The first two e-mails that I sent to my ex-wife went unanswered. That came as no surprise. I had become used to the silent treatment from her since our return from our honeymoon in Hawaii 12 years ago. But this time I was not about to put up with being ignored.
After waiting three days, I wrote the following to her . . .
Eiko-sama. Frankly, aren’t you sick and tired of this particular pattern of communication that we have fallen into, either by chance or design? I sent you two e-mails the other day and you have not even granted me the courtesy of a reply. I will not plead with you (as I once did), and I will not lose my temper (as I often did), but PLEASE let us stop this and at least be civil to each other.
I am writing to you because I am moving back to Tokyo and want to see Daisuke. I have a right to see my own son and attend his graduation from primary school. It is important to him that his father is present at the ceremony. Please consider his future. He will want to have this as a memory when he is my age.
We need not sit side-by-side in the school hall. If you wish, I will stand silently at the back against the wall as my son passes in the procession. I won’t acknowledge your presence. But I want to be there!
After several minutes of hesitation I pressed the return button, sending the mail to her. It was 10 p.m. New York time. I poured myself a single malt whiskey, dropped two cubes of ice into the glass and sat down to watch an old Western, starring John Wayne, on cable television. After 20 minutes I stood up, walked over to my computer and opened my e-mail file. I was, I admit, shocked to see that Eiko had replied. This is what she wrote . . .
If we have fallen into a pattern of communication, as you say, who is to blame? You talk about rights as a father, but I would just like to ask you about the other “rights” which you seem to ignore so conveniently.
Does a father have the right to default on alimony payments? Does a father have the right to cheat on his wife with another woman — or should I say “women” — less than a year after the wedding? Does a father who never went to a single sports day at his son’s school, who never once attended a class on parents’ day, and who never once took the slightest interest in his son’s development — does such a father have any “rights” left to him at all?
You are, of course, free to come back to Tokyo for a visit or to live or whatever. But you are NOT to come to Daisuke’s graduation ceremony. I have already told him and Mrs. Shimoda (that’s the name of his sixth-grade teacher, for your information) that “Daddy” is too busy with work in New York to attend.
That was how the e-mail ended. No name. Just coldly, “too busy . . . to attend.”
I immediately typed a reply. It was a rare occurrence to get any message from Eiko. I knew that if I hesitated I would probably not hear from her again.
Eiko. I am grateful for your message. I won’t try to justify things I did in the past, OK? Shortly before we finally separated six years ago, I’m sure you will remember the arguments that dragged long into the nights. After I was transferred to New York, it was always I who phoned you, and paid for the calls. I ask you now — Why should Daisuke continue to suffer over our incompatibility?
And as for the matter of women, the whole thing was not as important to me as you have always made it out to be. There were only two, as I have told you over and over again. Well, maybe three if you count that New Zealand exchange student at Showa Women’s University — but she was using me. You should at least give me credit for telling you everything.
I stopped typing. No, this was definitely not the sort of thing to write to an ex-wife. In addition, I couldn’t definitely remember if I had told her about the New Zealand exchange student or not. It would only add fuel to a raging inferno. I highlighted the paragraph from “And as for the matter of women” to “telling you everything,” took a sip of the now watery whiskey, and pressed the delete key.
The shooting of guns coming from the television set suddenly became inordinately loud. I took the remote control device from my shirt pocket, turned the TV off and continued my message to Eiko.
OK, I accept responsibility for all my past actions, bad and indifferent. I’m not proud of everything. But believe me, I didn’t do anything to hurt you or Daisuke. These things happen in life. A man doesn’t plan everything, you know. Can’t we erase what is past and go on from here?
I am asking you now, Eiko, if we can do that. I don’t expect you to see me or talk to me when I’m back in Tokyo. All I want is to see our son walk down the aisle among his friends. I won’t even smile at him, if that’s what you wish. I’ll just nod once, so he knows it’s really me.
All I want is to be in the same room with him on the day of his graduation.
Without hesitation, I clicked the return button. I felt a deep sense of relief, the kind that I felt as a child when I wrote down all the bad things that had happened to me in a notebook, then rubbed them out with an eraser until there was no trace left. I was sure that Eiko would see reason. I quickly poured myself another whiskey, now adding no ice. I sat back in my leather armchair and once again turned on the TV. The shooting had come to an end, and four men were seated at a round table in a saloon, playing cards in silence. John Wayne was nowhere to be seen.
It was nearly midnight when the movie ended and I went over to the computer to check my e-mail file. I clicked the send/receive key. There was one new e-mail, which seemed to take an age before it downloaded. It was from Eiko. I opened it. There were two sentences on a single line, without any greeting at the beginning or name at the end. It simply said . . .
Please yourself. You always have.
|* * * * *|
I awoke after 8 the next day, a Monday. I had told my secretary that I wouldn’t be coming into the office that day. I had already cleaned out my desk and said my goodbyes to the staff. I needed one day to myself before going home to Tokyo.
I decided to have breakfast round the corner, at Macchiato Espresso Bar on East 44th St. But before leaving my apartment, I turned on my computer and opened my e-mail inbox — out of habit more than anything else. I didn’t expect to see the message from my ex-wife, sent at 4:20 p.m. Japan time . . .
Tatsuhiko-san. When I wrote “please yourself,” I did not mean for you to think of it as an insult. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that to you. At first I really didn’t want you to come to Daisuke’s graduation. I even once told Daisuke that he was like his friend Haruna. Haruna’s daddy is dead. But I realize that you are his father and you were once my husband, too. You remember where the school is? It’s at Chitose Funabashi. Please call us when you arrive in Tokyo. But please call in the afternoon between 4 o’clock and 5:30, no earlier or later.
Your ex-wife and Daisuke’s mummy, Eiko
I rubbed my eyes and reread the message. I could not believe that Eiko could suddenly be so tender and understanding. I immediately typed out a reply to her, sent it, hopped jauntily over my two suitcases in the living room, left my apartment, locked the door and bounced briskly down the stairs, two steps at a time. Gordon, the doorman, who sported a smallish handlebar mustache, opened the building’s front door for me.
“Good morning, Mr. T,” he said, with an easy bow.
“Good morning, Gordon.”
“We’re gonna miss you around here, Mr. T. Except for one thing that I’m not gonna miss.”
“Yes, sir. I’m glad you’re not gonna be livin’ here now, ’cause of your name. Jumpin’ Jesus, Mr. T, I swear you got the hardest dang name to pronounce ever since that Mr. Kryzolewski, or somethin’, lived here — and I’m goin’ back at least 45 years. Darned if I know how you pronounce it yourself!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, being utterly Japanese in apologizing for something that caused another person inconvenience, whatever its nature.
“Oh, heck, don’t be sorry, Mr. T. That’s your name and you mustn’t apologize for it. It’s all you got.”
I shook hands with Gordon, we smiled at each other, then I ran diagonally across Lexington Avenue, dodging a taxi. I had one thought only in my mind: The sight of his father standing against the back wall would be etched in Daisuke’s memory after all. No one could prevent me now from attending his graduation.
This is what I had written to Eiko . . .
Eiko. Thank you for being so gracious. I owe you an apology for many many things, but perhaps this is not the time or way to make it. I will telephone you at the time you specified in your e-mail when I get back to Tokyo. I will be staying with my mother in Kyodo, so it’s not far from Daisuke’s school. Talk soon.
The morning was unusually warm for early March in New York. I went up Lexington Avenue to 44th Street and turned right, suddenly realizing that I had been cheerfully whistling an old Japanese song. I stopped whistling and stood on the corner for a moment, gazing far down, then up, Lexington Avenue. Hundreds of people were marching, at a brisk pace, uptown and down, heading for the gates of the subway. Why, I wondered, did I have to call Eiko in the late afternoon? Perhaps she had a new job that started early in the morning . . . No matter. What mattered was that I was on my way back to Tokyo, where I would see my only child, my son, Daisuke.
|* * * * *|
I phoned Eiko on Thursday afternoon precisely at 4:30. It was strange being in my parents’ home, where Eiko and I had lived for a year after returning from our honeymoon. We hadn’t known then that Eiko was already three months pregnant with our daughter, Tomiko. When Tomiko died in her crib, age 3 months — just stopped breathing . . . just didn’t wake up — I thought that Eiko would never recover from the trauma. But she was already pregnant then with Daisuke, and perhaps it was Daisuke’s birth that allowed her to return to her former self.
“Hello,” said the voice at the other end of the line.
“Hello, Eiko-san, it’s me, Tatsuhiko.”
“This is Daisuke.”
“Oh, Daisuke. It’s daddy. You sound just like your mother.”
There was a silence. I continued.
“Daddy’s come back. I mean, I’m coming to live here now. Isn’t that good?”
“I’m coming to see you at your graduation next week. Isn’t that good?”
“Oh, Daisuke, it’s so good to talk with you.”
There was another silence, then Daisuke spoke.
“It’s good to talk with you, too, daddy.”
I must confess, tears welled in my eyes when I heard Daisuke say, “daddy.” I was now more determined than ever to see him as soon as I could, even before his graduation ceremony.
“Do you think daddy could see you sometime, I mean, pretty soon?”
“No, I mean, not at home or school. Like, somewhere else. Do you think you could come to grandma’s here in Kyodo?”
“If mummy would let me, I could.”
“Oh, she’ll let you . . . no, perhaps she wouldn’t.”
“Do you think you and mummy could meet together, just once? I could come along. Then you could see me and you could see mummy, too.”
“I don’t think she would like that.”
Then he said something that struck me as slightly strange.
“Didn’t you read the e-mail from mummy? She said so. She said she was sorry, didn’t she?”
“Do you read her e-mails?”
“No, I don’t, but . . . “
“Well,” I said, “whatever. So, tell your mother that I phoned and that I’m at grandma’s, OK?”
“I’ll tell her.”
I held the receiver to my ear for some seconds. Daisuke had not yet clicked off.
“Daisuke? . . . Daisuke?”
Then he hung up. I listened to the buzz coming through my receiver, as if it held some additional message for me about the feelings of my son and my ex-wife.
It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, a few minutes after 4, that I had a call from the house at Soshigaya Okura in which Daisuke and Eiko were living. I had spent the previous 24 hours almost entirely in bed, not wishing to go out or see anybody.
My mother handed me the cordless receiver.
“It’s for you,” she said, shuffling out of the bedroom I had spent my childhood sleeping in.
“May I please speak with Mr. Tatsuhiko Takebayashi?”
“Speaking. Who is calling, please?”
“This is Daisuke Takebayashi.”
“Daisuke! It’s daddy! I didn’t recognize your voice again. You sound so adult. Is your mother home now?”
“No, she’s . . . um, no, but, she’s out right, uh, just now.”
“Oh. Did you tell her that I phoned yesterday?”
“Well, daddy . . . um, I sort of did . . . “
“So, what did she say?”
“She said she wanted, I mean, to meet with you, together with me — so it’s OK . . . to discuss my graduation and stuff.”
“Is that what she said?”
“Yep. That’s what she said. She told me to thank you for the e-mails and that you should go tomorrow morning, Saturday, at 10, to Alpes coffee shop in Seijo Gakuenmae. She said you know where it is because, I mean, I don’t know how to get there, but she said you and me and she had coffee there sometimes, but I don’t remember because I was too little.”
“Yes, I remember. OK. But you’ll be there too, won’t you? Daddy really wants to see you.”
“I’ll be there, daddy. Sure. OK, bye. See you tomorrow. Gotta go now. Bye, daddy.”
Daisuke hung up. I couldn’t imagine what it was that had softened Eiko’s attitude toward me. We had met when we were students of English at Waseda University. In fact, she was always better at the language than I was, and it was she who aspired to life abroad, not me. It’s a shame that by the time I was posted to New York we were already separated.
|* * * * *|
I woke up on Saturday morning feeling like a new man. It was as if I had spent the past four days, in the air and in Tokyo, in a trance, with each hour disconnected from the one before it. I would have to go to the office at Otemachi on Monday, but for now I had two days to myself — and for my family.
I decided to walk from Kyodo to Seijo, leaving the house just before 9. The branches of the trees along Shiroyama Avenue had sprouted small, light-green leaves. Far in the distance I could see Mount Fuji, still covered in snow. I crossed the Odakyu Line tracks and turned up the narrow shopping street by Soshigaya Okura Station. The same shops that had been there 12 years ago — the stationery store, the tea shop with its roasting machine in front sending out a cloud of bitter smoke . . . “Maido maido,” said the stocky, bald vegetable-shop man. “What’ll it be today?”
I stopped in my tracks. I had not bought vegetables from that man for more than nine years, and there he was greeting me as if I still passed by every day.
“Well, Mr. Takebayashi, so nice to see you,” said an elderly woman, gently tapping my elbow.
I swiveled about and stared at her. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
“It’s Morita. I’m Morita, don’t you remember? Your wife taught my granddaughter English and we used to live across the street from you then. We moved, but I believe your wife is still there, isn’t she?”
“Oh, yes. I remember. Mrs. Morita. You used to put the Soka Gakkai newspaper in our mailbox.”
“Yes, that’s me! Still do,” she giggled, “even though I don’t live near you anymore. Your boy must be very grown up by now. What was his name? I can’t remember names anymore.”
“Yes, that’s it — Daisuke. My granddaughter Nobuko’s now studying English at the International Christian University, thanks to your wife’s guidance. She’s such a marvelous teacher, your wife. Even I picked up a few phrases just by sitting there reading magazines while Nobuko had her lessons.”
She chuckled to herself, bowed and said, “Well, goodbye. You have done so much for my family, Mr. Takebayashi.”
She walked a few steps up the street, bowed to the vegetable man and disappeared into the dry cleaner’s.
|* * * * *|
It was 9:50 when I arrived at Seijo Gakuenmae Station. I walked up to the Mitsubishi bank building, passed the old Sasaya wine shop, which was still there, and back down to Alpes. I stepped into the coffee shop at 9:58. Several ladies were standing at the counter buying cakes. Straight ahead, toward the back, I caught sight of Daisuke. He looked the same to me until he stood up and waved. Then I saw that he was a head taller than when I had last seen him. He sat back down. I walked toward the table, which was surrounded on three sides by mirrors. I could see the left hand and left knee of someone else behind the wall that jutted out.
For a moment I felt dizzy. I grasped the end of the handrail by the stairs up to the second floor and took several deep breaths. The clock was playing its little trick on me again, now disjointing not hours but minutes, forcing them together even when their jagged edges didn’t fit with each other. The words that I had rubbed out of my childhood notebook had once become invisible . . . but now they were reappearing in my mind’s eye, one after another, with a vengeance.
I sat opposite Eiko. Daisuke was between us, his back to one of the mirrored walls. No one spoke. It was strange. Daisuke was all smiles.
“Well,” he finally said, “aren’t you at least going to say hello to each other? OK, then, I will. Hello, daddy, this is mummy. Hello, mummy, this is daddy. Mummy, daddy, very nice to meet you.”
Eiko sat with her head bowed. She lifted her glass of iced water with a slice of lemon in it, but put it back down without drinking. A young waitress came to our table and placed a glass of water in front of me.
“Do you wish to order?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” said Daisuke. “We will have one hot coffee, one Royal Milk Tea and, um, I’ll have freshly squeezed orange juice, please. I know it’s expensive, but this is a special occasion.”
The waitress glanced at me, then at Eiko, as if to get approval for the order. I nodded to her, and she turned and walked away.
“Well, so what is this all about?” said Eiko.
“All about?” I asked. “Nothing. Why? I thought we might discuss Daisuke’s graduation. Oh, by the way, I just met Mrs. Morita, you know, the one whose granddaughter you tutored. She’s at ICU.”
Eiko said nothing. Again she lifted her glass, this time taking a long drink. I could see that her hand was trembling slightly as she held the glass against her lips.
“We can discuss my graduation later,” said Daisuke. “Right now, I’ve got a really good idea. I really don’t want that orange juice. It’s too expensive, anyway. So, I’ll cancel my order, ’cause I’d rather go to the great manga shop at the station and then you two could discuss my graduation here just by yourselves.”
Daisuke stood up.
“Just a minute,” I said. “Sit down.”
“Don’t order Daisuke around like that,” said Eiko. “You come home for the first time in years and already you’re ordering him around.”
“It’s OK, mummy. I don’t mind being ordered around by daddy. OK, I’ll have my orange juice, but only on one condition: You and daddy have to have a conversation. If you don’t want me to understand it, you can speak English. I don’t understand English yet.”
“You’re determined to go to this graduation, are you?” she said.
“Yes, I am. You said in your e-mail that, after all, I am Daisuke’s father and that I could come to the school at Chitose Funabashi.”
“I didn’t write anything of the sort.”
“Look,” said Daisuke, “you’ve only been here a few minutes and already you start fighting again. Who cares about some stupid e-mail? The important thing is that I’ll have both my parents at my graduation. Think of poor Haruna-chan. She only has a mummy. Isn’t that awful?”
“Why did you ask me to phone you in the late afternoon?” I asked.
“Me? I didn’t. I’m out every weekday in the late afternoon, teaching English to executives at a posh language school near Shinjuku. It pays more than three times what I get anywhere else.”
I stared at Daisuke, who was no longer smiling. A young man arrived at our table with a tray of drinks.
“Fresh orange juice?”
“That’s me,” said Daisuke. “And the Royal Milk Tea is for her and the coffee is for him.”
It was strange to hear Daisuke call Eiko and me “her” and “him.”
The waiter put the drinks on the table and left.
“I will never understand why someone takes an order and then someone else brings it,” I said, shaking my head.
“Why? Don’t they do that in New York?”
Her sarcasm when she said “New York” was all too obvious.
There was a long pause, broken by Daisuke.
“Gee, this juice is delicious. But I guess it should be, considering the price.”
“So, where are you staying?” she asked me.
“I told you in my e-mail. With my mother in Kyodo.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Dad, would you like some sugar in your coffee? It looks awfully strong like that.”
Suddenly, both Eiko and I found ourselves staring at Daisuke, who was making an extraordinarily loud noise drinking the last drops of orange juice through a straw.
“Have you been home in the afternoons, say, roughly between 4 and 5?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“And do you use your mother’s e-mail?”
“Yes, he does,” said Eiko. “It was Daisuke who set up the new computer when he was only 9.”
Why had it taken me so long to realize? Daisuke had written Eiko’s e-mails, instructing me to call when she was out, so that he could arrange a meeting for the three of us. It was his only way of getting his parents to meet each other.
Now followed the longest silence of all.
Eiko and I found ourselves looking at each other for the first time. It was strange to look into her face. She had changed surprisingly little since we first met. Her skin was still smooth and radiant.
I stared at my face in the mirror beside Eiko’s head. My face didn’t look like my own. Was vengeful time playing the final trick on me, as if telling me, “You are not the same man as you were in the past, Mr. T. From now on you risk losing sight of yourself!”
Better not look, I told myself. Better to avoid your own gaze in the future.
I looked at Eiko’s long brown hair, falling over her shoulders, then away from her hair and myself. Eiko was peering into the mirror that was behind me, fixing her gaze on something in it. Did she recognize herself as the woman who once married the man in front of her?
Out of the blue Daisuke shouted, and all of the people in Alpes turned toward the three of us. Daisuke’s shouting was innocent and full of glee. I remember that kind of voice. I had it when I was a boy his age.
“Daddy, look,” he said. “Mummy, look. The mirrors. See? You can see yourselves and me reflected in these mirrors. So that means that really there are not just three of us, but six of us. See? We’re sitting together now, all six of us. We are like we are now, but we’re still like we were a long time ago when mummy and daddy lived together, with me. Mummy, daddy and Daisuke in the mirror . . . that’s us as we were. I see it. We’re like then and now at the very same time. Look and you’ll see. Just . . . look!”
I stared into the mirror that was behind Eiko, and she stared into the mirror behind me. But I could only see myself as I am today. What Eiko saw in the mirror, I cannot imagine.
The three of us sat there, surrounded by mirrors, for what seemed an age.
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