Cynthia Goldberg wasn’t what people expected. People named Cynthia Goldberg didn’t come with smooth golden skin or haunting dark, almond-shaped eyes. However, Cynthia Goldberg had these attributes because her mother was Japanese and her father, an American Jew.
Strictly speaking, Cynthia’s father wasn’t terribly Jewish. He was an atheist, who had lost faith long ago. Cynthia pondered how easy it was to lose faith in things one believed in blindly as she emerged from the Smithsonian Metro Station. She strolled down Independence Avenue toward the crowd. People swarmed around the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. It was a sunny, but cold, day in March 1994. Workers were taking advantage of the annual display of pink blossoms arrayed against the clear blue sky. Having spent many years away from her childhood home, she’d forgotten how beautiful they looked.
Cynthia clutched her coat against the breeze and crossed Raoul Wallenberg Place, pointedly ignoring the nearby Holocaust Museum, which had opened last year. Surely, she had more than enough death on her own plate. She plunged into the throngs of people, burying the thought far beneath her consciousness.
Death. The word rose like a bubble. Thoughts of death led inevitably to thoughts of fire. Explosions. Massive explosions. Mushroom clouds. Vaporization. The destruction of thousands of people. Buildings destroyed. Senseless destruction. Lives lost. All for what? To end a war? To win a war? To stop the bad guys? Were the Japanese the bad guys? What did that make her? She was American. Well, she was. She had the papers. Cynthia jerked to a halt. She placed a hand to her head. Her heart was pounding and she gasped as if she’d just run a marathon.
Cynthia glanced around her. No one seemed to notice. Slowly, she breathed in and out. She gazed at the cherry blossoms and thought about how they made her think of pink popcorn as a child when her father used to bring her here. Back in happier days.
Grief welled up and her eyes dampened. “For Pete’s sake,” she said, swiping them with the back of her hand. She smiled and figured I must be getting hormonal or something. She turned and continued to walk until she reached a point along the promenade with a view of the Jefferson Memorial, where she stopped and looked out over the water. Her thoughts drifted.
Her father. There was a subject. He’d brought her to this place every year for the cherry blossoms. He’d say, “Your mother came from the country that gave us these pretty trees.” He sort of skipped the part about being in a big war with that country, but Cynthia would learn about that soon enough.
She learned it from watching old movies in which American soldiers kept shooting at Japs.
She learned about it from kids at school who made fun of her eyes and called her “rice cricket.”
She learned from Tora, Tora, Tora that what we had was a lack of communication.
She learned from Doctor Strangelove that there’s no such thing as a perfect fail-safe when a nuclear option is employed and retaliation is administered in kind.
Cynthia grew up self-reliant, the product of a single parent household. However, as was usual with Cynthia, the circumstances weren’t as expected. The parent was her father, since her mother died giving birth to her. Cynthia was bright, excelling in math and science. After graduating top of her class from a private school, Cynthia had her pick of universities. But she chose to stay in D.C. as she was considering following in her father’s footsteps and studying physics. Besides the nation’s capital was a place of great opportunity for young people in the 1960s. Change was in the air. The possibilities seemed endless. So while many of her peers joined the Peace Corps or protested for civil rights and against involvement in the Vietnam War, Cynthia stuck with the program and hung around.
Then one night, Cynthia came home early from a get-together with friends. She’d told her father not to wait up. At the party, she developed a headache and left early.
Cynthia let herself in the front door. Before she could announce her arrival, she heard her father yell, “How dare you!”
What? Who is he talking to?
Cynthia eased the door shut and crept deeper into the foyer. The voice sounded like it had come from the kitchen.
“Don’t take that tone with me.”
Another man. Cynthia tried to place the voice.
“So,” her father said. “How much do you want?”
“Money? Who says this is about money? In this town, power is better. Cooperation can be better still.”
“I might have known this would be about your permits.”
The other man interrupted her father and the two spouted a line of words that tangled together to become indecipherable. They halted abruptly and silence fell upon the house.
Cynthia froze. One step and the floor would creak. Feeling light-headed, she realized she’d neglected to breathe for God knows how long. Drawing breaths in and out her mouth, she continued to monitor events transpiring in the kitchen.
“Look,” her father said, sounding almost conciliatory. “Let’s talk about this, okay? More coffee?”
“Sure. But what’s there to talk about? I have proof that could ruin your career, not to mention turning your relationship with your daughter to shit.”
What the hell? These words were the first to run through Cynthia’s mind. Who was this man to threaten her father? What did he know? What was this about?
“I’ve always wanted to explain the truth about her mother, but the time never seemed right.”
What the fuck? Now Cynthia had a few questions for her father, as well.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s time. The fact that I can prove you had your daughter’s birth certificate forged and that she was actually smuggled into this country illegally, in order to pass her off as a native born American citizen.” The man chuckled. “Well, good luck, Charlie, if you think that information can be made public and you can keep your high-level security clearance and cushy career working as a Beltway bandit.”
Time stood still. Cynthia had no thoughts. She felt dizzy and realized she’d forgotten to breathe again. This must be a dream. This must be a nightmare. She waited to wake up, but didn’t.
“Yes, well, I think as two mature adults we can discuss this rationally,” her father said.
“And just wait until she hears the part about her mother!” The other man laughed raucously.
Cynthia’s belly tightened. Her mother …
“For that remark alone, you deserve what you’re getting.” Her father’s voice was grim.
“What do you mean?”
Silence. Then, choking sounds. A gasp. A thud. The crash of porcelain hitting the floor and breaking. The scrape of a chair being pulled back from the table. Footsteps. The sounds of busy work. Cleaning up the scene of a crime.
Cynthia felt numb. Cynthia had no idea what to do, where to start, how to feel.
Think, Cynthia, think. Her brain kicked in. This man raised you. He’s trying to protect you. He’s always been there for you. He loves you. Go to him. Get his side of the story.
Placing one foot before the other, Cynthia walked into the kitchen. A man sitting at the table had fallen face down, hands sprawled to each side. Coffee dripped off the table onto the pinkish-white vinyl floor. Her father had his back to her. He grabbed a paper towel and turned to wipe up the mess. His eyes widened.
Clearly shaken, her father paused to compose himself. “Well. You’re home early.”
“Father — ”
“All right. I can explain.” He wiped his brow. “I could use a drink.”
Cynthia’s father reached into the cupboard and pulled out a fifth of bourbon. He dumped his coffee into the sink and poured a shot from the bottle. “Want one?” he asked, sounding dazed.
The invitation sent the bottom of Cynthia’s stomach plummeting. He wouldn’t … he couldn’t … could he?
“No, thanks,” she said.
Her father set the bottle down, brought his cup to the table and dropped into a chair with a grunt.
“The dead guy …”
“Oh, my God. I’m sorry …”
He rose and hustled her into the dining room. Cynthia’s father slumped into the chair at the end of the long mahogany dining table and massaged his temples. He looked winded and appeared to have aged before her. Laugh lines around his eyes and mouth had deepened into crevices. And were those strands of gray she saw in his hair?
“That man,” her father said, “he threatened to expose a secret. One that would have hurt both of us. I should explain from the beginning.
“You see, I met your mother when we were students at the University of California in Berkeley. She and I fell in love. She had come to this country on a student visa from Japan. However, after Pearl Harbor, she had to return to her country or face possible internment. She left and went back to live with her family.”
Cynthia’s father paused and took her hands in his. “What neither of us knew was that she was pregnant.”
Cynthia stared. “So … I was born in Japan?”
Cynthia’s father nodded. “Exactly. You’re a dual citizen of both countries. But your mother wanted you to have the benefit of your American citizenship with no connection to Japan. I knew people here, so I arranged for you to be smuggled in. I arranged for your U.S. birth certificate to be forged. It’s true.
“On your birth certificate, your mother was identified as Naomi Fortune. Her real name was Naomi Fukui. ‘Fukui’ means ‘fortunate’ in Japanese, so it was our little joke.
“When I went on to enlist in the Army, my background and education as a physicist made me useful for research of a highly sensitive nature. I was one of many people tasked with research on what ended up becoming the atom bomb.”
Cynthia shook her head. “Wait, wait. That man mentioned mother. What about her?”
Cynthia’s father drew in a long, shuddering breath. “Your mother chose to stay with her family in Japan. They lived in Nagasaki.”
Cynthia’s throat felt like it was closing up. The air was sucked from her lungs, from the room. She shook her head slowly. “No. No.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve wanted to tell you for so long, but there was never a good time.”
“How could you? You’ve lied to me. You killed my mother. And you lied to me. All my life.”
“Sweetheart, there was a war.” Her father looked at her. Tears glistened on his cheeks. “What could I do? I was following orders. Your mother was trying to help you. We were both trying to help you.”
Cynthia rose. “Wait. You just killed a man in cold blood. You weren’t going to tell me any of this. You were just trying to protect yourself.”
“No. It’s not like that …”
Cynthia turned on her heel and left the room. Her father called after her, but she paid him no mind. She went upstairs, packed a bag and left. She arranged to move her things out the following weekend.
Cynthia changed her plans. She dropped out, joined the Peace Corps, and eventually landed in the San Francisco Bay area. She kept a wary distance from her father, an entire continent between them for decades. When the news broke that he had cancer, the balance of power shifted. Cynthia returned to D.C. in late January 1994. She visited her father at the hospice and sat at his bedside every week. The staff took it for kindness, but she had darker motives. She wanted to watch him suffer.
A sudden gust brought Cynthia out of her reverie. It’s been too long, Cynthia thought, as she gazed at the delicate pinkish-white petals of the cherry blossoms trembling against the cerulean sky. Every year, her father had brought her here as a child to see the blossoms on these trees. A gift from a country made decades before a terrible war in which a horrible weapon was used in the name of peace.
Cynthia thought again about her father’s lack of faith. No wonder he didn’t believe in God. How could God let such things happen? Then again, maybe it was unfair to expect God to micromanage affairs. She discarded the line of thought as a waste of time. She had tasks to accomplish here and now.
She turned and strode back through the crowd, across Raoul Wallenberg again toward the Metro and her meeting with another survivor.
The hospice was near the zoo a few blocks off Connecticut in upper Northwest. An attractive older neighborhood of brick houses and large trees that often uprooted and splintered in foul weather. Another example of God laughing while people made other plans, Cynthia thought, as she entered the building and walked to the receptionist’s desk. A young woman with short carrot red hair sat behind a computer monitor, clicking a keyboard.
“Good evening, Ms. Goldberg,” the young woman said. “Go on back.”
“Thanks, um, Karen, right?”
“Right.” The young woman’s smile was nearly phosphorescent.
“Just call me Cynthia. Okay?”
The woman nodded like a bobblehead doll. Cynthia smiled and walked past the desk, toward the stairs and up one flight to the second floor, then took a right and headed to the last room on the left. She paused outside and steadied herself before entering.
When she felt ready, Cynthia entered the room and looked upon her father. What she saw was a wasted carcass under sheets. Skin and bones and little more. Barely breathing, barely alive. What sort of God let this happen? Where was God when you needed him? Once again, Cynthia admonished herself for wasting time on useless questions. She had to make choices.
“Dad?” she said, approaching the bed. “Father? Can you hear me?”
She reached the bed, sat beside him and stroked his cheek. “I just want you to know that I understand now. I understand and I forgive you for lying. I’m sorry about what I said. I was young and stupid.”
No response. Panic tightened her belly. She grabbed his shoulders and shook them.
“Dad, can you hear me? Please, let me know you hear me. Please don’t hate me for being such an idiot.”
Tears flowed freely now as she spoke. Her nose ran and she swiped a hand across it. As she reached for a tissue from the side table, she saw her father move one hand up quickly, then drop it. He opened his mouth. She bent closer to hear him.
“Always loved you,” he said, in a hoarse whisper. “Always will.”
She reached down and hugged him as hard as she dared. Brittle bones she could’ve snapped if she applied too much pressure.
“I love you, too, Daddy.” She released him from her grip. They spent several minutes talking about old times. She told him about her visit to see the cherry blossoms and about how it brought back all the old memories.
“How could I have ever thought you weren’t looking out for me?” she said. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “It’s been so many years. So many wasted years. I’m sorry.”
“No, daughter. Don’t be.” Her father rasped, barely audible. “Should have told you … sooner.”
Cynthia had so much to say, but her visit was taking a toll on her father. Finally, she reached down, picked up her purse and removed the syringe. “I’ve brought something that can end your suffering now. If you want it.”
His head bobbed and his mouth turned up in a brief smile. He gestured once again and she leaned in to listen to him.
“Your mother and I … finally together again,” he said.
Cynthia drew in a breath. “Right.” She inserted the syringe into the IV and compressed the plunger.
Her father nodded. “Peace at last.” Or so she thought he said. He took a last shuddering breath and that was all.
The machine monitoring his heart flatlined and the intermittent beep became a solid piercing wail. As Cynthia tucked the syringe back into her purse and burst into tears again, she was struck by another odd question. Was it random chance or God’s plan that led her to become a pharmacist instead of a physicist?
Debbi Mack is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sam McRae mystery series and other books. Her website is www.debbimack.com.