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Rose Among Thornes

By Terrie Todd

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Vancouver, Canada - October 1941
She had expected it to be an ordinary Saturday afternoon at the movies. But suddenly, Rose Onishi knew beyond any doubt that she was staring directly at her future. She stood on tip-toe, mesmerized, gazing into the storefront window, her friend Freda tugging on her arm.
“C’mon, Rosie.” Freda was the only one allowed to call her Rosie. “We’ll miss the start of the movie!”
Rose wouldn’t budge. “This is it, Freda. This is the one.” The black satin dress was the most elegant creation Rose had ever seen. Its hem hung gracefully around the mannequin’s ankles, while a generous strip of shimmering silk draped over one shoulder and fell halfway down the back. Simplicity at its most beautiful. “It’s perfect.”
“For your recital?” Freda finally stopped smacking her gum long enough to take a good look, her reflection in the store window emphasizing the contrast between the two girls. Freda’s five feet, nine inches were topped with a mop of wild blonde curls, while her own long, ink-black hair refused to curl no matter how frequently she begged God. Together at every opportunity, the pair had become known as Mutt and Jeff.
“It’s not just any recital.” Rose glanced at Freda just long enough to scowl, then turned back to the exquisite dress. “It’s everything! It determines whether I get the scholarship or not. Which determines whether I go or not. Everything has to be perfect, including what I wear.”
She imagined herself in the dress, the satin sliding over her arms and swirling around her body like a refreshing dip at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach on a hot July day. She saw herself stepping to the stage and taking her seat on the piano bench, the spotlight catching the glimmer of the fabric and whispering “winner” into the judge’s ears before she even began to play.
Freda resumed her gum-chewing. “Your mom can make it for you.”
Rose nodded. It was the only way. Not in a million years would her parents ever buy the ready-made dress even if they had the money. And never in a million years would they ever have the money.
“She can.” Rose sighed. “But she won’t.”
“Of course she will. Why wouldn’t she?” Freda leaned down to re-roll a bobby sock. “She’s the best seamstress anywhere.”
“I know. But she’ll say it’s not practical. Or I’m too young. Or it’s a waste of fabric she could use for a customer’s dress, or it’s too much trouble for something I’ll only wear once, or … who knows? She just won’t.”
“She wants you to get into UBC, doesn’t she?”
“Yes. She says she does. I mean, I’ve explained it a thousand times.” Mama seemed to think Rose had gone as far as she needed to go when she passed her Grade Ten Royal Conservatory exam, but her father understood. “I get the scholarship, I get into the music program, I become a concert pianist, I travel the world—”
“You mean we. We travel the world.” Freda wagged her thumb back and forth between them.
“Right. We.”
Freda was skilled on the violin, but every time Rose had accompanied her on the piano for one of Freda’s recitals, the judges and music teachers ended up flocking around Rose after the performance. Freda’s mother finally grew indignant enough to find her a different accompanist, but Freda merely shrugged and said a girl could still dream. She remained Rose’s biggest fan.
“Maybe your dad will buy you the dress.”
Rose raised her eyebrows at her friend. “Dad? Can you see my dad doing something without Mama’s say-so? You can’t be serious.” The two girls had been in and out of each other’s homes since first grade. Freda knew better than anyone what Rose’s parents were like.
“Well, okay. Maybe not.” Freda tugged on Rose’s arm again. “But where’s the harm in showing your mom the dress? Maybe she’ll surprise you. Now come on! It Started with Eve—we’ve been dying to see this. We’ll miss the beginning.”
“No, we won’t. We’ll only miss the newsreels. Who wants to see all those bombs and guns?” Rose shuddered as she followed her friend, the October breeze causing her to pull her red cardigan close around her.
“Besides, does it really matter what you wear?” Freda reached up and pulled a heart-shaped leaf from a low-hanging Katsura branch and took a deep whiff before twirling it between her fingers, releasing its burnt sugar scent. “Why should they care how you look if you can knock their socks off with your playing? And you already know you will. You knock everyone’s socks off.”
Rose grinned. “It all matters. I want them to see me as a concert pianist from the minute they lay eyes on me. I need that dress.”
“Maybe you can earn the money yourself.” Freda shrugged, ever the optimist.
Rose laughed. “Did you see the price tag? I’d need to teach piano lessons around the clock for six months. I’ve only got five, and I need to spend every spare minute practicing. I shouldn’t even be going to this movie. You’re a bad influence.”
“Yes, I am!” Freda tossed her head back in a devious laugh. Then she craned her neck to see who was entering the Roxy Theater up ahead. “Hey, I think Ted and Tony going in. C’mon, maybe we can sit with them.” Freda had been in love with Ted Rogers for at least six weeks—a new record, even if it was unrequited. “You can sit with Tony.”
There was no point protesting. If Rose was honest with herself, she’d love to sit beside Tony Sutherland.
When they reached the Roxy, four uniformed soldiers leaned against its outside wall. “Hello, ladies,” one of them said, tossing his cigarette to the ground. “You live around here?”
Rose ignored them and reached for the door handle, but Freda stopped to chat. “Sure do! Where are you boys from?”
The same fellow who had initiated the conversation answered for all. “Rivers and me are from Alberta. Private Thompson here comes from Manitoba, and Atkins is all the way from Halifax, Nova Scotia.” He dragged out ‘Nova Scotia’ like a radio announcer selling some grand opportunity.
“Wow.” Freda grinned at the one called Atkins. “Coast to coast, eh?”
“Something like that, yeah. I think I might like your coast better.”
Freda laughed way too loudly, and Rose pinched her elbow to make her stop.
The boy from Manitoba opened the door to the theater’s lobby, and the fragrance of popcorn wafted out. He smiled at Rose. “Going in?”
Rose focused on her shoes.
Freda answered. “You bet. You fellas here to see the picture too?”
Rose wanted to strangle Freda. She grabbed another pinch of her elbow skin and twisted it, pulling her friend aside.
“What?” Freda practically hissed.
Rose whispered between clenched teeth. “Why else would they be here, you ninny? We are not sitting by them. Not unless you never want to see another movie with me as long as you live. Which might not be all that long if they sit with us.”
Freda sighed and rolled her eyes. “Who’s gonna know? Tim’s not tagging along behind us, is he?” She glanced over her shoulder for Rose’s nine-year-old brother, but Tim had decided he’d rather play ball than sit through a musical.
Rose glared at Freda. “Old Mister Kiosaki runs the projector on Saturdays, and he’s got eyes like a hawk. If we sit with those soldiers, you know Dad will hear about it within the first thirty minutes and drag me out of here by my ear. Worse yet, Mama. Chattering in Japanese all the way. I’d rather die.”
Freda opened the door to the lobby and looked around. “Doesn’t make any difference now, anyway.”
Rose followed Freda’s gaze. The four soldiers had purchased their tickets and were going inside the theater.
“Good.” Rose sighed.
“Spoilsport.” Freda marched to the ticket counter. “Two, please.”
The girls handed over their quarters for admission, then used their dimes for a bag of popcorn and a drink to share. At the door into the theater, a pimpled usher took their tickets and pointed a chin at Rose. “She’s supposed to sit in the balcony.”
Freda pressed her face toward him, leaving about a half inch between his nose and hers. “We’ll sit where we want.”
The usher backed off as he always did, and Rose tried not to blush. As she always did.
The girls stood still until their eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. They spotted Tony and Ted in the back row with a bunch of other kids, and Freda tossed her head as though she hadn’t noticed them at all. As they made their way down the aisle, the newsreel was still playing. Rose wanted to plug her ears to the explosions and close her eyes to the images of fighter planes and bombs dropping somewhere over the Atlantic. She shuddered. Her big brother James had been trying to enlist for two years and been turned away every time. Though Mama and Dad sympathized with his growing frustration, Rose suspected they secretly felt relieved the Canadian military adopted an unwritten “No Orientals” policy. The very idea of James in one of those bombers, or firing from a foxhole somewhere, or peering through a periscope, made Rose’s heart pound. Dad’s stories from the Great War should have been enough to frighten James too. But who could figure out boys?
Rose relaxed when she spotted the four soldiers seated down in front beside the giggling Porter twins. Freda led the way to seats near the middle of the theater.
Before she sat, Freda looked up at the projection booth. “You were right.” She stuck her tongue out. “It’s Mister Kiosaki.”
Rose prayed the man didn’t catch her friend’s rude gesture as she grabbed Freda’s arm and pulled her into the seat beside her.
Freda pointed to the red velvet curtains on either side of the silver screen. “See that shade of red? That’s the color dress I want for prom.” Suddenly, she bounced on her seat. “Hey, I’ve got it! Tell your mom if she makes the black satin dress, you can wear it for the recital and for the prom.”
Rose let out a snort. “You bozo. Who’s going to ask me to the prom?”
“Tony Sutherland.”
Rose could feel the heat rising in her face. “Never.”
Freda sucked up too much Coca-Cola through her straw and let out an unladylike burp. “You know he likes you.”
“I don’t know any such thing.”
Rose did indeed hope Tony liked her. She liked him, too, and who wouldn’t? He had the dreamiest blue eyes and cutest grin. But what was the point? “Tony asking me to the prom would be like Art Nakamara asking you. You know that’s not going to happen.”
Freda gave Rose a blank stare. “Why would I want that to happen?”
“You don’t. That’s not my point. Tony Sutherland is not going to ask a Japanese girl to the prom.”
“You’re not Japanese. You’re Canadian.”
“I know, but … you know what I mean. He’s never asking me.”
Freda grinned and leaned in. “That’s not what he told Joe.” Freda’s brother Joe was a year older and in Grade Twelve, like Tony.
Rose turned wide eyes to her friend. What had Tony told Joe?
“Last week, when you played ‘O Canada’ for assembly?” Freda pulled her gum from her mouth and stuck it to the bottom of her seat. “Tony wasn’t singing or looking at the flag. He was staring at the piano player. And as you walked back to your seat, he stared googly-eyed, the whole time. I bet he’s watching you right now.” Freda craned her neck toward the back of the theater.
Rose punched her arm. “Don’t you dare!”
“I’m telling you, Rosie, he’s planning to ask you.”
“Don’t say things you know aren’t true.” Rose nibbled a piece of popcorn. Freda might be a dear friend, but she really had no clue what life was like for Rose. When your last name is Smith, no one ever calls you a dirty Jap. “Besides, who’s got time for boys? I shouldn’t even be here with you.”
“So you said. Fourteen times already. As if one minute away from your piano will cost you the whole scholarship and you’ll be stuck here on Powell Street teaching piano lessons for the rest of your life.”
“That’s exactly what will happen if I don’t win this thing.” Rose could imagine it all too easily. Her piano teacher, Mr. Bernardi, always told her she possessed a rare gift that needed to be shared with the world. How could she share it with the world if it all ended in March with the loss of this fierce competition? “Maybe I should go home. Chopin’s ‘Nocturne in E-flat Major’ is not going to memorize itself.”
Freda let out a huff. “Would you stop it? You need a break from your piano once in a while. Those skinny fingers of yours will wear themselves to the bone. Speaking of fingers, I’ve already got nail polish the color of those curtains. You can borrow it for your recital.”
Someone behind the girls shushed them, and they turned their attention to the screen. Rose tried to relax into her seat. The credits were fading and the opening music resolving. Deanna Durbin starred in this picture. Rose and Freda admired Deanna the most, because she was Canadian-born like them and had the most amazing vocal range. Deanna’s picture even graced Rose’s bedroom wall. She settled in and let Hollywood carry her away, far from the concerns of recitals, proms, and fancy dresses.
When the movie ended and they reached the lobby, Freda turned to Rose. “See? Now aren’t you glad you came? I was right, wasn’t I?”
Rose laughed. “I hate to admit it, but you were. I needed that. Thanks.”
Freda turned her attention to something—or someone—behind Rose. “Don’t look now, but—”
She was interrupted by a masculine voice. “Hi, Rose. Can I talk to you a minute?”
Rose turned around to see who had spoken and nearly stepped on a boy’s foot. Right in front of her, grinning his adorable grin, stood Tony Sutherland.
“Can I walk you home?” Tony smiled down at Rose, a twinkle in his blue eyes.
Rose’s palms immediately grew sweaty. She began to shake her head, her eyes searching for Freda. But her friend had already anticipated what was happening.
“She’d love that.” Freda waved and started to leave the theater. “I have an errand to run for my mother before I head home, anyway, so this is perfect. ’Bye, Rosie.”
And just like that, Freda was gone. How dare she? Rose looked up at Tony again and tried to smile.
“Okay, then.” Tony held the door open for Rose and she walked through. They headed down the sidewalk together. “So … you and Freda have been friends for a long time.”
Was that what this was about? Did Tony secretly like Freda and want to pump Rose for information? Well, that she could deliver easily.
“Yes. We met as preschoolers at the Anglican Church.” Their congregation was well represented by white and Japanese, with a few others thrown into the mix. Rose thought it normal. Even at school, her class was about a quarter Japanese. “When Freda and I ended up in the same grade one class, we became inseparable and have stayed that way for these past ten years.”
While the adults complained of all the challenges during the Great Depression, the girls had enjoyed their childhood. Rose had her piano and Freda her violin. They played together when they could.
“We went to Girl Guides at the church every Thursday night, and now to youth group.”
Tony shoved his hands in his pockets. He wasn’t saying anything, so Rose kept talking about her friendship with Freda.
“Our birthdays fall only a day apart—June fourteenth and fifteenth. The year we turned nine, we hatched a scheme for me to sleep at Freda’s house the night of my birthday, the morning of hers. The next year, we did the same at our place and have continued the tradition ever since.”
Rose had once overheard her mother’s friend, Mrs. Oohashi, criticizing her mother for allowing the sleepovers, but the Onishis trusted the Smiths. Rose knew their home as well as she knew her own, and Freda knew theirs. They’d survived their awkward pre-adolescent years and helped each other earn top marks at school. Their shared love of classical music set them apart from their peers and got them through many a potential teenage spat.
“Now you’re both sixteen?”
“Yes.”
“Me too.”
“Freda and I share everything. Well, except clothing.” She was rambling, but she couldn’t seem to stop. “Oh, we’ve tried a few times. It always ends in a fit of hysterical laughter.”
“I can imagine.” Tony chuckled.
“I’ll try wearing one of Freda’s skirts only to trip over it when I walk. One time, on an unplanned overnight stay, I gave Freda a spare nemaki to wear.”
“What’s a nemaki?”
“Like a housecoat. Nightwear.”
“Okay.” Tony nodded. “I’m guessing it didn’t fit?”
Rose laughed. “It stretched tightly across her shoulders and barely reached her knees. She ended up in one of my big brother’s.”
“Boys wear them too?”
“Oh sure. Boys and men. James was about fourteen at the time. He turned beet-red when Mama offered Freda his nemaki. Probably embarrassed to know a ten-year-old girl could fit something of his.” They had reached Rose’s apartment building. “Well, this is where I live.”
Tony raised his eyebrows, then peered up at the three-story brick building. “That was a short walk. And all we talked about was Freda.”
“Isn’t that who you wanted to know about?”
“Well … sure … I guess.” Tony suddenly seemed fascinated by his feet. “But maybe next time we can talk about you.”
Next time? Rose could feel heat in her face. Why was it so much easier to talk about Freda or music or anything but herself? Why hadn’t she asked Tony anything about himself? “Okay, well … I better go on up. I’m practicing for an important piano recital.”
Tony said goodbye, and Rose dashed up the stairs to the Onishis’ living room window overlooking the sidewalk. But Tony had already rounded the corner and was out of sight.

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