At college, Arjun Mishra had the room across from Ana’s. Then a devout boy with a liking for overalls, he had possessed an unfailing sense of what was ‘fishy’ or ‘fancy’, these being the words he used to express his disapproval. At their university, which catered to foreigners in Tokyo, they were both scholarship students among wealthier peers. Yet three years after graduation, when she telephoned her old friend, he was living the high life in ritzy Azabu. He worked in IT for a large Japanese bank and rented an apartment whose rent, he was proud to say, was more than Priya Vajpayee’s whole monthly pay-packet (Priya having been, at college, the student marked out for success).
It was a humid night in July, just past ten o’clock. ‘So, Ana,’ Arjun boomed. ‘How is your great life?’ An hour and a half later, she fronted up to his building—a steel plate gave its name as the Imperial Satellite—and, entering, took the lift up to the eighth floor. In jeans and a T-shirt and with freshly combed-back hair, he opened the door with a blast from the air conditioning unit. Letting her in, he gave her a key and a thick fold of yen ‘for groceries or whatever’.
What could she do but take the money, despite her embarrassment? She had no apartment and no job. She had fallen out with Shigeko, her roommate and friend. She was waiting to receive a renewed Japanese visa, without which she could not find gainful employment. She didn’t really want to go on hostessing, which was how she had made her living since her final year at college. She had never had a problem with what she did for work, but in recent dates with clients she had felt her smile grow wan and feeble, like a bulb about to blow. Worse, the greater her disaffection, the more some clients pursued her, as though attracted by what they took for an air of melancholy.
At least Arjun was too tactful to ask her awkward questions; it made it easier that he was brusque and businesslike. Pushing his hair back with his hand, he ran her through his week: on Tuesdays he fasted, on Wednesday nights he met friends for dinner, and on Fridays he went out to a strip club in Roppongi. Or that was what he had done last Friday, he added. Before that, he kept Friday evenings for cleaning and ironing. Now he was thinking of hiring a maid, a Filipina woman who would wash and iron his clothes and vacuum the apartment’s twelve tatami squares.
To her immense relief, he did not try to entertain her. He did offer her the bed but she took the foldout futon, which she packed away each morning along with her possessions. She saw Arjun when he was home late of an evening. At these times he poured red wine, cranked the air conditioning up to full and settled on the couch in an expansive mood. He often spoke about his work and his colleagues at the bank. ‘This is consumer banking,’ he told her with a shrug. ‘It’s not a huge amount of money, a few million a branch. The technology is ancient. We’re talking 1994, 1995. I was in high school then. When the system goes down, most times it’s the temperature. Sometimes the branches don’t have dedicated server rooms. The idiots don’t realise, they put their coffee cups on the servers, turn off the AC when they leave. These machines are like grandfathers. In the heat they fall asleep. Oof.’
He would also ask her opinion on all manner of things, such as whether it would hurt ‘a great deal’ if he waxed his chest hair. Eventually, though, his comments would turn to Fatima, the Iranian beauty he had fallen for in college. He still spoke of her with wonder, bafflement and sadness, and seemed compelled to go over times he had spent with her.
‘Once she came to see me on my break at work,’ he recounted one night. ‘The job was what we called grooming, which is brushing away cement. It was seven floors up. We worked without safety chains. I was the lowest of the workers, earning 600 yen an hour and plucking chunks of cement from my nostrils every day. My skin was dust, my voice hoarse. On a fifteen-minute break, I met Fatima in a park. I’ve never seen you like this, she said, her eyes brimming with sorrow. Oh Ana, if you could have seen those big doe eyes of hers!’
He shook his head. ‘The jobs I worked! A summer labouring at a farm. A job in a factory crushing plastic in a furnace. My hair would change colour with the plastic in the air. The others left me their time cards and had me punch them out. Come on, they said. Mou yamerou! Let’s go. But I would stay crushing that plastic until 5 pm exactly.’
Ana was shocked. She knew Arjun had worked through college; she had done the same. Yet she never would have guessed at the conditions he described. On campus he was always clean and crisply dressed. He was the student their lecturer for Asia Pacific Trade, the jovial Professor Gupta, would single out to ask, ‘And how is your great life?’
But this, Arjun explained, was why he took such pleasure, coming home each night, in hearing his black Bellini shoes strike the lobby’s marble tiles. He was pleased that his couch was upholstered in fine-grained leather, and that his curtains were resistant to sunlight and heat. He was buying his parents a new house in India (it had four spacious bedrooms and brass door handles throughout). He would also wire another ten thousand US dollars, which was a sort of apology for not going home for Diwali, the main holiday of the year. He couldn’t leave just now, he said, with how things were at work. Still, he toyed with the idea of going to the States. It was a dream of his to work there and start a sushi chain. Then again, he said to Ana, what if Fatima tried to call him, as perhaps she would one day?
Most of his calls, though, were from colleagues or his mother. ‘But Manu—she calls me Manu—how is your health, she asks.’ Sitting back against white leather, he swigged his wine and grimaced. ‘I’m tired of answering this question.’
In Tokyo that July, a series of typhoons threatened. Ana had never acclimatised to summers in Japan; in Tallinn, where she was from, there was nothing to compare with this humidity. It made cowlicks in her hair, it made her top stick to her back, and worst of all it made her feel stupid and sluggish. It was hard to reach anyone among her old group of friends, most of whom now worked in ‘office flower’ jobs, menial roles that meant long hours and harassment from colleagues. Whiling away hours at a nearby café, which was frequented by a mix of expats and Japanese, she listened idly to the talk of diplomats and bankers. After a long, lacklustre decade, Tokyo was booming again, they said. It was a sign of the times that the hospital up the road was building a new unit for cocaine overdoses. ‘But it’s only another kind of bankruptcy in disguise,’ she heard an American declare. ‘Pouring money into Tokyo while the rest of the country is stagnating …’
A waiter was tipping a pail of water on the footpath to cool the air. One table over, a man ignored his female companion to read Nanami Shiono’s Stories of the Romans. The sky was a soft, close grey; there never seemed to be a sun. Checking her phone—it was near six—she saw a text from Shigeko: ‘I hope you are not ungry.’ Did she mean hungry or angry? Angry, probably. Ana didn’t answer but just then the phone rang. ‘So you’ll be okay?’ said Arjun. ‘With the eel guy, I mean?’ ‘Takuya? He’s fine.’ Takuya was a client, one of Shigeko’s circle. A man who made his living advising restaurants, he liked to dine in the company of European women. That night he was taking Ana to eat hamo, a type of eel you could only get during the summer months. He showed up not long after, wearing a blue basketball vest. His greeting came out oddly—‘Thank you for your cooperation’—but that was just his English. He always spoke to her in English, never in Japanese. As they walked toward Roppongi, he talked about business. ‘The Japanese food industry is very difficult now,’ he said. ‘I have to persuade foreign investors to look at Japanese businesses. Profitability is down. You have to work hard to make money.’
Takuya’s steps were long and loping; Ana hurried to keep up. They passed the deep green glades of Arisugawa Park, the private hospital and expensive apartments where heady-smelling jasmine flowed from iron-lace balconies. When they reached Roppongi Hills, a newish entertainment quarter, there was at least a tepid breeze waving the pond-grass in the courtyard. Early for their restaurant booking, they rode the elevator up to the viewing deck. Ana figured she was supposed to marvel at the view, to make out like she hadn’t lived in Tokyo for years. But when they stepped out of the lift, she was genuinely staggered. The city stretched out in the dusk, a pastel metropolis. Dragonfly-like helicopters were sweeping the pink haze, and the roads were arteries of neon, pulsing and converging. As Takuya led her to the glass, she was filled with a sharp dismay. This was a vertigo not of height but a huge and lateral whirling. How completely the city effaced the earth, she thought. Then she recalled the earthquakes that were a constant in Japan, which showed the ground beneath the lights retained a violent will. She thought of Priya Vajpayee, whose company had been hit; a big tremor had taken out their semi-conductor factory. Ana felt a perverse relief at the land’s defiance.
At the restaurant, she ate the eel, which was suitably exquisite. All the while Takuya spoke in stilted English, saying of the wasabi, ‘Please do have some horseradish.’ At one point he declared, ‘I’m proud of Japanese food. But not of Japanese guy. Japanese guy is shy and ambiguous.’ Ana nodded politely; she was back on autopilot. Still she felt somehow offended by the vest he wore; a few sizes too big, it gaped under his arms. At least he released her when they finished eating; he got involved in talking business with the proprietor. Outside, she looked for taxis. Then came the evening’s sour note: a bouncer for the club next door grabbed her by the shoulder and, as if playing a game, a game where you guessed the origins of passing fair-haired women, shouted, ‘You! Ukrainian!’ and let out a laugh. Wrenching free, Ana hailed a cab. It slid to a halt, wonderfully black. Its driver wore white gloves. Thank god, Ana thought, as they pulled smoothly away. She had seen the bouncer’s face, his grin every bit as hard as his grip had been.
‘Do you like men?’ Priya asked as they drove to the mountain spa. She swivelled to look at Ana, who was sitting in the back. Priya’s likeable colleague Ken was driving them in his car. By ‘men’ Priya meant noodles, but her tone was deliberately teasing. ‘I love them,’ she went on. ‘Especially cool men, in the summer.’
Priya flirted from long habit even though she was now engaged. When they got to the spa and went through to the women’s section, leaving Ken to go the men’s, Priya’s voice lost its sparkle, becoming flatter, merely pleasant. As they soaked in the outside pool she spoke about Sanjeev, her fiancé. They had fallen in love while travelling in Europe—which was the storyline, as she said, of many Indian films. But then he had gone to Princeton and she had come to Tokyo. They had gradually grown distant, and she had dated Japanese men. After graduation and several failed relationships, she had gone home to ask her parents to start looking for a match. Deeply bemused, they had reasoned with her, ‘Dear Priya, how do you expect us to find anyone better than Sanjeev?’
‘I admitted they were right,’ she told Ana with a laugh, basking in the glow of her fiancé’s success.
Afterwards they found Ken reading a newspaper on a bench. He wore the hotel’s plastic slippers and his hair, with the styling wax washed out, had gone silky and flat. They had to dash to the Nissan because of the pouring rain. They drove back through the wet, stopping off once at a service area for Ken to buy a can of coffee from a dispensing machine. Nearby, a stumbling drunk was startled to see Ana.
‘Ara!’ he said, staring. ‘Ningyo ka na to omotta. I thought it was a doll!’
‘You know what he said?’ Ken asked.
‘Yeah,’ Ana said and they both laughed sheepishly. When Ken dropped her back at Arjun’s, she kissed each of his clean bright cheeks, causing him to blush.
Early the next morning, Ana met Takuya again. They walked through the fish market on their way to a sushi bar for breakfast. Takuya pointed out the best specimens on offer but Ana walked quickly, especially past the shellfish, which were so mauve, so vagina-like, she worried they might give Takuya ideas. Yet he was busy explaining a new rule in the market, that visitors had to keep a certain distance from the fish. ‘There was an incident,’ he said, wearing a disappointed look. ‘There were some foreigners. They tried to hug the tuna.’
At the tiny sushi diner, the chef put the sashimi portions directly on the bar, which he wiped with a cloth between one round and the next. They ate several types of fish and some hacked-off squid, which was so recently alive that the pieces were still moving, puckering in protest on their beds of rice.
‘By the way,’ said Takuya as they left. He walked with his basketballer’s gait, his feet splayed oddly wide as if to corner Ana. ‘Shigeko sent a message. She mentions her regards. Actually, she is feeling sad that you do not see her.’
Clearly he knew about her fight with Shigeko. Ana had refused a client and Shigeko had disapproved. The argument had ended with her kicking Ana out.
‘It makes it difficult for her,’ Takuya went on. ‘Because, as you know, the role of a hostess is to bring happiness to people.’
‘Is it,’ she said flatly, annoyed by the lecture.
He smiled indulgently, spread his hands and said, ‘You should meet her. It’s not too late. You can say sorry.’
‘I’m not sorry.’
Taken aback, Takuya fell silent. He looked like he was deciding that she was beyond his help.
‘Thanks for breakfast,’ Ana said, and left him to his day. It was still early in the morning and she walked aimlessly at first, at length finding herself on Omotesando Dori, a fancy shopping street. She was looking in the Prada window when Arjun telephoned, breaking into her thoughts. ‘How was your date with eel-hands? Or is it eel-dick? Whatever it is you call him.’
Ana laughed. ‘Okay.’
‘Are you going out tonight?’
‘No. Unless you want me to be out.’
‘Are you sure, Ana? You’re not bringing some boy home?’
‘No.’ She snorted. ‘I’ll see you at the flat.’
That night and the coming nights, a typhoon swerved in close, dousing Tokyo with heavy rains. They went out anyway, defying the weather. One night Arjun invited Nitin, a friend of his, to dinner. Nitin was not from college and Ana had never met him, which made her suspect Arjun of trying to set her up. If this was the idea, it didn’t quite work out. Having organised the evening, Arjun quickly became annoyed, starting with Nitin’s choice of a budget Italian restaurant.
‘Really, this is the place you pick?’ It looked basic but okay, with plastic tablecloths.
Nitin rolled his eyes at Ana. He was delicately built and had a fine aquiline nose. He worked in capital markets, where (so Arjun said) the guys took home the biggest pay-packets in town. This was why it rankled Arjun that Nitin ate so cheaply. Nitin, for his part, enjoyed needling Arjun. ‘Arjun, why don’t you try the house bolognese?’ he said. ‘Oh, you don’t eat beef? Oh, and why would that be, Arjun?’
‘Because, you know why. My family—’
‘I don’t know why.’
‘Because I still adhere to some precepts.’
‘You do?’ Nitin faked surprise. He was like a cat with a stuffed toy, wanting to tease and tear. ‘Which precepts are those again? When we go out clubbing?’
Ana waded in. ‘Everyone draws a line for himself—or herself.’
‘How true, Ana.’ He grinned, and she feared what he might say next, but he merely asked a waiter to take their dinner order. Two bolognese, one parmigiana and, yes, they would start with the garlic bread. Then he resumed the conversation, saying, ‘How very true, Ana. I draw my own line. It moves as I do.’
Arjun’s mood was foul through dinner. Later, when they had parted from Nitin and were walking home, he said he would take her out again to make up for the night. They would go somewhere fancy, a converted brewery on the harbour, a place he really loved. True to his word, he made a booking there for the next evening and met her beforehand at the closest station. She spotted him striding across the tiles in the high cavernous hall.
‘I love the space of it,’ he said, waving a hand at the height above. ‘Space for thinking big. I come here a lot.’ He had also been reading a lot, he added as they walked to the restaurant. He rattled off authors—Richard Branson, Bill Clinton. ‘A little Shakespeare too. I’ve been educating myself. I’ve had the luxury of leisure.’ They reached the brewery and were seated at a table that was spread with a white cloth and laid with gleaming silver. Soberly, Arjun asked if she had noticed a change in him. It was true he looked different, as though his face was smoother, the set of his jaw more confident, but she couldn’t put her finger on what exactly the change had been. ‘I had my tooth fixed, see,’ he said, baring his teeth at her. ‘I can now afford to care about such shallow things.’
Behind them, on the harbour, the rain was coming down heavily. It was the night when the typhoon was almost upon them, and it was there at the restaurant table Arjun told Ana what really happened with Fatima. ‘Her parents sent her to meet a man, a family friend in Tokyo. He was old, she came back and told them. Old and very short. But they chatted online, all smiles. All flattery, you know? I had to go away for a while; I was working out of town. When I got back she called me. She was married, she announced. To the old man, just like that.’
The lights of the harbour struggled bravely through the weather. Arjun told his story—how he had returned to India, hiring four computing experts to teach him one on one. Rising early and working out, then taking his first classes. Eating the lunch his worried mother prepared for him. Stopping for a nap and then studying again. For three months he had worked like this. ‘Ana, do you know, my parents had told me once that they’d rather I marry an Indian. But they said I was free to choose. I could bring home a Japanese girl, a Chinese girl, any girl as my wife. They said they would still be happy. They said, we will all be friends.’
‘Ana, Fatima called me once. She was drunk. She slurred her speech. It was three months into the marriage. She said, he is sleeping with prostitutes. He thinks he can do what he wants. I’ve caught him countless times but he doesn’t care. I’ve made a mistake, she said. I’m getting a divorce. I’ll call you tomorrow. Yet the next day no call came. I called her parents, they hung up. I talked to her brother, I said I could fly to see them. No, he told me. Don’t. He said she never considered me. He said his family was broad-minded, they would have considered a foreigner if she had talked to them, if that was what she’d wanted.’
Holding his fork like a small trident in his fist, Arjun stared unseeingly at the rain-smeared lights.
‘Forget her,’ Ana said.
‘But there were times—I know she felt it. And if she could feel it then, she could feel it always. I could—I told myself—I could inculcate that love. After that I thought, I’ll wait.’
Then he described when he had last seen her, or rather the last two times, both soon after she married. After carefully composing her final college dissertation, he had met her away from prying eyes on a windswept Yokohama beach, handing over the finished essay in electronic and hard copies. He had seen her at graduation; she was there in a silver dress. On her arm was a man she introduced to people as her cousin. All the cameras, Arjun said, sought her in that crowd, searching for her beauty, her white moon of a face.
The typhoon had been predicted to hit Tokyo that night. But, as often happened, it swooped away at the last hour, thanks to some quirk of topography that favoured the capital. Next morning when Ana woke, it was to the clearest day she had seen in the city. The air was very dry and hot, drawing everyone outdoors. The park was full of pregnant women, children and their maids. This was also the day when Ana’s visa came by mail, in an official envelope she tore at hastily. There it was in black and white, her permission to work. She promptly celebrated by doing something she never did: sightseeing. Taking the train to Asakusa, she visited the temple and neighbourhood laneways where old people moved with tiny, precise steps. She ended the tour with an iced tea in a snack bar. She drank it looking onto the storefront opposite, at a spinning mannequin that, ‘Sale’ sign notwithstanding, cocked its knee and posed with new-season confidence.
That night she and Arjun fried gyoza in a pan. They ate the dumplings on the couch while talking of old times. ‘Do you remember, Ana, when that friend of yours came to visit? You had her in my room. I came home to find her in my bed, this plump girl snuggled in the duvet, her big boob coming out a little. She woke up and said sorry. I said, no, no, don’t worry, I’m about to get in with you.’
He laughed. ‘I did not say that. I was very well behaved, very polite. In those days I was bright and young, not eating meat or drinking.’ Recklessly he added, ‘Now I’m a tiger.’
Switching the TV on, they watched some CNN footage of floods in Romania, which prompted Arjun to mention a Romanian girl he’d met. She was working at the strip club he had visited that one time. ‘She was exhausted, you know? I keep thinking about her. I feel so sad for her.’
He’s talking about me, Ana realised. It was for her he felt sad, equating her situation with that of the tired stripper. ‘Arjun,’ she told him firmly, muting the TV, ‘I was a hostess.’ On the screen, torrential rivers wrecked bridges and embankments. ‘Are you listening to me? I was a hostess, not a stripper, not a prostitute. It isn’t the same thing, which is what I told Shigeko.’
‘I know, I know. I’m an ass.’ He grinned, hugely relieved. Then his phone rang and he boomed, ‘Priya-san, hello. And how is your great life? Oh, excellent news.’
Priya had emailed photos of the ring and her fiancé. Viewing the files on his laptop afterwards, Arjun said, ‘They’re nice pictures. Actually, they look idiotic, smiling away like that. He seems so amazed. You know she said no to him so long. Then he made it in the States. He has a green card, has the package.’ He frowned and prodded the last dumpling. ‘Do you think it makes a difference—the material things, I mean?’
Only now did she grasp Arjun’s dilemma, which was that he longed for both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ answer. Pining for Fatima, he wished his wealth would bring her back, and at the same time his more idealistic self—the youth in overalls Ana had known in college—hoped it would not work, that love could not be bought.
‘Sometimes,’ she conceded. ‘But I think more often not.’
He went out on the balcony and looked up at the sky. His phone rang with a work call. ‘Kiran,’ he said in answer. And, coming in, he opened his laptop and started speaking Hindi. A server had gone down; connecting remotely, he tried to bring it back up. It was by then almost midnight but he called all of his team. In an aside, he told Ana, ‘If I’m not sleeping or having sex, neither will they.’
Leaving him to it, she stretched out on her futon. As he went on working she heard the odd word: ‘Server! Ping! Nankaimo. Tiga, tiga, okay.’ In between work calls, she heard him speaking to his parents. Yes, he told his mother, I’ll book to come back for Diwali. Then it was back to his strange muddle of Hindi, English and Japanese. Ana went to sleep thinking of plans for the next day—she would go back to the shops on Omotesando Dori and with her hair in a chignon ask for a sales job. She would use her best Japanese, especially the honorific form that was used by shop girls as it was by hostesses. She would go store to store until someone said yes.
‘Nankaimo, nankaimo,’ Arjun was saying. She drifted off, comforted as if by a bedside story, one of servers like grandfathers in a subtropical summer. She did not know what time it was when he fixed the problem; it was as if he would be there always, tapping at his laptop. Then it was morning and he had gone to work already, and she rose to fold the futon neatly away.
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