That day I had gone to fetch my mail down the driveway when I found my neighbor’s letter in the mailbox. So, I walked to the house next door to give the letter erroneously placed in our box. When I rang the bell, I noticed through the glass panel, a young boy in shorts and short hair descending the stairs to open the door. I was mistaken. A lady instead opened the door and introduced herself to me when I handed her the letter and explained about the mishap.
“I am Michiko Mizutani,” she said.
“I am Reena,” I said. “Reena Bora, your next-door neighbor.”
“Hajime Mashte pleased to meet you. Come in, please, I’ll make some tea?” she said, making an inquiry of a statement, in the way we Asians sometimes seem to speak.
I, delighted in the chance meeting with my gracious Japanese neighbor, followed her inside the house. Taking my shoes off to slide into the guest slippers, I had an urgent feeling, the kind only gut and instinct were capable of ensuring, that I was at the beginning of an incredible journey. It was no secret that I was steeped in Japonisme for a while.
“Are you from America?” said Michiko.
“Yes, I am,” I said. “But I came from India to be an American. My husband is a professor here.”
“Good. Very good. I come from Japan. I join my husband here. He works for Sony.”
I knew about her husband as one of the guys who lived in that house for almost five or six months before the arrival of the wife from Japan a month ago. I could see from my kitchen sink the men drinking beer on the deck, chatting and laughing as if the house were a chummery for the company employees.
Michiko got up, apologizing and running in small steps, to put the kettle on the stove. My gaze scanned the surroundings. The room was sparsely decorated with plants, and groupings of a Native American ceramic collection.
“These are so beautiful, Michiko,” I said, pointing at them.
“Wherever I travel, I look for them. I want to buy pieces from all the different tribes.” A golf bag stood at the corner of the hallway in readiness.
Michiko brought tea and cookies for both of us and I suddenly realized that even though I mistook her for a young boy at first, she could have been an older woman, much older, for her two sons, she told me, had already got admitted to Adams High School that morning, alma mater of Madonna. I had no children.
“Do you work, Reena?”
“Only part-time, at the university. I am pursuing a PhD in Asian Art History. Japanese Art fascinates me.”
“Then you must know more about Japan than me,” said Michiko, smiling.
“I know only a little about your art, but I love your gardens too, and Zen aesthetics enthrall me.”
“We’ll be good friends, then. I’ll show you Japan when you visit and be your guide.”
“Thank you. I’ll appreciate that very much. But now let me introduce you to our city.”
After tea, I took leave of my new neighbor and offered to take her to the library the next day so that she could get familiar with our town, and the community. Of course, she knew many Japanese people in that northern Michigan suburb, but when I offered to drive her to the library she gasped with visible delight.
The next day I pulled into Michiko’s driveway. She came out immediately, as if she had been waiting for me for a long time. She wore a knee-length dress in a dark-blue and burnt- orange flowery print that matched the fall colors of the Michigan autumn. A navy-blue cardigan completed the ensemble over her supple body.
“Let’s go to the library first, and then to the Old Cider Mill Park and enjoy some fall colors and hot cider.”
“I’d love that, Reena. Arigato, thank you.”
Michiko smiled with glee entering the library. Taking in the vibrant atmosphere of the library she said, “Do you come here often, Reena?”
“For my course work I usually go to the university one, but I love the hustle and bustle of this place and love the different kinds of people making use of this lovely space, the old, the very young and the people in between,” I said.
“That’s wonderful. I will come here many, many times,” she said.
“Let’s get you registered so that you may borrow some books today.”
“You’re so kind, Reena. Domo Arigato. Arigato gozaimas. Thank you, thank you.”
“No problem, Michiko.”
“Oh, that’s an American expression. It’s like when the English say, no mention, when you say thank you.”
“Umm. I think I’ll just take only American English class, eh? I am also volunteering at the hospital. I make good origami. I can teach origami to children too.”
“You may be able to teach them here at the library itself. Let’s go find out from the lady at the desk.”
Loaded with books afterwards, Michiko and I drove down to the Cider Mill Park. We walked and admired the colors of the leaves that Michiko’s outfit mimicked so well. When we drank the freshly pressed hot cider, she thanked me again and again for giving her the rare experience.
Soon Michiko got busy with volunteering at the hospital and teaching origami at the library. At other times, she went out with her Japanese friends. Sometimes she and I got together at each other’s houses for tea and conversation.
One spring afternoon Michiko came not with her usual bubbly self but with a frown on her face and eyes that looked far away. Detecting something serious, I hurried to brew up her favorite Assam orthodox tea and sat down beside her while the water boiled in the kettle atop the stove.
Michiko sat crossing and cradling her arms in front of her. Her eyes stared at the ceiling above. Her legs stretched out, crossing at the ankles.
“My husband is again leaving for the golf meet in Tennessee. My sons are busy with their baseball games and school events. And I have nothing to do and nowhere to go,” she whined.
“You know what? My husband also took off for India. I have to work on my research, but not all of the time.”
“Then, let’s go somewhere. But where?”
” Mackinac Island? Toronto? Niagara Falls?”
“No. Let’s make a long journey. How about Las Vegas?”
“Are you serious?”
“Why not? You give me the guts to try,” said Michiko.
I couldn’t let my friend’s faith in me waste away. “So,” I said, “When do you want to go?”
“Tomorrow,” said Michiko.
Excited by the prospect, it took me no time to make the reservations for a four-day trip to Las Vegas. We had the frequent flier miles that my husband always accumulated and used for his summer trips to India. I decided to steal those miles for my own getaway with Michiko. We would share our expenses and resolved to give ourselves a good time.
As our plane descended Michiko cooed looking down at the strip of the Sin City, from her window seat. “Domo. Domo arigato! Thank you so very much!”
We saw famous landmarks of the world congregate beneath us, appearing as if a child’s diorama project shifted to the desert section. We saw the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, and I imagined being serenaded in the Venetian’s canal later in the evening.
We rented a car and arrived at our hotel just before four o’clock. The clerk said, “The only good room we have left has a king size bed, do you mind”? Michiko and I looked at each other and said in unison, “We don’t.”
As soon as we arrived at our posh room, I made myself some coffee and pored through the brochures, but Michiko just made a phone call and started speaking rapidly and happily in Japanese. Putting down the phone she said, “Want to see the Elvis Impersonators’ Show? My school friend from Japan is one of the performers and he’ll be happy to arrange for the best seats for us.”
“Really? Why not?” I said, impressed with Michiko’s resourcefulness. “I have never been to such a show in my life.”
“I haven’t either. But my friend said he’d be honored if we go to his show.”
“Let’s go honor him then,” I said.
Michiko and I changed into our Las Vegas clothes, what we thought would be appropriate for Las Vegas. She wore a tight, black, high-collared dress that Yoko Ono would wear, and I put on my black skinny pants with a silver top. We strutted out of our room in our stiletto heels.
When we arrived at the venue of the show, a gentleman came forward and ushered us in. He said Mr. Nieshio had instructed him to spot the two Asian ladies and seat them in the VIP section. Feeling like princesses, we sank down in our opulent chairs.
One by one, the multiple impersonators of the King of Rock and Roll serenaded and swept us off our feet. The audience cheered and clapped and tapped their feet at the rhythm of the oldies. Even though it was not my thing, I enjoyed it all the same because I knew it was a rare experience I wouldn’t have again in my lifetime.
And, then, came Mr. Johnny Nieshio, flamboyantly, crooning My Boy in white Elvis regalia, the sideburn and sunglasses in place. During the rendition, we easily forgot that the man behind the fake Elvis once sat on the same bench as Michiko in school, and I imagined, had bento box lunch of sashimi and sushi wrapped in seaweeds.
Mr. Nieshio was a sensation that night and to our delight he won the prize as the best impersonator of the year. People cheered all around and I could see that Michiko was ecstatic as she jumped up and down and clapped constantly in sheer delight. Nobody would’ve guessed that she had two high school boys back in Michigan or a husband practicing in the picturesque golf-links of Tennessee. Nor, for that matter, that I too had a hubby tending to my aging mother-in-law in India.
Michiko and I went to congratulate Mr. Nieshio. Michiko shook hands and spoke swift Japanese during which the former classmates bowed to each other endless times and then she said in English, “This is my friend Reena. We’re neighbors in Michigan.” I noticed that even though Mr. Nieshio impersonated Elvis flawlessly, he hesitated to speak English.
Feeling like a bone in the kebab at the reunion of old friends, I excused myself and said, “If you want to catch up, I’ll take a cab and go back to the hotel.”
“You stay, Reena, please?” said Michiko.
“No, you two have a lot to talk about. I’ll wait for you at the hotel,” I said.
I knew Michiko wouldn’t need me and I wanted to go back and relax on our first day of our spur-of-the-moment getaway at our own hotel.
At the hotel, I went to the restaurant instead and sat outside by the garden waterfall. I ordered a glass of Chianti and took stock of the last two days, since the time we decided to take the trip to Vegas. Did Michiko know all along that Mr. Nieshio would be here performing? Was this going to be an affair? Were we going to let our respective spouses know about it?
Just then when my dinner arrived, Michiko came trailing behind.
She said, “I knew where to find you. I am starving. What did you order?”
“Just some seafood. I thought you would dine with your friend?” I said.
Michiko sat down opposite me with a thud and gestured the waiter to bring her the menu.
“No, just talking was enough. You have to know when to stop. Dinner is risky. It will mean giving hope which is not what I want,” she said.
After her glass of wine arrived, we clicked our glasses.
“To our friendship and our secret trip,” she said.
“Certainly, to our friendship, but a secret from whom?” I said.
“From our husbands,” she said. “We don’t ask what they do in their trips.”
I saw a flicker of bitterness surface on Michiko’s lips as she said this, but she masked a smile over it. It convinced me that my friend was not ready, yet, to take our friendship to the next level. She said in Japan husbands always combined business and pleasure with their colleagues and the wives took care of themselves too if they found the right opportunity.
Geishas and Comfort Women of the Second World War came to my mind. I said, “Michiko, what do you think of the Comfort Women?”
“You mean from the World War?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Do you approve of it? Is it right?”
“No, it’s not right. How can it be right? But in Japan the male is very powerful. The woman is a servant. You know that, don’t you?”
“How do the women feel?”
“They learn to make adjustments. I don’t know about other Japanese women, but I can tell you with confidence that my husband will not find a comfort woman.”
She then told me how glad she was that I was her friend and bold enough to undertake the journey. Flattery won me over and I became her facilitator of entertainment in the city of temptation for the next three days. It became clear to me what Michiko meant by making adjustments.
“After we finish let’s go dancing before we go to bed,” she said.
“You don’t want to gamble?”
“I don’t like casinos and gambling and I know from knowing you for a year, Reena, you don’t like them too,” she said.
Michiko was certain about that. I was least the gambling type and enjoyed more the shows and the architectural ambiance of the city. We shook our legs with nonchalance at a night club and returned to our hotel room exhausted.
I changed immediately into my pajamas and browsed through the brochures for our next day’s adventure. Michiko went inside the bathroom. When she came out, she had a mask on her face and just a robe on her body. She slipped out of it, naked, and then got under the duvet cover. “I am used to sleeping like this. I hope you don’t mind,” she said turning toward the wall and revealing her back to me. I was stunned. “Michiko, you never told me!” I slipped into the bed, beside her, to admire closely the exquisite piece of art covering the back side of her body. Blooms of pink camellia and magenta peony filled the small back of her waist, just above the swell of her shapely hips, interspersed with green foliage. A pair of grey herons leapt diagonally toward her left shoulder.
“I have read that some of the ukiyo-e woodblock artists were also horoshi, or tattoo artists in the Edo period, but this is modern and so lovely, Michiko.”
She got up to face me. “Thanks, I knew you’d like it,” she said, covering her breasts with the sheet.
“Please lie down. I want to see it again. This is so cool,” I said.
My fingers hovered the horimono’s outlines like a dragonfly. Michiko said, “The horoshi was getting old and not keeping well. So, we flocked to his studio, before he took his art away with him. My husband wears a Hokusai on his back.”
“I must get one when I come to Japan,” I said.
“You surprise me, Reena, what will your people say?”
“What did your people say?”
“They don’t know.”
“Well, my people don’t have to know either, but instead, I would like to shock them and see the expressions on their faces,” I said, and we both laughed.
When we slept with our backs to each other in our own designated spaces a vivid scene from my childhood made a comeback. That summer our aunt had made us sleep with our uncle in the afternoons in the pretext of taking advantage of his outstanding story-telling skills. Slowly the story time with our uncle became a dreaded prospect among the children, and each ran to hide before getting trapped in his net. The uncle’s fingers would scratch our back at first, and then, while cajoling us into the story, linger in spots where it didn’t feel appropriate even at a young age. Another realization saddened us when we grew up. Our aunt was seeking respite from the groping fingers herself by sharing their assault with us. The gust from the remote past surprised me which was nothing beyond tactility; yet, the detachment on the hotel bed further heightened our own sexuality.
In the remaining days, we took in shows, spa treatments, fine-dining and even slot machine gambling, but Michiko insisted that I should not pay, not even for my hotel stay or anything at the sin city. I ended up getting my only free plane ticket from free accumulated miles.
When we returned to Michigan, I was guilt-ridden and crammed with the weight of the surreptitious trip. But when my husband returned, I could not find the right opportunity. Our memorable journey stayed inside me.
One day Michiko called me and said if I could join her for tea in the afternoon. I enjoyed afternoon tea with my neighbor especially on my way back from the university. I bought some croissants on my way.
As we sat down with our steeping cups she said, “We’re going back to Japan in two months. I am going to miss our friendship, Reena.”
“Me too, this is such a surprise, Michiko.”
“I know. My husband is wanted back in Japan. I am so grateful to you Reena, for coming with me to Las Vegas.”
“Don’t be, I enjoyed the trip just the same.”
“Still, I have to tell you something. Remember, the Hokusai horimono that I had said my husband had on his back? It was not true. When I went to get my horimono I didn’t go with my husband but with Nieshio. It’s him who wears the Hokusai and is the father of my son Yasujiro.”
“I don’t know what to say, Michiko.” I felt somewhat betrayed that the Las Vegas trip had much more to do with Nieshio than our friendly getaway.
“Don’t say anything. Life is a journey. You choose what your think is right for you at that moment.”
Then, abruptly changing the subject she said that Yasujiro would stay back and join the University of Michigan and Kenji would finish school and try for Tokyo University next year. Before I could retain the spate of mismatched information doled out by Michiko she spoke again.
“I have a sayonara surprise for you, my friend. My husband’s boss’s wife is a tea master. We are going to honor you with a tea ceremony.”
“I am speechless, Michiko, thank you so much,” I said, dazed, thinking, is she paying me back for enabling her reunion with her ex-lover?
The day of the tea ceremony Michiko and I went to Miyoko’s house in the afternoon. Miyoko, a petite and a slender lady in a lychee-flesh colored kimono greeted us at the door. After we took off our shoes, she gestured us to follow her to the formal living room. Michiko and Miyoko’s friend Keiko were already waiting. Our hostess Miyoko was trained in the Urasenke tradition. Her tea paraphernalia was arranged in order. The Tokonoma, or the focal point, featured a gorgeous bloom of orchid, its hue in a shade of pale pink, blades of green grass anchoring and reminding one the irises under the Yatsuhashi Bridge.
We sat on the floor, our legs folded on our knees, in the yoga pose of vajrasana. My heart felt obliged by the honor but also unnerved with Michiko’s recent pronouncement. Just then Miyoko started the ceremony assisted by Keiko. She un-tucked the shrimp colored handkerchief from the waist of her kimono, folded it ceremoniously, and then, proceeded to wipe the utensil. She poured water into a bowl, swirled it and then discarded it. She wiped the bowl clean and then poured green tea into it. When she whisked it with a wooden whisker in the tranquil ambiance of harmony, purity and respect, it annoyed me momentarily that the tool reminded me of my grandfather’s tattered shaving brush. Finally, she scooped boiling water from the kettle with a bamboo ladle to fill the bowls. After Miyoko passed the bowls of tea to us and Keiko placed the sweets on the side, we bowed and proceeded to drink the tea. Miyoko showed us the right way. She turned the bowl thrice clockwise before drinking it. She did this so that the front of the exquisite bowl faced the guest when she drank from the back side as a sign of respect. After the ritual was over, we all laughed heartily to break free from its rigidity and appreciated the ceremony with a final bow.
Michiko had about a month left in the U.S. when one evening she invited us for dinner at her house on Sunday. My husband and I were greeted by Mr. Mizutani himself at the door. He waited as we changed into house slippers and then he led us into the living room. Michiko and the boys came in greeting and smiling, Michiko wearing an apron, indicating her important culinary work in the kitchen.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bora, we welcome you to a Japanese dinner tonight. Let’s start with some Saki and Michiko’s tempura. Our big boy Yasujiro will play the guitar,” said Mr. Mizutani.
While we sat down around a square coffee table with Mr. Mizutani, Michiko went back to her cooking while Yasujiro strummed the guitar. Michiko kept bringing servings of food and bowls for us. My husband and I ate with both chopsticks and forks. Kenji the younger son helped his mother, sat with us or disappeared for a time. The boys asked many questions about America and the U.S. university system and my husband satisfied them with erudite answers. Between her dishes and cooking Michiko joined us for a while and with each glass of saki we shed a bit more inhibition and talked like old friends.
Mr. Mizutani said, “How long are you married?”
“Five years,” said my husband.
“Not, yet, maybe soon, after Reena defends her dissertation,” said my husband.
“We’re married for twenty years,” he said. “How did you meet?”
“We met in college,” said my husband.
“You must know this. This is interesting. I had a competitor for Michiko’s heart. If Michiko had chosen him, his name was Johnny Nieshio, I would not be sitting here with you today,” said Mr. Mizutani and laughed with gusto.
My husband cupped my waist and gave it a squeeze. I looked up at Michiko who smiled back at me, winking, and stir-frying still some udon for the last of her offerings. From six o’clock to about ten we tasted Michikos’s delicious dishes of exotic food brought to us with fresh bowls and chopsticks. We never moved from the coffee-table, and by then, like Mr. Mizutani we sat on the floor and downed cups after cups of warm saki.
I knew then why Michiko chose Mr. Mizutani and not the Japanese Elvis. What would she do when the singer would be touring and competing and dealing with instability? Mr. Mizutani at least gave her a home with children and only indulged in golf outings. Was that so? Why did I glimpse a twitch in her lips then?
We took the Mizutani family for dinner at a restaurant just a few days before their departure. Michiko came to my door before leaving for the airport.
“Reena, I come to say sayonara,” she said.
We hugged and said we would write to each other.
“Don’t forget to make your trip to Japan. Remember, I’ll be your guide and take you to Kyoto, you so much love,” she said.
A couple months after Michiko left, I became pregnant with a boy. Michiko sent me packages after packages of gifts. Even after my son was born, she sent me origami or other little nick-knacks for him in letters or in parcels. I finally defended my dissertation and we moved from Michigan to Texas, and still, Michiko kept in touch with me. She sent me pictures of her boys who got married to beautiful brides and kept writing every year, during the new years, and I did the same.
One day, my husband and I, two foreign film buffs, were watching Okuribito or Departures, a Japanese movie. The movie was about an out-of-job cellist who took up work of a Nokanshi or an undertaker. In the movie, the Nokanshi’s boss who was a seasoned embalmer dined after his work in his courtyard garden with insouciance, a stark contrast to the job he underwent before it. The scene transported us to the night of the dinner we had with the Mizutani family.
I said, “Do you remember the night we had dinner at the Mizutani house?”
“Yes, the food was awesome, just like in the movie.”
“Yes, it was,” I said, remembering my friend’s tasty tempura. “Remember, Mr. Mizutani said that he had a rival for Michiko’s heart?”
“Yes, what about it?”
“Will you believe me if I tell you that I met him?”
“In Las Vegas, with Michiko.”
“When did you go to Las Vegas?”
“The summer you went to India to see your mother.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t get a chance. Wait, actually I did want to tell you, many times, but as time passed, I enjoyed sharing this secret with Michiko.”
I filled him in with the details of our journey to the sin city and my husband just shook his head in disbelief and teased me for making-up such a grand story. I thought, not bad, I could go on adventurous journeys of my own and the fella wouldn’t even know. Of course, I didn’t tell him about sharing the bed with Michiko and glimpsing the horimono on her naked body.
Mita Bordoloi writes stories for adults and children. She has a BS from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. She has lived and worked in India, China and the U.S. Born in the Valley of the Brahmaputra River, she has been residing in the land of the Mississippi River most her life. Her website is www.mitabordoloi.com.