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Japanese Fan

ISSUE:  Summer 1997

Seeing without seeing: surely he’s been here, in plain sight, all along? Nevertheless, these months and months have gone by without his presence registering. Understandable, maybe: it isn’t so strange for a woman to overlook a man whose head she can look over. Then, too, I’ve focused on the work, fiercely. There is no point in being here, it is said, without seriousness, single-mindedness.

Of course, he would have had no reason to notice me, either, much less desire my attention. I’m no one, an American, female, and scarcely elevated from non-existence by my recent acquisition of a brown belt. An invisible creature, possibly imaginary, apparently even lacking in imagination, mind utterly do-devoted. And then: tonight, as I work on a face-block combination before the mirror that covers the west wall of the dojo, he’s suddenly there. Finally, I see him as he moves into view in the mirror, some distance behind my reflection. He is working his thrust kick, patiently, purposefully, and with full power: first one leg (hip thrusting it out at a sharp right angle to implode a solar plexus), then the other (hip thrusting it up and out to fracture a jaw). His black belt dangles between sturdy thighs.

I watch him for a moment, my left arm curved to conceal my face, right arm drawn close to my body, fist cocked against my hip. But he sees through this silly subterfuge, doesn’t he. He knows I’m watching. He continues thrusting, right, left, right, left, right. But now he no longer snaps his head from side to side to meet the eyes of unseen enemies. His gaze rests on the distant looking glass. I gaze into his reflected eyes: they are full of nothing but his own image, and, even as I watch, the irises seem to blacken, vision turning inward, focusing on something I can’t possibly see. I step back and away from the mirror, and sit on the floor to rest, I can still watch him if I care to, by slightly turning my head as if to catch a glimpse of the city beyond the casement windows.

A whirling back kick to the mirror, and he squats, eyes lowered, and begins to stretch his legs. He is perspiring heavily, almost panting. The white uniform sticks to his broad chest in places. Its ties are half undone, baring skin which is pale, nearly hairless. The hair on his head, though, is thick, short-cropped, jet. And I see that he keeps his beard stubbled, like some cinema samurai (the young Mifune in Hidden Fortress comes to mind.) I imagine him languidly rubbing a half-clenched fist along his jaw. I can anticipate the faint rasping sound, the speculative look in his moody eyes.

The next moment, in fact, he raises his knuckles to his jawline, scrapes them across the indigo shadow, still squatting there facing his mirror image. I’m too far away from him to hear the sound of real flesh against beard, and I can’t say if he’s speculating on anything or not. I speculate that I can, safely, glance maybe once or twice more. His eyes are hooded, removed from the scene; his nose, a remote little ice cliff with a chillier flourish at the nostrils. But his lips: his lips are as full, as pink and pretty, as a girl’s, without unmanning him in the least. On the contrary, though the effect can’t be an entirely calculated one. A point at the right corner of this plump, placid mouth is pulsing, pulsing. I lower my own eyes. The lean expanse of leg between his callused foot and the hoisted cuff of his gi pants is lush with coarse black hairs.

I’ve been in this bar before, carried along to cavernous back rooms by the sweating, thirst-maddened dojo mob at the end of a week’s classes. He stops now at a booth near the front, gestures for me to take a seat, slides in beside me without a word. He orders a Miller draft. I ask for a glass of white wine. He nods his head in a sort of sitting bow before taking a first swig. I study the hand grasping a pilsner glass as intently as if it were a piece of martial sculpture: the knuckles classically misshapen against the makiwara, the nails raggedly cut (or bitten) too short. Though they’re clean enough, I note. That, too, is dojo discipline.

We agree the training was difficult this evening. We agree it’s going to be hot again this summer, and a good thing we’ve acquired new industrial window fans. Though of course it’s also a good thing Sensei forbids their use except in the brief intervals between classes: besides the draft being unhealthy, too much cool comfort weakens character. Finally, we agree that even sweltering weather is preferable to the wickedly biting winter that lingered so long this year.

Although our conversation is nothing if not basic, I find I’m barely following what he says. It’s not the accent, quite familiar by now. But his speech is so subdued as to constantly catch me off guard; yes, and he expresses himself somehow insinuatingly, with the faintest trace of a lisp. I think of snakes, of small, silky rodents.

I, too, am beginning to speak strangely, a sort of pidgin English, as if to make communication easier, though it’s more likely a nervous feminine tic, self-effacing, effete. On the other hand, maybe it’s just, after all, my way of effortlessly (I am very, very good at this linguistic mimicry) making a chameleon change. Becoming someone else. For I’m beginning to wonder what I could possibly be doing here. We have nearly nothing to say to one another. Lengthy pauses punctuate brief, banal exchanges. Sounds of beer swallowed, wine sipped, are more speaking than we. His attention seems actually to be receding on the inrushing tide of beer. He savors each long taste, shutting his eyes slightly, tilting back his head. His Adam’s apple appears almost too delicate, moving in the foamy surf beneath the sinews of his thick neck.

Casting around for something: shall I ask him for some pointers on my form? Suddenly, his right hand, coiled like a cobra on his thigh, rises, as if by levitation, and comes to rest on my shoulder. I’m surprised by the lightness of his touch, and by the finesse with which one finger traces my earlobe. Though I’m not certain what I was expecting: an animal cuff, a rough pinch? He says he doesn’t really like a woman to keep her hair so short. I shrug, smile vaguely, not wanting to seem struck by his bluntness. Neither do I want him to think he can just blurt out whatever he pleases. So typical, I tell myself. But (he continues smoothly) it has the great advantage of revealing the ears and the nape. I shiver as his broad thumb presses a path from the base of my neck to my hairline. My head turns slowly toward him, then, my lips parting as I search for the perfect riposte. But he’s signaling the waitress for another beer. And some of his friends have just come in. They grunt and bow as they walk by. I notice that, sitting together on the booth’s cushioned bench, we’re now nearly the same height, he and I. It strikes me as a good omen. But of what?

The restaurant’s tables and tatami rooms are occupied, the air thick with the white noise of conversation in several languages, chopsticks on lacquer ware and china, fans slowly rotating overhead. We take seats at the counter. The men working behind it have bristling scalps and cleanly shaved jaws. They wear thin cotton bandannas tied around their skulls above their pale ears: sushi skinheads. He orders a Miller. I ask for sake, at which, for some reason, his upper lip instantly curls. But it’s a smiling sneer, almost affectionate. The hands of the sushi men are immaculate, the translucent skin nearly as white as the fine bones beneath it must be. Their fingers are slender and supple. Have they been elected to their calling by virtue of these natural attributes? Or is there something in the fish and vinegared rice that polishes and refines skin and nails? I think the question will amuse him, and turn to pose it. But, jaw jutting appraisingly, he’s preoccupied by a sober survey of the raw materials (so to speak) beyond the plate glass, and of the sushi men who transform them into something more than mere food. They appear to be making fast work of even the most painstaking tasks, yet they seem unrushed, utterly relaxed. Watching as a meditation: I can feel my own breathing slow, the knotted slope of my shoulders smooth out. I imagine he is experiencing something like this himself.

It’s less a mood than a moment, and as suddenly gone, in a gravelly avalanche of guttural words—unintelligible to me as gibberish. The voice is his: he is speaking, full-throated and with forceful gestures, to the men on the other side of the display cases. His tone, in this other tongue, sounds harsh to my ear, almost hostile, as if in anticipation of a bad meal. And as it is his own language he speaks, I imagine it to be his real voice. Is it this that makes me hesitate to tell him that the thought of actually eating any of the sushi chefs’ exquisite creations is, just now, slightly nauseating?

Though I couldn’t say exactly why. Visually, as always, I appreciate the artistry. Abstractly, the casual perfection of composition still thrills. Scarlet maguro, rose katsuo, translucent curls of ika and tako, twice-golden uni crowned with quail egg, pale hirame, speckle-skinned tai, all transformed by weird wizardry. But this evening, the brilliant minimalism insists on resolving itself into bits of fish flesh, freshly killed, frankly uncooked: squid, octopus, flounder, sea bream. Sea Bream: the very name sets my insides shuddering. I decide to have some clear broth, and maybe afterward plain, grilled fish.

But now two su -bleached hands are reaching over the glass case for our wooden sushi geta. He’s ordered for both of us! Hey, I snap sharply. And then swallow snappish words as I hear a growl at my shoulder. Possibly it’s a gruff phrase acknowledging the chef or the imminent arrival of dinner. But it could just as easily be a warning, to me, couldn’t it. Subtle, yet effective. I’m on the verge of making the best of a situation, in spite of myself. And in good time; sushi is being served.

He chooses a fat handroll first. A thickly sauced inch of broiled anago, rimmed with spikes of cucumber, protrudes from the over-stuffed rice and seaweed cone. He shifts in his seat until he’s almost facing me. I feel unaccountably relieved to see that he’s smiling, if only slightly. His teeth are like freshwater pearls, matched but charmingly uneven. There’s a small gap between the front two. Incisors tear at eel; noisy chewing, followed by a nearly inaudible groan of pleasure.

Though handrolls await among my own arrangement, he means to make an offering of this one, bringing it closer, closer to my closed lips. At least it isn’t raw, I think, thankful. Only inches away, the roll, raggedly bitten at, looks like some nasty sort of undersea growth, a nosegay for a mermaid. I open my mouth as narrowly as possible, trying for an expression that is at once delighted, yet delicate. I nibble politely. He seems to seriously study every muscle that moves in my face as I quietly chew and swallow. He helps himself to another mouthful, and the roll returns to me. As I take another bite, and then another, his somber eyes briefly crinkle. There is nothing but a bit of iridescent nori left between his blunt fingers, which have a greasy sheen and a pungent smell. He rubs one lightly along my lower lip, as if to collect the sweetness of the sauce. Suddenly, my tongue flicks out to lick the tip of it. He slowly wags it at me. His face isn’t entirely stern.

I don’t want to spoil the game. What can I offer him? On my little table are a pair of glistening coral sea-creatures I don’t recognize, though I guess from their labial shape and their coloring that they’re bivalves.Aoyagi, he prompts; bakagai! And laughs from the belly, his eyes big as a Buddha’s with the private joke. But baka is our teacher’s name for students who make the same mistakes over and over again. So these pink, quivering things are shellfish for fools. I giggle too and seize the larger one, swiftly saucing it in the soy dish, to present to his smug smile.

But he seems unsurprised. He grins hungrily, canines glinting: one bite and the clam is cleanly severed. His eyes swim with instant tears, instantly, manfully blinked back. Too much wasabi, if I’m not mistaken. My hand is still poised between us with the fool’s prize. He takes my wrist with his own right hand (but lightly, steely fingers just circling) and lifts the clam to his parted lips. This time he closes his eyes as he chews. The lids are smudged marine, the lashes dense against his cheekbones. His mouth remains open, the dissected clam like strange, dislodged human organs, rolling against tongue and palate and inner cheek.

I feel his grasp tighten slightly as he senses a tentative movement of withdrawal. Our forearms seem to sink to the counter together in slow motion. He presses three fingers across the inside of my wrist to pin me there, then reaches across to claim the remaining bakagai. He slides it into the shoy-u, pauses. Yours or mine? He draws the livid dripping thing back to his mouth, lets his tongue slide across its length, licking, sucking, his fine, sharp teeth preparing to devour the delicacy. Quite a performance; I could almost laugh. And yet, suddenly, I want so badly to taste it myself that I have to turn away, fumbling for the sake flask.

Then, I feel the rosy lips slick and salt and cool against mine. I take the whole clam into my mouth and let my teeth sink into it, slowly, sweetly. The sudden horseradish pricks my eyes into watering too. This makes him laugh even louder and longer than before, head thrown far back. But I let my tears trickle, until I can’t see him, or anything.

On the train to his rooms, we sit side by side without speaking. I draw my legs in, squeeze my knees together, fold my hands in my lap. Even so, I imagine that, seated next to him, I must appear as oversized and white as a sculpture of a woman, something George Segal might install on a model subway seat at the Modem. I can’t help but notice that my companion’s black and silver running shoes only just reach the floor. Still, he has substance, he takes up space in the world: his legs, for example, are spread so wide, the muscular thighs occupy seating for two men. His hands are knots of tawny flesh riding upon his jeans, which are frayed along the seams, as if bursting from the pressure of the quads.

Through my thin black cotton sweater, I can almost feel the leather of the black motorcycle jacket he’s put on for this ride, despite the late spring heat. I wonder if people realize we’re together. From moment to moment, I wonder if we actually are together. Perhaps even he thinks we’re only coincidentally riding the same train line. All that connects us is an aroma, subtle but suddenly unmistakable, of fish and alcohol. It’s convincing, but not necessarily conclusive.

I’ll have to see what, if anything, happens when he reaches his stop. Which could be anywhere. As the train pulls into each station, I can feel my legs tense slightly with the suspense: is it, are we, here? He hasn’t made a move. I can’t see his eyes in the smoky windowpane opposite. Is he asleep? But the doors are opening again, and now he springs to his feet, is already stepping onto the platform. I shoulder my gi bag and follow, though he has not once turned around either to beckon or to say good-bye.

He stops at a greengrocer, for beer. A tattered gray cat sits on a ten pound sack of rice, staring at me, purring. The sound is almost painfully loud. I rub her skull, just behind the ears, and her back arches as her tail whips around and around in furious pleasure. Is it my touch or my fishy scent? He pays for the six-pack and comes over to watch us. As I stroke the cat, she begins to show her hole, offering it up. In heat? I ask, glancing at him in what is meant to be a slyly playful manner. His onyx eyes are flat, his face grave. He hasn’t the slightest idea what I’m talking about. I have a cat, he says, slowly, as if to make sure I understand him. Yes? I answer; I also. But I am in fact left wondering what he meant: have a cat? Am a cat? Neko, neko. He takes the wrist of the hand that has caressed the animal, wipes the palm hard against his jeans, examines it with almost clinical attention, turning it slightly in the greenish fluorescent glare as if the light might reveal some hidden message. Then, he drops it as suddenly as he took it up and nods toward the door.

I move to pass him, up the cluttered aisle that leads out to the street. But he stretches an arm toward the cat, blocking my way. I watch as she smears herself against his fist, shuddering, then springs to the floor and streaks off, vanishing into the back of the shop. He sniffs along the edge of his hand before erasing her phantom scent on his tee-shirt. And again, I hear that laugh, hara-loud; he’s still laughing as he joins me beneath the neon sign outside the grocery window. His eyes, though, reflect the light in a way that makes his face seem cold. And older: only now do I notice the fine lines at the corners of his lids, and the deeper creases beside his plummy mouth. I wonder whether he’s used to this sort of thing (whatever it may be—if indeed it is anything at all). I wonder how many times he has . . .how many women have. . .but really, there are no words for wondering about the man in the mirror, who he is, who he will be once you get to wherever it is you’re evidently so determined to follow him.

Seated at the small table in his cramped kitchen, supplied with a 12-ounce bottle of American beer, he seems larger than life, and yet—still smaller than I, lounging against the nearby window sill. We’re both barefoot. He has, besides, stripped off his white tee-shirt along with the bike jacket, tossing his things into the small, unseen room we passed as I followed him along the hall from the front door to the kitchen. His nipples are surprisingly pale, salmon-pink. His torso lacks the bulk of a bodybuilder’s. He might be quite frail, actually, without the dojo training. Hoisting his lean drinking arm higher for a moment, he snuffs at the pit. The sparse wiry hair trembles as he breathes himself in, grunts out his satisfaction. He takes another pull on the tall amber bottle. “Kampai!” I say. “No beer,” is his answer. Meaning, I suppose, no beer, no toast.

But he gestures toward the sink. There’s one small, clear glass in the drainer, among a scattering of cheap-looking teacups and sandwich plates in a vaguely familiar, floral restaurant pattern. Coming back to stand by his shoulder, I hold the glass out to him. But he’s focusing on the empty second chair, intent on easing it back from the table. I count one, two, three controlled sweeps of his bare instep against its nearest leg. “Sit,” he says. He pours, expertly, barely any head.

“Drink,” he says, waiting, watching me. My first mouthful makes me so thirsty I down the whole glass, just like that. He refills it immediately, without comment. Then, he rights the bottle and touches it to my little glass. “Kampai.”

Strange (the thought strikes me suddenly) that he hasn’t stopped to use a toilet all this time. Considering the beer, that is. It’s remarkable, really, now that I think of it.

As if reading my mind, he rises and excuses himself with a brusque bow.

Left alone, I survey the kitchen. Sink, stove, half-refrigerator, card table with two folding chairs. There’s nothing to look at, or occupy my thoughts with; nothing upon which to build connections, base conclusions. I wonder if he eats out every night. Many men alone do. Though, after all, I’m far from familiar with the habits of unmarried Japanese men who have no one to cook for them.

And now, I hear the unmistakable sound of male peeing, torrential waters rushing to join the water in the toilet bowl. The sound goes on and on and on, as if a new permanent tributary had sprung up to swell a stagnant river. I gather he’s neglected to close the bathroom door. Abruptly, the plangent pissing is displaced by the ringing splash of a shower opened full-throttle. Not a bad idea, of course. But it will certainly be strange if one of us is bathed and fresh, while the other’s nape and body folds, hands and feet, smell of the day’s secretions, the evening’s sweaty dojo exertions and, of course, the sushi. Especially strange if the sweet one is this small, unsmiling man. Am I supposed to join him? I steal into the hallway, listen. All I hear is the water. Not that he seems the singing sort, but you never know. Some do it in public, in karaoke bars, when they’ve drunk enough (which is to say, much too much).My Way is Ichiban, Number One, I’ve been told. Steam is beginning to waft through the door which is, as I’d guessed, wide open. A rectangle of light sets it off against the darkened walls of the hall. Perhaps he’ll be done by the time I appear at the threshold, if I walk very, very slowly.

But it’s only a matter of a few more steps. And no, the water is still thunderous. The shower curtains billow out into the narrow bathroom. Rising vapor obscures the view. How will he even know I’m here? I clear my throat. I gently knock against the thrown-back door. I say his name, but so softly that even I am not sure I’ve actually said it. Nothing. Then, the water is cut off. Grunts and growls accompany the sound of a creature shaking itself dry, beads of water battering the flimsy vinyl curtains.

They part. His eyes are shut. Water still streams over his face, like the shrieking war paint of an actor’s samurai mask. When his eyes finally open to fill the mask’s slits, there’s no playfulness in their glint, nothing pleased. I seem to have miscalculated the mood. He coldly accepts the worn, once-white bath towel I’m for some reason now holding out to him, wordlessly watches me watching as he steps forward into the light and methodically wraps it around himself, the ragged lower edge skirting sinewy flanks, pouchy gray genitals. His face is severe, yet somewhat softened by the water, by the near-ringlets it’s formed in his lank, back swept black hair. It’s not that he wishes me gone, exactly. It’s something else. Don’t worry, I want to say; I haven’t been training long enough to be able to size up an opponent in a single glance.

Timing, too, is critical to karate-do. Alone in the shower, I realize I must be missing cues, somehow. Or, rather, clues. Your turn now, he felt compelled to explain, and rather too loudly, emphasizing the proprieties involved. The bar of soap he handed me is new, Ivory Family Size, and too large to comfortably fit my palm. Since I see no shampoo, I rub the white brick around on my head a bit, then slide it over my skin as best I can. It occurs to me, out of the blue, that as there is no litter box in here, and none in the kitchen, there is a good chance there’s no cat in the apartment. Perhaps he was trying to make some other point.

As I soap my legs, I hear the bathroom door open. I know now, or at least I’m reasonably confident, that it’s not the cat. Perhaps he has come back to help me bathe myself? He did seem quite concerned that I make good use of his shower, showing me how it worked (this hot, this cold; you use hot), almost ritualistically unwrapping the soap from its garish ail-American paper. I squat over my ankles to reach my feet, the water pounding shoulders and spine. For an instant, as my thighs open, I imagine him wanting to wash me there himself. Strictly as a matter of hygiene. I slide the soap between, then turn toward the spray. Finally, I stand, twist the faucets off, push aside the curtains with both hands.

He is wearing a smoke-gray kimono whose black sash brings out the fabric’s faint slate graph-pattern. He smiles, coolly, and his eyes move over my body—breasts, belly, mons—with the same calm, assessing air, before he raises them again to return my gaze. He is glad I am finished; I will please to accept yukata (a thin emerald cotton robe with a hole under one arm) and join him in the other room.

There is a futon unrolled in the middle of the floor, a dimly glowing paper lamp on wire spider legs, a spindly desk and chair, a small chest of drawers, and a big Sony Trinitron on a black metal stand. The set is on when I walk in. He is lying aslant the bedroll, holding a Miller in one hand, switching the channels by remote control with the other. His kimono is neatly hung over the back of the desk chair, the sash folded and draped to bisect it.

I walk toward the bed, surveying the room in a glance. The walls are not completely bare here. There is a poster from a 1978 Okinawan competition, a Chinese medical chart of the body’s vital points. Over the bed, framed in cheap bamboo, hangs a wood block print, shunga of the unsubtle school, you might say. It depicts a beautiful, bare-breasted woman bent backwards in the embrace of a tonsured strong man whose cock is as long and thick as his thigh. Which potent weapon is, of course, exactly what she (what any woman) wants, as the picture proves: her tongue flicks past blackened teeth in a yip of delight while one of her hands eagerly grasps his swollen member. Meanwhile, her thighs spread under another hand, hers or his, which is playing with, half-disappearing up, her dripping, voracious orifice.

Perfect. I look away, down; I’m practically standing over him, now. His legs are drawn up and pressed together, sheltering his sex. He puts his beer on the floor, switches off the television, scratches his jaw and then his backside, yawns, looks up at me. It’s too dark to see his eyes. He seems even more of a stranger without his clothing, without his white gi or, on the other hand, his black leather jacket and blue jeans. He looks almost defenseless, in fact, like any naked man. His cock is not a weapon, it’s a cock, small and soft at first. Even when it grows hard it will never be anything as thick as his thick, strong thigh.

He seems, also, tired, or perhaps it’s simple laziness. His fingers play idly with the sash of my robe, and then he drops it, yawns again, and mutters what may or may not be a throaty apology. I feel like the pale, round-eyed giant ghost cat of some nightmarish Japanese legend. Looming over his mattress, I’m relieved to recall hearing it said that when men and women lie down together, they are somehow always the right size, a perfect fit, no matter how incongruous they may have seemed before bed. Yes, a perfect fit. Like our mirror images, if not ourselves. I suddenly realize there is no mirror in this room. I call up the image of that other mirror, earlier in the evening, and see him again, thrusting beyond himself for me (so I flattered myself), powerful animal thrusts, so, so, so as I sink down upon the thin, rockhard mattress.

He’s asleep almost before he rolls off me, I think. I know I have to help him along with a little shove, my knee insistent against his prominent hip bone. He weighs more heavily on me than he looked likely to. Dead weight always does.

I listen to his sputtering susurus, meanwhile easing my calf from beneath the unconscious back-hooking hold of one of his massive legs. Now we lie shoulder to shoulder, both on our backs, like some cozy old couple, though only one of us is staring at the ceiling. As I have been staring at it for the long minutes of this startlingly short coming together. I wonder if there has ever been a ceiling more featureless, more resistant to fantasy.

I would give much to be listening to something beside his open-mouthed, beery breathing, some music, maybe, or even the companionable muttering of late-night television. But I’m afraid I’ll wake him trying to tune in the clock radio, figuring out how to switch on the Sony. He has a VCR too, I see, as I sit up, start to inch my way toward the foot of the futon. Yes, and a small collection of videotapes stacked on the lowest shelf of the TV stand. Something concrete, categorizable. I can’t resist.

I slide off the bed and steal across the bare floor, dropping to a crouch before the miniature entertainment center, where I quietly shuffle through the tapes. Copies made by him or his buddies are mostly labeled with handwritten characters. But some tapes do have titles in romaji. Rebel Without A Cause, Night of the Living Dead, Warner Bros, Cartoons’ Golden Jubilee, The Odd Couple (old episodes, I suppose), Bambi (not the satiric short with Gojira in the key cameo role, no, this is the bathetic full-length Disney), the Stones’ Rolling Thunder Tour, The Wizard of Oz, Blue Hawaii. . . Once I begin to decipher his holdings, what to make of them becomes less and less clear. I quickly pass over several boxes covered with screaming katakana and grainy photos of naked Western women-contortionists. I don’t want, I don’t need to know. Really. I straighten out the tapes just as they were, and move across to the chair for my robe. It’s still a bit damp, makes me shiver a little as I slip it over my shoulders and pull the sash tight. I wonder whether he chose it because of the color of my eyes, or whether (more likely) this is the only one he keeps for guests.

The kitchen glows luridly, irradiated by some source of light beyond the uncurtained window. It can’t be the moon, this borrowed illumination, since the flat is at the back of the building and at the bottom of a stone canyon closed off by three other urban towers. Perhaps a neighbor’s fluorescent kitchen fixture has been left on all night across the way. Or maybe the family is actually sitting at their table, enjoying a bedtime snack together. Though the thought doesn’t make me hungry, it prompts me to open the door of his refrigerator. I suppose I haven’t satisfied myself about. . .things, here, not yet. The inside of the appliance is cleaner than I might have expected a man to keep it. All the more noteworthy, since it’s even emptier than one might have assumed it would be. There are three bottles and two cans of Miller, four brown eggs stuck with pinfeathers, a jar of unpitted pickled plums, a moldy Chinese eggplant, and some unidentifiable gray mush in a lidless celadon bowl.

I’m glad I’m not in a snacking mood, at least. And that I’m not mistress or wife, expected to whip the ingredients on hand into a feast for him, at whatever hour he may wake. Although it might be nice, for a change, to know what is expected of one, and what to expect.

He’s left a small light on himself, in the bathroom. As I walk toward it, I notice for the first time that the walls of the central hallway are hung with things: a poster from “Galaxy Express 999,”the sci-fi manga, a reproduction of a late Van Gogh self-portrait, a grainy photograph of a high school baseball team, a Japanese fan. The fan is a one-piece affair—faux palm leaf on black lacquer stem— decorated with a colorful miniature of a famous wood block beauty gazing at her reflection in a hand mirror.

The fan is balanced against the wall by two finishing nails supporting its lower edge. I carefully remove it, turn it over and over, considering the flawed but still elegant Hiroshige reprint on one side, the cascade of calligraphy on the other. The rice paper construction is so lightweight, the heft of it so pleasantly delicate. I bend the fan lazily, once, twice, close enough to my face that my cheek is tenderly touched by the subtle breeze. I’m still holding the fan, gently beating it back and forth, back and forth, as I go into the bathroom and shut and lock the door.

There is a mirror in here, of course. And something unexpectedly comforting about the reflection given back by an ordinary medicine chest. Though there is also, certainly, something of the experience of seeing myself with strange eyes, in these unfamiliar surroundings. I watch as the fan bends toward my face and away, as its breath lifts strands of hair, leaves me slightly breathless. I smile for the mirror, mysteriously but meaningfully, the corners of my mouth turning down slightly as always. Then, I raise the fan, past sharp chin, full lips, long inches of American nose, slowly, slowly, until I’m holding it and its mirror-mesmerized paper woman before my fleshly face as reflected in this cold glass, until nothing can be seen of me but my eyes. They are generally called green, but in fact contain a multitude of colors. Casual about such personal details, I think of them as eye-shaped. Yet I might do better by truly looking at them, deeply into them, by thinking about how they compare to his, for example, and where in fact they fit among the infinite varieties of human eyes.

And just so, I suddenly recall Sensei’s reputed ability to discern character, diagnose ills, even discover the future, in the shape of one’s eyes. A woman’s, for example, are altered in aspect by pregnancy, and further altered by the sex of the child she’s carrying (which, it is said, our teacher predicts with unfailing accuracy). I look hard, harder into my eyes. They are, so far as I can see, still my eyes. The same eyes that watched last evening in the cracked locker room mirror as my hands raked the damp hair back from temples and forehead after training. Yes, the very eyes that this night watched his hands smooth over my cheeks, fingers working through tangled, freshly-washed curls as he pulled me toward him for a single, pitilessly stirring kiss.

Now they narrow slightly, these eyes, with the amusing and yet also oddly aggravating thought that not even Sensei will be able to detect any change there. Peering straight into the windows of my soul, he will assure himself (since he’ll have surely foreseen the possibility, even before I did) that nothing happened.Zenzen nannimo: nothing at all!

But of course, that isn’t quite right either, is it. Even apart, I mean, from the signs he can’t see, the strawberry mark sucked to the surface of tender skin behind the collarbone, the bluish prints pinched into breasts that a gi will bind and conceal. There are still other layers, other signifiers. Mirror on the wall, can’t penetrate all. Behind the fan, behind my mask, I’m smiling, simply, serenely, signifying nothing signifying something. Which something must be, for the time being, himitsu, a mystery, even to me.


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