5 10 2008

I could tell she didn’t enjoy our sexual encounters. no, that was not it – she did enjoy herself to a certain extent, she took pleasure from it, but never let the pleasure overtake her. I don’t know if I’m making any sense here. it was not that she lacked the physical ability to experience pleasure, more like she didn’t allow herself to. whenever the electric current of fulfilled physical desire was about to bolt through her body she would halt it, hold it at bay like it were too much.

this peculiarity of our relationship didn’t bother me in the least, I swear. her reluctance to let herself go completely was not apparent to just anyone; it wasn’t something she threw at your face. on the contrary, she was amazingly pleasing in bed without seeming servile. she somehow managed the right balance. the first time I noticed this subtlety about her I put all my efforts into making her enjoy sex as much as me, but it quickly became apparent she preferred it her way. I never raised the issue in conversation – after all it was not that sort of relationship. so from then on whenever we made love I tried not to think about it, as if I’d never come to notice. this wasn’t very difficult since at the time a mere look at her body would turn me on – I was young, you see.

she had a long and graceful neck and a straight set of shoulders. her well-shaped breasts were big enough that I couldn’t quite cup them in my hands. her stomach was flat and lean and her hip-bones stood out against the elastic of her panties, leaving a space through which you could catch a glimpse of her pubic hair. whenever we were lying down after making love I would rest my head just above her navel and stare into this secret place. once I told her about my fascination with the way her panties never adjusted right to her lower belly when she lied face-up. she laughed at my remark, but said I could stare as much as I wanted. I spent a lot of time doing this.

it may sound odd but I’m not one to fall asleep automatically after sexual intercourse. sure I feel like someone had sucked the life out of me – in a good, nice sort of way -, but I cannot go to sleep straight away. I normally light up a cigarette, not out of some obscure fancy for old cliches, but because it helps me think – or rather, be lost in thought. most people have some thing or other that triggers a certain mood – you could call it a mood catalyst. my sister, for example, says whenever she has a problem that bothers her she needs to sit on the ground, in the kitchen or the bathroom, in order to wave it away. she is convinced that it’s the sense of enclosure and the cold from the tiles that does it. she’s a weird one, my sister. the girl I slept with also had her own thinking catalysts: the bus or the train. according to her these were the best to cleanse your mind because as you looked at the rushing images through the window, the sheer amount of visual information at such high speed overwhelmed your mind and soon you had to stop paying attention altogether. it sort of made sense to me, though I wouldn’t know for sure since I normally read in the public transports – she said she couldn’t, it gave her a headache.

this is the sort of information I was able to gather throughout our encounters – mismatched pieces of her, small but important details that left the overall picture full of holes nonetheless. I sometimes felt I knew more about her that most people she dealt with on less uncommon situations. this was due to the fact that she never shied away from telling me her personal views or her most intimate secrets.

on an october afternoon we were both in her bed after having had sex. she had dozed off under the warmth of the covers, but I was sitting up against the head-board, musing. I remember it was raining, a downpour, and still we had left the window slightly open. a cold breeze found its way through the slit and along with the hazy light and the rhythmical sound of rain I soon entered a kind of trance. I have always found rainy days oddly calming, reassuring even; as if the homogeneity of rain had the power of evening the world up. that’s why she startled me when she suddenly spoke up from under the bedclothes. I immediately forgot what I had been thinking about – I still don’t remember – and I turned to her with a questioning look.

‘I said I don’t think I can commit suicide. do you know why?’

it bugged me. her comment was odd enough in itself without my being slightly spaced out still. but I just said ‘no, why?’ in a calm tone, as if it were an ordinary conversation between two middle-aged women, discussing the trick to a chicken recipe.

‘because I can’t make up my mind about it.’

‘well, I very much doubt all people who commit suicide are 100% sure about what they are doing.’

‘that’s not what I meant.’ her brow furrowed, not in disapproval of my failure to understand her, but searching for the best way to explain. ‘what I’m trying to say is that I don’t have a clear opinion on it.’

‘you mean a one-side-or-the-other kind of opinion? like with death penalty?’

‘that’s it.’ she added, visibly pleased that I had finally grasped it. ‘I’m not sure if it’s a cowardly act or the bravest one. I mean, in a way, you could think of it as the ultimate escape-way: you feel miserable, you can no longer cope with the world, your life is too painful… so instead of facing your problems you just take flight.’

‘because to continue living is always the hard choice, the one you have to work out.’ as soon as the words came out of my mouth I realised I had made a statement rather than a question. she merely nodded.

‘then again it must take a huge amount of willpower to overcome your natural sense of self-preservation and end your life.’ she rushed the words as if exhaling a big gulp of air she’d been holding for too long. her tone gave the impression she was debating to herself rather than talking to me. ‘have you ever tried to cut yourself or pierce your skin with a needle?’ this time she had looked directly at me, like suddenly remembering I was there. I said I hadn’t.

‘it doesn’t have to be anything serious. did you ever try that kid game where you pierced the upper layer of your skin with a needle to make the illusion it was stuck magically to your palm?’ I shook my head again. ‘no? well, if you had you would know just how difficult self-inflicted pain is. as if there was a kind of invisible barrier between your body and what tries to hurt it. your mind quickly shoots off to show you exactly what sort of pain you would experience if you went any further than imagining it. it feels so real it’s like you have already hurt yourself. I guess it’s an effective way to put you off doing silly things.’

I was out of words. what could I add to that? instead I just stared at her hands with a deep-in-thought expression. she resumed her calm demeanor and exhaled softly.

‘anyway. I was just trying to illustrate how difficult it must be to try to end your life, that’s all.’

‘let me get this straight. you would not commit suicide because you don’t know if that’d make you a coward or a very brave person?’

‘no. I merely can’t give a straight and clear opinion on it because both seem equally true to me. so until I can stick to one of the two I won’t consider the possibility.’

‘that’s… weird.’

‘it’s more about the general idea of how you see things, how you arrange the world around you. I would feel I’m not being honest with myself making a ‘yes-or-no’ decision of something I don’t have a clear view of.’

that afternoon we both smoked a cigarette in silence while we thought to ourselves – whether she was still pondering the strange subject of suicide like me, I don’t know. the rain went on indefinitely, but we never broke our silence, until I ducked into the covers to take a nap.

so these were the sort of things she spontaneously talked to me about. not run-of-the-mill stuff, I’d say, but not all were so creepy. sometimes I wondered why I was with her, not because I felt our relationship had no meaning – which, in truth, I had never paused to consider – but purely out of curiosity. she was no model, no matter how beautiful her breasts were; and certainly the sex, though good, was not something to throw me into a frenzy. and to top it all neither of us seemed inclined to get any deeper into each other’s lives. which in turn got me thinking why she was still seeing me. we had met by chance some time ago outside a mc donald’s in shibuya around 5.30 am. we were both taking a bite after a whole night clubbing, waiting for the trains to run again, and we had stopped in the only place open. she was with a friend, I had seen her drop the girl on a nearby table, fast asleep. somehow she didn’t struck me as drunk, more like utterly exhausted from dancing all night. she left her friend there with their bags – it was not likely anything would happen to them what with only one person out of six awake in the place, that being me – and she went away. I found her downstairs taking a smoke – I don’t know why I followed her; something about her detached manner and bemused smile pulled me up from my seat. or maybe I was just drawn to her because she was the only one in that place besides me that was not unconscious and I needed to talk to the living rather than the dead.

I approached her with the feeble excuse of asking for a cigarette, though I didn’t smoke at the time. she flashed that bemused smile at me and pulled out a package of mild sevens, flipping the lid open and sliding one out with a quick move of her thumb. she then lit it without waiting for me to ask her to. I don’t remember how we started the conversation, whether it was her or me who spoke up first, but I know I didn’t ask for her name straight away and neither did she. I seem to recall I inquired her about what she was doing here in tokyo, too obviously a foreigner to pass for one of the locals. her answer startled me a little, like they would never fail to do from then on.

‘what I do is not important. it’s of no interest, really.’ she added when she saw my reaction. ‘what do you do?’

I frowned, slightly taken aback. or it might have been that I was more tired than I had thought and my mind was a little too slow. she let out a low chuckle.

‘forgive me. if you don’t think it’s fair for me to ask you that when I’m refusing to answer you I will rephrase my question: what would you like to be doing?’

this didn’t help my struggling mind anymore than her previous question. I was so concentrated in getting it started that I thought I could hear the wheels and cogs screeching through the rust. meanwhile the column of ash that had formed in my forgotten cigarette was overpowered by gravity and fell to a puddle in the ground. I brought the cigarette almost reflexively to my mouth and took a drag. only a few seconds had passed.

‘I’m inviting you to tell me a lie – creative or not, it doesn’t matter.’ she continued, encouraging me.

‘I don’t know what I’d like to be doing. I’m not sure it isn’t what I’m actually doing.’

‘humpf. then you must be one of a kind, because people are never doing what they want. it’s part of the human condition.’

‘I could think of some who are though.’

‘I’m not saying that we deliberately choose the opposite to what we like, quite the contrary. those who can choose will go for what they want and sure enough it works. for a limited amount of time, of course. because it’s inevitable that you’ll grow to want something else, something you don’t have yet.’

I took another drag of the cigarette afraid the wind would smoke it before I could.

‘so,’ she suddenly broke the silence again, throwing away the still steaming butt of her cigarette and kicking it expertly to the nearest sewer. ‘ going back to our previous game, what would you be doing if you were doing what you want? I’ll start if you like,’ she continued quickly. ‘but we have to do it properly, start this conversation again. ask me your first question as if none of this had happened.’

I complied, relieved for the first time tonight that her request was so simple. ‘what are you doing in tokyo, if I may ask?’ I repeated affectedly, like an actor in a rehearsal going over the dialogues for the hundredth time. she nodded in approval and assumed her actress voice:

‘ahh… I’m running away from the thai mafia from the time I was a prostitute in bangkok. I now work the night shift in a love-ho up the hill and sleep in a different place each day: manga kissaten, cap hotel…’

‘why would you be a prostitute in thailand?’ I snapped. ‘wait, is this really what you would like to be doing?’ I was suddenly more alert than before. her story had not shocked me so much as it had piqued my curiosity. she wasn’t the least bit shaken by my question either.

‘I was backpacking around southeast asia when I run out of money in bangkok. did the wrong favor to the wrong person to get some easy cash to fly back home, but didn’t make it as far as the airport gates.’ the words came out naturally, effortlessly, as if she were rather recalling and not making it up. she never once looked at me while she told her story, this might have been a habit of hers. ‘the answer to your second question is maybe.’

there was a short silence. ‘how did you get away? from the thai mafia I mean.’

‘it wouldn’t be of any use to you if you found yourself in the same situation.’ she smiled half to herself, then looked up at me. ‘another cigarette?’

as she held the package of mild sevens to me I realised my neglected cigarette had expired between my index and middle finger. ‘yes.’ I stuttered, reaching for the package. but she took it away before I could grab it.

‘why? you don’t smoke.’

I stared at her in bewilderment and asked sheepishly: ‘is it that obvious?’

again that clear chuckle, like the sound of tiny bells.

‘even without the giveaway of the lame excuse to star up a conversation? yeah, it is. you don’t have the habit, don’t look comfortable with it in your hand, haven’t developed smoker gestures. instead you hold yourself a little too stiffly, as if you had recently had your hand cut off and you didn’t know how to compensate for it.’

‘wow. and here I thought I was putting up a fairly decent act.’

we continued our unusual conversation. I came up with a story of my own, but I don’t remember how it went now – it was something like employee of a batting center, in charge of collecting stray baseballs, I think. we didn’t have sex that day because she couldn’t just leave her friend there to wake up to the racket and greasy smell of mc donalds. but we exchanged numbers without promising to call – which in 9 out of 10 times it’s a guaranty that you will surely hear from the other person. and sure enough, barely a week after our brief encounter she called me and asked if I cared to meet her in a café in kichijouji, not far from her house.

the place in question turned out to be just next to one of the entrances to inokashira park. one of its walls curved along the first line of giant trees that grew on a pronounced slope, it was made of glass. a long wooden bar stretched itself all the way down the glass wall, old black leather stools scattered along it. I must say the décor wasn’t much to speak of and the atmosphere was not exactly lively either – maybe because of the dim light or maybe because it was a cloudy summer day and the mood was a little on the down side. nevertheless, she said she liked the gaudy place mainly for its italian coffee, its pumpkin ice-cream and the fact that it was full of stray cats running loose or taking a nap on an empty stool. we stayed long enough for her to finish her ice-cream and smoke through her last cigarettes. I didn’t ask her for smoke – I knew better than that.

as it turned out, she worked for a small but good company where she had been doing her internship a year and a half before. this seemed appropriate to me – you don’t go rumbling happily about how miserable your life is unless it’s not true. she told me the company paid for her accommodation – which gave me the clue that the company was faring pretty well for itself. it was a shared-house, western style, like most of the houses in the area. she lived with three other people who kept changing from time to time: one would go, another would come… and so on. she had her own room to herself; that was part of the house deal: you shared the common spaces and if you wanted some privacy you only had to retreat to your room. we spent a lot of time in that room. I liked it better than my own hole of an apartment – it felt… homey. an odd thing, considering we were not that kind of couple. in fact, we were not a couple at all, no matter how you looked at it. we were merely two people who met occasionally to make love and sometimes talk about the subtleties of why you should or shouldn’t commit suicide.

that first time we had had the house to ourselves. we could have made love all over the place, but I was the one who insisted that we keep to her room. later on we would do it in the shower, public toilets, the backseat of my car and once even in the office I worked in, one night I had to stay fixing someone else’s mistakes.

in the beginning I didn’t notice anything strange in her. we hit it off pretty quickly and had good sex. as the time passed though, her problem became apparent to me. the sex had not changed, it was me. I had grown more attuned to her, could read her and understand her better. and suddenly there it was, that barrier that contained all strong emotions, keeping them at bay. I would watch as the natural result of physical pleasure rode her body, making her flex her toes and arc her back, and then stop abruptly before it reached her eyes. afterward, I would turn the thought in my head while she slept soundlessly beside me. once I even considered the possibility of her having had some bad experience with men and sex before. but most of the time I was convinced it was just fear. fear of letting herself loose, of giving up control and surrender to something unknown and powerful. maybe that was her problem all along. she couldn’t bear the thought of losing control, so she was never able to fully understand herself, to know her limits and the extent of her own self.

I guess I loved her, in my imperfect way. the only way to love imperfect things.

she finally got her straight view on suicide an unusually cold may morning. I never got to know which of the two she had decide upon, but she did leave a message for me. one of her housemates, the girl who had collapsed on a table at mc donald’s the day we had met, handed me a blank envelope with my name written on it the day of the funeral. her eyes were rimmed with red from crying, but in all this time I had been seeing her friend we hadn’t so much as crossed a couple of words, so I didn’t know what to say to console her. now that I am older and more experienced I could come up with some lines for such an occasion, but back then I was too young, too shocked and too sucked up into my own sorrow to sympathise with anyone else. I just took the envelope from her with a nod and wandered off awkwardly. I only saw her once after that, some years later, in a fancy terrace in central tokyo. she was having brunch with some girl friends and I was meeting a man for business purposes. when we happened to see each other she merely nodded in acknowledgment, stared at me for a few seconds and turned her attention back to the conversation at her table. it was only natural, there was nothing binding us anymore.

the day of the funeral I ended up in her room wanting some privacy to read the letter she had left behind for me. it didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t the typical suicide message – after all, nothing about her had been ordinary from the start. why would it change now? she didn’t explain why she had done it and neither did she say ‘goodbye’ or ‘I love you’. what I had in front of me, written in her tiny, neat handwriting was the story of how she had escaped the thai mafia.

there’s no point in reproducing the tale here now, because even if you found yourself in the same situation it would be of no use to you anyway.

‘why did she have to die?’ the little one asked me.

‘all stories end with death eventually. or you could say that death ends everything. whichever you prefer.’ I said.



3 10 2008

eyes that were past crying or the busy bank employee

I flipped uncomfortably through the pages of my book, slightly aware that reading a novel was not the average way of waiting for your bank attendant to get back from an errand. of course, since this was my first time alone in a bank I wouldn’t know the procedures for sure. still I closed my book guiltily at the first hint of footsteps. I rested the paperback on my lap ’till the footsteps had trailed away, not stopping at my cubicle.

deciding the stress of taking out and concealing the book every other second would get me nowhere with the story I gave up reading and took instead to looking around the small working place. the L-shaped desk took up most of the space there, behind it the blue upholstery chair stood empty now. the back wall was covered in nondescript metal filling-cabinets, the door to one of them slightly ajar. I could see row after row of pink folders, just like the ones laid on the desk. it struck me that such a modern bank would keep physical files of its clients, I thought everything nowadays was stored in a hard-disk. but of course computers are not infallible.

I stared for a moment at one of these folders, some photocopies of what looked like an old driving license had slipped out of place. I didn’t bother to look at the name since the document was upside down, but the word ROMA caught my eye as it was written in capital letters.

the bank employee chose that moment to rush back into the cubicle, the gush of wind he brought with him made the leaflets on the wall to my right flutter. they advertised special accounts for young people or students, stressing the point that they only charged one euro per month. I didn’t linger on them for long, you could find them all over the bank and I had read my share of them while waiting. the attendant said something very quickly in italian. distracted as I was it took me some time to realise he had just been talking to himself. I nodded in acknowledgement nonetheless and concentrated on my up-tight pose: legs closed to the point my knees were tightly pressed together, my arms cradling my coat and bag stiffly on my lap, a visible tension clinging to my shoulders. I don’t know if the bank attendant noticed how apprehensive I looked, how closely I was watching my movements so as not to step out of line. I somehow very much doubt so.

as I waited for him to either come up with a solution to my problem or address me – whichever came first – I fell back to scanning the room. beside the desk, leaning on the leaflet crowded wall was a small side-table that matched the filling-cabinets. the top was loaded with random documents I couldn’t distinguish from my sitting place and probably this morning’s paper folded in two. the lower shelf curved under the weight of a sturdy-looking safety-ward the colour of fir leaves. a tiny but distinctive key stuck out of the keyhole, if it was holding something important inside, why would they leave the key on? I waved away the though as soon as it formed, suddenly more interested in other matters: the pronounced bent in the metal shelf got me wondering if it had happened overtime or the moment they placed the safety-ward on it. somehow both images seemed curiously implausible to me – the metal layer slowly, imperceptibly giving in under the excess of weight day after day for who knew how many years; and the more comic scene of it shaping itself instantly like the bottom of the sturdy box.

my silly thoughts were interrupted again by the sudden leave of the bank employee. I stole some more glances at the abused metal side-table, but the magic of the moment was gone, the piece of furniture no longer held any fascination for me. it was just some severely dented metal side-table that would have never caught my attention if I hadn’t had so much time in my hands.

I gave the room another quick sweep, just out of habit. this time my eyes came to rest on a childish drawing stuck to the wall. I recalled vaguely seeing something similar in another cubicle, the one belonging to the attendant of the previous visit. it had looked like the sort of handmade gift of “mother’s day”. the word “married” lit up in my mind as a logical consequence to seeing the drawing. excited by the thought of finding other clues as to who this nondescript bank employee really was I payed closer attention to the objects on his desk: a stack of clean post-it, uncapped blue pens with the bank logo printed on the side, a bubble-shaped paper-weight holding nothing down and a small figurine of a turtle painted in bright, absurd colours – it looked like some kind of souvenir, but apart from that I couldn’t make out anything of it. and then, leaning against the side of the CPU and facing the guests’ seat rather than the owner of the desk, was a personal photograph. a medium shot of a young man holding a woman in his arms, low hills covered in green and scattered firs on the background. the scenery reminded me oddly of switzerland. the man was very clearly my busy bank employee, only something was slightly wrong with him – I couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet. the woman was on her late twenties, early thirties, blond like him, her straight hair falling just below her shoulders. they both wore casual clothes – a plain white T-shirt and a blue polo shirt – as would be fitting for hiking or a day in the countryside. his arms wrapped around the woman drawing her closely to him and she in turn rested her head lightly on his shoulder. the more I looked at the picture the more disturbed I became. something about it bothered me, though in truth it looked too much like a “happy family” ad to give anyone the creeps.

I couldn’t chew on it any further as my bank attendant was already back again. this time I took a better look at him in search of the differences with the man on the photograph. he had lost some weight with the years, that was immediately evident just by looking him in the face – the younger man’s chicks were fleshier, not in a puffy but in a healthy way. his shoulders and back were broader too, like those of a sportsman. the man typing on the computer in front of me was still attractive enough (the hair line receding a bit), but the light that had sparkled behind his eyes was long gone. and suddenly it hit me, the reason the photograph had unsettled me before: when you looked at it you got the feeling that the woman was surely, irrevocably dead now. I don’t know how I had come to that conclusion, but my whole body cried out with the feeling of loss. it was certainly unfounded and stupid to think so, still it was the feeling I got.

my eyes trailed back to my bank employee and rested on his left hand: a very simple gold band adorned his ring finger, a sign that he was still married – whether to the woman on the photograph or not I couldn’t know. I wasn’t an expert, but I was under the impression widowers took off their wedding rings and stored them away following some kind of social convention. and yet the woman’s eyes had a sad, weary look to them that mismatched his glowing expression. it was as if her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, couldn’t quite reach them. still her face looked calm and tender, like she were quietly saying goodbye, knowing from long ago that she wouldn’t be around much longer.

none of these feelings could be registered in his face, so it could be assumed he knew nothing about it at the time. I suddenly thought again of the awkward arrangement of the photograph, facing outwards, like casted away. then again the whole desk was such a mess it could very well mean nothing at all. my idle mind was quick to make assumptions, especially when deprived from reading.

after I left the bank, the image of the couple lingered in my mind. her face transmitted and oddly reassuring sense of peace – it said “everything is going to be alright”. and at the same time, even if you wanted to believe her, you know without a doubt that it wasn’t true. you could see the sadness welling up in her eyes like unshed tears – in eyes that were probably past crying. my heart contracted again with the pain of great loss – someone else’s, but real nonetheless. and then I let the images of the city take over my gloomy thoughts as I rode on a bus downtown.