James Yu

White Rice

I decided we were no longer newlyweds after Molly stopped eating rice. It was my turn to cook, and I made a fermented soybean stew, spicy – the way she liked it. I set out the sides, things bought at the Korean grocery store in Beaverton: two types of kimchi, marinated perilla leaves, sautéed anchovies. I prepared enough white rice to feed four.

She ate everything but the rice. It grew cold and gelatinous; moisture ringed the inside lip of its bowl. I felt its unwant. Eventually I asked why and she said mom had forwarded an email mentioning its high glycemic index, which raised the risk of type-2 diabetes. Your mom, I wanted to say, wired ten thousand dollars to a one Ms. Beatrix Haven of Lagos, Nigeria. My mother – a physician – couldn’t go a day without eating rice, not even on vacation to Italy, where she and my father had planned their itinerary around the locations of Korean restaurants. When there was no Korean food to be found they ordered risotto – or if they could find it, paella.

White people rice.

But I didn’t say this. I tapped my fingers on my chin. My face grew hot and my glasses fogged. Without asking if she was finished I stood and reached for her rice bowl, knocking the low-hanging light fixture between us. Dumping the mound of rice into the remaining stew, I stirred and began spooning from pot to mouth and back again. I was already full, but I chewed loudly with my mouth open. Molly was paging through a travel magazine. Her hair was the color of wet straw. The freckles that appeared in summer were in hibernation, and her complexion was pale and unblemished. Sometimes she liked to say she was one-sixteenth Native-American, but it meant less than being Irish meant to the drunks who mobbed Kell’s on St. Patrick’s Day.

“So there’s a history of diabetes in your family,” I said, a slurry of soupy rice in my mouth.

She shook her head, still looking intently into the magazine.

I swallowed. “But you’re worried.”

She looked at me quizzically. “I’m not worried.”

“I think you are,” I said, smiling. “Worrywart.”

I stood up and went around the table and lowered my chin down on the crown of her head. That night, when I went to her side of the bed and kissed her on the bony bit of her left shoulder blade, she shrugged me away.

* * *

The next evening I drove home with a hundred dollars worth of French truffle. It didn’t buy much. Just one lump like a chocolate covered Macadamia nut, and I waited until Molly wandered into the kitchen to take out the garbage to brandish it, to ape the tasting notes I’d memorized off the chalkboard. When she was next to the stove, replacing the garbage bin with a new plastic, I shredded the entire truffle into the pot of risotto.

She held her long, loose hair from the back and leaned over it.

“Wonderful,” she said. It was a voice that meant it.

I set the table and uncorked a bottle of wine. I brought out the risotto and half a baguette. Molly was still in the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator.

“Start without me,” she said, setting the microwave timer.

I poured the wine. I was stirring to prevent the risotto from congealing when Molly sat down with a chicken breast and a few spears of asparagus pooling in oil. I gestured at the pot.

“Maybe in a bit,” she said.

We ate in silence, and I considered the inanity of her reluctance to eat rice, even this kind. I asked how her parents were, and she said they were coming up on the weekend, for the Oregon-Cal game.

“I know,” I said. “And I’m cooking. My food.”

Molly looked up from her plate. For a second her expression looked pained, but then her eyebrows flexed as though she were exercising them, and she yawned. “I’m sure they would like that,” she said, putting hand over mouth. With the serving spoon she lowered a dollop of risotto onto her plate.

Molly took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. “It’s good,” she said.

I nodded, too startled to say anything else. I hadn’t expected her to have any. Now, I resented the fact that she did.

* * *

On her night to cook, Molly made a vegetarian casserole. I thought of it as her rebuttal, and my response was to keep an open mind. In fact I did like the taste of it, not only its old timey conceit. Unbidden, I had seconds.

We ate out every following night, and I tracked her carb consumption. She was steadfast. At Le Pigeon she did not reach for the breadbasket. At Por Que No? she ordered a bowl – no rice. After my suggestion for pizza at our favorite place on Hawthorne, she mentioned the Caesar. “That’s not right,” I said, and we went to the vegan restaurant nearby, delicious in spite of itself. She wanted to eat ice cream after, but it made her so happy, and everyone deserved some sweetness.

I passed on dessert. We sat on stools across from each other and I watched her pink tongue smooth a scoop of pumpkin and spiced chèvre. Molly’s disavowal of Asia’s favorite grain wasn’t rice-ist, I decided.

“What is it?” she said.

“A dumb joke,” I said, leaving it at that.

* * *

The night Molly’s parents were flying in, I left work early and did the grocery shopping. I set my computer on the counter and opened to the recipes bookmarked online. There were step-by-step instructions for dishes I chose to make for their very obscurity: spicy sautéed octopus and beef and sea mustard stew. Their names felt stupid in translation, but I memorized them because they were preferable to my father-in-law’s inevitable maiming of the Korean. A Vietnam vet, Mr. Branson seemed to think everything Asian should be pronounced in his guttural version of Vietnamese, which didn’t sound Vietnamese at all.

To the beef and sea mustard stew I added a milky bag of chopped tripe. Neither recipe nor tradition called for cow’s stomach, but I relished the idea of Mr. and Mrs. Branson’s mod sensibilities impelling them to finish. That alone was enough.

I took unusual pains with the presentation, selecting crystal glassware and china webbed over from disuse. Molly offered to help. Without facing her I shooed her away, telling her to keep her parents company.

“Did you get the beer?” she said.

“A bunch in the fridge. Help yourself.”

“I mean for dad.”

“Give him the porter.”

She opened the fridge and took it out. She lifted it up to the ceiling light. “It’s dark, though.”

“It’s not bitter. Bitterness is determined by IBUs, and that has hardly any of it.”

“Does everything have to be a teaching moment? Dad’s not about to change his mind.”

“Don’t be bitter,” I said, but she’d already left the room. I shuttled back and forth from kitchen to the dining room, arranging food and table settings with geometric precision.

“This looks delightful,” Mrs. Branson said, after we were all seated. “You outdo yourself, Kevin. Truly.”

Thanking her, I studied Mr. Branson’s beer. The label had been peeled off and it was almost empty. “How’s that?” I said, gesturing at it. “Good, good.”

I watched Molly’s face for a reaction and there was none. That was something she deserved credit for: not letting small things affect her.

“Another beer?” I said to Mr. Branson. “I think there might be some lighter stuff.” We did. They were in the garage. Stuff Molly had bought a while ago. Past due.

“I’m fine. I’m liking this.”

I told them to start without me, and went back to the kitchen, to get Mr. Branson another beer.

“The soup is great,” he said after I reentered the room. “Reminds me of that Vietnamese soup. Foe.”

Resisting the impulse to say foe sure, I smiled. He drank the beer after all.

Mrs. Branson – insisting that I call her Dora – asked me to guide her through the food, and I did, explaining the mains and sides, using their translated names. Napa cabbage. Diced radishes. “Secret ingredient’s in the soup,” I said last.

Mr. Branson swirled his soup with the spoon and lifted a wan chunk of meat. “Tripe,” he said exultingly. “Knew it. Love it.” He looked in my direction. Strange, the way he insisted on my approval. I lifted an arm over the table and we high-fived.

“You don’t like tripe,” Molly said. “Either of you.”

Mr. Branson swallowed the tripe, then said, “Grandma made it all the time in pepper pot soup. I don’t think you were on solid foods when she passed. And there were several times on our trip to Ho Chi Minh City, eating foe on Rue Pasteur.”

“Saigon if you’re not a communist,” I said.

Mrs. Branson laughed. “We went to the Cu Chi tunnels and our guide kept apologizing every other minute. The Vietnamese. They’re wonderful people.”

“Now that they’re not shooting at us,” Mr. Branson said.

I rubbed my thumb and index fingers. “They want to, but they want our money more,” I said. There was a tautness to Molly’s lips, as though they were straining to contain words.

“Just because you eat it doesn’t mean you like it,” Molly said. “And if you like it, why didn’t you ever make it?”

“Honey, I’m a connoisseur, not a cook. I’m quoting you,” Mr. Branson said, stroking his wife’s thin neck. He went on: “And you were a picky eater in school. What did you ever want besides a PB&P?” Mr. Branson must have sensed my confusion because he laughed and said, “Pickle. Peanut butter and pickle.”

“On the topic of things that shouldn’t be eaten,” I said. Molly prodded my leg with hers. If this was a warning, I wasn’t having it. I pointed at the tripe she’d picked out of her soup bowl and placed on her plate. “Would you rather I make you a PB&P? Hold the bread?”

“Kevin’s still mad I stopped eating rice,” Molly said.

“I never said that.”

“You don’t have to. With you it’s just that obvious.”

“Well. I don’t get what’s so bad about carbs.” I added, “It’s all about moderation.”

“And I ate your risotto,” she said. “You just loved that, didn’t you?”

“Eating what you’re given, yeah. I thought that was the normal way of doing things.”

“Obsessing about another’s eating habits. Really normal.” Molly stood and left the dining room. The stairs creaked as she went upstairs. A minute later, Mrs. Branson excused herself. Unsmiling, her thin face looked skeletal. After she went to check up on Molly, I cleared my throat and addressed Mr. Branson: “We’ve both been a little stressed at work.”

“Seems like more than a little,” he said.


He asked if I remembered visiting in July, right after the Nigerian scam. His words were unhurried and deliberate. There was no meanness to his voice, but his earlier gregariousness was gone. “I also thought what Dora did, with wiring the money to a complete stranger, lacked better judgment. And as you know, she can get swept up in certain fads. But she means well, and if I needled her for every small thing –”

“We’re not always like that,” I said.

“All I’m saying is that you need to know what not to communicate. That’s all.”

I felt my face go flush. What exactly had been communicated to him? To Dora? Mr. Branson stood up and offered his hand, which I took reluctantly. Refusing would only prove Molly’s charges of pettiness.

* * *

With her parents over, there was nowhere to go but upstairs. At least their presence demanded a measure of civility from Molly. I hesitated outside our bedroom. A dim glow seeped underneath the door, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t already asleep. If she turned in before me, she kept my nightstand light on, so I wouldn’t trip in the dark.

She was in bed, reading a travel guide to Sri Lanka. She’d backpacked there once. Now things had settled down there, she’d been talking of going back.

“When is a good time to go?” I said. “Sri Lanka.”

“Who said anything about us going?”

“I don’t know, because you have a travel guide.”

She said nothing.

“I meant going in the general sense. When should one go to avoid the Monsoon, or idiot tourists. That kind of thing.”

She flung the book and it thudded on the floor. “Who cares, when you’ll ruin it anyway.” Even in the dim light, a redness was visible from her eyes. In the trash were a few crumpled tissues.

“You’ll ruin it with your insistence on doing twenty things a day,” I said. On our last trip, I’d been frustrated with the pace of things. Toward the end we reached a compromise. I stayed at the resort while she went trekking through the rainforest. She’d come back a few days later, tanned and freckled, with ankles sucked red from leeches.

She laughed assertively now. The tone was mocking, even. “Of course you’d turn this on me.”

“I’m a brat,” I said. “You didn’t not know this.” I went on, following a script I knew well.

She cut me off. “Your explanation doesn’t excuse you. Maybe you should just shut up.”

“And maybe – no, actually, you should stop telling your parents what happens between us. What do you parents not know?”

“They don’t know how much of an asshole you are. This, what you do. I almost wish you beat me. So I knew – so others knew – what you do to me.”

“If you think this – us – was a mistake, know you’re not the only one.”

She tilted her head to the side. Her forehead was creased and her mouth was scowling. “Good ideas,” she said, “you’re full of them today.”

* * *

After that, something changed. We weren’t over. Molly and I decided that would be drastic, at least for the time being. We spent more time on our own, but even then her presence was unavoidable. Her bath products covered every open space of the sink and bathtub. Her hairs clogged up the drains. She sang downstairs, on weekend mornings when I wanted to sleep in. I said nothing to these things. They were small, I knew that. But did knowing make things better, or worse?

James Yu grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and is currently an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.