by Aiko Fukuchi
/ Nonfiction /
For months, every time I’ve started my shift at this martini bar, my heartbeat devolved from steady and consistent to bursts and flutters. Speaking to managers and customers, their voices sounded as if they were reaching me from underwater. I’d given my two weeks, and tonight is my last night working here.
* * *
Towards the end of my shift, five older, white men dressed in grey and black suits walk in. Three of them are louder than anyone else in the room, one is quiet, but noticeably enjoying the loudness of the three, and the one who walks in last stumbles, giggling as he catches himself. When I walk up to their table with five large glasses of ice water to introduce myself, they ask if I’m a student at the local university and before I can respond they tell me that is where they work. They tell me they weigh in on decisions about where and how money is allocated within the university. I think about the tens of thousands of dollars I owe as a result of graduating from the same university earlier that year.
After introducing myself as their server, I watch them repeat my name to each other, patting themselves on the back, correcting each other with a slightly better, yet still inaccurate, pronunciation of my incredibly simple, two syllable name which they describe as interesting, complex and exotic. Rolling off their tongues and between their teeth, the syllables sound sickening and while they are in the moist mouths of these men, my name no longer feels like it belongs to me.
I give them whiskey and watch them touch my arms and hands, thanking me for serving them. They do this not out of gratitude, but as an exchange to reinforcing their status as one above mine. They continue telling me about their control over the educational institution. They tell me about their difficult work, their exhaustion. The tone of their words tells me, “you could not understand the weight that comes with the financial power we hold, the effort and intellect required, you could never.” After one of the men strokes my arm again, after he over-uses my name for the tenth time in thirty minutes, he takes my hand. He locks eyes with me while exaggerating the two syllables in my name. The smell of his stale breath twists into my nose as he leans forward, and I flinch. “EYE-KOH. Is that Japanese?” he guesses its origin correctly.
He asks if I’ve been to Japan before. I answer his question, “Yes I’ve been to Japan, I’ve -” only for him to interrupt and launch into telling me all that he knows about all of the places that he doesn’t know I’ve visited, all the things I need to learn about my culture, the incomplete pictures, American-written stories that he knows. A dance, where he asks a question for the purpose of interrupting its response, for the illusion of my ignorance that builds a false platform to display himself on.
He tells me to visit Hiroshima. Hearing the city’s name triggers a memory that flashes in front of his words for less than a second; The man who received this as his fraternity nickname, a collective acknowledgement, a congratulatory souvenir for what he’d done to my semi-conscious body. The man sipping whiskey in front of me tells me about his visit to a museum in Hiroshima that was created for the victims of the bombing at the end of World War Two. His eyes are enchanted by his own memory. “You have to go...” his words stretch like stale caramels. I picture them rotting his teeth. “The museum is just so interesting. It is so lovely.” He coos.
What is lovely about it? I want to say to him that the students, workers and families who lived there did not die, burst into dust, skin falling off of charcoal-filled bodies after weeks and months of melting hearts and rotting wounds, for his tourism. They died because leaders of war and rich men are always hungry for something sick. The decaying smell of every limp corpse they produced wafts into the air, stuck under their fingernails. I wonder if their families smell it, too.
I try to say this in a sweet voice to avoid losing the huge tip I’m hoping to receive that will go towards my first student loan payment due next month, but my words are tangled in tears that taste like acid at the back of my throat and instead I hear a hollow “okay” slip from my lips. He thinks it’s funny, or at least he laughs.
I feel almost two hundred years of history move between us, forcing its way into me; it comes in waves. My vision blurs, taken over by images of geisha, painted onto porcelain crafts traded into the hands of white men, giving Loti his inspiration; I feel every page in each printed copy of his book, translated into different tongues for more white men to read, strike my skin. The flurry of pages spin together into the shape of a chrysanthemum holding a seemingly infinite amount of petals until one by one, they peel away, fluttering into the air.
Blood from my lungs swells into my mouth, resting itself on my soft, pillowy tongue until I swallow it back down. Something in it tastes unfamiliar. Its metallic flavor lingers distorting into one of rotten vinegar mixing with all the burnt green tea and stiff, frozen mochi given to me by men who called me Asian Princess and Geisha Girl. They expected their gifts make me let them take my clothes off, though in the end, it didn’t matter what I’d wanted. Hollywood’s devotion to the exotic geisha and subservient Japanese housewife weighs into my sliced chest. My breath becomes shallow and incomplete.
You have to go. It is so lovely, a leech in my ears. World War II moves into my body as a sharp pain – a dull, rusted blade forced into me.
My second-grade teacher, a white lady with a permanent grimace on her face states, “You know, if you were alive then, you'd probably be in that camp with your dad.” After a pause, she asks, “How does that make you feel?” A gust of frozen air from Heart Mountain rushes through my bones and lingers while dust from Manzanar collects deep in my lungs. Tule Lake and “loyalty questions” stay with me. This story and another of 157,000 tons of bombs dropped on cities in Japan in less than two years, exist together, separated by the deepest oceans still not large enough to hold all of the bodies lost and tears wept; a consequence of violent demands for the growth of empires, the control of people, the claim to land.
On the streets near Tokyo, my grandmother ran from firebombings with two children. I can feel my heart run with panic and every muscle clench each time this story comes to mind. I no longer share it because each time I have, there was always a white boy with an obsession for World War II history whose excitement would erupt over his face as he stared at me as though I were a broken artifact. A stretched “Coooooool” would escape through his lips as his eyes bulged.
My body is volatile, ready to dissolve into vapor, topple, collapse from gusts of whiskey breath and laughter blown in my direction from what now feels like a great distance. Cobwebs that once rested over silenced stories drift and whisp across the restaurant floor, collapsing onto my tongue, dancing in my ear canals. My heart turns into jelly and sinks to my stomach with the weight of this silence, with the weight of the stories of Japan’s government-organized ‘comfort stations.’ A description provided by a monstrous general of the Japanese military was a ‘recreational activity’ for his soldiers. An extension of Japan’s violence used while colonizing people in and beyond Korea, it was a system that deceived and stole women from their homes, offered them up for abuse from a government to its soldiers. I hear overlapping whispers of failed justifications for violent lines of impatient Japanese men and columns added into military budgets, a vile belief that a practice of sexual slavery could be a reasonable ‘tool’ to ignite a rage in soldiers that would be enough to win a war.
This didn’t end until U.S soldiers arrived in Japan to claim their victory, forcibly claiming women and daughters in the process, sometimes offering small tokens (boxed food, a cigarette, candy), spewing with ravaging fury when their ‘gifts’ did not result in a compliance they had been taught they were entitled to. Once again, a ‘comfort’ system was created. This time the system would serve occupying U.S soldiers, turning to Japanese girls and women, exploiting the poverty they found themselves in as a result of the war. Japanese officials spread calls for duty and service, offering food rations and other supplies needed to survive in exchange for violation of flesh as a disposable tissue, an injection of ache and grief to be felt for generations.
I am still and stiff for fear that a rotting, swollen sickness has been passed between my grandparents, to my father, to me. I tighten my stomach to suppress the typhoon of spinning questions and sick tensions it’s holding. My grandfather a Japanese soldier, my grandmother a Japanese woman, struggled as the U.S expanded into their home. What stories did they carry with them that may have fermented deep into the fibers holding their bodies? What had they unknowingly passed down? Once again, I taste blood on my tongue and this time, I wonder if it’s mine.
“Woah, are you alright? Don’t tell me I offended you!” I hear chuckles and feel a hand rest on my lower back. My eyesight is filling with stars from keeping my lungs still for too long. I look down and breathe into my belly.
His voice glazes over my skin and leaves harsh stains that will make it difficult for me to feel my body when I wake up tomorrow morning. His words blend themselves into my thoughts. I feel them hit with a deepness that pushes past my bones and thins my marrow when he tells me I am the perfect little Japanese girl, that I am like a perfect little doll. “You would make a lovely geisha, sweetheart.” His eyes are hungry when he says it. My eyes track his fingers as he runs them down my frame, lightly over my work uniform from my shoulder to my hip until I step back before he makes it any lower.
In situations like these, I often don’t protest more than this. Though acutely aware of a potential to be further hurt, fired, or humiliated, my response is rarely grounded in this. In my immediate response right at the beginning, for a few seconds, I am fully lost; bewildered watching someone interact with my body as if it is theirs more than it is mine. How can it be that their perception of truth is so distant from my own?
When men touch me like this, their skin connecting to my skin, they pull my mind back into memories of bodies carrying and clutching me, whispering words I wished were lies into my ears, falling in my mind and carving patterns into my skull that fade but don’t leave. When they touch me like this, sometimes I close my eyes. I imagine my skin falling off in their hands, limp and bloody flesh, soft, glowing, heavy, wet. I hold back a smile as I imagining their wide eyes and trembling fingers. I would stand in the same place, perhaps now naked enough for them to see that I am alive.
My fingers would be only bare bone and tendon. I would run them up my arm in a sensual wave, softly cupping my spilling organs, shining and full, feeling their weight sink into my palm. I would turn my chin down and move my breath out of my lungs so that it could kiss my ferocious heart. I would pluck a small piece of my own soggy flesh laying across their hands and slip it into one man’s now unwanting, gaping mouth. And as I walked away, my skin would rejuvenate – soft, supple, thick, safe, showing no signs of what came before other than a few wrinkles stretched across my neck and gathered around my eyes.
I slip outside and light a cigarette. The fresh air outside relieves some of the weight in my chest while the cigarette smoke comforts me, wrapping itself around me, tangling into my hair. I lean back against the wall, and watch the cigarette burn down for a while and eventually go out on its own. I separate my fingers and let it drop into a puddle, then walk back inside.
The manager walks up to me as I shove my coat back onto a grimy shelf in the back of the kitchen. He tells me to head to the back room. The owner wants to talk to me before my shifts ends. “Don’t worry about your table. I cashed them out while you were outside, so everything’s all set.”
Heading past the main room, I see the last table I will serve here standing up to leave – five men in grey and black suits, bumbling loudly to each other, leaving as recklessly as they’d entered. I reach the back room and find the owner sitting at a corner table, the white skin on his fingers wraps around the stem of a mostly empty wine glass sitting next to an open bottle. He squints a smile and gestures for me to take a seat. We sustain a few long seconds of silence. He watched his fingers spin the base of his wine glass, and I wait for him to speak, my eyes on his dry lips.
He begins by calling me sweet, generous, kind-hearted. He likes the way his words taste and takes his time, savoring his voice as it spills out of his mouth. “Thank you.” I smile to fit the moment he is trying to create. He pulls my hands off of my lap, then takes a fifty dollar bill out of his pocket and places it in my palms. He continues to hold my hands tightly between his. I can feel the sweat in my hands pooling, drenching the bill. Leaning in closely he whispers,
“Let me tell you a secret that will get you through life with a lot more ease. Most people are well-intended and this,” he pauses, waiting for me to lift my head and meet his eyes “is really all that matters. Maybe not completely, but this is ninety percent of what matters in life – that most people are kind-hearted, are full of love, are wanting to love, and want you to feel love.” Most people want you to feel love reverberates in my skull. It echoes making me dizzy. “All you have to do is love and people will take care of you.” He smiles, releasing my hands and squeezes my shoulders before gesturing for me to leave. I thank him again and walk away, quickly heading towards the bathroom.
Don’t let it sink in. Get it out. I hear a voice rise from my belly. Picking up my pace, I start jogging towards the bathroom, I feel my small breasts bouncing on top of my bloated stomach as I move, almost tripping over my skirt and I burst through a door, into a toilet stall just in time to spew my lunch into a toilet bowl someone forgot to flush.
My last night working at this martini bar is ending. I flush the toilet, scrub my hands, rinse my mouth, and resume my shift. I role silverware in the back for 30 minutes, pick up my tips for the night, clock out, and begin my walk home.
* * *
During my walk, fresh, bright snow crunches under my feet. It makes its way into my shoes, relieving some of the ache in my feet. The cold breeze tightens the skin on my face and I pull it into my lungs. As I look up, I see an expanding night sky scattered with dimly glimmering stars. A stillness holds me as I make my way home.