Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 35)

Chapter thirty-five

Now, nearly forty years later, I sit here looking back on that evening with the Chairman as the moment when all the grieving voices within me fell silent. Since the day I’d left Yoroido, I’d done nothing but worry that every turn of life’s wheel would bring yet another obstacle into my path; and of course, it was the worrying and the struggle that had always made life so vividly real to me. When we fight upstream against a rocky undercurrent, every foothold takes on a kind of urgency.

But life softened into something much more pleasant after the Chairman became my danna. I began to feel like a tree whose roots had at last broken into the rich, wet soil deep beneath the surface. I’d never before had occasion to think of myself as more fortunate than others, and yet now I was. Though I must say, I lived in that contented state a long while before I was finally able to look back and admit how desolate my life had once been. I’m sure I could never have told my story otherwise; I don’t think any of us can speak frankly about pain until we are no longer enduring it.

On the afternoon when the Chairman and I drank sake together in a ceremony at the Ichiriki Teahouse, something peculiar happened. I don’t know why, but when I sipped from the smallest of the three cups we used, I let the sake wash over my tongue, and a single drop of it spilled from the corner of my mouth. I was wearing a five-crested kimono of black, with a dragon woven in gold and red encircling the hem up to my thighs. I recall watching the drop fall beneath my arm and roll down the black silk on my thigh, until it came to a stop at the heavy silver threads of the dragon’s teeth. I’m sure most geisha would call it a bad omen that I’d spilled sake; but to me, that droplet of moisture that had slipped from me like a tear seemed almost to tell the story of my life. It fell through empty space, with no control whatsoever over its destiny; rolled along a path of silk; and somehow came to rest there on the teeth of that dragon. I thought of the petals I’d thrown into the Kamo River shallows outside Mr. Arashino’s workshop, imagining they might find their way to the Chairman. It seemed to me that, somehow, perhaps they had.

In the foolish hopes that had been so dear to me since girlhood, I’d always imagined my life would be perfect if I ever became the Chairman’s mistress. It’s a childish thought, and yet I’d carried it with me even as an adult. I ought to have known better: How many times already had I encountered the painful lesson that although we may wish for the barb to be pulled from our flesh, it” leaves behind a welt that doesn’t heal? In banishing Nobu from my life forever, it wasn’t just that I lost his friendship; I also ended

up banishing myself from Gion.

The reason is so simple, I ought to have known beforehand it would happen. A man who has won a prize coveted by his friend faces a difficult choice: he must either hide his prize away where the friend will never see it-if he can-or suffer damage to the friendship. This was the very problem that had arisen between Pumpkin and me: our friendship had never recovered after my adoption. So although the Chairman’s negotiations with Mother to become my danna dragged out over several months, in the end it was agreed that I would no longer work as a geisha. I certainly wasn’t the first geisha to leave Gion; besides those who ran away, some married and left as wives; others withdrew to set up teahouses or okiya of their own. In my case, however, I was trapped in a peculiar middle ground. The Chairman wanted me out of Gion to keep me out of sight of Nobu, but he certainly wasn’t going to marry me; he was already married. Probably the perfect solution, and the one that the Chairman proposed, would have been to set me up with my own teahouse or inn-one that Nobu would never have visited. But Mother was unwilling to have me leave the okiya; she would have earned no revenues from my relationship with the Chairman if I had ceased to be a member of the Nitta family, you see. This is why in the end, the Chairman agreed to pay the okiya a very considerable sum each month on the condition that Mother permit me to end my career. I continued to live in the okiya, just as I had for so many years; but I no longer went to the little school in the mornings, or made the rounds of Gion to pay my respects on special occasions; and of course, I no longer entertained during the evenings.

Because I’d set my sights on becoming a geisha only to win the affections of the Chairman, probably I ought to have felt no sense of loss in withdrawing from Gion. And yet over the years I’d developed many rich friendships, not only with other geisha but with many of the men I’d come to know. I wasn’t banished from the company of other women just because I’d ceased entertaining; but those who make a living in Gion have little time for socializing. I often felt jealous when I saw two geisha hurrying to their next engagement, laughing together over what had happened at the last one. I didn’t envy them the uncertainty of their existence; but I did envy that sense of promise I could well remember, that the evening ahead might yet hold some mischievous pleasure.

I did see Mameha frequently. We had tea together at least several times a week. Considering all that she had done for me since childhood-and the special role she’d played in my life on the Chairman’s behalf- you can imagine how much I felt myself in her debt. One day in a shop I came upon a silk painting from the eighteenth century showing a woman teaching a young girl calligraphy. The teacher had an exquisite oval face and watched over her pupil with such benevolence, it made me think of Mameha at once, and I bought it for her as a gift. On the rainy afternoon when she hung it on the wall of her dreary apartment, I found myself listening to the traffic that hissed by on Higashi-oji Avenue. I couldn’t help remembering, with a terrible feeling of loss, her elegant apartment from years earlier, and the enchanting sound out those windows of water rushing over the knee-high cascade in the Shirakawa Stream. Gion itself had seemed to me like an exquisite piece of antique fabric back then; but so much had changed. Now Mameha’s simple one-room apartment had mats the color of stale tea and smelled of herbal potions from the Chinese pharmacy below-so much so that her kimono themselves sometimes gave off a faint medicinal odor.

After she’d hung the ink painting on the wall and admired it for a while, she came back to the table. She sat with her hands around her steaming teacup, peering into it as though she expected to find the words she was looking for. I was surprised to see the tendons in her hands beginning to show themselves from age. At last, with a trace of sadness, she said:

“How curious it is, what the future brings us. You must take care, Sayuri, never to expect too much.”

I’m quite sure she was right. I’d have had an easier time over the following years if I hadn’t gone on believing that Nobu would one day forgive me. In the end I had to give up questioning Mameha whether he’d asked about me; it pained me terribly to see her sigh and give me a long, sad look, as if to say she was sorry I hadn’t known better than to hope for such a thing.

In the spring of the year after I became his mistress, the Chairman purchased a luxurious house in the northeast of Kyoto and named it Eishin-an-“Prosperous Truth Retreat.” It was intended for guests of the company, but in fact the Chairman made more use of it than anyone. This was where he and I met to spend the evenings together three or four nights a week, sometimes even more. On his busiest days he arrived so late he wanted only to soak in a hot bath while I talked with him, and then afterward fall asleep. But most evenings he arrived around sunset, or soon after, and ate his dinner while we chatted and watched the servants light the lanterns in the garden.

Usually when he first came, the Chairman talked for a time about his workday. He might tell me about troubles with a new product, or about a traffic accident involving a truckload of parts, or some such thing. Of course I was happy to sit and listen, but I understood perfectly well that the Chairman wasn’t telling these things to me because he wanted me to know theni. He was clearing them from his mind, just like draining water from a bucket. So I listened closely not to his words, but to the tone of his voice;

because in the same way that sound rises as a bucket is emptied, I could hear the Chairman’s voice softening as he spoke. When the moment was right, I changed the subject, and soon we were talking about nothing so serious as business, but about everything else instead, such as what had happened to him that morning on the way to work; or something about the film we may have watched a few nights earlier there at the Eishin-an; or perhaps I told him a funny story I might have heard from Mameha, who

on some evenings came to join us there. In any case, this simple process of first draining the Chairman’s mind and then relaxing him with playful conversation had the same effect water has on a towel that has dried stiffly in the sun. When he first arrived and I washed his hands with a hot cloth, his fingers felt rigid, like heavy twigs. After we had talked for a time, they bent as gracefully as if he were sleeping.

I expected that this would be my life, entertaining the Chairman in the evenings and occupying myself during the daylight hours in any way I could. But in the fall of 1952,1 accompanied the Chairman on his second trip to the United States. He’d traveled there the winter before, and no experience of his life had ever made such an impression on him; he said he felt he understood for the first time the true meaning of prosperity. Most Japanese at this time had electricity only during certain hours, for example, but the lights in American cities burned around the clock. And while we in Kyoto were proud that the floor of our new train station was constructed of concrete rather than old-fashioned wood, the floors of American train stations were made of solid marble. Even in small American towns, the movie theaters were as grand as our National Theater, said the Chairman, and the public bathrooms everywhere were spotlessly clean. What amazed him most of all was that every family in the United States owned a refrigerator,

which could be purchased with the wages earned by an average worker in only a month’s time. In Japan, a worker needed fifteen months’wages to buy such a thing; few families could afford it.

In any case, as I say, the Chairman permitted me to accompany him on his second trip to America. I traveled alone by rail to Tokyo, and from there we flew together on an airplane bound for Hawaii, where we spent a few remarkable days. The Chairman bought me a bathing suit-the first I’d ever owned-and I sat wearing it on the beach with my hair hanging neatly at my shoulders just like other women around me. Hawaii reminded me strangely of Amami; I worried that the same thought might occur to the Chairman, but if it did, he said nothing about it. From Hawaii, we continued to Los Angeles and finally to New York. I knew nothing about the United States except what I’d seen in movies; I don’t think I quite believed that the great buildings of New York City really existed. And when I settled at last into my room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and looked out the window at the mountainous buildings around me and the smooth, clean streets below, I had the feeling I was seeing a world in which anything was possible. I confess I’d expected to feel like a baby who has been taken away from its mother; for I had never before left Japan, and couldn’t imagine that a setting as alien as New York City would make me anything but fearful. Perhaps it was the Chairman’s enthusiasm that helped me to approach my visit there with such goodwill. He’d taken a separate room, which he used mostly for business; but every night he came to stay with me in the suite he’d arranged. Often I awoke in that strange bed and turned to see him there in the dark, sitting in a chair by the window holding the sheer curtain open, staring at Park Avenue below. One time after two o’clock in the morning, he took me by the hand and pulled me to the window to see a young couple dressed as if they’d come from a ball, kissing*under the street lamp on the corner.

Over the next three years I traveled with the Chairman twice more to the United States. While he attended to business during the day, my maid and I took in the museums and restaurants-and even a ballet, which I found breathtaking. Strangely, one of the few Japanese restaurants we were able to find in New York was now under the management of a chef I’d known well in Gion before the war. During lunch one afternoon, I found myself in his private room in the back, entertaining a number of men I hadn’t seen in years-the vice president of Nippon Telephone & Telegraph; the new Japanese Consul- General, who had formerly been mayor of Kobe; a professor of political science from Kyoto University. It was almost like being back in Gion once again.

In the summer of 1956, the Chairman- who had two daughters by his wife, but no son-arranged for his eldest daughter to marry a man named Nishioka Minoru. The Chairman’s intention was that Mr. Nishioka take the family name of Iwamura and become his heir; but at the last moment, Mr. Nishioka had a change of heart, and informed the Chairman that he did not intend to go through with the wedding. He was a very temperamental young man, but in the Chairman’s estimation, quite brilliant. For a week or more the Chairman was upset, and snapped at his servants and me without the least provocation. I’d never seen him so disturbed by anything.

No one ever told me why Nishioka Minoru changed his mind; but no one had to. During the previous summer, the founder of one of Japan’s largest insurance companies had dismissed his son as president, and turned his company over instead to a much younger man- his illegitimate son by a Tokyo geisha. It caused quite a scandal at the time. Things of this sort had happened before in Japan, but usually on a much smaller scale, in family-owned kimono stores or sweets shops-businesses of that sort. The insurance company director described his firstborn in the newspapers as “an earnest young man whose talents unfortunately can’t be compared with — ” and here he named his illegitimate son, without ever giving any hint of their relationship. But it made no difference whether he gave a hint of it or not; everyone knew the truth soon enough.

Now, if you were to imagine that Nishioka Minoru, after already having agreed to become the Chairman’s heir, had discovered some new bit of information- such as that the Chairman had recently fathered an illegitimate son . . . well, I’m sure that in this case, his reluctance to go through with the marriage would probably seem quite understandable. It was widely known that the Chairman lamented having no son, and was deeply attached to his two daughters. Was there any reason to think he wouldn’t

become equally attached to an illegitimate son-enough, perhaps, to change his mind before death and turn over to him the company he’d built? As to the question of whether or not I really had given birth to a son of the Chairman’s … if I had, I’d certainly be reluctant to talk too much about him, for fear that his identity might become publicly known. It would be in no one’s best interest for such a thing to happen. The best course, I feel, is for me to say nothing at all; I’m sure you will understand.

A week or so after Nishioka Minoru’s change of heart, I decided to raise a very delicate subject with the Chairman. We were at the Eishin-an, sitting outdoors after dinner on the veranda overlooking the moss garden. The Chairman was brooding, and hadn’t spoken a word since before dinner was served.

“Have I mentioned to Danna-sama,” I began, “that I’ve had the strangest feeling lately?”

I glanced at him, but I could see no sign that he was even listening.

“I keep thinking of the Ichiriki Teahouse,” I went on, “and truthfully, I’m beginning to recognize how much I miss entertaining.”

The Chairman just took a bite of his ice cream, and then set his spoon down on the dish again.

“Of course, I can never go back to work in Gion; I know that perfectly well. And yet I wonder, Danna- sama . . . isn’t there a place for a small teahouse in New York City?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “There’s no reason why you should want to leave Japan.”

“Japanese businessmen and politicians are showing up in New York these days as commonly as turtles plopping into a pond,” I said. “Most of them are men I’ve known already for years. It’s true that leaving Japan would be an abrupt change. But considering that Danna-sama will

be spending more and more of his time in the United States …” I knew this was true, because he’d already told me about his plan to open a branch of his company there.

“I’m in no mood for this, Sayuri,” he began. I think he intended to say something further, but I went on as though I hadn’t heard him.

“They say that a child raised between two cultures often has a very difficult time,” I said. “So naturally, a mother who moves with her child to a place like the United States would probably be wise to make it her permanent home.” “Sayuri-”

“Which is to say,” I went on, “that a woman who made such a choice would probably never bring her child back to Japan at all.”

By this time the Chairman must have understood what I was suggesting-that I remove from Japan the only obstacle in the way of Nishioka Minoru’s adoption as his heir. He wore a startled look for an instant. And then, probably as the image formed in his mind of my leaving him, his peevish humor seemed to crack open like an egg, and out of the corner of his eye came a single tear, which he blinked away just as swiftly as swatting a fly.

In August of that same year, I moved to New York City to set up my own very small teahouse for Japanese businessmen and politicians traveling through the United States. Of course, Mother tried to ensure that any business I started in New York City would be an extension of the Nitta okiya, but the Chairman refused to consider any such arrangement. Mother had power over me as long as I remained in Gion; but I broke my ties with her by leaving. The Chairman sent in two of his accountants to ensure that Mother gave me every last yen to which I was entitled.

I can’t pretend I didn’t feel afraid so many years ago, when the door of my apartment here at the Waldorf Towers closed behind me for the first time. But New York is an exciting city. Before long it came to feel at least as much a home to me as Gion ever did. In fact, as I look back, the memories of many long weeks I’ve spent here with the Chairman have made my life in the United States even richer in some ways than it was in Japan. My little teahouse, on the second floor of an old club off Fifth Avenue, was

modestly successful from the very beginning; a number of geisha have come from Gion to work with me there, and even Mameha sometimes visits. Nowadays I go there myself only when close friends or old acquaintances have come to town. I spend my time in a variety of other ways instead. In the mornings I often join a group of Japanese writers and artists from the area to study subjects that interest us-such as poetry or music or, during one month-long session, the history of New York City. I lunch with a friend most days. And in the afternoons I kneel before my makeup stand to prepare for one party or another- sometimes here in my very own apartment. When I lift the brocade cover on my mirror, I can’t help but remember the milky odor of the white makeup I so often wore in Gion. I dearly wish I could go back there to visit; but on the other hand, I think I would be disturbed to see all the changes. When friends bring photographs from their trips to Kyoto, I often think that Gion has thinned out like a poorly kept garden, increasingly overrun with weeds. After Mother’s death a number of years ago, for example, the Nitta okiya was torn down and replaced with a tiny concrete building housing a bookshop on the ground floor and two apartments overhead.

Eight hundred geisha worked in Gion when I first arrived there. Now the number is less than sixty, with only a handful of apprentices, and it dwindles further every day-because of course the pace of change never slows, even when we’ve convinced ourselves it will. On his last visit to New York City, the Chairman and I took a walk through Central Park. We happened to be talking about the past; and when we came to a path through pine trees, the Chairman stopped suddenly. He’d often told me of the pines bordering the street outside Osaka on which he’d grown up; I knew as I watched him that he was remembering them. He stood with his two frail hands on his cane and his eyes closed, and breathed in deeply the scent of the past.

“Sometimes,” he sighed, “I think the things I remember are more real than the things I see.”

As a younger woman I believed that passion must surely fade with age, just as a cup left standing in a room will gradually give up its contents to the air. But when the Chairman and I returned to my apartment, we drank each other up with so much yearning and need that afterward I felt myself drained of all the things the Chairman had taken from me, and yet filled with all that I had taken from him. I fell into a sound sleep and dreamed that I was at a banquet back in Gion, talking with an elderly man who was explaining to me that his wife, whom he’d cared for deeply, wasn’t really dead because the pleasure of their time together lived on inside him. While he spoke these words, I drank from a bowl of the most extraordinary soup I’d ever tasted; every briny sip was a kind of ecstasy. I began to feel that all the people I’d ever known who had died or left me had not in fact gone away, but continued to live on inside me just as this man’s wife lived on inside him. I felt as though I were drinking them all in-my sister, Satsu, who had run away and left me so young; my father and mother; Mr. Tanaka, with his perverse view of kindness; Nobu, who could never forgive me; even the Chairman. The soup was filled with all that I’d ever cared for in my life; and while I drank it, this man spoke his words right into my heart. I awoke with tears streaming down my temples, and I took the Chairman’s hand, fearing that I would never be able to live without him when he died and left me. For he was so frail by then, even there in his sleep, that I couldn’t help thinking of my mother back in Yoroido. And yet when his death happened only a few months later, I understood that he left me at the end of his long life just as naturally as the leaves fall from the trees.

I cannot tell you what it is that guides us in this life; but for me, I fell toward the Chairman just as a stone must fall toward the earth. When I cut my lip and met Mr. Tanaka, when my mother died and I was cruelly sold, it was all like a stream that falls over rocky cliffs before it can reach the ocean. Even now that he is gone I have him still, in the richness of my memories. I’ve lived my life again just telling it to you.

It’s true that sometimes when I cross Park Avenue, I’m struck with the peculiar sense of how exotic my surroundings are. The yellow taxicabs that go sweeping past, honking their horns; the women with their briefcases, who look so perplexed to see a little old Japanese woman standing on the street corner in kimono. But really, would Yoroido seem any less exotic if I went back there again? As a young girl I believed my life would never have been a struggle if Mr. Tanaka hadn’t torn me away from my tipsy house. But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.

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