Tuesday, September 16, 2003
  soup with rice soup with rice

Last night, sitting in the kitchen of my taekwondo teacher – once my mentor, now my friend, but still known to me by the slightly awkward formality of Mr. Hwang – I slowly ate my soup.

As Mr. Hwang stood at the sink washing the dishes, I stared off into space, wandering down a long road of memories and observations.

“What are you thinking about?” Mr. Hwang asked, when he finally turned around to find me a million miles away.

I told him I was thinking what a shame it is that I am too lazy to ever make myself write. I told him about how I always insist that I have nothing to say, and yet… I pause and see in my mind a cluttered spanse of stories and memories that I had only moments ago opened up and spewed about and then abandoned, left – for now, forever – untold. All these memories bump one into the next in their hurry to break free, and if only I had the patience or the will to take each one out one at a time and spread it out neatly into words…what I might have written by now, what I might have published…

Actually, that’s not what I was thinking. That’s what I thought about when he asked what I was thinking and I had to try to capture it back into words.

What I was thinking can only be told in stream-of-consciousness. No, that’s not true. But if I were to tell it any other way, I would have to write all the long stories I’m too lazy to write. So drifting down so many streams of consciousness, it went something like this:

Mr. Hwang put a bowl of soup down in front of me and went to the drawer to get a spoon. “May I have a fork please?” I asked, sheepish of my peculiar demands. He held up the spoon and looked at me quizzically. “No, can I have a fork?” “Why?” he asked. “I don’t like spoons,” I answered. He shook his head and put a fork down in front of me.

“Now you won’t be able to eat the soup,” he pointed out after a while, as the seafood and vegetables began to disappear from my bowl, leaving only the curry. “I don’t like soup,” I answered. “I only like soup with rice.” He pursed his lips and shook his head in that classic Mr. Hwang way, so familiar to all his students, and got up to fetch me a bowl of rice. “Thank you,” I said, feeling like a pandered child.

I was in a slow and quiet mood, still poking at my bowl long after Mr. Hwang had finished eating and gotten up to wash the dishes. I watched as he moved about the kitchen, back turned to me, and I passed through a doorway in my mind to a room I hadn’t visited in a long time.

Buried in a shallow hole within me are a certain stack of memories that I keep beneath the earth but frequently visit. I shuffle and re-shuffle my misshapen, dog-eared stack in hopes of finding perspective, or of somehow finding the key that makes it all make sense. As I peer into the hole, I waffle. I am of one mind to drop them all over a bridge, to give them no more attention than the bastard deserves, which is an angry and definitive: none. I am of another mind to keep returning again and again until I am finally able to extract the meaning cleanly.

That is but a preface.

The stream my consciousness is traveling down is one of soup with rice. I find myself sitting in Adam’s little attic flat, on a dreary rainy winter day in Wellington. Taking a mid-day study break, Adam has cooked me soup for lunch. Tom yum, it may have been, or mulligatawny. And Adam has cooked a pot of rice just for me, because he knows that I won’t eat my broth without rice. It’s a gumbo thing, I explain. This makes sense to nobody but me. I sit curled up in the arm of the couch, watching rain trickling streaks down the steamed windowpanes. Adam bustles about the kitchen, sometimes singing, sometimes telling me anecdotes from his classes, sometimes telling me stories of South Africa. I feel warm and secure in my little haven, a special place where I am loved like a lover and nurtured like a child. If I am hungry, I am given a bowl of soup. When I have only broth left, I am given rice.

I smile to myself at the warmth of the memory. And then I step back and look at it sidewise and think, funny, I haven’t dared go near that memory in a long time – the tender ones always hurt the most. But it didn’t even hurt.

And that led me down another path. That of Adam’s own suffering at the time we met. I was the shoulder offered up for him to cry on. A healer, he called me, one who creates a safe space for others to grieve in. I liked that. “How long,” he asked me, “how long will I have to suffer for?” “Until your hair grows back,” I replied. In the fury of anguish he had gone into a salon and told the girl to shave his head bald. “When your hair is an inch long, all this will hurt much less. The next time you go to get your hair cut, your life will feel normal again.”

Sadly I was right. Adam’s pain healed all too fast. Crooked though. It healed from the outside in, but the inside remained broken and bitter, seething, fearful, infected, festering.

That’s why, once he had regained his ferocious strength, he had to turn around and break my heart.

“How long?” I sobbed myself, nearly dropping the skillet after the smell of the brandy peppercorn sauce wafted up and hit me like a steel-towed boot to the heart and then again to the head. “Asparamaguse!” I heard Adam sing with glee in my head, as he did every time he cooked asparagus – which a Portuguese green grocer in South Africa used to call asparamaguse – which he always cooked when he cooked steak with brandy peppercorn sauce. “How long until these goddammed memories will just leave me be?!” I broke down and cried into my red wine like I hadn’t allowed myself to cry once since the email telling me of Cathy, whom he couldn’t live without, about which he had hoped I’d understand.

These were the days following September 11th. And they were made all the stranger because of the whirling detachment I felt for all that was going on around me. I had no emotional response to give to planes flying through buildings, but the smell of my dinner could reduce me to tears.

“What are you thinking about?” Mr. Hwang asks me? I pause. I tell him about my wish that I had the discipline to make myself write. He tells me that it takes him three days just to write a letter to a friend. I tell him about some of the old memories I had just strung together in my head. He tells me of his ex-girlfriend, his broken heart, and a bottle of Scotch.

I thank him for dinner and stand to leave. He thanks me for eating. He smiles an awkward sort of half smile and tells me that he’s never really talked to anyone about his ex-girlfriend before – he says it feels funny. “Funny?” I ask. “Why?” He thinks a moment and says, “funny isn’t the right word. It feels like a relief.”


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