Annie Hall, Annie Hall

December 18, 2010

Photo by Paul Chan

Another Saturday night, another night of revelry.

Just kidding. It’s just one more weekend night. I’ve spent a lot of these alone with my faithful TV -- the one in the bedroom, not the one in the front room that Jeff, my son-in-law, installed for me with all the up-to-the-minute stuff (of the time). The DVD is now a couple of years old (my grandkids love it), and the VCR is practically expiring from old age and neglect. The satellite dish is still fairly new. Jeff bought it originally for his own mother, but she didn’t want it since all the programs are in English and her first and almost only language is Japanese.

After his mother rejected the satellite dish, Jeff installed it on my roof. He also bought me another TV to accommodate a DVD. I am past declining any gift, large or small. I’m grateful.

That TV with all its accessories is in a small built-in cabinet designed for technologies of another era. My house is old, but Jeff found a set with almost the exact dimensions of the small cabinet. He and Faith (my daughter) very nearly mangled his hands fitting it in. It could have been disastrous since Jeff needs his hands (and who doesn’t?). He’s a dentist.

There is a smaller TV in my bedroom without all the gadgetry (except for the remote). I usually watch this one because I can lie down in relative comfort and even doze a bit while the shows drone on. And on.

The sleep button is a godsend, but I recently lost the remote. How do you lose a remote? Easily, if you’re as forgetful as I am. I’ve looked everywhere: under the bed, under the dresser and in its nine drawers, on the night table (and in its drawer), in the deep folds of the recliner. I’ve torn the bed apart, looked through my closet among the lint balls in the shoeboxes (mine congregate with a passion), and I’ve even looked in the fridge.

The other night I sat on the recliner, disgusted with the TV and all that getting up to change the channels and up again to lower the sound (during commercials) and up and down, up and down. I finally turned it off, threw a “FORGET YOU” over my shoulder, and went to the other TV.

I chose to watch Annie Hall on satellite. Annie Hall is pretty old, but I hadn’t seen it when it was first run and I was younger and could keep up with the youthful antics of white people. It claimed to be a three-star comedy, and I needed the laughs. Badly.

The front room TV is a little low for me, and I can’t get a good angle lying on the couch or sitting on a chair, so I did what the kids do: I pulled down a couple of cushions and lay on the floor. I got comfortable one way or another, but after settling down, I noticed a layer of dust (now at eye level) on the dark tile of the dining room floor, and, being a neat freak (the kids say), I thought I’d just swab a damp mop over it while the host was doing the introduction thing for Annie Hall. After that, what would I be able to miss?

I did hear him say it was one of the finest pictures of the ... was it “century”? No, that’s too many movies. He said that Woody Allen wrote and directed it after his affair with Diane Keaton had fizzled out.

Now I’m not into movies much, but I had the impression that Hollywood people go in and out of relationships so often it doesn’t hurt them as much as it does the rest of us. They can’t let it. There are too many beautiful flakes out there to divert the pain and too many pressing ambitions that demand attention. It surprises me anyway that Diane Keaton could actually have fallen for Woody Allen; he is definitely not the typical movie star. This breakup was important enough to put down in black and white. I mean color.

So I run a bucket of soapy water and wring out the mop (your hands never touch the mop slop, they advertise), and I miss the beginning of the show. When I get back to the TV, the beautiful Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) is already attracted to Woody Allen (Alvy Singer). A likely story. But he was younger then and had almost a full head of hair, so maybe it’s possible.

They’re at a party. Annie Hall flirts, acts silly, and says dumb things to catch Alvy’s attention, and he, getting her vibes, offers to take her home. “Oh, you have a car?” she asks coyly.

He says, “No, I thought I’d call a cab.”

“I have a car,” she says, and in an instant they’re in a Volkswagen careening down the New York streets with a petrified Alvy urging her, in an understated way, to slow down, slow down. Straight off, we see Annie Hall’s free spirit and Alvy’s repressive nature.

Not earth shattering; not even mildly funny. I say, if it’s a comedy, make me laugh. “MAKE ME LAUGH,” I shout. I could just hear my Faith scream back: “Chill out, Ma!”

I never talked that way to my mother. Well, she emigrated from Japan, and I wouldn’t have known how to say “chill out” in Japanese. Besides, that particular phrase hadn’t yet been coined. And also I’ve not been the best Nisei mother. Nisei women are supermoms. Faith has probably wanted to throw a towel over my head many times. But she hasn’t. Hey, she’s not here; maybe she wouldn’t have said that. I make things up as I go along; it’s my other life.

Besides, the doors and windows are closed, I’m alone, and I can say anything I want, as loudly as I want. She’s not here. No one is. Heck, I can belch over a can of soda; I can pass a couple of social no-nos; just like guys. Who sees? Who hears? WHO CARES?

That’s why I’m alone now. That’s why he left me. Well, no; I wasn’t like that when he was around. That’s not why he left me. See? If you live long enough, you even answer yourself.

I finish mopping, throw out the water and set the mop outside. When I get back, Annie Hall has moved in with Alvy Singer. Alvy is wary. He’s been married twice before, and he’s cautious. Alvy is a cautious neurotic stand-up comic. He’s seriously sensitive to anti-Semitic remarks like “Jew eat yet?”; “Jew care for a smoke?”; “What Jew say?”

I can relate to that. I’m averse to the word “Jap.” Even when it refers to Jewish American Princesses. I don’t even like it when Japanese say it. I’ve been hearing “Jap” since my first contact with white people — in kindergarten by very young children. And later by older people, men and women, schoolteachers, and senators too. Lots of politicians. One said, “Once a Jap, always a Jap. Put ‘em in the badlands and throw away the key.”

When I was a little girl, my mother told me that racism prevails in America. When shopgirls wouldn’t wait on us, she would stamp her feet and handle the merchandise roughly. “They’re being rude because we’re Japanese,” she’d say very loudly in Japanese. “Let them know we know, and we don’t like it.” She would touch everything in reach and fling the merchandise down contemptuously. Mess up the counter. Once she even put on a store hat and made ready to take off with it. Anything to get attention.

We couldn’t just go to another store because there was only this one main street in our country town — only one Sears, one five-and-dime, only one JCPenney, one Mode O’Day. There was a seed and fertilizer building on the outskirts. We did have two shoe stores: Karl’s and Kirby’s. The clerks were nicer there. Hurray for competition.

Still, my mother worried that we (she had three of us then) would not be able to function in white society, and she sometimes (when there was money) took us to the Woolworth's lunch counter so we could learn to order food (banana splits and sundaes usually) and eat in public with the proper utensils. We even went to the “Garden City Restaurant,” where one of her students’ dad (she taught Japanese once a week at the Buddhist temple) was the cook. The meal I remember is a hamburger patty with one long green scallion and a mound of rice. We had more interesting meals at home. My father did not participate in these outings. He had nothing to prove.

“GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM!” That was used a lot. Well, we couldn’t do it because we didn’t have boat fare (thanks to the Great Depression), and also my mother had promised her sister in Japan she would return a rich woman. Her pride wouldn’t let her go back poor. My aunt told me this many years later, many years after my mother died (still pining to return).

I don’t know why I went to Japan -- maybe to prove to my mom it wasn’t totally impossible (as though she could somehow see it from that little plot in San Diego). Also, I wanted to know if Japan was all she said it was: beautiful, wonderful, cherry blossoms in the spring, petals riding the wind like snow. Like snow.

Maybe I was just going in her place. It was my first visit -- not going “back,” as I had been admonished many years before. I thought of her all the way over, always yearning but never realizing her dream. I suppose I would have pined for America if I were unable to get back. I suppose I would always have remembered the white primrose covering the desert floor in spring or the sun fading on the wall of our old house. Maybe I was just saying to her, “IT’S DOABLE, MA! I DIDN’T GO STEERAGE, MA!” Well, I didn’t make a promise like she did to her sister.

Racism is endemic; it’s infectious. It colors your decisions and how you live your life. As a kid, you fight back: “Yeah? I’d rather be a Jap (I said it) than poor white trash like you!” “Go back where I came from? I was born here. Same as you, you dumb Okie!” Yes, I said that too. The cruel sound of some words never fades.

Most of Alvy Singer’s jokes center around his racial paranoia and low self-esteem laced with an obsession with death. People laugh with him because, I guess, everyone has felt the pain of being on the outside and the fear of death. It’s the old saying: When it hurts too much, you laugh, or you will cry.

Annie Hall is different. She’s young, and a gentile, and has little concept of diaspora or Holocaust. She has only a nodding acquaintance with bias (do you like foie gras, or do you hate liver? No, that’s from another movie). She loves people, she loves to laugh. All this Alvy stuff is too dark for one who’s always been on the “inside.” You know, a non-Jew.

Alvy brings home books, and Annie gets the hint but resents his efforts to make her more intellectual, more feeling, more hurting. Like him. Alvy wears her down with his need to change her. His obsessions are big baggage.

I can connect with that. Sid tried to change me too, but not intellectually. Nisei boys don’t really care for smart girls.

Sid was my brother’s friend. During the war my brother had been shipped off to a separate camp, and that’s where he met Sid. After Japan was defeated, after we were released from camp, we tried to pick up our lost lives. My father died from bleeding ulcers just days before camp closed. He didn’t have to worry about resettlement. My mother thought we ought to go to San Diego with the last contingent of evacuees, so my mother, my sister and her son (her husband was serving in a labor battalion in Alabama), and I moved to San Diego with the last group leaving camp. My brother joined us later. I found work in a photo-finishing plant and tried to save money for art classes in L.A.; my brother worked with a fishing crew.

Sid was a live-in schoolboy for a white family in Westwood. That means he was working, washing dishes, vacuuming, pruning trees, mixing drinks at a house party, taking coats, and so on. He was trying to get through UCLA without his dad’s help. His major was political science.

My brother and Sid were going to a wedding for a couple they knew in camp. Cars were narrow then. Sid slipped his left arm over the back of the seat as though trying to make room. Okay. Then I felt his fingers gently stroking my shoulder. My scalp froze, but I said nothing. What could I say? KEEP YOUR FINGERS TO YOURSELF? My brother would be alarmed. It might break up their friendship. Sid pressed his thigh against mine. Well, that was kind of nice.

Sid was a very funny guy, easy to like, but because I wasn’t interested in starting a relationship, I didn’t do the girl thing with him. Well, not too much. And he seemed to be comfortable with that. We laughed a lot. I could tell he liked me, but I’d always been suspicious of fresh guys (what does he want from me? Oh, no, not that.) And I didn’t have much respect for guys who would consort with people like me (Alvy says that). I think I was afraid I might snag a loser, and I wasn’t ready for a winner.

Sid suggested we get together after the wedding, but my brother said no, he had to hurry back to San Diego. He had a tuna boat to catch. When we got to my girlfriend’s, Sid asked for my phone number; I told him I was moving to Los Angeles soon. “Well then, I’ll give you mine. Call me when you get here,” he said. My brother scowled.

At the end of the month I moved in with my girlfriend in East Los Angeles, got a part-time job, and was busy trying to get into Art Center School. The GIs were monopolizing the day classes, so I settled for a couple of night courses. I didn’t call Sid, but the next month he wrote a letter (sent care of my brother) saying he was disappointed that I hadn’t called him and gave me his phone number again. I called and we met again.

And again. And again. I couldn’t believe it: could anyone really find me so engaging? I let myself like him. It felt good. Weekends we walked a lot and ate at food stands in the neighborhood: burritos, tacos, hamburgers, hot dogs. We rested on park benches. We went to cheap movies on skid row (Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley). My girlfriend didn’t care for Sid, so it was hard for us to stay at the house. Sometimes he took a streetcar with me to my class and then went on to the house in Westwood. That’s a lot of trolley transfers.

Sid had a thing about germs. Never mind all those we swallowed in dirty restaurants. We got around by trolley, and he was careful not to touch doorknobs and poles with his bare hands. I held his arm while he hooked his other elbow around the metal bar set up to steady lurching riders. So that’s the way we traveled. Unless we got seats. Me, I’m a country kid and used to dirt and bacteria. I told him we must look a sight, two Nisei reeling together like conjoined twins. He said, “Don’t worry about it; you’re with me.” He remembered that his mother’s hands smelled of Clorox. I never smelled my mother’s hands.

The floor is hard; I am uncomfortable. The movie is making me restless. I can do a small load of wash. At least the whites. Wash-wash, clean-clean. What happened to the girl who wasn’t afraid of a little dirt and sweat? Relax and watch the show. Can’t. It’s a personality disorder; accept it. Just go ahead and start the washer and save the analysis for later. I know this story already. It’s like my own except for ethnic and economic differences.

From the service porch the sound of the dialogue is unmistakable. There are problems in the Annie-Alvy alliance.

Annie is sitting on the bed smoking pot. Alvy asks why she is so compelled to smoke that stuff all the time. “It relaxes me,” she says. Is this before or after coitus? Either way, it’s not a good sign.

But that’s exactly how it is: while people continue their annoying habits, they don’t notice changes in the relationship — the shift in attitude. Of course, in a movie, it’s much faster. I get back, and the turn is dramatic. The romance is gone; the bickering is intense.

I met a guy in my art class who liked to talk to me. “You like baseball?” Ben asked. No. “Like to dance?” No. “Well, how about dinner and a movie, or a hike in Yosemite, or a yak ride to Shangri-La?” he asked.

“Sounds like fun, but I have a boyfriend; he might want to come along,” I said. I realized then how weighty our dependence had become. Ben was Chinese and didn’t seem to have the hang-ups that Japanese have. He liked to hear me laugh and enjoyed my language excesses. Sid would say, “Don’t use ‘love’ for every condition. You can’t love a thing. Or hate a thing. A thing’s a thing.” Or, when I threw a snit, “Your dad should have given you a good spanking.” Or, when we were talking among friends, “Shhh shhh, lower your voice.” Or, when I apologized (just to end an argument), “We can’t go on like this.” Not to continue sounded good. Oh, to be free again.

It’s only halfway through the movie. There’s a good forty-five more minutes of plot. Now it’s clear that Annie Hall must leave Alvy Singer. It can’t continue like that. It’s too depressing; too confining. Annie packs up her stuff, and Alvy lets her go.

Ben had begun to look good to me. He was into commercial art and was already planning an agency of his own. His large prosperous family backed him fully. They dressed well, ate well, and laughed heartily.

Sid’s family wasn’t like that. His mother was a cool cat: no envy, no anger, no hate. She was very cultured and a fastidious cook. The Clorox hands were before the war when she did housework for a rich white family. After the war, when our temples were reactivated, she joined the Buddhist Women’s Auxiliary and became an important official. Though she was always gracious, I knew she disliked me. Well, “dislike” is too strong. Apathetic. Sid’s father died disliking me.

I tried to make nice to them, but they saw right through me. I was too country, too raw. Their eldest son was a doctor (did his internship in camp), their daughter was a university graduate, Sid had a political future in mind (what a dreamer), and I was a gauche country girl. They were politely condescending; that’s the only way I could put it. But I was young and didn’t care, and it wasn’t Sid’s fault. I knew he loved me. I think that’s what galled them.

Annie Hall, Annie Hall. Of course she leaves Alvy. She moves into a small apartment. She sees other men.

I decided to end my relationship with Sid. After all, it’s not like we had an affair or anything. I think we weren’t intimate (well, we were very intimate, but not sexually) because among Nisei, sex was serious business, and commitment was generally forever. In those days.

It was a piece of cake. There was no need for the preparation, practicing words to soften the break. After class, about 9:30 one evening, I ducked into a telephone booth, called Sid, and told him I wanted to call it quits. He was surprised but seemed relieved. He said, “If that’s what you want.”

“We’re no good for each other.” I think that was from a movie. Where else would I get such dialogue? Never had to use words like that before. Well, I’d practiced them; no use wasting them.

“You must be right,” he said. He didn’t seem angry. We said good-bye.

I was free! For a five-cent phone call (that’s what it cost) and an old movie line, I had freed myself. I felt truly liberated. That weekend I went out to dinner and a movie with Ben. We had fun. He asked for another date. We went out about four times.

I tried; I think I did, but it was no good. I was always thinking of Sid. It was less than honest. Unfair to Ben. I told him I wanted to get together with Sid again, but I doubted that he’d take me back; he was so proud and stubborn. Ben blew his stack: “What is this? Are you playing musical chairs with me?” I had never seen him so angry.

“I have to get back with him or nothing. My heart is breaking,” I said. Ben looked ready to cry. He hugged me so tightly I thought my ribs would break. That was another first for him. But he let me go.

“No hard feelings,” he said. And we continued to be friends at school.

Sometimes I can stare directly at the TV, but, if my mind is elsewhere, I see and hear only the discourse in my head. Then, in an instant, a word or gesture will bring me back to the TV (like changing channels), but, of course, I’ll already have missed a lot. Sometimes I can reconstruct what I’ve lost.

Maybe not; if this movie is autobiographical, then Woody Allen either has a powerful internal invisible girl-magnet, or he’s delusional. Here he is in bed with yet another beautiful woman. But it doesn’t look like an affair of great proportions. No panting, no open-mouth kissing, just talking about another one of Alvy’s obsessions. The phone rings. It’s three in the morning, and Annie’s on the phone asking, “Are you with someone?”

“No,” Alvy says, “It’s the radio.” Annie cries; she misses him so much; she wants to come back.

“WAIT, ANNIE,” I shout. “HOLD OFF. YOU HAVE TO WAIT. I know about these things. You have to hurt and wallow in pain; you have to eat it, sleep it, excrete it, until you get sick of it; bored with it. Then you move on. You don’t move back in.

I wish someone had told me that. Maybe I would be with a guy who might have made me happier. Or just as miserable. Me-me-me; it was always about me.

Though Sid didn’t say it, I think he felt the awful void too. Maybe he cried in his room as I did -- quietly (so my friend wouldn’t hear) -- or maybe without tears so that he would hurt less. I cried into the phone too. It cost another nickel to ask him to take me back, to tell him how bleak the days were without him. “I will come see you tomorrow,” he said. The joy. The joy.

Next day, Sid took off from his studies, and we went to Griffith Park. I made a couple of sandwiches, and we found an isolated spot in the woods and picnicked. We hardly ate or spoke. He spread his coat over the dry eucalyptus leaves, and we made love.

I kept thinking someone was lurking behind the trees, and I was very nervous. “Let them watch,” Sid said. He didn’t care. Let them watch; I was with him again. It was like returning home. “We should always be together,” he said. No more hunger. No more thirst.

The Korean War was heating up, and there was talk of conscription. Sid’s parents thought he should marry someone to avoid the draft. I don’t think they cared who I was. AVOID THE WAR AT ANY COST was the message. It was almost funny. I know now, they didn’t want their son to experience the horrors of war -- to kill another family’s son or, worse, to be killed. I know, because it’s the way Sid was brought up. It’s why the family was sent to a separate camp. It’s why my brother was there too.

Sid quit his job and took a leave from school. We were married in his brother’s house by a Buddhist minister with just our families present. My sister had a new baby with a bad allergy, and she cried all through the ceremony. My brother was very quiet.

Annie Hall goes back to Alvy. It doesn’t work. After a few more bouts with Alvy, she leaves again. She moves to California with a new lover. Annie, the optimist.

 Now, it’s Alvy’s turn. In his understated way, he feels the pain. He follows her to Los Angeles and begs her to come back to him. “Marry me,” he pleads. Annie cannot be persuaded. He returns to New York without her. If he appears unscarred, it’s because he’s used to enduring; he’s a Jew. And life, for both, moves on.

All the couples we knew were having babies but us. Sid said he didn’t want to bring up kids only to send them off to war. “Another one will break out soon. You’ll see,” he warned.

“He’ll miss it. He won’t be old enough,” I said. “Or it might be a girl.”

“Girls suffer too. Didn’t you learn anything from the camp experience? Wars are fought for power, territory or resources. We’re the ones that get caught in it. We, the unwashed masses.”

“I want someone to love me unconditionally.”

“You have someone.”

But my needs were huge and grew with the years. More attention, more everything. More than Sid could handle. He had wants too. He had to prove himself, and that was also consuming. He tried all sorts of avenues; insurance served him better than most. With insurance he was serving his community too.

And I had my way. I had my baby. My Faith. And for a while I stayed off Sid’s back. Sid got involved in community activity. It suited his needs; it also helped get clients. He made appointments in the evenings after the work day. When he opened his own office, he was away day and night.

To keep busy, I fell in with Faith’s PTA but very soon was drowning in the bureaucracy. I should have expected that; I’m not a people person. I joined an art class again. My instructor looked at my work and asked, “Where’s the soul in this?” Soul? What did he mean? “It’s beyond what you see with your eyes,” he said. “When you find it, you’ll never paint like this again.” He pointed to my canvas.

Sid and I did not drift apart in grace. We waged bitter war — for power, for territory. And then he left. Faith said, “Can you blame him?” She had grown up. She loved her dad but still stuck by me. He found someone else to love. Someone compliant, younger, and prettier.

Faith bought a new dress for Sid’s wedding. I watched her get ready; I felt betrayed. I said, “So you’re really going.”

She said, “I’m not deserting you, Mom.” Then, “He’s only trying to be happy. I’ve come to believe the main thing in life is to be happy.” You know she didn’t get that from me.

I had to give up painting because the pictures got so dark; I couldn’t find the light. Couldn’t find the soul. One night I felt so god-awful, I woke Faith from deep sleep and said, “I don’t think I can make it, Faith.”

She knew exactly what I meant. She said, “You’ll make it, Mom. You’re strong.”

And I did: hour by hour, day by day. I let it go. And I learned things that, being a hardhead (to the max), I couldn’t have learned any other way. There’s no chain of command above or below. I’m the top and the bottom. I have not yet found “soul,” but it’s been an interesting search. I’ve started a running dialogue with myself to hold on to perspective, to sanity. It’s a useful habit: “You did it, girl, hip hip hurray!” Or, “Now live with that.” Or, “Here’s where you swallow a little pride and do an about-face.” Or, “I hear you.” I HEAR YOU, ALVY!

Yes, I hear you, and, as they say, Alvy, I feel your pain (Annie Hall is out of my league; I can’t keep up with her eternal cheer). But, as you very well know, Alvy, wounds heal (if they don’t kill you).

Did years pass before the day you bump into Annie Hall on a New York sidewalk? She had come back but not to you. You exchange a few friendly words, walk together a short block, then say good-bye.

Good-bye, Annie Hall. She blithely hops a curb to cross the street. The credits roll.


Wakako Yamauchi is the author of the play “And the Soul Shall Dance,” produced by the East West Players in 1977. This story is part of Rosebud, a collection of short stories published by the University of Hawaii Press in January 2011.


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heartbreaking and illuminating. thanks for writing this.