They get lunch.
There’re a lot of things Sona wants to say: it's good to see you again and we can make this work and let’s make music together again, but the words all die in her throat and the only thing she does say is “Let’s get lunch”.
She has to wait for Hao’s class to end, of course. He isn’t the kind of guy who’d skip out on his students, even for an old friend. Sona doesn’t mind. She’s waited long enough already, and, besides, she gets to sit in on a scintillating lecture about Haydn or some other dead white guy. She isn’t too sure. She’s brushed up on her Chinese a little, but she’s nowhere near college level. More like elementary school. Hao flushes to the tips of his ears when he notices her staring at him, anyway, and that’s what really matters.
They end up heading to a local place, somewhere hole-in-the-wall with paper menus are kept under glass tabletops and a name written in characters Sona doesn’t recognize. Hao rattles off a couple phrases that Sona vaguely remembers from chapter eight of her Chinese textbook, and, as Sona stares at the menu, she quickly realizes that the only items she recognizes are jiaozi, potstickers, and green onion pancakes, congyoubing. She wishes for a moment that she’d studied harder and maybe learned something other than pinyin, but the look on Hao’s face when Sona orders in his language is one she’ll keep with her forever.
No matter what happens today, no matter what happens in the weeks and months and years afterwards, Sona will always have the memory of that smile.
“I took Chinese classes,” she says, still speaking Chinese, “At a community college. You’re looking at a model student here,” It’s a suitably light opening. She’d even rehearsed it to get all the tones right. She wonders if he’ll hear what she left out. I took Chinese classes because I knew I’d see you again. I studied hard for you. I learned this language for you. She thinks he will. He was always good at understanding her, no matter what language she spoke in.
“I don’t doubt it,” he replies, in English, and smirks in response to her surprise, “I took classes, too.”
“Ah,” she says, because all the clever things she rehearsed have fallen away with the thought that, while she was puzzling her way through vocabulary, making stupid flashcards and struggling to construct sentences like my aunt’s pen is blue and the local library is down the street, he was doing the same thing for her.
Then, all in a rush, she says: “I read them. The letters that you threw away.”
“Ah,” he echoes, and they are silent. Stupid, she’s stupid, she should’ve led up to it, should’ve hinted around a little, all the preparing she did with Percussion and Flute is useless, and now it’s all going to be awkward—
“They were just there. In the practice room trash can. Blame yourself for not hiding them better or something.”
She’s defensive and she knows it. Tuba’s a Psych student, they had a couple sessions and—anyway, whatever, it’s not like she expected anything different, anyway. Sona slumps back in her chair, shaking her head a little to let her Mohawk flop forward to block her vision. Maybe if she can’t see him (stupid earnest Hao, with his stupid face and stupid snazzy suit) she’ll stop embarrassing herself.
“I think maybe I wanted you to see them,” he says, and Sona can’t help but feel the faintest stirring of hope. They’ve switched languages. She’s speaking in Chinese, he in English. That’s gotta mean something. Maybe it just means that they’re both showoffs with lousy accents, but… She looks up at Hao, but she can’t read his expression, for the first time in maybe forever.
“And now?” she asks, because she kind of has to, “What do you want now?”
“I think maybe I want you to see me,” he says, softly, and, okay, that does it, all her cards are going on the table now. Sona takes a deep breath.
“I love you,” she blurts, and lets that breath out. Okay. She’s said it. Scary part over. The problem is, though, she still can’t read Hao, and he ain’t saying nothing. He’s just looking at her, face kind of blank, and… She doesn’t know. Maybe he doesn’t really like her that way anymore. Maybe he’s got a girlfriend. Hell, maybe he got married—it’s not like they’ve been in contact, so she wouldn’t know.
Their food arrives before the silence can get even worse. Sona gratefully digs in, focusing only on wolfing down food, hands fumbling with her chopsticks. She holds them a little wrong, kind of like she’d hold a pen, and instead of picking up her rice, she brings her bowl to her mouth and uses her chopsticks to shovel it in. The potstickers are good, at least, fried golden and crispy at the bottom, and the green onion pancakes are satisfyingly awash with grease. What Hao ordered turns out to be some sort of fatty pork and a dish of slightly bitter boiled greens, with a plate of fish steamed with garlic and ginger. She doesn’t look at Hao, doesn’t wonder if he’s judging her for her poor table manners or if he’s thinking about what she said.
As she mops up the last of the pork with her pancakes, the pastry-like dough flaking off as she bites into it, Hao finally speaks.
“Was that another joke?”
Sona almost chokes on her bite of pancake, and nearly scalds her tongue on the gulp of hot water she takes to wash it down. She’d forgotten about how Chinese restaurants never have anything cold, even though she complained about it all the time when she was a kid and had to add ice to her tea.
“It—I’m not—It was never a joke,” she says, reverting to English in her haste to get the words out, to say something, anything, that’ll make him understand, “That kiss wasn’t a joke. What I just said wasn’t a joke. You’re not—“
She stops. Breathes. Starts again.
“I was just covering my ass, the first time. When I… When I care about something, sometimes I like to pretend that I don’t. And I care—I lo—you know.”
“I really don’t understand you sometimes,” Hao says, but he puts his hand on hers and she can tell that his expression is tinged with fondness. She can read him again. They’re going to be okay.
“Lianxi,” she says, practice, and that, at least, at last, startles him into a laugh.