Alienable - New Fiction by Yuko Sakata
This story by Yuko Sakata was supposed to appear in the Guccione Archives Issue, but it didn't because that issue is all about Bob Guccione, and this story doesn't mention him at all. But Yuko has such a good, light, honest touch that we had to share this one with you. Yuko received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She's published one story prior to this, in the Missouri Review, and it won the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize. Yuko was born in New York, but she grew up in Osaka, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, and she's also a dancer, a choreographer, and a translator. Still, when we asked if we could interview her, she said she didn't really think anyone would want to read an interview with "a novice."
The illustration above is by Joana Avillez—you might remember her Eloise Moves to Brooklyn column. Joana was born, raised, and is still living in New York, and she has a BFA in painting from RISD and an MFA in the Illustration as Visual Essay program from SVA.
In a ground-floor cafe of a midtown office building, my friend and I sat next to the floor-to-ceiling window over some coffee. Not that there were any seats away from the windows; the sleek white café was encased in two stories of glass panels on three sides. I was not at all comfortable being on display like that, but Jay had his day job in the same building and this was the easiest place for us to meet. Pedestrians drifted past on the other side of the glass, some still wearing winter coats, some already in light jackets, uncertain of the in-between weather.
My friend was trying to console me after an unpleasant breakup. He said he felt responsible, because he was the one who brought us together.
“No, you weren’t,” I said. “We met at Amy’s when she had that party. You weren’t even on the same continent then.” Jay was a musician, and in Portugal on a month-long residency at that time.
“But you wouldn’t have gotten together if you hadn’t both known me,” Jay said. “I was the catalyst.”
It was true that Jay had been the icebreaker in our conversation. But in general, Jay liked to claim responsibilities for things.
The boyfriend I had lived with for the past two years had just moved out, after we had a conversation about the possibility of marriage and family. That is, I wanted it to be a conversation, though it ended up being an argument. At first he tried to evade the topic through his artful digressions. When I persisted, he accused me of misleading him, claiming that early on we had confirmed our mutual disdain for the institution of marriage and for the idea of delivering any more children into this messed up world. I reminded him that I never had a strong feeling one way or the other about marriage, which was different from having a disdain for it. As for children, I had simply been undecided.
“It’s fine, I don’t mind not getting married,” I said. “But I’m now pretty sure I want a child. My parents are getting old.”
“What do your parents have to do with this?” he said. Then I saw fear in his eyes. “Don’t tell me you are pregnant.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Because that’s just incredibly irresponsible. It’s so unfair. You can’t trap someone like that.”
“I’m not pregnant. I think you should leave.”
Voices filled the café; they mingled and became a single undecipherable hum somewhere above our heads. All the way up, close to the ceiling, the HVAC duct hovered like some predatory creature spying on us. I wondered if anyone ever went up there to clean it. I imagined fine dust particles making their way down the long distance, settling noiselessly on our shoulders.
“I knew a couple that recently got divorced,” Jay said, playing with his paper cup. He kept pinching its rim with his fingernails, and the cup now looked like something he had picked up from a trash can on the sidewalk. “They got divorced because the wife became a bodybuilder.
“She was this Central Asian woman. My friend was teaching English in Kyrgyzstan. They fell in love and got married so he could bring her back here. You know how it goes. They were really sweet together. She was pretty but a bit chubby and very timid, and my friend was always protective of her. Though maybe it was just the language thing that kept her so quiet.
“Anyway, after a year or so she started really getting into working out at the Y near their place. It must have been out of boredom at first—she didn’t have a job, hadn’t made many friends, and mostly stayed home by herself. My friend encouraged her, too. But within a few months she started working with a personal trainer, and she completely changed her diet according to the trainer’s advice. She quickly started to lose her curves. That’s when my friend realized she was bodybuilding. She went to the total extreme, working out most of her waking hours. Then she started preparing meals with carefully measured ingredients that included things like protein powder and twelve egg whites, and my friend had to start cooking his own meals separately.”
“Oh, boo-hoo,” I said.
“But just listen.” Jay lifted his elegant index finger. “Soon she became this muscular bulk. My friend was busy running his own NGO, and of course he understood she had to find some passion of her own—she was still young. But bodybuilding? It became her sole passion. The first purpose she had ever found in her life. How could he tell her to stop training?
“Growing soft in the middle, getting sick, becoming grumpy, those were the things he could have dealt with. Those were the part of aging together he had expected. But her drastic transformation into something so completely different confused him. He didn’t know what to do. He went to some of her competitions and watched her showcase her body, glistening with oil. But he simply couldn’t understand. He could no longer touch her. He couldn’t sleep with her. He still wanted to think he loved her, because who wants to consider himself so superficial? But obviously this was a little more than that. He still loved the idea of her, but she was no longer there. So they got a divorce.”
A woman talking with the cashier let out a shrill laugh, as though competing with the hiss from the espresso machine.
“Why are you telling me this?” I cradled the paper cup in my hands even though it didn’t give me any warmth.
“I don’t know,” Jay said. “It seemed relevant when I started.”
On the other side of the glass panels, the city was turning bright amber. Warm sunset cast long shadows of passers-by on the pavement. I just then realized that people were walking with their umbrellas open, or running for cover. It looked as though they were shielding themselves from the sunlight.
The pedestrians looked skeptical even as they held their umbrellas. They squinted their eyes as they hurried westward into the sun toward the subway station. Some held their palms out to test if they really got wet. Strangers caught each other’s eyes and made funny faces. All these played out in silence on the other side of the divide from where I sat, like a pantomime. It was as if this was some sort of a prank, and they were all in on it together.
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