Rummaging through nostalgia, this was a short story that I wrote for a Japanese women literature class in college. Truthfully speaking, it was mainly a piece that was trying to mimic Michael Cunningham's The Hours (one of my favorite book and the movie was quite true to its roots!) with a slight flare of my own. Reading it with the distance of time, I am embarrassed at the mimicry but the waves of fond memories follow closely. So here goes.
The Rewriting of the Nijou’s
There is still paper to buy. Nina blows out a sigh of exasperation but drops a smiling kiss on Georgiana’s sleeping forehead, takes care to close the door quietly, and leaves the tiny apartment complex with a faint click.
The air feels particularly filtered on this fine spring morning as Nina’s heels click smartly on the cool concrete. Tiny flowers peep out from the dull brown earth, reminding everyone that they are but playing hide-and-seek for the winter. The universe seems to consist of children who smile and the parents who love them; all is in harmony. Yet there is a niggling sense in the back of Nina’s mind, taunting her to go back to bed, lie flat on her stomach, pull the thick down comforter over her shoulders, huddle over The Confessions of Lady Nijou and continue reading. But no. Today is not her day. Today is their day, Georgiana’s day, and so Nina shall set aside her desires for that moment and go on, for there is paper to buy and things to do.
The wind chimes on the tiny used bookstore’s door clink faintly as Nina opens the door and walks in, a tiny waif in a gypsy skirt among the dusty books that she has so many times lovingly pored over, debating about whether to purchase or not -- only to slot them back into their original position. There is no room in the apartment and the appearance of the used books would clash with the sleek modern furniture. Mr. Smith, the owner of the store, says hello, pauses a second and offers his cheek for a kiss.
Nina places her lips against the whiskered, leathery, sagging skin, and for that moment everything is in accord. Surrounded by more than five thousand books that contain five thousand different worlds, each with a happy ending, Nina feels at home.
“How are you?” Mr. Smith inquires.
“I’m fine. It’s Georgiana’s and my 5th anniversary; I want to make it extra special.”
Mr. Smith’s eyes turn hooded for a second, and then he asks, “Shall it be the regular, then?”
“Yes, please, the regular.”
As Mr. Smith rolls the sheet of fine calligraphy paper made from the hands of authentic Tibetan monks (so they say) with his delicate blue-veined hands and secures it with a single blue rubber band, Nina suddenly wants to know his name. His real name, not just Mr. Smith. How many hours has Nina came into here to look over every volume of twice loved books and seen that gentle old man in the corner? Approval is a funny thing. Nina never thinks she sought it, but on rainy days when there is only Mr. Smith and her in the bookstore, she craves the praise and the love a child would receive from her parents. Granted, they have shared a few ideas but whenever Georgiana is mentioned, Mr. Smith gives a token polite smile, as if he neither understand nor wants to understand; and an unexpected wall is instantaneously erected between them.
Just as Nina’s curiosity and quiet desperation threatens to gush out, Mr. Smith asks, “Is that all?”
“Yes, that is all.”
“Well then, have a good day.”
“You too,” says Nina and leaves the bookstore as she found it.
“The restless world of the unenlightened men is like a burning house,” Ariake once said.
Lady Nijou wonders if he has attained enlightenment. After Ariake died, Lady Nijou thought a lot about death. If Ariake had worshipped the Buddhas with as much fervor as he worshipped Lady Nijou, then he must have gone straight to nirvana, for who can be as heartless to deny passion as strong as his? Even if he didn’t attain enlightenment, Lady Nijou is sure that he died happy, for finally he is able to do what he derided so much: burn like the commoners do.
Many say it takes more courage to live than to die; well, it takes more courage to burn than to live life slowly, carefully, as if every single step determines your next move, your last move. As if every single decision creates a definite ripple in a tiny pond, until all of the ripples blend into one another so that you don’t know what you did, what you didn’t do, and how it all began.
To throw away the promises of salvation in one fell swoop. Now that takes courage.
By the time Nina passes the myriad of punks with technicolored hair smoking weed in the lobby and reaches the fourth floor of the ritzy artist-filled apartment complex, she realizes that she has forgotten her keys. After a few minutes of debate, Nina knocks quietly on the smooth splinterless oak door. The door swings lazily on the hinge and Nina’s eyes look up to meet the even lazier, exotic, half tilted, single lidded moon-eyes of Georgiana.
“Okaeri nasai, Nijou-Sama,” greets Georgiana in a husky, just woken up voice, with a perfect pitchless Japanese accent. Nina is annoyed and briefly wonders when Georgiana will stop with this silly nickname. When they first met, Georgiana declared that Nina was too plain a name for her and insisted on giving her the name of an immortal heroine. Nina had suggested Athena or Minerva, her favorites of all the goddesses of mythology, but Georgiana insisted on dubbing her Nijou-Sama, the tragic Heian woman writer whose literature still persists after more than a thousand years. So Lady Nijou has the last laugh.
There once was a time that Nina was so afraid of becoming like her namesake that she kept on chanting, “No, I am not promiscuous. Will not become a nun” until it became a mantra in its own right.
“Tadaima,” replies Nina. It seems like yesterday that she met Georgiana in her Japanese calligraphy class. Nina doesn’t know what compelled an English major at Berkley College to take a course as eclectic as Japanese Calligraphy. In the 1700s Georgiana would have been persecuted as a deviant, an abnormal, the devil herself, but in the 1980s Georgiana just took her gorgeous mixed body (half Japanese, half Norwegian), sauntered over to Nina, and asked her for a date. Day by day, date by date, Georgiana claimed parts of Nina, her thoughts, her dreams, her hopes, her fears, her joys till nothing was left but bare bones and a kiss.
Then Georgiana kissed her.
Nina wonders about what if’s all the time. What if she had slanted her head away at the last minute in the little rusted park bench beside the ancient maple tree? What if she turned away and feigned disgust? What if she had refused to accept the bestowment of Georgiana’s kiss, all that happiness it promised and all the sadness that followed? Surely if all the what if’s had coalesced together in an alternate universe, bifurcation after trifurcation after multi-furcation, they would have been so powerful that they would have taken their toll and punctured the balloon of reality of ‘had been’s’ and ‘had done’s.’ Yet Nina had tilted her head ever so slightly, met the cool lips.
“Happy 5th year anniversary,” says Nina.
“Has it been that long already? Happy anniversary, sweetheart.”
“Yes, it has. Come back early tonight. There’ll be a surprise.”
“I’ll try. I’m leaving for work now,” Georgiana proclaims with the confidence of an artist who does not dance to anyone’s tune but her own. Her crisp, blue-collared shirt ironed the day before by Nina is slightly unbuttoned, revealing the single silver cross that Nina gave to her on their first month anniversary. Georgiana had laughed in her low breathy laugh and graciously accepted it. But Nina felt mocked, for she later discovered that Georgiana is an atheist, reined by no god, be it be a man or a woman.
They go through the ritual they have gone through for the past five years. The flurries of kisses, the handing over of coat, briefcase, and shoes continued as a practiced dance, faultless since the movements have been traced over so many times. Nina wonders what will happen if she “accidentally” dropped the coat, but she never does.
What is Lady Nijou doing in the book right now? Will she still be there as I left her on page eighty-one? Will Lady Nijou finally accept the devoted Ariake or turn him away?
When Nina was a child, she never wanted to leave a book alone till it was done. She was afraid that the characters would magically pick themselves up from where Nina left them and proceed along the story without her, she was like a child missing a parade -- the parade of life. Nina would stay up all night long till her tired bloodshot eyes forced her to go to sleep. She didn’t want to miss a single minute.
Georgiana is no longer thinking about the night but about work, the few hours she gets to shine and show the artistic side of her that wants attention, compliments, and love. Always love. Like a child, Georgiana craves love and is never completely satisfied. Nina was surprised when someone as brilliant and ephemeral as Georgiana picked her -- a white girl, a little bookworm with no root, no mother or father to anchor her, fresh out of college -- to be a life partner, to be the beacon for Georgiana to return to after the excitement of the multiple new affairs has worn off.
“Love ya. Be back soon. If I’m not back by midnight, don’t wait up for me.”
Lady Nijou sits still as a stone as the two maidens attend her hair, the one on the left, Ayako, being slower but more careful, the one on the right, Seiko, being fast and efficient; but what is the use of Seiko’s haste if Lady Nijou must inevitably wait until Ayako finishes brushing the floor length hair to her satisfaction before sneaking out to see her lover after?
GoFukakusa hasn’t visited her in three weeks and four days. For each those days Lady Nijou has been waiting up each night, accompanied by only the chirping of the cicadas on the trees and the lonely moonlight traversing the length of her hair. The shuffling of the palace guards sends her heart into a staccato every time. The footsteps stop to shoo away a cat, to flirt with a maid, or to bring messages to other ladies, but never stops at her door; and Lady Nijou waits each night in vain.
Was it because of that incident he is repelled? Lady Nijou knows that trying to stop rumors and gossip is as useless as trying to catch sakura petals in a net. Her mind constantly wavers among the image of GoFukakusa’s face as he ardently pledged his undying love in poetry so moving that even the gods must have wept, to him begging her to continue her affair with Ariake, to the multiple affairs that he conducted with Lady Nijou as the go-between, and finally to GoFukakusa waking up groggily that morning, oblivious to what had transpired the night before between Lady Nijou and his half brother, Kameyama. All these images superimpose upon one another until Lady Nijou does not know which one is true, while the maids placidly brush her asset of beauty, wealth and status, unaware of the turmoil swarming inside their mistress like a group of angry bees.
One more hour and it will all be over.
All is not perfect. Nina squints critically at the last stroke of the u in Otanjoubi Omedetou, disappointed in the flatness of the character. No matter how many times Nina tries to smooth the curve, the character refuses to be coaxed from the brush and ink. If only she had the skills of her namesake! All this time spent on making the floor spotless (Georgiana likes to walk around barefoot), cooking (filet mignon with cream hollandaise sauce, Georgiana’s favorite), and calligraphy leaves Nina no time to return to the world of Lady Nijou. Nina bites her lips and looked around; the clock on the wall reads a quarter to five. Georgina gets off work at exactly five and should be back soon.
Not that it matters. The quaintness and lack of direction in Nina’s calligraphy will please Georgiana nevertheless. Georgiana will smile and say what a great present it is, how she doesn’t deserve it, exclaim how it brings back memories of how they met, and give her a kiss. Those pale faded memories feels like sad excuses that are unshelved once in a while to admire but are quickly returned to the closet before the sunlight does more damage to their already worn colors. It irritates Nina that no matter what she does, Georgiana will be unperturbed.
The shade of pasty green on the wall tempts Nina to dig her fingers in, until she hits the asbestos lining, and then pull off the vile wallpaper. It reminds her of puke. Neither does she like the metallic table, the ebony black closets, the stainless steel refrigerator, the black leather sofa that is too high for her and leaves her legs dangling above the floor like a child sitting in her father’s favorite loveseat; but nor does she like the steel stools that provide no cushion for her weak back or the white veined black marble kitchen top. Nina has no memory of when these things were bought in the first place. The only thing that Nina can claim for herself is the ridiculous Mickey Mouse telephone that she insisted on buying despite Georgiana’s protests. Surrounded by all the hard metal and dark colors, Mickey’s red shorts and yellow shoes look out of place.
“Maybe he needs a Minnie,” Nina says idly out loud.
Lady Nijou would have never stood for this. She would have elegantly composed a poem so filled with feeling and truth that GoFukakusa, Ariake, Akebono, and Georgiana would have come crawling back to her, begging to be accepted back in her graces.
Suddenly Nina rips the calligraphy paper in half (there goes three dollars and twenty five cents), rips the halves into halves, and then halves the quarter pieces again till there is nothing but asymmetrical pieces left. She carefully places them at the very bottom of the trashcan, taking care to hide them with a torn Gap bag; closes the lid as if it were a coffin, and wipes her hands on her pants. A broad black smear is left trailing on the right thigh of her white pants.
How is she going to get the stain out in time? There are only fifteen minutes till Georgiana returns; she can’t change her outfit. No, it will be all right. Maybe she can wear her white skirt instead; it will go nicely with the patterned white collared shirt she spent days looking for in vintage stores all over downtown Los Angeles. No, it would make her look childish, almost virginal.
Suddenly Nina wants to stop, let it all end. What does it matter what her pants look like when she still has not returned to Lady Nijou’s world? What does it matter that the cake is ready and the present is finished when Georgiana left with a careless, “If I am not back by midnight, don’t wait up for me”? For all Nina knows, Georgiana might be in the same situation as the last time Nina randomly decided to visit her office: shirtless, in the dark, with Sharon, again.
No, it will not be all right.
It would be so easy. There’s a bottle of Tylenol in the bathroom cabinet. “Take no more than four tablets in twenty-four hours,” the bottle instructs. What if Nina took 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 356, 712 tablets? What if Lady Nijou took the ornamental sword hanging on the wall and slowly drew a line with it from one end of her neck to the other, leaving a fine line of red, red blood trailing elegantly down her pale neck, a single drop falling onto the sleeves of her favorite red Chinese jacket with ivy patterns? What a picture she would make: serene, pretty, and still. That’s too easy, too simple, no flair at all; something Nina would do. What if she jumped off the fourth floor of the apartment complex? The spring sun would feel nice and breezy while the four floors flashed by in rapid succession until her face kissed the hard concrete that countless dogs have defecated over. But today Lady Nijou is wearing her favorite outfit and does not want it to be dirtied by blood. What if she casted herself off the quaint wooden bridge spanning the pavilion between her garden and the other lady’s? The layers and layers of gown would be soaked, clinging to her legs, dragging her to the bottom of the calm artificial pond, cutting off everything — sight, sound, air — until time slowed, faded, and stopped into the darkness that no Buddha could pierce: for suicide is a sin. The thought of her body shattering to pieces and leaving an unattractive splotch on the concrete disturbs Nina. What if her blood flickered onto the white jacket of British man who happened to walking his Scottish terrier at 4:57 in the afternoon? Nina knows how hard it is to get blood out of clothes, especially white ones.
Nina runs into the bedroom, takes her copy of The Confessions of Lady Nijou, slips back into her prim black heels, and leaves the apartment with a click. Out the splinterless mahogany door, down the elevator, past the lobby now absent of technicolored punks (although the sweet cloying scent of weed still lurks the air), and onto the street. Everything feels like a dream, highlighted by the brilliancy of the setting sun, dulling all edges and casting everything in a kinder light. I need a place, any place, a place of my own. I need to finish this book. Is this what it feels like to be crazy? The movies always depict crazy women who rend their hair and beat their breasts, but real insanity is a desperateness that is punctuated by silence and a clear mind.
Finding herself in front of the secondhand bookstore again, Nina pushes the resilient door, whose chimes clink sweetly, and looks into the face of Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith looks tired; tired of owning a bookstore that does not make any money, tired of sleeping on a queen size bed by himself at the age of sixty-seven, tired of waiting for the short hand of the clock to hit six everyday.
“What are you doing here?”
“Let me stay here and read. Please”
In that moment Mr. Smith sees a woman with a glazed look in her eyes clutching a book as if her life depended on it, so tightly that her the bones of her knuckles form tiny white islands against the sea of red skin, wearing white slacks with a huge black smear on them and black heels that do not match the rest of her outfit. Pity creeps into his heart.
“Please, I’ll close up. I will lock the door and make sure nobody breaks in. Just for a little while. Please.”
Perhaps Mr. Smith will curse himself later, wondering what makes him hand over his key without a thought to the girl with the desperate gypsy eyes. The eyes that asks for constant approval that he is never able to give, never wanted to give, but suddenly at that moment he wants to reciprocate and perhaps leave her with a kinder memory of him, for he is but an old man who has nothing else to give. Mr. Smith puts on his jacket, tips his hat, and goes out the front door.
At last! Nina pulls down the blinds, turns on the lights, sits down at a neatly organized table, and begins to read.
The sound of laughter pierces Lady Nijou’s reverie, cleanly severing the thought of death from her mind. Lady Nijou looks up and spots two maids playing with a calico tabby barely weaned from its mother. The setting sunlight gleams unbearably bright on the girls’ black, black hair and the world is on fire. Yes, the same fire that fuels the poets to pick up their brushes, the heroes to brandish their swords, and the lovers to forsake their duties.
She wants to burn. Lady Nijou hasn’t felt that fire in a long time. Dulled are her senses that used to be so fine and exquisite, dulled from the petty gossips and the fear of GoFukakusa’s suspicion. Or is it just GoFukakusa himself? GoFukakusa the father, the lover, the confident, the betrayer. Lady Nijou couldn’t think of a single moment when GoFukakusa hadn’t been in the picture of her life, peripherally or centrally, overshadowing her (the supposed protagonist of the story). Casting her from heaven to hell and back to heaven within the space of five seconds and ten syllables.
Lady Nijou no longer knows where the beginning of her story is. Was it when her father handed her over to GoFukakusa? Was it when she started her affair with Akebono? All these possibilities pool into the past that was, the present that is, and the future that will be.
She needs to get away, to find a place of her own so that she can burn freely with oxygen of her own. Yes, she will become a nun and take the tonsure, wash away all the sins that she has committed and dedicate her life to Buddhism in hopes that one day she too may attain enlightenment. Or can she? Are her sins too deeply fixed now that no matter how many times she scrubs the darkness will remain?
Lady Nijou suddenly remembers the poor fanmaker, the painted undergown seeping in the rain, her nose red and her hair wild. What an unpleasant sight it was then, but the fanmaker’s sorrow resulted in joy while Lady Nijou’s joy resulted in sorrow. The poet Semimaru once said, “One cannot live forever in a palace or a hut.” Lady Nijou decides that neither will she. But she can’t leave at once; she will need a week’s time to prepare quickly and find GoFukakusa to tell him about the sudden revelation she has had. Surely he will understand and let her go.
Two days later, GoFukakusa declares the banishment of Lady Nijou from the palace.
A sigh of pure bliss escapes from Nina, spirals into the air and is captured by the softness of the surrounding books. So this is how it ends. The pure craft and perfection of Lady Nijou’s story leaves her breathless, wonder-filled, and hopeful; like being in love with Georgiana except without the confusion and the heartache. Nina can no longer tell where Lady Nijou’s story ends and where hers begins.
Was it Nina who was sold by her father to GoFukakusa, or was it Lady Nijou? Was it she who recoiled at the thought of conducting an affair with Ariake? Was it Lady Nijou who cried when she saw Georgiana bestowing a kiss onto another woman? Was it she who boldly traveled in Kamakura Japan as a nun? Or was it she who forgave Georgiana for a few crocodile tears that glistened so prettily as it slid down her cheek, and a fake diamond bracelet she saw in the windows of Walmart? Does it matter?
The world is suddenly simple. Lovers will meet, couples will cheat, pets will die, and children will cry; yet despite it all, we go on in life. No one’s story is truly original or extraordinary, although we lie awake at night wishing it to be so. But life is not like that. If you are good enough the world does not mock you; if you are lucky enough the world remembers you; and if you are truly great the world will put you onto a pedestal so high so that others can bounce their dreams off your shiny patina, hoping that the dreams will be reflected back to themselves.
Georgiana should be home already.
Grabbing a piece of floral stationary off the top of the desk, Nina begins to write. Purging, returning every gift, every promise, every lie to Georgiana so there is nothing but Nina left. As Nina drops the flimsy letter into the mailbox, she imagines a satisfying clunk breaking the fall.
Whistling, Nina walks away; Nina, and not Nijou-Sama, for there is no one to call her that again.