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Ben was the kind of person who had a hard time saying no, which was how he got pressured into attending the wedding of Raymond, his mom’s distant cousin and someone Ben had never spoken to before. It’ll be good for you to get out of the house, Ben’s mom had said. Maybe you can even meet someone new.
Naturally, the wedding would be at the New Asia Restaurant on Pacific in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. New Asia was one of those Chinese restaurants that would have gone out of business long ago from gentrification, bad online reviews, and even worse service if it weren’t for the huge, banquet style private parties that it held on the weekends. At celebrations in New Asia, one could always expect the veggie options to be scarce and the seafood to be abundant, particularly the black pepper crab which was the house specialty.
Given the closeness of the Chinatown community, Ben wasn’t surprised to see familiar faces at Raymond’s wedding. He found himself seated next to Jason Tan and Audrey Li, old friends that both Ben had gone to school with.
Jason’s parents ran the laundromat across the street from the apartment Ben grew up in. During grade school, Jason became well known in the neighborhood for landing multiple roles in prominent TV shows where he always played the kid in math class who was equal parts smart and scrawny. For a while, many thought that Jason had a real shot at making it big, but his career quickly fizzled out once his voice became too deep.
Audrey, meanwhile, was known for always having a book in hand - whether it be on the bus or during recess - which of course resulted in her getting glasses before any of her peers in the neighborhood. As a child, her comically large glasses made her the subject of countless jokes, but now, her circular, horn-rimmed glasses contrasted well with her sharper features.
Fittingly, Audrey was now a librarian at a local high school while Jason had decided to actually become the smart kid in math class, allowing him to get a lucrative job at a quant trading firm downtown.
After a third round of drinks and several stories exchanged amongst the trio, Jason put a hand on Ben’s shoulder saying that he had heard through the Chinatown grapevine about Ben’s recent break up with Erica, someone they had all gone to school with.
“You guys were together for eight years, man. And for her to find another person that fast.” Jason shook his head as he took a sip from his gin and tonic. “It’s crazy.”
Audrey raised an eyebrow at Jason while Ben silently swished around his glass for what seemed like a long while. Given that Audrey was a close friend of Erica’s, Ben did his best to hold his tongue.
“I think it’s for the best for Erica and I,” Ben finally said while attempting a smile. “I really do.”
The night of the break up, a little over a year ago, Erica seemed to have trouble expressing to Ben why exactly the relationship wasn’t working for her. There was something about wanting to try new things and some garbled reasoning about how it would all be for the best. Ben’s confusion only compounded when Erica insisted that she would always still love Ben.
“Then why are we having this conversation?” Ben said, looking at her in disbelief. Up until this point in the night, he had been unable to look Erica in the eyes.
“Well,” Erica said slowly. “It’s not the same kind of love anymore, you know?”
Decades later, Ben will rehash this break up with other longtime Chinatown residents at a dive bar across the street from what was once New Asia. By this point, New Asia had long been torn down and converted into a Marco Polo themed restaurant filled with recent college graduates and murals of whiskered, slant-eyed dragons.
At the dive bar, Ben will say that his last time at New Asia was for Raymond’s wedding, an event he couldn’t enjoy much given the heartbreak he was feeling at the time. This will, of course, cause the other men at the bar to needle him with questions.
So what ever happened to this girl?
You gotta be over her at this point right?
After taking a swig of beer, Ben will instead tell them about the wedding and Raymond’s valiant effort to hold back sobs as the bride walked down the aisle, a largely failed effort given that the bride looked like a revelation with her long, wavy hair and her strapless white dress.
But to me - Ben will insist as his phone suddenly began to ring - the bride didn’t look half as good as Erica on a Saturday morning with messy hair and a bad hangover.
The day after Raymond’s wedding, Audrey woke up somewhat surprised and mildly disappointed to have Jason asleep like a rock with his mouth half open on the other side of her bed.
While she normally couldn’t stand the typical financier in her day-to-day, she found that she had a hard time keeping her hands off them after a few drinks. She was pretty sure it was the well-fitting suits that did her in, on top of the confidence bordering on hubris.
She found all these traits in Jason whose lack of a social media presence meant that she hadn’t seen him in over ten years. Back in grade school, Jason was too uncoordinated to play any sports and too quiet to show much personality. The Jason in her bed, meanwhile, was brazen enough to sneak her out of New Asia amidst family and friends.
When it came to men for Audrey, the more like Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, the better. Yet, in real life and amongst the thousands of books Audrey had read, she still hadn’t found a man quite like Dean from On the Road. She could still remember feeling her heart race as she read the first page of Kerouac’s classic as a highschool senior who still hadn’t had her first kiss.
The only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn.
The day after finishing the book, Audrey attended her high school’s Halloween-themed dance, determined to feel as alive as one of Kerouac’s characters. After dancing playfully in a group the whole night, Audrey found herself taking ahold of her classmate Kevin by the elbow and leading him into the walk-in storage closet behind their school gym.
Since Kevin was one of the popular kids in high school - he was the outspoken starting point guard on the varsity basketball team - Audrey figured he would have the experience to guide her expertly through her first kiss.
Kevin, meanwhile, who had played more than a few games of beer pong at a house party before the event, was happy to oblige. After all, Audrey was the kind of girl who had begun turning heads in recent years.
But as Kevin moved his hands clumsily across her body, Audrey was disappointed to find that Kevin, despite his good looks and smooth-looking jump shot, was no Dean Moriarty.
Audrey will have mostly forgotten about her love of Kerouac until she hands Jason a cup of coffee the morning after Raymond’s wedding, surprised to see Jason combing through her old copy of On the Road. Jason had picked out the book from the bookshelf behind her nightstand.
“I remember reading this in college. Thought it was overrated to be honest,” Jason said as he flipped through the pages.
“That’s weird,” Audrey said, playfully plucking the book from Jason’s hands. “I don’t remember you having a bad taste in books back when we went to school together. Must be a recent development.”
“Good one. But actually though, didn’t you think the book was a bit too over the top with all the sex and drugs? It just didn’t feel like real life to me.”
“I mean, it’s not just about those things,” Audrey said as she returned the book to her bookshelf. “The book’s about living life to the fullest, not just zombie-walking through it like so many people do once they hit thirty.”
Within a few months of their first hookup at Alex’s wedding, things began to fizzle out between Jason and Audrey. Their weekly dates had slowly turned into bi-weekly affairs that were usually pushed out at least once or twice. And eventually, their communication had dwindled down to the occasional Instagram comment or like, something that both Audrey and Jason seemed to be fine with, given that neither party was looking to settle down just yet. After all, they both thought to themselves, there were plenty of fish in the sea.
After nearly two years of not having seen each other, Audrey will see Jason at the wedding of her friend Erica. She and Erica, along with Jason and Ben, had gone to Gordon J. Lau Elementary together, a school on the outskirts of Chinatown. They had all kept in touch to varying degrees, with the exception of Ben and Erica who hadn’t spoken to each other since their break up.
Erica’s wedding will be in Playa Del Carmen on a private resort, cordoned off from the rest of the world by the tropical wilderness on one side and the Caribbean Ocean on the other. Towards the end of the night, amidst group selfies, spilled champagne, and untucked dress shirts, fireworks will burst over the clear blue ocean waters as Audrey makes eye contact with Jason who will take her by the hand and bring her in close for the last slow dance of the night and all Audrey can think about is her champagne-tinged world swirling around her as all the fabulous yellow fireworks exploded into the night, burning, burning, burning.
A few days before her wedding, Erica was woken up by the unusually bright sun and the sound of the air conditioner whirring in the background. Given the palm trees just outside her suite and the expansive view of the Pacific, Erica thought to herself that maybe destination weddings were worth it after all.
The Mexico wedding was, naturally, the brainchild of her fiancé Tom. The wedding is about our celebration of love, not what’s most convenient for our guests, Tom had explained. Besides, he had said, the people who really care about us are the ones who’ll show up. And that’s what we want anyways, right?
Erica loved how simple it was for Tom to just say what he wanted - this often led to Tom having an outsized influence amongst their friends when it came to dinner choices or weekend plans. Her ex-boyfriend Ben couldn’t have been more different, given that he would always defer to Erica on questions big and small. Doesn’t matter to me, Ben would often say to Erica. I’m down for whatever.
Dating Ben, Erica had told her friends back then, was like having a green protein shake every morning. It was healthy, nutritious, and probably good for you, but could you really get excited about a green protein shake?
When Erica finally told Ben that she wanted to take a break from their relationship, Ben looked at her, puzzled. Ben mumbled something about not understanding, but for someone so confused, there was a surprising lack of questions from Ben - he couldn’t seem to say much else that night.
If he had just fought a little bit more or shown some sort of fire, maybe it all would have worked out, Erica later thought to herself. Some frustration, a rash of anger, or even a slightly raised voice - just something other than Ben's stubbornly even-keeled attitude.
Oddly enough, Erica thought of Ben as she walked down the aisle - or the beach rather - to say her vows alongside her very soon to be husband Tom. Tom wore khakis and a sand-colored suit jacket over a slightly wrinkled white button down with his curly hair looking as messy as it did when he rolled out of bed earlier that morning.
True to form, Tom was also barefoot, causing Erica to almost laugh at the ridiculousness of it all - in an alternate universe not too distant from this one, she would have had a much more sedate reception, undoubtedly one where Ben would be wearing shoes.
When Erica and Tom return to that very same beach in Mexico many years later, they’ll have left their two young children with Tom’s parents, allowing them to recreate the magic of their earlier years, unaware that they’ll each have different ideas of what this magic exactly is.
Erica’s ideal day was swimming in the warm Caribbean ocean with Tom in the morning until they settled down to do some reading alongside one another on the beach, each of them with a cocktail in hand. Erica suggested these plans to Tom who made some non-committal grunts as he combed through his seemingly infinite queue of work emails on his laptop.
Tom, for his part, was quite intent on scuba diving solo along the coast of Cozumel, a nearby island and world-class scuba diving destination. It’s been nearly a decade since my last dive, he said to Erica after finally closing his laptop, causing her to wonder if he even heard what she had said ten minutes earlier about her own ideal beach plans.
Tom’s mind seemed to wander more often these days, particularly since his most recent promotion, which resulted in his ownership of multiple teams across different countries. His new role also came with frequent work trips abroad, something that wouldn’t have worried Erica too much if it weren’t for the pretty, fresh-out-of-college secretary that accompanied him on these work trips.
While Tom spent the day in Cozumel, Erica sat down on a beach chair, the lone guest on an empty stretch of the resort’s pristine white-sand beach. With a chilled bottle of white wine as company, she began to read Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story collection recommended by her friend Audrey.
Within the book, Erica found bits and pieces of her and Tom scattered amongst Carver’s cast of characters. She felt heartbreak at the words left unsaid, the connections missed, and the characters left broken.
Love, Carver seemed to tell her from the pages, needed to be nourishing just as much as it was passionate - it needed to cool like mud and burn like an inferno, but all at once and somehow for a lifetime.
Amidst all these Carver short stories and sips of white wine, Erica’s mind wandered towards her past life with Ben, something she found herself doing more often in recent months. Erica remembered the way that Ben would converse with her over dinner - leaning ever so slightly across the table and listening as though the whole world revolved around what Erica was about to say in that moment.
Erica had no doubt that Ben would have smiled upon hearing her beach plans for the day.
After finishing off the rest of the wine bottle, Erica found herself navigating to Ben’s contact card on her phone, realizing that after all these years she still knew his number by heart.