My cousin locked me inside his mother’s apartment. This isn’t funny, I thought. I jiggled the lock. He had sawed off the stem on the dead bolt so the inside knob wouldn’t work. I knew this. He’d already explained this to me. Anyone could knock out the glass on the door, put their hands through, and open the dead bolt. He’d also made sure the windows were secure. I went to try the windows anyway, but he had fixed them so you could open them only about three inches. I’m skinny but not that skinny. I was in a locked box. I guess that was the point.
As locked boxes go, this was a pretty nice one. I mean, it had all the amenities: refrigerator, microwave, TV, telephone, bath, and bed. Well, it had more than amenities; it was a kind of museum and a box of memories. My cousin’s mother had died five years before, but he hadn’t removed or rearranged a single item in her apartment since. My other cousin said it was like a shrine to his mother, but I didn’t think so. It wasn’t about any sort of neurosis on my cousin’s part; he was just being lazy and comfortable. He really didn’t live there anyway. He came in on the holidays, slept in a sleeping bag on the sofa, locked up the place again, and flew back to New York. My other cousin said, “Why does he sleep on the sofa? Why doesn’t he sleep in the bed? It must be that he’s nostalgic, because sleeping on the sofa is what he did when she was alive.” Again, I knew better. He just didn’t want to have to change the sheets.
I went to the refrigerator, opened and closed it. It must be a nervous sort of thing, going to the fridge and looking in, as if there’s an answer inside that cold space. I’ve noticed that everyone does it, though. I’ve seen my kid and even his friends come home, wander into the kitchen, take a peek, make a mental note about week-old leftovers or a dead slab of steak that would take too much time to grill, then shrug away empty handed. I stared at the closed refrigerator for a long time. The doors were a jam-packed collage of two-by-three photos of all the kids in our families, their toothy or toothless grins under a plethora of magnets. My kid was there too, at ages zero to whatever age he was when my aunt died. I stared at everyone, but especially my kid. He was so cute back then.
Everyone who visited must have stared at these fridge photos, paying particular attention to their own kids. My cousin never married, never had kids of his own, a fact his mother lamented time and time again. What she would’ve given for grandkids. Since she had none of her own, she adopted and borrowed everyone else’s. I could see and hear my aunt cooing over the photos, naming each one, their ages, announcing the newest baby. This was her future on the door of the fridge. It was her happy moment repeated every time she arrived where I had now also arrived. Or had I?
I opened the fridge again. For some reason, I noticed the salad dressing; it was a Paul Newman vinaigrette. I was sure this was the same vinaigrette my aunt dribbled over salad when she was alive. I checked the date on the mayonnaise; it was even older than five years old. I plunged into that cold box and began ransacking it for old food, checking the dates and tossing anything that looked familiar. Well, five-years-old familiar. Could you have a memory of food from five years ago? I thought I could see my aunt making roast beef sandwiches and spreading the light mayo over sourdough bread. I was convinced it was the same light mayo.
Then there was the miso; it could conceivably last forever, or could it? I grabbed bottles of pickled ginger, pasty seaweed concoctions, barbecue sauce, oyster sauce, kimchee, low-sodium shoyu, green pimiento olives, and concentrated lemon juice. I hauled out the tubs of margarine, cans of Sapporo and Diet Coke, even the open box of baking soda. Then, I got into the freezer section and tossed all the cans of frozen concentrate, orange juice, mai tai and margarita mix. I tossed aluminum-foil packages of what looked like wrapped leftovers. Imagine keeping this stuff! I tossed the ice cubes that looked near a state of dehydration, if that were possible. In the far corner of the freezer was a stack of natto. It’s the soybean equivalent of the stinkiest aged Camembert you can imagine with the additional quality of being attached bean to bean by slimy strings of its own brown snot. It was already a stinky old slobbering mess when it was fresh, but frozen for five years, it had to be really gross. I threw it out.
She said you couldn’t live forever, and she wasn’t going to sacrifice quality for quantity.
From the fridge, I started in on the cupboards. Boxes of instant miso and Jell-O that had hardened into cement. Baggies full of discarded ramen flavor packets, small bottles of salt-free herb concoctions, spray cans of old Pam, boxes of bran cereals. You could tell my aunt was working on the high-blood-pressure/cholesterol angle. These ailments were the nemeses of our family genes, knocking off her sisters and brothers right and left. Still, I knew then that she was always cheating anyway. She said you couldn’t live forever, and she wasn’t going to sacrifice quality for quantity.
Deeper into the cupboards, there were boxes of California golden raisins in various stages of wrinkled leather and old cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup. I checked the dates on the cans. One said 1978. I thought about it; my own son was born in 1978. My cousin never cooked. I thought about him sleeping on the sofa in his sleeping bag with all this rotting food in the kitchen. Pretty soon the trash can was piled high with jars, cans, and boxes. Ha, I thought. That’ll show him. On second thought, I replaced the light mayo; he would pay — sometime in the future, he would pay.
My cousin was an only child. His photos were all over the place as well. There were large and small portraits of him, family scenes encased in every sort of framed holder in every room. I went around scowling at all the representations of him, especially the posed one of him at age five. This photo must’ve been taken just before the war, when the family lived in the Imperial Valley and before they were all shipped off to the Topaz internment camp. Camp and after was part two of my aunt’s life, part one being her youth during the Depression. It was all about sacrifice and struggle, and here was her son in a little jacket with a tiny hanky spitting out of his breast pocket, looking like an angel. This was way before I was born, but everyone said he was spoiled rotten. His mother liked to reminisce that he was itazura, as if he were just rascally. When and if he unlocked this box, I was going to break that portrait over his head.
I went out to the back balcony. I supposed I could yell to some elderly resident. Sure enough, I could see someone moving slowly down a sidewalk. Of course she was an old lady; they were all old. This was a retirement community, a leisure world for the elderly. There were seven thousand of them, briskly walking at seven in the morning, tooling around in electric golf carts, shuffling between the pharmacy and their cardiac doctors. I could be counted as the youngest among them.
I watched the old lady approach at something like the breakneck speed of a step every sixty seconds. She was dragging two leashes attached to two small dogs that used to be maybe shaggy poodles but were balding in spots and limping behind her at an even slower pace. I realized she was walking as slowly as possible to accommodate her dogs. I imagined I could call to her. “Help! I’m a prisoner!” But it seemed foolish, which of course it was. Any sudden gesture might give those dogs heart attacks. It must’ve taken her fifteen minutes to cross fifteen feet. Maybe I exaggerate, but it was part of some principle about life at this juncture: having all the time in the world because there was very little time left. Did she know my aunt? I wondered. I decided to say something. At least there would be a witness to my existence in the locked box. “Good afternoon,” I ventured sweetly, not wanting to startle her, but the woman and her dogs continued slowly by. “Hello!” I spoke up, but she never looked up. Neither she nor her dogs could hear me. I don’t know why, but I stared after the trio until they disappeared in a sort of mirage behind a pine tree.
At that moment, the telephone rang. I ran to answer it. “Hello,” I answered angrily. I was sure it was my cousin, calling to apologize. Instead, my hello triggered a recorded message. Congratulations! The message blasted into my ear. You are the lucky winner of a vacation trip, all expenses paid… I fumbled with the volume doohickey on the machine. Vegas! Call us now at… All the phones in the apartment had these gadgets rigged to make the incoming sound louder since his mother and now my cousin were hard of hearing. I got the deafening message lowered and hung up.
I thought about calling 911, telling them I was having a heart attack in a locked apartment. They were welcome to send a fire truck and rescue me via the balcony or, better yet, to break down the door. That’s right. Break down the door. Scanning the handy sticker on the phone with its list of emergency numbers, I decided instead to call the condo maintenance department. “I have a problem with the lock on my door,” I said. “I wonder if you could send someone to fix it.”
“We don’t do maintenance on locks, ma’am,” they said. “It’s not in our contract. Here’s the number to the local locksmith. They’re a twenty-four-hour service, licensed to do these jobs.”
“But I’m locked in,” I decided to tell them.
“No problem,” they replied. “These things happen all the time. They’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy.”
Who was I to complain? They thought they were humoring an old lady. I even thought they spoke louder, as if they knew I had lowered the volume on the phone. I wrote down the number for the locksmith and attached it to the fridge door under a magnet between all the kiddy faces, then opened the door and closed it again. Right. I had tossed everything. I went to the trash and retrieved an old can of Sapporo. It was still cold enough.
The phone rang again. I popped the tab on the beer, took a swig, and sauntered back to the ringing phone. Now I’d let him have it. But the caller introduced himself as Jeremy Somebody representing a major television station, and wouldn’t I answer a few survey questions? Ridiculous, I thought. That’s why the polls were so skewed. They were making the rounds through seven thousand old folks with conservative views and no caller ID, who sat around waiting for phone calls and the chance to talk to anyone. No one ever asked me to be a percentage on a national poll. “I’m sorry,” I said, venting my anger that Jeremy wasn’t my cousin, “I don’t watch TV,” and I hung up.
I sat down with the Sapporo in an easy chair in front of the television and stared at my reflection in the glass tube. There was a photograph of my aunt and all her sisters on top of the TV. Nowadays, I looked like them, one more sister with matching genes in the lineup. “I don’t watch TV,” I said to the TV, observing my lips speak inside the box. I pressed the green power button on the remote and watched my lips get exchanged for Martha Stewart’s. She and Alice Waters were making salad. What else? They were whipping up the vinaigrette. I walked back to the trash can and fumbled under the pile for the Paul Newman stuff and put it back into the fridge. To hell with it all, I thought, sipping my beer. Martha Stewart doesn’t live here. Anyway, that’s what the sign above the microwave said.
What did an American audience think this stuff was, anyway? For me, natto was a mark of our family heritage.
Next up, Iron Chef. “Iron Chef Morimoto-san will take on the challenger! Today’s cuisine choice: natto! This is certainly going to be a real test of the skills of these superb chefs, to create an array of dishes using this traditional Japanese delicacy.” I watched in disbelief. What did an American audience think this stuff was, anyway? For me, natto was a mark of our family heritage. We were proud eaters of natto from childhood, a tradition passed from our grandmother to her children to us to our children. My cousin loved natto. His mother loved natto. My dad loved natto. I loved natto. My kid loved natto. If I had anything to do about it, my grandchildren would love natto too. It was a badge of something, to love something so disgusting. There were Japanese who wouldn’t eat natto. Eating natto made us for real, connected our DNA through our taste buds. I got up and rummaged again through the trash, retrieved the Styrofoam boxes of natto, and tossed them back into the freezer. Thinking again, I separated one box from the pack and left it on the counter. After five years wouldn’t hurt to test it with an Iron Chef recipe. Didn’t paleontologists eat the flesh of frozen woolly mammoths, or archeologists taste the honey from pots in pyramids? Okay, maybe they didn’t.
Back in Japan, the Iron Chef was using miso to create his natto extravaganza. “Fukui-san! It looks like the Iron Chef is going to steam that concoction!” I ran back to the trash, retrieved the miso and the light shoyu. Hell, I got the pickled ginger, the barbecue sauce, the olives, and the lemon concentrate too. I sat down on the linoleum, surrounded by bottles and jars. I opened everything, smelled inside, examined the contents. It was all about salt, vinegar, preservatives, and vacuum-packing with a shelf life of forever. Could this kill you? Could it kill you eventually? Could it kill my cousin? Did it kill my aunt? Pretty soon I got most of it back into the fridge and the cupboards.
Lastly I cradled the 1978 Campbell’s mushroom soup. It wasn’t just the date on the can. I knew why this prefab soup was there. I spied the green index-card box on the counter, filled with all my aunt’s recipes, sitting there just as she’d left it, waiting for her next consultation. Now, five years later, I thought, Consult the recipe box. There it was — Campbell’s mushroom soup, one of the principal ingredients in the family stroganoff recipe: 1 lb ground beef, 1 medium chopped onion, 1 lb sliced mushrooms, l T flour, ½ t salt, ¼ t pepper, ½ pt sour cream, 1 bunch chopped parsley, 1 can of Campbell’s mushroom soup! Served over hot rice in Japanese American homes in the sixties. My son, born in 1978, loved this dish. I kissed the can and pushed it to the deep, dark back of the cupboard.
I called my son and got his answering machine. I always got his machines. It didn’t matter if I called his cell phone or his land phone, as he liked to call it. He was a busy guy, working full-time, going to school, courting some girlfriend. I was miles away; what could he do anyway, and why would he do it? I hung up.
What else was in the recipe box? I wondered. My aunt made a ginger pork that was to die for. My cousin loved this stuff, and she’d have it ready for him when he came home and ready for him to carry off when he left. My cousin was in the military, would fly in and out with ginger pork. That was how she showed her love for her only kid. Card by card I picked through the box. It wasn’t there. Now I remembered. She did that recipe from heart; it wasn’t a recipe but her own thing, made the way my cousin liked it. No one had bothered to write down the recipe. Not even him. The expertise had died with her.
What about hamyu? I thought. I had watched her make this Chinese sausage patty, package and freeze the stuff. Sad to say, no recipe for that either. Wait! I thought. That’s what was in those aluminum packages from the freezer! I flew back into the trash and recovered them for posterity.
Then I found it: the Lois Loehrke Bombay Gin raisin recipe. Nine raisins soaked in gin. It was like my aunt’s daily bread. She’d count out the gin raisins and add a few more for good measure. These raisins are small anyway, she’d say. We’d all partake. What the hell. It was medicine. Who was Lois Loehrke? Now I learned it was Lois’s unusual recipe for arthritic relief. Golden raisins soaked in Bombay Gin with my aunt’s note: must be Blue Sapphire, approx. ½ bottle. Let stand covered seven days. Step 4 said: Place raisins in covered container (I use an empty Cool Whip carton) and eat just nine (9) raisins a day. The disclaimer went on to say that in one month, Lois was able to walk down steps, and that this miracle remedy went back to biblical times when the people of India and Egypt discovered the healing properties of juniper berries. Gin was made from juniper berries. I thought about how the Indians and Egyptians discovered this miracle, but how Lois had somehow encased it in the biblical. Thank the Lord, she said, for her new freedom of movement. I retrieved the boxes of California golden raisins, found the gin and an empty Cool Whip container, and went to work. In seven days, I would find true freedom.
I moved from the kitchen to the bathroom. Her medications were all lined up like yesterday, pillboxes filled with the pharmaceutical promise of an extended lease on life. I scrutinized the dates and shook the plastic containers with their tamper-resistant caps. I thought, Now this could kill you, and closed the cabinet door. Gazing across a fantasyland of delicate cut-glass and crystal bottles spread across the counters, I applied all of my aunt’s expensive Shiseido makeup, slathered on the age-inhibitor lotions, spritzed and dabbed myself with a dozen French perfumes, and just like the fridge jars, opened and smelled everything, thinking, A person could be embalmed in this stuff. I gripped the sink, dizzy with sudden nausea, my head in a pungent cloud of her particular smell. I filled the tub with a box of soothing herbal bubble bath and soaked in it until the water was cold and my body prune-like.
My cousin didn’t call or come that evening, or the next day or the next. On the second day, I sat on the sofa where he usually slept with stacks of old magazines. His mother had kept copies of Life magazine way back from the sixties. There were special editions on JFK, RFK, MLK, LBJ, and Jimmy Carter. My aunt was a card-carrying liberal Democrat. She had joined the Democrat Club in this world of gray panthers. On the other hand, my cousin was a military man, voted Republican, believed the military had the ability to surgically remove evil from the face of the earth and shouldn’t be constrained from pursuing its objectives by popular politics. It was difficult to believe a kid raised in an internment camp during the war could think this way, but maybe not. My other cousin said he turned out this way because his mother was domineering, and it was all about rebellion. I didn’t buy this, because mothers are blamed for everything, and I was tired of being blamed myself. In any case, they never saw eye to eye, so it surprised me that he hadn’t dumped her convictions into the recycle bin.
Complimentary to her magazines were videotaped series: PBS biographies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Eyes on the Prize, and documentaries about the Japanese American incarceration. I plopped in the tapes and let them run continuously, an ear and eye to the TV, my fingers flipping through the now-dull pages of an old magazine world. All day, I wandered through World War II, the Civil Rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, the Vietnam War, Reaganomics. That night, I slept on the sofa.
My other cousin said he turned out this way because his mother was domineering. I didn’t buy this, because mothers are blamed for everything, and I was tired of being blamed myself.
When I awoke the next day, the magazines slipped off me like fish scales, and I thought about my cousin waking up on that sofa as he always did. Above me on the wall was a gold-leaf sumi-e screen, painted no doubt by someone famous, and probably dated in the Tokugawa. I stared at the details, seeing them for the first time. It was a Japanese-countryside scene of folks cultivating tea. I remembered that she had studied this stuff, wanted to retire to an import business in Japanese antiques and arts and crafts. She and my uncle had invested their savings in a small cache of tansu and screens. Along the way, he died, and she gave up this plan and kept the stuff. She also kept my uncle, his ashes in a beautiful bronze box, and talked to the box every day until they could be buried together.
This was part three of her life, when the struggle was past and things were collected and comfortable, but there was nobody to share it with. My cousin didn’t listen to my other cousin, who told him she was maybe going nuts. I didn’t think she was nuts; she talked to everything in the house, especially the live plants, cute dolls, fridge kids, and the bronze replica of the Degas ballerina. She sold some articles, but most of it she kept. She had fallen in love with her collection and couldn’t part with any of it. I realized that it was everywhere in the apartment, and this was the museum I was trapped in.
I got up and poked around and finally acknowledged maybe five years of dust over everything. It wasn’t just antique chests and gold-leaf screens; it was ceramics, baskets, sculptures, dolls, toys, dishes, lamps, gizmos, fake flowers, and glass fruit. I had never really considered it all. She used to point out a new acquisition from a trip or something she especially liked, but it was all just part of her surroundings. I knew my cousin never paid much attention either. It was her thing, not his. He seemed to move through her house without touching anything. There were small valuables strategically and elegantly placed over every surface, some on special handmade doilies, brocade pillows, or crafted lacquer stands. I had to pick each thing up, carefully wipe or polish it, and try to replace it in the same location. Some things had stickers with dates and names. Sixteenth-century porcelain. Kyushu. Antiques by unknown craftsmen and established artists. Ornate dolls in glass cages. Lacquered candy dishes. Laughing monks. Inside the cabinets and drawers, there was more stuff, wrapped in tissue paper, ensconced in wooden boxes with Japanese lettering. I wondered why she chose to display one thing over another, chose a particular arrangement or location. I tried putting everything back the way it was. I tried changing everything around. I tried to see these artifacts and bibelots as she did, to imagine their significance, to see what she had seen.
When the phone rang, I jumped from the break in the silence. I remembered my aunt’s voice on the phone, how she sometimes couldn’t talk at first when I called. It took her awhile to oil her throat and get the tongue to wiggle with words. I no longer expected my cousin to call, and I didn’t want to croak into the receiver. I almost let it go on ringing and went back to my dusting and polishing. If he thought he was going to bother me now, he was wrong. I was on a roll. Still, the thing was persistent. I cleared my throat and answered, ready to fend off anything. I thought I might even answer a survey or poll. Why not? But it was my son.
“Hi, Mom,” he said.
“How’d you find me?” I asked.
“Caller ID,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “What’s happening?” I asked nonchalantly, as if what was happening to me wasn’t happening.
“Well… ,” he hedged, “Kirsten is pregnant.”
Who was Kirsten? I wondered. Had I met her?
“Yeah, and so I guess she, well we, well, we’ll see.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“This has just never happened to me,” he whined.
“I guess not,” I said.
“I’m not ready,” he said.
“Who’s ready?” I said. Who was Kirsten? I wondered. Maybe she was ready.
He continued like a little boy, “I feel trapped, like I’m in a box. How did this happen to me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel the same way, although literally.”
“What?” he said.
The conversation went on like that. I looked toward the fridge door, where the progression of his growth was recorded until five years ago. He might actually have the grandkid my aunt always wanted. I thought, What kind of reward was this? I knew it was just as well my cousin never had kids; he would’ve made a piss-poor father. At 65, or whatever age he was now, he was still a kid. He and my son had about the same mental maturity. Admittedly I liked that about them — their kidness — but kids are never what you bargain for, even if they grow up to like natto. “Well, keep me posted,” I said. “I’ll be here for the time being,” I added.
I went on with my curating, opening boxes I found in the closets and investigating everything in the apartment. It was truly amazing. There wasn’t a corner of storage space that didn’t have an archeological find of the highest order. I went into the study and pulled out all the books about Japanese art. I displayed an array of vases on the coffee table and tried to match the designs and glazes to the period pieces in the books. I rummaged through desk drawers and found stickers to make notes of the resembling periods in Japanese art and stuck them to the bottoms of the vases. I began to do this with everything in the apartment. I spent the next three days on this project, but it could take a hundred years. I had only scratched the surface.
While looking for stickers, I found clumps of envelopes bound in rubber bands. I got carried away and started to read all the letters. There were letters from sibling to sibling, mother to child, niece to aunt, distant relative to close relative, husband to wife, friend to friend. It was mostly a boring compendium of things the family did, who was doing what work, whose kid was in which school, who was celebrating this or that, or sick or dying. Who among us cousins would finally succeed, who worthy enough to be called progeny? Of course some of it wasn’t so boring, even historic or tender or obnoxious. And there was everything that wasn’t in the letters, the stories I’d heard that died with the recipes in the heart: extramarital affairs, love exchanged for familial loyalty, rivalry and hatred, youthful philandering, and alcoholism. Our family through our grandmother back to the Meiji era was Christian, but there were no such artifacts in the apartment to suggest this, only photographs or block prints of the benevolent Buddha and statuary of laughing monks. I pondered my aunt’s reason for this, and I thought about our common need for serenity over guilt. In the end, we couldn’t count on each other to truly extend ourselves into the future. Our good or bad work and our particular talents were ours alone, and the kids on the fridge wouldn’t remember, wouldn’t continue, wouldn’t respect, wouldn’t really care about all our heartfelt or long-gone desires.
In between the hours, I started to use up the old rice, eat up the natto, stir up pots of miso soup. If there were an earthquake, I figured I could survive there for days, even if the provisions might eventually kill me. And by day seven, the Bombay Gin raisins were ready. I filched more than nine, of course, cooing at the kids on the fridge. That’s when I noticed my scribbled note with the number for the locksmith tacked between the 5-year-old and 6-year-old versions of my son. I gave the locksmith a ring, and he was here within the hour. It was that easy. I had him put in a new dead bolt and change the locks.
“There it is,” he said, handing me a new set of keys. “Shouldn’t give you any more trouble.”
“Not at all,” I said, and I closed the door. ●
Used by permission from Sansei and Sensibility (Coffee House Press, 2020). Copyright Karen Tei Yamashita © 2020.
Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of seven books, including I Hotel, finalist for the National Book Award, and most recently, Sansei and Sensibility, all published by Coffee House Press. Recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature and a U.S. Artists’ Ford Foundation Fellowship, she is professor emerita of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.