Falling from the ridge
Of high Tsukuba,
The Minano River
At last gathers itself,
Like my love, into
A deep, still pool.
Falling from the ridge
Falling from the ridge
Of high Tsukuba,
The Minano River
At last gathers itself,
Like my love, into
A deep, still pool.
“My head is like some ridiculous barn packed full of stuff I want to write about,” Sumire said. “Images, scenes, snatches of words. . . in my mind they’re all glowing, all alive. Write! they shout at me. A great story is about to be born–I can feel it. It’ll transport me to some brand-new place. Problem is, once I sit at my desk and put all these down on paper, I realize something vital is missing. It doesn’t crystallize–no crystals, just pebbles. And I’m not transported anywhere.”
With a frown, Sumire picked up her two-hundred-and-fiftieth stone and tossed it into the pond.
“Maybe I’m lacking something. Something you absolutely must have to be a writer.”
A deep silence ensued. It seemed she was seeking my run-of-the-mill opinion.
After a while I started to speak. “A long time ago in China there were cities with high walls surrounding them, with huge, magnificent gates. The gates weren’t just doors for letting people in or out but had greater significance. People believed the city’s soul resided in the gates. Or at least that it should reside there. It’s like in Europe in the Middle Ages when people felt a city’s heart lay in its cathedral and central square. Which is why even today in China there are lots of wonderful gates still standing. Do you know how the Chinese built these gates?”
“I have no idea,” Sumire answered.
“People would take carts out to old battlefields and gather the bleached bones that were buried there or that lay scattered about. China’s a pretty ancient country–lots of old battlegrounds–so they never had to search far. At the entrance to the city they’d construct a huge gate and seal the bones inside. They hoped that by commemorating them this way the dead soldiers would continue to guard their town. There’s more. When the gate was finished they’d bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats, and sprinkle their blood on the gate. Only by mixing the fresh blood with the dried out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive. At least that was the idea.”
Sumire waited silently for me to go on.
“Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn’t make it a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.”
“So what you’re saying is that I go out on my own and find my own dog.”
“And shed fresh blood?”
Sumire bit her lip and thought about this. She tossed another hapless stone into the pond. “I really don’t want to kill an animal if I can help it.”
“It’s a metaphor,” I said. “You don’t actually have to kill anything.”
translated by Philip Gabriel
Look! I am but a road to you
The road you tread every morning
I am a tree to you, the acacia
In whose shadow you wait for a bus.
Tell me who you are
Let me write at the corners of streets
I’ve lost myself in your town
Your name is my street.
Tell me where your house is
Do you like afternoons or evenings?
Let me knock on your door
Unlock and show me the secret garden.
Give me the padlock of your eyes
Let me close us off from the world
Look, this is my key
Unlock yourself, there is love about to emerge
Please do not hide it.
translated by Ahu Dereli & Jean Carpenter Efe
Gabriella wakes up in the morning with her husband’s arm around her and his breath on her neck. It feels so good, so safe to wake this way that she doesn’t want to open her eyes to find him not there. It’s best to keep them shut as long as she can to extend the illusion. For to feel Todd against her like this, to be in their favorite position—the spoon—for another half minute, an hour, a lifetime, would be all she could ask for to start her day. To hell with the sun rising, birds singing, children going off to school. They are not her children, those birds are not the ones she grew up hearing, this sun is no friend of hers. And Todd, she thinks. My Todd.
And this is not the first morning she has awoke to sobs that, though they seem to belong to someone else, are hers. It is just another day.
Misook’s dream: she is walking in a forest towards a man she does not recognize but knows intimately. As she approaches, there is a rustling of leaves and she turns toward the sound, startled to see a tiger, its eyes glaring red, its mouth set in what appears to be a frown, and she frowns in turn because that seems to be what one does to tigers in the woods, and yet it does no good, for the tiger begins to crouch and then springs forward, pouncing on her legs, its mouth open, its jaws clamping shut on her calf, and yet it does not hurt and she awakes instead smiling, and thinks of her mother and fortune tellers back in Korea and omens about money, good fortune and tigers in dreams.
And then, as she drifts off again to sleep, she is vaguely aware this is not her bed, but Nick’s, and that she thinks is maybe why the omens are so powerful, for she is safe here, secure, and tigers cannot harm her, but only can bring good prophecies and rest.
Doug wakes not knowing where he is, his breath short, his mind in a gray zone. Don’t panic, he thinks. Don’t panic. His heart races, pushes against his chest as if to escape into open air. He grabs the sheets, his mouth open, and forces himself to be calm. It takes maybe half a minute but his heart slows, the panic subsides, the morning becomes his, a familiar one once again.
And though we watch him rise and make his way, a little unsteadily, toward the kitchen, we do not wait for the cough, the piece of himself he gives up to keep on going. He will survive. He is not beaten yet.
Nick wakes feeling somewhat stiff in the neck, his mouth dry, but his mind clear, his spirit renewed. There is a purpose to his mornings now. A vision that propels him. He has the play in his head. The characters, their faces taking on shapes, characteristics, the lines having voices echoing in his head. He starts to see color, costumes, a multipurpose set of platforms, ramps, a staircase, perhaps, in the middle. There could even be a swing.
And music, Nick thinks. I must have music: a piano, a harpsichord maybe, some strings. And a voice, one voice in particular, Jenny’s voice floating in the air. And Puck, a female Puck, he imagines, light on her feet, spreading fairy dust across the stage.
He would like to tell someone, to walk down the hall to his bedroom and wake Misook from her sleep, to tell of the vision he sees, to spin tales, to invoke spirits, to dazzle her as he himself is dazzled by the pictures in his mind’s eye. But, of course, he does not, not wanting to disturb her slumber and the pictures he imagines fill her painter’s brain.
So instead he stands there in the middle of his den and speaks in a whisper to himself. “Lord,” he says to the shelves of books in his den/library, “what visions fill my head.”
Jenny wakes to Vivian watching her. It happens so often these days that it doesn’t bother her anymore. “Did you sleep well?’ Vivian asks.
“Yes,” Jenny says. “Yes, I did. And you?”
“I never sleep like you,” Vivian says. “You sleep so soundly. There is nothing on your mind when you sleep.”
“My mother used to say I sleep like the dead. That once asleep, it was impossible to wake me.”
“You can do anything to you when you are asleep and you would never know,” Vivian says and then a sly smile sneaks across her face.
“I would know,” Jenny says. “I would know especially what you are planning.”
“Would you?” Vivian asks softly, seductively, slowly entrapping her between her bare legs, her arms, her hands. “Would you know?”
“Yes,” Jenny says, barely breathing, her mouth engulfed by Vivian’s, her tongue enmeshed. “Yes.”
And Miyo wakes to prepare breakfast. Yugi is still asleep, his face innocent, like a child’s. She almost feels like a mother, not a wife. She once heard somewhere that that was what all men wanted—to be taken care of. Or else to have daughters to take care of themselves. That the passion of love is replaced by that—a mother, a daughter, a father, a son. Roles we are most familiar with. She smiles to herself thinking it’s true of Yugi anyway. Always a little boy looking up at her. Always a child in need of care.
But her eyes don’t go to the window. Don’t see past the curtains to the street below. And what would she see there, if she looks, but a car pulling away from the curb. A car that passes by at least twice a day. To say good morning, like now, or to say good night. To watch her window like an adoring child or is it a lovesick man, a spurned lover, a soul adrift in a sea not of his choosing.
Ah Miyo, it’s best you don’t see yet. Busy yourself with breakfast. Let your world not know of the shadows lurking about.
Doug is at school long before the parking lot fills. It is his custom to arrive early, especially the first week or two of classes so he can visit each class with his fourth cup of coffee in hand, and to introduce himself to the students, to let them see the face that goes with his name, his title, to give his office number, where to find him if they have a problem. He is the only chair of a department who visits each class that his department offers the first week. But these students are his charge and he takes that responsibility seriously. Their struggles to learn the language is his struggle, too. And he makes sure they know they have an ally in him, his door always open to listen to complaints, offer advice, console frustration.
Today, though, he is feeling tired. The coffee just isn’t giving him the jolt he needs to keep moving and he finds his body drooping in the kitchen at work as he pours himself another cup and thinks about sleep. He thinks it might be the coffee so he forgoes the milk and drinks it black. Hector comes in then for a cup of coffee himself and Doug stares into eyes that seem more fatigued than his own. “You look tired,” he says to Hector. “Aren’t you getting enough sleep?”
“Not lately,” Hector says and smiles weakly. “I think I must be getting like you.”
“Great,” Doug says. “Two sleep deprived people running the show.” His eyes, though, look at Hector as if for the first time. They see the way his hands tremble slightly pouring milk into his coffee and the way his body leans against the counter rather than stands erect. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” Hector says. “I just haven’t been sleeping so well lately.”
“Ah,” Doug goes. “I can understand that.”
“I think I think too much,” he says and sighs. “Is there any cure for that?”
“None that works very well for long,” Doug says. “There are, in my experience, some good short term cures, like drinking or even intense periods of work, but,” and he sighs, too, “if whatever you’re thinking about doesn’t get resolved, it doesn’t go away for long.”
“Resolution,” Hector says. “That’s what I need, I guess.”
“That’s what we all need,” and Doug puts his arm around his assistant’s shoulder. “But it doesn’t come easy.”
“No,” Hector sorrowfully agrees. “No, it doesn’t.”
Neither knows the cause of the other’s sleeplessness but not knowing doesn’t affect their ability to identify with each other. Hector has always assumed Doug’s troubles run deep, but he has never bothered to concern himself with just what those troubles might be, thinking that even though he has known Doug for over a decade and has worked for him in some capacity that entire time, he had no right to pry into areas of his private life that were out of bounds to him. Hector is essentially a private person and not necessarily open about his life off campus. He is also considered somewhat remote even from his friends so it is only natural that he respects another’s privacy. However, they both seem to share a bond now that they both suffer from troubled sleep. And though no effort is made on either part to divulge the source of those troubles, they sense an affinity.
“Maybe you should take some time off,” Doug says. “You put in too many hours here. Take some personal days or a vacation. The language labs can run without you for a while.” Doug smiles. “You have trained a good staff, you know.”
“Yeah,” he nods. “Maybe I will.” But how does he say, if I do, how will I see Miyo who comes to work every day? What chance will I have to see her? And he leaves to check in on the tutoring in the labs. Walks listlessly through his day as he waits, somewhat patiently, for an excuse to find a way across campus to catch a glimpse of Miyo.
Doug, meanwhile, finds himself faced with the same campus politics he thought he escaped last June, only he’s been at this long enough to know political battles over turf never really end on a campus, because, as Nick would say, if they did, what would we talk about at departmental meetings. So after a phone call from the Dean, “A heads up” as he calls it, he is once again sending Ali off to prepare yet another report on the success of ESL students in credit bearing classes. Another round of meetings, conferences, back room politicking, report after report of statistics, colorful charts, projections, etc. etc. etc. This is what Doug likes least about his job and yet it takes up more and more of his time, his precious, diminishing energy. And so he finds himself tired before the day has really begun. Only the thought of teaching again cheers him. And he finds himself looking forward to meeting the new students in his classes. That, more than the coffee, boosts his spirits.
Nick sits in his office, his feet propped up on the table he uses as a desk, a lunch counter, a foot stool, an impromptu bar, and reads A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the sixth time that day. He had gotten ready as quietly as he could, dressing in clothes from his spare closet so he wouldn’t disturb Misook who was still sleeping soundly in his bed when he left. He knows she won’t come in to the office until later in the day to work her 4 hours in the scene shop before going off to graduate school for her first evening classes of the new semester. Normally she would have painted late into the night, the sound of Louis Armstrong putting on white coat, top hat, and tails drifting upstairs to him as he read while she painted furiously till dawn. She has no conception of time when she paints. She is a demon possessed.
But last night she had a little too much brandy to drink and so her irregular sleeping habits are temporarily altered. Nick, though, shares her irregular sleeping habits for his mind won’t turn off, either. It’s a restless mind that roams from one thought to another, one problem to the next, with constant regularity. And often his mind would dwell on her, on her asleep in his bed, like now, or in her own downstairs, her slender body twisting and turning as the colors, the shapes, the sounds that inspire her race through her restless mind. He normally would ponder her in repose and his heart would ache as it has so often ached over these last few years he has fallen hopelessly in love with her. And the little rest he requires would be lost yet another night, the dull pain in his heart following him into the morning, through the afternoon to quietly, mercilessly torment him even now, hours and miles away, but never absent for long from his heart.
But now instead he attacks this problem with the play by underlining phrases, making notations in the margins as to possible blocking, motivation, revisions, insertions of songs, dances, and then sitting back, looking up at the ceiling, and smiling. He has not been this excited about staging a play in years, possibly not since the seventies when just out of graduate school he felt a tremendous desire to change the world through drama. That was so long ago, he thinks, and looks over at his wall of pictures from past shows, of programs, of his life here at the college in one huge collage. Our eyes peruse these pictures with him and we see his hair length change, as well as his position in the pictures: from the center as the director while faculty, and often, as chair and thus producer, to not in the frame at all. And the shows: musicals, dramas, comedies, classics, all staples of theatre departments everywhere. And this collage covers most of his wall. It is the most dominant feature in the room, apart from an old worn leather easy chair and a couch with this utility table in front of it and his scarred oak desk with matching swivel chair. It is an inviting office, a comfortable office, one in which the person who occupies it intends to spend many hours working/living in it. Here Nick pores over scripts, plans his budget, confers with staff and students and casts of his plays, and, on rehearsal nights, catches a half hour or so of undisturbed sleep between classes and run-throughs. It is his office, his home away from home, his sanctuary on campus. And here, surrounded by memories and mementos from the past, he plots his future.
And for this reason, even though he occasionally drives himself into a frenzy, he is very much at peace. For now, he thinks, he is resurrecting a multi-layered love story and, quite possibly, within those layers somewhere is his love song to Misook, covertly playing, unconsciously heard.
Doug finds a hollowness inside his chest where he once thought his heart belonged. Somehow, he thinks, he lost what once filled his chest, his life, with hope, with desire, and he does not know where he misplaced it or how to get it back. He can, he knows, go through his day and function well: attend meetings, observe the faculty in his department, teach his two classes, walk that fine line between awake and asleep, be half alive. He does this well and often feels it is all that is left to him at this stage in his life. He is lucky, of course, blessed with a job he loves, surrounded by people he cares for, living in a house that is as comfortable as a pair of worn slippers, and yet to share all this with someone special does not seem too much to ask for, though it does seem too much to expect.
So he sits in his office lost in space, unaware of the buzzing of a dozen languages outside in the hall, unaware of all but the loneliness in his bones.
Hector finds peace only when Miyo is in sight. Of course he has to physically go out of his way to see her since she works in the costume shop across campus from his language labs but he parks near the theatre to watch her get out of her car in the morning and then leaves the labs in time to watch her get in her car at night, to follow discreetly behind as she drives home and to sit outside on her street watching her windows till all the lights turn off, torturing himself imagining what is going on in her bedroom, his hands tightly grasping his steering wheel, his heart pounding in his chest.
Miyo, for her part, is not even aware of the ghost that hovers about throughout the day, accidentally crossing her path. She is much too busy flipping through design books, researching different time periods for ideas for costumes for the upcoming plays. She is Nick’s costume designer now and she takes her job very seriously, constantly sketching her ideas for the different directors’ approval. So it is to be expected that she remains mostly oblivious to Hector’s specter presence. She does, though, as we all do, too, take notice of Misook who enters the office in a whirlwind.
“You would not believe,” she says in Japanese to Miyo, “what I did today.”
“You painted,” Miyo says and has to laugh when Misook looks at her unabashedly overjoyed.
“Yes, yes, I painted, but what I painted, oh, that is the thrilling part.”
“A picture?” Miyo teases. “A still life of oranges in a bowl?”
“No,” Misook says unperturbed by her teasing. “But in your honor, I shall call it ‘Oranges.’ And, of course, dedicate it to you.”
“You are so generous,” Miyo says. “How can I ever show my gratitude?”
“By buying me lunch. I am starved.”
“Isn’t it a little late for lunch?” Miyo asks, amused at what she knows is her best friend’s inability to keep track of mundane things like the time of day. “It is almost four o’clock.”
“Lunch is whenever you eat between breakfast and dinner. That is the rule in this country.”
“It is?” Miyo says in mock surprise. “It’s funny that I never heard it defined in that way.”
“That’s because you don’t live with an American. If you lived with an American like me, and not with another Japanese, you would know all the correct definitions and terminology.”
“Ahhh, I see,” Miyo says. “And I suppose I have my father to thank for that.”
“He may be your father,” Misook says, her eyes aglow, “but he’s my poppa.”
“Yes, and he seems to be more a poppa to you than a father to me.”
“Ah, but you have your husband and I only have my poppa.”
“Hmmm,” and Miyo laughs. “It’s only fair then, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Misook grins. “That is something we Asians understand, is that not correct?”
They both laugh then and Miyo says, “Speaking of what is fair, do you want to ask my father and your poppa if he wants to have lunch with us?”
“Of course,” Misook says. “Isn’t it a saying here that the family that eats together stays together?”
“Oh you would know better about sayings like that,” Miyo says. “That is the reason why you must go find the man responsible and ask him to join us for eating.”
And watch Misook then go off down the hall to find Nick in his office listening to Jeff explain the relevance of Clifford Odets to a modern audience today. “You must realize that he was dealing with the working classes’ problems then and they haven’t really changed very much today.”
“Okay,” Nick says, “I’ll buy the timeliness of Odets. But which play are you thinking of doing? Golden Boy?”
“I’m thinking of Awake And Sing,” Jeff says. “There’s a disillusioned vet, strong women, a young man on the cusp of adulthood, economic hardship, plenty of passion, and the line ‘’cause there ain’t no bones in ice cream.’”
“Well there’s the reason to revive it right there.”
“I’m serious, you know,” Jeff says.
“Oh, I know you are.”
“There’s plenty of social outrage in Odets. And poetry, too.”
“And I’m all for poetic social outrage.”
“So you agree?”
“Have I ever said no?”
“Are you two arguing politics again?” Misook asks as she comes in.
“Not arguing,” Jeff says. “Discussing.”
“Yes,” Nick agrees. “Unfortunately, Jeff always brings out the best side of me in these discussions.”
“That’s because you are both socialists inside,” Misook says. “Or do you say you are both socialists in heart?”
“At heart,” Nick corrects. “We are both socialists at heart.”
“In heart, at heart, with heart,” Misook says. “You both always agree.”
“Yes,” they both nod. “We agree.”
“Good,” Misook says. “And how about lunch? Do you both agree to have lunch with Miyo and me?”
“Lunch?” Nick asks. He looks at Jeff who makes one of his I-don’t-believe-this-crazy-person looks and says, “Isn’t it more like dinnertime?”
“Lunch, dinner, breakfast,” Misook says. “What difference does it make what you call it? Are you hungry and do you want to eat with Miyo and me?”
“Oh,” and Nick looks at Jeff who gives one of his You-can’t-fight-that-logic looks and says, “Put that way, I’d have to say yes, I could eat now.”
“Now comes the hard part,” Misook says, and both Nick and Jeff exchange one of their I-knew-this-was-coming looks. “What do you want to eat?”
And here begins the polite debate of well, what do you want, I don’t care, what do you want, followed by the endless listing of possibilities—Chinese, Turkish, Thai, Korean, pizza, sandwiches, deli specials, roast chicken—before Misook decides for them all. “We shall eat Korean food,” she says emphatically and both Nick and Jeff think it prudent not to try to change her mind. So Korean food it is which Jeff finds acceptable since he gets beef and Nick gets eel and the women get vegetable dishes with rice and cellophane noodles, though Misook has, as is her custom, a little bit of everyone’s dish and insists, as is also her custom, to give everyone some of hers. It is her natural curiosity that takes over and, as is also her habit, she takes out her camera and records the lunch for possible inspiration later. Nick, of course, can’t help smiling appreciatively at her during all this but tries to mask his admiration by pretending he is really smiling at everything else. Misook, though, knows the truth and this gives her great delight and she really can’t help but be more theatrical in her behavior as a result.
And Miyo, who sees it all, can’t help but smile and would like to dedicate the meal to someone but cannot decide whom to dedicate it to—her beloved boss or his Korean muse who is her best friend—and so ultimately dedicates it to them both, a compromise she thinks she can live with, which is what, as we all know, compromises are made for.
“Relationships,” Doug says, “are a series of compromises.”
“Yes, I know that,” Gia replies, “but how come I always have to be the one who compromises? I ask you, is that fair?”
“Well, no,” Doug says and sighs, knowing full well that this is not going to be the conversation he would have liked to have. “But sometimes, in the balance of things, things are not always balanced evenly.”
“What kind of answer is that?” Gia asks. “I’m not sure if that’s even correct English, that answer.”
“It’s correct,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean it has to make perfect sense, though, I might add, I do happen to think it does.”
“How can some things be balanced if they’re uneven? That I don’t understand.”
“Well, not balanced in terms of a scale of weight but in human terms. It’s different.”
“Don’t you mean another word besides balance?” Gia asks. “When people are like opposite, or different, and yet they go together. Is that what you mean?”
“Complement,” Doug nods. “They complement each other.”
“Yeah, right,” Gia nods, too. “Do you mean complement instead of balance?”
“I could,” Doug says, “but I mean balance, too. I like the image that balance conjures in my head as to relationships. I see two people grossly disproportionate but yet somehow on an even plane together. And for me, that’s a different visual image than complement.”
Gia regards him with a critical eye. “You’re strange sometimes, but you know that, right?”
“Yes,” Doug sighs, wishing he had a cigarette in his hand right about now so he could take a long, hard pull. “Yes, I know. I know that all too well.”
And Gabriella watches her students try to limber up. There are so few who really have the grace of dancers, but what does she expect here, in this country of hamburgers and French fries. She cannot relate to these young women. When she was their age, she lived and breathed dance. Her body was like an instrument and she constantly practiced at playing it. But her students lack that discipline, all except maybe two new foreign students: Catalina from Colombia and Hsu Chi from Taiwan. They seem almost as serious as she was at their age and are lean and lithe the way she was, still is, today. Only now she lacks the intensity she possessed. Life perhaps has robbed her of that. But her hard earned discipline, at least, sustains her.
Watch Misook paint. She stands barefoot, her slender body clad only in a short flowered print silk dress, left hand resting on her hip, right leg slightly bent forward, a knife held loosely in her right hand, her head tilted to the side. She eyes the canvas, like some tourist studying an unfamiliar road map, uncertain in which direction to go and yet bound and determined to go somewhere. Art for Misook is a path beyond self—to some enlightened stage where the haze and ambiguity of life is dispelled by a clarity of vision that astounds the world. Misook isn’t so much looking for understanding as she is looking for a way to make others understand what she sees. And yet she cannot always determine what to paint first, for she sees so many shapes, so much color, such a world in transition before her stunned eyes.
Nick sits at his desk in his office staring at a drawing on his wall. It is one of Misook’s, a sketch, really, of the poster for Finian’s Rainbow done two years ago, with a leprechaun half hidden by a tree gazing lovingly, longingly at a young girl dancing in the foreground. He has always liked this sketch, the sense of wonder, of awe on the leprechaun’s face as he watches unseen a dance of vitality and joy. And Misook had playfully given the leprechaun a face that resembled his, as if foreseeing what would be his role in her life. At first it had amused him, but now it saddens him. And though he will not be taking it down, his eyes grow heavy, and they begin to close, there in his office, seated there at his desk.
Jenny runs the scales while Vivian eyes her throat, her lips, the way her chin tilts forward. If it were polite to drool, to show signs of a palpitating heart, she would do so. But here, in the company of others, she shows remarkable restraint. But later, when she gets her home, she will not be so polite. She will spend hours exploring, caressing every part of Jenny’s body. And there will be cries of delight in the night air, some of which will be Jenny’s, some of which will belong to her.
MinKyung sits perhaps a little too stiffly, primly may be a better word, as Doug reviews her essay with her during conference. She tries not to look at him as he explains his corrections, but she can’t help but sneak an occasional peek at that handsome Anglo-Saxon face. He is so American, she thinks. What could he be possibly thinking as he reads her thoughts, her feelings? How could he understand the entanglements of her life?
And yet, as he speaks about sentence structure and verb tense, she finds comfort in the sound of his voice, the Chopin “Ballades” playing softly in the background, the Matisse prints on the wall. And as his fingers glide across the red marks on her paper, we notice the stiffness ease, her body relax, her weight shift comfortably in her chair. And after he has finished, she can’t stop herself from asking, “You don’t remember me, I think.”
Doug looks slightly baffled as his eyes search hers for a clue, a hint of their last encounter. “We met before?”
“At Yugi’s and Miyo’s wedding,” she says.
“The restaurant?” and his face frowns momentarily as he tries to recall.
“It is my husband’s restaurant,” she says. “My husband is Yugi’s cousin.”
“Ah,” Doug says and his face is smiling now, such a handsome smile, kind and reassuring. “You were in charge.”
She averts her eyes in a show of modesty and nods assent. “I did what I always do there: I made sure everyone had food to eat.”
“A blessed talent that is,” he says and then asks questions about the restaurant, the mechanics of her role, he seems so interested that she is once again at ease. They could be friends discussing lunch. He finally adds smiling, “What a coincidence you ended up in my class.”
“Miyo did it,” MinKyung says. “She recommended me in all my classes.”
“Ah, of course,” and he laughs. “I should have guessed.”
“She said you were not only a good teacher, but that you were kind.” And her eyes lower again, not quite making contact with his. “And with my poor writing ability, I need someone kind.”
He laughs, but in such a soft, good-natured way that she knows it is not at her but at the remark instead. “Your mechanics may be weak,” he says, “but there’s nothing wrong with the content. It is obvious you have much to say. Now we just have to work on helping you develop the skill to say it.”
“Miyo was right,” she says. “You are kind.”
He seems almost flustered then, even maybe a slight trace of a blush appears on that oh so white skin, and MinKyung finds that endearing. She thinks she likes this man and that adds to her sense of comfort here. And the fact that he fumbles when complimented makes her smile.
And we watch as Doug steers the conversation back to her, her goals at school, her interests, her life outside, her essay. He gets her talking about herself and as she talks, he finds connections from her past, her present, to what she envisions as a future. And finally he brings her closer to the means to achieve it.
“You didn’t attend college before in Japan?”
“Actually I did. I was an art student, like Miyo and her friend Misook.”
“Did you want to paint like Misook, or did you want to go into fashion design like Miyo?”
“I didn’t really have a clear idea back then. I just loved to draw and so I studied it but I did not have any thought about what to do with it.” And a wistful look causes her to almost dissolve. “I was so young then. There was so much I did not know.”
“That could be said of all of us. We are so foolish when we are young.”
“But do you get more wise with age?” MinKyung asks. “Sometimes I do not think so.”
“Well, I think we still do foolish things when we get older,” he says, “but we know we’re being foolish then. And maybe that awareness is what we mistakenly call wisdom.”
“Then it truly is better to be ignorant,” she says.
“Yes,” and he nods. “You sleep better at night that way.”
She laughs but there is sadness in that laugh that Doug recognizes though he doesn’t know the cause. But the sound is so familiar that he feels he knows this person better than he could have at first imagined. “And how did you go from art to waitressing in a restaurant?”
“It is not the life I would have planned,” she says, “but because I really had no plan, it is the life I have.”
“And I guess I understand that.” He feels such a surge of empathy for her at this moment that he almost reaches out to touch her, to physically reassure her that he was not judging her in any way. Instead, though, he adds, “Sometimes life has the habit of not doing what we expect it to, and if we’re lucky, we survive the changes.”
It’s here, in his office, staring into those sad, ironic eyes that she at first realizes she not only likes this man, but that she could, under the right circumstances, abandon her restraint and like him very much. And though that should frighten her, or at the very least disturb her, it doesn’t. And instead she begins to tell him the story of her life. Her family, her carefree teens in Korea, her plans to paint, to study art in college, her meeting Hiroshi, the courtship, the marriage, coming to America, the restaurant work, her life now. And though normally she would not have divulged so much so soon, she feels so at ease doing it, talking to him in this way, that she almost wishes there was more to tell. But luckily for her, she gets it all out before she can change her mind or before any other students come to interrupt her. And so finally, when others appear for their appointed conferences, she is ready to leave. But as she does, she leaves with the knowledge that not only does he want her to return, but that she does, too.
And Gabriella returns to Nick’s office after her last dance class of the day to finish listening to his grand idea. And we, too, get to hear him explain his concept of what will substitute for the spring musical this year.
“I want to do a multicultural version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he says. “You know, it’s a perfect vehicle for that. We make the different groups—the Court, the lovers, the fairies, the clowns—different language groups, different cultures. We even use different languages on stage and have subtitles projected above the action like at City Center or the State Theatre. We have music and dance, different forms, different rhythms, like tango for the lovers and ballet for the fairies and jazz for the clowns. And we use different costumes, different color schemes for each group, lots of clashing colors. A wild celebration of love.” His eyes light up, a man possessed, and he begins to show her his notes, he fleshes out scenes, he talks about casting, his ideas for a set.
Gabriella is, as usual, swept up in his enthusiasm. His eyes aglow, his hands gesticulating, flying through the air, his voice changing as he plays the different roles, he is up, he is down, he is all over the room demonstrating how it will play, how it will look. And Gaby begins to envision dancers in her head. It starts, in this way, to come alive for her.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Nick, but I’m pregnant,” Rosalind says later that day and then feels a tremendous burden lift from her chest, the air soaring back as Nick smiles.
“That’s great,” he says and then he stands and walks around his desk. “This calls for a big hug.”
She laughs, blushes, hugs him tightly and almost cries. “You’re not mad?” she asks. “I thought you’d be mad.”
“Why?” he asks, slightly taken aback. “Why would I be mad?”
“Well, it might cause some problems in the shop. It’ll only be Simon full-time now after I leave,” and she gives an embarrassed laugh.
“Ahhh, well…” and he shrugs. “But that’s my headache. You, though, you’re going to have a baby.” And he grins like a kid, something Rosalind hasn’t seen for quite a while. “That’s truly wonderful.”
And the talk then centers around the details: when she found out, what her husband thinks, who else knows (“Only my family,” Rosalind explains. “I couldn’t tell anyone here until I told you.”), possible names, how it will affect her life. She is just so happy that Nick can’t help but be glad for her. And as he listens to the plans to decorate the spare room, the family dynamics changing as the first grandchild will appear on the scene for both sets of in-laws, the adjustments both she and Stan will have to make in their work schedules, Nick is suddenly overwhelmed with melancholy. For another child will be born to learn the family history of another set of parents, another line will be unbroken for another generation, but his line, the stories he has to tell, will fall silent one day sooner than he would like. And now, how he wishes he had a life to pass on. It isn’t retirement his mind turns to, it’s rebirth. And he can’t help but wonder how he’s missed that opportunity again and again in his life.
Oh, to be young, he sighs. Oh, to have an open sky above and beyond your eyes. Oh, life. It doesn’t pass us by but we pass it on, if we’re lucky, to new hearts, new minds, the young.
And the young, the young, they crowd the halls, sit in the classrooms, dance their hearts away. And Gabriella looks out from tired, wistful eyes remembering her own youth, the boundless energy that once flowed through her limbs that now only ache for the one body that held her so long and so lovingly throughout the endless night.
And the young are people lile Sara who tutors in the writing lab. She helps her group of students with the descriptive essay by explaining what a cliche is: “something so old it has no value anymore.” She wonders if that applies to her–for isn’t she a walking cliche of unrequited love? And doesn’t she feel valueless? And as she passes by Hector’s office, she can’t help thinking he doesn’t even notice me.
Poor, poor me, she snivels. I am less than a shadow on the ground. I am dust. I am invisible.
And Hector is part of the night. He is a shadow among shadows, inseparable from the darkness around him. And his eyes burning bright like some wild beast’s stare out from the blackness and burn holes in the windows, through the bricks on the walls, pierce the night and see in their lurid imagination that slender body engulfed by another body that is not his. Oh, the pain in his heart, the pain stabbing between those burning eyes. And the questions tormenting his soul: how has this happened? Where will it lead? What does it mean?
“So,” Nick says at lunch, “that’s my idea. A modern Midsummer Night’s Dream”
“Well,” Doug says, “it certainly is ambitious.”
“Ambitious?” Nick laughs. “That’s the understatement of the year.”
“Yes, it is,” Doug nods.
“But I see this so clearly. I have to do it, you know.”
“Well, if you have to do it, don’t let me dissuade you.”
“I won’t,” he grins. “Instead I’ll let you help me.”
“Ah,” Doug goes. “This must be the catch, and I didn’t even see you throw the ball.”
“As Caesar said at the Po, the ball is cast.”
“Was it a ball?’ Doug muses. “I thought it was a die.”
“Die, ball, fishing tackle,” Nick says waving his hand to show how insignificant the difference is. “It’s all just a figure of speech anyway.”
“And leave it to you to make an historical reference with your figures of speech,” Doug says. “But getting back to balls and catching, just what do you want me to do?”
“You have the source of talent in terms of ethnic and language groups from which I can draw,” he answers, “and you can also help me with updating the text.”
“You don’t mean rewrite Shakespeare, I hope,” Doug says. “That would be sacrilegious.”
“No,” Nick says. “Reshape.”
Doug looks quizzically Nick’s way but his blank look doesn’t help him. “I’m not sure I understand the difference.”
“Well,” Nick says, “I mean to tighten it up a bit. To edit.”
“Ahhh,” Doug’s eyebrow rises. “I’m not so sure I’m going to like this.”
Nick chooses to ignore his doubts and concentrates on a positive spin in his answer. “It’s more like changing things to allow this ethnic mix.”
“Some dialogue, maybe.”
“You know, update some jargon maybe.”
“Oh boy,” Doug sighs. “I think this is just a peek into Pandora’s Box.”
“I’ll pay you, of course,” Nick says.
“It’s not the money,” Doug says. “It’s the thought of butchering a wonderful play.”
“It’s an adaptation,” Nick explains. “We’ll say in the program it’s based on the text.”
“It’s sounds like more than reshaping to me,” Doug says. “Those two little words ‘based on’ imply major overhaul. And I’m beginning to think I may be getting in over my head here. Because if I’m getting in over my head, I will regret this for many years to come.”
“When were you planning on retirement?” Nick asks.
“Because it’ll only be while still on campus that you’ll have to worry about the slings and arrows of outrageous critics.”
“Cute,” Doug says. “Just what I need for encouragement.”
“C’mon,” Nick laughs. “It’s a joke. This’ll be fun.”
Doug looks at Nick. Nick looks back. There is a long pause before Doug says, “I think we’re going to need another glass of wine now.”
And Nick is off again, painting pictures in the air of how he sees it. And while he paints his pictures and Doug strains to catch his enthusiasm, we pull back and leave them to their pasta dishes, their wine, garlic bread and olive oil for dipping. A meal. And the beginning of their great adventure.
Jenny sits opposite Jeff in his office. She is unsure of what she wants other than just to talk to someone she knows will listen. For her, now, a crossroads looms in front but she has no idea what to do with the choices and has no one to turn to to ask, except Vivian who will let emotion sway any advice she can give, and Jeff, who will listen as always to her constant dilemma. So she talks about what graduate program to transfer to when she is done next fall.
“They’re all good choices,” Jeff says, “but if you can, you should go to Julliard.”
“But my status,” she says. “I don’t think they will take me. And even if they will, how could I afford there without any aid?”
“Right,” he says. “I forgot.”
And the hidden subject, her lapsed student visa, rears its ugly head again. If only she had not let her visa expire, if only she had not made that fatal error, roads now closed would be open. And the future would be brighter than it is today.
“There are a few schools that will accept me but the best ones are private and so expensive. And I don’t make enough singing or in the nail salon.” She sighs. “Vivian helps, but I don’t want to keep depending on that.”
“There is no solution to this problem?”
“I can apply for reinstatement but,” and she sighs deeply again, “they tell me my chances are not very good at this time.” She looks off somewhere for an answer that proves evasive. Her eyes, those dark treasures that captivate him so, cloud over and turn opaque on him.
“Well, it’s worth a try,” he says. “How long will it take?”
“Months,” she says. “And it’s certain I will be rejected, and then I will be ordered to leave.”
“And you’ve been to a lawyer?”
“Yes,” and she laughs helplessly. “His advice was to marry an American.” Her eyes can’t hide her bitter amusement. “And he charged me two hundred and fifty dollars for that.”
A thought flickers through his mind but he suppresses any articulation of it. Instead he looks at her forlorn figure, the shape of her thighs in her tight fitting jeans, the crevice between her small breasts, that lovely neck, those full lips, those eyes, and bites his tongue. But surely, he thinks, it would not be hard to find an American who could fall in love with her. But would she, could she fall in love with him?
Jeff sits in Nick’s office and talks about what is troubling his heart.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Jeff says. “I really don’t. But I can’t get her out of my mind.”
“Jenny,” Jeff sighs. “I’m smitten with Jenny.”
“Ah, well…” and Nick goes but goes no further for nothing else really needs to be said. At least not by him.
“But her status,” Jeff says. “That seems to be a problem I didn’t count on.”
“Her status?” Nick asks. “What about her status?”
“I’m not sure I understand the problem,” Nick says. “She’s illegal?”
“And have you talked with Doug? This is his area of expertise, you know. Can’t he help?”
“It’s beyond him now,” Jeff says. “Only marriage with an American will help.”
“Marriage?” Nick asks. “Are you planning on marrying her?”
”I could,” Jeff says, “but she’d have to love me first.”
“And she doesn’t?”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Oh,” Nick says. “That is a stumbling block.”
“She’s in love with Vivian instead.”
“Vivian?” Nick blinks. “The piano player?”
“Yes,” Jeff nods. “But I know she likes me a lot. And well, maybe I can win her heart away.”
“If I have to.”
“Ahhh,” Nick goes. “I’m afraid this is a little beyond me, too.”
“I know it is,” Jeff says. “I just had to tell someone.” And then he goes on, pouring his heart out, there in the office, confessing his love, his torment, while Nick, his old teacher, his mentor, his employer, his friend, listens, and secretly thanks whatever god is listening for making his own affairs of the heart a lot less complicated, a lot less disturbing in their own way.
And Irene calls in the early evening as Doug is sitting down to dinner in his kitchen alcove, watching the sun disappear from his yard. “Am I disturbing you?” she asks, just as she always does each time she calls.
Doug thinks yes, yes, of course you are, because you of all people can disturb me more than anyone, anything else. But he does not say that, does not even say it’s his dinner hour, it’s his moment of quiet reflection here in his favorite place to eat, his alcove overlooking his deck, his backyard garden, his little piece of Eden here in New York. “No,” he says instead. “How are you?”
“Oh,” and he hears her sigh that infamous Irene sigh that precedes the reason for her call. “I don’t know. I guess I’m not feeling so great.”
“Well,” he says and resists sighing himself because he knows this will cost him something besides time and a delayed dinner, an emotional price tag hanging in the air between them, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing specific,” she says. “I’m just feeling blue.” Then after a very long second’s hesitation adds, “Do you ever feel blue, Doug, when you think about us?”
And he closes his eyes anticipating what will follow and thinks it’s times like these that he knows exactly why he divorced her, but he has trouble remembering why he married her in the first place. And he braces himself to endure what will follow, hoping he will still have an appetite left when this ends for the very cold dinner that awaits him.
Nick stands in a tuxedo, a white carnation in his lapel, his best friend from college, Steve, standing next to him, looking our way but really seeing down a church aisle, waiting for his bride. Music starts, an organ maybe, and his eyes widen expecting the woman approaching in white to be Linda but instead she stops midway down the aisle, lifts her veil, and says, “Are you there?” And this woman, this bride to be in white, this young Korean woman calls him again, “Poppa, are you busy?’
Nick pops awake, having dozed off briefly in his reading chair. At first he is slightly disoriented, her voice calling, mingling with her voice in the dream, a dream that seems to overlap with reality as often as reality overlaps with his dreams. And Misook resides in both worlds for him, a thought he could find unsettling if he stopped to think about it, which happily, at least for now, he does not.
“Can you hear me?” Misook asks from the bottom of the stairs.
“Yes,” he says, his mouth dry all of a sudden. “Yes, I hear you.”
“Are you asleep?” she asks tentatively. “Did I wake you?” she says, as she climbs a few steps up the stairs.
“No, no,” he answers, shaking himself out of his lingering memory of the dream. “Come up.”
And Misook is there, in shorts and a t-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, sitting in the rocker, one slender bare leg tucked under her, the other bent with her foot resting on the cushion, her chin resting on her knee, her eyes looking perhaps a bit too pensive, maybe even slightly mournful. Nick knows something is troubling her but being accustomed to his sometime role of Father Confessor, he waits patiently for her to tell him what that is. And she sighs and says, of the Ralph Vaughn Williams recording playing softly on the stereo, “That’s lovely.”
“Yes,” he nods. “I felt like listening to something lovely tonight.”
“But it is also a little sad,” she says. “Are you sad tonight, poppa?”
“No,” he says.
She looks at him with that tilted head of hers, that painter’s eye, so keen on detail, and says, “You are always a little sad.”
“No,” he protests, though not loudly. “I’m just tired.”
“Yes,” she nods. “You are always tired. And a little sad, too.”
“You think so?”
“Yes,” she says solemnly. “I have known you for over five years now and have lived here for three years, and you are my poppa, my special friend here in America, and so I know these things. I pay extra attention,” and she has such a serious look on her face that he can’t help but smile. “You cannot hide it from me,” she says, “with that smile. I know too well.”
“You do, huh?”
“Yes,” she says. “You are always tired because you do not sleep properly and you are always a little sad.”
“You don’t sleep properly, either.”
“Yes, that is true,” she nods, acknowledging a fact there is no point in denying. “But I am younger and so I do not need as much sleep. But you, you need more rest.”
“And you’re sad sometimes, too,” he says.
“Yes,” she nods again. “Yes, I am. But not all the time like you. There is a difference.”
“You’re sad right now,” he says.
“Yes, but you are changing the subject.”
“The subject is sadness,” he says, feeling expansive all of a sudden. “Yours, mine, the eternal condition of all humanity.”
“Oh boy,” and she sighs, something she finds herself doing often with this man. “You turn everything around.”
“Yes, you do. You take my concern and you turn it into a worldwide epidemic.”
“Hmmm,” he goes. “That’s what I’m supposed to do. To go from the specific to the general. To view the big picture.”
“You could give a girl a headache,” she says. “It must be very difficult to love you.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“This is not good, poppa.” And her look becomes even more serious, more concerned, as if the diagnosis returned was fatal. “If you are so difficult to love, who will take care of you after I am gone.”
“Well,” and he smiles as best as he can under the circumstances, “I guess I’ll have to put an ad in the paper before you leave and have you interview all perspective applicants.”
“You are not taking this serious.”
“Should I be?” and suddenly he finds it a little harder to ask the next question than he had imagined. “Are you planning to leave so soon?”
“Not now,” she says, “but I will finish graduate school next fall.”
“Well, I have time to worry then,” and he gets up and pours them both a brandy. “Here,” he says as he hands one to her. “Let’s drink to my year’s reprieve.”
“You are hopeless,” and she sighs again. “I may just have to stay in New York to watch you.”
“God forbid,” and he laughs. “I can’t have that on my conscience, too.”
And she throws one of her slippers at him and hits him on the chest. He feigns death and she laughs in spite of herself. Then she throws the other slipper, too. It hits him on the head and he jumps up and throws it back. She grabs it for another toss but he growls like a wounded bear and leaps for her on the rocker. She squeals as he picks her flailing body up and swings her around in his arms. They both collapse giggling in his chair.
“Oh poppa,” she says settling down into a comfortable embrace in his arms. “What am I going to do with you?’
And Nick elects not to try to answer. He just holds her for as long as he can the whole night through.
Whenever I eat,
I eat the pain of your love, mistress.
Whenever I get sleepy,
I dream of my love, my mistress.
Whenever I lie on my back in the house,
I lie on the pain of your love, mistress.
For whenever I walk about,
I step on the pain of your love, mistress.
translated by Frank Boas
The mists rise over
The still pools at Asuka.
Memory does not
Pass away so easily.
Kawa yodo sarazu
Tatsu kiri no
Omoi sugu beki
Koi ni aranaku ni
translated by Kenneth Rexroth
No matter how hard I try to forget you,
you always come back to my thoughts.
When you hear me singing
I am really crying for you.
poems and photographs
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My sarcastic travels through life while trying to remain true to myself and not kill others.
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Smiling • Writing • Dreaming
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I LEAVE YOUR ROAD TO WALK ON MY GRASS.