April 2019. Short Story

Ann / Aiko

The incense smoke slowly drifted through the small Buddhist Temple, borne on the Trade Wind blowing down Nuuanu Valley and a bell’s sharp metallic chimes lingered in the air accenting the Japanese of the priest conducting the service.  Ann was a tiger by the Asian zodiac thought she hardly looked the part, being somewhat less than five feet tall, slim even in her later years, with a slightly crooked smile that showed off her dimples well.  But when Ray deeply wounded her by his betrayal, she acted with tigerish certainty to thereafter cloud his life. 

When my husband Bill was told that Ann had requested that he give her eulogy, we felt surprised but honored.  Why Bill?  We finally decided it was because of Seattle.  Seattle was where Ann and I first met and became friends.

  

Bill knew Ann long before that.  He and Ray came home to Honolulu from college in the East after graduating in ’53.  They had been friends since high school and then attended the same college as two of a few students from Hawaii.  That summer of ‘53 the Korean War was on and Ray was waiting to be drafted, while Bill would be starting medical school in the fall.  One night shortly after they returned, Ray and Bill went to a saimin stand where Ann waited on them.  Bill described her as petite and more pretty than beautiful back then.  The two of them spent many nights at that saimin stand near the corner of Kalakaua and Young, sitting under strings of glowing paper lanterns that swayed in the warm summer breeze, lingering over meat sticks and bowls of saimin, flirting with Ann until she had to wait on other customers.

Ray was Nisei and Ann a recently divorced war bride.  She told me once, after we’d known each other a while, about the very difficult time she’d had in Yokohama after Japan lost the war.  She was pretty much on her own, doing what she had to, to survive.  While waiting tables she met a lonely GI from Hawaii who, in time, proposed.  When their marriage ended in Honolulu after three years, she resumed waitressing.  And then she met Ray.

Bill said that he was very surprised when, towards the end of summer, Ray told him that he was seriously thinking of marrying Ann.  He had received his draft notice and would be reporting for basic training in September.  And then most likely it was off to Korea.  Bill missed their wedding since he was in medical school in Boston by then.

Boston was where Bill and I met.  I had majored in art history in college, had been hired at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and had moved there from New York not knowing too many people.  Bill and I were introduced as blind dates by one of my few Boston friends.  Somewhat to my surprise, Bill, this Chinese-American medical student from Hawaii, seemed intrigued by what I had studied, rather than amused as some people seem to be by anyone majoring in art history.  I think his interest was genuine because he still likes to go with me to museums even though he confessed that he only visited the Honolulu Academy of Art as a high school student when he had an assignment that required him to go.  In any event, he called me back after that first date and things progressed from there.

We were married after he graduated, just before he entered internship.  He used to say that he married me for my money since I made more than he did, but having a double income ended when I had our first baby Thomas at the start of Bill’s last year of residency training three years after our wedding.  Not the best planning, but I found that I enjoyed staying home and being a mother.  Bill went into the Army after residency and we moved to Georgia for two years while he served out his military commitment.  In the army, we enjoyed a comfortable income for the first time, nicer housing than our Boston apartment, and friendships with other couples who were at the same stage in their lives as we were.  Bill got to put into practice what he had learned.

Bill talked about doing a fellowship after the army, and he was accepted to one in Seattle at the University of Washington studying infertility.  By this time, Tommy was three years old and had been joined by Laurel, our army baby.  The fellowship didn’t pay as well as Bill’s captain’s salary but the hours were regular and we really were able to spend a lot of time together as a family, especially now with the two little ones.  We rented a cute small two bedroom cottage not far from the hospital and Bill’s lab.  It was a happy time.

I remember the January day Bill came home very excited.  “Jin, you won’t believe who I ran into today!  I was rushing to the library and practically collided with Ann as she was coming through a door.  We were both shocked!  Ray and she have been here since the summer!  Ray’s in law school and she works in the hospital photography department.”

“Ann and Ray who?” I asked.

“I told you about them, don’t you remember?  Ray is my friend from high school and he married Ann the summer after we graduated from college and then he went into the army and we lost track of each other.”

“Vaguely,” I said.

“Well, anyway, I told her that we’d call them about going over tonight after we feed the kids and have dinner.”

“Wait a minute.  Tonight?  The kids have to go to bed and I don’t know them.  Why don’t you go?” I said.

“It’s not like the kids are in school or anything.  If your sisters were visiting, you wouldn’t think twice about letting them stay up late.”

That was a little unfair, I thought.  But after we talked some more, I decided okay, they are Bill’s old friends and he’s so excited, I guess I should go with the kids.

I didn’t know what to expect.  Bill was kind of hyper on the way over, talking fast as he does when he’s excited, about the times he had with Ray in school.  They sounded like a pair of semi-delinquents to me and I hoped that he was exaggerating. 

Ann and Ray lived in an older graduate student apartment building just across the street from the campus.  I think it was called the Eberly.  Their studio was a little musty, a little warn, but spare and neat.  It had a high ceiling and one large window that looked out onto an interior court. 

Ray and Ann seemed somewhat formal at first, rather Japanese.  They certainly didn’t fit the picture that Bill gave me of impulsive love and a quick marriage before going into the army, of college nights spent drinking and playing cards and pool.  But then that was nine years before.

Ann was soft-spoken, pretty; she had really cute deep dimples.  She still spoke heavily accented immigrant English that I had to concentrate to understand.  Ann was an attentive hostess and had prepared simple pupus—as I later learned to call them—and beer for the men.  She didn’t like beer either and we had green tea.

While the men caught up and reminisced, we exchanged our stories.  Ann was a few years older than the rest of us.  Her actual Japanese name was Aiko but she began to use Ann for convenience after the war when speaking to American GI’s.  She sighed sympathetically when I told her of sailing from Hong Kong to America alone at fifteen, “So young.”  She told me about how difficult it was for her in Japan after the Americans won the war.  I didn’t tell her then about living under Japanese occupation in Shanghai during the war, and she didn’t tell me then about her first marriage.  In spite of my initial reservations, I found myself warming to her—after all, we had both been displaced by war to come to America.

Ray had a handsome lean face and a compact athletic body; he’d been a jock in high school according to Bill.  He was first year law, having worked as a civilian for the army in Japan after his honorable discharge until deciding to return to the US and go to law school.  He and Bill drank what seemed like a lot of beer, talked loudly and laughed a lot.  Ann agreed that they were beginning to act, “So silly.” Tommy fell asleep somehow on the bed, but Laurel was as wound up as the men and I wondered how I was going to get her to sleep once we got home.  We agreed to get together at our house that weekend.

On Saturday night, Ann brought me a package of green tea and Ray, a six pack.  I cooked a Chinese meal, but the rice was too soft and the vegetables a little overdone.  Ray got down on the floor with the kids and played horse with Tommy with Laurel pattering around after them, laughing, screaming, and wanting her turn.  At later visits, Ray would wrestle with Tommy and give Laurel airplane spins.  They stayed well past midnight and, since they didn’t have a car, Bill gave them a ride home while I tried to get the kids to bed and then clean up.

Seattle was a great place to be studying and we saw each other regularly.  We were thirty something and it was an optimistic, hopeful time with the future waiting.  Movies were an affordable entertainment with Sean Connery as James Bond and My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins and that weird Dr. Strangelove.  Eating out was often Chinese because it was inexpensive and Chinese, although Seattle’s Chinatown didn’t offer a lot of choice.  Bill and Ray drank some, though, as Bill reassured me after those first two nights, “No where like in college.  We used to get so hungover!  There was the time Ray couldn’t get out of bed in time to get to the toilet and threw up next to his bed.  Was that funny!”  Hmmm…

We talked, but not the all-nighters that Bill and Ray said they had in college where they, fueled by beer, solved all the problems of the world.  Seafood on the dock at Ivars was reasonably priced.  In the spring we squeezed into our small station wagon and drove up to the Skagit Valley tulip fields.  Riding the ferries was fun, especially for the kids.  When Bill’s mother came during the summer, she took us all out at to eat at a proper restaurant. 

Neither Ray or I were fishermen, but Bill was an enthusiastic though mostly unsuccessful one.  Ann also liked fishing so on some days when he wasn’t going to fish for steelhead, he would pick her up in the early, sometimes drizzly grey morning light and they would fish from a dock.

“Never did catch much,” Bill would recall in later years, and Ann would laugh and correct him, “We never catch nothing.”  On the very few occasions when he caught a steelhead, we’d have them over to share the proof of Bill’s success.

“See, I can catch fish,” he’d say with some pride.

“How come when I go, we no catch?” she’d laugh, bringing him back to earth.

Ann and Ray were Auntie Ann and Uncle Ray to our children and they continued to be special to them even after they went away to college and grew to adulthood.  Children like stability and I think they saw that in our long friendship.  Incidents like the time Bill and Ray both grabbed for the check and broke the plastic tray it come on right in front of the astonished waitress passed into their childhood lore as “I remember the time when …” stories to their friends.  They certainly were as close to them as to their actual Aunts and Uncles.

I think Ann felt we somewhat shared the same backgrounds being born and raised in Asia and having gone through the war experience there.  She said she found my lack of accent remarkable, although my kids always insisted that I had one.  I told Ann it was because I came to the US at fifteen and she at twenty-two.  She told me how frightened the girls and women were at the end of the war about what the American troops would do to them when they landed.  And in time I was able to tell her how terrified I was of the Japanese troops carrying long dark rifles with gleaming bayonets, who occupied Shanghai.  To this day I can picture those long steel blades flashing in the sun and feel the emotions I felt when I was nine.

After three years, Ray graduated from Law school, and in another year Bill’s fellowship ended and we moved to Hawaii within a year of each other.  At the time, not being from there, I would have preferred to stay around Seattle which was comfortably familiar by then.  But Hawaii was Bill’s home.

Bill went into practice with a group that was looking for a third OB-GYN.  His hours were less predictable than during fellowship now that he was in practice, but better than in the army when he was the only one.

Ray started practice in a small law firm but rapidly became successful in corporate law and after three years left to open his own office where Ann helped him in the early days, keeping a tight watch on the books until his business really expanded.  Tourism and investments from Japan were starting to boom and with the years he’d spent in Japan after leaving the army and with Ann acting as hostess to clients from Japan, he had a natural advantage with Japanese who needed legal counsel.  Ray developed commercial interests—a tour business, one store and then three, with designer accessories and jewelry that were geared to the tourist market.  The only thing that did not succeed was a restaurant in which he was a minority partner.  The businesses meant that he was on the plane to Japan a lot.  Ann was able to fully retire from the office.  They had made it.

to be concluded

 

Ann / Aiko Part 2.

We helped each other to move more than once.  In time, they moved into the home of their dreams high up on the Heights, one in keeping with their status and ideal for entertaining. 

They remained childless.  They had consulted Bill’s mentors in Seattle and others in Honolulu after their return, but nothing was helpful.  Ann and Ray discussed adoption, but in the end decided not to, even though Bill thought that Ray always regretted not being a father.  After all, he was the only son in his family among three sisters, and there was no one to carry on the family name.

Over the years we remained close friends even though we did not spend as much time together as during the earlier days.  We were involved with children’s activities and school and they were not.  Ray golfed; Bill fished, taking the kids along as they got older.  They enjoyed tailgated with friends at University football games; we did not.  Ray loved going to Vegas; Bill and I were terrible at cards.  Ann worked in the office and was very involved in the social aspects of Ray’s business while I was a mother and homemaker.  Ray was on a first name basis with the governor; we just voted. 

But there was still that bond between Bill and Ray that stretched from high school to college to Seattle.  And Ann and I, who came in our youth to live in a strange new land, shared the experience of helping our husbands during the lean, early years of their studies and work.  Old ties soaked in shared memories of the past bind the tightest.

And then it all unraveled.

Her call came while Bill was at the office.  I recognized Ann’s voice, but it was so strained and mixed with crying that it was hard to understand.  I had to ask her to repeat herself, because I just couldn’t believe what she was saying.

“Ray, he get one girl friend in Tokyo.  One real young girl.  And now she like come here.  And Ray, he say he like bring her so she can work in the store.”

I felt a cold tight ball form in my chest.  “Oh Ann,” was all I could say at first.  How could he?  Mostly I listened.  It was such an old story.  And now it had happened to her.  Just awful.

When at last she hung up, I called Bill at the office.  “Bill, I just got a call from Ann.  She was terribly upset.  Did Ray ever tell you he had a girl friend in Japan?”

“Yeah?…well …sort of.”

“What do you mean ‘sort of’?  Did he or didn’t he tell you?”

“Look, I got a bunch of patients waiting.  Let’s talk about it tonight.”

I waited impatiently for him to come home and met him at the door.

“What did you mean ‘sort of’?”

“At least let me get changed first.”

I followed him to our bedroom.

“Well,” Bill sighed reluctantly, “You remember how heavy Ray was getting two years ago and then how he suddenly started to trim down and work out and we all told him how good he was looking?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that was about the time he started to really get fond of this girl.”

“Get fond of!  How long has this been going on?”

“I guess for a couple of years before that.”

“When did he tell you?”

“The two of us were having lunch about a year ago and he asked me if I’d ever thought about having a mistress.”

“What!”

“Yeah.  So I asked him why.  So he told me.  He said that she wanted to come to Honolulu and he was thinking about it but didn’t know how to tell Ann.”

“So did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Ever think about having a mistress?”

“For God’s sake, Jin Hua, of course not!”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Ray asked me not to say anything to anyone.  I really didn’t know what else to do.  Would you have told Ann?”

“No.  I guess not.  You men can be just unbelievable.”

“What do you mean ‘you men’.  Don’t generalize like that.”

“Yes.  Well let’s not say anything to the kids when we call them this weekend, okay?”

I had known that Ray’s uncle had a mistress who lived next door to the home that the uncle, his wife, and two children lived in and that when Ray’s cousin was sixteen, his father took him to see his mistress so that his son could have his first sex experience properly.  I was shocked when Bill told me that story, but then his uncle was in the first generation.

After he told me that story, Bill asked, “So why are you surprised?  After all, you told me that your father’s uncle had three wives all under one roof and had kids with all of them.  Some fun family reunions  you must have in your family.”

“That was in Shanghai and two generations ago,” I’d replied.

How could Ray contemplate the same thing now?

Ann kicked Ray out of their home when the girl moved to Honolulu over her objections.  Ann was talking divorce.  We later found out she’d also threatened to commit suicide.  Ray moved in with the girl Michiko for a while and then, somehow, talked Ann into letting him come home by promising to break things off.  But he said he needed some time to do it.  Things seemed to be pretty calm for about six months and when we went out with them, it almost seemed like old times except, of course, it couldn’t be.  Ray still did not end the relationship.  Ann finally gave him an ultimatum of the either she goes or I go kind.

He just couldn’t do it.  He told Bill, “It’s not like I’m out whoring all over town.  I love Michiko.”

“Do you still love Ann?” asked Bill.

“Of course.  And look, I’m grateful to Ann for what she’s done for me—for us.  I haven’t forgotten.  But when I’m with Michi, she makes me feel like I’m thirty again.”

Ann kicked him out again and retained a lawyer.  I think she would have gotten the divorce and her settlement and gone on with her life.  But then she heard that the girl had told Ray that she wanted to prove her love for him by having his baby.  And that was just too much.

The call came on a Sunday as I was starting to prepare dinner.  It was Ray’s long time office manager, Doris, who’d taken over from Ann.  Her voice cracked as she started to speak and she paused to gulp.  I had a terrible premonition about what she was about to say.

“Jin Hua, I’ve got really bad news. ” She had to stop and gather herself again.  “Ann killed herself in the office this afternoon.  You’ll probably see it on the evening news.”  I felt lightheaded and the rest of her words seemed to come from far away as I listened in disbelief and horror.

Bill was at the hospital and I left word with the operator to page him as soon as he finished with the patient he was called in to see.  I guess I was still in denial when he called back.

“Hey hon, what’s up?” he asked.

“Oh Bill, Ann is gone,” I choked out.

“Gone where, to L.A. again?”

“No, she’s gone—she’s dead—she killed herself—Doris called me.  She went to the office and let herself in.  No one was there.  She opened the files and poured gasoline on them and then it looks like she sat down at Ray’s desk and drenched herself and set herself on fire.”

“Oh my God,” was all Bill could say in a shocked whisper.

I met Bill at the door when he came home.  We held on to each other tightly without speaking for a long time while tears trickled down my cheeks and wet his shirt.

Bill and I talked about what to say at her service.  Perhaps when Ann planned her protest, full of bitterness, anger, and shame, she thought of those years in Seattle that had been so rich with happiness and plans for the future, and left word that Bill should speak.  And so Bill did, recalling Seattle, trying not to choke up, hoping he had interpreted her wishes correctly.

I watched her husband while Bill gave the eulogy, sitting in the front row as if carved from granite, alone with his thoughts.  I had to blink rapidly as I thought about what Doris had told me before the service—that that girl Michiko might be having morning sickness.

Ray never told Bill what he thought of the eulogy except to say to Bill immediately after the service, “Thanks Bill, Ann would have liked that.”  He didn’t look me in the eyes.

 

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing.

Bright in the morning sun,

Long time ago.

Where have all the flowers gone—

Faded, scattered every one.

When will they ever learn,

When will they ever learn?

     —adapted from Pete Seeger

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s