Face to face
Dating during a pandemic can feel different to usual...
“It’s so nice to finally see your face.” Jingyi smiled, and sat back, shifting a little in her chair. She hadn’t worn this dress in months. It felt tighter than she remembered.
“Oh come on,” Shanti grinned, “you’ve seen my face before.”
“Well, yeah, but those were just selfies. It’s not the same.”
“Yeah. It’s nice to actually speak to someone without wearing a mask,” Shanti said, absentmindedly scratching her chin. “I don't even remember the last time I spoke to someone face to face like this.”
“Well then, I guess I should count myself lucky!” Jingyi smiled. She took a spoonful of food from her dish. A fragrant helping of palak paneer with basmati rice. Shanti’s recommendation. It filled her mouth with the warm flavours of spinach, butter and spices.
“So what do you think?”
“I think you’re really pretty.” Jingyi felt her face flush with warmth.
Shanti laughed. “Well thank you! But I was asking about the food.”
“Oh!” Jingyi’s cheeks were burning now. “Ohhh. It’s—” she stammered. “It’s really good!”
Flickering candle light reflected off Shanti’s eyes. So warm and soothing, it was hard to stay embarrassed for long. “Well, I have plenty more recommendations for next time,” she said, slicing a piece of food from her plate, with her spoon.
“Next time?” Jingyi looked up and smiled. “Does that mean we’re going to have a second date?”
Shanti shot her a grin which made her melt a little on the inside. “Well, maybe,” she said, with mock nonchalance. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Jingyi giggled anxiously. Did it sound nervous? She really hoped it didn’t. She took a sip of wine from her glass, watching Shanti take a bite of food from her plate. She’d never much liked dating, but it wasn’t until the pandemic arrived and made it practically impossible, that she realised how much she missed it.
“Ok, I’ve decided. We can have another date if you recommend me more things like this,” Shanti said, gesturing at her plate with her spoon, “this is delicious. How did you say the name?”
“Chee cheong fun,” Jingyi gave a little smile. “It’s one of my favourite Cantonese dishes. I used to eat it often when I lived in Hong Kong.”
“Maybe someday, you could take me there?” Shanti smiled, sipping her wine. “When the world becomes slightly less chaotic?”
“Whenever that may be.” Jingyi took a mouthful of her food and chewed thoughtfully on a piece of paneer.
A silence descended for a few moments. She found her eyes lingering on Shanti. Her trailing golden earrings with their gemstone beads, and her immaculate eyeliner. Jingyi wished she was even half as good at makeup. Inwardly, she hoped hers looked nearly as good. If it even showed up in the flickering candle light. Jingyi shifted in her chair. Was silence bad? She was never sure in these situations. Should she say something to break it?
“It’s difficult, I know,” Shanti said, as if to shoulder the burden. “Who knows when things will get better? The world is so lonely right now.”
Jingyi frowned and looked away for a moment, before saying, “honestly, this is the longest conversation I’ve had with anyone in at least two months.”
“Really?” Shanti leaned in a little closer, making a candle flicker. The warm orange light gave her dark skin a healthy glow. “Are you managing ok? It must be difficult being so isolated, right?”
Jingyi shrugged and idly played with her necklace. “I don’t mind it,” she said softly. “The loneliness, I mean. I’m used to it. I was kind of an introvert even before all this.”
Shanti looked at her for a moment. “No human contact at all though,” she said, “that’s rough. But then, I’ve only had video calls for work. That’s not a whole lot better, you know?”
Jingyi looked up. She met Shanti’s eyes for a moment before looking away again. She felt her cheeks flush with warmth again. Inwardly, she cursed her shyness. Why couldn’t she just relax? “I guess,” she said, pursing her lips a little, “I’ve started to realise that maybe I’m not as much of an introvert as I thought.”
“It’s like the words to that old song,” Shanti smiled, picking up her wine glass. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” She took an indulgently large sip
Jingyi sighed. “It’s exactly like that.” Shanti was resting her chin on her hand. Jingyi wanted to much to just reach out and take that hand in hers. Lace their fingers together. Feel the warmth of her skin. She hadn’t felt anyone’s touch in so long it was beginning to become a craving inside her. An itch which this pandemic ridden world made it impossible to scratch.
Putting her glass down, Shanti smiled, and cocked her head to one side. “You don’t really go on dates very often do you?”
The question caught Jingyi off guard. Had she been staring? How long had she been silent for? “I, um,” she stammered.
“It’s ok,” Shanti gave her a warm smile. “You can relax. I’m not going to bite you or anything.”
Jingyi giggled hesitantly. It must’ve sounded nervous the last time. Why was she always so awkward about things like this? “I’m sorry, it’s true,” she said. “I’ve never really liked dating.”
“I like to look at it this way,” Shanti said. “It’s a way to get to know someone. To learn about who they are. Everyone’s a little bundle of likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams. People are really interesting.”
A pause. “Do you think I’m interesting?” Jingyi said, looking up meekly.
“I think you’re adorable,” Shanti said with a grin.
Jingyi looked down, hiding her flushed cheeks and nibbling on a spoonful of her food. “Well, I’m glad you think so,” she said.
“But I guess dating is just about learning who someone is,” Shanti continued. “And if it turns out that you like them? That’s just a bonus.”
“That’s a nice way to look at it,” Jingyi said, nodding. It did make sense. “I just worry a little, what if—”
“What if I don’t like you?”
A flurry of butterflies rippled through Jingyi’s stomach. “Something like that,” she mumbled.
“But I do like you.” Jingyi looked up to see Shanti smiling at her. “You already knew that before we both sat down for dinner.”
Feeling her lips curl into a smile, Jingyi nodded. “That’s true,” she said. “You’re always so reassuring.”
“I just say what I see,” Shanti raised her eyebrows. “I see a woman who lets her worries cloud her dreams. But you could reach for those dreams if you stop holding yourself back.”
Jingyi’s brow creased as she thought over those words. It was true, her doubts did often get in her way.
“And also?” Shanti’s words interrupted Jingyi’s thoughts before she could get lost in them. “I think you’re really pretty too.” She gave Jingyi a smile that turned her insides to jelly.
Jingyi giggled. A different giggle this time. Lighter. Happier. “You know, maybe that’s what we all need.”
“Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes, so you can see all the things which they like about you,” Jingyi played with her wine glass as she spoke. “Maybe that’s what a good relationship is.”
Shanti leaned in, with a wide grin. “So you’re saying we’re in a relationship now?”
“Oh, I—” Jingyi stammered, “I mean, if—”
“I’m just teasing you,” Shanti held up her hands in apology.
“But,” Jingyi looked up, “I’d like that. If you would.” She bit her lip. “Being in a relationship, I mean.” She met Shanti’s eyes, not looking away this time. She found herself leaning in, too. Inside her chest, she felt an overwhelming urge to just lean in and kiss her. She wanted so badly to know the feel of her lips.
“I’d like that too,” Shanti, said, holding her gaze. The look in her eyes said she felt the same way. A moment passed, feeling like an hour, before Shanti sighed and looked away. “I don’t want to say it, but it’s getting late.”
Jingyi felt a flutter of disappointment cross her eyes. But it was true. “You’re right. I should go. It’s getting late.
“Don’t worry,” Shanti smiled. “We have plenty of time for more dinner dates.”
Jingyi beamed like a schoolgirl with a crush. “See you soon.”
“Sweet dreams.” Shanti’s smile felt like sunlight on her skin.
Jingyi held two fingers to her lips and kissed them, before reaching out and touching them to the laptop screen, just above Shanti’s face. She gave a little wave, and clicked the red button on the screen, ending the video call.
She sat in silence for a second, still smiling to herself. A warm glow still filled her chest, and it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. An alert sound from her laptop made her look up.
A message from Shanti. ‘Time always goes too quickly. 😔’
Jingyi smiled, pushing her dish to one side to reach the keyboard. ‘I had a lovely evening though,’ she typed, hitting send.
‘Me too. Thank you! ❤️’ came Shanti’s reply. An icon on screen said she was still typing. Jingyi waited patiently. ‘And don’t worry. All the bad stuff will be over eventually. Whether pandemic or politics. There’s an end to everything.’
Jingyi smiled. ‘You’re right,’ she typed, ‘and when it’s over I’d love to take you to Hong Kong for some chee cheong fun which you didn’t steam in your own kitchen.’ Send.
Shanti’s reply came quickly. ‘I can’t wait,’ she said. ‘Maybe Hong Kong might be a nice place for us to finally meet in person!’