Of course I couldn’t give her a good answer. Who am I to talk about this sort of situation, anyway? I’m not a doctor. I’m not one of those guys on American TV who helps people with their feelings. I’m just a chubby History teacher with too many gray hairs and terrible eating habits. And here, this woman… she looks up to me, and I have no idea why… she’s asking my opinion on something involving her body, her choices… and who am I to even have an opinion?
“I really don’t know, Tomo. Honestly, it’s your decision.”
She looked at me with those pleading eyes, and part of me wanted to just flip a coin or something and give her an answer, to make it easy and simple for her. But I knew it wasn’t my place. I knew this was something she had to decide for herself.
“I’m not just saying that to get out of it. I mean it.”
“I know,” she said with a little sniffle, “but I don’t know what to do. It’s… it’s part of myself, you know? I feel like I wouldn’t be the same without it, like I’d be different… like I’d be worse.”
“Worse?” the word struck me oddly.
“Not as good as I was before…”
She was blushing now, so she turned away. I think she knew full well what she had just said, and she knew even more that even my thick head had finally picked up on it.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“No. It’s fine. It’s all right…”
“No,” I stood up, shaking my head, “No, I don’t think it is.”
I wanted to see her face, but she was doing her best to bury it in the ridiculously fluffy blankets that covered her couch. Without thinking, I reached out and put a hand on her should, and she immediately froze. Everything in my head told me to leave well enough alone, but something else said I had to keep going. I tightened my grip a little and made to turn her over. She gave way easily, too easily, and exposed her red and crying face. It wasn’t pain, at least not a physical pain, but an expression of absolute embarrassment.
There’s a word, mortify, that actually comes from Latin and means to literally make dead. to destroy. I looked down in complete confusion, wondering how this situation unraveled so fast, but then it suddenly hit me: this was always there. Her nervousness, her worry, even her happiness seemed to be tied to making other people happy and not necessarily herself. She was always a few steps away from falling apart because she had spent her entire life trying only to please everyone else. And now… now she was faced with a choice that stood to ruin everything she had worked so hard to maintain. In her mind, getting this surgery could be a sort of death for her.
I closed my eyes slowly and took a big sigh. I sat back down and she immediately buried her face into my shoulder. I couldn’t even enjoy it… not that I should have.
“Tomo… listen to me. Those… things on your chest… they don’t say one damn thing about how good of a person you are. Neither does the way you cook, or clean, or do someone else’s wishes. You are your own person, all right? It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday, or ten years ago, or who did what, you are still you. Please don’t think that the only reason I… why everyone likes being around you is because you have things or can do things for them. We like you because we like you, Tomo… and nothing else.”
She gave another colossal sniff that ended with a snort, and I found myself laughing despite the, um, situation.
“You’re a nice person, Tomo. You’re a good person… and that’s enough, all right? Please, for crying out loud don’t think that you have to torture yourself for someone else’s happiness. If you think that those… things are the only thing that make people around you happy, and that if you got them, um, changed it would somehow make me like you less… then you really don’t think much of me, do you?”
Her head snapped up this time, her eyes pale and watery.
“No! I think a lot of you!”
“Tomo,” I sighed, “you’re doing it again. Don’t feel like you always have to please me, all right? You can piss me off if you want, and I’ll still like you because I like you!”
“I don’t know why! Because I do, okay?”
“That makes me…” she thought for a moment before choosing the word, “uncomfortable.”
“Look: there’s no recipe for this, all right? You can’t just have enough of this or that and it’ll always turn out perfect. People… we’re weird, okay? What are those things that fall in the oven… those French things?”
“Yeah, that. Sometimes, you can work really hard and think you have everything just right with a person… and the soufflé will fall down anyway. That’s just how it is.”
“So…” she fidgeted with her fingers, unsure of what to say next, “Would you still like me even if my… soufflés fell a little?”
It took me a second to understand what she meant, and then I could feel my face burning.
“Uh… of course! I’d like you if, um, they fell all the way, or whatever you say about those things… can they do that?”
“Yes,” she smiled, then her eyes snapped open with realization, “In fact, some recipes actually call for them to fall!”
“Well, there you go, then!”
“Now I want to make a soufflé!” she said with a little laugh.
“It’s kinda late,” I said, glancing at the clock, “Are you sure you want to?”
“Yes, I am,” she stood up, a little shaky, and made her way into the kitchen. I decided to try out the night’s, um, conversation with a question.
“You’re not just making this soufflé for me… are you?”
I think it was the first time I’d ever heard her say that!
“I’m making it for myself, and if you’re lucky I might give you a bite!”
I immediately pushed away any thoughts of biting Ms. Arakawa’s, um, soufflé. It turns out you can make a fallen chocolate soufflé as a dessert and, if you’re curious, it is incredibly good.
Over our near-midnight snack, Tomo told me she was now resolved to go see a doctor and find out whether or not she needed the surgery. A few days later, she returned to the Home Ec room in terrific spirits, really happier and more outgoing than I had ever really seen her. Even her Dad, still filling in as teacher, was surprising to see her so happy.
“Well, lookit that! I ain’t seen you smilin’ like this since you were a little girl!”
“Was she ever a little girl?” Mei mumbled under her breath to Cathy, who nearly shot milk tea out of her nose. Ms. Arakawa gave her father a peck on the cheek and thanked him for all he’d done.
“So,” Ami asked, finishing an angry, red plate of curry udon, “Are you coming back, then? Because, I think we all miss your cooking… no offense, Mr. Arakawa.”
“None taken, Ami,” the big man beamed, “I taught her everything she knows, but the student has sure become the master since then!”
“So I suppose that took about a week, then?”
Mei was really on a roll, but Eri was probably the last person to joke with… wait, did she give a nod?!
“I’ll be back tomorrow, everyone,” Ms. Arakawa turned and announced to the group at lunch, “but first I wanted to thank you all for dealing with me and this difficult situation.”
She gave a little bow, and we all nodded in reply. Then Haru, who has never been known for her tact, shouted out from the back of the table.
“So! How’d it go?!”
Ms. Arakawa immediately turned red and dropped her eyes on to floor. I guess she was still the same, after all. I heard a slapping sound from behind me and Haru yelp in surprise and pain.
“Owwww! That hurt, Mei-mei!
“Haru, sweetie! You can’t ask her something like that in front of her Dad… and our Ken!”
Thanks for including me, Ai… and what do you mean “OUR” Ken?!
“No. No, it’s all right…” Ms. Arakawa spoke up enough that even Haru stopped her whining to pay attention, “I’m just a little embarrassed about it, is all.”
She took a deep breath and looked out at us once again.
“I’m not going to have the surgery. Actually… I don’t need it.”
“What?!” we all asked, nearly in unison.
“But, Tomo, honey… your back…”
“It’s all right, father. It turns out I was just… well…”
She got red again and finally blurted it out. Except, of course, when someone like Tomoko Arakawa tries to blurt, it just ends up sounding like a malfunctioning cat toy.
“I wasn’t… dressing properly!”
“What?!” we all asked again. It was about that time I noticed that Tomo had had a medium sized shopping bag set down next to her the entire time. Haru struck again, bounding from her chair and skipping over in a flash.
“Ohhh! Is that what’s in the bag, then, Tomo? Let me see!”
She reached in and, with a look like she’d just discovered El Dorado, she held up a, um, rather lacy, um, brassiere where the, um… things were nearly the size of her head.
“Ohhhhhh…” Haru held it up high, awestruck. Tomo gave a squeak and immediately ripped it out of Haru’s hands, stuffing it back in the bag. Remember what I said about mortified before? Yeah, that’s about right.
“…huge!” I heard Ami mutter under her breath.
“Ha ha!” Mei let out a tremendous laugh, “Guess you weren’t wearing the right size, eh?”
“Mei, I don’t expect you to understand, but the styles on the larger sizes are just dreadful!”
“And what do you mean ‘I wouldn’t understand,’ Hasegawa?!”
“Gawly,” Cathy chuckled, “Looks lahk thayt theyre deevice was mayd in Teyksas!”
“Indeed,” Eri nodded.
“Is Mei-mei right, Tomo?” Haru asked in hushed tones, still amazed, “Is there no cute underwear for ladies… like you?”
This caused Mei to break into a new round of laughter.
“Lookit the boys! They can’t even move! Shell shocked!”
Somewhere, I just knew Akira was enjoying lunch alone and suddenly felt very sad. Mei was right, though; between the both of us, I don’t know if me or Mr. Arakawa were running on anything other than basic brain functions. Our minds were blown away, it seemed. I don’t remember much else happening after that, except for a lot of shouting and laughing and discussions of parts of ladies’ fashion I didn’t even know existed. I thought to myself “at least they seem happy,” but then I started wondering if I was catching myself in the same trap as Ms. Arakawa: always thinking of other people, basing my life completely on their happiness instead of making sure I was all right. I was just about to get really deep into my own head when Mr. Arakawa decided to bring out dessert for our lunches and, of course, he brought out two massive, unfallen, soufflés. It was obvious he was quite proud of them, but Tomo and I still fell apart at the seams trying to hold in our laughter.