We have ordered a take-out dinner from the Chinese restaurant.
Maybe it is chicken chow mein with crispy noodles, vegetable fried rice, crab Rangoon, egg rolls; we always order some combination of these four things.
The individual little boxes and parcels of hot, aromatic food snuggle into that sturdy brown bag with the cardboard floor like pieces to a puzzle. Before it is stapled shut along with the bill, two or three random fortune cookies are placed on the top, a charming little "thank you," and free.
I always eat the fortune cookie first, and I always read the fortune. My husband doesn't really care about them - neither the cookie nor the fortune.
But this night, after his cookie has been sitting on the kitchen shelf for a while, he walks into the bedroom where I am reading, and tosses it onto his bedside table, where it sits again for another while.
I look up when I hear him snap open the cellophane pouch that holds the cookie. He breaks the crispy spine, releasing the little rectangular slip of white paper on which his fortune is printed, then tosses the cookie aside.
As he reads it, I see a look of surprise on his face; he is pleased, and says, "Hey! Write this down, will you?"
What are the chances? It might have been the next guy's fortune, or the fortune of the person before me in the line of people picking up their orders. But no, it is his fortune, because he opened it. That's how it is with fortunes.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines fortune as: "A hypothetical, often personified force or power that favorably or unfavorably governs the events of one's life." The word is often capitalized, suggesting to me its power over those who chose to accept it as personal.
My fortune I had already cast aside, dismissing it as frivolous and mundane (although I did find a good shirt at Marshalls the next day when I wasn't even looking). It was: "You will have some new clothes." Even the verb didn't translate smoothly.
But my husband's fortune was succinct, brilliant, and rife with Oriental wisdom. It was a keeper. It did what a good fortune should do. It made one think; gave one courage, strength, a new way of approaching an old problem. It was a zen-like message.
There had been many occasions when he'd just left his fortune cookie unopened for days, left it trapped inside that cellophane pouch. Sometimes, he would give a thumbs-up to a grandchild who was passing through and wanted it, one who would throw away the fortune inside, unread, just because it got in the way of eating the cookie.
As I am rooting around on the floor for my bedside journal amidst a pile of newspapers to record the words of his momentously wise and insightful fortune, the one that might just as easily have been mine, he makes a suggestion.
"Maybe you want to think about those words for a while, dig really deep and try applying them to your life." I know what he's talking about. And I see that he is doing the same for himself.
"But it's your fortune," I say. I know that the words contained in fortune cookies are meant for personal interpretation.
Often they are silly, disposable words. But this cookie's words are provocative, wise, probing, and above all, challenging.
We both think about them for days. I copy the fortune in several places. I read it aloud, and to my self, and aloud again:
"Your dreams will be bigger than your fears."
I interpret it differently than my husband had hoped, but our results are both valid, and we accept that. It's a challenge, but we do.
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.