonight. It’s Sunday. We’re in the bathroom… in our pajamas! Emma removed her makeup while I fidgeted around her. Suddenly, the spotless dome fell from the ceiling and landed on my head. It cracked into dozens of little shards, showering my face and shoulders.
“Oh, my God!” Emma screamed, witnessing the incident from the mirror. “Are you OK?”
I shook the shards off my body and picked a few from my shirt. “That was so weird.”
Emma inspected me for damage. No gashes, no blood. Luckily, the dome broke clean over my head. In our bare feet, only the glass on the floor concerned me; Emma ran to get us shoes. As I swept up the glass, the thought struck me: God is speaking to me… right now!
“Emma, after we clean this up, I wanna read you something. It’s a poem.”
“You wrote a poem, honey?”
“You never write poetry.”
“You’ll like this poem. I wanna read it to you in the bedroom. Props are involved.”
“Props? Scotty March, what are you up to?”
“Just go into the bedroom. You’ll see.”
I dumped the broken glass into the kitchen garbage can and returned to the bathroom with the Dust Buster. As I vacuumed, Emma called from the bedroom. “I’m in here waiting for a poem and props, and you’re using the Dust Buster! Come on, already.”
Finally, I entered the bedroom with the type-written poem in one hand and the props behind my back. I slunk to my side of the bed and hid the props. “Here,” I said, handing Emma the poem. “Read it out loud.”
In her sweet voice, she began:
Fortune Cookie Dreams
Almost a year ago in your dorm room,
I scanned the fortunes pasted around your computer,
And I imagined myself the answer
To your fortune cookie dreams.
“Do what you have been longing to do.”
“You are building the foundation for success.”
(I also wondered how often you went out for Chinese food.)
Now, your computer and all those fortunes
Are living with me;
But it is through your love and partnership
That I realize
We are the creators of our own fortunes.
I want to live this one with you forever.
Emma started to cry while she read the last line. “Oh, my God. Oh, honey!”
“Wait. I have props.” I flashed the fortune cookie in front of her. “Open it.”
Her fingers shaking, Emma carefully cracked the fortune cookie in half and pulled out the fortune. It read: “Will you marry me?”
Her head dove into me, and she tucked herself into my chest. We kissed and kissed, her warm tears streaming all over my face.
“I didn’t give you the ring yet,” I trembled. I handed her the velvet-red ring box.
Immediately, she fit the ring around her left ring finger. Then, she reached her hand in front of her face. “It’s perfect, Scott!”