17 • THINGS FALL Apart
“This came for ya while you were in Okinawa,” Master said, handing me a yellow envelope with Japanese writing on it.
I set my chopsticks down together on the rim of my rice bowl remembering the first time Master had scolded me for sticking them upright into the rice, a show of bad manners in Japan, and took the envelope. It was addressed to Master’s house under my name written in English. It was from Goda-sensei. I opened it and gave a sigh of relief upon seeing that it was written entirely in English. I read it out loud while Master and Tresa continued to eat, the three of us sitting around Master’s small kotatsu.
“Dear Mr. Fox. I want to thank you again for bringing the trunk to me all the way from Tottori. This seemingly insignificant act has brought me the redemption for which I have been waiting a long time. I hope that you have been successful in your journey and found at least some of what you have been searching for. I wish we could meet again, but I will soon be leaving this world behind. Upon this development, I have decided to share with you the information that your father left in the temple register. His full name is Charles Patrick Bingham. The address he wrote in the register is 130 East Randolph Street, Chicago Illinois 60601. He also left a phone number, 312-233-6500. I hope this leads you to your father if that is truly where you will find peace. I wish I could do more to help you on your journey, but any direction I give you would only take you away from your path. You are the only one who knows how to find what you’re looking for, even if you don’t know it yet. Follow your instincts and listen to your companion, she is special and she can help you.
Unfortunately, I have some unpleasant news to deliver to you also. My dear friend Okamoto Ryūji, affectionately called Gobō-san, passed away just several days after you visited Kurama. I know that you only met him once, but I’m sure he made a great impression on you. He always affected everyone around him strongly, strangers and loved ones alike. He asked me to remind you of the three questions you should ask yourself every day. Where am I? Where do I want to be? Where am I needed?
If you remember the “bet” I mentioned to you involving the trunk and have had the letters I gave you translated, you should better understand his passing. I think this knowledge will help you with your own journey. Don’t mourn Gobō-san’s death. He has finally found peace. The same peace I hope to find in the coming days. I wish you luck. When you finally find your heart, leave it be. I suspect you already know where it belongs. You’ve probably known all along, but matters of the heart are never so easy to admit to ourselves. I leave you with a quote from a Buddhist scripture. ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world.’ Goodbye Matthew Fox. Sincerely, Gōda Keisuke.”
I looked up at Tresa, who had stopped eating and froze with a desperate look on her face upon hearing me mention Gobō-san’s death. I turned my eyes to Master. He was still eating heartily when he noticed Tresa and I both staring at him. He obviously hadn’t caught the mention of Gobō-san’s name amid all the English. I exchanged a sympathetic look with Tresa.
“Master, I have something important to tell you…”
He raised one eyebrow and set his chopsticks down on the table, “yeah?”
I sighed and continued, “this letter is from Gōda-sensei, the monk I went to meet at Kurama. In the letter, he says that a few days after I left the temple, Gobō-san…he…passed away.”
Master’s eyes grew heavy and he dropped his head, but maintained a little smirk that he tried to hide by crushing his lips into a round mess of wrinkles.
“Master, I’m so sorry. I know he was a good friend. If there’s anything we can do…”
He shook his head and stood up without a word. He walked over to a tall cabinet and pulled out a large dark bottle and four tiny ceramic cups. He sat back down and poured a colorless alcohol into the four cups, taking one for himself and spreading the other three out on the table between us. He held his cup high in the air and waited for us to pick up ours. We each raised the one closest to us and eyed the extra cup on the table.
“To Gobō-san. I guess he finally found what he was looking for,” Master tossed back the tiny cup of alcohol and began to pour the next round.
Tresa and I followed his lead and downed our cups with a single gulp. It was Nihonshu, a smooth Japanese alcohol made from rice. This particular variety tasted expensive. It was light and easy to drink with a woody undertone and a rich fruity aftertastes. Master refilled our cups and raised his again.
“And…he still owes me money,” Master forced a laugh out, which was accompanied by a scratchy hissing sound in his throat. “Ya know why everyone calls him Gobō-san? ‘Cus he looks like one, all scrawny and rough-skinned and tan!” He burst out with another bout of unnatural laughter.
Tresa leaned over and quietly asked me what he was saying. I replied with a short summary, “Gobō-san still owes him money and he’s called Gobō-san, because he looks like a Gobō.”
“What’s a Gobō?”
“A burdock root.”
“A skinny brown root vegetable.”
Master continued spouting off facts and fond memories of his dear friend. He swallowed the second round and then the third and fourth. Things went on that way for a while until Master seemed to run out of things to say and started pouring and drinking incessantly. I didn’t know what to do to stop him. I was terrified that he would fall apart like he did at his daughter’s funeral. There was no way I could watch him go through that again. He buried himself in a pile of his daughter’s things, clothes, books, stuffed animals, journals, jewelry, pictures, and souvenirs. He stayed in his room refusing to leave and lashed out at anyone who tried to help him. It was the only time I had ever seen the bar closed. Seeing it dark and deserted with a “closed” sign on the door had sent shivers through my body. It was the beating heart that had tied my whole world together and it was as if it had simply shriveled up and died.
As my mind was playing out worst-case scenario, Tresa decided to take action. She sat down next to Master and placed her hand on his as he reached for the bottle one more time. He stopped and set the bottle back down trying to catch his breath after the nonstop guzzling. She took him through the sliding door and into to his bedroom out of sight.
I looked at the letter on the table in front of me and then at the fourth cup of Nihonshu across from me. The extra cup was for Gobō-san and there it would sit waiting for him. I picked up the letter again and reread it. Gōda-sensei said that he would soon be leaving this world behind. How could he know that? Was he crying out? The tone of his writing didn’t sound desperate or self-destructive. I wondered what kind of redemption I could’ve possibly given him by delivering a trunk filled with memories and keepsakes. I couldn’t decide if I should go to him. Did he even want me to come? I wasn’t sure how to mourn someone who was still alive, but had predicted his own death. If I had given him redemption, then he had given me hope.
I looked over my father’s information written in Gōda-sensei’s elegant handwriting. He told me that my heart must be the last piece I recover, but I was exhausted and out of money. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to find my father. I didn’t know how I would manage the trip home. We hadn’t bought round-trip tickets, because we didn’t know how long we would be in Japan. I told Tresa not to worry about me, but the truth was I had spent the last bit of my savings on the flight to Okinawa. I was completely broke and I couldn’t ask her for help. She had already done too much. I had to figure out a way to get some money fast.
I poked my head into Master’s room to see what the two of them were doing. The TV was on, but Master was sleeping on a futon with his head propped up in Tresa’s lap. Tresa was looking through an old photo album. She was staring at a picture of me holding Master’s daughter in my arms, her head resting on my shoulder and a smile on her lips.
I whispered to her, trying not to wake Master, “hey. Why don’t we let him get some sleep.”
She carefully squirmed her way out from under the weight of Master’s head and replaced her legs with a pillow. She shoved the photo album under her arm as she turned off the TV and slid the door shut behind her.
She quietly sat down on the tatami mats and looked through the photo album as I laid out a couple of futons for the two us. I periodically looked over at her as she thumbed through the pages with a warm smile on her face. Master’s daughter had that effect on people. She was a wonderful and totally confounding little girl. I despised children before I met Master and his daughter, young children especially. Despite the obvious hypocrisy of disliking people when they’re stuck in an unavoidable phase of development, the truth was I simply didn’t like people who ignored social conventions. The same went for adults, people who were unreasonably loud or rude, people with no sense of personal space, and, my favorite, people who acted like you don’t exist. I was never able to adequately explain my dislike of children and I even had trouble composing my own thoughts on the matter, but my instinctual reaction had always been to retract and avoid.
Master’s daughter had some kind of power over me and I fell in love with her almost immediately. She undoubtedly fulfilled all of the criteria necessary to evoke disgust from me, but for whatever reason she didn’t. She was cute enough to weasel her way out of trouble and smart enough to say the right thing at the right time. Master hated her for it, because he always lost their arguments. She was interested in everything and she wanted to be an adventuring archaeologist like Indiana Jones. She’d spend hours digging up the courtyard behind the bar looking for ancient civilizations. Whenever I would go on a trip, she asked me to dig something up for her to add to her collection. I brought her all kinds of things, buttons, old lighters, playing cards, bits of string, coins; it was amazing what you could find in just a handful of dirt. When I gave her the little “treasures,” she’d make me sit down with her and point out on big maps exactly where I’d found them. I missed her. She was the reason my opinion on wanting children of my own had changed from “no way in hell” to “undecided.”
“How did she die?” Tresa asked in a weak voice, setting the photo album down on the floor in front of her.
“A car accident.” I sat down in front of her with the photo album between us and looked down at some pictures of a trip we took together to a beach in Tottori. “Misa was 11 years old. Master was taking care of her full time, because her mom couldn’t keep herself out of jail and rehab. I only met her once, but she was a complete mess. Master kept her clean during the pregnancy. After Misa was born, Master and her split up, for a lot of reasons. She stayed sober for a while and she’d come to visit Misa and occasionally take her away for a weekend. Then, she started drinking again and only showed up to ask for money. Master told her not to come back or try to see Misa again. She pretty much disappeared after that. Misa was heartbroken and she blamed Master. She was young and didn’t understand. That’s when I met Master. A few years after that, Misa’s mom suddenly showed up again, claiming she’d gotten sober on her own. She wanted to see Misa. Master was understandably skeptical, but he let her see Misa. They talked for a long time and Misa told Master that she wanted to go out with her mom for the day. Master refused, but Misa used her charms and eventually won him over. So, he reluctantly let her go. She didn’t come back that night. Master panicked and asked me to look after the bar for him. He couldn’t get through to Misa’s cell phone or her mom’s. So he called the police and reported her missing, but the Japanese police are just as useless as American cops and they didn’t really do much. He spent the entire night driving around looking for the car they had left in and visiting all of their old haunts, but he didn't find them. The next day, the cops called back and told Master that Misa had died in a car crash two prefectures away in Hiroshima. Her mom was driving drunk and plowed through a guardrail into a flooded rice field. The water wasn’t that deep, but…the car landed on the passenger side and Misa…Misa…” I took a deep breath and swallowed a mouthfull of saliva. “…she drowned before she could get free. Her mother was arrested and Master…he…”
I didn’t know what else to say. Retelling the story had left me feeling as emotionally stunned as the day Master got that call from the cops. Tresa reached across and took my hand. I wanted to feel something, anything. Her touch was cold in my hands. I wanted more. I brought her hand to my mouth, kissed it, and held it against my cheek. She leaned forward and kissed my lips hesitantly, testing the waters. I still felt nothing. When she started to pull away from me, I desperately grabbed her and pulled her into another kiss, one far less hesitant. Still, there was nothing. We kissed over and over, locked in a tight embrace. I experienced firsthand the efficiency of movement that I had witnessed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her lips moved over mine in perfect synchronization, adapting and reacting. She slowly pushed her way over me as I lay back on the futon. Her movements were aggressive and powerfully feminine. I was unbelievably attracted to her. I wanted her, but I remained emotionally vacant. I convinced myself it would come. Just wait, the feeling will come. I was just waiting for the connection to be made between us like making a phone call on some cosmic switchboard. Please hold while I connect you sir. CLICK…
She pulled off her sweater and the tank top underneath, revealing a shimmering purple bra. She stripped the T-shirt and long sleeve thermal from my body and quickly started on my belt as if her performance was being timed. I joined the frenzy and unbuttoned her pants. She propped herself up, straightening her legs and bending at the waist to make it easier for me to peel off her tight jeans. A small roll of her skin hung over the string waistband of her skimpy black underwear as she held the uncomfortable-looking pose. Her body was beautiful. She was real and her body showed evidence of real life. Her skin was smooth and evenly colored over the contours of her figure, proudly displaying scars and stretch marks and blemishes in sharp contrast. She tugged off my cargo pants and smirked at the sight of my orange socks. Our kissing became less graceful as we continued to strip each other of the last remaining layers of undergarments. My own scars and imperfections were on display and her hands seemed to find each one in the frenzied discovering of each other's bodies.
Our mouths parted as she reached down and took hold of my erect penis. She thoroughly made out the shape of it with her hand, like carefully reading Braille. Her eyes were fixed on mine and the intensity of her stare was like a paralyzing drug. I was transfixed, suddenly aware of what this would mean. Had she been waiting for this? Had I? She continued to stare deeply into my eyes as she positioned herself over me, brushing the tip of my penis against her coarse pubic hair. The sensation gave me a physical thrill, causing the small muscles underneath my testicles to twitch in anticipation. She didn’t want to rush through the moment; the importance of it felt like a heavy weight on my chest. Did I love her? Did I need her? Could I give her what she was about to give me?
Before I had time to answer my own questions, she pressed the tip of my penis into her. The weight on my chest grew heavier as I entered her slowly and easily. Her eyes closed momentarily in the intensity of our physical connection. The second she broke off her stare, I was released from my paralysis and an unexpected euphoria washed over me. My skin became covered in goosebumps.
As our bodies became one, an overwhelming heat emanated from between our skin. The heat didn’t warm me; it made me more aware of the coldness inside. I wanted her, but there was a need in me for something else, something more. I understood that she was special and that I cared very deeply for her. She was important, but this wasn’t what I wanted for us. It felt all wrong. The experience turned from the ethereal to the visceral and the beauty and perfection went out of it. It was uncomfortably hot, despite the frigid air in the room. The taste of her kisses turned to ash in my mouth. The feeling of her sweat mixing with mine on my skin made my body go rigid. Misa’s name was in my mind and on my lips; I swore I could feel her watching us from the corner of the room, her 11-year old mind unable to make sense of what she was seeing. Tresa’s movements intensified and as I opened my mouth to protest, nothing came out.
A series of unrelated memories flashed through my head with increasing intensity: sharing snacks with Chiaki on the sea wall in Okinawa, Master screaming and trying to pull his daughter’s body from the coffin to gather her up in his arms, unknowingly attacking Tresa in the catacombs under Kurama-dera, my mother dressing me in my Sunday clothes to appease my bible-thumping stepfather, the four American soldiers raping Kuriyama-san in the alley in Kadena. I tried to stop the images by crushing my eyes closed and focusing on the feeling of Tresa’s body against mine, but it didn’t work. The memories overtook me, flashing by so quickly that I could hardly make one out before the next began. My mind finally settled on the image of Kaori walking toward me in the park surrounding Himeji Castle.
She moved as if in slow motion while everything around her seemed to unfold at a normal pace. The park was crowded with people taking pictures and families having picnics. It was cherry blossom season in Himeji and the castle park was in full bloom. Happy couples meandered among the sakura trees holding hands and laughing. Japanese salarymen sat on park benches and stone steps, eating their bento lunches and smoking cigarettes. Children ran through the park chasing each other and screaming while mothers tried to corral them back to the picnic blankets. The wind carried swirling bunches of pink and white petals across the scene. The castle towered above it all like a vigilant protector. The sweeping eaves of the tiled roofs looked like the ornate armor of a samurai. The bright white walls between levels appeared stark against the backdrop of the cloudless blue sky.
Life exploded around us at full speed. Meanwhile, Kaori’s movements slowed down as if she was walking a death march. The look on her face was one I had never seen before. I didn’t know how to identify other than saying she looked “unsettled.” I asked her what was wrong. We were planning to meet in the park and have a picnic together under the cherry blossoms. I brought beer and a blanket and she agreed to bring the food, but I could see she wasn’t carrying anything aside from her usual Michael Kors studded leather handbag. The look on her face sank into me like a poison-filled needle and my heart raced at the thought of what she might tell me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, my Japanese sounded weak and unconfident like a beginner’s.
She spoke as soon as I finished my question, nearly cutting me off, as if she couldn’t hold the words in her mouth any longer, “I’m pregnant.”
It was the last thing I expected her to say. I had been worried that she wasn’t happy in the relationship and wanted to end it. I felt a strange sense of relief coupled with conflicting feelings about having children. Did she even want children? We had never talked about it. We both seemed to dance around the topic, even when our friends would comment about how cute our “ha-fu” baby would be. I had always hated how the Japanese used that particular meaning of the English word “half” to talk about a baby of interracial parents. It made the baby seem less human and more like some kind of novelty ice cream flavor.
In spite of my own childhood, I had never really given much thought to the idea of having children. People from broken families usually took one of two extreme positions on having kids of their own: “I will absolutely have children and become the best parent in order to give them what I never had when I was a child” or “I will absolutely never have children, because I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes that my parents made when I was a child.” I, on the other hand, had simply expelled the decision from my mind or at least suspended it until such time that it might become relevant.
The relief of not getting dumped combined with the surprise of her news and the complete lack of opinion on the matter produced a terrible response, “Oh…okay.”
She glazed over my thoughtlessness and asked, “what do you think?”
I looked around at the families huddled together on picnic blankets and tried to imagine it. The parents all seemed to know what they were doing, when to go easy and when to get angry, how to talk to their kids and what to say, where to draw boundaries, what advice to give and what to let children discover on their own. I didn’t know any of that.
“I don’t know anything about being a father.”
“That’s okay. I don’t know anything about being a mother.”
“But you had a mother.”
Her lips tighten and turned up at the ends in a sympathetic smile. “You’ll learn to be a father.”
I just wanted to be with her. Maybe I was just being naïve, but children seemed like merely an accessory for a relationship. I could imagine my life either way, but I couldn’t imagine it without her. “Okay, I’ll learn,” I said with a hesitant smile.
The scene started to fade as another began to materialize in the frame of my memory. I was standing alone in a kitchen. There was an open window over the dish-filled sink. The faucet was running over a mug that I was holding in one hand, a soapy sponge in the other. I set them down in the sink and stared out the window at nothing in particular. The toaster clicked and snapped me out of the trance. Two black pieces of toast sat smoldering in the slots. I turned off the water and dried my hands. I went over to the toaster, unplugged it, and turned it upside down over the trashcan, dumping the two ruined pieces of bread along with a landslide of charcoal-colored crumbs. I set the toaster down on the counter in front of me and looked at the coils inside, still glowing orange. A sudden feeling came over me and made my heart flutter and my fingers tingle. It seized me and made me feel enraged, terrified, and ashamed. I took up the toaster in my hands and heaved it toward the refrigerator with a nasal growl that resonated through gnashing teeth. It collided with the refrigerator door exactly where an ultrasound picture hung by an orange magnet. Pieces of the toaster flew off in every direction as it fell to the floor with a loud crash. I went over to the refrigerator and took the bent picture from the door. I sighed and shoved the picture into my pocket as I walked out of the kitchen. I stopped at the front door and took one last look at the small apartment. Then, I opened the door and walked out.
Suddenly, I was back in the moment. My body spasmed in the transition as the smells, sounds, and textures of physical intimacy reemerged. Tresa didn’t notice the spasm amid the flurry of movement. I could feel the emptiness inside me deepening and making my whole body feel hollow. Her eyes met with mine as I opened them and her body slowed to a stop.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked, taken aback by something she saw in my eyes or read on my face.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I want to, but…”
Her eyes filled with tears as she looked down at me with a mixed expression. She must’ve felt angry, rejected, embarrassed, disappointed, and hurt all at the same time. I felt nothing but a vague nagging inside.
“I knew it. I knew this would happen. After everything, I thought you…” she paused as she moved over to the adjacent futon and pulled a blanket around her naked body. “…you know…you act like this is all about your father, but it’s not. This is all about her. And if you can’t admit that to yourself now, then you just…then you really are lost.”
「She has a point…」
「I’m just saying…do you really think your father, a man you’ve never even met, somehow took your heart with him when he left your mother, still pregnant with you? What was he to you? Little more than a sperm donor. He’s not even a memory. And yet, you place this impossible importance on him, as if discovering him will answer all of your questions and fill up all the holes inside you. Do you think you’re the only one in the world who grew up without a father? Face it, you lost it all…all on your own. And you already know who…」
“I don’t know!” I shouted out loud.
She sat up straight and opened her mouth, ready to explode again, but stopped herself. A look of defeat crept on to her face and she hunched down again, “I know you don’t. And I know it’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself, but I just…I can’t do this. I want more from you and you have nothing left to give. I know I told you I would help you find your heart, but I don’t think I can give any more to this. You suck it all up like a black hole and give nothing back. And not just from me, from Master, from Gobō-san, from Gōda-sensei, from Chiaki, from Kuriyama-san, from Joe, from everyone around you. We’ve been here for over a month now and you haven’t once asked me anything about myself, where I’m from, what my family’s like, what I love, what I hate, my fears, my passions, my past, my future. You know nothing about me.”
“You’re right. You’re right. I’m sorry. Please…I want to know. I do.”
“It’s too late. It won’t change anything now. I have to go…” her breathing was interrupted by a series of rapid huffs as she dropped her head into her hands to hide the tears.
I felt like the young Mrityunjay in the story that Gōda-sensei had told me, sucking up all of the good intentions of the people around me and taking from them the light that brightened their worlds. My selfishness was incredible. What had I been doing this whole time? I had been digging into my past and somewhere along the way, I buried my only companion in the wreckage of my former life and abandoned her. She was the one who inspired me to break out of the prison I had made for myself in Chicago and try to find the things that I had lost, the things that were supposed to make life worth living. And yet, I had tossed her aside like something disposable. The worst part was that I hadn’t even given it a moment’s consideration until now, until it was too late. The vague nagging inside intensified and a heavy feeling welled up and grew from a point below my stomach. I couldn’t identify the feeling, but I knew it wasn’t anything foreign or dangerous. It was something familiar, but forgotten. It made my whole body feel heavy as it expanded to my appendages. It wasn’t the heaviness from extreme weight or pressure; it was a slowness like being suspended in a thick liquid. I felt attuned to the consequences of my past actions as they converged all around me. The slowness around me became suffocating and recognition came like the sting of an old injury resurfacing. It was guilt. I felt guilt. I hadn’t felt guilty in so long that I had almost completely forgotten the sensation of it.
「That’s what this is all about. She’ll forgive you.」
She won’t. She shouldn’t.
“Don’t go. I want you to stay. I mean…I need you to. I want to know everything. I can’t believe how selfish I’ve been. Actually…I can believe it. I just don’t want to. I feel really terrible about how I’ve treated you. Please believe me. I need you to know that there’s still something in me worth saving. I didn’t think there was until I met you, but it’s in here somewhere, hanging on by a thread.”
“I know it’s there, but it’s just not enough. I have to go…for both our sakes. My being here isn’t helping you. It’s only complicating things.”
“Can you forgive me?”
“You need to forgive yourself…for a lot of things. I’m sorry. My mind is made up. I’m leaving…tonight.”
I nodded with downturned eyes and a shallow sigh. “Even so, I still want to know you. Do you think that maybe…when this is all over and I’m…different…”
“Stop,” she interrupted. “I don’t wanna do this. I don’t wanna make promises we can’t keep.”
With my eyes focused on a knot between two wooden floor panels, I nodded again and started gathering my clothes from the futons around me.
She continued as I was dressing, “look…this isn’t all on you. I have a history of picking fixer-uppers, thinking that I can change them or inspire them to change on their own. The thing is…this time was different. It was different with you. I mean, I know I’m the one that invited you to come with me to Japan and start this whole search, but the more I think about it now, the less and less it feels like a choice I made. From the moment we met at the Art Institute, I felt like you truly needed me. Even now, when I’m with you, I feel like I possess something that I’m meant to give you and that necessity makes me feel like I have a real purpose. It feels amazing to be needed. And, it may seem like a strange reason to love someone, but…I do. I do love you. And I know that you don’t…”
“I love you too,” I interjected. “But…I don’t have anything I can give you. And that’s why I couldn’t…”
“I know. And it means a lot to me to hear you say that, but it doesn’t change anything,” she finished with a sour-looking smirk and started pulling on her clothes one pieces at a time.
I turned my back to her and we both got dressed in perfect silence. The room was darker and colder than it had seemed before. Our breath emerged as heavy white clouds and hung momentarily in the air before dissipating as if we were expelling all of the things we wanted to say to each other in voiceless little puffs of smoke, watching them evaporate before our eyes. She gathered the few things she had laid out on the futon and packed them away in her bag. She finished by wrapping a scarf around her neck and pulling on her coat. With her bag in hand, she looked over at me with heavy eyes and bit her bottom lip like she didn’t want to say goodbye.
I wanted to save her from having to begin what would likely be our last verbal exchange, but we started to speak at the same time and cut each other off. We both looked down and started snickering. I felt like we were back at the Art Institute in the midst of our first awkward and bewildering meeting.
“The night I first met Kaori, we didn’t share a quiet night at my apartment. I took her friend home and slept with her,” I blurted out almost unconsciously. My surprise echoed in a similar expression on her face.
「What’s the point in telling her now? It’s already too late to make any difference. Does she really need another reason to hate you?」
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this now.”
“Maybe you do have something you can give me.”
“The truth. And you can give it to me on the way to the station,” she explained, not as much a request as it was a briefing on well laid plans. She put on her hat and waited at the top of the stairs.
I threw on my coat and hat and we descended the treacherous staircase together for the last time. We put on our shoes and stepped out through the rickety sliding door into a blast of cold wind. I took the bag from her shoulder and threw it over mine as we walked away from the glowing lights of the bar.
“There was nothing romantic or singular about our relationship,” I started. “It wasn’t love at first sight. It wasn’t a series of dramatic realizations. I made mistake after mistake after mistake. She forgave, but she didn’t forget and she didn’t let me forget. We fought a lot and we were hard on each other. Her family didn’t approve of our relationship and her father pretty much disowned her. And still, she stayed with me.”
There was no one else out in the streets as we neared the station. The shops were closed and cooking smells emanated from kitchen windows. We could see tiny snowflakes fluttering in the headlight beams of oncoming cars. The night was darker and colder than the previous one. I zipped my coat all the way up to my chin. She reached over and took my hand as we continued on in the face of the winter wind.
“You’re right. It doesn’t sound romantic,” she said with her eyes focused ahead. “But it does sound like love.”
I had been so convinced of the idea that I didn’t really love Kaori for so long that I didn’t know if it was true or something I had forced myself to believe. The idea had shielded me from guilt, but somewhere in the course of our travels the feeling that I really did love her slipped through my defenses and slithered its way back into my emotional repertoire.
“It was,” I said cautiously, waiting for some sign from within that I was lying to myself. When nothing came, I continued, “I loved her more than anything and it terrified me. And then, I left her all alone.”
I could feel the guilt creeping back in with its newfound boldness. It grew from a slightly lower place than before and merged with the remnants of the previous, renewing an all but forgotten wound. My jaw quivered slightly as a cold shock fluttered through my chest and neck. I wasn’t sure if it was the chill of the wind or a chill from inside. My eyes moistened. I assured myself it was the dry air.
“I still love her.”
She squeezed my hand tightly. Neither of us said another word and as we entered the station, she took the bag from my shoulder and dropped it on the concrete floor in front of the ticket machine. I bought her a ticket for Himeji and shoved it in her pocket. We waited together on a platform bench as the wind started to die down. I didn’t want to say goodbye. Despite my earlier admission, I loved Tresa too. It was a different love, one that would have undoubtedly been ruined if we had seen its physical expression through to the end. Tresa and I didn’t share the same love; she wanted more from me than I could give her. That was why she had to leave now. I didn’t want her to go, but it wouldn’t have been fair to her if I somehow convinced her to stay.
A light flickered in the corner of my eye. We both leaned out to see the headlight of the train approaching in the distance. The snow was falling steadily now. This was it. She was leaving. She stood up and slung the bag over her shoulder. I had so much I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her that I did love her and that I would always remember her. I wanted to thank her for showing me what I was missing and for helping me with an impossible search. She had inspired me to try to live instead of simply exist. She had brought me to realizations about myself and my former life. She had done all of these things for no other reason than she was needed. Why was that so important to her? It was too late to ask her now. The train pulled in to the station with a loud screeching sound and stopped a few meters in front of where we stood.
“Thank you…for everything…” I said in a loud voice, trying to speak over the idling engine noise of the train. It wasn’t enough.
She smiled in response. The train doors slid open and a couple of passengers scurried out, clutching their coat collars to brace against the sting of the cold. She leaned in and pulled my head down to a convenient height, kissing my forehead gently. We embraced tightly for the last time. When we parted, she placed an open hand on my chest and pressed slightly with a smile on her lips.
“Don’t forget. You need this,” she said, pulling her hand away and turning to get on the train.
“What do you need?”
She ignored the question and turned to board the train. We walked together to the closest door. I stopped just outside on the edge of the platform as she stepped inside and dropped her bag on the seat. The train was empty. Her smile became less natural and a heaviness settled in around her eyes. Her jaw became rigid and she bit her bottom lip, trying to maintain some semblance of a pleasant farewell. I didn’t smile, I couldn’t. The doors clicked and a buzzer sounded, signaling that the doors were closing. As the metal panels began to slide shut, I slammed my foot down in the path and blocked them. The doors stuttered and retracted with a sound from the buzzer. I stepped in to the threshold and planted my feet at the points where the doors emerged from the walls. A shocked look crossed her face.
“Why do you need to be needed?” The question burst from my mouth.
“You said that you felt needed with me, truly needed. What does it mean to you?”
“Why are you asking me this now? Don’t you think it’s a little late for…”
She was interrupted by the train conductor shouting something in Japanese as he walked up behind Tresa.
“Forget him,” I shouted with a dismissing gesture aimed at the conductor. “Please…just tell me.”
The conductor interrupted again, this time in a louder voice, and stepped between us. I shoved him away and shouted in Japanese, “Shut up!” He turned around and ran back to the conductor’s booth, locking the door behind him and picking up the radio receiver. The door buzzer was sounding continuously now.
I shouted over the noise, “Tell me please.”
“Why is it important?”
“I need to know. Please.”
“When someone needs you, truly…genuinely…head over heels...life-or-death needs you, you can give yourself completely to them. It gives you purpose. It makes you whole. It creates a bond that’s deeper than love, deeper than blood. Nothing is more important,” she stopped to catch her breath, panting like a marathon runner. “I wanted you to need me that way, but…it’s not me you need.” Tears were streaming down her face.
I thought of the couple at the diner in Hopper’s Nighthawks. As I tried to find the right words, two Japanese policemen ran onto the platform behind me and charged toward the train. They grabbed me from behind, yelling for me to get off the train. I reached inside and gripped an arm rail as tightly as I could. Tresa was horrified. She backed up to the opposite wall and shouted repeatedly at the police to stop.
I reached out one hand toward Tresa and held on as hard as I could with the other shouting, “more than love! More than blood…”
She reached out and took my hand just as the train conductor jumped in to assist the police. I couldn’t hold out against the three of them with only one hand. They tore my grip away from the rail and all four of us stumbled back and fell into a pile on the platform, the police maintained their hold on me. The doors slammed shut and the buzzer finally went silent. Tresa hit the inside of the doors with her fists and tried to force them open again. I shook my head at her and gave a faintly reassuring smile. She pressed a hand against the window and watched the police pull me to my feet and cuff me. The train conductor explained the incident to the cops and they exchanged a look and asked about Tresa, gesturing toward her. The train conductor shook his head and said that she hadn’t done anything wrong. One of the cops asked if she was with me and I simply shook my head.
The conductor and one of the cops went inside to talk to Tresa. The language barrier produced a lot of gesturing and a lot of pointing at me. Tresa looked at me through the window, asking a question with her big eyes. I mouthed the words “I need you,” smiled and gestured down the tracks with a quick jerk of the head. She tried to smile through her worried expression, her breath clouded the bottom half of the window. She waved off the rest of the cop’s questions and pressed her hand against the window again. The cop stepped off and the train started to pull away from the station. My smile faded as I took in the image of her beautiful face for the last time. She looked so different from the memory of our first meeting at the Art Institute. She was changed. And, so was I. Few encounters, if any, ever really changed a person’s life. Ours had changed everything. We were different people now than when we met. The train disappeared into the haze of snowfall in the distance until all I could see was the pinprick of the taillight. I was going to miss her.
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