The Nutritionist And The Artist

“This is Shiso. You see the sprouts in the sapling? These can be used as garnish, along with the leaves. The flower buds, when pickled, taste really wonderful.” Makoto said with obvious pride. “Can you please repeat the name of the plant?” One of the guys asked him. “I will suggest an easier name – Japanese Basil. Hey there, Makoto San. How are you this fine day?” Makoto shut his eyes and subtly shook his head. Without looking, he knew who had spoken. The bane of his existence. The chaos to his entropy. The bright sunlight to his soothing evening. With a sigh, he turned around. There she was, leaning over the wall that separated her garden from his. He tried not to grimace as he took in the fiery-red streaks that peeped from blonde hair. Every time he saw her, she seemed to have experimented with a new hair colour.  “I am fine, Layla San. As you can see, I am teaching a new batch today.” He said, hoping that she would get his point and leave him alone. “Don’t mind me, I will just hang out here and listen to you.” She said with a smirk. He inhaled deeply and turned towards his group. “Please note down the name of this plant – Shiso. It is rich in antioxidants and is a good source of iron and calcium. It is used for treating respiratory disorders.” Makoto expected the guys to write down in notepads. He frowned when he saw them typing in their cell-phones. Whatever happened to the good old practice of actually writing!? “Moving on to the next, this plant is Mizuna…” He tried to concentrate on teaching but his mind seemed to focus entirely on the infuriating woman casually leaning over the wall and observing him silently. He resolutely brought his focus towards the group following him. “And that is all for today, people. Let us meet tomorrow at the same time.” The group bowed to him and left. He looked around and saw her still waiting. He walked towards her, thinking how it had come to this. On his fiftieth birthday, Makoto had had a revelation of sorts and had decided to give up his blooming practice as a nutritionist. Rather, he had decided to tend to his own garden where he had grown a large variety of herbs. As a past-time, he conducted informational tours for tourists and shared with them, his knowledge of the various herbs and plants that he himself had studied about. His garden was his pride. His profession had lent him a quiet satisfaction that came from knowing his work and using his knowledge for the welfare of others. His garden had always been his refuge – a world away from the world in which he lived. Here he meditated, reflected on the principles of life and achieved a high level of Zen that he could not get anywhere else. Alas, it took the arrival of the lady smiling goofily at him to get rid of all his Zen within days. She had moved into the home next to his. While his home lay nestled in comforting silence, her home vibrated with sheer chaos. He could hear her talking over the phone loudly many times in a day. Other times, the sound of cooking followed. She must have terrible coordination, for the deafening sound of utensils falling to the ground was a constant source of irritation for him during his meditation sessions. The worst part, according to him, was that he was attracted to her. All his life, Makoto had prided on being stoical and grounded. Till he met her, he had led a contented life. The prospect of marriage had never appealed to him and he had lived a relationship-free life throughout his teenage and adulthood. It was embarrassing for him to realize that at the age when most people withdrew from mundane pleasures and delved into deeper questions such as the purpose of their lives, he was acting like a teen over his first crush. Thanks to her outgoing nature, he knew quite a lot about her. He knew that she had never married and that she came from a large family. He knew she hailed from Columbia. She was an artist by profession and made a living selling portraits and landscapes. “Makoto San, will you come to my house tomorrow for dinner?” Layla asked, blissfully oblivious to his shock over her direct approach. Rational thought soon replaced his shock. He would spend hours later thinking about how ‘rational’ this thought had been. In a stern voice, Makoto replied. “Layla San, I do not know the custom that is followed in your land. But I personally am very mindful and respectful about women and do not stay in close quarters with them with no other chaperone around. I was raised in this way.” The hurt expression on her face was his first clue that he had said something terribly wrong. In an instant, her smile disappeared and a vulnerable expression came over her face. She straightened herself up, all five-feet against his own six feet frame. “Let me clarify. Tomorrow is my fortieth birthday and I am planning to have a party. My parents and my siblings are flying in from Columbia. I have also invited some of our neighbours. So if you find this acceptable, then the invitation to join the party, in the presence of my entire family and some of our mutual friends, is being extended to you too.” She turned around and sashayed her way back to her home, leaving Makoto in silent stupefaction. *** The next evening found Makoto standing outside Layla’s house, fidgeting on his feet while his hands nervously clasped the gift he had brought for her. The din he heard from inside her house did not exactly boost his confidence. Still, he had amends to make, words to take back, apologies to offer… Taking a deep breath, he stepped inside the house. There were sounds of raucous laughter, accompanied by distinct smells of food being prepared. Makoto took in the room and decided that it was all Layla. The furniture was arranged haphazardly. Books and magazines lay scattered over the center table. The house, while not overly neat, was welcoming.  “You came!” Layla came out of the kitchen, smiling brightly. Makoto inhaled sharply. While she always looked beautiful to him, today she was looking radiant. Dressed in a wrap-around dress that clung lovingly to her frame and voluminous hair that fell around her shoulders in lovely waves, she was looking gorgeous. Her dress was a testament to her spirit – there were so many colours embedded in the dress that it was difficult to pinpoint just one colour. Makoto gulped uncomfortably. This was going to be one long evening. “Happy Birthday, Layla San. You look beautiful today.” He said while offering his gift to her. She beamed happily. “Thank you! Aww, you got me a gift too! Why such formalities?” Makoto cleared his throat. “That gift is also an apology from me for reading your invitation wrong and for assuming the worst.” They often had altercations. She was as strong in spirit as he was and never hesitated to put him in his proper place. He expected her to give him a good amount of grief for his initial response to her invitation.  She tilted her head. “Tell me, Makoto San, would it be really wrong if we both had dinner together, just as friends?” Makoto ran his hand over his jaw, mulling over the question and wondering how to be frank with her. It wasn’t that he was opposed to have dinner with her. It was just that, he found his attraction to her deeply disturbing. At this age, he did not want to get entangled in any relationship. She was ten years younger to him. That fact did nothing to diminish his attraction for her. He knew perfectly well that one evening spent with her would only deepen his feelings. So long he had managed to live a life free of complications; he had no intention to break this principle. That was the sole reason he had reacted so strongly to her invitation at first. Of course, seeing her hurt had broken his heart badly and he had spent a sleepless night, waiting for the morrow to come so that he could apologize to her at the first available instant. She wasn’t even a part of his life and was already shaking it up. “I made you uncomfortable. My apologies. Please come in and meet my very loud and rambunctious family.” She smiled and gestured him to follow her. As he was following her, he saw her open the door to a room where she kept the gift he had given. One glimpse of the room and Makoto’s head threatened to explode. She was a hoarder, all right. The room contained so many boxes that he was amazed that she found place to keep her feet inside. There was a cot which was already overflowing with boxes of various shapes and sizes. She carefully placed the gift on top of the pile. She thought for a second and picked up the gift again. “I am really curious to see what you have got for me. Please do not mind my manners.” She smiled sheepishly at him and opened the gift with great gusto. He was still taking in the enormous amount of boxes lying all over the room. “If you do not mind, may I ask what are these?” She looked around wistfully. “Ah… you have stumbled upon my weakness! You see, I am extremely fond of gifts and memoirs. These are all gifts that I received from people at various points in my life as well as memoirs I collected from the places that I visited. While shifting here, I brought all these and haven’t found a proper place to unpack and display them.” “But there are so many of them!” Makoto who thrived on minimalism had to refrain from mentioning that the gifts and memoirs would fit in only in a museum. She tilted her head at him in that enticing way of hers. “Tell me, does a moment ever return?” He looked at her curiously without answering, not sure whether this was a rhetoric question. “I visited a new place, met new people, learnt something from them and believe me, that particular time spent there changed something in me. I have realized that I am never the same person who I was before my every trip. I consider my trips to be sabbaticals that I take to find another side to me. The memoirs that I purchase from different places serve as a reminder of my past self. It is my way of saying goodbye to a part of me that I know I will leave behind in that city or town.” “And the gifts?” Makoto asked incredulously.  She smiled radiantly, taking his breath away. “That, someone went out of their way to buy me something which they feel I will like, is a gesture that I do not take lightly. I just love gifts!” “I will remember that.” The words left him before he could think. What did just happen!? She smiled at him coyly. “You are being really sweet!” When she finally opened the gift, she gasped and laid her hand over her heart. Makoto had thought long about what would be an ideal gift to her. After what seemed like hours, he had finally come upon a beautiful set of meditation-bowls which, when stirred with a striker, produced a most calming sound. As an artist, he thought she would appreciate the intricate designs in the bowls and the striker. He guessed his choice had been right. She looked mighty struck by the set. “This is so beautiful! Thank you!" She managed to say and before he could process, she stood on her toes and pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek. I was wrong. This is not going to be a long evening.  Makoto thought wryly as he ran his fingers over the place where her lips had touched him. The evening is going to be ENDLESS. *** “This plant is called Mitsuba. You can use its leaves to garnish salads and soups, just like how you use parsley or celery.” Makoto tried hard to focus on the group but his attention was solely on Layla who was sitting on a bench in her garden, lost in thoughts. There was a wistful look on her face. She had seen him once and had just waved to him. He was feeling discontented. He wanted her to linger beside the wall that separated their gardens and to talk with him. It had been two days since that evening in her house where he had met her entire family. They were loud, as she had warned him. But they were close-knit and obviously cared for each other. Seeing her with them had shown him a totally different side of her. While she always came off as a quirky and gregarious person, he saw shades of warmth and affection in her when he saw her with her family. I have got it bad for her. He thought in dismay. She has not even said anything to me today and is simply minding her own business but even that is driving me to distraction. He finished the rest of his session and headed off towards the wall, eager to speak with her. “How are you, Layla San? You look lost in thought.” He said. She got up from the bench and stood before him on the other side of the wall. “I am fine. I was just lazing around.” He frowned. There seemed to be something off about her.  Before he could even think, the words left his mouth. “Would you like to join me for lunch? It is nothing fancy, I am afraid. Just some noodles, kale salad and boiled vegetables as a side-dish.” Later. He spoke to his mind which had started berating him. You can remind me of what a bad decision this was when I am lying in my bed and thinking about what exactly made me invite her for lunch. She looked surprised. “Umm…I do not wish to impose on you…” “Oh no, trust me, you are not imposing. As I said, it is a very simple course for meal. I usually prepare a lot for a single person to eat. I would be delighted if you would join me. That is, if it is okay with you.” He gestured to his garden. “If it is more comfortable for you, I will lay out a table here. We can have lunch and enjoy the pleasant weather.” “That would be perfect. But please do not go into too much trouble.” “Not at all. So, can I expect you in an hour?” He asked, hoping that his question did not reveal his excitement.  “I will be there.” *** Makoto took a step back from the table and gave it a critical eye. Everything looked fine. The dishes were set up neatly. The plates and glasses were also ready. There was not a single cloud in the sky and it was a bright afternoon. All in all, a good day to have lunch in a garden.  He sensed her presence at the gate that gave entrance to his garden.  “Welcome!” He said with a smile as he opened the gate and let her in. She smiled at him. He felt dizzy. This woman held his heart and how! “This looks perfect!” She said. He moved the chair for her and gestured her to sit.  “I brought some dessert.” She said as she placed a bowl over the table. Even though it was closed, a delicious aroma of vanilla and coffee wafted from it.  “It smells divine.” He said. “It is just a cake that I baked.” For a while, an awkward silence reigned at the table. Makoto cleared his throat and started serving her portions.  “I hope you are a fan of kale. I usually use it in salads. I am sorry – you will probably find it boring to have lunch with a nutritionist!” He said with a light chuckle. “Not at all! I am glad that I am here with you. I just…” She shook her head in frustration. “What’s wrong?” Makoto asked.  “This happened today.” She said as she displayed her wrist to him. His eyes widened taking in the deep red and angry scar. “I accidentally touched the edge of a pan when it was still over the flame. While this is not the issue, I just realized that if my family was around, they would have made a big fuss over it. I miss my family.” He sat watching her silently. When he felt that she was settled for the time being, he asked her gently. “Did you apply any ointment over the scar?” She nodded. “Sometimes I do not know what I am doing with my life. Look at yourself, Makoto San. You are so calm and composed always. Look at your garden. Everything is so beautifully arranged and follows a pattern. Me? I have just been going with the flow, taking each day as it comes with no particular thought for the future. Look at my home – so chaotic and disorganized! I don’t know what to do about the boxes lying in that room. I am unable to tend to my garden properly. I do not follow a particular routine!” Obviously tired after her rant, she closed her eyes and pinched her nose. “May be I should not have left my family and moved here.” “But then how would I have met you?” Makoto asked gently.  She chuckled and tilted her head to a side. “I always get a vibe from you that may be you do not like me very much…” He vehemently shook his head. “On the contrary, I like you too much.” Her eyes widened. He raised his palm before she could say anything. “You hush now. That is a point for another day. While I do lead a very organized and disciplined life, I find your unpredictability and chaos to be refreshing. There is no particular set of rules that one should follow to lead life. Whatever comes naturally to you, do that. Just be your true self and never regret being what you really are. I, for one, find you an amazing woman.” He managed to blurt out before his courage ran out. Then to make matters light, he said with a chuckle. “I don’t even mind that you are a hoarder.” “I so am not!” She retorted sharply. “Yes you are.” He said. “May be if someone wrote a story about us, it will be titled The Minimalist And The Hoarder.” Layla guffawed. “That sounds so boring! It would be The Nutritionist And The Artist, I suppose. That is a better title compared to yours. And I feel it does justice to our characters. After all, at the end of the day, I am an artist through and through, and you are a nutritionist.” He just laughed, relieved that she was out of her melancholic mood and had apparently forgotten his admission of liking her.  “So let us go back to the point where you said you like me.” She said casually. “No, I would rather not.”  “Why not?”  “First tell me, do you like me too?” He asked without looking at her. “What sort of a question is that? If I didn’t like you, I would not be sitting here having this discussion with you.” “I am 10 years elder to you.” “Does that bother you?” She asked curiously. “A little.” He admitted. Since he was still avoiding looking at her, she grabbed his chopsticks.  “Hey! Give them to me!” He demanded. “Look me in the eye when you talk to me!” She said sternly. “I want to talk more about this.” “I will talk if you come with me to the Cherry Bloom festival in the town day after tomorrow.” He blurted out. “Is this your pathetic way of asking me out on a date?” “Do you know a better way to ask?” He asked her mockingly. She slapped her forehead. “It seems there is a lot of dating etiquette I have to teach you.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “You are going to be a royal pain, aren’t you?” “You have no idea. Are you sure you want to go out with me?” “There is nothing else I am as sure about.” He said with conviction. Outwardly he appeared calm. From within, his heart was singing a happy song. Lunch hour turned into evening tea-time while they sat at the garden, the nutritionist and the artist, and their hearts were bonding even when the first stars appeared as the sky darkened.     Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!