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Vol. 5, No. 4

Egg-Face
by Mary Yukari Waters

 

     Keiko Nakajima was thirty years old, and she had never been on a date. In addition, she had never held a job. The latter might have been acceptable; even in these modern times, many middle-class women in the Kin-nanji district did not work outside the home. But such women were usually married.
     “Anything new with that Nakajima girl, the middle one?” some housewife might say while shelling peas with her children on the veranda, or gossiping with neighbors in one of the narrow alleyways leading to the open-air market. There never was. Keiko was spotted strolling in the dusk or running the occasional errand at the market; in the mornings, children on their way to school saw her feeding the caged canary on the upstairs balcony. Like some retired person, neighbors said. Like Buddha in a lotus garden.
     Wasn’t she depressed? Wasn’t she desperate? They waylaid her in the alleys: the young housewives applying subtle pressure; the old women probing bluntly, secure in the respect due their age. Keiko met their questions (Do you want children someday? What do you do in your free time?) with an indecisive “Saaa...,” a cocked head, and an expression suggesting that such a puzzle had never even crossed her mind before. Comments and advice alike were absorbed with a “Haaa...” of humble illumination.
     “There’s no give and take,” declared old Mrs. Wakame. She was a formidable busybody who ambushed passersby from the comfort of her front stoop, where she lingered on the pretext of watering her dozens of tiny potted flowers. “Talking to that girl is like—” old Mrs. Wakame said, then shook her head and quoted an old saying about a sumo wrestler charging through squares of cotton hung from doorways.
     But Keiko was not stupid. She was too retiring, even for a girl, but her schoolwork had always been good. Her business degree from Ninjo College would have guaranteed her a job if only this recession, now in its ninth year, had not hit the country just as her class was graduating. Managers had begun to be laid off despite decades of service; quotas for college recruits were slashed below half. Keiko, like many in her class, was rejected repeatedly at interviews the summer before March graduation.
     Like her classmates, she had waited for the next interviewing season. Up to that point, she did not attract undue attention. But the following summer, when neighbors made polite inquiries of Mrs. Nakajima as to why her daughter was not interviewing—or at least making do with part-time work—they were told that Keiko would marry directly from home, bypassing the typical three or four years of pre-marriage employment. Nine years went by, however, and nothing happened.
     Perhaps there was an inheritance? There was the house, which was all paid off, according to the Tatsumi woman, whose husband worked at Mitsui Bank. But split among three daughters it wasn’t much. Moreover, Mr. Nakajima drew but a modest salary at some little export company in Shibu-ken. How much savings could they possibly have after private-college tuition for three daughters, not to mention wedding expenses for the eldest? Old Mrs. Wakame had noticed Mrs. Nakajima buying bargain mackerel caught off American shores, as well as low-grade rice from Indonesia and Thailand.
     There was little to be gleaned from the other two daughters. The Nakajima sisters, apparently, were not close; Sachiko and Tomoko showed little insight into Keiko’s mind and even less interest. They at any rate were leading normal lives. Sachiko, the eldest, had recently married a confectioner’s son and was now living in Gion. Twenty-five-year-old Tomoko, unmarried and therefore still living at home, had been dating her current boyfriend for five months. She had landed a bank-teller job after two years of interviewing; each day she rode the No.72 bus to and from work, looking like a stewardess in Shinwa Bank’s official navy jumper.
     “They should have forced her to work, for her own good.” “Life’s just passing her by.” “That father should bring home company underlings for dinner. Isn’t that how the Fujiwaras met?” Ecstatic approval followed each comment, fanning a glow of well-being that lingered as the housewives went their separate ways. Their ruminations moved in endless circles, like a merry-go-round from which they could disembark at any moment if a better topic came along.

 

~

It was out of genuine kindness—as well as curiosity, the kind that drives children to poke sleeping animals—that old Mrs. Wakame phoned Keiko’s mother. She felt justified in using the telephone, because this time, unlike other outdoor occasions when Mrs. Nakajima had managed to slip away, she had a legitimate favor to bestow. This sense of the upper hand made old Mrs. Wakame’s voice expansive. A young man, she told Mrs. Nakajima, a former student of her retired husband, was interested in marriage. Should she act as matchmaker and set up a meeting?

     There was a brief silence.
     “That is very kind,” Mrs. Nakajima said with dignity. “We accept.”
     Mrs. Nakajima herself had married through a matchmaker, but that was decades ago; nowadays, love marriages were prevalent. As a result, Keiko had received only one other matchmaking offer, five years ago, involving an elementary-school principal with forty-three years to Keiko’s twenty-five. Trusting in future offers, Mrs. Nakajima had declined without even setting up a meeting. “A middle-aged man! How could I do that to a young girl?” she had said. “It would just crush her spirit.”
     “What spirit?” said her youngest daughter, Tomoko. That scornful remark had hurt Mrs. Nakajima deeply, for of her three daughters Keiko resembled her mother the most.
     Today, Mrs. Nakajima and Keiko sat at the kitchen table in the awkward aftermath of old Mrs. Wakame’s phone call. It was about four o’clock, and Mr. Nakajima and Tomoko were still at work. Granny was home—she sat upstairs all day, coming down only for meals—but by unspoken assent, they made no move to go to her with the news.
     A breeze wafted in through the open window, bringing with it the aggressive smell of fresh grass. Since the last rain, weeds had invaded the neighborhood, appearing overnight, in startling hues of neon, through cracks in the asphalt, from under ceramic roof tiles, even within the stone lanterns in the garden. The garden itself, cut off from the western sun by a high bamboo fence, now lay in deepening shadow.
     Also drifting in on the breeze, from the direction of Asahi Middle School, came the synchronized shouts—“Fight! Fight! Fight!”—of the baseball team running laps. It was April again, the start of another new school year.
     Instinctively Mrs. Nakajima considered closing the window, turning on the little radio that was permanently set, at cozy low volume, to the easy-listening station. For the shouts were a disturbing reminder that for the past nine years, while Keiko’s life ground to a halt, mindless toddlers had been transforming into young adults whose voices now rose with strength and promise. Aaa, each new spring came so quickly!...as if the rest of the world followed a different clock.
     But the phone call changed things. Suddenly the air in the kitchen, which still smelled faintly of this morning’s prayer incense, altered—attuning itself to that elusive forward momentum of the outside world. For the first time, Mrs. Nakajima dared to hope her daughter’s destiny could be saved, like a pan snatched from a stove in the nick of time.
     With a sharp, anxious sigh, Mrs. Nakajima pushed herself up from the low table. Keiko, idly prying off the label from a jar of salted plums, glanced up in mild puzzlement.
     “That jar’s so low already,” Mrs. Nakajima said by way of explanation.
     “I can buy another jar,” Keiko offered. “I’ll take my bicycle.” She ran errands for everyone in the family, which was only fair since she wasn’t working. That had been Mrs. Nakajima’s job for many years. She had not minded it for herself, but it smote her to see the same affable subservience in her daughter.

 

~

According to the résumé, Toshi Funaba was twenty-eight years old—Keiko’s junior by two years. He had a business degree from Noraku University, where old Mr. Wakame had taught (hardly an elite school, but a good one), and he held a position as assistant manager at a merchandising company called Sabin Kogyo. Two photographs were enclosed with the résumé, casual outdoor shots: Toshi in a wet suit, sitting on the beach and gazing pensively out over the waters of Kobe Bay; Toshi in a Nike T-shirt, triumphantly holding aloft a small mackerel on a line.

     “His hobbies,” Mr. Nakajima read over the gentle clacking of chopsticks at the dinner table, “are scuba diving, sailing, dirt biking, and deep-sea fishing.”
     “Hehhhh...!” Around the table, there was an exhaling of exaggerated awe.
     “Expensive hobbies,” remarked Granny. She held out the photographs at arm’s length, gripping the rim of her eyeglasses with a free hand as if it were a telescope. She noted with a quickening of interest—nothing much, after all, ever happened upstairs—that this boy was better-looking than Keiko.
     The entire discussion had an air of unreality. Over the years, it had been an unspoken rule to spare Keiko any reminder of her situation; tonight, however, the practical necessities of Mrs. Wakame’s offer unleashed in the family a heady tingle.
     Tomoko, born in the year of the tiger, had just had an exhausting day at the bank. This was not the life she had envisioned for herself. Her feet ached. One of these days her ankles would swell up like some old matron’s. And tomorrow would be no better, nor the day after that. Oh, what was the point of struggling and coming home spent, only to see Big Sister smiling and doing nothing, not a single thing, and getting everyone’s sympathy besides? Granny actually gave her spending money out of her pension because “the poor girl has no income of her own.” And now a prospective husband was dropped into her lap, a better catch than Tomoko’s own boyfriend at the office. It was not to be borne.
     “Let’s hope you can keep up with him,” she said to her big sister.
     Keiko cocked her head in her usual evasive way, but said nothing.
     Mrs. Nakajima waved away Tomoko’s remark with an airy gesture that was at odds with the fierce, helpless glance she shot in her youngest daughter’s direction. “Men don’t care about that kind of thing, do they, Papa?” she said. Mr. Nakajima grunted, still staring at the résumé. Tomoko chewed stonily. Her red fingernail polish gleamed under the electric light.
     “Well, well,” Granny said heartily, “that Wakame woman has once again outdone herself.”
     There had been a time, several years ago, when Tomoko had insisted on knowing all the details of her mother’s courtship. “Saa,” Mrs. Nakajima had told her, “we dated for three months. He used to visit me once a week on his way home from work. I remember we took lovely walks in the dusk.”
     “Did you flirt with each other?” Tomoko asked. It had caught her mother off guard. Neither of her other daughters had asked such a bald question.
     “Of course not!” Mrs. Nakajima said. “It was nothing like that.” The impact of her words, now beyond retrieval, spread out in slow motion to fill the moment.
     “He never even took you downtown?” Tomoko was referring to those chic tea rooms where, since before the war, young men in love were known to take their dates.
     “I don’t recall,” Mrs. Nakajima had said shortly. She met Tomoko’s level gaze and felt, for a brief instant, a stab of dislike. “We preferred eating pork buns or fried noodles at one of the local places.”
     Tonight at the dinner table, Mr. Nakajima expounded on Toshi Funaba’s workplace. He had heard good things about Sabin Kogyo. Despite this long recession plaguing the country, Sabin Kogyo had remained stable: its asset-liability ratio was excellent, and the yearly decline of its annual gross revenue was milder than most of its counterparts in the industry. The family fell silent before these indisputable statistics.
     “It might really happen, ne!” Mrs. Nakajima whispered to her husband later that night, as they lay down to sleep on their separate futons.
     “Nnn, it might!” he replied.
     “Kobe’s not far,” Mrs. Nakajima said. “She can come visit us on the train.” They stared up into the dark, thinking.
     Mrs. Nakajima had never had a boyfriend before her marriage. Mr. Nakajima had dated sporadically, his crowning achievement being a one-night sexual encounter with a barmaid at the establishment he and his co-workers frequented after work. They had no advice to pass on to Keiko. They did not fully comprehend how they themselves had become linked together; they merely hoped Keiko would grow into marriage as they had—in the same mysterious way she had learned to crawl, then later to walk.

 

~

Old Mrs. Wakame was feeling the first stirrings of doubt. Just this afternoon she had met Toshi Funaba and his parents for the first time—something she should have done before approaching the Nakajimas, but at the time she had not been able to wait. A silent young man, she reported to the housewives standing about her front stoop. But not shy. Just silent...

     What old Mrs. Wakame did not mention was how much this young man reminded her of her own teenage grandson, who had declared, when he was six, “Granny, I love you better than anybody else.” That moment still burned in her chest but with pain now. For lately, whenever his parents brought him to visit, he sat before the television, distant and bored. Every so often, he would condescend to utter a strained little “Hohhh...” at her best offerings of gossip. Only when he talked to his own friends—Mrs. Wakame had overheard him using her hallway phone—did his voice take on the animated and confidential tones he had once used with her. This young man Toshi Funaba exuded the same air as her grandson.
     “Sohh—” said one woman, nodding deeply. “Parents are pressuring him.”
     He’ll liven up, Mrs. Wakame assured them, once he meets Keiko.
     The problem, according to one of the housewives, was that matchmaking was not what it had once been. Men who used it these days no longer understood the subtle difference between evaluating an arranged-marriage prospect versus a love-match prospect. This boy Toshi, with his fancy hobbies (neighbors had seen photos; old Mrs. Wakame had made copies), seemed typical of a new breed that confused matchmakers with dating services.
     “Soh soh,” someone else said, “they grow up watching actresses on television.”
     A Mrs. Konishi, whose own daughter had just gotten engaged (a love match), made a pretty moue of concern. Poor Keiko, she said. In the old days she would have been just fine. Keiko had the qualities of an ideal wife: gentleness, deference, domesticity. Plus a college degree.
     Eighty-two-year-old Mrs. Tori, bowed over a trembling cane, lifted her head. Even in our day, she said querulously, men liked women who could at least hold up their own end of a conversation.

 

~

Sachiko, Mrs. Nakajima’s eldest daughter, came over from Gion on the local bus. It was Thursday. Keiko’s date was set for Saturday afternoon.

     “I don’t understand,” Sachiko said to her mother, who had been waiting for her outside in the alley. “Tomoko knows makeup as well as I do. Plus she lives here.”
     “It isn’t fitting,” Mrs. Nakajima whispered, glancing toward the house, “for younger sisters to be teaching older sisters. Besides...” She lifted her head, its home-permed waves webbed with white hairs, and looked up at her tall daughter. “Besides, Tomoko has the wrong attitude.” Her haggard expression gave Sachiko, who had seen little of her family since her own recent wedding, an eerie glimpse of her mother in old age.
     In the dining room, which boasted the best natural light, Sachiko now spread out the contents of her plastic makeup pouch onto the large low table. “We’ll just do one side of your face,” she told her little sister, “so you can see the difference.”
     “Haaa...” Keiko agreed, nodding but not venturing to touch anything. Mrs. Nakajima retired to the kitchen in high spirits, humming a Strauss waltz.
     As children, Sachiko and Keiko had played together at this table when Sachiko’s more lively neighborhood friends were unavailable, for the sisters were close in age whereas Tomoko was five years behind. Today Sachiko recalled an early memory: a silent house, rain making pinpricks of sound on the broad hydrangea leaves in the garden. In the bracken-filtered light, she and Keiko had drawn pictures or gazed out the window. Jikkuri-gata, their mother had teased: characters of contemplation. Time passed. They were—in her memory—silent: mindless, timeless, knowing they were provided for, vaguely registering the faint clatter of the outside world. Dinner noises in the kitchen...an ambulance siren in the distance....
     Keiko had managed to remain in that world. Sachiko thought of what awaited her back at home: laundry, cooking, wrapping tea sweets for tomorrow’s customers, the already faded romance with her husband, the perpetual polite tension of living among in-laws. She sat on an unfamiliar red floor cushion that must have been purchased after she moved away, and she thought how quickly she had become a visitor in her own home.
     Keiko, with self-conscious care, was dabbing her face with a damp foundation sponge. “Egg-face,” some boy had once called her in fourth grade, and the name had stuck for the remainder of her elementary-school years. Her mother would pacify her (“An oval face is a sign of beauty! White skin is better than dark!”), while Granny, skilled at self-promotion, remarked, “At least she takes after me in the skin area.” In truth there was a certain quality to Keiko’s cheekbones, packed high like an Eskimo’s, which lent to her face the suggestion of a blank shell. Her other features, overshadowed by this denseness of bone, appeared shrunken in contrast. The children in their unwitting astuteness had caught her essence: that bland surface of her personality which allowed, with minimal effort, deflection of any attack.
     “Now some blush.” Sachiko handed Keiko the oversized brush. “Put on as much as you’re comfortable with. No, right here. The round part of your cheek.” Keiko touched the tip of the brush to her skin: once, then twice.
     “More than that!” Sachiko’s voice rose in exasperation. She flicked her own wrist rapidly, suggesting many, many more strokes.
     “Ara!” Keiko breathed as a soft stain of pink, barely visible, bloomed on her cheek. “It’s pretty.” Then, apparently embarrassed by this outburst, she lowered her gaze to the blush compact in her lap. She shut it with a tiny click.
     Their mother came in to view the result: a job worthy of the Shiseido ads, in subtle tones of grey and peach. Mrs. Nakajima examined it with a look of wonder; she herself had never gone beyond liquid foundation, adding red lipstick only when she went out. “Lovely,” she said, “just lovely. Aren’t you glad, Keiko-chan?” Keiko, with an obliging laugh, nodded. “Look at yourself in the mirror!” her mother said, steering her around to face the mirror and looking over her shoulder.
     Mrs. Nakajima, peering at Keiko’s flushed face in the mirror, understood that a change had taken place. In her daughter’s eyes was a look she had seen in alley cats, when they warily approached a proffered treat. It was a look terrible and bottomless in its hope. Mrs. Nakajima’s belly shifted in unease, as if her body knew something she did not.
     Unsure what to make of this, Mrs. Nakajima put it from her mind. The three of them went upstairs to show Granny. She was hunched over on a floor cushion, watching sumo on television. “There—which side of her face looks better?” Sachiko demanded, pushing Keiko forward.
     “Maaa, what an improvement!” cried the old lady, looking up and clapping her hands. “That side, definitely. Look how dewy and white the skin is!”
     No one spoke.
     “Granny!” said Sachiko. Her voice became loud and slow even though there was nothing wrong with Granny’s hearing. “We didn’t even do that side. We did the other side.” She exchanged a wry glance with her mother. Even Keiko gave a little smile, tucking her hair behind one ear.
     After they had gone, Granny turned back to her television set. She could no longer concentrate on the sumo match; she still seemed to hear Sachiko’s muffled laughter drifting up the stairs. Maa, so what if her eyesight was no longer perfect? In her own day, at least, she had been a great beauty. Upslanted eyes (“exquisite, like bamboo leaves,” someone had said), a face compared with the one in that famous Tondai lithograph, a long shapely neck that was the envy of her village. She had held sway over a dozen eligible suitors, eventually marrying into a professor’s family despite her own lack of education. How dare they forget it! Her daughter-in-law, her granddaughters—for all their pitiful fuss over face paint—had nothing to work with. Ridiculous bumpkins! Oh, youth and insolence would leave them soon enough. A nervous tic began throbbing under her left eye.

 

~

“How did it go, do you think?” Mrs. Nakajima whispered for the second time to old Mrs. Wakame, who was sitting beside her on the homebound train. “Did he like her, do you think? Will he ask to meet her again?” Keiko was sitting three seats ahead, out of earshot.

     The lunch date had taken place at a restaurant called Miyagi whose sushi turned out to be, befitting its seaside location, of uncommonly good quality. Old Mrs. Wakame loved sushi, especially the kampachi, which she and her husband could now rarely afford on his pension. But her matchmaking duties came first, so for the first half of the date she delayed eating, chatting instead about everything from weather to chrysanthemums. The auspicious cuisine, as well as the pleasant conversation (mostly among the four parents, although this was to be expected), erased the uneasiness of her earlier meeting with Toshi.
     It was further into the lunch, after they had covered jobs and hobbies (Keiko’s hobbies were walking and reading) and the table’s energy was flagging from the generous portions of salmon and hamachi and eel and squid, that Toshi began amusing himself with questions of his own. “Keiko-san, what is your favorite color?” he asked, tapping his cigarette over an ashtray. “Keiko-san, what is your favorite animal?”
     Old Mrs. Wakame threw him an uncertain glance but his handsome face looked reassuring, full of the grave manly concern that was so attractive in samurai dramas. And Keiko was holding her own so well, answering each question correctly after a long thoughtful pause, although at times she did present her answers with unnecessary bows that were quick and clumsy, like a child’s. So Mrs. Wakame paid them little heed. Hunching over her lacquered box, she applied herself single-mindedly to the sushi she had been waiting for, narrowing her eyes in pleasure as the freshly ground wasabi warmed her sinuses.
     She suddenly came to. Toshi’s question was ringing in her ears: “Keiko-san, what do you want most in life?” The table was silent, save for the steady clinks of ice in the men’s whiskey glasses. Toshi’s mother, a fashionably dressed woman, glanced at her watch.
     “Saaa—” With all eyes upon her, Keiko cocked her head.
     “We all want the same thing, don’t we,” Mrs. Nakajima broke in, nodding at her daughter as if in agreement. “A long healthy life, happiness...”
     With a small predatory smile, Toshi Funaba exhaled cigarette smoke toward the ceiling.
     Recalling this now, old Mrs. Wakame sighed and shifted position on her train seat. “Saaa, it went well enough, don’t you think?” she said to Keiko’s mother. “Who can predict?” she added.
     They both fell silent, sipping Morinaga Orange Drink from slender cans around which they had wrapped their handkerchiefs.
     The train rattled along the tracks and the city spread out below them: modern high-rises crowding out old buildings of wood and tile, balconies and verandas bedecked with futons hung out to air. The spring air was translucent with smog. All the soot expelled during the day—all the soot expelled during this long depression—was falling back down to earth, the sediment floating in the busy streets. Late-afternoon sunlight slanted through it, creating an amber viscosity in which the traffic below would eventually still.
     Old Mrs. Wakame stood up to roll down the shade, and her eye fell upon a travel poster displayed above the window: a promotion for some resort showing, in brilliant colors, a lone crane flying over snowfields. It brought to mind the television program she had seen last night, an NHK dramatization of the Crane Maiden legend: a crane, rescued from a trap by an old weaver, returns to him disguised as a beautiful maiden. This role was played by the lovely Junji Mariko in a rare appearance. The credits said so, at any rate, but who could really tell? Her face was averted from the camera, shielded by a fall of glossy hair. She would weave him wondrous silks free of charge, she murmured, as long as he promised never to watch her in the process. “You mustn’t peek,” she implored. “I couldn’t bear for you to learn the secret of my weaving.”
     Something about that graceful turning away of the head—so old-fashioned, and now extinct—had touched old Mrs. Wakame deeply. And when the weaver, overcome by curiosity, finally peeked through a crack in the shoji screen (“Is that actor Mori Daiji?” asked her husband, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Maaa, he’s certainly aged.”), Mrs. Wakame had uttered a shrill cry of awful nameless regret. She had felt silly afterward. For everyone knew what he would see: a crane, half-plucked and grotesque, feeding its own feathers into the loom...
     What this had to do with anything, Mrs. Wakame did not know. Again, she shifted position on the plush seat. Images flashed into her mind of Keiko at the lunch table: lipstick smeared on her front tooth, trembling hands with red-painted fingernails bitten to the quick. “I would like children,” she had said, as smoke from Toshi’s ashtray rose up between them. “I have always wanted children.” Remorse hit old Mrs. Wakame like a wave, and she lowered her Morinaga Orange Drink onto the windowsill.

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