Sunday, May 25, 2014

Short Story: Souvenir (2012)

My name is Kana. I arrive at Kansai International Airport, take a train to Kobe, and head to a hotel, which is about 30 minutes away from my parents’ home. My younger sister, Rie, is staying with them tonight and she is going to be married tomorrow. My mother told me there will be too much hassle on the day before the wedding so she could not accommodate me at home. She has been planning and worrying about tomorrow for months. I kind of understand it. There are two messages on my cellphone; from my mother and from Rie, both asking me to drop by their place so I can show them the dress I am going to wear to the wedding.
It is about 10 pm. I can smell on myself the airplane -like chemical, which I am not sure a bad smell. No one can stay fresh and clean after a 14 hour flight. My hair is oily and all the makeup on my face are gone. I phone my parents. Rie answers it and tells me to come as soon as possible so I can show my clothes, bag and shoes for tomorrow. They need to have a rest for tomorrow. I tell her that I look sloppy but she says no one cares.
    The amazingly clean train and the stainless soft seats are heavenly as I am used to New York City subways. It looks so much like a dream; I feel like I can break the thin poles and pluck the handles. The seats are so soft like a bed and I feel like I was invited to sleep there until morning; but I wouldn’t.
    The size of Earth is reasonable. It is not small. There is still some walk from the station. When I look at the door of my parents’ apartment, my energies come back. I haven’t seen them for so long! This reunion can be one of the most memorable events in our family history. Rie opens the door and says Oh.
    My earliest memory is the day my sister was born. I remember white morning light coming into the bedroom on the day. I was wearing a red sweater under jean overalls.  My grandfather, who was not living together with us, woke me up in the morning and I was surprised. Maybe, it was him who picked the clothes for me. He was elegant and vital as any other gentlemen in Japan. It was a few months before he had a stroke, which put him into a coma and paralyzed his body. Only in this earliest memory, my grandfather moved like a healthy man. At the hospital my mother was wearing pink towel-like clothes, quietly smiling. I don’t remember seeing my mother’s smile since then.
    When I was a baby, I was bold for a year or two; my eyes were thin like a fat Buddha statue’s. People believed I was a boy. I was not a smart baby. It took so long to utter some words and I couldn’t master toilet when other children around my age could. Once, I started speaking, I lied freely; I said things that I imagined or wished had happened. And, this immature habit lasted till I turned 10 or so. On many occasions, my parents and other adults called me a liar.  I just felt threatened and sad but I never tried to understand that I was wrong.  
Rie was a chubby baby with beautiful feminine eyes. She was very active and honest with me. She could be angry with me without hesitation and often turned upside down a toy box scattering the insides. She was a smart baby, learning everything much more quickly than I did. She could do junior high level math when she was 5. When my mother took her to a violin lesson for the first time, the teacher exclaimed in front of other kids that she had extraordinary talent. But, what was more exceptional was her beauty that made adults think she could be the best looking woman in the world when she became an adult.
My mother naturally preferred Rie because I used to lie all the time and brag about myself. Every night, my mother would laying next to my sister until she went to sleep. My mother stood up later and left for the living room without looking at me on the top of the bunk bed. She didn’t tell much to stop lying. She was just exhausted by me. I was often locked outside, standing in front of the apartment door so I could understand that I was a bad kid. Then, my mother would tell my sister that she can open the door for me. I am not sure if my father had a preference. Like most men in the country, he didn’t have intimacy or communication with us; he only responded to the situations we had . But, here, I am only bringing up memories of unfairness between siblings. Probably, many people have these kinds of memories; and Rie must have experienced various kinds of sadness in her childhood, also.  
Her “Oh” sounded vague. I was not sure if she was being cool or cold. “Hey,” Rie says to our parents. “Oh,” the parents say. It’s almost eleven o’clock. They are wearing pajamas. The TV news is telling that one of the cult members who killed innocent commuters by spreading toxic gas was finally arrested after 2 decades of escape. I was in this country when the terrorism happened.
“Welcome back...Show us your dress,” my mother says. I take out a slim black dress. It’s made out nylon, folded so small like a silky black garbage bag.
I guess it could be better if I would wear a kimono tomorrow. Someone told me Kimono makes a Japanese woman look respectful, beautiful and traditional. Besides, wearing them for weddings and funerals, is becoming popular recently. Young people buy Kimono magazines. Some of my Japanese friends express the beauty of it, the tradition and the Japan of it. All this makes me not want to wear Kimono. Not only am I perverse and don’t want to please people as they want me to, but I also feel guilty to wear Kimono without liking it as much as others do. I don’t want to be pretentious.
“Oh, my god...your dress..., Oh, no,” Rie and my mother say.
“What’s wrong with it?” I say. It is just a slim black dress and the only part with non-black colors is silver and gold round circle prints around the neck. I think it is simple but appealing.  They look at it perplexed because there is nothing wrong with my dress.
“You shouldn’t carry this bag.” my mother goes to fetch her black leather bag, which I find horrible. It is an awkward column-shape and the handle is made with cheap plastic of golden color.
“I don’t like this. This is not my style. This will make me uncomfortable,” I say. My mother insists that I have this bag so I look like a normal person.
“Don’t spoil my wedding party. I am the one who gets embarrassed, not you,” Rie says desperately. I look at her sharp chin, which used to be round and soft.
“Don’t worry. I will carry my mother’s bag.”
I take her bag. My mother sees me wearing a coat and tells me  what food I can eat here if I am hungry. I tell her the food in airplane is so plasticky and that my stomach still feels strange.
    The left room at back of the apartment used to be my room. I broke the door when I was 15. I came home from school and I found a few of Rie’s friends there. It was unusual since we hardly brought friends to our home. Both my parents and their parents had to agree for that. And, the fact that I was lying to my friends all of the time made me scared that my mother would notice my lies. On that day, however, my mother was smiling, bringing snacks to Rie’s pretty friends. When the girls went into Rie’s room to play, my mother whispered to my ear,
“Just because your classmates hate you, don’t come home straight after school. I hate to see you. I hate to be around you.”
“Shut up bitch! Show that nasty attitude to Rie’s friends, too!”
“Fuck off and die!” my mother said in a low voice. She knew that we had to keep quiet. Non-family members were here. But, I was so angry and wanted to break the situation. As soon as I entered my room, I kicked the door. My sister and her peers’ playful voices stopped. They came around the door that I had just cracked. I got into my bed and covered myself with blankets.
“Your sister did it?” one of Rie’s friends asked.
    “I am so sorry, so sorry for Kana,” my mother said softly. “I am so sorry for the trouble she caused you. So sorry that she ruined your lovely day.”
    That night, after her friends left, I heard Rie was crying for what I did. My mother was comforting her.
    “Poor Rie, poor Rie,” her voice was penetrating through the wall.
I don’t say my sister and I were not close. We sometimes laughed hard together and walked around the city together. But, some part of me was always feeling guilty for my sister because of the incidents like the door-breaking one. I felt that I prevented my sister from growing happily and beautifully. I was constantly fighting with my parents physically and verbally. My sister became a nervous girl and became obsessed with fashion and makeup. Her chin became sharper and her face was no longer round. Some part of me was always afraid of her. She criticized that I was too proud, that I was self-absorbed and I was unkind to other people. All these were true. I was ungrateful. My parents raised me, fed me, and spent money on me. Thanks to them I was alive. They helped my long- time dream come true when I was 18. I left Kobe for New York. Thanks to my parents’ money, I lived and studied in New York City. Here, I sometimes felt pure happiness that I was free, but most of the time I was depressed and panicked, looking for a reason to live. When I finished my college, my mother told me I should never come back to Japan because no one would like me here.
Rie has never worked for the same job for more than a few months. I don’t think she was incapable. I don’t know if she was impatient or she simply hated any kind of work. Like my mother she found a man with good-income. Maybe she happened to fall in love with this man not because he had a good income. I heard Rie and her husband like the same female singer and go to her concerts often. They often have fierce fights because they are so passionate about each other. They can not be separate from each other for even a day.
Our relatives, whom I might not meet again for the rest of my life, will be there. They might think I am a selfish woman who went abroad because I cannot fit here, or that I am a smart woman who finished school and found a job in New York. I decided how I will behave tomorrow. I will be polite and smiling. I will stay isolated as much as I can so I look like a mysterious woman from abroad. In this way, I will not do anything my family will not like me to do. I try making myself look good. I wanted to look normal but different, orthodox but sexy.
The small hotel I am staying at is close to the big hotel where my sister is going to have the wedding. In Japan some hotels facilitate a church and a pastor-like Caucasian man . I ask a hotel clerk where my sister’s wedding will be. The hotel is so gorgeous and I feel very good. The wedding seems gorgeous and rich like this hotel.
I saw a reception desk with 3 girls like an idol group. On the reception table I leave an envelope with money for the wedding gift. It is a gift out of struggle. I don’t think I am that cheap but I really don’t have money. My credit card debt is a secret that nobody knows. I want to show off to Rie that her sister is earning lots of money in the United States.
“You are Rie’s Sister!” one of the girls says, looking at my name written on the envelope. The other girls gaze at my face. The three of them are Rie’s friends since kindergarten. Unlike me, Rie remains close to her old friends. They get together often. Seems like the fact that they have known each other so long has created the strongest friendship. They can talk about the past and laugh about it. They don’t have to introduce themselves or explain what kind of town they are from. I wonder if they sometimes think about the day I broke the door. Their faces with heavy makeup and their dyed and permed hair still remind me of their childhood faces. Their normal and boring faces remind me of painful and suppressed feelings.
My sister is in a white dress. Her face is tense with nervousness and her chin looks sharper than usual with the soft white color of the dress. When I say hi, she tries to move her stiff face a little bit. I don’t know if my sister likes me. I don’t know how much I hurt her. I am not sure if she tries to smile out of courtesy.
Only the close relatives of the bride and groom are supposed to be in the room. There are two separate crowds. The back towards the wall is the groom's family and the entrance side is ours. My sister tells me not to talk to anyone yet. Then, the introduction starts. The groom's father read aloud each family member’s name. None of them look particularly beautiful or ugly. But, I was told by my mother before that they are elite and very sensitive about how they associate with others. My father introduces each members of our family. He is nervous but careless. He makes a few mistakes of his relatives’ names. My distant uncle corrects him but my father doesn’t say anything, he just looks bewildered.  Others called by wrong names are silent. After the introduction, the relatives start whispering to each other. Now I am not  sure if I still should not say anything. I don’t want them to think I want to distance myself from them. My eyes meet with one woman around my age who wears Kimono with bright blue color and carries a Sstarbucks paper bag. I smile and say nice to meet you. She says yes looking to the man she was talking with before. Suddenly, my mother grabs my arms and pushes me against the wall. My mother apologizes to the woman and tells me,
“Please. Please. I beg you not to do anything stupid. You know who she is....She is a relative of  the Minister of Finance. She will upset if a loser like you talks to her for no reason.” I tell her I was just saying nice to meet you.,  
“She must feel insulted.”
“How come?”
“Don’t forget they live in a different world.”
I sit down and sip cherry blossom tea alone, tea of gorgeous Japanese flowers.
    The rest of the ceremony goes normal, meaning it is an enormous success. Rie and my father walk together on the Virgin Road and I clap my hands hard. The groom’s boss gives us a speech that Rie must be really happy to have such a promising man. Rie’s best friend says that my sister is one of the most sensitive and delicate yet also the most humorous person she has ever encountered. While Rie is changing from the white dress to a red kimono, the ceremony presenter from the hotel shows us pictures of the couple. She explains that their love did not start at first sight. Rie thought her future husband was just a normal person, and he thought my sister seemed too sensitive to be his friend. The presenter didn’t tell us how and why they started dating. She says the bride loves the moment when the groom eats what she cooks and says delicious. The groom loves when Rie happily welcomes him when he comes home from work. We are all smiling and look happy. Rie comes back and the presenter says she is just so beautiful. I know my sister is beautiful. I heard people said so many million times since she was an infant. Her face was as if someone picked up idealistically beautiful pair of eyes, nose and mouth, and put them together on her face. There is nothing to complain about her face. She makes an expression called a smile without saying anything, without giving any dirty or funny looks, with her stiff cheeks which are feeling tired by keeping that shape all day. I know she is beautiful. But, I just  don’t know how to feel it. I know I love her. But, I feel guilty for her.  
Most guests are moved to tears at the climax of the ceremony. Rie reads a letter to my parents. She thanks my father for having worked hard for us so we could live peacefully. Without his hard work, she could not have today’s ceremony. She thanks my mother for supporting her. They sometimes had fights but my mother always cooked warm meals for her family. My parents cry for Rie’s sweet message and so do I.
I go to visit my parents’ house after the ceremony. My sister and her husband will stay together their first married night at the same hotel they had the wedding.

“What a relief,” my mother says and looks relaxed for the first time since I saw her last night. My father changes his clothes and sits on the sofa, changing the TV channels. I wash out the makeup and brushed my teeth to refresh myself.
    “Look, Rie gave me the letter she read at the ceremony,” my mother says. I smile. She passes the letter to me, insisting me to actually look at the letter. I see lines striking through some sentences, marking “Remove” with Rie’s handwriting next to the part. The erased sentence starts, “and my only sibling, Kana. We are totally different. We have nothing common and we have totally different personalities. But, I always think of you, even though you are far away.” I look at my mother and find her smile.
    “Do you know why she erased your part?”
    “I don’t know? Didn’t have enough time to read it?” I was scared.
    “She was angry with you last night. She was very disappointed by you last night,” my mother says. According to her, Rie was upset because I didn’t bring her any souvenirs from New York.    
    “Bringing souvenirs is common sense; besides you hadn’t seen her for years. .She saw no respect and no heart from you. I am sure you are going to get some souvenirs from Japan for your people in New York. “ I explain to my mother that I often sent her and my parents gifts from New York and I couldn't think of any souvenirs from New York this time, and I also did my best to give her wedding money.
    “Even a key-chain could change everything,” my mother says. “It’s called having a heart.”  
“I didn’t know,” I said. My father told my mother that she didn’t have to tell this to me since today went well. I wore a coat and left for the city. I decided to buy something expensive for my parents and my sister using my credit card, so they might change their minds about me.

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