In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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The grandson of a Buddhist abbot taught me the little I know
about how to order — start simple, two thin slices of maguro on fingerlings
of sticky rice, a smear of wasabi, pungent as a punch in the nose.
Every day I’d sit at my desk and pretend I could balance the demands
of commerce and friendship. The director of a language school,
I was supposed to figure out how to pay teachers and bills,
but all I wanted was to teach. My wife was proud of me.
For the first time in our marriage I was making more money than her.
I forgot the miso. Before any fish you need to wash away the taste of the day,
fermented soybean paste in broth. Our marriage was in constant danger,
and we liked it that way, peering from a rooftop bar into the Basin,
bits of hillock and high-rise floating in a brown petrochemical soup.
After maguro, you might try a more flavorful or fatty fish,
yellowtail or toro. I’m not sure about toro, just as I’m not sure when
the abbot’s grandson Kei stopped being a student and became our friend.
For years my wife and I played the open-marriage
game as if we both could be winners. When he ran out of money,
I let Kei teach me Japanese instead of paying tuition.
On weekends our new friend tried to teach us mah-jongg, pastime
of warriors and spies. Maybe I could have been better at it, but I couldn’t
enjoy winning when losing caused her so much pain. Every Friday
we’d drop thirty bucks in a sushi bar, which back then was a lot.
Between courses you were supposed to napalm your tongue
with sake or a beer, but Kei preferred hot tea, ocha,
first cousin to what Grandpa served in the monastery
to keep his monks awake on their cushions late at night.
Back then some air-force guy, a hero to a lot of Americans,
declared that we should bomb our enemy back to the Stone Age
(I forget which enemy, we had so many) —
or maybe he said we needed to destroy some country
in order to save it. I didn’t like to admit it, but I agreed,
as if I were the country in question. Thank God sushi was simpler.
After toro, something salty or sweet, roe or crispy eel skin
smeared with teriyaki sauce. Kei had thick hair,
a round peasant face, and a stocky build. He ran around the park
every evening, following the groove left by other runners, sometimes
running the whole way backward, because it worked different muscles
and because he wanted to challenge himself. He loved us both,
I think, and we loved the challenge of our difficult relationship,
built on suspicion and distrust, the pain reminding us we were still alive.
We were bored — who in their thirties isn’t, with so much time
to kill before death? Whenever he visited, he left his shoes at the door
and bowed, like someone entering a holy place. I felt sorry for her.
I felt sorry for them both. Don’t think that makes me a nice guy.
I wanted to make her happy, but couldn’t do it by myself.
I liked to say she was touring the world in bed:
first a Syrian, and later an African, and finally an East Asian.
It was cruel, but the best jokes usually are. So I let him,
in his entirely innocent and honorable way, sleep with her.
Feeling sorry for myself was as natural as chewing, but how could I
tell him that my job, my life were beginning to swallow me?
When I learned enough to order sushi, I quit the lessons.
She loved it when I ordered — Ocha o, kudasai! — reciting
the utterly foreign sounds as if I knew something
worth knowing. Finally we stopped seeing him,
and he went back to his country, and I left her
for another woman. I haven’t mentioned dessert,
tamago, paper-thin slices of egg welded into an omelette —
sugar and horseradish fusing on the tongue like radioactive
isotopes. The only thing I’m sure of is I loved them both.