The restaurant bloomed with conversation, laughter and aromas of foods world-renowned. From tables to tables men and women confined by western vests and crisp shirts and formalities of service offered refills of tea paired with polite, forced smiles to contrast with the genuine ones of their customers. I don’t blame them, though, since they had no reason to smile through labor. Besides, I, too, donned the mask of cordiality.
The disaster took off later than I expected: the four of us had already been seated, and my sister has yet to wince too audibly at the way my father emptied the teacup with an ambition that he has never applied to business or relationships. When we browsed through the menu with the expected glee of immigrants returning to the warm waters of their home country, surrounded by authentic dim sum from Ding Tai Fung, my father glared through his nostrils at the menu he grabbed from mom.
He set the book flat on the table and pointed repeated at an item with his middle finger, and my sister arched an eyebrow: this was no expected behavior of a doctor, much less a father, “What about it? Use your tongue.” I jabbed at her ribs with my elbow, and she flinched and marked the order sheet with a tally.
As we waited for food, my sister and I continued marveling at the mind-blowing plot of a video game while mom marveled at her two daughters’ endless, giddy chatter, her chin rested upon her hands cracked with house chores and her petite frame squeezed against the wall of the booth. He occupied about 80% of the seat, most of which were just his arms colonizing the table.
We moved up from the video game to something I was more interested in, “He message me yesterday, and –”
“– Last time when I came here, I was with Pastor Yen,” Oh, here we go again. “We ordered…”
…A beef noodle soup and a basket of pork dumplings. Each. I made a mental tally upon a wall of marks, more maimed than the prison walls in cartoons or mangas. The same story, again. The same lisp and awkward pauses for thoughts. The same jokes.
And, if we don’t laugh, he would repeat the tantrum: the second we get home he would snap at my mother once they are alone. “You guys always exclude me.” “You guys don’t care about me.” “You guys are ungrateful money suckers.”
I have many walls of tallies, yet I never wanted to use them.
So I laughed, swallowed the bitterness of sarcasm with a gulp of tea and laughed. Asked questions like the studious pupil I strove to be. Listened and nodded and attempted to catch those expressionless eyes dulled by stubborn ignorance and ignorant stubbornness.
Bless the Lord, the food came.
Bamboo baskets veiled by water vapor followed by wontons stirred in spicy sauces topped with glimmers of dark green scallions, all harbingers the object whose picture my father assaulted with his relentless middle-finger tapping, an even mound mounted with its somber, white plate.
Out of politeness my mother complimented, “That looks delicious” as the plate of fried rice was gestured to be set in front of my father.
“Past Yen’s favorite dish,” He said, a spoon raised, prepared to unearth the bone white bottom of the plate.
“Fried rice is my favorite, too,” I blurted out.
Except I wouldn’t order it here in a restaurant. Fried rice belongs to the sanctity of home, spread out on a plain dish or packed into a bento, not mounted in a mound that Emily Dickinson would write about.
“Would you want to try…” My mother started, but saw that he’s already wolfed down half of the small hill, now crumbling with each hungry slurp.
“I thought we would order things to share…” My sister got another jab from me and returned a “Hey!”
Throughout this conversation my father did not pause in his thorough vacuuming of the plate.
Ha, for this is the only time he would ever deign to vacuum.
It was only when he was done that he sat back, belched, and scratched at his belly.
“Was that…good?” I ventured conversation.
Of course, he didn’t hear. He never hears. Instead, he draughted my mother’s tea cup despite her protest and began, “You know, last time we were here, Pastor Yen said…”
I stabbed the pork dumpling on my plate and watched it weep in my stead.