Olivia stands gripping the sink as if it will save her life. The taste of bile lingers even though she’s rinsed her mouth out three times. Her legs are wobbly and her head is filled with fog. Another day off from work, she thinks, although the day before she felt well enough by afternoon to exercise with a video tape sent from the States.
Toshi doesn’t notice. He’s running late as usual. She has to prod and poke at him every morning as he lies inert in the bed. Sometimes it makes her feel angry. She’s not his mother, for heaven’s sake. There are days when she’s thought meanly of not waking him, of letting him sleep in and suffer the consequences. So far, she hasn’t given in to that urge. She gets up early, fixes his breakfast, and tries to contain her irritation when it’s left cold, uneaten on the table as he runs out the door, still not quite dressed.
Now she can hear him beyond the bathroom door chanting, “Keys. Keys. Keys.” It’s as if he thinks that upon hearing him beckon they’ll run out of their hiding place and jump into his hand.
Toshi is not insensitive. A couple of weeks ago, a sparrow flew into the window at the school where he works and broke its wing. Toshi rushed out to rescue it. Olivia imagined the other teachers shrugging, not caring about the life of an injured bird. One of them mentioned that sparrows are edible, especially tasty cooked tempura-style. The bones are soft and yield to human teeth. The only tedious part of cooking them, he said, is plucking out the feathers.
Toshi wrapped the bird in toilet paper in order to immobilize the injured wing and brought it home. Olivia watched him hunt around the kitchen for something to feed it. He settled on a gruel of crushed cornflakes and warm water. He let the bird peck its meal from his finger. Observing his tender ministrations, she couldn’t help thinking he’d make a good father.
It seems like all of the young couples that they know have become parents. Recently, they were at the home of one of these couples. When she held their baby, one of Toshi’s friends said, “You’d better watch out. She’s getting that look.” She knows exactly what he meant. “That look” was an expression of desire, but she knows without a doubt that she’d shown not a shred of longing. It shocks her that they could have been so easily fooled when she’d felt panic coming from every pore.
She thinks half-seriously that she needs a shield — something big and hard to halt the hands that reach to pat her stomach. “Baby?” the old women ask. “Did you make one yet?” She hates being touched by people she hardly knows, hates it even more when the fingers accidentally brush against her breasts. More than once, she has wanted to slap those hands away.
It’s easy for her to read the newspaper and say self-righteously, “What kind of mother would abandon her children at the side of the road?” or “What kind of mother would drown her own baby?” However, she secretly fears that she is capable of such horrors. It is, of course, nothing that she would ever confess. She has watched Toshi’s sister suck the mucous from her baby’s nose and eat food already chewed by her little girl. She was raised with stringent rules of hygiene. She never even drank out of the same cup as her mother, father, or brother. If this is what is required of her, she knows that she will fail. While all around her there are mothers rising to the incessant demands set before them, she is not capable of endless selfless gestures. She believes that her lack of maternal instinct is an aberration. Perhaps it is something that psychotherapy or motherhood itself can cure.
She wears dark glasses when she leaves the apartment, aware that the feeling of being incognito is just an illusion. No one else around here has her blonde hair, her pale skin. Everyone knows her, The Foreigner — even people she’s never met or seen before. It’s a town with prying eyes and loose tongues. If anyone sees her at the pharmacist’s, the whole town will know by dinnertime what she’s bought. For a moment, after laying down the money, she thinks of trying to bribe the withered old woman behind the counter. “Don’t tell anyone!” she wants to say. But she doesn’t. She murmurs “arigato,” grabs the package and hurries out the door.
Instead of going straight home, she perversely detours to a nearby temple. The priest of the temple has gotten rich on the guilt of young women. She stands in front of the guardian stone Buddhas and thinks of the would-have-been mothers who went there, leaving cookies and toys to appease the spirits of their would-have-been babies. They drape bibs on the smiling, placid statues and say, “I’m sorry. Come back when I’m married/my first baby is out of diapers/I’m ready.” It was so simple — just an apology and the child would wait.
Back at the apartment, she takes the kit out of the box and begins to set it up. The instructions are written in complicated characters that she hasn’t quite mastered, but there are pictures to help her. She can understand enough to decipher that a blue ring will mean her life is about to change drastically. There’s really no need to do this test. She already knows what it will tell her. Motherhood was part of an unwritten contract she’d entered when she married Toshi. She’d consented to it, as she’d agreed to everything else when she’d been madly, desperately in love: “Yes, I’ll convert to Buddhism.” “Yes, I’ll live in Japan forever.” Now, she feels sickened by her dishonesty.
As a high school student in Michigan, she’d done some babysitting, but even then she hadn’t liked children much. She’d been unwilling to admire their crayoned drawings, impatient for their bedtimes so she could read or watch TV in peace. Once, when she’d been in charge of a particularly unruly brat — one who’d bitten and pulled hair — she’d made a vow never to have children. Even now she remembers exactly where she’d been standing when the words passed through her brain. They say babies are smart and that they can sense the mood of the mother. If a mother is tense, the baby won’t be able to relax in her arms. Olivia wonders if a fetus can sense things in the same way. Will her resentment and fear filter through the umbilical cord? Will she get months of kicks against her uterine wall and a sullen infant in return?
She stands in front of the mirror, practicing what she will say to her husband. “I don’t want this baby. I don’t want you.” The words slide easily off her tongue.
A woman, someone she’s met maybe two or three times, comes up to her in the grocery store and performs the now familiar mime — a hand arcing over the stomach. “Baby?” she asks. It’s the one English word everyone seems to have picked up. Olivia fakes a smile and says, “Amerika dewa so iu shitsumon shimasen!” In America we don’t ask questions like that. She shrugs helplessly as if the answer is beyond her, totally elusive. The woman starts bowing, apologizing effusively. She’s so very sorry. She hadn’t meant to be rude.
Later, when Toshi comes home, he sees a look on her face. Something’s going on. She has a secret. “What?” he asks her.
She smiles and shakes her head. “Nothing.”
For a while, she will tell no one. She will let it take root and flourish inside of her like a well-watered plant. She will wait until the idea is no longer strange, and she can begin to tell herself.