I had rehearsed the pronunciations again and again in my car right before I walked in. Watching the man in front of me bumble and butcher “Karaage” I thought This fool. You could have practiced. It’s borderline racist. I looked around as if I had said that out loud, and that people were agreeing with me. I, the great unifier as they might one day refer to me, stepped up to the till to order my food. The woman’s face smiled politely as I thoroughly mangled the Japanese language. How long will this painful memory haunt me? I wondered as I took a seat in the intimate waiting area of the ramen restaurant.
“15 minutes” the woman had said. 15 brutal minutes. Just me, this receipt, and my mind. My phone was in my car, the battery completely drained from me replaying a video to help me with my pronunciation of the Japanese word for chicken wings. So I busied myself with a familiar task: Organizing my seemingly endless catalogue of worries. Lately, cardiac health had taken a back seat to Alzheimer’s disease. This new, sexy bit of uneasiness had been brought on by the constant barrage of commercials detailing the disease and its various and frankly all too common symptoms. A sweet-looking older man begins buying 4 litres of milk seven days a week, or a woman in her 40’s begins misplacing common items around the house. I do those kinds of things. I’ve done them today. I have a lot of coffee creamer in the fridge and I can never find my headphones. I was “self-diagnosed” and practically living with the disease at this point. In order to test how the condition had already ravaged my once young, able mind, I concocted a simple test: Memorize the receipt, every piece of information, and recite it back to myself. The order number and restaurant name were easy. If I kept things simple, I could still function. This goddamn disease will not define me I reasoned with myself. I’d moved down to the next line “Server name” and below it “Quan”.
To be honest, I hadn’t really noticed Quan while she was taking my order. I was too busy trying to maintain my composure after flubbing the Japanese word for deep-fried potato cakes. But now sitting in the cramped seat in that waiting area I can’t believe I didn’t notice her. Her soft round face, seeming so plain a moment ago, was now radiant and beautiful. Her demeanour was unmistakably warm as she helped customers. Her smile was a bright splash of colour in the black and white confines of the minimalist, drab Japanese restaurant.
As my wait continued, my interest in Quan became a quiet obsession. I studied her soft hands and flawless skin, I began to fall in love with the way her hair danced across her shoulders every time she turned to answer the phone or fill a customer’s bag with napkins. I was on the edge of my seat every time she called out an order number, desperate to prolong our time together. Half hoping she would summon me to the till, and half hoping I would be allowed to wait here forever. Maybe when I got my order I would complain; search for the smallest fault in my food and try to spark a conversation from there.
I imagined the first few months of our lives together. The butterflies in my stomach during our first few dates. Agreeable conversations and friendly energy every time one of us brings up a new topic. The way she would try to serve me and I would gentlemanly refuse, insisting that she “Leaves that business at work,” as I insist that she sits down and lets me rub her sore feet. The sugary feeling of leaving her apartment knowing that I was special, at least to her.
As time moves on things would become a little more serious. We have our first fight, it’s over something small and stupid, but at the same time, it’s big and important. A comment is taken out of context or an ill-timed facial expression is noticed and over analyzed. The next time we speak we’ll spend most of the time apologizing and laughing about how stupid it all was. We make fun of each other for overreacting and promise to talk things over next time. The promise is more important than either of us let on — an unspoken understanding: This might be real.
After a while it becomes ordinary. Me and Quan. Quan and me. Our social circles will eventually become entwined and some become unlikely friends or possibly lovers, while others fall by the wayside. We rearrange our lives around each other like living room furniture–some people are comforting like a well-worn chair while others are discarded like a battered, water ring covered coffee table.
I was jarred out of my fantasy by an errant elbow to my shoulder. The minuscule woman who delivered it apologized profusely. I had been too engulfed in my fantasy life with Quan that I hadn’t noticed the second leg of the dinner rush was in full swing. The waiting area was practically bursting at the seams and the air had become humid and thick. All of us sitting and waiting in our own little worlds, our minds escaping to other, happier places. I’d completely forgotten about my Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which in itself is concerning. Carefully I studied the receipt again: Order number 23, Kintaro Ramen, Tebaski, server name, Quan, 1. Order number 23, Kintaro Ramen, Tebaski, server name, Quan, 1. Order number 23, Kintaro Ramen, Tebaski, server name, Quan, 1. Staring at the receipt, trying to lull myself back into my fantasy, I made a disturbing discovery: “Quan” was actually an abbreviation for “Quantity”. The name that had so captivated me, the only thing I knew about this beautiful woman that I had built an entire life, an entire existence with, was a complete and total fabrication.
The speaker that was bolted onto the wall barked out my order number. Getting to my feet, I realized that I had a lump in my throat the size of a fist. I couldn’t swallow. My palms were sweaty and my hands were trembling. My knees felt like they wouldn’t buckle and I would crumble attempting my first step. Holding the brown take-out bag she smiled the smile I had seen a hundred times in my fantasy, in our progeria life together I’d experienced for the last 15 minutes or so. Her expressive eyes glittered in the last bit of fading sunlight that crept through the window and suddenly I felt calm. She handed me my food and that’s as close as my trembling hand would ever come to hers. Goodbye, my sweet Quan. Or, whatever your name is. Soon I would forget her entirely. Damn this disease.