Lunch for Two

Food Glorious Food

Zheng Zhi is an author and screenwriter who hails from Shenyang. Since publishing his first novel at the age of 19, he has worked on films, television series, novels, and short story collections. In this short story, the author vividly portrays a young man dealing with several life changes, including the recent adoption of a vegetarian diet; the story traces how his preoccupations shift when he encounters an enigmatic young woman at a restaurant. The narrator's lively — and somewhat self-absorbed — thought processes are rendered deftly, in a manner that is wry but sympathetic.

——Lilian Huang

You can see Lilian read an excerpt from the story here.

The entire sum of human ambition is evident in trivial romance. People are always conspiring to change each other; it seems so much easier than changing the world.

Lunch for Two
By Zheng Zhi
Translated by Lilian Huang

It was monsoon season in Taipei, and I wasn't budging more than 500 metres for food.

Carrying umbrellas around was too much trouble. I was always losing them; I must have had dozens go missing over the years. I wasn't the kind of person who tended to lose things — as far as I could recall, I'd never misplaced anything really important, like my wallet or ID. But an umbrella?

The absolute worst was when I went out in the rain, but it stopped by the time I was done. Whenever that happened, I was bound to lose my umbrella — after all, it was useless on a cloudy day with no rain. And I never bothered myself with useless things.

I lived in a part of Taipei that was known as a school district. It was close to several universities, and there were plenty of college faculty living nearby. People joked that these literati lived in constant fear of death; they clung to their lives by obsessively eating healthy and living green. That was why this area boasted the most vegetarian restaurants in Taipei.

These restaurants were all self-service buffets, serving an average of twenty to thirty dishes per meal. Honestly, they didn't taste too bad, especially the ovo-lacto vegetarian dishes, which somehow managed to nail the flavour of meat. Processed soybeans were shaped into fish slices or spare ribs; it was only when you took a bite that you realised oh, that's tofu. If not for the words "Green Vegetarian Cuisine" printed on the signboard, you might walk in and mistake it for a regular self-service restaurant.

But I never got my head round it. Tofu was tofu, and potatoes were potatoes. What was the point of disguising them as white or red meat? The most puzzling sight of all was when monks or nuns frequented the restaurant, and beefed up their beansprouts or jie lan with a few "meat cutlets", just like I did.

There was one vegetarian restaurant I visited every day. I lived so close that I could walk over without getting a drop of rain on me, as long as I stayed under the overhanging eaves of the buildings. This saved me the hassle of bringing an umbrella and losing it. I ate vegetarian food for a month straight, purely to lose weight.

I'd gone for a physical check-up at the start of the year, where the doctor told me, "Your blood pressure, sugar, and fat levels are far too high for your age, and your body fat is above the normal range. You have the beer belly of a forty-year-old man who's made it big. Do you see how serious this is?"

I not only grasped this, I found it deeply alarming. After all, I was very far from "making it big". One could even say my life was the complete opposite. But my body was definitely putting on a good show of leading the high life.

I went vegetarian, started doing a lot of aerobics, and lost three kilos in just one week. I found myself gradually getting hooked on vegetarian food, and at the same time, I was fitting in more and more with the vibe of the school district. It was very gratifying.

There was a long mirror which spanned one whole wall of the vegetarian restaurant. It made the entire process feel like you were strutting down a runway — from lining up and choosing your dishes, through having them weighed, all the way to paying the bill and finding a seat. If you kept your head cocked, you could keep an eye on yourself in the mirror; by the time you made it from one end to the other, it felt like you'd dropped another clothing size.

Eating vegetarian food alone came with another upside: there was no need to talk. I didn't enjoy talking during meals. Drinking, socialising, and eating were three completely different activities. The first two were spiced up by more conversation, but the last didn't need it at all. Eating was eating — it was an interaction between the food and the stomach. The mouth was nothing more than a conduit.

To lose weight, and for my health, I kept my breakfasts and dinners to oatmeal, fruit, and yoghurt. This meant that whenever I visited the vegetarian restaurant it was always for lunch, and always by myself. When I didn't manage to beat the crowd, I had to share a table with strangers.

After this had gone on for a while, it was evident that most vegetarian diners came alone. I had to say that eating at a vegetarian restaurant carried a much higher risk of running into weirdos. In a single month, there were multiple regulars who made a lasting impression on me: the paranoid who just had to count every single stalk when ladling out vegetables; the penny-pincher who haggled over each decimal when the owner weighed up the food; the foul-mouthed customer who spewed curses with every bite; the disgusting creep who spat out every mouthful to chew it all over again. Having to sit opposite these people took a real toll on my appetite. I was seized by a frantic urge to dash next door to the noodle shop and gorge myself on huge bites of beef.

That was why I felt a thrill of delight the instant she sat down across from me, like someone had fed me a mouthful of succulent meat. It was almost as if I could smell its aroma, rising from her and wafting across the table between us. It was a narrow table; if either of us nudged our plate ever so slightly, it would nestle against the other's. Or if either of us leant forward just a little further as we ate, our heads would brush against each other. That was just fine by me. If I looked up, I would be in the perfect position to glimpse a three-quarter view of her face, without giving myself away.

I experimentally closed my eyes and listened to her eat. She made no sound at all — proof that she had excellent breeding, at the very least. Then it occurred to me to glance into the wall mirror, but the furthest it reflected was down to her knees. Those knees were smooth and shapely; her legs weren't very long.

I ducked under the table, pretending to search for something, and saw a pair of white-soled sneakers on her feet. They were spotless, without a single fleck of mud or rainwater on their soles, which piqued my curiosity. Just where had she come from? Did she live nearby? And how did she get here? She couldn't have walked or ridden a scooter — she had no umbrella or raincoat. Maybe her boyfriend had given her a lift in his car. But then why wasn't he eating together with her?

So it was most likely that she'd come alone in a taxi. But in this area, there were vegetarian restaurants on practically every corner. If it was far enough that she needed a taxi, why did she have to come to the one restaurant which was right on my doorstep?

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

So movies weren't a total pack of lies after all. I felt as if our table was glowing in the radiance of a single spotlight, while the rest of the shop lay shrouded in pitch darkness.

She hadn't just walked into the same restaurant where I was eating. She'd even sat down opposite me.

I could grab any of the freaks in this restaurant and ask what they made of this. Could they come up with a wilder explanation than fate? No, it was impossible. Not unless they told me I was mad — but how could they? They didn't even realise they were mad.

She never even glanced my way, and she never looked up at the mirror. I sat and pondered how I should introduce myself, my eyes trained on the dishes before her. Scrambled eggs with tomato, stir-fried bitter gourd, braised king oyster mushrooms, cucumber salad, seaweed soup — she was so slim, but here she was eating two bowls of rice! One was plain white rice, and the other was red bean rice. I longed to know how she would finish both bowls, and that curiosity briefly won out over my impulse to speak to her. I even forgot my own lunch sitting before me.

The lunch hour wore on. More and more people got their food to go, and the crowds slowly ebbed. As the seats around us emptied, the cramped space between us grew even more conspicuous, and all the more strained. And then, as soon as she finished her white rice, she rose without warning and walked away. She carried her red bean rice to the counter, and once it was packed, she left just like that. And I'd barely touched my own food.

I couldn't just go blundering after her like a moron. You couldn't force fate.

And for some reason, what my brain chose to latch on to was the question of the red bean rice, and who it was for. Who was she taking it to? Some old folks at home? The boyfriend who had brought her here earlier?

She'd turned left at the exit. That was the only thing I knew about her. And later, I would be turning right.

I didn't finish my food. I'd lost my appetite. As I publicly scraped my mostly uneaten meal into the trash, I felt a barrage of withering glares drill into my back, just as expected. Wasting food at a vegetarian restaurant was even greater sacrilege than at a regular eatery.

I started having vegetarian dinners as well. That way, my daily odds of running into her increased by fifty percent. I also began to take after her by ordering two bowls of rice: one plain white, and one red bean. But I always polished off both bowls by myself; really, all it did was stall for time.

No weight loss regimen could survive such starchy dinners. So of course, in less than a week, the three kilos I'd lost were back with a vengeance.

And she still hadn't shown up again.

My ex-girlfriend messaged me on WeChat. "Did you get fat again?"

I was astounded. How did she know?

She replied, "Intuition. My intuition tells me as soon as something about you changes."

I wished I had this sort of feminine capability. Maybe it would tell me where that girl went, after leaving the restaurant and turning left.

My ex said, "It's just like when you cheated on me. I didn't even need to go through your WeChat. Just the way you sounded on the phone told me everything — you cheated, and this time you slept with someone. Really, once you picked up and said 'hey', it was all over. I didn't break up with you because you slept around. We were doing long-distance, and you're a normal guy. It's no big deal if you find a fuckbuddy, or even a hooker. I'm not an idiot. Just make sure to use protection, and don't get in trouble, and don't screw someone so ugly it makes me look bad — I couldn't care less. What's the point of you blue-balling yourself? What do I get out of it? But lying is a whole other thing. When you lie, that means you're taking me for an idiot. You're looking down on me. That's what really makes me mad. Back then, I kept picturing the two of you lying in bed after sex. She asked if you had a girlfriend, and you said, 'Yeah, but don't worry. She's just a bimbo.' I couldn't get that image out of my head. We've broken up, but I'll tell you now: I still love you. There, I admit it. Because I said not to lie. I'm not going to treat you like an idiot."

To be exact, we'd broken up a few months ago. I honestly couldn't quite recall. Was it three months? Or five? All I remembered was that it happened when I was at my heaviest; it was like I'd had a little wok strapped to my stomach. When I looked down in the shower, I could only see six of my toes.

Back then, my ex used to fly to Taipei to visit me every three months or so. We'd fall asleep together, crammed into my narrow bed. Sometimes, when she woke in the middle of the night, she'd pillow her head on my protruding belly and murmur some enigmatic refrain. "Your stomach holds boundless galaxies; your fat enfolds all the glories of nature. I can hear the birds singing in it; I can smell the flowers. Don't ever lose weight. This stomach is your blessed talisman. But don't go getting any fatter either — you're just right like this. I love it."

This woman was really something. I often felt like I didn't deserve her, and once, after I'd let her down, I had a nightmare where she sliced into my guts and laid me open.

She came from a wealthy family, but loved jostling with me in a tiny bed. I'd been to her house and seen the bed in her room. It was even vaster than the galaxies swimming in my stomach.

On that visit, she cooked a feast in her own kitchen. It was Western food; she'd picked this up during her years studying abroad. I had no idea what counted as good Western food, but I ate every last bite. We even drank red wine — a pricey sort, by my guess. It was lunchtime, but she'd drawn every curtain in the house, turned off all the lights, and lit candles on the dining table.

"Sorry," she said. "My dad's getting back from his business trip earlier than expected, so he'll be home before dinner. I was planning a candlelight dinner for two, but now it's got to be lunch. Here, have half my steak! I'll cut it for you. It's your birthday and all."

"Is it?" I asked. "I forgot."

"Oh, don't give me that," she said. "You sulked so much last year, when I didn't get you a birthday present in time. As if you'd forget."

"No, seriously. That was last year. Maybe I did care then, but now we're talking about this year. I really forgot. How can I be exactly the same as I was last year?"

Her steak squelched as she sawed through it, grinning at me. "But your belly is just the same as it was. It hasn't gotten any bigger or smaller — you've kept it in perfect shape. I'm glad."

Then she asked, "So do you think I've changed since last year?"

"You're even prettier now," I said.

She just laughed, and ruefully said she should have used a higher flame — the steak was way too rare.

I really had forgotten about my own birthday.

Now I replied on WeChat. "Actually, I was a bit skinnier, but then I got fat again. My weight's the same as before. I basically haven't changed. How can you tell?"

She said, "Maybe you look the same as before, but you've had ups and downs in between. What do you mean, you haven't changed?"

"But you didn't even hear my voice. What gave it away?"

"The speed of your typing," she said.

The second time I encountered her at the vegetarian restaurant was a whole week later — but she was wearing the exact same outfit.

She walked in at noon, right during the lunch hour, so there was only one empty seat just opposite me. While she was choosing her food, an auntie made a beeline for the seat, but I told her it was taken. The auntie looked askance at me and stalked away, but stood nearby glaring at the seat, clearly intent on catching me in a lie. I was too busy thinking, though — if she came over to sit down, I had to talk to her.

The rain outside was growing heavier by the second. I was in the seat closest to the door; the water spattered my exposed ankles.

And then she really did slide into the seat.

But I found myself questioning whether I could call it fate this time. Fate was not a corner you were backed into when there were no other options. No — for this to be fate, she should have chosen me and me alone, out of a myriad of possibilities that lay before her. If there were even two empty seats in the restaurant, and she still chose to sit opposite me, that would have convinced me it was destiny at work. But at this moment, there was only this one empty seat left. It filled me with doubt.

And so I still didn't speak.

Her hair was damp, and the soles of her shoes were muddy. She had no umbrella, and what was more, no one had given her a lift this time. She would probably head out alone in a while. As long as I kept pace with her eating, I could turn left with her at the exit, and invite her to share an umbrella. It was the perfect setup. For once, I dearly wished I'd brought an umbrella. But I hadn't.

She packed away her red bean rice, and stood.

I hung back for thirty seconds before I tailed her to the exit. But I still hated getting caught in the rain, and so I stood stiffly rooted to the spot, watching as she turned left and stepped out into the downpour.

"Need an umbrella?"

It was the woman who owned the restaurant.

It took me a moment before I managed, "I'm good."

The owner shook the raindrops off her umbrella. "Let it go."

For a fleeting instant, the girl from the vegetarian restaurant seemed to have an uncanny resemblance to my ex. Even the way she snagged a mushroom with her chopsticks was identical to how my ex forked a bite of steak into her mouth.

I suddenly missed my ex, just a little.

When I got home, I went to open the online photo album that my ex and I had created; I was hoping to sift through the beautiful memories we had once shared. But I'd forgotten the password.

I knew it was the date of our first meeting, in eight-digit format. But no matter how I racked my brains, I couldn't remember exactly which day that was; I wasn't even sure of the year. It felt like we'd been together for decades. Had it been five years? Or seven? We got together in our second year of university, and now it was a few years since we'd graduated. It really was all a blur.

After she went abroad, I roamed from place to place, hopping from job to job. With all those time differences, in the hectic whirl of day and night, we spent less and less time chatting. Sometimes I even avoided it on purpose. Free time was hard enough to come by; I'd rather spend it sprawled on my bed — not sleeping, just lying there — or drinking and playing games. Any of that seemed more appealing than staring at each other on another video call. The hideous discomfort of fumbling for small talk was enough to shatter anyone's spirit.

But now I didn't dare to ask her exactly when we'd met. Her intuition was so keen, she was sure to guess what was going on. I didn't mind that, but then she'd also know that I'd even forgotten the most essential moments of our time together. She was bound to be hurt. She would be convinced that I wasn't just a liar, but a massive fraud. No — frauds all had excellent memories. I wasn't even fit to be a fraud.

We'd already broken up. So why was I still concerned about her feelings? It genuinely baffled me. In all our years together, I'd never particularly worried about how she felt. But there were also plenty of times where she'd treated me to a whopping dose of neglect.

Once, I happened to be around when her father got home, and I worked up the courage to go out for a meal together. Her father was a well-off businessman, and a vegetarian — it turned out that businessmen feared death too. Nearly all successful businessmen were vegetarian; it marked them as men of both commerce and culture. Whenever my ex dined with her father, she went vegetarian as well.

The father and daughter ordered a total of four vegetarian dishes, one of which was celery with cashew nuts. Her father ladled several pieces of celery onto my plate, but I left this untouched, until she leant over and muttered into my ear that her father couldn't stand seeing people waste food. Then I plastered a smile on my face and ate it.

But she knew perfectly well that I didn't eat celery. She'd known since the day we met... Which day was that again?

It was raining when we left the restaurant, and I had no luck hailing a taxi. When her father offered to drop me off at the subway station, I said, "It's okay. I'll walk back."

"But you don't have an umbrella," he pointed out.

I didn't know where this surge of courage came from, but a retort sprang from my lips. "And who, exactly, said that you need an umbrella when it rains?"

She pinched me hard and gave me an unreadable glance. But her father just smiled and beckoned his daughter into the car; then they drove off towards home.

I didn't actually walk to the subway station. Instead, I returned to the dining hall and ordered a serving of egg fried rice. It was so bland it was practically tasteless. I doused it with spoonfuls of chilli oil, and shovelled it into my mouth while waiting for the rain to stop. That was my ex's birthday. Right in the middle of the long rainy season.

The long rainy season.

When did we last have a clear day? I couldn't remember.

By the third time I met her at the vegetarian restaurant, the rainy season was almost over. And I was two kilos heavier than I'd been before I started trying to lose weight.

It was two in the afternoon. The lunch hour was about to end. The trays at the self-service area were almost picked clean, and the restaurant was a sea of empty seats. But she walked straight over and sat down facing me.

"That's three times now. Why don't you talk to me?"

So in the end, she spoke first.

I said, "Because I don't know what to say."

"Then why did you have to sit with me all three times?"

"But you were the one who sat down across from me all three times," I said.

"You men are all cowards."

I had no idea what she was getting at.

"See this bowl of red bean rice? I can't finish it. I don't even like it. I take it home just to throw it away. You know who I get that from? From you men. Eating one bowl isn't enough for you; you always need to have another in hand. And when you're holding that bowl, you've already got your eyes on the next."

"But I do finish both bowls," I protested.

She sneered, and then abruptly dumped her food onto my plate, untouched. "Have some more, then," she snapped.

She turned to stare at me in the long mirror, and as she gazed long and unblinking at the reflection, she fished a pack of menthol cigarettes from her bag. She plucked one out and bit down on it; her lips worked in and out, smearing lipstick across the white filter, but she didn't light it.

I knew exactly what she was doing. These cigarettes had a menthol capsule in the filter; you had to crack it open to release the mint flavour. I knew perfectly well because, back when I quit smoking, I weaned myself off it in stages — and the final stage had been this kind of cigarette meant for women, with hardly any nicotine content.

The menthol capsule finally split with a crisp snap. She lit the cigarette with an expression of utter rapture.

"Oi, oi! Didn't I tell you not to smoke here?!"

It was the owner. It dawned on me now that we were the only three people left in the restaurant. The leftovers had already been cleared from the self-service area.

She exhaled a ring of smoke in my direction, and said with an air of nonchalance, "Your customers are all gone. So what if I smoke?"

The owner strode over. "If you keep messing around, I'll call your dad and he can come drag you home. And you'll never get to eat here again."

She pulled a face, long and emphatic, then threw her hands up in surrender — and as she did so, she flicked her half-smoked cigarette through the door behind her, where the rain instantly put it out.

"Don't throw that in my doorway!" The owner scowled balefully. "Are you going or not?!"

"Fine, fine, I'm going!" She picked up her bowl of red bean rice, and with a laugh, she fired a parting shot at me. "You lot aren't fit to call yourselves men!"

She ambled into the rain, where she took a left and vanished into the distance.

"I told you, didn't I? Let it go! That girl has a screw loose!"

The owner jabbed a finger into her temple, as she headed to the doorway to retrieve the cigarette butt.

I ate a few mouthfuls, letting my mind go blank. When I left, an entire bowl of red bean rice still sat untouched on the table. And it no longer seemed like a waste.

I never bothered myself with useless things.

Half a month later, the rainy season ended. Every day was sunny and clear; it took some getting used to. I'd lost eight kilos in a mere fifteen days. I took a selfie in the mirror, and when I compared it with a photo from university — back when I was in peak condition — it was almost like I'd gone back to those days.

In my WeChat Moments, I saw that my ex had already returned to the mainland for good. She was back with her father.

I figured I should give her a call.


"Hey. It's me."

"Isn't calling from Taipei really expensive? Why not WeChat?"

"Because I wanted you to hear me say 'hey'. So you can tell if I've changed."

Her laugh drifted bashfully through the phone. "Ha. No, there's no change."

I said, "I'll be coming home too in a few days. Can we go out to eat?"

There was a moment's pause, before she said, "I have a boyfriend now."

"I get it," I said. "It's just a meal. Is that okay?"

"Okay," she said. "But we can only have lunch. I mean, it's not quite right having dinner one on one, unless you're a couple."

"Got it," I said. "See you when I'm back, then."

After we hung up, she messaged me on WeChat.

"My new boyfriend doesn't have a pot belly. But he does have a six-pack."

I replied with a thumbs-up.

She sent back, "But you know what? Abs aren't comfy to lie on at all. Just like love — it looks better than it feels."

I sent no further reply. I put down my phone, and reflexively kneaded my flat stomach. But I did want abs too.

It was another clear sunny day.

I never bought a new umbrella again.


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