Taiki-chū no chinmoku (The Silence of Waiting)

Masuyo was married for fifty-eight years to the same man. She’d hated him for fifty-seven years.

“Why did you stay with him?” her granddaughter asked her. “Why didn’t you get a divorce?”

Her granddaughter sat on a chair next to the hospital bed they’d brought in after Masuyo’s fall. Masuyo’s son had moved her old bed into the basement as soon as they got the bed with the levers and gears and tubes sprawling out of the sides.

Or perhaps her son had only told her that he’d stored her bed, so she wouldn’t get upset. Perhaps he’d taken it to the curb instead of storing it, knowing she wouldn’t navigate the stairs again and check to see that her two-hundred-dollar flower bedspread was neatly packed into the plastic case she’d saved from the store. Right now, some other woman could be sleeping under those pastel-coloured irises, never knowing they belonged to a dead man and his dying wife.

She hated the ugliness of the utilitarian bed in her beautiful room. On her vanity was a stack of adult diapers, in a heap for anyone to see. She’d asked the women to move them out of her sight – to put them in the closet, under the bed, anything – but there was always some reason they gave why it couldn’t be done. So she spent her days sitting up in the bed staring at those diapers that, one by one, were transferred onto her failing body.

Her granddaughter repeated the question. Divorce? Masuyo thought. No, that was a modern invention. People didn’t get divorced in those days. It wasn’t done. These days, the Pope could get divorced and no one would blink an eye. Back then, a person married and stayed married. One just hoped the man one saw three or four times before saying “Yes” was a good man. There was no way to tell, really.

“No divorce,” she told her granddaughter.

The words were much easier before her throat got a hold of them, before her ungainly tongue tried to bend and twist the sentences that were once so easy to form. Those two words exhausted her and she flicked her eyes away from the fall of her granddaughter’s face.

Adults now, her two grandchildren. She even had one great-granddaughter, and another on the way. Natural that this granddaughter would ask about divorce, as she had separated from her first husband after a year of marriage. Just like Masuyo’s son, who had divorced his no-good wife after thirty years. Why he couldn’t have married a Japanese woman was a mystery. Instead, her three children had all settled for white people to share their lives with.

She closed her eyes. A moment later, just a single moment, she opened her eyes to a room filled with the half-light of night. Her granddaughter was gone, the hours having raced by behind Masuyo’s closed lids.

They never completely turned off all the lamps, these women her son hired. Masuyo was always in a perpetual twilight.

One of the women slumped in the chair next to her, breathing heavily. Sometimes they talked about their families, their voices flavoured with faraway places. She’d asked where they came from and all they would say is “China,” as if her brain didn’t function either, as if giving her one of the largest countries in the world as a location was enough to pinpoint who they were. When visitors came, they spoke in loud, cheerful voices to fill up the room. But the room was already full of something else.

She’d made two choices in her life. An extra chance to get things right. But one can’t tell at the beginning how things will turn out.

*

At the hospital, Masuyo held Dai’s hand. Although his eyes were open and blinking, his hand was limp. When she squeezed it, he did nothing. His mouth was filled with a plastic tube, his features distended and swollen in the aftermath of surgery. In a month, she would be sitting in a church with a collage of photos from the life they had shared together on display for the entire family to look at, to mourn. Now, she just sat in the hard, plastic chair and thought about nothing.

Each time she came here, the smell of the hospital became at once more familiar and more repugnant. The sickly-sweet tone of disinfectant overlying the acidic odours of urine and sweat.

This wasn’t the last time she would visit this hospital, or any hospital, but it was the last time she would remember doing so in a distinct way that was separate from every other day. She closed her eyes and pictured the wandering eyes of her husband, once so sharp and clear with anger, and she felt pity for him, perhaps for the first time in fifty-odd years. That it came to this, regardless.

*

In the background was her daughter, Kay, silently watching. Her granddaughters sprawled on the sofa in the next room, the TV turned up, although their eyes flickered through the open doorway. She felt each jab of their gaze like a knife. But Dai was thundering again, the words streaming together into an exhausting kaleidoscope of sounds. From close up, she could see the hairs curling out from his nose, his ears, his eyebrows in a profusion of white and grey wires. The only part of his face that was smooth were his cheeks and chin, an army discipline that never faded over the years. It wasn’t until the hospital that she would see his face taken over by disloyal stubble, the final sign that he was in his last moments.

The words didn’t matter. She shouted something back, the strident sound of her voice overcome by the boom of his response. It was a well-worn path.

*

Dai was late coming home, and the first thing he did was turn on the television. “Dinner’s ready,” Masuyo told him from the kitchen in the next room. Through the open doorway, she saw Dai tilt his head in acknowledgement. The two girls were already seated at the table, waiting on him in order to dive into the hot bowl of rice, the fried fish and steamed green beans. The baby was on her hip as she moved around the kitchen, fetching glasses of milk and tea.

“What happened?” she asked softly as he passed her on the way to the table.

“Shut up.”

The words were a slap in the face, not unexpected. She knew that the paycheck was gone, gone the same way as the one before it.

When they’d first moved to Reno, she’d loved the glittering lights of the casinos. They’d gone to them together that first time, and he’d given her ten dollars to play – a fortune. She stuck by him as he settled by the craps table, the click of markers and rattling of dice a pleasant sound, like water ticking over pebbles. Dai’s eyes glittered from reflected light, the shiny black of his pupils expanding with focus. After a half hour passed, an hour, she pressed his elbow gently. He shivered at the touch.

“I’ll return soon,” she promised.

Back then, people wore their best clothes to go out. She was wearing a jade-green dress that she had made, her years of working as a tailor for the army translated now into sleek lines accentuating her svelte figure. In her drawer at home were notebooks full of sketches, each drawn curve fluid with the movement of dreams captured in a charcoal photograph. Years later, when her son told her that the movers he hired had their truck break down, and they left it by the side of the freeway overnight with her belongings unlocked within it, she knew immediately about the loss. Her drawings, saved for forty years, were gone.

*

“I want to be a fashion designer,” she told Dai.

His laughter caught her by surprise. She saw a glimpse, then, of her future with Dai. Until now, he’d been somewhat abrupt in his manner, but she’d chalked that up to the bullet in his kidney, received in Italy during the war. He walked with a cane, and stopped whenever a flat surface presented itself to sit upon – right now, a bench in the garden. She sat beside him.

They were in Topaz, Utah. The internment camps were composed of dust and industry. Unlike the gentle green hills of her home in San Francisco, this place was as foreign as another country. She’d travelled with her first husband, Kunio, because of the war, each place a shock – the swamps of Florida, where she’d roomed with four other woman in a one-bedroom apartment, all of them squashed together like cockroaches; the snows of Chicago, where the bitter winds burned her skin like fire. All to follow Kunio’s postings from army base to army base as he underwent the training that would, eventually, not save his life.

That night, sharing the single room her family of eight had been given in the camps –her parents, her siblings, one or two spouses thrown into the mix – she spoke to her mother. But her mother said, “He is a friend of Jirou’s. Jirou has sense.”

Her mother was sitting on the mattress she shared with her husband, who was off in another part of the camp, savouring the last few minutes of freedom before they were locked down for the night. Masuyo’s brother, Jirou, was also missing from the room. Some of the men had a club and they paid off the guards in homebrew shōchū. One way to weather these days of war.

Masuyo could taste the stomach-clenching brew on her tongue, the bitterness of the liquor a balm to her senses. It didn’t matter that she only had that one sip that Jirou gave her months ago – decades ago. The flavour was like love – like the touch of her first husband.

*

Kunio never came back from that war. He died there, far from the country which had sent him, but they never told Masuyo how he died. “Bravely. A hero,” was all they said.

She never thought there was heroism in dying. She was sure Kunio didn’t want to die for his country – especially not for that.

*

Every weekend when he wasn’t on base, Kunio took her dancing. There weren’t a lot of clubs that would let them in – she remembered one time the bouncer, a man nearly twice Kunio’s width and a full head taller, had drawn back his fist and jabbed forward with lightning speed. Someone screamed as her husband’s arms flashed forward to stop the other man (too late) and then there was the sound of impact as Kunio’s body hit the pavement. When she closed her mouth, she realized that she was the one who had screamed.

But Kunio only laughed, flat on his back, inches deep in the ice slush blanketing the winter sidewalks of Chicago. Always a joker, he was. “Okay, sir, no worries. We’ll be on our way.” No other comment to the man with his arms crossed over his chest, glaring at them. Kunio had to try twice to get to his feet, lurching like a drunkard. She was afraid to put her hands on him in front of the glare of the other man, so he did it himself, ineffectively brushing off the back of his coat and his wet buttocks in his tight uniform pants.

She had never seen a more handsome man in a uniform, and she had seen many. She worked at the tailor that provided the army with their uniforms, and she’d seen all shapes, sizes and colours come in. Some of them flirted with her, the petite Japanese woman who looked like a doll with her coal-black eyes and permed hair. One time, an officer had persisted when she told him no, his syllables slurred and breath smelling like death. He had cornered her and put his hand on her breast, squeezing it roughly. She pushed at him, but she couldn’t move him.

Her boss walked into the room at that moment. The officer stepped away from her under the flickering eyes of a white man. Still, she hadn’t let herself be alone with that officer again, sacrificing up one of the other girls to deliver his uniform for its final fitting. She never asked what happened to the other girl, but the girl’s conversation seemed bruised afterwards, and she eventually disappeared without a word.

*

When he came for her, she didn’t know it. Her parents always compared her to her sister, Asami, and she didn’t have Asami’s beautiful long nose or fashionable thin lips. Instead, Masuyo’s nose was short and tiny, her mouth shaped like a heart. She was gently rounded while Asami was like a chopstick, abrupt and pointed.

Kunio was a friend of her oldest brother, Sho. When he first came to the house, he carried his hat like a bunch of flowers in his hand. “I’d like to take Asami for a walk,” he said to their father. In the background, her brother Sho smirked. Her sister and her brother’s friend walked outside for thirty minutes (she timed them) and returned to the house. Masuyo asked Asami what it was like.

“He is romantic,” Asami said.

“What did you talk about?”

Her sister shrugged, sliding her eyes sideways. “Nothing.”

The answer never varied. For three nights in a row, Kunio took Asami walking. Then, the fourth night, something was different.

“I would like to take Masuyo for a walk,” he told their father.

Her sister smiled when Masuyo turned to her. She nodded when Masuyo raised her eyebrows.

Before Kunio had walked past their neighbour’s house, Masuyo asked, “Why me? Why not Asami?”

Kunio laughed, but didn’t look at her. He hadn’t once looked her into her eyes since he started coming to their house, and it would be another month before he did – when he asked her to be his wife. “I never wanted Asami,” he told her. “I was asking her about you.”

*

Masuyo opened her eyes to the twilight of her bedroom. The oxygen machine softly hummed in the background. To her left, one of the women was slumped in the chair, her mouth open and loud with sleep.

Upstairs were her son and granddaughter and great-granddaughter, waiting for the daylight to come so they could return to her room again, past the stacks of diapers and the strangers from China who cared for her body. They would sit next to her and talk to her in their too-loud voices, and she would speak when she could, and smile when she couldn’t. They would hold her hand gently in theirs, and argue with the doctors in the next room, trying to buy her more time – she could hear their raised voices, even if they didn’t mean for her to. And they would cry – she would, too, when the pain became too much and her world was blurred by the sibilant feel of morphine. Like them, she waited.

Like them, she waited.

Alison

About Alison McBain

Alison McBain is an award-winning author with more than forty short stories and poems published, including work in Flash Fiction Online, FLAPPERHOUSE and The Gunpowder Review. When not writing fiction, she is the Book Reviews Editor for the magazine Bewildering Stories. Alison lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

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