By Marlan Warren
Can sushi save your life? When a lonely American divorcée seeks solace in the attentions of a charming Japanese sushi chef, they forge a cross-cultural friendship built upon yellowtail.
Kicking back with Lani in her Alhambra condo when I hear her say, “Kyoto asked me What’s the story with your friend? Is she seeing anybody? I said there was somebody but that’s over now and he asked Well, how does she feel about Oriental men? When I told him you just broke up with a Japanese American, he goesYou’re kidding! What happened? And I said he got scared because she’s white.”
Is that what happened? All I know is that when it was over, he couldn’t bring himself to end it.
“I’m gonna go for that butcher. What the hell?” Lani says. “He’s got beautiful skin and he likes me. Tell you what, you come with me to the meat counter and I’ll sit with you at the sushi bar.”
“You give me cover and I’ll give you cover?” Not horny, just eager to stop the bleeding.
Namida’s sushi bar is Lani’s stomping grounds where I’ve played the quiet tourist, taking my cues from Kyoto’s pristine politeness when he serves me. Lani always opens with the same suggestive gambit:
“Gimme a whale size crabmeat handroll! I got no use for little ones, Kyoto!”
“I know you don’t, Lani.”
Asian men always seemed as remote as stars. Until Bobby. Perhaps it’s the residue he left on my skin that makes me more aware now of Kyoto’s boyish black hair falling over his headband . . . his compact muscles moving under his t-shirt . . . his intense energy. Lani and I hit Namida at lunchtime.
Leaving, I joke, “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.”
“We’ll go back at three, when it’s not so busy,” Lani says.
We find him relaxed, welcoming.
“Gimme a whale size crabmeat handroll, Kyoto,” Lani yelps. “I’m insatiable today!” Throwing me a grin, he hoists a dictionary from under the counter, thumbs through it.
“Un-satiable?” In, we correct.
“Just remember un is for negative words,” I instruct. “And in is for positive ones.”
“So in is good?”
“Inevitable … Invitation. Inside, which is always better than outside.”
He frowns at my half-eaten mackerel, “No good?” Tosses two new slices on my plate. “Lingcod. Two hours old.” I spear one with chopsticks, examine the pale morsel with its orange pebbly crown of smelt caviar, and sink my teeth into its melting tenderness.
“Mmm . . . Incredible.”
The guy they call Jokin’ Joe yells, “Hey, Lani, whatever happened to that doctor you were going to marry?”
“He wasn’t a doctor, he was a dentist and screw him!”
Kyoto looks at me. “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. I was about to take our relationship to deeper level.”
“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.”
A bell rings. He vanishes into the kitchen. Lani says, “I’ve never seen him this open.” When he returns, he’s dancing and laughing, almost giddy.
“What’s up with Kyoto tonight?” the guy they call Blunt Man asks. “I’ve never seen him like this.”
Lani points to me and mouths: “It’s her.”
Orders come in. Then a lull. Kyoto muses, “I read divorce rate in this country is fifty percent. 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, “So . . . Jewel . . . is divorced.”
“We were married ten years,” I offer.
“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 cutters?”
“Because there aren’t.”
“But why not?”
“Women cannot cut sushi.”
“But can’t a woman hold a knife?”
He stops, holding the great blade 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. Then, finally: “I can’t talk about this!” Disappears into the kitchen. When he returns, he hands me the check, “It was my pleasure.”
On the street, I tell Lani that I gave him my number.
He’ll call, we’ll get laid. And that will be that.
He never called. Lani’s visiting family in Maui. Can I go without her?
He’s sharpening his knife. Nods hello. “Kyoto, what are the chances of my getting the special today?” He stops, touches the tip. “Are you asking what are the chances of my getting or me getting?”
“So when you say What are the chances, you are asking if you have a chance, right?”
“Oh, yes! You definitely have a chance!” My breath catches as he reaches for my lilac jade gourd 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 with regulars. Kyoto jokes in Spanish with Latinos and gives his Paris Match to a Canadian woman, while I chat with a businessman who gives me his card. When I tell him that I actually live in Hollywood, not Alhambra, he takes it back.
Kyoto never calls.
“I had a meeting with Phyllis today,” Lani says when she calls. “She really likes my new screenplay.”
“Great,” I say, grabbing my inhaler.
Four years ago, Phyllis sold our scripts before we were out of USC film school, before my marriage ended, before my career tanked.
“Wanna celebrate at Namida?” I ask. “It’s been a while.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m embarrassed for you.”
I remember Bobby saying once that he loved chasing trout, but he wouldn’t like it if they came after him.
An hour before closing. Just me and an Asian couple left. I’m on my tenth refill of green tea, watching Kyoto clean up.
“Jewel, how do you feel about domestic violence?”
“Did your husband ever beat you?”
Pierre shoving me against a wall, grabbing my flailing wrists. “No, nothing like that.”
Kyoto bends toward the fish case to purge the ice with the blade of his knife and says, “Shit happens. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes. Shit happens.”
“Jewel, please! People are eating and you are talking about shit!”
“You started it, Kyoto.”
The Asian man calls out, “I will tell Mary to stop by!” Kyoto nods. “She wants you to call her!”
My head aches. I leave before the ice is thoroughly scraped out.
I come in the back way through the shadowy hallway. The mix of sesame oil, soy sauce, shoyu, rice vinegar, and ginger stirs me like the smell of semen. Tart and oily and sweet.
Jokin’ Joe hollers, “Hey, your name was mentioned yesterday at golf. We’re on the eighteenth hole and all of a sudden, Kyoto goes, Isn’t Jewel a pretty name? I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
“Oh, that’s a good thing,” I smile at Kyoto as he hands me my unordered sushi plate with the dignity of a king dubbing a knight. Two nights ago, we made each other laugh so hard we almost wet our pants.
“But your name’s Jule, not Jewel, right?”
“Right.” I smile again at Kyoto. But he’s gone. And he stays gone.
I’ve been bedridden with the flu for weeks. When it subsides, I want only one thing: Namida.
He’s alone, distant. When he hears my death rattle cough, he gives me a glance. “Would you like a little sake?”
“Don’t tell me yes if you mean no,” he teases. Then he goes. Minutes later, he returns, 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 clarity, I share that my worst fear was being sick without a partner.
“What happened in the end?” he asks. “Why did you divorce?”
This time, I think, I will tell him. But every time I open my mouth, I feel tears coming.
Compassion tempers his fiery eyes: “Maybe it is better to just forget all about it.”
The bar is full now, but it’s as if we’re alone.
“Have you ever been married?”
“There was once a woman I wanted to marry.”
We laugh, and so does the eavesdropping sushi gang, except that Asian guy, who starts yelling at Kyoto, who yells back.
“No fair speaking Japanese in front of non-Japanese speakers!” I yell over them.
The man says, “It’s Cantonese.” Then in English. “Call Mary! She wants you to call! Because you are Oriental and she is Oriental! And I hate to see you get mixed up with . . .”
Blunt Man interjects, “Who is this guy?”
“My future ex-father-in-law,” Kyoto quips.
“He like my daughter Mary. He ask me is she seeing anybody? Do I think she like him? So I bring her and he is so shy, he will not talk. All he does is give her free fish. I even give him her number. AND HE NEVER CALLS!”
Just. Like. Me.
“I give to you again. It’s two-one-three …”
“Five Five Five Five,” Kyoto says, eyes on the fish.
“No, man, it’s . . .”
I cut in. “Oh, and Kyoto, when you call, just make sure you don’t dial my numberby mistake!”
The bar goes up for grabs.
Kyoto doesn’t look up when I leave.
Lani calls. “Guess what? I sold a script about the sushi bar! It’s going to be a co-production with Japan or something. Let’s go to Namida and celebrate!”
“I haven’t been there in like a year.”
“Oh, come on.”
It’s like an ice pick through my heart. But anyone could write a story about Namida. It lies on the street, as they say. Like a lost wallet.
“Kyoto, what are my chances of getting a special roll?”
“Oh, your chances are high!”
As if I haven’t stayed away for two years.
“Don’t tell me yes if you mean no.”
“You mean if I say yes, better mean yes?”
As he searches under the glass for the perfect fish, “Well, you know, sometimes you can say no and mean no, but the next day you can say no and mean yes. Because everything changes.”
Marlan Warren is the author of the upcoming Tales of Sushi and Roadmaps for the Sexually Challenged: All’s Not Fair in Love or War. She produced and directed her play, Bits of Paradise: Kochiyama’s Crusaders in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Her documentaries, Reunion and What did you do in the War, Mama?: Kochiyama’s Crusaders, examine cross-cultural dynamics. She resides in Los Angeles where she blogs for L.A. Now & Then.