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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
“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
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
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
“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
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?”
She nodded without turning. “Hai,”
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
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
She told him that their host was eager to
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,”
“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
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
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
He had plastic, but his forcing the issue
would be ungracious. He bowed in return.
In the cab home, he said flatly, “A
“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.
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
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
“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
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
“Let’s go!” his mother
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
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
“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
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.
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,”
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
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,”
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
“Aren’t they cold?” Leo
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
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
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
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.
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.