by Clarissa Kwee
Outside Dragon Boat House, she stared at her phone screen. The text glowed but didn’t register, like there was a disconnect between ‘white guy in the blue shirt sitting at the table by the window, looks like young Homebrand Johnny Depp’ and her brain.
‘Should I leave before he swings?’ she typed back, ensuring the keyboard–clicking sounds were as brash as she could possibly make them. But in case that was too harsh, she backspaced and replaced it with, ‘going in now.’
Her week had already been spiralling downwards, and tonight didn’t denote any point of inertia. On Tuesday, her manager had gently reprimanded her report formatting, as if there was a wrong way to adjust margins on a word document. Wednesday, she’d left her beloved Kindle on the metro, and the hour-long commutes squinting at pdf novels on a cracked iPhone screen to compensate had given her vertigo. On the drive here, she had been honked at for seemingly no reason, though she followed all the road rules to a fault.
So a free meal, or at least one she could go Dutch on, was not the hill she planned to die on.
Peering into the window, she tried to be inconspicuous. Poor Man’s Johnny Depp was tracing the names of the dishes on the menu with his index finger. She consciously hoped it had English translations, so he wouldn’t ask her to translate it for him, and not only for the reason that she couldn’t.
Her attire probably didn’t beget desire. Obviously she contemplated the possibility of the date not flopping, otherwise she wouldn’t have strategically scheduled her lash extension appointment the week before. But as she stared at her body in the window, iron-clad in black trousers and matching turtleneck, she wondered if there was any way this man’s mind could bend to mistake the ensemble as ‘asking for it’. For some Neanderthals, the line was damn fine.
‘I can feel you overthinking this’, her phone buzzed at her, ‘don’t stress, he’s really chill.’
But did chill mean truly open-minded? Or, was it a moniker for the type of ‘liberal’ who wore their ‘I Voted for Obama!’ pin badge long after that presidency, or bought tickets to the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians just for the Instagram photo? There was a big difference.
She pondered him, a question mark hovering over a blank face and unknowable interiority. She mused at the idea that for some, the worst case-scenario would be that maybe he liked pineapples on pizza or considered red wine a dessert. These were only first-world dealbreakers, if they got to the stage where he wanted something more than just a conversation or sex.
But compatibility was secondary to tolerance, right? Her mind wandered to a sunken place for a split-second, which at this point in her life had become a habit. Her rock bottom was more severe than incompatible tastebuds. Maybe he was a flagrant, backwards racist who would flinch at the sight of her, or be stupefied when she spoke in perfect, Australian-accented English. Or worse, maybe he’d present like a nice, normal guy who was kind to her face, but would joke with his mates about having yellow fever afterwards. Of course she had no way of knowing that now. That would only come to light if she tried to give her heart away, and have it given back to her.
‘How low are my standards allowed to go?’ she typed back, only half-joking.
She sort of wanted to believe that 21st century men were too dense to think deeper than skin. If she straightened her hair, wore foundation two shades too light and batted her polyester mink Bambi eyes at him, perhaps she could trick him into not asking where she was from.
Is that real?
Does that exist?
Do people actually go on dates where the first ten minutes of conversation doesn’t involve reluctantly pinpointing her family’s diaspora on a map?
Maybe for some. Maybe Suitor X deserved more benefit, less doubt. But for her, for now, that bordered on post-racial fantasy. Sometime soon, his phone would buzz too, with ‘trust me she’s beautiful and smart and worth waiting for but she’s just stuck in traffic’ and he would most likely paint a mental picture of what she looked like using a single–colour palette. Probably not the right one.
So when she actually walked in, it would take him a second to register that ‘beautiful and smart and worth waiting for’ was her. She’d trigger an involuntary, but inevitable, tonal shift. Even if she wasn’t a detraction from his expectations, she’d be a difference.
Nights like this made her wonder about the existence of an alternative universe where it wouldn’t cross her mind that he’d be disappointed in her being herself. In that faraway, science–fiction future, she could be standing in this exact spot, wondering whether he was the One, instead of whether he typified her as an Other.
Zip. The thought disappeared as quickly as it appeared. She shook her mind free of it.
This was nothing she hadn’t done before. And this was nothing she didn’t already face daily, from strangers who wanted to categorise her for their own peace of mind. Case in point: she pushed open the restaurant door and tried not to blame the host, who automatically greeted her in Mandarin, for assuming that she could respond fluently.
She was used to falling short of expectation.
So what she didn’t expect was for Johnny Depp Lite to stand up as soon as she was in his line of sight, as if he knew exactly who he had been looking forward to meeting.
That eager, first-date, lopsided grin, the kind that made gardens grow, was plastered across his face in a way that couldn’t be feigned. The kind of gaze that seemed to look right past her person, the colour of her skin, and into her soul. And she shivered as she felt it – hope.
Artwork by Emily Anderson.