By Susan Ito, MFA ’94
The following is adapted from I Would Meet You Anywhere: A Memoir, the upcoming book by Assistant Adjunct Professor of English Susan Ito, MFA ’94, which is used by permission of Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press.
I worked at a deli on the edge of downtown Ithaca where my boss was a bony, narrow-faced man named Gunter. The bell would clang when customers walked through the front door. Gunter gestured toward me. “Pretty, isn’t she? Why don’t you ask her to make you a sandwich?”
One of the regulars was Henry, a short, dark-haired grad student at Cornell. He had bright black eyes and an insistent voice.
“What are you studying?” he asked me. “Do you have a boyfriend?” I did, and I said so.
Henry came in almost every day. Although he was getting a master’s in music, he was obsessed with UFOs. I yawned as he told me about the clustered areas where aliens were certain to have come close.
“So,” he said, “you must be obsessed with something. What is it?” I blurted it out:
“Finding my mother.” I told him about stealing my hospital records. I had her name now, which I couldn’t stop scribbling and whispering to myself. Yumiko Noguchi. But the phone number from the medical file had long been disconnected.
His eyes glistened. “What now?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He leaned on the deli counter and took notes as I talked until my mouth ran dry. I hadn’t realized how much I’d needed to share this. My boyfriend had limited patience for my birth family obsession. The rawness of my need made him uncomfortable.
Henry didn’t judge; he fanned my need with his questions, with his snapping eyes. “Tell me more.” I told him everything until it was time to close, and I crunched the door shut against the snow piled up on the sidewalk.
The next day, I brought my folder: the tiny notes from the adoption agency, the copies of blackened hospital microfiche, the adoption papers, my altered birth certificate with my adoptive parents’ names.
I didn’t want to spend my spring break at home. Even though my parents supported my search, I was still nervous about seeing them in person.
I called my high school friend Gina. We hadn’t seen each other since graduation when we’d headed hundreds of miles apart for college. We were both only children, uncommon back then. Gina’s parents had separated when she was a baby, and she’d never known her father. We wondered together who and where our invisible parents might be.
Gina had fallen in love in college and was one of my first friends to get married. She urged me to visit over spring break. It was snowing where they lived, too, but she made it sound fun
“Come see us, Susanito!” She always said my name in one unbroken rush. “We’ll go cross-country skiing through the zoo.”
I called the travel agent and booked a flight.
The next day, Henry arrived before my shift. While I fumbled with keys and turned on lights, he was waving a fan of index cards in front of my face.
“Look, Mika. I did it!”
“Don’t call me that. Please. It’s not my name. Not anymore.” For a while, it had fascinated me, then scared me. It was like Mika Noguchi was a ghost, an invisible parallel life.
“But it’s a beautiful name. It fits you. Now—look what I found.” He held up cards filled with rows of phone numbers, coded by state. There were four final numbers, circled in red.
“What’s this?” I squinted at the marks.
“These are all the people in the Midwest, publicly listed in phone directories, with your mother’s maiden name. I went through them at the Cornell library.” He beamed.
I sat down. “Where are they?”
The city where Gina lived was the same place where the final Noguchi was listed.
My housemates had fled for spring break. I could hear the creaking of ice along Cayuga Lake, frozen branches scratching the roof above my head.
There was one last scribbled phone number. Three had been dead ends: either disconnected, or they’d never heard of my birth mother. I picked up the phone and dragged it into my room, the cord twisting under the door like an umbilicus.
“Gina, I need your help.”
“What is it, Susanito? I’m so excited to see you. You’re still coming, aren’t you?”
“I’m definitely coming.” My suitcase was already packed with winter clothes.
“But listen.” I told her about Henry, the list of phone numbers. I told her the last number had her same area code.
“Please, Gina. Would you call her for me? It’s a local call for you. It won’t cost anything. I just… I’m so nervous, I can’t do it.”
“Sure you can, Susanito.”
“But I can’t.” I started crying like a child. It was the final call, and dialing those last numbers would mean either I’d found my birth family, or my trail would be cold again. The beginning, or the end.
Gina finally took mercy on me. “OK, Susie. I’ll give it a try.” She sighed. “Give me the number.”
I hugged the phone as I waited for her to call back. I cradled it against my chest, underneath a thick layer of blankets. It rang so loudly the jangling erupted against my guts. “Hello! Gina?”
“Susie.” Her voice was low and tender. “That number I called. It was Yumiko’s brother.”
“Oh my god.” I almost dropped the phone
“She lives here, Susanito. He gave me her married name, her address, her phone. He gave me everything.”
“I don’t believe it.” I grabbed the plane ticket from my desk. I would be there in three days. “Gina. One more favor.”
She laughed. “You want me to call her. Why can’t you do it?” I sat up in my bed. “I’m afraid I’ll die. I’ll have a heart attack. I feel like I’m having one right now. Please, Gina, call her and make sure she’s the right person.”
A long sigh. “All right, Susie. I’ll do it. Because I love you like a sister.”
I started crying again. “I love you too.”
The next wait was longer. I sat in front of the hearth with a box of matches and lit little blazes on the grate, glittering roses of fire that lasted no more than a few seconds. I struck match after match until the phone rang again.
“Susie. I think I need a drink after that.”
“What! What happened?”
“Well. It’s definitely her.” Her voice had a low, somber tone.
“I’m going to tell you everything. Just listen.”
“I’m listening.” I grabbed my notebook and pen, ready to write.
“She answered right away.”
“Uh-huh. Then what?”
“I asked if she was Yumiko Noguchi. She said yes. I said I was calling for a friend. Then she got quiet. I said, my friend’s name used to be Mika Noguchi. I told her your birth date. Then I asked, ‘Do you know who I’m talking about?’ And she said yes.”
“She said YES? Just like that?” My face was fever hot. I pressed my cold fingers to my cheeks, and they burned. “Then what?”
“She said she couldn’t talk. She said she had family around.” Family?
“Did you tell her I was coming this week?”
“Yeah. I told her.” Gina’s voice was far off, so small sounding.
“Do you think she’ll want to see me?”
“I don’t know, Susie. She sounded ticked off.”
“She was upset?” I’ve upset my mother.
“Well, I think it shocked her. The whole thing.” That was me, the whole thing. Of course. I was the one waiting for this moment for years, and I felt as if I’d been electrocuted.
“She said she’d call me back another time. I gave her my number, and then she hung up. That was it.”
I was breathless, panting. “Oh my god, Gina. You talked to my mother.”
I drove four hours to my parents in New Jersey. It was after midnight when I pulled into the U-shaped driveway. The less time there the better, to pretend that my life wasn’t about to blow apart. The light in their bedroom was glowing yellow, and I knew they were waiting up for me.
I unlocked the front door. My father appeared, in his striped bathrobe and rubber zori. “Hey, Sus!” He was happy to see me, smiling with all his teeth, moving back and forth from foot to foot. “Welcome home!
I wish you didn’t have to go so fast.”
I hauled my suitcase up the steps. “It’s late,” I said. Tears were tight in my throat.
“Mommy’s in the ofuro,” he said, gesturing toward the bathroom. I could hear her splashing behind the door.
She emerged a few minutes later, all creamed up, her hair studded in bobby pinned curls. I kissed her warm cheek and yawned. “It’s late,” I said.
I went into my childhood room and shut the door. Posters of the Eagles and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on the walls. I promised myself I would explain everything when I got back.
The next morning, my father climbed the steps from the basement. I suddenly wanted to climb back into my little bed, but instead, I flung my suitcases into the trunk of his car, and we drove to the airport.
He parked the car and walked me to the gate, even though I had told him to just drop me off. “It’s OK, Sus,” he said. “I just want to spend time with you.”
“You have a good time. I’m going to stand here till you take off.”
He kissed my forehead. A mass of tears was waiting, pushing at the back of my nose. After I made my way into the cabin, they burst out. I wanted to turn back, to move against the traffic of passengers. I wanted to call out, Daddy, please don’t let me leave. I wanted him to elbow his way through the crowd, pick me up like a little girl, and take me home.
I didn’t know if it was possible to meet the woman who had made me and to come back the same person.
When I arrived at the airport, Gina greeted me, waving a slip of paper. While I had been suspended in the sky, she’d received a phone call. The paper bore Gina’s excited scribble: Holiday Inn—noon—room under the name Noguchi!!!!
“She called me back this morning. She said she wants to meet you, Susie!” She was married, with a different name, and I carried the name of my adoptive parents. But for a few hours we would meet in an anonymous room reserved under that old name we’d both shed.
Gina gave me a bus schedule and a map with the hotel circled. I arrived an hour early and saw an old stone church up the block. It seemed to promise calm and safety, and without thinking, I walked to the entrance and pushed open the thick wooden doors. I crept into the cavernous sanctuary and huddled in one of the back pews, trembling. It’d been years since I’d attended church, and this place was so different from our Japanese church in New York. But I was on the brink of literally meeting my maker. Waiting these final moments in a church felt somehow fitting.
A young man approached the pew. “Welcome,” he said. I nodded. He lowered himself next to me on the worn velvet cushion. “Is there anything you need right now?” he whispered.
I shook my head, and then my eyes welled with tears.
He waited, breathing steadily.
Finally, I stuttered the story out. I’m meeting my mother. I’ve never met my mother.
He listened gravely. “I’ll pray with you,” he offered.
“Yes. Please.” I squeezed my eyes shut and listened to his low, soothing voice.
He asked the Lord to bring me courage and calm and an open heart. When he was finished, we both said, “Amen.” The diffuse sun glowed through the stained-glass windows, blurring into rainbows through my frightened tears. ◑