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Vol. 3, No. 4

Hiropon My Heroine
by Roland Kelts

~

We don't have sex that night. As soon as we get home Veronica says that she needs to get ready for work, that she wants some "beachside R and R" in Thailand before she goes nuts, that I can stay if I keep my stuff duffel-bagged.
    While she packs her stage costumes--spangled bras, barely-there bottoms, minis and thongs--I ask her questions.
    "What's Otakubaka?"
    "Two different words, Rudy. Otaku is nerd, and Baka means idiot. Kazu's a computer geek. But he doesn't know his place. He's gonna fuck everyone up."
    "And you are, technically speaking?"
    "A hostess. A hostess and a dancer. Two very different jobs."
    "The dancing is exotic."
    "Duh."
    "And the hostess does what?"
    "The hostess is today's geisha," Veronica says. "She doesn't learn the art of tea. She entertains half-drunk salary men who have no clue how to talk to women. And don't tell me there's no art in that." She watches me scribbling in my notebook. "Christ. This is like an interview."
    I look over my chaos of notes, jagged lines with squiggly loops and arrows--scattered riffs on the fashion scene, urgent questions about Eve. "So, who's this Hiro, and what does he do with Eve? Where did she go with him tonight?"
    "Hiro is no one I want to talk about. And Eve? I don't know. She's too hoity-toity to tell me anything."
    I note the curtness and wait.
    "She's got some deal going, always. Now she's gonna design, wants her own little label, a company. They're business partners is the public story. They live in the low city, the east side of town, which is really old and crooked and weird, full of gangsters and rats. The police don't even have all the streets mapped."
    "Hiro's a gangster, then."
    She tilts her head. "Let's say he's got tentacles that reach into every corner of Tokyo."
    "So Eve is in danger?"
    "Ask her. It's a risk, I guess. Definitely. But she's--I don't know what's up with her. She wants something."
    "And what about Kazu? He says he works for Hiro."
    Veronica sighs, gulps from a water bottle, screws on the cap, and shoves it into a mass of tangled straps and sequins.
    "Hiro needs information, he traffics in it. Bankruptcies and loans, insurance scams, real estate--all shit I could give a shit about. Kazu gets it for him, so you could say Kazu works for him. But Kazu works for anyone who pays, Rudy. Like all of us."
    "I'd like to meet this Hiro."
    "No you wouldn't. Or you won't, not unless he wants you to. He'll have Kazu in a sling next week the way things are going around here."
    "How's that?"
    She rolls her eyes, opens them wide, stares at me.
    "Just one more thing," I say as she hefts the knapsack onto her back, her V-neck jersey tugging tight at her chest. "Do you know about Hiropon?"
    Veronica squints. "Yeah. That's the old street name for heroin. Super-addictive. The men used to shoot it up right after the war."
    I can feel her eyes on me but I don't look up. When I do, she ducks her head through her necklace-keychain, slips the keys into her cleavage. "By the way, when are you going to call Max back?"
    I look at the cat and calculate the time difference on my fingers.
    "He's away from his desk right now. It's lunchtime."
    Veronica follows my gaze to the clock. "Shit, Rudy," she says, dashing for the door, "You've made me late."

 

~

The following night we are celebrating the birthday of the editor of Shibuya Life, a weekly fashion glossy. The magazine "ignites trends," Eve tells me. "They light the right match and the whole country is in flames, everyone buying the same thing in droves."
    When I had mentioned Hiro earlier Eve brushed me off. "Business and a place to live," she'd said, "Tokyo's mucho expensive," before jetting off into the women's room with two male photographers in tow.
    Now I watch her sip sake from a square wooden box. She is glowing, even more radiant than she'd seemed at the other party. In this mood, her gilded hair suits her.
    "You're happier here," I say. "What I mean is, you have a life here. You really do live in Japan. That impresses me, Eve. Seriously. I expected something else."
    "And what, pray tell, did you expect?"
    "I don't know. More loneliness, I guess. An Eve just hiding away, growing emaciated on a diet of fish and tofu cubes. Cultivated isolation gone wrong. Overseas basket-case-ism."
    She doesn't laugh at this. She taps off some remaining ash and quashes the butt on the floor. She raises the sake box to her lips, finishes off the dregs, and sets it on the inlaid shelf behind us.
    "I don't know if it's happiness, though. I try not to keep track so much. I mean, back in the States--well, you know what I was like. It was an everyday horror. `Let's see, how do we feel today? Awful? Okay. How 'bout tonight? Melancholic and broke? All right.'" She searches the ceiling, her mouth an oval.
    "I wanted to help. I tried, you know."
    She looks beyond me, eyeing a space just past my shoulder with such intensity I almost turn to see what's written back there.
    "You didn't really try, Rudy. You pretended to try. It was a part you wrote for yourself and played on your own."
    "What do you mean?" I press my hand to her cheek, my fingers to her soft small ear. She reaches up and holds it there. "We went out," I say. "I took you out and introduced you to people. We went dancing. We went to clubs."
    She nods her head slowly, her other arm curled around her ribs, pressed beneath her breasts. "We went out," she says. "You and Max's kid sister, painting the town."
    "I never treated you like that." Her eyes seem to change color in the flashing reflections from the stage, but they are still, azure and still. I stroke the cusp of her ear between my fingers, lean forward a fraction. "I didn't."
    "You didn't really want to know me, Rudy. You observed me. Such a mystery, such a mysterious girl. I even think you liked my sadness, a little. It gave you a clearer identity. Rudy and his brooding girl. You could run around town with Veronica and complain about what a hard time I gave you. Oh, noble Rudy."
    "Eve." I have my arm around her and feel a quiver through the frame of her back. "I didn't know how."
    "We're different," she says. "You're arm's length. I know you're lonely. But you. You won't show it." Her chin is pressed to my shoulder. I feel a wet spread there, a stain of a tear that sears my collarbone.
    I kiss her neck. Gently at first, and then over and over, my tongue sliding over her salty skin, my hands clutching at the rounded bones of her waist, digging greedily down, beneath the elastic fabric of her stretch-pants. I massage her ass and want to grab it and raise her into the air and swallow her whole.
    She is stroking the back of my head, plants a soft kiss on my cheek.
    "Oh, Rudy. Why are you here?" She clutches tight at my hair near the roots. "Tell me really. The truth."
    My strategies rear and die in an instant. "I came for Max but I'm here for you, Eve. That's the truth. I want to follow you, stay with you a while. Will you let me?"
    "I don't really live here, you know," she says, undoing the top three buttons of my shirt as she speaks. "That's my little truth. I don't live in Japan. They'd never let a foreigner do that. Gaijin, we're called. `Outside people.'" She laughs weakly. Her hand kneads at my chest, a warmth that releases a sigh in me from somewhere deep. "I live around it, sort of orbit somewhere. Girl in space. Whoosh."
    Our thighs slide between each other's legs.
    "And you know what? I can see things more clearly from here. I feel real again. Intact."
    "Can you feel this?"
    "Easy, boy. We're in a public place."
    Over her shoulder I see a man near the stairwell heading down here, just a slice of his face at the door frame. I pull Eve toward me, embracing her harder. "They're here again, Eve," I say, still whispering. "Your keepers."
    "Just hold me. Like this, Rudy. Don't stop."
    When our eyes meet, the man holds my stare for a moment, then withdraws.

 

~

We take the bullet train south, the "shink," Eve keeps calling it, short for shinkansen. From its windows you can see the shape of the land, the way the mountains rise bald and sudden from the near west, then slope down to the tiny rice plots and condensed cities fringing the sea. Everything crowded in, every available space groomed and planted, constructed and tended to.
    We are staying in a corner suite in a hotel tower overlooking Osaka. This city has borders, a triangular shape that starts along a bay and spreads northeast, cut through by man-made canals. The room has been prebooked for us.
    In nearby Nara we visit a massive temple with a big bronze Buddha inside. We eat noodles from a stall and feed free-roaming deer whose eyes are glossy and solemn. I sit beside Eve on a bench in the Kasuga shrine, cherry blossoms riding confetti breezes around us as she explains their symbolic essence--brief lives of intense beauty, then death. In Kyoto we watch a priest clap his hands over a bronze pot burning with incense. Eve points out the browned patch in the hillside where monks tend August fires for the souls of the deceased.
    Geishas clomp along the alleyways by the river, their wooden sandals scraping the pavement, their mobile phones trilling.
    "That's the look I'm after for my collection," Eve says, her voice hushing with something like awe. "Total artifice. See the way the paint rises sharply up the neck? The nape is the most erotic spot on the Japanese woman. I'm modernizing the lines, of course, combining the eros and restraint with feminine power."
    I tell Eve what Veronica told me about today's geishas. Her mouth twists in disgust.
    "She would say that. She has to glorify herself somehow."
    "What happened to you, to the two of you?"
    "I got tired of her. She has no vision of herself, no sense of a future she can shape. Maybe I left her behind, but I had to. She'll be a hostess all her life, Rudy, sitting on some sleazeball's knees for the price of a handbag, saving up so she can get high again in Hong Kong."
    "You seem to know a lot about it, Eve."
    "It's what I did when I got here, all right?" she says, shaking her head. "And if you want to tell Max, go ahead, because I'm never doing it again."
    "Max won't know. He doesn't need to," I say. "But was Hiro one of your sleazeballs?"
    "Hiro?" She grabs my elbow. "Don't be childish, Rudy. This is a start-up business I'm building, and he's like a venture capitalist."
    "Eve. He's a crook."
    "He makes things happen."
    "How does Veronica know him? And Kazu? What's the connection there?"
    "They're employees of his company. Companies, I guess. Kazu is, anyway. Veronica's low on the totem, just a girl the guys go to and know."
    "Kazu looks worse every time I see him."
    Eve sighs. "I'm working on this. It's a problem. A big one."
    She pulls a cigarette from a tattered pack and lights it. "Kazu is what we might call a free spirit. Basically, he's a high-school dropout making good on his computer skills. He thinks he can work for anybody, but he can't. Japan doesn't work that way--not for the Japanese, at least. He's got his place. He needs to stay there."

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