Chapter 9: Dating a Martian (3)
Lu Zhen understood Chen Mo’s reticence yet he couldn’t help but sigh. Back when they were in the troops, and even after Zheng Kai had left, Chen Mo rarely joined in on the banter and heart-to-heart. Okay fine, we might be a little good looking, a little well-liked, and a little gossipy. But there’s no need to be like this!
He smugly plotted to finagle more words out of Chen Mo and decided to begin his questioning from the periphery.
“What does the girl do for work?”
“She bakes cakes.”
“Oh, not bad. It’s a good job. What does she look? Is she as pretty as Zheng Kai’s wife?”
Chen Mo pictured Zheng Kai’s glamorous, dazzling wife, and then pictured Miao Yuan’s doe eyes and said with a sigh, “How can they be compared?”
“True, Zheng Kai was a lucky bastard.”
“But actually… she’s also really pretty,” Chen Mo said, words slipping from his subconscious.
“Well, as long as you like how she looks, that’s good. What about her temper?”
“Well-behaved… and a chatterbox!”
“Ha!” Lu Zhen slapped his thigh. “That’s good to hear!” “Chen Mo, you’ve got taste. I feel like this is precisely the sort of girl you should go for!”
“You really think she’s good?” he asked, hesitating.
“Absolutely.” Lu Zhen started getting pumped up. In rapid-fire mode, there was no stopping his spiel. “Now think about it. Two firecrackers make a spark, two logs make a mushroom! There’s a saying in my hometown: A steamed bun1 pairs well with cake. You’re perfect as you are right now.”
Lu Zhen then wiped some sweat, thinking, Why the hell am I so emotionally invested in this?
Chen Mo fell silent, thinking that at least the brainless Lu Zhen gave him a confidence boost. He thought he handled things decently with Miao Yuan.
“I’m telling you, girls these days can have big tempers. You have to pamper her a little and let her have her way sometimes. Don’t ignore her just because you’re unhappy.” Lu Zhen paused. “Wait no, if you’re unhappy you’d murder someone.
“What I mean to say is: don’t clam up just because you aren’t happy yet. Got it?
“Ugh, why is it so hard to say what I want to say? Anyway, just understand the gist of what I’m trying to get at. Listen to me and you’ll be fine.”
Chen Mo became embarrassed and retorted, “You talk as though you have a lot of experience.”
“Compared to you I do, amateur.” Lu Zhen said, grinding his teeth.
Chen Mo replied with a vague sound.
Lu Zhen was prepared to seize the silence and dole out a few more pieces of wisdom. Chen Mo, however, had already hung up on him.
Realizing this, Lu Zhen huffed and glared daggers at his phone. If you dare hang up on your girlfriend, you’d be done for! I won’t fucking warn you about that!
Though pissed, a smile spread across his usually taut face. He then let out a heavy sigh. Oh Lu Zhen, other people are already looking for girlfriends, getting married, and having children. What are you getting all happy for? What’s it got to do with you?
Indeed, it wasn’t any of his business. Yet he couldn’t help but feel a boundless joy.
Lu Zhen hesitated as he held the telephone. A string of familiar numbers flashed in his mind. He instinctively imagined Xia Minglang mocking him, saying, “See? Why does this sort of thing always happen to you? It’s just like I said. You look like a caring ol’ sister. You can’t blame the heavens, now can you?”
Distraught, Lu Zhen returned the phone to the receiver, arms heavy.
That mood didn’t last long though.
“Okay, wrap it up,” Lu Zhen said, standing up and shouting to the soldiers outside. “I’m in a good mood today. Go to the food stalls and get yourselves a midnight snack. My treat!”
“Woo!” A fervent exuberance surged forth and at last, his heart calmed.
Welcome or not, winter still comes in all its hubbub. Though the weather is a nipping cold, hearts are warm as heavy coats bundle people, wrapping them like zongzi. Streets are congested, faces are frozen, but the festivity is plain to see.
Recently, Miao Yuan’s fighting spirit was through the roof. She had drawn up a plan to test one new product each week. On Mondays and Tuesdays, when business was slow, she would research recipes and taste test them. On Wednesdays, she would sell them. On Thursdays and Fridays, she would calculate the costs and crunch the numbers to determine a sales price. Finally, on Saturdays she would launch the product.
She scheduled each cycle to end on a Saturday—the day Chen Mo would come.
After closing shop each night, she would call Chen Mo at 9:40 p.m. on her walk home. She was shy to speak at first, but soon found that he spoke little. Thus, she could only continue chattering away and fighting this one-man war. Though he rarely spoke, he was a considerate listener and was never bothered by her babbling.
Spirited, she prattled on about all her recent happenings. She talked about interesting customers, about what she saw and heard these days, about the new products she recently tested (and by the way everyone loved about them), and and and…
The topic inevitably turned.
“Hey Chen Mo, are you coming over on Saturday? How about I treat you to some cake?”
Miao Yuan’s mind raced while waiting for his reply.
“Sounds good!” he said.
Before she knew it, Miao Yuan had reached her doorsteps. She parted with a reluctant goodbye through the phone.
Reflecting on her life’s new-found rhythm, she thought, I’ve been domesticated!
Later that night, Miao Yuan rolled in bed, hugging her blanket. She thought of Pavlov’s dog, and felt that she, herself, was a Pavlov’s dog—a perfect model of classical conditioning.2
Every night at nine, she would watch customers trickle out and start to anticipate the daily call, her heart in her throat. She’d watch the clock slowly tick by, and regulars would even tease her at times, saying, “Why do you always look so happy when the time comes for us to pay our bills?”
Miao Yuan lowered her head and smiled, her face red.
No food has been served; only the bell has rung. But the stupid dog is already dripping saliva!
And if I’m a stupid dog, then what does that make you? Miao Yuan poked at the blurry figure in the screen.
I like you but you don’t even know! Do you know what you are? You’re an idiot!
And so, the stupid dog placed the idiot’s photo beside her pillow and dreamed of the stupid dog, the idiot, and Pavlov’s classical conditioning.
Chen Mo knew that this would be his very first date. If you wanted to dig for previous romantic experience, you’d have to dig through the sands of time. Was it ten years, or fifteen years ago? He couldn’t deny that his highschool days didn’t amount to much.
But what should a first date be like? Do you eat dinner, go shopping, then watch a movie? A major headache spouted. In the end, he followed Miao Yuan’s wishes. As Lu Zhen said: “Who knows what girls really want these days?” Might as well let her make the calls.
Chen Mo thought that if he were to visit her at the cafe, Miao Yuan would still have to serve customers while he was sitting at a table looking like a dolt. After careful deliberation, Chen Mo brought along some paper to draft a year-end review.
Today, Miao Yuan was preparing an orange chocolate soufflé. The delicate, semi-circular soufflé had a top that was slightly scorched, and a moist chocolate center that glistened. A small cloud of whipped cream slid down from the top, which was garnished with two mint leaves. Orange liqueur elevated the soufflé to a velvety, rich confection. Because it was a tad too sweet, it paired perfectly with Earl Grey tea.
Miao Yuan sat opposite of Chen Mo, her eyes nervous and expectant. He couldn’t escape that pressure. As one to never fake a polite smile, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to squeeze out a pleasant expression when eating the cake.
Luckily, the nerves settled with the first bite. There was no need to act. It tasted like heaven.
“Is it good?”
“Yeah!” Chen Mo nodded, licking a crumb at the corner of his mouth.
That lick sent her heart racing, and her cheeks flushed bright pink. She wanted to say something but decided to make her getaway instead.
“Glad you like it,” Miao Yuan said, dropping the line before scampering away in a wisp of smoke.
Chen Mo was slightly stunned. Girls these days sure are weird.
He carefully cleaned his plate, then took out a sheet of paper and started writing.
Midway through, Miao Yuan came over to refill his tea. The bitterness of the Earl Grey tea and the sweetness of the soufflé formed the perfect union. Chen Mo discovered that all along, his taste buds could learn to appreciate the delicacies of the world. There was no need to avoid them.
- Mantou, a type of steamed bun that’s pretty plain tasting.
- Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning: a bell is rung whenever food is given to the dogs. Over time, the dogs learned to associate the ringing with food and would drool to the sound of a bell even if there is no food. Miao Yuan becomes excited when she sees the time and the customers leaving because it means she can almost chat with Chen Mo!