I was seven the first time I fell in love. The moment will never be hard to pinpoint, even if you’ve shaken me awake to a bleary mauve sky. It rests just behind my eyes—a place where, when I choose to, I can see it with astounding clarity. My mother’s friend ran the festival. She has for as long as I can remember. It was obligation with a pretty name that wrapped me up like a mummy in painted silk some undefinable summer night every year. Sweaty and breathless from the tight sash at my belly, I walked with my brother towards the bobbing red lanterns in the distance to repay my mother’s debt from her college years: heaping bowls of rice, clean laundry, and most of all, someone to share it with.
“Friendship is eternal involvement. Imagine the look on her face if you two didn’t show, the two children of the woman she once fell asleep gazing at,” she spoke to my annual complaints. Her mouth was a perpetual slash of red. “Now stand still. Your hair is a disaster.”
It never mattered what she did with it. Ribbons, pins, ties—I promptly ripped out everything as soon as my wooden sandal sprang off the last porch step. My brother snicker-sighed and snapped his gum; that year, as I did every year, I walked to the festival with him, my hair down my back.
“I want to see the performances this year, so we won’t be able to scoop for goldfish. Maybe not even scoop for balloon yo-yos.” My brother clacked hurriedly in front of me. His kimono skimmed his ankles an inch higher than it should have. The air seemed heavy.
“But I want a balloon. A blue one, like the one you got last year.”
“I said maybe. But only if you’re good.”
There was an unfamiliar smattering of applause as we approached the stage area, my heels digging trenches past roasted sweet potatoes, steaming octopus dumplings, sticky rice cake, and swirling pinwheels decorated with images of fish. My eyes spun and my mouth watered, but I had to be good for my brother, so I clung tightly to his hand and bit my tongue. The stage was before us then, smelling of smoky pine.
She was there from the start.
And oh, she was magnificent. Dainty in a bright red cheongsam that seemed a size too small, flesh spilling over seductively where the cuffs caught her upper arms. She had a doll’s face, right down to the pristine curve of her brow. Flawless. Her cheeks were her only possible blemish, unusually rosy. They glowed from atop the stage like twin stars; they appeared blotchy, interrupted by dips and dots–set with the marks of liveliness. I thought they were beautiful. Almost as an afterthought, I noted the women who surrounded her in a circle, assuming various poses. Clad in cream and blush, faces smooth and hard as wax, they were vapid.
“Why is your kimono so short this year? Isn’t it the same one?” I asked my brother, who was craning his neck in a strange fashion toward the stage. An old man mumbled drunkenly. I was suddenly struck with a sense of impatience and grabbed my brother’s sleeve. “Why aren’t they starting yet? When are they going to play the music? Your kimono?”
He glared obtusely down at me. “Be quiet if you want your balloon.”
The air was damp and swollen with the musky smell of the stage. It was intoxicating and I was drowsy in the warmth of the night. I had never before felt such a profound exhilaration as I did at that moment, awaiting something I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
“I might want a red one instead of a blue one.”
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Something I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
“Look, it’s starting. Hear the drums?”
She was a shaft of light. She barely moved. Around her, colorless women dipped and spun, sleeves swirling the cold flaps of a crow’s wings, and she barely moved. She drifted about the stage as if confused, but those ruby cheeks trembled with a precise determination I believed in. I bit my tongue. I could see nothing but red. Red dress, red cheeks, red lips. Red-tasting blood trickling from the gash in my tongue. I was convinced the taste of her kiss would have been no different. She tilted her head up, up… her sad eyes were fixed on something far away, those pretty lips parted, she was calling out, calling, calling…
“I don’t like this. Let’s go yo-yo scooping. I feel sick.” My brother had me by the arm. “I’ve a splitting headache. Let’s go home, come, lousy girl.”
No. I wanted to stay. I had to find out who she was calling out to and what she was waiting for. I wanted to ask her about everything. About how warm she liked her miso soup. About how many seconds it took her to tie her sneakers, or if she even wore lace-up shoes. About how many times she stared out on nights when sleet, neither rain nor snow, met her lovingly at the windowpane. About her dreams.
“I’m staying,” I told my brother, my hair down my back. “I’m staying to watch this. I don’t care if you’ve a headache. Press your temples.”
She was slumping over. Her eyes were glass. Sweet flesh spilled onto the smoky wood. The other women were suddenly gone.
“We’re going, now. You’ve got to listen to me.”
There were men filing on stage. They wore masks like barbarians.
“No such thing. Go away! Go, go, go home by yourself!”
They clawed at her, pulling at her red dress and smacking at her red cheeks. Still she stared vacantly out into the distance, ceaselessly waiting upon something. The hope in her eyes was radiant.
“Fine. I’m leaving you.” I let my brother turn his back on me as they dragged her away.
As soon as her rose slipper disappeared off the stage, the drums stopped. The man playing them crossed his legs and swigged from a brown bottle, and a sharp, volatile sound rang out like the keening of a lost child. The bamboo flute signaling the end of the dance. I met my brother at the lit gate of the festival. He held out a red balloon yo-yo to me, and I grasped his hand even though the air was hot and heavy. Most years, we sprinted home eagerly to show off our bounty of whistles and pinwheels and sticky fingers, but we plodded home slowly that year. My brother was silent. I kept staring at the dying grass that lined the torn pavement.
“We’re home,” my brother said at last.
I drifted up the porch steps into the waiting arms of my mother and gazed up at the red slash of her mouth. “Will you please do my hair?”