Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 26)

Chapter twenty- six

During September of that year, while I was still eighteen years old, General Tottori and I drank sake together in a ceremony at the Ichiriki Teahouse. This was the same ceremony I’d first performed with Mameha when she became my older sister, and later with Dr. Crab just before my mizuage. In the weeks afterward, everyone congratulated Mother for having made such a favorable alliance.

On that very first night after the ceremony, I went on the General’s instructions to a small inn in the northwest of Kyoto called Suruya, with only three rooms. I was so accustomed by this time to lavish surroundings that the shabbiness of the Suruya surprised me. The room smelled of mildew, and the tatami were so bloated and sodden that they seemed to make a sighing noise when I stepped on them. Plaster had crumbled near the floor in one corner. I could hear an old man reading a magazine article aloud in an adjacent room. The longer I knelt there, the more out of sorts I felt, so that I was positively relieved when the General finally arrived-even though he did nothing more, after I had greeted him, than turn on the radio and sit drinking a beer.

After a time he went downstairs to take a bath. When he returned to the room, he took off his robe at once and walked around completely naked toweling his hair, with his little round belly protrud- ing below his chest and a great patch of hair beneath it. I had never seen a man naked before, and I found the General’s sagging bottom almost comical. But when he faced me I must admit my eyes went straight to where . . . well, to where his “eel” ought to have been. Something was flapping around there, but only when the General lay on his back and told me to take off my clothes did it begin to surface. He was such a strange little nugget of a man, but completely unabashed about telling me what to do. I’d been afraid I’d have to find some way of pleasing him, but as it turned out, all I had to do was follow orders. In the three years since my mizuage, I’d forgotten the sheer terror I’d felt when the Doctor finally lowered himself onto me. I remembered it now, but the strange thing was that I didn’t feel terror so much as a kind of vague queasiness. The General left the radio on- and the lights as well, as if he wanted to be sure I saw the drabness of the room clearly, right down to the water stain on the ceiling.

As the months passed, this queasiness went away, and my encounters with the General became nothing more than an unpleasant twice-weekly routine. Sometimes I wondered what it might be like with the Chairman; and to tell the truth, I was a bit afraid it might be distasteful, just as with the Doctor and the General. Then something happened to make me see things differently. Around this time a man named Yasuda Akira, who’d been in all the magazines because of the success of a new kind of bicycle light he’d designed, began coming to Gion regularly. He wasn’t welcome at the Ichiriki yet and probably couldn’t have afforded it in any case, but he spent three or four evenings a week at a little teahouse called Tatematsu, in the Tominaga-cho section of Gion, not far from our okiya. I first met him at a banquet one night during the spring of 1939, when I was nineteen years old. He was so much younger than the men around him-probably no more than thirty-that I noticed him the moment I came into the room. He had the same sort of dignity as the Chairman. I found him very attractive sitting there with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his jacket behind him on the mats. For a moment I watched an old man nearby, who raised up his chopsticks with a little piece of braised tofu and his mouth already as wide as it would go; this gave me the impression of a door being slid open so that a turtle could march slowly through. By contrast it made me almost weak to see the way Yasuda-san, with his graceful, sculpted arm, put a bite of braised beef into his mouth with his lips parted sensuously.

I made my way around the circle of men, and when I came to him and introduced myself, he said, “I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Forgive you? Why, what have you done?” I asked him.

“I’ve been very rude,” he replied. “I haven’t been able to take my eyes off you all evening.”

On impulse I reached into my obi for the brocade card holder I kept there, and discreetly removed one card, which I passed to him. Geisha always carry name cards with them just as businessmen carry business cards. Mine was very small, half the size of an ordinary calling card, printed on heavy rice paper with only the words “Gion” and “Sayuri” written on it in calligraphy. It was spring, so I was carrying cards decorated with a colorful spray of plum blossoms in the background. Yasuda admired it for a moment before putting it into his shirt pocket. I had the feeling no words we spoke could be as eloquent as this simple interaction, so I bowed to him and went on to the next man.

From that day Yasuda-san began asking me to the Tatematsu Teahouse every week to entertain him. I was never able to go as often as he wanted me. But about three months after we first met, he brought me a kimono one afternoon as a gift. I felt very flattered, even though in truth it wasn’t a sophisticated robe- woven with a poor quality silk in somewhat garish colors, and with a commonplace design of flowers and butterflies. He wanted me to wear it for him one evening soon, and I promised him I would. But when I returned to the okiya with it that night, Mother saw me carrying the package up the stairs and took it away from me to have a look. She sneered when she saw the robe, and said she wouldn’t have me seen in anything so unattractive. The very next day, she sold it.

When I found out what she’d done, I said to her as boldly as I dared that the robe had been given to me as a gift, not to the okiya, and that it wasn’t right for her to have sold it.

“Certainly it was your robe,” she said. “But you are the daughter of the okiya. What belongs to the okiya belongs to you, and the other way around as well.”

I was so angry at Mother after this that I couldn’t even bring myself to look at her. As for Yasuda-san, who’d wanted to see the robe on me, I told him that because of its colors and its butterfly motif, I could wear it only very early in the spring, and since it was now already summer, nearly a year would have to pass before he could see me in it. He didn’t seem too upset to hear this.

“What is a year?” he said, looking at me with penetrating eyes. “I’d wait a good deal longer, depending on what I was waiting for. ”

We were alone in the room, and Yasuda-san put his beer glass down on the table in a way that made me blush. He reached out for my hand, and I gave it to him expecting that he wanted to hold it a long moment in both of his before letting it go again. But to my surprise he brought it quickly to his lips and began kissing the inside of my wrist quite passionately, in a way I could feel as far down as my knees. I think of myself as an obedient woman; up until this time I’d generally done the things told to me by Mother, or Mameha, or even Hatsu-momo when I’d had no other choice; but I felt such a combination of anger at Mother and longing for Yasuda-san that I made up my mind right then to do the very thing Mother had ordered me most explicitly not to do. I asked him to meet me in that very teahouse at midnight, and I left him there alone.

Just before midnight I came back and spoke to a young maid. I promised her an indecent sum of money if she would see to it that no one disturbed Yasuda-san and me in one of the upstairs rooms for half an hour. I was already there, waiting in the dark, when the maid slid open the door and Yasuda-san stepped inside. He dropped his fedora onto the mats and pulled me to my feet even before the door was closed. To press my body against his felt so satisfying, like a meal after a long spell of hunger. No matter how hard he pressed himself against me, I pressed back harder. Somehow I wasn’t shocked to see how expertly his hands slipped through the seams in my clothing to find my skin. I won’t pretend I experienced none of the clumsy moments I was accustomed to with the General, but I certainly didn’t notice them in the same way. My encounters with the General reminded me of a time as a child when I’d struggled to climb a tree and pluck away a certain leaf at the top. It was all a matter of careful movements, bearing the discomfort until I finally reached my goal. But with Yasuda-san I felt like a child running freely down a hill. Sometime later when we lay exhausted upon the mats together, I moved his shirttail aside and put my hand on his stomach to feel his breathing. I had never in my life been so close to another human being before, though we hadn’t spoken a word.

It was only then that I understood: it was one thing to lie still on the futon for the Doctor or the General. It would be something quite different with the Chairman.

Many a geisha’s day-to-day life has changed dramatically after taking a danna; but in my case, I could hardly see any change at all. I still made the rounds of Gion at night just as I had over the past few years. From time to time during the afternoons I went on excursions, including some very peculiar ones, such as accompanying a man on a visit to his brother in the hospital. But as for the changes I’d expected-the prominent dance recitals paid for by my danna, lavish gifts provided by

him, even a day or two of paid leisure time- well, none of these things happened. It was just as Mother had said. Military men didn’t take care of a geisha the way a businessman or an aristocrat did.

The General may have brought about very little change in my life, but it was certainly true that his alliance with the okiya was invaluable, at least from Mother’s point of view. He covered many of my expenses just as a danna usually does-including the cost of my lessons, my annual registration fee, my medical expenses, and … oh, I don’t even know what else-my socks, probably. But more important, his new position as director of military procurement was everything Mameha had suggested, so that he was able to do things for us no other danna could have done. For example, Auntie grew ill during March of 1939. We were terribly worried about her, and the doctors were of no .help; but after a telephone call to the General, an important doctor from the military hospital in the Kamigyo Ward called on us and provided Auntie with a packet of medicine that cured her. So although the General may not have sent me to Tokyo for dance recitals, or presented me with precious gems, no one could suggest our okiya didn’t do well by him. He sent regular deliveries of tea and sugar, as well as chocolates, which were becoming

scarce even in Gion. And of course, Mother had been quite wrong about the war ending within six months. We couldn’t have believed it at the time, but we’d scarcely seen the beginning of the dark years just yet.

During that fall when the General became my danna, Nobu ceased inviting me to parties where I’d so often entertained him. Soon I realized he’d stopped coming to the Ichiriki altogether. I couldn’t think of any reason he should do this, unless it was to avoid me. With a sigh, the mistress of the Ichiriki agreed that I was probably right. At the New Year I wrote Nobu a card, as I did with all of my patrons, but he didn’t respond. It’s easy for me to look back now and tell you casually how many months passed; but at

the time I lived in anguish. I felt I’d wronged a man who had treated me kindly-a man I’d come to think of as a friend. What was more, without Nobu’s patronage, I was no longer invited to Iwamura Electric’s parties, which meant I hardly stood any chance at all of seeing the Chairman.

Of course, the Chairman still came regularly to the Ichiriki even though Nobu didn’t. I saw him quietly upbraiding a junior associate in the hallway one evening, gesturing with a fountain pen for emphasis, and I didn’t dare disturb him to say hello. Another night, a worried-looking young apprentice named Naotsu, with a terrible underbite, was walking him to the toilet when he caught sight of me. He left Naotsu standing there to come and speak with me. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. I thought I saw, in his faint smile, the kind of subdued pride men often seem to feel when gazing on their own children. Before he continued on his way, I said to him, “Chairman, if there’s ever an evening when the presence of another geisha or two might be helpful. . .”

This was very forward of me, but to my relief the Chairman didn’t take offense.

“That’s a fine idea, Sayuri,” he said. “I’ll ask for you.”

But the weeks passed, and he didn’t.

One evening late in March I dropped in on a very lively party given by the Governor of Kyoto Prefecture at a teahouse called Shunju. The Chairman was there, on the losing end of a drinking game, looking exhausted in shirtsleeves and with his tie loosened. Actually the Governor had lost most of the rounds, as I learned, but held his sake better than the Chairman.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Sayuri,” he said to me. “You’ve got to help me. I’m in trouble.”

To see the smooth skin of his face splotched red, and his arms protruding from rolled-up shirtsleeves, I thought at once of Yasuda-san on that night at the Tatematsu Teahouse. For the briefest moment I had a feeling that everything in the room had vanished but the Chairman and me, and that in his slightly drunken state I might lean in toward him until his arms went around me, and put my lips on his. I even had a flicker of embarrassment that I’d been so obvious in my thoughts that the Chairman must have understood them . . . but if so, he seemed to regard me just the same. To help him, all I could do was

conspire with another geisha to slow the pace of the game. The Chairman seemed grateful for this, and when it was all over, he sat and talked with me a long while, drinking glasses of water to sober up. Finally he took a handkerchief from his pocket, identical to the one tucked inside my obi, and wiped his forehead with it, and then smoothed his coarse hair back along his head before saying to me:

“When was the last time you spoke with your old friend Nobu?”

“Not in quite some time, Chairman,” I said. “To tell the truth, I have the impression Nobu-san may be angry with me.”

The Chairman was looking down into his handkerchief as he refolded it. “Friendship is a precious thing, Sayuri,” he said. “One mustn’t throw it away.”

I thought about this conversation often over the weeks that followed. Then one day late in April, I was putting on my makeup for a performance of Dances of the Old Capital, when a young apprentice I hardly knew came to speak with me. I put down my makeup brush, expecting her to ask a favor-because our okiya was still well supplied with things others in Gion had learned to do without. But instead she said:

“I’m terribly sorry to trouble you, Sayuri-san, but my name is Takazuru. I wondered if you would mind helping me. I know you were once very good friends with Nobu-san …”

After months and months of wondering about him, and feeling terribly ashamed for what I’d done, just to hear Nobu’s name when I didn’t expect it was like opening storm shutters and feeling the first draft of air.

“We must all help each other whenever we can, Takazuru,” I said. “And if it’s a problem with Nobu-san, I’m especially interested. I hope he’s well.”

“Yes, he is well, ma’am, or at least I think so. He comes to the Awazumi Teahouse, in East Gion. Do you know it?”

“Oh, yes, I know it,” I said. “But I had no idea Nobu-san visited there.”

“Yes, ma’am, quite often,” Takazuru told me. “But . . . may I ask, Sayuri-san? You’ve known him a long while, and . . . well, Nobu-san is a kind man, isn’t he?”

” Takazuru- san, why do you ask me? If you’ve been spending time with him, surely you know whether or not he is kind!”

“I’m sure I must sound foolish. But I’m so confused! He asks for me every time he comes to Gion, and my older sister tells me he’s as good a patron as any girl could hope for. But now she’s angry with me because I’ve cried in front of him several times. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I can’t even promise I won’t do it again!”

“He is being cruel to you, is he?”

By way of answering, poor Takazuru clenched her trembling lips together, and in a moment tears began to pool at the edges of her lids, so much that her little round eyes seemed to gaze up at me from two puddles.

“Sometimes Nobu-san doesn’t know how harsh he sounds,” I told her. “But he must like you, Takazuru- san. Otherwise, why would he ask for you?”

“I think he asks for me only because I’m someone to be mean to,” she said. “One time he did say my hair smelled clean, but then he told me what a nice change that was.”

“It’s strange that you see him so often,” I said. “I’ve been hoping for months to run into him.”

“Oh, please don’t, Sayuri-san! He already says how nothing about me is as good as you. If he sees you again, he’ll only think the worse of me. I know I shouldn’t bother you with my problems, ma’am, but … I thought you might know something I could do to please him. He likes stimulating conversation, but I never know what to say. Everyone tells me I’m not a very bright girl.”

People in Kyoto are trained to say things like this; but it struck me that this poor girl might be telling the truth. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Nobu regarded her as nothing more than the tree where the tiger might sharpen its claws. I couldn’t think of anything helpful, so in the end I suggested she read a book about some historical event Nobu might find interesting, and tell the story to him bit by bit when they met. I myself had done this sort of thing from time to time-for there were men who liked nothing more than to sit back with their eyes watery and half-closed, and listen to the sound of a woman’s voice. I wasn’t sure it would work with Nobu, but Takazuru seemed very grateful for the idea.

Now that I knew where to find Nobu, I was determined to go and see him. I felt terribly sorry I’d made him angry with me; and of course, I might never see the Chairman again without him. I certainly didn’t want to cause Nobu pain, but I thought perhaps by meeting with him I could find some way of resuming our friendship. The trouble was, I couldn’t drop in uninvited at the Awazumi, for I had no formal relationship with the teahouse. So in the end I made up my mind to stroll past during the evening

whenever I could, in the hopes of bumping into Nobu on his way there. I knew his habits well enough to make a fair guess about the time he might arrive.

For eight or nine weeks I kept up this plan. Then at last one evening I spotted him emerging from the back of a limousine in the dark alleyway ahead of me. I knew it was him, because the empty sleeve of his jacket, pinned at the shoulder, gave him an unmistakable silhouette. The driver was handing him his briefcase as I neared. I stopped in the light of a lantern there in the alley, and let out a little gasp that would sound like delight. Nobu looked in my direction just as I’d hoped.

“Well, well,” he said. “One forgets how lovely a geisha can look.” He spoke in such a casual tone, I had to wonder whether he knew it was me.

“Why, sir, you sound like my old friend Nobu-san,” I said. “But you can’t be him, for I have the impression he has disappeared completely from Gion!”

The driver closed the door, and we stood in silence until the car pulled away.

“I’m so relieved,” I said, “to see Nobu-san again at last! And what luck for me that he should be standing in the shadows rather than in the light.”

“Sometimes I don’t have the least idea what you’re talking about, Sayuri. You must have learned this from Mameha. Or maybe they teach it to all geisha.”

“With Nobu-san standing in the shadows, I’m unable to see the angry expression on his face.”

“I see,” he said. “So you think I’m angry with you?” “What else am I to think, when an old friend disappears for so many months? I suppose you’re going to tell me that you’ve been too busy to come to the Ichiriki.”

“Why do you say it as if it couldn’t possibly be true?” “Because I happen to know that you’ve been coming to Gion often. But don’t bother to ask me how I know. I won’t tell you unless you agree to come on a stroll with me.”

“All right,” said Nobu. “Since it’s a pleasant evening-” “Oh, Nobu-san, don’t say that. I’d much rather you said, ‘Since I’ve bumped into an old friend I haven’t seen in so long, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than go on a stroll with her.'”

“I’ll take a walk with you,” he said. “You may think whatever you like about my reasons for doing it.”

I gave a little bow of assent to this, and we set off together down the alley in the direction of Maruyama Park. “If Nobu-san wants me to believe he isn’t angry,” I said, “he should act friendlier, instead of like a panther who hasn’t been fed for months. No wonder poor Takazuru is so terrified of you …”

“So she’s spoken to you, has she?” said Nobu. “Well, if she weren’t such an infuriating girl-”

“If you don’t like her, why do you ask for her every time you come to Gion?”

“I’ve never asked for her, not even once! It’s her older sister who keeps pushing her at me. It’s bad enough you’ve reminded me of her. Now you’re going to take advantage of bumping into me tonight to try to shame me into liking her!”

“Actually, Nobu-san, I didn’t ‘bump’ into you at all. I’ve been strolling down that alley for weeks just for the purpose of finding you.”

This seemed to give Nobu something to think about, for we walked along in silence a few moments. Finally he said, “I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re as conniving a person as I know.”

“Nobu-san! What else was I to do?” I said. “I thought you had disappeared completely. I might never have known where to find you, if Takazuru hadn’t come to me in tears to say how badly you’ve been treating her.”

“Well, I have been hard on her, I suppose. But she isn’t as clever as you-or as pretty, for that matter. If you’ve been thinking I’m angry with you, you’re quite right.”

“May I ask what I have done to make an old friend so angry?”

Here Nobu stopped and turned to me with a terribly sad look in his eyes. I felt a fondness welling up in me that I’ve known for very few men in my life. I was thinking how much I had missed him, and how deeply I had wronged him. But though I’m ashamed to admit it, my feelings of fondness were tinged with pity.

“After a considerable amount of effort,” he said, “I have discovered the identity of your danna.”

“If Nobu-san had asked me, I would have been glad to tell him.”

“I don’t believe you. You geisha are the most close-mouthed group of people. I asked around Gion about your danna, and one after another they all pretended not to know. I never would have found out, if I hadn’t asked Michizono to come entertain me one night, just the two of us.”

Michizono, who was about fifty at the time, was a sort of legend in Gion. She wasn’t a beautiful woman, but she could sometimes put even Nobu in a good mood just from the way she crinkled her nose at him when she bowed hello.

“I made her play drinking games with me,” he went on, “and I won and won until poor Michizono was quite drunk. I could have asked her anything at all and she would have told me.”

“What a lot of work!” I said.

“Nonsense. She was very enjoyable company. There was nothing like work about it. But shall I tell you something? I have lost respect for you, now that I know your danna is a little man in uniform whom no one admires.”

“Nobu-san speaks as if I have any choice over who my danna is. The only choice I can ever make is what kimono I’ll wear. And even then-”

“Do you know why that man has a desk job? It’s because no one trusts him with anything that matters. I understand the army very well, Sayuri. Even his own superiors have no use for him. You may as well have made an alliance with a beggar! Really, I was once very fond of you, but-”

“Once? Is Nobu-san not fond of me any longer?”

“I have no fondness for fools.”

“What a cold thing to say! Are you only trying to make me cry? Oh, Nobu-san! Am I a fool because my danna is a man you can’t admire?”

“You geisha! There was never a more irritating group of people. You go around consulting your almanacs, saying, ‘Oh, I can’t walk toward the east today, because my horoscope says it’s unlucky!’ But then when it’s a matter of something affecting your entire lives, you simply look the other way.”

“It’s less a matter of looking the other way than of closing our eyes to what we can’t stop from happening.”

“Is that so? Well, I learned a few things from my talk with Michizono that night when I got her drunk. You are the daughter of the okiya, Sayuri. You can’t pretend you have no influence at all. It’s your duty to use what influence you have, unless you want to drift through life like a fish belly-up on the stream.”

“I wish I could believe life really is something more than a stream that carries us along, belly-up.”

“All right, if it’s a stream, you’re still free to be in this part of it or that part, aren’t you? The water will, divide again and again. If you bump, and tussle, and fight, and make use of whatever advantages you might have-”

“Oh, that’s fine, I’m sure, when we have advantages.”

“You’d find them everywhere, if you ever bothered to look! In my case, even when I have nothing more than-I don’t know-a chewed-up peach pit, or something of the sort, I won’t let it go to waste. When it’s time to throw it out, I’ll make good and certain to throw it at somebody I don’t like ! ”

“Nobu-san, are you counseling me to throw peach pits?”

“Don’t joke about it; you know perfectly well what I’m saying. We’re very much alike, Sayuri. I know they call me ‘Mr. Lizard’ and all of that, and here you are, the loveliest creature in Gion. But that very first time I saw you at the sumo tournament years ago-what were you, fourteen ?-I could see what a resourceful girl you were even then.”

“I’ve always believed that Nobu-san thinks me more worthy than I really am.”

“Perhaps you’re right. I thought you had something more to you, Sayuri. But it turns out you don’t even understand where your destiny lies. To tie your fortunes to a man like the General! I would have taken proper care of you, you know. It makes me so furious to think about it! When this General is gone from your life, he’ll leave nothing for you to remember him by. Is this how you intend to waste your youth? A woman who acts like a fool is a fool, wouldn’t you say?”

If we rub a fabric too often, it will quickly grow threadbare; and Nobu’s words had rasped against me so much, I could no longer maintain that finely lacquered surface Mameha had always counseled me to hide behind. I felt lucky to be standing in shadow, for I was certain Nobu would think still less of me if he saw the pain I was feeling. But I suppose my silence must have betrayed me; for with his one hand he took my shoulder and turned me just a fraction, until the light fell on my face. And when he looked me

in the eyes, he let out a long sigh that sounded at first like disappointment.

“Why do you seem so much older to me, Sayuri?” he said after a moment. “Sometimes I forget you’re still a girl. Now you’re going to tell me I’ve been too harsh with you.”

“I cannot expect that Nobu-san should act like anyone but Nobu-san,” I said.

“I react very badly to disappointment, Sayuri. You ought to know that. Whether you failed me because you’re too young or because you aren’t the woman I thought. . . either way you failed me, didn’t you?”

“Please, Nobu-san, it frightens me to hear you say these things. I don’t know if I can ever live my life by the standards you use forjudging me . . .”

“What standards are those, really? I expect you to go through life with your eyes open! If you keep your destiny in mind, every moment in life becomes an opportunity for moving closer to it. I wouldn’t expect this sort of awareness from a foolish girl like Takazuru, but-”

“Hasn’t Nobu-san been calling me foolish all evening?”

“You know better than to listen to me when I’m angry.”

“So Nobu-san isn’t angry any longer. Then will he come to see me at the Ichiriki Teahouse? Or invite me to come and see him? In fact, I’m in no particular hurry this evening. I could come in even now, if Nobu- san asked me to.”

By now we had walked around the block, and were standing at the entrance to the teahouse. “I won’t ask you,” he said, and rolled open the door.

I couldn’t help but let out a great sigh when I heard this;and I call it a great sigh because it contained many smaller sighs within it-one sigh of disappointment, one of frustration, one of sadness . . . and I don’t know what else.

“Oh, Nobu-san,” I said, “sometimes you’re so difficult for me to understand.”

“I’m a very easy man to understand, Sayuri,” he said. “I don’t like things held up before me that I cannot have.”

Before I had a chance to reply, he stepped into the teahouse and rolled the door shut behind him.

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