Her name is Sumire. Takagawa told me that. On the first day I arrived at the house, I bent slightly in my wheelchair and stared at her, taking in her graceful features; her dark hair falling loosely on thin shoulders, delicate lashes framing her eyes, the slight dimples of her cheeks, and the nook of her neck, connecting with her collarbones. She is beautiful, but she makes me feel unsettled, just a little. Takagawa likes to have her photograph hung on the wall, even though I prefer paintings of sceneries. Sea, rain, mountains, anything else but her.
It is not that I am afraid of her. I just feel an aching tug in my chest every time I look at her. It is like she can see through me, the lies and the pain I try to cast away. It feels like knowing that one person is less miserable than I am, and that causes me terrible anger. Tagakawa says she must have looked familiar to me, because I always sit across her photograph, doing nothing but look at her all day. It is not that, too, exactly. The words I speak to myself when I look at her seem truer than a lie that someone will tell you when you ask.
Who is she? I once asked Takagawa. He was rinsing plates in the kitchen. I heard him stop, then spoke without looking at me.
The woman I love.
Takagawa has a hint of a smile every time he talks about her, how well she cooks, the songs she always hums to him, the color of her eyes. He becomes animated when he speaks her name; invisible tiny sparks surge like fairy dusts when he remembers her. I sit unmoved, listening to his monologue. Sometimes he asks me why I am so bitter. I say it is because I do not feel anything anymore, and it hurts me more to admit so out loud.
Tell me about you, he often prompts. But my memory has failed me, I am frail and old and unhappy. I tell him everything that I remember, fuzzy images of a children’s playground, swinging in old swingchairs with a man whose face I can’t remember. I am sorry, I can’t remember, is what I always say, after awkward silence that lasts a second too long. Takagawa looks sad afterwards, then changes the subject.
It is true. There are times when my mind blurs with unknown memories – those that probably belong to someone else’s. I do not know who I am anymore, yet I am acutely aware that I am present, watching my own move like a puppet on strings. When that happens, I vaguely remember someone’s voice. Look in the mirror and you see who you are. But there are no mirrors in this house. I have always thought that maybe Takagawa is afraid of his own reflection, so he stacks away everything that will cast a reading into his own face.
There is something else about the man I am living with. Takagawa never brings anyone to his home, I notice that. It seems his world consists of only Sumire, a woman he married almost fifteen years ago. Whether she leaves or dies, I am not certain. Neither am I certain that he appreciates my presence, because I always feel I burden him. He draws a sharp breath every time he looks at me, as if he were uneasy, and perhaps slightly surprised. So I tiptoe around like a cat, which is hard to do considering I am stuck in a wheelchair. For as far as I can remember, I try to appear invisible.
There is only one time that Takagawa lost his temper. It happened a month ago. We had a few cups of sake for New Year’s Eve, and while cooking for dinner, he cut his thumb. He cursed loudly, slightly panicky at the sight of blood. I watched him wordlessly, and he moved towards me, apparently forgetting his bloody finger, bent down and peered into my face.
Sumire. He said. His face was pale, his lips quivering. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.
With that answer, he exploded. He grabbed both my shoulders and shook me, shouting slurred words I could not understand. And then he took one look at my face and his whole body sagged, crouching on the floor beside me, sobbing silently.
We both pretended it never happened.
To say the least, life with him is good. We never cross each other’s path and silence dominates our conversations, just the way I like it. He becomes my sole caretaker, and I grow more comfortable around him each day. But I never forget, never miss the shadow of Sumire in his eyes.
I want to look at myself, I tell him for the third time this week. He casts me a pained look. He does not understand. My skin has turned dry. Sometimes I feel as if each layer is peeling off to reveal someone I no longer recognize.
Takagawa sighs. I grow impatient with him. I am not a child, why am I treated like one? I circle around the house, getting angrier with each step. At last, he relents, opening the door to a room I have never entered before. I barge in before he lets me in. This must be Sumire’s room. This must be a room that used to fill with sunshine, but all I can smell is dust and powdery loneliness. He hesitates, takes the corner of a white cloth and pulls, revealing a large mirror. And then, he steps back.
I look up and stiffen. My fingers automatically reach up for my face, touching the scarred tissue of skin. The traces of where a straight nose and the folding of the lips used to be. I look at myself hard, look at myself closely for the very first time. The unrecognizable monster that stares back at me gapes in horror in response.
At first there is a scream. And then it turns to a wail. It breaks my heart.
Do you remember? Takagawa asks in a whisper. Yes, I remember tires screeching. I remember fire. I remember waking up in a place I do not recognize. I remember the songs Sumire used to hum. I remember, I remember.
Sumire. He calls.
This time I understand. That is my name. Sumire.