Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

[Fiction]  The Garden for Taking Pleasure Later

When I was a young girl, and we still lived in Japan, I would press my face up against the place where the daddy longlegs spun their webs between our balcony’s sliding glass doors. And I would think to myself about how those spiders were named in English after my daddy, my American daddy, not anyone else’s. I liked the way the daddy longlegs seemed to live in suspension, how they stepped gingerly with their long, thin legs as delicate as the webs beneath them. Those sliding glass doors remain among my strongest memories of Japan: the glare of sun against metal siding, the swoop of electrical wires, the towels and socks that our neighbors hung to dry from their balconies, patterned with characters like Anpanman and Ultraman.


“Daddy longlegs,” I would say back then as I looked up at my father, more for my own pleasure than as a form of address. He’d swing me up onto his shoulders and carry me sailing high above the Tokyo crowds. “Cloud,” I would say. “Crowd.” All English words carried a mythical quality to me, with clouds and crowds entangled in my mind. I imagined my daddy’s country as a place where those words sounded similar for a reason, a country where spiders were named after fathers.


When I was four, my family moved back to California. My father returned to practicing law, but he would still give a lecture on Japanese tea every year at the Cherry Blossom Festival in our local Japanese garden. The garden’s name was “Korakuen,” or “The Garden for Taking Pleasure Later.”




If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought that Korakuen was a perfect replica—that it was in Japan, not California. There was the mottled koi pond, and the strangled bonsai, and the maples cast their dappled shadows. The pebbles were raked in mathematical formations, revealing not one human step. But if you listened, you’d miss the hum of the cicadas, and if your body were there in the flesh, you would miss the humidity in the air.


The practice of tea asks you to submit to the changing seasons, but the tea demonstration room that spring, when I was 19, was at capacity, and everyone just looked sweaty. Harsh California light fell in through the slabs of its walls, illuminating some faces and not others. When my father bowed before the tea bowl, his head dipped into one of the dark spaces, and when he was upright, his white-blonde hair glowed like a nimbus in a medieval painting. He was the tallest man in the room. He wore a dark blue kimono, his long legs folded under him.


When the ceremony ended, we all shaded our eyes and squinted back out into the sunlight, out to where the vendors sat along a dusty garden path.


“Aren’t you a pretty girl?” an old woman said as I passed her stall. She spoke to me in Japanese. She sat on a folding chair beneath a low canopy with ceramics spread out on a tarp all around her. There was a bowl for flower viewing, where the heads of flowers, their stems cut off, floated on the surface of shallow water. There were jugs with mouths of many different shapes, mimicking different human expressions.


I could tell the woman was testing my ability to speak Japanese.


“No, no, not at all,” I said. In Japanese, that was the polite thing to say. Still, I’d never felt pretty. I hated the long nose I’d inherited from my father’s side of the family, how foreign it looked on my round moon face. The only part of me that I liked was my straight, sleek hair. Even though I was in college, and I knew I ought to look more grown up, I still wore it as I had in high school, draped over half my face like a veil, with my eyes just peeking through. I hurried away from the stall before the old woman could answer. I didn’t want her to detect the imperfections in my Japanese.




My extended American family came out for the festival every year, including my Japanese aunt who wasn’t related to me by blood but married to my American uncle. We always had a picnic in the grass after the tea ceremony. We ate bento and yakitori.


“Yes,” said my Japanese aunt in English. “I saw the poster, and she is wearing her kimono backward!”


She explained, “That is the funeral way.”


My aunt was unusual for a Japanese woman. She had a pixie cut and wore no makeup. She ate standing up, jumping back and forth from foot to foot.


She was talking about Memoirs of a Geisha. Part of the movie had been filmed at Korakuen, right by where we sat, the scene where the geisha makes her springtime debut. The geisha shuffles down into the garden while filmed from behind, the back of her neck exposed over the fold of her kimono’s collar. She is the only person not wearing Western clothing. The men wear top hats, and the women wear hats with wide brims and feathers, like in My Fair Lady. Male peacocks poke about the grass. “Today, even the cherry blossoms are envious of her,” the Chairman says. The geisha holds out her hands to catch the petals that flutter around her. The Chairman plucks a small pink petal from the geisha’s hair. Her bun is stiff as polished wood.


I knew for a fact that the scene had been filmed in the summertime, not the spring, based on a call I found on the Internet: “Seeking extras of Asian appearance.” But anyone could see that the movie’s blossoms were artificial. I imagined the tech crew stripping the thick summer leaves off the cherry tree’s branches and gluing on pink fabric petals, one by one.


“Yes,” said my mother. “The movie is wrong. In Japan, you don’t wear your hair down with a kimono. That would make you look too promiscuous.”


My aunt said, “He is a white man. What does he know.”


I looked over at my father. He was dressed in normal clothes again, jeans and a t-shirt. He gazed off at a little Japanese boy, about two or three years old. The boy twirled around, swinging a fallen branch. The petals flew off into the still air like bubbles from a wand, and the boy shrieked with delight.


After a moment, my father looked up at my aunt and spoke in Japanese. Only she, my mother, and I could understand what he was saying. He said that geisha were part of a long cultural tradition. They were not prostitutes. He said it in his accented, but otherwise convincing, intonation, the guttural, male way of speaking Japanese.


I could tell he was angry because his fingers kept tensing and releasing around his unopened can of beer. I imagined his fingers themselves thinking of something more to say and then releasing their anger. Open, shut. It was a habit of his: As he drove, he would often let go of the steering wheel with his fingers and just steer with his palms. Our car would swerve back and forth along the winding cliffs, and I’d imagine us careening over the edge and into the Pacific.


“Oh, you think so?” said my aunt in English. Her voice, too, was angry.


My mother tried to change the subject. “I would like her to have her picture taken on seijin-no-hi,” she said. She was talking about me. The next year, I would turn twenty, an important age in Japan. On seijin-no-hi, twenty-year-old girls dress up in expensive kimonos with white fur stoles and get their pictures taken. It’s the age when you’re supposed to be at the height of your beauty.


“Oh, how lovely,” said my American aunt.


“She’d look ridiculous. She wouldn’t know how to walk in it.”


That was my father. He said it in English.


“Stop it,” scolded my Japanese aunt.


My uncle, my father’s brother, jumped in. “Hey,” he said, “If you can be a white tea master, she can be a Japanese debutante.”


I pretended to laugh with everyone else, but the thought stayed with me. I hadn’t worn a kimono since I’d outgrown the child-sized one we’d brought back from Japan.


In high school, I once watched the author of Memoirs of a Geisha give an interview on a late-night talk show. He described how he’d learned to inhabit the perspective of a geisha by putting on the makeup himself. With an ironic smile, he described how he rubbed wax all over his face, neck, and chest. He brushed on white face powder from a pot in several layers. He dabbed all over the powder with a damp sponge. He left some bare skin around the sides, so it would look like a perfect mask. He painted on eyebrows in two broad, black strokes. He painted on his dark red-rimmed eyes and dark red lacquered lips.


The audience laughed and hollered as he relayed all this. The talk show host leaned back in his chair and folded his arms and made faces that said, “Heh-heh,” and “Did you really?” Then the band came in, with cymbals and trombones and moonflower lighting before the commercial break.


Since I was a child, I had felt a deep, underlying sense of loss, one that I thought could be purified by a beauty inaccessible to me as a multiethnic person. I knew I was considered unique and sometimes even pretty, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw nothing but the fracturing of incongruous parts. By the time I became a teenager, those feelings had warped into anorexia and a body dysmorphia that almost made me suicidal. “If I were dead,” I thought at that moment in the garden, “I wouldn’t have to know how to walk.” I knew the thought was ridiculous, but the desire to die would just come to me from time to time like that, as easily as if I were remembering something insignificant, like a hairpin sliding against my scalp.




When I was five, the year after we moved to America, my father took me on a day trip one weekend to see the ocean. We walked along the beach, hand in hand, mirroring the arched rocks in the distance. The salt air stung my cheeks. He took off his shoes and socks, even though the sand was rocky and littered with seaweed, cigarette stubs, and bits of broken glass.


“Look, you can see Japan from here,” he said.


“Where?” I said.


He pointed past the arches and at the white horizon line. “There.”


“I can’t see it.”


“Look,” he said. He lifted his glasses and squinted harder. “You can see Tokyo Tower. It’s that little, red dot.”


“Daddy, I can’t see it,” I said.


“Right there.”


“I can’t see it. Where?”


“Right there.”




“You can’t see it? It’s right there.”


“No! Where!”


Then I knew he was making fun of me. I wrenched my hand from his. I stomped on his bare foot as hard as I could with my little sneakered one.


“Ouch,” he said.


I ran. The beach was narrow and twisting, bound by sandstone cliffs with pastel houses perched over the edge. The sand made it hard for me to get away, but I soon made it out of eyesight, to a cove tucked behind a cliff. Ice plants grew over the dunes there, their fleshy leaves like fat, green fingers. I snapped one off and watched the liquid inside bead to the surface. The liquid made my own fingers sticky.


I hid for maybe a few minutes before I started to become afraid. I went back to where we had been looking out over the waves.


He wasn’t there.


I ran to look for him around the other bend in the cliff.


He wasn’t there either.


I thought he might be in the parking lot. It was up a tall and narrow flight of stairs cut into the rock. The steps were big and concrete and dusted with sand. I scrambled up them with the help of my hands, the sand pressing into my palms.


When I got to the top, there was my father, sitting sideways in the driver’s seat, with the car door open and his legs sprawled out before him. He still wasn’t wearing shoes. He smoked a cigarette and gazed across the water.


“You’re the only one who really understands me,” he said.


I said nothing.


I was five. I didn’t know what he meant, but I must have known those words were important because I saved them away for later.


When I was in high school, I went through his desk one time and found among his legal papers a miniature tape recorder, the kind with a baby cassette inside, and on it, he was apologizing for something. I was too embarrassed to listen any further, so I still don’t know for what.




In the garden that day, I heard him say it one more time.


“I’m sorry,” he said.


He looked straight at me. For an instant, our eyes snapped into symmetry.


In the movie, the geisha is driven to the garden in a black sedan. The director films her face from outside the window as she watches the scenery pass. Ornamental cherry blossoms dangle from her hair. The blossoms and her combs with their twinkling bits of silver shiver with every little motion. Bamboo flashes over her face in the glass. When her eyes look left, we can tell that the actress wears blue contacts. Her irises don’t move at the right time. We watch the actress get out of the car. She walks down the path. Her hands are like a doll’s, fitted perfectly around the parasol’s handle. She takes tiny, measured steps.


“Really,” he said. “You’ll be beautiful.”


My father had never said anything like that to me before.


I couldn’t understand it. So, I turned and walked away. I wandered off back to the fair. It was almost closing time, and most of the stands were being dismantled. Workers heaved down the latticework trellises and tied up the posts. They fit the leftover beers back into their boxes. The old woman with the ceramics was gone. Only a few stands were still open, the last ones at the end of the path.


There, a little girl, about three or four years old, held a fishing pole with a paper clip tied to the end. She waved it over a kiddie pool in which plastic sea animals were bobbing. She caught one of them and stood silent at first, stunned that she had been able to do it. Above her, real goldfish with long, spiraling tails dangled in clear plastic bags.


After a pause, she pointed up at the goldfish she knew that she wanted. Her father pointed, too. Someone unclipped it and handed it to the girl. The plastic bag sloshed and jiggled like magic in her cupped palms. It was a beautiful thing ready to perish, a dream in its own private ocean.


Erica Kanesaka Kalnay holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She publishes short stories, essays, and hybrid pieces. You can learn more about her work at

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