For me, there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length, and there I travel, looking, looking breathlessly ...
Adele D. Hoffman
Adele D. Hoffman
Elizabeth stood behind her as they made her way up the narrow aisle of the plane. As Yaeko passed through the plane’s open portal, moving into the tube-like ramp, the air abruptly changed, becoming thick and heavy. Yaeko twitched her nose. The odors of sea salt intermingling with jet fuel, along with the sickly sweet perfumes and colognes of disembarking passengers were for a passing instant overwhelming. The jet’s giant engines suddenly cut off, their deafening whine dropping slowly in pitch to a steady monotone drone. Ahead, people were spilling from the ramp into the airport’s gate, rushing forward, blending into the swollen, monochrome river of humanity walking past the concourse entrance hundreds of feet away—and into the arms of loved ones. Yaeko’s heart sank: there would be no one here to run to. The woman she was supposed to go live with now she had never met—and so felt nothing for. She thought of her mother’s soft hand closing over her own, of Izumi’s warm embrace, and suddenly wanted to turn around and fly home, but home to—?
For there was no longer anything waiting for her in
Japan, and even Lausanne seemed closed to
her now. Yaeko Mitsaki was dead, dead and buried and forgotten…. And with that
thought (and despite many hours of listening to Dr. Akimoto going on and on
about it) she felt a great rush of resentment well up within her toward her
late, beloved manager, mixed with biting guilt and shame for feeling it. She
angrily fought back the tears that had been her constant companion for the past
eight months since she’d woken from her coma.
She hadn’t been on American soil for twenty seconds and already she was miserable.
Elizabeth was speaking (to herself?), “... got a few minutes yet …” And then her mouth was suddenly next to her ear. “I’m part of the network,” she whispered. “Let’s go this way—” She pointed Yaeko to the right, walking quickly with her past the many rows of seats in the gate, which were spottily populated with a new crop of outgoing travelers.
Nobody watched as they passed. Elizabeth motioned her to the next gate, which was completely deserted and darkened, the futuristic-looking check-in desk appearing like a monolith in shadow. She came around and sat in the seat facing her.
“I—well, we—were given very specific orders regarding you, so it could mean my job if I were caught …” She looked nervously past Yaeko’s shoulder. “But … I think it’s worth the risk,” she said, glancing back at her and winking. Those nervous-but-serious blue eyes were suddenly beaming. “I know who you are, Yaeko.”
Tears gathered in her eyes. She wiped them fitfully with her sleeve after they spilled down her face. “You have suffered such a terrible loss, and I am so, so sorry…. But Yaeko,” she sniffled and grabbed Yaeko’s hands and held them tightly, “the world was blessed beyond all meaning with your music, with your joy, your incredible talent. I have every CD, every televised performance on DVD. When I listen to you, I feel as if every cell in my body is listening too, not … not just my ears. I know that sounds silly, but … it’s so amazing … listening to you makes me feel as though I could … could …”
She released her hands and composed herself, dabbing her mascara-streaked eyes with a tissue pulled from the pocket of her uniform jacket. She leaned forward again.
“Sweetheart … there is something I must tell you. I …”
She halted herself, took a deep breath, and then patted her hands. “I won’t impose any longer on your time; please forgive my outburst. Let’s go and meet your guardian, what do you say?”
She went to stand, but Yaeko grabbed her hand. Elizabeth looked at her.
Yaeko said, very quietly, “Thank you.”
Elizabeth rose, smiling self-effacingly. Moments later they were in the broad current of humanity heading for the concourse’s exit. Beyond were the baggage claim and customs areas. The attendant helped Yaeko gather her luggage, then clear through customs—a lengthy, invasive process—before pointing her towards a large central area, which was surrounded by small kiosks, shops, restaurants, and magazine stands. People streamed around them like water, unaware of their existence, as a river is mindless of the rocks it flows around.
“She’s late. I—ah. Here she is, coming towards us now.” Elizabeth’s voice had taken an edge to it, as though something was bothering her. She came around Yaeko’s wheelchair and knelt once again. Her face was hard with a tortured mixture of anger and sadness.
“Thank you … for all your extraordinary music … Young Master. Please remember what I said…. And … here—” she pressed a business card into her hand. “My phone and address—if you ever need them. I’m based right here in
in Mission Hills. It’s not far away from Imperial
Beach—just a few minutes away by car. I’m going to be
moving to Imperial Beach myself very soon. If you get in any kind of trouble or need help, please call me. Okay? Okay?”
Elizabeth’s smile was clearly forced; something was bothering her. She waited for Yaeko to nod. When Yaeko did, she stood and turned about. Yaeko followed her line of sight to see who she was looking at.
The woman standing before them was thin, almost unnaturally so, and tall. The clothes she wore fit her frame tightly, but instead of making her look young and wispy, it accentuated an aura of unhealthiness, like dressing dried chicken bones with Armani. A pair of designer sunglasses sat atop her head. Her auburn hair was short and spiky—an obvious dye job. Her face was lined with age and mascara: she could’ve been fifty; she could’ve been eighty. The camouflage had been too expertly applied to tell. Her eyes were thin and dark; her lips thin and painted red; her smile was close-lipped, perpetually annoyed, forced—and thin. She wore black spike heels that were barely visible below the legs of her skin-tight designer denims. One foot tapped the floor impatiently. She held a large, hastily scribbled sign on white tag board that read:
Elizabeth spoke first after an uncomfortable initial silence. She had to speak up to be heard over the low empty echo of thousands of voices wandering past them in the mall of the airport.
“You are—YAE-KO’s—appointed guardian?” She enunciated Yaeko’s name slowly, as if to an idiot who just couldn’t figure it out after being told for the hundredth time.
The tapping foot under the designer jeans halted at once.
“I am,” said the woman, who spoke curtly with a slight Southern accent. Then she added a gruff “mm!” at the end, as if insulted by the impertinence of being corrected by someone obviously her inferior. She spat: “I’d forgotten the name. It’s been—what, three weeks? —since I’d last heard from Akimoto. And Izumi—”
“I’m required to check identification,” Elizabeth interrupted in a businesslike tone that clashed violently with what Yaeko had just heard moments earlier.
A tense moment. Then: “Mm!” followed by, “Very well, very well.” She dropped the sign forgetfully against a chair before unslinging her black, shiny purse, digging through it until she had produced her driver’s license, which she thrust resentfully into the Elizabeth’s hand. Elizabeth eyed the identification carefully, taking more time than she needed before saying, “Adele D. Hoffman. Yes. Yes, this is fine … thank you. And—didn’t the hospital in
stay in touch with you during Yaeko’s stay there?”
The woman snatched her license back, cramming it sourly into her purse. “Yes, they did,” she snarled, “but you can hardly expect me to understand a bunch of spineless, cheese-eating frogs, mm!”
The insult had the desired effect: Elizabeth was shocked into silence. Adele D. Hoffman flashed an icy smile, then said hurriedly: “Now that’s settled, come on, come on, YAE-KO—” she smiled poisonously—“I’m paying for all the time my SUV sits in that damn parking lot, and I’m not paying for more than half an hour—so come, come …”
But Elizabeth had come around Yaeko’s wheelchair to face her once more. Adele D. Hoffman grunted “mm!” again, exasperated. Elizabeth knelt and offered Yaeko her hand. Yaeko grasped it gently. Elizabeth’s hand was soft and warm, as was her voice once more.
“Listen. You’ve got my card. And Dr. Akimoto is available too—you have his number and e-mail address—so call or write if you need to.” She gazed over her shoulder, then back at her. “Remember the music in your heart, Young Master, no matter what you face now ... or in the future.”
Yaeko nodded hesitantly.
“Yes. Well. Enough hero worship for one day,” Adele D. Hoffman said stiffly. “Let’s be going—now.” She looked at Yaeko’s two suitcases as though they had been soaked in the plague; she bent and grabbed them with obvious irritation, along with Yaeko’s black backpack, before turning and walking away without another word, as though expecting Yaeko to fall obediently in line behind her, which she did. Yaeko had twisted half about in her chair and was waving at Elizabeth when the skinny woman stopped abruptly and spun about on her high heels. Yaeko almost ran over her toes.
“Oh, and one more thing …” Adele D. Hoffman squinted at the gold name tag on the breast pocket of Elizabeth’s blue blazer. “Ah. Elizabeth. I’ll be speaking to your supervisor tomorrow about your blatant lack of professionalism. And … you may wish to consider a higher-end line of mascara before you lose control of yourself again. You look like a depressed zebra—mm!”
She flashed a thin, cold, close-lipped smile, then snapped about and began walking again. “Come, come—YAE-KO,” she spoke to the air in front of her. Yaeko wheeled hard to keep up with the woman’s long, impatient strides.
Elizabeth stood still for a long time, the stream of humanity flowing around her, before turning to leave. The sign spelling YUCKO MYSICKI stood propped and forgotten against a chair.
“I was told you’d only have two bags—mm!” grunted Adele D. Hoffman as she adjusted Yaeko’s backpack over her bony shoulder before abruptly deciding to drop it unceremoniously and without warning into her lap, complaining, “Here. You’re not helpless; that is, not if what the hospital said about you is even half true—which I frankly doubt. They seemed to act like that fanatical stewardess back there, like you’re some sort of superstar or something.”
She grudgingly rehefted Yaeko’s two large suitcases, then complained: “No matter how fast you try to be in this godforsaken place, you can’t get in and out in half a measly hour. It’s a real racket they’re running here … mm! … And look! —it’s 12:15! I wasted time sparring with that horrible stewardess…. Thank God I don’t fly anymore—mm!”
Yaeko couldn’t hear every word the irritated woman in front of her was saying: the noises of the airport and the variously scattered throngs in it drowned out her constant kvetching. “These bags weigh an unholy ton!” she groused. “I was told, I remember being told, specifically told, that you would be bringing very few possessions. Mm!”
Yaeko hurried to keep up. It was strenuous, but she was in great shape: the year she had spent hospitalized hadn’t been all coma and tears—though it certainly felt like it had been many times…. She had bullied her way through her daily physical therapy, silently, almost maniacally—“an obvious form of anger management,” Dr. Akimoto commented to a colleague one day. And despite her numerous forays to the rooftop gardens to meet her friend Rudolph to paint, skipping her self-sufficiency classes, she became so proficient at taking care of herself she was eventually labeled “Spidergirl” by the nursing staff in the last few months of her stay. And though her English was still far from perfect, it was good enough that when she swore at her physical therapist, which was often (if not under her breath), she could do so reasonably confident that her expletives were grammatically correct. (Save one incident when her therapist smiled down at her as he painfully stretched her back. “No, Spidergirl,” he’d said. “It’s ‘goddamn jackass,’ not ‘jackass goddamn.’ The adjective comes first in English.”)
They came to a tremendous wall of automatic sliding-glass doors. Adele D. Hoffman walked straight towards the pair directly in front of her without slowing or looking behind her. The doors breezed open. As Yaeko passed through them, several steps behind her new guardian, a puff of warm, humid air washed over her. They crossed a very busy street and then entered into the muffled gloom of a mammoth parking garage. Her guardian was speaking again, but to the still, hot air in front of her, as though Yaeko weren’t worth looking at.
“As you have hopefully gathered by now, my name is Adele Hoffman….” Her spike heels sounded like individual popcorns popping in four-four time as she marched forward in the half-light. Her thin voice sounded even thinner in here.
“Of course,” she went on, “my friends call me Dee. You, however, may call me Adele or ‘Mrs. H.’….”
She tittered. It was mirthless and sharp, her abrupt mood change jarring. “I do like the last one: ‘Mrs. H.’ Much more endearing, like ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ … you ever see that show?”
She slowed her gait, then turned and icily regarded the quiet girl wheeling silently behind her. “What am I saying? Of course not,” “Mrs. H.” spat. “Or the show was subtitled, mm! God, I hate movies with subtitles; people should be made to speak English in this country or be shipped away, it’s very simple, why liberals are allowed to exist is beyond me....”
She laughed bitterly. “I can just imagine ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ in
...” She became very stiff and regimented in her mockery: “‘Sensei Kotter, with all due and
honorable respect …’ Mm! Why I ever married an Asian is beyond me … mm!”
When Yaeko didn’t respond, she turned sharply with another grunt and walked even more swiftly than before. After another minute she exclaimed, “Well! Here we are—finally. Mm!”
They were directly behind a very large tan SUV, whose back hatch and bumper were covered with stickers: a large one, a loop, fashioned after a faded yellow ribbon that read “Support the Troops”; a smaller sticker with an American flag on it with bold print that read “IF YOU CAN’T RESPECT THIS, YOU ARE FREE TO LEAVE!”; a black sticker with large yellow letters and a silhouette of a huge-breasted woman grasping a lasso and wearing a cowboy hat which read: “Save a horse, ride a cowboy!”; one that stated in four-inch red letters: “BUSH/CHENEY ’04: RIGHT FOR AMERICA”; and finally, in the lower right of the vehicle’s broad rear window, a cartoon character in a thinly striped T-shirt kneeling in prayer in front of the long shadow of a white cross.
The SUV was spotlessly clean and gleaming even here in the busy darkness of the parking garage. “Mrs. H.” pressed a button on her key chain. A loud double squawk sounded from the vehicle, causing Yaeko to start. The bony woman moved quickly and grabbed the hatch, lifting it. She dumped Yaeko’s bags into the back of the vehicle. She turned and grabbed her backpack from her lap without a word or even a glance at her, heaving it atop her suitcases as though it were junk. She reached up and slammed the hatch back down.
“Let’s not dawdle, parking is expensive!” she demanded. “This doesn’t have a loading ramp or any of that handicapped crap on it; you’ll have to hang on; get around to the passenger side and just wait a minute….”
She marched towards the driver-side door. “Move away from the car. I’ll back this out. Go on! We don’t have all day now…. Lord—mm! —I certainly don’t relish picking you up every time I need to take you somewhere—”
Yaeko turned and wheeled herself to the passenger-side door. She had more than enough room between Adele D. Hoffman’s vehicle and the car to its right. The door was unlocked. Yaeko pulled it open, and with what appeared to be inhuman ease, crawled her way up into the leather seat, clicking her seatbelt securely just as “Mrs. H.” came around to her side, leaning over the empty wheelchair to gawk at her.
“Well, aren’t you just a cute little Asian monkey!” she announced with a derisive smile. “Mind, you better not scratch this thing—I’ll take it out of that snooty jerk’s contract he got me to sign to take care of you.”
She inspected the door quickly for the nonexistent scratches before stooping to impatiently examine the wheelchair. “Ah. Here it is—” She depressed a small lever at the lower back of the wheelchair, which allowed it to collapse easily. As she hefted it into the backseat behind her, she said, “At least they’re building these things much lighter. Lord—mm! —how miserable…. If I were handicapped, I swear I’d shoot myself—or have my daughter do it. She’s married to a SEAL, a true American. You’ll meet him, I’m sure. She knows that kind of stuff. He showed her.” Then she leered: “Lord, he looks good in uniform—mm!”
It would be these “mm’s!” that Yaeko would remember most about Adele D. Hoffman in the end, for they were added to sentences redolent in anger and lust; they punctuated utterances filled with bigotry and intolerance; they peppered her diatribes about men and shopping and money—which, as she would soon surmise, were the most important things in the world to “Mrs. H.” Her “mm’s!” were her final, hopeless punctuations to her many indistinct, miserable periods, where she would do little else besides sit at her kitchen table, smoking cigarette after cigarette (despite having had one lung removed earlier in her life), while crying on the telephone to her four daughters over the crisis du jour. Her “mm’s!” were very like her existence: shallow, rigid, fear-filled and, ultimately, pointless.
They had been driving for ten minutes—“Mrs. H.” had a lead foot that made Yaeko grab the sides of her seat with white knuckles (thinking of the last time she was transported recklessly down a street)—when the bony woman pulled a cigarette from her purse and lighted it. She blew a ghostly streamer of acrid smoke out the corner of her slit-like mouth, regarding her from the side of her gaunt, gray-tinged face.
“I told those Swiss cheeses I wouldn’t smoke around you. But what they don’t know won’t kill them.”
Seeing no reaction, she stuck the cigarette in her mouth and then fished her cell phone out of her handbag, dialed it while weaving crazily in traffic. Then: “Hi. Yeah … she’s here…. Yeah. No, couldn’t get out of it [laughs]. Oh, well—nice paycheck [laughs]…. I know … and the damn parking cost me $10.50! Yeah … How are the kids? … Well, spank his pink little bottom! You can’t let those kids run roughshod, Amy, you know that…. If he kills one goldfish, he’ll kill the others too … don’t forget what he did to Mrs. Habersen’s cat— … Yes, yes, I told you I wouldn’t bring it up again, but this is important…. He squashed the fish? Mm! Is that brand new carpet ruined? No? Good…. No, get some good carpet cleaner; I may have some at home, come by later. Yeah, dinner sounds good Friday…. Give a shout later. I’ll be home in thirty minutes … Okay. Goodbye, sweetie….”
They entered a ramp that rose swiftly, merging them onto the
Yaeko had spied this great bridge as her plane circled over Coronado
Bay Bridge San Diego, a gently curving fairy span that
seemed to frame the skyscrapers beyond, as if buttressing them against the
frightening expanse of the ocean they stood before. She had seen pictures of San Diego in her final days in Lausanne: now she was atop that very bridge,
speeding over it at seventy miles per hour. Two hundred feet below the shimmered. Bay of San
The waters down there were hard and blue and unforgiving. In slips lining the bay’s banks to her left were tremendous ships: they were docked as far south as she could see. In the distance directly ahead, and across from the bay, was a very thin strip of sand with a road down its middle and lined in parts with large houses on the bay side, open ocean on the other. Very beautiful. Beyond, many miles out into the open Pacific, rocky islands rose above the opaque sea mist. Mexican islands? Wasn’t
Imperial Beach just a few miles from the
Mexican border? She looked but couldn’t see the pier she had flown over
earlier; it was buried beneath that mist. The bridge curved to the right,
descending as it did to a large green island whose far southern end tapered
into the sandy strip. The island seemed quite pleasant from here, like a
separate reality from the urban jungle behind her and the unpredictable ocean
in the hazy white distance.
And now, just about to pass under the bridge itself, was a large white yacht. From way up here it appeared little more than a child’s toy. Yaeko found she couldn’t breathe past the smoke clouding the air in front of her…. And then, without willing it, she thought of suicide once again, this time of pulling herself up the bridge’s railing … and letting go. It would be a brief fall, perhaps not as far as from the hospital’s gardens…. She imagined that severe blue accelerating savagely up to smash her dead. It would be a clean and pure nanosecond of beautiful agony, like a staccato note from her violin—and then eternal rest. Her parents and Amon and Izumi waited on the other side of that note, just as they did past the salty fluid curtain of her endless tears. It was suicide she had thought of most this past year; perhaps not in such austere, stark terms, but through the seeping sense of the waste of her life, magnified by her staggering losses, which pressed her, more and more, toward the realization that her life, for all intents and purposes, was already over, and that her biological existence had simply not realized it yet.
Adele D. Hoffman tapped her cigarette into the ashtray on the dashboard. She said, “We’re only going over this bridge to give you the experience. Akimoto’s suggestion. Personally I hate it, I can’t stand the thought of an earthquake bringing it down—especially if the grandkids were in here, mm! So I always take the five. It’s why I own an SUV: much safer than those silly little tin boxes made where you come from…. You certainly don’t talk much, do you? God forbid you know no English … You’re in
now, and English is our official—and only—language. All you foreigners and
liberals will just have to deal with it—mm!”
They sped down the bridge’s south incline and zoomed into
pleasant green island Yaeko had noticed moments earlier. Adele D. Hoffman
pointed out how wealthy the community was, how many retired admirals lived
here, how the crime rate was nearly zero, how she would live here “in a
heartbeat” were it not for the extraordinarily expensive real estate prices.
“I’m not properly of
Imperial Beach, of course,” she said as she
waved her dwindling cigarette airily. “I’m a Coronadan at heart. Yes, yes,” she
said as if stating the obvious. “I suppose that makes me a princess, and you
know what? I don’t care. I’m not alone either, you know …”
She grinded the lipstick-stained stump of the cigarette into the ashtray. “There are many Coronadans that live in I.B. but refuse to deal with its … well, for want of a better word, taint—”
She stopped herself short. After a long stretch of uneasy silence she reached a skeletal finger for the dashboard and stabbed a button, turning on the radio. Country music blared suddenly all around Yaeko in crystal-clear stereo: a song about taking pride in working long days, changing diapers, going to church Sundays, and being a war-supporting patriot. The song included a fiddle, which screeched in the background.
“Mrs. H.” eyed her suspiciously, adjusting the volume to a barely tolerable level, before saying:
“I’m aware—I mean, I was told every time those spitting frogs called me, it seemed—that you were this Big Huge Thing in Japan, and maybe even the world, though that’s debatable…. I mean, okay, you won a few Grammys, though—” she chuckled sarcastically—“they gave one out during a commercial—don’t know if anybody bothered telling you that—which should tell you how truly important classical music is. It’s obvious to me as well that you are used to—and who knows, maybe even like—wild-eyed fanatics like that little freak of a stewardess back there in the airport. Maybe—maybe—you were at one point something important to a select few here in the
United States. Maybe. But I personally don’t know anybody who’s even heard of you, even with the awards show. I’ve
asked around, so I can’t tell what the fuss is all about, truth be told....
“Well. The point is this: I listened to some of your music. I really didn’t find anything all that spectacular about it; all classical music sounds the same, really; but honestly I only listened for a minute or two—Akimoto insisted upon it, something called ‘Sacred Songs’-or-other, mm! … Beethoven … yes, yes, you were playing Beethoven, I recall—though Beethoven was an atheist, so there was nothing sacred at all about what you were playing….”
The stoplight they were idling in front of turned green and the SUV lurched forward, accelerating hugely. “Mrs. H.” continued: “I suppose I should tell you—I’m a brutally honest person, you know, a trait of all Pisces—you follow astrology? Anyway, I hate that nose-in-the-air crap classical music. I prefer good solid country, true American music, so before you get your high-falutin’ foreign attitude up—as I’m sure happened when you were all famous or whatever—I’m going to warn you now not to. And I’ll thank you not to play it in my home. Pastor Singer—he’s my and my daughters’ pastor—tells me much of it is actually demonic and pagan. And while I’m thinking of it, you are absolutely forbidden from worshipping the Buddha or any other half-naked navel-gazing savage in my Christian home, is that clear?”
Yaeko felt herself clutching the business card given to her by the kind flight attendant named Elizabeth as though it were some sort of lifeline.
Adele D. Hoffman lighted another cigarette, then took a long drag.
“And while we’re on the subject, Izumi left you something. It’s from his will, apparently. It was shipped here just a few weeks before you arrived. It’s supposedly very valuable—I was told that repeatedly, mm! —but I’m telling you right now—” she tapped her cigarette rapidly over the ashtray—“if it’s one of those fat, pot-bellied pagan idols, I don’t care how much it’s worth, I will toss it out on the instant, do you understand?”
Yaeko had silently predicted the “mm!” that would come when she did not reply. She was not disappointed. The air in the cabin of the SUV was foggy with cigarette smoke and fairly blaring with the simplistic ramblings of American country music. Yaeko hoped that Adele D. Hoffman would stop speaking and—as distastefully as doing so was—decided to focus on the music, in the thought that somehow this would block her off totally.
And in fact there was a long blessed period when the woman next to her didn’t speak. The music poured on, creating a welcome, if not nauseating, psychic buffer between them.
They were whipping down the thin strip of sand Yaeko had seen from atop the bridge. The calm water of the bay was on her left, a glassy sapphire blue; the expanse to her right, in contrast, was open Pacific Ocean, jade green and turbulent with wind. Large, long waves rolled ponderously over themselves towards her, translucent liquid emeralds. As the waves broke, beautiful rainbow veils formed and fell over the collapsing curls; what was left then formed painfully bright white foaming lines that raced shoreward before being pulled back out by a new, advancing front. There were strollers and joggers on the Pacific side, as well as the occasional groups of surfers bedecked in black wetsuits and bobbing on their boards. And here … men and women had attached splendid multicolored sails to long, nearly invisible strings that ended at long handles. They were sailing and surfing at the same time—! as though the wind were the puppetmaster and they willingly at the whims of this most capricious handler…. And Yaeko, who had cried enough, felt the enormous weight of very familiar grief descend upon her in its ever-familiar fashion … for her legs would never work again, and so she’d never be able to do such a wonderful thing as sail the surf of the ocean, or even bathe in the foamy froth as it rushed ashore.
A long, lengthy mound of beach sand fronted by aging military equipment occluded her view presently, and when it finished speeding by, there it was, just visible in the mist that tried to hide it: the pier she had flown over.
From here, miles distant, and just as it did from the air, it appeared to protrude into infinity, to challenge it, as if it were perched on eternity’s very lip. And in those few scant moments before another long mound of tan beach sand blocked it permanently from view, Yaeko forgot her grief completely. A great sense of peace stole over her, an affirmation really, wordless and heady.
But Adele D. Hoffman had started speaking again … something about home schooling … a tutor would be coming by twice a week…. More rules … more grunting … She hated having to stay home during the upcoming tutoring sessions, she was a busy, busy woman, Yaeko wasn’t famous anymore, the crash had ended that, so why in God’s good name should she be sheltered from people who wouldn’t know her anyway? … More grunting ... another cigarette being lighted … The song playing now was a love song: a breathy woman with a twangy lilt wailing on about “her man” and his cowboy boots and chewing tobacco and how that other woman couldn’t love him like she could…. The air was soupy with cigarette smoke…. The mist over the ocean was soupy with mystery…. Yaeko’s soul was soupy with the contradictions of the burning desire to live, to be—but also to end her existence, to give up, once and for all…. The pressure building inside her skull was splitting her in half…. The song on the radio now was about “kicking ass” and proudly flying a flag on one’s SUV… “Mrs. H.” was crowing to it, horribly off key…. They were approaching a stoplight … They were now in Imperial Beach, her bony guardian announced … A car swerved in front of them … Adele D. Hoffman was honking and cursing at the driver, her cigarette flinging ashes between them—the driver was offering an obscene gesture in return out his window…. And now: side streets, homes, turns into more side streets … a two-story house with a dilapidated wheelchair ramp; they were here: “Hurry up, hurry up!” “Mrs. H.” had things to do, no time to dawdle…. More rules…. “Here’s your bedroom …” Yet more rules … something more about pagan idols: she was pointing at a rectangular box, heavily taped, sitting in the corner, sitting in shadow…. Izumi’s brother was a total jerk, a typical male, so was Izumi, why she married that slant-eyed slug was a total mystery; that box had better not contain contraband, all teenagers do drugs, she knows, she raised four of them, they all “experimented” but were clean now, clean and saved Christian souls like she…. Yaeko should consider becoming Christian, otherwise hellfire awaited her, Buddhists are godless and destined to burn; famous people almost always worshipped the devil, “Mrs. H.”’s pastor had told her; there really is nothing great about being a classical musician or violinist; after all, the violin is only an instrument, and Yaeko’s playing days were over; being a mother is much more commendable, having babies and going to church…. Why couldn’t you learn to fiddle to country music…?
And then …
Time seemed to congeal thickly into a single, shapeless, numb mass of colorless experience: days, weeks, months spent in her new, small bedroom, now intimately familiar, from the lonely spider web in the corner under her bedroom window, one that kept coming back, time and again, despite Adele D. Hoffman’s repeated “mm’s!” and evermore copious amounts of insecticide (which gave Yaeko intense headaches and a burning sensation in her throat)—to the odd indentations in the spackle of her ceiling. She’d study the spider, delighting in its refusal to die; she’d study the indentations, looking for patterns in them. Endless hours passed, endless days, endless weeks ... all passed by meaninglessly, hopelessly.
In one corner, near the door, was a large cardboard box of children’s toys, one pilfered each Sunday after church by three of her guardian’s four visiting grandchildren, kids who regarded Yaeko as little more than a living, breathing museum piece, and who had resented her immediately, as she had taken over what was once their playroom. “Mrs. H.”’s four daughters were women of various shapes and sizes, but with the exact same attitude and philosophy toward life: life was, in order, money, “men in uniform,” shopping, and hairstyles. Between the four daughters there were four children: a son and daughter, six and seven years old, respectively, who belonged to the eldest daughter, the one married to the SEAL, a short, muscular man named Bill; a six-year-old girl belonging to the second-eldest daughter; and an infant girl that belonged to the youngest of Adele D. Hoffman’s progeny, one who had recently divorced (“Typical man; all men are jerks!”). The three older grandchildren would often barge in on Yaeko and press their thumbs to their temples, narrowing their eyes and screaming as if from a bad martial arts movie. Invariably, one of the daughters would show up behind them and shoo them out with nary a look at her. But they never reprimanded their kids, only telling them to find something else to do. The children inevitably screamed each time, “But I’m bored!—” and ten minutes later would barge in again, ninja-screaming and kicking the air.
Weeks ago, after one of these incidents, Yaeko went to find the business card the flight attendant had given her. She had hidden it under one of her Grammy awards, which sat on her dresser. But it wasn’t there; it was nowhere to be found. She had stared at that card during the ride from the airport, now months in the past; she had memorized the address on it—but not the telephone number. Now, with the card gone, she recited the attendant’s address and name aloud to herself. She wrote it on a scrap piece of paper, which she also hid. But it felt good to just say it, as if the verbal incantation would someday become a magic spell that would whisk her to the kind attendant’s home in the magical land known as Mission Hills without any further effort.
Yaeko thought of Dr. Akimoto; she thought of the network waiting for word from her should she need help. But she refused to even consider calling or writing. For what would she say? What specific problem had arisen for her? She thought again: What would she say? That in fact her life had ended long ago, that what she was living with now—this hell, this horrible, hateful woman—was her ultimate destiny, her final reward?
The truth? The truth was that the angry god had wanted her to live after all. He had condemned her to this: to exist in a forgotten half life in a lonesome ten-by-twelve-foot bedroom, her music forever stifled, her soul wilting as a plant wilts after being tossed into a dark closet, forgotten and ignored. The angry god had reserved his harshest judgment for her: the twin Angels of Death, brilliant and fierce, had done their work well.