Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Ikura, Joto, Kiku, Sapporo, I can write their names in hiragana now, I can sound out parts of the menu and the waitress tells me, "Nihongo wa ichiban!" which means, “Your Japanese is very good!” which means, your Japanese is very bad. The travel books and my teacher and my friend the translator tell me that you’ll know you speak good Japanese when people stop observing that you’re speaking Japanese.

The train comes around, twenty cars, each with two little plates or a plate and a blank space where a plate used to be, little beige plastic geta-shaped plates, two ridges to sit on and a wide, slightly dished body for tiny bright green seaweed salads wrapped in thin black leather seaweed, maguro sushi, hamachi rolls, lots more that I barely know the names of, that I want to know, I want to impress my husband and the playwright from New Jersey, I want to be able to say, "Ja, onegai shimasu" right after the four-foot crinkly-faced waitress says "O-cha mumble mumble shimasu?" instead of having to look at her and the tea and the page of the textbook in my head before managing, “Yes, um, hai,” and doing the head bob bow that looks automatic in a Japanese.

The chef looks up from cutting maki sets, dipping the blade in water between the cuts, clapping his hands before touching the rice—is it an offering to the gods? an honoring of the rice? some sort of look-my-hands-are-clean thing?—and holds a paper towel on the tracks for the next go-round. Too much sushi, slow down, take some. The train is a murmur under the baby at the table near us whose father keeps stepping up to the bar for another plate of unagi, mother with a stack of little plates and a red mark under her left eye. The train goes halfway around the oval, twenty cars of dollar-ninety-five sushi, which is why we drove all the way to Shawnee, on the Kansas side. Which is why my husband and the playwright from New Jersey think we drove all the way to Shawnee.

The train comes around again, I’m stuffed but now there’s gyoza and scallops in spicy mayonnaise and little squares of chocolate sponge with coffee whipped cream icing light as getting away with it. I go to the bathroom, cell phone in my hat in my hand, call from the stall, all Japanese restaurant bathrooms are like this, grey linoleum or ugly middle-green tile, fluorescent lighting, as if the hanging tea-towel curtains with the samurai or the kabuki players are actually dividing Japan from an American gas station somewhere on I-95. I leave a message, like always, nothing means ‘I’m thinking of you’.

First sushi: Nineteenth birthday, Trevor G---, Joto, Tampa, black lacquer tables, we sit in chairs because the tatami rooms are full of friends of Burt Reynolds and his waitress. There is an aquarium—there’s almost always an aquarium, like having a pasture outside a steakhouse. I like everything except sea urchin, which sticks like peanut butter and tastes like brine. First initiation: I take my mother to sushi lunch, remembering to take care, to start with California rolls, crab stick, cooked shrimp, the last outposts of the familiar. American before Japanese, sushi before sashimi, yaki, cooked, before nama, raw. First lesson: Never eat sushi in a landlocked state, say, Idaho. First date: my then-boyfriend and I go to Sushi-Jo in Atlanta, eat tuna sashimi and fight, filling up on rice before opening for Hole and setting the pattern of the fight that lasts through the six six-hour trips from Tampa, through the engagement, the wedding, the marriage. First time: apparently, he thinks I don’t read the Amex bill, eighty dollars and fifty-seven cents at Amari, in Vegas, another hundred and twenty at the Orleans when he was theoretically staying with his mother. I don’t give a shit about the Orleans, fuck her in the lobby under the giant alligators if you must, but sushi is different.

I wash my hands for the look of the thing, save the damp, crumpled towel to open the door, avoid touching the smeary metal pushplate. The curtains are hung to shoulder height, in case you’d like to hide your face as you emerge from the completely unconcealed doors, and my hands are fumbling with my hat and my phone, the curtains catching in my hair. For a moment, I’m stepping out of the bathroom at Kiku, my veil catching on the curtains, this time cherry blossoms, surprised that no-one in the restaurant is looking at me or the groom or the officiant or our two best friends who later will not ask us to be part of their wedding party. It’s sushi happy hour—probably excitement enough.

“Excuse me,” says the woman with the red mark under her eye, and I think about saying “Honey, he’s not worth it,” and almost choke from not giggling at the cliché. We’re white, we’re in Shawnee, we eat sushi, we have doors that bang us in the night and husbands who throw coke bottles and don’t, really don’t, mean to hit us.

Her husband is feeding the baby with alternate bites of plain rice and yogurt from a tub. My husband is watching while the waitress counts the plates. I pass the tatami rooms where we knelt in October, me and the musician and the girl who loves me no matter what I do. Our knees fell asleep and we had to sit, legs in the pits for Anglo legs beneath the tables, leaning back against the floor chairs. This was before the coded phone calls, after Las Vegas but before Columbus, and we talked about Trashgirl and my husband, and the musician’s wife’s weight problem, and the girl’s boyfriend, the Penis Flytrap. We drank pots of green tea and ran back and forth to the train, shoes off, shoes on, bringing each other little things to try, challenging each other to stack the most plates, speaking as much Japanese as we could muster with the waitress, and I was proud that I could sound out “Sakura” on her mini-kimono. We sat through dollar-ninety-five time, we stayed through the homecoming dance kids at the teppanyaki table, commenting on their dresses, how young they looked, how old they looked. And then we went back to the hotel, where we shared a big king bed and the musician and I did the things we could do without waking the girl, did the things that led to Columbus and not caring and phone calls in the bathroom. The things that led to not eating sushi with the musician anymore.

The playwright from New Jersey has picked up my coat for me, and looks around, but I don’t carry a purse. The train of plates is half-empty, but we are all full, we have gorged ourselves on tiny bites, we have already crammed down one last thing. We bow to the chefs, and to the tiny waitress who tells me to come back soon, and pass through a longer set of curtains and out into the parking lot, where "arigato gozaimasu" echoes behind us in the metal voice of the electronic greeting speaker. I know this one, I know why it’s here and what it says. And in my head it’s clear. “Thank you. Come again.”


gentlereaderofthemuse said...

Whew, this one was a challenging read. It's good back story though. I can see myself going back and reading this again to get the characters tied together in my mind.

Anonymous said...

That's a great story. It crystallizes so much. I must keep reading.

AussieJackNina said...

I must agree with gentlereader. My first read was a little shakey but after a second read it was much clearer.

Tom Paine said...

The Chinese are the same way, but with them, you never get to the point where you're speaking good-enough Chinese because ultimately, you're a "big nose" and can't really fit into their culture.

Denis Connor said...

Thank you.


Mandy said...

Thanks for wading through this one. It is a bit dense. It's one of the things I'm most proud of having written.