Toshi and Mitsuko met in Los Angeles. That's their life now.
Toshi is an old friend of my parents, and he still keeps in touch with my mom. I met him briefly about fifteen years ago when I was looking to acquire a set of golf clubs. I’d asked my mom if she knew anyone getting rid of theirs. You never know with Asian seniors. I figured someone had a set in the basement they were ready to bequeath. She said she’d call Toshi. He was once a golf pro at a public course, or otherwise ran a pro shop at a course.
Anyway, we paid him a visit at an apartment in Orange County, on the ground floor of a sprawling complex of small patios connected loosely by a concrete byway with manmade elevations to give the impression you were in a utopian compound except because it was a little off, you mostly just felt trapped. Toshi’s apartment had an attached garage, making the apartment more like a town house, also known as a condominium, which was a superior model of the complex, I was told at some point in a conversation. I could tell he was defensive about his plot of land, and I wanted to assure him there was no reason to be, but I couldn’t figure out how to say that without sounding condescending.
My mom and I arrive at his front door and ring a doorbell. I’m caught a little off guard by the woman who greets us at the door. She is likely Japanese, likely in her 60s, but with such vacancy in her relaxed eyes that I think she is high. She is gorgeous; like a model in a Shiseido ad without makeup, a poster left in the attic to haunt whoever ensconces themselves in there to think to themselves, and I’m not sure if she’s better or worse for having lured us.
Toshi scurries up from behind her in the hall and apologetically scoots the woman aside so he can squeeze out past her. He tells us we should’ve called and then he would’ve met us at the garage entrance. Isn’t it funny how so few people enter their homes through the front door, or is that just my people? Toshi isn’t going to have us in his home, and that’s fine. We’re here to make a transaction.
Toshi looks exactly like you would picture a retired chuzaiin from Japan who’s lived in Southern California most of his life without learning English should look. Concave torso, grey punch-permed hair, deeply tanned. He’s wearing an oversized t-shirt and shorts on this day.
If I had the patience to dig through my old computer drives for this, I’d insert the photo of his garage that I took at this juncture. The 10 by 12 garage is suitable for one vehicle. It is brimming with golf clubs. It is intimidating how many sets he owns. Some of the clubs are in bags, some of the bags are nice. Some of the clubs in the nice bags have nice neoprene sleeves to protect the wood. Some have woven club socks with pom poms, like novelty hats. Most of the sets of clubs are just bundled with string and capped loosely with plastic shopping bags. There must be at least a hundred sets of clubs in here.
I don’t even know where to begin to peruse these golf clubs but Toshi scans the forest and identifies a region where he may have stowed clubs small and easy enough for me to use. I don’t need anything fancy that’s for sure. In fact after taking a quick look in his suburb of clubs, I follow my instincts for an uncomplicated set of irons with a turquoise hairline accent. He asks if I want a bag, and unveils a pile of tubes lining one of the walls. I choose the bright aqua colored promotional bag with a parrot illustration on the side.
“Really? That one?” He says. He has nicer bags.
The woman from earlier suddenly opens the door and appears at the garage entrance to the house, behind the golf clubs. She wades her way through the collection to meet Toshi, who was now negotiating with my mother, how little to accept for the clubs; like they were fighting for the dinner bill.
No, Toshi-san, I insist on paying you more.
No, Minah-san. I don’t need the money.
The woman holds Toshi’s arm and says, “are you crazy? Take the money.” We all laugh. Finally someone who can cut through the small talk. I agree that we can give some money if nothing else for his time. The woman agrees I should pay, and I think I gave him a hundred dollars. She looks at his hand holding the cash, maybe a little unsatisfied. I want to tell him he should offer tours of the garage just for people to marvel at what’s become a sort of vernacular art exhibition. I decide that would be condescending, too.
We return to my mother’s car to leave. Once we were on the road, I blurted out: so his wife is strange, eh?
My mom let out a pensive mmmm, almost grumbling, for a minute. Then said: Mitsuko-san. Yeah…She has Alzheimer’s and she’s not his wife.
Women with Alzheimer’s in film and literature look like they’re mentally trapped in their most wanton phase of life and manifesting with this extreme seductiveness they couldn’t control in their original period, like the dementia has an ulterior motive to make women appear more beautiful even in their dotage. Julie Christie in Away From Her, for example, but more presciently to me, the main character in a novel very few Americans have read—Translucent Tree by Nobuko Takagi. You’ll just have to trust me that Chigiri (the character) was Mitsuko. It’s a great romantic novel. And Mitsuko really does seem to have been designed by fate to become this lost icon.
Who is she then, I asked, thinking if they weren’t married then she must be a relative or something.
Toshi was working for a major Japanese auto company in the 1980s when he was transferred to California. He came alone and was going to send for his wife and kids once he established himself. Very shortly into his move to California, though, he met Mitsuko at a club. He fell in love with her and effectively left his Japanese family behind, never to return.
I can’t believe my mom when she says those last words. “You mean he never went back to his wife and kids, but he couldn’t possibly have avoided everyone in Japan, right?” No, she confirms herself. “He left his family and quit his job and I think he actually is not allowed back in the country.” He closed that door forever.
Mitsuko was diagnosed early. These two aren’t more than 65 years old when I meet them. Toshi quit his golf gig to take care of her. That’s their life now.1
These are all obviously fake names but true retellings. Also, golf. Yes, I like golfing. Mostly it’s a perversion and confluence of old memories of walking around courses with my dad, working really hard to do the impossible—hit a small white ball into a small black hole with as few strokes as possible; and to connect with him.