Originally published in May 2006
Leah was a half-Chinese, half-white twin. Born and raised by artist parents in San Francisco’s North Beach, Leah’s most interesting element were her looks. She was a sexy creature, with her long black hair and cinnamon skin and indecipherable heritage. Ten units shy of a degree in theater from San Jose State everyone but her knew she’d never finish. A cocktail waitress. A party girl. Men swirled around her: pretty men, older men, playboy bachelors. She was uninterested in anything that wasn’t shiny and exciting. She had hundreds of shoes, a mini-skirt in every hue and texture, and not a single book.
She came home one afternoon to find my boyfriend and I on the living room couch engrossed in our novels and laughed all afternoon as if she’d never seen such a sight.
For a while, we had the perfect living situation – she would get to bed about the time I’d get up in the morning for work, and when I returned home she’d be putting on her makeup to get out the door for her shift at a local nightclub. Sometimes I’d hear her return in the wee hours, often with friends, or a man or two, and they’d quietly take their bong hits or have their final drinks before retiring to her bedroom on the other side of the bathroom from mine.
I was just out of college, working part time as a receptionist at an architecture firm and part time at an art magazine. I was madly in love with a man I’d met on the student newspaper, a man with a baritone voice and a 67’ Chevy Impala who wrote like John Steinbeck. This was back before everything. Back when I fretted about whether I’d ever really be a working writer. Back before I even wanted children. Back when $300 in the bank was cause for relief and back when I bought what is still my most valuable possession: a six-inch-thick 1923 Oxford Dictionary, found at a garage sale around the corner for just $10.
Leah and I had nothing in common, and, truth be told, we didn’t particularly like each other. But she was neat, and considerate in her message-taking and bill-paying. And with our schedules, we never had to spend more than an hour in the same room with each other. We didn’t need to be best friends, we agreed, as long as we were good roommates.
The only thing we did share was a fascination with eating. Every month or so we’d meet at a Chinese restaurant somewhere downtown and we’d dine, both of us practically dancing a jig with anticipation. She’d order dishes on the very edge of my Caucasian ability to ingest. And except for the sea cucumber adventure, I went through every door she opened and never looked back.
At home, Leah concocted wild hybrid Asian meals out of ingredients I’d never seen or heard of before. She’d make a giant pot of rice every morning, and use it throughout the day as her staple, over which she’d throw all manner of curious things. She hipped me to kim-chi, that spicy, fermented vegetable glop that graces every Korean table. She’d crumble ground beef into an iron skillet and fry it dark brown and crunchy, almost always setting off the smoke alarms, and on top of that she’d scatter a handful of some dark, mystery ingredient pulled from a dark earthenware jar with Chinese lettering that she kept covered in tinfoil. Then she’d throw the whole thing over a bowl of rice and hand me a pair of worn wooden chopsticks and bid me dig in. Delicious. Smoky. Tangy. I developed a taste for kim-chi over rice as well. She made her own brown rice green tea. Her steamed white rice was always perfect.
She kept coral-colored persimmons in her hanging basket by the kitchen window and every so often she’d stop and lean over and snatch one up to hold it to her nose to determine its ripeness.
One day Leah’s waitress shift changed and she started hanging out more during the evenings when I was home, and not surprisingly, we clashed. Soon thereafter I got my first “real” newspaper job and moved up the peninsula and out of her life. We spoke only a few times after that, mostly to argue over the phone bill. We never broke bread together again.
But to this day I remember her. I use chopsticks regularly. My love of kim-chi has surprised and delighted Korean friends met much later. The mystery ingredient she threw into her ground meat was preserved turnip, which you can buy at any Asian market, although I haven’t seen the keen little jar with the lettering for many years. Maybe Ranch 99 is too upscale for that sort of thing. Yes it looks a little funky to white eyes, I suppose, but it’s really adds a delicious smoky, tart flavor to meat or rice.
I think of her every year when the persimmons come to market, and I buy them for no other reason than because I love their color and shape on my table. Funny. I bring them home and set them out, and every now and then I snatch one up and hold it to my nose, even though I don’t particularly like them.
And Leah’s secret to rice is this: wash the rice first to release its spirit. Drain, spread flat on the bottom of your pot and fill with water so that it reaches the top of your thumb nail, if your thumb is just on top of, not buried in, the rice. Bring to a boil. Cover tightly and simmer for 20 minutes.
Thanks, Leah. Wherever you are.