Fiction

Like a Christmas cake

SHE WAKES IN darkness, shivering, a sudden chill on her back like the breath of a ghost. She lies still, eyes closed in a pretence of sleep, as he slides from beneath the kake-buton to rise and pad across the tatami flooring to the bathroom. Fragile walls mute the sibilant sputter of the shower and the rubbery squeak of bare feet.

She reaches under her pillow to retrieve a small mobile phone. Drawing the kake-buton up over her head, she glances at a graphic of an analogue clock glowing on the keitai's colour screen – 5.11am. In exactly 39 minutes, he will catch the subway to his office in Shinagawa. She replaces the keitai under the pillow and turns on her side, folding her legs up almost to her chest, like a foetus within a dark cotton womb. Within a few shallow breaths, she is at the edge of unconsciousness. She does not hear him leave.

 

SHE WAKES AGAIN, two hours later, in a watery sunlight diffused by a wide, bleached cotton blind, like a photographer's scrim, drawn down over the window. Bleary-eyed, she stretches across the futon to the floor for a pack of Kools and a disposable lighter. After fumbling to extract the last cigarette with her long fingernails, she lights it and sucks the smoke deep into her lungs until it burns. For a brief moment,
her mind is as empty and emotionless as a monk's during zazen. She is ageless, no longer subject to space or time.

Tomorrow is her 29th birthday.

She has to go to the toilet. Prone, she pulls on a Moschino T-shirt, which smells of stale menthol, and a pair of knickers she finds crumpled between her feet. Even with the blinds down, she is self-conscious about moving around the apartment naked. She hasn't always felt this way. She can remember with explicit tactility the slim body she had more than a decade ago. As a kogyaru, a precocious girl in her last year of high school, she lived on a diet of miso soup, natto and cigarettes pilfered from her father, and she wasn't afraid to show off her long, brown limbs and torso, even when she travelled to Tokyo from her family's home in the hive-like tenements of Saitama, braving the leering, middle-aged perverts, or chikan, who tried to molest her among the crush of commuters on the Saikyo line.

She sheds her soiled clothes in front of a mirror in the windowless bathroom, and surveys her body with forensic detachment. It is still brown and thin but to her eyes, it looks, somehow, amorphous. She pokes the unblemished skin on her arms and legs to test its tautness, and pinches her narrow hips and concave pelvis to check for fat. Her palms heft her small breasts and flat buttocks to gauge their subsidence, and her fingertips trace the shallow fissures at the corners of her eyes' epicanthic folds. Like many Japanese, her lower front teeth are crooked, yellowed by nicotine. She pretends a smile that exposes only the straighter, less damaged enamel of her upper teeth and reminds herself to visit a dentist.

Her body is the only object of the few disordered rituals she observes. As a child, her grandmother took her to the local public baths and, with an almost spiritual rigour, ensured that she learned not only to bathe with an abrasive efficiency but to look no further than the surface of things, to respect the efficacy of veneer. It was always implicit that her appearance was an asset, and even before she could possibly understand why, she was encouraged to put every effort into improving its longevity and value – a value to be determined later, by others, most of them men.

She still senses her grandmother's stern grey eyes every time she bathes. If she were still alive, she would be fretting about her grand-daughter who had failed – she would use that word with bitterness – to find a husband by the time she was 25. Marriage for her grandmother's and mother's generations was not about love; it was a practical transaction in which a husband provided a reasonable level of security, comfort and status and, in return, a dutiful wife raised their children, cooked, cleaned and from time to time, serviced his sexual needs. Affection was a happy accident, not a necessary part of the deal.

"My dear Naoko, a man needs just four things from a woman," her grandmother once told her. "And not necessarily from the same woman."

It is not so different now. All the girls with whom she graduated from high school in Saitama are married. And yet, as far as she can tell, their husbands are strangers to them. Junior salariman at large banks, manufacturing and trading companies, they leave home early in the morning and return late at night, six days a week, and if they are busy or they are trying to impress their managers, they sleep at their offices and do not come home for a couple of days. Bound more to their corporate cultures than to their families, their wives' forbearance is still no less than they expect.

She lives alone, in a studio apartment in the fashionable Tokyo neigbourhood of Hiroo. She is well paid as an account associate for a large advertising agency. The women she grew up with feel sorry for her.

 

"I MET SOMEONE interseting yesterday." Naoko is sunk deep into the soft cushions of an armchair upholstered with scuffed crimson velvet on the second floor of a Starbucks in Roppongi and sipping a warm caramel latte grande from a white china mug. Next to her, a slight but animated woman in low-cut Diesel cargo pants and an MTV T-shirt is sitting sideways in a semi-lotus position on an identical armchair: Eri is 21 and she works as a secretary at the agency.

Eri says nothing. It must be a man, she thinks. Japanese women are never interesting to each other.

A wide window in front of them overlooks a grimy street lined with restaurants, nightclubs and bars with broken-English names. At any other hour, the whole district would be teeming with people; now, there are only street cleaners and a couple of pretty hostesses in satin evening gowns staggering towards the open door of a taxi.

"I was at Shin Hiroo Park," Naoko goes on. "I sometimes go there early in the morning to walk before heading to the office. Anyway, there was this guy ..."

I knew it.

"And he was walking one of those liver-coloured dogs, what are they called?"

"Weimaraners."

"Yeah. Anyway, I went over and asked if I could pat it. He didn't speak Japanese very well but ..."

"Wait a minute. He was a gaijin?"

"Yeah. English, I think. He was very pale."

"Do you speak English?"

"Ve-ery lit-tle," Naoko says in halting English, each syllable sounded with the light percussive attack of Japanese. Both women giggle but only the older woman raises her hand to her mouth in a reflex of traditional etiquette.

"So how do you know he's interesting?"

"He directs music videos. I think he's pretty successful because he drives a BMW. He invited me to a party tonight, some sort of launch for a new record label."

"Oh, I think I'm going to that. It's at that new restaurant, the one with the roof garden, in Shibuya," Eri says. After a slight pause, she asks: "Are you going to tell your boyfriend?"

It is strange to hear him referred to as her "boyfriend". She has been seeing him for three years and they sleep together at her place once or twice a week, usually on a Saturday night or when he has to work late at the office, but whatever it is they share is tenuous, fragmented, like so many of the relationships Japanese women of her age have.

"No," she said. Should I?

"Have you ever dated a gaijin?"

"I'm not dating this guy. He's invited to me a party, that's all."

"But have you?"

"No. They scare me a little."

"Really?" Her friend is surprised "My mother calls me gaijin-zuki. I've been with a few."

Naoko can't work out whether she is amused or shocked. Seeing her friend's eyes widen, Eri giggles. "You haven't thought about it?" Eri asks. "I mean, how long have you been waiting for this guy you're with to ask you to marry him?"

Naoko had hoped that he might ask in the first year they were together, not because she loved him, she didn't, but because she was, and still is in many ways, no different from her friends: she wants to be a wife, she wants to take her place in the traditional scheme of things, she wants to make her parents happy. Now she is inured to the probability that he will leave her for someone younger, prettier and less independent – someone, in other words, a little more pliable. He is 32, a mid-level manager in one of the unglamorous divisions of Sony, and he still lives with his parents in Setagaya. She won't miss him; he is hardly around as it is.

"My mother used to tell me that a Japanese woman is kurisumasu keiki no you, like a Christmas cake," Eri says. "On the 23rd it's on display, on the 24th it's still fresh, but if it isn't eaten on the 25th it will go stale."

"Oh, thanks," Naoko says, holding her mug closer to her face with both hands to hide her embarrassment. "I hadn't really thought of myself as a bit of dry cake!" But the truth is, she had, sort of: lying alone in the darkness, late at night, she sometimes imagined her body beset by a creeping desiccation – the blood in her arteries granulating, her skin flaking like torn strips of rice paper – as the reservoir of her youth evaporates.

"That's the thing," her friend tells her. "Looking at you, a gaijin doesn't see an older woman ..."

"I am not old!"

"OK. But even Japanese of your age are like a dream to them. You're thin, your skin's still smooth. Their women diet and exercise and spend a fortune on cosmetics to get what we come by naturally. "

Just as we dye our hair every colour except black and wear shoes with high heels or elevated soles to make us look taller, more Western, Naoko thinks. She looks around at the early morning customers nursing their coffees, muffins, cinnamon rolls and curried chicken salad sandwiches. There are several tables of young "office ladies", or OLs, like them but dressed to suit more conservative office codes, and here and there, grey-suited salariman asleep, their chins resting on their chests as if they have been garrotted by their dull, patterned ties. There are weary students with laptops, books and coffee-stained papers strewn across the tables, and half-sober hostesses, their heads resting on the shoulders of young, black-suited club touts with bleached blond hair and artificial tans. There are several foreigners of various races; none of them looks like a tourist.

"Would you marry a gaijin?" she asks Eri.

"No." Eri says. She thinks about it for a moment, then adds, "No. My mum would never forgive me. And a lot of these guys have been married before and have had kids. I'm still young, I want to find someone who is ..."

"Fresh?" Naoko asks, with an acerbity that startles them both. It compels a mortified silence between them. Unable to apologise, as she knows she should, Naoko drops her head back and closes her eyes. Is it possible to be worn out by your own culture? Ray Charles is singing The Beatles' Yesterday. In a voiceless karaoke, she mouths an approximation of the words; by the second chorus she is lost in the poignancy of her own unheard performance.

 

SHE ASCENDS INTO night from the subterranean maze of Shibuya station. Crowds of late-shift commuters and youthful shoppers intermingle in the turbulent human river that spills across the crosswalks beneath the glow of huge, animated plasma screens, coloured neon ascending the facades of every structure, and billboards lit with bright halogen. On the concrete plaza that forms one corner of Shibuya Crossing, you can sense as much as hear the subsonic rumble of congested traffic, of trains beneath the ground and overhead, of indecipherable snatches of music and of voice-overs reverberating from the giant screens, and of the subdued stir of half a million individuals swarming the narrow pavements. This is the Tokyo of cliché, the Tokyo that everyone who does not live here has in his or her head, but it is no less real and impressive for that.

A large group of errant high-school girls is perched on the steps in front of the brushed-steel and opaque-glass structure of her destination. Smoking, chatting, raising delicate hands to their mouths as they trade girlish confidences, they are still dressed in their blue, faux-sailor uniforms, thick white leg warmers bunched around their lower calves and pleated skirts rolled at the waist to pull the hems up to their thighs. There is an unnerving sexual energy among them and she wonders whether they are aware of it and whether it was the same when she was their age.

Probably, she thinks. Japanese girls are taught early to use their youth while they have it, as if it is all they will ever have. Some of them, too many, will trade it in enjo kosai, or "compensated interaction", with middle-aged salariman.

The elevator ascends two dozen floors in as many seconds to open onto a dim, cavernous room. At the room's centre, lasers weave flickering blue and green filaments into Hindi-looking katakana symbols above an indistinct mass heaving in time to a bass-laden Bhangra beat. Around the edge of the room are booths, all of them filled with small parties within the main party, and long tables on which are arrayed glasses of champagne and elaborate sushi. Waiters in black slacks and T-shirts bear large silver trays with an almost balletic agility through the guests milling at the edge of the dance floor.

She sees neither the Englishman nor Eri, nor does she recognise anyone, except a few of the B-list idoru and their handlers who always turn up at these events for the photo opportunities. Hesitantly, she moves further into the room. She has made a mistake with her choice of a short, black Calvin Klein cocktail dress and high-heel, strapless Guccis. She had wanted to elongate her legs beneath the narrow A-line of the dress but now she has to shift her weight from one leg to the other to relieve the ache in her calves. She accepts a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and gulps half of it to dull the pain. She threads her way to the other side of the room, where the booths appear to be occupied by more gaijin.

Coarse fingers grip her upper arm.

"Hey, do you speak English?" He is a large, plump Westerner in a
tailored, grey business suit, his long grey hair pulled back into a scraggly ponytail. He smells of whisky.

He must be in the advertising business.

She gives him a wan smile and holding one hand up, palm towards him, in a polite gesture to stop, tries to pull away from him. His grip tightens.

"Come on, join us." He offers her a crooked grin that he thinks is charming.

"No. Please," she insists in English. Frightened now, she yanks her arm away and stumbles towards the protective throng of the dance floor. She penetrates its dim jostle far enough to become invisible to him and stops. Unsure of what she should do next – it's impossible to dance in these shoes – she checks her keitai in case Eri has left her a message. The screen shows four missed calls, all from a familiar Sony extension, but no voicemail.

Nearby, a cluster of frenetic young girls are bouncing in place on their toes; they scream with delight as a bright strobe turns the images on their colourful Bathing Ape and Hysteric Glamour T-shirts into a dizzyingly hyperkinetic cartoon.

 

ALL SHE RECALLS of the rest of the evening are shards of disorienting incident. She is sitting in a chest-high tub of steaming, sandalwood– fragranced water, a rolled handtowel beneath her neck, her head lolling against the reinforced plastic wall. A cigarette dangles from between her fingers and a glass of wine is alongside the tub on the floor. She is not drunk but she is light-headed enough to enjoy the amniotic weightlessness, the seeming absence of substance that momentarily lets her mind float free.

I drank too much.

I got tired of the music's visceral din.

A spiral staircase ascended to the roof garden.

I found the Englishman there, sprawled on a daybed beneath the stars.

Eri and another girl were with him.

I watched in the darkness as he kissed the girl and Eri unzipped his orange Prada trousers.

She feels nothing, in as much as she had expected nothing, the residue of a rationality that, her grandmother used to tell her, was a racial trait, although in her grandmother's case, it was tempered by petty superstitions and ancient rituals for luck. Certainly, she feels nothing for the Englishman. And yet she also feels nothing as a disconcerting mindlessness, a careless void. Maybe she really is past her use-by date; maybe this is how it feels when youth slips away.

She reaches for the glass on the floor and takes a small sip from it. She takes a drag from the cigarette and exhales the smoke in a long weary sigh. Not long now before midnight.

Tomorrow is her 29th birthday.

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