AT THE DINER
HIM: I lived with my girlfriend at the time for a year in boarding school.
HER: Like in an apartment?
HIM: Yeah. (scoffs) Never live with who you’re dating. It’s a nightmare.
HER: How so? Did it get annoying?
HIM: You just see them all the time. You start arguing about little things, stupid things that don’t even matter. Sometimes you don’t even remember why you argued in the first place. You have no time to yourself. If you guys argue in the morning, you still sleep in the same bed at night, but you’re mad and don’t talk. It’s awkward.
HER: Sounds like it.
TWO OR THREE YEARS AGO…
I did a report on an early film critic who died wrinkled and alone. I was the first one to present to the class, so I thought I’d make a joke about it to lighten up the mood. After class, I was helping my professor rearrange the desks. I had written a report on a film critic who remained single most of her life until her death bed, and who raised a daughter on her own. I made a lame joke about the critic wanting someone there for her at the last moments.
“There’s nothing wrong with being single,” my professor said.
“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. I was just trying to break the ice,” I said.
My professor had these glasses that would sit on top of her pointed nose. Combined with her fashion sense, she always reminded me of the owl from Sleeping Beauty.
“Well, good! I think she (the film critic) had a good life! She moved to the city, got a good job and had her fun. She was famous and with a few young men,” my professor said suggestively.
Sometimes it felt like she spoke so fast, she’d fumble over herself, roll smoothly to recover and would be right back on track like Road Runner.
“She wasn’t married, she could do whatever she want! She had her fun until the end,” she said.
Her enthusiasm made me laugh.
“I guess so!”
That’s what I liked about her– she was a sweet woman, passionate, and inspiring. Some people would snicker at how she thematically re-enacted scenarios or the way she spoke, but none of that phased her. She just kept right on going. Occasionally I’d catch her smile in a way that seemed to say she knew more about us than any of us expected.
Our group assignment was to go to the local theater and write a review on the film. On the day we all agreed to go to the theater, two out of the four members bailed. I had to meet up with one of the two Asian boys in my class– I knew nothing about him. We never really talked. Would this be a date? I shook the thought out of my head and focused my mind on the prize: an A on the assignment.
BEFORE IT GOT DARK
He was about 5′ 9″, a muscles-in-training and gelled his hair. He sported a slim fitting (or too small?) polo shirt and dark jeans. We chatted for a few minutes before the movie began. To my surprise, we watched a silent film; the bouncing tune of a piano or the moving escalade of an entire orchestra filled the room. The Artist (2011) was also a drama/romance-comedy. Just my luck, I thought nervously. We laughed simultaneously a few times and I picked up on his sporadic glances.
“I’m kind of hungry, how about you?” he asked after the film ended. “We can talk about the movie and give feedback on each others review.”
“Okay, sure,” I agreed without suspicion.
My professor was married for at least a decade to another teacher, though he worked at a different school. I think I reminded her of her adopted Chinese daughter. Usually after class, I stayed behind to help erase remnants of our lesson on the board. She and I talked about actors, directors, different types of shots and camera angles, signature techniques and the timeline of film history– we talked about how to format papers and film reviews, how to cite resources properly, and my love life.
“You know, I noticed that Bass* has been sitting very close to you lately.”
I was taken by surprise. Say something! Anything! I thought.
“Oh, really?” I said.
“Yes, he moved his seat– not that we have assigned seats in class anyway, but you know people tend to pick one spot at the beginning and then stick with it!”
She tilted her head and looked up at me.
“So, do you have any interest?”
“I don’t think I like him like that…” I said.
I said slowly, avoiding my professor’s gaze. This is weird.
Would this count as ratting someone out or snitching? But the woman did ask a question. It deserves an honest answer, I thought.
“He’s a little bit arrogant, I guess? He’s kind of cocky.”
She gasped at the last word and gave me a brief scolding, lecturing me on the origin of “cocky” and its meaning. Afterward, she tilted her chin down and looked up at me again. Her glasses barely slid down her nose.
“You know, you could train him,” she said with a sly smile. “He might not be ‘The One’ for you, but you never know. He might be rough around the edges, but you could teach him a thing or two. He’ll be a better man when he meets another girl, if you guys don’t work out.”
I’m not sure about that, I thought.
“I guess so,” I said.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My professor, the one I’ve so long admired and respected, the one who I worked so hard to get the approval of, was giving me advice on how to play boys? Mirror shattered. A woman screams from a third floor window. Pretty sure a stray cat died somewhere in the process. An abyss of jungle vine and you realize your knees and elbows are scratched up. Shit. The pussy was off the pedestal. The unfathomable suddenly became human.
AT THE DINER (what had happened)
He ordered an omelet. I felt a tinge of regret having agreed to just sit there and waste time when I could’ve gone home and done work. Somehow the conversation shifted from classwork to
“Wow, I thought you were American,” I said.
His face lit up.
“Really? I don’t have an accent?”
“Now that you point it out… just a little. Hardly noticeable.”
“You know how I learned? The first semester I was here, I only spoke in English,” he said as he leaned back against the plastic seat. “Even to my international friends. They’d say, ‘Why aren’t you speaking in Chinese?’ and I’d reply in English. After all, we’re in America, right?”
I forced a laugh. I don’t remember much else of the conversation, but at one point we talked about producing a television series.
“The show could be about a nice lawyer,” he said.
“Prosecuting or defense?”
“Defense. Wait. Wouldn’t prosecuting be better?” I said.
“It would be a nice contrast to her personality. That’d be interesting. A harsh job like a lawyer, but with a pushover type of person! I’m not sure how many people would watch it though.”
“What about a person who writes checks,” I joked. “All they do is write checks day and night for a living for some rich millionaire. A few thousand dollars? No problem. You want a yacht? Okay, let me write it out for ya. The person would make a lot of money but they’re entirely miserable.”
“That sounded really convincing,” he said with a smile. “You should write a script for it. It could be the next hit.”
Looking back, my professor wasn’t only motherly towards me, but all her students. She got angry at us once because all of our reviews were sloppy. Still, it was the good kind of anger. She went out of her way to do a lot of things people overlooked. She never asked for praise or glory, only that you spent enough time on the course work to accomplish something. A good professor helps you see a grander vision. You somehow want to become a better version of yourself. A great teacher gives opportunity.
“That was a date,” my classmate Jess said matter-of-factly.
“It was not,” I said.
“You went to watch a movie. Then you got food afterwards, just the two of you. It was a date.”
It wouldn’t have been a date if our group mates had showed up like they were supposed to, I thought.
“It wasn’t! We just got food to talk about the assignment.”
She raised a brow and stared at me. Really?
“Okay, well maybe you didn’t think it was date, but he definitely thought it was,” she said.
That’s troublesome. I began to pay more attention to him in class. He closely examined how I fiddled with my hair tie, the loop contracting and expanding between my fingers.
BACK AT THE DINER – PITCH BLACK OUTSIDE
A red OPEN sign flickers. In the small section of downtown, every other store in the diner’s vicinity is closed.
HER: (curiously) You’re transferring? Where to?
HIM: I’m not sure yet, but a school that has a better film program.
HER: When will you know by?
HIM: Probably December. (he looks at her, expecting)
The waitress refills a man’s coffee cup at the bar counter.
HER: (surprised) That’s pretty soon. (she has a clue of what he wants her to say, but refuses to comply)
HIM: (he has no idea what she’s thinking)
A brief, awkward and silent moment passes. The waitress comes by and leaves two checks at the edge of their table.
HER: Well, you ready to head out?
HIM: (picks up her cue) Yeah. Do you know when the next bus comes?
HER: Actually, I drove here. (pause) I could give you a ride if you want.
HIM: That’d be great.
HER: Okay, cool. (a little forcefully) Let’s go!
They pay for their meal at the register. He opens the door for her on their way out. She drops him off at his apartment, waves goodbye and then drives home to do unfinished homework.