Washoku

by Kaori Shoji

Back in May when we had lunch, my sister Rinko – who is eight years older than me – fessed up about a guy in her life. “He’s working in the washoku diner around the corner,” she said. “He’s much younger than I am, maybe he’s in his twenties even. I can’t be sure since I’ve only seen him in the light in the diner. He’s always masked up and it’s dark in there.”

In his twenties.

I was so embarrassed for my sis. She looks young for her age but she’s pushing fifty and married for over a quarter of a century to my brother-in-law who is an extraordinarily decent guy. They have a daughter together. They have a grandkid together. I rolled my eyes so hard they were falling out of their sockets. “What are you, fucking crazy? You ARE crazy. I don’t even want to know you. We are not related, okay?” I said this in English because I was born in New York and came back to Tokyo when I had just turned eight and Rinko was fifteen. My sister remained completely bilingual while I had to relearn the language when I went off to Cali for graduate school. As we grew into adulthood, English became a private code to our interminable conversations. We pulled it out whenever we had news to share, was happy or sad, pissed off at each other or at the world. In other words, most times we talked. Rinko was much, much more adept at the language than I am which was embarrassing because I was the one who went to graduate school in the States and now teach economics at a posh university here in Tokyo.

Rinko looked at me, and I gotta say, my sister has these amazing eyes which nothing ever mucks up. Not all-nighters at work, various onenight stands her husband knows nothing about, the horrible crying jags when things go haywire in her life, her bipolar issues which have gone untreated and is most likely causing a lot of trouble that she will never admit to. Nothing pollutes those eyes. Every time I look into my them, so different from mine because I have the typical Japanese hooded slits instead of those dark, translucent marbles of hers. Whenever things go wrong in her life I look into her eyes like an optometrist and examine the damage, gauge her condition. This diner guy was bad news on steroids but – I could tell she’s going to be fine.

When I was 14 my teammates from the soccer club used to come over and hang around our kitchen in the hopes that Rinko, then a senior at university, would come home and open the fridge for a drink and banter a little, looking straight at them with her huge eyes, tossing her hair and swaying her hips a little as she padded out of the kitchen. Man, I could see them now, secretly drooling at the sight of my sister. When I was 17, my own girlfriend told me she liked talking to Rinko more than she liked talking to me. At the time, Rinko

2 was 25 and the mother of a 2-year old. To me, she was just an older woman who was settling down. Twenty five, that was OLD, right? My girlfriend had to be insane. But then, throughout her whole life people had taken to Rinko for reasons I never quite understood. I remember how, when we were living in Brooklyn, Rinko had a small cluster of guys who followed her around and called her ‘Rinnie.’ Sometimes one or another of them – twins from a brood of kids sired by a vicious Irish cop, Matteo from the Italian bakery, Benjie walking his huge German Shepherd – would spy me in the yard playing by myself and yell out, ‘Yo, baby bro, where’s Rinnie?’

Those eyes goddamn it.

According to Rinko this new guy seems pretty audacious and audacious always gets far with my sister. She said he doesn’t play games – because he has no time for mind fuckery. He’s a chef which means among other things, 14-hour days, six days a week. “He’s so nice,” she croons. “He always comes straight to my table and hangs around talking,” she says. “He’s always telling me that I’m adorable. Really, that just doesn’t happen at my age.”

“No kidding.” I lay the sarcasm on thick and say, “So he knows you’re a grandma right? I mean, he’s seen you around with family right? I mean, even I’ve gone to that diner with you guys. If he’s in his twenties, you and his mom could be the same age. You ARE aware of that right? And what would Mika (my niece, her daughter) think about it? I mean, get it together, sis. The diner is like, right there. You may as well be fucking the guy in the middle of your living room.”

My sister blinked, her long lashes briefly obscuring her pupils before they flared open. “Of course he knows the family! He’s paid me compliments with Shinji standing just a meter away. He’s always very solicitous around us. I’m not hiding anything from this guy and I’m not fucking him!”

Not yet you mean. But you will.

Shinji is my sister’s husband. He’s like, top-tier engineer in a company known as the Japanese equivalent of Space X and as such, he’s respected and solid in a way Rinko could never hope to be. She works in advertising and writes ad copy and columns on the web and gets paid peanuts for her trouble. Everything she earns, she spends on her daughter, her grandkid, food, clothing, trips, drinks, not necessarily in that order. Shinji has taken care of the mortgage, car payments and other big ticket items. He doesn’t drink and is very careful with money. Rinko always said that if they got divorced she’d be homeless in a month.

I give a disgusted sigh and turn away. It’s not nice to contemplate one’s own flesh and blood is a shameless middle-aged slut. At the same time though, I can’t help a tiny, almost indistinct wave of pride lapping at my insides. My sister – well, she’s different. She’s unlike any woman I’ve ever known and I’ve known my fair share of them.

As a teenager she was unpredictable in unpredictable ways – fearless and cowering and nasty and innocent: a combo that many in the male species found inexplicably alluring. Her homeroom teacher had a thing for her apparently. She consecutively failed every subject except English and he let that slide and kept her in his class for three years until graduation rolled around. In her report card, he commented on the “beauty and intelligence of her enormous eyes.” Yeah, he got it bad. Sometimes in the mornings when she was sprinting to get to the school gates before they closed (Rinko is chronically late, has been her whole life) this teacher would materialize out of nowhere and hold the gate open so she wouldn’t get into trouble. Men were like that around Rinko but she was 17 then. Of course they would fall over each other to get into a teenager’s pants. But now she’s pushing 50, I wanted to yell. Don’t fall for the eyes thing – this is a woman way, way past her prime.

When I was at university and Rinko turned 30, she asked me whether she would be okay from here on in. “So scared at gettin’ older, I’m only good at being young” she sang, from the John Mayer album which she loved. Then she said she didn’t think she could swing being middle aged. “I could stand being married to the same man for

5 years and years. I could probably stand having facial hair and wrinkles. I could handle being invisible to men because I’m old. But I can’t stand everything coming on at once. It’s starting to happen already. I’m not the same me anymore. I want to just disappear.”

Being a youngster and completely wrapped up in my own life, I scoffed at Rinko’s predilections and told her to put a lid on it. “Of course you’ll get old, everyone does. Get over yourself. You’re a mother for god’s sakes. Pull yourself together and think about your daughter.”

Two decades on I stick by my advice but I also realize I was being unfair. Because Rinko was a devoted and dedicated mother. Outwardly she was very loyal to Shinji. After Mika she had two miscarriages and she said she didn’t want the trauma of pregnancies anymore even though she loved babies and was very good around them. She redoubled her efforts to be present and aware as a wife and mom. She worked hard. She did all the heavy lifting as far as home and family were concerned and I never heard her complain.

Shinji left their apartment every morning at 7 and returned at midnight – the typical hours of an elite Japanese salariman – but he was around on weekends to be with his wife and daughter and help out around the house which surprised my parents to no end. “What a wonderful husband,” my mother told Rinko. “Make sure he gets plenty of meat meals and be careful some young woman doesn’t come along and snatch him up. Remember that you’re getting on. You’re not young anymore.” At every turn, my mother reminded Rinko of her age and ordered her to buy supplements and wrinkle cream and reading glasses. At 30, Rinko was told to prepare for menopause.

Rinko blinked and said nothing, as was her way of dealing with our mother. Privately, she said to me: “I don’t care about my workload, this way the weekdays are all mine. I think I have a pretty sweet deal. It’s a holy trinity of work, independence and freedom. It probably won’t get any better than this.”

Word got around that she slept with a client and then another. Someone told a friend of mine that he saw my sister getting soused at a bar in Shinjuku with a much older foreigner, and they were clearly on ‘more than friendly terms.’ ” And then the friend told me with a half smirk, “you know, you should reign in your sister a little. She’s not young anymore and she could get into real trouble.”

None of it reached Shinji because he occupied a completely separate space in society and was generally oblivious about personal issues to begin with. He loved Rinko but he just wasn’t interested about what went on in her head or how desperate she could get. He’s not a bad person, but as an engineer he had a hearty disdain for emotions. He just assumed, because my sister was functioning as an adult and a mother, everything was okay. He was and remains, an inordinately dense man. Which was all for the best. Anyone more sensitive or in tune to what Rinko was thinking would have chucked her out long ago.

Still, he broke down when she died. His grief was terrible to witness but then so was mine. In many ways, I know we blame each other for the way Rinko just upped and left us all. I haven’t spoken to him in years.

Rinko never tried to protect herself – she exposed herself to the raging elements and believed the universe would have her back. I told her time and again that she shouldn’t test fate like that because it was bound to catch up with her. She looked straight at me and said: “You know what the opposite of fate is? It’s freedom.”

After spending all my impressionable years with front row seats to my sister’s drama nothing much shook my equilibrium. We’re way different, I told myself. It’s not like I’m responsible for her, we just happen to be siblings that’s all.

I took off for a doctorate degree at UC Berkeley and didn’t come back to Tokyo for five years. Rinko and I kept in touch but it was all polite and familial. She could be like that when circumstances warranted, cut the drama and be a placid Japanese. I was relieved. There’s nothing like being a straight arrow 24-year old with nothing in the sexual escapades department to match one’s much older sister. She made me feel inadequate and disgusted, enraged and a little enthralled, all at the same time. I needed to distance myself, otherwise I was in danger of cutting off ties and never speaking to her again.

Meantime, Rinko was inwardly struggling in a blizzard of pain. I could see that now.

When Rinko was a teenager, our parents were too busy to think about her much. They just let her be, and then criticized and yelled at her later. One day when I was eight and Rinko was in high school, I overheard them saying to each other that she was man-crazy and they had better commit her to a mental institution before she wound up pregnant or worse. In the next breath, they agreed they couldn’t afford to pay for that institution and that Rinko had better get her act together anyway. I didn’t understand the conversation but I did vow to protect my sister. I didn’t care to be around our mother much but I adored Rinko. She could always calm me with a hug, or when I was really distressed, pull me on to her lap and pat my back upon which I would stop bawling and she would suggest getting ice cream. To this day I can remember what that felt like and the wonder of being loved and protected.

Rinko was never alluring in an obvious way. She was short and flat chested and her legs were too muscular to be sexy. Throughout her school years she wore sweats and jeans aside from her school uniform and made no attempt at girly-ness. On the other hand, she had a distinct look about her. Her hair wasn’t Japanese at all – they grew out of her head in big, bouncing curls and when we returned to Japan, none of the teachers in her middle school believed those curls were natural. My mother sat her down and cut it all off after which my sister cried for a week. Later, I would associate that haircut with WWII concentration camps – it was that bad. That was when I gleaned that deep down, our mother hated Rinko.

Thankfully, her high school was much more permissive. In the summers she couldn’t get her hair to stay down so she tied it up in the world’s clumsiest ponytail and let her succession of boyfriends brush it out after swimming practice (Rinko loved sports and was always entrenched in one activity or another.) She stood out like a weird plant or a sore thumb in a society where most everyone looked identical, as if they came off a conveyor belt. Other girls sported long, shiny hair down their backs and wore their uniform skirts right up above their thighs. They wore lipstick and foundation and went to karaoke with older men who paid them cash for the right to sit next to them and fondle their legs. Rinko wore her skirts knee-length and had her nose in a book when she wasn’t hanging out with one boy or another. She was always quoting Oscar Wilde and Antoine de St. Exupery, which no one understood or cared about and she seemed to live in a wholly separate world while firmly entrenched in the ranks of this one.

I don’t know how she pulled it off but Rinko wound up looking sexier and more interesting than the conventionally pretty girls. I observed how both these traits worked against her. Even before the terminology existed, she was one hot mess. She often came home with disheveled hair and swollen lips, on the verge of tears or wiping them away.

Death was always on her mind. “I warmed both hands before the fire of life. It sinks, I am ready to depart.’ I want that carved on my tombstone, okay?” she said to me though I was only in the third grade. Many years later, I found out that it was a quote from a guy named Walter Savage Landor.

What gave Rinko her particular power, and also that gaping wound quality which was part of it? Well, her youth, obviously. And because every straight male she ever came in contact with could sense she was crazy about men. And because she loved them, she hated disappointing them. She always gave in to whatever they asked provided they “had something” she really liked, a standard that included among other features, a passion for a school subject or a sport. Her boyfriends consisted of a math wiz who was also head of the kendo team, a wannabe novelist who taught her how to ski, a rich kid who rode a motorcycle and picked my sister up from wherever she happened to be, an extra helmet strapped to the back seat. My sister’s taste in men were to say the least, cliched. But they kept coming. And she almost always said yes. She fell for Shinji because he was tall and dark and lanky and taught her how to surf. He snatched her up while she was still in university and got her pregnant a few months after graduation. To me, he seemed like the sanest and most detached guy she ever dated which was a relief.

Fast forward to 2022 and this diner guy, Satoshi. He gave out he had apprenticed at a famed washoku restaurant in Ginza for six years. I could imagine her swooning as soon as he said the word “apprentice” because Rinko is a sucker for tradition and Japan-style machismo. Washoku is torturous and grueling and how I know is because at university, I had a job in a washoku restaurant and saw firsthand how the system abused the workers.

Like most guys in the business Satoshi started working right out of high school and endured the fist cuffs and yelling from his superiors, the all-night dishwashing and cleaning, peeling vegetables, soaking dry tofu, dried mackerel, shiitake mushrooms and whatever else that needed to be dipped in a basin of water at 2AM. He learned to function on three hours of sleep, often on the floor of the restaurant and subsisted on Red Bull and Kirin lager. He was also a smoker and apparently never thought to quit. A lot of cooks are like that, because a couple of minutes with a cigarette at various intervals during the day is the only down time they get.

After a couple of months of flirting whenever she showed up at the diner, Satoshi asked my sister outright for her number and then proceeded to text her, asking if she wanted to go for drinks.

At first she played it cool. She reminded herself of her advanced years – how could she take him seriously? And then in late May when the weather turned humid, she caved. By that time his texts had stopped coming but she would go to the diner and he would appear at her table and hang around making eye contact and smiling behind his mask. And then one night, he walked her back to her apartment building and asked “so when are we going out for drinks?” And that’s when she said, “okay, how about a week from tonight?”

It turned out that he was 41 – my age. Unfunny “brother” jokes whirled inside my head, thanks very much. And to her utter surprise, Satoshi was married with two kids, aged ten and four. A younger married guy with two small children was a first, even for my sister. “Pull out right now, while there’s still time and you have the will to do it. Don’t walk, just turn the other way and run,” I told her. But Rinko was already in it up to her small waist. The fact that he and she were so geographically close made matters much worse. She had to pass the diner to get to the train station and when she spied him clearing tables on the terrace or something, they would wave. Or he would drop whatever he was doing to walk over and talk to her. The entire neighborhood could tell they were close and it seemed like a matter of time before Shinji – dense as he was, finally caught on.

I didn’t want to be privy to any of it but my sister tells me everything and discounting the five years we were apart, I’ve always hung around and listened. Rinko ruined my relationship to women. We’re both surprised I’ve remained straight because most men would have quit on females long ago. “I feel kind of bad,” Rinko often said to me. “If not for me, I’m sure you would have been much happier with women.”

There’s no denying it. My own marriage fell apart in 7 years and I completely blame my sister for that. She turned me on women and then she turned me off. When I look at her it’s like I’m staring into an abyss of deceit and rampant selfishness offset by patches of motherly benevolence. I said this and she came back suavely with, “that’s just another symptom of Japan brand misogyny. “Don’t worry, you’re a man. Life goes in only one direction for Japanese women but you’ll still be out there when you’re 75. I foresee a long and happy relationship happening for you after you hit 45, with periods of infidelity that will have no bad consequences. Provided you follow my cue, of course. Watch and learn, little brother. Watch and learn.”

I’ve said that she’s different from any woman I’ve known but actually all Japanese women – give or take a few scratches off the surface are exactly the same. Don’t let claptrap like “Last Samurai” and the submissive geisha stuff fool you. Japanese women are ruthless, fearless and extraordinarily strong. The patriarchy is there and intact because it benefits women more than the men. For Japanese women, men are never the enemy. The enemy is age and their mother, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.

Once they get married, Japanese women will do pretty much everything they want, because age – looming on the horizon like Godzilla lurching closer with each passing year – justifies every misdemeanor and betrayal. Infidelity is fine because, as Rinko put it, “I need something to look back on in my old age when no one wants me anymore.” That pretty much sums up the morals of the Japanese woman for you.

On the other hand I knew where Rinko is coming from. Despite this being a super-aged society, any woman past 40 is seen as obsolete and as for the late 40s, she may as well be dead and buried. The news remind us at every turn that soon, one in two Japanese women will be over 50, as if this is a disaster on par with climate change. What about the men? No one comments on men getting old but apparently half the Japanese male populace are destined to die without ever once living with a woman. Rinko says this society is rigged so that women are blamed and made to feel like shit. “Whatever happens, it’s the woman’s fault. The falling birthrate is our fault. We get old, it’s our fault. Single men can’t get married, it’s definitely our fault.”

Japanese women are born with this deep knowledge that career ambition or railing against the glass ceiling ain’t going to turn the needle one millimeter in favor of their personal happiness. As soon as they learn to walk they want to be looked at and praised. As soon as they hit their teens they want to be desired. Then they want children, a house, nice things, money. Feminism wasn’t going to help attain any of that. Better to take control of the household finances, get some botox, and breast implants and go for some real happiness.

My ex-wife, like so many Japanese women, assumed control of our money right after our honeymoon, like it was the most natural thing in the world. My entire paycheck went into our joint account over which only she had access to, and gave me an allowance of 50,000 yen every month. She never failed to remind me that this was a very generous sum.

Rinko, sensing that I was short, often treated me to lunch and drinks, saying, “Hey bro, I need your advice about something,” like I was

16 doing her a favor. After I got divorced she treated me anyway. “I’m your older sister, I gotta do SOMETHING to show for it.”

“Satoshi says that his wife is the one in control,” Rinko told me, as if she found this bemusing to no end. “They have a house in Chiba. He says he doesn’t know what their mortgage is, because his wife controls everything. She gives him an allowance, but I don’t know how much.” I listened to all this, thinking I should maybe go for drinks with this guy too, in a yo, bro kind of way. After all, he and I were practically related. Hell, we were twins. Not that I bought that thing about not knowing the mortgage. He was only saying that to get on my sister’s good side, which indicated he wasn’t a fool and was reading Rinko pretty accurately. This made me nervous.

Rinko is that very rare Japanese woman who had no idea how much her husband made and was never much interested in money, which enraged my mother to no end. Her female friends thought this was bizarre and dangerous. Shinji’s own mother sat Rinko down and told her that to relinquish the household finances was inviting the devil in. “A man who controls the money will be up to no good in no time. And he will be unfaithful. Don’t be stupid, take control of his money, NOW before it’s too late.”

But Rinko never did. Contrarily, maybe that’s why their marriage lasted this long. Shinji always said his wife had absolutely no head for numbers or regard for money and he was fine with that. “She’s really good at what she’s good at,” was his way of putting it. Yeah, I guess. She could draw and write and had a natural flair for languages. She had beautiful handwriting and could churn out ad copy like a barista churns out espressos. She was wonderful with Mika and had a warmth and spontaneity that kids and young people found irresistible.

When Mika was little, Rinko made up songs and dances and the two of them would dance in their apartment where, despite its smallness had lot of floor space because – and this was SO like my sister Rinko hated furniture. She strove to give Mika the childhood she herself never had, and tried to have conversations with her that she never could with our own mother. They shared a real bond and Mika trusted Rinko completely.

“He says I give terrible blowjobs.” Whoa. This was end of June when she had slept with Satoshi twice. “Yeah, he said my teeth got in the way. But he’s so big.” Rinko has a very small mouth, like a flower petal. To the endless annoyance of her small circle of women friends (women tend to not like my sister very much. My ex-wife secretly hated her guts.) Rinko never uses make-up. She remembers to dab on sunscreen and that’s it. Her pores are non-existent and her lips are an amazing baby pink. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Japanese women she never thinks to hide wrinkles, freckles or blemishes and when she laughs her face spilts open, revealing perfect teeth. She treats her casual blasé as some kind of birthright and thinks its perfectly okay to show up in torn skinny jeans and one of Shinji’s shirts, with hair still damp from swimming in the municipal pool because Rinko dislikes Japanese gyms.

A hair stylist buddy (leave it to Rinko to have male friends in the hair and make-up industry, bartenders and cafe owners she knows by name, not to mention a certain chef with whom she’s on intimate terms) colors her hair but otherwise she doesn’t do a single thing to spruce it up and hates blow-drying with a vengeance. Yeah, if I were a Japanese female I would secretly hate her guts. Who the HELL does this woman think she is?

Rinko, you’re getting on and there. Now is not a good time to dive into an affair, especially when the guy lives in your neighborhood and cooks your meals. Surrender the ghost, turn in your woman badge and kneel at the altar of grandmotherhood.

“But he fills me with such a sense of well-being. And we have so much fun together. It’s so hard to resist. I want to be around him all the time.”

I suppress the urge to smack her face.

Looking back, I keep thinking that I should have been more involved in the conversation, pressed her for information, got mad and scolded her and physically barred her from seeing or texting Satoshi. But I was annoyed as hell and let her know. She blinked, laughed a little and apologized. “Sorry I’ve taken up so much of your time. I won’t talk about it anymore.”

And then a week later, she sent me a brief text saying it was over with Satoshi. I wasn’t surprised exactly, but it was kind of unsettling that she wouldn’t give out any details. It was the first week of August, exactly two months since their first date. “Wow, that was kind of sudden,” I cautiously texted back. “Yeah…like that Taylor Swift song, right? Suddenly, the summer between us was gone,” she wrote.

Two months seemed short but on the other hand, it was just the right amount of time. Speaking of Taylor Swift, that epic relationship she had with Jake Gyllenhaal lasted just three months and 13 years later, she made an MV about it which to be honest, I used to watch fairly often at night. Sister Tay is a favorite of me and Rinko and we used to send each other interviews and talk about her albums and sing snatches of songs when we met.

Two weeks after she said that the thing with Satoshi was over, Rinko asked if I was free for a drink. Over beer and wine in a little pub in Ginza, Rinko let her face crumple in pain. “I lost everything in one fell swoop. I loved that diner and now I can’t ever show my face there again because the staff could tell we were involved. Satoshi was a rock in my life – he made me feel secure and protected, and now he’s gone.”

“You knew this was coming, right? I told you it would never end well.” “Sure. But I thought I had a little bit more time.”

“So what if you did? The outcome would have been the same.”

“I keep asking myself what I could have done or said differently.” “Nothing. The outcome would have been the same. I warned you and warned you.”

I told her that she was getting off lightly. The consequences of getting caught would have been a monumental shitstorm but here she was, having drinks with her little brother, while her family was none the wiser.

My sister had lost weight. She never had much excess fat to begin with, but now she seemed boney and fragile. “It’s not the please god make it stop kind of pain. But the thorn is right in there. And I can’t get it out.”

Apparently, on their last meeting he had nailed Rinko so hard she gasped and screamed. “But he warned me he would do that. It was so weird, how he’s so hung up on sex. But he told me he and his wife hadn’t been intimate in years.” Another lie, and one so common I was floored Rinko fell for it. OF COURSE he had sex with his wife. Maybe he got her pregnant again, and they were expecting kid no.3. Guys like Satoshi were insatiable and traditional at the same time. In his scheme of things, it was only natural that he would sleep with his wife – she was his possession. Didn’t matter if the spark was gone or that maybe they didn’t like each other very much. Rinko on the other hand, was an object that caught his fancy for awhile. He could play it both ways – tradition at home and a slut in skinny jeans on the side. He was male and he could have both.

And because he was an old hand in the service industry, he could feed her just the right lines to make her feel special. And because he was a good chef, he knew just when to turn down the stove.

So on their last date they had sex, and he walked her back to the train station as he always did. But it was only 11, and usually Satoshi ran to make the last train. They would always stand around talking, touching and kissing and letting the night linger just a little bit more. But not this time.

“He told me he would be busy all next week,” said Rinko, who was letting the tears stream down her face. “And after that, the diner was closed for summer vacation. And during that time he would be visiting his parents. That was when I knew it was over. Usually we would never leave without setting a date for the next time we would see each other but this time he didn’t say anything. I could feel everything grow cold. He was saying goodbye.”

I was about to tell her that maybe she was paranoid, to have it out with the guy and ask him if this was really the case. But that was idiotic. Even from where I was standing, I could see whatever they shared, if they had shared anything in the first place, was gone.

Satoshi saw her, wanted her, hunted her down and now he was moving on. When a man is after a woman he would do and say anything in the world to get her to bed. He sifted through my sister’s marriage, family, the fact that her apartment building was not 30 meters from his workplace, the fact that she was pleasant and popular with every member of the diner staff, the fact that she saw him as a friend and trusted him. He sifted through all that and scooped up a woman he wanted to pin down and slice through like a mackerel and he did that exactly 5 times out of the 14 times they went out together. It seemed like a logical number, and a very logical outcome. He knew exactly what he was doing and he timed it so that every dish he handed to her looked great. And now the feast was over.

At the end of the night, Rinko looked at me hard. “Will I be alright, do you think? Will I get over this?” “Of course you will,” I told her though I was feeling a tiny bit panicky. Rinko actually looked sick, and her eyes held the kind of despair I had never seen. “Pull yourself together. The least you could do is not let him see you like this. Get some sleep, you look terrible.”

“Satoshi used to say I reminded him of a koi fish,” said Rinko. “That I was fresh, clean and free, swimming in his special pond.” Then she laughed. “If only that were true. I hate being a woman, it’s so demeaning. And defeating. As for being an OLD woman, I don’t want to fathom the indignity.”

That was the last time I had a real conversation with my sister. Three months later she was gone.

Rinko and Shinji had gone to Shimoda to for a last surfing session before winter set in and as was their way, went to separate parts of the same beach. Rinko had always been a good swimmer and a competent surfer but a swell gave way to an undertow and she hit her head on a rock. The doctor said that the bruise wasn’t too bad and she would have had a chance if she had climbed back on the board. Later, he took back that statement and said he was terribly sorry about the accident.

My mother went hysterical and told Shinji that he killed her daughter. “How could you be so stupid? Surfing at her age – it’s unheard of. I’ve never heard such stupidity. How could you let her?” She went on and on. My father had died 10 years ago so it was up to me to calm her down. Shinji couldn’t answer, he just looked down as his strong shoulders shook with his sobs.

“I warmed both hands before the fire of life. It sinks, I am ready to depart.” I hunted down Landor’s quote in an old book sleuthed in a used book store. Rinko loved those moldy brick and mortar places which were still around in Tokyo. I tore out the page and folded it into a square and placed it into her little hand as she lay in the casket.

My sister hated funerals so we made it just the family and sent the announcements out much later. Shinji later said that when the diner people heard she died, they sent over a wreath with a very nice letter. I never told him anything nor did I ever find out Satoshi’s last name.

Now, five years later, I always think of that summer as the summer of Rinko’s last affair. And it makes me realize just how I much I was living vicariously through my sister. Reckless and idiotic as she was, Rinko was on to something I couldn’t quite name, something that me and many others should probably aspire to, something to do with not sleepwalking through life and holding everyday close, like a cherished child.

In the end, she managed to cheat both fate and our mother and choose her own version of freedom, I guess.

Meanwhile, I’m getting closer to the age that she was when she died. And soon I’ll be older than her. Every now and then, I pull out my a photo I tucked into my wallet after her death. It’s of me and Rinko when we were living in Brooklyn. She was in the sixth grade and I was three or four, sitting on her lap. She’s in cut-off shorts and a t-shirt, wearing a Mets cap because the Mets had just won the World Series. Apparently, our neighborhood went berserk and everyone got caps.

She’s not looking at the camera but at me, and she’s laughing. I only hope I had said something, cracked a joke or made a remark, to get that laugh.

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