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Chapter 26

During September of that year, while I was still eighteen years old, General Tottori and I drank sake together in a ceremony at the Ichiriki Teahouse. This was the same ceremony I'd first performed with Mameha when she became my older sister, and later with Dr. Crab just before my mizuage. In the weeks afterward, everyone congratulated Mother for having made such a favorable alliance.

On that very first night after the ceremony, I went on the General's instructions to a small inn in the northwest of Kyoto called Suruya, with only three rooms. I was so accustomed by this time to lavish surroundings that the shabbiness of the Suruya surprised me. The room smelled of mildew, and the tatami were so bloated and sodden that they seemed to make a sighing noise when I stepped on them. Plaster had crumbled near the floor in one corner. I could hear an old man reading a magazine article aloud in an adjacent room. The longer I knelt there, the more out of sorts I felt, so that I was positively relieved when the General finally arrived-even though he did nothing more, after I had greeted him, than turn on the radio and sit drinking a beer.

After a time he went downstairs to take a bath. When he returned to the room, he took off his robe at once and walked around completely naked toweling his hair, with his little round belly protrud-
ing below his chest and a great patch of hair beneath it. I had never seen a man naked before, and I found the General's sagging bottom almost comical. But when he faced me I must admit my eyes went straight to where . . . well, to where his "eel" ought to have been. Something was flapping around there, but only when the General lay on his back and told me to take off my clothes did it begin to surface. He was such a strange little nugget of a man, but completely unabashed about telling me what to do. I'd been afraid I'd have to find some way of pleasing him, but as it turned out, all I had to do was follow orders. In the three years since my mizuage, I'd forgotten the sheer terror I'd felt when the Doctor finally lowered himself onto me. I remembered it now, but the strange thing was that I didn't feel terror so much as a kind of vague queasiness. The General left the radio on- and the lights as well, as if he wanted to be sure I saw the drabness of the room clearly, right down to the water stain on the ceiling.

As the months passed, this queasiness went away, and my encounters with the General became nothing more than an unpleasant twice-weekly routine. Sometimes I wondered what it might be like with the Chairman; and to tell the truth, I was a bit afraid it might be distasteful, just as with the Doctor and the General. Then something happened to make me see things differently. Around this time a man named Yasuda Akira, who'd been in all the magazines because of the success of a new kind of bicycle light he'd designed, began coming to Gion regularly. He wasn't welcome at the Ichiriki yet and probably couldn't have afforded it in any case, but he spent three or four evenings a week at a little teahouse called Tatematsu, in the Tominaga-cho section of Gion, not far from our okiya. I first met him at a banquet one night during the spring of 1939, when I was nineteen years old. He was so much younger than the men around him-probably no more than thirty-that I noticed him the moment I came into the room. He had the same sort of dignity as the Chairman. I found him very attractive sitting there with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his jacket behind him on the mats. For a moment I watched an old man nearby, who raised up his chopsticks with a little piece of braised tofu and his mouth already as wide as it would go; this gave me the impression of a door being slid open so that a turtle could march slowly through. By contrast it made me almost weak to see the way Yasuda-san, with his graceful, sculpted arm, put a bite of braised beef into his mouth with his lips parted sensuously.

I made my way around the circle of men, and when I came to him and introduced myself, he said, "I hope you'll forgive me."

"Forgive you? Why, what have you done?" I asked him.

"I've been very rude," he replied. "I haven't been able to take my eyes off you all evening."

On impulse I reached into my obi for the brocade card holder I kept there, and discreetly removed one card, which I passed to him. Geisha always carry name cards with them just as businessmen carry business cards. Mine was very small, half the size of an ordinary calling card, printed on heavy rice paper with only the words "Gion" and "Sayuri" written on it in calligraphy. It was spring, so I was carrying cards decorated with a colorful spray of plum blossoms in the background. Yasuda admired it for a moment before putting it into his shirt pocket. I had the feeling no words we spoke could be as eloquent as this simple interaction, so I bowed to him and went on to the next man.

From that day Yasuda-san began asking me to the Tatematsu Teahouse every week to entertain him. I was never able to go as often as he wanted me. But about three months after we first met, he brought me a kimono one afternoon as a gift. I felt very flattered, even though in truth it wasn't a sophisticated robe-woven with a poor quality silk in somewhat garish colors, and with a commonplace design of flowers and butterflies. He wanted me to wear it for him one evening soon, and I promised him I would. But when I returned to the okiya with it that night, Mother saw me carrying the package up the stairs and took it away from me to have a look. She sneered when she saw the robe, and said she wouldn't have me seen in anything so unattractive. The very next day, she sold it.

When I found out what she'd done, I said to her as boldly as I dared that the robe had been given to me as a gift, not to the okiya, and that it wasn't right for her to have sold it.

"Certainly it was your robe," she said. "But you are the daughter of the okiya. What belongs to the okiya belongs to you, and the other way around as well."

I was so angry at Mother after this that I couldn't even bring myself to look at her. As for Yasuda-san, who'd wanted to see the robe on me, I told him that because of its colors and its butterfly motif, I could wear it only very early in the spring, and since it was now already summer, nearly a year would have to pass before he could see me in it. He didn't seem too upset to hear this.

"What is a year?" he said, looking at me with penetrating eyes. "I'd wait a good deal longer, depending on what I was waiting for."

We were alone in the room, and Yasuda-san put his beer glass down on the table in a way that made me blush. He reached out for my hand, and I gave it to him expecting that he wanted to hold it a long moment in both of his before letting it go again. But to my surprise he
brought it quickly to his lips and began kissing the inside of my wrist quite passionately, in a way I could feel as far down as my knees. I think of myself as an obedient woman; up until this time I'd generally done the things told to me by Mother, or Mameha, or even Hatsu-momo when I'd had no other choice; but I felt such a combination of anger at Mother and longing for Yasuda-san that I made up my mind right then to do the very thing Mother had ordered me most explicitly not to do. I asked him to meet me in that very teahouse at midnight, and I left him there alone.

Just before midnight I came back and spoke to a young maid. I promised her an indecent sum of money if she would see to it that no one disturbed Yasuda-san and me in one of the upstairs rooms for half an hour. I was already there, waiting in the dark, when the maid slid open the door and Yasuda-san stepped inside. He dropped his fedora onto the mats and pulled me to my feet even before the door was closed. To press my body against his felt so satisfying, like a meal after a long spell of hunger. No matter how hard he pressed himself against me, I pressed back harder. Somehow I wasn't shocked to see how expertly his hands slipped through the seams in my clothing to find my skin. I won't pretend I experienced none of the clumsy moments I was accustomed to with the General, but I certainly didn't notice them in the same way. My encounters with the General reminded me of a time as a child when I'd struggled to climb a tree and pluck away a certain leaf at the top. It was all a matter of careful movements, bearing the discomfort until I finally reached my goal. But with Yasuda-san I felt like a child running freely down a hill. Sometime later when we lay exhausted upon the mats together, I moved his shirttail aside and put my hand on his stomach to feel his breathing. I had never in my life been so close to another human being before, though we hadn't spoken a word.

It was only then that I understood: it was one thing to lie still on the futon for the Doctor or the General. It would be something quite different with the Chairman.

Many a geisha's day-to-day life has changed dramatically after taking a danna; but in my case, I could hardly see any change at all. I still made the rounds of Gion at night just as I had over the past few years. From time to time during the afternoons I went on excursions, including some very peculiar ones, such as accompanying a man on a visit to his brother in the hospital. But as for the changes I'd expected-the prominent dance recitals paid for by my danna, lavish gifts provided by

him, even a day or two of paid leisure time-well, none of these things happened. It was just as Mother had said. Military men didn't take care of a geisha the way a businessman or an aristocrat did.

The General may have brought about very little change in my life, but it was certainly true that his alliance with the okiya was invaluable, at least from Mother's point of view. He covered many of my expenses just as a danna usually does-including the cost of my lessons, my annual registration fee, my medical expenses, and . . . oh, I don't even know what else-my socks, probably. But more important, his new position as director of military procurement was everything Mameha had suggested, so that he was able to do things for us no other danna could have done. For example, Auntie grew ill during March of 1939. We were terribly worried about her, and the doctors were of no .help; but after a telephone call to the General, an important doctor from the military hospital in the Kamigyo Ward called on us and provided Auntie with a packet of medicine that cured her. So although the General may not have sent me to Tokyo for dance recitals, or presented me with precious gems, no one could suggest our okiya didn't do well by him. He sent regular deliveries of tea and sugar, as well as chocolates, which were becoming scarce even in Gion. And of course, Mother had been quite wrong about the war ending within six months. We couldn't have believed it at the time, but we'd scarcely seen the beginning of the dark years just yet.

During that fall when the General became my danna, Nobu ceased inviting me to parties where I'd so often entertained him. Soon I realized he'd stopped coming to the Ichiriki altogether. I couldn't think of any reason he should do this, unless it was to avoid me. With a sigh, the mistress of the Ichiriki agreed that I was probably right. At the New Year I wrote Nobu a card, as I did with all of my patrons, but he didn't respond. It's easy for me to look back now and tell you casually how many months passed; but at the time I lived in anguish. I felt I'd wronged a man who had treated me kindly-a man I'd come to think of as a friend. What was more, without Nobu's patronage, I was no longer invited to Iwamura Electric's parties, which meant I hardly stood any chance at all of seeing the Chairman.

Of course, the Chairman still came regularly to the Ichiriki even though Nobu didn't. I saw him quietly upbraiding a junior associate in the hallway one evening, gesturing with a fountain pen for emphasis, and I didn't dare disturb him to say hello. Another night, a worried-looking young apprentice named Naotsu, with a terrible underbite, was walking him to the toilet when he caught sight of me. He left Naotsu standing there to come and speak with me. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. I thought I saw, in his faint smile, the kind of subdued pride men often seem to feel when gazing on their own children. Before he continued on his way, I said to him, "Chairman, if there's ever an evening when the presence of another geisha or two might be helpful. . ."

This was very forward of me, but to my relief the Chairman didn't take offense.

"That's a fine idea, Sayuri," he said. "I'll ask for you."

But the weeks passed, and he didn't.

One evening late in March I dropped in on a very lively party given by the Governor of Kyoto Prefecture at a teahouse called Shunju. The Chairman was there, on the losing end of a drinking game, looking exhausted in shirtsleeves and with his tie loosened. Actually the Governor had lost most of the rounds, as I learned, but held his sake better than the Chairman.

"I'm so glad you're here, Sayuri," he said to me. "You've got to help me. I'm in trouble."

To see the smooth skin of his face splotched red, and his arms protruding from rolled-up shirtsleeves, I thought at once of Yasuda-san on that night at the Tatematsu Teahouse. For the briefest moment I had a feeling that everything in the room had vanished but the Chairman and me, and that in his slightly drunken state I might lean in toward him until his arms went around me, and put my lips on his. I even had a flicker of embarrassment that I'd been so obvious in my thoughts that the Chairman must have understood them . . . but if so, he seemed to regard me just the same. To help him, all I could do was conspire with another geisha to slow the pace of the game. The Chairman seemed grateful for this, and when it was all over, he sat and talked with me a long while, drinking glasses of water to sober up. Finally he took a handkerchief from his pocket, identical to the one tucked inside my obi, and wiped his forehead with it, and then smoothed his coarse hair back along his head before saying to me:

"When was the last time you spoke with your old friend Nobu?"

"Not in quite some time, Chairman," I said. "To tell the truth, I have the impression Nobu-san may be angry with me."

The Chairman was looking down into his handkerchief as he refolded it. "Friendship is a precious thing, Sayuri," he said. "One mustn't throw it away."

I thought about this conversation often over the weeks that followed. Then one day late in April, I was putting on my makeup for a performance of Dances of the Old Capital, when a youn............

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