Over Mount Fuji (18)

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July 6 —
In her bedroom, Nobuko tried on a silk blouse. Normally she preferred lavender, but this evening she chose a pattern of lime green and yellow to complement her black skirt.

Anticipating a chilly night, she took out a maroon suede jacket. But as she stretched her arms to put it on, she realized her skirt was sliding down her ankle.

“Stop it, XiaoLun,” Nobuko said, realizing what her Pekinese had done as he jumped onto her bed and laid on his back.

Nobuko couldn’t resist giving her golden brown dog a tummy rub, followed by a snuggle and a squashy hug. XiaoLun seemed to enjoy the moment, remaining still, allowing her to rub his ears and forehead.

After kissing his wrinkled muzzle, Nobuko strolled to the mirror. As she gazed at herself, she smiled, feeling elegant. But her Pekinese followed her, stood on his hind paws and rested his front paws on her knees, sniffing the air. When Nobuko stepped aside, XiaoLun jumped excitedly with his bowed legs, pawing and squealing.

Tanabata-seasonNobuko ignored him; she kept looking at herself before the mirror. She frowned; her height bothered her. Wishing for a few extra inches, she stretched on her tiptoes like a ballerina.

“Stop jumping and sniffing my backside.” Still her puppy kept padding around, jumping, wagging his tail and barking as though expecting a visitor.

When the doorbell rang, XiaoLun barked repeatedly. Nobuko raced after XiaoLun down the stairway. Downstairs, she put on a pair of high-heeled shoes.

“Stop it,” Nobuko said as she held her puppy close and planted another kiss on his muzzle and forehead before putting the Pekinese down. “Be good, XiaoLun. I’m just going out with a friend.”

Nobuko opened and closed the door behind her and exchanged a few pleasantries with Byron.

“It’s the Tanabata season right now,” she said. “Would you like to see this festival in downtown Tokyo?”

“That sounds great,” he replied before strolling to the subway. “I’d love to see the real Tokyo at night.”

Real Tokyo?”

“Is it held in the backstreets and alleys?”

Nobuko nodded and led the way through the crowd, joining theatergoers, sightseers, peddlers and street entertainers. Their numerous and constant covert glances reminded her of a disdain for anyone associating with a barbarian, more so on a date.

Taking her arm, Byron escorted her from the subway. “What’s wrong, Nobuko?”

She blushed. “We Japanese distrust foreigners. Haven’t you noticed people staring at us? My father warns me to be careful.”

“That’s natural.” Byron took her hand and gave it a gentle caress. “All parents are like that. They worry too much.”

“I feel like a prisoner. I had to beg him to let me see you.”

Despite the noise and the humid summer night, the touch of his hand entwined her with a warmth she had never felt before. Yet, her heart skipped a beat when she glanced at him, overwhelmed by the sweet silence between them. “Did I tell you I was born in the States?”

“No, but I thought you had spent time there.”

Although the muscular gaijin occupied her mind, memories came rushing back. “I was born in Boston when my father worked there.”

“I can see that. Your manner, the way you speak, there isn’t much of an accent. Do you think of yourself as American?”

“No, I’m Japanese, although I went to a public American school.” She tightened her grip on his hand as they strolled through the chilly night. “When I was eleven, my father brought us home.”

“That’s unusual. I thought all Japanese expatriates send their children to some exclusive school.”

“My father sent me to a school to mix with the locals. Still, I grew up as Japanese.” She frowned, recalling the freedom Americans enjoyed; they could express their opinions openly, and were blessed with spaces. “My family and I love this country, but I also like America.”

BYRON LOOKED AROUND. Orange, white and red flashes of lights converged into a swift-moving current in the glow cast by lines of mercury lights. Horns blared despite the lateness of the hour. Here and there skyscrapers towered, giant black slabs speckled with lights.

“Lots of wealthy people around,” Byron said.

“Lots in poverty, too. We have a continuous flow of refugees streaming from Hokkaido, where a surge of alien abduction reports are causing panics; many are now peddlers and beggars.” Nobuko turned to face him. “Do you wish to be wealthy?”

He froze for a moment. “Not with a degree in geology, unless I strike a gold mine.”

A sense of despondency stirred him. As the night air flushed her cheeks, the allure of her dark hair and sparkling eyes drew him.

He shook his head, trying to concentrate on the surroundings. The city wasn’t just jam-packed, but noisy. A city of contrasts, squalor compared against those riding in elegant Mecedes-Benzs and business bonanzas. Unparalleled social disasters mingled with corporate success; homelessness rubbed shoulders with spectacular beauty within the same street. Immersed with new technology, yet it was a place where archaic floats, paper lanterns and balloons grandstanded everywhere.

“What is this festival about?”

“The Tanabata season celebrates the story of a princess falling in love with a cow herder.”

“I can’t imagine a princess fallen with one who works on a farm.”

“There are always princesses who appreciate love and humility from a prince, even where they live on the opposite side of the Milky Way, and they were allowed to meet only once a year.”

Her words comforted Byron. But as the noises intensified with the crowd’s rowdiness, he became disconcerted when Nobuko struggled on to explain that people had written romantic poems on small colorful strips of paper, hanging them on bamboo branches and poles along the streets. Amidst booming drums that sounded continually, touts tried to attract customers while hawking everything from undergarments to love amulets.

Further up the street, boisterous trade took place in crowded restaurants and side stores. Monks in crimson robes hastened along, fumbling with prayer beads. A city full of ambiguities, Byron thought as he and Nobuko hustled toward a narrower lane—nightclubs on one side and makeshift shelters on the other.

Jostling along the fashionable alley, Byron became nauseated when alluring scents used by ladies of the night and smells from the kitchens mingled with the odor of rotting foods from garbage bins outside grocery stores. Clatter reverberated from the walls, making it difficult for him to hear anything less than a shout. Teenage girls wearing miniskirts provided a brief change of atmosphere while they loitered and flirted with drunken men singing war songs.

“This place is busting with activity,” Byron said, dazed when they reached an open space. “I feel like I’ve been in a fight.”

“We’re reacting against social pressure. Maybe that’s why we have the highest suicide rate in the world.”

He shook his head. “With so much prosperity?”

“We live with a Sinking Syndrome. People throw themselves in front of approaching trains; others end their lives in mountain hideouts. Now they meet through chat rooms and die in groups of tens or twenties.”

They continued their stroll. Hundreds of huge paper lanterns painted with kanji ideograms, hung from first-story eaves along restaurants, cafes and sushi bars on both sides of the alleys.

Nobuko seemed content to be hand-in-hand with him, but when he began to walk in awkward steps, she slowed her pace. “Byron, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing serious,” he said.

She paused, tightening her hand on his. “But you’re limping.”

“It’s from the Rockdale quake three months ago. And it’s far better than having to use crutches.”

“Should we find a seat?”

“The muscles spasm,” he said as her eyes showed concern. “It’s only when I walk over a long distance. Otherwise, I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not being truthful. Shall we find something to eat?”

Byron breathed in, tried to suck in the new aroma and rid himself of the ones he’d just passed through. Now he could smell a new strange assortment of aromas—the fragrance of sukiyaki merged with the odor of roasted eel. “Fine, and I’m hungry, too.”

They entered Fujisan Seafood and waited. Byron looked around, crowded, feeling uncomfortable with so much noise. The waitresses shouted orders to the kitchen, and unseen kitchen staff yelled back in return. Beneath brightly-lit lanterns with Kanji calligraphy, chefs skillfully sliced raw fish and complemented the dishes with a variety of sauces. The pervasive smell of garlic made him hungrier. Soon they were shown to their seats.

Byron ordered a salmon while Nobuko chose a salad. He savored her presence—her gestures, her face, her voice and especially her eyes. Concerned she might resent his intense focus, he scanned the patrons nearby. “Why’s everyone so hyper?”

“They’re debating,” she said. “Everyone seems to sense the end is near. ‘Life is for a perishable moment, as brief as a blossom’.”

Everything about her was elegant and appealing. He wanted to talk more, but the waitress arrived with their dishes.

Byron ate several mouthfuls, then sat back. Seeing that Nobuko took small bites and drank only her tea, he frowned. “You’re not eating. Is something wrong?”

“I’m not hungry.” Nobuko glanced at him and pointed to his left wrist. “What’s this, Byron?”

“A jade bangle, that’s all.”

“Jade? Are you superstitious?”

“Of course not.” He frowned. “I’m a scientist. I can’t be superstitious. Anybody can wear a jade.”

“But superstition says jade protects one from harm in a fall.”

Byron sighed. “I don’t wear it because it can protect me. It’s just a memento, that’s all.”

“Sentimental reasons?”

“It was my uncle Simon’s last wish that I have this.”

“Did your uncle practice Oriental beliefs?”

“I suppose he did while working in an Asian Affairs institution.”

NOBUKO LEANED FORWARD. She didn’t want to be rude but needed a closer look at the bangle. “Simon?” That name sounded familiar.

“Yes, his name is Simon Macleay.”

“Oh, that’s amazing.” She paused, stunned for a moment as memories kicked in. Her class had presented this jade bangle to him during his farewell. “Simon Macleay was my English teacher at Bunyo College.”

“That’d be him,” Byron said, taking a photo from his wallet to show her. “He died in the Rockdale quake.”

“That’s Simon Macleay . . .” Her face twisted as intense emotions choked her. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

“I’m sorry,” Byron said, moving to sit beside her.

From her bag, she took a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. She couldn’t speak; her words caught in her throat. For a moment, her head bowed low.

He slid his arm around her shoulders, but it gave her little comfort. She struggled to stifle her sobs, but her mind was lost in the past.

“I’m sorry, Nobuko,” Byron said again. “Let’s take a walk.”

With a raspy breath, she nodded, forced herself onto her feet, swallowed back another tear, wondering how a decent life could end so suddenly.

Byron paid the bill, then held her hand. “Where can we go at this hour?”

She didn’t answer, momentarily unsure of her sense of direction. Walking hand in hand, she led him into a shortcut along an alley. “Byron,” she said, remembering a popular place her family had often visited, “we should visit an old teahouse.”

“That’s a great idea.”

“It’s called the Morning Rose.”

“That’s unusual. They like using a western name?”

“We embraced western culture wholeheartedly during the Meiji era,” Nobuko said.

BYRON KNEW IT was a misnomer. He could recall at one time in Japan’s history, they became fanatical about anything Western. Although they had reverted back to their traditional values and considered anything western uncultured if not barbarous, why would they continue to use such names? Surely it’s a contradiction.

Strolling along the lane, Byron felt uncomfortable when some men stared menacingly at them. “Among roses,” he whispered, “there’re always some thorns.”

“You sound grumpy, Byron.” She pointed out a teahouse at the end of the lane. “We’ll find a peaceful place.”

Passing down the short lane, Byron looked at a number of stores lining both sides. A crowded teahouse opened into a thoroughfare. A few raucous men drank sake while singing karaoke.

Two stocky men with uncertain gaits staggered from behind one of the tables set out on the pavement. Their florid faces, loud talk and wobbly stride bespoke heavy drinking. Both wore dark kimonos with wide sashes. One had his right arm exposed, showing off a dragon tattoo across the length of his bicep.

“Hey, are you that stupid American I saw on TV?” he said in halting English, pointing at Byron. “Ha! Ha! You’re that idiot predicting the collapse of Izu Peninsula?”

Byron returned the man’s insolent stare, noting the scars on his left cheek and upper nose.

“Are you going to pay compensation to those victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” another man shouted.

Their eyes met. The cold stare reaffirmed the threat carried through his voice. The man began to shout tête-à-tête in rapid Japanese, the other followed. The singing stopped. They stepped forward, eyes narrowed and lips tight. Distressed, Nobuko pulled Byron away.

“Are they insulting you?” Byron asked.

“It’s alright,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Byron stood firm. From her tone, he knew the men had upset her. He faced the tattooed man, staring into his eyes.

Like a charging bull, the other man lunged forward and threw a punch at Byron’s jaw, knocking him to the ground. Stars spun in his Bryon’s head, but he stood up.

The man with the tattoo closed the distance. He threw a left jab. Bryon fell back, gasping, holding his stomach. The man advanced. More punches flew, but Byron jumped and sidestepped.

The scar-faced man came rushing from the darkness behind rows of lanterns. He leapt up, pivoted and kicked Byron on his temple, slamming him against a table. The tattooed man charged forward but Byron threw a couple of left-right jabs into his stomach. The man stood unsteadily. Bryon followed with a sidekick, knocking him to the ground.

The scar-faced man dashed back with a sword. He lunged at Bryon who sprang back. When the man charged, Byron sidestepped and grabbed the man’s shoulder; the blade nicked the top of Byron’s left arm. The attacker charged again, but Byron dodged the sword’s path. With the edge of his hand, Byron struck the attacker’s wrist, causing him to release the hilt. He threw out a sharp right punch at the man’s face, another punch landed right on his stomach.

The tattooed man repositioned himself. He paced around with a nunchuka. Bryon stared at the two short sticks joined by a chain as the man swung it round his body, issuing a booming sound. He charged forward, swinging his weapon. Byron ducked, stepped back and ducked again. The tattooed man swung again and again, hitting tables and walls. When he lunged, Byron sidekicked his face, intercepting the nunchuka with his hand, grabbed hold of the man’s right arm, twisted it round his back before snatching away the nunchuka.

Byron swirled in quick succession with the weapon, and in a blur of motion hit at the charging man with a sword. When the man swung the sword at him, Byron took the ends of the two sticks and blocked his swipes with the chain, making a clang.

He swung the nunchuka at the tattooed man, knocking the sword out of his hand. He turned to swing at the scar-faced man, smashing him. Byron followed up with a succession of swings, hitting both men. Yelling aloud, he finished it with two successive kicks to their chests, sending both flying.

They hit the sidewalk, blood oozing from the mouth of one and the nose of the other. Byron waited. With groans and growls, they scuttled away.

Nobuko rushed to Byron’s side, touching his face, arms and shoulders. “You may have fought them off this time,” she said. “But they’ll be back.”

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