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One Hundred and One Waysby Mako Yoshikawa
Sometimes I can smell him, rain and salt and cigarettes and something else, curiously, like cucumber, when I step out of the shower. Out of a sense of delicacy, perhaps, he has never appeared to me in the bathroom, but whenever I smell him I dress myself slowly, making sure to hold in my stomach. I wring my hair and whip it back from my face, I clean the mirror of steam and stretch and strike a few casual poses in front of it. I lather lotion onto my body, first my legs, one foot up on the sink at a time, then my stomach, smoothing in the cream in small circles, and then my arms and last of all my breasts. I dress at a leisurely pace, pulling my underpants up and sliding into them with a swivel of the hips, snapping on a bra with all the strut and reluctance of a striptease. I may have spent most of my life in New Jersey, but the blood of a geisha courses through me yet.
When I first saw Phillip he was only a flicker in the corner of my eyes, gone even before I turned. Only gradually did he become bolder, moving out of the dusty corners to reveal his full form in quick flashes. Now he will stay in one place for hours. If I am reading I can look up at odd moments and he will be there, watching me. Often he will remain with me until I finish the book.
He is fond of small spaces. Lazy as ever and cured, apparently, of his wanderlust, he likes crouching in a fetal position under my desk, and he enjoys folding his long body into an improbably tiny package so he can fit into the fireplace, along with the violet moths. Less frequently he peeks out from behind the door or he stands picturesquely shrouded by the curtains; every once in a while he lies on his side with his head propped up by an elbow. One day as I was reading, I reached for my iced tea and saw him through the clear glass of the coffee table, his face pressed right up against it and his eyes peering out at me as if I were a goldfish in an upside-down bowl. He is always naked, he hardly ever moves, and his expression never changes. Even his eyes are still.
Although I cannot control the time or the frequency of his visits, I still like him like this, silent and anonymous as my left hand. Behind the cover of my book I rub my thumb against the tips of the other fingers, feeling the shell-like hardness. I spread my hand open and look at it, palm up. In public I keep my secret clenched inside and when I lie in Eric's arms at night, I am careful to hold my fist against my breasts so that I fall asleep hugging it to myself. But when I think of Phillip, I like to feel my hand and gloat over the smoothness where the fingerprints used to be.
Maybe the lesson is that in the end, you can't buck genes. In my family, being haunted by a lost love is not even news. I come from a line of women with a tenacious grip on the man in their lives.
"Kiki, are you listening to me? Kiki."
I look down at my novel, in which I have long ago lost my place, and then back up at Eric. "I'm sorry," I tell him. "I didn't hear you. What did you say?"
His eyes grow round for a second, and I can tell he is holding his breath in as he does during sex: an unhealthy habit, which I need to tell him about at some point. Then he lets his breath out in an explosive laugh. "I don't know if I can say it again," he begins. "It was kind of a spontaneous thing."
He kneels beside me--why, with his trick knee?--so that his head is for once at a lower level than my own. His face is unexpectedly close to mine, and as he shakes his head, still laughing a little, his hair lightly brushes my shoulder.
Eric has brown silky hair and fine dark eyes, and his face, like his penis, is long and lean and intelligent. His knees are white and skinny, a disappointment, but he is handsome and elegant, and his arms and shoulders are well developed. If he stood next to Phillip, he would even seem husky.
His fingers are small and they are not much to look at when they are motionless, but when they move they twitch with an odd grace of their own. When I read, I use my fingers only to turn the page or occasionally push back my hair. When Eric reads, he takes copious notes in the margin, even on a newspaper, underlining and scribbling until his fingers are cramped, and his words outnumber those on the page. He can simultaneously crack two eggs, one in each hand, without getting his fingers messy and without spilling bits of shell into the bowl, and even in his sleep he remains active, wrapping my hair around and around his fingers until I cannot go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, because we are literally chained together.
"What if--" I begin, but I am interrupted by a tapping at the window. I turn around half expecting to see Phillip, yet it is only a fly banging against the glass. "Just a second," I say. I walk to the back of the room and open the window to let it out. The fly leaves and the heat and the smell of the city come pouring in, and I feel sticky where the outer air has touched me.
"You should cover yourself before standing in front of the window," says Eric, still on his knees beside the couch, all but clucking his tongue.
"They're all naked out there, too," I tell him reassuringly, a fact that can be veriWed by a glance into the windows across the street, but that does not necessarily alleviate the problem of prying eyes. Still, my rejoinder has the desired effect, for he nods, his lecture forestalled or, with any luck, forgotten completely.
Even with the air conditioner on, the heat is such that we made the decision to shuck our clothing for the day. I wear underwear only, without a bra, and he wears boxers, and for some reason (a trace of shyness, a hangover from his prim childhood?) socks. The heat is still uncomfortable, though, so much so that I cannot bear the pressure of my wristwatch, with its dainty weight of gold, and I remove it, exposing a neat line of untanned skin flanked by two rows of sweat.
As I turn away from the window, I stub my foot against the growing stack of Eric's discarded newspapers, and a couple of moths fly out, startled, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal. I have seen few moths in the apartment within the past year. In the coolness of the air-conditioned room lit by hazy sunshine, in spite of the life and the color that they bring, the flitting of the moths seems a slightly sinister warning, an omen invoking not the future but the past.
I love them. A year and a half ago my apartment was infested with ants, and though they were harmless scavengers while the moths nibble holes in the wool blanket on the sofa, I hated the ants and love the moths. Fragile and vulnerable, the moths make me feel as if I am living in a land of butterflies and scorpions, of love and cholera, where beauty and danger feed on each other. Eric warns me that the moths will eventually eat up all my sweaters, but I cannot bear to get rid of them. After all, there is something both noble and pathetic in the moth's love affair with light, and even if Eric refuses to admit it, the ones in my apartment are especially lovely, unusually large and flecked with bits of blue-green that turn into violet when they fly. There are moments when they actually gleam, luminescent, in the half-dark of the evening. If I squint or if I am not wearing my contact lenses they look like stunted blundering butterflies, and late at night if I wave my book at them as they flock against the wall near the light, they rise and fly away together like dust, perhaps, or dreams.
Eric has not moved from his vigil by the sofa. His knee must not be so bad today.
I am just sitting down again when the ring of the phone makes me jump. "Oh, not again," I say. The telephone is at Eric's elbow but he does not even turn to look at it, though I can tell from some shift in his posture that he has to restrain himself from doing so. Only a few months ago, he used to answer my phone freely.
I stand back up, stretch over him, and reach for the receiver. I speak into the phone, and there it is again: a whirring sound so high-pitched it makes my teeth ache. I shiver, suddenly wishing that I had kept my clothes on. I put the receiver down, sit back on the couch, and look at Eric, who is scratching the inside of his wrist with some attention. Usually full of unsolicited advice, he does not like to discuss these phone calls. When I ask, he tells me that he does not think I should call the police, despite the fact that I have been receiving these calls now for almost two months.
"Don't you think--" I begin, but looking up from his forearm, Eric interrupts.
"Will you marry me?" The words come out in a rush, so fast that at first I think I misunderstood. His face is flushed, his hair tousled, and he is clad only in boxers and socks: scant evidence here of the confident young lawyer who wooed me out of mourning. His gaze (so direct, bright and eager as a child's) unsettles me, and I drop my own onto the floor.
He has a hole in the heel of his left sock. I had not noticed it before, but with him kneeling, the bottoms of his feet sticking out behind him, no one could possibly miss it: a good portion of his heel is showing through the hole, and the whiteness of his skin makes a striking contrast to the dark blue of his sock. Yet his right sock looks brand new. Suddenly I realize that Eric must secretly favor his left leg, with its problem knee, when he walks, and I chalk up yet another question for my grandmother, one more to add to the list I have been compiling for her arrival. Did my rich and powerful grandfather, in whose presence the world cowered and bowed very low, secretly wreak havoc upon his footwear with his limp? And did she, too, want to swallow both a laugh and a lump in her throat when she saw how ridiculous was his exposed patch of heel?
"You've been on your knees--your bad knee--this whole time, waiting to propose?" I say at last.
"It's killing me," he says, not a bit sheepish, if anything proud.
"Come sit down," I say, patting the spot on the couch beside me. "I can't think, knowing you're in pain."
The bones of his knee click loudly as he straightens it, and he clambers to his feet with a measure of awkwardness. Taking a seat at a decorous distance from me, he says, "I know it hasn't been long--"
"--Just a year and a bit--"
"--but I'm sure," he says. He pauses and then he adds, in a voice so low I have to stoop to hear, "I'll always love you, you know. Scout's honor."
This whisper is so unlike his usual confident tone that I am struck with the strangeness of this scene. This is not the proposal I would have expected from him, for who would ever have guessed that Eric Lowenson would kneel in front of a woman clad only in her underwear, and pledge eternal devotion with one foot exposing a worn sock, and two fingers upheld in a childtime vow? He, the man who loves to stage meticulously planned pleasures: one evening, a fine silver bracelet presented with a flourish on the top of the Empire State Building, and another afternoon, my birthday, a bottle of wine, along with two glasses, hidden behind a bush (and, miraculously, still there) when we went rowing in Central Park. The only thing he forgot that afternoon was the corkscrew, a disastrous omission, as he cut his fingers so badly when he broke open the bottle that I ended up turning twenty-six in the emergency room.
"No ring," he says, mistaking the reason for my glance at his empty hands. "Sorry--this really was a spur-of-the-moment thing."
I shrug. "You do know, don't you, that I haven't forgotten Phillip," I say.
"I know. But you're almost there, right?" he says, and then answers his own question for me. "So it's not a big deal."
"And your family? After all, I know they're upset about me not being Jewish, and there's the Japanese thing. Plus my grandmother's coming soon, and she's--well, you know."
"Don't be silly," he says with some relief, on firmer ground here. "My family's going to have to like it, and once they meet you, they will like it, because they'll like you. And as for your grandmother ..." Waving away the monumental presence of the past with one clean sweep of his hand, he continues, "She's just an old lady. She hasn't been a geisha now for what--half a century?"
I nod absentmindedly, troubled, as I so often am with Eric, by a feeling that I am in the wrong story. As if I were a glass, Eric sees in me a future that mirrors his own. It is a world in which moths eat sweaters, bills are paid on time, and things are no more than what they seem; a place in which my grandmother, stripped of her geisha past, emerges looking gray, shriveled, harmless. What Eric will give me is a reason not to wait and watch by the window; what he offers is a band of gold that anchors me to earth, a talisman to prohibit old loves, no matter how dear, from coming back from the dead.
He sees in me a future that I myself could never see. But then again, my sight never has been very good.
"Okay," I say. "Thank you. It'd be good to marry you."
For the second time today, his eyes grow round. Startled, even thrown off-balance, he struggles visibly to maintain his smile for a moment, and I think, belatedly, that I spoke too simply and too soon, a girl accepting the offer of an ice-cream cone, a stroll in the park, an umbrella held over her in the rain. Eric quickly scratches at his arm again, troubled as well, perhaps, by a sense that I am not a part of his story.
But the moment passes, and soon we are kissing on the crackling, tearing pages of his newspaper, my novel tossed to the floor.
The bedroom is almost cool, the curtains still drawn from last night. Sitting on top I climax, as usual, long before he does. He reaches out and holds my hips still; his own movements slow and he pauses, as he sometimes likes to do in the middle of his lovemaking. "Let me look at you," he murmurs, and gathering my hair at its ends, he pulls it back until my throat extends and my back arches, to a degree just shy of pain.
All I can see is the ceiling, but I feel him place his hand on my exposed throat and clasp it for a moment, as if in preparation for a murder. Then he lets his hand slide slowly down my collarbone, over my breasts, my ribs, my stomach. "I can't believe you're all mine," he says, but there is a cockiness to his touch that belies the humility of his words. He releases my hair, then, and I bend my head forward again, to find him still absorbed in the contemplation of my body. It is a gaze of satisfaction, the conqueror surveying his loot, his proudly won land.
When I was an overweight teenager and my prospects of ever finding a boyfriend were depressingly dim, I never thought I would have a man who actively wanted me, let alone enough to gloat over my body.
"I am a lucky man," he whispers. I am silent, looking down at him, but he has begun moving with a passion I could not have foreseen, and he does not seem to care.
Afterwards we return to the living room and pick up my Jane Austen and his papers. But before I can start reading, he reaches out once more and gathers me to him. "Hey," he says into my ear, "now that we're engaged, can I call you Yukiko?"
With my face buried in his shoulder, I let my smile slip away. I abandoned my given name for good when I left high school, but Eric has wanted to call me by it ever since he saw my driver's license.
I consider telling him that I gave up the name because I did not enjoy being saddled by a three-syllable clunker that everyone pronounced wrong, no matter how often I explained that the second syllable should not be stressed. I ponder saying that for all that I would like to bear the same name as my grandmother, it is bad enough to have bone structure and hair that brands me as foreign on the streets of New York, let alone a name that does, too. I think of explaining that I hate that Yukiko means Snow Child in Japanese.
But I have presented these same points to him countless times before, and they have never worked yet.
"Are you sure you don't have an Asian-woman fetish?" I say, trying to keep my tone light, but in vain.
He pushes me away so he can peer into my face. "Are you going to start that again?"
I look away, deliberating the question.
He sighs. "I'm sorry I brought it up. I just prefer Japanese names, that's all. We're not going to fight just after getting engaged, are we?"
"But you know that those men who ask me out in coffee shops, and who always try to talk to me in Japanese, and secretly yearn to see me dressed in a kimono, would just so much prefer Yukiko to Kiki...."
"Stop it," he says. "I don't have an Asian-woman fetish, okay? I would never ask you to walk on my back, and I wouldn't--"
I freeze, stilled, momentarily, by the memory of a dark room with a crooked pool table, and a tall man I had fled from without a word. "What did you say?"
"I said I'm not going to ask you to--"
Quickly, before he can repeat that phrase, I stop him. "Ever heard of the expression 'one hundred and one ways'?"
He wrinkles his forehead. "It rings a bell," he says. "Why?"
I shake my head, and manage to keep my voice even. "Just something somebody told me once. I'll tell you about it sometime."
I reach out and draw him close again. My left hand is pressed against his back and as I slide my fingers across the smoothness of his skin, I imagine that I can feel the emptiness in the center of each of my fingertips. "Promise me," I say, my voice muffled against his shoulder. "Promise me you aren't attracted to me because I'm Japanese."
Again he draws back to look me in the face. His eyes, searching mine, move back and forth as Phillip's always did. He draws a deep breath in, and holds it. I count the seconds, waiting, expecting and dreading a lecture, but when he finally lets his breath out (... seven Mississippi ...), his voice is quiet. "I promise," he says. "What's gotten into you?"
"Nothing," I say. "I'm fine. Should we go out to dinner tonight, to celebrate?"
He nods. "But--"
I pick up the phone and drop it in front of him. "Here, make a reservation," I say, standing up and moving away before he has a chance to refuse. "I'll be right back."
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 1999 by Mako Yoshikawa
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