|This is Part 2 of 3. Read Part 1 here.|
I arrived early and found parking not too far away from Class 302, located in a strip mall that could appropriately be considered to “cater to Asians.” More specifically, to Chinese people. A small corner joint, Class 302 sat between a 99 Ranch Market – the United States’ leading Chinese grocer now dying a slow death at the hands of Korean grocer H Mart – and another small Chinese restaurant that specialized in Cantonese-style barbecue. In an hour or so, the parking lot would become a sea of black, grey and silver Camry’s, Accords, Civics, and Odysseys. An Altima here, a Corolla there. My Prius here. At night the bad, ne’er do well rich kids would come out to smoke and karaoke in their Bimmers, Benzes and Lexuses.
As Steve and I had arranged for an earlier dinner, the café- I couldn’t really bring myself to call it a restaurant – was quite empty and, it seemed to me, rather dim, as though the proprietor didn’t think enough patrons were present to warrant turning on all the lights. I felt like I was making a quick food pit stop before getting groceries with my parents instead of going on my first date ever. My first thought was, Thank God I did not wear heels. That would have been dumb. My second thought was, I could be barefoot and I’d still be overdressed.
Befitting its name, Class 302 was done up to look like an old fashioned Taiwanese classroom, with a chalkboard menu, wooden tables and low chairs that together were meant to look like student desk sets. Two high school-aged girls wearing fake Taiwanese school uniforms chatted quietly behind the cash register. There was no hostess. One of them waved for me to sit wherever, so I took a seat, which I found rather low, next to the window so I could see when Steve was walking up.
My third thought was, “This fool is late.” (So there was a time in my life when I bothered to show up five minutes early for dates. Thanks to OkCupid, I got over that real fast, unfortunately for Tom.)
I waited a few minutes more, wondering if I should order a drink first – there was no alcohol on the menu, which was fine since at the time I still didn’t really drink on dates but everything else was too sugary.
I had just put in my order for water when a stocky Asian guy around my age walked past the window. He wore a neon multi-colored zip up hoodie that looked like he’d gotten it from Active, a shop that specialized in skater and surf clothes, and jeans that were ripped at the heels from being dragged. He wore blinding white Etnies,which made me suspect the hoodie was from Active and also, that he might think these were his “nice” shoes. But where in the world was there an Active – whose target clientele seemed to me the sun-kissed blonde boys of my hometown – in Rowland Heights which was 50 percent Chinese? I was lost deep in thought, trying to think of the surrounding malls which would carry an Active store when the guy came to the side of the window, faced the parking lot with a searching look, took out his phone and called….me.
“Betty? It’s Steve. Are you here?”
“I’m inside,” I said, my voice deeper than I intended. I hadn’t yet adjusted it. I tapped on the window and Asian Skater Dude/My First Date turned, gave me a dull look of recognition and headed inside.
Et voilà! Now, in the dim interior of Class 302 he stood before me in all his odd, colorful skater-dude, much beefier and with a slight muffin-top un-glory. My fifth thought materialized as though it were being written by an invisible, deadpan hand on one of the chalkboards behind him:
“Well, this is a disappointment.”
While a handful of disappointing future dates awaited me, I already felt those future guys could thank Steve for setting the bar real low. Right away I saw that he was guilty of posting photos at least six months old and many beers ago and hot dogs ago. Now up close he seemed not so much “stocky” as puffy…as though he’d spent the week floating in the river. Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. But the lanky fellow I had first glimpsed online was nowhere to be seen. 5’10 and lanky is very different from 5’10 and puffy. 5’10 and puffy as a guy means you look 5’8. Also, he now wore glasses, a mild surprise given that not one of the four or five photos he’d posted online showed he owned such. Which is not to say I discriminate against people who don’t have perfect vision – but c’mon. At least comb your damn hair. Steve looked as though he’d just rolled out of bed.
He gave me an awkward one-warmed hug, and, perhaps I could have done a better job hiding my disappointment said, “I’m late.”
“Traffic?” I said, figuring coming from Alhambra was worse than coming from Orange County, since these northern freeways were older.
“No, I’m staying with my mom this week so I’m like right down the street.” Oh god he did just roll right out of bed.
I raised an eyebrow. Okay…so you made me drive to you. I didn’t have to have tons of dating experience to know that this was not a gentlemanly thing to do.
“Yeah,” he said, as though I was nodding along in agreement, “My apartment is a lot further from my work so I just stay with my mom during the week. She cooks and stuff. I’m trying to find a new job anyway and interviewing around here. I hate my job.”
He chuckled. I tuned out. I don’t remember the meat of the conversation after that, just that I sat there with a bland, friendly smile and nodded. Asked the occasional question. But I remember my body language: legs and arms crossed, leaning away from him.
We ordered four things – a stinky tofu which wasn’t quite stinky enough – and some stir fried spinach and maybe one of those minced pork things, but it wasn’t a a ton of food. I didn’t know what the protocol was. Should I just nod and say, “Anything’s fine with me?” Or should I take charge and wave the pre-teen servers over with the same kind of authority my dad did in Chinese restaurants? “Okay fool, this is enough food for a mini-me. Can we double everything?” It didn’t matter because I nodded “Yeah that sounds great,” and he ordered and the dishes arrived with lightning speed as they do in what are essentially Chinese fast food restaurants. The whole time I thought, “This is like eating in the back alley of my house in Taipei. Except I’d much rather be eating in the back alley of my house in Taipei.”
I took the “I don’t eat much” route which afflicts millions of girls on first dates everywhere, and ate a bit of everything.
“You don’t eat much,” he said.
“You don’t order much,” I thought.
I must have looked like I was having an alright time though -mistake number two – because Steve didn’t want the date to end.
“Well, that didn’t take very long,” he said, when the plates were empty.
I thought about my dad’s warning and glanced down at my watch. We’d sat for exactly twenty minutes. Ate for about ten.
“You wanna walk around 99 Ranch after this?”
All the expressions of incredulity I had been practicing my whole life should have been used at that point, but instead I thought since it was my first date ever, might as well make a story out of it.
“Sure,” I said, wondering if I needed to go home after this and practice not looking so warm and inviting and kind.
One of the “school girls” brought the check – cash only. Without even pausing to think whom she should place it in front, she set it firmly down on my side, at my arm, clear across the table from Steve. As though for emphasis, she gave me a gracious smile and said thank you.
“That’s odd,” I thought. I looked at it. I looked at Steve. Steve looked at me.
It dawned on me. That moment when you realize the young server thought I was Steve’s older sister. Or aunt. Or [insert older more mature matriarchal figure here]. There was about as much chemistry in the air between as an English classroom. Also, I was dressed about twenty years older than Steve’s middle-school Billabong outfit.
I moved my arm to pick up the tab. Very very very slowly, like a slug going backwards, Steve reached for it.
“I’ll get it,” he said.
“Um…” I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I offer to split it? I didn’t see the number but it couldn’t have been very much since we ordered four small plates and no drinks, two of which cost $2.50. The thought of splitting a check that was less than $20 on a date seemed ludicrous to me. I wasn’t high maintenance but I also wasn’t no maintenance and I hoped to God Steve wasn’t both slovenly and a cheap. But I wouldn’t have been surprised. He was already a lazy, tardy dumb ass who didn’t know how to make a good first impression.
I got that dates cost money and it all adds up, but the guy had already made me drive thirty minutes for a 20-minute takeout meal. He would have made a better impression if he brought it as takeout to a ghetto park and called it a picnic.
“Seriously let me get this one,” he said, as my hand was still on the bill. As though in a trance, I handed it to him. He took out a velcro wallet – velcro! – and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill – the only Jackson in a billfold full of Lincolns and Washintons and putting it down on the tray, pushed it towards the edge of the table.
“I get this one,” he said, smiling as though he’d paid off my student loans, “So you can get the next one.”