The cherry tree that overhangs the slender canal skirting Kiyamachi-dori had already bared its branches for the approaching winter. However, one branch was not bare. Reclining along its length like a lazy sunbather was the incongruous and gentlemanly presence of an umbrella. It shone black in the borrowed streetlight from the bustling Shijo-dori, its pointy metal tip stretching outward like a big toe. No one seemed to notice the umbrella except me. Although perhaps the locals do not find such things surreal in a land where even the act of love is surreal.
Fate placed him directly across the room from me, where he bowed low from his trim waist—a lower bow than I had yet to be acknowledged with in all my time in Japan. Afterward he repeatedly snuck glances at me from behind the lenses of his glasses, his mouth quirking upwards in one corner with a shy smile each time I caught him at it. He should have been listening to the art lecture that was being offered to those who had gathered that evening in the small conference room, since he had paid for the privilege of doing so. As for me, I could not understand the lecturer’s words. I could not understand Japanese.
But I could understand him.
He apologized many times for his limited knowledge of English, screwing up his face in frustration as he looked off to one side, embarrassed by his seeming inadequacy. The lengthy silences between our electronic communications initially instigated by him proved to be the proverbial knife in my heart, although I do not think he realized this. For suddenly from out of nowhere he would agree to meet me after work in Umeda, where we sat facing each other over little pots of tea and little slices of creamy cake, speaking of things that do not matter. Why is there so much crime in America? Why do the Japanese smoke so much? —the questions we really wanted to ask frozen on our tongues, since neither of us could have made them understood to the other.
After these innocent meetings, I would speed home on the northbound train, confused and slightly relieved as I sat wedged between sleep-deprived commuters whose bodies slumped sidewise against their equally sleep-deprived neighbours, their heads bobbing with the repetitive rhythm of the train. The laundry hanging from the multitudinous apartment balconies that breasted the railroad tracks waved to me in a dun-coloured blur of tee shirts and duvets as I wondered at the hopelessness of it all. I was the gaijin—the foreigner. And I was something to be feared.
Would I ever graduate from being a san to being a chan?
The Japanese are a patient people. Of course you would need to be patient to live in a country so crowded with human life—so crammed with spaces already claimed by another that just to make love, a couple must check into a love hotel for an hour of sexual solitude at 4,500 yen a go. I could not be patient. Besides, I had my own apartment, even if he did not.
At night I lay on my futon, listening to the Hankyu train filled with impassive Japanese faces rumbling past and seeing his bashful little half-smile just as it had been on that first meeting—the smile that disrupted a deadness inside me I had tried for too long to ignore. Imagining what it might be like to touch his skin, I trailed my fingertips along the weave of the tatami that covered the floor in a sandy-blonde carpet of fibre, taking solace from the straw-like scent. It was probably the same smell that was filling his nostrils as he lay on his own futon some kilometres south of me. Only I wanted it to be me who filled his nostrils.
In the mornings I would be awakened by another smell, a pungent woody smell—that of burning leaves. It was autumn in Kyoto, the time of momiji, the characteristic maples bright-red flares in the mountains and shrines and temples of Kansai. The sky turned hazy from the smoke, although it usually cleared by afternoon, even if my head did not. The telephone rested beside me, as did his business card, which I tried to extract a taste from—some flavour from the slender fingers that had handed it to me that first evening. Everyone in Japan has a business card, even if they are not occupied in any kind of business. His was in Japanese, except for the telephone numbers and the place where he had written down his name in romaji. I must confess to ringing his mobile number during moments of frustration, replacing the receiver the instant I heard his enthusiastic "moshi moshi." Somehow I didn’t think he would be comfortable talking on the telephone in English—that it might be too difficult for him. Or at least that’s what I told myself each time I hung up on him. I extended to him an invitation to call me, but he never did. Instead I became angry with those who did call.
We never met on weekends. So I spent my weekend afternoons window-shopping in the chaotic Kawaramachi, where I was handed countless free packets of tissue displaying colourful advertisements on their plastic wrappings. I spent the corresponding evenings having dinner with gaijin friends at various izakaya in Gion, drinking too much beer and sake and laughing too much hollow drunken laughter, which might result in an off-key rendition of Misia’s latest hit as we barrelled our way toward the station in time for the last train home. On weekends I did not want to be alone, where I would be forced to think about him and wonder what he did with his weekends. And with whom he did it.
I could no longer speak of my grand passion to my friends. They did not want to hear about the Japanese salary man who treated me with such apparent disregard—who was probably in love with somebody else or might even be about to enter into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman many years my junior, such things not being unknown in modern-day Japan. After all, he was not so young anymore—he was not one of the blue-jeaned, bleached-blond, hair-gelled young bucks who hunker down in the nighttime cold outside Lawson’s convenience store to enjoy a smoke away from the disapproving eye of their families. Plus there was another reason for my reticence: I had grown weary of the suggestion that maybe he did not take matters further because he worried that his penis did not measure up to Western standards. ‘Have you ever seen a Japanese condom? Chiisai!’
I visited temples. That is what one does in Japan. The heady aroma of hundreds of smouldering sticks of incense drew me inside these sacred structures, where I sat incorrectly cross-legged on the tatami floor and offered a prayer to the great wooden Buddha who presided over us. The devout appeared not to be bothered by my foreign presence, nor did the Buddha appear bothered by my rather inappropriate love prayers. I wondered if the fresh-scrubbed young monks ringing the bell and chanting the day’s prayers realized just what the gaijin woman was asking from the Buddha—that I wanted to draw the tip of my tongue along the graceful slant of his eyes—that I wanted to press the length of my body against his to feel his rising heat—that I wanted to tease his boyish nipples with the sentient pads of my thumbs…. Yet perhaps the monks did know my desires, for they smiled kindly at me as I sat on the cold temple steps putting my shoes back on, the laces clumsy in my anguished fingers.
Of course I visited shrines, too. You do not need to pay to enter a shrine, although you are supposed to pay when asking something from the gods. In Arashiyama I wrote a prayer in black marker on a square of wood, then hung it from a metal hook along with all the other prayers that would be attended to later that day by the resident priest, tossing a shiny 100-yen coin into the receptacle intended for this payment. I clanged the bell and clapped my hands together a second time just to make certain I had the attention of the Shinto god in whose shrine I was a caller. After all, one can never be too careful in these things.
I made myself at home on a stone bench along the bank of the Hozu River, averting my hopeless eyes from the pair of young lovers kissing on the bench to my right. Instead I watched the small boats filled with tourists braving the late-autumn cold glide along the jade-green water, taking poignant inspiration from the reds and oranges and yellows shading the mountains as I composed what I assumed would be my final message to him. The message that would either bring him to my tatami mat or send him away from me for good. Did he not want more than tea and cake?
It took me awhile to actually send it. I received no reply.
I have heard that the umbrella is still there on its branch above the canal by Kiyamachi-dori, its peculiar presence now shaded by fluffy white cherry blossoms, which will soon be gone, taking with them their transitory beauty. Just as I have gone, taking with me my sadness.
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