18
Apr

Gray on White

Story by Tyler McPeek

Artwork by Dean Christ

 

“Hello, everyone.  My name is John Kilks.  I am from Toronto, Canada.  Please look at this map.  Does anyone know where Toronto is?”

The students in the front row looked hard into his face, then slowly toward the map.  An older man of 60 or so spoke out without raising his hand.  “Pahhapsu, I sink zhato Toronto izu in Ontario Probinsu.”  He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest.

“That’s right Mr.… What is your name?”

“My name is Takahiro Yamagishi.  I habu been to Canada.”

“Oh, really.. where have—“

“Aah you Johnny on zha spot?”

John scanned the faces of the other 7 students in the room.  Four of their faces looked blank and worried.  One girl in her twenties and another middle-aged man seemed to be following most of it.  “Johnny on the Spot…well, I don’t know what—“

 

 

“I know many English expressions.  However, my furiendo says that I amu bery…old-fashioned.”

John didn’t want to be rude, but he was worried that he might not be able to get through his self-introduction if he got too far off track.  “Oh, yes I guess that expression is a little old.  Did you say that because my name is John?”

“Do you know why America’s name iz America?”  Yamagishi asked.

“Well, actually, that is something I would like to talk about,” he broke eye contact with Yamagishi, and started to address the crowd.  “Canada and the United States are both in North America.”  He spoke slowly and stressed the word ‘north.’  “When Japanese people say ‘America,’ they mean the United States.  Actually that is not right, because Canada is also part of America.  The United States and America are very different.  The United States is sometimes called a melting pot, while Canada is a patchwork.  Do you know what ‘melting pot’ means?”  John had managed to regain control and steer the subject back to his prepared introduction.

“I like history very much,” Yamagishi said, looking directly at John.  “I read in a book that America is named by a Italian expurora pahson.”  Then Yamagishi turned to the girl next to him, who seemed to be struggling to understand.  “What is your name?”

“Ah?  Atashi?”  She pointed to her nose.  She was out of uniform, but obviously a high school student.  “Tanaka Miki desu.”  She responded with an emphatic, but painful nod, and looked down toward her notebook.

“Do you like history?”  Yamagishi pressed.

“Eh?  Nani?  History?  Reikishi ka?”  She looked up, but at John, not Yamagishi.  “Yesu, I like, I like history..?”

“Very good,” John responded, with a tone of perpetual optimism.  “What is your name again?”

“My name izu Miki,” she said with a slightly higher degree of confidence.

“I have an idea.”  John resumed in his previous slow and careful English.  “Let’s make name cards, so that we can learn each other’s names.”  He pulled out the stickers that he had planned on using after his introduction, before the icebreaker game.  He had learned during his training that the first class with a new group of students should always start with a self-introduction and an icebreaker, like a name game or short self-introductions by the students.  “Please take one sticker and write your name on it.  Then, stick it here.”  John patted his two-tone blue, checkered necktie against his white button-down shirt with an open hand.  The students passed the sheet of blank, white stickers around the conference table.  Everyone was silent, except for Yamagishi, who was asking Miki if she was a high school student.  Miki was nodding, her posture growing ever more compacted and tense as she answered.

John thought things were moving along pretty well.  This was the first class with more than 5 people that he had taught in the 11 months he had been in Japan.  Most of his classes were one-on-one classes with older housewives, middle-aged public servants, or high school students.  In this class, there were three high school girls, two housewives in their early forties, one pre-retirement company man in a suit, Yamagishi, and a meek woman in her early thirties dressed in a bank teller’s uniform.  It was Sunday morning, a busy time for the private English conversation school that employed him.  The school, like his apartment, was located near the main station in Nagoya.  Most of the classes at Giova English Plus were private, costing \8,000 for an hour and a half.  In addition, there were small group classes with 3-5 students at 5,000 yen a pop.  Due to the amount of people wanting to take classes on Sunday, Giova Plus had started offering several larger group classes for a reduced \3,500.  Each student was required to purchase the Giova English Plus conversation text for \2,000. This was a thin soft-cover, consisting of a number of basic conversations, laid out in short lessons with cartoon characters and Japanese translations provided in the margins.

John’s school was located on the third floor of a shopping plaza.  The office windows were visible from the station and exclaimed in orange and blue decals, “LEARN ENGLISH NOW!”  John generally had two kinds of students—those who already spoke English from studying or living abroad and those who were never destined to learn English, but enjoyed attending the classes for brief stints as a hobby.  It was important to most people to have a hobby, if for nothing else to have an answer ready when someone asked, “あなたの趣味は何ですか?”―― “Myu hobby izu Engrish,” was always a cool response to such an inquiry.

John had trouble connecting with the students who had never been abroad.  The conversation with these students never got beyond that which could be found in the text.  This was fine with John.  He offered his honest and uniform answers with zest, when asked questions about what music and movies he liked; what foods he usually ate in Japan and back home in Canada; and whether or not he had a girlfriend.  “No, I don’t have a girlfriend back in Canada,” he would answer.  “Yes, Japanese girls are very cute,” he would offer politely.

John got along best with the students who had lived overseas.  Most were girls, and they talked and acted very much like the girls he had known at home, except for the accent and limited vocabulary.  During these lessons, the text was generally disregarded, and they spent their time talking as he would with his foreign friends.  The conversations were generally about Canada, the US, political events, or why Japanese people have trouble saying ‘no’ and lack strong opinions on different issues.  John could understand only the most rudimentary Japanese.  He wished that all of his students could speak English, or that he could speak Japanese.  He was sure that, if so, he would be able to enjoy the same kinds of conversations with his other students as well.  Surely it was a simple matter of language difference, a tangible barrier.

After the name-singing game, his current ice-breaker, one closely resembling a drinking game, time was up.  John informed the class that they would be learning the first lesson in the book entitled, “Lesson 1: Where are you from?” for next week’s class, then pairing up for some practice.  This seemed to be a relief for the lower level students, while Yamagishi and a couple of the others gave John a look as if he might not see them again the following week.  Still, he had seen that look before, and he was pretty sure that Yamagishi would be sitting right up front next week, asking more questions and disrupting class with erroneous comments.  That was fine with John.

It was lunchtime and John headed out to a nearby park to eat his tuna sandwich.  He had been lucky enough to stumble upon an imported foods store down the street from his house, where he could pick up American-style thinly sliced bread, thick and mild mayonnaise, and so on.  He bought almost all his food from there, except for the few items at the big super-market that had English on the label, such as the cans of tuna.  They were packaged in the small, familiar, disc-shaped, steel cans, labeled ‘tuna in water’ or ‘tuna in oil.’

On the way out of the office, John went behind the reception desk and grabbed his down coat and the convenience store plastic bag from the mini-fridge, which held his lunch.  He also looked through the magazine rack near the door, selecting a three-month-old copy of TIME.  Then, he stepped out into the shopping plaza and rode the escalators to the bottom floor.  As he worked his way toward the ground level, he kept his eyes downward.  From his peripheral vision, it seemed as though each person who passed him took a double or triple take.  Out on the street, even the drivers of passing cars in the busy city seemed to zero in on him, searching his face and clothing, here and there turning in their seats to watch him turn a corner, perhaps guessing at his destination.  Although John had come to anticipate the staring and searching eyes when walking in public, they still caused him great discomfort, sometimes even and internal and passive rage, if he happened to be having an otherwise bad day.  Even with his glance turned down, as it was, he could feel the eyes stealing looks from all directions, then turning away quickly, if he should happen to look up during their inspection.  He was in a position to verify absolutely that it was possible to know intuitively when someone was staring at you.  He spent nearly all of his waking hours with that eerie feeling that most people probably only feel for a few fleeting moments a day.  When he had gone home to visit his family last winter, he had felt strangely invisible.  But that had been OK.  Something about the way people looked at him in Japan made him feel inanimate, a moving statue.  The passing faces looked with curiosity and abandon.  What’s worse, many would talk about him as they passed.  Everywhere around him he would here the words “eigo” and “gaijin.”

The best way John was able to handle this unfortunate state of public existence was to keep his eyes to the ground, avoiding the prying eyes of those who stared at him.  Still, he was left with that uncomfortable feeling.  It was like carsickness, where your body knows that it is moving at a high speed, but not all of your senses are able to confirm it.  Sometimes, when a car’s headlights or a streetlamp happened to shine on him while he was walking across an empty parking lot at night, he would cover his face with his arm, pretending to be scratching his forehead.  He would peek through his fingers at the indifferent faces of the people in the car.  They didn’t know he wasn’t Japanese!

John took the most direct root to his favorite park, where he often went to eat his lunch.  The parks in Japan, even in a crowded city, were relatively unused.  John sat on the wide cement wall surrounding a raised concrete planter, which held the now leafless form of a large さcheくrryら tree.

Sitting there in the crisp air of late autumn, he had the sense that he was enjoying a very good life.  He had few problems.  His family was supportive, and they approved of what he was doing.  Two years of adventure in another country and it would be back to Canada to look for a job, a wife.  Most of his friends from home admired him.  In their letters and emails, they often wrote “It’s wonderful what you’re doing over there!  I’m so jealous, John.”  Or “How’s my adventurer doing?”

 

<<>> 

As winter approached, John noticed how strange the wind was compared to the subtle breath of summer.  It seemed to be whispering chilly rumors of the coming snow.  One minute it blew strongly in a definite direction and the next moment died, only to pick up again, lazily meandering in the complete opposite direction.  This was especially true in the middle of the city.  The tall buildings were fickle in their arrangement, thrown up here and there, allowing certain breezes to pass between them unabated, while other stronger winds were fought against, depleted of their strength or stopped completely.  A peculiar wind blew into the park where John was sitting.  It blew in from the west, past the sake shop near the far corner, stirring the dirt near the vacant children’s playground.  John saw and heard it before he felt it, purposeful tornados of light-brown dust and leaf bits attacking the dark-green merry-go-round.  Slowly, the merry-go-round began to turn.  Then, the dust settled, its invisible motivator seemingly satisfied.  Seconds later, John felt his hair began to stir.  The wind had not lessened, but gained in strength, only its force was hidden by its own cunning.  It had hidden its claws by avoiding movable measures of its strength, like tree branches or the sandbox.  He turned his head away and noticed a group of schoolgirls entering the park from behind him.  He turned back toward the predatory wind, and felt strangely worried for the students, entering unknowingly into this cold affront.  His blonde-brown hair, combed over to one side in a natural part, without product, stood up and swirled around atop his head.  The wind seemed to be gathering strength.  He could hear the laughter and bright voices of the girls, growing more and more distorted by the wind, as they moved across the park, in his direction.  His clothing was pressed flat to his body.  Wind entering his pant legs from the ground gave him a chill.

John turned back again in silly panic.  He felt like he should warn the girls, but what would he say, ‘Look out, it’s windy?’  There were perhaps eight of them, dressed in the same uniforms, one indistinguishable from the other.  Their pleated skirts flared against their hands as they held them down.  The wind changed directions quickly, and tore through a leaf littered patch of ground between John and the girls.  The leaves took flight, forming a beautiful and terrible whirlwind of color.  It was blinding, and it lasted for several moments.  John held the collar of his coat up and hunkered down on his seat, waiting it out.  As suddenly as it had come, the wind died.  He immediately turned back toward the direction of the girls, but they were not there.  The park was as silent and deserted as it had been before the commotion.

John jumped a bit when he realized that someone was sitting next to him.  He saw the slim, black-stockinged ankles in white and red sneakers in his periphery, then slowly turned his head to the right and moved his eyes upward.  A curious, young girl in school uniform was perched delicately next to him on the wall.  The girl was perhaps 14 or 15 (but who could tell with these young Asian faces), and her eyes were on John’s feet.  John followed her sight line until he too was staring at his sandwich, lying on the ground at his feet, its white bread stained yellow-brown by the dry soil.  Then he looked back up at the girl, who was smiling at him.  Her hair was the strangest color.  It was gray.  Not a dyed, silver gray, but a soft, natural-looking gray.  Yet she was clearly Japanese.  Her hair matched her skirt, which was an identical shade.  The effect was so unusual, yet right somehow.  The girl reached into the small, black, drawstring bag next to her and pulled out a circular loaf of melon bread.  She broke the loaf in half and gently placed one of the halves on John’s thigh.  Then she held her half in front of her silently, her large, round eyes darting to his face, waiting for a reaction as she held her own piece close to her with both hands.  John picked up his half and took a bite of it, the smell of honeydew melon filling his head.  While chewing silently, he stole glances at the girl’s face, but when he turned his head to take a bite of bread, he could only remember her hair and her eyes.  Her eyes were unusually wide, with short but defined eyelashes, facing out away from her eyes…her eyes.  Her shoulder length hair fell straight and flat about her face. 

For maybe fifteen minutes, nothing was said.  It wasn’t an awkward silence, there just didn’t seem to be anything to say.  She ate her half of the bread in small bites, chewing thoroughly with her back molars, her eyes growing still wider when she chewed.  She looked up at him unabashedly, and he looked back at her.  Her hands were small, with slender, white fingers holding the ‘meron pan’ close to her shirt collar and small, gray, plaid necktie.  She had a black, open coat flowing around her, slightly past her knees.  Her frame was thin, but straight and confident.  It was obvious to John that she was less shy as one who rarely spoke, and her silence was contagious.  After only a few minutes, John began to question even the need for words at all, so pleasant was their time together.  Then, with no warning or prologue she rose to leave, but she didn’t.  She stood for a moment looking at John, as she had when she first sat down.  This time John attempted to speak.  He didn’t want her to leave.  “私..I..watashi..”

“Please mail me.” She said it in Japanese.  The word ‘mail’ was distinguishable in Japanese phonetic English, ‘meiru,’ and the rest was obvious, as she produced a mechanical pencil of brushed steel finish from her bag and wrote down a cell phone email address on a pink piece of notepaper, placing it on John’s thigh, were the bread had been.

 

foxygirl@g-phone.jp

 

Then she turned and walked across the park, pausing before she hit the street on the west side to turn and wave to John.  “Bai, bai!” she called to him.

“Bai, bai,” John mirrored with Japanese inflection and held up an open hand at shoulder level.  “..foxy girl,” he added as he glanced at the paper next to him.  He had said the last bit softly, but somehow she seemed to hear it, and it earned him a smile before she turned and strolled away, disappearing behind a rust water-stained, cement government office building.

For the rest of the day, John fingered the piece of pink paper in his pocket.  He left work early for the first time in over a year, saying his stomach hurt.  When he arrived home, his apartment felt strangely foreign to him.  He wandered around the three small rooms, opening and closing the sliding paper doors, and making fists with his bare toes on the cold, straw tatami mat flooring, not knowing what to do with himself.  Eventually, he slipped into his futon and fell asleep.  It was only 6pm.

John dreamed heavily of swirling leaves and melon bread, slow waves of color washed up on his dreamy shores, flooding him with rich images, then receding and wiping his memory clean.  Heavy snowfall blanketed his mind in uniform white before waking.  When he woke, at 9:30 on Monday morning, he worried that he was late for work, before realizing that it was his day off.  He laid in bed for another hour, staring at the ceiling and enjoying the warmth of the sunlight coming through the window, shadows playing on the wall whenever the wind moved the laundry hanging out on the small balcony outside his window.

Later, John hit the city, moving through the streets of the busy shopping district with an energetic curiosity.  He couldn’t explain the delightful mood he found himself in.  He wasn’t the type to be prone to arbitrary mood changes.  Even though it was a good mood, he was skeptical.  He decided that he needed to appease this strange feeling, before it somehow got the better of him.  Maybe he could do something different, perhaps do something spontaneous.  Maybe buy something.  But what?  Walking along, he began to take notice of what was being sold in these shops.  He often walked here, as shoppers tended to be self-absorbed and he found it easier to blend in.  He had never really looked before, or perhaps had never seen before.  There were an abundance of stores selling name-brand goods.  He had previously assumed that these stores, featuring watches, handbags, wallets, and clothing in the windows, were mainly for women, but looking in the window of one store, abruptly named “Brand Off,” he realized that the customers were mostly men.  He walked in.  “Irashyaimase!” the man at the counter greeted him enthusiastically, he was young and slender in a smart, black suit.  The glass cases were filled with wallets by Louis Vitton, Dunhill, Cartier, Gucci, Fendi, Salvador Ferragamo.  John didn’t recognize most of the names, but as he strolled around he began to get a feel for each of the reoccurring names.  Some produced handbags, wallets, watches and colognes, while others produced only watches, or only accessories, and so on.  The items were made of fine leathers with perfect stitching.  Nothing was crowded in the cases, each item had its own space, perfectly placed against the elegant box that accompanied it.  There was nothing that cost less than 20,000yen.  Some of the names reoccurred with slight changes and drops in price—Gucci and Gucci Jeans or Georgio Armani and Emporio Armani.  He strolled through the store for a good 30 minutes, and then walked out.  “Arrigato gozaimashita!” the same man thanked him with a deep bow as he left.  He hadn’t bought anything.

John spotted things he had never noticed before in the streets.  He had a new and profound interest in everything around him.  He was wide-eyed and racing.  He saw groups of students everywhere.  Their uniforms differed slightly in design, with their varying plaids, blues, grays, and blacks.  They were members of a separate society.  Most seemed to be grouped by pattern, mingling in some cases.  John saw the patterns as an animal code, communicating clan membership from species to species.  He followed one group of boys, dressed all in dark blue, brass buttons rising to their neckline.  They looked like young Prussian military officers, with the beautiful, smooth faces of children.  They teased each other, delivering swift open-handed slaps to the tops of each other’s heads in turn.  The boys stopped here and there to look at magazines or manga comic serials, placed on outdoor racks along the wide, covered, pedestrian-only street.  Eventually, they entered into the side entrance of a pachinko/slot parlor.  John followed.  They did not enter the pachinko floor, but instead rode the elevator upwards.  John watched the graduating numbers illuminate one by one from the first floor.  As he waited, he glanced through the window into the brightly lit gambling floor.  He caught sight of a young man with English writing on his T-shirt staring closely at one of the machines.  “I’m .. a .. funky..” something.  John studied the man’s healthy explosion of curly hair and wondered where the young people went for their haircuts.  It occurred to John that he and the man were likely the same age, though it seemed one or the other should be significantly younger or older some how, though he couldn’t think of which should be more likely.  The elevator stopped at the 4th floor and remained there.  John called it back and followed suit.  On the ride up, staring at his suddenly boring, side-part, plain-looking hairstyle in the mirror of the elevator security camera’s cover, John felt hungry and had the oddest craving for a California roll.

When the doors opened up, he was surprised to see a huge game center sprawled out before him.  It encompassed two floors, gallery style, with railings looking down from above, staircases on either side.  The boys were scattered now.  Two were at the change machine, and the others had dispersed and mixed into the larger crowd of students, groups of younger women, couples, and loner-type young and middle-aged men.  The sounds were noisy and rich, not as busy and loud as the sounds that had come from the door of the pachinko parlor below, but much more varied, and with a lot more voices mixed in.  The games were not like those he knew from home.  There were a host of ‘print club’ photo booths, stand-up shooting games, and machines that John couldn’t quite figure out.  To the left there was a tank with small, live lobsters in it.  It was 400yen to use a miniature, pink backhoe and try to capture one of the creatures and drop it into a metal shoot.  Plastic bags were pinned to the side of the machine, next to the prize claim opening, so that winners could take their lobster prizes home, and eat them presumably.  The giant square columns in the center of the arcade were paneled with television screen fish tanks.  When John touched his finger to one of the swimming fish, bubbles came from its mouth and the illuminated apparition scooted quickly away from his touch.  There were large dancing platforms, where young men perfected their technique, changing their feet to hit each of the flashing squares on the platform in time with the music and directional arrows scrolling form top to bottom on the front screen.  They performed with practiced and perfected spins, jumps, and side steps, all at dizzying speeds.  There were four others standing before a line of rubber taiko drums, beating them with sticks, while a series of multi-colored electronic pops appeared on the screens before them, laid over the digital techno beats that flowed steadily from the prominent speakers at the front of the machine.

Young salary workers in dapper suits with high buttoned, dark suit coats were gathered around a boxing game where one of them was punching the air in front of him, wireless handles held tightly in his closed fists, registering blows to the imposing animated brute on the screen before him, while the others cheered him on.  John tried a game here and there, mostly the retro games in the 100 yen section—Pacman, Galaga, Tetris, and Street Fighter, steering clear of the games where crowds gathered to observe the performances of strangers.  He wandered over to the photo machines and one of the boys he had been following earlier approached him, two of his friends looking on from a few paces back.  The boy looked back at his friends before speaking.  “Please puri kura with us, OK?”

“Puri kura?” John asked, leaning in closer to the boy.

“Puri kura, puri kura.”  The boy pointed at the photo machine with brightly colored plastic curtains hanging down on all four sides.

“Oh, print club.  You want to take a picture with me?”

“Oh.  Oh, yeah.  Purinto Kurubu.” The boy took on a cool stance for his friends as he mimicked John’s movie English pronunciation and added, “Let’s take a pikcha.”

“OK.”  John was up for anything.

Next, the other boys rushed forward introducing themselves and asking his name.  Then, the three boys and John pulled back one of the curtains and entered the small booth.  John was surprised at the complexity of the machine.  There were three cameras, one looking down from above, one looking up from the floor, and another looking straight at them from beside the touch screen television.  John tried to study how the boys operated the machine, but they navigated through the different direction screens in an indiscernible flash.  The Japanese instructions decaled on the metal panels were daunting.  He insisted on paying, and the boys allowed him to insert the necessary 400yen into the machine.  John had to lower himself down to get his head at the same level as the others.  A myriad of pictures were taken by all three cameras.  “Look there!  Look there!”  The boys yelled at him, pointing frantically from camera to camera.  For one picture a fan blew from a small metal grate at the side, giving the effect of wind in their hair.  Then, with the pictures displayed on the screen, they used an electronic pen to choose different backgrounds, sizes, effects, and to write their names and the words ‘best friends’ onto the pictures in various colors.  In the end, they stood waiting while the different sized pictures printed onto a single sheet and dropped into an open box on the side of the machine.  One of the quieter boys took them to a nearby counter with a pair of scissors tied to it, and cut the sheet into different sections.

“Thank you.” They announced in unison as the leader handed over John’s portion of the tiny pictures with adhesive backs.

John slipped the pictures into his jeans pocket, said goodbye, took one last look around and got back in the elevator.  The street seemed a bit of a let down after the charged atmosphere of the game center, but the snap of cool air was refreshing.  As John wandered the streets once again, his sense of wonder had not abated in the least.  He was realizing with excitement, rather than regret, that in his near year in this city, he had learned very little about the place he was living in.  Now to buy, he thought.  He walked to a cash machine and used his bankcard to withdraw 80,000yen, the most he had ever taken out at one time.  John had spent little of his earnings since he came to Japan, even sending some cash home by wire transfers to cover his modest student loan payments, and there was plenty of savings in his account.  He had never carried a wallet before in his life, but suddenly as he stuffed the wad of cash in his back pocket, he felt that perhaps he should have one.

“Irashaimase!”  The man behind the counter at Brand Off greeted him, without showing any recognition or in any way varying even slightly from his earlier welcome.  John wondered why a Japanese clerk would never say, for instance, “Back again so soon?” or “Nice to see you again.”  His mind was not used to questioning these matters.  Now, however, as he circled the glass counter displays, he couldn’t help thinking about a variety of everyday scenes and happenings that he had witnessed since yesterday, since he met…

John examined several luxurious wallets.  The clerk, with two Mont Blanc pens stuck in his breast pocket and a black-faced GMT Rolex on his wrist, politely produced each wallet for John’s inspection.  Just as he thought he had decided on a long, black Dunhill wallet, John spotted something that he knew he wanted instantly.  It was a shiny black Prada writing journal, the flexible cover made of a finely grained, silky fabric that wanted to be touched.  He winced only slightly as he presented the clerk with 4 unwrinkled 10,000yen notes, for which he received two equally crisp thousand yen bills in change and a small, black shopping bag with one corner folded over carefully.  Out on the street, he pulled out his journal and deposited the bag and thin box atop a recycling bin next to one of the many vending machines.  He rubbed his fingers over the silky finish, slid the silvery pen from its holder and wrote on the first page,

 

Why are there so many coffee vending machines in Japan?

 

Then, having written the question, he inserted a thousand yen into the vending machine in front of him and pushed the button for one of the tiny cylindrical cans, labeled in bold lettering ‘Monatana BLACK.’  He didn’t especially like coffee, but he had never tried cold coffee from a can.  As the cold, dark liquid flowed down his throat, his body started to buzz.  He actually got a little high.  The ice-cold brew went down smoothly, not at all the way he remembered the taste of coffee to be.  He opened his notebook and scribbled a single word beneath the previous question.  It was written in a new, quick hand.

 

Buzzzzzzzzzzzz!

 

His step quickened as he headed off down the street with his new journal tucked proudly under his arm, the triangular, silver Prada seal on the cover facing out and visible to the world.  The day was passing into late afternoon now, and the orange glow of the setting sun burned into the shopping plaza from the side alleys.

John happened upon a wall of flashing cell phone antennas.  He thought of the mail address on his table at home and turned into the shop.  He had purchased the cheapest model phone, from the cheapest phone service company, with the help of a Japanese secretary from his school, a few months back, but had later cancelled the service when he found that he wasn’t using it, electing instead to stick to his pc and home phone for communication.  The store clerk was thirty-five or so with a vermilion necktie, set against his starched white shirt.  Thirty minutes of forms and only partially understood, choppy English and Japanese hybrid explanations later, John exited with the newest, most popular, color-screened, voice activated, fully internet-accessing, bilingual, keitai cell phone, complete with multi-colored flashing antenna accessory and Doraemon nylon strap.  He was broke now, but satisfied.  He walked along with his head down, working the joystick on his bright red, slim headset.  He headed home, stopping here and there to watch an interesting character and jot down a few notes.  He smiled at the homeless man pushing a noisy wooden handcart, piled high with clear plastic bags of aluminum cans.  And every passing, young, cute face in a sailor-style school uniform made him think of her.

John called in sick to work on Tuesday.  He just couldn’t imagine that place somehow.  He spent the morning moving the furniture around his apartment.  He rolled his futon up for the first time and stowed it away in the closet, finding that it provided a whole different aesthetic with the newly exposed tatami matting and empty間space.  John sat on the floor seiza-style, with his legs folded under him, the way he had seen the Japanese sitting during ceremonies on TV documentaries.  It hurt a little.  He sat there that way in the now empty room for ten minutes, before his legs went completely numb beneath him, after twenty minutes he was in agony.  He held out for another 5 minutes; then stretched his legs out before him with a mighty sigh.  He opened his journal on his lap and started writing.  For the most part, he just wrote random thoughts, catching a loose string from the myriad of bright confetti streaks in his mind and following it, then taking a breath and writing about something totally different.

 

Ripplers

Everyone who is dissatisfied, start looking—LOOKERS.

If you find something that you know you could be great at, stop everything else—you’re not making a difference where you are—STOPPING POINT.

Start.  Devote yourself entirely, do it.  Make yourself awesome at it.  No matter how long it takes, never stop.  If you can’t do it anymore, find someone—FINDERS.  When you find someone, teach them how—TEACHERS.  While you are devoted, you are searching for exceptionalism—SEARCHERS.

All of those who achieve and find their way to their goal—FOUNDERS, and all those who are looking (LOOKERS), must help in any way they can all SEARCHERS and TEACHERS.  The next stage for all FOUNDERS is TEACHER.  FOUNDERS should be revered and studied.  They are our best-defined link to immortality.

 

Still, there was one thing that he did not write about.  She was his alone, and he didn’t want to share her, not even with the page, not yet anyway.  He turned the page and in big letters wrote:

 

What’s with the crazy haircuts and the wacky die jobs?  All the young people take so much care to style their hair so extravagantly.  Where do they get their hair cut?  How often?

 

And with that, he grabbed his bankcard, his new keitai, and his Prada notebook and left his apartment.   Outside, the early afternoon air was cold therapy for his cornucopia brain.  It brought focus to his fractal mind, the way the pain of sitting seiza had done.  John walked in the opposite direction of the path he normally took to go to the station or to work.  Stopping at a vending machine outside a small shop, he bought a tall can of Asahi Super Dry beer.  So many vending machines, he thought.  He looked at the surrounding machines as he took long pulls from his beer.  Some of the prices were written on a red background, but most had a blue one.  These colors, he decided, denoted which drinks were cold and which were hot.  Most of the can coffees, for instance, were available either hot or cold.  John wondered whether the ratio of hot to cold drinks was the same in summer as it was now, during the cold season.  He quickly jotted down a note in his book—he would be sure to check on it when the weather got warmer.  He wanted to try the hot, canned corn soup, or the cold, canned, drinkable pudding, or the hot milk shake, but none of them seemed to be a good match for his now empty beer.  He tried to peer through the small circular holes of each of the recycling bins before depositing his empty beer can in one.  The Chinese characters on the top of each meant nothing to him.  He was relieved when he heard the sound of hollow aluminum clanking together, he had guessed right.  John dropped his coins into the sake vending machine and pressed the red button bellow a small glass cup of Nagoya sake (he recognized the Chinese characters for his city on the label).  He peeled off the metal top and sipped the warm 日本酒 from the glass.  Why did all the bins have those small circular holes, he wondered.  It must be to prevent people from throwing their non-recyclable trash in the bins.

Halfway through the ni日hon本shyu酒 cup, and he grew impervious to the winter chill.  He looked toward the misty winter sky and speculated on when the first snowfall would come.  Then, he headed on down the street, glancing at the shops on the first and second floors of the buildings on either side.  After about ten minutes of walking, he noticed the words “Forrest Hair” painted in red letters on a large picture window that stretched from floor to ceiling on the second floor of a stucco building.  He could see a boney, young man with yellow-gold hair and dressed in all black looking out the window.  Lined up in the back hip pocket of his black leather jeans were several green and orange hairclips.  His T-shirt was black with a green logo on it.  The logo was the outline of three evergreens in a row.  The young man was looking down the street at an approaching office-lady-type woman working her way down the street in a white button-down with the first few buttons undone and the starched collar turned up, black skirt, and high heels.  Although John was just below and squarely facing the window, the young man did not notice him.  John glanced at the side of the building.  Noticing an outdoor, black, spiral staircase, he proceeded up to the shop.

When he entered through the heavy glass-door, the young man was no longer at the window, but behind the counter to the right of the entrance.  The shop was small with only two cutting stations and one hair washing station.  There was a girl with black cargo pants and a T-shirt that matched the young man’s, standing near the washing station.  The young man greeted him enthusiastically with the standard ‘Irashaimase’ greeting, but then hesitated to say more, glancing over at the girl with searching eyes that seemed to say, ‘Howどうshould I handleする this?’

    Finally, he offered, “Cutto?”

    “Hai, yes please.” John answered.

    The young man introduced himself as Mori(for森est) Yoshiro and gestured with his hand toward the empty chair at the washing station.  “Wash, please.”

    The girl said nothing, but attached a green, vinyl apron around his neck and gently lowered his head back into the sink.  Then, from the cabinet above, she produced a small, light cotton cloth and laid it over John’s face.  Then she began the process of wetting and washing John’s hair.  The girl took her time massaging shampoo and conditioner into his scalp.  She went through a polished routine, which involved fabulously complex fingertip massage techniques, ending with a series of raindrop taps that got his scalp breathing.  The cloth over his face allowed him to close his eyes and fully enjoy the message without feeling embarrassed, as well as keeping any water from splashing on his face.

    At the styling station Yoshiro asked “Long oa shorto?”

    “I don’t know, kcaokooiil de.”

    “Ok, ok.”

    Yoshiro examined his work at intervals from all angles.  He used three types of scissors, a straight razor, two combs, a handful of clips, and one red and one blue pick.  After cutting, it was back to the washing station for a ‘rinse’ and a short shoulder massage.  Then, back to the styling station.  “Producto wa?  Softo oa hardo?”

    “Soft.”  It sounded safer than hard.

    At this, Yoshiro mixed clear gel and a white fiber wax together in the palm of his hand and used it to shape John’s hair into a series of waves and dips.  Then, he used a bit of hair spray from a tall black can to make the hair hold in position.  John tried to observe everything that Yoshiro did.  He doubted if he would be able to duplicate the style on his own after he took a shower.  He asked Yoshiro where he could buy the different hair products.  Yoshiro had everything stocked in the cabinet overhead.  He put a new container of each of the products he had used in a small bag with 木three木trees木 on it and handed it to John at the counter.  John didn’t mind at all paying 8,000 yen when he left.

    John wanted to go out that night.  But with whom?  People he counted as friends in Japan were few.  There were a few people from work that he had been out with before.  There was Frida, a 28 year old fidgety, overweight New Zealander; Joanna, a confident, witty, overweight Briton; and David, a 30 year old, overweight Australian, who always ordered Bundaberg rum at bars and restaurants (which was never available).  He felt towards all of them about the same.  They were like the English-speaking students that he was friendly with—mostly small talk and alcohol after work.  That was about it.  Outside of work, he had two guys that he sometimes paled-around with.  One was a 22-year-old Japanese guy named Takahashi, who had done a ryugakusei stint at an American high school and liked to hang out at the gaijin bars, which is where they had met.  His other friend was a 25-year-old American.  Jeremy was a tall, lanky guy who had aspirations as a bass guitarist.  He was a self-professed Japan-o-file, who loved Japanese animation.  His parents were wealthy, and he was in Japan taking classes at one of the nearby universities.

    Anyone from work was out, for two reasons.  One, he was supposed to be at work today.  Two, he didn’t want to think about that place.  He could see them complaining about the outdated computers at the office, unpaid overtime, and Japanese education.  No, he couldn’t see them.  He pictured Jeremy in his mind, forever talking about American bands and bassists.  Maybe they could go the Mexican restaurant he had mentioned last time they met.  Jeremy was not connected with John’s work in any way.  Perhaps John could tell him about his adventures over the last two days; take him to the game center; maybe he knew whether or not the ratio of hot to cold cans in the vending machines was the same year-round…  Then he formed a mental image of Jeremy nodding his head out of politeness to John’s revelations, waiting impatiently for his turn to speak.  He pictured the mental judgments that might register on Jeremy’s face as John produced his Prada journal and his peculiar questions.  And he tried to picture the brave high school boy from yesterday trying to work up the courage to approach not one, but two intimidating gaijin, immersed in rapid-fire English conversation, for a friendly puri-kura.  No, he couldn’t meet Jeremy.  That left only Takahashi, but the last place that he wanted to go was a foreigner bar.  He stopped thinking and wrote.

 

I am alone now…as I must be…  Except for—

 

Suddenly his life seemed to boil down to a piece of pink notepaper.  He worked the tiny joystick with his thumb to navigate through the pictorial operating system on his new computer handset and advanced to the mail selection.  Mercifully, the new cell phone had an English setting for its operating system.  Since she was a student, John guessed it should be ok to mail her in simple English.  For the subject line he wrote:

 

inochi-is-good

 

He realized from watching the multitudes on the street, that the mail culture was very important here.  Many people seemed to be able to touch-type these cell phone E-meiru with ease, presumably using all four alphabets used in writing Japanese, as they walked down a crowded street.  Mailing/instant messaging was far more popular than actually talking on the phone.  So, he got out his Japanese dictionary and tried to be clever.  Inochi=Life.  ‘Life is good.’  She had probably received and sent a million mails in her short life, and his confidence level was low in the cell-mail arena.  He had purchased the same brand phone as her—her, so he left off the web location on her address, as the salesman had told him he could do in this situation.  On the next line he wrote simply:

 

foxygirl

 

For the message he wrote the following:

 

We met in the park on Sunday. Do you remember me? 

Thank you for the melon bread. Winter is coming soon…

Do you like winter?  If you have time, I would like to

meet you again.

 

‘Message Sent’ the screen flashed in red, underscored by a blue, cartoon bird flapping its wings on the bottom of the screen.

    After 15 minutes with no reply, he started to second-guess himself.  John began to wonder if he should have tried to write the message in Japanese.  He went to the small bookshelf that supported his TV and removed the three Japanese textbooks that had been left by his gaijin predecessor, untouched since John’s arrival.  He spent the next three hours wading through the dusty pages, getting a sense of how to apply the Japanese syllabary to his baby Japanese, with the aide of his pocket dictionary.  Studying the Japanese phonetics, he began to get a sense of why the Japanese pronounced English words the way they did.  With the exception of the nasal consonant [n], there were no syllable-final consonant sounds that were not followed by a vowel sound.  The result was that a word like ‘truck’ became ‘turaku,’ when reconstructed in Japanese.  ‘Computer’ became ‘konpyutaa.’ 

    In many cases, the English consonant or vowel sound simply did not exist in Japanese, and vice-versa.  The grammar and sentences, as well, were from a different world.  It was amazing to John.  He could speak and read a bit of French, from his high school days, but Japanese was drastically different in grammatical construction, pronunciation, and orthographic expression.  It was so different, in fact, that it lent itself to a whole different way of thinking—far different from simple mental translations from English to French, which was possible in cases of basic communication between most Western European languages that he was familiar with from his school days.  John knew that there were also thousands and thousands of Chinese characters (kanji), used to express meaning, but he was not ready for that yet.

    So, at 11 o’clock John felt he was ready to attempt a simple message in the native, phonetic Japanese syllabic orthography, with no kanji.  The good news was that the tiny handset was amazingly well-designed and easy to use.  It was actually easier to write in Japanese, than it was in English.  He managed to write the following mail:

 

げんきですか? めろん ぶれっど ありがと。 わたしわ 

じょん です。 あなたあいたい。

 

That should do it.  He had asked how she was doing; thanked her for the bread; given his name; and said he wanted to meet her.  He proceeded to send the mail as he had before, using the same subject line.  He once again typed the address.  Then he realized that he had the subject line and the address line reversed.  Had he made this mistake last time?  He wasn’t sure.  He made the necessary adjustment; then sent the mail.

    He received the reply almost immediately.

 

今、あたしが同じ公園にいるだけど…

 

John concentrated on the illuminated color screen with all his might, but he could not understand.  He began searching through a phrase book frantically, trying to spot some of the same Chinese characters that were in the message, so that he could piece together a translation.  After a couple minutes he spotted the first kanji, “今.”  He looked at the English written next to the Japanese phrase that the character appeared in.  “Is the doctor available now?”  Quickly, he used his dictionary to look up each of the English words in his dictionary.  He got lucky on the first try.  When he looked up the word “now,” there in the Japanese translation, front and center, was that same character.  He had the first word, “now.”  Now, now, NOW!  This word only added to the sense of urgency.  Now, I’m busy?  Now, I want to meet you?  Now, I’m in trouble!?

    The next four symbols were phonetic and John was able to read them using the chart at the beginning of his textbook.  A-TA-SHI-GA.  He knew that “GA” was a grammatical word, similar to “WA,” which often translated to “is,” or “am.”  That would make sense, since it was expressed with a phonetic symbol (only lexical vocabulary words were borrowed from Chinese, Japanese grammar was completely unique, thus any grammatical construction would be expressed only in uniquely Japanese characters).  Atashi, atashi, what was that?  He looked it up in the dictionary, nothing.  He knew that watashi meant I, myself, and so on.  He pictured the face of Miki, the high school girl in his Sunday conversation class.  She had pronounced watashi without the “W” sound…”Now, I am—“  He began reeling through the pages of the phrase book again.  After 2-3 minutes he located the next two symbols, “同じ,” next to the English phrase “Are these two books the same price?”  The second symbol was phonetic, “JI,” the first symbol was kanji.  He tried the word “book” in his dictionary first, the character was not to be found anywhere in the Japanese explanation following the word “book.”  Next he tried “same.”  Score!  “ONA-JI” meant “same.”  He pushed ahead.  The next two symbols, “公園,” where kanji.  He guessed that they went together, probably a noun.  Back to the random flipping through the pages of the phrase book.  He wished he had a Chinese character dictionary, or knew how to use one for that matter.  He made a mental note to check out the electronic stylus on-screen writing dictionaries in the electronics store.  After 5 minutes he located the symbols next to the phrase, “Excuse me, could you tell me where Kenrokouen Park is?”  “Park,” that had to be it!  He liked where this was going.  He quickly checked the dictionary.  Bam!  Nailed it!  “KOU-EN” is “park.”

    “Now, I am same park—“  The next symbol was phonetic, another grammar term, “NI,” pronounced “NEE,” which meant “in” or “at.”  He knew the next two symbols as well, both phonetic, “I-RU.”  In the dictionary, it was listed as “to exist.”  However, this word was part of John’s simple Japanese vocabulary, and he knew that it was commonly used as “to be.”  “Now, I am same park in to be—“  Now, I am at the same park!  The last symbols were all phonetic “だけど” or “DA-KE-DO.”  This phrase resembled “DA-KA-RA,” which meant “therefore” or “because,” but the exact term was not listed in his dictionary.  A quick spin through the phrase book—he couldn’t find it there either.  He decided to regard it as erroneous.  The ellipses at the end of the sentence would seemed to indicate something unspoken, or anticipation.  “I am now at the same park where I met you…”

    It had taken him nearly 30 minutes to glean this incomplete understanding of her email.  He hoped she would understand, not think that he was playing it cool.  He couldn’t be sure how obvious it was to her that his Japanese was so poor.  They had never even talked, and he didn’t know if it was obvious or not from the previous mail he had written.  He tried to compose his reply as quickly as possible.  He found it was considerably easier to write, even the kanji (which popped up on command) than it was to read.  It seemed that the order of difficulty in practical Japanese usage, as opposed to his book-learned French was exactly opposite.  In order of easy to hard for Japanese usage: speaking, listening, writing, reading. He sent the message.

 

今わたし公園にいく。

 

    Walking down the late night city streets, in the direction of work, the park, her—Her, he was forced to consider the little question that had whispered itself into his ear during some of his otherwise stellar daydreaming of late.  How old is she?  14, 15, 16?   He wasn’t ready to answer quite yet, or to consider the implications thereof, but the question had made itself known clearly in his mind.  He had felt so different from how he could ever remember feeling in the past, that concepts of morality had been deemed of foreign context, somehow not relevant.  In the acquisition of his new insights, ideas, and general openness toward new experiences, his mind had let go of ideas and opinions that had previously seemed important to him.  Those ideas were now adrift in his mind, visible, but irrelevant, almost like the thoughts of another, and not his own.  And yet, they stood out on the horizon with a sort of alienated majesty, recognizable should he choose to come home again, paddle his lonely raft back to their safe shores.  No, he did not want to go back, but could not help glancing toward those seemingly distant shores, just to see how far he had drifted.

    The night air was crisp and unwarmed by the bustling crowds.  Everywhere, people flowed steadily in pre-assigned capillaries from one destination to another.  The city was alive, an organism onto itself.  John desperately wanted to achieve his destination, but could not resist the allure of absorption.  He allowed himself to be carried along in the crowd, it was a wonderfully stimulating experience to be put to use within the organism.  He didn’t even notice that no one was looking at him.  He was part of it.  Inside.  Only the occasional face, waking for an instant from the dream of the flow, would register slight interest in John’s unique features.  John was a silent spy, a piece of sediment in the river, but with eyes.  Here and there, he would nudge against the flow until he found himself on a side street that led to the park.  On this street there was only the occasional straggler, busily seeking their way back to the crowds, lost and alone.  For the first time, John noticed the wonderful harvest moon above, a spectacular reminder that autumn still reigned…but reserved for the few who looked up.  For the rest of them, winter had arrived.  John knew the secret though, the source of the night’s clarity.

    The people lingering around the outskirts of the park didn’t seem to notice her figure sitting on the low wall around the big tree in the center, but he did.  He noticed her straight away.  They didn’t see her and they didn’t see the moon above them, but there they were, together, shining brightly in the dark blue of the night.  She saw him, too.  He couldn’t see her face well, but she was looking in his direction.  Her face saw him.  He approached her, trying to formulate a proper greeting in his head as he moved closer.  She looked exactly as she had before, with the same uniform, coat, and small black bag with thin straps.  He sat on the wall next to her, and still could think of nothing to say.  “Konnichiwa,” he offered, immediately sorry to have broached the silence, his voice violating the night.  On the far side of the park, a group of boys and girls in their early 20s, dressed in bright, loose fitting clothing, were gathered around two white vans with customized bodies.  One of the vans had an enormous spoiler jutting up into the night from the top-back.  From inside the shiny vans came Japanese hip-hop, with heavy bass and a flood of fluorescent lighting, pink from one and neon green from the other.  The inside of one was coated in fur.  She was looking in the direction of his journal.  She seemed to be waiting for something, patiently, politely, but waiting.  John picked up the notebook and started to take some notes on what was around him.  She seemed pleased by this.  Once again, he settled into the wonderful silence that existed between them.  His mind was fresh, like the night, and full of wonderfully vivid images; sharp, well-defined ideas emerged and flowed through his steady writing hand.  He knew, somehow, that it would always be like this between them.  He hardly even noticed, after 30 minutes or so of steady writing, that her slender hand had bridged the distance between them, almost touching his face.  He was surprised to notice it, but he was not startled.  Her wide eyes seemed to ask for his consent, he gave it with the slightest of nods, dipping his face toward her hand on the upswing.  Her index finger was wonderfully cool and soft.  She explored the structure of his nose with great interest.  She fingered the protruding bridge between his eyes, pinching it softly between her thumb and forefinger.  For his part, John looked at her face and realized that there was almost no bridge to her nose, the gap between her eyes was nearly flush with her face.  John had a youthful and well-structured face, but compared with the perfection of her skin, he worried that he was hopelessly rough and unattractive.  She seemed to sense his insecurities and ran her five fingertips slowly from his forehead to his chin, right over his closing eyes, in a gesture of admiration.  He took her exploring hand in his own, using one hand to cradle hers, and examining the top of her hand with his other hand.  Then he laced his fingers into hers and looked up at the moon.  He felt that the simple pleasure of being alive would never be more acute and apparent to him than it was at that moment.

    She stood up, without releasing his hand, and walked off, taking him with her.  They strolled through a maze of back streets.  He would have followed her anywhere.  He felt that he was in a living dream.  John rubbed the silky cover of the journal in his left hand to remind himself of the texture of a waking world, but the soft material only served to lull him further into the magical realm he had entered.  She stopped before a building lined in pink and blue neon.  天国  The kanji was written in a soft green neon above an arched brick entrance.

    “Irashaimase!” the clerk behind the desk announced with a welcoming, professional tone.  There was no judgment in his demeanor, he had seen many things.  “\8,000 desu.”  John handed over a 10,000yen note, reluctant to give up his companion’s hand even for a moment, and received two crisp bills in return.  A small, plastic card was handed across the counter.  John studied the silver card for a moment, then handed it to his companion.  The clerk said something else, but John didn’t understand.  She answered, “Hai,” and they walked to the nearby elevator.  Next to the elevator was an illuminated card slot.  When she inserted the card, the elevator door opened.  The elevator had no buttons, but took them automatically to the 2nd floor.  They stepped out into the hallway and followed blinking arrows to a room down the hall.  The flashing sign above the door read “O-23.”  As they stepped inside, the door clicked shut behind them and the lights went on automatically to reveal an Erエロos playground.  The room had a soft green interior with a white felt ceiling, a large round bed, a mirrored wall, an arcade-style, stand-up video game, a big screen tv with karaoke, a small tv above the bed, and three illuminated machines dispensing snacks, drinks, and sex toys.  Together they removed their shoes and stepped onto the warm carpet.  She went to a control panel and switched off all but one soft, overhead globe light.  Then she disappeared behind the corner by the sink.  When she emerged she was out of her uniform, wearing a thick cotton towel around her body, with another hanging loosely in her other hand.  Her shoulders were painted in soft, white cream.  She went over to the entrance to the bathing room, put one foot over the threshold and beckoned him with her 目eyes.  He disrobed silently, quickly and followed her through the door.  In the dimly lit room, she bathed him carefully, part by part, without removing the towel.  He exited first and donned a bathrobe from the basket beneath the sink and waited patiently for her to emerge from the steamy room.  A few minutes later, the sound of the water stopped and she came out wrapped in the same towel.  She led him to the edge of the bed.  He still had not touched her.  She spread his bathrobe wide and kissed his cheek, her towel falling in a silent pile at her feet.

 The lights were turned down to near darkness, and John started to explore.  Her body was slender, supple, agile, and wanting of touch.  It refluxed and pulsed towards his hand, the mild brush of his fingernail, even the breeze of a passing extremity in the dark.  It responded to proximity, as if prone to gesture through some extra sense, allotted exclusively to the creamy outline of the curves in her back.  The rub of his fingertip against the skin separating the cleft of her vagina from her anus was exquisite.  Indeed her body was so wonderfully clean, dry, and smooth.  The comparison to silk was so exact that it demanded voice in his mind, despite the images of pulp novel clichés that it would surely have conjured, had it not been so accurately assigned.  This body had the instinctual quick and violent reactions of a woodland animal, with none of the sloppy internal sweating required of a Western form.

    When he entered her…like a snake cloaked in baby's skin entering a perfectly form-fitted cavern of muscle, he thought perhaps he had mistakenly entered her anus.  Her insides were so precisely dry, yet utterly frictionless.  Despite the lack of heat and liquids and the easy, epidermal sliding, there did exist a wonderful muscular resistance, each throb countered by a squeezing.  His part was being handled by the palm of God's large, masculine hand, wearing a glove of Eastern silk. It pulled the fluid from him, detached and floating to some unknown palace of procreative disposal.  There was no dramatic rocking back of heads, arching of backs, childish toe curling, or sheet cloth bunching between clenched fists.  Afterwards, there was no blind groping for tissues or sudden returns to sobriety and rapid clean-ups.  He was left with no masturbatory empty spaces or sweaty messes to contemplate.  There was only the continuing, unchanging sameness that he was rarely if ever aware of, in his made world of human platitudes.  And in that moment of quiet reflection, he believed and accepted and was.

 

<<>> 

    Like a dream, except that the body remembered.  This body memory was sharp, and with that he was mentally more.  He had drifted, apart from his will and volition, farther from the shores of who he used to be.  He could not return perhaps, but did not want to.  He had in a short, but seemingly infinite gap, severed the rope that bound him and thrown the paddles overboard.  He could not have done it without her perhaps.  Certainly now he was allowing himself to be carried along by her current.  She was a force of nature for him.  And that was all that was left for him in terms of companionship (true companions)—simply that, nature.  He was alone now, with only the play of nature to commune with.  Indeed, human society was all around him, but it had become indistinguishable from autumn leaves in the wind.  They were part of the movement and did not contain any special kinship.  He had drifted an insurmountable distance from the shore of security and belonging.  She was part of the wind that carried him.  He did not love her as a person, but only as he loved all things.  She was the cool, refreshing wind that ushers autumn to scorching summer; the frost that prepares the soft ground for coming snowfall of winter; the cherry blossoms that signal the onslaught of awakening, searching roots that break the winter ground to fertility; the hard rains that moisten the air before summer’s heavy saturation.

    He knew that winter had not yet come, as he stepped out of the hotel into the surprising warmth of the late morning, but it surely would.  The yet unfallen snow was ominous for those who chose to see it.  The birds would not be fooled into singing in the unseasonable warmth, and the masses would not yield to the temptation to leave their coats at home for the day, although they would most certainly brave far colder days of early spring in short sleeves.  He understood and accepted these inevitabilities, just as he knew she would soon leave him.  He worked the joystick on his handset, composing a mail to her as he navigated the busy street on instinct.  He was a part, just as surely as he was apart.  The mail’s contents were those of good tidings.  There were no questions and no answers—just as one stands on the mountaintop and greets a sunset.  Any answers to be given were already present.  They are not to be ferreted out.  Any questions were asked only for the beauty of the asking, and in deference to the eternal wonder of the unknown.  The water addresses only those who break the surface, but is there for all to marvel at.  And she was, after all, a thing of nature.

    John did not know where life would lead him from here.  His work, like his family, seemed to be part of a dream that he had awoken from, or a world that he had left behind in favor of a dream.  He wondered if he were neglecting his duty, his duty to the machine.  He knew surely that he would never successfully be a part of it again.  She had revealed this to him.  Once the lights had been turned on for him, he could not quit this new illuminated world.  All that remained for him was to learn to live amongst them, to taste of them.

    For the next two days, John kept away from work, roaming the streets alone, filling the blank pages of his journal with the mental highlights of his journeys.  He ate each meal at a different restaurant, consuming strange foods and keeping an ever-present eye to the comings and goings of the world around him.  Then, on the third day he emailed her, departing for the park even before receiving her response.  This time she took him to a different hotel.  They chose their room from a large automated display, pressing the illuminated button below the picture of the room they wanted.  Several of the buttons were not lit.  It seemed strange to John that so many rooms should be occupied at 5pm.  This time the room had two floors, loft-style.  There was a bath on both floors of the room.  From the first floor, one could see through the transparent bottom of the round tub on the second floor, which protruded from the ceiling like a great water orb of a chandelier.

    She had worn a tight, pink, long-sleeve top and a gray mini-skirt.  As before, there were few words, but her demeanor had changed slightly as they entered the room.  She slapped and pushed at him playfully.  She would have none of his doting body worship this time.  When he moved to touch her, she moved away.  “Yada!” she said to his reaching hands.  She refused to let him play the child.  He grew stronger, discovering a masculine dominance that he had not known he possessed.  The stronger he grew, the more adamant her objections.  They did not utilize the tubs; she did not bathe him.  He took her on the floor, hungrily, ignoring the wide bed, built for lovers.  They were animals now.  After, John dressed and turned on the TV, but she pushed him out of the room, still naked, angry, scorned.  But when he pulled her to his kiss on leaving, she returned it with a shocking fervor, then closed the door on him.  He stood tall outside the door with a guilty smile on his face.  He was high on the male ferocity and power that he had discovered.

    The next time, he took the initiative and brought her back to his apartment.  Three nights in a row she came to him, breezing into his apartment each time with a renewed freshness, ever as desirable as the first time.  When he awoke early one morning, she had vanished in her usual fashion.  On the floor next to his futon lay his journal.  He picked up the journal and let it fell open to a random page.  His penciled thoughts were smeared across page after page, like graphite chocolate:

 

Tuesday

    What I’m saying is this: do you know what it’s like to burn for someone?  Do you know what it’s like to need, but to be forced to pretend that you want?  When circumstances dictate that you must play the wanton.  Need is not to be suppressed, but you must try to tiptoe with that incredible weight hanging from your mid-drift.  Dance for her and the world.  It’s that or take, like a hungry, criminal stranger.  And I would, if it came to it I would!..Would I?  I carry the burden of my desire-laden weight like a drugged athlete.  To hell with introductions and justifications, I won’t scribble a epilogue in the top margin of the first chapter.  Let the story have its due, speak as if it was another who recorded it.  There will be no, there can be no, happy cause for an evil deed done.  Still, to tale a tale, or accurately depict an event, it is necessary to tell it completely…

    There I always was.  Always there in the 玄関, waiting when she arrived.  I would feign approaching steps and innocently appear when she opened the door.  You sly fox, if only she wasn’t indifferent to your expectations.  The memory still breathes…

    I drink her in with my eyes, video her movements, dress, expressions, the way her small frame brushes against the inside of her clothing…The genius of her creation is as apparent as the casual simplicity of her presence and the utter absence of her self awareness.  She played her character with perfection, because she was the character.  If there was a face under that magnificently crafted mask, it had long since grafted to the inside of her guise.  The removal of one would be the removal of the other, and no one can live without a face, can they?  I moved around her, sitting; standing; pacing; shifting.  She childishly applauded my dance with giggles and poses.  I circled her, a へんたい Papparazzi, snapping mental images with each blink, squirreling them away for the inevitable without.

    Then I moved in, brushing against her clothing, inhaling her angles.  I wanted…to remember the perfection of a moment, singled out in time—what we all want?

    I kissed her deeply, testing the depths of her pretence.  Bottomless.  I held her parts separately, firmly; examined them.  It was a labor of love, a love of labor, a composition.  I wrote epics and designed worlds on her silky parchment.  She was a living canvas for the authoring of my decline.  She was not mocking, indifferent, supportive, or flattering.  She just was, like the page.  I clung to her, engulfed her, tried to absorb her magic.  Tried to suck the marrow from the bones of innocence; tried to soil her allure, dilute the desire…

    By the end, exhilarated, spent, I clumsily attempted to curl up in her subtle curves, to find asylum from the weariness of living.  But then the blood stirred, I became large and strong, my body refusing to be tranquil.  She wasn’t surprised by the metamorphosis, she new the cycle.  It gave me an excuse to hate her, and in turn myself as well, but not until after.  I positioned myself for a renewed assault.  Kissing her apologetically as I moved in.  Then…again, attacking with white, pressing fingertips and hungry kisses.  The night was long and athletic, draining.  And always when she turned the corner and whispered, おやすみなさい, there I was, in the dark, wanting her again.  Her Saturday night silhouette, burned against the breaking dawn.

 

Wednesday

    She exuded youth.  Cute –innocent—untouched, forbidden, entombed in a Pandoran pleasure sarcophagi that tickle-tortured my fragile sense of right and wrong with electric titillations.  She was like a pre-teen, virgin cheerleader with the devil in her step.  She loved what she didn’t want.  Her body provoked and beckoned, while her face whispered sermons in virtue.  Her nails barbed the flesh of the body she fought against.  She demanded rape and accepted no imitation, insuring my angry/warped sincerity with her genuine refusals.  I know she wanted reassurance, but I couldn’t speak anymore than a man of religion could confess while he broke his way into heaven using the head of Jesus’ rigored corpse.  Confession=the futile knocking on the trap door of hell, while the devil in a school uniform sucks your dick.

    I grabbed at her, but gently.  I hated and venerated myself for the grabbing, for the bold success of it.  I loathed and worshiped my soul for the gentleness.  The contradiction forced me to accept all the blame, to be self-aware.  I was bound tightly by my own hypocrisy to the shreds of morality I used, to continue believing in my identity.  Still… I loved it, digging into her like fingernails in the dirt of a flowerbed.  I was hurting us both^~^I was damned AND blessed, like

                        Judas.

    She was an exquisite child wandering in a cool desert, turning the sand to pink, silk quilting under her feet as she walked, with a red sign written in a language she could not understand cruelly sewed on her back.  I was a righteous wolf slithering in the wood.  Plying her blissful ignorance with my devices, extrapolating the most tactical of translations from her crimson brand.  Zeroing in on her weaknesses.  Fating her fall (or mine).  She was the mother of my illness and the only refuge from the symptoms.

 

    John had not been to work in two weeks.  He had promised the head of his office a doctor’s excuse for his absence, one he knew he could not produce.  He didn’t care.  He cared only about her.  There were only 4 blank pages left in his journal.  He felt that the time for transition was drawing to a close.  He was anxious, but unafraid.  As a rule, words were seldom exchanged between him and her.  He had never addressed her by name.  Indeed he did not even know her name, and yet never thought to ask.  Still, his Japanese seemed to have improved by leaps and bounds.  He was confident in his daily navigations through the bustling city.  He no longer felt the need to share his world with anyone.  He had not contacted anyone from “home.”  The word seemed strange; he did not want to be identified by it.  He had written a short email from his cell phone email address to his mother, saying simply that he would be traveling and “out of touch for a while.”  He had not even thought about the fact that Christmas was only a week away.  He had attributed the increasing shopping traffic to the fact that the schools were letting out for winter vacation, opening their doors after the long, vacation-less autumn season.  John was surprised when his phone vibrated on the tabletop early on the morning of December 20th.  He had never received a mail from her without sending one first.  The mail said that she would be leaving the city.  He should take the train to Mino, a smaller city one hour into the mountains from Nagoya.  The weather had grown cold, and there was no doubt as to the prominence of the season now.  Winter reigned supreme.  John wore a sweater, jeans, and a long Burberry coat that he had purchased the week before.  His bank account registered a dangerously low figure when he stopped to take out a small wad of cash, on his way to the station.

    John stared silently out the windows at the vast, crisp mountain views as he rode the express to Mino/美濃.  Living in the city, it was easy to forget that small as it was, most of Japan was covered with uninhabitable mountain forests.  John was and was not surprised to see her standing on the platform when he arrived at the station, dressed in her gray school uniform, black bag slung over her small, coated frame.  They exited the station and took a bus to a small Japanese 旅館 Inn.  Standing outside, John could hear a blaring loudspeaker, an eerie voice calling, “Yaki imooooooo.”  The same words were sung again and again.  It was not a cassette, but an actual voice.  ‘Hot sweet potatoooooo.’  John flagged down the slow moving, small, white truck with loud speakers mounted on top, and approached the open back, where he purchased one large, blackened, piping hot sweet potato from the old man inside the truck.  He was small and frail in appearance, and it was hard to picture the mysterious monk-like voice as having come from him.  The potato was withdrawn from the heated rocks that it had been cooking on and presented to him wrapped in newspaper.  John returned to her and broke the large black and brown potato in half半。 Its bright yellow insides yielded a breath of hot vapor that rose up into the dapper afternoon, before dissipating.  The couple stood outside the small inn, taking careful bites from the steaming insides of their separate halves.  They did not look at each other, but instead towards the mist covered mountains, were it seemed a snowstorm was brewing, although the ground was as yet untouched by snow of this season.  The potato was warm and comforting in their ungloved hands.

    They were shown to their room by a kimono-clad woman, who shot John a disapproving look.  They adorned the robes provided in the closet and went to the separate men’s and women’s hot springs.  John spent the better part of an hour soaking in the outdoor rock bath.  He knew that this would be their last meeting.

    When he returned to the room, she was waiting.  It had grown dark outside.  Rice, miso soup, a piece of cooked fish, a few slices of sashimi, and tea were laid out on the low wooden table in the center of the 畳mat room.  The rice and miso were in black lacquer-ware bowls, while the cooked fish and sashimi were on low, rectangular kutani pottery plates.  He did not know where the food had come from, and she did not say.  He assumed she had somehow ordered it to the room from the hotel kitchen.  He was relieved.  He had been very hungry, but did not want to go to the dining room.  John did not want to share her with the probing eyes of curious guests and waiters.  She had also laid out the futons and other bedding from the closets.  They sat silently in their long cotton, kimono-style robes and ate together.  It was perhaps one of the simplest and best meals he had ever eaten.  He was acutely aware of how important atmosphere and company were to the taste of a meal, just as the feel of the lacquer chopsticks in his mouth was far different from the clink and grind of a metal fork.

    He spent most of the night holding her in the darkness, while she slept in his arms.  She was docile and vulnerable in his protective embrace.  John could not stand the ever-present thought of losing her, although she did not appear to show any outward signs of finality.  Their lovemaking had been soft, slow, and gentle.  Eventually, he drifted naturally into a light, dreamy, playful slumber.  He woke to the sound of the room door sliding closed.  The light of the just breaking, dark-blue dawn filtered through a few small holes in the rice paper shutter that covered the window.  Shadows of falling snowflakes played their pattern puppet show on every wall.  Her clothes and bag were missing, there was no sign of her.  John knew that he should let her go, but after a moment’s reflection he rushed out after her.

    The hall was dark and deserted.  He ran quickly in his robe to the end, toward the entrance.  Still in the inn’s indoor slippers, he rushed out of the front, and only, entrance.  Outside, the snow was falling in large flakes.  The mountains had been saving up for this moment, storing the white substance during the autumn amongst their many peaks.  Now the snow fell in large, crystal discs.  There was no wind, and the snow fell straight and slowly to the ground.  The yet thin layer of white on the ground in front of the hotel was untouched by human footfalls.  Where had she gone?  He could not understand.  Was there another way to exit the building?  Was she still inside?  He looked to either side of the front entrance.  To the left was a small parking area; directly in front was a circular drive preceding a two-lane road; to the right was a large field, set against the distant mountains.  The guest rooms’ windows looked out in this direction.  Trailing away from the entrance in that direction were small paw prints.  They seemed fresh, and led only away from the hotel.  As John watched, the tracks slowly grew less distinct, their shadows growing level and white, blending with the untouched snow.  Like a mirage evaporating before ones eyes in a desert, this was the desert mirage’s frigid cousin.  In the distance, there was a small shape, perhaps a cat, but longer.  John focused on the shape and perceived that it was a fox.  This was exciting, as he had never seen a fox before.  It was somehow more distorted than it should be on the white background it stood against.  As he focused harder, the image grew clear, it was only that it had been distorted by its natural camouflage.  Its coat was of the most brilliant gray.  The fox was facing in his direction, and John imagined that he could see the soft brown of its eyes glowing against the new winter.  He removed his right hand from where it was clasped tightly between his side and upper arm.  He held it open at shoulder-level and straightened his back slightly.  “Bai, bai…foxygirl,” he whispered.  The fox, paused, turned, then bounded off into the new winter morning.  John took one last, deep breath of the winter’s first air and turned back to the hotel.

 

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