Lunch Break

I wait in line at the Mongolian BBQ in the food court of the mall across the street from my office. The line makes a crowded curve through the cafe, rendering the possibility of escape impossible when patience runs out and hunger turns to hanger. All I can do is wait. In the middle of the queue, I stand cramped between strangers like the noodles squished into the bottom of my bowl, waiting to be sizzled on the grill.

I glare at the chefs grilling an assembly line of vegetables and meats on a scorching metal surface just a few feet from my face. If they work at a Mongolian BBQ in the mall are they chefs or cooks? I’m sure they are chefs but I am grumpy so today they are cooks. They move slowly and it drives me insane. Don’t they care about anyone but themselves? Don’t they see the line spilling out into the food court? We are stuffed into this kiosk like corralled hogs. Cook faster.

A family has reached the front of the line. The cooks take their bowls of raw meat, vegetables, and noodles, and spill them onto the grill. There is nothing interesting about the sight of broccoli cooking, or the sizzle of beef fat melting. This is mundane, and at this point tedious—yet here is a girl of ten standing between her brother and her mother, and she cannot conceal a smile.

She grins from ear to ear, moving her hand to her face periodically in an attempt to conceal her glee. She is old enough to know that it’s no longer acceptable to find wonder in something as commonplace as standing close to a live kitchen, but she can’t help it. She is amazed. She glances up to her mom as if to say, “Isn’t this amazing? He’s cooking my food,” but only says so with her eyes. No words. She does not speak. She stares transfixed at the cooks and the grill and her broccoli.

She irritates me. I am wasting my entire lunch break standing in line at a Mongolian BBQ in a mall so that I can scarf down mediocre noodles and rush back to work, and this child has the audacity to find this situation valuable? What are you smiling at, girl? What could possibly be so interesting about a stranger cooking your lunch? Stop smiling. This is not special. I can’t wait until life takes hold of you and makes you realize that there is nothing significant about this. One day soon, you’ll rush back to work. Why are you smiling?

My thoughts steam. Everything around me and inside me is cooking. The girl has never seen anything as entertaining as the sight of this mall cook stir-frying her chicken. Oh to be a child, with time and luxuries like wonder. He swoops her food back into her bowl with a paltry flourish, and places it on her red plastic tray. Mom pays for their lunch. The wonder on her face fades into a general childish perk. They walk away to find an open table.

The cook grills my food. I do not smile or watch my broccoli darken. I stare at my phone to pass the time. I pay with a credit card. I find a table and eat as quickly as possible. I return to work.

Six o’clock arrives and I lock up my office. I am no longer angry, or hungry. I am content, and average.

Riding my bicycle home, I take a new route down Main Street. I have never taken this route before. I peddle over the freeway overpass and fix my eyes on the intersection a quarter of a mile down the road. The light is green and I think I can make it through without having to stop or slow down. I peddle as fast as possible until I can stop peddling and let gravity do the work.

I ride my bicycle downhill. The wind sweeps through my hair. The wheels tick tick tick, like they are screaming. My stomach floats up into my chest. My skin tingles as if touched by a lover.

I go fast. So fast.

Faster than ever before. There is no seat belt for this ride. No harness. Just me, my bicycle, and gravity. A moment ago and a moment from now evaporate, leaving only this. Something, a feeling, sneaks into my head through my mouth, eyes, and skin. It grabs the corners of my mouth and pulls them up into a smile. I cannot help it. I am flying.

I grin from ear to ear.

I whiz through the intersection like a falling star, and the ground levels. My bicycle slows, but I smile with abandon. I look around to see if anyone has noticed. I am a little embarrassed for smiling. I may have giggled too.

Another cyclist approaches. A commuter. His face is stoic. He has done this many times. He doesn’t care about the hill, or flying. He is late to get home. Late to bathe the kids, eat dinner, and send out the reports he didn’t get to at work. He turns to me as he passes, and I know what he is thinking. Why is she smiling?

Oh, I think. That’s why.

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