The Chinese Restaurant
Frank Thomas Smith
I was in a rickety bus that had just reached the top of a mountain pass and started down the other side. I looked out the window and saw the floor of a valley far below. It was partly cultivated, the rest being forest-land and small villages bathed in soft twilight hues. The woman I loved occupied the seat next to me. She leaned against my shoulder to look out the window.
"Is that it?" I asked her.
"Yes, that's Traslasierra".
I continued to smell the perfume of her hair after waking, but couldn't see her face clearly. Was she someone from my past, I asked myself, or was she still to come?
Three weeks later I was having lunch with my cousin Barbara in a restaurant in Chinatown, New York City, one of those self-service places with good food and low prices and lots of customers. The tables were close together in order to jam as many people in as possible. Barbara lives Upstate and we see each other once in a blue moon, so she was filling me in on her life since we'd last met. She's a philosophy professor turned artist and had recently had an exhibition in a small-town gallery that she was excited about. Suddenly she broke off.
"And what about you, Frank?" she said, digging into her chop suey, which was getting cold. "Here I am blabbing away about myself without giving you a chance to say anything. I'm awful that way."
Nothing much had happened to me since we last saw each other, nothing I wanted to talk about anyway. I was searching for a topic when the dream occurred to me. I told her about it and mentioned what a deep impression it had made on me.
"I don't see why you're so impressed by that dream," Barbara said when I finished. "You should hear some of mine -- like sexy, man."
"Did you say Traslasierra?" a woman at the next table asked.
We both turned and looked at her in surprise.
"Yes, I did." She stared at me with deep black eyes, then looked away. She seemed embarrassed. "It means something like 'beyond the mountains' in Spanish, but I don't know what meaning it had in my dream or where it is, if anywhere," I said, wanting her to respond.
"I think I know where it is," she said. "There's a Traslasierra in--" She broke off and looked down at her food.
"You know," she said, looking up at me, "what's really interesting is that I had the same dream. I know it sounds weird, but--
"No, I know you now - you were in my dream!" I blurted out so loudly that the people at the adjoining tables who weren't shouting to make themselves heard turned and looked at me.
"Oh dear!" Barbara intervened. "Listen dreamer, why don't you come on over and join us so we can stop shouting."
The woman left her half-eaten meal and pulled her chair over to our table. "I recognize you too, from the dream," she smiled.
"Now wait a minute you two," Barbara said. "If you don't mind my saying so, it sounds to me like you're still dreaming."
"What do you mean?" I said, annoyed.
"Let's look at all this logically," she pronounced in her professorial style. "You had a dream in which there was another person, a woman you didn't know. Right, Frank? You never saw her before?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"So we're having lunch here, you tell me about your dream, and our next-door neighbor...What did you say your name was, honey?"
"I didn't say, but it's Clara."
"And our next-table neighbor, Clara, listens to you telling me about the dream and--"
"I overheard it," Clara interrupted. "I wasn't listening to him."
"Whatever." Barbara was being rude. She's really very nice but she can be rude, especially when she's on an analytical kick.
"Anyway, she - you, Clara - suddenly jump up and say that you were the woman in the dream."
"I didn't jump up," Clara retorted, "and I didn't say I was the woman in his dream."
"What the hell did you say then?"
"I said I had the same dream."
"So who were you, the bus driver?"
"No, I was me and Frank was in my dream." She smiled at me as if to show that she didn't hold me responsible for my cousin's discourtesy.
"What was to prevent you from claiming that you were in the dream when you werenít?"
"Why would I want to do that?"
"Or you imagined it", Barbara persisted. "I mean really, folks, this is too much coincidence to accept."
"And I imagined it too?" I said.
"Power of suggestion, Frankie boy. Ever hear of it?"
"Now wait a minute," Clara said. "What did you say your name was, honey?"
Barbara smiled at the dig in spite of herself and went along. "I didn't say, but it's Barbara."
"OK, Barbara, just listen." She turned to me. "Frank, did you tell Barbara the whole dream?"
"As far as I can remember, yes."
"Do you remember a strange noise just before we reached the top of the mountain?"
"Oh, sure, Iíd forgotten about that. The bus sort of rattled and made a noise and you asked what's that and I shrugged and said probably..."
"Wait, I'll tell you what you said," she interrupted. "But first whisper it to Barbara."
"That won't be necessary," I said. "I believe you."
"I know, but I want to convince your skeptical companion."
"Cousin," Barbara corrected her. "Write it, so she can't hear."
"For God's sake, Barbara." I was really exasperated with her by then.
"No, go ahead, Frank," Clara insisted. "Write it." She turned her head away from us.
I scribbled a few words on a paper napkin and showed it to Barbara, who nodded. Clara turned back to us and said, confidently, "It's probably the ancient transmission in this rattletrap." She looked at Barbara with a triumphant smile.
Barbara frowned, and looked from Clara to me and back at Clara. "I give up," she said. "I absolutely give up. This is the godamn craziest thing I ever heard. But I have to believe you two nuts now, don't I?" She leaned across the table and kissed Clara on the cheek. "Sorry, Hon..Clara. I'm just very suspicious by nature. Isn't it awful?"
"Don't worry about it, Barbara," Clara said. "I'd have been skeptical in your shoes too. But I wanted to ask you, Frank, how you felt when you woke up."
"How I felt?"
"Yes. Were you afraid?"
"Why no, not at all, I was only surprised at how real the dream had seemed and how beautiful the valley below us looked. In fact I felt pretty damn good -- happy in fact to...well...to be with you. Did you feel that way too?"
"Yes, I did, but I was getting nervous toward the end of the dream because the noise and the rattling got worse and the bus began to go faster."
"It did?" I said, surprised. "I don't remember that. Maybe I thought the noise was my alarm clock."
"Or you woke up earlier than I did."
Clara was tall, almost as tall as me, with very short black hair combed like a boy's and strong, attractive features. She had on one of those long Indian cotton skirts, and a white blouse and sandals, the same clothes she wore in the dream.
"You were going to say where this Traslasierra is," I reminded her.
"Yes. There's a Traslasierra in Argentina, where I originally came from, but there might be others in South America or even in Spain."
"Couldn't you recognize it in the dream?" Barbara asked her.
"No. You see I left Argentina as a child. I remember having visited the Traslasierra once with my parents, but I don't remember that view from the bus. We might have taken a different road."
"Well, I must say that I am astonished," Barbara exclaimed. "The shared dream and meeting here. Those things just don't happen. it's like...I don't know what it's like."
"It's like we were destined to meet," Clara said.
"I guess everyone who meets another person is destined to meet them, but this is different," I said. "It's like fate is saying, Hey, look you two, you've found each other for a purpose. Now find out what it is."
We all three looked at each other, waiting. We must have had the same idea because it was so obvious, but were waiting for one of the others to say it. "Not my turn," I finally said, and we laughed.
"It looks like I have to be the catalyst," Barbara said. "Or continue being it because what else am I doing here anyway? Look, you two...ah, you married or something, Clara?"
"Or something," Clara said.
Well, do you think your roomy would object to you taking a long trip together with my sexy cousin here?"
"Definitely, but I can handle it."
"Where to, Barbara?" I asked innocently.
"Tras-la-la, of course, stupid."
"What about you, Frank? Any ties?" Clara asked me.
"None that I can't handle."
Barbara laughed. "He means none he wouldn't love to untangle."
"Oh? Like what?" Clara asked, looking at me.
"Like an ex-wife who's trying to be his surrogate mother," Barbara answered for me, exaggerating as usual.
The flight with Argentine Airlines was uneventful except for the poor service and cramped quarters. But it was cheap, considering that they threw in the Buenos Aires-Córdoba domestic portion for nothing. After arriving at the international airport it took us two hours to cross Buenos Aires by bus to the city airport in order to catch the one-hour flight to Córdoba, capital of the province of the same name. By then we were exhausted after traveling over sixteen hours, so we decided to spend the night in Córdoba, which was hotter than Buenos Aires, and that means hot. It was January, mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
"What's that mean?" I asked Clara the next morning, pointing to the name of the bus company whose tickets we bought to the town of Nono.
"El Petizo? The Little One, something like that. The buses are pretty miniature."
"How about The Runt?"
"Perfect," she laughed.
"And where's Nono? Sounds pretty negative to me."
"Not at all. It's a town in the Traslasierra and the name comes from a mountain shaped like a woman's breasts. That's what it means in the local Indian language."
"Does anyone still speak it?"
"I doubt it, although there may be some old people around who do. We name towns and mountains in it and think we're being honorable, but that's about it."
"Why are we going there?"
"Traslasierra is an area running north-south for about a hundred miles," Clara explained, "and includes Nono. I went there with my parents, so I remember it a little, and we have to go somewhere."
"Maybe we should rent a car," I suggested.
"But then we wouldn't cross the Sierra in a bus like in the dream."
I felt pretty stupid. "Good point. How about on the other side?"
"There won't be any place to rent cars on the other side," she said, smiling at me as she might at a child asking for ice cream in the desert.
El Petizo was really a runt of a bus. Painted brightly inside and out, it looked fine with its portrait of Eva Peron wreathed in artificial flowers placed over and in front of the driver's head, but its makers must have forgotten to install shock absorbers. We left the city of Córdoba, entered the town of Villa Carlos Paz after a short drive, passed through it and started up the mountain road to cross the Altas Cumbres, or high peaks, on the other side of which was Traslasierra. El Petizo hardly ever left first gear. Clara and I waited uneasily for the moment when our dream would become reality.
Two hours later, as El Petizo strained up over the summit, the driver shifted into second gear and we started down the other side. I looked out the window at the floor of the valley far below. It was partly cultivated, the rest being forest-land and small villages bathed in soft twilight hues. Clara offered me some grapes and leaned against my shoulder to look out the window. I smelled the perfume of her hair.
"Is that it?" I ask her.
"Yes, that's Traslasierra."
We were going too fast, I felt, for the sharp curves the bus had to negotiate. It began to rattle and shake and a whining noise came from somewhere deep in its entrails.
"What's that noise?" Clara asked.
"It's probably the ancient transmission in this rattletrap."
Suddenly the noise increased to the level of a jet engine whine, then ceased completely and the bus careened down the road out of control. This wasn't in my dream. I looked at the driver's back and saw him frantically pressing the brake pedal to the floor without effect. We were coming to a sharp curve which we would never be able to clear at this speed. The driver geared down to first but it wasn't enough. A woman screamed. Clara grabbed my hand as we plowed into the aluminum guardrail and plunged over the side.
We rose from the smoldering wreckage together with the other passengers. Clara and I stood to one side, still holding hands. "Well," I said, "if I had to go, I'm glad it was with you, Clara."
"Oh, it had to be with me."
"What do you mean?"
"You were destined to die now and here with me, but you were reluctant to get the message."
"My message, darling. Don't you know who I am yet?"
I had been trying to spot our bodies inside the bus. Now I turned and looked at her. She was no longer Clara of the Chinese restaurant, but--.
"Mireya!" I exclaimed. "You, here? But how--?"
"It's really simple. You should have been transferred to Argentina by the airline company you worked for, but you fell in love with that dimwitted American blonde, who couldn't bear to leave the States. You were fucking up our destiny, darling."
"Mireya! You never used to use language like that."
"Gotta keep up with the times, Federico." She laughed her infectious laugh and I had to laugh with her. Mireya and Federico, ill-fated lovers in Argentina, eighteenth century, the revolution against Spain...it was all coming back.
"Anyway, when you didn't come to Argentina, where we would have met and carried on our karmic journey as Frank and Clara, I had to go after you."
"And the dream?" I was still confused. Mireya was always a quicker thinker than me.
"I don't know who arranged thatóbut it worked."
"But how did you know where I was and all the rest of it? And why did you go to the Chinese restaurant that day?
I didn't know you'd be there - how could I? - but I went to the Chinese restaurant because I was hungry," Mireya said, squeezing my hand. "Didn't you?"
© 2001 Frank Thomas Smith