The brothers never spoke again, and their mother passed away the next spring. David blamed it on the double shock—firstly, seeing Paul in the hospital waiting room, grey and rumpled and with a huge white swathe of gauze plastered to his head where they had apparently shaved away the hair for a pre-op scan; and then the conversation with the hospital when she rang the next week to confirm the surgery time. But he used her money as she had asked to get Paul a nice room. Paul spent most of his days staring at the dappled light cast on the white wall by the trees outside, and listening to the bathroom tap drip, drip, drip.
The rat paused. The first spring winds were beginning to finger the blossom-laden cherry trees, and a handful of torn petals swirled past, shoring up against an upside-down bowl. Spilt tea darkened the gold of the tatami matting, and the fragments of a crushed tea whisk skittered backward and forward in the breeze. The rat eased itself inside the tea room and sniffed again. In the alcove, a newly-hung scroll—a barely-sketched flowering plum with three sparrows high in its branches—bumped against the pale plaster wall. Sensing no other life, the rat shot across the open space shelter into the crook of an out-flung arm. When it climbed higher, it left tiny red footprints on the gray kimono cloth. Outside in the distance came the drone of planes, which flew sleek and dark and dangerous across the weak spring sun.
In eyelid darkness, you ride the pain by sorting. Sound has four levels—the hiss of trains; footsteps, doors and absorbed voices; and the constant zzzt of the tattooist’s drill, helping to drown the sounds that are also sensation—the stylus dipping into the skin, and jarring breath. Pain too has levels. Least must be the sketch lines of the emerging tiger, beginning to stroll with careless power. His stripes hurt, but in short enough bursts. It’s in the deep shadows of his coat that time stops and you dig for strength. But finally now his eyes, his fangs, his razor claws. A last brusque swab across tender skin. The drill hushes but nerves continue to sing with strange intensity. In this way you have earned the protection now carved into your back, so that when you step outside, you are not alone and the world is not the same.
Five in the morning, and Shibuya’s narrow streets are bright but almost bare of anyone but tramps and crows competing for the same garbage-bag feasts behind fast food restaurants. A truck rumbles past, sending white polystyrene boxes into sudden flight. Snack bar signs flicker and dim, waiting for the evening to come again. A boot crunches down on the escaped polystyrene, followed by long thin legs and a leather trench coat. “Akira?” The pile of bags against the wall twitches. “Password?” “I brought coffee.” She extends the takeout cup toward the pile. “Password!” “Seriously? Every time?” The pile is unmoved. “Dog Star.” A hand comes out from the bags to take the coffee, and another pushes a bag aside just enough to expose a shock of white-bleached hair and one deeply shadowed eye. “They know,” he says.
Tokyo at midnight in mid-winter is frozen so hard that an unwary footstep could snap it. The man pauses to look down into a tiny backyard wilderness. For a year he has watched it, but the only movement apart from a noisy troupe of parakeets—fellow strangers, they make him smile—has been the seasons. So far, he has identified a cherry, a maple, and now a persimmon, bare of all but the very last ripe, orange fruit that glows like the essence of summer. Back home, the last persimmons would have been sliced weeks ago; tonight his wife will have a spoon deep in last year’s preserves as she stares out at the new snow. His children will be asleep under heavy quilt covers in the next room, and a man whom he has never met will straighten up from the stove and look across the room.
Weeks of endless drizzle and the tatami matting is beginning to sprout, which is not as bad as the scabrous mold patches growing on the white plaster wall. The constant dampness has her dreaming that mushrooms are unfurling from her sleeping body as it dissolves into rich loam. She writes letters home describing narrow streets with bonsai piled on shelves outside ramshackle wooden houses, fresh flowers in tiny shrines, carts selling hot kumara, seaweed-wrapped rice cakes and chestnuts. She leaves out the man in the next room she can see through the gap in the plaster, and the cockroach which lives on top of her fridge door, forgotten every time until she opens the fridge forgetting that she won’t be able to afford food until the end of the month when she finally gets paid.
The boy in the next room turns out to be in love with him. A random visit to borrow a cup of rice reveals a whole wall of paparazzi-style shots. Once he has recovered from the shock of so much exposure to his own face, he sits down for a pot of green tea hastily prepared on a hot plate in the corner. The boy explains that he is from Thailand—just like his last lover, grown up and married now—here to learn Japanese so that he can get a better job back home, but now he can’t think of going home, because his only dream is to marry the handsome man in the next room and live with him forever. Marry me? Yes, in my dream, you are dressed in a suit, and I am wearing a white dress, and we are standing on a golden beach.
The graveyard is hung so heavily with cherry blossom that walking beneath it is like being smothered by pillows of pale pink petals. In the weekend, people will start arriving at dawn to stake their claim to a patch of ground and hold it until everyone else arrives around mid-noon, armed with hibachi barbeques and boxes of beer and sake. The blossom will float in the glow of fluorescent street lights, and the party will rage with the knowledge that the first spring gales will arrive soon, so soon, and shred the delicate petals into a thick brown sludge underfoot. Wabi-sabi—the impermanence of things. Walking to work between the stone walls lining the narrow graveyard alleys, she falls so deeply into thought that she only realizes later on the train that the man in the coat was a flasher and that she’d smiled and said hello.
Wabi-sabi, says the man in Mister Donuts, is something you foreigners will just never understand. He’s bleary drunk, it’s two in the morning, and the handful of people tiding out the night now until the first train don’t really look that interested. It’s bad enough that the soundtrack is set on endless repeat and the free coffee refills are getting more mud-like by the cup, but the sugar high from the donuts she feels she should keep buying is really setting her teeth on edge. Hmm, she says. It’s so sad not to be Japanese. He slurps a mouthful of coffee and puts his head down on the table, another white-collar worker in a rumpled suit who hasn’t got enough change left from the pocket money his wife gives him to find a hotel room. I can see that, she hears him say between his crossed arms.
Is wabi-sabi having your bicycle vanish inside a police station because it’s frame number was reported stolen three years ago, when you were somewhere far, far away? It was a good bicycle too, cobbled from rubbish-tip wrecks, and a far better way of seeing Tokyo than by subway. Being frogmarched down to a precinct office by two policemen in big black boots was intimidating; although not as much as the lamp shone into her face as the questions continued to rattle out. In the end, even Japanese policemen can’t arrest you for a crime committed long before you were in the country. But she doesn’t get another bicycle, and starts to avoid police boxes, and from there it’s only a matter of time before she decides to leave town. She makes sure it’s on a ticket in someone else’s name, though, out of sheer contrariness.