“Amorometer” by Kelly Luce
A story about the the literal capacity to love
EDITOR’S NOTE by Jill Meyers
“Amorometer,” a story of mistaken identity, the hunger for the extraordinary, and the capacity to love, closes Kelly Luce’s debut collection Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail.
In this story, Aya Kawaguchi receives a letter that alters the direction of her life. The letter is from Shinji Oeda, a retired professor who’s seeking a former student. Decades ago, this student, Aya Kawaguchi, scored the highest of any test subject in his university-backed experiments on “lovingcapacity,” or the potential to love. He hopes our Aya in Iida, Japan, is this student. She allows him this hope.
Past middle age, her schedule and composure disrupted by her newly retired husband, Aya hungers for more life, more color, more possibility. She senses the potential rising within her: “She felt a long line of Ayas inside of her, ready to be called upon.” And she makes the decision to act, boarding a bullet train to Tokyo to meet Shinji.
Kelly’s stories often begin in a state of calm, among the everyday, but they are full of chutes and ladders into the fantastic. Her characters grapple with moments of trouble and metamorphosis. The metamorphoses here are sometimes violent, abrupt, and physical — Hana Sasaki grows a tail! — but, like in “Amorometer,” they can also be quieter, or involve subtler changes. What happens when a woman meddles with Anna Karenina, with identity, with memory?
We talk about unlikely objects a lot when we talk about Hana Sasaki — for obvious reasons. Many pop up throughout Kelly’s stories. There’s an oracular toaster, mysterious tsunami debris on a beach, a karaoke machine that very well could be haunted, and on and on. But the object in “Amorometer” is a little different. Shaped like a seismograph, and intended to measure how much a person is capable of loving, the machine may seem quaintly improbable. Measuring, quantifying “lovingcapacity”? What sort of sci-fi, 22nd-century shortcut is this?
And yet: the Times reported last week that reading literary fiction increases one’s empathy and emotional intelligence. That is, quantifiably. That not only are there measures for qualities such as these, but there are ways of bettering those numbers, improving our test scores. Maybe fiction is its own sort of amorometer, then. A strange object, capable of measuring, and training, our humanity.
We’re excited to share “Amorometer” with you, and to release Kelly’s odd, elegant collection into the world.
Co-director, A Strange Object
“Amorometer” by Kelly Luce
The letter arrived in a handmade envelope sealed with red wax. Flipping through the bills and junk mail, Aya Kawaguchi saw her name penned in perfectly shaped characters, tore open the seal, and read:
I feel I must bypass the convention of commenting on the weather as I begin this letter because a more pressing matter is probably concerning you, that of my identity and purpose. I write in the spirit of greatest hope, and am aiming to reach the Ms. Aya Kawaguchi who was a student of Keio University in 1969. If this is not she, please ignore this letter.
My name is Shinji Oeda, Professor of Psychology at Keio from 1960 until my retirement in 1991. From 1969 to 1970, I ran a series of experiments, the goal of which was to design and perfect a device — dubbed the Amorometer — capable of measuring one’s capacity to love. (Amor, of course, being the Latin root of the word “love.”)
In 1969 there were no departmental regulations regarding the debriefing of experimental subjects. I assume you had no understanding of our research, let alone the extraordinary gifts these tests revealed: of all the subjects (439 in total), yours was the highest score in lovingcapacity. In the empathy measure you scored an astounding 32 points — more than two standard deviations above the mean.
I must come to my point: I would very much like to meet you. As a widower of two years, I have found the companionship available to me (my tomcat and my memories) to be inadequate. The cat is unreliable and cantankerous, the memories often the same.
It may be true that regardless of a man’s age, there remains inside him a kernel of youth. As I have aged, my curiosity has not lessened, but has migrated from my brain to my heart. It is not such a bad thing.
With much hope,
P.S. This letter has taken me many years to write; the hypothetical results of my test on a Cordometer (cord the Latin root for “heart,” or “courage”) would likely be dismally low. I urge your quick reply, if possible.
Aya raised the letter up to the lamp at her desk, revealing the watermark. The thick paper, and the surprising space it created between her fingertips, made her feel somehow important.
She had never been a student at Keio University. Since marrying Hisao all those years ago, she’d hardly visited Tokyo at all.
She ran a fingertip over the seal. She imagined the professor dropping the thick wax onto the envelope’s flap and pressing his stamp there. She imagined the wool of his jacket and the creased leather of his shoes as he slipped out of the house, and the long, slim fingers with which he carried the letter to the postbox in his tasteful Tokyo neighborhood. Now that envelope was here, its wax like an exotic fruit, cut with a stranger’s name.
A stranger who believed her to be — what had been his word? — extraordinary.
She glanced at the clock above the stove. Hisao would be another hour, and dinner was already prepared. There was still some ironing to be done, but it could go another day. She brought the stepstool to the closet and brought down the box with the good stationery.
She set to work:
How nice it was to receive your letter, and quite a surprise! For the record, the rainy season has begun here, but I will spare you the details of the weather since, as you say, our correspondence is a strange one.
She reread her opening, then pulled out a fresh pink sheet and rewrote it, replacing “nice” with “lovely” and “strange” with “most unusual.” She continued, I have not thought of Keio in a long time, and I am delighted that you had the courage to find me.
She thought a second, then added, I’d think your readings on the cordometer would be quite high!
She sat up, aware of Hisao’s arrival. After all these years, the ritual of his entry was well-known to her: the yawn of hinges, the slam of the metal door like a detonation, her husband’s gravelly call of “I’m home,” not to her but to himself. The only missing element was the punctuation of his briefcase hitting the floor.
She tucked the letter in a drawer and sighed. It was just like Emiko had warned her: now that he’d retired, her husband was always underfoot. She’d had the run of the house from six in the morning to six at night for thirty-one years. Hisao was a good man, had provided a home to her and their son, but she never considered she’d have to spend this much time with him.
“You’re home early,” she said, standing to greet him.
“Driving range was packed,” Hisao grumbled. “Too many kids. This time of day, kids ought to be in school, or at work.”
“Mm,” she said. “Would you like dinner now? Or how about a cold drink?”
She glided toward the kitchen as he fell into his blue recliner. For as long as they’d been together, he’d come home from work, collapsed in this chair, requested food or drink. Now, however, he often wasn’t tired upon returning, and though he was still drawn by habit to the chair, he no longer looked comfortable there.
She put the finishing touches on her letter that night while Hisao slept, ears defended against his own snoring by green foam plugs.
I am flattered that you should recall me and would love to meet you, she wrote, and took another sip from the heavy glass into which she’d poured some of Hisao’s good whiskey.
She printed the name “Aya Kawaguchi” at the bottom of the letter, marveling at how much nicer this woman’s handwriting was than her own.
His short response arrived three days later.
I’ll open this letter with the weather in my heart, and tell you that the sky is clear and warm, and the quality of light is thick and sweet like honey! I am pleased and surprised (good news does not often come my way these days) that you are in a position to meet me. I could travel to your town, or, if you like, we can meet here in the “neon jungle.”
Thick and sweet like honey! Aya smiled, amazed that there were such people in the world. It was time, she thought, that she met them.
She told only Emiko, who’d divorced young and never remarried, about her plans.
“I’m not going to cheat on Hisao,” Aya said. “I just want to… bask. This man thinks I’m extraordinary. I want to know how that feels.”
“Oh, shut it! You’re a lovely woman.”
“Lovely, schmovely. I want to be extraordinary.”
Emiko rolled her eyes.
“Besides, the timing of it, with Hisao retired now and Ryo just moved out — it’s like a chance to reinvent. See what I’ve missed.”
“What if he’s rich and handsome?”
“He could be poor and crazy,” Aya said, but did not believe it.
“An amorometer! Whoever heard of such a thing? Wonder how I’d score.”
“Me too,” Aya said, recalling every selfish, unloving act of her lifetime. The time, as a teenager, she’d stolen an umbrella; the gossip sessions with Emiko that often turned catty; the way she’d stopped breastfeeding Ryo after two weeks because she couldn’t stand her raw, chapped nipples.
“Exactly — what if he can tell it’s not you?”
“I’ll come home,” she said.
“Only if he’s poor and crazy. If he’s rich and handsome, stick around.”
Their meeting had been set for noon on a Sunday on the top floor of Tokyo Station, in a restaurant famous for its view of the city. Though Shinji had repeated his offer to travel to her small town, Aya had insisted on coming to Tokyo. The person she was hoping to become could not exist in Iida; she could only transform with distance. And though it terrified her to think of herself lost on the streets of an unfamiliar place, she felt certain that once she arrived, she could be anyone she wanted. Anyone she might have been, had her life gone differently. She’d read enough books. She felt a long line of Ayas inside of her, ready to be called upon. The thought made her feel like an adventurer, and while Hisao was out golfing, she spent half the morning pawing through her closet, trying on clothes she hadn’t worn in years.
“Well, let me know what you find,” Emiko said as Aya went out. “And see if he has any single friends.”
She told Hisao she was joining a string quartet organized by an acquaintance of Emiko’s.
“Do you even remember how to play that thing?” he asked from behind his newspaper.
“Of course,” she replied, pairing a batch of socks she’d just brought in from the line. “It was practically attached to my hand in high school.”
“I see. Are you going to practice now?”
She couldn’t tell if he wanted to her to bring out the old viola, or if he was checking to see whether his newspaper reading would be disturbed. “Maybe,” she said.
He nodded, mumbling to himself as he read. Then he said, “But in Tokyo? Couldn’t you find a group closer to home?”
She continued matching and rolling the socks, never losing the rhythm of the work. “I don’t think so.” Then she paused and asked, “Do you think I’m extraordinary?”
He didn’t glance up from his paper. “You’re lovely, dear.”
The night before her trip, she went to her bookshelf. She never left the house without something to read, but her choice this time seemed of real importance. Finally her eyes fell on the dog-eared copy of Anna Karenina she had not read since Ryo was a baby. She slipped it from the shelf into her bag. The weight of the story on her shoulder felt significant; this was a long journey and required a long tale, but more than that, she felt the characters themselves would be good company for this other Aya Kawaguchi.
But if anyone’s hit by a train while I’m waiting, I’m turning around, Aya thought.
It took her a long time to fall asleep that night and she woke up twice, certain she had missed her train. At five o’clock she gave up and took a bath. At seven Hisao drove her to the local train station, where she caught a two-car train to Nishiyama, her connection for the Tokyo bullet.
Safely onboard the bullet train, she shifted in her carpeted seat and let Anna Karenina fall open to random pages. “There are no customs to which a person cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way.”
“He liked fishing and seemed to take pride in being able to like such a stupid occupation.”
Anna hardly knew at times what it was she feared, and what she hoped for. Whether she feared or desired what had happened, or what was going to happen, and exactly what she longed for, she could not have said.
She looked out the window. She took off her wedding ring, put it back on. The scenery flew by. She found she could relax her eyes and let the images blur together, or she could focus and pick out the elements: futons lolling from windows like tongues, cascades of electrical wiring, a rooftop rice paddy, a Coca-Cola billboard. Each thing was gone, replaced by something new, before there was time to reflect. No need to think on a train this fast, she thought. If I could stay on this train forever, I’d never have to think about anything again, and life would just be an exciting show of what’s passing by on the outside. It was a comforting idea.
Stepping off the train was like jumping into a river. She wandered through surging crowds in search of a place to store her viola, the case of which suddenly seemed unnecessarily bulky. Couldn’t I have said I was coming for a book club? she thought.
So many people. She was struck by the purpose with which all of them seemed to be moving. A ribbon of song caught her ear, and she turned toward a group of musicians performing next to a bank of ticket machines. They were college students, most likely — two violinists and a cellist. She laughed aloud at the coincidence, she arriving with the missing piece to the quartet and no intention of playing it. The tiny girl on cello caught sight of the instrument and tilted her head in an invitation to join them. Aya blushed and hurried past.
With the help of a young man who looked like Hisao in his younger, slimmer days, she located the day storage lockers and stowed the instrument. Then she headed for the escalators.
She wanted to arrive at the restaurant early. She’d read her book, drink some tea to calm her nerves. She looked at her watch: 10:03, one minute later than the last time she’d looked.
The escalator carried her out of the subway and into a multistory mall arranged in circles that reached all the way up to a huge skylight. The sky beyond the glass was gray yet still bright enough to be cheerful. On the seventh floor she spotted a cosmetics store and stepped off the escalator.
After consulting with the heavy-lashed girl behind the counter, who assured her the color was not too suggestive but rather “elegant and age-repelling,” she purchased a tube of red lipstick in a shade called “Shhh” that cost as much as a hardback book. The makeup glittered like a ball gown and felt like satin on her lips. This reminded her of bed sheets, and she pushed the thought away. Afterward, in the department store’s bathroom, she applied and removed the lipstick four times before reaching a compromise between herself and the other Aya Kawaguchi (who no doubt would have worn “Shhh” without compunction) and blended the shade with her functional chapstick. As a concession for toning down the lipstick, she removed her wedding ring. Then she washed her hands.
At the restaurant, she took a seat along the wall of windows and ordered a pot of tea. A light rain fell over the city, and in response the buildings and roads took on a fresh sheen and the colors of signs and cars brightened.
A moth on the glass caught her eye. It was unlike any moth she’d ever seen, its wings rounded at the top and pointed at the bottom. An indigo spot decorated each orange-rimmed wing.
She shifted uneasily. The spots on its wings made her feel she was being watched. Her mother said that deceased ancestors came to visit disguised as moths, and she didn’t want anyone she knew, living or dead, to witness her activity today. She shooed at the insect with her napkin, but it did not move.
She tried to ignore it and focus on Anna Karenina, but it was no use. She watched the action in the restaurant instead. The place was beginning to fill up. At eleven-thirty, half an hour early, Shigeo Oeda walked in — a dandelion springing from his lapel as promised. He was not as tall as she’d imagined, but his clothes were professionally pressed and fit him well. Emiko would have found him handsome.
But what do you think, Aya thought. Good-looking? Yes. His face was wide and mild, with gold-rimmed glasses riding atop a nose so flat it seemed a miracle the glasses stayed up at all. He sat across the restaurant, facing away from her. She admired his observation of table manners despite his lack of company, the way he placed his napkin in his lap immediately and sat straight in his chair, the warm smile with which he greeted the waiter.
She looked back to the moth. Its black, crooked legs moved slightly. A wing angled itself toward her. Abruptly she stood, cupped her hands over the thing, and closed them. She would carry it out into the mall, let its eerie eye-wings rest elsewhere.
The waiter had brought Shinji Oeda a small drink, which he threw back in one gulp, handing the empty glass back to the waiter. Emboldened by his nervous act, Aya walked toward the entrance, and him, the moth cupped in her hands. Its papery wings beat furiously against her palms. She would pass near his table, but since he didn’t know what she looked like, she would not be discovered.
As she approached, Aya watched his back, certain he could feel her eyes. His hair was cut very short, in an almost military style, and shimmered silver under the restaurant’s low-hanging lamps. His hair was like the rain, she thought.
She passed him, careful to walk neither too fast nor too slow, and went out into the mall. She shook the moth free. It flew toward the skylight. When she returned to the restaurant, she glanced automatically at Shinji Oeda and found his eyes on her.
Aya blushed. There was nothing to do but approach him. As she drew near, he stood, a smile spreading across his face as he took her in. “Oeda-san?” she asked.
“Please, call me Shinji. And you — you are the legendary Aya Kawaguchi.” He bowed deeply.
She bowed as well, holding the position so that she might catch her breath. His cologne reminded her of the forest behind her house.
His mouth was large, his smile a deep cradle. Up close, his gentle eyes and flat nose gave him the appearance of a woodblock print. “I saw what you did with that moth,” he said, and clasped her hands in his. “This is a great honor.”
Embarrassment washed over her. “The honor is mine. And please forget about the moth; it was quite silly of me.”
“Forget? Never! I suspected your identity just from that gesture — such a compassionate act, freeing an insect others would ignore, or even worse, kill!”
Aya was unsure what to say to this; luckily the waiter returned and pulled a chair out for her. “A drink, miss?” he asked as they sat.
“Yes, please,” she said. “I’ll have — ” She thought about Anna, and Russian aristocracy. “Vodka,” she said.
The waiter’s eyebrows twitched. “Rocks?”
“A few,” she said, certain that her order had been inappropriate.
Shinji slapped the table. “Vodka. Who’d have thought?” He grinned. “Make it two.”
Shinji leaned back in his seat, his second vodka nearly finished. They had chatted about a number of meaningless topics — the weather, food, and train travel.
“I have to say, I never thought I’d be having a drink — a vodka — with Aya Kawaguchi. For so many years you were just a set of data… my imagination was forced to extrapolate from there.”
Aya did her best to sound well educated. “Life takes all kinds of strange turns,” she said, finishing her vodka and enjoying the warmth it brought to her cheeks. “If you let it,” she added.
He leaned in and whispered. “Forgive me, but — how is it you never married?”
Aya had managed to sidestep this topic but knew it would come up and had prepared her answer. “I just never found the right man.”
He nodded as if he’d expected as much. “Extraordinary people have extraordinarily hard times.”
He went on, “I’ve wondered for so long… I know now that my imagination is a feeble mechanism. You’re so different from what I imagined — ” She glanced at him. “So much better,” he quickly added.
She began to relax. “You haven’t told me about your research. I have a right to a debriefing, I think.”
“Simply put, we found a way to quantify a person’s ability to love. Their potential. It turns out that not all people are capable of loving to the same capacity. The idea was revolutionary.” He leaned forward, touched her hand. “Imagine being married to a person whose ability to love — whose lovingcapacity — is far below your own.”
As he spoke the word lovingcapacity, he tapped out the syllables with two fingers on the place her wedding ring had recently been.
“From their perspective, a person may be loving to their fullest extent,” Shinji continued. “However, this isn’t good enough for the partner with the higher LC. It will never be good enough. This causes the lower-capacity partner to feel inadequate, unappreciated, and their partner feels the same because, to their mind, everyone should love as they do.”
“Can’t people be made to understand, to accept their differences?”
“Perhaps. But it is very hard for people to truly understand. We have, it turns out, a tremendous blind spot when it comes to being loved.”
“And people can’t improve?”
“Our research generally showed lovingcapacity to be a fixed and immovable trait, much like eye color or IQ. Of course, when it comes to the mind, one can never be sure.”
“I can’t believe I did so well,” she said, and just then the waiter arrived, balancing two large lunch boxes and a platter of drinks. As he set Aya’s box in front her, a glass of cola slid from his tray and crashed onto the table, splashing Aya and dousing her pork cutlet.
The waiter fumbled, apologizing, and promised to bring a new lunch. Aya grimaced at the idea of wasting so much food.
“There’s no need,” she said, dabbing at her shirt with her napkin. “I’ll eat it as it is.”
“Please, ma’am — ”
“Really. Maybe you could discount the bill a bit instead.”
The waiter bowed, his face as red as “Shhh,” and hurried away.
Aya took a bite of her cola-flavored cutlet; she was starving and the vodka had unloosed her appetite. Not bad, she thought. When she looked up, Shinji was looking her, his face shining. His food was untouched.
“Amazing,” he said.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said, secretly pleased. “So tell me, what became of your findings?”
“In the autumn of 1970, we lost our funding. The government classified our work as ‘unscientific and possibly dangerous.’”
“Some people felt we were meddling in a place science ought not to meddle. A real shame, since long-term research is by far the most robust in fields like this.” He made a small motion with his hand, and a minute later two more drinks appeared.
“Well, I’ve prattled on long enough,” he said, raising his glass. “Let’s hear about you. From the beginning. What did you study at Keio?”
She clinked her glass to his and took a long sip of her vodka. Aya Kawaguchi was a woman who could hold her liquor. “Literature,” she said. “My first love was Soseki.”
“Kokoro,” he replied, naming the author’s first novel. As he said it, he placed his hand over his heart. “Maybe that is why your kokoro is so big.”
“Or maybe my big heart is what drew me to Soseki.” She was feeling more and more comfortable, as if lying about her identity had rolled out the red carpet for other untruths to follow.
He sighed and sat back in his chair, smiling. “I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be around a Keio girl. Don’t you miss city life?”
He focused on her completely as she spoke, his eyes wide, like a child watching a fireworks display. She felt — interesting. Extraordinary. “Well, college was a wild time,” she said, as if admitting something. “I didn’t always make it to class, let’s just say that.”
“Well now, do tell!”
“Oh, no. Well, for one thing there was the band — ”
“The marching band?”
“No, a rock band. Punk, really. I was the singer.”
“Ah — I played clarinet, myself.”
She nodded, slipping inside this invented life like a pair of old pajamas. “We were called Shards of Black, and we wore only white, to be ironic.”
While he was laughing, she excused herself and went to the bathroom. Hisao had left a voicemail, a habit he’d acquired recently.
She returned his call, explained to him the significance of the toaster oven sitting on the kitchen counter, what each knob did, and how long to leave the bread inside. He didn’t mention her quartet practice, which she found annoying, but when he asked whether she would be home for dinner, his voice stirred pity in her. She imagined him eating burnt toast — plain because he did not know where to locate the butter and jam — and she could not say no.
Upon her return she found Hisao sitting on the kitchen floor, surrounded by a mess of bottles, boxes, and cans.
“What are you doing?”
“Rearranging,” he said, examining a box of fish stock.
He looked up, irritated. “For greater efficiency.”
“You don’t even cook.”
He shrugged. She stepped over him and picked up the whiskey.
“Since when do you drink?”
“Since now. Why do you seem to think life is over, that it’s too late to try new things?”
He motioned at the mess around him. “I am trying new things.”
A letter from Shinji arrived two days later. He must have mailed it while I was on the train ride back, Aya thought. In the letter he thanked her for coming to Tokyo and expressed his excitement for their next meeting, the next Sunday in Ueno Park. He closed with a line from Kokoro, the Soseki novel they had discussed:
Words uttered in passion contain a greater living truth than do those expressing thoughts rationally conceived …
She reread his letters each morning and began the day feeling like a plant just watered.
Autumn had set the trees in the park aflame, and Aya felt she’d never experienced such richness of color, even in the rural forests of her hometown.
He had bowed to her upon their meeting, a good sign, she thought, since a hug would have meant something she was not quite ready for. His face searched hers in a way it had not upon their first encounter, like a connoisseur reevaluating a painting that’s been placed in new light. She thought it might be her lipstick: after locking up her viola, she’d applied “Shhh” without blotting it afterward.
His unsure manner disappeared quickly, and Aya wrote it off to nerves. Her suspicion was confirmed when, after just a few minutes of walking, he grabbed her hand. “I want to show you something,” he said.
He led her out of the park, through a shopping area, and into a quiet neighborhood of old houses and narrow lanes. “This is my house,” he said, and they stopped in the street. “Don’t worry,” he said, seeing her expression, “I’m not indecent. After all, we hardly know each other!”
She followed him down a narrow path behind the house. He kept glancing back, as if to make sure she was still there. A tiny shed stood in the yard, and when they reached it, he began unlocking it. There were four locks in all.
“Here we are,” he said, pushing open the door.
Aya stepped inside the dim little room, which smelled of wet wood and plastic. A large table, which held a device resembling a seismograph, took up most of the space. It was not a room built for company.
“This,” he said, throwing out his arm like a magician, “is the amorometer.”
The central component of the contraption was a metal case painted red. Inside the case, a needle hung poised over a thick roll of paper. Two leather cuffs, one large, like a belt, and one smaller, the size of a blood-pressure cuff, dangled from the left side of the box. Rising behind the box like a crown was a clothes hanger — also painted red — that had been forced into an awkward heart shape. It looked like something Ryo would have built with scraps from the neighbor’s trash.
“I was hoping you’d be willing to, well, provide some new data. A longitudinal study, if you will!” He set his hand lightly on her arm.
“Ah!” She imagined herself cuffed to the device, the evidence of her fakery pouring forth, and shuddered. She sat down.
“Are you all right? Is there something you need?”
“I’m just not — ”
“You see,” he said, opening and closing a clamp full of tiny metal teeth, “this way I can be sure … we can be sure …”
She thought of her lipstick, and touched a finger to her mouth, as if testing a wall one had regretfully painted.
“I think I should go,” she said.
Her train wasn’t due for over an hour. She wandered the fluorescent underground corridors of the station, passing shops advertising souvenirs for places elsewhere — blackened eggs from Hakone, tiny limes from Shikoku, habu liquor from Okinawa. She wondered how many of the gifts she’d received over the years had come from places like this. Was everything so false?
She heard the music long before she saw the players; it came from nearly the same place as the first time, next to the ticket machine for the Hibiya subway line, which, she’d learned from Shinji, was the deepest subway in the world. If you stood at the bottom of the Hibiya escalator, it was said, you could feel the heat of hell and see the light from heaven.
She looked at the spot the quartet-minus-one had been a week before but found it empty. She followed the melody with her ear. It was coming, she realized, from beyond the ticket gates, rising up the escalator.
She made her decision at once; or rather, she reflected later, her heart had made it for her — a luxury she had not allowed herself in many years. Inside the stall of a nearby bathroom, Aya flipped the latches on her viola case. She lifted the instrument from its bed and, drawing the ancient bow across the strings, began to play.
The strings were old; the A and G were frayed along the bowline and she worked the tuning pegs, cradling the wooden body to her chest. Shoes clattered on the disinfected floors, doors slammed, and hands were washed, and for once in her life, Aya did not care who observed her. These women were strangers, yet they shared this city; maybe some had been students at Keio University, maybe the other Aya Kawaguchi was in the stall next to her, pants down. The thought made her laugh, and without realizing what she was doing, she began playing the solo she’d performed her last year of high school, the first movement of Shubert’s Arpeggione. Heady, she watched her fingers land on the strings, and though the B was falling out of tune already, her rhythm was dead on.
It wasn’t perfect, but she felt it was good, and if she practiced, it could be marvelous, better than it had been in school because everything she had lived through would go into the music. She was no longer a girl. Her fears and desires were known and did not bind her. She hit the final notes with this in mind, standing alone in the corner stall of the women’s bathroom near the Hibiya Line in Tokyo Station, and when she was finished, a small clap echoed against the tile walls, and a second later more applause joined it. Aya lifted her head. She bowed to no one, then started from the beginning, thinking how the beady-eyed judge had nodded, even smiled, and said: “That was good, but let’s hear it again.”