For my best friend’s wedding present, I sent her a potted sansevieria. I compared product photos and prices online, selected one within my budget, addressed it to her new apartment, and hit send. I thought a leafy plant would be a more thoughtful gift than crockery or towels.
I called her soon after.
‘Did you get it?’
‘Yes, thank you! I love it – hope it’s okay, though.’
I knew what she meant. She was the only one in our class who’d failed to grow a hyacinth bulb in water, and she’d even made a cactus rot. The reason I’d chosen a sansevieria out of all the many leafy plants was, shall we say, out of consideration. The shop blurb said the sansevieria was stronger and easier to look after than any other plant, and on top of that it produced negative ions thereby improving indoor air quality, making it the perfect gift. ‘Stronger and easier to look after than any other plant’: that meant even she’d be able to care for it. She wasn’t a child any more after all, not by a long stretch – and she was married, to boot. There had been times when I thought she’d probably never marry, but she did. In which case she should at least be able to care for one of these.
I didn’t tell her that.
‘It’ll be fine,’ I said simply, full of affection for her. ‘The instruction leaflet was enclosed, right? Make sure you read it.’
‘Oh, hang on a sec. Ryo wants to say thank you too.’
The sound of her breathing receded, and her husband exhaled into my ear.
‘Hey, how are you?’ he said cheerfully. ‘Thanks for the wedding reception.’
He was referring to the fact I gave a speech on behalf of the bride’s friends. I put a lot of effort into it, feeling all warm and fuzzy as I rediscovered so many memories of her. They all sparkled, like a little brook. Everything that happened between us, the things she said, the things I said, were all washed away out of reach, leaving only the freshness of crystal clear water. How was I to convey this modest joy, pleasantly cool yet still warm, to everyone there? In a corner of my mind I knew I was being condescending. And yes, I was disdainful of my friend. But this didn’t diminish my friendly feelings towards her. So I put my whole heart into giving the speech. I talked about how gentle and kind she was, how serious and candid and unaffected. I really like my friend. I always did, and I still do.
My friend’s husband laughed and said he would make sure she didn’t let my gift die. My friend came back on the line.
‘You okay for time?’ That’s what she always said when she wanted a long chat. I was okay for time. I was surprised she was, being newly married, but it was just like her really.
‘It’s fine, no problem. Ryo’s going to have a bath now.’
And so she started talking, just like she always did.
The subject was her husband. She discovered new things about him every day, she said. Occasionally she lowered her voice and spoke about amusing details with great relish: how she couldn’t contend with the grime on his shirt collar just by rubbing it with detergent and washing it; how he coughed up phlegm in the toilet twice a day; the dull, heavy smell of sweat that filled the bedroom after a sound night’s sleep; the appalling potency of his bad breath first thing in the morning. How he folded his pants neatly and put them away. How he was particular about which shampoo and conditioner he used. How he’d been upset that they didn’t sell his preferred products in the local drug store, so he’d ordered them online.
‘Isn’t it weird? It’s only shampoo and rinse – any would do, surely?
‘It’s conditioner,’ I corrected her. ‘Even you always use the one your mom chose, don’t you?’
‘I have to. My hair goes everywhere if I don’t.’
Whenever my friend stayed in hotels, she never touched the shampoo provided but instead lined up her own little refillable bottles on the edge of the bathtub. If I ever suggested she stayed over at my place, she would recoil and excuse herself in a small voice saying she hadn’t brought her shampoo with her.
‘I never knew men were fussy about that sort of thing. I always thought they were okay with using just shampoo and didn’t need rinse.’
‘Conditioner,’ I corrected her again.
‘Oh, right. So what’s the difference between conditioner and the rinse that I use?’
‘Yours is treatment.’
‘Oh, is that what it is?’
My friend’s voice suddenly brightened. ‘Hey, Ryo! Sure, I was just about to hang up.’ The words that came through her cell phone hadn’t been directed at me, but rather arrived as a ripple from her voice echoing throughout a large sealed room empty but for herself. Although her new home was a fifty-six square meter two-bedroom condo.
‘So, come and visit, won’t you?’ she said quickly.
‘Sure, I’ll visit. Sometime soon.’
I know her really very well. After all, she is my best friend. For example, it was obvious to me that she knew very little about her boyfriend when she married him, even after dating for seven years. All she’d known about him apart from his basic personal information was his taste in films, his taste in clothes, his taste in food, his taste in women – and most importantly what he liked about her and how much. She’s lacking in imagination and didn’t need to know any more. I knew, naturally, that there were sides to her boyfriend she didn’t know about, and that she wasn’t even aware she didn’t know about them.
I also knew all about their sex life. They hadn’t had sex at all during the last two years they were dating. They’d done it more frequently at the beginning of their relationship, but it had slowly died out. There were all kinds of reasons: he was busy with his work, or she had her period, or they preferred to go see a movie together rather than spend time cooped up in a bedroom, or there was an art exhibition they wanted to see, or they would go two hours by train to eat cake at a café featured in a magazine, or they’d arranged to go out with me or some other friend. I knew she was a little suspicious about it, and also that she was unhappy about it. But I also knew that she was convinced he wasn’t being unfaithful, that he was devoted only to her, and truly loved only her. And it was true. During those seven years, she had often invited me out to lunch with the two of them, and we’d also gone out together in a big group of friends to karaoke and barbecues. On those occasions I’d been able to casually sound him and his friends out, and I had to conclude that she was right. I was pretty good at that sort of thing – at ferreting out gossip, and seducing spoken-for men. He was clean. That was when I first thought my friend would probably marry him. It’d be more fun if it wasn’t the case, though.
I hoped she wouldn’t let the sansevieria die right away. I hoped there wouldn’t be an awkward situation with her feeling she’d wronged me by letting it dry out or rot.
It was rarely me who called her. It was always she who called.
‘You okay for time?’
‘Sure. How’s the sansevieria?’
‘It’s doing great!’ she said enthusiastically. ‘Even though I’ve only watered it twice since it arrived. I wanted to water it more, the poor thing, but Ryo said the instructions said not to water it too much so I forced myself to be patient. And it seems to like it like that. It’s really tough, isn’t it?’
‘Really? That’s great.’
‘Listen, you know what? Ryo still doesn’t do it.’
‘Doesn’t do what?’
‘Look I told you we hadn’t been doing it. For about two years.’
‘What? You are kidding me, right?’
But I wasn’t as surprised as I’d made out, and she wasn’t all that depressed about it either. She told me about how affectionate her husband was. He wants to hold hands even at home. He’s concerned when my friend has to work overtime and comes home late, and goes to the station to meet her. He won’t eat dinner until she comes home. He wants to eat with her, and will wait for hours. Dinner is almost always ready-made meals or easy-cook packets from the supermarket. My friend always lived at home so she can’t cook very well, and she doesn’t have time to practise. Her husband doesn’t complain at all, and just smiles. He can’t cook either. He lived alone for a long time so you’d have thought he would have learned how to, but my friend overlooks this point. In bed, they talk together. She has a lot to talk about and he hangs on to her every word, so that by the time they’ve finished talking they are both dead tired, and the atmosphere isn’t conducive to sex.
‘He’s a bit like a parent, I guess. No, he’s much more overprotective than a parent,’ she said happily. ‘Just when I thought I’d finally managed to get away from my parents, I go and marry a father figure. How tedious!’
I’d known that if she ever married it would be to a parental substitute.
‘When are you coming over?’ she asked. ‘Come while the sansevieria is still healthy.’
‘What about this Saturday?’
‘Sorry, it’s the company trip that day.’
‘Well, what about the following Saturday? Weekday evenings are fine too.’
‘I’ll try to work out my schedule.’
A photo arrived to my cell phone. It was a sansevieria. It filled the screen, with the top cut off and the background barely visible. All I could tell was that the curtains were a similar shade of green as the plant. It hadn’t withered yet. I was just about to email my friend when she called.
‘Did you see it?’ Her voice was louder than usual.
‘I saw it.’
‘It’s grown a lot, hasn’t it?’
‘Has it? I can’t tell.’
‘It has. It’s sending out new shoots from the side, too. Could you tell?’
‘Oh, really? No, I didn’t notice that.’
‘Dad says it’s about time we repotted it.’
‘Oh wait, I’ll hand you over.’
‘Yoko-chan, long time no see. Thanks for everything at the wedding reception.’
It was her mother, not her father.
‘Oh, you’re welcome. It really has been a long time, hasn’t it?’
‘You know, your speech was so moving that I cried. And you gave them such a nice present too. Thank you so much.’
‘Oh, not at all.’
‘Please do keep being good friends.
My friend came back on the line.
‘Sorry, Mom said she really wanted to say hello to you.’
‘Are your Mom and Dad over to visit?’
‘Yes. They were worried that Ryo and I aren’t eating properly, so they made some lunch and brought it over. Enough for four. Mom’s just heating it up and putting it out on the plates now. Sorry she bothered you. Dad and Ryo are watching TV.’
I strained my ears. My friend’s voice was exceptionally clear, and the background was hushed. I couldn’t hear any sound from the TV or microwave, or the clatter of plates.
‘Oh, Dad said to say hello. Ryo too. So, what about it? When are you coming over? Hold on a sec . . . Ryo says he can make Wednesday or Friday this week.’
I hung up the phone, got into bed, and thought about my friend’s parents. I know them quite well. They also know me quite well. They probably thought my friend was a virgin until she finally got married. As if.
My friend is an only child, and while her parents are parents, they are also her closest friends. They are really unbelievably close. She tells them everything. She does so because they want to listen.
Her parents could hardly wait for her to come home from school, cram school, work, or a night out, so she could tell them about it. When she was happy they were happier, when she laughed they laughed louder, when she was sad they were sadder, when she was angry they were angrier, they worried endlessly about things before she did, they liked everything about her, and their attitude showed that they accepted everything about her. My friend talked and talked and talked. She talked about absolutely everything. Her parents listened ad infinitum.
They assume her best friend does the same, but they’re wrong. As her best friend I can guarantee that just being best friends doesn’t mean you want to hear about anything and everything. Of course, if she says she wants me to listen, I listen. And I actually have been listening. That’s what being best friends is about. But in fact, pretty much the only thing a best friend wants to hear about is how far her friend went with her boyfriend.
And that is pretty much the only thing that her parents didn’t want to hear about. They hoped she would fall in love like everyone else, and wanted it all to go well. It wasn’t like they made sex a taboo subject – as long as it was about her friends, not her, not their daughter. They didn’t want her to have sex. Not when she was 16, nor 20, nor 23, nor 29, nor even 32. Sex was part and parcel of marriage. They made themselves very clear on this. Whenever the subject came up, it was the only time they stopped being friends and put on utterly implacable, stern parent faces.
My friend had sex on the sly. During the day, expeditiously, quietly, holding her breath. She maintained appearances, not staying out all night, and only going on trips with me or other girlfriends.
‘Tell them you’re staying at mine,’ I told her. ‘Then you can stay over at his.’
It was the same with trips. ‘What’s the problem with telling them you’re going with me, and going with him instead?’ I’d say.
My friend never once used me. Not when we were 16, nor when we were 32. But I don’t think her parents were stupid enough to really believe that she was a virgin right up until she married at 33. Just like my friend wasn’t stupid enough to actually keep her virginity.
My friend always was demure. While I and other girlfriends were giving our youth a mauling, getting battered and toughening ourselves up, my friend simply put her youth on her knee and absently picked at it with her fingernails. She began to feel an anguish that she couldn’t tell her parents about. And so it was my turn. I listened to her anguish. It wasn’t the fact that sex was forbidden that was causing her so much distress, it was that she wanted to abandon herself to her parents in the way she always did, but wasn’t able to.
But I’m not disdainful of my friend because she does whatever her parents tell her to, nor because she hasn’t experienced adventure or recklessness. It’s because she’s empty.
‘I always get the feeling that I’m not a participant in my own life,’ she confessed to me.
And it’s true. A large part of her belongs to her parents, and the rest of her is mine and her boyfriend-of-the moment’s. Now her husband’s.
‘You okay for time?
‘Sure.’ Of course I am.
‘My parents have been coming over three times a week since then. They come when Ryo and I are at work, fill the refrigerator with ready made meals, and go away again.’
‘Ryo’s happy because it’s tasty, saves us money, and it makes things easy for us.’
‘But you’re not?’
‘Not really . . . after all, we’re supposed to be newly-weds but it doesn’t feel like that. But then, Mom’s cooking is tasty, and it really is a big help, I guess.’
Then she told me they’d finally had sex again last night. She was especially happy because her husband had initiated it, not her. She also talked about having children. Last night they’d used contraception out of habit, but at her age, if they wanted children she’d better hurry up. Before they married, her husband had said he wanted two children. I knew this. He’s one of two brothers. My friend, on the other hand, wouldn’t mind having just one, and they’d argued a little over this. I knew this too. But now her husband had started saying that maybe one child would be enough. He’d love a cute girl who looked just like her. But my friend has also changed her mind, and tells me she wants two. It would be good if both were boys, she said.
‘After all, they’d have more freedom to live their lives the way they want.’
‘Really? Doesn’t it depend on the person?’
‘Oh, someone’s at the door. Wait a bit – I’ll call you back.’
She hung up. Who had come? I didn’t know.
Ten minutes or so later, she called again.
‘It was a delivery.’
‘What on earth is this?’
I said nothing and waited. Now I could hear the sound of my friend clumsily using a cutter, the sound of her slashing tape, the sound of her ripping the package open even though the tape wasn’t completely cut, the sound of her removing the packaging.
‘What the heck? . . . Soil and a plant pot.’
‘It says “Soil for growing sansevieria.” There’s a trowel, too.’
She looked at the invoice. It was in her husband’s name.
‘You okay for time?’
‘It was a present. From Ryo. For our half-anniversary, he said.’
‘Half-anniversary. Our wedding.’
My friend told me the sansevieria I’d given them was growing fast and putting out a lot of new roots, so it was time to separate it out. She and her husband had studied up online about how to separate the roots and repot them, and they’d carried it out in their living room on their day off, and ended up getting soil all over the wood flooring.
‘After all, we didn’t want to take it out onto the balcony and let bugs get into the soil. We thought it would be enough to just spread out newspaper, but we underestimated the amount of soil. It got everywhere when we pulled the plant out of its original pot.’
‘So, did it go well?’
‘Probably. Right now both pots look very much alive. We leave the curtains open for the plants while we’re out at work. We’re a bit worried about sun damage to the flooring, but we feel too sorry for them not getting enough light. Did you know that new sansevieria roots are joined together underground by a fat stem called a rhizome?’
‘You’re supposed to snap it off, but I made a mess of it . . . so Ryo cut it.’
‘And then you’re supposed to leave the break to dry for two or three days before potting it, but we couldn’t wait, so Ryo went and got the hairdryer and gave it a blast with that until it looked like it was dry enough. I was worried it might die after we repotted it.’
‘Really? Was it okay?’
‘Seems so. The both of them are getting bigger by the day. We’ll have to separate them out again before long.’
She said that next time they were going to make one for her parents. And one for me.
‘You can take it home with you when you come over to visit.’
‘Oh, but . . . I don’t need one!’
‘Um, you okay for time?’
‘Yes, sure. No problem.’
She burst into tears, heaving great sobs while I tranquilly listened. She sniffled, then blew her nose, cleared her throat, and cried again. It had been a while, but it wasn’t the first time. Whenever my friend wants to cry, I let her. She’s crying because she hasn’t got anything she needs to talk about. She wants to talk, she wants to unburden herself, but there’s nothing left so all she can do is cry. She did this once to her parents. They panicked. They feared something terrible had happened to her, that maybe someone had bullied her, but she said no, nothing had happened. They thought that was even more serious, that the problem was so big she couldn’t talk about it.
My friend’s parents held her tight, shook her, lost patience with her and scolded her, calmed down and comforted her, doing everything they could to get it out of her. It was such a tremendous onslaught that she couldn’t ignore them. Still crying, she desperately thought about it. She wasn’t allowed to cry for nothing. She had to give them a reason.
She told them she’d had a huge fight with her best friend. Me, that is. ‘Best friend? Which one?’ her baffled parents asked. My friend gave my name. To be honest, until that moment, we hadn’t been best friends. But so what? From the moment she named me as her best friend, that’s what we’ve been.
I don’t ask her why she’s crying. I wait until she finishes, however long it takes. I’m okay for time.
My friend at last calmed down and muttered ‘Sorry’ with an embarrassed laugh.
‘How’s the sansevieria?’ I asked sympathetically.
‘It’s fine. Really fine. It’s growing more and more leaves. We’re really good at separating the roots now. How many pots do you think we have now? Come over soon and see!’
‘Sorry, I’m just so busy.’
By the time I finally managed to visit my friend’s new home, two years had passed since her wedding. While I’d been so busy, she’d had a child. A boy. She sent a photo to my cell phone of the newborn swaddled in white linen and laid down on the flooring with a sansevieria leaf next to him. The leaf, longer than the baby, was like a double-edged sword with a sharp pointed tip.
‘Baby and sansevieria both doing well,’ read the message.
On the appointed day, I left work early and went to a department store where I bought some blue baby rompers and had them wrapped with a blue ribbon. Then I went to the basement food hall and bought five custard puddings.
‘He’s such a boy, even though he’s just a baby. He’s so naughty!’ My friend told me on the phone. She also said, ‘When I told my parents you were coming over, Yoko, they were delighted and started going on about how much they wanted to see you too. Do you mind? Mom said she’d cook us up a feast. Ryo’s all fired up too and said he’ll come home early to help. He’s been learning how to cook from Mom lately. It’s weird. Dad’s the same as ever. The moment he comes over he goes straight to sit in front of the TV.’
I arrived at my friend’s condo and pressed the button on the interphone at the entrance. She answered right away, as though she’d been waiting.
‘Come in!’ she said, and the automatic door opened. ‘Get the elevator to the seventh floor. Turn left out of the elevator, and it’s the door at the far end. And I’m sorry, but we’re all a bit tied up at the moment. The door isn’t locked, so just come on in.’
In the elevator I jiggled my shoulders to straighten my jacket, and adjusted my grip on my handbag and the bags with the gifts I’d brought with me. I followed her instructions and soon stood before the apartment door. One side of the shared corridor was open, and the faint sound of the traffic below reminding me of my childhood. I put my hand on the cream-colored door. As she’d said, it wasn’t locked. I went inside and quietly closed it behind me.
A narrow hallway stretched out before me and opened out into the living room. But I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. Beneath a diffuse, warm-colored light, an expanse of thick, densely-growing blades of tall grass stretched out before me. When I took a closer look, it appeared to be growing out of soil spread directly onto the flooring.
Still, I had to take off my shoes. Hemmed in by a folded-up baby buggy and the walls, along with flat shoes and sandals, men’s leather shoes and sneakers, I remained standing upright and wiggled my ankles to release my heels from my pumps. I felt utterly unnerved, barely managing to put my stockinged feet in a space on the flooring where there was no soil. It was only when I’d accomplished this that I realized that it wasn’t grass at all, but leaves. Leaves of sansevieria.
I had only seen the sansevieria in photos. I held my handbag and the paper shopping bags in my left hand, and with my right hand I touched the leaves. They were hard, fleshy and cold. They were a deep green, with a deeper green, almost black stripes, and yellowish edges. They were smooth with the slight roughness of dust, and didn’t really strike me as something living.
The apartment was hushed. I forced my way through the closely-clustered leaves. I could tell my stockings had ripped underfoot. The only sounds were those I was making: the faint sound of my breathing, the rustling of my paper bags, the murmur of the sansevieria as I cut through it, pushing it away with my hands and forcing it aside with my body, crushing it underfoot.
Photograph © Carl Lewis