Karen Tei Yamashita
On 9/11, I flew out of JFK on a 6:00 am flight headed for SFO, ignorant of danger and spared the consequences of the disaster in my wake. Though preoccupied for months later by my narrow escape and devastated by any news of friends and old acquaintances, I had long resolved to leave New York for a new start in the central coastal town of Santa Cruz on the northern peninsula of the Monterey Bay. Upon arrival, I turned selfishly to unpacking and situating myself in a comfortably clean and furnished rental, bathed in warm dry winds and swirling heat, hot days interspersed with cool, the fall season intervening in fits and starts. We call these days Indian summer, supposing that the Indians had long ago marked our calendar with their climate wisdom. By contrast, having just traveled in Europe from August to September, I was surprised to note, while in Fiesole, the autumn coolness trade away the summer heat, as if on schedule from 31 August to 1 September, which made me think that the parsing of seasons is a European expectation of time passing.
I had been offered a lectureship in art history on the subject of American architecture and the arts and crafts movement. My particular focus was the design of Frank Lloyd Wright and the architects of his Taliesan Fellowship, and the turn toward and uses of a Japanese aesthetic. On arrival in California, I thought I knew little of this coastal town, but this assumption of ignorance was eventually reversed. My previous forays to California had been brief and directed: for example, a tour of works by Julia Morgan including Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Asilomar in Pacific Grove, and various YWCA centers and gracious homes in San Francisco and on the East Bay—Oakland and Berkeley. While quaint Victorians, trolleys running beneath bay windows of pastel painted ladies were charming, I focused on the modern—the use of concrete and natural stone, exposed beams of giant redwood and extended garden landscapes, seaside cypress, crooked and windswept, reaching beyond glass open to natural light, wavering through sunset and fog. I was thus pleased to discover in Santa Cruz examples of the architecture of Aaron G. Green, protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Aaron Green had in the 1950s established himself independently in San Francisco and was the West Coast representative of Wright himself. I happened upon a building by Green somewhat by accident, a combination of fortune and misfortune, fortunate for my research and misfortunate in view of my health.
Soon after arriving in Santa Cruz I was plagued by dizzy spells, and while walking to class across the wooden bridges spanning long gullies that cut through the redwood campus, I experienced a curious sense of vertigo. I would stumble into my lectures, grip the podium for several moments to regain my balance, trying with difficulty to assure myself and any students who bothered to notice my distress that I had control of the situation. I learned that if I directed my concerns quickly to technology, in those years the use of a Kodak carousel projector, I would soon forget my dis-ease and turn to the subject of my lecture that day, whether interior design and craftsman furniture or perhaps the use of water as natural falls, pools, and flowing sound. So it was: I sought medical advice and was directed to a laboratory for a series of blood tests. The laboratory was located in a medical plaza of low roofed structures. As I walked into the waiting room, I immediately recognized the architectural style, the latticed windows just above waiting room seats—built-in couches facing a brick fireplace. While the narrow windows stained amber afforded very low light, light tumbled into the waiting room through a central Japanese garden atrium enclosed in glass. Such a waiting room for a medical laboratory seemed entirely out of character, but it was, as I knew, the architectural design of Aaron Green influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1964. I would come to frequent this waiting room numerous times and would note over the years subtle changes that remade and distorted the original intensions of design and aesthetic, but these were changes of time and age and inevitable forgetting.
You walk around the architectural model placed at the center of the large conference table and smile. You note the location of your future office with the insertion of a Japanese garden atrium. From above, you can see an open square in the low roof encasing a miniature maple, stones, and a pond embedded in moss. At the plaza center, a pharmacy is placed strategically in a pagoda, buildings graced with low eaves and convenient circling parking. You’ve driven up to San Francisco with your colleagues in your maroon Rolls Royce, enjoying the day and the pleasant ride along the coast up Highway 1. You exude a sweet confidence, your dress casual however smart, a red and gold silk scarf tied jauntily around your neck—your signature stylishness. Perhaps you, your doctor colleagues, the builder contractor, and the architect will dine in nearby Chinatown. You order for the group: Chinese chicken salad, roast duck, pork tofu, gai lan, bowls of steamed rice, beer for your companions, tea for you. Red lacquer and circling dragons swirl through the dining hall. You see yourself reflected infinitely in the surrounding mirrors, seated next to the architect as you discreetly suggest that you may be acquiring a mountain-side acreage; would he be interested in visiting the site?
Initially I was put off by the laboratory phlebotomist in charge, a commanding woman who seemed to bark out orders from behind the desk ensconced behind a half-door that served as a check-in station. Insurance card? Medicare? No doctor’s orders; who is your doctor? Are you fasting? Drink some water before you leave. What, no urine sample? Can’t pee today? Take this home, and bring me back some pee. Passing through the half-door, I realized she was a one-phlebotomist show—intake, paperwork, and phlebotomy all in one draw. That she managed this operation with efficiency and accuracy was a tribute to the job. She could slap my arm, tighten the rubber strap above the elbow, locate the vein, stick in the needle, and suck out my blood in five tubes in a matter of minutes. And despite all this, she remembered all her victims by name and likely our blood-types and disorders, and when in her infrequent absences, I truly missed her, those replacing her would commiserate with me. Ah yes, the general is on vacation.
Yet despite the general’s efficiency, I found myself on that first day sitting for perhaps 45 minutes in the waiting room with a pile of student papers, which I intended to grade in spare moments. Losing interest in student responses, I drew out the parameters of the space. The fireplace had ceased use, a potted plant in its altar, dark traces of smoke and ashes clearly smearing the brick within and above. The cubby designed to hold firewood was empty. I walked to the tall slabs of glass panes that served as the transparent wall to the garden and peered in. There was a pond with a small fall of flowing water and gold fish surrounded by grass and moss and flowering azaleas. A small maple shaded the area. And to one side was a bronze plaque set over a cement block imprinted with five names. Presumably the garden was a memorial to these names. Studying these names, I felt an uncanny awakening, a sudden sense of familiarity. I returned to my seat pressing a nervous palm into a slippery stack of papers and waited for the general to bark out my name.
You hike up an uneven path, the architect behind you. You point out trees and markers that designate the perimeters of the ten-acre hillside you’ve recently purchased. At some point in your trek, you turn around and look out toward the town below and the bay beyond. The view is spectacular that day, sunlight glinting off blue waves, the outline of the bay sweeping with lush clarity across the horizon. The architect nods with sympathetic pleasure, notes the southern facing direction, and agrees that this is the perfect open vista; no trees need to be cut or removed from this clearing. You will require a survey and structural engineering evaluations, but the architect imagines that retaining walls and foundation pylons to secure the structure to bedrock will pose no problems. The architect understands your intentions to create a home in concert with the living site, low to the ground and unobtrusive, bringing the natural outside into the gracious space of the home. You trade thoughts about your admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright. While living near Chicago, you’d admired examples of Wright’s homes; you admit your fascination for his architecture, bicycling through Oak Park and viewing the houses from the street, one by one. But you were a medical student and an intern in those days, and practical matters set you on a course away from your artistic pursuits. Your hobby has been furniture, following a craftsman aesthetic. Included in the plans, you’d like a carpenter’s studio separate from the house, a place to which you can retreat. You and the architect trade thoughts about the work of Isamu Noguchi and George Nakashima, but you demure, of course, yours is a hobby, something to pass the time away from your busy practice, your boisterous family.
I jumped to the general’s command, passed into the general’s quarters, and sat obediently at my designated seat. She peered, skewering her head toward my hanging face, staring into my eyes, and surprised me with her sharp query: Are you going to faint on me? I shook my head and woke to attention. I could not succumb to a dizzy spell at that moment if I were to discover the source of my malady. I thought that she must first draw my blood, and then, I could faint. Look that way, she ordered and pointed away from her needle, rubber hose, and tubes. I was offended; I had no such problem with the sight of blood. I purposely showed my strength and determination in this matter and caught her every movement with a purposeful fascination. I watched my blood syphon away into the general’s rubber hose, filling glass vials, one by one. By the last bloody vial, I knew the source of my discomforting remembering. The face of young woman rose in my vision, someone I had not thought of in more than 20 years.
Over time, you and the architect form a close relationship. He wants to see your furniture design ideas, incorporate them into the interior, and you’ve read about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, prompting the architect to talk about his tutelage with the great master. The architect studied with Wright during the pre-war years, became a conscientious objector contending that his work with Wright was an important effort for democracy. He explains his keen enthusiasm for Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture, an architecture tied to natural space and the education of the individual. He spreads his initial draft plans over your dining table. Architecture with Wright was a calling, but when the war really began in 1941, the architect volunteered for the Air Corps. You bond over the Air Corps; both you and your brother volunteered to fly as well; your brother was a paratrooper in the war. You say your brother survived, came home, got his degree, then got back into training, but died only a year later, a jet pilot over Bavaria in ’51. You guess the war isn’t ever over. Democracy is a hard mistress. Your last stint was in Dayton, Ohio, at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, in ophthalmology. When that was over, you piled the family, the wife and four kids and three cats and some of your furniture into a Volkswagen van and drove across country to Santa Cruz. Camped out for a while at your sister’s place, then started your practice. Despite everything—the war, prejudice, you believe that America has done right by its people, given you the opportunities your parents dreamed for. You peruse the ground plans surrounding the house—landscaping, swimming pool, garden with a pond and small fall. The architect asks if you know any Japanese landscaper or gardener friend with whom you’d like to work.
I remembered her exquisite beauty, perfect Eurasian features. It was 1976, the year I began my graduate studies in architecture at Columbia. I was in the elevator scaling the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the top. Through the faces and bodies in that rising box, I spied her in the corner, shy but with a certain nonchalance and happy innocence. I followed her through the elevator doors and wandered after her at a careful distance. I lost track of time and purpose and spent an entire and long afternoon in the museum as if smitten. I had originally intended to view a particular Léger and perhaps a matching Picasso, carefully attempt to memorize the structural design of the building itself, and then to rush off to my afternoon class. Instead I wandered and lingered in rooms, leaned from various viewpoints to view the hanging Calder—a cloud platter of red blood cells turning silently, ponderously, and followed her slow snail descent to the bottom. She wore the jeans of the day, bellbottoms over boots, covered by an oversized heavy pink Irish fisherman’s sweater, hand-knitted I assumed. On her head she wore a worn brown leather cap, which at some point she pulled away. I remember gasping at the glorious motion of her thick hair falling in graceful rivers across her face and shoulders. I was at the time studying architecture with an emphasis on historic preservation at Columbia. That moment in the elevator followed by my circling decline through the museum was the beginning of a tumultuous and torturous year for me in which I seemed to have lost all sense of direction.
You follow the execution of architectural plans with the extreme precision of a surgeon. In your line of work, perfection is a requirement. From the structural integrity of the foundation to the application of a subtle shade of paint, you meticulously manage every detail. The architect and contractor are conciliatory as you are kind but assertive, even forming your commands as gentle requests followed by astute observations and independent research. That is to say, before you make your recommendations, you hit the books, study the matter, prepare with knowing. Your assumption of authority has been learned in the military, but of gentleness, trained at the hospital bedside. But there is another veneer not so easily interpreted. You were born into one of the few Japanese families in a small rural town in Montana. Your father came at the turn of the century, labored as a foreman to complete the Northern Pacific—Minnesota to Spokane, and one day made enough to pay for your mother’s passage, a picture bride. As you come of age, you and your family represent an enemy from a place you have never known. To compare the small tightknit fishing villages of your parents to the rugged mountainous cowboy town of your upbringing is to imagine a folktale about two distant and exotic lands. If only it were a folktale and not a navigation through territories of hatred. Within months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you are aware that less than 200 miles away, across the border in Wyoming, 10,000 Japanese Americans evicted from the West Coast have been incarcerated in the same spectacular but desolate landscape in which you continue to be free. But it is a perilous freedom, especially for your immigrant parents designated enemy aliens. Thus every movement, every action, every facial expression must avoid trouble, anticipate a precarious future. Like any other kid from Montana, your older brother volunteers for the military. Your mother embroiders a thousand knots into a woven cotton belt that he obediently wears under his uniform, a protective talisman; so he returns but only to be killed in peacetime. You follow your brother’s path as if to complete what can never be completed, but you are driven to succeed. You skip lunch and drive from your practice at midday to see the rising stone escarpment, 650 tons of quarried Arizona sandstone, flashing a toothy grin toward the Pacific, a gesture of grandeur and place against a precarious future.
I followed her out the museum’s glass doors down Fifth Avenue to 86th where she disappeared underground and caught a train downtown. Impetuously and mindlessly, I hopped on and emerged at Astor Place, following her to Cooper Union and into a classroom that I immediately surmised as a drawing course. Conveniently, I removed a drawing tablet from my satchel, sat unobtrusively in the rear, and leafed past my architectural renderings, mimicking other students with pencil or charcoal in hand. To my thrill and distress, I saw the object of my pursuit, now robed, walk barefoot to a middle dais. The white silk kimono slipped from her body, and there she stood, sans pink fishermen sweater, sans jeans and boots and leather cap—my Eurasian Aphrodite rising. I drew frantically, lousy drawings, one after the other, a cubist montage of breast, nipple, waist, shoulder, buttocks, nose, pubis, and eyes, my heart racing, my mind a bubble about to burst, and all my sensations a loaded gun.
You host an open house. The architect calls a few days before delighted about the invitation. He asks if a writer for Architectural Digest might also be invited. The writer would come with a photographer. You generously agree. The day is perfect, though somewhat chilly, but this is Santa Cruz. Guests who arrive early are greeted with the full expanse of the bay and sit in the stone veranda watching the fading sunlight cast a quiet orange glow. Your wife has ordered catering for the event—large platters of sushi, barbecued teriyaki on skewers, elegant pastel petit fours, saké cocktails, and champagne. You’ve gathered your entire family. Your mother from Montana and mother-in-law from Illinois have both flown in to visit. Your two young sons run in and out of the house with their friends with abandon. Your two daughters, teenagers now, appear and disappear with their cadre of friends, nodding politely when asked about their individual bedrooms, choice of colors, and décor. You watch your wife as she becomes visible through the interior light beyond glass doors. The bubble of her blonde coif shines in a halo. You fondle the stem of a champagne glass and nod at the comments of the writer, but your mind wanders to the day you first met your wife, your initial insecurity; could you hope to win the heart of such a beautiful girl? It hasn’t been easy, the loss of your first son, but she has weathered every difficulty, growing more beautiful as the years pass. You have become the perfect couple, the perfect family, and this house itself is confirmation. The photographer weaves about, surreptitiously it would seem, pointing a Nikon, capturing the house and décor from every angle, backdrop for beautiful people. Transmitted over pool waters, you catch the waves of a distant argument, something about bombing in Vietnam, and you wander in that direction with a wide smile, wanting nothing to spoil this perfect evening. Your very presence dissipates disagreement, a change of subject, compliments about the house, and you Japanese really understand nature. You glance again toward the lighted fireplace where your relatives seem huddled with your mother apart. In another room, your wife is showing off her current project on the loom; she’s weaving natural fibers dyed naturally for throw pillows. You feel your heart might burst. Meanwhile, the architect is telling the story of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright to a group of rapt listeners. Wright built for his second wife the house he named Taliesin on family farmland in Wisconsin. Tragically, while Wright was in Chicago, this wife and her children and four of his apprentices were murdered by the housekeeper, a man from Barbados, who also set the house on fire.
At the break, twenty minutes later, I rushed from the classroom to the toilet, stood inside a stall, trying to calm the shaking in my knees. I threw cold water on my face and stared at myself in the mirror unsure of my own reflection. During the course of three hours, I did the same at every break, but I could not tear myself away. At the end of class, I lingered, waiting for her to emerge from the dressing room. A young man entered the room, and sure enough, to my sinking heart, he greeted her clothed body, and together they left the building. By this time, it was evening, and a slight drizzle had wet the dark streets. I watched the couple under an umbrella merge and disappear into the crossing crowd in a blur of car lights and neon. Reflecting back on this day, this was the moment at which I should have simply returned to my apartment in Harlem and continued my studies at Columbia, but I was ensnared in a design with a destiny I felt sure I must pursue to know. To be brief about the ensuing year, foolishly, I all but abandoned my coursework and research and was placed on probation. I forgot and lost contact with my friends and colleagues; if they showed concern, I shrugged away their questions and kept my secret counsul. I cannot precisely or chronologically relate with any detail what I did or how I lived during this time. All I remember is that my fulltime occupation was that of a detective, self-hired and certainly unpaid to know the daily life and moment-to-moment whereabouts of that young woman. I admit that my curiosity was made of infatuation, but it was an infatuation without any idea of finality, that is of meeting or consummating a relationship. Late into the early mornings, I pulled sheet after sheet of architectural drafting paper over my drawing table and feverishly designed structures of every sort, engineered houses in lilied valleys or on craggy promontories, next to astounding waterfalls, under snow pack, among bamboo groves, in tropical and desert climates. As much time as I spent as a detective, I was also enmeshed in geographical, climate, and environmental studies, always concerned with aspects of natural space and local materials. I was astounded by the beauty of my designs, the organic interwoven nature of place and structure, and always, she hovered ghostly above myriad drafts, rising perfectly from a white silk kimono.
The last time you speak with the architect is over the phone. The architect’s voice tremors, then retrieves his confidence with an edge of anger. He wonders what Frank Lloyd Wright would say if he were alive? The Marin County Civic Center was Wright’s last project; he died in 1959 and never lived to see the final inauguration of the building. It was the architect who completed the work. Every aspect of the center—its spacious elegance, skylight roof over interior gardens, arched windows framing the soft rise of distant hills, innovative jail design, the carefully studied configuration of the courtrooms themselves—honored Wright’s desire for democratic space. But this: first, the hostage-taking in the center’s courtroom and the shootout, the deaths of the prisoners and the judge and now, bombing the courtroom. You’ve read in the papers that some group called Weathermen say they are responsible. You commiserate with the architect’s sense of confoundedness and outrage. Everything the architect and you believe in is being contested and turned upside-down.
At first I thought she led a charmed life, prancing around the city from art to dance class to photo shoot. For example, I managed to follow her into the New York art scene—art receptions and openings where the likes of Yoko Ono, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik, or the young up and coming, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, might be the featured artists or emerge among the invitees. Despite her youth, she moved with an easy grace among celebrity. Always fashionably attired, she wore designs both chic and elaborate with a casual body language that said, of course. Modeling for art classes turned out to be a side job she did occasionally as a favor to her former teachers at Cooper Union. Professionally, she worked with a prominent agency, and I was able to catch glimpses of her strut the runway, for Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Hanae Mori, and Stephen Burrows, to name a few. Despite her success, I followed her weekly to the office of a psychiatric therapist. I waited patiently for the hour to end and tried to discern the results of each session; I comprehended nothing. I clipped her photographs from Vogue and Elle, taping them to every inch of my small one-room studio. In the night, sleeping on an old futon, I could hear the tape peeling away with the bad paint job, the magazine photos fluttering to the floor like autumn leaves. One particularly snowy night, I entered my cold apartment, banging on the old lever of the radiator, and finally noticed gashes of blood-orange paint beneath the powder blue, scarring the walls, her colorful images scattered. I saw my breath in the cold air of that horrid old apartment and wept.
You stare at the man with the gun who can’t be much older than your eldest daughter, thankfully safely far away, studying art in New York. He accuses you of crimes against the environment. You think you recognize him, a long-haired fellow, but they are all long-haired these days; even you are letting your hair grow out stylishly. Perhaps he came to the office for a case of pink eye. He told you how much he liked the garden in the middle of the office, never seen an office with a garden. His eyes were so infected they were almost glued together in gunk, but he could see the garden. But, he said, you can’t live in a little garden like that; maybe the Japanese could, but anyway he lived in the forest up there in the mountains, lots of room and close to God, he said. Nothing artificial. You nodded in agreement. Japanese gardens are artificially natural, miniature vistas to create the sensation of distance and expanse. Gardening is an art. You were thinking about your father’s garden in Montana. He thought about this and said he liked his art original, wild. No stunted bonsai for him, but of course he’d never been to Japan. Neither had you, except for a short R&R at a base in Okinawa before returning to the states. Looking at your watch and into the crowded reception room, you knew you didn’t care to reply. He had no insurance, no money to pay. You waved him off, told the receptionist to make an exception. She looked up, and her eyes said, another exception. As the fellow left, the mail arrived, and your receptionist handed you a box with a small card. You opened the card: Doc, a small token of thanks for your handiwork on my cataract. Sure is great to see clear again. You handed back the box of See’s candies and pointed to the reception room, gesturing, pass it around. Perhaps it is not the same long-haired fellow, but you, your wife, your two sons, and the receptionist will die today.
One day late in October, I scanned the Halloween paraphernalia decorating shop windows, the proliferation of jack-o-lanterns, witch hats, black cats, and skeletons along my route. I had affected a disinterested manner, gazing with feigned interest in odd directions, at window treatments or sidewalk displays. At this particular shop, I pretended interest in a skeleton mask, knowing she was passing on the sidewalk behind me. In all the time I followed her, our eyes never met, and I supposed she never knew or felt my presence. But this time, for some reason, she turned back to look my way, and our eyes met through that mask. I saw her disgust and terror. She stumbled away, walking hurriedly if not running into the underground. I abandoned the mask and followed with trepidation, chasing my sightline for her white trench coat, the slip of red and gold silk scarf trailing in the overheated draft of our descent. Surfacing at 86th Street, she walked quickly toward Fifth Avenue, fall colors of Central Park sparkling beyond. I slowed my pace, knowing her frequent destination. It was her habit to visit Magritte’s False Mirror, staring into that surreal sky eye. I should have anticipated this day, but I was obsessed with my own arrogance, my manic certainty of my own artistic genius, poet and prophet. That day, only I looked upward from the rotunda into the last rays of that October day streaming through the glass dome and saw her body tossed from the top of Wright’s magnificent nautilus, her white trench coat flapping, windswept black hair separating in silky strands, red and gold scarf fluttering along, passing the silent Calder, imposing an unusual commotion on those glorious clouds of vermillion.
Even though you were buried Catholic, you wander the past as a Buddhist. There is no extinguishing your anguish. The beauty of this place has betrayed you. After the murders and the fires, they rebuilt it all completely new again, but unlike your wife and your children, it returns no love, a temple of permanent and radiant beauty. A real Japanese has been hired to keep the gardens in a state of eternal beauty, constantly trimming and replanting, leaves and fading blossoms flutter onto rock and still water to form exquisite traces, never rotting. Koi flap about, red and gold and white, turning their bodies in chaos or moving gracefully in liquid silence. The bodies of you, your wife and children and associates lie beneath in the dark shoals where your blood pools like lead. One night in Indian summer, I climb the hill to your house and meet you there. In the tepid night, I see you shape-shift between father and lover, doctor and architect, artist and prophet. I guide you to the Rolls Royce, and together we syphon gasoline, spread it gallon-by-gallon at the most vulnerable corners of your beloved architecture.
Karen Tei Yamashita is professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her novels include I Hotel, Circle K Cycles, and Tropic of Orange, and the forthcoming Letters to Memory (September 2017), all published by Coffee House Press. A 2016 interview with Karen was conducted in Boom California by Jonathan Crisman and Jason Sexton.
This is a work of fiction, however based on true events. With gracious thanks to Frank Gravier, bibliographer for Humanities at UCSC McHenry Library; Paul Shea, director of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum in Livingston, Montana; and Lucy Asako Boltz, research assistant.
Copyright: © 2017 Karen Tei Yamashita. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/