Ichi-e, or, One Soup, Three Side Dishes
By Daryl Qilin Yam
I came across this story once, when I had bought a newspaper from the nearby konbini. It was a story about a young girl, no older than two or three, who was suffering from cardiomyopathy. It was an incurable condition, but the parents were desperate to raise funds and seek healthcare abroad. I took a picture of the article and showed it to Ben, who then replied a few minutes later, asking why the child was so big. "She looks like a balloon," he remarked. I told him that her heart failure was causing her kidneys to fail as well, which caused her body to swell up with all kinds of unprocessed liquids. "It would probably just show as a bloated belly in adult bodies," I added.
I met Ben over drinks one night, at a bar on top of Mount Faber. He had a tall and hefty build, but also came across rather geeky and gentle, with his frameless spectacles and a shy look in his eyes. It made me think it was safe to approach him. After a few lines of conversation we both felt that we would like to meet up again, properly, over dinner or something, and so arranged to dine at Serangoon Gardens the following week. We met at Serangoon station, at a quarter past six, where we boarded a bus. During the journey I told him about my situation—that I was only going to be in the country for two more weeks—and he asked me where I was going to next.
"Hanoi," I told him. "For seven months."
"Why Hanoi?" he asked.
"It's just work," I said. "Work often brings me to all kinds of places. I'm never in Singapore for very long."
He frowned. "And how long have you been home, so far?"
"I see," said Ben. "And where were you, before this?"
"I was in Jakarta. For five months. Before that I was in Shanghai, for nine."
"Wow. What a life. You must have a lot of stories," said Ben.
I gave him a smile. "None of these stories are mine though.
"What do you mean?"
I shrugged. "You can say I'm a collector."
We alighted at our stop, in the centre of Serangoon Gardens. I looked at Ben, dressed in smart casual for the office, wearing a plain black shirt over navy blue jeans. His silhouette only seemed to recede, deeper and deeper into shadow, as the surrounding neon signboards all crowded for attention. Night was quickly settling over us.
I asked him what he'd like to have for dinner. Did he want Japanese? Chinese? Or something more western? "Western sounds nice," he said, and so I brought him to a restaurant I often frequented, that sold burgers and steak and all that jazz. It was a fairly quiet restaurant, compared to the more family-friendly one next door, but it was perfect for talking. I ordered a vegetarian burger, and an iced lemon tea. Ben got himself a pot of brewed tea as well, to accompany his spaghetti carbonara. Ben was quick to ask me about my romantic history, the moment our respective drinks had arrived. I took a sip, and told him that it'd been a while since I last had a boyfriend.
"When was that?" he asked.
"When I was 26, I think. So it's been a while. Nobody wants to be attached to the girl who's never around." I smiled at him. "And you? When was your last relationship?"
Ben smiled back at me. "I've never been in one, actually."
He shook his head. "Nope. I can't say I've ever had the fortune."
"I don't get it," I said. "You're nice. You're kind. You're attractive. I can't see why anybody wouldn't want to date you."
"Oh, don't get me wrong. I've been on many dates. But none of it ever developed into something more."
"That's rather sad," I said, taking another sip. "Can I ask you something personal?"
He took a drink from his tea as well. "Sure," he said.
"Have you ever fallen in love?" I asked.
He thought about it. "I don't know. I'm not very sure," he said. "I guess the answer is no, then. I imagine there needs to be a lot more conviction when you fall in love with somebody."
I laughed. "I guess so."
Ben smiled again. "You remind me of somebody," he said. "Especially the way you laugh."
He nodded. His eyes then darted away from mine, for just a second. "Ah, nice," he remarked. "Our food's coming."
I looked over my shoulder. From the kitchen came the waitress, bearing our meals on a tray. I remember looking at my burger, pleased with the amount of salad and chips they had provided at the side. Ben went through his pasta fairly quickly. It was delicious, he said, with the right amount of sauce. After we were done, we finished the last of our drinks, and asked for the bill.
"Would you like to go for a walk, after this?" Ben asked.
"Sure," I said. "That'd be nice."
We left and began on our stroll, out of the heart of Serangoon Gardens. We walked towards the surrounding neighbourhood, with its wide roads and low-lying houses. It had rained, earlier that afternoon, and so the air was thick with moisture, and heavy with that familiar, muddy odour. Dogs would bark at us as we walked past their houses. There were moments when I could see Ben, whenever we walked beneath a streetlamp, and there were moments when I couldn't, and all I could pick out was the glint on his spectacles, or more simply, and yet inexplicably, the warmth of his large frame. We got talking, for a while, before I had to turn and ask who it was I'd reminded him of.
"Don't you remember? You said my laugh had reminded you of someone else's."
"Ah, yes. Right. Of course I remember." He then pointed, down towards a dark alley, situated between two houses. "Is it okay if I tell you a story?"
"Sure," I said. "I'm always up for one."
He scratched his ear. We both walked towards the alley. "I must say, though: I don't tell this story a lot. In fact, I've only told it to two other people. So you should feel pretty special."
"I see," I said. "Thank you."
Ben smiled. He put his hands in his pockets.
"Well, I remember when I was 22, I used to go to this club a lot. I had my eyes set on this one person, who'd go there every weekend to party. And so for a month that's all I did as well: I went to the same club she did, hoping I could rack up the nerve and ask for her number one day. Eventually word got around that there was this young man desperately trying to get this woman's attention. And so she finally approached me, and gave me her contact details."
"Oh, congratulations," I said. "I'm quite impressed."
He laughed. "Thank you, thank you. I remember feeling quite proud of what I had accomplished, after a whole month of hard work and persistence. But then it soon transpired to me that this woman wasn't all who I thought she was."
"What do you mean?"
"Well—I found out her age, for instance."
"How old was she?"
I let out a whistle. "That's nearly us, now."
"Yeah," said Ben. "Trust me when I say, I was shocked. I thought, this woman must take really good care of herself. And then I found out other things as well, other details about her life. I learnt that she was the director of a trading company, and was very, very rich. I also learnt that she had just been through a divorce, and had custody over a seven-year-old kid. I learnt that she had this whole, entire life outside of the club, and I had no idea.
"Eventually we meet up for dinner. Just once. I don't even tell my friends about it. She takes me to this expensive restaurant, and treats me to expensive kaiseki. Ichi-e, the place is called. I don't really remember what we had talked about that night, but I remember everything we'd eaten. Course after course after course: I can still picture it all, as clearly as ever in my brain. But I can't quite recapture the taste.
"After that dinner, we don't speak to each other ever again. For some reason, we simply felt like we didn't need to talk anymore. There was no need to keep in contact. And just like that, another month passes by, and I think about her one day, this rich and beautiful 44-year-old, and I message her to ask how she is doing. And I get a strange text in return."
I asked him what it said. Ben looked at me, and gave me that same smile he'd been giving me all night. The both of us somehow stopped walking.
"It said she passed away," Ben said. "From pneumonia. Apparently it was some kind of post-surgical complication." He then let out a laugh. "I tried calling the number, to get a better explanation, but the person at the other end terminated my call. And then I get another text."
"What did it say?"
"'Just stop,'" said Ben. He shook his head. "Once in a while I look back, and I can't even believe that dinner had even happened. That we somehow got to spend an hour in each other's lives. She didn't even mention anything about a surgery, nor did she appear sick at all. And then I think about the food that we ate, and I am suddenly reminded of how real it was. I am reminded of how it all actually happened. And that's all I have to do, I realise."
Neither of us said anything more that night, after he told me that story. Wordlessly we re-routed ourselves, and made our way back to the bus stop. We continued to text each other on a regular basis, but we never made arrangements to meet up again. On the day I left for Hanoi, I texted him to say goodbye, and to thank him for that dinner we had, in a quiet restaurant in Serangoon Gardens. He texted me back to say that he had a wonderful time that evening, for reasons he couldn't explain. I told him I understand. I told him I'm glad we got to meet.
It'd been two years since we had that dinner. I am in a different city now. I am always in a different city. We still send each other messages, and check in on how we are doing. Every now and again I look at the local newspaper, and send him pictures of stories that catch my eye. Sometimes he replies, and sometimes he doesn't. It doesn't really matter.
One day I find myself flying from London to New Zealand. It's an incredibly long flight. There's a three-hour layover at Changi, but my brain is in another place completely, some fourth dimension where there are azalea trees, and ginko leaves, and plum blossoms in late February. I don't know why, but my mind has been rather fixed on trees as of late, and neither London nor New Zealand has anything that remotely compares to Tokyo. But there's always Singapore, I suppose.
I walk around the airport. Changi is big, and carpeted, and full of voices. You can't quite imagine that stretch of road towards the city, where all the bougainvillea planters stand in the middle of the lanes. In here, strangely enough, life is most keenly felt by the water coolers. Have you ever seen how vulnerable people can look, when they bend over and expect that stream of water to hit their mouths? How they slurp it up, eagerly, through those open, waiting lips? I've always found it so touching.
I keep on walking. My feet are restless, this evening. They want to keep moving, in circles, around this same spot, and I don't mind. Changi, in many ways, is one large, broken circle. And I keep on walking until I come across a smell. Tobacco. It's faint, but I follow the scent, until I reach upon the smoking area. It's a glass cage, and it resembles a terrarium of sorts. I step inside and ask a woman if I could have a cigarette and a light.
"Sure," she says. "No problem."
She offers me both. I hold her cigarette between my lips, and suck in as she lights the tip.
"Thank you for this," I say to her. "You're too nice."
"Womankind," she says to me. "We've got to support one another." She tips some ash into a nearby tray. "How long have you been smoking?"
"About a week."
She lets out a laugh. "Oho!" she goes. "Late bloomer."
I laugh myself. "Yes," I say.
The woman takes in a deep drag of her cigarette. She exhales the smoke like how I'd imagine a dragon would, with zigzaggy trails in perfect formation. She's middle-aged, this woman, but she is easily the most beautiful girl in the airport. "What made you start?" she asks.
"A news story," I say.
"What kind of story?"
"It was about this baby. Cardiomyopathy. It's a really sad story."
"Sounds like it," the woman says. "Did the baby die?"
"No," I say. "She's still alive and well."
"So why is it news?"
I try to recall the article. "I guess it's because her kidneys stopped working. So now the baby has swollen up like a balloon."
"A balloon?" the woman says. "Gosh. Just imagine." She shakes her head.
"Everybody likes to think that life is a story. But nothing ever ends so neatly, does it?"
I shake my head as well. "I guess not," I say.
I took one last drag of my cigarette. I'm surprised at how I'm nearly done. The woman stubs out her own cigarette.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Have you ever given thought about your own death?"
"And how do you imagine yourself going?"
I think about it. A memory comes to life. "I'm walking in an alley," I say. "A dark, unlit alley, with a kind and beautiful stranger. He's pretty tall and big, but he's got the shyest, gentlest eyes. He holds my hand a certain way, and then grabs hold of my hips. We decide to fuck against a wall, and just as I'm about to come—he chokes me to death."
The woman lets out a whistle. "Wow," she says. "That's great."
She laughs again. I look at her.
"What about you?" I ask. "How do you imagine yourself dying?"
"Me?" the woman says. She smiles. "I had a chance, once—many years ago. To die in front of another person. And I took it."
"How did it feel?"
"Like I could go anywhere," she replies. I watch as she takes up her handbag from the floor. I stub out my own cigarette as she prepares to leave.
"Where are you going?" I ask her.
"Somewhere," she says to me. "Some place." She then looks at me, with that same smile on her face. It's an incredible, beautiful smile. It's the kind of smile you'll remember for the rest of your life. "It's unlikely we'll ever see each other again. But it was lovely, nevertheless." She makes a move. "This is the story that you get, I'm afraid. Sayonara."
I watch her leave. I look at the other smokers, minding their own business. I ask the guy beside me if he has an extra cigarette. And then we get round to talking.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 3 Jul 2016