by Susan Olding
Miki is pouring rice from a bag into a measuring cup when the phone rings. Its electronic warble startles her. She slips, and translucent pellets of uncooked grain spill across the countertop. Never waste, her grandmother used to say. Okome is precious. She snatches a take-out menu from the shelf above the sink and uses it as a broom, sweeping the rice into a bowl—a task made troublesome by its near-invisibility against the smooth white surface of the counter. From the bedroom, Matt’s voice rises in staccato gusts. She has to strain to hear. She can’t catch every word—and even if she could, her English might fail her—but from his tone, she guesses that for once it isn’t a fellow student on the line. With his friends in the program, Matt tends to joke or argue or complain. Now, he sounds polite, even deferential. But cool. “Yes, of course. Whenever you like.” She runs water over the rice to soak it. Maybe it is a sansei, one of his professors.
The receiver’s click signals Matt’s return. He stands amid their unpacked boxes of books and summer clothing at the entrance to the main room, tugging at an unruly strand of hair that curls where it hits his collar. I’ll trim it for him on the weekend, Miki tells herself. Looks messy this way.
“That was my dad,” he says. His eyes meet hers for the barest second, before he looks away. Me wa kuchihodo ni mono o iu, Miki thinks. The eyes say as much as the tongue. The trouble is, they don’t. Not really. Of course, if she wanted a better explanation, she could always ask him a question, demand to know what he’s thinking. She could if she were another kind of person—the kind that Matt apparently wants her to be. “You’ll need to act more assertive if you want to get along in Canada,” he had said. “People will misunderstand you.”
She shivers, following his gaze to the balcony. Out there, snow is falling. A two-inch layer coats the railing and the sole piece of furniture, a warped plastic table forgotten or abandoned by the previous tenants. In the building next door, people are turning on lights and pulling their drapes closed. Now is not the time to press things, Miki decides. She reaches into the cupboard for some bowls.
“He’s coming,” Matt continues. “He and his wife—he and Doris.” He almost spits the name. “He’s going to be in town for a conference. Late December.”
His father. Later, scrunched against a pillow on the floor, flicking the television on, Miki considers this. In Osaka, Matt rarely spoke about his family. He told her that his father ran a business—farm machines. His mother had died of cancer a few years before Matt left for Japan. He hadn’t said much else. Are all Canadians like this, she had wondered. So indifferent to their parents, to their families. But no, she saw. It wasn’t indifference, after all. With her parents, and especially with her grandmother, Matt was respectful and considerate. In the last months of Obaasan’s life, he had visited her every weekend. True, he wanted to be with Miki, and she was going there; but he also spent hours at work in the tiny garden outside the old woman’s window. “It’s nothing,” he said. “I’m glad if I can give her a bit of pleasure.” Miki’s parents were grateful—so grateful that they had almost forgiven Matt for being foreign. So grateful that they had almost forgiven Miki for marrying him. Almost.
She flips the TV to another channel. Ming Tsai is making sushi. Lights glint and sparkle off the glass and marble and stainless-steel surfaces of his studio. Miki smiles. What would her grandmother have made of this? Before she became too frail and had to be moved to the city, she managed for years with an old-fashioned wood stove and heavy iron pots in her cramped, dark kitchen in the Miyama Valley. Ming Tsai. He’s not even Japanese. How can he be a sushi-making expert?
He measures water for the rice. Lay a hand on it, Obaasan would have said. The water should just cover the tops of your fingers. Next, he takes some already cooked rice from another pot and spreads it on a platter, fanning with one hand as he pours the flavouring mixture, sweeping the wooden paddle in slow figure eights to expose every grain to the vinegar. Throughout all this, he eyeballs the camera, keeping up an earnest enthusiastic patter.
“Miki? I need to concentrate,” Matt calls. With his design background, he finds the science courses in the landscape architecture program challenging. This month, he is writing papers on the biology and chemistry of woody plants. Miki hardly sees him any more.
She hits the mute button and continues watching.
When Matt won a big entrance scholarship to enter the graduate program, he phoned his father to tell him. Pretending to look at a magazine, her long hair screening her face, Miki eavesdropped on the conversation. It had not gone well. But Matt didn’t want to talk about it. “We don’t agree about a lot of things,” was all he said. Even so, Miki was surprised when they first came to Canada that they did not see his father. Matt had rolled his eyes and showed her a map. “Look,” he said. “Here’s Guelph. Here’s Calgary.” Now that she has been here for a few months, though, she has heard his friends talk about their own parents; and she knows that some of them pay visits to families even farther away.
On the screen, Ming has finished demonstrating how to pickle ginger. Now he pares a carrot into the shape of a rose. Now he slices cucumber for California Roll. He plays that cherry-wood cutting board like an instrument. Yo-Yo Ma, with a knife in place of the bow. But he forgets a step. His sushi will not taste as good as it looks. He does not cut the kappa’s stem end and rub the surfaces together to produce foam—the way Miki’s grandmother taught her. Aku nuki. Removal of bitterness.
Part of Matt’s problem with his father, Miki knows, is his father’s new wife. Doris.
“She was his secretary,” he says. “Talk about banal!”
Miki has looked up “banal” in her dictionary. At the School of English, she herself was Matt’s prize pupil, and now they are married. Is this any less banal?
Once she saw a photograph of Matt’s father and Doris, taken at their wedding. It arrived one hot summer afternoon in Osaka after classes were finished for the day, and she and Matt had sneaked back to his tiny apartment. Matt glanced at the envelope and poured himself a beer before opening it. He barely looked at the picture. Instead he dropped it on the counter and walked across the room to turn on the stereo, then stood looking out at the traffic on the street. Miki picked up the photo and stared. Doris had curly blonde hair and pink lipstick. The hand holding her bridal bouquet was out of focus. Matt’s father, Gordon, was a big man, almost completely bald, his scalp the shade that Matt’s forehead turned when he was sunburnt or angry. Or embarrassed.
On screen, Ming arranges the food on celadon plates. She can’t remember the last time she tasted anything that looked so delicious. The tired, prepackaged fillets at the supermarket in this land-locked city disgust her. She and Matt don’t even buy fish anymore.
The program ends and the screen fills up with web addresses for the recipes. In the next room the printer grunts and bleeps. Miki switches off the TV and pads down the hall. Matt sits at the computer, chin thrust forward, shoulders hunched. When he hears her, he turns, frowning. “I have to keep working on this.”
“I know,” she says. “I just came to say hello.” She kneads the back of his neck, and he relaxes slightly.
“Kimochii ga ii. That feels good. A little higher.”
She presses against the base of his skull.
“What were you watching?”
“Ming Tsai.” She pulls her fingers through his hair. It has begun to thin on top. A small, quarter-sized circle of scalp peeks through. Just like his father.
“Matto,” she says. “When your dad comes, we should serve sushi.”
Sushi and sashimi are Matt’s favourite foods. “Sushi,” he says. “Mmmmm. We haven’t had that in so long.” He shifts in his chair, stretching his legs. “Not since we left Japan.”
“We need to make a special meal,” Miki urges. “It’s important.”
The printer shudders to a stop. Matt bends to pick his paper out of the tray, then reads the first few paragraphs, his expression darkening. “Ugh!” The tendons in his neck tighten again. “This is awful. I don’t have a clue what I’m saying. I’m going to fail the course. I know it.”
“We could have toro, and ebi.”
“What?” He throws the paper on the desk. “Fresh fish costs a fortune here, Miki. Sushi’s too expensive for us. Forget it.”
Tramping through snow to the Asian store, Miki practices her English. She may have been Matt’s best student back in Japan, but she knows she will have to improve if she wants to pass the TOEFL exam so she can go to graduate school herself next year. Beginning in January, she will be taking a refresher class, but for now she must work on her own. Articles give her trouble. Snow fell. The snow fell. A light snow fell. All are correct. How to know which one to use? Such an arbitrary language.
At the doorway of the store, she stamps her boots to rid them of the snow. Some snow. Heavy snow. A bell rings when she enters. Mr. Yamamoto sits near the cash, an adding machine and a pad of paper laid before him. His thick-lensed spectacles hang from a chain around his neck; his grey woollen cardigan buttons to the top; his black hair is threaded with more grey. “Konnichiwa,” he says. Miki bows, reaches for a basket, and begins her tour of the aisles, checking items against the list in her head. Soy, bonito flakes, dried mushrooms. She likes the familiar labels, with their black and vermilion characters. She likes the familiar smell of the place—rich, and dark, and salty.
At the end of the counter, towards the back of the store, stands a small glass-front display-type refrigerator. Miki does not remember seeing this on previous visits. She does not remember hearing it, either. A steady hum, a mechanical mantra, emanates from the case, transfixing her. Inside, beside the usual pickles and fried tofu, on a bed of crushed ice, nestled against a hill of silky scallops and a parcel of striated shrimp, lies a plump, bright eyed, silver-scaled salmon.
Mr. Yamamoto bends over his adding machine. With one hand, he pushes his glasses higher on his nose; with the other, he punches the numbers. He shakes his head, clucking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Sumimasen,” says Miki. He looks up.
“Such beautiful fish.”
He inclines his head, removing his glasses. “It is fresh.”
Unlike the fish in the supermarket, she thinks.
“I will purchase other varieties to order,” he adds. “For sushi and sashimi. I cannot keep it in the store, but I will order. I have found a good supplier.”
She points to the salmon. Ikura desu ka? How much?
The stool scrapes against the floor as Mr. Yamamoto rises, quoting a price. He shuffles towards her, and she sees that the elbows of his cardigan sprout with pills from his constant leaning against the counter.
“Dozo. Please. Don’t get up.” Her face burns. “I need to consider my menu.”
“Of course.” He returns to his stool, watching her as she slinks around the corner into the next aisle. Her palms sweat. So expensive! More, even, than she’d allowed herself to imagine. Matt is right; they can’t afford fresh fish on their income. She will have to think of something else to serve. But what? Nothing else she can think of is special enough for the occasion. Near the window, she pauses to compose herself, pretending to compare different brands of noodles.
The lunch hour is ending. Crowds of businesspeople and shoppers push against each other outside on the icy sidewalk; voices rise and fall in animated conversation, yet Miki is the store’s sole customer. She comes here at least once a week, so she knows it is often that way. Here, she never has to stand in line at the cash the way she does at the grocery store, or even at the health food store where she and Matt buy vitamins. Here, she never has to compete for Mr. Yamamoto’s service. Every now and then, a curious face presses up against the glass; every now and then, a gloved hand points at the bonsai or the ceramic dishes on display; every now and then, someone comments on the beautiful arrangement. But very few of them come in; the bell at the door is mostly silent. How does Mr. Yamamoto stay in business?
She picks up some nori and examines the packaging. The first few times she tried to roll maki, the wasabi stuck to her fingers and the rice clumped raggedly. Obaasan showed her a trick then, a way of dampening her hand before adding each ingredient. Obaasan knew many tricks, techniques that made things easier. She was a patient teacher.
At the cash, Miki places her basket on the counter. Mr. Yamamoto slides the adding machine to one side. “It is quiet here today,” she says.
“Hai,” he agrees.
“And yet so busy on the street.”
As if to prove her point, four or five businessmen clomp past. “So I said, why doesn’t your department look after it then,” one of them shouts. The rest of them laugh.
Mr. Yamamoto shrugs. “Not many Japanese here. Not many Asians.” He begins to ring in her purchases—$3.45, $8.99, $2.15—frowning through his glasses at each item.
Miki swallows. “On television, I have seen chefs giving sushi making lessons.”
“Japanese cuisine is very popular. Very healthy. Low fat. Many people would like to prepare it for themselves.”
“It is not difficult when you know how.”
Mr. Yamamoto’s face remains impassive, but one hand pauses above the cash while with the other removes his glasses. “Iie, wakari masen? What are you saying?”
“It would bring people into the store,” she blurts. “Charge only a small fee for the lessons. But they will buy the ingredients.” She gestures towards the shelves. “Afterwards, they will bring their friends. Their friends will buy. Business will improve.”
In Osaka, Miki would never have said something this crazy, this boorudo, this bold. Her skin prickles, the way it does when she rubs it with the loofah in the extra-hot baths she loves. The sensation is painful, yet pleasant—not quite what she had expected.
Mr. Yamamoto’s eyebrows shoot up. He smiles. Then he reaches for his stool, shaking his head.
“Who would do this? Who could explain the technique?”
She draws a deep breath. In Japanese, there isn’t really a word for it—assertive. I need to be more assertive.
Switching to English, she says, “I would. My grandmother taught me the old ways.” Her knees, encased in snow-dampened denim, are shaking. “My English is not perfect, but it is good. Good enough.”
By the time she leaves the store, she and Mr. Yamamoto have negotiated an arrangement. Five Saturdays, two of them before the Christmas holiday, in exchange for enough fish for Miki’s sushi dinner.
The day of the visit, it snows again. Miki senses it the minute she wakes—something muffled yet charged in the atmosphere. Matt opens their blinds and looks at the sky, faintly pink. “Maybe their flight will be cancelled,” he says.
It isn’t. Exactly on time, the buzzer sounds. Matt’s father bends to unbuckle his rubbers, which he deposits on the boot tray next to the door. His shoes, he leaves on his feet. Doris too. She wears stiletto heels, black patent leather, salt and dirt spattered now from her trek through the slushy parking lot.
“At last. I thought we’d never meet you,” she gushes. “And what a lovely kimono you are wearing.” She enfolds Miki in a powdery, odoriferous hug. Miki sneezes and bows. As she rises, Matt’s father grasps her hand and begins to pump it. “So, this is Matt’s wife. My new daughter.” An anxious crease crumples his forehead. “Matt. You remember Doris?”
“Of course.” Doris steps forward as if to embrace him too, but Matt ducks into the closet, emerging with two hangers.
“It’s a long time since I’ve seen you,” Doris says, handing him her coat. “You used to bring crayons to the office and sit there drawing. Do you remember that? I tacked your pictures to the filing cabinet. Even then you were a talented boy.”
“Can I take your scarf?” Matt asks.
“Please pardon for the bad weather.” Miki feels quite certain that no one in this country offers ritual apologies, but she isn’t sure what else to do or say. And Matt is not providing much help.
“We should be apologizing to you,” Doris laughs. “How do you like Canada so far?”
“It snows in Japan too,” Matt interrupts.
“Please,” Miki begs. “Come in. Come in.”
Matt’s father stands in the centre of the living room, his hands thrust into his pockets. “I’ve heard of graduate student pads,” he says, in a hearty voice, “but you two need some furniture!” As if for the first time, Miki sees the nearly bare walls, the unpacked cardboard boxes. She lowers her head. This is her fault.
“We like the Japanese style,” Matt asserts. Just last week he had complained to Miki, “When are we going to move in here?”
“It’s what they call . . . minimalist,” ventures Doris.
“Minimalist. I’ll say! Where do you sit?”
“Here, Dad.” Matt directs his father to the place of honour, a cushion under the tokonomo. Gordon’s knee joints crackle as he lowers himself to the floor. Doris follows suit, angling her long, skinny shins neatly to one side. But her skirt is snug across the hips, and she shifts position, trying to get comfortable. Her heel catches in her black nylon stocking, and with a sound like a match being struck, a run sizzles up the length of her calf.
“Oh,” she says. “Oh dear.”
Miki escapes to the kitchen.
By the time she returns with green tea and beer and sake, Matt is showing photos to his father. “Here is the School of English. This is where Miki and I met.” He smiles at her as she fills his cup. “Here is my apartment. This is Miki’s family. Her parents, her brother, her grandmother.”
“Nice looking people. And what does your brother do?”
“Ken-ichi,” she answers. “He studies engineering.”
“Engineering! A useful profession.”
Matt looks meaningfully at Miki, but otherwise, he ignores this. Instead, he turns to some pictures of the Japanese gardens he came to admire while he was living there. “The Kyoto parks are justly famous. Entsuji. Murinan. Daisenin Teien,” he says. “See the way they’ve set out the paths here? And here, the way the trees appear to spring up from the water.”
“Did you learn a lot of Japanese while you were there?” Doris asks.
“Enough.” Matt has hardly glanced at Doris since they arrived, Miki realizes. Not even when his father introduced her. But Miki looks. Doris is biting her lip and tracing a pink fingernail along the run in her stocking.
“Matt’s Japanese is very good,” she says, offering Doris more tea.
Doris’ answering smile is grateful. “Can I help you with anything, dear?”
“No, no,” Miki insists as she gets up. “Please. Sit.” She feels as awkward as Doris must be feeling, in this kimono. It’s a long time since she has worn one, and she wonders now why she bothered to put it on. She looks like a flight attendant for Japan Airlines.
Listening from the kitchen pass-through as she arranges bowls on a tray, she can follow the conversation. Gordon is doing most of the talking. “Made some good contacts at the conference,” he says. “Business is good these days. No such thing as a small farm anymore; and the bigger the farm, the more they need our machines to run it.”
Miki thinks of Obaasan, growing tea, and rice, and ginger, growing cabbages, and peppers, and strawberries. When her parents moved her to the city, they sold the property to a developer.
“It’s true,” she agrees, returning with the miso soup. “Even back home, the old ways have almost disappeared. Everything is automated now.”
“Exactly,” Gordon trumpets. He drains his beer and thumps it on the table. “Tell that to your husband, Mr. Back to Nature.”
“Such pretty dishes,” Doris murmurs. “You must have brought these from Japan?” Miki nods and concentrates on her food.
“Tell me about this program you’re enrolled in,” Gordon continues. “How long did you say it was?”
“Two years.” Matt removes the lid from his bowl and slurps the hot liquid.
“Two!” Gordon shakes his head. “And you were three years in Japan.” He picks up his bowl. “Well, enjoy it. In my day we couldn’t postpone the working life.”
So far, Matt has kept his temper, but Miki can tell that it is mounting. The tendons of his neck are tight. She touches his shoulder gently. “Matto?” she says. “Help me with the salad?” A break, however short, will do him good.
In the kitchen, she pleads. “Try, Matt. Ignore your father. And can’t you be nice to Doris? She doesn’t seem so bad.” But Matt will not reply. He only glowers at her, picking up a plate.
Back in the living room, Miki searches for the words. “Cucumber.” She looks at Matt. “Wakame?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know what that is, in English. It’s good. Try it.”
Doris and his father feel around their plates but do not make a move to eat. Doris flushes, and suddenly Matt understands. He bolts to the kitchen, returning with a pair of forks. “Sorry,” he says.
Miki’s face burns. How could she have forgotten?
A foreigner, however kind, had not been Miki’s parents’ first choice as a suitable partner for their only daughter. Especially a foreigner who planned to take her away from Japan. Miki had assumed that her grandmother, a generation older, would feel the same way. But when Miki had told her that Matt had asked her to marry him, the old woman had surprised her. Sumeko miyako. Wherever you live, you come to love it. Now, though, Miki wonders if this was good advice. Will she ever get used to the customs of this place?
The next course is a stir-fry of winter vegetables. She watches, fascinated and appalled, as Matt’s father shakes soy sauce over his rice. “Now, biotechnology,” he says, “that’s the wave of the future. The way to grow.” He laughs at his own pun. “If you’ve got any money to invest, that’s where you should be putting it.”
“Yeah. Well, I don’t. And if I did, that’s not what I’d do with it,” Matt answers. “Don’t you worry about the risks? Aren’t you concerned about the future?”
“You sound like one of those crazy hippie environmentalists. What they know about farming could be written on the palm of Miki’s little hand, there. Bunch of lunatics.”
“That’s not what I’m learning in the program.”
“The program! What do they know, those professors of yours? I mean, what the hell is that, a landscape architect? Sounds like a glorified gardener to me.”
“Landscape architects happen to be in great demand.”
Miki excuses herself to get the fish. Surely now they will stop arguing and enjoy the food, she thinks. Gently, she removes the plastic wrap from around the platter and carries it to the table. With quiet pride, she sets it down and points out the different varieties. “Toro. Ebi. Hamachi. Suzuki. Please.”
But Matt is the only one who takes anything, and by now he is so wrought up that he does not notice what anyone else is doing or not doing. “Believe it or not,” he says, “some people want to live in harmony with the environment. Some people care about the fate of this planet.” He reaches for the wasabi and bites angrily into a California Roll.
“Harmony. Listen to him!” Gordon shouts.
“Excuse me. Is that raw fish?” asks Doris.
“You think you’ll actually be able to get a job when you graduate?” Gordon goes on. “And even if you do get one, what kind of a job will it be? Building prissy little gardens for rich people. How does that contribute anything to society? How does it combat so-called climate change?” He throws his fork down and swallows the last of his beer. “Then again,” he observes. “I don’t know why I’d expect anything different. You always were impractical. Just like your mother.” Abruptly, he stands. “Come on, Doris. Let’s get back to the hotel. My knees are killing me.”
“Please,” Miki almost wails. “You haven’t eaten!”
For an endless minute, no one says anything. I will not cry, Miki vows. I will not cry. And amazingly, she doesn’t. Somehow, she keeps her face composed; somehow, she holds her back straight. And finally, for the first time in the entire evening it seems, Matt looks directly at Doris. Sighing, he points to the futo maki. “This one, you can eat,” he says. “No raw fish. It’s nothing but egg. Like an omelette. Egg,” he says, louder. “And pickle.”
After they leave, Miki escapes to the bathroom, where she splashes cold water on her face. Emerging, she sees that Matt has opened the sliding glass door. In sock feet, he stands on the icy concrete floor, elbows planted on the railing and head in his hands. A pathetic pose, but Miki doesn’t feel much sympathy. You were the one who wanted me to be more assertive, she thinks. Look what that got us.
In the living room, she stops to pick up the tray of food, intending to take it to the garbage. The fish is no longer translucent. She prepared far too much, she realizes now. Even if Gordon and Doris had loved sushi, the four of them would never have been able to finish this. What was she thinking? What got into her? Such a waste. Obaasan would be ashamed of her.
Or would she?
Her grandmother had invoked yet another proverb on the day that she gave Miki her tacit blessing to follow Matt. They were sitting together in the old woman’s room at the time, gazing out at the garden, where Matt was raking stones. “He’s asked me to marry him,” Miki had announced. “He wants to go back to Canada.” Her grandmother did not answer right away, but instead kept on staring out the window. Matt leaned the rake against the shed and reached up to examine a branch on the flowering crab. Obaasan’s expression remained impassive. Or, more likely, disapproving, Miki thought. She looked down at her hands. “Of course, I couldn’t leave here,” she said lamely.
“Why not?” Was it Miki’s imagination, or did her grandmother struggle to suppress a smile as she spoke? Doku kuwaba sara made. If you’re going to eat poison, include the plate. Once you have committed to something, don’t hold anything back. Go for it.
Still holding the platter of sushi, Miki looks up. Snow gusts wildly in the updraft from the building’s heating vent. Matt has not moved from his spot by the railing. She joins him. Below, in the parking lot, Doris picks gingerly through the drifts in her heels. Even from this distance, the run in her stocking is visible. Gordon, more practically dressed, is already scraping the windshield.
Miki brushes the snow from the plastic table and sets down the tray. She lays her hand on Matt’s back. Snow mantles his hair, and dampness has curled the unruly strands near his collar. Time for another trim.
“I told you it was hard to explain,” he says. “I’m sorry.” He turns away. The snow has melted from his bald spot, and the skin there shines—a tiny tan island against a sea of white.
Out on the lot, Doris has disappeared into the car. Gordon sweeps snow from its roof, rapping the scraper against his palm to rid it of ice clusters. Now he starts on the back window, his long arm moving in arcs.
Miki has him in her sights; she makes sure of it. Then, with eyes trained firmly on the target, she reaches down to the table, grabs a piece of sushi and winds up for an elaborate pitch. “Nigiri!” she yells. She grabs another. The rice in her fingers feels pleasantly cool and sticky, not unlike the snow itself. She squishes it, packing it more firmly for the throw. “Toro!”
Matt’s mouth falls open. “What are you doing?”
She grins. “California Roll!”
Together, they peer over the balcony. Her aim is accurate, but the distance is too great and the sushi has fallen short of its intended destination, landing instead among the imprints left by Doris’ and Gordon’s shoes.
Matt begins to laugh. He snatches a piece himself and hurls it. “Kani!” Taking hold of another, he calls, “Maguro!”
At the sound of Matt’s voice, Gordon looks up. He frowns slightly, then shrugs and waves.
Miki grabs another roll and aims. “Hirame!” And another. “Kamikaze sushi!”
The two of them are laughing now, laughing so hard that their bodies shake and tears stream from their eyes, stinging their cold cheeks. The tray is empty. Mr. Yamamoto’s beautiful, glistening, tender fish is gone. In the morning the sun will appear, the temperature will rise. Curved like two rice paddles together in their bed, they will wake to a raucous party of scavenging crows discovering this unexpected bounty under the melting ice.