Ramen Shop, 9:35pm

A short story

Photo by ClieistD on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

My friend Tanaka is into ramen. We used to go often. While we queued up, he’d try to wind me up about whether the Mita shop still makes the best Jirō-kei, whether the tsukemen is better at Fuunji or Rokurinsha. I can imagine him here. “Sure, this was the first double-soup shop,” he’d say. “But I think Miharu does it better now.” I stopped accepting his invitations. It felt too much like work.

I spend every day in discussions about corporate policy on the use of personal email on office machines, or what the firm could do to to promote more cooperation between sections. These discussions are always held at a civilized volume and followed up by perfectly formatted memos, but the civility is a veneer. These are fights. Losing feels like being punched in the stomach. Today I lost, so I’m here, waiting for the second-best double soup.

The young man on the other side of the bar takes my ticket for tokusei chūkasoba. When I curl my hands around the edge of the counter, my ring clicks against the surface. I give the ring a quarter-turn with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and watch the cooks at work.

One cook pours fish broth and pork broth into each bowl. Another pulls a boiled egg through a wire running across the top of the counter, neatly bisecting it. The yolk is orange, verging on red. Now three men are conspiring on one bowl of soup like it’s a patient on a table, and I can see that it’s the tokusei, because it gets the egg and a couple of extra slices of pork. While they assemble, I think about those trade school advertisements you see in the paper and online. LEARN THE SECRETS OF RAMEN IN JUST EIGHT WEEKS — OPEN YOUR OWN SHOP! But I also think about Tanaka, always hunting for a better shop. “I’m free of desire,” I told him. A joke, or a lie, however you want to look at it. Surely the ramen shop owner dreams of running a tea shop in Kyoto, a ryokan in Nikko.

The cook on the far left, the one with the cheeky grin and spiked hair, lays a few bamboo shoots into the bowl and glues a patch of nori to the edge. It’s done.

It’s not, alas, mine. “Tokusei chūkasoba,” says the waiter, setting the bowl down in front of a woman sitting on the other arm of the L-shaped counter. From my seat, I can see her clearly. Thirty-five, perhaps. She pushes a strand of shoulder-length hair out of her mouth, and I wonder if she was chewing on it intentionally. I’m alarmed whenever I meet a person with no outward nervous habits. Do they keep their stress tightly controlled in public, only to let it explode in private? I give my ring a quarter-turn.

The woman tastes her broth, opens a notebook, and jots a brief entry before saying itadakimasu. When she lifts a slice of pork with her chopsticks, I realize suddenly that she eats the way I speak English: the motions are correct but studied. Even after years at the Los Angeles office, that feeling never went away, of being a machine among humans, prodding my brain to shift between languages and cultures like a car with a faulty transmission.

I want to ask her: Where are you from? How did you end up in this shop so far from Ebisu or Shinjuku or the other places foreigners hang out? But people come to ramen shops to avoid that kind of conversation. To avoid any conversation. Besides, it’s too late. “Tokusei chūkasoba,” I hear again, and the waiter places an identical bowl in front of me.

By the time I take the last sip of broth, the woman is gone. Somehow, I manage to secure a seat on the Chūō Rapid. I write an entry in my own notebook, fall asleep, and awaken as the train pulls into Hachiōji.

Matthew Amster-Burton is the author of Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo and the forthcoming novel Our Secret Better Lives.