This is the first chapter from a novel I recently completed. Like a number of my books, I received the inspiration from a dare. In this case, it was a prompt from dear friend, Cameron Pierce, who has published five of my books. He posted a year a go or so on Facebook a bunch of comedic prompts, one being “Jiro: Dreams of Sushi where all Jiro does is dream because he failed to be a sushi chef.” I took the prompt to heart, being a big fan of the documentary and Jiro Ono (watched the doc 41 times).
I first met Jiro at the grand opening of a Manhattan restaurant. I don’t remember the name of the place, because remembering names of streets, establishments, and even people had become the least of my concerns. I had been wandering the city most weekends, when work no longer cushioned me from the loneliness nestled in every thought and gesture. People all around me, within arm’s reach, a wave, a single word spoken could be all I needed to be freed from it. A solution so plain as day yet why did I only feel the need to actually connect with a person at night?
Nights were the most miserable, sleep thwarting my every attempt to pull myself under. I drank and I took pills, did what normally a person did to black out, deny threat of the outside world, but I would still be awake. If I drank, I’d end up feeling worse, migraine and the sort of nausea that left me on the floor, cradling the toilet, too afraid to walk away because I could throw up again, always crept up with little notice. If it were pills, I would end up in a partial state, somewhere between sedated and completely lucid. I’d find myself staring at a wall, off into space, gazing with eyes glazed over, as the very thing I feared made itself known.
I tried everything. When you’re without any other solution, you fight the feeling by keeping on the move. You walk and walk and walk because somehow the thought that you might find something keeps the anxiety at bay. You see it chasing after, always the thought that you might see someone you know, someone might recognize you, the entire thing crashing down on you.
So I started walking the city. I walked until I sweat through my clothes and I continued to walk until I could feel the ache in my knees, my back, my feet. And then I’d walk some more.
The details don’t matter. Everything takes on a malleable shape. The buildings all blur together, seldom anything that catches the eye. The crowded streets become impediments, and averting your gaze, making sure to never make eye contact, becomes easier with every consecutive block. People left me alone. Maybe I did a good job of looking like I needed to be somewhere; maybe I just looked the part: lonesome, disheartened, a person out of options.
That afternoon, or really, early evening, I couldn’t be sure the exact time, but I usually started walking in the morning, deep in Brooklyn, Atlantic Ave all the way up, over the Manhattan Bridge because there were less people on it, more room to be left alone, and the view of the city compromised by the train passing, shaking the entire bridge, made so much sense to me. You glimpse beauty at the same exact moment you grasp how everything is broken and it’s okay that it all seems impossible. The bridge spits you out near the Bowery, with its garbage smell and the first time I am tempted to stop and look, Chinatown not too far from here. It reminds me of a different time, when I first moved to the city, when everything was fresh, new, and the writing came easy. Too bad it was never any good.
I walked a brisk pace, fast enough to trick myself into believing I have somewhere to be. Anyone else, well I relied on my imagination to fool the world, and hopefully myself. Might as well use it for something. I hadn’t written in months. Everything I put to the page I erased. Every single concept I pursued, like any connection to the outside world, soured the moment I entrusted myself to its ideas, every attribute something I wanted not only to commit to memory but also know deep down, to the bottom of my heart.
The writing withdrew more with every passing day. I wrote pages about not being able to write, directed to nobody. I wrote notes into my phone, pretending it would be for the novel, the book, the script, the whatever-the-fuck I was “working on.”
What’s my “work-in-progress?” I would have settled for progress, any progress at all.
I hadn’t a clue what (and where) the work had gone. If I didn’t walk, I would wallow in my room, lights off, headphones on, a movie playing back muted, as I would drift and ride that slipstream of jagged thought and tender memory.
Sometimes I would catch myself crying, a silent swell, tears trickling down without notice. Sometimes I would catch myself talking to people on social media, words of encouragement and flattery all my own, given freely to the other person just so that they wouldn’t go, wouldn’t stop talking to me.
Most of the time I walked like I was a searching for a dream long since lost.
I walked like someone that had no purpose, looking only ahead, in hopes that something would undercut me and force me to know its every quality.
I can’t be sure why I stopped to check out the grand opening. An authentic Japanese culinary experience, the restaurant must have hired the right kind of publicist because the line wrapped around the block. That’s probably what it was—the line.
No matter what you did to try to pass, there were guards and other things in the way, a barricade here, what looked like someone with a camera filming something nearer to the front of the line, I didn’t want any part of it. I loitered somewhere near the middle, not in the line itself, but amongst the onlookers standing on the opposite side of the barricade.
All around me, I heard gossip, the murmurs, the hype. Apparently, it was a much-anticipated event, the place founded by a master sushi chief from Tokyo. The chef had carved out his own following back home and had set his sights worldwide. That meant New York City. That meant Leipzig. That meant the sound of a future chain, a corporate brand being built to maximize hysteria and revenue. That also meant it caught the interest of people like me, who had no interest in the culinary arts, much less the ability to cook.
I listened to applause from the front of the line, something happening, but like everything lately, I had no interest in being a part of the passion. I had lost mine somewhere along the way and didn’t feel as though I deserved to feast on the passion of others.
We all wake up every day.
In those first conscious moments is the most important act of all: the choice to align and continue. The act alone might be impossible, because in bed, in between the sheets, you can hide only for so long, but out in the open, naked and in the shower, suited up and walking the street, you are judged. And I could feel their judging eyes on the back of my neck. Standing motionless in a dense crowd, I could sense I was nonsense to those around me.
Out of place—body and clothes inappropriate and smelling of sweat—or maybe I just wanted a reason to turn away and keep walking.
It is so much easier to walk away than to stick around and commit.
I asked the person next to me a question, not sure what I managed to come up with, but it was likely something easy, like “what’s happening here?” The person gave me the shrewdest of glances, a once-over that started with staring at me and then through me and culminated with a brusque reply: “The best sushi you’ll ever have. It’ll melt right in your mouth.”
Then she turned back to the crowd, the event in progress. I don’t really know why but the way she said it confused me.
What progress had I made? What really was I doing, in this moment, today, tomorrow, in work and in life? I guess the interaction reminded me of my worthlessness. It triggered within me everything I had fought so hard, walked such long distances, to ignore and forget.
I didn’t know what else to say so I said nothing. I stood in line, a silent and withdrawn observer, letting every negative feeling win me over, until soon I heard nothing but silence. The chaos and excitement surrounding me eclipsed like what happens as dusk approaches, the color spectrum darkening and fading just as the weather itself, cools down, a cue to everyone capable to slow their breathing, exhale, and let go of the day.
The day abandons you, the night consumes you.
I had been consumed—all around me I wanted to trade spots with any one of the faces, I wanted to look forward into the future and know, in my heart, there was much to look forward to.
The crowd passed me over and soon I was at the end of the block, street corner staring nowhere in particular. I heard voices, or rather one, a man with deep yet raspy tenor, the accent undeniable, but what careened over every chortle was the manner with which he spoke of, well, anything. The sincerity of each sentence caught me off guard. He spoke as though there was never a doubt what he said could be wrong, could be defeated and compromised by the opinions of others.
I don’t know why I did what I did.
It wasn’t like me to, without hesitation, strike up a conversation with a stranger. He wasn’t the founder of the restaurant, nor was he a man of passion. Rather, he was like me, caught in the orbit of others. The difference is when someone looked through him, negating his very being, he looked right back and made sure to leave an impression, one you wouldn’t soon forget.
This is how I first met Jiro.
I would meet him again, plain as day, months later. And a year from now, after finishing this book, in these pages, I would meet Jiro, long after we had grown apart.