She sat at the green laminate table and pulled her sweater closer around her in an attempt to keep the cold of the rain from creeping in under the poorly caulked window of the Chinese restaurant. The dining room was nearly empty. Two teenagers sat in the far corner table. The remains of pork fried rice sprinkled around them, testament to their lack of finesse with chopsticks. An older Asian couple sat together in the center of the room; the owners she guessed. Three large metal bowls sat in front of them. Two of the bowls were filled with steamed rice. The third was full to the top with what looked like fried fish bones. They picked morsels from the fish, scooped a bit of rice and tucked the food into their mouths while chattering in their mother tongue. The room was quiet and sedate. There was no music only the gentle tapping of rain on the windows. The lights were dim for atmosphere or because of grease, she didn't know and didn't care. She was the only other guest in the room and she relished the solitude.
By contrast, the kitchen, as viewed through a wide open doorway behind the counter, was a carnival. Flames lept in the air to the tune of sizzling vegetables. The young girl at the counter barked instruction at the men standing at the grill. When they failed to move quickly enough the girl jumped from her chair and took a spot at one of the large woks.
She watched, fascinated by the choreography, wondering which would be her order.
Hot and Sour soup, fried dumplings, sa-cha chicken.
Her stomach growled and she smiled to herself as she tried to remember the first time.
There had been no Chinese restaurants growing up. Oh, there were, just none that her family would have eaten at. Back then the most exotic Chinese food was Chung King from a can with those crispy noodles that tasted better alone than with the beefy chowmein over them. There had been sweet and sour pork, made in eighth grade home-ec class and then recreated at home. There was a take out place in college...but the first real Chinese restaurant...
She closed her eyes and looked back into the past. There was a place they use to go to...way up north of the city. And that buffet with the roaches...She could recall the decor of sea shell pictures of birds and autographed celebrity photos. The hot peppers their friend had eaten whole and the plum wine a server had given them free of charge all because they looked so happy. But she could not, no matter how hard she tried, remember the food. It was as if hot and sour soup and fried dumplings were an innate part of her.
"Excuse me! Excuse me!" the young girl at the counter nodded towards her table. "Miss?" And as she looked up from the past the girl motioned towards a bag on the counter.
"Oh, thank you!" she replied and pulling her sweater closer, leaving the past behind, she walked to the counter, picked up the bag. She paused at the table of condiments, studying the packets of sweet and sour sauce and tiny envelopes of red hot pepper.
The door opened and a whip of cool, damp, late autumn air pushed in. A man followed. He carried a similar bag, plopping it on the counter. No one noticed except the counter girl. He spoke quietly to her, handing her his receipt. The girl studied it and pushed it back into his hand.
"No. Order is correct." The girl sat back on her stool, crossing her arms across her chest.
"But it isn't. These dumplings are soft. Not...crispy..." he rubbed his fingers in the air in a poor attempt at pantomime texture.
"No. You order steamed. You get steamed." The girl held her ground.
"But I wanted crispy." He sighed in defeat.
She turned, bag in hand. "You still do it wrong.You always wanted fried but you always ordered steamed."
He tipped his head at the sound of her voice. A smile played at one side of his mouth. "You have fried, don't you."
"Want to trade?" he lifted his eyebrows in a cartoon manner.
"You mean like I did, over and over for four years?" She lifted her eyebrows as well. "No, I do not wish to trade." She felt a brief moment of victory as his shoulders, his smile and his eyebrows fell. But the moment was the briefest of brief and the memory of those many nights at that other Chinese place came back. "Place another order. We can share mine until yours are ready."
He smiled then. That smile from so many years ago; the smile that made her feel lost.
"So, you want more dumpling?" The girl at the counter tapped her pencil on a menu, ready to circle his order before barking it to the men in the back. "You want right ones this time?"
"Yes. I want the right one...this time." He smiled that smile again, looking down at his shoes for a second before taking the few steps down the counter to where she stood at the condiment table. He said nothing else, just placed his hands on either side of her face and kissed her.
And she didn't feel lost at all.
This is a work of fiction, although the restaurant described are ones I hold fond memories of. The story was inspired by my current favorite Chinese place, as I waited for my order one night and tried to remember the very first time I ate at a Chinese restaurant. I honestly can't remember the first one. But I do remember my favorites.
And it is a stretch...but the title does begin with 'U'. And there are numerous 'u's throughout. Six in this very paragraph...