In high school my friend Victor once told me about running into a classmate during his summer vacation. In Belgium. In a chocolate shop.
“It wasn’t even famous or on a main street,” he said, “but we walked in and there he was, with his family. We just sort of stared at each other and then said, ‘Hey…’ It was so random.”
I don’t even talk to Victor anymore, but I still go around telling that story because it amazes me, the singular randomness of the universe. Years later, even considering my own random encounters – bumping into old high school classmates in my hometown Target and Trader Joe’s; sitting across from a college acquaintance on the New York subway, and once, unbelievably, crashing straight into a college friend during rush hour in Shanghai’s People’s Square metro station – Victor’s Belgian shop run-in still took top prize. After all, what were the chances that two guys from the same small town in Southern California would end up at a dinky Belgian chocolate shop at the exact same time? Plus, the probability of my encounters had been much higher: my acquaintance had moved to New York and the friend had originally been from Shanghai.
I thought of Victor’s story when we arrived in Cinque Terre because the place was not just touristy, it was filled with Americans. There was a sprinkling of Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean tourists but it was early evening when we arrived and most of the big Asian tours had left for the day, herded by hoarse tour guides waving small, frayed flags (of surrender) into mega-buses bound for La Spezia, the much larger port town south of Cinque Terre.
There were plenty of Aussies and Europeans too, but I was surprised by the number of Asian Americans around my age – wearing similar clothes, making similar plans to eat, hike, swim. As a group, they reminded me – as I’m sure I reminded them – of college or graduate school, of Orange County, of New York, even of the American Born Chinese communities of Taipei and Hong Kong. It was familiar but also disorienting, as though we’d all decided to leave the sameness of where we came, only to end up all together in a small crowded seaside town where, despite the hills and narrow passageways, one could hardly turn a corner without hearing a familiar American accent talking about familiar American things.
“Wouldn’t it be crazy,” I thought, “If we ran into someone we knew?”
And we were about to meet people we knew, but it was planned. Later that evening, our friends Julia and Sam – also an American couple but living in Germany, also an Asian girl and a white guy – would join us.
As our last evening approached, we four Americans had eaten, hiked, boated and swam our way around all five villages. We had run into plenty of Americans and Canadians and Europeans, passed them on the winding cliff side hiking trails, sat next to them in various trattorias, and, on the small, fig-leaf scattered cement patio of our rented studio that overlooked the Mediterranean, even shared a bottle of wine with the Aussie next door, whose dour-faced Argentinian wife refused to socialize with us. They were all perfect familiar strangers.
At 5pm we hiked back up the winding hill roads from our last excursion of the day, and I, the slowest of the group, dragged my feet behind the rest as they power climbed the hill to our studio, hoping to secure a late dinner reservation at the Trattoria dal Billy. Located just two steps from our lodgings, it was small, lively and always packed.
As they turned into the restaurant ahead, I trudged past a narrow staircase rising above to my right. I saw a man’s shoes, his khaki pants and then glimpsed his face at which I smiled briefly – another Asian American – as I walked past.
Then I stopped. Did a double take. The man stopped too.
“Do I know you?” he said.
In an instant, it came to me.
“We went on a few dates back in Orange County,” I walked back towards him, smiling half in amazement, half awkwardly, “We met on OkCupid.”
“That’s right,” he said, and in unison, we said, “Betty.”
“Brandon,” he said.
And there on a narrow road high in the back hills of Manarola, I was stunned by the probability of the impossible.
We “caught up” in the only way you can catch up with someone you went on three dates with and then decided not to see again. He was a good guy, just not my guy. He was an engineer and when we met, worked at a plant somewhere, controlling heavy machinery in the early mornings. He was from Portland but had his own apartment in Huntington Beach. He played the guitar, made his own beer and loved the outdoors. He knew how to fly planes. He was close to his parents. He did a very good Elvis impression, which amused me at first but he tended to go on for too long which gave me the feeling that he spent too much time practicing. Whether this was true, I never found out.
On our third date he took me to the beach, where we walked to Ruby’s on the Pier and had dinner. I remember that day being strangely hazy, even though we were by the water and there was a breeze. I had insisted on paying because I hadn’t paid for anything yet. On our walk back towards the car, he held my hand and offered to buy me a kite. Later, when he dropped me off, he had leaned in for a kiss.
“I really, really like you,” he said.
I remember the kiss feeling like construction paper.
The next day at work he texted me to make plans for a next date.
“I think you are a really good guy,” I texted back, “I just don’t see you in a romantic way and I don’t want to waste your time.”
He was silent for a few minutes, then wrote, “Wow, I knew the kiss was bad but I didn’t think there’d be such a huge fallout.”
“Nuclear,” I wrote back. I liked a lot of things about him, but I didn’t like him – not like that. I sent him a smiling emoticon to show that I wasn’t trying to be mean.
We decided to be “just friends.” We joked around via text for a few minutes more and never spoke again.
Which is to say, in Cinque Terre, we caught up just enough. There hadn’t been much between us.
He was still single. A few months after we’d dated, he had moved back to Portland to be closer to family and was now in Cinque Terre with his folks. It was their first night there, but it was apparently going to rain the duration of their stay.
“Looks like you’re taking the good weather with you,” he said, when I told him we were leaving the next morning.
By then Tom, Julia and Sam had emerged from the restaurant and saw us talking. Brandon also seemed to be heading in that direction, so we walked there together. I introduced them. Tom, unsmiling, probably shook Brandon’s hand a bit harder than necessary.
“You guys eating here tonight?” Brandon asked, “My folks and I have a 7PM reservation so… if you guys eat here around that time, well, that’ll be even more awkward. But it is supposed to be the best restaurant here.”
“We couldn’t get a reservation,” Julia said glumly, and rather than feel relieved, I was disappointed too. It was, after all, our last night.
“Well,” someone said, I don’t remember who. A welcome signal that the chance encounter had come to its end.
“Good seeing you again,” Brandon said. He nodded towards the others, “Enjoy the rest of your trip.”
“Thank you, I hope you guys do too,” I said, because I did.
An hour later, Julia went back to the restaurant and secured a reservation for 9:15PM. By Italian dinner standards Brandon and his parents might have just started their aperitifs. But by chance, we didn’t see them.