After a dessert of chilled amanatsu, jelly served in the half peel of the summer orange it was made from, Abazuré says she has to return to the office. Several others take the opening my boss has given them to say they, too, have to hurry home before their children come back from elementary school. So, I'm left alone with Shizuko and our hostess, Yoko. As Shizuko fills my choko with reishu sake, Yoko brings in a basket of cherries she says arrived from Yamagata just this morning.
"Did you try the sashimi, Peador?" Yoko asks placing a handful of cherries on my plate.
"Uh, no, I didn't."
"It's out of this world," she says. "Very fresh."
"I'm sure it is," I say.
"Where did you buy it, Shizuko?"
"I didn't. It was a gift from one of my husband's patients."
"You really must try it, Peador," Yoko insists, reaching for a fresh plate behind her.
"Please, I'm fine. I . . . I've really had quite a lot to eat already."
"Mottainai. What a waste. C'mon, just a little."
"It's, um . . . It's just that . . . " Should I tell her I'm allergic? That I am a vegetarian? No, that won't work; I've been eating meat all afternoon. On a Friday, no less. Religion? Nah, the only religious bone I have in my body is the asadachi (morning woody) I stroke reverently every morning. "I'm afraid I'm not that crazy about sashimi."
Yoko wags her finger at me. "Tsk, tsk. You'll never be able to marry a Japanese woman, Peador."
"Oh? And why's that?"
She takes a long sip from her wine glass leaving a dark red smudge on the rim before speaking. "I don't think two people can be truly happy together unless they grow up eating the same food. I know a couple. Oh, you know him, Shizuko, what's his name? The Canadian . . . " she says snapping her fingers as if to conjure him up.
"John," Shizuko says. "John Williams. Works at Kyûshû University."
"Yes, well, John married a Japanese girl," Yoko continues. "When he met the family for the first time, they served him sashimi. They asked, 'John-san, can you eat sashimi?' And of course he says, he loves sashimi, but actually he couldn't stand fish. Like you, Peador."
"I didn't say I . . . "
"So, the poor girl's parents think 'Yokatta, he's just like a Japanese!' After the marriage, though, this John won't eat a bite of fish and, yappari, now they're getting divorced." Keiko takes another long drink, leaving another red smudge on the rim of the glass. "No, if you don't eat the same food, you'll have all kinds of problems. And that's why foreigners and Japanese don't get along well. I mean, if they can't eat the same food, how do they expect to be able to do anything together, desho?"
She concludes her argument as she often does with a smug look and a broad sweep of her hand slicing through any disagreement.
After all I've eaten and drunk, I don't have the energy to argue. Besides, people like Yoko, who love dominating conversations, tend not to listen to anything but their own sweet voices.
"I really like these hashi oki," I say to myself. "I didn't know you could see fireflies around here."
"You know, international marriages are bound to fail because the cultures are so different," Shizuko says. "You know that JAL pilot, Barker-san, don't you?"
"Oh, yes," Yoko says putting her wine glass down. "I had him and his wife, the poor girl, over last week." You get the feeling Yoko's home is in a perpetual state of hospitality, inviting and feeding guests, then assuring them to come again. Once gone, however, they become the fodder for that red-lipsticked, tirelessly booming cannon of hers.
She picks up a cherry, removes the stem with her long bony fingers then sucks it into the venomous red hole in her gaunt face. "I didn't tell you, Shizuko, but while Barker-san and my husband were out getting a massage, I talked with his wife. The poor girl said she didn't know what to do with him. 'He always wants to do something on his day off . . . go out, jog or hike . . . All I want to do is stay home and rest.' And just as the poor girl was sighing, Barker-san and my husband came back. And Barker, he went right up to his wife, gave her a big hug and kiss and said, 'We're so happy together!'" Yoko fills my choko with more sake, and shakes her head. "I felt so sorry for her."
"So, the fireflies,” I say. “Know any good places I can see them around here?"
"The problem with young people today," Shizuko says with contempt, "is that they want to marry for love."
This surprises me enough to bring me back into the conversation, and I ask Shizuko if she loves her husband. The two women laugh at me, making me feel foolish for asking. I didn’t know the question was so silly.
"Love," Shizuko scoffs. "Tell me, Peador, why do half of all Americans get divorced?"
I could offer her a number of reasons. Many really. But, I'm really not in the mood to go head to head with these two half-drunk, half-bitter housewives.
"It's very important to know the person you're marrying," Shizuko warns. "Love confuses you."
"Do you want to marry a Japanese girl?" Yoko asks me.
"I haven't given it much thought, to be honest. Anyways, marriage isn't the object. It's the result. If I find someone I love, who also happens to be Japanese, who knows? Maybe I'll marry her."
"You'll never be able to marry one," Yoko says refilling my choko. "You have to eat miso and rice and soy sauce as a child."
Maybe I'm blind or a sentimental dolt, but, somehow, I just cannot accept the idea that what went wrong between Mie and myself was rooted in my dislike of sashimi.
"Everyone wants to marry someone funny and cheerful," Yoko continues, spilling a drop of wine onto her linen tablecloth. "Tsk, tsk . . . She's cheerful but she couldn't cook if her life depended upon it. She buys everything from the convenience store and puts it in the microwave. Ching! Boys want girls that are fun, but they don't understand that what they really need is a wife who can cook real food and take care of children. Young people these days!"
It was almost as if she was speaking specifically about Mie. My Mie who woke early in one morning, and walked in her pajamas to the nearest convenience store to get something for our bento. She wasn't as hopeless as Yoko might contend; she fried the chicken herself, then packed our lunches and bags before I had even gotten out of bed. When I finally stopped knitting my nightly dream, put down my needles and woke up, everything for our day at the beach had been prepared.
"It's a shame what some of the mothers fix for their children at the International School. My daughter used to trade her tempura that I woke early to make because she felt sorry for her friends. They were eating sandwiches!"
It was an outrage.
When I woke, Mie was gently stroking my head. I pulled her into my arms and kissed her soft lips. She laid down upon me, legs to each side of me, then punched the remote to invite Vivaldi into bed with us. As the hot morning sun began to brighten up the room, we made love, made love throughout the Four Seasons.
Later that morning, we drove with the top of her car open, windows down and music blaring to Umi-no-Nakamichi, a long narrow strand of sand and pines that continued for several miles until it reached a small island forming the northern edge of the Hakata Bay. Pine, sand, and sea lay on either side of the derelict two-lane road. We arrived at a small inlet, which had been roped off to keep the jellyfish away and paid a few hundred yen to one of the old women running one of the umi-no-e beach houses. Passing through the makeshift hut with old tatami floors and low folding tables we walked out to the beach which was crowded with hundreds of others who had came to do the same.
By eleven the sun was burning down on us, burning indelible tans into the backs of children. The only refuge was either the crowded umi-n0-e hut or the sea, so Mie and I took a long swim, waded in each others' arms or floated on our backs in the warm, shallow water.
Although I'd eventually get such a severe sunburn that I'd lie awake at night trembling in agony, it was one of my happiest days in Japan. On the way back to Mie’s apartment with my lobster red hand resting between her tanned thighs, I sang along to the Chagé and Aska songs playing on her stereo, making her laugh the whole way.
"I love you," she'd tell me with a long kiss when we arrived back at her place.
"What men need," Yoko repeats, "is a woman who can cook and take care of the home. Someone like your Yu-chan in the office."
The absurdity of what Yoko has just said snaps me out of my daydream. Yu, grayest of gray, as cold and bitchy as they came, may make a suitable Eva Braun for an Al Hitler, but suggesting that she'd make a good wife for me, why, that was insulting.
Yoko, reading the disagreement in my face, says, "See, Yu-chan's gloomy and, well, she isn't much to look at, but she really would make a very good wife for you, Peador. You just don't know it yet."
Excerpt from A Woman's Nails. To read more here.
© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A Woman's Nails is now available on Amazon's Kindle.