by Brian Howell
If I had told you that I left my wife and children out of guilt for another, to atone for a questionable mistake, a temporary misjudgement of seemingly trivial proportions, you'd probably think I was mad—and I wouldn't blame you. I'd be misleading you a little, but only a little. And I need to get the whole thing down, the words, do it justice, and let you be the judge. (Besides, I am but mad north-northwest.)It's not as if it's over, the change. You see, there's me, Mark, over here, and there's Jason, over there. And to tell my story I have first to tell Jason's.
Jason was an uncertain entity all along, a gentle American man in his late forties working on his life's work, a translation of an obscure Hermetic text, about which all I knew at the time was that it had something to do with God, magic and alchemy (I know more now, it's true.). It was partly his unending delineation of his translating tribulations, his assumption that I knew half the time what he was talking about, with all those gods and rituals—that, and an unceasing interest in culture high and low that bound us. And yet whereas I had a burgeoning family, three young kids when I met him, and another about to be pulled into this world, he had already passed through the married stage, sans kids, and come out the other side. Only, that other side was not a new start, but rather something as intangible as what is—or isn't—on the other side of a black hole. It was as if he had folded in on himself, taking with him everything and everyone that had been dear, and was now moving invisibly among us.
We had met teaching at a university in Tokyo, an American and a Brit whose cultures did not so much fuse as miss each other entirely, like galaxies moving through different planes, leaving each unaffected by the other. That was O.K. by me. But neither did we seek the false common ground of wanting to impose our Western views on those of the Japanese, though it has to be said that neither of us spoke the language well enough to be directly affected by it, or even much frustrated by its seemingly illogical ways.
My initial image of Jason was deceptive and unfocused, like a reflection whose source I was ignorant of. In this reflection he was confidant, taking holidays on his own in Thailand and Cambodia and coming back with mildly intriguing tales of life in the jungles I was envious of. He had been befriended by a tribe at one stage; at another he had been propositioned by two African women in a bar. For my part, I've never ventured anywhere more exotic than Japan, or Hawaii. Gradually, that image sharpened, and small segments fell from the mirror, leaving me to pick them up and piece them together.
'I'm telling you, Mark, I need to get back with her.'
'Her' was Junko. They had been married six years, but when I met Jason, their marriage was dead. They'd been divorced two years but they were still good (platonic) friends. To my surprise. And the friendship was thriving.
'It's the worst thing I ever did, Mark.'
'But you said it was dead, didn't you?'
'I let it die, I guess.'
His attention was snagged by an attractive student passing by. I thought it was his student, but she failed to return his longing gaze. Just over his shoulder, I in turn spied the diving pantyline of another student sitting with her back to us. It was pretty normal for these girls, who wouldn't usually say boo to a goose, to wear jeans just perching on their hips with the lip of their panties riding the denim like a surfer about to fall off her board.
'You know, the other day I saw this woman on the train; she looked at me as if we knew each other, Mark. She had that tightly curled kind of hair. What do you call it?'
'Yes, that's a nice word, crimped.'
'Yes, and, you know, she looked at me the whole journey. I should have said something to her.'
'I wouldn't regret it too much. You don't pick up Japanese girls on public transport. It just doesn't happen.'
The conversation wasn't untypical, but it possessed the kernel of a later shift towards that reflected image I mentioned.
Jason wasn't bad-looking; if anything, he was young-looking for his age. Really, it was hopeless to torture yourself over a non-existent but perceived affinity with a pleasing face or body like that. But I could empathise. I had lost count of the number of times I had just wanted to go up to a young Japanese woman and declare my love simply on the basis of her looks. I had once joked that the students were so cute that sometimes I felt like bringing in a suitcase and taking one of them home in it.
And where did I stand in all this? I was, if not the Clare Quilty to his frustrated saintlihood (his never worthy, mine never quite perverted enough), then maybe the Humbert Humbert. I was Protestant in name, he was Catholic in practice. I was unable to understand devotion, humility, abasement of myself to some idol; he didn't question it. Yet we never butted heads ideologically, even if he was, as Americans say in that inimitably ugly adoption of the passive, 'conflicted'.
How I obtained sexual pleasure was of no interest to him (and probably even less to readers —porn and looking up girls' skirts, basically, though never those of my students, despite what you may hear of teachers in Japan); how he derived any pleasure other than that he got from his translation work was by the same token of intense interest to me.
And that leads us to the mysterious Junko.
That's what I would never really know, or be willing enough to explore except by direct questions. [Though underhand enough to write this?]
'Do you ever notice how they look at you and don't say anything?' Jason said once.
'Which Japanese teachers?'
'It's more a feeling they're not saying what they're thinking.'
'That place we work at on Fridays. This place, too. There's a coldness in the air.'
'We're only part-timers, Jason. They don't have any obligation to talk to us. There's the language barrier, too.'
'I guess you're right,' he said with a dying fall, as if not quite convinced of a perfectly reasonable assumption he knew to be unassailable.
I'd mentioned my affair with another teacher but he hadn't wanted to know the details. I knew he would in any case have been antipathetic to tales of diurnal bondage and spanking. What would be the point in eulogising in his earshot the filigreed stamp of rope on my lover's arms and thighs? The marks faded too soon; what was sunken one minute, making a reddened channel through tissue, was quickly level with the raised contours that had so briefly constructed a glistening fleshy intaglio. Anyway.
But I was more interested after a while in Junko and her hold over mild-mannered and self-effacing Jason. Perhaps that was the paradox. Even before I had met her, an image of her was embedded in my mind's eye. I saw her as a fox-like being, triangular-faced, thin, wiry, insubstantial, almost numinous.
Then one day he just said, 'I saw Junko this weekend.'
'I can never work out if you are divorced or not.'
'But you see a lot of her still?' He didn't comment, just looked slightly askance at me. He wasn't angry, I knew that.
'I had coffee with that teacher,' he went on, making no attempt at a segue. 'I thought she was giving me a sign.'
'I think I just got her wrong.'
A pause, then, 'Mark, do you think I'm going crazy?'
'I want to see this Junko. Maybe it'll help.'
'At least I'll have some idea of what she's about.'
We met in a crowded Starbucks in Shibuya, a vortex of Japanese youth and all its affiliated fashion cross-currents. The coffee shop, all crowded seating and plate glass, looked down on a four-way pedestrian crossing which always reminded me of a St Andrew's Cross, but its purpose seemed to have more in common with the displaced logic of an Escher etching or, maybe, a story by Borges. Sometimes I was sure that some who entered the swarm to cross the junction never reached the other side. Perhaps they ended up in another part of Tokyo in another life with no idea of how they got there; perhaps they were absorbed by the spirit of Mount Fuji; maybe some roamed the shrines and temples of Nara and Kyoto.
She turned out to look startlingly similar to my projection of her, which was thin and birdlike, but I was more intrigued by her rapport with Jason. They weren't exactly twins in the physical sense, but in spirit and gesture they came from the same egg. Whatever shape her body made, it seemed echoed by his. If she arched her back backwards, he might happen to bend forwards to reach something at the same time, doubling and inverting her outline; if she leaned to one side, he might incline his head in parallel with hers. I could not help but think of the lovebirds in Rod Taylor's car as he rounded the hairpin bends of Bodega Bay in Hitchcock's film of avian frenzy, how they pointed their little heads and bodies in complete synchronicity in the same direction, like twin compass points.
To some, this might imply Jason and Junko were oddballs. Maybe they were at a slight tangent to everything around them, coming in on the action of time most of us set our lives to, a few milli- or nano- seconds late, or even early, like near-identical versions of themselves spilling over from the bubble of a parallel universe into this, then slipping back just as quickly.
It's a long preamble, but that's the point to a preamble. I can't remember a word of what we talked about while she was there, unlike with my other conversations with Jason. Perhaps I sense a neutralising quality in her, negating, even, or 'addicting', an irksome transmutation of the otherwise perfectly serviceable 'addictive'. I now think what I took away from that meeting was both a sense of horror that I might ever see her again and a desire like a strong arm around my throat dragging me back to be with her again. I'm not saying it was sexual desire or compulsion. It was magnetism (by turns repulsion and attraction), gravity, a delayed suicidal will to implode. How else do you explain the urge to look on at a disaster or misfortune, whether it's people jumping to their deaths from towers, people scarred by acid, or burnt in an explosion?
A number of years went by. Jason was deteriorating. He was talking of leaving, going back to America.
I have no intention of misrepresenting my friendship with Jason. I didn't want him to go back, but what had been a seam in the rock his life had been built on, living here with Junko, having given up everything for a soul-less part-time existence, along with turning his back on a career in the States (I couldn't say the same for myself), became a widening fault line.
'I'm between a rock and a hard place, Mark.' Scylla and Charybdis? 'Junko won't have me back. I'm too old to get a secure full-time job. And there's no way to get a woman out here.'
I had once popped into the campus library and left Jason outside on a bench. When I came back five minutes later, a dumpy, short-sighted mature student in her mid-twenties had attached herself to him. It took fifteen minutes to shake her off.
I did not see Jason's place until I had known him for a good five years. He lived on the outskirts of Tokyo in one of the clusters of shops and buildings that is called a 'town' in Japan in a flat that was more like the kind of house that in London is divided into separate, anonymous units by Indian landlords. But once inside Jason's den, there was something quite pleasing about the layout, which consisted of a central room immediately inside the front door and two adjacent rooms on the far side. All three had views of the main street, which meandered down from the train station. Jason complained that it was too loud at night, mainly due to the local youths who hung out at the fast-food restaurants a few doors down, but I thought that at least you couldn't be lonely in a place like this. Despite this, and the bewildering assortment of tapes, CDs and books stacked against the walls, on window sills, and on makeshift shelves, it lacked a presence. For whatever reason, I did not think of Junko's old place in his life, where she might have lived with him, so I was astonished when I learned after several visits that this was where they had lived together all their married life. I shouldn't have been so surprised; it's well known space is at a premium in Tokyo. I just hadn't been able to see it as anything other than a bachelor pad.
'I could get back with her,' he said on one of my visits towards the end.
'What? Things looking up?'
Looking around his place, I think I was drawn to it by the similarity of its layout to my own flat in Prague. Few days go by without my thinking about that haven a short walk from the local train station; a mere twenty minutes after venturing out, I could be in the centre of Old Prague. Then, after a night of cheap, beautiful beer in my favourite pivnice, and hopping from one disco to another, I was safely ensconced in its enveloping anonymity. (Equally, any number of buses would take you to the heart of the Bohemian countryside, where you could be stranded all night if you were unlucky.) But it was in that flat that a number of girlfriends stayed and with whom I singularly failed to sleep, with the exception of my beloved Anneliese.
All my life I have been attracted to small, enclosed buildings, buildings whose rooms slide into one another like nested boxes. In the case of Jason's flat, the two main bedrooms had no doors, just curtains (the one remaining feminine touch?), and the dividing wall, which served as a common jamb and emphasised their twinned state. You could stand in front of them and imagine two lives symbiotically mirroring each other, yet Jason's room (the one he preferred to sleep and work in) and his life as it was now left the question of when the two had ever coalesced.
He stood in the door frame of the preferred room and said, 'Mark, I don't really know if I am going to make it, you know.'
After many months of mental to- and fro-ing, mostly regarding the bills he would leave unpaid if he left before the agreed date, it had got to the point where I was advising him to go back. It was ripping me apart, but I had no choice. If he felt he had no future here, and he was still being rejected by Junko, who at the same time had a grip on him like a black hole on a dying star, it must be better for him to leave.
In the event, he left suddenly, behind Junko's back, an act I fully endorsed. As a favour, I was to take the keys to Junko, and tie up any loose ends, although she would have to do the same with the Japanese landlord.
Somewhat trepidatiously, I made my way to his flat imagining it would be the final, possibly hairy, chapter in what had been a painful separation. I don't know where it came from, but on the way I had a vision of those two adjacent rooms inhabited by two figures I did not recognise.
She didn't say much to begin with, just busied herself making tea. Sometimes, though, as she moved about the room, I sensed a fluttering quality to the light, perhaps a disturbance of invisible waves or membranes around us, that in some way her movements reached into something of the remaining light; but perhaps it was as mundane as her simply blocking the already fading sun.
'He's gone then, flown the coop.'
'The nest. Home. Here,' I said, suddenly aware of a potential faux pas.
'We used to live here, you know.'
'Yes, Jason told me. What are you going to do with his stuff?'
'Keep some of it. I'm not bothered.'
'What about the landlord?'
'Oh, that's no problem now. I'm going to move back in.'
'Here?' I said, almost shouting. What was her motivation? Nostalgia? Convenience? Or was she nursing a hope he might come back?
'You know how guilty he felt, don't you?' I said.
'For divorcing you.'
'Divorcing me? I divorced him! Silly man.'
I was about to protest, but thought, What's the point? How can you know what really goes on between a couple?
'There is a way,' she said.
I had to leave it a moment, to be sure I wasn't hallucinating. I did only think that last thought, not say it? I asked myself.
'Yes, you did, don't worry,' she interrupted.
'You can read my thoughts?'
'Sometimes. It depends on the conditions.'
'What, the atmosphere?'
'Kind of. And feelings.'
I thought, No wonder Jason was so fucked up, with this tugging at you all the time. I looked at her, suddenly realising she could probably read even these thoughts.
She was wearing cord trousers and sitting on the floor with her legs open, a pretty unusual posture for most tight-kneed Japanese women. It was impossible for me to repress my typically invasive thinking.
'What am I thinking now, then?' I challenged.
'You're thinking that I'm small and there's one point between my legs that's small, infinitely small and you want to lose yourself in it. Ah, now you're thinking about those tantalising dips behind the knees of young schoolgirls (why are you thinking about that now?), those blue-grey tendons that flash out at you from time to time and that you want to stroke so much, about those purple knees, purple from the weather, from exposure, from all that rubbing against the plastic mats in sports classes, those pale thighs just a little further up that you ache to touch. . .
'And me. I'm the body that you want to bend, to whip blue, but I'll also suck you in, become you.'
'I can't do that to Jason, you know. I certainly can't do that to my family.'
But in the end I had no answer. She pulled me in. And so here I am, enclosed within her flat, with her arms, within my own mind, sucked up by her, in fact. I have no idea what my wife thinks, that I have left her, been murdered, run away to England. Junko allows me pen and paper, but not access to a computer. That's under lock and key. In fact, she's taken to being my amanuensis, although in truth I am writing for her. She allows me this indulgence, but my main work is to continue Jason's translation, which I labour over most hours of the day and which she then types up. Her reasoning is that if it wasn't for me Jason would still be here working on it but as he is gone, he can't. But she rewards me at the end of day—or tortures me— by pushing my face into her sticky cunt, which I have to lick until her juices, which are viscous and acidic, trickle down. Then bed, night, inside her. Slowly but surely. I am becoming Jason, paying for his guilt as well as mine, his sin, punished and forced to enjoy at the same time. In my sleep, often when I am in her, forcing all my being into her tiny rank hole, I hear that strange fluttering sound and I think I am being lifted up by an angel. But then I am dropped almost immediately. This is my purgatory, for letting Jason go. This. Simply. Is.
Brian Howell lives and works in Japan; he has published a novel about Jan Vermeer, The Dance of Geometry (2002), a collection of short stories on the theme of modern Japan, The Sound of White Ants (2004), and various stories in print and online since 1990. He is currently working on a prequel to The Dance of Geometry, which forms the third part of a loose trilogy involving seventeenth-century Dutch painters and optical devices.