1

Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling, the sinking feeling that my life is little more than the punch line of a very bad joke. Someday when I can’t take it anymore, when I finally cry “uncle”, I know in my heart of hearts that God will be waiting for me. The bastard will give me a friendly jab to the shoulder and say, “Sorry, Peador, I was just feckin’ with you.”

Looking at my reflection of the darkened window of the subway car, I can see I’m a mess. After what the Almighty Prankster has put me through this morning, I’m not surprised.

As the train pulls into the station, my gut rumbles. Nature has been calling for the past half hour and I know I should pop right into a toilet and relieve myself, but, checking my watch, I see there isn’t a minute to spare.

*

Abazure couldn’t have been more explicit about being on time. “You cannot be late,” she said at the end of last week’s interview. “Not even once.”

I had arrived twenty minutes late for it. What can I say for myself but that I’m human and stuff happens.

“I do not tolerate sloppiness or tardiness,” she said. “Is that understood?”

I replied that it was.

“Now, your boss told me that you were often late.”

The man is a bastard and a bald-faced liar.

“I may have been late a few times over the course of the year,” I admitted. “But often? No, no, no. That is an exaggeration. Did my boss inform you that he had me travelling all over Kitakyushu in rain, sleet, and snow for lessons? Yes, I may have been a few minutes late every now and then, but then I always overcompensated by stay . . . “

“Well, I won’t tolerate you being late even a few minutes,” she said. “Is that clear, Peador?”

“Crystal.”

“Can you promise me that you won’t be late?”

“I can,” I answered dryly.

“Then I’d like you to come again next week. And be there by nine sharp.”

“Nine o’clock sharp,” I said, writing the time down in my day planner. “I will be there. You can count on me.”

*

And yet here I am, and it’s two minutes of nine when the train pulls into the station. I’m one misstep from getting sacked even before I’ve been officially hired.

My intestines do a somersault as I step onto the platform. I really should head straight for the restroom, but I don’t have the time.

If only I hadn’t taken the slow train. If only I had made the connection. If only . . . Twenty-six years old and my life is already a litany of regrets.

Climbing up out of the subway station, my gut calms somewhat, giving me a reprieve. It’s the first bit of luck I’ve had all morning and so quicken my pace, but not too fast, because I don’t want to surprise my bowels; heaven forbid I jump start them into peristalsis.

*

A few minutes later and short-winded, I stand before the foot of the stairs that lead to my next place of employment: The American School. After catching my breath, I climb the steps and introduce myself to a dour young woman behind the counter. She tells me that Abazure hasn’t arrived yet and, gesturing toward the next room, tells me in to take a seat and wait.

Plopping down on a shit-brown vinyl sofa in the lobby, I thank my lucky stars that I managed to get here first.

The American School is a bit larger than the dismal little eikaiwa I’ve been slaving away at for the last twelve months, but no less bleak. Like a dozen other private English schools in the city, many of which I’ve had the “pleasure” to visit for interviews before Abazure called me back, there are the usual weathered stencils on the window declaring it to be an “English Conversation School”.

There are chalkboards instead of the more common white boards. Small desks are arranged in a circle rather than a single round table in the largest of the four classrooms. The walls are decorated with the kinds of cheap posters you’d find at a teaching supply store in the States, and pictures cut out of magazines. The lobby has been furnished with second hand furniture. The sofa I sit on was probably once in Abazure’s livingroom.

In short, it is an uninspiring place. If the schedule weren’t so ridiculously easy–only two or three classes a day compared to the five or six that have been teaching–I might have taken up employment at Yeehaw! English School, instead.

Being paid more to work less. As intractable the dreariness hanging in the school’s air is, that is still a song I can dance to. Better still, I’ll have a boss who seems to know what she’s doing, rather than a moron who clutches at straws just to keep from going bankrupt every month like I’ve had these past twelve months. Even if the expiration date of my visa weren’t bearing down on me as it is, I would still leap at Abazure’s offer.

*

What the hell was I even trying to find another job for? Considering how miserable my first year in Japan has been–after twelve months I’ve emerged heart-broken, humiliated, physically and emotionally exhausted, not to mention broke–you’d expect me to be fleeing for home like everyone else I know is. Blame it on misfiring synapses, if you like, but it is precisely because the year’s been so patently awful, that I sit here on the shit-brown vinyl sofa and think with muted optimism: Things can only get better. Things can only get better. Things can only get better.

It’s a congregation of one, of course, that I preach to. No one else will listen. Every gaijin I know is going back to his or her home country, including my closets friend in Japan, Ben, the only person who could reasonably say that he’s had a fulfilling year.

None of them have minced words: they’ve all told me I must be a masochist to even consider staying another year. Why subjugate yourself to another twelve months of what will surely be more of the same bullshit and hassles? Like a proselyte whose faith has been challenged, I defended the choice and reminded them that I would not only be teaching less but would be living in Fukuoka City rather than god-forsaken Kitakyushu, and so on.

But I’m not very convincing. How do you expect me to be when I can’t even win myself over to my own logic?

No, the truth behind my willingness to remain in Japan is an obstinate unwillingness to let go of the thin hope that the woman I love might find it within herself to come back into my life.

*

Fifteen minutes pass and still no Abazure.

So much for the importance of being punctual . . .

I’m feeling like crap, really awful. My chest aches from the congestion and every time I breathe in, the fluid in my lungs rattles like a hookah, my nose dribbles without stop, and, if that weren’t enough, my stomach has started to act up again. The coffee seems to have gone right through me.

Just as I’m about to stand up and inquire about the restrooms, Abazure arrives. The four-foot-eight powerhouse smiles widely and bellows out a sunny greeting, then disappears into the office. I’d love disappear myself into the restroom, but figure it’s best to wait, stomach doing flip-flops, all the same.

Abazure gives the girl in the office a big “Ohayo” and the two then converse in hushed voices. With the restroom beckoning, I’m tempted to interrupt when Abazure emerges. The broad smile she was wearing when she arrived is gone.

She directs me to a smaller classroom where we sit across from each other at an old dining room table. She looks down at the document before her, hard nails tapping at the surface of the table. The woman is fuming about something and I haven’t got the courage to ask what about. She looks up from the document, and stares at me through her narrow glasses. For a woman of such small stature, Abazure comes off as formidable, intimidating, and downright frightening.

She inhales slowly, deeply before speaking. I inhale slowly and shallowly so as to not shock my bowels. I’ve begun to percolate and want nothing more of this world and this woman before me to be excused. Nature has stopped calling. It is now shouting. The way Abazure is looking at me, however, tells me there’s nothing I can do but try to grin and bear it. My insides churn and I’m thinking this is what it must feel like when an unborn baby kicks.

“In our conversation the other day,” she begins, “I made it very clear that you were not to be late . . . ”

“Y-yes, I know.”

“Yes, you know . . . “ She glares at me over the tops of her spectacles. “But, you were late today, weren’t you?”

Jesus Christ, that bitch in the office went and told her I was late.

“Yes, but only . . . ”

Oh mother of God help me! My bowels have started doing the rumba.

“I have a right mind to tear this contract up and find someone else. It wouldn’t be hard after all. There are more than enough people out there looking for work.”

And then, Abazure actually picks up the contract and rips it in half and I cannot believe my eyes.

What the fuck?

2

I woke up shortly after dawn and stuck out my kitchen window to check the weather. The cold air bit my cheeks and my breath clouded before me, but the slag heap to the west of the working class neighborhood that had been my home for a year was bathed in the glow of the rising sun. With the sky promising to clear up, it made sense to dress lightly, to endure the chill in the morning rather than sweat throughout what I thought promised to be a lovely spring day.

After a shower, I dressed in a light suit and tie, and hurried out the door. As I was walking away from my apartment, appreciating the sweet smell of magnolias in a neighbor’s garden, Ben rounded the corner. He had the habit of jogging in the morning. Steam billowed from his head and shoulders; the front of his gray University of Wisconsin sweatshirt was black with sweat.

“Leaving already?” he asked.

“Yeah, I have to be there by nine this morning to sign the contract.”

“You might wanna bring an umbrella,” Ben suggested. “TV said it’s gonna rain. Niwaka ame. I think it means a sudden shower, or something like that.”

“Yeah, right,” I replied looking up at the sky. As much as I liked Ben and had come to depend heavily on his advice over the past year, his comprehension of the Japanese language just could not be trusted. The fact alone that the man still hadn’t realized that his Christian name, Ben, meant excrement in Japanese was enough to peck away at the urgency of taking an umbrella. “Besides,” I said, “I’ll miss the bus if I go back now.”

I should have listened to him. No sooner had I started up the hill towards the bus stop than the wind picked up, the sky darkened, and heavens opened up, the rain falling in torrents.

Niwaka ame. I’ve learned a new word.

Halfway between the bus stop and my apartment, I was paralyzed with indecision and getting wetter by the second. Do I run back and fetch an umbrella only to risk missing the bus, or do I high-tail it to the bus stop, and try to find some shelter under the awning of the rice shop until the bus comes?

The rain had already soaked my head; icy rivulets were now running down my neck and back. Umbrella or no umbrella, I was going to get drenched, so I forged ahead, up the hill. As I neared the bus stop, the approaching bus plowed through a cascade of water flowing along the curb, sending a wall of water towards me. I tried to leap out of the way, but wasn’t fast enough. My pants were sopping wet from the knees down, my feet sloshed around in their loafers.

I boarded the bus, looking like something that cat drug in, and took a seat next to a floor heater where I rolled my pants up and tried in vain to dry my feet.

As the damp settled into my clothes, a chill rattled up my spine and the chest cold that had been pestering me for a month started pestering me some more. I managed to suppress the first sneeze. And the next. But the third one was doozie. It developed up deep inside me and, as it gained strength, I rifled through my pockets, frantically looking for a handkerchief.

For the love of God, how could I have forgotten a handkerchief?.

The sneeze came, carrying with it the generous contents of my nasal passages, and deposited it all into my cupped hands.

I opened the window and stuck my hands out into the rain to try to rinse the snot off. Then, taking the silk pocket square out of my breast pocket, I dried my hands.

By the time the bus arrived at the train station, the goddamn niwaka ame had already passed. The sky, however, was still overcast and the air much colder than it had been when I left. Looking around at the sleepy mob standing on the platform, I could see that everyone, but me, was wearing a heavy winter coat over his suit or a scarf bundled around his neck. Spring may have been evident in the buds of the sakura trees and in the frenetic activity of birds, but the wind barreling down the platform was all winter.

A “local train” rolled into the platform. I knew I’d be cutting it close if I took it, as it would stop at every blessed station from now to Hakata, but the limited express train wasn’t scheduled to show up for another fifteen minutes. I’d surely catch myself a death of a cold if I waited on the platform, exposed to the cold wind. I hopped on, figuring I could always transfer to one of the express trains several stations down.

It was lovely inside the train. Unlike the express in which salarymen and office ladies were sure to densely packed in like cattle off to slaughter, there are only a handful of students dozing off or staring blankly out the windows. It was an older model of train, and the thinly padded pews-like cubicles offered a bit of privacy.

I sat down as far away from the doors and frigid air that would surely blow in at each stop as possible, and when the train jerked into motion, the heaters below the seat kicked on. I remove my shoes and socks and tried to warm my blue toes.

Warm air bathed my calves, climbed up my legs, enveloping my knees, and drifted toward my face. Before I knew it, the heat and relaxing sway of the train as it made its easy way to Fukuoka lulled me to sleep.

I woke to a completely empty train. Looking out the window, I couldn’t recognize the station.

Shûten des’. Shûten,” came over the PA system.

Last stop? You gotta be kidding.

I pulled my warm but slightly damp socks over my feet, slipped on my soggy loafers and scrambled out of the train. The platform clock showed eight twenty-five, giving me thirty-five minutes.

But where the hell am I?

I cornered one of the clean-cut uniformed station employees on the platform told him where I wanted to go and was directed with a white-gloved hand towards the stairs.

I dashed down them and on to the turnstiles where I asked another employee for directions.

Sutorayto. Sutorayto,” he said.

“Straight. Gotcha!”

I walked out of the train station and back into the cold, continuing as directed “sutorayto“ where I was supposed to eventually come upon a subway station.

The sun I’d been counting on when I left my apartment was now hidden behind a menacing layer of black clouds and a chilly breeze was blowing in off of the bay. Before long, I was shivering like a maniac and my cold was acting up: my chest ached and my nose ran like a leaky faucet.

I stopped at a vending machine and bought two cans of Georgia coffee which I tucked them under my armpits to see if they would warm me up. To my surprise, they did the trick. Pressing on, I walked, hunched over, hot cans of coffee under my armpits, until I came to the subway station. I now had twenty minutes to travel six stops and walk from the station to the school; meaning I’d just make it by nine.

I purchased a ticket and just as I was about to pass through the gate, a gust of warm air and diesel fumes blew up from the bowels of the station, followed by flatulence: the horn announcing the train’s approach. I scampered down the first flight of stairs to a broad landing where I was offered two options: left or right. The signs were all in goddamn Chinese characters.

Although I’d been studying the language for a year, had even been scribbling the pictograms down in a notebook, I couldn’t recognize any of them on the sign.

A man passed me and I turned to him, blurting out the name of my destination, but he scurried away. A young woman avoided me altogether. Then a soft-spoken middle-aged woman approached me, asking in fluent English where I was going.

“The Ôhori Park station. Ôhori Kôen.”

“Oh, Ôhori Kôen. Yes, yes, it’s very nice this time of year.” The words trickled slowly out. I could hear the swoosh of the train doors opening, the click of heels on tile as the passengers got off.

“Yes, yes, I know. Which . . . ”

“In a week or so, the cherry blossoms will be at their most beautiful . . . ”

“Yes, I, I’m aware of that. Which platform do I . . . ?”

“Oh, yes, the subway’s a very convenient . . .”

“Oh, for the love of God, lady. Left or right?”

“I’m sorry? Left or right? I don’t understa . . . ”

“Which platform?” I say pointing. I’m so exacerbated I could strangle the dimwit.

“Oooh, I see, I see. Platform Two, of course. I’ll show . . . ”

“No, you won’t. I’m in a hurry. Bye.”

I ran off towards Platform Two, flying down a second flight of stairs, three steps at a time, towards the platform, but mid decent a soft bell chimed, the doors closed and the train departed.

“Ah, fuck me!” I yelled, the curse echoing throughout the station.

Plodding down the remaining steps, I came to the platform and made my way to a row of seats where I plopped down and drank the two cans of lukewarm Georgia coffee.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes a second train came, but before I could count myself the lucky beneficiary of an efficiently-run, white-gloved public transportation system, I learned that the train wouldn’t take me all the way to Ôhori Park, that I would have to change trains at yet another shûten.

3

The shredded contract lies on the tabletop before me and Abazure has a look on her face like I have wasted her time and should now go. If it weren’t for the fact that my visa is going to expire in less than a week and now have no other prospect for employment, I would flip Abazure and that other bitch in the office the bird and storm out of the building. But I need the job. God, do I need ever it.

As Abazure glares at me, the realization that I’ve made a huge error hits me like a kick in the gut and I can’t take it anymore.

“I’m sorry,” I say standing up, “but, I’m feeling very ill.”

I dash out of the classroom, pass the lobby and office, and hurry towards a door that has “otearai” written in Chinese characters on it. Opening the door and hoping my troubles are over, I discover they’ve only just begun: the school has a fucking Japanese style toilet.

Oh, for the love of God!

Taking a crap on a Japanese style toilet is like trying to take a dump into a lady’s shoebox. On a slightly raised area is a narrow porcelain trough barely a hand’s length wide over which you’re expected to squat as you do your business.

I mount it and squat as well as my stiff Achilles tendons will allow me, but my ass is hovering precariously above my pants, which are gathered round my ankles.

The forces of nature are in motion and there’s no stopping them. Grabbing onto a large sewage pipe that runs from the ceiling down to the floor, I hold onto it for dear life and lean back, peering down between my legs like a bombardier might until the target comes into sight. When it does: Bombs away!

The collateral damage is worse than expected: half of my payload lands far off target and I have to spend the next five minutes tidying the toilet up. No matter how much I wipe the porcelain down, though the heavy smell of death hangs in the restroom. A useless little fan in the wall coughs out the fumes.

I look in the small cabinet above the toilet hoping to find a book of matches, but there is none. Next to a few roles of the industrial strength toilet paper I just sanded my ass with is a can of what, judging by the picture of a field of flowers on it, must be air freshener.

I give the room a liberal spray, and stir up the air with my arms, but an obtrusive hint of pooh lingers stubbornly in the sweet floral fragrance.

*

Several minutes later, I return to the small classroom and apologize to Abazure. “I’m not feeling very well,” I tell her. “If today’s meeting weren’t as important as it is, I would have cancelled it and suggested meeting later in the week when I was feeling better.”

Abazure softens. She’s still visibly irritated, however, with the foul souvenir that has trailed me back into the room, she cannot doubt my candor. “I am plainly ill.”

She stands up and leaves me alone in the classroom (Could you blame the woman?) and returns shortly with another contract, which she places on the table before me and asks that I read through it.

As I go through the contract, my jaw drops onto the tabletop. Each item in the contract is written in the bluntest of terminology–namely, do this and you’ll be fired; do that and you’ll be fired. There is no room for misunderstanding.

If I am ever late–regardless of illness, accident, ill-timed bowel movements, what have you–my employment will be terminated on the spot.

I swallow hard and sign the contract. What else do you expect me to do?

Once all the paperwork is complete, Abazure instructs me to meet her at Immigration next week, the day before my visa expires.

“If you are even a minute late,” she warns, “I will have no choice but to look for someone else. Am I understood?”

“Y-yes, you are.”

“Well, then. See you next week.”

4

“Fired if I’m late?” I shake my head in disbelief as I make my way back to the station. “Fired if I’m ever absent? Fired if I ever accept presents from the students!”

I take the subway to Hakata station where I then transfer to a limited express to take me back to Kitakyushu. As travel away from Fukuoka City, the train crosses the Tataragawa River. It’s from the bridge that spans that slow flowing river that I can see with an unwelcome clarity a solitary tall apartment building and the flashing neon lights of a pachinko parlor behind it. It’s where my ex-girlfriend Mie lives and works. It’s where I fell in love with her, experiencing some of the happiest days of my life, and where my heart was broken one morning last October when she left me. It has become a Mecca of sorts for me, towards which my prayers are offered. And every time I cross this bridge, either coming or going, I crane my neck so as to keep the building in sight on the off chance that I might catch a glimpse, however fleeting or distant, of Mie. In a similar manner, I signed Abazure’s contract this morning putting my pride up as collateral on the off chance that I might be able to one day meet Mie again.

A rational person would have probably told Abazure to shove the contract up her small, flat arse and gone back to America or wherever, dignity intact. Unfortunately, I stopped functioning on reason the day Mie dumped me. Pure impulse and desperation has been my fuel. So, I wrote my name on the dotted line because more than anything in the world, I want Mie back in my life, or, at least, to find someone who’ll help me achieve the seemingly impossible: to forget her.

Someone, perhaps, like Nozomi . . .

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Read more by Aonghas Crowe here:

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1

I got Nozomi’s phone number off of a bulletin board at the International Center in downtown Fukuoka a few weeks earlier. I’d been visiting the center on a weekly basis during the past several months looking for my next English teaching gig and a new place to hang my hat. Thanks, or no thanks, to the International Center I’m now Abazure’s newest kept boy and will be moving next week to a small coastal village in the western suburbs of Fukuoka City where I’ll be sharing a condominium with three other Americans.

The bulletin board at the International Center’s is divided into several categories: Language Instructors Wanted; Language Students Wanted; Items for Sale; Events; and Friends Wanted. Having found a job and a place to live, it’s the last of these, which I have started foraging through, hungrily searching for a woman to help forget.

Many of them are like me, seemingly starving for someone to love them. Sadly, few, precious few, of the women I’ve actually gone to the trouble of meeting have been able to distract me from the very memories I’m trying to forget.

Day in and day out, I am constantly reminded of my loss. My apartment, where Mie and I once made love, is now a cold mausoleum of sorts, where the remains of dreams are interned. Ghosts of the past occupy every inch of the place and the only thing that alleviates the heartache is the subtle palliative I’ve found in words written and spoken by women and the possible intimacy of a stranger as lonely as me.

2

On my way home from work, I call Nozomi from a public phone outside a small mom-and-pop rice shop. It’s only my second time to call her. Three days earlier when I called the first time, we had such a good conversation that she asked me to call her back later in the week so that we could arrange a day to meet.

Inside the telephone booth I take Nozomi’s number out of my pocket and place it on top of the green phone. I also remove a phone card I’ve been holding onto for months from my wallet.

Whenever I look at the phone card, a tsunami hits me: a wall of nostalgia rushing towards me and sweeping me hard off my feet, hurling me towards the most vivid memories–Mie in my arms, Mie in my bed, and Mie in my life. Try as I might to grab onto one of theses images from the past, and hold it against my chest as if they were real, I am always drawn away by the force of receding waters into a cold, black sea of loneliness, the images torn from my hands. Only the hope that I might one day embrace Mie again or find someone else I can hold on to is all that keeps me from drowning.

I examine the unused metallic phone card and trace my finger over the logo Mie created–Lorelei with the wings of a butterfly and the name, Lady Luck. It is the last one of a stack she had given me shortly after we first met, and I’ve been holding onto it like the assiduous custodian of a religious relic.

I slip the card into the slot and Lady Luck rests a moment like the host on a communicant’s tongue before being consumed with an electronic chime, Amen.

I dial Nozomi’s number and as the phone starts to ring, my throat grows dry.

After our first call, after running down the hill to my apartment and the epiphany, I sat on my sofa. For the first time in the months after Mie left me, the merciless ghosts of the past had been quieted. Something in Nozomi’s voice and in her words assured me of what my friends had been trying to tell me: that there were other women out there, better women even, who would help lay the past to rest. There would be other women who would find the smile hidden deep within me and coax it to the surface, other women who would make me laugh, other women who would make me savor the joy each day presented rather than merely survive as I had been doing until the night when the promise of deep, dreamless sleep awaited me.

The phone rings again. It’s been such an awful day and I’ve felt like crap for most of it that the only thing keeping me going is the one-act play I’ve been performing all day in my head.

The curtains open and the protagonist is standing at a phone booth dialing a woman’s number. The phone rings, the woman answers and the two are engaged in conversation that has him dropping all his change into the coin slot. Before he runs out of money, though, the woman invites him out for dinner and drinks the coming weekend. The man smiles, the curtain closes.

3

The phone rings again. I consider asking Nozomi out for drinks and karaoke. I’ve been a crowd-pleaser all year with syrupy renditions of ballads from the sixties and seventies. I have even mastered several Japanese pop hits. I couldn’t go wrong with karaoke, especially now that karaoke boxes, small private rooms with settee, table, and lights that dimmed are all the rage. No, she wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to belt out a few songs for an hour or two. Yeah, I’ll ask her out for drinks and karaoke.

The phone rings again and Nozomi answers.

“Nozomi, hi. It’s me, Peador. Genki?” I ask.

She answers that she’s fine. When I inquire about her day, she sighs and says something I can’t catch then falls silent.

It is an altogether different person I’m talking with today and I’m tempted to ask if something’s wrong, but worry doing so will only have her retreating further. So, I try to be genki and akarui as a friend advised because Japanese women love the cheerful, spirited type. They won’t give you the time of day if you’re kurai, she said, that is if you’re dark and brooding. I tell her about the great job I got in the morning, that I’ll be moving to Fukuoka in a few weeks, but it’s not getting me anywhere. The levity I try to force feed on to what is for all intents and purposes a one-sided conversation leaves me feeling like an idiot.

Then, Nozomi interrupts me.

“Peador,” she says, “have you got a girlfriend?”

I tell her I don’t.

“Last night an American called me.”

All the kindness that made her voice so sweet to the ear, made me want to crawl into its warmth and curl up into a ball is gone. She’d rather hang up than go to the trouble of telling me.

“Go on.”

“He asked me if I’d ever had sex with an American.”

“He didn’t!”

“He did!”

“Just like that?”

“Yes.”

“Unbelievable,” I say.

“I told him I hadn’t and wasn’t interested in doing so, then hung up.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I reply with a sincerity I needn’t manufacture. “There are a lot of creeps out there, Nozomi. You really must be careful.”

Who am I to talk, though? Wasn’t my intention all along the same as this American’s: to get laid? Did I really occupy a higher moral position merely because I possessed something resembling patience and tact?

“You know, I have a boyfriend, a Japanese boyfriend,” Nozomi says. Her tone accuses me of assuming things I haven’t. “I’m not some Yellow Cab who’ll sleep with any foreigner just because he called me up.”

I’m at a loss for words. Not that it matters, though, because before I can reply, she says, “Sayonara” and hangs up. The Lady Luck card pops out and the phone starts beeping.

Dumbfounded, I stare at my reflection in the glass before me for a minute before takinge the telephone card and stepping out of the booth. As I head down the hill and back to my dismal little apartment, my head is as clouded as ever.


© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Read more by Aonghas Crowe here:

1

I move to Fukuoka at the end of March and settle into my new job. The schedule is dead easy and so far I have no complaints except that I am working six days a week instead of five. One morning I mention to my co-worker Yumi that it would be nice to have the occasionally Saturday off as well so that I could do a bit of traveling on the weekends, because I wasn’t really in Japan to work all the time, ha, ha, ha. Later in the day, my boss takes me aside to reprimand me for complaining about the schedule.

“If you’re really not interested in working here,” she says, “I’ll be happy to find someone to replace you. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to travel, then.”

My conversations with Yumi are reduced to sparing exercises in polite banality after that. We comment on the weather, on the beauty of the sakura which were in full bloom my first week on the job, the azaleas which have started to blossom, and the mud nest the sparrows have built under the awning of the boutique downstairs, then fall silent. I retreat to the morning’s paper, she busies herself with whatever it is that she does at her desk before me. It’s very weird to say the least.

Most afternoons I’m free for four to five hours until it’s time to teach the evening class. On warm, sunny days I go to either of the two large parks that are near the school to write letters or read a book or wander. When the sky is overcast, I take a bus downtown, to Tenjin, and browse for books or CDs.

Evenings at the school are a huge improvement over the grim mornings. Yumi and the boss leave for the damp, dark caves they must surely live in shortly after I return from my afternoon break meaning I am alone with Reina, a vivacious woman with wavy brown hair who teaches the junior high students in the evenings. Yumi and Reina are like night and day, and the heavy veil of silence Yumi drapes over each morning is torn apart in the evening as soon as Reina punches in. Yumi and Reina do, however, share one thing: dread. Just as I dread my mornings alone with Yumi, I dread saying good-bye to Reina each night. Because there is nothing waiting for me but an hour-long train ride to a condominium deep in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by untilled rice fields and an unshakable loneliness.

Though I am allegedly sharing the condominium with two other Americans, I am often the sole inhabitant of the eighth story, four-room mansion, as the Japanese call it. My “roommates” are MIA on the weekends and during the week usually come home well after I have retired to bed.

I am no early bird, but as my boss has put the fear of being sacked into me, I find myself waking at the crack of dawn, my heart sent racing like a hummingbird thanks to a Godzilla alarm clock that spins around screeching, “Stop me! Stop me! Stop me!” I make my way like a somnambulist through a well-worn path between two rice fields to the unmanned station where I catch the seven-thirty train that gets me into town early enough that I can drop in at a shitty little coffee shop called, only god knows why, Henry the Eighth where I have the môningu setto of tôsuto, bâkon, sukuramburu eggi ando kôhi before confronting Yumi and her intractable gloom.

After a week of this fine routine, boredom and sleep deprivation begin to gnaw at the nascent content I was starting to feel, so I go back to the International Center to look for a Japanese teacher and, I am embarrassed to admit, to put up a card of my own seeking “friends.”

I was often told by most of the woman I’d contacted through the International Center in the months before moving to Fukuoka that I was the only person who had called them, so I don’t expect much of a response from my own message. Am I ever wrong!

The day after my message is put on the bulletin board, the calls start pouring in and it takes several minutes just to get through all the messages, in both Japanese and English, that have accumulated on the answering machine at the condominium. A few days later, neatly written letters on cute stationery start to arrive. By week’s end, I’ve got over a dozen women eager to meet me, so like a glutton I pencil in as many of them as I can into my Saturday evening and Sunday schedule.

2

Shortly after work Saturday, I hurry downtown where I meet with Bachelorette Number One, a plain-looking young woman in her early twenties who leads me with a string of “please’s” to a coffee shop in the maze-like underground shopping arcade. As soon as we sit down, she produces several sheets of paper from her handbag and proceeds to read.

“My name is Hitomi. It’s nice to meet you.” She turns to me, smiles broadly and pauses. I take this as my cue to tell her that the pleasure is mine. “Pleasure?” she asks.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I say.

“Pleasure?” She looks puzzled.

“Nice to meet you, too.”

“Oh, I see. Thank you.” She studies her piece of paper, then turns to me to say, “Please forgive my poor English.”

“It is forgiven!”

“Pardon me?”

“Never mind.”

“Mind?”

“Please, go ahead. Dôzo.”

“Please forgive my poor English,” she repeats after checking her notes. “I want to be your friend.”

“Okay.”

She looks at the paper, mouths the words as she reads them silently, and asks, “Will you be my friend?”

“Well, it’ll cost ya.”

“Pardon?”

“Okay.”

“May I ask you some questions?”

“Shoot!”

“Pardon?”

“Sure, go ahead. Dôzo.”

“What is your hobby?”

What the hell is it with the Japanese and these stupid questions? I can count the times on one hand I was asked this before coming to Japan, but here it’s the most pressing thing that needs to be addressed. Ridiculous questions deserve ridiculous answers: “I enjoy groping strangers on crowded trains.”

“Trains?”

“Yes, trains. Groping.”

Guroppu?”

“Er, I like traveling by train.”

“Trouble?”

“Not, trouble. Travel. I like traveling by train.”

“Oh, I see. I like to travel, too.”

“You do? Where have you been? Have you been abroad?”

“Next question,” she says looking down at her sheet. “Can you eat sushi?”

Good grief. “Yeah, it’s okay, I suppose.”

“Okay? You can eat sushi? Let’s have sushi next time!”

We whiz through her questionnaire in no time then sit in awkward silence until it’s time for me to meet Bachelorette Number Two.

3

Mika is an attractive 24-year-old woman, who asks me what my dream is. The question itself is not as surprising as, say, the complete lack of context in which it’s asked: our order has just been taken by the waitress. But then, many Japanese mistakenly believe, like the first young woman I met today, that rattling off a random list of questions in English amounts to communication.

“My dream? Huh.”

I’ve often asked the same of women and am usually disappointed by the replies.

“I want to master English,” one girl told me.

“Okay, then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you going to do after you master English?”

“I don’t know. I just . . .”

“English is a tool, nothing more. A hammer, if you will. But if you haven’t any idea of what you want to build with that hammer, then it’s just going to sit on a shelf in the shed and get rusty.”

“Oh.”

“Oh, is right. If you don’t know what you’ll do with the English once you’ve mastered it–sorry to burst your bubble–you probably never will master it.”

A college student I asked told me that she had never really thought about it. I was flabbergasted. “How the hell can you not have a dream? I mean, how the hell can you even get up in the morning?” The poor girl. She fell silent and stared at the table after that. I wasn’t sure whether she was merely ashamed at herself or appalled at me.

Mika’s English is pretty damn good, so I can indulge myself: “Most people are like flotsam drifting on the surface of the ocean their whole lives. They make no impact on life. Life, on the other hand, has a huge impact on them. They’re tossed about, they flow this way and that, you follow me?”

“I think so.”

“They don’t change the sea in any way. They don’t have much of an influence on the others around them. I mean, I suppose that from time to time they might bump into other flotsam, see? Or, what? Get tangled up in discarded bits of fishing net?”

She eyes me warily.

“I don’t want to be like that,” I tell her. “Not at all. No, I want to be like a tanker plowing its way along a river. Everything that is caught in its wake gets overturned or tossed about. Even people who don’t see the tanker go by still feel its impact and influence, good or bad.”

“You want to be a sailor?” she asks.

“A sailor! Nice one, hah! No, I don’t want to be a sailor.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“No problem.” I tell her of the megalomania which fuels me, my interest in Japanese architecture and design, in the pop art here, particularly manga and anime, Japanese comics and animation. I talk about how I want to learn from it and use it in my own art and designs.

“Peador, are you an otaku?”

Otaku? No, I’m not a nerd. I’m a maniac. So, how about you, Mika? What’s your dream?”

“I want to travel.”

“Yeah? Where to?”

“Everywhere. Europe, Africa, Asia . . . Mars.”

“Mars?” I ask, not sure I heard her correctly.

“Yes Mars,” she repeats.

“Mars,” I ask again pointing toward the ceiling.

“Yes, Mars,” she replies pointing to the same point in the ceiling.

“Lotsa luck!”

Mika is attractive enough, speaks English well enough, and has a sense of humor that accommodates my nonsense. There is even something, which resembles chemistry between us, but I get the distinct impression that I’d have to join the Realian’s Cult just to get to first base.

4

I dash over to the Nishitetsu Grand Hotel where I meet Kumiko. Of all the women I’ve set up “dates” with, it is this Kumiko I’ve been looking forward to meeting the most for the simple reason that we share similar tastes in music. Not saying it’s necessarily bad, but far too many Japanese women have their short attention spans captivated by flavor-of-the-month Japanese pop stars. They get all worked up over the one or two-hit wonders that are cranked out of production machines like burgers at Mickey Dees. I’m not into fast food, and am even less of a fan of fast art. This Kumiko, however, is different: she is gaga about British rock and something she calls guranji.

I imagined her to be cool, pretty in a unique way, but when I get a load of how she looks, a reassessment of my musical preferences is in order.

Kumiko has thrown herself whole-heartedly into the grunge look: baggy, soiled pants with holes in the knees, sweatshirt in tatters, and a loose-fitting flannel shirt. When I arrive at the hotel I find her sitting in the most un-ladylike manner, slouched and legs spread apart with a practiced indifference to the world and an unforgivable contempt for the five-thousand-dollar-plus Arne Jacobsen leather swan chairs she has planted her filthy ass in. I have the urge to race back to Mika and hop on the mother ship leaving for Mars.

Kumiko introduces me to a pug-nosed, overweight and slovenly friend dressed in fatigues named of Kazuko whom she has invited because of her supposed fluency in English. Normally, I would welcome tagalongs with “The more, the merrier!” but in this little piggy’s case, it’s hard to be generous.

Before I can recover from the disappointment they lead me out of the hotel towards an entertainment district a few blocks away called Oyafukô-dôri. As we make our way there, Kumiko asks, in Japanese, if I’ve ever been there, but just as I’m going to reply, in Japanese, Kazuko butts in with a heavily accented translation, “Oyafukô, you know? Been to?” Good god! It dawns on me that this uncouth monster of a woman is going to be practicing her “Engrish” on me all night.

“I, I can’t say that I have.”

Kazuko translates my reply for the benefit of Kumiko who lets out such an expression of surprise it makes me wonder if the dog’s got it right.

“You know oyafukô mean?” Kazuko barks.

I shrug. I couldn’t care less. I just want to go home.

“You don’t know? Why? Why you don’t know?” Kazuko says with theatrical disbelief. I feel like whacking the girl.

Kumiko says that she and her friend are oyafukô causing the two of them to split their sides laughing. It’s highly unattractive and I want to escape. Kumiko, well, I could manage being with, perhaps even enjoy being with her, but this Kazuko? Let’s face it, Kazuko’s a pig and standing next to her is an embarrassment–people might think that we are, god help me, actually friends. And this guffawing like an ass at the crowded intersection doesn’t help her personality to grow on me.

“I haven’t the slightest clue what the two of you are talking about.”

Kazuko leaps at the opportunity to inflict her English onto me: “Oya mean mamma, pappa. Okay? You got that, Mistah Peador?”

“Parents? You mean parents, right?'”

“So, so, so,” Kumiko replies, “pahrento.”

Kazuko continues, “So, fukô mean ‘fee-ree-ah-ru pie-ah-chee . . . want of.'”

“Huh?”

She repeats the same gibberish a few times, then digs a dictionary out of a large army surplus canvas bag that’s slung around her shoulder. After thumbing through it, she passes it to me, pointing at the entry.

Incidentally, even though it’s evening, it’s so brightly illuminated downtown with glaring street lights, building facades bathed in the glow of flood lights and massive neon billboards, you could read a newspaper, or a dictionary.

After crossing the street, I pause to read. “Fukô: Unfilial behavior; disobedience towards one’s parents; treat one’s parent’s disrespectfully.”

“You got it, Mistah Peador-san?” Kazuko asks loudly.

“I, I guess so?”

“We are oyafukô!” Kumiko tells me again. The two of them point to their noses saying, “Oyafukô“, then burst into laughter.

“Ah, you make your parents cry, don’t you?”

“So, so, so,” replies Kumiko. “Pahrento. Wah! Wah! Wah!”

I take it this is how parents cry in Japan. No boohoo-hoos in the Land of the Rising Sun.

“So, so, so,” adds Kazuko. “My parents, too. Crying ohru za taimu.”

“All the time? Why do you make your parents so unhappy?”

Kazuko answers, “We still don’t marriage.”

I would prefer to speak with them in Japanese than endure this woman continue to effortlessly and confidently butcher the English language, but the pug-nosed brute wouldn’t budge.

“You haven’t got married yet?”

“No, still not marriage.”

Ah! “But, the two of you are still young. I mean, what’s the hurry?”

They get a kick out of that. “Oh, we love you, Mistah Peador. You’re gentleman!”

“Don’t get too excited. You haven’t seen me drunk yet.”

Kumiko asks me how old I think she is.

I guess she’s a few years younger than myself, but say “Thirteen?” which causes her let out a shriek. She turns to her friend and says in Japanese, I can’t believe it, he thinks I’m thirty. “Thirteen,” I repeat. “Thirteen! Not thirty. Ah, never mind. I was just joking.”

Jokku?” asks Kumiko. “American jokku?”

What the hell is an American joke? “Yes, American joke.” Whatever.

Kumiko tells me she can’t understand “American jokes.” I reply that I don’t really understand Japanese jokes, which seems to consist primarily of one man slapping the other on the head and saying, “Fool!”

“Oh, you just put us on, then Mistah Peador?” Kazuko said. “Don’t surprise us so. Bad for heart.”

I’m tempted to hit Kazuko on the head and say “Fool!”

*

We come to a second signal where food stalls, or yatai, serving ramen and yakitori, are lined up on the sidewalk. The steady stream of pedestrians coming and going are forced to pass through a narrow path between the yatais and the street, walking over an obstacle course of electrical cords and hoses.

Looking across the street, towards what Kumiko indicates is Oyafukô-dôri, I am hit hard by the realization that I have been there before. It’s all disturbingly familiar.

On the left is a yakitori restaurant, belching out black smoke onto the passersby from a massive vent blackened with oil and soot. Above that is an Indian restaurant run by Sikhs. Across the street is another tall and narrow building with a Yoshinoya outlet on the first floor that serves, gyûdon, bowls of rice topped with a mystery beef. The two buildings form a gate of sorts at the entrance of Oyafukô. On the sidewalks a sea of bodies flow in from the main avenue attracted like moths towards the neon lights and bright signboards. The street itself is clogged with dozens upon dozens of taxis, the lights on top of their cabins forming a string of illumination that runs the length of the street, all the way to a gazebo like police box.

Kôban. Police box. It had been a new word for me when Mie said it. “You don’t have police boxes in America, do you?” We’d just got out of the cab in front of it. “I didn’t see any when I was there.” I told Mie we didn’t, that we had police stations and precincts and police roaming around in cars like stalkers, but no police boxes. It was our first time to get together since my arrival in Japan. She would treat me to dinner at a noisy Japanese-style pub, an izakaya she’d teach me, where the staff was constantly yelling at the top of their lungs, “Two drafts, hey!,” or “Welcome, hoi!” or what the fuck ever. Later, we’d go to a hostess bar, called a snack, where she’d get jealous when a hostess tried to hit on me. Back at her place, we would sit on her bedroom floor drinking sake until there was no more left, and then we’d kiss for the first time. In the months that followed, Mie and I would go dancing at the discos or drinking in many of the bars here.

I can feel Mie’s presence as we cross the street and enter Oyafukô-dôri. I see her in the middle of the street on a Monday morning, wearing a simple, but tight-fitting orange dress with white polka dots, and smiling broadly, arms stretched out. I see myself ignoring the annoyed honking of a taxi driver to take her picture. It’ll become my favorite photo of her and will always remind me of everything that I loved about her, her vitality, her spontaneity, her smile and her body. I see us sitting at the Mister Donut where share a cup of coffee and an old-fashioned donut and talk about going to America together. Oyafukô is as haunted with memories as my old apartment in god-forsaken Kitakyushu was and being back after all this time, after six months, is unsettling.

*

“Peador, we’re here,” Kazuko says, tugging at my arm.

Is Mie out there somewhere? Is she having dinner with her roommate? Is she drinking with friends in a bar nearby? I look down the street beyond the milling mass of people towards the police box, at the passengers getting out of taxis. Is she there? I scan hundreds of faces but can’t find hers.

“Mistah Peador?”

“Huh? Oh, right,” I follow them into a modest little bar called Umie.

After the unexpected onslaught of memories, I’m not much of a companion to Kumiko and Kazuko. It’s difficult to put up with Kazuko’s incessant questions with my thoughts lost on events that are nearly a year old. God how I want to go back in time and relive that first night, that night which changed everything for me. I wish I could go back and undo the mistakes of last summer, so that it would be Mie I was with rather than these two. But I can’t. All I can do is try to chase after forgetfulness one cheap bottle of Heineken at a time.

“Is something the matter?” Kumiko asks later while Kazuko is away at the counter harassing someone else for a change.

“I’m sorry, I’m just feeling . . . ” I can’t remember the Japanese for depressed. “I’m just feeling blah.”

“Blah? The band? I love them.”

“Not Blur, blah. I’m feeling . . . depressed.”

Jipuresstoh?

“De-, depressed. Blah. Er, melancholy.”

“Ah, merankoree. Me, too!” She clinked her beer against mine.

“To melancholy. Cheers.”

Without Kazuko’s meddling Kumiko and I are able to talk for quite a while about our “merankoree”, our heartbreak and our loneliness. Seems she’s been suffering for two years (two whole goddamn years!) from unrequited love. She wants to know what to do about it. She wants to understand what men are thinking. I don’t have the heart to tell her that most guys are thinking much about anything, that they just want to get laid without too many complications.

“Why don’t you just ask him out?” I suggest.

It comes as a revelation to the poor girl. “Me? Ask him?” What are you? High? She doesn’t say this, but she must be thinking it.

“Yeah, you. Ask him out. If he accepts, hey great, you’re lucky. If he says no, well then you can move on. Find someone better.”

Despite Kumiko’s poor choice of clothing and friends, she is still a sweet girl, and even if I haven’t found someone better myself on this particular Saturday when I’ve given it my best shot, I have at least found a friend. And that, I cannot deny, is better than nothing.

*

I have to leave Umie around eleven so I can catch the last train back to my condominium in the middle of nowhere. Kumiko’s jaw drops when I tell her where I’m living. I still find it hard to believe it myself. After silent commiseration, she tells me to move out of the inaka, the sticks, before I turn into an imo otoko, a potato boy, i.e. a hick. Her advice is like a virus which finds a willing host in my mind. It’ll spread quickly and before I know it, I have a full blown case of dissatisfaction, the only cure for which will be to find a place closer to town.

I get to the station in time for the final train, which is packed shoulder to shoulder with red faced salarymen, reeking of whiskey, and office ladies, trembling like lambs among a pack of wolves, hoping they won’t have to silently endure another clumsy grope.

A drunk standing to my side looks up, and noticing with exaggerated surprise that I’m a gaijin, a foreigner tries to speak to me.

“American?” He says teetering precariously on unsteady legs. Were it not for the fact that the train was as full as it was, his knees would surely buckle, he’d drop like a sack of shit to the floor and I wouldn’t have to deal with him.

I pretend to read the ads that dangle from the ceiling like laundry on a clothesline, but he taps me on the arm. “Hey! You American?” Aside from the high pitched woman’s voice giving the passengers an unnecessarily long running commentary over the intercom system, this drunk is the only person among the hundreds crammed into the carriage that is speaking. Why does it have to be with me?

I can see the man is not easily discouraged. He’s got a foot long tuft of hair growing from his temple that’s combed over his otherwise hairless crown. The Japanese call this the “bar code.” Do men actually think they’re fooling anyone when they do that? Give in to the balding, I say, shave it all off.

He asks again more forcefully, some strands of hair cascade down his broad forehead to the bridge of his nose.

I want to move away, but with the wall of bodies behind me, there’s no way out. I’m trapped, so I answer softly, “Y-yes, I’m American.”

Oh, what luck! You can see pure delight in his eyes. I imagine he’ll boast for days to his co-workers and family that he could not only spot an American among gaijin, that he even had an honest to god conversation with one. What an international man he is! He slobbers and gushes about how much he loves the country of my birth. How lucky I am to be American. I wish I could share the sentiment, but my response to his or anyone’s enthusiasm over something so accidental as nationality is lukewarm.

He spares me questions pertaining to Japanese cuisine and goes right to the meat of the conversation: “So, what do you think of Japan? You like it here?”

Do I like Japan? There have been times when I thought I did. Some of the happiest times I’ve ever known have been in this country, but how long has it been since I’ve really been happy here? How long has it been since I felt glad to be here? It’s been six months, six goddamn months. I’ve been traveling solely on the inertia since then. I tell him I do.

He gives a long-winded commentary on the sad state of his country. Japan’s tiny and weak, he says. The people are narrow-minded. They lack initiative, creativity. The young are stupid and lazy. He grumbles on and on like this for several train stops. Please, God!  Kamisama! Buddha! Allah! Let the next stop be his! But alas it is not.

The speech he gives me is one I’ve heard other drunks make many times before. Even the idiot I used to work for in Kitakyûshû said similar things. If you bothered to inquire what kind of country these inebriated malcontents wanted Japan to be, they end up describing a country suspiciously reminiscent of the one that got them into so much trouble half a century earlier. The drunk then asks what I am doing.

“I’m going home.”

“You’re going home, ha! Nice one! American joke.” His breath is redolent of puke. “What are you doing in Japan, not on this train, in Japan?”

What the hell am I doing? All my friends–the one’s I leaned upon so heavily after Mie left me, the ones who made the time here tolerable, and occasionally fun, the ones who stumbled along with me and helped me laugh at my mistakes–will be gone by the end of next week. There was a reason why I came, but I was sidetracked by the initial disappointment and culture shock, the falling in love, the heartbreak, the loneliness that followed and then the move that I never really got to pursue it. To say I’m in Japan to learn something I haven’t yet bothered to start learning is disingenuous. Before I am able to come up with an answer that would satisfy myself, the train stops, doors whoosh open and he staggers out, saying, “American, me and you, we’re the same!” The doors close, and the drunk gives me two big, wobbly thumbs up as the train resumes its westerly creep toward the middle of nowhere. God help me if we are the same.

5

I first met Machiko briefly shortly after I moved in to the condominium. She and one of my nominal roommates, an African-American from Texas named Clark, were leaving just as I returned home.

“Hey, Peador,” Clark said, bending over to tie his shoelaces.

“Going out?”

“Yeah. We’re going into town to catch a movie.”

“A movie, huh? I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie.”

“At eighteen bucks a pop, who could blame ya?,” he said standing up, then turning to his girlfriend behind him, added quickly, “Oh, man, I’m sorry. Peador, this is Machiko.”

The girl was little more than skin and bones, but she had the kindest eyes.

“Hajime-mashite,” I said, stretching out my hand.

She gave me a cold sardine of a handshake and smiled demurely.

I met Machiko a second time only last Sunday morning. The girl had been so quiet that I was surprised to find her in the kitchen. Dressed in panties and a t-shirt, she was standing on her tippy toes, hand stretched above her, reaching for a box of Frosted Flakes on the top shelf of the cupboard. The t-shirt rose, revealing a narrow waist and what looked, I couldn’t be sure, like the edge of a large tattoo on her back.

“Ohayô,” I said as I entered the kitchen, giving the girl a start. “Let me get that for you.”

Standing beside her, reached up and grabbed the cereal box. As I passed the box to her, I saw again what appeared to be a tattoo peaking above the collar of the t-shirt at the base of her neck. She thanked me with a smile and a nod, then sat down at the dining table where she poured herself a bowl. Clark emerged from the hallway, dressed identically in an oversized t-shirt and boxers, and sat down besides her.

“Would either of you like some tea,” I asked as I put the kettle on.

They shook their heads.

With my cup of tea I sat down at the far end of the table away from the two of them and pretended to read The Economist.

Though Clark had mentioned before that he had only recently met Machiko, they exhibited a familiarity with each other that suggested otherwise. They took turns taking large spoonfuls of cereal and whispered nonsense to each other that had them giggling like children. I could almost have envied them their affections and apparent happiness, had it not been for the stubborn curiosity piqued by the flashes of color revealed beneath the edges of the t-shirt each time Clark’s girlfriend moved. What would ever drive Machiko, a seemingly timid girl with warm eyes, to get her entire back covered with a massive yakuza tattoo?

*

Let me tell you, after last night’s letdown I’m not as fired up about going into town to meet new women as I was yesterday. It’s tempting to just stay in, stand the chicks up, and veg out in front of the good ol’ boob tube. Problem is, Clark and Machiko are here and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere fast.

When I ask what their plans are, they giggle and say they don’t have any; that they’ll probably hang out all day in the condo. They giggle some more.

Wonderful. The last thing I want to do is listen to the two of them fucking each other’s brains out all day.

Clark asks what I’ll be doing. I tell him I’m meeting someone in town.

“He’s a playboy,” Machiko says to Clark. “I saw him yesterday with a pretty girl.”

Who’s she got me confused with, I wonder, but laugh it off and return to my bedroom where I get ready to leave.

6

I’ve got four dates lined up for today: Chie, Mayu, Risa, and Aya. Four names of women I know next to nothing about except that they will waiting at specified times and locations expecting a gaijin to show up.

Ooh, the intrigue!

*

Chie finds me in front of the Iwataya department store standing before a wall of TVs. When she walks up to me asking if I am Peador, I am tempted to say that she must have me mistaken for someone else because where there ought to be teeth in the woman’s head, there are what look like the pickets of a weathered fence. This poor Chie could have a face that breaks hearts, a body that drives me wild with desire, the compassion of Mother Teresa, but I would never be able to overlook those dreadful teeth.

Listen, I have become rather magnanimous in my attitude towards dentistry since coming to this country–call me British, if you will–but this woman’s mouth puts my generosity to the test. If I had those teeth, I’d suppose I might spend my days in reticence, mumbling through tightly closed lips only when necessary, but this Chie won’t shut up! She goes on and on and on: yackety-yak-yak.

*

Mayu is waiting for me outside the International Center two hours later. The girl is not all that bad looking, but the get-up she’s got on takes the cake.

Mayu is tricked out in a blouse, ridiculously frilly with broad sleeves that gather in yet more frills and ribbons at the wrist. Under the sky blue skirt she’s wearing is a multi-layered petticoat causing the skirt to flares out from her thin waist. Fluffy white lambs have been sewn on to the skirt here and there. She looks like Lil’ Bo Peep. All that is missing is a shepherd’s staff.

She apologizes that she hasn’t got much time that she’s on her lunch break.

Oh, thank god!

“Is this some kind of uniform?” I ask cautiously. Tell me it’s just a costume.

“Well, yes, in a way, I suppose it is,” she replies. “Isn’t it cute?”

“Um . . . Where is it that you work?”

“At Pink House,” she says, then suggests going there. I tell her she needn’t trouble, but she insists on taking me straightaway as it’s just around the corner. She tells me to hurry, so I follow after her like one of her many sheep.

Once at the boutique, Mayu introduces me to her co-workers, all of whom are dressed in similarly ludicrous outfits and wear eerily pleasant smiles on their faces.

“You don’t always dress this way, do you?” I ask warily.

“Oh, if only I could,” Mayu gushes. “But these outfits are far too expensive for me.”

I take a look at one of the price tags and I am flabbergasted. The petticoats alone fetch a thousand dollars.

The co-workers nudge each other and giggle. They think Mayu and I make a nice couple.

These women are all insane.

7

“Call me Lisa,” Risa tells me.

Whatever.

Risa is disappointed when we meet because I am not black. I have so immersed myself in this culture that I find myself unconsciously apologizing for being white.

“I’m sorry, Risa, er, Lisa, for giving you that impression.”

I spoke to so many women in the past week, I don’t know to whom I told what, but I can safely assume that I did not tell her, or anyone else for that matter, that I was of African decent. I mean, why on earth would I?

I go through the filthy hamper of a brain I have, sifting through the unwashed laundry trying to remember what I may have said that lead her to believe that I am a brother. Did she misinterpret something I said? This is highly probable; even the most fluent English speakers I know misunderstand much of what I tell them. Perhaps, I told her I was the black sheep of the family–which is true, that I blacked out last weekend from the drink–also true, that black was my favorite color, that I preferred black tea to green, that . . .

“You said you were black.”

“I said I was Irish. Irish-Amer . . . ”

“Yes, and then I said, ‘Do you have orange hair and freckles . . . ”

I see said the blind man as he pissed into the wind, it all comes back to me.

And suddenly I remembered! “I said, ‘No, I’m black Irish.'”

“So, so, so, so. You said you were black.”

See what I mean?

Risa-call-me-Lisa takes me to a monja-yaki restaurant that she recommends. Outside the restaurant we look at the display case, which features uncannily realistic wax representations of the dishes served.

“Which one do you want?” she asks.

There are a dozen plates of what looks like vomit. I can’t imagine anyone looking at this display and thinking, Mm that looks yummy! I’ll have the puke with bits of bacon, please. I’ve seen more appetizing piles of regurgitated ramen on the sidewalk.

“I don’t know. They all look the same to me.”

She laughs. “You’re a funny man, Mister Peador-san.”

So I am. So I am.

Risa-call-me-Lisa is going to have the seafood barf with squid, shrimp and bits of octopus, and I the standard mixed monja-yaki called, believe it or not, The Orthodox. We sit at the counter before a large teppan grill where the cooks prepare the vomit with the seriousness of funeral directors. I can’t help but chuckle.

Risa unzips the silver down jacket she’s wearing to reveal the skimpiest of outfits. She hasn’t got the greatest body in the world, but she certainly knows how to present it, how to put it into a small enough package that it gives me a personal boner. Even the cooks can’t help but take their eyes off the teppan griddle to sneak a peek.

She asks me if I like what she’s wearing.

“I do.”

She tells me she got it in Tokyo where all the girls are wearing this kind of thing.

I should have moved to Tokyo instead.

“Have you ever been to Tokyo?” she asks.

“No, not yet.”

“Let’s go with me!” she says.

“Okay, let’s!”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

She asks if I want to drink.

“Is the Pope Catholic.”

“The Pope?”

“Risa, er, Lisa. I’m dying for a drink.”

“Beer? You want a nama?”

“Draught? Yeah, I’ll have a nama.”

She orders two namas which we put away easily before our food is served, so she orders two more. During our meal of monja-yaki, which is actually quite good, we drink a couple more draughts and by the end of lunch we’re like too old lovers. She touches me playfully to make a point, leans against my body when she tells me something she doesn’t want the staff to hear, rests her head on my shoulder, places her hand on my thigh and says she’s tired. I’m thinking I may actually get laid today. She orders another beer moves her hand to the bulge in my pants that has been impatiently demanding attention ever since she removed her jacket.

“Wow!” she says. “It’s true.”

“What’s true?”

“You know.”

“No, I don’t know.”

“What they say.”

“What do they say?”

“You know.”

“I don’t.”

“That Americans, you know . . . ”

A waiter places two draughts on the counter before us. Risa keeps her right hand on my friend, drinks with her left. She blushed with the first beer, grew red with the third, but now that she is on her sixth beer, she has lost her color altogether. I ask her if she’s all right. She strokes my crotch, making my cock bob up against her hand, and replies me that I’m the one we should be worried about.

“Does it hurt?” Hurt? Is this what Japanese men tell women here? That it hurts? Is that how the men get laid, by preying on women’s kindness? When in Rome . . .

I tell her it does, that I can’t stand the pain.

“Do you want me to help you with it?”

“I do.”

“Let’s go!”

*

Risa nearly falls over as she tries to stand up. I have to put one arm around her waist, place her arm around my shoulder and sort of drag her out of the restaurant the way a soldier would pull a wounded man out of a combat zone. As we pass the restroom, her body stiffens and she says she’s going to be sick. She pushes me aside and staggers into the women’s restroom, leaving me outside with her handbag and the silver down jacket to stand vigil as the sound of retching resonates against tiled walls.

When she emerges several minutes later, her face is ashen. I give her some gum and she thanks me with a heavy nod then walks quietly towards the elevator. I follow stupidly still carrying her belongings, which she takes from me once we get on the elevator. She struggles with the jacket. I help her get her arm through the sleeve. I put the purse under her arm, the strap over her shoulder. As soon as we leave the building, she places her hand on my chest to stop me from following her. She walks a few uneasy steps forward, turns slightly to wave good-bye then hails a cab.

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Read more by Aonghas Crowe here:

Aya and I sit in the upper floor atrium in the IMS building, a giant golden dildo of a building in the center of Tenjin. Looking out over the city, which stretches with gray monotony from the bay just north of us to the point where suburban obscurity butts into a low range of mountains east and west of the city. A number of shallow rivers flow when the mood strikes them.

I used to stare out of Mie’s eighth floor apartment in the eastern suburbs of the city and watch planes fly over that bleakly uniform cityscape wondering why there weren’t any skyscrapers. I asked Mie, but she didn’t know. I ask Aya now, and she says there are plenty of tall buildings in Tenjin, the golden dildo to name one. She doesn’t call IMS that, of course. Only I do. I tell her that fifteen stories do not a skyscraper make, adding that there aren’t any buildings over fifteen stories high in town. She says, really? I say, yes really. When she tells me she’s never thought about it, I tell her, this is why I am here, Aya: to make you think about these kinds of things. She says, oh. I say, oh, indeed.

Aya is in high school, by the way. An American girl might hide her young age when talking to a man older than herself, but in Japan the girls seem to wear their youth like a badge of honor. I recently asked a group of high school girls I’d been teaching if they were happy to be graduating. A few were, but most weren’t. Personally, I couldn’t wait for the day I was finally paroled from that all male Catholic correctional institution of a high school I attended. So, it struck me as odd that anyone could be ambivalent about graduation. Their answer: we don’t want to grow up. Who does? But if growing up was the price to pay for being done with high school, I could afford it.

Aya has just started her second year, making her fifteen, I guess.

“I’m sixteen,” she corrects.

She doesn’t look it. She’s not only assertive for her age, but she’s got a woman’s body, as well. She tells me men always think she’s older.

Men?

When I hear that she goes to the exclusive Catholic girls’ school in town, I say she must be an ojô-san, that is, a girl from a good family.

She replies that she isn’t, that it’s just the image. Most of the girls going there, she tells me, are the daughters of pachinko shop owners, Koreans, yakuza and other nouveau riche.

Aya’s own father is a doctor, but only because her mother who runs a couple of hostess bars and a mahjong parlor happened to fuck a doctor the day she was ovulating. Aya has a younger sister, she says. The girl is the product of a lawyer who happened to squirt his sperm into her mother’s birth canal, like a lawyer serving a subpoena. “She’s ugly and stupid,” Aya says of her younger sister. “She’s an embarrassment to me.”

I’m not particularly interested in this Aya. When you’re twenty-six, high schoolers just aren’t quite the turn-on I imagine they must be for middle-aged Japanese men. Salarymen are seemingly tortured with lust every time they see a girl sashay by in her sailor uniform. Still, this Aya is funny in a jaded kind of way, so we meet again a few days later during my afternoon break.

We walk through Maizuru Park to the castle ruins. The momoji trees have stretched out new leaves like the open hands of an infants waiting for the sunlight to pour over them. The ground below the sakura, which have lost all their blossoms to the wind and rain of the past weeks, is speckled with soft pink petals. Under the cool shade of centuries-old oaks, sculptured azaleas are starting to bloom.

Of the former castle grounds only the stone foundation and a few wooden gates remain. At the center and highest level where the Lord’s residence had once been, a steel observation deck has been constructed offering a view of the city far more attractive than the view from the IMS building.

When I tell Aya that I come up here a lot, she asks me why on earth for. To think, to look at the sky, to make sketches, to write, even to study. She tells me that she can do all that in her bedroom. So, you can. So, you can. She calls me a romantic. I tell her that’s just another way of saying someone’s a hopeless fool. She says she knows that.

She’s wearing her school uniform, a navy blue pinafore dress with the schools badge above her left breast, a white blouse with rounded collars under it, white socks with the school initial and black patent leather loafers. She hates it, she tells me, wishes she had a simple sailor uniform like the girls at the Buddhist girls high school have. I ask her why, and she says this uniform makes her look like a child. With those large breasts of hers pressed against the bib of the uniform, a child is the last thing Aya resembles.

Aya tells me a friend of hers met an American who then took her to a love hotel and had sex.

“Oh?”

“I couldn’t believe it.”

“Why?”

“Because he was too old.”

“How old?”

“In his thirties. And he was a college professor, too.”

I can’t help but laugh. What a country. I tell her he could be put in jail for that in America.

*

That evening after work, Reina says that she saw me walking near Ôhori Park with a high school girl. “She’s not your girlfriend, is she?”

“No, no, no. That’s just someone I know.”

“That’s hanzai, you know,” she says with a playful smirk.

“What’s that?”

“A crime.”

“Is it?”

“No, I’m only kidding. It’s not a crime, but this is a small town and people will talk . . . ”

“Small town? The population’s, what, over a million.”

“It’s a small town. Trust me. Everyone knows everyone in this town.”

“Whatever.”

“You can do what you like, Peador. I don’t care. Have sex with high school girls . . . ”

“I haven’t . . . ”

“It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do. What matters is how it looks.”

“And how is that?”

Loli-kon.”

“Loli-what?”

Loli-kon. Oh, what’s the word in English. Loli . . . Loli . . . ”

“Lolita complex?”

“So, so, so, so. Lolita complex.”

“I don’t . . . ”

“Like I said, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t let our boss or Yumi find out about it.”

*

Aya calls late Wednesday evening. When I ask if her mother minds her phoning me at such a time, she replies that her mother doesn’t know what she does because the woman’s never home. Despite my oppressively conservative up-bringing I’ve managed to emerge surprisingly liberal, and yet, I can’t help but feel something’s wrong with this picture and tell Aya that I’m sorry to hear about it.

“Don’t be,” she says. “I can’t stand the bitch. The less I see of her, the better.”

On Friday night while I am alone in the condominium, Aya phones again. She sounds impatient, and right off the bat asks what I think of her. I answer that I find her funny, but she isn’t interested in what I think of her personality, she wants to know if I find her attractive.

To be honest, she’s no knock-out. I know, of course, that I could do far, far worse than Aya. I need look no further than the past weekend to be reminded of that. What she lacks in appearance, though, she makes up with her youthfulness and a bust line that most women would envy. For the evangelical Christian, Jesus saves; Aya, however, is redeemed by those glorious tits. But then, this is the awesome power the breasts have over me. Your average girl sporting G cups will easily turn my head, but when she’s as beautiful as she is stacked, she’ll break my heart the way that Mie did. I tell Aya that she’s a very pretty young woman. It’s obvious that’s what she was hoping to hear and is lucky enough to have found me in an obliging mood.

Aya asks if I would mind her coming over on Sunday. Mind? Not at all. Do come, do come.

*

Aya calls me from a pay phone as soon as she arrives, so I walk down to the weathered station to meet her. She’s sitting alone on an old wooden bench, looking beat. I ask her if she’s tired and she says, “Of course, I’m tired, it took forever to get here.” She’s not exaggerating. With some luck, you might be able to get a train that will take you all the way from downtown Tenjin to this neglected little station in the middle of nowhere, but more often than not you have to transfer one or two times, as I suspect Aya has, making the trip even longer.

I apologize to her, then taking her knapsack which is surprisingly heavy, lead her around the station, over the single rusting railroad track, down a gravel path that runs between two untilled rice fields and over to the condominium.

The building I am living in looks rather impressive from the station. At ten stories high, it’s the tallest building throughout the otherwise undeveloped countryside. It’s not only huge by any standard, but beautiful and modern, as well. But like a Mayan pyramid rising out of the jungle, it makes you wonder what the hell it’s doing here. This is a mystery that needn’t keep me up at night much longer; with Reina’s help I’ve found a modest apartment two blocks away from work that I’ll move into next Sunday. Convenience in the end has won out over comfort.

*

I give Aya a quick tour of the apartment. She asks if I live here alone. “I guess you could say that, yes. Rumor has it that I have roommates, but damned if I’ll ever see them.”

“Must be nice to have such a big place all to yourself.”

“I don’t know. It’s so quiet and lonely here. The size just makes if feel all the more so.”

She sits down on one of the horrible recliners in the living room before I can say, “You don’t really want to sit . . .” They’re large and boxy abominations, covered with a broad piss yellow and shit brown tartan fabric. I am often appalled by other’s interior decorating choices, but the furniture in the condominium left me speechless when I first laid my eyes on it.  Granted it isn’t as bad as what my apartment in Kitakyushu. It had been furnished with whatever my boss could scrounge up during his rounds through the neighborhood on that monthly festival of profligacy: Non-burnable Garbage Day. Where my old apartment was a grab bag of miserably dilapidated second-hand furniture, there seems to actually be a theme to the horror in the condominium: Scottish Proletarian.

I bring can of Kirin and two glasses from the kitchen and sit down on a woolly throw rug on the floor. I pour some beer into Aya’s glass. She leans over, takes the can of beer from me and pours beer into my glass. It foams up, running over the edge of the glass, beer drips onto the carpet. She apologizes, but she needn’t do so. She’s only sixteen for chrissakes. I couldn’t pour a beer myself when I was that young.

Kampai,” we chime, clinking our glasses together.

“I’m not supposed to be drinking beer,” she says.

“Yeah, not for another five years, but ain’t that the beauty of this country?”

“No, no, it’s not that. I’m not supposed to drink because I’ve become a Mormon.”

“You what?”

Although the first Christian mission in Japan was set up four hundred and forty-four years ago by the Francis Xavier, for all the trouble he and countless missionaries after him went through, ninety-nine percent of the country has had the sense to turn a deaf ear to the Christian message. The Catholics, who were the first to come with good tidings for all, have all but stopped proselytizing and now keep quietly to themselves. A little repression at the hands of a brutal shogun goes a long way, indeed. Since the end of the war, however, armies of bible tottin’ dimwits have come to Japan to give converting the pagans another shot. And now, the Japanese housewife is bothered by dowdy women who knock on closed doors until their knuckles bleed and stand like abandoned pets in the draughty hallways, until someone who doesn’t know better opens the door and accepts a copy of The Watchtower. Other Christians, tired of having doors slammed on their noses, have resorted ingeniously to opening private secondary schools where they have a steady flow of impressionable youths with no choice but listen, take notes and regurgitate the Gospels on tests. Even though this subtle brainwashing of naïve youths only succeeds in producing a handful of converts a year, the schools have become cash cows keeping coffers in America’s Bible Belt filled and funding missions to countries more receptive to Christianity’s loving message that if you’re not one of them you’ll burn for all eternity in Hell, like Korea where as many as fifty percent have succumbed.

The Mormons, however, are brilliant. They’ve taken missionary work and made it a flashy, marketing bonanza with a sales staff of clean-cut blond virile men from the Theocracy of Utah. If the power of The Word isn’t enough to win over the souls of the heathens, well then maybe good looks and a smile will captivate their hearts. The Mormons even offer free “English lessons,” and who wouldn’t take them up? I certainly would if I were a pimply teenage girl with my crotch wet and itching for a blue-eyed American with gleaming white teeth. And what bored housewife wouldn’t open her front door, if not more, a little wider for the two charming young men in white shirts and neckties who’ve paid her a visit?

*

But what’s the deal with Aya? Why the sudden interest in Christianity? And why did she turn a sympathetic ear to the Mormons rather than the Catholics who have been duly inculcating her for ten years? Bit of a home goal there, ain’t it sisters?

Aya tells me she wants me to look at something as she digs into her backpack. She pulls out two copies of the Book of Mormon, one in Japanese, another in English, which she hands to me. So that’s why the bag was so heavy. We all have our crosses to bear; she schlepped those two bricks around with the vigor of a convert. I’m tempted to boot her and her two copies of the Book of Mormon out, to send her back to the re-education camp she came from. But as repelled as I am at the prospect of bible study, I am also drawn to the promise of those mounds of flesh under Aya’s burgundy sweater. I find myself surrendering. It just isn’t fair.

“You don’t really expect me to read this, do you?” I say.

She pulls at the ribbon bookmark and opens the bible for me. “Here, read this,” she says pointing to a passage.

“You are aware that I am Catholic,” I protest. “I was force-fed this most of my life and the mere thought of returning to those dark, insipid days gives me the willies.”

Aya doesn’t answer, just taps her gnawed down fingernail on the passage she wants me to read. I look reluctantly at the page and sigh dejectedly. Did she really come all this way just to chat about her personal savior Jesus H Christ with me? I mean, is the girl nuts?

“Just read it, will you?”

“It’s the bible right? I have read it. I, I can’t count the times. I’ve read it, been read from it, been hit on the head with it, I know the bible like the back of my hand . . .”

“Then you’ll recognize this passage,” she replies. She’s worse than a Jehovah’s Witness with one foot in the door.

“I’ll read it, but tell me one thing first, Aya. Why did you . . . What does it mean for you to be a Mormon?”

“Not much, I guess,” she says with a shrug. “They’re nice, but they have too many rules. No caffeine. No Coca Cola. No green tea, no alcohol, and . . . no sex.”

“What?”

“You can’t drink and you can’t have sex until after marriage.”

“Well, where’s the fun in that?” I say refilling our glasses with beer.

“Yeah, like I said, too many rules, but . . .”

“But what?”

“Some things they say are nice.”

“What things?”

“Like this,” she said tapping on the bible again.

I give in and look at the bible resting heavily in my lap.

“Read this,” she says pointing with those short tanned, fingers of hers.

I skim the pages to see how it’s organized, to try to understand how it differs from the bible I was indoctrinated with throughout my sixteen years in Catholic Gulags, but it’s all unfamiliar gibberish. There are far too many “Yea’s” and verbs ending with “eth”, the kind of window-dressing, which tries to make simple and self-evident truths sound like the monolithic and oppressive Word of God.

She opens her own bible to where a cloth divider was marking the page and follows along in Japanese as I read aloud in English. Words like “puffeth” and “proudeth” dribble clumsily from my mouth. I end up focusing more on style, than on substance, and the meaning is lost on me altogether. Aya then reads to me the Japanese translation which is refreshingly straightforward. No sooner does she utter the first verse than I recognize the familiar quote from Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind . . .”

*

I ask her what it means to her, and she replies simply that it’s beautiful. “Yes, but what does it mean to you, Aya?”

She struggles to find an answer, so I tell her what it means to me: unconditional love. Love without strings attached. Unconditional love. It’s what I wanted from Mie and other girlfriends before her, what I had expected of my parents, but what no one has been able to deliver. I wonder if it is also the kind of love that this high school girl has come here to find today. An unconditional love to wrap yourself up in and warm yourself with when the cold reality of our shitty, disappointing lives is too much.

Given that my theories as to what may have really motivated Aya to come all the way out to see me this afternoon isn’t as rock solid as, say, my erection currently is, it is with much trepidation that I make my move. I put the bible aside, and kneel before her. The girl is eleven years younger than myself and still my heart is racing. I am self-conscious, nervous, lack the confidence a man my age ought to have. This awkwardness was Mie’s parting gift to me. I offer my hand because I haven’t the courage to take hers. Her small hand opens slightly and I take it, then, ever so gently draw her to the edge of her seat towards me, and into my arms. How long has it been since I embraced someone? Six months? Seven?

I hold Aya tightly, feel her hard breasts pressed against my chest, inhale the fragrance of her skin, and am overwhelmed by unwelcome memories that make me miss Mie more than I’ve missed her in weeks. I long to the feel her body against mine, to smell her hair, to hear the sound she uttered whenever I kissed her neck. Why, why, why, why goddammit can’t it be Mie in my arms now? I am so despondent. My body shudders and any moment I threaten to break down and start crying.

Aya asks if something’s the matter. I am so close to tears that I can’t talk. I kiss the girl, instead. She kisses me, soft awkward kisses, the kisses of a high school girl. I lie down on the rug and gently pull her off the recliner to my side.

Aya lays next to me, eyes closed, face turned towards me. I want her to take me in her arms, to kiss me passionately, to pull my clothes off the way Mie did that first night, but Aya just lies there, waiting.

I kiss her neck, but Aya doesn’t stir. Is she nervous? Scared? Her arms remain frozen at her sides, she doesn’t seem to know what to do with those cute hands of hers, so I move them above her head. I then begin to lift her burgundy sweater up. She says, dame-dame (no, no), but arches her back to help me all the same. I maneuver the sweater over her massive chest and off revealing what I found so captivating about her. Locked away in an industrial strength, utilitarian white bra are her breasts.

The bra is more engineering and mechanics than lingerie and art. It serves a function: supporting a load and preventing unnecessary jiggling, the kind of jiggling that gives middle-aged PE teachers a fresh boner and inspires hour-long lessons of sprints and jumping jacks. It’s the kind of bra your dear old mom would have worn after having given birth to and breast feeding a half dozen kids until her breasts had become flaccid sacks of useless flesh with big ol’ nipples.

I sit Aya up, so that I might better fiddle with the four latch-like iron hooks groaning as they contain her breasts, but undoing the bra is no easy task. It requires concentration and strong, but nimble fingers. With a little practice any amateur could master undoing the support of a woman less endowed, but this bra has been designed to stay put, to defy the laws of nature. With a snap the first hook is freed, with a second snap another hook comes undone. She utters another dame-dame, but doesn’t fight or push me away. With both hands tugging on the strap, which is as taunt as the cable on a suspension bridge, I manage to get the slack needed to loosen the third hook. But as it comes free the hook snaps open, catching the skin of my index finger and lodging itself deeply, painfully into my flesh. I bite my lip, to keep from howling. I’ve made it this far; I will not be discouraged. From this point on, there is little you can do, but hope for the best. With the burden of that marvelous chest of hers reigned in by the last remaining hook which was never designed to withhold so much pressure alone, nature takes charge and with a grating, achingly remorseful croak, and yet another dame-dame from Aya, the hook surrenders, throws up its arms in defeat and lets the bra fall unveiling the most glorious pair of tits a sex-starved man could ever hope for. God and I look at what He has created and we both agree: it is good, very good. What Aya lacks in looks, she has more compensated for: a body that would terrorize a man in his dreams. Full, beautiful, bluish white breasts, hard as boulders, with small pink nipples, like pickled cherries on rice. I kiss them, lick them, tease and fondle them. I pay obeisance to those breasts as a true believe would before an awe-inspiring manifestation of the Almighty.

Six months have passed since Mie left me, and for the first time in all these sad, lonely days, weeks and months, during which I have wandered aimlessly like a somnambulist, I can feel life trickling again through my cold, dry veins. As I suck on Aya’s tiny pink nipples and listen to her soft, meaningless protest of dame-dame, I feel as if I am finally beginning to reclaim my life, one small kiss at a time, finally starting to laying the past to rest, one nail at a time.

*

Remember that feeling I had of life flowing again through my veins? Well, it doesn’t last very long.

As the inbound train approaches, the off-tune chime of the railroad crossing starts clanging away, I take Aya into my arms and hold her tightly. With her face buried in my chest, she tells me she loves me.

The words are spoken softly, nervously; they’re unsure of how they’ll be received. I knew this was coming. Aya had been wearing the grateful, yet forlorn look of an abandoned dog that’s just been fed, the look that compels you to take the poor mutt home with you. And so, I tell her that I love her, too. The train pulls into the station, the doors open. Aya kisses me once more before boarding the train. The driver, leaning out of a small window and looking back down the platform, blows a whistle. The doors close and the rusting, sun-bleached train begins to move forward. I remain on the platform, watching the train as it ambles down the single track and takes Aya out of my life. My love for the girl is neither patient, nor kind. It is rude and self-seeking. It doesn’t protect and it cannot be trusted. My love for Aya fails and as soon as the train disappears around a bend, the familiar emptiness, another one of Mie’s parting gifts, returns.

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Read more by Aonghas Crowe here:

On Monday morning, a man in a poorly fitting navy suit comes into the office and takes a seat near Yumi. The heavy dark clouds that usually hang over my co-worker’s head break and the sun shines in.

Yumi chats animatedly to the man, using that gratingly high and suspiciously blithe voice she normally reserves for the phone.

The man opens what looks like a large physician’s bag and takes out a narrow, but rather thick envelope and places it on the table. Yumi gives the man a slip of paper, which he examines then marks with a small stamp. He hands the slip of paper back to Yumi who rattles cheerfully away. He then opens the envelope revealing a two-inch thick stack of cash. Holding the stack at the bottom with two hands, he flicks his wrists a number of time producing a fan of ten-thousand yen notes.

Good Lord! Whatever this man’s job is, I want it!


*

As much as I’d love to stay and watch the man perform his magic, I’ve got a class to teach and it’s about to start. This morning it’s a group of beginner’s, made up of six housewives ranging in age from their late thirties to early fifties.

When the oldest of the group, Mieko, asks me how I spent the weekend, it is tempting to say that it was spent lying naked on a wooly throw rug tossing about with a high school girl. I tell her, instead, that I spent Sunday studying Japanese, which produces a cackle of praise from the students. Mieko says she respects me and wishes her husband were as diligent as I was.

The woman should be careful of what she wishes for.

Mieko then tells me that her own weekend was horrible.

“Really?” I say. “Why’s that?”

“Finished dinner, my husband . . . ”

After dinner,” I correct.

“What?”

After dinner,” I repeat. “Not finished dinner, after dinner.”

“I see. Thank you.” She looks down at her notebook, studies what she has prepared for today’s lesson, then starts over: “Finished dinner, my husband . . .” I tap the surface of my desk to convey my irritation. The message seems to get across. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she says. “After . . . After dinner, my husband . . . How do you say . . . chidori ashi?”

It’s thanks to good old Mie that I know chidori ashi, literally chicken legs, means stagger. “My husband staggered,” I answer.

“What?”

Staggered.”

She says she doesn’t understand.

“Your husband, he was drunk, right? Yopparai, right?”

“Yes, very, very yopparai.”

“Okay then, he staggered.”

“Sutahgah . . . ?”

“Staggered.”

“Sutahgahdo?

“Yes, staggered. He staggered.”

“What does that mean?”

I feel like a dog chasing my own tail.

“What does that mean?” she asks again.

“Staggered? You’re husband was drunk. He staggered. Chidori ashi.”

“Yes, yes. Chidori ashi. How do you say that in English?”

I’m am this close to going losing it. “Chidori ashi means Stagger.”

“Huh?”

Chidori ashi eekuwaru stahgahdo.” Chidori ashi equals stagger. Believe me this really is how they speak here.

“Oh, I see, I see. Thank you. Finished dinner, my husband staggered . . .”

*

I am distracted by the distinctive sound of a 50cc motor. Going to the window, I look out and see the man in the frumpy suit, the man with the cash, tooling noisily away on a cheap little scooter. When class has finished and the students have left, I ask Yumi who the guy was.

“He’s from the bank,” she says.

“From the bank? On that dinky little scooter? With all that cash?”

“Yes, today’s payday.”

“He doesn’t ever get robbed?”

“Have you got your inkan?” Yumi asks.

“My inkan?”

“Yes, your inkan. Have you got it?”

I tell her I don’t. The stamp engraved with my name in kanji is back at the condominium.

“I can’t pay you unless you have your inkan, because I have to stamp this book.”

“Here’s a wild idea, Yumi, that I’ll just throw out to you, see if you bite: How about I just sign the book.”

“No, no, no. You must use the inkan.

Must. Okay, I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“What about your pay?”

“I’ll just pick it up tomorrow.”

“But I can’t keep that much cash here.”

“Cash? We’re paid in cash?”

She says of course we are, making me feel like an idiot for asking. You can live for years in this country, study its language and culture, but you’ll still be scratching your head every time you bump up against their notion of common sense.

“Can you go home and get your inkan during your break?”

This is not a request, so after a quick lunch at an udon shop near Ôhori Park, I take the train all the way to the condominium, get my ever so important inkan, and return to the office two hours later where I stamp a little box next to my name in the little pay book and get a brown envelope containing a stack of the newest, crispest bills I’ve ever laid my eyes on.

Unfortunately, I’m a temporary custodian of the money. A few days later, I have to give the entire amount, and then some, to a woman sitting behind the counter of a shabby little used bookstore near my office. My first month’s rent, plus an amount equivalent to another four month’s rent, which I’ve been told, is the key money–fucking expensive keys–plus one more month’s rent for the reikin, a token of appreciation to the realtor, who in this case happens to also be the landlord and downstairs neighbor. Thanks for nothing.

When I asked my co-workers if I will get any of this deposit back, they cocked their heads and sucked air through their teeth. I took that as a no.

So, it’s fine dining on stir-fried bean sprouts for the next four weeks: a small price to pay for not having to live an hour out of town in the middle of nowhere. What the hell was I thinking when I agreed to move there?

In the first few weeks alone at the condominium, I dozed off on the train and missed my station four times. Four times! The first time was in the morning on my way to work. By the time I woke up, I had traveled three stations beyond my stop. I had to scramble out of the train and run across the platform and catch the train going the opposite direction. Had I not been warned so unambiguously by Abazure that were I ever late, I’d be fired immediately, I might have taken it in stride. Instead, I was pushing people out of the way, dashing through the turnstiles and sprinting like an Olympian all the way from the station to the office where I arrived panting and sweating, a minute to spare on the time clock. The guillotine came to an abrupt halt an inch from my trembling neck.

One evening as I was riding the last train home, I succumbed to such a deep, dream-filled sleep that I did not wake until the train had arrived in the neighboring prefecture! As it was the last train of the evening, I was left with two options: crashing for the night outside the station with the drunks or forking over five thousand yen–half a day’s wages–for a taxi.

The third time, like the second, was on the ride home after a long tiring day of work. When I nodded off, the train was shoulder to shoulder with equally exhausted salarymen and office ladies who’d had the very life sucked out of them and were now staring vacantly before themselves as if at the smoldering remains of extinguished dreams. I was fully reclined and drooling on the seat, the contents of my grocery bags strewn on the floor, grapefruits and apples rolling about here and there like orphaned children when the conductor woke me. I was the only remaining passenger on the train which had reached its final destination several stops short of my station. The conductor helped me collect my scattered belongings and groceries. Had it been America, I probably would have woken to find myself stripped down to my underwear. I didn’t have enough for a cab, so I had to hump it rest of the way to the condominium. An hour’s walk in the rain without an umbrella, and loaded down with a week’s worth of groceries.

The following morning I overslept again, yet by the grace of God managed somehow to get to work in time to punch the clock But I’d had it.

*

The Friday evening class consists of three high school students and a rônin, a boy who didn’t manage to get into the college of his choice and has decided to spend the year at a yobikô, a kind of cram school for students like him, and give it another shot next winter. I ask him where he wants to go, but he’s hesitant to tell me. He’s either too embarrassed, or just modest. I prod, I poke, I cajole, until he finally gives in. He wants to go to Waseda University. As it’s one of the best private schools in the country, I say he must be smart. He replies that he’s not smart, that he’s fat.

When asked what he hopes to study, he says he’s not sure. He just wants to get into Waseda like his father. He tells me his father’s fat, too. I wish him good luck and he laughs. Everyone laughs when I say good luck. Ten years will pass and people will still be laughing whenever the words good luck pass my lips and I still won’t understand why.

One of the girls, a short and roly-poly sophomore at a private girls’ school, is excited about her up-coming school trip to Disneyland and the northern island of Hokkaido. I ask when she’s going, she says Tokyo. I ask her again, and she answers Tokyo Disneyland. I say “when?” once more, and she tells me, “In Tokyo.” Is she doing this to me on purpose? Then, deliberately and very slowly, enunciating as clearly as I humanely can and giving the n undue stress I ask, “When are you going?”

She nods! She gets it! There’s a big buck-toothed smile on her round chubby face! “I shee, I shee,” she says. “Hokkaidô.”

I break out the chalk, write WHEN and WHERE on the board, stab at the WHEN causing the chalk to crumble in my hand and ask for the last time. She apologizes then answers that she’s going in July. Progress! But wait, it’s only April, why’s she already all fired up to go. She says she can’t wait to go to Tokyo Disneyland to see “Mickey Mouse ando Donarudo Duck ando Pooh.” I tell her what poo means, then ask whose poo she wants to see, Pluto’s? She waves her hand frantically before her face. She doesn’t want to see Pluto’s doodoo. She wants to see the bear. Oh, you mean Winnie the Pooh. She says “yesh, yesh, yesh,” and asks why on earth Christopher Robin would be so mean to call his bear doodoo. I shrug and say, “Maybe it sounded nice.”

She tells me she’s sad to learn what Poo’s name means. I try to comfort her, telling her that she now has something funny to share with her friends at school tomorrow. She says she’ll never tell them. Why not, I ask. Because they’d be sad, too.

I ask her why they’re also going all the way to Hokkaidô which is an hour-and-half-long flight from Tokyo and I’m told that they’ll visit the city of Fukugawa to see Clark’s statue. When I say who’s this Clark, the rônin answers, “Boys be ambitious!”

All of the students nod their heads collectively, and say, “Ambitious.” The phrase rings a bell and I recall having read about a missionary and educator who founded a school in Hokkaidô over a century ago. The sophomore points upwards imitating the statue. I ask her what Clark’s statue is pointing at, she says the sky. What the hell’s he pointing at the sky for? She giggles and says she isn’t sure.

I tell the girl she’s lucky she isn’t a boy.

“Why’s”

“Because if you were a boy, you’d have to be ambitious and work hard. You’re a girl. You can take it easy and have fun.”

She shouts, “Yea! Yea!”

The rônin hangs his weary head.

*

After work I squeeze onto a crowded train back to the condominium. The worn out passengers hang loosely onto the overhead handles, swaying gently and bumping into each other like racks of beef, frozen and suspended from steel meat hooks.

Earlier in the day, Abazure told me the students were happy to have me as their teacher, that I was doing a wonderful job. Compliments are cheap in this country, like smiles at McDonald’s, they don’t cost a cent, but Abazure was sincere, eerily so.

So many of the adult students have declared me a great teacher and introduced friends that most of my morning classes are now filled to capacity. Even dreary old Yumi after sitting in on one of my evening lessons has rediscovered something to be enthusiastic about. All this praise depresses me because there is nothing that makes me feel more like the loser than being told how well I perform tasks embarrassingly beneath my potential. The compliment jars my confidence as malignantly as insults; I feel my dreams begin to slip through my fingers.

As I ride the train, pressed between the carcasses of salarymen and office ladies, an appalling realization finally begins to seep in. The deposit I paid and the contract I signed with Abazure as my guarantor have all but indentured me. I was so recklessly eager to escape, at any cost, from the inaka, from the condominium in the middle of nowhere, that I didn’t give fuck about anything else. Now I do. As much as I am loath to admit it, I am probably looking at another two years performing the old eikaiwa soft-shoe routine. God, how depressing.

I look at the meat around me. Do they have dreams as well, or have those been extinguished by damp circumstance and necessity? What possesses them to be packed like cattle into trains, to work until they can barely stand? Just to pay off the mortgage on the place they drop their weary bones every night? I look at the expressionless faces, the vacant look in the eyes. Each day inertia alone manages to carry them through. Were they ever motivated by dreams, inspired by love? Were they once animals in the sack, passionately thrashing about, lusting for life itself? Or, have they always been pathetic shells of men feigning impotence if only to have an extra half hour of blessed sleep? God help them.

*

There isn’t a single light on in the condominium when I enter the front door. Not a sound, save the sickly hum of the second-hand refrigerator, to be heard either. Friday evening, alone with nothing in particular to do. Again. I’ve come to hate the weekends, hate how they remind me how little there is to look forward to after working all week. I couldn’t have been born to live this way. No God could be so callous.

I plop down on the woolly carpet in the living room. In the absence of the static work provided, my thoughts tune into Mie. As surely as the tide returns, my thoughts return to her. Where she is? What she’s doing? Who’s she’s with? Is she thinking about me, wondering these very same things, or is her mind elsewhere? Is there still a pulse to be found in the relationship we once had? Or am I wasting my time waiting for her to discover it, waiting for her to come back? Can the love we had be resuscitated, or is it as hopeless as a corpse, naked on cold stainless steel? It kills me to think that she may have moved on, that I have been forgotten when the pain in my heart is still so fresh. What the hell am I still in Japan for? I wish I could take my deposit back, erase my name and inkan from the apartment contract, go back to the States. Coming to this country derailed me, and every day that passes is another day further off course.

*

I consider calling Aya, having her sneak out of her home to spend the night with me, to have her distract me with those glorious breasts of hers. But the way I’m feeling tonight, I doubt I’d find much consolation in screwing a high school girl. As surely as she would oblige me, I know the morning would greet me more depressed than ever, bitter that it weren’t someone I loved lying next to me.

With the move only a day away, it makes sense to stop moping and start getting my things together, to pack up my clothes and belongings. I never quite settled into the condominium. Lacking the resignation to a life in the inaka, I have lived for the most part out of a suitcase, unpacking things as necessity required and hanging them up in the closet or putting them away in a drawer when I was finished, so it doesn’t take long.

My “roommates” are in town and probably won’t return until Sunday evening, meaning I’ll have vacated the condo by the time they return. I’ve heard stories of Japanese families digging themselves so deep into debt that they’re left with only two options: packing up what they can and moving out of their homes surreptitiously in the middle of the night, so-called yonige, or committing ikka shinjû, or a family suicide. Considering that I haven’t mentioned my move to the “roommates,” I kind of feel like I’m yonige-ing myself.

You think they’ll miss me? Think they’ll even notice that I’m gone?

*

I take a small box containing Mie’s negligée, her yellow toothbrush and overnight kit, what she called her o-tomari setto, from one of the drawers and place it in the clear plastic container where I keep photo albums and souvenirs from my first year in Japan.

It’s been months since I last opened the albums. Fear of an emotional onslaught has prevented me from summoning Lazarus out of his tomb, from taking the albums out and reviving the past.

I take them out now, one for nearly every month shared with Mie, with the exception of October. I still can’t bring myself to have the film from that month developed and have interned it like dry bones and ashes in a tin can.

Some of the happiest memories of my life are recorded on the pages of the albums. I can’t help myself, can’t keep myself from taking the first album out, from cracking it open, and diving headfirst before checking the depth.

My twenty-sixth birthday. There’s Mie sitting among a group of some two dozen of my students who’ve crammed into one of the six-tatami mat rooms at my old apartment. She’s beaming at me. So beautiful, so vibrant, so engaging. She didn’t know if she would be able to make it, if she would be able to get away from work. I told her thirty people would be coming to the party. She was the only person, though, that I really wanted to celebrate with. “Wakatta. Gambarimasu,” she said. Okay, I’ll try to be there.

I was on tenterhooks the whole party, my eyes turning expectantly towards the front door every time I heard footsteps coming up the stairwell. When she did come, I could barely contain my happiness. I shouted “Mie-chan” as she walked in through the door. That night after everyone had left we made love for the second time.

On the following page, Mie and I are at the izakaya near the apartment we sometimes went to. In the first snapshot, Mie is pouring sake for me from a small earthenware tokkuri bottle into the tiny choko cup I’m holding. Before us on the counters is a small plate of grilled mackerel with daikon oroshi, grated radish before us. It was my first time to try it. A dish of a nimono of beef and potatoes, another plate of tempura on white paper. In the next photo, I’m pouring soy sauce into the choko of the customer next to me. Mie’s laughing, but the customer himself doesn’t quite know what to make of my little Amelikan jokku.

On the next page, is an adorable letter Mie sent to me after returning from a trip she took with all of her co-workers to the island of Hokkaido in the very north of Japan. She included several photos of herself taken while there. The letter mentions how mild the summer is in Hokkaido compared to Kyushu, the places visited and sights seen, the wonderful seafood she ate so much of that she’s afraid she has put on weight . . . again. It closes with a few lines that reassured me when I had already started to fall in love with her:

“I’ve been thinking a lot about you recently. I don’t quite understand how I’m feeling, but I miss you so much and want to see you. Call me.”

*

I put the photo album back into the storage container, clamp it shut, and then finish packing up my things. After a meal of tom yum gai soup, I sit down in front of the television and flip through the channels for something to get my mind off Mie. Without satellite or cable, flipping through the channels is like jogging around a short track. Around and around and around. A variety show featuring pop music, a variety show featuring a manzai commedy duo, a dry documentary on NHK, the humorless state-run broadcaster, an English language instruction program featuring sad excuses for foreigners hamming it up on NHK’s education channel, another variety show featuring manzai comedians and pop music, and finally rounding up the lap, an old Schwarzenegger film dubbed in Japanese. The phone starts ringing.

*

Moshi moshi?”

“Hello. Is Chris there?” asks a soft, barely audible voice.

“No, he isn’t,” I reply, turning the TV down.

“Is this Peador?”

“Yeah.”

“This is Machiko.” It’s Chris’s girlfriend.

“Oh, hi, Machiko.”

“Do you know where Chris is?” she asks timidly.

“No.”

My roommate is an affable enough person, but seldom has much to say to me whenever we happen to find ourselves at the condominium at the same time.

She asks if I am alone, what I’m doing, what my plans are for the weekend. Why the sudden interest in old Peador, I wonder. Is this Machiko a player? Is the quiet demeanor just a ruse?

“Yes,” I reply.

“I don’t believe you,” she says.

“I really am alone, whether you believe it or not.”

“You have a lot of girlfriends, don’t you?”

I’ve been getting this a lot. I tell her I’m not seeing anyone in particular.

“Chris and I, we saw you Saturday evening with a girl. You were holding hands.”

Saturday night? Holding hands?

“Oh, them,” I say. “They’re just friends.”

Two former students of mine had come down from Kitakyushu to see me. Sweet girls, both of them, terribly kind, but hardly my cup of tea.

“We were drunk,” I offer as an explanation. I had completely forgotten about that.

“And I saw you with a high school girl near the park before that. You were holding her hand, too.”

Holding hands with Aya? Now that I definitely did not do, but there’s no use in protesting. Machiko has convinced herself.

“Chris tells me you’re a playboy, a real lady-killer. Are you? Are you a lady-killer?”

This gives me a nice and long overdue laugh, a ripe old belly laugh, punctuated poignantly by two loud farts.

“Please be nice to them,” she says.

“Okay, I promise. Cross my heart.”

“I mean it,” she insists and then I can hear the gravity in her soft voice. “Peador, please be nice to them.”

“I’ll try,” I say.

“Do you know when Chris will come home?”

“To tell you the truth, I have no idea,” I say, adding that he sometimes doesn’t come back at all. Oops!

The silence on the other end of the phone speaks volumes. It was a simple mistake; I was under the assumption that Chris had been spending the nights with Machiko. Now that I realize that hasn’t been the case, I whip up a nice and fluffy white lie.

“Chris is busy, as I’m sure he’s told you, Machiko. Lots of overtime. And he’s also helping a friend which . . .” I have to pull these fluffy white lies out of my arse because I don’t know Jack shit about Chris’s private life. “He told me he sometimes stayed at a co-worker’s place in town, a Tony-something, whenever he misses the last train . . .”

The last bit has the merit of being based on more than the threadbare fabric of my imagination: it stems from hearsay.

Machiko remains silent. I can’t tell whether she has bought any of it, or whether she was able to understand what I told her.

After a long, pain-filled sigh, she speaks up. “I want you to give him a message.”

“Sure.”

“Tell him: ‘I love him . . . I miss him . . . “

I can hear her sniffing on the other end.

“I want to see him . . . “

Her voice grows ever more quiet, and with all the sniffing, it’s hard to catch what she’s saying. Even so, I know the message she wants me to convey.

“Tell him . . . I love him.”

I write the simple words down on the only piece of paper available, a mauve napkin with a picnic basket and squirrels in one corner, write her words verbatim with ellipsis indicating the pauses each time she’s too overcome by emotion to continue. When I look at what she has had me write, I realize they are the very same words Mie spoke to me.

*

Mie and I spent a languorous weekend together at her apartment in Fukuoka, rarely leaving her bed. We made love, rested, made love again, and then after taking a shower together, fell into each other’s arms and did it one more time before falling asleep.

When I had returned to Kitakyushu, I took a long walk by myself along the bank of the slow-moving Onga River, listening to a cassette Mie had made for me with some of her favorite songs. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and felt vulnerable and weak because of it. I was lost in that painfully comfortable limbo, having fallen in love but distressed that the sentiment might not be mutual. That evening I walked up the hill to the cluster of mom-and-pop shops where the only public telephone in the neighborhood was to be found. The booth was alive with mosquitoes, moths, gnats and ticks, every kind of bug imaginable. Braving the insects, I dialed her number. That’s how badly I wanted to hear her voice, wanted to hear her say, “I love you . . . I miss you . . . I want to see you.”

“I miss you, too, Mie.” I told her, with my throat taunt. “I want to see you, too.”

*

“I’ll tell him,” I promise.

“Peador?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I talk to you?”

“Of course.”

Machiko speaks for an hour, describing how she met Chris. She had been walking along a street in town a month ago when she noticed him. Just like that, she went right up to him and asked if he were American. He said, yes, and the two of them started talking. They ended up spending the afternoon together chatting in a coffee shop.

“I was so sad and lonely before I met Chris,” she says sniffing. “But, he’s made me so happy.”

I start to cry. Mie had made me happy, too, at a time when I was desperately homesick and missing all of my friends. I tell Machiko a little about Mie, only a little because to tell her the extent of what has been weighing on my heart all these months would be unbearable.

“Do you still love her?”

“Yes,” I answer, tears flowing down my face, my nose running.

“Then call her.”

“She’ll just hang up on me.”

“Try,” she encourages. “Give her one more chance.”

*

I stare at the phone for more than half an hour, before finally dialing Mie’s number.

How many times did I try to call Mie? How many times did I linger by the phone, wanting to make this very call, but was held back by fear, the fear that the relationship was dead, the fear that Mie was gone and would never come back no matter what I did or said? How many times? I should have moved on and found someone else, anyone, if only to fuck away the memories, if only to mend my heart by breaking others’.

Machiko is right, I have nothing to lose by calling, so I dial Mie’s number.

*

Moshi moshi?”

Mie’s familiar deep voice breaks the silence that has enveloped me since Machiko hung up.

“Hi.”

“Who is it?” she asks.

“It’s me . . . ”

“Peador?”

“Yes,” I say painfully, my throat was dry and taunt. “Yes, it’s me, Peador.”

Mie sounds genuinely happy to hear from me, which catches me off guard.

We exchange bland pleasantries like two old middle-aged women. She mentions the warm weather we’ve been having asks if I had a chance to drink under the sakura blossoms. I tell her I did, that I’m now working near West Park, one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms.

“I’m glad to hear that,” she says. “Do you like the your new job?”

“It’s not bad,” I tell her. “A million times better than working for that idiot last year in Kitakyushu but then just about anything would be better than another year with him.”

She speaks of her own hatred for the tiring and boring routine at the pachinko parlor, then brightens up when she tells me that she got a new puppy.

“He likes to drink beer,” she says.

Six months may have passed since we last spoke, but she is still the Mie I fell in love with and have been missing all these months.

Mie asks how I look, whether I’ve grown my hair out or have kept it short, and so on. Finally, she asks me if I have a girlfriend.

I tell her I don’t.

“No?”

“No.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I don’t believe you.”

I have no idea why everyone is finding this so hard to accept. Am I missing something here? Am I better looking, more charming than I believe myself to be?

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I say. “Haven’t had one since you . . . ”

“I’m sorry.”

The tears begin to fall, betraying me again. Women will tell you that they want their men to express their emotions, but nothing turns a woman off faster than a man blubbering pathetically into the receiver of the phone and that’s exactly what I begin to do. And I’ve never hated myself more than I do now.

“I’m so lonely, Mie . . . I miss you . . . I want to see you.”

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Read more by Aonghas Crowe here:

“You should have called me earlier,” Mie says brightly. “We could have met.”

I did but you kept hanging up on me, remember?

“I wanted to . . . ”

“Say, what are you doing Monday? If you’re free, how about getting together?”

The invitation is made so casually that I can hardly believe my ears. Six months earlier Mie was talking to me through the slit of a chained door and now she acts as if a reset button has been pressed. It’s the spring of 1992 all over again.

Can we go back to zero? Can we meet as if for the first time like we did one year ago? Can we get drunk in your bedroom and fall into each other’s arms again? Can we wake up the next morning, half undressed and a little embarrassed–but happy, too–about what had happened?

“Monday?” I said. “This Monday?”

“Yes, this Monday. Are you free?”

My nose is running and my eyes are filled with tears, and yet I’m smiling. It feels like ages since I last managed a genuine one.

“Yeah, Mie, I’ll be free after eight-thirty.”

“Alright then. Let’s meet in front of the Oyafukô Dôri Mister Donuts. Okay? You know where that is, don’t you?”

Of course I know where it is. We went there on Father’s Day last year, the day after you left Tetsu.

I let the receiver fall from my hand onto my lap as soon as she hangs up. I don’t know what to make of what has just happened or what Mie’s intentions are. She made no mention of Tetsu.

Have the two of them broken up? Has she been waiting all these months for me to contact her?

I go to my room and lie on my futon where I am overcome by a rare peace of mind, and, for the first time in months, I sleep like the dead.

*

All day Sunday, my co-worker Reina helps me move out of the condo deep in the suburbs of Fukuoka and into the new apartment closer to work, an effort taking most of the day because of the size of her car necessitates two trips.

Reina drives a Mitsubishi Pajero Mini. When I ask her if she knows what Pajero means, she says she doesn’t, that she loves the car so much she wouldn’t care if it meant dust box. She means trash can, but after lugging things from the eighth floor condominium I don’t really feel like correcting her English.

“I’m only going to tell you because you said it wouldn’t affect the way you feel about your wonderful little car here, but Pajero means masturbate in Spanish.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“How embarrassing.”

“I’m sorry to be the one to have told you. Why, of all the things, why  would they ever name a car that?”

“Maybe they liked the sound of it.”

My new apartment is on the fourth and top floor of a medium-sized concrete-and-tile building. It’s representative of the crap that was thrown up during the bubble economy. The real estate boom of the 1980’s had every knucklehead with a bit of cash burning a hole in his pocket building on any old plot of land they could get their hands on with the expectation that prices would keep going up and up.

The apartment building was apparently built on land that used to be the landlord’s mother’s garden. Her dilapidated wooden house remains, uninhabited and leaning, as if from fatigue and shortness of breath, against the building. Thanks to the apartment towers rising fifteen-stories high to the southeast, south and west, most the sunlight is blocked. The whole house languishes in a damp and perpetual shade with the exception of one northern wall that gets a flash of sun in the afternoon. The wall is covered with a thick coat of ivy that has invaded the slats of wood and worked its way to the clay beneath it. The tiled roof, black with slime, is slowly disintegrating, the shattered remains of tiles and mortar litter the ground below the eves in a narrow mossy ditch, like dandruff on an old man’s boney shoulders.

Near the house and sharing the same sliver of noonday sun is a small Shinto shrine. A stray black and white cat with bobbed tail passes through the miniature red torii gate and crawls into a space under the shrine, disappearing into the darkness underneath.

The apartment itself is unremarkable. Shaped like an L, with a kitchen nook and an adjacent utility room and bathroom just off the long and narrow living room area, but is redeemed by an exceptionally large balcony that overlooks an oasis of green: the vast garden belonging to one of the few houses remaining in the neighborhood.

My new apartment, though not as comfortable as the condominium I’ve just given up, comes with enough amenities–a washer and dryer, a small fridge, an air conditioner and even a toilet equipped with a heated seat and bidet–that I don’t feel as if I’m sliding back into the same kind of impoverished squalor I had to endure the year I lived in Kitakyushu City.

Even Reina thinks I was lucky to get it. She would say so: it was her, after all, who found the apartment for me.

Reina and I end up spending the whole day together, precisely what I hoped would happen when she first offered to help. At a time when loneliness has been suffocating, the half hour I spend alone with her at the end of each workday has been like pure oxygen.

My desire to be with Mie aside, I might even have asked Reina out if it weren’t for the fact that I was standing at the very end of a discouragingly long queue, hands dug deep into my pockets and looking stupid just like all the other men who were infatuated with her.

Reina locks up her Mitsubishi Jerk-off as I carry the last of my things up the four flights of stairs. She follows behind me, pausing to check my mailbox. Once in the apartment, she hands me a pile of flyers.

I sit down on the hardwood floor, back against one of the sliding glass doors that open on to the balcony. She takes the place next to me, sitting close enough that our sweaty arms and legs touch.

There’s menu from a pizza delivery company called, God only knows why, Pizza Pockets.

“I hope they don’t actually carry the pizza their pockets,” I say.

“Maybe they stay warmer that way.”

“The pizza? Or the delivery boy?”

Reina laughs and her head comes to rest against my shoulder.

I ask her if you have to pay extra for the lint.

“The what?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I say. “You feeling hungry?”

She nods. I’d offer to cook for her if I’d had a scrap of food, let alone any pots or pans, in the apartment. She says I needn’t bother, that it would be easier to eat out at a restaurant in the neighborhood or have something delivered.

I continue sifting through the junk mail for other restaurants that deliver and come across a small sheet of paper with some kind of list printed on both sides. At the top of the page is a starburst with the boldfaced message: 5 videos for only 10,000 yen!!! With all the Chinese characters, I can hardly read it. Still, I don’t need to tax my imagination to figure it out: it’s a list of porn titles.

“I think I’ll keep this one,” I say.

“Here’s one you might like,” Reina says, pointing at one of the titles. “Lolicon Delux. Six dô sukebe High School Girls.”

“I know sukebe what means, but dô sukebe?”

“Very very sukebe.”

Six Very, Very Horny High School Girls. I see. And what about this one?” I ask pointing at a porn title written entirely in Chinese characters.

Reina tilts her head for a moment, then translates: “Sexually Frustrated, Explosion Breasts Step-Mother.”

“Explosion Breast Step-Mother? Hmm, intriguing, but I think I’ll pass. How about this?”

Midara-na Te OL. Hmmm. Lascivious Hand Office Ladies?”

“What on earth is the lascivious hand?”

Onanî,” she replies matter-of-factly.

I get the impression that I’m supposed to understand what onanî means and feel stupid that I don’t. “Onanî?”

“Yes, onanî. That’s English, right?”

“Does onanî sound like English to you?”

“No, now that you say so, it doesn’t, but . . . I just assumed it was English because it’s always written in katakana.”

“What does it mean, anyways? Curious minds want to know!”

“Pajero.”

“Good Lord!” And then it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. “Oh, now I get it. Onanî means onanism!”

“I told you it was English.”

“Yeah, but nobody says onanism. Masturbating Office Ladies. Very nice.”

Among other things, there is a pamphlet for something called “Blue Juice,” a nauseating concoction of herbs and wild grasses that is supposed to be good for you, a menu from an udon restaurant, and several full-colored flyers from a “Delivery Health” service advertising call girls.

Reina asks me if I know what the postcard-sized flyers are called.

I take a stab in the dark, “The Good News?”

“No, they’re called pinku chirashi.” Pink flyers.

“Why pink?”

Because, I’m told, the color pink has long been associated with pornography, prostitution, and such.

“Interesting,” I say. “In the US, the color blue is.”

“They’re called blue flyers in America?”

“No, no, no. Not the flyers, the industry. As far as I know, we don’t have these in the States. You put something like this in the wrong person’s mailbox and you’re liable to get arrested or sued by some nutty Christian.”

“Sued? Whatever for?”

“Because he’ll claim he’d been emotionally traumatized just finding it in.”

“Americans are stupid,” Reina says.

One of the pinku chirashi features a dozen girls posing in a variety of lingerie or costumes, such as a stewardess and policewoman. Most of them have hidden their identity by covering their faces with their hands.

The vitals of each are given, including their “name,” age, height, proportions and cup size, along with a short comment. 19 year old Momo here with the E-cups is “Very Good!!!” 172cm-tall Sumire is “Dynamite!” Aya is a “New Face!” Eighteen-year-old Nana might be a little needy in the chest department, but the flyer assures me that she is “Very, Very Popular!” And oh, yes, you “can AF” the 23-year-old Natsu, if you like! AF? Why anal fuck, of course. The girls will come to your home, hotel room, anywhere you like. But wait there’s more! All of the girls are “Amateurs.”

Yeah, right.

I place the pinku chirashi on the “keep” pile, saying, “You never know when they might come in handy.”

“Have you ever done it?” Reina asks.

“Done what?”

She points to the pinku chirashi.

“With a prostitute? No, never.”

“Really? Why not? A friend of mine went after winning seventy thousand yen at the boat races. He spent it all at soapland.”

“Seventy thousand yen! Just to get laid? What a waste!”

“Not to him. He said it was like he had died and gone to heaven.”

I don’t know about Reina, but with all this talk of soapland, “delivery health” and adult videos, I tempted to give into the “lascivious hand” myself.

“Your gas is switched on, isn’t it?” Reina asks getting off the floor.

“Yeah, I think so. Why?”

“Well, I’m really sweaty and would like to take a shower. If you don’t mind, that is.”

“Mind? No, not at all. I was thinking of taking one myself.”

My heart is racing like a hummingbird’s, my head is light with the titillating possibilities suddenly arrayed before me. “W-w-why don’t you go ahead and h-h-hop into the shower first. I’ll get you a towel.”

Reina disappears behind the half curtain in the entrance to the utility room where she starts to undress. As I open a box looking for my towels, I catch a glimpse of her jeans dropping to her ankles, then her panties. My heart is in my throat, pounding away mercilessly. My hands shake. After I hear her enter the bathroom and turn on the water, I enter the utility room, dizzy with excitement, and place the towels atop the washing machine. The shower door hasn’t been completely shut offering me a long slice of her slim body. I can’t help but look. I stare shamelessly at her right leg and soft right buttock, her narrow waist and back, the light brown curls that fall on her square shoulder. She suddenly turns around, sending me scrambling clumsily out of the utility room and knocking the curtain down.

“Peador?”

I try to answer, but lust has made my mouth go dry.

The water is turned off, the shower door opens abruptly, and Reina pokes her head out of the utility room.

“Peador, there’s no hot water.”

She emerges from the utility room wrapped in a towel, and after hanging the curtain back up, walks into the kitchen, where a moment later exclaims, “Atta, atta! Here it is.”

I’m moved by curiosity to follow her wet footprints into the kitchen where I find her crouched down and turning a valve under the sink. Her pale bottom peeks out from beneath the towel. Turning her head, she notices me gawking down at her, and says, “What you looking at?”

“N-n-nothing.”

She closes the cabinet door, then stands and presses a button on the wall making a small green light come on. A second red light turns on when she lets water in the kitchen sink run.

“Yosh,” she says, turning around. “You’ve got hot water now.”

“So that’s how you turn me . . . er, it on.”

Reina’s maddeningly gorgeous, and I can barely keep myself from ripping the thin terrycloth towel off, and burying my face in her crotch.

The only thing stopping me, however, is tomorrow night’s date with Mie.

Nevertheless, I’m like a volatile gas. All that is needed is one tiny spark–an inviting touch, or a half step that would bring our bodies closer– then, I wouldn’t have an excuse to keep from pulling her into my arms. I wouldn’t have to hold back the kisses. All it would take is one small caress to ignite me. One kiss, and I’d burn this apartment building to the ground.

Reina takes that precious half step forward, her body just brushes mine and my erection is peering out of the front left pocket of my Levis like a periscope. But nothing happens. I’m frozen, unable to move. Paralyzed with indecision, all I manage to do is let a pathetic little gasp of air out as she passes.

I’m a buffoon, an impotent buffoon.

I should grab Reina’s arm, tug at the towel so it falls to the floor, and do exactly what I’ve had a mind to do all day. My hand rises. It’s an involuntary reaction; my instincts, God love ’em, are finally kicking in! But just as my finger grazes her arm, I catch a glimpse of Mie’s pajamas in the clear plastic container.

Reina pauses before the curtain. “Yes?” she asks.

“I, I’m just going to get some beer at the Seven Eleven. You want anything?”

She says she doesn’t need anything, and ducks under the curtain.

Go after her! Follow her, you feckin’ idiot. Now or never!

I see the towel drop to the floor, hear the shower door close and the water start to run. I can’t stand it anymore. I back step it quickly into the kitchen, unbutton my jeans and start to pajero over the sink.

What little remained of my dignity has been completely forfeited.

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Read more by Aonghas Crowe here:

8:30pm. I’m waiting in front of the Oyafukô Dôri Mister Donuts, bathed in garish neon light and serenaded by Nat King Cole.

Roll . . . out . . . those . . . lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer! Those days of soda . . . and pretzels . . . and beer.

For a Monday night, there’s a fair amount of pedestrian traffic moving up and down Oyafukô.

*

Anticipation of the long-awaited reunion with Mie had me as restless as a child on Christmas Eve. Waking before dawn, I laid on my futon, staring sleeplessly at the ceiling for an hour and a half before giving up on sleep and getting ready for work.

I left my apartment early enough to catch the members of the local fire station lackadaisically performing their morning radio calisthenics and got toe the office where the cleaning lady was sloshing a mop around.

The morning lesson was interminable. The students’ uncharacteristic reticence didn’t help. On the clock above the dusty chalkboard, the second hand moved as if it were weighed down with lead sinkers. The minute hand needed regular coaxing and encouragement to help it get through the hour. My afternoon break was hardly better. Nothing I did was able to jump-start time, to get the stalled day to rumble forward any faster.

I went for a five-kilometer run around Ôhori Park, then took a leisurely walk through the usually quiet and deserted castle ruins which I discovered were now alive with the pink and purple azalea blossoms and doubled back along the moat, its dark green still water dotted with plate-sized lily pads. The diversion didn’t have much of an appetite, unfortunately; hardly an hour was gobbled up by the effort.

Back at my apartment, I began unpacking my things and putting my apartment in order. I removed Mie’s articles. Her yellow toothbrush joined mine in a stainless cup by the sink, her pajamas took priority position in the top drawer of the wardrobe. I also went to some lengths to erase any sign of Reina having been in my apartment, picking up the occasional hair, putting the empty cans of chu-hi and beer in a bag for non-burnable garbage on the balcony. Last but by far not least, I tossed the package of Whisper sanitary napkins Reina had, for Lord knows what reason, left behind. In the remaining hours, I studied Japanese, looking up all the things I’d been wanting to say to Mie for the past six months, all the things I’d been wanting to ask her every day that has passed since she closed the door on me.

Back at work in the afternoon, I went to the lobby and sat on a bench butted up against the tinted windows and looked out at the still life below. White compacts and delivery vans were stopped at a red light. An old woman hunched all the way over like a candy cane paused for an eternity before attempting to cross the four-lane avenue. Arthritic, knobby hands clutching for dear life onto the handle of a small stroller-like shopping cart. Without it, she probably would have toppled right over. She took a step, a small one, bringing her closer to the shopping cart, then pushed the cart an arm-length away and stepped slowly towards it again, making her way across the avenue like an ancient inchworm.

Every time the phone rang in the office, I got a case of the jitters, worried that Mie was calling to cancel, that something preventing us from meeting had come up. Will she be held up at work and be forced to postpone the date for kondo, for another time?

Japanese often chime “let’s do it another time,” but you soon realize this “other time” is just another way of saying “never in a million years, buster.”

It was the last words Mie had spoken to me when she left my apartment eight months earlier. “Kondo,” she said and drove off never to come back.

Anxiety filled my thoughts, crowding out any of the elation I should have been feeling about seeing Mie again. It was to be expected, after what I’d gone through. Six months on, I’m still shell-shocked from the bomb she dropped on me.

*

8:40 and still no sign of Mie.

The air is cooler than I expected and the longer I wait the more I wish I’d dressed for warmth rather than The Sell. My inability to exaggerate or embellish upon my own accomplishments, let alone mention them, is one reason, I suppose, that I am so fussy about how I dress. I don’t dress for success so much as I dress to avoid the almost certain failure that my modesty invites. Clothes make the man, the lesser the man, the more he depends on them to help him along.

What is it I wanted my linen suit to communicate to Mie? That I’m too broke to buy something warmer? Nah, that wasn’t it. That, somehow, despite all the crap that happened last year, in spite of my former boss’s attempts to bury me, that everything has managed to work out alright in the end; that I’m not a complete failure; that I still have a fighting chance to get through this life with my dignity intact; that, more than anything, I deserve another chance with Mie. And so, in my effort to impress Mie, I now shiver in the chill of an early spring night.

A half block down the street a young man in a crisp white shirt and a black apron tied around his waist tries to hand out discount tickets for a karaoke bar.

Across the street on the corner, two young women dressed to kill fuss over a middle-aged businessman. He scratches his balding scalp, vacillating between options: going home to a frigid wife, or blowing money he doesn’t have drinking with the lovely hostesses. He scratches his head again, and then nods. The women cheer and lead him away by hand.

Several men and women, company freshmen judging by the uniformity of their simple black suits, huddle around a fallen co-worker, who’s splayed out and unconscious on the sidewalk. They try to lift him, but he’s gone all rubbery from the drink.

And then there’s a darling girl in a ponytail and a tight fitting red and white outfit emblazoned with the CABIN logo across her chest. She stands in front of a cigarette vending machine attempting to dissuade customers from buying other brands. Hell, it works for me. I’d give up Hope–my Hope cigarettes, that is–to share a cabin with her any day. And I mean it. She looks my way and waves. I look around to see who’s she’s waving at but find no one. She waves again. I wave tentatively back and she smiles.

A customized van with tinted windows, spoilers and bright blue lights under its low-riding chassis rumbles by shaking my fillings loose. The angry music blasted out from the van competes noisily with Mister Donuts’ cheerful playlist of Golden Oldies. As the van turns off of Oyafukô, a bôsôzoku motorcycle gang rumbles into the narrow street, zigzagging recklessly and revving their engines until they caterwaul like tigers in heat. A patrol car follows lackadaisically behind providing zero deterrent.

Some minutes later, a clapped-out pick-up makes its way down the street. A miserable ditty crackles out from a dirty speaker lamenting, “Warabi mochi . . .Warabi mochi.”

The first time I ever heard this mournful song, I was moved by curiosity to look up the meaning of its enigmatic lyrics in a dictionary only to be further confounded by what I found: bracken-starch dumplings. What the hell is bracken and why is the song selling them so depressing?

*

I check my watch again. 8:45.

C’mon, Mie. Where the devil are you?

Fifteen minutes is nothing, though, considering I’ve already been waiting a half a year for her. Six long, lonely months. I never gave up hope. Doubt may have gnawed that hope to shreds, but I haven’t given it up.

You’d think I’d know what I would want to say to Mie after having waited so long to see her again, but I don’t. What will she say to me? And how will she act? What are the odds of my getting her back? Do I even want her back after all this time? Now that I am finally here, it occurs to me that I never considered that. It has been too far beyond my limited imagination since she left me to think of the break up as anything other than my having been robbed of a profound and rightly deserved happiness. If only my future self would journey back to this present moment and tell me to open my eyes and take in all the beautiful women passing by, and, with a gentle elbow to my ribs, convince me of the very thing that has been nagging at me since my move: that, maybe, just maybe, I am better off without Mie, and that, starting at this very moment I should take the first step towards moving on with my life by standing the bitch up. Should the future me indeed pay myself a visit, I seriously doubt if I would be very convincing. Again, I’m not much of a salesman.

I step inside Mr. Donuts to get out of the chill, and am greeted by a cloyingly aromatic melange of the “world’s best coffee,” month old frying oil, and cigarette smoke. Through the unhealthy miasma a small table in the furthest corner comes into view. It’s the very same table at which Mie and I waited out a sudden downpour on Father’s Day last year. Though the donut shop is hopping, “our table” remains empty as if it’s been reserved for us.

I want to take my place at the table and relive that day, to hold Mie’s hand as I did then and talk to her about moving to Portland with me. I long to hear the words she spoke to me that rainy afternoon, that there was nothing more in this world she wanted than to live with me in America.

Mie had left her boyfriend for me the night before and was now mine–my girlfriend, my lover. And, looking into her warm brown eyes I thought I knew who the mother of my children was destined to be. Mie was mine, and as the rain poured heavily outside I couldn’t begin to imagine that I would ever feel as forlorn, confused, or as bitter as I have been all these months. It was inconceivable that the happiness I was feeling then would be so ephemeral or that four short months later the only thing that would sustain me through the autumn and winter would be the emaciated hope languishing within this miserable heart of mine, the hope that the red string tying us together and which had helped me find Mie was merely frayed, not broken.

*

O-Kyaku-sama. Anô . . . O-Kyaku-sama.” The counter staff calls me, drawing me back to reality.

Hai?

Gochûmon okimari deshôka?

Do I want anything to order? I tell her I’m waiting for someone and she makes a slight bow.

When I turn around and look towards the entrance I notice Mie standing on the sidewalk just outside the entrance of Mr. Donuts. She hasn’t seen me yet, so I wait a moment before exiting. She is as beautiful as I’ve remembered her, painfully so, and every little thing I adored about her rushes back to me, that tsunami of memories washing over me again.

How on earth did I ever expect to move on, let alone fall in love with someone else, when that woman, that unforgettable woman standing there, was the one who had broken my heart?

I have to suppress the urge to run outside and hold onto her so tightly that she’ll never be able to leave me again. Taking a deep breath, I take a step towards the automatic doors. As they open I softly call out her name, “Mie-chan,” but she doesn’t hear me. My heart is in my throat, pounding away madly, stifling any sound. I could almost cry. “Mie-chan.”

She turns towards me and says, “Oh-chan.”

It’s been months since anyone called me Oh-chan. Tears threaten to well up in my eyes. I take a step towards her, my hand extended. She takes it, the touch warm, familiar and comforting. It’s as if I had been holding it all this time.

Hisashiburi ne,” I say. Been a long time, hasn’t it.

Ne.” She looks me as if to take an inventory of this former lover of hers. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?”

“It’s not the only thing I’ve lost, Mie-chan.”

“You’ve gone and cut you’re hair, too. It’s so much nicer when it’s longer, Oh-chan. It’s so . . . ”

“Messy, I know.”

“No, no. It was curly . . . Adorable. I really liked it long.” I want to hold her and kiss her and tell her how much love her, how much I’ve missed her, how much . . . But before I have the chance, she turns to beckon a young woman over. “I’ve, um, invited a friend along. Yuki-chan. We work together. I guess I should have told you, but, well, she wanted to meet you.”

“Meet me?”

This Yuki-chan skips over to us, a bright smile on her pretty face.

Hajimemashite,” I say to her with a slight bow.

“Wow!” she says. “You’re Japanese is really good.”

After introducing us quickly, Mie says,”Ikimashôka,” so we leave, following her down the street past the cute CABIN cigarette campaign girl, the warabi mochi vendor who’s now standing behind his pick-up serving a customer, and an Israeli selling cheap jewelry on the sidewalk. The Israeli nods at me, and Mie’s co-worker asks if he’s my friend. I reply that I’ve never seen him before in my life, which the girl finds enormously entertaining. It keeps her tittering for a while just as it had done to Mie a year ago.

Mie leads us through a cracked tinted glass door into a well-known bar on the first floor of a run-down karaoke building called the Big Apple where the cheap beer and even cheaper women attract South American men and boys up from the Navy base in Sasebo like flies to warm shit.

We sit under a canopy of black lights and neon beer signs on precariously high stools around a narrow table that wobbles. Yuki is wide-eyed and bubbling over with childish excitement; she’s never been to a gaijin bar, she tells me and asks if I come here a lot. This is precisely what I’d like to ask of Mie because the thought of her hanging out at grotty gaijin bars like this all these months since she dumped me is disturbing.

“No, I’ve never been here before,” I reply. While it is a relief to learn that Mie, too, is a virgin of sorts, the unsettlingly vivid image of her hanging out here and flirting with men, particularly other foreign men, is now seared into my mind. I’ve never been the jealous type; this is a new emotion for me.

“It’s just like America,” Yuki says earnestly, compelling me to ask her whether she’s been. “Me? No, never. I haven’t even been to Tôkyô.”

“Yuki wants to go to America,” Mie informs me. “I told her she should go to Portland.”

“I wanna go, wanna go, wanna go!” Yuki cries. The girl wants to go so badly she can barely contain herself.

Mie asks if I’ve been home since . . . since, well, you-know-when . . . since we last met.

“To Portland? Nah, not yet.”

“No? I’m surprised to hear that.”

Me, too. Time flies when you’re having fun. “It’s been over a year now. Thirteen months.”

“Eh? Thirteen months? Aren’t you homesick?” Yuki asks.

“Sometimes, yes . . . But, not right now.”

Ne, have you got a girlfriend,” Yuki says.

The question was bound to come up sooner or later, but now that it has I don’t know how to reply with Mie sitting next to me. When I hesitate to answer, Mie tells her, “Oh-chan says he doesn’t have a girlfriend, but I don’t believe him.”

“No way!” Yuki says.

Whatever.

Yuki, I’m now told, doesn’t have a boyfriend, either, obliging me to register similar disbelief at the revelation. “Unbelievable! Yuki, you’re much too cute to not have a boyfriend.

I do try to be polite.

Yuki then says something that surprises me: there aren’t enough men in Fukuoka. And as if to refute any doubt she supports this dubious claim with statistics: “You know there is only one man for every eight women in this city? Maybe I should move to Tôkyô.”

Hearing this from someone as adorable as this Yuki here ought to be like music to my ears, but to be honest, all I really care to listen to is that sweet old melody sung once more from Mie’s soft lips that dear old Tetsu is no longer a leading character in her life pageant. Unfortunately, Mie seems to have lost her voice.

I take my box of Hope cigarettes and Mie’s lighter out of my pocket, remove a cigarette and light up.

“Ah, I was wondering where that went,” Mie says of the lighter.

“You left it behind,” I say handing it to her.

“Is it really okay?”

“Of course, it is yours, after all.”

“Yeah, I guess it is, isn’t it. Thanks.

“Don’t mention it.”

Mie removes a pack of Mild Sevens from her handbag, lights up, and before the two of us can become pensive, Yuki bails us out of the sinking mood by suggesting we order something to drink. Mie says she’ll get it and stands up leaving me alone with Yuki.

The girl is still somewhat gaijin struck, giggling like a teenager whenever I look at her. I don’t know why it is, but some Japanese just can’t help themselves when they meet foreigners. Given half a chance, they’ll rattle off an arbitrarily arranged list of silly questions which form a hurdle you’re obliged to clear before something resembling a true conversation can take place. And so while Mie is away fetching the drinks, Yuki asks whether I like sushi or those god-awful fermented soybeans called natto that smell of week old gym socks. She wants know whether I can use ohashi (chopsticks) or read the hiragana script, and so on until Mie rescues me with a Corona.

Mie shows Yuki what to do with the wedge of lime, then we clink the necks of the bottles together. “Kampai!

Natsukashii ne,” Mie says, remembering the times we drank it at her apartment last summer.

“Ne,” I say. Just looking at the slim clear bottle stirs up so many fond memories. The weekends spent with Mie in Fukuoka, the drives to the beach, the evenings drinking in her apartment, the wild drunken sex all night and the mornings nursing our hangover with Pocari Sweat only to do it all over again until Tuesday mornings when it was back to work in god-forsaken Kitakyushu. “Natsukashii ne.

Yuki asks me why I came to Japan, another standard question people here are always itching to put to me. The Japanese seem to like simple, predictable and preferably concise answers when engaging someone in small talk, communicating abstract ideas or revealing things too personal doesn’t quite go down well, so I brush the question courteously aside, “It’s a long story.”

“I’d like to hear it,” Yuki says. “Tell me, tell me, tell me!”

“Me, too,” says Mie.

It occurs to me only now that Mie never knew why I came to or what I wanted to do once here in Japan. Oh, I’m sure I must have tried to explain, but a year ago my Japanese was an embarrassment. To her, I must have appeared little more than a shiftless, albeit romantic, wanderer. How different I must have been from her Tetsu who had become a policeman, because, well, his father and grandfather and, who knows, maybe even his great grandfather had also been policemen. If Tetsu’s father had jumped off a bridge, I wonder if he would have taken a swan dive off it, as well? When I had asked Mie, somewhat rudely I later regretted, why on earth she had ever been interested in marrying a cop, she replied matter-of-factly: for stability. Mie often did that to me, offered an answer that would just stop me in my tracks. What about love and romance, inspiration, or even fate, I protested. In this economy, she explained, those are luxuries a woman can’t afford. Once, when I learned that Mie’s mother had had her learn the piano and cello, I asked her if she would do the same with her own children. Of course, she would. For shitsuke, she added and started thumbing through a tattered Japanese-English dictionary.

For aesthetic pleasure, I wondered out loud, in order to develop a deep and long-lasting love of music? Nah, don’t be so naïve, Peador. Finding the word in the dictionary, Mie handed it to me and pointed at the entry. Shitsuke, I discovered, meant “discipline.” As much as I loved Mie, as painful as her absence has been, it’s hard to continue denying what I had already realized but had difficulty accepting: the uncomfortable fact that I never really knew Mie and Mie knew even less about me.

*

So, I have to go into the long and tired tale of how Peador had wanted to be an architect and designer, but after finishing university, didn’t have the means to continue onto a master’s program thanks to a mountain of student loan debt accruing at ten percent and unsupportive parents who believed the school of hard knocks would make their son a stronger person despite his pleading that he it wasn’t strong that he wanted to be, it was employable. The reason I came to Japan, I then tell my small but captivated audience, was two-fold, that is if you exclude the burning desire to escape from my family and America: to save money for graduate school and, if possible, learn more about Japanese design and architecture. “You know, niseki iccho,” I say in conclusion.

“Huh?”

Niseki icchô,” I say again and pantomime throwing an invisible rock at two imaginary birds until I realize that what I’m actually saying is “two rocks, one bird.” Though this may be a far more accurate description of my experience in this country so far, isn’t quite what I meant to convey, so I correct myself: “Isseki, nichô.”

Yuki praises my Japanese, exclaiming how jôzu! it is, but, to be honest, I think she’s just dickin’ with me. Mie says she had no idea.

“The problem is, though, my train kind of . . . derailed, if you will. I wasn’t able to do any of the things I expected to do during my first year here.”

Ôen suru ken,” they reply, telling me they’ll be rooting for me, so I should “ganbatte!” I shouldn’t give up. I assure them that I don’t give up easily. I wouldn’t still be here today if I did.

After drinking the bar dry of Coronas the three of us switch to whiskey and waters. I know I’m going to regret it tomorrow morning, but I’m still hoping for a repeat performance of that first night ever with Mie, hoping that even if words fail me, then perhaps alcohol will succeed as it has in the past in loosening this ex-girlfriend of mine up.

It is unfortunately obvious, though, that Mie has her own ideas of how she’d like the evening to end. She never gets very personal, never lets on to what is happening in her life, whether she is still with Tetsu. Not once does she even drop a hint about our common past. Instead, Mie tries her best to sell me on this co-worker of hers, and even informs me that Yuki has an apartment of her own, a nice place not far from Tenjin, that I ought to visit.

Yuki seconds this. “Yes, yes. By all means, do come over anytime.” She writes her phone number on the back of a business card, and after making me promise to call her, excuses herself to stagger off to the restroom. Mie and I are alone for the first time all evening.

“I think Yuki likes you.”

“Humph, that’s nice to know.”

It’s hard to hide my lack of enthusiasm. I mean, sweet as the girl is, she just isn’t Mie. She can’t even begin to compare; this ex-girlfriend of mine set the bar too goddamn high.

“She your type?”

“My type?” I’m almost drunk enough that I could smack Mie for asking. “I think you already have an idea what my type is like.”

“She’s a good person. I think she’d make a nice girlfriend for you.”

“Do you now?”

“Yes, I do. I really do think you’d make a nice couple.”

“You really believe that’s why I wanted to see you tonight? So I could meet someone new?”

“It’s just . . . You sounded so . . . I don’t know . . . so sad and lonely over the phone.”

“I was . . . I still am sad and lonely, Mie-chan. But dating someone like your Yuki isn’t going to help me in that department.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? What are you? Stupid?” I drink the rest of my whiskey quickly. Some of it trickles out of the corner of the glass, runs down my chin and neck. I grab her hand which she’s done a fabulous job of keeping out of my reach and taking a deep breath to keep myself from exploding, begin, “I’m sorry, Mie. It’s been a long, long, long fucking time since we last met. I don’t know how you’ve spent the last six months, but, let me tell you, I’ve thought about you each and every day since you left me. And as sad and lonely as I’ve been, I’ve managed to carry this foolish hope in my heart that maybe, just maybe if I became a better person or if circumstances changed, if fortune deigned to smile rather than shit upon me for once, then you and I could be together again and everything would be alright. And here we are finally together again and you can’t wait to pawn me off on someone else.”

“That wasn’t my intention.”

“You know what your friend Yuki is?”

“No, what?”

“She’s a consolation prize. She’s a consolation prize when I want you, you, you and no one but you so badly I can barely look at another woman without being reminded of how much I miss you.”

“I feel sorry for you.”

*

Yuki returns finding me with Mie’s cold, dead fish of a hand in mine and scolds us for cheating, “Uwaki-wa dah-me!” On whom Mie and I are supposedly cheating Yuki doesn’t say. But, Mie takes it as a hint to stand up and give Yuki the seat next to me. Yuki sits then takes my hand and asks me if I like her, “Yuki-chan no koto suki?”

I smile sadly because it reminds me of the very words Mie spoke to me on the floor of her bedroom that first night nearly a year ago when we’d drunk ourselves silly on sake. “I love you. I love you so much I could cry,” I say to Mie, but it’s Yuki who hugs me and kisses me and tells me she loves me, too.

The past has been waiting for its cue to burst in through the tinted glass door of the Big Apple and spoil our reunion. I ought to give Mie credit for having known this and tried in her own way to keep the past as far away from the present as possible by carrying on as if our common tragic history no longer had anything to do with us today. But it was an effort that had been doomed to failure when she had extended the invitation over the phone. I am my past, the sum of my disappointments.

Mie tries to maintain a distance from me the rest of the evening. She chain-smokes her Mild Sevens, letting them burned half way, rubbing them out in the ashtray and lighting up again. She smokes as if to save herself the effort of having to talk with me on any level but the most onion-skin thin one. If a cigarette isn’t pressed against her red lips, then it’s a glass of whiskey, unloading the burden of conversation onto Yuki’s and my shoulders. Only when it behooves Mie to do so, will she gesture with a cigarette between those cold, rigid fingers of hers, or add an occasional point to guide the conversation away from her comfort zone, before retreating back into a grating silence that only makes me wonder why she asked me out in the first place.

Was it to prove to herself that she no longer felt anything for me, that even if her former lover were to stand before her she wouldn’t be moved? Or was she a sadist at heart, inviting me out only to marvel at the damage she had caused, to watch me unravel, like an arsonist watching a house burn to the ground?

*

When Mie stands to go to the restroom, I too rise to my feet and silently follow a few paces behind her. I’ve been far too patient with her this evening and have drunk far, far too much to stop myself from dredging the bottom of my heart and letting the pain that has been festering there finally come to the surface. I know it’s a bad idea and I know I really ought to wait, but then I’ve waited six months already and who knows when, let alone if, I will ever see her again. I stand outside the restroom and when she emerges, she’s surprised to see me.

“I want to talk with you,” I say. “Alone.”

Good God, I sound desperate. I am desperate.

There are times when I wish I could dislocate myself from the past, to look back at the things I did and say, “No, no, no. That? That wasn’t me. You must be mistaking me for someone else.” If I’d had a knife, big and sharp enough, I would have cut those bits of the past off, amputated entire limbs from my personal history. But then, what would I have had left? A past that looked like a daruma–an atrophied torso with grotesque knobs where the arms and legs had once been. I might still have my dignity in tact, though, which is more than I can say about how I feel about myself now.

She tries to slip past, to return to the carefree distraction her co-worker provided, but I grab her hand and stop her.

“I have to talk to you, Mie-chan. Anywhere but here.”

She makes another attempt to get away, so I pull her roughly to the fire escape in the back.

“I don’t want to marry you,” she says in perfect English, the first English she has spoken the whole evening.

“This isn’t about marriage. Goddammit, Mie, I love you . . . And, and all I’ve wanted these past months is to understand why.”

“I still love you. But I can’t marry you. Tetsu and I will be engaged next month. Our families are going to meet next week.”

“Why?” It’s as if someone has just bludgeoned me. Everything goes white. My knees buckle. “Why?” Why did you leave me? Why didn’t we talk more so you could tell me how you were feeling? Why did it have to end? Why? Why? Why? “Why, Mie-chan?” My heart is overwhelmed by an all-too familiar weariness. I want to just disappear, to exhale one last time and expire and be forgotten. I can’t take it anymore. My grip on her arm weakens, releasing her. Did I ever really hold her? Was she ever mine to begin with? I step aside to let her go.

She starts to walk away, then stops and says, “We had a baby, Peador.”

Tears fill my eyes. “A baby?”

“We killed our baby,” she said.

My jaw drops, the tears fall hard and fast. “I . . . I didn’t know. You never told me.”

“I tried to, but . . . ”

“But what?”

“But you wouldn’t listen to me.”

“I listened to you.”

“You only listened to the words, Peador. Not my feelings.”

“I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. Mie . . . ”

“Apologizing won’t change anything, Peador . . . And neither will crying.”

Mie walks back to the table leaving me alone to dry my eyes and regain what little composure I have.

Back at the table, I gather up my blazer and bag, and say good night as calmly and as pleasantly as I can. I search Mie’s dark eyes for a trace of the woman I fell in love with a year ago, but she isn’t there. When she broke up with me, she had protected herself behind a chained door, now she has chained her heart shut, as well. As I turn away to head out the door, the two jump to their feet and scramble after me. God only knows why, but they insist that I stay, but I am beyond persuasion. Not even Yuki’s suggestion that we all take a taxi back to her apartment can dissuade me. It’s an offer I know I’ll regret not taking, but as desperate I was to see Mie again, all I want now is to get the hell out of here before I lose it completely.

Sadness grips my throat, I speak in short, difficult bursts to keep from crying again in front of her. “I’m sorry, but . . . I gotta go . . . Bye.”

Mie kisses me affectionately on the cheek, a soft kiss dampened by a warm tear. What is that tear for, I wonder. Is it a tear of sadness and frustration, or a tear of anger and exasperation? Did it fall for me or for herself, or for the baby we didn’t have? I know what I’m going to cry for. My tears will stream from these burning eyes for all the things I should have understood about her and all the things I should have done for her, but didn’t. I know that as soon as I have left Mie’s sight, I will mourn the devastating loss of a woman’s love and the demise of the hope that had kept me going all this time. I will drop to my knees under the weight of regrets of horrible mistakes I’ve made because they can never ever be undone.

I start running, turning off at the first corner, run as fast as my legs can carry me. Finding a telephone booth, I take the Lady Luck phone card from my wallet, and dial the only number I know.

Moshi mosh,” Reina says.

“It’s me . . . I need a friend,” I blubber into the receiver.

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

Read more by Aonghas Crowe here:

-1-

“If you’re just having sex with me, I want you to stop it,” she says, shoving me once her hands are free.

Her brown hair is matted against her face and neck. When I try to brush it away, she slaps at my hand.

Her wrists are red, with deep braided indentations in them, and on her tummy are drops of semen, scattered like a broken strand of pearls.

She turns away from me, and faces the wall. The sweat of our bodies has soaked through the sheets to the futon, forming an unnavigable body of perspiration between us.

It’s not that I’m “just having sex” with her, but then it’s not quite love that I am making, either.

So Peador, what are you doing still screwing her? I don’t know. I really don’t know. And I don’t know what to say to calm her anger or reassure her. All I can do is try to make a gesture of affection, to kiss her tenderly on her back and pull her closer to me.

“But,” she says, softening, “if you want something more . . . ”

I kiss her on the lips, then maneuver above her, gently spreading her legs and easing inside her for the third time this morning.

*

Reina and I went to the neighborhood yakitori-ya after work the evening following the disaster with Mie.

Feeling as if I’d been pulled emotionally and physically, through a wringer, I didn’t feel much like eating. I pushed the menu aside, and told the master to just bring me a beer.

“Bottle or draught?”

“Draught. Biggest you’ve got.”

Futsukayoi?” he said, asking if I had a hangover.

Hai,” I answered, massaging my temples.

The master laughed heartily and hollered back to the kitchen, “Nama iccho!

As if on cue, a middle-aged woman in a white kerchief and smock emerged from behind a dingy noren curtain with my personal savior in a tall mug, frosted with ice. I mumbled “kampai” to myself, and started glug-glug-glugging away.

The cold beer soothed my parched throat, tamed the nausea in my gut, and loosened the screws on my temples.

Close, but not quite there yet. Waving the woman in the kerchief over, I gave her the empty mug and asked for another: “Moh ippai.”

Judging by the way Reina eyed me I could tell she wasn’t impressed.

“Trust me,” I assured her. “I know what I’m doing.”

“And that’s supposed to help?”

“Reina, it is the only thing that does help.”

I had tried their vile little bottles of elixir concocted from turtle blood, deer horn, horse testicles, and what have you, but they didn’t do a damned thing except leave a foul taste in my mouth. Beer, glorious beer, on the other hand, worked like a charm. Nothing beat it for the hangover. Of course, I was well aware that pounding beer after beer wouldn’t cancel the previous night’s debt. No, all I could hope for was breaking the hangover down into manageable installments.

“You know what we call that in Japanese?” Reina asked.

“What? Drinking when you’re hungover? Mukae zake, of course.”

“Eh? How do you know?”

“I’m Irish, Reina. Words like ‘Hair of the dog’ constitute a basic survival phrase for my race. And, I’ll also have you know, the very first Chinese character I ever learned was ‘sake‘.”

Aruchû des’ne,” she said, calling me an alcoholic.

Hai, aruchû desu!” And, there you have it. I admitted to being a drunk. I was now theoretically one step closer to becoming a reformed alcoholic. But good God, where would the fun in that be?

The woman in the kerchief came to my rescue me with another chilled mug of beer. One step forward, two steps back; the folks at AA would have to start their meeting without me.

Let me tell you, it was with great relief when I first learned of the Japanese affinity for the drunk. Staggering home after three or four too many seemed to be a national pastime of sorts, second only to beisuboru and Sumo. And, best of all, you didn’t have to suffer through the guilt trip “concerned friends” would lay into you the way you had to in the States if you enjoyed the pint too much. No, tell someone here you liked to drink, and they’d buy you a bottle of expensive Scotch or shôchu. Mention that you’re hungover, and they’d kindly offer you mukae zake.

Kampai,” I said with a little more life in me this time and clinked my mug against Reina’s glass of oolong tea.

“Can I have a sip?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She took a healthy swig of beer, let out a long sigh, then started at it again, and ended up drinking half of my beer.

“You want to order one for yourself?”

“I do, but, um . . . ” she replied.

“But, what?”

“But, one will just lead to two and . . . ”

“And who’s the aruchû now, Reina?”

“You are! You should have seen yourself last night.”

*

I was hoping we wouldn’t have to go down that road, that Reina would have the decency to let me forget about the whole evening.

The details of the previous night were like disconcerting pieces to an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. Every now and then, an image would flicker through the haze just long enough for me to grab it, turn the image around, and try to guess where it fit into the big, incommodious picture.

Though I clearly remembered collapsing to the floor of the phone booth and wailing like a kicked dog after calling Reina, how I had got home was still obscured in a pea soup fog of amnesia. For all I know, I may very well have been beamed up to the Mother Ship, anal-probed, and dropped like a spent cartridge just outside my apartment building. In any event, Reina had been waiting for me at the gate of my apartment, crouched down and playing with a stray bob-tailed cat when I arrived.

“Been here long?” I asked.

“No,” she said, standing up, and straightening her skirt.

The spectacle I had made of myself in front of Mie, however, was burned into my memory. And as I revisited the awful night in my mind, sketchy details I would have preferred to forget started trickling in.

The soup thinned and I remembered collapsing to the floor of the phone booth, banging my head against the glass door, and, staggering–yes, that was how I had got home–staggering, and attacking piles of garbage outside of condominiums, yelling “Why, Mie? Why?” all the way home.

*

Each time Reina ordered something, the master would echo her order in a booming voice, then remove two skewers of each from a refrigerated display case before us that ran the length of the counter.

I reminded Reina that I wasn’t hungry, but rather than listen, she added okra, asparagus and enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon, and shishamo (smelt) to the order. And, after a moment’s thought, she also asked for grilled rice balls and miso soup, making me wonder how the slim woman was planning to eat it all by herself.

“You told me a lot of things,” She said with a queer smile.

“Oh, did I?” I asked with a nonchalance that belied my unease. Things? What things? I scavenged my brain for any scraps of conversation we might have had, but found none that might explain the smile on my co-worker’s face.

*

“Mie said she still loved me,” I had told Reina. I had been lying on the floor with my head in her lap, a can of beer resting on my chest. “She says, ‘I love you, Peador, but I can’t marry you.’ What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“Do you want to marry her?” Reina had asked, brushing the bangs from my eyes. Every now and then, she would raise my head slightly, and put the can of beer to my lips so I could take a sip, easing the flow of difficult words.

“Yes . . . No . . . I don’t know . . . I did,” I had replied. “I still do, I guess . . . But God, she left me twice. Two times . . . And now this. I don’t really know anymore . . . ”

*

“Be a dear,” I said to Reina, “and refresh my memory.”

“I’m not going to tell you,” she singsonged. “But don’t you worry, Peador. All you’re little secrets are safe with me.”

“Secrets? What secrets?” Curiosity was eating me. “I have no secrets.”

“No, you don’t. Not after last night,” she replied, covering her mouth with her hand and giggling.

In the end, it didn’t really matter what I may or may not have told Reina that night in my apartment so long as it enabled me to step away from the disappointing reunion with Mie and begin thinking of the relationship, firmly and unfortunately, in the past tense, rather than continue to pine away in the subjunctive.

*

Golden Week began at the end of April with Green Day, a national holiday commemorating the late emperor Hirohito’s birthday. Why Green, you might ask: because his majesty the Shôwa Tennô was an avid environmentalist, of course. I suppose it one day be said that Japan’s motives in the Pacific War were originally of an ecological nature. But, I digress . . .

With woefully little yen in my postal savings account and air fares prohibitively expensive, I had no choice but to spend the slew of holidays–Green Day, Constitution Day, a generic “National Holiday” and Children’s Day–in Japan. While the boss would be away in Hawaii, and Yumi off to a new Dutch-themed amusement park called Huis Ten Bosch, Reina didn’t have plans, so I invited her out for dinner. Unfortunately, just as I was doing so, Yumi stepped into the office, putting me in the uncomfortable position of having to extend the invitation to her, as well.

An odd thing happened when I did: the sourpuss sweetened. An uncharacteristically genuine smile, Chiclets teeth and all, cracked broadly across her face.

Hey, Mikey! He likes it!

*

Dinner with a punctured spare tire wasn’t half as bad as I had expected. Exfiltrated out of the pernicious shadow of our boss, Yumi wasn’t quite her dreary old self.

But, best of all, Yumi apologized that couldn’t stay out late, because of an early departure for Huis Ten Bosch the following morning. What a pity.

Reina and I saw her off at the station. With a bright smile and a double-handed wave, she turned, stepping into and quickly disappearing in the throng of commuters that moved like a black tidal surge towards the ticket gates.

“Yumi’s certainly in a good mood,” I said to Reina. “What’s up with her?”

Reina laughed through her nose.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

“Then why are you laughing?”

“I promised not to tell.”

“Promised who? Not to tell what?”

“Nobody and nothing,” she answered, skipping away.

“You and your little secrets.”

It was early and I was still a few drinks shy of the high water mark I needed to be at to keep the regrets and memories from seeping into my mood. I asked Reina if she would like to join me for a drink or three.

We made our way to Umie where several beers later she spilled the beans: Yumi was in love, madly in love, with dear old me.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding,” I said. “Japanese joke, right? Ha, ha, ha.”

“No, it’s true!” she replied. “Yu-chan was so excited about going out with you tonight she wouldn’t shut up about it all day.”

“Funny, but I was under the impression that she didn’t care much for me.”

The girl recoiled whenever I came into the office, left annoying memos on my desk rather than simply turn around and tell me directly, and, worst of all, was constantly tattling on me. If it was love Yumi had been dishing me, I dreaded to taste her scorn.

“I’m serious, Peador. I know men can be obtuse, but you must have noticed how dressed up she was tonight.”

Well, yes, I had noticed that. It explained why Yumi had been dolled up, in her own funereal way, mind you. The make-up had been more theatrical than usual and her long black hair had been let down rather than pulled back into the thick ponytail she normally wore at work.

Graduating from beer, Reina and I moved onto cocktails, and with each drink moved closer towards each other. Where we had been sitting across a small table from each other at first, we were now side-by-side, legs touching, hands waiting to be held.

There had been chemistry between us from the beginning, a strong affinity that would have brought us together sooner or later. Alcohol merely provided the catalyst.

It was well past two when we left Umie, and the subway had long stopped running.

Looking back, it had probably been Reina’s intention all along to have sex with me that night, but as decorticated of confidence as I was, I couldn’t take anything for granted. When Reina asked if she could spend the night at my place until the subway resumed service in the morning, I didn’t run excitedly through an inventory of the delightfully decadent possibilities; I merely considered myself fortunate that one of the better nights I’d had in a damned long time didn’t have to end yet. I took Reina’s hand and we walked, chatting and laughing all the back to my apartment. It was the same route that had, only a few nights earlier, witnessed a very different Peador.

*

At my apartment, Reina asked if there was something she could change into.

There were, of course, the cotton shorts and tank top that Mie had left, among other things, neatly folded in a sacristy of sorts at the back of my top drawer. It seemed a sacrilege to disturb them and awaken the memories resting with them, so I gave her an oversized T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts, instead.

After changing, Reina lay next to me on the futon, nuzzling into my chest. I put my arm around her slim body, and kissed her broad forehead, her nose, her lips. There was a familiarity in our caresses and kisses, as if we’d been sleeping together for years. And yet, it still came as surprise when she said: “You can have sex with me, if you want.”

Never before had sex been solicited to me so nonchalantly by someone. I didn’t quite know what to say. Yes, I wanted to have sex. An erection you could crack walnuts with was testament to that. But much more than the sex Reina was offering, I wanted to forget Mie.

Before I could reply, Reina was already raising her arms above her head and whispering “Banzai!” so that I could remove the T-shirt. She slipped the boxer shorts over her bottom and down her slim legs to her ankles, where she kicked them off, and lay completely naked, stripped even of her modesty, next to me. As the rising sun began to fill my apartment with golden warmth and the chirping of birds filtered through the morning’s silence, she undressed me.

*

Reina spent most of the Golden Week holiday with me, either at my empty little apartment or hers, having sex–when she liked–two or three times in the evening, once or twice in the morning, occasionally in the afternoon. She would then go on to spend the following weeks, first wondering and later fretting over, what the meaning of my penis poking in and out of her vagina was. A lot happened during those weeks; still, something more important did not. Two weeks into the relationship, I was just as ambivalent about falling in love with the woman as I had been in having sex with her the first time.

“You can love me, if you want,” she would eventually tell me, offering her heart as matter-of-factly as she had first offered up her slim, naked body. Before I could reply, Reina was already raising the bar, whispering, “Peador, aishiteru.” I love you.

*

We’d spend our mornings lying on my futon or in her bed, having slow, lazy sex until it was time to get ready for work. Once in the office, we would hide our complicity, try to keep our minds from returning to thoughts about what we had been doing in the shower only hours earlier.

She’d worry that our hair smelled of the same shampoo, our bodies of the same soap. I’d grow increasingly concerned about Yumi and the boss sensing the overly familiar way in which Reina and I spoke to one another or how she would sometimes gaze longingly at me. During a weekend camp with students, Reina and I stole away in the evening to fuck in a bamboo thicket where her ecstatic screams startled, wildlife and our co-worker alike. The following morning at breakfast, Yumi mentioned hearing the screams and being too terrified to leave the room.

“I think someone was being raped,” she said with a gravity that caused Reina and me to burst out laughing. “What on earth could be so funny about being raped?” she asked.

“It was probably just some cats in heat,” Reina replied. “I wouldn’t give it another thought.”

*

At work, I would sit at my desk, my mind full with the images of the last twenty-four hours. I would see Reina lying below me, wide-eyed with wonder and excitement as I ejaculated onto her breasts. She would play with it, finger it and massage her nipples with it. I would be distracted from my work when I would remember her kneeling naked before me in the shower, flashing me that charming, slightly crooked, smile of hers before taking me into her mouth and sucking me off. After swallowing, she would say, “You love this, don’t you?” I’d nod, too lightheaded to reply.

I did love it. I really did. Trouble was, my heart wasn’t into it nearly as enthusiastically as my balls were. I was still missing Mie more than ever.

Reina would eventually come to ask for and eventually demand the contents of my heart, expecting a sentimental treasure to be hidden behind my reticence. She had taken the silence for bashfulness, but, the truth be told, there wasn’t anything there. I was bankrupt in that regard. You could no more extract blood from a stone than a warm emotion from my cold heart. I liked Reina, I truly did, but I couldn’t bring myself to love her no matter how many times she endeared herself to my cock. I was enjoying the time I spent with her, the bed we were sharing and the sex we were having. And, though I had come to depend upon her for companionship and warmth, I just couldn’t bring myself to love her.

*

“If you’re just having sex with me, I want you to stop it.” she says, shoving me away. She turns and faces the wall.

It’s not that I’m “just having sex” with Reina, but during the last three weeks I’ve never once made love to her. Not even once.

I kiss her gently on the back, put my arm around her and hold her closer to me.

“But, if you want something more . . . ” she says.

I do want something more. The problem is that Reina will never be able to provide it. So, the next morning I let her go.

*

In the following weeks, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake breaking up with Reina. Here is an attractive woman, ravishingly sexy, and intelligent. Men are literally tripping over each other trying to woo her with the best they have to offer. Of all the men she could have been with, Reina gave herself, body and soul, to me even though she had found me at my worst–drunk and dejected and broke. But, as much as I came to rely upon Reina to distract me from my loneliness, I know I had little choice but release her from a relationship that would only disappoint her so long as my heart remained on the sideline.

We still talk frankly about the things on our mind, and continue to share the occasional dinner together after work, but an uncomfortable tension has started to grow between us. Humor and small acts of kindness are no longer the palliative they once were.

*


-2-

One morning on my way to work I see a beautiful, stylishly dressed woman with an infant in her arms leaving one of the luxury condominium buildings that tower like monoliths over my third-class apartment. She descends the short flight of marble steps, and walks towards a Mercedes Benz station wagon parked out front, its hazard lights blinking. She opens the back door and places her child carefully into a baby seat, then, as I am passing, she opens the driver’s side and gets in.

Judging by her face and the clothes she’s wearing, she can’t be much older than myself, yet she looks so much more mature, so much more complete as a human being than me. Married with an infant child, living in one of the pricier buildings in this affluent neighborhood, and driving a luxury car. How I must seem by comparison–broke as always, living alone in a dump, in dire need of a new wardrobe, and the only transportation I possess are the worn-out loafers I’m wearing and a rusty bicycle I liberated from a train station one shamelessly drunk night.

The woman radiates a satisfaction in life, remindng me how quickly the content I thought I was tasting only weeks ago has already grown insipid and flat. My thoughts return predictably like a pendulum falling back towards the center to Mie, to the pregnancy and relationship she ended. How old would the baby be now if she had carried it to term? Two, three, four months old? Would it have been a boy or a girl? I’m afraid of falling into that yawning gap between all that could have been and the little that actually is.

*

One Saturday evening in late May, Reina, Yumi and I, along with another American, Mike, go out for dinner at an izakaya that is having a special on nama biiru, only five yen a beer. Five yen! I feel as if I’ve died and gone straight to heaven.

Despite my indifference, Yumi is still in love with me and has grown impatient in recent weeks. Her infatuation was amusing at first, but has started to wear on Reina’s nerves, all the more so now that we are no longer fucking each other’s brains out. As a result, Reina has in turn been breaking my balls, pleading on a daily basis for me to do something to make Yumi stop hounding her for advice to woo me.

And if that isn’t enough melodrama for you, Mike is in love with Reina and not the least bit embarrased about concealing his feelings. His interest in Reina was like a festering wound we all would have preferred to have bandaged and out of sight.

Mike is a head taller than me, and several years older. Yet watching how he behaves around Reina–petting her hand with the tips of his long, hairy fingers, and flattering her in his deep, soothing voice with trite romanticism–strikes me as comical and childish. It’s depressing to realize how inexperienced he is when it comes to women. It wouldn’t surprise me if I were to learn that at thirty-three years of age, he is still a virgin.

While the girls are in the restroom, Mike says, “Yu-chan likes you.”

This cherry boy speaks knowingly as if he has written the book on romance.

“Yes, well, it’s no state secret,” I reply.

“She’s a nice girl.”

If you think so, why don’t you date her. It kills me how generous people can be with compliments when they don’t have to actually milk the beat up cow their trying to off load.

“Yes, she is,” I say, but so the fuck what?

“Are you interested in her?” Mike asks.

I nearly laugh. “No, I’m afraid I’m a little too preoccupied with myself at the moment to even think about dating someone.”

“Ah, that’s too bad,” he says, pursing his lips in a show of genuine disappointment. “You two would make a nice couple.”

Where is he getting this crap?

“Too bad for her,” I correct.

I finish my beer, and ordered another. Waste not, want not.

Mike, by the way, doesn’t drink. He’s a Seventh Day Adventist or something. No alcohol, no tobacco, no drugs, no pork, no shellfish, no caffeine, no sex before marriage, no fun. The man is a wet blanket incarnate.

“So, what about you? I take it you’re interested in Reina?” I say.

“Yeah. There’s something about her. She’s not like other Japanese girls,” he says, his eyes glazing over dreamily. “She’s feisty, speaks her mind, you know. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. So blue collar and down to earth. What’s not to like about her?”

A broad, contented smile spread across his homely face.

*

I suppose another person might have been jealous of the way Mike was holding Reina’s hand earlier. But then, I knew Reina wasn’t interested in this Mike. Still, I couldn’t tell whether she was just being polite, or trying to provoke a response from me. She’ll be disappointed if that’s the case; it wouldn’t bother me in the least if Mike took Reina home and the two of them had wild sex till dawn. But then, knowing that Mike’s incapable of giving in to such passion without succumbing to an intense guilt trip afterwards, nullifies any threat he might pose.

That said, I’m not quite sure whether I want to leave the playing field altogether. Reina was a good lay, and it was precisely her insatiability in the sack (which matched my tendency for priapism) that was helping me keep my mind off the very things I want to forget. Even though I didn’t particularly miss sleeping with her, the absence of anyone in my life at the moment has made me reevaluate the relationship Reina and I had and start second-guessing my decision to prematurely end it.

So, I say to Mike, “Don’t tell Reina that I mentioned this, but, uh, her boyfriend recently left her and now she seems, well, confused about a lot of things.”

There is some truth to what I’m telling Mike. Reina’s boyfriend of several years did leave her, which is, I suppose, so little effort was involved in getting into her pants.

“I hear he left her hoping she’d follow him to Tokyo,” I say.

I guess nothing was ever meant to happen between Reina and myself, but after drinking too much and talking too much she probably came to realize that, like me, she too had her own vulnerabilities and loneliness. When you place two people like us together, they’ll burn and burn and burn.

On the morning after we first slept together, Reina confessed that she could fall in love with me. I kissed her on the lips and on her forehead, then spoke gentle words, conveying similar feelings.

The words had been uttered by reflex. Nevertheless, she held me ever tighter and confessed that she was falling for me.

I held on tightly. I wish I could have told Reina the same, but the words were not to be found anywhere within me. I liked her and enjoyed the sex we’d just had. I was fond of her company and I respected her, but I was nowhere near love.

Not even in the ballpark.

It was as if she were sinking, hand raised and praying I would grasp it and rescue her, but I didn’t. In the end I would watch her sink alone, because I was the one who wanted to be rescued.

“Reina is special,” I tell Mike as the girls emerge from the restroom. “Word of advice: Walk. Don’t run.”

*

After dinner, the four of us part ways. Yumi heads for the train station to catch the last train, and Mike walks away after giving Reina a tight, inviting hug. Reina and I make our way for the subway station.

On the train, we sit close together, shoulders touching. When my stop comes, the door opens with a hydraulic hiss. I ask whether I can spend the night at her place. Reina gives a subtle nod. The bell rings, the doors close, and the train jerks and creaks forward. I offer my hand. It’s been weeks since I’ve done so. She takes it with both hands then rests her head on my shoulder. When I kiss the top of her head, she raises her face and kisses me on the lips.

We walk hand in hand from the station to her apartment not speaking a word.

The apartment is a mess as always, books and magazines on the floor, clothing piled on the table and chairs, open bags of recyclables in the kitchen. Cleanliness is not one of Reina’s virtues. To make matters worse everything, including my bowl of rice the next morning is covered with her cat’s gray hairs. It’s a miracle the cat isn’t bald.

Her bathroom, too, where we’ve often had sex in the morning is a horror story as always. Black mold has crept malignantly from the base of the walls upward towards and across the ceiling to the vent in the center from where it looks intent upon mounting a moldy raid on the world outside.

Reina pours me a beer then sits down beside me on the living room floor and begins massaging my shoulders. I take an awkward sip from the beer and wonder what Mike is up to, whether he’s gone home or is drinking orange juice at The Big Apple. I wonder what he thinks of this night, if he feels as if he’s made any progress along the long path leading to Reina’s heart. Despite all the men who adore Reina and want to be with her, I am the one she is with, the one she is massaging, the one she is undressing and the one whose dick she is now sucking.

“The next time you spend the night,” she tells me, “I want you to bring condoms.”

We have unprotected sex not once, but several times throughout the night. I sink so deeply inside her and fuck her so hard that she eventually bleeds. Still, she continues to move her hips above me, back arched, her round breasts flushed and protruding, nails digging into my chest, breaking the skin.

“Don’t you love this?” she says as she comes and comes and comes.

*

When hints of dawn begin to break through the kitchen window, she falls asleep in my arms. Dust and cat hairs are airborne in the warm, golden light. After a while, I manage to fall asleep myself. I dream of talking Mie out of her marriage with Tetsu, so vivid and real that when I wake several hours later I am disappointed to find Reina asleep in my arms.

*

Reina and I continue to sleep with each other for another month out of mutual loneliness and convenience. Though she must know the day will come when we no longer share a bed, she continues all the same to search my heart and thoughts for something that just isn’t there.

To continue reading A Woman’s Nails, please visit Amazon.

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman’s Nails is now available on Amazon’s Kindle.

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Aonghas Crowe

Aonghas Crowe

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