By Nicolas Gattig
Sachiko liked when it rained on Fridays.
It was a curious fondness, but she could have explained, if she had cared to explain. When it rained there was an obstacle to pleasure, the wind tearing at your umbrella, casting showers and coldness in your face, the elements making it harder to go outside and enjoy the weekend. You had to measure rewards and effort, weigh your resolve and make a decision. How much did you really want to have fun? Was it worth getting wet for?
On a late Friday night, the rain was caressing the windows like sad aquarian music, as Sachiko descended from the loft. Up there slept a man she’d been seeing for almost three weeks, an investment whose goal she had by turns promised and teasingly withheld, to be granted at last on this night. Now, this was where it ended. She’d go home and not see the man ever again, not call and bait him ever again, not pretend again that she cared about his job or the folk songs he composed on the guitar.
Like a stealthy porcelain doll, Sachiko slid down the ladder and arrived on the floor. Her clothes were scattered around the room in a map of immediate urges. Searching the dark, Sachiko picked up her bra, the tank top and lavender skirt, and began quietly dressing herself.
On a table in the hallway, she left a note. Please do not call. The man would call anyway, leaving increasingly pleading messages as the days wore on and the silence piled up, but listening over and over to her voice on the outgoing message, he would add up the clues and resign, reading the silence as this is it. Perhaps he would curse her, or perhaps he would shrug and move on and hook up with somebody new. Either way, Sachiko wished him well.
Tiptoeing on the hardwood floor, she crossed the hallway and the living room, ignoring the view of the bay in the French windows. In the past, sneaking out like this made her heart beat wild with anxiety, but now she knew what she was doing, the exit a ritual, practiced without misgivings. At the door, she slipped into her sandals and let herself out into the driveway, into the chilly freedom of the night.
Once in her Mazda parked on top of the hill, Sachiko turned on the music and leaned back in the seat with eyes closed. After a while, she took a chocolate Easter egg from her purse, peeled off the wrapper and began munching with absent bites, her tongue running across her teeth and the sticky-sweet caramel in her mouth, her thoughts drowned out by Nine Inch Nails, an orchestra of meaning erased. Alone in her car with the pain of Trent Reznor, Sachiko felt oddly protected and safe, as if carried to a place where nothing could reach her, as if the sound were a wall between herself and the things she could not understand.
She pulled away from the house and went on down the hill, making her way back to her apartment below the dark and dystopian clouds, a Japanese shadow in the streets of San Francisco.
All in all, it had been a good night.
Three days a week after language school, Sachiko volunteered as a sex educator. She visited middle schools in the Bay Area and gave workshops about condoms and saying no, about boundaries and choices and the parameters of sexual abuse. Using discussions and role play she taught the students that they owned their bodies, that no one should touch them if it didn’t feel good, and that they should never be pressured to keep a secret, not even by a family member. It was important, fulfilling work – on the website of her organization a girl had written, “Thank you for making me safe, strong and free” – and Sachiko knew she was at her best when she was teaching, when she gave everything that she had to the class. She enjoyed the interaction with the children, their intuitive doubt or trust as they listened to her lecture. They looked her straight in the eyes, and they trusted the sincerity they saw there.
Sachiko felt blessed to have come to America, as she couldn’t have done this work in Japan. In Nagoya, where on the trains women had separate cars to be safe from the gropings of chikan, no one wished to discuss sexuality with candor or depth, and most certainly not with a female. She was glad that America was different. Much as she missed onsen hot springs, where she could soak and relax in the scented tubs, much as she longed to rejoin her friends for a sake-drenched night at karaoke, her work and her freedom in America were more important.
It was a revelation to have come to the Land of Opportunity, where a woman could seek out her partners, sleeping with men the way men slept with women. If Sachiko could do the same, reeling in men like enamored fish and discarding them at a time of her choosing, it had to mean that she was equal at last, that at last she could own her sexuality.
Finding a partner in San Francisco was never difficult. The town was a giant meat market, full of handsome youth that had come here to binge on its freedom, an international, curious bunch open to sexual exploration of all kinds. Numberless males, as well as some females, tried to sleep with a Japanese woman, professing interest in Asian culture and combing websites for a “roommate” or “conversation exchange,” eager to stake their own claim in the lure of the Orient. Decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been haunted by pika don, the flash and boom melting human wax into pavements of cruel defeat, all things Japanese were now considered exotic and hip, the sashimi and teriyaki served on clay plates in expensive restaurants, the pale-skinned women a sought-after treasure.
American men couldn’t help but attempt to impress her, and going out with them was like watching TV. Once a guy was turned on, you could lean back and enjoy the show, all entertainment provided, with no need to speak. The best thing, they even opened the door to allow the woman to enter first, a show of respect that Sachiko found amazing.
When she had arrived in San Francisco a few months back, her classmate Tomomi introduced her to the locale. She came from a wealthy family in Osaka, a smart sassy brat and a veteran of cultural exchange. As she explained, women like them should exploit a condition called ‘yellow fever’ – the Western man’s burden of lusting for Asians to the exclusion of other females.
To Sachiko, it seemed rather simple. American men were exhausted by their women, the continuous challenge, their obsession with their careers and the endless demands for equality. Like paper tigers, men in the West were a shadow of their old self, giving in meekly to girlfriends and wives who’d grown too strong for their own good and couldn’t be feminine anymore. To them, Asian women seemed easy company, following gamely with lowered eyes.
“You find a sucker for geisha action,” Tomomi said, affecting a mock bow with folded hands, “he’s gonna do whatever you want.”
“You mean I can get a sugar daddy?” Sachiko was amused.
“If you play your cards right, you can even get Lance. Extra points if you dress like a schoolgirl. Put your hair up with chopsticks – and goo-goo eyes. He’ll ask you to stay after class for counseling!”
“How about the other way round? How about Asian women who date only Western men?”
“No word for that,” Tomomi laughed. After a pause she added, “Guess you could call it ‘yellow man’s grief’!”
The night after the loft, Sachiko had a peculiar dream.
On a bullet train to Nagoya, dressed in a business suit, slacks and sneakers, she hurried from one car to the next, weaving through crowds of anonymous businessmen while trying to find the compartment for women. The train was enveloped by rain that pelted the windows, and with dreamy unease Sachiko kept checking her watch, afraid she was late for an appointment. After what seemed like an eternity she reached a narrow, elongated tube. On a sealed-up door bulging outward, a sign read, For safe, strong, and free women only. The car was empty save for a girl who sat perched on the edge of her seat, a small redhead of eleven or twelve years, wearing a skirt and a yellow top with a print that said D IS FOR DOG.
“Hello there,” Sachiko said.
“Hello there.” The girl dangled her legs from the seat.
“You look familiar. Haven’t I seen you before?”
The girl looked up, curious. She had very large eyes, round and deep like comforting pools. “It was helpful, your presentation,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. I am glad you got something out of it.”
“Children should learn about things like that. You know, boundaries and stuff.”
“It is very important,” Sachiko nodded.
“I still don’t quite understand though. I mean, I understand what you explained. But…I don’t know. I’m still confused about sex.”
“That’s okay,” Sachiko said gently, before checking her watch. “Everyone is confused about sex.”
A new Friday night, the peak of another attachment.
Her hands on the wheel, Sachiko sat in the Mazda with eyes closed, immersed in the teachings of Nine Inch Nails. She wore a long low-cut dress, a red hat and open-toed sandals, and in a pocket of the dress was a slip of paper, a note that said Please do not call. It was seven thirty, and the sky was gloomy. The forecast predicted rain.
She was parked on Union Street in the Marina, near a restaurant serving California cuisine. There were pastel Victorian houses and small boutiques and a grooming shop for dogs, and in the distance beyond the top of the hill, the blue of the bay glistened like proof of Eden.
The place was the talk of the town, with reservations made weeks in advance and many stars from the critics that mattered. Lance would treat her to a candlelight dinner, then perhaps to a bar for a daiquiri or two, and from there on to his apartment to close the deal. “American girls close on the second date”, Tomomi had once explained.
Weeks after Easter, there still was chocolate in Sachiko’s purse, an assortment of colored eggs that kept hiding in nooks and crannies. She had resolved to cut down and eat only two eggs per day, but the regimen was hard to observe. When she had last been home to Japan, her mother complained that Sachiko was gaining weight, that she looked frumpy and Americanized and would never find a husband in Nagoya, because the men there would scorn a cow fattened in the West. Her parents were very traditional and had picked a spouse for their only child, a salaryman in her father’s department at Toyota, but Sachiko would rather have stayed exiled forever than marry a man of her father’s choice. He was the last person on earth to decide who could have her.
She took a chocolate egg from her purse, smoothed the wrapper and checked the calories. American chocolate had more sugar than Japanese, but then the people were less strict about weight. Mindful of her mother’s disapproval, she put the chocolate slowly in her mouth. Anyway, if her mother had any inkling of the trespass Sachiko planned for later on, the offense of a few extra pounds would have paled into insignificance.
Soon Lance came around the corner. He was in his early thirties, very handsome and black, with a shaved head and inexpensively tasteful clothes. From the first day at the English school, he’d caught Sachiko’s eye as if a target were drawn on his chest. Conversation after class came easy, though at first she wasn’t sure if it was proper to use the term ‘black,’ or if one should rather say ‘African-American.’ She’d been reluctant to ask Lance, afraid the question might be offensive. It was the ultimate coup for Sachiko to go out with a black man in America, both in terms of his looks and the taboo he embodied in Japan. She couldn’t say why, but she just had to sleep with a black man before she died, and she was anxious for each date to go smoothly, for her teacher to come along until the ebony skin would be hers.
She watched him enter the restaurant, turned off the music and checked her make-up in the mirror. She was about to head out, but then faltered and sank back into the seat. She looked at her face in the mirror once again, flicking her hair behind her ear with an uncertain move, then got out of the car and crossed to the restaurant.
“Hello princess.” Lance rose as Sachiko came to the table, and reaching over, he beat the hostess to offering a chair.
“Hello my prince.” Sachiko’s eyes appraised his clothes and face, the way his shaved head shimmered in the candlelight. They’d been dating for almost two weeks, going to artsy bars in the Mission and making out in front of his studio, and from the way he was dressed now and carrying himself, Sachiko knew that tonight was the night, the time for fantasies to converge and come true.
“This is my favorite spot in the city,” Lance said. “You’ll love it. They got California rolls – the original fake!”
“Sounds delicious.” Running a hand through her hair, Sachiko put a spin on her voice, an effect that made Lance look funny, like an amorous deer in the headlights. Sachiko had seen the sign many times: the cognitive skills of the neocortex abandoned, all thinking reduced to a single primordial focus, the lizard brain and its needs were taking over. From now on, she was a body conversing with a penis.
“You look beautiful tonight,” said the penis. Sachiko smiled, and the penis smiled back.
“Thank you. You look nice, too.”
The waiter appeared with the menus. The leather binding covered merely a single page, all but three dinner choices, and no prices shown. There were rows of adjectives in front of the dishes, many of them in French, and Sachiko struggled to make a decision while she was telling her teacher about Nagoya.
“We have beautiful cherry trees. And a castle with a golden fish on top. I used to go there in spring with my friends, to see the cherry blossoms falling.”
“Sounds beautiful,” Lance said, his eyes on the menu.
“I got an e-mail from my friend last night,” Sachiko went on. “She’s so excited that we are dating. You know…because you are black.”
Lance laughed politely, but then amusement drained from his face. Looking up at Sachiko, he said with the slightest edge, “I hope you’re not here just because I am black.”
There was a moment of awkward silence, as if two cats had broken a toy in play. Sachiko’s eyes left the man and slipped away into the shelter of the menu, her ears hot with embarrassment. What was the problem? Why were her friends not supposed to be excited? Why was he suddenly distant, when the remark had been meant as a compliment? Without knowing the offense, there was no way for Sachiko to apologize, and she felt uncomfortable, almost panicked, about the sense of conflict in his voice. Unable to manage her confusion, she kept her eyes in the menu without registering any of the dishes. In her pocket, the note was burning a hole into the fabric.
With every second that passed, the gap in the banter became too long to be casually dismissed. Other men whom Sachiko had dated might have liked what they saw as inscrutable silence, but Lance wasn’t fooled, keeping silent himself as if waiting for an explanation.
After a moment, Sachiko excused herself and got up. Under the watchful eyes of the teacher, she moved across the plush carpeting, but instead of turning to the bathrooms she went on past the velvety curtains, leaving the restaurant without claiming her hat. She crossed the street and got into her Mazda. For a while she just sat there hunched in the seat, listening to Nine Inch Nails and glancing up in the rearview mirror. It was soothing to be alone with Trent Reznor, and the longer she sat there and listened, the more she saw why the evening had lost its luster.
She wasn’t feeling like California cuisine at all.
Sampling the dishes in her imagination, she sensed the smells, ingredients and textures, the way each bite would taste and unfold in her mouth, and then concluded it was not what she wanted. What she really wanted was a burrito, a San Francisco specialty unavailable in Nagoya.
When her cell phone started ringing in her purse, Sachiko grabbed it and turned it off. She didn’t know what had happened, but she decided not to talk to Lance ever again. Only moments before he came out, she started the car and pulled away from the curb, away from the silence at the restaurant, the climax derailed without reason or explanation, to find a place that served Mexican food. Or perhaps she would just keep on driving, farther and farther, heading west till she reached the Pacific Ocean. She wished to drive right into the ocean, and then on over the water in pursuit of the rising sun, past the shores of Hawaii and the Bonin Islands and through the International Date Line, all the way to the coast of Japan and then on to the suburbs of Nagoya, to have dinner with her friends and go out for karaoke and drinks.
When the rain came pounding from the sky, a whole blanket of water enclosing the roof and the windows, Sachiko sensed her past welling up inside, but she quickly suppressed the feeling. She leaned back in the seat, drew a deep breath to prepare for the journey, and then cranked up the music in the speakers, trying to make out the lyrics while she was driving.
She wished the rain wouldn’t stop till Nagoya.