The Women | Chapter 28 of 41

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10560 Views | Add a Review

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Whatever it may have been—a spot of tarnish on a serving spoon, lint on the carpet, an insufficient fire in one of the guest rooms—it was no concern of hers. He had half a dozen of his lackeys running around the place as if they’d been scorched, the cook had her instructions and another housemaid had been taken on to oversee the arrangements. No, her concern—her only concern—was to see to her dress so that she could stand beside him and greet the guests with a pure ethereal serenity and the daintiest of Oriental bows. And certainly Frank had harangued her on this latter point—the form, duration and posture of the bow—till she wanted to scream.
Now, in the privacy of the bedroom, with a good bed of coals in the fireplace and two fresh splits of oak laid atop them because it was cold as a tomb in this rambling stone and stucco citadel with its leaks and drafts and the windows that might as well have been made of transparent paper for all the good they did at keeping the weather out, she practiced before the mirror, dipping her torso and rising again with her eyes radiant and a full-lipped smile spreading across her face till her dimples shone like a girl’s, How nice to meet you, Hayashi-San, enchantée—or no, that wasn’t the right note at all. She should keep silent, letting her eyes do the talking for her—wasn’t that the way the Oriental women did it? Of course, they were nothing but chattel, no better than dogs, unless they were the painted courtesans who coquetted the night away with a passel of leering old men who had nothing more to recommend them than the yen in their pockets. And that horrible rice wine. She’d known a few Japanese in Paris—Japonisme was all the rage in those days; she imagined it still was—and they’d been decent enough, she supposed, with a good command of French, but then they were the artistes and by all accounts Hayashi-San was certainly not artistic in the least. No, he was a businessman. Manager of the old Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. And he was coming to be wooed. Well, all right, she thought, bowing before the mirror, she would woo him, then. For Frank’s sake.119
She was just cinching her blue shantung silk wrapper over an emerald-green V-necked chemise that would show prettily at her throat, thinking with some satisfaction that this was the very quintessence of the Oriental look, perhaps with the addition of a string of pearls and the jade pin of a smiling tumescent Buddha she’d picked up as a curiosity in a stall on the avenue d’Ivry some years back, when Frank came hurtling through the door. He was in a state. His hair was standing out from his head like a collapsed halo and his eyes were so inflamed he looked as if he’d been up all night long. But he hadn’t been. She could testify to that.
My God, Miriam, what are you thinking?” he shouted, and he was so agitated she could see the flecks of spittle leaping from his lips. “Get dressed. They’ll be at the station any minute now, don’t you realize that? I give you one task only—to dress yourself so you don’t look like a, a”—he couldn’t seem to find the properly insulting term and ran on ahead of himself—“and what do you do? Are you intentionally trying to ruin this for me? Is that it?”
She tried to ignore him, slipping into the seat at her vanity to see to her hair, which she’d pulled back with a comb so as to mimic the pictures of the geisha in Frank’s woodblock prints, and her eyes, which she’d extended vertically with two triangular slashes of kohl, but she felt herself hardening. “Look like a what, Frank?”
“I haven’t time for this, Miriam,” he warned, and as if he couldn’t help himself, he went to the chair in the corner and moved it three inches closer to the writing table. “Just get yourself dressed. Now!”
She was watching him in the mirror, his erratic movements, the twitching of his limbs and the pent-up tarantella of his feet on the carpet, trying to sympathize—the Japanese were coming for an extended stay and he would have to be on his mark the entire time if he hoped to nail down the biggest commission of his life, she understood that and she wanted to give him all the love and support she could—but she didn’t like his tone. Not one bit. “Ah am dressed, Frahhnk,” she said, protracting each syllable in her best high-Memphis drawl.
He whirled round on her suddenly and took the room in three strides, dipping low so that his face loomed beside hers in the mirror. She was sure he was about to make some sort of nasty comment, his lips curling, eyes gone cold as day-old coffee, when there was a sudden crash from the other room, a muted curse and the clatter of running feet. Frank flinched, threw an angry look over his shoulder, and then came back to her, his hands sinking into her shoulders like the claws of a bird. “Don’t you start,” he hissed, his face right there, his breath hot in her ear. “You dress yourself and be there to greet them at the door—the door, do you hear me?—when I get back from the station. And for God’s sake, maintain yourself.”
Icily, with as much command as she could summon, she reached up to remove his hands, then twisted round and rose to face him. “I thought I would go along with the Oriental theme, this robe, my Buddha pin—I’m trying to please you, Frank, that’s all. You should see that.” A tearful note crept into her voice and she couldn’t help it. “There’s really no call for cruelty.”
“You’re ridiculous!” he shouted. “Look at yourself. A wrapper, for God’s sake? And that preposterous makeup? You’re like a parody—No, I mean what I say. Are you trying to insult these people?”
She observed, as quietly and steadily as she could, that he was in Oriental costume—the absurd linen trousers that billowed out from his thighs and clung tight to his ankles like something out of an illustration for The Arabian Nights, the wooden clogs, the cutaway tunic that fell to his knees and a risible hat that looked like a cross between a cardinal’s biretta and a Russian ushanka—and so why shouldn’t she follow suit?
“What I wear is none of your business.”
“I could say the same.”
And now a voice was calling from the other room, some fresh crisis erupting: “Mr. Wright, Mr. Wright, could you come here a moment, please?”
“Listen,” he said, “Miriam, I beg of you—you’re the most charming woman in the world, the most brilliant, and I just need for you to dress as you normally would, as if we were going out to the theater or to dine on Michigan Avenue. Not Tokyo. Not Yokohama Bay. But here, in the United States.”
She was uncertain of herself now—perhaps the silk wrapper was too informal, perhaps he was right, and she supposed the eye shadow was a bit garish—but she couldn’t help contradicting him nonetheless. “I’ll dress any way I please,” she said.
“Mr. Wright! Mr. Wright!”
“Yes, I’m coming,” he shouted over one shoulder before turning back to her. “What I want, Miriam—what I require, what I need more than anything—is an adornment.” He paused, glaring at her, trying to stare her down, intimidate her, and the insolence of him, the lordliness, was infuriating—as if he could preach to her, as if she would listen to one word. “An adornment, Miriam, not an anchor.”
Still, when the carriage, followed by the automobile, came up the drive and into the courtyard half an hour later, she was there at the door, in her choker and beads and a gray peau de soie dress cut at mid-calf beneath her midnight-blue cape and a matinee hat that presented her perfect face as if it had been framed. And when she saw Hayashi-San in his Western suit, spats, mustache and slicked-back hair, she bowed as deeply as the hat would allow her and whispered “Komban wa” in the most delicate voice she could muster, just as Frank had taught her.
Dinner that night was nothing less than an ordeal, akin, she supposed, to what the flagellants must have experienced when they paraded themselves through the streets of Rome, blood drying in streaks, ritual humiliation, that sort of thing. At least for her, at any rate. For his part, Frank was having the time of his life, his voice rising and falling with the inevitability of waves beating at the shore as he regaled the assembled company with his views on the Japanese character, the parlous state of contemporary architecture, the use of natural materials, the samisen as opposed to the banjo and just about anything else that came into his head, along with a barrage of jokes, stories, snippets of song and limericks so hoary they would have fallen dead in the last century. The food was uniformly awful. The cook had attempted a Japanese theme, presenting the usual pork and gravy, fried fish and boiled cabbage with an accompaniment of little bleached mounds of white rice so impossibly adhesive it was as if she’d melted down a pot of Wrigley’s chewing gum. And the chopsticks. Frank had had Billy Weston carve them from scraps of pine—as if Hayashi-San and the rest couldn’t imagine how to perforate a bit of meat with the tines of a fork— and the Japanese just stared at them as if they’d never seen such a thing before in their lives. But it was hilarious, wasn’t it?
Frank was at the head of the table, of course, and she was seated in her usual place, at his right, while Hayashi-San and his painted little wife sat across from her and Frank’s mother commanded the far end of the table, where Russell Williamson and Paul Mueller and his wife tried to find common ground with the two mute students Hayashi-San had brought along with him as his entourage. Hayashi-San’s consulting architect, a short slight man in his forties with an absolutely immobile face—Yoshitake-San—was on Miriam’s immediate right, and throughout the meal he would turn to her at intervals and present her with brief guttural comments out of his English primer.
“Good evening,” he said when first they’d sat down, and then he repeated the phrase several times in succession, and she, playing along, returned the greeting or observation or whatever it was, until, on the third or fourth repetition, it began to take on a new meaning altogether and it was all she could do to restrain herself when “Good night” would have been more appropriate. “The weather is pleasant, is it not?” he observed next. And then, after sitting silent through Frank’s dissertation on the quarrying of native stone in its naturally occurring sedimentary layers so as to deliver it intact to the landscape, he cleared his throat and asked her if he might light her fire. “I beg your pardon?” she said, and he produced a cigarette case, offered her a cigarette and lit it for her even as Frank flashed his disapproval. She smiled then and Yoshitake-San, lighting his own cigarette, smiled back.
It was during dessert—by her count the eighth course of the evening—that Frank began to shift his focus to Hayashi-San’s wife. He actually picked up his chair in the middle of the tea service and inserted it between Hayashi-San’s and the wife’s, and Miriam stiffened, she couldn’t help herself. Of course, she was thinking, why wouldn’t he fawn all over her like the beast he was—she was young, wasn’t she? And pretty? Even if she was an Oriental. Oh, she was a little porcelain doll, the wife, wrapped in her black silk gown with the pale chrysanthemums climbing gracefully up the hem and across her abdomen and the swell of her pointed little Japanese breasts as if she were one of Frank’s prints sprung to life, and when he spoke to her she batted her exaggerated lashes and smiled out of a mouth of uneven oversized teeth.120 For the most part, she stared down at her lap, except when Frank was probing her with facetious queries about her kimono or her impressions of America, but at one point she turned to him and asked a question of her own, as if this were all part of the performance expected of her. “I wish to ask you, Wrieto-San”—and here she gave Miriam a look—“and Mrs. Wrieto-San, what is this word ‘goddamn’?”
Frank laughed. And Miriam, despite herself—she detested it when he paid attention to another woman, any woman, as if he were dismissing her publicly, shaming her, shunning her, but the sound of that casual appellation, Mrs. Wrieto-San, was music to her ears—found that she was smiling as well. How adorable, she was thinking. How childlike. How pitiful.
“ ‘Goddamn’?” Frank repeated, levity lifting his voice, and everyone at the table was watching the wife now—Takako-San—and everyone was smiling in anticipation of the sequel. “Why do you ask? Have you heard this expression often since you’ve arrived in our country?”
A little pout, a widening of the eyes, and she was very young, Miriam saw, in her teens or early twenties, young and full of grace. And coquetry. But didn’t they teach that in Japan? Wasn’t that what women existed for over there?121 “Oh, yes, Wrieto-San,” the wife said in a diminished little puff of a voice, “every day. All the time. Here tonight. You have said it yourself.”
And Frank, grinning, flirting—infuriatingly, as if she didn’t exist, as if she weren’t sitting across the table from him with the smile drying on her lips—gave a broad wink for the benefit of the table and for Hayashi-San in particular, no sense in ruffling his feathers, and replied that “goddamn” was a polite adverb meaning “very.” “As in, oh, I don’t know—Paul, help me out here—” But before Paul could answer, he went on, “—it’s a goddamn fine evening. Or this is goddamn fresh butter. After a meal you might thank your host for a goddamn good dinner.”
Takako-San shifted prettily in her chair, made her eyes big and looked round the table as if she were sitting in the catbird seat—and she was, she was—and chirped, “Then I thank you, Wrieto-San—and Mrs. Wrieto-San—for a goddamn good dinner.”
Of course everyone laughed—it was a pretty performance—and Frank and Hayashi-San petted her as if she were a dog or monkey granted the power of speech, but Miriam, though she was grinning, felt a stab of hate run through her. Hate that carried over into the living room, where they sat before the fire and Frank paraded out his treasures—the prints in particular—to get Hayashi-San’s studied opinion of them, and then there was the inevitable tour of the house that went on till it was past midnight and Hayashi-San, for all his rigid propriety, began to yawn.
“Well,” Frank sighed, taking the cue at long last though she’d been signaling him with furious eyes for an hour and more, “you must be all tired out, rail travel can be so enervating, I know—but perhaps we’ll take it up again in the morning. Perhaps you’d like to see something of the house from the grounds. Or from horseback. If you like we can saddle up the horses—or take the motorcar. But please, let me show you to your rooms . . .”
There were the elaborate good nights, the ritual bowing, Hayashi-San’s eyes all but melting into his head with exhaustion, the two students as silent and impassive as the carven statue of the Amida Buddha in the loggia and the little wife grinning her toothy farewells till finally they were alone in the bedroom and Miriam shut the door behind them and stalked to the closet. Frank had begun to whistle. He stood before the mirror, working loose the knot of his tie, a look of satisfaction on his face, and it was that look that set her off as much as anything. He was so pleased with himself, wasn’t he? Frank Lloyd Wright, the great man, beguiler of foreigners, seducer of women, god of his own universe. The light at the bedside cast a soft glow. Shadows climbed the walls. She was one tick from combustion.
“That went well enough, don’t you think?” he said, shrugging out of the tunic with the trailing tails and open flapping arms that was like something you’d see on a Barnum & Bailey clown, and who was he to talk of parody? She snapped her neck round to glare at him, at his bare shoulders and the back of his inflated head. Did he actually expect her to reminisce over the evening? Over her own public humiliation? Was he that insensible?
“Hayashi-San, I mean,” he went on, addressing the wall before him as he balanced first on one foot and then the other to remove his trousers. “He was reserved, of course, but that’s the nature of the Japanese, their natural dignity, but I could see that he was visibly impressed with Taliesin and the beautiful things we’ve collected here . . . Yoshitake-San too, though it’s Hayashi who makes the decisions, you can see that in an instant. No, I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t come to a mutual agreement within the next few days. A ten percent commission, of course, and I’ll want travel and accommodation in the old Imperial, for the two of us and three assistants at least. And I’ll want a car and driver too, so that we can explore the countryside on our own, and the shops, of course . . .”
She made no answer. She turned away, removed her jewelry and set it on the tray, jerked the comb from her hair. Her hands were trembling. The blindness of him, the stupidity! And did he really think she was going to tramp all the way over to the Orient with him to be treated like this?
“And what did you think of Takako-San? Charming, wasn’t she?” And now it was too late, now the match had been struck, now. She flew at him across the room—he was just pulling the nightshirt over his head, oblivious, full of himself, swaggering, boasting, Lothario incarnate—and before she could think she’d slammed into him, both her hands extended, and he was staggering back against the wall, the garment caught over his head. There was a heavy fleshy thump and he cried out in surprise, working the neck of the nightshirt down over his face even as she shoved him again and he fell awkwardly to the floor. He was so stunned, so totally taken by surprise, that he just sat there staring up at her, not even angry yet, not even defending himself, as if he were the victim of some natural disaster, an earthquake, an avalanche. “What the—?” he stammered. “What are you—?”
“Your little Cho-Cho-San,” she said, and she was standing over him, her fists clenched. She wanted to kick him like a dog. “Your little whore. Is that why you want to go over there, for your whores? Wrieto-San?
“Miriam, damn you, damn you!” He scrambled to his feet, tugging at the folds of the nightgown as if it were a hair shirt, and she backed away from him—was he going to hit her? Well, let him. She didn’t care. She’d show his precious Orientals the bruises in the morning, wear them like battle scars.
“No,” she shouted, “damn you! But tell me, tell me, Frank, is it really true what the sailors say, because you ought to know, you’re the one who deserted your first wife over there to go whoring with all the little buck-toothed fish-stinking geisha and if you think I’m going to tolerate that—”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Tell me,” she screamed, and she didn’t care if they heard her all the way to Yokohama and back, “is it true? Do they really have their little slits on backwards?”122
In the light of day she began to see things more clearly. And calmly. She’d gone too far, she could see that now, but she’d been upset, she couldn’t help herself. Still, Frank had been good about it—he was in the wrong, he knew it—and he’d taken her in his arms and held her to him till all the bad blood had flushed out of her and then he’d taken her to bed. And loved her like no man ever had, not even René at his best. She was left drained and she slept the night through without recourse to her pravaz and her dreams were fluid and rich, the bed undulating beneath her like a stateroom on the high seas, and if she couldn’t have the SS Paris then she would have the Empress of China, and if the yokels of Wisconsin treated her like a leper, in Tokyo she would be Mrs. Wrieto-San, the daring and ravishing wife of the great man himself. They would marvel at her, at her style and her carriage and her Parisian manner and perhaps she’d turn back to sculpture, set up her own studio there, the materials cheap as water, and coolies—was that what you called them?—to do the onerous things for practically nothing, for yen, mere scraps of paper. Best of all, she would escape the narrowness of Chicago and the sterility of life in the countryside.
Edo. Old Edo. She lay in bed through the morning—long past breakfast—and stared at the prints on the walls until she felt she could enter them, climb into their richly colored depths and live there curled up in a ball of undiluted happiness. And what was all this—Frank’s screens and vases and all the rest—if not preparation for the voyage of her life?
That night, when they sat down to dinner, she held fast to Frank throughout the meal and she did the talking, or the better part of it, and if Frank could enchant Hayashi-San, well so could she. By the time they retired to the living room to sit before the fire Hayashi-San wouldn’t leave her side. His eyes—so dark they were nearly black—were fixated on her, roaming over her lips, her eyes, her tongue, her ears, her throat, and she recognized the look he trained on her from a hundred nights in the salons of Paris. All the while the little wife sat in the corner like a puppet with its strings cut while Frank lectured the architect and the earnestly nodding students—he barely glanced at the woman; he wouldn’t dare—and his mother, with her bobbing old white-crowned head, served the tea herself. There was a record on the Victrola—strings pouring out of the speaker in pulsing waves of warmth that seemed to float over the room as if the orchestra were there with them. Hayashi-San looked into her eyes. All the beautiful things in the room glowed in the firelight. She took the wrap from her shoulders, leaned back in the chair and let herself relax. She was going to Tokyo. Better yet: she was already on her way.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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