|Excerpts > Winter 2001 > Special Fiction Issue|
The World of Weather
The World of Weather
When we were in college in Madison, Mitch read the weather map to my sister every morning, giving her a private forecast as they drank their coffee at the kitchen table. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment above a grocery store. I would come out of my room and find them holding hands, their heads bent over the morning paper from Milwaukee.
“Scattered showers over Southwestern Wisconsin,” Mitch might say. “In Madison, showers will start around three o’clock, keeping Ms. Sumire Nishimura from her tennis practice, allowing her a leisurely afternoon with her boyfriend.”
“Oh, Mitch,” my sister would laugh, running her fingers through his hair, which was almost as dark as hers or mine. She was twenty-one, a year older than I. Our parents didn’t know that she was living with a boyfriend.
Sumire and I had attended middle school and high school in Chicago, where our father had been stationed by the Japanese trading company he worked for. We were supposed to go back to Japan and live with our grandparents when we reached college age, but we’d been away too long to pass the entrance exams back home. Madison was a good school in a safe city, an easy drive to our parents’ apartment in Northbrook on weekends--only, Father was transferred back to Tokyo in the middle of my first year. He and Mother had to go back without Sumire and me.
Mother worried that we would never find jobs in Japan with our American degrees--Sumire’s in psychology and mine in English. But Father planned for us to get married. Most of his friends from work--whose sons we would surely marry--considered a degree from an American university an asset for their future daughters-in-law. Like them, their sons would have to entertain American businessmen at home.
Sumire went back to Tokyo a week after her graduation, planning to find a job, work a year, and save money for graduate school. She’d gotten into the master’s programs in psychology at several schools, but Father refused to pay her tuition, so she deferred her enrollment. I applied to the English programs at the same schools. In October, Sumire started calling me in the early afternoons, which was three or four in the morning in Tokyo. She hadn’t found a job except as a free-lance interpreter; Mother was planning a formal dinner where Sumire would be introduced to a young man whose father worked with ours. It would be the first stage of an omiai, a marriage arrangement.
“Promise me one thing,” my sister said on the phone. “Don’t come back. I’ll do anything to help you.”
“But what about you?” I asked. “I don’t want to go to graduate school by myself.”
“Do it for me,” she said.
Alone in the efficiency studio I’d moved to, I stared at the white curtains she had sewn the year before for the apartment we had shared with Mitch. My windows now were wider, so the curtains had to be stretched all the way to block out the afternoon sun over my desk. They looked threadbare, but still, they did the job--turning the harsh light into milky white shapes like the rectangles in Rothko paintings.
The man she was introduced to was the third son of his family, willing to take our family name and save it from dying out with Sumire and me. Sumire was married to him in April. She didn’t want me to attend the wedding. Instead, she sent me the money she’d saved so I could move to Milwaukee and pay the first few months’ rent before my graduate fellowship came through. I married a man I met there and stayed on--I became a prodigal daughter, never exactly forgiven, but grudgingly accepted the few times I came home with my husband and children for short visits. When I saw Sumire with her husband, who nodded curtly as she set a cup of tea in front of him, who didn’t say a word during dinner and left the table to read the paper alone, I knew what she had saved me from. Our parents had not demanded my return because Sumire had obeyed them: because of her sacrifice, they could afford to be lenient with me.
And what about Mitch? On the day my sister left, she and Mitch stood by the windows at O’Hare, kissing with a kind of desperation until the waiting area was empty and the gate agent announced the last call for boarding. They clutched each other’s hand even while she was giving her boarding pass to the agent. Sumire walked backwards till the chute curved and we couldn’t see her any more. Mitch and I watched the plane take off before I drove us back to Madison. He was in no shape to drive in the heavy traffic around the airport, his eyes swollen from crying.
They’d been together for two years. He was going to visit her at Christmas. Surely by then, my sister said, she’d have found the right time to tell our parents she had a boyfriend and she intended to live with him while she attended graduate school in the States. Mitch had another year left at college. The following summer after he and I graduated, the two of us would move and wait for her to join us. That was the plan.
He spent the summer working as a camp counselor in Northern Wisconsin. In the fall, he took a semester off and traveled out West with friends he’d met there. By the time he returned in January, Sumire was engaged. She no longer talked about him. The few times I saw Mitch at school, he asked after my sister, but without urgency; he didn’t mention the plans we’d made. We lost touch once I moved out of town.
Two years later, I thought of him. A month away from finishing my master’s in English, I was living with Jake. I had a predicament: when I finished my degree, my student visa would expire. Though I’d been offered a job in the publicity department of a small museum an hour north, the museum would first have to prove that I was the best candidate out of many. In the meantime, I would have to go back to Japan and wait, though there was no guarantee that a work visa would be issued. I’d been consulting the legal aid clinic at school without much success. One morning over breakfast, Jake said, “Listen, maybe we should just get married.”
He’d made scrambled eggs, which I’d been stirring around on my plate without eating. I put down my fork and shook my head. “I don’t think so,” I said. “What if things didn’t work out and we had to get divorced? I’d feel so bad knowing that we got married because of my visa problem.”
“Why would you assume that was the only reason?”
“We’d have gotten married sooner or later,” he said. “Maybe we’d have lived together another year first, but we’d have been married in the end.”
“Are you proposing to me?” I asked, trying to make it sound like a joke. I hadn’t assumed that we would be together past that summer. If I’d gotten the work visa, I might have moved north to be near the museum.
“I am,” he said. “I think we should get married.”
“What if it didn’t work out?” I asked again.
He picked up his tea cup and looked into it as though he were reading our fortune, but for him, this was no joke. “If we have to go our separate ways someday,” he said, “I’ll still know that I was able to do this one good thing for you.”
He reached across the table. As I put my hand, palm down, over his, I remembered Mitch and Sumire at our kitchen table in Madison. She used to sit so close to him that their hair touched. If he had asked her to marry him, she would have said yes. She would have disobeyed our parents, stayed on, and found a way to make sure that I didn’t have to go back. Back then, Mitch had wanted to become a meteorologist, but after failing his physics class twice, he changed his major to marketing. As I sat holding hands with Jake, I thought of Mitch as a man who had failed to become a meteorologist, a quack in the world of weather.
When I saw Mitch again, I was standing on the front lawn of Jake’s and my house in Milwaukee, watching the kids’ balloon toss out on the street. Our neighborhood was having the annual block party; it was August, a warm, sunny morning. Our daughter, Sue, had dropped her balloon on the second round. Now, she was on the side line, cheering for her older brother, who was on one of the two teams left in the competition. He and his partner, Sam, took three steps back. Sam tossed their yellow water balloon high into the air and Max caught it, solid but soft-palmed, to everyone’s applause.
As the other team took their three steps back, I glanced down the street in the opposite direction, where I heard car doors being shut. The two successive noises had made me jump. A man and a woman were walking away from a small blue car, the woman holding a Tupperware bowl. Our street had been barricaded for six blocks, and my house was in the first of those blocks. The man and the woman had parked their car a few feet from the three orange cones. One of them must not like to walk, I thought. I noticed her red high-heeled sandals, before I knew who the man was. It had been twenty years since college, but I recognized Mitch’s walk--loose-limbed, shuffling a little. He wore his dark hair in a pony tail, exactly as he used to do. He had on a cobalt blue t-shirt and a pair of white shorts with lime green stripes; his socks were black, as were his cross-training shoes with red laces. Mitch had always dressed with a wild flare, striving for a calculated chaos. He had been updated, not changed.
“Mitch,” I called and waved.
He stopped and squinted.
“Hey, Mitch,” I said again.
“Sue?” he said, using the name he called my sister by.
“What?” my daughter said from behind me.
“He doesn’t mean you,” I turned back to tell her. Just at that moment, Max tossed his balloon to Sam. Sam caught it hard and the balloon busted with a big splat, spraying his chest and face with water. Max shrugged, laughed, and went to sit down next to his sister. I turned back to Mitch.
“No, it’s me,” I said. “Akiko.” My sister and I looked enough alike to be mistaken for twins, though we weren’t so similar in personality. While she played tennis and took modern dance lessons, I went out for field hockey and track, held our high school’s record for the discus-throw, and would have learned to pole-vault if our mother hadn’t absolutely forbidden me to, for fear that I would break my neck. My sister had been named after a spring flower--violets--while my name meant “autumn.”
“Oh, my God.” Mitch’s voice sounded oddly flat.
I stepped forward to hug him. All three of us used to be very thin. While I’d gotten even thinner, Mitch had gained a little weight so he was almost average. His solid shoulders made me feel fragile in comparison. The blue linen dress I was wearing, with a long skirt and a pair of pockets, suddenly seemed prim. It was more the kind of thing Sumire might have worn.
His friend had short blond hair cut to frame her pointed chin; her white tank top and black shorts showed off er muscular arms and thick, well-shaped legs. Mitch placed his hand on her shoulder and gave her a half-hug. “This is Karen,” he said to me. “Her best friend lives over there.” He pointed down the street, in the direction of the tents where some of the men were cooking on grills.
“My friend and her boyfriend just moved here last month,” Karen said. “You probably don’t know them.”
“Maybe I will, after today,” I said.
“So,” Mitch said to Karen. “This is Akiko. We went to college together in Madison, she and her sister and me. We hung out a lot.”
I waited for him to say more but he didn’t. I extended my hand toward Karen, who took it, but only after shifting that bowl in her other arm to indicate--I thought--that it was getting heavy and she was tired of standing. As we shook hands, I said, “My sister’s name was Sumire.”
No one seemed to notice that small word, was. I said nothing more. I was annoyed by the way Karen had shifted that bowl, and by Mitch’s pretense that the three of us had simply been friends. I pictured Mitch and Sumire kissing by the windows at O’Hare. They were one fluid line bending together from their hips to their shoulders, ending in a kiss. I wondered then if I would ever kiss anyone like that. I almost didn’t hear Mitch when he cleared his throat and asked, “So how is your sister?”
“Fine,” I replied before I could stop myself. “She got married and had two kids. They’re almost grown now,” I told him as though I could take back the lie by adding some truth to it. Sumire had died in February from cancer. She was forty-two. I’d gone to Tokyo to be with her, leaving my husband and children and taking an indefinite leave from my job at the museum. When I saw Mitch, I hadn’t gone back to work yet, though everyone else had moved on. Sumire’s husband had reclaimed his original family name and married a woman he had been seeing for several years. The boys--nineteen and seventeen--lived with my parents in Tokyo, but one was already in college. It wouldn’t be long before they got married and moved away.
Mitch said, “So you must hear from her regularly.”
“Of course,” I answered. “We talk all the time. You know how close we always were.” Once you embark on a lie, there is no turning back. I was already inventing a story about Sumire’s last phone call, only a few days ago. It was hot and humid in Tokyo; she was growing morning glories and sunflowers in her garden. I would have told this lie, but we were interrupted by my daughter, who came running toward us.
“This is my daughter Sue,” I said to Mitch. “Sumiko. But we call her Sue.”
My daughter, ever polite at age ten, stuck her hand out and shook first with Mitch and then with Karen. Then she nodded and smiled at me. Sue has two dimples just like my sister did. Mine are lop-sided, a dimple on the right and just a line on the left. The perfect dimples I missed out on had appeared on my daughter’s face.
As I bent down to straighten Sue’s pony tail, I caught the look in Mitch’s brown eyes, which were wide open and full of sadness. He no longer had his arm around Karen--he’d had to let go to shake my daughter’s hand.
“Do you mind if we go down to Linda’s house now?” Karen said. “She’s been waiting for us all morning.”
“Oh, of course,” Mitch said, putting his arm back around her. “We’ll talk later,” he said to me as he walked away.
Sue and I went into the garage to get her bicycle, decorated with pink and white streamers for the parade. On the pink wicker basket hanging from the handlebars were the stick-on seals of Japanese cartoon characters that I’d sent her from Tokyo last December. The kids’ parade was supposed to start at noon, shortly before the food would be served in the tents. We had about fifteen minutes.
“Tommie and Jennifer are wearing their Halloween costumes,” Sue said as she wheeled her bicycle away from the wall.
“But it’s only August. Why do they already have their costumes?”
She shrugged. “They’re wearing last year’s.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw them. I remembered.”
“You have a good memory.” I couldn’t recall what my own children had worn for Halloween last year, a week before I left. “Did you want to wear your costume, too?” I asked. “Maybe we can still find it.”
“Nah,” my daughter shook her head. “That’s okay. I don’t really care.”
She was letting me off the hook. I would never be able to find her costume.
“Are you coming to the parade or what?” she asked me.
“Or not,” I corrected her without thinking. I had not wanted to become the kind of mother who nagged her children about grammar. My mother still corrected me over the phone, scolding me for forgetting my Japanese. For years, the only person from home I spoke to every week had been Sumire, and we spoke to each other in English.
“So?” my daughter prompted me.
“Yes, of course,” I told her. “You go on first, though. I’ll be there soon.”
Sue hopped on the bike and rode out of the garage without looking back.
People had moved down to the opposite end of the blocked-off area. My husband was in one of the two tents there, roasting corn on our neighbor’s gas grill. I was supposed to bring him some butter.
Our house was cool and quiet. After I put the butter in the microwave and set the timer, I went into the hallway where our telephone was. Taking out a pre-paid phone card from my pocket, I dialed--first the eight hundred number, then a long-distance number up-State. The phone rang five, six times in the house on the lake shore, seventy miles north in a small town on a bluff. The town would have been a popular tourist spot if it had been half that distance from Milwaukee or else much farther north. As it was, it was an in-between place off the interstate, desolate in the winter, quiet even in the summer. But I had seen the water in all its seasons from the large windows of the upstairs. I could picture its exact shade as I listened to Dale’s recorded voice: “You’ve reached Dale Erickson’s home and office. Please leave a message.”
I hung up and tried the cell phone. Again, a recording came on, but this time, his voice sounded softer, and the pitch was different though I could never tell if it was higher or lower. Like the way he looked at me, his grey eyes aimed right into mine, his voice seemed both familiar and surprising every time. “Good morning, Akiko,” the message said. “If I don’t pick up, it’s because I’m running. It’s a beautiful day out here. I wish you could come out. I miss you.” I was the only person who had his cell phone number. Every day for the last two years, I had called and heard his voice catching and wavering when he said my name.
“I miss you, too,” I said. “It’s almost noon. I’m going to watch the kids’ parade at the block party. I’ll call you later.”
I slipped the phone card back into my pocket and stepped out of the house carrying the butter poured into two coffee cans, my hands protected inside the padded oven mitts. To anyone who saw me walking down the street, I would look like any woman in the neighborhood except for my coloring. Even before I met Dale, I had always felt like a double agent. Talking to my neighbors about the weather, about my children, or about my job, I would suddenly panic because I wasn’t telling the whole truth. There was so much I kept hidden. I didn’t mention my parents in Tokyo, my sister married to a man who seldom spoke to her. I let everyone assume that my family lived nearby, that it hadn’t taken Sumire’s sacrifice and Jake’s generosity to keep me here. All my adult life, I had been learning how to pretend.
It was almost a relief to have an actual secret. Dale and I met when I asked him to design the brochures for the museum. He was living in his childhood house on the lake and working as a free-lance graphic designer; he’d come back from Minneapolis to care for his father instead of putting him in a nursing home. A few months before we met, his father had passed away, leaving him the house, but leaving half of everything else to a woman who lived in Arizona with her college-age son. His father had been seeing her for twenty-five years. The mathematics of the situation drove Dale crazy for a while. The woman’s son would have been born while Dale was in college. He might or might not be Dale’s half-brother. “It shouldn’t matter,” he told me. “My mother’s been dead the last three years. I only hope she never knew about it.”
He didn’t tell me any of this on the afternoon I drove out to pick up the first brochure. We kept meeting, first for coffee or lunch, and then later, at his house in the late afternoons. Sometimes, we went to the small town down the hill and sat side by side in a corner booth of a diner, holding hands. No one would know me there. The waitress refilled our coffee cups and left us alone. That small town was like a place I often recognize in a dream, a kind of refuge. I also loved stepping into his sparsely furnished house. Every afternoon when I came by, he pulled me into the house and held me. We couldn’t stop kissing as we walked through the foyer, across the big downstairs room with a few plants, then up the stairs into his bedroom. By the time we lay down on his bed, I had kissed him more times than I’d ever kissed anyone in a whole year.
We didn’t talk about my leaving Jake and the children. The life I knew with them was the only one that made sense to me, and nothing could change that. For Dale--perhaps for him, loving me was a way of forgiving his father. We were, both of us, beginning to understand something. Love is an out-of-body experience. Our minds float up to places our bodies can seldom follow.
Jake was taking the second batch of corn from the bucket where the cobs had been soaking in water. The first batch, already roasted, had been piled on a platter, and about fifteen people were lined up. A big white apron over his t-shirt and jeans, he was dressed like a cook at a college cafeteria. His ruddy face looked redder from the heat, and his hair had white streaks--from the sun or from age, he couldn’t tell himself.
“Sorry it took so long,” I said.
“No, your timing’s perfect.” He took the cans from me, bare-handed, and set them on the table. Removing my oven mitts, I handed them to him.
“I hope I didn’t miss the kids’ parade,” I said.
“You didn’t. They’re still in the cul-de-sac getting organized. I thought I’d serve some corn while we were waiting.”
Two blocks down, kids were standing around, too far away for me to find Sue. As I expected, Max wasn’t going to join the parade this year. He and Sam stood near the end of the corn line, a few places in front of Mitch and Karen. Jake took the corn cobs, peeled them, wrapped paper towel around the bottom, and handed them out. When Max came up for his, Jake said, “Hey.” Max raised one eyebrow and went on dipping his corn into the coffee can. He walked away without a word. Only a few years ago, he would have trailed us, wanting to show us a feather or a pebble he found on the ground, asking us to keep it for him in our pockets.
After all the people in the line had been served, Jake held out a corn cob, wrapped and buttered, but I said, “No, thanks. Maybe later. You go ahead and have that one.”
We stepped away from the grill toward the house behind the tent. Mitch and Karen were standing on the lawn, drinking beer from plastic cups and eating their corn. “I want to introduce you,” I said as Jake and I approached them. Everyone looked up as if in surprise. It was an awkward time for introductions--with beer cups, corn cobs, and greasy hands.
“Jake,” I said. “This is Mitch. And his friend Karen.”
The three of them held up their corn as if that were an agreed upon substitution for a hand-shake.
“And this is my husband Jake,” I added. The two men continued to nod. “I went to college with Mitch,” I said to Jake.
“Oh,” he said, and from the way something changed in his eyes, I knew he was remembering what I’d told him about my sister’s old boyfriend. Jake was too tactful to say, “So you’re that Mitch,” or “You’re the weather guy,” though I knew he was thinking these things. When Mitch looked away, distracted by a yellow jacket hovering near his wrist, Jake touched my elbow with his. I glanced sideways and caught the corner of his mouth, slightly turned up. My mouth turned up a little, too. It was like telepathy. I only had to think to him: “Yeah, that’s the guy.”
Out loud, I said, “Karen’s good friends with the couple who moved into the neighborhood.” I pointed to the green split-level behind us and said, “This house, right?”
“Yeah,” Karen nodded. She was eating her corn in even, skinny rows--two rows at a time all the way from the tip to the stem, then back at the tip to start over. “My girlfriend’s boyfriend, he’s in a band called the Big Noise. Ever heard of them? They play a lot on the east side.”
Jake and I shook our heads. We hadn’t gone out to hear bands in bars for years.
“They’re pretty well-known,” Karen said. “They’ve agreed to play at the wedding.”
“The wedding,” I repeated.
“Ours,” Mitch said. “Karen and I are getting married.”
“But not till June, two years from now,” Karen said. “That’s when I finish my nursing degree. I like to do one thing at a time.” She raised the corn to her mouth and took a small bite, precisely where she’d left off making her two-kernel-wide row. Jake and I murmured our congratulations. She nodded and went on. “We already booked the hall and the photographer. The band’s giving us a discount since Linda’s going to be my maid of honor. She and Rob were friends for years, though they only started dating this March. He moved in with her when she bought this house, but his name’s not on the mortgage. Who knows, in two years, they might have broken up. I made Rob promise, though. His band’s going to play at my wedding and give us that discount even if he’s not sleeping with Linda any more.”
“Wow, talk about thinking ahead,” Jake said. Karen looked at him for a second. Jake smiled and took a bite of his corn.
When everyone was done with their corn, Mitch took Karen’s and held it together with his. He looked into her empty cup and said, “Let me go throw these out and get you another beer.”
“Okay,” she said. Jake and I would have corrected her if she’d been part of our family. Say thank you, we’d have advised, okay is rude.
“I’ll go with you.” I followed Mitch, leaving my husband with the fiancee.
In the beer tent, Mitch tossed the corn cobs in the trash, took a plastic cup, and siphoned some beer into it.
“One for you?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” I said. I was standing behind him.
“How about for your husband?”
“Yeah, maybe. Thanks.” I took the cup and waited while he filled two more. I needed to tell him about my sister’s death. If he was going to marry a woman whose best friend lived down the street, I was bound to run into him again. It wasn’t a lie I could keep up indefinitely.
But when we started walking back to the other tent, I said instead, “I didn’t know you lived in Milwaukee.”
“I don’t. I live and work in Menominee Falls,” he said, mentioning a small town to the west. “I’ve been there since I graduated from college.” He paused, but neither of us knew what to do with this sudden reference to our time together. “Karen lives here with her parents, on the south side.”
“What do you do in Menominee Falls?” I asked.
“I import things.”
He stopped walking for a moment, so I stopped, too. We were halfway between the two tents. “You know those vending machines in restaurants? You put a quarter in, turn the knob, and get a little prize inside a plastic bubble?”
“Those machines for kids, you mean? They have little toys or trinkets?”
“Yeah,” Mitch nodded. “I import those.”
“No, the machines are made here. I import the stuff they put in them.”
We started walking again. My daughter asked for a quarter now and then to try her luck at those machines. She always got the same things--a pink plastic ring too small for her fingers, a lime green pendant on a chain. She wanted the miniature deck of cards nestled inside a clear ball, but there was only one of those and it never came tumbling down the chute.
“So where do those toys come from?” I asked Mitch.
“Korea, mostly, and Hong Kong.” He smiled. “When we were kids, they’d have been made in Japan.”
We had ten steps to take together. I needed to turn the conversation to my sister so I could tell him the truth, but nothing helpful came to my mind. I was thinking of the afternoon Sumire decided to open the cloth amulet bag her son had bought for her at a temple to protect her health. She’d been wearing it around her neck for six months and never looked inside.
“Did you ever wonder what was inside these things?” she asked as I sat in a chair by her bed in our parents’ guest room. Since she had returned from the hospital the summer before, she’d been staying in that room, and her sons, too, were living at our parents’. She took off the bag and held it in her hand. It was made of woven silk, gold and brown, with the name of the temple and the words “health” and “prosperity” stitched in black. We saw many amulets like this carried in people’s pockets or purses, or dangling from the rearview mirrors of cars. We couldn’t remember who had told us that it was bad luck to open them and look inside.
“I’m going to open this,” Sumire said.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” I asked.
She smiled. “You’re not superstitious, are you?”
“Of course not. But maybe Taro would be upset.”
“We won’t tell him. This is just between you and me.” Her children were at school, our father was at work, and our mother had gone to the store. We were alone, with the sun coming in through the windows. The light reminded me of the afternoons long ago when the two of us were home from school with the measles or mumps. “I’m curious,” Sumire said. “So why not find out? It’s always the things I didn’t do that bother me later, not those I did.”
The bag had small eyelets with a drawstring through them to hold it shut. Carefully, my sister untied the string; then she held the bag upside down over her palm and held out her hand to me. On her narrow palm was a small aluminum disk with an image stamped on it. We leaned forward for a closer look. The image was that of Kannon, the most merciful manifestation of the Buddha spirit, portrayed with her many arms to minister to the sick and the suffering. The disk was small and thin as a throat lozenge. Sumire slipped it back into the bag, drew the string tight, and patted the bag as though it contained something small, tender, and living. I sat down on the edge of the bed and put my arms around her shoulders. We sat like that for a long time.
In just a few steps, Mitch and I would be back to where we had started. Jake had returned behind the grill and Karen was talking with a man and a woman. “Mitch,” I said, wanting to put my hand gently on his shoulder and tell him the truth. But when he turned back to me with a smile, the two beers sloshing a little in his hands, I pictured the trinkets inside the vending machines. In my mind, each plastic ball contained a shiny coin stamped with a deity. Like the balloons floating next to people’s heads in cartoons, they were bubbles of our foolish wishes, our useless hankering after miracles and good luck. Mitch was still smiling at me. “It’s good to see you again,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “I do often think of the old times.”
In a few seconds, we were standing next to the group on the lawn and Mitch was introducing me to Linda and Rob. I excused myself and walked into the tent to hand the beer to Jake. He leaned against me, letting our shoulders touch.
“That Mitch,” he whispered into my ear. “He made a big, big mistake. That woman can’t hold a candle to your sister.”
“I know,” I whispered back. Jake had only met Sumire three times, when we went to Japan together. For years, I had wanted my sister to visit me; she could have brought her children and stayed the entire summer. But her husband wouldn’t let her come even for a week. He could not be expected to keep house on his own like a bachelor.
“Your sister was a wonderful person,” Jake said. “Mitch missed out big time.”
I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure. If Mitch had married Sumire, she would still be dead now and he would be alone. I didn’t believe that cancer is caused by unhappiness--if it were, Sumire would have been dead twenty years ago instead of just that year. I couldn’t decide which would be worse--to be married to someone for twenty years and then to lose her or to have been alone all along. Jake took a long drink from his beer. Mitch, Karen, Linda, and Rob stood on the lawn with their backs to us. I swatted at the yellow jacket hovering at Jake’s elbow.
Down the street, there was a loud cheer. The kids were coming down toward the tents, some on their bikes, others running alongside. There must have been thirty of them. A third were in last year’s Halloween costumes--black capes and orange pumpkins and animal suits--and the rest were in all manner of summer clothing. There was no theme to the parade except this: everyone looked so happy. Jake and I started whistling and screaming.
“Hey, Sue!” I yelled as our daughter rode by.
A few steps past the tents, the parade dissolved, kids scattering in different directions. Tears were welling up in my eyes. Sumire would never again see my children. I tried to look away so Jake would not notice, but it was too late.
“Oh, Akiko,” he said, putting his arms around me. “You’re going to be all right.”
I hugged him back and watched Sue running toward us--her bike left on its side in the middle of the street with the wheels spinning.
People began to line up for the second batch of corn. The roll of paper towel was getting smaller. “Shall I get more paper towel?” I asked Jake.
I walked in the direction of our house, but stopped at the first house where the front door was open. “Hello,” I called. “Is anyone home?” There was no answer. The house belonged to a childless couple my age. I didn’t know them well, but people in our neighborhood walked in and out of each other’s houses during parties. I went through the living room into the small kitchen with blue tiles.
The paper towel on the wooden rack had designs of blue geese. Someone had washed the dishes in the morning and left a dozen wine glasses, meticulously dried, polished, and turned upside down on the counter. The arrangement reminded me of the displays at the museum: the domed glass we placed over watches and jewelry, which made even the air underneath look protected and important. A black cat came out of nowhere and disappeared behind a door left a crack open, its footsteps thumping down the steps. I opened the door all the way. The house was laid out like ours. Even the light switch was in the same spot on the wall.
Down in the basement was a rec room, with a ping-pong table in the middle and a weight bench in the corner, tiny windows high up on the wall. Against one wall was a plaid couch, brown and cream, from someone’s college days. The cat was nowhere to be seen, but that’s the way with cats. They know how to disappear.
Low to the floor with its springs shot, the couch sagged further when I sat down. A wooden crate was turned upside down, used as an end table, with a telephone on top. Behind the weight bench, the walls were lined with shelves made of plywood and cinder blocks. The books on them had the kind of hard covers textbooks always have, glossy and thick, ready to withstand semesters of being carried around in battered backpacks. The subjects ranged from U. S. Government to Algebra. The basement was nothing like the upstairs with the blue geese marching down the sheets of paper towel, the wine glasses meticulously washed, the blue tiles, the living room furniture in the solid mission style. For some people, going back to the past must be as easy as descending a flight of stairs and plopping down on an old couch from the college dorm. I closed my eyes. My husband was outside behind the grill, my children sitting on the grass with plates full of food, our neighbors drinking beer and talking. They were all I had. The past was no refuge.
Opening my eyes, I took out my phone card, reached for the phone, and dialled Dale’s number. He answered on the second ring.
“Hi, I’m at the block party,” I said. “Well, actually, I’m sitting in someone’s basement. I came here to get some paper towel and ended up in the basement, calling you. It’s crazy.”
“Akiko,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about you all morning. Are you all right?”
“I don’t know,” I paused, and the next thing I said came out with a small catch in my voice that was full of misery. “I miss you. I wish you were here.”
“Me, too,” he said, his voice low and soft. I wanted to lean forward as if he were right next to me. “I want to sit on that couch with you and hold you.”
“That would be nice,” I said.
“I wish you’d let me be with you. I’d try so hard to make you happy.”
“You already make me happy.”
There was a long pause. For two years, we had talked like this, our voices intertwining in longing. I imagined us walking together on a cliff, circling toward the edge and then retreating. In the middle, there was a moment when we looked down at the empty space that opened up below us. We could almost feel the air rising toward us, calling us to step forward. Falling would be a sweet relief. But I always said something to bring us cautiously circling back to safety, and he followed me.
“You do make me happy,” I said again.
Dale sighed. Then instead of letting me say something more, he said, “But I want to make you happy for more than a few hours at a time. I don’t want to be your secret for the rest of my life.”
I held the phone to my ear and stared at the small windows high on the wall. They had no drapes, so I could see the ground cover planted against the house. In the small house where she lived with her husband and children, Sumire had dug out two narrow side yards, one of which got no sun at all. The soil was poor, full of stones. She had coaxed wild violets--her name sake--to take root there, blooming every spring with two kinds of flowers: tiny blue faces with bright yellow lines, white cups streaked with ink-blue veins.
Holding the phone and saying nothing now, I thought of the first time Dale and I had gone to the diner down the hill. The waitress had set our menus and silverware opposite each other, one on each side of the booth, but Dale smiled at her and said, “No. I want to sit next to her.” He slid into the booth after me and wrapped his arm around me. We sat close, my cheek resting against his shoulder. He lifted my leg gently over his so that our legs were hooked together knee to knee, my skirt draped over his jeans. Then we began to kiss. No one had ever wanted to sit so close to me in a public place and kiss me as though we were alone. The whole thing made me happy but also enormously sad.
“I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time,” Dale was saying. “We can’t go on like this.”
I wanted to tell him how happy I was when he put his arm around me at the diner. But our happiness was like the air under the cliff, calling me to fall. I said, my tone determined and hurtful, “Please. Don’t say that.”
“Akiko.” His voice plummeted through the syllables of my name.
“If you keep saying what you just said, I won’t be able to see you.” When he didn’t respond, I added, “I’m sorry. Can we talk about something else? I don’t want to hang up like this.”
For ten minutes, maybe more, we went on talking. I told him about running into Mitch, how I couldn’t tell him about my sister’s death. He talked about his ten-mile run--he was breathing in and out, in and out, thinking of my name with each breath. “I’ve never loved anyone like this,” he said.
That was true for me, too. Years ago, when Jake and I had just met, I did not wake up alone in my apartment longing to be with him, remembering a particular way in which he had looked at me or said my name. I did not daydream about holding hands with him or making love to him. Occasionally, I might remember a humorous comment he made or a kind thing he did. Then or later, it was a simple comfort to think of Jake. Thinking of Dale was something entirely different--he made me happier and sadder than I ever wanted to be. There was no comfort in it.
Outside, the party was in full swing, with food and beer everywhere. Some people were sitting on the grass, others in the middle of the street, and several old neighbors were seated at card tables on someone’s lawn. I put the paper towel next to the old roll, which was almost but not quite gone. Jake was sitting alone on the grass with a beer and a plate.
“Sorry I was gone so long,” I said as I sat down next to him.
“Are you all right?” he asked, frowning.
I must have been gone twenty minutes. “I didn’t feel well,” I said. “I sat down on a couch in the Curtises’ basement and closed my eyes for a while. No one was home.”
“You sat on their couch and closed your eyes?”
“Yes,” I said. “What was I supposed to do? Call 911?”
“Hey,” Jake said. “I didn’t mean it as an accusation. There’s no need to be upset.”
He sighed. “Do you want something to eat?” His plate had a half-eaten hamburger, piles of cole slaw and jello melting together, two sticks of celery.
“How about something to drink? They have mineral water in the cooler in the beer tent.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll go get you some.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, but he was already standing up.
“Thanks,” I called after him. Halfway to the tent, one of the neighbors was stopping him and beginning to talk. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t thirsty.
In a few minutes, Mitch and Karen came walking toward me, hand in hand. I stood up.
“You’re not leaving already, are you?” I asked.
“Yeah, we have to go,” Mitch said.
“My mom’s having a pool party,” Karen explained. “We’re already late.”
“It’s a nice day for swimming,” I said. “This has been a good summer.”
“Yeah, El Nino’s around,” Karen said.
“No.” Mitch shook his head. “El Nino was for last winter, and that weather trend was over by April. We just happened to get a nice summer following a mild winter. The two aren’t necessarily caused by the same thing.”
Karen rolled her eyes and blew her breath through her nostrils.
“Are you still interested in weather?” I asked Mitch. To Karen, I said, “When my sister and I lived with him in Madison, Mitch used to read the weather map to us every morning. He was right most of the time even when his forecast wasn’t the same as what the newspaper said. This guy really knows about weather.”
“You lived together?” Karen said, her eyes wide open and her eyebrows arched.
It was too late to take back what I’d said. I smiled and explained, “Sure we did. All kinds of people shared apartments back then. Mitch and I were just friends.” What I said was true as far as it went. “Anyway, Mitch was interested in weather.”
“I wanted to major in science and become a meteorologist,” he told Karen, “but I struggled through calculus, barely getting a C, and then I failed advanced physics twice. I saw the handwriting on the wall.”
“You wanted to be a weatherman?” Karen began to laugh.
“Well, not necessarily on TV--though I don’t know what’s so funny about that.”
“Oh, come on,” she rolled her eyes. “Weathermen are tacky. They’re the nerdiest people on any news team. Like Chuck Spelinski. I swear that guy wears a toupee.”
“Those weather guys on TV,” Mitch said, “like Spelinski? Most of them aren’t certified meteorologists. They’re just communication majors who read the script. They know nothing.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what makes them nerdy. Besides, it’s not like you know everything.”
“I never said I did,” he said, his voice quiet but firm. “I’m just saying that I know about weather.”
They stared at each other. Neither of them spoke.
“Weather is so interesting,” I said, smiling first to Karen and then to Mitch. “Do you still like to look at weather maps?”
He nodded. “Not like I used to, but yeah. All that stuff’s on the internet now. Some mornings when I come into my office, I turn on my computer and spend a few minutes downloading the weather map. I know when a storm’s coming or the temperature’s about to take a nose dive. Things change so fast in the atmosphere. That still fascinates me.”
“I’m glad,” I said. Our eyes met. My sister used to love his dark brown eyes; she thought they looked so gentle. Those eyes were still following the weather map, tracing the sudden, dangerous changes in the atmosphere. A few feet from where we stood, hostas were beginning to bloom on the edge of the lawn, begonias overflowing the planters by the door. In a month, weathermen would advise us to cover our plants with bed sheets to protect them from the first frost--even though in two, three weeks, every tomato on the vine would turn into a shriveled ball, every marigold or petunia snapped at the stem. Mitch would have understood why I couldn’t tell him the truth.
Karen shifted her weight and sighed. My husband was coming up with a can of mineral water for me.
“I’m sorry I got side-tracked,” he said.
“That’s okay,” I said, taking the can from him. “Thanks a lot.”
“Well,” Mitch said. “See you again soon, I hope.”
“Sure,” Jake said. “Nice meeting you.”
“You ready to go?” Mitch said to Karen.
“I’ve been ready,” she said.
He shrugged and started walking so she had to follow. After a few steps, he glanced back and called over his shoulder to me. “Say hi to Sue for me, next time you guys talk.”
“Sure thing,” I called back. “You can count on it.” I lifted the can of water to my face and pressed my cheek against it.
“What was that about?” Jake asked.
My neighbors, clustered on the lawns and the streets, seemed so far away. Max and Sue were sitting with some other children. Jake was leaning close, his ruddy face creased around the eyebrows. He laid his large hand on my shoulder.
Across the street on the lawn, someone had set a bottle of sugar water to attract the yellow jackets away from the food. Five or six of them were slowly crawling into the narrow bottle neck while a dozen more buzzed on the grass nearby, and a few were already inside the glass, drowning in sweetness.
Jake was waiting for me to speak. But I stood watching the yellow jackets and thinking of Mitch’s vending machines. The inside of each machine was like the universe gone crazy, with so many little planets jumbled together. Every time someone put in a quarter and turned the knob, the whole universe shook, causing the planets to pitch, knock, and crash into one another, before one of them came shooting down. For just a second in that universe inside the machine, it would feel like a hailstorm of cataclysmic proportions.
One winter in Madison, Sumire and I were driving back from a friend’s house out in the country, when we heard a loud thunderclap. Lightning streaked across the sky though it was March. It began to rain, then snow--for ten minutes, we drove through hard snow that looked like pieces of styrofoam. We were twenty miles from the city limits when snow turned to hail. The noise it made, hitting the roof of our car, made me clutch the seat. Sumire was behind the wheel. Her eyes on the road, she kept driving while the blacktop in front of us scattered with pellets of ice like broken glass. There was no place to stop; the road cut through snow-covered fields, miles and miles of flat plain. It must have been a few weeks before Sumire knew Mitch; that drive was one of the first things she would tell him about, at the party where we met him. Maybe the story made Mitch notice her in a room full of people--her voice rising and falling with the modulations of weather. But in the car that afternoon, all I could think of was how lucky we were that she was driving. My sister had something that was more than poise. She didn’t jump at every small noise the way I did, my heart beating hard and blood rushing to my face. She was quieter and stronger than I could ever be. Jake tightened his hold on my shoulder and drew me closer, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the plastic bubbles crowded inside the vending machine. I imagined thousands of them coming down. They would make the same sound hail made above our heads that afternoon: like broken-up planets hurtling down from the sky.