Cynthia Gralla's piece "Friendship: A Haiku" appears in Issue 61: Beginnings and Endings.
Friendship: A Haiku
Yuko had the face of a wronged woman in a Mizoguchi film, stoic and refined. The posture of a queen. I met her when I was just out of college, working as a technical writer at a Tokyo pharmaceutical company. She was a section chief’s assistant, her desk located in the same wing as mine.
Her dignity discouraged questions at the start. I’d discovered that some Japanese people liked to use me as a confessor, an inconsequential outsider to whom they could divulge secrets they’d never dare reveal to someone from their culture. Not Yuko. Two decades older than me, she was warm and eager to find out about my life, but impenetrable early on.
Being a middle-aged, single woman marginalized her in Japanese society. Nonetheless, she didn’t regret her situation. “I had a chance to marry,” she once admitted, but explained no further. I guessed she hoarded her freedom like her privacy.
I only understood later that the English language was, for her, a means to both. She saw it as the innermost chamber at the heart of her shell, its roar a new world. That’s why she was passionate about mastering it. And that’s one reason why she was drawn to me.
Because she wasn’t fluent in English, each of us would remain a bit mysterious to the other. Trying out new words, she told me she was a fan of the writer Yoko Ogawa and foreign films. We discussed books we loved and customs we hated. She liked the way I phrased things, and I admired her irreproachable taste. Our conversations spiraled, vaulted, pearled.
We spoke in English so she could practice it. But occasionally, she’d resort to a phrase in Japanese and ask me for its English equivalent. Sometimes I was able to give her one. Sometimes I couldn’t because there was no equivalent. Sometimes I couldn’t because I didn’t know the Japanese phrase, didn’t know what she longed to say.
We went to art exhibits together. Pored over hanging scrolls, their strokes of ink like love you knew how best to give.
She took me out to eat, dinners that taught me to slow down and pay attention. Yuko was good at pointing out what should be savored. The tiny ceramic plates became glazed dollhouses above which we played with words.
Over the course of several trips to Japan in my 20s, I switched from technical writing to working as a hostess and occasional model. Yuko didn’t approve.
“I wish you could find a job that made use of your education.” But then she gifted me a tapered black evening blouse, perfect for work at a hostess club. “For your small waist.”
After I’d known Yuko a few months, I began helping her edit some translations she was doing for fun, renderings of contemporary female authors from Japan. She would attempt to put their texts into English, and I’d clean up her prose.
“Why do you spend so much time on that?” a friend asked. By that point, I’d edited almost a whole book Yuko was translating.
Because, I didn’t say, she needs me.
Because, I didn’t admit, I need her to need me.
My life was rocked by instability. Every relationship was a lifeboat I sank as I tried not to drown. But my friendship with Yuko was different. It was based on shared interests and the English language—not desperation. With her, I stood on dry land.
Besides, Yuko helped me too. Once, when I worked as a hostess over the summer to support myself during graduate school, she paid for my cell phone, an essential tool of the trade, despite her wish that I would find more suitable employment. And she was pleased to send me the Japanese books and films I needed to write my dissertation.
The years passed, each one marked by a gorgeous New Year’s card from Yuko at every new address. She was thrilled for me when I published a novel and, a few years later, received my doctorate. When I married my first husband, we stopped in Japan on our way back from a honeymoon in Southeast Asia. He told me that, while I was in the bathroom, Yuko had commented, “Cynthia’s so happy now.”
But in fact, I was already drowning again. Up until then, Yuko had been good at reading my moods. I suspect she wished so much for my happiness that she stopped being able, or willing, to parse the subtext.
When Yuko sent a book we’d translated into English to a well-known Japanese author on a whim, asking if the woman would be interested in using Yuko as her translator, her offer was rejected. I hadn’t known what she’d planned to do, but I still felt I’d failed her.
My failures were in their infancy. A decade after Yuko and I met, I returned to Japan for the first time in three years. I’d flown over with a good friend to celebrate her birthday in Tokyo, a week of decadence spoiled by the fact that I’d evolved into a full-blown drug addict. As I’d quickly learned, drugs, like love affairs, are only fun when you don’t need them to survive the day.
Yuko and I had planned to meet for lunch, but I’d been up late the night before. Nothing but two lines of the purest coke got me out of bed. I felt terrible about meeting her in that condition. She looked tired; she’d been taking care of her elderly mother, who was ailing fast. At one point in the conversation, she jolted me out of my gauzy static by talking about what it would be like once her mother died.
“Someday,” she said, “I will be all alone.”
It happened as it always happened. Something in our friendship—in her—made me stronger than usual. I tried to comfort her, all the while hiding the fact that I was half out of my mind.
Time flexed like a bow—then released its hold of me. I shot through two years like a poisoned arrow.
In that second year of flight, Yuko wrote to me and broke the news. Breast cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good. She asked if I would come to Japan when it got bad. If I would be with her at the end.
Stimulants like meth and cocaine unhinge time. I remember being up at all-wrong hours. The second full day awake like a stretch of hot sand that a fleeing ocean yanked free. By the third day: moving as carefully as if the world around me were edged with knives.
Sleep always broke the spell. One time, I woke from a 30-hour recovery nap to go watch The Sleeping Beauty, my favorite ballet—too burnt out by my habit to appreciate the joke.
I toed the slime of rock bottom and nearly died by suicide. Over the Christmas holidays of 2008, I asked my then husband to help me get clean. It stuck.
When I could finally think straight again, I realized no New Year’s card from Yuko had arrived. I hadn’t received an email from her for months, nor had I checked on her amidst my own chaos.
Eventually, I had no choice but to confirm what I already knew. I called her home phone number and spoke to her niece. In Japanese, the language of grief is formal, punishingly polite.
And that was it. There was no goodbye for me, her funeral having been tipped into my black hole. Yuko fell into death with as little ritual as a dress unfastened at the end of a night.
Yuko’s body kept its secret from her, its disease, for a time. But nowhere near as long as I kept from myself the secret of her tenderness for me. I still don’t understand it fully. Yet it had nourished me, both before and after her death, until my own middle age set courage ablaze. Through its red maple leaves, I saw the truth. Saw that Yuko had loved me, and I had failed to honor her love, as well as her death.
I can’t describe that love any further in my native language or any other. Love is an ancient act of translation, passing through dialects like friendship, shared work, and trust. Its syllables melt on the tongue.
One of my favorite Japanese words is akogare, or longing, whose kanji looks like a person holding a lantern. But it is time that lights the way.
Recently, I read Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. In its most unforgettable scene, rose petals blanket a town as its inhabitants are “disappeared.” It made me think of Yuko. The novel was published in Japanese in 1994, a couple of years before we became friends. Had she read it? I can’t remember.
But in thinking about her, her love reappeared, swelled, a wave of rose petals sweeping in like a tide of wisdom.
The difference between feeling a friend’s love and understanding it is like the difference between quoting another language in a dream and dreaming in it. It’s a question of how deep the knowledge runs.
I say to her spirit, I didn’t know you until my age reached yours when we first met. But now, I know you like a haiku.
And then, suddenly,
a crow alights on my breast.
A proud, refined crow.
Cynthia Gralla’s books are The Floating World and The Demimonde in Japanese Literature. She has written for Salon, The Mississippi Review, storySouth, Electric Literature, Witness, SLICE, and other publications. This essay is part of Environmental Causes: Essays on Illness and Healing in a Dying World, a collection she’s currently writing. She lives on Vancouver Island and teaches at Royal Roads University and University of Victoria.
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