The evening is ruined in an instant. No warnings precede it and I’m left wondering how everything had gone so horribly wrong when just a moment ago it was by my perception close to being perfect. The day started as any day usually did for me during the cold winter month of December in Buffalo, New York. My phone alarm serenaded me awake with the rising timbre of beach waves hitting the shore as bird calls echoed in the background. I picked this particular one after reading an article about how early morning alarms could significantly impact an entire day. This was in vain as I existed in a constant state of dysania from reading or watching emotionally gut wrenching films late hours into the night.
Shuffling my arms through the rumpled blankets like a ravaged shark hunting for prey, I find and snooze my alarm lackadaisically, attempting to squeeze in a few more minutes of sleep before it goes off again but the countdown to the incident had already begun and hung just above the horizon. An hour later I jerk awake realizing I slept through two more alarms and lunge out of bed and nearly tripping over my compact heater. I make a dash for the bathroom stopping only to raise the temperature of the thermostat a couple degrees, neglecting the fact that I hardly had enough time left to bask in the slow-rising warmth that ensued. Managing to throw a sesame bagel in the toaster oven and hurriedly setting a timer for 5 minutes, I relieve myself, wash my face, and brush my teeth and was squeezing my black thermal covered legs into khaki work pants when my phone pings with a text from Jeremy.
“Good morning handsome, Sleep well? Hope you have a great day at work today. Pick you up around 7 for dinner?” I smile as I read his text, appreciating the sun and smiley face emojis accompanying the blue message bubble. Spotting the time I spring back into action placing my phone in my back pocket and finish getting dressed, reminding myself to respond to him once I was comfortably on the bus and headed to work. Moving with purposeful celerity I retrieve my slightly over-toasted bagel, dab some chive cream cheese over it and wrap it in a paper towel, put on my winter boots, coat, and backpack and head out into the bracing cold of Buffalo.
Winter in Buffalo had a certain way of infiltrating through the innermost parts of your protective layers to shake you to the core rendering you stark naked. It was not so much a physical ordeal as it was a psychological battle within the self, much like someone holding up a full length mirror that you may finally confront your inner repressed demons. Though usually you came out the other end better than you went in to begin with I was resolute in my distaste towards this forced period of introspection. Being born just 4 degrees north of the equator in Lagos, Nigeria I knew deep down I needed sunlight to thrive. Some days I felt as though the long winter would never come to an end and my friends and I often joked that if you could survive a Buffalo winter, you could survive anywhere.
The bus pulls up at its usual time and I squeeze past a crowded coven of drowsy unwilling high school kids to get to the more spacious rear with several open seats. Once comfortable I take my time eating, staying mindful of my breathing and slow down my racing thoughts until I can concentrate only on eating the bagel, a skill I picked up from some workshops I attended during the summer before pulling out my phone to re-read Jeremy’s text. I respond in my usual way of sending separate text bubbles fully aware that it irked him, “I slept like a brick, if that brick was used to build a fallout shelter”, “Was almost late for work but still determined to have a good day soon as I load up on my body weight in caffeine”, “Looking forward to dinner and wouldn’t miss it for the world, unless of course.. I sleep through it haha” adding emojis where I deemed necessary.
I’d met Jeremy at techno house dance party in mid October I was invited to by a friend of mine named Drew. Although it was still fall Buffalo seemed to bypass the season within record time, sending down heaps of snow regularly. Some blamed it on the rising effects of climate change, while other more “seasoned” locals stated Buffalo was just about due for an early winter, I for one couldn't care less and had already begun to hatch an escape plan out of the familiar frigid city. I arrived late to the party via taxi, and stopped to say hello to some friends huddled closely for warmth on the front porch smoking.
“Hey handsome!” Jess, a visual punk artist well known on the scene calls out embracing me warmly. "Is that eyeliner you’re wearing?"
“Yeah,” I reply abashedly.
“You’ve totally turned full fledge punk since the last time I saw you.”
“It’s just eyeliner, nothing special.”
“What Jess is trying but failing to say is it looks nice,” Cory, a mutual friend interjects.
“Thanks,” I smile. “Do y’all know where Drew is?”
“Last time I saw him was in a steamy meatball sandwich on the dance floor,” Jess responds as we all burst into laughter. I kindly refuse their weed offer and make my way inside following the sound of muffled music through a narrow dimly lit hallway littered with empty beer cans and greasy paper plates. I spread apart the vinyl multicolor striped pvc curtain and enter through a black graffiti encrusted wooden door. Once inside the music washed over me in an instant as if I’d dived into a bottomless vibrating pool of undulating rhythm, every ounce of the room was saturated with funky hypnotic grooves drowning me in electronic waves and periodic indecipherable vocals that penetrated the deepest hidden parts of my being. Looking around, I spot the DJ booth directly ahead of the circular energetic dance floor, in it is a young girl from Toronto wearing a shimmery silver jacket and large headphones, spinning music like wildfire, the lazer light show and fog machine set up makes her seem like a mind control alien sent to destroy planet earth through the simple act of dance. A table to my right boasted an assortment of various liquors and I decide to help myself to two consecutive tequila shots to calm my nerves and sync with the energy of the room, a feat made easier by alcohol in most circumstances. The dance floor is crowded and I find it difficult at first to make Drew out from the ritual of gyrating bodies when I spot him bouncing and waving excitedly at me from the base of the dance floor, smack dab in front of the DJ. Tossing back one more shot, I let the music move through me and vibe my way through the crowd to join him.
We give each other brief hugs and he introduces me to Jeremy, a German foreign student studying at the University. He wore a brown leather jacket, dark green sweater, grey woolly scarf, skinny fit blue jeans and brown tims which piqued my interest because I’d never met anyone from outside of New York who wore tims. I’m sure those people existed, just never met them. He had a rounded sort of face and was just shy of 6’1 accounting for the added height of his boots, his head was cleanly shaved and he sported a well kept trim beard. We shake hands and I introduce myself over the blaring music trying my best to make an appropriate amount of eye contact.
“Will…” he sounds it out as if contemplating it. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” I say leaning towards him.
“Hope you’re as good a dancer as your friend.”
“Oh much better!” I smile earnestly and the ritual begins, my hips are thrusted this way and that with the music and his hands flail wildly, he moves with little inhibition and I respond in kind, we dance so vehemently it feels as if the world has fallen away from our feet and we are caught in an endless ecstatic loop of seamlessly transitioning electronic dance music. Time comes to a standstill and for a moment I feel suspended within myself, watching my body move of its own accord responding to the vigor and charm of Jeremy who never stops moving to the music and I cannot help but be drawn towards him like an unsuspecting moth to a flame. Jeremy suddenly stops and peers deeply into my eyes as if he can see me suspended there within my body, watching the world from that sunken place of comfort and connects his lips with mine, wrapping his arms around my waist. Time begins again and I find myself falling back into my body and into Jeremy, not resisting I kiss back intently in the middle of the dance floor and the ritual is complete.
Work goes by slowly and glancing over at the digital clock in the bottom corner of my computer screen only made the mundanity of my desk job ever so apparent. When lunch break finally arrives I grab the work of fiction I’d been reading out of my backpack titled “A brief history of 1000 Suns” and head to the breakroom cafe where I buy a pre-packaged tuna sandwich and sit at an unoccupied table. My phone had no new notifications from Jeremy since the text I sent this morning on the bus so I assumed he was busy with classes so I return to the familiar fictional world to distract myself.
The book is a nonfiction anthology featuring first person anecdotes of children from various parts of the world, some stories conclude within a chapter and others spanned several. I was currently nearing the end of a story of a 14 year old girl named Tutu who lived with her grandfather and only living relative in a small house on the outskirts of a tiny village in Mozambique, we are only ever introduced to him as “Apa.” The author of this anecdote had given this particular story a special kind of attention that manifested in the way Tutu describes the details of her daily life. She took great care of her Apa, who as the story progresses falls ill and loses the gradual ability to perform simple tasks and in turn he tells her fantastical stories fraught with moral lessons by the nighttime fire. When her Apa passes away, Tutu is left to fend for herself, using the lessons of her Apa to serve as a moral guidepost. I finish the chapter and close the book, taking a moment to reflect on the story when I answer a call from Jeremy.
“Hey! Sorry for getting back to you so late. I finally got a moment to catch a breath and couldn’t wait to hear your voice.”
“Aw...hearing your German accent isn’t too shabby either,” I respond.
“Are you dating me cuz you like my accent?”
“What other reason could there possibly be?” I hear Jeremy laugh on the other end of the line. “I could think of a couple..hm..my good looks, my taste in music, my cooking, my…”
I interrupt him. “Charming ability to talk about yourself for hours?”
“Thank you. Speaking of talking about yourself for hours I don’t think you ever told me where we’re going tonight for date night.”
“That’s because it’s a surprise.”
“I’m not exactly the biggest fan of surprises. That’s why I don’t watch scary movies or play the lottery for that matter.”
“Will you come if I promise to never surprise you again...pretty please...well unless it's on or around halloween...or birthdays..or anniversaries”
I laugh, “You’re not exactly making a strong case for yourself. But fine. I’ll be primed and ready by 7 handsome.”
“Great! I’m so excited! I’ll text you when I’m on the way. Hope you have a great day at work German accent lover.”
“You too prince charming.”
We hang up and I hoped he hadn’t made a reservation at the fine dining restaurant I worked at briefly, as my departure was less than amicable and melodramatic. The owner was a bonafide supercilious racist and once when he’d raised his voice at me over the bar and in front coworkers and patrons and I made sure everyone within earshot was made aware of his discriminatory hiring practices and walked out never to return.
At 6:30pm I watch Jeremy pull into my driveway through a slit in my curtain and my heart rate increases steadily. I just finished getting dressed and wore all black levi boots and jeans with two slits I cut myself at the knees, a grey and black flannel over a black and white striped longline T-shirt. I put on my heavy grey winter coat exited the house and entered his 2003 Chrysler Sebring, it was more of a hassle than a convenience most days but today seemed to run smoothly which I took as a good sign. He had on his classic brown leather jacket, a black scarf over a blue and white knitted aztec sweater, blue jeans and tims.
“Hey gorgeous,” he says smiling.
“Hey handsome,” I respond back as we sit transfixed at the mere sight of each other like some unknown bandit had come in the middle of the night and stolen all verbal language from us, gravity shifts in the car and our magnetized bodies are drawn towards each other, sharing a kiss as Beethoven's 7th symphony played softly in the background. We talk the entirety of the 20 minute journey to the restaurant jumping from conversations about politics, music, and film and I regale to him my impressions of Tutu’s story making associations between her gained autonomy and the pressures she felt from the world around her as Jeremy listened attentively, always letting me finish thoughts and supplementing mine with his when he could.
We pull into a plaza in front of a place aptly named "Boiling Point," a hot pot restaurant. Hot pot was a type of Chinese soup accompanied by a variety of meats, leafy vegetables, seafood, and other ingredients provided by the restaurant that patrons could simmer on their own. I’d heard of the boiling point restaurant before but had never really had much of an inclination to eat there as I frankly never saw the point in paying to make your own food at a restaurant when you could do that in the comfort of your kitchen. Jeremy turned the car off turning his body to face me, “Before you say anything, remember when you told me you welcomed new experiences?”
“Yeah...” I say hesitantly squinting my eyes thinking back to the exact moment when I said it.
“I know we could have pulled up some YouTube video and recreated this at home, but you’d never have gotten the authentic experience like that! Come on just indulge me?....please.” Sebastian knew how I felt about hot pot restaurants because we’d jokingly discussed it before but still since this was his treat and he wasn’t exactly wrong.
“As long as you’re paying I’m game.”
“Ohhh..dating me for my accent and my money. You’re a real keeper,” he teases.
We were greeted by the hostess when we arrived, a sweet rosy cheeked Asian girl not much older than I was who ushered us to the corner table where we sat. The restaurant was dimly lit with ambient Chinese music playing softly that wrapped around us like a warm fuzzy blanket on a cold night, a feeling I cherished. The brown brick walls were punctuated here and there by slots which housed tall lit candles that added a layer of intimacy to the space. When the server makes his way to our table I order a glass of red wine and Jeremy orders a beer, when it arrives we share a toast and I tell him that I still couldn’t believe he brought me here but genuinely promised to give the experience a chance. When we decide what we want from the menu he calls the server over, and attempting to squash any lingering doubts Jeremy might have about my willingness to enjoy hot pot I enthusiastically order the half and half house soup base which came with the spicy and original separated, as well as the seafood and veggie combo.
The meal arrives in record time which I assume is due to a combination of a lack of patrons and readily available ingredients. The soup arrives in a metal pot placed over a warm heated platform with an easy to use temperature dial in the middle of the table, the server then places the seafood and veggie combo on either sides of the pot asking if we needed anything else before leaving. I let my eyes first sweep over the outre spread of seafood consisting of raw tiger prawns, shrimp, clams and scallops, followed by the house white and the spicy red seasoned soups and finally the pea sprouts, spinach, cabbage, and baby bok choy.
“You seem slightly overwhelmed.”
“Not at all, just taking in a new experience is all.” I pick up some spinach with my chopsticks placing it gently into the simmering house original soup for a few moments repeating it with a scallop before taking it out and eating it.
“It’s actually really good. You’d better try some before it’s all gone.”
“Don’t mind if I do!” Jeremy starts with a prawn, dipping it in the red soup. “Now that is good soup. You gotta try some.”
“Hm...I dunno...I’m not into super spicy food,” he gasps mockingly hearing me say this, “What would your ancestors say?”
“That I’m an idiot for agreeing to hot pot.” We laugh and I decide it won’t hurt to try some of the spicy soup and to my surprise enjoy it immensely. The base isn’t overwhelmingly spicy and contained just the right amount of seasonings making me almost consider asking the server how the chefs get the proportions right.
We never run out of things to talk about as we eat, like a naturally occurring gas flame that stays lit. We try several more pieces of seafood, mixing and matching with various vegetables comparing which combinations are our favorites when a feeling akin to nausea grips me suddenly lasting for a few moments. I wonder what could have spurned such a sporadic reaction but am relieved Jeremy doesn’t notice this and decide to give myself a break from eating to make sure it doesn’t return. This enables me to focus my undivided attention on Jeremy resting warmly on his every word. After around 10 minutes by my calculation the feeling of nausea hadn’t returned and I cautiously continue eating, picking up a scallop with a pea sprout and simmering it in the spicy soup before devouring the trifecta in one fell swoop. Nothing happens for a moment and I savor the delicacy when without a moment's notice the nausea returns, starting in the pit of my stomach and spreading rapidly throughout my body making the hairs on my arms stand on end. Trying my best to suppress the feeling of impending vomit I take some sips of water to no avail as the diametrical rift between my mind and body only grew wider with each passing moment.
Reaching the realization that I would be unable to suppress it any longer I decide to excuse myself from the table gracefully fully aware that I was an active volcano about to spew it’s simmering guts all over unsuspecting island dwellers, if the island was a corner table of a restaurant.
“Are you alright? You got a funny look all of a sudden,” Jeremy asks with a perplexed look of concern.
“Fine. Just need to find the restroom.” I respond taking a panicky glance around the dining room and unable to locate the restroom for a prompt escape when the server walks over having noticed my body language.
“How is everything?”
“Really great, thank you. Can you tell me where the restrooms are?” The words come out as unintentionally dismissive.
“Of course if you make a left down there you’ll find a hallway with gender neutral restrooms,” he says pointing directly behind me just past a table of four. I smile abashedly and get up slowly from my seat afraid that any sudden movement might trigger an explosive reaction like stepping on a landmine and I’d have no way of stopping it. Saving face was no longer an option as they both look at me with deep concern and horror.
“Thanks.” I manage to say as I walk away unable to look a confused Jeremy in the eyes out of my own inner shame. Every step I take is labored, slow, and meticulous and I focus every ounce of willpower I have into making it to the restroom as quickly as I can while keeping a steady pace when I make eye contact with the woman at the table of four.
She is middle aged and seemed to be on a dinner outing with her husband and two children. I thought it peculiar that they would have brought their children out on a date, perhaps unable to find a sitter. One of the children who sat to her right was a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 5 years old and the other a baby boy not more than 1 year old who sat in a tall baby seat provided by the restaurant next to the man I assumed her husband. The woman smiles warmly at me, a genuine smile that made me want to ask her questions about her life and I try to smile back but my eyes instinctively shift from her face to the hot pot identically placed on their table and it happens without warning.
The sight of the softly bubbling soup elicited a rapid chain reaction within me causing a sudden eruption on a scale I hadn’t witnessed before. I had somehow pulled a trigger I didn’t know I had an a reaction that started somewhere inside me now sent projectile vomit onto the table. It all happened so fast that the shock of it all only made made me unable to react effectively that by the time I knew what had occurred I might as well have committed a social felony. The reddish puke had made it into the still bubbling hot pot, splashing against the table of the family and the man thankfully having the reflexes of an Olympian grabbed the baby and moved to safety, leaving a fallen chair in his wake. Unluckily the little girl and her mother were most in the line of fire had taken the brunt of it, almost entirely covered in a stream of clumpy red sauce. The woman's smiling face that I remembered now read nothing but pure terror and anger and the little girl had already begun wailing as I apologized profusely. I pick up a wrapped up cutlery set in a state of panic, unwrap it and offer her the napkin unaware of any other action that could communicate my level of rueful embarrassment of what had occurred.
“Just...please...leave her alone.” The man says from across the table and I comply, tears welling in my eyes. The waiter was already on his way with fresh damp towels when I run to the restroom not bothering to see where Jeremy was or how much of what just transpired that he’d seen. It is impossible for me to decipher the difference between the running faucet and my face in the restroom as I cup water into my hands rinsing out my mouth. I take my flannel and short of which have a bit of vomit on them and use a damp paper towel to wipe it before collapsing on the floor in defeat crying unstoppably.
“Are you okay?” I hear Jeremy’s concerned voice from the other side of the locked door.
I don’t respond.
“You know the lady out there needed a makeover anyway. I’d say red is definitely her color and between you and I you did her a huge favor.”
“Shut up Sebastian... you’re just trying to make me feel better.” I say.
“Well yes, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t mean what I said...you should have seen how the the light capture the red in her hair,” he laughs. “It was quite entertaining.”
“Glad you’re finding my misery entertaining.”
“Come on. Let me in.” he taps lightly on the door. “We’re both gonna laugh about it all someday...why not now?”
“I feel so stupid.”
“But I bet you still look gorgeous...let me in”
“Only if you promise not to laugh at me.”
“I promise.” I unlock the door and Jeremy walks in and sees me sitting by the door shirtless. He closes the door behind him takes off his shirt and hands it to me.
“Wear this,” he says and looking in his eyes I knew he wouldn’t take no for an answer so I comply and he grabs my shirt and flannel putting it on himself.
“Much better?” I nod my head. Too involved in my thinking to strong together any combination of words. Jeremy squeezes me tightly as tears stream down my face and I hold him even tighter. “You’re okay...It’s gonna be okay.” With this simple act Jeremy had completely bypassed every barrier I had erected around my heart.
We share a moment that transcends my understanding but being with him in this way puts me at ease. With this simple act Jeremy had completely bypassed every barrier I had erected around my heart. When he can tell I calmed down a bit he motions for me to wait and leaves briefly returning fully dressed holding my coat and scarf.
“I already paid for dinner so no need to worry about that, let’s go home.” He helps me put on my coat and as we leave the restaurant I mouth “sorry” silently to the servers, the family of four nowhere in sight.
I’m not certain how long we spent in the restroom that evening, but what I was certain of that night was that I’d never again venture anywhere near a hot pot restaurant. Two years went by and we eventually drifted physically and emotionally when he moved to Germany for work and the trajectory of my life led to school in Los Angeles. He was neither my first lover or my last but he left a mark that I imagine will stay with me for the rest of my life. I wonder though, sometimes, if he ever got hot pot again after that night.