Family Recipe
Family Recipe

Panoramic chaos in my kitchen was not what I had been anticipating seeing after a long day at work. The walls and cupboards were smeared with unidentifiable substances. The refrigerator door was ajar, with its former contents spread haphazardly across the floor. The microwave was open, revealing a suspicious-smelling melted object of some sort draped across its plate, while smoke was curling up from the machine in apparently random places. And then there was the stove...

Dropping my bag, I dashed straight over to the flaming pot and slammed the closest lid I could find on it - which by some miracle actually fit - and turned all the switches to their 'off' positions. After that I dragged the now-lidded pot over to the sink before removing the lid again and dousing the flames. With the most immediate problems taken care of, I took the opportunity to stare at the disaster zone that had been a perfectly functional kitchen just twelve hours earlier.

It was a couple of minutes before I noticed my son standing quietly in a corner. He'd been drenched in whatever was decorating the walls, effectively camouflaging all but his eyes - which were as wide as I'd ever seen them.

He had his mother's eyes. I'd known that since he was a baby, but never really paid attention to that fact until after the divorce. Then I couldn't help but notice how much his sorrowful gaze echoed hers. It doubled the guilt factor they could dish out with a single glance.

"Gomen, otousan," he whispered, blinking and rubbing at one pink cheek with the back of his hand. It left a darkish trail behind it as his hands weren't much better off than the walls. "Gomen," he repeated, bowing his head so that he could only just peer up at me below the spikes of his fringe.

"What on earth were you trying to do?!" I asked the first question that my mind managed to generate.

"... Make dinner?" His wide blue eyes and soft, tentative voice transformed what should have been a statement into a question

"Dinner? What you've made is a mess!"

"Gomen..." He hid his head completely in his chest this time. "I just wanted to help..."

"You can help by staying out of places where you don't belong! The kitchen is too dangerous!"

"But I was hungry - " he glanced up at me, blinking fast as tears beaded at the corners of his eyes - but unlike his mother I refused to let him get away with crocodile tears. Yamato was still young, true, but he was old enough to know that crying wasn't going to change anything. Takeru wasn't quite, but Natsuko tended to indulge him a little too much anyway.

"You should have asked!"

"But..."

"Yamato," I warn, in a stern enough tone that he shuts his mouth on whatever argument he was going to put up. Instead, he hung his head lower than ever - which still gave me a clear view of his lower lip as it quivered briefly before his teeth arrested its movement.

Alright, so I didn't care to see my son so upset.

"Yamato," I sighed, then reached out with one hand to ruffle his sticky hair and shake his shoulder lightly. "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up."

I followed him down the hallway into the bathroom, intending to help him shuck his clothes and turn the shower on. Instead, I found myself hindering more than helping as Yamato made short work of undressing himself, even with the added stickiness factor, then proceeded to move an upside-down plastic box underneath the taps for the shower. Climbing up on it provided him with easy access to the strange taps that had come with our new unit - which he cautiously adjusted before stepping back down into the centre of the spray.

In three months, I don't think I'd gone a single day without either freezing or boiling myself initially in that shower; yet when I stretched my hand out into the stream of water I found it just nice and warm.

I couldn't remember showing Yamato how to use the shower. I couldn't remember buying the soap and shampoo he was using to rid himself of his would-be dinner. For one heart-stopping moment I couldn't even remember how old he was. Remembering an instant later didn't really improve my state of mind.

Shaking my head, I left the bathroom and returned to the kitchen. It was still a nightmare, but at least it was one I could work on rectifying. After I changed my clothes.

I'd finished sorting through the refrigerator contents and was working on the walls with a rough sponge when I felt a small tug on my trouser leg. I looked down. Yamato looked up. I wished the gods would grant me the ability to read minds.

"What is it?" I asked as his guileless blue eyes wondered why I didn't already know.

"I'm hungry," he informed me seriously. I frowned as it finally hit my brain that he'd been trying to make dinner.

"Didn't Kiyoko get you something to eat?"

He shook his damp head. "She didn't come."

"What?! Why not?" I was, after all, paying her to look after Yamato after -

"She didn't pick you up from school today?" I demanded to know, and received a cross between a shrug and a shake of the head in response.

"She hasn't picked me up for a while now." I stared, feeling dirty water trickle down my knuckles to drip onto the floor as I clenched my fists around the sponge.

"How long?"

"A couple of weeks," he shrugged, toying with the sleeves of his top. The sponge dripped some more as I refrained from swearing in front of my son.

"Has she come around at all?"

"Sometimes. For dinner."

I was half-tempted to ask whether he meant she came to make it or just eat it. "Why didn't you tell me?"

He scowled. "I didn't like her anyway."

I snorted at that, then shook my head. "What am I going to do with you?"

His eyes widened at that, his expression earnest as he declared, "I can take care of myself!"

I could just hear Natsuko's view on that - in stereo, with sound effects. She'd once said, while we were 'discussing' custody rights for our sons, that Yamato would be better off in an orphanage than with me. I was fairly sure that the thought of him being on his own for six or seven hours every day would absolutely thrill her.

"No, I'll find someone else," I informed my independent-minded son.

"But - "

"Someone who can cook dinner." His protest paused in mid-syllable at that, as he surreptitiously eyed the remaining gunk on the walls, then took a new direction.

"I don't need to be picked up from school!" From the indignant tone of his voice, I could guess that it was a matter of pride for him.

"We'll see," I told him, clapping his shoulder with my more-or-less-dry, spongeless hand. A waft of air carried the scent of his shampoo to my nose, sparking a sudden recall of the two of us shopping together the week before.

Before the divorce, my experience with supermarkets had been extremely limited. When it came to shopping for anything other than electronics I usually just grabbed the first product that looked like it would do the job. On our first shopping excursion together Yamato had caught me off guard by dictating what was supposed to go into the trolley in each aisle. It wasn't until we came to the feminine hygiene products that I realised that he'd basically memorised Natsuko's usual shopping list.

I was rather thankful for that - otherwise we most likely would have run out of toilet paper very quickly, amongst other things. The fact that I had to give Yamato a brief rundown on sex in the middle of the supermarket to explain just why we wouldn't be needing tampons tended to cancel out the gratefulness factor, though.

I considered it fortunate that Natsuko hadn't really been keen on cooking. It meant that Yamato and I were fairly well stocked with things we could microwave and I could pour hot water on to provide us with our meals. Which made the state our kitchen had been in something of a puzzle to me - Yamato knew where the microwave-friendly food was, and yet had chosen to kill the brand new machine with something I still hadn't been able to identify. That left us lacking our main cooking facility, and hungry.

I already knew just how awfully boring instant ramen could become after a week or so. I was already anticipating the microwave's return from the repair workshop, even as I poured the water into the plastic cups full of noodles.

We ate more or less in silence as Yamato was very focused on feeding his stomach and I was wracking my brain for someone who could keep an eye on Yamato until I got home from work. All I knew was that there was no way in hell I was going to let Natsuko find out what had been happening with Kiyoko. I was still drawing a blank when Yamato gave me a sidelong glance and slid out of his seat, dashing off to his room.

"Yamato!" I called. "I've already cleaned up after you once today. I'm not going to do it again." Yamato had helped out a fair bit, in fact, but he could only reach a limited area even with clambering all over the counters.

I raised my eyebrow quizzically as one blue eye crowned by a golden head of hair peered around the doorway.

"Well?"

He walked slowly over to my chair, cradling a piece of paper against his chest.

"I'm sorry about making a mess, Otousan. I didn't mean to."

"I know you didn't, son," I answered with a tired smile. "Just please don't do it again." A week or two without a microwave was going to be torture for us both.

"I won't," he promised. "Otousan?"

"Yes?" He held the piece of paper out to me, letting me see what was on it. Two people - us, by the look of it - sitting down with a monstrosity of a cake bearing a million and one candles placed on the table in front of us.

Oh, Yamato...

"Happy birthday," he wished me softly. "Sorry the cake didn't work."

"Which one was the cake?" I inquired, trying very hard to keep a straight face.

"It was in the microwave," he answered, flushing an increasingly deeper red.

"Ah." I took a moment to compose myself. "Thank you, Yamato. This means a lot to me." That said I scooped him into a one-armed hug before he could escape, holding him tightly for a few moments then letting him wriggle free. He was still blushing slightly when I tucked him into bed ten minutes later, but also smiling.

I waited until I was sure he was asleep, then grabbed my keys and headed out the door again. I was pretty sure that Natsuko wouldn't be impressed by a visit at this time of night, but I really didn't care by the time I'd driven all the way across town to rap on her door.

"Masaharu!" she exclaimed in decided annoyance upon opening her door. "What on earth are you doing here at this time of night?!" I opened my mouth to speak but she cut me off sharply. "And be quiet! Takeru's asleep. I don't want him to wake up and see you."

Her words hit me more solidly than a punch in the gut.

Gritting my teeth, I answered her: "I want a cooking book."

She blinked at me incredulously. "You want what?"

"A cooking book," I repeated. "More specifically, the one my mother gave you when we got married."

"You want that? Now?!"

"Yes, now!"

"Why?"

If I didn't know better I would swear that Natsuko was deliberately setting out to irritate me.

"You're actually going to cook?"

"Yes, I am!" I shook my head vigorously, feeling ready to kick the door. "Would you just get the damn book, Natsuko?"

She glared at me for several long moments before disappearing into her apartment. Locking the door behind her, naturally.

I scuffed my shoes on her doorstep for a good fifteen minutes, and was just about ready to attack the door once more when it opened just wide enough for my mother's old recipe book to be passed through. After that, the door was shut tight once again. Not that I cared.

It would have been nice to see Takeru...

The book journeyed safely back home with me on the passenger seat of the car. Just the sight of its cover was bringing back memories for me, and I was honked at twice for not going when the traffic lights turned green as a result. Once back in my own apartment, the temptation was too great to resist. Despite the fact that I had to be up early in the morning, I sat down at the table and began to flip through the pages of the book.

Just about every meal my mother had prepared had had some basis in this single, slender volume. Well, it would have been slender if not for the various scraps of paper that had thickened its leaves, almost doubling its size. Flipping to random pages, I found my mouth watering at the remembered taste of the vegetable rice my mother would make every other Saturday, the flavoured ices I would pester her for all summer, and even the fish stew that my father had loved so much it drove me crazy.

It's amazing, the little things that can leave holes in your life when they're missing...

Then there were the little comments written neatly in bits of empty space in the page borders, or on tiny slips of paper fastened to the appropriate recipe page by some arcane means. Most of the writing was my mothers, and I could hear her voice in my head as I read advice on temperatures and tools and ingredients. Some of the remarks were Natsuko's. I skipped most of those, until I came to a miniscule section with cake recipes.

My mother had not really cared for cakes; Natsuko, on the other hand, had a very sweet tooth...

I started sifting through what was there - and discovered a single folded sheet that was much newer in appearance that anything else in the book. Opening it up, the paper bore an unusual title: 'For 25th September'. In the bottom right hand corner there was another date - today's - beside a simple comment.

'This is his favourite.'

I had to smile, and wish I'd been a little more hospitable to Natsuko when I'd demanded the book. Too late for that now, as with everything our marriage had once been.

Whatever. I now had a place to start.

The next time Yamato and I went shopping, I had a list prepared. I even bought us both aprons, although Yamato objected strenuously to his being pink, especially after the shop assistant mistook him for a girl. It was the only colour in a size that wouldn't drown him in cloth, however, so he had to put up with it. I wasn't about to go through another period of trying to get food stains out of his clothes every day.

After our shopping session, the two of us set about making a non-appliance-killing mess in the kitchen. We even managed to make a decent meal on our first attempt. Admittedly it didn't look like much, but the taste more than made up for it.

Just about every day one of us would make something from the recipe book. I'd banned Yamato from the stove and microwave for the duration, but there were still plenty of recipes that didn't actually involve heating anything up that he was able to try - and try he did. Whenever I managed to drag myself away from work early, I would come home to find him either playing that old harmonica his uncle had given him, or poring over my mother's book.

He wasn't the only one practicing, however. I may not have had the interest or knack for cooking that Yamato did, but there was one thing that I absolutely had to do - and when September 25 came around, I was able to make my son a birthday cake.

His favourite.

April 2001
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