Sunday, December 7, 2008

Brief as Photos: 14 - Japanese Roulette

Fugu Sashimi - by Hajime Nakano Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I was unpacking the remaining boxes from Tokyo. I sat down and looked through the photographs of my previous life as Mrs. Hofer Halstead III at the U.S. Embassy in Japan. I was surprised to see that Hofer's head had been cut out from all the photographs. I must have done it during a fit of anger, but I could not remember doing this.

I came back to the house in Seattle six months ago and did not contest the divorce. When a man asked for one, he was already gone. I did not see how the lawyers or the courts could get me back my husband's affection. I had little doubt that he was in love with the Japanese woman. He not only agreed to give me the house in Seattle, but he also offered a generous settlement, including a share in his pension. One might say that I was bribed to give him a divorce. Perhaps - but perhaps I have gotten tired of being his appendage and had come to realize that there was another life for me, separate from him. Or maybe I just was not ready to fight and lose out to a woman half my age.

My wristwatch alarm reminded me that I needed to be at Akiko's place by six o'clock. Akiko was my Japanese friend from the dog runner’s club. She was throwing an eight o'clock dinner for her husband's associates and I promised to come.

"What are you preparing there?" I asked as I walked into her kitchen.

"We’re having Japanese roulette tonight," Akiko laughed as she begun to carve out the fish into fillets. "I'm actually making sashimi. This is my husband's favorite delicacy - fugu. You call it puffer or blowfish here," Akiko added.

"I think one of your famous Kabuki actors died after eating fugu liver when I was in Tokyo," I said.

"Ah, yes, I remember that," Akiko said as she started slicing the fillets into thin diamond-shaped pieces. "It's the epitome of gourmet dining. When we were in Japan he actually sent me to apprentice with a licensed master fugu chef,” Akiko said as she let out a strange little laugh. Akiko was smiling but her face looked tired, her eyes bloodshot as if she had been crying.

"Must have been interesting," I replied.

"Don't worry, I'm almost a fugu chef myself, you can safely try it in my house," Akiko assured me. "I know exactly which parts are poisonous.”

Akiko was a most gracious hostess; the haggard face and bloodshot eyes were gone and her face had taken on an almost radiant look by the time the guests arrived. The dinner bell rang and we all went to the dining room. Akiko sat across from her husband. A red-haired woman was seated to the left of Akiko’s husband. I noticed a lingering hand on the husband’s shoulder as the woman sat down.

"My wife prepared a most delicious dish for us tonight," Mr. Kobayashi announced. He went on to explain to his guests why eating puffer fish is considered the Japanese gastronomic version of Russian roulette. "Fugu toxin is 1200 times deadlier than cyanide," he claimed. "If even a tiny touch of it is left on the meat, you're gone," he added with a smile. "My wife had studied under a famous fugu master chief and has prepared fugu for me many times. But if you're concerned, you don't have to eat the sashimi, of course," he laughed.

There was soft chatter afterwards then the red-haired woman suddenly put one hand on her throat and looked as if she was breathing laboriously, "I can't breathe!"

But before anyone could react, there was a peal of laughter.

"That's not a very nice thing to do, Patty Ann," Mr. Kobayashi lightly scolded the young woman as the guests settled back with relief in their chairs.

"Oh, can't you take a joke?" the red-haired woman complained, still laughing. "I'm sorry, Mrs. K," she said addressing Akiko directly, "I just could not resist it."

I watched Akiko remain seated regally at the other end of the table. She gave a slight nod, a frozen smile pasted on her face. I was eating the last sliver of fish on my plate when I happen to glanced at Patty Ann who was still giggling over her little joke.

But it was Akiko’s husband who caught my attention. He looked odd. Then, as if in a slow motion, I watched as his chopsticks clattered on the table. He seemed unable to speak or sit up and he collapsed face down on his plate. Akiko and Patty Ann screamed at the same time. Patty Ann held on to Mr. Kobayashi's arm as Akiko rushed to her husband's side, crying his name. Somebody shouted 911.

I held Akiko's shoulders as she bent over her husband. She was weeping quietly and murmuring something in his ears.

"You killed him," Patty Ann screamed at Akiko, mascara streaks running down her cheeks. "You killed him rather than let him go."

Akiko straightened up, face wet with weeping and said icily, "I have no reason to kill Hideo, I love him very much." She looked at the other woman still holding on to her husband's arm, then leaned forward until her face was only inches away from the other woman's.

"It should have been you," Akiko told Patty Ann in a voice filled with venom. Then she picked up one of the two sashimi plates between the woman's plate and her husband and shoved the remaining fillets into her mouth with her fingers.

"No!" I shouted too late.

Akiko looked at me briefly and shook her dark head. Then she turned to Patty Ann and said gravely, "May we live in your conscience forever. Now get your hands off my husband," Akiko ordered quietly.

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