And that’s when I found Tsutomu, dead at his desk with the thick fingers of his right hand lying in the crotch of a book.

Earlier that evening I had burnt myself in the bathtub. In one of those vain efforts to make an unexpected guest comfortable, Hisako, his wife, had refilled their ofuro with water so hot it’d make a lobster scream. Being the dumb American that I am, when I’d first dipped my foot in the tub, jerking it out immediately to find it swollen and red as an apple, I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. So I straddled the thing, my feet on either side of the four-by-four foot square tub, my hands balancing myself along the rim.

I lowered my butt in first, slowly, of course—it took five minutes—then sucked in a deep breath, covered my genitals with my right hand as though it would make a difference, and let myself drop with a sizzling ploomp.

It was so much sensation at once that I couldn’t concentrate on which part of my body hurt more; the collective scaldings cancelled one another out with a numb tingle, and I quickly acclimated to the heat of the bath.

Later, lying in a futon in the guest room, my muscles like butter and my skin a purpley tender crimson, I jumped when Hisako bound into the room to apologize for the heat of the water that she herself was unable to endure.

So much for being Roman in Rome… or rather, being Japanese in Japan, I thought, as my butthole throbbed angrily throughout the course of my slow descent into sleep.

But sleep didn’t last long.

When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot. My bully du jour would dunk my head in a toilet, his fingers grappling my hair and holding me beneath the surface of the water. When he’d let up, the sharp intake of breath and clearing of my vision was the very thing I felt as I mysteriously jerked from sleep that night in their guestroom.

Darkness swelled around me and I felt the urge to get up and walk around.

There was something I was supposed to find, I felt, but I didn’t know what.

I sat up and peeled of my sheets, peering around the room. It was empty aside from a mirror in the corner and a bottle of water that Hisako had left sweating on the tatami by my head. Its brand was Vulva, which I thought was funny—and she didn’t.

Some things are doomed to be lost in translation.

The house had a mossy smell at night; all old Japanese houses do. I think it has to do with moisture that collects in their straw mats, those aforementioned tatami, that gives the hair a heavy sort of over-ripeness.

I like the smell, so I made it my excuse to sneak: it was so natsukashii, so reminiscent of past innocence and happiness and sunshine—all those things that gain in potency with retrospection.

Tsutomu really wasn’t different as a corpse. I’d first met him and Hisako a year ago. I went to Hiroshima for the summer and they were my host family, more of a host couple, really, these two old Japanese people, 62, 65, with two children: one who was married with a kid on its way, and the younger one, a troublemaker, a warugaki, still working in a convenience store at the age of 31, who was given to over-indulging in what the Japanese call marifana.

Hisako and Tsutomu, I thought, worked well as a married couple. They were both composed brilliantly of the same stunning matter, but arranged differently.

Think of them as one of those analogy things from high school.

Hisako : Tsutomu :: Waxing Moon : Waning Moon

That is, Tsutomu was ice: rigid, lifeless, a quiet bookworm who spoke in a complex system of gentle nods and mutterings; and his wife, my Hisako, airy and hot, violent as steam—she is a rambunctious woman who loves to bicker for bickering’s sake. Their youngest son is her favorite, and mine, too.

Yes, that was about their relationship in its entirety, their own encapsulation of yin-yang perfection and balance—as far as I knew they were happy.

Slumped over his desk, there, limp as vegetables gone rotten, I almost expected to hear his acquiescent mumbly response to something that Hisako had pecked at him for, pointlessly for fun.

But he wasn’t moving. The moon peered sneakily through the window of his office, smearing his foldless eyes with a cold pallor—pulling them severely shut.

He was supposed to be on a business trip.

A poke from my middle finger did no more than leave a groove in his shirt. Because death’s calm reticence was so becoming of him, I didn’t really react, but accepted it with a quiet sort of solitary resignation, and then decided to tromp down the stairs to find Hisako and ask her what was up.

The paper door to her room was open, so I walked in. Hisako was sitting up in her futon, staring raptly at the television. It wasn’t on.

“Hisako, what’re you doing up so late?”

“Watching the television. Have you seen this show, Boy-san?” she said, motioning with a nod of her head at the black screen. Her back was turned to me. “Is from America, called Boy Meets World. This Coly boy so cute, I think, velly funny. I find him, uh—like you, Boy-san. So cute. I would like to see it in Engrish sometime. I think some jokes are not as funny in Japanese, huh.”

She turned from the TV and smiled at me. Her teeth are crooked as spilt rocks in her mouth, but they’re charming in their disarray; they add character to her sharp, thin eyes that bulge blackly with radiant deviance.

“Hisako, are you okay? Have you seen Tsutomu?”

“His older brother is cute too, I think. Velly handsome. But he’s not so silly as Coly and that is why I like Coly so much. Have you seen this?”

I knew something was wrong. She only speaks to me in English when she’s being roundabout, or lying.

My eyes began to water.

“Hisako, look at me. What happened to Tsutomu?” I asked, sitting by her side on the futon.

“And the prince—uh, principool? Is that how you say this? He’s so mean but—”

“Hisako! Stop. Please. What happened to Tsutomu?”

She looked at me again, then down at her lap. She began to rock slightly and stick her thumb between her teeth, biting down hard. A tear rolled down a wrinkle in her cheek.

“For forty year, Boy-san, I never leave this house. I cook and clean and read books, but there is no happiness in my heart.”

She switched to Japanese. “All my life I’ve wanted to go somewhere and do something fun—have an adventure! Get into trouble and work my own way out. I wanted to be beautiful and strong, have many lovers and be scary to men. Hisako! the breaker of hearts. Eater of men.

“But then I met a man so quiet and sweet, who loved me, who took care of me—took care of everything. Did everything. I could be free to do as I pleased while he was at work, but what did I do with it? I never told him that I wanted to work, too; to have my own money and buy my own things. I was quiet with those things, always telling polite lies and teasing truthfully about things that I knew he’d never take to heart. And he just smiled and nodded, and grunted his old-man grunt.

“And now look where I am. Look at me. Look at me—I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m nothing but a filthy old owl who watches television alone in the dark.”


Next day, we were on a smoking train that rittled and rattled around a grouping of steep hills, thick with sultry summer foliage. We were on our way to a shrine to honor Tsutomu, offer him up to the open palms of Shinto spirits that didn’t deal with death.

I don’t know why Hisako chose the shrine that she did: Izumo Taisha, the Grand Shrine of Rising Clouds. For one, Buddha’s the one that meddles with the dead in Japan, and second, this was a shrine of fertility—of birth and rebirth and sex.

She was off her rocker, but I took her, making her promise that she’d call the proper authorities when we returned to their skinny house. She agreed, but I didn’t trust her.

As the train trundled wildly throughout the countryside, fog thickened around us with each passing minute. I could feel Hisako’s disapproving scowl boring into the back of my skull as I puffed on a cigarette. It was the same look she gave me when I piped up at the ticket counter and requested a smoking care in the first place.

“You’re going to die, Boy-san.” She was talking about the cigarettes.

It was odd talking about this so casually, considering the night before.

“I’m going to die anyway, aren’t I?”

“No, no. You won’t. You can’t.” She gripped my forearm. “Promise me you won’t.”

“I can’t promise that. And you see, this way, death won’t be a surprise,” I began, motioning with my cigarette, “Most people just let death happen, and that’s the worst part about it. It’s indiscriminate, like a mosquito bite—random and careless—” I blew a perfectly round specter of a ring in her face, the continued: “But I’m bringing it on; taunting it. I know it’s coming and it won’t have to surprise me. Or you.”

“You’re not cute.”

To that, I turned my head and directed my attention toward the blur of trees, black, whipping their way in a line by the train. I peeked over every now and then, and I could tell she was only harping on me because she was interested. It was the way she stared, as though I was her television from the night before.

I did it; I know she wanted me to: “Try it,” handing a cigarette her way.”

A thin line of whitish smoke wrapped around her chin.

“You’re sick.”

But she kept on looking, so I kept on offering. And finally, she caved. Hisako took the cigarette gently from between my fingers and cradled it in between her own as if it were a cranky baby, the posture with which to hold it she had no idea.

She inhaled.

Ack—” a cough, then, “Ick, Boy-san. Suusuu yo.”

Suusuu is a Japanese onomatopoeic expression that describes the unpleasant numbness one feels from ingesting mentholated medicine.

Mazui,” she spit, thrusting it back at me.

Gross or not, she looked proud of herself. It was her first ascent into making a choice, and it had gone swimmingly.