n evening in June found me sitting at a table in secluded corner of the Tokiwaya. My friends had gone elsewhere, and I was there alone, idly contemplating the froth in my glass of beer. Other men were on hand from the base—too many, laughing boisterously at times, dancing spastically, even idiotically in some cases. Or so it seemed to me.
This was definitely not what I had hoped for. Such frivolity only depressed me. Sitting there, staring into that glass of beer, I decided that it looked, even smelled, like urine. How long had it been now since I had visited my family? I was struck more forcibly than ever that it had been more than a year. Now it would take a miracle, the miracle of miracles, for me ever to see them again.
Why had I come here in the first place? Pushing the glass of beer aside, I leaned on the table with my face cradled in my arms. Yet where else could I go? Where lay escape? Only in that final, fatal dive. The rest was simply a matter of waiting. . . waiting. . . agonized waiting.
Several minutes had passed, and I was actually almost asleep when a hand touched my shoulder, very gently. “Are you ill?” the words came. Startled, I glanced up. The voice was incredibly soft, the face, heart shaped with high, gleaming cheek bones, the eyes dark and fathomless. Her expression? It reminded me remarkably of my own sister’s in times of greatest concern. Inquisitive, yet gentle and compassionate, not the expression of that woman of the streets.
“Is everything all right?” she inquired. What fantastic sweetness! There is no other word. “You don’t look very well.”
Momentarily it occurred to me that she couldn’t really be interested, not in my personal problems. After all, she was being paid to be nice; it was simply part of her job. Yet there was something about her eyes now, a kind of wistful light that belied such explanations. Her gaze had captured my own almost hypnotically, but suddenly, highly embarrassed, I glanced down at the table. “No, not. . . I’m not sick. Just. . . well, thinking.”
“Ah so,” she said, softly yet with strange wonderment, as though my thoughts must have been quite profound, eminently worthy of her attention. The smile flowed, this time with a tinge of mischief, but again the ineffable sweetness. “Would you care to dance?”
Forcing a twitching smile, I shook my head. “I’m afraid I’m not very good.” Then I was stammering again, terribly humiliated. “I don’t even know how, in fact.”
“That’s all right,” she replied and hesitated. For one desperate moment I feared that she would leave, vanish from my life forever. “Would you mind if I sat down for a while? Here with you?”
I glanced at her again and reddened. Still the same expression. She had never once averted her gaze from my face. “Yes,” I said, “I mean, no. I’d be happy to. . . have you sit down. I mean, if you aren’t too busy. If you really want to.”
‘Thank you,” she said.
We sat in silence for a moment, her eyes still upon me while I stared at my hands, gaze flicking up once or twice to meet her own but unable to maintain contact. “Could I buy you a beer?” I asked, “some dinner?” She shook her head. “No, but that’s surely nice of you. Thank you
very, very much.” Yes, she was like Tomika, not so much physically as the expression, her entire demeanor. I cast furtive glances at the intricate flowered designs on her kimono—silver and gold—and let my gaze descend to the soft white tabi, stockings with a separate sleeve for the big toe. Everything about her was neat and delicate, her hands like those of a ceramic geisha as were her feet in their woven zori. Yet she possessed those feminine fluid contours that any normal man would regard with fascination.
Vainly I struggled for something to say. Conversation with my friends had never been difficult, but now with this woman simply sitting there, steadily watching me. . . it was a strange situation indeed. “Well. . .” I managed at last, “I supposed I should be getting back to the base.” Intending to sip my beer, I began to stand, lifted the glass, and accidentally took too large a gulp, half choking.
Her eyes were full of amusement, the mischief increasing, and her hand reached out to touch, even press, my own. “Wait, please!” Mystified, I sat down again, this time finally staring at her directly. Could it possibly be that she was infatuated with me, maybe—for some weird reason—even in love? Vain, foolish idea, but what was the answer? “Would you mind greatly if I asked you a personal question?” she inquired.
“Ah. . . yes, I guess so.” The imbecilic stammering again. “I mean— no, I don’t mind!” I blurted, wondering why I had said the simple word “no” so loudly. People were even looking at us. “It’s all right.”
“Good,” she said, “and please don’t be offended, but I can’t help wondering how old you are.”
So that was it. I felt myself becoming angry. Almost gruffly, I replied, “I—I’m twenty, twenty years old. Why? Why do you ask?”
“Ah so desuka!” She sounded as if that were a marvelous achievement, very respectful. “Is that true? Twenty?”
“Hai” I replied even more abruptly. “Why do you want to know?” “Oh, you really are angry, aren’t you?” For the first time, she glanced down. “Please excuse me for my extreme presumption.” For a few seconds I thought that she was going to cry. “The reason I asked. . . I just had to because. . . you remind me so much of my younger
brother, so very much I can hardly believe this is happening.” Again, Tomika—especially that unique pleading quality in her eyes the night she had learned of my enlistment. The tear falling on my photograph. “He was killed in Burma.”
“Oh,” I said, suddenly feeling sick—sorrow for her, but also a sense of dread as though it were an omen. “I am terribly sorry.”
For a time we simply looked at each other, immersed in a great sense of pathos, of tragedy—in a strange kind of rapport that I had never experienced before. “I am so sorry,” I said. “You must miss him very greatly.”
She barely nodded. For a minute or two we remained there in silence. Then at length she reached out, pressing her hand against my own again, and I could feel the emanations of life. Somehow it all seemed very natural.
By now, however, it was closing time, and we were saying farewell. Beginning to leave, I paused, glancing back at her. They were turning out the lights, and her face in the gathering darkness was remarkably luminous and phantom-like. “I’m so very sorry about your brother,” I repeated and hesitated. “I lied to you about my age, because I was ashamed. I am only sixteen too. Well, almost seventeen,” I added.
‘Thank you,” she said, “for your compassion, and for your honesty. A tear glistened in the corner of her eye, and she barely touched it with the tip of one finger. “Will you be coming back?”
“I hope so,” I replied. “I want to.”
The following evening, having flown another escort mission, I returned promptly to the Tokiwaya, ordered a second noxious beer and sat down at the same table. Minutes crawled by during which time I feigned interest in my drink, once even raising the glass and sighting at the colored lights though its contents. A blue light turned it green, red light a dull orange. At least that was an improvement, but in reality, of course, I was only looking for one thing: that remarkable young woman from the night before.
Eventually, I arose and crossed the fringe of the dance floor, greeting a few friends along the way, to obtain some peanuts and packet of fried squid. That too, however, was only a pretense. For perhaps twenty minutes I had
been looking everywhere, covertly but also obsessively, to no avail. Then I returned, and sat there absorbed in the dark surface of the table with its slurred and amorphous motions of people dancing. Perhaps the idea was not to look for her at all. Maybe then she would materialize magically as on the night before and lay her hand upon my shoulder.
Another fifteen minutes elapsed, and I was rapidly becoming more restless, even irritated. Each time some girl passed by, I angled a glance, but never a sign of the right person. Once I thought I saw her dancing with an airman I knew, and my heart squirmed. But wrong again. She was not there.
Dismayed, I stood, ready to leave, offering the Tokiwaya one final, panoramic overview. Gone. . . non existent. A mere dream. So now, another hot, nightmarish siege in the barracks. A girl passed by carrying bowls of soba noodles, sloshing the contents of one in her haste. Surprising myself, I called out to her, but she continued with her tray, barely casting me a glance and murmuring something I didn’t catch.
Then she returned. “What would you like?”
Suddenly I realized that I didn’t even know the other girl’s name. “That person I was with last—” I was almost stammering. “The one sitting here with me last night for quite a while. At this table. Do you know which one I mean?” She merely looked confused and shook her head. “The girl with the long hair,” I persisted. “Very pretty.” My face was flushing absurdly. “Long hair, tied in back.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I just started working here.”
“All right, thank you,” I said dejectedly, got up and walked toward the exit.
I closed the door behind me hard, shutting out the music and the laughter, then wandered slowly down the street, hands in my pockets, watching my feet move steadily with a life of their own. Maybe a little walk around town. Maybe I would go see a prostitute, after all. That would serve her right—asking me to come back, then not even being there! I spat in the gutter, and my mouth felt dry. Simultaneously I heard the clop-clop of wooden geta approaching rapidly behind me.
“Ano!” It was the same girl I had just queried. Breathlessly she accosted me. “That girl you were asking for—it’s her night off.” I offered my thanks profusely, even bowing, and she giggled, clearly embarrassed. “You’re welcome.” Then she was clattering off again.
“Wait!” I called. “Normally I would never have asked the next question, but now it seemed imperative. “What’s her name?”
She hesitated. “Her name? I don’t. . . .” More hesitation. “Maybe it’s Toyoko. I think it’s Toyoko.”
“Do you happen to know where she lives? I’m supposed to give her an important message,” I added lamely.
“I don’t really know. I couldn’t say for sure.” Clattering off into the dark again. “I have to get back.”
“All right! But just tell me where you think she lives. It’s very important that I talk to her.”
I jerked a ten yen note from my pocket, running after her. “Wait!”
Again she paused, casting a quick backward, almost frightened, glance. “No, I don’t want any money.”
“Take it,” I insisted, now face to face. “I know you can use it. Just say where you think she might be. That’s all you have to do, and I won’t tell anybody.”
“All right!” she said looking distressed, and took the note. “I think she lives down by the beach in the Miyazaki Apartments, but I don’t have the exact address. Don’t blame me if that isn’t—”
“Thank you very much,” I interjected and was on my way.
“I’m not sure, remember!” her voice trailed, sounding like that of a grade school girl. I made no reply.
It took me several minutes to find the place, but at last I was standing before the Miyazaki Apartments, squinting to read the sign in the blackness. Fortunately the place was not very large, probably only a dozen units, located behind a white and slightly crumbling stucco wall covered with vines and fragrant flowers.
The time was only ten o’clock, and some of the windows were dimly lighted. Moments later I entered the gloomy alcove of the first and peered at the mailboxes. Six of them—two without names. The last one, however, read, “Toyoko Akimoto,” and my heart skipped a beat. Yes, that had to be it! Slipping off my shoes, I mounted the stairs swiftly, almost stealthily, and paused before the door of room six.
A soft light gleamed beneath the entrance, and my pulse quickened.
Taking a deep breath, I knocked and waited, fairly burning inside. No answer. I hesitated then knocked louder. Perhaps Toyoko Akimoto was asleep. Or maybe someone was there with her. The very thought dismayed me greatly.
I waited uncertainly for some time, then on impulse tried the panel. Ever so cautiously, I felt it catch, then glide open an inch, squeaking softly. Two small rooms, the second raised slightly above the first, opening onto a tiny balcony. “Toyoko?” I called softly, surprised at the sound of my own voice. “Miss Akimoto?” All a dream. Crazy. Suddenly a panel opened noisily below giving me a start, but it was only someone leaving. Again I hesitated, then slid the door open a bit farther. Definitely a woman’s residence. It smelled faintly of perfume, and several kimono hung on the wall. One was pink, another violet. Yes, the very atmosphere seemed to emanate femininity. The only furnishings in the main room were a round, lacquered tea table the color of molasses, a charcoal burner and two dark red cushions with gold brocade. In the raised room beyond, a single futon was laid out for sleeping. Another folded on top with two sheets and a white nightgown.
Entranced, I slid the door even wider, I could see a child-sized dresser on one side of that room near an open window. Across its top was draped a pair of silk hose—a real rarity. A faint, tentative breeze was filtering through the window, lilting the tips of the stockings and billowing the curtains off an open balcony.
I knew that I should leave, felt the guiltiness of a thief in the night. What if this belonged to a different Toyoko? Or what if that wasn’t her name at all? The girl who had given me the information merely supposed she was called that, hadn’t even known her last name. What excuse could I give if the person who lived there should suddenly appear?
Uncertainly, I had turned, on the verge of leaving, unmindful that I had left her door half open. Simultaneously, I heard a faint tinkling sound. I turned back listening. Yes, coming from the balcony. . . a soft, silvery, clinking—a sound that made the hot night a little cooler. It was a sound from my past—glass chimes, suspended from the overhang there on the balcony, the breeze running its fingers through them. I craned my neck, peering, saw fragments of glass barely trembling and oscillating,
reflecting vagrant gleams of light like miniature stars.
Enchanted, I lingered, listening then gave a start at the sound of a door opening below. Geta clapped against the concrete floor of the alcove, one after another, echoing. Then someone was padding rapidly up the stairs toward me. No escape now! What would I do? What could I say?
Wearing ayukata of midnight blue, bent low over the stairs, she failed to notice me before we nearly collided, then glanced up with a gasp of astonishment, placing a hand to her mouth. I struggled to speak, but my vocal cords seemed shriveled and parched. For a moment we simply stared at each other. She had a large white towel over one arm and looked different enough without her make-up that I was badly confused. Her luxuriant hair was not tied. It flared down her back, still slightly rumpled and damp, smelling of scented soap.
“Oh,” she murmured, “It’s you! You frightened me.”
I opened my mouth, gagging the words out by sheer force of will. “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I was just leaving.” Making no sense whatever. “I mean I only wanted to—”
“It’s all right,” she said. “It’s just that I wasn’t expecting you.” This followed by a little rill of laughter that tinkled like the chimes. “I just got back from the bath.”
“Yes, I can tell,” I said, all the more embarrassed. “I can see that this is a bad time, though, so I’d better be leaving. It’s just that we’re flying a lot of missions now, and. . . .” Again the groping.
“Oh, no!” She shook her head, and her eyes met mine as on the night before. Her hand reached out, the fingers barely tracing my arm. “You aren’t. . . Aren’t going for good?”
“No,” I replied with greater confidence, “not for good—not for a while yet.”
“I’m so glad” she sighed, “please wait just a minute, please.” She slipped inside, closing the door, then immediately opened it again for an instant. “Don’t go away,” her voice came, “I’ll be right back!”
Minutes later the door opened all the way, and Toyoko was standing there in her pink kimono, wearing lipstick and rouge as she had the night before. “Please come in,” she said.
“Are you sure it’s all right for me to be here?” I mumbled, feeling more foolish than ever.
“Of course it is,” she replied and her tone was quite motherly. Then she handed me a cushion. “It’s much nicer out on the balcony, Yasuo. A breeze is coming in off the sea.” The chimes were more insistent now, more melodious. “And we can look out upon the water.”
A wide, tiled overhang slanted downward beneath the balcony, below which lay a courtyard, and beyond that over darkened alleys, roof tops and trees rolled the ocean. Its surge and roar was gentle but insistent, gradually increasing, and we could see the ragged fringe of white surf welling inward along the beach then subsiding, reviving again with the next breaker in a long and crashing sigh.
“Do you like the sound of the ocean?” Toyoko inquired.
“Yes, very much,” I replied.
Tilting her head back and closing her eyes, she murmured, “Hmmm, I love it. It smells so wonderful. And the sound. No matter what the problem. . . well, it somehow helps.”
“Very true,” I said, “no matter what the problem.” For a moment I reflected upon the fact that soon the ocean would solve all my problems, felt the simmering of soul. Then it subsided with the next dying wave, and for a time I was at peace.
“I like those chimes,” I said. “They remind me of the ones in our garden at home. Where did you get them?”
She smiled, a fleeting expression of fond reminiscence. “They were given to me, by a friend. By the way, why don’t you take your socks off and dangle your feet over the edge the way I’m doing.”
“That’s all right,” I replied nervously. “This way is fine.”
“Oh, come on,” she said and actually began tugging at my toes, pulling the socks off. Meanwhile, I found myself laughing nervously but also feeling grateful that I had showered using lavish amounts of soap before leaving the base, donning fresh underwear and stockings. At least, I didn’t smell bad, and Toyoko smelled wonderful.
Then she was rolling my trouser cuffs up slightly as well. “There now, doesn’t that feel a hundred times better?”
“Hai,” I laughed, “it really does.” In some ways she was like a little girl, amazingly natural and unaffected. Yes, I was beginning to feel at ease. My instincts had been right after all. Either that, or I had been extraordinarily lucky.
“Last night,” I said, “you asked me a question—remember?” Toyoko looked uncertain. “About my age. I told you that I was only sixteen.” She nodded, watching me. “Is it all right if I ask you the same question?”
“Oh, that! Why not? I’m almost twenty-four. I’m an old, old woman,” she said, and we laughed together.
“You told me I reminded you of your brother,” I continued. That was interesting. I mean, I was surprised to hear you say that because you remind me of my sister, Tomika.”
After that we visited for nearly two hours, talking about our pasts. Toyoko had left a large family in Nagasaki when she was eighteen and supported herself ever since, working in bars and restaurants, once as a maid in a mansion. She had even traveled for several months with a troop of dancers and modeled for large department stores occasionally. For the past year she had been a hostess at the Tokiwaya.
“It’s been good, Yasuo—talking to you,” she said as I left. “This is the first night that I haven’t been lonely in months. Will you come back soon?”
“Yes, yes, any time,” I replied, “if you really want me to.”
Her smile was utterly enchanting. “Are you free tomorrow night?” she inquired. “I’ll be off at ten, and I was thinking we might go for a walk along the beach.”
That night I returned to the base happier than I had been for many months. Even the flights loomed less sinister, the entire future. Maybe, I told myself, the war would end soon—soon enough to save me. For the first time in my life I was actually feeling a close kinship with a woman outside my own family. I decided, in fact, that living with men only, year in, year out, could be terribly deadening.
Almost every night the following week I met Toyoko at her apartment, and as the days passed I began taking her rations from the base. Food of almost any kind was hard to obtain now, and it made me very happy to help her a little. When no onions were available for our suki – yaki, Toyoko used cabbage. Even cabbage was rationed but usually still available at some of the markets.
Occasionally also I brought clothes for her to wash. Despite my reluctance, she had insisted and clearly took delight in doing things for
me, watching with an almost maternal expression as I consumed great quantities of her cooking.
Late one Saturday night as I prepared to leave for the base, Toyoko eyed me inquisitively. “Yasuo. . . .” she said and hesitated.
“What is it?” I asked.
Reaching out, she placed her hand on my arm. “Do you really have to go?”
“Well,” I replied uncertainly, “it’s getting late; I can’t keep you up all night.”
Her glance softened. “Why not stay here? It wouldn’t be any problem at all.” Excited but also confused, I merely mumbled incoherently, and she continued. “I have two futon—and two sheets; we could both have one.” Again, the humiliating embarrassment, the fumbling for words. “Oh, why not, Yasuo? I’ll sleep here and you can sleep in the other room by the balcony—in where it’s cool. Look, we can even draw the curtains for complete privacy.” She gestured gracefully at the diaphanous, white veil next to her, barely tracing it with the backs of her finger nails.
Toyoko’s so-called curtains would obviously afford little privacy, but I decided not to argue the point. By now I was her most willing captive. “All right,” I said, “that is very kind of you.” It took only a moment to unroll the futon, and I stretched out upon it in the dark, my forearm across my brow, hearing the whisper of cloth as Toyoko undressed in the adjoining room. The chimes tinkled entrancingly almost over my head, and in one of the distant lanes an itinerant noodle vendor tweedled his flute.