Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
Jennifer Tseng is a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. Mayumi Saito is a 41-year-old librarian and dutiful mother whose affair with a 17-year-old booklover becomes an all-consuming obsession. Set on a small island off the coast of New England, the novel explores the impact of setting, circumstance, and the relationships we forge. The following is an excerpt from the novel.
“I’d like to adopt you,” I proposed.
“That would be incest.”
“Must you put it so crudely?” Alas, the profanity of my solution had not escaped him. The young man was so clever.
“There’s also the matter of Mom.”
“You’re right. She might not allow it.” I should have shuddered at the thought of Violet signing a written agreement but I laughed. He began to laugh too.
“You’d be surprised. Mom’s a pretty understanding person.”
“If you were my child I’d keep you with me. I’d forbid you to go to your little summer camp.”
“Let’s not talk about it.” He put his lips upon mine as he spoke. “You’re upsetting yourself.”
“Don’t.” I pulled away.
“Look at me.”
I wouldn’t glance. I stayed lying on my stomach; I inhaled his brought from home pillow (likely belonging to Mom).
“I’m still here.” He stroked my neck as if I were ill. “I’m not gone yet.”
I turned my head. The pillow was wet with my tears. He got up and placed his hands on the backs of my thighs, one hand lightly upon each thigh. He waited for me to raise myself. I didn’t move. I felt something terrible might happen if he kissed me and so I lay still. He was, as always, very patient. He rested his hands there for a long time, he kept his touch light, never varying the pressure, neither going forward nor retreating but making electricity. Like a boy alone in the wild, he built his fire soundlessly, with little movement, adding branches until his part of the woods was lit. The thought of him there alone with his patience moved me. I raised my hips slightly. I could hear him lie down behind me, I could feel the warmth of his face. His mouth was near me but not touching. His patience outdistanced my resolve. I lifted myself fully now, obscenely. He touched first with his hand, slipped it in like a man reaching into his own pocket for warmth, as if I were a coat that belonged to him so that each time he withdrew his hand I had no purpose but to wait for its return. If I could wait long enough (and I could always wait long enough), his kisses would come next.
He loved to lie before me, beside me, behind me and kiss. In my life before him, I had always thought men did such things in service of love or kindness. The young man taught me it can be done selfishly, in service of a man’s pleasure. It was like wine to him, a forbidden drink that calmed him. Once he discovered it, he liked to have a glass every morning, sometimes more. And like an errant mother I couldn’t stop myself pouring it out for him. He liked the taste, he said, and the feeling of my legs pressing his cheeks.
Waiting for him made my thoughts explicit. I became aroused without touch, by my own thoughts of his touch. I grew so euphoric waiting for him that I was startled to finally feel his lips and tongue. It was like being kissed from behind by an intruder whose face I couldn’t see. I felt such fervent palpations, such fear! Then he kissed me as if working—slowly, diligently, with a grave interest, as if he enjoyed and was grateful for this profession upon which he so depended. He took and he gave. He kissed and he kissed. In the end, the act’s incredible calculus of generosity and greed silenced my thoughts. I felt blessed, blankened, enraptured by my own effacement. They were sensations not even the most beneficent gods could have designed. To be deprived of them would be just punishment indeed.
Once I had faced squarely the fact that the young man had crossed the sea and would not, even if I were to plead, turn back, I resorted to following his course on the large non-circulating maps kept in thin wooden drawers in the Reading Room. For the first week of our separation I spent my lunch breaks poring over various physical, political, and road maps which I took the liberty of spreading out on one end of the long table despite the continual presence of patrons working quietly at their laptops. The maps crackled loudly when I set them down and I had to take my glasses off to read them but I didn’t care. It became a compulsion, something I both looked anxiously forward to and deeply dreaded. When the maps cracked like lightning I was filled with anticipation, as if, when I put my index finger on the place where he now was, rain would fall from the ceiling, thunder would sound, and like a god, the young man would materialize. After I had placed the maps in their proper drawers and shut them, I felt a sharp sense of disappointment at my own failure to conjure him. Each of these sessions was marked by a vague sense of idiocy and hopelessness for I knew how very old the maps were and had to wonder if the many streets and highways I studied so closely even existed any longer.
What saved me from complete cartographic insanity was that the young man arrived in California and called as promised. We were eating dinner when the phone rang. I leapt to answer it and brought the receiver like a lover to my bedroom. It was, not surprisingly, a bad connection; the new mobile phone had poor reception there where he was on the river. His voice came and went the way songs do on car radios when one is driving (or in my case being driven) in a remote area.
“Hey,” he said. Then the connection seemed to die. After a few moments, I heard him say, “I made it.” I thought I heard the sound of the river (or was it interference?) which was a comfort to me. He was there. Somewhere.
“Good. I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Thanks,” he said and somehow this time, his politeness wounded me. He said he was standing next to the river, he said it was beautiful. His voice sounded deeper. I didn’t know if this was due to the poor connection or whether during the time it had taken him to travel from coast to coast, he had matured a great deal. It was certainly possible. If a child could change overnight, I hardly dared to think what ten consecutive days and nights could accomplish. He sounded older, twenty at least. I was afraid if we spoke again he would sound older still, that by month’s end he would have surpassed me, his voice in early August that of an old man’s. I did not receive the comfort of hearing “his voice” for his voice had changed, it was no longer the voice I had known.
“I miss you,” I said, feeling trite, craving convention.
“Me too.” We stayed in silence for a few minutes. I lay on the bed pressing the phone to my ear. I heard the sound of the river again, sure this time that it was not static but something beyond it. It sounded like he was walking, crunching on gravel or rocks. “I have to go,” he said.
“Okay,” the word was mine now. “Thank you for calling.”
“Of course,” he said, the words his utterly. “I’ll think about you later,” he mumbled.
“Me too,” I said, having no idea how very true this would be, how very deep into the future this later would extend.
When I went to the kitchen to replace the phone Var asked, “Who was it?”
“No one,” I answered and felt I was being truthful. For all practical purposes the young man was no one now; I was certain of this. Perhaps Var sensed my certainty because he did not press further. He returned to carving his kokeshi which, I, being a sentimentalist at heart, could not help but wish he was making for me and which he later gave to Maria.
My first foray into a Violet-style emancipation—unexpected, overdue—began the next day. Helmet-less, in a red sundress, under the auspices of buying a pie, I rode my bicycle to Violet’s charmingly ramshackle shop. Its dusty farmhouse exterior concealed a treasure trove of exotic snacks for millionaires. Like the only bar aboard a great ocean liner, it was a life line to a certain way of living. It seemed a shame to deprive myself of the luxury of a visit in the absence of any reason not to. There was no crime in shopping there, no longer any need to hide myself from view. How deliciously ordinary I felt! Never mind that the small parking lot was swarming with expensive cars, the tiny aisles jammed with respectable people. Any one of them could see I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. I was a middle-aged woman come to buy a pie from a friend.
A bell tinkled as I opened the door, an elderly man on my left was carefully weighing white peaches, two girls laughed together at something on a can, the telephone rang and Violet— cordoned off behind the counter in the way of a celebrity—picked it up and said in a cheery public voice, “Plum Island Provisions!” The narrow produce corner was packed tightly as a pint of figs, the glass door of the cheese case fogged from being opened so often. There was no way to access the foreign section due to the line that now curved in front of it. It felt more like a Manhattan deli than a country farm stand, an island within an island.
I joined the line and waited. I watched Violet. I studied the lines in the wood floor. When I reached the display of foreign goods I bypassed the South American chocolate infused with Valencian orange in favor of a Scharffen Berger milk. This was not the time or place in which to experience uncontrollable fits of desire. As it was, I was out of my element, there was not one book on the shelves.
Slowly, I neared the front counter. Violet wore a white apron with the bodice folded down, its straps wound back and tied in front. Through the bakery glass I could see her retrieving a familiar-looking biscuit. She didn’t see me.
She stood up again, her face flushing a bit, and asked, “May I help you?” and then she saw who I was and we laughed. “May! What are you doing here?” she asked, as if her establishment were one of ill repute.
“I’ve come to buy a pie.”
“Really?! Which one?”
“Strawberry rhubarb please, if you have that.”
“Yes, one left. We saved it for you.”
“Oh good. I’ve been wanting to buy this pie for about ten years.” I fumbled with my money, feeling not unlike her son, awkwardly and with trembling hands, paying overdue fines, as if it were she, the one invisibly connected to him, whom I’d been destined for.
“Let’s hope it’s fresher than that.”
She took my money and handed me the pie. “Come swimming with me!” she said loudly. I couldn’t help but feel pleased and a little proud at the front of that long line. She had declared me to everyone: the chosen one, her swimming partner, recipient of the last strawberry rhubarb pie.
“I’d love to.”
“Tomorrow morning earlyish?”
“Meet me here and we’ll drive over.”
“Okay!” I found myself in constant agreement.
And so it was Violet who introduced me to Ice House, the pond deep in the woods where she had taught her son how to swim. They were not the woods of my transgression but another wood very near P.I.P. We strolled the broad, shaded trail like Hatfielders on holiday, I could see a watery glint in the distance where the sun shone on the pond. There was no beach, only a wooden staircase that led out of the woods and then an iron dock that jutted out into the water. The pond was pristine, glacial in origin, now spring fed. Two striped towels hung upon the black rails; I looked out with some dismay to see two swimmers already in the water. Violet hung her towel alongside theirs and I followed suit. We swam without stopping to the other side. I struggled to keep up. Her strength surprised me.
Once on the other side, we draped ourselves like washed clothes upon a large rock. We murmured as the sun dried us. Across the pond the two swimmers arrived at the shore and vanished into the trees with their towels. We were alone in summer’s kingdom. It was a small, oval-shaped world like the inside of a locket, one side the mirror of the pond, the other the sky.
“Our little glass lake,” Violet sighed.
“Not a grain of sand to trouble us.”
“No, not even one.”
“Are you happy?” I asked.
“Even though your son’s away?” I couldn’t imagine Maria off island much less forget the young man.
“Yes. I like to be alone.”
I felt buoyed by her certainty. She seemed very wise to me lying there in her white maillot like an Amaterasu under the sun. We were not without him, we carried his image in our locket as he journeyed west walking barefoot, eating avocados, seeing orange trees growing outside for the first time. Perhaps he too was swimming, in a river, in the sea, it didn’t matter. I felt the kind of happiness one feels in the presence of a friend when one’s child is in the next room—nearby but requiring none of one’s attention.
“He arrived in Mendocino last night.”
“I hear it’s beautiful there.”
“I think he’ll like it.”
I opened my eyes and turned to see her smiling through closed eyes, drops of pond water dotting her face like dew. I studied it for signs of danger but she looked completely at peace.
“I’m proud of him. He’s more adventurous than I was.”
“But you’re very brave. What about Europe?”
“It’s not the same. I went with a girlfriend and we always had creature comforts.”
“Oh,” I said dumbly, nearly blurting out “He never told me that,” but I caught myself. I pretended our many conversations had never occurred. In a way it was easy, for I had begun to doubt that they had. My memories of our time together seemed sadly delusional if not completely insane. I half wanted to ask Violet for verification. As with a small boat in the wind I struggled with thoughts of him. In my effort to steer myself to safety, I grew tired of rowing, my arms were as weak as my will and in the end I lay down and let the boat drift.
“Will you freckle?” I asked, thinking of his skin, the way he could take on an olive cast in a single day.
“Yes. That’s another difference. My son tans beautifully and all I get is spots.”
“I don’t see any spots.” Her skin was pale and clear.
“SPF 50,” she said.
The mention of her son’s beauty had a predictable effect. I bent my legs and wondered about the missing father. Romani? Wampanoag? Italian?
“When he comes back, I want you to meet him.”
“You’d like him.”
“He reminds me of you a little.”
“Of me? How so?”
“I don’t know, he just does. Or maybe you remind me of him, I’m not sure which. You both have strong feelings about things and you’re both smart.”
“Well, if he’s anything like you, I’m sure he’s lovely.”
“It’s funny, I sometimes forget you’ve never met. It’s as if you know each other.”
“Yes, I feel that too,” I said, my heart throbbing obscenely beneath my suit, my pulse flashing like a diamond at my neck.
“When he comes back, we’ll all have lunch.”
“Okay,” I agreed. I closed my eyes less to feel the sun upon them than to cover their expression.
When the sun had dried us we rose without speaking, like nomads whose movements are ruled by the stars. We looked out across the water. Violet glanced at me in a kind yet cursory way and I gave her my best Aunt Tomoko nod. She dove in first, a shimmering whitefish entering the dark water. I scrambled awkwardly down from the rock and waded in, my elbows flying up when the cold water touched my warm chest. Clumsily, I splashed in after her.
We swam near each other, Violet slightly ahead. Her strokes were strong; it would have been an effort for her to remain beside me. Somewhere near the middle of the pond we heard geese overhead. Within moments the birds had descended and joined us, some of them flapping and splashing the surface, others gliding like small ships alongside us. Violet turned cleanly to swim on her back and flashed me a sleeky gap smile. It was as if together we had entered a room where two people were making love. One felt simultaneously a sense of trespass and sensuality, nearness and exclusion. There was the sound of wings brushing against the water, wings brushing against wings. Each bird carried its unknown cargo, the majestic fleet of them following its prescribed fate. I longed to touch one—I was near enough—but felt certain if I were to alter my stroke the spell would be broken and the geese would flee, so I swam as smoothly as I could among them, in Violet’s green wake.
From Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng. Copyright 2014 Jennifer Tseng. First publication 2015 by Europa Editions. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
- “A Contract Overseas” by Mia Alvar
- The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
- Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Interview with the finalists
Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.