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Driving

July 2002

By Suzanne Kamata

Yvonne Hamada saw the cement mixer turn onto the narrow bridge, saw that it was coming straight at them, picking up speed as it rolled. She knew that Ryu’s sedan was no match for that monster on wheels. There was hardly enough room for one car, let alone two; these roads had been built for cracker box-sized economy cars, not the all-terrain vehicles and American-sized dump trucks of ‘90’s Japan.

Ryu let up on the accelerator ever so slightly.

Next to him, Yvonne closed her eyes, shrank back against the passenger seat – “the death seat,” her brother had always called it. “This is it,” she whispered. “I hope someone knows enough English to notify my parents in the States.”

But then the car swayed as the truck whooshed past – within inches, no doubt – and Yvonne opened her eyes. They were safe. There were no other cars ahead of them. To her left, she could see jet skiers speeding over the river. On the opposite shore, boys cast their lines, as they did on any other Sunday afternoon.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ryu’s dark head leaning sideways as he fiddled with the radio dial in search of baseball. The car swerved toward the guardrail. This, just after they’d narrowly escaped death by two-ton truck.

“Ryu? Honey?” she said, her voice high and tight. “Do you mind, like, looking at where you’re going?”

He looked at her instead, frowned, and then turned back to the road. “If you don’t like my driving, you can drive.”

Yvonne did not want to drive and she decided that she wouldn’t make another sound. She saw the traffic signal a few meters ahead turn yellow and she figured that Ryu would race through the red light as usual. She decided that for once she would hold her tongue, but then the car slowed and came to a stop. Yvonne smiled at her reformed husband.

He glanced at her, saw the grin, then began fussing with the radio again and didn’t notice when the light changed.

Yvonne immediately forgot her vow of silence. “Sweetie? It’s green. You can go now.”

Ryu gripped the steering wheel once again. “Ao,” he said, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“It’s not blue. Green. Just look at that light. How can you call that color blue?”

Ryu shrugged as they crossed the intersection. They’d had this exchange many times before. It was so familiar as to be comfortable to Yvonne. She settled back in her seat, finally content to enjoy the ride.

For ten years, Yvonne had cruised around in a banana-yellow hatchback, but since coming to Japan to teach English in the countryside of Shikoku, she didn’t drive at all. Well, there had been that one time. Before she’d met Ryu, a Japanese suitor had rented a little red convertible as a surprise. Yvonne remembered the salty wind whipping her hair, the sight of the waves breaking on the shore, and then her date’s absolute terror when she took a turn down the wrong side of the road. She was scared, too, when she nearly sideswiped a stop sign, having misjudged the distance between the side of the car and the edge of the road. Since then, Yvonne usually relied on public transportation or her mountain bike. Sometimes she allowed Ryu to drive her, though these days she preferred to stay in their recently-mortgaged home where she knew that she was safe and in no danger of breaking the law.

In Japan, Driver’s Ed wasn’t a school subject as it was in the States. Would-be drivers enrolled in private driving schools where a series of lessons cost as much as a year at Yvonne’s university. Not only was it expensive, but also inconvenient, as students had to sign up for lessons on a first-come first-serve basis, with everyone vying for the same time slots.

There were actually a lot of adults in Japan who didn’t know how to drive. Her mother-in-law, Mrs. Hamada, for instance. She tooled around on a bright blue 50cc scooter. It was enough to get her to the hospital where she worked as a cook or to the store for groceries. For journeys to more distant places, her husband would drive. “You don’t need a license,” he told her. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

Lying awake in bed one night, Ryu said, “I think my mother is going to divorce my father.”

“What?” Divorce was a Western obsession. Here, women made do. They did gaman; they persevered.

“She said that she can’t talk to my father anymore. He just drinks and plays Go.”

Yvonne thought that maybe being married to an American made him see divorce as an option. She was always trying to explain her complicated family relations – half-cousins, stepfathers, adoptees, etc.

“If my mother leaves my father, can she live with us?” Ryu propped himself on his elbows so he could look down at her moon-bathed face. “You two get along well. I think it would work out, don’t you?”

Yvonne’s limbs froze. She mumbled unintelligibly, trying to quell the sudden panic. Why not say yes? It would never happen, she thought. Mrs. Hamada would never ask for a divorce.

“Yvonne?”

“Sure, whatever,” she said.

Ryu, leaned down and kissed her, then fell back against the pillow. Seemingly content, he rolled over and began to snore softly almost immediately.

Yvonne tossed and turned until dawn. Before they’d married, Yvonne had paid close attention to how Ryu treated his mother. She’d always believed that men who were kind and considerate to the women who’d raised them would be the same way toward their wives. At family dinners, Ryu took his mother’s side in arguments with his father. When the meal had ended, Ryu helped clear away the dishes, just as he did now at home. And he always spoke of his mother with words like “strong,” “patient,” and “brave.”

When Ryu had asked her to marry him, Yvonne had made sure that they wouldn’t be living with his parents. It wouldn’t be good for their relationship, her friends and relatives had warned. Her grandmother had blamed her own divorce on an overbearing German live-in mother-in-law.

Early on in their relationship, Ryu and Yvonne had talked about living abroad – maybe in a third country that would be foreign to both of them. They had first been drawn together by mutual cultural curiosity - Yvonne’s interest in traditional Japanese arts, and Ryu’s love of American freedom, frankness and Major League baseball - and by a passion for travel.

Sometimes, as they lay together in bed just before sleep, they talked about the places that they would visit. Yvonne was hungry for that initial burst of wonder she’d felt on first arriving in Japan. The novelty had long since worn off, and she was in need of a new fix. Ryu’s job, however, kept him busy most of the year. The economy was failing, and he couldn’t risk taking a vacation for awhile. So far, most of the trips they’d planned were just wishes.

Yvonne remembered the first time Ryu’s parents came to check out their new house – before they’d even decided to buy it.

They had discovered the place by chance – a two-story dwelling less than a kilometer away from the cramped apartment they’d been renting. After two years of breathing down each other’s necks, they were ready for wide rooms filled with sunlight, a yard big enough for barbecues. Friends thought that they were being greedy – just the two of them moving into a house previously inhabited by a family of six – but Yvonne’s American soul needed solitude.

The only problem with the house was the driveway, which was steep, narrow and bordered by a cement wall. Ryu’s father had parked on the street, not bothering with the challenge.

“So this is where you want to live,” Ryu’s father said as he wandered the empty rooms. “There’s only one room with tatami mats, and no alcove for hanging seasonal scrolls.” His own house was Japanese-style – weathered wood with a rock garden out front.

Mrs. Hamada trailed behind, a smile hiding her disappointment. “I was hoping we’d all live together,” she nearly whimpered. “We added on last year…”

Yvonne knew about the twelve-mat room that had been adjoined to their house. She’d thought at the time that it was for Ryu’s sister, who stayed there in the later stages of her two pregnancies. Now, she realized that in spite of their son’s international marriage and his Western-style outspokenness, they still had hopes that he’d turn out traditional.

“We’ll be nearby,” Yvonne said. “It’s only a fifteen-minute drive.” She meant to remind them – Ryu, his parents, everyone – that her own family was thousands of miles away. That in agreeing to buy this house, rooting herself so near Ryu’s birthplace, she was making concessions of her own. The dream of a life in Bali/Paris/Sydney was becoming dimmer and dimmer.

Mr. Hamada agreed to lend the couple money for a down payment on the house. They would take out a bank loan for the rest. Yvonne began fantasizing about leather sofas and oak tables, Georgia O'Keefe prints for the walls, the tulips and irises she’d plant in the garden.

The next day she was in the kitchen working on a new concoction – a Thai dish involving lots of chilies. She had a CD playing, the music cranked up loud, and she danced while she chopped lemon grass.

She didn’t hear the front door open.

“Konnichiwa! Hello!”

Yvonne jumped, nearly slicing her finger. She turned to find Ryu’s mother right behind her. She was smiling broadly, flashing her gold teeth. She held a cloth bundle in one hand, lofted it in the air to show what she’d brought.

Yvonne rushed over to the CD player to turn down the volume. Her scalp prickled with irritation. Why hadn’t Mrs. Hamada called first? Why hadn’t she locked the door?

In the now-quiet room, she shoved a cookbook aside and motioned for her mother-in-law to sit. “I’ll make you some tea,” she said, setting a kettle of water to boil.

“No, no, that’s not necessary.”

“Please. I’d like a cup myself.”

“I don’t want to trouble you.”

“It’s no trouble.”

Yvonne turned away and scowled. Sometimes she got fed up with the verbal dance. She knew that if she didn’t offer tea, her mother-in-law would think her rude. And she knew that Ryu’s mother was a master of beating around the bush, exceptionally skilled at indirect response. She would have to invite her to stay for dinner too.

As she poured hot water over tea leaves, she remembered Ryu’s words of the night before. What if he was right? What if she really would rather live with her son than her husband? Hadn’t she raised him to adore her? Hadn’t she poured all of her efforts into making sure that he would never leave her?

She cast a glance at her abandoned culinary project. If Ryu’s mother moved in with them, they’d have to forget about trying exotic new dishes. Ryu’s parents lived on a strict diet of fish, rice and miso soup. She’d once found the remains of a casserole she’d sent over in the trash of her in-laws’ kitchen.

She’d have to give up her reading time to drink tea with her mother-in-law. They’d never be able to go on the trips that she and Ryu had imagined taking. Could she imagine Mrs. Hamada on a bus in Mumbai? No way.

And they would be forced to speak in Japanese all the time. This house, this former haven, would be an extension of the foreign world beyond its walls. Yvonne needed one place – just one – where she didn’t have to worry about committing cultural blunders, where she could be wholly herself.

She brought the teapot and teacups on a tray to the table where her mother-in-law sat waiting. Normally, she wouldn’t have bothered with the lacquer tray, but with a guest present, decorum was required. The two of them sat together sipping the hot tea. The room was silent except for the sound of Ryu’s mother’s slurping.

A month later, Mr. Hamada bid his wife good-bye as she hopped on her scooter for work. He read the newspaper, poured himself a second cup of tea, and got dressed. Sunshine was blessing all of the flowers and plants and tiny trees in his garden. He felt the warm rays on his taut-skinned face when he stepped outside. He bent to run his hands lightly over the leaves of a peppermint plant then sniffed at his fingers. Scent of gum. Then he began tugging at the weeds that had sprung up and tossing them into a pile at the center of the yard.

He went into the shed and took the trimming shears from their hook, began snipping at twigs, giving the bushes form. He worked with total concentration. When the pain shot through his arm and chest, he dropped the shears and grabbed at his heart. That evening his wife found him staring at a bush with a look of surprise.

At least that’s how Yvonne imagined it all. Heart attack. Shinzo mahi. It sounded like a Hawaiian fish, something you could order from a menu: “I’ll have the shinzo mahi and a glass of white wine.”

Throughout the wake, inappropriate thoughts kept popping into her brain. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling. Sadness, sure, but underneath, panic was waiting to grab her by the throat. Mrs. Hamada was now alone. There was no need to even consider divorce.

The day of the funeral, Ryu brushed by Yvonne as if she were a stranger. He hovered at his mother’s elbow, urging her to sit, to rest, to drink something. To Yvonne: “The priest is coming soon. Prepare the tray.”

All the relatives were watching her. Would she sit with her legs sprawled open? Would she laugh and flap her arms around like a duck? Would she be like those Americans they’d seen on TV? Yvonne bowed to each aunt, uncle, cousin, neighbor who came to the door. She ushered them to the room where Mr. Hamada’s body lay in a pine box. She brought them tea on a tray, set the cup down on the tatami near them with two hands.

In the kitchen, she hunched over the too-low sink and washed the teacups. Cousin Kanako joined her. “So will you live here from now on?”

Yvonne looked into the cousin’s face. She was fortyish, earnest-looking. Kind. “I can’t,” she whispered. “In America…”

“But this is Japan. You can’t just leave her alone in this big house. She’ll have nothing to look forward to.” Kanako leaned in closer. “I live with my mother-in-law. It’s not so bad. We do embroidery together.”

Yvonne shuddered but Kanako didn’t seem to notice. She should have been thinking about Mr. Hamada – reminiscing, perhaps, about the freshwater pearl necklace he had once brought her from Kyoto. Or the time he had tried to teach her how to play Go – the arrangement of black and white disks on the playing board. Or the time the four of them – Mr. and Mrs. Hamada, Ryu and Yvonne, had gone to a karaoke box and sung enka together. Instead, Yvonne could only think about herself. She could feel her future closing in on her like the lid of a box. It was getting harder and harder to breathe.

“Yvonne, the priest is here now.” An aunt appeared to give directions. “Bring him the tray.”

Later in the day, when the most of the mourners had gone home, and it was just Ryu, Yvonne and Mrs. Hamada in the kitchen, the older woman turned to her daughter-in-law and said, “Everyone said that you are a good bride. Not many young women know how to serve tea.”

And then she saw the rest of her life as a succession of teacups. She’d fill them, place them before guests, and wash them, and this would go on and on and on. Every time one of Mrs. Hamada’s friends or neighbors came to visit, she would be forced into this role.

“It’s better to establish yourself as a bad daughter-in-law,” her Japanese friend Maya had once told her. Now she understood.

“Mother,” Ryu said. He sounded tired, yet gentle. “We want you to live with us.”

Yvonne could not move. Her head was becoming light.

“No, no, no. I can’t leave this house. Your father and I lived here together for many years.”

“He’s dead now. It’s time to move on.”

Yvonne was stunned. Mr. Hamada’s ashes had not yet cooled, and his son was already smothering the memory of him. He was already thinking of a new life where Yvonne would sit at the table in silence while the two of them rattled away in their language.

“Then we will move in here,” Ryu said. “We can’t leave you by yourself.”

“I will be fine.” Mrs. Hamada tried to smile, but her lips trembled. Yvonne could see the tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. “Your father wanted you to be happy in your new house. Please. Don’t think of me.”

That night, Yvonne slept in Ryu’s childhood room. Ryu and his mother slept on futons in the room downstairs with Mr. Hamada’s bones. They burned candles and incense. Yvonne didn’t understand any of the chants.

“You will have to learn to drive in Japan,” Ryu said a few days later. “My mother has no license and if there is some emergency, then you will have to help her.”

“What about you?”

“I have to work long hours. I may be too busy.”

Yvonne knew that all over Japan, daughters-in-law were taking care of their husbands’ mothers – bathing them, preparing soft meals, doling out pills and spooning medicines into toothless mouths. The husbands were working, were drinking after hours with their coworkers in an effort to forget the heavy burdens of family and mortgage. Three generations under one roof, many hungry bellies – all this was on the husbands’ shoulders. She tried to convince herself that her duty was to take care of Mrs. Hamada, but her only impulse was to run away to her new house and lock the door.

During the forty-nine days of mourning, she helped in the kitchen each week. She prepared the tray of tea and beancakes for the priest, set out slippers in a neat row in the entryway for visitors, chopped vegetables for the mourners’ soup.

The fifth week, she found some carrots in the bottom of her mother-in-law’s refrigerator. They’d be a good addition to the miso soup, she thought, a nice counterpart to seaweed and onions. She scrambled around in a drawer, dug up a scraper, and began peeling the carrots in long, curling strips. The aunts and cousins bustled around her.

“Yvonne-chan, what are you doing?” It was Kanako, there at her elbow. Her face too close to Yvonne’s.

“Chopping carrots. For the soup.”

“For the soup? Oh, no. There can be nothing red in the soup. Red’s a color for celebration.”

Yvonne stared at her for a moment. “Carrots are orange,” she said.

“Almost red. No, no.”

The other women glanced over and nodded their agreement. Yvonne sighed. She would never understand this family or this country. She picked up a chunk of carrot, popped it into her mouth and crunched as carefully as she could. There was no way that the others could not have heard the sound, but they ignored it.

When, at last, Mr. Hamada’s soul had been chanted into paradise, Yvonne waited for their lives to settle down. But things were far from normal.

“I have a duty,” Ryu said. “I must take care of my mother. I will stay at her house three or four nights a week.”

Yvonne thought that quiet and solitude would be a blessed thing. “If you must,” she said. “But I will stay here.”

Ryu nodded. He had given up on trying to persuade her otherwise. Or maybe he was trying to wear her down, force her to see the ridiculousness of the situation. If they lived together, she wouldn’t have to learn how to drive down the right side of the road along with the maniacal motorists. She would be able to sleep next to Ryu every night. But she wouldn’t budge. There was no welcome in her heart.

On Monday morning, Yvonne sat on the edge of the bed while Ryu packed. He took four pairs of balled-up socks out of the drawer and stuffed them into his duffel bag. He tossed four pairs of clean boxer shorts and his blue-striped pajamas in with the socks. She watched as he unhooked dress shirts on hangers from the closet pole. Usually, he asked her which tie went best with which shirt, but this time he chose silently.

Yvonne remained seated on the bed until he had departed. The house was quiet except for the sound of her breathing.

She went to work as usual, then bought a piece of chocolate cake at the bakery on her way home to eat for dinner. Why not? She deserved special treatment after seven weekends of slaving in her mother-in-law’s kitchen. Back home, she lit a taper (Ryu hated eating by candlelight, said he couldn’t see the food), put on her CD of “Madame Butterfly” and arranged the wedge of cake on a china plate.

The icing was artfully arranged, but each forkful was airy and light – not the rich gooey concoction she’d hoped for. She ate slowly, scraped her plate clean of crumbs, but in the end, she wasn’t quite satisfied.

There was only a plate and a fork to wash instead of the usual sinkful of dishes. There were no inside-out socks to be picked up from the floor, no rumpled newspapers to be stacked, no empty beer cans. Yvonne had all evening to do as she pleased.

After a long soak in the tub (she’d added lavender-scented salts), she sprawled across the bed with a pile of fashion magazines. She flipped through a few pages of cosmetics ads, an interview with a rising young actress that she’d never heard of, then glanced at the phone on the nightstand. It did not ring. He would not call tonight.

Ryu returned on Friday evening. As soon as she heard his car pull up next to the house, Yvonne rushed to the entryway to meet him. He pushed open the door and leaned in to kiss her. Yvonne reached for his bag.

“Mackerel,” he said, sniffing the air. “We had that for dinner last night.”

Yvonne bit the inside of her lips. She lugged his duffel bag to the laundry room, but when she unzipped it, she found that all of the clothes had been freshly laundered.

“So how is your mother?” she asked when they were seated at the table.

“Sad,” Ryu said. “She wants to know why you don’t visit.”

Yvonne’s jaw tightened. “She has her precious son,” she wanted to say. “What does she need me for?”

From then on the week was divided – Mrs. Hamada’s days, and Yvonne’s days. She knew that Japanese men, transferred by their employers to distant cities, often lived separately from their families, returning to their wives and children only on the weekends. In Japan, Yvonne and Ryu’s new routine wasn’t strange at all.

On Fridays, Ryu told Yvonne about taking his mother to the beauty salon, to the grocery store, to the art museum for a special exhibit of Picasso paintings.

“It’s good that she’s getting out and about,” Yvonne said. She had stayed in the house reading books and staring out the window. Wondering if this semi-separation would go on forever.

“Yes,” Ryu said. “She’s smiling a bit more. She even laughed once.”

“Great. Your being there must do wonders for her.”

A few weeks later he started taking her to ikebana lessons. Mrs. Hamada also signed up for yoga and English conversation.

“She wants to be able to talk to you in English,” Ryu said. “She’s trying hard.”

And then, most surprising of all, Ryu arrived home one Friday evening and announced: “My mother is going to driving school.”

Driving school? At her age? She’d be embarrassed. She wouldn’t last among all of those shrieking high school girls with orange-streaked hair, the boys with their pompadours and forced gruffness. Was this another ploy? Was Yvonne expected to realize that things had gone beyond all reasonable expectations, to relent, to consent to living together and driving Mrs. Hamada wherever she wanted to go?

“Tell her to do her best,” Yvonne said coolly. “I’ll be rooting for her.”

She wondered if he was making everything up, or if grief had touched him in a way that she hadn’t imagined. She decided to give Mrs. Hamada a call. Just to see what was going on.

“Moshi moshi.” Mrs. Hamada’s voice had the requisite phone cheer, but that didn’t mean anything.

“What’s this about driving school?” Yvonne asked, after enduring the niceties about health and weather.

“Oh ho ho. Hazukashii!” she said, feigning embarrassment. “I’m so old. They call me granny at the school!”

“So you really are learning to drive? A car?”

“I’m trying. Maybe someday I’ll be able to drive to your house.”

Yvonne grimaced. “That would be great,” she said. “We could speak in English.”

“Oh ho ho!”

Finally, around the time when buds began to appear on the branches of cherry trees, Ryu came home on Friday night and stayed till Tuesday. On Wednesday evening, he was still at home. Yvonne had made beef stew and he’d eaten two bowls of it. Now, he was bathed, in his striped pajamas, and sitting in front of the TV with a can of beer.

Yvonne was afraid to ask when he was going back to his mother’s house, but she had to know.

“How is your mother?” she asked. At first, Yvonne thought that Ryu hadn’t heard. His eyes were fixed on news footage of a war in some distant country. The sound of gunshots blasted through the room.

“Ryu?”

“My mother is fine,” he said, at last. “She’s decided to go on a tour to Malaysia next month with her friends.” He chuckled. “She wants to go all over the world.”

Mrs. Hamada? Yvonne felt something like envy rising in her gorge. Mr. Hamada’s death had set her free. She was a fool to think that her mother-in-law needed her and Ryu to take care of her. Her world had suddenly burst open – a gallery of adventures waiting to be had.

Ryu’s eyes were once again on the television screen. Relief workers were carrying injured Africans on stretchers while bombs exploded in the distance. After a few seconds, the carnage gave way to a shot of a suited announcer behind a desk, then a commercial featuring a muscle-bound actor exclaiming over sausages in a pan. Ryu reached for the remote control and flipped to a documentary – rare birds nesting on the Galapagos Islands, a strange and beautiful place.

Yvonne had thought that the new house was a sanctuary, but it had become like a fortress. She had imprisoned herself. She turned to Ryu, a sudden wildness in her eyes. “Give me your keys,” she said.

“My keys?” He raised his eyebrows, but reached into his pocket and fished them out. Pitched them to her.

It was dark outside, the sky spangled with stars. The full moon shone upon Yvonne. She stood still for a moment, feeling the night breeze ruffle her hair, and then moved toward the car. It sat in the driveway, big and patient, like a promise. The moon’s reflection bounced off the hood. Yvonne went around to the driver’s side, unlocked the door, and eased in behind the dashboard. Just sitting there with her fingers fitted into the ridges of the steering wheel made her heart pound. She could hear the blood rushing through her head. Yvonne remained seated there until the beat had slowed, then took a deep breath and went back into the house.

“What were you doing?” Ryu asked when she tossed him the keys.

“Nothing,” she said. But next time, she would start the engine.

© 1999 by Suzanne Kamata. All rights reserved.

This story was previously published in Crab Orchard Review and The Beacon Best of 1999. 

Suzanne Kamata first came from South Carolina to Japan to teach on the JET Program in 1988. She now lives with her Japanese husband and twin toddlers in Matsushige, a small town on the island of Shikoku. Her short stories have appeared widely, and she is the editor of The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan.

The Broken Bridge is an anthology of short stories by expatriates in Japan after World War II, with most of the stories set in the 1990s. The majority concern expatriate experiences in Japan. Contributing writers include Donald Richie, Francis King, Alan Brown, Edward Seidensticker, Frank Tuohy, Phyllis Birnbaum and Leza Lowitz. Check out The Broken Bridge on Amazon.com.