Sunday, 22 July 2007


I first met Sachie at the local swimming pool one cloudy summer day. Most Japanese tend to go swimming on hot days when everyone else has decided to go to the pool too, but like me, she wanted to swim, not just cool off. With just the two of us rattling around in the pool, we got to talking. She started speaking to me in English, but immediately changed to Japanese when I asked her to. I appreciated that: a lot of Japanese people who speak English well resent having to speak Japanese to non-native speakers. Sachie didn't seem to care which language we spoke, and I found that refreshing.

We found that we had a lot in common. Like me, she had studied literature and languages and we liked many of the same books. Moreover, she not only knew where my hometown was, she had actually spent a summer there. An eventful summer, as it turned out: during that time she had met her husband, also Japanese, at the local university. Personally, I can't think of anything I'd hate more another summer in my hometown, but Sachie claimed that she liked dry heat; she remembered her days there as among the happiest in her life.

Over the next year, Sachie and I talked on many occasions, and I was always struck by her intelligence and sensitivity. She was one of the best listeners I have ever met; when I made a comment, it was almost eerie how carefully she would consider it before answering. Sachie's daughter, a year older than my eldest, suffered from a chronic cough, as did my youngest. We talked endlessly about our children, discussed books, and traded recipes.

The only thing that seemed odd about her was the amount of make-up she wore. Although she dressed rather plainly and carelessly, as I did, she was never without it, and she put it on with a heavy hand. Since she tended to keep her head out of the water when she swam, preferring to do the back stroke, side stroke or dog paddle, the make-up stayed on most of the time. Once she got it wet, though, and I remember thinking that she must be trying to mask a birthmark or a large blemish. Later, I wondered if she might be covering up a rash or other skin ailment instead: sometimes she put more make-up on one part of her face than another.

The last time I saw Sachie, she was in her car and I was hurrying home. She smiled and waved, and pulled over to the side of the road. Rolling down the window, she called out that she wanted to talk to me. "I'm in a hurry!" I told her. "Give me a call!" And I scrawled my phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to her. She gave me hers, and I put it in my pocket.

Unfortunately, I washed the jacket with Sachie's telephone number in it. I figured she would call me if she needed to, and I would get her phone number from her when she did. But a month went by and Sachie seemed to have disappeared. One day, a mutual friend told me that she had taken her daughter back to her hometown, Kagoshima, and was never coming back. I expressed my surprise.

"Well, she had to do something," said our mutual friend. "Or he really would have killed her."

I had no idea what she was talking about, and I said so. The friend shook her head.

"I didn't know either! She was always so happy, always in such a good mood. I found out by accident one day. I happened to drop by her house when he was beating her up. She'd locked herself and her daughter into the toilet and he was punching holes through the door. I had to call the police!"

"Dear God!"

"You should have seen the state of their house. Broken plaster everywhere. Holes through all the doors, through the shoji, cracked windows, little piles of broken ceramic where he'd thrown the dishes."

"I can't believe it!"

"Neither could I," she assured me. "He'd already broken her jaw -- twice, I think."

Now I knew why she'd worn all that make-up.

"Did she tell you how long it had been happening?"

"Oh, ever since they first got married, I think."

"And all this time she's never left him!"

"Mmm," said our friend. "Her parents are pretty old-fashioned. So when she told her mother about it, her mother just told her to gaman." Gaman means to endure. It is used a lot in Japanese.

What amazed me was that Sachie had kept all of this to herself. Our mutual friend claimed that if she hadn't actually witnessed it and gotten involved by calling the police, Sachie would probably have been too ashamed to tell her. "I thought she might have told you, though," she said, "because you're not Japanese. She might have thought you wouldn't judge her so harshly. That you wouldn't tell her to gaman."

She was right: I wouldn't have.

I don't really blame myself for not stopping to talk to Sachie the last time I saw her. A shrewder, more perceptive person than I might have figured out what was happening from her ill-applied make-up, but other than that, there were no clues. Sachie seemed as happy and cheerful on that last occasion I saw her as she always was. But I wish I hadn't washed that jacket.


Carole said...

Gaman is such a good quality. But in this case it could have been deadly. I am glad Sachi got away from the abuse...or at least I hope she did. One of the sad things I often see, is that people end of in the same situation that they came from. And they become adept at hiding their circumstances from the world around them. Very good post.
Very sad.

Good she had a friend she could laugh with for a year. Do not discount that. Those times in the pool were probably refreshing to her soul.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Our mutual friend agreed that Sachie did an incredible job of hiding what was happening to her, but I still remember her incongruously thick make-up and wonder that I didn't figure it out.

I also realized that whenever Sachie talked about her husband yelling at her, I interpreted the yelling in an entirely different way, imagining it to be like the tempest-in-a- teapot blustering so many men indulge in.

Eryl Shields said...

Until quite recently women here would have been told to gaman too and I have come across plenty that did for years.

You probably interpreted the situation wrongly because such abuse isn't a familiar aspect of life for you. We use our own experiences to interpret what we encounter in the external world. Some thing I'm beginning to notice about you Mary is that you are prone to beating yourself up about something or other. Give yourself a break lady!

Glad Sachie got away. Good story.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Sachie was so unfailingly upbeat and cheerful every time I saw her that I would have had to be a lot more astute than I am to figure out what was going on.

You're right that we use our own experiences to make sense of what is happening around us. Sachie might have dropped hints about her husband's behavior, but if she did I misinterpreted them. I don't berate myself for having done this -- honest! I just wish I still had her phone number.

Kanani said...

Oh, that's sad. I wish there were a way you could find her.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- Sadly, there isn't. The awful thing is that I subsequently forgot her last name, then I lost touch with Kim-san, our mutual friend, who was actually Korean. Sachie was thoroughly nice, and so easy to talk to. It is sad to make good friends only to lose them forever. And all because I washed that damned jacket.

Nicole Brackett said...

Wow, Mary. What a post. Part of me wants to say, "How tragic!" Another part of me, though, wants to say, "Hooray for Sachie for getting the heck out of Dodge!" Wish you could find out what happened, but I agree with Carole that your pool meetings were probably a great blessing to her.

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Nicole -- You are right: I just wish I knew what had happened -- or rather I wish I knew that Sachie and her little girl were okay and did not end up going back to the husband. The fact that her mother urged her to stick with him even when she must have dreaded to do so just kills me; if I'd had any idea, I would have been able to give her some support.

kathie said...

OMG, what a riveting tale. I'm sorry it's true, for your friends sake and that you lost her number, but it's a story begging you to elaborate and fictionalize...maybe as a tribute to such a unique, strong person????

Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- In fact, I could fictionalize this more (I've changed Sachie's name and hometown), but it seemed dramatic enough as it was. What I would like to do is elaborate on it and invent a good ending for her. I just hope there really was one.

The story could have had a worse ending, too: Sachie's and my mutual friend Kim-san had actually walked by Sachie's house and heard Sachie calling out to her from the bathroom window, asking her to phone the police: her husband was actually in the process of knocking the door down and she and her daughter were terrified. It was the fact that he had begun to beat the daughter that forced Sachie to leave. If Kim-san hadn't been walking past the house, who knows how far he would have gone?