“You’re a writer,” Aiko had said on one of my final hospital visits when she still had enough strength to get around. I just knew she’d beat whatever it was that was ailing her. A belief that held out even up until her last couple of days. If someone had told me that day that I’d be writing about her In Memoriam someday soon I would have laughed and told them that they just didn’t know her the way I did. But- I would find out this day- she’d held no such illusions. “So, you had better write!”
“I will, don’t worry,” I told her.
I didn’t know that it would be a couple of years from that day before I’d actually get to it.
We were seated on a lounge in the Visiting Area, surrounded by dozens of other people visiting friends and family suffering from various maladies. Every time I looked away from her there would be Japanese people peering at us- the incongruous couple that we were- their invasive eyes seemingly recording everything, irritating the shit outta me. Once they’d notice me looking back at them (and sometimes this would take several moments, they’d be so entranced) they’d look away, or whisper to one another, glancing over their shoulders, rubbernecking around people or obstacles, checking to see if I’d turned away yet so that they could resume their ritualistic gaping. Staring at us out of the sides of their heads, like human fish, or any number of other all too obvious surveillance quirks people here use to satisfy their need to espy.
They simply can’t help themselves. Not even for a man visiting his seriously ill woman, they can’t.
When I turned back to Aiko she had an expression of complete comprehension.
“It’s gonna be alright,” she soothed. “…you’ll see.”
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said. “I’m supposed to be cheering you up, and here I am letting these mother…these people upset me.”
“When I get outta here, we’re gonna go to New York, right?” she asked, changing the subject in that way of hers.
“Yes!” I said, cheered by thoughts of a future with her, visions of us walking hand in hand, enjoying the wondrous sights (at least for her) of my hometown. She always knew just what to say to bring me back. “You’re gonna love Brooklyn!”
“I know!” she said with a smile. The medication had been doing a job on her teeth, corroding them, so she was not keen on smiling. And, she wore a wig, most of hair having fallen out. “You think you’re mother will like me?”
“I don’t care if she likes you or not!” I snapped. You’re mine, not hers.”
“What about your friends?” she asked. She was always worried that my friends wouldn’t accept her because she was Japanese…for some strange reason.
“I don’t give a fuck what they think, either,” I cried, righteously. “But, I think they’ll love you, and so will my mother. How could they not?”
I looked around again, and a dozen sets of eyes darted away, again…
“My people aren’t like your people,” I said, a little vexed. “Nobody cares about your race back home.”
“Really?” she asked, sensing my exaggeration.
“Well, mostly nobody, anyway,” I said, and winked. “But, they definitely won’t be mistreating you or staring at you like you got three heads.”
She laughed…and all was right in the world.
Thinking back, I probably should have gone home right after her funeral…cuz the world ain’t been right since. But, if I had, I tell myself, I would have missed out on all the things living in Japan still had to teach me about who I really am and who I am not. I would have remained oblivious of certain strengths I possessed and certain weaknesses that were flying below the radar, eluding my detection.
“I want to go to New York…” she proclaimed. “…with you. I want to meet your friends and family, and see everything!”
The way she’d said it scared me. It was like she wasn’t speaking to me at all, but to God. Aiko was a Jehovah’s Witness, but obviously not a full-fledged one. What, with all the smoking, drinking, and fornicating we did. But, I’d never heard her pray or speak to God before. I pulled her to me.
“We’re going, baby, this summer,” I said, kissing her. “But first you gotta get well.”
She held on to me with a desperate embrace.
“I’m scared,” she said, tears flowing. “And I hate this fucking place!”
That was the first time I’d heard anything from her to suggest that she didn’t have every confidence that she was on the mend. In fact, it was the first time I’d really ever heard fear in her voice. On some unconscious level I realized that she was sharing something with me. something she’d withheld out of pride, or out of her concern for how I’d handle it, or maybe she’d just refused to accept it before. But, the time for denial had passed.
She was bracing herself, and me, for what may come to pass.
She rested her head on my chest and I stroked her cold wig and the warm scalp beneath. I looked up and more eyes were trained on us…un-caring, curious, judgmental, cold little black…fucking…eyes. Little children, adults, old folks and nurses…
“FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT!!??” I screamed at the room, almost hysterically, and the room collectively looked away. “FUCK ALL YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!”
Aiko didn’t even start, just nestled closer.
“It’s gonna be alright, you know,” she’d said. I could feel her skull moving against my chest, the sharp edge of her jaw bone through my sweater. “Can we go to where the Towers used to be?”
“Huh? Wha…?” I couldn’t understand her through my fury.
“You know, what do you call it? Ground Zero?”
“You want to go to Ground Zero???” I asked, bewildered.
“Yeah…is that ok?”
“Darling,” I said, holding her even tighter. “We can go anywhere you wanna go!”
“Really?” She pulled away, sat up and looked at me. Her face taut against her skull, her skin luster-less, her lips dry and cracked, her eye brows thinning and eye lashes almost non-existent. She hadn’t made-up her face for this visit. She’d saved her energy…for me. Or, maybe she’d wanted me to really see her. “Thank you.”
The way she’d said “thank you” nearly broke my heart.
“Anata…” she whispered, and smiled. That was what her mother called her father. It means “you” but it’s a term of endearment for a beloved one in this context. “I’m tired. I think I need to get some rest.”
I wanted to protest…but I glanced at the nearly empty IV bag next to her on the rolling IV carrier and I swallowed my desire, along with a lump of anguish that could choke a child.
She eased herself up off of the lounge we were seated on, allowing me to help her…another first. Then, she looked around the room, at all the eyes watching us.
“When are you gonna finish your book?” she asked, turning back to me, like the atrocious behavior of our audience had reminded her. She’d been asking me that question for almost two years, though. She knew I hadn’t been writing at all. “I want to read it.”
I took her hand and we walked towards the elevators.
“Don’t worry about that,” I said, evasively. “You just get well.”
“You’re a writer, right?” she said, kissing me on the cheek. Then whispered in my ear, “So, write!”
“Ok, ok,” I said, like she was nagging me. Like all system’s were normal. Like this was just another visit.
I hugged her gingerly. Her body ached everywhere. I tried to kiss her on the lips but she turned her head.
“People are watching,” she said, with a slow-motion wink.
I laughed cuz she was as bashful as a stripper doing a pole dance. And, I kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll see you soon,” I said as she stepped into the elevator. I didn’t know that was the last time I’d see her walking, or even standing.
“I’ll try to text you later, but with the medication…” she frowned.
“I’ll text you. Don’t worry about responding.”
Her frown became a smile She blew me a kiss and waved slowly as the doors slid closed.
I turned around to the room, and those heads turned almost simultaneously, like they’d wanted to drink in every last second of my interaction with Aiko, with one of their own. And those eyes, those fucking eyes, scurried every other direction but mine.
As I walked through the Visiting Area to the exit I watched all of them. No one dared to look at me. I was the Invisible Man, a black hole moving through the hall, which made the fact that they were all aware of my presence all the more intense.
A little boy turned as I passed. He looked at me, and for a moment I felt real. He’d even, strangely, had not fear or shock but concern in his eyes. I was moved, deeply. A human among the fish. But, in a flash, his mother handily turned the child’s head away and said to him softly but audibly, scornfully and pointedly, “dame!” (that’s a no-go!) like there was no way I could understand her, or maybe without even caring if I understood or not.
Once outside the hospital, I stopped and, trembling, heaving, I tried to breathe.
I didn’t realize that I had been crying until then.
I’d been consumed with hate for every fucking one of them.
…to be continued