by Brian Ó Faoláin
The first time we met, I thought I’d seen her true face. It was a useful trick to play on myself, giving me the confidence I needed to let me have a go. I succeeded first time, that time.
Mariko Oliveira von Roth. It hadn’t tripped too nimbly off the tongue in the beginning, but I got used to the name sooner than I did its owner. She’d come over from Brazil, where her family had been living for the past seventy or eighty years, and her background had intrigued me. We’d stood outside the second-hand bookshop she had just emerged from, and we talked for what seemed like ten minutes. It might have been two hours.
“Besotted” is not a word that I am comfortable using these days, but I suppose it’s an apt label for the feelings that swirled in and around my thoughts as I contemplated the young woman before me. She was slight, tiny in every way as so many Japanese girls are, but she carried herself with the quiet ease that comes only from being born into wealth. I hadn’t known of many Japanese Brazilians that had been able to get ahead in life, but the noble-sounding appellation to her name (spoken casually, almost as an afterthought), clarified things for me. I hadn’t a virgin’s chance at an orgy after finding out who she was, and could only wonder at the kind of people she must have been blood relation to. The uncertainty caused me to hold back a little, and maybe my aloofness was what intrigued her, that self-preserving affectation of indifference that I’d picked up from young Americans I’d met on my own travels. I hadn’t expected anything to happen, but something seemed to grow of itself between us. Oh, I’d had relationships and friendships and all that, but this was new. To both of us, I’d quickly reassured myself.
When we moved in together about six months later – pretty soon, by my standards – she hadn’t seemed put out in the least by the fact that she was moving from a rented penthouse apartment to my ordinary, unexceptional little flat. In moments of self-doubt I’d tell her that she liked it because it reminded her of her unexceptional boyfriend. “Maybe a little,” she’d sometimes say. This didn’t happen very often, so it never really became a sticking point. It was just one of the unexamined facts of our existence.
I’ve already said that her beauty was a reflection of her wealth, as though being anything less than perfect was beneath her. I’d always assumed such women to be self-obsessed materialists, or sometimes, damaged and vulnerable, the Evelyn McHale types we read about from time to time. “The death of a beautiful woman is… the most poetical topic in the world.” Poe had said that, and he knew what he was talking about. We devour the unlucky socialites twice over these days, in the gossip columns and in the obituaries, but there is an older form of wealth. Mariko was of the latter type. She used her beauty the way she used these other assets – with careful abandon. A studied, almost stylised indifference. I’d encountered people like her before, watching them from a distance as they passed over me on their way to better things, but no-one like that had ever stayed.
I used to wonder at her innocence, captivated by the pleasure she always seemed to find in the simplest things. The unexpected richness of a dark roast coffee, for example, or the unusual and expensive- seeming silverware that previous tenants had left behind. At other times it was the passionate interest she chose to take in the soccer games on television that I’d switch on to pass a few hours on an uneventful weekend. She made an effort to do the things that I liked to do, and so she fascinated me. I never did get around to complaining about that.
It was only much later that I discovered at least two other sides to this girl. I should have noticed this the day we met, should have been prepared by the three names, three continents, the hint of illicit wars and ill-acquired gains, but the heart will always gloss over the unpleasant details, however important they might turn out to be in the end. It occurs to me now, as I sit at her bedside in this private hospital, looking at her beautiful, unmarred face, the slim, delicately-muscled arms bare and perfect beneath her hospital gown. The body broken below the waist, but mercifully hidden from view, as she would have requested.
Maybe she is getting what she deserved.
You might wonder how I could say something so cruel about the woman I professed to love, but I think now that my honesty is a part of love, not apart from it. The day of the accident, we had been out walking in the relative cool of late night, as we liked to do, circling around the city in a route that began and ended close enough to my flat. We were both quite tired at the end, not only from the oppressive heat of an Indian summer, but also from the hours we had spent walking through the city, covering every street and side-street imaginable, every high street and back alley that it had to offer. I had initially been a little dubious about this plan of hers, but she’s always had a way of getting exactly what she wants. You might feel a little guilty about submitting to her whims, but she could make you feel good about doing it.
It had tired me out that night, this walking tour of hers. “It’s Independence Day,” she’d said. And true enough, September 7th it was. She’d bought a street map, insisting, in her mesmerising, bossy, effortlessly attractive way, that owning the city was one sure method of falling in love with my hometown. She had done things this way in Sao Paulo, she’d told me, and she’d done the same in Berlin and Kyoto, so why would she not do it here, “in this nice little town”? I couldn’t really argue with that.
We’d covered the whole city in a matter of hours, and she had quite unselfconsciously named each street, side street and back alley out loud, speaking to it as though she was becoming intimate with it, with all that was good and bad about the place that had created me. I had never seen anyone do this before, nor even heard of it being done, but I liked it. It made her seem more real to me, somehow.
“As if I am descending from the clouds?” she’d asked, though not unkindly. Ordinary people like me amused her, I suppose, but she didn’t go home with anyone else. That’s how it was, and I wanted to keep it that way, and so I put up with her eccentricities and little selfishnesses. I know now there are sacrifices that have to be made if you want to hold onto someone special.
We had walked for hours that day, and though she seemed excited we were both quite tired. She had acclimatised herself to the usually mild Irish days, and so she had suffered a little in the heat, too. It was a Thursday, but in the old part of the city that we found ourselves in there were no shops open, not even now, in the early evening. We could have gone to a pub, but stopped at one of the city’s most beautiful views, just outside an old church that had been bought up and converted into a fancy-looking gig venue. I was glad that we had come to this spot, because I had only ever been here once, many years before.
I knew that she would not have been the one to give in to the city, and so I decided to say something. “Let’s stop here, Mariko,” I said. She seemed grateful that I was the one to speak up. I slipped my hand from hers, and, draping my arm lightly across her shoulders, led her to the old guard-wall, from which we could look across the whole city.
“What do you want from this?”
I don’t know why I said it that way, at that time, or at any time. I’ve always found it easy to make things difficult for myself.
“What do you mean, ‘from this’? From you?”
She looked at me without anger, but seemed more than perturbed. Disappointed.
“I want to keep away from foolish people who will ask me stupid questions.”
She turned away, and began to walk alongside the guard-wall, which was three feet thick all round. A lot of thought and carefully executed action had gone into the creation of this wall around the old part of the city, just like the one I’ve learned to protect myself with. I watched her walking away, knowing that she was just testing me. Ten years ago I might have run after another girl, all apologies, but I knew better than to do that now. There never was any point at which you could honestly say, “I know what to do”, but it just happens. Maybe after a while the smoke clears, and you see right through it all. Or maybe that’s just what you tell yourself.
Mariko’s type will always think she knows best. She’s been raised to believe that this is her birthright, so of course she’s going to do that. Those born into advantage will always claim that privilege. By the time we’d begun to see each other regularly I’d realised just how wealthy she was, and I tried to ignore it. But it’s never possible to do that, really. Even the ones that try hardest to overcome that barrier will always find their way blocked somewhere along the path they’ve chosen. “I can’t believe that you are like this, Adam,” she said. She had turned around and looked out over the city for about a minute before coming back to me without seeming to yield anything. I thought at the time that this was quite an accomplishment.
Her breathing was regular, and as I looked at her lying in the seclusion of this private hospital, I felt sorry for her. For what had happened. Even here, unconscious of the world around her, she had the power to make me feel guilty. I wondered at her ability to do that. The lower half lying crushed beneath the blanket, the body perfect from the slender waist up – even now, I found her beautiful. And more than this, I knew that I would stay with her. I had to. I could not abandon her, not even as she lay here as far away as she had ever been.
Staring at her prone body, vulnerable but still strong, the words she had spoken that day came back to me. I hadn’t wanted to think about them, not here, not now, but they arrived unbidden. It was always the way.
“I am going back to Brazil, Adam,” she’d said. Not, “I am thinking of …”, and not, “I may have to …”, but “I am …”, spoken with calm finality. She had made her decision, and my role was secondary. My thoughts were an afterthought. She had determined the future course of events on her own, made her mind up, and that was that. It must be reassuring to have the ability to do that, I’d thought. To spend days and nights of deepest intimacy with someone you professed to love, then suddenly decide that it had never happened, that none of it amounted to anything. I had met women like that before, but had never thought I’d allow myself to become involved with one. Had thinking similar thoughts of me led to her decision? It showed me just how little men and women really know of each other, whatever excuses or justifications they tried to make for themselves.
Sitting on the chair beside her prone body, I began to think about what my life would be without her. I had survived the years before her, and no doubt I could do the same after she had gone. I was no arrested adolescent, and I would not allow myself to fall back into old habits of wondering and hoping, of trying to second-guess a girl and be what I thought she wanted me to be, doing my best to be the dutiful partner. (Not that it ever really works if the man is the one trying to play that role.) It doesn’t matter how evolved you think you are, or how progressive; nature has no respect for high-minded notions and fantasies like that. I was old enough, and had seen enough, to accept this now.
“Are you sure, Mariko?” I’d had to ask, to make up some test of my own.
“Yes. There is no other way.”
“Because… Well, just because. This is how it has to be.”
She stood before me by the guard-wall, my superior informing me calmly of the facts. Completely self-possessed and self-assured, and not for turning. I should have known she was going to be like that. She was used to giving her opinions as realities, and stating her theories as lessons, too. It was another privilege of wealth, I suppose, but looking at her that day, her imperturbable way of turning my life upside down again, I was not able to process it. Not able to deal with it the way I should have. Things were coming to an end, again, and it was not of my making. The future had been taken out of my hands, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I’d always hated that, even with my first girlfriends, when I was young. They seemed to like it at first, and then a strangeness would set in between us. The girl would still walk beside me, but only look at me if she was answering a question of the most innocuous kind. She’d give me all the information I required, before retreating back into her own world. One of her silences, or her fantasies of escape.
And Mariko, rich beauty that she was, underneath it all was no different from the others. That’s why I pushed her. I know that now. It couldn’t happen again. Not with her. It wasn’t easy to do it, although people might think it was. They would dismiss me as a monster; put me in one of their little boxes, carefully locked away, like the many that had gone this way before. It had to be done; there was no way around it.
I find that I’m even thinking like her now, as I sit here in the hospital casting my mind back to that day. I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t mean to. But I had no choice. She would have done the same to me, if she’d been able to. I know she would have. They’re all like that.
Laying the coffee cup I’d been nursing down on her bedside table, I brushed her still-flawless cheek with the tips of my fingers. Somehow, her face was still unblemished, though her back had been broken and her legs crushed beneath her as she’d landed half on her feet, trying to right herself and brace herself even as she fell. Courageous to the end.
And it was the end. She couldn’t live like this. Not her, not Mariko. Her parents would be coming from Brazil as soon as they heard. I had told the police that I’d inform them, that it would be better for her if it came from me, as she’d been so long away from them. It’s strange what the mind makes you do, sometimes. I ran my fingers through her hair one last time, and stared at her perfect face as I reached behind her head for the pillow.
Brian Ó Faoláin is from Cork, Ireland. He has previously published short fiction and journalism. He has an MA in English and an MA in Asian Studies, both from University College Cork, and studied and worked in Tokyo for a number of years.