by Natalia Canseco
Rubén had been sitting at the same table at Jing Teng for five years. He would go there for breakfast every Sunday. He liked to order a cup of American coffee to start. He would go out for a couple of cigarettes and then indulge in the place’s famous Dim sum. He would carry a novel or a pamphlet under his arm, he was always reading something. He was a young man, he lived with his sister in the neighborhood next door, but he liked to take his bicycle out for a ride on the last day of the week, so he would pedal to Viaducto Piedad. He was thirty years old and had already begun to turn gray. The culprit was his mother, who had inherited his white hair. He was not a vain man, on the contrary, he didn’t seem to care about his appearance. He had not had any girlfriends during his youth, he had been a very shy boy. He had been in love with Marta, his high school classmate, but he never confessed his feelings for her. Later he met Graciela in the Faculty of Letters, but she was the girlfriend of his best friend Martín. The last three years he had managed to hook up with a couple of women, who had done him the favor of taking his virginity at Martín’s request. She had once fantasized about love and sharing a life with someone, but at this point in her life, and with a track record full of failures, she had begun to resign herself to it.
Angela also went to Jing Teng every Sunday. Her father had been taking her and her sister there for breakfast since they were children. She had a serene look in her eyes and her hair was halfway to her shoulders. What stood out most about her face was the huge scar that covered her face from the tip of her left eyebrow to her chin. It was said that he had been in a car accident on the highway while traveling with his family at the age of 12. His father had been driving and had escaped unhurt. A trailer had derailed due to frost in the early days of the year, resulting in the death of her mother. Despite the scar, Angela was still an attractive woman, tall and slender, and always wore skirts that showed off her long, shapely legs.
For the past two weeks she had been going to the café in company. She was dating a man twice her age. He laughed loudly as he whispered in her ear. They had two bamboo baskets in front of them and two half-drunk cups of coffee. He rested his notebook on the table, the one he had been writing things down in for years. He had the face of a graduate professor. Marlene, the only Mexican waitress, who was dedicated to serving the Spanish speakers, remembers coming too close to the table that Sunday, looking to clear the dirty dishes and offer them a little more coffee, when she saw a gun in the professor’s briefcase lying open on the side of the table and turned away frightened. She did not know whether to tell what she had seen to Mr. Peng, the
owner of the place, but it could be dangerous for the neighborhood restaurateurs and she did not hesitate to tell him.
For three years they had been in a dispute with the local mafias for the territories of Viaducto Piedad. At first it was a matter of Mexican gangs of hired killers who charged Asian foreigners for land use at very low prices, until “El Chamaco”, the leader of the gangs in the area, was killed and the Koreans began to take possession. We were all of Cantonese descent. My grandmother had emigrated with her husband and children a few decades ago, and had settled on the banks of the Piedad River, now hidden by the city’s pipes. My father inherited the restaurant when he died and we lived on that as our only income. We all spoke Cantonese and Spanish. Especially those of the new generation: my cousins and me. Marlene, the only Mexican waitress at Jing Teng had been hired years before by my grandmother to serve the Spanish-speaking customers because of her limited Spanish. Although we no longer needed her translation services she still worked with us, she had become a part of Jing Teng, without her, I’m sure we would not be as busy. I was studying during the week, so I could only help in the restaurant during the weekends. I liked working there, I enjoyed serving the diners. I was usually assigned to the tables at the end of the room. Among them, to wait on Rubén’s on Sundays. I noticed that he always came alone, and that he liked to sit facing the main entrance to have Angela within his field of vision.
They would look at each other sideways, each one from his table. No interaction, but for long periods of time. They spent the whole morning like that, one reading and the other writing things down in a notebook. They were wasting time, or maybe they were gaining it, but it was still not clear to them. They had been like this for months, they seemed to be waiting for something interesting to happen.
Miss Angela usually came accompanied, most of the time by men. She was a sought-after woman at the university where she worked. In spite of that, she would stop to look at Rubén. They shared something that few of us had: that unnoticed patience for life. So scarce in times of digital overexposure.
Men not only sought Angela for her peculiar beauty, but also because she could hold interesting conversations. She would take anyone with whom she exchanged dialogues to unimaginable places. She spoke with passion: her eyes lit up when she did so and she listened with true devotion, another characteristic in danger of extinction with so many screens in people’s hands. I, a sixteen year old guy, couldn’t wait for her to look at me like that, and for her to listen to me so cautiously, but I hardly dared to take the order from her table when Marlene gave me the chance. I would prostrate myself in front of her nervously, looking like an asshole, but I managed
to get her to look at me for a few moments. She had also learned my name: “Ming” I would say to her, “like my dad”. And he would smile when I brought him the order of Dim Sum after the second round of coffees. He had compassion for me and asked for his food tenderly and willingly.
He taught Ibero-American Literature, had lived in Buenos Aires and Barcelona, but had returned to Mexico with a broken heart after two love disappointments with Spanish-speaking foreigners. I suppose that the understanding of two people is not based on the language in which they communicate, in this case Spanish, but on the language in which they say the things we don’t speak: the language of the soul. I was filled with rage just imagining Angela suffering, who in their right mind would dare to hurt her? I don’t know much about life, I am a boy of few certainties, my mother gave me almost all of them. Here is her last gift before she died: love is a momentary guest, you have to take advantage of it when it comes. That’s why I had managed to understand the finiteness of things at a very early age. I was not afraid of expiration dates. I understood that romances, like everything else, eventually come to an end. Still, I would have done anything to prolong my stay with a woman like Angela.
After finishing my shift at the restaurant, I waited for my father to finish the day’s bills before we headed home. We lived a few blocks away in the same neighborhood. I would sit and read manga on the stool in the bodega. My uncle an avid fan, and purveyor of the best fish in the area, would stop by every week and share with me the new copies of the comics he managed to get from a Japanese friend. I was crazy about Futari Ecchi: Yura and Makoto, an erotic manga that I used to masturbate to on the sly when the wait at the restaurant dragged on. I also read One Piece and Naruto. I liked manga more than anime, I could read them at my own pace: linger on the images and details. Above all, imagining their voices. And not having to follow the fast-paced TV denouement. My father used to say that I was born in the wrong era. He believed that in me lived the nostalgia of his generation and the melancholy for the life of yesteryear, which we kids of my age did not know how to value. He wasn’t wrong in the least, I was an inveterate dreamer and lived engrossed in my own world. I had a hard time keeping my balance with reality, but the restaurant was the perfect place to do it. I interacted with the outside world from the comfort of my home: Chinatown on Viaducto Piedad.
On the third Sunday of April something extraordinary happened. The coffee shop was at its fullest. Thanks to the article the food critic had done a month ago for the digital magazine Ciudadano, the number of diners had increased and we had had to start working double shifts. My father was excited, with this new wave of customers we were going to be able to remodel the Jing Teng that was in need of maintenance.
It was 11 a.m. It was a hot, sunny day. Angela entered hand in hand with the professor, with whom she had been coming for the last few weeks, and they sat at the tables at the end of the room, right next to Ruben’s table. Ruben was immediately suspicious of the young lady’s change of place, but he just smiled at her from his place. Angela was lost in the conversation, listening to the professor with the same enthusiasm as always. They had ordered the two bamboo baskets they usually ordered, and the coffee cups were already half full. Marlene was swamped with work and I had to help early in the morning. Everything was in order, things were going smoothly: the couple at table 6 were kissing passionately, Watanabe’s family was laughing from the bar, Mr. Robles was devouring the Dim sun with the same enthusiasm as always, and Ruben was reading without looking up from his book. Until the professor excused himself to go to the bathroom. Then a Korean man dressed in black came in, followed by a couple of young men who were watching his movements. Ruben and Angela exchanged glances. They took advantage of the teacher’s absence to turn to look at each other. The atmosphere became tense. The new arrivals headed for the bathroom in a hurry.
Suddenly three shots rang out and all of us in the restaurant were startled. My father called me in a panic, we fetched his shotgun from the cellar and headed for the men’s room. Ruben joined us, he had a broomstick in his hand. Marlene took charge of the diners, asked them to take shelter under the tables.
We entered the restrooms and the professor was on the floor bloodied, he had three bullet wounds in his chest. The Korean ran away as soon as he saw us enter, and fled in a black van that sped by to pick him up. The two young assassins, who were guarding his steps, left on a motorcycle, making sure that no one would follow them. I approached the professor and took his hand. I asked him if he was okay, he gave me one last smile and I realized that he was going to die in a matter of seconds. It was the first time I saw a dead person, I felt light and lost consciousness.
Ruben tried to chase the Korean, but he had come on a bicycle and it was impossible for him to do so. He ran out into the living room to see if Angela was still there, and found her under his table crying. He approached her, told her what had happened and held her in his arms.
A whole month went by. We lost all the clientele we had gained in the last few months because of the violence. It wasn’t until June that the restaurant filled up again. First by the customers who frequented the Jing Teng, then by the curious who came to eat because of the rumors of the murder.
The settling of scores between mafias had cost us dearly. Ruben never missed a Sunday, but Angela had been absent since the event. The poor disheartened man was eagerly awaiting her return, but she disappeared without a trace. Rumors began to spread about the professor’s death: he and Angela had met at the university where they both taught. He had been a secretive guy in their relationship, had ties to the Korean mafia. He had also lived in Seoul for ten years and had come to Mexico to avenge the death of his wife, who had been the mistress of an important mafioso. He was never interested in Angela, he only used her to get close to Mr. Choi, he knew that she had frequented Chinatown since she was a child and that she would not attract attention at his side.
The triumph of the Koreans brought a lot of violence to the neighborhood, they eliminated the Mexican mafia and began to control the area. Some of the businesses went bankrupt and others were sold off. Chinatown was reduced to a single street with a couple of restaurants. Several of our countrymen decided to return to China while others opted to relocate to another area of the city, away from the Korean domain. We were able to survive thanks to people like Ruben who did not let the stories of violence or the disappearance of Angela, the love of his life, scare him away.
That year we lost many things: diners, profits, stability, new clients, neighbors, romances, daily life and tranquility. From one day to the next, we saw the Barrio that had seen us grow disappear, and we had to work until dawn to cover basic expenses. Marlene left due to lack of payment, and my father grew old, leaving me in charge of the cafeteria. I dropped out of school and devoted myself to preserving Jing Teng.
There are few certainties in life: Love is a momentary guest, you have to take advantage of it when it comes, whether it’s called Angela, is shaped like Jing Teng, or chooses to present itself as Chinatown.