by Marie Iida
I wake up to the sound of Miss Holly Golightly ringing my buzzer, asking to be let in. The second buzz follows on the heels of the first, longer this time, and growing impatient.
It’s early morning and I’m lying on the living room floor—I guess I never made it to the bedroom last night. I start to rise, searching for my glasses beneath the blankets, but then a slender white arm pushes me back down on the futon. Ruth.
“Ignore her,” she says with her eyes closed. Her lips, smeared with last night’s rouge, nuzzle my bare torso.
“I’ve got to let her in, baby,” I say, kissing her arm, “or she’ll go right on buzzing me.”
Sure enough, the third buzz pierces the room as I locate my round, Le Corbusier glasses at last. I stand and rake my hair back, quickly throw on my dress shirt and trousers. En route to the front door, I grab a set of keys from the crystal catch-all before reaching for the button that releases the downstairs door. The buzzing stops.
I open the door, hear Miss Golightly coming up the stairs. I lean against the bannister and look down. Ringlets of smoke, rising from the tip of her long cigarette holder, announce her arrival on the landing. Her upswept hair, swan neck, and diamond earrings materialize.
“Miss Golightly! Catch!” I yell and toss down the keys. It jingles in the air before she clasps it in her hands, her lashes blinking in surprise. “Made you a set,” I tell her.
She looks at the keys and shakes her head. “But it’s no use. I’ll just lose them.”
“Well try not to, will you? I can’t have you ringing my bell all the time.” I start to head back inside.
“Oh, please, don’t be angry,” she coos at me from beneath. “If you promise not to be angry I might let you take those pictures we mentioned.”
I stop, my hand on the doorknob. “Then get in line, darling,” I say, returning a coy smile back at her. “There’s a whole lot of women waiting to get their pictures taken by me.” I shut the door.
When I return to the living room, Ruth is awake, sitting on the floor and smoking her own cigarette. I cross the room and pull up the curtains. The sun beams in as if to expose us and Ruth shields her eyes with one hand. Her tangle of brown hair, too unruly to be sensual, seems at odds with the red slip she’s wearing. I’m overcome with an urge to grab my camera and capture her there, but as fast as it came the tenderness I feel toward her dissipates. I start to perambulate the room, collecting last night’s champagne flutes and empty wine bottles off the furniture. Ruth’s eyes follow me.
“You and that kook downstairs got a flirtation going, haven’t you?” she asks.
“What are you talking about?”
“I think you know.”
“Don’t you have a few friendly banters with your neighbors? Something to keep the peace?” I say, carrying the glasses over to the sink. “Miss Golightly can use a little routine in her life. I worry she’ll fly off into space if she’s not tethered to something.”
Ruth stands without a word and comes striding over to me. I wonder who she’s imagining herself to be when she walks this way. She never used to move with such confidence, such control. She slides her cigarette between my lips, pulls a tie off the back of a chair and wraps it around my neck. “But you want to take her pictures,” she says. “I know you do.”
I look down at the dining table next to me, at the copies of Bazaar stacked on top. The familiar features I’ve photographed over the years stare back at me: steely blue eyes, immaculate teeth, blonde curls. I take a drag from the cigarette and breath out. “I suppose Miss Golightly reminds me of myself a little.”
As soon as I say the words I regret them. Ruth turns away. She goes over to the camera shelf across the room. She picks up the Speed Graphic and cradles the heavy machine in her arms, then aims it at me. “I don’t see why you find her so amusing. I take a million pictures of girls just like her every day,” she says.
“I know. You keep working like that and you’re going to run me out of a job.”
Ruth smiles. “I studied under this one Japanese photographer. I squeezed him of everything he’s got.”
I stub out the cigarette in the ashtray. Suddenly, there’s music drifting up from the window. Miss Golightly and her phonograph again. I go to Ruth and move as if to embrace her, then grab at her sides, tickling with both hands.
“Stop!” she shrieks, and the camera slips from her arms, crashing on the floor. “Oh no. You fool. Look what you made me do.” She bends down, but I pull her by the arms into the middle of the room.
“Leave it. Listen. Hear the music? Dance with me.” Ruth looks back at the camera, but I spin her around. “Forget the Graflex. They shoot the war with those cameras now.”
Ruth shakes her head, but her hands relax in mine. I smile and swing to the music.
Duke Ellington this morning.
“That was some party you threw last night,” she says. “You do know we were supposed to be working?”
“It wouldn’t be my photoshoot without a little revelry, now would it?” I say, slipping off my tie with one hand. “Miss Golightly thinks she’s the only one who can throw a party around here.”
“You’ll start to get a reputation.”
“Wonderful. We’ll add it to the ones I already have,” I say. “Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi. A dependable neighbor! World-class photographer! A gentleman from Japan! Or was it California? Who can tell and why should it matter?”
I spin her harder this time. Ruth’s foot catches on a rug, and she loses her balance. I grab her just in time and we both fall on the couch. We laugh, feeling young and free all of a sudden. I brush her hair out of her eyes and kiss her mouth. She looks down at me, pushing my glasses along the bridge of my nose.
“Let’s move in together,” she whispers.
“That way you won’t worry about your little neighbor buzzing your door.”
I sit up and move away. Reach for my lighter and cigarettes on the side table. “You aren’t serious,” I say and pull another cigarette from the pack.
“But I am. Why not? Why shouldn’t we?”
“Because of the law, for one.”
“This is New York, not California,” Ruth says. “We are free to be together.”
I laugh out loud. It’s a wretched sound that I make, more sinister and scared than I ever intended.
“Everyone adores your pictures. Everyone adores you.” Ruth is standing up now. She faces me down, fists at her sides. “You’re an artist.”
“Oh, I’m an artist to you all right but to the rest of the world I’m a J—”
“Please, don’t say that word!” she cries.
We grow quiet. I stand and walk back to the window. The music has stopped.
“What are you thinking?” Ruth asks behind me. “When are you ever going to let me in?”
A long stream of smoke fogs the window as I breathe out. After a while, I can hear Ruth getting dressed. When I turn back she’s in her sundress, strapping on her sandals.
“There’s not a scrap left to eat here,” she says without looking at me. She grabs her purse by the door. “I’ll get us some breakfast around the corner.”
Left alone, I look around my room. Among the cameras and lights on the floor are perfumed fans, tea ceremony bowls, paper lanterns—“enemy paraphernalia” someone had called them last night. I supplied the props and everyone took turns taking pictures with them. Exoticism is a shield: it satisfies their curiosity, puts them at ease, but does not invite scrutiny. I find a cheap, imitation kimono thrown over the back of the couch. I take it in my hands and bring it with me to the mirror in the corner of the room. The robe’s pattern—red-crowned cranes in flight—reminds me of the fabric my mother brought with her from Japan. I drape the robe over my shoulders and see myself as a boy, remembering how I used to dress up as a prince, gliding around in my mother’s cherished keepsakes. My love of sartorial beauty brought me to New York. My parents chose to remain on the West coast.
On my work desk are abandoned treasures—a small guitar, a watch, a magnifying glass, and a glass jar with a moth trapped inside—and buried underneath them is a letter from my mother. The return address is Granada War Relocation Center in Prowers County, Colorado. In the letter she describes her life there, the arid land and the sagebrush, the prickly pear cactus. She tells me my father has been making tables and shelves for the neighbors out of fruit crates. They have to do what they can, she says, since when they arrived they found their new home unfurnished, aside from the metal cot and the mattress, the lone overhead lightbulb.
My father was a woodworker in Japan before he took to farming on this foreign land. I once watched him work in a shed behind our home in Los Angeles. Everything my father made was held together with wooden joints, his creations strong because they were seamless, durable because they were carved from a single source. I wanted to help him in his task, but when I thrust my hand into his toolbox something nipped me. I pulled my hand back and saw my finger oozing with blood. Tears welled in my eyes.
“Nakuna!” My father yelled as he gripped my arm and dragged me out of the shed. Stop crying. I imagined my father now, carving and chiseling wood in the camps—not crying, only persevering.
Music starts up again. Miss Golightly is singing this time, strumming her guitar. I make my way back to the window. When I look outside, I see Ruth stepping up onto the curb. Her hand reaches for the railing of the stairs of my front stoop. A paper grocery bag is pressed against her dress. The wind swells, and for a brief second, I see us as a family. Green lawn. Children laughing. A white, suburban home.
The familiar sound cuts through my reverie. Ruth is asking me to let her in. I walk over to the button by my front door and lean against the wall. She buzzes again. I take my glasses off and my vision clouds. The buzzing continues, repeating itself again and again, until finally, it fades.