I have a hard time writing about grief. Instead, I eat it, the way people do at funerals, shoving heaping spoonfuls into their mouths at a banquet. Flesh sears. Fat melts. The body does what it is designed to do. The weight in the belly is reassuring, a reminder that we are not the animal being eaten, that there is still time for more pleasures ahead. I open my mouth.
When the chef lays a piece of kampachi lightly brushed with soy on my stone plate and whispers that it was once wrapped in cherry blossom leaves, I pinch the warm ball of rice beneath the fish and put the whole thing on my tongue. It’s an all-consuming sensory experience—sustained, varied, self-indulgent, and therefore addictive. I close my eyes.
Half a year after my breakup with Khalid, I found myself on one of those New York dates filled with small talk and even smaller bites of food. I said a tepid goodbye and walked to the closest sushi restaurant to order omakase for one. The meal cost almost two days of my schoolteacher salary. Nevertheless, it made me ecstatic, sitting in front of the glass display case, watching fish handled by gloved hands, the door sliding and closing; then the gift appeared in front of me. It was mine, all mine.
The next day, I dined at another omakase spot. A week later, another. I became obsessed with the sensation of a supple coldness sliding across my tongue and down my throat. I liked not having to make conversation or dress up, that I could sit at a sushi bar by myself, that I paid full attention to joy. I’m going to therapy, I joked with friends. It felt a little perverse to visit sushi-yas alone, sandwiched between couples who ooh-ed and ahh-ed over each soft shining slice.
What was I searching for? A perfect pleasure. Something holy. And I liked not knowing when it was coming. Some pieces made me close my eyes, and some made me moan deep in my throat. Some made me grab the edge of the bar and nod my head in rapture. It was the only way of eating that seemed just. Death carefully crafted and presented as ceremonial art. If a cut of fish slipped off the rice, the chef took it back, re-shaped it, and served it again.
I fell in love with omakase two years ago, the same time I fell in love. His name was Khalid, and he knew all about the cuisine. He researched restaurant openings and made reservations. He decided whether we ordered the sushi or the kaiseki. He chose whether we drank nigori or junmai. He educated me on the difference between otoro and chutoro as fat coated my lips. When we kissed in between pieces, our mouths tasted the same.
I was struggling through the last year of graduate school, panicked by the prospects of employment and unemployment. Both terrified me. You’re gonna be okay, Khalid said, and his voice expanded in my mind like a prophecy, drowning out my parents saying that immigrants don’t get to be artists, that I was making a mistake. The only safe conversation topic in my family is food. What did you eat? My parents asked, when they could not bring themselves to tell me they loved me.
In Japanese, omakase means trust me. It was also what Khalid used to say when I fretted over my writing and wondered if it were any good. Trust me, he’d say, and I did. His reassurances eased the pain of rejections from magazines, disagreements with friends, and the busy loneliness of New York living. The problem was that I trusted his version of me so completely, I eliminated any need to trust myself.
Schopenhauer writes: As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we expected. Compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten. I am aware of the animal giving me pleasure through its body. It has a flowery smell, like a petal plucked in a field. I consume it so that it dissolves in me and is transformed.
In omakase, one surrenders to the chef, who concocts an experience based on his judgment. An exercise in trust, if you will. At omakase, I am not responsible for what happens to me. For an hour, my pleasure becomes the responsibility of someone else. The Botan shrimp with uni is sweet and slippery, like frozen yogurt. A raw quail egg cracked over salmon roe meets the warmth of my mouth and sinks in like rain into the earth. Icefish lie atop each other in a bowl, their transparent skins vulnerable and gleaming. These small moments of discovery belong only to me. My whole body tingles with a sense of aliveness. Pleasure of such intensity grabs my attention and plants it fully in the present.
I cannot tell you what an actual yellowtail looks like or a sea bream, though I find that just like with people, names can be misleading. For instance, the black throat, nodoguro, is named after the color of its throat on the inside. Gazing into its mouth is to peer into a dark, wet tunnel. On the outside, however, it’s a small sea perch with white meat and rose-colored scales. I would have named it aurora for its beauty.
The definition of beauty in English is something that offers pleasure. The fish pleases me, therefore it is beautiful. I see it with my mouth, the way my eyes see the world as shapes and colors. How the taste shimmers, evolves, then disappears. I swallow when my mouth can no longer hold the beauty, or when it stops changing, whichever comes sooner. In giving itself, the fish is resurrected and dies a second death. Its first dying had purpose.
Khalid was also beautiful. He swallowed his sadness so no one could see it. It disappeared down his dark throat, and I could not follow. Like the nodoguro, he couldn’t cry. On one of our last dates, he put his head in my lap. We were in the back of a cab, heading home from a Broadway show. Neon lights flitted across his face like knives. He had a headache, and his eyes were shut tight. I stroked his hair, rubbed his temples. As much as he reassured me that I would be okay, he was not, and though I saw that he was falling apart, I looked away. You’re gonna be okay, I whispered, though I didn’t know who I was trying to convince.
On the last visit to our usual omakase, we smiled at the other couples whispering excitedly around the bar. Course after course. I forbade myself from crying. I knew Khalid was leaving me, that he had perhaps already left. Like the fish, I had no choice. They were doing the difficult work of beauty. I watched the fish gutted and laid down gently on the wooden board, the long blade soundlessly carving along their flesh.
The end always comes and comes too quickly. I order additional pieces. I hold a slice in my mouth for longer than necessary. It seems transgressive, the ability to single out the piece that gives the most pleasure, like rewinding a movie or hearing a childhood song on repeat. Like making love to the same person the same way.
Pleasure needs to be renewed each day, for it arrives only in the present. I cannot hold on to the taste of a seared nodoguro and replicate the ecstasy. Such an exercise creates only longing.
Unlike pleasure, grief has no timeline. It lies in my body as if on a bed of ice, fresh, potent, and insoluble. Like a toxin, it needs to be slowly shoveled out over the years, perhaps never completely gone.
Yet pleasure is toxic in its own way. It is inadvisable to eat fish more than twice a week. Because methylmercury cannot be dissolved or excreted, the larger and older the fish, the more toxic it is. The more it eats, the more poison builds up and lingers in its organs, then its flesh. Biomagnification is inevitable in the act of living.
Years ago, I visited a cousin in Japan. I awoke in the Tokyo suburbs before the December dawn and rode the subway alone to Tsukiji Market. Piles of fish slept on ice as beeping pallet trucks lowered them to the ground. Lines of people huddled and waited for breakfast nearby, stomping their feet in the snow. After an hour, I sat beside a businessman whose chopsticks moved quickly and efficiently. A bowl of salmon ikura don appeared in front of me, and I copied my neighbor’s movements. It was almost 7 a.m. Everyone munched quietly. Most had come by themselves, and the smell of rice bathed the tiny restaurant in a comforting aloneness, as if we conversed without having to speak. I trusted it—the tap of wooden chopsticks against warm ceramic bowls, the occasional cough, someone wiping his lips then asking for the check.
I am grateful on days I awake in pursuit of beauty. An hour. Then more. This is a start. After a while, other pleasures come and transform me—the steam from my rice cooker, the smooth hollow of a spoon, a single white rose in the vase. I feed on those. I make my own reservations for omakase—it is no longer necessary to revisit old haunts when other bodies bring pleasure. I can taste all the places the fish had been. Tails swish. Gills swell. I listen to what they tell me, that there is no need to return.