Dec 04, 2023
Dec 04, 2023
Under somei yoshino,
Cherry will replace plum
My blood surges to give
Life to seasonal trifles,
Here's my testament.
' from A Small Haiku Collection by Michael Miller
She was waiting near the Jimbocho ticket wicket gate one late autumn evening. A disembodied heat had seeped into the asphalt and concrete throughout the day and was now sinking in the underground arteries of the subway. The aging city was breathing through its cracked pores. Both the lanes and building were radiating the heat in an effort to respond to the cool shadows of the evening. There was a queue at the leaf green telephone booth. Evenings are usually like this. But she was leaning against the cold steel of the guardrail near the telephone booth, holding a folded newspaper in her left hand. She was oblivious of the queuing people who looked at her with some disdain. She was wearing a black midriff-showing crepe blouse, black trousers and moccasins. A residue of some aromatic spray wafted from her. Railway stations can be quite fashionable on evenings, oozing teenage oomph! Schoolgirls in short pleated navy blue skirts, white blouses, black leather shoes, back-packs with tiny key chains dangling from the eye of zippers, and chewing Sting, can unsettle the indifference of even a diehard cynic. Fashion is not the prerogative of girls alone. Boys too stroll in American sweatshirts and baggy trousers in a cynical indifference, smoking Mild Seven and touching their jelled hair gingerly. They too can demand your attention. After all we live in a world that endeavors to remain perpetually young! And the young want to express their own heterodoxy. Wonder where all the old folks are!
The skin, it was her skin that was soul stirring. Untouched, youthful, and stretched in flawless vigor, it offset her straight, jet-black hair cascading like a Heian woodcut print by Yoshitoshi Taiso. Her cheeks were flushed pink. Fervent blood raced beneath the soft gossamer of her skin, making a translucent pattern of a scythe. Ros'd, nay cherri'd, all in lively crimsin ar thy cheeks. She carried her body timidly with an imperceptible stoop, making her hairstyle look girlishly fashionable. There was a timorous restraint in her face and a hesitant temperance in her gait. She was perhaps living on a level below than what she was capable of. Tears were gathering at the corners of her eyes in response to some impalpable loss, making the black in them take a richer hue.
Most girls are shy of foreigners, at times unduly frightened of speaking to them in English. English is something they learn with effort, but then forget it quickly. It stimulates their imagination, excites their heart, but leaves them enervated and terribly confused. Shirley McPherson calls it a posttraumatic linguistic lesion.
Shirley taught English at a private language school, all kinds of English, from conversation English to survival English. A second semester dropout from Vassar she had to end up being an English teacher in Japan. There was a bitter cynicism with her calling. It was a cumulative thing with her. Away from her father in New York, estranged from her mother in California, missing American food and friends, she felt irrefragably Kafkaesque.
"Everything is shit! Teaching is shit! Shinjuku is shit! People are frogs! I'm a toad! Life is shit!"
"Cher, take a break. Go home' away from amphibians' and relax! '
"Aw, come on, nothing works. Nothing's gonna work for me. And mind you I've just come back from New York. It's not the same like when I was there. Life is sucks!"
"Aw come on!"
Whenever Shirley came back exhausted after her yen-earning trips she was this way. You should never visit her after ten at night. What she needed at this time was a Japanese oforo, but a cheap apartment like hers could not boast of such luxury. Usually she would be so pooped out that she was in no mood to go out at night to happening places or pubs to relax.
"Sometimes I have to travel to Tokyo, then to Toyoda, then Ochanomizu, and by the time I come back to Tachikawa for cabin talk I am completely bushed. Mike I couldn't stand on my legs yesterday and this funny secretary tells me to substitute for Ron in the cabin talk! My legs were shaking. I told her, look, my legs are shaking. She bent to see and then smiled. She couldn't understand what I meant!"
'Six years of English and still the psychic confusion! You should have said no."
"I didn't. I sat down and did it. I needed the money. What could I have done?"
Shirley was in her late thirties and despaired that she would never get married. But somewhere at the back of her mind there was hope. Therefore she was into ballet dancing. She choreographed musicals twice a year. She was on health food, wholesome exercises, classical music and esoteric religions. She didn't like late nights. Her face was catching wrinkles when she smiled and her eyes were gathering crowfeet. Her roommate, Yuko, advised her to eat lots of fish, seaweed and avocadoes, and use foundation cream on her face.
"There's lots of UV in Tokyo. Play it safe. All the girls hide their faces," said Yuko.
"But they show their thighs," said Shirley.
"That's another thing. Thighs can't catch wrinkles. They are strong and meant for other purposes."
'But let me confess Yuko I hate avocadoes.'
'You shouldn't. Avocadoes are rich in potassium and vitamin B6 and can increase your libido .The Aztecs called it the testicle tree.'
'Don't while my time with symbols. Give me the real thing. Something that is doable.'
Yuko just smiled.
Allusions and innuendoes are the keys to the erotic. Yuko was the Alfred Hitchcock of the amatory. Her skirts and shirts were going up every month.
"I compensate with long boots and half slips."
"If you move up centimeter by centimeter there will be nothing left between skin and snatch," reminded Shirley sipping her martini.
"Oh that! That's no problem. I still don't have a boyfriend."
"Neither do I."
"Nobody wants to spend on me."
"We're in the same boat. This is what my decent standard and abstemious life has done to me!"
"What about Mike?"
"Mike is unreliable. He's into local females."
"But aren't you two friends?"
"Yes and no. Not that way, you see."
"But you said he called you a Joan Baez!"
"Ah that! That doesn't mean a thing. It was perhaps because of the mole on my chin."
Shirley loved Bob Dylan but I loved Joan Baez and the twain shall never meet. Of course the Sixties and the Nineties are quite different. The fizz had gone from her songs. Also I had some reservations about Joan Baez for just interpreting the dreams of others. Pay me my money down! Music shops find it hard to sell her records anymore. And imagine once she was the heartthrob of millions. Beauty grows specter thin and dies. Failure is writ large on the canvas of the universe. Even if you succeed, even if you are beautiful, even if you are sexy, you must wither away and die. Or worse still, while you live you get hardened like baguette. Your skin no longer possesses the soft silkiness of spring, nor your flesh the fluff of autumn leaves. Even your d'collet' dresses cannot distract for long.
Shirley's days of charming a man out of his nest were over. She knew this and cried at night silently. But she'd tried it on me. Asked me to stay late, have dinner. She played footsie with me under the table while Yuko was talking to her mother in Hokkaido over the phone. She then stretched to pull an ashtray beside me and her breast fell out of her half-buttoned shirt and hit me on the mouth. It was big. And I got excited. I get excited with temperate melons. But it wasn't warm. Maybe her body temperature was not normal.
"Oops," she said. 'Sorry for that."
"Oh it was a huge surprise," I said teasingly.
"Oh shut up."
She blushed, though I guess she'd done it on purpose. I wasn't tempted to stay beyond dinner.
My visa was expiring. This was the third time I had come to Japan on a working visa but hadn't found anything stable. Language schools were unreliable. It was so difficult to get into a regular school. You needed a godfather. Shirley was more fortunate. At least she had a steady income. My company had not paid me for the past three months. I was eating into my last year's savings. Soon it would be over if not replenished. Everything is over when not replenished. My blue Sears shirt was becoming limp through overuse, and the Levi's trouser was losing thread. As I walked through the streets of Kanda aimlessly, I studied its tessellated pavements inlaid with unfeigned mosaic images of locusts, crickets, cicadas, bees, and dragonflies. They seemed so self-absorbed. There were brass plaques of universities too, embedded in the sidewalk--Keio, Nippon, Tokyo, Chuo and a host of others. All the insects were imprisoned in brick and mortar, layer by layer, like my checkered history implicating life with matter. Here was an attempt to provide absolute knowledge through entomological representation. I wanted to go a little further and understand the insect's point of view. The world according to a cicada or a dragonfly! But knowledge always carries an ethical component telling us how we must live. What can I learn from these crawling, flitting creatures? Can I understand the brevity of life or the beautiful wisdom of the intellect that even a child can teach! Introduce me to someone who can read the furrows of an insect's soul, Kafka for example, and gaze into the crevices of the body. Give me a world without doors or windows that does not allow for categories, no exterior and no interior. Give me a world without opposition where the crypt of the body is the soul of being, the prima principia of throbbing life, and the key to eternity.
I am of average height, but my body is still quite athletic. People say that I move like a mountain cat. I have too much pride, vanity to be exact. How can I beg when I know I am better than most. And I don't want to work with Shirley, though I had touched her for a tenner twice. Working with her would be too much for me to take. It would be like nuclear fission. The energy released would be too much to handle. It would destroy me. It ran in my family. A colleague of my mother had once slapped her at the English Convent School she taught for years. The case had dragged on for years till finally the school lost and reinstated my mother with full benefits. And instead of being elated she developed rheumatoid arthritis.
"Mike, why don't you meet Peter? He needs people like you. And he's a professional. Never holds back a penny. He's a nice man," said Shirley.
"I don't know."
"Meet him. He'll do you no harm."
Peter was an Italian Christian and spoke with an accent. He'd pulled in a lot of riff raff but some were good too. Shirley's account was pretty reliable.
But I had my own worries to take care of. My mother was terribly, terribly ill. And each time the telephone rang in the afternoon I would jump up, expecting to hear something terrible. I don't understand why life has to be so difficult!
Shirley's was a small two-room dilapidated apartment. The Japanese style toilet was too small, though elegant. Old Kanto toilets have a low open circumambulating panel and sliding windows. The paper work was delicate, making everything soft. But it shook when she moved. Whenever the wind blew and the cicadas became quiet, a pine branch scraped its roof. Tanizaki might have loved something like this. He believed that all great haiku in Japan were written from the Kanto toilets. But we don't find such things here anymore. Good old Japanese toilets! They have been gradually replaced by hot, steamy and impersonal western toilets. Everything must come to an end. Take cicadas. They cry throughout the day sucking the sap from cherry trees and fattening in the cool breeze of summer nights. But then soon their glorious days are over! They die everywhere--by the air conditioner exhaust pipe, in corridors, on the roof of a Mitsubishi car, in the sink, underfoot, in the letterbox itself as if they were in a hurry to go somewhere after death. Their cries are absorbed by the mountains or by me memory.
The din of departing trains was deafening. Too many people were going to too many places all the time. Then to make matters worse they returned from everywhere all the time. That's what city life is! Who waits unless forced to wait? Who waits unless drunk or mad? Who waits without hope? Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land! And you say we live in an incommensurable universe! But keeping 'his way' is an impossible edict in a world of changed morals and no universals! Today even deceit must hope. Sellers and buyers must hope.
At night Shinjuku call girls solicit customers in lonely, brightly lit streets and service lanes. Innocuous Japanese yakuza and tall, stubborn Mafioso watch a promising, or should I say promiscuous, night kill. Dark staircases of night clubs and pubs are subtly counterbalanced by noticeable Kanji and Hiragana neon signs asking for ten, twenty or thirty thousand yen for an hour in paradise. And if you are an affable office returnee with a penchant for sexual independence and willing to pay a bit more you could find an enjo kosai girl with whom you could enact your fantasies for the night. The soul hankers for the beautiful and the corporeal body wants to possess it. Desire and fantasy chase the attractive and stunning to fuse with it and die like million moths. And strangers must exist while wanting to be friends, just as acquaintances must exist straining to be free. Then there is this constant yearning, this crying need to be clear-headed, dispassionate, and dispossessed. If one has to live above the threshold of pain, make no mistake about this, if one has to whistle for a while he must be discerning! No emotional entanglements, no all-consuming possession, no short-fuse-burn-outs! Be careful and contingent and you'll last out this century.
I was on my way to explore the secondhand book market of Jimbocho. When I went past her to the staircase, I sensed by the look in her eyes and the perspiration on her face that she wanted to talk to me. People come out of the blue to talk to me. At times they surprise me. These things usually happen to me! I may have my wild fantasies, my nightly erotic imagination, but I am afraid of intimidation, indignation, commitment, assault and battery, lightening, explosives and above all loud voices. They disturb me even in my sleep. Saint Barbara, please just don't let me explode! Apparitions and ogres talking amongst themselves, laughing, shrieking like teenage girls, always frighten me. They are abominable! How can they do this to others! Disturb a man's sleep by their private conversation! No civic sense at all! After centuries man has acquired the ability to speak and to fritter it away in inane malarkey. It's all right to have our Freuds and Jungs but then what happens to the rational individual, the Darwinian-Nietzschean-Wagnerian intellect? What happens to the Hegelian spirit? Who watches over us? What sort of universe do we live in?
I stopped wondering what to do next. Just then an express train sliced the air between platforms, startling me. The girl at the gate slowly inched towards me. She had The Itsudemo Times in her hand. It was folded many times till she'd placed the article exactly where she wanted. I thought to myself, look here she is reading an English newspaper, and Shirley thinks they don't understand English!
"Excuse me, please. Can you help me?" she said.
Her voice trembled with a sweet urbanity. I thought she wanted money or something. There are all kinds of rackets: charity coupons, lottery tickets, anti-French nuclear signature campaigns, or worse, fund-raising campaign, American apple promotion program, Aomori apple campaign, or Hokkaido melon concessions. But when someone says 'help me' something happens to me. Should an individual or a nation be on the side of God or on the side of liberty and justice for all? Should the church and state be together or separate? As for me, both the Bible and the Declaration of Independence compete for my affections. And I cannot decide. That is my predicament. So God help me!
"Yes, what can I do ... "
A refreshing soap and lemon fragrance wafted from her. A sudden attack on the olfactory leaves me speechless.
"Oh, this! Can you explain to me? What is the meaning? This part! It's too impolite of me but'" she said, pointing her soft finger at the newspaper print. Her hand was trembling.
I noticed that her skin was freckling. Her fingers had freckles, the inside of her hands had freckles, her cushioned lips had freckles and the inside of her legs had freckles. Behind her knees there were delicate freckles. She became strangely palpable as she revealed the damp luminosity of her being between clusters of freckles. We fail to realize that the skin is the largest and perhaps the most outstanding organ of the human body. The history of the skin is the history of aesthetics, the history of who we are, of our civilization and our own humanity. Our skin does not only protect us but also exposes us. Tell a lie and you can see for yourself how easily your skin unmasks you. Even a mammal's protective pelt bristles in a piloerection when excited. Now just imagine that we carry around 16 to 18 kilos of skin to work, to sleep, to copulate, to croak. There are moral sanctions and judicial injunctions as to how much we can expose? Whose skin we can touch? Go naked and people may be bemused but by the end of the day, if not earlier, you will find yourself in the cooler. Touch somebody without permission and it may be worse. Though mankind possesses a tactile imagination, the legal system hasn't endorsed it unconditionally. We need the laws to change so that they can express our enlightened age. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void!
She was carrying a black duffel bag hung behind her like a kimono obi. It was too small to carry anything. Black becomes her. But black is a symbol of revolt, of revolution, of protest, of death itself. Why do all these young people want to die? I know whales sometimes commit mass suicide. Elephants wander away from the herd on purpose to die. But why there is a death wish in human beings? Why should one tiny cell decide to die and trigger off a chain reaction in the body till the organism collapses and becomes moribund? I guess, when fundamental issues of life become Bohemian their terrifying aspects are soon forgotten.
I felt for a moment that she carried remnants of a burikko girl disorder. The demure, burikko girl syndrome had a few adherents here too. Burikko girls try to live below their age, unwilling to relinquish the innocence of childhood or the bashfulness of adolescence when they are with boys. But when within the sorority they pull down the fa'ade with an innate cruelty. Many boys knowingly or unknowingly fall for burikko girls, hook, line and sinker. Invariably burikkos believe that if they didn't play along these lines they wouldn't be wanted anymore, they wouldn't be desirable anymore. Fired by the mother complex, they want to pamper a man into matrimony and enact a taboo. Was I willing to enter the forbidden?
The Jimbocho girl was breathing, living, standing, and talking! So close! A human being talking to a human being! I must say something! Do something!
"Here," she said smiling.
She held the paper close to my eyes as though I was half blind. I read:
The integrity of the Zairian soldiers was suspect right from the beginning. They herded hundreds of thousands of Hutas into large military vehicles. Then they took them to the eastern border where they plundered, torched and slaughtered many. Nearly 150,000 managed to flee into the jungles leaving behind everything.
"Ah, it isn't so difficult," I said.
She had touched words like "herded," "vehicles," and "torched" with a fluorescent yellow high lighter. However the most difficult word was "herded." Even after I explained to her the sentence she still wanted to know how people could be herded. Yeah, these innocent questions make you think. Why should human beings be herded by other human beings, then looted and shot? These are cruel and hard things that happen in the world. One man's meat is another man's poison. But why kill and snatch another man's poison? Is it enough to get knowledge and ignore the call of a friend? Selfishness is a canker that destroys the soul, contorts the spirit into grotesque shapes and makes man into a monster. Even if the great prophet Jeremiah, whom God had exalted, could not understand why the heart of man was deceitful and desperately sick, then tell me, who could? Knowledge, mere knowledge, is just sounds without soul, words without meaning. And words without meaning invariably end up in ideological propaganda. Or worse, ignored jeremiads! You will go to them but for their part they will not listen to you. Words do not move the heart of mankind, but earnestness and evocation do. If you tell this to someone he would think you are cranky, medieval and not philosophical at all.
There is such a dearth of great philosophies--philosophies that give courage, understanding and reach out to others. Only perfidious philosophies, fratricidal philosophies, fantastic philosophies, fraudulent philosophies, fastidious philosophies survive. How can you restore the spirit of man when you have already lost your human compass? You don't know what it is to be a human being! True there are serendipitous swellings in the heart which, when they subside leave you enervated. But what of them! The amor carpe diem must give way to the amor fati. Seek thee out the death in love! But how, oh, how Christ Jesus, how can I explain all this to this dear girl, so earnest, so intense, so sublime! I'm an ordinary man and I tremble at these numbers. A hundred and fifty thousand you say escaped the clutches of death! I get so moved by one fugitive that I get ball deep in the hutas dudes. O Lord, even if I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil for thou art with me. How can a pure soul like hers read such Dantesque stuff, devilish deformations, and escape stories! How can she take on Thanatos, such lovely Eros!
"My dear girl, some of us can be herded but not all. Many still escape. We are herded everyday for slaughter. We are herded in trains, in buses, in departmental stores, in pubs, on streets, in movie theaters, in public meetings, on intercontinental flights. Modern man is herded everywhere for slaughter but his tribal, primordial or pygmy instinct gives him the wherewithal to vamoose. But today man has lost his spiritual compass. He doesn't know the way. He seeks the tsunami when he should be climbing palm trees. We are so bovine that we can be herded by anyone with an iota of intelligence. You don't need a Heidegger to herd you into the volksgemeinschaft and torch you! A mountain guerrilla or a Saddam can send you packing in no time."
But this was too much for her. I had not waited after her understanding. I have not given a pregnant pause after every sentence like Shirley does in her language classes. I had not articulated my words distinctly and I could not speak enough Japanese.
We had taken the staircase and emerged in the evening crowd of office returnees and book browsers.
"Nihongo wa dame desyo. My Japanese is bad you see. But I do not give up easily," I said.
"No, no, no. You speak so well. You explain so well. But can you tell me the meaning of vehicles?" she said.
"Vehicles, bus, trucks, kuruma, cars!"
"A-a-a-a-h, I see!"
"Vehicle like the body is the vehicle of the mind, no, no, the spirit, though it may not be such a good vehicle at times. It breaks down, needs repair and maintenance. At times it is a nuisance. This body, this vehicle is the source of all trouble. Or is it the mind?"
"You are very intelligent."
"Oh really! You are very interesting. And ... er... you are so pretty."
"Oh thank you. Where do you come from?"
"I come from Santa Barbara."
"So you come from California. You speak difficult English."
"My father was English, my mother German."
"I see. Where is your father?"
"He died. No he left for England when I was eight. My parents are separated. But my father gave me a good education in England. I was working in a school in San Francisco before I came here."
"So you are sensei, a master!"
"So I was not mistaken to ask you meaning of English sentence. Many years ago I was a student at a university in Ochanomizu. My name is Michiko, Michiko Suzuki. I work as a nurse at the local hospital. Call me Micchan"
"I'm Michael Miller, my grandfather was a potter. My friends call me Mike."
"What can I call you?"
"Mike of course."
Michiko was laughing.
"What's the matter," I asked.
"Mike you're too funny. You're not like other foreigners. They frighten me. You're really fun."
"Where do you stay Micchan?"
"Let's go and eat something outside."
"Yeah let's! I have a friend at Sandberg doing arbieto, part time. Let's go there. It's just outside the station."
"You mean Carl Sandburg has opened a restaurant here?"
"A friend of mine! Maybe you believe me, maybe not. It doesn't matter. I liked his poetry once upon a time. I'm the food, let me work!"
"Should we go there?"
The apple strudel and the vanilla ice cream were scrumptious. Michiko could not eat ice cream. Her tonsils were swollen and the cold aggravated her condition. She was eating apple pastry and drinking Brazilian coffee. The place specialized in sandwiches and hamburgers. Therefore they called it Sandberg. Below us trains from the Chuo, Keio and the Marunouchi lines were hissing, growling and throbbing like ravenous animals, their hydraulic brakes tightening around wheels or their casters beating in soporific rhythm on metal tracks. These tracks ran like intestines everywhere, into streets, residential areas, industries, near schools, hospitals, and shopping complexes like rodent burrows of London before the great fire.
Michiko relaxed and talked to me in short bursts of English and then ran into swift Japanese without waiting for my comprehension. Her knee pressed against mine under the table and the intense heat of her body agitated my senses. The inside of her mouth was clean and pink like cherry blossoms and fragrant like Ichinomiya peach. Please God, don't tempt me with untainted intensities!
"I am a student of America. I like Chris Isaak's song Wicked Game and John Irving's Garp. I have many questions to ask you Mike? Are you free?" she asked me.
"Free? I'm all yours."
With a voice like that, and a skin like that, and a fragrance like that, who could say no to Michiko. Mind and matter must collapse on this mezzanine floor when questioned by Michiko in this way.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. I mean I can be with you as long as you want. I will not go home. I like you, Micchan."
"I like you too. But don't say such things. They aren't good."
"You mean we should not say things that we want to say?"
"Something like that. We should understand things without speaking them."
"But Micchan, I'm dumb. Unless someone tells me something I can't understand anything. And whatever I do understand is always far from the truth. What can I do?"
"Nothing. Wait and watch."
"And I thought you were dumb!"
'Nothing. I want to be mum.'
Michiko smiled. Her blush was kissable. I pressed against her knee and held her hands. She pulled back.
"I need your help to buy books in English. On the other side of the road there are many second-hand bookshops. There is also a good bookstore called Iwanami Shoten. It was built in 1913 by a professor like you. It was built after the Jimbocho fire. His name was Shigeo Iwanami. Shall we go?"
"Oh, I love second-hand books, not second 'hand people. Let's go."
An early September wind enveloped the crowd with its cool circumambulations as the traffic light turned green. Michiko and I crossed the twilight tarmac into the book-loaded street of Jimbocho. Her waist was supple and small and it moved easily inside my arm. I was taking too many liberties in a day. Gather ye cherry blossoms while ye may. But everything was excusable for a gaijin, a foolish foreigner like me. Michiko just indulged my enthusiasm and people feigned polite indifference.
"These books belong to the Edo period. These ones tied with thread belong to the Heian period. This kind of binding is called the fukuro-toji binding. They're really old."
"But they are so expensive!"
"Who buys them?"
"I don't know. Maybe professors like you."
"See Micchan, English books are kept outside. They don't want them to mix with Kanji."
"You'll be surprised to see shops which specialize only in English books, in first editions only, in dictionaries, in literature, in science, in old paintings, in philosophy, and adult magazine. There are all kinds of things here."
A protest march was in progress somewhere behind the block of buildings. We took the back lane to see. I held Michiko in the quiet and kissed her. She shook and melted, intimate as fragrance, close as air.
"We can't go anywhere this way. I have to buy books. You must help me. Let's see what's happening," said Michiko breathing hard.
Black painted cars, automobiles and buses stopped the traffic. Some people were shouting slogans for the emperor. The white and red Hinomaru flags fluttered amidst sweating cops who zestfully directed the traffic. Loudspeakers blared in Japanese, vibrating the tympanic membrane somewhat painfully. The clash of competing philosophies can sometimes become irksome. We stood near a teishoku-ya or set menu shop smelling cooked rice and fish. Michiko interpreted all the messages in the maelstrom. She told me an office receptionist behind us just commented that this was the biggest protest march she had seen this month. A new generation had suddenly emerged, the shinjinrui, who wanted to do away with American influence, and reestablish abiding cultural values of the past. Michiko signed a protest memorandum against the French nuclear tests in Mururoa Atoll and donated five hundred yen to the cause.
"Mike, sign here! They are collecting money to send student representatives to Papette to protest. Some of them are my friends."
"Wonderful, but I have a few questions," I said.
"Oh forget about the questions. Sign here in Katakana."
I dutifully did. Criticism and disagreements are useless when concern for others and love for Michiko become overriding values. She was assertive where necessary, and modest when possible.
In the street the steel-meshed sewage smelled acrid with putrefying waste. Sushi bars, soba restaurants, tonkatsu shops sent their appetizing fragrances through exhaust fans directly into your face. Michiko's books were simple: A Dictionary of English Idioms, Arabian Nights and a copy of Time magazine. Sometimes the smell of old books can be invigorating. The spirit wanted to embark upon a Faustian journey and verify conclusions from great souls from the past and the not-so-distant-past, souls like Plato, Dante, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Oppenheimer, Steiner, Reich, Kierkegaard, Tian-tai, Confucius, Buddha, Lao-tzu and a host of others. The problem has always been what to incorporate and what to delete from the microchip of intelligence. Another problem was how to increase data access and yet not cause confusion. Themes sometimes mismatch. What to choose'the Apollonian principle or the Dionysian? But can one choose? For over two millennia philosophers have deliberated about the concepts of choice and free will. And they have argued that free will always has to do with moral responsibility. There is a metaphysical imperative that somewhere along the line we are responsible for our actions, given our sanity. The law establishes an epistemic rider that if we are in control of our senses, compos mentis, then we are aware of alternatives before us. And if we are 'aware' of alternatives we possess the ability to comprehend the moral significance of our choices.
How should we handle this forking path, this either/or category? If we wish to lead an authentic life we have to make a Kierkegaardian choice and leap into the dark. We have to play out our aesthetic, ethical or religious choices. But the aesthete avoids choices. He just wants to float along in the direction of his tendency. This tendency could be pretty women, money, fame, fortune or fantasy. The moment we decide to play a social role we must choose. Confucius would like us to believe that our social roles map our identity. Our identity awaits us as an empty dinner chair. The moment we occupy it we become who we really are. We can decide to become exemplary or petty, junzi or xiao ren. But then Confucius also tells us that there are no ethical choices as there is only one life of Tao. So no leaping like a frog in the dark! Just stay where you are.
Tian-tai exhorted his disciples not to separate the world of phenomena from the world of nirvana. They are one and the same. There was only one reality he said, no duality. If there was one reality how can we choose? Or is choice just an illusion? Nietzsche felt that since human agents possessed a will they were capable of making free and autonomous choices. It was another matter that they did not understand free and autonomous choices. For Heidegger's dasein was a being engaged in the world, something that both Descartes and Kant had forgotten to interrogate. Our being was neither subject nor object but a coherent being-in-the-world. Dasien possessed the power to choose, to confront a paradox or reject a tradition. In the presence of a confused and confusing cosmic intelligence Michiko waited patiently for my attention.
"When I read the Time magazine I have many questions. So, Mike, you must explain to me everything."
"Give me some time for Time and I'll explain everything. I can't explain everything in no time. The temporal can only be understood against eternity. Divest yourself of time and you divest yourself of everything. There is no memory, no ego, no culture, no value no identity. Man becomes Proteus himself. The sea becomes his basic element. He floats forever, free of feelings. See, no anchor, no rancor!"
"You're so funny. You must tell me how to find a verb in a sentence. I have lots of problem with verbs."
"I also have lots of problems with verbs. I have problems with task verbs, achievement verbs, success verbs and failure verbs. In fact I have a problem with the whole philosophy of language and action as developed by Ryle. But I am really offended by the Greeks. They always contended to create a moral world through verbs, verbs like zo, which means to live, and bioo, which means a way of life. For them a good life was a just life and Solon felt that justice was divine power. Vlastos saw justice in the polis as a necessary condition for general peace and freedom. I don't like too much action, too much suffering. But that's being a coward. That's another problem of mine. I am chary of courage. But see, this vast universe whirls around at great speed, creating, destroying and recreating life. The moment you stop you die. Only when you spin like a top can you be stable. And once you stop spinning you topple. And imagine the earth is taking us around on its axis at a supersonic speed of 1700 km. an hour! The sun too moves at 110,000 kilometer an hour towards constellation Hercules! Even the Milky Way, with its 200 billion stars is moving. Nothing stops even for a second. Then why should I? Man must move, man must be constantly vigilant to stem the eruption of evil. Civilization is in constant danger of the evil in the human psyche. Evil men can capture nations anytime like Hitler and direct you to their evil purpose. Never let your guard down. Always be alert. Authority must be closely monitored. Nothing can be taken for granted."
"Wow! This was great! Thank you for the lecture."
"This is not a lecture but a testament of my soul."
'What is that?'
'It is my disposition, my blood that is shed for many.'
Big words Mike I told myself. I was too agitated. I needed tranquility in the midst of movement, some strong magic anchor, some effervescence of the soul. Last night I hadn't slept till five in the morning and then woke up late. At last the excitement of the day was tiring me.
"What are you going to do now, Mike?"
"I don't know. Maybe go home."
"You look tired."
"Shall we eat some ramen. I know a good place near my house."
The ramen was refreshing. It revived me.
"You need to go to an onsen and then you will be fresh again."
I kissed her but she yanked herself free. It surely wasn't embarrassment, but I couldn't understand her feelings at all.
"Let's hurry," she said.
The onsen had pictures of Mount Fuji painted on the walls. The water was steaming. It was too hot to stay for more than thirty seconds but slowly it became bearable. I was alone in the onsen. The lady was about to close the facility and go home. Michiko was paying at the counter. I had a glimpse of her from the partition separating male and female onsen.
"Would you like to drink some beer? asked Michiko from across.
"No. I think I should make a move. I wouldn't get a train back home."
Michiko only smiled. Her skin glowed like a flower. I thought of pink cherry blossoms pattering at night. But this was no season for cherry blossoms. There was a nip in the air. Crickets were chirping intensifying the silence.
"It will be a cool autumn," said Michiko.
"It will be a pink autumn for me."
"Autumn is never pink here. It is yellow and russet."
I returned from Santa Barbara early in April with a silver medallion of the saint. There were flowers everywhere. Everything was different. My own company was not willing to take me back. There were too many people looking for work and there was not much work here. I looked for a regular job for two months with no real success. I wasn't starving but I wasn't surviving either. In the first week of April I met Shirley. She wasn't sharing a room with Yuko anymore. Yuko had found a Malaysian trader and was planning to get married to him.
"She has taken him to Niigata to introduce him to her parents. She will stay in Kuala Lumpur for one year then return to Tokyo with him," said Shirley.
"That's news to me. Things happen fast here, don't they? So, both of you were just friends?"
"What else did you think we were lesbians? How's your pretty little Jimbocho girl?"
"Don't sound astonished. I am a McPherson and a Gaelic fairy. I observe like an overseer. You're a fast worker too. Kissing her on the street!"
"Nonsense! I never did such a thing."
"You bloody liar. Yuko's brother saw you. He told Yuko and Yuko obviously told me. She's my friend, you see. Takes care of my interest!"
"I don't know any girl in Jimbocho."
"Who's saying she's from Jimbocho. She may be from Ochanomizu or thereabouts."
"What do you mean?"
"Now don't hedge. You want her letter or not?"
"Got you! It's all right Mike. You have your fling but rest assured you'd come back here ... if you understand your interest. These local girls are nice but not stable with foreigners."
"I guess you have a point. May I have the letter?"
"Sure, sure! Here it is."
I opened the letter in the 8:30 night train to Tachikawa. It was written on light pink paper with cherry blossoms on it. Michiko began:
Thank you very much for the wonderful time you gave me at Jimbocho. Often I'm frightened of foreigners for they talk loudly and make me feel foolish and surprised. But you laugh so much and are childish and playful. When I was sad you encouraged me. You made me feel good. I have learnt so much from your example. I can rest in your shadow. I am going home, to Kyoto, on a month's vacation. When I return I will meet you. Sometime I will like to invite you to my home in Kyoto. Kyoto is very beautiful. You will like it. Please take care of yourself and do not fall sick. Bye, bye!
I wondered how a letter, even after six months, could bring back the magic of Michiko. The soul always withdrew from commitment but feeling lonely, came back in a good-natured way to commitment. Good nature in itself meant nothing. The world wanted justice howsoever you hated that word. It needed a person like Emerson, with steel in his heart, one who could stand alone and fight vanity. Everything about me is conceited. I neither remember friends nor foes. I forget everyone. I am a creature of the moment, caring only for myself. I always impose on others, not desiring them to impose on me. I imposed on Michiko and then forgot about her. I never even told her that I was leaving for the US. Confucius aspired to give peace to old folks, created trust amongst friends. He valued the young. What noble goals for a human being are inscribed in the Analects! I'm a thief of emotions, a usurper of others' feelings. I want to share nothing with my fellow beings. Forget about sharing my horses and carriages, my clothes and my furs! After all my good education where am I? My character is essentially stunted. There is no freshness of morning in it. Therefore I'm a creature of the night, not fit for human company. And my education can't even produce things for me. I'm perpetually broke, living on the charity of others, stealing their feelings. The purpose of education is not just to empower you to produce goods. Human beings are not automations. Man's life must evolve into something higher, something better, where its quintessence becomes noble, non-egotistical, and estimable.
I emerged from the underground vestibule into the moonlit night of Ochanomizu. Pink cherry blossoms bloomed on both sides of the street. Their blossoms were strewn along the sidewalks. My heart rejoiced seeing the cherry trees in bloom. Michiko was not home but her red bicycle was parked under the staircase. I wandered on the streets for an hour taking in the fragrance of spring. Michiko's letter was so flawless. She must have taken help from someone. Something was changing in me. I returned to check once more. She had returned.
Her room was well lit carrying a faint musk fragrance of Jean Patou's Joy. There was a poster of Matsuda Seiko singing 'I'll Fall in Love.' Michiko was happy to see me. But I could sense a reticence in her when I kissed her. She was a bit strange.
"You took so long to answer my letter."
"I'm sorry. I returned from Santa Barbara ... then ... I.... Last night'. Only this afternoon I got your letter from Shirley."
"Shirley is your best friend?"
"No she isn't. She's just an acquaintance."
"I'm also the same?"
"No you are not."
"It's too late. You must not go back Mike. Have you eaten dinner?"
"Oh, my poor boy! I'll make some buckwheat noodles, miso soup and fish. Okay?"
"Do you like koto music? This one is called Sakura."
Michiko had found another job. Her parents didn't want her to work but to return to Kyoto and get married. They didn't need her money. They were not rich but not poor either. Michiko had a house around the old Kyoto Imperial Palace. Here she was living alone.
"You can sleep in the next room. My roommate has gone home. She'll be back next month."
"I see,' I said brusquely.
"Don't be angry Mike."
"I can still go home. I once walked back from Tokyo to Tachikawa because I didn't have money. The police caught me twice and asked me questions. It's been bad for me lately. But never mind I'm used to insults and injuries. I guess I deserve them. Haven't I contributed my share of bad karmas too, for which I must pay back in this lifetime. You only live once and then suffer oblivion where all the humiliation and impairment are forgotten. What am I to you? Nothing! Just some funny guy you met at a railway station. I'm just nobody, nothing to you."
"That's not true, that's not true. If it was, I wouldn't have written the letter to you. And I wouldn't have waited for a reply. You never told me you were going to the United States. You never even contacted me. You have to live and let live. But no, that even, is not the reason."
"I'm worried about AIDS. You're too free with your feelings. You're too generous. You'll give anything to anyone. How can I be sure? How can I know? These are things you cannot ask. And then my boyfriend came back. He agreed to go to France with me ... ."
"Boyfriend? To France? To do what?"
"Oh Mike it's so embarrassing. I should have told you. But I'm a simple girl. I'm timid. I couldn't ... I just couldn't ...."
I stood there stunned. My ears were tingling; my mouth was dry, my heart was bursting open. There was a constriction in my soul like Saint Teresa. It wanted to be free of this world. Oh my god! I'm free with my emotions.
I stumbled down the staircase as I heard a violent knocking at my heart. Michiko's voice was fading away in the distance. The anonymity of the night welcomed me. I wandered towards the Holy Resurrection Cathedral. The green eye of the dome stared at me unremittingly. Sage Nikolai was trying to say something to me. The earth had stopped shaking but the bell in the belfry was gone. Perhaps it had fallen through the dome.
What else can one do, if one has to be honest with the self? Michiko thinks I've got AIDS. Nobody will believe me that even at thirty I'm a virgin. There were Shirley's goods on display and I wasn't interested in them. And had I tried with Yoko I would have triumphed. But that is being too presumptuous. That is my problem. I am too bloody presumptuous! Who can say she may have a boyfriend waiting on the sly too. Everyone has somebody waiting on the sly. There are too many surrogates slicing the heart with secret emotions. Solemn declarations of love are made. But I am a coward. I dread scenes. I know Shirley would be mad if I did it with Yoko. And Michiko thinks I'm cheap, licentious, a womanizer. Nobody loves no one! We are all terminal cases.
My eyes filled up with tears. Tears poured down my cheeks. What a fool I was. Lord, if we are deceived it is by thee! This body, this garment, must I exchange it with the stinking homeless of Shinjuku? Was it Francis of Assisi, or Ignatius Loyola, who gave his body to a beggar? O Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace! I felt as if my body was not mine. I recoiled from touching myself. No one came to console me. But I cried tasting the salt of my own despair, the terrible loneliness in my soul. My tears fell ceaselessly on the cherry blossoms on the roadside making them soggy. I picked up a single cherry blossom and its petals fell apart. I did not mind any failure anymore. My heart felt the metallic rasp of the cherry blossom music. Something in me was getting torn to rags by a scythe. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born eternal! The sadness of the last few months was slowly receding. The waiting in my heart was gone.
More by : Mukesh Williams