Needing assurance that nothing would distract her from that pivotal moment, she reached for the little black radio she kept by the kitchen counter. With a twist of her wrist the dial went down, snuffing the mellifluous voice chanting that week’s Top Forty like a mantra of sorts. Even music, her favorite distraction be it classical or bubblegum pop, had to be sacrificed for the sake of that one crucial, precious slice of time in which she would finally find out – am I good enough? Have I studied hard enough? Am I wasting time and money on nothing more than a mirage, an illusion?
Once again, the last of several instances, she considered the edge of the knife. Holding the instrument in her hand, she indulged with her eyes but dared not pass a finger along the line. She knew it was sharp, she made sure that it would be so. Nothing less would suffice.
Gathering all of her concentration, she held the flesh in place with her left hand, checking that she was not applying any more pressure than strictly necessary, while the right accompanied the blade on its way down, slicing the tissue with a single and effortless motion.
One. Two. Three. Six. With the square head of the takohiki she gently scooped up the thin slices of mackerel, a rosy pearl tone crowned by the blues and grays of the skin. She arranged the three slices in a fan, over very little garnish, and sprinkled just the right amount of sauce over the dish, now complete. She adjusted the square piece of ceramic before her, her eyes inquisitively moved from her piece to the illustration on Japanese Cooking – A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji.
No mistake. Her cured mackerel sashimi was a masterpiece, in everything identical to the ideal form sketched by the master chef himself. Passing her tongue across her shapely plump lips, she realised her mouth was salivating ever so lightly, and it wasn’t only because of the food. The whole process, the procession of her hands from tools to flesh, and now the finished product before her, it all led her to a kind of elation that she did not feel often; surely not while travelling, watching a movie or laying in bed with her quarterly catch. This was better than most things, and surely better than sex.
The time had come. She reached for her lacquered wood chopsticks, a costly present to herself shipped straight from Japan years before. Next to the sashimi, a kelp salad that nearly threw her flat mate into an hissy fit.
“Bwah! Seaweed?” she had blurted on her way out, slinging her cheap knockoff purse and nearly falling off her heels. She had, of course, ignored her. They did get along just fine, on most things; just not on the respective definitions of ‘classy’ or ‘worth living for’. Nothing serious, when all was said and done. Maybe that kelp salad could be a metaphor for conflicting worldviews. Some saw a delicacy, some saw seaweeds.
Itadakimasu. She picked up a slice of sashimi with the tips of the chopsticks… and the doorbell rang.
… what the?
It was nearly nine in the evening, and no one was meant to come bothering her. Hell, she had chosen this evening specifically because she would be alone in the flat. She had woken up way too early and dashed to the Asian market that very morning, in order to make sure to have the best ingredients. She had selected and cut for herself a nice little slice of peace and quiet.
And the doorbell rang.
She slid carefully the plate into an open slot in the refrigerator, hoping it wouldn’t spoil the taste too much, and jumped down from the stool she had been sitting on. She slid into her slippers and made her way to the door – a handful of steps away, given how small the flat was.
Laying against the door, she put her eye to the peephole. On the other side, a crew-cut guy in jacket, sweater and jeans was staring into the little glass eye, as if something could actually be seen from outside.
“Minnie’s out” she blurted, hoping for the nuisance to simply disappear. She never liked her flatmate’s boyfriend much, and he really had no business being there anyway. Couldn’t they at least bother to keep tabs on each other?
“Really? Didn’t know. Can I come in a sec?” she asked unassumingly.
Now, she might not have been the prettiest, most popular or most in demand among them all, but she had at least a reputation for politeness. Still pining away from her sushi platter and seeing no way out of an awkward five minutes of conversation, she opened the door and silently gestured for him to come inside. He obliged, removing his jacket and casually slinging it over the coat hanger by the entrance. That was one thing she didn’t really like about him – how he felt as if he was the master of wherever he went, and how he made no effort to dissimulate it.
“So, Minnie’s not here, huh? Though she’d at least let me know.”
“Yeah, she should have.”
The two stood then by the door, facing each other. Although he donned a rather simple attire, one could tell it was not the kind of thing that would be found in a thrift store; unlike hers, a woolen sweater and jeans she had paid a grand amount of £10. How could she afford fresh fish and Asian ingredients otherwise?
He stared at her for a while, as if waiting for a cue she had no intention to let off. Finally, he sighed and locked eyes with hers.
Was that a tingle down her spine? Come on, let’s be serious. Not my type, she thought. Better leave Holier-Than-Thou to chicks like Minnie, who could afford reverse high maintenance.
“The polite thing to do is to offer a cup of tea” he suggested, bending his chest toward her and closing the distance between them a bit. She instinctively recoiled, which did not seem to bother him too much as he produced a mischievous grin.
“Yeah, the polite thing. Minnie won’t be back for a while I think” she spelled out.
Implied suggestion: no reason for you to hang around.
“I’ll just drink my tea extra slow.”
She didn’t bother retorting; she vaguely gestured toward the living room, in which he had been numerous times already, and went to the kitchen to do the polite thing. While putting the kettle on the flame and arranging tea bags into a pair of cups, she took time alone to stew her irritation.
Not only he interrupts her long planned Japanese dinner, but he also comes in and makes himself at home just like it was – his – home, which it wasn’t. Just because he had been dating Minnie for a few months it did not mean he could just kick back and relax in their living room, while she served him tea like some kind of housemaid. You ask ‘is Minnie here?’, I answer ‘sorry she’s out’ and you go after her. Simple.
She conveniently ignored, at first, the aftertaste of that tingling sensation, stinging like fresh wasabi and equally difficult to ignore. Was there any specific reason why, since the very beginning, she could not simply dismiss this one guy as the latest nobody, one more name in the procession of cute assholes Minnie had brought over in the two years in which they roomed together? Something that plucked a string she had always hoped not to have in her?
It would have been better for all of them if he just guzzled his tea and left. There was a slight chance Minnie could be back early, and she was notoriously jealous about her boys, sometimes violently so.
She poured the boiling water into the cups, which she put on a battered tray along with the sugar jar and the carton of milk. Balancing the whole on one hand, she made her way to the living room, in which the light was on. Well, at least he had the sense to save on electricity and left the corridor lights off. Minnie always ‘forgot’ to pay her own share of the bills on time.
Just before entering the living room, she stopped on her tracks. As silently as possible she laid the tray on the floor, crouched by the door slightly open and observed the fairly unexpected scene before her.
Now, neither her nor her flatmate were particularly tidy people. Clean, yes; tidy, not so much. No matter how hard she tried to look after the well being of her own possessions, random stuff always seemed to find its way in the most random corners of the flat – brushes, shirts, empty cups of tea, you name it. Shoes, especially. Shoes seemed to have a life of their own.
And it was a shoe that he was now holding in his hand, while sitting cross-legged on the fluffy carpet. And not any shoe: it was the left one of her only pair of real good shoes, low-heel red sandals she bought as a present for herself two birthdays ago. He manipulated the object as if it were some kind of precious foreign artifact, in his eyes a glimmer that was difficult to interpret, something between elation and cautious, measured fascination.
She stood there, watching him. What the hell was he doing? What… what’s the deal? Yet, she felt no compulsion to barge into the living room and stop him dead in his tracks. She had completely forgotten about the delicacy waiting for her in the fridge, the tea getting cold or the fact that she could no stand the guy. In fact, for the first time she felt… interest. Apparently, his mysterious gesture had managed to do what his arrogant attitude could not achieve.
She saw him holding the shoe in his hand, cradling it between his slender fingers. Then, without as much as a look behind his shoulders or any attempt to dissimulate, neared the red sandal to his mouth and gave a tiny, almost imperceptible kiss to the insole. It made no sound. He passed the tip of the tongue upon his lips, a triumphant look in his eyes.
He did it again, this time with more impetus. His lips – which were, she had to admit, somewhat plump yet rather well shaped – produced a little snappy sound this time around, as they parted from the leathery surface.
What was he so happy about?
Well, of course she did know. She wasn’t born yesterday, and she did know that a grown man passionately making out with a shoe could only mean one thing. But, in her house? With… with her shoes?
A third time he neared the piece of footwear to his mouth; yet, this time, a chaste kiss was not enough. He stuck his tongue out and carefully moved it across the insole surface, with calm and controlled movements. From the point where string and leather crossed, all the way to the heel, he covered the distance in one swift movement. The living room was tiny, and so she could see all the way from her hiding spot the glistening of his saliva on the insole.
Ok, that was more than enough. She picked up the tray and entered the room, trying to look as calm and nonplussed as possible.
“Those are my shoes, not Minnie’s.”
She had not expected any kind of embarrassment or awkwardness from a guy like that. She had expected arrogant misdirection.
“I thought so.”
She had not expected that. Neither she had expected a kind of gentleness, of tenderness in his voice, a change from his usual smug register.
“… Still want that tea?” was all she could muster as a reply.
“In a bit. Why don’t you come a little closer?”
He invited her with a gesture of his hand, and she obliged. This would have been the time to yell, to punch him in the face, to kick him out of her flat and maybe tell Minnie on him. But she did none of that, and she had no intention to.
Because, she admitted to herself, she was curious. She was curious to see where this preposterous scene would lead her. Where it would lead them.
“Minnie is all about platforms, stilts and the likes” he continued. “She could never have the class for these.”
“You shouldn’t take like that about your girlfriend.”
“My girlfriend? The one who is currently fucking one of her classmates, and will do so for the whole night?”
“I knew it would only be you here and… don’t look at me like that! Had no intention to make a move but, now… those” he said, gesturing toward me with the shoe still cradled in his hands. “I was dying to see you wearing them.”
“I had them on at the last group party” she objected, though she fully know what he really meant. She sat on the secondhand armchair, crossing her legs so that her left slipper was hovering mere centimeters from his face.
Minutes of awkward silence, before she spoke.
“Just so we’re clear, I decide when it’s too far” she said, injecting as much ice as she could in her voice. “In case you didn’t notice, I am not that kind of girl.”
“Oh, I noticed plenty” he replied. “Stern, serious, dedicated to her craft, always sitting two arms apart from the nearest person at parties. A rare find, nowadays.”
She gestured as if to remove her slipper, but he coiled forward and put his hand, bony and nervous, between hers and her foot.
“Nope. I get to do it, thank you very much” he blurted out, sounding actually concerned. Pretty specific we are, she thought while giggling to herself. If she made sure to be forceful enough should things go too far, this could actually turn out quite entertaining.
Blame it on my artist’s inspiration, she thought.
“See, I can read the kind of person one is from the shoes she wears” he mused while he removed her slipper and woolen sock, tossing them in a corner. He held in his hand, with the same gentleness he displayed to the shoe, her left foot – contemplating it as if it were a holy relic, just as much as the sandal.
“Sandalomancy? That has to be a new one.”
He smirked. “Already, the choice of a sandal displays a keen sense of balance, knowing exactly what and how much to show. The low heel gives your ankle just the right inclination needed to reflect your balance personality, your sense of measure and restrained, yet flowing sensuality. The woven nature of the strings also lighten up what would be, otherwise, an excessively serious piece of footwear. I’m sure you can lighten up too when needed, right?”
She pressed the sole of her foot flat onto his face and pushed forward; he had to prop with his arms in order not to tumble on the floor. Playful banter, since she hadn’t pushed very hard, and for him it probably had been more of a treat than a punishment anyway. He resumed his position and grinned, taking hold of her left foot with a slightly stronger grip.
Part of why she wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as she should have been, she realised, was that she had always liked her own feet. They were the one part of her body she really had nothing to blame for: they were fairly long yet neither flat nor excessively arched; the toes, lined so to form a perfect curve, were slim and perfectly shaped. Thanks to her obsessive body hygiene, the soles were only slightly rougher than the skin of the back and her nails left their natural color but trimmed and polished. Strong in the conviction of having feet much better than he deserved, she stretched the left one in his hand, so as to give him a better grip.
More than you can handle?
He conjoined foot and shoe, an enthralled look on his face. Letting go of the former, he slid it into the sandal until it fit perfectly and effortlessly; then, proceeded to tie the strings around her ankle, with a calm and gentleness she couldn’t help but admire. In spite of her reservation, she was almost starting to like the guy. Almost.
Once done, still kneeled on the floor, he stood back a little so to enjoy his own craftsmanship. Between his hands laid her left foot, perfectly clad in that red, low-heeled sandal.
“Fantastic” he muttered in amazement. “Although I could object on the rather commonplace choice of colour.”
“This sandal’s heel could hurt more than my bare foot” she retorted way too gently, letting her hands run from her knee to her ankle, grazing the shoe’s laces. He reached with his own hand, hesitated for an instant and then met hers just where ankle and laces crossed. From his lower position, he looked at her with eyes that still retained a tinge of their former arrogance, yet were now touched by a hint of – hope? Expectation?
“I said I’m hungry”
How was she meant to interpret that? Well, she hadn’t meant to let him go that far but, at this point, she thought, I might as well give him a little more before closing the lid. After all, it’s not like we could really see each other again… after that. Her stern self-righteousness would never allow that.
Reluctantly, she moved her sandal-clad foot forward a bit, closer to his mouth. He showed no intention to do what she assumed he wanted to, namely lick it or at least suck on her toes. Instead, he got up and moved as if to leave the room.
“I will be back in a second” he said, and disappeared in the hallway.
The next couple of minutes were, without a doubt, the most nervous lapse of time she had experienced in quite a while. Not even the trial of slicing sashimi to perfection could compare. Aside from life drawing class, she never took anything more seriously than cooking; yet, those two minutes were the most serious she had in quite a while, as she stood sitting on the armchair with one foot in a sandal, and one in sock and slipper. A ridiculous, comical sight for someone who hadn’t seen the whole. Kind of like most moments in life, she thought.
He came back into the room with a plate and a tiny bowl. He sat once again in front of her, laying the plate and the bowl onto the carpet with great care, so that none of the content would spill. Inside the bowl she could see a dark, brownish liquid; it was the soy and sesame sauce she had prepared just a while ago. On the plate…
… Her sashimi! He had stolen her precious masterpiece!
She very nearly jumped off the armchair, and would have done so if not for fear of knocking over the culinary display on the carpet.
“Who told you you could touch that?”
“It’s all there was ready inside the fridge” he answered with absolute calm. “I will take you out for dinner some evening, to make up for it. Deal?”
The sashimi had gone in and out of the fridge once, already too much. Besides, it had to be eaten one way or another.
“Fine. But we split even.”
“Alright” he proclaimed cheerfully, picking up the bowl of Asian sauce. He dipped an index finger into the opaque liquid, and then let it drip over the back of her foot. The droplets ran down her smooth skin until each encountered a string, forming little pools all over the surface.
He extended his tongue and ran the full length from toes to ankle, digging in every crevice and nook, moving in circles or serpentines according to the path designed by the leather lace. With each movement he picked up a droplet of sauce, which he would then let run all over the tongue, savoring it gently.
“Me too” she muttered, hardly dissimulating the pleasurable sensation of feeling her skin explored by his tongue. He once again dipped a finger into the sauce, and then raised his arm to let it drip on her tongue.
“Did you make it yourself?”
“It’s pretty good.”
“Tastes even better along with the dish it’s meant for.”
He had been thoughtful enough to bring also the chopsticks. He picked them up and held them nimbly in his hands, opening and closing them a few times as if to test the grip. He gently picked up the sashimi, one slice at a time, and laid just about half of them on the back of her foot. Following the previous procedure, he sprinkled some more sauce both on those slices, and the leftover ones.
“Those are for you” he said, gesturing toward the plate. “If you manage to stand still.”
Wouldn’t have taken much effort, she thought. The fish itself, and the sauce made for rather sticky surfaces. She would have to actively try screwing up, and she had no intention to. This was the kind of game that was only fun if both of them won.
She stood perfectly still as he took hold of her ankle and gently neared her foot to his mouth. He puckered his lips and, one by one, he sucked in the thin slices of sashimi. Each subtle movement of both the food and his tongue across her skin surface, by now entirely moist, sent waves of squirming please up her leg, all the way to her crotch and torso. A few times she had to forcefully tighten her lips as to not let out a faint sigh.
She had done the right thing, letting things play out for once, going with the flow. Even after the sashimi on her had all been eaten, she pressed her foot forward attempting to squeeze every final drop of pleasure from his tongue. Once there was nothing left to savor, he stood up with the plate of leftover in his hands.
“You’ve been pretty good. Have you done this before?”
“Hmm, not exactly this.”
She wasn’t going to spill the beans on her private life so easily, but truth to be told there wouldn’t have been much to spill. A couple of episodes of forceful sex, blindfolds here and there, tied wrists once; none of those even compared with the pleasurable amusement she had just experienced.
“Well, good job. Now it’s your turn” he chimed, picking up a slice of fish and some kelp with his fingers. He moved forward and pointed a knee on the armchair, pressing her against the back. They were now at centimeters from each other. She could feel his breath, a clean and fresh smell mixed with the acrid aroma of the sauce. Surprisingly pleasant.
She opened her mouth wide, sticking her tongue out; he offered her a slice, putting it in her mouth along with the tip of his fingers. Her lips closed down on them, sucking them dry as he pulled them out. The second slice went in, and her mouth suctioned even harder, as if trying to restrain him.
Then it was the turn of the final slice. As his hand moved forward she grabbed his wrist and forced his fingers deeper inside her mouth, all the way down to their final joint. He had to actively pull out, and left her slightly gasping for air, her eyes gleaming behind the glass frames.
“You are a pretty good cook.”
“I practice a lot.”
“Perhaps you could cook for me again, someday.”
“Don’t forget, you owe me a dinner first.”
Out of the blue, close to each other they both burst into laughter, a cathartic diffusion of the accumulated tension. Necessary, she thought. It would have been either that, or raw sex on that very armchair, and she wasn’t up for the latter. He was someone else’s boyfriend and, in spite of what had just happened, she still had a soupçon of self-respect left in her.
“I should get going now” he said, getting up on his feet. “Before, you know… we let ourselves go too far.”
“We are both way too decent, aren’t we?”
“You’re right! Where are my manners!”
He walked across the room and picked up the sock and slipper he had thrown away casually moments before. He brought them over to her, kneeled again.
“Please allow me to.”
Slowly he untied the heeled sandal, making sure to pull the shoe gently. Yet one more time he pulled her foot to himself, and with great care licked every single inch of it, until there was no trace of sauce left on the skin. Then, he straightened out the sock and slid her foot inside it, ruffling the wool around the ankle. Finally, the slipper, back in place.
He helped her off the armchair, and the two reached the apartment door. She opened it for him, he made his exit but not before indulging a bit on the doorstep.
“I’ll pay for the dry cleaning.”
“The shoes. You can’t leave them like that.”
“Ah, yeah. No problem, I can still afford that much.”
“Cool. Well, then… if there will be a next time.”
How could she know? In twenty minutes she went from annoyance to almost wanting him to stay. Too much stuff to think about.
He then turned around and went down the staircase, disappearing from sight. She shut the door, and set about straightening up the mess. She picked up the plates, the tea tray and brought them over to the kitchen sink. She ripped a corner from a piece of paper and stuck it at the mackerel sashimi page of Shizuo Tsuji’s cookbook. She then perched on a stool by the counter, and laid her head upon her crossed arms.
Moved her tongue up and down her lips. Felt the taste of her supreme cuisine, of his fingertips.
Not bad at all.