they called him johnny.
i should clarify: johnny was not his real name - it was his english name - but it's the only name i have for him, so it will have to do. johnny was tall and lanky, with the flyaway look of a man always in a hurry. his hair was salt-and-pepper and he was always clean-shaven. he wore a crisp white shirt and black slacks (which were part of his uniform) and glasses (which were not). he must have been in his 50s. johnny was a man perpetually in motion, dashing to-and-fro with plates in his arms, but dash though he might, he never tripped or stumbled or spilled - the consummate waiter. he spoke english with a thick chinese accent.
twelve years ago, soon after my grandfather passed away, my father accepted a new job in canada. and so, with my mother and father and my young sister who was a wild thing and my newly-widowed grandmother, i returned to my homeland and left mauritius for (what so far has been) forever. and we were put up in a hotel for a month until we could secure more permanent lodgings. three days in my parents' chinese palates craved rice more than anything. and so we found a chinese restaurant, not far from the hotel where we were staying, and met johnny.
he resembled my father's childhood friend very strongly, which i suppose is what immediately forged an unlikely kinship.
the restaurant was decorated in red and gold, the chinese colours for luck and good fortune. three times a week or more we were eating there, because this was the kind of food that was most familiar to us, and the kind of food we still eat at home the most. the proprietess of the shop often came by our table for a chat. within that first month, we had a designated spot, and even when we bought our first house, we still went back often to dine there.
i like to think johnny liked our entire family, but my little sister was his favourite. whenever we went, my sister and i would always stop by the huge fishtank before sitting down, whispering stories to each other about the inhabitants. now, johnny had a serious air about him, always seemed worried or stressed - but whenever he saw my sister, johnny always came over, exclaiming, 'sandra! sandra!'
eventually, over the course of a few years, the restaurant - as things do - changed, and not for the better. the old proprietess left and the new owner was less friendly. red-and-gold decor gave way to sky-blue and far too many mirrors. the fishtank was gone. the old chefs either left or were fired, and with the decline in the quality of the food, there was soon no reason to go back. we found other restaurants for dim sum and peking duck, because there was nothing left of that old place we loved, except for johnny. he was still there, and i knew then that he would be for the rest of his life.
two or so months ago, my parents heard that the restaurant changed hands yet again, and decided to go back.
i did not go with them. at that point, i was living with my boyfriend, keeping late nights at school studying for the last finals of my undergraduate career. it wasn't until i got back from my vacation a week ago that i found out johnny died.
two years ago. of pancreatic cancer.
for two years, johnny the waiter had been resting in a wooden box, underneath the cold, cold earth. when i was suffering a heatwave in a tiny, cramped apartment two summers ago, he was dead. during this year's sad and sodden winter, he was dead. he will never again call my sister by her name or tell us about the specials or bring out the duck soup with his hands that never ever shook.
while i was sitting in the chem eng fourth-year lounge, my family were gathered around in the old spot, weeping silently, the food turning to dust in their mouths.
how am i supposed to feel? this man wasn't family or friend. i don't know his real name. my parents found out he was unmarried and childless - i don't know how it came to be that one of the beloved sons of china ends up here, alone, unwed, waiting tables for a living long enough to have learned even ten years ago never to slop the soup or spill the tea. i don't know if he has anyone to tend his grave or lay flowers for him. his parents might still be alive, or they might not. i don't know.
when my grandfather died, it was an explosive grief, riddled with anger and resignation. i was deeply sad, but it was for a relatively short time, and the day after his passing i was back at the lab where i was interning at the time and working - with tears in my eyes, my hands shaking, crying silently into my cup of tea at break-time, but working nonetheless.
but no one tells you how to feel about people that are less than friends, but more than acquaintances. when i found out about johnny, it felt like being suddenly robbed of breath. i didn't cry or yell or sob - just gasped, wordless. that night, with my head pillowed on my boyfriend's chest, i whispered tremblingly to him to try and bleed out this swirl of emotions i couldn't identify and did not even know i had. he was asleep and it didn't help. this lingering sadness won't leave me alone. it curls, insidious, at moments where i least expect it - before sleep, or reading a book, or playing a videogame - and i remember, quite suddenly, that johnny is dead.