*This story was published in the Philippines Free Press, August 11, 2007, and was anthologized in the anthology of Flash Fiction in English, “Very Short Stories for Harried Readers” by Milflores Publishing, December 2007.
By Jean Claire A. Dy
“People from the West are uncivilized,” he said half-jokingly as he nudged the fork in her bowl with the tips of his ivory chopsticks. “So unhygienic lah,” he added with a wink. “We Chinese do it different lah. See.” He lifted his chopsticks for her to look, “just two contact points. But the fork, the fork,” he stopped in mid-sentence and nudged her fork again as though to make his point.
She looked at the fork submerged in her bowl of Ramen soup, then slowly picked it up to examine its four silver sharp tines meant to stake a claim on a piece of meat or dig into a bowl of pasta or rice. But it is also meant for noodles, she thought. Filipinos find forks easy to use–just twirl the noodles around the tines then shove one gob of noodles into your mouth.
“I can never do that,” she told him as she watched him deftly pick a tiny green pea from his almost empty bowl. “You mean you can really pick a tiny bean like that with chopsticks?”
She knew she sounded incredulously naïve but she didn’t care. The green bean squeezed between the two ends of the sticks appeared unusually small and frail yet seemingly as significant as a miniscule green dot in a huge Mandala. She was amazed at how his fingers didn’t tense when he picked beans adroitly like picking tiny objects delicately as though picking grains of sand.
“You can pick anything with these sticks lah,” he said then proceeded on telling her his chopstick story: how when he was young he couldn’t hold his chopsticks properly his Shainghanese father scolded him several times. Until secretly he had to learn to pick minute objects on his own using a pair of drummer sticks his Malay mother secretly gave him on his tenth birthday. He said that if one is able to pick the tiniest object with drummer sticks, one will be adept with a pair of chopsticks, and “that’s the secret, don’t you tell.”
She giggled when he said that bit about secrets because she knew he’s good at keeping them just like how he never told anyone about her and him always meeting like this in his house somewhere in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, because “it’s hard to explain lah.”
“Eating with chopsticks is an art you have to master,” he said. “And the important thing is, you must enjoy doing it.” He grinned at her with an enthusiasm he could call his own; eyes smiling like the Buddha.
She wanted to tell him that she had never felt happier with eating until this moment they ate Ramen soup together at his dinner table. She wanted to tell him how eating for her is shoveling spoonfuls into her mouth, into her system, never mind the taste, what matters was the feeling of being filled to the brim.
But she decided not to tell him. It was not for him to know.
She picked her silver fork and twirled it around a mound of noodles swimming in an orangey spicy soup. She noticed how her brown fingers looked at home with her fork, and how his white fingers held his slim ivory chopsticks like they were also meant to be together. Everything is clearer now, she thought.
Everything on this dinner table is follows a kind of pace unfamiliar to her. The porcelain bowls they used are decorated with tiny intricate Chinese designs in blue ink. She tried to imagine the painter’s brush quietly stroking the bowl creating miniature flowers, leaves, and branches on its trail.
“Is it good? Are you happy with your food?” he suddenly asked.
She is happy, of that she is certain. But what to make of this happiness is another thing.
Later that night as she lay among the swell of pillows in his bed, she watched him staring over her, his face a silhouette of a concept she knew she couldn’t grasp. “My beautiful Filipina,” he whispered. He told her he had to remember this moment–her face framed in a memory he was obliged to take, a novelty among the photographs he took of Chinese women he made love with over the years. She wanted to ask him why he had to remember or if she actually made an impression at all. But again, she remained silent as she watched him smiling down on her, his eyes roaming around her face, her hair, her neck, shoulders and down her heaving breasts, her expectant naked body.
And when he buried his head between her brown thighs, she sighed unexpectedly as she forced her eyes to stay open, to stare at the ceiling as though there were stars stuck on it, but the ceiling fan made her dizzy, and his tongue was stroking her skin, she closed her eyes and finally let out a scream.
At dinner when she was striving to eat all her noodles, challenged by the need to impress him by cleaning her bowl empty, he suddenly asked her: “Can you eat everything? Just tell me if you can’t lah.”
“I don’t know yet,” she replied, wishing she hadn’t come across as very desperate.
“It’s okay. Just tell me you can’t lah.”
Then without a word, he took her bowl tenderly away from her hands, gave her a reassuring smile then thrust his chopsticks into the bowl of noodle soup. He made slurping sounds while eating clearly enjoying himself. She told him that in the Philippines making noises while eating is considered impolite. “But we are eating Ramen!” he said in between slurps. “For the Japanese, the more noise you make, the happier they are.” Then quickly enthused, “but if we’re eating Chinese noodles, ah then, that’s different.”
Later that night after she let out her last scream, he scooped her head to let it lie on the crook of his arm and gave her a light kiss on the forehead so light it didn’t make a sound. They lay beside each other for what seemed like eternity, legs knotting, hair on their skins grazing, and her fingers combing his hair.
At one point when the room became uncomfortably silent, she whispered into his ear: “I’ll probably learn how to use the chopsticks when I go home.” He replied with a low grunt, smiled at her with eyes half-closed then began snoring faintly. She gazed at his face in an attempt to remember it well then her heart swelled into a river of laughter she thought she never owned.