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Chapter 19

That startling month in which I first came upon the Chairman again-and met Nobu, and Dr. Crab, and Uchida Kosaburo-made me feel something like a pet cricket that has at last escaped its wicker cage. For the first time in ages I could go to bed at night believing I might not always draw as little notice in Gion as a drop of tea spilled onto the mats. I still had no understanding of Mameha's plan, or of how it would lead me to success as a geisha, or whether success as a geisha would ever lead me to the Chairman. But every night I lay on my futon with his handkerchief pressed against my cheek, reliving again and again my encounter with him. I was like a temple bell that resonates long after it has been struck.

Some weeks passed without word from any of the men, and Mameha and I began to worry. But at last one morning a secretary from Iwamura Electric phoned the Ichiriki Teahouse to request my company for that evening. Mameha was delighted at this news, because she hoped the invitation had come from Nobu. I was delighted too; I hoped it was from the Chairman. Later that day, in Hatsumomo's presence, I told Auntie I would be entertaining Nobu and asked her to help me choose a kimono ensemble. To my astonishment Hatsumomo came along to lend a hand. I'm sure that a stranger seeing us would have imagined we were members of a close family. Hatsumomo never snickered, or made sarcastic comments, and in fact she was helpful. I think Auntie felt as puzzled as I did. We ended up settling on a powdery green kimono with a pattern of leaves in silver and vermilion, and a gray obi with gold threads. Hatsumomo promised to stop by so she could see Nobu and me together.

That evening I knelt in the hallway of the Ichiriki feeling that my whole life had led me to this moment. I listened to the sounds of muffled laughter, wondering if one of the voices was the Chairman's; and when I opened the door and saw him there at the head of the table, and Nobu with his back to me . . . well, I was so captivated by the Chairman's smile-though it was really only the residue of laughter from a moment earlier-that I had to keep myself from smiling back at him. I greeted Mameha first, and then the few other geisha in the room, and finally the six or seven men. When I arose from my knees, I went straight to Nobu, as Mameha expected me to do. I must have knelt closer to him than I realized, however, because he immediately slammed his sake cup onto the table in annoyance and shifted a little distance away from me. I apologized, but he paid me no attention, and Mameha only frowned. I spent the rest of the time feeling out of sorts. Later, as we were leaving together, Mameha said to me:

"Nobu-san is easily annoyed. Be more careful not to irritate him in the future."

"I'm sorry, ma'am. Apparently he isn't as fond of me as you thought ..."

"Oh, he's fond of you. If he didn't like your company, you'd have left the party in tears. Sometimes his temperament seems as gentle as a sack of gravel, but he's a kind man in his way, as you'll discover."

I was invited to the Ichiriki Teahouse again that week by Iwamura Electric and many times over the weeks that followed-and not always with Mameha. She cautioned me not to stay too long for fear of making myself look unpopular; so after an hour or so I always bowed and excused myself as though I were on my way to another party. Often while I was dressing for these evenings, Hatsumomo hinted she might stop by, but she never did. Then one afternoon when I wasn't expecting it, she informed me she had some free time that evening and would be absolutely certain to come.

I felt a bit nervous, as you can imagine; but things seemed still worse when I reached the Ichiriki and found that Nobu was absent. It was the smallest party I'd attended yet in Gion, with only two other geisha and four men. What if Hatsumomo should arrive and find me entertaining the Chairman without Nobu? I'd made no headway in thinking what to do, when suddenly the door slid open, and with a surge of anxiety I saw Hatsumomo there on her knees in the hallway.

My only recourse, I decided, was to act bored, as though the company of no one but Nobu could possibly interest me. Perhaps this would have been enough to save me that night; but by good fortune Nobu arrived a few minutes afterward in any case. Hatsumomo's lovely smile grew the moment Nobu entered the room, until her lips were as rich and full as drops of blood beading at the edge of a wound. Nobu made himself comfortable at the table, and then at once, Hatsumomo suggested in an almost maternal way that I go and pour him sake. I went to settle myself near him and tried to show all the signs of a girl enchanted. Whenever he laughed, for example, I flicked my eyes toward him as though I couldn't resist. Hatsumomo was delighted and watched us so openly that she didn't even seem aware of all the men's eyes upon her-or more likely, she was simply accustomed to the attention. She was captivatingly beautiful that evening, as she always was; the young man at the end of the table did little more than smoke cigarettes and watch her. Even the Chairman, who sat with his fingers draped gracefully around a sake cup, stole glimpses of her from time to time. I had to wonder if men were so blinded by beauty that they would feel privileged to live their lives with an actual demon, so long as it was a beautiful demon. I had a sudden image in my mind of the Chairman stepping up into the formal entrance hall of our okiya late one night to meet Hatsumomo, holding a fedora in his hand and smiling down at me as he began to unbutton his overcoat. I didn't think he'd ever really be so entranced by her beauty as to overlook the traces of cruelty that would show themselves. But one thing was certain: if Hatsumomo ever understood my feelings for him, she might very well try to seduce him, if for no other reason than to cause me pain.

Suddenly it seemed urgent to me that Hatsumomo leave the party. I knew she was there to observe the "developing romance," as she put it; so I made up my mind to show her what she'd come to see. I began by touching my fingertips to my neck or my hairstyle every so often, in order to seem worried about my appearance. When my fingers brushed one of my hair ornaments inadvertently, I came up with an idea. I waited until someone made a joke, and then while laughing and adjusting my hair, I leaned toward Nobu. Adjusting my hair was a strange thing for me to do, I'll admit, since it was waxed into place and hardly needed attention. But my purpose was to dislodge one of my hair ornaments-a cascade of yellow and orange safflowers in silk- and let it fall into Nobu's lap. As it turned out, the wooden spine holding the ornament in my hair was embedded farther than I'd realized; but I managed to slip it out at last, and it bounced against Nobu's chest and fell onto the tatami between his crossed legs. Most everyone noticed, and no one seemed to know what to do. I'd planned to reach into his lap and reclaim it with girlish embarrassment, but I couldn't bring myself to reach between his legs.

Nobu picked it up himself, and turned it slowly by its spine. "Fetch the young maid who greeted me," he said. "Tell her I want the package I brought."

I did as Nobu asked and returned to the room to find everyone waiting. He was still holding my hair ornament by the spine, so that the flowers dangled down above the table, and made no effort to take the package from me when I offered it to him. "I was going to give it to you later, on your way out. But it looks as if I'm meant to give it to you now," he said, and nodded toward the package in a way that suggested I should open it. I felt very embarrassed with everyone watching, but I unfolded the paper wrapping and opened the little wooden box inside to find an exquisite ornamental comb on a bed of satin. The comb, in the shape of a half-circle, was a showy red color adorned with bright flowers.

"It's an antique I found a few days ago," Nobu said.

The Chairman, who was gazing wistfully at the ornament in its box on the table, moved his lips, but no sound came out at first, until he cleared his throat and then said, with a strange sort of sadness, "Why, Nobu-san, I had no idea you were so sentimental."

Hatsumomo rose from the table; I thought I'd succeeded in ridding myself of her, but to my surprise she came around and knelt near me. I wasn't sure what to make of this, until she removed the comb from the box and carefully inserted it into my hair just at the base of the large pincushionlike bun. She held out her hand, and Nobu gave her the ornament of dangling safflowers, which she replaced in my hair as carefully as a mother tending to a baby. I thanked her with a little bow.

"Isn't she just the loveliest creature?" she said, speaking pointedly to Nobu. And then she gave a very theatrical sigh, as though these few moments were as romantic as any she'd experienced, and left the party as I'd hoped she would.

It goes without saying that men can be as distinct from each other as shrubs that bloom in different times of the year. Because although

Nobu and the Chairman seemed to take an interest in me within a few weeks of the sumo tournament, several months passed and still we heard nothing from Dr. Crab or Uchida. Mameha was very clear that we ought to wait until we heard from them, rather than finding some pretext for approaching them again, but at length she could bear the suspense no longer and went to check on Uchida one afternoon.

It turned out that shortly after we'd visited him, his cat had been bitten by a badger and within a few days was dead from infection. Uchida had fallen into another drinking spell as a result. For a few days Mameha visited to cheer him up. Finally when his mood seemed to be turning the corner, she dressed me in an ice-blue kimono with multicolored ribbons embroidered at the hem-with only a touch of Western-style makeup to "accentuate the angles," as she put it-and sent me to him bearing a present of a pearl-white kitten that had cost her I don't know how much money. I thought the kitten was adorable, but Uchida paid it little attention and instead sat squinting his eyes at me, shifting his head this way and that. A few days later, the news came that he wanted me to model in his studio. Mameha cautioned me not to speak a word to him, and sent me off chaperoned by her maid Tatsumi, who spent the afternoon nodding off in a drafty corner while Uchida moved me from spot to spot, frantically mixing his inks and painting a bit on rice paper before moving me again.

If you were to go around Japan and see the various works Uchida produced while I modeled for him during that winter and the years that followed-such as one of his only surviving oil paintings, hanging in the boardroom of the Sumitomo Bank in Osaka-you might imagine it was a glamorous experience to have posed for him. But actually nothing could have been duller. Most of the time I did little more than sit uncomfortably for an hour or more. Mainly I remember being thirsty, because Uchida never once offered me anything to drink. Even when I took to bringing my own tea in a sealed jar, he moved it to the other side of the room so it wouldn't distract him. Following Mameha's instructions, I tried never to speak a word, even one bitter afternoon in the middle of February when I probably should have said something and didn't. Uchida had come to sit right before me and stare at my eyes, chewing on the mole in the corner of his mouth. He had a handful of ink sticks and some water that kept icing over, but no matter how many times he ground ink in various combinations of blue and gray, he was never quite satisfied with the color and took it outside to spill it into the snow. Over the course of the afternoon as his eyes bored into me, he became more and more angry and finally sent me away. I didn't hear a word from him for more than two weeks, and later found out he'd fallen into another drinking spell. Mameha blamed me for letting it happen.

As for Dr. Crab, when I first met him he'd as much as promised to see Mameha and me at the Shirae Teahouse; and yet as late as six weeks afterward, we hadn't heard a word from him. Mameha's concern grew as the weeks passed. I still knew nothing of her plan for catching Hatsu-momo off-balance, except that it was like a gate swinging on two hinges, one of which was Nobu and the other of which was Dr. Crab. What she was up to with Uchida, I couldn't say, but it struck me as a separate scheme-certainly not in the very center of her plans.

Finally in late February, Mameha ran into Dr. Crab at the Ichiriki Teahouse and learned that he'd been consumed with the opening of a new hospital in Osaka. Now that most of the work was behind him, he hoped to renew my acquaintance at the Shirae Teahouse the following week. You'll recall that Mameha had claimed I would be overwhelmed with invitations if I showed my face at the Ichiriki; this was why Dr. Crab asked that we join him at the Shirae instead. Mameha's real motive was to keep clear of Hatsumomo, of course; and yet as I prepared to meet the Doctor again, I couldn't help feeling uneasy that Hatsumomo might find us anyway. But the moment I set eyes on the Shirae I nearly burst out laughing, for it was certainly a place Hatsumomo would go out of her way to avoid. It made m............

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