True romance is hard to define: It’s the time when your mind and heart throb to the same passionate beat. It erases your fears and past failures, deems you worthy and worthwhile and showers you in crackling light. Unfortunately, it’s fleeting: True romance won’t wait for you in the morning. It rarely survives the night, but its details will visit you like magi with gifts of memories.
My recollection began with a phone call from Lyn; sister of my heart and exclusive sounding board when I began my first novel. We were in deep discussion on my choice of love interest for Wendy Dale; the main character in Bird and Fish.
“Did you have an Asian boyfriend?” Lyn surprised me with her off the cuff, but very personal inquiry. I was unable to answer quickly enough to suit her. She jumped in again. “I figured you did, since you chose to create an inter-racial couple.”
Of course, Lyn was right. Wendy and Jae Won were an inter-racial couple. If they magically left my pages to walk down my street, that’s what people would see. I wondered why I hadn’t seen it. I was enamored by their cultural differences. Surely, ethos and tenets would work against them, not their hair, skin and eye colors.
Then I remembered the Chinatown restaurant on a late night in June, 1970; its crisp white tablecloth, the crispy fried pork, my boyfriend whom I’d later marry and divorce, his friend whom I’d grow to dislike, and standing above it all, pad and pencil in his slender tapered fingers was our Chinese waiter.
He brought beer to the table, poured water in our glasses, took our orders and all the while he and I flirted; sometimes with carefree and careless banter sometimes with silent playful intimacies. Good manners that come with maturity make seduction more cryptic, but the Chinese waiter and I were 20-somethings: What we felt was as obvious as clown noses and like young people through the ages, we didn’t care who noticed.
The Age of Aquarius heralded in ideas about free love. Attraction was no longer forced into a holding pattern until marriage, instead it raced toward sex on demand. (Not for me personally. My father assured me, had I turned into that kind of girl, he’d throw me off a roof and jump off after me. I never was sure if he was serious, mostly, I knew my sleeping around would have broken his heart.) But even with this new found freedom of physical love, the rules of whom to love remained the same. People found love within the confines of their race, culture, religion and even neighborhoods. It was true for everyone: Yes, a Chinese boyfriend would have shocked my family, but his parents would have taken one glance at my red hair and green eyes and been in a tizzy as well. Our separate sets of friends wouldn’t have offered succor either. Asian and European-American hippies were fine toking on the same joint and marching with Dr. King, but also knew that when college ended, the rules of grown-ups awaited.
Still, in that Chinatown restaurant for a brief moment, true romance was making all dreams possible.
The meal ended. He returned to our table, boldly look into my eyes, “Anything else?” he asked without averting his gaze. “We’re good,” my boyfriend answered. “What do we owe you?”
He answered without hesitation, “Nothing, if she stays.”
I felt the heat radiating from my reddening cheeks and stared down into my lap while my boyfriend paid the bill in silence. The Chinese waiter’s eyes never met mine again. For a while I wondered why I didn’t pretend to use the restroom and seek him near the kitchen to write my phone number on his hand or sneak a brisk kiss. But true romance can’t be organized. I left without him. He didn’t follow.
Since then, the years have piled up like firewood logs; one on top of another, until ten became twenty and twenty grew into a lifetime. Yet an hour in a Chinatown restaurant long ago still warms me. Perhaps that’s the authentic definition of true romance.