I read somewhere that “when the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filing the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.” This is what I was reminded of when my best friend, who is half Japanese, half white, acquired bruises on her knees from falling against the tennis court clay. Whenever she says hafu to speak of her split-heritage, I think of the two sides of those Vermont half-moon cookies, but I like what I read better than my more often thought over simile. I like this idea of her, this idea of there being, in fracture of the two cultures, in that space of incompleteness, a different sort of value.
I often ask her about her father’s New England heritage, this half of the cookie that is maybe a recollected Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, a passage lifted a winter climate, because there is something glamorous to me about it, something handsome in a simple, wholesome way, though in having heard her speak of it I now understand it to be different: boarding school not a familial tradition but an antidote to divorce, constant extracurricular involvement not a means of an acceptance letter from Dartmouth, but a psychological distraction from chaos, so that in the snow now I comprehend what is the more than simple interaction of the various pieces, the various releases and pulls and forces which combine to form life, the road salt melting preventing the coupes from skidding, how little plants can be caught in ice, the manner in which the brown places, like bruises, exist where the dirt shows through.
During the February of freshman year, we talked about this at the beach, threading the buttered kernels of corn on the cob with our teeth, mouths cold from the air, cold from the gray landscape indifferent to the commanding mood of my birthday. We talked about Choate, about the meaning of life, about what the inherent meaning was to my large and masculine hands, about what the inherent meaning was to anything, or whether there wasn’t any inherent meaning at all. We ended up scrapping it all together, this dilemma, and when we walked back up the wooden steps to the drive out front of the beach where we waited, as we had so many of those days after tennis, for my father to pick us up in the black BMW to drive us home, and we talked about the terror of understanding our own smallness as we picked the messy embroidery of the corn kernel refuse from our teeth with the darts of our respective tongues.
It is this attention of hers, this quiet awe for what surrounds her which led for the transgression which occurred last spring, when she brought home, with all the freshness of countryside hills, with all the terse excitement of Tokyo marquees, the lazy-egg pen, these school supplies in a little pencil case from Japan which people didn’t understand. It was during that time that it occurred to me, for the first time, that difference isn’t a subject to everyone, that what is foreign is not always, to others, terrain to encounter, to come to comprehend. The very unfamiliarity I had been contented to have encountered in her presence—the saffron yellow plastic of the creature affixed to the lazy egg pen, the hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant we had gone to with her parents, where her father, without speaking, had recognized my necessity for a fork, that Japanese was not a language, as English was, but a quilt composed of three parts—had made others confused, had made them feel somehow threatened.
Others did not understand the lazy egg pen she used in math class, others were bored by her fluorescently-animated stories of Tokyo, of home, but there was a nostalgic inclination my own which empathized with her feeling of discord, I found sympathies similar among my own for each of hers, so that when she spoke of taking the subway to school I remembered the old wood-lined station houses of my youth, the Hudson spread like gray and white frosting along the neat rectangles of the train windows, the little yellow stamp tickets which attested my love affair with the MetroNorth.
There was a confliction in her, a tugging of two sides, which had made her capable of comprehending me, which was responsible, almost single-handedly, for our having been very good, close friends. Though I’m sure she found herself sometimes bored by them, she let me read her essays on Friday and Saturday nights, and when she listened to me, lying on my bed, she laid perfectly still, as though an effigy of herself. When she read a story I submitted for a literary contest she smiled at the milk cup she recognized, from the text, in original form on my desk; for two or three weeks afterward she outwardly protested the treatment of a character she had thought ought not to have suffered as he had, pouting “But Tom! Poor Tom!” with a solemn, indignant quality in her voice for what she believed was the maltreatment of a perfectly kind, a perfectly handsome and equine-featured undergraduate. She protested so indignantly after him. She protested after him as though he were real.
Sometimes I wondered whether her respect for my language came from what she had experienced to be a disrespect for her own, whether she understood my small literary feats, my little fiction publications and journalistic rants because as content she was, as eager for and invigorated by life as she is (she lives closest to life of all the people I’ve ever known), there is also a dissatisfaction in her, a want for recovering something, the great green hills of Japan, the tiny apartments, the trains which had been safe to ride far out at night, which had been lost to her and which had wounded her thus, this old life, this fluorescent, anime-speckled pastoral, merely for its quality of being somehow, and forever, irretrievable.
There were words she didn’t understand were English, she said, when she came back to America from Japan. She would forget, at first, the English meanings of words and so revert to the Japanese syllables, which were older, which were dulled by use, which did not catch in her throat. She said sometimes people didn’t understand her. That it was frustrating. It was thus that she understood me, understood what I was trying to do with my words and stories, because she had an intimate understanding of the weight of sounds, the meaning of words which governed her every action, because things were not given to her, but had to be derived. We shared a dissonance, a mutual and situational discontent.
The best thing I ever said to her was, “I think in Times New Roman 12.” The best thing she ever said to me was that one our classmates, who had the kind of old money which lent itself to racehorses and stone houses, to extravagances of all sorts, and to sweeping lawns, had a horse which must be fed gold, because an article on Wikipedia had valued the animal at a sum of $5 million. “Must eat gold bars,” she’d said. “Must eat gold bars mixed in with bags of oats,” she’d said, and I wrote it down because I liked it so well. I liked lots of things she said to me back then and it amused her to see them reflected back at her in stories, in the paper flaps and written columns of publications no one will nearly ever read.
Maybe it was my curiosity, my want to follow, as one followed a river to its bed, the origins of the world’s sounds, the meanings of the world’s words, which led me to inversely comprehend her. Maybe it is my want for taking Latin, because it is the base of all sounds, in college, something about my habit of watching the way words fit on the tongue which has contented me to hear her speak on the phone, in the car, to her mother in Japanese, which fosters in me an appreciation for words, even those I don’t know the meanings of, can’t connect to their respective objects, because even these sounds, which are not grounded anywhere to me, are accompanied with the laughter between them, which are punctuated in gestures that form the familiar amidst the unfamiliar, which are part of that interaction between people, mitigated by but not secondary to speech, which is transcendent of continent, of country.
It used to amuse me that we watched Gossip Girl together, that we identified with the title character, a dark haired and academic high schooler whose goals—Ivy League college, indeterminate but notable career success—ran parallel with our own. It used to amuse me that Blair had a little gold pin she affixed, in the course of four seasons, to the wool of three different boyfriend’s sleeves—Nate’s a cream wool cuff, Chuck’s a near-black hunter green, Dan’s the particularly deep navy blue reserved for and claimed by Yale—and that this pin, a little gold heart, matches that which came affixed to the taupe-colored bow which is knit into the structure that fits at the hard part of the chest, which hangs in these beige bras we bought one time at Victoria’s Secret, a flat, camel color and with the minuscule mountains, that run over the shoulders and down the back-blades, of tiny caramel-hued lace.
It used to amuse me that we were similar. That our respective goals melded into some kind of marbled future, like colors swirled into milk. It used to amuse me that we had made stupid calculations which projected we would achieve, in four years’ time, those respective honors we understood to be doled out in unbelievably small ratios.
It used to amuse me that her sister could not talk to anyone in Japan because she’d become so Americanized. That she could not read the street signs when she went there, or order a drink, and that when she went, after graduation, she’d rejected a family trip to see her homeland through the eyes of her handsome and white American boyfriend, to see her homeland through the eyes of a foreigner. When she had used to say her sister had given up on Japan, had gotten frustrated at those little mistranslations, those places between the languages which gave one the feeling derived of folding a paper and coming up with a bit over the end or come up a little short, and knowing the result incomplete, losing part of what you’d intended or meant.
These encountered mistranslations used to remind me of outfitting the table for Thanksgiving and finding the tablecloth unable to stretch to reach the corners. Now they sound sad to me. Now there is something solemn in how her sister’s American assimilation “caused her Japanese to get a little broken.” Now what she’d said about her name being an American name and thus existing outside the bounds of the primary Japanese alphabet sounds sad, too. There is a certain tragedy to that comment, a certain brokenness to it: “Katakana is for when you’re translating foreign words. If I were to write my own name, Claire, because it’s an American name, I’d write it in katakana.” The suggestion that this fracture should be emphasized with filament sounds now sacrilegious.
Having gold run in her tennis scars, however, sounds suitable, because tennis always was a kind of self-harm, a kind of battle. Whenever we played tennis we played it to the death, though we never fought, not once, off the court, though whenever we had momentarily moved away from each other it had been a quiet thing, it had been an unspoken break which had left things so there was always a place left where we could fold seamlessly back into our old ways again, how geese fold, by mere nature, by fundamental inertia, into their old flying V’s. I was distracted that week with trying to get into Princeton, I’d say, and she had a similar such excuse only with Princeton interchanged for UPenn.
We found these excuses suitable, because we are both hard on ourselves, hard on ourselves in that fundamental way which cannot be taught, and so we did not fight. But it was this very mutual quality which accounted for our brutality on the court, because when we played tennis our competitive fervors fed off one another to make something mean. We made questionable line calls. We threw ourselves at the court. We both preferred to sustain bruises than lack in the tally we both knew to have been kept between us. There was an effort in that, we shared, an effort to reconcile the two halves, mine my goal and my reality, hers those two cultures I understood to be separate, and yet together, to be two sides of that Vermont moon-cookie she was always struggling to keep from being breaking down the middle.
She explained this once by saying something that came close to that aforementioned culture inclination toward filling the cracks with gold. “In Japan,” she said, “especially the modeling industry, it’s really popular to have models who are half, or kind of culturally diverse, like in Japan they’re called hafu or happa and that’s specifically if they’re half American, half Japanese because there’s some like fascination.” She used to explain many things to me, such as those dreams I had when I partook in the infrequent pastime of sleeping. She used to tell me how things would be, based on symbols decoded from my dreams. It’s been a while since we talked that way. It’s been a while since we talked at all.
I often see her outside of class. The few times I’ve seen her in my old J-Crew hand-me-downs I get this feeling which is similar to that which my dad explained he had last week upon stumbling across one of his old college friend’s Facebook page, a handsome guy, one of his old water polo buddies, who died in a car crash three years ago. I wonder how she would respond to me if I told her that even now I feel I know her the way you know someone who you will know forever. That I see her as a constant, if not a distant constant, in the hectic pattern which composes my life.
I wonder what she would think about my recurring memory of the Vermont half-moon cookie I’d eaten driving up to somewhere (you were always driving up to somewhere back east), to the gothic monstrosity our white-bread cousins had bought out in the middle of nowhere in which they kept half of the rooms closed off, which had used to be a school, or up to Maine, or up to near Choate, and how from afar, from across the room and across this acquired distance, I can still pick out which of her features belong to which half of her heritage—her father’s hair and nose, her mother’s eyes—as though picking out the members of two respective baseball teams by their jersey colors, from the stands.
I wonder if I asked her now, what she’d say my dreams mean, if you can have dreams within the space of two, three, four hours. I wonder if it’s supposed to mean something that last night I dreamed of the UPenn flag I was going to and neglected to buy for her to hang above her desk freshman year.
I wonder if she could tell me what the things outside of dreams mean, our quitting tennis and quitting each other. I wonder if she still has the same tortoise headband I do, with the little teeth we used to complain about. I wonder if I wrote her a story or an article, if I retuned to that old habit of featuring her speech, whether she’d have words for her words. I don’t have to wonder if I give her the tube of Chanel lip-gloss, the overpriced kind which comes in a rectangular prism with little gold flecks floating in it, whether she’d make the connection about our invariably bitten-over lips and the Japanese inclination toward filling the cracks. That I know.