At the grimy hotel door, Reiko envisioned them as a unit, bound together in love. She had risked much by coming; had left behind her friend and needy strangers. But she is selfish, today, she doesn’t mind saying. This has been two years in the making. Society can forgive a single outburst of joy. The timing was miraculous, and Reiko did not ignore positive signs, however scarcely they might crop up.
The Henka Hotel was dull and shuttered and wedged between two nondescript buildings of similar white. The receptionist glared at her under a guise of professional kindness. No doubt assuming she was here for a love tryst, which, though not in a standard love hotel, Reiko supposed this bore resemblance to. Except she planned to spend her life with Jin, if their face-to-face relationship bore the same fruits as its digital counterpart. Which it would.
Reiko rapped on the door and smiled. No sound. The smile faltered. What if the lines under her eyes showed? She panicked, whisked out a hand mirror, chose an understated smirk; not too inviting, and didn’t make her eyes crinkle. She knocked again. Ready to fluster him, except her heart was the one racing. Sweat plastered her lip and the back of her neck. Her forehead felt tight, pulled back by an elegant bun. At the last moment she let her hair down. She knocked again.
The hall was dim enough to hide the smaller stains. A whiff of mildew stifled the air, though it wasn’t strong enough to dampen her pent-up joy. She tried to forget her face. Think of Jin, his certain love, the clasp of his hand. Put off sex for now.
The door cracked open and cold air from the room rushed out. From the floor, Reiko looked up to polished shoes—oxfords; corduroy pant cuffs with a pristine crease; a black leather belt with a modest but real gold buckle; shimmery eggshell white silk shirt; scarlet-and-black tie, also silk—English; slim neck, pale but shapely, no moles; triangular chin, similar to Reiko’s own; freshly shaved whiskers; full-lipped mouth, widening to display only slightly yellowed teeth; clearly defined cheekbones, mole on her right side; gently sloping nose, wide wings, but not too wide; and hazel eyes, shot through with flecks of gold impossible to pinpoint, except Reiko spent an indeterminate amount of time examining them, as if testing the quality of a diamond. She stopped there at the eyes, so she didn’t know what his hair looked like. Nevertheless, as she entered the blissful image of first encounters, her heart drummed underneath the pop of swallowed saliva that cleared out the pressure in her ears.
“Hello,” said Jin, at the outer reach of her breath.
Reiko smiled without thinking, and she felt quite peaceful inside. Within five minutes she had him naked.
The leading wheel cracked a branch in two; Etsu flinched. She knew everybody was nervous, at least half the time, so she set her fears in perspective. She lost herself in the past, gladly, and wrote cool papers on it. She adopted the fears of other people; dead people, her father, her crumbling ancestors who all the time clamored for the utterance of their names.
On the bike with Hidari, she was not star-struck. This woman was no celebrity, though she might be known around the globe; neither was she a symbol, since crushing a soul to the size of a notion, even a nice one, still obliterates her humanity.
Etsu noted the glow rising from the arms around her waist—frail-looking and spotted though they were. The glow of one who works toward a goal her whole life. A human who claimed responsibility; who shed pride for unpaid progress; who sacrificed her time and luck. Etsu, in her prime youth, craved this persona. To be a scholar was to humble herself, again and again. To bleed over dead facts. So Etsu studied, even now, driving. She paid attention to what happens.
Through thin rifts in the clouds, an evening sun shed rose-colored scales over the city. The women did not speak. The engine was too loud, bawling under the storm like it meant to best the typhoon. They headed for the docks after the man neither of them wished to see again. At least, Etsu thought, swerving around garbage in the street—at least she assumed Hidari wanted a respite from the American who had threatened and attacked her, who had forced her into a stupid ploy, and that she only pursued him out of a sense of immutable justice.
The seawall at Naha’s edge vanished under sawform waves. Boats that could not be pulled ashore were stove in or scattered across the beach or pitching, waiflike, in the surf.
“We are being foolish,” said Hidari.
“We can call the police again.”
The old woman paused. She touched the scabbing wound on her arm, beneath the bandage Dana had applied. Her earrings swung in the wind, added music to the shoreline. “We are not thinking properly. He wants a boat. He will take it from someone.” She cast up and down the dock. A wave crashed over the railing and pushed toward them, sending up foam around their feet.
“We should look for someone injured, then?”
Hidari eased herself onto the bike.
“Dead, possibly. He is afraid. He will do anything at this point.”
“I guess you know him well by now.”
“I know him enough. He does not see himself as human. This is the problem. Either way, I must see him to the end.”
The younger woman meant to question why, but Hidari’s expression precluded further talk. They drove off along the shore in search of a trail, or a body. The storm closed in around them and breathed into their hair, over their shoulders, down their tired spines. The world flashed in arcs of lightning and returned to sooty gloom. The punching salt odor of a squall followed them down the beach.
At the next marina Hidari stared out over the waves, past the roiling clouds, until Etsu plucked up her courage to speak.
“I read your letter, ma’am. That you wrote for the paper.”
Hidari’s shoulders tensed and relaxed. She turned to the girl.
“It was unfair of me to write this. I bullied Reiko into publishing such a thing.”
“You wished to die, though? Because of who you are? Forgive me the unacceptable rudeness.”
The old woman tightened her hands into fists. “I carry too much past. What I wrote was only a small fraction. It was an impulse, an outburst I should have known to contain. I am always getting myself into trouble this way.”
“But it’s okay to be like that, Ms. Wasayama. And it helped, reading your words. Sometimes I feel like I won’t have a life with a man.”
Hidari embraced her in the rain, her hair sweet and damp, her body hard against the young woman’s stomach. Etsu ground her teeth so the sobs wouldn’t shake her frame, but she restrained herself for nothing. This solace was all they had, and it was useful, whatever it was. Even if it seemed idiotic and simple: the storm and two strangers in the fading dark.
“Do you still wish to die?” said Etsu.
“Yes. I do.”
“Is it because of that woman you didn’t want to be with?”
At this late stage…
“That and other things.”
“I implore you not to kill yourself Ms. Wasayama. Whatever you did, it doesn’t matter. You’re good.”
“I am only a burden.”
“I watched your speech for the September 4 protest. It was brilliant! I’m not just tossing out compliments. You made me feel important. Like I’m not suffering for no purpose.”
“Thank you my dear, but I fear we are wasting time in this place.”
They disengaged. Hidari mounted the front of the bike this time, leaving Etsu to press her cheek to the activist’s back, against the bones that had carried the woman through lonely, chaotic decades, and to pray for the remainder of her soul to crawl home.