I watched my great aunt garden for a while. The grey colors of her shirt became submissive to the orange of the sun as it surrendered for the day. The night already felt warm and non-confrontational. My eyes wandered against the curve of her front yard to the curves of her face, which held her faded acne scars from teenagehood and the dirt from gardening. Her hands shook uncontrollably when she didn’t think I was watching, but I did watch. I watched until it filled the space in me that wanted to experience her vulnerability. I wanted to see her body honest and festering, but that want was always followed by guilt. There was always guilt in seeing a strong woman become soft when you knew she wouldn’t want you to.
“Auntie.” She turned to look at me with her dark eyes. There was a certain haze to them which I hadn’t noticed before. The lines around her face were deep, changing position so her expression went from expectant to unimpressed. She stood from her stone porch, stepping over a newly formed blackberry bush. Her paper hands gripped my obi. She smelled like eucalyptus.
“You’re wearing this like a white person.” Displeasure like the juice of a plum, sliding from her lips. “So loose, Nikko. Why is it so loose? It’s like one of those kimono robes.” She scoffed at the concept of the kimono robe, something she had seen when she mistakenly stumbled into some fashion outlet. She was never able to let the ridiculousness of it get past her.
“It’s hard to put on a kimono by yourself,” I said, my voice a sliver compared to hers. “How is it meant to stay up, Nikko? You haven’t even tied your hair back.” She reached forward, undoing all of my work, before pulling the fabric tightly across my body again. The kimono itself was navy blue with a traditional floral pattern across it. My obi, a wine color that I knew she would inevitably tell me to change. This ritual of dressing in her clothes was uncomfortable and unhinged. She constantly reminded me and my cousins of how disconnected we were from our Japanese culture, and with that disconnect came guilt. “Stand up straight,” she demanded, shoving her finger into my spine until I folded my shoulders back, reangling myself. My great aunt was not often a strict woman, though she had a tough and thoughtful disposition. She had lived in the same house for years, working on her sewing and her garden. I went to visit her every day, when loneliness or simply boredom took over. I was the only person in the family who made an effort to see her regularly. She wasn’t a traditional aunt. I had never seen her be physically affectionate in her life, but she offered sincere conversation and paid for the dinners we had together. The only time I saw her vulnerable and serious, almost to the point of me being afraid of her, was when it came to wearing her kimonos.
It was my fifth time being there that week. After school each day I would ride my bike to her house, tossing it on the green of her lawn. SometimesI would lie to my parents and tell them that I was out with friends but I never was. I was always making my way through the downtown to her house. It was strange to admit, even to myself, but sometimes I worried that I was her. I worried that if I didn’t go to help her, no one would.If no one would for her, who was supposed to be there for me? Like her, I didn’t have any real friends. I spent my time sullen and forlorn. What would that manifest into when I really needed someone? Why would anyone want to be around that?
When she felt that the kimono was sitting right on my body she reached for the obi, and pulled it tight around my stomach. Under the fabric I stiffened, bringing back the familiarity of not being able to sit or breathe without fighting against the obi’s grip. It was the only thing the people in my family had in common, this shortness of breath under Japanese clothing.
The heat from the summer as the evening pulled itself down into night was brutal within the hot kimono—even the thin ones made for the scorching months. The crickets chirped in the sprawls of her garden, hiding from us but undoubtedly watching us. She pulled it a second time, glancing at me as if waiting to see me flinch. ButI didn’t, defiant against her expectations. When she was done with the work, we both went inside. Together we stood in front of the mirror in her living room. I watched her watching me, unforgiving.
“You look beautiful,” she finally decided, saying it less as a compliment and more like she was proving something to me. I felt the tug of my lips, turning the flesh of my mouth into the bones of a smile.
“Thank you, auntie.”
“You look just like your grandmother.” I wasn’t told this often. Mostly everyone said that I was identical to her.
We were silent for a while, which surprised me. She rarely let her house become silent, always banging pots or singing Japanese folk songs, and if she couldn’t keep the house loud, she went outside to listen to the noise of other living things. There had been a few strange times when I had heard her blaring the radio from outside the front door. When she saw that I had caught her, she became embarrassed, as if the entire neighborhood couldn’t hear what she was doing.
She reached for a brush and callously forced it through my hair.
“Are you ever guilty?” she asked. At first I thought it was some sort of joke, or a trap to finally get me to admit that I wasn’t connected enough to our culture. But her voice was distinctly vulnerable.
“About what?” I didn’t know what was coming and felt the anxiety of being off balance with someone much older. When I was with my aunt, it often felt like I lost all sense of myself, like my existence was a fraction of hers. She took everything out of me. When we were young and all the cousins went to see her, we would sit on the floor and talk about how it felt as if she was stealing our souls when we were alone with her. She would let her defenses down, leaving us defenseless. The room would crack with uneasy electricity.
“I have ghosts, Nikko.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her, trying to stay neutral and unassuming, though these were the moments when she terrified me the most. The voices of my cousins came forward in my head, amusement mixed with worry: you know, she’s going to lose it one of these days.
“The house is full of guilt,” she said. “SometimesI feel like ghosts are trying to slip under my door frames. I try to leave the house to get away from them, but they’re in the garden too.”
Her face, which I knew to be strong and steady, was starting to melt off of itself. The shaking in her hands became more intense as if reaching for something that wasn’t there. “So I play music as loud as I can, just to scare them away, just so they know this place isn’t for them.” I felt my body move reflexively, my hands colliding feebly and uncomfortably against hers. “Sometimes I bang the pots against each other loud enough that the sound even scares me.”
I felt the instinct to look away from her, in the way that cowards do. When you see a strong woman become afraid, when you allow a strong woman to also be a person. “I don’t understand,” I said, forcing my face to stay level with hers. “Can you explain it to me?” I felt myself becoming nauseous from the moment,from the heat of the kimono and the desperate energy in her voice.
“I’ve spent too much time thinking,” she said. “There’s so much to feel guilty about. I’m so full of guilt.”
“What could you possibly be guilty about? What have you ever done wrong?” I asked. She was unable to answer me for a moment, folded over herself, cradling my hand against her chest.
“You. I’m guilty about you. You have my face and my heart, Nikko. That’s a hopeless, lonely way to be. That’s the face of a woman who will refuse to indulge in her silence.” I hated her for saying it, admitting what we both already knew. Hated her for hating herself. For hating me. “I never went out into the world, Nikko. I never took risks. I grew up angry and meek and frustrated, so much so that no one in my family ever comes back to see me and when I look at you? When I look at you wearing my kimono? I see it in you too.” “How could you say that?” I asked, my voice without control. “How can you say that I’m going to be lonely just because you are?” Of course I knew she was right. I had known it all along, but it was painful to know that these thoughts that I had about myself weren’t just self conscious quips. They were visible. They were real.
“I don’t have anyone, Nikko! And when you come here every day to appease me and to take care of me because you feel guilty. You make me dinner and do the dishes instead of being out living your life. It makes me crazy! It makes me think you’ll have as little control over things as I did!” The words crumbled against me, making the familiar impact of something brutal that I already knew.
“I don’t come here because I’m guilty! I come here because you’re my family!” I yelled, my hands already reaching for the obi, ripping it from around my waist and throwing it on the ground.
“No. This is guilt, Nikko.”
I stood in the flimsy folds of her clothes and stared at her, bitterness suspended in the air between our faces. I found myself unable to reply.Her face looked like the aftermath of a battle ground, war-torn and furious.
“Get out of my house,” she said. So I did.
Biographical Note: Sarah Inouye is a sophomore at the University of Iowa studying english and creative writing, but she is a local to the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Robert Hass’s River of Words and in the Contemporary Jewish History Museum’s exhibit What We Hold, as well as in Ink Lit Mag.