Meeting His Parents: First Impressions

Two weeks before my arrival, friends – both POI’s and mine – asked, “You ready to meet the parents? You nervous?”
“Yes and no.”
I don’t let myself get nervous because when I do, I freeze. But I’ll get to that. Instead, I was excited to do what came easily because my mother had made me perfect it through years of practice: make a good impression.
That Friday, I left work early and walked to Penn Station, carrying a backpack heavy with a bottle of Chianti for POI’s mother and two books he’d brought back from England for his parents but had forgotten to bring.
I hauled these items along with a mixed bag of Murray’s Bagels and at 4PM, boarded the train behind a podiatrist who held the skeleton of a human foot and a slew of young professionals who seemed younger and more professional than I. They typed away on laptops, describing marketing plans on fancy power points until it got old and they realized they were on a train and their boss was probably not watching. As though in unison, a handful of them began to watch “Orange Is the New Black,” except for the anemic-looking woman who sat in front of me. She watched “You’ve Got Mail” while chewing at a bland sandwich that didn’t seem to have much iron.
I slept for an hour and spent the rest of the ride looking between the magazine on my lap and the view out the window.
“The east coast is very lush,” I noted.
“People in Delaware seem very poor. At least by the train tracks.”
“People who get off in Baltimore look rather dejected.”
The train was an hour delayed but I was communicating with POI, who instructed me to text by the time I got to Baltimore. He’d leave his place around then.
Baltimore slid by. I texted. Before long the train stopped in a drab terminal and I found myself standing in Union Station, setting foot in our nation’s capital for the first time.
“What have I been doing that it’s taken me twenty-eight years to get here?” I wondered. Visiting other capitals, duh.
POI collected me from the large roundabout in front of the station in a little blue station wagon, his father’s old car. We said hello with a tinge of strangeness – he was not home but he was “home,” just as I, writing this from my Upper West Side studio am home but not “home.” His family – parents, brother, brother’s wife, sister, sister’s husband and their baby – were all waiting at home for my arrival so we could eat dinner together. I felt bad that my train had been late, but they couldn’t hold that against me. I wasn’t nervous at all. Not yet.
—-
So, when do I get nervous? And what happens? Like many people, I get nervous when I’m put on the spot. When, say, I’m at dinner with a group of friends and someone asks me to do the math on the bill. (Once my calculation came out to be $100 more than we needed to pay). I got nervous when taking the GRE, when the writing portion came first instead of Verbal or Math, like in the five practice tests I took beforehand. I had not practiced taking the test in this order. I also get nervous when people ask me questions I’m not expecting and, like most people who ask you questions, they expect answers right away. This makes me especially nervous when there are other people around, watching or listening and they too, expect an answer.
I am not one of those hardy individuals whose brain adapts quickly to these situations. I would like to be able to take the restaurant bill home and figure it out at with my dad’s giant accountant’s calculator. I would have loved for the GRE essay portion to come at the end, where I expected it to be. I might have gotten a less embarrassing score of two (out of six), considering I was taking the GRE to apply to writing school. And I would have given anything for POI’s mother to have said, “I’ll give you some time to think about it,” after she asked me, “Why did you say that?” Actually, I would have preferred if she didn’t ask me at all, and understood that it’s just the sort of thing I say from time to time.
——
The family dinner went well. POI’s father ordered Indian takeout and I assumed they all ate with more gusto considering I had made them wait an hour. After, the family migrated from the dining table to the living room, while I stayed behind in the kitchen chatting with POI’s mother. She asked me the usual things: what I was studying (writing), if I liked my program (sometimes), what was I going to do after the program (Not sure, but probably babysitting and tutoring the SAT’s. Just kidding. Of course I meant writing…), my version of how POI and I met (I patted myself on the back for leaving out the racist bits), our recent travels and plans for the summer. I asked her the usual questions too: how did she meet POI’s father if she was from Australia? While she was studying English Literature in England, he was there too, a young American man in the foreign service. They married, moved to a suburb just outside DC, and had three children. A few years later, when POI was eight, his father’s job took them to Tokyo where they lived for ten years.
“It was a wonderful time,” she said, her eyes sparkling, and I could imagine it. I felt an immediate kinship with this petite skinny woman with countless laugh lines, bright eyes and short, curly red hair. We both loved to read, though judging by the well thumbed books I found all over the house, in every single room, she more than me. She was, from the way she talked about her meeting POI’s father, a bit of a romantic, though with practical leanings, especially now having been married for so many decades to POI’s father who seemed like a very practical man. We moved from the kitchen to the back patio, each holding a glass of wine, and continued talking for another hour or so until we decided that it was probably time to go in and join the rest of the family. Confidences had been exchanged. She liked me, I could tell.
As we walked into the living room POI gave me a wary look – what had I been telling his mother out there on the patio? Or worse, what has she told you? The smug smile I returned said, “None of your business.” I took a seat next to his mother opposite POI and listened as they told me stories about their neighbors. There was the young family next door, who had two ill-behaved little girls who often scared Smoot and screamed and shrieked. POI’s mother did not like them. She was a bigger fan of the friendly, quiet guy who lived upstairs and who had been a bachelor for many years – he was in his early forties – but was getting married tomorrow.
            “Congratulations to him!” I said.
            She nodded and smiled, “His fiancée’s name is Turquoise.”
            Nicky and POI both snorted, “What kind of name is that?”
            Nicky pulled out his phone and started scrolling – he lived close to POI’s parents and was apparently friends with the neighbor on Facebook. He found a photo of Turquoise and showed it to POI.
            “Is she a bus driver?” POI joked.
            “Oh,” I said, arriving at what I thought was an obvious conclusion, “Is she black?”
I remember a sudden outburst of laughter, which then died down almost immediately into an awkward silence. From the corner of my eye I saw POI’s eyes widen as his mother turned to me.
“Why did you say that?”
Defense mechanism one. Pretend you didn’t say it and even if you did say it, convince yourself no one heard.
“Hm?”
POI’s mother looked at me with wide eyes sparkling with earnest curiosity. She repeated the question.
“Why did you say that?”
This is when adrenaline is supposed to kick in, when your fight or flight instinct is meant to help you either a.) smoothly redirect the conversation to something more PC (“So why do you guys call him Mr. Chicken?” But I’d already asked this. Or b.) Come up with an elaborate lie beginning with, “Oh what I meant was _(insert the exact opposite of what you meant couched it flowery language and said with a sweet “mean no harm, absolutely no harm” expression)__.”
But my glands don’t work like that. I’m witty, but not quick-witted. I’ll come back at you with a witty comeback or a “quick” save…tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. I am also not- nor have I ever been-a good liar. An on-the-spot liar? Forget it. I’m better at math. And that’s saying something.
In the past, when I’ve been caught red-handed doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing or carelessly let mean (but often true) things roll off a blunt tongue, I have never been able to successfully backtrack and assuage the situation. Instead, I run through the options (listed above) and my ability to execute those options, which is very low. The inner dialogue goes something like this:
Dammit. I can’t believe I just said it. Dear God, may I please rewind this moment? No? Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
The entire thought process takes less then two seconds (in some ways I am fast) but in the end the only options are either to apologize for a mistake or own it. In this case, I had to own it. To apologize would lead to too much explaining, which, given the blankness of my present state of mind, would color myself a deeper shade of prejudiced. I was at a crossroads too – back down now and set an expectation of apologizing for all the potentially racist/politically incorrect/and general unkind things that were bound to come out of my mouth. I am just that level of inappropriate. POI knew this. My friends know this. My family, minus my parents who are actually racist in the way most older Chinese people are, know this. And they still love me. Better be up front.
Don’t worry, I’m a little racist. You’ll get used to it.
I turned to POI’s mother, my face wide open with an “I thought it was obvious” expression.
            “Well,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could, “POI asked if she was black. A lot of bus drivers are black.” (I wanted to add that naming your daughter Turquoise was also a total black thing to do, but remembered my college roommate named Teal who was one of the whitest people I ever met). 
            POI’s mother blinked. Her smile seemed a bit strained then, and I sensed her beginning to register some doubt, which she didn’t feel during dinner or in the kitchen or on the patio. Is this girl…right…for my son… but I looked away and didn’t see her finish the thought.
—-
A week after I’d come home, I remembered my old school manners and sent her a letter-press thank you card I’d bought some months ago while wandering through the West Village. It had four trolls on it – the kind we played with as kids, with tall, pointy hair, wide googly eyes that stare blankly at you over frozen smiles (so…just me?). They reminded me of my childhood and I bought them, not sure if anyone would get the train of thought that went through my head. Well, I had to thank his mother for a good time and I had a card with four trolls and the right two words on it.
            Two weeks after that a postcard with a frog, painted by Matsumoto Hoji arrived in the mail. It was from POI’s mother – she’s gotten it from the British Museum gift shop and had saved it, I imagine, to send to the rare creature her middle child would final decide to bring home.
            “Dear Betty…” She thanked me for my warm words, agreed that my next trip should be longer and that Smoot aka Mr. Chicken sends a “woof.” I smiled when I saw the postscript squeezed in under her signature: “P.S. I see your trolls and raise you a frog.”

On Relationships: Golf n’ (other) Stuff

Thus far, everything has gone as planned.

I woke up, chatted with POI on the phone, went to the kitchen to have a bowl of Frosted Miniwheats then went to the driving range with my mother. We discovered that the golf club in the neighboring city is quite nice, and not too expensive. We each hit one hundred balls, mine going much further than my mothers’ which prompted her to ask me for tips.

I have had exactly one “lesson” from my brother, who used to play semi-regularly when he lived in California. Bend your knees. Stick your butt out. Keep the left arm straight and your eye on the ball. Swing.

I swung a good twenty, twenty-five times before I ever made contact with the ball.

For golf, I had not beginner’s luck but second timer’s luck.

Two weeks ago I revisited the driving range in New York with POI, who likes the game, preferring to have a beer or two to loosen up. We biked to the waterfront driving range and I watched him play before hitting a few on my own.

“You’re pretty good,” POI noted.

“Hm,” I said. I agreed. But as with most things I do (or eventually give up on) consistency was an issue.

My mother, I observed this afternoon, would like to be able to drive the ball out much further than she currently does. Her range hovers around 100 yards, usually just below.

“I’m terrible,” she kept saying, but her shots were consistently straight. The sound her driver head made upon contacting the ball quite appealing.

I recorded a few of her swings on my iphone, saying things like, “Keep your arm straight,” and “Lift the club higher when you pull back,” in Chinese, but was aware that the entire situation was very blind leading the blind. I wondered if the more experienced people to our left and right were chuckling to themselves.

My first thirty or so shots with the driver were consistent too, until I discovered I was terrible on the irons and much better on the woods. I used the driver to hit the last twenty balls, none of which went as far or straight and flat as the first thirty. Consistency, where’d you go, I muttered to no one. Still, my mother was impressed and said it was a shame I didn’t start earlier.

“I wasn’t interested back then,” I said, shrugging.

She thought my tips were good. I’m pretty sure we both imagined it, but she seemed to be hitting just a few yards further by the end of the bucket.

“Take lessons when you get back to New York,” she said, when we were finished. I nodded. That might not be a bad idea.

We came home and had lunch. My mother fried a fish – scallions, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine – and my father suggested we finish off the coffee ice cream.

“Time to buy more,” he said, “though no one eats it with me when you’re not home.”

Everything as planned, this Saturday afternoon. Then I went to my room, called POI. He picked up and I started to cry.

——

The vestiges of our morning conversation. In POI’s words, I had tried to start a fight because I felt he hadn’t called enough over the past two weeks.

“But we talk every day,” he had said in the morning, though by “talk” he meant “text.”

“It’s not the same,” I said, because it’s not, “And remember. It’s a privilege to talk to me on the phone.”

Eventually we were laughing. We had hung up shortly before I left for the driving range, he feeling as though everything was resolved because there had been nothing wrong to begin with, and I feeling a hairsbreadth better, but mostly needy and uneven.

I spent the last two weeks telling my entire family that I was happy in New York, in my relationship, in school (which hasn’t started).

“This time around it’s very different huh?” my cousins asked, “So different from your first time.”

“Yeah,” I said, “So different and so good.”

It’s true, but I worry about my internal consistency, none of which is documented via the usual channels. What makes me feel happy and steady and at peace one minute and another, say, when I’m packing to leave one home for another, off-kilter and confused? I didn’t want to pull POI into this monologue – the “home” question. The what are we how are we who am I what is the future question. What comes tomorrow and the day after and the month and years and incredible vortex after? I didn’t want to pull him into the one-woman fray, but I had to, because it’s sort of what you sign up for when you date someone with a lot of words.

“I feel strange,” I said to him now.

“How so.”

“I don’t know,” because at that point I didn’t. But we talked and just a few minutes later I knew.

The fact that there were two sets of keys on my dresser, one with a Prius key and another with cards to the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Fare. The fact that I was packing again, taking a few more items of my room with me – things I had thought, when I set them down on whichever particular surface, would stay for many years if not forever. The fact that I spent several days mulling over whether to bring said items – because do they belong at this home or the other? The fact that I’d come back this time, filled with the comforting confidence one has when one returns to a familiar city with familiar, loving faces, only to arrive and feel as though I’d forgotten to bring something important.

I told POI so, though not in those exact words. When I cry the words seem to drip down my face and I often can’t say anything for interminable minutes.

“I think I get it,” he said.

And maybe he does. But more importantly, I got it.

Dating Stories: First Impressions IV

“I’m being serious,” POI repeated, “My mom is a hippie liberal who loves everybody. If you say anything racist in front of her, she will hate you.” 
“Dude,” I said, myself becoming serious, “Don’t tell me how to behave.” 
I had just made dinner for POI and Courage at my New York Palace and was clearing the table. POI’s assumption that I lacked the self control to watch my mouth – especially in front of his parents – irked me. I washed the dishes, feeling my irritation grow. I clanged pots and pans for emphasis.

“Calm down,” said Courage, “You know what POI means.”

I threw her a raised eyebrow. Of course I knew what he meant. He had basically insulted my upbringing and called me a dumb racist heathen. But did he know what I meant?

I was more than polite; I was empathetic and kind and warm and tactful. All things my mother, who adhered to the same values, had thoughtfully beat into me.

When I was a kid, I threw a few temper tantrums at the usual places: Toys R’ Us, the circus, the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas, and consequently had some manners smacked into me in the restrooms.

Once, I gave a sullen glare to an auntie on my way out of Chinese school. I’d gotten a bad test score and knew mom would not be happy. Catching me glaring at the auntie made her even less happy and later that afternoon I learned: part of being my mother’s daughter was smiling and being pleasant to people even if inside I felt wretched.

When my parents had guests over for karaoke parties and potlucks and old Chinese people tomfoolery – which was often – my mother expected my brother and I to be out of our rooms when the guests arrived, ready and waiting by the front door all smiles, house slippers in hand.

Would you like some tea, Mrs. Chen?

Hi Mr. Liu! Long time no see! How’s your son/daughter/maltese doing? Dental school/MBA/second kidney surgery? Wonderful.

Ah Aunty Pang! It’s so good to see you again…Yes, I am still single.

When you’re young, these things seem like punishment and social drudgery. And they are…until they aren’t. Your parents’ friends notice and start praising your warm, bubbly demeanor and ability to hold not only interesting but also interested conversation with them, whose worlds are connected to yours only because they are your parents’ friends.

The grand takeaway from my upbringing, some subtler and less painful than others, to be not only polite but also generous with one’s personality, to have the right phrase for the right time, to know how to make talk both large and small, and to be genuine while doing so was, “Whoa, it makes me look and feel really good as a person,” and more important, “I like being liked.”

As a result, my parents’ friends loved me. My friends’ parents loved me. And the parents of all the guys I never dated but might have – well, they would have loved me too. Because it’s really hard not to. 

And besides, wasn’t everyone a little racist? But you grow and, if you’re a regular human with heart and brains, discover your prejudices are flexible and ever-changing and sometimes directed at yourself and your own ethnicity, which occasionally clashes with traits tied to your nationality. You make friends with different people, even a few ________s and ________s and though sometimes you’re like, “Jesus, you’re so _____,” or “That’s such a ______ thing to do,” you still like them as people.

AND ANYWAY, who was he to admonish me about how to act? He who’d been advertised as offensive? He who had offended me on the first date and then again and again in little ways, up to the present moment? He who called poor people “Poors” and fat people “Fats” and his female friends “Bitches” and his girlfriend “Ho-bag” (okay so a lot of people call me “Ho-bag”, but still)?

Who was anyone to admonish anyone about decorum and decency? I had my own hesitations about him too, and how he might act when meeting my parents, most of them not unlike that one scene from that one terrible movie about repressed, submissive Chinese women stuck in bad marriages.  

But I had been, up until that point, willing to bring him home without a single word of warning because I figured I was dating a.) a well-adjusted adult who b.) I really liked and who c.) would care enough to want to make a good impression and thus know how to conduct himself.

Apparently POI did not feel the same.

You’re not perfect either, buddy. 

Had I said this aloud POI would have said in his irritating tone of reason, “We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you.”

But I heard it anyway and slammed the last dish into the cabinet, hoping I hadn’t cracked it because I had only bought four and Ikea was really far away.

“Simmer down, simmer down,” POI said, leaning back into the folding chair (also from IKEA).

“Don’t tell me to simmer down!”

“I know you know how to behave, I’m just saying…my mom would not find any racist jokes amusing.”

This was back in early March, a full month away from our even broaching the subject and four months away from my actually meeting his parents.

Inside my head I continued to snarl at him.

You haven’t even INVITED me to meet your parents and you’re warning me how to behave? Thanks for the indefinite amount of time to practice acting like a non-bigot.

Which is to say, we worked it out. 

Which is why I ended up sitting next to his mother in his parents’ cozy living room in the middle of a very pregnant pause.

I looked down at a fluffy white dog named Smoot but called Chicken sitting near my ankles, wondering not where my manners were but where in hell my brain had gone.

I did the thing I was not supposed to do.

I said something racist in front of his mother. 

Relationships: Going Home For the Holidays Without An Significant Other

The toughest part about coming home is also the most wonderful part. Mostly, making time for everyone I want to see.

Except this time, people were expecting more than just me.

“Where’s POI?” Aunt Angelina exclaimed when I showed up for dim-sum.

I shrugged, “He had plans.”

“Is POI here too?” a friend texted.

“Plans,” I texted back, “He had some.”

“Your friend is welcome to come too,” Aunt Jin-Feng said, inviting me to my cousin’s fancy birthday party at Souplantation tomorrow night.

“My friend?” I was confused, then realized I was Chinese and my aunt was Chinese and I shouldn’t have been confused because while the term “boyfriend” exists in Chinese, its application is like that of a pistol: just because you have one doesn’t mean you should use it.

“Ah my ‘friend’ is not here,” I said, “He had some family plans. But perhaps next time.”

——-

The men were less fussed. POI included.

I texted him this morning, “My entire family is like, ‘Where’s POI?’

“Next time,” he wrote.

“Yeah, otherwise they will think I made the whole thing up.”

“You’d be a fiction writer then.”

-__-

——–

My uncle Louis swung by and gave me a big hug.

“You’re back!” he said, then nodding almost gravely, asked, “And school. How’s that going?”

“I’m on summer break,” I said, “I start school in two weeks.”

“Great,” he said, then looked around with an expression that said, ‘Something’s missing.’

I braced myself.

“Where’s your mom? I’m supposed to take her to the car dealership.”

Later that afternoon Uncle Jin picked me up for dimsum and asked how my boyfriend was doing in San Francisco.

“SF? He lives in New York.”

He scratched his head, “That’s odd. Why did I think San Francisco?”

I opened my mouth, ready to explain that E, the girl who’d set us up lives in San Francisco and perhaps facts had gotten scrambled while the details of my relationship were being passed from mom to aunt to aunt to uncle, but my grandpa came out of the house just then.

Grandpa waved to me, “Welcome back.”

He gave no indication that he expected anyone else. Asked no questions. I smiled.

“Let’s go,” he said, “Lunch.”

——

At dimsum, my aunt bemoaned the fact that two years ago my cousin had brought her then boyfriend to meet the grandparents. They broke up less than three months later.

“Had I known they wouldn’t be together three months later I would never have arranged that dinner!” She put her hands to her forehead, “And at this very restaurant!”

I assured her, sitting atop the pile of wisdom I’d accrued in the last year, that she couldn’t have known. No one does, really, until it happens.

“Still,” my aunt said, putting her hand on her forehead, “Grandpa must think she has a new boyfriend every few months.”

I looked at Grandpa, who didn’t appear to be listening. He had eaten more than usual and was probably looking forward to his afternoon nap.

“Do you want to meet POI?” I asked him.

“Who?”

“My…uh, friend.”

He sighed and shook his head, leaned back.

“You young people. It doesn’t matter if I want to meet him. If you like the person and want to be with him, then I’ll meet him.”

“Good point Grandpa.” I reached for another cream bun, a dessert we both loved, and asked if he wanted half.

“I’m good.”

“No no,” my aunt said, “just put it on his plate.”

“I’m good,” Grandpa said.

“Put it on his plate.”

I put it on his plate. He smiled, and shaking his head, ate it.

Dating Stories: First Impressions III

POI, as promised, was quite offensive.

I showed up ten minutes late to our first (and second and third and many thereafter) date, out of breath. I apologized profusely, made sure my voice was the right (higher) octave.

“Sorry! I’m so sorry!” I said, taking in his freshly shaven head and face, “I’m so late!”

He stood up from his seat at the bar (like a gentleman), put his phone away (like a polite human being) and gave me a stiff one-armed hug (odd).

“Yeah, you are,” he said.

I was offended. My expression, I hope, replied, “That’s for me to apologize for (which I did) and you to brush off. Ass.”

I was offended again during dessert. We had ordered tiramisu and while waiting for it to arrive, I spent a good five minutes telling POI how much I loved cream.

“Whipped cream, sour cream, mascarpone, Greek yogurt…” (I am always reminded of those scenes in “Forrest Gump” when Bubba tells Forrest of all the ways he loves to cook shrimp). I watched POI watch me then watched as his gaze shifted to the waiter’s hand place a disappointingly small plate of tiramisu on the table.

“Anyway,” I continued, picking up my fork, “I just love cream. Or anything with a cream-like texture.” *

As I spoke, POI, not listening at all, nodded absent-mindedly and scooped up the entire top layer of mascarpone, leaving nothing but mushy lady fingers on the plate. I stared in first date horror, my face incredulous as he inserted the heaping spoon into his mouth and pulled it out again. The spoon gleamed wretchedly. Sure, some fool in the kitchen had plated the tiramisu sideways – but still: it was not two seconds after my “I Love All Things Cream” speech.

“You ate all the cream,” I said. Whatever incredulity I was attempting to contain was not contained.

POI, realizing his error, gulped down the rest of the cream.

“Oops,” he said.

“You messed up. “

“I didn’t know!”

I shook my head, “You messed up so bad,” I said.

“It was right in front of me and I just took a bite. I didn’t know it was all the cream. I hate cream…”

“I don’t care,” I said, crossing my arms, “That’s just rude.”

I was just beginning to enjoy the mini power trip occasionally afforded to girls on the first date. I watched POI process this information; he was at a crossroads.

They say in the beginning of a relationship, precedents must be set. A general rule of thumb: don’t start things you can’t keep up. “Can’t” meaning “won’t” because it’s not in your nature. POI, I’ve come to learn, is not an apologizer in the conventional sense. The word “sorry” exists in his vocabulary, but he rarely employs it and if ever, then in a way similar to that one irritating hashtag: #sorrynotsorry.

When they do make an appearance however, POI’s apologies are tiny syntactical marvels:

“That was not good strategery on my part.”

“That was not my best play.”

“I will try harder to be a better man.”

Nix that last one. Pure fantasy.

Called out by a cream lover as having committed an irreparable first date faux-pas, POI decided fear was not the answer. He did what he often does best. He smiled a damn smug smile and batted his eyelashes.

“Well, actually it was delicious,” he said.

My own smug smile fell away. I considered punching him in the throat – the table between us was not so wide. What insolence!

They say too, that minus the dunces who love blindly and think with their kneecaps rather than an ideal balance of logic and intuition, people know what they’re getting into. Mostly, they just can’t put it into words.

I was offended by all the aforementioned slights as, I’m sure, POI was by mine, most of them likely beginning, “You white people…” ** but felt a non sequitur – I wanted to see him again.

On the subway home, I analyzed the night’s data points:

  • We sent the waiter back four times because we were talking so much. 
  • He called me out on being late. 
  • It was apparent, after lengthy discussions about family, food and travel that we agreed: all were good and important. Want more (in varying degrees). 
  • He ate all the cream. 
  • We both wanted, after dessert, for the night to continue and walked to a bar down the street. 
  • He did not apologize for eating the cream.

We took the same train home and POI had, as the train pulled into his station, reached over with one arm to grab my face. He kissed my cheek and said with brusque nervousness, “I’ll talk to you later, yeah?” Hopped off. I found that mildly offensive too, but also endearing – a perplexing combination of feelings that would underpin most of our interactions:

I’m offended! But…touched. 

Offended or not, my gut told me POI would not be easy to date, never mind be with in a far-flung long distance relationship. But logic, a much better mathematician, added it all up.

“Shut up and smile,” she said as the train lumbered forward, “You had fun.”

*For you chortling imbeciles with “That’s what she said” on the tip of your tongue, shove it. An original thinker you are not.
 **POI hates it when I generalize about white people, even though I soothe him by saying it’s something all Asian people do.

First Impressions II

A friend, also a denizen of SF, likes to say, “To get what you want, you have to tell the universe.”

I didn’t realize that telling E my ambitions in New York (aside from becoming a National Book Award winning and best-selling author) to “date up a storm,” was doing just that, with a few minor tweaks made by the Universe itself.

Apparently what I wanted was a bald white guy who worked in analytics and whose idea of an endearing pet name is “Ho-bag.”

The Universe hears – I know it does – but I’m not sure it listens.

The Universe also reminds me of POI; when they want to, they are capable of doing good, swift work. Otherwise they take their slow ass time providing things they know full well you deserve and you want to strangle them.

——-

Less than a month later, the day before I left for New York, I was at the bachelorette’s wedding in San Clemente, Calfornia, sitting ramrod straight in a very snug chartreuse bridesmaid dress, wondering if I could eat the palm-sized portion of steak in front of me and leave the table with the dress intact.

My phone lit up. It was E.

“Betty!” she texted, “I want to set you up with someone!”

I raised my eyebrows and looked at the empty seat across from me where, just a few minutes earlier, there had sat a hilarious groomsman who, before and during the wedding, had showed plenty of interest in “getting to know me.” Once the bar opened however, he had boozed up and was last seen slipping off behind some palm trees with another bridesmaid, equally boozed up.

A good reminder, I thought, that douchebaggery existed in every city.

I ate a bite of steak and tried to breathe. So far so good. I put the fork down and texted back.

“Hey E! I’m game. But in SF?”

“In New York! Except he’s working in London right now, but it’s temporary. He’ll be back after winter.”

Hm. Via text, we worked out the logistics. He was back in the States for a few weeks – both for work and vacation. He was in SF now but would be in New York for about two weeks after I moved there – we were arriving a day apart – then he’d head back to London.

“He’s really funny,” E wrote, “but he can be kind of offensive.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. This was a strange introduction.

“But I thought ‘It’s perfect’ because you can be kind of offensive too!’”

I snorted, which stretched my dress to max capacity. I texted back, “Wha…” but rolled with it, “Yeah,” I said and added without thinking, “You can tell him I’m racist too.”

E, playing telephone/middleman/matchmaker, wasted no time dispatching a flurry of texts to her friend who was with POI.

I just met her this year but she’s really cool.

In the heavens, God nodded.

She’s a little racist. But who isn’t? 

Right? Right?

Oh and her last name is ‘Ho.’ 

Her friend relayed this vital information to POI, who said, “I have to meet this girl.”

Some people have really high standards.

Photos were exchanged. He had no hair, but did have a nice smile and bright, kind eyes of indeterminate color. E sent him an Instagram I’d taken earlier that day, in full professionally done bridesmaid hair and makeup – basically what I look like…never. But it was established that neither of us were fat trolls; the handoff was made. My number was transferred from E’s phone to her friend’s phone to POI’s phone where a new text box was opened.

My phone blinked again. I had just finished the steak and was wondering when my now-married friends would cut the cake.

“This is POI,” texted POI.

“Hi!” I wrote, though my face bore the expression one wears when one’s dress is too tight and there is still dessert to be had.

“Quick, what are your two least favorite races,” he texted.

I responded in two seconds flat with  ____and ___ (though I’ll leave this to your imagination. Wouldn’t want to lose them as a demographic).

I was (half) joking but if POI took it the wrong way, then, as he likes to say, “So it goes.” Or as I like to say, “Your loss.”

He waited a few beats then wrote, “Great. Are you free next week for dinner?”

My eyebrows rose again. This could be interesting.

The emcee announced the cutting of the cake followed by dancing. I picked up my phone.

I am, I wrote, but didn’t have my agenda with me so I’d get back to him tomorrow. At that moment however, it was my duty as bridesmaid to eat some cake and tear up the dance floor. 

Writing Love Letters in the Modern Age

As I write this, POI, in London for work, is reading a long email I wrote him late last night.

“I’m assuming you’ll read this in the morning, hence the subject line – and indeed the sun should be showing her face in your part of the world soon.”

“You call everything ‘her’,” he texts, “I don’t think the sun is so equipped.” 

I type a single question mark and wait patiently for the wiseacre remark, sure to come. 

“No sungina,” he responds. 

My mother would call this, “Playing piano to a cow.” 

———
Nearly a year ago,  POI and I had our fifth date. We had dinner, then went back to his apartment where I met the rest of his roommates and visited the rooftop. It was the second New York rooftop I’d visited thus far – the first had been a swanky lounge/club called PhD to which POI invited me on our second date.

“Meet some peeps,” he had said, when really he meant nearly twenty of his closest friends in New York City.

“Will they let me in if I only have my bachelor’s?” I joked.

We were texting, but he had slapped his head, groaned. A few months later he would bring it up again and I smiled, knowing I had crafted a really good terrible joke.

We said goodbye a few days later, the fifth date. What is this obsession with numbering the dates, you wonder. Not an obsession – just a statement of what to me, seemed at the time to be crucial facts. Prior to POI I had never gone on more than three dates with anyone.

So that night, to be walking by the giant post office on 8th Ave., a massive reminder of a dying art – seemed a marvel in itself. We strolled alongside the steps and I recall thinking how odd and quiet that street was. I felt too, a light feeling – it’s called “hope,” I think. I thought about his rooftop from where the bright red sign of the New Yorker hotel could be seen.

I could, I said to him, not would – could – write to him when he was in London. But of course I would.

“I haven’t written a letter in…probably twenty years,” he said.

This was the expected answer. I was already doing that thing where I lowered expectations because I was beginning to like someone.

“I’ll write,” I offered, “You email.”

“No no,” he said, “I can pop out a few letters,” (or something to that effect).

A few days later he left. As he was boarding the plane, I sat at my desk – my large white New York desk, still relatively unused – and wrote a few, carefully balanced lines to him on a hideous New York post card I’d bought at a tourist shop. Uncharacteristically, I added a feminine touch and sprayed it with perfume (though looking back this step was unnecessary and most likely exacerbated the myriads of odors – especially that emitted by the crazy crazy homeless man who hangs around the particular letterbox – that were sure to infuse the postcard along its journey). I mailed it that same hour, before his feet even touched British land.

It’s in his possession now, perched precariously at the edge of his dresser along with the rest of my notecards and letters, sent steadily over the four months he lived in London. There are letter-pressed New York greeting cards with a few lines – “I miss you! See you soon!” – and stuck in between, multi-pagers on lined notebook paper, some written in cafes, others in spurts during tedious lectures and seminars- “I am sitting in my Spy Novel class and some girl is droning on and on about feminism. The professor is trying very hard to look engaged….” etc. etc. Even when I write, I like to hear myself talk. But that’s beside the point.

He never wrote me back – not longhand – but there were phone calls, text messages and short, practical emails, mostly logistics regarding my trips to London. Though once, when I had not heard from him via text or email for two days and despaired that his affections were waning, I found in my inbox later that night a sonnet written to near perfect iambic pentameter.

It was one of those things; you’re supposed to read it quietly and go to bed with a wan, wide smile while keeping certain cards close to your chest – but I told him immediately that I was speechless. Which, if you think of it, is an outright lie.

Edward Hopper,  “Hotel Room”   1931 Oil on Canvas 

Despite his never writing back, despite his never responding outright to anything I wrote in my letters (this is fine because I don’t ask questions in my letters. I show and tell), not once did I suspect him of casting my lengthy epistles aside (as some of my best friends have admitted to doing so). This is the modern letter writer’s entitled presumption. Like psychopaths and greasers, we are an uncommon breed (says the blogger too). A handwritten note is not only rare, it’s more thoughtful; to write by hand is to use a different part of the brain, a part closer to the heart. Thus to receive a handwritten letter, when the writer in question could very well be writing other things to other people… that’s equivalent to saying, You’re welcome. I made you feel special. 

But that’s not why I did it. For the most part – and accomplished letter writers adhere to this rule lest we waste precious time and costly, fancy stationery: know your audience. I knew POI to be a reader. And I knew him to be “into me,” as the lingo goes.

———-

When I visited London, I saw that he had propped the greeting cards up on a shelf. I asked where he kept the letters.

“The ten pagers?”

I laughed.

He pulled open his bedside drawer. I saw them there, scattered like old friends at a slumber party.

“What did you think,” I said, “‘Whoa this Betty blathers on and on?'”

“No,” he said. We were not there yet – the stage of being honest. “I mean, you can get really serious sometimes (POI code for ‘sappy’) but some parts of certain letters were pretty funny.”

He sat down at the edge of the bed to look for the excerpts and I left the room – not because I wasn’t interested but because the “replies” I was looking for I found. He had kept my letters.

———-
“Letters are just pieces of paper. Burn them and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.” 

                                                   –Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood 

Calling Home from a London Pub

In London, this past week, I visited POI for a second time. On my second night there – perhaps it was my third, I can’t remember – it occurred to me I ought to call my parents. We were on the second floor of a pub in Soho when the thought occurred and I told POI that I’d be back. He handed me his work phone, saying the signal was better, and I took it downstairs, past the bar which was, at 10PM, packed with tall, well-dressed British men. In the States I would have assumed they’d all just come from work, but it was a Saturday night and they seemed to just be dressed that way, regardless. It had been overly warm in the pub and I did not bring my coat with me, finding the cool air outside refreshing. I wondered what I would say to my parents as I dialed. My father picked up, as my mother was teaching her Saturday morning Chinese classes.

“How is it?” my father asked.

“Good,” I said, “We’re out with his friends right now. I just thought I’d say hello. I haven’t called in a while.”

“Well, we’re doing fine too,” he said, and then did the thing he always did when I asked about their weekend plans, which was list all their upcoming dinner engagements. It was going to be a busy weekend for them as well. He listed the usual suspects and the usual restaurants. Same old same old, he said, though I knew he looked forward to it.

POI and I were headed to Cambridge the next morning, and I told my father as much.

“Ah,” he said, “Well. Didn’t you want to study there at some point?”

I laughed. It was typical that he would remember something like this. Every elite school I had ever even just vaguely remarked about wanting to study at, he remembered: Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Brown, “Yeah, and I still do…just not sure what.”

“Oh please, please,” he said jokingly, “One degree at a time. Finish the one you’re working on now.”

“I know,” I said. A group of young, drunk teenagers walked by, some stumbling more than others. They laughed loudly just as they were walking by.

“Are you at a party?” my father asked.

“Outside a bar,” I said, “We’re heading over to karaoke soon.”

“They karaoke over there in England?” he said, “You went all the way to England to karaoke?”

“More or less.”

Other photos from that night are expectedly blurry.

On the curb next to me, three young Chinese people stood staring at their smart-phones, trying to make Karaoke plans of their own. They heard me speaking Chinese and took turns stealing glances in my direction. I smiled. Had they called their parents yet? I wondered what they were studying.

“Well,” my father said, “Enjoy yourself, I suppose.”

“I know, I will,” I looked up to the steamed windows of the second floor, where POI and his friends,- three Asian Americans and two Italians chemistry students – stood chatting around tall pints. I told my father goodbye and to not miss me too much.

“And you try to miss us a little more,” he said, “But thanks for calling.”

“No problem.”

“Oh,” something occurred to him.

“Hm?”

“Write something,” he said.

“What?”

“Write something,” he said, “About your time there. About Cambridge or London or England or whatever it is you’re going to do. And share it with me. I should like to know even though I still think the words on that website of yours are too damned small.”

I nodded slowly, taking in the scene before me on the street on a corner in Soho square, thinking about the people upstairs, all of whom I’d just met. I thought too about the songs I was about to sing in a small, dark room. Inside the pub, one of POI’s best friends in London was buying shots of tequila at the bar. Somewhere down the road, friends of friends were making their way out of the Tube to meet us. More shots waited at another bar. Poorly performed covers of Miley Cyrus. U2 and Taylor Swift and Backstreet Boys. Rent.

I would write, I told him.

We hung up and I went back inside, running into POI’s friend at the bar. He handed me two shot glasses and a small plate of lime wedges.

“Can you handle all that?” he said, “One of them is yours.”

I nodded, and carefully ascended the narrow stairs, spilling just a single drop of Jose Cuervo on my left hand. I was aware that I wouldn’t write anything that night. Or the night after. I wouldn’t write anything for the next two weeks.