by Nicolas Gattig
The air stalled during rainy season, ceased to move altogether. Not even the squalls that would come for weeks brought relief from the tropical choke, a lassitude numbing the days, damping the nights.
“What is the degree of her hesitation?” Shingo sipped his ice coffee. “On a scale from one to six, where is your friend?”
“Maybe a four…three point five.” At the Todai café, I sighed putting down the Herald Tribune. The pages were damp in the sun, weeping for American mistakes.
“It is typical of Japanese women. On the fence about love and food—everything.” Shingo smiled. “How do you know that she likes you?”
“She sends three am messages. Says she pictures me reading in a field, with a dog sleeping by my side.”
“Ah—she is falling. A cedar crashing in the American forest.”
“I just don’t want to hurt her. Seems like…there’s been a bad experience already.”
“Do not cause any suffering, sensei. Not in this awful heat.”
Among the students in my American Culture class at Hitachi, Shingo was the most outspoken. The other ones were like typewriters—you had to pound on them to elicit words. We sat in Shinjuku at lunchtime, watching office ladies and salarymen issue innumerably from machines of work, a steady stream checking spaces and steps, maneuvering, dodging, considering others. It was Tokyo, the mother of buzz. In spite of the constant hustle, everything appeared neat in a comforting way, a human Legoland fueled by a dreamless industry.
San Francisco is kicking and screaming when America invades other countries, and everything had become too much. The nation wounded and mean in its call for revenge, the anti-war rallies on Union Square and the sense of futility they engendered, as if the big awful thing we fought to avoid had been cut and dried all along, as if it were all just a farce, and then in the end, despite months of having feared just that, still the hammer of devastation when at dawn on March 20 an FM radio host bayed out, “It’s show time!” The next day at work I collapsed in the bathroom, surrendered and sick, a fool who had lost the whole stake.
Love it or leave it, so I left as soon as I could. Off to the East after graduation, to sit out the storm and regroup, to escape from the spasms of Empire.
Smoothing his nylon tie to get back to class, Shingo said matter-of-factly, “We Japanese are very careful with each other. We have to be.”
The most careful of them all was Megumi. She liked to go to the Emperor’s Palace and watch the turtles, the way they veered through the moat and sunned their shells on the rocks for hours. Every move that she made seemed measured, as if insensate objects like tables and chairs, even the air that her small frame traversed, could be easily dented or bruised. In the morning, fearing a sweatful dash through the station, she allowed two hours’ time to wake up and get dressed. In between smokes and two cups of coffee, she would brush her hair like a vision, her eyes gone in an inward focus.
Her plainness calmed, made me simple as well. I didn’t need to be special or brilliant, didn’t have to impress her friends; Megumi just wanted presence, as much as there was. I once asked her directly for the reason why she was with me, why she would ruffle her Zen with a man so upset about preemptive strikes and the ignorance of the masses, so at odds with the way the world was. The answer came promptly, though it was oddly without satisfaction. “Because you are kind.”
But if she was simple, why did Megumi hesitate?
She was holding back because I was too, because of the air-conditioned apartment and the things in her fridge.
The bellicose nature of current events had rendered my culture class awkward. As I lectured from the Stateside textbook how Steve and Rose Miller tipped the waitress kindly, watched the NFL Thanksgiving Classic with grandpa and lived, as a rule, like hard-working folks according to scripture and democracy, the war was the elephant in the room. No one called me a hypocrite, but as the students were taking notes and nodded without seeming to agree, as the occasional frown evidenced their unease about the land of the free, about deaths justifiable to the Millers, I sensed more and more that I failed to persuade. I dug in my heels with more helpless verbiage and finished the class soaked in sweat, another American hard at work, going about it exactly the wrong way.
The job included free stay at a guesthouse, a room with a futon on a matted floor, the entrance so low I acquired a guarded stoop. At times the whole house would note my return, my forehead kissing the cedar door frame like a cussing eight o’clock gong.
Nights had me lying awake in the heat, aching for a breeze to stir. I thought difficult thoughts about America and the show time in the Middle East, the machine-governed hell that my taxes unleashed sending missiles and tanks and bombs. I was afraid to turn on the TV—there were lies in there and dead people, sidewalks screaming and disemboweled. I couldn’t accept the America I was part of—the fact that, however conflicted, I had to share my country with others, a mass of unruly individuals desiring and scheming in countless directions and contouring America’s meaning, the sum of its deeds and effects, some so heinously wrong that I took to the streets with a crowd chanting “Not in my name!” and got arrested chained to a lamppost.
I didn’t know what to do with America. All I knew was I couldn’t go back. Remote in my peaceful exile, away from the tainted home and the orphaned limbs of Iraqi Freedom, I thanked Hitachi for the ticket to Legoland.
Between lotus root and sashimi, Megumi and I fell in love. Wordlessly, ineluctably, a vignette for the waiter to witness. The place was Shibuya, a candle-lit sphere revolving in the sky, looking over the urban expanse. Steel and glass where the eye could reach, dotted with lights that would shine on reports all night. Down a canyon of office space, a fenced patch of lawn held a dreamy escape, floodlit dots playing golf amid thousands of busy lives.
At the low wooden table, I tried for Megumi’s eyes and was drawn into hazel warmth. They were large but reserved, as if an anime character had been around the block and learned that cute things have to watch their backside.
The words, few as they were: a child of the eighties, now thirty-four and not married and thus marked in Japan as an ‘unsold Christmas cake,’ her boyfriend of seven years having copped out just before marriage. No family presence had cushioned the fall, no close friends or hobbies or healthy habits, but she had favorites such as bean-paste sweets and long silent drives through the city at night, and most of all watching DVDs, which she rented from a shop in her building. No Kurosawa but comedies from America, the sillier the better.
“When you watch TV alone, do you laugh when there is something funny?” Megumi looked out the window that reached to the ceiling, her eyes reflecting the neon outside.
“With old SNL, I might. But then…I might just think it’s funny and not laugh.”
Megumi nodded slowly. “Sometimes I laugh, but I wonder if it is weird. I don’t wanna act weird when I’m alone.”
“You watch a lot of TV?”
Again, the code of omission. Megumi’s eyes probed into mine, assessing reception, then decided to send a message full of deep emotion and thought, a telepathic appeal too private, too obscurely complex, to be entrusted to grammar and words. If only you knew, they appeared to say. And my eyes asked: what happened? A man of language, I had no means to decode, no clue what she tried to express. I just sat in polite confusion.
“Sometimes,” she said, at last.
We stalled goodbyes at the station entrance, till our lips met in impartial neon. Her face close to mine, Megumi whispered, “I want to be with you.” Halfway down the steps she turned round, looked up with a hesitant smile, then click-clacked along on her pumps, the bag from Hermes swinging softly at her side. Almost around the corner, she stopped and turned for a final wave, then made her way for the Ginza line back to Ueno.
For the first time in over a year, I was able to like myself. Afloat on the crush, a murmurous stream oozing home or on to more drink, I stopped at the curb with everyone else, then moved along when the others did. A new mass poured out from a passage, blocking the way to my station. No way to cross, so I let myself drift.
Around me the hum couldn’t shape any words, but there was a sense of communal cheer—men talking on cell phones, women sharing a laugh, perhaps comparing vacations and food or discussing the summer heat. There was comfort in sameness, and I wished to be smaller, less consequential, less ungainly overt in the mass of my six-foot frame. More than anything, carried off down the long avenue, I wished to hold on to the deep sense of peace. To that end I needed Megumi, to hold her and be there when she laughed watching movies.
The whole day had been nice. We had cycled to Ueno Park, where we fed senbei to the carps in the pond and walked around in the shade counting couples with dogs. Megumi said four, but one was a Chihuahua puppy, which I joked was an accessory, not a dog, and then Megumi asked what is an accessory and I said never mind, four. Now we headed for her apartment, my first visit there, three weeks after dinner in the sky over Shibuya.
It was a quiet street lined with cherry blossoms, and when I saw the DVD shop with the bins outside full of bargain VHS tapes, I knew this was the place. The cedar home pushed against a small graveyard, the balconies looking out over the rows of graves from where the smell of old wood and incense joined the odorant in Megumi’s bathroom. An old woman cleaned an obelisk headstone, drawing water from a basin into a bucket and scrubbing the granite with a rag. Beside some of the graves was a stand with carved bamboo slats clattering gently in the evening breeze.
She roomed with Doraemon, a robot cat from the 22nd century. He adorned sheets and mugs and the sliding door to the bedroom—the sole homey touch in a place otherwise bare, empty from a lover’s egress.
“When your coworkers know you like a manga,” Megumi said, taking off her sandals, “they all give you things with that character.”
“What does he do? Saving the earth from injustice and war?”
“He helps Nobita, a boy in the suburbs. He always has trouble and Doraemon helps him with his pocket of magic tools.”
“A blue cat with a propeller on his head. No ears.”
“Robot mice ate his ears.” Megumi was matter-of-fact. “Doraemon was so shocked, he turned blue and never changed back.”
The fridge opened to surrealist sprout. On the top shelf, toy figures of discolored plastic were stacked up on magazines, next to flacons of nail polish and make-up. The middle shelf was empty save for some napkins, but in the bins at the bottom, an old cell phone and charger were squished beside panties and balled-up socks.
“What the…?” Staring at the inedibles.
Megumi considered the fridge, her small forehead hardened. “It was empty always. It was getting waste of energy, so I put things in to save electricity.”
“How about food? Or would that be too strange?”
The machine hummed in the silence, cooling the socks and toys. “It goes bad. The store is my fridge now.”
Her eyes became glazed, withdrew inward, to the place in the past where a dark rain falls on abandoned apartments, shells of honest endeavors and clueless intent, where we lose people we desperately need, spooked forever by the ghosts we used to know and who knew us.
I asked him to leave because I loved him so much, much more than he loved me. It was too much for him. After that for a while I was crazy, it was so terrible. But then the terrible became smaller and now I’m getting forgetting.
Megumi checked on a recent addition to the bruises on my forehead, which somehow segued into love on the futon. Usually she was shy, held back in her delicate frame, but on this night she took the initiative. Her slenderness urged clumsily against me, but then, nearing climax, she suddenly stopped, as if to be spared what was imminent. Slipping away, she curved at the waist, as if attempting to disappear. Her fingers closed on the sheets, crumpling the cat robot smile, feeling for something, for a hold. Not a breeze stirred while she was softly shivering.
The night came in from the balcony, the well-tended graves, the metropolis beyond. I wanted to touch the shimmering back, but feared Megumi might crack into pieces. Breathing next to her in the dark and listening to what sounded like sobs, I sensed her gazing at the TV, the remote control and the air conditioner on the wall—the things she used daily in solitary rituals and now summoned for help. Pity flooded my stomach like illness. I saw that loving Megumi would make me a robot-cat hero, a vow to save her from the apartment whose deep silent grief was allayed by a surface of cute. A place where the void had a lived-in quality, where she watched too much TV and then coped with that life by stuffing the fridge with old toys, the place her ex-boyfriend, overloved and overneeded, had been asked to leave as Megumi couldn’t stand her own feelings.
Therefore: my hesitation.
“Japan has no secrets, not really. Everybody knows everything.”
At the Todai café, Shingo rattled the ice in his coffee. “Your friend knows without words, you wish to help but are afraid of the pressure. She doesn’t like it. She wants a partner, sensei, not a man who feels sorry.”
“Whatever she wants, she doesn’t speak. So how can I ever know anything?” I mopped sweat off my face, half-crazed by the sun and my doubts. Was this relationship just a delusion, a miscalculation I had indulged with the view to appease my guilt? Was I playing the global citizen, trying to atone for American aggression by consoling a lonely Japanese?
Outside in the scorch, the millions were flowing routinely. From the TV set in the corner: news from the show time. All I could make out from the commentary were the words overwhelming use of force.
A group of businessmen sat at the next table, veiled in cigarette smoke and cooling their faces with folding fans. At times one of them, an executive type in his fifties, yanked his head to the side with a crack. He motioned at the screen and made a comment sharp with derision. The others laughed, fanning themselves with new vigor.
“Thank God it is over,” said Shingo.
“What did the guy say that was so funny?”
Sensing the edge in my voice, Shingo looked at the executive. “He said that America understands freedom,”—his eyes turned down, apologetic—“but she does not understand peace.”
If I knew Shingo, he would next say politely it couldn’t be helped and it wasn’t my fault, just like Megumi kept saying it wasn’t my fault, and I would shrug and agree, politely, and go back to nursing the ulcers in my stomach.
“It isn’t your fault,” said Shingo, politely.
My chair scraped the wooden floor. Like a thundercloud aching for release, I went over to the business table. They wore vests and ties with their suits, expensive blue silk and hardly identical, and from up close I could see that the fans were sandalwood.
“Excuse me,” I addressed the executive in menacing English, my volume rising. “I am an ugly American who loves war. Explosions and pain, the gains to be made! You see, we like crapping on peace just for fun. Watch out, we may crap on your cute little house—where an ugly American cannot walk without crushing his fucking skull! It is toast, Sir. You know toast? White bread with hash browns and griddles?”
“Oh…my…god,” muttered Shingo as he pulled me outside by the sleeve, after I’d turned round and yelled at the executive, “You know nothing about America, assface!”
People crowded the shade of the awning, shunning the glare in the street.
“We can never come back here. The poor man was frightened!”
I was stunned too—about the vehemence of the outburst, the way I had meant to offend. For a moment I felt almost righteous, though I couldn’t have said about what. Shingo’s eyes on my face, I thought, don’t look at me, don’t look at me like that, please don’t make me strange. It was the same look as the businessmen, the same look as the cops back stateside escorting me to the van in my anti-war shirt and a badge on my cap that said EVILDOER. “Holding up traffic to stop war?” they had marveled, not so much angry as puzzled. I had felt like an idiot, like a person apart—absurd and incomprehensible. Perhaps it is me, I thought trembling on the Tokyo sidewalk, not a matter of place after all.
On a billboard looming over the crossroad, the skinniest white man alive modeled shirts for Giorgio Armani. Behind the window of the Todai café, a neck joint snapped sideways, regaining esteem. The men at the table returned to their news and cigarettes, fanning their faces and musing, perhaps, how the hell Americans figured somebody’s ass could be in his face.
The trees and the flowers had always known: we had to steer away from the city, take the Tobu-Tojo line to the suburbs and breathe the fresh air of Shinrin-koen. Among the Tulip poplars and impeccably clipped Japanese apricot, Megumi wanted to see the old gardens, the chrysanthemums grown with the Imperial technique. To mark the occasion she’d put her hair up on top of her head and pinned a chrysanthemum in the bun, smiling shyly in the haze when we met in Ueno.
I couldn’t believe what I was going to do.
On a train full of snoozing passengers, we came to a sudden stop after Wakoshi. An announcement came on in quick Japanese. I asked Megumi what had happened and she whispered with lowered eyes, “Human accident. Someone…jumped.”
“Down the line. Bullet train.”
I knew about human accidents. I had seen a couple of clean-ups, the awkward rush to efface the disturbance with lightning speed and efficiency, station agents swarming the tracks and lugging outside the long tubular tent that enveloped the human remains, every time when there went another one, another hardworking Lego opting out of the group, unauthorized exits into endless desire.
“Japan is suicide country,” Megumi said softly.
We got lost at the station, walking down empty, simmering streets until at last we could glimpse the gingko and the lilted eaves of the teahouse. Dragonflies zoomed over manicured lawns; the heat buzzed with cicada. The humidity was so dense as to beg for the imminent squall—guerrilla rain as the forecast termed it—but that couldn’t keep us from heading for the lily pond. We liked ponds, for they had turtles and carps that liked senbei.
“Still bad things happening?” Megumi misread my gloom when we sat on the deck of the teahouse. No use though to warm up the outrage: no more itemizing offences, no more analysis of the mess. Exhausted from all the knowledge that made me conscious and then cynical and then numb, I was about to commit my own outrage.
“You think I could become Japanese? I’ve been learning the language and when to shut up.”
“Good for you,” Megumi teased with a smile. “But maybe you cannot be Japanese. You’re too angry to be Japanese.”
“What about Mishima? He was angry, wasn’t he?”
“Mishima was crazy.” She peered up at my face. “I don’t like men…always angry.”
Without her intent I felt snubbed, but Megumi went on pensively, “Japanese did bad things in world war second. After that we became peaceful, and for us that is now Japan.”
For a while we sat silent, watching the rain on the pond. Carp darted under the duckweed, moving between the ripples. Two women stood on a footbridge arching to a little island, holding parasols with slender handles. Darkly, my mind was made up. I would soon leave Megumi, no rescuing here, not today, not from me. Sorry, wrong number—again. Over dinner the previous week I had snapped, “Not having fun here talking to myself!” and Megumi iced up in a terrified silence, not understanding what information I sought, unable to answer my questions. I saw that whatever love and enjoyment we had would sour in thwarted exchanges, and then in the end, fed up with filling in blanks, I would leave for a woman that shared my desire to talk, the belief that understanding needed words. The sooner I finished, the better: club the baby seal quick, before it yelps one more time that it needs you. Then the imperial order was to forget, to retreat to our separate apartments and find someone new with whom to make our mistakes, another accident that couldn’t be helped. Two months after Shingo’s advice, I had been careful as friendly fire.
“Kayui…!” Megumi’s calf was swollen an itchy red. “Poor my leg.” She was scratching around several mosquito bites.
Deeper into the park we came unto a field with a trampoline in the center, about thirty square feet of vermillion canvas. There were no children or anyone else. Ever the parentless child, Megumi wanted to try out the tarpaulin, just for a minute, and she asked me to come as well. In view of the upcoming heartbreak, I had no wish to be cute and get soaked. But Megumi insisted—and if you tell a small woman with big eyes and a flower in her hair that she can’t jump on a trampoline, you’re an ass.
We took off our shoes and climbed the short iron ladder. I checked the rebound with little hops, the cloth yielding under my socks. To my surprise, it held enough traction to lift me up and have grip coming down, propelled by my own momentum. I was aloft, reaching higher and higher, the view of the paths and the trees expanding. My shirt clung to my chest and belly, sweat mixed with the rain that kept thudding onto the canvas. The wetness was everywhere. Arms out for balance, I would squish and slip on the cloth, then scramble back up and keep going, deft as a merry spazz.
“You look funny!” Megumi squeaked with a giggle, pressing the flower to her soaking hair. “Like grasshopper!”
I saw the elfin shape bobbing across the canvas, the yellow skirt bought on sale puffing up over skinny legs. Aglow—woman happiness.
Our eyes met as our hands touched fleetingly in the air. In a place far away commands and beliefs were maiming each other, while somewhere near, in a letter of roundabout protocol, some next-of-kin heard of a human accident and was charged for the cleanup and delay. Impossible to accept the parallelism and the fact that I made no difference, spared by meaningless luck from suffering, giving presence to a woman hanging on. No one knew what might ever heal, yet I was enjoying this park and the bounce of the trampoline. All of a sudden I knew that today and tomorrow and till the end of the rainy season, I wouldn’t say what I had planned to say. Perhaps in love, I thought, the last line of defense is such—the final refusal to harm the beloved. But then again, there are many thoughts.
“It’s getting sunset,” Megumi said after a while. We stopped bouncing and got off the trampoline, and then walked back to the station in the dusk. The rain had ceased and a soft mist rose from the pavement, the sky shifting shape with the irresolution of clouds. Our clothes were soaked and Megumi, her dress clinging to her tiny breasts, kept eyeing the sky suspiciously. She said the mosquito bites had stopped itching, and asked, twice, if I liked curry for dinner.