In the Middle of a Chinese Resturant

First draft of an essay for English 425: Advanced Essay Writing at the University of Michigan.

“I’ll have another Mountain Dew, please.”

The waitress nods and smiles, then she hurries off to refill my cup.

My mouth is coated with the thick, tangy sauce from my sweet and sour chicken, which sits half-eaten on the plate in front of me. Across the glass-covered table, my mother sits in silence, picking at her almond boneless chicken. Her plate is still relatively full—usually not a strange sight in reference to my mother. But, today, tension stretches from her eyes to mine across the table.

My mother and I have opted for an early dinner after an appointment at the optometrist. Golden Wok, our favorite Chinese food restaurant in my hometown, is relatively empty for a Friday evening: only an elderly couple occupies the restaurant with us. Our words and eating noises overtake the soft hum of the local easy-listening radio station being pumped into the dining room. The cheap paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the tacky ceramic statues of dragons and Buddha are louder than any noise that we could make.

In between bites of my over-sauced chicken and undercooked rice, I pull my cell phone out of my pocket to check the time. I remember saying that I would call at seven o’clock.

I look at my plate and pick up my fork.

“I’m surprised you don’t use chopsticks anymore,” my mother says quietly.

I look up to her. “What do you mean?”

She smiles, looks down and pokes at her foot with her fork. “You always wanted to use chopsticks when you were little because the rest of us ate Chinese food with forks. You always had to be different back then.” She is, of course, right.

As the only boy and the youngest of my parents’ three children, I had (and, frankly, still have) a desire to distinguish myself from my sisters and parents in any way possible: I purposely wore mismatching colors (dark browns with blacks, mostly) because my sisters took pride in their outfits every day. I took to reading long and complex novels (Moby-Dick was and still is my favorite) because my mother could only manage to finish those cheap harlequin romance novels that one finds while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. I ran cross-country because my father was an avid fan of more violent sports (football and wrestling), as they were, in his eyes, the ultimate expression of masculinity. Although my mother knew that I had to be different, she simply decided that it was her youngest son rebelling as much as he could to garner attention.

“Well, it’s too hard to use chopsticks,” I reply after thanking the waitress whom set my refilled glass of Mountain Dew on the table. “Besides, I’m really hungry and I don’t want to waste any time.”

“Really?” she asks in that tone that mothers use when they are about to contradict what you had just said. “Because you seem to have been doing a lot of time-wasting lately.”

I gaze at the bright May weather on the other side of the window.

It was true. I had been procrastinating on several important aspects of being a high-school senior: applying for college scholarships, writing my speech for my graduation ceremony, figuring out where I wanted to live once I got to the University of Michigan, and so on. Apathy was not the cause—the cause was a certain distraction that had come about several months before, whom I was waiting to call when I got home from dinner.

I continue to look out the window, for I cannot bear to look at my mother. I know what she is going to bring up, as she has been doing for the last several weeks. I want to avoid the topic all together, but she insists that I conform for once in my life.

“Who are you taking to prom?”

Her words stab my eardrum like a vengeful dagger. I was hoping that she would not say anything, but ever since the tuxedo rental catalogue arrived at my house a month ago, she has been using every chance that she can to make sure that I go to prom as a normal high-school senior does. I have my reservations about going to prom: I don’t like the majority of the people in my class (too many years of ridicule which my mother will not understand until much later); I don’t like dancing (too many times standing awkwardly against the wall at school dances, wishing I had the audacity to ask the person I liked to dance); I don’t like my high school (too many reminders of the lower-middle class right wing Christians who told me on a daily basis that I would be going to Hell). But, mostly, it all hints back to that phone call that I am so desperate to make.

I turn my eyes back to my mother, who is now staring at me sternly, awaiting an answer.

“Why do we have to talk about this now?” I ask sighing in annoyance.

“Because,” she begins, “you are in high school, and you are graduating soon, and, believe it or not, you are going to miss the people you grew up with. They mean more to you than you think, and I’m sick of you thinking that you’re too good for all of them.”

I shake my head briefly. “Mom, they don’t want anything to do with me.”

She looks at me, almost disgusted to think that someone would have the nerve to not like her little boy—the valedictorian of the class who received a full scholarship to a top school; who is the first in his family to go to college; who is a pious Catholic (I let my mother live in her delusion of that because it made her proud of me); who is setting an exemplary example for all young Mexican-American men in that he is receiving an education and lives with a high moral standing.

“That’s ridiculous. Why the hell would you say that?”

I finally become so frustrated that I cannot help myself. I simply blurt it out.

“Fine. You want to know whom I’m taking to prom? His name is Justin.”

My mother’s eyes grow wide in shock. She stares deeply at me while I continue to aggressively explain my case.

“He has to get permission to go to the prom because he’s a sophomore, and his mom refuses to give it to him because she doesn’t approve of him being gay.”

My mother looks down at her half-empty plate and begins to shake her head slowly. I cannot tell if it is in disbelief or disapproval, either of which is to be expected at a time like this. I look around to see if anyone is watching, but our waitress is too busy greeting a family that just walked through the door and the elderly couple is sitting too far away to hear what is going on. After a minute, she finally looks up at me and takes a deep breath. I prepare for the worst.

“So you're saying you’re gay?” she asks in the most serious tone that I have ever heard from her.

I feel like the actual situation at hand is actually more awkward than the present moment, for I am not “gay,” but instead have feelings and desires for both men and women. I recall myself at age fourteen, I knew that something wasn’t “right” about me because I had been (and still am) attracted to women and men. This is an astoundingly difficult thing to tell someone because it ensues so many questions: “So, which one do you like better? Does this mean that you can love two people at the same time? So, you’re a swinger?” I think gays and lesbians have it easy because it is so black and white—I, on the other hand, am a shade of grey.

“Well, no,” I finally say.

Her forehead crinkles and she cocks her head to the side in confusion. “What do you mean?”

I try to think of the easiest way to explain it to her without having to draw a diagram on the Chinese zodiac placemats. Finally, I look at her and ask, “Can’t I love both?”

I explain my moment of self-discovery at age fourteen. I explain that Justin and I have been dating for a few months. I explain that I didn’t want to tell her because I didn’t know how she would react and where her usual understanding would give way to her devout Catholic faith. I explain that the only people outside of school who knew of this were my sisters who advise me to keep it to myself because God knows how Mom would react. I explain that the real reason why I despise most of my classmates is because I hear utterances of “queer” and “fag” as I walk down the hall. I made sure to explain all of this in one giant rush so that my mother understands as much as she can about the whole thing and so she may be a little less disappointed in her son.

I wait for her response with a cramping feeling in my stomach. I know right away that I will not be able to finish the rest of my dinner, and neither will my mother. Finally, she speaks.

“I guess I kind of always knew. I mean, let’s be honest: You’re not exactly an average guy. I knew you were different, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But now it makes so much sense.”

We sit in silence for a little longer, picking at our food. Finally, she breaks the silence.

“Please don’t kill yourself, okay?”

I look up at her with utter shock. “What?”

“I know it’s hard with the kids you go to school with. But just don’t kill yourself. You’re better than that. You’re better than them.” My mother is a woman of few (yet deep) words.

I have nothing else to say. I am thrilled that my mother is taking this so well. I am thrilled to not be disowned. I am thrilled to not be forced to go to therapy or to be condemned to Hell l as I have been so many times before. But, I am not thrilled for what comes out of my mother’s mouth next.

“But you’re still going to prom.”

We arrive home and agree not to speak of word of it to my father—not because of some hatred of queers (my self-identifying phrase) people, but because I need time to figure out how to tell him (and he still doesn’t know). I retreat to my room and call Justin.

“How was dinner?” he asks over the phone.

I smile and reply: “Hold on. I have to get a Coke first.”

“Don’t you usually drink Mountain Dew?”

I smile. “Yeah, but today I just have to be different.”

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