December 19, 2008

The broth bubbles happily boiling away in the savory herbal smell. I place my chopsticks into the water and “swish-swish” the meat is done. I dip the thin slice into the soy and satay sauce, and steamy hot, I put it into my mouth.

It is almost too hot, but the flash-cooked flavor running with the salt-soy on my tongue is almost too much and I chew in the heat in my mouth. It is heaven to eat so well.

I am alone, so there is no one to make me feel as though I should pick tofu next, nor bok choy, not mushroom or vegetable. Just sirloin. I gently caress the edge of the once frozen meat so only one slice folds itself onto my chopsticks. Once more, “swish-swish” in the happy broth and it is done. Another mouthful of gastronomical heaven.

For those of you who have never had shabu-shabu, you are really missing something. The closest I can describe it is a Chinese fondue. Yes, the name is Japanese, in Chinese it is called “huo guo,” and its roots are Mongolian as a fast way for Ghengis Khan’s men to cook food but it was always a special dinner in my family reserved for holidays, so it isd Chinese to me. We ate it at New Year’s and gatherings.

Sukiyaki, hot pot, shabu-shabu, huo guo, fondue doesn’t even compare. In a savory fondue, you have a cheese or an oil pot into which you dip food into, and the concept is to coat and cook with the food being the key.

In shabu-shabu the soul of the meal is in the broth. It is a complex mix of herbs and spices that only improves with each addition of vegetable and each dip of meat. At the end of the meal, your broth is so savory, that when you throw in the noodles to absorb all the liquid, that the dish is almost a meal onto itself.

The experience takes hours and half the point of the meal is to talk with friends or family as you eat delicate slices of beef, or lamb, or pork or fish, never filling up too soon, and having time to slow down the days into civilized intimacy.

To have shabu-shabu by oneself is an indulgence that is almost an affront to the social nature of the meal; and to ignore the balance of vegetable and meat; to consume slice after slice of beef with such abandon? Well, something must be up.

To be honest, I was feeling alone and a touch melancholy when I started the day. Everyone else had things to do and places to be. I normally put forth a positive face and go about getting things done in a productive way. But today. Today, I let myself indulge in that lonely little place all of us have, that spot of regret or hurt or doubt or wonder of what might have been. It is a slippery slope, to open such cans and let loose such cats; but I needed it and wanted to feel what it meant to be wistful again, poignant in memories best forgotten and thoughts best unbidden.

Remember what it was like to be alone; between dates and all the time between contact with someone else that you forgot to drown your loneliness in beer or syrup? Remember the way it was to want and dream, to yearn in bittersweet angst? When she would walk by and you were too tongue-tied to say a word. To cross paths day after day and imagine in the night what it would be like to sit together, hold hands, and let the spell play out and consume you both?

I indulge in the bittersweet because I know that in an hour, we will be laughing with friends, meeting with family, sharing stories and making memories – being “on.” Being “on.”

I live for this moment in quiet, in this gossamer veil of privacy, alone in my thoughts remembering loves lost and never had.

Back when skin had no wrinkle, no vinegar in the will, no ache in the bone, and no sorrow in the heart, just a dull ache of loneliness and wistfulness that seemed so important and interminable at the time.

To indulge in the memory is to take that frozen moment swish it in the broth and experience every emotion that memory will allow.

The uncolored richness of youthful lips; her brown eyes, black eyelashes, deep pools that would crinkle into laughter – I have no idea if that joy has left lines around her eyes today.

I sit next to her and remember what it was like to have her glance my way in passing, that moment of excitement when a stranger makes eye-contact with you and you have a moment of curiosity, and a time of true understanding.

I know, it is almost always in your head and nothing ever comes of it, but it is fun to imagine.

That day something changed and we ended up talking and laughing and sitting on a bench in the park ruefully wondering why this hadn’t come to pass before. It makes my eyes sting just to think about it.

It is the oddest most obscure memory that touches you the most. A yellow leaf had fallen on my shoulder. She brushed it away with a fleeting hand and a wistful smile.

It doesn’t matter if there was a kiss, a glance, or a touch I can’t remember because it is not that moment I think of. It is a yellow leaf, a fleck of glitter on her cheek, and the brushing of my shoulder.

It would be easy to stay here and eat, but I am past my red meat quota already and I put my noodles in my pot and let them wallow soaking up the broth and the flavors.I am too full to finish, so I take it home.

In the crisp air outside, I pass a family and a little girl in the arms of her father makes eye contact with me. It is just a glance and I feel as though she can see to my soul, that she can tell I am thinking of younger days. It is just a glance reflecting what I am feeling, all in my imagination, the slippery slope of indulgence.

I am rescued hours later by dinner and family guests. I come in the door an the smells of the holidays fill the air. I see my daughter setting the table and my son playing with his grandfather. I find my wife in the kitchen preparing dinner with onion on her hand and flour in her hair. She turns from the counter to the stove.

I ask her if I can do anything to help. She looks at me with her brown eyes and black lashes and her eyes crinkle in a smile. I wouldn’t be able to tell you if she had a single laugh line around her eyes.

The pot burbles merrily and the savory herbal broth fills the room. The swish-swish of the meat and the nearly too hot bite in the mouth I have lonely noodles in the fridge but the here and now are sublime.