One evening when I was out of town, I decided to try a Japanese restaurant I found on the Internet. A popular neighborhood eatery in a long and narrow space, the restaurant was divided by short walls made to look like shoji but with stained glass instead of paper. Cozy and tasteful, the decor made me forget the restaurant was in a strip mall of a wealthy suburb, and I decided I liked the place as soon as I sat down.
Although I don’t understand any Russian beyond “da” (yes) and “net” (no), I could place the accents of the voices at the table behind me. The preschooler sitting directly behind me fidgeted periodically, bumping my chair. Whenever this happened, I could hear mom or dad say something. The little girl never responded, but the squirming and bumping would stop.
A group of 20- and 30-somethings sat at the table in front of me. They ate modestly, but ordered multiple bottles of alcohol. Their conversation was quiet, and they intermittently had their faces buried in their smartphones. The woman whose phone blared when she was watching a video didn’t seem embarrassed, and she took her time turning down the volume.
At the table to my right were a woman and a little girl who looked about nine years old. The woman was so lovely that I couldn’t help staring. Probably accustomed to being admired, the woman expertly pretended not to notice. Her skin was clear and free of makeup. I assumed she was older than she looked. Thin and stylishly dressed in ankle pants and a long, loose cardigan, she draped her Goyard grey chevron St. Louis tote bag on the back of her chair as if it, too, were accustomed to being admired.
The woman looked at the menu and said something to the little girl in Japanese. The little girl responded in English, “I don’t care. You can order anything as long as it’s not salmon.” How refreshing – child who wasn’t a picky eater, and at a Japanese restaurant! Their entrees, two different sushi rolls, came out separately a few minutes later.
When they finished their sushi, the woman smiled and again said something to the girl in Japanese. Moments later, a server brought the girl a small dish of ice cream. I heard the girl say, “Do you know how busy I’m gonna be? On Wednesday I have …., and on Thursday I have ….” Spoken like she had the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders. The woman responded in Japanese punctuated with English: “…Wednesday, …Thursday?”
Unlike the woman and girl next to me, the middle-aged couple at the sushi bar never looked at or spoke to one another. The only connection between them was the man’s right arm resting over the back of the woman’s chair. The man’s expression was pleasant but neutral. He left the business of dealing with the servers to the woman, who never smiled and looked stern the whole time. As uncomfortable as it appeared to me, they seemed resigned to looking straight ahead in silence, not bothering to feign interest in their surroundings. They made quick work of their meal and left.
My meal was fine, but nothing memorable. What I wouldn’t forget were the people and settings I had spied: Gentle Parents; Self-absorbed Millennials; Precocious Girl and Doting Aunt; and Distant Spouses. I was already wondering how each of these stories would turn out.
To write about human nature, it’s vital to know about people. To learn about people, it helps to watch them. And in writing about human nature, you uncover things familiar to all of us, the truths that make us all human.
©Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2016.