From A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance, edited by Belinda McKeon, published this week by the Irish independent publisher Tramp Press. Yoko's is one of 17 stories by authors from around the world.
Translated by Stephen Snyder
Fourteen tourists had signed up for “Six Days in Glorious Vienna: Open Plan,” and since Kotoko and I were the only singles in the group, it was inevitable that we ended up rooming together at the hotel. Kotoko turned out to be a plump woman in her sixties who had been widowed some years earlier.
On our first night in Vienna, she kneeled politely on the bed and bowed.
“I’m afraid I snore,” she said. “I hope it won’t bother you.” And with that she climbed under the covers.
I’d thought women her age were chatty, but not Kotoko. When the rest of us had gathered at the airport or in the lobby of the hotel, talking excitedly about the trip, she had stood a bit apart, looking uncomfortable. She clutched the strap of a brown vinyl shoulder bag that was stuffed to the gills and eyed us uneasily, as though she’d wandered into our midst by mistake. Other than the fact that it was the first trip abroad for both of us, we seemed to have nothing in common.
Still, it didn’t matter much. Since the tour was self-guided, and we would be on our own for the next six days, there was no need for us to get better acquainted, even if we were to be roommates. I hadn’t come to Vienna to hear her go on about her grandchildren or badmouth her daughter-in-law; nor did I want her prying into my private life. I had been saving everything I’d earned at my tutoring job to celebrate my twentieth birthday with this trip.
As she had knelt there on the bed, Kotoko had looked a bit like a decorative object. Her face was round with folds of fat at the chin; her breasts hung down on her round belly. Generous layers of fat covered every part of her—eyelids, ears, shoulders, back, knees, fingers—each tracing its own distinctive curve, and there, next to the bed, lay the swollen bag, as if mimicking the shape of her body.
It was true that she snored, but so quietly that I was able to fall asleep almost immediately.
Kotoko knelt on the bed again the next morning as I was getting ready to go out. She seemed to be hesitating about something as she would take a map from her bag, sigh a bit, and then put on the cardigan she’d just taken off.
“Excuse me,” she murmured without looking up. “Would you mind writing the name of the hotel?” she said, holding out the palm of her hand. “I’m afraid of getting lost and not being able to find my way back. I know it sounds silly, but I can’t read foreign words.” The springs of the mattress groaned as the bow made her round body even rounder.
“It’s written right here,” I said, but she stopped me as I reached for the phone pad and held her hand up again.
“But I might lose the paper. If you write it here, I’m sure to have it.”
Her hand, too, was layered with fat, and the feeling as the tip of the pen buried itself in her palm was somehow satisfying. On it I wrote “König von Ungarn” with a permanent marker. I had to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure how to pronounce the complicated foreign name myself.
Kotoko studied her palm for a moment, tracing the pen marks with her finger, but then she began to squirm again, as though some new source of anxiety had occurred to her. She looked up and met my gaze, and then quickly looked down again. She seemed to be at considerable pains to let me know that she had something else to ask me but was finding it difficult to do so.
“Where are you going today?”
It was a simple question, and I asked it without thinking and without any real interest in the answer, but it proved to be the start of all my troubles.
Kotoko had come to Vienna with a single purpose: to visit an old lover who was hovering near death in the hospital wing of nursing home in the suburbs. The announcement startled me, since I had never imagined she would be uttering a phrase like “old lover.”
I had originally intended to go with her as far as the streetcar terminal at Schottentor Station. She had explained that to get to the nursing home she would need to take the No. 38 streetcar from Schottentor to a stop called Grin-something or other.
“That’s the No. 38 over there,” I told her. “See, it’s written in big numbers on the side. You take it and stay on to your stop—as simple as that.”
“Ahh. . . ,” she murmured, seeming reluctant to let go of my arm, which was raised in the direction of the trolley. The vinyl of her handbag and the skin of her chest pressed against me.
“But what if I don’t get off when I’m supposed to? I imagine the names of the stops will be written in alphabet letters, too. Of course they will, we’re in Austria. I know I’m being such a baby. But how am I going to ask for directions to the nursing home? The truth is I have a weak heart and even standing here in a crowd like this is making it flutter. . . . But no, please don’t worry about me. It happens all the time, so I’m used to it. But you see, I’ve brought along money for your trolley fare, too. This should be enough for the round trip, and I’d be happy for you to keep whatever’s left over.”
Kotoko forced a waded bill into my pocket. I took it out and found the image of Sigmund Freud, so wrinkled as to be barely recognizable, staring back from a fifty-schilling note. I did a quick—though pointless—calculation and realized that the sum would, indeed, be enough for the fare.
As we stood there, she clung closer and closer to me, and the No. 38 tram appeared ready to depart.
“We don’t want to miss it,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Half amazed and half resigned, I climbed aboard with Kotoko. What was so wrong about spending a little of my time in Vienna with a widow with a bad heart who couldn’t read the alphabet? Besides, I was sure I’d feel better helping her than leaving her to fend for herself. Or so I told myself as we sat on the streetcar.
Kotoko’s expression was radiant now, but she clung resolutely to my arm, refusing to relax her vigilance. From time to time, she would reach into her bag and produce chewing gum or chocolate or rice crackers and offer them to me. Also, a bottle of water when we were thirsty, a comb when the wind blew, throat spray when I coughed. Tools to curry my favor appeared one after the other from her bag. But as they did, I found myself silently planning my afternoon—a visit to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a picture in front of the statue of Mozart, followed by a piece of Sachertorte at a café.
The story that Kotoko told en route of her long-ago love affair was a fairly simple one. Forty-five years previously, when she was nineteen, she had worked at a factory that produced ham, and when thirty-four-year-old Johan had come from Vienna to serve as technical manager, they had immediately fallen in love. As she put it, his pupils were like caramel candies, his golden hair like the softest dandelion fluff—and when, after ten months, Johan’s time in Japan came to an end and he was headed home, he had promised to come back for her.
“But he never did,” I said.
“How did you know?” said Kotoko, he eyes wide with surprise.
“I suppose because it’s a common enough story. And no doubt he had a wife back in Vienna.”
“You’re young, but not much gets by you. How lucky for me to be rooming with someone so clever.” Kotoko nodded to herself and started rooting around in her bag again. I smiled, taking a bite of the chocolate bar she had given me. There was no trace of bitterness in her manner, despite the ancient betrayal.
“His wife died years ago and he’s been in the nursing home for some time. But it appears he doesn’t have much longer. He made a list of people he wanted contacted when the end was near, and my name was on it, along with the address of the ham factory. Mine was the very last name, apparently. They said they contacted me early since Japan is so far away.”.
The tram stop was Grinzing, which was easy enough to find, but the route to the nursing home was long and complicated. Kotoko would never have found her way alone. We passed through a residential district, walked by a museum dedicated to Beethoven, and along a path by a stream. The building we were seeking appeared suddenly as we came to the entrance to a forest.
Tall, narrow windows were arranged on the plain, imposing façade at regular intervals. The carefully tended garden on the far side of the wrought iron gate merged into the forest beyond. Birds chirped in the trees.
For a woman who was about to meet her lover for the first time in forty-five years, Kotoko seemed surprisingly calm. In fact, as we approached the nursing home, her grip on my arm finally began to loosen and she fell back a step, hiding behind me as if to suggest she was just keeping me company.
“Here we are,” I said. Kotoko contented herself with a noncommittal sigh.
A receptionist led us along a winding corridor to a spacious ward facing an inner courtyard. Metal beds lined the walls in two neat rows, with stools for the visitors. I counted sixteen beds, each occupied by an elderly patient.
Though I had no experience with this sort of thing, I could see right away that the ward was reserved for those who were not long for this world. There was no life in their faces, and they were so emaciated that their bones were visible under the blankets. Most lay with their eyes closed, either sleeping or unconscious, and the few open eyes were little more than hollow cavities. There were several other visitors in the ward, but no one said a word. The only sounds were an occasional groan or hiccup or rattling of a throat.
I looked around the room. The patients were nearly indistinguishable to me. The subtle differences in hairstyle, the shape of an ear or thickness of the lips were swallowed up in the shadow of death. They were all cloaked in a shroud of old age that concealed their former appearance.
Kotoko went down one row and I the other, checking the name tag tied to the foot of each bed.
Kotoko let out a quiet exclamation when she found Johan. He was in the fifth bed in the row on the south side of the ward, resting quietly like the other patients. His blond hair had been reduced to thin fuzz, leaving a scalp crusted with scabs. The eyes that had looked like caramels were hidden now under wrinkled lids.
We sat down on the stools and watched over him for a while. His blanket and pillow were clean and the floor around the bed was spotless. Sunlight shone through the window, illuminating every corner of the ward, and a light breeze blew from time to time. The poppies and daisies and violets in the beds outside looked fresh and alive, and bees flew among the petals gathering nectar. A resident of the nursing home walked slowly across the courtyard leaning on a cane.
“Why don’t you try talking to him?” I said.
“But . . . .” Kotoko hesitated, fiddling with the strap on her bag. “It would be a shame to wake him.”
“I doubt he’d be angry. It’s the first time you’ve seen each other in forty-five years. He may just be resting.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She cleared her throat a couple of times and then murmured his name. “Johan.”
There was no response.
“You have to be louder than that,” I told her. “He’s an old man.”
“I know. I’ll try again.”
This time her voice was a bit more assertive, but it did nothing to disturb his deep sleep.
“Why don’t you try kissing him?”
“I couldn’t possibly!” she said, flinching.
“He’s Austrian,” I told her. “That’s how they greet each other. Besides, you must have kissed him when he was your boyfriend.”
“Well, I suppose, but that was a long time ago . . . .” Her eyes never left her lap.
“If you don’t let him know you’re here, what’s the point of having spent the money to come all this way?”
“I know, but . . . .”
Perhaps because the bed was made for tall Europeans, Kotoko was forced to stand on the tips of her toes in order to reach Johan. Bracing her left hand on the pillow and her right close to his head, she stretched even further over the bed. Her breasts pressed into the railing, her calves trembled, but still she seemed uncertain. For his part, Johan remained oblivious to what was about to occur.
Finally making up her mind, she put her lips against his cheek—and though her posture was too painfully awkward to conjure up a long-lost romance, a kiss was, indeed, a kiss. A trace of her lipstick was visible on Johan’s sunken cheek as proof.
She took a damp tissue out of her bag and wiped away the lipstick and then found another and cleaned his mouth and around his eyes. Then for the longest time, she sat next to him, folding and unfolding the tissue, as if reluctant to throw it away.
At noon, she treated me to lunch at the nursing home cafeteria, no doubt feeling that the change from the tram ticket was insufficient compensation.
“Now that I’ve found Johan at last, I’m starved,” she said. She ate a piece of boiled beef with a large portion of mashed potatoes, and, still not satisfied, had two helpings of ice cream for dessert.
“Why do you suppose he put your name on the list?” I asked her. “After all, he hadn’t heard from you in forty-five years.”
“Maybe he came across some old document with the address of the ham factory when he was packing and getting ready to move to the nursing home,” Kotoko answered, seeming strangely calm.
“Do you think he wants to ask for forgiveness?”
“I suppose he would have felt rather guilty.”
“After he left, did you go on waiting for him to come back for a long time?”
“For years,” she said. “When no word came, I told myself all sorts of stories—his parents had locked him in the tower of their castle to keep him from me or he’d been in an automobile accident and had amnesia—but they were just stories.”
“You should have come to Vienna back then and forced the issue.”
“I could never have done something like that. Instead, I just stuffed myself with the new ham he’d taught us to make. But it never sold well and we stopped producing it soon afterward.” She ladled the melted ice cream from the bottom of the bowl and slurped it noisily from the spoon.
“He wasn’t like that when I knew him,” she said, staring into the empty bowl.
“Of course not,” I said.
“He was stylish, very elegant, but with powerful arms—bigger than our hams—that could sweep me up as though I was light as a feather.”
The cafeteria was empty, perhaps because it was getting late. The tables were covered with white tablecloths and each one had a small vase with a single flower—apparently picked from the flowerbeds in the garden. Some of the residents were playing chess in the sunroom that connected to the cafeteria on the south side.
“In any case,” she said, “I was happy just knowing that someone in a far-off place might be thinking about me, if only for a moment. That thought was a comfort on sleepless nights. I would picture that distant land and fall peacefully to sleep.”
She pressed her napkin to her mouth. Her lipstick was gone now.
“Here,” she said, sliding her hand across the table. “Tomorrow’s tram fare.” Another fifty-schilling note with a wrinkled picture of Freud.
In the end, I went with Kotoko to the nursing home the next day and the day after that. I never visited the Kunsthistorishches Museum or toured the Schönbrunn Palace or rode the little train in the Prater Park. I went nowhere at all but the nursing home. And all the while, Johan’s condition seemed to deteriorate. But Kotoko sat quietly on the stool by his bed, slowly blending into the atmosphere of the sick room—as though she had been there all along.
Every so often I would go out to get some fresh air in the garden. Walking along in front of the terrace, I would look at the flowerbeds and then sit for a moment on the edge of the fountain. Sometimes I would even venture into the woods and linger for a long while, fascinated by the sunlight filtering through the trees. No one ever stopped to speak to me on these outings, and the elderly residents kept their eyes on the ground ahead of them as they walked. When I got back to the ward, Kotoko was where I had left her, with no sign that she had moved a muscle.
Every half hour or so, she would tap me on the shoulder. “Is he still breathing?”
In response, I would put my cheek close to his mouth to feel the faint puff of breath and listen for the quiet gurgling deep in his throat.
“Yes, still breathing,” I would tell her, but she continued to study him with a dubious look on her face. She could easily have allayed her fears by checking for herself, but she apparently lacked the courage to do so, and a few minutes later the tap on my shoulder would come again.
Each time he made a sound—a burp or a cough or some other indeterminate noise—or when his eyes seemed to move about under the lids, we would startle and lean forward over the bed. Then it was necessary to check whether he was breathing all over again. And at some point in all this, it occurred to me that we were actually waiting for him to die.
When his hand pushed out from under the blanket, Kotoko would ever so warily take hold of his fingers. She would stroke his hair or straighten the collar of his pajamas or moisten his lips with a piece of damp gauze. But she did all this with the greatest reticence, as though to announce by her manner that she had no right to do so and would instantly retire when some more appropriate person appeared to care for him.
Johan breathed his last on the afternoon of the day before we were due to leave Vienna. I have no idea what became of the other people who had been on his list, but the fact was that Kotoko and I were the only ones there at the end.
No doubt because the staff was so accustomed to the work, everything happened with amazing speed and efficiency. Once the doctor had confirmed that there was no pulse, each player performed his part seamlessly. We stood aside and watched as they cleaned the body and then took it away to the chapel. Then a different attendant put clean sheets on the bed.
Several of the residents came to offer their condolences. They were warm and kind. Some of them wept as they praised the deceased and urged us to be brave. They embraced us, Kotoko first and then me. Though we were unable to understand a single word they said, their sympathy was abundantly clear.
As I stood enfolded by those old arms, feeling old hands on my back, the sadness slowly began to spread through me as well. Though I had no connection to the dead man and had never exchanged a single word with him, I could sense the pain that all those present were feeling. It bathed me like the waters from a chilly spring.
I took Kotoko’s hand. The name of our hotel that I had written on her palm had faded and would soon vanish altogether.
When everything in the ward had been cleared away, the only remaining trace of Johan was the plate with his name attached to the foot of the bed. The new sheets were smooth, and any lingering body heat in the mattress had dissipated. A fresh, carefully fluffed pillow had replaced the old one.
The nameplate swung gently back and forth, though the air was still. I took hold of it—a simple label encased in plastic.
Joshua it read.
“Joshua,” I said aloud. “That wasn’t Johan, Kotoko. That was Joshua.”
Kotoko’s mouth fell open and she blinked several times. She took the nametag from me and turned it over in her hands, rubbed it with her fingers. But that didn’t change the fact that Johan was Joshua.
“But what are we going to do?” she said, breathing a quiet sigh.
“There’s no need to do anything,” I said.
“And to think I even kissed him . . . .”
“Don’t give it another thought. You did exactly the right thing.”
“But . . . .”
“Everyone needs someone to be with him at the end, no matter what his name is. You were simply being that someone.”
I glanced at the nametag on the neighboring bed.
There he was—as feeble as Joshua had been, with very little to distinguish them. Except that he was still alive. He was sleeping, the pupils like caramels concealed beneath nearly transparent eyelids. We stood looking back and forth between the real Johan and the empty bed, and then we pressed our palms together and said a prayer for Joshua who was now so very far away.