When your lunch break finally comes, you walk alone to the sushi place a few blocks down the street. It’s one of those little businesses that somehow survive in the hustle of the chain restaurants and the death of the downtown. It’s the type of place where, when you were in college, you used to take girls to make yourself seem more impressive. To show them that you knew the city well, that you were connected, a real member of a community. And you would say: this is sashimi, this is makizushi. You would move the delicate constructions over to her plate, the raw pieces of once living fish. Then you would watch her, shaky with her chopsticks, move your gift to her mouth, let the salty and sour tastes mix and pop on her lips. And her eyes would grow wide with that mixture of pleasure and revulsion and fear and excitement that comes from facing the unknown and finding it worthwhile.
Later, she might say she had a lovely time. She would hold your hand as you walked her to the door. The two of you would hug, nestled in the warm yellow glow of the porch light, on the threshold of the run-down white rented house where she lived. You held her close, because the future seemed to hover in front of you. You knew there would be a time when you would grow apart, lose touch. Eventually, that’s how things go.
Now you aren’t so much connected to a community as distinct from one.
You are welcomed into the shop’s soft bosom, the cool and dim and sparsely decorated room. The icy sour scent of raw fish wafts over you, fills you with that distinct sense of calm that only comes from a place you enjoy. A place that reminds you of your Midwest schooling, before you moved back home to take care of your mother. Before you took a job at the college library because it was close to the hospital.
Mostly, though, you like this place because you have become familiar with it and because your co-workers would never follow you here. It is a college place in a college town, a good place to be distinct from, to other yourself.
There is one waitress that you’ve made into a friend, informally, just enough for her to comment on your choices, to laugh at your attempts at jokes. The only American girl who works there. Maybe she’s too nice, you haven’t felt very funny lately. The old man who owns the place, who told you to call him Jiisan but you don’t, said, and you quote: “white people don’t trust sushi served by white people.” So he sends her over to you, and you wonder what that means.
Karen is arguing with a student and you are trying your best to ignore them. Most of the people who she argues with are already acting like idiots. This argument, you fear, is more pointless than usual.
You’ve been away from the sushi place for a few weeks, because your shift has changed. Grant, the old man who used to smoke Grand Prix by the campus book store, suddenly became sick. You said, “I’ll come visit you.” The hospital is so close, but Grant died a week ago and you never got to visit him. The only real consequence, besides a guilty conscience, is that now you are working evenings. You do your best to ignore your guilt, the tragedy of the whole thing. You refuse to sigh, ruefully stir your coffee, and declare, regretful, wistful: “He did it to himself.”
Karen and the student argue in loud whispers, almost speaking in full voices to substitute for screams. You feel bad for the poor kid. He’s not dumb, but he is woefully outmatched. Karen is a master of argument, petty and full of wild and creative ad hominem, though she’s never turned that gift fully at any student. A graceful handicap, she calls it. You turn back to your work, and there she is – the waitress from the sushi shop. She smiles, waves at you to get your attention.
“I thought that was you,” she says. She’s looking for a book. As you type in the title – A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, she tells you about graduate school, about all the daily educational minutiae she can fit into just under a minute and a half. Then she says, “You never told me you work here.”
“It never came up. You never told me where you work either.” You feel dumb, defensive, but she smiles. She disarms all of your worry.
“Good point,” she says. She laughs. It’s an easy laugh that lowers you back into the comfortable rapport you share.
The two of you find the book together. She’s bright, all smiles. She tells you about English literature. She complains about Jonathan Swift, about her teachers, her reading. “Reading used to be simple,” she says. “There were no theories, no interpretation, no metaphor, no symbols. It was just a story.” You hand her the book, walk her back to the counter to check it out.
“If you need anything else,” you say, as much a formality as anything.
“It’s due back the 12th, that’s two weeks.”
“I guess I’ll see you on the 12th,” she bites her lip. “Maybe before.”
“Maybe. When do you get off?”
When you meet her, she’s different. No longer that professionally friendly woman who works at the sushi bar, but more like that tired girl looking for Jonathan Swift in the library. She is suddenly, only now on the sidewalk, a real entity.
She waits for you on the street corner, the fading sunlight bright in her squinting eyes. She wears a hat and a scarf, red like the blush on her cheeks. It’s getting cooler. The outside smells like burning leaves in the distant pink-orange sky. She smiles at you, her silhouette mirrored in her shadow, long and lanky in the light.
You have sushi at the same little place. She says she can get you both a plate for free.
Suddenly, you feel unimpressive. What is there to say? “This is sashimi,” but she knows. “The tofu is boiled,” but she already knows. And you can’t say the library is an easy place to work. Suddenly, without knowing you at all, she understands your whole life.
You let her talk. She seems to like to. It’s nice, all at once, to have something else to listen to besides your own dusty thoughts. You imagine the description of her you would read in a short story.
She says, “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. Why?”
“You were looking away.”
You meet her once again for sushi and once for curry. When she comes over to your place on the third get-together you order take-out. You’ve talked her into pizza. You refuse to call it a date.
“Books,” you tell her, “ are easy.” She lies on your couch, reading your copy of Leaves of Grass. She’s being casual on purpose. She stares at the words but doesn’t read them. She admitted, once, that she prefers Oscar Wilde. You wonder if there is even a comparison to be made, or how such a creature as her could exist.
“Sushi,” she says, “is easier. There’s no meaning to it, it’s just beautiful. It’s functional art, and it doesn’t last too long.” She is a philosopher of the aimless. She asks questions like a girl from a book.
“I don’t think it’s my thing.” She shrugs, her eyes still lazily moving over the words, a wry smirk on her thin lips.
After you eat she tells you, “You know, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman shared a moment. On a train.” She is thoughtful, mesmerized by the situation in her head. You can almost see the characters move behind her eyes.
“You know. Their eyes met across the car, music played, that sort of moment. They loved each other, for a moment. Walt Whitman,” she says, “was easy.”
Your mother asks you if there are any women in your life as you drive her to the farmers market on Saturday. She’s weak, but still insists on going out. The doctor said most people lose a lot during treatment, and the hair is often only the most visible. Your mother, however, refuses to concede anything.
“I’ve been seeing someone, sort of.” You shrug. It makes your relationship sound too vague, too undefined. It doesn’t come close to catching all of the little moments that could collectively be described as “seeing”. But she’s glad for you. She smiles. She talks about grandchildren, the way mothers do. For a moment, sitting in the parked car by the pavilion downtown, everything will last forever and nothing bad will happen. For a moment, nothing exists that can hurt either of you.
She tells you about your brother, his wife, their son, as you look over the vegetables. They are doing well. That’s good to hear. You smile, glad for him. He deserves it. Your mother smells the tomatoes, carefully squeezes them. You watch her, the way her eyes focus as they examine the skin, watch the algebra unfold as she plugs the variables into whatever arcane formula tells her which tomatoes are best. You’ve watched it a hundred times, and you could watch it a hundred more. Here, today, with the warm sun shining on the river in the distance, the cool wind blowing off the water, you have all kinds of time.
She doesn’t look like a grandmother here, she looks thin and pale. She looks, you wince, fragile. The light almost shines straight through her. It’s the waiting that does it to you.
Grandparents are serious people. Yours were. You remember how you grandfather would sit in his chair – you were very young but you remember it well – and read the newspaper. Grandparents are the sort of people newspapers were made for.
Your mother doesn’t read the newspaper. She watches television. She watches all kinds of shows, not just the ones from the 60s when she was a girl. She watches the ones about sex, violence, the housewives who don’t seem to be home nearly as often as the name might suggest. Not at all serious.
Your grandparents have been dead since you were a child. You barely remember them at all. In the twenty or so intermittent years you have lost most of your connection to them. It has been severed by the sharp knife of time.
Now, instead of those vague specters, those people you never really knew, you think of your mother. You think of the house you grew up in. You drive by one day, on a whim, by accident, on a secret dare between your sense of self and your feelings of nostalgia, the two most dangerous friends your brain has ever made, and you find it has burned down. By knowing the truth your ideas change. The memories that were always lost to time now seem even further away. Behind another wall. Lost beyond the truth.
It makes it feel strange, the idea of getting close to another person. You think of her, lying on your couch, reading your books, talking about Walt Whitman. You want to be there with her, tucked under her shoulder, lost in those same fantasies.
Someone once said that every man was reaching to be a cowboy, trying to emulate Clint Eastwood, to stay distant and strong. Sometimes you want that, but it’s an unfair lie. God should have never made any ugly women or sensitive men, you tell yourself, hurt by the ashes of your old house and the ghosts of your grandparents and the pain in your mother’s wet eyes.
You want so many things, and each of them seems to move in a different direction, so that you can’t chase them all. You turn around, watching all of them retreat.
You drive home, tears hanging behind your eyes, but they won’t come. You sit in your car for a long time, not thinking about anything at all, only waiting. Waiting for the will to do something, even if it’s just getting out the car, shutting the door, going inside.
You’re doing this to yourself, you think.
“She’s not getting any better,” the doctor says about your mother. She’s been in and out of hospitals for six months, and just when they finally thought they had it beat, it seems to be winning. A doctor, you think, is just a man with a pen. He clicks it at you, and scribbles something on your mother’s charts, her life. It’s the history of her disease, the history of her dying. He looks tired. How can he be this calm, this casual? We’re talking about life here, you want to scream, we’re talking about death. He ought to at least make an effort. He damn well should.
Your mother is weak and pale. Her hair has fallen out. She insists that she is still able, that she can get around. It doesn’t stop you from worrying about her. Your mother takes the pills, and she doesn’t complain about the hurt, doesn’t complain about being tired. She doesn’t ask you to look after her or to come over every Thursday evening to watch Jeopardy, but you do.
The doctor smiles at you. It’s not warm, but it’s not wholly forced. It’s well-meaning, ambivalent, helpless – a thousand other feelings you don’t have the energy to find words for. He goes through that old talk. “We’ll keep fighting this thing.” We. Like either of you are doing any fighting. The medicine does the fighting. Your mother does all the fighting. Her body was so strong, but this is cancer; it’s a war of attrition. People aren’t meant to fight like that for so long.
He goes through the platitudes, one by one. Stay strong, he urges you, he urges her, but you have to concede that the hope is running thin. It started to fray a long time ago. There wasn’t enough to carry you to the end, to help you cross the finish line. The hope was too weak. Hope is always too weak, and this is the just the most recent link in a chain of bad news.
You wheel your mother out to the car. She protests but you want to. This is the smallest thing I can do for you, you want to say. This is also the biggest thing. What else would it be possible to do?
You remember a story you heard in college: when Babylon tried to take Israel, all those thousands of years ago, the Israelites simply waited inside the walls. They stayed strong. The walls were large and grand, big enough that not even Babylon, the strongest army around, would be able to muster the force to bring them down. Babylon was patient. They knew that Israel would run out of food, and without food the Israelites would be forced to give up hope. There were men who crawled through tunnels that led under the walls and out into the countryside. They got food, and let the siege last longer. Were they heroes? Weren’t they just doing the smallest thing they could to help their mother? It was hopeless. In the end the walls would fall, it was inevitable. They couldn’t hope to win against the largest army they had ever seen. They just held on.
She calls. She’s in the middle of a paper. She’s aimless.
“I need another word for pointless,” she tells you.
“Pointless synonyms, pointless antonyms. How about this phone call, is there a point?” You hear her laugh on the other end of the line, and you imagine her bright face smiling.
“What are you doing?” You are sitting at home. It’s Saturday, and you don’t have a damn thing to do. She shouldn’t be working. She has so much life ahead of her. You feel old and foolish for thinking that way, but you do.
“I need a break from my paper.”
“What were you thinking?”
“Well,” she’s casual. “Sushi?”
You wonder how she can be so attached to this place. You wait for her on the sidewalk in the dark, your hands jammed into the pockets of your jacket. You have a habit of being early, one that no one seems to admire.
She’s smoking when she walks up. She’s doing it to herself, a voice in the back of your head says. She smiles guiltily when she sees you. You dislike that voice immediately, suddenly find smoking sort of charming.
“I didn’t think you’d be this early,” she says, and throws the cigarette down. She wraps her hands up in the sleeves of her black cloth jacket. You embrace, and she hides her face in the warm folds of your shirt. “Sorry if I stink,” she says.
“You don’t,” you tell her. The smell of smoke in the cold reminds you of burning leaves, but already it’s making your head hurt.
When you order you ask her, “How long have you been smoking?”
“A few years,” she says. “I’ve been trying to quit, but I was stressed today over my paper.” She looks at you, searching your expression. “That’s not like, a deal breaker is it?” It makes you feel like a con man, all this talk of deals and breaking them. You shake your head.
“I was just curious.” She fiddles with her chopsticks. She was never very good at them, somehow. You’ve become accustom to her awkward motions.
“I don’t think I like eel,” she says.
“If you had to pick, would you choose eel or Jon Swift?”
“Do I have to eat it or read it?”
She spends the night for the first time, after sushi, with her paper unwritten. Jon Swift has waited 200 years, he can wait another night. You wonder if she’ll leave early, before you wake up. You wonder how long it has been since a woman slept beside you, how long since a man slept beside her.
She lays close to you smelling like smoke and sushi and herself. You hope the sheets will pick up that smell, hold it greedily. You put your face against her hair and all your problems and fears melt away. They retreat far into the distance, unseen.
In the morning she wakes you up early. She wants to stay in bed all day. She wants to forget her paper. She kisses you on the neck softly, presses her warm body against yours. But she gets up anyway, still dressed in last night’s clothes. Jon Swift has waited long enough.
When your mother dies everyone at the office is quiet. They are all silent and sorry for you. You carry the weight of her death around with you, but keep it quiet, sorrow on vibrate. It is only barely noticeable to those around you, and only when it goes off.
Your brother flies in from Oakland. He brings his wife and his son. They are nice people. You wish you could suck up all their sadness. They don’t deserve it. You think you could handle it, maybe. Haven’t you been?
“This must be so hard for you,” everyone wants to say, but no one does. You have to be strong all over again.
She holds your hand at the funeral, and you are grateful. She fills herself up on your sadness, and you worry. She’s so pretty and strong and in love with you. She doesn’t deserve this sort of sadness, this community sorrow.
Your brother cries when they put your mother in the ground.
Your brother and his family stay at your apartment for a week. The son is young, eight, nine, you aren’t sure. You feel like a bad uncle for forgetting. It’s just, you tell yourself, it’s hard to keep track when he’s so far away.
“I’m sorry the place is small,” you tell them.
“No, it’s really fine,” your brother says. You sigh. It’s not.
“I’m sorry to break your illusions is all.” You look up at the ceiling. He’s smiling at you now, the way he would when you were kids. You puff out your cheeks, letting the moment stretch out.
“What do you mean?”
“Just that the fast paced librarian lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it seems.”
They take you out to dinner, a nice restaurant away from the college. You ask her to go. “It’s my brother so try to eat real food, not just sushi.” You whisper to her in the back seat of your car as your brother drives. She smiles, looks at you out of the corner of her eye. She always seems like she’s plotting something when you’re having fun with her.
She’s made fast friends with your nephew. He pulls on her sleeve, a young boy with a crush, and asks her all kinds of questions. She explains, delicately, how the sushi is made. She tells him all the ingredients, the rolling, the cutting, the sticky rice, and the seaweed. He crumples his nose at that. “Seaweed? You eat that?” He asks, confused.
“There’s seaweed in ice cream, did you know that?” She says, smiling as his eyes widen with surprise and fear all at once.
“And the sushi,” you say, squeezing her knee, smiling at your brother in the mirror, “tastes just like ice cream.”
The library is dim now, suddenly empty of all attachments. If you were distinct from this place before, what are you now? You meet her for sushi. Jon Swift is winning, she tells you. Is everything alright? You aren’t sure. But she asks, and looks worried when she does.
“Is everything alright with you,” you ask back. Your problems aren’t so big if she’s doing okay. She pokes at her salmon maki, looking only a bit more confident with the chopsticks.
“I don’t understand why they used chopsticks. It’s not like they didn’t have the idea for a spoon. They weren’t digging holes with two sticks.” She forces a laugh. You reach across the table and take her hand.
Later, you lie in bed. Neither of you talk. “Does it bother you when I don’t say anything?” She asks, her voice so small in the darkness. You pull her closer.
“No. There’s a certain skill to appreciating silence. Thankfully I have it.” She’s spent the night every night for the past month. Every night since your mom died. She’s watching you, making sure you’re never lonely. You’re glad, in a way, but there is a part of you that thinks it might be time to be lonely.
Monday she has class until five. You call her right when she gets out.
“I want to tell you something.”
“I want to tell you something, too.” She sounds relieved.
“Do you want to meet somewhere?”
“Sure, what did you have in mind?”
You arrive early and order her rolls. All of her favorites. Salmon sashimi, spicy tuna, tempura maki. You fill a bowl with soy, mix in the wasabi the way she likes: two pinches from the chopsticks, swirled around with a knife.
You’ve only been there for ten minutes when she arrives, right on time. She smiles at you, sits. She seems grateful for what you’ve done.
You sit in silence for a moment, fiddling with your chopsticks. What do they say, when they pull them apart? You can’t remember.
“You wanted to tell me something,” she bites her bottom lip.
How do you answer that? What do you say? It all comes out so quickly. You can’t stay here anymore, at least you don’t think you can. There are a lot of bad feelings here, a lot of bad memories. All tied up in the city and the way it looks at night, the farmer’s market on Saturday, and the smell of the river on the wind. You can’t explain it. You should be closer to your brother, your nephew. The only family you have left.
You stop talking when the sushi arrives. Whatever you did say, you hope it was everything. You try to eat, to put something in your mouth to shut yourself up.
She looks at her food for a long time before she speaks. Her voice is even. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Then you hear what she says.
“I’m dropping out of grad school.”
Your last day of work is two weeks later. Karen cries a little when you leave. She says goodbye, they all do. They say they’ll remember you, and wish you the best. You walk outside, away from the sushi place that you’ll never eat at again and toward the park. You sit on the first bench you see. You read the last chapter of Gulliver’s Travels.
You wait until five o’clock.
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