Noodle Cycle Interrupted
I've just put the tealeaves into that little silver ball and am swirling the pot gently counterclockwise when the phone rings. Perfect timing. I know it's Heather, so I'm tempted not to answer. I just want to enjoy my tea. Since she calls two or three mornings a week right about nine thirty though, the interruption really hasn't come as any surprise.
The caller I.D. verifies my suspicions.
"Hi, Heath," I say as pleasantly as I can manage. I always call her Heath.
"Are you happy?" she asks. I frown, because she knows the answer. We talk about it on a regular basis. I like my husband okay, I guess. I love my son. However, at thirty-two years old, the concept of it all has shifted from excitement to oppression. Am I happy?
Happy doesn't really have anything to do with it, now does it?
If she's going to play that card, I'm calling her bluff.
"Every now and then something happens that changes our lives forever," I tell her.
"Something," I reiterate. "For me, it happened back in '97."
"Ah!" she says loudly, thinking she's caught on. She hasn't. "When you met Paul. Right?"
"No. When I didn't finish my noodle soup."
"Your noodle soup?"
"There are exactly nine positions my chopsticks find themselves in during each cycle of consumption. I'll not bore you with all of the details, but normally I begin at position one and I follow through the positions until I withdraw the sticks from my mouthóposition nineóand return them to the starting position. At this point, after some chewing and a swallow, I begin again. It's very simple, and very precise. A beginning, middle, and end. Followed by a return to the beginning."
Noodle soup holds great import to me. Perhaps too much, which is why no one knows about my semi-compulsive tendencies with regards to the food. Eating it is almost meditative. Ritualistic.
But Heath, she's an artist and a New Age chick, so she's a little left-of-center to begin with. She usually takes my comments in stride.
Though, thinking about it, I don't suppose being artistic or New Age necessarily puts you left-of-center. In some ways, maybe it centers you more than most people. Maybe center isn't quite where it should beóin the middle. It's somewhere off to the right a little bit too far. I'm normal. Everyone else is crazy type of thing.
"Hon, I'm not sure I follow you."
I pour a cup of tea into a ceramic cup I made in some bored housewives afternoon class and sit down at the kitchen table. A ray of light drifts in through the kitchen window, dancing across the small vase of fresh flowers that I put there earlier. It's strange how there's a sliver of an orange aura between where the purple shadow of the flowers fall and the sunlit part of the pine tabletop begins.
"Everything was simpler back in ninety-seven. I took the bus to work, or walked. Didn't need a car. No kids or groceries. I was dating some guy. No husband. No worries other than financial, and I didn't really have much trouble there either. I had a cat. That was all. That was my only responsibility.
"Of course, the world was different then, too. More innocent. The thought of an attack on America was unrealized and unheard of. I could turn on the news everyday and see those two towers standing there. You could walk down the street and as long as your purse was closed and there were people around, you were safe.
"And the cycle of my soup was complete."
I take a sip of my tea. It's warm and soothing and reminds me of lazy days spent at Mom's house. Winter days home from college. Reflected in the surface of the water I see a landscape of someplace vaguely familiar. Someplace I know so well, but I've never actually been to. Someplace easy to become lost in. Snow is falling, gently, from a gray sky; a dark blanket just beginning to cover the twilight grass.
I don't know why the snow looks so dark as it falls onto the scene. It's not a blanket of pure, white, clean snow one would normally imagine. In fact, it's the opposite. It's dark. Maybe black, but too hard to tell in the transparent waters of my tea.
Somewhere, probably from a neighbor's apartment, I hear a piano play the gentle rhythm of Ave Maria. Or maybe O Come, All Ye Faithful. I can't tell.
"So, go on! You're still there, right? I'm waiting to hear about the cycle of your soup."
"Well, I was on my lunch break, eating my soup. As usual. It was cool outside, but not cold, so I was eating out in front of the soup vendor on a bench and enjoying watching people walk by. Suddenly there was a loud screech directly in front of me and I watched as a car plowed right into a young man crossing the street."
"I know this story," Heath says. "It's how you met Paul. But you said this wasnít about that."
"It's not. I mean, I did meet Paul at the same time, but that isn't the problem. The problem is that I stopped on step four. I knew I shouldn't have. As I rushed over to see if I could help the man that was hurt, I knew that I was making a horrible mistake. That my life, as I had known it, was about to change. I looked back at my little wooden chopsticks lying on the ground beside the tipped over bowl of soup, and I knew I should just go back, sit down quietly, and finish. But the man was moaning on the ground, and the driver got out of the car, telling everyone around that it wasn't his fault. That the man just crossed in front of him. So I went and helped. And I never made it to step five. Or, subsequently, six, seven, eight, or nine."
"But, that's how you met Paul. He was the passing doctor that you assisted, right? Surely that's why your life changed."
"No. It's because I stopped on step four. I met Paul because I stopped on step four.
"Of course, I can never just start at step five now. It doesn't work. I've tried. Whenever I eat my soupówhenever I try to put my life back on scheduleóI'm always five steps behind. You can never catch up, you know. Not once your noodle cycle has been interrupted. All of your other cycles will always be behind."
"Hey," Heath says. "You okay?"
"Oh, yes. I'm fine. Just thinking out loud, I guess. Not even thinking, really. More not thinking out loud."
"All right. Well, listen. The reason I called is I need a favor. I'm tied up here today and I'm under a pretty tight deadline from my agent to get some work done. Could you run an errand for me? Remember that ceramic egg we saw at that souvenir stand down in Market Street Station yesterday? I said I thought Mom would love it? Would you mind going and picking it up for me before someone else grabs it? I should've just bought it then, but I got thinking more about it when I got home and, you know."
"Yeah, sure. I can swing by there."
"Today?" Heath is always a bit pushy when she wants something.
"Sure. I'll go now."
In my tea I see white footprints in the black snow leading through the forest. In the distance, past the trees, I see illumination coming from someplace. The moon? No, the light dances with the warmth of heat, not the cold of the heavens. A fire, perhaps, or a lamp. Even a flashlight. I can't tell. It's just a flicker in the darkness.
Something indiscernible, but I know it exists. Like a word on the tip of my tongue. Or a memory almost forgotten. I want to hurry to see what it is, but, I mean really.... It's just tea, after all.
I take my coat and my purse and slip down to curbside. It's bitter cold, so I think about grabbing a cab, but I don't feel like dealing with it and besides, I don't have to travel that far outside. Once I make it to Suburban Station I can walk underground and catch the subway to Market Street. I won't be out in the cold that long. There's an access point to Suburban three blocks over on Seventeenth.
It really did all start with the interruption. I'll never forget the day the towers were hit. I felt so guilty. Responsible. As though if I had just finished my noodles, maybe that terrible tragedy never would have happened. I remember watching the news that night, wondering how much of the damage I witnessed on the television had been because I hadn't stayed where I was and finished my noodles. Had I disrupted the natural balance of things? Like in those old science fiction TV shows about time travel where people would go back in time and inadvertently screw things up that would alter the future? Like the person who made the change would never be born.
I sat in front of the TV and watched those towers every day for a week. Crying myself to sleep. I couldn't even go into work. I was a mess. Because it was entirely my fault.
The city storefronts pass by, glass windows with meticulously arranged merchandise call out to me, begging for me to stop and buy. At first I look in the windows as I pass, but after a few stores I no longer see through the glass. I only see the shadows and highlights of the building across the street, but eventually even those images fade and Iím once more in that snowy scene.
But this time Iím not alone.
Ahead of me I see a white figure moving through the trees. It's a child, I know, casting a yellow-orange shadow down onto the black snow covered ground. A shadow I now recognize as the warm glow I saw earlier.
The figure is obscure. The ghostly apparition is still too far away to be able to make out any detail. I pick up my pace, attempting to get closer. At first, it seems like I'm catching up, but it's only an illusion of my skewed perspective in the unusual darkness. Quickly I realize that the distance is not lessening. If anything, it's increasing.
And I hate, hate, hate the distance.
I want so much to take the figure into my arms. To grab her and hold her and never let go. To guide her through the darkness.
I realize though that without her, I would be lost. Perhaps she is guiding me. Leading me somewhere. I call out but she doesn't hesitate.
I look behind me and only see the stairs leading up to Seventeenth Street. The black snowy landscape and the forest and the almost familiar place has dissolved around me, melting away, twisting back into the entrance to Suburban Station.
There's no sound but the echo of the heels of my boots on the hard surface of the floor. I move forward, and the place just feels strange. First of all, it's completely empty. I'm all alone. But, sometimes that's not all that unusual. Not here. There's moments when people don't come down from Seventeenth.
What's strange is how clean everything is. Suburban Station is never clean. Not like this. It's spotless, polished, and untouched by urban destruction. It's new.
Soon, though, I begin to wonder where I really am. I feel lost. This place is definitely not the Suburban Station I know. Sure, it looks similar. Same ticket windows. Same kiosks. The customer services office is right there were it's always been. But as I move into the commercial area, things really turn strange.
Where only days before there had been a McDonald's, a KFC, and a Burger King, now I find Butch's Noodle Mania, Jimmy's Noodle Jambalaya, and World of Noodles.
Slowly I move forward through the empty space. I'm feeling a little dizzy. Not sick, but definitely disoriented. Like in a dream; but I know I'm not dreaming. At least, I'm not sleeping.
In the distance I hear a sound. The sound of someone sweeping with a push broom. I follow the sound around two corners and in the third hallway I see a man cleaning the floors. An old man with gray-green overalls and black-framed glasses. Hesitantly I approach him and as I do he stops and looks up at me. Not impatiently, but not pleasantly either. He's just waiting.
"Sure is clean today," I say, curious but guarded.
"Sure is, ma'am. Just for you." I'm not sure what he means, but Iím a little too scared to ask.
"Hey, can you tell me where Starbucks Coffee is?" I ask. I know from the geography I should be right in front of it, but there's no Starbuck's to be found. A rare and unnatural occurrence in itself. He cocks his head and looks at me strangely, as though Iím trying to trick him.
"I'm an old man. Maybe I didn't hear you right," he says. "Did you say Starbucks?"
I nod. In the reflection of his glasses I see a cabin through the snow. A small, white girl is standing in the doorway. Waiting for me. The old man shakes his head and the scene is gone.
"Well, Starbucks is right there, miss." He points directly to a store right beside where we're standing. Not Starbucks, though. Zhang's House of Noodles. "Were a snake it'd bit ya."
"Yes," I said, and went into Zhang's to order a coffee. Cream only, no sugar. I always get the same thing at Starbucks. I don't need those fancy coffees. Cream only, no sugar.
The man working behind the counter is the same man that was sweeping the floor. I look in the shops across the aisle. He's working behind the counter of all of the noodle shops. He goes to the coffee pot, pours me a cup, and sets it on the counter.
"Coffee with cream. Three ninety-five," he says as he hands me a cup of noodles and chopsticks. Iím shaking so badly now that I can't pay him. I reach for the noodles and tip the cup over. They spill everywhere, but he just looks at me, smiling, waiting for me to pay.
I turn and run back the way I came. Back to Seventeenth Street. I hear him call after me but I can't turn around. I can't stop. I have to get out of there. I have to get away from all the noodles.
I push through the glass doors and run up the steps out into the cold. Then I stop. Frozen. The world suddenly seems to burst to life. The traffic. The people. The colors. All coming alive from the stillness of the station I just left. Like a DVD player that had been paused and someone just pushed PLAY again.
"You can't just stop at the top of the stairs!" a man says, aggravated, pushing his way past me. I look down the steps I had just run up. People are waiting for me to move. They're trying to leave the busy Suburban Station. That's the last time I look back. I rush home and straight to my room.
In the mirror I see the cabin. The ground is black and the snow is coming down so hard that I can't see anything else. There's a light on inside, or a candle burning. The girl has gone in. I try the door, but it's locked. I'll never get inside now.
Craig Pirrall was born in rural Pennsylvania to an artist and a teacher. He studied writing and philosophy at Penn State, and illustration at The Ringling School of Art and Design. Following college he lived in Nara, Japan, where his writing was influenced by the symbolism, mystical spirituality, and natural beauty of the country. When he isn't writing or reading, Craig teaches English as a second language to junior high school students. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Fiction Copyright © 2007 Craig Pirrall. All rights reserved.