Episode Two - Dinner and a Distasteful Dessert
In the colorful but dimly lit alleyways, a variety of stands offer handmade jewelry, pocketbooks, antiques, T-shirts and souvenirs printed with ‘Old Treasure Hill’, good luck charms, herbs, pipes to smoke those herbs with, and so on.
Though many items are geared toward tourists and seldom visitors, many priceless items can only be found here in this marketplace. Cheap knockoff brands being a prime example.
The buildings are an assortment of orange and green while the street lights brighten the roads and alleys in shades of yellow and white and anything in between. Even late at night in Fortune City, the streets buzz with people shopping, drinking, and smoking on street corners.
Leon exits the station and is immediately welcomed by the scent of sweet grilled meat. Looking around, he sees several food stands selling skewers of fishballs, sausages, and other mystery meats.
Before he can approach and satisfy his impulse though, a voice calls, “Leon!”
A smile appears before he even sees her. Turning around, his eyes widen at the sight of Rachel. Her long, straight black hair swings past her shoulders and bounces as she walks toward him. Rachel is stunning and bright enough to replace the sun. She is the golden light at the end of the dark tunnel of excruciating office work.
But not to disappoint, Leon doesn’t look bad either as he creepily stares her over in his work suit and dirtied sneakers.
“Hey!” he eagerly shuffles toward her. “So, I guess I’ll pay for dinner tonight. Of course, you’re gonna have to show me how ‘grateful’ you are later...”
“Oh, well how about I pay for it so we can avoid all of that?” She laughs. Quite loudly.
Then, she asks, “Did you wanna try that pumpkin pizza place?”
“Yeah! Let’s do it, but it looked pretty pricey last time.”
“Hmm…let’s see their menu first.”
Further up the hill is one of the more popular streets filled with multiple well-known restaurants. One of these is the pizza restaurant the couple has noticed time and time again.
During the walk, Leon lets out a sigh of relief. The night is unraveling far smoother than he initially believed. Of course, most of his success is due to Rachel’s incredible tolerance for Leon’s shortcomings, his numerous shortcomings…but neither of them is going to point that out.
“How was work?” Rachel sweeps a strand of hair over her ears revealing her smooth cheek.
“Same. I feel Steve is going to show up one day holding a gun with an exact number of bullets for everyone. And that one guy keeps talking to me and I still can’t remember his name, Fred or something,” Leon chuckles uncomfortably. “How was yours?”
Rachel interns as a nurse at the Summit Hospital alongside many accomplished physicians. Her previous aspiration was to become a doctor herself, but time and financial constraints kept her from finishing her degree. From time to time, she takes whatever opportunities available to work and learn alongside doctors while attending medical school on her days off.
She has always taken pride in her independence, her strong work ethic, and her self-motivation. She never wanted to be one of those women to marry young to a successful man while never achieving anything of personal value. It is undoubtedly this characteristic that led Leon to her in the first place—her big, sexy sense of ambition.
Perhaps opposites attract.
She says, “It was pretty good today. Got to work personally next to Dr. Park.”
“Oh, really? Hope you’re not getting too personal,” Leon teases, kind of. He’s never met Dr. Park but Rachel’s been working with him for nearly a year now. From what she’s described, he’s only a few years older than her.
“Oh, yeah, we got real personal. I got to handle his nice, smooth scalpel,” Rachel smirks.
“Don’t tell me it’s sharper than mine. Don’t even do it.”
Most people say they enjoy the beginning of relationships when the fire is still hot. Leon isn’t so quick to agree. Sure, during those times the relationship is still passionate, romantic, spontaneous and unexpected, but that’s because those people hardly know each other. He enjoys his relationship with Rachel for reasons beyond those things.
He likes not having to worry about his outfit, or stress about coming up with conversation topics, or try hard to be funny. The couple reached a point where their love became unconditional. He feels their love can never die, and will only grow stronger for this sole reason.
After another few minutes of walking through the colorfully lit street, the restaurant finally comes into view.
The couple curiously peeks in by the doorway gauging the price range from first glance. The restaurant’s interior décor is definitely fancier than any other pizza restaurant they’ve ever visited. The walls are a waxed mahogany with modern art pieces illuminated by dim flood lights from the ceiling. Each table even has a respective set of votive candles and a rose beside the menus.
Leon and Rachel are both quite impressed, but more so concerned. Keeping a decent composure, the couple eagerly requests the menu. In fact, they demand it. The host kindly smiles and passes them a single laminated booklet.
“Well, at least we’re not skimping on this anniversary date.” Leon quickly skims through every price on the list.
“Yeah I know…but jeez…” Rachel points at the pumpkin pizza that is about double the price of any pizza she’s ever had.
“Maybe I’ll just get the salad…” Leon mumbles.
She looks away from the menu and laughs, “Well, guess you won’t be ‘getting any’ later then, huh?”
Quite the predicament.
Leon pauses for a moment, mind deep in thought. He does want to do something special tonight, and he did spend a hard day at work. Well, he’ll only live once, right?
“Since we’re here, let’s go for it, who cares.” He signals the waiter and requests a table for two.
The meal starts off with a light egg salad for each of them. The romaine lettuce is a crispy, healthy green, topped off with slivers of carrots, red onions, gorgonzola cheese, and slices of hard-boiled eggs. The ginger dressing lightly coats the top, emitting a salty and sour tinge with a dash of spiciness. The very instance the pungent dressing touches their tongues, taste buds erupt in excitement from the rich flavor, until shortly calmed by the fresh lettuce.
Finishing their appetizers, the waiter brings over the main course of the dinner, the pumpkin pizza. The smoking golden pizza is laid out on the center of the table and the couple stares with starving eyes.
The surface of the pizza is covered with a fine, smooth orange pumpkin paste coated on top of a thin layer of cheese. The crust is brushed with a light gloss of honey that glimmers from the dim lights above. To top it all off, basil, oregano and cilantro are lightly sprinkled all over, accentuating the exotic aroma of the entire pizza.
The waiter skillfully cuts through the pie with a roller, and the soft tender crunch echoes each time he hits the crust. Oh, how delicious the pizza looks as the round blade effortlessly swipes across the smooth surface, releasing the heat and steam from under the layers of cheese. A rising, sweet-smelling fog lifts into the air, warming their cheeks and noses, and teasing their mouths.
When the waiter is done, he bows his head and motions his hands as if to say, ‘Bon Appetit.’
“Well then…” Leon tries to appreciate the sight of the pristine pizza.
Rachel, on the other hand, is not so modest and eagerly reaches for a slice, “Well. Guess I’ll start.”
Leon no longer hesitates and picks up a piece. His teeth break through the layer of pumpkin paste into the soft, thin layer of cheese, before finally hitting the delicate crunch at the bottom. The pumpkin flavor has a peculiar sweetness, and paired with the warm cheese and natural scents of the herbs, combine into a wonderfully euphoric experience.
What a pizza!
He takes another bite.
The two devour their way through the alluring pie and fail in all attempts to savor it. After a little more than ten minutes, only tiny crumbs and hard unappetizing sections of the crust remain.
“Wow…” Leon says, moments after finishing his last bite. He leans back in his seat and exhales a long satisfied breath.
“Yeah, that…” Rachel pauses to burp. “That was intense.”
Wiping his lips and taking another sip of hot tea, Leon smiles and leans back against his seat. “We definitely waited too long to eat here.”
“I know. Glad we finally came.”
The two take a breather for a minute before chatting again. The conversation stretches from topics about their friends, gossip, to plans for the future. They talk about places to go for next weekend and vacations to take next month. All the while, Leon ponders about something else he wants to talk about.
An inkling thought sits at the back of his mind that Leon doesn’t fully understand. It is definitely a craving, or yearning for something he doesn’t have. Maybe the years of working has repressed his emotional thoughts into a distant, forgotten subject, slowly festering into an unforeseeable problem. Without time to understand his emotions, he is left with an anxious, misunderstood desire.
Leon’s eyes stick to Rachel and she smiles back, sweetly. How smart. How beautiful.
He goes for it.
“Hey Rachel, you know I love you,” he starts.
“Yeah, of course.” Rachel caresses his hand on the table so affectionately like he is the only person she has ever cared about.
Leon doesn’t hesitate. “Well I’ve been thinking. What if we got married?”
Rachel continues to smile but asks, “What do you mean?”
Leon’s eyes are stern, filled with conviction. “It’s been three years, I figured we should try to get somewhere. I love you, I really do, and I can’t imagine anyone else for me.” The momentum is already building and his mind can only commit.
“Let’s get married.”
Rachel’s smile slowly wears out and her hand moves away. She doesn’t believe he is serious at first, but apparently he is. Marriage has never crossed her mind, and she certainly doesn’t want nor need it now.
Her eyes frown with disappointment. “Yeah, but I’ve got so many plans for my career…and I feel like getting married would completely throw me off. I love you too but…I don’t think now is the time.”
“Yeah I know but—”
Rachel continues, and her loving gaze drowns to a glare. “And to be honest, I’m not even sure where you’re going with your life. You’re so unmotivated, you keep complaining about your job but you haven’t been looking for a new one. What real plans do you have? I can’t believe you’re talking about marriage at all.”
Suddenly, Rachel is a stranger. Leon feels like he doesn’t know her at all. The truth smacks him across the face, then smashes into his chest and through his heart.
It’s true though. Leon knows it to be true. Perhaps he wants to get married so he can finally achieve something. With all his time spent at work, Leon has never taken the time to clearly think about his life or what he intends to do. He’s been existing day after day following an endless routine without smelling the roses. This after-dinner proposal was summoned from the powerful sense of lacking in his life, and a desire to change that.
The truth is revealing, though bitter.
Rachel adds, “I really don’t believe now is the time. Not for me, but more so not for you, I think.”
The couple remains silent for a moment, and Rachel, smiling her sweet smile the way she does, reaches for Leon’s hand resting on the table. A frown grows more intense over his face and he stares into her eyes, wondering if he should pull away.
Her expression is sympathetic, concerned. “I’m sorry. I love you, I really do, but this was so sudden. I don’t want to break up though. I just think we both need more time. Yeah?”
Leon swallows the accumulated tension and silently nods, face still blatantly upset. After a moment, he finally answers, “Yeah,” and exhales a heavy sigh, “yeah, I guess so.” He tries his hardest to curve his mouth into a smile, and only holds it for a second before drooping back into a sulking frown.
The two exchange another, “I love you,” before splitting the bill. Neither is getting ‘any’ tonight, apparently. Leon was really hoping for dessert, but this saves him money on the overpriced ice cream, he supposes.
For the entire walk back, Leon’s head stoops low and not once does he glance at Rachel. Though his mouth is silent, his heart and mind rages in a hurricane of thoughts and mixed emotions.
At least tomorrow is a day off.
Entering the station after the seemingly endless, dreadful walk, Leon is eager to get home. Without saying a word, he paces away from Rachel toward the stairway to his train platform. The two live in different parts of town so they’d be departing on separate trains anyway.
Before taking his first step down, however, Rachel pulls him by the arm. “Wait, Leon. What if…what if we moved in together?”
“Hmm?” Leon is intrigued.
“What if we lived together first and see how that goes?”
A beautiful glimmer of hope at the end of the dark tunnel! The idea is brilliant. A smile quickly takes over and forces his cheeks to rise.
“Yeah?” he cheerfully smiles.
In his mind, he is on his knees under a spotlight gratefully thanking her and the world for coming up with such a wonderful solution to his bitter night.
‘Yes! Thank you for this, my queen!’
“Yeah, that sounds better, right?” she smiles.
It does! Why didn’t he think of that? Such an impulsive idiot.
“I guess so.” Leon struggles to contain his joy.
“Okay, let’s talk more about it tomorrow?”
Rachel leans close and lightly kisses Leon on the lips. “Don’t be mad, okay?”
That’s the Rachel he knows.
Leon nods, and continues wearing his smile. He is unable to take it off. “Oyasumi,” he says.
“Good night,” she says back. Rachel waves goodbye and makes her way toward her platform, and he does the same.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he nearly laughs at the wonderful end to his rollercoaster of a night. The pizza was good, the conversation afterwards was…enlightening…but the final result is definitely satisfying.
When he reaches his platform, a train just happens to arrive and Leon mutters to himself, “What a wonderful night.”
After getting into his apartment, Leon jumps straight to bed. His sleep is deep, overwhelmed with new stresses and joy, and the desire to sort out his life. Rachel didn’t dump him but instead, gave him a new future to look forward to.
Tonight was bittersweet, and tomorrow will be the beginning to something else.