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Having owned a German takeout place for almost 20 years, my dad could tell from a mile away that our competitor across the street was failing.
“That’s what happens when they try to serve their type of food in our neighborhood,” he said in his thick German accent.
My father’s blatant racism aside, he was right. A Chinese food restaurant was bound to fail in our predominantly German area. Panda Garden had been open for about four or five years now but never really gained much traction. It was almost always empty.
My dad furrowed his brow at our competitor, his large dark eyebrows making a V-shape on his forehead like two caterpillars in love. These eyebrows, a mark of our German heritage, were a trait I had unfortunately inherited along with his tall and lanky stature. He went back to his newspaper.
I would have relished in the approaching failure of one of my father’s competitors had I not had a major thing for their daughter who worked there after school.
We went to the same high school but it’s hard to talk to someone when your families hate one another. “Hey my dad told your mother to ‘Bitte iss Scheiße und stirb’ the other day. Wanna go out with me?” I actually thought about using that one.
My family’s business had always done well and seeing Panda Garden start to go under hit me hard. I couldn’t imagine watching my family’s hard work decay around me.
To shake this guilt, whenever I was given the responsibility of taking orders and my dad wasn’t around, I’d suggest giving Panda Garden a try to my dad’s regulars as part of the mandatory small talk you have to make with customers.
I also hoped I would make the girl across the street see that my resemblance to my father stopped at the eyebrows.
A month or so after my resolution to steer business toward Panda Garden, I got caught. My dad was manning the counter when one of these usuals shuffled in. After ordering, he struck up a conversation.
“Good kid you got there, ay Volker. Told me to give that Chinese place a shot. Always one for friendly competition, ay!” He tapped the counter. I clenched my jaw and turned to look at my dad. He was giving me the stare that all German children see in their nightmares.
As punishment for “betraying my entire German bloodline before the eyes of God” I was to close up at night for a few weeks after the kitchen staff went home. Seemed fair.
The rest of the staff left around midnight and I, grateful for a moment of alone time, sat on the curb outside the restaurant sucking on one of the mints we keep by the door for customers.
The dim street light shone down creating a yellow halo on the empty street around me. I stuffed the mint wrapper in my pocket and stared at the darkened restaurant across from me. The afterglow of their LED lights told me that Panda Garden had just closed up as well.
As I scanned their storefront I made eye contact with someone looking out the second floor window. I had forgotten that the family lived in the apartment above their restaurant. It was her. Her long dark hair swished around her as she spun on her heels away from the window. I looked down at the ground embarrassed. I thought that was the end of our interaction.
But a few seconds later, the door to their restaurant opened with a bang.
She stormed across the street menacingly, save for the little squish noises produced by her bunny slippers as she walked. She stood before me where I sat on the curb.
“Is my family’s business a joke to you?” I could tell she wasn’t particularly interested in my response because she continued without pause.
“Basically every stinking customer that comes in for the past two months,” she put on a mocking tone and made air quotes now. ‘Well, we just had to stop by after that boy across the street just raaaaved about you! What a good kid! I guess we’ll give your dump a shot.’”
I kept silent. She crossed her arms over her chest not in anger but against the cold autumn breeze that blew its way through our one-sided conversation. Her next words were directed more toward the sky as she tried to force tears back into her eyes. Her voice broke.
“We don’t need your pity! My dad put everything he has into his business!”
Her voice was completely broken now and two fat shimmering tears rolled down her cheeks. Her deep eyes shone and her hair blew around her gently like dark curtains. I’d never seen her so up-close before. She looked so beautiful I could have held her had she not been yelling in my face.
I thought she was going to storm off but instead she did the last thing I expected her to. She took a seat beside me on the cold curb and cried into her hands. She shivered.
I scooched closer to her and put my jacket around her shoulders, the mint wrappers crinkling like leaves in my pocket.
“It’s all we have,” she said, her voice a whimper.