You go to dinner with your girlfriend, who is introducing you to her parents for the first time. She is nervous because they don’t speak much English, despite already having a Canadian son-in-law. You and she meet them on the street in front of a sushi buffet. You bow to the parents, and they make a startled noise. Into the restaurant you go.
You bring your parents to a dinner with your girlfriend and your girlfriend’s parents. You are nervous because your parents speak no Korean, and because her parents speak very little English, and because your parents are visiting Korea for the first time and still seem jet lagged. You have only met your girlfriend’s parents once before, and it was briefly, and randomly, at the subway station near your apartment. You try to just own your nervousness, embrace it, as you’re standing outside the sushi buffet waiting for your girlfriend and her parents. When they arrive, everyone bows awkwardly and holds out their hands and then shuffles into the restaurant. The host sits your party at a booth in the corner. You have beside you a big window looking out onto the street. Everyone is glad for it. The view makes the silence more bearable.
You can’t eat because on the floor of the restaurant is a dead whale. It is not rotting yet, but the fresh smell of the sea is almost as bad as what you imagine the decay smell would be. Your mom asks honestly if this is how things are done here. Your girlfriend translates the question before you can tell her not to, and her parents say no, this is not how things are generally done here. Your dad finds a button on the table and presses it. A waiter comes and does not smile. Your mom asks him how things are done here. The waiter does not have any idea what she’s asking him. Your dad presses the button again, and the waiter looks hurt, as though your dad had pressed the button because he is dissatisfied and wants another waiter and not because he is uncomfortable and unsure what to do with his hands.
You ask your girlfriend about the whale. She doesn’t understand it either. She asks the waiter about it, and the waiter says that it’s a very special whale, brought in from the sea just that day. Your girlfriend says, “Do we eat it?” The waiter seems hurt again and says, “No, of course not.” Your parents want to know what this exchange is about, so you tell them. They wonder if the whale is supposed to be some kind of decoration then, like proof of authenticity. Your girlfriend translates for the waiter, who says, “No, of course not.”
You and your parents meet your girlfriend and her parents for dinner, and everyone is so happy to be dining with old friends. Everyone is fluent in English and jumps immediately into the real conversation, the good stuff. Your girlfriend’s dad asks as you are entering the restaurant if you are still working on your big painting of the Buddha. You say that you are. He points out that you have gotten a little soft in the belly too. Inside, the host sits you at a booth in the corner. Your girlfriend’s dad demands to be near a window. The host apologizes and walks your party over to a booth near a window. Outside, a bird flies by. This bird is followed by a thousand other birds. Only the first bird was white.
There is a whale in the restaurant, and it is a dead one. Your mom is trying to stay strong, but the truth is she doesn’t like seafood in the first place. Forget about a sushi buffet. Forget about a sea creature whose face is lifeless and yet still intact. Your mom vomits in the tiny bathroom and texts you while it’s happening. She asks what people generally do here, in these situations. You say you don’t know and ask your girlfriend, and she says she also doesn’t know. She explains what’s happening to her parents, and your girlfriend’s mom volunteers to go into the bathroom and help out your mom. It’s pretty clear she doesn’t actually want to do it. Your girlfriend wonders aloud, in Korean, if she should go. You say it’s OK, in Korean. Your girlfriend’s mom says, “You speak Korean?” In Korean, she says it.
You are eating sushi with your parents and your girlfriend, who is talking about her parents, who couldn’t make dinner because they have some banquet to go to for her dad’s company. He works for Kia. Your parents are excited about that, because your brother, their first son, teaches automotive mechanics at their local community college. They ask your girlfriend a lot of questions about her dad, including how he met her mom. She doesn’t know how it happened. A whale rolls over during the awkward silence following your girlfriend’s lackluster answer. The whale lies on the floor next to your table and says, “All I ever wanted in my life was to fly, like those birds that are passing by the window.” Your father is closest to the window and has to lean over your mom to see the whale. “How can he see the window from there?” he says to, of all people, your girlfriend.
You go to the bathroom, and there’s a whale in there propped up next to a urinal. It looks so casual, like it’s just waiting to watch the men pee. The whale can talk and says, “It’s actually a common misconception that whales only live in water.”
“Is it?” you say.
“No,” the whale says.
You are having dinner with your parents and your girlfriend and her parents. Her parents have gotten all chilly because your parents just revealed that they don’t much care for sushi. Her parents say something, and it’s too fast for you, so your girlfriend repeats it for you, in simpler and slower Korean. It turns out that the parents only chose the sushi buffet because they heard that’s what American tourists are most interested in. They are embarrassed and feel like they have lost face. Your girlfriend’s mom is hiding her eyes.
Your mom pushes the button on the table and a waiter comes. “Yes?” the waiter says. “We’re fine, thanks,” your mom tells him.
You are having dinner alone with your girlfriend and talking to her about putting together a big dinner with both sets of parents. She is open to it. Like you, she is nervous. You both go quiet as you begin separately picturing the dinner. Your girlfriend smiles, and you frown. Outside the restaurant, it is raining, and you begin to watch the clouds. Your girlfriend touches your foot with hers. A whale walks up to your table and makes a soft noise to get your attention.
“Can I help you with anything?” he asks.
“No, we’re fine,” your girlfriend says.
“The check?” the whale asks.
“Thanks so much,” you say.
A whale comes to your table and says, “I couldn’t help overhearing you and your partner talking about introducing your parents to one another. May I sit down?” Your girlfriend seems uncomfortable, because the whale is so smooth and imposing. “Actually,” you start to tell the whale, but he has already picked up on the vibe. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t mean to intrude. I was only hoping to tell my story to someone. I thought it might be relevant here. I’m lonely, but that’s of course not your problem.” The whale seems genuinely sorry to have disturbed you. His head drops. He loses his balance and falls on the floor. He’s looking at the corner where he was propped up when you first entered the restaurant. He was wearing a hat and bowtie then. The hat is on the floor now, since he fell. “I’ll probably die soon,” he says. “I’m literally dust inside. I’d ask you to feel my skin, but that’s weird, and to be honest I don’t want anyone who’s not my mother touching my skin.” You watch the whale roll over to his corner, where he quickly dies.
You are a whale, and you are telling the story of how your parents met. As your mom had put it to you, both parents chose that year simply to follow their separate food chains to warmer waters. They met unexpectedly but happily. Far from the more traditional mating environment, they could avoid the competition, the fighting, and the piercing songs. Your parents spent a lovely, quiet day together. They breached and floated and made love over and over. They filled one another up. They ate until they were bloated and weak. And then they said goodbye and took off again to follow their different chains.
You are the result of something beautiful and free, and you know it. Your mom always made sure you knew you looked just like your dad.
“Wow,” a man says. “What a sweet story.” You are at a restaurant. The man is a customer, a regular. He asks, “Where is your mother now, then?”
“How do you mean?” you say to him. “I don’t know. I’m an adult.”
You are a whale and at a restaurant telling the story of how your parents met. A man listens and asks what your parents are up to now.
“Dead,” you say to him. “I’m an adult. What do you mean?”
You meet your girlfriend and her parents on the street and suggest a nearby sushi buffet for dinner. They nod and go along with you then don’t eat a single piece of fish all night. They have only salad. You want to know why afterward, and your girlfriend explains that her parents are vegetarians. “Why didn’t anyone say anything?” you ask. “To what end?” she replies.
You and your girlfriend are trying over dinner to tell her parents that you two would like to live together. It’s slow going because your Korean is bad and your girlfriend has to translate and/or dumb things down for you.
She is saying now that her parents are not giving their permission. Are you prepared to marry your girlfriend? Yes, when you and she are ready. Then, the parents express, she will live at home until you and she are ready. Your girlfriend shrugs and looks at you, and you feel a sudden influx of anger. “Is that all?” you say. “Is that the end of the discussion? Didn’t we make a decision about this together already?”
Maybe you did. Definitely you did. But now she seems to be folding, and you are failing at being understanding. You try to talk sense to the parents. You do it in your bad Korean and end up saying something that offends everyone else at the table. You say you didn’t mean to suggest that the family is being unreasonably stubborn. You didn’t mean “childlike.” You mix up some words. The parents walk out of the restaurant. Not long after, your girlfriend also does. You follow them down to the sidewalk and try to recover from what happened. At the same time, you remain angry that they couldn’t be more understanding of your situation. Of course you will make mistakes with the language. Of course you want to live with someone whom you love. You wait with them as the valet goes to get the parents’ car. The valet comes, and the parents get in the car. Your girlfriend lingers. You say, “What’s happening?”
“Don’t worry,” she says. But you do worry. How can you partner with someone who, at 30, is unable to pursue her own interests? Can’t she make her own decisions? Follow through? She thinks that’s unfair. You know it is. You remind her that you do want to marry her and that it was her idea to live together first. And seriously, what happened back in that restaurant? Very calmly, she says she doesn’t know. “I haven’t had time to think about it,” she says. There’s a look washing over her face that makes your gut feel like it has knives in it. You’re bleeding everywhere on the inside. There’s a moment as she’s quiet and you’re bleeding that is desperate to be filled with something, and then a large whale busts through the restaurant’s windows above you and slaps wetly against the sidewalk. Everyone gasps. The broken glass has scratched the parents’ nice car and cut your girlfriend’s arm.
Lying there, the whale’s eyes slowly close. Its flippers are moving up and down, ever more slowly, as though they were wings.
You are eating dinner with your girlfriend on a ridge overlooking the massive darkness at the bottom of the ocean. It is mating season for the whales, and they are swimming all around you fighting and singing and holding one another. Your girlfriend eats a sea squirt and stifles a cough. “Sorry about drowning,” you say. You chose where to eat and, while your girlfriend seems fine and is acting like a good sport, you feel sorry. The food is good, so fresh, but the drowning. Your girlfriend grows increasingly pale. The blood vessels burst in your eyes. “I love you,” you say. It hurts, what you’re doing. Your girlfriend’s hair dances around her. A crab comes along and pinches her elbow. “Hey,” she says to the crab.
You thought that meeting here would make it easier for your parents to come out and join you. You want them to meet this person. It’s still too far for your parents, though, and they’re not here, and you realize how hard it is to maintain close ties with family when you and your partner were born in different places. Such vastly different places. “I love you, too,” your girlfriend says, and then her heart stops and she floats away from you. A current catches her. A whale bumps into her, but she continues on.
Soon after, your heart also stops and into the current you go. And then you and she are dead in the same current. And going home.
You are a whale and in your whaleness can’t help eating all of the fish at the sushi buffet. You know it’s wrong, but what’s going to stop you? You are far from home and also are alone. All around you are noises you don’t understand. You have not chosen to live inside these walls. There are windows, but in the dry air they just blur into everything else.
In your whaleness, you long to be free. And yet you are here. A little boy is crying and pouring water onto your tail.
You are on the train now, headed for dinner at a sushi buffet with your girlfriend and your girlfriend’s parents. You will meet them for the first time today. It will be awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassing. You will sweat and feel like you have to poop. You will have to say things about what you feel and believe and think, in a language you don’t know well. You will feel out of place and large. Will it be difficult? Yes. Worth it? Sure. You will have trouble breathing, but at least you know you will be next to her. The truth is you want nothing more than that.
Tim Raymond has work forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Passages North, and others. He has an MFA from Wyoming and now teaches high school in Korea. He also helps run Problem House, a new short story contest for emerging writers.