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The Proper Use of Chopsticks
“So next week, you two will be transferring to our office in Worchester, MA, and to save the company some money on air fare, you’re going to drive. We’ll rent you a car and send a U-Haul with most of your belongings a few days later. You seem to get along well enough, so it won’t be a problem, right? Right. Good, now back to work.”
Kate and Austin glanced at each other, and quickly rose from the overstuffed leather chairs in Mr. Hadley’s office, which they rarely seemed to sit in for very long. He had turned his back to them, and was busy yelling at an assistant about the lack of flavor in his coffee, so both knew they were dismissed. As if he needs more caffeine to stay alert, thought Kate, as she recalled with disgust the many times that she was the poor coffee-girl victim of Mr. Hadley’s tirade. At 24-years old, Kate Smithson had a very low opinion of accountants, bosses, and men in general. She spent most of her days wishing she were somewhere, or someone else, and being utterly dissatisfied with her own life.
Growing up, Kate’s family had moved around a lot, due to her father’s military position. She had always made friends easily enough, gotten mostly good and a few average grades in school, and rarely done anything out of the ordinary. At 5’5’’ with a slender figure, dirty blonde hair and light brown eyes, Kate tried her best to be average. She was pretty, but never tried to be a stand out. She followed some trends, ignored others, and naturally fit in without ever becoming popular. When it came to current events though, Kate was surprisingly opinionated. Never did she shy away from sharing her views with anyone who asked. Even as a young child, she had possessed a very strong sense of justice, and rarely backed down from an argument.
As a junior in high school, one of her teachers had suggested she might look into law school, but busy with yearbook committee and keeping her grades up while studying for SAT’s, Kate had put it off for months. Finally, that summer, she researched law programs and visited a few campuses with friends. Shocked by the close to perfect grades required and number of digits in the tuition cost, Kate decided that law school wouldn’t be an option, and went back home, intent to find another career path. She neglected to meet with an advisor about law school, and decided on an accounting major instead. Math had long been her best subject, and though she didn’t love it, Kate thought that it would have to do. Now, she realized how foolish she had been not to look at other schools, scholarships, financial aid, and advanced high school classes. After four years of school and only two years working in the field, Kate wished every day someone had told her the reality of this career. Week after week she spent sealed away in her office cubical, counting the minutes from nine to five as her eyes blurred from all of those numbers.
Though Kate could only be described as miserable, she had not yet passed into the phase of disliking everyone around her and blaming them for her own problems. She was not that pessimistic. While Kate viewed the job transfer as somewhat of an annoyance in having to uproot herself from the town she’d been living in for almost two years now, she could tell that her colleague, Austin Fuller, looked forward to it with excitement as he marched confidently out of Mr. Hadley’s office. He seemed to be a pleasant enough, ordinary sort of man and so far, she had no reason to worry about traveling with him. Kate and Austin didn’t know each other very well, but having been hired at the same time by Mr. Hadley a few years back, they were familiar acquaintances.
That night, Kate stood in the midst of her cluttered apartment, and stared reluctantly at the many fold-up white cardboard boxes she had purchased from Staples. Her plan was to assemble the boxes herself, and fill them with stuff from each room in an attempt to be organized. Unfortunately, it took her about twenty minutes to figure out how to fold the strangely shaped cardboard into boxes, and by that time she had lost all interest and hope in organization. After throwing the majority of her clothes, books, and other items into those boxes, she called the Chinese take-out place down the block and ordered in. Munching on Vegetable Lo Mein a half-hour later, Kate could only hope that Worchester would prove more interesting than Lancaster, PA.
The week passed by faster than most, and by Saturday morning, Kate was ready to be on the road. Austin had confided in her excitedly at work throughout the week about all the hours he spent labeling plastic bins and cardboard boxes with a Sharpie pen, carefully organizing each room’s contents. Kate had smiled back, trying to look enthusiastic while thinking of all her belongings left on shelves and strewn about the floor. Her apartment had stayed a mess until the night before, when she finally threw it all into identical white cardboard boxes, and packed a suitcase with the necessities for the trip. As Austin pulled up outside her downtown apartment in the rental car and honked twice, Kate feverishly grabbed a few last-minute bags, and ran down the steps to meet him.
“Ready to head towards the most exciting step in our careers yet?”
Jeez, he could be a motivational speaker or something. Ok, deep breath. You can do this. Be happy. Be friendly.
“Good morning Austin. Mind if we stop by the Starbucks down the block? I could really use a mocha latte!”
“Sure, but you should have mentioned you drink coffee; I would’ve brought you some from the pot I made this morning. That way you wouldn’t need to buy one of those ridiculously expensive coffee-shop drinks. What do they cost, like five bucks for a half-decent cup? What a joke!”
At this, Kate could only stare at him incredulously. She faithfully bought a coffee and scone or muffin from Starbucks every morning. Buying her own coffee pot? Making her own coffee and breakfast? The thought had never even occurred to her, a true lover of urban-culture. The silence began to grow uncomfortable.
“The coffee isn’t that expensive, Austin. Have you ever been to Starbucks?”
“Well, I’ve bought bags of Starbucks coffee and it’s not all that good.”
“But have you ever actually been to a Starbucks coffee-shop?”
“Not technically, but…”
“That’s it, we’re going there now. You can drive.”
When they arrived at Starbucks, the doorbell dinged pleasantly to welcome them, and Kate approached the counter with easy confidence, Austin towing uncomfortably behind. The smooth jazz from the overhead speakers and the soft plush chairs were a familiar site for her, but he glanced around nervously, as if expecting someone to put him in handcuffs any second, and convict him of a terrible crime.
“Come here,” Kate urged him with a hint of annoyance in her voice.
“I’ll have a skinny mocha latte, hot, and a banana walnut muffin, please,” she told the teenage girl behind the counter. The girl nodded in acknowledgement, beginning to retrieve the muffin from the bakery,
“And for you, sir?” she asked in Austin’s direction.
“I’ll have… umm…” he mumbled as he quickly scanned the extensive menu of drinks, “a green tea soy latte please?”
“And something to eat?”
“Nothing for me, thanks, that’ll be all.”
This decision produced a look from Kate so befuddled and frustrated all at once, that Austin could hardly keep from laughing, despite the strange situation.
“I thought you looked down on drinkers of expensive coffee-shop beverages,” she said with steely cold eyes.
“And why nothing from the bakery? Watching your girlish figure, are you?” She commented curtly, gesturing towards the over six feet tall and muscled, Austin.
“Well, I figure that since you say this coffee is so much better than my own, I might as well try the fanciest stuff they’ve got. And for your information, I ate a hearty bowl of oatmeal already this morning.”
“No one’s eaten oatmeal or porridge since the nineteenth century, but I suppose you grew the oats yourself, didn’t you?”
“You’re very critical of my eating habits, you know.”
“Because you insulted mine first!”
“Let’s just forget about it, or this is going to be a very long drive.”
As they both silently continued to find fault in each other, the drinks arrived, and Austin took one look at his before turning to glare at Kate.
“What IS that?”
“What you ordered, smarty-pants.”
“But it’s green!”
“You never said you had a color preference before, did you?”
Further glaring and snarky comments ensued as Kate and Austin left the coffee-shop, climbing back into the car and heading down the highway towards their destination. Their bags and some of Austin’s labeled boxes stuffed into the backseat; there was not much room to fit extra items. Kate settled with her muffin on a napkin in her lap, and sipped at her latte for the next few hours, quietly watching the country scenery pass them by. The long and wide fields of wheat reminded her of where she once used to live to the west, and she was happy to see the Amish countryside.
“So, what exactly do you have against bakery items?” Kate asked jokingly to break the tense silence.
“It’s not what I have against bakery items; I like muffins just as much as the next person. But the ones from upscale coffee-shops, especially Starbucks, are just so expensive. It’s crazy. Do you know how much one of those muffins or pastries costs compared to the cost of making a batch of muffins at home? Let’s see, if a muffin from Starbucks is $3.95, and one bag of flour costs about… oh, say five dollars…”
“Austin,” Kate groaned, “do you have to make this a math problem? I mean we crunch numbers for work five days a week, isn’t that enough?”
Austin turned to look at her with astonishment spread plainly across his face.
“Are you saying you work at an accounting firm, but don’t like math?”
“Like math?” Kate fairly gawped at him, “I hate it! I only got the degree and worked for Mr. Hadley because I’m decent at it, and I couldn’t decide anything more creative to do. Time ran out for me to choose a career, and I couldn’t make up my mind. At work, my head spins from all the numbers we deal with, and it’s like agony by the time five o’clock rolls around.”
Austin was quiet for a minute or so, considering her outburst and what this meant. Finally, he asked,
“So what would you rather do? I mean, if you hate math so much what career would you like to pursue?”
Kate glanced down at her knees, out the window, and then at the radio dials, internally debating whether she should bother to share with him this morsel of her past. She considered the effects of giving up her act, and then realized that he was already aware of her discontentment. Kate gazed out the window and sighed, speaking to him, but also considering the pain of voicing it to herself.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer. But law school is expensive, and since I didn’t really believe I could get in, I didn’t bother to apply for scholarships or anything. So now I’m a dreary assistant to an accountant, traveling to a new job I will surely hate, with a coworker who dislikes me, for what reason I don’t really know.”
“I don’t dislike you, we just have… differences. And all I know about you is that you like Starbucks, hate math, and wanted to be a lawyer.”
“Ok, point taken. Now can we please just relax a little?” asked Kate, slightly exasperated, and Austin nodded in agreement.
He kept his eyes glued to the road, carefully driving at exactly 65 mph, while Kate continued to watch the countryside go by in reserve. Kate let her thoughts wander, and daydreamed of a posh city penthouse where she would retire after a long day researching laws and advising top corporate executives. She imagined herself in classy business suits impressing other lawyers with her sharp mind and in lovely evening wear, going out for dinner with her friends and colleagues. How far away that all seemed from her real life in this rented car with a fussy coworker, as she headed toward a new accounting firm.
Kate thought about returning to school, the ivy-covered brick buildings, sprawling green quad, and witty professors peering through their glasses. The afternoon sunlight fading in through tall classroom windows and the dusty library shelves where she could learn anything at all seemed to her the most incredible places on earth. Drifting to sleep as she fantasized, Kate rested her head against the window, and tried to forget how impossible it all was. Shortly after waking from her brief nap, Kate saw the “Welcome to New York” sign, pass by. Yawning lightly, she turned the radio to a classical music station, hoping to restore a little peace.
“Uh, Kate, do you mind if we listen to something else?”
“Not a fan of Brahms?”
“Never mind,” Kate sighed, as she turned the little black knob to a Top 40 station, ignoring the inkling she had that this would turn out to be a less-than enjoyable trip.
“Ugh, this is awful! It’s all synthesizers and drum beats; whoever it is doesn’t even know how to sing! I can’t believe people listen to this stuff.”
“So you’re a hater of coffee-shops, green beverages, and pop music. Anything else you’d like to share with me so I don’t further offend your sensibilities?”
“Everyone has preferences, you know, and it just so happens that we don’t agree on a few things. Not the end of the world. Clearly, we’ll just need to look past our differences, to develop a healthy relationship as coworkers.”
A motivational speaker and a therapist, how charming, thought Kate.
“Alright,” she said, as she turned off the radio and finished off her latte. “Why don’t we try figuring out a few things that we do have in common?”
“Sounds good to me. What’s your favorite color?”
“Favorite color? What is this, third grade? I meant, like, what do you do on the weekends? Do you like sports? What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of books and movies do you like? Etc.”
“Ok, fine. On the weekends, I go to the gym, hang out with friends, watch movies, and sometimes go out to eat. I play pick-up football with buds every Saturday, and I’m a Steeler’s fan. I don’t really like music, but I took piano lessons against my will when I was a kid. I like to read mystery novels, and watch pretty much all movies except romantic comedies.”
“Well, I happen to love romantic comedies, but I’m a girl so that can only be expected. I like to go for walks around the lake, and also spend time with friends on the weekends. I love Chinese food, and music of all kinds except techno. I used to watch football with my dad when I was little; he was a Packers fan, but we never lived in Minnesota so I don’t know why. He was in the military, so we moved around a lot. Mystery novels scare me, but I did used to read Sherlock Holmes in grade school.”
“Yah, I hate techno too. So football, huh? Do you still watch any games?”
“Well, I never completely understood how the game works, so I don’t find it very interesting. I haven’t watched a game since I was maybe, twelve years-old.”
Austin nodded gracelessly, and they stayed quiet for another seemingly endless stretch of time. Around two o’clock, he pulled into an Italian restaurant, and they stopped for lunch. As they sat with menus in hand, Kate decided to attempt conversation once more.
“So you like Italian food, huh?”
“Yah, my mom really loved to cook and we used to have spaghetti every Saturday night. She would make these homemade garlic bread sticks that were so good… you could smell them cooking from the neighbor’s house.”
“Mmm… sounds good. My mom liked to cook too, but she was more into baking. Everyone in book club loved her because she always brought cookies. She loved to read, each time we moved into a new town, she would find a book club within the first week.”
“That must have been tough, not settling down for long.”
“You get used to it… it’s not so bad after a while, and we stayed in each place for at least a few years, sometimes longer. There are worse things.”
As he nodded and returned to scanning the menu, Kate carefully squeezed her lemon into her coke, and sipped at the sweating glass thoughtfully. A few minutes later, after ordering their food, Austin startled her out of daydreaming once more.
“You know, if you really don’t like math, and you hate accounting so much, you should go back to school. People who don’t enjoy their careers are proven to become more unhappy and bitter in later years.”
“Austin,” Kate sighed in exasperation, “do you know how expensive law school really is? How hard it is to get in and keep up with the coursework? I already made my choice, so I’m going to have to live with it. Maybe Worchester won’t be so bad, and I’ll start to like this job a little more. Do you mind if we just forget about it?”
When Austin looked at her this time and replied, “Sure,” there was a hint of compassion in his eyes. Kate could tell that he really felt for her. Perhaps he wasn’t really as awful as she had thought. Once their food arrived, both Kate and Austin ate quietly, twirling spaghetti around their forks and trying not to drip tomato sauce. The meal ended shortly thereafter, and Kate walked back to the car feeling a little more optimistic than before.
Back on the road, she took out a book she was reading from one of her many bags, and sat with her knees pressed to her chest and bare feet resting on the dashboard. This produced a grimace from Austin, but he, for once, held his tongue and didn’t complain. The hot, summer sun warmed the car as they sped down the interstate, and soon the air-conditioning was needed almost full-blast. Kate pulled her hair back into a messy ponytail, and put little headphones on to listen to music, while Austin eventually decided to turn the radio on quietly to ESPN sports talk. Watching the infinite miles of countryside go by, Kate remembered her family’s annual road trip that they used to take when she and her brother were younger. Every year, they’d pick somewhere exciting to visit, pack the beaten-up station wagon with CD’s, books, games, snacks, and cameras, and head towards a new destination. They’d pack sandwiches for lunch, and stop at a burger joint for dinner, and she would complain about the injustice of having to share a motel room with her snoring, kicking brother who kept her from getting a good night’s sleep.
Today, she was on another kind of road trip. She had brought cash, instead of snacks and sandwiches; she’d brought an iPod instead of her favorite CD’s to share. She was far from home, wherever that was, and she didn’t like the feeling of losing a place to associate herself with. Tomorrow, she was going to become a tiny part of Worchester, MA, but for now she was a drifting fragment, that lost puzzle piece that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere yet.
The hours passed by, and they checked in to a Holiday Inn around eight o’clock after stopping for Chinese food which she bought and he detested.
“This food is so strange, and you know it’s not even what people in China really eat.”
Since when are you so worried about cuisine authenticity?
“How are we supposed to know what’s in each dish, if the menu items are in Chinese?”
You could, I don’t know, look at the pictures?
“I don’t know how to use chopsticks, how do I pick this up?”
Notice the silverware on the counter for people as ignorant as yourself.
“This tea is practically boiling! What, are they trying to burn our mouths?”
If you’d stop being such a blowhard, and use all that air to cool down your tea, I think the whole restaurant would appreciate it.
By the time she checked in to her tiny, single hotel room, Kate was enormously grateful for the lack of complaining, and talking of all kinds. She peacefully showered off, slipped into pajamas, and under the crisp white covers of her twin bed. Listening to the sound of rain droplets on the old hotel air conditioner, Kate reflected on her plans for the future. Austin was right, being an accountant when she hated math was a bizarre idea indeed. She was far too young to be feeling as weary and dismal as she was. As she thought about how contained and awful it was in her little cubicle, Kate realized that she couldn’t subject herself to that for the rest of her life. Maybe Austin was destined for success in Worchester, but she, Kate Smithson, was destined for misery. Far too many times, she had taken the sensible, practical, recommended route, yet her life right now did not reflect a lovely pattern of success and happiness. This time, at a new set of crossroads, she was going to do something unexpected, out of the ordinary, and what would really make her happy for the first time in a long time. With that decision made, Kate let her mind wander and soon fell asleep, exhausted from the day of too-much companionship she had just endured.
Over the hotel’s complimentary continental breakfast, Kate contemplated telling Austin about her revelation, but she began to doubt that it was the right choice not to continue to Worchester. Applying to law school meant needing money, and needing time, two things she didn’t have, while accounting gave her a steady income on which to live comfortably enough. As she chewed on the orange slices she had peeled, Kate looked across the table at Austin, happily consuming his bacon and eggs, with a fresh new face, ready to make a good impression. He was excited for this day. She should be excited to. It was a great opportunity, a good step in their careers. And so, she bottled up those unrealistic dreams for a while longer, and got back into the rented sedan, this time in the driver’s seat, heading towards the future.
A few minutes after pulling out of the hotel, Austin began to comment on her driving.
“You know, the proper way to hold the wheel is with your hands at ten and two o’clock, not nine and three. It gives you better control over the car when you turn.”
“I know how to drive, Austin.”
“I know, I’m just saying, that’s the safest way. You don’t want to get us in an accident or anything.”
“This may shock you,” she said turning her head to face him a moment, “but I’ve had my license for over eight years and I don’t need you to tell me how to—”
“LOOK OUT!!!” yelled Austin, as a pick-up truck pulled out unexpectedly into traffic, causing Kate to scream and swerve crazily around it. Thankfully, they narrowly missed making contact with the truck, and continued down the highway unharmed. Breathing heavily, both Kate and Austin were silent for a long time, evaluating in their own ways the near-death experience.
Not an hour later, the two comrades were back at it again.
“You know,” said Austin, “I find chewing gum really annoying. The noise just grosses me out. Would you mind throwing out your gum?”
“Oh, so I have to sacrifice fresh breath because you don’t like the sound? How is that fair? What if I said, your breathing is a little too heavy for my liking, would you mind holding your breath while we’re in the car together?” Kate replied in an aggravated and somewhat caustic tone.
“Fresh breath and breathing are not equally important things.”
“Oh. My. Gosh. I was exaggerating! Did you not detect that obvious sarcasm?”
And so it continued, with attempts at conversation, followed by arguments, followed by silence, and then the pattern beginning again. Sometime in the early afternoon, Kate pulled over at a pizza restaurant, and suggested they grab something to eat. They were due to arrive at the new accounting firm branch within the next hour or two, and both were becoming nervous along with irritated.
As she sat down on the cracked, red leather stuffed bench, after ordering a slice of pepperoni, Kate noticed a group of graduate students, around her age, sitting at a corner booth. They were happily munching on slices of pizza, while studying and talking animatedly, along with smiling most of the entire time. Their books were splayed across the table, and glasses of root beer were scattered amongst them. She observed the students smiling, laughing, reading, discussing the material, and she longed to know what they were learning. Kate felt as though she were seeing a glimpse into the life she wished she could have, and she remembered her lovely ideas from the night before. The way she was headed now, she wouldn’t get a chance to pour over and study beautiful, rich books again. She would move up a few steps eventually, in the hierarchy of job positions, but not very far. One day, Austin would probably be her boss, and could easily turn out just like Mr. Hadley: not caring a bit about the lives of his employees. As she looked at the happy students, and glanced at the insufferable man she was forced to travel with, Kate stood up, feeling the old leather rip off of her sweaty thighs, and she walked out the door.
Fifteen minutes later, Austin found her outside, unloading her bags from the car.
“Where’ve you been? The pizza’s getting cold inside.”
“Austin,” Kate said, turning to look at him directly in the eyes, “you were right. I hate math, and I hate accounting. I’ll never be happy this way, so I’m not going to Worchester with you. I’m going to take a bus back to Lancaster, and see if I can get my apartment back before the moving truck heads this way. I’m going to get a job waiting on tables or something else to pay the bills, and I’m going to apply to law school. Thank you, for helping me realize this isn’t going to work out. I hope Worchester is everything you hoped it would be.”
“Wait, you’re really leaving? Like, now? But we’re almost there! And they’re expecting two assistants.” Austin replied, flabbergasted with this sudden change in plans.
“Well they’re going to get one very enthusiastic assistant instead because I need to do this. I’m not going to keep torturing myself when I could be doing something I’ve always wanted to.”
“Kate, when I said you should consider going back to school if you weren’t happy with this job, I meant to consider it and maybe apply in a couple of years. I didn’t mean just leave!”
“Good luck in Worchester, Austin,” Kate said as the bus pulled up across the street.
Austin sighed in resignation, and then showed a hint of a smile. She could tell that he was realizing that this would be for the best. “Good luck, Kate. I hope things work out for you.”
With that, Kate decisively raised her chin a bit, looked both ways, and crossed the road.