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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fortune Cookies

by Rebecca Marks

I have never considered myself to be an overly sentimental person.  While I pin old Playbills from my favorite Broadway shows to my bulletin board, I have never been a scrapbook keeper or a superb memory preserver.  The movie ticket stub from my first date is nothing but a fond memory, and my camera generally lies untouched and forgotten in a desk drawer.  Of the half a dozen diary entries I actually committed to paper in my youth, the most exciting one reads, “Dear Diary, I felt sort of barfy (sic) today.  Mommy gave me some Saltines.  I hope tomorrow is fun.  Love, Rebecca Gayle Marks.”  My elaborate calligraphic signature takes up nearly as much space on the page as the scintillating entry itself.  I do, however, maintain one sentimental practice: the preservation of years’ worth of fortunes from fortune cookies.
        I have always loved fortune cookies.  In truth, I have yet to meet a cookie that I did not adore; complex carbohydrates and I share a deep, enduring bond of love and commitment.  Fortune cookies, however, have always been a favorite of mine.  From the rare opportunity to play with my food to the sweet, buttery taste melting on my tongue, these confections are truly excellent from start to finish. 

For someone who has always lived with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, fortune cookies have taken on a particularly meaningful role.  These multifaceted desserts are my unscratched lottery tickets, magically holding the promise of wealth and prosperity.  When cracking open the cookie’s sugary shell to uncover the clairvoyant slip of paper within, I become the treasure hunter about to unearth an elusive chest overflowing with riches.  When your life is largely characterized by sadness, the fortune cookie’s ability to deliver the promise of a better tomorrow becomes an incomparable treasure.  Dozens of these small slips of paper float about my room, resting in the bottom of forgotten wallets and nestling in the deep recesses of unused drawers.  My favorites assume a place of honor, featured prominently above my desk where I can view them daily.  Of the hundreds of fortunes that I have encountered in my lifetime, three have played an especially prominent role.   

The first came to me while celebrating my younger sister’s ninth birthday at a local Chinese restaurant.  Due to my life-threatening peanut allergy, I must be hyper-vigilant at Chinese restaurants as several traditional dishes contain nuts.  I was dining on an innocuous bowl of chicken lo mein when the restaurant staff brought a tantalizing chocolate birthday cake to our table.  The glowing candles atop the sugary confection emphasized the rich frosting and chocolate chips sprinkled across the top.  Our waiter delivered the cake sans singing or general merriment, as my sister has been known to run from the table crying hysterically if anyone sings “Happy Birthday” to her.  All birthday photos of Shana up until the age of six display red-rimmed, swollen eyes and a tentative half-smile.  As my sister blew out her candles, my father inquired to our waiter whether the cake contained nuts. 
“Why, yes,” the waiter replied eagerly. “Our chocolate fudge black-out cake is filled with a hazelnut crème ganache.” 
While the waiter’s eyes twinkled, basking in the glow of this gourmet display, three other sets of eyes shifted nervously to me.  Their owners knew that I would now face the daunting task of watching my mother, father and sister dine on a scrumptious looking cake without being able to touch it.  Not a simple feat for an eleven-year-old lover of all things sweet.  I couldn’t very well demand that my nine-year-old sister send back her birthday cake (though I considered it), so I dejectedly poked at my leftover noodles with a splintered chopstick while my family enjoyed their mouthwatering dessert.  I was confident that if I didn’t complain and played my cards right, I’d be treated to fruit sorbet upon our arrival home.
        After the torturous treat was consumed, our waiter brought the check and a pile of fortune cookies to our table.  Finally, I thought to myself, a smile broadening across my face.  Here was a dessert in which I too could take part.  As I eagerly tore open the plastic wrapper and split the cookie in two, my fortune fluttered to the table. 
“What does your fortune say, Becca?” inquired my mother.
Unraveling the slip of paper reverently, I read aloud, dumbfounded, “You can have your cake and eat it, too.” 
After a few moments of silent uncertainty, my family and I burst into laughter.  The juxtaposition of an eleven-year-old having to watch other people eat a beautiful, undoubtedly delectable chocolate cake to which she was allergic and a fortune reading “You can have your cake and eat it, too” was utterly hilarious.  While it was my sister who was celebrating a birthday and enjoying rich deliciousness, I was the one who walked away with the true gift that night.  I learned first hand that laughter truly is the best medicine.  I didn’t know it then, but this prescription would prove invaluable later down the line. 

        Fast forward to my sophomore year of college.  My sorority was celebrating welcoming a new member class into our organization.  After an exhausting day of bubbly name games and bouncing on trampolines in matching, neon sweatshirts, we were all thrilled when dinner arrived.  The new member coordinator had ordered half a dozen varieties of noodles, several of which contained nuts.  The members of my sorority were all well aware of my nut allergy, so I was permitted to jump to the front of the line and serve myself first.  Avoiding a line of a hundred ravenous sorority girls and tearing into the macaroni and cheese first is definitely one of the few benefits of having allergies.  After heaping a generous portion of al dente pasta and creamy cheddar cheese onto my paper plate, I took my first warm, salty bite.  Immediately, my teeth bit down on something crunchily out of place and reminiscent of Asian cuisine.  I knew that the restaurant had sent us several orders of pad Thai as well, so I was immediately terrified that I had unknowingly ingested a cross-contaminated peanut.  My eyes wide and my face stricken with obvious panic, my friend Katie worriedly asked me what was wrong.  After violently spitting out the bite in question, I pointed to the chewed up food and shouted, “I think I just ate a peanut!”  Without blinking an eye, Katie plucked the regurgitated noodle from my napkin and popped it into her mouth.  Her brow furrowed in deep concentration, she eventually announced, “Not peanut, bean sprout.”  This impressive display of unconditional friendship would not mark the last time that Katie would swoop in as my knight in shining yoga pants.   
At the end of the school year, I reluctantly drove Katie to the airport so she could return home to Chicago for the summer.  After a tearful embrace at passenger drop-off, I returned home and settled down at my desk for some last minute studying for final exams.  Sitting on top of my computer was a pale yellow post-it note inscribed with the words “Love you - Miss you” in Katie’s neat handwriting.  Taped to the post-it note was a fortune with the word “bean sprout” typed in Arial 12 on the “Learn Chinese” side of the paper.  Laughing warmly to myself, I smiled and pinned the note to my bulletin board where it has remained ever since.  Whenever I look at it, I think of the friend who was miraculously brought into my life, just as serendipitously as she stumbled across a fortune cookie containing the word “bean sprout”.

        The following year, my mental health took a dangerous turn for the worse.  I remember the day distinctly—February 6, 2012.  The impetus for my almost lethal overflow of emotions is essentially irrelevant; the combination of my chronic depression, overwhelming anxiety, a dash of obsessive-compulsive disorder and complete lack of medication meant that hitting rock bottom was completely and tragically inevitable. 
        As tears streamed down my face like turbulent floodwater spewing forth from a fractured dam, I fell deeper into the dark and dangerous depths of hopelessness.  I became increasingly certain that the situation would never improve and utterly positive that I would never truly know happiness.  Feeling wholly defeated and desperate, I did not think that I had the strength to continue living and fighting. 
I paced back and forth across my small room, feeling my nervous energy churning throughout my body with absolutely no outlet.  As I continued to wear lines in the dated carpet, my eyes settled on a bottle of pills.  The ordinarily harmless ibupofren that I often mindlessly swallowed to combat headaches and body cramps suddenly become a horrifyingly tempting deadly weapon.  While I had experienced thoughts of suicide regularly for the past several years, this situation was unprecedented.  For the first time, I felt there was a scarily real possibility that my life would end that night at my own hand.  In this damaged state, I decided that this was my destiny, so I may as well get it over with before accumulating more hurt and sadness.  As terrifying thoughts of overdose and impossible letters to friends and family menacingly swirled through my head, a life-saving deus ex machina in the form of my best friend intervened. 
Stopping by my room to see if I’d like to study together, Katie immediately took note of my condition and stepped in.  “I am not leaving your side.  Period.”  As Katie took control of the situation, I felt relief wash over my body.  The tiny white off-brand analgesic drugs instantly transformed from a lethal device back into harmless pain reliever.  I was immensely thankful that my life had been saved, but angry and confused that I had been the one about to destroy it. 
        Two hours and one emergency phone call later, Katie dropped me off at my home thirty minutes away into the open arms of my mother.  Armed only with a pillow and a haphazardly packed suitcase, I saw my world turn upside down. I had gone from the well-accomplished college student at the top of my class to a mental patient living at home.  In that moment, I felt that I was no longer the successful, independent woman of whom my family was so proud.  I was the daughter, the sister, the granddaughter, the cousin, the niece and the friend who had almost taken her own life.  I was the girl who was almost gone.  While I was still miserably unhappy, I was determined to get my illnesses in order and above all, continue living. 

One exhaustingly long month of waiting later, and I was admitted into a partial-hospitalization intensive therapy program.  Every Monday through Friday, I spent seven hours in a hospital to develop stress management and coping skills and an effective medication regimen. 
The first morning of the program felt completely surreal.  Who was this person bringing a sack lunch and emergency anti-anxiety pills to a mental hospital?  When I looked in the mirror of the hospital bathroom that didn’t even lock, I didn’t recognize my own reflection.   
After going far too long without cracking a smile or emitting so much as a giggle, I discovered that my therapist for the program sat on an enormous bouncy ball rather than a desk chair.  As I tearfully described what brought me to this low point in my life, Cindy nodded earnestly and continued to ricochet back and forth on her bright red alternative-seating device.  I quickly discovered that the words “suicide attempt” sound substantially less frightening when punctuated by constant squeaks.  Little by little, bouncy squeak by bouncy squeak, I felt the glorious soreness from smiling too widely return to my cheeks.  As I wiped tears of laughter from my eyes while recounting the nonsensical tale to my family, I realized that this moment of much needed humor constituted the best medicine I had ever received.  For the first time since that heartbreakingly dark sixth of February, I felt the tiniest beam of sunlight fight its way through the clouds and reach my skin. 
        Later that week, my mother and I were eating at a Chinese restaurant.  As I licked remnants of sweet and sour sauce from my lips, I split my fortune cookie in half to reveal the following prediction: “Your eyes will soon be opened to a world of beauty, charm and adventure.”  The only thing to which my eyes were open was the prickling of hot tears.  This slip of paper became a divine message telling me that my life was worth living, that my simple goal of happiness was not beyond reach.  I have never subscribed to the superstitious school of thought that ascribes cosmic significance to a moment, but I know that this fortune was ordained to be mine.  This moment and this tiny slip of paper was my sign that my world was turning around for the better.  

        A little over a month prior to the almost tragic sixth of February, I was at a friend’s apartment celebrating New Year’s Eve.  “Enjoy the last New Year’s ever!” shrieked exuberant party guests, referring to the Ancient Mayan belief that the world would be brought to a catastrophic end in the year 2012.  While cheery partygoers surrounded me toasting with cheap champagne and exchanging friendly kisses, I closed my eyes in silent prayer.   I prayed fiercely that 2012 would be my year—the year that I would be freed of the shackles of depression, finally able to embrace life and all it has to offer.  In the most unexpected way possible, my prayer was answered. 
On February 6, 2012, the Mayans’ prediction came true for me.  My world burned in a fiery conflagration of pain and sorrow.  When I almost took my own life but didn’t, my world changed.  On that night when my illness almost killed me, I miraculously regained control of my life.  The years of hurt and countless tears were destroyed, leaving behind the glowing embers of potential and determination.  I was left standing in the ashes, but the flames did not destroy me.  I was a phoenix, reborn amidst the blaze. 
Just as fortune cookies splinter into tiny shards of baked flour and sugar, I too fell apart when I almost committed suicide.  But rather than disintegrating into forgotten crumbs swept swiftly into a garbage can, I became the smooth slip of paper, filled with the promise of a better tomorrow.  I discovered a new, stronger person within.  A person who can and will laugh even when she can’t have her cake or eat it, too.  A person who can fully realize and appreciate her amazing friends and family.  A person whose eyes will indeed be open to a world full of beauty, charm and adventure. And above all, a person who has many, many years of fortune cookies ahead of her.

Rebecca Marks’ qualifications include a wicked under-bite that yielded a pronounced lisp, a laundry list of allergies that necessitated years of shots and an addiction to antihistamine, a Jewish heritage that provides a boisterous family and an overflow of neuroses and sarcasm, and most expensively, a nearly completed Bachelor’s degree in English.  Her work will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The Inconsequential and has been featured in The Portland Review.

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