In Search of a Cowboy
“Where are you from?”
I looked up. My little sister, mother, and I were were eating at this small Hawaiian shop on the outskirts of our town. Locals can easily tell that we aren’t ”from St. George,” although we kind of are. But they never ask where we are from even if they don’t know. They only stare—or if anything—ask if we are LDS. Which we aren’t. We’re too bronze for Utah. Too active on Sundays for Utah.
The direct question from the old man sitting with his wife by the window told me these two were not locals.
“Here,” my mother smiled.
“No you’re not,” he replied.
“I’m from South Korean,” my mother said.
“I’m going to high school here,” my little sister said.
“—and I flew in from Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago,” I added.
“You live in Brooklyn?”
“You live here?”
“We’ve got ourselves a vagabond,” the man chuckled to his wife. She smiled politely. She seemed used to her husband talking to strangers. She sliced a fresh-picked beet in half on her plate and chewed slowly with a smile.
“We’re from Colorado. Kind of. We lived in Wyoming too for some time. We’re here just for the month. It’s a beautiful town.”
“Yeah. It is.”
“For a month.” The man winked at me.
“What do you do?” My mother dove right into the big questions. I’m still not sure if it’s just how she is or really comes down to her being South Korean (which is her excuse).
“I’m a professor.”
My mother—or just all South Koreans—have respect for scholars.
“Okay! Okay. We found a professor,” my mother laughed awkwardly. “Tell us the secret to life. Tell us now!”
My little sister looked at me. I returned her gaze and we laughed together on the inside. Years ago we would have been embarrassed. Today, we just adored watching our mother fearlessly ask questions when the opportunity with a stranger in a Hawaiian cafe presented itself.
“I always tell my students, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ And that’s the truth.”
My mother went back and forth with him on what he meant for a couple of minutes until she fully understood the quote from Confucius. The old man was happy to explain. It was nice to see someone sitting by the window handing out advice that I knew he was living by as well. That was rare. It was special. And my respect for him suddenly started to overflow.
Suddenly, I surprised myself by speaking up. “Okay. So that’s the secret to life. What’s the secret to love?”
I heard my own words and my sister looked at me with a funny smile on her face. I shrugged back at her: I guess I am my mother’s daughter. Like my mother, I’ve got this big heart oozing of curiosity; we just can’t help it. Plus, who doesn’t want to hear more about love from a mysterious and jolly man in a random cafe?
His eyes lit up and he started to speak. His wife even chimed in a few times with helpful points. They spoke to us like old friends inside the little white painted house of a restaurant. Together they gave me an answer that made me laugh and secretly want to cry later when I was alone. Still, my hope in all things romance was suddenly restored. They made me excited for the future. I can’t say exactly what he told me. I think it’s key that I keep it to myself, that my sister keeps it to herself, that my mother keeps it to herself. It’s one of those things that can’t really be explained anyway. It’s one of those things that only has magic if it stays exactly where it was born. It’s one of those things that has to happen to you on your own sunny day on the outskirts of town after getting a haircut while feeling the ends of your chestnut and golden hair tickle the rosy part of your cheeks.
All I can say is that at the end of the meal, the woman put her hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry. The man stood up, kissed me on the cheek, shook my hand with one of the firmest shakes I’ve ever held, and whispered, “Go on now, find yourself a cowboy.”
And I walked out the door, through a garden of green onions, Swiss chard, and beets, and into my car that my mother, sister, and I rode with the windows down despite the unusual chill on an April day in Utah.