Tina paused at the restaurant’s doorway, and fluffed her bangs with the help of her reflection in the glistening, ebony frame. She gave her scooped neck a nudge, and smoothed the fabric falling over her hips into a swaying bell. Giving her mirror image a nod, she clasped her clutch purse, she strode inside.
The smell of bamboo, and tinkling from the foyer’s fountain, blended with hushed conversations trapped between shoji doors and screens. With muted apologies, Tina worked her way through the cluster waiting to be seated.
“Welcome,” said a petite Asian woman in a pale-blue kimono manning the maitre-d’ pedestal. “For one?”
“No,” said Tina, her cheeks flushing. “I’m meeting someone. Ralph Warrent?”
The woman drew her finger along a clipboard of names, and then looked up with a grin. “This way.”
She led along the restaurant’s main aisle with constrained steps and the flap of her geta, before halting at a screen of rice paper framed in inky wood. “Enjoy,” she said, and then headed back to the entrance.
“Thank you,” said Tina. She glanced at the shoes waiting at the step into the private room, one pair of chunky heels, speckled with silver, toppled against one another. Her heart sped. Slipping out of her pointed heels, Tina set them by the riser, and then opened the door.
A young lady seated on the tatami across the table from the opening, with straight, shoulder length hair as dark as midnight, glanced up, a hand towel halfway to her round face. Her chestnut eyes widened before calming into forced apathy.
“Hi,” said Tina. “You must be Ashley.”
“That’s right. Can I come in?”
“I guess that’s the point isn’t it?” Ashley proceeded to dab the towel on her face, and then left the cloth beside two other rolls waiting on a wooden tray.
Tina entered, and closed the sliding doors behind her. She drew a deep breath, before turning and descending onto the cushion beside Ashley, tucking her stocking-covered legs close.
“My dad will be right back,” said Ashley. “He forgot something in the car.”
“That’s all right.” Tina plucked one of the rolls, and patted her face. The heat, and clean scent, worked into her pores and sinuses, providing a wave of sudden comfort, even under Ashley’s casual inspection.
“Have you been here before?”
“No,” said Tina. “I’ve heard about it but have never been. What about you?”
“No,” said Ashley, picking up a pair of lacquered chopsticks and twirling them in fingers tipped with jade green nail polish. “Do you like Japanese food?”
“I do. You?”
Ashley nodded, even as she set her chopsticks aside. “Japanese food’s my favorite. It was my mom’s favorite.”
“Oh,” said Tina. She sought the cup of ice water, dampening the low table, and downed a sip. Setting the glass aside, she shifted on the buckwheat pillow, surreptitiously working the hem of her crimson dress further down her thighs. Meanwhile, she endured the burn of Ashley subtle stare.
“Do you not like sitting on the floor?”
“I don’t mind,” said Tina. “But if I’d known, I might have worn something more appropriate. I feel like I’m flashing the restaurant.”
“Well, I like your dress.”
“Thank you,” said Tina, forcing herself still. “It’s new.”
“Mine’s new too.” Ashley leaned back, revealing the rest of her indigo dress, with an empire waist, and flowing skirt pooled like an ink spill around her knees.
“Is that right?”
“We went shopping for it over the weekend.” Ashley shrugged, and sipped her soda. “I think dad wanted me to make a good impression.”
“That makes two of us.” Tina grinned as Ashley’s mature demeanor wavered. Her gaping mouth clacked closed a moment later.
“The purple goes well with your hair,” said Tina.
“Thanks.” Ashley cocked her head. “I like the red. It’s fun.”
“I thought so.”
“It’s dad’s favorite color too.”
Tina flushed. “I know.”
Ashley let out a thoughtful hum.
“But I designed it long before we met,” said Tina, veering the conversation on to safer ground.
“Oh yeah, dad said you were a fashion designer or something. That you guys met at a show.”
“I was helping premier a line, and he was doing the flower arrangements.”
“Do you like it?”
“Work or flower arrangements?”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Your job.”
Tina shrugged. “It’s hard sometimes, but I like taking pieces of cloth and making them into something everyone can wear.” She took another sip, and avoided a glance at the door when a pair of footsteps strode past. “What about you? Any thoughts about what you’d like to do after high school?”
“I don’t know,” said Ashley. “College probably.”
“Your dad said you’re a math whiz.”
Ashley bounced her straw in her soda. “Numbers are easy. You can make them do whatever you want as long as you know the rules. But…I don’t know.” She glanced up, but the smothered her next words in her drink.
“Don’t know what?” Tina met Ashley’s gaze, and noted the fear hovering at the edges of the girl’s composure.
“I’m sick of being with a bunch of boys,” said Ashley, the words tumbling. “I feel like I’m weird or something, being the only girl in class.”
“Do they give you a hard time?”
“Sometimes. They mostly ignore me, like I’ve got the plague or something.”
“Sounds like their intimidated.”
“Of an attractive and intelligent woman who can keep up with them, or maybe who is even better.”
Ashley snorted. “Give me a break.”
“Really, I see it all the time.”
Tina laughed. “Not me, but my sister. She’s an architect, not an interior designer, but architect. Her office is mostly guys but she doesn’t let it hold her back. She voices her ideas and works her butt off just like they do, and has earned their respect.”
“She sounds neat.”
“She is,” said Tina. “Maybe next time we get together, she can come.”
Ashley looked down at the table, her gaze thoughtful. “Okay.”
The door slid open. Ralph, in navy socks and a matching suit and tie, entered, the tatami creaking under his hurried stride. The plastic surrounding the bouquet in his hand crinkled as he offered the flowers. “Sorry I’m late.”
Tina reached up, accepting the scarlet roses with both hands. “They’re beautiful. Thanks.”
“And for you,” said Ralph. From behind his back, he revealed a single canary-yellow rose, similarly wrapped with a curling ribbon, and offered the flower to Ashley.
Her face glowed with her sudden smile. “Thanks, dad.”
Tina gave him a grin as he dropped onto the cushion across the table. He winked, and hefted his menu.
“What are we having?”
“We haven’t gotten that far,” said Tina.
“Uh oh,” said Ralph, his eyes darting over the menu’s edge, “am I in trouble?”
Ashley laughed, her nose hovering above her flower’s petals. “Not yet.”
“The night is young,” said Tina.
“Well, I’d better eat now.”
Tina set the roses onto the straw mat between herself and Ashley, before skimming through the menu. By the time she’d reached the combinations, a pair of knocks preceded their waitress’ appearance.
“Are you ready to order?”
“I think so,” said Ralph, casting a questioning glance around the table. Ashley nodded and Tina folded her menu.
“I’d like the sushi platter, please.”
“I’d like a sushi platter too,” said Ashley.
Ralph frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” said Ashley. She lifted her chin, and met his stare without wavering. “And you can’t hold me back.”
Tina smothered her smile before her lips stretched into a guilty grin. She met Ralph’s gaze as he glanced between her and his daughter’s defiant face.
“All right then,” said Ralph, handing his menu to the waitress, “two sushi platters and one sushi boat. And better bring another Coke and a pair of Sapporo too. I have a feeling it’s going to be an interesting night.”