While Cayden was out drooling over burritos and fast cars with the men in my family, I was bundled up on the couch watching TV with my mom and Meg. I couldn't believe I was still sick, and Cayden was leaving the next day. It wasn't exactly how I'd hoped his last weekend here would go. I was thinking less vomit, less clothing, and a lot more touching. But, hey, every day can't be a fairytale.
By the time the guys got home, exhausted and starving, I was feeling well enough to walk around, and I was almost feeling hungry. My older sister Noelle came over because we'd planned on cooking a big family dinner on Cayden's last night here, but everyone was so hungry by that time we decided a restaurant would be a faster option.
"Who wants Chinese?" Mom asked. Chinese food was my weak spot. Even with my "delicate" stomach (I'm sorry, but that really cracked me up when Cayden said that), my ears still perked up at the mention of it. There was just something about Chinese food that was comforting, reliable. No matter what city you're in, you're bound to find a Chinese take-out menu that looks exactly like the menu of your favorite Chinese place back home, only with a slightly different name on the front (i.e. Happy Family vs Happy Panda. Clearly, Family=Panda). Even the font is the same. Sure, your fried rice might be yellow at once place and brown at another, but you eat it anyway. And you love it. And you eat too much of it. Then you eat it again the next day because sometimes there's just something about Chinese food that tastes better the next day.
Well, my go-to Chinese place at home is Golden China. It's tucked away in a discrete corner of a strip mall in Southlake, about 10 minutes from my parents' house. Nestled between a Mr. E's Music and Hobby Lobby, Golden China looks like your typical strip-mall eatery from the outside. You'd assume behind the doors were gray tables lined up on an off-yellow tiled floor, blown-up pixelated photos of unidentifiable menu items on the walls, and a 19-inch TV in the corner of the ceiling playing The Price Is Right in Spanish.
But one step inside the double glass doors brought all of my strip-mall stereotypes crashing to the black and white tiled floor. To the left, a swanky bar complete with a flatscreen HDTV playing big game of the day. To the right, white-tableclothed tables, black leather booths, and a self-playing piano. Even better than the interior is the food. So when anyone in my family says "Who wants Chinese?" it's a given that they mean "Who wants Golden China?"
I'd raved about it to Cayden before, and he said it had been years since he'd had good Chinese food, so I was determined to ignore my stomach pangs to introduce Cayden to the glory that is Golden China.
"You don't have to ask me twice," I said, jumping up to put my shoes on.
The guys had just walked in the door as we made executive decision on where to eat.
"I missed you, baby!" I said, before Cayden pulled me in for a tight squeeze. My stomach turned but I ignored it long enough to enjoy being in his arms again. I buried my face in his shirt and breathed him in. He smelled like the outdoors. Not in the sweaty, freshly-mowed-grass kind of way. More like bonfire-in-the-winter kind of way. The temperature had dropped considerably throughout the day, and his sweatshirt was cold to the touch.
"I missed you! How are you feeling?" he asked, looking down at me, concerned.
"Eh, I'm not 100 percent, but I'm alive!" I said, smiling to assure him I was OK.
"Well, I won't be alive much longer if I don't eat something. We're starved," he said.
"Well, then it's a good thing we're taking you to the best Chinese restaurant in the history of Chinese restaurants. You'll leave there feeling so full you'll wish you wore your fat pants."
"Fat pants?" he said, tilting his head.
"Yeah, you know, like sweat pants, stretchy pants. Anything with an elastic band." They're what I also call my "Thanksgiving Pants."
"Well, sounds bloody brilliant. Let's go."
The seven of us piled into two cars and headed to Southlake. Our stomaches growled the whole way there and I realized I hadn't had (and kept down) a full meal since lunch on Thursday. I didn't even care if it was going to come back up later. I was going to enjoy my damn Chinese food.
I didn't even need a menu. I ordered the same thing every time I went there: house chicken with fried rice and wonton soup. OK, I lied. Sometimes I switched it up and went for the house beef. But the main entree barely mattered because I never ate it at the restaurant. Let me explain: When you order the dinner special, you start with an order of what I call "Chinese Chips and Salsa," which are really just strips of fried wontons with a side of red sweet and sour sauce. Oh, and a side of something yellow.
Cayden dipped his "chip" in yellow sauce, and I saw it from the corner of my eye. I grabbed his hand.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Why not?" he asked, staring down at the chip dripping with yellow sauce.
"It's hot. Like hot hot. Not just kinda hot." I wasn't actually sure how hot it was because I'd never tried it. But I'd seen enough people turn dark red and fan their face while chugging ice water after trying a bite to know it was hot hot.
"I like it hot," Cayden said, ignoring my warning and crunching down on the yellow-sauced chip.
I watched his reaction. I knew he'd try to play if off like it wasn't that bad, but he couldn't. I chewed faster and faster and swallowed as fast as he could, reaching for him glass of water. I plastered a giant "I told you so" smile on my face and tried not to laugh.
"Oh no, he didn't try the yellow did he?" Mom asked when she saw his red face and empty glass of water.
"Yeah, a huge glob of it! I warned him!"
"Wow. You weren't kidding! That is hot hot!" he said, fanning his face and looking around for the waitress and her water pitcher. We all pushed our full glasses of water toward him and he took few gulps out of mine.
After the Chinese Chips and Salsa and Yellow Firesauce debacle, the waitress brought us our soup, then our salad (which is my all-time favorite salad. Like, EVER), then our spring rolls, wonton noodles, and foil-wrapped chicken. See what I mean by fat pants? More often than not, I'm too stuffed to take one bite of the main entree, so I'd take it to go.
Unfortunately, my stomach didn't let me indulge as much as I wanted to, so I only got to nibble a little here and there , but Cayden finished every bite of every side item and most of his house beef.
A number of times throughout the meal my whole family was in tears from laughing too hard. That's pretty common when my whole family gets together to go out to eat, so I can't even pinpoint what was said that made everyone laugh so hard. It's usually a bitchy comment from Noelle, an oblivious statement by Meg, or an under-our-breath sarcastic crack from me or Corbin that usually gets the ball rolling. More often than not, it's one of us making fun of another. And then one of us will end up doing the silent laugh, where we're laughing so hard our eyes are squinted shut and our breathing comes out in gaspy whistles, which, in turn, causes another one of us to end up in the same predicament. Then before we know it, we're all wheeze-laughing and wiping our tears and grabbing at our stomach muscles because they hurt so bad.
Cayden got to experience such family gathering right there at Golden China. And he fit right into it. He wiped his tears and grabbed his stomach muscles as well.
After dinner, he couldn't stop talking about it.
"That was so much fun! I haven't had a good laugh like that in ages! What were we even laughing about?"
It didn't even matter. With Cayden next to me, we were one big Happy Family.