J. Wilgus Eberly

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I once accused my father-in-law of harboring pandas. Not to his face, mind you. I was in the car with my wife, on the way to visit her parents when I told her that her dad’s insurance career was just a front for a massive panda smuggling operation.

During our visit, he poked his head in the living room to ask us an improbable, uncanny question. “Do either of you know how fast bamboo grows?” I shot a wide-eyed look at my wife. She tried futilely to hold back a laugh.

On the drive home we passed a Panda Express and she punched me in the arm. I couldn’t complain. I deserved it. Such are the complexities of marital justice.

Panda Express is not the best Asian food in Denton. Let’s get that out of the way now. It’s not the place for a rich panang curry or a complex tom kha soup. It’s not authentic. It is not local. And there, hiding in plain sight, is the secret to enjoying it.

The Panda Express on Loop 288 lacks distinction. It’s set just off the highway and ringed with big box stores. There is nothing uniquely Denton about it. In fact, it could be found just about anywhere in America. And isn’t there something compelling about anonymity? Wouldn’t you like to slip on a cloak of invisibility, just for a minute? To escape the expectations and obligations of adulthood? To roam about like a business traveler, unknown to everyone you see?

Go to Panda Express alone. To enjoy the mild pangs of loneliness, you’ll need to keep your own company. Bringing your friend, your child, or your service animal will break the spell before it is cast.

Eat in. It will be tempting to get your food to go. You’ll want to laze on your couch with the styrofoam dish balanced on your belly. That would be comfortable and easy. But that ease would be too costly. You’d miss out on the chance to enjoy your own anonymity.

Keep your phone in your pocket. In fact, leave it in the car. Otherwise you’ll have the illusion of connectedness. You’ll distract yourself just enough to miss out on your solitude. Instead of looking at a screen, try staring into the middle distance. Revel in the fact that no one needs you at this minute.

Pick a cold, overcast day. A grey and drizzly sky is the perfect backdrop for introspection. After all, there’s a reason that Seattle produces such good, moody music. As a bonus, your jacket will act as a bit of armor on your existential quest.

Finally, get the chow mein noodles. Those little dudes are delicious.

The experiment will be over the moment you leave Panda Express. You’ll rush back to your car to check your phone, hoping that someone has messaged you during your long sabbatical. You’ll go back to work, your classes, or your family. And as you do, you’ll have the memory that, for a brief lunch hour, you could have been someone else. An insurance executive, for instance, or a panda smuggler.