Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Funny Valentine

I had a date with the sweetest guy in my life.

It's been a while since we went out on one of these dates. He had been really busy these last couple of years. So I was anxious for it to be perfect. (Then again, I'm always anxious that everything be perfect.)

So I made sure to book all the tickets in advance, and check the time and instructions for where to stand in line, etc. twice over.

In the seven-and-a-half years I had known him, he never failed to surprise me or make me smile every day. We were going to see the Terracotta Warriors at the National Geographic Museum in D.C. My guy loves museums and exhibitions. (You can imagine how much time he spends at the National Mall. Thank you, Smithsonian Institution.) But this one was a little more special than the rest.

The Terracotta Warriors were life-sized clay figures of generals, soldiers, and entertainers, created as burial companions for Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China. We just celebrated the first day of the Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year in other Asian cultures) which fell on February 14 (which is of course, also Valentine's Day) and so, what better way to introduce him to Chinese history and culture than this?

On the Metro redline train headed to Farragut North, he had a million questions (as he always does) about the emperor.

"You remember what we discussed last night right? He was from the state of Qin, and he unified the other states to form one country...China. He also started the building of the Great Wall."

"So is he a good guy, or a bad guy?"

"Well, he did a lot of important things, but he was also a tough ruler. He is definitely a controversial figure."

"Yeah, like when he built the wall. He made all those people do it right?"

I nodded. The look in his eyes told me that he could feel the suffering of the peasant workers from more than 2,000 years ago. My little guy reminds me so much of an old man, sometimes. It struck me then that we first started going on these dates -- just him and me -- about four years ago. The outings were much simpler affairs then, of course. Most of the time, it was just lunch at a pizza joint. (I think I'm fully responsible for his addiction to pepperoni pizza.) Our other favorite haunts were the zoo and the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Even back then, he was already the proverbial little professor. I always had to carry paper and crayons, for sketching and writing.

As his mind grew, going out with him got more and more fun. He kept my mind sharp and growing too, despite the ravages of age and the cluttering effect of mundane daily chores, errands and responsibilities. But we also had less time to spend together. He is at school all day now, and we can't just sneak off for Friday pizza lunches every week. In fact, we haven't had a chance to do this since last summer when his sister was still in playschool and we could spend half the day playing golf before we had to pick her up.

So, this was a really special date. That day, we spent just over an hour at the exhibition. But it was the best time we had together for a while. Time seemed to have stood still for us, as we wandered around, the audio tour sets pressed to our ears. He would point out an interesting artifact to me. I would spot a map (he loves maps) and point it out to him. Mostly, we had fun just trying to press the numbers on the sets at the same time, like two seven-year-olds trying to step in the same square on a tiled floor. (And yes, he asked me lots of questions, including, "Where's Taiwan?" I chickened out on answering that one, saying, "OK, let's stay at early Chinese history for now, and move through the periods slowly before coming to modern times.")

Afterward, I took him for lunch (but of course!). He was strangely quiet though. I picked the cafe at Kramer Books because it was a sanctuary from the weekday lunch routine of waiting for tables and rushed meals, and also because eating in a bookstore was just the kind of thing he would like. He was picking at the noodles. But the chocolate ice-cream perked him up. In fact, he was so perky after finishing the ice-cream in what appeared to be one long breath on a cold winter's day, that the lady lunching with her books next to us couldn't help speaking to him.

"It's really good, isn't it?" she said, giving him the sweetest smile.

"Yes!" He was ready to talk. He doesn't usually respond so enthusiastically when a stranger speaks to him.

"Did you have a good time today, Amon? Shall we try to do this more often?"

"Yes, mum."

"Will you still have lunch with me when you're grown up, and working and living on your own?"

"Until you're a hundred years old!"

"That's really sweet, but maybe I won't be here anymore when I'm a hundred."

"Well, then I could come have lunch with you at your grave."

I guess that means he'll be calling me for another date.

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