Content warning for: an ableist slur
“I reserved the restaurant just for the two of us,” said Andrea. He let me hang onto him again and feel his soft turtleneck sweater. He still had to do everything to get me out of the house. I was promised a quiet restaurant and great food that I didn’t have to eat if I didn’t want to. I remembered how uncomfortable I felt too. My new engagement ring was still cold on my fingers and I still had a nasogastric tube in that made my nose itch. “And thank god it’s empty.”
“Would you kick them out?” I asked.
“I’ll do to them what I did to your mother.”
“Come here, princess.” He took my hand with a gentle grasp. “Daddy promises that this is going to be the best meal you ever had. It’s small bites packed with flavor…I chose this place for you. For your pleasure.”
“I believe you, daddy,” I said.
He was right because the whole room was empty. There was a hostess and a bartender and a waiter and cooks, but I was fine with them. We even met them all afterwards, just so I could remember their faces for a dream later.
The course was already picked out for us, but I got a menu anyways so I could read through it. I never did much reading, but Andrea thought I could get a better idea about what we were going to eat. It couldn’t have been to sharpen my mind though. Everyone but him told me I was going to be stupid until the day I died.
And Thu, he loved you for being stupid.
“Daddy, do you actually want me to read?” I asked him, breaking character. That wasn’t something I ever had the mind to say to him at age 18. “Surely you don’t like everyone calling me a retard.”
“You know that bookcase in our future apartment? It’s only for show,” he said, in a low and terrifying voice. It was the voice he used on his kids, not on me. Definitely not on me when I was a sickly little teenager. What was my mind doing to him? I wanted to keep some good memories of my own husband.
“Did it really take this to allow myself to be afraid? I was afraid of everything else,” I said while my eyeliner ran down my face again. I thought I was alone on the other side of my brain, seeing only black and wearing a messy suit. “What if I’m letting it get out of control…”
“…and remember that my fiancée is your real judge tonight,” he said to the waiter. I breathed a sigh of relief. We were back to normal.
“Do you know what a coulis is?” Andrea asked me. I shook my head no. “It’s a thin sauce of a fruit or vegetable. The strawberry coulis on top of our first course isn’t going to be sweet, though. In fact, they have many of the same flavors as a tomato.”
“That’s really weird.” Andrea liked to feed me ripe strawberries. He’d slice them thin and fan them out on a plate and I’d look at them with huge wide eyes. I had never had a fresh strawberry like that until I met him. And they were sometimes sour but really sweet too.
“And if you look through the window up there, you can see the head chef of this restaurant, Supriya. You might notice the Indian spices and techniques she sometimes uses.”
“Yeah right, we didn’t go to an Indian restaurant together until after my 19th birthday,” I said. Unless Andrea remembered meals that I didn’t. I usually didn’t like to remember food until I was prescribed anti-psychotics. Then I started eating too much to remember much of it at all. But I enjoyed it more when I did. There wasn’t any image to keep up for anyone of being delicate and needy. In fact, everyone I knew hated that part of me.
“Maybe…like…being afraid is good,” Kari said. She lit up the black space when she was next to me and wearing a soft velvet nightgown. She always felt like that, like lying down on a rug next to a fireplace or hugging fresh laundry. She was like everything fantastic and unrealistic but also like a home I never knew I belonged to.
“Thanks for being here,” I said. “Even your dad couldn’t stop you.”
“And Andrea won’t stop you,” she said. “Even if you love him, there has to be a point where you stop running…”
But I love him like other people love three different people. He’s like my dad crossed with my best friend crossed with my husband. He fed me and bought me beautiful dresses and wanted to give me everything I asked for…
…it’s not my fault that I never knew what was the best for me. He was trying his best.
“This doesn’t taste like how I remember it. Where’s the cardamom?” I asked, pushing a slice of green tomato around my plate. I wasn’t supposed to drink wine but I did that night. What if that was bland too? This was a dream and those always fell apart.
“I need a drink…”
That was disgusting too!
“Remember Thu, if you keep him happy, then you keep this whole family happy,” said Elena. “You’ll never know how scary Andrea is in his darkest moments. You’re the one girl who can tame that beast within him.”
“I still think about you every day,” said Axel. “And I was right about Gene, you know.”
Now the table was filled with the three sexiest people I knew and neither of them had food or wine. The rest of the dining room was silent and empty and lit by a single chandelier and some candles. It was supposed to still be beautiful.
“I…I want one dream to myself!” I flinched in my seat but Andrea was mad. I already failed Elena in keeping his beast tamed and asleep.
“Who is that skinny little rat?” Andrea muttered.
“He’s…he’s the next best thing after you, isn’t he?” I said. “Didn’t you say I needed to find love after you were gone? It was hard but I tried my best.”
“I bet you told her that too,” Andrea snarled at his mother.
“I did. There was a time I thought that Axel would be pleasant in-law material, but even I know that Thu is better kept all to myself,” Elena said. “The poor girl was broken again last week, in case you weren’t watching. She needs me more than ever now.”
“But I knew she’d never be able to move on.”
Axel nervously looked at the ground after that. If he and Andrea ever met, I knew Axel would be as scared of him like everyone else was. He treated me kindly though, didn’t he? I should have been grateful. Maybe in my head, he was still in America and waiting for me while touching himself. But I wasn’t going to do the same for him. He didn’t even look as attractive in the candlelight though. The shadows on his body made him look thinner…and he was cute but I didn’t like that as much now.
“This used to feel a lot better,” I mumbled to him. “You used to remind me of Andrea in all the right ways.”
“Like with the beard?” he asked. “It takes a lot of work for a self-hating Asian to grow that.”
“You know, it was kind of weird,” I said.
“Well…I wanted to be attractive to you. I thought it was what you wanted.”
“Ask me when I’m out of the hospital.”
Everything had to change then. Aside from what Gene did, I’d be back to normal. Thu was stupid, not fit for corporate work, and waiting for Axel. Even if I wasn’t thinking about Axel, I was waiting for Axel because he was waiting for me. He was in control first because clearly I couldn’t be. He was crazy and violent but a little more gentle than every other man…
“…but not you…what will people even say? Am I only doing this because your dad scared me into it?” Kari’s hand felt different from Andrea’s or Axel’s. She didn’t have hair on her knuckles and her fingers were colder and fatter. But they were also so soft! Like dog ears or baby feet but even better.
“No, it’s so much more than that. No one can scare you into feeling like this. Your feelings can be complex!” She started to move closer to me. “Like, imagine if everything had to be about my dad. You’d be even more miserable…”
“This course tastes awful too! It’s so bland. I thought it had squash and chilis,” I said. No one seemed to hear me.
“See, I’m supposed to be scared of Gene but I don’t care about him! He won’t be in my life but you guys won’t leave!”
“But where would you be without us?” Elena asked. And it was a good question.
“Who cares? I’m not going to be eighteen forever!” I needed to walk away.
That night I went into the bathroom to almost have to throw up a glass of red wine and two bite-size plates of food, but thankfully nothing came up. It was a moment of triumph and a small victory that Andrea celebrated with even more food. But I wasn’t angry. That was for a scary new Thu.
“What are you even doing? You were supposed to look back on this to feel better while your back and neck are broken,” I said to the mirror. “And now you brought Axel to the party.”
“But let’s be real, he’d love this kind of place…”
“…but I don’t anymore!”
I heard a piano outside of the bathroom. I forgot if they had a pianist that night or if I was allowed to play after dinner…but I always loved listening to other pianists. They didn’t make me feel stupid or jealous or even arrogant. I had so many peers in the field! There were so many pianists who spent the same amount of time and passion I did into sounding amazing. My Ông did and the later pianists at the opera did too. I wanted to ask them so many questions or play for them myself.
And I never did.
This one needed to be spoken to though, even if this was just a dream that was going bad otherwise. He or she sounded beautiful. They sounded too good for the opera house and way too good for restaurant entertainment. Where did you go from that? Studio recordings? World tours? Better music than making poppy symphonic metal with Anthony?
“Hey there beautiful, I shooed them out,” Axel said. “And the pianist finally arrived.”
“I never knew you liked other people who played piano,” I said.
“Not usually, but the music is nice and you look as gorgeous as ever…even with that feeding tube around your cheek.”
He instead took me by the waist and led me closer to the piano.
“I want to love you again…and if this is all in my head, then I should be able to do it,” I said, before he led me up the three stairs to the upper level.
For a bit, dancing with Axel was natural but not full of love and lust. I just liked the way he moved and moved me, but I wasn’t in control. It was my own head and I should have been in control, but I wasn’t. It was all Axel’s whims, down to each step, down to the part where he went crazy with me too.
“You’re an even better dancer than I thought you’d be,” he whispered.
“I…you are too,” I said. What was I supposed to say? That it wasn’t working and being without him for four months wasn’t doing anything for the two of us?
“Uh…do you like to dance, Kari?” I asked her. We didn’t really have much to look at together, since wherever we were was still pitch-black. But I liked her arm around my waist anyways.
“Like, at prom or something? Oh my god, I was such an embarrassment and my date didn’t even talk to me.”
“Man, I wish I had someone to go to prom with.” If I wasn’t expelled from school but still met Andrea, I probably would have tried to bring him to prom. He would be able to pay for a ticket and a dress. That still would have been weird to everyone else though, and to me when I thought about it.
I didn’t grow up right and Andrea didn’t help me heal that. He wanted me to be in a mature relationship with him and raise a family, while still treating me like a baby. It didn’t leave me in a better place once he was gone. I grew up into a baby who had sex with crazy and violent men and liked benzos too much.
“So, hear me out about this: maybe Axel started to do the right thing with you. That whole theory about healing your inner child isn’t, like, about acting exactly like your inner child. You have to give her new experiences and care and all sorts of good things,” said Kari. “And when we do new things with you, I know you like it.”
“I do…but even more after I met you.”
We got up and I breathed in deeply as Kari held me close to her shoulder. I was going to have to tell her something when I saw her next. She was broken over what happened between me and Gene. If I could cheer her up, I would. And I wouldn’t ask for her to do anything.
“Oh my god you guys are so cute together,” said the pianist.
Kari didn’t play an instrument in real-life, but it didn’t matter.
“You smell as delectable as your dirty panties,” Axel said to me, holding me in the same way that Kari did.
Sick little man.
I don’t even know if I want you.
But I don’t think Kari wants me either…how could she.