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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.

~

My cab arrives at a place called Shinjuku, where tonight's party is supposed to be. The car doors spring open and I step onto the sidewalk, the air carnival-like, chaotically festive, driven by an edge of consumer zeal and aggression that has me sidestepping and weaving, and still I am brusquely bumped. A clutch of blue-suited men passes. Beer-rich breath. No nod, no sorry. An old woman beside me in kimono finery and with an osteoporotic hump the size of a basketball bows low to an ATM screen.
    I walk east, fingering Veronica's pink-penned map in the pocket of my leather jacket. Every ten yards there are standing canvas displays of cartoon girls. Protuberant, preposterous breasts, skirts rising half off white-pantied buttocks--though none quite as cartoony, ludicrous, and, I realize, shrewdly parodic as Kazu's heroine. These are adverts, serious come-ons. Most of the text I can't decipher, but the block-letter exclamations of "Sex Me Happy!" or "Playtime Wet!" traverse cultures.
    I find the Kentucky Fried Chicken Veronica has circled on the map, the plastic Colonel statue with menacing grin, and barely dodge a delivery girl on a minuscule white scooter. Behind it is a pinched, unlit alley Veronica has labeled "Cul-de-Sack." I step into it. Someone in the purple-lit dark says: "You are Mis-ter Bates Gill?"
    "Rudy Zane."
    "Zane-san. Ah, okay. Go in, please."
    The man with the clipboard and wraparound sunglasses holds open a door that opens into an elevator, which, in a few silent seconds, has me gazing through glass at the light blazes receding below. A flashing billboard reads NTT DO CO MO, DO COMMUNICATIONS OVER THE MOBILE and then the doors slide open on a whisper.
    I hear her before I see her. Voice is a character rush, a billion strands of data in waves of sound. ". . . looks heavenly," is what she says, and it's Eve, all at once.
    The place has a panoramic view of the city--glittering buildings on both sides--then it doesn't. The walls are mirrors. I see my own face suspended above the shoulder of the woman in front of me. I am moving toward Eve's voice, trying and failing to affect nonchalance. I don't know anyone here.
    The blonde Eve sits at the center of a human cove, looking angular and poised. I search for signs of Max in her face and I find them, but her features are sharpened somehow, refocused. The cheeks are drawn taut toward her small mouth. The chin thrusts. She is smoking a cigarette in a long black holder, head arched back, and wearing a navy long-sleeve shirt, unbuttoned at her midriff. Wide collars, a flash of gold across her collarbone.
    "Eve," I say, but my voice fizzles like a spent balloon.
    A strobe flashes. The guy with a camera, his nose a sharp knife between his eyes, says something in Italian. Eve smiles, hands a piece of fabric to the bony-armed Japanese man in a leopard-print jacket at her side.
    "Heavenly," she repeats.
    Her mouth drops a fraction when she sees me, a millisecond glimpse of the Eve I knew. Then she rises, people part, and she is suddenly embracing me with a sort of effortless grace that the old Eve never used to have, a 1940s kind of grace, really, from black-and-white films you know but can't name.
    "Rudy," she says, so low and familiar that I don't let go of her. She gestures expansively, sweeping an arm around the semicircle of faces. I see them in a fish-eye portrait; hip, multicultured beauties through a convex lens.
    "These are my friends."
    Their combined dazzle shrinks me further.
    "Great," I say, with a little bobbing wave to the gang. Then, in a numb stutter to Eve: "Pretty . . . impressive."
    She smirks, touches my elbow. "I'll protect you."
    "I think I'm still a little jet-lagged."
    "Good excuse," she says, and leans over to kiss my cheek. "It's nice, Rudy."
    "What?"
    "You, here. I didn't know." She steps back, rests her chin on her knuckles, and examines my face. "Nice. You look the same."
    There are people coursing around us. I try to be still, to find her in her eyes.
    "You don't," I say.
    She draws lightly on her cigarette. "Thank God." She takes my arm into hers. "Come on. Let's show you off to the gallery."
    We embark on a tour of the room, which is smaller than I'd thought. Everyone Eve knows seems steeped in underground glamour--photographers, designers, actors, and musicians, demimonde types--and as Kazu said, everyone seems to know her. Four Japanese guys in a heavy-metal band called Sexpress Elephant kiss her hand, each in turn, their leather pants bunching around toothpick legs.
    She tells them all I'm here "on business," a line that stymies further inquiry and feels curiously apt.
    A DJ with a fuchsia-tinted afro leans over, says something in her ear.
    "Tomorrow, Tako," Eve whisper-shouts back, "Ashita, ashita. This is tonight. Ima, Ima. Enjoy."
    "Ima means `tonight'?" I ask.
    "Ima means `right now.'"
    When she smiles at these people Eve seems to bless them, sending them away stronger than they were. She doesn't smile a lot, but she does so cleanly, with precision, as though she'd learned how to parcel her love out. It's a cultivated power, a notion that unnerves me even as I am growing accustomed to her new charisma, addicted as I follow her.
    She touches one of the waitresses in a karate robe and orders two martinis in their language, rapid fire. We are standing near a table of food. I reach down for a glistening rice ball and wind up raising the entire plate.
    Eve laughs. "It's plastic. Isn't it beautiful?"
    The display contains sushi platters and octopi, bowls of clear soup with bits of tofu, a giant lobster on a tray garnished with six shrimp on each side. The arrangements are coordinated through color, the fake foods themselves creating a kind of candy-toned palette. There are shimmering lemons, tiny droplets of water on fresh-faced slabs of fish.
    I set down the rice-ball ensemble and take her hand.
    "May I request the pleasure?" I ask, blinking in fast, fluttery charm, conjuring Western artifice. A Fred Astaire for her Ginger.
    "You may, darling."
    "Your hand?"
    Mock faint, wrist on brow.
    We dance. To tangos and waltzes and swing, all of it set miraculously to undulating hip-hop beats, the DJ layering track upon track in a series of sonic contexts. The styles sound newly minted against the shifting rhythms, and we lock into a grinding groove suited to each, Eve's body churning closer, her thighs brushing mine as she purses her mouth, lowers her lids. Beneath us the city glows, stretching even farther, it seems, than it had earlier. I slip my palm under the back of her shirt and press it there, drawing her into me. Our foreheads meet and bow together.
    "I feel like we've just met," I say.
    "That's exactly--" She pauses, breathes in. "Well, maybe we have."
    "But I know it's not true."
    "Why?"
    "Because I've missed you."
    There is commotion coming from the door but I ignore it. In my mind we are dancing alone at the center of a wider world than I've known before.
    The music is turned down fast, though it's still playing. "What's going on?" I ask.
    Eve rises on her toes, looks over heads. "Anna's here maybe."
    "Who?"
    "Japanese supermodel. Half something else. Very twenty-first century. Sometimes she passes through."
    I could care less, of course. But while we are both focused on the door, I get nudged from behind. It's a hard nudge, a borderline shove. A fat guy in an incongruously trim suit hands an itty-bitty phone to Eve. He eyes me quickly, blinks, stands solid in the space between her and me. She places the phone against one ear, index finger over the other, and crouches down to hear. When she rises she is brisk and attentive, her eyes braced.
    "I have to go," she announces, using a broad, public voice intended for a roomful of people. She hands the phone back to the fat guy, who pockets it and nearly runs me over.
    "All right," I say. "Who's fatso with the phone?" I ask, brushing down my shirt.
    Eve grabs my hand, her thumb running quickly over my knuckles. "I'm so glad you're here," she says, words tumbling. "I'm so happy you're here. Will you be there tomorrow night? At Le Mois, I think. Harajuku. If not, Friday night on the island called Odaiba. Gommennasai. A million sorries. I'll find you."
    "Eve. Slow down." I grab her shoulder but she squirms away in a spasm. "Hey. Where're you going?"
    "Later, Rudy. I promise." She glances toward the door. "Oh, he's here. Gotta go."
    "Who?"
    "Hiro," she says.
    She cuts left, hard left, through a tight throng of people, her body somehow prying out space. I try to follow, looking for her head, tiptoeing to see over the crowns and parts. There is a flash of blonde at the door amid a mass of dark suits, and she is gone.
    The DJ turns the music back up, even louder than it was before. A wash of distorted guitars and cymbals. I stumble, tripped up by someone's dancing legs. The whole room seems suddenly darker than it should be. Someone's got my arm. I disentangle my calf from a woman's knee while trying to maintain my balance. The woman frowns at me as if I'd meant to ensnare her.
    The person gripping my arm is Kazu. He lets go, looks up at me, his features strained.
    "Loo-dee," he says.
    His nose is bleeding. Plus, his left arm is bent, tucked up to his chest like a chicken wing. "What happened?"
    "Bad," he says. He shakes his head and looks around quickly. "Where Eve go?"
    "She split with somebody named Hiro. You know him?"
    "Hiro." He nods. "My boss. Eve friend."
    Friend. I think of the connotations, all the shadowy stuff of that word.
    "Are you all right? Who knocked you around?"
    Kazu nods again, crouches down a little. "Bike," he says quietly.
    Veronica pushes into the room, breathing hard. She sees me immediately, like she'd been expecting me in exactly this spot. "Oh, God," she says. "You're still here." She leans forward and kisses me, forcing Kazu back against the wall. "I totally hate this scene," she says, licking her lips, eyes streaked red. "I hate this scene."
    She notices Kazu then. She hovers over him, speaking fast in sharp-edged Japanese.
    Kazu suddenly smiles. He points at her buzzing eyes. "Ecstasy?" he says.
    Veronica grimaces, draws away. "Otaku. Baka!"
    "I saw Eve," I tell her.
    "Not here." She grabs my arm in a thrust. We step-stumble into the hallway where she slams her finger against the elevator button, a lighted red arrow pointing down.

~

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."

~

At the hotel in Osaka, moonlight filters through a floor-to-ceiling window. Eve and I stand before it, naked, her back against my chest, my hands on her small warm stomach. We look down to the Japanese garden below--the elegant landscaping of white stones, tidy islands of sculpted trees illuminated by a string of rice lanterns. In the middle is an oblong pool, pitch black but for the candy-colored carp flickering in their schools.
    "Does Hiro know I'm with you?" I ask.
    She is silent for a moment. "Yes. Of course, he does."
    Lovemaking with Eve happens in movements, slow and deliberate at first, like we're searching each other's bodies for signs of who we were, who we've become. We are reclaiming each other physically, and I find myself shaking a little as I touch her, nervous, ecstatic. On the smooth sheets I press my nose to her stomach, my tongue to the soft indentations around the ridges of her ribs. Her breasts look translucent in the glow from the window. Their warmth against my cheeks makes me want to confess a lifetime of delirious sins and failings, a sadness welling from somewhere within. I kiss her moist brow and then the little bump high on her nose. She runs her hand through my hair.
    "You know, I knew there was some reason," she says, scanning my face as I hover above.
    "For what?"
    She touches the arc of her nose. "He suggested I lose this, straighten it out. He offered money for the surgery."
    The flash of horror on my face makes her laugh deep in her chest, a rounded, well-fed sound. Her shiny nipples quiver in the light, still wet from where I've licked them.
    "Now," she says, reaching down, grabbing me firmly. "Now I know."

 

~

I meet Hiro in a club in downtown Osaka, well after midnight. Takashimaya or something is his last name. Takarazuka. Toyota.
    In the cab Eve apologizes. "He assured me I was free tonight," she says. "He knew it was important to me. Said he had his own people to see anyway."
    We'd been in bed, asleep and entwined, when her pocket phone rang. I wanted to smash the thing with a ball-peen hammer.
    We are meeting in a place called the Grand Café, a quasi-posh underground bar open all night, art deco, with black-and-white fashion-model pix on every wall. The place is thick with Euro wanna-bes in Italian suits, mod fashions--well-dressed, haughty young Japanese whose faces say they could give a shit for anything past their fine-tuned noses.
    Hiro himself, his hair gray and clipped, wears Armani.
    He materializes beside us at the entrance, before we've even had a chance to engage the maître d', and lays his arm around Eve's shoulder with a practiced, regal calm. She squeezes my hand before letting go.
    "Rudy desu," she says to him, extending her hand toward me and bowing her head slightly. "And Rudy," she says to me, overbright, cheery and forceful: "This is Hiro. Takeshi-san."
    The barest incline of Hiro's head shows that he sees me. His face is sun washed and shiny, his smile tight.
    "How do you do," I say, and his smile widens a fraction.
    We walk to a conspicuously empty leather banquette against the far wall. This is a movie, I think to myself. Hiro affects the gentle sway of an epic godfather, but he is too short to pull it off, and instead might be said to waddle slightly. Not until we reach the booth do I realize that an entire crew of men accompanies us, all of them directly behind me, single file, soundless. They fill in the spaces around Hiro and Eve with deft speed.
    I am left to locate a stool on my own, which I do with the help of a waitress in a fishnet blouse and stiletto heels. The stool sets me three inches lower than the rest of them. I feel like a serf facing trial.
    "They like your hair," Eve says from across the table. "They say it's kawaii--cute, pretty."
    I reach up to touch it, an off-brown mop I've never known how to comb.
    Hiro and the two guys nearest him laugh, then the other guys, and finally I do, though I don't feel like it. One of the guys giggling loudest looks like the one who peered around the door frame the other night, but I'm not sure. That was Tokyo.
    I cast a glance at Eve and her smile looks pained to me, stiff and worried.
    The same waitress returns, bearing a computerized keypad in one hand. Eve orders with what sounds like accentless fluency, and in a second the waitress is back again with our drinks. Everyone gets a Chivas Regal except Eve, who has a Cosmopolitan.
    While Eve and Hiro converse in low-toned Japanese and the henchmen stare into space, I sip the whiskey and scan the crowd. There are, in fact, a lot of older men in here with younger women. I turn back to our banquette. Eve's eyes are wide and Hiro is making a point, stabbing his index finger into the surface of the table.
    "Hey," I say, and everyone looks at me. Hiro's face creases with shock and annoyance.
    Eve says, "Sumimasen," in a quavery, high-pitched voice. "Excuse us, everyone."
    The two of them rise and step around the table, the hired hands standing immediately to let them by. I try to follow but I can't get out of my crouch. A guy I hadn't noticed before has his hand clamped to my shoulder. His fingers feel welded there. He is standing behind me, so I look back and up at him. I recognize his face, the sliver I saw at the door that night, the sliver that disappeared fast.
    "Okay?" he says dully.
    I give him a universal thumbs-up.
    Hiro and Eve are over by the toilets. Eve is gesticulating dramatically. She keeps brushing her hair back over her shoulder and it keeps falling forward, as if it were rigged to do so. Then they round another corner where I can't see them.
    I sip my drink. I wait. The sinuous music keeps bubbling on. The big boys stare.
    When she returns her eyes dance frantically. She pushes past the men before they have a chance to stand, stumbling over their legs. She grabs her purse and her thigh-length leather coat and says, "We're leaving, Rudy. Ima."
    I stand, half expecting another metallic grip to sit me down again. "Are you all right?"
    From across the room I see Hiro. He is glaring at me now, stroking his chin with one hand. I look back at him, nod, wave. He just glares.
    "Rudy," Eve says. "Listen to me. We've gotta get out of here. We've gotta do it now, quickly and without a scene."
    "Whoa, whoa," I say, palms open as I follow her. "Eve?"
    We weave around the tables and push past the lines at the door. Eve hands crumpled yen bills to a driver who beelines it to Osaka station, chuckling as he ignores a series of red lights.
    We make the first express run to Tokyo, 5:34 a.m., Japan time.
    "You know," she says, chest heaving as she grips the armrests, "you don't call the police on men like him if you're people like us." She shakes her head.
    "What are you telling me?"
    "They're closing in. On Kazu."
    "Closing in?"
    "Maybe Veronica, too. We gotta tell them both. Your stuff still there? We have to get it and get to the airport."
    She grabs my face, kisses me hard.

 

~

When we arrive in Tokyo, Eve bounds off the train, down the escalators and massive concrete stairs. She hails a cab at the curb. "Come on," she yells back.
    We wind down the twisting canals of Shibuya saying nothing. I grip her hand in my sleepless daze, my fingers stroking her knuckles the way she did mine just days ago.
    As the cab idles in traffic Eve outlines the basic scheme: classic blackmail. Kazu accessing poorly secured databases from a tatami room stuffed with consoles and fax machines and televisions in Shinegawa, a ward near the bay. Passing on the info to Hiro and Co., who threaten revelation, persecution, open shaming--a breach of the critical split between private and public spheres in Japan, a breach worthy of suicide. The corrupt CEO or errant merchant or lowly salaryman pays his dues, up to millions of yen, to keep the truth disguised. At Veronica's building the cab's auto-doors stick. Eve kicks hers open.
    "Go," she says. "I'll wait here in the car."
    "Why?"
    "I want to watch the doors while you're up there. Just hurry. Get your stuff." She grabs my hand. "Trust me, okay?"
    In the elevator I remember the night with Veronica, the way she brought us together, her quick and easy flirtations. Suddenly she seems like an emissary from another world. I picture her packing her knapsack and making for the door, telling me to call Max. My right hand trembles. I shove it into my pocket.
    I hear the thumps about three doors down from Veronica's. In the sunlit air of the terrace walkway I freeze, grabbing a stucco wall beside me. It sounds like furniture being moved around, someone redecorating or hanging plants, albeit a little roughly. I crouch down against the wall. I think momentarily of the elevator, of getting back to it, but I resist the urge. There are curt utterances of Japanese coming from Veronica's door. Hard consonants, short vowels. Spat from the front of the mouth.
    The thumping continues. I can't stand it and want to hear it at the same time. Then the noise goes dead. Silence. I move forward a step, think better of it, stay.
    The door opens fast. Two men in jumpsuits step out, a company insignia emblazoned across their backs. SKY TV. One of the men is the fat guy who interrupted my dance with Eve at the first party. The moment I recognize him is the moment he sees me. His brows arch slightly.
    He takes fast, short strides toward me and I stand. We look at each other. The other guy behind him shouts: "Dam-eh!"
    No? Stop? I brace myself for a fist or a handgun, some kind of vicious assault, but the fat guy just stares at me, then spits at my feet.
    "Fohck you," he says. And I nod approvingly.
    They both walk past me to the elevator, making a show of their calm strut.
    A note with my name on it is taped to Veronica's door. I tuck it into my pocket, fit the key Veronica gave me, but the door is unlocked.
    Kazu's body inside the apartment is remarkable for its cleanliness. He is bruised a little, but no blood. He lies supine on Veronica's futon, stretched flat, one hand curled around a mug of tea. Hiropon and her milk-tied breasts are on the floor mats, not far from Kazu's splayed fingers.
    You'd have to look closely, as I do, deep into the swirls of green leaves suspended in the cooling mug, to see the something impure in it: the something white and powdery, something that doesn't belong where it is. The commotion was the act of restraining him. They had to hold Kazu down to kill him. Keep him from rising.
    "Oh, God," Eve says behind me. "Jesus Christ, Rudy."
    I look back at her as she leans into me, perspiring, breathing in deep gulps of air. "Kazu," she says, gripping my arm with the strength of anger and sorrow--and fear.

~

In the cab I open Veronica's note: "Dear Doo-dee. Bangkok bound. Leave key under doormat. Remove bags and go wherever. No more postcards, O.K.?"
    They know who I am now. They know what I've seen. I want to be the kind of person who could take them down and turn them in, who'd tear Veronica's lines to bits and toss them out the window. Instead I am on my way to the airport, and I fold the note, carefully, and slide it into my breast pocket.
    Eve is asleep. Right after she gave the driver a terse set of directions she collapsed against the seat.
    In cloud-dimmed daylight Tokyo looks gray, even weighty. The taxi rises on an elevated ramp, the tableau seeps away. The skyscrapers seem sodden in the distance. I can see smokestacks now, dense pollutants in black and beige wisps. The giant screens play but their images are indistinct, pulses of color against a featureless sky.
    The place has a morning-after look, all its artifice exhausted.
    I pull out my notebook, uncap my pen. I try to think of something to add in the margins but I can't formulate sentences. My mind is clogged, unyielding. I try to sketch the cartoon girl from Kazu's book, the mix of mother, schoolgirl, and action hero, but I can't.
    The driver waves, his glove birdlike in the air.
    "Eve, we're here," I say, shaking her.
    I shoulder my duffel bags as she pays, then I take her hand and lead her through the sliding glass doors. There is no line at the check-in counter. The woman behind the computer wears a starched blue suit and a goofy cap with a ribbon on it. She looks as Japanese as the rest, but her English is crisp, even eloquent.
    "Would you like to request a particular seating section?"
    Eve looks up at me and nods. When I realize she doesn't have a ticket I grab her arm and almost twist it.
    "Hey!"
    The physical pain leaves her face as I let go. In its place is a pain that is layered, dense with thought and consideration, afterthoughts being born.
    I force calmness into my voice. "What're we doing?" I ask.
    "You're leaving," she says. She blinks. "What we're doing is putting you on a plane. The next one. To New York."
    "No way, darling."
    "Darling."
    "Darling, I said. No."
    Someone honks a horn through the open doors. I lower my head as if they might shoot at me through the windows.
    "Eve, listen. I'm not going back to New York unless you're coming with me. And if you're not, I have to stay here. With you."
    "You can't."
    "I have to."
    I reach out to touch Eve's cheek but she catches my hand and holds it in midair.
    "Why?" she says.
    "Because this is real," I blurt out. "I mean, the danger is real. I also mean, us."
    I notice the woman's eyes at the counter. That she understands what I'm saying suddenly unnerves me.
    "I don't--" Eve says, shaking her head slowly. "I don't know if we are, Rudy."
    She lets go of me and steps back.
    "What do you mean?" I say.
    "You have to leave." Her face looks numb, then softer, then imploring. Several Eves pass. I watch until I recognize her.
    "You're the one in danger, Rudy. I'm sorry."
    I reach out and clutch her arm. I pull. She resists, but my strength and body weight prevail.
    People have stopped to watch. We are nearing the X-ray machines. Adrenal heat spreads through my chest and arms. A security officer in a light blue suit nears me, says something into his walkie-talkie, steps back when he sees my face.
    "I can't leave here without you, Eve," I say, and the words feel script-fed and entirely true.
    "You are," she says. "You have to."
    I let go of her and she falls to the floor. Or she lets herself fall. In the brief sight of her down, legs bending inward, shoulders hunched, I get a flash of the old Eve in her apartment before the television screen. Then she sits up, exhales.
    The security guard rushes over. Eve speaks to him in Japanese, waves her hand, and he nods.
    "Rudy," she says, voice a whip. "Listen to me--really listen. Go."

 

~

Beneath the whistling air vents I eye the porthole window. "There are limits," Max says.
    I stand up. I look for her dyed hair over chair backs and seat cushions. Maybe she sees what I see. Maybe she changed her mind.
    The flight is hardly full. People board this enclosed canal, a nowhere zone, and tuck packaged lives into overhead compartments. I keep standing, looking for her hair.
    A flight attendant chastises me in broken English. "Sit down, please," she says. "Please to put your safety belt."
    I don't fasten my belt. I don't sit down.
    The cabin begins to rumble and vibrate, then it rolls, backing away.
    They lower the screens that say WELCOME ABOARD. There is a lurch. I am seated.
    I don't see her, but I imagine I do, and I know what I'd do if I did, a bloom of blonde amid the black strands parted and puffed and matted along distant rows. Eve in row three or four, seat F or E. I'd press the attendant's button, the lighted one with the universal human figure, limbs straitjacketed, face blank. The "people" button. I'd hear the electronic tone and see lotioned, foundationed skin with plastic lashes hovering at my shoulder. I'd have them summon Eve to the empty seat beside me.
    When we crossed the date line, I'd take Eve's hand and I'd nod at that melting sky. Look, I'd say. Time is a bomb out there. Everything's always exploding, always now. And I know it looks like nothing real, but it is, Eve. It is.

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