We fell in love, like everyone else. She had another name but I called her Yuki, because of her hands. The night we went to Palette in Odaiba to ride the Ferris wheel, I sat next to her. “Sometimes I think you must be made of snow, your hands are so cold,” I joked as Yuki and I rose into the air, the skyline of Tokyo at night unfolding in front of us and in the distance, the faint outline of Mount Fuji, barely perceptible. I drew her closer to me, the smile on her face unmistakeable because of the thousands of bright neon tubes illuminating the wheel as I whispered into her ear, “but you know what they say. Cold hands, warm heart.”
They say love changes you. Two days before I met her I had a small tent in my backpack. At the konbini, I bought one bento box, one onigiri, one pair of packaged underwear. Everything is individually wrapped. On my way to Aokigahara, I stopped in a noodle bar for lunch where two women my age had purses, designer, so large they take up the booth, so large there is never any room for a date. I watched them only in the window as they stared at the young man like me in the opposite booth. The suit jacket he wore was blue, the same as mine, his t-shirt with a print of an anime princess whose name I used to know. They were staring because of the dakimakura in his arms. It was clear that he was on a date with this life-sized pillow; her strategically placed white bra and lace panties were covered by a long black evening dress with a slit up the side.
“He probably a recovering hikkomuri,” the first woman laughed uncomfortably, “used to playing video games in his room all day.” I was sure this man could hear her, but to him what she said wouldn't matter. It would never matter what this woman, whose shoes were the 300 000 yen he made in a month in his job at the warehouse or maybe as a clerk at the convenience store, said about him. There was never any danger of having to have a real conversation. A woman like her could talk about him, but would never talk to him at all.
“Well would you date him?” her friend asked.
“He wouldn't know how to act with a real woman!” she said but the man did not look over, too busy inside the booth, murmuring into his dakimakura's dark hair, squeezing her gel breasts ever so slightly, kissing her red pout of a mouth. I finished my broth quickly because I did not know if these women, protected by their large purses, were looking at me too.
The night before I met her, I slept in my tent on the ground in the Aokigahara forest, where, once you enter, you can no longer see Mount Fuji overhead; you can no longer see the sky. They call it the Sea of Trees and that night as I slept next to a pile of rope I dreamt of drowning in the river, of women with red mouths who came to rescue me but when they got close, I could not touch them and so they floated away as plastic. I spent two days, two nights in the forest but then I returned to my parents' apartment in Tokyo. At night, alone in my bedroom, I could hear the keys scraping against the front door, not quite able to find the lock as my father came home, drunk, again.
“Is the grass eater home?” I heard him stumble as my mother went to find his house slippers, to loosen his 99 yen emergency tie from the convenience store, to guide him, after three days of being alone, to their bed.
“Please Kazuo. There is nothing wrong with our son.”
“Nothing wrong? Our son is not even warm-blooded. I try to get him to see Ichi's daughter and nothing. He doesn't know what to do with a woman. Maybe instead of video games, you should have had him watch the safari channel on TV. Then he would understand that a lion goes and chases a lioness, fights the other lions. He draws blood if he has to. Where is he? I want to speak to him.”
“He's not home yet from his business trip,” my mother said to my father, as she opened the door to my room, pressed her finger to her lips. Quiet. “Did you get the promotion?”
“Yes” I told her, because my mother still thought I worked at a marketing company.
“I worry you are lonely,” she began. I could see the diamond bracelet my father gave her around her wrist, hiding some of the bruising.
“I'm not meeting her. Ichi-san's daughter has no room for a guy like me.”
My mother paused, then sighed. “Where is your laundry?” From outside I could hear my father, still talking about lions.
“A lion does not sit around just waiting and watching all day, he goes and takes on the world, he makes a place of his own.”
“The company paid for a nice hotel. They provided an overnight dry cleaning service,” I told her because I didn't know what else to say, because I spent two days, two nights in the forest, but I had planned on not returning. The shirts I had dropped off at the private dry cleaners where I met Yuki were covered with mud and so was the noose.
My father thought I had never been with any other women, but he never knew about Aiko. I had just graduated from university and on our first date I wore a dark black business jacket and I told her I was an engineer. Aiko had three university degrees and worked at the bank. I saved up a month's salary to take her to dinner, two perfectly marbled waygu beef steaks. For the appetizer we had sushi, the chef's selection.
“Do you know that there are no women who are master sushi chefs?” Aiko said to me, “they say a woman's hands are too warm. Isn't that ridiculous?”
When I asked her if she ever thought of marriage, she shook her head. “For women like me, marriage is too troublesome. I like my job; I like having an income. Now I go out with girlfriends to restaurants three nights a week,” she laid her warm hands on mine, gently, “I take French classes, I get to travel. You know what they say. Marriage is the grave of a woman.”
I could feel Aiko's hands cupped over mine, the combined heat making them sweat even as I wanted to pull away. I walked her home and she invited me into her room. On her bed was an array of stuffed chibis, these stuffed plushies shaped like cats, like tigers, like girls, like men even.
“These are my usual lovers,” she joked as she picked one up, kissing it coyly. She would get herself ready, she told me, and went into the bathroom while I took off my pants, my shirt, my last clean pair of underwear before my mother did the wash. I sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the chibi man, noticing the faint lipstick marks on his mouth and I know it was because of the beer, the wine, the shots, because of all this and nothing else I was angry. Then she emerged, naked, and handed me a vibrating plastic toy.
“Here,” she guided my hand, even though she didn't need it, “it's been so long.” And I softened.
After it was over, I took the chibi man and put him in my pockets and then walked home through the tourist district, past a vending machine advertising vacuum sealed used panties. The pair I got for 520 yen was silk, but cold to the touch. I did not trust my own skin. My hands were useless at feeling the woman that had been there before, just as they were useless at so many things.
But with Yuki it was different; Yuki needed me, she told me so herself. Yuki had no family, no friends, no job, no one except me. When I went out with her, it did not matter that the feel of my old business cards, kept not in a real leather case but in my jacket pocket, was warm and worn. It did not matter that when I ordered whiskey at the bar for us, I had no bottle with my name on it; we did and said everything you do when you're in love. We went for walks in the parks to see the cherry blossoms, we took selfies with the Tokyo tower where we pretended we were in Paris. I had never been a romantic, but they say love changes you.
One afternoon in February, we were looking in store windows at the Girls' Day hina matsuri displays, at the emperor and empress sitting on their dais, with tiers of ladies in waiting, of musicians, of ministers and finally of samurai attending them, always at a distance. She said to me, “Do you notice how the emperor and the empress never touch? Funny, if they're supposed to be in love.”
“When I was little,” I told her as Yuki pulled me into the store, as I leaned in to kiss her, “I was in love with the empress but my sister said I looked only like the samurai on the fifth tier. She said my father was the emperor. So I told myself the empress didn't love the emperor anymore and then I moved the samurai next to her so that I could be her lover.”
I didn't tell her that when my father found out my mother let me do it he hit us both, then threatened to burn the dolls, one by one, including the empress, until I stopped crying. I didn't have to tell her. Yuki, her hand still in mine, took the samurai figure from the lower tier and, when the clerk's back was turned, placed him in between the emperor and the empress. “So that makes me your empress?” she said to me.
“Yes.” I told her she made my dreams come true. I told her I wanted to marry her. We were like everybody else.
The night I took Yuki home for dinner my mother said nothing, but went to set the table. “Okasan, this is Yuki and she is the love of my life. We are getting married,” i told her, but she did not return Yuki's bow.
When we sat down for dinner I noticed that there were only two bowls, two sets of chopsticks, two steak knives. I sat Yuki in front of one and I took the chair beside her.
“Where are the other place settings?” I asked my mother.
“Your father said he might be late,” she said, “I will set his place when he comes.”
“I meant for Yuki.”
My mother sighed. “You don't need to do this.”
“You don't need to pretend. I know about the job, about your trip,” my mother said, laying her hand over mine.
“I'm not pretending. We're getting married.”
“I know that you are lonely...” but her hands were too hot, they were stifling, and I pulled away.
“You don't need to worry anymore. I'm going to have a wife. It will be like with everyone else,” I began, but then we heard the key in the door.
“Please, she needs to go before your father sees her,” my mother looked at me, almost in tears, but I didn't understand, “please, you don't need her,” and she grabbed onto Yuki's arm, trying to pull her away from me. And I held on tight because that's what you do when you're in love, all the songs say so; I held on tight because Yuki needed me, she always had.
“Well is my son still a herbivore or is he ready to think like a lion? I heard you have a girl.” My father stopped when he entered, then looked at my mother, “What is that?”
“This is Yuki,” I said to him, “she's going to be my wife.”
And when my father grabbed Yuki her hand was still in mine, and he ripped it out of its socket. And I remembered when I was six, I remembered how I only watched when those hands, still cold, took my six year old hands and wrenched apart my fingers so that my sister's dolls fell to the floor. I only watched when those hands hit my mother across the face, “you taught him to play with dolls,” only hung on tight when they took my poor Yuki by the hair and ripped her apart, leaving an open gash from her chest to her abdomen. I only watched as I picked up the steak knife.
In the morning, my father's body lay next to Yuki, but her deep wound spilled out something white, like snow but warmer. Lying on the floor she looked flat, one-dimensional, almost like she never existed. They say love changes you. Later, when I left my parents' apartment on my way to Aokigahara, I passed the storefronts where in every window, the emperor and the empress sat on the same tier. They never touched, but there was no room in between.
Paola Ferrante is a Toronto based writer who majored in creative writing at York University. Her work has previously appeared in Tart. Her current projects include writing her first novel, conquering rock walls and making craft beer.