Love is a great gift. Even if you're giving away the person you love to someone else.
Before I inherited, as the oldest son, the Murakami family art supply business in Akashi City, I inherited a set of attitudes from my father. For most of his life, Father sold fish in the famous Akashi fish market. A successful businessman, he also knew how to play the role of fishmonger. He wore a bandana around his head and a blue apron over his simple cotton shirt and baggy trousers. He knew how to clap his hands and shout, "Irasshai! Fresh fish!" with just the right pitch so that the milling shoppers in the narrow and noisy arcade would come to him. He could also be disarming by acting the simpleton, conforming to what middle class people expected an uneducated seller of fish to be. Those who knew him knew to keep their guard when dealing with him. Father was not dishonest but he was shrewd. I guess the bloke who was up to his ears in gambling debts underestimated Father's shrewdness when selling him his failing art supply shop for a fraction of its worth. For Father it was a blessed escape from the fishy life which (he confessed only to his family) he hated from the depths of his belly.
Now Father quickly realized a simple-looking bloke who clapped his hands and bellowed irasshai was not going to sell paints and brushes to aesthetes. So he learned to look like an artist. He grew a goatee. He began wearing jeans and loose turtleneck shirts. He picked up the lingo and cool detached demeanor of a bohemian. As the shop prospered and consumed the tobacconist and shoe store spaces next door, Father hired staff and instructed them on how to look bohemian. The women had to let their hair grow long and cascade over their shoulders. Father insisted they wear tight turtlenecks in winter and black chest-baring leotard tops in summer. The young men had to look scruffy but not disreputable. He taught them to act aloof, yet show concern when serving customers.
I was my father's son. I grew a trim goatee. Only I learned my art history at good universities in the United States and France--quite unlike Father who would pore over art books by fluorescent lamplight in his cramped office in the late hours after closing time. Relatives were horrified by my Western manners when I returned to Japan. Father was delighted.
Father took special pains in preparing me for managing the shop. Having never harbored any illusions that my destiny lay anywhere else except in the family business, I had few problems adjusting to the managerial life. Best of all, I did not have to work at acting like an artist, though, frankly speaking, I had not a jot of creative talent. Having grown up around artists, I knew how demanding they could be and how irrational if we were unable to locate a special brush or the right shade of blue pigment. Yet I also knew they had a capacity of accepting eccentric people like no one else in Japan. It was a tolerance that became a natural part of me. Though Father's many friends confided in him about their love affairs, though he was the perfect listener, the exemplary confidant, he was uncomfortable with them. In his heart I believe he disdained them.
In his domestic life, Father remained a simple man who preferred to live in a traditional Japanese house, eat ordinary Japanese food and watch game shows and soap operas on TV. He placed cheap summer gifts (ochugen) next to the expensive art objects his friends gave him--they were all the same to him. He was loyal to Mother, never left her side during her final illness, and never remarried.
Me? After Father died, I threw out every last bit of kitsch he had ever accumulated. I had an architect remodel our family home in the Western mode. An interior decorator Europeanized every last room except the one with the family altar where I kept my parents' ashes. (I owed them that.) I preferred having a mistress to being married.
Shinko-chan was rich and she said she was in love with me. She was fun to be with because every day was a holiday for her. We called each other darling in English, finding the Japanese language's terms of endearment too dull.
"Darling, I have tickets for Paris! You surely can escape for a week," she'd say over the phone. "October in Paris, darling!" She wore flashy fashions from the boutiques on the Champs Elysees, from Harrod's and Boomingdale's, over her skinny ballerina's body. She smoked her Players from a long ebony cigarette holder. "Darling, darling," she would telephone me at midnight. "There is a musical I just have to see on Broadway! I bought two first-class tickets for New York on JAL for us. Don't tell me you are too busy to go! And you know what? I've reserved a hotel in London!"
I was always busy and I always went with her. While she shopped at Boomingdale's or Harrod's or wherever, I'd be bustling around looking for hard to find art materials and making deals with suppliers. Those were the days before the Internet.
Shinko-chan spoke this comic choppy English and absolutely unintelligible French that won us friends everywhere. Shinko-chan slinking about a New York gallery party in a clingy low-cut dress and carrying that ebony cigarette holder was a work of kinetic art. "Oh darleegu Meesser Sumissu! I am sooo lovely disu Cez'ane weeth me maa-chi!" She was a comedian and knew it. People laughed at Shinko-chan and fell in love with her. When she exhibited her dreadful oil-on-plasterboard landscapes in Tokyo, a few of our eccentric rich friends actually flew over to buy them. At first they bought them as a joke. Then those awful things became camp, like Mickey Mouse watches from the 1950's, and she developed a small but dedicated following--collectors of "shinkos." The few critics who condescended to acknowledge her existence wrote scathing reviews of her exhibitions. Shinko-chan only laughed; she had no illusions about her work. And she said she loved only me.
There was but one catch to our happy and light affair. Shinko-chan was married. I did not who her husband was or where they lived in Osaka. I did not know Shinko-chan's telephone number. Until I saw it in her passport, I did not even know her family name. Shinko-chan would simply vanish at times--often for months--and then suddenly reappear in my life like a brilliant giggling flame. This went on for over ten years.
I want to tell you what finally happened between Shinko-chan and me, but before that I must tell one other Shinko-chan story.
I have only two real hobbies. My mild and domestic side comes out in my love of gourmet cooking. Mountain bike racing takes care of my wild side. I have six custom mountain bikes. Shinko-chan selected the colors. And Shinko-chan went loyally with me to my mountain bike races. Rolling over the finish line, I'd be covered in mud. She would be waiting for me in her low-cut dress and with a bottle of champagne in hand. Whether or not I'd won anything, she would always shower me with champagne and embrace me while I was still in my muddy jersey, which invariably left the residue of clay on her face and breasts. (A turn-on, she said.) Yet only once did I manage to coax her on to a bicycle, a tandem that I had bought. We were to spend the day on Awaji Island, which is across the narrow Inland Sea from Akashi. Shinko-chan showed up at my place in pink spandex and matching pink helmet and white cycling shoes. We got as far as the ferry building, about a block from my home.
"I'm terrified, darling! I can't ride this pretty bike of yours!" she exclaimed.
Walking back, we passed by the fish market.
"Oh let's go into the arcade!" Shinko-chan cried. "It's so exotic!"
"Oh no, it stinks!" I said. "Ugh!"
Father had always told us children that the Akashi Fish Market was dirty and foul smelling and inhabited by low-lifes. Father's description of the place was so depressing that we never had any curiosity about it, famous as it was all over Kansai. Even as an adult I would make it a point of passing it by. The fishmongers should have delighted me when they sang in praise of their fish. But the sound of "irasshai!" and clapping hands always sent a shiver down my spine. Such was the power of my father's words.
"But darling, I like the smell!" Shinko-chan laughed. "Doesn't it smell like my little girl place when it's ripe?"
"Shinko-chan! People can hear us! This isn't Paris."
"Oh you can't take me anywhere!" she giggled.
Then a few minutes later, when we were approaching my neighborhood, she giggled again. "Darling, a sexy fishwoman wearing rubber boots made eyes at you back at the fish market! I saw her and I smiled."
"Ugh! Now you've made my day," I said.
"She had long straight black hair and voluptuous breasts and wide hips. Like Sophia Loren! I smiled at her and she smiled back."
"It's not nice to tease people," I said.
"Darling, you know what would be fun? To invite her to a love hotel with us. She could bring a live fish--"
"Shinko-chan," I said breaking into a laugh. "Enough!"
Instead of going to Awaji, we bought Shinkansen tickets for Nagoya, where Shinko-chan had seen a love hotel shaped like a cabin cruiser. After I had peeled off her pink spandex in our deluxe suite, she insisted on wearing her pink helmet as we made love.
It was after this that Shinko-chan began insisting that I sleep with other women--jokingly at first, earnestly later. She insisted it aroused her desire for me to greater heights. I didn't want to--the residual influence of my father's conservatism, I guess--but I did a few times. I should have known something was up with Shinko-chan.
One September night Shinko-chan telephoned and announced that we must fly to Paris in the morning--she had the tickets. There was an urgency in voice I had never heard before. I left the store to my trusty manager and flew to Paris with my beloved.
On the plane Shinko-chan, usually a non-stop talker, was mute. She read the in-flight magazines cover to cover. When I asked her if anything was wrong, she said, "Nothing," and patted me on the cheek. Over the North Pole, she covered her eyes with the airline's eye mask and slept. Or pretended to sleep.
At Charles DeGaulle we got a cab to our hotel on the Left Bank, on the edge of the Latin Quarter--a modest hotel near Jardin du Luxembourg that we loved not for its luxuries but its atmosphere. It was late evening and we were suffering from jet lag. Yet we made love into the night. Shinko-chan clung to me, bit me, sunk her long elegant lacquered fingernails into my back. I had never known her to make love with such ferocity. When her loins were aching and I was physically spent, she rammed her tongue into mouth. "Can't we just kiss?" she said. "How long has it been since we simply kissed..."
We awoke early. Shinko-chan pulled me out of bed. The cafes were just opening. We ended up in one for coffee and croissants. She snuggled up against me as if she were cold, though the morning was quite warm.
She was fatigued as I. Yet she took me by the hand and dragged me to the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Did I remember our precious memories of the Jardin du Luxembourg? she exclaimed and began to sob.
I escorted her to a bench. Her face collapsed against my shoulder.
"All right, dearest," I said. "It's time to tell me what's up."
I closed my eyes. The morning sun warmed my eyelids.
"Is it mine?" I asked.
I did not open my eyes. What right did I have to feel betrayed? Hadn't I slept with other women? Hadn't her husband always been the person she went back to? Hadn't we been happy because neither of us felt jealousy? Was it jealousy I felt now? Or was I angry with myself for never having the courage to asked about her life apart from me?
"Do you hate me?" she whispered.
I opened my eyes.
"You know me better than that, darling," I said.
She sighed and kissed me lightly on the neck.
"Look, I know we decided long ago that sex with other people is a turn-on," I said. "But getting pregnant--was it a mistake?"
"You honestly wanted this child?"
Her head nodded against my shoulder. "More than anything."
I sighed. "But why?"
"Because I want to be a mother," she said softly. "I'm thirty-six. I didn't have much time left. Oh, we tried and tried for years and years, my darling."
"Oh, longer! The hell I went through! Shots! Pills! Doctors scraping and scraping the insides of my vagina! And the anguish of my poor husband! We were about to give up and to separate when the miracle happened!"
"Are you sure it isn't mine?"
"No, darling. I promise you, it's not yours."
"Darling, I'm tired," I said. "Suppose we go back to the hotel and sleep. Then we'll talk some more. We'll find some way to redefine our relationship."
"I'm flying home this afternoon. Then we won't see each other again. Darling, what time is it?"
I dumbly looked at my watch. "Five to nine," I said.
"I must catch a taxi! I called for it to meet me around here while you were sleeping. Oh! There it is! Thank you for everything, darling!" She kissed me on the cheek quickly. "Goodbye!"
She went for the taxi with a wobbling sort of run, waving her arms as she went.
I was too stunned and too sleepy to follow. She planned all this, I thought. Maybe it was all a silly joke like her oil on plasterboard landscapes.
At the hotel I fell into a comatic sleep. I awoke with sunbeams on my face. Automatically I reached for Shinko-chan. My hand touched an envelope under her pillow. A farewell letter. I read: "I will cherish our life together and always love you in my own way. All parties must end, my dearest darling. The rest of my life will be devoted to motherhood. To raising my son or daughter. I shall become dull and unattractive. Remember me as I was before. There is nothing else to say. Except please fall in love quickly. It will do you well."
I took the train to Basel from the Gare du Nord. Switzerland's neutral beauty calmed me. I took another train to Bern. An art supplier I knew lived there. I made a deal. In Milan I became sick of Europe, and so returned to Paris and flew home.
Back in Akashi I took solitary walks after work. Otherwise I would sit by the telephone waiting for Shinko-chan to call. Of all the memories I had of Shinko-chan the one that stood out for reasons I could not explain was of the day we passed by the fish market and she had made her remark about her "little girl place." I chuckled every time I thought of it.
In the late night my feet carried me to the fish market area in the arcade when all the shops' steel shutters were down and there was but the lingering scent of fish. I became fascinated with the patterns of the arcade's tile pavement. It took me a while to realize they represented fish scales. (So much for my imagination.) I was charmed. This had probably not been there in Father's time, I thought. One afternoon I braved the smell at the market and bought a fish. A sea bream with glaring eyes.
Fond as I was of gourmet cooking, I had never cooked fish before, only vegetable and meat dishes. Father had never allowed us to cook fish at home. We ate fish--but always out. My first fish creation--the sea bream in white wine and lemon sauce--turned me around. I discovered I liked the smell of fresh fish in my kitchen and the lingering aroma of fried fish. I bought a small library of cook books on international fish cuisine.
To whom did I feed my beautiful fish dishes to? Only myself. Shinko-chan had been my one and only dining guest when I had cooked. I had no other real friends--people to whom I felt close enough to invite home. So I treated only myself. And the more I did that the fussier I became.
I must confess: I first started going to the skinny old bald fishmonger not because of his voluptuous daughter, the lady I guessed Shinko-chan had smiled at that day, but because of the quality of his fish. Only after some six months passed did his daughter and I start exchanging looks and then faint smiles. I guessed the fishmonger's daughter was either in her late twenties or early thirties. Her oval face and her merry eyes had that ageless quality that made age-guessing not so much difficult as irrelevant. After we started to greet each other I noticed subtle changes in her appearance. She still wore her blue apron over her sweater and blue jeans and continued to wear her rubber boots. But she let her hair grow longer. A gold bracelet appeared around her neck.
Her father always greeted me with a resounding, "Irasshai!" Her two brothers, muscular guys with permed hair who chopped and sliced fish, would shoot glances at me.
One evening in April I was pouring white wine over a flounder and my heart started to beat fast. I was thinking of the fishmonger's daughter. She had started wearing tighter sweaters of late. I remembered how once, when she had bent down over a crate, her heart-shaped bottom had stuck out at me.
I had not been with a woman since Shinko-chan had left me in Paris. It was spring. The night air in my garden was heavy with the smell of flowers. I recalled Shinko-chan's letter: "Fall in love soon. It will do you well."
I shook my head and continued to marinate my flounder. The absurdity of falling in love with the fishmonger's daughter! Father would laugh at me.
I returned to the fishmonger and his daughter the following evening. "Irrasshai!" the old man cried. The two brothers glanced at me as they hacked fish. The fishmonger's daughter and I smiled and bid each other good evening.
"I want fillet of tuna," I told her.
"The fillet is old now," she said. "Come by tomorrow at seven in the morning. That's when it is freshest. I will save some for you. How much do you want?"
Taken aback by this unusually bold invitation, I could only answer: "Two kilos."
"Tomorrow at seven," she said.
I returned home with a beating heart. I longed to fondle the breasts under her blue fishmonger's apron. I imagined her fishy hands swimming over my naked back.
Oh fool, fool, you fool! I said to myself. Back in my shop with its warm and sterile smells of wood, paper and paints, I laughed at myself. What nonsense--to fall in love with the fishmonger's daughter! What could we ever talk about? Cooking fish? Was I not getting tired of fish? No, I wasn't. I preferred the taste of fish to meat these days--
I barely slept that night thinking of the fishmonger's daughter.
At seven she was waiting for me by the shuttered front of her shop. A packet wrapped in butcher paper was in her hand. She was not wearing her apron, but a tight black top. Her nipples protruded.
"This fillet is so fresh it is still twitching," she said.
When I tried to pay, she refused. It was present from her family, she said.
"Look," I said, "I'm getting over a love affair. I would probably be terrible company if I asked you out."
"I've seen you cycle sometimes. I cycle," she said.
"You don't race, do you?"
"When I have time. I had more time before my mother died."
I felt embarrassed. Here I was mourning the end of an affair and she was coping with the loss of her mother.
"I can get away tomorrow," she said. "The boys can help dad."
"I have a tandem I've never really tried. We can go to Awaji for the day and return on the ferry in the evening. I have an extra helmet if you need it."
"I have my own," she said.
So that's how I got to know the fishmonger's daughter. She wore a sleeveless top. I first noticed her muscles when she was helping a crew member and me load the tandem on the aft desk of the ferry. As we rode out from Iwaya our cadences meshed.
We had planned only a short spin but before noon we decided to circle the island in a day. We would have made it had we not stopped to exchange long kisses on a lonely winding mountain road.
Late that evening we stopped off at the only open diner we could find. We both ordered fish dinners, then simultaneously burst out laughing at an unspoken but mutually understood joke. Fish had brought us together.
"We'll have to stay at a hotel tonight," I said.
"Just what I was thinking," she answered.
I was in love with the fishmonger's daughter. Why? I only knew we were comfortable together. As we rested in each other's arms in the hotel facing the sea I thought of the Jardin de Luxembourg and Shinko-chan wobbling toward the taxi, her arms--her skinny whitish arms--flapping. I had never had her, only shared her. For first time in my life I felt as if I were giving myself entirely to another human-being.
"I worry how your brothers might take us sleeping together. I mean, the way they wield those cleavers," I said half-jokingly.
"The boys are the most gentle and understanding brothers in the world. There's nothing I have to hide from them. Dad too. I didn't lie to him when I called him from the phone booth out there on the road. I guess I'm a lucky girl."
"What would your dad say if I took you to Paris?" I asked.
"He'd insist I pay my own way. I can, you know."
"Yes, I believe you," I said, thinking of Father. "You'll enjoy the singing fishmongers."
"I want to see art museums and cathedrals, silly!" She tickled me and I tickled her back. "I want to take a cycling trip through France and make love in quaint old inns."
Later, dressed in the hotel's yukatas, we sat together by the window and watched the lights on the distant Wakayama coast. A small fishing boat passed by. The night was so quiet that we could hear a crew member drumming with his hands on the boat's prow. My lover was still as she listened, perhaps experiencing a primal communion with the rhythm. I would have shared in its mystery had my family remained fishmongers, I thought.
"To tell the truth, I've been to Paris already," she said. "With a lover."
"I'm glad," I said.
"A woman lover. My first and only woman lover. Your friend Shinko-chan."
There's no need to tell you how startled I was. I couldn't speak.
"Forgive me if I hurt you or disgusted you. I hate hiding the truth! It was brief and it's over."
"I cannot explain why, but hearing this makes me happy and nothing else," I said.
"Shinko-san once said you were an usually understanding man. She loved you."
We were silent for a moment.
"I was surprised that it happened," she said. "At first I didn't think of it as a love affair. Then I would think of her as being like a skinny young boy. She would hold me and weep about not being able to have a baby. Was she that way with you?"
"She called me an earth mother because of my big breasts and wide hips. She said maybe my hormones would change hers, though I've never had children in my life!"
"That's Shinko-chan!" I laughed. "You know she succeeded."
"Sometimes I miss her."
"Me too," I said.
She put her hand on mine, then clasped it.
Alex Shishin (email@example.com) has published fiction, non-fiction and photography in North America, Europe and Japan, where he is a professor at a private university. His short story "Mr. Eggplant Goes Home," first published in Prairie Schooner, received an Honorable Mention from the O. Henry Awards in 1997 and was anthologized in Student Body (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). His short story "Shades" was anthologized in Broken Bridge (Stonebridge Press, 1997). His short story "The Eggplant Legacy" will appear in the Spring, 2003 issue of Prairie Schooner.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2003 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 13, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2003 Alex Shishin.