Once Removed – Excerpt

From Once Removed

 New Jersey, 1974-82

             “When my mother first moved to America,” began the story that Rei most liked to tell her stepsister, “she carried a daikon, a Japanese radish, with her in her purse.” Hana called it a purse, but it was to all intents and purposes a carry-on bag, designed to hold far more than a wallet and sundries.  Still, capacious though it was, the purse was overstuffed, and so it did not quite accommodate the daikon, which was huge—long and white, and of a giggle-inducing phallic shape. 

The tip of the radish poked out like an overweight hitchhiker’s thumb from a corner of the purse.  The vulnerability of that exposed tip, combined with her sense that this was in all probability the last daikon she would see in years, made Hana reluctant to let the purse out of her sight even for an instant, so that even though the journey was to last for more than twenty hours all told, she woke herself with a nervous start whenever she began to nod off, and she could only bring herself to flip through the pages of the English dictionary she had bought at Haneda Airport with the purse tucked firmly under her arm.  When her dinner was served to her, she insisted on keeping her bag on her lap, even though the tight-lipped red-haired woman who brought it gestured that she should put it away, even though it meant that Hana had to sit in a very cramped position. 

It also meant that she could only see what was on her dinner tray by craning her neck, but that didn’t matter:  After taking one look and, even more unfortunately, one whiff of the chicken on her tray, Hana realized that her purse could in certain circumstances be a useful obstacle.  The one bite of iceberg lettuce that she had—where was her usually healthy appetite?  gone along with her hitherto unflappable stomach—she had managed to spear on her fork only by dint of luck and guesswork.

Taking her purse to the bathroom would usually have been accomplished with a minimum of fuss.  Indeed, given that it held her wallet and passport, the argument could be made that it was the more prudent course of action.  Yet this simple act was made incalculably less so by the fact that Hana had to go often to the bathroom, because she, infrequently prone to motion sickness but a first-time flyer, was throwing up.  Her bag was, furthermore, loaded with books and paints as well as with the daikon.  Still, she hoisted the bag up on her shoulder every time, excuse-med her way past the none-too-patient passenger seated on her right, and trudged as quickly as possible down the narrow aisle, hurrying to beat the rise of gorge in her throat, to the even more narrow room, with the bottom of the bag banging against her side:  a day later, resting in the disappointingly shallow bath of her new home, she would discover bruises all along her left hip. 

She always made it to the bathroom in time, although it was very close more than once.  Squatting on the floor after gagging into the metal toilet, Hana looked up at the daikon tip, cheekily begging for a ride from the depths of her conservative black bag, and felt comforted.

            The daikon was a present for Seiji, her husband of fifty-one days, who flew out to America two weeks ahead of her.  In the only phone conversation that they had since then, he had yelled to tell her over the static that he liked their new home, the bottom floor of a brownstone in beautiful, red-bricked Boston, and she had felt a chill like a fever creep over her as she listened to his tinny voice, so many thousands of miles away:  Who was this man she had married, how could she have thought that she knew him at all?  She had chosen him based on a chance encounter, a moment of heat that had passed between them in a crowd.  From something tense and alert in his stance as he walked toward her, she had thought he seemed dangerous, a rebel of some kind, so that when she met him and it turned out he had a job at a local bank, she had felt herself inwardly sigh. 

Given that she had misjudged him so badly at the first, she could not expect anything different now.  And she would receive help and solace from no one:  She knew nobody in America other than this stranger, her husband.  Her family was unimaginably far away—she had craned her neck over the kind woman on her left to watch Tokyo turn into a toy town and then vanish in a swirl of ultramarine blue—her aunt Sachiko even quieter than usual, her mother perhaps even now drying her tears and getting on with her life in the wake of the departure of her oldest daughter.

Sitting in the plane, the feverish chill (or was that another bout of nausea?  Never again, she vowed, would she set foot on a plane; she would swim back to Japan when it was time) creeping over her again, Hana gripped her purse handles tight.  She had packed Seiji a number of presents, chocolates and gourmet crackers and a new shirt and even a few books, but it was within her purse that her salvation was contained.  Grated daikon ranked number one on the list of Seiji’s favorite foods, and by carefully grilling him in the days before his departure, Hana had ascertained that the pale radish was not a commodity easily come by in America, exotic land of hamburgers and hot dogs rather than of fish, of pasta and bread rather than of rice.  Her plan was simple but infallible; her body might be failing her but her mind was clear and strong.  She would smooth her husband’s hair back and grate the daikon into clouds flavored with soy sauce.  She would feed it to him by the sweet spoonful and so cure her marriage, fifty-one-days-young and already ailing.

            It was not until Hana was standing in line at border control, her legs cramped and her head light from the long sleepless journey, her hands trembling with what she hoped was fatigue but suspected was anxiety (what if he were late to the airport, what if she failed to recognize her own husband?), that the possibility even occurred to her that she might not be allowed to carry the radish with her into this strange new world.  She unwound one end of her wool scarf—it was September, and still warm out, but she had taken Seiji’s warnings about the cold New England winters to heart—from her neck and placed it over her bag, covering the tip of the daikon

            The customs official was a white man, tiny, blue-eyed, and elderly.  He stood with his arms folded as he watched the people stream by.  Years later, when telling this story to her children, Hana would always laugh at this point, pointing out how she did everything wrong.  She tried to move to the edge of the crowd farthest away from him; dragging her suitcases beside her (“and this was before they started making suitcases with wheels,” she would remind her daughters), she walked as quickly as she possibly could without actually running, her eyes on the floor. 

            When the customs official called out, “You there,” her head jerked.  She turned slowly, her breath coming fast and shallow, and saw that he was beckoning to her with his finger.  She picked up her suitcases and dragged them over to his side.  When he held his hand out for her papers, she passed them over to him.  He examined her visa and asked her if she really intended to stay in the country for two years.  She nodded and he stared hard, eyes narrowed, at her.

            Then he pointed to her purse.  “What’s in there?” he said.

            She gazed back at him.  Almost delirious with exhaustion, she wondered how old he was:  She was not sure if she had ever seen hair so white before, and she was certain that she had never seen white hair over such a relatively unwrinkled face.  He was just about eye level with her; she had not known that American men could be so small.  She knew he was waiting for a response but found she could not even nod or shake her head, let alone speak.  On her way out of the plane, she had passed by and bowed her thanks to the tall blond pilot, but she had never actually spoken to a white man.

            He sighed.  There was a slight tic over his left eye.  “Open it,” he said.

            She was sweating in her winter coat with the scarf looped around her neck.  Her hands were trembling again.  She unzipped her purse and pulled out from it one end of her scarf, the daikon, and her paints and her books.  She tried to cover the radish with her scarf, but the official was too quick.

            “What’s this?” he asked, pointing.

Short though he was, the man in front of her terrified her.  Still, she was determined not to cry.  She stood up straighter.  “Daikon,” she said.

Accustomed, no doubt, to hearing a vast array of foreign words, he nodded.  Then he picked up the radish and put it on the table to his left.  “Now open those,” he said, gesturing at her suitcases.

Hana wanted to ask what would happen to the daikon, whether she would perhaps even be able to take it back and stow it away in her purse, but she obediently bent her head down.  She heaved up one suitcase onto the metal counter and unzipped it.  Then she did the same with the other.

            The official removed her clothes, neatly folded and pressed, onto the counter.  He searched the pockets of her skirts; he checked the lining of her jackets.  When he dug toward the bottom of the suitcase, a dozen pairs of socks, each neatly folded into a ball, tumbled onto the floor.  He stood, waiting, while she stooped down and gathered the socks onto the counter.  After she was finished, he took apart each pair and turned them inside out.  He picked through her underwear and riffled through the contents of her books; he uncapped her toothpaste and peered into it.  Then he checked her other suitcase.  Nothing contained inside it, even the package of gourmet crackers, elicited a reaction from him.

            When he finished, he stepped back and nodded.  “You can go.”

            With a hand that shook just a little, Hana pointed at the daikon, still on the table to the official’s left.  “Preeze,” she said, her voice a croak.

            The official was once again watching the travelers streaming through the gates; he did not turn around.

            She cleared her throat, and tried again.  “Preeze,” she said again, more loudly.

            When he turned, Hana noticed that the tic over his eye had grown more pronounced.  “I could have you deported,” he said.  His voice was lower but at the same time more piercing; out of the corner of her eye she saw a few travelers, as well as another customs official, swivel their heads in their direction, then just as quickly swivel them away.  “Do you want to be deported?”  

            Hana did not yet know the word “deported,” but the way the official hissed it out made her shrink back and guess at its import.  The next day, after Seiji left for work, she would look up the word in the English dictionary she had bought in the airport in Japan.  She would first underline the entry and then cross it out, striking it again and again, so that when her American-born daughters leafed through the dictionary in the years to come, they would come across an ink-dark spot where the word should be.

            Struggling not to cry, Hana zipped up her suitcases and lifted them off the counter onto the floor.  Then she bent down and began dragging her suitcases towards the double doors, beyond which lay the country where she would spend the greater part of her life.

            There was what seemed to be a horde of people standing beyond the doors.  Hana heard a cacophony of voices, most in languages she could not even identify.  For a second she stood straight up, her back uncoiling and stretching, her head lifting and her hands dangling down empty above the suitcases, as she looked around the large hall.

She recognized him right away.  He was standing toward the back of the crowd, and his dark clothes caused him to blend into the background.  When she saw him he was looking down at his watch, wondering, perhaps, why she had not been among the other passengers who came off her flight.  But even though his face was not visible to her, she had found him; what’s more, she knew that even if his clothes had been darker, and he even farther back in the crowd, she still would have known him right away.  Her realization of this simple fact was like a jolt of energy, like three meals and a restful night’s sleep in a bed all rolled into one.  She picked up all three of her bags and lifted them, stuffed full with books and paints and clothes, lightly in the air (“Who needs wheels on their suitcases?” she would say at this point, smiling a little wistfully, when she told this story to her daughters) and ran toward her husband. 

            She jumped into his arms, her suitcases having miraculously dropped clear, and then they were laughing and talking all at once.  His arm was around her, propping her up—a delicious sensation, as if she were floating, or was that light-headedness again?  Being with Seiji again was as easy and natural as slipping back into her mother tongue, and a part of Hana wanted to cry at her treachery in having thought that it would be anything else.

            Finally Seiji said that they should get going; why stand around in an airport when they could be in their own new home?  Hana hesitated, then looked up at him.  “I, I—well, I want you to know that I brought something special for you,” she said, the words falling and scattering around them like her socks, “but—”

            Seiji stooped, letting go of her shoulders in the process (the loss of the warmth of his arm, temporary though it was, overdressed though she was with her scarf and her big coat, felt like a chill inside of her), and picked up a bag that he had laid at his feet.  “I brought something for you too,” he said, more shyly than she would have thought possible.

            She looked down.  Poking out rudely from the bag in his hand was a white tip resembling an overweight hitchhiker’s thumb.

            Now Seiji’s words came scattering out too.  “When we were back in Tokyo, you asked me so many times about whether it was available here that I knew you were worried that you’d miss it.  So I went to an Asian food store and badgered them until they managed to track one down.  They said it was really hard to get.  I’m sorry, it might be the last one you’ll see for the two years that we’ll be here, and it’s not even such a good one, a little bruised, maybe, and not large….”

            His long speech had given Hana the time she needed to reel her jaw back in from where it had been hanging.  “Thank you,” she said, accepting the gift in the prescribed Japanese manner, with both hands.  “It’s the perfect gift, exactly what I wanted.”  With that, she burst into tears, great hiccupping sobs that threatened to engulf both of them.  She did not stop bawling for many minutes, despite the restoration of the warmth of her husband’s arm around her shoulders, despite his concerned face, his soothing words. 

            Later, in the car (the steering wheel on the wrong side, the seats almost impossibly roomy), she explained to him how exhausted she was from her trip, how over-excited she had been from the prospect of seeing him again.  “And I think”—she arched her back in a burst of well-being, because she was suddenly sure—“I’m pregnant.”

            It was worth the long journey, the homesickness she had already developed, the nausea, and even the customs official to see Seiji turn to her in surprise, and then slowly smile.

            In Hana’s telling of it, this story was a classic O. Henry, even to its end:  and then the happy couple went home, grated the daikon together, and ate it side by side.  She meant for Seiji to eat most of it, since it was his favorite food, yet it turned out to be her first craving in a pregnancy filled with not many others, and so she consumed by far the larger share of it, he watching and nodding approvingly as she swallowed it down.

            But in Rei and Claudia’s analysis of the story, the O. Henry quality of it was sullied by a fact that got lightly overlooked in Hana’s version—that throughout their all-too-brief marriage, Hana never told her husband that their reunion in America should have involved not one daikon, but two.  She never described to him how carefully she had guarded a gift for him throughout the journey; she never told him of the almost magical import she had placed on it, and how abruptly it had been taken from her by the first white man she ever met. 

Rei and Claudia tried but they never could figure out why, exactly, this aspect of the story made it so poignant to them:  Did it have to do with the burden that Hana had to shoulder too long by herself, as if her own isolation in her new country made the callousness of the customs official that much more difficult to bear?  Or did it have to do with the limitations of even the most happy of marriages; was it the idea that secrets were held, and half-truths told, even in this, a relationship they deemed well-nigh perfect?

copyright 2003, Mako Yoshikawa

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