It was one of those pea-soup nights in which San Francisco specializes, the air thick with a mixture of fog and drizzle. I saw her from across the restaurant, waving me over to the table, which was surrounded by women. There were 12 chairs in a space that could comfortably seat 10, and one seat was empty.
I stole a couple of glances around the table while I unloaded my muffler, raincoat, and the large leather tote bag that held the remnants of my lunch and the stack of papers I needed to grade over the weekend. I stuffed the bag under the table, realizing there was no place for it between the chairs and I would have to fight it with my feet through dinner.
Of course, as soon as I pushed it under the table, it tipped over and I saw the uneaten tangerine from lunch roll out toward the feet of the woman across from me. So, rather gracelessly, I crawled under the table to retrieve it. I was there, on my hands and knees, surrounded by a circle of black leather shoes, when I heard Teresa introducing me. “And this is my friend Sasha, who I’ve known since college. Sasha? Where’d you go?” Startled and trying to get out from under the table quickly, I bumped the back of my head on the underside, hearing the glasses rattle above me.
I kept crawling backwards, and finally, the woman next to me stood, moved the two chairs out of the way, and offered me her hand. I clambered to my feet, blowing my hair out of my eyes, and mumbled a quick “hello” to the group. All of their eyes were focused on me, and while most of them smiled, none of them dared laugh. I, self consciously, tried not to make eye contact with any of them.
“So,” one of the women asked jovially, probably in an attempt to break the tension, “are you one of Teresa’s old college flames?”
“What? No,” I stammered. “We’ve never… I’ve never… I mean, I don’t…. I just lived in the same dorm.”
“Sasha’s straight,” Teresa said.
I felt my face get red and hot.
Most of the women went back to talking amongst themselves, now completely disinterested in me as a newcomer. Teresa smiled at me comfortingly.
I looked around the table. I didn’t know anyone else there.
I guessed that most of the women were friends of her from the lesbian community, or from her new job working for a local women’s non-profit.
When she’d called last week to invite me, I had tried to decline.
“Oh I don’t know. Will it really be my crowd?”
“They’re all nice, friendly women. You’ll have a good time.”
“Tell me the truth, Teresa. Are they all gay?”
“Well, a couple might be bi. I haven’t asked. But for the most part, yeah.”
“Crap. Do you know any straight people? Am I your one token?”
“Sasha, I really want you there. Please tell me you’ll come…”
“Oh, alright. I’ll see you there.”
So that’s how I came to be in a steamy Japanese restaurant, elbow to elbow with a table load of lesbians.
I took a long sip of my ice water and waited for my face to cool off.
The woman to my left leaned over and said softly into my ear: “We don’t bite, you know.”
I dove back into my ice water for another gulp and choked as I swallowed. I coughed and sputtered, covering my mouth with one hand while I felt around for a napkin with the other. The woman unfolded my napkin and handed it to me, patting me on the back as I wheezed my way through the last of my coughing fit.
“Hey, there. Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry I made you choke.”
She look genuinely concerned.
“I’m okay now,” I said.
“I’m glad.” She left her hand in the middle of my back. “Be happy that happened with water and not with sake. Here, let me pour you some.” She reached for a large bottle of sake.
“Oh, no thank you. Really. Sake and I don’t get along well.”
“Have you ever tried chilled sake? This isn’t like the warm stuff, which tastes like gym socks to me. This is premium. This one is sort of light and melon-y. It’s called ‘The Mirror of Truth’. I kid you not.”
She poured some in my glass.
“It’s just that sake…” I couldn’t finish the sentence although she waited for me. “Never mind.”
I took a sip of the sake and felt the warmth in my throat and then the familiar hardening of my nipples. That was what I couldn’t say, that for some mysterious reason, sake makes my nipples stiff. I crossed my arms across my chest, immediately regretting the thin, blue sweater I had changed into after work.
“Cold?” she asked.
“No, I’m fine. Really.” I kept my arms crossed, waiting for my chest to relax.
“What do you think?”
“Of the sake?”
“Oh, it’s good. Very good.” Uncrossing one arm, I reached for my glass and took another sip.
“I’m Elin,” she said. She turned toward me and held out her right hand to shake mine, but as I dropped my arm, she accidentally brushed her wrist along my still-protruding left nipple and I flinched.
“Whoops. I’m so sorry,” she said, never losing eye contact.
“Sasha,” I said, taking her hand.
“I remember. I helped you out from under the table.”
I only blushed a little that time.
Someone put a plate of sushi down in front of us, slices of dark pink fish gleaming on top of little mounds of rice. She reached out with the butt end of her chopsticks. “Sushi?”
“Oh, no. I can’t. I don’t eat raw fish.”
“Well that’s a darn shame,” she said, and put the piece of sushi on my plate anyway. “Have you ever?”
“No. It’s never sounded appealing to me. I was going to hold out for some tempura.”
“Just give it a try. You might like it.”
She showed me how to mix the wasabi into the soy sauce, demonstrating with her own bowl. I took a good-sized sip of the cold sake before venturing a tiny bite.
The rice was warm and little bit sweet and sticky. The fish was cold and firm. It barely tasted fishy. I hate to sound so corny, but it was like an ocean breeze.
“Oh, that’s good,” I said. “It’s really good.” I popped the last of the piece into my mouth.
As she reached for the bottle of sake to refill our glasses, I noticed a tattoo on her right forearm. It was Japanese kanji in dark green ink.
“What does that say?” I asked.
“You don’t read Japanese?” Her voice took on a teasing tone.
“Then I suppose you’ll have to wait to know,” she said.
I could tell she was flirting with me, but I didn’t care. The sake was working its magic, and I was finally warming to the dinner party and starting to enjoy myself. Elin was a chivalrous dinner companion, passing me food and offering to refill my glass as we made small talk with the women around us.
There were the usual exchanges: How everybody knew each other, where we’d gone to school, what we do for a living.
“What grade do you teach?” Elin asked.
“I teach college English,” I said, “the basic stuff, and one class in poetry this semester.”
A plate of grilled mushrooms was passed to me. I offered them to Elin and she helped herself to a few before holding the plate, in turn, for me.
“These are good,” she said. “I love robata.”
I must have looked quizzical.
“Grill,” she said. “Robata is a style of Japanese grilling.”
“What did you say you do?” I asked.
“I’m a culinary student,” she said. “I’m nearly finished with my program and hoping to become a chef soon.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I can barely cook a thing.”
“And you call yourself straight,” she said, smiling.
She swished one of the shitake mushrooms into a dark dipping sauce and held it out with her chopsticks. “Here,” she said, “open up.”
I saw Teresa watching me from the end of the table and she widened her eyes in mock horror as I opened my mouth and allowed Elin to feed me. The mushroom was warm and rich and meaty, wrapped in the sweet, gingery sauce.
“Wow, ” I said. “That may be the best mushroom I’ve ever eaten”
“It tastes so… earthy. I guess that’s the best way I could describe it.”
Elin leaned over and said, quietly, “Umami.”
“Umami?” I said.
She nodded again. “Umami.”
I raised my eyebrows as a question.
“In Japanese cuisine, there is a fifth recognized flavor… beyond sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. It’s called umami, which means simply ‘delicious food,’ and it’s the rich, warm flavor found in things like soy sauce, and meat, and parmesan cheese… and mushrooms. It’s why chefs use meat stock to make sauces taste richer.”
“Umami,” I said in agreement.
The sake was making me feel pliable and I leaned into her a little, aware of our thighs pressing together under the table. It felt good. Really good.
“Besides,” she said, putting her arm conspiratorially over my shoulder and leaning into me, “I’ve always thought that shitake mushrooms taste like girls.”
“No kidding?” I giggled, feeling a little bolder. “You mean to say that umami is the taste of…?”
I felt her lips brush my left ear as she barely breathed the word: “Pussy”.
I met her rock-solid gaze.
“Have you spent enough time looking into ‘The Mirror of Truth’?” she asked.
“I think so.”
We paid our part of the bill and left the restaurant aware that the others were watching us go. Teresa’s mouth, although upturned at the corners, was hanging open in mock amazement.
The next morning I sat, cross-legged, on Elin’s cotton futon and accepted a steaming cup of jasmine tea.
“Now will you tell me what the tattoo on your arm says?” I asked.
“It says ‘delicious food’,” she said, and took a sip of tea. Then she smiled around her tea cup.
Read more about umami here.