The Lacquer Box

My wife and I lived in Tokyo for three years. At the end of our time there, we threw a going away party for ourselves. “No gifts,” we told all our friends. Instead, they could bring something for the potluck meal. Oh, and they had to take something away with them. We were giving away everything we didn’t want to bring back to the States: some pots and pans, a table, a bag of local rice.

We didn’t know the Otiharas very well. We’d gone out with them only once, on a hike followed by a trip to the hot springs. They were a lovely couple, not quite as reserved as the typical Japanese. They were intensely interested in the fact that my wife and I didn’t own a car. “Don’t all Americans own cars?” they wanted to know.

The Otiharas brought homemade sushi to our going-away party. It came in a three-tiered lacquer box. The sushi was very good.

But the box was stunning. It was a lustrous black, so smooth to the touch. A jagged streak of gold ran across the top and down one of the faces. Inside, the box was the same orange-red color as those big gates in front of the Shinto shrines.

We tried to get the Otiharas to take something with them when they left the party. A bag of rice? A ream of paper?

They wouldn’t take anything. In fact, they insisted on leaving something instead. They gave us the lacquer box.

“Oh no,” we said, “we couldn’t take that. It’s too beautiful!”

“But that’s why we want to leave it with you,” they said.

We looked at our rice and our paper, and we felt like idiots.

The lacquered box is usually in our living room. I wonder what will happen to it. For us, much of the beauty is wrapped up in its story. And who will tell the story of the box when we’re gone?

Excerpted from the new play Stuff.


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