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HOME > Classical Novels > Memoirs Of A Geisha > Chapter 35
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Chapter 35

Now, nearly forty years later, I sit here looking back on that evening with the Chairman as the moment when all the grieving voices within me fell silent. Since the day I'd left Yoroido, I'd done nothing but worry that every turn of life's wheel would bring yet another obstacle into my path; and of course, it was the worrying and the struggle that had always made life so vividly real to me. When we fight upstream against a rocky undercurrent, every foothold takes on a kind of urgency.

But life softened into something much more pleasant after the Chairman became my danna. I began to feel like a tree whose roots had at last broken into the rich, wet soil deep beneath the surface. I'd never before had occasion to think of myself as more fortunate than others, and yet now I was. Though I must say, I lived in that contented state a long while before I was finally able to look back and admit how desolate my life had once been. I'm sure I could never have told my story otherwise; I don't think any of us can speak frankly about pain until we are no longer enduring it.

On the afternoon when the Chairman and I drank sake together in a ceremony at the Ichiriki Teahouse, something peculiar happened. I don't know why, but when I sipped from the smallest of the three

cups we used, I let the sake wash over my tongue, and a single drop of it spilled from the corner of my mouth. I was wearing a five-crested kimono of black, with a dragon woven in gold and red encircling the hem up to my thighs. I recall watching the drop fall beneath my arm and roll down the black silk on my thigh, until it came to a stop at the heavy silver threads of the dragon's teeth. I'm sure most geisha would call it a bad omen that I'd spilled sake; but to me, that droplet of moisture that had slipped from me like a tear seemed almost to tell the story of my life. It fell through empty space, with no control whatsoever over its destiny; rolled along a path of silk; and somehow came to rest there on the teeth of that dragon. I thought of the petals I'd thrown into the Kamo River shallows outside Mr. Arashino's workshop, imagining they might find their way to the Chairman. It seemed to me that, somehow, perhaps they had.

In the foolish hopes that had been so dear to me since girlhood, I'd always imagined my life would be perfect if I ever became the Chairman's mistress. It's a childish thought, and yet I'd carried it with me even as an adult. I ought to have known better: How many times already had I encountered the painful lesson that although we may wish for the barb to be pulled from our flesh, it" leaves behind a welt that doesn't heal? In banishing Nobu from my life forever, it wasn't just that I lost his friendship; I also ended up banishing myself from Gion.

The reason is so simple, I ought to have known beforehand it would happen. A man who has won a prize coveted by his friend faces a difficult choice: he must either hide his prize away where the friend will never see it-if he can-or suffer damage to the friendship. This was the very problem that had arisen between Pumpkin and me: our friendship had never recovered after my adoption. So although the Chairman's negotiations with Mother to become my danna dragged out over several months, in the end it was agreed that I would no longer work as a geisha. I certainly wasn't the first geisha to leave Gion; besides those who ran away, some married and left as wives; others withdrew to set up teahouses or okiya of their own. In my case, however, I was trapped in a peculiar middle ground. The Chairman wanted me out of Gion to keep me out of sight of Nobu, but he certainly wasn't going to marry me; he was already married. Probably the perfect solution, and the one that the Chairman proposed, would have been to set me up with my own teahouse or inn-one that Nobu would never have visited. But Mother was unwilling to have me leave the okiya; she would have earned no revenues from my relationship with the Chairman if I had ceased to be a member of the Nitta family, you see. This is why in the end, the Chairman agreed to pay the okiya a very considerable sum each month on the condition that Mother permit me to end my career. I continued to live in the okiya, just as I had for so many years; but I no longer went to the little school in the mornings, or made the rounds of Gion to pay my respects on special occasions; and of course, I no longer entertained during the evenings.

Because I'd set my sights on becoming a geisha only to win the affections of the Chairman, probably I ought to have felt no sense of loss in withdrawing from Gion. And yet over the years I'd developed many rich friendships, not only with other geisha but with many of the men I'd come to know. I wasn't banished from the company of other women just because I'd ceased entertaining; but those who make a living in Gion have little time for socializing. I often felt jealous when I saw two geisha hurrying to their next engagement, laughing together over what had happened at the last one. I didn't envy them the uncertainty of their existence; but I did envy that sense of promise I could well remember, that the evening ahead might yet hold some mischievous pleasure.

I did see Mameha frequently. We had tea together at least several times a week. Considering all that she had done for me since childhood-and the special role she'd played in my life on the Chairman's behalf-you can imagine how much I felt myself in her debt. One day in a shop I came upon a silk painting from the eighteenth century showing a woman teaching a young girl calligraphy. The teacher had an exquisite oval face and watched over her pupil with such benevolence, it made me think of Mameha at once, and I bought it for her as a gift. On the rainy afternoon when she hung it on the wall of her dreary apartment, I found myself listening to the traffic that hissed by on Higashi-oji Avenue. I couldn't help remembering, with a terrible feeling of loss, her elegant apartment from years earlier, and the enchanting sound out those windows of water rushing over the knee-high cascade in the Shirakawa Stream. Gion itself had seemed to me like an exquisite piece of antique fabric back then; but so much had changed. Now Mameha's simple one-room apartment had mats the color of stale tea and smelled of herbal potions from the Chinese pharmacy below-so much so that her kimono themselves sometimes gave off a faint medicinal odor.

After she'd hung the ink painting on the wall and admired it for a while, she came back to the table. She sat with her hands around her

steaming teacup, peering into it as though she expected to find the words she was looking for. I was surprised to see the tendons in her hands beginning to show themselves from age. At last, with a trace of sadness, she said:

"How curious it is, what the future brings us. You must take care, Sayuri, never to expect too much."

I'm quite sure she was right. I'd have had an easier time over the following years if I hadn't gone on believing that Nobu would one day forgive me. In the end I had to give up questioning Mameha whether he'd asked about me; it pained me terribly to see her sigh and give me a long, sad look, as if to say she was sorry I hadn't known better than to hope for such a thing.

In the spring of the year after I became his mistress, the Chairman purchased a luxurious house in the northeast of Kyoto and named it Eishin-an-"Prosperous Truth Retreat." It was intended for guests of the company, but in fact the Chairman made more use of it than anyone. This was where he and I met to spend the evenings together three or four nights a week, sometimes even more. On his busiest days he arrived so late he wanted only to soak in a hot bath while I talked with him, and then afterward fall asleep. But most evenings he arrived around sunset, or soon after, and ate his dinner while we chatted and watched the servants light the lanterns in the garden.

Usually when he first came, the Chairman talked for a time about his workday. He might tell me about troubles with a new product, or about a traffic accident involving a truckload of parts, or some such thing. Of course I was happy to sit and listen, but I understood perfectly well that the Chairman wasn't telling these things to me because he wanted me to know theni. He was clearing them from his mind, just like draining water from a bucket. So I listened closely not to his words, but to the tone of his voice; because in the same way that sound rises as a bucket is emptied, I could hear the Chairman's voice softening as he spoke. When the moment was right, I changed the subject, and soon we were talking about nothing so serious as business, but about everything else instead, such as what had happened to him that morning on the way to work; or something about the film we may have watched a few nights earlier there at the Eishin-an; or perhaps I told him a funny story I might have heard from Mameha, who on some evenings came to join us there. In any case, this simple process of first draining the Chairman's mind and then relaxing him with playful conversation had the same effect water has on a towel that has dried stiffly in the sun. When
he first arrived and I washed his hands with a hot cloth, his fingers felt rigid, like heavy twigs. After we had talked for a time, they bent as gracefully as if he were sleeping.

I expected that this would be my life, entertaining the Chairman in the evenings and occupying myself during the daylight hours in any way I could. But in the fall of 1952,1 accompanied the Chairman on his second trip to the United States. He'd traveled there the winter before, and no experience of his life had ever made such an impression on him; he said he felt he understood for the first time the true meaning of prosperity. Most Japanese at this time had electricity only during certain hours, for example, but the lights in American cities burned around the clock. And while we in Kyoto were proud that the floor of our new train station was constructed of concrete rather than old-fashioned wood, the floors of American train stations were made of solid marble. Even in small American towns, the movie theaters were as grand as our National Theater, said the Chairman, and the public bathrooms everywhere were spotlessly clean. What amazed him most of all was that every family in the United States owned a refrigerator, which could be purchased with the wages earned by an average worker in only a month's time. In Japan, a worker needed fifteen months'wages to buy such a thing; few families could afford it.

In any case, as I say, the Chairman permitted me to accompany him on his second trip to America. I traveled alone by rail to Tokyo, and from there we flew together on an airplane bound for Hawaii, where we spent a few remarkable days. The Chairman bought me a bathing suit-the first I'd ever owned-and I sat wearing it on the beach with my hair hanging neatly at my shoulders just like other women around me. Hawaii reminded me strangely of Amami; I worried that the same thought might occur to the Chairman, but if it did, he said nothing about it. From Hawaii, we continued to Los Angeles and finally to New York. I knew nothing about the United States except what I'd seen in movies; I don't think I quite believed that the great buildings of New York City really existed. And when I settled at last into my room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and looked out the window at the mountainous buildings around me and the smooth, clean streets below, I had the feeling I was seeing a world in which anything was possible. I confess I'd expected to feel like a baby who has been taken away from its mother; for I had never before left Japan, and couldn't imagine that a setting as alien as New York City would make me anything but fearful. Perhaps it was the Chairman's enthusiasm that helped me to approach my visit there with such goodwill. He'd taken a separate room, which he used mostly for business; but every night he came to stay with me
in the suite he'd arranged. Often I awoke i............

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