Chapter 11: Mochi
“Well, I’m glad that’s over.” Aunt Cass sighed, referring to the doctor’s visit as she shut close the car door and dropped the keys into her purse. “You feeling up and pumped yet, Tadashi?”
The boy smiled to her and to himself, giving her a quick nod. It was a universally known fact that there was just no containing Cassidy Hamada, once she’s properly excited. Even Tadashi with his abundant experience of living with his aunt, felt swept away as her zeal. “Sure am, Aunt Cass.”
“YEAH! That’s my boy! That’s the spirit!” She made a fist pump sign in the air and then patted Tadashi heavily in the back, eagerly pushing him towards the cafe entrance. “Now, let’s go in, greet your brother and make friends with that pretty saviour of yours.”
Tadashi blushed. “Aunt Cass, slow down! Whoa,” He yelped after almost doubling over. “I’m on crutches, remember?”
“Oh right! Sorry about that, sweetie. But it’s just,” Aunt Cass squealed, trembling with anticipation. “Argh, I’m just so excited!”
“It’ll be fine, Aunt Cass. It’s not like there’s a mob in front of the house.”
It is said that you should watch what you say, and even more so, watch you wish for. Tadashi certainly wasn’t wishing for a mob when he let out a joke to ease his aunt’s over-excitement. But his innocent banter proved prophetic, because that was exactly the sight that greeted the two Hamadas once they’ve round the corner past the parking spot.
Well, to say there was a mob may not be accurate, though not an understatement. There was just a really long line of people waiting to get in the cafe. The line just happened to be so long that its tail of people had spilled out of the door of the Lucky Cat and meander snake-like down the streets.
Both of them had violently stopped in their tracks in front of their own cafe, speechless and too much in awe. “Is that, really what I think it is?” Aunt Cass said, voice light and whispering. It was as if she thought that this was a dream, and a loud voice could easily break the spell.
“If so, I think I’m hallucinating too.” Tadashi said, much in the same amazement and wonder.
They stared at the cafe’s cramped entrance, and then at each other for a brief moment. After that, their stupor ended. And both were fighting their way to get inside. “X’cuse me. Coming through! Lady with a veteran, crossing over.”
“I’m not a veteran.” Shouted Tadashi right behind her. He was leaning delicately on his feet and doing his best not to bump into people, or worse - get knocked over in a mini-stampede.
“Don’t be... so... modest, Tadashi.” Aunt Cass grunted as she attempted to squeeze past a large man. He caught sight of her looking back briefly in amusement, while pushing their way forward.
After they finally broke through, they found that the sight that greeted them inside the cafe was no less stunning than the one outside. Inside was lively with guests. Every single seat was cramped with people. Everyone was chatting elevatedly over something, and seemed to be particularly absorbed about something on a small dish in front of them. Some even had their phones out and was repeatedly taking pictures.
Before he could catch a glimpse of the thing they were fawning over, the startled voice of his aunt quickly snapped him back.
“Hiro? What are you doing?” She gasped. “Is that my kitchen?”
“Sure is. Sorry, one hot batch of Special Mochi Treat, coming through.”
Hiro was wearing the cafe’s official uniform, with a white smiling cat logo. Balancing on his arms were four plates, each containing two small, roundish cake with a smooth, powdery surface. Each of them were a different colour and flavour.
Hiro himself seemed to be in a hurry. As soon as he set down the plates in front of the guests, he quickly retreated back to the kitchen, slipping through even Aunt Cass’ hands and Tadashi’s dumbfounded stare.
Concerned and confused, both Aunt Cass and Tadashi dove into the kitchen after Hiro. And what they saw, they couldn’t believe it, surprised them even more.
There, in their kitchen, laboriously pounding down on the biggest mortar they’d ever seen, was San. She had a deep look of concentration on her face - an expression that Tadashi had seen her wear when she is completely focussed on her task, so much that she was oblivious to any and everything else.
She was grinding the strange-looking pestle down with such ferocity and such power and speed - it was frightening to think what she could do if it were him on the other end of that stick - he’d probably be pounded flat to the bones. She strikes so fast that each time became a sort of blur. Drops of sweat dotted her forehead and arms. Tadashi even wondered if she was performing some kind of stunt.
But, as he later learnt, San wasn’t actually doing some kind of stunt. She was preparing the ingredients for a very particular dessert. He would also learn, very shortly after, that she was the reason why so many people had gathered to eat at the Lucky Cat Cafe today. Together with Hiro, San had masterminded an ingenious plan that not only saved the cafe’s reputation, but possibly changing it forever.
That night, San stayed over at the Hamada’s house for dinner with the entire household to celebrate the unforeseen success of their cafe. Of course, she had been pleasantly invited. And by invited, it is to be understood that she was coerced into staying by an unstoppable Aunt Cass.
“Really, now. That was one of the most super-delicious thing I’ve tasted in years.” Aunt Cass said dreamily, her face the epitome of delight as she took another bite of mochi. “Who taught you to make it?”
“My grandfather did,” San replied, hands curled around her cup of green tea. “He opened a confectionary shop after he retired. His recipe is a regional pride. But I took the liberty of adding a few other flavours to the original formula.”
“So you’re saying you invented all these flavours?” Aunt Cass grabbed and was poring over one of the makeshift flyers that San had printed as the day’s menu. There are in total seven different types of mochi which she listed, green tea, strawberry, chestnut cream, mango yogurt, chocolate banana, pistachio and red bean. All looked glorious!
“Not invented, Mrs. Hamada. I only innovated.” San said.
“Shush! Call me Aunt Cass. That’s an order.” Aunt Cass sharply ordered, brandishing a spoon like some sort pointer.
“Yes, m’aam.” San complied.
Tadashi stole a glance in San’s direction. She was looking rather calm and relaxed, quietly and leisurely taking sips from her tea cup every now and then. A wave of relief washed over him as he registered her ease at talking to his aunt. He didn’t know if he could stand having her being awkward with his family.
“No one’s allowed to call Aunt Cass ‘Mrs. Hamada’ except for the mailman.” Upon Hiro whispering, she let out a muted laugh that could almost be a small giggle.
“Thank you... Aunt Cass,” She said, a bit tentatively, as if testing out the effects. “for inviting to me dinner. It’s been wonderful sharing a meal with you.” San cleared her voice, sat a little straighter in her seat, and glanced appreciatively at Hiro and Tadashi’s aunt to convey her sincerity.
She kindly didn’t mention how Aunt Cass practically blockaded the front door in an attempt to get her to share a meal with them.
“My, isn’t she the politest thing ever?” Aunt Cass exploded, swinging an arm around San’s shoulder to embrace her. The girl was so shocked by the gesture that even when Aunt Cass had let go, she still had a wide-eyed look. (Aunt Cass didn’t notice)
“Say, do you live in the area? It was quite the coincidence that you and Tadashi met in the park this morning. Not that I’m not grateful for that,” Aunt Cass asked, her face lit up in curiosity.
“Two tram stops down the Sakura Avenue.” San replied pleasantly.
“My, that is close. We’re practically neighbours, aren’t we?”
“Yes, it would seem so. This is a good neighbourhood. ”
Aunt Cass then proceeded to bombard San with questions like how long had she known how to cook, what other things could she make, was her family a long line of professional chefs, etc. San, to her credit, was very pleasant and accommodating in every answer, though Tadashi couldn’t help but detect a hint of aloofness every now and then.
“You must come over to our cafe some time.” Aunt Cass leaned forward, as if she couldn’t keep her enthusiasm to herself. “Don’t worry, it’s just for visiting exchange purposes. You’ve got to tell us more of your recipes.”
“If you’re okay with sharing them.” Tadashi quickly added.
“Oh no. I don’t mind. I often cook for myself anyway. It’ll be much more fun to have someone to cook with and share the food anyway.” San replied, looking quite touched by Aunt Cass’ eagerness.
“So you’ll come again?” She asked, suddenly all-serious. San smiled and nodded.
“WOO! Aren’t you excited Mochi?” Aunt Cass had darted out of her chair and swept up Mochi and started dancing with the cat in her arms. The bobtail didn’t look too comfortable with that, but it seemed there was no escaping Cassidy Hamada’s vice-like grip either.
“Your family is very funny.” San said at last, glancing at Tadashi, a small yet amused smile on her lips. “In a good way of course.”
They were standing alone under the open night sky, waiting for a tram to pick one of them up. Tadashi, ever so chivalrous, insisted on taking her to the stop. For some reason Aunt Cass had hotly insisted that he did too.
Needless to say, San had violently, adamantly protested. And not without reason. She’d said that Tadashi needed to let his tender ankle rest for a while, and that she could walk herself back since home wasn’t that far off either.
Yet somehow, despite her sound reasons they still ended up here. San hadn’t spoken a word to him since they left the house. Only until they had reached the tram stop that she seemed willing to strike a conversation.
“Hmm, they’ve got a lot of energy, don’t they?” Tadashi gave his own comment after a moment of thought.
“Tell me about it. I’m spent, just keeping up with your aunt and little brother.” San sighed, but he knew she meant that in a good way too.
“But not at all by all that mochi-pounding?” Tadashi asked, looking at her ridiculously.
She carelessly shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
It was ironic in a sense, but Tadashi could get what she’s talking about. Even he often found himself amazed by the endurance of his bubbly aunt.
“San?” As she turned her eyes toward him, he was grateful that he could see them clearly. No longer were they distant and full of bitter feelings. He couldn’t really describe it but... she seemed happier than the last time he saw her. “I’m really glad I got to meet you today. First you saved me, then you saved Hiro, then you saved the whole cafe. I owe you.”
A flicker of amusement danced in her eyes. “There you go, exaggerating again, Hamada.” She let out a soft laugh. “I didn’t 'save’ you so much as hauled your heavy ass back. And don’t forget, it was your mistake that you fell off that tree.”
“Ouch, do you have to rub that in?”
“In fact I do.” She said, a tad smugly. “I don’t think you realise how silly that whole fiasco was.”
Tadashi didn’t think it was that silly, getting a balloon for a child because you could. But he could certainly see why San, this cool and rational person (and now a maker of miracles) would see it that way.
“Hey... umm,” He tried starting again. It was harder to find the right words. Hell, a lot harder than he’d thought, but he remembered Aunt Cass’ advice and finally took up the courage to say what needed to be said. “I’m sorry, about the way I’ve acting. It wasn’t right. I did stuff on my own without thinking, and I gave you a hard time. Sorry about that.”
San didn’t say anything. The smirking gleam in her eyes disappeared just now, but there was this deep and clear look that encouraged him to go on. “If you want to bring this up to Professor Callaghan… then... you know, I won’t stop you. Whatever you want to do from now on, I’ll support you, alright?”
Tadashi thought she looked mildly surprised.
“Even letting me do my own project?” she asked.
“Yeah, even that.” He smiled, and said without hesitance.
Once again, San fell silent. She only stared into the night sky in deep thought. Tadashi couldn’t help but look up too. It was a clear night, with very few clouds. The stars were blinking, and the moon just one clear, silver orb brimming with light and soothingness. In a way, it looked just like a mochi...
“You’ve changed.” She murmured, couldn’t help but feeling slightly amazed.
“I guess I did.”
Her head suddenly bowed, as if weighed down by many feelings.
“I’m sorry, too. I was being...well, too stubborn. And I did some horrible things to you too. I can see that what you did, you did it because you cared a lot. I’m sorry.”
After a moment, she added.
“You know, I really don’t like relying on people. There are so many let downs that I-” San paused suddenly, slightly reluctant to continue. “At least, that’s it for me. I’m not good at getting people to like me. Unlike you.”
“It’s nothing to do with talent. 99% of people are very friendly,” said Tadashi. “But if their flaws if all you ever remember, then you’ll be afraid of them forever. Expect the best of people, not the worst.”
San fell silent. Between her deep thoughts, her eyes caught a hint 0f regret. “Hiro, and now you. Every one seems to be giving me lectures lately.” She sighed.
Tadashi was curious - what exactly did Hiro say? But he refrained from asking San, it didn’t seem right at the moment. Despite appearances, San was struggling with forming relationships, Tadashi thought with startling realisation. Her down-to-earth view of people was hindering her ability to connect. But because she loves and values her independence so much, it’s unlikely that she thought this was a problem.
So in a way, he and the Professor had been right, although their methods were horribly unsuited to San. Perhaps he could gently persuade her and soften her with a more subtle approach. And then he would let her be since she was smart (and reasonable) enough to figure out the rest.
“Geez, I really envy you,” San smiled faintly, saying something he didn’t expect her to say. “You think so casually. And you never seem to be in doubt of your path. No wonder you have many friends."
“They’re your friends too, remember?”
Her expressions softened.
“I bet you get that a lot, do you?”
“Being told you’re a nice guy.”
He didn’t really know how to answer that.
“Sometimes...” He shrugged.
“Oh don’t be so modest, Hamada.” San interrupted, punching him in the shoulder as if she felt the need to admonish him. “Or should I call you SFIT Magazine’s Number One Guy I Want To Date?”
Tadashi nearly choked in his throat. “What? How’d you even know that?” It was supposed to be a secret. How embarrassing it was that San would find out!
“I’ve got my means.” She only smirked, sounding intentionally cryptic. “Just because I’m cooped up in the lab all the time doesn’t mean I don’t have eyes and ears here and there.”
Tadashi wondered if her ‘eyes and ears’ in the school came in the form of Fred, like the rest of the gang. He hoped not, since even Tadashi was a little cautious of the extent of Fred’s ‘knowledge’ sometimes.
“You’ve got quite the fanbase...” San chuckled, trying not to snicker. She looked even more amused now that she got hold of a dark secret.
Tadashi only smiled sheepishly.
“Thanks. I owe you three for today.”
“Since you insist, I’ll be keeping count.” San said with a sense of mischief. Tadashi wondered how this girl could switch from sweet to satire in a millisecond’s worth of time.
However, for some reason, he was filled with gratitude.
They said nothing afterwards, only letting their gaze wander down the road. Tadashi could see the light from the next tram approaching. This was a signal that his time with San was ending soon.
Still, neither of them said anything as the tram drew nearer. But Tadashi didn’t mind it. Not at all. He was learning the value of silence and quiet understanding.
As the tram skidded to a stop, San climbed on board and stopping half way to turn back to look to him. He was surprised to see a look of uncertainty in her eyes.
“Say, if you...umm...if you don’t mind, and...er, if you still want to,” She said, stuttering for the first time since they’d met. Finding her voice though, she went on in a much surer tone. “I’d like us to remain partners. Just for the time being. Is that okay?”
Tadashi was surprised. Heck, this day was nothing but surprises, it seems. But not once in a thousand years would Tadashi expect to hear those words from San. At the same time he was delighted to hear it.
She smiled. It wasn’t a sad smile, an amused smile or even a sarcastic one. It was a true, genuine smile. The first he’d seen. It is true that a smile on a person can make them look refreshing. But on San, it is quite different. She looked like an entirely different person. It brought out something in her eyes, perhaps their silver-bluish tint.
In fact, there was this soft glow of happiness and relief that coated them both. Their hearts really do feel light.
The tram started to move.
“See you tomorrow?” Tadashi said. He wasn’t sure if he’d said it loudly enough, since the tram bell was tolling.
But San seemed to have heard anyway. She bit her lip (as if to contain her smile) and gave him a nod, before disappearing inside the warmer interior of the tram.
As the tram turned around the next corner, Tadashi still stood there - still on crutches - couldn’t quite believing how well things had turned out.