Outside the Naha airport terminal in Okinawa, Japan, I longed for sunglasses. Back then, in my twenties, I refused to wear them, believing that once you let yourself get used to something, you could become a slave to it forever. The Marine lieutenant carrying my suitcase to the sedan confirmed this. “Wait a minute,” he said, dropping the suitcase on the sidewalk and digging into a pocket for a pair of aviators. “The sun’s brighter here than in the States.”
My husband, Terry, also a Marine — we both were Marines in those days — found his sunglasses, too, put them on, and motioned for me to catch up. I shifted my carry-on bag to the opposite shoulder and looked up, shielding my eyes with a free hand. Above us, laundry hanging from every floor of concrete apartment complexes shimmied in the tropical, November breeze.
“C’mon, Marine!” teased my husband. We’d been married six months, and technically were still newlyweds.
My feet, swollen from the nineteen-hour flight, were spilling out of my high heels; each step felt as though I were walking on the tops of my ankles. At least my feet were managing to move forward. My mind was still refusing to budge across the International Dateline. I hadn’t wanted orders to Okinawa. A month earlier, I had been four months pregnant in Jacksonville, North Carolina, planning our baby’s nursery. One evening, Terry came home crestfallen by the news that he was being shipped overseas for a year. We knew military orders separated couples all the time: but for some reason, we had expected our first year of marriage to grant us immunity from such things as military separations and miscarriages.
* * *
Naha is the busy capital city of Okinawa Prefecture, on Okinawa Island. Taxi drivers were blaring horns. Okinawan children in navy and white school uniforms circled magazine stands and bus stops. An old woman with bright eyes and no teeth, wearing a knee-length gray tunic and slip-ons, smiled at me as she walked by, swinging a full plastic grocery bag that balanced her bowlegged sway. I was surrounded by a sea of colorful billboards, marked with strange symbols and Asian faces. Most advertisements were impossible to make out. Others were easier: a Coca-Cola billboard across the street; the face of a young, Asian woman, delicate, lotus-like, smiling beside the Nikon camera she held in her palm.
I was twenty that first day in Okinawa. Stateside, before the miscarriage, I felt as if I were finally coming into my own, despite the lack of control I had over my life as a Marine. But such is the life of a Marine: a life lived on the altar of sacrifice. I had joined the Marines two years earlier to overcome a teenage drinking problem – believing nothing short of military discipline could do for me what a twelve-step program hadn’t done for my father. I may have survived boot camp at Parris Island, but a few minutes in a foreign country, with its unreadable billboards and its left-side driving, was fast producing the sense that I was unraveling and disconnecting from my body.
I hobbled the rest of the sidewalk to the sedan and to Terry, who was flashing his Hollywood grin. He laid my carry-on bag across our suitcases and squeezed my hand. “Everything’s going to be fine.” I forced a smile through the fear that I might float away like a released balloon over the South China Sea if he were to let go of my hand.
From the back seat of the sedan, Terry looked odd in the front left passenger seat without a steering column in front of him. An empty space that seemed in need of filling. I ran my hand across my belly, across an empty womb that shouldn’t have been.
Our Marine lieutenant friend slid into the right front side behind the steering wheel. “You can’t go more than twenty-one miles-per-hour on the whole Goddamn island.” He searched over his shoulder for a break in the oncoming traffic. “But, it won’t be the hardest thing about Okinawa you’ll have to get used to. This place is full of surprises.” He jumped into a lane that opened when a taxi stopped for a fare. I watched his ease in shifting gears, left hand in sync with left foot, and I practiced in the back seat, shifting imaginary gears with an imaginary clutch until the left side of my body felt oddly overused.
“Genghis Khan,” he said, “that restaurant there.” He was pointing toward a small concrete building on the right with glass windows. Between the glass, a waterfall. “They have the best Mongolian barbecue on the island.”
Terry swiveled to face me. “Hear that? Mongolian barbecue!”
Terry was loving this. It was his first time to Okinawa, but eight years older than I, he had been with 3rd Recon during Vietnam in 1968. Before heading to Vietnam he had taken scuba training in the Philippines. To Terry, this was merely another adventure. Adventure to me meant risk-taking. Taking a risk meant losing an element of self-control, and losing self-control could lead to all sorts of bad behavior patterns I preferred to think I’d left somewhere on the other side of the International Dateline.
* * *
Near the crest of a hill, our friend said, “You won’t want to miss this view.” I leaned into the center of the backseat and saw opening before us a view of the Pacific Ocean and a few distant islands that make up the Ryukyu chain. What did I know about this tiny island that was to become our home for a year? I knew it was sixty-seven miles long and between two to fourteen miles wide. I knew Okinawa was often described as a tropical paradise with a lush landscape that crept down mountain canyons to the shoreline. I knew that Commodore Perry, after anchoring in the Naha port in 1853, had struggled for words: “It would be difficult for you to imagine the beauties of this island with respect to the charming scenery and the marvelous perfection of cultivation.”
I knew that the battle for Okinawa in 1945 had been one of the bloodiest of the war. More than fifty-thousand Marines and soldiers were killed, unable to defend themselves against wave after wave of kamikaze pilots. A hundred and twenty-thousand Japanese had died. And I knew the stories about Okinawan women, who during that bloody battle, had climbed to the tops of these cliffs and tossed their babies to the sea. Some mothers leapt after their babies; others had held tightly to their little ones and stepped into airy nothingness. Those too afraid to take the leap had been shoved over the cliffs by fathers, brothers, and uncles. Death was preferred over the dishonor of capture, and from what they believed would be rape and torture by U.S. Marines.
I peered out the car window at the jutting rocks below and felt my stomach curl inside out. I couldn’t imagine tossing my baby into the sea. On this particular day, the South China Sea was placid, inviting. Coral beds, white sand, and painfully clear skies created jewel-toned water that graduated from the palest green near the shore to the dark blue of a newborn’s eyes out on the horizon.
* * *
I want to backtrack. I want to tell you that two months after our wedding a Navy doctor informed me that I had probably conceived on our wedding night. This had been his estimation after studying the paperwork in my chart and counting backwards from my last menstrual cycle.
“But we hadn’t planned on having a baby right away,” I had said, giving way to the nurse’s soft touch to my shoulder that meant I was to lie back on the examination table.
The doctor disappeared into that space under the paper sheathing. I heard him say from down there, “These things have a way of planning themselves.”
“But my husband has orders to Okinawa in a few months . . . you know Headquarters won’t send a pregnant Marine to Okinawa.” On the ceiling was a poster of palm trees and ocean, and I’d thought this particularly cruel, given that my husband was headed to the tropics for a year without me. Up until 1977, the year I joined the Marines, pregnant military women were forced out of the service. But now, pregnant women could choose to leave the service or stay. I could appreciate the right to choose even if I did not care for either choice.
The doctor snapped off the latex gloves from his hands and tossed them in a wastebasket by the door. “You won’t be the first Marine or the first military wife to have a baby alone.”
And months later, after the miscarriage, after recovering from the procedure that had sucked away the last proof of baby and placenta (with Terry folded into the chair beside the hospital bed, asleep), I will recall my doctor’s claim that these things have a way of planning themselves, not knowing then — but how could anyone? — that I was to conceive again during our first night in the village of Ginoza on Okinawa.
* * *
“Notice how all the cars are white here?” our tour guide friend was saying as he drove northward from the Naha airport to the base at Henoko. I could see his eyes in the rear view mirror and so I nodded, although truthfully, I hadn’t noticed white cars at all.
He downshifted into a sharp curve and the car sputtered. “It’s so hot here that nobody but the Japanese mafia drives black cars.” He winked into the rear view mirror. “Don’t worry, you’ll know the Yakuza by their black cars and by their missing pinkies.” My eyebrows must have lifted into a question. “Here,” he said, and lifted his left hand, thumb pressed against the final joint of his little finger. “To show loyalty to each other.”
Terry and the lieutenant shared stories about the Marines they had lost touch with through the years. In the backseat I held firmly onto the armrest of the car door with my right hand and with the left, balanced my weight against the back seat as we whipped around curves, passing fields and fields of sugar cane, the sudden spring-up of villages, and Mama-sans who were toting groceries in their arms and babies on their backs. I thought again about the baby Terry and I had lost, the loss we had both mourned: yet hadn’t I detected Terry’s relief? Neither of us had wanted a year’s separation. The Yakuza severed pinkies to prove loyalty. My body had given up a child.
* * *
The first two weeks on Okinawa, Terry and I lived in the BOQ, bachelor officers quarters, at the island’s most northern base, Camp Henoko. An enlisted Marine who was married to an officer and living in the BOQ was breaking all regulations of military fraternization: Terry’s CO had made it clear that the arrangement was a temporary fix until we could find housing off base.
Each morning, I dressed in cammies and combat boots and walked to the front gate where I would wait for one of the military buses that made the rounds from base to base. I was a military journalist in those days, assigned to cover combat training at Camp Hansen, a base located a forty-minute bus ride from Henoko.
On the way to the bus stop each morning, I would pass a flurry of Mama- sans who were coming on base to clean each Marine’s quarters and to wash and press clothing and shine boots. And each evening, as I stepped off the bus and walked up the hill from the Henoko gate to the BOQ, I would pass the Mama sans on their way out. Every morning they waved and giggled. Every evening the same. I couldn’t imagine what opinion they had of me. I was the only woman Marine on the base. I wondered what role they imagined I played in the service of these men.
* * *
At the end of our first two weeks, Mr. Tamiyaki, the head guard of the base ammunition depot, informed Terry of an apartment that had become available in the nearby village of Ginoza. The apartment had been leased by his friend, Kyoko, who had moved out the day before. Mr. Tamiyaki drove us into the village to see the apartment. We followed him up the concrete stairs to the second floor.
“Only one left in whole village,” he said as he turned the door knob, pulled open the door, and elaborately swept his left hand as a signal for us to enter. He remained outside, smoking his rolled cigarette and hovering in the doorframe. A shrewd move given the limitation of space in the tiny apartment.
The apartment was bleak. Two rooms and a bath. A Formica kitchen table, four chairs. A straw futon bed in the bedroom. I joined Terry on the edge of the lumpy bed. From around the corner, Mr. Tamiyaki called out, “Nice bed!” I choked on a giggle.
Terry whispered. “At least we’ll have a Western toilet.”
“With directions, too.” Someone had taped onto the back of the toilet tank a label depicting stick figures in both sitting and standing positions.
We fell across the bed, laughing toward the ceiling, the kind of laughter that refused to be corralled, the kind of laughter we hadn’t shared since losing the baby. The mattress was stiff, prickly. I rolled over to look at my husband; the corners of his eyes were moist.
“Look,” I said, beating on a hard lump, “only one left in whole village.”
* * *
At nine that first night in Ginoza, between the bars on the windows of our new apartment, I could see the village lights. The pungent odor of cooked fish, ginger, and soy floated in with the night air. Two military men in T-shirts and jeans, carrying bottles of beer, stumbled through the doorway of a bar, spilling disco music into the street.
A tiny Asian woman with long black hair was chasing after them in her short skirt and high heels. “G.I.’s, you wait for me!” She wedged her body between them and guided the three-some into a dark alley. Laughter. A sound like the crashing of glass on pavement, most likely a beer bottle thrown toward one of Ginoza’s open sewers.
Somewhere in the village, Terry was walking shore patrol. It was a military payday and red taxis were ferrying Marines and sailors to and from Camps Henoko and Schwab on the one road that led into and out of Ginoza: one road that looped past our apartment and then along the edge of the Pacific, passing bars, teahouses, seamstress shops, an appliance store with refrigerators left outside to weather the elements, and past ornate wooden homes with Shinto lion heads to guard against demons.
Behind me in the tiny kitchen were the suitcases that needed unpacking and ahead of me the chore of transforming the two rooms into something romantic, even if Terry wouldn’t be home until after midnight, even if I hadn’t wanted my husband in this way for several weeks now, not since the miscarriage. I had blamed the loss of our baby on the stress of facing childbirth alone and a year without my husband. And secretly, I had blamed Terry: although when I was honest with myself, I could admit he had no more control over his life as a Marine than I.
* * *
I pulled myself from the window view of Ginoza to store the milk, orange juice, and several containers of yogurt into the tiny refrigerator, and discovered I hadn’t room for the apples. Arranged in a cereal bowl on the table, they gave the room a homey look, I thought.
I covered the straw mattress with borrowed linens from the officers’ quarters. Two plates, two cereal bowls, four spoons, four forks, four knives, and four glasses, all borrowed as well, I placed into a single cabinet above the sink. There was no stove, only a single gas burner. But then, we had no pots.
Around midnight, I finished unpacking. I stepped back to imagine the apartment as Terry would see it in a few hours. Food in the refrigerator. The apples in a bowl on the table. In the bathroom, a cake of soap, fresh towels and washcloths were stacked on a shelf. In the bedroom, I had arranged our civilian clothes, uniforms, and shoes in the built-in wardrobe. I set our alarm clock on the floor by the bed and collapsed onto the lumpy straw mattress.
* * *
Around one-thirty, someone banged on the apartment’s metal door and I jumped from the bed. I heard, “Kyoko!” in an Asian accent. On the way to the door I tripped over the empty suitcases beside the kitchen table, knocking the bowl of apples to the floor when my hand reached for something to break my fall, and now several deep voices were shouting, “Kyoko!” and hammering on the door.
I called out: “Kyoko . . . not here. Gome nasai. I’m sorry.” The banging and shouting continued. Had they mistaken me for Kyoko? I heard breaking glass. Laughter. They kicked at the door. “Kyoko!”
I could have flung open the door, stunned them with my American presence, flashed an arrogant how-dare-you look…but I couldn’t imagine that this was the safest option. I glanced toward the windows and between the bars at the village where Terry was walking shore patrol. The kicking and shouting continued. I waited for a lull and when their shouts subsided, I answered, “Kyoko. . . not here. No Kyoko. You go away!” There had been a final kick, a little mumbling, and then footsteps. The footsteps gradually fell softer as they descended the staircase and disappeared into the reverberating hum of Ginoza.
As I collected the spilled apples from the kitchen floor, I wondered about this woman they called Kyoko. If they had known her intimately enough to think she would have expected them at this hour, how had they not known she had moved? A flash entered my mind of the Asian woman I’d seen herding the two military men into the dark alley beside the bar. Was Kyoko a prostitute? Is this why so many had come calling so late?
I stood beside the straw bed. Earlier I had lain there thinking that this bed, with all its lumps and bumps, was about to become the centerpiece of my new life with Terry in this foreign country. Now all I could imagine as I stared at the bed was that it must have been the centerpiece to Kyoko’s life as a prostitute. I had covered her bed with our linens. Filled her refrigerator with our food. Our clothes were hanging in her wardrobe. Would we have taken the apartment had we known? “Only one left in whole village.” And how many voices had I heard on the other side of the door? Three? Four? I pictured them all looking a little like Mr. Tamiyaki, rolling their cigarettes on the Formica table, helping themselves to Orion beer from the tiny refrigerator, waiting their turn.
* * *
It was after three a.m. before Ginozo fell asleep. The squeal of taxies braking for the sharp curve in front of our building and the intermittent disco music that had earlier been regulating my heartbeat had finally ceased. I hadn’t found sleep possible. In Kyoko’s bed, I lay naked, spread eagle, staring at the ceiling Kyoko must have stared at as she lay beneath each man. Had she counted the shadows cast by the bars in the windows? Had there been no other choice for her than this life? Was this choice a deliberate one, although born of sad circumstances? In my mind played the scene of men and their escalating voices at the kitchen table, waiting for Kyoko to satisfy first one and then another before she sent them all back out into the village.
In this proud culture where women had once tossed their babies to the sea and leapt to their deaths to avoid humiliation, women had turned to prostitution. How sad that Kyoko had become a slave to the whims of others. And yet, I’m embarrassed to admit I also felt a strange and erotic admiration sweep over my body as I imagined the kind of power Kyoko must have held over all the men she brought into our bed. As a new wife, in lovemaking with Terry, I found it frightening to lose this kind of control to someone. Before I was able to will myself into sobriety, I had used alcohol to unleash my inhibitions. I know now that I had become a slave to the heady cocktail of alcohol and sex, although I still do not know why. But the young woman I was that night lying in Kyoko’s bed — body tingling from the mind’s wild fantasies — began to convince herself that she no longer needed alcohol to enjoy sex. That if, instead, she were to develop enough of Kyoko’s skill, perhaps she could also develop enough confidence to release herself wholly to her husband.
In the weeks since the miscarriage, I hadn’t wanted Terry at all, though there were nights I had pretended and had allowed it to happen. Lying in Kyoko’s bed that first night in Ginoza, I realized that it must have been a little like that for her. Surely, she must have had her favorites: a man with beneficent skill and a Hollywood smile. Perhaps she had even become pregnant, and . . . I reached to the floor for the alarm clock. In fifteen minutes, Terry was due to be relieved of shore patrol, home in less than thirty.
Just then, another knock on the door, a whisper of a knock. “Kyoko?” This time the voice was deep, from an American, and this time I did not answer. His knocking turned urgent. “Kyoko…are you there, Kyoko?” I pictured him young, a Marine with a bulging wallet of payday cash, dressed in T-shirt and jeans like the two who had sneaked into the alley with their black-haired girl.
Again he whispered imploringly, “Kyoko? Are you there?” A part of me wanted to slip from the bed, tiptoe to the door, and whisper, “Kyoko’s gone . . . I live here now.” Instead, I wiggled my naked body into the mattress until it felt buoyed among the lumps and bumps of straw, floating toward the sound of my husband’s key in the lock.