At the Chinese Buffet
Leena's father takes her to the Chinese Buffet for lunch. It doesn't have a name, just a big yellow and green sign outside on a high pole that advertises Chinese Buffet, and then All You Can Eat. She thinks about how, growing up, they always used to go to the same Chinese restaurant called The Forbidden City. But the owners were actually Indonesian, not Chinese. Her father used to take care of the owner's husband, who was the main chef. Leena never saw the chef but his wife Irene always made a big deal when they went there. "Your father so good man," she would say. Irene always brought the family extra egg drop soup and fortune cookies.
"Remember The Forbidden City?" Leena asks her father as they come in from outside. The air conditioner in the Chinese Buffet blows at full blast. Leena notices the orange tiles on the floor. The restaurant seems dirty to her.
"Of course I remember. That was your favorite restaurant," Leena's father says as they wait by the empty hostess booth. The buffet steams in the middle of the room, covered with plastic sneeze guards. There are booths lining the walls by the windows, looking out into the parking lot of the K-Mart. The place seems mostly empty.
"I don't think it was my favorite restaurant. We just went there all the time. I thought it was because you knew the people who owned it," Leena says, rubbing at goosebumps along her arms.
"You loved going there. Don't you remember?" Her father stands with his hands clasped behind his back, waiting for service. He is wearing the blue cloth hat that he has worn the past five or so years, ever since removing his toupee. Leena remembers her parents fighting about the removal because her father began telling people that he shaved his head when his father died, in true Hindu Brahmin tradition, and that a lot of the hair just didn't grow back. Leena's mother didn't want to be a part of these lies. But my father did die, Leena's father had argued.
"Remember? You loved their egg rolls and they would bring you all those fortune cookies," her father says.
"I never liked egg rolls," Leena murmurs.
Outside, it is so hot that the heat rising from the blacktop makes the pick-up trucks that drive by shimmer like dreams. The door opens behind Leena and a family comes in, bringing the silky smell of gasoline from the service station next door with them. The father wears a dirty green tank top and gym shorts. He looks like he has been mowing lawns. He is starting to go bald and the hair on top of his head has turned into a fine sprinkling of blonde fuzz, the skin underneath looks pink and raw. His nose seems impossibly small for his face. The man has three children with him, all barely dressed as though the summer heat had melted the rest of their clothes. The smallest child sports the same bright blonde fuzz as his father and wears a pair of tiny blue shorts that barely cover his sagging diaper. The two sisters have on pink shorts and white t-shirts with red stains all over them. In fact, all three of them have red stains around their mouths and down their legs, as though they had been drinking Kool-aid in the car.
"You in line?" the man grunts at Leena's father.
"Yes, but they must be taking their own lunch break," her father says wittily, smiling down at the trio of kids who stare back. One of the little girl's mouth falls open and Leena sees that her tongue is stained the same deep red color.
"Well, I ain't waiting for that shit," the man huffs, pushing past to the start of the buffet. The two girls scurry after him but the little boy trips over the tip of his tiny flip flop and lands on Leena's father's shiny Nikes.
"Oops!" Her father bends down and the little boy grabs onto his black pants to right himself, looking up and smiling a toothless grin.
"Caleb! Get your butt over here!" The man yells from the buffet where he has already piled himself a mountain of fried won-tons. The girls in pink have secured themselves a booth and they kick their sandaled feet on the tabletop. Leena's father steadies Caleb on his feet and sends him off in the right direction.
Leena and her father stand there for a while longer waiting for someone to show up and point them towards the buffet. Suddenly Leena is nervous. She looks sideways at her father, where he goes up and down on the balls of his feet, his hands still clasped behind his back and wonders if she'll be able to do what she came here to do.
"I guess we should go ahead," Leena's father says and they head towards the food. A skinny Chinese waiter runs out from the kitchen and dumps more chow mein into one of the pans. His hair stands straight up from his head in wiry strands and he stops by the table with the two little girls and tells them to not put their feet on the table. They continue to skid their plastic shoes along the fake wood surface.
"Hey girls, cut it out or I'm gonna beat your butts!" Their father yells over the buffet, balancing two plates in his hands. The girls slide down into the curved plastic bench just as the little boy begins climbing up to sit with them. One of the girls sees Leena looking and pulls her brother up and hugs him to her with both hands. The little girl makes a serious face at Leena, a face that adults make at wayward children.
The buffet runs half the length of the restaurant, starting off with crispy fried egg rolls and wontons and chicken wings and then dissolves into an array of vegetables in thick white or black sauces, a variety of glazed meats with occasional sesame seed or cashew thrown in and then of course, the piece de resistance: a double tray of King Crab Legs. Leena notices the man heading back to his kids with one plate piled high with the stiff red legs.
Leena's father is ahead of her in the buffet and he grabs a few egg rolls and then turns back at her, smiling. "Look, it's your favorite, the little baby corns." He heaps a spoonful of the vegetables in gelatinous white sauce and serves it onto her plate. The food makes a slopping sound. She moves around her father and adds some fried rice to her plate before heading off to a booth a few down from the man and his kids. Leena's father sits down across from her.
"I got crab legs for both of us," he says.
"I don't really like crab legs," she says, eyeing the angular shells warily.
"Oh come on, you used to love them. Remember all those nights at Red Lobster?"
"I hated eating at Red Lobster. That was Abhi. All I could eat there was pasta and shrimp cocktail. Plus, it's kind of gross, isn't it? Eating seafood all the way out here. I mean, it can't be fresh." She wrinkles her nose.
"People eat it here all the time," Leena's father says, crunching into an egg roll, the flakes showering down his grey polo shirt. The skinny Chinese waiter appears at the table to fill up their water glasses and Leena's father nods at him. Leena peels her bare legs off of the plastic bench, listening to the suck of her skin.
"Daddy, is everything okay?" she asks, digging her fork into the dense rice. Her father continues to crunch away at his egg roll, his eyes fixed on his plate. Behind him, she can see the man sitting behind his two plates of food like an ogre. His three children sit in front of him, waiting for some scraps.
"Of course everything's okay," he says. "Should I open some crab legs for you?"
"No, I don't like crab legs. Daddy, I wanted to have lunch to talk with you." She lays her fork down, half stuck in the rice.
"Okay, good. Let's talk."
"Daddy, things don't seem... I don't know. Things don't seem right. I mean, at home. Is everything okay, you know, with Ma?"
"Your mother, she's been upset. You know, with your grandmother and all. But I think it's good that she went to see her. I don't think she has much time."
"But besides that. Things just seem... I don't know. Things just seem different."
"You've just been away for a while. You're probably just adjusting to being home."
"Well, I wanted to come home. I came home because, well, I wanted things to be... I wanted to show you guys that things are better with me. I'm not, well, I'm not messing up anymore."
"I know. You're fine," Leena's father says, twirling noodles on his fork. "There was never anything to worry about. Your mother worries too much."
Leena picks up her fork again and stirs it in her rice. She looks over at the K-mart and thinks about how she used to shoplift underwear from there, the little printed cotton panties with hearts and yellow rubber ducks, because her mother would only buy the large cotton briefs. I am fine, she thinks, but I wasn't. Behind her father the two little girls lean over the table and pick food off their father's plate, while he methodically cracks open crab legs and sucks the meat out, passing the juicy morsels to his son.
"Well, you've got one more year of school. What are you planning on doing afterwards?" Leena's father looks at her expectantly.
"Daddy, I don't know. I don't want to talk about that."
Leena's father sighs and picks up a napkin and passes it over his mouth. She notices how the trio of small moles under his right eye seem more pronounced. All summer, Leena thought: If I just sit down and talk to him, he'll come around. He just needs someone to tell him to straighten out. She imagined it like a fairy tale, her saying the magic words and the dullness that had entered her father's eyes would clear up. The curse lifted and her leaving, a hero—her parents standing in the driveway arm in arm, waving, as she drives away.
"Leena, you've got to plan for the future. That's important."
"I know, Daddy. But what about you? What are your plans?"
"Oh, you know. I'm going to keep working and until I die and then it will be over." Leena's father had been saying this exact sentence over and over lately. At first, Leena had laughed and shook her head at him. Then she rolled her eyes. Then she started to notice that when he said it, her mother pursed her lips into a tight little knot and left the room. It began to be like a mantra that he chanted each day like a child afraid of the dark.
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"Well, it's the truth isn't it? When I was at boarding school in India, Father Mulligan used to say, 'Whatever you do, don't be satisfied with a little job and a little house somewhere.' And look at me." Leena's father says this with a half-smile on his face that was easy to mistake for something lighthearted. She had heard this before, heard the wisdom of her father's drunk Australian Jesuits. So what, she wants to say. Who cares what those useless men had to say. What does that matter now?
"But Daddy, what about your patients? What will they do?"
Her father's half-smile began to sour. The corners of his face, the crinkles at his eyes and his mouth, begin to turn down. "I've done everything for everybody else my whole life," he says. "What about me?"
"What about the garden and those woodshop classes you started?" Leena starts to sweat. She can feel the wetness pooling under her arms and instantly turning cold.
"It's not enough," her father says darkly. He reaches for the plate of crab legs. Behind him, one of the girls has started to cry. The man ignores her and continues to devour his own plate of crab legs, no longer sharing them with his son. The girl throws her head back and wails and even though Leena can't see, she imagines the little girl's fingers clenching the edge of the table so tightly that they have gone colorless.
"Well then, you should take some time, Daddy," Leena says. She can't remember what she was going to say. She can't remember the magic words that would make her father remember who he really was. She thinks about the time when her father picked her up from school and she made him stop every 45 minutes so she could run to the bathroom and do bumps. They had talked and talked for the whole five hours and then later that week she couldn't remember one thing they had talked about, couldn't remember anything she had said. She feels that thick sense of panic now, that almost unbearable feeling of loss. "You've been talking about learning to sail in the Caribbean. You should go for a month, take some lessons. You can take the time off. You just hired that junior partner."
Leena's father pinks up one of the skinny crab legs and cracks it in his hands. He bends the shell back and tugs at the red-tinged flesh with his fingers. But instead of eating it, he puts it down on his plate, the cracked shell clicking against the heavy white ceramic.
"You're grown up now, Leena, right? You and Abhi, I did everything right by you all."
"No, Leena. Listen," he looks down at the cracked leg. Behind him, the girl keeps screaming and Leena can see the man's face getting redder and redder.
"Daddy, just go away for awhile. That's all. You just need to take some time. Maybe you can volunteer somewhere..."
"Leena, listen to me."
"I can help you plan it. There are so many places you could go. We'll go home right now and look it up. You can start in India maybe, go back to that Leper colony that you worked at before. Remember..." Behind her father, the man bangs his hand on the table so hard that the plates of food jump and clatter back down, spilling the tower of hollow crab legs along the table and onto the floor. The little girl who had been wailing crouches down into a little ball and whimpers. Leena sees the man lean over and grab her arm roughly. He hisses into her face: "Stop it, goddammit. Stop this right now!"
"Leena, I just think that... I know that if I go, then, well, I think that I wouldn't be able to trust myself. Do you know what I mean?"
And suddenly, Leena knows exactly what he means. He looks at her pleading, and she knows that he just wants her to say: Yes. All she has to do is say: Yes Daddy, I understand. And the worst part about it, the worst, most horrible feeling in the world that makes her want to crouch into a little ball and wail at the top of her lungs until he slaps her across the face, is that she does. She understands exactly what he means.