Sheila

by Michael Hoffman

After his mother died, Hiro Noguchi approached the young Filipina woman who had been caring for her at the nursing home. Would she consider working for him? She was in Japan on a special visa for nursing trainees and, nearing the end of a three-year apprenticeship, was increasingly doubtful about passing the exam that would lead to upgraded status and permanent residency. She had once spoken to him of it. It was not her nursing skills that were at issue but her Japanese language ability. Though reasonably fluent, she had heard from other foreign candidates who were no less so that the test was impossible, full of rare and difficult Chinese characters that even many Japanese didn’t know. It was as if the test had been purposely designed to be failed. She had been warned at the outset. Japan’s determination to keep Japan “Japanese” without seeming unfriendly and closed to the outside world was well known. Headstrong by nature, she had thought she could beat the odds. She was intelligent and persevering. But her confidence was wavering.

“I’m so grateful,” said Noguchi, “for the way you looked after her. She spoke of you often, and with such affection. Perhaps you’ll pass the test after all. If you do, there’s no more to be said. If not, please come and work for me. It’s a big house – well, not too big, not a castle, after all… and I simply haven’t the time to take care of it. So you see,” he smiled, “you can be the solution to my problem, and maybe I can be the solution to yours.”

Two weeks later she took the test and, as expected, failed. She telephoned Noguchi, as he had invited her to do, and confessed to being in something of a quandary. “Maybe I should just go back home.”

“Certainly, if that’s what you want to do.”

“It’s not, really.”

“Well, my offer still stands.”

“Let me think it over.”

“Of course. Take your time.”

She had a good deal to think about. The Philippines was home, but she had got used to living in Tokyo, had learned the customs and the language of the Japanese, found them congenial, and there was also the fact – it was selfish of her to dwell on it, but human nature is what it is – that the material standard of living was so much higher here. She had come intending to settle in more or less permanently. Of course being a housekeeper was not what she’d had in mind; she was a highly trained, highly skilled nurse, not a maid – but Noguchi-san seemed kind, the sort of man it would not be difficult to work for… Yes, that was another thing: he seemed almost too kind. What did he have in mind, exactly? She was a young woman in a strange country, all the more vulnerable given her ambiguous immigration status. She needed to be careful.

After mulling it over for two days she called him again. “I’ve decided to accept your offer. But, Noguchi-san…”

He hastened to reassure her. “Your duties will be light, you will have perfect freedom to come and go. After all your kindness to my mother, do you imagine I would be capable of doing anything to distress you or cause you anxiety?”

“Thank you, Noguchi-san. When shall I come?”

“Whenever it’s convenient for you.”

                                                ***

He came home early one day to find her singing. Blushing, she stammered an apology. “No, why?” he smiled. “Do you like music? There’s a piano in the – ” He laughed. “Well, in the piano room. It was my mother’s. I never go into that part of the house. Do you play?”

“A little.”

“Play something for me. I’ll sit here and listen. I’m not musical, but I love to listen to music from a distance. When I was a child I would sit in my room, with the door shut and my eyes closed, listening to my mother play. Whenever I was sad, and no matter how sad I was, whatever childish tragedy was weighing on me, it made me feel better. Go. Play something for me.”

“Are you sad?”

“Yes, I am, a little.”

He closed his eyes, and soon he could hear, faintly, as though she were playing softly on purpose so as not to disturb him, a melody, a simple little melody. He didn’t recognize it. Some Philippine children’s song, maybe. “Don’t stop,” he thought to himself. “Keep playing.” It did not make him less sad; if anything it made him more so, but it was a lovely sadness which at that moment he would not have exchanged for the greatest happiness on earth. If he could only sit there forever, eyes closed, not moving, with nothing but that melody standing between him and death…

                                                ***

She was startled, some little time later, to see Hiro Noguchi’s name in the newspaper. An economist at some research institute, stating his opinion that the economy would get worse before it got better, that serious hardship lay ahead, that mistaken government policies were making matters worse… she could not follow the ins and outs of the argument, but gathered that he was intent on puncturing the prevailing optimism with some harsh truths that only he could see. Could this be her Hiro Noguchi? There was no photo; his age was given as thirty-six; she would have taken him for younger, but obviously she could be mistaken. It was strange: she had known the man, at least been aware of his existence, for two years; he had been the son of her patient; now she worked for him and lived in his house, and yet not once had it ever occurred to her to wonder what he did for a living! A Japanese office worker, she had assumed – a dark-suited man among dark-suited men, taking the train to work in the morning, coming home by train at night; what else was there to know? She was his housekeeper, and though he was kind and friendly and put on no airs, and probably would have answered readily enough any question she put to him, the truth was that, natural reserve aside, she had felt no curiosity, no curiosity at all. On the contrary, it was he who seemed curious about her, and on those rare occasions when they found themselves in each other’s company – for generally when her duties did not engage her she kept to her room and he went about his own business, showing no sign he was conscious of not being alone in the house – he would ask her about her childhood, about what it was like growing up in a large family in a rural environment in a developing country, and so on, and would listen quietly while she, nostalgia at times getting the better of her diffidence, talked on, later blushing to herself at her loquaciousness and at the inconsequential triviality of her stories; but he, far from frowning or stirring restlessly in his chair as though her patter was getting on his nerves, listened quietly, intently, his face lit by the merest hint of a smile – not a mocking smile but one suggesting genuine pleasure at hearing things that, commonplace as they were to her, were evidently quite new to him.

Hiro Noguchi, so far as she could judge, was a common Japanese name – you could probably populate her native village with the Hiro Noguchis there must be in Tokyo alone; still – could it be him? Could her employer, that kind, gentle, rather insipid, somewhat ghostly figure who had never struck her as remarkably intelligent or especially interesting – perhaps it was because she had long known him only as the son of his mother, that is to say not fully adult, that she failed to give him his due – could this apparently most ordinary of men be an economist of such knowledge and distinction that his opinions appeared in the newspaper?

Yes, it was so. When he came home that night, as she took his coat, she said, “I saw your name in the newspaper.”

“Oh?”

She showed him; he glanced at it and murmured, “Ah.”

“It’s you, then?”

“Yes, they called me for a comment. I wonder…” He seemed embarrassed.

“What?”

“That song you played the other day. Do you remember?”

“Yes.”

“Would you mind… playing it for me now? I’m sorry to trouble you. I would like so much to hear it.”

“Of course. It’s no trouble at all. It’s a song my mother used to sing to me when I was little.”

He sank into the armchair and closed his eyes. He really does look sad, she thought. She tiptoed out of the room to the piano, and as she played she thought, “Do I love him?” She laughed out loud. “You’re crazy, girl.” Crazy or not, she suddenly felt almost like weeping. It was not sadness, but something else. “Must be my period coming on” – but it wasn’t that, nor was it the memories the song evoked, of sitting on her mother’s lap while her mother held her by the wrists and clapped her tiny little hands to the rhythm as she sang… such a sweet, sweet voice, her mother had… How she would have loved to curl up on Noguchi’s lap, her head nestled in his shoulder – without him knowing she was there! She would be invisible, she would stroke his face, kiss his ear lobe, and he would sigh with pleasure without knowing it was her, without suspecting, without even wondering who it was…

                                                ***

Some weeks later, coming out of the supermarket where she did her shopping, she noticed a young police officer who seemed to take an interest in her. It could have been her imagination, for he said nothing, but his look as he passed seemed to her full of meaning. She knew from the newspapers that the authorities were lately cracking down on illegal immigrants. She wasn’t illegal, her nurse’s visa was still valid, but its expiry date was approaching. She would have to renew, but she was no longer a nurse. Would she be allowed, after all, to remain as a housekeeper? Would she be arrested, detained, subjected to indignities? She had heard of it happening to others. Maybe she should just go home. In the Philippines she could work as a nurse; she wouldn’t make as much money, not nearly as much, but she would be aiding and comforting people who needed it – isn’t that what she had set out to do in life? Unexpectedly she had fallen into a situation in which she lived like a princess in a veritable palace, working, if you could call what she did work, for a wealthy man who seemed to want nothing from her but her presence, who made no demands on her, who seemed almost apologetic every time he asked her to do some little thing… Other matters aside, shouldn’t she be suspicious of such an arrangement? Wasn’t it too good to be true? Mightn’t there be something sinister behind it? She had been suspicious at the outset, had been on her guard, very much so, but as time passed without the shadow of a threat materializing, her vigilance had relaxed. One gets used to softness, comfort, luxury. Her childhood had been hard, her professional life rewarding in its way but arduous – long, long hours ministering to patients embittered by illness who, far from being grateful, seemed at times almost to blame her for their suffering. Situated as she was now, other considerations aside, she could send money home to her family, lift them out of poverty…

“I have to renew my visa,” she said as she served dinner that night.

“Ah.”

“Do you know the law? I’m here as a nurse. Are you sure they’ll let me stay as a housekeeper?”

“We can marry.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Once you’re my wife… oh, you needn’t worry!” he hastened to assure her. “You don’t think I’d – oh, no! I meant… you know… just for the authorities, so they won’t bother us.”

She laughed. “There must be a better way!”

“Yes, I daresay there is. Do you know how to play chess?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Would you mind keeping me company? Suddenly I somehow feel like playing chess.”

“I’m just a beginner!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

                                                ***

A Filipina friend who had arrived a year after her and therefore was not due to take her test for some time called her – could she get out for an hour and join her for a cup of coffee? This was a pleasant surprise. It would do her good to talk to a friend, a countrywoman, in her own language. “Where?”

“Starbucks at Ikebukuro Station?”

“All right, give me an hour.”

There was no problem about taking time off. She had been dusting the furniture, more for something to do than because the furniture needed dusting, and Noguchi-san not only had no objection to her leaving the house whenever she felt like it, he encouraged her to do so. “Go out, see the city,” he’d say; he seemed to feel almost guilty that the mere fact he paid her a salary constituted a check on her liberty. A less conscientious employee would have abused his trust. She could disappear for days, she thought, and on her return be greeted without a hint of reproach.

Ikebukuro was three stops along the Marunouchi Line. She merged with the crowd, flowed with it. She liked crowds. At a certain stage of our lives we like everything that’s the opposite of what we knew in childhood. The overcast skies appealed to her, the faint autumn chill made her shiver but delighted her. “Maybe I will marry him,” she thought. “There are worse fates than being the wife of such a man.” She smiled. “Being his wife wouldn’t be much different than being his housekeeper…”

Her friend, when she’d heard the story, agreed immediately. “Marry him, marry him. Or else introduce him to me, and I will.”

“Can’t you be serious for once?”

“I’m always serious. Just because a person laughs doesn’t mean she’s not serious. It’s surprising how few people understand that.”

“You have a boyfriend.”

“So?”

“Oh, Florence, you’re impossible! I want to marry for love, not for – ”

“Listen. I’ll tell you a funny story. Funny-serious. One day when I was fifteen I was alone in the house and bored, and I started rummaging in my mother’s closet. Don’t ask me what I expected to find. As to what I did find… well, a shoebox full of letters. Old, yellowed letters. Love letters. From my dad to my mum. When I say love letters, I mean love letters! I mean… what wouldn’t a woman give, to… She was his queen, his goddess, he’d die a thousand deaths for her, he’d… no, better still, he’ll live for her, all his life, till his final breath!”

“Well?”

She laughed. “If you knew my parents, you wouldn’t ask. If they exchange three words in the course of a day, it’s a lot. If they’re aware of each other’s existence, they hardly show it. They don’t hate each other or anything, I don’t think, they just…” She shrugged. “Just what? They’re a married couple, a typical married couple. That’s what they’ve been as long as I’ve known them. It never occurred to me they’d ever been anything else. I wonder if my mum spurned a kind rich man to marry my dad. If she did, regret must be eating her alive. So don’t talk to me about love. Love’s nothing. It comes, it goes. Marry him, Sheila. You’ll live like a queen. Seriously.”

                                                ***

She did. She raised the subject of her visa again, and he, very much as he had before, perhaps having forgotten their earlier exchange, suggested marriage as a possible solution.

“Yes, all right,” she said, her throat dry, her voice barely above a whisper.

They met at the ward office at noon the next day. She showed her passport, showed her alien registration card, they signed this, signed that, and she presumed, when the clerk dismissed them with a nod, that they were married. Over lunch at a nearby sushi restaurant, Noguchi said, “Why  not go to the immigration office this afternoon?”

“I will,” she said.

“By the way,” he said, “I’ll be late tonight. I won’t need dinner.”

She nodded. He often worked late, or dined with colleagues, never failing to let her know in advance so she wouldn’t prepare dinner for nothing.

                                                ***

Winter came, and then spring. The cherry trees blossomed, a silent explosion of pink-white loveliness. The whole neighborhood, the whole city, was as if transformed. Such beauty, such astonishing beauty! Yes, thought Sheila, gazing rapt through her living room window, this is what kept me in Japan, this is why I couldn’t leave, why I couldn’t go back home when to all intents and purposes my life here ended and I should have gone home. Not cherry blossoms per se but beauty. It’s hard to describe. There’s plenty of ugliness in Japan, I know that well enough, and no lack of beautiful things in the Philippines, but for all that, Japan has beauty and the Philippines doesn’t. Is that stupid? Probably it is. Stupid or not, it’s what I feel.

Marriage had given her security – no policeman’s passing glance alarmed her now. Otherwise, her life was unchanged. She’d been a housekeeper before, and was a housekeeper now. Noguchi never approached her as a husband, showed no sign of feeling entitled to, or of wanting to. He was kind and gentle as before. He seemed to want her to be happy. He made no demands on her. He encouraged her, when there was no actual work to do, to go out, meet her friends, explore Tokyo, sometimes mentioning sights he thought she would enjoy and telling her how to get there. He asked her now and then if the salary he paid her was enough; if not he would raise it. He was an easy man to talk to; there was no need to stand on ceremony with him, no cause for her to feel intimidated by his vast intelligence – he must be vastly intelligent, she thought, since, as she now knew, his opinions appeared frequently in the newspaper and he was writing a book on the state of Japan’s economy – his last book, indeed, had won a prize of some sort. All the same he listened to her silly patter with interest and evident enjoyment – about Florence’s compulsive ditching of boyfriends, for example, or about her own childhood in a poor fishing village and her steely determination as a teenager to become a nurse,  having seen people close to her suffer for want of medical attention.

“You never wanted to become a doctor?”

“A doctor! No, a girl where I come from didn’t think of being a doctor. Not even the boys thought of being doctors.”

“What did they think of being?”

“Football players, movie stars.” She laughed; so did he.

Sometimes he would bring out the chess board. Under his patient tutelage she had improved. Once she even beat him.

“You let me win.”

“No!”

Sometimes he would fall into a kind of melancholy, and ask her to play for him. She would go into the room where the piano was and play the few simple songs she knew. She did not play well, but such as it was, her playing seemed to bring him a kind of comfort. And every time she played, the same unaccountable feeling would steal over her. It brought tears to her eyes, tears not of sadness or nostalgia or happiness or any other feeling she could name. She always expressed it the same way to herself: “Must be my period coming on.”

                                                ***

“So are you pregnant yet?” Florence asked her when they met one afternoon for a walk under the cherry blossoms.

“Yes.”

She said it as a joke, sure her friend would take it as such, but somehow the signals got crossed.

“Are you really! But that’s wonderful! And not a word to your best friend!”

“No, Florence, I’m joking,” she could very easily have said; it would have been the most natural thing in the world, and later, in her room at home, she lay on her bed wondering to herself, “Why on earth didn’t I?” They had spent two hours together, admiring the blossoms and then going for coffee. They talked and talked – of love, of babies, of Sheila’s remarkable good fortune, of the exam Florence would soon have to take – “You watch,” she said, “I’ll succeed where countless others have failed;” it was impossible to know whether she was being serious or ironic; she might be serious, she was uncommonly intelligent, that was a fact, and besides, in response to persistent protests there had been some slight easing of the standards since Sheila had taken the test. And when they parted Florence said, “I’m the baby’s godmother, that’s understood, right?” And Sheila smiled and said, “Right. Of course.”

“Supposing,” she mused to herself, “Florence or I go away, and lose touch with each other. She’ll think of me now and then, she’ll imagine me the mother of a child. If three years have passed, she’ll imagine the child as a three-year-old; if six years, she’ll say, ‘Oh, Sheila’s child will be starting school…’ If we meet again after twenty years, she’ll say, ‘Your child must be in college – studying what? Medicine? I bet it’s medicine!’ Or suppose it’s twenty-five years later and I somehow come to hear of where she is, and instead of writing her a letter I send her… an invitation to my son’s or my daughter’s wedding! It would serve her right, it’s just the sort of prank she’d pull…”

She saw an announcement in the newspaper of a social evening sponsored by an association called Filipinos in Japan. She’d had no idea there was such an organization. Should she go? Other than Florence, she’d seen no one from home since she gave up nursing. Now suddenly she wanted to. She showed the announcement to Noguchi. “Why don’t you go?” he said immediately, happy as always to see her happy.

“Why don’t you come with me?”

“Me! Why? I’m not Filipino.”

Should she pursue this? “You’re my husband.”

He said nothing, and she thought to herself, “What if I took his hand, or… or kissed him? Would he respond, or… what? What would he do?”

His silence, she saw, was not from embarrassment; he showed not the faintest sign of self-consciousness, or of struggling inwardly over an awkward challenge. Perhaps he had not heard her; perhaps she had not spoken, had only thought of speaking. Perhaps… – this thought now struck her for the first time; it was implausible, stupid even, but isn’t the truth stupid sometimes? – was it possible he didn’t know what a man and a woman – a husband and a wife – did together? “No” – it was all she could do to keep from laughing – “that’s beyond stupid, that’s… but what if somehow it’s true? Maybe he’s ill, had some kind of operation? Yes, it’s not stupid at all – the only thing stupid about it is that it never occurred to me before – me, a nurse! That must be it! He must have had some sort of illness in childhood, and grew to be a man not only never experiencing passion himself but not knowing such a thing exists in the world! Of course! If he knew it existed, he would have explained, he’d’ve said, ‘I’ll be your husband in name, for the sake of immigration, but I was sick, I had an operation, I can’t… you know…’ He’d’ve explained! It’s not embarrassing if it’s an illness, and he knows I’m a nurse and would understand… So he doesn’t know! I’ve solved the mystery! He doesn’t know!”

It was a ravishing thought, beautiful, like cherry blossoms. Her husband, the man she was married to, “till death do us part,” was a child. He looked like other men but was not like them. He was as much a child at thirty-six as he’d been at six, never mind that he had the brains of ten men.

“Sit down,” she said. “I’ll play for you. Would you like me to?”

“Oh… yes, if it’s no trouble.”

“It’s no trouble.”

She did not play the usual songs but struck the keys at random, as the fancy took her. She was no musician and the result could hardly have satisfied a critical listener, but to her it seemed she was drawing a melody from levels of being hitherto inaccessible to her. She closed her eyes to deepen the feeling, and felt that he, sitting in the living room, was moved in the same way she was.

                                                ***

He insisted she take a taxi to the party.

“No, why?” she protested. “I’ll take the train. It’s not far.”

“You’ll have to transfer. Your dress will get dirty.”

Why a change of trains should dirty her dress was beyond her understanding, but she laughed and said, “All right, to please you I’ll take a taxi.” Her dress was a bright, bright yellow. She had chosen it on purpose. Yellow was the color of the “People Power” uprising that had overthrown the Marcos dictatorship. “I wish you’d come with me.”

“I’m not much of a partier, I’m afraid. Go. Have a good time. Stay as late as you like. Tomorrow you’ll tell me all about it.”

The rented hall was a sea of yellow. The women wore yellow dresses, the men yellow shirts, ties, trousers and hats. The walls were festooned with yellow hangings. Yellow balloons floated everywhere. People approached her, greeted her, hugged her. Living in Japan had subdued her somewhat, but she soon regained her native exuberance, and greeted and hugged people in turn, treating perfect strangers as lifelong friends. She looked around for Florence but saw no sign of her. A woman she had never seen before seized her by the hand. “Come,” she said, shouting to make herself heard over the music, “there’s someone I want you to meet.” Sheila in tow, she pushed her way through the throng. “Sam! Come here.”

Sheila’s first impression of Sam was that he had stepped out of a movie from the 1930s. His jet-black hair was greased back, his moustache was straight off of Clark Gable’s face, his grin, or rather smirk, was pure Hollywood villain, and his greeting astonished her: he took her hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it. “You and me, baby,” he said, flashing gleaming white teeth. “You and me…” He’d had a bit to drink, that was clear. “May I have this dance?”

The music was loud and brassy. Whatever it was it was not tango music, but Sam immediately launched into a kind of improvised tango. His skill was breathtaking; his body moved as water flows; Sheila seemed to lose all conscious control of her own body; there was no need for her to control it, she followed his lead as effortlessly as though his brain impulses activated her muscles. The music stopped and there was a burst of applause; only then did she realize that an audience had gathered round them. Flushed and perspiring, Sheila looked about in perplexity, as though wondering how she’d come to be there. “You go, girl!” she heard a familiar voice call out. Turning towards it she caught sight of Florence, or thought she did, far, far back in the crowd. She scarcely had time to catch her breath before the music started again, and she was dancing, dancing, thinking to herself, “Any second now I’m going to wake up and say, ‘What a wild, crazy dream!’”

                                                ***

She did wake up rather disoriented. “Where am I?” That at least was easily settled. She was in her room at home – that is, in Noguchi’s home. A wan light seeped in through the drawn curtain; it was daylight. The room was perfectly familiar except in one detail – it seemed to have expanded; it seemed vast, palatial. “What’s a poor girl like me doing in a room like this?” She laughed. She closed her eyes. Her head ached, she felt feverish. She brought her hand to her forehead; it was warm. She drifted into a doze and once again saw herself in Sam’s arms, dancing, dancing… “Am I dreaming?” she asked herself in the dream, and woke up. “I’ll take a Bufferin.” But as she raised herself to a sitting position her head swam. Dizzy, she lay back on the pillow. “What’s the matter with me? Am I ill? Me – ill?” She had never been sick a day in her life. Was she alone in the house? “Come to think of it… how did I get home last night?” She tried to remember, but her brain felt as weak as her body; it simply would not be roused. “Noguchi-san!” She tried to call out, but her voice would not rise above a whisper.

                                                ***

The June rains set in, a heavy, dreary time. The symptoms she felt pointed to pregnancy. It was impossible, of course, unless… There had been the party, of which even now she remembered nothing after the dancing. Had she drunk so much? Had Sam slipped her a drug? Numb with terror, she went at last to a gynecology clinic whose advertising signs she had seen here and there in the neighborhood. Sure enough, she was ten weeks gone.

What now? An abortion? She was not quite the strict Catholic her parents were, but she had by no means shrugged off her background altogether, and even in Tokyo she attended church periodically. It was out of the question; the mere fact that the idea had occurred to her appalled her, and the thought that it could hardly not occur to her under the circumstances was scant comfort. Florence – if only she have a talk with Florence; but Florence was now in full preparation for her upcoming exam, and nothing else seemed to exist for her.

There remained Noguchi. The fact that Noguchi was her legal husband hardly colored the picture. Whatever the nature of her sin, if sin it was, conjugal betrayal did not enter into it. He himself would acknowledge as much. He would sympathize, for sympathy came naturally to him, and though it was hard to imagine what sort of practical advice she could hope for from such a man, just talking to an understanding listener would do her a world of good.

She blurted it out rather more suddenly than she’d intended to. “I’m pregnant.”

His response astonished her. He beamed and said, “Why, that’s wonderful!” Then, very gently, he took her in his arms and kissed her on the forehead. “That’s wonderful, that’s absolutely wonderful.”

                                                ***

The rains passed, and July’s oppressive heat set in. The newspaper was full of weather stories. The temperature was breaking records, people were collapsing from heatstroke, hospitals were struggling to cope. Sheila, a  native of the tropics, was less bothered, but her body felt dull and heavy; it seemed to drag her mind down with it; she was tired, listless – this at a time when, as she dimly sensed, she needed all her wits about her, because reality itself seemed to be spinning off into something that was not real at all. There was Noguchi, for example, seemingly transformed by impending fatherhood. To say he was happy scarcely did it justice. He seemed to be ascending, day by day, to ever higher spheres of  human felicity. He didn’t have to laugh or smile to express this. There was a light in his eyes, a glow in his face – was it Sheila’s imagination? No doubt it was; but was it her imagination when he came home, as he did on more than one occasion, with a toy for the child, or a picture book, or even, once, candy?

“It won’t be here for six months!” Sheila reminded him, laughing.

To which he replied, “Six months will pass before you know it!”

Not once had he asked about the father, or shown the faintest awareness that any man other than himself was, or could possibly be, involved. Sheila’s original intention to be frank with him and hide nothing faded. It was impossible; there are certain things you cannot tell a child, certain things a child, however intelligent, cannot understand.

How much did she herself understand? As to what had happened between her and Sam, she was scarcely less in the dark than Noguchi. Maybe nothing had, maybe it had been someone else. How strange it was, the utter failure of her memory to come to her aid! Some sort of drug must have been involved. There are “date-rape” drugs, she knew, that rendered a woman perfectly helpless. Was Sam the sort of man to stoop to such sordid devices? Surely not. A man with his magnetism, his charm, his magnificent skill as a dancer – gifts, moreover, of which he showed every sign of being brashly, boastfully aware – such a man does not resort to crime, to violence, to filthy, degrading subterfuge, to obtain what he would blithely assume, based on rich and varied experience no doubt, would be his for a mere smile, a mere wink.

Didn’t she herself at times, even now, long for him with such overpowering intensity that it left her breathless? Had she ever danced like that before, ever moved like that before? Never. Would she ever again? Could she bear not to?

Just as often, she hated him. Why hadn’t he got in touch with her? Even supposing she hadn’t given him her cell phone number – it seemed to her she had, though she wasn’t sure – she was not hard to find. A little asking around would locate her. If he hadn’t, the only possible conclusion was that he hadn’t wanted to.

Or… perhaps not. The world was wider and more complicated than she knew. There might be any number of circumstances that prevented him from contacting her. He might have been arrested for overstaying his visa. Or maybe a relative had died suddenly, or got sick, and he’d been called home. Maybe he was married, a father, a dedicated family man except on those odd occasions when he partied and the party atmosphere got the better of him. Maybe, again, he had had nothing at all to do with her beyond the dancing, in which case he would have no reason to contact her, or to think of her – let alone to suspect that she was presuming herself pregnant by him.

Very well, she would forget him, dismiss him from her mind. It wasn’t as if her baby wouldn’t have a father. A more loving, attentive, caring father than Noguchi would be hard to find. Certainly Sam – “if that’s even his real name” – wouldn’t qualify.

                                                ***

She was right about Noguchi. He doted on the child. He had proposed, for her approval, the name Motonobu if it was a boy – after a sixteenth-century classical artist he admired, Kano Motonobu. She was surprised; she had never imagined him as an admirer of classical art; he had never spoken of it.

“Oh yes,” he said. “As a child I wanted to be an artist myself.”

“You did! Why didn’t you?”

“Oh… one wants to be so many things as a child … Here, let me show you.”

She followed him into his study, a room she had been in any number of times to dust and vacuum but never in his company, and it was as if she were seeing it now for the first time. The books that filled the shelves and bookcases she had assumed were related to his field, economics, but the one he pulled out and laid on the desk for her was an art book. “Look.”

She looked, not quite sure what she was seeing. Snow merged with clouds; it was difficult to know where one ended and the other began. She’d been looking at it for some time before she made out a mountain peak dimly visible through the mist; then in the foreground she distinguished what looked like a rude hut, and a man standing outside it, apparently holding something – was he holding something? “I’m afraid it’s a little too… what’s the word?… too abstract for me,” she said. “But yes, Motonobu by all means, if it’s a boy.”

“Oh, it’ll be a boy.” He smiled with quiet assurance.

“You won’t be disappointed if it’s a girl, I hope?”

“Oh no! No, not at all.”

By the time Motonobu was three his gift for drawing was plain. He was a quiet child, so quiet that Sheila worried. Was something wrong? He was well into his third year before he was talking in full sentences, but even then he said little. Instead he spent hours with pencil in hand, covering sheet after sheet of paper with the most fantastic shapes. “What is it?” she would ask him of this or that sketch, and he would always have an answer ready: “Apple.” “Airplane.” “Ladder.” “Fire truck.” But she could never make the connection between the shape she saw and the object he named.

Did he look like Sam? She would scrutinize him, studying his little features, trying to make out a resemblance. Sometimes she saw it, sometimes not. Sometimes it seemed to her he didn’t look Filipino at all, but pure Japanese. Sometimes he seemed almost to look like Noguchi.

                                                ***

When Motonobu was fifteen years old he fell prey to a strange notion: that he was not a living boy but a robot.

“What should I do, Florence? I don’t know what to do.”

“You are obsessed, child, with the notion that you must do something about everything.”

“And you’re obsessed with the notion that… that everything passes, that all problems solve themselves.”

“That’s not being obsessed, that’s being free from obsession – wouldn’t you say? Yes, over the course of years I’ve come to believe that we bustle about doing more harm than good. Most problems probably do solve themselves, at least better than we can solve them. You said yourself he doesn’t mind being a robot. It’s not as if he’s traumatized by it or anything.”

“But he’s not a robot!”

“When I was a child I thought I was a crow.”

“What?”

“I was afraid of crows, and afraid of an old woman in the neighborhood who, I dreamed one night, turned me into a crow. I woke up, and the dream seemed more real than reality. Even though I could see perfectly well that I was me and that I hadn’t changed, I was convinced, against all reason, that I was a crow! Maybe I was. Maybe I am.”

“You’re making that up.”

“There’s no accounting for what children imagine.”

“If only Hiro were alive!”

“Certainly it would be better if the people we love didn’t die. Sheila, listen to me. Moto is a gifted child, a very gifted child. Gifted children go through things their parents can’t understand. That’s life. It’s the price we pay for – ”

“But if I don’t understand, how can I – ”

“You can’t, which is what I’m trying to tell you. It’s the price we pay, I was about to say, for art, science, philosophy and all those other ‘higher’ things that brighten our lives and raise human beings above mere biology. Name any great man you like. Guaranteed he put his parents through hell as a kid.”

“I’ll willingly go through hell for Moto’s sake, you know I would. It’s not my comfort I’m worrying about, it’s that I should be doing something I’m not, or not doing something I am. For his sake, not for mine.”

“I know, Sheila, I understand.”

“You say he has talent, genius, leave him alone, let him develop, an ordinary person like me can’t hope to understand him and should just accept that and learn to live with it. But what if it’s not that at all? What if he’s ill? Mentally ill? Emotionally disturbed? Shouldn’t he see a psychiatrist?”

“Oh, Sheila! You’re not going to drag the shrinks into this, are you? They’ll cure him all right. By the time  they’re through with him he won’t think he’s a robot, he’ll be one.”

                                                ***

She lay awake nights, staring into the darkness. Sleep wouldn’t come. The sleeping pills her doctor had given her worked at first, but no longer did. What should she do about Moto? A night’s sleep would clear her head, then maybe she’d know. Maybe Florence was right. Children fancy all kinds of things, get all kinds of fantastic ideas, throw out all kinds of fantastic remarks, just for the hell of it, to see how you’ll react. If you called in a shrink every time that happened, what would be left of the child’s soul? To say nothing of his “genius,” if he had it. Was Moto a genius? He was ten when his drawings at school caught the eye of a teacher, who introduced them to a qualified art teacher, from whom he’d been taking lessons ever since and who seemed to see great promise in the boy. “If it was up to me,” Sheila thought to herself, “if genius comes at the price of abnormality, I’d give him a little less genius and a little more normality. Florence laughs at me and says I don’t understand. Well, I don’t. That’s the problem. I don’t understand!”

What a strange turn her life had taken, all those years ago when Hiro had asked her to be his housekeeper. Supposing that hadn’t happened, or supposing she’d done the sensible thing and refused, gone back to the Philippines, resumed her nursing career in her native province where qualified nurses were scarce and much in demand. Why hadn’t she? Her life would have been busy, useful, sane. Knowing that, and having from earliest childhood steadfastly looked forward to and prepared for such a life, eager for its rewards, reconciled to its privations, she had nonetheless thrown it over, with remarkably little hesitation, to become… what? A useless, pampered drudge. What had he wanted with her in the first place? He had no need of a live-in housekeeper. She had supposed at first that he was out to seduce her. Had she been hoping for that? It was all so long ago… Yes, quite possibly she had been hoping for it. He was a wealthy, attractive man, a man who could make a woman happy – so he had seemed, at any rate, and beneath her wary exterior, her resolve, as she put it, to “be on her guard,” she might – almost certainly would – have been cautiously open to advances from him – advances of a certain kind – advances which, however, he never made, had never thought of making, had been incapable of making. No, what he’d needed was not a housekeeper, not a wife, but a mother. His mother had just died, and he’d turned to her, his mother’s nurse, as a replacement. “So that’s what I’ve made of my life, serving for  twenty years as surrogate mother to a rich man who in return gave me a life of idle luxury…”

And yet, she had been happy. That was the strangest thing of all. She had been happy; was happy still as she looked back on their life together. The circumstances of that life were so bizarre, so… twisted… that she would not dream of revealing them to anyone, not even to Florence. Florence liked to think of herself as a woman of the world who had seen too much to be surprised by anything, and yet she, Sheila, her closest friend, whose presence was as familiar to her as the air she breathed, had lived a life right under Florence’s nose of which Florence had not the faintest inkling, and would scarcely be capable of imagining, let alone believing.

Had she loved Hiro? Yes, unequivocally yes. It was absurd, of course, ridiculous, idiotic, but true. She had loved him in life, and loved him now in memory – and how had her love manifested itself? In the way she had gotten over Sam, relatively quickly and more or less painlessly. In her never having desired another man – in her not desiring one even now. In her quite genuinely indignant repulse of men over the years who showed an interest in her. In her regarding Hiro as, actually believing him to be, Moto’s true, legitimate and only father. In her knowledge that he loved her after his fashion, and in her accepting his love with gratitude, contentment and satisfaction.

And now here she was: forty-two years old, a widow, a wealthy woman, at home in her adopted country, whose ineffable “beauty” she loved as much as ever. If only Moto were just a little more normal, less puzzling, less “beyond” her, her happiness would be complete, she would have nothing more to wish for, nothing more to ask of life.

“What is it, mother?”

She gasped. He stood before her, in his pajamas, rubbing his eyes. She had not heard the door open. “I saw your light. Can’t you sleep? Shall I fix you some hot milk?”

“Yes, would you? Thank you. Thank you, Moto. Thank you.” There were tears in her eyes; it was all she could do not to let him see them.

                                                ***

At the supermarket one day Sheila was accosted by a young woman. “Mrs. Noguchi?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Suzuki. I… Motonobu… can we go for a cup of tea, do you think?”

The burden of her story was that she was pregnant by Motonobu and needed money for an abortion. Sheila could scarcely take it in. Motonobu was barely sixteen and this woman looked closer to twenty-five. The two had met at the art teacher’s studio. She was another of his pupils and a great admirer of Motonobu’s work; she wished she had half his talent. She did not blame Motonobu for what happened, but the situation was what it was and needed to be dealt with promptly, there was no time to lose. Raising the child was impossible in view of Motonobu’s youth and her own poverty. It was the courage of desperation that had led her to approach Mrs. Noguchi. Motonobu knew nothing about it. He didn’t even know she was pregnant.

Sheila allowed herself to be led to an ATM, where she made the transfer requested of her. She scarcely knew how she got home, or how much time passed before Moto came in to find her slumped in a chair in the kitchen, staring vacantly into space.

“What’s the matter, mother? Is something wrong?”

She looked at him blankly. If anything at all had been going on in her mind all that time, it was so much vapor, passing without leaving an impression. No plan of any kind had materialized. What should she say? What should she do? She had no idea. “My head aches,” she murmured.

“Go lie down. I’ll fix dinner.”

“What time is it?”

“Nearly seven.”

“Let’s go into the living room. I want to watch the news.”

It did her good, in times of personal crisis, to immerse herself in what was happening in the world at large. From the news she gained a sense of perspective. The tragedy, the pain, the suffering that afflicted so many, so relentlessly, so unremittingly… and yet they endured – with more fortitude, it sometimes seemed to her, than she could muster for her own trivial little burdens. It made her ashamed, and at the same time gave her strength.

“At the supermarket today I met… Suzuki-san.”

She looked hard at the boy, but Moto’s face registered not a flicker of agitation. “Who is she, mother?”

“She says she knows you. From the art class.”

“Oh. Misuzu. It’s funny. The only thing she can paint is flowers. She paints really, really beautiful flowers. Nothing else. Not even clouds.”

“She said – ” Sheila caught herself. Was it right to accuse him? It is strange that what suddenly seemed the most likely explanation had utterly failed to occur to her at the time – that she was the victim of a cool and calculated shakedown.

“She said what, mother?”

“Nothing. I think I will lie down, if you don’t mind. There’s salmon in the refrigerator.”

“Shall I fix some for you too?”

“No, I’m not hungry.”

“Mother, are you all right?”

“A headache. I’ll be fine in the morning.”

                                                ***

Even after Sheila stopped taking the sleeping pills she continued to visit her doctor every three months to get her prescription renewed. She assured him they worked wonderfully, that thanks to them she slept like a baby and woke up feeling refreshed and vigorous. He had no reason to doubt her word. The pills accumulated. The only prying eyes she had to fear were Moto’s, and he would never dream of rummaging through the drawer in her bedroom where she kept them.

Her motive was rooted in her nursing days. The dreadful suffering she had seen patients endure, sometimes with no hope of recovery, had led her to the notion that everyone should have a “way out,” an “emergency exit.” It was not an urgent or a pressing thought, and lay dormant for years, but the sleeping pills recalled it to her mind, and when her insomnia faded she went on renewing the prescription, not with anything specific in mind but as blandly and absently as one goes about any action that has become habitual. Then, when a year or so later the doctor said, “Suppose you try to do without the pills for a while and see what happens,” she merely shrugged and said, “All right, I’ll try.” She already had more than enough for an “exit.”

Since Hiro’s death she had not touched the piano. Years had passed since she had even entered the room in which it was. The thought occurred to her – it was absurd, of course – that Moto might not even know the room existed. She entered it now, expecting to have to penetrate thick clouds of dust, but no, nothing of the kind, it was as if some invisible hand had dusted it daily. She smiled. “Invisible hand” was an expression she knew from Hiro – the “invisible hand”  that “market fundamentalists” believed regulated the marketplace, keeping it sane and beneficent, failing to realize, Hiro said, that the world had changed since Adam Smith’s day; its incalculable complexity now left the “invisible hand” quite limp and helpless. It was a measure of the easy intimacy that had grown up between them over the years that he had come to talk to her about his work almost as to a colleague, almost as though thinking out loud, and she would listen, a lot of it sailing over her head, naturally, but not all of it; she was not learned but she was intelligent, and would pick out a concept here, an argument there, that she was able to grasp, and would put in a word of her own sometimes, or ask a question, and was childishly delighted when he answered her forthrightly and without talking down to her – he never talked down to her –  even more delighted when, as happened once or twice, he looked at her in happy surprise and said, “You’re right – I never thought of it that way!”

She sat down at the piano and idly ran her fingers over the keys. “And a Little Sliver of Moon” – that was the song Hiro had liked best. It was a children’s song her mother had sung to her, and though no musician she’d been able to find the notes easily enough, the melody was that simple. “And a little sliver of moon, and a little wisp of cloud…” She closed her eyes, and seemed to hear her own babyish voice asking, “Mother, what’s a sliver? What’s a wisp?”

What of the future? She was still young, her life was far from over; she needed to think, to plan. She could get back into nursing. That was one possibility. She’d need some sort of refresher course, but with Japan’s population aging the way it was, people with her skills were needed more than ever; or – she could go back to the Philippines. In fact – wasn’t that the best thing to do? Wouldn’t it do Moto good to spend a year or two in a totally foreign environment? It would be good for his art; also good for his character, which remained as impenetrable to her as ever. He had not lately said anything about being a robot, that was one good thing; on the other hand, wasn’t it because she so carefully avoided the subject? He would have seen that – he saw everything – and refrained from mentioning it so as not to distress her, and she, meanwhile, went on basking in a surface calm she knew deep down was illusory. Was that fulfilling her responsibility as a mother?

No, of course it wasn’t. Similarly in the matter of that Suzuki woman. She had seized on an explanation that conveniently blackened Suzuki-san’s character and left Moto with his innocence unsullied, knowing, with one part of her brain at least, that the explanation did not add up. If Suzuki-san had been a con artist she would hardly have used her real name, or she would have vanished immediately afterward – well, maybe she had vanished, her name had not come up since, and Moto might not have thought it worth mentioning if she had. All she had to do was ask casually, “How’s Misuzu-san?”, and she would have her answer. But the answer would only bring in its train other questions, and so on, endlessly – it would solve nothing, only drag her into a world, a universe, which she would not understand, would be incapable of understanding, not because she was stupid but because… “It’s not a place where human beings go” – such was the phrase that came to her.

                                                ***

In the art world, the name Motonobu Noguchi was on everyone’s lips. Among modern Japanese painters, it was said, he was the only one whose artistic roots were purely Japanese. He drew his inspiration from the likes of Sesshu, Shubun, Josetsu and, of course, Kano Motonobu – masters of the 15th and 16th centuries who with a mere line could suggest a snowy peak; with a mere brush stroke, a flowing river. Modernity he seemed to eschew, and yet there was nothing “archaic” about his work; on the contrary, “its bold though understated originality is redolent of realms of beauty of which he alone among mortals has been granted a glimpse, together with the gift of conveying the merest hint of it to even the most untutored viewer” – such was the somewhat florid praise lavished upon him by one well-known critic, and there must have been something in it, for the throngs who filled the galleries where Noguchi’s work was displayed were made up in large part not of connoisseurs but of ordinary people whose previous interest in art would not have gone much beyond manga.

                                                ***

In the end Sheila swallowed too many pills to be good for her but not enough to kill her. She came to slowly, in a room that seemed shrouded in fog. She did not wonder where she was, or how she had come to be there. Her only feeling was exhaustion, her only desire to go back to sleep. Dimly she was aware that she was not alone in the room, but that too made no difference. One voice seemed to detach itself from the general murmur, and though it spoke barely above a whisper, she made it out clearly: “She’s awake.” She closed her eyes.

“Sheila?” Florence. Her eyelids fluttered open. The two friends regarded each other in silence, Sheila thinking, “She’s aged.” “How do you feel?”

“I don’t. I don’t feel.”

“Do you know who I am?”

Sheila nodded.

“Are you hungry?”

She was, come to think of it. “Yes.”

“I’ll have them bring you something.”

Her recovery was rapid. Moto had found her, Florence explained after a suitable interval, and immediately telephoned Florence, who arranged for her to be brought to her hospital. She was in a coma for three days. “Now, suppose you tell me – ”

“And Moto. Is he… free?”

“Free?”

“Have they caught him?”

Caught him! Sheila, what on earth – ”

“It’s too awful. It’s horrible. When I heard, I… I didn’t want to live. I didn’t… how can I… You’d understand, if you had a child.”

“Understand what? Your son is being talked about as the greatest artist Japan has produced in a generation, and you… What’s too awful, for heaven’s sake?”

“Don’t you read the newspapers?”

“Certainly I read the newspapers.”

“He pushed a woman, an eighty-four-year-old woman, in front of a train, and – ”

“Sheila!”

“ – and… they asked him why, and he said… he said… ‘Because she was ugly.’”

“Sheila… that happened, but why… what does it have to do with Moto?”

“I told you years ago he needed to see a psychiatrist! He needed… and you… you talked me out of it! Do you deny it? Well? Answer me! Do you deny it?”

 

Editor’s Note on Sheila:

Sheila is not the first piece Eastlit has published by Michael Hoffman. His other work is listed below:

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