“sometimes when I see people eating alone I want to sit down next to them” (part 5) by Michael Koh

The two entered the building and Maya marveled at the interior. A horseshoe shaped counter served as an open kitchen, where four chefs worked as a production line, one breading and frying the pork, the second cutting it, the third preparing the plate, and the final fourth chef overseeing the entire operation. Above, dangling overhead lights decorated the finished wood ceiling, and panels of wood sidings adorned the walls around the restaurant. Soft, traditional Japanese music surrounded businessmen in western attire and students in baseball caps and sweatshirts. In the left corner, she noticed stairs leading to the second story, but Hideo motioned her to sit down at the counter, where the overseeing chef attended to them immediately.

“Hideo! How are you doing?” asked the chef, donning a fatherly smile.

“Ojisan, I’m hungry as hell,” replied Hideo.

“You always are. You always are.” He looked at Maya and back at him. Her face did not register in his mind. “Who is this pretty girl?” He asked Hideo. “You finally find a girl for yourself?”

Hideo blushed. “What are you talking about, ojisan? I just met her tonight.”

“I’m just kidding with you,” the chef said. He looked at Maya. “What will you be having tonight?”

Maya looked at Hideo. He tapped his forehead as if remembering that she had never been to Tonki’s before. “It’s her first time here, ojisan,” he said.

“Oh, is that so?” said the chef looking at Maya.

She nodded and felt embarrassed. She brushed her hands on her knees and felt the wound had already clotted.

“Well, I’ll make yours especially good then,” he said, shuffling off and rolling his sleeves up to prepare Maya’s dish.

“Look at that,” Hideo said. “He’s making your tonkatsu. He usually never touches the food, only makes sure things are running smooth…”

Hideo’s voice changed to Judy’s, but the mouth and the words that came out were not in sync. “That fat chef is going to put sleeping pills in your food. They’re all going to take turns fucking you. Look at what he’s putting in your rice now.” Judy pointed at the chef preparing the rice. “It’s all poison. All of it.”

Maya closed her eyes.

“Just look, look at him, there goes a couple of blue pills…”

“Are you alright?” Hideo asked, in his voice.

Startled, Maya looked over at Hideo, who looked worried.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, feigning a smile.

“It’s just…” He shrugged and resumed talking about how he became acquainted with the employees at Tonki.

Maya massaged the side of her head. Judy sat in a booth watching the two interact. Maya felt her presence and instinctively looked behind her. Hideo turned his head to see what Maya was looking at.

“Are you waiting for someone?” He asked Maya.

Maya did not answer him. She looked through the crowd for Judy. She thought she was able to see her blond hair anywhere in this land of black, but she could not pick Judy’s exact location.

“Hey, here comes your food,” Hideo said, tapping Maya’s shoulder.

She turned around to see the chef walking over with a plate.

“Here you go,” said the chef, handing Maya the first plate. Hideo looked at the platter and Maya saw his eyes widen.

“Ojisan, that looks amazing,” he said.

“It’ll taste amazing too,” said the chef with a wink.

“Thank you,” Maya said, giving the chef a little bow.

“My pleasure, my pleasure,” he said.

Maya looked at Hideo, who handed her a fork and asked to go ahead. “Are you sure?” Hideo nodded. Maya eyed the fried pork, and felt her stomach grumble. “Ittadekimatsu,” she said and brought the fork into her mouth. The pork was surprisingly un-greasy and the crisp texture of the breaded outside contrasting with the juicy meat inside blended with the tangy, vinegar-like syrup of the tonkatsu sauce. “This is amazing,” she said, in between chewing.

“I can’t wait for mine,” he said, eying every morsel of food on her plate.

“It’ll come out soon,” the chef said. He turned to Maya and gave her a little bow. “Enjoy the meal,” he said, winking and walked back to his station.

Judy’s warning rang through Maya’s head. She could hear Judy say, “I was right, what did I tell you?” Enjoy the meal, he said. Winked at that boy. “He’ll enjoy you after,” Judy would say. Maya felt sick. She put her fork down and felt queasy.

“Maya?” Hideo wore a pained expression on his face. “Are you okay?” He asked, putting his hand on her shoulder. She felt his grip tighten as he repeated his question.

Judy was right. She put her hands up to her mouth. Hideo let go of her shoulder as if he had gotten a shock.

“Why would I lie to you,” said Judy, standing behind Hideo. “I love you,” she said. She watched Judy walk around Hideo and stand between the two of them.

“Maya, you don’t look so good,” he said. “Maybe I should take you home.”

Judy pointed to Hideo. “He wants to take you home, Maya.” She pointed at the food. “Finish it.” Maya closed her eyes. “Finish the fucking food, Maya,” Judy screamed in her ear. Maya grabbed the fork and resumed eating again.

“What’s wrong,” Hideo asked. “If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t eat it.” He looked at her pale, sweating face. “Are you sick?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, she began to shovel tonkatsu in her mouth, as if to say she was enjoying the food, as if to say that the pace at which she was eating represented the amount of her satisfaction with the taste of the food, that the amount of food in her mouth at any moment in time demonstrated her affinity of the quality of the food. Maya looked for Judy standing behind the counter. She could see Judy nodding in approval and she could feel herself becoming satiated with every bite.

“You are a weird girl,” he mumbled.

Maya pretended not to hear him as she took another bite. They ate in subdued silence, as the clinking of forks, the soft sound of glass on finished wood; the hollow crashes of knives through fried meat, the buzz of nearby patrons, filled the empty void that stood above their heads.

*          *          *

Maya and Hideo stepped out into the sunless, dark sky. The stars were hidden, covered, blocked by the bright lights of the city. The moon was dim, its light, unable to light pathways, unable to contribute, now seemed to serve no purpose in the starless sky of Tokyo.

Hideo spoke first. “Can I walk you home?”

Maya looked at the pavement and its dark surface, where a single white line ran down the middle, parting it in two. She did not answer Hideo.

“Well,” he added, “so that you don’t get attacked like before.”

She looked at him. He could see that her sundress complemented her slender figure, and her jet-black hair ran down past her shoulders. Hideo took a step back. “It’s just a suggestion,” he said.

“I wasn’t attacked,” she said, as if remembering a distant memory.

“Then what happened?”

Maya turned her head towards the street to see Judy walking towards them. “I wasn’t attacked,” she said to Hideo. “It’s nothing like that at all.”

Confused, Hideo pressed Maya for an answer. “What do you mean?” He asked. “I heard you screaming at someone before.”

Maya felt something heavy press down her shoulders. “You heard wrong,” she said. “I wasn’t attacked.”

“But,” he began, but thought better of it and let go of the issue. “I’ll walk you home anyway.”

“Thank you.”

The two walked, led by Maya, to Meguro station.

*          *          *

Maya passed streetlamp after streetlamp, and felt as if she was being watched from between the cold darkness that eluded the reach of the light. Hideo walked next to her, hands in pockets. She could hear Judy say something about his silence. “He’s measuring the level of intimacy of this night.” She would say. “Look at him, he’s watching you from the corner of his eye, it’s disgusting.”

“Where are you headed?” Hideo asked, breaking the silence.

“Train station.”

“Your hotel isn’t around here?”

“Ginza.”

“I can’t believe you came all the way out here for food,” Hideo said, surprise in his voice.

“I needed to go somewhere, somewhere far away to get my mind off of things,” she said.

“I know what you mean.” He lit a cigarette. “I want to just go somewhere for a week or two and come back refreshed and new.”

They walked by a park and Maya asked if they could sit for a while.

“Sure, I’m not in a hurry,” Hideo said, blowing smoke out of his nose.

Maya sat down on a bench and crossed her legs. She watched the traffic beyond the park. The distant lights looked like orbs floating between the thickets of brush and towering trees. Hideo sat down next to her, cigarette in mouth, and offered Maya a cigarette, which she gingerly took.

“Interesting how there’s a park in the middle of all of this chaos,” he said.

Maya nodded and the high-rises beyond the trees, illuminated by distant white lights, offered a faint halo to the branches. The braking lights of cars reverberated throughout the air, and Maya could smell diesel as a breeze kissed her neck. A man and a woman jogged by Maya and Hideo, briefly casting a shadow on their faces. In between the shadows, Hideo’s face was illuminated by the angry-red, burning end of his cigarette.

“Need a light?” Hideo handed Maya a lighter and she brought it to her cigarette, lighting it after a couple of tries.

“My hands are slippery,” she said.

“So,” he said. “What brings you to Japan? Didn’t you say you were from America? I’ve been to New York once, it was just like Tokyo.”

Maya was silent.

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” he said.

From underneath the shrubbery, Maya could see furry tails moving lazily about. She clicked her tongue, to which two lean cats emerged, and she leaned over, waving her hand, signaling them to come to her. The cats looked her up and down, examining her hand from a distance. They cautiously sniffed the air and slowly walked to her open palm, where they rubbed their bodies over Maya’s hand. She scratched their heads and tore her eyes away from the cats to look for food in her purse. There was nothing. She was disappointed that she would not be able to see them eat. She looked to see where they had gone. The cats had moved on to Hideo, brushing their bodies against his legs, leaving traces of themselves behind in the form of white hairs stuck on his pants.

“They won’t starve, right?” She asked Hideo.

He looked down to see the cats sitting and watching them intently.

“I doubt it,” he said, unsure of their future. “People come here all the time to feed cats.”

The two cats, realizing that food was nowhere to be found, mewed at Maya and Hideo, and left their immediate presence, bounding back into the shrubbery, softly rustling the leaves.

Maya observed the brush for a few moments before opening her mouth to speak.

“I hope they don’t starve.”

“They’ll be okay.”

“It’s just,” she paused for a bit before resuming talking. “I know how it feels to go without food for a while.”

Hideo’s ears moved slightly.

“I mean, my family was never poor, but, after my mother died, my father was never around, and my sister was always sick.”

Hideo looked at the star-sparse sky.

Maya gave a little cough. ” I ran away from home.”

Maya looked at Hideo’s face. He moved to reciprocate her actions. Her eyes were dark, yet soft, subtly expressing undulating guilt, and a hint of regret.

“My sister, she’s all alone right now, and I’m here, selfishly looking for my real parents while she’s back home, dying.” Maya looked straight into Hideo’s eyes. “Am I a bad person, Hideo?”

Hideo was silent for a while, absorbing what Maya had said, attempting to discern whether she was a bad person or not, for leaving her sick sister behind.

“I don’t think I know you well enough to distinguish that,” he said.

“Distinguish?” Maya did not know that word.

“Yeah, decide.”

Maya nodded to let him know that she understood.

The two fell silent for a bit as the sky became darker, dulling the already faint stars. Hideo tossed his cigarette on to the ground, letting it burn itself out. Maya saw the embers flicker and finally die as the smoke dissipated in the cold night air.

“She didn’t like me very much,” Maya said. “I think, in a way, she thought I was her replacement. She was thrown off her, how would you say it, royal chair?”

“Throne.”

“Yes, throne. My mother spent a lot of time looking after me, and I guess over time, she became jealous and that became anger towards me. I wish she wasn’t so angry at me. Maybe then, just maybe, she would not be so sick. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking but, I can’t help but think that if I weren’t in her life, she would be better off. She wouldn’t be sick because of me.”

Maya thought of Judy’s body in bed, back in Ohio. Judy, consumed by a high fever, slept precariously on the edge of sleep and coma; her arms, thin and frail, penetrated by a variety of intravenous needles, lay almost lifeless beside her. Her shallow breathing, almost indiscernible without close inspection, hinted at her still-alive figure. Maya thought of when Judy had whispered into Maya’s ear, “Fuck off,” and spit on her face. That was the last time Maya had seen Judy.

“Sometimes, I wish that I had never been adopted by my mother. I wonder, ‘What if I had never been put into an orphanage?’ I guess that’s why I’m here. To find out why.” Maya dropped the half-smoked cigarette on the ground and stepped on it.

“Do you know where you were born?”

“No, I never had the chance to ask my mother. She died before I had the courage to ask, and my father, he disappeared soon after.”

“So you’re here with no direction, nothing to work with.”

“I left in such a hurry, I didn’t pause to think about anything. I wanted to leave Ohio. I wanted to leave my sister. Now, I feel like I’ve done something awful.”

“You’ve killed me.” Judy’s voice rang in her head. “You left me for dead. You’re a murderer.”

“I can’t help but think I’ve killed my sister for leaving her behind,” Maya said, bringing her hands to her face.

“Is she in the hospital?”

“No, she’s back at home,” she said.

“Is there a nurse?”

Maya shook her head.

Hideo was silent.

“Have you tried calling home?”

“No, the phone lines are cut.” Maya spoke as if she had ice on the tip of her tongue.

Hideo took out another cigarette and lit it. He inhaled the tobacco and exhaled grey smoke.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?”

“For what you’re going through right now.”

“I’m sorry too,” she said.

Maya thought of her sister.

“Maybe I should go back.”

“Home?”

“Back home, yes.”

“Maybe. But aren’t you here right now?” Hideo said.

Maya nodded. “I’m just regretting leaving her at home. I don’t know what to do.”

“Is she really sick?”

“She’s dying.”

“I’m dead,” Judy said. “All because of you.”

“She’s dead because of me,” Maya corrected herself.

“How do you know that? You shouldn’t say stuff like that.”

Judy’s voice meandered through Maya’s ears. “You left me; how could you do that? No one loved me, not even mother; she threw me aside for you, and now you’ve done the same. You left me for dead when I need you the most.”

Ignoring her voice, Maya took Hideo’s hand and examined it. Her eyes followed his arms up to his face and she could see that he was embarrassed and surprised. Judy, I deserve this. She leaned in and kissed his lips. She felt him tense up, but he gave in to her and she thought she heard someone stifle a cry.

Maya looked away, blushing, and pretending to fix her dress. Hideo cleared his throat and turned his gaze towards Maya.

“Do you want to come to my place?” He asked.

Maya suppressed a smile.

“For coffee,” he added.

“Is it original coffee?” She asked.

“Original coffee?”

“Nevermind.”

“So is that a yes?”

“Yes.”

Maya took Hideo by the hand and stood up to leave.

Profile: Michael Koh
Read Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 6

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