“Where are you taking me?” Elle asked curiously.
“Just wait,” JZ replied simply with a slight smile.
“You’ve been driving for 10 minutes. What secret do you have?” she asked curiously.
“We’re almost there,” he simply said with a slightly bigger smile.
He drove for a few more blocks and parked in a tiny restaurant’s parking lot. He went out to open Elle’s door while she was reaching for her purse in the back. He offered his hand to help her out of the car, and she gladly accepted. He shut the door and led her to the front door, opening it for her.
“Wow, this is quite small,” she thought. “Only two small tables and four chairs, all made of wood. The walls and bar were of old-style antique timber. Even the floor is made of that kind of timber, though more worn from being…ballroom danced on? The red lanterns above each table were off, and only light source was from the glass window.” She went over to a wall with an old scroll that looked like it had poetry on it. She looked at it and could only read a handful of characters, not knowing what the whole content was. She turned her head toward the door and JZ was no longer there. She turned around and saw him with a chair pulled out for her. She smiled and walked over and sat in the seat designated for her.
He took his own seat. Intrigued at why Elle went to the wall with one scroll when she could have gone to the opposite wall with two scrolls, he asked her, “Why did you choose to read that scroll?”
“I don’t know. I could only read a few characters. Do you know what it says or what it’s about?” she asked simply.
“The title is, ‘For Hua Qing.’ It’s a poem written by Du Fu cautioning General Hua for his desire of luxury.”
She did not understand that so she pantomimed as if she were using his phone to type. He took his phone out and began typing. The waitress came. “Hi Mr. JZ,” she said cheerfully as she handed him the menu. He scanned the menu. “Let’s start with two glasses of iced coffee.” She wrote it down.
“Does the Dragon’s Head Tofu have any eggs or meat in it?” JZ asked.
“It doesn’t have meat but it has eggs,” answered the waitress.
“Is there any way the chef can cook it without eggs?”
“Sorry, Mr. JZ. Without eggs, the chef wouldn’t be able to shape them into balls.”
“Can the eggs be substituted with something vegetarian that would allow the chef to shape them?”
“I don’t know, Mr. JZ. If there is no substitute, would you like me to request the chef to deep-fry the ingredients without the eggs?”
“Is it any good without eggs?” he joked.
She chuckled. “I don’t know, Mr. JZ. No one has ever requested this dish to be made without eggs.”
“I’ll give it a try. I would also like the Spicy Spinach Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds. One dish each.”
“For future reference, the salad has eggs but they can be substituted with tofu.”
“Thanks,” he said and returned the menu, and the waitress went to the back.
He looked at Elle’s smiling face, wondering why she was she was smiling. “Why are you smiling?”
“I like iced coffee,” she simply replied.
“Good.” He looked at her big, brown, soft, and joyful eyes looking back at his. Then he saw them look down toward the table. His eyes quickly followed, seeing that she was looking at his phone. He flipped his phone over to the screen and remembered that he was typing what he had said earlier about Du Fu’s poem. He finished and handed it to her.
“Oh,” she said, as if it was a fun fact, and smiled at him. “It certainly reflects this restaurant, don’t you think?” she typed and handed the phone back.
“Yes. Everything in here looks old, but the most expensive-looking things in here are probably the scrolls on the walls,” he typed.
The waitress came and set the two glasses of iced coffee on the table, and both of them thanked her.
Elle read the message and she smiled. “Can you read it to me?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said, unable to deny her request even if she was not smiling with her soft pink lips, and big, brown, soft, joyful eyes looking in his.
“In Jincheng, music of silk and flutes mixed together all day, “jin cheng si guan ri fen fen
Half goes to the river breeze, half goes to the clouds. ban ru jiang feng ban ru yun
Music such as this should only go to heaven above, ci qu zhi ying tian shang qu
In this human world, how many times can it be heard?” ren jian neng de ji hui wen”
She was staring at his lips, moving slowly as he read the poem, and hearing this wonderfully melodic sound from his mouth, despite not grasping what he was actually saying. He took her hands from her lap and held them on the table. Then he brought the back of her hands to his lips as he gazed at her reaction. She softly giggled. She took back a hand and tapped her finger on her lips, then tucked it back in his hand. They both leaned in to kiss the other.
Elle withdrew her lips and looked at JZ’s sparkling brown eyes and his looking back at hers. They both smelled something good and knew it was deep-fried. They turned in the same direction and saw the waitress holding a tray with a steaming plate of what looked like meatballs deep-fried until golden brown on a bed of lettuce and other leafy greens, and two bowls of rice. Elle quickly took back her hands and leaned on the back of her chair, giving the waitress enough space to place the food on the table. Elle looked at the waitress and thanked her. “The chef was able to substitute eggs for rice, and called this ‘Dragon’s Scales Tofu.’ Enjoy!” cheerfully said the waitress and left the couple.
JZ took a pair of chopsticks from its container on the table and handed it Elle. “Thank you,” she whispered. He smiled and got a pair for himself.
He cut into one of them picked up a piece, wrapped some greens around it, blew on it, and fed it to her. He laughed hard at the spectacle of her arm-swinging, hand-waving, shoulder-shrugging, and head-bopping. “What are you doing?” he asked while laughing hard.
“Dancing,” she responded with food in her mouth.
Still laughing, “That’s not what dancing looks like.”
She ignored him.
“I’ll take this as you like it,” he said, still laughing, but noticed that none of her moves repeated.
“Correct,” she replied, swallowed and stopped dancing. She did the same for him and waited for him to finish laughing before feeding it to him. He too, began moving his torso, arms, hands, shoulders, neck, and head around. She laughed loudly. “His moves are all choreographed and I’ve seen them all before,” she said to herself, realizing how much funnier it was when she was dancing in her seat. He continued dancing in his seat until she stopped laughing on her own.
“Are you happier than you were a moment ago?” he asked light-heartily and smiling.
She was smiling and nodded her head quickly, feeding him a few more dragon scales, and then some rice followed. He started dancing in his seat again, but she only smiled, so he stopped and fed her a few pieces followed by some rice. They continued to feed each other until the plate and rice bowls were empty, their eyes kept seizing the increasingly tense atmosphere.
Then the waitress arrived to take the plate and bowls and placed the bowl of Spicy Spinach Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds in between the couple. After drinking some iced coffee, she picked up her chopsticks, carefully chose the carrots, beansprouts, mint leaves, and pumpkin seed to neatly wrap them in the spinach and wiped the spicy dressing, and fed him.
“Delicious,” he whispered and fed her a neatly folded bite as well.
She kept her smile and gently nodded her head.
“Do you like spicy food?” he whispered again.
“I like spicy food but not super spicy food,” she whispered back. “Do you like spicy food?”
“I’m from Sichuan, so of course I like spicy food.”
“Is this a Sichuan salad?”
“No, it’s not spicy enough. Is it too spicy for you?”
They continued eating with an increasingly tense atmosphere. All of a sudden, Elle rubbed her forehead with her fingers and her head down. “Give me your phone,” she said quietly. He handed it to her, thinking, “She’s probably playing a trick on me.” She widened her eyes to get a clearer picture of the letters on the phone. “Why is everything moving?” she asked herself and heard her voice echo. “JZ, I can’t see the words clearly,” she said, placing the phone on the table, her head still down and one hand still rubbing her forehead. “words…” she said and traced circles on the screen.
He took a step to her and knelt on the floor. He cupped her round face in his hands and gently turned it to face him. “Why is her face so hot like it’s on fire? Why is her face all red? Why does her face look like she’s fighting a demon inside herself?” he asked himself worriedly. “WAITRESS!” he yelled. “WAITRESS! WAITRESS!”
She rushed over. “What’s wrong?” she asked worriedly.
“Was there alcohol in any of the dishes I ordered?” he loudly demanded.
“The Dragon’s Scales Tofu had a tiny bit of white wine! Other than that, nothing else you ordered had alcohol!” she loudly responded. “What can I do?”
“Bring me a pitcher of water, NOW!” he loudly demanded.
The waitress sped off to the back. JZ gently held Elle in his arms and slowly laid her down on the floor with her head resting on his lap. The waitress quickly returned with a handful of water bottles in her arms and the chef helped her carry the remaining bottles. “We don’t have a pitcher but we have water bottles!” the waitress said loudly, finding the couple on the floor. She knelt down and let the bottles fall on the floor all at once and opened one and handed it to JZ, and he grabbed it from her. “She’s only a little drunk,” said the old chef, “she can sleep it off and be fine by evening.”
“Does she look like she likes being drunk, old woman?” JZ attacked. He dodged Elle’s arms and elbows to pour it into her mouth. Elle briefly choked on the unexpected icy water. “Listen to me,” said JZ, trying not to sound worried, “listen to me, drink some water. I’ll help you sit so you can drink water, ok?” he said, putting the bottle on the floor and slowly helping her sit up with her back leaning against his chest. “Water is coming,” he said, putting one hand under her chin and tilted her head back slightly, while the other hand brought the mouth of the bottle to her lips. Slowly, the water slipped between her lips.
She nudged his arm with her elbow so she could swallow. “Good,” he said calmly, “water is coming again.” Slowly, the thin stream of water entered between her lips. After an hour of drinking water, she took her hand and shielded her mouth, breathing a little hard. “I need to use the restroom,” she quietly said.
“Can you stand?” he asked.
She slowly opened her eyes and looked forward. “The chair doesn’t look to be too far,” she said to herself, and reached it with her hand but she did not even feel it on her fingertips. She looked at the floor beside her, and put her hand on the floor, then the other hand on her other side and pushed herself up in a squatting position. She wobbled and JZ put his hands firmly on her hips, quickly getting up himself to get a hold of her shoulders.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
“Where is the restroom?” she asked.
The chef and waitress pointed toward the back.
“That looks kind of far,” she said to herself, and tried to reach for the chair again, but she still could not reach it. “I’ll just walk on the other side of the table,” she said to herself and took a few small steps then stopped.
“I can carry you there,” JZ said, but she ignored him, and took another few bigger steps, then stopped again. Once she reached the entryway to the bar and the back of the restaurant, she leaned her hand against the wall and walked a little quicker. Once she reached the intersection, she looked to her left, then her right.
“Where is the restroom?” she asked again.
“On your right. It’s against the wall,” said the waitress, right behind JZ.
Elle took her leaning hand and wrapped it around the corner to make a right. She took bigger steps and saw a sign on the door with white male and female figures against a blue circle. She reached for the door knob and turned it, and groped the restroom’s wall for a light switch. “Yes! Found it!” she said to herself and the tiny room lit up. She entered and turned around to close the door, and saw JZ was right behind her. “Don’t listen,” she said and closed the door. She sighed a heavy sigh. “Almost didn’t make it there,” she said to herself.
When Elle was done, she slowly returned to the dining area and heard JZ quietly arguing with the chef and waitress. She approached the three of them without them seeing or hearing her. “Stop arguing. Pay and go,” she calmly said.
“But-” he began.
“You didn’t know a dish had alcohol and they didn’t know that I don’t drink alcohol. Hurry up and pay so we can go. I’ll wait for you at your car.”
When she reached the car door, JZ rushed over and opened it for her, then helped her in. He got into the car and placed a water bottle in the cup holder and handed the other one to Elle. “Keep drinking,” he ordered. He dropped her purse in the back, started the car and thought to himself for a moment. She pressed the bottle against her fiery red face.
“Do you want to go home?” he asked.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Four thirty,” he replied.
“Then I can’t go back home. When we were at Mike’s and Xiao Xing’s office, you made some phone calls. Go to the people whom you called.”
“How did you know I planned something?”
She pantomimed typing on the phone. He typed it handed the phone for her to read. She squinted and enlarged her eyes, but eventually was able to decipher the question, and returned the phone.
“Because I’m really smart,” she replied.
“Don’t drive too fast and don’t turn too quickly,” she added, making the hand-gesture for turning, just in case she used the wrong word.
“I need to call one more person,” he said, and called someone. “Hello? Good, you’re awake. I need you to buy me some things. Go find a pair of … color. I don’t know what size. You’re … her size … Yes. Bring them to Mike and Xiao Xing’s office. Many thanks. Bye,” was all Elle understood.
“I need to go to the restroom,” she calmly said, placing the water bottle in the other cup holder and opened her door.
He quickly got out of the car to help her step out.
“I can go by myself. It’s not too far. You need to watch your car.”
She held onto the car to get her unfocused vision to stay as still as possible. Then she walked back into the restaurant. The waitress was not surprised to see her again. “Do you need something else?” she asked, hoping it’s not another thing wrong with her.
“I need to use the restroom,” Elle calmly replied.
“Of course,” she cheerfully said and got out of Elle’s way.
When Elle came out toward the bar, she saw the waitress with a bottle of water in her hand. “Please take this with you,” she said sincerely. “We didn’t know you would get that drunk that quickly. None of our customers complained of ever getting drunk.”
“I know you both didn’t know. Thank you, but I must go,” she said calmly and resumed taking small steps toward the door.
“Please take this with you,” she repeated sincerely.
“I must hurry. He is waiting for me.”
The waitress opened the door for Elle, and followed her out. She went ahead to JZ, who was waiting for Elle with an opened passenger door, and said, “Please take this with you. I offered but she wouldn’t take it.”
“I figured. If she won’t take it then she won’t take it. I don’t want her to get mad at me,” he said light-heartily, amused and not surprised.
“Alright then. Have a safe trip,” she said cheerfully. “Have a safe trip,” she said to Elle, approaching the car, and the waitress returned to the restaurant.
*Link to some of Du Fu’s other poems with translations and pinyin