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A Ghost Story

Since the incident, I did not drink, due to a court order. Occasionally, however, I drank with my mother in small amounts, or alone at a place around the corner. I confessed this to Edward. I said, “Earlier tonight I had wine with my mother. Generally...


All illustrations courtesy of the Naruyama Gallery.

I am sure if I had accepted a certain marriage proposal, my life might have continued in an ordinary way, but I refused that humiliation. Later when I would have accepted it, the suitor had passed away. It was of natural causes. 

My father disowned me, and for a while I lived in a women’s dormitory. When my resources were exhausted, I spent several years doing the things that I needed to do. It was at this time that I began to see black ghosts.

My mother received a report of my circumstances from my aunt, and she begged my father to send me to the city, where he owned several apartment buildings. Seven years had passed, and his temper had subsided. He agreed on the condition that my mother join me in the city and supervise his properties.

When I was growing up, my mother had enjoyed an active social life, but that had changed since she began to have eczema. It covered her shoulders, arms, legs, stomach, and face. She bathed in a potassium-permanganate solution, but it only reduced the itching and dyed our bathtub indigo. 

She had become a shut-in and then an intellectual. In the city, she watched silent movies at night. She saw poetry in her old ghost movies, and watched them over and over again. I don’t like ghost movies, even from the silent era. She watched them late at night, in her room, on her laptop computer and in the morning, she talked to me about the actors.

“Ichikawa Danjũrõ IX was opposed to appearing on-screen, but he was convinced that to do so was a gift to posterity. He is said to have channeled Tokinoriki very well. A few years ago I read Tokinoriki again. I was forced to read excerpts in school, but I could not get past the intricacies of court protocol, and the opacity of Taira’s diction. I don’t know what has happened, but the text has opened up for me and now it is like I am speaking to a friend.” 

“That is fascinating,” I said. A gust of wind blew through the tree outside, and petals landed on the dining table. Ghosts are not all bad.

***

I earned significant sums of money irregularly doing translation for foreign speakers. I had an office south of the old palace. Every year after 25, a woman diminishes in value. After 31, time is up. It was different in my case because I was in communication with the black ghosts.  

Edward was introduced to me by email through Murata’s press agent. I was surprised and even confused by his note. I read and then reread it. Yes, I thought. He is flirting.

He took a place in my thoughts, and I formed an impression that he was desperate and insane, like most lonely people. It is ordinary to keep the translator in the loop when laying out the brochure, in case of misunderstandings. In fact, some clients ask me to handle this and other organizational matters, but I suspected Edward was different. When he sent his picture to the graphics department, I thought, He is handsome. But anyone can appear that way.

During our first telephone conversation we spoke about the logistics of his visit. Due to the time change, I spoke to him from my bed. My mother was watching a movie with a piano soundtrack turned up very loud, and I heard something new in Edward’s voice. It was a precise intelligence. I explained to him that, depending on the duration of his stay, it would be customary for me to provide some guidance to the city. 

***

Edward called frequently after that. Due to the time change, I always received his calls at night. The third or fourth time we spoke I had been drinking, and we began to speak personally. He told me about his history of drinking, and his recovery. I told him that I lived with my mother in an apartment, and I didn’t speak to my father. 

He said, “Why do I always fall in love with unusual women?” 

“What do you mean?”

Murata had placed Edward in the outlying areas for one week and in the city for four days. Although Murata had recommended a country-based English-language translator, he and Edward did not get along. Also, Edward said, the other translator’s English was good, but he was unable to understand subtleties, such as humor and tone. We agreed it would make more sense for me to come to the country. He said that he would speak to the press agent at Murata and arrange for us to stay at different hotels, but I told him that would not be necessary. 

It’s hard to lie to my mother, because she is an expert liar. I told her that I was going to the country for work, to translate for a Murata guest speaker for the cotton panel. I said, “She is supposed to be quite an influential business lady.”

My mother said, “If you want to go and meet a man, I am happy for you. By all means, do what is necessary to change your situation.”

***

Since the incident, I did not drink, due to a court order. Occasionally, however, I drank with my mother in small amounts, or alone at a place around the corner. I confessed this to Edward. I said, “Earlier tonight I had wine with my mother. Generally I don’t enjoy drinking wine, but sometimes we share a bottle. My mother likes white wines.” 

“One bottle between two people is not a lot of wine.”

“I take more than my share, and besides, I am not supposed to drink at all.”

“Why aren’t you supposed to?”

“The courts have said I can never drink. I wore a monitoring anklet for one year. However, there are other opinions on the matter. I would like to talk about it, but I am not permitted to do so. It’s the culture.”

He said, “I like the way you talk after you’ve had a glass or two of wine. You should have one before we meet. We are all human.”

“But I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because you do not drink. I think it is healthier if we both do not drink when we are together.”

“That’s true. I do think it’s healthier in the long run, for me, if you don’t drink, but the first night we meet, I want you to be happy and relaxed. I think that would be good for us.”

***

I took the train to the country. The train was full and I had to stand. A boy in his school blazer was eating chips and drinking a large can of beer. He had frizzy hair and pockmarked skin. The bar in the dining car was crowded with men in black suits. I ordered a mixed drink, but my adrenaline overrode the alcohol, and I had to order two more to feel any effect. Then I had a fourth, but I didn’t drink it all. I have always had a temper. At 23 I was in a relationship with a man. It seemed like a good relationship, but I always had a funny feeling. Sometimes he would text message on his side, with his back directed to block his screen. He often went for appointments and came back vague about what had passed. When I was suspicious, he was accusing. It went on like this for two years. I always had a strange feeling, like he could give me something that I wanted, but I did not know what it was. He had scratches on his back one night and when I asked him why, he said we should see his psychologist. She was an old lady and he had her completely fooled. He lied to her about his symptoms to receive certain medications. When I told her my fears, she said they stemmed from my bad relationship with my father. Then I came home early one day from work and found him in bed with a girl I had known a long time. She was a girl who didn’t have any thoughts of her own. She was always a little bit poorer and a little bit uglier, but she would show off to me.

I said, “At least I know the truth.”

He said, “And what is the truth?”

Isn’t it funny that this simple conversation would lead to manslaughter? Once two old men who guarded my father’s building fought over a game of chess. They had worked together for seven years and were best friends, but their words turned to blows and—with no premeditation or intent—one killed the other. Something similar happened between me and my friend. Since that night, she has been a vegetable.

***

Edward was taller than me by two inches. He had eyes like a boy who had ridiculed me when I was a child. That boy was an only child. Once his mother tried to start a riot on the soccer field. She broke a piece off the barrier fence and stormed onto the playing field. If you ever said that to the boy who had ridiculed me, he turned red and shouted, “Lies!” That was a lot of fun. Another fun thing, his stepsister had a disability, and she talked with a funny voice. It was fun in the afternoons to call her, and ask for her on the phone. Her father was one of those adults who is intimidated by young children, so for a long time when we asked, he put her on the phone. Then you could imitate her voice. But after a while, the father refused to put her on the phone, so then we tormented him. We imitated his voice, and that was even better.

“I think I know you,” Edward said. I shook his hand. He put an arm around my waist and took my hip. He said, “I am glad you are so small.”

I said, “We should go to baggage claim.”

Suitcases were coming off the ramp. People stood in a crowd around the chute.

“I was worried,” he said. “I got so lucky. My previous wife was not fat, exactly.”

He got his hand under my shirt and squeezed my side. He stuck his fingers into my ribs. “I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do if she’s fat?’”

I slipped out of his arm and said, “Which one is your bag?”

“It’s that one.” He pointed to a beat-up suitcase. He picked it up. It looked heavy, and I noticed that he was strong.

***

I had explained previously that it was not possible for me to sleep with a man before marriage, and getting into his hotel bed, I reminded him of this. I said, “I will only be able to rest beside you.”

He said, “Of course,” and a couple minutes later I was shouting. I realized after that I had shouted something profane. It was something I did a couple of times that night. 

Later, I was on top of him. Our hotel room overlooked an athletic center. The center was closed after nine o’clock, but two black people were there. They were walking on an asphalt track. They were walking in the particular way, slowly and without looking around. They did not bounce up and down with each step. It almost looked as if they were floating above the ground. One wore a hooded coat made of satin. Edward said, “Why are you staring out the window?”

Toward dawn he asked, “Do you like me?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, you shouldn’t fuck someone unless you like them. You should at least wait until you’re sure.”

I didn’t answer. 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I think I deserved that.”

***

His presentation the following morning was at TEC conference center. He opened it with a long and complicated joke. It would not translate to the audience, and so I said, “The businessman has made a joke, so everyone please laugh now.” 

Since we were not drinking, we ate at restaurants and we saw movies. One movie was in 3D, and as a joke we put our glasses on before the previews, which made us seem foolish to the other people in the theater. 

“I’m not seeing the effects at all,” Edward said.

“I can see them,” I said, looking at my hand.

“Wait, maybe now I see,” Edward said. Then he whispered, “They are worried we’re going to be like this the whole movie.”

We had not ordered popcorn. The man beside us was fat, and he had a big bucket of popcorn. Edward saw me looking at it and said, “We’ll just ask that fella there.” My ghosts took care of it. About 15 minutes into the movie, the fat man walked out. He left his popcorn in his chair.

I said, “Take it,” and Edward did.

It was a midnight showing. It let out after 2 AM. A strange figure stood on the landing of the movie theater, a black woman. She stood one or two flights up, against the stucco exterior of the theater. She was maybe 40 years old. She wore a shapeless black dress. She might have been homeless. She watched us.

“Look,” I said. “Look at that strange woman.”

“She looks like the women who come to you in dreams.”

“It’s funny that you say that.”

“I think she is a man.”

I didn’t say, “That is not a human at all.”

The woman moved, and I saw it was a teenage boy. He wore a black shirt and black shorts that reached his knees. I said, “Let’s hurry and get to the hotel. Let’s take a car.”

By chance one passed, and I flagged it down. Edward followed me into the backseat. But our driver got onto a one-way going the wrong way, then took an inappropriate turn and took us onto an express lane. I wanted to tell Edward things that should not ever be spoken. Some things should not ever be spoken, and so I just said again and again, “This is strange.”

In the lane of opposing traffic, a Camaro pulled up beside us. It was driving backward, against the flow of traffic in its own lane, so that it drove parallel to Edward and me. Inside were two young black men, who both turned to regard us. 

I said, “I think I better stop.” And Edward said, “I feel like I have been sucked into your universe.” 

I said, “Don’t talk about it.”

In five days we saw all the good movies. I tried to take him to a strange eel bar I’d heard of, owned by a Japanese poet, but I got lost and couldn’t find it, and so I pretended it was my intent to show him the inaugural tower. 

***

On the third day in the city, after we agreed to marry, when Edward was going to meet my mother, we began to drink. 

“I don’t want to go to the hotel bar,” I said. “It’s depressing. It’s the afternoon. There are other places. We should take a taxi to Rub A Dub. Tonight is reggae.”

It was raining.

“I want to buy you a nice bottle of wine,” Edward said. “I can’t do that here. Maybe we could try the hotel.”

“My mother will be expecting us soon. We have already had a bottle, in four glasses.” 

After finishing a bottle of nice wine, it was time to go. I wrote a text message to my mother that said, “We have had wine.”

“There’s wine in the house,” my mother answered. “I bought it for the two of you. It’s in the cabinet under the trash bags.”

My mother had completely rearranged the furniture, and half-dismantled the shrine. She had vacuumed and cleaned. She is a very neat woman under ordinary circumstances, but now—down to the finest detail—the apartment was immaculate. I could see she had stood on the table, taken down the crystals of the chandelier, and dipped each one in solution. She was tossing the salad. The meal was arranged on the counter, along with as some smaller dishes. I introduced her to Edward.

I said, “My mother said she is honored to meet you.”

“Please tell her that the honor is mine. Tell her she is even more beautiful than her daughter.”

“My mother said you are flattering an old lady very well, and please continue. She also asked if you would like a glass of wine.”

“Please tell her yes, and thank you very much for going to all this unnecessary trouble.”

“My mother said houseguests are a great pleasure. She said she used to have them quite often, and she preferred, whenever it was possible, to do all of the cooking and service herself. She said that is traditional here, but she has heard not in America.” 

My mother went to the kitchen. She had bought a $40 thing to aerate the wine. It came in a glossy box that showed American models drinking wine. 

“Wine needs to breathe,” my mother said.

I brought Edward a glass and he drank it. Then he said, “Bring me more wine.”

He drank a little, and then he said, “Eddie Murphy was so brilliant in his prime. He’s just brilliant. He’s a brilliant comedian.”

I told my mother what Edward had said. She said, “It’s true.”

“They don’t have them like this now—just ask your daughter. She would know.”

His tone made his meaning clear, but my mother did not understand. She said, smiling, “What does he mean?” 

I said, “He means I slept with a lot of men when I was alone, and you and dad would not take my calls. He means I am a whore.”

My mother stood up and went to her room. She closed the door behind her. 

“See,” I said, “you’re very drunk and you embarrassed everyone. You made her angry.”

“I see that.”

“I think it would be best for us to go.” 

I called a car. While we waited for it, I put up the leftovers from dinner and cleaned the plates and bowls. My mother had already cleaned the kitchen, so there was very little to do. When I was done, I said, “What are you thinking?” 

“I am trying to decide if I will go back to the country.”

“Oh.”

“You would send my things in the morning.”

“Yes.”

“Now you’re making it worse.”

I looked out the window.

“You embarrassed me,” he said.

“You called me a whore.”

“You’ve had sex with hundreds of guys.”

“Not hundreds. Something like 30. Many women have.”

“Maybe they have the sense to lie.”

I got up and went to lie on my bed. All the pillows as well as the duvet were gone; my mother must have borrowed them. I put a towel under my head. Half an hour later Edward came in and lay beside me and said, “What are you doing?”

We held each other like children. I said, “You smell like Chex Mix.” It was only 9 PM. At one o’clock, my eyes opened. I nudged Edward and said, “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

“What?”

“Let’s go back.”

But he turned over. He had drunk a lot, and so I went back to sleep. 

***

“Are you going to come out and practice with me and Patience, or are you going to stay in your room with that ma-a-an?”

It was a little after seven, and Edward and I were in the missionary position, because we thought it would be more quiet.

I said, “I think I’m going to stay.”

“OK,” my mother said. Her tone was clear.

Edward rolled to the side and we stared at each other.

“She knew,” I said.

“How?”

“The sound of my voice.”

“No, she didn’t.”

Edward cleared his throat.

“What do you want to do?” I said. “What if we get dressed and go and have coffee?”

We went down to the bay. We sat on a park bench facing the ocean. He said he understood my definition of desire. He used the names of philosophers I didn’t recognize, and he made a definition that was not mine. It was analogous, or a part—but not mine. 

He started insulting me. I made the kind of remarks he had made to me. He said, “I left my first wife because I couldn’t make her happy. The woman I left her for was not special in any particular way; I loved her because I made her so happy. My psychology is much simpler than yours: I want to be loved. If I am not, then—” he made a gesture of tossing away garbage with one hand. 

I said, “I am going to go back up and read.”

“OK. I think I will sit here a while.”

I didn’t move. He got up. He sat on the ground and stretched out stomach up on the grass, making a pillow out of his shoes.

“You are hurting my feelings,” I said. “I understood everything you said, and I feel nauseated. In case you didn’t know.”

“Then you feel like I do.”

I said, “Let’s go walking.”

We walked a ways. A baby seagull stood beside a bench. We tried to see how close he would let us come. The seagull was nervous and felt our gaze immediately. He looked at us like predators. Then—almost like a human—he tried to look away, as though convincing himself he was being paranoid. We took another step forward and waited. The seagull did not move. We took another step. The bird eyed us again. He fluffed his feathers. We waited. He made a motion, considering flight, then stayed. We waited, waited, took a step, and he flew away.

Edward said, “Why do you think people get married?”

“Different reasons.”

***

Edward sneaked drinks all day. We did not end up going back to the hotel. By nighttime, he was loose on his feet and moving strangely. He insisted on carrying my purse. It fell off his shoulder and it dragged, caught under a chair, and nearly tipped him over. 

“Let me carry it,” I said.

“No,” he put the purse back on his shoulder. The purse slipped again, caught on a chair, and was dragged along the floor, out the door, along the sidewalk to the corner, where he went out into the street and waved for a cab.

In the cab, he played some racist music on his phone. I asked him to please turn it off. He played the song to its end, singing along, and scolding me for my rude choice to play such racist music. 

I said, “You think I am 36 years old and unmarried because I accept any man who comes along? You think I don’t know how to be alone?”

“You just proved it,” he said. “You just proved it, because when you said that it hurt my feelings.”

“Hm.”

“You are desperate for a man and would take the first one to come along. You don’t love me, you just agreed to marry me because you want a baby. You know that I am fertile.”

I lay down across his lap. It was after midnight. I was afraid to be alone with Edward. I was very angry. I asked him again to be quiet, and he said, “I’m perfectly within my rights to play music.” I sat up and directed the cab driver back to my mother’s building. Edward—hearing from my tone and gesture—said, “Just look for the one that looks like a motel that has been taken over by homeless people.”

***

My mother was asleep. I made Edward hot milk. When he was out cold, I noticed his phone. I looked at the screen. He was in touch with a woman named Sandra Williams. She had written to him earlier that day: “I dreamed you married a psychiatrist who was 45 years old.” 

I wrote to her, “That is funny. I wonder why you were dreaming that! :D”

I waited, but I guess she was asleep. I wrote, “I guess u r passed out, or having sex with your little dog.”

“Next time he cums suffocate him like autoerotic asphyxiation and grind the dog-dick meat into momos. :D”

A number, with no name, had written, “This is crazy, just so you know.”

I wrote, “Who is this?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No.”

“Are you OK?”

“Yes. :D”

“It’s the person you’ve been engaged to for a year!!”

“What’s crazy about that?” I wrote.

“Call me when you can talk.”

“Is it crazy that I love you?”

“Why do you say those things?”

I went to the bathroom. I found the small box of potassium-permanganate crystals. I woke Edward up and said, “Electrolytes.”

“Huh?” He was sobering in his sleep. He wanted to be held. He reached up to take me into his arms.

I said, “Electrolytes, for a hangover. Tastes terrible, but makes you feel great the next day.”

“Mm.”

“Only thing is you have to swallow it all. This much,” I showed him the handful. 

I said, “Put them in your mouth, and before you can taste it, swallow them with this,” I handed him a jug of water.

He did as I asked. In the morning, he was dead. You will want to know how I went on after. My black ghosts were helpful and happy. I think it was harder for Edward’s ghosts. For a little while, before news of his death reached America, I had a good time, toying with them on his phone.

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