Chicken à la King can be a declaration of love. That’s how it was for Sean that Saturday, when he got up early to measure the interior dimensions of his toaster oven.
He rolled his futon and bedding and tucked it into the cupboard. He shorts and tee-shirts were folded in neat piles in the drawer above. He got dressed, slung his largest backpack over his shoulders and walked to the Keihan train station. He rode a commuter train to Kyoto and paid an exorbitant price for an imported can of Campbell’s mushroom soup and a box of Bisquick.
Sean tromped around department stores – Takashimaya, Loft, Isetan – searching for a right-sized pyrex baking dish. When he found a contender, he consulted his little notebook to double check the measurements. Perfect fit. He crossed it off the list with a flourish. Score!
Napkins, candles, and just enough room in his backpack for the fresh ingredients, which he shopped for at the local supermarket on his way home.
Cleaning his postage-stamp apartment didn’t take long. He listened to KISS while he swept and tidied. Sean showered then sprayed down the bathroom’s acrylic walls, ceiling and floor with the shower wand. He put out a fresh towel and placed his Nintendo Gameboy back on top of the toilet tank. His Tetris skills sometimes kept him in the bathroom longer than was strictly necessary.
He ironed a Balinese sarong and draped it over the kotatsu table. Laid out napkins, dishes and cutlery. Fit two tumblers into the tiny fridge.
Sean chopped celery, onion, and chicken. Sautéed them. Things were smelling good. He made the biscuit dough, singing as he worked, “I was made for lovin’ you, baby…”
Sean opened up the soup, then slammed the can down on the counter. Oh shit. Jess hates mushrooms…
He wished for a sieve but made do with a fork as he painstakingly removed every bit of the offending fungus from the gray soup base. He stirred a little milk into the can, combined everything and then sprinkled some thyme over it to mask the mushroom taste. He placed the biscuits on top, and brushed them with an egg wash so they’d come out golden. He put the dish into the oven and left the apartment to buy two large cans of Kirin beer from the vending machine on the street.
Sean Tetris-ed the beer into the fridge, fitting one can horizontally where the eggs had been. He peeked into the oven: All good. Jess would be there soon. He changed the CD to the Cowboy Junkies 200 Miles. A birthday gift Jess had lucked into at Tsutaya.
“Imagine! Finding this Canadian gem in Japan!!!” she’d written on the card. That’s how Sean felt about meeting her. He lit the candle and a stick of cherry blossom incense.
Sweet Jane was playing when Jess walked in, and she came through the door singing,
“…heavenly wine and roses seem to whisper to me, when you smile…”
She grinned, “Smells yummy in here.” She touched his shoulder and nodded toward the candle-lit table. “This is really nice.”
Sean pulled Jess close and kissed her. A tippy-toes kiss. He stood on his tip-toes and she felt it in hers.
Sean poured her a glass of beer, then one for himself. They sat on the apartment floor, at the low kotatsu table, talking. Then the toaster oven dinged and Sean jumped up to check the meal Jess watched him. “Hey, where’d you get that dish?” she asked. Sean beamed.
He served their dinner in blue ceramic rice bowls, each with a golden biscuit on top. Not only did the food look and smell delicious, it felt like home.
“Itadakimasu” Sean said. He bowed low and held his bowl out for Jess to clink against hers. Jess laughed as their bowls tapped together, “Cheers, you clown.”
Then she took her first bite.
Oh my God, there’s mushroom soup in this.
She fought her gag reflex and tried not to let her face show the struggle. She looked around the apartment, saw all the effort Sean had put into making this meal special. She stared into the candle flame and remembered Sean’s trick for walking past Osaka’s open sewer grates: Seal your nasal passage and breathe slowly through your mouth.
She took a sip of beer, sealed her nasal passage and breathed through her mouth with every bite.
“Wow,” she said, “Delicious. Thank you.”
Chicken à la King can be a declaration of love