I’m picking at artificial tuna. Sticky grains of brown rice crumble beneath the prodding of my chopsticks. My brother says it’s different; he says it’s worth trying, so I lift the vegan creation to my lips, tilt it between the tips of the wooden utensil, and nibble the soft edge. Dyed, pink soy and overcooked grains slide down my tongue.
Dropping the rest of the sushi onto the small platter placed on the surface of the table, I push my back against the head of my seat and grimace.
“It’s weird,” I say.
Sitting on the seat adjacent to me, my brother asks, “Did you dip it in soy sauce?”
But it wouldn’t matter anyway; extra flavor wouldn’t change the texture or the fact that it isn’t real fish.
I extend my arm across the table and grab a packet of sauce. Ripping the corner open with my teeth, I flip the plastic upside down and drown the sushi in a salt bath. As I watch the rice dissolve into mush, a man with a faded blue hat sits across from me.
He folds his tan, wrinkled hands together and clears his throat. Looking up, I notice the off-white stitching of the word ‘Marines’ ironed on the front of his cap. With a slight nod, I acknowledge his existence.
He smiles a closed lip smile.
I’m about to avert my gaze, but he stops me. “Your people are beautiful,” he says. Trying not to cringe, my lips purse into a thin line. Continuing, he says, “You’re all so exotic.” He turns his gaze and scans the outdoor party venue. Groups of Filipinos eat, and speak to one another in a language too foreign for my white-washed ears.
My brother nudges my side. I can’t tell whether or not he wants me to reply, so I stare the man in the eyes and nod.
Once again, he smiles and I notice a gap between his yellow teeth. Continuing his train of thought, he says, “Back in my military days, I dated a couple of Orientals.” A gust of air puffs my stomach. The word oriental makes me feel uncomfortable.
“Man were those girls fun.”
Turning my head, I face my brother. He’s holding a portable gaming system. From the corner of his eye, he stares down at me, and I believe he’s going to say something. But he doesn’t. His fingers press against slick buttons, and he turns his attention to the small screen.
Curious, the man asks if my brother is my boyfriend.
I shake my head.
About to respond, he takes control and silences me. “A few of my friends ordered their brides from your country.”
While he continues to chat about the beautiful ‘Orientals’ he met, I realize he’s talking about Asian countries; he’s speaking of mail-order brides. Without thinking, I respond, “I’m not married, sir.”
The crow’s feet lining the corners of his eyes flatten and his pupils dilate. “Really?” he questions, scooting closer and closer to the edge of his seat.
Lowering my eyes, I say yes.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Unsure of whether or not to lie, I take a deep breath and nod my head.
His smile disappears and he asks me if my boyfriend is at the party. I tell him he’s not. The man processes the information and asks me the age of my boyfriend.
I think of a random number and blurt out twenty-one. He skeptically nods his head and asks for my age.
“I’m nineteen,” I reply.
“Wow, you’re so young. I thought you were a bit older. You seem mature.”
My attention goes to the plate of food in front of me. It’s no longer recognizable. I tell myself I’m anything but mature. The man bends his arm and rubs the back of his covered head. Graying hair unfurls beneath his cap.
“You know, younger men aren’t mature.”
“I should visit you sometime. Maybe I’ll drop by UNM.”
I fold my hands together and squeeze tightly. My nails dig into skin, indenting crescent moons across my knuckles. I want to bleed. In his eyes, my skin stops me from being human. I’m an exotic object; an oriental rug.
To him, I’m not American.
He asks if he can meet me after school. Fed up, I stand, tell him my dad is calling, and leave the table.
He doesn’t follow. Maybe he’s used to rejection.
As I walk towards my dad, I turn my head and scan the crowd of laughing brown faces.
The man in the blue hat is out of place.