Tanaka-san, your co-worker at Jump Start language school, has an acquaintance he’d like you to meet. “He is both gentle and masculine,” he says, something in his voice revealing that he is confident that he knows what kind of man you like.
His acquaintance lives in Azabu, an area of Tokyo favored by foreign embassy staff and employees of multinational companies. He is an Art History professor at a prestigious national university. He composes haiku, plays the saxophone, and collects antique cups and bowls used in the tea ceremony.
“He has a deep interest in foreign cultures,” Tanaka adds, sliding a business card over the table to you”He does not wish to use you for English practice”.
He invites you to a club to listen to a session he’s playing in. And so you find yourself on an unfamiliar train to a part of the city you’ve never been to before, sitting next to a head-phoned guy wearing a t-shirt that reads “Let’s Merry.” Rocking back and forth with the rhythm of the train, your thighs occasionally touch, two strangers dancing, making contact every now and then. This is closeness in Tokyo.
You stopped wearing skirts a year ago. Your best friend Alex helped you to decide what to wear tonight. She insisted that you show a bit of cleavage and frame your face with a few strategically placed blond tendrils. “You’ve got to emphasize,” she had said, “that you have something Japanese women don’t.”
Stepping off the train, you dive into a dance of pedestrians, your high-heels stabbing the sidewalk as you pass the thunderous drone of pachinko pinball parlors and dodge mini-skirted girls passing out free tissues advertising the services of loan sharks. Turning into a crooked alley, the close air sways the red paper lanterns advertising the specialties of the small bars lining the street: octopus balls, miso ramen, eel on rice. Two businessmen, ties askew, tumble out of the sliding wooden doors of a bar, a look of surprise on their faces when they see you. Your fingers trace the smooth grooves of your carved pendant, a talisman of where you came from, even if your tongue now stumbles over the place names of home.
You hear it before you see it, the seductive strains of jazz, adult music. Peering down a set of steep narrow stairs, you don’t want to admit how nervous you are. Inside, the place is intimate, low-lit, smoky, of course. You stand uncertainly in the darkest corner, observing the five-piece ensemble playing on stage. You know him instantly. He is tall, youthful-looking with a strong nose, and a beard, unusual for a Japanese man. Maybe this is what Tanaka meant by masculine. You watch the way his lips converse with his saxophone and his eyes, the color of roasted tea, meet yours. You are the first to break the gaze.
Soon his long fingers and cool hands are grasping yours, and then one of them slides into the small hollow of your back, guiding you to a table tucked in the corner. “I’m Shin,” he says, in a crisp accent that shows traces of a British education. As you repeat his name, already you can feel your tongue starting to belong to him. You tell him your name, rare and difficult for Japanese people to pronounce. He swills the syllables around in his mouth like a fine wine he is deciding whether or not to order. He tells you the character for his first name means “truth” and “reality” and you want to tell him that sometimes they don’t mean the same thing. You’re surprised when you realize that you don’t mind him ordering from the menu without consulting you, or lifting a small cup of hot sake to your lips, or the fact that you’ve hardly said anything except your own name all night. You notice how his chest expands ever so slightly when the waitress compliments him on his performance.
When the bar begins to empty, he takes your hand and you think he’s going to ask you to dance and your heart is in your mouth because you’re afraid he’ll discover you’re a big clumsy Western woman after all. Instead, he turns your left palm up and starts massaging the pressure point between your thumb and your forefinger. He says he can tell what’s wrong with your body just by touching your hand. You think that now he must be pressing the part that corresponds to your heart.
Outside the sky is heavy with the threat of rain and the clamminess is making the insides of your thighs stick together. Looking at your watch, you realize it’s too late to catch the last train home. Later, it will be the taxi ride that you remember most, gliding past the skyscrapers and neon lights, leaning into him and inhaling that male scent that you had almost forgotten.
His apartment is a careful marriage of East and West. A series of Matisse paper cutouts line the entrance hallway to your right, while the console table to the left is taken up by a large framed photo of his graduating class at Oxford. Along the back wall of the main room a sleek black leather couch is framed on both sides by floor to ceiling shelves filled with books in English, French, Japanese. Behind a set of shoji paper sliding doors there is a space of four tatami mats that he says he uses for practicing the tea ceremony and composing haiku. A narrow bamboo vase containing a single agapanthus stem about to bloom sits on a low table, and you want to say that someone once translated ikebana as the art of torturing flowers but you bite your tongue.
Sitting on the couch, he offers you cold green tea in a cup so fine that you can see the shadow of your fingertips through it. He moves fluidly and before you know it he is kissing you, one hand cupped around the back of your head like he is caressing his saxophone. You try to tell him that you don’t usually do this sort of thing, you hardly know him, but for some reason you’re saying this in Japanese and he is telling you how charming you sound speaking his language, so different from the sandpapery Anglo-Saxon syllables of your native tongue. And so you abandon your old language and spend the night being mastered by a new one.
The sun rises early and you slip into the shower. Inside the bathroom cabinet there is expensive foreign cologne, two pairs of scissors, and a tidy row of brand-new toothbrushes. Looking into the mirror, the fine lines around your eyes seem a little less visible this morning. He creeps up behind you and lays your damp hair to one side, exposing your right collarbone. He kisses the hollow groove and his beard is scratchy against the tender skin there. He says that he would love to linger but he has an early faculty meeting. He says to take your time, make yourself breakfast, that the door will automatically lock behind you when you leave.
You hang around his apartment a little longer than you need to, running your fingertips over the even spines of his books, picking up the exquisite teacups and bowls on display. You wander around his neighborhood, and catching sight of your reflection in the window of Mitsukoshi department store, you decide to buy a skirt. You don’t scowl when a middle-aged obasan bulldozes past you to grab the last open seat on the train; you smile back when a group of junior high-school students on a trip call out “haroo, haroo,” a chorus of canaries.
For three days you bounce through your classes, hold breezy energetic conversations, and some of your students even ask if something good happened to you. By day seven there are still no messages, no emails, and Alex is telling you that all men are wankers. She jokes that maybe you should move to Alaska where the odds are stacked in your favor.
Later on, as cicadas throb outside your apartment, you remember that you prefer country music to jazz anyway. Walking to the open window, you release the priceless teacup and listen to it shatter on the ground like broken tongues.
Raquel Fontanilla is a freelance translator with a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Tokyo. Originally from New Zealand, she now lives, hikes, and writes in the American Southwest. Her fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in Paradise Review and Passages.