Every time I went into the barn during harvesting, I avoided the loft, but at the end of the week, I was finally ready to climb up there and inspect the remains of my past. The stairs creaked as I ascended into the dusty space above the tractor we used in the spring. On the right, under the window, sat the old couch I used to sit on and read, the spot where Tama and I slept together for the first and many times after. A plastic tarp covered it, and I could imagine the upholstery underneath was pristine. Mom was pretty thorough about taking care of this place. My old canvasses, some half drawn on or painted, others blank, leaned against the adjacent wall, next to my easel and tackle boxes of paints. On the left, Mom’s fire-proof file cabinets sat against the wall, carrying her precious documents and other things she needed to run the farm.
The Mount Fuji painting used to take up the space to the rear of my canvasses, but the wide wall stood empty, begging to be filled. I grabbed the top tackle box and popped it open. Tubes of acrylic paint lined the top tray, like I’d left them in there yesterday. Several were unopened and moved when I squeezed them, but a few had seized up. Wow. I was lucky! I’d heard acrylic paint could last ten years or more, especially if they were kept in the fridge, but the temperature fluctuated up here and I expected worse.
I flipped through the few canvasses left and placed one on the easel. I had scratched a few hasty pencil sketches onto it, but nothing seemed familiar. Hmmm. I turned the canvas around 180 degrees and there! Yes. I had planned to paint a lake with a torii gate and a mountain in the background. I never understood this about myself. I loved modern life. I loved my phone, my computer, and the city. Yet, when it came to painting, I only ever wanted to capture the world in its splendor, natural and real. I didn’t paint people. I didn’t paint animals. I hadn’t tried abstract or modern, though I loved to look at both. I was attracted the most to natural landscapes.
I was a host of perplexing contradictions.
Yasahiro cleared his throat and raised his chin. “To start, we have a fresh green beans and lotus root salad. Crisp and tangy with toasted sesame seeds, rice vinegar, and ginger.” He pointed to the plate in front of me, greens and thin slices of lotus root arranged in a neat pile. “And these are my pork and scallion dumplings with Sriracha, ginger, and lemongrass dipping sauce.” Four plump dumplings sat on the other plate, and my mouth began to water.
“I hope you enjoy them,” he said, bowing and turning to go.
“Wait.” I snapped my hand out and grabbed the white fabric of his chef’s coat. “Won’t you be having lunch with me?”
I glanced around at the restaurant, crawling with people. Oh no. I’d honestly believed we’d have lunch together. He’d tell me about the food and his work and…
I blushed. Hard. I thought this was a date, didn’t I? Deep down, way down in the cellar of my brain, I’d daydreamed a date out of this. I was so stupid.
This was the lunch rush hour, and he only did this because I challenged him.
Snap out of it!
“I mean…” I stammered, and letting go of his chef’s coat, he smoothed out the wrinkles with his hand. “I know you can’t have lunch with me. It’s too busy in here. I just thought you might want to, um, explain a little more about the food?”
If only my lie sounded a little more confident.
A small smile grew across his lips, and my entire being died of embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I do have a lot of work to do, including your main course.”
“Oh yes, of course. I completely understand. I’m looking forward to eating everything you bring out today. I’m sure I’ll be won over by Wednesday, and we’ll declare you the winner of this silly challenge.”
Because I was not coming here and eating alone while everyone around me ate together. I was willing to do that once in a while, with a book, but not every day. I’d rather I ate at home with Mom.
“No, no, no. I said I was going to feed you lunch for a whole week, and you can’t capitulate right away. You said this food would be bland, and I’m going to prove it’s not.”
I nodded slowly, resigned. What had I gotten myself into? I’d challenged a chef with a prestigious resume, a student of my mother’s, and the town’s newest darling. I should never have opened my mouth. I was close to making a complete fool of myself, and I regretted it to my bones.
Yasahiro paused for a moment as I took a sip of water.
“But, if you’d like to come and eat lunch a little later tomorrow, maybe after 14:00, I could eat with you. Lunch usually slows down by 13:30 and then we close the kitchen from 14:00 to 16:30 to prepare for dinner.”
“I don’t want to bother you any more than I already have —”
“It’s not a bother,” he interrupted, and this time, he stammered and seemed eager to keep me there. Hmmm. Interesting. The daydream of Yasahiro wandering the streets of Paris popped into my head again, and I stopped to add more details to it: the tiny scar through his right eyebrow, the shape of his ears, his white teeth (he must go to a private dentist). The daydream shifted and I imagined him at the dentist’s office, in the chair. No! Back to Paris. Yes, that was better.
I surveyed the eighteen meter row of vines in front of me and stretched my shoulders before slipping in my earbuds and listening to some AKB48 — not my favorite, but high energy enough to keep me going for the next hour or two. Harvesting was my least hated job on the farm, so I wasn’t going to complain. I would’ve rather hired someone else to help with planting vegetables than hired people to harvest them. Taking a pair of shears in my gloved hands and adjusting the wide brim hat on my head, I started to snip away at the sweet potato vines. Snip, toss, pull. Snip, toss, pull. A pile of vines ended up to the side of the row as I made my way along.
“You’re gonna need a better pair of boots for doing this,” Mom shouted at me over my music. I turned it down, and she followed behind me with a potato fork, a large pitchfork she used to loosen the ground and unearth the sweet potatoes.
“I have old boots back in my apartment. We’ll get them tomorrow.” I closed my eyes and blew out a long breath, quelling anger at myself for getting into this situation. Normally on a Sunday afternoon, I’d be having coffee at a local cafe, reading a book, or going to the movies. I never imagined I’d be digging up sweet potatoes and living in my old childhood room.
Snip, toss, pull. I turned up my music and threw more vines to the side. I would have to return and cut some of the vines to keep in water over the winter and replant them in the spring. Most people just bought their sweet potato slips at the store, but Mom had cultivated this crop from some of her best harvests. We always replanted our same sweet potatoes, and the local stores sold out of them quickly.
Tomorrow, we’d come back, add compost to the row, and pack it down for the winter. It was a lot of work but worth it. One hill of sweet potatoes from one vine could produce a dozen or more potatoes.
I finished the row after ninety minutes and then backtracked to help Mom dig out the tubers.
“Mei-chan,” she shouted at me, indicating I should take out my earbuds. I pressed pause and popped them out. “I’m so happy you’re home.” She smiled at me, and my stomach twisted. I wished I could say the same. “It’s nice working with someone I don’t have to teach. Chiyo helps out, but the other people I hire need to be instructed to do everything.”
I had done this every year for over fifteen years, between school, homework, and cram school, too. Nothing was more like second nature than farming, and I hated every minute of it.
Or I used to hate every minute of it.
“I don’t know. I despised all this growing up.” I kicked at the dirt and sent a baby sweet potato flying into the next row. Mom frowned at me. “It’s so different from working in a store or an office.”
Mom hid her face under the brim of her hat as she bent over to throw more sweet potatoes into the basket.
“I know it seems lowly or backwards to someone like you, but this is a good life.”
I chastised myself for being a jerk again.