I nestle with my daughter in her bed in the room painted pink nearly a dozen years ago; half the pink now covered with magazine clippings of this or that star, male and female. Her reading light spots a book in my hands.
She is the oldest of two daughters and on the verge of revision.
Outside boys kill one another over sharp lyrics. Girls slash strangers across the face. In Prospect Park the fireflies begin their mating flares while other insects settle into moist foliage. I love her so much—we loved her so much we weren’t sure we could love another child—yet we instantly adored the second daughter in that stunning postpartum fatigue.
Each was so large in the body I could barely recognize as my own; then each so small in our hands. Now this: the oldest leans against me to hear the first chapter of my favorite novel, written by a woman a thousand years ago.
My daughters are so awkwardly lovely that I am afraid to stare unless they are in sleep. When I do, I wonder, will they turn into a soft animal—will they run away?
She wants to hear The Tale of Genji. She wants me to sit beside her and read—maybe any book.
In the early pages Genji’s mother is compared to Yang Kwei-Fei. The more jealousy she stirs up, the more the Emperor draws her to him in a spiraling first chapter.
An evil spirit strangled her? she asks. That is so cool. And it is pretty cool.
It is cool to be so powerful. With the capacity to target. When I first read this in the Waley translation I was a sophomore at Iowa. I could not admit my own triangles—the roots so hidden from view—mother, father, and sister disguised as one or another lover. Each became this Genji.
I see the roots of her own: I don’t want to go to her birthday party tomorrow. I’ll be too jealous.
That what about me? is usually the younger one’s exclamation.
The younger one has rarely known a bedtime without a story about a small girl or talking animal—this one was then abandoned to read on her own. Outside we can hear the boats in the harbor blow foghorns back into the fog. I didn’t know the air had turned so damp. I want to be her tonight so someone can mother me.
I want hands on my face the way no husband or woman has ever held me; hold me so she nearly becomes me. Also becomes me—as in her countenance is becoming. And I am. Or am I as attractive as one or another lover has claimed—?
Genji is born, furthering the jealous undertow. After the mother dies the boy is passed from nurse to grandmother to a nurse closer to the father so the boy can be his memento. His search for the mother is a karmic pull.
What of the moments that draw the mother away from the infant to the man? When she wants to be a different person? A woman?—that’s not exactly right either. How to take on all parts and be whole?
Increasingly my daughter wants to draw away—the heart’s curfew brings her back.
A curfew that will protect—what? Detachment?
I’ve already chosen for her the Seidensticker translation, which I didn’t read at first, having been raised on Waley’s florid and more subjective prose. This, clear and clean. But also subjective, necessarily.
And what will she learn from my choice? From this narrative of longing and betrayal? This treatise on karma? That gender, and its cultural residue, is inherent in the dynamics? That the father does not and does control patriarchy? That I wait—choose those for whom I’ll wait, then, when he (since it is a he … ) returns, wait for him to turn in my direction, away from print or electronic news. Which never happens.
Do I mean for her to learn this equation so deeply in her tissue that it feels like anything else—drinking a cup of coffee, a shot of bourbon—
taking a sleeping pill at night—
There is a figure I think of when I think of Genji and he holds me as if there is no other. But many claim his heart by virtue of his promises, of the very tone.
Ah—my chest, my cage, my fear—
Who was Yang Kwei-Fei? she wishes to know. I read the footnote to get it right.
Do I fall for men not this girl’s father—as fuel? As a tonic for the waiting? As a way to ruin my life? Others? As a way to subvert some painful something?
And does she imagine a prince? Is it okay that he has sex with everyone? Should I say something about protection?
The men control availability—have the women wait on them. Make the women hate one another, compete.
It is so easy to abandon the self, as the lover becomes a constant daydream which life interrupts.
Once after an hour of fucking I did cry out his name to which he responded, You rarely say my name. I never do. It’s dangerous. It’s a rule. It’s a rule I’ve decided to break, I added.
Without a man in the house, with my attention mostly on girls, then what? They prepare to squirm out of the nymph phase?
We have not yet gotten to Genji’s first wife, Aoi, a slightly older woman and important political match—and his passion for a different woman. Or Yugen, Rokujo, Murasaki, Tamakazuro—
The sliver of moon was so thin it looked orange. And I wonder, how to grieve for the blackened part—that orange moon that is really mostly black?
If I at least take care of a part of her perhaps she will learn to see herself. And to see that a woman loves her so she can become a woman. And perhaps without too much damage—self-inflicted and otherwise.
What atrophied? What am I now retrieving come as if from a hamper—those Genji women waited in boxes of semi-darkness, complexions white as ghosts, for the men with lines of poetry, sprays of cherries—
The summer heat rises this spring from park lawn and sewer. I wish I could return to the winter when my breath, white as a ghost, betrayed my desire for him as he held me. The air that froze that evening in the parking lot.
Do I depend on men for growth? Women for strength and clarity? Is that so bad? Is the sentence exile or death?
Yugen didn’t stand a chance—birthing a girl child with Genji’s best friend then, after allying herself with Genji, death by evil spirit.
Where is jealousy in my own strategies—common as an exotic house plant?
I love who I am in that dark room lit with twilight—like Genji. But why? Why now?
I love a black bra and transparent blouse: I am at once that little girl lifting her dress to display lace panties, and a woman who bathes in the erotic light of a darkened room. Lure and allure.
The red lipstick.
The husband claims, girls are so transparent. The soon former-husband. I imagine the girls sense this erosion.
Do I teach her that my task in marriage is to make him happy—and to be refused? But of course not. That is my mistake.
That lipstick reminds me of my mother telling me to open my mouth very wide so she can apply the red evenly and I can look beautiful, too.
She and her sister do not realize how deeply unhappy I am. But not with them.
But my body that I was determined to love against all odds, my body, mine—that would not belong to me, somehow, until my 40th birthday, when I bid my youth farewell. A body I kept.
As her body, my daughter’s, begins to swell with hormonal infusions—delighted and sacred. And mine?
sacred not scared—
The younger daughter sits on my bed as I read one early evening after mac-and-cheese. I put the collection of poems aside and we look up at the wall where I’ve hung prints depicting different Genji chapters. That one, I point to the second, is when Genji is courting his best friend’s former lover. He loves her. But another of his lovers—an older and married woman—is extremely jealous. She sends her spirit out to kill this younger one. That is the scene where she is murdered. It seems almost believable.
I love those pictures, she says. Sometimes I lie on your bed and stare at each one.
A number of women with boys tell me how glad they are they don’t have daughters. How stupid. How pathetic.
She seems hungry for me to read to her—should I switch out of the abridged?