David W. Landrum: Azalea

Yoshida and I met at Starbucks on Thursday mornings before we went to our jobs. She always got a white chocolate mocha.

“You’ve asked about Erina a couple of times,” she said. “If you want to meet her, I’ll introduce you. She’ll be at the celebration for Health and Sports Day. Will you be there?”

Erina Okada was the CEO of the firm where I worked.

“I wasn’t planning to attend this year, but it might be worth the boredom if I got to talk to her so she would at least know who I am.”

“If you show up, I’ll introduce you two and see how well you do with her.”

“Do with her? I won’t even know what to say.”

“You have the advantage:  I’ve told you what she’s like. You know her nature. What did Sun Tzu teach us in The Art of War?  If you know yourself and know your enemy, you will be victorious every time.”

I laughed. “I didn’t think I was going to get a lesson on ancient Chinese philosophy this morning.”

She drained her mocha and stood up. “You just didn’t think you’d get it from somebody like me,” she said, and scurried out to her car.

###

I had once asked Yoshida what her cousin Erina was like.

“You work for her, don’t you?” she replied.

“Yes, but I don’t know much about her. She’s high up in the company, I’m down low, so I hardly even see her.”

“She’s obnoxious and self-centered. When we were growing up, she always had to be right, always had to be first; she always had to be the Queen, the Princess, the President, the Good Witch when we played pretend games. Her side of the family had more money than mine. She had nicer clothes and better toys than me. She did well at school, did well at everything, is the family sweetheart and success story, and lets people know she is number one in our clan and everyone else is minus-zero.” She looked over at me. “What do you think of her?”

“She’s beautiful.”

“On the outside, at least,” Yoshida had said, qualifying my judgment.

I thought of this as I walked into Yeagle Park for the holiday celebration. Sports and Health Day is one of those holidays the Japanese government made up—I guess to help the economy, to promote physical fitness, and so people could be happy. The Japanese-American community in our town always celebrated it by organizing a 5K and hosting a party in a city park. The activities began at 8:00 (the race started at 9:00) and went on until early afternoon.

Yoshida was there with a Lebanese guy. She looked good in shorts and a singlet (she had run the 5K). After about twenty minutes, Erina arrived.

She came with two cousins. Their plainness made her beauty more noticeable—probably by design. She wore a simple blue cloth dress that came just above her knees (much longer than what she wore to work). Its simplicity accented the beauty of her slender body. She wore her hair short. As Yoshida and I approached, she took a plastic glass of wine and stood there, flanked by her plain-Jane relatives. She and the other two women smiled when they saw Yoshida. The four women spent perhaps a minute hugging, kissing, punctuating the low din of the party with the happy sounds people make when they see old friends at events such as this one.

“Yoshida, you’re looking marvelous,” Erina said.

“Thank you. You always look good—and you too, Kaiya and Noriko. Let me introduce you to a couple of friends. This is Joseph”—her date—“and this is Jeremy.”

As I clasped hands with Erina, she gave me that vague look one gets when somebody recognizes you but can’t remember how or from where. I bowed as we shook hands.

“I work for MediTel.”

Her eyes lit with recognition and relief. “Ah, yes. You’re in design. Is that correct?”

What now? I wondered. I started to launch into nice day or what a lovely party, but I remembered—I guess because Yoshida had mentioned—Sun Tzu, Chinese author of The Art of War.

“Yes, I work in graphic design.” I made a sweeping gesture. “Nice celebration—for a completely manufactured holiday.”

Erina and her friends gave me looks of puzzlement. One of her cousins asked me what I meant.

“We Japanese seem to like to make up holidays:  Health and Sports day to celebrate the 1964 Olympics, Shōwa Day to remember the perils of World War II; Mountain Day, Coming of Age Day, Culture Day, Foundation Day—all of them established in the last fifty years. We celebrate Valentine’s Day and Christmas, both Christian holidays, even though not one percent of our population is Christian.”

They gave me lips-parted stares. I had, as Master Sun instructed, engaged in formlessness. They expected me, being a young climber in a business their cousin owned, to talk about the party, sports, to chit-chat, flirt with them, and make stupid jokes. They did not expect me to make a studied comment on the nature of Japanese festive configurations.

“It is a bit odd when you think about it,” Erina said. “Maybe even a little silly.”

The cousins, seeming to read an unstated cue, excused themselves and went with Yoshida to talk with a knot of guests, leaving me alone with Erina.

“So how long have you been associated with MediTel?”

“Three years. I came from AutoLite. I was editor for their publications.”

She had raised her plastic wine glass, but when I said that, stopped it before it got to her lips.

“I have to ask:  Why did you come to MediTel?”

“I like graphic design as a job. My work at MediTel gives me more time to write.”

“You write what? Fiction?”

“Mostly poetry. Traditional forms. I write in English and in Japanese.”

“That’s wonderful. I love Basho.”

Of course she did. Everyone who is Japanese has read Basho and probably memorized his famous poems.

“I love him too. Let’s see. Everyone knows the one about the frog in the millpond. Here’s one I like:

Cold white azalea—

lone nun

under a thatched roof

She reacted—in a different way than I had expected. A small tremor went across her face.

“Very beautiful. I . . .”—a server walked by. “Some wine, Mr. Tsuda?”

“If you’ll call me Jeremy. I was born here. My parents gave me an American name.” I accepted a glass of wine from her. The blue dress she wore made her look pretty in a different way than the short-skirted power suits she wore to work. I decided to hazard a compliment.

“You look lovely. I like what you’re wearing.”

She blushed just slightly and glanced down at herself.

“Well, I don’t wear power suits every day.”

Just what I had been thinking.

“It’s charming. It makes you look good.” I raised my glass. “I’ll drink to it.” A bit nonplussed, she joined my toast.

I had made my initial foray, attempting formlessness as The Art of War suggested. I was astonished that my ruse seemed to be working. Now I needed to follow up. At a loss, I tried to think of what to say next. She spoke before I could come up with anything.

“My mother wrote poetry,” she said. “She loved Basho—Buson, too, and Issa and Izumi Shikibu—and the Chinese poets, Li Po and Du Fu.” She paused a long moment and then added, “I reacted to the poem you recited because Mother wanted me to be a Buddhist nun and live in a Quiet Place—that’s their term for a convent.”

“Wanted you to? I thought one went into a life of devotion only voluntarily.”

“One does. But Mother was a bit old school and thought I should do so out of duty because no woman in our family had taken vows in my generation. It became a cause of discord between us. That’s why I decided to go to college in the United States—just to get away.”

“Did someone else in the family enter a Quiet Place?”

“No. Sadly, I guess.” She paused. “I haven’t eaten lunch. Would you like to go in and check the food tables?”

I said I would be delighted.

Inside the park shelter, we filled plates with food and talked with other people we knew and with runners and people from the community who had come at the open invitation. I kept stealing glances at Erina. My strategies for approaching her had succeeded better than I had dreamed. She also glanced at me, I saw. When our eyes met, she smiled pensively.

“When I encounter a spread like this,” she said, making a pretty gesture at the table, “I don’t regret my decision to stay out of the quiet place. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life eating rice gruel and raw vegetables.”

“Have you regretted your choice?”

“In a way. It caused a rift between Mother and me—a lot of tension there. She died while I was away at college, so we never resolved the issue. Things like that make you feel guilty.”

I was surprised she confided. But a good sign.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

She shrugged. “Mother was being unreasonable, which was not like her. I think old age had started to affect her a bit.”

“I see. Where did you go to school?”

“Cornell. Then Harvard business school. And you?”

“The school I went to was a little less spectacular. Carnegie Mellon University School of Design.”

“I would say that is quite spectacular.”

“And I did a year at the school of the Chicago Art Institute.”

“You shouldn’t underrate your education. I’m impressed. You studied graphic design and art?”

“I did. I do technical imaging for a living. But I also paint.”

“You write and you paint as well?”

“A lot of artists have explored multiple genres of art. e.e.cummings wrote but he was a painter as well. Ford Maddox Ford, a British writer from the turn of the century, painted and wrote novels. Joni Mitchell is quite a painter too.” Not sure she would know who Joni Mitchell was, I glanced at her.

“Yes. She does her own LP covers. I loved the painting she did for Clouds and for Turbulent Indigo.”

She wanted to show me she knew something about pop music—again, a good sign.

We took our plates outside. Children were running races now in age brackets. A soccer game had formed in one corner of the park. We walked together and chatted with people we knew. Erina introduced me to several of her friends. I got the idea a some of them were business associates. They eyed me skeptically. When she told them I was in graphic design, they could barely conceal their contempt. A couple of them, in fact, even tried to take her off and leave me there. To my delight, she refused their advances. I decided I need to play a valuable card.

“I’m organizing a small exhibit of my art at a gallery over on Cascade. Would you like to come?”

She contemplated. I held my breath.

“I think I would like that.”

“And I could give you a private tour if you’ll allow me to buy you a drink beforehand. You won’t have to fight the crowd—if there is crowd to fight.”

Again, she contemplated. She almost looked like a nun meditating and fixing her devotion on an image of the Enlightened One.

“That would be good, Jeremy. So, yes. The only thing is—well, it’s a matter of protocol. Since you work for me—something I don’t care a fig about, but we must nod to—it would be better for me to meet you some place rather than you coming to pick me up. Is that all right? You won’t feel like I’m slighting you in any way, will you?”

“Not at all.” I didn’t quite understand why such a protocol would exist; maybe she had only invented it so she could not show up.

“Where would you like to meet?”

“There’s a place called Sidebar.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s downtown.” I gave her the address. “Shall we say at four? The exhibit opens at six.”

“That would be lovely.”

“It’s hard to find. But I could meet you at Rosa Parks Circle—say, right in front of the entrance to the Art Museum.”

“I think that would work.”

“And if you decide you made a bad decision and want to stand me up, you can just go into the Art Museum.”

“Stop being silly. I could never do something like that. If I decided I didn’t want to go with you, I would wait for you and tell you I had changed my mind.”

“I hope that doesn’t happen.”

“It won’t. I’m curious to see your paintings.”

###

Our first date turned out differently from what I had envisioned.

She met me at the designated spot in front of the Art Museum by Rosa Parks Circle. A children’s program was going on. Parents had crowded into the seating area in front of the bandstand to watch their kids participate in various athletic endeavors. Erina had dressed up in a short blue dress (more like what she wore to work) and had a different hair-do. I smiled when I saw her. She returned my smile and reached out just slightly. I understood it as a cue, clasped her arms at the elbows, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“Are you sure you want to see my art? The Warhol exhibit is still on at the Museum. We can go to that instead.”

“I don’t think it would be good for you to miss your own exhibit—and I very much want to see your work.”

“Let’s go to Sidebar.”

Sidebar is on Ottawa, just around the corner from the Art Museum. It’s a small pub—I mean, very small. It has four tables and maybe five seats at the bar. The small space is filled on one side with a waterfall of liquor bottles and a beer tap rising above the polished wood surface of the bar. The old wood and the intimate dimness make it look like a place a movie character played by Humphrey Bogart would go to drink straight whisky after being jilted by his girlfriend. We found a table. Erina ordered a Moscow Mule. I had a double shot of Forty Creek, a Canadian whisky I like. Erina looked around her.

“This is the most charming bar I’ve ever seen.”

“Glad you like it. It’s a little small. I’m happy we were able to find a seat.”

“I drink in large, luxurious bars with marvelous views of the sea or the mountains or a cityscape in fancy hotels; and always with pretentious, predatory business executives whose every word is calculated to give them an advantage or to advance an agenda.”

Our drinks arrived. “So, you like Moscow Mules.”

“I like them, yes. I also order them because they’re not ‘cool.’ I get looks when I’m at a high-powered gathering of business people who are looking for ways to get an advantage on me. They notice I ordered a silly drink instead the usual martini or expensive scotch or bourbon. It’s amusing to watch their reaction and to see how they think they can put something over on me because I obviously don’t know what drinks are in and so I must be naïve at corporate negotiations too.”

Surprised that she talked so much and revealed a bit of her more hidden side, I twirled my glass in my fingers—a habit I have when I am surprised or nervous. I wondered if she noticed and would interpret my behavior.

“Well, sorry I ordered a whisky.”

“Whisky is a silly drink too—in those circles. It’s got to be scotch or bourbon if you’re going to drink it on the rocks. But I got us off on the wrong subject. Tell me a little about your art.”

I told her I did traditional art. She seemed surprised when I mentioned Hokusai and Torii Kotondo, traditional Japanese artists from pre-modern periods.

“I’ll look forward to seeing it. It’s nothing like what you must do at work.”

“Every illustrator has his serious art tucked away in a hidden room.”

“Now I’m more eager to see what you’ve done.”

“Tell me about your job—if I can ask.”

“You can ask. Everyone is trying to get an advantage on everyone else. Even at social gatherings, it’s all power plays. I find it’s better to keep to myself as much as possible.”

Now I understood a little of the scrupulous privacy everyone took as aloofness.

“I live a secluded life. I told you my mother wanted me to be a nun. Well, I live quietly and privately. I maintain discipline and self-control. I try to raise my level of awareness and enlightenment so I don’t get taken in during business negotiations. I don’t date much.”

“I’m flattered you went against the rules of your order to see me,” I quipped.

“Artists are exceptions.”

“Do you date artists?”

She ran her finger around the rim of her drink glass. “Like I said: I never dated much—not in college or business school and not now. I left open the possibility that I just might please Mother by entering a Buddhist convent after all, so I made sure I would be fully qualified if I ever did decide to go. I know I’ll never do that—though I am still fully qualified.”

After a moment, I realized, with shock, what she meant—that she was a virgin.

I felt cold. Sweat must have popped out on my forehead. I had planned to say, “Well, I’m glad you decided to change that for me,” by which I would have meant I was glad she had changed her resolution and gone out on a date with me. My face got red. She downed the remainder of her drink.

“Um. Delicious. Could you order another one for me, Jeremy?”

Still disoriented, I went over to the and ordered another Moscow Mule for her. The bartender took her time making it. I brought it back to the table.

“Thank you,” she said, delicately taking the drink with her long fingers. “Did you study Japanese art anywhere?”

From this I understood that she did not want to talk further about her qualifications to enter a Quiet Place. I told her about studying at the Art Institute with two artists who knew Asian painting well. And the Institute had quite a collection of art from Asia, a lot of it in storage. They had let me view it.

“I spent most of my two years gazing at some of the most beautiful art ever made—and trying to imitate it. I don’t know how well I did that, but we’ll see. This is my first exhibit of original paintings.”

“I’m excited about seeing them.”

We made small talk. The revelation of her virginity still had me a little fuddled, but I decided I needed to straighten out or I would end up looking like a jackass. She knew a lot about traditional Japanese art and we discussed it as we finished our second round of drinks. I felt just a little tipsy and saw that the second Moscow Mule had done her in a bit. We took my car to the gallery. The staff there had set things up for the reception. The gallery proper was empty. I invited her to walk in before me and followed.

All the way over, I wondered at her telling me about her being a virgin. She obviously had wanted to draw boundaries so I would know she was not a prospect for a sexual relationship. But why had she told me so soon and so openly? There were lots of ways for a woman to signal she did not want to enter a relationship too soon. Why had she told me in such a manner—her phrasing indirect but her meaning unmistakable? I knew how to read signals. She had preferred to tell me candidly, even though she was indirect in how she worded it.

At the exhibit, she seemed fascinated by what I had done.

I paint landscapes and still lifes, but I also do figure art. I had done a series of four paintings based on works by Torii Kotondo, a Japanese artist from the early twentieth century famous for his print Combing Her Hair, a painting of a nude woman squatting on the floor running a comb through her long hair. He positioned the figure so one sees a round, beautiful breast on her left side. Another, Woman before a Mirror, shows as bare-breasted woman pinning her hair up. Two other famous works by him—Rain and Snow—are of women (fully clothed), and I had included these two in my modern transformation of his prints.

My series of four capitalizes on the theme of women concerned with their self-image. One is of a woman in front of a mirror. She is doing her hair just like the figure in Woman Before a Mirror, but my figure is standing, and you get full frontal nudity in the reflection. The next work, is a modern rendition of Combing Her Hair. I did not disguise what Torii concealed in the way his woman’s legs are positioned. The third is of  a woman at a bus stop, very nicely dressed, realizing that it has begun to rain, that she has no umbrella, and that there is no place to shelter. The last is of a woman by her bed, but, unlike the figure in Snow, she is not looking out the window contemplating the snowfall with her hands under her chin; rather she is praying—probably that everyone will notice the miniskirt and low-cut blouse she is wearing and think she is pretty. Behind her is a mirrored dresser strewn with various beauty implements.

What would Erina, under a self-imposed vow of chastity, think of my art?

She stepped to the sequence of four paintings, pausing before each, spending time studying them, lost for moments in the power a work of art can have over a person and not (I thanked my stars) showing any sort of embarrassment or shock.

After a time, she turned to me.

“Jeremy, these are incredible. This is some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen.”

“Thank you.”

She gazed a long moment. “The one of the woman at the bus stop—she looks just like the woman in the painting by Torii—the woman in green who looks like an actress.”

“That one is called Rain.”

“And the one of the woman at the mirror—you did her hair so well.” She glanced back, an impish look on her face. “In both places.”

Again, this shocked me, but I felt I had to speak up.

“I wanted it to catch the light. My inspiration was Andrew Wyeth’s Virgin. I love the way the light glistens on her hair—both places, as you put it—and tried to get that effect in my picture.”

“The Wyeth painting is one of my favorites. I got to see it at the MOMA in New York City a couple of years back. You captured the light very well.”

She stood there gazing, lost in what she saw. She turned around. “Show me your other paintings.”

I gave her a tour, as I had promised. Most of the other works were landscapes, sketches, or portraits; one or two had some nudity in them. I felt silly for assuming she would be offended. She seemed to genuinely appreciate my work.

The crowd arrived. For the next three hours I met guests, talked with people, drank wine, and munched on canapés. Erina stayed by me and people seemed delighted to see me with such a beautiful woman. A few of her friends showed up and were not so happy to see us together. I remembered what she had said about being surrounded by predatory, aggressive people.

I sold several landscapes and a portrait or two. People wanted to buy my Torii studies, but they were not for sale. I had, however, made thirty prints of each (my expectations were modest) and sold them out. After nine, the crowd began to break up. Erina, standing in a corner, sipping a glass of wine, looked tired. I came up and touched her shoulder.

“I can drive you to your car now.”

“You know, Jeremy, I drank a bit too much tonight. Could you drive me home? I’ll just leave my car in the lot overnight and pick it up tomorrow.”

“I’d be happy.” She put her head against my shoulder for a moment. I touched her hair and went off to finish business. I had once read that if a woman will allow you to touch her head, she will allow you to touch her anywhere, that it was a prelude to intimacy.

I counted my money, told the gallery owners I would be by tomorrow to collect the art. Even with the percentage they took for hosting the event, I would still make quite a lot. I escorted Erina to the car and drove her to the address she gave me. She lived in a large house in one of the many gated communities off Cascade Road. I parked and decided it was time to kiss her on the lips. She responded, not pushing me away. She kissed a little shyly and (it seemed) with not much experience. Finally, she drew away from a long kiss and said.

“If you want to come in, I think that would be okay.”

I had succeeded. I could have her. But the triumph I felt immediately dissolved. To my astonishment, I said, “I don’t think we need to do that.”

She nodded—too eagerly, as if she were glad I had turned her offer down. She leaned in. She wanted me to kiss her more. Her eager gentleness charmed me. Some women have sweet mouths. It just feels and tastes good to kiss them. She finally rested her head on my shoulder.

“Well, I think I need to go,” she said.

“I’ll call you.”

“Sure.”

One last kiss, and she went inside. After her door closed, and she turned her porch light off, I pulled out of her driveway.

###

The next time I saw Yoshida at Starbucks, she asked me how my date with Erina went.

“Pretty well.”

“Did you get lucky?”

“No, but . . .”

“She barfed you out?”

“Not exactly. I like her.”

“She seemed to like you for some reason. Keep trying. You may eventually get into the Treasure House.”

The term—which she had taken from Captain Kangaroo—was her favorite euphemism. She had to be at work early that day. I was glad. I would not have to answer her questions.

I had been invited into the Treasure House but turned the invitation down.

Driving to work, I wondered what would await me. Sure enough, I got death-wish looks from the higher-up executives who had seen Erina and me together at the exhibit and assumed we were an item. I smiled to myself at their glares. They outranked me but had known they must be careful. Somehow the Queen had fallen for a lowly peasant boy. And the Queen did not put up with disloyalty from her underlings. This gave me some sense of what she experienced all the time: everyone out for everyone else—ready to use, take advantage of, and manipulate others. I reflected how it would take all her energy and skill to fend off the ruses, plots, and subterfuge all about her. She had to be ruthless to survive. And she had opened up to me. I got to my cubicle and began working on current projects.

By ten, word had spread that I had had a date with Erina. I had become a wild card in the office jungle drama of death and life where the men (and maybe some of the women) saw Erina as a person to conquer and dominate. To make her a lover would be a path to the top, they thought. They saw her rebuffs as power players. Undoubtedly, they kept the pressure on—subtle, insinuated, but always unmistakable. I had been one more wolf in the forest trying to capture her as prey. Now, for whatever reason, I no longer wanted to conquer. I wanted to love her.

Even as I thought this, I chided myself in being cheesy and sentimental. But the thought melted quickly. Not wanting a moral debate to occupy my mind, I concentrated on the projects I had queued up and had just finished one of them when she called.

I saw her name on the caller ID and wondered if she would say we were finished, that returning to her home environment had jolted her back into the reality of our disparate positions in the MediTel hierarchy. I held my breath as she spoke.

“Jeremy.”

I grunted something vaguely affirmative.

“Lunch in the cafeteria? Have you eaten yet?”

Relief left me dumb a moment. I recovered.

“Sure,” I sputtered. “That would be great.” Then I pulled myself together and asked. “Are you sure about this?” I didn’t use her name because I did not want anyone around me to know it was she who had called. “You know—protocol, like you mentioned when we were in Sidebar.”

“We can set protocol aside. Noon?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll get a table for us.”

She clicked off. I sat there, numb, phone still on, until I saw people stealing glances, wondering what was up. I put my phone away, mailed the graphics projects I had finished, and looked at my work roster for the week. I had finished two projects; three to go—and it was only Monday.

At noon, my usual lunch crowd came, expecting me to join them. When I declined, they asked me if I had a date. Not everyone had heard about Erina and me. I told them Yes, I did, and she was very good-looking.

She had staked out a table in the crowded cafeteria. She had on a very short, cream-colored skirt and matching blazer (magnificent legs) and a darker blouse with one of those big puffy ties women executives always seem to wear. Carl Hokema, Vice President for Accounting, stood by her table, chatting. She said something and pointed to me; he nodded and walked away, a stunned look on his face. She smiled and waved. I went over to her.

When I sat down, she did not kiss me. But her smile was a kiss.

“Welcome.”

“Good to see you, Erina.”

“Let go through the line. Come on.”

We got trays and took our places in the serving line. People said we could go ahead of them, but Erina said no. The line moved quickly. Astonished faces watched as we talked. We got food and headed back to our table.

“How’s work?”

“Good. I finished a couple of projects. You?”

“Morning preparation. Afternoon will be a round of meetings. Same old stuff.” She paused, took a bite of a chicken nugget, and said, “I got a little drunk last night.”

I shrugged, not wanting to show my surprise at what she had said. “I did too.”

“It was crass to invite you in on a first date.”

“I was flattered.”

“You were a gentleman. I appreciate that.”

I understood what she meant. The silence felt awkward.

“Anyway, I’m still marveling at your art.”

I wondered what I might say to follow up. It would still be easy for her to lose interest in me, or to see that the complications she faced in dating me would be more of a burden than she was willing to take on.

Still, she seemed to enjoy being with me. I did not need to be cynical.

And that moment the idea hit me. It encompassed both dynamics of the situation: my hope to make our relationship sure amid the treacheries of our work environment and my desire to communicate the sweet, gentle, and pure side of her I had been permitted to glimpse. Before I could say anything, she spoke up.

“I’m going to Chicago this weekend to see my cousin—Yoshida’s sister. I haven’t been to the Art Institute since I was teenager. I’m sure you could give me a tour of it, like you did of your own exhibit.”

Hardly believing my luck (I had a lot of it in the last few days), I said, “I’d be happy to.”

“Honoka, my cousin, has a couple of extra rooms.”

A couple of extra rooms.

“Good arrangement,” I said.

I remembered she owned a Corvette Stingray.

We switched to shop talk, then drifted off to other subjects: family, the office scene, favorite films (hers was The King’s Speech; mine was The Shawshank Redemption). The hour passed quickly. All through our conversation, people gave us looks. It later occurred to me that, aside from the CEO having lunch with a low-ranking graphic designer, the novelty of the whole thing with us lay in the fact that no one had ever seen Erina enjoying herself.

I had little work to do for the rest of the week.

###

I didn’t see a lot of her at the office. She was holding meetings to discuss marketing strategies and her proposal to acquire a small pharmaceutical company in New Jersey.

On Thursday I sensed a happy buzz when I came to work. The quarterly report had been released. MediTel had increased its profits 12%, the highest increase ever in one quarter, an attestation of Erina’s leadership skills. She called a few minutes after I got to my desk.

“I’ll make this quick,” she said. “We need to cancel our lunch date. I’ll see you Saturday. At seven? We can leave from my place. Will that be all right, Jeremy?”

I said it would be fine. When we got to the museum, I would reveal the plan I hoped would cement our relationship.

Saturday morning, I went to her place. She invited me in and showed me around.

“Why does a single woman need a house like this?” she scoffed. “I’ll answer my own question:  To impress people! It’s big and empty—scary sometimes to be here alone. But if you’re a CEO, you’ve got to keep up appearances.”

We went to Wealthy Bakery, had croissants and coffee for breakfast, and then headed north in her ‘Vette. She looked pretty in jeans and a tank top. The trip took about two hours.

Staying at her cousin’s home turned out to be ideal. Erina’s room shared an upstairs hall with the room where Honoka and her husband slept. My bedroom, the official guest room, was downstairs. Honoka and her family were evangelical Christians and seemed relieved that Erina and I did not room together. I liked her husband, Takumi. While Erina and Honoka talked, Takumi and I watched soccer and drank beer (even some evangelical Christians drink in moderation). We had a fine lunch of korokke (a meat and potato croquette), curried rice, miso soup, pickles, chopped vegetables, and beer. We ate with chopsticks, a thing I had not been doing a lot lately. After lunch, we relaxed and talked. Then Erina and I took a taxi to the Art Institute.

We made the rounds and saw the most famous paintings there:  American Gothic, The Old Guitarist, Evening on la Grande Jette, the cow skull and cloud mural by Georgia O’Keefe, Night Hawks, Van Gogh’s bedroom. After that I looked for a director I knew, found him, introduced Erina (who had dressed up for the visit) and asked if we could see some of the Japanese art in storage. We spent two hours marveling at works by Shunsuo, a few by Hiroshigi and a couple by Kiyonobu I had not seen—too many others to list. At the end of our time in the archives and the Asian gallery, we were tired and had lost our capacity to be amazed. We went to the cafeteria and had wine. Erina was beaming with happiness.

“Thank you so much, Jeremy. This was wonderful.”

“It was nice to see it with you.” Time now, I decided. “And I have a proposal.” Her eyes grew big with alarm. I laughed. “No, I don’t mean that. Erina, would you be willing pose for me?”

“Pose? You mean model?”

“I have a painting in mind. Remember the poem by Basho I recited for you at the Sports and Fitness Day party? Cold white azalea / Lone nun / Under a thatched roof. Ever since then I’ve wanted to depict that scene—and do it like the Chinese and some our artists did, with the text of the poem written on the canvas. Would you be the model for that painting?”

She sputtered a moment, held up her hand for me to be quiet, took a sip of wine, and responded.

“I’m stunned, as you can see. Nobody has ever asked me to be a model.”

“I’m surprised. I think you would be a good subject for the work. And you are ‘qualified,’ as you told me. You’ll be perfect.”

She tried to find words.

“I’m flattered, of course. But”—she paused a long moment—“well, it’s a little . . . weird. I can’t think of a better word. Will we have time? Is there a costume?”

“Would you be willing to pose?”

She looked straight at me. Her eyes showed alarm. Then she calmed.

“Well, yes. Of course.” She laughed. “I don’t know why I reacted as I did.”

I knew why. A painting reveals one’s spirit. Her soul would show its purity if I painted her. What she had kept, protected, cherished (in the true sense of the word: valued, guarded) would be made public.

“Be sure you’re certain.” I hesitated but decided to go ahead—maybe like a snowplow or a bull, but I would do it anyway. “Painting reveals—true art always does. It can be frightening to display one’s innermost self in a public space. People will see its beauty. I will only do this if you want to share your soul.”

She fingered her wineglass. “Well,” she said after a moment, “if I didn’t trust you so perfectly, I might not be willing. But, yes, Jeremy. I would be happy. I would be grateful to be so depicted.”

Again, an awkward moment. She pulled the Kindle Fire she carried out of her purse.

“Pull your chair over here and sit beside me. Let’s see if we can find out what kind of habit a Buddhist nun in Basho’s day would wear.”

###

We had more trouble than we had imagined finding out about the dress of women ascetics in Basho’s day. What few paintings we found of early Buddhist renunciants did not depict them in any sort of distinctive garment; and, thankfully, Buddhists nuns from that era did not shave their heads like they do today. We thought to use robes worn by modern Buddhist sisters, but the orange (a color that in Asia indicates celibacy) did not suggest azalea. We took a break from the search. I showed her some of the pictures in my files and she noticed a print of Yuki-Onna, the snow witch from Japanese folklore. From the Edo period, it depicted her with pale skin, long black hair, and a white robe—very stylized, as portraits from that time were. Erina liked the snow witch’s white dress and loose hair and said it would be perfect for what we wanted to depict.

“Just don’t paint me that chubby like Yuki-Onna is in the painting,” she quipped. “I like this style and think it suggests azalea—the white represents . . .”

She didn’t finish. She meant, of course, purity.

I worked on the framing, finding photographs and illustrations of thatched roofs. We agreed that the nun in Basho’s poem was in a simple shelter, not a house, since he used the word “roof” rather than “house” or “hut.” Erina said she had always thought of the figure in the poem as seeking shelter from a rainstorm. I agreed. I said I would get the painting framed before she posed for it. I wanted it to be a large painting. I bought a six by eight-foot canvas and started to work.

The framing went quickly. I painted grass, grey sky, the lean-to, puddles of water, and, not too noticeably, an azalea bush. Erina had her tailor (yes, she had a tailor make her clothing) sew her a garment identical to the one in the print of Yuki-Onna. On a snowy day just after Christmas, she came to model.

The long white garment accentuated her beauty. She had let her hair grow and it fell over her shoulders. I had ordered a pair of straw sandals from Japan for her to wear. She got in costume. I began to paint her.

As she stood, I filled in the space quickly—one of those times when the brush flies, your hands seem to know what to do, and you are carried along by the creative wave. I filled in the interior of the hut, dark so it would contrast with her white garment. Her figure took shape. I got the shading on her white dress, painted in her sandaled feet, the arms, sleeves, and hands.

“I’m getting a little light-headed, Jeremy,” she said. “I’ve been standing up too long. Can we take a break?”

I helped her to the two-seat sofa I kept there (I had had models faint on me before) and went to the kitchen to get her a bottle of water. When I came back, she was looking over at the canvas. She stared and finally looked at me.

“It’s beautiful—that sounds clichéd, I know, but I don’t know how else I could say it.”

There is something erotic about making art. At that moment she was, to me, the most desirable woman on earth. I sat down beside her.

“Can you do the head and shoulders tomorrow?” she asked. “I need to go now.”

I told her that would be fine.

“I’m hosting a reception at my house. Lots of business types will be there. There will be all kinds of maneuvering. I’m not looking forward to it.”

She got up, walked over to the canvas, and stood there, caught in its power even though the most important part, her figure from the waist up, remained an empty space.

“Hands and feet,” she said. “How in the name of the Goddess of Compassion can you do that?”

“Hands are feet are the most difficult parts of the human body to draw.”

She turned and embraced me.

“I’ll come over Sunday afternoon.”

We kissed, and she left to help the catering company that was arranging the reception.

I touched up the painting and added detail. The quality of what I’d done surprised me. I had indeed done the hands and feet well. The figure’s fingers opened as if to grasp something, but did not open widely, as if she seems aware that what she would hold could not be grasped but only wondered at. The reflections in the puddles of water looked good. I had done the folds of her garment to suggest a breeze. The painting, I saw, was virtually done. I only needed to release what was left of it from my imagination and transfer it to the canvas.

###

When Erina came back to the studio, I surprised her with a bouquet of azaleas. We set them where she could focus on them while she stood for the painting. She changed into her costume. I began the final stage of the painting.

The eye is the lamp of the body. Someone—either Buddha or Jesus—said that. I had to get the eyes right. I had to depict a nun looking out in the aftermath of a rainstorm and, with the restraint and decorum she must maintain as a dedicated woman, revel in its beauty. At the same time (the challenging part) I had to put some of Erina into the portrait. I could not create a caricature using her as the model. I was painting a figure from a poem—a fiction in paint from a fiction in literature (though art is not a fiction, it is more real than concrete reality); and it was also a painting of her. She was the nun.

I worked furiously. Normally, the task of creating the two-fold portrayal would have been overwhelming and impossible, but my hands took over, my eyes went from Erina to the canvas, and imagination overwhelmed reason. I understood at such times why the ancients described creating art as the Muses possessing you with divine madness. I did not know how much time I spent—not a lot, because she stood quite still and did not need to break off the modeling session.

Then, in a flurry, I was finished.

I stood still, staring at the painting, suddenly exhausted. When Erina didn’t hear the slopping of my brush, she glanced over at me. After a moment she asked, her tone of voice suggesting she could not interpret my sudden inaction, “Jeremy, are you there?”

I looked up. “I am now,” I said. “I’m finished. Come and see.”

She went over to the table where she had put some things, got an elastic band out of her purse, and tied her hair in a ponytail. “I’d like to get dressed before I look at the painting.” She paused and then laughed. “I feel like I’m at the opening of an art gallery or the unveiling of a masterpiece and want to look good for the occasion. I’ll be right back.”

She went to the room I had given her as a changing room.

I waited. I always get anxious after I paint a picture, see things I think I did wrong, and want to start brushing in corrections. I learned the hard way this is not a thing you want to do, and I had ruined several perfectly good works of art doing it. You know when a work of art is finished. Then doubt arises and the urge to noodle with it arises. I resisted. After ten minutes or so, Erina returned. She had come from worship at the Buddhist Temple she attended and was dressed in a white outfit. She gave me a kiss, turned, and stood in front of the painting.

She stared. The art caught her with its power. After as long as two minutes (which is a long time when you’re simply standing and looking at something), she spoke.

“I’m a nun,” she said.

I looked at her. She regarded me a moment and then turned her eyes back to the picture.

“You captured my spirit, Jeremy. Now I can put it to rest.”

“What?” I asked—though I knew.

“My Mother’s wish—and all the pain that came from it. I never thought I would resolve that. This resolves it. You resolved it for me.”

“No,” I said. I’m cynical—too cynical—and don’t like to make sententious, dramatic utterances, but it came out of my mouth on its own. “Not me. If the resolution had not been in your soul, it would not be there on the canvas.”

She did not cry, but her look was a lament. It embodied the pain she knew—not the regret of disobedience, but the circumstance that made her leave home and sever ties with her mother. I put my arm around her. We stood in silence an even longer time. Finally, she looked at me, her lamentation spent.

“I’m hungry. Why don’t we go somewhere nice for an early supper?”

“Your choice.”

She looked at me. A little smile broke on her face.

“Maybe we can find some place that serves rice gruel and raw vegetables.”

###

The only way I altered the painting was to calligraph the Basho poem in the upper right corner.

It took me a long time to get up the courage to ask her if she would marry me.

“I was getting worried,” she said. “I’ve got a mind to say ‘no’ because you made me wait in torment for so long, damn it.”

I bought a ring and did the proper thing, kneeling on one knee, all that—yes, the cynic in my soul still taunts me about that one. We had a short engagement. A month before the wedding, Erina began to get cold feet—not about being a bride but about being a virgin bride.

“Shouldn’t we go ahead and do it?” she asked me one night. “I think we should.”

“Why?”

Her reply, worded decisively and spoken with a CEO’s pragmatism, nevertheless quavered with emotion and nervousness.

“Two reasons. First, you might not like me—I mean, how do you know I can satisfy you? I might be frigid. I might be sexually . . . uninteresting. Better we find out now. Second, it’s my wedding, and I want it to be special—not pain and blood. If we must have that, let’s have it now so when we get in bed on our wedding night, it will be a nice time. Let’s not take the chance of it being messy.”

“When do you see your doctor next?”

“Wednesday.”

“Why don’t we talk about it after you see her?”

Wednesday night we met for lunch in a restaurant not far from the MediTel Building. We found a booth away from the other diners.

“What did Doctor Kelsey say?” I asked.

“She said I won’t have any trouble. I asked if my membrane was thick. She told me I didn’t have one.”

I gave her a look.

“She told me some thirty percent of women are born without hymeneal tissue. I’m one of them. She said”—Erina sighed deeply—“I would maybe feel a little bit a pain, ’a little sting,’ as she put it, but not a lot. She told me I probably wouldn’t even bleed. And then—doctors don’t often talk about their personal lives, but we’re good friends, so she did—she told me she was just like me and for her the first time didn’t hurt and she didn’t bleed at all. I guess we’ll go ahead with it as planned.” We ate in silence for a few moments. “I’m scared,” she finally said.

“It will be sweet.”

And it was. None of her fears materialized. Our wedding and honeymoon unfolded like a storybook—as dreamlike as a wedding these days can be.

We put the painting, which I titled Azalea, in what she called her “private room”—sort of like what people in the old days called a parlor or sitting room, with soft chairs, a fireplace, and a bookshelf.

But neither of us liked having it in the house.

After a year, we put it up for sale. We wanted a museum to buy it. Sure enough, one of the Tate galleries in the UK purchased it for a very nice sum. It hangs there to this day.

Erina got pregnant, then got pregnant again. The sharks at her agency thought having two children would cause her to step down, but she combined being on site and working remotely as successfully as she had done everything else at MediTel. She turned some unused storage space into a nursery, brought our children there along with a nanny to care for them. She would go in and, their early days, nurse them and, as they got older, spend time with them during breaks at work. I could visit them as well. Her vice-presidents grumbled, as usual, but muted their dissatisfaction. She had more than doubled the company’s profits and had done so without the slash-and-burn strategies many CEOs adopt to accomplish this. She increased pay and benefits. She took a moderate salary (moderate, at least, by today’s standards of executive pay). She acquired two more companies and, using the same generous governance, made those two profitable as well. Naturally, other corporations tried to lure her away, but she liked MediTel and planned to stick there no matter what offers she received.

She could have found a cushy job for me within our corporate structure, but that was not her style and not mine either. I continued to work in graphics production. I did not quit my day job to paint full time; I didn’t become a house-husband and care for the children full time. I did what I did before. Erina did what she did before. Why change something that had worked so well in the past?

Once a year we fly to Japan to honor her mother’s ashes. On the way home, we go to London, to the Tate Modern, and stand before the portrait I did of her, titled Azalea.


For more on David W. Landrum, please see our Authors page.

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