by Kenny Mah
The cello moans, deep and tremulously.
She walks past the kopitiam, past the neighbourhood dai chow. She walks slowly, each step a memory, a callus of time. Her high heels go klick, klack on the concrete pavement, the cracks spreading like a web to capture lost dreams, the weeds and the waste water in the longkangs simmering stagnated desires.
She is hungry. Life hasn’t much meaning these days, but one must eat.
There is a small Japanese diner, the flaps of the noren curtains hiding a mystery behind them. There is a solitary chochin lantern illuminating the way in. There isn’t much light left in this world, she thinks, but there is light still. She enters.
Inside, she sits at a low long table, on a supple little stool. It is enough to seat all one’s troubles; it might bend like bamboo, but it won’t break. It can’t. She can’t afford breaking at a time like this. She needs to dine, to fill her empty tummy. She can fill that at least, even if her heart can’t manage it.
“Can I help you?”
Strong, masculine voice. Japanese accented English. Her thirst is slaked.
He offers her a simple menu, four, six variations on the same dish — good, old fashioned udon. He bends over her, a healthy sheen simmering on his muscular arms. It is a hot summer night. One can’t wear that much on a night like this. A short, thin T-shirt would do. She thanks God for hot summer nights and short, thin T-shirts.
She asks for the wakame udon, green seaweed to calm her nerves. She wonders if he has a woman, a wife or a girlfriend, she envies terribly. It feels good to envy and to want, to crave and covet. She has not had that feeling in awhile.
He brings her the bowl of cold udon, gently placing it before her like an offering. She cups the bowl with both her hands, touching ceramic touched by his hands only a moment ago. She catches a lingering whiff of solemn satisfaction, if she could have it.
She finishes her udon in silence, leaves money and departs.
She doesn’t return for awhile, but four days pass and she finds herself walking to the udon diner again. He greets her (”Welcome, can I help you?”), again with the warm smile. She sits at the same table, her buttocks resting on the same seat. She imagines he keeps this table, this seat just for her, that no other patron gets to sit there.
She orders the kakiage udon, a fiery orange-red of the carrot tempura igniting her cause and her campaign. She wants more than udon. She wants some feeding. She takes it hot, the udon, that is, this time. She burns her tongue slightly. She licks it softly against her lips. He looks at her, he smiles.
She slurps down her udon, swallows the last drop of miso soup, pays and walks home.
They know the routine now. She walks slowly to his diner, sashays in every night, he asks her what she would like, she orders, eats, and leave without ever saying a word.
Today, somehow today is different. She orders a simple udon, cold, with a raw egg on top. Some things are better this simple. You can taste the burst of life in each bite, in each coating of your senses. Life tastes good.
Today, today is different. He sits down opposite her. He looks at her. She remains silent. He asks her “Why do you eat here? Every night?”
“I like udon.”
And she looks up at him.
“And I don’t like eating alone. If I am not here, I will be at home alone, making a salad, eating it by myself.”
“A woman should never have to eat salads. Not a woman like you.”
He gets up, smiles and goes back to the kitchen. She starts weeping into her udon, feeling happy for the first time in years. She pays, leaves and never comes back.
At the back of the kitchen, there is a hole in the wall, near the yakitori grill. He presses his face against the cold white tiles. He leans towards the hole, cupping his hands over his mouth and whispers. Maybe it’s the secret recipe to his amazing udon which can bring tears to the eyes of silent women, maybe not.
He wonders what she’d look like in a cheongsam.
• IZAKAYA MEMORIES •