A glob of water slams against the living room window when my dad declares we’ll be eating out tonight.
“What for?” I say, staring at the downpour. “We have more than enough ramen to go around.”
“No. We’re going to Sichuan Bistro.” he says. Before I can protest, he tosses me a large umbrella from the closet and my raincoat. “Zip up. You can stand a few raindrops.”
As he drives towards our destination, I’m still mystified about the source of his newfound resolve. He didn’t demonstrate any peculiar interest in dining nor seem mindful of my activities in the prior days. After sharing a nightly meal, we would head towards our usual activities. I recall recent evenings in my bedroom, packing for college and chatting with my classmates over social media, while my dad sat in his office, engrossed in a meeting. I rack my brain for out of the ordinary events, but nothing warrants his adamant gaze, fixed on the clear space between the windshield wipers and rain.
The restaurant is tucked between a DMV facility and a tiny convenience store. After we rush inside, shoes splashing through puddles in a largely empty parking lot, my dad’s troubled expression melts into the yellow light. A young waitress a few years older than I am, seats us and hands us our menus. Around us, a few other diners, who probably arrived before the rain started, peer at us curiously.
My dad seems oblivious to this. He folds his arms and asks me excitedly, “Remember this place? We used to come here all the time with mom.” Of course I do. When I was in middle school, we frequented the place for authentic Chinese cuisine, a rarity in my suburban town. Our usual order was a large bowl of Dan Dan noodles, an aromatic dish with minced pork, chili oil, herbs, and onions. Sichuan Bistro was my favorite restaurant at the time.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time since we’ve come back.” When my parents’ work ramped up and a relative became sick after my eighth-grade graduation, it became more difficult for us to dine as a family. When we did, we usually visited fast food places, and Sichuan Bistro eventually fell off our radar. The situation with our relative has been resolved since, but work still carves off ample time from my parents’ schedules. Currently, mom is overseas on a business trip, leaving me to spend my last days at home with my dad. I wonder how Sichuan Bistro resurfaced in his mind.
“Too long,” says my dad, shaking his head. He grabs a menu, and his eyebrows furrow. “They changed owners,” he says, as he flips through the pages. “Ah, at least they still have the classic noodles. What a relief.”
He waves the waitress over and orders the item, then adds magnolia tea for us to share.
When she leaves, he turns to me. “Terrible weather, huh? Hopefully it’s not this way when we leave for the airport.”
I suddenly become conscious of water soaking into my socks. “Why are we here?”
“What do you mean? You’re leaving for college soon and we haven’t visited one of your favorite childhood sites in years. You’re never going to come back, you know. Might as well make the best of the little time we have left.”
The nonchalance of his language pains me. “I’ll come back to visit,” I protest.
He sighs. “Infrequently. As it will be, for a long time.”
I get the feeling that this visit to the restaurant is more for him than for me.
The waitress brings us a teapot and two teacups. “Enjoy,” she says. My dad pours the steamy liquid into cups and hands me one. I fan it with my hand, then take a sip.
The tea travels down my neck like a ball of warmth. I shudder, feeling it seep into my muscles and organs, filling my insides with its mellowness.
Simultaneously, my dad sets down his teacup, his forehead wrinkling in disgust. “They diluted this! This poor excuse for tea tastes more like water than magnolia. Probably used a few pinches of leaves to make a liter.”
“It’s nice though.”
“Really? I know you have higher standards than that. This is disappointing.”
I shrug and sip my tea again. When I drink, I forget the feeling of dampness on my feet.
“You’ll call us, right?” My dad is staring at the TV at the back of the restaurant, where a news anchor is discussing the damages of the storm to the nearby city. The words slip out indifferently.
“Of course I’ll keep in touch. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for me anyway, so I’ll probably call often in the initial days.”
“You’ll be fine. Don’t you already know quite a few of your classmates? Tell me about them.
“Well, there’s Kabir from Texas, as you know, who’s going to my roommate. We met over the Facebook group for admitted students. He shares a couple of the same interests as me, like computers and outdoorsy-stuff, so I think we’ll get along well. I also know a few people from the class Discord chat, like Fumiko, who’s from California and Alexander, who lives all the way in Great Britain. And of course, there’s Steffie and Manuel from my school, so I won’t be completely alone.”
“That’s good. Very good.”
“Dad, you know you’ll still be in my life, right?”
Thunder rumbles in the distance, and I pick up my teacup to avoid his gaze. Have I gone too far, bringing his emotions to the table?
“Yes.” he says softly. “You’re right. It probably won’t even make a difference.”
“What do you mean?”
He stares directly at me. “I haven’t been present in your life the past few years, have I? Always at work or taking care of someone else. You don’t demand much, but I haven’t been much of a father.”
I’m startled by his confession. When I was younger, I admit, I resented his prolonged absences. I returned from school everyday to an empty home, where I played video games, watched TV, and occasionally, worked on homework until my parents came back later at night. Often, my father would adapt a disciplinary role when he saw me, as he endeavored to limit my screen time and fit rigorous standardized test preparation into my schedule. His distant, authoritarian parenting did not sit well with my adolescent self. I yearned for caring company.
Yet as I see him now, with his salt-and-pepper hair, thick eye bags, and lined skin, I understand that he weathered through his own storm in the past years. He is a tired man, lifeblood diminshed by late nights and stress. When I realize he has aged, a rock drops into my throat, sending ripples throughout my body, then sinking into the deep end. I remember the scenes of my childhood: birthdays, playgrounds, skipping stones, bike rides, barbecues, fireworks, and restaurants. Each memory is imbued with love.
“You were never a bad father,” I say.
He blinks away something in his eyes. “Thank you, son.”
The waitress arrives with a large bowl of Dan Dan noodles. We thank her, and I split it between two bowls, passing one to my dad. When I inhale, I’m overwhelmed by an all-too familiar aroma of a decadent, spicy sauce. I pick up a large chunk with my chopsticks and devour it.
My mouth is aflame. “How do you like it?” my dad asks.
Desperately, I gulp my remaining tea and pour another cup from the teapot. “I think I chewed on some peppercorns.”
My dad laughs softly. “Yeah, they really added a lot more spice than usual in this dish. Quite opposite to the tea in terms of flavor.” He watches as I continue my ritual of drinking tea and refilling my cup. “Sorry for dragging you into this.”
The fire in my mouth subsides, but it leaves a lingering warmth. “No, this is the best experience at a restaurant that I’ve ever had.”
Jodie Meng is a member of the Class of 2020 at the Illinois Math and Science Academy. This work is inspired by a restaurant she frequently visited in her childhood and her recent experiences with college admissions.