That summer I had taught myself to cook.
The sensation that my brain cells were multiplying was exhilarating. I bought three books on cooking-fundamentals, theory, and practice - and went through them one by one. On the bus, in bed, on the sofa, I read the one on theory, memorizing caloric content, temperatures, and raw ingredients. Every spare minute I cooked. Those three books grew tattered with use, and even now I always have them at hand. Like the picture books I loved when I was little, I know the illustrations on each page by heart.
Yuichi and Eriko took to saying to each other, ''Mikage has gone completely nuts, hasn't she?'' And it's true that for the whole summer I went about it with a crazed enthusiasm: cooking, cooking, cooking. I poured all my earnings from my part-time job into it, and if something came out wrong I'd do it over till I got it right. Angry, fretful, or cheery, I cooked through all.
When I think about it now, it was because of my cooking that the three of us ate together as often as we did; it was a good summer.
Looking out the window as the evening wind came through the screen door, a remnant of pale blue stretching over the hot sky, we ate boiled pork, cold Chinese noodles, cucumber salad. I cooked for them: she who made a fuss over everything I did; he who ate vast quantities in silence.
Complicated omelets, beautifully shaped vegetables cooked in broth, tempura - it took a fair amount of work to be able to make these things. Because my biggest flaw is lack of precision, it didn't occur to me that dishes turn out badly or well in proportion to one's attention to detail. For example, if I put something in the oven before it had come to temperature, or if I got the steam going before I had everything chopped, that sort of triviality (or so I thought) was precisely reflected in the color and shape of the final product. Which surprised me. Although that kind of cooking made my dinners no worse than those of the average housewife, they by no means resembled the illustrations in the book.
There was only one way to learn: I tried making anything and everything, and I tried to do it right. I would carefully wipe out the bowls, replace the caps on the spices every time, calmly chart out the steps in advance, and when I began to make myself crazy with irritation I would stop what I was doing and take a few deep breaths. At first my impatience would lead me to the brink of despair, but when I finally learned to correct my mistakes coolly, it was truly as if I had somehow reformed my own slapdash character. Or so I felt (of course, it wasn't true).
Getting the job I have now, as an assistant to a cooking teacher, was incredible. She not only teaches cooking classes, but also gets a lot of important television and magazine work, and she is actually rather famous. An amazing number of candidates apparently tested for the job. Why was it that I - a novice with only one summer of study under my belt - got hired? When I saw the women who attend the classes, it made sense. Their attitude was completely different from mine.
Those women lived their lives happily. They had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing. But therefore they could never know real joy. Which is better? Who can say? Everyone lives the way they know best. What I mean by ''their happiness'' is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone. That's not a bad thing. Dressed in their aprons, their smiling faces like flowers, learning to cook, absorbed in their little troubles and perplexities, they fall in love and marry. I think that's great. I wouldn't mind that kind of life. Me, when I'm utterly exhausted by it all, when my skin breaks out, on those lonely evenings when I call my friends again and again and nobody's home, then I despise my own life - my birth, my upbringing, everything. I feel only regret for the whole thing.
But - that one summer of bliss. In that kitchen.
I was not afraid of burns or scars; I didn't suffer from sleepless nights. Every day I thrilled with pleasure at the challenges tomorrow would bring. Memorizing the recipe, I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul. At the supermarket I would stare at a bright red tomato, loving it for dear life. Having known such joy, there was no going back.
No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive. That is what makes the life I have now possible.
Inching one's way along a steep cliff in the dark: on reaching the highway, one breathes a sigh of relief. Just when one can't take it anymore, one sees the moonlight. Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart: I know about that.