Ramen

By Albert Chen

Written May 4 1995/Rewritten June 4, 1995

The early spring day was frosty and crisp. As I stood on the platform, I could see my breath floating away from me in wispy eddies. Around me, the people stamped their feet and looked up at the powerless sun, as if in disbelief at the chill of the morning. I could hear the murmur of their voices underscored by the kachunk kachunk sounds of distant trains.

I was returning from a trip to the fashion district in Harujuku. There was a stylist in a little shop there that cut my hair just right. She always knew just how much to cut and how much to leave. This may not seem terribly important to some people; but to me, a good haircut, much as a bad one, dictates how the days will go afterwards. It had taken me months to find someone who could cut my hair the way I liked. Going there made me feel clean and wholesome, as if the snipping of the shears cut away the chaff and clutter that gathered around my life.

Today was a particularly important day for a visit, not because of an interview, nor for visiting relatives, nor even for a date; today was important because it was Shiomi's last day cutting hair. From the first day that I had walked into the salon, she had talked about becoming an elementary school teacher. She cut hair to support herself while she went to school, and now, as she stood ready to graduate, she was going to resign from the salon business and pursue teaching in earnest.

I admit that, while I was happy that she had been able to realize her dreams, I was saddened to lose her. Each session at her chair was a once-a-month opportunity, a permission if you will, to engage in conversation and let the freshness and breeziness of her presence touch my life. From the moment you sit in that chair, to the time you leave it, there is only intimacy: the intimacy of conversation, and the intimacy of placing yourself into another person's hands. This morning, I had written a card wishing her luck in her future, half-hoping she might write me back, and realized that I didn't even know more than her first name. I had never thought to ask for more than that, and the opportunity for introductions had never seemed to come up.

The wind shifted sharply and blew at my coat from behind, and with the wind came the aromas and smells from the ramen shop on the platform. I was trying to decide if I had time for a quick bowl of noodles before my train came, when I heard a girl's voice behind me exclaim in wonderment and glee.

"This tastes so good!" she said. "Everything tastes good when you're with friends!"

The words were as familiar as finding your face in the morning mirror and, with a start, I was transported back to that day.

* * *

"This tastes so good! Everything tastes good when you're with friends!" exclaimed Yoko, as she sipped the hot soup from the ramen.

We had been talking on the phone until four in the morning and in a fit of abandonment we had run out to the train station to get a bowl of noodles before going to sleep. We see each other almost every day at school; but even so, we talk almost every night on the phone. That's how we've always been, she and I, each living our lives individually, but always spending time together over the telephone.

Talking at night seems to bring out an intimacy, a kind of honesty between people that really isn't found too often in the day. And not just with any people either. It's hard enough to find friends you can rely on, and even harder to find friends you are willing to trust, and who can be trusted.

The night just seems to loosen our tongues, Yoko and I. We will talk about anything and everything. Some days we talk of dreams, and other times we will gossip about people. There are days too, that we don't talk at all and just listen to each other's music over the phone. And then there are days that we just sit in each other's company. I suppose it is weird that we talk so much on the phone considering she lives only a couple of blocks away from me, but that is how it is and it seems to work all right for us.

That night we had run the gamut of topics, from hopes and dreams to the various mysteries of life. It was later than usual, we usually wound up our conversations by two, but the time seemed so comfortable and pleasant that it seemed a shame to stop talking. We had just ended the question of why blue jeans were blue and begun to ask whether or not shopping carts had to be welded by hand when talk suddenly turned to food.

"What do you think is better," she wondered aloud. "A good katsu-don or a good chirashi?"

"Where did this come from?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know," she replied. "Does it matter?"

"Not really, I guess." I said.

She asked again. "So what do you think is better?"

I contemplated a moment before answering. "I'm not sure you can compare the two." I said. "I think you have to be in the mood for one or the other. After all, chirashi is served cold and katsu-don is usually served hot."

"Maybe... she started. "You're right about having to be in the mood for chirashi, but I think katsu-don is good any time."

"You and your katsu-don." I laughed. "You like any kind of donburi. I'm not in the mood for rice right now though. I think I'd rather have some kind of noodle soup right now."

"Mmm. That sounds good, " she enjoined. "What kind? Udon? Ramen?"

"Ramen?" I mused. "Hm. I was thinking pho at the time, but ramen sounds really really good right about now. Shoyu ramen, extra pork. Piping hot soup and fresh springy noodles topped with lightly salted pork slices and scalded bamboo shoots."

"Stop it!" she exclaimed. "You're making me hungry!"

"Hey, you brought it up." I countered.

"No I didn't," she countered back.

"Yes you did; You started with your donburi, which led to my pho and then to ramen." Our conversations tended to drift towards this kind of chatter.

"Okay, okay," She admitted. "But you are making me hungry."

We were silent a moment as we both envisioned succulent noodles in piping hot broth.

"How crazy do you feel?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" she replied.

"Exactly that." I said. "Do you feel crazy enough to go get some ramen right now?"

"Now as in now?" she asked in amazement.

"Yeah, what other kind of now is there?" I rejoined.

"Um...sure. Where would we go at this hour?" she asked.

"I know this place at the train station that is open all the time." I said.

"Well then, what are we waiting for?"

Just like that, we were off. I threw a coat over my pajamas and went to her apartment to get her. She had put sweat pants on, but still wore her nightshirt on under her coat.

"You look cute," she said when she saw me.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You have bed-head," she replied, rumpling my hair.

Ruefully, I ran my fingers through my hair to try to tame the unruly strands, but was unsuccessful. She laughed and put her arm through the crook of mine and we hobbled, huddled together, towards the train station. The winter air tried to bite us but we resisted. Piles of snow tried to stop us but we prevailed. Finally, cold and near-frozen we arrived at the train station.

The ramen shop was on the platform itself so we had to buy tokens to get to it. We were laughing like school children as we made our way past the turnstiles and onto the stairs to the tracks. In the moonless night, the ramen shop was like a beacon of light to the weary traveler. The stand was almost empty at four in the morning. The only other customer was a businessman that looked as if he had been drinking and was getting a bite to eat before returning home. The shop was open-aired, and we pulled ourselves onto the stools facing the counter. With the cold air at our backs and the steamy warmth of the noodle shop in front of us, we pressed forward to try to absorb some heat. We must have looked pathetic, because the proprietor brought us hot tea even before welcoming us to his shop.

Yoko cupped her tea for warmth and sipped it before looking up at the signboard over the counter.

"What does the menu say?" she asked as she squinted towards the sign. Yoko wore contacts and hadn't put them in at this hour. "I forgot my eyeballs."

I read her the menu, which consisted of ramen in its variations.

"What are you getting?" she asked when I was done.

"The usual." I said. "Shoyu ramen with extra pork."

"Don't they have katsu-don here?" she whispered, nudging me off my stool.

"Its a ramen shop for goodness sakes!" I roared.

"I know, I know. I'm kidding," she laughed. Then to the shop owner she said, "Shoyu ramen for me too."

The shopkeeper shook his head in amusement. I climbed back onto my stool and Yoko and I both sipped at our tea for a while.

"Do you like to travel?" she asked.

"Yeah, don't you?" I replied.

"Would you go if you had the opportunity to tour America?" she asked.

"Of course." I replied. "Wouldn't anybody?"

"I don't know," she said. "My father is planning a trip to promote his new book you know. He asked me if I wanted to go with him."

"That's an opportunity of a lifetime." I said. "When would you go?"

"Next month," she said.

"Next month." I echoed. "So soon?"

"Dad's getting older now and I think he really wants a traveling companion, she continued. "Opportunity notwithstanding, I think I should go with him. Father-daughter bonding you know?"

I knew. She and her father hadn't always seen eye to eye and as we grew older, she was regretting not always being there for him.

"I think that would be great for the both of you. How long is the tour supposed to be?" I missed her already.

"Four weeks," she said.

"A whole month. What will I do for a whole month without someone to talk to?" I asked.

"You have other friends," she smiled wanly.

"Not like you though." I said quietly, looking down at the counter. "Not like you."

She nudged me again, softer this time. "Hey its not like its forever, you know?"

I looked at her. Her eyes were moistened with tears. I put my arm around her shoulders and hugged her. She leaned against me and hugged back. The ramen arrived a moment later.

* * *

The clackety-clack of the arriving train shook me from my reverie. The doors opened letting passengers spill out onto the platform. The people around me pressed forward to board the train, but I didn't follow.

When the train had left and the platform had cleared, I unslung my shoulder bag and opened it to take from it the card I had written for Shiomi. She hadn't been there that day. Apparently, she had stopped working the day before. Instead of her, I had my hair cut by the girl who replaced her. The cut wasn't really all that bad, but it wasn't perfect, it wasn't just right. Nothing seemed just right anymore. I looked at the blue envelope of Shiomi's card one last time and let it fall onto the tracks. Maybe there would be a postcard from Yoko today; maybe she had written me letter. My mailbox was my silent bastion of hope. There was half an hour before the next train would come, a half hour that I had to wait before going home.

I slung my bag over my shoulder again and found myself a seat at the noodle stand.

"Shoyu ramen, extra pork." I called.

The early spring day was frosty and crisp.