He sipped the tea, sat back in his chair, and closed his eyes. You can always tell a good Chinese restaurant by the quality of its tea. If they are tight with the leaves, or reuse them too often, you know it. How could they not know that?
It wasn’t a madeleine, but this strong black tea carried him back over the years. All the times he and his friends had eaten here, from high school through college. Bits and pieces of those times flashed through his mind.
They’d had fried, juicy gau gee as big as your fist here. They always gave you more char siu in your saimin than any place in town. Their roast pork was moist, the fried skin just tender enough.
How many pounds had he put on in this place that he’d still not lost? This place had laid the groundwork for his lifetime battle with cholesterol.
He smiled, opened his eyes and checked his phone. It was almost 6:00. The gang would be here any minute.
The tea tasted so good after the last 24 hours he’d had. His flight had departed from Madison in a growing blizzard. By the time they reached O’Hare, the airport had closed. The pilot turned around, but the Dane County Airport closed just as they were about to land. By the end of the day, he’d flown first to Cleveland, and then to Minneapolis. The first flight out took him to San Francisco, from there to Honolulu. Instead of arriving at 8:00, he’d come in at 2:00, long after the party bus had departed.
He’d called Mel once he checked into the Moana Hotel. The party bus gang screamed an Aloha to him over Mel’s phone. After a few hours wandering Waikīkī and marveling at all the development over the past 30 years, he’d taken a Lyft to the Pine Gardens Restaurant to wait for the others to arrive.
Just as he was about to ask the elderly woman making won ton at the table in the back if he could have another pot of the black tea, the party bus pulled up outside.
He got up and went to hold open the door, playing host for the group. Everyone hugged and kissed. So Hawai‘i, he thought.
Much to his surprise, there were coolers, lots of them, and those coolers were in fact filled with beer and bottles of wine. Maybe he was the only one who didn’t drink anymore.
With a little coaxing, he let Mel give him a can of Coors Light. He was determined to nurse it, but with all the toasting that went on through the various courses, he gave in to peer pressure and had two more.
“Mel,” he said, “do you still drink a lot?”
“Not as much as I did, yesterday,” Mel said, slapping him on the back.
“You’re kidding me. How can you handle it at our age?”
Mel laughed. “Not well, brah, not well at all. Geez, the hangovers last for three or four days now.” He elbowed him. “So I try to keep up the drinking and avoid the hangovers altogether.”
After they’d fed like teenagers, the class president, Michiko Sloane, began tapping her water glass. “Okay, folks, for all of you who didn’t actually miss him at all on the bus today, I’m sure you’ve noticed that Mister Lee has finally deigned to favor us with his magnificent presence.”
Everyone cheered, lifted their beers and wine glasses in his direction. He actually blushed, although the beer had turned his face so red a while ago that no one could tell.
“Mister Brains Lee,” – this had been his nickname in high school – “since you didn’t get to tell us your story on the bus, could you please give us an update on your life’s harrowing saga.”
“Oh no, no, no,” he said. The chants of speech, speech, speech, grew deafening. “Oh, okay, all right, all right.”
Everyone grew silent.
“Well, although those of you who Zoom pretty much know all of this, for you others, I retired ten years ago from teaching at Pittsfield College near Green Bay. I taught History there for just over thirty years. I probably would have kept on teaching a little longer, but when Lily died, I decided I didn’t really want to keep doing it.”
Mel patted him on the arm, and there were mumbled words of condolence around the room.
“Of course we never had any children, so I was really kind of lost. Lily was my anchor. It was as if I were set adrift. I travelled everywhere she and I had always said we’d go when we both finally decided to retire. I even went to Antarctica. That was the last continent for me. It was her dream. So I checked hitting all eight continents off my bucket list.”
There were some cheers and raised glasses again.
“I guess that’s really all I’ve done.”
“Are you a goddamn Packers fan?” called out Will Pacheco, who was sporting his Cowboys hat and jacket.
“Not anywhere near as much I guess as you’re a goddamn Cowboys fan,” he said, and everyone erupted in laughter.
“Eh Brains,” said Stella Wright, “on the bus we all had to answer the same question. If you could’ve done one thing differently, what would it be? For me it was I would have stayed single. She slapped her husband Bert, another classmate, on the back. He shouted, “Same answer as me!”
Everyone laughed wildly again.
“Hmmm,” he said, “one thing differently.” He closed his eyes, thought for a bit, then opened them and scanned the room.
“You know, looking at all of you, us being here tonight, I love the way my life and all of yours has worked out. I really can’t think of anything I’d have hoped would have been different.”
Everyone moaned. They’d obviously wanted to hear something a little more compelling.
“Okay, okay,” he laughed, “if I gotta say something, I guess it would be that I wish I’d come back to Honolulu after I finished my PhD. I think Lily would have loved it here. She loved the sun, the outdoors, she loved swimming and hiking, and I’m sure I could have found a job teaching somewhere. You guys who live out-of-state, I think most of you know what I mean. There is no place on earth like Hawai‘i.”
There was a chorus of Hear, Hears, and then President Sloane asked the staff to roll out the karaoke machine.
“Oh my God,” he said to Mel, “I’m definitely going to need at least one more beer.”