There’s a delicate painting of koi fish on the porcelain bottle my mom pours her sake from. My dad and brother are discussing politics, their voices muffled over the music. We are sitting in a Japanese restaurant; the light is dim but illuminates each table and our faces in a soft, warm glow. Various staff rush behind me with boards of fresh sushi and steaming bowls of chili garlic noodles. 


Our waitress emerges from the chef hats and smokey pans as she brings out our food: ginger salad, miso soup, vegetable tempura, and rolls of sushi we share. On the plate sits a decadent Philadelphia roll with salmon roe and a dynamite maki roll with yellowfin tuna. The yellowfin is red like a pomegranate—slightly pink but rich and deep. I reach for a piece with my chopsticks and devour its bright taste as if it came straight from the salty waters.

Yellowfin tuna typically reside in the epipelagic zone, the surface layer of the ocean that mixes with waves, wind, and raw heat from the sun as if it were freckled. At its base is the thermocline, the zone where temperature drastically drops and descends into deep, indigo water—the hidden, pale skin of the ocean. Yellowfin are strong schoolers; they swim in a strange synchronized fashion as if they are an intricate ballet following an unseen director. 


The restaurant is full for a Sunday night. I wonder why all these people are here and if it’s for the same reason as us—a distraction from the holiday break’s inevitable end or to soak up the moments with our loved ones before splitting across the country to different homes. 


To the right of us are two men in their twenties. They drink beer and wear hats and hunch their gym-addicted shoulders to watch a game of soccer on their phones. They don’t look at each other but are still together in their own way. I can tell they think the waitress is pretty by the way their eyes soften when she walks by. 


To the left of us is another family; the parents sit closely while their adolescent daughter is across from them. Her glasses sit lopsided as she rests her chin in her hand and impassively pokes the table with a chopstick. I wonder what brings her melancholic expression, if she’s experiencing the confusion of being a teenager or maybe missing an older sibling who couldn’t come home for the holiday. I wonder if she’s navigating the dark water for the first time.


Directly behind our table is a wooden wall that splits the restaurant into two sections. It’s some type of glossy oak also illuminated in a soft glow. A long, stringy plant sits on top, its vines daintily traveling down the polished wood. 


Somewhere in a gap of the plant’s speckled leaves, I spot another version of me across the restaurant. She is 18 years old, sitting on the edge of a booth, shoved beside her boyfriend at the time and his friends she doesn’t know. Six years ago, on homecoming night, dressed in heels and hairspray and uncertainty, sitting in a Japanese restaurant. 


As if a wave drags me under its current, I am thrust over the oak wall to be by her. I swim and tumble into her energy as the temperature drops and my vision blurs in shades of indigo. She is navigating the dark water. I watch her closely, remembering her mind and the way it works. Her dress hugs her stomach in ways she doesn’t like, but she wonders if a subtle suggestion to what was underneath would impress him. She crosses her arms in her lap and smiles as he laughs with his body turned away from her. She desperately wants to hide her pale skin, although she cannot hide her freckling shoulders from coming to the surface. 


I know her contentment is only a fragile shell she inhabits. She knows somewhere deep within her there is me, a version of her that knows what it’s like to swim in the sun-kissed waters. She doesn’t know I am standing beside her, that I have always been with her, even in the dark water. I want to scream I am here I am here I am here. 


She sits small with her shoulders low and razor-nicked legs crossed as if the space will burst if she takes up too much of it. She picks at her fried rice with her fork, stirring the steam until there is none left. Her gaze finds the interlaced fingers of the couple next to her as she notices the empty space in between her own. 


When I reach for her, another wave thrusts me under its current, and I am being pulled over the oak wall again. I desperately claw and cry to her so I can tell her all the things she needs to hear: you do not need to fear being alone or taking up space or wandering into uncertainty. Somewhere, somehow, I am with you, and I know all the beauty and pain and heartbreak and love you have yet to feel. Trust me—let your world crack and burst and you will finally see how tenderly sunlight dances upon your skin. 


Her innocent, uncertain eyes only catch a glimpse of me. But I know, in this one millisecond transcending across years, she hears me. 


Breathless and drenched in an enigmatic feeling, I am placed back into my seat; warm, gentle water swirls around me. There are still discussions of politics and sake to be sipped. Our rolls of brightly colored sushi have diminished to clumps of sticky rice and chopstick-poked wasabi. The yellowfin has been eaten. I look through the gap in the leaves but only see an empty table. 


In this fleeting moment—where the four of us sit under a soft glow with a koi fish painting, where the yellowfin is vibrant, and plants reveal epiphanies—I know I am in the sun-kissed waters. Somewhere, somehow, she will meet me here.