E
Jan/Feb 2007 Fiction

In the Valley of Love and Delight

by Alex Shishin

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber


Cycling back to my apartment along the path along Akashi Beach after a morning jaunt in the summer of 1993, I stopped and leaned my touring bike against the breakwater. I wanted to watch a group of young people in bathing suits play volleyball near the sandy shoreline. They were four men and a woman with long black hair. I envied the crew-cut young men's tight and sweating hairless bodies. The young woman was tall for a Japanese female. Her body was thin like a dancer's and her legs were long. The summer breeze jostled her hair. Her black one-piece bathing suit clung to her body as if it were spray paint. I knew the inscapes of that body well. In four hours I would be making love to her.

She had another name, but I called her Hanako. "Flower Child" in Japanese. I was twice her age, slightly expanded around the middle and hairy. Hanako had many male friends. She called them her "boyfriends." I was her one and only lover. She called me T-Bone. After the product name of my bicycle stem. Of course it had other connotations. I mean of a sexual nature.

What did she see in me? I asked myself this for the thousandth-thousandth time as I watched the game. I used to think she liked me only because I was a foreign guy, a white American. But, given all the guys available to her, that wasn't it. Thinking of being with Hanako after a month's separation, seeing her before me now, my desire to know what it could be was eclipsed by more immediate desires. I noticed that all the male volleyball players had hard-ons. Realizing I had a hard-on myself, I rode off.

Hanako's boyfriends were useful creatures. There was driver boyfriend who trekked her anywhere she wished to go. (Today he would be taking her to her "English lesson"—my place.) There was feeder boyfriend who liked to take her to expensive restaurants. (Hanako ate like a starving dingo and never gained weight thanks either to her excellent metabolism or insatiable sexual appetite.) Then there was her counselor boyfriend who listened to all her problems. (I wasn't one of them; as far as her family and friends knew, I as a lover didn't exist.) Finally, there was the sugar daddy boyfriend who was always bringing her gifts. (She showed them to me after we had made love.) They were all handsome young men, those boyfriends, who could have had their choice of lovers. What kept them as Hanako's satellites? Were they all as much in love with Hanako as I was? Did each one secretly believe that Hanako would promote him to my (secret) status?

Hanako was bright as hell, but she made it a point of acting silly around her boyfriends. With them she was all coy smiles and innocent giggles. Alone in my apartment, she would scream in her very good English, "Fuck me, fuck me!" The lady had strong lungs.

At 4 p.m. I heard the roar of driver boyfriend's Celica as he tore into the apartment complex parking lot. When I heard the familiar screech of his brakes, I looked out the window. Hanako got out and without even saying good-by headed for the elevator. She had changed from her bathing suit to a bright green and yellow striped mini-skirt. I knew she would come in smelling of perfume and lotions, having bathed and changed at home in Kobe while driver boyfriend waited stoically in his Celica.

The doorbell rang. I open the door. A sweet-smelling Hanako, sparkling with bracelets and earrings, glistening with red lipstick, leaped into my arms and cried, "Fuck me, T-bone! Fuck me quick!"

The Celica's gasoline stench had hardly dispersed before I had pulled down her silky little green panties and she had wrapped her legs around my middle-aged waist.

"Fuck me on the floor, T-bone!" she cried. "I can't wait!"

We collapsed in a bundle on the fluffy white rug Hanako had gotten me at some posh Kobe shop.

Our tryst was short and intense. Sprawled naked on the fluffy rug I noticed that the door was slightly ajar.

"What if the neighbors heard you screaming and came in?" I said.

"They would have gotten horny and fucked each other," Hanako laughed. "It would be fun to watch your neighbors fuck."

"Since everyone in the world thinks you're learning English from me, I ought to teach you an alternative to 'fuck,' Hanako-chan."

I got up to lock the door and glimpsed my naked self in hall mirror. In the background lay naked Hanako spread-eagled on the rug. Again I asked myself: What does she see in me?

"How about 'sexual congress,' Hanako?" I said. "That's more lady-like than 'fuck.' Or at least try 'screw' for a change."

"I like 'fuck'! It's dynamic. It sounds like the noise of your cock going in and out of my cunt! Oh, I had a total wet-on when I saw you watching us this morning! I'm glad I was wearing black!"

"You're a mystery," I said, sitting down next to her.

"You always say that, T-bone. You never explain what you mean."

"Every time I start to explain, you want to make love."

"Fuck! To fuck!"

"Okay, to fuck. How come you choose to fuck with me and not, say, the guy with the hot Celica?"

"Because you ride a bicycle, T-bone! Any wimp can drive a car but only a powerful man can ride a bicycle the way you do around Awaji Island. Did you ride your hundred kilometers this week, T-bone?"

"Yup."

"That's a turn on. Fuck me from behind this time. My cunt loves it when you fuck me from the back."

This time our lovemaking was slow, meditative. As my gut smacked against Hanako's tight ass, I went into a kind of trance while she moaned softly, as though serenading the setting sun.

In my waking dream I saw the beautiful bodies of the volleyball-playing boys and a cold scare ran over my back. I heard myself asking the same troubling question.

But then I heard another voice say: "Why can't we go on forever? Why shouldn't the rest of our lives be like this glowing afternoon?" Hanako had once philosophized that utopia would be all our energies collected into one grand, perpetual fuck.

When she was in her thirties, I'd be in my fifties. We'd both be middle-aged then. Sort of. Her forties, my sixties...

I sometimes believed that if I really knew Hanako I would know our destiny. Yet, whenever I tried putting together all that I thought I understood about I only ended up with more mysteries.

Even Hanako's origins mystified me. Hanako was beautiful, bright, cheerful, sexy. Her mother, who may have once been beautiful, was gloomy and snappish and wore an unchanging dry, droopy face. Her father, a professor of American literature, was an ugly, arrogant, foreigner-hating, racist slime ball. When I worked with him at my previous university, where he was department head, he took pleasure in screaming at the foreign staff, "Speaku Japaneezu. Dis izu Japan!" We had nicknamed him "Mr. Eggplant" because that's how his face looked. This so-called expert on Hawthorne did not know English beyond a few memorized and uncomplicated phrases. I doubt he had ever read Hawthorne in the original. He forced his graduate students to translate Hawthorne and then published the translations as his own. In the year he had taken his family to New York for his sabbatical at Columbia, Eggplant had spent his time (said Hanako) drinking with other Japanese male English teachers who were on their sabbaticals and didn't know English. But Hanako, then seventeen, blossomed. She graduated valedictorian from one of Manhattan's best high schools. By the end of Eggplant's sabbatical, she was modeling, and Barnard College had offered her a full scholarship. Eggplant wouldn't hear of his daughter staying behind in New York and becoming "Americanized." He took her back to Japan and made her go to a repressive women's junior college in Osaka. Hanako had submitted without protest. She had just graduated from that awful place.

How could my flower be Eggplant's daughter? Perhaps she was the mailman's daughter. Was she looking for a lost father through me?

My conversation with myself continued until Hanako came—a thin melodious wail like the cry of a gull.

The sun had set.

"I suppose your coachman will soon be bearing you away," I said as we lay sweating in each other's arms.

"Uh, uh. I told him my girlfriend from Kakogawa was going to pick me up," she said. "She's the one who doesn't have a telephone. All my friends at school had at least one girlfriend with no telephone. That's so their parents couldn't check on them when they were fucking their boyfriends."

"And your school was so conservative and proper."

"All the girls fucked at that school. That's all they ever seemed to talk about when I was there. I didn't talk, though. I just listened to their fucking stories. Their fucks were nowhere as good as our fucks…"

"Hang on! Are you honoring me with an overnight?"

"Yes! Tonight I want you to make one of your great spaghetti dinners! And I want you to cook a big whooping omelet in the morning!"

In bed with Hanako that night, my dreams were like Chagall paintings. Damn it, I was in love with her! More so than were any of her goofy, so-called boyfriends. And I was in my own way just as frustrated as I imagined them to be. No matter how much I made love to her, I did not have her.

That night I dreamed that I would not grow old, that this cherished moment would stay forever.

 

Our partings were always difficult. We would be getting our last hugs in, and Hanako would try not to let her tears ruin her mascara as her driver boyfriend blew the Celica's horn in the parking lot below. This time, after Hanako had spent three wonderful days and nights with me, the moment of our parting was more difficult than usual. As the black taxi waited in the parking lot, Hanako allowed her tears to smear her mascara. My tears helped to smear it, too.

I was alone with the lingering scents of Hanako. Her perfume spoke to me from out of our erotic rug, from the couch, from the bed. In the bathroom, her facial soap greeted me.

"Hey T-bone," I said to myself out loud, "how come you never got married?"

T-bone. I hated that nickname at first. But over the last year, as my affair with Hanako blossomed, I got to enjoy it. I even told my nickname to my students at the technical university.

The three days of lovemaking, talking, feasting, and walking along the beach at sunset had sent gallons of endorphins to my brain. Lonely as I felt without my Hanako, my body was relaxed. I ate a small dinner and went to bed early. I reflected only on our good times, our seemingly perfect compatibility, and not on the fact that this summer vacation was nearly over, and that Hanako would be fulfilling some duty proscribed by her father, a duty that the dull-witted Eggplant had apparently not yet decided. Unlike the rest of her graduating class, Hanako had not hunted for jobs at companies.

 

The following week the Celica delivered Hanako to me again, but at noon. Hanako had telephoned to say in an urgent voice that she needed to see me early.

"I have to tell you something," she said after embracing me. "I cannot see you next week. I'm getting married."

"Right," I said dumbly.

"But I can see you the week after, T-Bone. Nothing will change."

I sank into the couch. "Sit here and tell me what's going on," I said.

She remained standing. She said, "Last January my mother found my birth control pills in my drawer. She told my father. Father got very angry with me."

"You never told me that, damn it! Did Eggplant hit you?"

"Calm down, T-Bone. He's too chickenshit to hit me," she said.

"Does he know about us?"

"Uh, uh! I told him I was doing it with a married businessman. He didn't want to know who it was. But he insisted I get married as soon as possible. He found a man and demanded I marry him."

"Just like that? Like he went to a department store and bought a bridegroom or something?"

"No. Long ago he introduced me to a man in his English department who liked me. He insisted I marry him. You knew him when you worked at my father's school. I think you foreign teachers called him "The Shrimp."

Memory conjured up a pompous Carlyle scholar in his 30s. A truly awful little man who walked about holding the lapels of his suit with his thumbs.

"This is disgusting," I said. "How can you go along with it?"

"What else can I do?"

"Say no, for one thing! Say you love someone else for another! Hey, move in with me, Hanako!"

"You have a job and a reputation to protect."

"I'm tenured. And technical universities aren't prissy," I said.

"Look, T-Bone, let me do this my own way. It's just a formality."

"You'll be sleeping with that guy! That too will be a formality?"

"Yes, that too will be a formality! I won't enjoy it. See other girls when you get jealous."

"Suppose Shrimp wants babies? Baby will also be formalities?"

"Don't be impossible! I have my duties. When I have fulfilled my duties I can do as I please. You are my lover; that'll never change."

"I don't like it, Hanako."

"Nothing is going to change! Every week the boy with the Celica will bring me here. We'll fuck our brains out. Sometimes I will say that I am staying with my friend without the telephone, and we can be together as we were last week."

"I need a walk," I said.

"I don't feel like walking," she said.

"I said I need a walk. I need a walk around the block. You can sit around and read Kafka or something."

I forgot to say that Hanako loved Franz Kafka. In German.

"I'll masturbate my cunt," she said.

"Yes, do that," I said.

I took my walk, thought things out, returned, and said to Hanako: "I've never knowingly slept with another man's wife. I'm not starting now."

"Nobody will know."

"Sleeping with other guys' wives isn't in my program. It's not the way I was brought up."

"Lighten up, T-Bone. I want your cock between my legs."

"I meant what I said. And I am getting sick and tired of your dirty mouth."

"How about my dirty mouth around your dirty cock?"

"Cut the crap, Hanako. I am pissed off! You're an intelligent and talented woman. How can you let your stupid oaf of a father force you into marrying that halfwit?"

"I have my duties, T-Bone. Yes, my father is a poor old silly oaf. He wouldn't be anywhere if my mother hadn't written his academic papers for him. And, yes, Shrimp is an idiot. But I have my duties! I'll write brilliant papers for that Shrimp!"

"Bullshit! Please get out of here, Hanako," I said.

"What?" Hanako's face went pink with surprise and fury.

"I said get out of my apartment!"

She didn't move. "How can you say that?" she said.

"Because you deceived me! Because you really are a silly, superficial, airheaded creep! Because you are no better than your asshole father! Beat it!"

I expected her to unleash her assortment of English vulgarisms at me and then engage in reasonable dialogue. (That's how it worked whenever we had a tiff.) Instead, she only said, "If that's what you want, T-Bone," and went out. She tried slamming the door. It had a damper, and so shut with a slow, petulant whoosh.

Listening to the click, click, click of her high heels moving toward the elevator, I nearly followed Hanako to beg for forgiveness. A voice inside, however—the one that closed the book on my affairs with all the other Hanakos—told me to go to the window instead.

Hanako click-clicked into the parking lot. She stood still a moment. She must have realized that her driver wasn't coming for another two hours. I expected her to look up at my apartment. She didn't. Maybe a book-closing voice was talking to her too. (She was getting married, after all.) She went to the road and raised her hand. A taxi appeared as if from nowhere. She got in, the taxi drove off, and that was that.

An hour and a half later, as I sat on the sofa and nursed my gloomy self, I heard a familiar car horn. I went out on to the balcony, waved. A round friendly face popped out of the window.

"She had to go early," I called out to him in Japanese.

"Eh?"

"She had to go. She caught a cab."

"Thank you, sir," the boy said in English and smiled.

Poor guy, I thought and said a little secular prayer for him as he tore out of the parking lot.

 

Most men would get drunk at a time like this. I cycle or do some type of intense physical exercise after breaking up with a woman. I guess that's why I haven't gotten as fat as I could have. Anyway, I packed some extra clothes and a few other odds and ends into my panniers and rolled off to the Akashi-Awaji Island ferry terminal. Usually, when I have the time, I'll cycle until I get tired or it gets dark. Then I'll find an inn or a hotel to stay at. This time, however, I had a mission. I'd heard about a Buddhist temple somewhere on Awaji where the priest was said to speak English. I don't follow any religion. But for a long time I had wanted to go to him for spiritual guidance because of my crazy love life. Now, grieving over the loss of my Hanako, I decided I had no more excuses for putting this mission off.

It was early afternoon when I hit Awaji Island and started in the direction of the town where I heard this priest lived. It was going to be a long and tough ride up narrow mountain roads.

By late afternoon I had thought through my life a few times. Why had I come to Japan? I needed a job. Why had I stayed for almost twenty years? I'd gotten damn good jobs. Why was I always having affairs with young Japanese women? Why had I never had a successful long-term relationship? What did women ever see in me in the first place? By evening I had decided to take up celibacy. At least for a year. Maybe longer. I'd meditate. Meditation would clear my brain, let go of my carnal self, the root of all my Hanako problems. That fucking carnal self! It was like a tumor on my back I thought as I pushed up a slope in my lowest gear.

At dusk I stopped at a coffee shop and asked about the temple where the priest spoke English.

"Down the hill," the master said. He gave me directions, refilled my water bottles, and wished me luck.

The priest not only spoke English but impeccable English. Thank goodness. After nearly two decades, my Japanese was okay, but far from wonderful.

I'm not going to tell you about the temple or where it stood for reasons you'll soon understand.

The priest was just a little older than myself, a graduate of a top American university He was so glad to have the opportunity to speak English that he invited me to have dinner with him. I ended up pouring out my life to him as he poured expensive sake into my cup.

"Don't know what it is with me and women," I said. "I had a functional family. Normal brothers and sisters who grew up to sell real estate and drop kids. Mom and Pop loved each other intensely. So intensely that sometimes we kids felt embarrassed in front of our friends. I don't know what I want from women. I know what I can give. Loyalty. Honesty. Intelligent conversation. Good sex. I guess sex is more important to me than to most people."

"Is it?" The priest looked at me intently.

"I mean as an extension of the spirit. Not for it's own sake. Not recreational sex, if you know what I mean. I mean—oh what do I mean? Like I need some sort of communion with a woman… Oh hell! What I need is to do a lot of deep meditation like I first said."

"Have you ever meditated before?"

"Not once, I'm sorry to say."

"Okay, listen up, T-Bone. The popular misconception is that meditation is something relaxing. It's not. Not deep meditation, as you call it. It is a concentrated journey into the psychic interior. You're not ready for that yet. It is something you shouldn't start on a whim."

"Yeah, I guess I'm pretty unworthy."

"No, just not ready. Here's an idea, T-Bone. I have a cabin cruiser at the pier, five minutes away by foot. What say we put your bike and you and me on it and go to Kobe? I'll treat you to the best soapland in the city. Then I can drop you off in Akashi, or anywhere you want. I'd invite you to stay here, but tomorrow duty takes me to Shikoku early in the morning."

"I can't do this. I mean—"

"Let me share something with you, T-Bone. There are poor temples, middle-class temples, rich temples, and obscenely rich temples. Mine happens to be somewhere between rich and obscenely rich, thanks to my Kyoto connections. I like returning some of the wealth to the masses."

"I've never gone to a prostitute before."

"You'll live."

So, indirectly thanks to Hanako, I found myself scooting across the Inland Sea at night on a cabin cruiser piloted by a slightly inebriated Buddhist priest. Also a rather lonely Buddhist priest in need of male bonding. As we were approaching Kobe, he began to sing the Shaker song "Simple Gifts." Docking, he told me that he did his M.A. thesis on the Shakers. Then he started to tell me about his Ph.D. dissertation on the Delight Makers, a kind of ancient Pueblo Indian shaman cult with special magical erotic powers. He was describing one of their rituals when our taxi pulled in front of the soapland, a place that normally did not admit foreigners.

I was serviced pleasantly by a beautiful young woman who told me all the nice things men like to hear, particularly when they are a bit tipsy and not up to peak performance.

Back on the cabin cruiser, I asked: "Was this meant to be a Zen lesson or something?"

"I thought of it as only good clean fun," the priest said.

"I think I had an insight," I said. "I got some kind of new perspective on me and women. Even though it was paid for, I still tried to make the lady happy when I was with her. She let me kiss her, though prostitutes apparently never do that. What do you think?"

The priest rubbed his shaved head. "Sometimes I think I'd been happier as a Delight Maker. A lot of us would have been."

He dropped me off at Akashi Port.

"Don't fall off your bicycle," said the priest as he shook my hand.

"Hey, brother, don't ram any tankers on the way back. And, look, I really need to start a spiritual journey."

"You already have. Welcome to the valley of love and delight."

As he started the cabin cruiser's engines, the priest once again began to sing "Simple Gifts." I watched him pull out of Akashi Harbor and head toward Awaji Island. Then I got on my bike.

Peddling through a narrow street, filled with the smells of frying fish and meat and the sounds of drinking men, I tried to convince myself that after this incredible night—it could only happen in Japan—I was not lonely and depressed, that I didn't need Hanako.

I hit a metal sign in front of a drinking establishment and went down. Falling, I remembered it was better to keep loose. I did a nice roll, ending up on my hands and knees.

My hitting the sign had made an awful clatter. Everyone in the drinking establishment came out, including the owner. They brought me inside and cleaned the scrapes on my knees and hands. One thing led to another and I found myself getting royally drunk with a group of jolly working men.

Everyone talked at once over the noise of the TV. Our conversation ran first from personal questions about me to jobs, bosses, taxes and politics, with a few dirty jokes thrown in. I babbled like an idiot. Finally, someone called a cab. When the cab got there, my friends persuaded the driver to stick my bicycle into the trunk and take me to my apartment complex.

"How much do I owe you?" I asked the owner, an old lady with hair dyed raven black.

"On the house," she said in English. "Okay, okay!"

An office worker on his way home came with me to make sure I would get back safely. When I tried to give him money, he refused vehemently.

"I had so much fun with you tonight!" he exclaimed. "I haven't enjoyed myself so much in years!"

It is not true that drunkenness makes you lose concentration; but you can only concentrate on one thing at a time. First I concentrated on putting my bicycle away in the shed. Then I concentrated on getting to the elevator and up to my apartment. Home, I collapsed on Hanako's sexy rug.

Sprawled on my back, a gallery of faces passed in front of me. The man who took me home, the folks at the bar, the girl I had made love to, the priest, Hanako. All the faces were smiling. No, they were laughing. They were jeering at me. I'd said things about my Hanako at the bar. What I couldn't remember. But even swimming in this alcoholic fog I knew I'd be cursing myself in the morning.

Tears came to my eyes. Hanako, I'll love you any way you want! I'll risk everything! my mind cried out. Then more tears came as scenes of us together passed before me. I got up and stumbled to the bookshelf. I swear I couldn't have found the faculty directory to my old university had I been sober.

I found Eggplant's telephone number and dialed. I got Eggplant who sounded as drunk as I. I was Hanako's English tutor I blurted out.

"Speaku Japaneezu pleaszu," Eggplant said.

"Please tell her I have changed my plans," I said in Japanese. "We can have an English lesson the week after next."

"No can do," Eggplant continued in English. "She must honeymoon! She must honeymoon two weeksu in Hawaii. Den Seputemba tree she is required to study your Engrishu!"

 

I thought of Hanako night and day. As I cycled over the mountains to the Japan Sea. As I cycled to the Notto Peninsula. As I cycled to Kyoto. As I took the bicycle apart at the Kyoto Shinkansen station and put it in my carrier bag. As I sat exhausted, hungry and dirty, bound for Akashi on the Shinkansen. I looked out the window at the orange dusk and thought of Hanako.

Home, I sifted through my mail for a letter or postcard from Hanako. Nothing! I noticed a scroll of messages from my fax. I pounced on it, running it through my fingers. Nothing!

I resisted an impulse to telephone her home.

When September third rolled around, I sat by the phone all morning, waiting for Hanako to call.

"Enough!" I said out loud. I changed and went for a ride in the hot late summer weather.

Cycling on the path by Akashi beach, I pulled over by the breakwater. I couldn't believe what I saw. There was Hanako and the very same boyfriends playing volleyball. She was as thin, tall and longhaired as ever. She squealed as the ball came over to her, then deftly socked it over the net.

I shook my head sadly as I watched. Vanity, I thought. What vanity to believe that this beautiful girl, now a shade browner after Hawaii, would want anything to do with a middle-aged tub of guts like me. Especially after I had put her down.

Hanako glanced in my direction, and then glanced again. When the ball came at her, she let it fly over her head. Giggling, she ran after it, then looked at me and moved her lips. I saw the lips say, "Four o'clock."

I was giddy, I was faint! Was it as I imagined? Or was she teasing me? Or had her lips said something like, "Fuck off?"

I stayed, watching. My gaze fell on the Shrimp. Dressed in shorts and t-shirt, he was sleeping in a lounge chair and holding a beer can on his belly. My eyes seemed to stir him. A reptilian eyelid opened half-way. I thought I saw the pupil turn in my direction before the eyelid descended.

At four o'clock the Celica roared into the parking lot of my apartment complex.

 

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