She worked at a grocery store when she was in college. It was loud and bustling, full of annoying customers, and bored, bubblegum-popping high school coworkers. She did it for the money because she was putting herself through school. Her parents weren’t like the rest of the rich kids she went to school with. Even though she had a scholarship that covered all her tuition, there were still living expenses and books to think about. So, she worked long hours at Pathmark, earning exactly $8.75 for every sixty minutes.
She was a good student. She took biology on top of being an engineering major. She was never the best in either area, but she was decent in science and it delighted her parents. She studied all the time when she wasn’t in class or work. It left her little time to hang out like a regular college kid, but luckily she has a kind persona and is natural at talking. She was able to make quite a few friends just by going to class and sitting next to random people. Amy, with the curly brown hair and spunky attitude was one of her closest. They met when she was rushing into class after a long shift at the store. Amy had an empty seat across the row and being an outgoing and nice person, waved her hand and motioned for her to sit there. The two struck up a conversation since the Anatomy professor was late, and then left for Starbucks together when the professor never showed.
Even when she wasn’t working the shift before class, she still had a bad habit of always going to class a few minutes late. It happened the day she met him. She tiptoed through the double doors and hoped the professor wouldn’t notice. Then she slunk around the back and found an empty seat near the top right side of the lecture hall. She quietly put her backpack on the ground and pulled out her giant laptop. She opened up her laptop and squirmed when it made the typical sounds of a computer starting. She never could remember to click off the sound before turning it off. He was sitting next to her and gave a short laugh under his breath. She looked at him, doubly embarrassed because of what happened and because of her oversized computer. That’s how 2002 laptops looked, but she bought it used and it was now 2005. But when she looked, the moment had passed and he was normal again. She diligently typed up notes while he used paper and pen. He seemed traditional like that.
Halfway through class, she went to the bathroom, and upon her return found a small white-lined square under her laptop. She opened the note up under the small fold over desk. It was the him, and it said, “What’s your name?” She looked at him and he handed her a pen. She wrote under the first line, “Vivian”. He looked at it and took the pen back. He wrote, “Nice to meet you. I’m Jake.” She smiled. “Starbucks after class?” was what he wrote next. He was asking her to coffee. She flushed a pretty pink and nodded. He smiled a little and then looked back at the professor. They wouldn’t talk until after class. She thought he was cute enough. He had thick black hair, just like hers, but it was straighter than hers, since her hair was strangely wavy for an Asian. He had a very symmetric face. Structured cheekbones, a surprisingly tall nose, and wide sloping forehead that was half-covered by a sweeping of his straight hair. He was a good-looking Asian.
After the professor ended, Jake looked at her and said, “You know, I was wondering all throughout class what your voice sounds like.”
Vivian laughed and said in a sweet, tinkerbell-channeling voice, “Well, you know now!”
They got to know each other during the short walk to the campus Starbucks. Jake found out that Vivian’s family came from China, they immigrated to the Boston area before she was born. Vivian was told that Jake was also of an immigrant family, a well-to-do family from Taiwan. Once they got to the coffee shop, Jake took Vivian’s order and pulled out a chair for her to sit in while he waited by the counter. He brought over two steaming mugs, one of hot chocolate and one black coffee.
As they sipped they stared at each other, and tried to think of interesting questions to ask the other. What’s your major? What high school did you go to? How do you like BC and what did you have to do to get in? Any other white person would have thought they had identical lives. Both were straight-A students in high school. She was valedictorian because her school was in a less wealthy neighborhood. He played lacrosse and football from 9th to 12th grade. He was a year older, a junior, and was starting to think about the real world. He was studying computer engineering and wanted to work at Google.
They became college sweethearts. He walked her to classes, they hung out at night, and studied together. He introduced her to his friends and one of his friends even started dating Amy. The thrills of kissing, touching, and more kept her in constant contact with Amy through phone and IM. Vivian thought about Jake all the time and he about her equally. Their families approved.
Jake’s mom and dad liked that Vivian was petite, beautiful, and humble. They loved her story of coming from a poor immigrant family and through hard work and diligence, becoming successful enough to attend a school like BC. They liked that she worked to support herself, lowered her gaze with respect when they talked to her, and she spoke fluent Chinese. And most of all, they liked that she was so open to new experiences and so quick to come to Christ for Jake’s sake. She was an easy win for their side. Who doesn’t like easy?
Vivian’s family loved Jake. He was this upright guy who was tall, handsome, well-mannered and of good standing in society. He was a win for her mom and dad, who had struggled so hard so for their kids to have a better life. He came with the promise of money, rank, and good fortune. They hoped Vivian and Jake would stay together and eventually get settled.
Their best times were had in the first two years. Even in the second part of that second year, they started fighting periodically, although the squabbles were never big enough to break them up. First, it was that Jake didn’t spend enough time with her. He liked to play soccer and hang out with his buddies often. Then, it was Vivian and her problem of being a homebody. Jake liked to go out for parties and Vivian liked to hang out and watch movies. Jake led a small group on Wednesday nights and Vivian attended, but he never paid much attention to her when he was in the role of leader. It really hurt her feelings.
Jake never liked that Vivian was cheap and liked to use coupons and buy jeans that were irregular for the price. He never visited her at the grocery store. She struggled more in classes than he did and he would tutor her sometimes, but usually those sessions ending in screaming matches. She cried more than she liked in her junior year, but every time she did she would remind herself that Jake was a really good man and she would be a fool to lose him. Her parents were so proud and she couldn’t let them down either.
Whenever Jake thought about what he had with Vivian he felt satisfied. She was beautiful and sweet, smart but not brilliant, kind and pretty well-adjusted. She was exactly the kind of girl he wanted to marry.
One day, after a particularly bad fight with Jake, Vivian did a price check on this old lady’s sheer stockings. She looked up and saw a scruffy but handsome blonde guy in front of her. His stunningly blue eyes were intense and looked right into hers.
He said in a foreign accent, “Where are the tomatoes?” She opened her mouth to speak but she couldn’t so she just pointed with her right index finger. He said, “Thanks” with a grin and started that way.
Vivian finished her shift a half hour later and went out to her car. He just happened to be pushing a full cart towards her.
“Hey there!” he shouted.
“Hi!” she yelled back. The wind was awfully loud today.
“We just met, but I really need some help with these tomatoes. You have small hands, I think you’d be a great peeler. Want to try it?”
“What are you doing with a cart full of tomatoes?” Vivian wondered aloud.
“I’m Italian. I’m making my own pasta sauce. And I’m going to open a restaurant…a fancy one right in the center of the city. It will be incredible, I promise. And if you help me, then you can be the first to try.”
She laughed and said, “Where are you going to do this? You’re crazy!” His blue eyes twinkled.
“Yes, I am crazy. Can you handle that?”
She smiled wide and said, “Well, I’m going to try. Let’s go.”
Without a second thought, she hopped into his car and they drove to his condo. He rented a place while it was still cheap in an up and coming development. He made sure it had a full kitchen with a large, speckled granite countertop. The two of them unloaded his car and his sister came out to help. The three of them talked as they worked. His name was Alessandro and his sister, Roberta.
They were real Italians with the accents to prove it. They laughed wholeheartedly, danced with flour powder on their faces, and said things like “un po ‘più di pepe” and “più formaggio!” They called Vivian “bella” and made her open up to them like she never did for anyone before. She helped them all summer whenever she wasn’t at the store. Went with them to the print shops for the menus, sliced and diced, and amused them with stories about her Chinese life. Alessandro and Roberta liked hearing about the traditional tea ceremony while they chopped carrots. They asked her about certain Chinese words. They seemed intrigued about her culture while creating the most sumptuous Italian dishes.
On some clear nights, Alessandro would take Vivian out for a drive after cooking. She would bring the blanket and he would pack the picnic basket. They ate sandwiches under the stars and debated philosophy and thoughts about life. She forgot she was a bio and engineering major. She also forgot about Jake most of the time. Jake was okay with that. He liked playing ball and partying with his friends. Sometimes he even went to strip clubs with his buddies after work. He lived in California now for the job he got with his favorite company, and they were trying a long-distance relationship.
They were talking about Vivian’s favorite pastime when Alessandro reached over and brought her close. He wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her arms since she was cold. They kissed under the stars and everything was perfect.
When the restaurant opened, Vivian was back at school. Alessandro and Roberta were instantly busy with a huge line of customers on opening day. Everyone had heard about the two Italian siblings who were opening up a fancy restaurant. Vivian drove to the center of the city and helped out in the kitchen and waited tables. It was a crazy busy night with lines longer than they could accommodate. People loved the food. They said it was the best they had ever tasted. When the crowds died down and the place finally closed it was 2am. Alessandro and Vivian whipped off their aprons and shared a plate of to-die-for seven cheese linguini.
Vivian had a whirlwind senior year. When she wasn’t studying, she was at the restaurant, helping Alessandro and Roberta manage the restaurant. Her parents weren’t too excited that she was doing restaurant work when it was so close to her graduation. Vivian was supposed to be looking for a good engineering job. But, Vivian was flying high and enjoying life so much that she could not pay attention to her career right now. She was in love with life and soaking up every minute of it. She and Alessandro talked big plans about starting restaurants in LA, Rio, Beijing, Hong Kong, and more. She could do the Asia part. The restaurant wasn’t totally profitable yet, but if all went well, the second year would hit six digits, even after all expenses.
Vivian knew she had to start thinking about the future…and Jake. He was waiting for her in California. That’s where all the good jobs were and even though it had moved location, that’s where all her former hopes and dreams were. Was she ready to let all of that go?
Alessandro cried a little the day before her departure. “I’m going to miss you, my bella,” he murmured into her hair. “Come back and visit, will you?” “Yes, I will,” Vivian replied. She was on her way to California. She didn’t look back at the restaurant as she was driving away. She could barely see where she was going with all the tears in her eyes. Darn. Why wasn’t she stronger? Why did she feel this immense pull to be true to her culture and to her parents? She was loyal to a fault. What is bravery? Living the life you are supposed to live, despite your struggle with it, or risking it all to follow your heart?
Vivian couldn’t answer that. She was too afraid she would realize it is actually the latter, and it would make her do something crazy like stop the car on the side of the highway and run all the way back to Alessandro’s arms.
Vivian married Jake on a cool autumn day and looked like a princess in a white, beaded dress. Jake was tall and handsome, looking good in a white tux chosen in a moment of spontaneity. They recited their vows and the crowd cheered when the couple raised their clasped hands up in a victory air pump. Both sets of parents looked so very proud. The reception was typical of an American Born Chinese’s wedding event. Vivian changed into a red traditional dress and Jake looked on with all the Asianness he could’ve possibly mustered. It was a lovely event.
Somewhere across the ocean, Alessandro was opening up a new restaurant in London. This one was Italian, with an Asian twist. Vivian tried it years later while on a family vacation with Jake and the two kids. Alessandro soon separated his business from his sister’s. Alessandro went more upscale and international while Roberta made her places more homey and family-like. He went on to open up restaurants in eighteen major cities and he became a multi-multi-millionaire, his cuisine being known as the absolute best, all over the globe.
Vivian settled into a comfortable lifestyle with Jake right after the wedding. With the money Jake saved and Vivian’s job offer, they bought a small apartment in the Bay Area and kept at the working life. They left together every day at 7am and came home at around 7pm. They ate dinner and conversed quite well, although in their later years there was much less to say. There was never any fire between them. And if there was romance before the kids came, it all but disappeared when they had Jane and Allen.
Sometimes, Vivian thinks about the nights she and Alessandro had beneath the stars. Moonlight dancing across their faces. Talking about hopes, dreams, and a future. Passionate kisses and feeling the overwhelming desire to reach across and demand love right there. Alas, it will never be. She was not that brave. When she hears Allen’s cry in the middle of the night, she wishes she were that brave.
“Vivian, will you stay with me? I promise I love you with all my heart. I will cook for you and you can paint for me. We can live out our wildest dreams together. What if I become a famous chef, known all around the world, and you, a famous artist with paintings in the room next to Van Gogh’s at the Louvre? I know you feel embedded in your Chinese responsibilities, but don’t let it stop you from doing what you are supposed to do. You are creative, brilliant, and talented. Don’t waste it. Please.”
“You’re crazy, Alessandro.”
“I’m crazy for you.”
“I’m not crazy enough.” And she wasn’t.