Overheard In A Chinese Restaurant (Or The Night I Should Have Learned To Stop Eavesdropping)


I wanted Chinese food for my 16th birthday. Back in the day Erie, PA had some decent Chinese restaurants so my wish was granted. My parents and brother joined me for a Chinese birthday dinner. The food was delicious but the conversation was soooo BORING.
As the tables in this particular restaurant were in close proximity to each other I decided to look around and see if there were more interesting conversations going on at any of the adjacent tables. Dinner and a show for my sweet (and sour) 16. If my own family was not going to interest me then perhaps another more entertaining family would fit the bill.
Well another more interesting family did manage to make an appearance at the next table over. Much more interesting. More interesting than an almost 16 year old could handle.
At first glance this newly seated family did not seem as though they would be offering me any diversion. A standard, rather well dressed basic looking whitebread couple. The husband had that professional authoritative bearing with a side of arrogance that made me think he must have been a physician. I thought at the time that the dude had an uptight look behind his eyes. A simmering nervousness that he was barely keeping under the surface. (did I mention I was bored?)
His wife was heavily pregnant. And there were children. 4 or perhaps 5 young children. Each one aged about a year apart from the other. Uggh. They were horrible children. Did you think that parents who sit in restaurants and let their brats run wild was a modern development? Think again because it was certainly happening on the day I was turning 16 and that was EONS ago.
The little demons ran amok. They stood up on chairs and jumped from one chair to the other. They stuck chopsticks into various orifices. They screamed, they sang, they weaved through tables chasing each other. My own mother actually caught one of the little fiends as it fell off a chair. (Did I mention the close proximity of our tables?) Uptight hubby and pregnant mum did not seem to notice their spawn’s misbehavior. Shouldn’t the kid’s own mom be the one to have noticed the impending fall and caught her own offspring?
I pondered just how interesting our table neighbors were going to turn out to be. Five awful little kids and the poor woman pregnant with another. “Must be Catholic.” I thought. I quickly chided myself for assuming such a thing. Then the family’s dinner guest showed himself. A priest. I chided myself for chiding myself.
The family stood to greet Father. Father was HUGE. An enormous priest. Respectful greetings were exchanged.
Gah, boring. Family with shitty kids meets massive priest for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I decided that this plotline was probably not going very far and turned my attention to my own family and our arriving entrees.
But yet…there was that barely below the surface tension exuding from sharp dressed husband. I’d have to keep an eye on the situation in case this foreshadowing actually led to something more captivating than my mu shu vegetables.
I glanced over briefly to see corpulent priest squeezing into his seat at the table. I took a few bites of eggroll and noticed some potential activity. The restaurant manager stormed over to the table and angrily told the parents that their children had to behave or they would be asked to leave. I didn’t see it because it happened behind me, but my mom told me that one of the little dervishes had run in front of a waiter almost making the poor guy drop his tray of food.
Were we reaching a denouement? Or was this that middle part of the performance where the action briefly picks up and then slides back down again before the final curtain? I wondered what was going to happen next. Was there going to be a fight? Was Dad going to become outraged and get in the manager’s face? He did kind of seem like the type to do that. Were they going to be loudly escorted out before they even got their food?
No such luck. The parents took it quietly. Sigh. The priest did not react at all. The table calmed down. The waiter, free from toddler tripping hazards, brought the family their meal. They said grace. Yawn. I picked at my fried rice. Most boring birthday dinner ever.
As uninteresting as the next table’s events were I felt by this time that I was already engaged in what little intrigue there was so I might as well keep watching. You know how it is when you’re watching a bad movie but you’re kind of interested to see how it all turns out? Let’s finish this up, right?
I shot a quick look at the priest. My quick look turned into an out and out blatant stare. Father had become completely captivated by his meal, seemingly oblivious to anyone and anything else. He was devouring food like a woodchipper. A huge plate of spareribs. His eyes seemed to glaze over. He barely paused after finishing one sparerib before quickly picking up another and starting the whole process anew. I dropped my fork mid bite and gawked.
My trance was broken when the dad made an abrupt pronouncement that the mom had to take all her brood to the restroom before they started eating their dinner. The priest did not seem to notice nor even hear dad’s sudden order. It was as if the family had entirely disappeared from Father’s periphery and the only thing in his world was that rapidly diminishing giant plate of spareribs.
Husband briefly got up to help herd the children in the direction of the restrooms, which were all the way past the kitchen to the other end of the building. When he was satisfied that Mom and her litter were safely out of earshot he quickly dashed back and planted himself in the chair next to Father.
“She’s really sick, Father” said husband. “The pregnancy is not going well.” Whoa! Here we go. He explained what was wrong using a ridiculous amount of medical terminology. My first impression was correct. He was a physician. My ears perked up big time. I was listening now.
Unfortunately the dad seemed to have more of my attention than the priest’s. Father was still intent on gobbling as many spareribs as possible.
“She might not make it, Father.” said the guy, quickly glancing back to see if his wife and kids were on their way back. Holy crap! Now I wasn’t even keeping up the pretense of pretending not to eavesdrop. I was unabashedly staring, mouth agape.
Father continued on his sparerib quest without even making eye contact with the guy who had just shared some pretty awful personal news with him. To be fair he did occasionally offer the dad some possibly sympathetic sounding grunts between swallows. I felt for the dad, really I did. He laid his soul bare to a priest who seemed more interested in swallowing whole spareribs than providing comfort to a distressed flock member.
Husband continued his confession. Priest continued his eating and grunting. “She doesn’t know.” the man said. “She doesn’t know anything about this at all.” What?! She could potentially DIE and the dude used his medical connections to keep that fact from her?! “I don’t want her to know.” He went on. “Besides, when the time comes she’ll more more worried about the kids anyway.”
OMG. (which was not an expression back then but seems apropos now) What was the priest going to say about this? I imagined the script in my head.
“You must tell her, my son” said Father in my imaginary screenplay. “Keep her informed. Offer her comfort. Gather your loved ones. Let’s pray about this. Let us take this to Jesus.” Yes. Certainly Father would say this. Or something like this. I waited.
Father finished his last sparerib. I was sure this was going to be the moment where his divine wisdom would enlighten Dad. He spoke.
“Could you pass me that eggroll?”
Are you kidding me?! Really?! Those were his Heavenly inspired words of wisdom?
And get this. The dude totally passed him that eggroll.
And then Mom and kids came back. They sat down. Normal conversation resumed. Mom talked about her imminent delivery. She was enthusiastic. “I hope it all goes well, Father.” she said. “You never know. Of course this one…” she jerked her thumb at hubby “…this one just bought a big life insurance policy on me!” She laughed. “I don’t know why!”