Of course, there were others there, besides French men and Japanese women. There was more to the place than this exchange of attractions and cultural misunderstandings. It was one of Tokyo’s luxuries, its version of cosmopolitanism. You could get a proper French coffee and croissants and millefeuilles, champagne, cognac, cassoulet. Anything could be recreated. The closeness of this imitation was both comfortable and disconcerting. Those of us most at home with this kind of dislocation came often.
In those days, in Tokyo, I lived in a world of foreigners, and semi-foreigners, and estranged nationals, people who were at most only partly, or uncomfortably, Japanese. There were Japanese citizens who had lived too long abroad or wished they had, half-Japanese born in Japan or elsewhere, international-school grads, grad students on exchange, returnees, Japanophiles, Japanese Francophiles and self-hating locals. Noémi was a part of that world, a Japanese girl with a French name, the legacy of a prolonged trip her father had taken to Paris.
In my memory she is wearing a black dress the night we met, though I usually have no memory for what people wear. I can see them smiling or crying, confiding in me, or listening to me confide in them, but their clothing remains indistinct. Each of them wears only a dark blur. I cannot remember what they were wearing nor what I was wearing, just as sometimes I cannot remember what language we were speaking. It’s possible that Noémi wasn’t wearing a black dress at all, that I have only substituted the dress for whatever she was wearing, because in my mind she is already mourning her own disappearance.
After Aux Bacchanales, we went to a party. She told me she had a friend with two scooters, and we could take one of them. He owned two scooters, she said, because he had gotten so drunk once that he had forgotten where he’d parked his scooter and assumed when he awoke that it had been stolen. So now he had two. I knew how to drive a scooter, didn’t I? She was terrified of driving them herself. I nodded. Where was the party? She wasn’t sure. She knew a bar it was close to. We could figure out the rest. ‘We’ll investigate,’ she said. She said we had to be detectives, ‘like Tintin’, she said, which she pronounced ‘Tantan’, so that, for a moment, I didn’t know what she was talking about and thought she meant a Chinese noodle dish called tantanmen in Japanese, and when I said this she laughed and gently hit my arm as if scolding me. ‘No,’ she said, ‘the manga from France. The cute hero with little trench coat and the hair that always stands up.’
‘Oh, Tintin,’ I said, pronouncing it in a Japanese version of the American way, which unfortunately sounded like chinchin, a child’s word for penis. This was even funnier to her than the Chinese noodles. She was laughing at me, and I could not tell if it was a pitying laugh or not. ‘He had a dog too,’ I said, trying to shift the focus away from me. I remembered its name was Snowy, and then translated it into Japanese: ‘Yuki.’
‘Sunouii,’ she said, translating it back. ‘In French, it’s Miru,’ she said.
‘Miru?’ I said. To see. I pointed to my eye.
‘No. Miru. M-I-L-O-U.’
When we arrived at the scooter, she handed me the keys. I had never driven a scooter before, but I assumed it was simple. It was only when she was holding tightly to my waist and we were riding over the metal mounds meant to separate our lane from the oncoming traffic that I realized that the danger of scooters was that they were too simple to drive to be entirely safe. You turned the handle and sped off into harm’s way.
Now that she is gone, all that remains is evidence. Everything is a clue, another piece of the mystery. All the time we spent together has been subsumed by what happened on the last day we saw each other, so that even now, years later, I keep remembering the same moments, circling the same place, the blank in the map, the hole through which everything must pass.
When your wife walks away from you, she does not disappear. When you turn your back, she does not vanish. She will be there when you open your eyes. She will answer when you call her. She is at home waiting for you to open the door.
I remember that the apartment was suddenly full of strangers. Neat rows of black shoes lined up in the entryway, spilling out into the hallway, so many nearly identical pairs it seemed impossible that anyone would find the right pair on their way out.
I remember sitting in the chair in our bedroom, slowly spinning from right to left and left to right. Someone was asking me when I had last seen Noémi. A police officer put a glass of water in my hand. Over his shoulder, I spotted a young policewoman, walking out of our bathroom, holding a plastic bag with Noémi’s hairbrush inside.
I stood up. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, pointing to the brush. I was incapable of being more articulate than that. I had spent years studying a language only to have it desert me at the moment I needed it. ‘You can’t,’ I said in English.
She bowed and apologized, but it was an apology that offered no alternative. She said, ‘There’s really no excuse’ – those were her words in Japanese – ‘but we’ll be taking this into custody. A DNA analysis may be conducted. Someone else will come by shortly to ask you for a sample as well.’
‘A sample?’ I said.
‘I’m very sorry, but we’re going to have to ask you for a sample of blood and hair, please. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.’
I walked away from her into the living room, but the police officer I had been talking to was gone, and another officer had taken his place. He asked me the same questions in nearly the same sequence. I tried to tell him that I had already given my answers to his colleague, but eventually it seemed easier just to give in and answer the questions again. I still could not remember my wife’s height in centimetres. I said she was shorter than I was.
He pointed to the female officer who had just taken the brush. Was my wife shorter than she was?
‘A little taller,’ I said.
He asked the officer her height, and then brought her over to stand in front of me and told her to take off her hat. He told me stand up and to place my hand at the level of Noémi’s head. I could see the barrettes holding her hair in place. The officer seemed as uncomfortable with this sudden proximity as I was. We were as close as two people dancing.
‘How would you describe your wife’s disposition?’ he asked.
‘Her character, her –’ Someone came in and spoke softly in the detective’s ear. He got up and left the room without finishing his sentence.
I waited, but he never came back.
Eventually he was replaced by another officer. He handed me his card and bowed. I stared at it without reading it.
‘Please sit down,’ he said and then he and the other officer left the room to confer. When he returned he asked me if I would like some tea.
I was aware that I should have been the one saying those words. I had become a guest in my own home.
Someone put a cup of tea in my hand and I burnt my tongue. It was a cup that Noémi had bought on our trip to Hawaii.
I knew nothing about police investigations but what I had seen on television. Beneath the courteous inquiries, the officers seemed less interested in tracking down the missing person than in gathering evidence against me. My job was to answer all of their questions, but television shows didn’t warn me that I would have to answer those questions again and again, as if what they wanted from me was not information but a performance under duress. In those shows, the murders were never gruesome. A dead body was an excuse to air commercials for motorized wheelchairs and life insurance and diabetes products. The shows traded in small fantasies about tracking down murderers and keeping death at bay when, of course, its target audience was dying, and their murderer could not be so easily locked away. There were no cases where a murderer escaped punishment, or where someone simply disappeared, or where the cause of death was not the alcoholic heiress or the embittered accountant, where the murderer was also the victim, the body itself, the raging splitting cells refusing to die, the tumour subdividing and metastasizing.
While I sat there, repeating the same answers to the same questions, other officers went door to door in the apartment building, ringing bells, bowing, apologizing for the disturbance, and handing out business cards, showing the framed photographs they had taken from our shelves, asking about their neighbours in 432. Did they know the couple in the photograph? What were their habits? Did they seem to argue much? What sort of hours did they keep? I don’t know what they could have said about us. We were childless. We did not draw attention to ourselves. We subscribed to the Asahi newspaper. We shopped at the same supermarket, ate at the same restaurants. What did they know about us besides her foreign name and my foreign face? Long before this I had discovered something about the strangeness of my face, its racial indistinctness, a Rorschach test on which others could project their own ideas. No matter where I went it marked me as foreign. In Tokyo, it was more often than not a gaijin face. In New York, strangers thought I was Latino, and some Latino friends called me chino. Someone in Arizona asked me about my tribe. The first time Noémi saw me she thought I was Spanish, though I can’t say why; I have never seen a Spaniard who looked anything like me, but because of this initial misunderstanding Noémi liked to call me Pedro or Pepito as a term of affection, especially when she was pleading with me for something I didn’t want to give her. When she was begging, she never called me Ken, still less Kenji, which is my full name, though I have rarely used it, especially not in Japan. Before the stories appeared in the press, no one could match that name to my face. There was something incongruous, suspect, even phony about the connection between the two. Checking in at hotels, I would be asked twice about my name; documentation was often required, though, as I have discovered, documentation can be faked. Because of Noémi, I have been forced to choose other names for myself, but my original name, the one my father chose and my mother accepted, still remains with me, following me like a shadow.
The detective was sitting in front of me, asking the same question: ‘And then what happened?’ Sorekara? That was the word he kept repeating – sorekara? Sorekara? And then? And then? The word started to bother me. It implied that one thing simply followed the next, that everything was a sequence of little events that could be traced back to its source. But I couldn’t remember the answers to his questions, and I didn’t believe in the sequence any more. My wife was gone and her disappearance had split the world. The glass I had been holding in my hand broke on the floor. I realized I might have thrown it.
Eventually, the police officers gathered up their things, their notepads and rubber gloves and the cardboard boxes into which they had packed some of Noémi’s belongings as evidence and the hairbrush for the DNA samples and the notebook for the handwriting samples and the photographs of her taken from different angles, and they sorted through their nearly identical pairs of shoes and stood on the landing talking to each other and making calls on their cellphones, and then the senior officers took the elevators and the others took the stairs and they were gone.
And then, at last, I was alone in my apartment, sitting in the spinning chair at the desk where I had been questioned. I got up and walked into the bathroom. I turned on the shower and sat down beneath it, still wearing the same clothes I was wearing the last time I saw my wife.
At night, in the dark, I saw everything I had tried to put out of my mind in the day. I slept in short bursts, waking again in the dark room, an ache in my shoulders, pain at the centre of my head. I was amazed at my capacity for conjuring up nightmares. It must have satisfied some longing, a desire to know, to know even the worst, to prepare myself for the phone call that was coming, a body found dismembered, decomposed. When I closed my eyes, I saw one scene after another; she ran away, she was abducted, she slipped on the rocks, vanished into the ocean. These visions were the undercurrent beneath every other waking thought, walking to the sink, turning on the faucet, the everyday demands of the world.
A man steps out from behind a tree, follows her up the path. A hand reaching out from behind her. The black glove over her mouth.
I could not control it. A torn shirt used as a blindfold. A pair of pliers stuck with hair.
At first I saw only flashes: Noémi’s bound wrists, a ditch dug in the woods, my wife banging her head against the inside of the trunk to try to alert someone when they stopped at a gas station. I sensed these were scenes my mind had copied from movies, which those movies had copied from other movies, until no one could remember who had invented them, the scenes just went on being re-enacted and then were copied by people who wanted to live out those movies, copies of copies, nightmare fantasies in which my wife had somehow been chosen to play a part. I tried to put them out of my mind in the beginning. I thought that they were emanations of an unhealthy grief. I don’t remember how I came to the conclusion that I had to think through these scenes, that somewhere in them was the truth of what had happened.
A few weeks earlier, I had woken up at four in the morning to the sound of the doorbell ringing. Someone was at the door. Noémi sat up beside me in bed.
‘Should I get it?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It must be a mistake.’
‘What if it’s an emergency? One of our neighbours needs something.’
‘Maybe someone called a taxi and the driver got the wrong apartment.’
‘I’ll just look through the peephole,’ I said.
‘They’ll go away.’
I closed my eyes.
It rang again.
‘What could they want?’ she said.
‘Go to sleep. It’s stopped ringing.’
‘If it were really an emergency,’ I said, ‘they’d bang on the door.’
When Noémi seemed to have fallen asleep again, I went to the door, turned the lock quietly and then peered out. No one was standing on the landing with a knife in his hand. There were no packages. The air, still damp and cold, had begun to glow. The sun was rising. I checked the door and the ledge above the buzzer to see if someone had left a note, then crept back to bed and overslept.
When I awoke, Noémi was brushing her teeth, fully dressed.
Noémi was the one who had trouble sleeping. She was the one up in the middle of the night, smoking cigarettes on the balcony in the drizzling rain.
We tried radio static and table fans and white noise machines. We bought a device in which you could select the precise noise to induce sleep; the sound of waves, rain on a rooftop, the back and forth motion of windshield wipers in the rain, night-time in the jungles of Borneo. When she was asleep, I crept around the apartment like a thief, terrified of setting off an alarm. She lay there sometimes with the sheet pulled up over her face. It was as if, once asleep, she no longer needed to breathe deeply. She had entered a state of suspended animation, but it was a fragile state; at any moment, if I rolled over in bed, or turned the page of a book, she might bolt up, shocked back into life.
She’d never understood why people needed to sleep. To her, sleep seemed to be a punishment, an impossible obligation. What purpose did it serve? Why dream? She wished there were no such thing as sleep, or, at least, that sleep was a choice and not an obligation.
I could not fathom her insomnia, and Noémi, for her part, could not understand how sleep came so easily to me, how I could pull off such a difficult trick night after night. Sometimes at night, long after I had fallen asleep, Noémi would come into the bedroom in the dark and touch my foot through the blanket, gently enough not to wake me entirely, but for me to know that she was there, that she was the one watching over me while I slept. Sometimes I would wake to find her sitting up in the next room, smoking, watching the same film over and over again, sipping from time to time from a glass of vodka. Nemukunai no? I would ask, half-asleep. Aren’t you sleepy?
Her eyes remained on the glowing screen. The television was kept on mute as she watched that strange, almost inscrutable animated film, one which I can only partially remember although I must have sat through parts of it many times, as I struggled to stay awake, to accompany her in her sleeplessness. For most of the film, a blue cat is sitting on a train, staring out of the window at the bizarre, shifting landscape passing by, a landscape which at times resembles an Italian village and at others suggests the ribcage of an enormous creature floating in the night sky. The blue cat is joined by a red cat, who takes his place on the seat across from him, and as the train moves through the night they alternate between staring out of the window and staring at each other. Nearly all of the characters in the film seemed to be cats, though they dressed and acted for the most part like humans: they were partially clothed in hats or vests or jackets; they walked on their hind legs and seemed to speak to each other, though, with the sound off, I never knew what they were saying.
I once asked her why she always watched the same film in the night.
‘It helps me sleep,’ she said.
‘But you’re still awake,’ I said, kissing her on the forehead.
She lit another cigarette. ‘It makes me feel like I’m already sleeping,’ she said.
The film did have the feel of a dream. The figures seemed to move in slow motion, and the effect of watching the film was that we too slowed down. The train was the vehicle of the dream, the dream itself, transporting everyone through the night. The cats remained in their seats. Outside the window, night was falling. Other passengers came and went. A burly cat in a cloak came in carrying a sack full of glowing birds. An ocean liner sank in the darkness. No one seemed to know where the train was going. Night after night, Noémi and I sat up together, sharing her cigarettes and vodka, staring at the odd, unblinking eyes of the cats, who stared at each other or out at the landscape, which at times disappeared completely as the train rode on, putting me to sleep long before it reached its destination.
I cannot say when I decided to ask her to marry me.
It may have been on the last night I joined the solitary men sitting at the counter of the Katsuya near Shinbashi, one of those places where you can order your portion of fried pork with rice and shredded cabbage, paying first at the vending machine by the door, then handing the ticket to the man behind the counter without ever saying a word. Each man came from work – sleeves rolled up, glasses dirty, a heavy briefcase in one arm and a newspaper folded under the other – and sat apart, wrapped in his own world, and ate without looking up at those around him, his gaze shifting from his food to his newspaper or book; no man spoke except to himself. In front of every stool was a wooden tray with chopsticks, toothpicks, waxed napkins, dressing, mustard, pepper and sauce, so that the customer had no need to interrupt his solitude to ask for something, no need to do anything more than sit down and eat what had been put in front of him, as if his mother still made his meals. It was almost a social service, a soup kitchen for those with enough money to remain alone, and yet the food was not bad. Perhaps that’s why these men didn’t recognize the problem, why they came day after day and ordered the same thing, placing another ticket on the counter, nodding to say that nothing ever changes, or that we cannot endure what has changed and keep retracing the same steps, returning to the same place.
It occurred to me in the two minutes before my food was served how much this place resembled the Mexican restaurant in New York I would go to when I was still in med school, another cafeteria for solitary men, a place I often brought my anatomy textbook that was too big for the small linoleum table where I sat alone, reading about musculature or nervous disorders, from time to time absent-mindedly biting into an inert burrito wrapped in silver paper. I saw now that it did not matter that I had switched countries and languages, I had travelled a long way only to recreate my former solitude.
The man behind the counter placed the tray in front of me. Without thinking, I brought the tray closer to me, squeezed the sweet brown sauce around the edge of the plate, and poured dressing on the cabbage. It was the mustard that stopped me. I had the little spoon in my hand. I looked down at my dinner and then over to my right, where a man with a grey suit jacket draped over his shoulders was scanning a horse-racing paper while a half-eaten version of the same meal cooled before him. To my left, there was another man typing a message on his phone with a finger he’d just licked. Without looking away, he picked up his soup and drank from the bowl.
I got up to leave. As I walked out into the street, past the banner announcing the current special, fluttering in the wind, I could hear the man behind the counter calling after me politely – o-kyaku-sama, o-kyaku-sama – trying to tell me that the bathroom was in the other direction.
I can’t remember making any conscious decision as I walked out into the night and yet the next day when Noémi and I were walking through the aisles of graves at the Aoyama cemetery, I heard the words come out of my mouth. We were past the cherry blossom season. The parties were over. There were empty bottles in the bushes that bordered the gravestones. Weeds grew head-high in the untended rows, grasses gone to seed, pink mallow blooms, honeysuckle vines.
The air was cool and humid. Mosquitoes slept in the shadows. It seemed always about to rain, but it never did, though every surface was damp. She reached out for my arm when she slipped on a wet pavement stone.
We stopped at a grave whose marble cross had broken at an angle. The upper right half lay on the ground overgrown with bindweed vines.
The ruined grave seemed to make her unaccountably sad. ‘How could this have happened?’
‘It’s old,’ I said. ‘He died in 1838. I don’t think anyone who mourned him is still alive.’
‘Doesn’t that make it even sadder?’ She slapped at a mosquito on her leg. ‘Do you think I should be buried too?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You will be, won’t you?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I thought that’s what people did in America.’
‘It depends on the person.’
‘What did your mother do?’
‘She gave her body to the medical school.’ I didn’t know which word to use in Japanese. How can you give your body? I said handed over. Ceded. ‘She made a mistake.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘They didn’t deserve her.’
She slipped again. This time I was too far away. She sat in the grass watching the blood rise to the pale scrape on her knee. I should have said, ‘Are you all right?’ but instead the words that came from my mouth were, ‘Will you marry me?’
She seemed upset for a moment.
‘Kyou demo ii yo,’ I said. We could do it today.
‘Let’s get married,’ I said again, still surprised by the words. I thought it best to go forward before I had time to think it through. I could not trust myself to reason, to distinguish whether this was an act of courage or an act of weakness. I could not foresee how our life together would end. No one ever warns you of the threat they pose. No one ever says stay away from me, I can only do you harm. We were still almost strangers when I asked her to rope her life to mine, and she agreed.
The night before, I had stayed up late alone, watching the end of a Hitchcock film about a man who is mistaken for a spy and who, therefore, becomes a spy, a pleasant and silly movie that somehow, in the end, made me cry: when the woman is dangling from a cliff about to fall, the man reaches out his hand to save her, but she’s too far away – he can’t reach her, she’s going to die – and then the film cuts magically to him smiling, his lips are moving, but the sound doesn’t match, and she’s no longer hanging from the side of the mountain, she’s being lifted to the sleeping bunk inside a train compartment, while he says, ‘Come along, Mrs Thornhill.’ She will not die. He’s saved her. He’s married her. As if these words were interchangeable, and we could live forever.
Photograph by Osamu Kaneko