Fortune Cookie

Anna Gillian


Crunching teeth on fortune cookie, I unfurl the slip of paper in my hands: Take the time to be considerate of others. I’ve lost a lot—my family, home, and faith in God—but it seems poetic justice has not abandoned me just yet. If only I’d taken the time to be considerate of others before Effie’s death. I feel the fried cheese wonton emerging from my stomach to greet me. 

I step over pizza boxes and empty rice cartons on the way to the bathroom. This is my parents’ fault, I tell myself as I retch into the toilet bowl, tears in my eyes. Somehow. Give me a minute. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and stare in the mirror. I’ve felt guilty all my life. At least, finally, I am. The last six months have not been good to me. I’ve retreated from every human relationship, although the delivery guys seem to know me. I must give myself credit for that.  

I’ve retreated from every human relationship. I’ve quit my job as a high school French teacher. I’ve killed my sister. With my car. Inadvertently. That’s where it started: Effie.  

Since then.

Since then every moment has been since then. The after to a before I never deserved. 
Sometimes I feel all the pain in the world, located in my chest. You just can’t imagine that
there could be any of it left for the rest of the world. But this is just the narcissism of depression. 
As it turns out, you can’t take on the sins of the world. As it turns out, nobody ever did.  

It’s impossible to escape your own perspective. No matter how your worldview changes, you still see it through your own eyes. I realize it wasn’t particularly original of me only to notice the absence of God after having gone through a personal tragedy. 

Should I still be capitalizing that g?

I realize it wasn’t particularly original of me. But it’s what it took for me to notice nothing I believed made any logical sense. And so, I left everything behind, mentally as well as physically. god had been such a central part of our upbringing that I didn’t know how to make a decision without consulting him.

Since then.

I’ve been trying to make as few decisions as possible. Clearly my decision-making is faulty, as it left Effie in a heap at the end of a cul-de-sac. Not making decisions, however, is impossible. So here I am, looking in the mirror, stepping over pizza boxes, unable to trust my mind.

I slump back into the couch. My ragged fingers dig into the fortune included in my takeaway meal: Take the time to be considerate of others. Take the time. Time. Not just any time. The time. Is that a specific amount of time? Or just at a specific time? How much time does it take to be considerate of others?

Now that I’m considering it. Take. Where or when does one take that time from? 

Of the eight words on the curling slip in my fingers, the most jarring to me is others. There have to be others before one can be considerate of them (whatever that turns out to be). 

I don’t know what makes me want to take this advice. (Let’s not get superstitious.) But I force myself to walk out the door. It’s like pulling off a Band-Aid. Except when you pull off a Band-Aid you don’t suddenly notice it’s winter and you probably need a jacket and definitely shoes. It’s the first time I’ve stepped outside in months.

I need to regroup. I’m not quite ready to find the others. 

I take refuge in the bed where every night I lie scared-sad-angry, reminding myself that my instinct to pray is irrational. That it does no good. Where I imagine what my childhood would have been like if my parents were Atheists: Mom kissing me on the forehead as she tucked me in at night.

“Sweet dreams, dear one. There’s nothing out there.”

Dad going to work each morning at the—what’s the secular version of a church? A bank?

Numbness after the accident has been passing for some time now. I don’t trust myself to make decisions. That’s what got me here. But I’m coming to realize this is no longer going to be a sustainable way to—live? Decisions are unavoidable. I need to make them. Like a real person. Let’s be honest. None of us really knows how to be one.

I need to rebuild. I return to the sitting room to scrape leftover takeout into my mouth, throw away that damn fortune.

My previous worldview was built on the gospels. That chapter has closed for me. I can’t follow the gospels, but I need a gospel. Not something to believe in—that’s asking too much (of whom?)—but something to follow. A metric by which to make decisions.  

Take the time to be considerate of others. 

I find the idea of following fortune cookies religiously, enticingly blasphemous. Partly, perhaps mostly, because of their demonstrable poor quality. Their nonsensical tendencies will keep me from buying too much into the fiction that my choices matter. And there it is—my last independent decision.


I’ve been reentering the world, piece by piece. Working at home as a freelance translator, chipping away at my credit card debt. Greek, English, and French aren’t a typical combination, and I enjoy the chance to use each. I still don’t speak to my parents in any language. But I have human relationships again. There’s the barista who nods at me before brewing my morning latte. 
The clients who sign their emails with the word best.

They wish me the best and I do my best. I take the time to be considerate of them. They are my others. No, I know this sounds a little pathetic. Unlike my original entry into the world—a C-section that thrust me unceremoniously into a family of religious fundamentalists—my reentry is a gradual process.

The others I do interact with don’t know the motions I’m going through are guided by the fortunes accompanying the Chinese food of which I partake every Sunday. Sunday is not the Sabbath and General Tso’s Chicken is not the Eucharist. It’s meaningless bullshit like the rest of it. But it’s my meaningless bullshit. And it’s helping me out of the static universe that has been my experience since Effie’s death.

This week’s fortune: Do not rush through life, pause and enjoy it. 

So, I’ve been trying to slow down. My life isn’t fast-paced to begin with, but there are moments at which I can pause. This process of reentry into normalcy, for instance. Once I’ve paused, I fill that space with something I remember enjoying. When I was younger, I used to write poetry. I’m an adult now, so I read it instead.

I have moments of regression—lots of them. Sometimes it takes me until evening to get up, but I’m plodding along, reminding myself not to rush.

I’ve taped my most recent fortune to my laptop. I see it while working and procrastinating. Procrastination is a problem I have with motivation. It doesn’t constitute rushing through life, but neither is it enjoyable. Do not rush through life, pause and enjoy it.

Initial interpretation: I, Magdalena “Maggie” Papadakis, should not rush through life, but instead pause at intervals along the way to enjoy it. You know, stopping to smell the roses. That sort of shit. That’s what I’ve been doing, more or less. 

comma splice noun
: the use of a comma between coordinate main clauses not connected by a conjunction (as in “nobody goes there anymore, it’s boring”)
First use: 19241

Correctly typed:

Do not rush through life; pause and enjoy it.
Do not rush through life. Pause and enjoy it.
Do not rush through life. Pause. And enjoy it. 

These are just a few options, any of which would have been correct, any of which would have indicated a pause. A comma, on the other hand, not only indicates a rushing through the sentence, but an incorrectly placed comma, such as the one in question, an even greater hurry.  

Perhaps this fortune is not an instruction, but an example. Whenever Effie and I thought something was unfair, Dad used to joke, “Do as I say, not as I do.” It was his way of admitting, I’m an adult. I know these rules seem arbitrary to you. They are.  

Like the rules I’m applying to my life now—arbitrary. It took years for that lesson to sink in. But what if I were to do not as the fortune says, but as it does? My heart flutters with the rebellious glee of a teenager. Maybe the lesson never sank in.

My updated task, then, is not to pause and enjoy life—but to rush through it. This might be easier. Pausing causes me to reflect. Reflection causes me to ruminate. Rumination causes me to sound like Yoda.  

What I mean to say is pausing leads me to relapse into depression.

Rush through life. I visit my barista, order six shots of espresso. She lifts an eyebrow, but I tell her I’m making tiramisu. Out on the street, I rush to down the espresso and burn my tongue in the process. Within several minutes, my heart has expanded to where it’s beating throughout my entire body—well, more than usual—my fingertips feel alive—again, more than usual.  

If I’m to rush through life, there must be somewhere I’m rushing to. I’ve done my work for today. (I could do more, I suppose.) Rushing means arriving at the finish line sooner. Rushing through life, therefore, means arriving sooner at its finish line: death. Fuck. I thought I wasn’t making decisions for myself anymore. How have I still ended up in a place where I’m once again considering suicide?


Delphi (/ˈdɛlfaɪ/ or /ˈdɛlfi/; Greek: Δελφοί, [ðelˈfi]) is famous as the ancient sanctuary that grew rich as the seat of the oracle that was consulted on important decisions throughout the ancient classical world.2

The fortune cookies are my Oracle. I turn to them when I’m uncertain what to do. Their advice doesn’t always make sense, but it often has a poetic ring to it. And, of course, 
nobody knows much about who comes up with this gibberish.

[Croesus] began preparing a campaign against Cyrus the Great of Persia. Before setting out, he turned to the Delphic oracle to inquire whether he should pursue this campaign. The [oracle] answered, with typical ambiguity, that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. [Croesus] launched his campaign against the Persian Empire in 547 BC. It became clear that the powerful empire destroyed by the war was Croesus’s own.3

Wary of Croesus’s story among so many of a similar theme, and coming suddenly down from a caffeine high, I replace the fortune on my laptop screen with another, newly opened: 

Be careful in whom you share your confidence. Likely this is a matter of confirmation bias, but the fortune seems rather too appropriate.

A fortune cookie is a crisp cookie usually made from flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil with a piece of paper inside, a “fortune,” on which is an aphorism, or a vague prophecy. Fortune cookies are often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States and other Western countries, but are not a tradition in China. The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century.4

The idea behind this whole endeavor for me—I’ve been following it on a whim, really— was that, whether they recognize it or not, every human makes their choices based on some belief system. As I had found myself without a core set of beliefs, anything I could really trust, I found the prospect of making choices paralyzing. I admit, I found the arbitrary nature of fortune cookies attractive.

Manufactured in San Francisco, they’re not even genuine Chinese proverbs. 

I thought all such systems of belief were meaningless. Mine, at least, did not try to disguise itself. I wanted to live normally again. So, I’ve been using these aphorisms to access an inconsistent set of principles (as all sets of principles are), so that I might make decisions. Live.  

Decisions I wouldn’t be responsible for. The idea of responsibility, I found equally paralyzing as choice.

But I can’t escape that responsibility now. The fortunes themselves have pointed that out: Be careful in whom you share your confidence. This aphorism could have several meanings concerning trust. Confide with care, but also listen to confidences with care—take advice with care. Notice the verb share where one might expect the more one-sided word put, emphasizing that confidence goes both ways.

As I dwell on meanings, my phone rings. I let it go to voicemail.

I’m wondering if I’ve deceived myself. The Oracle at Delphi was notorious for ambiguous prophecies. Perhaps that is how it got its reputation for infallibility. Confirmation bias.

Those visiting the oracle never seemed to notice the ambiguities until after the prophecies were fulfilled. Often, a bad prophecy would come true through the very efforts taken to prevent it. And, as with Croesus’s prophecy, it seemed everyone interpreted the puzzling words favorably. They heard what they wanted to hear.

Have I been making my own choices all along? I listen to the phone message. It’s a woman, with tears in her voice—my mother. She had enlisted the services of a private detective to locate me. It didn’t take him long. But until now, she says, she has respected my privacy.

I would say enlisting the service of a private detective shows otherwise, but okay. 

Until now. She simply wants to hear from me. An ache in my chest. She’s lost both her children. This is exactly the sort of situation I cannot handle on my own. Be careful in whom you share your confidence. That doesn’t help. Neither does Do not rush through life, pause and enjoy it. I crack open a box of fortune cookies.

Should I call my mother? You were born to be a star. What the fuck? Should I drive home to her? There’s a good chance of a romantic encounter soon. I feel the spell breaking as I open the rest.

The heart is wiser than the intellect.  

You have to be in it to win it. 

You can find everything if you look for it at the right place [sic] 

A friend asks only for your time not your money. [sic] 

A good time to start something new.

If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything. 

Confucius says, everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.  

The gambler is like the fisherman both have beginners luck. [sic]

Shoot for the moon! If you miss you will be amongst the stars. 

I’ve been too timid to reenter my previous passion for poetry. And now, the words arrange themselves on my coffee table like a chant schoolchildren use to mock each other. I know what my mother would tell me if I asked for help. She already told me, regarding Effie’s death, fortune has a wheel that she is continuously grinding. Those at the top always end up at the bottom, and vice versa. It’s a cold platitude that refuses to take a stance. I guess I know something about that. I decide to take the time to be considerate, as I pick up the phone.

1“Comma Splice.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
2 “Delphi.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec. 2016. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
3 “Croesus.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 1 Dec. 2016. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
4 “Fortune cookie.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2 Dec. 2016. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

Anna Gillian is a Hilary Mantel Scholar at Kingston University London's MFA program in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Shahrazad CollectiveOhio Edit, Derail and Litlag.

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