He looked at the chandelier flashing light, the bouquet splashing color and the table gleaming white. Then he saw her.
She was young, petite, delicate. She had come from Hong Kong to her godmother’s in Baguio to get well. The mountain air of the summer capital of the Philippines was supposed to do wonders for weak lungs, her grandmother had said. She was the cashier at the Pearl River Restaurant, a congee and noodle place that did brisk business from 6 in the morning till 10 at night.
He was one of the cooks, standing over steaming vats of chicken or beef broth, dumping coils of noodles in boiling water, shaking them out quickly into bowls, ladling dumplings or beef brisket over the noodles, pouring in hot broth and sprinkling chopped scallions on top and then the loud, "Table 4’s order!" He moved quickly, smoothly, gracefully.
They stole glances at each other. Sometimes their eyes met; she looked down; he looked away. The silent courtship did not go unnoticed. Teasing was rampant in the kitchen and in the girls’ back room.
He heard of a small restaurant that was going bankrupt. He shook out his nicest shirt, took the plastic bag off his Sunday pants, chose the only pair of socks with no holes, spit-shined his black shoes and got dressed. He asked for the afternoon off, went to town to see Mr Ho, a third cousin of his mother’s brother in the old country. Mr Ho owned a botica, sold medicine with or without prescription over the counter, and was doing quite well for himself.
He came out with a loan at a reasonable interest.
He went back to the restaurant and when business slowed in the afternoon, he talked to the boss, then went to the cashier and asked her to go for a walk in Burnham Park. She raised her head inquiringly at the boss, who said, "I think you need a break." They left to hoots of "Uy may date sila!" and the laughing and teasing of everyone in the restaurant.
They walked side by side, not looking, not touching, not talking.
They sat on the bench and, staring out at the man-made lake with hired boats toing and froing, he said, "I have enough to start my own restaurant. It could be yours too, if you like."
She borrowed a red cheongsam and he bought a second-hand suit. They parted with 50 pesos for a wedding portrait and 25 pesos for a sepia-colored picture of the waiters and the cooks and the boss beaming at a long table around the shy, smiling couple.
The restaurant was on the corner of Rizal and de los Santos streets. A small room with a cement floor, four small round tables and a counter. They lived in the back room with only a bed and a cabinet. They cooked everything in a tiny kitchen, aluminum plates piled high with chopped vegetables and meat covering every surface. They served humba, pig’s knuckles stewed in soy sauce; pansit, stir-fried noodles; lumpia, spring rolls; siopao, a bun filled with pork or chicken ‑ the poor man’s staple.
He was cook and waiter, balancing loaded plates on arms and hands, smiling at her as he passed. She was busboy, waitress and cashier, following him with her eyes as he rushed in and out of the kitchen. Their days were long and happy; their nights short but promising.
Word got around. "Cheap, good, tasty."
Now, years later, in the only high-rise in town, word still gets around "Delicious, exclusive, expensive." They serve Peking duck now, and abalone hot pot, and sharksfin soup.
Running feet, high-pitched voices, "Kungkung", Grandfather, and little bodies hurtling at his knees. He smiles, looks down and pats their heads. Then sons, daughters, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law, sit at the table. It is his 69th birthday, a must-celebrate, must spend-birthday to bribe the spirits to grant him yet another year of life. Everyone is in red, the color of happiness. He raises his glass for a toast and then he sees her. Who is that withered old woman at the other end of the table?