Fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)


The Phone Call

by Nori Nakagami, translated into English by Kendall Heitzman

The call came from out of the blue. But maybe that's a little too strong. After all, we're talking about my father here, who maintained the right to call his daughter at any moment around the clock while she was studying abroad. Emphasis on "any moment"—the phone rang at the strangest times. Usually, it wasn't for any particular reason; he would return home from a night of drinking, or finish a night of work in the early dawn, and impulsively think to call that daughter who had gone overseas. But I wasn't allowed to be flippant with him when I picked up the phone. If he didn't like the way I was responding, he would go into a tirade: What are you doing studying in America, anyway? My voice couldn't betray any sign of sleepiness or a bad mood. But at the same time, if I was in too high of spirits, he would give in to dark suspicions: Are you on drugs? And so, I had come to anticipate these calls from my father. Every time the phone rang, I picked it up with some degree of trepidation. If I managed to make it through the phone call without incident, I would set the receiver back on the hook with a deep sense of relief. All of which is to say, this is the same father who blurted out to me, "I'm in love with someone."

This must be some sort of joke, I thought. This is the kind of thing my father wouldn't say even under torture. If I gave even the slightest hint that there was a man in my life, I would be scolded into tomorrow, and if I wasn't careful, he'd be on the next flight to see me. That kind of father. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"What are you talking about?"

My father continued on as though he hadn't heard me. "I'm going to marry her. And divorce Teraguchi Rieko."

For a few seconds, for half a minute, I tried to decode my father's words, but I came up with nothing. He was telling me that in order to marry some woman he was going to divorce my mother, and on top of that, he was referring to her by her maiden name, as though he had never met her. An awful feeling tore through my chest. I tried to picture my mother's face, but somehow couldn't manage to do so. For some reason, because of what my father had said, the only face that appeared in my mind was of the young as-yet-unmarried Teraguchi Rieko I had seen in a photograph. He's telling me because he can't say it to Mom, I thought. At the same time, I could hear in my mind someone flying off the handle. It was my mother, berating him in a piercing voice.

If you think that's a possibility, you go right on ahead. Sure, sure. This isn't the first time you've found yourself a girl. I know all about it. Did you think you had gotten away with it? I know every bad thing you've ever done. But you still have the nerve to tell me that you'd like a divorce. "I want to marry this girl"? Amazing. It's so obvious. She is being deceived. She sure is a woman of strange tastes. Or is she after your money? Somebody's knocking on the wrong door. Should I tell her all about how you always come crying, trying to wheedle even the children's allowances out of me? We don't want her to go into this in the dark; she needs to know what you're really like right away. I can tell her about how if I don't say anything you go a week without taking a bath. And how, before we got married, your place was so filthy that even burglars would give it a miss. This girl will run screaming without stopping to put her shoes back on. But what's the point? You're apparently a complete idiot. So I'll tell you what, I'm going to pretend I never heard this. I'll do that for you. If you want to fool around, you be my guest. Pretend you're in love, and do any damned fool thing you like. But don't you go bringing any messes you make around here. Leave me out of it. You're the expert in all this, aren't you?

What I finally managed to say into the phone to my father was a strangely cool line: "It's your life, right?"

Ordinarily, he would have started shouting. But this time, he was silent. That docility annoyed me, so I kept piling on. "Whatever you do, Mom is still our mother. That's never going to change." By which I meant to say that there was no way we were ever going to refer to this other woman as our mother in any form.

The conversation didn't go anywhere after that. "Of course. That goes without saying …," my father mumbled, as though flustered, and ended the call.

Twenty years later, that phone call was on my mind. I had left my two small children with my mother and had come to my deceased father's hometown. The previous day, a famous woman writer had given a talk at the community centre, and I had come in connection to that. The writer was old enough that my father had thought of her as a mentor and at times had adored her like a mother; she had spoken mainly about her memories of my father. When she said that my father was a man whom women just couldn't leave alone, the long-ago phone call from him flashed through my mind.

My father and mother had lived apart for a long time. What with my father traipsing off here and there throughout Japan and around the world, he had rented office space in a convenient place in the city, and eventually had taken to sleeping there as well. My mother also wrote for a living, even if they were completely different things from what my father wrote. She said doing things that way kept the work moving along, and she was glad to get him out of the house; she never seemed the slightest bit concerned. And so, from the time I was a child, I never thought that their living apart was a step on the road to divorce. I just saw it as something they had to do because of the lives they were leading, so I never felt the slightest sense of danger. But, at some point along the way, their lovey-doveyness faded, and the vibe between them turned into one between … what could you even call them … companions? Kindred spirits?

"You can go off and die in any old ditch you please. But don't do it too far away—keep in mind those of us who have to go fetch your body," my mother would often say. However he ended up biting the dust, in the end, she would take responsibility for picking up his bones. That was the kind of love they had, I thought.

I have never gone inquiring too deeply about the woman, or women, with whom he may, or may not, have had affairs, either while he was still alive or after he died. There have been rumours floating around out there, but, perhaps because of people's overdeveloped sense of propriety, there has never been anyone who has come to me with direct evidence of anything. So I had no way of knowing whether that woman was his only flame, or one of a whole crowd of lovers. I had no reason to think that the older writer with whom my father had been close would have any information. But when I went back and read a number of her works in preparation for her talk, among them there was one novel in which she depicted the lonely death of a single woman as a double-suicide-in-spirit with her lover, a man with a wife and children. As I listened to the writer talk, that protagonist and the woman I had never even met blended together in my mind. I felt then and there that I wanted this writer to hear about the phone call I had never discussed with anyone.

I entered the restaurant at the business hotel right about when I thought she would be finishing up her breakfast, and found her sitting with the editor with whom she was travelling. As we worked out the details of our schedule up until their departure on an afternoon train to Nagoya, we chatted pleasantly. When the coffee came out, I took the chance to tell her about The Call.

"The woman must have been sitting right next to him. That has to be it, don't you think?" The writer was utterly convinced. "He called you to humour her. Or rather, she pressured him into doing it."

The woman had been sitting next to him. He called me, and she was in on it. The possibility had never crossed my mind for a second until the writer pointed it out. Rattled, I visualised the scene half-consciously. Maybe they had been in bed together. After a bout of lovemaking, my father is sitting up and turned away from her, smoking a cigarette, and the naked woman coos out to him.

—When are you going to get that divorce?

—Soon, soon.

—You liar, you're always saying that.

—It's the truth. I was just about to bring it up with my wife.

—Ugh, don't call her your wife.

—Sorry.

—But if that's how you feel, then call her right now. Tell her you're going to divorce her.

Such a clunky, third-rate dialogue. But at the time of the call, I, who had only known puppy love, couldn't have dreamt of something like this. All I knew was, when he referred to my mother by her maiden name, by her full name, it was as though he were denying his entire life up to that point with her, including the children they had had. And that had made me angry.

This new version of the scene that I was imagining brought back that anger. I resisted this impulse—it doesn't matter whether the woman was there or not, it happened decades ago—until I suddenly struck on a new doubt.

"So my question is, if that's true, why would my father call me? Why couldn't he just call my mother? I feel as though if I were that woman, I would be really satisfied if he called his wife, but it would be totally meaningless for him to call his daughter."

If I had been my father, I wouldn't have called my daughter. He was forever calling me drunk and rattling on incoherently, or screaming into the receiver at me for no apparent reason, but a few days later, he would inevitably be feeling bad about it and would call me when he was in a good mood to make amends. I knew it wasn't like my father to intentionally hurt his daughter, so I thought it was strange behaviour on his part.

"I'm telling you, the woman made him do it. To teach a lesson."

It was time to move on, and so we left the restaurant. The writer, her editor, and I met up with others, including the director of the group that had sponsored the event, the head of the office staff there, and a local reporter, so we split up into two cars. The writer had said she wanted to visit some graves.

It took a full ten minutes to drive to the cemetery, so I had plenty of time to think about what this writer more than twice my age had just said to me. The woman made him do it. To teach a lesson, she had said. To teach whom what lesson? I wondered. Now I have two children of my own, but I haven't lived even half as many years as the old writer. And when I received that phone call as a college student, I was only half as old as I am now, a complete naïf, practically a child.

Here is the conclusion I came to in the end: if that woman had wanted to "teach a lesson" to my mother—to let her know that she existed, or to tell her how much she herself was loved—she would have telephoned my mother. But she didn't. Even if they had tried to telephone my mother and she happened to be out, they would have tried her again another time. You wouldn't call the daughter if you wanted to call the wife. But my father did call me. In other words, that woman's original intention was to use my father to call his daughter, perhaps even to "teach a lesson." But what lesson, and why me? A strange thrill gradually rose in me.

Our car slid into the cemetery parking lot. The car the writer was in was already there; I saw her getting out of the vehicle with the editor holding a parasol over her. It was only just a little after nine in the morning, but the sun had already appeared over the mountains and was bearing down on us. It was a small, rural city, close to the mountains, close to the sea. In the old days, it had become rich thanks to the lumber industry, and it had been a bustling area. Toward the end of the Meiji Period, it had been the setting for a certain major incident. This year was the 100th anniversary of it. A large number of people were considered to have been party to the crime and were put to death simply for having gone out eating and drinking with the revolutionaries who actually were involved in the plot. The majority of them were natives of this area. Some decades earlier, the writer had come to this area to do research on the incident for a novel she was working on. The previous day's lecture had also been to commemorate that incident, and the writer had said that she wanted to visit their graves one more time.

It was an old graveyard, depressed in the middle like a mortar. Among those falsely accused had been a doctor who was beloved by the people in this area. On the slope directly across from the doctor's grave was my father's grave, which we planned to visit last. We had wound our way up on foot along a narrow path, until we at last reached the doctor's grave. Despite the steepness of the path, the writer never seemed out of breath.

"When I came here long ago, it wasn't paved."

Every time the writer opened her mouth to say something, a crew of young people from the local television station, who had joined up with us in the parking lot, swung around on her with the camera and boom mike. They were in the middle of producing a documentary on her life and work. Some people coming back from visiting graves called out to her in excitement, and the writer responded graciously to them. They walked away from us to a place where they could talk without the camera in their faces.

The doctor's grave was close to the top of a hill; it had been constructed as though it were stuck onto the side of a sheer face. I thought it was a good location, with a commanding view of the southern half of the city. A six foot by six foot plot contained the doctor's grave, a historical marker outlining the incident and the false accusations, and the graves of his family members and ancestors. From where I was standing behind the writer, I watched her light incense and put her hands together; beyond the doctor's grave's stone marker, I could see my father's own grave across the way. These two men from different periods, at rest, face to face with each other, I idly thought.

Someone who was decidedly not at rest was the writer. She finished paying her respects at the doctor's grave, went down the path back to the parking lot and headed up a different path to my father's gravesite. She strode with ease out of one era and into another. Impossible, but it felt as though everything were connected via these paths, from the Meiji Era to right now, already ten years into the twenty-first century, and that the writer had leisurely strolled across this span of time to be here with us now.

A cicada was crying out right by us. I vacantly watched the smoke wreathe upward from the incense at my father's grave.

"Good news, Papa—your teacher has come to visit you." But even as I said that to his grave marker, I wasn't thinking about my father's face or memories of times I had spent with my father, and I sure wasn't thinking about the contents of any of his famous works that were mentioned on the extravagant marker that had been placed next to his grave. I was thinking about a certain woman who had been depicted in a novel by the elderly writer who stood right there, facing away from me.

The woman had been considered, together with her paramour, to be the ringleader of a certain "great incident" that had shaken the Japan of its day to its foundations. Not that I cared about any of that. The important thing to me was that her lover had a wife. Of course, even the fact of a wife is pretty much meaningless when one is facing imminent death. The two went off to their deaths in a metaphorical embrace. Well, not "off to their deaths"—they "fell," is the term the writer used. To embrace the man you love, and to "fall" while you're still entwined with him. In reality, the man was put to death a day before the woman was, but that doesn't matter. The woman and the man were joined as one. The rapture of that moment when you are sucked into a bottomless chasm together. The sensuousness of it. A love so powerful it compels us to ask, is there any finale grander than this one?

It was some three months after I got the call about how my father was going to divorce my mother, blah blah, that he told me himself that he had cancer. We had just spent the New Year's holidays together in Hawaii, my father, younger sister and I. My father had decorated the wall of the little house by the sea that he was using as a workspace by pinning up postcards and Christmas cards and the like that his two daughters had sent him from Los Angeles, where they were studying, together with a good number of postcards that he had received from other people. The day we arrived, my sister had pointed to one of the cards and clicked her tongue. "I think this one's from the girlfriend."

Girlfriend. For girls who are in high school or thereabouts, men and women are "boyfriends" and "girlfriends." Their unformed brains haven't provided them with any other words.

A little bit after I got The Call from my father, my sister needed to call our father's workspace in Japan collect from the girls' dorm at her high school. A woman came to the phone. This is an international collect call from your daughter, do you accept the charges? the operator asked. No, the woman answered. The line went dead, and not understanding what had just happened, my sister burst into tears. Later, my father apparently had an excuse for my sister, that the woman hadn't understood what the operator was saying to her in English, and couldn't say anything other than no. After that, my sister began referring to the woman who had refused the charges as "the girlfriend." Listen, Dad's got a girlfriend, she reported, as though she were the only one who knew this secret.

My father had made a meal for his daughters, whom he hadn't seen for a long time.

"Has your … girlfriend … been here before?"

"She hasn't, but what are you going to do if she does come here?"

"I'll have her buy me something."

I thought this was an asinine conversation. I silently ate the food dripping with fat that my father insisted was a traditional Hawaiian recipe. My father tried to draw me into the conversation, so I laughed just to be polite.

At that, he said, "You have really come to resemble your mother. You laugh exactly the same way."

I had no idea how to respond to this. My younger sister was chatting on in her childish way: I had a fight with my roommate, and it was totally … and The old witch in charge of the dorm is so mean … Her feigned ingenuousness was kind of pitiful in its own way. Even though she knew about the existence of the other woman, my father likely hadn't told my sister about the divorce and all that. My father once said that the ways he loved and raised his older daughter and his younger daughter were completely different. His older daughter, he treated as an equal. His younger daughter, he babied. He had definitely said something like that at some point. And yet, both of them were his flesh and blood. So my younger sister, being his daughter, sensed something. Perhaps her self-absorbed-baby act was an unconscious effort to maintain our father's affection.

"It's cancer, but I can beat it," my father had said over the phone.

I wasn't surprised when he said the c-word, mainly because, an hour earlier, my mother had called. "We're not telling him it's terminal, OK? He thinks if he has surgery he can beat it. We don't want to do anything to make him nervous, so don't panic and come racing back to Japan or anything."

It had already spread to his lungs, and he looked deathly ill, my mother said, after explaining the situation in a solemn tone. What surprised me the most was the speed with which the same mother who had said that he could go off and die in any old ditch he pleased, as soon as she received the bad news from the chief physician, had dropped her work and everything else to be by my father's side.

"Mom is stepping up and doing all kinds of things for me. She can be pretty scary when she's standing guard—I'm not allowed to smoke or drink." He said this to me the same time he told me he had cancer. Meaning, my mother didn't know anything. She had maybe intuited that there was another woman, but she didn't know anything about the phone call. That was as it should be. Depending on whether or not that phone call had happened, the whole situation would be completely different. And as long as no one said anything, it was as though there had never been a phone call. My mother believed that my father was her actual husband in both name and substance, and was taking care of him. She was going to the hospital—three hours round-trip—every day, she was tending to his personal needs, talking with him, massaging him where it hurt, and scolding him by telling him to buck up when he started to say it was too much. She was just like a mother to him.

I went so far as to think that. If at the end of his life, a man's wife becomes like a mother to him, what does his daughter become?

I resisted the urge to run home right away, and when I finally went back to Tokyo during spring break, my father had become incredibly thin from the chemotherapy. Straining to speak, my father insisted on going back home. Against our better judgment, we brought his emaciated body back to his hometown, and did the paperwork for him to be transferred into the care of a hospital where his old classmate was the director. Breathing in the familiar air of his youth, for a time his condition seemed to stabilise, but it was only a brief respite. The cancer had progressed into his brain. With each passing day, my father's various abilities were stolen from him one by one. First, his strength was gradually sapped. Then he began to lose his memory. Unless he thought about it for a long time, he couldn't even remember his own children's names. And then, his bodily functions. He lost complete control of his left arm. For the right arm, which he could barely move, it was only a matter of time. And yet, you could hear laughter coming from his room. The day it happened, it was my father's birthday. My grandparents, my aunt and my cousins had all gathered in the room. It was after the party was over, when my mother had gone down to the lobby to see everyone off. My father weakly reached out his right hand.

"What do you need?" He didn't answer. He only stared directly at me. I clasped his hand with both of my own. But my father made to brush them away. When I took my hands away, my father again moved his right hand, reaching out to the daughter who stood by his bedside and placing it on one of her breasts. He squeezed it a few times.

I have no idea what my father's intentions were. Had loneliness for his daughters, who had not come physically close to him since they entered adolescence, compelled my father to do this in his illness? Or was it that he didn't even recognise his daughters anymore, and he just wanted to touch this young woman who happened to be standing right in front of him? That's what I thought at the time.

But now that I am thinking about it again, this is what I think. That breast belonged to his daughter, but didn't it also belong to his wife? He hadn't confused his daughter for his wife. From the moment his daughter had appeared in this world, she had been a child he had to protect, and at the same time, a wife that he could not ever defile. But because the cancer had eaten away at his brain, the taboo had started to fall apart. Couldn't it have been something as simple as that?

And so, as far as the phone call goes, perhaps the woman had been jealous. Not of the wife with whom he could cut ties simply by filing for divorce, but of the woman with whom a man has the utmost, eternal bond: his daughter. That's why she had him call me. To make him break things off with his daughter, or to make his daughter break things off with her father, to keep her from being his eternal wife.

I tried to imagine that woman embracing my isolated father. But it was difficult. I didn't know what she looked like. I didn't know who she was or where she was from, and at this point, I didn't particularly care. But now, the old writer had finished paying her respects at the grave and was heading down the narrow path right in front of me back to the parking lot. At that, my memories of all those pages across which the female revolutionary was depicted arranged themselves and took shape before my very eyes. But what ultimately appeared in all that was a living, breathing woman. Not a woman who died in the Meiji period, but a woman who was possibly alive even now, who occasionally thought about my father.

When the woman was intimate with the man, she tore into him with her whole body. The woman swallowed his hands and feet, his head and torso, and swelled up like a balloon. Her skin stretched tight. A vulgar colour. In that body, a fissure appeared, and a substance like magma came gushing out. It was a pure red liquid that burnt everything in the path of its flow. It poured toward a deep, seemingly bottomless pit that had opened up in the ground. A pit so deep that if a person fell in, there would be no possibility of climbing out. A pit from which, no matter how much she stretched her hand out, a wife could not possibly collect the bones.

 

***

 

The bell sounded for the limited-express train bound for Nagoya. Through the window, I could see the writer inside, arriving at her seat. The pane was fixed in place, so we couldn't open it and speak to each other. The bell was still sounding. The writer was occasionally looking this way, giving a little bow, but the train still wasn't moving. Each time, the director and office head both lowered their heads in response to her.

"Somebody wanted to teach me a lesson. But everything is OK, now." A few minutes earlier, back at the wickets, I had said this to the writer. The writer had looked puzzled for a moment, before nodding and saying, "Good."

The train started to pull out. The director and the office head bowed deeply to the writer in her seat. The writer waved at us like a little girl. She smiled at us as though she were headed out on a field trip or a class excursion. After the train was gone, we could hear once again the crying of the cicadas. I thought about how the woman my father had called Teraguchi Rieko was looking after the two little children I had left behind in Tokyo. And then I thought this as well: had Teraguchi Rieko never felt any resentment toward her daughter, the eternal wife? No, I decided, probably not, because Teraguchi Rieko was her daughter, and her daughter was Teraguchi Rieko.

"I haven't learnt my lesson after all." Which me mumbled that under my breath, I had no idea. But what I can say is this: whether I am Teraguchi Rieko or her daughter, I am definitely jealous of the woman who called me. For her, it is possible to fall together with my father into a deep hole, and to enjoy a rapturous death.

 
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