No one came to the restaurant today.
Mimi sat in the corner booth furthest from the entrance, on the side of the table where she could see if someone entered. She looked down the empty aisle that led from the kitchen to the front door, which separated the booths from the rest of the tables.
Her head rested on her arms. She stared at the soy sauce containers and remembered that on her first day, she found out her parents never cleaned them, but instead just added more until they were full. At the end of her first day, she hand-washed each container, and made it a pattern to do so every week.
It was quiet. The only noise was coming from her mother’s two-in-one cassette player and radio, a relic from her youth in Shanghai. During the day it played pop-songs, slightly distorted and slightly too fast to accompany a calm meal, and at night, it played never-ending religious sermons, a voice speak-singing in monotone. Her mother listened while looking over the expenses. Mimi never asked what religion.
Her father arranged the kitchen in the back.
Mimi was twenty, and in the five years she worked at her parents’ restaurant, this was the first day that no one had come in, for lunch or for dinner. Some days were bleak, where only one or two people would enter, but today, zero. Her mom and dad didn’t acknowledge it, and for a second Mimi asked herself if she had misremembered. No, this was the first time, and it was celebrated with silence.
A small pain rose up through her chest, and Mimi realized she hadn’t taken a breath in a while. She exhaled. It had been some time since the soy sauce containers were last cleaned.
She looked through the front door to see Yiban, a friend she first met in high school. In the last few months, the two of them spent more and more time together, and slowly Mimi fell into the habit of dating him. He was agreeable and shy.
She looked around. Her mother had already gone upstairs to their apartment, and her father was cleaning the kitchen. She finished stacking the chair she was holding and let him in.
“Hey, I know we had plans — ,”she said quietly, while walking them to opposite sides of a table.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said. Unintentionally, she started thinking about her day. It was not sadness, it was not tiredness, and her heart started to beat faster as she quickly tried asking herself questions. Her hands fidgeted with the paper wrapping of a pair of disposable chopsticks. Her lungs reached their limit and she let out a breath.
She looked down saw an otherworldly face in the cracks of gold and black marble on the tabletop.
“Are you okay? I know I’m late, I’m sorry, “ he said.
“It’s not that,” said Mimi. “I’ll meet you at your apartment. I still have to finish up here, but when I get there, I want you to — ,“ she paused. She scanned the windows to make sure no one was watching. She moved his hand so that it pushed one of her wrists down on the table. He quickly took his hand away.
He acclimated himself to this new topic, and gave a small nod. After a moment he left, and Mimi moved on to the next chair. She looked at it for a while, sat down, and rested against the table. Her arms were outstretched and her cheeks pressed against the plastic cover.
Weeks later, another day passed where no one came in.
The next day Mimi put up a poster displaying two entree dishes, a poster she designed, on the front door. She printed new menus and laminated them at a shipping center.
It was late in the evening, and Mimi sat in the same booth, staring at the pattern of blue and white tiles on the floor. These were the same tiles on which, when she was younger, used to imagine a shrunk down version of herself jumping from one to the next, treating each crease as a new platform, rotating herself along the lines, turning walls into floors, floors into walls, going around the counter and stopping at the matted entrance to the kitchen.
The smell of dishwashing soap mixed with the stale air of dinner service, and surrounded her at her booth.
Her plan after graduating high school, originally, was to work at the restaurant and save money for a few months before sending out college applications. But now, it was a year and a half since graduation. Her friends came back to visit and told stories about their flings and stresses. Mimi compared her life to theirs. It was not envy, it was not loneliness, and it was not anger, but the stories were not enough to convince her to leave.
She unplugged the LED lights that faced the parking lot from inside. The infinitely scrolling “SHANGHAI KITCHEN” letters dimmed to black.
Her plan, tonight, was to see Yiban. Lately she found it easier to direct him, and the two were more comfortable under her command. She grabbed the keys from the counter.
Outside, she could see the light in her family’s apartment was still on. She considered going up and talking to them about the restaurant, then laughed to herself. She locked the doors.
The truth was, she didn’t think there was any difference, none absolutely, between her life and those of her friends.
From the booth, Mimi could hear her parents talking in the kitchen. They used hushed tones, the same quiet voices they used years ago, the night before disciplining Mimi about her grades when they slipped in sophomore year.
A jolt ran through Mimi as her father punctuated his frustration. A door slammed.
Her mother came out of the kitchen and sat across from her. She spoke as the ambassador. In two weeks, if things stayed the same, the restaurant would close. Newer restaurants were opening in the area, and their clientele was leaving as their neighborhood changed and politely ushered them away. Her mother reassured her that things would be okay. Mimi offered a smile.
She sat alone afterwards until they opened for lunch. The ventilation was getting old, and the steam from the kitchen collected and pushed out into the dining area. She pulled her shirt collar over her nose and propped open the front door. She coughed and let herself cough as loud as she wanted to once she was outside.
Mimi never went to the beach, but it was okay in the winter. The town was empty, the shops were closed, and the bright colors of the boardwalk seemed less threatening under a cloudy sky.
The only people she saw were those fishing at the end of the pier. She walked away from them, past the unoccupied concession stands, past the ferris wheel, past the gift stores. The air was cold and refreshing.
Her relationship had ended, and this was her day off. The long conversation from last night ended with Yibin telling her he felt completely inadequate, that Mimi’s wants became too aggressive, and at times contradicted one another, and that fulfilling them never made her happy. Mimi sat quietly, and the pit of guilt in her stomach was from the fact that she knew this would happen, but did not say anything.
Mimi lost her gaze looking at the ocean, and the motion made her uneasy. She looked back at the pier to anchor herself.
She never knew what to do on her days off.
Each night, she made a plan for the next day, and each morning, she continued with the same habits.
A customer entered. She looked strikingly similar to Mimi, the few differences being that her hair was pulled back, and that her clothes seemed cleaner, more recently washed and ironed.
Mimi stared at her as she ate. No, while they looked alike, their lives were entirely different. She was older. She was not in a hurry. Her forehead was smooth and her eyes were relaxed.
Mimi imagined that this customer, the other Mimi, lived the exact same life as her, with the exception that she had solved some kind of secret, which was the key to her calmness.
The other Mimi knew what was important, what to acknowledge and what to dismiss. The other Mimi knew what she was moving towards. How she felt. When to take and when to give up control. Mimi watched and felt a new urge, to consume the other Mimi, to devour her, to masticate and swallow her limbs, to excavate the knowledge inside of her. She imagined walking herself as the other Mimi, with new wants, and lungs, and age.
Mimi walked towards her table and before the other Mimi could react, she leaned over and pushed her face against theirs. She hung her arms around her, with the intention of holding tightly but in reality forming a loose rope around her torso. Her skin felt perfect. She smiled and took a deep breath.
With little resistance, she fell to the floor as the other Mimi shook free. A puddle of ice water collected around Mimi. She watched the customer leave and the restaurant readjusted itself to her absence.
That night, there was no need to stack the chairs. She took in the room.
Mimi sat the table where the other Mimi ate. Without anything else to do, she cried without expectation, as the radio continued in a language she could not understand.