Years ago, before her gray-hairs-dyed-brown, before his contact prescriptions for nearly blind eyes, before their four children who aged them more than age itself, she worked for a computer programmer and he worked as a financial analyst. He wore those goofy muddied-honey-tinted glasses that I imagine were dorky even in the eighties, and she had naturally wavy hair, which is indeed in some Japanese genes: dark, flowy, thick and either down and loose, or up in a neat bun accompanied by her soft swaying bangs. They stopped at the train station. Tokyo commuters take the densha, the train, full of thousands of bodies pressed and softly perspiring in neat suits and bland pumps. It was July. A breeze breathed upon him and he asked her a nervous question—the legs of each letter quivering—a question that created me eighteen months before I was born, nine months before I was conceived, twenty-three years before I knew how my mother was contemplating the same answer to the same question that I had been contemplating.
What did she know about computer programming then? Nothing, she admits to me, laughing. What did she know about marriage then? Too little, she smiles. What does she know about computer programming now? I know she knows nothing. What does she know about marriage? I don't believe very much. I don't fool myself into thinking that I know any more.
I replay the scene at the station in my mind: replay it, re-envision it, recreate it. I watch a slightly different version every time. She had a black leather purse, long strap over her shoulder, a silver buckle. Or maybe it was a brown suede bag with a short handle, in her hand, brass brand name templates. She was a bit shy—struggling with self-confidence but comfortable walking down the street with this man without holding his hand. Or maybe she was charismatic, witty, and always making him laugh. She was a tad large for a Japanese woman—just enough extra centimeters and kilos to keep her head and shoulders bent not out of respect or politesse but to hide—this I think is true from what I see in photographs. She was just another twenty-year-old girl. She was shocked when he asked. Or perhaps she was expecting it, maybe today, so she had already started thinking about her response. Or maybe she had thought he would ask, but not so soon, not so rashly. She'd have to think about it.
That summer morning, they stood in front of the ticket machines, or on the platform, no, in the midst of the bustle of the station, just stood looking at each other with wonder in their eyes. Is this really happening? they each voiced in their heads, not realizing the other was thinking the same thing. His breathing was quickening, his pulse was banging its fists against his skin, let me out, let me breathe, let me gushgushgurgleican'tbreathe. Will she say yes? Will my life be changed forever? Does she want this as much as I do? And her gazing back at him, a smile slinking onto her face, a warmth from knowing she was his, only his, and he was hers, only hers, and they were happy. Then he asks her the question, and her mouth twitches, unsure to smile because—yes, of course—he loves her just as much as she thinks he does, or to frown because, is she absolutely sure she knows what these feelings mean? Let me think about it, she tells him. And they go their separate ways.
I am creating this narrative because I need to. I need more than what my mother has told me, that he proposed to her at the train station. I need to believe that they were in love at least at some point in their lives, maybe even while I was alive. I need to believe that they wanted this—their lives now, with me and my brothers and my sister and who we are so far and who we're going to be; with their house and all the metal and plastic and cotton it harbors; and with being bound to each other—bound beyond forever.
In the eighteen years I lived with my parents, in the two years in Tokyo and in the following sixteen in New Jersey, they never said I love you to each other, never articulated those specific words either in Japanese or in English. I love you: I (me, this is me, this is from the depths of my very being, I mean it to the core) love (devoted, utterly selfless, giving the entirety of a self to another, helplessly smiling just from looking at your face) you (you and me together, a synergy, the conclusion to an era, invoking a spell of fusion, no longer a she and he but a we, or even beyond we, I together). The Japanese don't voice such emotions except in cheesy soap operas. But my parents must have felt it, right? They must have felt it and not needed to actually form it into words. They must have felt it and hid it from me because I have never—or perhaps rarely, could there have been even one time?—seen it between them. I don't really know what their love would look like.
I have been in love with two different men. I have seriously considered marrying both of them and was nearly engaged once, and I am only twenty-one. The first: we dated for three years and were in love for five-and-a-half. The bulk of our time together was spent in high school in New Jersey. We were mature enough to love but too selfish to make it last. I think about our road trips to Boston and to the shore, Dunkin' Donuts-and-Smurfs dates on Saturday mornings, a dinner at Tavern on the Green, a Tiffany keychain. We shared liberal politics, new bands, the same literary interests, and our plans for our future together. Traces of him are still in me, years later. I wished him happy birthday last month and he sadly? wistfully? fondly? commented that this was the first year in five that we had not spent his birthday together.
The second: we were dating for a little over a year and we loved each other for half that time. We met in a class at college in Utah, and eleven months after the first date, two weeks after he asked my father for my hand, we decided that the timing was wrong. I think about our road trips to California and to the cabin, Provo Bakery-and-Dexter dates on Saturday mornings, homemade mac and cheese with a tablespoon, not a teaspoon, of mustard powder, the ring he never gave me. We have clashing political debates, disparate tastes in music, me begging him to read my favorite books and him explaining genetic mutations while I mentally float. We're giving each other some space right now, but he still wants to marry me. I'm not so sure.
Both Man One and Man Two didn't work out for several reasons, but the main issue with each came down to faith. In this modern day I feel that I have to put up a defense for religion. I know that a religious upbringing—or even conversion—can spawn crazies (think David Koresh, Tom Cruise), but I also know that it can foster true love and beauty (think Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr). For me, my personal religion is one of gratefulness and sanctity—I find sanctuary and truth in my Mormon beliefs. In the Mormon faith, we consecrate all things to our God, both momentous and mundane: births, meals, personal achievements, and even marriage. A marriage covenanted with God takes place in the house of God, the temple, a holy place; there, the union is sealed for even life beyond death. My parents were married in the Tokyo temple. They pledged their lives to each other—even their heavenly lives. We believe that ‘til death do us part doesn't have to be, that it doesn't fulfill our destinies. We believe that marriage can be an eternal commitment. Marriage is husband, wife, and God.
Man number One: I don't believe in your religion, but I support you in your beliefs. I want you to raise our kids in your church. I love you; we can make it work. But that wasn't good enough for me. It was too important. I needed more.
Man number Two: Absolutely we share the same values, beliefs, perspective, and desires. I believe in the same God as you. I want to get married in the temple. But two weeks later he had a crisis of faith. Severe family emergencies had broken him down, made him feel cheated by God. I don't know if I can believe…I just don't know if that's how I want to live the rest of my life. I don't know if I can take you to the temple. I couldn't help it (was it selfish?)—I felt that we had both been cheated. I was back to being afraid of marriage.
A wave: the building of speed, of momentum, of inertia, under the surface, accumulating; then the crash, a huge messy tumbling violent attack; then the final smooth calming down. Throughout my entire childhood my parents' marriage was the crash. What did I know of I love you then? My childhood eyes witnessed only rage and refusal between my parents. I saw the fire of hate in both of their eyes; I heard my father's silent fury, his bottled-up, unspoken wrath; and I felt the floors shaking and the walls vibrating from my mother's stomping up the stairs and shrill screaming. I smelled the burned dinners my father tried to make when my mother would take off for the evening after a fight, the tires screeching in the driveway. I tasted salt and linen as I cried into my pillow, imagining a life with divorced parents.
Now, during my adulthood, which is my youngest siblings' childhood, my parents' marriage is the calming down, the settling down, the acquiescence to each other. They don't fight like they used to. But before now, when I was eight and ten and twelve, I love you didn't exist for me, for my home, for my parents. I didn't know what it felt like—how do you describe the sensation of plush velvet between your fingers to someone who has never experienced it? All I knew was hatred and impatience and scathing words and tension and throwing and crying and—
My parents stayed together. Divorce was never a real option for them—they just wouldn't, no matter what forces were pushing—though I didn't understand it at the time, though I didn't know yet that I would never consider it an option either. A temple marriage means a promise you take seriously—it means that you swore yourself to each other, under God. But did my parents know just what they were committing themselves to? How much did they really know of each other then? It was only at the airport the morning they left for their honeymoon, my mother tells me, when he started panicking, not sure which direction to take for their gate. She cocked her head to the side, not knowing English like he did, and figured out where their gate was, slowly realizing that she might have been wrong about him, that she didn't know this man at all.
His question to her? He asked her, Can I take you to the temple? Not, Will you marry me? Not, will you be mine forever? Not, will you be my wife? Not, can I be your husband and take care of you and love you forever? It was, Can I take you to the temple? Will you commit to an eternal partnership that we will consecrate to God as a sacred union? That will transcend mortal time, where nothing—nothing—will come between us?
She said yes. And here I am.
Man number Two and I, we were talking about love—our love. We were talking about what it could overcome. I'm already balding—do you still love me? Of course. What about me, what if I get really fat when we're old? Would you still love me? Of course. What if I went to jail? What if I murdered someone? What if I were schizophrenic? I assured him, You know what. (I cooed.) If you started to develop schizophrenia, I'd still love you. I'd still stay with you.
But I'm not that woman. I'm not that strong. I don't know if I would.
I thought if I loved him, no matter what, we could work out. But love just isn't enough sometimes. Perhaps the timing was just wrong. He had just experienced upheavals with his family, he was stressed out about medical school applications, he felt abandoned by God. But I mostly believe we are just wrong for each other. And timing's a part of that—maybe we'll be right for each other in a few years—but love, this kind of love, is not going to fix that by itself. The Beatles lied. Sometimes love's just not enough. I need more than love. At least for marriage, that is. Love's hard enough as it is—how do you define it? Find it? Recognize it once you have it? Maintain it? Once you try to contain it with I do's, especially I do forever's… things just get really messy.
I do want to be married; I haven't given up on it. I know that I have loved two different men in my life, that I've had good reason to seriously consider marrying each of them even though I am only twenty-one. I know what it feels to say I love you and mean it. I love you: I (me, this is all of me, I've never been a more complete me before this) love (committed, entirely invested, risking my soul for you, knowing true beauty just from holding your hand) you (you and me forever, a wholeness only possible together, the only one I want, there's no one else, ever, only you and me and that's all there ever was).
Title graphic: "Breaking Bread" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.