It was still early in the evening when we arrived at the restaurant. Claire’s van was already parked in the reserved space for the disabled, and Theodore was in the process of lowering her to the ground. Everyone else was standing just outside of the entrance.
“Do you think they’ve seen us coming yet?” Claire asked as Pam, Catherine, Kevin, and I approached.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“I’m sure they remember us from the last two times we were here.” Theodore laughed. “The waitress is probably cowering somewhere in the kitchen.”
“Was it that bad?” I asked.
Theodore shook his head. “Naw, Claire left a fifty-dollar tip. I’ll bet they remember that.”
“They worked hard,” Claire said. “They deserved it.”
“She insisted on eating with chopsticks, but that was her first time trying them out,” Theresa explained. “The waitress was giving her a crash course and the poor thing ended up feeding Claire half of her food.”
“It wasn’t that bad. Besides, how else was I supposed to learn?” Claire asked.
Although there didn’t appear to be much of a crowd inside, Catherine and Kevin went ahead to secure us a table.
“Your friend seems to be hitting it off well with her,” Aunt Claire noted, only loud enough for me to hear.
“We’ll see. Kevin’s nervous right now and unusually quiet. He barely talked all the way here, which is unusual for him. I think having all of us together intimidates him a little.”
“He’ll have to get over that to fit in with this crowd.”
I laughed. “Actually, it’s kind of nice for him to be quiet for once. I’m seeing a different side of him. He wants to make a good impression with Catherine.”
“She seems to like him.”
“He’s a great guy, most of the time. He’s always good at the beginning of a relationship. He’s the consummate schmooze. There’s no one that hates him, not even the past girls he’s dated.”
“Catherine’s the same way,” Pam said. “Everyone loves her, but she can destroy the best things in a matter of minutes.”
“Maybe they are enough alike that it will work out, and they can understand one another,” I said. “Who knows?”
Pam patted my shoulder. “You’re an optimist.”
“Like me,” Claire said.
“I give everyone the benefit of doubt.”
“So, are we ready, young lady?” Theodore asked as he assisted Claire to the curb cut in the sidewalk.
“Yes, I’m hungry. This is going to be fun. Pam and Brent must be starving, eating what little they had for lunch.”
“I really need to get back to the weight I was before I started wrestling.”
“You look great,” Pam said.
“I don’t think my physique is that of a tennis player.”
“Well, what difference does it make whether your look fits a stereotype. You are fit and healthy. What else matters?” Claire said.
I laughed as I held the door open for Theodore to push Claire’s chair inside. “Based on today’s experiences, I need to be a little quicker and more agile. Catherine killed me.”
“I don’t think you need to lose any of your muscles, though.” Claire continued as we were guided to the three tables that were slid together to accommodate us. “I like how easily you can lift me in and out of the chair.”
“You’re not that heavy.”
“Ladies like strong, handsome young men,” she said. “That’s what I’m saying.” She winked at Kevin who was waiting for Claire to take her place
“Are you flirting with me?” Kevin asked.
“A girl’s gotta look, right. So, I’m always on the lookout,” she said with a laugh.
“Catherine will be jealous,” I said.
“Let her. She needs to keep a closer eye on her new guy.”
“Do you think so?”
“I’m certain of it. You too, Pam.”
“Pam has nothing to worry about with me. I’m entirely devoted.”
“Are we all set now?” Pam asked.
“I think so,” Aunt Claire replied.
Pam settled in the chair beside me. Claire was seated between her and Catherine with Kevin next to her and across from Pam. Claire’s place was at the end opposite her brother. To the one side of Theodore were Theresa and Stephen and on the other was David.
Once everyone was set, the waitress handed us menus and took our drink orders.
“I don’t know anything about this type of food,” I said.
“It’s all good,” Claire said.
“What do you recommend, Pam?”
“I have no real preferences.”
I looked up. “You voted for Italian, didn’t you?”
“I thought you would, too.”
“I was going to, but you and I did that not too long ago. And last night we had pizza. Besides, I like trying new things.”
“I like new things, too. It’s just I had been thinking about Italian food all day.”
“You should have told me. I had no idea it was up to me until — ”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I like the cashew chicken. It’s probably my favorite thing. The beef broccoli is good with a dash of soy sauce over it. General Tsao’s chicken is sort of spicy. You’d probably like that.”
“Get the egg drop soup for starters,” Claire suggested. “They also have these stuffed, steamed dumplings that are excellent.”
“You doing okay down there?” Mr. Roberts asked Kevin.
“Yessir,” he said. “Just listening to get the scoop on what’s good. Apparently, everything is.”
“It is. I think between all of us we’ve tried everything at least once.”
“I’m just glad they have forks,” Kevin said.
Claire laughed. “I’ll show you how to eat with chopsticks.”
“There must be something magical about it, picking up food with two thin sticks.”
“Well, the rice is kind of sticky, so that helps.”
“So, Brent — Kevin was telling us before you came to meet us that you were an equipment manager last year for the wrestling team,” Theodore said.
“Did he tell you about the headgear fiasco?”
Kevin laughed. “I try not to think about that one, bro.”
“That sounds like quite a story.”
“There’s really not much to tell. I messed up and didn’t pack everyone’s headgear for an away meet. So, I had to improvise on the spot with people who had similar size heads.”
“Except for me, because my head is a little larger than anyone else,” Kevin said. “And please, no jokes about me having the fat head.” He laughed. “Anyway, it was a triangular meet, and we were missing three sets of headgear.”
“Wow!” David reacted. “That must have been distracting for the wrestlers.”
“Yeah, it was bad,” I agreed. “I had a headache after that meet.”
“I had one during it,” Kevin added.
When the waitress took our orders, I decided to go with General Tsao’s chicken, egg drop soup, and egg rolls. Claire insisted I try the steamed dumplings she mentioned earlier. Pam ordered cashew chicken, wonton soup, fried wonton, and sesame rolls. Claire ordered Kung Pao chicken, egg rolls, egg drop soup, and steamed dumplings. Kevin decided to have what I was having.
I settled back in my chair and sipped the iced tea the waitress had just brought out to the table. I looked across the table noting that Pam was being uncharacteristically quiet. “Are you feeling okay, hon?”
“Yeah, I’m just really tired,” she said.
“Are you still sore?”
“A little bit.”
“All the sun this afternoon,” Claire offered a reason.
“Yeah. Maybe that’s it.”
“And you’ve been up late the past couple of nights.”
“I’m a little tired, too,” I confessed.
“Are you going to be okay to drive home tonight, Brent?”
“Yeah, no problem. My car knows the way by now.”
Claire smiled, but she reached over and touched the back of her hand to Pam’s forehead. “You feel warm. You may be coming down with something.”
“I think I need to go to the restroom.” Pam stood, but I could tell she was also having some crisis. “I think I’m a little early this month.”
Claire glanced toward me, prompting me to accompany her niece. I came around the table to escort my lady to the restroom.
“You really don’t need to — ”
“I want to.”
She smiled, taking my arm as we wended through the vacant tables to the aisle. She paused at the restroom door. “I’m okay.”
“I’ll be right here.”
She kissed my cheek. “Don’t worry.”
“If I don’t who will?”
“In my family, everyone else.”
“I’ll save them the trouble, then.”
She smiled and then went inside.
Ten minutes later, when she emerged, she seemed a little pale. I touched her forehead.
“It’s what I thought. No emergency. I’m glad I came prepared, though. I guess there was too much stress this weekend, worrying about you and…well, I don’t mean to worry you.”
“Just so you know, I’m going to be concerned anytime you don’t feel well.”
She kissed my cheek again.
“I need to talk to you, alone,” I said. “But there hasn’t been any chance.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s about what you wanted to tell your father?”
“Yeah, it is. And some of it came up yesterday.”
“Let’s get our coats and go outside,” she said. “There’s a bench out front.”
When I grabbed our coats from the backs of the chairs at the table, Claire asked me what was going on.
“We’re going outside to talk for a bit. Hold down the fort for us, okay?” I winked.
While Pam sat, I remained standing as I began. “You already know about my coach being close with Coach Jarvis and probably your brothers pushing him to recruit me.”
“They told me that a guy they thought was going to be their heavyweight lost his scholarship.”
“I didn’t know about that.”
“I think that may be an opportunity for you,” Pam said. “You could pick up his scholarship.”
“That adds another wrinkle to things.”
“I’m so confused.”
“So, what happened?”
“Well, yesterday, right before I saw you in the concession stand line, Coach Jarvis came over to say hello to my coach and me.”
“Okay. So, where’s the problem. It’s a great opportunity. But you already paid the deposit on your room at Purdue.”
“Not a problem, really. Just there are mitigating factors. You know?”
“It’s an important decision. I think that’s between you and your folks, though.”
“Sure, mostly it is.”
“So, it’s pretty simple. That’s what you do.”
“It’s a lot of money my parents could save if I went to Ohio State.”
“Still, I know they’re going to care more about you going to the best school for you.”
“Ohio State is a better school for journalism and mass communication, I think. Except I want to study radio and TV production, and I think I’ll get more hands-on training at Purdue because the program is smaller.”
“What if you decide to study engineering or computer science?”
“Ohio State is maybe not quite as good, but close enough not to matter, much.”
“Then you’re thinking about Ohio State?”
“I’d be crazy not to. Anyway, I’d be on the team with your brothers. And Kevin has a scholarship, too. It wasn’t a full ride before, but I’ll bet that changes now, after last night.”
“That would be something, all four of you on the same team. Maybe that’s what you should do.”
I sat beside her. “There’s one reason I wouldn’t — I mean, besides wanting to get away from home. But since I met you, I want to stay home, you know?”
“That’s sweet. But the reason you wouldn’t is Renée will be there.”
“That’s the biggest single factor against the idea, really. There are tens of thousands of students there, so it would be easy to get lost in the sea of them. But if we were both athletes, I’m sure I’d bump into her.”
“The athletes’ dorms are close together.” Pam acknowledged.
“I’m not sure why she would want to see me. There is nothing between us anymore.”
“Maybe not from your side. But you’d both be away from home and know only a few people.”
“It would be an uncomfortable situation.” I sighed. “I wish you were going there.”
“When I made my decision, I had no idea I’d meet you or anything like this might happen. I was thinking about me, and I didn’t want to be at the same school as my brothers and sister.”
“It’d be like you’re in high school with them again.”
“They always wanted to keep you in your place.”
“They still do.”
“Even the test I had to pass with Tommy.”
She laughed. “Well, honestly, a lot of that was my doing.”
“I’m glad I met the minimum acceptable standards.”
“You exceeded them.” She kissed me. “And continue to.”
“You’ve always wanted to strike out and be different.”
“I think all of us kids have had that desire in some way, especially David and Stephen. They’ve been compared to one another their whole lives. It was worse than what Catherine and I endured. She was always smarter than me in school, and a better athlete, really.”
“But not at tennis.”
“She could have been, and she knows it. That was her fault.”
“She and your mom have some issues about that as well, I guess.”
“That’s a complicated thing. It really has more to do with Dad and Mom.”
“They had her too soon?”
“Yeah, you could say that. I’m sure they wouldn’t want you to know that. They’ve never come out and admitted it to us. But it isn’t hard to figure out.”
“I would never mention it.”
“You’re right, though. They weren’t ready to get married when they had to.”
“They’ve done okay.”
“Yeah, they really are great parents. They always loved each other, but it was hard the way they had to start out. Aunt Claire was the only one in Dad’s family that liked Mom.”
“Aunt Claire seems to be involved in everything.”
Pam laughed. “She really is. Dad was the baby of his family. His parents were overly protective of him. Claire was too, I think.”
“He was treated like you and me.”
“I think that’s why he and I get along so well. And I think you get along well with him, too.”
“You want to be the center of attention, but for that, you have to accept a lot of control over your life. You want to strike out on your own, but you’re afraid…”
“Yeah, that’s exactly it. How do those things fit together?”
“I’m still working on that one myself.”
“That’s why I’m going to Wright State instead of where everyone else is going. And it’s why you don’t want to go to Wittenberg or Ohio State.”
“Your food is going to get cold.” Pam’s mom poked her head outside the door, alerting us.
“We’ll be right there.” Pam stood up, with a slight hitch, that I barely noticed. But she was hiding pain. “It’s been a while since we had Chinese. I forgot how quickly it’s served.”
“I’m glad we talked.”
“It didn’t resolve anything, though.”
“It helped me to think things through, just trying to explain things — you know? The issues are clearer, now.” I leaned over and kissed her.
We returned to our places, settling into our seats on either side of Aunt Claire.
“I was beginning to wonder if you’d deserted me,” she commented.
“Never!” I said.
“I knew you were talking about something important.”
“It’s always important,” Pam reported, looking at me, then smiling.
“I had them bring us chopsticks. They don’t give them out unless you ask.”
“Okay, teach me this.” I relented resistance.
As she demonstrated how she was holding hers, she adjusted mine. “They are really like extensions of your index finger and thumb. You apply just enough pressure to keep them firmly in place, and then you can pick up almost anything.” She emphasized her point by picking up a single grain of rice and bringing it to her mouth.
“I’ll never be that good.”
“Fortunately, you don’t need to be. Like I said before, the rice is sticky and clumps together, so you can pick up a lot of it at a time. Mostly, you use the chopsticks to support underneath whatever you are picking up. With other things you can do that too, or, after you get used to it, you’ll be able to pick them up individually.” She demonstrated with a single cashew half, picking it up from Pam’s plate and feeding her niece.
“I’m not too good at it.” Pam picked up some of her food. “Sometimes I drop things.”
“When all else fails, you can just spear it.” Aunt Claire skewered a piece of her chicken, poked it into her mouth, winked, and smiled. When she swallowed, she explained. “It tastes the same no matter how it gets there.”
All three of us laughed.
“Seems like you’re having a lot of fun down there,” Mr. Roberts observed.
“They’re trying to teach me how to eat with these two thin sticks. I think it’s a conspiracy to have me lose weight.”
“Yeah, we don’t need Brent losing weight. He had enough trouble making weight the first few matches of the season,” Kevin revealed.
“One time I ate so many candy bars and potato chips that I got sick. I barely made it to 195 pounds. It was only because of all the water I drank. After I weighed in, it all came back up.”
“On away meets, he’d be in the back of the bus eating, while the rest of us were starving.”
“That’s how it is, always!” Stephen exclaimed. “It isn’t any different in college.”
When dinner was over, we each unwrapped our fortune cookies and broke them open. Mine read, Your future appears brightest with your eyes open. Pam’s said, If you always follow your heart you will find love.
Pam hadn’t finished all her sesame rolls. After she insisted, I eat them, I said, “They are really good.”
“I know. It’s just I’m too stuffed.”
“There’s always room for one more.”
She smiled. “Not this time, I’m afraid.”
Using my chopsticks, I picked one up and held it close to her mouth. “C’mon, you know you want it. Mmm, it’s so good.”
“You do that well.” She resisted, turning her head away.
I stood, leaning over the table to better reach her. “Open sesame!”
Aunt Claire laughed.
Pam shook her head. “Okay, one more, but I swear that’s it!”