Bluebelly Mousse

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Japan, May 1996. The town of Nikko, jammed against the foot of the mountains, is famous for its historic shrines and temples. But we skip them and take a bus up a road of hairpin turns and landslide fortifications to Lake Chūzenji-ko. From the bus stop, we walk along the shore to our pension, a prefab log-cabin-style building where a woman in tight jeans and a boy hugging her thigh welcome us at the door. As they show us to our room, she recites a long list of rules. Dinner is served at 6 p.m., I get that much. And from our window, we have a view of the lake, the surrounding mountains, and … a swan. One big ugly swan, so big and so ugly you can see it from miles away. A boat, actually, that ferries tourists across the lake.

“I mean, come on,” I mutter. Does the urge to create pandemic ugliness know no bounds?

“What?” Izumi says.

“Look at that thing.”

She looks at it then averts her eyes. “That’s what I like about Switzerland,” she says. “They don’t have things like that on every lake.”

We also skip Kegon Falls, a popular suicide spot and tourist attraction with concrete and steel infrastructure. Instead, we hike to Ryuzu Falls, where water cascades down between trees, bushes, and ferns. Birds twitter. A man behind a tripod-mounted camera with a 500 mm telephoto lens flicks a twig into a pool so that it’ll float into his camera angle. When a piece of wrapper wobbles along, he fishes it out with a long stick. This is the antidote to the swan.

We make it back in time for a bath in the shared family-style bathroom downstairs. There is, Izumi says, the way to do. The way to do, yarikata, is an omnipresent concept that governs even mundane things, like taking a bath.

Step one: in the dry area, take off clothes.

Step two: proceed to shower area and scrub and fondle each other with soapy hands—the fondling part may be my extrapolation, but she likes it.

Step three: rinse off thoroughly.

Step four: proceed to hinoki tub filled with steaming water used by others before you and to be used by others after you.

Step five: get in. Whoa, it’s hot! She sinks into it with a deep sigh that tapers into a whistling sound. My left leg is in it up to the knee. My skin is turning lobster red. I inch in farther, one leg, then the other, and the immersed parts go into a state of total relaxation. When my chest sinks into it, water slaps luxuriously over the sides, splashes on the tiles, and gurgles out the floor drain.

Dinner is served in a rustic dining room. The joys of eating cement us together even more tightly, and the harmony between us emboldens me. We finish the fifth course, sautéed almond trout, and as I’m pouring the remainder of our bottle of wine, I broach the subject that has been on my mind for weeks and that I’ve broached in subtle ways before without getting a response. Now I want to violate yarikata. I want to communicate with her clearly and directly, with personal pronouns and all.

“I’d like you to speak Japanese with me,” I say.

Her smile withers.

“I know my Japanese isn’t good enough for a real conversation, but speaking it with you would help me improve.”

Her fingers tighten around the stem of her wineglass.

“It would make it easier for me to participate in your Japanese life.”

She stops breathing.

“And I’d like to meet some of your friends.”

She rigidifies.

“At least, I’d like you to tell me who your friends are,” I backpedal.

A double circumflex appears on her brow.

“You talk about episodes from your past and about trips to Europe and about all sorts of other things you did, and I enjoy that, yet you don’t tell me who you hang out with, and I don’t know a single name. It makes me feel excluded.”

Her eyes, deeper and blacker yet, seize mine. They want to talk to me, these eyes, and there’s magic in them, and they sparkle and charge up with energy. She opens her mouth slightly, inhales barely, prepares to speak, and there’s a moment of suspenseful silence. But then her lips close again, her eyes shift, the magic dims, and whatever she’s thinking and whatever her eyes wanted to say has been brought under control, remains inside, unsaid, maybe even unthought.

And then she does speak.

“There’s a Doisneau photo show in Shinjuku,” she says. “It includes the Kiss series. I’d like to go see it with you on Wednesday.”

“Sounds great,” I say. “I’ve always wanted to see his stuff.”

Things don’t bog her down for long. The woman in tight jeans who showed us to our room, who has been serving dinner, who opened our wine bottle, and who has been doing everything we’ve seen anybody do, comes around with dessert. She’s proud of her creation and explains it in detail.

“What is it?” I ask Izumi after the woman has departed.

“Bluebelly mousse.”

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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