Haibun: Tokyo Years, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

Haibun: Tokyo Years, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#japan #memoir #tokyo #womenauthors

June day
a child says goodbye
breeze blows on the runway

Steel stairway, wings and jet engines. Our Pan Am Boeing 707 in sun-glare. Idlewild to San Francisco, to Honolulu, then to Tokyo. Blue bows braided into my pigtails, blue plaid summer dress catches a hot breeze. Suddenly, I realize my Cinderella watch is still tucked into the seat pocket, and I’ll never see it again. Our family of four begins a three-year adventure in a new country and culture, far from my grandparents’ secure New Jersey home–our place of permanence–amid our transitory Air Force life. My father’s Far East forays are difficult for Mother, baby sister and me, but we are open to learn and enjoy this beautiful land and culture.

The Japanese expression for a sweet memory link–to a song, familiar food, place–is Natsukashii. I return to the traditional music of the stringed Koto, the popular song of“Sakura” Cherry Blossom, the colors and textures in silk fabric, in straw, bamboo, the plants; the scent of burning cone incense, sweet waxy red ink of my honko initial stamp, all of the imagery and life that was the Tokyo I knew.
A lush water garden captivates me. A chain of blue iris-filled streams and four wooden arched bridges over beads of glimmering ponds. Green iris leaves spike, and purple flower shades coalesce and merge filling each tiny brook. Dragonflies dart and hover on water lily pads. Ladies with black hair piled and fastened wear silk printed kimono. High geta shoes; gentle sound of wood on wood. Serenity.

Washington Heights–over eight-hundred housing units, office buildings, schools, movie theatre, chapel, base exchange, clubs, and swimming pools–was a sprawling middle class community built in 1946. Courts of quadplex landscaped with Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Yews, and Maples, green lawns for children, and sidewalks lined with cherry trees becomes our home the summer of 1961. A three-acre grove of black oak and pine stretched along a wide slope below our neighborhood. I roamed the mossy ground among big stones, on paths under a domed canopy in dappled light, or in bare winter chiaroscuro. We children carved hearts in bark, and peeled hardened cambium scars to renew old initials and friendships. Cicadas slipped their shells, claws gripped to rough bark. We wore papery skins on our shirts like badges. These trees, a forest fragment, spilled over a high fieldstone wall undulating at the edge of our play space. One-hundred and seventy acres of evergreens surrounding Meiji Shrine and inner garden were planted in 1926 to honor spirits of the Emperor and Empress, last rulers of Tokyo’s Edo period. The wall banked and bordered my sanctuary, my peaceful shrine.

sultry summer day
mantis in a bamboo cage
horned beetle eats jam

I attended fifth and sixth grades at an international girls school several miles from Shibuya-Ku and Washington Heights. Sisters of Notre Dame taught French, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Art and the sacred rule of Silence. We wore navy blue, but for family days, when our traditional garb, art, music and foods were relished. A cathedral-like chapel, medals bestowed for merit, giggles in refectory lunches, field sports, and myriads of smiles, all too brief.

Dad liked to venture outside the gate with us to Shinjuku shopping district. Vivid images, textures, toys entice me. Doll faces fascinated. A ten-year-old’s allowance of a few Yen could buy tiny glass animals, a pair of painted wood peg kokeshi dolls, lucky Daruma dolls, Hakata dolls in folk dress, or eggshell faced Ichimatsu Gofu, boy and girl baby dolls. Mom chose a kimono-clad Geisha doll in a glass case, and a delicate-looking red-flowered paper umbrella, Wagasa, waterproofed with oil, made with bamboo ribs, for spring and early summer rains. We followed mingled fragrances of street food: steamy Yakisoba noodles, tasty fried or grilled dumplings, savory grilled rice crackers, skewered chicken Yakitori.
Slated as the site of 1964 Summer Olympics, Washington Heights was set to be demolished. Dad made ready to move us summer of 1963, so we could be spared the sight of familiar buildings razed. I did my best to adjust to the move to Johnson Air Force Base, Irumagawa, north of western Tokyo, but change always came too quickly.
I missed my grove of trees, and one day I wandered on a shaded path at the rear of our quarters. I found myself at the top edge of a tea paddy, above a vast field of manicured tea bushes. Below to the right was “Ichiban Village,” airman’s housing. Ichiban means number one. I am “number one” daughter, and at twelve, would attend base junior high that fall. I squeezed through a break in the barbed wire fence and picked a handful of aromatic leaves. I breathed fresh air under a wide, blue sky. Ninety miles away, snow-capped Mt. Fujiyama, suspended from soft clouds. On rides through the city of Sayama to another airbase, I’d seen picturesque fields, farmers in peasant garb bending in rows, and Fuji San, getting closer, getting farther away.

In Spring – Sakura
beloved cherry blossoms
sidewalks turning pink


Want to read more by Mary Ellen Gambutti? Read her previous story, I Must Have Wandered.


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1968, by DC Diamandopolous

#lgbt #los angeles #realistic #womenauthors

Johnny kneeled on top of his bookcase as he wiggled the screen out of its frame and let it slide onto the bush outside his bedroom window. Just as he raised his leg over the ledge, he remembered his retainer and yanked it out of his mouth, tossed it onto the dresser and climbed out.

Sneaking around the side of the house, he unlatched the gate, inched through, then locked it. He glanced west toward the Brewers’ house and east to the Fillmores’. At ten thirty at night, the neighborhood had tucked itself into bed. His old man’s station wagon parked in the driveway was a real daddy’s car, but it had wheels, and that’s what Johnny needed to take him to his first gay bar.

Johnny pulled his dad’s key from his crushed velvet pant pocket, unlocked the car, and slipped behind the wheel, leaving the door ajar. He put the gear in neutral and let the Buick roll back into the street and then pushed the car past the Wilsons’ house, shut the door, started the engine and took off for the Harbor Freeway and Santa Monica Boulevard.

When he had read in the local paper that his science teacher was arrested in a raid at The Rusty Nail and lost his job because he was a homosexual, Johnny felt bad for Mr. Gilroy, but excited to know he wasn’t the only queer in the universe. The Rusty Nail reopened as a bar for men and women, gay men and women, Johnny learned through the back pages of the underground press.

Johnny pounded his fist against the wheel, feeling the victory of freedom. He had the fake ID his sister’s boyfriend made for him, thinking Johnny wanted to meet some fox at the Blue Turtle, but with a constellation of zits on his chin, his voice still swinging between the Little and Big Dipper, Johnny’s chances of making it through the doors of The Rusty Nail were still slim.

Three days before he got his driver’s license, Johnny rehearsed punching and fluffing his pillows like he’d seen prison escapees do in the movies, then he pulled the cover over them to make it look like a body underneath. He practiced climbing out the window so he wouldn’t mess his clothes by falling into the bush that grew outside his bedroom. He committed the perfect getaway until he realized he’d left the Free Press with the big red circle around The Rusty Nail lying on his desk. No sweat. He’d be back before his parents woke-up.

Johnny rolled down the window just enough so that it didn’t disturb his long hair that he brushed and groomed until his arm felt tired. When he had missed several hair cuts, his father told him he didn’t want his son looking like a queer. Johnny told his dad not to worry, he hated fags, but long hair was in.

His dark mop covered his ears, and he grew really cool sideburns.

If his old man saw him now in his bitchin’ yellow stripes and red polka-dot shirt and Nehru jacket, driving his car, he would flip.

Johnny drove up the onramp. Too bad he wasn’t in a boss looking Mustang instead of an old fogey’s car. He’d park a block away from the bar so no one would see it, but what if he met someone? It was his uncle’s car, he’d tell them, because his Mustang was in the shop. Lies. That’s what his life was about, dating girls, football, acting tough, all to please his dad and everyone else. He even put up a poster of Raquel Welch when he wanted to tack up Steve McQueen.

Johnny’s secret gave him headaches. It was a monster that gobbled him up until he felt like he’d become the thing that consumed him. Something dirty. Something that made guys pick fights with him. He hoped to replace loneliness with friendships and meet a cute guy at the bar.

He relaxed into the flow of the cars, turned on the radio and switched the dial to KRLA and Dave Hull, the Hullabalooer.

“Mony Mony” blasted through the speakers. Johnny thought he would explode with pleasure. The sexy beat sparked his fantasies into a rocket fueled ascension where dancing led to kissing and kissing led to hot sex and hot sex never ended.

His loud singing drowned out Tommy James. He took his hands off the steering wheel and clapped along with the Shondells, laughing and hollering, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Johnny zoomed past downtown and veered into the lane for the Hollywood Freeway. He slouched down in the seat, his left hand hanging over the wheel, real cool, like he’d done it millions of times. He glanced left, then right, just to see if anyone was lucky enough to see how groovy he looked.

He reached in the glove compartment and took out his dad’s cigarettes. Shaking one free, he stuck it between his lips then punched in the lighter. It popped out, and he lit the cigarette. He took a drag and coughed. His eyes watered. He puffed without inhaling.

Someone pulled in front of him.


Johnny stepped on the gas and swerved into the fast lane.

“Wanna drag? I can make this mother move.”

He stubbed out the cigarette and caught up with the guy who almost creamed him. The jerk wasn’t even paying attention to him, probably didn’t even know he almost caused an accident. Johnny blared the horn. The guy gave him the finger. Johnny laughed. He had to be at least eighty, older than his grandparents.

He passed the Melrose exit. The Western offramp would be next, and he’d take it to Santa Monica Boulevard.

He flattened the gas pedal all the way to the floor. Street lamps flickered by, he felt the air lift his hair, smelled the damp night and asphalt. Johnny glanced in the rearview mirror. Red lights flashed. A siren screamed.

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I Must Have Wandered, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#japan #memoir #realistic #short stories #womenauthors

On a sunny late June 1962 morning Mom directed me to return to school for my cordovan oxfords. I had forgotten to change into them on the last day of school, and wore my black indoor uniform loafers home on the bus. “Go get them!” she shouted. I was ten at the finish of fifth grade, a cautious child. To leave Washington Heights, our military housing complex, alone, on foot, was a daunting prospect. But I obeyed Mom and hiked to the main gate carrying nothing, not even my dependent’s identification card. A Japanese guard waved ‘bye,’ asked no questions as I entered Tokyo streets, to feel my way to Sacred Heart campus.

Beyond the sentry at my left was Meiji Park. I gathered my recollection of the school bus route, past the commuter rail station, and into the modern business district of Shibuya. Perhaps it was a Monday–maybe I’d been out of school a week—the sidewalks filled with boys in school uniform shirts and jackets, businessmen, department store shoppers in kimonos or skirts and blouses, pedestrians young and elderly; people I had come to trust during the first year my Air Force family lived in Japan.

City bustle around me, I rested briefly against a building, my head in a whirl. I exchanged smiles and bows, then made my way across a wide, busy intersection among the throng. With vague memory of the way, I began to ascend a narrow street into Hiroo, where homes rested along the road to my destination. Relieved to see the massive tori gate on my right, I walked under it and entered Sacred Heart school grounds.

My mission urgent, I turned up the stone driveway to the main building. Free of my uniform navy jumper and white blouse, and instead wearing sneakers, summer shirt and shorts, I felt out of place. Up the marble steps and into the halls of my all-girls school, I passed a few nuns, but they didn’t seem to notice me. In the cloakroom, that place where the daily business of shoe change and outerwear hanging was conducted under the demands of silence, I pulled the culprit shoes from my cubby. Without hesitation, I returned to the hall and exited into the drive, past the silent tea house and stone lantern, then under the tori—but what next? I should have turned left to descend through Hiroo, but did I?

I must have wandered; have no recollection of how long, or how I ended up in the village of Shinjuku opposite Washington Heights, the other side of Meiji Park. But when I found myself in front of a familiar shop, face to face with my American playmate, Kathy, and her mother, Mrs. Meadow, I was relieved.

“How did you get here? Are you alone?” Mrs. Meadow looked concerned. Kathy smiled in surprised.

I was tired, and gave in to self-pity. “My mother made me walk to school for my shoes.” I clutched them in my arms.

Mrs. Meadow, always friendly when I played with Kathy in their home, didn’t smile this time, but pointed to her car. “You can ride home with us.” I gladly accepted her offer of a small icy bottle of Pepsi, and rolled into the backseat of her Chevy.

I let the front screen door slam behind me, and held the shoes out to my mother. “Mrs. Meadow brought me home,” I told her, but said nothing about the journey.

“Put them in your closet,” was all I recall she said. She must have been relieved to see me, but I’ll never know.

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Dirty Bird, by Meg Sefton

#fairy tale #folk tale #literary #womenauthors

Katinka was the most efficient housewife in the village. Before the sun had risen overhead, she had finished the laundering and had set the bread out to rise. Her kitchen and rooms sparkled, and the hearth cracked with a bright well fed fire. It was her habit to air her home in the spring as she worked. One day, in flew a brown striped bird with a pink beak and a white breast. The tiny lark perched upon the back of a dining chair.

He then said: “You will have to do something about that husband of yours, Stefan. Surely he is cheating on you with the great and beautiful Georgetta, and everyone knows it. They talk of her beauty and her youth and how tasty she must be and how your husband is enjoying the fruits of two trees.”

“He is not, you naughty bird!” said Katinka, grabbing a broom and chasing the bird around her little wooden house.

But the bird escaped her broom; he perched himself outside on the fence, landing long enough to chirp about the various sexual feats of Katinka’s beloved.

When she finally managed to chase him into the woods, she sat on her chair beside the hearth and cried. She cried so much she made a salty soup with her tears, which she then put in the garden for the deer.

That night, in their marital bed, Katinka asked her husband: “Have I ever given you cause to be unfaithful?”

“No, of course not, my love,” Stefan assured her. “There is none more beautiful in all of the world to me. You are the only one of my heart, now and forever. You should not trouble yourself with such things.”

The next day, Katinka was hanging out fresh laundry. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a brown striped bird bounding from branch to branch. Finally, it landed in her basket.

“I hope those wet clothes soak you so that you are damp and miserable,” said Katinka.

The bird only cocked its head to one side as he looked at her.

“Do you not remember that you were the bearer of evil news regarding my husband?” she said. “It was a falsehood. Were I not a kind woman, I would crush you and bake you into a pie.”

“At this very minute,” said the bird, “the king has entered the palace, the rowing has commenced across the moat, the snake is crawling its way to its hiding home.”

“That’s it!” Katinka cried. She threw a blanket over the basket, trying to catch the nasty animal, but it spirited away to the forest.

This encounter left her breathless and visions of what the animal was alluding to drummed through her head. How could it be possible? She believed her husband in everything he said. She was a good wife to him and had never even burned a piece of toast. And she was still one of the most beautiful women of the village, no small thing for a woman of her age, only a year younger than Stefan himself.

She made him ciorba that night for dinner, his favorite. She took extra care with the ingredients, adding the kefir that brings the tartness to the dish and whets the appetite. She wore a frock that complimented her figure and brought out the rosiness of her complexion. She brushed her hair a hundred times and wore her best combs. When she served Stefan the ciorba, she took care to bend so that he would see the beauty of her bosom and catch the sweet scent of her perfume.

“You are beautiful tonight, my queen, and you have prepared my favorite meal for me. Whatever is the occasion?”

Katinka only smiled and sliced a generous piece of lipie for his plate. She watched him consume his dinner and then he took her to bed. They were happy as a man and wife and she could not be more satisfied that all was as perfect as the day they wed. “Nasty old bird,” she thought. “Tomorrow he will be bird pie, bird stew, bird bread. What is the meaning of all of his chatter?”

The next day she had to go to market. She was out of milk and butter and flour and she wanted to buy a string for his little bird neck. She would catch him and feed him to her husband who would be none the wiser. That would teach him.

On passing through the market she chanced upon the lovely Georgetta who was buying a wheel of cheese. She had the chance to observe the lass who seemed sweet and innocent enough, not at all the picture of debauchery painted by the filthy bird. It was just birds like this, thought Katinka, who created so much misery in the world. How many tears have I cried over his lies? I tell you, one teaspoonful is too much.

She built the bird a snare and to lure him, a mound of seeds. The next day, she found him in her trap, proving he can only be the bird brain she thought him to be.

When she pointed this out, he said, “But I have done nothing against my nature, Katinka. I have sung what is in my heart to sing. I have eaten the seed that my stomach craves. Mark my words: By next moon, you will be out in the cold and a new bird will fluff her feathers in your nest.”

And with that, Katinka wrung his little neck and put him into a pie and baked him in the oven, so displeased was she with the little thing. “I just hope the taste is not as bad as his words,” she thought. But the taste was as succulent a pie as she had ever made and her husband praised her and stuffed his face. He was passionate in bed with her that night, more passionate than he had ever been and she was pleased as a wife and could not help but smile at the memory of it the next day.

She found she missed the creature, however, oddly enough, missed the way his accusatory remarks had stirred her. Her life felt flat, somehow, plain. When her husband came home she was as dull as a worn pan. “What has happened to you?” he said and for many days thereafter he inquired after her missing beauty, charms, youthful demeanor. “Where is my fair bride?” he said one day and it struck her that he saw only the surface for he did not ask: “How is the heart of my beloved?”

And so doubt struck her for the first time since Stefan had declared himself her faithful husband. The bird had sung one note which now reverberated louder in her mind since taking the little creature’s life for their dinner. Stefan seemed to sing several notes which clashed: One a denial of his trysts, another his claim of exclusive marital bliss, and yet a third his primary concern with her appearance, not her heart. What had happened to her dear, loving husband? This made it impossible for her to see him with a singular heart. That night she collected tears silently by the bowlful and put them in the garden and the bowls outnumbered the deer necessary to take away her pain.

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Zero Monsters by Kaitlin Wickstrom

#beauty #fiction #flashfiction #food #poetic #sex #womenauthors


We all thought Natalie was the most beautiful, besides Marigold, whom everyone knew believed she was the most beautiful. Secretly, everyone thought that they were the most beautiful, except for Marigold, who thought it out loud. Leanna thought Kim was the second most beautiful, next to Natalie. Natalie thought Marigold was the most beautiful and then herself. I thought Marigold was the most beautiful and then Natalie.

Natalie was the most beautiful because we all decided that we liked her lips and thighs, which were thick and smooth. Walking and talking, she looked like she was inviting you to some spectacular event. We kept quiet, but stared, as she mowed her lawn in her bathing suit in the summer. Her legs sweating with effort, the grass cutting at her skin. She smiled at our husbands and was sweet to the touch as well.

At our barbeque she wore he mother’s white lace dress. She greeted us enormously and kissed us each on the cheek with her warm meat lips, and lingered for a second, on our backs, with her warm heat hands.

Marigold too, looked exceptionally beautiful at the barbeque. She pinned her hair back, so we could cut our steaks on her cheekbones. We wouldn’t feel weird about it either, because her skin was browned and rosy in the center parts. Her husband wouldn’t mind at all, because he liked to cut his tension on her ass.

Carmon showed up late, reminding everyone that Natalie was the most beautiful. Her hair was pulled up in an ugly bun, just in case she had to run away, or stop her children from sticking their fingers in unfit holes, or consuming things that weren’t meant for their mouths. She smiled to compensate for her lateness, her ugliness, tiredness, and her husband. She smiled to compensate for her husband who was smile -compensating for his ugly wife. We all then talk-compensated for Carmon’s ugliness, her husband’s rudeness, our acknowledgment, and Natalie and Marigold’s beauty. Today, Marigold might have been the most beautiful, but it’s hard to tell with these sorts of things.

The table was set lavishly with almost everything we wanted. Potato salad, baked beans, corn bread, strawberries, corn on the cob, fried brussels sprouts, fruited Jello, and so much more.  Marilee and Janet brought dessert. Ferra, like Carmon, came empty handed, reminding us all to look at Natalie, who brought three side dishes and sangria.

We hesitated longer this time than usual, it seemed, because I think we all really liked Natalie. She was so lovely after all. Strong, too, like a leader, and we were proud of her.

But eventually, inevitably, we all became too hungry. Natalie was far too beautiful, and it had become too much for us, before we were even friends.  So Leanna, Carmon, and I invited Natalie into Leanna’s kitchen to pick out her very own knife. Smiling, Natalie picked out the loveliest, sharpest, tiniest knife in the kitchen and handed it to Leanna to rinse in the sink. Natalie’s little fingers reminded us in private that she was in fact the most beautiful, and by far the best decision. We apologized to Natalie profusely, explaining to her that everyone would be so upset and would be starving if we were to continue the way things were.  Knife in hand, Leanna, Carmon, and I looked at one another and agreed: monsters are one of a kind.

Leanna, Carmon, and I carved everyone a serving of Natalie’s meat. There was so much to go around, which was appealing and promising. Marigold, pinning her hair back up, carved her husband’s piece on her cheekbone. The juice dripped down her chin and then her bosom. We all laughed to compensate the plentiful meat and our insatiable hunger. Then we devoured her, ravenously, ripping every piece away.

After we were finished, we drank wine slowly. We were much too full for the dessert Natalie had prepared. Marigold sat outside of our circle, smoking a cigarette, worrying. I was worried too, it was obvious, Marigold was next. I looked at her for a long moment, trying to apologize.

“I think we can all agree now,” Leanna said to all of us, initiating a toast.

We all agreed, and raised our glasses to Marigold, our most beautiful friend.

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