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Sushi Tango


by Marlan Warren


November 1994

     Lani called me the other day and said: “Kyoto stopped me on the street and asked, ‘What's the story with your friend Jule? Is she seeing anybody?' I said there was somebody but I think that's over now and then he asked, ‘Well, how does she feel about Oriental men?' When I told him that you just broke up with a Japanese American guy, he goes, ‘You're kidding! What happened?' And I said he got scared because she's white.”

            Was that what happened? All I know is that when it was over, he couldn't end it. As witness to my devastation, Lani was there to lift me out of it with tequila and jokes: Isn't it shitty? It's like “Did anybody get the number of the semi that just hit me?”

            Lani had her own broken heart to nurse. “I'm gonna go for that butcher. What the hell? He's got beautiful skin and he likes me. Tell you what, you come to the meat counter with me and I'll sit with you at the sushi bar.”

            “You give me cover and I'll give you cover?”

            I'm not feeling particularly horny, just eager to stop the bleeding.

            Lani and I met and bonded at USC's film school. We'd both been out of college for years before returning, which made us older than the average MFA candidate. In the beginning, I only knew Namida as takeout sushi during our study breaks together. After graduation, I came to realize that its sushi bar was Lani's stomping ground. Her oasis. When I separated from my husband, her invitations became more frequent. Birthdays, holidays, script sales all needed to be celebrated at Namida. Then there were the lunches, the dinners whenever she wanted to celebrate nothing at all.

            Lani always starts the games off with the same opening gambit:

            “Gimme a whale size crabmeat handroll! I got no use for little ones, Kyoto!”

            “I know you don't.”

            In the beginning, I stayed quiet and respectful, taking my cues from Kyoto's pristine politeness when he served me. I'd been involved with Asian cultures for a long time, but Asian men had remained as remote as stars … until Bobby. Perhaps it was the residue he left on my skin that now makes me more aware of the way Kyoto's black hair falls boyishly over his headband ... his compact muscles moving under his “Namida” t-shirt ... his swift seductive energy. Doesn't he remind you of a Japanese Tom Cruise? I heard a female customer say.

            The last time Lani launched into her “whale size” routine, Kyoto responded with playful eyes in halting English, “So you are saying size mat-ters?”

            Lani purred, “Well, you know what they say …”

            “More than a mouthful is enough,” I muttered, wrapping my lips around a wedge of salmon. Kyoto threw back his head and howled. Titters went up from the eavesdropping sushi gang.

            When we left, I could feel his eyes on my back.

#

            Getting into gear with our plan, Lani and I hit Namida at lunchtime. We sit at the bar with anticipation.

            Nothing happens.

            Walking back to the sanctuary of Lani's apartment, I say, “I'm switching to Chinese men. They're more open.”

            “Are you kidding? He was seriously flirting with you. All that free squid and shit! He never does that.” Yes. There was squid. Watching him slather a creamy hot-pink concoction over flattened rice and wrap it in a white translucent skin, I'd asked, “What is that? It looks great.”

            It landed on my plate. “Spicy tuna wrapped in squid.”

            Lani says not to worry, we'll go back when it's not busy around three. On our walk back to her place, she runs me through his portfolio. He looks like he's in his twenties, but he's way older; he owns a condo; he only gets Monday off; he's never been married; he acts like he doesn't speak English when a customer pisses him off, but he speaks six languages.

            Three.

            We find Kyoto smiling, relaxed, welcoming. “Gimme a whale size crabmeat handroll, Kyoto,” Lani yelps. “I'm insatiable today!”

            He throws me a sly grin, hoists a dictionary from under the counter, thumbs through it, looks up perplexed.  “Unsatiable?” We correct him. Insatiable.

            “Just remember un is for negative words,” I instruct. “And in is for positive ones.”

            “So in is good?”

            “Always. Inevitable ... Invitation. And Inside, which is always better than outside.”

            He leans in close to me. “I have been learning English for fifteen years … but I am only just beginning to get under the words.”

            “Innuendo!” I gulp my sake, feeling the heat. Heat that I intend to use as a blotter.

            He frowns at the half-eaten dark mackerel on my plate, “No good?” Tosses two fresh pieces on my plate with one movement of his bare hand. “Ling Cod. Two hours old.” I grasp one with my chopsticks, lift it to examine this pale morsel with its orange pebbly crown of smelt caviar. I sink my teeth in. It is meltingly tender.

            “Mmm … Incredible, Kyoto.”

            “Isn't it?”

            Business picks up. Lani's joking around with the regulars while I'm enjoying watching Kyoto's deliberate knife slice strips from a hunk of fish … his flying fingers thrust into the vat of vinegary rice, spread the white stickiness across the dark sheet of pressed seaweed laid out before him … press the soft flesh flat against the rice … squeeze hard as he wraps the layers into a long roll before chopping it into pinwheels and tossing it onto a plate with rapid masculine grace.

            I like a man who's good with his hands. As if reading my mind, he glances at me with a lifted eyebrow.

            Jokin' Joe yells across the bar: Hey, Lani, whatever happened to that doctor you were going to marry? And her intoxicated retort: He wasn't a doctor, he was a dentist and screw him!

            Under cover of the customer convos, Kyoto turns to me and says quietly, “Somebody always cares more than somebody else. Why is that?”

            “I don't know. It's sad, I guess it keeps life interesting.”

            “I had this woman. She and I … I was about to take our relationship to deeper level.”

            “What happened?”

            “I did not trust.”

            “You didn't trust her?”

            “No. And that was a mistake.”

            “Maybe you didn't trust yourself.”

            “Yes. I was afraid. But now I feel ready.”

            When he vanishes into the kitchen, Lani says, “I've never seen him this open.” When he comes back, he's dancing and laughing, almost giddy.

            “What's up with Kyoto tonight?” the guy we call Blunt Man asks. “I've never seen him like this.” Lani points to me and mouths: “It's her.”

            A waitress slaps a new order on the counter for him. As he works, he grows serious. After the waitress grabs it, he says, “I read that divorce rate in this country is fifty percent. One out of every two marriages end in divorce. Why do you suppose that is?”

            “Because people are assholes.”

            He takes a step back. “Would you include yourself in this? I'm not saying you are, but if you say people are…”

            “I guess I'd have to since I'm divorced.”

            He turns away, eyes on the sushi he's shaping and says, “So … Jewel … is divorced.”

            Orders start piling up. He fills them in silence.

            “We were married ten years,” I offer.

            He unlocks his smile, “Oh. Well. That is a success!”

            “Thank you. We thought so.”

            I grope for a less hot topic. “Why aren't there any women sushi makers here?”

            “Because there aren't.”

            “But why not?”

            “Women do not cut sushi.”

            “But can't a woman hold a knife?”

            He stops, holding the great knife against his hip. “You wouldn't expect a woman to be a sumo wrestler, would you?”

            “Sumo wrestlers sleep all day between huge meals. Women could never lie around like that.”

            He opens his mouth to speak. Tries again. Nothing comes out. And finally: “I can't talk about this anymore!” He rushes through the kitchen's double doors. When he finally returns, he works facing away from me.

            “Look at him with his back to us like an offended cat!” Lani teases.

            Nothing else to see here. Time to go.

            He hands me the check, “Thank you, it was my pleasure.” I hand him a torn-off corner of my placemat.

            Outside, I tell Lani that I gave him my number. “You slut!” she laughs.

            So he'll call, we'll get together, get laid. And that will be that.

December 1994

            He never called.

            Lani is on vacation in Hawaii. Could I go there alone? I do. Entering Namida feels like moving into the warmest embrace.

            He is by himself, straight backed, sharpening his knife. Nods hello. “Kyoto, what are the chances of my getting the special today?” He stops, tests for sharpness. “Are you asking what are the chances of my getting or me getting?”

            “Me getting.”

            “So when you say What are the chances, you are asking if you have a chance, right?”

            “Right.”

            “Oh, yes! You definitely have a chance!” My breath catches as he reaches for my lilac jade pendant at my throat. “Nice. Your Chinese boyfriend give to you?”

            “He was Japanese American.”

            “Not much difference between Japanese and Chinese.”

            “I think Japanese are more reserved.”

            He lets go. “Maybe because Japan is island. Everyone has Island Mentality.”

            The bar fills up. He talks Spanish to the Latinos and gives his Paris Match to a pretty Canadian female customer, while I chat with a businessman on my right who gives me his card and tells me to call him.

            I now have a desk drawer stuffed with men's business cards. I never call them, and Kyoto never calls me. Lani's upset that I've been going without her. He's just not that into you.

January 1995

            One hour before closing. It's just me, and an Asian couple. I'm on my tenth refill of jasmine tea, watching him clean up.

            “Jewel,” he says softly.

            “Yes?”

            “How do you feel about domestic violence?”

            Where'd that come from? “Why do you want to know?”

            “Did your husband ever beat you?”

            Memories rush in. Vince shoving me against a wall, grabbing my flailing wrists. Kyoto is waiting. I say, “No, nothing like that.”

            He refills my cup. Then turns, bends toward the fish case to purge the ice with the blade of his knife. “Shit happens,” he says. “Wouldn't you agree?”

            “Yes. Shit happens.”

            “Jewel, please!” he yelps in mock indignation in front of the couple. “People are eating and you are talking about shit!” I apologize to them. They say that's okay. But they don't smile.

            “You started it, Kyoto.”

            “I know.”

            The couple gets up to leave, and the Asian man stops next to me, leans toward Kyoto and calls out, “I tell Mary to stop by!” Kyoto gives an almost imperceptible nod. The man repeats it. No reaction. He goes.

            My head aches. I leave before the ice in the case is thoroughly scraped out.

February 1995

            I come in through the back door, through the shadowy hallway, inhaling the scents of sesame oil, soy sauce, shoyu, and ginger that stir me like the smell of semen. Tart and oily and sweet.

            Jokin' Joe is in “his spot,” already on his second Sapporo. As I take my seat, he hollers, “Hey, your name was mentioned yesterday at golf. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.” Yesterday. Monday. Kyoto's day off.

            “Yeah, we're on the eighteenth hole and all of a sudden, outta the blue, Kyoto goes, ‘Isn't Jewel a pretty name?”

            There isn't a face that isn't looking at me.

            “Oh, that's a good thing,” I smile at Kyoto who hands me the sushi combo lunch special with the dignity of a king dubbing a knight. Two days ago, we made each other laugh so hard, we almost wet our pants.

            “But I told him that's not your name,” Joe continues. “It's Jule. J-U-L-E, right?”

            “Right,” I watch for Kyoto to make a quick comeback, but he's not playing today. He's gone. And he stays gone.

March 1995

            Nobody I know wants to hear about it anymore. My neighbor Amy says, “Face it, Jule, this is really about your addiction to raw fish.” My therapist says, “What I hear you saying is that you're going after an unavailable man. Why is that?”

            Lani calls. She had a meeting with our agent Phyllis who asked, “What's wrong with Jule? Does she think I have The Plague?”

            I haven't written anything in a year. One script sale four years ago does not a career make. My ex-husband is already shopping around a movie about our divorce. Phyllis is surprised to hear from me, and sounds pleased when I tell her that I've got an idea for an exciting groundbreaking series.

            “Is it Cheers with sushi?” ask the studio execs. “Or more of an exotic cross-cultural When Harry Met Sally?”

            “It's a road trip movie where they never leave the bar,” I tell them. “A Japanese My Dinner with Andre meets Thelma and Louise.”

            A wave of discomfort passes through the room. Well, to be honest, nobody wants to watch stories about Asians. Could it be a taco stand instead?

            As they usher me to the door, I stand my ground. “What if it's about a sushi guy who was a martial arts champion back in Japan, but now he's an alcoholic in need of the love of an American woman who believes he can still save the day when the chips are down. It's Rocky meets all the Jackie Chan movies with sushi!”

            Is that pity in their eyes?

            Forget it, Jule, they're just not that into him.

April 1995

            I can't go out for three weeks because I'm bedridden with the flu. I've been dreading facing illness without the support of a partner, and here I am unable to move while it soaks the sheets. As it subsides, I find that I want only one thing: Namida.

            Dinner hour hasn't yet revved up. He's alone, but distant. When he hears my death rattle of a cough, he glances sideways at me, “Jewel. Would you like a little sake?”

            What the heck is a “little” sake? Is he going to get a shot glass? I say yes, please.

            “Don't tell me yes if you mean no,” he teases. Then he goes. A few minutes later, he comes through the swinging kitchen doors gingerly carrying a small ornate bowl with a lid and matching spoon. Inside is egg drop soup laced with sake. The egg tastes like an exquisite custard, and the sake feels soothing, like love.

            I ask for the recipe, but all I can get out of him is: “When water boils, put egg in.”

            As my voice gains some clarity, I share with him my fear of being sick without a partner. “What happened in the end?” he asks. “Why did you divorce?”

            This time, I think, I will tell him. A thousand scenarios zip through my mind, but they all sound false. I put down my spoon and stare into my bowl as if the swirls of yellow are like fortune-telling tea leaves in reverse, helping me to see the past. But every time I open my mouth, I feel tears about to come. I look up into his fiery eyes, now tempered with compassion, as he says gently:

            “Maybe it is better to just forget all about it.”

            Waitresses are yelling out their orders in Japanese. Takeout containers are lined up on top of the glass case. The tall, skinny Asian man who said Mary would “stop by” is eating next to me. But it's as if the world has gone away and it's just me and Kyoto.

            “Were you ever married?” I ask him.

            “There was once a woman I wanted to marry.”

            “What happened?”

            “She disappeared.” We laugh. And so does everyone around us. Except the Asian guy who starts yelling at Kyoto in Cantonese. Kyoto yells back in Cantonese. So, Kyoto wasn't kidding when he told me that his mother is Chinese.

            Kyoto retreats to the opposite end of the bar to work. The upset Chinese man yells in English, “Call Mary! She wants you to call!” Kyoto looks at a customer's empty plate and asks if they want more. “Because you are Oriental and she is Oriental! And I hate to see you get mixed up with …”

            “Black man?” Now Kyoto is in his face.

            His agitator draws back, “What?”

            “Or white man? Don't want me mixed up with white man?”

            “I … I don't understand.”

            “Just say yes. I know you.” Then he's back to work.

            Darkness has settled all around me. Even though he's calling this bigot on his bigotry, I feel like sobbing. When Bobby and I were dating, I saw him in a play about how Asians should stick to dating Asians. Afterward, I asked him, “If that's how you feel, why are you with me?”

            “I don't think of you as white,” he said. “You're Jewish, so that's ethnic, not white.”

            Customers are asking Kyoto, “Who is this guy?”

            “He is my future ex-father-in-law.”

            Still standing, the man addresses the whole bar, “He like my daughter Mary. He ask me is she seeing anybody? Do I think she like him?” His audience looks amused. “I bring her in and he is so shy, he will not talk to her. All he does is give her free fish. So I give him her number. AND HE NEVER CALLS!”

            Just. Like. Me.

            Even through my discomfort, I can feel Kyoto wince. Is this a shared nightmare?

            “I give it to you again,” the father screams. “It's two-one-three …”

            “Five Five Five Five,” Kyoto says, eyes on the fish in his hands.

            “No, man, it's …”

            Over him, I cut in, “And, Kyoto, when you call … just make sure you don't dial my number by mistake!”

            The bar goes up for grabs. Even the future ex-father-in-law is laughing. Kyoto's face stays blank as he keeps working. He doesn't look up when I leave.

            Amy calls the next day and asks, “Are you still going after that waiter?”

            Our first morning after making love for the first time, Bobby threw a book titled Trout on the breakfast table. He described how good it feels to chase the fish through the cold water.

            “I wouldn't like it if they came after me.”

January 1996

            Lani calls and says, “Guess what? I sold a script about Namida!” An ice pick through my heart. “It's going to be a co-production with Japan or something. Let's go celebrate with sushi!”

            “I haven't been there in a long time and I don't want to start going back.”

            “Oh come on.”

            I keep making excuses. How can I tell her that I feel betrayed? Worse, that I feel guilty for feeling betrayed. Any writer dining at Namida could come up with a script. There's a saying about this kind of project: It lies on the street.

            Like a lost wallet.

March 1996

            Three o'clock in the afternoon. He's there. Alone.

            “What are my chances of getting a special roll?”

            “Oh your chances are high!” Kyoto smiles as if I was just in yesterday, instead of months ago. He's been working here fifteen years, and he'll probably be working here for the next fifteen. I have a feeling that if we take care of ourselves, we'll probably be doing this routine when we're senior citizens.

            “Don't tell me yes if you mean no.”

            “You mean if I say yes, better mean yes?”

            “Yes.”

            As he searches under the glass case for the perfect fish:

            “Well, you know sometimes you can say no and mean no, but the next day you can mean yes. Because everything changes.”

 

END

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