Mayumi and the Sea of

Jennifer Tseng
(Europa Editions)
May and December. That's what they used to call it: some old galoot takes a fancy to a young lady ("he could be her grandfather"), plies her with money and cars and jewelry and ... We've all seen it played out. All the jokes, Why is he doing that? What must it be like at night? Who does what to whom, if anything is to be done at all?...

Maybe it started with The Merchant's Tale by Chaucer. (the old duffer was called Januarie. May, his young bride, ends up in a tree, doing acrobatics with his lusty son Damian).

Then there's Shakespeare. And Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. One might include Dracula. Even King Kong.

And in what you and I may think of as real life we have Jackie and Onassis. Dick van Dyke (86) and Arlene Silver (40). Nelson Rockefeller (70) with Megan Marshack (25), albeit with an alarming coitus interruptus laid out in his luxurious pied-à-terre in New York City.

Then there's the other side of the street, now called a "cougar" or "MILF" (don't ask.) You'll find it in What Maisie Knew and Harold and Maude.

Mrs. Robinson, where are you? O here you are . . . along with this new winter, Mayumi and The Sea of Happiness. She's forty-one, locked in a stale marriage, one daughter (Maria, four years old). May is also a librarian and all that implies (reads books, is enamored of Elena Ferrante's The Lost Daughter and Nabokov's Lolita). She's caught in a quiet dead-end, with a dead-end husband (he carves things out of wood, apparently craves nothing).

Suddenly she finds this kid of seventeen, and before long, they (and the rest of us) go off together into the woods once a week, to a conveniently abandoned house. She first sees him standing before her desk in the library. He hooked her at once with his incipient manhood, his nervous hands, and "the smell of his tobacco, which in my mind tasted faintly of toffee."

And his gravelly, rough throated voice, "like a thorn in a fairy tale, that bewitches the one who is pricked, his voice pierced me."

    There was now no mistaking his face. I was lobotomized by it.

Before he even knows her name, as she's stamping his DVDs out for the week, she whispers, "Meet me at 9:30." And for the few months they are together, she is rapturously deliriously shockingly in love with him.

§   §   §

It may be his lean back; or how, once in the cottage, he takes off her shoes for her; or brings small delights each time they meet . . . nibbles on Tootsie-Rolls, gives her Tootsie-Roll kisses; doesn't talk much, cannot, it seems, get enough of her. Falls asleep next to her, with his book-of-the-month, Moby Dick.

Part of it is that she falls in love with the secrecy of it (no one in the small town pretends to know; the two meet discreetly, walking to their trysting place separately . . . leaving separately). She gets confirmed by her sin for, she thinks, "Transgression has a scent. One wears it like a perfume and there are those who smell it immediately. During the course of my affair with the young man, countless patrons [of the library] confessed to me their crimes."

    Had we both been seventeen or both forty-one we might have played at other rôles. As it was we were busy enough being ourselves. We were like foreigners in Japan so consumed by learning Japanese, there was, for us, no possibility of learning other languages.

Is she, our somewhat dowdy librarian, still young-looking? She supposes that she is, but not for much longer,

    Within a year, the trim figure I had managed to maintain would surely sag, my skin's elasticity would, without warning, snap. Within five, I would be infertile. Within ten, my hair would be white. Within fifteen, I'd be old enough to withdraw money from my retirement account. There was no time for patience or common sense or delayed gratification of any kind. The time was now and there was much to be discovered.

May --- that's what they call her (her full name is Mayumi; her father an economist from Japan, her mother a chamber-maid from England) --- turns out to be quite good at coaxing no name (never named throughout all 300 pages, we too refer to him merely as "the young man") into her microcosm and ultimately into her bed.

And as we move along into their affair, we begin to worry about her, her driving questions, her longing to do battle with him. We don't want this thing to end either. Can't we stop her from being so prissy, so probing, so pushy? We're fond of them both, so we start bedeviling her on behalf of the two of them. We quite like the two of them, they quickly get comfortable with each other. We are too.

Even though we are wondering, always wondering,

  1. Will they be discovered? She has a husband, albeit one who is scarcely there at all; no name has a mother (he is the only child of a single mother, and we soon learn that his mother is no fool).

  2. Will he decide that the 25 year gap in their age is just too much; will he soon start to dislike finding silver threads among the gold?

  3. Will he soon start fooling around with one of his classmates, start to stray? Rosie of the roseate cheeks? Daisy of the dappled locks? Betsy of the lascivious bosom?

  4. Which leads us to begin to believe in a possible contrary ending where they might defy convention (and common judgment) and marry the moment he turns eighteen and run off to another island where they live happily ever after.


  5. Finally, when it ends, will we cheer (let's hope), or weep (let's not), or go into shock (let's not think about it).
I'm not going to spoil anything. I am not going to tell you the devilishly clever ending that Tseng has devised, because I want you to read Mayumi. And you want to read it too, even though the pot takes some time to start bubbling. After all, May has a finely tuned sense of caution (that's her job, to cautiously respond to your questions) . . . even though her caution gets mostly thrown over: this devilish lobotomy of hers.

And he's no fool, even though he does test the limits by bringing his friends over to party one day when she isn't there. She happens by, because she likes looking at their hovel. Now she sees that forbidden reefer haze drifting out the windows.

More than that, May and No Name are not merely in lust. There's excitement. And defiance. And curiosity. She tells us that she's "storing up images for a future from which he would be absent," but when they are together, the sparks they create helps us to begin to start to imagine that there may be no absence; rather, a ripe future for all of us in this together forever.

Meanwhile Tseng never lets us forget who they are; nor who we are. Because since we like them and their dicey story, and don't want it to end, could it be possible? . . .

She thinks of the coming holiday (the cottage will be rented out during the approaching summer) and finds herself reflecting,"the only time left for the posing of questions might possibly be now." Question time, and the ones she pops are dillies.

"What's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" We have to wait for the answer because he has to get that raspberry Tootsie Pop out of his mouth so he can talk.

    He placed it in the wrapper ... His lips wore a delicious garnet stain. I kissed him and tasted the candy's chocolate center.

The most beautiful thing he'd ever seen? At school?

Maybe Rosie? Or Daisy? Or Betsy?

    "Actually it was a photograph of a moth." His eyes returned to their closed position. I prefer to think he closed them for my benefit, so that I would feel free to gaze upon him.

    "Where?" I asked, intent on prolonging my freedom...

    "In a science book."

    "How did it look?"

    "Red, blue, green, yellow, all different colors." His lashes were longer than Maria's [her daughter]...

    "A rainbow moth?"

    "Yeah." His eyes opened.

    I didn't know whether to be touched by his book-related answer or disturbed by the fact that what he had found most beautiful was an image of the beautiful thing and not the thing itself. Somehow it seemed a youthful answer, a perception of beauty filtered by media.

And there it is: the knowledge that creeps over us. Though she thinks that she wants him there "so I would feel free to gaze upon him," we begin to wonder if this forty-one year-old librarian knows how to hang onto her lad of the long eyelashes. "Don't ever listen to me ... I'll only corrupt you," she observes. "There was still not the slightest hint of any facial hair upon him, just the nearly invisible down that covers the faces of children."

§   §   §

It's spring so they can enjoy a springtime filled with passion and pop-filled kisses and the meals he brings, "paper-wrapped cookies with crushed almonds for hearts, the blue floral cursive printed in Italian, the familiar letters strung together in a foreign way, so that eating them in his presence I felt at once a sweet sense of at-homeness that I rarely felt anywhere ..."

And we know it is going to disappear because Tseng planted the seed early on, the necessary seed that all knowing authors plant in their beginnings so that when we get to the end we already know the end that we have coming even as it is just beginning.

She is reading "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," the story of a boy's earliest disillusionment, one that must come to teach us all, as all children must be taught, that the world is be crueler --- subtly crueler --- than we thought possible; a thought that is conveyed to Salinger's boy by two very similar but two very different words.

And here? He ... the innocent ... is caught up in Moby Dick, that very sexual asexual novel of men and the sea and the killing of the beauty at sea. The opulent, ravishing world that lives just below them, below where they are floating in their hovel.

She asks him to read aloud what he has been reading, and this is what Tseng chooses for him to give her, that passage which contains their (and our) foreknowledge of what has to pass:

    . . . far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent, and as human infants will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time and while yet drawing nourishment, he still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; --- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were a bit of Gulfweed in their newborn sight.

--- Pamela Wylie
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