To those who know him – and he’d be the first to admit that there aren’t many who do – Wilander Powers is one odd duck. And yet, Christine, over time, had become more and more fascinated by him.
Wilander would arrive every Wednesday night at six and take the furthest booth on the left hand side, back by the wall-sized mirror, which created the illusion that the relatively small interior was at least double in size.
If the booth was unavailable, like it was tonight, he would wait, in the neon lit vestibule by the register with the back of his head pressed against the fish-tank, until it was ready. Schmaltzy erhu music, brittle and lilting, floated through the speakers in the top corners of the place. Wilander sat with a book in hand. He was exceedingly overweight, but made it worse by dressing in a dense layering of flannel shirts and rain slickers. He had an earring in one ear and a bleached tipped square-do hairstyle which he would constantly poke fun at, referring to it as “spillover from his nineties days.” Though he would never change it. He also tucked his sweatpants into his boots, “not because he was a nerd or anything,” but “because it was practical, because it kept the rain out.”
He was also devastatingly bright, almost exhaustively so – though he’d barely made it through high school, Wilander was an avid reader and was, in particular, quite taken with the mid twentieth century post-structuralists. He was known to highjack even the most banal small-talk into unnecessary master’s thesis level digressions: “the hetero-normative structures of power inherent in the ordering of Chinese food menu items,” or how the “fortune cookie perfectly exemplifies Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of a body without organs,” and so on.
Wilander was also “an accomplished,” though self-proclaimed, community activist, and was extraordinarily proud of his achievement in fighting for the negotiation of lowered speed-bumps around the Wellesley area. As Christine peaked out from the kitchen, she saw him wearing a screen-printed t-shirt carrying the slogan; “Let’s Bump the Bumps!”
Christine’s perma-scowling mother, Mei, had shoo’d him away when he’d come by the restaurant for the first time several months back, thinking he was a vagrant. An incident to which Wilander would coyly use as leverage in every discussion of payment for his meals from then on out.
Wilander was the sort of guy who would laugh through his nose while reading books at his table. A proud snob. He was also a dreadfully loud chewer. The food seemed to stick and smack and gurgle as he gnashed his crispy duck, Szezchuan beef, or Moo Goo Gai Pan. His lips and jaw would pop with every crunch of fried crab rangoon. He would slurp down the remaining broth of wonton soup, or sigh “ahhh” after an extended sip of oolong tea.
On this night, Christine’s father had found a circular pill-calendar, which had fallen out of her backpack, and was holding it as she walked into the kitchen with plates on her arm.
“Very disappointed,” he kept saying under his breath. “How much is this costing us?”
Her mother walked in through the doors and, upon seeing Christine, slapped her across the face. “I not raise whore!” shouted her mother.
Christine choked, and took off into the bathroom to cry it out.
After composing herself, Christine walked over to the vestibule and nodded to Wilander, she walked him over to his usual table.
“It’s nice to see you again,” she said, with a forced smile. He lit up. Wilander was always pleasant around Christine. He could be very charming when she would wait his table. He would compliment her “lovely wrists,” or her “regal posture” posture as she held the menus. She enjoyed his anger and his eccentricities, and although he could put-off some by his prickly demeanor, he was kind to Christine and she was grateful. She was intrigued by how mysterious he was, how much energy he would spend in his own head, while having a distorted sense of the real world around him. She was a lonely girl, pushed into a studious social purgatory her senior year of high school by her well intentioned, but overbearing first-generation parents - which did not get any better once she started at MassBay - and the attention was exciting.
She didn’t understand how, but even found herself attracted to him merely by how unattractive he was to everyone else. It was a secret, and something that only she could feel. She also loved how he his very existence brought anger her parents. It was common that she would walk back into the kitchen and hear her mother and father arguing over how to get rid of him, since they both felt he was hurting their business.
“Are you okay?” asked Wilander, noticing the redness of her eyes, the puffiness of her cheeks. She ignored his query.
Christine went back into the kitchen where her mother and father stood. “I just wanted to be safe,” she said, with tears budding at the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry if that made you mad. I just didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t think you’d understand. Which you obviously don’t.”
“You’re a dirty whore and slut daughter,” said her mother. Christine grabbed a tray of food and stormed out.
As she brought over a steaming basket of pork dumplings to Wilander’s table, she slid into the booth across from him to his surprise.
“I want you to take me away,” she said.
“I don’t know what you mean?” said Wilander, nearly expelling his tea.
“I need to get out of here.”
Her eyes did not break from his. Wilander beamed, but remained cautious. He felt too ugly for this thin, and pretty, young girl sitting across from him. He felt too ugly and too awkward. Nobody was ever interested in him. If they were, he’d found, they always had an ulterior motive. Normally, to humiliate him in some way.
What did she really want with him?
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“I don’t care. Let’s drive north and get as far away as possible.”
“I don’t know. I have a lot to do.”
“Like what do you have to do? Where do you work?”
“I’m between jobs.”
“Okay? So what’s the hold up?”
“I’ll pay for gas.”
“The city needs my help.”
“The city can wait.”
“There are three new speed-bumps put in this month that aren’t up to the new code.”
“Forget the speed-bumps. Let’s go.” Christine saw the angered face of her mother through the mirror. “Let’s go right now. I’m absolutely serious.”
“Now. Pay, and go out to your car. Wait inside, and I’ll run out and we can leave.”
“I don’t think this is such a good idea.”
“Just do it.”
Christine sat up and walked over in through to the kitchen.
Wilander followed her directions and sat idly in the car with the heat on, and waited until about fifteen minutes had passed and he saw her shoot out of the round entrance of the restaurant with a bag slung over her shoulder. She was followed by her angular parents shouting in Chinese.
She jumped in. “Go!”
Wilander jammed his heavy foot onto the pedal, but the car screeched forward instead of back. He and Christine were yanked forward against their seat-belts. His car hit the wall of the restaurant and smashed through a crumbling gash in the exterior wall. A panda that had been painted onto it, now decapitated. Christine and Wilander looked at each other as her parents ran forward, pounding on the glass windows with their palms.
“Oh my god! Are you okay? I’m so sorry!” he said.
“Just go! GO! Get out of here!”
Wilander screeched back in reverse, and they were out of the parking lot and onto the road. Christine threw her head around and watched the restaurant, her parents, everything, disappear into the night.
She yelled out, celebratory. Wilander remained silent and fearful. He didn’t know what was going to happen next, but he didn’t dare slow down.
That night while driving, Wilander looked down at the sleeping Christine in his passenger seat, briefly illuminated by oncoming headlights. She was snoring lightly, almost purring, and for the first time for as long as he could remember he felt alive and awake. He was also confused and still cautious of her intentions. He still felt unworthy, but that thought quickly faded as she sleepily grabbed at his hand and took it into hers.
“I don’t know why, but I like you. I don’t know anything about you.”
“But why? I’m repulsive and introverted and out of shape. What would you see in someone like me?”
“You’re real.” He took it in, but didn’t know what to make of it. “But you need some self-confidence, guy.”
He looked back over and her eyes were fluttering closed.
Later, they stopped at a gas station just inside the Maine state line. It was still dark outside and Wilander and Christine walked into the convenient mart. They caught the clerk’s gaze which looked over the mismatched duo He felt a sense of pride being seen with her. Nobody ever looked twice in his direction. Nobody ever cared. This feeling he felt was exhilarating. Even though the boundaries of their new found relationship were still in genesis, he felt, briefly and wonderfully, capable of anything.
On a grainy television, back behind the counter, Wilander saw footage of a young man – dressed as Groucho Marx – being lifted to safety in the arms of a firefighter from the wreckage of a movie studio. A studio which had mostly collapsed after an earthquake hit the West Coast. The boy was injured, but okay.
Christine tip-toed through the bathroom, around little spills of questionable water. She looked at herself in the mirror. She couldn’t believe what she was doing. Ever since leaving Wellesley she’d felt as though she weren’t inside her body, as if she was watching herself from outside with the fear and delight of a feeling akin to schadenfreude. Yet, she was scared because the euphoric rush of displacement was already beginning to leave. She washed her face and then left.
By morning they were on the beach in Eastern Maine, watching the sun rise over the ocean.
“I’ve always liked you Christine,” said Wilander. “Why do you think I’ve been coming to your restaurant every week? It’s definitely not for the food,” he said, looking over at the shoeless girl hopping around on the sand. She looked back over at him and smirked.
They’d reached the end of the United States, but it wasn’t the answer that they’d been expecting. Their problem remained as ever-present as the night before. Together they moved in and held each on to each other’s hands, as if to keep from falling, with their bare feet digging into the cold sand.
They watched the glowing orb of sun over the water, waiting for the police, or her parents, to finally catch up to them.
Postcard: Found at the Antique Warehouse Mall in Memphis, TN in October 2011.