Udon Noodles

by Mika Yamamoto

Masako woke up craving udon. Her mouth watered at the thought of the thick, chewy noodles dipped in fish stock, with a sprinkle of thinly sliced green onions and a dash of hot sichimi pepper. She sat up, rubbed sleep out of her eyes. Her husband, Higashi, was sleeping on his right side with his right arm tucked under the pillow. He slept quietly and soundly, as he always did. She peeked into his face and put her palm in front of his nose to make sure he wasn’t dead. He was seventy-two; you can never be too careful. Satisfied that she felt warm air touching her hand, she got up to take her morning bath.

*

Masako stepped out of the tub and rubbed herself dry with a towel.

“When did I get so fat?” she asked herself. Her reflection surprised her every time. She used to be so tall and slender. She had towered over her husband and her in-laws, who all hovered around five feet. When she first got married, Masako was 5-foot-5 and weighed 105 pounds. She had remained that way for a long time, even after having her third child—the one who had just gotten married. In the last ten years, though, something had changed. The woman who looked back at her from the foggy mirror now was thick all over with lumps and bumps. Where did that come from? She grabbed at her belly and pulled at it. And that? She should start exercising. She decided that she would start Monday. Satisfied with the plan, she pulled a black shirt over her head.

Once she got dressed, Masako went downstairs to start the rice in the rice cooker. They would have leftover grilled mackerel for breakfast, with some miso soup. She cut up some eggplants and threw them in the soup.

*

Higashi woke to pain.

He had been sleeping dreamlessly when he felt sharp pain on his arm.

“Itai!” he exclaimed in Japanese.

“How could that hurt? I just tapped you on the arm,” his wife chided him. She spoke in Japanese too. It was the language they used when they were alone, even after more than thirty-five years of living in the United States.

Did she not remember what happened last night?

No.

Of course she didn’t remember.

She never did.

“It still hurts from last night, when you pushed me down the stairs. You were drunk,” Higashi said as he pushed up his sleeve to inspect the arm. There was a purple bruise that spread up to his shoulder.

Masako peered at it, and from her expression, he knew she was alarmed.

He was not.

He had expected as much.

*

Things had begun well enough the night before. Masako and Higashi had decided to have a nightcap after dinner. After they’d cleared the dishes, they’d sat down in the breakfast nook with a bottle of whiskey and two tumblers. They’d installed the breakfast nook when they’d built this kitchen, but this “new” kitchen was more than twenty years old now, and it showed. The linoleum was scuffed, the walls were yellow from nicotine, and the cabinet doors looked tired on their hinges. Masako and Higashi had always planned to move someday, but now they weren’t willing to give up the comfort of familiarity.

“Just one drink,” Masako had said. “I’m tired after having all the kids here. I want to get to bed early.”

“I agree. One drink, then,” Higashi said as he poured two whiskeys, neat.

“I am so relieved the wedding is over!” Masako said after they had clinked glasses.

“Two down. One to go. The boy is left,” Higashi agreed.

“What did you think of Ken’s girlfriend? I liked her. She ate everything I served her. It’s a nice feeling to have someone appreciate what you cook.”

“She was nice,” Higashi agreed, “but it’s so strange. We put in so much effort to raise our kids to be Japanese and speak Japanese. And what happened? Not a single one will marry a Japanese, so our grandchildren—if we have any—probably won’t speak Japanese. After all the work you put into our kids…none of them even use Japanese except to talk to us. They don’t even speak Japanese to each other anymore.” Higashi shook his head as he took a sip from his glass.

“I know. All the hours I spent writing those Japanese idioms in calligraphy with sumi ink on Japanese paper to put up on these kitchen walls, hoping they would swallow the language with their food,” Masako said, looking up at the yellowed tape remnants on the walls. “And all they feel is resentment. Remember what Kenji said to me last New Year’s when he was drunk? He said, ‘All those hours crying over kanji while other children played!’”

“Raising children is a thankless endeavor,” Higashi said as he drained his glass.

“Really. Isn’t it?” Masako laughed.

But he knew she didn’t really feel that it was. After a lifetime of working so hard toward a goal that bore no fruit, Masako was surprisingly not bitter. This never ceased to amaze Higashi. At moments like this, he felt the bigness of her heart. That was the quality that had first attracted him to her, and he knew that it kept her children loyal to her too. Her children might complain about her and complain to her, but he knew that they loved her fiercely. He knew it. So, perhaps, it hadn’t been wasted effort after all. After so many decades, he still felt in awe of the woman he had married.

“But it’s okay. They have all become independent members of society, and that’s all that matters,” she confirmed.

“That’s true.” Sometimes Higashi wished he could be American and take his wife’s hand to kiss.

“And they all get along with each other. We don’t have to worry about that.” Masako had finished her drink and was stretching her arms.

“Yes. That’s true too. You did a good job.”

“We were lucky. We had good kids.” Masako waved away the compliment. “But Kenji is an emotional one, isn’t he? Did you see how upset he was about the cat?”

Their second child, Kenji, had brought his cat with him on this last visit. That was ridiculous anyway, and then the cat had gotten hit by a car and died the day before the wedding. It was sad, but Kenji’s extreme reaction shocked both Higashi and Masako. Finally, Masako could not restrain herself from pointing out that it was not a baby that had died.

Higashi shook his head. “I told you. They are American. Can you imagine a Japanese man acting like that about his dead cat?”

They both began to laugh.

“It was a sweet cat, but still just a cat. You know how Americans are though. Always big emotions…” Higashi held his arms out wide.

*

In this way, they had finished their first drink happily. They decided to have another. Higashi knew that once they had the second drink, the night would not end well, but he felt so good in her presence at that moment that he didn’t want to ruin everything and call it a night. So he poured the second drink. And the third. And the fourth. Until finally, they came to the point they always did.

“You ruined my life!” Masako yelled at him. “I am so unhappy, and you did this to me!”

“Let’s go to bed.”

“No! I’m sick of this! I’m sick of you!”

“I know.”

“You don’t know! You don’t care! I’m nothing to you! You don’t care about how I feel or about what I want! You never did!”

And so it began. He never knew what would spark this train of thought in Masako. There was nothing he could do. Finally, when he could ignore her words no longer and was seized with an urge to hit her, he got up to go upstairs. She followed him. As he reached the top step, she grabbed him from behind. She pulled at him so violently that he lost his footing. The next thing he knew, he was at the bottom of the stairs, pain radiating through his left arm. She was looking down at him, eyes glazed over with drunken fury. He felt fear as she came barreling down at him. She started hitting him, and didn’t stop. He was in too much pain to push her away, but once the punches began, his fear ebbed. As drunk as she was, she didn’t have the coordination to do much harm. He just tucked his face into his body and pressed his wounded left arm against the wall. Soon she became winded and gave up. She managed to get herself upstairs. Higashi waited to hear her snoring before he went upstairs and lay down on his side of the bed, tucking his good right arm under his head, sleeping on his side so as not to let the bed touch his left arm.

When she had first started to say these things in her drunken state, years and years ago, he’d tried to talk to her about it in the morning. Once she was sober, though, she always evaded the topic. He never did get her to explain. It eventually just became a routine he accepted.

*

Now Masako examined his bruise, with no memory of inflicting it.

“I probably just nudged you, and you lost your balance. You are getting so old and weak!” she said roughly as she peered at his arm. But right after that, she asked, “Did you break anything?”

Higashi rolled his shoulder and stretched out his arm.

“I don’t think so,” he replied.

Her relief quickly turned into irritation.

“Well, then get up. It’s late already. I’ve already bathed and made breakfast.”

“I’m retired. Why can’t I sleep as long as I want?” Higashi groused, even as he lifted his torso and swung his feet over the side of the low bed. Masako had tried several times to replace this bed, but none suited him the way this one did. He liked this one because his feet reached the ground when he sat on the edge. Still groggy from sleep, he stared into his open closet. It was overflowing with clothes—a consequence of being a pack rat. He was clad in pale yellow pajamas with a shirt that buttoned down the front. His hair had barely been tousled in sleep. He ran his hands over his head, and his hair looked as neat as ever. While Masako’s hair had turned gray, his remained jet-black, even as it diminished in quantity.

“I dreamt of Yamada’s udon,” Masako told him as she began making her side of the bed. He smiled. He remembered the first time she had eaten at the noodle shack in his hometown. It had been nothing less than a religious experience for Masako. She’d never had much esteem for udon before. She felt that it was plebian. This had been a factor in her foul mood that day. When commanded by his sister to try the udon at Yamada’s, she had scoffed. “How good could noodles be? It’s not like a steak or prime rib.” For Masako, beef was where it was at.

But these noodles slipped into the mouth with incredible smoothness and surprised with stubborn resistance when you chewed into them. Combined with the subtly fragrant broth, these noodles had changed Masako’s mind forever.

“I want to make my own today,” Masako said now as she tugged at the quilt she had made herself. She had gone through a crafts phase twenty-years ago. It had lasted only a few months, after which she never made anything again. However, there were still a few relics around the house, such as this green and white quilt. The pieces were smaller at the bottom and got larger toward the top. This pattern hadn’t been her plan when she started; it was, instead, the result of her innate impatience with all things. Even though he saw the quilt every day, Higashi still chuckled at this physical manifestation of his wife’s personality. Her impatience was a trait that he found both frustrating and endearing.

“Making udon is a lot of work,” Higashi said, joining her in the bed-making. Now that he was awake, he was relieved to not have to revisit the night before. What would be the point anyway? She had no control over the way she behaved when she was drunk. He just had to be more careful when she was so that he didn’t get hurt again. She was right. He should have been able to defend himself better. He was a man, after all.

“Yes. But it will be so delicious!” Masako was putting her pillow back on the bed. Higashi was doing the same with his.

“That’s true. It will be delicious,” he agreed.

*

Both the ingredients and procedures for making udon are simple. Like all simple recipes, it’s the intangible that makes all the difference. Masako knew that hers would not taste anything like Yamada’s. But she also knew they would still be delicious. So she measured out flour and water, mixed them together, and then began to knead. She knew that the secret to chewy udon was to knead it long enough—and then longer. Once she was satisfied with her dough, she put it in plastic bags so that she could move on to the next stage: kneading with her feet. She had just set the dough on the floor when her son Kenji called.

“I just wanted you to know that we’ll be back in town next week to bury the cat.”

“Bury the cat?” Masako asked distractedly as she tried to find a rhythm for kneading.

“Yes. We didn’t get a chance to bury her in all the wedding fuss, so we’ll come back to do it next weekend.”

“Oh. Okay,” Masako said as the dough started to feel pliable.

“What are you doing now? Why are you so out of breath?” Kenji asked.

“I’m making udon.” She readjusted the phone receiver on her shoulder.

“Oh, nice! I love udon!”

“I’ll save you some for when you come next week. I can freeze it,” Masako offered breathlessly.

“That’s great. Okay. Well, we’ll see you next week!”

“Okay. Good-bye.”

When the udon was ready, she set aside enough for her and Higashi to eat right away and wrapped the rest in single portions to freeze.

“I’m going to put these in the downstairs freezer. Kenji wants to eat it when they come next weekend,” she told Higashi as she gathered the plastic-wrapped parcels.

“They’re coming next weekend?” Higashi started the water for tea.

“Yes. To bury the cat,” he said.

“Again, the cat?” Higashi smiled as he measured out the green tea leaves.

“Yes. The never-ending saga.” She kept dropping the slippery packets. Finally, she grabbed a grocery bag and used it to carry the noodles to the basement.

Higashi heard the clop-clop of his wife’s “health slippers” going downstairs. He had let the water boil, so he poured it into teacups. When it had cooled sufficiently, he would transfer the water into the pot with the green tea. Suddenly, he heard screaming. He almost dropped the teapot. He ran downstairs.

“Kiyaaaaaa! Kiyaaaaaaa!” Masako was hysterical.

“What happened?” Higashi asked when he got to her.

Masako was standing in front of the refrigerator, screaming. She pointed to the floor.

Scattered all over the white tile floor were the little plastic-wrapped packets of noodles. Among them was a large ziplock bag. Next to it was a black and orange mass partly covered by a light blue bath towel. When he looked closer at this strange object, he saw small teeth exposed in a snarl and claws at the end of stiff limbs.

Higashi looked into the freezer. The door was open and there was an empty space on the first shelf. He looked back at the thing on the floor. He squatted and peered closely. He saw fur. And what might have been ears.

“It’s the cat!”

Masako stopped screaming. She stared at him. She crouched down and peered.

“The cat?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“They put a dead cat in my freezer?”

“Yes.”

“Kenji put a dead cat in my freezer? Next to my shrimp?”

Masako stomped upstairs in her tiny clogs to phone Kenji. Higashi wrapped the cat, bagged it, stuck it in the freezer. From the kitchen, he heard Masako’s enraged voice. He sighed. More cleanup for him.

*

After he hung up with Kenji, Higashi knocked on the locked bedroom door.

“Kenji says he’s sorry.”

No response.

“He made the decision at an emotional time. He wasn’t thinking clearly.”

Still no response.

“And really, the cat doesn’t harm the food at all.”

The door flung open.

“You always take their side!”

The door slammed shut.

*

To make bonito broth correctly requires attention. The stock must come out at the perfect moment. Masako, ever distracted and impatient, was no good at making bonito broth. Now, as Higashi made the bonito broth to dip the udon in, he didn’t think of anything else. He shaved thin, soft flakes of bonito, watched bubbles on the surface break, let kombu seaweed soften in water. It was when he was thinly slicing the green onion that Masako finally came downstairs.

“I’ll finish,” she said. “You’re hurt.”

He nodded.

Soon they sat down to eat. They sprinkled sichimi pepper over their soup, dipped their chopsticks into the bowl, brought thick noodles to their mouths.

 

Mika Yamamoto received her MA in creative writing from Central Michigan University, where she was introduced to the world of experimental fiction. She is a certified hypnotist who swears she has never used her hypnotic skills while working as a first grade teacher, an E.R. technician, or even as a Starbucks barista. Yamamoto is currently a writer for ESME.com, an online resource for single mothers.

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