HIBACHI DELIGHT

 

by

Kathleen Glassburn

 

 

The downtown Seattle restaurant, Sasama, is as packed and noisy as an elementary school lunchroom. A serious talk here?

Mother and I are led to a teppanyaki table. She slips into place while I trip over the base of a side chair and flop down next to her on a slightly elevated banquette seat. We’re closed in like riders on a packed elevator—three people to our left and two people to our right. There’s a panoramic view of the rest of the room with nine other crowded cooking stations. Who knows what will grab her attention.

Nearby, a little girl in yesterday’s Easter bonnet plays with pastel ribbons that are smudged with fingerprints. It reminds me of my own klutziness as a child. Mother used to drag me to I. Magnin to purchase organdy dresses and Mary Janes and matching anklets for services at St. Mark’s. I usually lost my straw purse and sat on my flower-bedecked hat.

When Mother doesn’t comment on the little girl, I have an inward shrug and scrunch a cushion behind her back, fitting her tiny body closer to the table’s edge.

Her unfamiliar chestnut curls tilt as she gazes out a bank of windows in front of us. Beyond there is a courtyard garden, and center stage is the token red enamel bridge crossing a stone stream.

I first noticed her hair’s odd color yesterday at brunch, and imagined Dad saying, “What in God’s name have you done to your hair?”

At least it’s her same style, except for the missing bangs.

Running fingers through my own cropped brown hair, I think of her recent words: “You’re more like your father with each passing day.” Fine by me. He was someone a person could count on.

“Let’s look at the menu.” I shove it in front of her.

There’s a middle-aged woman with firm, shiny skin, and two college-aged kids—a boy and a girl—to Mother’s left. The woman tells our kimono-clad server that she wants Hibachi Shrimp. The kids take a couple of minutes picking out several items, including sushi platters.

Typically, Mother struggles with a choice. “Let’s see. Maybe chicken,” she murmurs. “But the shrimp sounds good too.”

“Why don’t you try Hibachi Delight?” I suggest. “It’s both chicken and shrimp.” Dad always guided her decision making.

“So it is.” She chews at perfectly outlined hot-pink lips. What happened to the natural gloss she’s worn for years?

When the server turns to her, Mother pipes up with “I want the Sukiyaki Surprise!” Then, she starts in. “The fabric of your kimono is so exquisite. Such a lovely shade of green. And that…”

“I’d like the Hibachi Delight.”

The server slowly rotates her head from Mother to me, her mouth shifting from a turned-up smile to a straight line.

“No, make that Hibachi Steak.” I hate to act confused, but Dad always said, “Nothing firms the resolve like a good slice of beef.”

A couple on my right look to be thirty-something daters. They wear almost matching gray business suits, hers with a skirt. Exchanging getting-to-know-each-other comments, the woman has said, “I grew up in the East…Boston.” The man then said, “I’m from Greeley, Colorado.”

This spot should be ideal for a first-date lunch. Plenty of distractions if the conversation lulls. So, why has Mother chosen it when I specifically said I wanted to talk to her alone? Her future is keeping me awake nights. I know how rapidly assets can deplete once the spending mode kicks in.

“What has happened to your bangs?” I reach over and tug a few strands into place across the creases of her forehead. “They’ve been cut crookedly.” I don’t mention the strange color.

“I tucked them up.” She smooths the bangs back, missing a few sections that poke out horn-like. “Peter says I look best with my hair pulled off my face.”

“I’ve always liked your normal hair.” Ramming my knee into a leg of the dwarf-sized bench, I squelch a yelp. “How is Peter?”

“Well, dear, you saw him yesterday.” Her already crinkly eyes scrunch crinklier. “Since you ask though, he’s fine…very fine.”

“There was such a crowd at brunch. I barely talked to him. Or, to you… How are you?”

“Peter and I are doing quite well.” Suddenly, she leans over our table, eyes wide and sparkling. “Here comes our chef. I’ll bet he’s a capable fellow.” My seventy-five-year-old mother twinkles at this man like a teenager coming on to a favorite teacher.

He takes implements from his cart and assembles them beside the cooking surface, before focusing on Mother.

She beams back her approval.

“I’m very good. You shall see.”

“Can’t wait,” she coos.

I picture my father’s appalled expression. In their fifty-plus years together, I’m sure Mother never bantered with any man, including him.

The chef turns to the rest of us. “Orders all taken?”

We nod.

I rub the bridge of my nose where an ache has begun.

“Good sushi?” he asks the two college kids who are diving into their appetizers.

“Great.” The young man’s mouth is stuffed full. He looks like a tight end hulking over his dish, reminding me of my ex-husband.

The young woman, a sturdy blonde, is probably a soccer player. I shudder picturing my own days stumbling around the field. She never loses eye contact with a California Roll, aiming it at her open mouth. The middle-aged woman keeps fussing over her—patting an arm, straightening her collar—in the same way Mother used to annoy me. This girl never says a thing, just keeps on eating.

“Ginger sauce.” The chef dumps full ladles in small hexagon-shaped dishes. “Soya blend.” He fills identical containers and fits them on top of the first ones, then places these in front of each diner. “Your choice.” He smirks at Mother. “I prefer ginger.”

“Me too.” She wriggles around on our miniscule bench. Is she going to wink at him?

“Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to sit back a little?” I give her a nudge. Redness has surfaced on her already rouged cheeks. “I’m warm. Are you warm?” I loosen my top shirt button and make a movement to help remove her blazer.

“I’m fine, but I don’t want to miss a thing.”

For the next ten minutes, while the chef prepares our different entrées, she keeps a nonstop dialogue going with him. He probably hasn’t been this scrutinized since his apprenticeship. Each expertly maneuvered vegetable slice and skip of his spatula elicits a positive remark from her.

The first-date couple jabber about skiing Whistler and the snow they each encountered this past season.

Oh, to be up in the mountains sipping spiced wine, instead of attempting communication with Mother. However, my father, who worked too long and too hard providing for her, would be livid if I ignored what’s going on. Dad has been gone less than a year. This Peter fellow is someone she chanced to meet at a club in Palm Springs. At least he isn’t younger—some gigolo. He’s all of her age, if not more. Still, she has become so blithering since meeting him. Far from the quiet, steady little mother I’ve always known.

I look at my watch. A half an hour until I need to be back in the brokerage office where I work. Prospects with a healthy net worth are coming in for preliminary discussions. Things are improving in 2012, but since the turmoil of 2008, it’s been a long, dry spell, even though I inherited my father’s accounts. While I’m prepared to answer all the prospects’ questions, a few minutes to organize are imperative. If I can only manage to get Mother to settle down for our talk.

As a grand finale, the chef forks center rings from a cluster of onion slices, and twirls his tool like a circus juggler. Next, he builds a pyramid of stacked circles on the cooking surface’s center. Last, he squirts a bit of “secret fluid” down the pyramid’s middle and ignites his mini-volcano. Everyone else gushes enthusiasm for his creation, which glows and flows.

Mother claps her twisted, spotty hands. The hot pink of her carefully manicured nails exactly matches her lips, and for the first time, I notice she has moved her wedding ring set to her right hand. The left finger is bare with a strip of white skin where those rings used to be. Only amputation will make this pale band disappear.

The chef bows, makes a couple of closing remarks (specifically to Mother), and begins preparations to leave. My chance is coming. I’m determined to tell her what re-marriage will mean, financially, as well as for the rest of the family. With only myself to think about since the divorce, it doesn’t concern me that much. But my aunts—her sisters—will be very upset if she rushes into something. We have agreed that a prenup is essential.

As the chef tidies, I savor a tasty morsel of beef, considering how best to start. I could come right out and say, “What is going on with you and Peter?” Or, I could hedge, asking oblique questions. I’ve gotten background information dispensed with during the several times Mother has dragged him along to family gatherings. He has a decent backhand. He’s from Indianapolis. The retired owner of a local grocery chain. A widower. Two married sons in Indiana. Far enough away so that there shouldn’t be many get-togethers. I could say, “Did Peter always live in Indianapolis?”

With gusto, Mother scoops up a bite of sukiyaki. She refused cutlery. When did she learn to use chopsticks? I cannot recall going to any restaurant other than his favorite steakhouse with Dad.

The chef exits with a flourish of his apron and a flippy wave to Mother.

Finally, time to broach my subject…

She turns to the middle-aged woman on her left. “Isn’t this food wonderful?”

The next thing I know, they’re comparing notes on the piquant spices in our chef’s “magic powder.”

I contemplate the back of Mother’s head, copper highlights gleaming, and hold myself back from yanking a handful.

“I do like Japanese food. Really, all Asian cuisines.” Mother lowers her voice. “Thai is my favorite.”

Thai?

“I agree. Such light sauces. Low fat, but spicy.” That woman could use less fat.

“I like mine at least a three,” chirps Mother.

When did she start liking spices? Dad complained about anything except salt and pepper on his meat and potatoes. I assumed pot roast was also her favorite.

“Are those your children?” Mother focuses on the chowing-down duo.

“Sure are.” The woman stretches a good two inches.

“What a handsome pair.”

“They’re going back to school. We’re on our way to the airport.”

“Where do they go?”

Mother…

“Spokane University.”

“Great basketball team. Does your son play?”

“No—football.”

Big surprise.

The proud Mama tries to catch my eye so that I can comment on the merits of her offspring too. Refusing to look her way, I furiously chase bean sprouts around my plate.

“My late husband played football in college.” She lowers her head. “He was a huge guy.”

“You must miss him a great deal.”

For a second, I think the woman is going to put her hand over Mother’s. Shifting around on the bench, I knock my knee again.

After a pensive bite, Mother’s spirits lift along with her head. “I do miss him. But I’ve started traveling.”

Traveling? My parents never went anywhere except their summer place on The Island.

“It started with Palm Springs. A widow friend invited me to visit.”

“Do you golf?” The woman straightens her multicolored silk scarf, flicking off a piece of rice.

“No—tennis. I’m playing singles.”

This too?

“I’m impressed.”

“My partner is better than me, but he takes it easy.” Mother purses her hot-pink lips.

“A man too. You must be in very good shape.” The woman doesn’t say for your age, but it’s implied.

“I try. Mainly I want to keep up with my walking. I’m going to Italy in a week.”

What?

“My friend—my tennis partner—is half Italian. He’s taking me to see the sights and to visit relatives in Siena.” Other than the Palm Springs jaunt, she’s hardly been out of Washington State.

“I was in Italy last year. You’re going to absolutely love it.”

“You must tell me every…”

“Mother, how are you doing on your sukiyaki?” I glare at the woman.

“Almost done.”

I place my large arm over Mother’s frail, bony shoulders, and pull her closer. “I really wanted a chance to talk. Lately, every time I’ve seen you, Peter has been along.”

Her new buddy’s face falls from a smile of expectation into collapsed dismay. She turns to her daughter and gives one last pat. “Are you finished?”

Both kids immediately fumble into fleece jackets. Their plates look clean enough to skip the dishwasher. The woman’s is half full.

“What did you want to talk about?” Mother fidgets with an earring.

“You!” I try to lower my pitch. “What is going on with you?”

“I’m fine. Getting used to life without your father.”

“Do you have any plans for the future?”

“Plans? At my age?” For the first time, she looks me straight on. “Plans are foolish.” She sits, hands folded, chest swelling with a deep breath like she has received the third grade penmanship prize.

I ponder her words. This from the woman who, despite steady improvement in her financial situation, has always run her week, by herself, with a locked-in routine—groceries Monday, laundry Tuesday, cleaning Wednesday…Dad and I used to joke about her predictability. She’s played bridge with the same group of ladies every Thursday for at least forty years.

“I heard you tell that woman you’re off to Italy.” Better tone.

“Peter and I are going. For two months.”

“Two months! You are leaving for two months and this is the first I’ve heard of it?” To hell with my tone.

“I could have sworn I told you. Things have gotten to be so hectic.” She blinks several times.

The middle-aged woman and her college kids stand in front of the window, shuffling shopping bags.

My mother says, loud enough to bounce words off the glass wall, “Lovely talking to you.”

“Yes it was.” The woman looks bewildered as she glances my way.

The first-timers are leaving too. There hasn’t been much talk with them. The date must have fizzled. Or maybe they were too busy listening to Mother’s endless chatter with everyone except me.

Eventually, the parade moves on—jocks leading, cheerleader coming next, the daters bringing up the rear. The red bridge returns to sight. I stare at it, speculating on how to proceed.

“You know, Diane, my life is changing,” Mother forges ahead. “I’ve made friends with a special man. We’re having fun.”

I can’t help but sigh. “When will you marry Peter?” Her portfolio flashes before my eyes.

“Marriage? That would complicate things.”

What? This is the lady who I am certain went to her wedding bed a virgin. The lady who I am positive never thought of another man during all her decades of marriage. Now, she’s embarking on a two-month-long journey with a man, not her husband, who happens to be “fun”?

“Complicate?” My stomach feels like I should have skipped the beef and stuck with plain rice.

“Marriage is fine when you’re young. When you have a family to protect. Re-marriage at our age makes finances difficult.”

She draws out her compact and carefully fills in the missing hot-pink goop between feathery outlines. After a couple of lip smacks, she continues, “Isn’t it time for you to head back? I thought you had a big meeting this afternoon.”

“I do. And yes, I guess it’s time to leave.” I don’t bother with lipstick, opting for repairs at my desk, once I’m alone and can assimilate this woman who happens to be my mother.

“You look rather peaked, dear. Are you feeling ill?” She still holds the open compact. “You’re not working too hard on your father’s accounts?”

Bonnet girl and her family are leaving too.

Surely Mother will have one final remark about the Easter finery. She never says a word. Instead, she pokes each errant bang strand into her pulled-back hair, and gives full attention to powdering the tip of her sun-speckled nose.

THE END