Like a Christmas cake
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 4: Making Perfect Bodies
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Creed O'Hanlon
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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 INTERESTING 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?"
"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?"