|Jul/Aug 2014 Fiction|
Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
Strongbow had guessed right away who she was, sitting off by herself gazing out the window; but he'd also wondered, why would she do that?
Their name badges looked like the rosettes awarded to prize-winners at county fairs: royal blue for the Eastern Metro area of Tokyo, purple for the central area around Nagoya, red for the cultural heartland of Osaka and Kyoto, yellow for the west, and green for the north. The willowy blond with a red badge had to be Jane Joule.
Waiters in white jackets circulated with glasses of wine and trays of hors d'oeuvres. Chandeliers glittered, marble floors glistened, and the caramel-colored Italian leather couches invited repose although most of the attendees stayed on their feet, Japanese and foreigners mingling in a display of international congeniality.
Strongbow's recent sumo triumph had made him a star. "A constellation!" one wag proclaimed, "Orion with his belt coming undone, that bit hanging down no scabbard!" You could laugh—Strongbow did—but viewer satisfaction figures rated his forecasts most trusted in Tokyo, and Eyeful Communications now owned the final segment of the six o'clock news slot.
The waiter hovering near Jane Joule was unsure how to respond to her solitude. Strongbow lifted a glass of wine off his tray and carried it over himself. "It's not bad. A white Burgundy."
A reproduction of the Mona Lisa hung on the wall behind Jane, carefully recreated in oils, color by color, stroke by stroke, although the slide projector used by the artist to project the image onto his canvas had produced an over-saturated chroma, resulting in browns and gray-greens and flesh tones shimmering with lurid intensity.
"I'm watching the crows," Jane said.
"I like the way they flare up and flap around and then settle back down again. Like it means something. Like some branches are better than others."
Strongbow peered out at the crepuscular landscape. Big black birds were perched on a dead pine half-way down the slope, with the myriad islands of Matsushima Bay in the distance reduced to silhouettes in the autumn twilight. "They just look like regular crows," he said.
"Why wouldn't they be?"
Jane seemed underdressed for the occasion, wearing only a pair of baggy cotton trousers and a pale green knit top with matching cardigan. Her straight, silver-blond hair reached her nape and was held away from her face on one side by a pink plastic barrette that would have better suited a child. She had no watch, no jewelry, no scarf or any other accessory, nothing other than the little raw-silk bag on a long cord she wore across her chest like a bandolier and that contained only her room key—although Strongbow wouldn't learn that until the following day.
"Kare eda ni..." Jane said, quoting the start of a well-known haiku, "On a withered branch..."
When she didn't finish the poem or explain what it meant, Strongbow held up the glass of wine he'd brought for her. "Nice and crisp. Good minerality."
"Why'd you assume I drink white?"
"Would you prefer red? I'd be happy to get you a glass of the—"
"No. That's not what I asked," Jane said. "Do I seem like the kind of person who likes white wine?"
Strongbow admitted he didn't know what kind of person she was.
"No. And you didn't ask me. You could have said, would you like a glass of wine? And waited to hear what I said. Or you could have called the waiter over. You could have said, hey waiter, in a loud voice, and he would have come over. But you didn't."
Strongbow apologized. He had just been curious about why was she off here all alone in a corner by herself.
"I told you. I'm looking out the window."
Strongbow moved close enough to the glass to escape the reflection of his own image. So she didn't need cheering up?
"Is that what you'd hoped to do?"
"It's getting too dark to see much."
Jane said nothing, so Strongbow suggested they sit together at the Welcome Banquet that evening, and she regarded him with such incomprehension as to why he might think she would wish to do such a thing that Strongbow mumbled another apology and retreated.
John Harold Henry Strongbow—his parents' decision to honor both grandfathers an early indication he would remain an only child—was a sun-kissed product of Southern California.
Strongbow's family owned a greeting card company specializing in the entertainment industry. A wide selection of humorous messages covered the various failures and regrets plaguing the would-be celebrity in Los Angeles. Star Stricken couldn't match the scale of the Midwestern giants of the greeting card industry, but by focusing on the lighter side of greed, jealousy, fear, and self-loathing, a sustainable business model was developed. Expressions of sympathy for humiliating disappointments or career-ending rejections were tinged amusingly with a hint of gloating.
Strongbow graduated from UCLA with a degree in mass communications and a fondness for being on camera. Larger than normal men, handsome in an exaggerated, old-fashioned way that sometimes worked to his advantage and sometimes didn't, Strongbow had also taken the leads in college theatricals, gaining dramatic experience that landed him a role on a TV soap as the feckless boyfriend the heroine's daughter couldn't seem to figure out was wrong for her. After a year of ludicrously bad behavior—drugs shoved down into the poor girl's underpants just before a police bust, unsubtle sexual overtures made to her recently widowed and emotionally vulnerable cousin, an attempt to sell the girlfriend's beloved saluki to the Hmong community for a wedding feast (thereby perpetuating an offensive stereotype)—Strongbow's character was written out vividly during the July sweeps.
"Everybody has to die," he was told by his producer.
He knew that. He just hadn't thought it would happen so soon.
"No one's ever really ready," said his producer.
Strongbow accepted his fate and dropped like a felled oak, struck on the head with an exploding table lamp fashioned from an antique WWII artillery shell by the heroine's brother, an inept DIY hobbyist who hadn't realized the round still contained its fuze charge.
Strongbow had hoped playing a cad on Dire Repercussions would lead to other parts, but casting directors found him too big, too obvious, too much a type, and the only place it took him was Japan. Star Stricken, at least, got a couple of good card ideas from his misfortune.
Strongbow began his career as a TV weather reporter in Tokyo. Other foreigners were already adding a touch of Western exoticism to the evening news there, but he differentiated himself by winning an amateur sumo tournament for resident expats. It was a charity event—the prizes paltry, the humiliation substantial—but the audience had applauded each of Strongbow's victories. For them, he epitomized the inept and ponderous American, the man who could take a blow to the face and keep moving forward, who would accept slaps to the side of the head, chops to the throat, kicks to the shins and knees. They called him Dai Shiro Kujira—the "Great White Whale"—and the final bout pitted him against a Kiwi sportscaster whose promising rugby career had been ended prematurely by a torn hamstring.
Before each bout, sumo wrestlers toss salt in a ritual to purify the ring. Strongbow did so and then licked his fingers like a fried-chicken eater. Everybody laughed. The two combatants squatted and glared at each other in the traditional face-down. Strongbow found it amusing, but the Kiwi didn't. At the referee's shout, the sportscaster launched a ferocious attack. Strongbow faltered but managed to withstand the onslaught. They circled each other, exchanging slaps and shoves until a sudden thrust caught Strongbow off-guard. The sportscaster grabbed his mawashi belt, found the angle he needed for maximum leverage, and the Whale tilted precariously at the edge of the ring before managing to right himself. The audience shouted encouragement. This was what they had come to see: near-naked foreigners slamming their bellies together. As the sportscaster tired, he began backing away, and Strongbow went lumbering after him. The contest became a comedy of pursuit and evasion until Strongbow managed to snag the Kiwi's belt and twist him around as they toppled over together, the Great White Whale triumphantly on top.
Laughter and cheering had greeted his victory. Floor cushions were sent spinning through the air. Strongbow's mawashi belt had been wrenched apart in the climactic battle, his manhood exposed, and men and women clapped in happy approval when he nonchalantly lifted off a pensioner's straw hat to cover himself while ring attendants made repairs in preparation for the awards ceremony.
Poise, perseverance, and a willingness to acknowledge his own absurdity had endeared Jack Strongbow to the sumo audience, and he brought these same skills to TV. He knew what he was; he could laugh at himself, too. What was self-honesty if not sharing the pleasure others found in mocking your excesses? His on-camera language came straight out of the textbook—no slang phrases or vulgar idioms contaminated it—and his weather bulletins became endorsements for the beauty of nature in the country's densest metropolitan area. In spring, Strongbow praised the ephemeral splendor of cherry blossoms. The rich brocades of colored maple leaves in autumn left him rapturous. He reported seasonal conventions as if they were breaking news and promoted the historic platitudes associated with the changing of the seasons with enthusiasm.
At first, Japan hadn't known what to make of the big white face filling their TV screens, the dazzling smile, the innocent gaze, the pleasure he seemed to find in just being himself, and if his audience thought Strongbow looked like the product of the overheated imagination of a schoolgirl, they soon realized he really did believe in what he was saying and could be trusted to milk a sentimental moment without straying too far into self-parody.
To be compelling, an actor has to inhabit his role fully. In Japan, Jack Strongbow played only himself, and his onscreen persona and offscreen life fused and became indistinguishable.
The following day, the whole group assembled in the ballroom. Once everybody was on the same page, they began to review the attributes of their brand promise. If Eyeful Communications were an animal, what kind would it be? If Eyeful were a color, what shade would it be? If Eyeful were a dessert, what flavor would it be? Approaches were pondered, methodologies debated, conclusions reached, inconsistencies hammered out, and insights fine-tuned until they had configured a mission statement informing efforts to create a vibrant new Eyeful Communications messaging strategy while retaining what was trusted in the vibrant old Eyeful Communications messaging strategy. In the bar afterwards, Jane Joule climbed up onto the stool next to Strongbow. "We didn't get off to a very good start yesterday," she said.
"You told me you were watching the crows."
"I was watching crows. It's good for me to pay attention to things. Otherwise I'm all over the place."
The bartender came down, and Jane ordered a double Stoli on the rocks with a splash of grenadine and a twist, explaining what that meant in idiomatic Japanese. She removed her cardigan—lilac this time, as was the sleeveless knit top she wore—and settled it in her lap, straightening the sleeves out neatly and folding the garment in half as if readying it for presentation. "Everyone says you're the best."
Jane glanced at him, surprised. "The weather."
"You're only as good as your data," Strongbow said. "And your model. You have your current, your tomorrow, and your five-day. Plug in the numbers and out they come."
The bartender delivered Jane's drink. "Well, Eyeful certainly loves you," Jane said. She sipped at the rim of her glass thoughtfully. "You haven't heard them complaining about me, have you?"
He hadn't. "What's wrong?"
"I don't always know," Jane said, but it also meant she often did.
"So your audience numbers aren't—"
The bottles of spirits behind the bar were lit by tiny white lights that made the contents glow. Strongbow told her he'd be happy to look at tape. Maybe he could spot something she'd missed.
"It's not that," Jane said.
An outside opinion could help identify on-camera problems—rushing your delivery or hesitating too much, or getting tangled up in irrelevant detail.
"You're not listening to me," Jane said. "If I wanted to improve my job performance, I could do it myself."
Strongbow told her he'd thought that's what she was asking for.
"Did I say that? Did you hear me say anything like that?"
Maybe she was just too tense? Because it seemed obvious to him the camera would love her face.
"I'm not tense. At least not all the time. And how would you feel if I started telling you about your face?" Jane said, except she suspected he wouldn't mind, which also annoyed her.
They sat side by side, not looking at each other in the bar mirror and not looking at their own reflections, either.
Jane abruptly pushed off from her stool. She walked as far as the entryway, stood there with her head down and her arms crossed over her chest as if studying her toes, and then came back to her stool. "The bad Jane Joule went away," she said and held out her hand as if in greeting. "She asked me to apologize on her behalf. This is the good one here now."
Strongbow held her hand as Jane described the impressive audience-satisfaction numbers he'd achieved in Tokyo, his innovative location work, his apt historical references, his clever use of weather-specific cultural allusions. "They say you can make plastic cherry blossoms seem real," she said, the sarcasm gratuitous but also a little wistful, and she began to withdraw her hand, pulling it away slowly, self-consciously, her fingertips departing from Strongbow's palm almost regretfully, both of them embarrassed by her neediness.
The yearning for acceptance underlying the bad-girl veneer flooded Strongbow with the desire to comfort her, touch her hand again, hold it again, have her want him to. Instead, in response, he feigned nonchalance. "So it's not personal?"
"No. How could it be?"
Strongbow told her he felt disappointed. "But I guess I got that message before."
"You mean during the arrival reception? But I told you I was looking out the window."
So she really wasn't just bored?
"No! Why don't you listen to me? I told you!"
Jane checked the version of herself in the bar mirror, a pale, slender woman sitting bolt upright, her bare arms folded protectively over her chest. Something Strongbow had wondered about before occurred to him again, and he said, "Maybe you're just homesick?"
Jane glanced at him doubtfully.
"I'm guessing your mother buys your clothes for you. And you wear them because it makes you feel close to her." So maybe all she needed was a couple of weeks back in the States?
"You don't think I'd get this kind of twinset myself?"
"Of course not." Jane stared at her face in the bar mirror. "But don't start by telling me what I am," she said, as if ending that way might be acceptable. "Mom sends me things because she knows I don't care." And she wore them because she didn't care. And how she dressed and what she did was no one's business but her own.
Strongbow apologized again. It was perfunctory at first, the good-natured colleague reprimanded unfairly but still willing to compromise, but then the idea that he was in fact wrong kicked in, his sense of contrition began to gain traction, and he described what he was experiencing at that moment, how he felt about it and why, his analysis heartfelt, insightful, and self-deprecating; and because she believed what he was saying, he believed it himself.
"And that doesn't mean you can't make personal remarks later," Jane said. "Just that you can't yet." How could he even presume to try? "We don't know each other."
Strongbow finished his drink, placed the glass gently on the bar counter and tried again. "So about your job in Kyoto, what do you want me to do?"
"I want you to take it," Jane said, looking at Strongbow with an implied authorization, a willingness to yield so long as the other party understood the value of what was being acquired.
"You can choose your own replacement?"
"If I could do that, I would have already."
"Why don't you just quit?"
"Can't. Visa's tied to my job."
"So you want to stay in Japan?"
"Maybe in the mountains somewhere? Some crap town nobody cares about? But with a local Eyeful station?"
"But what's wrong with Kyoto?"
"So why do you want to leave?"
"Because I do," Jane said. "Like, would it kill you to give me that much?"
Whatever he said next would almost certainly be wrong, so Strongbow resolved not to say anything but then blurted that out, and Jane scowled, and then laughed and said, "I know, I know, I can hear myself being a jerk, but I just can't stop. It's like a habit. Like over-compensating.
"Like this guy I met? This guy said how I kept talking all the time because it was the only way I knew how to avoid having sex with him? So I said, you know, you're right, I really do have to think of more ways to avoid having sex with you. Which of course pretty much solved that problem.
"But like, you know how... you know what Tourette's syndrome is? Well, I don't have it, at least not literally, I mean. But in school they used to call me 'Tory.' Like that's short for it. Because I could never say anything, but then once I got started, they couldn't shut me up. You see what I mean? Because it was like a tic for me? Talking? Logorrhea loves company? Pandora's babel box? But also because I was so shy as a kid. Because what I couldn't do was risk, you know, trusting people? Or so I've been told, I mean. Like my older sister was like this superstar in high school, this attacking midfielder on the team that won Long Island Girls Division One twice and was MVP both years and all anybody every thought of for me was like maybe something boring like the chess club? And I didn't even play chess? You see what I mean? And how everybody's always going on about how Lauren got full soccer and academic scholarships to Columbia, and then when I was her age, all I was was like all Goth, all the time? Black clothes, black eye makeup, black nail polish, and wondering if I was ever even going to grow breasts." Jane plucked out the arm holes of her top to demonstrate how flat her chest was. "But like that was what it was like? Waiting for something that wasn't going to happen? So I'd just put out all this bullshit before anybody could say anything. So there wouldn't be empty space. No chance to point out how fucked up I really am." Jane pulled her shoulders back and sat up as straight as anyone Strongbow had ever seen, her head up, her lips pursed, staring at herself disapprovingly in the bar mirror. "You want to leave now, it's fine."
Strongbow told her he was all right.
"You look a little worried."
His natural expression was one of friendly concern.
"You should be a chat show host."
Strongbow said he'd thought she wanted him to take her job. "But why did you ask if they're complaining about you?"
"Because I've behaved badly," Jane said. "And sometimes it wasn't even intentional."
Strongbow caught the bartender's eye and ordered another round.
"Probably I'd be better off in the mountains," Jane said. Her hand gripped Strongbow's wrist in a way he would come to recognize as a Joule family trait, the gesture like that of a person steadying a rowboat so others could board it. "Maybe I could even report to you?" she said tentatively, as if wondering how it would feel to be in a situation like this one without assuming this one might actually exist.
Strongbow told her he didn't want people reporting to him.
"You could become the regional thought leader? Set an agenda in terms of local expectations? Lay out the communications strategy?" Jane's eyes narrowed with amusement. "Maybe even create your own mission statement?"
Strongbow's face in the bar mirror was that of a fair-minded friend who would consider all options even though he was beginning to have doubts. But where do you find your character if not in his response to moments of uncertainty? Dire Repercussions had taught him that. And what was the lesson learned in the sumo ring if not the need to accept blows without buckling? His positioning seemed just about right. As the petitioner, she would have to come to him. But he also felt ashamed of himself for such a tactical response, and also ashamed because he knew he would not stop behaving in a way typical of how someone like him might behave, given the circumstances.
Jane's eyes found Strongbow's in the bar mirror. She watched him watching her, her shoulders back, her long arms ending in bony wrists on the edge of the bar counter like a penitent at an altar rail. Later that night when Strongbow started to kiss her in front of her door, Jane said, "Think about what you're doing. I'm not saying no. I'm just asking you to think about what you want and why. And what it might mean."
She meant, to her?
"For both of us."
Informative materials were distributed, preliminary questionnaires completed, and objectives defined. Someone had to be team leader. Strongbow's name was met with boisterous acclamation. He was tasked with capturing insights on a pad of large sheets of blank newspaper stock—using colored markers to distinguish mission-criticals from nice-to-haves—and taping the results along the side wall.
Jane sat in the back, slightly apart from the others, like someone about to be summoned to another meeting. Her face was pensive, her hands folded in her lap or holding a proposed marketing strategy or logo redesign prototype. She participated. She agreed Eyeful Communications needed a fresh and relevant new image that also retained its core values. She was not aloof, not withdrawn, not dismissive of the work being done. She asked questions, made suggestions, pushed the envelope, and thought outside the box. But she wasn't there, not in any real way, and only Strongbow seemed to notice.
The bagels served at the mid-morning break were studded with sweet red azuki beans, a local innovation not everyone praised. Strongbow spread thick slabs of cream cheese on both halves of his. He added chopped onions and tomato slices and black olives, and then layered strips of smoked salmon on top to hold everything together. "It must take a lot to fill you up," Jane said.
Strongbow looked down at his plate. Did it seem excessive? "Why are you asking?"
"How else can I get to know you?"
Strongbow said he didn't understand.
"Just tell me in your own words what you usually have for breakfast," Jane said, the irony also tinged with longing, like an employee about to be fired who nevertheless reviews the quarterly sales report.
Strongbow didn't see why they were talking about this.
Why couldn't he just tell her?
"I knew it!" Jane cried triumphantly. "Some kind of dried fruit on top. Raisins or apricots. And orange juice, not from concentrate. And with pulp because that means it's more healthy. And only one cup of coffee. Black."
"So what do you have for breakfast?"
"Nothing. I'm never hungry in the morning."
Strongbow spotted a vacant chair near the coffee urn. "I think I'll go over there. Easier to eat sitting down."
Jane remained alone beside the buffet table, her hands dangling. She spooned a few capers onto a saucer and carried it over to him. "You could put these on."
"I never eat breakfast," Jane said. "It's no big deal."
"Fine. I do."
"Because you're so big."
"That must be it."
Jane watched him eating. "Am I making you uncomfortable?"
He told her she wasn't.
"Sometimes I say things and people become annoyed."
Strongbow told her he wasn't that, either.
She said she thought he sort of seemed like he was.
"Well, I'm not," Strongbow declared, and Jane backed away.
After that, Jane kept to herself during breaks. She would hold a cup of coffee she didn't want and never drank from, or examine an array of pastries as if she might take one, which she never did. Strongbow watched the way she would calibrate intervals, maintaining a gap between herself and others to ensure no one nearby felt obliged to talk to her yet wasn't so wide as to stimulate a pity-response. Sometimes he caught her eye, and she smiled at him. Sometimes he went over to her, and sometimes he didn't, and sometimes she came to him. There were also times when Strongbow pretended to be unaware of her hovering nearby in order to establish what he thought of as male autonomy. Jane would hesitate, unsure why he had failed to acknowledge her, and then come forward anyway, her arms held close to her sides as if to lessen the likelihood they might start waving about uncontrollably. Her pace would slow as his display of indifference continued, and she would finally lose her nerve and veer off, leaving him to gnaw in self-disgust at his own duplicity.
The day's afternoon session involved developing a sense of group solidarity while maintaining personal integrity. Participants had been told to dress in loose but comfortable clothing. Judo mats borrowed from the local high school were laid out in the ballroom, each decorated with an anthropomorphic cartoon pine tree wearing boxing gloves and snarling with cheerful determination, the school's slogan, "Home of the Fighting Conifers," written in English.
Successful team-building came from executing against a well thought-through strategy. Strongbow went over the ground rules. Some exercises required participants to accept a temporary loss of dignity, and some required a certain amount of physical contact. A good rule of thumb: never touch anyone on any part of his or her anatomy where you would not want a stranger to touch on yours. The goal was to create mutual trust while remaining upbeat and proactive. For the final exercise, each participant would stand on a chair blindfolded and fall off backwards. Colleagues would catch him or her in a non-offensive manner. Only Jane balked. The group tried to convince her it was safe, but she refused to participate.
Strongbow mounted the chair in her stead. Cries of mock alarm warned that his bulk would put the whole team at risk, but the big weatherman was tying on the blindfold, and they needed to organize themselves quickly.
Damp hand towels were distributed once the last box had been ticked. The bar would open in 15 minutes.
"Why did you do that?" Jane demanded.
Strongbow wiped the back of his neck. A team leader had responsibilities.
"And you think I'm on your team?"
Wasn't that what she wanted?
"Don't you think I have the right to decide?"
Jane didn't join the group in the bar that evening, and she skipped dinner. Strongbow found her afterwards in her usual spot by the window.
This time he sat beside her. Guests at a hotel closer to the shore were setting off fireworks. Rockets rose into the sky, some exploding in star bursts and some just ceasing. Strongbow told her he liked Tokyo. "Eastern Metro has the largest audience by far. It's the business capital, the media capital, everything's there."
Jane watched him glumly.
"And I don't see why you think you'll be better off somewhere else."
Jane nodded at the fairness of this but said nothing.
"And I've asked you to explain it, but you never do."
Jane resumed looking out the window. "I hate fireworks," she said.
"You don't like a lot of things."
A silvery arc looped out over the bay, its trajectory continuing on unseen even as the rocket itself fizzled out.
"I can't stay where I am," Jane said, and Strongbow told her that the station manager at Eyeful Kyoto had suggested a place in the mountains called Bitter Lake.
"You asked him?"
"I talked to the regional news director, too. And the director of programming. No one said no."
"But you actually did that? You said you'd take my job?"
"The station manager said he didn't know if you'd be any happier up there or not." But he hadn't been opposed to the idea of her moving.
"I know the area," Jane said. "There's a lot of tourism."
"And that's a problem?"
"I don't know. No. Maybe not."
"So what's wrong?"
"I don't know! That's what I'm trying to tell you."
Jane looked down at her hands on her lap. "Would you get me a glass of wine?"
Strongbow stood up. "Red or white?"
A weak rocket climbed sputtering and flared out at the top of its parabola.
"Either's fine," Jane said; but Strongbow said, "No. One or the other. You tell me."
Lit by the fireworks, the surface of the Mona Lisa behind Jane's head shuddered and seethed like a sack filled with weasels.
Jane agreed he had every right to be annoyed. "I prefer white," she said.
The director of programming for Eastern Metro took Strongbow aside after lunch and told him it was too soon to make changes. His audience loved him. He asked him to reconsider his request.
For the afternoon session, a design studio presented visual ideas. Logos and slogans would be changed, as would corporate colors and fonts. Artistic men wearing quirky glasses debated pantone numbers. They discussed the psychological implications of changing from serif to sans-serif, and pretended not to hear whenever an Eyeful employee wondered why they couldn't have both?
At the end of the session, Strongbow found the Tokyo programming director in the bar. Maybe there was room to compromise. Why not run the cultural implications of the climate out of Kyoto? Why not use the weather to affirm what it meant to be Japanese?
"You could do that in Tokyo."
"But I want to do it down there," Strongbow said. He asked the director of programming to reconsider.
A busboy lost his grip carrying a tray of empty wine glasses. He tried to catch the ones falling and spilled the rest. He stepped on one as the others shattered on the marble floor and fell himself, landing on his hands and knees in the mass of broken glass. He scrambled sideways, surprised at the suddenness of his wounds, slipped in his own blood and crashed back down onto the glittering field of glass shards.
The bartender got there first but didn't know what to do. He stood staring at the panicky busboy, who was bleeding from wounds on his hands and face and forearms and knees. He asked if he was all right?
The busboy rolled over, flopping in the glass shards, the front of his white jacket splattered crimson, blood oozing out of deep gashes.
The bartender looked around helplessly.
Jane arrived in the doorway. She grabbed the busboy and dragged him out of the broken glass. "Call one-one-nine," she told the bartender. "Get me your emergency response kit. And some clean towels and a bowl of water."
Hotel staffers stood looking at each other. Jane singled out individuals and assigned them specific tasks.
The worst gashes were on the boy's hands, but shards of glass were embedded in his cheeks and chin. Jane extracted the bits she could see, but the bleeding continued. "Hurry up with the towels and water. And clean up all this glass so nobody else steps in it." Some wounds could be stopped with pressure bandages, but some would have to be stitched. Jane ripped a pre-threaded suture out of its sterile pack. "What's your name?" she asked the frightened boy in Japanese. She began stitching closed the worst wounds while also asking about his home, his school, his hobbies, did he have a girlfriend?
By the time the ambulance arrived, Jane had the bleeding under control.
The bar was closed temporarily as the floor was cleaned and blood-soiled towels taken to the incinerators in the basement.
Strongbow found Jane sitting in the garden on a bench. "How did you know how to do all that?"
Strongbow sat beside her. "You're a nurse?"
"I dropped out. Just after graduation."
"But if it's after graduation then you didn't—"
"I dropped out."
"Well. Nobody else knew what to do."
"Somebody's bleeding badly, you have to stop it. Or they could die."
"But he'll be all right?"
"Yes." Jane leaned in against Strongbow, placing her head on his shoulder, trusting him, wanting him to put his arm around her. The sense of her body yielding filled him with gratitude, which meant he was also grateful for the busboy's clumsy accident, which was awful, but he still felt that way.
During his "Dire" year, Strongbow would occasionally meet women who watched him every afternoon, sometimes with friends but usually alone, and who blamed him for their own romantic disappointments. Of course he was an actor playing a role. They knew that. But wasn't he just a little too good at it? A little too convincing? Months after the artillery-shell lamp had blown his head off, Strongbow would still be confronted by women who thought it served him right.
"I wouldn't have been a good nurse," Jane said. "I give up too easily." She said she had known at the time nursing school was a mistake but did it anyway.
"Why was it a mistake?"
"Because I didn't deserve to be a nurse."
Strongbow stroked her hair, tucked stray bits behind her ear. "You did today."
"Don't say that."
"Just don't tell me what I am." Jane sat up. "There was this guy at NYU, and he was so clear in his thinking and living. No alcohol or tobacco, and he only ate seeds and nuts and fruit. Vegetables. Brown rice and tofu. Miso soup. I could eat other things if I wanted, and he would tolerate it, but I always felt guilty. He was a poet, and he'd distilled his poetry down to the most basic truths. He said haiku had begun to seem wordy to him. Slack. Flabby. Like you didn't need all that detail. Because the purest truth could be found in the absolute clarity of simple concepts. So he wrote this poem about the sky and it was just the lines, 'The blueness of it / now.' Just that. And he said that for a long time he'd had more there, trying to say what the blueness was like, but he'd finally realized he was just getting himself all tangled up in trivialities."
Strongbow thought that seemed too simple, and Jane agreed.
"He'd say that was the point. Like he also liked playing the flute, but just the same four or five notes, variations of them over and over and over. And yoga because purification of the body would lead to purification of the mind. Nothing ever bothered him. Even if I said something stupid, he'd just wait until I figured it out. And if I said something I thought was clever, he'd act like that was perfectly normal for me. Like it was the kind of thing he'd expect to hear from a person like me. He stopped going to classes but still hung around Washington Square, playing his flute and also dealing drugs since you have to have money to protect yourself against the corrupting influence of American society. Then his grandfather died, and the first tranches of his trust became available, so he decided to live in Japan. I still had a year to go in nursing school, so he said I could take some Japanese classes and come over after graduation. But by the time I got here, he'd already moved on to Bali. Kyoto hadn't been as pure as he'd thought. Bali would be more intensely spiritual. The exchange rate was better, too."
"So is he still in Bali?"
"No. Connecticut. Something to do with a hedge fund." He had apparently transcended his need for the forms of spiritual abnegation. "He even bought a Porsche."
She hadn't seen him since?
"I went back once. He was fine about it. And supportive. Like I'd say how I was making a mess of my life, and he'd just smile in this understanding way and say how I shouldn't try to measure myself against him, just against whatever I could become."
"So he didn't invite you to stay?"
"Shouldn't you have asked if I'd wanted to?"
But Strongbow had caught the error already. He admitted he was wrong, apologized for failing to see the situation from her point of view, promised to do better and meant it.
Jane rested her head on his shoulder again. She seized his other hand in both of hers and dragged it onto her lap, settling it so his fingers fitted down into the notch between her thighs. She said she knew her lack of self-confidence was a problem. That was one reason why she stayed in Japan. "Because since you're a foreigner, they don't really care about what you do."
They sat together under the canopy of stars, with the wind in the pines and the scent of the sea in the distance, the small voices of crickets nearby like tiny silver bells. Strongbow began to tell Jane more about himself, lacing amusing anecdotes with ironic self-assessments, drawing it in bold strokes for the comedy of doing so, his misadventures with women forming the core of his narrative.
"You sound like you're selling something," Jane said.
"An actor's always only selling himself." Strongbow started to explain what he meant by that, but Jane stood up and said, "You want to go to your room? Mine's pretty much a mess."
Equipped with a new brand essence, a new mission statement, and a new corporate logo representing an all-seeing eye radiating light-rays of infotainment but looking more like an eyeball sprouting hairs, the Eyeful employees were allowed a couple of unstructured hours before their sayonara banquet. A footpath led down from the resort hotel to a bay-side village where boats could be hired.
Jane wasn't in the reception area, and she wasn't in her room. Strongbow searched through the hotel gardens, but she wasn't there either. From the top of the footpath, he could see a ragged file of Eyeful employees moving onto the quay. He went back inside and found Jane in the lobby examining tourist brochures. "There's a viewing tower," she said.
She didn't want to join the others?
"We could go up in it and look out and see the bay and the islands."
"There's also an aquarium," Jane said, her gaze somber, guarded, mistrustful. "Do you enjoy looking at fish, Jack?"
She continued sorting through her brochures, turning from one to the next. "Also a wax museum. What do you think?"
"A wax museum?"
She translated the headline: "Historical figures posed in dramatic tableaux?"
"Are you serious?"
"I like things that are obvious," Jane said. "The glass eyes and frozen lips and dry, dusty hair. How you can come back a year later, and they're all still the same. I like the way they're supposed to resemble something without pretending to have ever been it. Not like mummies. I can't stand mummies. Do you like looking at mummies, Jack? I can't do it. I hate the way you feel them reaching for you. But wax museums are fine. Because mixing in real stuff makes the figures seem even more fake. Like how the painted backdrop of a diorama looks so artificial? You know what I mean? Actually, that's what I should have become. A maker of dioramas. With real clothes, real tools. George Washington reassuring his troops at Valley Forge, Edison inventing the telephone, Jack the Ripper stropping his razor."
"All that's there?"
"No!" Jane stared up at him, annoyed. "I mean, it's what it's like, the falseness of life-sized dolls. But what if they knew exactly how it had been? What if Robespierre waiting for the blade to drop was perfectly captured? Ethel Rosenberg weeping in the electric chair? Or think what it would be like if the wax head had consciousness. An eternity of being on the edge of unbearable agony but without it ever quite arriving..."
"I could feel myself being her. Sitting there strapped in, terrified, waiting for it to happen to you..."
Jane returned to the brochure spread open on her lap like someone searching through the passenger manifest of a doomed flight.
"I mean, you know what I mean, Jack? Like a body double in the movies? I always thought that would be a good job for me. Be the woman willing to do something disgusting so some movie star won't have to. How your body is like a tool. Because hookers are right. Not that I've ever done that. But why not have your body be the thing you use to get the money you need to feed it? I mean, how is selling access to your body any different from selling your time? Like it's supposed to be better sitting bored in an office cubicle all day? Just to earn enough to go back to some shitty little apartment you hate and watch crap on TV?"
"Are you all right?"
Jane nodded, sitting up straight, her pale green cardigan draped over her shoulders. "Why did you come looking for me?"
Because of what he said before.
"You like me?"
In his bed that night, both of them naked although she wouldn't touch Strongbow or let him touch her, Jane cleared up some operational issues. "Probably I'll fuck you again. But not yet."
Strongbow told her she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to, and Jane thanked him for being so considerate, the sarcasm obvious although she oscillated so rapidly between sincerity and ridicule that both states seemed to exist within her simultaneously, with a touch of each also always in its opposite.
Strongbow said all he'd meant was that he didn't want to make love with her as if it were some kind of debt to be collected, and Jane said, "Don't say 'make love.' It's too close to 'make a mistake.'"
Was this the bad Jane talking?
"'Love' is the word you use when you can't think of anything better."
She meant him?
"Not just you. Everybody."
So what word then?
"'Fuck' works fine."
They lay on their backs staring up at the ceiling, elbows an inch apart.
"Because how else can you know?" Jane said. "How can you know if something's true or not? So you should say what you mean. Like if you'd like me to suck your cock, ask. Don't just try to shove my head down there. Say it. Ask for it. And I will, or I won't. Depending. Or you can ask if it's okay if you fuck me in the ass, and I'll say, yeah, sure, no problem. Or no, not now, maybe later. Or maybe I'll say, no, never. Because I hate that. Because it hurts. Or something like that. But clear. So we know."
"And you're happy enough with Bitter Lake?"
"I guess it sounds about right for me. That guy we met? The news director? He seemed nice."
Strongbow had thought the man seemed bewildered by the idea of having someone like Jane Joule up there in the mountains, but he kept it to himself.
"I wear underpants when I have my period, otherwise mostly not. And I won't shave my pussy, but I will trim the hair back. And you can take pictures of me naked, but not of us fucking."
Strongbow wondered why she was telling him this but didn't dare ask and so said nothing.
"And also, I'm very comfortable being naked in public. I mean, I don't see why you have to cover parts of yourself if you aren't ashamed of them. You have to obey the law, but otherwise why bother? But I guess you don't agree."
Strongbow said he hadn't thought about it one way or the other.
"So then you do believe there are parts of me which shouldn't be seen by others? By people like you, for example?"
Strongbow told her he didn't know how to answer that.
"Just tell the truth. Remember?" Jane leaned up on one elbow and then sat up, her chest pale in the muted light, nipples small pink buds with almost no breast swelling. "Didn't we agree about that?"
Strongbow tried to explain it was a question of what people meant to each other in terms of the dynamics of their relationship, and how what for one couple might be acceptable behavior, for another might... not.
Jane had knelt upright, her crotch thrust into his sight line even as she mimed thrusting an index finger down her throat as if to induce vomiting.
"Then you tell me," Strongbow said.
"Tell you what?"
"What the hell we're talking about, that's what."
"We're getting to know each other." Jane dragged off the sheet and he was exposed, ludicrously erect. "So how do you get yourself in this state? Were you thinking dirty thoughts? Can you control them? Or do they just occur? You might want to keep a thought record. Just jot down whatever you were thinking when you realized it was happening to you again."
Strongbow pulled the sheet up. "Can we go to sleep?"
"All right," Jane said. "But let's try to get something accomplished."
"If you were a color, what color would you be?"
"I don't know."
"Men always choose blue!" She shook her head in wonder at the pathetic predictability of the male. "So what shade of blue? Turquoise? Cobalt? Indigo?"
"Not turquoise probably."
"No. Probably not. Navy? No..." She thought about it. "Maybe that's too tough." She shifted around to face him directly, drew one leg up and rested her chin on her knee, her crotch skewed open, the inner lips of her vulva moist and pink and wrinkled.
"If you were an animal, you'd be a horse," Jane said. "But what kind of horse?"
"I could be a leopard or a wolf or a—"
"You could only be a horse."
"Maybe a thoroughbred?"
"No. And not an Arabian or some kind of clever quarter horse either. Something larger, slower, something plodding, blinkered, the kind of draft horse that pulls heavy wagons."
"Steady and reliable."
"That's right. A placid old gelding." Jane reached over and lifted the sheet off again. She took Strongbow's erect penis in her fist and gripped it like a lever. "You're the horse for Lady Godiva," she said. "Slow-footed, heavy-headed, and with a mouth dead to the bit."
"If you say so..."
"Just right for a leisurely amble down to where the jack-off boys are waiting behind peep-holes."
"You sound like you'd approve."
"I do approve."
"So can I do that for you?"
"No," Jane said. "I don't believe you can." But she also seemed to recognize that was unfair, and she lay back down again and turned on her side, facing him. "Will you tell me a story?"
"What kind of story?"
"A true one?"
"I don't know any true ones."
"Make one up then. Put me in it."