Hank Teraoka looked around the Middle Eastern restaurant filled with the smells of curry. He felt uncomfortable in the dark room, sitting next to the curtained window and fingering the one-page plastic menu. He couldn’t help but catch glimpses of heavy brows, the cook’s black eyes staring from the kitchen, at him—a Japanese man in his eighties. Hank didn’t understand anything on the menu. Not the luncheon special—Shahi Korma? But it was cheap, a plate lunch for only $7.95 with something called basmati rice, which to his mind should be Calrose or Nikko sticky white rice.
He had asked for the corner table where the light was brightest, where he and Teru had sat only nine months ago. Even then, he felt the two of them had been out of place—his wife’s Mariner sweatshirt zipped up tight against the cold. They had stopped at this restaurant because they’d always passed it on their way home from her kidney dialysis session. The background music with its lazy beat and quivery stringed instruments hadn’t mattered then.
Hank lay the menu down against the bright orange tablecloth, picked up the water goblet and took a sip. He half expected to see his wife’s short white hair, the weight of her head tipping her chin down and making her look sleepy. Everything without Teru was a first time.
The technicians at Day Vista Dialysis Center had hugged him, patting his back, when he brought the four boxes of Hawaii’s Best chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. “For taking such good care of my wife,” he had whispered, hoping his voice didn’t sound shaky—too emotional. At least there would be no more needles, no more tubes with dark red blood flowing in and out of the fistula in Teru’s left arm. She had never sat still, wanting to hurry up and go home. So many times when the technicians had been busy, he stood in, applying pressure with gauze squares to stop the bleeding. His fingers had grown stiff, their joints getting stuck. Finished for the day, she had always been hungry.
“We have to try something new,” Teru had told him. Hank could tell by the sound of her voice that we meant you. He’d always been happy with a nice steak and green onions dipped into a small mound of salt. “So bad,” she used to shake her head at him. “No wonder you have high blood pressure.”
The dialysis people had told her, no tomatoes! Eat lots of vegetables and protein. And after Teru’s last session, they had stopped at the strip mall. Here, where they saw the sign: “Cedars Restaurant.” Right now, it bothered Hank—why couldn’t he remember her order? All he could think of was that the lunch had been something green.
And then the waiter was by Hank’s side, a white sleeve stained with a swipe of yellow. What he wanted was Teru’s special teriyaki sauce, a meaty drumstick that Hank could dig his teeth into. He wanted the familiar ketchup taste with sugar and shoyu. Teru hadn’t made anything good since she started the dialysis treatments every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She said it was easier to eat out. Teru had liked letting the menu be a surprise. Once she had ordered crepes wrapped in lettuce with a shallow dipping dish on the side filled with an oily-looking vinaigrette. They had been at a Vietnamese restaurant. Bending forward, she had murmured: “Ooo, that looks different!” But Hank was always looking for something he could recognize: beef, chicken, fish.
The waiter, trying to be patient, clutched his order pad; the stubby pencil was poised to write. Hank had been sitting for at least fifteen minutes, and there were a dozen tables with business suits and student backpacks to wait on during the lunch rush.
“This,” Hank said, finally pointing at random.
“Vindaloo?” the waiter asked.
Hank nodded his head vigorously to keep from mispronouncing the word. At least there had been pictures at the Thai place. With Teru, he had tried Jamaican, Greek, and Creole. “Where do you want to go next,” he had groaned. At home, alone now, all he had to look forward to was a can of Vienna sausages or deviled ham.
Steam rose from the tray the waiter carried to his table. As the bowl was placed in front of him, Hank felt the spices sting his sinuses as he inhaled garlic and chili. Even his eyes teared up, and he had to dab at his nose with the paper napkin. Blinking hard, Hank picked up the spoon, waiting a moment to stare at the pork and potatoes swimming in a brown liquid. Teru always said, the first taste was the strangest, the most unfamiliar. Hank gulped the red wine and vinegar broth down. He could feel the heat travel past his tongue, the back of his throat. He could feel the slow burn along his esophagus. It reached into his chest. Nodding his head, Hank took a second bite. This mouthful was the same as a lot of other new foods he had eaten. He’d be able to manage finishing about half a portion. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.