The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai

Sharbari Ahmed

Mrs. Nagai had, in her usual, diffident way, imposed upon the Hussains. Razia Hussain, her friend, told her that their youngest daughter was coming to visit with her husband and the new baby. Mrs. Nagai began insisting at once that she should be the one to show them around Tokyo. Why she did this only occurred to Mrs. Nagai as she was driving home. Her impulse had been a reflex—the Hussains were guests in her country; she was the wife of a once influential man, and her role had been to be the perfect hostess. But her husband was retired, and she was really under no obligation to be doing this sort of thing. However, to back out now would be dishonorable, and embarrassing.
    At seventy-eight, Mrs. Nagai, as all the foreigners called her, was still trim and energetic, except she was slowing down. This was to be expected, yet it made her uneasy. Lately, she had been having dreams about dying before her husband, Shimizu. The dreams were not very vivid, and though she couldn’t remember all the details, she would awake with a start, peer over to where her husband lay asleep, and look at him guiltily. Mrs. Nagai preferred to sleep on a tatami mat on the floor next to the bed and within arm’s reach of the bedside table that held Shimizu’s various medications. She had not slept next to him in almost thirty years.
    On the day she was to meet the Hussains’ daughter, Mrs. Nagai engaged a driver and made her way from where she lived to the Azabu section of town. As usual traffic was heavy, but she had given herself ample time—an hour to travel fifteen miles. She had made out an itinerary. She tried to imagine what these young people—Americans—would want to see in Tokyo. Possibly, they wanted to see the shiny, modern things that Japan was so noted for—the garish neon lights at night in the Ginza district, the sushi conveyor belt that all the foreigners found so fascinating. But, she thought, they also may want to see some type of Shinto temple, preferably with a large brass gong out front. And, of course, a tea ceremony. There was one scheduled for 12:56 that afternoon, not far from the temple.
    When she left, Shimizu was still asleep. His breathing was even. He was so quiet and still that she put her ear to his mouth and listened. He was there, but barely. “I am going now,” she whispered into his ear. His eyes remained closed. Mrs. Nagai told the nurse that she would return by eight that evening and waited for the woman to respond before walking out the door. She half wanted the nurse to stop her. This was the longest Mrs. Nagai had been away from her husband in months. But the nurse merely nodded in acknowledgment and bent down to pull Shimizu’s covers up to his chin.

Back in the spring of 1953, when Mrs. Nagai was a young bride, she had the duty of showing another American visitor around town. She waited on the airport tarmac with her husband, standing slightly behind him, out of the way of the newspaper photographers and dignitaries. She had not worn a kimono that day as she had planned. Her husband had insisted it would seem too much a spectacle, too orchestrated. Though he would never admit it, Shimizu was still leery of Americans. He did not want to appear as if he were going too much out of the way, even for this particular person, who seemed to hold no grudges. Her husband never discussed the war and the Japanese defeat. He had been wounded in action in Nanking, northern China, and sent home. His wounds were serious, but he recovered and went back willingly to combat, this time in the Philippines. This was the extent of Mrs. Nagai’s knowledge, and she knew not to ask for more information.
    They had been newlyweds when he went to the jungle. She barely knew him. Since she was a child, it had been her father’s wish that she marry Shimizu, and so she did. He was intelligent, sullen, and handsome; she pretty, shy, but given to sudden fits of temper. It had seemed a good match. Shimizu was a decorated officer, trained as an architect, and bound to a powerful sense of duty. He was a√ectionate with her, gently teasing her when she became overwrought, which was often in the early days of their marriage. But he kept his distance as well. Even in the bedroom, with only a coverlet between them, he was always far away.
    Though Mrs. Nagai was barely seventeen at the time, she suspected his stint in China had something to do with his aloofness. There was talk of things that had happened in China. A cousin of hers, a radical who would end up in prison for the duration of the war, told her that Shimizu and his men had raped women and bayoneted babies. She refused to believe such lies at the time. “Everyone knew it was the allies, the Americans, who were especially cruel. Japanese people killed themselves and their children to avoid American torture and degradation. They threw their babies off cliffs and then joined them on the jagged rocks below. Everyone knew this,” Mrs. Nagai would say to anyone who tried to discuss what Japan had done to its enemies.
    But that glorious sunny day in 1953, when the war was still fresh but not as sharp, Mrs. Nagai could barely contain her excitement as she waited on the airport tarmac for the American to arrive. She peered around the flashbulbs and derby hats to get a better look. At the top of the stairs, squinting at the sudden sunshine, was an elderly woman. Her wrinkled khaki trench coat was unbuttoned; underneath she wore a black dress with white flowers splashed all over it. It hung awkwardly on her large, loose body. A battered hat, also boasting large white flowers, sat rather forlornly on her gray head. She was not an elegant woman by any means. It appeared to Mrs. Nagai that femininity was something that had been imposed upon her, and she was merely complying.
    “Mr. Nagai,” the American had said, the corners of her eyes crinkling with pleasure when she recognized Shimizu. “Where is your enchanting wife?”
    “Right here, madam,” Shimizu said and stepped aside to reveal a tiny woman who bent stiffly forward at the waist. The visitor did the same. The American woman’s face then broke into a smile so wide that her eyes all but disappeared. She had a mischievous, youthful way about her.
    The two women had actually first met a year earlier in the Hudson Valley at Val-Kill, where the American had a home. The American had been open and warm, able to draw out the more reserved Mrs. Nagai.
    Shimizu nudged his wife’s elbow and indicated that she should make her presentation. Mrs. Nagai giggled nervously and handed the former First Lady a bouquet of irises.
    “They are from my garden,” she said softly in halting English.
    “Thank you. I so enjoyed your visit last year. We must catch up.”
    “You have a very full itinerary, madam,” someone—possibly Shimizu—had replied before Mrs. Nagai could respond.
    Mrs. Nagai bent forward again. When she looked up, her friend was being led to an awaiting car. She and Shimizu followed the motorcade to the hospital the First Lady wanted to visit, where victims of the bomb the Americans had dropped were receiving long-term care.
    During the war Mrs. Nagai had seen newsreel footage of American and British POWs marching in the searing heat and knee-deep mud of a jungle in a place called Bataan. Their emaciated, sun-blistered bodies and hollow faces had shocked her. Later still she would see photographs of Japanese soldiers posing proudly in front of severed heads impaled on stakes. Even after that day in March in 1945 when the Americans firebombed Tokyo and the charred bodies were piled in the streets, she could not reconcile what she had seen in the flickering darkness of the movie theater. What she saw in the newsreels and photographs after the war differed sharply from what the Emperor had described in his daily radio addresses.
    When Shimizu gave her the only gift he would give her in the first ten years of marriage, she had not asked any questions. It was a ring. He gave it to her proudly, but his eyes clouded over when she asked how he had come by it. It was a man’s ring. The gold band was thick, with a deep blue stone—not precious—set in the center. On one side of the top of the band were engraved the letters USMA; on the other side was a crest. Around the stone the words West Point were engraved in cursive. Directly underneath the stone was a year, 1939.
    In the garden at Val-Kill, surrounded by hydrangeas, Mrs. Nagai had asked her American hostess about the ring.
    “Where did you get this?” the older woman asked very quietly. Somehow, Mrs. Nagai knew she could not tell her, and so she lied. She found it, she said, in the Grand Central Station waiting room. It was the first thing that had popped into her head. Mrs. Nagai had seen many American movies where much of the war’s drama was played out in the waiting rooms of train stations.
    “Oh, I see.” Her friend was clearly relieved, which only added to Mrs. Nagai’s growing dread. “It must be some poor boy’s class ring. They take these things very seriously you know. He must be going mad trying to find it. I can contact the academy and tell them. I am sure they will locate the person who lost it.”
    “No. I will do it. It is my responsibility. I found it,” Mrs. Nagai had replied.
    Mrs. Nagai wanted to say that she did not think that boy could be located, for he was somewhere in Asia, buried in the moist earth of a jungle in the Philippines, his grave overgrown with snaking vines and orchid flowers. And possibly he was missing a finger.
    They had gone to New York as part of a delegation to foster a tense but necessary friendship between the U.S. and Japan. It had been the former First Lady’s brainchild, and a committee had handpicked prominent Japanese citizens for a visit to the U.S. The war crimes tribunals that had resulted in the execution of seven Japanese officers only five years earlier was still fresh in Mrs. Nagai’s mind when she met the legendary woman. Her countrymen had been accused of things that were unfathomable to her—cannibalism, forcing women into prostitution, infanticide. It was endless. Many of those who had been party to the atrocities had gone free. Some had even gone on to become celebrated members of government; one became prime minister. Mrs. Nagai had known them all, had had them in her home, had served them tea. She found this vaguely disturbing but had no way of expressing it.

Mrs. Nagai’s cell phone gave off an insistent metallic beep. She reached into her purse, pulled it out, and squinted at the message on the blue screen. It was a reminder, telling her that it was time for Shimizu’s medicine. She shut o√ the tiny silver phone. The nurse was there, she thought. No need to call her. Mrs. Nagai suddenly realized that her ancient black Toyota Crown had been stuck at the same light for ten minutes. She tapped the driver’s shoulder and raised her shoulders in question. He shrugged his in response.

“Who is this woman? I hate being obligated to people,” Sam Padlecki, the Hussain’s son-in-law grumbled to his wife, Nyla, that morning as he stared out at the city lights. In the distance a highway that sat high above the ground hosted an endless stream of cars all night. From their vantage point the highway looked like a child’s plaything with toy cars speeding along it. Everything seemed smaller and more intense in this city, and neatly contained—from the vending machines to the tightly manicured parks to the individual erasers shrink-wrapped in plastic in a stationary store and displayed according to color. Things were clean, antiseptic, and precise.
    The night before, it had rained, and the streets glistened, sharply reflecting the neon billboards and signs. Nighttime in Tokyo had a restrained fierceness. Something seamy must be going on somewhere, Nyla thought with typical New York cynicism, remembering the cover of a Japanese porn movie she had seen at Record Explosion in Times Square. It showed a bare-chested man lying on his back while a woman obligingly squatted over him and deposited a (neat and precise) pile of shit on his stomach. Tokyo, she decided, was something out of a Phillip K. Dick novel, futuristic, otherworldly, and possibly dangerous. Though she was loathe to admit it—because it would make her seem a typical American tourist—the fact that nothing was in English unnerved her.
    As Nyla drank a cup of tea, Sam was going on about this Mrs. Nagai who was coming to take them out that morning. As it turned out Mrs. Nagai was someone important with whom her father needed to maintain a cordial relationship. Her father, who was the director of a U.N. agency, would have preferred working in the field—in Africa, or Kampuchea, among the masses—to this overly political post in Tokyo. His was essentially an overblown fundraising job with a fancy title and tons of perks, most of which (much to his wife’s chagrin) he did not use. Except the car, the apartment, and the membership to the American club down the street, and that was only because Razia had insisted she needed a sauna every other day to help with her asthma. Dr. Hussain needed Mrs. Nagai’s innumerable connections in order to keep the money flowing. And there was a particular project for which he needed her help the most. He had broached the subject with her many times, and she had deflected him, quietly, almost imperceptibly, as was her way. At first Dr. Hussain was disconcerted, and then Razia, for whom Mrs. Nagai had developed a√ection, explained that it appeared to be the Japanese way. Talk of money and material gain was frowned upon. Deals were made everyday but under a strict code of conduct.
    Three months had passed, and still Mrs. Nagai had not acknowledged his request. All he needed was for her to approach her friends, members of Parliament, captains of industry, and ask them to donate funds for a worthy cause. But it was the U.N. after all, and Japan had never been invited to join as a permanent member of the Security Council because of World War II. Yet Russia was a member, Russia, once the archenemy of the U.S., not to mention China—even after the Tiananmen Square incident. Everyone believed that the U.S. controlled the Security Council and essentially the United Nations. Dr. Hussain knew this was a sore point for many of the older generation, including Mrs. Nagai.
    Dr. Hussain, therefore, felt that Nyla and Sam should oblige Mrs. Nagai and allow her to take them around. Nyla, being raised as a diplomat’s child, understood this. Sam, the son of a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, didn’t “cotton” to the notion that people should be forced to do what they simply don’t want to do.
    “Funny, but I think that the slaves might have felt that way,” Nyla had snapped when Sam complained about what he described as her parents’ South Asian tendency to railroad people into social obligations. Nyla had been thinking of her mother-in-law’s comment about how black people and the Red Indian (as she called them) needed to stop complaining about what happened a long time ago and get on with their lives.
    Mrs. Nagai’s car pulled into the courtyard of the Hussains’ apartment building six and half minutes before the appointed time. She ordered the driver to pull to the side, and she got out of the car. She then hesitated, looking up at the tall building. She must be gracious and exhaustingly upbeat with them so that they would remember Japan and the Japanese with fondness. That was why she was here, she reminded herself.
    She suddenly realized that she might not have brought enough money for the day. In a panic she rifled through her purse and quickly opened her wallet. Breathing a sigh of relief, she pulled out a thick wad of bills, roughly fourhundred U.S. dollars, just about enough for the day. She glanced at her watch: 9:25 am. From the corner of her eye, she saw a large moth fluttering on the brick-paved driveway. Its body was all but crushed, its wings torn. But it was still alive. She peered down at it and watched it struggle. All she had to do was place her foot over it and gently press down, putting it out of its misery. It was almost dead so she waited. Just when she thought it was over, the yellow moth would attempt to raise its head or twitch an antenna. It was determined. Mrs. Nagai looked at her watch again. She was now officially late, but she could not pull herself away from the dying insect. It fluttered its wings again, this time energetically, and died.

Nyla and Sam’s baby, ten-month-old Felix Hussain Padlecki, was finally fast asleep. He lay on his stomach with his butt up in the air and attempted to suck his thumb while he slept. He was a happy child. Not yet aware of the constant tension between his headstrong parents. Nyla sleepily handed her mother a tin of powdered Enfamil and two clean bottles. Razia was instructed to feed her grandson the moment he woke up.
    Razia looked at the bottles and was half tempted to say, “Nothing doing. The last time I did this was twenty-nine years ago and I wasn’t too thrilled about it then either.” But she didn’t because just at that moment, Mrs. Nagai buzzed in requesting entrance.
    Nyla answered the door. She shot an anxious glance down the hall where Sam was still in the bathroom. She hoped he would not deliberately keep them waiting in an attempt at passive-aggressive protest. Even though Nyla had never met Mrs. Nagai, she felt that any impropriety on their part would be a terrible thing.
    Nyla was a small woman, barely five foot one, but Mrs. Nagai was smaller. It seemed to Nyla that the older woman had been constructed with a miniaturist’s eye for detail. Delicately arched eyebrows framed brown eyes, slightly bluish with age; an almost aquiline nose had a hint of sharpness. A tiny, perfectly bowed mouth smiled without showing any teeth, but produced one disarming dimple on her left cheek. Her wavy silver hair was neatly combed back and held with two elegant tortoise shell combs on either side of her head. She carried her brown crocodile pocketbook, from another era, slung over a forearm. Her flat-heeled shoes matched both her purse and the neatly tailored brown pantsuit that clung to her petite frame.
    “Nyla?” Mrs. Nagai asked. She pronounced the l clearly. No exchanging l’s for r’s here, thought Nyla, who was immediately ashamed for thinking such a thing. Mrs. Nagai had a soft but firm voice.
    The two women smiled at one another. Mrs. Nagai looked up at Nyla. She was a young and pretty thing, plump, but not too much, and with radiant brown skin. The girl had an open face. Behind Nyla stood her husband, the white American, who had emerged from the bathroom. Mrs. Nagai remained outwardly calm, but her skin had broken out in goose pimples. She held out her hand to him. He shook it firmly.
    Sam had a smooth, boyish face, not as open as his wife’s, but not forbidding in any way. His brown hair was close cropped, almost a military cut. He would later explain to Mrs. Nagai that his hair was so silky fine and straight, he had no choice but to cut it close to his skull to keep it from flopping into his eyes. His soft, warm hazel eyes were fringed with thick lashes. He looked very much like a boy in a picture Shimizu had, another memento of his time in the jungle.

“This one was not as bad as the others,” Shimizu had said suddenly one night when Mrs. Nagai caught him looking at the picture. “Not as arrogant. This was his graduation picture. He went to a fine school.”
    “Did he live until the end?” Mrs. Nagai asked.
    Shimizu looked up with a start, snapping out of his reverie. He walked out of the room without answering her. None of the men who had served with her husband, nor any veteran she had met, ever talked about the war. Not even amongst themselves. It was an unspoken rule.
    Sam, a quintessentially American name, thought Mrs. Nagai. It evoked images of undulating fields of golden wheat, grain silos, and large cars with shiny hood ornaments on the front. Sam stared down at Mrs. Nagai and smiled back at her.
    Razia Hussain emerged hurriedly from the back room and hugged her friend.
    “Are you sure this is not too much trouble?” she asked Mrs. Nagai.
    “Of course not!” Mrs. Nagai said and meant it. Now that she had met the young couple, she was suffused with energy. She hadn’t realized how much she missed her own two children and small granddaughter, who lived in far away Kyoto. “May I glimpse your grandson?”
    “Oh, he’s sleeping . . .” Nyla began.
    “That’s okay. We’ll be quiet,” Sam said, surprising everyone. He was a very protective young father.
    When they peeked in at the sleeping infant, the baby had changed positions. His face was now visible and his butt had collapsed.
    “He is beautiful,” Mrs. Nagai said. “What long eyelashes! My granddaughter, Hiroko, has no eyelashes.”
    “I’m sure she’s beautiful,” Nyla said.
    “Oh no! She is not. But she is clever,” Mrs. Nagai said.
    Downstairs, Mrs. Nagai ushered them into the Toyota and handed them each a copy of the itinerary she had typed out on her new computer. They looked down at the papers in surprise and then grinned at one another. The first item on the agenda was visiting the temple. The second was the tea ceremony, but, Mrs. Nagai explained, they would have some time between the two events.
    “I would like to go to a Japanese washi paper store,” Nyla said.
    “Really?” Mrs. Nagai was surprised that the young woman knew about the ancient art of papermaking.
    “Nyla is an artist,” Sam said, both proud and weary at the same time.
    “I’m an installation artist,” she explained. “I do mixed media. For instance I’ll paint slides of photos. I’ll color them in like they did in the old days and then digitally superimpose them on top of other photos, like from the seventies or something, while on an alternate screen a video of a merry-go-round is playing. Or something like that.”
    Sam watched his wife, bemused. “Did you just think that up?” he asked.
    “Maybe,” Nyla replied, poking him in the side with her elbow. As Nyla spoke Mrs. Nagai observed Sam listening to her. He listened intently even though it was obvious he had heard this many times before. His hazel eyes shone when he looked at his wife. Suddenly Sam yawned widely, breaking the spell.
    “You must be very tired,” Mrs. Nagai said.
    “Jet lag,” Nyla replied. She frowned at Sam, who had not bothered to cover his mouth when he yawned. Yet another lesson in etiquette she would have to give him. Sam was well read, intelligent, and a card-carrying member of the Libertarian party. He voted his conscience in every election, be it for alderman or president. She could just imagine what he would say when she reproached him later about the yawning: “Was my mouth infringing upon Mrs. Nagai’s civil rights in any way?” “That’s not the point,” Nyla would counter, and they would launch into one of their tiresome, no-end-in-sight arguments that would woefully not culminate in sex. Conflict did not arouse Sam, at least not in a way that Nyla would have found beneficial.
    “You can rest a bit at the temple,” Mrs. Nagai said. “There is a garden there, with stone benches and shade.”
    In the outer courtyard of the temple sat an old woman who sold small scraps of white paper inscribed with fortunes to visitors. After purchasing the paper, patrons then place it in a wooden slat on a wall and summon Buddha to aid in the realization of their fortune or to remove any obstacles that lay in their path.
    “I don’t think you should do that,” Mrs. Nagai said when Nyla approached the woman.
    “Why?” Nyla asked.
    “Because most of the fortunes written on the papers are bad. It is their way of making more money.”
    “It’s just for fun,” Nyla replied.
    “Then let me pay for it,” Mrs. Nagai said. “I insist.”
    Nyla handed the paper to Mrs. Nagai to translate. She read hesitantly: “To attempt to do, to accomplish two things at once is beyond you.”
    “It’s what I always said—focus,” Sam said, grinning at the women.
    “I told you this is a bad practice,” Mrs. Nagai said. “What are the two things you are trying to accomplish?” Mrs. Nagai saw the younger woman was unhappy.
    “Motherhood and fame,” Nyla replied. Mrs. Nagai smiled at the forlorn look on Nyla’s face. So young, she thought. She put her arm around Nyla’s shoulders and led her to the entrance of the temple.
    “Well you’ve already accomplished one. It’s just a matter of time with the other. Come now. Let’s see if Buddha has any advice,” she said.

The young couple were not as enthralled by the tea ceremony as she had hoped. But the conveyor-belt sushi was a big hit. Mrs. Nagai had insisted on paying for that as well, refusing to accept the money Sam held out to her.
    “You are my guests,” she said firmly, leaving no room for argument.
    “I wish Americans were as generous,” Nyla said. “In New York it’s all about splitting the bill evenly, even when you haven’t eaten as much as the guy next to you. And no way would anyone pay for two people they don’t know.”
    “It’s not that bad,” Sam said. Mrs. Nagai quickly looked to see if his response was defensive. It wasn’t. He did not seem disturbed at the comparison, even when Nyla went on.
    “Please Sam, in New York it’s all about every man for himself. People don’t think about the other guy or the group.”
    “That’s the city,” Sam replied. “I bet upstate, with farmers and small-town folks it’s different.”
    “You love your country, yes?” Mrs. Nagai asked Sam.
    “Actually, I think it’s going to hell in a hand basket and I think Americans are duped,” Sam said warmly.
    “Please Mrs. Nagai, don’t get him started,” Nyla said.
    “What does duped mean?” Mrs. Nagai asked.
     “It means being tricked into believing things that are simply not true or simply don’t exist. Our government has become one big propaganda machine against anyone who disagrees. Also there is some bizarre Christian revival thing that’s going on and we are just going back to our imperialistic tendencies . . .”
    “Sam! You’re boring the hell out of Mrs. Nagai,” Nyla said, embarrassed.
    “No, no. Please continue. I want to know,” Mrs. Nagai said.
    “Well you must know what I am talking about,” Sam said. “During World War II, Emperor Hirohito’s propaganda machine was constantly on the go.”
    Nyla noticed the older woman’s eyes darting anxiously down to the napkin on her lap before she began fiddling with her chopsticks. Nyla nudged Sam and shook her head.
    “It is all right,” Mrs. Nagai said, chuckling faintly. “Shall we go to the store?”
At the washi paper store, the oldest one in Tokyo, Mrs. Nagai watched Nyla pick out exquisite hand-pressed paper. The girl had an eye for matching patterns and colors. She leaned toward the traditional prints with cranes and fans instead of the ones in gaudy neon colors or with flowers pressed into them.
    “I can’t believe how inexpensive this is,” Nyla said. “In Manhattan, this would be double the price.”
    “Finally something that’s cheaper here.” Mrs. Nagai smiled. “I hear so many foreigners complaining.”
    “It is an expensive country, Mrs. Nagai, don’t you think so?” Nyla asked as she paid for the papers.
    “It’s a sign of how far we have come since the war,” Mrs. Nagai said. “If you could have seen how Tokyo was during the war. The deprivation. We sacrificed so much for what we believed.”
    She noticed that Sam and Nyla were listening to her intently, and instantly regretted having spoken.
    “You believed that Americans were evil, right?” Sam asked, not rudely. He seemed curious.
    “Yes, we did,” she replied. “The Emperor would come on the radio every day and tell us how bad you were. Isn’t it funny? Here we all are now. Friends. Come,” she said. “The car is just outside. I think the driver could not find parking.”
    Once in the car she began busily talking about the rest of the day’s plans, but Sam and Nyla wanted to hear more about the war.
    “When they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I had already lived through a firestorm. On March 10, 1945, the Americans firebombed Tokyo. My house, the one my parents lived in, was destroyed. My ten-year-old brother died in his room.”
    “I’m sorry,” Sam said.
    “It was not your fault,” Mrs. Nagai replied. “It is such a lovely day. Perhaps I should have organized a picnic.” She tapped the driver on the shoulder and motioned for him to make a left turn.
    “What does it sound like when a bomb drops?” Nyla asked suddenly. She had been very quiet up until then.
    Mrs. Nagai took out a lace-edged handkerchief and dabbed the tip of her nose. “First, for some reason, it becomes very quiet. The birds, the trees, everything stops moving. Perhaps because the bombers always choose moments when the wind is calm, to direct it properly. And then you hear a whistle. That I will never forget, the whistle. A low whistle, like a tea kettle going o√, and the whistle becomes louder and louder and then suddenly you think your eyes will burst out of your head, everything shakes, and it seems to go on for a long time but it never is too long. Usually as long it takes to make a cup of tea.”
    “Did anyone close to you fight in the war?” Sam asked.
    Mrs. Nagai took out sour rock candies and o√ered the open tin to Nyla and Sam. They each took one.
    “My husband,” she said after a moment. “He served in China and southeast Asia.”
    “Bataan?” Nyla asked in spite of herself. She could see that the older woman was clearly upset, but it was too fascinating. During her pregnancy Nyla had watched the History Channel for hours. Many of the stories about the war seemed very onesided, glorifying American involvement and highlighting mostly Europe. She had never met anyone who could talk about the war from this end.
    Mrs. Nagai nodded in response to Nyla’s question. She wished the young couple would stop looking at her. She suddenly felt short of breath and rolled down her window.
    “Are you all right, Mrs. Nagai?” Nyla asked.     The pain in Mrs. Nagai’s right arm was dull but unmistakable.
    “Please,” she whispered. “I must take you home. No Ginza lights tonight.”
    “Pardon me?” Nyla asked. She put her arm around the older woman’s shoulders. Mrs. Nagai suddenly looked frail.
    “Maybe he should take you home first and then drop us off,” Sam suggested. But Mrs. Nagai was thinking about something else. A movie she had seen, where a woman had taken her dying husband to see the ocean for one last time. Then she remembered her honeymoon; she and Shimizu had gone to a resort town and sat in the sand. Her husband had said, “When I die, I want you to cremate me and throw my ashes in the sea.” And she had promised him she would. Somehow, now, in her mind the movie and the honeymoon memory were becoming one. “Let us see you home, Mrs. Nagai,” Sam was saying.
    “My husband is very sick,” she said, in a breathy voice, to the now alarmed young couple. “He will die soon.”
    “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Nagai,” Nyla said. Sam took out a small burp cloth from Nyla’s purse—she carried one everywhere out of habit—and sprinkled water on it from his water bottle.
    “Mrs. Nagai, tell the driver that he should take you home,” Sam instructed. He handed Nyla the cloth and told her to dab the older woman’s temples. It was all he could think to do. The driver was already heading to the Nagai residence.
    “We stressed her out with all those questions,” Nyla said.
    “No, no,” Mrs. Nagai wanted to protest but hadn’t the energy. But in her heart, which now appeared to be failing her, she knew what Nyla said was true.
    Then suddenly, as quickly as the darkness that had settled over her eyes had come, it lifted. Mrs. Nagai had heard of these moments. They were like sudden summer thunderstorms, rolling in and out before a person could run and fetch an umbrella. One of her bridge friends, a British woman, referred to them as episodes. She had had an episode, and judging by the looks of terror on Nyla and Sam’s faces, it had been a dramatic one. This was not the first time she had felt this way, but it certainly was the worst one by far.
    “I am sorry,” she said, abashed. It had been an embarrassing display.
    “Are you okay?” Nyla asked.
    “Yes. Much better.”
    “Thank you Jesus!” Nyla exclaimed and threw her arms around the elderly woman, taking her by surprise. Mrs. Nagai hugged the young woman back, though she was uncomfortable with such physical contact.
    “Don’t stress her out again,” Sam said.
    “Sorry,” Nyla said, releasing her.
    Mrs. Nagai began to suggest they see Ginza after all and only stopped when she saw Sam looking at her incredulously. She was very tired, and gratefully she allowed Sam to help her out of the car and walk her to her front door.
    “I have been a poor guide to you. Now I think you won’t remember Tokyo with fondness,” she said.
    “No, no,” Sam said. “We had a great time. I’m sorry we interrogated you about the war, Mrs. Nagai.”
    “Please when you come again to Tokyo, let me take you to Mt. Fuji,” Mrs. Nagai replied. Sam smiled at how deftly the older woman changed subjects. They shook hands, and Mrs. Nagai waved to Nyla, who was watching anxiously from the car. When the nurse answered the door, Mrs. Nagai turned back to Sam.
    “I will take you to Hiroshima. There is a memorial there, you know,” she said. “Have you ever been to West Point?” she asked, turning back to him again.
    “Yes, when I was a kid,” Sam replied, puzzled by the question.
    “Is it nice there?”
    “It’s a military academy, Mrs. Nagai. I suppose it’s pretty. It’s on the Hudson River.”
    “I have seen the Hudson River. Do you think I was close to there?” Mrs. Nagai asked.
    “I don’t know. The Hudson River is long. Where were you?” Sam asked.
    “Never mind,” Mrs. Nagai replied. “It was a long time ago. If I give you something to return to the family of someone from West Point, could you do that for me?”
    Sam nodded, taken aback.
    “Yes, ma’am, I guess I could do that for you.”
    Mrs. Nagai put her hand on Sam’s arm and gave it a squeeze.
    “Should I wait here while you get it?” he asked.
    Mrs. Nagai shook her head. “It’s right here,” she said. She reached into the neck of her blouse and pulled out a thin gold chain. She pulled it over her head and handed the dangling ring to Sam. “When his relatives receive it, please let me know. Please don’t tell them I gave it to you.”
    “Yes, ma’am,” Sam replied. The last time he had called anyone ma’am was when he worked as a grocery clerk in high school. And here he had done it two times in one conversation. By the time he had formed the appropriate questions, Mrs. Nagai was already inside the house. They looked at each other for a moment, and Sam realized that she would not close the door until the car pulled away.
    “Should I just mail it to them?” he asked, wanting to know more but not daring to probe. Something in the older woman’s demeanor suggested that she had revealed everything she was going to.
    “Whatever is convenient for you,” Mrs. Nagai replied. She was weary now and wanted nothing more than to rest her eyes. “Oh!” she exclaimed, suddenly remembering her manners. She quickly opened her purse and took out the remaining dollars she had. She thrust them at Sam. “Please,” she said, shaking the crisp bills at him. “For the inconvenience.”
     “No, no, I don’t need that Mrs. Nagai. Thanks.” He could not contain himself. “Can I ask who it belongs to?”
    Mrs. Nagai shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, and Sam understood she was telling the truth.

Shimizu was asleep when Mrs. Nagai tiredly entered the room. His breathing was more labored than it had been in the morning. That seemed always to be the case in the evenings. Shimizu had his nightmares in the evening. She could see his eyes rolling from side to side rapidly underneath his eyelids and could tell that he was seeing into his past.
    “Goodnight,” she whispered into his ear.
    Mrs. Nagai settled down onto her tatami mat without changing into her pajamas, something she had not done since the war, when she had to sleep in her daytime clothes so she could flee at a moment’s notice. She had not thought about the war in years, and now suddenly every day she remembered something else about it and the person she had been then.
    She thought, “These are the things one thinks about at the end.” She listened to the jagged rhythm of Shimizu’s breathing. She needed the white noise to fall asleep. Though she was exhausted, she was afraid to close her eyes.
    His breathing was becoming more even. She closed her eyes, just to rest them. The moon shone through the screen onto the floor where she lay. Suddenly, Shimizu snorted. She didn’t rise from the mat. She listened to see if his breathing would return to normal. It didn’t. It slowed. His mouth was open, and she heard a gurgling at the back of his throat. It was a familiar sound. How often she had heard it during the war. It resembled the sound a child’s rattle makes when shaken. All she had to do was reach over to the side table, extract the blue pills from their container, and place two under his tongue where they would dissolve. But she didn’t move. His breathing could even out on its own, though she knew it wouldn’t. She had become very still now, she had always been good at stillness and waiting. Eventually, the gurgling stopped. Shimizu had not moved once, not even his head. Mrs. Nagai finally closed her burning eyes and went to sleep. When she did she saw the ocean.

Sharbari Ahmed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1971 and came to the U.S. when she was three weeks old. She received an MA in creative writing from New York University. Her first play, Raisins Not Virgins, will be produced by the WorkShop Theater Company in October of 2005. Currently, she is working on the film version of the play, which is, essentially, a romantic comedy about jihad. She lives with her husband and son in New York.

“The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai” appears in our Winter 2005 issue.