The war meant nothing to the diners that leaned into one another, shoulder to shoulder spilling their sake as they clinked their glasses together with great bravado. Inside the walls of my Otousan’s Tachinomiya the men worried not about war, rather they gorged on good food, drink, and loud company. The watercolor samurai toads and posters of carmine-apricot carp, wallpapered the walls around them, busying the space.
I think of the first time I saw the bright-eyed American crowded in the shadows of the bar. The crispness of his linen shirt hung without a wrinkle or stain. It had been humid and yet his skin didn’t hold a sheen of sweat like many of the other diners. I knew handsome and capable when I’d seen it as I’d been studying the covers of the magazines I hid underneath the mats I used for sleeping for months now. He was a well-mannered man that refrained from smacking his food like the other diners while enjoying chicken feet tossed in sweetened eel sauce.
Our communication consisted solely of stolen glances and hurried delivery of food orders to where he stood waiting for me to get closer. He captured my attention with his knowledge of the culture and the traditions of my people. The way he'd take a small bit of sea salt and throw it over his shoulder before entering the bar to ward off evil spirits made him less of an adversary in my eyes and more of a dreamy ally.
The U.S. Army surveyed our land for the taking. Examining the terrain and the climate of my people, much like gardeners, they staked their claim. The American may have been following orders when he plotted the layout of the bar. His handsome swagger moved through the tight rows of the diners searching for what he might uproot and where he might propagate seeds. When the time was right, he would present himself to be a viable companion plant. It did not matter to him that he was an enemy fraternizing among the very people he often warred against, he was committed and I found it attractive even if it was potentially poisonous.
These soldiers were like allelopathic plants, here to inhibit the growth of the Japanese men and women, allowing their roots to chemically clash with the fundamental lives of those around them. The war was over and yet he remained here on my soil long after he was required to.
He was pole beans. Tall and towering over me, blocking out the sun that allowed its shine on my fair skin. I was mere garlic, rooted in the ground connected to the flavors and the earth in which I grew. I longed to move from Tokyo and ascend to a new life, and this foreigner, with his charming face and intentional gestures, called me in to serve him a beer, maybe something more.
Otousan tussled with raw slimy octopus tentacles still fragrant with the freshness of seawater behind the bar. He watched as the American pushed past people confidently toward the sleek bamboo railing of the chef’s counter. A giant smack hit the bar top snapping me to attention.
“You’re here to work, daughter, not to stare at the enemy.”
Otousan chastised me as he rinsed the salty brine from his hands. The steam poured from his cook station causing the parchment paper menus with soft inky characters on them to flutter. The eyes of Maneki-Neko cat magnets darted back and forth at the same speed that my pulse galloped every time the American came to the bar.
“I’ll serve the American.”
My eagerness had a way of showing itself and my Otousan was none the fool.
“Minu ga hana, the reality is never as good as your imagination my daughter. You see this man and you think he will bloom into a flower. I assure you, he is neither Kiku nor Sakura. He is a nightshade, a poisonous weed, and he will envenom your mind.”
When I looked at the American I didn’t see flowers, I saw the start of a new life. Of all the things I could imagine, planting myself in new soil was the only way I could grow. I thought that I could fill the G.I.'s belly with happiness and he would take me with him far away from war-torn Tokyo. The mere thought of the handsome adversary wooing me away made my cheeks bloom like cherry blossoms in the spring.
A few times I caught my father adding extra salt to the man’s appetizers. When I asked him why he did such a thing, he leaned in and whispered what I could only assume was a secret, “Salt can bring out the flavor in duck meat, and it can also poison a weed, my dear daughter."
My Otousan was not shy in his dislike of this man and announced it with a cross tone for the both of us to hear.
“You’re the enemy soldier. Drink your beer and go.”
The American tossed back the Kirin in one go and grinned in my direction with a bold blue-eyed wink. I added a healthy sense of self to the foreigner’s list of attributes. He taunted me with a smug smile as my father fried enoki mushrooms in blistering hot duck fat.
Every Friday night the Americans would forget the war, and I would forget that we were on different sides of the fight. Otousan poured a flight of sake and turned his back to tend to the stove. But on this night I seized the opportunity to gift the American with charred sticks of duck, artfully piled surrounded by sliced radishes coiled into the shape of flowers.
My head dipped in respect when he gripped my wrist close to his chest. I didn’t want him to see my affections for him too intently, I was by no means a woman and by bowing my head I could hide the girlishness of my features. The sharp jabbering of drunken diners drowned out his words to everyone but me.
“What’s your name girl?”
“Rie. I should get back. My father… ”
“I know guys like your father. They control their daughters.”
Those royal blue eyes weren’t the only thing that tempted me, as his grip was possessive and declared that he wanted to weed me away from this place. The delicate duck meat disappeared behind his hotshot smile without dripping any sauce on his clothes.
“I've watched you for months now, come with me.”
My Otousan leered from behind like he was the burning hot sun, daring to scorch the pole bean in front of me. The American was brazen and didn’t flinch in Otousan's blaze.
Beaming at the savory sweetness of the food and back to my pinked cheeks he pressed, “You know, if you were with me you could pick a new name. Suzanne perhaps? Suzie for when we’re with my friends.”
I thought about carrying my head held high in America, laughing shyly the first time someone called me Suzie, no longer an enemy.
“As a bride? I don’t even know your name.”
To be honest, I didn’t care that he remained nameless to me, only that he showed me attention.
The raucous laughter around us cocooned our bodies until we were pressed chest to chest. The American’s cheeks reddened from the hot summer night and mine bloomed their way into blossoms of adoration. Love and war complicated the feelings swirling in my gut with the sweet and the sour of Subuta pork.
I’d give up onigiri cakes with fish for tuna casserole, and lychee over ice for jello salad if it meant I could have this tangled feeling forever. I’d embrace new traditions and apply eyeliner the way that American women did just for him. I would lay down roots in America and allow myself to grow taller than the other plants around me.
A drunken customer collided with us, spilling sake across the perfect linen shirt that captured me weekly. The American didn't hesitate, playing on my naivete and clear want.
“You might be a war bride, but you’d be a bride all the same.”
In America, I could leave most of my traditions behind to build my own reality, full and blooming. In America, I’d continue to throw salt over my shoulder to ward off evil spirits. If necessary I’d use it to poison the weeds that presented themselves in linen shirts and blue-eyed smiles. Minu ga hana.