I had been thinking that I needed more innuendo in my culinary life. Too many anonymous encounters with laconic all-night diners had left me restless, and cooking by myself two or sometimes even three times a day, while quick and handy, left too much to the imagination. Sure, the food was usually decent, but it was never entirely satisfying, tending only to the most basic appetites. I started to crave a little spice, a little more variety. Maybe a few whispered sweet nothings would be nice. Maybe not receiving a scandalized response when I call up to place a take-out order and casually ask, "So, what are you wearing?" I suppose all I really wanted was a restaurant that would talk dirty to me once in a while.
Then, on a blustery October night on the South Side, I met Thai Me Up. The air was frigid, the skies were threatening, but the walls inside were vivid crimson and gold. A luminous warmth spilled out of its wide windows onto East Carson Street, and the cracked concrete sidewalk where I stood seemed to soften in the glow. I opened the door and stepped inside.
With just a few worn wooden tables and a checkered floor, Thai Me Up is as cozy and welcoming as a favorite sweater or a great big hug. Exotic fragrances waft from the kitchen and soothe the evening's chill. The waitress offers a friendly smile, gestures for me to have a seat. As she turns away I notice her shirt. On it there are a pair of stick figures, male and female -- he is on his knees, she is holding a whip. His hands are tied, as are his ankles. She digs a heel into the small of his back, bending him forward at the waist, face down over a plate of food. Not so different, really, from the doodles I might have left in the margin of a math test in middle school. "You're bound to like it," the shirt assures me, and I relax in my chair with a grateful sigh for a desire finally met.
There are few moments in life more sumptuous, more satisfying, than breathing deeply the steam of coconut milk rising from a bowl of thick noodles on a brisk autumn night. Beside the bowl is a plate of steamed dumplings with a sauce that is dark and sweet. I happen to glance up and out of the window. In the steakhouse across the street, several lugubrious fellows slouch in a cloud of gunmetal-blue cigar smoke, hacking wordlessly at charred hunks of beast. I sip my tea and nibble another tender dumpling.
All around me couples lean across the tables, holding hands, exchanging meaningful glances, excited and nervous. He orders his curry extra hot, she bites her lip. They feed each other red peppers, baby corn, tiny pink shrimp. Small beads of perspiration appear on their foreheads; their breathing is shallow and rapid.
A father enters with his young son. He is calm, the boy is happy. They order Thai iced tea and spring rolls. The waitress chats with the father, the boy fixates on the provocative tableau of bondage and domination on her shirt, chewing his food thoughtfully. He has a rather intriguing expression on his face. I lean back and close my eyes, feeling sated and sleepy, trying to imagine what his multiplication test might look like tomorrow.