The Cries of Kotobuki-cho

Anne Ryland studied abroad in Yokohama, Japan.

"The Cries of Kotobuki-cho" by Anne Ryland

When Tamura-san was cleaning out my apartment earlier this evening, she came across my journal. She shifted her weight back onto her heels and let her broom handle lean into the crook of her elbow. Her stumpy thumb leafed through a few pages. And then, with a thickish thud, she dropped the little book into the plastic bag she had been dragging across the tatami floors of the 12-mat unit that had been my home since last August. 

As it nestled into a nice crevice inside the plastic, my journal joined the few other items Tamura-san had found strewn about as she methodically scuttled through the unit, sweeping up the dust and cursorily wiping down the appliances to ready the place for the next tenant. As she tottered back toward the entryway, grabbing at the laminate wood walls to hoist herself into her plastic sandals and leave, I could make out the shapes of my old belongings inside that white plastic trash bag gripped in her left fist. Along with the journal, Tamura-san had scooped up a crusty pink tube of mascara, the loufa sponge I had left in the bathroom, the white acrylic shawl with a burn on it from the electric space heater, and the empty plastic document case that had once held my passport and utilities receipts. Other than those few items, she had found nothing left of Hillary Stamp. She had not even found me, although I had been watching her the whole time from my hiding place in the closet behind the lumpy, folded futon.

The old lady heaved a sigh, propped open the door with the cinderblock that always huddled beside it, and emptied her dustpan into the plastic bag. I thought of the filaments and dust bunnies and sand and hairs worming their way between the journal and mascara and loufa and plastic case. "So that's it," I thought, "out it goes with the trash." 

I suppose it was in English and wouldn't have done her any good anyway, but it was hard to stomach the thought of my journal--which I had kept nightly for nearly three years--hitting the pavement Monday morning alongside the other tenants' bags of eggshells, radish nubs, and diapers.  And more importantly, it had been my last hope for making my story known.

I crawled out of the closet and started writing that story here, because, although I have no place to send this when I finish, I know that I've got to keep trying to whisper to the world of the living what happened to me.


As dusk fell over my first day in Japan, the water in my slippery-new ice cube tray had just hardened in the freezer. I knocked a couple of cubes into a tall plastic cup--the only one I'd found in a cupboard full of musty mugs--and stood at the stainless steel sink as cool tap water buoyed the cubes up to the brim.

I took a long hard swallow and carried the cup through the main room and out onto the balcony in the back of my new apartment where I greeted my first Japanese evening sky. It was the tail end of August, so the dusk came late and sticky. My forehead was itchy from the dried sweat of a full day of moving luggage up five flights of concrete stairs--not to mention various traipses through unfamiliar streets as I stocked up on groceries and ice trays and the like. 

Nothing had been hooked up in the apartment yet--no phone, no internet, no television--so I amused myself that first night by calmly gazing out at my new neighborhood, leaning my forearms against the rusty rail of the veranda and drawing in long sips of water. 

No one in the district of Kotobuki-cho has air conditioning. Light spilled out of open windows and screen doors in the neighboring apartments and stores below. Someone was singing karaoke at the Tokyozan Beef restaurant caddy-corner to my building. Television sets and plastic fans hummed at me soothingly from every direction. Down the narrow street that ran perpendicular to my apartment, I could make out the figures of patrons--local regulars, no doubt--planted on stools at ramen shops, waving their chopsticks as they animatedly recounted the latest neighborhood news.

What a joy it was to be soaking in such a vista. My application for a grant to study advanced language at the renowned Yokohama Language Center had, after years of attempts, finally been successful, and I faced the ten-month sojourn in the midst of my favorite culture with a heart purring with satisfaction and anticipation.

Cardon was rubbing her knees together with impatience as she watched the elevator numbers count down. 

"I have to be in Shinjuku by three," she whined huskily.

I didn't much care to start a conversation with Cardon, but there were only two of us in the elevator, and she clearly was seeking some response.  Cardon was the sort who always seemed to be looking for some soul willing to listen about Cardon. 

I swallowed. "Shinjuku?  What are you doing there?" 

"I am teaching at three and then again at five, but the second one is in Ikebukuro. My life is crazy right now."

"Teaching?" Cardon was younger than me by four years, fresh out of college, and unlike almost everyone else at YLC, was participating in the program without any graduate school affiliation (or even aspirations to academia).  The image of Cardon  teaching anything to anybody struck me as more than a little unusual.

"Yeah. I teach English."

"How do you do that? Aren't we all on the same visa?"

YLC students live in Japan on a one-year "Cultural Activities" visa, and accordingly, any employment is strictly forbidden by the government, not to mention the YLC administrative program rulebook.

"Yeah, but it's nothing official." She looked over at me for the first time since the start of our conversation from beneath long and heavy eyelashes.  "I just posted on some websites and stuff, and they pay me in cash. I could never afford to be here if I didn't teach. This place is ridiculous."

The elevator door opened and Cardon rushed ahead without saying goodbye.

I brought up the teaching bit again with Cardon when we were all sitting around drinking one night at Kjeldsen's place. 

Fields, who at 32 was the oldest participant in the program but had nevertheless suffered the unfortunate luck of being placed as Cardon's roommate, started to shake her head with a jaded smirk across the room.

No one ever wanted to hear Cardon talk about Cardon, especially not Fields, who had to hear it more than anyone else already.

"How much do you charge with your teaching, Cardon?" I had hazarded.  The dismal dollar was continuing to fall against the yen, and the idea that anyone could be surviving in Yokohama without a fellowship was impressive to say the least.

"Six thousand yen an hour."

The few side conversations in the room hushed, and Kjeldsen--balding, sarcastic, and always straightforward with his opinions--was the first to pipe up with the reaction expressed in everyone else's raised eyebrows.


Six thousand yen, at this exchange rate, was more than seventy dollars.

Cardon looked back at us all from beneath those caked eyelashes with affront. "Yeah, six thousand yen," she jingled. "And I'm doing about fifteen hours a week already, with six students! I mean, I'm even turning people down. If they're willing to pay it, of course I'm going to take it.  How did you guys think I was affording this program anyway?

Six thousand yen translated into two weeks of groceries for me, and Cardon was making that in a single hour.

"Who the hell is willing to pay that?" Kjeldsen barked back as he squinted up from the coffee mug of beer in his lap.

Cardon answered Kjeldsen's question directly at me. "Horny Japanese guys who want to hang out with a hot white girl," she lilted. "When I put up the ad, I just said, 'American model with teaching experience available as a conversation partner and English instructor.' These guys are willing to pay, mostly because they just want to be seen in public with a hot white girl."

Cardon was always calling herself hot. She was also always talking about her modeling. She was pretty, yes, but I had dozens of more attractive friends back in Virginia. The thought of Cardon modeling in Japan made me start to wonder if I ought to go out looking around for some modeling jobs, too.  I was only shorter than Cardon by an inch or so, and although my body wasn't quite as tight, I actually thought my face was prettier. 

When my thoughts came back to the room, the topic of conversation had changed. No doubt Kjeldsen had shocked it forward in some opposite direction so as not to risk dragging the party down in another cyclone of Cardon's self-satisfaction.

Later in the night, though, Cardon walked up to me in Kjeldsen's kitchen as I was refilling a mug with red wine. "Here," she said with a grin as she handed me a shallow plastic cup of vodka. "You know," she said, "if you're interested, I'll give your information to the next client I have to turn down."

"Oh, I don't know," I laughed, taking the cup from her and sniffing in the fumes from the vodka. "That whole visa thing.  Plus, I'm on the Department of Education's scholarship, and I had to sign something promising that I wouldn't take on any employment."

"But that just means official employment."

"I know, I guess. But I'm just not the type to take risks with that sort of stuff.  I mean, if I get caught, I would have to pay the whole program fee out of my own pocket. It's just not worth it."

"Well, but it's not even really a job, really. You're just getting paid to be somebody's friend."

I grunted a little laugh in response and swallowed the vodka. I knew better than to take advice from Cardon.

A few days later, an SMS message arrived from an unknown number. Alex the Latvian was the only one who ever sent me messages in Japanese--and that was just because he was an otaku nerd--so at first glance, I assumed it was another invitation to one of the lame cultural events at that international dormitory of his in Tsurumi. 

But it wasn't from Alex. 

  Nice to meet you.  I am contacting you in regard to the possibility of starting English lessons. I look forward to hearing from you. Tange Wataru.

So Cardon had given out my information after all, I thought, and I slipped the phone back into my purse without responding.

That night, I couldn't get to sleep. The voice of a baby babbling--no, not babbling, it was more like the sound an old man makes when he yawns loudly, but from a baby--was pulsing up in waves from some neighboring apartment out back.

I rubbed my heels together as I looked up through the darkness at the ceiling, stretching my palms out to the edges of my futon. It was October by then and already getting cold. The entire back wall of my apartment consisted of sliding glass doors that opened onto the balcony, and the cold night air permeated the yellowing glass easily, seeping by osmosis through the entire apartment: a thin, stiff chill.

I went over the calculations again. Six thousand yen an hour times three hours a week is one hundred eighty thousand yen a week, times four is seven hundred sixty yen a month. And if this “Wataru” has a friend who wants lessons, too, that could be fifteen hundred twenty yen a month, just for hanging out with two Japanese guys in coffee shops a couple of evenings a week.

I thought about the life I had envisioned for my year in Japan. It certainly had not been the routine I found myself following. From the moment I crawled out of my cold futon at 6:00 a.m. toward the electric heater until the thud of my journal in the dimness at the end of the hollow night, each relentless day was punctuated only by the zombie-like steps that ferried me to and from the Center, and by the stale cups of tea I sucked down in the Center break room.

My diary was a five-year cyclical, and I was in the middle of year three. It felt almost shameful to write the same short entry every night for 2010: “kanji study, class, homework, watched TV online…”  I used to look forward to reading the entries of previous years each night, but after nearly two months of the same routine in Yokohama, those old entries--a reminder of my formerly full life--only made me feel guilty for not doing more with my time in Japan.

Sure, my new YLC friends and I met up for the occasional drink or potluck on the weekends, but I had yet to make a single Japanese friend. An e-mail, too, had arrived earlier that week from my advisor back at school, asking for any news or progress on my research. Research? How did I have the time or money to go around Japan to make recordings of regional dialects when I was walking two hours a day to keep from paying two hundred and sixty yen of round-trip subway fare?

My mind folded over on itself with calculations. And that baby croaked below.

Wataru had arranged for us to meet by the wall of coin lockers along the south face of Ishikawa-cho station. My guts had felt sunken all day, my stomach rolling over and over on itself with a grumpy kind of worry.  I always hated scheduling meet-ups with anyone on a Saturday, because I never could sleep well the night before. That was particularly true of a first meeting.

I made out the shape of his dark suit from about a block away. He was standing alone by the lockers. From Cardon's description of guys who "just want to be seen in public with a hot white girl," I had imagined an awkward high-school type who would grumble answers into the centerfold of his English textbook as he shifted his hunched shoulders inside a roomy school uniform blazer. Here was a man--an adult man--who was dressed more like an aspiring pop singer than a student, in a shiny narrow black blazer, black shirt, and tight suit pants that looked like a black denim shellacked with black spray-paint. He wore a white belt and sharp shoes, one hand in his pocket and the other thumbing over the numbers of his silver cell phone. His hair was what we at YLC all called classic "gyaru"--uneven, choppy, fluffed up into a mushroom shape, and highlighted to a dullish chestnut color. It was rare to see his type outside of Tokyo (where the gyarus ran rampant in every street), but his look somehow seemed fitting for the Kotobuki-cho area, which was known for its yakuza presence. In Japan, Wataru looked "fly," but it made me smile a little to think of him trying to pull that look off in Charlottesville, Virginia.

He lifted his eyes up from his phone when I was a few steps away and nodded his head with pleasantly creased eyes as he snapped the phone closed and stood with his arms by his sides. 

"Hajimemashite!" I smiled the usual first-meeting greeting with nervous exuberance. 

He bowed a little and pursed his mouth into a charming side grin. "Hello, I am Tange Wataru," he replied in English almost indiscernible as such.  He switched immediately to Japanese as we continued with the formulaic greeting pleasantries called "aisatsu."  "I'm happy to meet you," he went on, shifting abruptly to casual speech by shortening his verb endings. "My company's in Tsurumi, and the boss says that I've got to learn more English if I want to take my business trips to places more exciting than that hell-hole in Gunma.What country are you from?"

"Guess." I let the word slip and it immediately struck me as a little inappropriate to ask a client, but it was my natural response when anyone flirted with me on the street by asking my nationality.  

"Russia." Everyone guessed Russia.

"Nope. Try again."

"Germany. Sweden. United Kingdom."

"No," I was laughing by now.

"North America?"





"Yes. I'm from Virginia, which is on the East Coast of America."

"Oh, East Coast. Got it. And your job? You're a model?"

I didn't know how to respond. Unlike Cardon, I had never posted any solicitation claiming to be a model, but then again, maybe he would be disappointed if I said no.

"I model a little," I lied.  "But my main job is as a graduate student.  I study Japanese history."

"Japanese history. I don't even know it. Why Japanese history?"

"Because I like it," I laughed back, switching to English.

"Like it!" he echoed, his voice a nasal peal.

I returned to Japanese. "I thought we could do the lesson in there," I said, pointing across the street to a cafe called Choco-fe beside the grocery store. "Did you bring any textbook?"

"Nah, Let's walk over this way," he replied, facing the opposite direction and striding forward as his heels clicked on the pavement.


Christmas night.  I found myself sitting cross-legged across from Wataru at a low table in a ryokan-style inn in a quaint mountain town outside of Nagano.

A platter of sashimi and shredded radish gleamed between us. Wataru was rubbing his palms over the tops of his thighs and sighing as he looked around the dim, tatami-matted room. 

I gathered my thoughts in the hush. How long had hit been since I first met Wataru by the station at Ishikawa-cho? Two months? It felt like years--years that floated in an orb of their own, hovering like a hazy, dancing bubble over the parallel life my physical body led for me in Yokohama: the limbs that walked me to my desk at the Center, the spine that leaned against ratty apartment walls with fellow Americans over mugs of beer, and the wings of my back that pressed down on an arctic futon in the darkness as the Kotobuki-cho chorus of babies and cats crowed below.

In two months we had never actually sat down to work on Wataru's English. We walked, as we had that first day, through the gray streets of Kotobuki-cho and Chinatown, dropping into shops or parks according to Wataru's whim. I simply followed the clicks of his shiny heels along the sidewalks, weaving through the crowds behind him or beside him, answering (in Japanese) his questions about my research, my life back in Virginia, the Center... Occasionally he would point to something in a shop or on a sign and ask what the object was called in English. That was the extent of our instruction. Even so, each time we parted by the coin lockers at the station, he handed me a 10000-yen bill. And I took it.

He was confident.With Wataru, there was none of the self-deprecating humility so common in most of the Japanese men I met when Cardon and I prowled the bars for free drinks from salarymen. His face was smooth and placid, and his voice even and kind. His smiles were not sheepish or boyish but sly and cunning. 

On our third walk, he reached for my hand as we snapped through the streets. His grasp was not one of calculated boldness or gentlemanly yearning that so often marks a man's countenance as he advances on a woman. Instead, it seemed involuntary and casually instinctive, and he rubbed his thumb gently along my first knuckle as we walked hand-in-hand through the blustery late fall air. 

I answered his questions with whatever seemed to come naturally in the moment. I created a dream-state version of myself, not as a web of lies but almost as an exercise in my Japanese vocabulary. The fiction began when he asked my name on our first meeting. I was a little jarred that Cardon hadn’t told him, so maybe it was a protective counter in that moment of surprise, but I gave him the name “Sora,” meaning “sky.” It was my favorite Japanese name.

“Sora? Are you half-Japanese?”

“Well, no, but my name is ‘Sarah,’ but I know that it’s hard for Japanese people to say, so I’d like it if you call me ‘Sora’ instead. It sounds basically the same.” 

Well, at least that explanation had sounded familiar. When I gave my actual name to Japanese people, I usually requested that they call me “Hiyori,” a Japanese name much more easily pronounced in contrast to the irksome medley of “r’s” and “l’s” of “Hillary.”

But where “Sarah” came from I had no idea. 

 If there were contradictions in the stories I told Wataru about my home in America or my life as a graduate student or my dreams for the future, he noticed nothing, and neither did I. Ours was a relationship of the moment, a weightless, lucid moment that glided in a hover above the concrete blocks of my life. A moment that recreated itself each Tuesday and Saturday afternoon, draping its silky air over the jagged grids of the Yokohama map.

Wataru did not work in Tsurumi, and he was not a salaryman for a boss who wanted him to learn English if he wanted to travel beyond Gumna.  Of course, he whipped off slick answers to my questions about the Japanese workplace, about Tsurumi, and about the strict manners of propriety in the Japanese business system. But his lies only added new strokes of paint in the colorful realm we shared, and I received all them with soft smiles and pensively closing eyes.

No one at the Center knew about Wataru. I occasionally thought of mentioning him over the bento box lunches my friends and I huddled over in the break room, but the moment always seemed to pass before I could form the words, and after a few weeks, it seemed only natural to maintain the separation. How Fields or Kjeldsen would blink with cynical confusion at the Hillary Stamp who threaded through southwestern Yokohama alongside a smooth-skinned, stylish Japanese knave.

We lolled over our sashimi and warm sake, and Wataru reached for my hand across the table. With ginger fingers he drew soft, short strokes across my palm, counting them in English to ten. 

"Presento." He smiled as he lifted a red box from below the table with his other hand. 

No, Wataru was no underling salaryman in Tsurumi. They couldn't afford to buy their English teachers twinkling Citizen watches.

Back in our room, I inhaled the calming scent of the bamboo floor mats as my cheeks gleamed in the warmth of the overhead heater. We rolled out two cloudlike futon side-by-side. I felt a brief rush of hesitation that clicked me; I had never slept with any man before. I had never gone out of town or stayed in a hotel with any man before. And yet, here I was somewhere in the hills of Nagano, kneeling on the cloud of cotton, slowly spreading out the wrinkles of a futon cover as Wataru traced the flat of his palm along my spine.

Hours later in the Nagano stillness, I tried to focus my hazed eyes on objects around the room: the rise at the foot of the futon were my toes scraping against the coverlet. On the low kotatsu table across the room sat a gray sake set and a black lacquered tray of red bean sweets.  There were our slippers. There was an empty vase. The objects—I saw them, and I knew that I saw them. And yet, it was as if my eyes had grown a filmy cover, a layer of iris that would peel or melt away when I returned to Kotobuki-cho.  And when the cover disintegrated, it would be as if I had never actually seen these objects at all. Sora had seen them. Sora had slept with this man. Sora clicked through the streets with him twice a week. Sora was a filmy iris and a suit of skin that would evaporate the instant I began to climb the first flight of concrete steps up to my apartment.

I raised the voice inside my head to a shout. "That's it, Hillary. You are here. You and the man whose sleep-heavy arm is draped across your belly are real. This is not Kotobuki-cho. Don't you hear that hush? That is the snore of the snow mounds sleeping outside in the Nagano air. You are here."  The voice dizzied me, and I massaged my temples as I stared out at the bluish images on the muted TV: a woman was crouched at the entryway of her apartment, touching the digital mosaic of her private parts as the postal delivery man gazed shamefully at the floor.

I chuckled with Cardon on the train as we sat, side-by-side on the Negishi line, scrolling through our phones and showing each other the text messages we had sent back and forth earlier that night during an “all-you-can-drink nomikai party” with several happily inebriated salarymen.  The nomikai event was called a "go-kon," and it was essentially a blind-date style mixer that I had organized with Taka, the stumpy, smiley, 28-year-old Japanese businessman who had sparked a conversation with me as I dawdled home from the Center one afternoon in early December. 

It had been our greatest bar success yet.

Taka had brought along three of his co-workers, and Cardon and I were joined by Elina, her friend from the Lacoste print campaign, and Fields, who had sulked at the end of the table the entire evening, irritated, evidently, at the salarymen's audacity of complimenting her for being able to use chopsticks and speak Japanese. 

Taka was sitting next to us on the train, insisting that the three of us go out for one more drink, his treat. But Cardon got off for her station at Sakuragi-cho, flashing an amused grin back at us as she skipped out of the sliding train doors. 

Taka and I got off the train in Ishikawa-cho, and I bounced along with him to a chain izakaya-style restaurant. 

"I'll go with you, but I only want water!" I laughed in a sweet, girlish Japanese.

"No! Whisky-rocku, Whisky-rocku!" The boys had been impressed, it seemed, with my go-to drink order at the go-kon.

The server inside the restaurant made an X-sign with her hands as she explained something in such polite speech that I didn't understand.  "Are they closed?" I asked Taka. 

"They're closed, but we can find somewhere else."

Back in the street by the station, I dropped Taka's hand and shoved mine in my pockets, feeling suddenly much more sober in the February chill. 

"Actually, Taka-kun, I think I should just go home now. And I think you should, too. It's late."  I stopped by the coin lockers, unwilling to let Taka see which direction I took to go back to my place. How had I found myself alone with this helpless little man? I had only taken it this far for the Japanese practice and the flattery he was giving me, but it struck me suddenly that I had been giving him false hope.

"Hiyori, no." He cornered me in the shadows of the brick station wall.

"Taka, I told you, this is not possible. I'm going back home in June."

From across the table all night, he had been asking me to be his girlfriend.

"Why do you have to go home? If you study Japanese, shouldn't you live in Japan?" he pleaded.

"I can't live in Japan. It's too cold."

"I will buy you a house that has a heater in it. We can leave the heater turned on all day!  I will make sure you are always warm."

Laughable. Was this romance in Japan? A promise of a warm apartment, and I’m supposed to, what, fall for this guy? How different from Wataru. Taka, I was certain, was the type of Japanese man who stared with a blankly hopeful face as he waited patiently for the green "walk" signal at every crosswalk  in the city, never daring to dash across the street while the signal was still red. Wataru dashed.

"I have a boyfriend."

"You have a boyfriend? But your friend told me you were single."

Complicated. I still hadn't told any of the Center students about Wataru. Cardon would be jealous and try to sabotage; Fields would be feminist and hint that I was toeing the waters of prostitution; Kjeldsen's cynical squinting would make me start to believe Fields.

"I am single. I... I have a boyfriend in America, but I don't talk about him. So that's why my friends don't know."

Helplessly hopeful, Taka inched closer to me. "But if he is in America, you must be so lonely. I could be here for you everyday, making sure you are always warm."

He was holding me tightly around my lower back now, pressing our bodies closer and closer in the smoky darkness. I was too tipsy to find anything threatening in such a comical situation.

"Hiyori, Hiyori, kiss me.  Please kiss me."

People were walking past us in the dim street, eyeing us with tentative sideways glances: a five-foot-two Japanese salaryman clinging for dear life onto a five-foot-nine, curly-haired foreigner who was writhing disgustedly under his touch. Like seeing a pile of vomit in the sidewalk, I thought, it was revolting but hard to look away. 

"Hiyori, Hiyori."  He closed his eyes and pressed into me even tighter, and I squirmed and tilted back my head to the right and left, wondering when I should give him a good shove. More eyes passed: quick-stepping businessmen in black trench coats with soft, fabric briefcases. In a flash of embarrassment,  I pecked him on the lips and pushed him away. He lurched forward with eyes pathetically gleaming at his triumph, grabbing me for more. 

I slipped away with a quietly forceful "I'm stronger than you. Stop."

He gazed up at me grimly. "I will send you a message. Can we meet up again? Please tell me we can meet up again."

My lips felt tiny in the echo of the kiss. "Sure." Anything to get you to leave me alone. I stepped backwards in the opposite direction of my house. I could take the long way home just in case he followed me for a few blocks.

"Hiyori, Hiyori! Please, Hiyori, tell me we will meet again.  Are you mad?"

"Fine. Fine. Goodnight."

I ran towards the crosswalk and, after a quick glance up the street, bolted across before the light changed.

I glanced backward towards the stations and, to my great relief, Taka had turned his back and was walking toward the ticket machines. 

And then a wall of dark poisonous air slammed me. There, beside the station, stood a familiar silhouette, lurking by the coin lockers just outside of the station lights. 

I stood stupefied on the curb. The narrow, confident shadow was there, standing casually attentive, like a mannequin in the breeze wafting from the column of the passing businessmen.  Still facing the station, my heavy steps took me backward.  Something magnetic was propelling me away from the station, and the winter chill seeped deeper into the collar of my coat.  The figure in the shadows remained motionless.  I could make out no precise expression, but I could feel that the glowing eyes were locked on mine.  And the anger radiated from them like blazing strings. 

My heart in my throat, I spun around on my heels and hurried home.

The next day was a Saturday, but I did not go to meet Wataru at the station.  I scrolled through several messages from Taka--"If I scared you last night, I cannot apologize enough.  Please let me take you out for dinner as a thank-you!"

By four o'clock, still nothing had come from Wataru.

The bleak angles of graying sunlight seeped in through the edges of the full-length, dingy curtains draped along the back wall of sliding doors in my apartment.

I stood up from my low computer table and walked toward the curtains to pull them taught--to lock out the dull, hollow night.  I peered out into the open sliver of light on the far left side, dropping my eyes out on the veranda.  Empty plastic laundry-hanging hooks shimmied in the breeze on the neighbors' balconies, but no window was open.  No karaoke rose from the Tokyozan.  No patrons sat out on stools at the ramen shops. 

A few solitary figures straggled under heavy coats through the middle of the street--old, drunken men whose strides were mere centimeters.  Who needs strides of inches when there is nowhere in particular to go?

No cars passed.  No sun was in the sky to set.

I reached for my heaviest coat and my knitted hat.  Like the squalls of the cats below the building, a low, moaning fear had seeped into the apartment and encircled me.  I had to get out of Kotobuki-cho.

Brisk steps carried me to the Isezaki mall street. As usual, it was teeming with animated crowds, and I walked to the end, comforted to be in the presence of anyone.  I was afraid, though, to look up. 

In every face I met I saw Wataru. The vendor at the fur hat booth--the man selling fish-shaped pancakes--the round lump of a grandfather squatting on a slowly rolling bike--the Softbank employee passing out free packets of tissues--the crossing guard peering at me over his medical face mask--the clothing store attendant shifting hangers on the outdoor displays.  Each pair of eyes burned back at me with the reddish glow that had emanated from Wataru's demonic gaze that had burned at me from behind the shadows at the station.

Unable to bear another pair of burning pupils, I stared down at my soft boots that thumped along the brick walkway of the pedestrian mall.  The clothing stands, the snack booths, the marketers passing out flyers... they closed in on me like metallic walls, funneling me through the gauntlet of the crowds, spitting me out at the end of the street, onto the darkest, grayest alley at the end of Kotobuki-cho.

Uncertain where I was, I took a sharp left.

A desolate shopping street yawned before me like a vaguely luminous hallucination.  Tattered Japanese flags hung from the rafters of the covering of the shopping street. Cracked, mustard-colored tiles lined the way.  Greenish-glowing fluorescent lights seethed toothy grins upon the tiles from above the flags.

Figures without faces stumbled towards me in the half-light.  No one said a word. They were solitary black blobs, staggered across the narrow street like strewn shreds of plastic bags or empty ramen boxes, scuttled softly across a sidewalk by the wind.  Each figure shuffled in twisted-ankle steps that slugged towards me and blocked my way.  How could I feel so frightened in the midst of such a crowd?  Here were vendors, were they not?  Was I not on a commercial street merely a few blocks from my home? 

But each fishmonger's bed of ice was empty.  In each window display hung sorry, tattered shirts, backlit by half-burnt overhead bulbs.  On the shelves of vegetable vendors' aisles hiccupped the occasional rotting apple or unraveled bundle of browning spinach leaves.  I lifted my eyes to the figures around me.  Buried in bundles of black winter coats, behind medical masks... from every direction, pairs of red eyes glared at me--or, more frightening still, through me.  Past me. 

I realized that I was running only when my eyes met, at last, the low cross of a church I recognized from a vaguely familiar district of one of my former walks with Wataru.  From there, I found my way through several filthy alleys back to my apartment.  Swift, shaking legs shuttled me to the fifth floor.

That was Saturday.

I did not go to school on Monday.  I lay still in my futon.  I reached for my phone by my pillow and called the Center to tell them that I'd just received news of a family emergency, and that I needed to fly back to America as soon as possible.  I would let them know soon if I would be able to return to continue the program.

They asked no questions.

In the rare hush of an early Kotobuki-cho mid-morning, my heart buzzed with trepidation as my shaking hands hastily folded my clothes into the two suitcases I took down from the high closet.  Papers and textbooks, my computer, my phone, some letters... too anxious to focus, I shoved everything methodically into the suitcases, my gaze always looking just forward to the next item as my hands took care of positioning the objects.

I could envision my relief as if it were a downy blanket of sanity that would cocoon me like soft, motherly arms as soon as I could board the Narita express--as soon as I could set foot on the sterile red carpet of Narita airport.  I would march up to the nearest airline kiosk and purchase the next ticket to Dulles.  My father would pay.  I would call him from an international phone there and tell him everything.  I could not stay in this country any longer.  The cats crowing at me, the gleaming red eyes--I could not remember for the life of me why I had even come.  Japanese Studies?  My mind worked as if trying to push through its own fuzzy haze. 

Books into backpack.  Brush into cosmetic case into green suitcase.  Toothbrush into toiletries bag into black suitcase.  Scarf around neck.  Shoes are by the door...

I could make it.  I could make it out alive and return to the world I knew was real.  To the body I knew was my own.

But when I faced my entryway, there stood Wataru.

He said nothing.

His eyes glowed in a dark, dark red.  A piercing, blackish red that polluted the nearly invisible whites to a murky yellow.

In a high, thin, yet calm Japanese he slowly remarked: "You have left so much behind here.  An unfolded futon?  Half-used groceries on the shelves?  I can see that you are leaving, but do you mean to frighten your landlord by running off in this manner?"

I opened my mouth to find an answer, but only a puff of cold, scratchy breath emerged.

Wataru continued calmly.  "Let me help."

He came around behind me and placed his palms over the tops of my hands, his chin on my right shoulder.  He guided my body like it was a marionette, slowly emptying the milk carton into the sink, putting the dishes back into the cabinets, dusting off the desk and re-positioning the table and floor cushions at the center of the room.  I crumpled into a heap by my suitcase, defeated.  My heart ticked like a bomb.  I sat as if paralyzed as he folded the futon and nestled it into the closet. 

"I always told you that I would take care of you.  I was just waiting for the right time to come.  I always knew that you would come and live with me, and when I saw you with... with that..., when I saw you the other night, I had been waiting to tell you of our new plans."

Was I breathing?

My eyes were too heavy to lift above the middle buttons of his black shirt. My limbs were lumps that seemed to have melted into the tatami floors.

"I've typed this letter to give your landlord.  It explains that you have found new accommodation.  It's alright, Sora, I'll put it in her box on the way out.”

“Sora, I am taking care of you now.  I will take care of you and find you a quiet corner where you can be here in Japan with me forever.  You don't need to lie anymore to the people in your program, or to your family in Virginia, or to your teachers at the University. They don't know who you are.  Only I can keep you warm and keep you here where you belong... just as I keep all of the women who have loved me."

With a long sashimi knife he folded me into several squares.

Gloves on his hands, he continued to murmur to me as he scooped the squares into a white plastic trash bag.  He slung me over his shoulder, heaved a musty sigh as he strapped on my backpack, and breathed into the silence as he rolled my suitcases behind him and down the stairs.

Down the stairs.

Out the glass door by the mailboxes. 

A left.

A right at the light.

A left at the Lawson's.

A right at the Pachinko parlor.

And a few paces ahead to the coin lockers at the Ishikawa-cho station.

I heard coins dropping against metal.

The locker door shut behind me, and life was dark and still.

Sometimes I wander between the station and the apartment.  White walls block me into this 100-yard radius, and I am only able to roam the limited stretches of alleys immediately between the station and my old apartment.  I curl behind the futon in the closet to watch the new girl moving in.  I stand beside the coin lockers each evening at nine o'clock, shouting into the thick abyss of air as Wataru drops coins into several lockers on the 24-hour coin locker wall.  I shout at the girl in my old apartment as well.  Each night I sit by the columns in the alley out behind her window and call up to her, warning her.  Warning her to dig her feet like roots into the real ground.  To stomp her feet like roots that are only her roots and only her feet and only her life. 

The chasm of air sucks my voice and morphs it into eerie, stretched sound.  I know that I am speaking words--shouting words.  She stares at the ceiling and hears it as only cats in the alley below.

Yokohama, Japan