There’s something about the constant beeping of cash registers, and the variety of goods stocked perfectly on tightly spaced shelves that makes Jason feel so serene. Today, his goal is to give back to the woman that has given so much to him. His mother wasn’t the most joyous person over his life choices. Yet, after striking out of culinary school, and through his struggle with alcohol and mental health issues, she was there. Now, a full year sober, it’s time to make right by her.
By the time he’s reached the lines to pay, he does another check to make sure everything was in the cart. A message from his mom’s day time caretaker, Gabby, pings his phone.
“Jay… out of soy sauce can you get?”
After confirming, and backtracking to grab a bottle he finds himself further down the line. By the time he makes it out of H Mart, it’s 3:22 in the afternoon. Jason unlocks his phone to see that the next train from Grand Central to Tuckahoe, the closest train station to his home in Yonkers leaves in eighteen minutes. Surprised, he does a double take. There’s only 17 minutes left now. The station is at least a 20 minute walk. Jay darts down the street. Sprinting under scaffolding, weaving around walkers, and getting yelled at by unaware pedestrians are no difficult tasks for a seasoned New Yorker. He cuts into Fifth Avenue. Four lanes of one-way traffic, hordes of tourists, and want-to-be influencers are just obstacles on the street. He jukes, jumps, dips, dodges, but nonetheless makes it to the station. Running saved him at least five minutes. He gets to the train car and just barely slides in before the announcer warns of the closing doors. Relief spreads across his body as sweat beads down his forhead; sprinting a mile to Grand Central Station in a puffy jacket will do that to you. He looks down to find his two bags stretched from swinging like the pendulum of an awfully fast grandfather clock. The conductor comes by to check tickets; Jason is prepared with his in hand. He mentally checks out, daydreaming to make the ride home bearable.
He dreams of a time years ago. Before dropping out, even before the pandemic of 2020. He’s just a boy waking up in the middle of the night. Jason walks onto the cold, wood floor following a scent. He walks past the family pictures in the hallway, to the kitchen, almost floating as if it were carrying him to the source. His mother is standing by the stove stirring a pot of soup, tasting it every so often.
“Na-nay… What is that smell?”
“It’s Guk, Jason. Galbi-tang, a Korean soup. It’s good for you, makes you stronger when you’re weak.”
Jason can’t help but revel in the sensory overload.
“So, it’s not Filipino?”
Jason’s mother shakes her head in disagreement.
“No, Jason. Your grandfather taught me this dish. I make it, and I think of him… There’s onion, radish, scallions, garlic, black peppercorns, soy sauce, and tender short rib. It’s been simmering for hours now, so the meat is so soft. Here, I want you to try it.”
She dips the ladle into the soup, scrapes the bottom of it on the edge of the pot, and brings it down to Jason’s mouth. He can’t believe how good it smells. He blows on the soup to cool it down and goes in for the sip.
Jason wakes up to a buzzing notification on his phone letting him know to get off at the next stop. He can nearly taste the soup in his mouth, even if it is just the essence of a memory. He gets off the train and makes his way to his rundown car. The back bumper hanging on by a few clips. A constant reminder that he’s broke and a bad driver. He makes the 10-minute drive home. The roads are lined with half melted snow, dirtied from being scraped off the asphalt. The difference between New York City and Yonkers is night and day. The city of dreams versus the town of reality. Nonetheless, they both stand frozen in the Northern air. On the way there, he sees the local high school lacrosse team practicing in a field. Jason was a prime prospect to play goalie. His broad yet, condensed frame made him an ideal player to stop any attempts to score. If it weren’t for his mom keeping him from playing after his concussion, there is no telling where he would be today.
He finally parks his car in the driveway and steadily walks up the old and slippery wooden steps to the front door, ingredients in hand. The entrance into his house includes a closet with a shoe rack on one side, and a narrow table with a mirror above it on the other. The runner points into the living room with untouched leather couches and an untuned piano. There’s a den parallel to the front door. The den where Jason once played with toys as a boy and avoided as a teen, now holds a hospital bed that his mother spends day and night on. Gabby is packing up her things before leaving for the evening. She passes Jason on the way out.
“How’s she doing?”
“Okay lang. All day she talked about your dad, and how she wishes she could dance with your father again.”
They exchange weak smiles. Jason never got to know his dad. All he knows of him are from stories that were told on All Saint’s Day. His family used to be so active then, but over the years they just stopped visiting New York.
“Her cough suppressant is on her bedside, make sure she takes it before she sleeps okay?”
Jason agrees and holds the door for her as she heads out. Jason heads over to his mom.
“Nay… How are you nay? I got all the ingredients to make you something special tonight. Just wait okay? I want it to be a surprise.”
His mom begins to respond before she starts coughing. Jason drops his bags and jumps over to his mom to rub her back and hold her hand.
“Nay, it’s okay. Just rest.” She kisses his hand and he walks back to the kitchen.
Jason makes his way past the stairs to the kitchen. He pulls out a knife, a cutting board, a stock pot, and places them next to the rest of the ingredients. Jason boils the meat to create the base for the soup. It simmers with chopped vegetables and spices. By the time the soup finishes the only light in the kitchen is the one above the stove. The smell fills the air and travels around the house. He lifts off the top and a plume of steam erupts. Jason couldn’t be any more excited. He dips a spoon into the stock. It’s slightly brown but still very much transparent. The first taste is met with disappointment. It’s just not the same; he’s left unsatisfied. He tastes again but, he can’t put his finger on it. The soy sauce is sitting in the plastic bag, new and still wrapped. He slaps his forehead in disbelief; how could something so essential be forgotten! He removes the wrapper and places a swirl of soy sauce into the soup. Jason covers it back up and lets it simmer for another half hour. After setting a timer on his phone and putting in some earbuds, he sits head down at the dining table patiently waiting for the time to pass. His eyes shoot open to the loud alarm blaring in his ears and hurries to the pot. His tasting spoon at the ready, but again it’s unfulfilling. Something is still missing, so he puts a little bit of the broth into a bowl and brings it to his mom to taste. Her room is dark, it has to be close to midnight, but Jason doesn’t realize it. The smell brings his mom out of a light sleep.
“Nay, I made your favorite soup. I want you to taste it. I just can’t figure out what’s lacking.”
His mom is barely awake but is able to give a response between coughs,
“Jay, it’s late already. Save some for me for tomorrow okay? Put it in the fridge, you should never waste good food.”
Jason complies and sets the soup down on the side table. The cough medicine stares back at him; he pours the syrup into the cup and gets her to swallow the dose. He drapes a blanket over her and up to her shoulders. The space heater is in the corner of the room, threatening to sound an alarm the moment it’s a degree off balance. The knob on top activates the coils and they begin to glow, a slight burning odor dissipates into the room. With the bowl of soup in one hand and his mother’s in the other, he takes a seat at the edge of the bed. The room around them tells countless stories of their home. Birthday parties and family gatherings that once captivated the room seem so distant now.
“Good night Nay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She softly holds his hand between hers before letting him go. He puts her bowl of soup into the fridge, and lets the pot cool down before putting it into the fridge too. At this point it’s close to 2 am. Jason slowly makes his way upstairs to sleep the night away, he whispers goodnight before turning off the lights.
Jason wakes up and it’s close to midday. Gabby is rocking him awake. She’s sniffling and calling on him to wake up. Finally, up and coherent, Gabby says the words Jason has been dreading to hear for months.
“Your mom Jay. She’s⎯ she’s gone.”
Every memory he shared with her is now exclusive to him. Every “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” now muted. Still in yesterday’s attire, he hurries downstairs. She’s there, laying on her back with her hands intertwined on her chest. There’s a tightness forming in his. The thought of being alone is now a reality. This is his childhood home, but the innocence has faded. For months after her diagnosis, he built walls to protect himself. This moment was inevitable, yet no amount of preparation can get someone ready for this. Each brick slowly tumble down exposing Jason barren and vulnerable. His arms envelop her with repentance for years of timidness.
By the time Jay returns home from the funeral his mailbox is bulging from various student loan companies warning about their calls to collect. He untucks his shirt and undoes the top button after loosening his tie, removing his shoes at the door looking defeated. He’s followed inside by Gabby. They walk in and pass the empty room parallel to the entrance hall. He can’t help but stop and stare into the void. It’s almost like every movie night and family gathering never happened there. The once lively events now shadowed and forgotten. Gabby puts her hand on his shoulder and picks at the pilling fabric.
“Let's go into the kitchen Jay, you need to eat.”
It’s been a day and a half since Jason last ate, but he doubts anything can fill the hole within him. The fridge is desolate. Among the only things left is the stock pot and bowl for his mom. The soup that was once so important to him, now sits idle and cold. In the back of the fridge is a can of beer. There’s no telling how old. No one has drank in this house for months. He reaches into the fridge and his hand strays towards the can. The words of his mother echo in his head, “You should never waste good food.” He takes out the bowl he saved for her and puts it into a pot to boil, adding a serving for himself. After transferring the soup into a thermos, he places it into a bag with a set of bowls and spoons. He drives back to the graveyard where nanay was just buried. The sun refused to shine through the bare tree branches. Music on the radio turned to static. Sidewalks were lonely and store fronts seemed nearly abandoned. Yonkers is reduced to a stale, and dreary place. The grass crunches beneath his feet as one is placed after the other on the way to nanay’s space. After unpacking the bag, he pours out soup into each bowl, making sure to include a chunk of spare rib and some vegetables. He sits and drinks his soup with the other bowl in front of the headstone. There’s no crying or conversations. Just silently eating, like how dinner often was with his mom. The soup is different. It’s perfect, all the flavors are collectively there. The broth is rich and deeply colored yet somehow still clear, green onions spot the surface. Each sip brings back a memory with his mom, it makes him laugh or sniffle, warming him between shivers. Soon enough, he reaches the bottom of the bowl. For Jason, it’s hope, because he knows he’ll never truly be without his mom. She’s there in the moments they shared. After a bleak and sorrowful winter, the colorful world he once knew, is beginning to bloom once again. He places his bowl back into the bag with the thermos, getting back on his feet. The way her name was cut into the stone next to his dad’s seems so deep. Nothing is said for a while. He breaks his silence by quietly speaking with a cracking voice.
“Thank you, nay. I’ll see you later.”
He walks away. The other bowl of soup stayed by the headstone, the steam slowly fading into the air.
- Raphael Ofendo Reyes
I took a creative writing class last Fall and I didn't consider writing a piece on Asian culture until we were assigned Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. I don't know if I felt validation, or recognized, but I wanted to help other people feel the same way. I also wrote this because I love to cook, especially for my loved ones. Sometimes I can't always talk out exactly how I'm feeling and cooking does all the talking for me.
Biography: Raphael was born in the Philippines and lived there until his family moved to South Carolina when he was three. He lived most of life in SC on the coast before moving to the State's capitol, Columbia, for college. He studies public health and political science and hopes to continue paving the way for Asian Americans in SC as the first program coordinator for the SC Commission for Minority Affair's AAPI Affairs Division.
Cover Photo Source: https://dribbble.com/tags/asian_food