I chose an isolated seat at the bar and put my little book on the counter. The book is The "Long Days Journey into Night" by Eugene O’neill. Somehow, the book, with the Scotch glass on the otherwise whitewashed cover, seems out of the place on this bar counter, for here it is in the mid of an hotel restaurant at West Lafayette, Indiana, not the suburbs of New England or Bistros of New York.
Sure they have alcoholism or bitterness or non-functional families, but their anger and despair must be a different kind. Actually, when I saw the tables and tables of Senior citizens sitting down for a Rotary Meeting Luncheon and the happy family of 8 sitting not far from me, enjoying their vacation lunch, laughing, some of them quite overweighed, pale and pleasantly plain, I almost believe that they are happy and here is truly an island of paradise.
"I would have a coffee and an orange juice, please". I waited for the stern-faced waitress finally making the eye contact with me and calmly requested. This will be my breakfast which I did not say.
"We have only lunch now", She obviously guessed.
"So do you not have coffee and orange juice"?
"OK then, and I will order some lunch later". I smiled. In seeing the Rotary luncheon of almost 200 people, I understood they must have just had a busy time. And they must be tired, and it was not because of me, even I looked out of the place here and was hard to read of what business having brought me here, other than the University.
I am peaceful. Gone the time when I easily felt angry or hurt when people were impatient or aloof, I was too eager to take everything personal, I was so bad at rejections, but not anymore.
I also ordered the Tuna Sandwich on Rye bread with Pickles and Sweet potatoes. Then I opened my book, ready for things twisted, bitter, sophisticated and familiar.
When the food finally arrived, I took a bite and I was almost tearful. What is with the most unpretentious and sizable food in Indiana hotel bars, they taste so hearty and true, and homey. "It is too good!" I exclaimed loudly, forgetting my New York cool and sophistication. I was transformed. The waitress gave me a hard-earned smirk of lips which I think meant to be a smile.
That was the day after my niece finally settled in her dorm, and my duty was partially done and that duty had proven to be quite fulfilling and fun, in the warm light of hindsight.
Indiana had brought me closer to the real life and its small rewards. And I did not expect that when I flew here with my Eugene O’neill at hand, ready to fight with the small-town boredom and obligations.
I had lost some sleep over the potential trip to Indiana, I was not used to face up to responsibilities as an adult, I was not used to feel truly grown up. I planned everything out to the most of detail and allowed no room or very little room for mistake. But I was panicking before the trip, I worry about failing and messing up.
One thing that made me sweat was that I know I had to drive. I have not really driven for long distance for more than 5 years. I had my share of weird time with the local DMVs, and I do have a valid and clean driver license. Only, I am seriously out of practice.
That having a car under my command seems such a responsibility and empowerment, it is something I do not want to assume. But in this town of 50,000, any taxi ride is subject to an unspecified time waiting on a queue. So I picked up a full sized car from the lonely Budget Rental near Purdue airport. And to know that the campus is only half a mile away on a 2 lane road with hardly any traffic is reassuring. That strange sensation of sitting inside a moving space is an instant mix of melancholy loneliness and joy of liberty.
Once I started driving again, all the old fun of driving came back a little. That is why when I got lost, which I did regularly, I just let myself drive at will through the back roads and the beauty and tranquility of the country life struck me. I put on some music from the satellite radio and drove through the strange lands as if I am a new person, a different person, in a difference space, a space that is not burdened with any pain of the past. I let myself be lost in the green vastness of the Cornfield of Indiana.
I took Yuan for a ride to shop for a cell phone. After desperately driving around the derelict downtown with no sight of the AT&T wireless branch, despite it so stated according to Google map, and insanely asking a driver of a car that was waiting beside me for a red light on the crossing-typical insane Asian female driver, I finally decided to look for the Target, prominently marked on the city map we got from our hotel lobby.
It has been a while since I last visited a Target or a mall, but when we finally arrived there, I knew I had done the right thing, you can buy everything and anything one needs for a “back to school” shopping trip here. One can set up someone’s life by measuring up the inches in this red space. And for me, this is a place to fulfill my responsibility: to help Yuan set up her life in the US.
"Indiana", I told Yuan while I drove, "was a big battlefield where Indian tribes were defeated and driven away from their homeland by the western settlers", something I read from the city guide. "You know that is the brutal part of the history in this country. And nowadays, Indians still live within reservation lands, usually the most barren land. It is not a happy story".
Despite all my seriousness, I also found myself treating Yuan as a school kid and I was trying to educate her in culture and social justice. I felt obligated to behave well and mature, to be a role model of reason, calm and confidence to prepare her well. I kind of laughed a little to the inner me who were making faces and lurking as I told her to hide.
The storms were hitting the Mid West that August week. There were hot and wet evenings. Yuan and I went down to the basement of the Dorm. I wanted to show her how to cook with the kitchen equipment there. Yuan said she would cook for me instead, and made noodles and some Japanese Egg Dumplings. They were delicious. In the adjacent gaming room, there was an old piano slightly out of tune and a pool table. We sat down at the Piano and Yuan played some little tunes. She was brought up well. I said, you should play some here, use this room, you know, this is where you can play and relax.
"I need music score. I forgot to bring any from China."
"I will send you some from New York".
Two boys were playing pool near us quietly, and their golden hair has a hue of ripe wheat.
When I left to drive back to my hotel, it started to rain. I saw the sky that was torn with a thread of lightening at the far west. I stopped and took some shot in the rain. It has a quality of surreal and warmth, full of desire, desire to live and know.
And I got lost again driving in the rain. It was easy to get lost near the campus when so many roads are one way and I was stuck in some small roads that was near the Happy Hollow park, my Waterloo. I lost my sense of direction since it was dark and raining. I followed cars and feeling like a wet stray cat, yet I was in a car, dry and with some classic music on.
I turned into a parking lot of some motel and just sat there for a while, waiting for the storm to pass. I felt exhausted, but also relieved. Yuan is settled in her school, and that is all it matters. I can sat here for a night if the storm won't pass.
But that weakness lasted about 10 minutes. I collected enough courage and drove out again and by steering toward the right, I managed to get on to the big highway and saw the little plaza which I spotted during day time.
I forgot how easy it was to navigate in New York city, and here, you really had to see the road signs to get your way, here it does not have so many familiar sightings that you can use for your orientation. Here, that night, there were not even stars. But it was patient and quiet. You have all the time in the world to find your way, there is no one honking you behind your car, you were not judged.
Back in the hotel, near US 231 and besides an Applebee restaurant, I took a shower and walked back to the bar for a much-needed beer and some food. The bar tender is in his early 20s. A truck-driver looking guy, seriously looking, sat silently. I again took an isolated seat, not far from him and ordered my food and beer.
Beer was easy, Indian Pale Ale. Main dish is easy, Pork was on the menu. Then came the question: what kind of fries do you want?
“Hummmmm, Sweet potato please”. I made up my mind pretty quickly on that.
"Yes, you are like the sweet potato type of gal to me....." the bar tender boy smiled at me. He can't be more than 22. I find that amusing, to think about it, I always love sweet potato, ever since I grew up in China. Maybe I am the sweet potato and rye bread type of gal after all.
On the TV, it was showing a documentary about the landing on the Hudson. Captain Sullenberger was talking about his split second decision to land on the river. I thought of the fact that Captain Sullenberger got a Master of Industrial Psychology from Purdue. And I was sitting right there, not far from Purdue, watching his story.
“Truck driver” guy was also watching, we were both deeply immersed by this minute by minute recount of the story. I was drinking my beer slowly and with content, like a coolie guy after a long day's hard work enjoying his share.
And I felt simply and fundamentally happy.
I never expect that to have a responsibility fulfilled can have such an impact. And I was sitting in this little town of Indiana, I was not obligated to enjoy myself, or have fun, or be cool, or stay charming, I can simply be me, tired, relaxed, amused, and I was not even really missing anyone for a change, I was complete, and happy right there and then, to be with myself and my busy
and fond time with Yuan at Indiana.
The place where you expect the least, it just simply touches your heart.