Worth Waiting For: A Love Story

My new husband Ben and I woke at dawn on the first morning of our honeymoon in Tokyo, discombobulated by jet lag, and went straight to Tsukiji, the fish market. We could have been on a beach. Instead, we were where the ocean went to die, in a chaotic building in an overwhelming city in one of the least romantic countries on earth.

After we explored ourselves into exhaustion, we wandered blinking into the sunlight and realized, against all odds, that we were hungry. We had been up for hours; though our stomachs were unsettled, they needed breakfast. In an outdoor extension of the market that looked like a shuk, full of narrow, open-air rows of shops, we noticed a line for a nondescript, unnamed tiny restaurant with no sign. We shrugged at each other and queued up, hoping for the Japanese equivalent of a Cronut.

Which, half an hour later, was what we received. Piece by piece, the chef on the other side of the bar handed us sushi that was only Mostly Dead, sushi that an hour before had been fish swimming in Pacific waters, thinking whatever kinds of peaceful, aquatic thoughts make it extra tasty. We were never given a menu or informed what we were eating. It was the one of strangest, most blissful experiences we had ever had.

Transcendence does not come cheap. Our breakfast, we were informed when we went to pay, cost $70 (7000 yen). We looked in our money pouch and exchanged glances: we had 28 bucks.

They did not speak English or take credit cards. We didn’t have cell phones. It was 8:30 in the morning on the first day of our honeymoon, and we were already screwed.

Ben and I settled on a plan in which, like so many princesses in so many stories, I would become a hostage, perched in the corner of the tiny, nameless sushi bar, as my new husband raced around like Mario trying to find a post office open that early — one with an international ATM.

I turned on a “Don’t worry about me!” kind of smile to reassure restaurant workers and patrons alike. Fortunately most of the latter were too absorbed in their experience to consider how strange it was that I should be there, sharing their 200 square feet of space. I was a curly-haired foreigner, a gaijin in red shorts and sneakers, in a country full of suits and stewardesses; to be more conspicuous, I would have to be wearing a dunce cap. At least I was short.

Think happy thoughts. You’re on your honeymoon, I told myself. For a few minutes, I managed it — then less well, and less. I had no book to help substitute someone else’s sanity for my own, no words or music of any kind to fill the void.

This nameless restaurant was bound to be one of dozens in the narrow alleys off the Fish Market. How would my new husband find it, and me, again? I had no money, not even enough to take the subway, and for that matter I was not even sure I knew how to find my way back to our anonymous, blocky hotel, one of a thousand like it in the Ueno district. How had I not realized how dependent I had let myself be? I been so blithely confident in our ability to stay together as a couple that I hadn’t made any provision for myself. How could a marriage so short it could have been measured in hours already have turned me into a housewife?

I had to be calm. I had to brave the quiet, to sit like a strangely dressed, very unfeminine princess in a tower, and wait.

Half an hour trickled by, then an hour. Rainbows of raw fish arced from one side of the bar to the other as I watched; customers closed their eyes, receiving a sensory glimpse of what it must be like to be miles under the surface of the ocean. Their faces registered a new understanding of the world, something quiet and profound. I hoped they had brought enough cash.

I met Ben at college, after several boozy, unsatisfactory, and unromantic encounters. Marriage never crossed my mind then; at 18, sex and love were quite enough for me. But marriage wasn’t my goal even after we graduated and moved to the big city. To be that confident in another person seemed terrifying — what if he failed? What if I did? What were the odds that neither of us would? I liked that he was independent and he liked that I was.

After the unhappiness of my teenage years, I found a guy I could relax with and learn from, a guy who I could exhale around, even if that made my belly stick out. Together, at last, we agreed to dismantle our mutual independence and build something new, something scary. Still, even after a ceremony and a reception, believing is hard; being optimistic is work. Sometimes it is your turn to run around and fix problems, and sometimes it is your turn to wait, to let someone try to save you. I felt gendered, passive, stupid. Have faith, I told myself. I tried. I tried so hard I almost fell off my stool.

An hour and a half had passed since my new husband had set off on his quest. Just when the waitresses were about to put me to work rolling hot towels, Ben returned, triumphant, exhausted, the money pouch thick with yen.

“You made it!” I cried. I was as happy to see him as I had been when I walked down the aisle.

“Were you worried?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I knew everything would be fine.”

He was still breathing hard from running, and he glowed with pride. I glowed right back at him: he was my Mario, my new husband, the guy I had chosen, for better or for worse. Right then, I couldn’t imagine any better. And I couldn’t wait to take turns saving each other over the decades to come.

We paid for our breakfast. The sushi chefs and the waitresses applauded us out the door and into the rest of our married life.

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