I had a late lunch with a not-so-old-friend on Saturday. It was one of those weekends, one where you thought you got it all figured out only to find that you screwed up your schedules and possibly some parts of your life simply because you didn’t have enough sense to write your arrangements on a calendar. Reminds me of this old movie called If Lucy Fell, where the main characters paint an entire wall with that month’s calendar so that they don’t forget important stuff, one of which being their suicide pact. This is my public apology to Debbie and Justin for missing their important day. I have no excuse except that I forgot and found myself 500km away from home on the night I was supposed to be in town.
Back to the lunch. I read Birthday Stories recently, said the not-so-old-friend, whom for the purpose of this post will be nameless. I paused mid-latte and peered at him curiously. Birthday Stories is in reference to a short story compilation personally selected by Haruki Murakami. As the title suggests, all the stories refer to birthdays of some sort. I gave him the book for his last birthday. The significance was not lost on me.
One story stands out, he said slowly, looking at me to see if my reaction would indicate that I knew which one he was referring to. The one about the birthday wish, I answered. He nodded. It wasn’t hard to figure out.
It was about a girl who had to work on the eve of her birthday. On that particular night, since the maitre’d was sick, she was tasked to bringing the owner of the restaurant she was working for his dinner. The instruction is always the same. Chicken and a bottle of wine, to be delivered to the owner’s room at the precise time every night. It doesn’t matter how the chicken is prepared. The owner never shows any indication or preference.
Upon finding out that it was her birthday, the owner invited her for a toast and told her that he would grant her one wish – anything that she wants, anything at all.
It was never explained what the girl wished for or if it came true. Only that the owner was surprised and asked her if she was sure. One could only surmise that the wish was so ordinary that it was unusual.
The story ended with the person for whom the story was being told to saying that he would not know what to wish for. That’s because it had already come true, she said to him. Or at least that’s how the story ends, the way I remember it.
What would you wish for? he asked. If you had one wish, what would you wish for?
Am I the one who grants the wish, or the one with the wish? I asked in return. He shrugged in defeat. I have been playing this game for far too long to be trapped into a game of what ifs.
You won’t like the answer, I told him.
There’s already a lot about today that I don’t like, he said. What’s another one?
The announcement of my flight’s boarding time rang over the loudspeakers. I am living in a bad movie, I muttered under my breath. These faux dramatic moments seem to creep into my life with alarming regularity.
I hugged him goodbye. He didn’t hug back. He smiled a little. Take care, he said. I bit my tongue. It seemed callous of me to reply the same. So I looked at him in the eye and promised that I would answer the question.
I’ve had time since to think about that late lunch. And this is what I would have wished for.
I would wish for a little bravery. Just enough to coerce myself to let the future unfold, but not enough to desensitize me from the consequences of my actions.
He would laugh and tell me that I am being too academic. And if I had said this to him face to face, I would laugh too and then backtracked. I would wish for the cure for stupidity. That was probably what I’d said. It would leave enough room for ambiguity and future backtracking, if I need to play that card. He would have hugged me back. Sometimes hope, just like the telephone*, is a terrorist.
The truth is, just like the person for whom the story was being told to, my wish, too, had already come true.
(*Explode by Frente!, from Marvin the Album)