Chapter 7:

Dinner Parties, Dating and Headaches

ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

My apartment was scrubbed clean, the tatami spotless, and the tile floors of my kitchen and bathroom were gleaming. The rice cooker was letting off a fragrant cloud of steam, and a trio of pork cutlets were sizzling and bubbling in hot oil on the stove, as a bowl of broth bursting with chopped onions was waiting its turn. My window was cracked open to let in the late spring breeze, and outside I could see Ebifry sitting on the balcony, looking like an orange and white loaf of bread. His eyes were squinty, and his shrimp-like tail was twitching lazily.Bookmark here

For the first time in probably ever, I was having friends over to my little apartment. I had originally asked about the possibility of having a sleepover, until Yomogi reminded me that she lived in a dorm with strict curfew rules, and Kei mentioned being available to teach a children’s karate class the next day. And then I realized that having three girls in one very small apartment would be extremely cramped.Bookmark here

The next question: what would we do for a dinner party? Did we want to do one of those yaminabe parties where we turned the lights out and dumped a bunch of secret ingredients into a stewpot? What about hand rolled sushi? Cookie decorating? Finally, we decided that we’d each contribute a dish, and after I discovered that pork was on sale at Kotobuki Supermarket I decided that it had to be katsudon, a pork cutlet bowl that consisted of a fried pork cutlet served over rice, with a dashi and soy sauce based broth topped with fluffy dropped eggs. (Usually, you include peas along with the broth. I don’t like peas, so I don’t include them.)Bookmark here

The frying cutlets smelled like they were done, so I swiftly went over to the burner, turned it off, and fished the cutlets out with a spider in order for them to drain. I had to wait for the hot oil to cool before I poured it off and cleaned the pan, so I turned to the rice cooker to see how much time I had left. Plenty of time. The others would be arriving in 20 minutes or so.Bookmark here

I heard a loud meow from outside and saw Ebifry pawing at the crack in the sliding glass door, likely attracted by the dashi that I was using in the broth. “Hey! You’re not allowed in here,” I said.Bookmark here

Mreah!” Ebifry bellowed, sounding angry.
“Mako-san’s got food outside for you. Shoo!” I waved my hands in his direction and he dashed off.Bookmark here

I opened a storage box and pulled out three deep bowls. They had been purchased at a deep discount from a kitchenware store just for this occasion, and were made out of a deep blue glazed pottery with an abstract design on the inside. I didn’t have enough dishes to furnish three people, so I had to buy these. I knew I only had space to store at least one, so I thought maybe Yomogi and Kei would appreciate a thank-you-for-coming gift.Bookmark here

I rested my hand about an inch over the cooking oil and found that it had cooled considerably, so I opened the fridge and grabbed my oil recycling bottle. It was a wide mouthed jar that had a double layer of cheesecloth attached to the mouth with a rubber band, which was used to strain crumbs and bits from the oil in order for me to reuse it. Carefully, I tipped the oil into the jar, then removed the cheesecloth and threw it in the garbage can. I’d wipe the pan down later, because the onion broth was next.Bookmark here

I put the saucepan that was filled with chopped onions, dashi broth, soy sauce, mirin and sugar onto the stove and put the gas on low. Everything would soon dissolve, and the onions would soften and become transparent. Working quickly, I grabbed a bowl from the fridge and cracked three eggs into it, then whipped them around furiously—this would be the egg topping for the pork.Bookmark here

Just then, there was a knock on the door. “Coming!” I yelled, dashing over to the entrance. I opened the door to reveal both Yomogi and Kei standing there.Bookmark here

“Welcome!” I said. “I’m glad you two found this place OK!”
“Thank you for having us,” Yomogi said. “It smells really good in here.”
“I’m just finishing our main entrée. Here, let me take your packages,” I said. Kei and Yomogi were both carrying opaque plastic bags, so I couldn’t tell what they brought. I took them both and put them in the center of my table.Bookmark here

“Wow, your place is quaint,” Kei said. “It’s so neat and efficient.”
I laughed nervously, because I had spent almost two hours cleaning this morning. “It’s a nice neighborhood, too,” I said.
“We met your landlady, too,” Yomogi said. “She seems nice.”
“That’s Mako-san,” I replied, as Yomogi and Kei seated themselves at the square table. “She’s the daughter of the people that own this building. I do a lot of favors for them…” I looked up to see Ebifry pawing at the door again. “HEY!”
“KITTY!” Kei squealed.
“He’s not allowed in,” I said, as I shooed Ebifry away and closed the window to just a crack. “His name’s Ebifry because his tail looks like a cooked shrimp. He’s a street cat.”
“He looks it,” Yomogi said. “There’s a few cuts on his ear.”Bookmark here

I went back to the stove to discover that the broth was lightly simmering, with the onions beginning to lose their color and hardness. “This is almost ready,” I said. “I was trying to time this to before you arrived, but…”
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“We got here early,” Kei said. “Of course.”Bookmark here

My rice cooker started playing a tune, which meant the rice was ready. (If you have one of these, I recommend them. In fact, everything from this brand plays music.) I opened up the lid to release a cloud of steam. “Yomogi-chan, Kei-chan, can you hand me your bowls?” I asked. They did, and I filled each of theirs with rice before picking up mine to fill. I picked up the fried pork cutlets with tongs and carefully laid them inside the pot with the simmering broth, then poured the beaten eggs on top before putting the lid on the pan. A few minutes to cook the egg, and we were all ready.Bookmark here

“What did you two bring?” I asked Kei and Yomogi.
“I’ll show you in a bit,” Yomogi said. “We didn’t come together, by the way, so I have no idea what Kei brought.” (Kei was staring at Ebifry through the glass door, making baby talk and poking her finger at him. Perhaps I could invite him in for a few minutes…)Bookmark here

I opened the lid of the saucepan to see the eggs were fully cooked. “Could you two bring your bowls over here?” I asked. Yomogi and Kei obliged, although she seemed reluctant to leave Ebifry alone. I placed a pork cutlet on each of their rice bowls, and ladled the broth and egg mixture on top. They brought their bowls back to the table, and I did the same with mine.Bookmark here

“Katsudon, huh?” Kei said. “It looks good!”Bookmark here

“I’d better bring out what I prepared now,” Yomogi said, as she untied the plastic bag from around a white cardboard box. She opened it up and turned it in our direction.Bookmark here

“Wow!” Kei said.
“Is that a cream puff?” I asked, recognizing the mounded shape of baked pate a choux.Bookmark here

“Something Vanilla-chan said about savory cream puffs made me remember this,” Yomogi said, as she lifted one out to show us. Instead of being filled with cream, it was filled with what appeared to be chicken salad, with chunks of celery, boiled egg, pickled vegetables and roast chicken mixed with mayonnaise.Bookmark here

“That looks good!” I said. “A nice change of pace from eating something hot!”
Kei picked one up. “If no one minds, I’m going to eat this first,” she said.Bookmark here

Itadakimasu!” the three of us chorused, digging into our salad puffs and katsudon. We were enjoying the food so much, that hardly a word passed between us, except mentioning how crispy something was or how good the flavors blended together. Bowls were picked clean of rice, and every crispy crunchy bit of pastry was devoured. Satisfied, we pushed our dishes to the center of the table, and Kei picked up her package. It was in an insulated bag that was lined with foil, and she removed a small ice pack from it before putting a plastic container on the table that was cold to the touch. I couldn’t see what was inside, but when she opened it…Bookmark here

“AWESOME!” Yomogi and I squealed.Bookmark here

Kei had made some beautiful wagashi that depicted a tiny goldfish and some river plants and pebbles swimming in a clear blue pond. I had only seen these done in magazines before. “Kei-chan, these are beautiful!” I said. “I don’t want to eat these!”Bookmark here

“The bottom is red bean paste, and the water is agar that’s been flavored with blue tropical flavored syrup,” Kei said, pointing to each component. “The goldfish is white bean paste that I painted over, and the plants are matcha flavored white bean paste.”Bookmark here

“Kei-chan, you didn’t have to do this!” Yomogi said, admiring the wagashi. “This must’ve taken hours!”Bookmark here

“It’s no problem! I love making these,” Kei said. “That reminds me, I should show you two my Instantgram account,” she said, pulling out her phone. She tapped on the Instantgram application and pulled up a photo album. She glided her finger across the surface of her phone’s screen, cycling through a bunch of beautiful photos featuring various types of wagashi. “All made by me,” she said. “And they’re gonna melt if you don’t eat them.”Bookmark here

“All right,” I said, and carefully cut a chunk of the wagashi with the side of my fork. It was refreshingly cool, and a wonderful, mellow mix of flavors. “It’s so sweet! I love it!”
“This is delicious,” Yomogi said. She had already eaten half of hers.
Kei seemed to blush. “I’m glad you two liked them. I don’t really have many real life fans of my wagashi,” she said.Bookmark here

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When the dinner dishes were cleared off, the night’s entertainment began. Yomogi had brought a portable video game system and three controllers with her, so she set it up on the table and booted up the latest Monster Slayer RPG. “I didn’t take you for a video game fan, Yomogi,” Kei said, as the two of us created characters and followed our leader Yomogi (who was playing a high level elven archer) into battle against a huge dragon.Bookmark here

“I like them all!” Yomogi said, as she deftly maneuvered her character upwards and atop the dragon’s head. “There’s not much to do around where I live for fun, except exploring the woods. You get tired of that pretty quickly sometimes.”Bookmark here

“What about you, Kei?” I asked, as my character took damage from the dragon’s tail, after I failed to dodge it in time. “You live near the school, right?”Bookmark here

“Yes. I’m not that far away from you, really,” Kei said. “Ugh, I’m at only 2 health!” Yomogi cast a healing spell, and Kei’s character stood back up. “Just a couple stops on the local.”Bookmark here

“Then maybe we should head to your place next time!” I said.
“That’s a good idea. We do have plenty more room.”Bookmark here

“All right you two, I need you to hit the dragon where the bones are poking out,” Yomogi said. She had gone into a military commander mode and was gesturing at the screen. “Hold down the ZL button to charge up your attacks first. Five or six hits should do it.”
“You got it!” I said, and was immediately blown backwards by the dragon’s roar.
“Ugh! Stay with me here, people!” Yomogi said. She was in the zone.Bookmark here

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After we played Monster Slayer, Kei pulled out a deck of Uno cards, and we played a few rounds. I kept getting stuck with the Draw 4 cards, but pulled a couple of Reverses and managed to win once. I looked up and noticed that the clock read 9:30 PM.
“Hey, you two, look how late it’s gotten,” I said.Bookmark here

Yomogi and Kei looked up. “Oh…I’d better get going,” Yomogi said. “Curfew’s at 10:30.”
“Is it far?” I asked.
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“No, I can get there pretty quickly. The dorm’s just a short walk from school,” she said.
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“I think I’ll have to take my leave, too,” Kei said. “Next time, do you want to do this at my place?”
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“Sounds good,” I said.Bookmark here

The two of them got up and gathered up their garbage. “Oh, um…” I glanced over at the sink, where the three bowls I had purchased for the occasion were drying on a rack. “I…bought these just for today, and I can’t keep all of them…So here.” I handed each of them a bowl.
“Really? Are you sure?” Kei asked.
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“I’m sure. I don’t have a lot of space in here,” I said. “And, I hope this is a good way to commemorate our first dinner party of many.”
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“Yes! We’ve got to do this again,” Yomogi said. “Thank you so much!” She tucked the bowl under her arm as I walked her and Kei to the exit. Goodbyes were exchanged, and they walked out into the night, both of them excitedly talking about how much fun they had.Bookmark here

I listened as their voices faded into the distance, and turned back inside my apartment. For something so small, it had been so full of laughter. I started to clean up, humming the background music from Monster Slayer.Bookmark here

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Meanwhile, a couple hundred kilometers away in Chichibu…Bookmark here

Sayuri Sakamoto was sitting up in her bed against a pillow. Her satin robe was draped loosely on her body, and her cheeks were slightly flushed. She was watching her boyfriend, a handsome man in his early fifties named Ryotaro Koizumi, return from getting another two glasses of wine from the minibar. He stopped to admire the photos in gilded frames that were resting on the bookcase.Bookmark here

“That’s Vanilla, huh?” he asked.
“Yes. She’s currently away at school,” Sayuri said. “Honestly…she could have had such an easy time if she stayed here, but no.”
“Oh? How come?” Ryotaro sat back down on the bed and handed Sayuri her glass.Bookmark here

“She’s at Umami Gakuen. Honestly, she’s her father’s daughter. She’d rather spend all day in the kitchen rather than spend the best years of her life socializing and making friends.” Sayuri sipped the wine. “We haven’t really talked in a while. I did get a progress report for her from school. She’s doing well.”Bookmark here

“That’s all that matters, right? They do well in high school, they do well in life,” Ryotaro said. He laid down next to Sayuri and kissed her on the lips, licking a drop of wine from them.Bookmark here

“I haven’t told her about you just yet,” Sayuri said. “I don’t know how she’s going to react, frankly. She hasn’t moved on like I have.”Bookmark here

“I would do it sooner rather than later. I don’t want to be a surprise when she comes home.”
“Then, tomorrow.” Sayuri leaned over and kissed Ryotaro again. “Remind me.”
“I will.” Ryotaro caressed Sayuri’s face. “She seems like an amazing young lady.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know if ‘amazing’ is the word for her, but…” Sayuri shrugged. “We’ve never seen eye to eye on everything. Like I said…she’s her father’s daughter. She inherited my looks, but that’s pretty much it.”Bookmark here

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“What year is she in?”
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"Her first. That’s a year ahead of your Caroline-chan, correct?”Bookmark here

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“Yes. She’s been having a rough time of it, ever since we had to move back here.” Ryotaro laid back down on the bed and wrapped his arm around Sayuri’s shoulders. “It’s a Godsend that they were able to accept her at a British school, but I want her to make some more friends.”Bookmark here

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“We should have them get together. Who knows?” Sayuri glided her hand across Ryotaro’s chest. “They might just get along just as well as we do.”
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Ryotaro kissed Sayuri on the forehead. “I’m sure they will.”Bookmark here

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Class was droning along as usual. While academic and culinary courses are kept separate, there are some interesting food related parts to our history classes—like how the earliest protohumans developed bread, or how the ancient Central Americans prepared their corn to stave off vitamin deficiency. (And in case you were wondering, Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake.”)Bookmark here

Still, there were midterm exams to look forward to, so my note taking was going into overdrive. Maybe I should ask Kei if she can make the next dinner party a study session, I thought. I looked forward to eating lunch with Yomogi and Kei every day, which made the day bearable, and to afternoon cooking sessions, which made everything worthwhile.Bookmark here

This week, we were continuing our studies on the preparation and cooking methods for various types of poultry, pork and beef. This meant that for a few days, our hands on experience was replaced with lectures on the various cuts of meats and how to carve, debone and prepare them properly. We’d also be having a midterm in the culinary arts class as well: both a written and a practical exam, where we’d be graded on our cooking skills as well as how well we knew our vocabulary and methods. The weather was getting hot, and I was looking forward to June when we would finally be allowed to change into our short sleeved summer uniforms.Bookmark here

One day, during a break in our afternoon classes, I heard some of the girls chattering in the corner. They were clustered around a smartphone and from the appearance of things, they were watching a video.Bookmark here

“Don’t you think she reminds you of someone?”
“Lucky her, he’s a silver fox!”
“Ew. You like old guys? Are you like into sugar daddies or something?”
“No, seriously. Don’t you think Sayuri Sakamoto reminds you of—”Bookmark here

When I heard the name, I jumped to my feet, and the sound startled the three girls that had been watching. It was then when it dawned on the one who said my mother’s name.Bookmark here

“No way…I just realized it.” Her face paled, and she looked up at me with puppy dog eyes.
“What are you watching?” I asked, my voice quavering.
"This just got posted on one of the celeb gossip sites I like reading,” the girl that owned the smartphone said. She handed it to me and my face turned crimson.Bookmark here

“Koizumi’s New Flame!” read the heading. It was followed by a shaky cell phone video of my mother walking arm in arm with a man I recognized from a bunch of TV shows, Ryotaro Koizumi. He’d started out as a model and actor in high school dramas before graduating and studying classical acting and singing in England, then returned to Japan a couple years ago to become a TV presenter.Bookmark here

“Former boy actor and now Ginga TV presenter Ryotaro Koizumi was seen shopping in Chichibu with Sayuri Sakamoto, the former wife of Yoshiaki Sakamoto, whose plane disappeared over the Himalayas without a trace two years ago. Has she finally moved on? Koizumi has definitely found a kindred spirit in her, after the loss of his British wife Sophie ten years ago. He may not be a gourmet chef, but seeing the two of them finding comfort in each other after losing their spouses gladdens our hearts.”Bookmark here

I handed the phone back to the girl, my hands shaking in revulsion and anger. “Sakamoto-san, I didn’t know she was your mom,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I nodded. “I’m not mad at you,” I said. “I just didn’t want to find out in this way.”
“You know gossip sites, though. They’re probably spinning this because they have something in common,” one of the other girls said.
“Well, I know my mother,” I rebutted, “and this is exactly the thing she would do.”

I could barely concentrate for the rest of my class, as a tension headache was beginning to erupt. I had work tonight, and I needed to calm down, but hearing about my mother’s new relationship (if there was one—and the “if” was a very certain “if”) was making my blood boil.
I’d confront her tonight. That was the only way I could feel better.Bookmark here

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Unfortunately, in the middle of my shift, I started feeling worse. While I was stocking groceries, my vision started to go weird: there was some sort of sparkling blind spot in it that wouldn’t go away. It was beginning to bother me, so I sought out Kinoshita and asked him if I could go early. I described my symptoms, and he interrupted me right away.Bookmark here

“That’s a migraine headache aura,” he said. “The pharmacy has extra strength pain relief. Buy a bottle. Put it on my account and take it before you leave tonight.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Are you free Saturday afternoon? Yumiko-san needs time off.”
“I will have to check my schedule, but I’ll call you. Thank you, sir.”Bookmark here

I did as Kinoshita instructed me, and staggered from the store. The lights in the shopping district were making my headache worse, and my stomach was churning. Riding the train back would feel even worse, but at least I could try and close my eyes and block out everything that was making me uncomfortable. Of course, that was exactly when the headache decided to hit.Bookmark here

I must’ve looked weird on the train. I was curled up in a ball on the seat, hiding my face and squeezing my eyes shut to block out the light. I spent most of the ride in agony, and staggered down my street towards my home. I must’ve been pale as a sheet, because Mako, who was having her usual cigarette on the balcony, came rushing out. “Sakamoto-san, what happened? You look like hell,” she said.
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“My head,” I said.Bookmark here

She helped me up to my apartment, took my keys and opened the door. “Lay down for a while. When you feel better, give me a call. You look like you need someone to talk to.”Bookmark here

I nodded. I went inside my bedroom, which had become uncomfortably hot thanks to the early summer sun. I cracked open the window and let the cool breeze wash over me, then fell in a heap on top of my futon, feeling almost nauseous from the pain. Tears started running down my face, held in all day because I don’t want to be the kind of girl that cries at the drop of a hat. The type of emotions that I forced myself to hold in ever since my father disappeared.Bookmark here

Not died. Disappeared.Bookmark here

Even the media said “disappeared” in relation to him. He had been a much beloved figure in gourmet battles, and when he was lost we had no end of friends and former rivals seeking us out to make sure that we were all right and to share their favorite memories. It seemed to totally unnerve my mom, who made a public statement to leave the two of us completely alone so we could get back to our normal lives, and went so far as to chauffer me to school every day, even though I lived within walking distance. I was reading up on news articles about wreckage being dredged up from the deep sea, thinking that maybe there’d be a clue about my father’s disappearance from it. But my mother just wanted to shove everything to the side and move on.Bookmark here

There was one night that I think brought our relationship to the straining point, and that’s when I was staying up late playing video games and messaging Emi-chan about a news article I read about another search ship that was being privately funded by the studio that had produced some of my dad’s cooking shows. My mother came in, very drunk, and with her clothing looking very wrinkled and shabby. “Vanilla-chan, you’re still awake?” she slurred.
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“Mother, you’ve got to hear this! Caviar Productions is funding another search party,” I said, showing her the phone. She threw it aside, nearly breaking it.
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“Vanilla. Yoshiaki is dead. If he survived, he was eaten by sharks. Let it go,” she said, coldly.Bookmark here

I had been too shocked to respond, but grabbed my phone (it had a cracked screen) and ran upstairs to my bedroom. She never mentioned anything more about it the next morning, so I didn’t know if she had been blackout drunk at the time, and acted as if she had no idea what happened when she inspected my cracked smartphone. (I think she did feel like she did something, because she paid for the replacement of the screen.)Bookmark here

So my mother moved on only about six months later, and one afternoon I came home from school to see her entertaining a guy she had gone to school with. There was one hurried introduction before I went upstairs to do my homework, but obviously it didn’t appear that things worked out between them because I never saw him again.Bookmark here

Since then, she’s had a few more relationships—I’ve honestly lost count, and I don’t really care. It’s not that I don’t think they’re father material—my mother did ask me to answer her honestly if I ever had any sort of bad feeling about any of her partners, and I did tell her that I didn’t feel any weird vibes from them. Maybe being the widow of a celebrity who vanished off the face of the earth bothered them—who knows, Yoshiaki Sakamoto could come back from the dead, just like a soap opera, his amnesia magically cured with a kiss from his lovely wife, and they all lived happily ever after.Bookmark here

That was all I wanted—to see my father again. We had no body. The Sakamoto family plot where my grandparents are buried doesn’t even have my father’s ashes interred. I needed closure; I needed to know what had happened. That’s why I wanted to keep fighting and get good enough to eventually surpass my father: if I did, I’d be able to afford things like private investigators or trips to far flung locales to check up on news tips. I couldn’t just shove everything to the side and go on like nothing ever happened, like what my mother’s doing. To her, her seventeen years of marriage with my father were just a career, and now she’s moving on and finding a new one.Bookmark here

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Someone was knocking on my door. I tilted my head upright; the clamor had died down and the streets outside were quiet. I looked over at my digital clock and saw that it was around 9:30 PM – around the time I’d usually get home after my shift at work. The knocking came again.Bookmark here

“Coming!” I said, flipping on the lights and shuffling towards the door. I opened it to reveal Mako, holding a plastic bag with something inside it.Bookmark here

“Are you feeling better?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I murmured. “I took a nap. My headache’s gone now.”Bookmark here

“I figured you’d want something for dinner,” she said, giving me the bag. “Yakisoba from the place up the street.”
“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t really have an appetite, but I’d eat anyway.Bookmark here

“Honestly, when you were coming home today, you looked like you were ready to kill something. What’s going on?” Mako asked.
I invited her inside and began to talk about what had happened. When I mentioned the gossip site, Mako nodded.
“I saw that earlier myself,” she said. “No wonder you’re upset…I’m sorry.”Bookmark here

“I need to call her, but…it was making me so angry earlier,” I said. I sighed, pulling the phone out of my pocket. “Do you mind? You might need to hold me back from punching holes in the wall.”Bookmark here

“Go ahead,” Mako said. She had gotten some yakisoba herself and was already eagerly digging in.
But when I called my mother’s cell phone, there was nothing, only voicemail, so I left a message. “Hello, mother. I need you to call me back as soon as possible. It’s regarding a video I saw online involving you and I have questions about it,” I said, as calmly as possible.Bookmark here

“Well, you did it,” Mako said.
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I shrugged. “Watch. She’s not going to even call back. She’ll probably send a text message.” I put my phone down and started in on the yakisoba.Bookmark here

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My mother did call back—the next morning, right as I was stepping out of the shower. “Vanilla-chan, I’m sorry you had to find out this way,” she said, after I picked up the phone. “I was going to call you and have you come and stay for the weekend to meet Ryotaro-san.”Bookmark here

“You’ve really given up all hope, haven’t you?” I said back.
“Vanilla-chan. You need to be realistic. There is no way anyone could have survived that plane crash, and it’ll be years before they find the wreckage. I had to do it so I could move on.”Bookmark here

“Yes, you could move on,” I said. “But what about me moving on?”
“Vanilla-chan, please come home this weekend. I’ll introduce you to him. He’s a wonderful man, and I’ve told him nothing but the best about you.”Bookmark here

“I’ve got tests,” I said. “My friend Kei is having a study group at her house.”
“Then just overnight? We can take you back early on Sunday.”
“If it makes you happy,” I said, defeated.Bookmark here

“Would you like to meet his daughter, too?”
“He has a daughter?”
“She’s a year younger than you. I’m sure she’d like to make some friends from outside of school.”
“I guess so.” Maybe she’d end up being a fairly decent person.Bookmark here

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I shared my sentiments and feelings during lunch later that day. “I wish she could have told me before the gossip mag published the video,” I said to Yomogi and Kei as we compared notes.
“There’s a saying I once read somewhere,” Yomogi said. “It said that no one truly dies until people stop saying their name. That’s kind of how you feel, right?”Bookmark here

“Well…more than that,” I said. “I mean, my mother’s right in that it’s very rare to even survive a plane crash in the ocean. Look at what happened to that plane that disappeared, they only found debris when it washed up on the shore. But still, I don’t have anything…tangible, you know? Look what happened to that Speedy Delivery guy from that movie.”Bookmark here

“It was luck, mostly,” Kei said. “I saw that movie, too. And he almost died on the island because he had the problem with his tooth.”Bookmark here

“Still, though…” I drifted off and looked down at my meal.Bookmark here

“People mourn in different ways,” Yomogi said. “At least, that’s how I see it. My great-grandparents died within a few days of each other, from what my mother tells me. They couldn’t bear to be apart from each other. And then…there are the people who get over it rather quickly.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, but just because they seem to you that they’re getting over it quickly, doesn’t mean that they really are,” Kei said. “When people can’t be openly emotional, it’s what they do.” Kei was right—she was the poster child for that sentiment.Bookmark here

“So, Ryotaro Koizumi. I have to admit, I didn’t know that much about him, except for what I see on TV,” Yomogi said. “But he’s a serious actor! He’s even been on stage doing Shakespeare in England!”Bookmark here

“Wow, seriously?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Apparently he also had a leading role in the Winged Warrior Birdranger series too,” Yomogi said. (She was reading his online biography.) “Did you two watch that when you were kids?”Bookmark here

“I was more of a Mystic Dojo fan,” Kei said. “Because they were students of the same school of karate as my family.”Bookmark here

I rolled my eyes. “Who cares. All I want to know is if my mom’s not in it for the money,” I said. “She’s been in relationships before, and they’ve never lasted.”Bookmark here

There were footsteps behind us. “Oh, Sakamoto-san, long time no see. How are you?”Bookmark here

I turned around to see Michael Furukawa Valentine standing behind us. He was carrying a large bag that appeared to be an insulated carry-all for hot or cold dishes. “Michael-san, nice to see you,” I said. “Have you two met Michael Furukawa Valentine? These are my friends, Yomogi Kisaragi and Kei Mitsurugi. They’re in the Yogashi and Wagashi divisions.”Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you,” Michael said. “This is a nice spot. I think it’s 10 degrees cooler here.”
“Want to join us?” Yomogi asked.
“Sorry, I’ve got some fresh vegetables I need to add to my stock. My grandmother just sent these to me. Heirloom tomatoes and carrots!”
“Oh, wow! Are they different colors?” Yomogi asked. Michael set the container down on the bench and unzipped it to display the vegetables inside. They looked delicious and juicy—tomatoes with brown skin and flesh, tomatoes that looked like kabocha squashes with the ridges down their side, and pale yellow and brilliant purple carrots.Bookmark here

“That would make a very interesting carrot cake,” Yomogi said, as she lifted up one of the purple carrots.
“They’re really good roasted,” Michael said.
“You said your grandmother sent these to you?” Kei asked.
“Yeah, from my American side. Hey, I have to run. Nice meeting you.”Bookmark here

“Thanks, Michael-san,” I said. “Good luck with your midterm.”
“You too. I want to see you at the tournament this summer.” Michael zipped up the container and waved as he entered the building.
“Tournament?” I said, looking at Yomogi and Kei, and we were all clueless.Bookmark here

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Our questions were answered in the next class, which was a homeroom period before our academic subjects.Bookmark here

“The Umami Gakuen Summer Invitational Tournament!” our class rep, a bombastic young man named Masamune Shiotani said, slapping the blackboard, where the words had been written. “The best students of Umami Gakuen will be invited to a tournament that will crown the best chef of all of Umami Gakuen! So it’s like a beauty contest, but the beauty is all in your cooking!”Bookmark here

“Shiotani-san, I have a question!” I asked. “Does this tournament have any bearing on our ranks as gourmet battlers?”Bookmark here

“That is a very valid question, Sakamoto-san!” Masamune said, his eyes flashing with the passion for battle. “Your selection will pit you in a single elimination tournament, and every battle you fight in counts towards your rank as a Gourmet Battler!”Bookmark here

Sheets of paper with the details were passed around. I read through and realized that there would be 24 contestants chosen for each division of the school’s culinary arts program, eight for each year. The first two rounds would be competed within each grade level and division to decide the top two for each grade level. Then those two would battle for the Grade Level Championships, and then the Grade Level Champions would battle the two other Grade Level Champions for the Division Championship, and the Division Champions would battle each other, culminating in the Grand Championship between the top two students. I could totally do this.Bookmark here

“Also! All the matches from the Division Championship forward will be televised!” Masamune continued. “As you are very well aware, the entire country will be watching. Many of our winners have gone on to be five star chefs internationally!”Bookmark here

You don’t need to hype it any more, I thought. I was born ready for this.
“Now that this announcement is out of the way…Good luck on your midterms, everyone!” Masamune said, cheerfully, as the class groaned.Bookmark here

During the break, we all chattered amongst ourselves. “I don’t think I could stand a chance,” I heard from across the room.
“How come?”
“Think of all the battles we’re going to have to face against the other divisions. They’ve got some good people.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about some of them. Shirogane, Enomoto, Valentine…”Bookmark here

I will have to find out about the Yoshoku Division, I thought, and that maybe Michael was a good source to ask. I made a mental note to send him a message later when I was done with school and work.Bookmark here

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To: Michael From: Vanilla
Heard about the tournament, what’s the Yoshoku Division like
To: Vanilla From: Michael
They’re very good, we won 1st year I was here
To: Michael From: Vanilla
I hope I get picked
To: Vanilla From: Michael
I think you will.
Maybe we will end up having a rematch?Bookmark here

I smiled as I looked down at our conversation. Work had just ended, and I was enjoying a fountain beverage before I was headed home for the night. I was about to get up and leave when I heard a voice behind me.Bookmark here

“Excuse me?”Bookmark here

I looked behind me to see a girl about a foot shorter than me, dressed in what appeared to be a very elaborate maid costume, complete with ridiculous looking shoes with wooden soles that added three centimeters to her already short height. Her hair was bleached and pulled back into twin tails that were adorned with various sparkling barrettes. She was holding a bag in her arms.Bookmark here

“Yes?” I replied.
“This is expired.” She reached into the bag and pulled out a box of marzipan that was imported from Europe. “Get me another one. Now.”Bookmark here

“Give me a moment. I’m off duty,” I said, putting my smartphone back into my pocket. “Can I see that for a second?”
“It’s expired,” the girl repeated.Bookmark here

“I know, I just want to make sure that it is. We just got a shipment in today,” I said. She held the box out to me and I turned it around to read the date code.
“You’re fine,” I said. “See here, the date code for this particular product is reversed.” I pointed to where the expiration date was printed, which read 5/10/20XX. “They write dates with the day first in Europe. This isn’t going to expire until October.”Bookmark here

“That’s stupid. You shouldn’t be getting products that are going to mix people up,” the girl said. She snatched the marzipan back from me and walked off, nose in the air.
That was rude, I thought. What an entitled brat.Bookmark here

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Of course, the next morning, imagine my surprise when as soon as I entered the culinary arts building to get a head start on that day’s assignment, that same girl—who was apparently a third-year in the Yogashi Division—was using the kitchen. She stopped what she was doing and stared at me.Bookmark here

“You were the one who called me stupid yesterday,” she said.
“I didn’t call you stupid,” I said. “You’re not the first person who I had to point out European date codes to.”Bookmark here

“I don’t care, and guess what? You’re going to pay for the way you treated me,” she said, pointing her spoon (which was dripping with hot caramel) at me. I dodged the molten hot drops of sugar.
“Watch where you wave that thing!” I yelled. “Don’t you know how a molten caramel burn feels?”Bookmark here

“Be quiet, Vanilla Sakamoto! I, Nadeshiko Enomoto, hereby challenge you to a battle, and if you lose, you will kiss my feet!”
“…What?” I murmured.Bookmark here

“Did I stutter? You and me. Gourmet battle.” Nadeshiko put her hands on her hips. “And I will be so kind as to grant you the boon of it being at the time and place of your choosing, because I know a plebian like you has to work.”Bookmark here

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Monday, after school, right here. How does that sound?”
“Hmm. You drive a hard bargain, but fine.” Nadeshiko returned her spoon to the pan. “Now begone! This caramel requires my utmost attention.”Bookmark here

“Okay, fine,” I said, slowly backing my way out of the room. I shut the door with a loud bang and found myself in the empty hallway. What had I just gotten myself into…Bookmark here

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