I have a good friend, who lives all the way in Australia, who's read a ton of my work. (We've been pen-pals for decades; I've never physically met her!) I asked her to suggest stories I should put on my new website. She immediately mentioned The Last Romantic, a story I'd forgotten about, and which I wrote years ago. It was inspired not simply by my time in Japan, but by Kannon, the exquisitely beautiful Japanese Buddhist deity of compassion. (In China, she is known as Guanyin, and in Tibet, as the male Avalokitesvara). It's in my poetic-prose collection, The Grace of Small Ghosts.
The Last Romantic
Mr. Yoshikawa slipped two DVD’s on the counter, and bowed elegantly, as usual.
“How are you Midori-chan”? he asked. Everyone referred to me as a child; I am twenty-five, and everyone perceives me as slightly naïve. I don’t completely understand it.
But I forgave Mr. Yoshikawa the slight. After all, he was nearly ninety. I am merely a child to him.
I took the DVD’s and spied a folded, delicate piece of paper in between them.
I unfolded it.
Mr. Yoshikawa smiled, and said, “Will you come have tea with me next Thursday? We can watch one or two of our favorite movies. Like I have told you many times, you are one of the last true romantics, like me. Will you keep an old man company?”
I was a little surprised at the invitation, but touched by his sweetness. I had known him for over a year, and knew he lived alone. He hadnever mentioned when his wife passed away, but I knew he was a widower. And he had no children.
“Of course, Mr. Yoshikawa,” I said. “I will be happy to.”
I placed the DVD’s in a plastic bag and handed them to him. “We can continue our conversations next Thursday,” he said.
I bowed, watching him lean on his cane as he left. His left hand trembled. Parkinson’s.
Saito, my young brash coworker, laughed at me as he watched him leave. “Watch out Midori” he said, “That old guy’s after you.”
I slapped him on the head. “Don’t be dirty Saito,” I said.
He flinched, pretending I’d hit him hard. “Well, you have nothing to worry about,” he said, “If he does come on to you you can hit him on his head with his cane.”
I boarded the train into Yokohama. I lived in the far outskirts of the city, in a small apartment over a train line. The Odakyu line. I had lived there for a few years, and still couldn’t sleep completely through the noise of the train.
Sometimes it was annoying. But otherwise, it was ok.
I like trains.
I am romantic to the core. Mr. Yoshikawa and I had lots of conversations about what it meant to be a romantic, in the truest sense of the word.
Neither one of us had any interest in the instamatic romantics—all those people who bought presents on department-store holidays for their supposed beloveds, abiding by the regimented, unspoken rules in their lovers’ contracts.
I discovered Mr. Yoshikawa was a romantic when I saw him renting all the irresistibly romantic movies—from the old classics, Roman Holiday or an Affair to Remember, to Room With a View, or the Age of Innocence.
I told him I loved the same kinds of movies. Movies which always enveloped love in the slightest of mysteries. No one rushed to uncover one another under the covers for momentary pleasure.
Love takes time, I told him once.
He nodded his head, agreeing completely. “It is nice to hear someone so young say that. Not so many people have the patience to be patient anymore,” he sighed, adding, “But then youth is impatient. It is natural.”
To discover another, it can take forever.
I sighed, absently hearing the conductor announcing the next stop on the train. “The doors will open on the right side,” he said.
I think I see the world sideways. I see everyone slipcased within slight angles, tangentially shadowed by their many selves.
The angles can be sharp. Mr. Yoshikawa, when he didn’t rent romantic movies, rented a lot of the old war movies. And some newer ones—the Killing Fields, Saving Private Ryan. He fought in the war. It made sense, to want to make sense out of a world suffused with suffering.
“Don’t you think, Midori,” he said, in another conversation, “Suffering is the essence of romance? In the great love stories lovers are always parted until they are reunited. But I mean more than just the pain of temporary separation.”
He paused for a minute, asking to sit down. I brought him a chair. And a glass of water.
“When one suffers there is no unity within oneself. I think you can try to forget the part or parts of oneself that cause the suffering, but ultimately you have to make yourself whole. You can’t deny what you try to hide. It takes a long time for people to learn that.”
I sat down next to him. I let Saito take care of all the customers.
“And the love stories always have one person looking for another to complete himself or herself. You have to be whole in yourself, for the truest of love. You can enchant your loved one with your tender detachment. And he can do the same.”
I nodded. I understood him completely. This is probably why I am still single. I look at the world sideways, and I dream my dreams in tangential ideals. Love is entranced by the mystery of immeasurable geometry.
I sighed. But I am also a realist. I remember asking him about his wife at this point.
He was silent. He stopped talking. I was beginning to regret asking about her, when he said, “One day I will tell you. I’ve known her since I was a young man, and yet you know I never knew her.”
So romantic. Mr. Yoshikawa and I shared a dreamy, romantic soul.
I sighed on the train. I shifted sideways to make room for a businessman squeezing in next to me. Another man stood in front of me, hanging onto the strap above him. As usual, I was trapped inside a temporary trapezoid.
I thought about my ninety-year old friend again. What was it like to have fought in the war? I couldn’t imagine such a world. To struggle to survive within daily dreams of death.
“The doors are opening on the left side.”
My stop. I got out, wondering what movie we were going to watch.
Mr. Yoshikawa lived only a five-minute walk from the station. I was glad. For such an old man, he was tremendously active, but a longer walk would have effectively isolated him from the world.
I knocked on his door. I heard shuffling inside as he slowly arrived to let me in.
“Midori-chan,” he said, bowing, “How kind of you to come.”
I bowed, immediately glad that I had come. To be honest, Saito’s warning had wavered in my mind, but now I could hit Saito over the head with a DVD.
He let me into his small apartment.
It was quite dark inside. He didn’t receive much light through his windows. He apologized for the darkness, saying, “It’s just as well I don’t receive much light. Too much sunlight hurts my eyes.”
As my eyes adjusted to the shadowed interior I saw something so beautiful in the corner of his living room that I caught my breath.
Mr. Yoshikawa looked at me, smiling. “I knew you would like her,” he said.
Kannon. There was a majestic, opalescent statue of Kannon in the corner. The goddess of mercy, in a mother-of-pearl marble.
The statue wasn’t too large—maybe one foot in height. I had seen other statues of Kannon before, of course, but I couldn’t take my eyes off this one. Her eyes were half-closed, and her whole face radiated peace. And something more, which I couldn’t quite define.
She looked like she had the patience to await the deliverance, the end of suffering, for every sentient being. Her right palm faced outwards, in the gentle gesture of reassurance, “Do not fear…”. How could any being, even a bodhisattva, have the passion of such infinite compassion?
“Sometimes she opens her eyes,” Mr. Yoshikawa said, smiling.
He was teasing me. I brought myself back to reality, asking what movie we were going to watch.
“You can choose,” he said, pointing to his DVD collection in the corner. “It doesn’t really matter. I have seen them all before anyway.”
As he made tea I looked at his collection. He had dozens of DVD’s, from all of Audrey Hepburn’s films, to John Wayne’s films, to contemporary romances like Shakespeare in Love.
I chose The Age of Innocence. I saw that film at least once every year.
He brought out tea, and cookies.
I showed him the film I had chosen. “The Age of Innocence,” he said, “Very good. Have you read the novel?”
I had. It was, of course, far better than the movie.
We watched the movie. I loved the subtleties in the film as much as the love story—how would it feel to have handwritten letters delivered to your door? And brought to you on silver salvers? I would love simply to write a real letter again. And don’t even start me on the clothing. I would love just once to wear dresses of lace, tulle, cambric, such carefully created fabrics…
When it was finished, Mr. Yoshikawa asked me, “What was your favorite scene?”
I had so many. How could I choose one?
After a minute, I finally decided. “I love the scene where Archer sees Countess Olenska by the sea. And he tells himself that if she turns to him before the ship passes behind the lighthouse he will go to her. If she doesn’t he will leave her. She’s glimmering in the sealight…”
“You like the uncertainty,” Mr. Yoshikawa replied. “Romance is founded on the principle of uncertainty. All possibilities are inherent in every single moment, especially in the beginning.” He laughed, “I am applying quantum mechanics to romance! Perhaps you can say I am a quantum romantic! But Midori, what if they had been together? Don’t you think reality would have ruined all that romance?”
“No,” I replied, without hesitation, “people say that when they tease me about my ideals. But I think reality would simply make romance more real. It would give it a realistic grounding.” To live a romantic life fused with reality, that was the greatest of mysteries.
Mr. Yoshikawa smiled. “Would you like to see another movie?” he said.
I nodded. “But you choose this time.”
He chose an old Japanese war movie. I hardly remember the name. It wasn’t really my type of film, but I didn’t mind keeping him company. I wondered what was going through his mind as he mined old war memories.
After the film, I asked him, “Mr. Yoshikwa, what was it like, to fight in the war? What was it like, to awake daily to dreams of death?”
He was quiet again, as quiet as he was when I asked him about his wife.
When he spoke again, after a few minutes, he asked me if I wanted more tea. I nodded.
As he poured the tea, he said, “Midori do you remember when I spoke to you about suffering? About disunity versus wholeness?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I want to tell you something,” he said.
His voice was so serious that I felt a sudden nervousness. I drank some tea.
“I know I will not live that much longer. And I want to confess something to someone.”
I could hear my heart beat faster.
He must have sensed my fear. “Please, don’t be scared. I don’t have any family, and not many friends. I want to tell you because you have a curious mixture of naivete and maturity. Ideals and reality. That’s how to make the best life you can—how to achieve real wholeness.”
I felt a bit better.
“And I want to tell a woman.”
I got nervous again. I saw Saito’s face in my mind.
I turned my chair slightly sideways so that I was facing Kannon. I felt myself calm down a bit. Her face emanated such peace…
“Midori,” Mr. Yoshikawa said, slowly, “I want to tell you the truth. I don’t have a wife. Not a real wife anyway.”
Saito’s grin leered at me.
He sighed, struggling for words. “You know I fought in the war. I was very young then. Not to mention stupid. And I did something I have never told anyone.”
Oh, God. Kannon, Kannon, please help me calm down…
“When the Japanese were in China they did hideous things to people there. I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure.”
I nodded, my throat dry.
I drank more tea.
“I won’t go into details, because I don’t want to burden you with that.” Mr. Yoshikawa sipped some tea. “Please understand, by confessing this to a woman, I help to ease my own consciousness. I hope to achieve some sort of unity.”
His left hand was trembling.
“My unit did some horrible things,” he continued, “And I was so ignorant. I knew they were wrong, but in that time, in the convoluted world, in my ignorance and cowardice and youth…Midori, I assaulted a young woman.” He hesitated, then asked quietly, "Do you understand?"
I sunk into my chair. My head was whirling. Kannon, Kannon, how do you subject yourself to continual confessions day after every single day?
“I did it once, because that was war and we all did it. I hated myself for it.”
Mr. Yoshikawa was staring at the floor. “When the war ended, I returned home, injured. And I tried to reenter daily life. But I never forgot her. Her fear, her resignation, the death in her eyes.
“She became my wife. I have lived alone all my life. It is the only way I can attempt to honor her.”
A tear slid down my face. I wasn’t feeling sorry for him; I felt a curious sense of sorrow for the whole world.
“You don’t have to say anything Midori, but I had to confess this to someone before I am gone.”
I looked at Kannon. She sat, peacefully, hearing every word Mr. Yoshikawa said. And I knew what quality shined in her face that I was earlier unable to define. Unequivocal understanding.
I had to get up. I hardly knew what I said next.
“Mr. Yoshikawa, I will keep your confidence. I will never tell anyone,” I whispered. “But it is late, I think I should leave.”
He nodded, his right hand reaching for his cane. Slowly, he stood up. He was still staring at the floor.
He walked me to the door. I looked at Kannon once more.
Mr. Yoshikawa looked into my eyes. “She is the last true romantic, Midori. She accepts all our wrong-doings, all our sufferings, with infinite compassion. She understands all. Her presence redeems us, and she has infinite patience and faith in us. She waits for each one of us to become whole, as she waits for the whole world. Who else can love with the attachment of such tender detachment?”
I looked at Kannon.
I swear, she opened her eyes.
Months later I was counting money in the register at the store when Saito brought me a package and a letter.
“It’s for you, Midori. From that old admirer of yours. Is he sending you presents now?”
I looked at the foot-long package.
I knew what had happened. And I didn’t want her. There was too much in the world I wanted never to understand.
Saito stared at me. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
I felt immediately ashamed of myself. Mr. Yoshikawa hadn’t simply burdened me with his confession, after all, he had placed genuine trust in me. And I couldn’t help but feel honored by that.
I opened the letter. It was from his landlady. He had wanted her to inform me when he died. And he wanted me to have Kannon.
A tear slid down my face.
“What is it?” Saito asked.
I wiped away the rogue tear. “It’s from Mr. Yoshikawa’s landlady. He wanted her to inform me when he died.”
Saito showed surprising sympathy. “I’m sorry Midori. He was a nice guy after all. I guess I was wrong.”
“Yes, Saito,” I replied. “You were wrong.”
This is Sanjusangendo--the 12th-13th century temple of Kannon par excellence in Kyoto. There are 1001 gold-leaf statues of Kannon inside, including a 1000-armed Kannon! In front of Kannon are minor, guardian deities---many of these were originally Hindu and have been, for lack of a better word, "Japanified" over the centuries. So the rather calm-looking Vishnu I grew up with looks like a pro wrestler in here. :-) Fascinating. I heard this is the world's longest wooden building.