“Can we stop at Panda Express?”
What a sweet, innocent voice. He dredges it up from the very bottom of his soul when he really wants something, something he is certain our tired bodies, exhausted by hours of work, or our tired wallets, exhausted by piles of bills, cannot handle.
It replaces his usual full-grown teenager I-know-everything why-are-you-so-stupid voice that every parent learns to love and interpret as evidence that their child is still alive and actively mocking them to all their friends.
We are headed home after yet another baseball game. CF is driving. She is more tired than usual, because her arm is still completely encased in bandages from her second surgery, making everything more difficult, not to mention painful, not to mention awkward, but she won’t let me drive, not to mention I can’t drive this car anyway, because it doesn’t have hand controls. She tells NF, our son, that we can’t stop at Panda Express because she is too tired to go in.
She’s the one who usually goes in to get food for him. She doesn’t like Chinese food, and I never get anything there, because they only have about eight selections, all with beef or chicken, neither of which I eat, so we only ever stop for something for NF, and he is either too shy or too lazy to go in by himself, I’m not sure which, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
And I feel sorry for him because he pulled a muscle and couldn’t play tonight, so CF and I engage in some secret hand gestures that resolve into me agreeing to run into Panda Express. This brings about a moment of tension in the car.
“Do you know what I want?” The sweet, innocent voice is gone. The slightly challenging, nearly bickering voice is back. It’s not a challenge to my knowledge of his culinary taste buds, but his snide acknowledgement that my mental capacity to remember anything as complicated as a take-out order from the car to the counter is a bit insulting these days.
“Should we write it down?” CF offers.
“No, no,” I insist, “I’ve got it, chow mein, with a double entrée of orange chicken. And a root beer.”
“Not the rice,” says NF. “The chow mein.”
“Yes,” I say, “the chow mein.”
“Two orange chicken,” he says.
“I know. Two orange chicken.” You’d think I was the child.
There’s a rather large party pandering the express, so I start to review the order in my mind. Chow mein, double orange chicken. Chowder mein, double chicken. Chowder chain, chowder chicken. Chicken chow chain double main trouble chicken.
No, wait. Oh, look, they have those rangoons tonight. Chow mein. Not rice. Chow mein. Ciao, Maine. A small town outside Bangor. That’s Bann-gore, not Bang-err, like they say in Washington. Washing-toon. Ran-goon. Chow moon.
O.K. Chow mein. Double truckle chuckle muckle tricking. No. Chuck mein. No. Chopped brain. No. Chow chain with double chicken orange brain. Close!
The pandering party is partly past posting its porder. The non-Asian server catches my eye and gives me one of those non-sympathetic sympathetic server “I’m sorry for the delay” looks that tells me she is late for her break and really has to go to the bathroom and plans to sprint away as soon as the pandering party lets her. Time for me to re-review the order I have completely forgotten and wish I had written down. I would go back to the car to ask, but the line behind me has snaked out the door like a Chinese New Year parade.
Crow train? Root blain?
Root beer! With a burst of triumph I remember the root beer, about which I had completely forgotten.
Chow mein. And root beer. Good.
A wave of my former self washes over me. I remember my own advice: when in doubt, read the documentation. What brilliance I once possessed! How often did I grouse about people who had all the information they needed to use their own equipment, their own software, at their own fingertips, but had to make phone calls, to call technical services in some far off land, hang on hold forever, just to be told to press this key or type this sequence. It drove me nuts.
And so I read the documentation. Panda Express very nicely posts step-by-step ordering instructions overhead in its restaurants: Step 1: choose your plate. Step 2: choose your entrée. Aha! Step 1: chow mein! Step 2: chick…chick…chick…all this chicken…chick…orange chicken—that’s it—two servings of it, I’m sure! And look! It’s my turn! And yes, there she goes! Off to her break!
Another server, soon to become my best friend, slips into her place, and I confidently rattle off, “Chow mein—”
“Is that for here or to go?”
I stare at her, dumbfounded, lost, mind completely blank, Timmy without Lassie, Dorothy without Toto.
“To go,” I finally croak in my post-stroke gargle of a voice.
She scoops a massive blob of brownish noodles into a Styrofoam container and smiles at me expectantly.
“And the entrée?”
Lassie come home, I think. What was that chicken again? I cast my eyes down the steam table.
“Chicken—orange.” Again the strangled voice. “Two.”
She gives me a weird little smile as if she deals with fried brain people all day long.
“And a root beer.” She hands me a cup at the register.
Having now been inside this express restaurant for a non-express amount of time, I step over to the soda dispenser and fill the cup with root beer, which, since this is me we’re talking about, is not root beer. It is slightly fizzy slightly flavored water. It is approximately the same shade as the chow mein. I return to my new best friend and croak that there is something wrong with the root beer.
“Oh, yes, I knew that,” she says. And off she goes to fix it, belatedly. I prevent some potential root beer lovers from facing disappointment before she returns; I don’t know if it’s my croaky voice that scares them away, the putrid mess in my cup, or what I tell them that does it, but they are saved from failure.
Back in the car, I hand the bag and cup to my son.
“Chow mein, double orange chicken,” I croak triumphantly, smirking ever so slightly.
“Where’s the straw? Where’s the fork?” he snarls ever so lovingly.
That sound you hear? Me deflating.