Who’s going to go first?

I was on the treadmill this morning, doing my usual morning jog to start my workout, thinking about all the times when Chris and I had spent time with Raj and his wife Maria. We’d had so many conversations, serious, fun, jokey, hypothetical, about the past and future; everything. I was thinking about all the things we’d talked about. Raj was so openly vulnerable and admitted how much he depended on and needed Maria; it was so sweet and adorable. We talked about our future hypothetical deaths once.

“No, I definitely need to go first,” Raj admitted, squeezing and bear-hugging Maria. “I can’t live without Maria. I just don’t know what I’d do! I need her for everything! I don’t care how that sounds; it’s just true.”

Chris insisted the same in different words, saying he’d definitely go before me. I gave them both annoyed but comical looks; I hated discussing our future deaths. This kind of topic always made me feel so sad. I wanted to focus on the now and the positive.

What none of us realized at that time was how soon Raj’s “going” would happen. Usually, when we think of our deaths, we think it will happen decades and decades later, not in the prime of our lives in our 30s.

Even if Raj did live as full of a life as he possibly could, it’s still robbery that his life was taken this soon. It just hurts to know that we’ll never see his huge smile or feel his big, nearly crushing bear hug ever again.

When those you love die, where do they all go?

Raj’s untimely passing reminded me of Ed’s passing. In my adult life, they are the two people I’ve lost that I have genuinely cared deeply for. They both lived such different lives, yet passed away at similar ages. Ed passed away just a few weeks shy of his 34th birthday. Raj was only 36 (I think?). Raj had traveled the world and truly lived life to its fullest. Ed had never left the country and was just asking me months before he passed about the passport application process. Raj had friends pretty much everywhere and was a true extrovert. My brother was socially awkward just like our dad and had no real friends… just like our dad. Raj had a loving and close relationship with both his parents, to the point where he even called his dad his “best friend.” My brother had a tumultuous relationship with our parents, always with endless conditions, lots of judgments, and our dad barely acknowledged him until after he died.

When I look back at Raj’s life, or at least, what I know of it, he truly did “live life to its fullest “as trite as that sounds. He made the most of every single day. He did as much as he could wherever he was. He hated wasting a moment and was always just so damn positive. When I reflect back on Ed’s life, something held him back quite a bit. Part of it, I’m sure, was the fear my mom instilled in him of the world, always believing something bad was going to happen when you turn the next corner. The other part of it was that he just didn’t have the parental love and support system he needed to be secure in himself to go out and explore the world and really be independent in the way that Raj was. Ed had a lot of potential that just never got seen or recognized. Raj had all the potential that was seen, recognized, and appreciated. And then life had a different plan for him than to continue on with us. Their deaths were a tragedy, but more, as sad as it is, will look at Raj’s life and truly feel it was tragic, whereas with Ed, he has likely already been forgotten by most people who knew him. The world is a cruel place, during life, and even in life after death.

I wonder… if there truly is an after life, a heaven, will Raj meet Ed? Will they have a conversation? Will they have some sort of connection because of me? One day, when it’s my time, will they open up the gates for me?

When the worst news comes.

I was in the kitchen early this afternoon when Chris exclaimed that he didn’t believe something had happened. I asked him what it was, and he wouldn’t tell me. Instead, he came over to show me the email that was sitting in our inboxes. I was shocked to read that a good friend of ours, who we used to hang out with regularly, while he lived in New York City, had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly due to a seizure. He and his wife had just had a baby just over a month ago, their first child, and we had just spoken with them on a Zoom call in early March when they were getting ready to drive down from Sacramento to the Big Sur for their baby moon.

I immediately just felt sick. I was literally just thinking about messaging them to ask if they wanted to do a Zoom catch-up since it had been a little over a month since the baby had come home, and I figured they’d need some time to get into the swing of things before socializing, even remotely. I didn’t even know what to say. I just felt hurt, shocked, disgusted that something like this could happen to someone who had just welcomed their little baby into this world.

Anyone who knew Raj even remotely would know how full of life he was. All you have to do is look at a photo of him, and he just looks like a big teddy bear: someone who is just so affectionate, tender, kind-hearted, well-meaning, who just screams to be hugged and loved. He is so expressive, so generous, and so thoughtful. Behind my current “desk” setup, we have the bottle (now empty and cleaned) of champagne he sent us from one of his favorite wineries in California. It was a celebratory bottle he sent us shortly after we got married in March 2016 when he and his wife were living temporarily in Switzerland. He had shared that when he and his wife visited this winery and loved the bubbly so much, they knew they had to share it for special occasions with their friends and family when an event came up that warranted it. So he had this bottle engraved for us.

Making new friends as an adult hasn’t been easy, at least for me. Meeting people I genuinely click with, who I can say whatever I want in front of without fear of offending, who I feel actually get and appreciate me, has been a challenge. And well, a city as impersonal and time-strapped as New York, it’s even harder I’d say. With Raj, I always felt like I could be myself. He was an accomplished and overly educated person, having spent a lot of time working and living abroad throughout his short life. He was truly a citizen of the world, constantly curious and wanting to learn, do, see, and eat more. From the time we met him on that food tour a friend of mine arranged in 2015, we immediately clicked and got along. He made it clear he wanted to see us again, and we met him for dinner with his wife downtown. We continued to spend time together regularly until 2018, when they finally moved west to Sacramento, in an effort to be closer to family on both sides and also to start a family with more space.

Raj defined loving and expressive. He always told us, in his cheesy, cute way, how much he appreciated and loved us. Even after they left New York and we’d catch up over FaceTime or Zoom, he’d always say that while he loved having family nearby, he really missed having friends like us close by. He never failed to share how much he enjoyed my cooking and the food I made… to the point of inviting himself and his wife over for lunch during a New York City visit in 2019 when he was here for a work trip. While I may have been annoyed if anyone else had tried to do that, with Raj and his wife, I was just so flattered and felt so loved and appreciated. I still remember when they came, which was the last time we saw them in person: they came in March 2019, and they showed up with a bouquet of flowers and a massive box of Levain cookies (which of course, they got themselves their own massive box for their flight back home to Sacramento).

My heart just hurts for Maria and their newborn Jay, and for Raj himself. It’s so fucking awful and unfair that this happened to someone as kind, genuine, and amazing as Raj. He was so full of life. That sounds like a trite statement, but he really was all those words: Full. Of. Life. I still remember how excited he was to start a family and to meet Jay. He even posted on Instagram that he was reading a book for expectant dads; I know for a fact he would have been a devoted and extremely loving and hands on dad. I just can’t get over how unfair and awful this is.

Life is really short. It is too short. I don’t even know what to say anymore.

Staten Island – it only took 13 years

Since I moved to New York, I’ve visited four out of five boroughs pretty regularly. I lived in both Queens and Manhattan. I went to Brooklyn all the time. I’ve enjoyed the Dominican and Italian food in the Bronx, not to mention a number of visits to Yankee Stadium (with work, obviously; I can’t stand baseball). But the closest I’d ever gotten to Staten Island was taking the free Staten Island ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island, just for the free boat ride, and then boarding the ferry to come right back. That’s a little embarrassing, but I knew Staten Island would not be an easy place to get around, and it seemed like a foreign land to me even though it’s technically part of New York City.

Today, Chris rented us a Zipcar, and we finally made our first visit to Staten Island. It’s pretty spread out, so it would be pretty much impossible to explore on foot. There is a bus system through the island, but who the heck wants to rely on that to get around? We made good use of time, grabbing some Italian pastries and freshly baked bread from Royal Crown Bakery, eating delicious Sri Lankan food at Lakruwana along Bay Street, and even stopping at a brewery for local beers on tap (well, for him).

While at Lakruwana, I read an article that was recently published on them in January. While I’d read in the New York Times that Staten Island had the biggest Sri Lankan population in New York City (and actually, the biggest Sri Lankan population outside of Sri Lanka!), I didn’t realize that of the 5,000 Sri Lankans here that 30 percent of them reside in Staten Island. I’m sure there are historical reasons for that, but that made me sad that Sri Lankan food was not closer to us for us to eat more frequently. Lakruwana actually originally opened in the mid-90s in Hell’s Kitchen, but after a fire that burnt down the entire restaurant, when the owners, a husband and wife team, were asked if they wanted to re-open in the same area, they decided it would be easier for them to re-open but in Staten Island, since it would be an easier commute for them given they lived there. And so the Sri Lankan population grew, plus the restaurants in Staten Island.

New York City — I’m so blessed to call this extremely diverse place my home. How can you get bored of New York when you are constantly visiting new places like this right here?!

Wellness Day and back in Chinatown

“You always go to Chinatown on your days off,” Chris remarked teasingly when he found out that i went down to Manhattan Chinatown today. While it is not always accurate that I go down to Manhattan Chinatown, it is usually pretty accurate that I go to some Asian area of the city. My general thought around that is… on my day off, I want to get food, and I also want to support local businesses. And thus, Asian food and groceries are not only delicious but a great value, and in addition, I want to support Asian businesses because of the awful impact this pandemic has had on them.

I went to some of my usual standbys, like Fong On for soy milk and grass jelly, and Manna House for some different baos. I also went to a few new spots, such as Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle Rolls, Hay Hay Roasted, and Golden Steamer. Unfortunately, I arrived at Golden Steamer too late, and they ran out of their signature pumpkin baos, but they still had their “big bao” or “da bao,” which is stuffed with a pork filling, egg, plus Chinese sausage.

Chinatown always feels like home to me, even when I am discovering new businesses and new foods. And well, of course the food never disappoints.

Steamed broccoli is foul

I had two pounds of broccoli that my friend had left for us in our fridge, and while my standard method of cooking broccoli is to roast it in the oven, I was too lazy to empty out all the contents of the oven (I’m Asian, which means the oven is prime storage space!!), so I decided to just do the easier thing and steam them over the stove, then toss them in the Sambal Lady’s lime leaf sambal. Unfortunately, halfway through the steaming process, Chris noted that something smelled off, and I realized he was referring to the broccoli. When you are the one cooking something, sometimes the smells do not affect you in the same way as it does someone who’s not in the kitchen, so I thought nothing of what he said. That is — until I went to take out the trash and came back, and I entered the apartment again. OMG, I thought. That smell is atrocious! It smells like a mix of bad, rotten vegetables and maybe sulfur mixed in. No wonder so many kids hate broccoli, I finally empathized. If I was served broccoli that smelled like THIS, there’s no way I would have enjoyed broccoli growing up!

Well, I am never making that mistake ever again. I am never steaming broccoli ever, ever again. Broccoli needs to be roasted, baked, stir-fried, or even eaten raw in a slaw-form. Steaming broccoli is just pure nastiness.

Food crawling through Queens

Although I’ve been to the subway stop at Jamaica so many times in Queens to get to JFK airport, the only time I’ve actually gotten out of the train at that stop and walked around was the one time I had jury duty in 2010. Other than that, I’d never explored the area. What I do know is that the area has a lot of good Jamaican food. What I didn’t know, which is what Chris found, is that there’s a hidden northern Chinese gem there: Beijing Dumpling House. They make Beiing style noodles and dumplings, and if you pay $1 extra, they will top your dumplings with chili oil, lots of minced garlic, and cilantro. We got the pork and chive dumplings, and they were incredible! Something about the texture was just different than most of the other dumplings we’ve had here. I kind of want to go back just to pick up a bag or two of their frozen dumplings.

We also explored the South Richmond Hill area of Queens, which is walking distance from Jamaica. It’s an area known as “Little Guyana,” which is crazy because I had no idea this existed in New York City and can pretty much bet no one else here, except those who live in the area, are aware of this. We had some jerk chicken fried rice and a delicious piece of cassava pone (a delicious, chewy, lightly sweetened cake).

The pandemic has forced us to find and rediscover New York. I can’t get over the diversity of this city and how it never ceases to amaze me.

Snack heaven

Since my friend has been staying with us, not only has she been buying groceries for the apartment, but she’s also been introducing us to all kinds of of new snacks at Trader Joe’s. Although I do shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s regularly, I rarely, if ever, walk down the snack aisles at either store. Before living with Chris, I rarely snacked outside of eating fruit or vegetables and the occasional rice krispy or handful of nuts at work. But with Chris, we have endless Aussie treats, from Arnott’s biscuits like Tim Tams and Scotch Fingers to All Naturals Fruit Confectionary fruit snacks. Since my friend left earlier this week, she left these goodies that are addictive. I hate her for introducing these to us, but love her for how sweet she is. These things are too good and will likely go into junk food rotation in this apartment:

Dill pickle kettle chips: perfect kettle crunch and texture, and they taste exactly as you think they would given their name!

iMango iMango fruit and yogurt gummy candies: they have real mango juice in them and are unbelievably good. They really do taste like real fruit!

Kung pao chicken mochi balls: really good chewy texture on the outside, and the filling is savory and not too salty like most frozen foods.

Portuguese egg tarts (imported from Trader Joe’s): Haven’t opened these yet and popped them in the oven, but they look and sound very promising!

Matcha green tea ice cream: My friend said this iteration is a new formula and is really good. It’s not the best matcha ice cream, but it’s a close second!

The friend leaves the nest

Tonight is our last night with my friend staying with us, as she’s officially moving into her new place tomorrow. Today marks exactly four weeks since she started staying with us in an effort to separate from her partner, and while it’s definitely been a bit more crowded and dusty with three adults in this 1-bedroom apartment, it’s been really enjoyable. I have loved having her here with us, not only for extra company and socializing, but also for emotional support for me going through this crazy emotional embryo transfer process. Chris remarked that she arrived as a wreck and a shell of herself, but she’s left rejuvenated and fresh. She’s been adaptable in our routines, from watching food on TV while eating food, our “morning dinners” and “evening dinners” as Chris calls them, our random assortment of food on a plate ranging from Indian to Chinese to Thai and Yemeni and pesto pasta, and even our endless marital banter. It’s been comforting to have her hugs and embraces when I’ve felt anxious and uncertain. And I’ve also enjoyed being there for her to ensure she feels supported through this current life transition she’s going through. We’ve been friends now for over 24 years, and though I’ve always known she’s an amazing, warm, loving, affectionate person, I’ve never felt it as much or as immediately as I have than over the last four weeks.

In preparation for her departure, not only did she stock our fridge and pantry with all kinds of fresh food, produce, and snacks, but she even added pregnancy-symptom aiding items like ginger shots, fresh ginger, tamarind, and zinc. Sometimes, I’m in awe of how thoughtful she is. It really goes beyond me.

Well, she’s leaving the nest tomorrow. I will miss seeing her and getting her daily hugs, but it’s time for her to do her own thing. And it’s also time for me to survive without her here every day. I think I can handle it. One deep breath at a time.

City Island and the Bronx day trip

Today, we went out to City Island, which is an island that is technically part of the Bronx. It’s actually a pretty strange experience to be in a small, idyllic “island” that has endless seafood offerings when you are still actually in New York City because it’s not something anyone would expect. As soon as we drove onto the island, endless seafood restaurants abounded. Some screamed signs for crab and fish, others for lobster and shrimp, and many for all the above. We went to a spot called Crab Shanty that’s supposed to offer really great deals on seafood. And they certainly delivered on this reputation: with our lunch specials of a whole lobster plus two small soft-shelled Maryland crabs, we had salad, soup (clam chowder!), fries, cake (carrot and chocolate – two types!), and tea and coffee. We left with our bellies stuffed with seafood and more.

Afterwards, we drove to the Bronx and took a long walk along Orchard Beach, which is considered the “Riviera of the Bronx.” The beach sits on the Long Island Sound and on a clear day, you can see City Island from here. This really did not feel like the Bronx or New York City at all. It felt more like we were quite far from New York City.

We ended the day in Little Yemen in The Bronx and picked up some spinach and meat bureks from a small Yemenese spot there. It was a delicious day trip.