When much in the woods as a little girl, I was told that the snake would bite me, that I might pick a poisonous flower or Goblins kidnap me, but I went along and met no one but angels….
— Emily Dickinson
Emiko works the morning shift at the Happy Donuts store, her first job in America. She puts on plastic gloves before handing food to customers. She says OK when they want to call her Amy, because her real name is too difficult. She has one friend here, so far. His name is Benjamin Urano, and he is a chef at Oishii, the five-star Japanese restaurant downtown.
He came into the store one morning, wearing gray sweat clothes, and asked for coffee, bouncing in place in his white shoes. When she handed him the paper cup, he thanked her in Japanese and it surprised her so much that she dropped his change on the floor. This made him laugh, and he wrinkled up his nose in a way that reminded her of her little brother Toru. She began speaking rapidly in nihongo, ecstatic to communicate without struggling, but he shook his head.
“Stop!” he cried. “I only know a few words, sukoshii.” He held his thumb and finger a hair’s breadth apart. “I’m a yonsei, Emiko. Fourth generation. My nihongo is…” he released his hands, and the invisible words fluttered away.
He came in every day after that, and after a few weeks he handed her a little card. Shiny black cardboard, with gold lettering showing the name of the restaurant, Oishii, in both Japanese and English. She mouthed the word and smiled. Delicious.
“Call me, Emiko,” he told her. “Come to my restaurant.”
She didn’t call him, but she carried the card inside her pocket until it was soft and wrinkled. Now she smiles when she sees his gray figure, jumping in place as he waits for the street light to change. She thinks about visiting him at Oishii, of ordering dinner, and then watching him cook through the glass wall. They have a hard time keeping the diners in their seats, he says. They line up, drinks in their hands, and stare through the glass at the steamy, flying-vegetable world inside. She wants to see him dressed in white, his hands flashing over the flames.
Customers come into the shop, take their doughnuts in waxed paper, and leave without talking to Emiko. Although she doesn’t know their names, she learns their faces. There is the man who eats unsugared doughnuts. After his breakfast, he folds his newspaper into thirds and carefully marks it with different colored pens. He makes calls on the telephone next to the cigarette machine.
“Hello, my name is Terence Quinn, I’m calling in response…”
When he finishes, Terence Quinn opens a tin Band-aid box and spills his collection of tie tacks onto the counter. They are an odd assortment of colored jewels and stones. One of them is a hammer shape and another, a miniature woman with wings. He fastens one through his tie, watching his reflection in the surface of the pay telephone. He does this every day. It makes Emiko sad to think of him in so many offices, fingering the little post in his tie, holding his folded newspaper on his knees.
She likes to draw the swirling patterns on Terence Quinn’s tie. She uses dimestore marking pens for portraits of her favorite customers; colorful, bleeding drawings on paper napkins. She does them in less than a minute; while they are slipping their change into their wallets her hand is moving under the raised counter. With a few strokes, the ink has soaked the thin layers of napkin and she has captured them.
She has done several of Benjamin; a blur of gray under the sparkling green dot of the traffic light. When she has completed a dozen, she bundles the soft stack of napkins into a doughnut box. “Manager’s special.”
“This is me?” He shuffles them between his hands. “You’re drawing pictures of me?” He laughs, holding the napkins up to the light. “Incredible!”
He waits for her that afternoon, sitting in his black car. Emiko suddenly feels shy and wishes she hadn’t given him her drawings. She takes a long time folding her red apron. Finally she walks out to the parking lot, her eyes hurting from the bright sunlight.
“You look so much littler without all those red clothes on.”
They drive to Japantown, and mingling with the tourists, they eat omanju, sweet bean cakes.
“Don’t you ever miss Japan?” Benjamin asks.
“I miss it a lot. But my brother came here for school, and then everyone else. My mother didn’t want us separated, the ocean in between.”
“I’ve never even gone,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s stupid, Japanese people that don’t know Japan?”
“Not stupid, no.”
“Well, then what? I tried to take Japanese classes over at the Extension, but it was hard, with nobody to practice with….”
“Right. There’s you.” He takes her hand.
They go to Japanese movies every week, and Emiko explains to Benjamin the parts that make her laugh. They sit on a bench under the peace pagoda, pigeons at their feet, and she reads the Japanese newspaper. But then there are weeks when she stands at the doughnut shop cash register, furiously scribbling the shape of him from memory. She knows that those are the days he is making jokes in English, cooking to the applause of bank owners and movie stars.
When she has not heard from him in a month, Benjamin appears in a black slicker, black waterproof pants and high yellow boots. He smiles crookedly, showing her his left dimple. “Ohayo gozai mas, Emiko,” he says. “It’s mushroom time.”
Emiko feels something slip inside her, a loosening of the anger that has sustained her through all these days of absence. She turns away. “Why don’t you take Elisabeth?”
Elisabeth is his official girlfriend, a tall blonde of Danish descent who models for lingerie catalogs. Her hair is cut even shorter than his, curled in feathers around her ears. She and Benjamin go to symphony openings and $200-a-plate dinners, and they have had their picture in the newspaper more than once. Emiko clips the photos and tapes them into her scrapbook. She uses a red grease-pencil to draw a beard on Elisabeth.
“She doesn’t like that nature stuff,” he says. “Come on, Emi, it’s perfect out there, I don’t want to do this by myself.” He opens his pack, shows her the thermos of hot tea, the oranges wrapped in red cloth, the fresh onigiri he has prepared that morning.
“Benjamin, why haven’t you called since September?”
“I did, a few times. You weren’t home.” He lifts a piece of hair away from her eyes. “And if you don’t have an answering machine, how do…”
“You know where I work, Benjamin. I am there every day, not hard to find.” But she is putting on her raincoat, tying the laces of her sneakers.
The air in the forest wraps around them like a moist, steaming towel. The last time Emiko gathered mushrooms was in Okayama, when she was eight years old. She remembers the rain, the thick wet air, holding her grandmother’s hand. Ba-chan dried the mushrooms in a wire basket over a gas flame, then kept them packed in jars for preparing special holiday dishes.
Benjamin tells her that the ones they are picking today only sprout every five or six years, and even then, are difficult to find except after heavy rains. Benjamin is on a mission to collect the finest specimens for Oishii. He will prepare a thousand-year old recipe for perfect mushroom soup, and offer it to only the most exclusive guests.
She follows him silently for almost half an hour, watching the yellow undersides of his boots lift with each step. They make a sucking sound in the wet earth. She wonders what Elisabeth is doing. Sitting in front of a fireplace with a white cat on her lap. Drinking mineral water with a slice of lemon, something with no calories. Before she had come to this country, Emiko had never bothered about calories. Food was food, and either tasted good or didn’t. Here, she discovered, women punish or ridicule themselves for enjoying what they eat, and only seem satisfied if they are suffering. She wonders if this is why Benjamin wants a girlfriend like Elisabeth; because she knows about things like calories, because she is paid thousands of dollars to put on fancy underwear and show her suffering to the world.
He denies all of this when she asks. “Elisabeth and I are… you don’t understand, Emiko. People like to see us together.”
By “people,” Benjamin means his boss, Frank Edo. Frank thinks it is good for his “Benny Boy” and the glamorous model to be in the public eye, to blend together like a glittering black and silver ornament.
“But you go in bed with her.”
“Ye-es,” he says, with exaggerated patience.
“Is that something you like?”
“Emiko, I am not going to say another word.” He changes the subject, and she notices the skin over his cheekbones tensing into a smooth, rigid curve.
Perhaps it is true, perhaps it is none of her business. Emiko is not Benjamin’s girlfriend, although it is unclear exactly what she is. They sit crosslegged on the floor, she in front of him, her back to his hands. He pulls the red elastic band from her hair and strokes it with a wooden brush, from the top of her head to the end of its length, nearly brushing the floor. Hundreds of strokes, the steady downward pull, it nearly puts her to sleep. While he brushes her hair, she speaks to him in Japanese, and he answers in slow, careful single words. When her hair is crackling with electricity, he gives it back to her and she braids it into a long rope for the bus ride home. He has never tried to kiss her.
She wonders about this as they step with difficulty into the denser part of the forest. Does he really only want her for a sister? He has gone farther ahead of her, and she hears his voice, a triumphant whistle. He is kneeling, the pack open beside him, and he is bending low over the small thick umbrellas, inspecting their shiny domes.
“They’re perfect,” he whispers. “Look, they’re absolutely perfect.”
She squats down and rests her hand on his shoulder for balance. “How do you know they are the right ones?”
“I know.” He starts snapping the tender stems, and they make a noise like soft hollow bones.
“These look like the kind my grandmother used to pick.” They fill her lap.
“Let’s go to the restaurant.” His voice is high, excited.
The main dining room of Oishii is dark and cool, with soft quiet carpeting that absorbs her steps. It is like she imagined it, the giant vases filled with curling, budded tree branches, the indigo cushions, the glass wall: a mosaic of fitted glass bricks, each one a small window. It is clean inside, and strangely silent.
Benjamin takes her hand. “Come on, Emiko, you can watch me work.”
He is excited as a small child, opening the jars like they are holiday candy, holding his breath as he lifts each mushroom out. He washes them under cold water and lays them tenderly on the wooden counter, then assembles the vegetables, shrimp and other sea creatures that will make up the broth. He starts up the fire, and they sizzle in a round black pan, jump into the air. Emiko watches Benjamin’s face, the sheen of moisture glowing in the orange light. He is utterly alive.
“I’m going to give you the first taste.”
“Benjamin, I know it’s takai –expensive- – how much, thirty dollars a bowl?” She waves her hands in front of her face. “Really, save it for your customers.”
“You helped me pick them. Come, we can eat together.” He pours the soup into thin porcelain bowls. They sit at a table in the center of the enormous dining room and he picks her hand up from the white linen tablecloth. “You’re very special to me, Emiko.”
Did he really say those words? There is a taste like gold in her mouth, heavy and liquid, she tells him it is good, it is delicious, the steam is wrapping its fingers around her face as she lifts the bowl over and over again. He says lovely things to her. His eyes are soft and full of tenderness and he is saying beautiful things, in Japanese, in English. It is the most heavenly dream she has ever had, but then, as dreams often do, it turns in circles and then the downward tilt begins, a spiral, a dark spinning. Deep red pain. She is on the floor. Benjamin too. Telephone, he says. I must get to the telephone. Then, after swimming through a long dark cloud of pain, she sees Frank Edo, his face looming above her, guiding a herd of uniformed men. They descend with staring eyes and lift her away.
She awakens in a white place, a white and silver room clicking like crickets. Her sisters and mother float above her, crying, talking at once. She can’t understand them. Her mouth is filled with sand. Here is Elisabeth, bending over her. Elisabeth is wearing white and she is laughing but there is no sound. She has something sharp in her hand, a knife, no a needle, something poison is stabbing her, and she can’t scream, can’t move. How can her family watch this attack, how can they stand there without doing anything? Then they grow wings, her dear ones, and fly out the window.
If she can just move her hand… her arm flies free from her body and hits Elisabeth in the face. The room fills with people, they have grabbed her wrists and ankles, they tie her to metal bars while she screams.
It is like waking from a dream and then finding that where you are is another dream, a series of larger and larger containers where it does not seem that there will ever be an escape. Then she opens her eyes and her brother Toru is reading a magazine next to her bed.
“What happened to me?” she croaks.
He drops the magazine and grabs her hand. “Emiko,” he says. “Emiko. You woke up.” His eyes are spilling tears. “We are so lucky you are alive.”
“Benjamin.” Her voice belongs to someone else.
Toru looks down. “He is alive too. Still sleeping. It’s been two weeks.”
Little by little, she hears the story: the ambulance, then helicopter, the operations at dawn, she and Benjamin being cut open in adjacent rooms. She asks about the stapled frown across her belly. Finally, a doctor with gray hair comes to see her. “You have a new liver,” he says.
She touches the tiny metal teeth sunk into her skin. “New liver?”
“Yours was poisoned, it was very ill,” he says. “Those mushrooms you ate, they were extremely dangerous. You and your friend almost died.” He shakes his head. “He should have known better.”
“This liver, where did it come from?”
The doctor looks uncomfortable. “This sort of information…”
“I want to know.”
“It was a male donor, close to your age. Climbing accident.” He tugs on the end of his stethoscope and pulls away the sheet, lays the disc on her abdomen. “Now, give me a deep breath.”
Emiko closes her eyes and sees a honey-haired boy, his bright jacket just a speck of confetti against Half Dome. His arms spread wide like a falling angel.
She wonders about Benjamin, whether his was a girl or a boy, the soft dark liver inside him. Was it a mistake? Did he get a female liver, one that was meant for her? She cannot believe there is part of a man sewed into her body, someone she never knew. Emiko holds a pillow against the wound, weeping so hard that she is afraid she will come apart. Terrified, she makes herself stop, slowing her breathing down until she is absolutely still, and she lies like that, not moving, until the nurses come and gently turn her over.
Benjamin comes to her room in a wheelchair the next morning, pushed by Frank Edo. Frank is making jokes, and he hands Emiko a bunch of yellow flowers wrapped in clear plastic. “Pretty lucky kids, you two,” he says. “Good thing I didn’t give that stuff to the customers!”
Benjamin reaches for her hand. “Emiko, I’m sorry,” he whispers.
She looks at the foam tiles in the ceiling. The patterns on them are the opposite of stars, tiny black dots on the white surface. “There are pieces of dead people inside us,” she says to the ceiling.
“Don’t think of it that way.”
“I wish I never left Japan.”
“Emiko, if this had happened in Japan, you would have died.”
“I would still have my liver.” She stares at a point in the center of his gown. “Benjamin, please go away now.”
The line on her belly blurs into a fine white scar, so that she can just barely feel it with her fingertip. It is inside her now, this permanent passport, something that was born from blonde parents, something that never crossed the Pacific. She can never go back now.
She asks her boss at the doughnut shop to change her name tag, and she pins it to her pocket every morning: AMY. Benjamin calls, inviting her to Japanese movies, but she cannot bear to watch them. She knows it is only an illusion, the colored light passing through a darkened room, the people who look and sound so alive. If she puts her hand into the beam, it will come out empty.