The Princesses of Japantown by Aja Gabel

BOMB 126 Winter 2014
Bomb 126 Nobarcode

The winter after our father and Kenny died, my sister decided she was going to be the Cherry Blossom Queen of Japantown. Every April since we were little, our parents would wake us at dawn on parade day. We would dress up as if we were going to temple—Judith and I in jewel tones and velvet and maybe even bracelets, and Kenny in plastic samurai gear. On the last parade day, we pre-packed a rolling cooler full of soda and Spam sandwiches, but we wouldn’t eat breakfast. We would be too excited to eat, and Kenny would tell stories about what he dreamt was going to happen—a giant mochi ball tumbling down Post Street, a wayward float—or what he believed really would happen. My mother would bring too many spare jackets and vow no green tea ice cream until after noon. She never kept that vow.

We parked the car high on Fillmore, and little Kenny rolled the cooler up and down the cement hills ahead of us. Judith complained about walking so far in her low heels and I, the middle of the three, stayed back with our parents. My mother walked slowly, saying, “In Japan, there is no rush.” Judith would spit back, “Right, Tokyo, so slow.” When I was very little, my father would hold my hand for however long I wanted, because sometimes I would cry at the steepness of the hills. Kenny, ahead, disappeared in and out of the thick fog. April, the beginning of the cold spring mornings. We only knew where he was by the scraping sound of the cooler wheels on the sidewalk.
       It seemed like the Cherry Blossom Festival took over the whole city, but really it was all the Japanese people in San Francisco crammed into a few measly blocks. The parade was, without fail, thrilling. There was a parade chairman—a rich businessman in Japantown—and a celebrity guest, always an actor my father would insist was “big in Japan.” He would make air quotes with his fingers and laugh, even though none of us ever did. Kenny posed for pictures with the chairman and the scary dragon while my mother looked on from the curb, proud. Proud was my mother’s best and most common mode. Judith and I picked the eel out of our sushi and waited for the float carrying the Queen and her court. When they passed, we waved back at their silk-gloved hands and took note of the way they twisted their shiny black hair into knots that we could later try, when we could wash the smoke from the teriyaki stands out of our hair. And then the Taiko Dojo, thrumming through the afternoon, Kenny imitating their stance and their yells, and air-drumming along with them.
       But what I remember the most is the walk from the car to the parade site. Pretty Judith just learning to sashay, my mother’s narrow stride, Kenny in his hachimaki headband, leaving in the fog, returning into sight, and again, leaving, returning. We were slow, walking our own parade in the early morning fog, chilled to the bone, magical thinking our way to warmth.

Kenny and Dad died around Halloween and in December it rained for 19 straight days, some kind of terrible record. We didn’t get a Christmas tree, partly because we were going to the Kagayashis’ for Christmas, and partly because without our father to cut one down at the tree farm in Marin and load it in the truck, we didn’t know how to get one. The Kagayashis said nothing to us about Kenny or our father, not wanting to be impolite hosts. My mother drank one half glass of pink wine, the ham was dry and tough, and we went home early. The three of us watched a reality show on low volume in the dark, so that our mother might fall asleep on the couch. The show was about competing Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, seeing which could survive on an island longer. Judith stretched her long legs out on the coffee table. She was the tallest in our family, even before Kenny and our father died.
       During the commercial break she said, “I’m going to try out for Cherry Blossom Queen.”
       My mother, not yet asleep, sat up. I muted the television. Even in the dark, I could sense the flush in my mother’s cheeks.
       “I think I have a good shot,” Judith said.
       My mother rubbed her eyes. “I don’t think this is the year.”
       “But they come with scholarships,” I said. Judith’s frankness, her confidence, seemed like the first forward action we’d made since the funeral in November. Even then, all the decisions were laid out before us. At the funeral home, six different urns to choose from. At the temple, three possible Amida chants for the service. The one unique decision, where to spread the ashes, was mystifying. Every day we stared at the ugly copper urns above the television, one big, one small, both homeless.
       “Mary Beth’s right, Mom,” said Judith. “I need scholarships, you know.”
       “Oh really?” my mother said. “And are you going back to university? I thought you were going to junior college in the fall. I thought chemistry lab was too hard for you.”
       Judith bristled. From our mother she inherited stubbornness, if nothing else.
       “Well, maybe if you let me be Queen, it wouldn’t be so hard.”
       My mother got up and went to the kitchen, where she scavenged some leftover rice, poured soy sauce and pickled daikon all over it, and sat at the table while she silently spooned it into her mouth. She never cooked anymore. She rarely did much of anything around the house. We always ate leftovers from the store and once, when the floors and window blinds were gray with dirt, I got on my hands and knees and scrubbed them.
       Judith and I went to our bedroom where Judith flung open the closet doors. Though we shared a closet, she filled it mostly with her own dresses, allotting a space in the corner for my school uniforms and sneakers. She said that since she was four years older, she needed more space for her grown-up clothes and I agreed. My father had told me my kindness was my virtue, as if he was trying to turn something ugly into something pretty. He’d put his hands on my shoulders when he said it, after I had rubbed Kenny’s back on the street when he threw up too much yakatori one afternoon.
       Judith tried on dress after dress, which I vetoed for various reasons. Cherry Blossom Queens did not wear short dresses or black dresses, nothing too flashy or low-cut—this wasn’t Miss America.
       “I’m thinking geisha on her day off,” said Judith, coming out in a loose, black cotton dress with red lipstick smeared across her lips.
       “Absolutely no,” I said, squinting, horrified.
       “Geisha on her country vacation?” she said, having put on a checkered yellow and black summer dress and a straw hat.
       “Too young,” I said. “You need to look mature.”
       “But I like it,” Judith said. “I think you’re wrong.”
       “I’m usually not wrong,” I said, and she looked down at her wrinkled dress, and went to change.
       “Geisha casual?” She was wearing an old short kimono she used as a robe sometimes, knotted at her waist, with bright pink heels.
       “More like geisha too tired to tie kimono strings,” I said. “You gotta take this seriously, Judith.”
       “I’m over it.” She drooped a little.
       “I’ll coach you,” I said, moving closer to her, adjusting her shoulders, yanking her straps up. It was the perfect job for me. I was an A student and “whip-smart” (said my teachers), but never jealous.
I could mold Judith into the ideal daughter of Japantown, the sister of successful young women across the northern counties of our California. Her success would be my success.
       She eyed me sideways, hands on her satin hips. “Yeah, okay. Pageant coach.”
       “I think it’s my calling,” I said.
       Judith came out in her pajamas and shrieked “Geisha out of love!” before falling into the heap of clothes piled on the floor.
       “Geisha in mourning of lost romance,” I said, moving her hair out of her face, making it a little more tidy.
       Judith fell quietly asleep among her colorful clothes sometime after midnight, and I wandered into the living room to say goodnight to my mother. She was asleep on the couch, still in her stockings and Christmas dress. A bowl of half-eaten rice was on the coffee table, and the muted television flickered its lights on the urns above. The station had long stopped playing the survival show, so I switched off the television and lay myself down on a blanket on the floor, all of us finally adrift in our different foggy darknesses.

It turned out that it was very easy to enter the pageant, which is what it was, after all. You had to be 18 and of Japanese descent, hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, and, according to the application, “exhibit the superior and refined qualities of a young, intelligent, and successful modern Japanese woman.”
       Judith stopped in the middle of the shopping plaza in Japantown, where we were reading the application materials we’d just picked up, and shook out her dark hair. She put one hand behind her head, and one hand over her tiny red mouth.
       “Do I look superior, Mary Beth?” she squealed.
       She did. She was bright and porcelain-skinned, with long, shiny black hair and big eyes, for a Japanese girl. She had small, pointed features and a tendency to tilt her chin up when she knew people were looking at her. It was mid-January and still rainy, the icy dampness of the afternoon air seeping through our jackets.
       “Yes, but you could use some refining,” I said. “What’s your talent gonna be?”
       I turned around so Judith could fill out the application on my back. “I don’t know…singing?”
       “No singing,” I said. “Everyone’s going to sing. You should do something with a wow factor.”
       “Wow factor,” she laughed a little laugh that disappeared into the air. “Where’d you get that from?”
       “I thought of it,” I said, defensively. “But really, you have to stand out.”
       “Like how?” she said, pressing her pen into my back.
       “Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll be perfect.”
       It was beginning to rain again, so we scrambled toward the mall to steal umbrellas from the umbrella stand at the fast food sushi place. When we got home our hair was wet and we were giddy. We closed ourselves in our room and Judith began to flip through magazines for ideas. I sat at my desk and arranged my things: notepads and pens, paper clips and Post-Its. I took out the pocket calendar from the desk drawer. It had been two months and three days since the accident.
       This is how it felt—like the biggest disappointment, our least proud moment.
       Waking up a few days after the coldest Halloween on record, seeing the news reports of a snow dusting on top of Mount Tamalpais, watching Kenny get suited up in warm clothes and my father fashioning a sled out of a cookie tray and Pam spray. Judith was banished to her room to study for midterms and I was sick, so we stayed home. “We have to hurry!” Kenny had said. “I don’t want them to dust all the snow away before I get there.” And then the unknowns: a slick road, a bad driver, two bad drivers, more snow, everything in a rush. They climbed up the mountain in my dad’s old Nissan, and before they even got there, the highway patrol was digging the car out of a grove 40 feet down a cliff face, to the summit.
       And here it was, the middle of January, and something new was happening. Something my father wouldn’t know about, or Kenny either. The mean stretch of calendar days between then and now hollowed out my chest and stole my breath. Everything was getting farther apart.
       “You okay, Mary Beth?” Judith asked, looking up from her face mirror where she was applying makeup. I felt bad for her then, always striving to be pretty, completely unable to understand what these calendar days had done to me. I steeled myself.
       “I’m fine. I just thought I lost something,” I said. “You look pretty. I’m fine.

Our father had expectations of us once. Six years ago, on parade day, the Queen gingerly stepped off her float to come shake our hands. Hers was not warm or cold, not damp or powdery, but a perfect hand, guiding our own into a shake that seemed like a secret pact. After she left, our father turned to us and said, “Someday that could be you, Judith. And Mary Beth, someday you will run this whole thing.” That neither of us took what he said as an insult was not a testament to our character, but to our father’s. He knew our desires as if they were his own. This pageant, I thought, was a way to fulfill his desires. Ours, too. To remake ourselves, and to make our family proud.
       When our mother was at work, running the grocery with our uncle, I helped Judith practice her baton-twirling, which was her unique talent. Sometimes we practiced in the backyard, but if Judith got carried away, she would throw a glittered baton straight into Mrs. Yanaguchi’s clothesline and tear it down, causing Mrs. Yanaguchi’s chihuahua to bark its head off until we threw pieces of cold cuts up to her balcony. So mostly we practiced out front on the street. I used the cars that occasionally crossed 20th street and the rumbling of the MUNI train on Judah as training tactics.
       “Think how easy it will be when you’re on stage,” I said to Judith, as she steadied herself against the traffic of the city. “Everything will be so easy, compared to this.”
       When our mother came home, tired and with saggy eyes, we pretended we were just throwing the baton back and forth, as if in a game of girls’ catch.
       High school was easy for me, and Judith was taking the semester off from state school to “figure out her life,” so we had plenty of free time to prepare for the preliminary interviews in February. I drilled her on her goals and plans for scholarship money, which meant I trained her to stretch her lies and half-truths and smile a lot, even when she was supposed to be thinking.
       On the day of the prelims, I skipped Advanced Algebra to hold court in the family waiting room of the office building they were held in. There were 16 Japanese mothers there that day, and one blonde white woman who wrung her handkerchief in her hand the whole time, until her adopted Japanese daughter came out, clearly too plump for the role of Queen or even Princess.
       We waited for a week for the results of the interviews. Judith didn’t eat anything but salty ramen noodles and lie in bed “with worry,” she said.
       One night for dinner my mother made bad sesame Spam stew and we ate it in dim silence in the living room, until I said, “This stew is…not what I wanted.”
       The phone rang and Judith looked at me urgently. We did not answer the phone during dinner, my father’s rule. Sometimes when it rang, Kenny would yell sentences over the ringing to make our father’s point. “We watched Star Wars today at school!” he would yell. And then louder, over the continued rings, “IT WAS SO AMAZING!”
       “Go answer it,” my mother said, dropping her fork to the bowl.
Judith answered it and as she disappeared into the hallway with the telephone, my mother stared at me and I lowered my head. When Judith reappeared, her face was flushed and her mouth was pinched into a pleased smile. She took her seat again and, with a flourish, spread her napkin on her lap.
       “Well spit it,” my mother said.
       Judith fumbled. “I—Mary Beth was helping me prepare—we were just applying to see, and I got it, Mom, I got it. They said I was well-spoken and seemed so upbeat and positive, which is what they’re looking for in role models. They liked my unusual educational background and my goals.”
       “They liked the part about the goals?” I asked.
       “They loved it!”
       We sat back in the enveloping silence and looked toward my mother. I said, “Judith applied to be—’’
       “I wasn’t born here, but I am not stupid, Mary Beth,” my mother said. She narrowed her heavy eyes. “I live in this house and see things, too. I’m too busy thinking all the time, while you two throw glitter sticks across the street. You two act like nothing bad happens. Like children don’t get run over by those Koreans racing their cars on Saturday nights. Everything is dangerous! And here you are, special. So you are special. Go compete, smile, and dress up. Have your fun. I won’t be a part of it.”
       Judith got up sharply, pushing her chair away from the TV tray she was eating at, which rocked the TV stand, which caused the small urn to thump depressingly on its side, a little of Kenny’s ashes wooshing out the top. Judith didn’t seem to notice, but stomped to her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
       Our mother finished her entire bowl of stew without speaking. I picked at my food, but ate nothing, and when my mother got up to go to her bedroom, she left the bowls and everything for me to clean up. I washed them and the crusted pot it was all cooked in, and then I quietly righted the urn, which was now a little less full of ashes. I swept up the tablespoons of my brother spread out on top of the TV stand into my palm and poured what I could back in the urn. A chalky, white sheen coated my hands and I washed them under the water, scrubbing until my skin was raw but clean.

My mother slept through two days of work at the grocery store. She sank into the flat cushions of our yellow couch and slept with her hands folded across her middle, as if she were in a coffin. I tried to wake her the first morning, but when she opened her eyes, she gave me a look so stern that I didn’t dare touch her again. The next day she woke in the afternoon, in her rumpled floral dress, and was banging around the kitchen when Judith and I got home from school. We quietly slipped out the back door to practice. It was March, and the weather was crisp and sunny, altogether promising. We practiced in the backyard and could see, on the other side of the window, our mother angrily cooking.
Once, our father spoke to us plainly about our mother. It was a few years earlier, all of us young enough to be considered children, and he was walking Judith and Kenny and I to a candy shop a few streets down. On the way there it was my job to hold Kenny’s hand, so he wouldn’t fling himself into the intersection.
       “Okay,” our father said, pumping his fists as he walked. “I’ll tell you about your mother. You should know that she is a tough lady.”
       This is what he told us. She grew up in a fishing village outside of Nagoya and emigrated to San Francisco when she was eight. There, her mother sewed dresses in North Beach and her father ran a grocery and fish shop in Japantown. Her parents were devout Buddhists and worked 12-hour days but they both died young—sickly, one after the other—and my teenaged mother, not given to the conspicuous wanderings of grief, quickly married a boy from the neighborhood. He died, too, though, in an accident at a factory in Benicia. Then my father came into the picture, sweeping my mother off her sad feet. He was second generation, had been a small baby in an internment camp in Arizona. My mother knew Japanese and my father understood it, but after the war, neither was encouraged to speak it. “And that was really kind of how the generations drifted,” my father said wistfully. “Never mind. What I mean is, we should tell each other the bad things, when we can. You know?”
       I didn’t know, not really. What I did know was that when my white friends at school asked me why I didn’t speak Japanese, I shrugged. The only words we knew were the ones Kenny shouted during taiko practice, and though they sounded important, we didn’t know what they meant. It was strange to feel so close to something, so identified by it, and not to be able to talk about it.
       “If you push her, she’ll push back,” our father said. “It’s like the things that happen to you when you’re young, they make you do things unconsciously, all the time, when you’re old.”
       “Like this?” Kenny said, and jumped in the air, kicking one leg out in a pose he’d learned in karate. “I’ll be able to do that when I’m older?”
       Judith fought back a snide remark and our father pretended to consider it. “Kind of,” he said. “But more I mean the way you are with people. Don’t forget where she came from.” He was quiet for a minute, looking like he didn’t know where he came from. Then he dropped the subject, and we filled our bags with candy.
       My mother only spoke Japanese when she was on the phone, talking to family in Japan I’d never met. I always imagined she was saying all the secret things we would one day know, that she would lay the translations out for us like a bridge to walk over when we were ready. I could not imagine what would be on the other side. But she never talked to us in Japanese, and we never asked her to. And now here she was, so crunched up inside herself. How were we ever supposed to get to her now, when we couldn’t even speak English to each other? 

The pageant was held in an auditorium two days before the parade, and there was a traditional Japanese dance requirement for the competition. It was a bon odori dance that all seven girls had to do together to open the event. But each girl had to provide her own kimono and dresser. Our mother held our kimonos wrapped in silk and tied in boxes on top of her closet. She knew how to dress us, but we couldn’t yet dress ourselves. Dressing was a complex process of ties and layers, and it had to be taught and practiced over and over again.
       Our mother had decided to treat this venture as a silent disgrace. We could take the kimonos from her closet while she was gone, but we had to convince Mrs. Yanaguchi upstairs to dress Judith before the pageant. I tried to hide my disappointment when my mother refused to dress her. Mrs. Yanaguchi’s place was musty and smelled like dog and mothballs, and her fingers were knobby and dry. When we knocked on her door with Judith’s kimonos in hand, she marveled at their craftsmanship—“shipped in from Tokyo,” Judith said, proudly, as if she had ordered them herself—and then told her to strip down to her underwear.
       The little chihuahua sniffed at the hem while Mrs. Yanaguchi dressed Judith.
       “Your mother say you get all As, Mary Beth,” she said, fastening one of several slips around Judith’s waist.
       “Yes,” I nodded.
       “What wrong with Judith, then?”
       Judith grimaced as Mrs. Yanaguchi yanked a cloth tie into a knot at her side.
       “Judith’s been busy preparing for this. Will you come see us in the parade?”
       “I think about it. It hard to walk there. So hilly, there.”
       She placed a hand on her knee, as if indicating tenderness, but in the meantime, she was pulling Judith all over the place, bringing her nose close to Judith’s chest and tying knot after knot. We were used to our mother dressing us, the process took nearly an hour, the knots, the layers and layers of slips, the ties, the filmy undergarments we had to wear though we would have rather worn our own bras. When it finally came time for the obi, Mrs. Yanaguchi instructed Judith to breathe in deeply, and when her chest raised, Mrs. Yanaguchi secured it the back.
       “Now don’t breathe out,” she said and laughed, showing her yellow teeth. At this the little dog barked. “After this, I have your favorite: inari sushi for you.”
       “Thank you, Mrs. Yanaguchi,” I said.
       “You be nice to mother,” she said, shaking a crooked finger at us. “It is so hard these days.”
       But couldn’t she tell, we were doing something incredible. I wanted to say it, but I didn’t. No one seemed to recognize what it was that we were trying to accomplish. We were going to do something completely separate from the accident. We weren’t going to be the sad sisters anymore. We were going to do our family proud.
       “It is so hard all of the days, I guess,” Mrs. Yanaguchi said, yanking the wide fabric into a perfect bow at Judith’s waist.

The competition was not as glamorously done up as I’d imagined it would be. The auditorium on Post Street was dated and stuffy, and though the stage was lit up and the audience dark, I could see who was out there: bored families, sick children, all crunching damp programs in their hands. Our mother was not out there, and we didn’t expect her to be. We’d left her reading a Japanese-language newspaper in the living room. She barely looked up at us as Judith shuffled tiny steps out the door in her kimono.
       “I’m nervous, but it’s a good nervous,” Judith said. “What do you think, Mary Beth?”
       I wasn’t sure what she was asking my opinion about. “I think you’re going to rock it. Your kimono is drop-dead.”
       She was wearing a teal kimono with bright red and orange hummingbirds splashed across the bias. My father had given it to her for her 16th birthday. Her hair was drawn up into a big bun on the top of her head, and I had whitened her face with powder, and pinkened her lips to perfection. She flexed her toes in her tabi socks and looked out through the curtains at the blank stage. I placed my hand on her sleek back.
       “You’ll be the best one out there.”
       And for most of it, she was. The other girls wore pleasant but blank expressions—but Judith was engaged, happy, if not ecstatic. She bowed her head and looked up to smile and wink, and the audience ate it up.
       Judith slipped into a spandex costume with a gauzy skirt and warmed up her hands for the baton routine. The girl before her was finishing up an aria from Madame Butterfly. Judith and I giggled over the choice of song and I said, “I told you everyone was going to sing.”
       The girl trilled her last note, which I thought sounded more like a scream than anything else, and then Judith flounced out there. When the first note to the classical march began and Judith beamed as she tossed the baton into the air, I knew it would be magic. Her vertical 8s were perfect, so fast it looked like she had extra fluid arms. Her limbs were extended and her neck merely a support for the leap and heft of her arms and hands. The baton flew away from her, so high up it seemed it would never come back down, and then it did, springing back into the mold of her hand. I watched the judges watching her, transfixed. Yes, maybe it was just baton twirling. But Judith’s belief was a force to be reckoned with.
       She came off stage with a gleam of sweat and we hugged each other and what I smelled I thought was the smell of triumph.
       “Just the interview portion and you’re done,” I said, sinking back into coach mode. “Think of Dad and Kenny.”
       Judith changed into a dress she had worn to prom and heels higher than any of the other girls had. She paced in the dressing room, silent until her name was called. I knew this was the portion of the pageant she was most worried about, and she let out a little moan when her name was called over the speaker. I followed her down the corridor to the backstage area, and squeezed her hand once until the pageant organizer tugged at her and hissed, “Now! Now!”
       Judith sashayed out to the emcee the way she sashayed down Fillmore when we were little kids, walking to the parade. If Judith believed in baton twirling, I believed in that walk.
       “Judith Hatsuda,” the emcee said. “Your question is this: How has your family affected your position as a young woman in the Japanese American community?”
       My belief was strong that day, but even I was dismayed at this. I knew, before Judith answered, that this would be her demise. We had prepared Judith to talk extravagantly about many things she did not enjoy—school, work, community service, humanitarian issues—but she could not lie about family. Especially not now. I dug my fingernails into my hand and punished myself for not having had her practice this.
       She stammered and mentioned our mother, and Nagoya, though she pronounced it incorrectly—“NagAYa,” she said—and said something about Kenny and taiko, which made her pause too long, and then talked about the community of our apartment building and the chihuahua, and then Mexico, as it related to Japan, and camps, and then she stopped talking, and there was a pause as big as an ocean, and the silence in the mic was like the waves, and finally the MC realized there was no more talking to come.
       “Judith Hatsuda!” the MC said by way of sending her off, as if he had just discovered her name, and she was in silent tears before she reached me behind the curtains.
       There was nothing to say. She balled up her kimono and stuffed it in her bag, and I knew our mother would be furious at those wrinkles. We stood behind a screen set up in the dressing room for privacy, which was not private at all, and I tried to touch up her makeup while she dabbed at the corners of her eyes and mouth and gulped back sobs. She had to make one final appearance on stage, where they called her name as second runner-up Princess, and gave the Queen’s crown to a wide-faced girl named Sally Maneda from the South Bay, whose only aspiration was to be in the tech business in Silicon Valley, just like her daddy, she had said. For her talent, she had solved a Rubik’s Cube in 30 seconds to the tune of “Mustang Sally.”
       On the train ride home, I tried not to look at Judith. I sat next to the window as we slipped into the hills of Japantown, into the thick eucalyptus of the park, and then into our gray neighborhood, street after street, but all I saw in the window was our reflection, dipping in and out of the light. My despondent sister, gripping the handrail with her pink nails, casting her puffy eyes downward, steadying herself against the ebbs and jerks of the train. And then me, lit then not lit, also looking away from the colorless expanse before us.

“It wasn’t our year,” Judith said. We were in the living room and I was painting her eyes dramatically on parade day, because she wanted to be pretty from far away. Judith had decided that the queenly thing to do would be to hold her head high and not act like a sore loser. I wasn’t sure I agreed, but it wasn’t my decision.
       “Hmm,” was all I said. Not even first princess. In the week or so since the pageant, I’d been completely destroyed. She, on the other hand, had bounced back with the kind of grace that was supposed to have made her Cherry Blossom Queen. We passed the time in silence—no more baton practice—and then it was April and then it was parade day. The days were flying by, and I became even sadder at that.
       I closed her thin eyelids and applied another coat of white powder.
       “This will make your eyes look bigger,” I said.
       “How do you know this stuff?” she asked.
       “I read.”
       “You’re like the princess of reading.”
       Her eyes fluttered under my brush and we were quiet for a while. She sighed. With the steady hands of a doctor, I painted the liquid eyeliner on her, drawing the line out at the crease. “And this,” I said. “will make you look mysterious.”
       This made her laugh. It started out small, a usual Judith giggle, and then she laughed harder, and less femininely, and then she clutched her small belly in her sequined dress and laughed with her whole body, bent over in the chair, heaving guffaws.
       I shushed her because our mother was asleep in the next room. The chihuahua started yapping upstairs. Judith looked up and wiped the wetness from the corners of her eyes. She tried to catch her breath. We were already running late.
       When I was done, she got up and looked in the mirror.
       “This is so embarrassing,” I sniffed, holding her princess sash in my hand.
       “Gee, thanks Mary Beth,” she said.
       “No, I don’t mean you,” I said. She lifted her arms so I could slide the sash over her sparkly white dress.
       “It’s okay,” she said, her tone softening. She turned from the mirror and looked at me. “I’m not embarrassed. So what, I messed up the interview part. You would have done good at that, but I’m not as smart as you. It’s fine. That’s the way it is.”
       I sighed. I didn’t say I wished she was as smart as me, or that she could have been, that she didn’t try hard enough, that she let what had happened to us make her choke.
       We snuck out of the house and walked nearly a mile from the train to the parade’s starting point. Spring always came to San Francisco with a cold bite, but this year the early warmth bloomed the cherry trees on time, and the wind off the bay was already blowing blossoms into everybody’s soup and hair. As I guided Judith to the meeting place, I thought about the year before and how Kenny had pointed to the white blossoms on people’s shoulders and laughed, “Dandruff!” He had been at the age when dandruff was hilarious.
       It wasn’t even 11 AM but the sidewalks lining the parade were bustling. At the parade beginning, the Queen and Court’s float stood like a shiny ocean liner. It was white with flecks of red, layered like a cake with tiers for the queen and her court to sit on. A woman walked around with spare satin gloves, in case the contestants had forgotten to bring their own. Some mothers were crying and their daughters slapped away their over-attentive hands. I suddenly wanted to cry, too, and then I was, sputtering uncontrollably, like a baby, like a loser.
       Judith turned to me. “Oh God,” she said and touched my arm with a satin gloved hand. “What’s wrong? Mary Beth, it’s okay. Stop, it’s all right. I still got princess.”
       “Judith,” I said, trying to catch my breath. “I can’t stop.”
       I really couldn’t. It was coming out of me like some natural water source, like some dam that had been lifted. I wanted her to cry too. I looked at her face and willed it: Cry with me cry with me cry with me. But she wouldn’t. Her beautiful face was sympathetic, but was as different from mine as it had ever been.
       “Who cares?” she said. “No one cares what I got.”
       “Dad cares!” I cried. “He said, remember, he said you’d be queen and I’d run it all—’’
       Judith snorted. “No, he didn’t. You remember wrong. He only said I could be up on that float. And look, I am!”
       “No, he said you’d be queen.”
       “No, I’m right. You always like to remember things as if they’d been perfect. But they weren’t. Dad wasn’t a god who predicted our destinies. Kenny was an annoying little brat sometimes. And whatever, Mary Beth. So what. I didn’t win. Guess what? I’m over it. We did really well. We did the best we could. I’m okay with it. You act like you failed some big midterm or something.”
       I stopped sputtering. I wanted to feel sorry for her, but I couldn’t. She was completely fine with what she had won. Maybe she had always been fine with second place, because she had always been second place to me in school, and she didn’t waste away crying like our mother, and she hadn’t placed all her hopes for our family in this pageant like I had. She’d just wanted to see if she could be pretty enough to win.
       “It doesn’t matter. Look,” she said, holding up her sash with her name on it. “We didn’t fail.”
       She leaned forward and hugged me, something we’d rarely done recently. Now that she was older and I was older, and we had no dad or brother, and our mother went crazy and silent, and we were the grieving sisters, it was like we couldn’t hug—it was all too fragile. But she was hugging me, and it was like the Queen of Japantown herself was hugging me, all sequins and smooth fabric and hairspray and perfume. We had failed and here she was, giving me her win. Whatever she had won, she was giving it to me.
       She held up her tiny hand mirror for me to look into. “You’ll stop. You’ll meet me at the end and you’ll put some cold soda cans on your eyes, and you’ll look fine.”
       The satin glove woman was now herding the girls onto the float. I took a step back and sniffed back some tears. I lifted up my right arm, elbow bent at 90 degrees, and started the smooth wave we’d practiced since we were little girls Kenny’s age.
       Judith smiled and waved back, her gloved forearm an exact copy of mine, like we were one arm, waving together. She took her place on the float, next to all the other perfectly satisfied princesses of Japantown.
       After the parade began, I fought my way through the crowd for blocks until there was a space I could sit on the curb and dry my face. I had never been to the parade alone before—it wasn’t something you did, go to a festival all alone. I drew my knees up to my chest and looked around. Around me were families who had set up lawn chairs and parasols, and had opened up their coolers to extract their own homemade sushi. There were mothers guiding noodles into their babies’ mouths with chopsticks and my mouth watered. Floats and dance teams and a great big dragon passed us by.
       During a pause in a youth jazz band performance, I saw my mother across the street, standing in the sun like nothing in the world was wrong. I could see that she was holding in her hand a paper bag heavy with something. I caught her eye and waved my princess wave, and she saw me and nodded back. She held up the bag and through the plastic I could see trays of sushi, a whole family’s worth. I wasn’t surprised to see her there—the parade was in her blood. I was only surprised when she motioned for me to cross the parade and come to her. I tried finding an empty space to run across, but there were too many dancers in my way, so I had to walk further down. She followed, each of us walking parallel on separate sides of the parade, waiting for an opening in the crowd or a bridge or something for me to get across. The parade looked like it would never end.
       I spotted Judith’s float a ways behind us, inching forward. Beside us was the Young Boy’s San Francisco Taiko Dojo, ready to perform, and after them, another dragon. The Taiko drummers all took a step back and squatted, lifting their arms, readying themselves for their first attack. Since they were small boys, their drums were small, but their sound was hefty and fierce. They struck slowly at first, to time their movements, and let out faint coordinated yells. That slowness had been hard for Kenny. The boys’ faces were all screwed up in concentration, like tea kettles about to whistle.
       The Taiko team was getting to the fast part. They started to yell, as much as their little boy voices could. Each “Hai!” and “Don!” was followed by a quick booming of their sticks. Then faster, and more yelling, and I thought what Kenny’s yelling might have been like had he made it that far—on top of that mountain in the snow, parka’d arms outstretched as he glided down the fragile layer on his sled, my father giving him a push off each time, until it melted all that was left was a path of soaking grass darkened into the pressed dirt. Then, in this perfect version, they would have shaken off the snow—“dandruff,” Kenny would have said—and driven back home, where everyone would have grown up, Dad would have retired, Kenny would have run the store—though by then he would have wanted to have been called Kenneth, and we would have called him that. But it didn’t work out that way.
       The wind picked up and some pale blossoms fell, like broken-apart ghosts, into everyone’s hair. It was hard to keep track of my mother through all of it. We reached the dragon, red and yellow and black, swirling its papier mache face with bared teeth and crazy eyes. If I waited for the dragon to pass, there would be a gap in the parade and I’d be able to sneak across. But the dragon was milking it, shoving its face into groups of children that scrambled to get close and then screamed. On the other side of the parade, the man under the dragon’s head lifted it up and smiled to show the children that there was nothing to be afraid of. Everyone cheered it on. Beneath its body were the legs of the men that moved it, shuffling around in semi-blindness, which we all pretended not to see. The dragon curled through the crowd, and between its bright dips and bursts, I could catch glimpses of my mother on the sidewalk across the street. She was standing plain as day and had begun to eat the sushi by herself. Somewhere back there my sister had probably already taken off her gloves, and was probably looking past the queen to the gusty rain of cherry blossoms above us. I stood and waited for it to pass. Soon, the man under the dragon’s head would lift it up and show himself to me, smile, and explain away the terrible mystery.

Originally published in

BOMB 126, Winter 2014

Featuring interviews with Leonardo Padura, Amie Siegel, Phyllida Barlow, Kai Althoff, Dodie Bellamy, Edwidge Danticat, Hans Witschi, and Mary Halvorson. 

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Bomb 126 Nobarcode