Sandra Leong

The Thousand and One Faces of Mama-san

Somehow Leo understood that as little as she’d seen him, as small a part as she’d played in raising him, at some point his mother would call in the debt—the debt made more powerful by his not having consciously incurred it—for her pregnancy, her labor, the weeks of nursing. There’d been some months of baths and simple foods before an affair blew her back to Japan, leaving him at two and his father at thirty to commiserate as best they could.
     Leo was thirty-nine when she called. He could envision dimly what might lie ahead and repress the queasy sensations it gave him. She told him she needed him. She cried periodically while she spoke.
     Not much would make him cry. He had the sense that he really would have made an excellent Japanese. Now that he was finally going to Japan he’d have a chance to test his suspicions more fully.
     For there was no question about his going. She was his mother. And she’d never asked anything of him before. She’d sent postcards. And some presents—usually feminine-looking clothing for someone smaller than whatever he was at the time.
     Mab surveyed him with bemusement, but without compassion. “She needs you?” she said, dryly.
     “And what about when you needed her?”
     “I never did,” Leo said.
     With the air of someone for whom married life and going through the motions were the same thing, she suggested he call Dr. Solomon before he made a decision. He knew that she longed for him to tap into a seismic level of emotion that would set their water table to rights. He’d seen Solomon twice, proving that he, too, could go through motions. But now he’d have none of it.
     “There’s no decision,” he said. “I’m going.”
      The peck he gave her had been honed over the years to convey affection without longing. He noted her wistful beauty. He could as easily be walking out forever.
It was hardest to leave Charlie, who’d grown fanatically attached to him just in the last year or so. Charlie sobbed and wedged himself, dejected but determined, between the rolling suitcase and the front door. He acted as if he understood things about the trip that Leo had yet to comprehend.
     “It’s just for a few days,” Leo consoled, but then he got impatient and snapped, “Get away. Get away from the door,” and left to the sound of heightened wailing.
     On the plane, he registered that half the menu was in characters, and his slipper soccks had separate compartments for his big toes. Not the stuff of culture shock, but indicative of larger differences to come. He felt a hollow wariness.
     His seat reclined beautifully. He couldn’t sleep.
     There was a film about a family tragedy in a Midwestern town. He didn’t use his headset but contemplated the melodramatic expressions shown in close-up.
     The Japanese businessmen around him were engrossed in the Caucasian emotions. They seemed less detached than he was.
     Next was a Samurai epic. He slept in hour or two-hour blocks.
     Awakening for landing, he felt sickly. The colored lights on the ground seemed to read differently from those in the West.
     He negotiated passport control and customs. The colors and characters on signs made him feel packaged behind plastic, his personal qualities’ usefulness to be determined. As he waited for his turn he watched the outer doors.      Each opening provided a glimpse of people craning or on tiptoe, eager to see and greet arrivals.
     His mother was among them. As he came through the doors, he recognized her eyes from her photo, and she became three-dimensional, the data filling in and connecting with infantile impressions. He kissed her and registered her cheek’s softness and the smell of cosmetics, though she wore no makeup. She’d thrown a sweater over a simple dress and the sweater, too, was soft. She didn’t look her age, and her legs were pale and thin, bare in high heels.
He recognized the attitude of the off-duty professional beauty: the reveling in plain Jane-ness. At a shoot or socializing, her appearance was different. When he was young, he’d had a stash of her modeling photos, and videos of films in which she’d played small parts. He’d never learned the language and when he was thirteen a creeping shame and rage had overtaken him and he’d thrown everything out, using his father’s home office shredder in the middle of the night for all twelve months of a ragged Miss Nikon 1963 calendar.
     There’d been a succession of highly social stepmothers. No one had seemed inclined to sort it all out for him. Boarding school had been inevitable. Then college and business school. Childhood over in a snap. He’d been Oliver Twist. He was still Oliver Twist.
     His mother stooped and took the strap of his rolling suitcase. Before he could protest, she took off with it.
     He followed, juggling his carry-on and coat. Outside she was already at a machine pressing buttons and inserting a card. He was curious, but didn’t question.
     A black sedan appeared and they got in. She spoke to the white-gloved driver, sounding excessively cordial, as if he might be a boyfriend or husband posing as a chauffeur. It was unclear if the car was hers or belonged to a service.
He realized that he hadn’t gotten cash. It was usually his first impulse in a foreign country, but she’d taken charge. He told himself that he’d have other opportunities—maybe at a bank with a better rate—and tried to relax.
     Her long legs were elegantly crossed. It was cold. She took a fur-lined raincoat lying across the seats and spread it across her chest.
     The intimacy of her skin against the fur pierced him with a kind of joy. The face without makeup, the hair barely combed: he felt an unaccustomed stab of adoration.
     No one else at the airport had been greeted with a kiss. She’d tolerated his lips with resignation, as if saying to herself: My son is an American. This is what they do.
     It was evening and overcast. They left the airport and turned onto the highway.
     “You must be tired,” she said.
     He was. He flexed his feet in his loafers, concerned about clots in his leg veins. To Mab he would have whined about the time change, the length of the plane ride, and the lack of sleep. To his mother he said nothing. She might take it as a reproach. He’d always had the idea that men in Japan were exceptionally laconic.
     “I’m sorry,” she said, sounding passionately cordial in a way that he read as both formal and deep.
     He looked over suddenly afraid that she’d cry, but she was composed. She was thanking him for his willingness to come. Her vulnerability made him thrill with guilt; for a moment he was throbbing with it.
     They rode in silence. Maybe it was overwhelming, getting acquainted. But the silence felt like a natural state. As if his thoughts had simplified. Maybe another self was emerging. He would think in Haiku. It would all begin with his mother: rather than ask questions, he would learn via receptivity. She would teach him. He would know her.
     They passed Disneyland. She pointed it out. As they approached Tokyo, a group of obelisks appeared over the highway wall.
     “What’s that?” he asked.
     She laughed, and then seemed to ask the driver to translate.
     The driver cocked his head. “It’s a Love Hotel,” he said.
     “Where a man and woman go to be alone,” his mother said, and illustrated by hugging herself.
     It was as though she’d fed him something bad when he’d requested a treat. She no longer seemed vulnerable. He was jealous. There was a small, black wave of feeling exploited, like there’d been a private joke at his expense. The driver had pronounced love “ruv,” and his mother had said “a roan” for alone. This element of their accent seemed particularly comical and demeaning.
     A scrabble of tenements flowed by. Then the center districts of Tokyo, magnificent, with fabulous lights. They crawled wormlike through the traffic. Despite his excitement, he was intimidated. He imagined losing his way, like a toddler in a department store. Everyone had black hair like his, and this made him cranky, robbed of specificity.
     They turned at fantastically impassable double-tiered intersections where pedestrians crossed en masse from all directions at once. Under navy wool coats, commuters were dressed in white shirts and blouses and navy skirts and trousers. It was a country in school uniform.
     They sped away from the center along roads lined with tiny but beautifully lit boutiques. There were parks and an occasional massive wooden temple gate, and wooden fences separating residential buildings of stucco. The driver pulled up in front of one.
     Its rooms were small but plush with wall-to-wall carpeting and chenille upholstery. They left their shoes within the doorway and put on house slippers. The driver set down the suitcase and left.
     “Take a bath,” his mother said, indicating the bathroom. She preceded him and ran the water. When she went to the kitchen, he entered. A man’s robe hung from a hanger. The towels looked small but there were several.
     He had to search in the hall for a toilet, and when he returned, the tub was overflowing.
     It was a soaking tub, narrow but deep. The room’s slate floor had a drain, and there was another faucet at knee height on the wall. There was a bench before it and an old-fashioned wooden bucket. As if to be helpful, a ukiyoe print depicted women bathing. One soaped another’s back.
     He wondered if his mother might soap his, and the idea was so vivid he climbed immediately into the tub. The water was scalding. As he ran some cold, he imagined her as an exotic villainess plotting to boil him to death. The idea spooked rather than amused him.
     He sank into the steaming water and felt the easing of tension. Water cascaded over the sides and onto the floor, which drained efficiently. When he emerged he felt cleaner than he’d felt in his life.
     Wearing the robe, he went to look for his suitcase. He passed two tatami rooms. It was in the third, next to a Western-style bed. The special bed made him feel like a new pet. He closed the door. There was a closet holding only three or four elegantly patterned silk dresses. The dresser with sliding drawers was empty. Clock, small trash can, and Kleenex box-holder were Hello Kitty.
     “Come eat!” his mother called to him.
     He chose jeans and a polo shirt.
     At the kitchen table she’d laid out dishes of raw food and an electric skillet. He sat. She picked up paper-thin slices of meat with chopsticks, dipping them slice by slice into roiling broth, where they cooked instantly. She set them on his plate. She poured soy sauce into a small dish. She moved in a way that reminded him of waitresses in some of the finer Japanese restaurants in New York. The air was fragrant with steam.
     “Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.
     “Did already,” she said.
     She watched him chew. Perhaps she was looking for signs of pleasure. Perhaps she was studying him.
     She brought him a featherweight bowl of rice. She cooked an assortment of vegetables, and then some cellophane noodles.
     He was starved, and grateful. He was disturbed that they hadn’t yet said anything important to each other. He should have found an opportunity by now. It was awkward. And it made him afraid of being a disappointment.
     She turned off the skillet and motioned him into the living room. She brought him tea. It was too hot to drink. When he set it down, she asked if he’d prefer coffee.
     He declined, and she sat beside him. He looked at photos in frames. In most of them, she was in kimono posed with someone who wasn’t: Japanese men in business suits or Japanese women in sequined gowns. He hadn’t expected any photos of himself, but felt a twinge.
     She began to wail. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her sobbing was rhythmic and guttural in the unhinged style of ritual mourners.
     At first, he didn’t take her seriously. Then he came to his senses and offered her his shoulder.
     She placed her head there stiffly. Her sobbing softened.
     “Live here with me,” she said, in an odd, loud voice. She repeated the words over and over, while he patted her, not very warmly.
     He was riled enough to want to argue with her rationally, but thought better of it. He thought of showing her pictures of Mab and Charlie. But she sat up, stood, and disappeared into the next room. He heard her blow her nose. When she returned, she had a fresh teapot, and refilled his cup.
     She asked if he needed pajamas. He said no. He didn’t tell her he planned to sleep in his underwear. She told him that he should go to bed. The advice was sensible. They said good night. The words again had a ritualistic intensity. In bed, he thought about whether it was too late to call Mab, decided that it was, and was then instantly asleep.
      The next morning he woke at nine. His heart pounded. At first he thought that the house was empty, then saw that his mother’s bedroom door was still closed. His stomach felt light.
     He dressed and poked around in the kitchen. It was a mess, as if she’d been up all night. She’d been smoking. There was a coffeemaker, but no coffee. Waking her seemed awkward so he soldiered on. Two slices of bread in a wrapper were stale. The refrigerator had only jars of pickled vegetables and a yogurt health drink. The cupboards looked like an apothecary’s, full of packages of dried squiggly things and brownish powders.
     He opened the front door and looked up and down the street. It was essentially a thoroughfare with no sidewalk. There was nothing commercial-looking as far as he could see, and the buildings seemed so uniform he wouldn’t be able to find her house again if he left. He couldn’t tell which characters on the street signs comprised the name of the street. He went back in.
     He hadn’t even bought a guidebook. Mab bought the guidebooks for vacations, and his secretary for business. For years he’d nursed a vague fantasy of going someplace without a map, without reservations. He’d realized his dream.
     There was the sound of a key in the lock, and a plump elderly woman with grocery bags entered.
     She said cheery things to him in Japanese. Her face was freckled and lined. She didn’t seem surprised to see him. His mother appeared in pajamas and robe. There was activity and discussion. It seemed a long time before she introduced him.
     The two women chatted and laughed as they made breakfast. “How old do you think she is?” his mother asked him. The housekeeper bowed, as though to permit inspection.
     He was tongue-tied. His mother supplied the answer. “We are the same age!” she said. And the housekeeper bowed, seemingly unoffended.
     He ate with his mother this time. He rarely had more than a croissant for breakfast, but it seemed impolite not to sample a little of everything. Fresh iceberg and tomato salad with creamy French dressing, little four-inch fish grilled whole, eggs over easy, thick slices of buttery white toast with marmalade, steaming rice, and percolated coffee. His mother nursed a slice of toast with coffee, and then went into the living room to watch stock reports. He finished everything except the rice.
     The housekeeper had plunged into her chores with an energy that highlighted the flyweight quality of the Japanese architecture. Walls slid apart. Paper partitions vibrated. Whole contents of rooms were slung over windowsills to be beaten with a bamboo paddle. Tatami was vacuumed. There was a fresh-mown hay smell.
     He helped himself to seconds of coffee and went to sit near his mother. He focused on the television because she was. A close friend headed an Asia desk, and he had gleaned some knowledge of the situation. He floated some of it conversationally, hoping he wasn’t too dismissive. He wanted to learn about his mother’s financial problems, sensing that they were behind her call.
     She said that the stocks were very bad and business was bad and that things wouldn’t get better until the American stock market improved. Then she went into another room.
     He stared at the tv. Unintelligible bands of numbers scrolled under the announcers’ faces. Next, white jumpsuited workers did yoga at an auto plant. Then a crowd demonstrated with placards and what looked like skinless dog or cat carcasses. The demonstrators were smeared with blood. In another part of the city, helmeted swat team members climbed the steps of a building. Japanese feet and legs always looked so short-calved and tidy. His mother was a mutant.
     He thought about her wailing. Perhaps emotionally she was, too. Maybe he had nothing to offer her. If he could only get past the first step, and find out why he was here.
     She reappeared in a pink suit with mink collar and cuffs and carrying a pocketbook and told him she was getting her hair done and would come back and get him for lunch. He jumped up. He told her he would tag along and get a look around.
     He trailed her along the narrow strip of asphalt past the little houses. He’d been told that Setagaya was a fashionable neighborhood, but saw little to support that. Futons hung over balconies, and clothes hung out on lines. She hailed a cab. They hopped the metal rail to get in.
     They ended up at a narrow intersection near a subway station. His mother ducked into a salon. Glass doors closed behind her.
     He hovered. Should he follow to fix a meeting time, or be confident that they’d meet up later? He followed.
She was being shown into a curtained dressing room. She was barefoot.
     “Shall I come back in an hour?” he asked.
     She nodded without turning. “Hai,” she said.
     He went back out.
     The streets were medievally narrow and lined with storefronts. Rows of parked bicycles further congested things.
     He didn’t see a bank or a cash machine. There were four salons, a music store, a stationery store, a Starbucks, and a red-lanterned pub that said “Snack” in cursive letters.
     He crossed through the subway plaza, and came out on a taxi stand. Beside a supermarket a tiny open market was selling ceramics and plastic housewares and fresh fruit. There were two women’s clothing stores and a store for bed linens. The side streets were the same.
     He was still full from breakfast and coffee seemed unappealing. He’d spent almost twenty-four hours without accomplishing anything. It wasn’t a pace he was used to.
     He asked himself how he’d expected things to go and found no answer. He was sometimes an advocate of action in place of thought. Action had its own intelligence.
     Mab could barely listen when he talked like that. She said that emotionally he was Mr. Quicksand, however he might think he was a man-of-action.
     He went into a music store. Videos played on screens. The pop stars looked nubile enough, but so clear-eyed, so peppy. As though singing were a customer service industry.
     Why did he feel angry, as though competitive with this country? Even in the alternative and heavy metal section, weird hair and get-ups only seemed to emphasize some underlying normality.
     Maybe he was bored. His goal hadn’t been to see Tokyo. He went back to the salon.
     She was paying, her pocketbook open on the counter. She saw him, bobbed her head a little, and said, “Let’s go.”
     Again he trailed her down the street as she stopped a cab.
     “Your hair looks nice,” he said. But he didn’t like it. The style was too young, brushing her shoulders and peek-a-booing her eyes.
     She grunted, and leaned forward to instruct the cab driver. He felt like someone on a bad first date.
     “Where are we going?” he asked.
     “To a very famous restaurant,” she said. “One of my customers is invested. I have a ticket, a gift from him because you are my son visiting.”
     “That’s nice.” Where were the words? For formality. For intimacy. He had the urge to have a tantrum.
     They pulled up to a nondescript entryway. They took the elevator to the fifth floor. It opened onto a new-looking restaurant, deserted save for formally dressed staff.
     “French-y,” said his mother, as she opened her menu and closed it.
     He breathed at her as though her scent would compose him.
     She told him that their host was eager to meet him.
     He felt a renewed jealousy and looked at her face. She looked bland, only tired. Her hair still annoyed him. She seemed to have put herself together so awkwardly. It was as if they were going to meet her customer with her in her underwear. But what did he care? How old was he, sixteen?
     He opened his menu, but his mother was waving a coupon in the air. A waiter came and she ordered “setto menu.” The waiter went away. Leo closed his menu.
     “Tell me about your business,” he said.
     “Oh, I have twenty-five people working for me. Fifteen girls,” she said. “Business was good. I had thirty girls. But now many places closed on the Ginza. I am the last. The oldest Mama.”
     The lack of any Western equivalent to a hostess nightclub had always made his fantasies, rather than the institution itself, seem illicit. Her pride annoyed him. Why couldn’t she have said “the oldest Madam” instead of “the oldest Mama”? Then he could have rehabilitated her—perhaps brought her back to the states to live a reformed life—and she could have taken up mothering him where she’d left off, as a grandmother to his son. He could even have slapped her if she refused.
     Instead she was a Mama with a capital M. Grander than a mother. He hadn’t realized that he’d imagined a future with her, but he had.
     “Matsumoto-san has helped me a lot,” she added, and a man appeared, dressed in a suit and tie and cashmere vest. His hair was gray at the temples. He was small and thin and fastidious-looking.
     Leo rose and bowed. Matsumoto-san bowed but made no attempt to reciprocate with an offered Western-style hand. He seemed to feel entitled to Leo’s respect.
     A bottle of wine appeared, apparently imported expressly for this restaurant. His mother expressed awe. She tasted the wine, sharing appreciative nods, and then ignored it. Saucers of piping hot consommé were brought. The three sipped from overly dainty spoons. Next there were tiny molded steamed egg custards with a soufflé-like texture.
     His mother and Matsumoto spoke in Japanese. Occasionally, his mother translated choice bits, with the air of someone bestowing an honor: “Matsumoto-san say you look Japanese.” “He say he is worried that anti-American terrorists will find you here, take care.” “Ha-ha! He hopes they will not blow up this restaurant!”
     Leo drank the wine, a boring cabernet. He didn’t look Japanese; he looked Eurasian. Any sophisticated person would see it. Saying he looked Japanese was a way of criticizing his appearance and consoling his mother. He disliked Matsumoto. He hated this conversation.
     “Matsumoto-san say you are a Japanese citizen. We can keep you here. Safely. He will talk to a friend very high up and get passoporto. This afternoon.”
     He was startled out of his grimness by the lunacy of the suggestion. He’d dismissed the previous night as just feelings, and couldn’t quite believe that she had co-conspirators. He said he appreciated Matsumoto’s kindness but didn’t need a passport, refusing as vaguely and, he guessed, as politely as he could. It was like an offered kidnapping. His heart raced a little. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling.
     At the end of the meal, he reached for his empty wallet. His mother made a fluttery, quelling gesture. Matsumoto bowed.
     He had plastic, but his forcing the issue would be ungracious. He bowed in return.
     In the cab home, he said flatly, “A nice man.”
     “A very good heart,” said his mother. “But he drinks, and his wife calls me at my nightclub. Please send home. Like that. But he doesn’t grab my girls. He is not like that. And he is a very, very good customer.”
     He asked about buildings. The largest bore enormous logos and were department stores. They passed Hibiya, the emperor’s palace, and some large parks. Knowing the names of landmarks made him no less disoriented. He hadn’t studied Japan.
     Outside her house, his underwear and T-shirt from the night before hung out on the clothesline. Inside, new pajamas of maroon satin were laid out on his bed. They were touching and weird. They fit.
     All the cab rides had made him dull, as if he’d been at a computer for too long. There was something exhausting about his mother, too. Her reticence, and the way he felt compelled to copy it.
     People arrived. There were greetings and laughter and the rustle of shopping bags. He stood in his room, invaded.
 “Leo-chyan!” his mother called, and he emerged, dutiful.
     She introduced him to two uncles and two aunts. The notion of contacting other family members hadn’t even occurred to him, a mother having seemed enough to assimilate. But here was a handsome uncle and a dumpy one, one glamorous aunt and one fat one. Apparently, the handsome uncle and glamorous aunt formed a married couple.      And there were children aged about eight to fifteen. The fat aunt seemed closest to his mother and after saying earnest and sweet-sounding things to Leo served tea and snacks to everyone. She used teacups, but handed out rice balls without dishes or napkins. Everyone spoke to him, but his mother didn’t bother to translate, and seemed bored. Her handsome brother seemed arrogant, and left after a few words. The remaining aunts and uncle continued polite and unintelligible attentions. The children fidgeted. Within twenty-five minutes they all retreated, back-stepping into neatly lined-up shoes on the way out.
     He’d been like a deaf mute. Again he’d felt simultaneously honored and effaced. He should be more curious. What had they made of him? Did it matter?
     “Uncle Suichi brought you a gift,” his mother said, handing him a shopping bag.
     Inside was an eggplant-colored cardboard box. Inside that, a ten-inch carved figure of caramel-colored wood. It looked like a dildo with a beard.
     Leo laughed. But his mother wasn’t paying attention.
     “What is this?” he asked.
     “A wood-carving,” she told him. “From the country.”
     “I must buy him something in return,” he said with some irony.
     “No,” she said. “I take care of them all with my business.”
     She pulled out her phone book and sat on the floor. For the next two hours she made calls. She used a high-pitched, saccharine, nasal voice, almost comically stylized. He gathered she was reserving tables at her club. Between calls she took thoughtful drags of a cigarette in a holder. Delivery people came with flowers and packages. She noted down the names of the senders. He sat in her cloud of smoke.
     He’d rushed here to rescue her. Now he was the neglected guest. What had happened? He sat bristling, hoping to be liked.
     He searched her face. Her downcast eyes showed the alchemy of finely constructed lids and lashes that had won her riches and fame. She sat with her legs splayed, hips and knees as limber as a girl’s. Only her feet were imperfect, wide, rough, and lumpy. Fishwife or country came to mind.
     He stared at her for two hours. She didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was her career. Maybe they were recreating something from his infancy.
     A memory surfaced, the view from a cart at a supermarket. Standing in the prow holding onto the cold metal of the basket, its sharpness against his chin. Pale green orbs of cabbages loomed closer. Acorn squash: maybe he’d be allowed to choose one. The pleasure of mushy graham cracker in his cheek.
     His mother told him it was time to get dressed, and stepped across the hall.
     The housekeeper had returned with paper-wrapped parcels.
     He rinsed his armpits sitting on the low stool in the tubroom. He combed his hair and headed back past her room.      The housekeeper was dressing her. Her arms were spread like a paper doll’s. Elaborate white underrobes and sashes were secured with fussing.
     He thought of Matsumoto and put on a suit and tie.
     “Let’s go!” his mother called.
     She was already halfway out. He caught the door and followed. He was looking at her heel, visible under the embroidered edge of her kimono. He remembered from somewhere that heels were erotic in Japan, and blushed.
     They stopped for an hour in a salon. When she emerged her chignon had somehow been expanded and smoothed.
     He had expected something garish but she looked elegant beyond belief. Her strange gait, awkward in Western dresses, in kimono was a graceful skimming.
     She seemed preoccupied with business matters. He didn’t ask questions during the next ride.
     They turned into a narrow street lined with boutiques and nightclubs. It was getting dark. They got out and she pointed out her name on a lighted sign. They took the elevator up.
     The elevator emptied directly into a bar. He had a startled and engulfed feeling. The maroon velour banquettes were overstuffed. The flower arrangements were wildly congested. A grand piano and rows and rows of crystal decanters seemed stolid and expensive, putting up a front.
     She organized her staff. He assumed there’d been instructions concerning him because he was ushered to a cozy spot near the bar.
     They all looked very good, and were very animated. They were night people, he supposed. The women were far from the retiring geishas that he had imagined. Most weren’t even in kimono. They laughed and talked loudly. They smoked.
     A hostess sat at his table and called to someone who wheeled over a cart and left it beside her. Funny he didn’t find the women here sexy. Was it their hips? The association with his mother?
     The hostess asked if he’d like a whiskey.
     As she poured, she told him her name. It was appealing that she was so clearly there to serve. He showed her pictures of Charlie and Mab.
     “Soooo beautiful,” she gasped.
     She asked how often he visited his mother, and, surprised that she didn’t already know, he talked about their lifelong separation. The occasional letters and phone calls.
     Her eyes shone with empathic tears.
     He was unaccustomed to whiskey, but he savored the sweet burn of it.
     Groups of customers were arriving, all apparently regulars. The piano player took his bench. Another hostess joined Leo’s table. She was beautiful, but she occupied herself with shucking soybeans, which she arranged on a cocktail napkin next to his whiskey.
     He asked her name. But his mother shouted, “Leo-chyan! Leo-chyan!” She didn’t see him, and this seemed to enrage her.
     When she sighted him, her eyes were hard and wild. She whirled on her staff. There was a mild lull and then a resurgence of noise, as though her histrionics were of minor interest. Then she spoke in English, as though translating for his benefit: “Why did you hide him in the corner? I am not ashamed!” and went on to berate her staff in Japanese.
Two men in tuxedos came to the table with his coat. “Please. The car is here. You may go home,” they said. They pulled the table out.
     “What?” he asked. “I’m being sent home? I can stay.”
     Her display was insane. Had she been drinking? She’d been so busy, on her feet the whole time. Was she worried he’d exposed her age? That she’d been married to an American? What were the expectations for a Mama of the Ginza?
     She was nowhere to be seen, and the hostesses were in ushering-out mode. They came all the way down with him in the elevator and out to the car and waved as he drove off.
     The car looked like the one that had taken him from the airport. It seemed like the same driver.
     “Can we stop at a bank?” he asked. He waved his bankcard. He showed his empty billfold.
     “Iye,” said the driver, shaking his head. “Daijyobu. Account-o, kara.”
     They didn’t stop. He gazed out the window. If he saw a machine he’d insist.
     He recognized his mother’s neighborhood.
     The housekeeper let him in and said good night and left.
     There was a pot on the stove. He changed his clothes and ate rice from the rice cooker, and some stew. It was a beef curry, very sweet, with carrots and satiny, small potatoes. He left more than half in the pot. In a fairy tale, the meal would be enchanted. He would be transformed into a fox or boar.
     He sat in front of the television.
     There were game shows and what looked like some sort of reality show, all unappealing. He couldn’t find the international news. Local news celebrated the lives of artisans. There’d been a fire and a line of office workers in shirtsleeves passed buckets to douse the flames. There were the demonstrators again, this time almost naked, clothing in shreds. They had painted their faces. One held a small, raw carcass to her breast. A close-up showed the dead jaws clamped around her nipple. How had that eluded censorship?
     He paced from room to room. In one there was a shrine with cups of dried-up rice and a black-and-white photo, presumably his grandmother; in another a framed print of a chic girl in a pink dress and hat.
     It was amazing that he accepted her behavior. Children the world over submitted to much worse from their mothers. But still. It was lonely in the house without her. It had been forty-eight hours since he’d spoken to Mab or Charlie. It was as though they belonged to a different life.
     He awoke to sounds in the living room. His mother talking to someone. He steeled himself for a man’s voice, but heard none. There was a sound of boxes toppling. Cabinet doors.
     “Leo-chyan!” She still sounded weird. He pretended to sleep.
     “Itai!” she called. “Itai! Leo-chyan!”
     She stumbled into his room, wearing pajamas. “Sleeping?” she said.
     He had the urge to continue pretending. He gave in to it.
     She was on his bed. The bed bounced. Her knees were on his shins.
     “Ouch!” he said.
     “My stomach,” she said. “I can’t find pill. Ah, itai!” She curled into a ball.
     Leo sat up. She was on his legs. “Your stomach?” he said.
     She didn’t move. “Itai! Itai! Itai!” It seemed to be a cry of pain.
     “You need a pill?” he said.
     “Find pill,” she said.
     He pushed her off, and got up. The bathroom contained no medicine cabinet. The tubroom ditto.
     The living room was a shambles. Boxes were upended on the floor. He rummaged around, unclear what he was looking for. Pepto-Bismol? Percodan? He scuffed through envelopes. Old photos. He was startled to recognize some. One box contained packets of pills. He took it into the bedroom. She wasn’t there.
     He found her in the kitchen. She was beating eggs in a bowl with chopsticks. Oil smoked in a pan. She turned down the flame and poured the eggs.
     He was losing patience. She stirred vigorously with the chopsticks. An omelet formed.
     “I found pills,” he said.
     She ignored him.
     “What are you doing?” he asked.
     “A big dog,” she said, “an American dog. Woof! Like that!”
     “A dog?” he asked, very tired. He spilled the box onto the table and sank into a chair.
     She put the omelet on a plate, stepped into house slippers, and headed outdoors. He rubbed his face with both hands. Where were his shoes? He put on the guest slippers. He saw her fur hanging from the hat-rack and grabbed it.
     It was cold, but windless. She was in the driveway of the building next door hunched before a gate. There was a dog in the patio behind it, a big sheepdog. She had pushed the plate under the gate, and was coaxing him in English to eat.
Leo draped the coat over her shoulders. When it fell he picked it up again. The dog had no interest in the omelet.
     “Let’s get out of here,” Leo said.
     The dog barked.
     She reached down to pet it, and he grabbed her arm. “Come on,” he said.
      She shook him off and shuffled away. He followed and again tried with the coat. It fell. He picked it up. A light went on in a house.
     They turned onto the street. He tried to steer her home. She headed toward the intersection. “Why are you still here?” she said.
     A block away, two people stood in the street moving in repetitive ways. He thought of Chinese doing tai chi at dawn in public squares, but this wasn’t that. As they drew closer, he saw that they were men in pajamas practicing golf swings. Nothing about insomniacs in pajamas in public rang a bell. But maybe this was the custom.
     “Where are you going?” he said to his mother, not hoping for an answer. They walked toward the golfers. No one acknowledged anyone.
     At the intersection, she doubled over and lay on her side on the ground.
     “Mama!” he cried. He knelt and touched her arm. He tried to pull her upright, and she cried out.
     The men with the golf clubs were beside them. People came out of a house. His mother was questioned and answered without changing her position. Once Leo spoke in English no one spoke to him. He stood by, starting to shiver.
     An ambulance arrived. One medic knelt by her while the other opened the ambulance doors, flooding the street with light. She got up with minimal assistance and climbed into the back. She sat on a bench, head and shoulders drooping. When they seemed about to shut the doors he jumped in after her.
     The medics were strangely inactive. Shouldn’t they take vital signs? What about an iv? They acted like bus drivers, leaving him to bounce shoulder to shoulder with his mother in the windowless back. The noise of the siren was deafening.
     He didn’t ask her questions, though she now seemed calm. Her arms protected her abdomen, but didn’t clutch. He hoped someone in charge would be fluent in English.
     The tiny emergency room was completely dark. A light came on and a rumpled-looking nurse let them into an examining room. The nurse and his mother talked, and the nurse disappeared, and then reappeared with a syringe, and gave his mother a shot. “What’s that for?” Leo asked. An orderly appeared with a wheelchair and took her down a long hallway into a ward with beds on either side of a center aisle. The nurse returned with an iv pole and a basket of supplies, and started an iv.
     “Are you okay?” said Leo. “Have they figured out what’s wrong?”
     Where was the clipboard with notes? The physical exam? The taking of blood? Shouldn’t someone have to sign something? It had to be a legitimate clinic or hospital. But what would make them dispense medicine so readily? Was this another incomprehensible custom?
     The other beds were occupied, and there were no chairs. He stood by the head of her bed. He still had her coat. She was getting relaxed and sleepy-looking. She pointed to her feet.
     “Lie down,” she said. “Sleep for a while.”
     It seemed humiliating, but after a while it was the only option that made sense. The ward was dark. Someone coughed. Someone snored. He fit by curling around her feet and slept.

      He woke with her coat over him and the fur tickling his face. He sat up but stayed on the bed. Pale light streamed in a window.
     The plain, plump aunt was there. She’d found a chair. His mother spoke to her animatedly, and the aunt laughed. He read the laugh as philosophical.
     The aunt bowed to him pleasantly, and seemed at ease with his appearance. He found this reassuring and creepy.
     Two sets of flowers were delivered. “Matsumoto,” his mother said, reading one card. She read the next without comment.
     “How did they know you were in the hospital?” he asked, and received no answer.
     “Just pretend I’m not here,” he said.
     How many times had he dreamt that he was caught in public naked, or in his underwear? He was an infant in old man’s pj’s. He wasn’t going back outside like this. He couldn’t get anywhere without money, language, or even an address. And no one seemed to notice. His legs were cramping. His mouth was cottony and sour. His breath was shameful. The aunt bowed and left.
     He was starved. He looked around. There seemed to be no staff at all.
     His mother, too, was restless. She got out of bed tentatively, and stood up, put on her slippers and wheeled her iv pole down the hall and into a bathroom. When she returned, she peeled the tape from her arm and yanked her iv. She held the gauze over her arm. She told him they were going home.
     He protested that they couldn’t just leave, but put on his slippers anyway, relieved. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked. What if she’d had a heart attack? “Don’t they need x-rays?”
     “I’m okay,” she said. “They know me here. Sore stomach, that’s all. I’m sorry.”
     “Are you sure?” he said. He considered calling for assistance, and thought better of it.
     She looked around. “Handobaggu?” she said. Then she seemed to remember, and continued out.
     Maybe she was an addict. Or a hypochondriac.
     Now neither of them had any money. He half hoped that they’d find the car and driver waiting, but they didn’t, and she continued out to the street without missing a beat.
     Cars thundered by, no intersection in sight. She waved at a cab halfheartedly, still holding the gauze over her forearm.
     Eventually, they found an exit to some regular streets. They walked on sidewalks past office buildings. Office workers in navy and white flowed around them. Leo and his mother stood out. There were no cabs.
     They put one foot in front of the other like people with nowhere to go. The legs of their pajamas were too short. No one stared.
     “Cold,” she said, finally, and he held out the coat, and she put it on.
     They passed a handful of people waiting at a taxi stand. His mother waved at cabs in traffic. All were taken.
     He was beyond frustration. He concentrated on the coat upon her shoulders. That at least had been his idea.
     There was nothing in her expression. They could have been headed to a public bathhouse. Perhaps they were. He’d go along, patient as a cow. Maybe then they’d go to a hair salon.
     They crossed the intersection and teetered along a narrow sidewalk bordering the outer walls of a park. Demonstrators stood in a cordoned-off area, holding placards. The cars barely slowed. Carcasses were laid along the sidewalk.
      “Who are those people?” he asked. It was definitely them, the ones from TV.
     She squinted at the signs. “Be kind to animals. Like that.”
     A skeletal tv crew was loading a van. Some of the demonstrators stood nearby, persisting with the carcasses.
     They drew closer. Not much was happening. Small gaggles of smokers had coalesced. Most placards were face down on the ground.
     “Aren’t they cold?” Leo asked.
     There were angry glances, and snorts. Placards were picked up. They were looking at her coat. They didn’t look like kind people.
     Her coat ballooned in the wind
     He felt the thrill he’d felt as a toddler when he’d learned to flush pigeons into chaos.
     They grabbed her.
     “Mama!” he cried.
     He plunged after. He pulled at forearms, but their holds were stubborn, their arms slippery. When he wrenched someone away, others pushed forward. They smelled.
     He lost his grip, and a surge carried his mother away.
     Her voice was a moose call. She swiped at someone with a fist.
     He charged forward. They were so tightly packed he pushed almost the whole group down. He and his mother went down, too. He scrambled over bodies and pulled her out. The coat stayed, pelt side up.
     He pulled her away. No one followed. He was crying. Her knees were bleeding. His were, too. Their slippers were gone. Behind them there was a tug of war with the coat. The camera crew was filming. He staggered into the street with her beside him.
     He waved and a black sedan braked and a cab behind it. He ran to it waving. The door opened. He pushed her inside and tumbled in beside her.
     She spoke to the driver. He didn’t bother to cover his face, but sat, shaking and gulping air. They careened home, back along the artery they’d walked.
     “Maa-aa,” the driver said several times, a sympathetic sound. He passed some tissues in a bag.
     Leo stopped crying, furious. He took his mother’s shoulders. “Are you out of your mind?” he shouted. “You walked right into them! Be kind to animals!”
     “Araah!” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t think: They don’t like fur.”
     He let go and stared. “And who was he? The man you left Dad for? It was Matsumoto, wasn’t it?”
     She looked startled, then sad. “Is that what you think? Is that what they said?” She looked out the window for a while. Then she sat up. “I tell you the truth,” she said. “I don’t leave for a man. I come back because I miss my mother.”
     He hadn’t meant to ask. And now he was ashamed.
     She continued talking, about her childhood in the country. How poor everyone had been after the war. Young girls prostituting themselves. Her mother had bought her shoes so she could enter her first beauty contest. Her beauty made her different.
     He could barely listen. He didn’t know what to believe, but what did it matter? She’d loved her mother. Probably.
     He blew his nose, and watched the streets. He felt a pain. Maybe it was his heart breaking. So what? When they got home she’d get her handbag and pay the driver. He’d take a bath. They’d have breakfast or lunch. He’d ask her for cab fare and hand her a check in an envelope. If she opened it, he’d see her react to the amount. He’d get dressed and pack. They’d say goodbye, with a bow and without a kiss. He’d go to the airport and get on whatever flight.
     When he got home maybe Charlie would be out at playgroup—probably not. But he’d take Mab into the bedroom anyway and lock the door. At first she’d be concerned about Charlie. But he’d worship her, first with his mouth and then with his words. He’d tell her she was the most beautiful woman in the world. He’d force off her clothes, over her protests. But she wouldn’t protest. She’d laugh. Her skin would grow luminous with the white heat of it. He’d bury his face in her hair, everywhere it grew. He’d love her until they hovered above the world like gliders. And no matter how Charlie cried, or demanded, or beat the door with fists, their pleasure would drown him out.