The Midwest |


by Michelle Hart

George was rich. He was an investment banker, which Caroline hadn’t known was a real job performed by real people. It was something men did in movies. Assuming she could look past his being Japanese, Caroline’s mother would love him. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment by himself on Central Park West. In fact, he owned the apartment outright. Caroline was, at first, turned off by his wealth, but then he explained, off-hand and humbly, that he sent a sizable portion of his paycheck to his parents, who lived in a tiny apartment in Queens. He wanted to make his mother’s life easier, which Caroline admired but couldn’t fully comprehend; Caroline wanted her own mother to make her life easier. It was intoxicating to be around someone so committed to his family, and who was, presumably, making them proud.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” he told her over dinner. He had taken her to Per Se. They sat at a two-topper in the corner near a fireplace. It was stiflingly romantic. She’d heard girls at Vassar, where she went to college, say that dating a man who could take you to Per Se meant you’d made it.

Caroline had met George on an online message board, a website for which she worked as a “fansubber,” translating and subtitling obscure manga and anime for public consumption. She liked to do this while unwinding from her day job translating documents for a manufacturing company. The translator was the most important link in the fansubbing chain, and since she was fluent in Japanese, Caroline acted as both the translator and the editor. This gave her a great deal of renown within the forum. At times this felt a lot like fame. Without her, people wouldn’t get what they wanted, and it had been so long since she felt capable of satisfying someone. Namely, her mother.

George had messaged her one day. He thanked her for her work. She received messages all the time from male fans, but they were usually salacious or solicitous right away. George complimented only her work. That was all she ever wanted, for someone to acknowledge her work. It was all there was. It was everything. She had graduated a semester early from Vassar and spent a year teaching English in Japan, and when she arrived back in America, she got a full-time job with a salary and benefits—this just a few years after the financial collapse—as a Japanese translator. Her mother seemed not to notice all this. She only ever asked Caroline if she’d met a man.

George was thin and balding, but he emanated a kind of enticing melancholy, as if, despite his wealth and success, there was something he couldn’t quite do, some deficiency in his character. Caroline felt his paucity in her own bones.

“I know how you feel,” she said now, because that was what she had wanted to hear from someone. “Every time I even think about my mom I feel like I’m letting her down.”

“How is that possible?” George said.

“A daughter who was top of her class in high school, graduated early from a reputable college, taught English in Japan, and became a foreign language translator in New York freaking City.” It felt so unnatural to praise herself that she had to look away. “I’m not what she wanted.”

George put his hand on top of hers. He said, “Well, if she doesn’t want you,” and let the heat of his hand finish the rest of the sentence.

Caroline was born in Leawood, Kansas, a suburb outside Kansas City, which was technically in Missouri. Before she was born her father played for the Royals; his last season was the year of her birth. He worked a few seasons as a special assistant to the general manager before being promoted to the coaching staff. Caroline grew up surrounded by baseball. She spent much of her childhood sitting by the field at Kaufmann Stadium. Her father being a part of the baseball team made her popular among the kids in her classes, especially the boys.

As she got older, the boys became interested in girls who didn’t know as much about sports as them. Struck by a loneliness that felt very sudden, she found solace only in Japanese anime, which she had discovered by accident, flipping through the channels on a listless day. In her isolation, she began to feel physically and emotionally misshapen, and Japanese cartoons reflected this weirdness back to her in a comforting way. Soon she became interested in Japanese culture. She checked books out of the library, including books on the language. She discovered that Kansas City was actually the sister city of Kurashiki in the Okayama Prefecture of Japan.

Caroline’s mother was encouraging at first. She was glad that Caroline’s extracurricular interest had academic value. But before long Caroline’s mother began to worry that Caroline would never give it up. Caroline loved her mother; her mother existed, Caroline thought, in the Platonic realm of womanhood. Of course, the more her mother pushed against her interest in Japanese culture, the more allegiance Caroline felt towards it. She was a teenager. She continued reading about life in Japan, and about the Japanese experience in America. At dinner, she lectured her mother about the internment camps, and the Anti-Jap Laundry League.

She became more interested in math, which brought her back to baseball. She learned the formulas for calculating batting average and slugging percentage. She’d sit by the field or in front of the television and keep her own scoresheet.

When she got to high school, she signed up to be the manager and statistician for the girls’ softball team. She fawned over the captain of the team, a senior pitcher. In manga and anime, it was common for a younger girl to fall for the best athlete or the head of the class, and Caroline worried that she had filled her head with too much fantasy.

She got perfect grades and taught herself Japanese on the side. Vassar offered her a full scholarship. She was excited to study the language formally. Her mother thought of the language as silly little pictures, and said that Caroline was basically getting an Art degree. Before she left for school, drunk for the first time ever on wine, Caroline told her mother that she’d had a crush on the pitcher of the softball team.

Her mother laughed. “Are you telling me you’re a lesbian? Do you even know what a lesbian is?”

Caroline felt sheepish. It was a legitimate question. “Duh,” she said.

“I knew a lesbian once,” her mother said. “She had a man’s haircut and wore men’s clothes and drove a truck. I don’t think you’re a lesbian.”

Caroline thought, Maybe she’s right. And then Caroline went to Vassar.

At the end of her sophomore year she enrolled in the exchange program at Ochanomizu University, which was an all-women’s college in Japan. It was Vassar’s sister school. She met a girl there. The girl was boyish, and Caroline hoped the girl’s boyish appearance meant Caroline was straight. When they kissed Caroline shoved the girl’s ring and index fingers between her legs and held it there with her thighs clenched, so that it felt like a very thin penis. They hid their relationship from everyone. Caroline realized at some point that the girl made her happy, and almost as soon as Caroline realized this, it went away, like a beautiful shell you see in the ocean but can’t grab before the tide removes it.

Caroline returned to the states and told her mother.

“This again,” her mother said.

“Our feelings were very strong for each other,” Caroline said. “And we could not tell anyone.”

“Caroline, please. You sound like a robot.”

“I’m doing so well in school. There’s a chance that I could graduate early. Why does this matter?”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Don’t be such a June Cleveland.” Caroline had heard the girls at Vassar referring to their mothers this way.

“It’s June Cleaver, honey. From Leave It To Beaver, the American television show. Maybe if you hadn’t been so obsessed with another culture, you might have learned something about this one.”

Caroline did eventually graduate early from Vassar. Afterwards she returned home to Leawood. The air felt placid and suffocating. Often she wandered alone into midtown Kansas City, into Columbus Park, which housed the city’s Vietnamese population. Each bite of banh mi told her to leave home. She looked into teaching positions in Japan; some of her friends at Vassar had taught English abroad.

She stayed in Tokyo for a year, teaching English to eager Japanese students. They seemed to know the English almost as much as she did. She spent her free nights in the Shinjuku Ward, which pulsed with strange desires. As the end of her teaching post approached, she felt a sense of dread. The prospect of returning to Leawood again depressed her. She loved the fast-paced city life of Tokyo, the hustle and bustle, the anonymity and the insanity. It felt okay to be lonely there. It occurred to her that the only place in America like Tokyo was New York City.

A few nights before Caroline left for Manhattan, her mother followed her around the house, sulking and sighing. Her mother began to cry, and said, “I’m proud of you, I hope you know that.” Seeing her mother in this state—apologetic and proud—made Caroline consider canceling her plans to move away. In this moment Caroline saw the twelve-hundred-mile distance between Kansas City and New York City as unfathomable. “I don’t want to lose you forever,” her mother said.

Caroline felt compelled to embrace her mother in a way she hadn’t since as long as she could remember, but something in her mother’s voice stopped her short. The fear of loss that Caroline originally assumed was remorse was the expression of disappointment, an anxious disavowal of Caroline’s desired lifestyle. Her mother was less worried about losing her to the geography of Manhattan than she was losing her to the culture of Manhattan.

For the first few months in New York, Caroline felt liberated and rebellious. She saw why so many movies took place here. She couldn’t, however, shake her mother’s disappointment. She felt it from twelve-hundred miles away. She felt it on her morning commute. She felt it when she showered. She felt it at the Highline, at Chelsea Market, at Union Square and Columbus Circle. She felt it most when she saw a beautiful woman, of which there were many in Manhattan. She dreamed of speaking to these women, of knowing them, but she had the sense that any female affection would be dulled by the lack of her mother’s.

It surprised Caroline how much she thought about George when she wasn’t with him. They texted each other frequently: in the morning, throughout the day, when they got home from work. Once, he texted her from his parents’ apartment in Queens. His mother liked to watch Friends and complain about how frivolous the show was, how the characters could afford to be silly and happy all the time because they were white. She liked to watch Seinfeld too and complain about how it was impossible for Asian people to be so outwardly unlikable. Caroline thought that watching these shows with George and his mother and hearing his mother berate the characters’ privilege would make for a nice life.

Because George often worked seventy hours a week, they got together only on weekends. Caroline would bring her translation work to George’s apartment and he would sit and watch her, fascinated by her and her ability. He told her this with some combination of fatherly astonishment and veiled prurience. At night, he would insist on taking her out. Despite having a large, flat-screen television, he wanted only to watch movies in the theater. Despite having a dining room—a dining room in Manhattan!—he wanted only to eat at restaurants. He seemed to feel as restless in his two-bedroom on Central Park West as she did in her studio on the Lower East Side.

Sometimes in this restlessness he urged her to put her work down and go out with him during the day. After learning that she’d never been to the Museum of Natural History, he all but shut her books and dragged her outside. “It’s right here,” he said. “It’s right here.” He paid fifty dollars for admission. Caroline said, “I thought it said ‘optional.’”

They walked side-by-side for two hours, never once touching. He took her through the Hall of Biodiversity and the Hall of Gems and the Hall of Birds of the World. He took her through the Hall of Advanced Mammals and the Hall of Primitive Mammals. He took her to the Hall of Asian Peoples. She tried hard to conceal the feeling of falseness that swelled within her. She was a white Japanese translator in the Hall of Asian Peoples on a date with a Japanese man. All her collected knowledge of what it was like to be Japanese paled in comparison to his knowledge of what it was like to be Japanese.

But more than that, though perhaps less surprising, she began to see the whole museum as a pantheon of heterosexuality. There would be no natural history without it. She could hear the voice of her mother now: “You being with women is not how I imagined our life going.” Her mother believed that lifestyle would preclude everything womanly, including having a child. She’d said, “What good is it to be the mother of a daughter who doesn’t want to be a mother?”

She felt so replete with shame that when George asked later if he could kiss her, she said, “Please, yes.”

They kissed, demurely, tentatively. He said, “Is this okay?” Caroline brought him closer to her, the first time in her life she had ever taken charge. She kissed him more forcefully; the more physical it became, the less mental it was.

When she was in only her underwear, he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her, bringing her bare stomach to his lips. For a moment it felt, to her, like levitation, like transportation. Soon he slipped off her underwear. He put his head between her legs. She stared, wide-eyed, at the high ceiling of his bedroom. From below the zenith seemed so far away.

In Japanese, there was a concept called Boketto, which, roughly translated, meant staring off into the distance in such a way that one lost track of oneself. It described the experience of gazing at a faraway object so intensely that one’s mind seemed to empty.

She was twenty-four and having sex for the first time. She had never even masturbated. She was muddled by how good her body felt and began, almost immediately, to hate herself for enjoying it so much. Yet her self-hatred jostled with hope; if it felt good now maybe it would always feel good.

Her mother had once told her that the key to life was to date a man who loved you more than you loved him. This was before Caroline had tried to tell her mother she would never love a man at all. “Daddy loves you more than you love him?” she’d asked. Her mother said, “The only time a woman loves a man more than he loves her is when he leaves her.” She’d felt sorry for her father, but also delighted that she and her mother knew something no one else knew. Yet she’d returned to this nugget of wisdom every now and again, wondering how her mother could be so cruel. The pity she’d initially felt for her father dissolved into repulsion towards her mother.

She’d spent so much time trying to unfasten herself from her mother’s guidance that the idea of acquiescing to it was unbearable. So she didn’t bear it. And the immediate pleasures of being with George—the museums, the dinners, the taking a cab instead of the subway—went a long way towards making her forget her commitment to live life outside her mother’s lines. Maybe it was that the life she wanted to live lay already outside those lines and the idea of doing something her mother would approve of was comforting.

Even the sex was pleasing. He was very gifted with his fingers and his tongue. He rarely put his penis inside her. She never asked why. Asking him might produce in him a deep shame. She felt overqualified to discuss shame in general but under-qualified to discuss his shame. Also, she believed that meeting a man who did not want to penetrate her meant she was lucky.

What she enjoyed more than the sex was the conversations it brought about. Throughout their courtship George had been reticent; he rarely talked about his family outside of making jokes about them. If sex had opened up Caroline physically, it seemed to open George up emotionally, slowly but surely. She loved listening to him talk about his family. His life felt more substantial than hers, and she had the sense that being a part of his life would make hers more substantial.

He told her about his teetotaler parents, how they had become ashamed, upon arriving in America, of the “flushing reflex,” which reddened their skin when they drank even the smallest amount of alcohol. Because of this, George had not drank alcohol until graduate school.

One night he admitted to lying when they first met. He’d told her that his parents discouraged any interest in Japanese culture, which wasn’t true. He’d separated himself from that culture. He was poor and not-white and blamed his parents for both of these things.

“The best part of getting older,” he said, “really the only good part about it, has been realizing how right they were, how worthwhile they’d made my life. I find myself saying things they’ve said, believing things they believe, doing things they’ve done. I always expect to be embarrassed or feel some kind of shame when I catch myself thinking or acting like them, but I feel comforted. It makes me feel less lonely.”

Caroline had to tuck her head into her chest to hide her tears.

As the weeks went by and they continued eating lavish dinners and having gratifying sex and exploring the nooks and crannies of New York City, Caroline began to feel crushed by how much genuine affection she felt for George. What she feared more than a life of self-effacement was hurting him.

One night George took her to the opening of a new restaurant in Midtown East. He was friends with the one of the owners, who had offered them the private table in the restaurant’s grotto. The grotto was a sort of antechamber-slash-wine-cellar that seemed far removed from the restaurant proper. There was only one table. A waiter came over to them a few minutes after they sat down and explained that whatever they wanted was on the house. Caroline laughed, dazzled by glamour. George, however, insisted on paying, facetiously at first and then more forceful, confusing the waiter and Caroline. Growing up with a father who’d played professional baseball and a mother who’d come from money had made Caroline accustomed to privilege, but never before had she dined with someone who denied free food. George ordered a bottle of wine. Caroline watched the waiter walk away, wanting to reach out to him in a show of camaraderie.

Smiling through her discomfort, she asked George why he would insist on paying for something offered complimentarily.

He said, “What’s the point of working seventy hours a week and earning a lot of money if you can’t spend it?”

“But just because you have it doesn’t mean you have to spend it.”

“I want to pay. The host has to be paid. The waiter has to be paid. The raw ingredients used to make the food have to be paid for. The gas and electricity and water—this all has to be paid for.”


The food came out quickly. Caroline wondered if the quickness with which they were served was due to George paying for something that was offered for free. She felt somehow worse for the waiter now that George was paying than if the waiter was not being compensated at all.

They ate in between strained and intermittent conversation. The food was exquisite; it tasted as though it had been prepared only for them, like the food was a secret shared between them and the chef. But soon she could barely taste what she was putting into her mouth. An unexpected resentment erupted inside her. She replayed in her mind all of the times money could have been saved. In recounting this, she imagined reaching across the table and slapping George in the face. She would yell and make a scene like some reality television star. She’d say, “I don’t need you to do this for me!” Yet imagining that made her feel fraudulent. She did need him to do it. That he was not pennywise around her meant he cared about her, meant that she was worth showing off for.

After the waiter took their dinner plates away, George implored her to order desert. She couldn’t eat anymore, she said. He said they should order something regardless. When it came out and they saw how good it looked they would want to taste it.

“Okay,” she said. He was, in his aversion to saving money, frightening her.

He ordered two after-dinner drinks and when the drink arrived in front of Caroline, she downed it in one gulp. After splitting two bottles of wine and shooting whatever it was she had just shot, she felt drunk. George’s face had reddened from the alcohol. Caroline wondered if he was embarrassed, if his insistence on spending a lot of money was a way of covering up this embarrassment—of his alcohol intake, of his heritage. Flushed with alcohol and guilt, Caroline’s eyes began to water. She felt as though she was toying with his life.

Once the check was paid, the owner, the one George was friends with, approached the table. The friend was a woman. While Caroline had known this, the woman was not at all whom Caroline expected. The woman was older than George and was on the heavier side. The woman looked content in her body and in her life. She called George “ridiculous” for paying. She glanced at Caroline and smiled before turning back to George. “Now it all makes sense.” She said, “Wow.” Caroline was flattered by the woman’s compliment. Her heart took turns fluttering and sinking. In one glance, Caroline felt the knot of the past few months, the one she’d tied as tight as she could, slip loose.

Back at George’s apartment, the giddiness Caroline experienced over being complimented by an attractive woman wrestled with her failure to free herself from a relationship that satisfied her—not completely, but not insignificantly. She sat on George’s bed in a daze. She was still somewhat drunk. She thought of the restaurant owner. An absurdly frolicsome montage of the two of them played in Caroline’s mind.

She felt unfit to answer the question that loomed over the past few months like an outsized pair of eyes: How much was an easy, comfortable life worth?

George left the bedroom to answer a work email. For a moment, George’s leaving was a respite. As his figure faded from view, however, Caroline began to tremble. She scooched herself closer to the edge of the bed and slumped forward, wrapping her arms around her stomach. She thought she might become sick. She loved him. She loved the respect and reverence he had for his family. She loved the pouches under his eyes that carried the weight of a life lived on the margins. She felt such a compelling kinship with him and this she understood to be love, that sense of being and wanting to be alone together. She wanted him to be pleased. She wanted her mother to be pleased. She thought a nice life would be having everyone around her pleased.

Blood rushed to her head, which was tucked into her body in such a way that she heard nothing else but the furious pumping of her heart. She did not hear George call her name. Or she did but she didn’t register it fully, as in a dream when one’s ears take in a sound from the waking world and incorporate it somehow into the realm of sleep. She realized her name had been called only when it was called again, this time inflected with a question mark—Caroline? And like a dream, Caroline wanted to call back, wanted to call out, but the idea of shouting loud enough to be heard made her queasy.

George stood in the doorway of the bedroom now. He said her name once more, this time with a kindness so tender that it hurt. He said, “Are you going to spend the night? I think you should. You don’t look well.”

She thought of how easy it would be to stay, how hard it would be to leave, to get up from the bed and walk out of George’s apartment, to take the elevator twelve stories down with the twin specters of George hurt and George alone hanging over her, to spill out onto the city street, to descend into the 81st Street subway to catch the C train and transfer to the B or D at West 4th until Broadway-Lafayette and even then not be home, to stumble into her own apartment still fizzy from alcohol but coming down, where she’d be alone, alone, alone for who knew how long. She grew tired just thinking about all that, and yet

“I can’t stay,” she said.