I had not heard from her for two weeks and so already knew that something had gone wrong when she called to tell me that she had a stalker. Upset as I was, I tried to calm her: stalkers don't often act overtly on their obsessions, and this is particularly true in the case of stalkers who are Japanese men. Karin's fear, however, was far beyond the influence of my reason, and she even implied that the future of our relationship rested on my willingness to come and save her (she used the word "visit" rather than "save"), probably knowing that there were no other circumstances under which I would have gone, because I hate Japan.
To her credit, Karin offered to pay my airfare with what she had saved in eight months of teaching English.
I refused, lying that I had plenty in savings. In fact, I had eleven dollars in my account, which left me roughly a grand short. Translation is good work for a recluse, I never need to go anywhere. But it doesn't pay.
The same holds true for painting, and because of a change in style I have not produced a sellable painting since my own return; it takes a lot of time and practice to adapt to a such a change, especially when itŐs coming about is only in part through force of will. The idea is that, from a certain perspective, what is called content is never anything more than an imperfection in form.
My paintings are hanging along the walls of my study. They are, all of them, paintings of a river that wanders down from the mountains, past my home. They appear at a glance to be identical, but when you look at them in succession according to dates they were finished, you see that each painting strives to present the same image with a fewer number of strokes than the last, with fewer colors, and with stronger lines, until the presentation of the image begins to prevail over the image itself, that is, it is the act of painting, rather than that which is painted, which captures its audience's attention.
It was hard for me to explain this to Karin. "Content is like a tear in a shirt, or a knot in wood."
She was suspicious from the beginning with this preoccupation with which I'd returned. Instead of "content," she used terms like "feelings," and did not like to watch me struggling to remove them from my work. To Karin I was failing both as an artist and a person.
"Each painting is worse, because less creative."
"Creativity is noise."
"Each has less feeling. Each has less personality."
"Feeling and personality are noise."
The river I paint is no more than thirty yards from the window before which my computer monitor sits. The screen is itself framed by the dance of sunlight on the water's current, and waves of thickly treed hills rise at last to snow-capped peaks, visible on the clearest days. It's rare beauty, though in fact there is a pulp mill not far upstream that sneaks enough waste into the river to render it dead. I mean, if you tossed a crawdad into the water, it wouldn't survive the ripples. Once, I drank water from the river, and it was nearly the death of me.
The day after Karin called I went into town to advertise the sale of my Toyota pickup. I put an ad in the paper and stuck signs of the bulletin boards of the two local grocery stores. Toyotas being in high demand, I got a call of interest that very evening, and sold it the next day for blue book with a two hundred dollar deduction in return for the hundred and seventy mile ride to the airport and, when I returned, another ride from the airport back to my little hermitage in the woods.
That pickup had been the only object of any value that I had owned, and the damage to my financial picture did not end there. There is no real shortage of people, Japanese and not, who are roughly bilingual, and no excess of material that needs to be translated. I had believed that the reason I had been able with relative ease to build my clientele was that I had a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of language, but probably my modest success is more attributable to relatively clean syntax and, even more importantly, my reliability. That's why my Japanese clients stayed with me when I moved from Japan back to California. And that's why I was worried that I was going to lose some of them. And, alas, I did.
Embarrassing to have built such a tenuous career on a skill that took seven years to acquire -- four years in college and then three abroad -- especially because the impracticality of learning Japanese with its thousands of characters was always clear to Karin, as was the delusion under which I was laboring. A smart girl, she rejected outright the same undergraduate multiculturalist crap that I embraced: "Claim thy roots!"
"What do you think you have to do with Japan?" she would say. "Just because of your name and the way you look? You have nothing to do with Japan."
Which was, also, not exactly true.
This was also the same day that I finished my eleventh and latest rendition of the river -- thoughtless yet in motion, moving always closer to the timeless place reached through passive observation. I was pleased with this painting. It was close.
I set the painting in a the frame I'd already made from scraps that came down from the mill, and wrapped it thickly with newspaper for the trip.
During my three years in Japan I had never visited the town Karin was living in now, and although most Japanese towns and cities are structurally similar, with the train station and most important businesses at the center, then expanding outward in concentric circles, translating to my cab driver the directions Karin had given me over the town's curling, improvised roads was not easy. Karin's directions read as if in reference to roads that were straight and clearly marked, but there are few such roads in Japan. In time I became disoriented and had to guess wildly, so only by chance did we at last come to an apartment building that matched Karin's description. It turned out to be less that three kilometers from the train station, but the cab fare had come to thirty dollars.
In retrospect, it was for the better that the ride took time. There is a kind of anger that, though catalyzed by something external, quickly turns back in on itself, that is, it is an anger that is also angry with itself. In cases where the stimulus is strong, the conflict is very upsetting, and takes time to dissipate. Now I had had a certain encounter on the train, and only upon reaching Karin's apartment did I have the presence of mind to realize that I was still palpably upset.
My heart skipped when I heard Karin's voice through the door, "Who is it?" in badly intoned Japanese. I still loved the sound of it. Karin welcomed me with a great hug and we even made out on her doorstep for a few minutes, I as always being too self-conscious about whoever might have been watching, before going in.
"Now, is it so bad to be here again?" she said, stepping back into the light. She had made herself up for me, like a flower, cool, looking as good as my best memories of her.
"What are you laughing for?" she said.
"You're so beautiful, and look at me," I answered, pointing myself out in her wall mirror, my face sagging and pale from the journey. In kindness Karin said something flattering to me, then turned to the kitchen and prepared two glasses of cold tea.
I went through my bags and produced from them the gift I had brought. I was hoping that she would have come to understand the thing in a way that she could not before. But no such change had come to pass. She unwrapped the painting and, gazing at it, thanked me as sincerely as she could. Then, startled by some recollection the painting triggered, she went to her closet and began to dig through a box she pulled from it, muttering, "I'm sure it's here somewhere," until at last producing a knitted wool sweater, red, with a turtle-neck collar. "Here we are," she said. "How do you like my work?"
"You made this yourself?"
"Would you believe it? It took a while. I made mistakes and had to start all over two or three times." She came to me and held the sweater up against my torso. "Still, to be truthful, it's been finished for a while." Karin had never enjoyed or had the patience for the tedious crafts and I was embarrassed for the selfishness of the gift I had brought to her. "Too bad it's a hundred degrees out. I hadn't planned on seeing you again until winter, you know."
"Well, I just might wear it anyway," I said. I shifted to one side but Karin's hand remained on my chest and something in her posture told me that she was expecting us right now to make love. After an eight month abstinence, surely I was in the wrong for not feeling in that vein, still, I was simply too exhausted to struggle out now from my sexual dormancy. So I said, "Has this man -- I can't remember his name, your stalker -- been around today?"
"Hino? No, I haven't seen him all day." Then she, realizing the real purpose of my question, took a step back from me and said, "You must be tired. You must have had a tiring trip."
There had been perhaps fifty people on the train that made the route from the airport into Tokyo, and less than a dozen in my car. The train was better air-conditioned than the airport terminal had been, and a moment of near euphoric calm made me realize that this was my first physical comfort and silence in nearly fifteen hours. My flight had been overbooked, my seat on the plane just one row in front of the smoking section, and one of the lavatories was out of order, causing a line to accumulate outside of the other. What's more, because I had overstayed my visa by several days the last time I was in Japan, I was detained for an hour at immigration while Japanese customs officials, who always seem to be doing everything for the first time, languidly assembled the paperwork necessary to allow my entrance. All in all a long enough day. So I put my seat back, stretched my legs insofar as I could, and thought that I might even be able to fall asleep when a man came down the aisle and pardoned himself into the seat next to mine. I disliked him immediately. He seemed to be about my age, not far on one side or the other from thirty, though his skin was darker than mine and more clear, and he wore thick-lensed glasses off which I had to confront my own image. That he took the seat next to mine was uncharacteristic behavior for Japanese, who are prone to take advantage on trains of every rare opportunity for extra space. It occurred to me to point out to him that almost every other seat on the train was empty, and that if it was all the same to him, he might sit somewhere else. But, after all, he had an equal right to any empty seat he chose, so I said nothing.
He had a newspaper with him and he read it for no more than a few minutes before turning to me to say, "It's been hot recently, hasn't it?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I just now got in, so -- "
"Ah, you've been abroad. I see. As for myself, I was supposed to meet a foreigner at the airport, but I couldn't find him. I had flight information but, the problem was, I didn't know specifically enough what he'd look like, and there were more foreigners there than I had anticipated."
"Yes, I can see how that would be a problem," I said. Our train shook gently with the passing of another train heading in the opposite direction, back to the airport.
"You know, we Japanese may travel a lot these days, but we always take Japan with us. We rarely leave Japan, in the true sense."
Unsure of his meaning, I simply agreed with him. Also, although my spoken Japanese is imperfect, it was usually passable in casual use, and I was relieved that even after not speaking for some months, there was no struggle in submerging myself again in the language's smooth, ball-bearing rhythm. On the other hand, as before, my conscience forbade me from letting our conversation advance too far on the false premise that I was Japanese. So, at the next appropriate pause, I looked at my watch and said, as if to myself, though audibly, "Oh, its past seven already," in English.
My companion started and at once became deeply blushed. He stared at me for a few seconds longer than propriety would allow, then turned away, then turned again to stare, and finally, at the first moment I think that he was physically able, he got up from his seat and scurried down the aisle into the adjoining car.
It is a peculiar, ambivalent form of racism that I have never been able to put my finger on, in part because I hate it so, and in part because of my own complicity. No longer hoping to sleep, I restlessly watched the landscape go by, familiar and dreamlike, the irregular rectangles of rice, bambooed hills, compact suburbs growing at last to high-rises. Tokyo. I transferred there, in accordance with Karin's directions, to an electric train that ran west, inland across the Kanto plain. The train was rickety and slow, but as rush hour had ended, it was almost as empty as the other had been. Furnished with nothing but tightly angled benches along each wall, there was again little hope of sleeping, but at least I could prop my feet on my bags and stretch my legs across the aisle.
It was completely dark now so there was little of scenery save the colored lights of convenience stores and pachinko parlors that the train rolled past. I found myself gazing at my own reflection in the glass of the opposing window, musing passively, and while I am anything but narcissistic, I must have fallen into a kind of trance on my own face, because I did not notice that this man had been sitting next to me before he said abruptly, "Why did you come to Japan?"
And I knew at once that this was the same man who had sat next to me on the previous train. The ill feeling that I already held towards the man had rose again inside me. Still, since I could not point to any particular provocation on his part, I had no choice but to respond civilly.
"I came to visit a friend," I said.
"Which language is your language?"
"English is my native language, but both languages are mine. I turn one language into the other."
"That can't be done."
"Yes it can."
"Who are you?" he said. A ludicrous rhetorical question. I refused to answer.
"Why did you come here?" he said, again, and by now his tone had become unmistakably confrontational. So I, in turn, expended a measured portion of my own anger.
"I came because I wanted to. Have you an objection? Do you want to fight?"
I punctuated the last with the gesture of my own clutched fist -- excessive of course, but in Japan the mere suggestion of physical violence, because of its rarity, is an enormously compelling argument when delivered forthrightly. The man recoiled and screwed up his eyes at me as if he could not trust his ears. I returned a sharp look to let him know that he could, and I expected that he would retreat. Though silent, however, the man did not surrender his seat, but continued to sit there, stiff as stone. I am sure this perversity required considerable force of will on his part -- to suppress the instinct to flee. Really, the whole situation had become awfully childish. So, after five or ten minutes, I myself got up and moved to another seat.
"There was something different about him," I said to Karin. "Not deranged, exactly. It would have been interesting to know what he was thinking."
Karin didn't answer, busy with some thought of her own. Only after becoming aware of the silence did she nod remotely. "I wonder where Hino is," she said. "That's the worst part. He always knows where I am, but I never know where he is."
"I'm here now. You should let yourself forget about him," I said, hoping to restore some warmth to our first moments together. "Now, where shall we hang this masterpiece?" I held the painting I had just given her against a randomly chosen spot on the wall. "Someone where everyone will see it, of course."
"Do you remember I told you that Hino was a painter?" Karin returned. "Do you want to see his work?" Before I could answer she had whipped a stack of papers from her desk drawer and thrust them into my lap. There were something less than a dozen of them, all watercolor. "In a way, you two are alike. You both can't paint like you want to."
"Is that so?" I said, suddenly eager to look at the paintings, thinking that through them I might be able to divine something about their creator's true nature. At the same time I became aware that Karin was watching me very closely for my reaction to these paintings, and like two mirrors set up to face each other, I in turn became interested in her reaction to my own.
"What do you think of them?" Karin said. "I never knew what to say."
I would not have known either. "I hope he doesn't take himself too seriously," I said. These paintings of his were really adolescent. One might have called his designs something like abstract science fiction, space encumbered with large, tree-like structures, among which were flying, I suppose, an assortment of aliens, though for all that not very imaginative, and technically novitiate. "I'm not sure what he's trying to do here," I said.
"He said it's the world exploding. What I think is that, he's going for a sense of action, and a sense of something happening."
She having said that, I was inclined to agree, though nothing in any of his pictures conveyed the slightest feeling of movement. I also saw, after a moment or two, that submerged in the scenes was a peculiarly inexorable symmetry and almost delicate balance of spaces, no doubt lodged in the patterns intuitively. Hino had a fine natural sense of dispersion and color, but it seemed almost as if he were fighting it, trying to suppress or overcome it, and this led to scenes ugly for their overcrowdedness.
"He's got a sharp eye," I said, "but I can dare to say that he's misapplying it."
"He used to come over here to paint," Karin said. "He really took it very seriously. Every painting he did put a new line on his face. I think he was trying, you know, to express himself, but he didn't have any idea how to go about it. You should have seen him sitting in front of that blank paper for so long without a clue, then driven at last to try something, anything, but that turning out to be just another variation of what he'd done before." She ran her finger along the edge of the painting that I happened to be looking at. "Yes, it was around here that things started to go bad."
"When he began harassing you?" I said, and she nodded. Curiously, though, this picture that she'd indicated was not the last in the succession. I know how painters, even bad ones, develop, and I was certain that there were three, possibly four paintings in the collection that he'd produced after the one in hand.
"Of course, I can't say when he started to think of me as his girlfriend." She hesitated, then added, "Would you believe, he asked me to marry him."
"So when you turned him down -- "
"Yes, he couldn't accept it. He let himself get out of hand."
"What did he make of the fact that you already had a boyfriend?" I said.
Karin shrugged. She had no ready answer. "How do I know? You're picture's right there, hanging on the wall," she said, with a vaguely feigned stammer, and pointed to the head of her futon where in fact was hung, with some other photos, a five-by-seven of Karin and I together, in California, standing hand in hand in front of the river. Still, there was something too defensive in her answer, and I could have pursued the matter. But I had come all this way to help Karin, not to make her even more upset, and the emotional color of the apartment had again grown too dark.
"Are you hungry?" I said. "I haven't eaten since this afternoon."
"It's probably been a day since you've had a proper meal," Karin said sympathetically.
"It's late, but -- "
"We can find something that's still open. Yes, I know something that's not too far from here. Just a few blocks away."
It turned out to be somewhat farther, but I didn't mind at all. The air outside was still warm and thick, but darkness and the hint of a breeze made the night into something comforting, like blankets. Rice, growing everywhere, was silver in the light of a half-moon tattooed on the sky.
We passed a set of vending machines a couple of blocks from Karin's apartment. "Beer for the road?" Karin said.
I didn't want to drink but since Karin did I obliged. This too pleased her. I had not opened a beer since the last time I was in Japan, and Karin regarded my abstinence as "a symptom." In fact, I only held the beer in my hand and pretended to take sips, but there was some tranquilizing effect, even in that.
We walked together in silence for a while, Karin leading the way through narrow labyrinthine streets, and once leaning to kiss my cheek and say, "It's been so long since I've felt safe." Karin is a woman zealous about her independence, and this was no spurious confession.
"I am endeared," I said.
"Can I ask you something? Were you ever obsessed with me? I mean, at the beginning or something?"
I was not able at once to answer, and Karin, perhaps sensing this, allowed me some time to look through my memories as we walked. There were a host of images of us together, hundreds, flitting behind my eyes, but their attendant feelings were not so easily recollected. "I'm not sure," I said at last. "I don't think so."
"I think I've never been obsessed either. It bothers me, in a way, to never have had such a feeling. I can't help but to want to have had that experience." She paused then, as if troubled by where this thought was leading her, and then began again. "It's an odd feeling, too, to be the object of someone's obsession. Basically bad, but not all bad. I mean, under the right circumstances." But this thought too she decided finish in her own mind, if at all.
"Obsession is not real," I said. "It's a kind of perversion of the imagination." To this Karin said nothing, which meant that she disagreed. But by then the argument was anyway academic.
Presently we reached our destination, a little ramen shop on the edge of downtown, open late for the sake of inebriated businessmen, red-faced with uniform rings of sweat on their collars, who needed to sober up a little before returning home to families. This was the peak business hour, and we took the last vacant stools, pressed against the corner of the counter opposite the door. Karin's entrance drew some attention, variously amused and greedy, to which she seemed oblivious. I ordered noodles for us, then at once turned and said something loudly to Karin, in English, so that everyone would know that I, as she, was a foreigner.
"Well, Japan's an interesting country and all," she said after a time, "but it hasn't moved me. I guess I'll never understand it the way that you do. I'm sorry about that." She made a gesture with her hand down the length of the counter. "What I've thought more than anything else since the day I got here is how thankful I am that you are not like them. Is that a terrible thing to say?"
At that moment the shop's door opened and the man who had sat next to me on the two trains coming in from the airport appeared under the threshold. He saw me at once and, meeting his eyes, I was instantly sick with anger.
"What's wrong?" Karin said.
Karin turned to look but he had already ducked again outside, and all she saw was the glass door sliding closed against the darkness.
"What man?" she said to me.
"The one from the train," I said.
When she turned back to me I could see that I had frightened her. She even paled, and the vacant, religious look of being overwhelmed passed shadowlike across her eyes.
"Just a coincidence, no worries," I assured her, resting a hand on her thigh under the counter top. "Nothing to do with anything." I squeezed her leg, and doing this her hand came to rest on mine, a moment of secret love. Living alone in the mountains, I had forgotten about the charm of a warm night in a strange place, the soft, quiet loneliness, the invitation to forget. We held hands on the walk home, under no stars and that moon, hearing different sounds between the frogs' choruses. Cricket bells, running water in the irrigation ditches, murmurs of different conversations from the homes that we passed, kids riding their perilous motorcycles somewhere off in the black hills. In such a place one's mind blends easily into the collage of tiny sensations, so that there is cooperation between them, like the parts of music.
"I've been good about studying Japanese, but I still can't understand anything anyone says."
"It takes a while. There's a difference or two between Japanese and English, you know."
"The tendency toward the passive rather than the active voice. The relative absence, in Japanese, of the subject."
"How do you make a sentence without a subject?" Karin said.
"English sentences, of course, usually require one. 'And then we went down to the ship.'"
"Then how do you go about making a translation to English, when there is no subject in the Japanese?"
"Sometimes, you have to make one up."
"You can't make up a subject."
"Yes you can."
Karin accepted this, tentatively, though I could see she was uneasy with the idea.
"Maybe, even when there's nothing in it, it's still there.
She thought about this for a moment. "Are some things like that?"
"Maybe, everything is like that. Eventually."
We talked like this for the rest of the walk, our words coming at leisure between generous silences, and it was so pleasant to me that I lost track of where we were, and so did not realize that we had returned to Karin's apartment until she gasped and grabbed my arm, in part to get my attention and in part for support, for she might otherwise have fallen. She pointed at the green, chrome-ridden Toyota in the parking lot below her unit, and I knew at once that he was there. The windshield gleamed with moonlight so that I could only see the vaguest of silhouettes inside, but he was there, watching.
"So that's him," I said. "Well. Well, I suppose we might as well go ahead then and get this settled."
"Are you sure?" Karin said, still clutching my arm. She was trembling.
"Do you think there would be a better time? Maybe this isn't the best, after all, he is parked there, but that in itself is hardly an offense."
"So you think, later?" Karin said.
"If you think about it, it's not altogether reasonable to seek out a confrontation with a man whose doing nothing more than sitting in his car."
Karin, reluctant as she was to let me leave her side, agreed with this and my suggestion that we pretend not to have noticed him at all and simply go up to the apartment, and wait for a better time.
We were both upset and anxious, I perhaps more than she. Karin complained of feeling sticky all over from the day's humidity and in need of a shower. She pinched me and asked if I wouldn't mind joining her but I couldn't have been less in the mood for something so enjoyable. So she implored me to try to relax and went in by herself. I put some music on and lay down on her futon, but could not bring myself to keep still, and soon I was pacing back and forth across the tiny length of her apartment, poking through her collection of half-read books on Japanese culture, and then all the things she had hung on her walls: messy pictures drawn for her by her pre-school students, cheap Japanese fans, a framed wood-block print -- an item of some value, I wondered where it came from. That was hung near the head of her futon, next to her photos: one of her family, one of her friends, one of her Japanese friends, and the one of her and me. I had not noticed earlier, but noticed now as I touched the image of Karin's face, that the picture had a layer of dust on it -- too much dust for any vertical surface. The other three photos were nearly clean.
This photo of her and me had been hung next to the others only very recently.
I started towards the shower but hesitated, thinking that with the effect of all the various anxieties at hand I was perhaps too recklessly interpreting what I saw. What I needed instead was the beer that I earlier pretended to drink. There was nothing but tea in Karin's refrigerator, so I decided to go back again to the vending machine that we had passed on the way to the ramen shop.
I found that I didn't remember exactly which roads to take so I had to guess based on what I thought was the generally right direction. I somewhere took a wrong turn, doubled back, then again mistook my way. Thus I became, in short order, altogether lost. Though not worried, I did realize that I had not so much as Karin's phone number on hand, and so, without any landmarks with which to guide myself, no way of getting back to the apartment, let alone of finding the vending machine. I stopped where I was, and the night was completely empty, and there was no meaning at all in anything around me: an abandoned bicycle, the sound of a television, the low aura of a street light far ahead. All these things signified nothing. But all these things were still there.
I sauntered very slowly down that street, not at all worried but luxuriating in my disorientation, for several minutes before the streetlight ahead began to appear not to be a streetlight after all. It was too low, and too white to be a street light. In fact, the circle of light ahead was the nimbus of the vending machine, and I was approaching it from the opposite direction. Then there appeared some form in the light, a man, standing before the machine with a can in his hand. Though from that distance I could see only his outline, I knew that this was once again the inexorable man who had sat next to me on the train, and who had appeared again at the ramen shop an hour ago. The wiser part of me told me to turn around and go back the way I'd come. I was too much under the influence of my own anger, though, so instead I quickened my pace, with the one thought that this time I would go to any length to convince him to keep his distance from me.
At twenty yards he turned and a piercing grin of recognition sprung across his face. The violence of the images that grin provoked is unspeakable, but then, just as I reached the machine, the realization that, after all, he was here first and it was I who was coming upon him, left me suddenly with no ground upon which I could begin an altercation. In Japan it is perfectly normal to loiter in front of a vending machine, and in fact a minor vulgarity for one to leave the area of the solicited machine before finishing his drink. So I had no choice but to simply return his salutation and proceed to plunk my coins into the slot.
"I know Karin," he said, in English, and so abruptly that I dropped a couple of coins on the ground. Seizing the opportunity to approach me, he retrieved the coins and returned them to my hand. This left him at such a distance that I could see my own reflection in his glasses -- much closer than propriety would allow.
"How do you know Karin?" I said.
"She teaches me English."
"Why do you want to learn English?"
"I want to be free."
That was an unusually pointed response. I had felt that undercurrent before in one or two of my own students, but had never once heard it so articulated. The first glimpse of awareness of the limitations of your own language is a strange sensation -- the way that the very words at your disposal have you strapped into a particular, finite way of thinking. Perhaps even worse is the difficulty of getting anywhere beyond that glimpse. One is instead left forever with the annoying awareness that there are some things that he will never be able to say.
"Learning English will not make you free," I answered.
"It made you free."
"Listen you little fucker, you had better stay away from me, the next time I see you I'm going to rip your fucking lungs out."
I felt sick inside. The man smiled back at me. He smiled an awful, admiring smile, inward bent -- the smile of beholding something beautiful, the smile of that's what I want to see. It shook me, and I could do nothing save turn and stumble away.
When I got back to the apartment I didn't knock, but went straight in. Karin chirped a scream. "Don't do that," she said angrily. "He comes in without knocking. And where did you go?"
"Just for a little walk. I needed to get out."
"You left without telling me," she said. "Don't do that, either." And then she motioned me to the window before which she was standing, and directed my attention to Hino's truck still parked below.
"Still there," I said.
"Yes, but I can't tell anymore if he's in it or not."
Neither could I. The moonlight was still reflecting off of the truck's windshield in such a way that made it impossible to ascertain exactly what was the substance of the silhouette inside. Was he there, or was the shadow only some trick of the light? Of course, that I still did not know what Hino looked like made it all the more difficult to proffer any sort of judgment.
"If he's not there, then where would he be?" I said.
"Like I told you, he could be anywhere. Don't you believe me? The night I called you, I had caught him spying on me. Yes, he was peering at me, right through the kitchen window. He stood right here and tried to tell me that he wasn't spying, that he was only checking to see if I was here. But I know he was spying." Karin's head shook with grief.
"You let him in," I said, "after catching him spying on you?"
"Well, yes," she answered, tentatively, only then it seemed recognizing the contradiction she'd admitted.
"Listen Karin, I've no doubt that this Hino is harassing you," I said. "But I've the feeling that the picture is not complete to me." I thought, saying this, that Karin was making a show of ignoring me, acting as if she was looking for something that she had dropped on the floor. In fact she was weeping, inaudibly and without tears or any other evidence save the thick congestion of her voice.
"Karin? What is it?"
She shook her bowed head and muttered something so softly that I could not distinguish the words. As much as I hated to upset her, I had the intuition that this mumbling was something that she wanted me to hear but lacked the resources to say outright. I laid a hand on her shoulder to assure, telling her that she could say anything to me, that that's what I was here for.
"It only happened once, and it was horrible. No connection. It was like he was masturbating."
"What had you been expecting?"
"To be stolen away."
There was a knock, and the door behind us opened. I turned to see him standing in the entrance way, cradling some cans of beer in his arms.
"Oh Hino," Karin said.
I charged him. Hino took half a step back but did not retreat past the threshold. My body was burning and coiling, my fists closed tight as iron to meet him when in a flash I realized that the beers that Hino had brought were not his but were bought with the coins that I had left in the machines moments earlier, and that given this alibi, I really had no prerogative to assault him outright. I was upon him and it was too late to stop, so I made a quarter turn, thereby directing the full force of my swing into the entranceway wall. The apartment resonated like a drum from the force of the blow.
Hino set the beer he had brought on top of the shoe cabinet to his left. He looked once at Karin, and then at me, and then, his face tightening, drove his own fist with a curt grunt into the same wall a foot away. He had a surprising amount of power, though it hurt him and he could not quite manage to keep the pain from showing on his face. I knew then that I could prevail, and gathering the whole strength of my physical self , I recoiled and again hurled my fist against the wall. A sharp cutting sensation shot up from my wrist to my elbow, but I had left an inch long tear in the wallpaper and a discernible indentation in the plaster beneath.
Hino, though sweating from the effort of his last blow, was not ready to concede. He punched the wall again, this time yelping at the instant of contact, for the blow tore a line of skin from his knuckles. Karin, watching from her room, was shouting, "Stop it, stop it. The neighbors," but I could hardly hear her, and there was anyway no chance of my quitting. I hit the wall again, my eyes shut tight against a flash of red. Hino countered with another yell and the violent lurch of his torso to aid the fading strength of his arm, and left a second, wider smear of blood on the wall next the first. God, I hit the wall again, and unrelenting Hino followed, again, again, ten, eleven times, the pounding on the wall like piston strokes, and Hino, his arm getting limp, relying finally on the strength of his legs, crouching then springing to his toes for momentum. Then, with all the rollicking of his head Hino's glasses jolted off his face and they grazed my cheek on the way to the floor. They were cold, and wet with his filthy yellow sweat, his jap sweat. A long, black moan rumbled up from my gut and out in a crystalline spasm. There was a crashing sound. I had put my arm through the wall.
A silence fell. I turned to face Hino, and the bastard doubled me over with a hook into my gut. Blind with surprise, I fell to my knees. When I could look up, bewildered and clutching myself, it seemed that Hino was standing far above me, as if on a stage, and a strength was with him, and on his face every trace of pain or struggle had been brushed away by something stronger, kind and pure, unequivocal, self-knowing.
That lasted for five or ten seconds, and I stayed on my knees until he left.
It had begun to rain, no wind but thunder and lightning in the hills. Karin helped me clean up, then we went to bed. In the morning I made a couple of phone calls for her to make arrangements for her to get out of the country, and then we took a cab to the train station, and then she told me good-bye. And all the way home that water from the river was already as good as drunk, and it was nearly the death of me, but for a few moments I escaped into pure form, lifeless and flowing.
I don't know how Hino got my address, though I suppose with all the time he had spent in Karin's apartment he'd had a chance or two to look through her things. I know why he sent the painting to me. It was an impressively conceived image of lightning bursting across the sky, all that power appearing as if from nothing: the first assertion of the self. And behind the lightning, the black chaos of rain and clouds, crashing together, making all that noise.