A short story. Written for Brian Hutchings in exchange for a donation to Merritt Kopas’ medical fundraiser. Please do donate!
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! AH AH AH AH AH AH AH!”
Rockstill in pain to this every Saturday morning.
“AAAAAAAAAAAH! AH HA HA HA HA HA!”
Screams usually lull me awake in my thick hangover state, a karmic punishment for shochu cocktail with a few drops of viscose red, complaining, clinging to the heart that beats in my ears and crawls through my system, a sugarless joyless syrup.
“HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA,” he screams as my eyelids suck open in the humidity, my limbs have a dry bath in slimy air and sweat. The sheets tangle around my naked body. I am trapped in a keen awareness of my own stupidity.
I lie cremated. The back of my throat is as if I’d incubated six weeks of off bacon in it.
“Well,” I croak. It is 9am.
I haul off the mattress on the floor like a foal out of a horse and slide onto the tatami, which is cooler. I knock over the iaito that I left carelessly against the wall and scramble for a remote, switch on the sound system. It is Neon Indian’s Annie. The bass massages my face flattened against the tatami. I bask on the hard weave until I am certain it has made a pattern on my thighs. If I do this too much my onsen-wild pubic hair tends to leave itself in the tatami weave, so I get up.
Always the second thing I realise when I am downing water at the sink is that all the curtains to my little six-tatami rooms are open, the sun blaring in, and some old busybody across the street is going to report to all her friends that I have no shame, which is true. So true.
At some point, I think, you have to admit that you are not very good at being discreet: the bosses are going to realise. One day. One day.
I close the curtains naked.
The blonde boy on the mattress groans.
“Happens every Saturday in the shrine.”
“Aren’t you going to put some clothes on?” he says.
I consider this. It is the hottest summer here in the south for about forty years.
I think about how many Renaissance paintings he must have seen in his life. I think about how it must be impossible that he hasn’t seen any porn. (Do Americans put clothes on immediately after? Is that the rules? How long after sex do you wait to put all your layers of clothes back on? Do Americans take pajamas to people’s houses in case they get laid and have to stay over? Do Americans immediately leave? It all sounds like so much effort.)
Or maybe it is that fully naked women only belong in porn? Or maybe it is that my body is worth being ashamed of because it doesn’t measure up to a porn star’s figure. (Which could mean many things for my body, including that I am not flawlessly tanned, or that I choose to never wear makeup.)
God, he’s twenty-three years old, the same age as me, and he might be afraid of naked people.
“Time you left,” I say.
He looks miserable about being forced to leave and takes a really long time to reverse his car out of the drive, which is ironic because he was desperate to drive that goddamn car in. I watch, still naked, from a crack in the curtain, as the air outside shakes in the heat. A man across the street who is hosing the volcanic ash off his car pretends not to be interested in the boy he knows doesn’t live in this city. He’s an out-of-town gaijin, he is thinking, from the licence plate. Might even be from the islands. Maybe he fucks all the white girls – everyone knows the white girl has western male visitors that stay overnight and they can’t all be her boyfriend.
Still behind me, up in the shrine, the kendo kids yell, yell, yell as they hit the shit out of each other, ever more disciplined than me and a reminder that I have a job to do.
Grimes croons in the background of my cold shower. I dance a little, for myself.
When we were young, we used to get so close to it /
And you were scared and you were beautiful /
I wanna peer over the edge and see in death /
If we are always the same.
I look at my computer. There on the messaging service I look at my last conversation:
Kim: I miss uuuuuuuuuu Mariko chaaaaaaaaan kaiten zushi whennnnn
Mariko: hello Kim chan. I want to but my boss has just said i am last day
Mariko: i have to find a new job
Kim: Mariko chan i am so sorry. I love you. I hope you are okay. would you like some company?
But the last check mark against my last message has not gone blue, indicating it has not been read and the hollowness continues into the day, like the eternal ellipses of an installation programme that may never install, like a traffic light that never goes green.
The steps, notched, grey and ever unfailingly swept of ash, reach straight up into the blue sky. The pilgrimage to Shimotatsuo-cho’s Nanshu shrine is slow and peaceful. The bright, crunchy, lush green of the ferns either side of the steep climb stand quietly like soldiers. Sometimes they move, shuffling their feet in a breeze.
Each climb, each Saturday, to the top of the steps, is always met with my own personal surprise that few Japanese people come here with children or friends. The shrine is beautiful. It sits on top of a hill behind my apartment with a small park and looks across the whole city. The shrine is meant for ritual, for the dead, even sometimes for tourists, and yes, it has a place for martial arts.
It is always exhausting to walk to the top of the steps, but I stop to turn around and look at the top of Sakurajima, just peering over the buildings, as she coughs ash over us, as she stays alert, her shaggy brown-green arms smothering the bay like a protective old lady with a smoking problem.
This prefecture has many protective old ladies with smoking problems; one ran out to give me an umbrella in the pouring rain and wouldn’t let me refuse it. She never replied when I asked for an address to return it. Wordlessly, she turned to walk back home, never expecting anything from the huge white girl with bleach blonde hair getting disgustingly wet in the storm. What did British girls know of sharing? And in many ways, she is right. British people do not share like Japanese people do.
Sakurajima stubbornly refuses to give up smoking, and I imagine many old ladies nod silently at it when it chokes the clouds over us again, as it is doing now. I hold my hand up to my eyes to catch the dust before it makes me blind.
I stand on the last step and look at the sign: Nanshu Jinja. I remember my friend Mariko’s squeal at midnight.
“Why did you bring me here! I’m scared of graveyards at night. This graveyard is scary, Kim-chan. Let’s go back down?”
Mariko, Mariko, I wanted to say. Aren’t dead people beautiful? They are mute. But Mariko would have said that she didn’t regard the people in these graves to be dead. I doubt that Mariko has even seen anyone die. But I do know that before I ever came to know her she tried to end her own life, still occasionally sinking into deep bouts of depression she can only tell me about afterwards, when the sun is up, when we are racing down the road towards the beaches where we plan to eat cappuccino-flavour daifuku and sticky dango off each other’s belly buttons and paddle in our t-shirts by the sea urchins.
Now, the bright sun blankets the tall graves, the old Japanese chiselled delicately into brown moss-covered stone on both sprawling tombs and neat, modest graves. The bell somewhere chimes, almost accidentally.
I reach the bench that looks over the bay, and he’s there, reading a newspaper.
I sit down next to him and open my book. It is of course, Kerouac’s On The Road. Full of grimy, horrible manipulations, using women like sexual napkins, racism, but interlaced with some sentences that are so beautiful that it is hard to hate the author.
The ultimate manipulation is that you cannot hate an author that gives you any form of beauty. I do not know that yet. At this time I suppose that beauty means truth and kindness. Though it is obvious that Kerouac is racist and sexist, my mind chooses to read the rhythm of the sentences and the way his experiential detail illuminates the strange diverse sprawl of America; I revel in how reckless and brave he is to pry people open like crates and gut them of everything that makes him feel like he is being fellated by God. I read about him fucking a farmer’s girl and the farmer pulling a shotgun on him as he races away and I never think a second thing about the boy from Idaho. I read about Kerouac’s favour for people who explode like bright fireworks in the sky and think that Kerouac is beautiful and everything he does to people around him is brave and interesting and I want to be like him. I understand that the boys I love admire him and the girls I know would never do any of this and I think if I become like him I will become something special. I love this man and I have never met him and he is dead. This is true charm; the sort that is always used like an edged blade. The sort that you don’t know you have used until it is over.
“Late,” he says.
“Visitor,” I lie. I just lay on the tatami in my apartment under the air conditioning, no clothes on, eating a green tea Kit Kat from the fridge.
“Stop having visitors,” he says.
I grin. “Jealous?”
“News is a burn moved here.”
“Bad enough to tell you.”
“Do you need more from me?”
“No, you are bad at surveillance.”
“Not that bad.”
“Don’t do anything. Yet.”
“How long have they been here?”
“A few months.”
Maybe I know them already. Maybe I don’t.
I tent my book on my lap and look at him. He is very handsome. Like a more severe Daniel Henney, which is very frustrating considering his role. He is getting a tan from coming up here, spoiling his pallid complexion but making him look more like a Kyushu local. In Japanese the only term for ‘tan’ is ‘burn’ and most women here try to avoid facing the sunny outdoors without a parasol. Most of the younger boys and older men tend not to care about being burnt at all.
“You forgot to put sun block on.”
“No more visitors,” he says, never taking his eyes from the paper. I see he is reading the glossary at the bottom of the page, which gives me a secret thrill. I know nothing about you, I think, but your illicit secret: that you might not know some complicated Japanese political words I am sure I don’t know offhand either.
“Look, we are the only two here. Probably the only two in this prefecture at least. We should hang out. You’d just look like my Korean boyfriend or something.”
“In public? We are conspicuous together here as it is.”
“Aren’t you lonely?”
The question lingers in a way that suddenly seems to make the sun go down. The shrine has layers, purple shades, painted over the trees and bamboo leaves. I realise how nice it is to speak English to a man without giving them instructions on how to fuck me. Kyushu men are too scared of my massive hands to fuck me. The tiny circle of English speakers are just desperate to have anyone whose cues they can read.
He turns the page of his Asahi Shimbun.
I stand up, hope lost.
“You’re not dead,” he says, firmly.
I look at the graves stretch out behind the bench. Hundreds and hundreds of samurai graves from the days the British Navy used to come and shoot them down. My ancestor, Thomas Glover of Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, sold the samurai guns. The British Navy regarded him as a traitor. I imagine that Glover thought himself an entrepreneur first, a proud wearer of a Scottish grudge against English rule second, and a patriot of the British Empire entirely last.
Or he just liked to watch the samurai kill people with his guns. Rumour has it he stood on the hill with Takamori Saigo as the ships rolled in.
Mariko still hasn’t read my final message to her. It’s been several days. We talk most days. She lives an hour’s drive away, up in the crotch of the peninsula. She thinks I am a teacher, like every other foreigner here is. I write another one: “Hey Mariko, I miss you, can I take you to dinner?”
The check marks remain unlit. It feels like the point of a compass slowly digging into my skin.
At night it is very hard for me to sleep. I grew up on a main road in the centre of Aberdeen where cars driving by lulled me to sleep, so the dead quiet of Shimotatsuo-cho grates. I unlock my phone several times a night to look at the check marks and listen to BBC World Service. My mentor is dead now, but he used to evangelise the World Service. Just after I met him he introduced me to John McCarthy, a journalist who was the longest hostage in the Lebanon Hostage Crisis.
My mentor bumped into McCarthy when I was walking him down a BBC corridor. He shook McCarthy’s hand, idly questioned McCarthy about his work for the BBC, and what he thought about how funds for the World Service were being cut. As an intern in a BBC radio studio I thought working there would be glitzy, glamorous – I was already rethinking my options. Whilst I daydreamed about how remote parts of the world put the World Service on after local radio stations shut off live broadcasts in the evening, McCarthy had segued into a soft-voiced, powerful rant about how the only solace he had been given whilst being imprisoned in a filthy cell from 1986 to 1991 were the proper, trim, determined voices of the BBC World Service, going on and on day after day, the Queen’s English the only sound of home, the only idea of the outside world, the only way of keeping track of time. One day the girl he was to marry started a petition to have the UK government bring him home from Beirut. The news was broadcast on the World Service. He was freed. He began to work for the BBC. It was public service to him. It was a duty.
My mentor nodded knowingly. He had probably heard it all before. My mentor thought the BBC World Service was merely a diplomatic soft power, the last vestige of the British Empire’s cultural influence aside from Dr Who, and “Who” – he said – “Would give a fuck about some shitey-arsed whimsical with a magic pen in a country where you can’t fucking get a cup of rice”. McCarthy appreciated my mentor’s brogue, which always reminded me of the way my father’s army buddies talked and it too made me feel at home in a city that few Scots have colonised. I always disagreed about Dr Who: Dr Who may be ‘shitey-arsed’, but there’s nothing feeble about any of the soft power he wields, and secretly my mentor knew that.
During McCarthy’s story and for the hours after it, it all seemed irrelevant to my life; I went to make Jane Garvey tea (the best cup of tea, she said, which made me feel like the only time I was not a ghost in the studio was when I was a teamaker).
When I got home the strange feeling of hot water in the corner of my eyes didn’t leave all night. I felt like my body was empty.
I looked up my mentor’s number.
“Why didn’t you call McCarthy and ask him for a job?” he said.
“I don’t want to write down what other people do. I don’t want to be a soft diplomatic power,” I said. “I don’t want to be a fuckwit with a magic pen. I want to be the person that people call when they don’t need a pen.”
“Well,” he said, “If there’s one thing I can’t be fucked with, it’s fucking pens.”
I take the documents from him and fold them neatly whilst he continues to read his paper. He hasn’t read the glossary today, and I tacitly congratulate him as the winds blow comfortingly across Nanshu’s rose bushes.
This Saturday is dragging.
“You’ve been here longer than me. How often did Sakurajima used to blow?” I say.
“About once a day.”
“So it’s getting worse?”
“Well, it’s venting itself. So I suppose that means that it won’t erupt soon.”
“That sounds like bullshit.”
“You would question your superior?”
I look for a sign of humour in his face but there isn’t any. “I…”
A small crack of the corner of his mouth.
“Why are you so weird? You know no one else is up this hill? We’re alone. We could do anything. We could make out, do ourselves a favour. We could shout details of work if we wanted to, no one understands English here, no one.”
“Your best friend is a Japanese teacher of English.”
I fall silent. This is not a detail I have disclosed, nor have I spotted anyone trailing me.
“Do you know where she is?”
“I have seen her and where she lives. But I currently do not know her whereabouts. I have had other things to do.”
“Am I in trouble,” I say.
“I don’t think so,” he says.
“You told them about her?”
“Yes,” he says.
I get a horrible feeling in my stomach, and look at the check marks on my phone. They are still unchecked.
“What else do you know about me?”
“I know about all the visitors.”
“You can’t know that without camping out by my apartment.” I look at him, for the first time believing that perhaps I am in over my head, perhaps this was not a jolly, perhaps he wasn’t just the handsome man who is just a messenger, a through-line, he’s not just that guy who I try to provoke constantly, who I try to make laugh or try to get him to tell me personal things. Perhaps all of this has made me look unprofessional and not like James Bond. Can women be James Bond and not be thought of as being unprofessional? I wasn’t being performative, just… Just being myself. But then everything that women aren’t supposed to do is regarded as a ‘performance’, as ‘crazy’. As ‘drama’ or ‘misbehaving’. In Japan in particular I am stuck in this cage of stereotypes – she can’t use chopsticks, she doesn’t go to shrines, she’s a western woman so she is wild and slutty and disobedient. It doesn’t matter if any of it isn’t true, by the time you leave Japan it will be true, reality shapes itself to belief and that’s all there is. I can feel myself corresponding to what people expect of me.
“I don’t think you’re unprofessional,” he says, scaring me again. There is a breath from the trees, and I – for a second – look at the shine in his eyes and wonder if he can read minds. He puts the newspaper down. “Just a human. A young human.”
My heart calms a little.
“But no more visitors,” he says.
I switch off the World Service, open the window, and put a metal bucket on the tiles in the wetroom. I throw the paper into the bucket and throw a few matches in, fanning it a little before switching on the showerhead. I put on Major Lazer’s Lean On and get in the the shower, watching the fire lick up quickly in the bucket across the room. My eyes keep going to my phone by the door. No message. No message.
Brushing past me are a number of people with iaito pouches, all from the budoukan across the road, not my usual, far from home. I sit on the end of a tiny izakaya table.
I look over my frosted glass chu-hi at the table opposite. There are six Japanese people and a gaijin on the end; the loud laughs coming from them are annoying most of the tiny drinking hole. It is quite early in the evening for a party, but I have all night. The staff have already fed me quite enough riceballs and tofu to make me feel sick. The tofu came with those tiny little silver fish on top of it, and every time I scoop them into my mouth I feel a bit bad. They just look sad. Their eyes are about a fifth of the size of their little fish bodies and stare as you shovel them in your face. Their grave is my stomach. A memorial for a massacre.
The gaijin goes to the toilet, so I bump into him on the way out.
“Oh gosh, sorry,” I say, with the awkwardness of one recognisable gaijin to another.
“Ah, it’s all right. Haven’t I met you before? You’re the one in the city. I saw you at Mariko’s party that one time.”
“Ah yes! Yes you saw me there that’s right. It’s Kim. I’ve just been to iai practice down this way.” I nod to the long leather pouch at my seat. “Thought I’d have a beer and go to the sand bath. You know, just chill out.”
“The sand bath? I don’t think I’ve been there. I’m just here for dinner with friends before driving home.”
“Oh god it’s wonderful,” I say, a little more enthusiastically than I meant. “Why don’t you come down and join me? I’ll show you the ropes. I’ve got an errand to run right now, but I’ll give you the address – it’s five minutes walk from here, and I’ll meet you there in an hour.”
He frowns and then seems to come around. “Okay, sure. Sounds fun. And nice to speak English for a while.”
The sand bath and onsen complex lies at the end of a long dark street populated by shops that are now closed and unlit. At this time of night, the complex is an hour from last admittance and hardly anyone is here. I check my phone. My messages to Mariko still ignored.
I’ve already rolled two cigarettes and put them in the outside pocket of my iaido pouch for this kind of situation. The air is already starting to close in, a sort of sticky hotbox that only finds relief from the sea that breaks just behind me. Cicadas orchestrate from the scrub further down the beach, but the sound of the sea lapping the furthest tip of Japan is already making me feel calmer.
Nature is bigger than everything little humans worry about, my sensei used to say. He tried to teach me to be gentle. He tried to teach me about death and the soul. He taught me to never step over a sword lain on the tatami of a budoukan. He grabbed my hakama from his perfect seiza position and looked up at me. “That is the craftsman’s soul,” he said to me in Japanese – I had to look up ‘soul’ – “Don’t disrespect him by stepping over his soul.” He seemed so serious about it I became mute for the rest of the day.
It’s the sort of Karate Kid stuff you might think is cheesy, but there’s much that seems cheesy about the west from here. From here, Americans saying “I love you” so readily in Hollywood movies seems flippant, gross, vulgar. People toss out “I love you” like bread to pigeons in American movies and it’s like eating tinfoil in a Japanese cinema. Words are expensive in Japan. They possess a weight that English words do not.
When I first came here I had to look up all the Japanese words my sensei used to say to me at dinner. ‘Way’ was very hard for me to comprehend: the ‘do’ at the end of ‘iaido’. ‘Way’ is not a good translation of the ‘do’ kanji, but it is the best available translation. The dictionary showed a mess of usages. In the beginning I didn’t care. Martial art, emphasis on the martial. People used to make jokes about the film Kill Bill. It hurt because that glamorous western image of Japan wouldn’t scrub itself from its embarrassing impression. Thurman’s form is terrible and I worry mine is no better.
The Japan of the west doesn’t exist here, on the palm tree beaches and in the ash-covered budokans and the public baths of the south. It’s a wasteland and a paradise down here, poor and conservative but proud, a goliath of history and culture; some of the most beautiful prejudices still exist here. Ojisans still say ‘aiigatou sagemoshita’ instead of a regular thank you. In Tokyo, they say I sound like an old person when I slip. Tokyo seems like the most western thing in the world from here. In Tokyo my white skin is unremarkable and people are happy to sit next to me on the train.
I am content with understanding that I don’t understand. I may never understand. There are things in my country too, I am sure, that fuck with people who did not grow up there, that twist their patience into little spirals.
My mark turns up at the onsen complex, jogging a little because he knows he is late. I study his features carefully: a similar height to me, dark hair, his neck shorter than I’d like. Otherwise his face is pleasingly angular, heart-shaped. Big blue eyes. My jaw tenses a little. I look at his arms. They are sinewy, but not heavy.
I smile and hug the strap on my shoulder. “Ready?”
“Yes!” he says. “I really need a rest, just to relax, you know? So this will be good.”
“Actually, it’s a nice night, and I want to finish this cigarette. A walk down the beach first?” I say.
We start off, walking by the marquee over the sand pits and the little women in bucket hats with spades and then begin the stretch down towards the scrub and trees. The strap on my iaito pouch squeaks quietly. He smells like good sake.
“So, do you teach junior high or senior?”
“Junior,” I say. “Take and Kamoike. You?”
He hesitates. He hasn’t prepared for the return question. Amateur. “I’m swapping schools right now.”
“How did you get to know Mariko?”
“Ah, you know. Gaijins. She hosts the best parties everyone said, and she was happy to have me tag along. Glad I know her, really, she and her boyfriend are great.”
I nod, then laugh suddenly. “They all say you’re a huge slut you know. Man with a rep.”
He laughs. Men get to be proud of this sort of stuff. “Who said that?”
“Oh everyone. Even the boys. I… I guess I was starting to wonder why you hadn’t called me up.”
These are always my favourite parts of every conversation. Where you can tell the subtext has moved underfoot, and you did it. Like conversational Moses.
“Well… You never asked…” he begins, with that hurt dignity that men manage to pull off without seeming needy.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” I say. We stop to look at each other. Real sex is done with all your clothes on and an inch of clearance between two people.
“Well…” He smiles. “You seemed so confident that you could just have anyone. I was afraid of you.”
I let the cigarette butt drop. The wet sand creeps up my sneakers. The departing tide sloshes by the black silhouettes of the gorse bushes, and the trees rustle around us, like they are gossiping in whispers.
“Oh,” I say.
I step my left foot back and put the shinken right through his neck. Like throwing a frisbee.
“Good,” I say.
I jog back to change into my yukata. Just as I head out to the sand bath, my phone lights.
Mariko: I’m sorry! I was having boyfriend trouble. I felt sad about my job too. I’m ok
Kim: oh! thanks for getting back to me. I thought something bad had happened
Mariko: you must have been worried.
Kim: pfffffff I was out being very busy and important
Mariko: Kim chan if I drive to dolphin port tomorrow can we sit in the foot bath and watch the sun on sakurajima, i want to tell you about my new job
Kim: yes. yes. let’s do that
Mariko: Kim! I heard a new song about me and you. It is called ‘Boy Problems’. You would like it
Kim: Mariko, boys are very boring
Mariko: That is what the song is about!!
“Yes. We sent a pick up team.”
“I had a sand bath. It was really good.”
I lick my lips. “I was thinking about becoming a teacher.”
“No, you can’t be a teacher.”
“Because! Because you can’t be a teacher.”
“I’m very good at explaining things like politics.”
“You have no legal residence here.”
“And you are a murderer.”
“Didn’t stop Saigo,” I say, impishly.
“This is not the Meiji Restoration era and you are not part of this culture,” he says, sternly.
“I live here,” I say.
“You will never belong here,” he says.
I sigh and look out over the bay again. A US battleship is docking today.
“Is that ship work for us?”
“You can run an errand.”
“I haven’t had any visitors since you told me off.”
“Okay. Keep it that way.”
He hands me a fat envelope. He smiles at me, and I think behind the large Ray Bans he might have winked at me. I get up with my Jack Kerouac and begin to trail down the steps home.
“Mariko,” I say.
“What,” she says, in English. She forces me to speak English to her.
Our feet soak in geothermal-hot water out on the boardwalk. The sunset hits the top of the volcano in the bay. Mariko, shameless, has ice cream all over her face, her huge brown eyes gazing out at the hydrafoil as it escapes to the islands.
“I have a boy problem.”
“I know,” she says.
“No, I mean, specifically.”
“Kim. Do you know the answer to boys?”
“If they don’t come and get you they are boring. And if they come and get you and they are boring, they are boring. But if they stay around and do everything you need them to and are a little bit to very interesting then they are not a problem.”
“Ah,” I say, sipping my ramune inefficiently so that it leaks in a viscous manner down my front.
“So what is this boy?”
“I guess… I guess he is not a boy problem. He is the last thing.”
“Daijoubu,” she says, in finality, with a nod.
“So most of my boy problems are not really boy problems?”
“A boy problem is a problem that belongs to a boy. We are girls. We have some problems. Like you live far away from me, and sometimes you don’t understand my Japanese, and sometimes I feel like dying.”
I think I can see the top of Sakurajima tinge red.
“Yes,” I say. “Those are girl problems. Those are some girl problems.”