AN INTRODUCTION BY E.G. COSH FOR STORYOLOGICAL
It’s Christmas, and I’m at the family gathering of my partner, Chris, outside Nashville. The table is edge to edge with butter, sugar, and pecans whipped into numerous formations. As a Londoner, I’m getting an education in Southern U.S. food, and loving it. I meet cousins, aunts, and uncles, a mostly blind cat, and a once obese but now slender and Instagram famous King Charles spaniel. In meeting one cousin for the first time, we get to talking about the podcast Chris and I make, Storyological. In each episode, we choose short stories to revisit and discuss. But, for us, Storyological is as much a celebration of what it means to have stories as a constant companion in our lives.
The cousin gets a kind of a glow. In between preventing her three-year-old from destroying the glass table, the Christmas ornaments, the spaniel, and her other children, she tells me about the beauty of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s fiction, work she has discovered in part thanks to Yoshimoto’s translator, Ann Sherif.
We come home to London. An undeniably fabulous place to live, but also five thousand miles away from so many people and a way of life we love. In the post-trip, jet-lagged, low-hung gloom of London’s winter I hunt down Lizard, Yoshimoto’s collection, and it is the last story, the one reprinted below, that sticks to my heart.
It is, in part, a story about making peace with the flow of your life, with the decisions you make and the lives that you visit, but don’t settle into. It is a story that knows peace-making requires strength, and presence, and deeply engaging with yourself and what it means to change.
I came away from Yoshimoto’s tale thinking about how change is really only possible when we allow fresh stories into our understanding of ourselves and others. About how joining a new family opens us up; to sharing stories, to hearing stories, and to the stories that we create together.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed discussing it. And that some part of this story sticks to some part of your heart, too.
A new edition of Lizard is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic in fall 2018.
Love After the Sex Party Circuit
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“A Strange Tale From Down by the River”
by Banana Yoshimoto
When, exactly, did my sex life get so wild? I honestly can’t remember. I do know that I tried absolutely everything. I did it with women; I did it with men. I did it in groups. I tried it outdoors. I tried it in foreign countries. The only things I steered clear of were tying people up and getting tied up, getting high on drugs, and necrophilia. That kind of stuff gave me the creeps.
In the end, I realized that sex isn’t that different from any other pastime. You have your people who are rank amateurs at sex, and others who are masters of the art. Some people think of nothing else, while others merely dabble in it. A few approach eroticism with the loftiest of motives, while others might as well be rolling around in the gutter, they’re so base. Like people who are fond of sitting at a pottery wheel and making ceramics all day, or baking bread, or playing the violin, you can get hooked on sex and never, ever let go. Of course, I’m not saying that devoting yourself to sex is comparable to more noble ways of occupying yourself, only that some people get involved with sex the same way they might with any other hobby, high or low.
Everyone has her own michi, or path in life. People live to find their own michi. That’s certainly what I’d been searching for. I thought that I could use sex as a means of forging my own way. I enjoyed doing it in different settings with different people and experiencing so many different emotions. That’s what it all meant to me: the delicious sensations of pleasure that I shared with them, those hours of ecstasy when I felt my body melt into my soul. The clear blue sky threatening to expose me, sunlight, glistening green leaves. The day-time hours, which only reminded me of how much I had to hide from the night before.
But my intention here is not just to write about sex, because, in the end, I think I got into it as a matter of chance, because I had lots of energy, and not because I was particularly cut out for sex. It could have just as easily been something else — ceramics, cooking, or music. I will admit that I craved the feeling of liberation, the release, and loved the anticipation and excitement when we experimented with entirely new ways of making love, and the intensity of desire that drives you to the edge. Sex turned on a switch that made me feel the mind-body connection.
It was when I came down with a liver infection that I had to quit going to the sex parties. That’s the real reason I gave it up.
After my health improved, my father helped me find a proper job as a secretary at a computer programming firm. Sometimes when I was talking with my new friends at work, I’d wonder if perhaps I did have some special talent for sex after all. I used to be so totally involved in sex that it never even occurred to me that I might be different. But I had done it so many times that I guess I could be considered an expert. None of the other girls my age seemed to have much sexual experience, and the way they talked about it struck me as childish and naive. My past had equipped me with a certain degree of confidence.
And then I met my boyfriend. We’d known each other for a month before we first went out (that was about a year ago). From the first date, we got along real well.
He worked at one of the firms that my company did business with. He had one brother, who was quite a bit older. Their father had passed away in July, and my boyfriend’s brother had taken over the family’s business. In fact, we met at his father’s funeral, which I attended in my boss’s place. The ritual moved me tremendously. People had told me what a dignified, splendid man the president had been, how he had run his business innovatively and with integrity. I had also heard that his employees loved working for him.
When I saw the many people who came to pay their last respects, I knew all these stories must be true.
The funeral came as a revelation to me. Everyone willingly set aside quarrels from the past and came together to lament his passing and express their grief. Utterly sincere in their sadness, all of the mourners prayed for the repose of the deceased. The whole thing was almost too beautiful, the birth, life, and death of the man portrayed as totally sublime. For those few hours, the deceased and everyone who knew him were forgiven and forgave.
The floral wreaths looked elegant, and all of the offerings suggested great care and sensitivity. The priests chanted the sutras with dignity and solemnity, and I could sense a feeling of unity among all the mourners, who were glad for the opportunity to commemorate his life. The only times that I had ever experienced such a circle of energy in a gathering of people — although it may seem irreverent to compare the two occasions — were the orgies with my favorite friends.
At the funeral, the man who was to become my boyfriend escorted his mother, who, despite her advanced years, was as distraught as a young widow might have been. Everything about her black garments and her manner bespoke the depth of her grief. I could sense the beauty, if that is the correct term, of their love for each other, as well as her resignation in the face of her husband’s death.
He stayed at his mother’s side constantly, like a shadow, and the black of their funeral kimonos seemed veiled in their grief and powerful determination to make it through the day. I couldn’t keep my eyes off them, and continued to watch, through every stage of the ceremony, from the lighting of the incense to the removal of the coffin from their home.
A bewitching field of energy seemed to surround the pair, energy that took the form of a group of people who had joined together to speak praise of their late husband and father’s life.
I was not being subtle about my attraction, and he noticed me early in the day. Each time our eyes met, I wanted so badly to say something to him, to comfort him.
I knew that he was barely older than me, but he carried himself with such maturity and dignity throughout what must have been one of the most trying days of his life. I wondered if I could have done the same. I could sense how alone, both spiritually and socially, he was feeling, despite the crowd of friends and relatives right there with him. I also felt that only I could truly understand his emotions that day, and also, in some sense, that I already knew him and loved him. I didn’t want to leave, but finally I went over and bowed stiffly to the family before departing. I really, truly wanted to see him again, and felt certain that I would.
And, of course, I did. Not too long after the funeral, he called and asked me out.
He proposed sometime later, during dinner at his place.
“I was wondering — would you consider marrying me?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied, just like that.
His apartment was on the second floor of a building that overlooked the river, so close that when the windows were open you could hear the water flowing. If you stood by the window on a windy day, you could even smell the muddiness of the river below, and, at the same time, see the glittering lights of the city reflected in the water, and the moon lingering in the sky above. At the beginning, I walked along the riverbank every day, headed toward his apartment, as if I would never return. We only saw each other once a week, but sometimes I would stay the night at his place. Before long, I found myself going directly from his place to my office in the morning.
I always listened to the voice of the river, saying to me, “I flow along endlessly. I am constant.” Those murmurs engulfed me, like a lullaby, which soothed me and my anxiety about our love.
I actually felt somewhat uneasy about the fact that he lived in such a large, fancy apartment. After all, he was still in his twenties. It wasn’t as if I were unused to comfort: my father was also a company president, small though his business was, and I had gone to a private girls’ school where success was guaranteed. You could call me a princess, I guess. All the same, I felt somewhat taken aback by his uncompromising love for “true beauty” and his ability to own such objets.
After he’d moved in, he had taken care to select every single piece of furniture and fine china in the apartment according to his own taste, such as it was. It seemed so overdone to me that, if it hadn’t been that particular apartment by the river, I might have been intimidated by his fastidiousness and fled. But he wasn’t weird or anything. I came to understand that it was the view from his window that had attracted him to the apartment in the first place — those big windows, and the river. The river was the core, the center of the apartment.
The window framed a fantastic, dynamic scene outside, like a living picture. Boats chugged by; the streetlights and buildings lit up as dusk crept over the city. The river made music to fill those rooms.
He had been able to capture the powers of nature so evident in the river, and bring them into his home, as one does with bonsai. It was fascinating to me how he had conceived of the vitality of nature and its competing forces as interior design. He had had nothing to do with making the scene outside his home, of course, but rather his possessions and the location of his home, on the riverbanks, complemented each other. Creating a harmonious space seemed to have been his plan, and an indication of his spirit. Everything in the apartment was him.
I wanted to live in this apartment, because I sought to become part of him, and his home, and part of the timeless space there. As I stood by the open window, and felt the chill of the wind blowing off the broad river, I longed to blend into that scene.
“I knew you’d say yes,” he said. “But, I’ve got to tell you, I’m kind of concerned that whoever gives the toast at the reception might stand up and say, ‘It was love at first sight when they met at his father’s funeral.’ It sounds like an inauspicious beginning, don’t you think?”
“You’re right, it does. But people don’t always have to spell things out exactly as they happened. I’ve heard all sorts of lies at my friends’ weddings.”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it. If it’s okay with you, then, I’ll go and have a talk with your parents soon. I have to ask for your hand, don’t I? Maybe I’ll go right away.”
I felt overjoyed to see him so happy.
“Why don’t I call them and tell them? They’ll be so excited for us. I know they will. I think you’ll like them,” I said, smiling. “Plus, they already know that I have a boyfriend, and they probably assume that there’s something serious going on anyway, considering my age and all. Don’t worry.”
If there was something to worry about, it was that an important piece was missing from my life. Even though I would literally throw myself into things, I was eternally skimming the surface, never truly hearing or seeing the substance. All along, I’d look for surface beauty to hide the emptiness. But perhaps that’s what hobbies are for, in the final analysis.
I think there was also a big hole in my boyfriend’s existence as well, although perhaps for a different reason. That’s probably why there was a place for me in his home. Although there are many married couples like that, I found it unsettling that it was so patently obvious to me.
I knew that I was at home there, because the river flowed by outside the windows.
Somehow, I could never feel at ease. I felt so blue all of the time, always distracted and thinking about someplace else, far away. And I constantly had the sound of the river on my mind, whether I was eating lunch, or changing my clothes, or sleeping, or drinking coffee in a bright room flooded with morning sunlight. I felt as if I had forgotten something important, that there was something I should regret.
Those parts of me merged with the apartment and the view from the windows, and took on a life of their own. The ones that accepted me, him, and the windows and the river.
“But it’s such a famous, wealthy family. How are you going to fit in?” my mother asked.
I hadn’t been home for quite a while. As I expected, my father didn’t raise any objections to the marriage. My older sister and brother were both already married, so he was used to it. In fact, he hardly seemed to notice what I told him, and went out to play mahjongg with friends, leaving Mom and me alone in the living room. My older brother and his wife had gone to a party somewhere, and weren’t home either.
My parents had a lovely home in an upper middle class neighborhood, like something out of a magazine. Everyone lived the same kind of life there. Only I didn’t quite fit in, even though I was from the same mold.
Mom went out to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses. She’d been saving the wine for a special occasion like this, she told me. After I’d had some wine and was feeling fairly relaxed, I confessed my conflicting feelings.
“It’ll be fine, though, I’m sure. He doesn’t have any big family responsibilities. He can spend his time any way he pleases.”
“I’ve always had the feeling that’s what you’d like, and it turns out to be true, doesn’t it?” Mother said.
“What do you mean?”
“That you’ve always seemed a little out of touch with reality. You’re such a dreamer, Akemi! But I have to admit that of all the kids you were always the best about helping around the house and taking out the garbage. You never even complained about having to walk the dog. I don’t know — on the one hand, I feel like I need to shake you and tell you about the realities of marriage. It’s not just some pretty dream, you know. But maybe you’ll do okay. Plus — I know this may sound a bit crass — but it makes a big difference if you don’t have to worry about money.”
It was exactly what I had expected her to say, and I loved her for it.
My father didn’t fool around with other women, but he did spend most of his time apart from my mother, with his ceramics collection. He had gone through all sorts of money buying pots, sometimes at outlandish prices. According to Mom, if Dad hadn’t had his ceramics, he certainly would have had lots of girlfriends instead. She was no fool. That’s why she let him putter around with his pots and tea bowls.
My mother didn’t mince words, and I imagine she was right about Dad. Compared to my boyfriend’s father, my dad was not cut out to be in charge of a company. He was too sensitive and kind for that, but he still had to make big decisions and decide how much his employees would make, so he needed his hobby to keep himself sane.
Hobby. Somehow this seems to be a key concept, in my childhood, and in my whole life.
“I think you have your head screwed on right, but you also seem unsettled, as if you could fly away any minute. Maybe that’s because you were born by the river,” Mom said.
“What? What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. You were born by the river.”
“That can’t be. I always thought you had me in a hospital in Tokyo,” I objected. I knew that my brother and sister had been born in the same hospital.
“No, I never told you about that?” Mom said. “I had you in a small clinic in the town where I grew up. Your father was having problems with his business at the time, and he and I weren’t getting along well either. I was very depressed, so I went back to my parents’ home to have you. Their house was right by the river, and you could see the water and the dike from my room.
“I threw myself into taking care of our home and you kids when Dad was away so much. I just wore myself out. By the time you were born, the most I could manage was to sit and hold you and watch the river go by. I think we spent about six months there, until Dad came to take us home. I was so lonesome.”
Surprised, I said to her, “I had no idea, Mom. . . . Did you ever think of jumping into the river and taking me with you?”
“Absolutely not,” she answered, laughing to herself. Then she looked at me and smiled, without a trace of ambivalence.
“No, I was never that desperate. I spent most of my time thinking, because I didn’t have enough energy to do anything else. I’ve never been so calm in my life, before or since, as I was then. You know, I’d just sit there, trying to remember the name of the red flowers on that tree over there, or wondering what the old man who came down for a walk by the river each day was thinking about when he stood there, staring into the water. Everything about the place was so familiar to me since I’d grown up there, and it reminded me so much of my childhood days. I suppose that I needed that time at home. It wasn’t so bad.”
There’s something she’s not telling me, I thought. She was presenting her memories of those days so elegantly, and portraying herself in such a positive light. I stared at my wineglass, unable to listen any longer.
Sometime later, after we’d become engaged, I received an interesting phone call at work. It was a winter evening, around five o’clock.
“Is that you, Akemi?” It was a woman’s voice, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell who it might be. “I understand that you’re going to get married.”
Finally I recognized the voice. It was a friend from my old life, a well-to-do married woman.
“That’s right, I am,” I replied.
“I just happened to run into K, and he told me. Do you still see people from the old group?”
“No, I got sick and gave that all up,” I said with a laugh.
“Well, your body is your most valuable possession, after all!” I could hear her laugh on the other end of the line.
I’m the type who doesn’t keep up with old friends. Like when I entered middle school, I stopped playing with my pals from grade school. It’s too much of a bother to do so many things at once.
And in the case of those particular adult friends, we would hardly even say hello to one another in public because it was too embarrassing to acknowledge them in the light of day. That’s why, once I stopped going to the parties, my relationships with them ended. Significantly, I barely even missed them at all.
I felt somewhat differently about this particular woman, though. If anyone else from those days had phoned, I probably would have hung up on them, or just listened, and not very politely at that. I was glad to hear from her, though, and happy that she had remembered me.
She was, of course, one of our group. She was staying at a cottage in Karuizawa one summer, and put out the word that she was looking for a companion, a sensitive, caring woman who didn’t need babysitting. I hadn’t met her before but decided to join her anyway. I stayed with her in Karuizawa for a week, and then we left for a two-week trip to Hokkaido, leaving behind her husband, who was occupied with a mistress, anyway. I hadn’t seen her since, and it had been five years since I’d spoken with her.
“I just wanted to congratulate you.”
“Thanks so much.”
“Once you’re married, you can’t be active the way you used to be. You know that, don’t you? There’s something so special about you. I hope you don’t mind me saying that.”
“What do you mean, something special?” I asked.
“When I was with you, I just knew that I was safe. And it always seemed so fresh, like something new was going to happen at every moment. How can I describe it? I don’t know — a feeling of anticipation, maybe? New possibilities?
“Remember our trip to Hokkaido? I really didn’t feel like going, but I had a great time anyway. You have the ability to create your own little world — Akemi’s world — and that will never change. And I enjoyed just watching you, like watching a movie. I felt comfortable with you, and I didn’t have to do anything, just sit there. I felt drawn to you. I didn’t want to let you go. I really wanted to hold on.”
She spoke slowly, choosing each word carefully. “So even I couldn’t make you happy,” I said.
“Happy? I don’t think of life in those terms. I had a good time traveling with you, I really did. Is there anything better than that? It’s a blessing to have a spark in your soul, something wild,” she continued. “But you can’t behave like that forever. You’re not a child anymore, and it’s not becoming in an adult. Plus, you’ve got to be careful about AIDS. You have to know when to quit.”
“I’m glad you called.”
“I wish you all the happiness in the world,” she said. That was it. We both knew that she’d never call again.
I still had vivid memories of our days together. The first time we met, she looked me over with the utmost care, not critically, but as if she were appraising me. She had greeted me at the door in her bathrobe. I had on a black leather jacket and jeans. I didn’t know exactly how long I’d stay, so I had packed a big overnight bag. In fact, it was my favorite Louis Vuitton satchel, made of green snakeskin. I still use that bag, but at the time I had just bought it and was excited at having a chance to show it off.
I had much more fun than I expected. We ended up being a pretty odd couple. It was kind of touching. She liked to cook, but she couldn’t just whip up meals. Instead, she’d spend hours making plates of fancy little finger foods. Like many wealthy women, she wasn’t so much interested in having sex with other women as in savoring the companionship and the general mood of the hours we spent together. But I liked her because she was very smart and pretty, too.
After she invited me in, she made a clumsy attempt to make a fire in the fireplace. I went over and offered to help her. By the time we finally got the logs burning, our hands and faces were black with soot. We bathed in a sweet little marble tub with lion claw feet.
Later she poured two glasses of whiskey, and we curled up by the fireplace with our drinks, quietly waiting for night to come. I enjoyed sitting there with her, waiting for what we both knew would eventually happen between us. I didn’t feel as if we were just lusting after each other, but rather that we both anticipated a certain splendor, as one does when one looks forward to watching a sunset after a fine day. It was obvious to me that she was feeling a lot of pain, and needed an escape.
At last, we pulled the antique lace spread off the bed and lay down together. I realized that she had probably made love with her husband in that very bed. Our own lovemaking was graceful and lasted for hours, in perfect harmony with our elegant surroundings.
The next morning when I woke up, I felt as though she and I had been together in the mountain cottage for many years. The rays of sun filtering in through the woods seemed to pierce my heart and fill me with longing. I loved her sweet smell and the soft, round curves of her body.
During the days that followed, we spent the afternoons watching movies on the VCR and waiting for the long, warm nights. We didn’t have much to talk about and hardly ever laughed, but I had a good time anyway. We were high up in the mountains, where the air was so thin that I thought I’d melt into the brilliant blue sky above the treetops. When she invited me to go to Hokkaido with her, I felt curious about how long we could keep it up, and what would happen between us. But nothing changed. She would reach out for me repeatedly, and I made love to her gently, bringing her to the point of ecstasy again and again.
One day, at the hotel in Hokkaido, a phone call came from her husband. After they had argued for a while, she put her foot down and told him that she would divorce him if he didn’t come back to live with her. That ended our brief romance. I felt forlorn, because we had done so many fun things together. We’d watched lots of movies and gone shopping in the market. We’d spent hours on the ski slopes, and then gone back to the lodge to drink mugs of hot coffee and complain about our sore legs.
But I always sensed that eventually it would end. Our time in the country together had been so perfect that I knew it wouldn’t work if we tried it again in Tokyo. Sometimes that’s what happens with relationships that are too perfect. The only thing to do is to end them.
On the plane back to Tokyo, I was so distraught that I could barely speak. I wanted to cry. She was wearing sunglasses, but I could tell that she was pretty upset, too. We parted at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. As we were saying good-bye, she gave me a thick envelope with a pretty floral design on it.
I watched her disappear into the crowd of people at the taxi stand and realized that I’d never see her again. It seemed strange to be without her, after spending all those days together, holding hands and kissing. I even knew the softness inside her panties. I was going to miss her.
Inside the envelope, I found 500,000 yen in cash, and two photos she’d taken with a Polaroid. One was of me standing in the woods at Karuizawa, drenched in sunlight and waving at the camera, the blue sky my backdrop. In the other, I was lying naked in bed, drinking lemonade and reading a magazine. I didn’t know exactly why she’d given them to me. Perhaps she wanted to forget everything or didn’t want to leave any evidence of our time together. Maybe she was just being sentimental. In any case, the pictures made me think longingly of our lost days together, and I decided to keep them. In fact, I still have them.
About a week after I heard from her at work, I was hanging out in a cafe in Aoyama, sipping a large cup of espresso. And who walked in but K. It was my fate, I knew, for me to run into him again. Something new was happening. My wedding wasn’t far off, and I recognized that my past was not going to disappear so easily.
By then, I had resigned from my company and had no real reason to be in that part of town. In fact, I could easily have gone over to my fiancé’s place and used his espresso machine, if I’d wanted to drink some. But I sometimes got a craving for the weak coffee they served at the cafe in Aoyama.
That day, I had stopped on my way home from shopping. It was about six o’clock in the evening. I was sitting there, totally relaxed and daydreaming, so I didn’t even notice that this man, whom I would normally have gone out of my way to avoid, was heading in my direction. Frankly, though, if there was anyone whom I thought I should see one more time before I got married, it was K. I felt as if I had somehow unconsciously summoned him.
“Akemi,” he addressed me by name. When I looked up and saw the powerful light in his eyes, I suddenly had the urge to pretend that I didn’t know him. But I didn’t think fast enough and lost my chance to stare at him blankly and then just turn away.
“It’s been years,” I said to him, trying my best to look annoyed.
He didn’t flinch, but smiled and went to get a cup of coffee. He came back and sat across from me.
“So you’re getting married, I hear,” he said.
“And you’ve been spreading the word, I hear.”
“I just couldn’t believe my ears, so I had to tell someone. I didn’t mean any harm.”
“What are you up to these days, now that the bubble has burst?”
In the old days, K had his own business importing accessories and antiques from Spain or someplace. He was extremely aggressive and was always asking high prices, but people liked him anyway because he seemed so sophisticated. But I’d heard that the business had since failed.
“Now? Same kind of stuff. I came up with the idea of a late-night French food delivery service, and it’s been very profitable. I have no trouble at all finding young guys to work for me, what with everyone so underemployed these days. At the start, I was really into it, and would spend a lot of time reading up on different cooking techniques. These days, though, I’m more into keeping the business going.”
“You’ve been through a lot.”
“I like my life now.”
“How’s everybody doing?”
“Getting along well, and no one is HIV-positive.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I hope you don’t mind me saying this,” he said, “but once you get involved in playing like that, you can never get out of it totally. Especially someone like you. You’re the kind who gets all excited at work, just thinking of the weekend, I bet.”
“Actually, I seem to have forgotten all about it. Being in the hospital made me forget,” I said.
“It doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that. You always seemed above it all. I always thought it was just cheap narcissism, but maybe you were looking for something different from the rest of us.”
“I’m only interested in what I’m involved in at the moment.”
“So are you really excited about being a married lady? Does that powerful family make you feel secure? Will you be satisfied with a fancy house and a comfortable life?”
He was just being honest, not mean. I recalled that he had behaved the same way in bed. Then, all of a sudden, it came rushing back — the mood, the emotional intensity of those days. I felt overwhelmed for one brief moment.
“I just can’t go back. Just like I couldn’t go back to kindergarten after first grade. I’m not interested in that kind of sex anymore.”
“But you were so passionate, so strong. I’ve never met a woman who’s so intense.”
“Maybe so, but I’ve done my time, and I don’t need it anymore. Believe me. Are you criticizing me for doing what I want to do and nothing else? I’m not the only one, either. Who are you to say what people should be doing with their emotions, anyway?” I challenged him. I sensed something strange about him, a feeling I’d never had before. Maybe he’d gotten a little weird after exposing himself to so many people. Most people only show that much of their bodies to a spouse, or maybe a doctor.
“You had a talent for it, though, and I didn’t.”
“A talent for what? Sex?” I laughed.
“No, for living. You know all the right techniques, all the secrets. You understand how to flow with time, and not get stuck in one place. Once you master one thing and have done it enough, you move on. Or at least you’re good at pretending to move on. I think most people live their whole lives repeating the same patterns, again and again and again.”
“I’m not sure I get your point,” I said. “I think I got sick of the group, of how exclusive it was, and how we’d just chew up new people and spit them out. For a while there, we were really cooking. I remember being fearless, to the point that I’d do anything. It couldn’t get any better. I didn’t care if it was day or night — I just wanted more.
“But then things started to break down, and it got to be a real bore. Have you ever ridden on the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, have you?”
“Once I did and it was so great. When you’re flying through the Spiral of Death with all those people, you really get this feeling that you’re at one with them. I was screaming all the way down, just like the foreigners, and it was such a trip to be right there in Chiba Prefecture, on that ride, on a beautiful summer day. It really got to me, experiencing the same thrill as a bunch of other people I’d probably never see again, and going so, so fast. But that type of intensity is only possible because the ride lasts only three minutes.”
“It seems like it was kind of the same with sex. Once that instant of pleasure was past, I always felt like I didn’t want to be there anymore. Maybe I just overdid it.”
The more I talked, the more fantastic my story became. I didn’t care to share my real story with him, but instead told him what he wanted to hear. Not that I was lying to him, but I wasn’t really talking about myself.
I had left the group as a piece of ripe fruit falls from a tree and is swept away by the current of the river, and finally finds its proper place. So why did I bother giving him an explanation? Maybe because I had once respected him. Or maybe because I regretted having to give it all up.
K said, “Do you remember what you were like back then? You were wild. You really got me excited, but you scared me, too. Sometimes I thought you’d lost your mind, that you were so starved you’d gone over the edge. I’ve been with lots of people since then, but I’ve never seen anyone as earnest and crazy as you, baby. That’s why it really amazed me when I heard that you were getting married. I wonder if you’ll been able to forget that craving.”
I thought, You just don’t get it, do you? I didn’t really put myself into it that much, and, in fact, I never even felt that tired afterward. I was just like a child, getting so involved in what I was doing that I forgot to eat and sleep. That’s all. Maybe our capacities are totally different, or something. You are just the kind of person who would spend his entire life going to the group every single weekend, and I’m not.
But of course I couldn’t say that to him.
K was enjoying his life in his own way, and he didn’t care if that had drained him over the years, or warped his personality and the way he related to other people. “You’re the only one who could, baby.” (That was the second time he had called me “baby.”) “I didn’t think you were the marrying kind. You used to like partying. He must really be something, your fiancé. Is he that rich?”
After I got sick and stopped going to the group, I felt rather strange. I had already found a job to distract me, but I was still going through a rough time psychologically. For about six months, I found that my cheeks would start twitching when I tried to talk, especially if I was tired or at a dinner party where I didn’t especially want to be. I realized that indulging constantly in sex was potentially as harmful as stuffing your face with food all day. I paid for it in the end.
Eventually, though, I started feeling more normal, and only had sex once in a while, like most people. I went to work, ate lunch with people from the office, went clothes shopping. I got up in the morning and went to bed at night; my skin would break out and clear up. I stopped having those terrible attacks of lust that were symptoms of withdrawal from my addiction. While I was learning to appreciate that there are other pleasures in life besides sex, K had kept doing what he’d always done, with members of our group, and their friends, in all kinds of places and all kinds of different positions. That realization freaked me out, and made me feel glad about my new life. I had done the right thing, seizing the opportunity to escape when I could. It even made me feel that there must be a God, who showed me the importance of good timing.
“See you around,” he said as he stood up to go.
“Yeah, see you,” I replied, in the full realization that I would never see him again, unless, perhaps, I bumped into him at the cafe.
I paid my check and left. I walked slowly past the antique shops along the boulevard, and thought about K.
I was crazy about you, too. I really was.
The hem of my coat danced in the cold late-autumn wind. The shadows of the buildings stretched long down the street, so dark that it seemed the sun would never shine there again.
With your body, you embraced people and you pushed them away after you were done — so many times that it filled me with sorrow. But, to me, there was something special about you, something that no one else had. I could lose myself in that, and forget about time.
If you’d only been a bit gentler just now, and less jaded, if you hadn’t assumed that vulgar familiarity when you talked with me, I might have let down my defenses, and gone to spend the night with you somewhere. We could have run away together, just the two of us, and hidden out for a month or maybe even more. We’d have found a cozy little flat where we could have made love, day and night. Forgetting everything, ruining my plans for marriage — even if it had meant that — I might have gone with you.
But you didn’t realize that, and you looked to me like an abandoned newborn puppy, wrapped in a membrane of loneliness and humiliation. I can’t connect with you anymore. We’re in totally different realms.
I kept walking, mulling the encounter over and over in my mind. Then someone on a bicycle passed me. On the back, in a child seat, sat a little girl of about five. Oblivious to the speed at which her mother was pedaling along, the girl’s eyes focused on me, the wind sweeping through her fine hair. She had a mature, almost adult face, and wore an expression of ennui, as if she were mourning something, as if she looked down on everything.
That’s just how I am, I thought. As a metaphor for my life, it was completely on the mark. I had people to cart me around, protect me, spoil me. I lived peacefully in this country, Japan, living an unremarkable life, but feeling for all the world that I was special, and that I had seen and done so much more than everyone else I knew. I had pretended to drown myself in sex, but I actually hadn’t even taken that many risks.
Even with that realization, I wasn’t about to run off to Africa and dig wells for people who needed them, though I wished that I could. I would live and die, hopelessly ensconced in the cynical ways of the city. I didn’t even know what hope was. Even if something like that existed, shining and sparkling brightly somewhere, way beyond my reach, I knew that I couldn’t absorb its force. Anyway, it wasn’t in this town, nor could I find it in the eyes of the people I saw on the street. It didn’t seem to exist on TV, or in any department store. That’s how I grew up, listening to people at the next table talking about such trivial things that it made me want to puke.
K still thinks he can find it in sex. He lives as if that were the answer, as if that were hope. I grew weary of that way of living, and decided to make a bunch of altars and place myself on them. I don’t know whether my way is better or not, but I’m comfortable with what I’ve chosen. In some ways, though, I also feel like I’m running around in circles. I feel certain that my confusion won’t disappear even after I’ve had my gorgeous wedding and seen my parents’ tears of joy. Or even after I’ve given birth to a child of my own and felt her weight in my own arms.
I don’t know whether it’s because of the times, or because of the kind of person I am, or because something that used to exist has disappeared. Once in a while, I get sucked into this maze, and everything seems distant, and all sensations, and joy, and pain vanish. In the end, my sorrow and my sense of beauty are only transformed into the landscape of a miniature garden. What an incomplete existence. I felt so, so down.
Perhaps the ghosts from the past had wielded their last burst of energy and were now dwelling in a dark channel.
One Saturday, I was getting ready to go over to my boyfriend’s apartment when the doorbell rang. I thought maybe it was someone delivering a package, but, to my surprise, I found my father standing there. I couldn’t believe that he had come to visit me alone, without my mother.
“I’m on my way to work,” he said. “I have a taxi waiting for me downstairs, so I can’t stay long.”
Though Dad had been slender and athletic as a young man, he’d put on a lot of weight in middle age. He lowered his bulk onto one of the chairs in my living room. In his hands, he carried a large package.
“What’s that?” I asked
“I wanted to give you something nice, so I went through the storage room and found this. It’s a ceramic piece — Bizen ware. I hope that you’ll use it, and not just leave it on a shelf somewhere.”
He untied the wrapping cloth, and opened up the wooden box inside. It was a large, heavy piece.
I smiled happily, knowing that Dad had come to give me a wedding present that meant something to him. I had assumed he would leave right away, because we didn’t have any more to say to each other, but he remained seated.
“Is there something that you wanted to talk about?” I asked.
“Well, actually . . .” he said hesitantly. “I couldn’t decide whether I should tell you this or not, but . . .”
“Until quite recently, I really didn’t see any reason for you to know, but when I realized that his apartment is down by the river, I thought we’d better have a talk.”
“Does this have something to do with Mom?” I asked. Why else would he have come alone?
“Yes, it does. And the place where you were born.”
“You always told me that I was born in the same hospital as the other kids, but that wasn’t true, was it? That’s what Mom said.”
Sadly, Father replied, “When your mother was pregnant with you, things at the company weren’t going so well. I also had a lover. When the company failed, I thought of leaving your mother and marrying the other woman, but then your mother was having emotional problems, and then you were born. With so many troubles in my life, my relationship with the other woman went sour.”
“Did Mom know about her?” I asked.
“Of course she did. That’s what made her get so depressed.”
He still looked very sad. That day I learned yet one more reason why my father had put his family first and devoted himself to his pottery after I was born. I saw an entirely different course my life might have taken, because of that other life that he had been preparing for me. Or maybe he hadn’t been thinking of me at all. “Did she tell you that the two of you stayed in that house by the river for about six months after you were born? You were with your grandmother who lives in Tokyo now.”
“Yes, she told me that.”
“I came to see you for the first time when you were six months old. When I got to Grandma’s house, your mother wasn’t there, and when I asked about her, Grandma just smiled and said, ‘She’s down by the river.’ She was smiling, but I sensed that she was trying to tell me something.
“I decided to go and find her. That river had such steep banks that you couldn’t walk all the way to the water’s edge, so if you wanted to get close and watch the current, you had to stand on the big bridge that crossed it. The bridge wasn’t wide enough for cars, but it was sizable.
“When I got closer, I saw your mother leaning over the railing, with you in her arms. It scared the hell out of me, and I’m sure if there had been anyone else around, they would have wanted to pull her back from there, too. “She was holding you, but she was leaning way out, looking down at the water. I don’t think that she was conscious of what she was doing. You were right over the water. I walked over to her and said hello, and she turned to me and smiled, just like she had when we met the very first time, on the first date arranged by our matchmaker. And she even let me hold her in my arms for a minute.
“We were standing there talking, when, all of a sudden, she became quiet. I asked her if everything was all right, but she became hysterical and started screaming. Then she threw you into the river. I jumped in and pulled you out. Luckily, the place you landed wasn’t that deep, and there was hardly any current, so you weren’t hurt. By the time I got you to the hospital, you were already smiling again.
“Your mom, though, was in a state of shock and barely conscious. Her whole body got rigid and she wouldn’t respond to anyone. After an hour or so, she came out of it, and kept crying and apologizing to you. We had to put her in a hospital in Tokyo for a while after that.
“I did a lot of thinking and decided that I had done wrong by her. I wanted to make a fresh start. I went to see her in the hospital every day. By that time, your mother understood that she had been suffering from exhaustion and that she had needed professional help, and even the reasons for her breakdown, but I don’t think she remembered about dropping you into the river. Even now, I think she has no memory of that. I’m just guessing though. Anyhow, in other ways, she recovered, so when she got out of the hospital, we started living together again as a family.
“Your brother might have realized that something strange was going on, but I don’t think your sister was old enough to understand what was happening. So only Grandma and I really knew, and we kept it to ourselves. “I even went to the doctor to ask if that incident might have damaged you psychologically. But you never seemed afraid of water when you were growing up, and I couldn’t detect anything else. But now that you’re getting married, I figured that I should tell you. Sometimes when people get married, old wounds from the past resurface.”
I wasn’t surprised at what he told me. On the contrary, I felt relieved, as if I had been able to confirm something I had known all along. The feeling of relief overwhelmed me so much that for a minute I couldn’t speak.
“I hope that I haven’t shocked you,” he said.
“No. No, maybe if we were having problems, I might not have been able to handle it, but I’m okay,” I reassured him. “And anyway, as long as I can remember, things have been good at home.”
“That’s true,” Father replied, looking relieved. “You’re like a guardian angel to me, Akemi. After you came into my life, I got my business back on track and I haven’t had an affair since, either. I survived that dangerous period in my life.”
I may have been wounded emotionally, I thought, but I can survive too. Perhaps that’s what I gained from that secret incident with my mother, a self-confidence that I would always carry with me.
After Dad left, I took a taxi over to my boyfriend’s. I took the ceramic bowl with me and told him that Father had given it to us. He loved beautiful things, and looked very pleased with this new gift.
“We can use it together after we’re married,” he said happily.
And we talked about what we could serve in it — vegetable dishes, or pilaf would set it off nicely — and how we wanted to use it every day, and not just for special occasions. As we chattered away, I gradually forgot what Father had told me, and even the image of my mother’s smiling face when she had insisted that she had never ever considered jumping into the river. That was what had shocked me — my mother’s carefree expression. But all that faded away as I enjoyed my time with my fiancé in the bright room, talking and sipping a delicious cup of hot green tea.
That’s all I wanted.
No one can survive childhood without being wounded. Everyone remembers at least one time when their parents rejected them, pushed them away, even though they may have still been in the womb, blind, and unable to speak. That’s why, as adults, we all look for someone to become our parents again, and for someone to look after us in times of need. And we search for a person to live with who can provide the companionship we so desperately want.
My fiancé and I went out to a restaurant to have a bite to eat, and when we got back to his apartment, he decided to take a bath. I went into the kitchen for some reason or other, and I noticed a letter lying there on the counter. I don’t know why it caught my eye, or even why I bothered looking at it. I never read his mail, and I could tell that it wasn’t a woman’s handwriting, so there was nothing in the least suspicious about it. Somehow, though, the way the letter was addressed attracted my attention, and impulsively I decided to take a look. I had never done anything like that in my life, but I felt completely at ease, not as if I were snooping. On the contrary, I felt compelled to open it.
But there was no letter inside. Instead, I found several photographs. When I saw what they were, I nearly fainted. They were compromising pictures of me. Some were in K’s apartment, and others in a hotel, and I was nude and, naturally, not by myself. In fact, some of the photos showed me not with just one other person, but with four or five. My makeup had worn off, my eyes looked blank, and I weighed a little more, but it was unmistakably me.
I was stunned. How could this have happened? And then I started to feel angry, wondering who had sent the pictures to my boyfriend. At first I thought it must have been K, but I felt certain that it wasn’t his handwriting on the envelope. So was it someone else from those days?
Then, very calmly, I wondered if my boyfriend would break our engagement as soon as he came out of the bath. He had acted perfectly normal during dinner, but I couldn’t imagine that any man would remain engaged to a woman he’d seen doing things like that, without so much as a word. I resigned myself to our separation.
I stood up and went to sit by the window that looked out over the river. I wanted to get hold of myself before I saw him. I tried thinking about the negative emotions that swallow us up and death encounters that we can’t even recall, but the sight of the river glistening dark outside frightened me.
It flowed by at a terrific speed. I couldn’t think anymore, and instead just gazed out, blankly. A small, round moon shone in the black sky, a pearl over the night lights of the city.
I opened the window, and could hear the faint sound of laughter from the street below. Oddly, the sound of the river made me think less of water than of the sound of night itself. The wind swept in and surrounded me, though I couldn’t tell whether it was right there with me, or at a great distance. It felt as if the outdoors had come right into the room with me. I sat gazing down at the river, until, finally, I heard him getting out of the bath. He walked into the living room, wearing the same pajamas as always. “It’s your turn,” he said with a gentle smile.
He was so matter-of-fact that it scared me. Then I realized that the letter might not have arrived that day, as I had been assuming. It might have come last week, or last month, for all I knew. If I sat there and didn’t let on that I’d seen the pictures, the evening might progress as usual. At least that’s what I thought, until he asked, “Is something bothering you?”
So I decided to ask him point-blank.
“When did that letter come — you know, the one on the counter in the kitchen?”
I watched the color drain out of his cheeks, and his smile disappear. The only other time I’d seen such a somber expression on his face was at the funeral.
“Last Saturday, I think it was,” he answered.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What was I supposed to say?”
“That you want to break off the engagement, or that I make you sick, or that you’re shocked. I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, what would it do to your family’s company if those pictures got out? It’d be a huge embarrassment for your brother.”
“It’s no big deal.”
My mind went blank. I had no clue what to do or say next.
“Why did you want to marry me?” he asked.
“I felt sure of you. I knew that it would work out,” I told him.
“Well, I did too, and that’s no lie.”
“But this really messes everything up.” I didn’t even know what I wanted by then.
“Let me tell you something about myself. If I had become the president of the firm, I could have accomplished so much. I have no way to prove that, of course, but something tells me that I could have done even bigger and better things than Dad did. And, in fact, I’m not sure that my brother has any aptitude for running a business. Of course, I’ll back him up in whatever he wants to try.”
He continued, “I let my brother take over the company because I want to lead my life the way I want to, and at my own pace. After Father died, everyone started grabbing for his own piece of the pie, and it was a god-awful mess. I couldn’t deal with it. But I guess that’s what usually happens when somebody dies, especially if there’s money involved.
“I’d grown up with the business, so I thought that I was comfortable in that world. I also assumed that I’d be at the top someday, but after seeing all that crap, I decided that I wanted out. Everyone told me that Father had intended for me to take over for him, and I knew that to be the case. You know, the guys at the office had been buttering me up for a long time, and when my brother noticed it, he’d start pouting.
“I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I told them that I just wanted a larger share of the inheritance in exchange for not being head of the business. No one at the office could believe what I was doing. They say that nobody, absolutely nobody in his right mind gives up being president of a company.
“But I’m just not into work anymore. I’m still young and I have no ambition. Do you know what that means? It means that I’m finished as a man, I’m deadwood. I know that about myself, but I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing at work. I have no choice.
“I know that it seems pathetic, having a hotshot title but spending my days shuffling paper. No ambition, no goals. I’ve felt that way ever since Dad got sick. I know people probably think that it’s just because I’m a spoiled rich boy with nothing inside, but that’s how I feel.
“So all I want to do is to see you, and be close to you. That’s all. People may look down on me, but I can’t help it. And as for those photos, I don’t know — nothing surprises me anymore. I could tell that you were a lot younger then, and I’m sure if the guy who sent them had more recent pictures, he would have used those instead. If I thought they’d been taken recently, I’d feel differently, I’m sure, but I know for a fact that you’re not leading that kind of life now.”
Although he hadn’t gone into great detail about the infighting at the company after his father fell ill, I had a fairly good idea of what had gone on from the rumors that were circulating when I was still working.
“And anyhow, to be perfectly frank with you, I could tell that you had a lot of experience the first time we made love,” he said.
“You could?” I said with a smile.
“Of course. I knew that you’d done it a lot, more than most women.”
At that moment, I was truly without words. I realized that the world didn’t exist by virtue of my mind. On the contrary, he and I and everyone else were swept up in a great whirlpool, swirling around constantly and not knowing where we’re bound. Our sensations of pleasure and suffering, our thoughts, none of these things can stop the motion. For the first time, I was able to step away from my imagined position in the center of the universe and see myself as part of something larger. This was my revelation, and I now felt — what? Not particularly happy or sad, but just a bit precarious, as if I’d relaxed some muscle that I hadn’t needed to use all along.
“If that’s the way you feel, then I will come and live with you. That’s all right with you?” I asked.
“Couldn’t be happier,” he replied. “If nothing else, I value my ability to judge other people. You are something, you really are. When I’m with you, I feel like I’m watching a movie.”
“Someone else told me the same thing once.”
“And those pictures — well, I was mad at the guy who sent them, but, hey, you look pretty good in them! I wish he’d sent a couple more,” he said jokingly. “You’ll get chilled, sitting there by the window. Why don’t you take your bath now? It’ll do you good.”
I shut the window, and then looked down at the river again. Unlike the river I had seen moments before, full of chaos and anxiety, the water now appeared calm and powerful, like an image frozen by a camera lens. It was peaceful, like the passage of time, flowing by, gentle and unchanging. It amazed me how utterly different things can look, just with a change of heart.
I thought about my mother too, when she stood on the bridge, holding me and staring down at the water. How had she felt when she saw my father walking down among the trees, from afar? I wondered whether she was excited to see him, or upset and angry, but then she probably didn’t understand the exact nature of her feelings at the time either. And the warmth and the weight of me, a tiny baby in her arms. And how had the river looked to her after she had thrown me in, after the water had swallowed me up? Calm and clear or turbulent?
What happens to us when we hide things from others, keep them to ourselves, and then later let them go? Suddenly it occurred to me that the river may have called me there. I would never, ever jump into the river, I promised myself. I felt sure, though, that it had summoned me to its banks, to this window, with the same pull as things that attracted me when I was younger. All those hidden forces, sinister motives, kindnesses, things that my parents had lost and found.
The river possesses the force to guide fate. I think that nature, buildings, and mountain ranges have some effect on our lives. Everything is intertwined and linked together, and within that mass of forces I have survived, and will live on, not because of anything I’ve decided. With that realization, I suddenly felt something shining within me.
When I looked out from that window each morning at the river, I saw the water glistening, like a million sheets of crushed gold leaf, flowing by. The light within me was something gorgeous like that. I wondered if that was what people in the old days used to call hope.