How Cara Learned to Stop Worrying Ch. 05byphlight©
Pt. 5 – In Keiji's room; love and choice.
"Keiji, wait," I said, stopping in my tracks just outside the train station. I wasn't sure if it was nerves or "morning" sickness (which is conveniently available at any time of day for all of your vomiting needs), but I felt like I was going to toss my cookies. Keiji had gained a few steps on me as he headed toward a line of taxis snaking around the kiss-and-ride area, but he was back by my side in an instant.
"Are you okay? Do you need to sit down? Do you need some water? You look pale," he fussed, his dark eyes filled with concern.
"I think I just. Need a second," I replied, groping for and finding his hand. He did me one better and pulled me into a hug, rubbing my back. My body relaxed against his as I rested my head on his shoulder for half a minute or so, my face nuzzling against the warm skin of his neck. He smelled wonderful -- not like cologne, just himself, clean and masculine. The hustle and noise of the busy station receded into a low hum. If I could just stay in this spot with him forever, I would be perfectly happy. My stomach settled. I thought of the Nakamuras waiting for us and sighed, pulling back from him with regret.
"Better?" he asked, searching my face. "Sure you don't want something to drink?"
"No, no. I just had a moment. I had them with Evan, too. It's okay. Let's get the car," I said, resettling my purse strap on my shoulder.
"Just a sec," he said, striding to the nearest taxi. Once he had the driver's attention he came back to collect me and our luggage. "It's not a very long ride, maybe ten minutes. If we need to stop on the way there's a shopping center between here and the house."
"I'll be okay," I said, fighting off a rabble of butterflies in my stomach. I reminded myself to take deep breaths.
Keiji helped me into the back seat and then slid in next to me. I snuggled against him and he put his arm around me. Despite my crummy tummy, I couldn't help but entertain a short fantasy of the two of us doing something seriously naughty in the back of a taxi. Why not? Train down, so many public transportation options to go. I hadn't been able to rest on the train, but as Keiji began to direct the driver to his childhood home I felt myself slip into a light doze.
My power nap ended when the taxi stopped and I felt Keiji pat my shoulder.
"We're here," he whispered. In my sleep-addled state I must've let anxiety show on my face, because he added, "Don't worry!"
I didn't say anything until the cab was headed away from us down the quiet suburban street. The houses were modest 1960s split-levels set on mid-sized lots. Every lawn was raked clean of leaves, every car was parked straight in its driveway. The trees were large and would have been very green if we had been visiting in June instead of November. The Nakamura house was difficult to pick out from any of the others in this American slice of life; the only giveaway that this particular home might belong to Keiji's family was a bumper sticker celebrating the 1998 Olympic Games on the back of a well-maintained Camry station wagon.
"Olympics fans, ey?" I said, gesturing at the sticker.
"Oh my god," Keiji replied, shaking his head. "My dad taped every event for my mom. I don't think she's even been to Nagano but every chance she got she was talking about it. It was kind of a big deal. I was living at home at the time. Mistake."
I laughed a little. He started up the front sidewalk with our bags. I hung back, feeling some foreboding as I looked at the quiet front door. If this had been my parents' home they would've been out the door the second the car doors opened, talking over each other and anyone else in the general vicinity. Mom would offer us a sandwich four or five times, Dad would push a beer on Keiji whether or not he wanted it. Where was everyone?
Keiji turned around and for a second I thought I had asked the question out loud. He smiled, tilted his head at the front door, urging me forward.
"Takako, a.k.a. Okaasan. Homemaker. Kind of bitter and will probably think I'm a shiftless floozy. Stan. Retired purchasing specialist for a local office supply company. Likes The Late Show with David Letterman and builds birdhouses," I recited under my breath as I walked toward him. I wasn't sure if Keiji had been joking about the birdhouses. I hoped I was joking about her hating my guts.
We reached the front door and he set down my suitcase to open the door. It was unlocked and Keiji stepped inside the house without knocking or ringing the bell. I followed him into a small split foyer, my heart in my throat. I had never been this nervous meeting prior boyfriends' parents. Although part of my anxiety was being in an unfamiliar environment, I realized that most of it was because I wished, very much, that they would like me.
As Keiji shut the door behind us I looked around the immediate area, trying to calm myself. The floor of the foyer was laid in spotless black marble tile; the walls were pale grey. There was a tidy shoe rack against one wall with several pairs of house slippers lined up underneath. A spare painting of sakura on a black background hung over the rack. Keiji stepped on the heels of his sneakers to get them off and tossed them on top of the rack. I was bending over, beginning to take off my boots, when I heard footsteps fall above us.
"KEIJI!" a voice boomed. I looked up to see a man about Keiji's height, but darker-complected and balding, come around the corner of a hallway and then down the short stairway to the foyer. He embraced his son, laughing. I recognized Keiji in his smile and the laugh lines around his eyes.
"It's been too long, too long," Stanley Nakamura admonished, releasing his son from the hug but holding him at arm's length for a better look. "Haha will say you're too skinny." He turned to look at me, his expression friendly and welcoming. He was discreet, but I saw his eyes flicker up and down as he assessed my shape. He raised his eyebrows and looked back at Keiji, then back at me. "Keiji, how do you always end up with one prettier than the last?"
"Dad," Keiji said, a warning tone in his voice. I swallowed a nervous laugh at the implications of Keiji's long line of conquests and put a polite smile on my face.
"I'm just saying, I'm just saying! It's a compliment, to both of you. Relax. Hi, I'm Stan," Stan said, sticking out his hand. I shook it, deciding on a firm grip.
"Nice to meet you, Stan. Cara Brennan." My smile felt more genuine now.
"Very nice to meet you, Cara," he said, looking back at Keiji to see if he was pushing the right buttons. Keiji bit the inside of his cheek and looked away, reminding me of my teenager. Stan chuckled, beckoning us to follow him as he started up the stairs. "Well, come on. Haha is in the kitchen cooking up a storm. She'll fetch us when dinner's ready. No, no, leave the bags there. I'll get them later."
I hurried to get my boots off and placed them on the shoe rack. The looked like clown shoes next to a pair of women's Keds that I assumed were Takako's. At least Keiji's feet were bigger than mine. I crammed my massive extremities into a pair of men's leather house slippers and went upstairs. I noticed that Keiji just wore his socks.
Stan led us to what was obviously the "nice" living room; there was an overstuffed chair upholstered in light blue velvet and a matching couch. A glass-and-chrome coffee table held a few photo books and a tasteful vase with a few stems and flowers. A large family portrait in a silver frame hung above the couch (circa 1990 if I had the fashions dated right; Sachi looked dour despite her neon outfit while Keiji beamed, showing off a set of braces and a snowflake patterned ski sweater). I pointed at the picture and smiled. Keiji winced and shook his head. Not talking about it.
"Haha is taking another ikebana class," Stan said, gesturing toward the arrangement. "I can't buy her roses anymore. She says they're too vulgar."
"Since when did you buy her roses anyway, Dad?" Keiji said, perching on the edge of the couch. He looked ready to flee if necessary. I made some polite-but-empty acknowledgment of the flowers; they were pretty, but I knew less than nothing about ikebana. Stan laughed like Keiji's remark was up there with one of David Letterman's scripted quips.
I could hear food prep noises coming from a room to our right; there was an open archway and I saw a sink through it. I knew that Keiji's mother could hear our conversation, knew that we were here, but she sounded too busy to step away. My instinct to help kicked in.
"Should I go see if--"
"No!" Keiji said. I jumped, startled. "No. She doesn't even like Sachi in there." Stan smiled, nodding. (Did he ever stop smiling?)
"He's right. Do you enjoy cooking, Cara?"
"I do. But I don't have a lot of time to learn anything new these days. There are lots of crock pot meals at my house," I replied. Stan continued nodding along.
"Cara's a 'career woman,'" Keiji said, wiggling air quotes while looking at me. I could see he was fighting to keep a straight expression on his face; he knew how I felt about my "career." I rewarded him with a slight jab in the ribs.
Stan opened his mouth, probably to ask what sort of career, when Takako Nakamura stepped out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel. Or should I say the lady in the peach kimono stepped out? They were one and the same. Her face in life was older, small lines around her eyes, and she wore a white cardigan over a simple navy blue shift dress, but she was no less beautiful for it. If Keiji had Stan's smile, everything else about him came from his mother -- the fine, symmetrical features, light skin, high cheekbones, and full lips. Her hair was still a glossy black, save for one streak of grey, and cut in a short asymmetrical bob. When she saw her son her face lit up for the briefest second. Then I saw a hard expression settle on her features, as if she was steeling herself for something. By the time her eyes got to me, they were flat with indifference.
"Dinner is ready. You look like you could use some, Keiji-kun," she said, her voice devoid of any trace of accent until she said her son's name.
"What did I tell you?!" Stan crowed. "This woman is obsessed with fattening people up." He patted his tummy. Takako curled her lip with disdain. Stan's remark reminded me of the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Oh, for Pete's sake. She's not an evil villain, she's your boyfriend's mother. Give her a chance.
"Mom," Keiji said, standing up. He offered me a hand and pulled me up; otherwise I might have attempted to disappear between the seat cushions. "This is Cara Brennan. We met at Hana's play."
"Hello, Okaasan," I said in a quiet voice. I bowed slightly, feeling phony. She nodded back and then looked away. I wasn't sure what else to say -- "I'm a CPA"? "I enjoy long walks on the beach"? "It's nice to meet you," I said. A weak start for sure.
"The dining room is this way," Stan said, rising and leading us out of the living room.
When we entered the room I saw a beautifully polished oak table set with several dishes; each place setting had chopsticks and small bowls for sauces, condiments, rice, and so on. It was impeccable. The only problem was the plate of salmon and tuna sashimi gleaming coolly in the center of the table. I'm a fan of sushi and sashimi in general, but today my stomach gave a warning roll. I grimaced and fought the sensation, determined to make a good impression.
"Wow Mom, pulling out all the stops for Thanksgiving," Keiji said as we took our seats. Stan sat the head of the table, Takako on one side with an empty chair next to her, and Keiji and I on the other side.
"Yes, well, it's been so long since you've bothered to come home," she said. Keiji sighed and tried again.
"It looks really good, a lot of my favorites. Thank you." Stan grunted his agreement and I nodded like an excitable puppet; Takako did not reply.
"I personally can't wait for turkey tomorrow," Stan said, ladling out servings of a clear soup; it had small cubes of tofu and slivers of green onion and was mild in flavor. I made it through this course with no problem. The potato and beef dish was also easy to get down; Takako was a talented cook with a deft hand for spices. Keiji and Stan exchanged jokes and caught up on each other's lives, devouring anything in reach of their hands. I said little as I considered the remaining dishes on the table. Takako said nothing unless someone asked her a direct question (usually a request for seconds or thirds or fourths). I had some difficulty with the pickled veggies and boiled spinach, but managed to convince my body to accept them out of sheer will. When I'm not knocked up I love Japanese food, and Takako's menu was hardly anything out there for a Western palate. I picked at my remaining rice for as long as possible before I noticed my hostess watching me. Busted.
"Keiji, the price of fresh fish this time of year is like being robbed," she said, her tone light. She spoke to her son but looked at me. I got the message loud and clear -- she was pissed that I wasn't eating the sashimi. Stan and Keiji had already downed several pieces each, eating them before the stronger-flavored dishes on the table.
Keiji nodded, absorbed in conversation with Stan and for the moment oblivious to his mother. I took a deep breath and reached for the plate of fish, selecting one piece of each type. I sniffed my choices carefully, trying to determine which might be more mild in flavor, but Takako had bought and prepared the fish with emphasis on the highest quality, so there was almost no odor. I decided to go for the tuna.
Please, baby, I begged. Work with me, here. Grandma worked hard on this. Your first sashimi, you'll love it. Mmm.
I put the tuna in my mouth and that was okay. It tasted pretty good and its cool surface felt nice on my tongue. Then I bit down, experienced the texture of the raw flesh, and it was over. My stomach lurched and saliva flooded my mouth. Even if I had known where the bathroom was, I never would have made it. I had just enough time to bend down below the table, trying to catch the worst of my mess in my dinner napkin. A beach towel probably would've been more appropriate for the job.
I heard Keiji's chair scrape back from the table. He was on his feet like a shot and had me standing as soon as I stopped heaving (which seemed like eons to me; long enough for Stan to make a dismayed comment about whether or not he should get something for me to ralph in). Takako continued her silence and I was too humiliated to even look in her direction, though I tried to choke out an apology through tears. Keiji helped me away from the table, down the hallway, past the bathroom (damn it), and into his old bedroom. He laid me down on the bed and removed my slippers.
"It was the fish?" he asked. I groaned at the memory, gagging. "Oh god, sorry, sorry. I'll be right back. Here's a trash can in case." He set the can next to the bed and I heard the door close. I heard a fair amount of back and forth between Keiji and Stan as they coordinated HAZMAT clean up. I contemplated hiding under the bed, or if that sounded silly, maybe jumping out of the window. In truth I still felt too nauseated to do anything but lay there with my eyes squeezed shut.
Five or six minutes later I was feeling a bit better; Keiji came in the door with a bowl of leftover broth from the soup and a damp cloth.
"You don't have to eat it, I just thought you might want to get the taste out of your mouth and I remember you said water makes you sick sometimes," he said, setting the bowl down on the bedside table. He sat down on the bed next to me and wiped my eyes with the cloth, clearing away tear stains. I took it from him and scrubbed my lips a few times. I was about to say thank you when we heard a terse, angry voice come from a room nearby. I couldn't make out everything, but I heard Takako say "another bimbo hakujin," "such waste," "no appreciation," and so on. Stan's replies were mere murmurs. My shame deepened. Keiji's jaw clenched as he listened; suddenly, he stood up and stalked out of the room.
"Don't!" I said, realizing what he meant to do. We had talked about how we would tell his parents, had crafted carefully worded statements about surprise and commitment and responsibility and happiness. All of these went down the drain because I couldn't eat a stupid piece of tuna.
I heard a door bang open and Keiji's voice, low and cold. "Okaasan. Cara feels sick because she is pregnant with your grandchild. I think it would be best if you stopped talking now."
He must not have waited for a reply because he was back in the room with me seconds later. He closed the door and locked it, then strode over to an old boombox sitting on a battered pine desk. The sounds of the local rock radio station filled the room, drowning out any other noise that might be overhead.
"Thank god that old RCA still works," he said, taking a seat next to me again. "It cost approximately five million dollars in 1989. I begged my dad for it."
I couldn't think of anything to say; my body was still stiff with embarrassment. He offered me the bowl of broth and I accepted, taking small sips as I looked around his old room. It seemed so drab compared to the place he lived in now. There were brown plaid curtains on the windows, a brown carpet, and a matching brown plaid comforter on the bed. The only sparks of life were old band posters on the beige walls -- Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M. -- and a somewhat untidy heap of old textbooks and sketchbooks on the desk. Keiji looked around with me.
"Pretty dire, isn't it? Except for the posters. I forgot I left those here. I should take them, but where will I put them? Would Evan want them?"
"Evan's more of a Jay-Z kinda guy," I said, my voice a bit froggy. Keiji stared at me. "I have no idea, either. But I love these bands, too. How come we've never talked about music?"
Keiji smiled and laid down. "There's been a lot to talk about. Your favorite band is?"
"Oh jeez, I don't know. The Cure? Or New Order."
"Both good choices. I'm gonna go with the classic Pumpkins. I hold James Iha responsible for introducing me to the idea that I could have a chance with someone like D'arcy," Keiji said, lying down on the bed next to me with his hands behind his head. He gazed at the poster.
"He's pretty easy on the eyes," I mused.
There was a companionable silence between us for a time. I finished the broth and tried to forget about what had just happened with his parents, tried to enjoy the nearness of him, but a thought kept entering my mind. It niggled too much to let it go.
"Would you still be interested in me if I wasn't pregnant?"
He turned his head and met my eyes, a question furrowing his brow.
"I just. I feel pretty out of place right now, I guess. Like why are you bothering. Your mother--"
"Are you kidding me? Look, I love my mom. I'm sad that we piss each other off so much of the time. But being with you is not a 'bother.'" He turned toward me and scooted in until his forehead was touching mine. I closed my eyes and shivered, wanting him to kiss me. "Cara. I am very, very interested in you. I know it's only been two months, when I'm not around you I feel like I'm just coasting. You're smart, funny, righteous but not self-righteous, empathetic, humble. The fact that you're having a baby with me is--I can't believe how lucky I am. I can't figure out what I was doing with my life before. I love you."