Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami: The Hues of Joy and Loss
One late summer morning, I was running my finger along the spines of my bookshelves--past the twisted postmoderns and the bleak and dramatic Russians, through the airy, cerebral words of the French--and I wondered where the colors went? I knew they were out there. I had read them once. Finding whimsy seems to be like catching a butterfly, swiping a net through the air to trap a dainty, elusive creature. Colors, once captured, seem to quickly fade away, become trite and tried, sometimes become noxious and sugary as a children’s breakfast cereal. Has it always been this way? At the bookstore that afternoon, nothing seemed to have the colors I was looking for. They all seemed to taste of soured, tepid coffee and I was looking for a mango sorbet, something which paints a similar emotional landscape as Eve Babitz rather singularly does. After realizing I was putting too much pressure on the clerk to find a book that captured my very particular emotional desires, I pulled the slim novella Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami off the highest shelf. Its cover was turquoise and practically tessellated with sandwich triangles.
I read it in a single sitting that very afternoon. Ms Ice Sandwich’s aftertaste is honey-sweet, a little sour, and dare I say it? It was even a little salty. It follows a boy who buys an egg sandwich every day one summer from the standoffish woman (the object of his boyhood crush) who works at the sandwich counter of the local market, who he nicknames Ms Ice Sandwich on account of her signature blue eyeshadow and deft use of tongs in sliding sandwiches into plastic bags. Its cast of characters from a largely residential area live disconnected, isolated lives, unified only by the sole market and the school. The young narrator lives with his widowed mother and bed-ridden, dying grandmother, whose pension is exploited by the narrator’s mother against his grandmother’s knowledge, to fund her business as a psychic. The narrator has a number of arm’s-length friendships at school, such as video game-obsessed Doo-Wop and Tutti, nicknamed on account of a ripe-smelling fart, who also comes from a single-parent household and invites the narrator into the tradition she shares with her father of watching films.
Tutti, through inviting the narrator into participating in her choreographed staging of a shooting scene from the film Heat and encouraging him to get to know people while they’re still around, sets the narrator off on a path to close the distance between himself and his loved ones. “The worst thing is, you never know when somebody’s going to just disappear,” she tells him. “You want to see them but it’s too late, they’re gone.” It’s as if Tutti intercepts that monologue in the final act of Our Town by Thornton Wilder when Emily is allowed to relive a single day of her life and is almost instantly overwhelmed by all that she overlooked while living--sunflowers, baths, clocks, her Mama. That monologue was my personal Tutti. So many times, in so many dark times, I’ve returned to it to remember never to take life and its numerous inhabitants for granted.
Every time I revisit this lesson, it’s like learning it again for the very first time. The colors come rushing back, brand new. I know that there’s something to bleakness and joy being two sides of the same coin, but I wonder why it is that the colors are so quick to fade or become headache-inducing perturbances. I resent that it takes seeing and knowing death to realize life’s brilliant, glowing spectrum of color once more. In that sense, it’s poignant that Mieko Kawakami selected for her protagonist a boy, capable of delighting in the world without judgment, for whom realizations are more novel, and enamoration is not distorted by the harshness of adulthood. Her narrator is often confused and unreliable, not yet understanding adult structures and habits. His boyishness lends him to a kind of objectivity--he has an ability to get to the heart of what really matters that the adults in Ms Ice Sandwich, and this world, often lack.
Loss and its implications are never simple to deal with--experiencing loss is always fresh, every time it touches you. Death often transports us to a childlike perspective, not understanding why things happen the way they do or what they mean. It’s an experience which cannot be quantified and whose qualities may be described but are not easily communicated. I, of course, knew that getting older would mean losing people and interacting with death. I did not think I would interact with nearly the amount of death that I have. I think of individuals who, even while alive, seemed transcendentally luminous--who glittered beneath their skin and possessed magnificent oranges, pinks, reds, and greens. I knew people so mythological that, now that they are gone, it’s difficult to conceive that they were ever human. Sad, sad loss was left in their wake, but so too exuberance was scattered. As unnatural as it may be to conceive of joy and loss as coexisting, there is little that bonds people together like loss, and from that togetherness, joy may blossom.