After all these years, she’s still beautiful. A proper geisha, her white face paint and bright red lips keep her looking young and charming. She still has her hair comb, her hair pins. Only her right hand has deteriorated, white cotton coming out of her fingertips, pointing in strange directions. She carried a shamisen once. Now she stands on her balsa wood base with her arms held out, the fingers on her left hand positioned to play a note in minor third, the saddest sound. If you did not know what she used to carry you might think she was trying to describe something, something very large and important.
You know those dreams that sometimes haunt your sleep, those dreams of such intense regret? Someone you once loved with all your heart—back when you were young and could love that way—is now very old. He is sitting in his apartment all alone. Perhaps he is having a cup of coffee and wishing there were someone to share it with. In your dream you can still visit him. You can love him again. And in that terrible dreamscape of frustration where nothing happens as it should, you don’t. You must. You don’t.
Last night I dreamed of my father again. But this time it was different. He was expecting me. He held out his arms and welcomed me like he would have when I was a child, back before the doll came and broke my heart.
In the spring of 1970, my grandparents took a long slow trip aboard an ocean liner from Los Angeles to Honolulu. From there they went to Japan, where my grandmother purchased three geisha dolls, one for each of my sisters and me. On a postcard, my grandmother wrote that she had bought us something very special. So special they had to be shipped. She kept it a secret until she got back and, having nothing to give us yet, let the cat out of the bag. My sisters were nonplussed—they were eleven and thirteen, growing their way out of toys. But I was only nine, and I still loved dolls. I could hardly wait.
I had a new friend that year. Joanne was the only person I knew whose parents were getting a D-I-V-O-R-C-E, so there was a certain grim glamour about her. On New Year’s Day, no-fault divorce became law in California, and immediately after that, her father ran off with some hussy, as Joanne’s mother called her. Joanne’s mother said how can it be no-fault divorce when it was all her goddamn father’s fault. We spent a lot of time in her empty garage riding the garage door. We’d take turns hanging on while the door pulled us up into the air as it moved along its tracks. Her mother went out a lot, and there was no father around to keep us from doing that.
I had another friend that year; she wasn’t a great friend, but sometimes we played together after school. Erin was Japanese, as we said back then. American, of course, but once you were inside her house everything was Japanese. Her mother said hello and disappeared into the kitchen. A grandmother who spoke no English wore a kimono and lurked in a dark corner of the living room. I don’t remember anything else about Erin—what sort of games we played or what we talked about or even what she looked like. Erin was the kind of childhood friend who should have completely evaporated from my memory, and would have except that I was playing over at her house the day our dolls arrived.
Every toy has the right to break. -A. Porcia
I discovered this quote in an illustrated diary I once bought. The pictures were pasted to the pages; you could separate them if you wanted to. There are days, after all, when nothing much happens. Even if a day seemed utterly meaningless—nothing worth remembering in a diary, anyways–the picture might be worth framing. But in this case it is the words that I remember. It’s funny how words, which are really only sounds, can come together like silver and glass to form a kind of mirror. You hear them, and you see yourself.
She stares at somewhere far off. Some time far off. I don’t know how long I waited for my doll to arrive; child time plays tricks when you try to measure it as an adult. But however long I waited, she’s been waiting far longer. When I finally have the nerve to take her out of the box where she’s been banished for so long, I feel some of that guilt that sometimes haunts my dreams. She won’t look at me. You know those paintings where the person’s eyes seem to be following you? This is the opposite. No matter how I turn her, she refuses to meet my gaze.
The plastic case that once protected her was lost long ago. There is some fading to the deep purple sleeves of her kimono, but the red rimming the nape of her neck remains bright as blood. I notice for the first time the pins that have kept her obi in place, the heavy folds of her kimono securely attached. She is still remarkably intact. Besides her mangled fingers, only her chignon is a tad ruffled. Not much—just enough to add to her charm. As if she has just come rushing in from the wind.
I must have looked like that, rushing in from the wind that afternoon. It was always windy in the Southern California beach town where I grew up. I breezed in so fast that my parents did not know I was coming.
My mother is leaning against her bureau, crying. I’ve never seen her cry like this.
“Why is daddy home?” I ask. He shouldn’t be home yet.
My father won’t look at me. He is packing a suitcase that I have never seen before. The suitcase is very full, and the closet behind him is almost empty. I notice for the first time that it is painted a pale shade of blue, like the waiting room of a doctor’s office or some other horrible place.
My mother pats her puffy eyes. “Go to your room,” she says.
There are days when nothing happens, and there are days where you’d have to write so much that even a whole diary could not capture what you wanted to say. Standing there, I remember driving down the street on our way to Disneyland earlier that year. It seemed like the whole neighborhood was outside. There was Erin, helping her dad wash his Chevy. There was Joanne, sitting on the curb, waiting for her father. Some kid was in his driveway fixing his bike. It was just a normal day for them. Poor things.
“Go to your room. Your doll arrived today,” she says.
I go. And when I come back to tell him all about her, he is already gone.