The recipe for Ronny’s charm belonged to Mr. Chen, some retired chef who used run a cheap Chinatown restaurant. Truth be told, when Kaifeng first met Ronny at Venue in the west side of downtown, the part of the city filled with rich white folks, they did not expect that they would go so far for him. Yet here they were, seven months later, driving a beat-up Camry from Vancouver to San Francisco just to keep Ronny on this earth.
They never expected to fall in love with a non-Asian, let alone this six-five, crew-cut blond who looked like he’d break a rim dunking. It was around Christmas the night they met. Ronny pushed his ass against Kaifeng on Venue’s retro-neon, checker-tiled dance floor and twerked like he was in a rap video. In that moment Kaifeng learned their body didn’t have the same racial inclinations as their brain.
They led Ronny back to their pristine, harbor-view two bedroom on the thirty-fifth floor of Starlight Towers. They plugged in the fairy lights they had attached with command strips onto the entire ceiling of his bedroom, then tried to scatter electric candles over the dressers. Ronny stopped him.
“I like it rough, not this romantic stuff.”
Kaifeng shot him a condescending glare.
“It can still be rough with candles.”
They shared a joint afterwards, and then a meal. Ronny was almost giddy with excitement as he led Kaifeng to My Home Cuisine—a shoddy restaurant tucked in a back alley in the seedy part of Chinatown covered with a mist of cooking oil and soy sauce. Kaifeng had to admit there was a charm to the place, though they’d never come alone in a million years.
It was all merriment when they entered. Mr. Chen, the chef, rushed out of the kitchen at the sound of Ronny’s name and personally took their orders. He wrapped a grease-covered arm around Ronny’s shoulder as they chatted like close friends—Ronny’s English almost taking on Mr. Chen’s Chinese accent. Ronny gulped down the chow-mien glazed with that over-oiled glimmer, expertly wielding his pair of cheap, splinter-giving chopsticks, while Kaifeng twirled the noodles around in their plate.
“What’s wrong?” Ronny asked.
“Sorry,” Kaifeng said and wiped his brows from the restaurant’s excessive heating. “Inauthentic Chinese food doesn’t … do it for me.”
“Mr. Chen is Chinese,” Ronny said. “He told me he was from a place called Changdo.” Kaifeng had to stifle their laughter at the way Ronny butchered Chengdu.
“He may be Chinese, but what he makes is Chinese food for white people, which is why you like it.” Kaifeng gestured at Ronny, realizing only afterwards that it had been slightly condescending.
Ronny shrugged. “Mr. Chen’s fake then?”
“Real people make fake things sometimes to put food on the table.”
“Then why is the distinction so important?”
“Because I’m Chinese,” Kaifeng said. “Authentically.”
The next four months was about acquainting Ronny with real Chinese restaurants: places where the xiaolongbao is folded so close to you that you can smell the yeast in the dough, and where the braised pork sizzled so crisply on the hot plate you could swear it had tap shoes on. Together they frequented joints with four-hundred-dollar bills and where the waiters brought you more plate than food, as Ronny liked to say.
“You know it.”
“Crispy shrimp balls?”
“Not a chance.”
“Not even wrapped in bacon?”
“Are you hearing yourself?”
As the two walked hand-in-hand down Jericho beach in matching sunglasses one afternoon, Ronny’s fingers inexplicably turned translucent and slipped out of Kaifeng’s clammy clasp. When reality dawned on them, Kaifeng ducked into a bathroom stall and cried, but not for the reason you’d expect. Sure, they were upset that Ronny had effectively lied about who he was for the entirety of their relationship, but what really hurt them was knowing that they’d no longer have a future together.
They’d followed the news like everyone else when people started materializing out of thin air in the middle of shopping malls, golf courses, and restaurants, clothed in whatever they had when they died. And if they’d learned anything during that time, it was that no one stayed forever. They either came with a purpose—usually a vengeful one—haunting their past abusers, killing rapists and serial killers and gangsters who’d done them wrong, or they simply lingered until their charms expired, then dissipated back into the air.
Ronny followed them into the bathroom. Kaifeng could tell by the rhythmic slapping of his flip-flops against the back of his heel. They imagined Ronny leaning up against the peeling white wall between the paper towel dispenser and the tiny square tinted window that let in refracted sunlight. In reality, he probably stood right in front of their stall, but just far away enough so Kaifeng couldn’t see his feet beneath it.
“I never told you because I didn’t think we’d make it this far,” he said when the bathroom had emptied itself of other patrons. “I was cautious since I wasn’t sure if you’d really liked me, and by the time I knew you did, it felt too late.”
“How’d you die?”
“Three frat boys in a red Honda, back in ’62.”
“They killed you?”
“No, they were drunk and tried to fight me—this was when they used to believe we all acted like women. I broke one’s jaw and knocked a few teeth out another. The third ran off. I went to a bar to drink off my anger and ended up driving my pickup into a ditch afterwards. Maybe I flew out the windshield, I can’t remember.”
“Did you come back for them?”
Ronny chortled. “They’re probably eighty-year-olds by now, and I’m not much for assaulting the elderly.” He added after a sigh, “I’m not sure why I’m here, and I’m sorry I never told you.”
“I thought we could have been serious.”
“We still can be.”
“Not in the way I want …” They realized they were taking it a step too far. “One day I mean, not right now, obviously.”
“I’m still here. It might still happen.”
“No, it won’t.”
“But it won’t.”
“Will you please come out? I feel like I’m talking to a door.”
Ronny’s words made Kaifeng very aware of their surroundings. The green, graffitied walls of the stall, the ceiling that was too low for comfort … What the hell were they doing? Scrunched up on top of some public bathroom toilet with the seat down as if this was some cheesy Chinese drama. God, they must have looked so ridiculous.
“Kai?” Ronny inched closer and they could see his slightly hairy toes beneath the stall. Kaifeng scoffed at themself. What was it about this man that kept them so charmed, so enraptured, like the scent of an amazing dish? It certainly wasn’t his 5/10 feet. Then they found themselves smiling: it’d been a while since they’d been able to nitpick at someone for the little things and still feel nothing but love for them.
Kaifeng came out and pulled Ronny in for an embrace. They kissed and walked out of the bathroom together. Ronny tried to continue the conversation, but Kaifeng simply rested a finger over his mouth. Whatever time they had left wasn’t worth wasting on petty arguments. During the remainder of the walk, they occasionally twirled their index finger around Ronny’s illusory thumb.
“What’s your charm?”
“You’re going to call me micro-aggressive. I just know it.”
Chow-mien was a shock for two reasons: first because Ronny, at a glance, really didn’t seem like the type whose purpose for existence rested on the back of ethnic food. Second, because Ronny had always mocked the pretentious “food journeys” and “taste narratives” Kaifeng gave to their three-mil and counting followers on YouTube. In fact, Ronny never quite understood YouTube at all.
Now Kaifeng finally knew why!
Anyway, keeping Ronny around would be easy. Kaifeng made him his charm: not just the cheap crap where the green onions came frozen, pre-chopped, and sealed in plastic bags. Real chow-mien, with noodles made from scratch and every vegetable hand-picked from a farmer’s market on stocking day. It came out like a coil of Christmas tree lights: green onion over diced red pepper snaked through with those golden strands of hand-rolled noodles.
Kaifeng even made a video out of it: My bf tries authentic chow-mien because, as far as they were concerned, what Panda Express and all those copycats made was white food drenched in so much soy sauce the rice might as well be congee. Ronny wore gloves in his video to hide his dissipating hand, not so much for Kaifeng’s fans, who were progressive enough, but because Kaifeng felt that it was their secret.
Several bites into it, Ronny’s hand did not grow back. In fact, the translucence crawled further up his arm, stopping just short of his elbow. Kaifeng paused the camera.
“It’s not the same,” Ronny said. “It’s not how Mr. Chen made it.”
“Yeah, because he made garbage. This is high quality stuff.”
“Garbage or not, it’s not the same.”
Kaifeng scoffed. “Well, we’re not going back to that place. Or any of those shitty places, for that matter.” They snatched their phone off the couch and began to look for Chinese restaurants that served chow mien.
“Are you kidding me?”
“So real chow-mien is more important than me?”
Kaifeng frowned, “Of course not.”
“Then why can’t we go?”
Kaifeng took big breaths, and wondered if they could find in themselves to say it. Then, glancing at Ronny’s translucent arm, they decided what the hell. It wasn’t like Ronny would be around to long enough for them to regret tell him.
“Did you know both my parents are white?” they said, waited for Ronny’s eyes to near pop out of their sockets. “I was adopted as a baby, and my parents never really tried to preserve my culture. But what they did right, other than the Chinese name, was to always bring me to authentic Chinese restaurants. I learned Chinese because of that.” They nodded to themselves as they spoke, almost as reassurance that everything they’re saying is true. “So, yeah, only connection to my birthplace we’re talking about.”
Ronny listened intently, and smiled when Kaifeng was done.
“Okay, we don’t have to go.” He said like an automatic response, as if he was going to say it all along, no matter what reason Kaifeng offered.
“Are you sure?”
They stepped away from the tripod and sat on Ronny’s lap, running their hand up and down his rugged beard. Next to them the upscale, useless, chow-mien slumped atop the intricate ceramic plate with Chinese characters printed on it in soft pink. Against the oak table Kaifeng’s viewers loved so much, it looked like a fob in a west side school. Worse. It looked like the yellow-faced dish of a dinner party.
“Why do you go through this for me?” they asked.
“Well, I’ve already had a turn on this earth. Wouldn’t be fair for me to ruin your first go around,” Ronny said. Kaifeng couldn’t help but sense the resignation in Ronny’s voice.
“And you know,” Ronny added. “Because it’s you. And you’re pretty great.”
The buzzing din of the city seeped through the cracks between their windows and walls … The red, mono-lidded blink of the camera… the unlit fairy lights slithering across the ceiling … In that moment, the chow-mien sprouted like a bean stalk and plucked the two of them off the ground. It grew and grew into the night sky, coiled around them like grapevines, until the night sky had become a curtain. As they shared cakes shaped like golden disks plucked from the moon, Kaifeng decided that they should probably get rid of the silly superstitions they had about preserving themself.
“Never mind what I said. Let’s go.”
As soon as Kaifeng stepped into My Home Cuisine—now Wong Gardens—they could smell the problem: the chef had changed, and judging by the pervading scent, the restaurant had also become more upscale. Ronny took one peek at the take-out menu and immediately confirmed Kaifeng’s suspicions. The restaurant was under new ownership, and Mr. Chen had been replaced by a younger chef who stepped out of the kitchen surrounded by an air of superiority. The new managers couldn’t tell them where he had gone, being too preoccupied with gluing yellow paper cut outs of Chinese characters on their newly-painted red walls and dangling dollar store red lanterns off the ceiling.
It took some times to track down Mr. Chen, but they eventually located a waitress across town who used to work with him at the restaurant. She immediately recognized Ronny, and was all yellow-teethed smiles when she sat the two of them down for jasmine tea. The way her eyes curled when she spoke made them look like half yin-yang signs. She told them Mr. Chen had retired to Oakland, where his children were, which meant a straight shot from Vancouver.
By then both Ronny’s hands and arms had disappeared, and the news of Chen’s retirement seemed to accelerate the translucence. When Kaifeng hopped in the driver’s seat of their 20-year-old Camry with fabric seats, the one handed down to them by their parents’ old landlord back when they lived in a basement suite in the rough parts of the city, the one Kaifeng never upgraded from because no one drove anymore in Vancouver, their eyes couldn’t help but linger on the sleeves that hung empty on Ronny’s shoulders. His transparent limbs were superimposed on those empty sleeves like an overexposed photo.
Ronny stood outside and waited for Kaifeng to open the passenger door, trying to maintain a casual demeanor. When he plopped in the passenger’s seat he cast them a sly grin.
“Didn’t you say YouTube stars were rich?”
Ronny jabbered as they drove. And as much as Kaifeng tried to uphold the joyfulness Ronny had established, they couldn’t avoid peeking at Ronny’s dissipating legs as they neared the American border.
“We’ll make it,” Ronny suddenly said, noticing Kaifeng’s sideways glances. “Don’t worry.”
“I believe you,” they said, though they weren’t sure whom they were trying to convince. And they drove on, ever so slightly quieter the rest of the way.
A little past the Oregon state line, somewhere near Redding, Ronny called to Kaifeng. His voice mixed with the dew-spark hint of morning in the horizon as well as Kaifeng’s drowsiness, carrying an ethereal, dulcet melody, almost like a spell that cleared Kaifeng’s head.
“Can you drop me off?”
They glanced Ronny’s way: he was just a torso, as if he’d shrunken out of his XL hoodie and jeans. They immediately tried to shake the image out of their head.
“We’ll make it,” they said.
“I want you to remember saying goodbye, you know? So you won’t have see a pile of clothes next time you look sideways.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I lived a good life,” Ronny said with a smile. “I never figured out why I came back like some of the other … more driven individuals, but I’m not sad about having to go again.” He added after a short pause, “I wasn’t so sure about how serious we would be a few months back. I was mostly just trying to get you out of the bathroom stall. But now I’m actually thinking it’s possible … because, you know, I love you and all that.”
In the end, Kaifeng pulled over to the side of the road and laid Ronny down in front of a backdrop of trees and small hills ignited by the first flames of orange dawn. Soon the July sun would be sweltering, but Kaifeng tried not to think like that. They carried Ronny under some trees, where they thought the shade would be at midday.
“I’ll come right back to this place. Right here.”
“You better. I’m wearing Supreme, you know? It’d be a shame to leave it lying on the side of the road.”
“Don’t say that.”
The two-story family home’s white double doors let out a weighty thud as Kaifeng knocked on it. A skinny, smartly dressed elderly man answered, accompanied by the sound of children’s screams on the other side. Mr. Chen surprised Kaifeng, since he had basically been a greasy apron the last time they’d met. Cautious at first, he bloomed after Kaifeng jogged his memory of their previous meeting by mentioning Ronny. His eyes disappeared into lines when he smiled.
“Thirty-eight years I supported my family from that kitchen, then one little buyout and suddenly I’m too old to cook. Good thing Asian children always become lawyers.” He laughed at his own joke and handed Kaifeng a cup of jasmine tea in a dinosaur mug. His Chinese carried a heavy Northern accent. “Funny thing that you’re here, too. I tried to leave my recipe with the new hotshot chef coming straight from my hometown. I even told him that someone would come get it eventually, but he just stared me down and told me no one wanted my greasy crap.”
Kaifeng looked around. “You seem to being doing fine here.”
“I am. Retirement is quite nice,” he said and brought Kaifeng the recipe, neatly typed and laminated on a smooth piece of cardstock.
“Why your place? Why this plate of chow-mien?”
“Ronny didn’t tell you?”
Kaifeng realized then that they’d been so busy criticizing Ronny’s taste that they’d never asked.
“My best guess is that Ronny just liked talking to me,” Mr. Chen said. “He told me that decades before the restaurant existed, the place used to be a bar he’d get drunk at every weekend. The first time he stumbled in with that lost look on his face, all the waitresses were half-scared to death. They didn’t speak much English—neither did I—and Ronny’s looks were … well, intimidating.
“I was barely thirty at the time and was still too new to the west to think people like that could be scary, so I sat him down and brought him a plate of the easiest thing to make. And that was that.”
A kid shrieked upstairs about what seemed like a dispute with toy soldiers. Kaifeng imagined the green plastic ones.
“My grandchildren,” Mr. Chen said with a hint of pride. “I don’t let them use electronics whenever I watch them. And since their Diē mā work all the time, I think I’ve finally won that battle.”
On the way home Kaifeng stopped by the tree and picked up Ronny’s clothes. Having sat under the sun all day, they were warm to the touch, like bread thirty-seconds out of the toaster.
They got home late, but instead of going to sleep, they stayed up and filmed a video. They hadn’t uploaded much ever since Ronny’s entered their life—especially during the months they spent looking for Mr. Chen. Their inbox brimmed with ten thousand plus PMs asking if they were okay.
But they were just fine. They pointed the camera at the glass-top electric stove and followed Mr. Chen’s words to the letter. Ingredients, no matter how canned and plastic wrapped, precise.
One bag of Cathay brand chow-mien.
A cup of plastic bag frozen green onions.
Flood the wok with vegetable oil.
A red pepper, diced.
Two fresh white mushrooms, diced.
Fried together with some soy sauce and that was that.
They placed it in a bowl and left it on the dining table beside Ronny’s clothes, a pair of bamboo chopsticks stuck straight in. But before they went off to bed, something pulled them back to the dish they’d made. Without knowing why, they dipped an index finger into the chow-mien, and licked the tip as they pulled it out. Just a quick peck, but it was more than enough to tell them what it tasted like.
Like Ronny’s breath their first night together.
Across the table, holding one another’s gaze.
In that overheated restaurant.
A sea of inauthentic food.
An authentic charm.
They laid on Ronny’s side of the bed that night and dreamed without sleeping a wink. In it, they saw a pair of invisible hands lift up the chopsticks, and as the being slurped down the chow mien, a subtle yet familiar silhouette took shape as a thin, translucent line in the darkness.
A soft gust blew open the bedroom door, warm against their cheeks, and the silhouette stepped in. But assuming Kaifeng was sound asleep, it gently closed the door again.
Audruin Yu‘s last name sounds like “fish” in Chinese, which is great since he loves the ocean. He lives in Vancouver, Canada with his fiancee and their plant babies, and his other stories have appeared in The Colored Lens and Daily Science Fiction (under Tim Yu).