When Melissa and I lived in Tempe we used to frequent a Chinese food restaurant on Guadalupe and McClintock called House of C-Fu. They later changed their name to China Max when they lost a fight with another "House of C-Fu" restaurant in Phoenix. They were a couple of doors down from Changing Hands Bookstore, sandwiched between the bookstore and Trader Joes. After a couple of years Hoodlums record store relocated to the spot between C-Fu and Changing Hands. It was great. Each Friday night we would go down to C-Fu and order the same meal, sesame chicken with sticky white rice and a side order of egg rolls. Melissa would always insist of getting a bowl of egg drop soup. After our meal we would bounce between the stores and spend an hour or two just wandering the stacks. Some nights we would walk over to Trader Joes as well, or to the other end of the strip mall to the Baskin Robbins. It was a simple routine and we kept it up for years.
We went to C-Fu so much that the people that worked there became friends. We were on a first name basis with most of the staff. Sometimes, late on weeknights nights near closing time, we would be the only people there. The owners children would come out and do their homework at the table next to us. It was like our own quiet kitchen, spending time with good friends. On more than one occasion Melissa got in to long conversations with our Chinese waitress about life back home in Sichuan. We considered C-Fu to be our place. Whenever family or friends would visit from out of town we would bring them there. We would introduce them to the staff. We would show off by ordering without even looking at the menu. All of the major events of our life revolved around this one strip mall in Tempe. We went on our second date there. We ate dinner there to celebrate the night we got engaged. We had dinner there with Melissa's Dad the night of the invasion of Iraq. They had big screen TV on in the corner tuned to CNN, showing images of the "Shock and Awe". It was a home away from home, an incredibly important place in our mythology.
Things started to change in the summer of 2008. The owners had lost family in the Sichuan earthquake earlier that year, and were devastated. Their hearts understandably went away from the restaurant, the focus instead becoming finding a way to help those back home. Shortly thereafter the restaurant took a dreaded triple hit when they were listed on the local new's sensationalist "Dirty Dining Report", then a branch of the semi-fast food Pei Wei chain opened up across the street. Then the owners of the property realized they had lightning in a bottle with the combination of a popular bookstore, record story, grocery. They raised the rent dramatically. Our friends could not compete. C-Fu had to throw in the towel.
We were there on that last night. As you walked in to the restaurant you would be greeted by a large fish tank that contained a lungfish. They used to claim that it was over 60 years old. Symbolically, it died the week before the restaurant closed. I chose not to remember that last night, because it feels like a betrayal to all of the happy and comfortable memories that come before it. In the same vein, I am working hard to not remember the hard times that came in the days after Melly and Matthew. I recognize that they happened, and they are now a part of who I am, but those harsh memories don't deserve equal footing with the rest.
I really can't tell you why all of this is coming to mind right now. It could be because I am realizing how sometimes life conspires against you on all fronts. There are any number of cliches that come to mind, from "When it rains it pours" to "God never gives you more than you can handle". I don't want to use any of them because, frankly, I think that they are all lazy simplifications. Going deeper, what it comes down to is that priorities change. Before our friends had tragedy strike back home the restaurant was the center of their universe. A distant event in a far away land, to which they had no control, set off chain of events that they could not predict.
More often than not I will hear a song or pass a building and have to take pause. The memories are dense, sometimes too dense to sift through. I am blocked on a great many things. I find myself unable to talk about Matthew for long without tearing up. Even now, as I type this, I have to step away. I can go on for hours and hours about Melly, about what an amazing soul she was, but the subject of my son is still too much to handle. I wonder if this is what it was like at the restaurant. I wonder if the grief was so much that the thought of losing the restaurant was too much. In this sense, the notion that we are never given more than we can handle is horseshit. We are always given too much, and it is more luck than strength or perseverance that we survive it. It is not a question of strength or heroism, it is a question of priorities. Theirs was family, mine is sheer stubbornness, close friendships, and a desire to stick a finger in God's eye. That is how we survive.
Post-script: I have to give a shout out to my friend, Steve Wiley. Steve owned Hoodlums and was a friend and truly good person. I met Steve in the fall of 1998, shortly after he and Christian opened Hoodlums in the MU at ASU. Their record store meant the world to me during that first year away from home, as I am sure it did for a ton of us. He was eternally busy, and probably had the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to make the business work, but he always took the time to talk music with me. Sadly Steve passed a couple of years ago. What better compliment can I give him than he had excellent taste and is missed.