During the early days of getting to know someone, it is important to take note of things that make them happy or unhappy. And right now, Taeng is making a mental note: Do not ever be late when meeting Sunny. The bubbly woman he had dinner with evening before is gone. In place of her is a woman emitting the aura of a fire-breathing dragon. An unhappy fire-breathing dragon.
“We’ve exceeded the time limit they allow for holding a table. They called to say they’re giving our table to another couple. It’s the restaurant’s policy.” Sunny turns and walks away after firing the explanation at him, hostility flashing in her eyes.
Taeng knows he is in deep trouble. It is a Saturday night and restaurants (the ones worthy of a first date) are full house with a long waiting line. “I’m really sorry about the delay,” he says, quickening his steps to catch up with Sunny. “How hungry are you?”
“Starving. I haven’t had anything to eat since lunch at twelve.”
Taeng steals a glance at his watch. Shit. It’s a quarter to nine. Think! Where else can we go? “Pork is your favourite, isn’t it.”
Sunny’s tone softens slightly when she says, “Yes.”
“I know a place not too far from here. I know the guy who owns the place so I can reserve a table just for the two of us. And this place serves the best somaek too.”
Sunny’s eyebrows rise at the mention of somaek. “Really?” she asks with widened eyes.
Taeng nods. “The best.”
“Where is the place?”
Taeng grins and offers Sunny his arm like a gentleman. “Follow me. I’ll prove to you that good things are worth waiting for.”
“You have some nerve, sending me a text like that,” says Sunny as she holds his offered arm.
Yoong, I’m going to come after you as soon as this date ends. Taeng gives Sunny his brightest smile. “Does it make me more attractive to you?”
Sunny makes a cute little sound of exasperation. “It’ll depend on how good the somaek is.”
“In that case, you will be falling head over heels for me before the night is over.”
Sunny erupts into a series of giggles and he stops suddenly, loving the sound. She bumps into him and their eyes meet when he stretches his arms around her to keep her safe. He sees the question in her eyes and smiles.
“I hope this doesn’t sound weird but I really like the way you giggle.”
“Don’t you think a CEO shouldn’t giggle like that?”
Taeng frowns. “Why would I think that? Besides, you’re not only a CEO. You’re a woman too. A cute woman.”
Taeng grins and shakes his head. “You’re cute and smart and,” he lowers his voice, “very sexy.”
Sunny smacks his arm. “Don’t push your luck, mister.”
With a salute and a wide grin, Taeng says, “Yes, ma’am.”
Taeng pulls his car into a parking lot in front of a bottle shop.
“Why are we stopping here?”
Taeng tosses Sunny a smug grin. “Gotta grab your somaek supplies.”
“Come on. Let’s go.” Taeng hops out of his car and hurries to the other side but Sunny has already gotten out. So he offers his arm instead. “I have credible sources telling me this shop carries one of the widest ranges of alcohol. Beers, sojus, you name it, they’ve got it.”
“Are we going to end up drinking in your car?” Sunny doesn’t take his arm. “I was under the impression that we’re going to a restaurant.”
“It’s a matter of perspective.” Taeng pats his arm. “Trust me.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
Taeng grins when Sunny slips her hand around his arm. This date will work out just fine.
They leave the bottle shop in high spirits, loaded to the brim with bottles of beer and soju in alarming amounts.
“Just how much can you drink?” Taeng asks as they pack the bottles safely in the boot of his car.
Sunny giggles. “Endlessly.”
Oh my God. “I won’t be able to drink much of it . . .”
Sunny pats her chest. “Leave it to me. But drinking alone isn’t as fun. You have to drink some too.”
Taeng swallows hard. “I’ll do my best.”
“Are you bringing me to your place?”
“Are we really going to a restaurant then?”
Taeng simply smiles and starts up his car. “You’ll find out soon.”
They talk about their day at work on the way to the place Taeng has in mind and the conversation runs smoothly till they reach the destination.
“You know the guy who owns this place?” Sunny’s eyes are shining. “I heard that this place is so popular that the waiting list is weeks-long and almost impossible to get on special occasions.”
“They are well known for their steaks but in my opinion, their three-layered pork belly is underrated.”
“Are you sure we can get a place here?” The doubt is evident in Sunny’s eyes as they flicker from the grand entrance to Taeng.
Taeng hauls out two bags full of beer and soju. “This will guarantee us a table. A very special table, not open to public.”
Sunny squeals in excitement. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go in.”
“Follow me.” Taeng leads Sunny around to the back and presses the buzzer button on the keypad beside the brick red door. Three times. Slow-quick-quick. The door opens soon after and Taeng spreads his arms wide open. The man inside hugs him with a big smile and they exchange familiar greetings. Taeng nods at Sunny and the man ushers her in with an equally bright smile.
“Thanks for letting me crash last minute.” Taeng holds up the two bags of alcohol. “After-work drinks are on me.”
“You’re lucky you asked to come at this time. One hour earlier and I would have had to say no. No matter what.”
“Still, I appreciate it.” Taeng puts the bags of alcohol on a cabinet by the side of the room they’re in and pats his friend’s shoulder. “Sunny, meet Kim Min Suk, owner of this kickass steakhouse.” He grins as they exchange greetings and heads to the storage room to get a tablecloth. He picks up two sets of cutlery and candles while he’s at it, returning to the room a triumphant man. There are two square tables, four stools and a couch in the room and he picks one of the tables for use. Sunny stares as he sets up the table swiftly. “I worked as a waiter before,” he explains but Sunny only looks more curious as he holds a stool out for her. “Your stool, ma’am.” Sunny sits on it and Taeng grins while taking his place opposite her. Min Suk lights the candles, completing the semi-romantic ambience and delivers a menu to Sunny.
“Don’t you need one too?” Sunny asks Taeng.
He shakes his head. “I know the menu better than I know my alphabets.”
“Taeng mentioned the three-layered pork belly,” Sunny says to Min Suk. “I’ll have that.”
“You know what I want. And thanks again, Min Suk,” says Taeng.
Min Suk nods, takes the menu from Sunny and disappears from the room like the wind. Meanwhile, Taeng turns to Sunny. “I hope you don’t mind sitting here.”
“Where are we exactly?”
“The backroom of the restaurant. Usually, the staff take their breaks here. The kitchen is just next to us. As I said, this table is not open to public.”
The curl of Sunny’s lips indicates she’s impressed. “How did you become friends with Min Suk?”
“I met him in the military. He was right behind me when we enlisted. Then we found out our beds were right next to each other. It was his dream to open a restaurant and one time, I doodled while we were talking about it.” Taeng holds up the napkin with the restaurant’s logo printed on it.
“You designed this?”
Taeng nods. “He asked if he could use it when he finally opens a restaurant and of course I said he could. I just didn’t expect him to actually use it.”
“That’s nice. Really sweet story of friendship.”
“Yeah, he’s a great friend. I’m really happy for him.”
“Is he married?” asks Sunny.
Taeng narrows his eyes. “Not yet. But he has a fiancée.”
“Aww, that’s too bad.”
“Why? Are you interested?”
Sunny giggles. “Would you help me if he were single and available?”
“As much as it would pain me to do so . . . I would.”
“You’re too noble.”
Taeng shrugs. “It’s easy to say that when I know he’s not available. Who knows what I would do if the situation were real.”
“I believe you would be nice enough to help.”
“You might be thinking too highly of me.”
Sunny shakes her head. “Other than being late today, you seem to be a pretty nice guy all round. Resourceful too.”
“So the gamble worked. Bringing you here really saved the day—date.”
“Somaek will make it perfect.”
Taeng leaps to his feet. “A glass of awesome somaek coming right up, ma’am.”
Taeng is really enjoying himself. Sunny is delightful company and even more delightful after she’s had a few to drink. A few bottles, that is. She wasn’t kidding when she said ‘endlessly’. Taeng had to run out halfway through the meal to get more from the boot of his car to replenish the promised treat for Min Suk and his staff. It was a good thing he hadn’t stopped Sunny from buying anything or he wouldn’t have enough by the end of the date.
Sunny is still raving over the three-layered pork belly and Taeng is enjoying himself, watching her rave about it.
“Why isn’t this dish on the menu?” she asks after Taeng says it isn’t.
“It’s a steakhouse. Min Suk intends to keep the menu to steaks and chops. But he wants to open another restaurant serving Asian cuisine and he intends for the three-layered pork belly to be one of the signature dishes.”
“Which means I got a preview.”
“Wow. You’ve just made this officially the best first date I’ve ever been on.”
“Meaning it won’t be the last?”
“I wouldn’t be late the next time. Unless you can get us in here again for this,” says Sunny, tapping on the cleaned out plate with her finger. She giggles suddenly. “Or I’ll turn into the big bad wolf.”
Sunny’s words strike a bell in Taeng’s mind and he stands abruptly. “Holy . . .” He takes a few strides to the door and opens it, sticking his head into the kitchen. “Min Suk! I got it! I know what you can call it! Min Suk!”
Min Suk comes around, wiping his hands on a piece of cloth. “What is it? What?”
“You can call it the ‘Big Bad Wolf’. How ‘bout that?”
“What are you calling the ‘Big Bad Wolf’?”
“Your pork belly dish. ‘Cos the big bad wolf ate the three little pigs.”
Min Suk tilts his head and thinks. “Interesting choice.”
Taeng grins. “I know, right?”
“What made you think of it?”
Sticking his thumb at Sunny, Taeng replies, “She gave me the idea.”
Min Suk grins and whispers, “Seems like you’re going down a different path this time, eh.”
“Dating path,” Min Suk replies, wagging his eyebrows and looking at Sunny. “This girl seems alright.”
Taeng snorts. “How can you tell?”
“From the way she cleaned out her plate. This girl is real.”
With a laugh, Taeng jokes, “You’re only saying this because she finished your food.”
“Uh uh. I’m saying this because I’m getting good vibes from her this time.”
Which is to say Kiki gave you bad vibes . . . Taeng says the unspoken words of Min Suk in her mind. The thought of it hurts a little but he shakes it off easily. Kiki wasn’t exactly the most loving or caring girlfriend so the breakup is not without a measure of relief—it’s the fact that she had asked for it after taking him for granted that stings. He turns around to look at Sunny. She gives him a smile when their eyes meet and he sees what Min Suk means. Kiki would have kicked up a fuss and refused to be seen in the backroom of a restaurant but here is Sunny, happy and contented after a hearty meal even though her surroundings aren’t exactly glamourous. The stark difference between them is clear to see.
“That’s good news. But this is only our first dinner together. It’s still too early to tell.”
Min Suk grins and pats his shoulder. “If you decide not to go on with it, let me know.”
“Dude, you have a fiancée.”
“Relax, I’m just kidding.”
“Who knows if you’re kidding or not.”
“I detect some early-stage jealousy going on,” Min Suk chuckles, “You should get back to her. Play nice.”
“Of course.” Taeng winks. “I’m Mr Nice Guy.”
They leave the restaurant in high spirits and Sunny is giggling a lot more as they return to his car. Her hands are holding his arm and he is enjoying having her close to him. It’s great how they seemed to have skipped right over the awkward phase of acquaintanceship and gone straight to the stage of friendship that has grown with time. It happens with some people and Sunny is one of them.
“I’ll take it as a sign that you enjoyed dinner?” Taeng asks Sunny as they buckle up.
She nods with a sweet smile. “The best dinner I’ve had in a while. Can we come back here soon?”
“Do you really like eating in the backroom so much?”
“I’ve never seen the working part of a restaurant before. It feels even more exclusive than getting the best table in the restaurant.”
“We’ll just have to ply them with more alcohol the next time.”
“Really?” Sunny’s eyes are shining with delight. “When’s the next time?”
Taeng blinks. Getting her to go on another date with him is simpler than he thought. “Am I pushing my luck if I say tomorrow?”
“Sunday is family dinner day.” Sunny checks her phone. “Mmm, how about Wednesday?”
Taeng checks his calendar quickly to make sure it’s clear and nods. “Wednesday’s good for me too.”
“It’s agreed then. Same time.”
They reach Sunny’s apartment much too quickly and Taeng is reluctant to say goodbye. He hopes that Sunny will invite him up for a cup of coffee or something but remembers that this is only their first date. Hold your horses. She doesn’t know you well enough yet. He smiles instead and unlocks her door with the press of a button.
“I had a great time, Sunny. A really great time.”
“Me too. I enjoyed hanging out with you.” Sunny’s smile is warm and Taeng is feeling good about things. Then, she leans over and kisses his cheek. “Thank you for the wonderful dinner, Taeng.”
Taeng can’t help grinning then. “Send me a message once you’re home.”
A nod and smile later, Sunny is out of the car and walking into the building. She turns around to wave goodbye and he grins as he waves his hand. He waits till she disappears into the building before driving back to his apartment. A successful first date and a second in his pocket. Well done, Taeng. Well done.