A game for one sparks a friendship for two

With a three-hour layover in the Tokyo airport, I pulled a deck of cards from my carry-on bag, slid down onto the carpeted floor, and laid out seven stacks for a game of solitaire.

I counted out three more cards, turned over the top one, and placed a five of diamonds onto a six of clubs. From the corner of my eye I noticed a young woman move closer to watch.

"What is this game?" she asked.

"Solitaire," I replied, smiling.

Rhythmically, I counted and turned cards with an ease that comes from years of practice. I placed a black eight on a red nine as she slid down onto the floor to join me. Counting, turning, counting, turning, I explained that it was a game I had learned as a child. Many Americans had.

As the young woman watched, she offered me a piece of taffy from a large plastic bag she was holding. The candy was her favorite, she told me, something she'd loved since she was a little girl growing up in China.

I worked my way through the stack of cards in my hand, and then picked up the pile that was now on the carpet and began to count through them again. When it was clear that there were no more plays to be made, I gathered up all the cards and began to shuffle them.

"Why did you stop?" she asked, looking surprised.

I explained that there were no more plays; not every game of solitaire can be resolved.

I shuffled and laid out the seven stacks to begin a new game. "Here, your turn," I said, handing her the remaining deck.

Tentatively, my new acquaintance counted out three cards and turned over the top one. They were a bit awkward in her hands, but she soon became comfortable with the movements. Clearly she had been watching me closely.

Remembering how my grandmother had patiently allowed me to struggle with a game when I was first learning, I sat quietly as she examined the cards and then placed a red three on top of a black four. Her whole face brightened as she realized she'd done it correctly, and she reached into her bag of candy and retrieved a piece for each of us.

She explained that she had packed a lot of the taffy. She was moving to New York to accept a new job and knew that she wouldn't be able to find it there. It was one of the things she was going to miss. She was excited about this new adventure, though - more excited than nervous.

I explained that I live in New York and was on my way home. I had just visited China for the first time.

My trip fulfilled a promise I had made to myself when I was in elementary school, a promise made at a time when Americans were forbidden to visit China.

It was also a promise made about the same time I was learning to play this game of solitaire.

"What did you think of China?" she asked, her eyes sparkling.

"It was wonderful," I said with a sigh. "Even better than I had hoped. It was hard to leave."

Silently, she nodded her head in agreement.

The two of us turned back to our card game. I taught my new acquaintance the strategies my grandmother had taught me. She shared her candy. We completed a few games but, as any solitaire player knows, many we could not.

The airport intercom interrupted our game, announcing that it was time to board our flight. I gathered up the cards one last time and slid them into the box.

"Here, these are for you," I said, handing her the box.

"Thank you," she replied with a bright smile. "What was the name of this game?

"Solitaire," I answered.

What a misnomer.

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