At the sushiya, the hostess seats us at the bar. I usually prefer the privacy of a table, but here I’m excited to see the chef at work. He’s just been featured on the cover of Atlanta Magazine. The place looks unassuming from the outside, nestled in the corner of a shabby strip mall, but inside its dim lighting, soft music, and wood accents transport us from the hassle of driving, the stickiness of late May. The chef wears a red hachimaki rolled up and tied around his head. He has strict rules for his customers. A sign instructs us to wash any perfumes off our skin before sitting as they might interfere with his sense of smell. He instructs me to eat each piece of nigiri in one bite. When he gives us a bowl of pickled ginger, he explains that it should be enjoyed only between bites, half-joking that he’d kick us out of his restaurant if we dared put it on top of our sushi. I enjoy watching his fast sharp knife slice through squid and shrimp and octopus, his care as he selects a pad of rice, brushes on a hint of soy sauce, or cradles a piece of fatty tuna in his palm, branding it with a hot metal grate. We’ve come for my birthday.
We sit between another young couple and a middle-aged man with a large belly. The latter inches closer to my boyfriend, saying something about space. We scoot our stools over to make room for him. He knows the chef, by name at least. He says he comes here every Wednesday. When he asks what neighborhood we live in and we say Old Fourth Ward, he exclaims, “White people live there now?” with mock surprise. When I appear taken aback, he assures me that, no, he realizes it’s gotten better, as if my concern is for the reputation of my neighborhood. I make a point to tell him I love how diverse the neighborhood is, but I don’t think he takes the hint. He lives in Decatur. As we discuss the menu, he keeps glancing over at us, eager to interject. When he asks if we’re here because of the article, my boyfriend tells him no, we’ve been meaning to come for a while and it’s my birthday. I hate that he now knows a personal fact about me, which empowers him to keep talking. He asks to see the label of our sake bottle, making an unnecessary thing about how awkward it is to ask such a question. He makes a Seinfeld joke, like all unfunny people do when they want to be funny. He tells us that, when he was in his 20’s, the most popular show on TV was Married With Children. “Dark times,” I say. I’m always deliberately rude to men like him and they never catch on because they can’t believe a nice young woman like myself would act that way. I test their limits, wondering when they’ll realize I hate them. They never do. Married With Children set a low bar for what a man must do to deserve love.
He quotes the show’s protagonist, whatever his name is, saying, “I played college football, I’m an American Hero.” Having had a glass of cold unfiltered sake, I tell him that sounds like Brett Kavanaugh. He says he hates Brett Kavanaugh, which is promising until it’s followed by, “but mostly I hate what they did to him.” With another swig, I tell him, “I quite enjoyed it.” I turn to my plate. The chef has gifted us two perfect mounds of rice adorned with gently-marinated scallops. I add a drop of the special house-made wasabi sauce and eat it in one bite. Not wanting to lose the chance to talk with us, the man tries to correct himself, saying, “I mean really I hate what they did to her, that poor woman,” which sounds okay until it’s followed by, “making her get up there and testify with no physical evidence.” I tell him she made her own choice, focusing my gaze on the chef’s swift fingers as he selects tender orange morsels of uni, my favorite. That poor woman. His pity enrages me. I let my boyfriend chat with him, resenting his ability to listen to men like this without the nauseous rage that churned my gut. The relationship is approaching its end, I know, and I can feel our distance lengthening as he finds common ground with his new friend, bonding over the shared comfort of moderation. The man says he can’t get behind the “California Democrats.” I’m not sure if he’s referring to Kamala Harris or if he just means Jews.
The chef deveins a shrimp with precision, slicing it in half then wiping its splayed form swiftly against his towel till the black center line has disappeared. The man brings up the abortion ban, which he is opposed to. Okay. He lets me know he does not think, “A bunch of old men should be making decisions about what you”—he points, looking me up and down—“should do with your body.” Does every woman know this feeling of being undressed? I am suddenly, keenly aware of my breasts, of the amorphous torso space I vaguely know as womb. I do not want this man to say a word about my body, to think of my body, to know that I have one. I mutter, “I hope they all die an untimely death.” I want him to know I’m not a nice woman, a poor woman. That he doesn’t know what I’m capable of. He continues that he and his wife are pro-life but wouldn’t want to make that decision for anyone else. Despite my lack of encouragement he continues, explaining that he “wouldn’t want to bring a retarded child into the world.” Retarded. He offers some other examples of cases in which he’d support a woman’s choice to get an abortion. “Or if she just doesn’t want it, that’s fine too,” I add, shrugging to indicate that yes, I am the coldhearted feminist they warned you of as I pop a crunchy snow crab maki in my mouth. He explains why he voted for Gary Johnson as I dip a plump slice of salmon in the chef’s house-made soy sauce, busying myself with the perfection of this action. When the waitress apologizes for leaning in to grab his empty plate, he tells her, “Are you kidding? Having you leaning over me is the best thing that’s happened all night!” She giggles graciously. I know she wants to slit his throat. He tells us about his wife, who is from China. “You fall in love with who you fall in love with,” he explains, “But I got lucky that mine was from China.” I expect him to continue, to say it’s been great getting to explore another culture, being able to travel with her to her hometown, but he stops there. I can fill in the blanks.
He asks if I’m a teacher, smiling as I fumble a confused response: “I’m a grad student…I teach at Emory.” I can tell he’s impressed by the last bit, though he only responds that he lives near Emory. I try to remember if I said anything about teaching that he might have overheard, but I don’t think I have. He must just think I look like a teacher, a safe profession for a pretty girl, smart but not threatening. I am wearing a yellow flowered dress with buttons down the chest. He tells me I look like his grandmother, “In a good way.” I have, he informs me, a very classic, old-fashioned type of beauty. Sometimes I think of shaving off my hair, tying a rolled up red bandana around my naked scalp and pulling up the hood of my black sweatshirt, curling my lips to a determined sneer. Lately, when I encounter men like him, this thought flashes through my head: In the revolution you will not be spared. I’m sick of it. I want a woman president so badly but to be honest I want more than that. I want a woman president who will make men like him shake in their New Balance sneakers. I want a woman president that makes Hillary Clinton look as soft and unassuming, as likeable, as the grandmother I supposedly resemble. I want the waitress, standing over the man’s bleeding corpse with a freshly sharpened sashimi knife in hand, to explain to the cops that he made her uncomfortable and for them to tell her You did the right thing. I just want to eat in peace. We finish with the most delicious red bean ice cream I’ve ever had, at once light and earthy, perfectly sweet, creamy with a refreshing iciness. I think I’ll come back to this place, but never again on a Wednesday. Not before the revolution, anyway.
Emily Banks is the author of Mother Water (Lynx House Press, 2020). Her poems and essays have appeared in 32 Poems, Heavy Feather Review, New South, Collective Unrest, The Cortland Review, Superstition Review, and other journals. She received her MFA from the University of Maryland and currently lives in Atlanta, where she is a doctoral candidate at Emory University.