The tradition has nothing to do with my roots but I've made it my own. Every Christmas Day that I find myself alone, I assemble a loosely coupled family of other orphans in need of holiday plans. Some can't work out the logistics required to navigate crowded airports and rental cars, and some just can't be bothered. Others desperately need extraction from the family overload that's descended upon their own homes. We all meet at one of the few bars that remains open on the holiday for a drink or three, and then pack into cars and drive to the nearest Chinese restaurant when the hunger is overwhelming.
This year I got to the bar first, which should have been fine except I hadn't had a thing to eat the entire day, and everyone else was very late.
A thin blanket of snow made Dallas look all the more sleepy last night, but while most restaurants remained shuttered in observation of the holiday, Royal China was very much alive. The small vestibule that served as a staging ground for hungry diners was packed like lo mein in a take out box, and my head was swimming with
Budweiser Christmas spirit.
A man with notebook and pen told me it would be 45 minutes to an hour for our table of six, and then said the same thing later, when a buzzing phone alerted me to a seventh orphan. As I listened to other customers inquire for tables of two, and four, and heard the same wait time issued in response again and again, I began to lose faith in the estimate. Kirin replaced Budweiser as I gnawed on the spent shells of soybeans I'd already enjoyed to sooth my screaming stomach, and more and more customers packed in.
Some were just there for take out. Their faces lit up when their names were called, and they bounded out the door with stapled paper bags filled with moo shu and fortune cookies. Others had visited Royal China on Christmas Day before. They'd made reservations and were quickly whisked away to the next open table minutes after walking through the door. The rest of us stood with drinks in our hands and resentment in our souls.
And then it happened.
I did not see the sculpture, but I heard its demise. My friend swears she caught a glimpse of a tiny, porcelain paw waving back and forth in a plea for help as it tumbled to the floor in slow-motion. The sound of shattering ceramic made what I couldn't see through a sea of winter coats and legs all too clear - Lucky Cat was dead. Yet only a handful of us even noticed the commotion.
I'm not sure if I felt more badly for the old woman whose Botox face hid her guilty expression, or the man who I assume was her husband, who shuffled his feet to push the carnage into a corner. I thank them both for the brief entertainment, though. For at least seven and a half seconds I didn't think about the knot of hunger in my stomach. And then our table was called.
You know the rest - hot tea doctored with smuggled Jameson for which I take no credit, soup dumplings, pork dumplings, fried nuggets of meat swimming in starchy sweet sauce - we ate until we thought we were full and then we ate some more. When my plate was clean I used my chopsticks like a greedy ninja, stealing water chestnuts and morsels of chicken within reach. When the feeding frenzy finally came to an end and the fervor calmed, our fortune cookies arrived to cajole us with cliche.
One orphan will apparently obtain her goal so long as she maintains her course, and another has a four-wheeled adventure in his future. Through the haze of alcohol and sodium and fat I caught a glimpse of my own fortune, written in the dark corner of my mind. It said: If you want to dine at Royal China at Christmas time, make a reservation.
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