I didn’t recognize her at first. She had grown her hair out and wore makeup now, something she had sworn to never do. She had come up to the hostess stand and smiled at me with a charming smile. And for a second, I thought I was experiencing love at first sight.
“Reservation for Sato,” she said.
I realized that it was not in fact love at first sight, but a relighting of an old flame. Mai Soto had been in my chemistry class sophomore year of high school. We were both transfers and didn’t know anyone, so while everyone else partnered with their friends, we were left together. I was a dainty and awkward young girl too shy to even talk to myself, but I was saved by her. Mai had a way about her. She was driven. Confident. Unforgiving. She dragged me from my shell kicking and screaming. I had never had a real friend before. I kept to myself. I did my schoolwork. I never wanted anything more. But I wanted her. I wanted to be around her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to paint each other’s nails and gossip. And she gave it all to me.
And I fell in love with her.
And all the boys did too. Mai could have any boy she wanted. But she didn’t want any of them. She hated their immature jokes. Their stupid games. Their inability to stay clean. She looked down at them.
We had a sleep over one night, and she was telling me about Brandon’s recent attempt to ask her out. She was laughing about how he had fallen head over heels. I laughed along side her as if I had not done the same thing.
Then she leaned in real close and asked if I wanted to hear a secret. I nodded, holding my breath.
“I don’t really like boys at all,” she told me. And then she leaned back and started giggling again. I was going to say something back but then her mom knocked on the door and asked if we wanted a snack, and the moment was gone.
I picked up two menus off the hostess stand and led Mai to a small table along the window with a view of the bridge. She thanked me.
“My date will be here soon,” she said. She sounded excited. Practically bouncing in her seat. “I think he’s going to propose tonight.”
I felt something inside of me twist. An old heart string.
In our junior year, our friendship grew stronger. We were inseparable. We were the best things to ever happen to each other. I grew in confidence and began to embrace that life was more than school. Mai felt accepted in her new school.
As prom approached, Mai was fighting off boys from every angle. I asked if she intended to go.
“Why? So, I can listen to lame music and decline boys asking to slow dance? So, I can spend money on an outfit, have it critiqued by teachers, and then have no one see it because the room is so dark?”
She made a point, so I dropped it. And my dream of asking her to prom vanished.
On the night of prom, she suggested we have an anti-prom. She wanted to go skateboarding in a parking lot near her house and eat junk food until we threw up. I, of course, agreed. However, I did not know how to skateboard, and she kindly offered to teach me.
The night started in a dark parking lot with the a few streetlights overhead. It was by no means, a romantic setting. She went as fast as she could from one end of the parking lot to the other while I ate greedily from a bag of chips. Finally, she skated over and told me to get on the board. I declined. She commanded. So, I did. She held my hands as I shakily balanced on the board, the wheels barely rolling.
And then she let go.
I panicked. The board rolled, and I frantically waved my arms around trying to keep balance. I fell.
She ran to my side with a giant grin on her face. “That was great! You’ll be a pro in no time!”
I was not as amused. I sat on the ground, nursing my bruised knee and ignoring her attempts at an apology.
“I wanted you to balance on your own,” she said. She offered me chips and cookies and ice cream. Eventually she just sat down next to me on the pavement. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”
I looked at her.
“I won’t let go this time,” she promised.
So, I got on the board once again, and she held my hands as the board rolled. We went from one end of the parking lot to the other. She did not let go.
Under a streetlight, I watched her watch me with wide, excited eyes.
“I’m not going to let go,” she reminded me. On the board I was nearly as tall as her. I leaned forward. And she did too. Our first kiss was ruined by me toppling off a skateboard and into her arms. Our second kiss on the pavement was much better.
Mai’s boyfriend arrived at the restaurant only moments after she had sat down. He was handsome man, well dressed. He sat across from her, and her eyes sparkled in a way I was familiar with.
I returned to the hostess stand. I stood there for a little bit, in a trance. High school was not something I think about often, and memories were flooding back as if Mai had just taken a sledgehammer to a dam. The waiter appeared next to me and politely asked me to take their drink orders as he was busy and would need a moment. I accepted.
I approached their table with a feeling of dread. She was saying something, and he was laughing. And they were happy. She was happy.
Standing in front of their table, I asked what they wanted to drink. Mai asked for a Dr. Pepper. She loved Dr. Pepper. The boyfriend ordered wine. How very mature of him.
I nodded and left to get their drinks. Before I made it to the kitchen the boyfriend caught up with me. In a low voice, he told me planned on proposing and wanted us to bring out a molten chocolate lava cake at the end of their meal at which point he would pop the question. I nodded and said I would pass the information along.
He looked back at her at the table. He looked like he might cry happy tears. He thanked me and moved on.
Senior year, Mai and I went to an ice cream shop after school one day. I was confused. Mai was a big fan of desserts, but she had sprung the invite rather suddenly. Sitting across from each other, me with mint chocolate chip, her with double chocolate fudge, she showed me an acceptance letter to a top engineering school in California. I hugged her. I kissed her. I congratulated her. I was so proud of her. I was so happy for her.
And then it hit me like a bullet. I would be remaining in Illinois. An entire country would be between us. We stared at each other as ice cream melted in our hands.
She reached across the table and grabbed my hand. Her voice cracked as she spoke, “I don’t think I’m going to come back...”
She began to cry. I had never seen her cry.
“I’m going to write, I promise,” she said.
But we both knew what had to happen. We didn’t want to ever let go of each other’s hands. I can’t stand the taste of mint chocolate ice cream anymore.
The molten chocolate lava cake left the kitchen on a gorgeous plate for the special occasion. I heard Mai excitedly say ‘Yes!’ from across the restaurant as I sat another table.
I was standing at the hostess stand as they left.
“Thank you!” She said, in blissful glee, her fiancé’s arm around her shoulders.
I told them to come again soon, as the restaurant policy states. And they were out the door and on with their lives.
The heart string in my chest tugged to remind me of its presence. As I watched Mai walk under the streetlights with her love, I figured, everyone let’s go eventually.