A complete stranger asked me to dinner over the Internet.
It wasn’t off an online dating site, either, but Twitter, where I am often, to my own dismay, a complete jackass.
It’s not often that I get asked to spend time with Internet friends – but it has happened, and all of the people I’ve met have been delightfully brilliant and charming. We’ve all since stayed in touch. Plus, I figured, anyone who would want to meet someone with the username “Fart Sandwich” should probably know what she’s getting into, anyhow.
A cursory glance over her profile showed me a beautiful face swathed with long brown hair, framed with glasses. Scanning through some photos I saw food photos, chalk drawings, a dog. So I think, Well, I guess she probably wants to talk to me about food. Everyone wants to talk to me about food. And I love to talk about food. Sometimes, though, when I see people launch off on a tirade about molecular gastronomy or overpriced restaurants, I look into their eyes and see that I’m not in them, that I’ve suddenly been expected to turn into a mirror of their likes and dislikes, living validation of their opinions, and that this is the sole reason I’m sitting next to them.
It always disappoints them when I respond, “Well, there’s room for every kind of food in this world. Even Taco Bell.” It’s the Taco Bell that either gets me street cred or destroys it altogether. But either way, people want me to agree with whatever opinions they have.
And it drives them crazy when I just shrug.
Instead, I say, “I’m just fascinated with other people’s opinions.” My facial expression gets searched for meaning, and then I always see a slight bit of disappointment.
She’s suggested a paradoxically quiet sake bar, Murasaki Sake Lounge, in a busy area of Streeterville. Its existence in this location almost doesn’t make any sense. It’s two blocks away from the maddening crowds of Michigan Avenue, yet it’s an impossibly quiet haven once you step through the glass door.
She seems stunned when I tell her I already know about the place.
I message her back and tell her, Of course. My friend’s family runs the joint!
My sister’s friend from college, Kerry – his family used to own Murasaki Sake Lounge. I only met him once, and it was at his bar. My main memory of the place was that I had been feeling sick that night and I was concerned I destroyed their toilet. I conveniently left this part out of the story to my Twitter friend.
I get home from work, shower, and nervously roll the cat fur off my sweater. As soon as I jump into the cab, the cabbie immediately complains about how Uber is destroying his taxi business.
So I tell him, “I don’t use Uber. I only use cabs.”
That seems to satisfy his frustration a little. The cabin of the vehicle fills with a noxious odor. Alarmed, I wondered if he crapped his pants until I realize his breath is stupefyingly horrendous. I jump out the cab as quickly as I can, pay, and power-walk away from the car.
The cold makes my jitters worse. But I stride into the bar confidently anyway. Nobody’s there. Televisions lining the wall are playing a beautiful Miyazaki film, drawings turning to life like moving wallpaper. The bartender smiles at me and indicates that I should take a seat wherever I like. So I pick a seat near the end of the bar and tell her I’m just waiting on a friend.
She asks politely, “Have you been to Murasaki Lounge before?”
“Yes,” I say. “I was here when Kerry worked here.”
“Hold on,” she says, and she hurries to the back. A man follows her as she returns.
“Jun,” she says, “The owner.”
Jun and I talk about Kerry, how he’s moved to Los Angeles and is living a California lifestyle now. I find out that Jun has owned the bar since last May after Kerry’s mother retired. He was a former manager before he bought the place. I was mostly relieved to know that Murasaki Sake Lounge was still around.
As we’re discussing Kerry’s current whereabouts, I hear the door open and my Twitter friend walks in.
She’s much prettier than her photo suggested. I suddenly feel a weariness wash over me like a slow and steady wave. We exchange a quick embrace and she gets settled into the chair next to me, nervously picking at her jeans. The side of her head is shaved while the rest of it is very long. It looks good that way.
“Dog hair,” she says, picking at her pants leg.
“Cat hair,” I say, picking at my shoulder. “I get it.”
The bartender asks us if we would like a drink. When it comes to sake, I am completely helpless. I could pretend I know what I’m doing – after all, my general rule of “fake it till you make it” has seemed to work out for me this far, but at this point I usually let bartenders pick beverages for me. It hasn’t steered me wrong so far.
“Whiskey for me,” my companion says. “I always start with whiskey, and end with whiskey.” She settles on an 18 year Yamazaki, and so I nod and have one poured too. We clink glasses and I take my first sip. It tastes like scotch, sweet, buttery, and smooth, with a slight bit of smoke. I like it.
We decide to order some food. She suggests the okonomiyaki, and I pick the takoyaki. I ask her questions: Where are you from? What do you do? The usual questions strangers are obligated to ask each other. I learn that she’s a software designer, she likes video games, and enjoys Asian culture. I smile at that last bit. She tells me she’s from far away. I can see a restlessness in the way she moves and talks, like she’s ready to hop on a plane and leave this place at any given instant.
I look down at the bar, and remember I have one particular question I’d wanted to ask.
“I did have one specific question for you,” I said. “How did you find me on Twitter?”
“One of my coworkers put a link up in our work chat session,” she says. “It was your post about Medieval Times. We went in March, and so somebody just found your site. We were so drunk that night and there were a lot of us.”
“Oh God,” I said. “Medieval Times is the best. They have the strongest drinks. Plus there’s horses.” We both can’t help but smile. Medieval Times does that to people.
“But anyway, I saw your site and then read through all of it. I read everything. Then I found you on Twitter and followed you. You’re a legend at the office.” She’s smiling. “Oh, by the way,” she says, “That thing you wrote about the horse running around in circles, that’s called lunging.”
“Lunging,” I repeat. “Lunging. I didn’t know that.” What I also didn’t know was that people were reading my site, penis jokes and all. Sometimes I see my statistics and the numbers look very small. There are many days that less than ten people come to read it.
The okonomiyaki comes to the table, steaming. It’s a soft savory Japanese pancake filled with lots of ingredients, meat, vegetables, seafood, and it’s topped with a sweet Japanese barbecue sauce and shaved bonito flakes. The flakes dance off the heat of the pancake, curling, twisting, nearly jumping, as if they are alive. She digs in, takes her first bite, and closes her eyes in happiness.
I take my first bite and smile. “It’s good,” I say. “This is delicious.”
“It’s not fancy,” she says. She backtracks. “By ‘not fancy,’ I don’t mean cheap. I mean it’s ‘not fancy’ in a comforting way. The food here is comforting. I love this place.” She yawns, apologizes, and looks at her cell phone. “Sorry,” she says. “I’m on call tonight. After we’re done I have to go back to work. We have a customer deployment and I need to be there in case something breaks.”
The takoyaki comes next, and the little donut hole-shaped pancakes are hot, soft, and delicious, criss-crossed with Japanese barbecue sauce, mayo, and more bonito flakes. We eat them in a warm silence.
“I understand,” I say. “I was in IT for a long time.”
Knowing there’s a time limit, I make sure we get a lot of conversation in. Suddenly I know more about her than I do most of my friends. I ask a lot of questions. The whiskey loosens my lips a touch, so I tell her a little about me, but not too much. I don’t tell her anything important. I can already tell we have a fair amount in common aside from our persistent love of food, which is good. We have one really big thing in common too, that makes me happy.
But over plates of food and glasses of whiskey, a big part of me wants to tell her everything. I remind myself that we are still pretty much strangers and so I put up a mental dam to stop the incessant verbal flow.
The yawns come more frequently. The whiskey is making it hard for her to stay awake. I can tell she is very tired and that it’s about time to go back to the office.
“You can go,” I say. “I’ll take care of the bill.”
She scrunches up her face and says, “No, no, we’re splitting this. I insist. You’re not paying.”
“Listen, it’s the Korean in me. I’m automatically programmed to insist on paying. You’re not allowed to say no. Besides, you’ve got to get back to the office.” She looks at me apologetically. Everyone hates when I do this.
“You mean it’s okay for me to go now and leave you here, alone?” she asks. “I don’t want to do that.”
“No,” I said. “It’s totally fine. You have somewhere to be.” So we hug, reluctantly, and I watch her head out into the night. I pay the bill and leave, walking down Michigan, hoping to catch the Chicago Avenue bus. The bus is nowhere in sight, so I walk for a while, letting the cold air turn my cheeks red.
I watch a homeless man in the process of getting arrested. I overhear the security guard telling the cops about how the man had his junk exposed inside the McDonald’s and the man gets led away, visibly upset.
I finally try to hail a cab and a shiny black Lincoln Navigator pulls up.
“You need a ride?” the driver asks, from inside the car, leaning towards the passenger side window.
“I just need a cab,” I said.
“Get in,” he said. “I’ll take you where you need to go. You can look like a rich man sitting in here with me.” So I hopped in.
I look out the window at the city flying by, past me. I see lights, I see people walking. I see a fight breaking out amongst a group of kids by a bus stop. I am very quiet.
The driver turns around and looks at me, with his thick Pakistani accent and says, “Close your eyes. If you close your eyes for a while you can pretend like you’re being flown around on an airplane.”
I don’t say anything.
He says, “Come on, just do it.”
So I do. And for a second it does feel like I’m flying. But I can already tell I don’t want to go where I’m headed and so I open my eyes and stay quiet on the rest of the way home.