Submitted into Contest #191 in response to: Make Japan (or Japanese culture) an element of your story.... view prompt


Coming of Age Friendship Fiction

“What’s that?”

“I don’t see anything.”

“There! It’s right there! Look! It’s green!”

“Corey, it’s nothing. It’s probably just parsley.”

“I can’t eat it.” 

“Honey, this is a very nice restaurant. They made this especially for you. It’s just pasta and butter.”

“Then what’s that green thing?”

“Here, let’s just take it out.”

“But it’s already touched everything!”


It was about to happen again. I just could not fathom how a couple of foodies, avid students of life with a profound appreciation for great food and drink, could have spawned such a picky eater.

“I’m sorry to bother you, I know you’re busy, unfortunately my son is concerned about there being something other than pasta and butter.”

“Oh? Hmm, I don’t see anything, sir.”

It was always at this point I had to fight the urge to slink under the table and disappear.

“See this bit of green? I’m afraid it’s a problem.”

This is the time for a slight turn of the head and wink that should cue the waiter into what’s really going on here.  The added ten slipped into his hand should also help seal the deal. 

“Oh, I do apologize, sir. Allow me to have the cook prepare a fresh plate.”

“Thanks, appreciate it.”

“What do you say, Corey?”

“I don’t think I can trust the cook here.”

“Corey, you should thank your father for arranging a new plate for you.”

“Here you are, young man. A fresh plate. Enjoy.”

“Ah, looks great, doesn’t it?”

“This is the same pasta. I can tell. I can’t eat it. The cook is a crook.”

What happened to my once naïve, cooperative child, wide-eyed and willing to try everything, who trusted grownups to know best . . . or know something, at least?

* * *

Corey was never actually supposed to happen. When I discovered I was pregnant, it was when I least expected it. It followed six years of fertility tests and hormone therapy, daily injections I couldn’t bring myself to administer and that my husband, Paul, turned white at the mere thought of. 

So, for years, I’d drive myself to our local veterinarian, whose office was open late hours, each night after dinner and sit in the waiting room with cats, dogs and hamsters, and wait my turn. I’d resolved to stop short of surgical intervention so, at the six-year mark, we gave up. That seemed to do the trick.

Paul and I had met at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City, where we wined and dined each other through a sumptuously compatible courtship. 

For our honeymoon, we traveled around Europe and devoured everything in sight, the scenery, the history, local delicacies. We filled several notebooks with recipes, notes, pictures taken of the farms, shops, restaurants and chefs we had the pleasure to visit.

I distinctly remember thinking to myself when I was eight months along, “I’m going to make food an adventure! This child is going to enjoy mealtime, and it will be fun! No two parents could possibly be better at this.” Then, I dared to share my happy, hopeful thinking with Paul.

I’d been so giddy with my good fortune, I’d lost sight of just how much the gods enjoy a good laugh. 

* * *

As time went on, we did all we could to incorporate – or conceal -- healthy options within our stubborn child’s limited food spectrum. The guilt Paul and I shared as trained nutritionists was crushing, especially in public.

I remember the neighborhood picnic. Corey sat at a small plastic kids’ table across from a four-year old girl in pigtails, a meal of hot dogs with baked beans and slaw placed before them. I saw him inspect his plate with a probing, suspicious eye.

“So,” his little voice inquired of his dinner companion, “how do you like your dinner?”

His food never left the plate.

* * *

A favorite destination for Paul and me long before Corey came along was Sakura, a Japanese hot spot that served the freshest authentic sushi in New England.  It was also a popular after-work watering hole, renowned for their exotic cocktails. We had our seating reserved at the sushi bar and we knew all the chefs on a first name basis. 

While Corey was still an infant, we limited our sushi and sashimi intake to take-out. Bringing a fussy anti-foodie with our last name into Sakura would be tricky. We had a reputation we cherished but, still, it was painful for us to hold off returning to our favorite dining destination on the planet.

One day, with Corey charming us out of our socks as he recited his ABCs for the first time, Paul and I, loosened and feeling celebratory following a delicious Riesling we’d recently discovered, decided to bite the bullet and introduce our picky eater to Japanese cuisine.

And so, Paul made a quick call, we packed ourselves into the family car, and headed into town, a ten-minute drive.  I made sure to carry a just-in-case baggie of Cheerios and hoped for the best.

* * *

“Ah, konnichiwa! Where you been hiding, tomodachi?”

Lovely! We were still remembered and thought of as old friends!

“Konnichiwa, Hiroko! So good to see you! We’ve been a little busy, as you can imagine.”

“Ah, yes. Such a handsome little man. And so beautiful hahaoya!”

I hadn’t realized how good it would feel to be called beautiful mother. I felt my face glow as I bowed slightly.

“Thank you, Hiroko. We have missed coming here, and seeing you. How’s Mei?”    

“Mei, tsuma, also beautiful. Mata aeta ureshi desu, Jameson family.”

“How is your father, watashi no yujin?”

“So good of you to inquire, my friend. He is in the back. He will outlive us all.”

Hiroko had arranged for his father, Genji, to leave his impoverished life in Okinawa following the passing of his mother, Genji’s wife. Genji spent his days working in the kitchen of his son, creating his brand of sculpture called Mukimono.  He could turn a plain cucumber or carrot into splendid, edible art.

“Come. Your places at the sushi bar await you, now with a third seating for the little Oji.”

I whispered to Paul, “Oji?”

Paul smiled. “Prince.”

“Fingers crossed,” I breathed.

We recognized all the familiar faces working behind the glass showcase that boasted colorful trays and arrays of the freshest seafood: tuna, eel, sea bass, halibut, salmon, shrimp, squid, scallops, clam, all assembled to tempt any patron. 

Head Sushi Chef Emiko shined his usual bright smile, and after a deep happy bow, chirped, “Here returns the never-to-be-forgotten son and daughter of Sakura – and, wait. What is this? Did you happen upon this little one outside, abandoned and desperate for a home? I knew you had big hearts, yet this kind of generosity . . .”

Emiko’s staff shared light laughter and quick appreciative glances as they continued to execute their craft, knives working feverish magic in their hands.

“We have missed you, Emiko, and your humor. Let me present to you our son, Corey Jenson Jameson. Emily and I could not wait any longer to bring him here.”

“Kono hansamuna otoko. Handsome guy, Misuta Jameson! Misiz Jameson, so many blessings! Please, sit. Let us serve you.”

* * *

The evening went as well as could be expected. Paul and I spent so much time fretting about what could go wrong, it made it difficult to appreciate our small achievements. And how could our little sponge, Corey, not pick up on our self-imposed anxiety? 

He nixed the miso soup when offered a sip. We played airplane with samples of our meal, nibbles we imagined he might like, only to be met with frowns and locked lips. 

As the Cheerios dwindled, I thought Corey and I might benefit from a walk-around. The hallway leading to the restrooms passed a kitchen entrance and then a hallway of birdcages filled with chattering budgies I thought Corey would enjoy. I whispered to Paul my plan and, with an inviting smile, whispered to Corey and took his little hand in mine. 

As we passed the kitchen, I saw Genji, paring knife in hand and two trays before him. One of the trays contained an array of vegetables: radishes, tomatoes, carrots, peppers of vibrant red, green, yellow, orange.  The other tray showcased Genji’s creations on parchment: flowers and whimsical characters prepared as garnishment to the meals. 

To me they were more than a sideshow; they were exquisite works by themselves. They were part of an ancient art that spoke of another time and place. 

As I was admiring Genji’s handiwork from the entryway, he looked up and saw me. His dry, gray features gathered into folds of joy and recognition. His eyes were moist, I noticed, as he slowly began to rise from his chair. I smiled back and tiptoed to him, beckoning him to remain. We would come to him.

“No in kitchen,” Genji gestured a twisted finger to Corey and I understood. I nodded and whispered, along with a small bow,

“Konnishiwa. This is Corey, Papa. So happy to see you again, Otosan.”

Genji’s smile followed us as we turned to leave.

“Corey,” I thought I heard him say as we left the kitchen.

* * *

In the end, Corey spent the evening dabbling contently in Cheerios. Our hosts appeared to enjoy offering whatever they had to entice this newest palate. Ultimately, Paul and I enjoyed every bit and, as Corey began to display cranky clues, we paid, gushed our thanks and packed up.

This was our new world.

* * *

We began to frequent Sakura regularly. It may have been the Zen-like atmosphere, the overall ambience, that had a calming effect on Corey, but we decided to take advantage of whatever the magic was. He looked forward to going. I packed Corey’s food and made sure he’d had a good nap beforehand, and Paul and I got to enjoy our favorite family night, Fridays at Sakura.

We received the same welcome and good-natured banter from the sushi chefs. Hiroko’s father, Genji, now had his own station behind the glass showcase where his unique talent was on display.  Corey would sit, munching whatever I packed for him, with his eyes fixed on Genji’s masterful hands. He and Genji would often share a smile.

There was a delicious freedom being in the company of these delightful, caring people who enjoyed sharing their passions for food and life. The more we visited, the more comfortable Corey became with the familiar warmth of the place, and he especially looked forward to seeing Genji.

Hiroko had taught Corey to call his father Ojusan, Japanese for “old man.”  Had we understood what it meant, Paul and I may have considered it disrespectful and curtailed Corey’s use of the term, but Genji’s face lit when he heard Corey’s pronunciation and he waved with delight and a huge smile, and that was that.

During his breaks, Genji would take Corey to visit the birds and the two would walk off together, a charming sight to us, as well as the other diners. Hiroko mentioned to us that it was good for his father to know Corey; he had taken an instant liking to the boy and noticeably brightened when he knew he would see him.

Soon after, Corey would find surprises waiting for him on his placemat, all left there by Genji. The first was an origami bird, just like the ones they would visit together.  Next, there came a rabbit, then a dog. Corey was guided by Genji how to gently handle the delicate paper animals. 

At home, Corey displayed his gifts on a shelf of his most prized possessions, alongside his marbles and baseball.

* * *

Not even a handful of words had ever been exchanged between Genji and Corey, but that didn’t hinder their growing fondness for each other. 

One Friday evening, Genji was busy making apple swans, green, red and yellow flocks of sliced fruit made to resemble feathers with extended wings, long graceful necks with apple seeds for eyes. 

Genji motioned to one of the chefs, who smiled and then knelt to retrieve something from the long, wide refrigerator kept under the bar that helped maintain the temperature needed to keep the seafood displayed above fresh and ready for use. Genji looked at Corey and pointed to the chef.

“For you.”

The chef placed a small platter before Corey that contained a charming caterpillar made of rice, with snips of red pepper for legs, disks of carrot and cucumber to accentuate the body sections and black olive for the eyes and a tiny top hat.

Corey had adopted the same suspicious, discriminating look I’d seen at the neighborhood picnic as he surveyed the offering. I held my breath.

Corey looked up at Genji.

Genji smiled merrily, gestured to his mouth, urging.

Corey grabbed the head of the caterpillar and shoved the entire thing into his mouth.  In shock, I prayed desperately that he wouldn’t spit it back out, though I’d be surprised if he did anything else.

To Paul’s and my amazement, he chewed, and then chewed some more. Please swallow, please swallow, please swallow.

And then he swallowed. He gave us, and then Genji, a ricey grin and dove in for a body section.

I felt weak with gratitude. Paul and I beamed at each other, and then at Genji.  He’d gone back to his work, but we could see the smile behind his eyes.

* * *

After that night, we began inviting Hiroko, his wife Mei, and Genji to our home for dinners. We traded cooking secrets and shared wonderful meals together. 

Hiroko confided, while Genji was off with Corey, how pleased he was to see his father happy and with purpose.  Hiroko said he had been lonely without his wife and, at present, had no grandchildren. Corey was, to him, a gift. We assured him those feelings were returned.

As Corey grew older, he expressed an interest in learning origami. He and Genji arranged to spend time together after school and Genji taught Corey everything he knew. Paul and I supplied the two with paper. Genji had his own cutting tools but we also invested in a set for Corey. The artist and his pupil enjoyed comparing the old with the new implements.

We bought Corey books on the subject, the history and the art, and he’d bring them to share with Genji. 

Soon, Corey’s shelf of special prizes needed expansion, as day after day his collection grew, as did his friendship with Genji.  Genji had taken to calling Corey Kodomo, his child. 

* * *

One night, Paul called Sakura to make a reservation for us. He spent more time on the phone than usual and I could hear his tone change.  I stopped what I was doing and listened.

“What is it?”

“Genji’s in the hospital.”

I had feared this day would come.

“What’s happened, Paul?”

“He's had a stroke. They expect him to recover but it’s too early to know to what extent.”

“Do you know what hospital?”

* * *

We found Hiroko and Mei in the Saint Mary’s Medical Center waiting room nearest the ICU unit. Paul had told them we would be coming.

“Hiroko, Mei, how is he doing?”

“The same. We don’t know anything more.”

“Can I see him?” Corey asked.

“He’s sleeping, Corey. He won’t know you’re there.” Hiroko replied.

“I brought something for him. Would it be all right if I leave these for when he wakes up?”

“Let’s go talk to the nurse.”

* * *

The next day, I volunteered to be the one to tell Corey that Genji had passed, quietly, in his sleep. As I knocked on his doorframe, I saw him sitting on the edge of his bed as he slowly turned his tired face to look at me.

“I know. He’s gone.”

I moved to the bed and sat next to my young son with the old soul.

“Yes. How did. . .”

“I felt him pass through me, Mom. I can’t explain it, but he came to say goodbye.”

“You two had something very special, Corey.”

Corey was quiet.

“Hiroko dropped off something for you. It’s downstairs. Would you like me to get it for you?”

“No, I’ll come down.”

* * *

There, on the kitchen table were two boxes. When Corey opened the first, he found Genji’s cutting tools, along with a stack of origami paper of the highest quality, labeled from Japan.   

Corey cleared his throat and opened the second box. There he found the origami animals he had left on Genji’s nightstand. And a note from Hiroko.

“Dear Corey,

Thank you for your precious gift to my father. I am impressed with your skill and touched by the meaning you give your work. My father was very proud of you and cherished you as his own.

I watched as you placed your gifts to him in this order:

Koi, for courage and perseverance.

Frog, good fortune and return.

Owl, protection and luck.

Rabbit, love and healing.

Dragon, strength and power.

Lastly, the Phoenix, cycle of life.

I wish you to know my father appreciated them, and you, for when I gathered them for you, there was one addition.

You will find my father’s gift to you among your gifts to him. 

Peace and blessings,

Hiroko and Mei”

Corey handed me the note as he looked into the box. He found what he sought and held it in the palm of his hand.

It was a crude, yet recognizable, butterfly made with hospital notepaper.

I asked, “What does it mean, Corey?”

He said, “The soul, transformation, incarnation. Genji's telling me he goes on.”

“I want to believe that,” I said.

“I already do,” he said.

March 31, 2023 01:26

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Michał Przywara
22:04 Apr 05, 2023

This one hit right in the tearducts :) But it's also a happy story, and at times funny. As we're dealing with coming of age, coming to understand death is a part of that. "who trusted grownups to know best . . . or know something, at least?" :D So growing up is when we realize nobody knows anything - sounds about right :) "I had feared this day would come." Yes, this was a question constantly looming as I read along. I think their bond grew organically, and very believably. It was good for Corey, naturally - and particularly since he...


Susan Catucci
23:04 Apr 05, 2023

Thanks, Michal, love how you view and filter what you read - you hit the mark. This was a story born of love, for a transformed picky eater (my own, shockingly), a beloved landmark that I miss to this day, to a culture I love and credit for much of my spiritual awakening and, most of all, a love of creative expression and friendship - when people connect, it's a beautiful thing. Appreciate every time I hear from you. :)


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Mary Bendickson
19:40 Apr 04, 2023

Sweet, spellbinding story!


Susan Catucci
20:06 Apr 04, 2023

Thank you, Mary, very much. :)


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謙太 谷
13:45 Apr 04, 2023

As a Japanese person who loves the Japanese culture very much, I have to say that this story nearly brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for this story and I hope to read more stories like this in the future.


Susan Catucci
16:39 Apr 04, 2023

I also love Japanese culture and many aspects of this story comes from personal experience. So many of the best things in my life were derived from Japanese origins: appreciation for family, food, beauty, friendship, art - humor! And, most important, for me, a rich spiritual life. Much to be grateful for.


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06:52 Apr 01, 2023

A pleasant story about Japanese hospitality. You handled incorporating Japanese phrases in very well, something I had a tough time with this week. And a picky eater! that was such a unique and relatable theme that brought me into the story.


Susan Catucci
12:57 Apr 01, 2023

Thank you, Scott - appreciate your words very much.


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Suma Jayachandar
05:23 Apr 01, 2023

Susan, What a marvellous tale that weaves many elements of the Japanese culture with such care! Either you have a first hand knowledge of them or have done an astounding amount of research on them. And then you have coloured it with a poignant narrative of intergenerational people from different cultures. A truly touching piece that reiterates love and respect for one another is what makes the world go round.


Susan Catucci
12:58 Apr 01, 2023

Thank you, friend. You understand everything. It's minds and hearts like yours that makes the world even better as it spins.


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Lily Finch
21:34 Mar 31, 2023

Susan, many know but seldom do! What the story does masterfully is put a boy and an older man from diverse cultures, who cross paths from most unlikely backgrounds, together. Somehow they learn and grow together so that their relationship is a symbiotic special experience. Each one leaving their mark on the other. Nicely done with utilizing the prompt as a natural element to the story. LF6.


Susan Catucci
13:00 Apr 01, 2023

Hi, Lily! I love hearing from you. Your words, to me, are always heartening and meaningful. I appreciate them and you.


Lily Finch
13:43 Apr 01, 2023

Thanks Susan. LF6.


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Michelle Oliver
11:49 Mar 31, 2023

What a beautiful heartwarming and heartbreaking story. You are a master at weaving a tale that is spellbinding and magical yet so earthy and real. The relationship between Cory and the old man was lovely. I had real tears in my eyes at the ending. This line- “I felt him pass through me, Mom. I can’t explain it, but he came to say goodbye.” Just a beautiful line… I wish I had better adjectives, but beautiful will have to do. The whole piece was beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.


Susan Catucci
12:31 Mar 31, 2023

A thousand thanks, Michelle. Your comments mean more than I can express. I'm grateful.


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Delbert Griffith
06:36 Mar 31, 2023

I love the picky eater, Corey, for he creates tension for the parents. The introduction of the old man was the real catalyst for the story, and it unfolds beautifully. The relationship between the old man and the boy is unique and entertaining, leading us to a conclusion that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The last line was excellent! Another excellent story, my friend. I love how you can put together a tale that is both engaging and revelatory. There is always something more than a mere story in your tales. Nicely done, my friend....


Susan Catucci
12:29 Mar 31, 2023

Thank you, Del. I cherish your words as much as the old man and the boy do each other. Nothing better in this life than true friendship.


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