Burnt-Rice Tea

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Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, April 1996. Cacophonous cawing of crows weaves itself disconcertingly into my dreams until it wakes me up altogether. It’s 5:45 a.m. Even the dual building walls fail to deaden the racket, and when you’re half asleep, it’s almost scary. But in front of my eyes is a tuft of black hair. She sleeps without sound, without movement, her arms contorted underneath her. I inhale her chemistry as if it were a controlled substance.

At 8 a.m. we bail out of a situation that looks as if we sacrificed a lamb in bed. Out on the street, crows are cawing and fighting over a bag of French fries in the gutter, big hideous Tokyo crows with huge black beaks. We detour leerily around them and lumber to the station. We’re showered and groomed. We don’t hold hands. No one can guess what kind of night we had. We say good-bye with a nod. Rush-hour rules apply. We’re sober. There are no excuses. And she dissolves into the Japanese liquid of dark-suited people who pretend to ignore us.

I walk to Takadanobaba. My knees are shaking. My mind is fuzzy. I have coffee and a muffin at a coffee shop. I’m trying to get my brain to function. By the time I sit down in my closet-sized classroom, I’m operational on a basic level.

Asakura-sensei, my distractingly voluptuous Friday teacher, wrongly assumes and insistently believes that I remember certain things from my prior lessons, and she wants to review them and build on them. But everything is gone, and I don’t know what keeps her from throwing in the towel. During break, I address her in English, which she graciously allows me to do and which she speaks surprisingly well. Turns out, she spent a year in the US teaching Japanese. She’s factual, doesn’t flirt, and isn’t timid. A cold shower on a steamy day.

Odor of grease and kimchi greet me at the apartment. Mr. Kim and Mr. Song are gone. A greasy skillet and dirty bowls are stacked in the sink. A pot with rice burnt into it is on the stove. I abhor messy kitchens. The odor makes it impossible for me to make and enjoy my afternoon coffee. So I open the windows to let in some fresh air, which in itself is a contradiction in Tokyo, because what’s out there in the afternoon isn’t any fresher than what’s already inside. But the idea of an open window and the illusion of fresh air make me feel better.

A van with speaker horns mounted on the roof creeps by and blasts the neighborhood with the aggressive verbiage of an over-amplified pissed-off man. Thank God, I don’t understand Japanese. I do the dishes. The pot with rice burnt into it requires extra time and muscle, but I get it perfectly clean. I put everything away and wipe the counter. Only now can I enjoy brewing coffee.

Hours later, after finishing their dinner of fried meat, veggies, kimchi, and rice, Mr. Kim and Mr. Song position themselves side by side at the edge of my tatami, something they haven’t done before.

“Mr. Wolf, thank you for doing the dishes,” says Mr. Kim in English.

“You’re welcome.”

“In the future, please don’t wash the rice pot.”

Mr. Song shows me the pot with rice newly burnt into it from dinner.

“It’s the best part,” Mr. Kim says. “We make tea with it.”

Mr. Song puts some water into the pot and lets it boil. After a while, he pours the light brown liquid into three cups and pours the remainder into the one-gallon screw-top Sapporo beer can on the counter that I’ve been wondering about. Then he offers Mr. Kim a cup, who takes it.

“Wolf-san, please, it’s good,” he says in Japanese as he offers me a cup. I take it, and we stand around and sip. It doesn’t taste like burnt-rice tea. In fact, it’s quite pleasant, and I tell them in Japanese.

“It’s delicious,” I actually say, which is an exaggeration, but I don’t know how to say quite pleasant yet.

“We drink it hot or cold,” Mr. Song says.

“You should visit Korea,” Mr. Kim says. “It’s very different from Japan. You will like it.”

“I’m going to Seoul in July.”

They act surprised and pleased.

“How long?” Mr. Kim asks.

“A week. Then I come back to Tokyo.”

“Hai,” Mr. Kim says.

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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