I sit in a tiny, crowded, too brightly lit restaurant in Chinatown and wonder why I spent so much money and put so much effort into being here. I’ve attended this Chinese New Year’s dinner every year for the last fourteen years but it is time to stop. It’s like knowing when to end a relationship. When you look at your partner and you just can’t remember what you liked about them in the first place. There is nothing fun about this anymore. The food is horrible, the restaurant is dirty, the staff is uncaring, the other guests are annoying. I promise myself, I am never going to this dinner party again.
The problem is, how do I tell the host? I’m only here for him. When next year’s cleverly worded invite arrives in my inbox, how do I say no?
It’s possible he won’t care. I’m sure other guests have come and gone over the years. I’ll bet a few of them have even died over the 34 years this party has repeated itself. And I am only one of the eighty or so people on his list.
But I know he will care. Every year he sends me a follow-up email to the invite. This year’s read, “Are you, you fetching young woman, coming to the Chinese dinner? There is little point in my hosting this event absent you.” So yes, he will care if I say no.
I know what you are thinking, and you are not completely wrong. Anyone who would call me young must be deluded, right? But it happens that he is fifteen years my senior, so he is allowed to say that. Oh? You are asking if there is something more to our relationship beyond guest and host? Well, sort of.
I met our host at work seventeen years ago. There were a dozen of us in our own little department, lost inside a huge company, trying (and ultimately failing) to implement a particular piece of software. Towards the end of my time there, our lunches got longer and longer as we had less and less work to do. These lingering lunches happened at a nearby Italian restaurant that had an extensive wine cellar and an impressive collection of Scotch. Much alcohol was consumed. We all got very close.
A slight tangent here – I am still amazed at the luck I had in working with that particular group of people. The friendships haven’t lasted, but the memories always will. What good times we had! We talked about everything under the sun and sometimes beyond. We could make each other laugh uncontrollably with a single word, or even just a look. We knew each others most embarrassing secrets, the trials and tribulations of each others marriages and offspring, and shared intimate details even our spouses didn’t know. I was too inexperienced to recognize how special that situation was, and I did not know that the experience would not, could not be repeated.
At some point during the evening, the host’s wife comes over to say hi and we exchange some mild chit-chat. She knows. She knows that I know she knows. The host and I have been friends for a long time. I know exactly how his relationship with this wife started. While a first spouse has the naiveté to believe in ’til death do us part,’ a second spouse knows there is always the possibility of a third.
But she is wrong in her supposition. The fact is, my relationship with the host had never crossed that line. What the host and I shared, during those lunches where we went off to a corner by ourselves, was a love of literature and reading. He taught me to read Shakespeare the way no teacher in high school ever could. The host gave me the awe I feel now for a man 400 years dead, who could write plays that still resonate in a modern readers heart. We discussed my dislike of poetry and he introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay, and when he emailed me her poem ‘what lips my lips have kissed,’ I cried in relief that someone understood the way I felt about my past relationships. I have the host to thank for my love of Wharton and Thackeray and Woolf, and for the acerbic Dr. Johnson and his faithful sidekick Boswell.
Oh, there were moments when something could have happened, when the emails slid into a realm where I worried about some ethics officer at work calling me out, but it never did. And anyway, that was a long time ago in a lifetime very far away from now. Now, here, in this crowded restaurant, my thoughts and feelings are very different from then. Now I wonder, Why am I here?
I’m here because fourteen years ago, the host asked me, and only me among our little circle of work-mates, to come to this annual celebration of his love for a far away culture. I felt flattered and honored and at that first dinner, my husband and I had a wonderful experience. The bizarre traditions that had developed over the earlier years were fun to me then. The people we met were clever and interesting. The second year the invite was repeated, although I had moved on to another job. My husband and I went again, and again it was wonderful, because this time I was prepared, and instead of just watching the antics of my table mates, I could join in on the fun.
And every year I received the invite, despite the lack of conversation with the host in the intervening time. And every year I went. And so on and so on… through the year of my divorce when I went alone, and up till now when I’ve brought (dragged) my boyfriend to this dinner, his third time.
And here my boyfriend and I sit, talking only to each other because the other people are strangers whose names I never remember. I can’t laugh anymore at the over-the-top toasts, I can barely stop myself at rolling my eyes at the more drunk people at the table. I avoid the food which, honestly, smells too fishy to eat.
The food is obscene. There is so much of it, piled in mounds on the center of every table, the guests all reaching over each other with inaccurate chop sticks to stuff their faces with tofu and crabs and rice and noodles and jellyfish and everything else you can imagine. I don’t want to sound like someone who can’t appreciate the cuisines of other cultures. I’ve traveled all over this world and I have eaten Chinese food everywhere, including China, and I like most of it. Just not served this way for so many people all at once at a too small table where the guy next to me is spitting partially chewed fried rice on me while he talks over my head to someone else.
I am never coming back.
My boyfriend and I sit through the end of the meal with false smile plastered to our faces, holding back the yawns, and then, finally it is almost time to go. It is time for the last of the ‘silly’ traditions that have occurred and re-occurred through at least the past 14 years. And there is nothing Chinese or even ‘new yearsy’ about this final part of the night.
Our host gets up to sing.
He is a big man. A few inches taller than six feet and at least, for now, 250 lbs. He has broad shoulders and a very masculine voice. But for all this manliness, he is very gentle and quiet, shy even.
Which is why it is so odd when this large man of Scottish decent starts singing a part of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, in Italian! The part he sings is the scene where Don Giovanni (aka Don Juan) is seducing a bride, right after her marriage ceremony. The host sings both parts, Don Giovanni in a deep baritone, and the part of the bride in a sweet falsetto. It has to be seen to be believed. Funny and charming and not a little amazing. I have no idea when or why this tradition started, it was before my time, but it is the best part of the evening.
The 80 or so people who come back to this event year after year have at least one thing in common. We all love this strange and charming man. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the guests have stories like mine, perhaps not with as many sexual undertones, but I’ll bet a lot of them get the personal email right after the global invite. I am probably not the only one who dislikes the food or the atmosphere or the forced intimacy with virtual strangers. I’m sure others wonder why, year after year, we spent the money and the time and the effort to get to this place.
But then it is at this moment, when he is holding that last ridiculous note and we all stand to laugh and applaud and scream ‘Bravo’ (and ‘Brava,’ of course,) that I think, well, that wasn’t so bad. I can see the love and affection shining in the tear-stained eyes of the other guests and I understand exactly why I am here. And why, next year, when the invite once again lights up my inbox, I will reply ‘yes.’