Anxieties nagged at the edges of awareness as I boarded the plane to a rendezvous with a woman I had never met, whose real name I didn’t know, about whom I knew almost nothing. Someone as tangible as the quantum world of a computer screen. Would she be there to meet me? I clutched at the only certainty, a gift for her, a small box in the right pocket of my jacket containing a pair of diamond ear studs.
At Narita airport I recognise the woman from a photo she sent. Her hair is different, shorter, and her face is freckled, but her eyes are expressive and intelligent. Late thirties, I guess. Her clothes are functional and plain: white T shirt, light denim jacket, pale cotton slacks and worn but clean sneakers. I suppress a moment of panic that if she turns her face away she will vanish.
“Hello, my name is Michiko Takada.”
Her smiling eyes reveal an honest pleasure in meeting me.
We walk towards the hotel from Kyoto station and cross Shiokōji-dōri. A nostalgic melody plays when it is safe to cross. It occurs to me that whatever happens next, when I am old I will remember the truth or lie of this assurance from a traffic robot.
The hotel room is small and cosy with two beds, opposite a fire station. The fire engine is parked outside, silent, polished, ready and red. There are no chairs in the room so we sit on the beds embarrassed and at a loss for words.
“I have something for you.”
The box containing the diamond studs looks tiny in my hand. She takes off a pair of earrings with pale green stones and replaces them with the diamonds. The diamonds catch the lights of the room as bright stars and compete with her eyes for attention.
“How they look?” she asks, without moving her gaze from me.
“Just beautiful,” I reply.
“I have gift for you too.”
From her backpack she retrieves a small parcel. The parcel contains a pair of conjoined maneki-neko: finely crafted ceramic cats with bells attached by ribbon around their necks, holding up their right paws in greeting.
“How you look without beard?”
I’ve worn a beard for so long it has turned grey without me noticing.
“I’ll show you.”
A blunt hotel razor with an unknown history and bath soap are the only shaving kit available. Inexperience leads to an absorbing and painful struggle with the bristles. I reach the limits of the blade. Further scraping results in blood. I rinse the remaining soap from my face and dry with a towel as Michiko stands behind and watches over my shoulder. I smile at Michiko and the stranger in the mirror, and Michiko and the stranger smile back. I touch my face and the stranger touches his face. The conflict of sensation is something like recovering from anaesthesia after a tooth filling when the lips sense nothing. My eyes, facial skin and fingers are having an argument over which is telling the truth.
Turning around, the stranger vanishes, leaving me astonished to find Michiko naked. Her skin has a paleness that I have never seen before and I reach to touch her belly to confirm its substance. I draw her to me and kiss her. Her mouth is soft and alive. Trusting touch, we slow waltz to the nearest bed.
We lie together on the bed. Her head is on my shoulder, our juices melt from her onto my thigh. Grey roots show in the parting of her hair.
“Where shall we go after Kyoto?” I ask.
“All directions same, we are on island.”
I reach with my free arm and retrieve the travel guide. I select the direction north for no other reason than maps have a north point. The Tōhoku shinkansen goes as far north as Hachinohe. The seascapes are apparently the most notable feature around Hachinohe. A place of interest nearby is Kabushima shrine, dedicated to Black-tailed Gulls and located on a small island. The gulls, known as Umineko or sea cats on account of their cat-like call, congregate on the island to mate, nest and raise their young. I read these facts aloud to Michiko.
“What happen after Kabushima shrine?” asks Michiko.
I think about the gulls and remember something from my childhood… something raw and exhilarating...
The breeze, salty and crisp, coming over the cab of the speeding utility car. All of us kids with fishing bags and surf rods and sandy feet, shouting in the wind and eager to get to the fishing place. The pale emerald hue of the water and the fizzing white foam of the waves racing at the side only to expire at the last moment before touching the tyres. Pairs of big silver and white Pacific Gulls taking flight before the car and wheeling out over the waves and back, receding behind to alight on the beach awk awking and posturing to restore the dignity disrupted by our exuberant passing. I stood up in the back of the utility and leaning into the slipstream stretched out my arms to imitate the soaring gulls, exulting in the sensation of movement.
“What happen after Kabushima shrine?” asks Michiko again.
Beyond a certain point there is no turning back.
“Shall we find out?”
“We find out!”
published 21 May 2014