Pei Ying is an English, Creative Writing major. She enjoys occasionally writing short stories about people, relationships, and culture.
The moment the sun bent to meet the horizon and sent hues of orange to wash over them, the scratch of tires against pavement poised the evening for dinner. A plate positioned in one hand and a soiled rag in the other, she watched the entrance door peel open, and the waiters moved forward to meet them.
The pale beige walls of the Golden Palace encased them in timeless routine and repetition. Silverware was fitted into their designated tabletop spots, selected menu items were materialized to satiate needs, servers’ performance was measured for monetary reward, and the same laminate flooring was trodden by their calloused feet.
Over and over.
She stayed back, pretending to be preoccupied as she slid the rag across the wooden table and bundled up the food scraps. Grains of rice slipped onto the floor and her eyes darted around, hoping no one had seen. Stacking the plates atop each other, she escaped into the kitchen.
Her father had been working at the restaurant for the past two years and it’s been eight weeks since he’d fetched her from the city, a placeholder until they hired someone more permanent. The decision was aided by her mother chiming, “Go! Go! It’s a good learning experience!” But she suspected her mother had just wanted a report on her father’s new life when she returned, still clinging to juvenile curiosity after their separation.
She had wanted to leave after the first week, but her father’s taunting, “You American kids so lucky. Never know true meaning of struggle,” kept her rooted. She wanted him to admit she wasn’t weak just because she didn’t have to struggle.
Though the flare of flames always brought pricklings of sweat onto her skin and the thick tang of sesame oil nauseated her when she stayed too long, the kitchen’s stainless steel expanse was her only relief from the plastered niceties and constant standing outside.
She placed the plates into the industrial sink for the dishwasher.
Her father stood at the stove among the line of yellowing uniforms and sweat-matted hair. She watched his wrist twist under the pan’s weight as he tossed the chow mein up and caught them. The flames erupted under him but he stood unflinching. She wanted to pull him back from the fire and teach him self-preservation.
But their conversation last night felt like a thorn in her side, constantly nagging at her to be soothed.
Yesterday, a family had ordered a plate of spring rolls but left them untouched. When they left, the boss brought them in and served them to the next couple. She had been watching the exchange from behind the counter and took the opportunity to expose the boss.
“What’s it do with you?” the boss had asked after the apologies and discounts she was forced to offer, her anger exacerbating the accented English she worked so hard to conceal. “You think you know how hard it is to run a business?”
That night, before they even got home, she had already been prepared for her father’s onslaught of criticism.
“You humiliated her in front of everyone,” he had said.
“What’s wrong with being honest? Would you want to eat other’s leftovers?” she countered.
“Of course not.”
“So you agree she was wrong.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He waved a dismissive hand. “What matters is it wasn’t your place. Children stay out of adult business. You do what you’re told and work hard. You think I don’t see you hiding in the kitchen? Laziness isn’t always going to be an option you know.”
She didn’t refute that she was already twenty or point out that he was defending the boss who’d clearly been in the wrong. She would always be at fault and he would always speak against her.
“At least you’ll be rid of me by next week,” she had said instead.
Now, she imagined him not speaking to her for the remainder of her stay, and she felt a remorseful ache. His grudges always outlasted hers, but she was resolved to make him remedy their silence for once.
The summer was coming to an end and by next week, she would be on a plane headed back to the city. Her mother would be on the other side waiting to ask about her father, and he would continue to live his life among sweaty kitchen staff.
Their lives would carry on separately, and they would maintain their relationship over FaceTime. She would watch his hair gray over the pixelated screen and feel the urge to apologize and reassure him.
“Quickly! Customers waiting!” the boss shoved a bowl of steaming noodle soup into her hands.
She had learned to temper her dramatics and simply allowed the heat to sear through the ceramic into her fingertips without complaint.
At the exit, she held the doors open a moment longer to let the air conditioning waft into the kitchen, glancing one more time at her father’s hunched back.
Then, she stepped into the din and assumed her position, falling back in place with the patterns unraveling around her.
My family has a background in restaurant work and I drew inspiration from the stories they’ve shared with me. I wrote this piece over the summer and felt unsure with where I wanted to take it. Girls Write Now helped me focus and finalize this piece.
Pei Ying Ren was born and raised in New York City where she’s majoring in English, Creative Writing. She enjoys writing short stories derived from her own experiences and reading contemporary fiction. In her free time, she enjoys crocheting little toys and propagates plants.