I’ll have an order of Happy Family with a side of pork fried rice.
—And, for me . . . General Tso’s Chicken with a side of Lo Mein—and two eggrolls, too! says Nina spryly.
—Will that be all, asks Mrs. Réncí.
We both nod.
—Okay : One happy family, side of pork fried rice; one general tso’s chicken with lo mein noodles, and two eggrolls? she confirms, nodding and winking at Nina.
—That’s correct, Nina says. Thanks, smiling.
—It’ll be about fifteen minutes.
—We’ll wait outside, I say. Thanks again.
Mrs. Réncí nods an acknowledgment, turning toward the kitchen. Her daughter, Yù, sits at the lone table in this take-out-only-Chinese-spot, playing a game on her tablet, occasionally looking up to witness the night through the windowpane. We eyesmile and nod at the young girl as we exit.
Nina takes a cigarette from her pack, grabs the lighter, lowers her mask, and is inhaling shortly after stepping out.
Cigarettes, counterintuitive to the less conscientious smoker’s notion that smoking is a means by which the body calms, cause the heart to race. She’s already drunk on a chemical cocktail of neurotransmitters, bloomed in a warm wash of adrenaline, which, half an hour, or so, ago, was surging through her. A wave, now ebbing, she continues to wade in after the pre-opening-night, invitation-only dress rehearsal. There’s no need for further cardiac arousal, but—what do I, the former-smoker, know.
The cast performed well tonight. Three Sisters, she, Irina. Only minor hiccups. A typical audience member won’t be wise to such negligible errs. They may experience the miscues as interpretation, but nothing more. The cast is prepared for tomorrow, opening night.
I’m proud of Nina. She’s proud of herself. They are proud of themselves. The pride is well partook of. We’re all a bit giddy, for reasons both personal and shared.
—Hand me your phone, I want to see the pictures you took, Nina urges. Fingers clawing the air urgently.
—O, it’s a lot. I took so many. You’ll be pleased.
—Good, good, good, and good and good and good—now gimme!
Upon viewing the first picture, we stop to talk about it as if one of us weren’t just there and required the unphotographed details explained. A swipe or two later, stop again for reportage. Excitement is too often quite repetitive.
As we’re swiping back and forth—a duet of “O, wait!” prompted by each picture, recounting what was captured, how the audience responded, critiques—I notice in my peripheral vision a silver sedan slowing, window rolled, down, with a gentleman whose rived eyes are intent on getting my attention. I look up from the phone. My smile recasts from ecstatic to inquisitive. I say :
—Hey, what’s up?
“You know,” he says dumblysmuglygrinning, with fever bright in his eyes, “if you take that mask off, you’ll grow some balls.”
Nina hisses, exhaling. A grumbling something careens up her throat, borne of that odorous stuff in the guttural place whence venom waits, churning. I cut her off by grabbing her wrist, snugly. The silent no need.
Caught off-guard, I stare the man in his riving gaze and say, peevishly :
—Alright. Calm down, buddy.
I turn my back, choosing to ignore him, facing Nina. Later, I’ll resent myself for this misstep, this surrendered position. He turns the corner, leaving his mark. Severance. Scene.
Facing Nina, entirely turned around, her body once again makes a grumbling, discontented noise, and I say :
—Don’t worry about it. Misery loves company. We’ve declined the invitation.
He continues his egress out of the parking lot, onto the highway, leaving this moment, a hero to himself. The one-man show. This moment a triumph, a trophy.
In my head, his voice replays, “if you take that mask off, you’ll grow some balls,” and immediately a post-startle emptiness begins to bloat inside me. Similar to when you haven’t eaten in so long, bowel acid distends your stomach into a lacuna of some thing, swollen acerbic, starving.
Why must every decision a man comes to in his life be tantamount to a case of having manifested, or failed, his masculinity, his manhood? Since when did concern for one’s health, the health of those proximal, become conflated with the absence or abundance of testosterone?
What if my thoughts have always been concerned with being beyond man?
Pretentious or proactive, whatever the assessment, I could care less. Should.
I pull my mask down, just off of my nose, and breathe the frayed night in.
Why? Why would I do that? Pull my mask down—even if only just. I leave it partially removed for a few seconds to not draw attention to the fact that I did, in fact, do that.
I return the mask to its mooring.
Behind the mask, I smile, a forced smile. I laugh at her fooling about, a distracted laugh. I do my best to reciprocate. This, the etiquette of engagement. Yet, if I were asked to summarize the previous couple minutes of our conversation, I would say :
uhm . . .
My attention remains riven.
Alright, calm down, buddy . . . What! I can’t believe myself. I cannot fathom how my wit so wavered. This is what a writer, one of the wittiestwitterlywritmen this town has ever known, retorts with?
Nope. Not in any language would this riposte suffice.
I mean, the most material, and mutual, albeit void of sadistic succor, salvo to send would have been to have said :
—I hope you have a wonderful night. To you, and your family, be well.
No incisiveness. No mordancy. Only decency and good will can serve as salvor to such malignant behavior. I am aware that there are plenty of examples, antediluvian lessons which dictate the fighting of fire with flame. Well, that’s akin to saying, “To respond in kind, one must choke a strangle,” and what sense does make that?
Decency. Yes, decency should be allowed to serve as a relief-valve. Decompress.
Though the night has surely been blanched of some of its sanguinity, she minds her cigarette, near extinguished, completing the swipe-through of a night well-received, an effort earnestly made. She breeches :
—I hope you enjoyed it, Shaun, the performance, I mean.
—I did. And as far as I could tell, so did the other guests. I’d say, a success!
—I’m elated, excited! Elatedly excited!
—I can see it all over you. I’m happy for you.
—Hey, you know what surprised me most?
—What’s that? says Nina.
—I was worried, having worked night after night after night, reading and reciting with you, that the story wouldn’t resonate any longer, would fail to have the impact it did previously; the humor, you know. Before I knew so well the lines, what would occur, and how.
—AND? Nina insists, feigning offense.
—And I was pleasantly surprised.
—Memorization isn’t the same at all, is it, her speech becoming supercilious in tone. It lacks the subtlety and vibrance of a performance. Timing, interplay. A theatrical tincture well blended, she waxes histrionically.
—Rehearsal is very rote. Machine, ing, ing, ing. Per–func–tor–ee–ee–ee! I add.
We share a chuckle to reward our silliness. The delight of the night has, to some degree, slowly returned. Re-arrival. Less rived. Further decompression.
She looks over her shoulder, not turning, through the glass, to check the countertop for a brown paper bag. One that could have our name on it. Not yet, only the two previously there, still awaiting pick up.
Yù is staring through the window, at us—past us—with those eyeswhichalwayssmile. I’m certain Yù witnessed the interaction, but how. How has Yù interpreted the previous scene?
We see each other seeing the other. She returns her gaze to the game, to swipe through another level. None the wiser?
Why didn’t I grab my phone, take a picture of his license plate as he was leaving. You never really know with people like that. That information could have been useful, if. If they can convince themselves to rupture the delicate membrane of civil decorum, acting so truculent and uncouth . . . you just never know. You should.
I shouldn’t mind.
—O, I still have your phone, Nina says. Here you go, extending the phone toward.
I take the phone from her. A quick look at the time, almost eleven. Midnight nearing.
I persist somewhat twittered.
I see the two bikers in the parking lot in front of the market. I saw them before, but now I see them. The incessant americana. The bumper stickers exclaiming a ‘return to greatness’ and “god’s way is the highway.” The back of a tee-shirt which reads “ . . . the bitch fell off!” I saw them before. Now they concern me.
The claustrophobic nearness, which is night, its defining attribute, it, too, has turned to concern. My appetite hungers absent. Not of my concern.
Perhaps I’ll drink a beer when we get home. Maybe. In accord with the cigarette-smokers, I would be in their faulty belief that sanctuary can be found in the form of a substance.
We’d coexist in a sameness defined by its differences.
And yet again, “If you take that mask off, you’ll grow some balls.”
—Do you really believe balls grow in mouths?
This, too, a liberal return.