A love story
From Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
by Jennifer Tseng
Every Friday we were ravenous and it was he who tended to our appetites. Sometimes he brought cold chicken legs (cut from a chicken he had slaughtered and plucked himself before roasting it in butter and herbs) or one-half of a chocolate root beer bundt cake he had baked using skills likely taught to him by his talented mother Violet or by a teacher at school, always a cake that was better than anything I had ever baked and I was not a shabby baker. It was the young man who taught me about the affectionate relationship between root beer and chocolate as well as the power of root beer to help rise a cake. Though I could follow a recipe precisely without difficulty, I knew little about food pairings, especially sweet ones, and less still about fizzy water and chemistry. Mostly he brought soups, which, after sweet things, were his specialty; sometimes one-half of a spinach quiche, sometimes a small chicken pot pie or a round of bread accompanied by a wedge of pale cheese or a jar of pickles. Once he brought a tall green thermos full of pork ramen made from scratch, and I laughed and then cried as I gulped it down. It had been one of the many dishes my mother had learned to cook for my father and the taste of it—both the savory flavor of the broth and the familiar feel of the curly noodles on my tongue—sent me floating back to that first island.
From the same worn blue backpack that held his homework and schoolbooks, he brought out his weekly offerings. There were tins full of the English nutritive biscuits I had eaten as a child, solemn letters engraved on their smooth faces like epigraphs that said nothing of consequence and paper-wrapped cookies with crushed almonds for hearts, the blue floral cursive printed in Italian, the familiar letters strung together in a foreign way, so that eating them in his presence I felt at once a sweet sense of at-homeness that I rarely felt anywhere and the delicious terror of inhabiting a country without knowing its food or its language, daily confronted with delicacies I did not understand.
There were bars of German chocolate that must have cost as much as tickets to the cinema, their outer wrappers painted with delicate landscapes of places I had never been, their inner gold foil concealing dark twin bars lying side by side within.
He was like a traveler bringing me souvenirs in that backpack of his, hoping with a taste of sugar or salt to transport me to a world he had known, even if he too had known it only secondhand. I could not help but feel Violet’s presence when he made his offerings. She had almost certainly purchased the items and with other purposes in mind. I felt some measure of guilt for inadvertently depleting her inventory and at the same time I felt happy to be cared for, not only by him but also in some unintentional, meandering way by her.
During these afternoon teas— with my impassive wristwatch as our constant companion—we talked about nearly everything, but never about the fact that I had made a vow to love someone else, and never about the future. I told him odd bits about my housekeeper mother and my economist father—her funny habit of sleeping with a pillow over her face, his tendency to treat every surface as if it were a mahogany podium before which he had been invited to stand and deliver an important lecture. I explained my love of the British Library in winter, in particular its collection of illuminated manuscripts, my longstanding affection for the cherry blossom’s many developmental phases.
He brought an MP3 player and two sets of headphones (including the alarmingly plush, black leather set from his early days at the library) and we listened to his favorite songs. He confessed that he dreaded sleep, that when he lay next to me with his eyes closed he was not sleeping but composing music. For him, the words nightmare and dream were interchangeable. Once, after I’d described a dream of mine to him, he said: I like the place of your dreams. I think I could live there.
From Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng. Reprinted with permission from Europa Editions. Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Tseng. First publication 2015 by Europa Editions.