-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.

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