The Chinatown AffairbyBatteryOperated©
It had been years since Mei last visited San Francisco. She'd spent a majority of her life there, but after college she married and moved to her husband's home state. Luckily, Mei had always kept in touch with a few old classmates and they were urging her to please make an appearance at an upcoming college reunion. She hadn't been able to make their first reunion years ago, but this one she made it a point not to miss.
Mei's flight from Texas was long and the hotel room didn't look as nice in person as it had online, but that didn't take away from her excitement. One little black dress with a pair of high heels later and Mei was ready to make her way to a nearby dining hall that was reserved for the reunion. Her husband Mark stood in the cramped bathroom doorway as he watched his wife model her outfit in front of the mirror and play with her new bob-cut hairstyle. It was likely that no one would recognize him at the reunion even though he had been very popular in his college days. Mark's once tight physique was gone and so were most of his boyish good looks. Nearly everything had changed about him except his controlling attitude.
"Are you really gonna where that tight dress?" Mei's husband asked sarcastically.
"Sure, why not?"
"How old are you again?"
"I admit that it's a little form fitting, but definitely age appropriate. And the women at the boutique didn't see anything wrong with it."
"Were they your age or younger?"
"Listen. Don't embarrass yourself. There's nothing more pathetic than a soccer mom trying to look like a schoolgirl," the woman's husband remarked before walking away.
Mei was finding it harder and harder to get a long with Mark. He had never been perfect and she accepted that, but as 40 approached, she began to realize that much of her marriage had been nothing but criticism. She felt alone in their relationship and Mark's own insecurity was beginning to create her own. Mei took one last look in the mirror wondering if he was right about the dress. All of the mean things he'd said over the years about not loosing all of the baby-weight when their daughter was born or not being a "spring chicken" anymore, made her cheeks flush with embarrassment. She was just about to unzip herself and find something more homely to wear when Mark opened his big mouth again.
"Aren't you ready yet? I'm hungry and I don't want to miss a dinner that we've already paid for!"
"Okay, okay," the dark haired woman rushed. Without time to change, she grabbed a black jacket that was hanging near her suitcase; but not the small one that she had first intended to wear. Instead, she accidentally grabbed the blazer that Mark had worn on the plane ride and didn't notice until they were on the elevator. Any other time she would have been upset with herself for making the mistake, but right now Mei felt so self-conscious that she was more than happy to be swallowed up in its oversized material.
Mei wasn't at all surprised to hear some familiar 80's tunes when she walked into the dining hall lobby with her husband. She clutched his hand with excitement and began to smile. "Let's dance after we check in," she insisted. Mark just rolled his eyes with a look of irritation. She used to love his eyes, so blue; the color of calm and clarity. Now they just reminded her of how cold and unfeeling he could be, like a block of ice.
"Tickets please," said a narrow man at the hall's inside entrance. Mei handed over the two orange sheets of printed stock card. "Name?"
"Mei-Lin and Mark Hafford."
"Table 36, please sit in the assigned seats," the ticket taker breathed without enthusiasm. "Next!"
Mark was happy to find that their table was closest to the exit. "They spelled my name wrong," the man began to complain as he took his seat and held up the name card in front of it. "It says Hanford instead of Hafford. We paid fifty bucks a piece for this dinner, the least they could do is check the spelling."
Mei could already tell that this was going to be a long night unless she could find something to hold her husband's interest. "Hey look," the woman gestured toward the bar. "Someone with an old varsity jacket. Maybe you know him."
Mark squinted his eyes before a grin slowly spread across his face. "Hey! Hey Bruce!" the man got up from his seat and began walking over to say hello.
Sure, she was alone and probably the only person sitting down, but Mei felt relieved once her husband left the table. It was still nice to watch all of the other couples dance and have a good time, even if she wasn't included. Plus, she was still anticipating the award ceremony that was scheduled for the end of the night.
Once the current song ended, someone took hold of the microphone and directed everyone to take their seats. The alumni and their dates scattered from the dance floor quickly, knowing that it meant dinner was about to be served.
Mei smiled as her husband returned to their table. From what she could tell, the other couple assigned to sit with them had never shown up. So she and Mark actually had a good shot at having a very private, romantic dinner together. A female server gracefully set their meals on the linen table cloth; chicken for her and steak for him.
"Looks good," Mark said while inhaling the aroma of his food. It was the first nice thing that he'd said all day and although it wasn't much, those words made his wife feel happy. Unfortunately, that feeling was short lived. He picked up his plate and moved to a nearby table where some of his old sports buddies were sitting with their wives. Mei hadn't been invited over and even if she had been, there were no seats left for her to join in. She had been abandoned. Sitting by herself, it didn't take long to realize that other people were trying to hide that fact that they were staring at her, whispering, joking, pitying...
Embarrassment got the best of her and Mei just wanted to get to the ladies room before she became too upset. She stood up from the table abruptly, accidentally knocking over her glass of water, which caused a domino effect against Mark's glass, and the candelabra centerpiece that would have sent everything up in flames if not for the tablecloth being soaked. Embarrassment turned to utter humiliation as she heard people begin to laugh and saw that Mark was just looking at her, shaking his head as if he were ashamed. Mei grew more frustrated as she tried to undo her mess, but it was impossible. Once two servers came to her aid, she grabbed her purse and ran out of the dining hall.
Outside on the front curb, Mei waved her arms trying to hail a taxi. Her face began to tighten as the trail of tears dried on her skin from the evening air. It was only then that she realized how much she had been crying.
"Gimme a break!" the dark haired woman stamped her foot. Someone stole the second cab she'd tried to flag down within the last 5 minutes. Just then, a few people from the dining hall began to emerge from inside to have a smoke. Mei turned away, not wanting to be seen, but with no real place to run. From the corner of her eye she saw people seemingly rise up from the pavement and realized that they were climbing the stairs of the subway. Mei rushed down the steps in time to board a two-car train. Not that she was going anyplace in particular; she just needed to get away. Without much of a plan, Mei eventually went to the only place she knew better than she knew herself, Chinatown.
Four dollars later, Mei was in familiar territory. The sight of red lanterns and fresh laundry hanging out on balconies, the smell fried rice, and the chatter of disoriented tourists with bad maps, told her that she was home. The streets were mostly empty now that it was getting late and the popular shops had closed for the night, but it was something that she was grateful for. The midday crowd was irritating as is and she wouldn't have been able to tolerate them right now without making a scene.
After two blocks, the dark haired woman finally came to her parent's building and began to climb the stairs. For the last 25 years, they had lived in an upstairs apartment while leasing the shop below to a typical Chinese souvenir business. She knocked on the apartment door, but there was no answer. She knocked again.
"Mama!" she called and tried to peek in the curtained side windows. "Mama, it's Mei-Lin!" she said loudly, wondering if her parents were already asleep. It wasn't like her mother and especially not like her father to just leave her out on the porch like that.
"Can I help you?" someone asked from behind.
Mei spun around and saw a young man ascending the staircase with groceries in his arms.
"What? What do you want?" she asked suspiciously, wondering why a stranger was walking his way up to her parent's home in the middle of the night. He was tall and the black knit hat on his head made him look like the thugs that usually hang out in the back alleys.
"Uh, well I live here."
"No you don't. My mom and dad live here. A lot of these old buildings look the same. You're just turned around is all. So—,"
"No," the young man interrupted with just a hint of amusement in his voice and the beginning of a grin. "I'm renting this apartment from an older couple, while they're away."
Suddenly, Mei was struck by the fact that he was indeed telling the truth. She'd totally forgotten that her parents would be visiting relatives in China until the Fall. She slapped a hand to her forehead and began to laugh. It was a bubbly, ridiculous sort of laugh at her own expense.
"Can, haha...can this night really get any worse?!" she kept giggling and just couldn't stop. "This has probably been one of the worst nights of my life! Hahaha...!" she continued before taking a deep breath and ending it with a depressed sigh. "I'm so sorry to bother you," she shook her head in defeat and began to descend the staircase.
"Well, wait. You look like you need a rest. Maybe just come in and sit for awhile."
"Could I? I mean if it isn't too much trouble. I don't usually ask this sort of thing but—,"
"Hey, I'm the one that offered in the first place, aren't I?" the man interrupted her again. "C'mon up."
The apartment was just as Mei remembered it, aside from a few additions. She began to wonder what her parents were actually charging for the furnished apartment, knowing that they really took pride in their belongings. Chinatown wasn't exactly an ideal place to live with so much daily congestion and all, so the furniture probably made good justification for higher rent.
"You got a name?" the dark haired woman asked, trying to sound cool. She didn't usually talk like that, but this guy seemed pretty young and she didn't want to feel like an old lady around him.
"Jonathon. I'm guessing that you're Mei-Lin?"
She nodded to the question. "That's me. But just Mei is fine."
"So, Mei, you want a beer or something?"
"Please," the older woman smiled after taking her shoes off at the door and sliding them next to Jonathon's. She was surprised to see that an Asian male from his generation still honored that tradition. Maybe manners hadn't yet been lost on all people his age.
The house was still momentarily dark, but as her host began to turn on more lights, she was able get a better look at him. He had a pleasant face, beautiful even. After a quick trip to the kitchen to put his groceries away, Jonathon came back out with two long necks of popular Chinese beer. Mei took a sip as she eased herself onto the couch and closed her eyes, savoring the flavor. She wasn't much of a drinker, but if now wasn't the appropriate time for a beer, then there never would be one. She watched as the younger man removed his hat, revealing a long braid that swung down from underneath. He undid the braid and gently massaged his scalp before bringing the long, wild locks over his shoulder. He had a seat in the adjacent arm chair, sinking into its comfort much the way his houseguest had done. Mei blushed, she'd always found long hair attractive on a man.
"So what's with the big jacket?" Jonathon began. "Aren't you hot in here with that thing on?"
"No," the dark haired woman shook her head. It was a lie, especially after all of the walking she'd just done. But she just didn't have the confidence to take it off.
"Another beer?" the young man asked, noticing that Mei had already drunk her first one rather quickly.
"Yes, please." Jonathon returned with two more long necks from the fridge. "Thank you. I really do appreciate your hospitality and..." suddenly Mei paused before changing her words to something less formal again. "I mean, thanks man. This, this is so awesome of you. Totally," she shrugged while trying to remember some trendy phrases from her youth.
"You okay?" Jonathon asked while tilting his head to one side. "Well, you look like you came from someplace special. I'm guessing you already had a drink or two, right?" the boy smiled.
"Uh...yeah," the woman agreed, realizing now that her attempts to sound younger were only making her seem like a fool and being that she already felt like one, it was time to just drop the charade. She was ready for this night to be over, ready to board the plane back to Texas, and just forget that this trip had ever even occurred. "I have to make a phone call, is it okay if I go into another room for some privacy?"
"No problem," the long haired man insisted.
Mei went to her old bedroom, which was now being used by Jonathon and sat on the bed while making a phone call to her husband. The voicemail picked up so she left a message:
Mark, it's me. I'm at my parent's house. Long story short, I need a ride back. Talk to you later.
It was still partially light outside when Mei had made her journey to Chinatown, but now it was dark and probably not safe to venture back to the hotel in a cocktail dress and spike heels by herself. Either someone would try to take advantage of her or the police might mistake her for a streetwalker.
Back in the living room, Jonathon eyed some of the old family photos that were still hanging on the wall with Mei-Lin in them. She was an only child, so most of the pictures were of her. She looked so happy, so satisfied with life in all of those pictures. But that must have been such a long time ago, because today all he saw was sorrow on her otherwise pretty face; fair with naturally rosy lips.
"I'm back," the woman said upon reentering the room. "I kinda walked here, so I'm waiting on a ride," she said after plopping back down onto the sofa and beginning to fan herself with one hand.
"Let me guess, you're naked under there."
"What?!" Mei's eyes shot open and her hair bounced as she sat up at full attention. "What would make you say such a thing?!" she exclaimed in a tone that eerily reminded her of her mother.
"Well, for one you really took to that beer I gave you and now you're fanning yourself, but you won't take off that jacket. Must be naked," the boy shrugged.
"I'm not naked!" the woman said, suddenly standing up and removing the large jacket. For a moment the beer had actually made her feel relaxed enough to do so, but the sensation of cool air on her skin brought her back to the matter at hand and she began to feel shameful again, ready to cover herself back up until—
"Wow..." Jonathon said with his jaw still hanging open as he sized up every inch of her body; the swell of her bosom, the curve of her hips. She wasn't very thin, but still delicate looking. To him, it looked as if the dress she was hiding had been specially made for her body.
Mei paused for a moment, trying to interpret his reaction. "Wow, as in 'that dress looks good on you' or Wow, 'I can't believe you were dumb enough to wear that'?" she asked.
"Wow, as in you look sexy." Jonathon smiled at her in a way that he hadn't before then. "Oh...sorry," he suddenly apologized while shaking his head. "I'm assuming you kept the jacket on to stop guys from leering at you and here I am doing just that. I hope I haven't offended you."
"No, you haven't. Actually, I kept the jacket because I wasn't feeling very confident before now."
"Someone said something to me earlier...made me a little upset. But anyway," Mei changed the subject. "I'm flattered, thank you, and definitely not offended. I really needed a compliment tonight," the woman smiled. Suddenly feeling so vindicated for her fashion choice.
"Well, you smell nice too."
"Thank you again," Mei nodded with a genuine smile.
"And those heels looked pretty good on you when we first met. Gotta love a woman in high heels."
"Uh..." Mei's eyes widened once she realized the direction that this conversation was taking. "Don't you think I'm a little old..." she gulped. "...for you to be hitting on me?" Mei was especially surprised because in their culture, it was still very taboo for a younger male and older female to even flirt with the idea of attraction, let alone actually flirt with each other. She still remembered the way her aunties used to gossip years ago about Thora Yang, the piano teacher who was 41 when everyone discovered that she was having an affair with Po, a 29 year old former student. "Slut," was the nicest thing they had to say about her.
"You look young enough to me," Jonathon shrugged, smiling and obviously very interested in his houseguest. I'm 26 and you don't look that much older than I am."
Mei blushed, not really knowing what more to say. She really hadn't expected to get this much attention tonight. It almost made up for the fiasco of a dinner she'd attended earlier. Anxiously, she began looking at her watch and fiddling with it, thinking of something to say that might take her mind away from how much she was really enjoying Jonathon's company.
"I'm married," the woman said abruptly. She had to say it. It was the only way to keep herself focused on the fact that, no, nothing could ever happen between her and another man. And, no, she shouldn't be enjoying herself right now. "My husband should be picking me up soon. Any minute now," Mei smiled nervously. "Any minute..."
It was around 10:30 and Mark was still at the dinning hall, finishing his second serving of cake while he and Bruce Mackey discussed some of the changes that had occurred on campus since their graduation.
"So hey," Bruce started. "You still married? Didn't you bring your wife to this thing?"
"Oh yeah, she's hangin' around here somewhere."
"Really? I haven't seen her all night."
"Well she was the one who left earlier," Bruce's wife chimed in. "Remember when she knocked all that stuff over? She left the dining hall and then I never saw her come back in again. I even went to look for her, to see if she was okay. But she was gone."
"She probably just went back to the hotel," Mark reasoned.
"Maybe you should give her a call. Just to see if she's okay," Bruce insisted.
"Yeah, maybe so," Mark agreed. Taking out his cell phone, he noticed to that there was a voicemail waiting for him. He had a quick listen before putting the phone back in his pocket. "She left a voicemail. Something about being at her parent's house."
"Good. I'm glad she's safe," Bruce's wife smiled.
The dessert tray circled back around and everyone went back to their prior conversation while Mei waited patiently in her parent's apartment. She felt nervous to be alone with Jonathon but overall glad that her husband had not shown up yet.
"So you're a bartender, huh?" the dark haired woman asked, trying not to monopolize the conversation. She'd already done so much talking about herself, but only because Jonathon had asked so many questions, as if he actually cared about the answers. And even if he didn't, she was glad that he at least cared enough to pretend. Although their conversation had been casual, his eyes said other things; such soft brown eyes. She loved the way he looked at her, the way he smiled at the sound of her voice. But it was time to make him do the talking. Besides, listening to whatever he had to say might finally take her mind off that damn reunion party. No matter how hard she tried not to talk about it, it just kept coming up.