The Favorites (novel excerpt)

By Mary Yukari Waters

Although Sarah Rexford had been sitting at the floor-level breakfast table for less than an hour, her brain was already overloaded.  For one thing, the Japanese conversation was fast.  For another, there was an unexpected strangeness about all the things that should have been familiar.  Her grandmother’s traditional table setting, for instance, struck her for the first time as something exotic.  Over the last five years, Sarah had grown used to the plain white Corelle back home in California.  Now she was fascinated by this toylike arrangement before her:  tiny porcelain bowls for rice, tiny lacquered bowls for miso soup.  In the center of the table was a cluster of artfully mismatched bowls, each holding a different condiment which everyone picked out with chopsticks and placed on individual condiment dishes that were one-third the size of saucers.  Sarah picked up each dish as if it were a museum piece, cradling it in both hands in order to savor its shape and heft.  One was a rustic, pitted ceramic glazed with summer hues of ecru and blue; another was a paper-thin porcelain of misty lime, upon which a single bamboo was etched in raised white brushstrokes. 

“Mother!  This takuan is amazing!” exclaimed Mrs. Rexford, munching vigorously on a slice of pickled daikon radish.  “Where did you get this?”

“I made my own this year,” Mrs. Kobayashi said.  “You should take some home with you.”  Her expression brightened, as if to discuss the pickle-making, but she stopped herself.  Her husband was about to speak.

Mr. Kenji Kobayashi was a handsome man in his sixties, permanently browned from years of tennis and golf.  While extremely social in public - he was popular with both men and women — he was absent-minded at home, as if conserving energy for his outside pursuits.  When conversing with children, he often gave the impression of being slightly irrelevant, slightly off the mark.  “So how many slices of bread,” he now asked his granddaughter, “does an American person eat in a single day?” 

“Saa — at least four,” Sarah said. “Two slices of toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch… dinner’s usually something else, like noodles or potatoes.  But some people eat dinner rolls too, along with the main course.”  She glanced at her mother for confirmation, which was out of character for her.  Back home, Sarah was a know-it-all; she was quick to correct her mother’s English mistakes, or her gaps in Western knowledge, with contemptuous finesse.  But this switch in turf had wrought some change in Mrs. Rexford, giving her the relaxed authority she lacked in America.  The girl sensed this, as dogs sense the subtle ups and downs of their masters, and already the balance of power had shifted between them.

Mr. Kobayashi continued his interrogation. “So do you eat breakfasts like this in America?” he asked.

“Sometimes.  But not very often.  Mama usually makes eggs and toast and orange juice.  And sometimes pancakes, because my father and I like pancakes.”

“Pancake…?” said Mrs. Kobayashi.

“She means hotcakes,” Mrs. Rexford explained. 

“Aaa, hotcakes!” Mrs. Kobayashi nodded her understanding.  “How tasty!” 

Sarah wished her grandfather would stop asking these questions.  She felt the old, familiar shame of being singled out for her foreignness.  She remembered her early childhood here in Japan, how it had felt to board a streetcar or walk down a street:  the baleful stares of children, the frank curiosity of vendors or those weaving people who lived on the other side of Murasaki Boulevard.  Such people, of course, were the minority; their social graces were less polished than the rest of the population.  But they betrayed the truth behind everyone else’s tactful facades of indifference.  Young Sarah, who had grown up among Japanese faces (with the exception of her father, the only foreigner she knew), felt taken aback herself each time she passed a shop window and caught a glimpse of her own reflection:  a pointy nose sprinkled with freckles, a sharp chin that was severe, almost fox-like, compared to the softer, more pleasing contours of those around her. 

To shift the subject away from America, she announced to the table at large, “Granny Asaki waved to me from her balcony this morning.”

Mrs. Asaki, or Granny Asaki as she was known in the neighborhood, was Mr. Kobayashi’s elder sister.  A long-time widow, she lived catercorner down the gravel lane with her daughter, her son-in-law, and her two grandchildren.  The two houses, while bound by close ties, had something of an uneasy relationship.  It had never occurred to Sarah to wonder why; she simply accepted it as the nature of her family. 

As Sarah had anticipated, her mother and grandmother turned toward her with an air of sharp interest which, in the presence of Mr. Kobayashi and herself, they attempted to disguise with expressions of kindly disinterest.

“You saw her already?  How nice,” said Mrs. Kobayashi.  “Did she happen to be hanging up something on the clothesline?”  The two women exchanged a brief, sardonic glance. 

Sarah nodded importantly.  This had happened less than half an hour ago.  She had folded up the futon comforters, stowed them in the closet, and was heading toward the dining room when she was struck by a sudden urge to see the garden where she had played so often as a little girl.  Hurrying over to the wall of sliding glass doors that opened out onto the garden, she had thrown open the heavy, floor-length drapes.  The metal rollers slid back with a shhh, like a receding wave, and the room was suffused with green light from the garden.  

The garden was pleasantly unchanged - although smaller than she remembered — with the same four-legged stone lantern in one corner, and the familiar stepping-stones spaced at artistically irregular intervals.  The roof’s extended eaves cut off the sky, intensifying the effect of mass foliage:  maple and yuzu and bamboo and camellia, all at the peak of summer lushness. 

From a slightly stooped position Sarah could peer up, under the eaves and over the wooden fence and the dwarf yuzu tree, and get a good view of her Granny Asaki’s second-story balcony.  Mrs. Asaki was pinning up handkerchiefs and socks on the clothesline.  She, too, was unchanged:  small and spry with the faint beginnings of a hunchback, and dyed black hair slicked into a small bun at the nape of her neck.  Immediately spotting the girl’s face at the window, the elderly woman leaned over the wooden railing and vigorously waved a wet handkerchief, causing a large crow to flap up from a nearby pine branch.  Sarah waved back.

“It was almost like she’d been watching our house,” Sarah now reported to her mother and grandmother.  From past experience, she knew that any evidence of Mrs. Asaki’s nosiness was guaranteed to hold their attention.  But the Japanese code of conduct deemed that children - even teenagers - should remain unsullied by any awareness of adult conflict, so Sarah made her remark with an air of bland innocence.

To her satisfaction, the women once again exchanged knowing glances. 

“Granny Asaki has sharp eyes,” said Mrs. Rexford dryly.  Then catching herself, she switched to a tone of bright geniality.  “Not nearsighted, like the rest of us!  Her health is remarkable, especially for someone her age… it must be the good family genes!  Ne, Father?”

Mr. Kobayashi, who shared his elder sister’s robust health, chuckled with pleased pride, and his wife murmured that good health was, indeed, a quality to be envied.  The two women turned back to Sarah with expectant faces.  Then, perceiving that this was the extent of the girl’s contribution, they drifted off to another topic.

“That reminds me,” said Mrs. Kobayashi several minutes later, “I think you and Sarah should go visit them first.  They usually finish breakfast by eight-thirty.  So eat fast and run over there, quick, before they show up here.”

“Why shouldn’t they show up here?” Mrs. Rexford said.  Relaxed and smiling, she made no attempt to eat faster.  “I’m the older one.  Masako should come to me, even if her husband’s a little older than I am.”

“No, no,” said Mrs. Kobayashi.  “Forget Masako’s husband.  Granny Asaki’s the real head of that house.  And she outranks our head…”  She nodded toward her own husband, whose face was obscured by the lacquered bowl from which he was drinking.

“But Mother, it’s not Granny who’s going to be coming over.  Everyone knows I’ll pay her my formal respects during visiting hours.  We’re just talking about my generation.”

“There is no such thing,” said Mrs. Kobayashi, “as just my generation.”  She glanced surreptitiously at her husband.  He was drinking a mixture of rice and tea with loud abandon, clearly uninterested in the conversation.

Mrs. Kobayashi leaned forward and silently mouthed the words Be careful.  The women once again exchanged glances, no longer amused but grave. 

Watching this, Sarah felt the first stirring of curiosity. 

Mrs. Rexford looked up at the clock.  Sarah followed her gaze.  The clock was a shiny modern piece, incongruous with the aged wall post on which it hung.  The wooden post dated back to a more traditional time, when aesthetically minded workmen used to leave small remnants of nature in their work.  Each wall post in the room retained some individual quirk:  a curious burl, or the serpentine tracks of beetle larvae just below the surface of the wood.

“A little more rice, Father-san?” Mrs. Kobayashi asked, holding out her hand in anticipation of her husband’s empty bowl.  They waited in silence while he drank down the last drop.

Aaa,” he said, handing the bowl over.  He then turned to Sarah.  “Do people in America talk this much about manners?” he asked.  “They just do whatever they feel like, right?  Any time they want?”

Soh, pretty much.”  She giggled politely, and her grandfather chuckled with her.  But there was more to this than etiquette.  What it was she couldn’t say, but there was definitely something more.

Mary Yukari Waters has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize.  She is the recipient of an NEA grant, and her work has aired on BBC and NPR.  Her debut collection was a Discover Award for New Writers selection, a Booksense 76 selection, and a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book.  She received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.  She currently teaches in Spalding University’s Brief Residency MFA program as well as University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert’s traditional MFA program.

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