Merry Christmas! This short little story was written in lieu of a travel post to Taipei. Set in the universe of my other short story Up All Night and a future release called Midnights in Bali. The last time we saw Anton and Penelope, they were kissing each other goodbye at the Hong Kong Victoria Harbor. What happens next?
One Night in Shilin
"We have to stop meeting like this," he said, grinning as he held his hand out to her.
"You love it," Penelope Canlas, fresh off the plane from Manila, teased before she slipped her hand in Anton's. He turned, and they dove right into the crowd.
Taipei's Shilin Night Market was, quite possibly, the most famous. Over the last four years (Anton's last visit), the market had grown from an underground foodie hub to a whole shopping and dining plaza. He wanted Penelope to see it all, and most importantly, taste it. And maybe find a way to convince her to stay.
They first met on a plane to Hong Kong. Penelope had been bumped up to first class when he'd stumbled upon her. The two of them ended up spending her twelve hour layover in Hong Kong and Macau, eating everything in sight. They'd exchanged emails at the airport, and for the last three months had been talking over a selection of messaging apps--Viber, WeChat, Telegram, they did it all. They talked about everything and nothing. There wasn't a morning where Penelope didn't have a message from Anton in the morning, and Anton never went to bed without reading Penelope's good night.
She was in Taipei for a presentation to the regional director of the brand she managed. He was in Taipei for...a work thing, he didn't say. But their schedules magically aligned, and they set a date. Until Anton said he was busy, and if Penelope was willing to go to Shilin fresh off the airplane? Penelope couldn't say no.
It wasn't easy being in a...whatever this was with him. But for now, weaving through the throng of people at Shilin, it was nice to pretend that they were exactly where Penelope wanted them to be.
"It's cool, right?" He asked her over the din of the slow moving crowd. The Taiwanese took their leisurely time when they walked, and Anton actually grumbled when he pulled on her hand and wove them through.
"It's...loud," Penelope answered, wincing as a group whooped beside her. The street coming up to the market had stall after stall of carnival games, mostly ballon-based. She jumped when someone popped a balloon with a dart.
"Come on, it's a little less hectic downstairs," Anton reassured her, murmuring it into her ear as they took an escalator down to basement one, marked as the 'food court.'
She was overwhelmed the moment they emerged from the escalator. Young girls in winter clothes and aprons were holding menus and yelling what she guessed were food names in Mandarin. They walked along the stalls, Penelope's eyes wide as she saw fresh little crablets, oysters sizzling on a grill, dried squid curling up as they were cooked. She took a deep breath and choked as they passed a vat of dark brown liquid, bits of tofu popping up to the surface.
"Errruurggh," she said, crinkling her nose. She knew that smell. It was the smell of an armpit without deodorant. Or wet trash left too long under the sun.
"Stinky tofu," Anton said, looking behind him as he laughed and squeezed her arm. "Don't worry, I have something else in mind for us."
The last two words sent a shiver up her spine. He sat them down on one of the many mini-restaurants, conversing with the student-waitresses before he was handed a menu. Penelope didn't know he could speak Chinese. She told him as much.
"I speak enough to ask for the English menu," he said, as the said menu was handed to him. He tapped at pictures for the waitress to nod and mark in her little pad, before she walked away.
"What did you get?" Penelope asked, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the plastic table.
"Pre-game appetizers," Anton said, handing her a pair of chopsticks he'd rubbed down with tissue paper. Penelope barely opened her mouth to say more when someone banged two bowls of rice with an unidentifiable topping on their table. Then slam! a plate of...something appeared.! Ooh, are those clams? Ahhh dumplings with soup! That was familiar, at least.
"This is pre-game food?" Penelope teased, testing the chopsticks in her hand.
"Nothing but the best for Penelope 'Steel Somach' Canlas," Anton said, passing her a can of cold Mango Beer to wash down the food. "Eat up. I think you'll like the oyster omelette in particular."
Food was Anton and Penelope's common language. Half their conversations were food related---what they liked, what they'd heard of and what they wanted to try. Taiwanese food wasn't as ubiquitous in Manila as Anton wanted, so the night market stop was a must.
Penelope chewed on the omelette, which was too gummy and too delicious to be called an omelette. A brown sauce was heaped over the pancake, and the scallions bit sharply with the oysters. Her eyes lit up in delight as Anton sipped his beer.
"Good, right?" He asked.
"SO good," Penelope nodded. "How many times have you had this?"
“A few times,” he shrugged. “My parents went here for their first anniversary years ago, and my mom makes it for him every year. Food is sort of their thing. I have a whole route planned for us tonight. Highlights include torched wagyu beef with rose salt--"
"Grilled mushrooms with lemon pepper--"
"And, my personal favorite, the--Scott!"
Penelope turned her head in the direction that her dinner companion had shouted at, and realized that he was waving at someone tall and lightly bearded. He recognized Anton with a wave and bent slightly to whisper to someone next to him. A Filipina who stood so tall that Penelope barely noticed her height difference to Scott.
They made their way to their table, and before introductions were made, Anton had already passed chopsticks around and ordered more cans of mango beer.
"Scott, Ava," Anton said, giving the Filipina a beso on the cheek. Penelope tried to keep her face neutral. It wasn't as if she and Anton were dating or anything. She was just here, like he was. She didn't have the right to be jealous.
"Anton," Ava said slyly pulling up a stool for herself after refusing help from a waitress. "You didn't say you were going to be here, we would have gotten a taxi together or something."
"Yeah, thought you said you were having a night in, mate?" Scott asked in his thick accent, taking a swig of his beer before he made a face. "What the bloody fuck is this."
"Mango beer," Anton said, winking at Penelope like it was supposed to mean something. "Taiwanese mango beer."
"Yech. I like my beer plain and my mangoes from the Philippines, like a normal bloke," Scott said, raising his hand to call the waitress before he turned to Ava. "Why is Taiwanese mango so bloody candy sweet? Need anything, love?"
Then Penelope realized that Ava was too busy looking at Penelope to answer Scott's question. They both blinked in surprise at the other's attentions. Ava quickly glanced from Penelope to Anton, reading the situation before Scott even ordered his beer.
"Oh my god, Sorry, sorry," Ava suddenly said, slapping Scott's arm to get him to put his hbd down. "You should have said you were on a date! Sorry, hi! I'm Ava Bonifacio.
Penelope gave her an awkward little wave. Ava looked older than her, and everything about her seemed perfectly controlled. Her jacket (she recognized her law school's logo immediately) fit her perfectly and not a strand of hair was out of place. Even her lipstick was perfectly applied.
"This is Scott McLeod, my manservant," she joked, reaching over to squeeze one of her boyfriend's thighs.
"And here I was thinking you'd promoted me to companion by now," Scott muttered.
"Maybe when my classes start again," she said, patting the top of his dark brown hair before he reached up and squeezed her cheek. Hard.
Suddenly Penelope felt a pang. It made her body stick straight, her chopsticks clacking together as her hand stiffened. She avoided Anton's gaze as she buried her head and chewed on the rice, which she realized was topped with some kind of minced pork---a Taiwanese-style adobo she would later learn was called lurufan. She knew it shouldn't taste this bitter.
"We'll leave you two birds to your loving," Scott said, pulling Ava up before he gave Anton an exaggerated little wink.
"No, it's not..." Anton said, trailing off as Scott and Ava disappeared into the crowd, leaving Anton and Penelope alone with their embarrassment.
"Hmm, friends of yours?" Penelope asked, plucking a clam from the pile. She wasn't sure it was supposed to taste this acidic, either.
To her surprise, Anton actually squirmed. The one guy she knew that was so confident and full of himself enough to drag Penelope around Hong Kong with nothing but the promise of food was squirming.
"Scott is my business partner," he explained, poling at his lurufan. "We're supposed to be on a research trip. Anyway, are you done? Lots of food to eat up there, can't keep it waiting."
"Up there? Not here?"
"Oh yes," Anton said, signaling someone for the bill. "This is just the tip of the iceberg for us."
There was that word again.
Penelope didn't know why she thought the food court was the actual night market. The streets outside the Night Market area were clearly where all the action was. There was no discernible pattern, except that food stalls lined every possible corner and crevice of the streets. Penelope saw stalls for deep fried chicken dusted with a special spice, pork blood squares grilled and topped with peanut powder and cilantro, and other food that she couldn't even begin to describe.
She had to give Anton credit, he really knew food. Even their last meal in Hong Kong was amazing. At the very least, they would always have food. Even if Penelope would probably never think to congee again.
Still holding on to her hand, Anton gently pulled his companion through the crowd. Penelope actually loved the cool night breeze of Taiwan, the perfect weather to wear a jacket with. As she squeezed through crowds with him, she tried to see which of the food people were most commonly eating.
"There's no pattern!" She exclaimed to him when she had a chance to press closer to his back. Anton pulled his hand around her waist bringing her lips right to his ear. "Everyone's eating different food!"
"Food speaks differently to different people," he shrugged, turning his head slightly. He could just make out her eyelashes in the dim lighting. "When it's right, you know you have to have some." They passed a long line of people waiting for a chunk of the biggest loaf of bread Penelope had ever seen. A sweet smell filled the air as steam rose from the bread. Her heart fluttered as Anton's hand squeezed hers.
"Is there anything in particular that should speak to me?" She asked.
"I did tell you about the Wagyu beef cubes, didn't I?" Anton asked.
But it wasn't what Penelope was drawn to. This time it was her turn to lead him through the crowd, her nose and stomach doing the leading for her.
They stopped in front of a stall selling the biggest Chinese sausages she'd ever seen. Oh great. This wasn't her heart speaking to her.
"Oh look," Anton said, pointing at the grill next to the sausages. "See those white things?"
She nodded as he stood behind her. The guy behind the stall was grilling smaller sausages with sausage-shaped white cases. Penelope narrowed her eyes at the thing until she recognized it.
"Glutinous rice, much stickier," Anton said, getting the vendor's attention before he pointed to the rice thing. Much to their amusement, the vendor cut open one side of the rice case, stuffing the rice with a few vegetables and sesame seed before he took a freshly grilled sausage and wedged it in the middle.
"This is speaking to you?" Penelope asked, raising her eyebrow at Anton as they walked again, this time while he cradled his food in his hand, blowing on it gently before he took a huge bite.
"Holy shit," he said, immediately passing her the rice roll…sandwich? "Taste it."
Penelope did. The rice was perfectly cooked, just slightly sticky inside but crunchy on the outside. The sesame seed made the rice more fragrant to eat. But then there was the sausage. Sweet and savory at the same time, the flavor burst in Penelope's mouth, mixing the rice to elevate the whole experience.
She was sure her eyes were widening like those judges in that anime about cooking she watched once, but she didn't care. It was totally appropriate.
That got them both started. After the sausage roll, they shared deep fried mushrooms with Taiwan spices ("Oh my god, I thought this was chicken!"), giggled like school kids when they shared a skewer of candy coated strawberries and were pleasantly surprised when an item (only described as "milky fry") turned out to be deep fried Bavarian custard.
Penelope forgot her expectations for this trip and just decided to enjoy the moment. They even ran into Scott and Ava again, and the four of them shared a 'flipping ginormous' bowl of finely shaved ice soaked in Taiwanese milk tea and topped with fresh boba pearls and their molasses. She found out that she and Ava had a few common friends (as you did) and Ava exclaimed how big a fan she was of Penelope's cousin's reality TV show.
"Pen's been an episode," Anton announced, placing an arm proudly around her shoulders. Ava's eyes were so wide that Scott had to catch her milk tea cup before she dropped it.
"Just in one of the scenes," Penelope shrugged. "I helped her plan her parents'---"
"Twenty fifth wedding anniversary, of course," Ava enthused. "You guys talked with Charlotte about Rob's job in the cake tasting session."
"Superfan alert," Anton muttered.
"You could say that again," Scott agreed. Ava raised an eyebrow at him. “But of course, I wouldn’t.”
Penelope found herself leaning on Anton's shoulder as the night got even cooler and they were in line for...she couldn't even remember what they were in line for. All she knew that the food was delicious, and the stink of the tofu was actually quite comforting. She closed her eyes for a second.
"Are you giving up on me already?" Anton asked, tucking a strand loose strand of her hair behind her ear.
She shouldn’t bring it up here right now, she knows. But she couldn’t help it. She was full, she was happy, and she was never going to be as confident about it as she was now. So when they made it up to the puffy, grilled mochi station and ordered two (one with chocolate sauce, one with peanut) she took a bite off of the steaming snack. She was so ready to tell him how she felt, but oh my GOD that mochi was hot. She wanted to chew, but couldn’t instead leaving her mouth hanging open in the cool air and blowing out the hot air. Anton saw her distress and blinked like it was the first time he saw her.
“Penelope, I think I'm in love with you,” he announced to her open mouth.
“I can’t have a single meal without thinking about if you’ll like it or not. When Scott suggested we open a place in Manila, my immediate thought was what kind of food you’d want to eat,” he said, putting his food aside to hold her hand. “When you said you were coming here, I wanted to bring you here and show you all the food my parents loved when they came here years ago.” He looked so earnest and nervous, and he did that squirming thing again. Penelope processed all this information, still holding on to her mochi.
“I don’t,” Penelope said, quickly chewing and swallowing her mochi. She could barely taste it. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you love the food.”
“But I love you.”
Now it was Anton’s turn to get tongue-tied.
"Merry Christmas," she said, leaning forward to kiss his nose.