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Chapter 25

Mameha may already have won her bet with Mother, but she still had quite a stake in my future. So during the next few years she worked to make my face familiar to all her best customers, and to the other geisha in Gion as well. We were still emerging from the Depression at this time; formal banquets weren't as common as Mameha would have liked. But she took me to plenty of informal gatherings, not only parties in the teahouses, but swimming excursions, sightseeing tours, Kabuki plays, and so on. During the heat of summer when everyone felt most relaxed, these casual gatherings were often quite a lot of fun, even for those of us supposedly hard at work entertaining. For example, a group of men sometimes decided to go floating in a canal boat along the Kamo River, to sip sake and dangle their feet in the water. I was too young to join in the carousing, and often ended up with the job of shaving ice to make snow cones, but it was a pleasant change nevertheless.

Some nights, wealthy businessmen or aristocrats threw geisha parties just for themselves. They spent the evening dancing and singing, and drinking with the geisha, often until well after midnight. I remember on one of these occasions, the wife of our host stood at the door to hand out envelopes containing a generous tip as we left. She gave Mameha two of them, and asked her the favor of delivering the second to the geisha Tomizuru, who had "gone home earlier with a headache," as she put it. Actually she knew as well as we did that Tomizuru was her husband's mistress, and had gone with him to another wing of the house to keep him company for the night.

Many of the glamorous parties in Gion were attended by famous artists, and writers, and Kabuki actors, and sometimes they were very exciting events. But I'm sorry to tell you that the average geisha party was something much more mundane. The host was likely to be the division head of a small company, and the guest of honor one of his suppliers, or perhaps one of his employees he'd just promoted, or something along those lines. Every so often, some well-meaning geisha admonished me that as an apprentice, my responsibility-besides trying to look pretty-was to sit quietly and listen to conversations in the hopes of one day becoming a clever conversationalist myself. Well, most of the conversations I heard at these parties didn't strike me as very clever at all. A man might turn to the geisha beside him and say, "The weather certainly is unusually warm, don't you think?" And the geisha would reply with something like, "Oh, yes, very warm!" Then she'd begin playing a drinking game with him, or try to get all the men singing, and soon the man who'd spoken with her was too drunk to remember he wasn't having as good a time as he'd hoped. For my part, I always considered this a terrible waste. If a man has come to Gion just for the purpose of having a relaxing time, and ends up involved in some childish game such as paper-scissors-stone . . . well, in my view he'd have been better off staying at home and playing with his own children or grandchildren-who, after all, are probably more clever than this poor, dull geisha he was so unfortunate as to sit beside.

Every so often, though, I was privileged to overhear a geisha who really was clever, and Mameha was certainly one of these. I learned a great deal from her conversations. For example, if a man said to her, "Warm weather, don't you think?" she had a dozen replies ready. If he was old and lecherous, she might say to him, "Warm? Perhaps it's just the effect on you of being around so many lovely women!" Or if he was an arrogant young businessman who didn't seem to know his place, she might take him off his guard by saying, "Here you are sitting with a half-dozen of the best geisha in Gion, and all you can think to talk about is the weather." One time when I happened to be watching her, Mameha knelt beside a very young man who couldn't have been more than nineteen or twenty; he probably wouldn't have been at a geisha party at all if his father hadn't been the host. Of course, he didn't know what to say or how to behave around geisha, and I'm sure he felt nervous; but he turned to Mameha very bravely and said to her, "Warm, isn't it?" She lowered her voice and answered him like this:

"Why, you're certainly right about it being warm. You should have seen me when I stepped out of the bath this morning! Usually when I'm completely naked, I feel so cool and relaxed. But this morning, there were little beads of sweat covering my skin all the way up my body- along my thighs, and on my stomach, and . . . well, other places too."

When that poor boy set his sake cup down on the table, his fingers were trembling. I'm sure he never forgot that geisha party for the rest of his life.

If you ask me why most of these parties were so dull, I think probably there are two reasons. First, just because a young girl has been sold by her family and raised from an early age to be a geisha doesn't mean she'll turn out to be clever, or have anything interesting to say. And second, the same thing goes for the men. Just because a man has made enough money to come to Gion and waste it however he chooses doesn't mean he's fun to be around. In fact, many of the men are accustomed to being treated with a great deal of respect. Sitting back with their hands on their knees and big frowns on their faces is about as much work as they plan to do in the way of being entertaining. One time I listened to Mameha spend an entire hour telling stories to a man who never even looked in her direction, but just watched the others in the room while she talked. Oddly enough, this was just what he wanted, and he always asked for Mameha when he came to town.

After two more years of parties and outings-all the while continuing with my studies and participating in dance performances whenever I could-I made the shift from being an apprentice to being a geisha. This was in the summer of 1938, when I was eighteen years old. We call this change "turning the collar," because an apprentice wears a red collar while a geisha wears a white one. Though if you were to see an apprentice and a geisha side by side, their collars would be the last thing you'd notice. The apprentice, with her elaborate, long-sleeved kimono and dangling obi, would probably make you think of a Japanese doll, whereas the geisha would look simpler, perhaps, but also more womanly.

The day I turned my collar was one of the happiest days of Mother's life; or at least, she acted more pleased than I'd ever seen her. I didn't understand it at the time, but it's perfectly clear to me now
what she was thinking. You see, a geisha, unlike an apprentice, is available to a man for more than just pouring his tea, provided the terms are suitable. Because of my connection with Mameha and my popularity in Gion, my standing was such that Mother had plenty of cause for excitement-excitement being, in Mother's case, just another word for money.

Since moving to New York I've learned what the word "geisha" really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I've been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don't turn up quite as they should. She has no idea what to say! And then the burden of conversation falls to the man or woman who has introduced us-because I've never really learned much English, even after all these years. Of course, by this time there's little point even in trying, because this woman is thinking, "My goodness ... I'm talking with a prostitute . . ." A moment later she's rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can't sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day, so was I.

I'm sure there are a great many things I don't know about these young women in their splendid dresses, but I often have the feeling that without their wealthy husbands or boyfriends, many of them would be struggling to get by and might not have the same proud opinions of themselves. And of course the same thing is true for a first-class geisha. It is all very well for a geisha to go from party to party and be popular with a great many men; but a geisha who wishes to become a star is completely dependent on having a danna. Even Mameha, who became famous on her own because of an advertising campaign, would soon have lost her standing and been just another geisha if the Baron hadn't covered the expenses to advance her career.

No more than three weeks after I turned my collar, Mother came to me one day while I was eating a quick lunch in the reception room, and sat across the table a long while puffing on her pipe. I'd been reading a magazine, but I stopped out of politeness-even though Mother didn't seem at first to have much to say to me. After a time she put down her pipe and said, "You shouldn't eat those yellow pickles. They'll rot your teeth. Eook at what they did to mine."

It had never occurred to me that Mother believed her stained teeth had anything to do with eating pickles. When she'd finished giving me a good view of her mouth, she picked up her pipe again and took in a puff of smoke.

"Auntie loves yellow pickles, ma'am," I said, "and her teeth are fine."

"Who cares if Auntie's teeth are fine? She doesn't make money from having a pretty little mouth. Tell the cook not to give them to you. Anyway, I didn't come here to talk with you about pickles. I came to tell you that this time next month you'll have a danna."

"A danna? But, Mother, I'm only eighteen . . ."

"Hatsumomo didn't have a danna until she was twenty. And of course, that didn't last. . . You ought to be very pleased."

"Oh, I am very pleased. But won't it require a lot of my time to keep a danna happy? Mameha thinks I should establish my reputation first, just for a few years."

"Mameha! What does she know about business? The next time I want to know when to giggle at a party, I'll go and ask her."

Nowadays young girls, even in Japan, are accustomed to jumping up from the table and shouting at their mothers, but in my day we bowed and said, "Yes, ma'am," and apologized for having been troublesome; and that's exactly how I responded.

"Leave the business decisions to me," Mother went on. "Only a fool would pass up an offer like the one Nobu Toshikazu has made."

My heart nearly stopped when I heard this. I suppose it was obvious that Nobu would one day propose himself as my danna. After all, he'd made an offer for my mizuage several years earlier, and since then had certainly asked for my company more frequently than any other man. I can't pretend I hadn't thought of this possibility; but that isn't to say I'd ever believed it was the course my life would really take. On the day I first met Nobu at the sumo tournament, my almanac reading had been, "A balance of good and bad can open the door to destiny." Nearly every day since, I'd thought of it in one way or another. Good and bad . . . well, it was Mameha and Hatsumomo; it was my adoption by Mother and the mizuage that had brought it about; and of course it was the Chairman and Nobu. I don't mean to suggest I disliked Nobu. Quite the opposite. But to become his mistress would have closed off my life from the Chairman forever.

Mother must have noticed something of the shock I felt at hearing her words-or in any case, she wasn't pleased at my reaction. But before she could respond we heard a noise in the hallway outside like someone suppressing a cough, and in a moment Hatsumomo stepped into the open doorway. She was holding a bowl of rice, which was very rude of her-she never should have walked away from the table with it. When she'd swallowed, she let out a laugh.

"Mother!" she said. "Are you trying to make me choke?" Apparently she'd been listening to our conversation while she ate her lunch. "So the famous Sayuri is going to have Nobu Toshikazu for her danna," she went on. "Isn't that sweet!"

"If you've come here to say something useful, then say it," Mother told her.

"Yes, I have," Hatsumomo said gravely, and she came and knelt at the table. "Sayuri-san, you may not realize it, but one of the things that goes on between a geisha and her danna can cause the geisha to become pregnant, do you understand? And a man will become very upset if his mistress gives birth to another man's child. In your case, you must be especially careful, because Nobu will know at once, if the child should happen to have two arms like the rest of us, that it can't possibly be his!"

Hatsumomo thought her little joke was very funny.

"Perhaps you should cut off one of your arms, Hatsumomo," said Mother, "if it will make you as successful as Nobu Toshikazu has been."

"And probably it would help, too, if my face looked like this!" she said, smiling, and picked up her rice bowl so we could see what was in it. She was eating rice mixed with red adzuki beans and, in a sickening way, it did look like blistered skin.

As the afternoon progressed I began to feel dizzy, with a strange buzzing in my head, and soon made my way to Mameha's apartment to talk with her. I sat at her table sipping at my chilled barley tea-for we were in the heat of summer-and trying not to let her see how I felt. Reaching the Chairman was the one hope that had motivated me all through my training. If my life would be nothing more than Nobu, and dance recitals, and evening after evening in Gion, I couldn't think why I had struggled so.

Already Mameha had waited a long while to hear why I'd come, but when I set my glass of tea down on the table, I was afraid my voice would crack if I tried to speak. I took a few more moments to compose myself, and then finally swallowed and managed to say, "Mother tells me that within a month it's likely I'll have a danna."

"Yes, I know. And the danna will be Nobu Toshikazu."

By this time I was concentrating so hard on holding myself back from crying, I could no longer speak at all.

"Nobu-san is a good man," she said, "and very fond of you."

"Yes, but, Mameha-san ... I don't know how to say it ... this was never what I imagined!"

"What do you mean? Nobu-san has always treated you kindly."

"But, Mameha-san, I don't want kindness!"

"Don't you? I thought we all wanted kindness. Perhaps what you mean is that you want something more than kindness. And that is something you're in no position to ask."

Of course, Mameha was quite right. When I heard these words, my tears simply broke through the fragile wall that had held them, and with a terrible feeling of shame, I laid my head upon the table and let them drain out of me. Only when I'd composed myself afterward did Mameha speak.

"What did you expect, Sayuri?" she asked.

"Something besides this!"

"I understand you may find Nobu difficult to look at, perhaps But-"

"Mameha-san, it isn't that. Nobu-san is a good man, as you say. It's just that-"

"It's just that you want your destiny to be like Shizue's. Is that it?"

Shizue, though she wasn't an especially popular geisha, was considered by everyone in Gion to be the most fortunate of women. For thirty years she'd been the mistress of- a pharmacist. He wasn't a wealthy man, and she wasn't a beauty; but you could have looked all over Kyoto and not found two people who enjoyed each other's company as they did. As usual, Mameha had come closer to the truth than I wanted to admit.

"You're eighteen years old, Sayuri," she went on. "Neither you nor I can know your destiny. You may never know it! Destiny isn't always like a party at the end of the evening. Sometimes it's nothing more than struggling through life from day to day."

"But, Mameha-san, how cruel!"

"Yes, it is cruel," she said. "But none of us can escape destiny."

"Please, it isn't a matter of escaping my destiny, or anything of that sort. Nobu-san is a good man, just as you say. I know I should feel nothing but gratitude for his interest, but . . . there are so many things I've dreamed about."

"And you're afraid that once Nobu has touched you, after that they can never be? Really, Sayuri, what did you think life as a geisha would be like? We don't become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice."

"Oh, Mameha-san . . . please . . . have I really been so foolish to keep my hopes alive that perhaps one day-"

"Young girls hope all sorts of foolish things, Sayuri. Hopes are like hair ornaments. Girls want to wear too many of them. When they become old women they look silly wearing even one."

I was determined not to lose control of my feelings again. I managed to hold in all my tears except the few that squeezed out of me like sap from a tree.

"Mameha-san," I said, "do you have . . . strong feelings for the Baron?"

"The Baron has been a good danna to me."

"Yes, of course that's true, but do you have feelings for him as a man? I mean, some geisha do have feelings for their danna, don't they?"

"The Baron's relationship with me is convenient for him, and very beneficial to me. If our dealings were tinged with passion . . . well, passion can quickly slip over into jealousy, or even hatred. I certainly can't afford to have a powerful man upset with me. I've struggled for years to carve out a place for myself in Gion, but if a powerful man makes up his mind to destroy me, well, he'll do it! If you want to be successful, Sayuri, you must be sure that men's feelings remain always under your control. The Baron may be hard to take at times, but he has plenty of money, and he's not afraid to spend it. And he doesn't want children, thank heavens. Nobu will certainly be a challenge for you. He knows his own mind much too well. I won't be surprised if he expects more of you than the Baron has expected of me."

"But, Mameha-san, what about your own feelings? I mean, hasn't there ever been a man ..."

I wanted to ask if there had ever been a man who brought out feelings of passion in her. But I could see that her irritation with me, if it had been only a bud until then, had burst into full bloom now. She drew herself up with her hands in her lap; I think she was on the point of rebuking me, but I apologized for my rudeness at once, and she settled back again.

"You and Nobu have an en, Sayuri, and you can't escape it," she said.

I knew even then that she was right. An en is a karmic bond lasting a lifetime. Nowadays many people seem to believe their lives are entirely a matter of choice; but in my day we viewed ourselves as pieces of clay that forever show the fingerprints of everyone who has touched them. Nobu's touch had made a deeper impression on me than most. No one could tell me whether he would be my ultimate destiny, but I had always sensed the en between us. Somewhere in the landscape of my life Nobu would always be present. But could it really be that of all the lessons I'd learned, the hardest one lay just ahead of me? Would I really have to take each of my hopes and p............

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