Once we surfaced from the subway, we were greeted by blasting Spanish music from the barber on the street corner. Outside of the shop three old men were drinking out of brown glass bottles and wearing wife beaters. It was Labor Day Weekend and New York City had cleared out, residents headed for the beach or to their cabins upstate or Lake George.
By the time we rounded 180th Street in the Bronx, Jon was looking at his phone, unsure of which direction walk in. A few paces behind, I watched him: at 6’4” he was the tallest man I had ever dated, and with his bald head, he looked like a handsome stretched out Buddha, dressed in plaid, denim and a pair of brown Wallabees.
“I thought you’ve been here before.” I said, trying to make my voice light.
“I have but we drove, so now I don’t know where we’re going.” He said, shrugging. Sweat was starting to bead on his forehead. He looked at me with pleading eyes. There was something very innocent about him, like a bear you wanted to hug, but his paws were so unwieldy he ended up hurting you. Together we began walking down a busy street, following the Spanish music that played from different storefronts, salons and bodegas. Caramel skinned women poured into denim shorts and colorful halter tops sat in foldout chairs, laughed together, their Saturday morning ritual.
We turned off the main street, I was following despite his uncertainty. A few steps down a steep road, we saw dilapidated cars, overgrown grasses, and a dirt hill covered in garbage.
“Um, are you sure this is the right way?” I said again, whipping my head back and forth. It worried me that we couldn’t hear the women’s laughter or the music anymore. And now at 12 noon at the end of summer, the sun started to burn my exposed shoulders. Jon was still looking at his phone uselessly, rotating it in his hands, or lifting it higher in the air to try and catch a signal. He looked at me and started laughing.
“Oh, it’s funny huh, was this your plan all along, to bring me to this deserted street in the Bronx?” I said.
“No, I just feel terrible, I finally convinced you to come out with me and it’s this.” He said, pointing ahead of us at the disquieting landscape.
“Well, let’s just go back that way, where there was people at least.” I said, annoyed I was already having to take charge. Back at the salon where the women had been sitting, he went to ask them how to get to the Zoo. I let him go alone, and stood in the street, looking up at the apartment buildings, white sneakers hanging from the power lines, clothes drying on short ropes thrown across fire escapes. The smell of pernil and corn arepas filled the air. Now I was getting hungry.
I first met Jon Chu at Duets Karaoke on 35th street in New York City. Mutual friends brought us together there As the group and alcohol flowed, girls started dancing on the purple benches, while my friend Gelina and I began belting out Erkyah Badu on the two microphones. At one point, I felt him watching me, and when our eyes met, he tipped his brown ball cap at me. By the end of the night, he was leading me to find a cab on 7th Avenue, and with one hand on my back, he kissed me lightly on the cheek. He was soft and smelled of fabric softener.
“Okay okay.” I said laughing, while pushing his hand away. His eyes were glowing as he stood on the curb and waved goodbye.
From there on his ploy was to get me to try the famous Cuban sandwich from Margon, an authentic Latin restaurant just down the street from my office. I resisted for the entire summer, hesitant to date someone I had so many friends in common with. They were a close-knit crew that immigrated from China to the States when they were teenagers, growing up in Queens with parents who did not speak a word of English.
Despite my hesitation, something about Jon pulled me, he was tall and a little doughy around the middle, with soft cheeks that had light freckles sprinkled across them. In his plain brown and army green colored clothes, he looked like a Chinese Fidel Castro. There were flecks of red in his goatee and a kindness to his face that made me want to hug him. Whenever we saw each other, he was always eating something or carrying a greasy paper bag of pastries he bought at some local bakery. I was intrigued. And while my biggest pet peeve was eating while standing, Jon seemed to love this, spilling powdered sugar over subway grates, or eating meat off sticks while walked. I should’ve known our relationship was doomed.
Finally I agreed to meet him for our first date to the Bronx Zoo. But first we planned to take the long subway ride together up to Arthur Avenue, to an area famous for its Italian delis and bakeries for a quick lunch before we saw the animals.
Jon started to walk ahead of me, faster now, while bowing and saying Gracias to the women. I looked back at them and waved. A few more blocks and bends, and we found Arthur Ave, stopping in the third deli we came upon. Michael’s Market was a long narrow hallway – its first station was for olives, all kinds. A chubby Italian woman with white hair was talking with her right hand to the man behind the counter.
“Why do you have kalamata, when you know those are Greek?” she said, sounding angry. I paused to watch them, then they both burst into laughter and greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek over the styrofoam plates of samples, toothpicks skewered through the briny goodness.
Ahead of me Jon could see over the crowd, spotting that I had stalled to watch the olive station soap opera. He walked back a few steps and grabbed my hand,
“Come on, they have food food over here.” His hand was large and warm, and I liked how it felt to be led by him, at last.
We came up on what seemed to be an even higher counter now, the glass revealing huge serving plates of antipasti: balls of mozzarella, links of sausage, roasted peppers and clustered of basil. People were shouting their orders, and taking plates of sesame-seeded warm bread stuffed with ham, capicola and provolone. Next to me a man held two plates of eggplant parmesan, the lumpy red sauce flowing over the edges. I ducked as he sChung them over my head.
“Excuse me, beauty.” He said, wiping the sides of the plates on his apron and disappearing further down the hallway. I looked up to find Jon, neck straining, when I found him two steps behind me I raised my eyebrows at him and said,
“I want that,” pointing with my chin at the heaped plates.
“Oooh” he said, his lips making a perfect O. “That too.” He said, nodding at the man with the eggplant parm who was still stuck hovering the plates above the people. I convinced myself I could like Jon like this, if he fed me and if he was open to adventure. And in this scenario, his height was an asset, as he made his way effortlessly to the counter. I watched men and women of all ages moved aside as this Chinese giant went to order. I stood on the sticky floor and smiled at him, encouraging him any time he looked at me or pointed.
At last a tray was coming towards me, I was practically walking underneath it as Jon led me to a small clearing, near a wooden counter where we could eat.
“Hmm, no chairs huh. I hate eating while standing.” I said, looking for stools or benches of any kind. There were two futile picnic tables near the side wall that were occupied by older women, holding styrofoam cups and sipping cappuccino.
“Bah, we’re fine here.” Jon said, lifting half of the Italian sub for me, shredded lettuce fell to my feet.
“Thank you, I got it.” I said, pushing his hand back down and putting it back into its basket. He was already going to town on the eggplant, using the side of the fork to cut it into pieces. When I took a bite with his fork, I was greeted by a cold piece of eggplant.
“It’s cold?” I said, almost spitting it out, then catching myself, “I’ve never had it like this.” The old ladies at the picnic tables were watching us now. I swallowed the cold mush of breadcrumbs, sauce and cheese down and turned my posture inward to face our food. We must have looked ridiculous, two Asian kids standing there spilling lettuce. I wondered if they could tell it was our first date.
It was seven years ago now that Jon and I had our first date and I haven’t spoken to him in nearly three years. I know through friends that he’s dating someone else now, a half-Chinese girl that likes to play badminton. On social media I see they are often feeding each other, and almost every time, they are standing.
Three years ago was also when I bought my first apartment on the Upper West Side. The kitchen is one of my favorite places, where I bake frittatas, stew chicken adobo and mix a strong cocktail. But the best feature is the pass-through, a rectangular opening that looks out of the kitchen into the living room and the rest of the apartment. On the outside, I placed two dark wood stools for friends to sit and chat with me while I play hostess from inside the kitchen preparing food or refilling drinks. It brings me so much joy. But when I’m by myself, I often stand there barefoot, plates of food lined up along the counter, watching TV, or blasting music, while beneath me little bites and crumbs pile up for me to clean up later. And for some reason, it’s a comfort, that there’s no one else to blame.
BIO: LINDSAY GACAD is a MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, with a focus on poetry and essays.