She catches me among the Penguins and the Puffins. A nondescript lady in a black jacket, a long black skirt, and a small black straw Panama hat. She stands uncomfortably close to me as I scan the discount tables. Her glasses have thick dark frames too big for her face. The lenses shrink her already small eyes. A tall man in a blue suit watches us from behind a pillar. She speaks quietly.
“I want to talk to you.”
“Erm. What about?”
“Don’t you think it’s crowded in here?”
“Is that what you want to talk to me about?”
“No. I want to speak to you privately. Come over to the stairs so we can talk.” We thread through the crowds to a corner in the stairway. She steers me into a nook and stands in front of me. “I want you to come to my house.”
“I want to make you feel nice.”
“How, uh, how do you plan to do that?”
She smiles. “You know what I mean.” She touches my left shoulder.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Do you do this a lot? Speak to strange men in bookstores?”
“Of course not! This is about you.”
“Yes, you. I can see you are a special man.”
I’m not used to flattery. Women never approach me like this.
“A special man?”
“Yes. I can see you are a kind man. You know how I can tell?”
“Your eyes. You have very gentle eyes. Come on! Come to my house with me. Let’s spend some time together. I live right around here. It’s a five-minute walk.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“Yes. I want to make you happy.” She moves closer and whispers urgently through little pointed teeth. “I want to give you what every man needs!” Two tiny dark eyes bore into mine through the oversize spectacles.
It’s eight in the evening. The store closes at nine. I tell the woman in the hat I need a cigarette. We go downstairs and sit on a wall in front of Shinjuku Station. A maelstrom of humanity swirls about us. Our voices are drowned in the ambient din. Highrises lean over us like tombstones of the gods. The woman continues to cajole me, her insistence almost incantatory. I’m hesitant. Perhaps I’m being lured away to be robbed. But I remind myself the woman lives nearby. I’m in the middle of Shinjuku. If I start to sense danger, at any juncture, I can split and merge with Tokyo’s millions.
“Okay,” I say as I stub out my cigarette on the wall. “Let’s go to your house.” I jump off the wall and start moving towards the street. She takes my arm and steers me towards the entrance to the underground.
“When we get to my house,” she says, “I will make you feel very welcome.”
But I’ve already stopped walking. “I thought your house was around here.”
“It is around here. We’ll just get there faster if we take the subway.”
We walk into the yawning station entrance and take the escalator down. When I put money in the automated ticket machine, the woman darts forward and selects open tickets. This makes no sense. Open tickets take you anywhere in the system. We’re only supposed to be going to the next station. But I let this anomaly pass. On the Chiyoda Line we board the eastbound train. The two of us are crammed together in the crowded car. I’m a foot taller than my companion. I notice the edges of her hat are frayed. We don’t talk till we get to the first stop. I start to turn.
“Not here,” she says. “We’ll be there soon!” At Ochanomizu the train empties. We sit silently on the green velour seats. When the doors slam shut and the train starts to move, I decide to confront her.
“Where are you taking me? You told me you lived in Shinjuku. Now we’re going somewhere else. Why did you lie to me?” She insists we are going to her house. She was prompted to tell a white lie about how far it was, she says, to persuade me to go with her.
In my head, at some indeterminate point in the future, I am telling the story of this encounter to somebody. A friend. A stranger. A shrink. The farther into this adventure I get, the more determined I am to find out where it leads. The future me can’t tell this tale and then have it end with the past me—this me—rushing off the train and not finding out the ending of the story. What kind of a story would that be? Each time the train doors open, I’m tantalized by lines of flight. But at each station, my urge to bolt is counteracted by a stronger urge. I’m like Schrodinger’s cat in its box. Oscillating between paralysis and flight. Split into two possible versions of myself. One staying on the train and finding out how exactly he fits into the narrative the woman is trying to construct. The other fleeing the train and telling the tale of how he never found out how the story ended.
We’re far from Shinjuku by the time I ask the woman her name. Kitsuko. I sense this is not her real name. She doesn’t ask mine. We get to the end of the Chiyoda Line around nine. Kitsuko says we need to take another train. Soon we’re going to the end of another line. We board the blue Japan Rail local and continue east on a double seat facing forward. The passengers are less cosmopolitan than those on the subway. Less hurried. Suburbanites trekking to the outskirts of the megalopolis. Expressionless salarymen commuting on autopilot. Office girls yawning. Some nap, their heads bobbing against windows. I grow angrier as each station passes. This is turning into a major detour. When I tell Kitsuko she has told me nothing but lies, she assures me I will have no regrets. A student sitting in front of us turns his head slightly and listens to us talk, but he doesn’t look back. Kitsuko actually lives in Chiba Prefecture, she confesses. She still considers herself a child of Edo, even though she lives across the prefectural line. A voice in my head keeps telling me to get the hell back to Tokyo, but as the height of buildings outside the train window subsides, the city of superlatives starts to assume the status of a mirage.
By the time we reach our destination, the day has long been swallowed by night, even though this is the solstice. From the last station, we take a cab. Narrow roads become country lanes. Hedges and small branches clobber the cab’s wing mirrors and doors. A disquieting irregular percussion. Kitsuko asks the driver to pull over by a huge house surrounded by high walls. I pay the cabbie, and we walk through a gate in the perimeter wall of the compound. A silver symbol of some kind gleams on a gatepost. The path to the house is choked with reeds. We remove our shoes in the lobby. Kitsuko leads me up an oak staircase to a reception room. Jade coffee table. Leather armchairs and sofa. A mahogany lampstand against the wall. She sits me down and scurries off to fetch tea.
While she’s gone, I look around the room. A black, leatherbound book with gilded pages lies closed by the lamp. On the wall is a calligraphy scroll, the penmanship too abstract to read, the stamp of the artist’s name down in the bottom right corner, compact and cursive, a red maze. I try to decipher the script—something about moonlight and rain. Kitsuko returns with a pot of tea, a mat to place it on, and two tiny cups. She sits beside me and pours with scrupulous ceremony. We take a sip of the tea and put down our cups. A feeling comes over me that we’re not alone.
“Kitsuko, are you sure you are the only person who lives here?”
“Of course—who else would live in my house? Isn’t tea delicious? Don’t you like tea? Would you like to sing a song? Singing can be very enjoyable!”
She leans forward, claps her hands, and starts singing a song about the hot springs of Beppu. Famous for its bubbling mud baths. Its volcanic pools. Also its geothermal hells. I say I’m leaving, stand up, and stride towards the stairs. But Kitsuko runs after me. She grabs my arm, entreating me to stay. One suggestion, in particular, weakens my resolve.
“I have an idea—let’s take a bath! My house has a very beautiful bath!”
A bath seems like a decent compensation for the unexpected inconvenience of this detour. I relent. Kitsuko takes me along a hallway past a number of closed doors. Everything is silent. Most of the house is in darkness and shadow. She unlocks a heavy door and slides open a fusuma window. She points through the window to a stone garden between two wings of the house. I see a rectangular pool big enough to hold six people. Steam coils into the darkness from the cracks in its cover. She leads me down a stairway and into a changing room. Tells me she’ll get me a kimono and will be right back. I undress as her feet scuttle across the patio in their geta.
I look around the cubicle. I see a small sculpture in a pine recess. A brass bowl resting on the backs of twelve tiny oxen. The clatter of footsteps returns and Kitsuko taps at the door. I open it, and she hands me a folded cotton yukata. The kimono is solid white. I’m puzzled by its lack of pattern. I put it on and wait by the pool while she changes. A fine light rain begins to fall. I pan the ground floor and upstairs windows. No lights. No silhouettes. Suddenly I have a startling premonition. Doors flying open. A hullabaloo of men’s voices. Then I’m back. All I can hear are the shrieks of the cicadas. Kitsuko returns in a white kimono. She asks me to help her remove the pool cover. We fold back the sections of the lid. Thousands of tiny blue tiles waver in the moonlight. Now some of Kitsuko’s earlier expressions come back to me. I want to make you happy. I want to make you feel nice. I want to give you what every man needs. Standing at the water’s edge, I finally see the fork-tongued ambiguity of her words. But I’ve come too far to turn back. Kneeling and pulling me to my knees, she bows her head, closes her eyes, raises her arms, and cries for the sparks that fly upwards, the wind that rushes downwards, and the miracle of the liquid grave.