Looking back, last Valentine’s Day was practically the last normal thing me and Joyce did before the quarantine hit and everything got so incredibly fucked up. At the time, I was settling into my new job at the hotel, the Parrots had just gotten themselves a promising new pitcher, I started working with Noah, and Lucas had just gotten the starter position he’d been working so hard for. Everything seemed pretty great when me and Joyce went to our Valentine’s Day dim sum dinner over in San Gabriel and I bought her a 6’ panda.
(I never got around to telling y’all that the panda lives on the couch in the den, unless we’re on the couch, in which case he has to sit on the floor. It also took Joyce forever to name him. We finally got out the computer and used Google translate to come up with Da Huanshiong, which means ‘big raccoon’. I didn’t know it but it turns out that panda bears aren’t bears at all, they’re related to raccoons. Joyce is into pandas, so that’s the kind of thing she would know.)
Cleary this year wasn’t gonna be like the past two Valentine’s Days me and Joyce had…and it wasn’t. Those two were pretty much drama-free, but this year somehow got screwed up and we had a huge fight. Not huge enough that I went storming out of the house or walked out on her in a restaurant, but, well…still pretty big. I think we’re just all tired of the virus and being cooped up and not being able to have normal lives.
And maybe I need to go back to the beginning…
I did everything I was supposed to do to prepare for Valentine’s Day: I ordered my girlfriend a dozen of her favorite flowers (calla lilies) and bought a heart-shaped box of Whitman’s Sampler. While I was at the Rite Aid getting that, I also picked up something I thought was totally adorable. It’s this Snoopy in an airplane, and, when you turn it on, it plays music and the propeller spins. Then – I don’t know how it does it – it projects in red letters “I Love You” onto the propeller while it spins:
It’s dang cool, and I knew Joyce would like it, since I’ve already told y’all that she really likes Snoopy. (Of course she still has cats as pets. It would be so cool if she had a pet beagle instead of super lameass MooMoo and NumNums…)
What was gonna be a problem was food. My plan was to have take out dim sum from the place we’ve been going to for the past couple years, but Keaton warned me that they might be closed because of Chinese New Year’s, so that got me all nervous. I tried calling them to find out, but they didn’t answer the phone, so I figured maybe Keaton was right. Hard to tell…it’s not a place white people go, so they’re really only set up for Chinese customers who can talk to them in Chinese, and the only Chinese words I know are the ones for “big raccoon” lol. I had a suspicion that Joyce was counting on dim sum, and I didn’t want to mess up there, since it’s one of our cooler traditions.
I didn’t know what to do. Keaton says I was bitching to him about it when he came up with a solution.
“I’ll ask Ryan. He’ll find a dim sum place that’s open for you guys.”
“Ryan? What does he know about dim sum? He works in a Mexican restaurant.”
“Not that Ryan, dumbass, my Ryan.”
Although I knew exactly who Keaton meant, I was a little surprised, since he hasn’t mentioned Ryan practically since the quarantine began almost a year ago.
“I didn’t know you were still in touch with him,” I said. “I thought you were being careful about the virus and everything…”
“I am, bubba, don’t get all worried. But he still calls to keep in touch with his client list.”
“How’s his business doing?,” I asked. It’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while.
“Oh, he’s totally fucked,” Keaton said matter-of-factly. “He even went into something legit to keep some food on the table for his family.”
“He’s got a family?,” I asked. Somehow I didn’t connect people in Ryan’s business with having a family.
“Why the fuck not, bubba? Now he’s importing jade jewelry to the US. You know, you ought to take a look at his shit and help out a struggling businessman. You still need a gift for Joyce, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do,” I said, wondering what kind of jewelry Keaton’s Ryan was importing…although Keaton has always assured me that Ryan had very good taste lol.
“I’ll call him. He’ll fix you up for dinner and with a gift.”
“I’m surprised he’s still so nice to you,” I said, “considering he hasn’t made a cent off you since the quarantine started.”
“Yeah,” Keaton said, “but he wants to keep his customers lined up for when he can go back into business. He says you make a lot more money off girls than you do off jade.”
So Keaton pulled out his phone and made the call to this Ryan dude. He said “uh huh” and “yeah, man” and “my buddy needs dim sum” into the phone a few times, then looked at me:
“How much do you want to spend?”
“Dim sum, bubba. That is what we’re talking about. There may be a mark-up since most good places aren’t open.”
“Will $75 do it?”
So Keaton talked into the phone some more and finally hung up.
“Ok, bubba, you’re set. He’s getting you 100 bucks’ worth of dim sum made by this old grandmother in San Gabriel who takes in special orders especially for the New Year. It’ll be super authentic, although he says you might not recognize some of what she makes.”
“That’s ok,” I said, “we don’t exactly know what we’re eating at the place we go to, either. They come around with the carts and we point to what we think looks good.”
Keaton also told Ryan that I’d be coming by his place to look at the jade jewelry. Keaton didn’t say it in as many words, but the feeling I got was that Ryan was doing the dim sum favor in exchange for my buying a piece of his jewelry. I figured I had nothing to lose, assuming Ryan had something in my price range. (I’m pretty ok with money at present. I still have a lot leftover from my bubble salary, and what I’m making now ain’t bad at all, especially as I don’t need to pay rent or for food.)
So I went over to Ryan’s house later that afternoon. I had a weird feeling in my stomach. I mean, ok, I wasn’t born yesterday, but I’ve never had anything to do with prostitution. Seriously. I’ve never had to pay for it. (Although I did get that escort service offer to get paid for it, but I never took it seriously.) Keaton would probably think it’s super gay of me to say it, but he’s a good-looking dude (Joyce: “he’s a little rough around the edges for my taste, but you two make a great-looking couple”; Mrs. LaSalle: “rarely do I get to spend holidays with two such good-looking men”; Allan: “I may not go for that Clint Eastwood thing your friend has going for him, but I know some guys who’d go for him big time”) and I can’t imagine he ever had trouble getting girls. Still, he says he’d rather pay for them (Keaton: “then you know exactly where you stand”.)
So I’ve never even met someone who does what Ryan does for a living. I drove up to the address, and it turned out to be a perfectly normal house in Arcadia. Nothing too fancy, just a nice normal single-family house that looked like it had three, maybe four bedrooms and maybe a swimming pool out back. Nothing about it suggested how Ryan pays for it.
I don’t know why I was a little scared when I rang the doorbell, except that I reckon it’s always normal to be a little scared when you go to someone’s house for the first time and you don’t even know who they are.
A Chinese woman opened the door. She could have been 35 or she could have been 55. Either way, I was guessing she was the lady of the house and Ryan’s wife, although I don’t know what made me think that.
“Um…hello…I’m Hunter…I’m…um…here to see…Ryan.”
“Hunter Block? Yes, we’ve been expecting you.” Her English was perfect, although I don’t know why that surprised me. “Excuse me,” she said, and she went to the foot of the stairs and called up in a flurry of very loud, totally incomprehensible Chinese. Some more loud and super fast Chinese came from upstairs, then a man came down.
Ok, so maybe because our pitcher Ryan is built like a football player I was thinking that this Ryan would be a biggish dude too. Turns out I was wrong, and Keaton’s Ryan was a perfectly normal looking little Chinese dude, maybe 5’5” and 145 and probably 50 years old, since his hair was graying on the sides.
And you’d never in your life have guessed that he was in the business he’s in.
“Mr. Brock?,” he said. He had his mask on, so it wasn’t easy to understand him. “Mr. Penner said you would be coming, please, come in, wercome…” Ok, he really did talk like that, but I’m gonna stop trying to transcribe it. Y’all get the idea and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m making fun of how he talks.
“Come, I show you jade,” he said, ushering me towards the back of the house and into a room that had piles of little white cardboard boxes wherever you looked. “You like jade?”
“I don’t know much about it,” I said.
“Most Americans do not,” he said. “In China it is much appreciated, and we want to get Americans to appreciate it as well. So far we are doing an ok business online, but could be better. Let me show you some of our pieces. You are shopping for girlfriend or boyfriend? Mr. Penner did not say.”
“Girlfriend,” I said, blushing for some reason and planning to get back at Keaton for not having made that clear.
“We have very nice things for men, too. Maybe you like for yourself. But first I show you for your girlfriend. What does she like? Chinese good luck symbol? Do you know what her Chinese zodiac sign is?”
“What year was she born?”
“Um…,” I said, “I’m afraid I don’t know.”
“Ah, yes…many women mysterious about their age. Then we find something else. Does she like animals? I have very charming cat necklace and matching bracelet…”
“She has cats, but…”
“Let me show,” he said, going to get one of the cardboard boxes, which contained a black velvet jewelry box. “This is necklace.” It was, indeed, a necklace with a cat pendant done in green jade. It wasn’t very interesting, and almost looked like something you’d get in a junk shop in Chinatown. “I will make you a special price for friend of Mr. Penner.”
I guess I didn’t look like I loved it.
“No?,” Ryan asked, disappointed.
I shook my head. “I don’t like cats,” I tried to explain. “And her cats hate me.”
“What does she like?,” he asked again. “I have just plain bead necklace…”
That sounded boring. Then I remembered that Joyce does like something Chinese a lot:
“Do you have anything with pandas?”
Ryan smiled. “I have delightful panda necklace,” he said. He went for another of what must have been a thousand identical cardboard boxes, but, sure enough, it contained a panda necklace.
A pretty dang cool one. It didn’t just have a panda pendant, it had eight little pandas in four colors of jade connected by a thin chain.
“Chain is gold,” Ryan said, “so necklace costs more than cat necklace, but there is no danger it turn your girlfriend’s neck green. Eight is lucky number,” Ryan then said. “Will bring good luck in new year. You like?”
I actually did, although there was some sticker shock when he gave me the price. (Ryan: “some of this is tourist junk…this necklace real jewelry.”)
So I went for it. Joyce certainly deserves all the nice things I can buy her, and, although we really like the pillows I got her for Christmas, maybe it was time that I got her something a little more romantic. So I paid Ryan the “special price for friend of Mr. Penner” and took the necklace, feeling that I bought Joyce something really cool for Valentine’s Day.
Ryan also gave me the address for the place in San Gabriel where I was to go and pick up the assorted dim sum for Valentine’s Day from the grandmother who was making them for us. I took the necklace with me back to San Marino after a stop at Target to find just the right Valentine card (I had good luck there last year, if y’all remember) and wrapping paper, now that I had a package to wrap. (Joyce has given me a tip or two on how to wrap a present properly; I don’t do masterpieces like she does, but I can at least get the paper around the box and have it look nice.)