Fiction

Season to Love

We expressed our feelings through food — until we didn’t

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My wife, Ayu, expresses her feelings for me through her cooking.

I first tasted this behavior at our wedding. That day, possibly the happiest of her life, she arranged a whole tray of sushi — salmon, sea urchin, herring roe — to rival those served in fancy restaurants. It stirred me. Who cooks right after exchanging wedding vows?

When upset, Ayu’s culinary choices become stingy. On one occasion, after we’d had an ugly fight, she gave me an apple with a fork stuck in it. She had eaten dinner first.

Wide-eyed, I asked her, “Is this a joke?”

“It’s called a diet.” Readjusting her sprouting bun, she sat across from me at the kotatsu table. We always pulled it out during winter to eat cozily in its futon.

“I only weigh 70 kilograms.”

“You’re right.” She bit the corner of her plump lip, her guilt-is-eating-me-alive gesture. “I’ll make it up to you tomorrow. I promise.”

Ayu kept using this seasoned form of communication throughout our marriage.

The time I surprised her with a gift at Christmas, she prepared a steamy oden pot — boiled eggs, fish cakes, soy-flavored broth.

The time I slept over at the home of a co-worker, Haru, Ayu cooked rice — only rice.

The time she found out that Haru was short for the male name Haruki, and not Haruko, she made rice balls of various shapes — pandas, penguins, snowmen.

The most memorable time — memorable in a bad way — was when Ayu stopped cooking altogether. For the first time in our two years of marriage.

“Takeout?” I uttered, gawking at the supermarket bento boxes sitting on the kotatsu tabletop.

“I was tired today. Had to shovel snow from the veranda.” Ayu picked a mushroom with her chopsticks and nibbled at it. “This is good.”

I took a bite too. “Not as good as your cooking.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get back to it tomorrow.”

The next day, she bought instant noodles at 7-Eleven.

Then, Ayu ordered a grilled shrimp pizza from Dominos.

This went on and on for an entire week. One afternoon, as I watched Ayu take a rosy-cheeked nap on the kotatsu futon, I chewed over the matter. She’d cooked to display her affection for me. Maybe that affection had cooled? Melted? Been thrown in the garbage like leftovers?

One Monday morning, I ate the red bean buns Ayu had bought from across the street, waved goodbye to her, and walked to Tsukiji Station. Instead of forging ahead, I stood in the middle of its sloping steps, briefcase stiff in my hand.

I couldn’t go to work. Not without asking Ayu the big question. Do you still love me? Only five words, yet as hard to throw in the air as rocks.

But why interrogate her? She’d acted like her usual self during breakfast. She chuckled at my dumb jokes, tossed out her cute remarks, listened to the thoughts no one else listened to.

Before realizing it, 10 minutes had passed.

Then, as though summoned by my thoughts, Ayu appeared, pacing along the street. Without hesitation, I fished my phone from my pocket and called in sick to work.

Illness: food poisoning.

I waited for Ayu to pass the station before trailing her. I hid behind parked trucks and scooters, a few meters behind her.

Where was she headed? She wore a turtleneck sweater, yellow scarf, and knee-length skirt — the clothes she usually wore to cook and clean. And to go grocery shopping.

She was heading to the place she frequented in the morning. Tsukiji Fish Market. Had Ayu gone out to buy dinner?

Hiding behind a tower of crab containers, I watched her approach a fish stall and meticulously examine the filets. She’d always cared about the quality of her ingredients.

She was planning to cook.

At last, Ayu pointed to a filet of tuna and handed two 1,000-yen notes to the elderly fishmonger. Then, carrying the plastic bag, she plunged into the river of people. No exaggeration. I had to swim through them — until I was finally carried away by the current.

Away from Ayu.

I hunted for her among the throng until I couldn’t walk anymore. But it didn’t matter because she hadn’t been up to anything weird. No, she’d resolved to go back to being the usual Ayu. The Ayu whose heart always made it into my stomach. The Ayu who, through my stomach, always made it to my heart.

Later that morning, I called the office and told them I was feeling better.

As soon as I arrived home, I was greeted by a distasteful surprise.

“McDonald’s?” I stared at the Filet-o-Fish sandwich, French fries, and Coke.

“Not bad once in a while.” Ayu took a bite of the burger and dabbed the edges of her lips with a handkerchief. “Mm, that should be their slogan.”

Feeling cold, I snuggled into the futon. “You didn’t buy anything else?”

“Something to drink, you mean?”

“Something to cook.”

She giggled, holding her bun as if worried it would fall off. “Then I would have cooked it, silly.”

I staggered to the refrigerator and hauled it open.

Empty. As it’d been for the past few days.

“You don’t want McDonald’s?” Ayu tiptoed to my side. “Sorry. Want me to prepare instant noodles?”

“It’s fine,” I replied, still gaping at the chilly cavern in front of me.

What did Ayu do with the tuna? Hide it? Unlikely. It could only be preserved in the fridge.

Did that mean Ayu had cooked the fish for lunch? No, she would have left some for me. Maybe she ate it with one of her girlfriends? That sounded likely.

Except Ayu had lied about having bought the tuna. Which only left one option: She’d shared it with someone she wanted to keep secret.

The more thoughts I fed to this theory, the stronger it became: Ayu bought the takeout so she had a pretext to leave home, to go to the man’s house. She got rid of the garbage almost every day, to disguise the fact that she’d invited him over for dinner.

To confirm all this, I could check Ayu’s phone — no, I had a better plan.

But it would have to wait until morning.

“Are you going to cook dinner?” I asked Ayu, stepping onto the frosty veranda.

“Dunno. I haven’t felt inspired lately.” She did her lip-biting habit. “Are you fed up with takeout?”

“Not really,” I lied, though my reason for disliking it didn’t have a pinch to do with the taste.

“Maybe I’ll find my muse today.”

“I’m sure you’ll find her. Or him.” I flinched, wishing I could swallow my words.

Ayu seemed to have caught my innuendo, because, eyes cast down, she said, “Actually, motivation isn’t the problem. It’s just that — ”

I’m not the one who motivates you, I wanted to say. No, I’d given her too many hints. Also, the words would not only sting Ayu’s ears, but my own.

“Never mind.” She signed. “I’ll tell you at the right moment. Besides, it’s about something… you already know.”

I goggled at her. So, she knew that I knew about the man? Perhaps she’d found out I’d followed her to the fish market. Or smelled it in my demeanor.

Not wishing to disclose more information, I said goodbye to Ayu and started toward Tsukiji Station. Like the previous day, I halted at the steps, called in sick to work, and stewed.

Funny. It pained me not that my wife had kissed or had sex with another man, but that she’d cooked for him. Had invested her time and heart to fill his stomach. The thought nauseated me.

As I predicted, Ayu left the house at the same time as the day before. With the same clothes. En route to the same place: the fish market. (She didn’t glance back, debunking the theory that she’d seen me following her before.)

This time, I intended to catch her. Let the line go, wait patiently, then pull her in at the right moment.

Ayu not only bought tuna, but also salmon, sea urchin, herring roe, nori seaweed, and wasabi.

The ingredients of our wedding’s sushi dish.

Once again, I failed to follow Ayu — not because of the river of people, but due to the biting pain in my chest. A pain that immobilized me. Turned me into a vegetable.

Later that morning, I called work again to tell them that, although I still felt bad, I didn’t feel like staying at home.

When I walked into the living room that evening, I found Ayu at the kotatsu, her face buried in her hands, as though the sushi takeout tray before her was a victim she had killed.

I settled myself into my seat, starving for answers. Answers that would surely leave a bitter taste behind.

“I have a confession to make,” Ayu said, still veiling her face. “I’ve been cooking these days. Or I should say, I never stopped cooking.”

“I know.”

Ayu removed her hands from her eyes, crystalline with tears. “Really?”

“I also have a confession to make. I’ve been spying on you.”

She blinked. “Why?”

I told Ayu everything. About me suspecting her, about me being right.

Instead of admitting her crime, she laughed, with such force her eyes flooded even more. “Silly, I’m not cooking for someone else.”

My heart believed her, though not my mind. “How can I be sure of that?”

She pointed to the garbage bin under the kitchen sink. “You can check for yourself.”

Blinking, I stood up, staggered to the trash can, and peeked inside. At the bottom lay the crumbled remains of roe and urchin nigiri. The curled slices of salmon and tuna sashimi.

“But why?” I asked.

Ayu gnawed at her lip so hard I thought it would bleed. “You told me I expressed my feelings to you with my cooking, remember?”

Right, I told her that a week ago.

The same day she’d stopped cooking.

“And you were right,” Ayu continued. “So I promised myself I’d cook the best meal I could — but no matter how hard I tried, I could never make something that expressed the depth of my feelings for you. I tried and tried. In the end, I threw everything away and bought ready-made food.”

Ayu dropped her head, scattering her bun in all directions like the top of a palm. “I’m sorry. For having made you eat so badly.”

Without a second thought, I dashed to the kotatsu and threw my arms around Ayu. The Ayu who had been so many partners to me — my friend, my girlfriend, my wife. The Ayu who had filled so many parts of me — my head, my stomach, my heart. The Ayu who was more indispensable to me than food.

“It’s all right,” I whispered.

Because this was the most delicious meal she’d cooked for me.

The most delicious one ever.

By the way, I’m publishing a short story collection.

Writer of fictional words. Admirer of Haruki Murakami. To be notified of his upcoming novel, click here: https://mailchi.mp/6b5f800d7eb0/alexandrochen

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