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Vol. 3, No. 4

Hiropon My Heroine
by Roland Kelts

We are four: me and Veronica, Western and white and looking wan, and two bone-thin Japanese guys with hair dyed Cobain blond, one of them nursing a low-dipping limp that I earlier mistook for a dance step. We've come from a club whose alleyway awning thumps out monotones behind us, all seventies glam 'n' glitter, kaleidoscopic lights and parlor-tanned Japanese, Shu Uemura and Versace on fatless physiques.
    We are supposed to be five. I thought we'd be meeting Eve in the club. Her brother, Max, told me she'd gone gold too, so I started scanning heads as soon as we entered, thinking a blonde would be a coal-mine canary in Asia, a cinch to spot. But the entire population under thirty had gone gold, or silver-streaked or auburn-hued, lollipop red, even puffy Warhol white, and the gyrating girls in their impossibly high heels and mammoth platform boots obliterated my height advantage. Packed elbow to elbow, hip to churning hip, everyone looked like what they were not.
    Just hours before, when my flight crossed the date line, the sky over the Bering Sea had been a meltdown of morning and night--hairy tails of unfinished clouds, bright swaths of purple, violet, and ocher on a canvas of waning moon.
    "In here it's cool," says Veronica now, tugging my biceps.
    I crouch into the backseat of this low-riding, low-roofed black sedan and she laughs at a joke I can neither hear nor understand. Kazu and Waki, the grunge-fashioned Japanese guys, have squeezed into the far side of the cab with Veronica's body nestled between us. Her pink wet suit of a dress slides up her thighs as she squirms and the exposed skin there looks glazed, suddenly newborn.
    The driver gestures, white glove inches from my face, and he says something fast. "Shut the door!" Veronica shouts through a hiccup.
    An accented "Noh, noh, noh" from the other side and everyone's in two languages at once that sound like four, the way the Japanese stud their own lingo with mangled English, the way English doesn't sound American with a faraway accent, the way words collide in any language when more than one person is speaking with force.
    I am ticking off the martinis I downed with one foot inside the car and the other in a puddle. This place seems more frenzied and these people less sane than East Village denizens on a midnight axis, and it shouldn't, and they aren't supposed to. This is Japan.
    "I'm trying--"
    "No, darling."
    Veronica grabs my wrist, her palms moist, fingers vodka sticky.
    "Don't shut the door," she says. "Let go of the door."
    I do. I sit. The chaos deflates with the driver's sigh, and the door shuts on its own.
    We ascend on a raised expressway, surfing lanes of paved sea. Billboards, skyscrapers, and a huge skeletal tower take shape along the banks of the bay. Neon Ferris wheels and five-story video screens swirl with color. Elevated trains glide by in soundless streams while the buildings above them blink red, eyeing air traffic like insomniac monoliths.
    A half century after the raids and radiation this country was reborn, cloaking itself in sci-fi elegance, in tinted glass and robot façades. Its past was about suffering, inflicted and endured, so Japan made the future look fun. Beneath its surfaces are dense webs of corruption, Byzantine networks of crime. But what seduces me is the unfussy sleekness, the minimalist precision and playful pop, the lurid miasma of styles.
    I've brought a notebook and a microrecorder and I'm researching an article about Tokyo's fashion industry. The hip new world--a generation without a single bomb in its skies.
    I peer over the guardrail we are speeding by. In the streets below I see a man walking a dog. There are hardly any people, just sallow-lit sidewalks, pristine and smooth. But I know that down there in the circuitry of those lights is the real reason I'm in Japan. Eve.
    Veronica nudges the flesh below my ribs with her elbow. "Kazu likes your name," she whispers. "He says your name like, `Loo-dee.' Like `Doo-dee' or `Loony.'"
    Veronica. My ever-flirting friend, just as she used to be in New York. One too many drinks, a kiss good night that sometimes lasted longer, a game of tongue tag as a parting tease.
    When Eve was my love, the ringed mystery at the center of my life, Veronica orbited round with glee, spinning close sometimes, especially as our hearts acquired too much gravity, intimacy's dreaded deadweight. Whenever Eve got dark, grew dissatisfied, tense, and sleepless, burdened by every third question about who she was or should be, Veronica showed up, light as a spark.
    They'd been friends a long time, Eve and Veronica, self-anointed "soul sisters." They left together, though it was Eve's initiative, her impatience and gutsiness that got them to Japan. Veronica and I pursued our banter in print, mostly E-mail notes and tacky tourist postcards like her last one, a Ho Chi Minh bust speckled with geckos. But Eve wouldn't write me. We hadn't parted bitterly, really, just sadly, and I began to assume that at least a part of me was what she needed to escape.

 

~

I kept track of Eve through her brother. Max has a good fifteen years on me. He is my best friend and also, undeniably, a figure of fatherly fortitude in my life, a combination I hadn't deemed plausible until I met him years ago, when he was my teacher at a dinky college in Vermont.
    The place offered kids of dubious potential some summers in the sun, and Max taught a course he'd designed called "The Search for Meaning." Heavily into Zen and irony, a mix that turned me on to absurdity for life, Max taught me to play with intelligence, cloistered in the classroom or wandering around bits of campus shrubbery quoting Buddhist proverbs. Just before graduation I shaved my head, a nod to mock monkhood to make him laugh and like me more.
    A few years later he got divorced, quit teaching, and moved to New York to design Web pages. We became blood brothers, hitting jazz clubs and a whole smorgasbord of humble restaurants and cafés, sharing novels and insights into the great gory nature of things the way you can in New York, whatever your respective ages, because that city thrives on shared obsessions.
    Max introduced me to Eve in a sushi bar on Bleecker on a summer night I can't forget even when I try my damnedest. She was beautiful in the way Max is, had his seriousness without his sense of tragicomic defeat; she could be funny and brilliant at once, as when she noted that good sushi is everything sex is supposed to be: tender, raw, and usually kept on ice.
    I wanted all things light and airy, the play of New York nights, a romance that felt ceaseless in the slippery streets. We went to parties and clubs, bars that had just opened and bars that wouldn't close. But soon she started withdrawing, wanting to stay home and shut up in her apartment. We'd cook a meal together that she'd barely eat, rent videos that invariably bored her. In the middle of the night she'd leave bed and I'd find her staring at the television, lights out, her legs curled beneath her and one finger twisting a strand of hair.
    "It isn't you," she'd say.
    I wanted to save Eve from whatever. I wanted to heal her, but her inner blues were part of her allure, and she wouldn't let me in--or I wouldn't go that far.

 

~

Max thinks she's in trouble. Months ago she moved out of the Tokyo apartment she shared with Veronica and left no forwarding address, only the occasional E-mail from an international account telling Max everything's fine, don't worry, don't come.
    He thinks she's gotten mixed up with the wrong people. "She's over her head," he'd said on the phone. "She believes everything is possible. Which is the same as believing nothing is real. As you know."
    It was after two in the morning and Max sounded seriously unhinged, like we were talking about a kidnapping. His voice was scratchy.
    "Just check on her," he urged, almost angry. "Establish that she's safe. Her whereabouts and address. The people she's with."
    "You want her to come home."
    "Of course. So do you."
    She'd gone to Japan with the barest of plans--do a little modeling, teach a little English, maybe get some Zen. But her ambitions grew. A designing business, a line of clothing, her own label. And that means money. And money means schemes and sudden dependencies. Manipulation, wherever you are.
    "I know her, Max. Remember?" I told him, protecting the space she and I had made even as I was trying to reassure him with a little levity. "Eve don't do what she don't wanna do."
    "Rudy, listen to me. There are limits to what your love can know."
    Then I heard him light a cigarette, a habit he'd quit.

 

~

Every time I mention Eve's name Veronica pokes a hole in my earnestness, puckers her moistened lips and grins.
    The cab doors snap open automatically when we get to her building. She dismisses the boys with a sayonara that I repeat to Kazu, the gimpy one, because he keeps lingering on the pavement like he's been promised an encore, and in the elevator where Veronica's hand presses cold against my lower back and her teeth gnaw my nipple I ask her if she's slept with him.
    She pushes me away, takes an unsteady step and tries to frown, blinking, unable to raise her eyes higher than my belt buckle.
    "Eve's in Osaka tonight," she says. "Which you probably want to know."
    "But she knew I was coming," I say. "I thought you told her."
    Veronica grabs my belt and tugs, pulls her body tight to my chest and hips. My arms drape over her as she breathes in my ear, runs her tongue along my jawline, cocks her head, and smiles. It is funny, this stagy performance of lust. It is also arousing. "Are you coming?" she says, tapping her fingertips against my crotch.
    We both exhale at the joke. Hah.
    We make love on the tatami mats. We start fucking on the futon with our shoes on and then she freaks and throws them, my loafers and her platform sandals, out into the concrete foyer where a pile of boots tripped us on our way in. We roll off the futon and onto the straw mats, which are cool and ribbed in tight weave and burn our skin in what look like stratified splotches in the glare of a turquoise lava lamp. The rounds of her skin feel like space I've always known and can't get enough of. Lips, tongue, neck; armpits and scalloped ears.
    In the postcoital torpor my body feels liberated, at ease and free to rest, but my mind begins to shiver and then squirm, and then it shoots back overseas. Early a.m. means afternoon in New York. Max is at work now, glaring through glasses at his computer console, and no way would he picture me here, like this, naked beside his sister's pal. This has never happened before, me and Veronica from flirt to fuck, but right now it feels the way it was: unremarkable and suddenly, stupidly careless.
    Of course I think of Eve.
    "You know why I'm here," I say, sitting upright in the dark. "I mean, okay, this is great and the club was great and I'm grateful . . ."
    Veronica rests her hand on my thigh, her thumbnail etching circular shapes. "English r's are so difficult for them, Rudy. That's why Kazu says `Loo-dee' or `Doo-dee.' He's not making fun of you, it's just your name."
    "Veronica--"
    "They call me `Veddy' here," she continues, her voice getting low and smoky and close as she rises out of the sheets, lips nearing my ear, palm on my inner thigh. "Which is Verrie with the accent. They say, `Veddy happy, Veddy sad. Veddy good'--" She taps my nose. "`Veddy bad.'"

 

~

Kazu says, "Max called."
    He is smoking a cigarette, sitting at a table behind a steaming mug and a pile of magazines. He faces me, eyes dark and still, and I yank the limp duvet over my hips and penis.
    "Ohayo," he says, singsongy.
    "Same."
    I am febrile, dizzy. A wall-mounted digital clock embedded in the mouth of a giant blue cartoon cat, its eyes crescents of satisfaction, says late afternoon. Veronica is gone.
    I notice the tiny black plug-phones in his ears when Kazu turns down the MiniDiskman clipped to his waist. He wears an orange T-shirt, has a fish fighting a frothy current tattooed onto his skinny forearm.
    Today his hair is also orange, a little darker than his shirt, and a bit streaky.
    He lifts the mug with both hands. "Ocha? Tea?"
    "Yes. I mean no. No thanks. Did you say Max called?"
    "Yes. This morning. He ask for you call him."
    I hear Max's voice again in my head; I am not fit to phone him.
    "I live here," Kazu says abruptly.
    "Here?"
    "There." He gestures with his magazine toward the doorway of an adjacent room, its contents partially concealed behind a canvas curtain. The curtain bears an image of Mount Fuji, mid-eruption.
    "You're her roommate."
    He nods. "My room."
    A feeling of intense idiocy wallops me. "I'm sorry about last night's--" I begin.
    "Noh, noh, noh." He waves his hands frantically. "Okay, okay. Daiyjobu, Daiyjobu."
    "--because I didn't know."
    "Noh, noh." More waving. Then Kazu smiles, slightly crooked teeth, palms up: "No proh-blem."
    He shifts into lotus position in his chair, tucking both feet beneath him and riffling quickly through his magazine, which is abnormally thick. His position should hurt like hell with that limp but his face remains passive.
    "You are a writer, yes?" he says, peering up from the pages.
    "A journalist." Furrowed incomprehension, head tilt. "A kind of writer, yes."
    He nods, considering patiently the sight of me laid out on the futon, my clothes draped in a heap over two duffel bags. I cough into my fist and try to muster some dignity.
    "You write about Japan?"
    "That's right, yes. Hai. But young Japan. Not the war or samurai stuff. The new fashion scene." I raise my thumb. "Cool Japan."
    He doesn't respond. Instead he slides off his chair smoothly and pads toward me across the mats in his stocking feet, one hand holding his place in the magazine. "I want to show you," he says, kneeling down beside me, laying the pages flat on the duvet.
    He shows me the title page of a Japanese comic book. The copy looks pretty old, pages curled at the edges, water-stained. Because I know the word I feel obliged to blurt it out: "Manga."
    Because this is obvious, Kazu nods, smiles politely, and says: "Look."
    There is a full-page drawing of a woman standing in space. I have seen these things before and recognize a couple features--the simple, childlike head (pigtailed here) atop a womanly body. But this figure is endowed grotesquely. Her breasts are twice the size of her head, and a ropelike stream of milk runs from nipple to nipple, effectively cordoning off her chest. Her eyes are swirls of ink rather than the usual wide, doe-lashed dots, giving her face the blissed-out glare of someone perpetually stoned.
    "Sugoi ne?" Kazu says, grinning next to me. "Do you like this?"
    "Nice," I say. "Who is she? Or, what?"
    "Hiropon. Her name is Hiropon. She is my favorite."
    He thumbs through the pages. Hiropon fending off monsters, attacking with long pincers that project from between her legs. Hiropon somersaulting, miniskirt rising off her hips. Hiroponwrapping her milk-rope around a man's mouth, strangling him, I guess. Hiropon in ecstasy, always.
    "Her milk can kill," he says.
    "It's poisonous?"
    Kazu nods.
    So different from American murder, the sawed-off shotguns and cinegraphic gore, the lone figures on a rampage. Poison could be deceptive and discreet, even attractive if you didn't know. A woman's milk. Death done sweetly.
    He folds his legs back into full lotus.
    "Doesn't that hurt?" I ask. "What happened?"
    A quick glance away. "I fall off bike," he says, not even trying to convince.
    "I see," I say. "What do you do, Kazu?"
    "Ah." He reaches into his front pocket, pulls out a device, flips open a vibrant screen smaller than my wallet. "Pasocon. Computah."
    Digital beeps sound from his torso. He yanks a palm-size phone from his rear pocket and presses a button. Everything about his personality shifts toward efficiency--voice lowers, speeds up, shoulders ease and eyes focus narrowly only inches in front of him. I jot a few lines in my notebook as he talks, reminding myself to ask again about his leg. Then he presses the phone, stands up, slips it into his pocket. "Sorry," he says, switching seamlessly into English, "I must go now." He extends his hand. "I enjoy you."
    I reach up and shake it. "I enjoy you, too."
    On his way out to the foyer the limp seems less inhibiting, only a faint irregularity in his step. "Where're you going?" I call after him.
    "Job. I go to my job."
    I want to stall him somehow, ask him more about what he does, but he speaks first, leaning over to zip the sides of ankle-high leather boots, the words FUCKS KILLS stitched in denim across the back of his shirt.
    "Eve come back," he says. "Tonight."
    "Eve?"
    He turns, unlocks the door swiftly. "Tokyo."
    "Tokyo."
    "Tonight."
    "Wait." I stand, wrapping and holding the sheets firm around my hips. "How do you know Eve?"
    When he opens the door onto the front terrace April sunlight blasts through, a harsh glare over the futon, my confusion, the sheets around my waist. I blink as Kazu steps into it. He looks back at me. "Everyone knows," he says, his figure a silhouette in the narrowing gap.

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