A Story by Sanaë Lemoine, first place winner
in the Phi Kappa Sigma Fiction Prize, 2009
Hugo’s father explains he named him after Victor Hugo. He does not think that because in French the family name is at the end, in Japanese it would read Hugo Victor. He names his son Hugo and later tells him it is not because of Les Misérables.
Ruy Blas is the masterpiece, the best play ever written! His father says. He quotes, Verre de terre amoureux d’une étoile! A worm in love with a star. He was a Shakespearean actor in his early twenties and tells his son that the Japanese acting school was not so good.
When Hugo is eleven his father moves to Osaka while Hugo stays with his mother in Tokyo. They have a small apartment in Meguro. Hugo is accepted at the Kuhara University and remains living at home with his mother. She is thirty-eight and beautiful so people think she is his girlfriend when they go to the movies.
Hugo waits for Shiro outside of the public baths, the onsen, of the university. He pretends he’s waiting for his friends and drinks Pocari Sweat while Shiro eats dried apricots. Her hair is wet and her face red from the heat of the bath.
Shiro knows Hugo’s friends have already gone back to their rooms when he is sitting on the bench. Because this is her first year at university she is not fully accustomed to the onsen. The women and men are separated, yet she has never seen so many naked girls and women in the same space. One girl is so beautiful, she’s not tall, but her face is oval and her nose well-shaped, and all Shiro can see are her light brown nipples, dark hair, and the color of her skin on her limbs. She envies her soft skin. Shiro is not used to seeing other girls naked and cannot help but look at her own body and then at their breasts and pubic hair.
She is skilled at washing, as a dancer in high school she would carefully bathe every evening. At university Shiro washes after dance, and when she stops dance, she continues to go to the public baths.
I’ve seen you go home in the evening, you don’t live on the campus, but you bathe here? Shiro asks Hugo.
We only have one bath, for me and my mother, it’s very small. I don’t want to be a nuisance. This one here is large, plus the soap and shampoo are free.
Hugo doesn’t tell her his mother is so young and the boxes of tampons in the bathroom make him uncomfortable, as does the shaving cream.
After a month of university Shiro still can’t forget the early mornings of high school. Awake at five am she would take the train from Nishi-Hachioji to Yokohama and walk the ten minutes to school passing by the combini stores. The last year she takes a class on manners and sits with eight other girls on the tatami floor peeling mandarins. By the end of the hour her legs and feet are numb from sitting and her fingernails orange. The teacher shows them how to peel the mandarins so as to leave a flower shaped peel.
She remembers the girls at her high school. One day she wore a ring her mother gave her and they asked if she was engaged. There was no time for boyfriends if she was practicing dance every day after school and stretching for two hours before going to bed. Her mother would make sure she waited five hours between her meals; she said it was better for the stomach. Also, she would give her a glass of milk with a spoonful of plum vinegar; it is good for the digestion. If she were to be a dancer she would have to be thin. Luckily you have my bones, her mother said.
Shiro asks Hugo what he wants to do after he graduates.
Watch trains, he says.
You want to be a train watcher?
Yes, but I’d rather watch the trains that don’t stop at the station. Well, that would be my full time job. My part time job would be Chemist. What about you?
I don’t know. I’m thinking of teaching.
Shiro has a cat and when the cat dies she tells Hugo about it. She sleeps with the cat for a month when she finds out it is sick. He says he is sorry and then asks her if she will go to the public baths with him.
What do you mean? Together?!
Yes. If we go early enough there won’t be anyone. At four am it’s empty. I’ve never seen anyone. Well, there’s this old man who goes to wash around three, but he doesn’t stay longer than half an hour.
They go to the onsen at four am. But since they’ve washed the night before they decide to go for a run, an excuse to clean themselves later. It’s dark and the streets are empty apart from the bakery where light filters through curtains. Shiro doesn’t sweat very much, but Hugo is soaked by the time they get back to Kuhara. The onsen changing room is empty and Shiro notices how the men’s is the same as the women’s room. She’s never undressed before someone other than her mother or the girls she bathes with. She takes her clothes off when his back is turned and wraps a towel around her body.
Can I wash your hair? He asks her. He hasn’t touched her yet and although her hair was washed last night, she agrees.
Shiro rinses herself quickly so they can go into the bath, she can sense his discomfort. The bath is big in the men’s onsen, it is large enough to fit maybe twenty people, and with the two of them alone, steam rising around their arms and face, she feels as if she is dressed.
Hugo is always listening to music and he makes her CDs although he never writes down the song titles. He explains that the order of the songs is crucial and she shouldn’t skip any song, listen to it from track one to track nineteen, he says.
He tells her they took a class last year together but she can’t remember him, it was a two-hundred person lecture and she sat near the front most days. He would sit a few rows behind her and draw the back of her neck, her hair tied up, her ears. There are dozens of small drawings of her ears in his history notebook. She comes upon them one day and asks if he wants to become an otoligist. He says he likes anatomy. Those are your ears, he tells her. You can’t recognize them?
She notices the pearl earrings she used to wear before she lost one down the sink drain.
Her parents think she should live at the University. The rooms at Kuhara University are very small; they have a narrow bed, a light wooden desk and closet, and a small sink in the corner. In the evening she takes thick brown tape and picks up loose hairs from the floor with the sticky side until she thinks it must be clean.
She watches TV on Friday night with her father. It is some Japanese show on who is the strongest man. The men have to go through a variety of obstacles and show their physical endurance, endless monkey bars, walking on their hands in water, and she sees how the men keep falling. They watch another show where a couple has to taste different dishes and say which ingredient or dish is the most expensive: two different steaks, two wines, two sea urchins. On Sunday morning Shiro goes to Hachioji and spends an hour at the Muji store. There are shirts on sale and she buys three beige ones for 5, 000 Yen.
Hugo spends the weekends drawing. He draws a comic strip where a boy is writing at his desk and begins to knock his head on the desk. With each panel blood begins to spread on the table as he slams his head and then the blood decreases and by the last panel he is sitting at his desk with his head intact, writing.
Shiro is at the Kuhara dining hall at eleven am and because it is so busy she gets a bowl of curry rice to avoid the other queues. As she tastes the curry to see if it is mild, she sees Hugo standing next to a table speaking to a few girls. There is one he is looking at while he moves his hands and arms in rhythm with his talking. She is pretty and looks half-Japanese, maybe she’s half-British, Shiro thinks. That’s why she has the lighter hair and smiles easily. He is handing her a CD. Shiro leans in while focusing all her eyesight and she doesn’t notice when her hair falls in the curry because Hugo is now touching the girl on her shoulder. Shiro sucks on her hair and bends her head down to eat. She realizes she’s forgotten to get a spoon for the curry but doesn’t want to stand up in case Hugo might see her. Instead she unwraps her chopsticks and tries to coat them in sauce. She is so concentrated on picking the grains of rice, separated by the curry, that she does not hear or see Hugo when he sits down besides her. He takes the chopsticks from her hand, without speaking yet, and pulls a spoon out of his pocket. Shiro looks down even lower, ashamed.
Thank you, she says quietly.
Are you alright? He asks her. She smiles but doesn’t look at his face when he places the spoon on the table.
The chopsticks were fine, really, she says.
No one eats curry like that, I’ve been watching you for the past five minutes and you’ve barely gotten a spoonful into your body.
You eat it. Shiro says.
You’re not hungry? He looks surprised and rubs the spoon with his palm. He takes the bowl and the chopsticks and starts eating.
Hugo’s friend asks him how he undresses Shiro because she wears so many layers of clothes. Hugo doesn’t know what to answer because he hasn’t had to think about this yet, at least not the taking off the clothes, although he constantly remembers her naked body the morning of the onsen. He also can’t explain why he didn’t do anything that day.
Well, he begins, it’s easy, I just take it off in one go. You know, the tights, the socks, the skirt or the shorts, the underwear, I pull it off all together. Then with the top part I do the same.
He imagines her layers of clothes as the folds of a kimono, maybe because he has been reading Mishima for class, he thinks it is just a maze and that he would untie each item of clothing separately.
When Hugo knocks on the door Shiro is cutting her fingernails. She lets him in and sits back on the bed with her nail-clipper.
Sorry to stop by so late, Hugo says. I’ve just been having trouble with this chemistry homework for tomorrow.
Yes, it took me a while, I finished it about an hour ago though. I can help you if you like.
Why do you even bother with Chemistry if you like literature?
Expand my horizons. She smiles.
Hugo sits next to her and when she is finished cutting her nails, he asks if he can cut his.
I keep forgetting, and I hate it when they’re long.
I can cut them for you if you like, Shiro offers. He looks at her surprised, because she takes his foot and starts untying the laces of his shoes.
What are you doing? He asks.
Your nails? Shiro is now taking his socks off.
No, those are fine, I meant these, he says, waving his hands at her.
You sure you’ve cut your toe nails? I always forget about those. I mean, who looks at their feet really.
She starts clipping and he feels her fingers curl around his toes.
Hugo notices that she’s only wearing cotton pajamas and is disappointed he won’t be able to slowly take the layers off clothes from her body. That is if he can. He doesn’t know why he’s so paralyzed around her and how he has allowed her to touch his feet, they are wide feet and he dislikes their shape. He remembers bathing earlier on so they must be clean. Shiro asks him if he would like to stay the night because it is so late, she says if he would like to, that he doesn’t have to of course. He shouldn’t feel obligated. He stays awake a little longer finishing chemistry but when he slips into bed at around six am, Shiro pulls him to her warm body.
Later when Hugo unbuttons her shirt very slowly, suddenly the prospect of all these buttons, one by one, gives him the same thrilling thoughts that the layers of clothes had excited in him earlier on. Shiro is soon naked and so is Hugo, and though they kiss she tells him she’d prefer they don’t have sex, she says, I hope you don’t mind, but I haven’t before and I’d like to just sleep beside you. He runs his fingers down her spine and then holds her hips close to his body. He thinks, I should have known when she cut my toe nails like that.
When Hugo’s mother comes home she takes her shoes off and as she leans over to hang her coat, lighters and a matchbox fall from her pockets. Hugo looks at the TV as he hears her quickly pick up the matches and lighters, he doesn’t dare look because he knows her cheeks are red by now and her eyes bent down.
Your father wasn’t even there at your birth, Hugo’s mother tells him. He’s heard the story a hundred times but he still sits at the table listening.
Instead of coming to the hospital he had to stop by the house and check on your brother, for goodness sake he was eleven years old, not like he couldn’t take care of himself while I was in labor at the hospital. He was ten minutes late and it took you ten minutes to be born.
Hugo knows what she’ll say next. He treated me as if I were his concubine, his mother tells him.
Because he knows her story and he doesn’t want to show he is ignoring her, Hugo helps her in the kitchen as she makes the dinner. Tonight she cooks vegetable and shrimp tempura. After dinner Hugo can smell the oil and batter on his clothes and hair, he showers and washes himself twice, Shiro will not like this stink, he thinks, throwing his clothes in the washing machine, this will not do.
Friday afternoon Shiro’s parents aren’t home, her father is in Hokkaido for the week-end giving a talk and her mother at work until late. She invites Hugo to visit her home and shows him the temple attached to her house.
This is where my father holds the ceremonies, she tells him, opening a door at the end of the hallway. The temple is about twice the size of their house, and when Hugo looks through the doorway he sees yellow and red, the thick tatami floor and mikan oranges in ceramic bowls. He goes into the bathroom and smokes into the mirror making sure the ventilator is on.
It’s raining and Shiro forgets her umbrella but she stands in Shibuya next to the statue of the Hachiko dog and ties her hair up so it won’t look so wet. She looks up at the statue, an Akita dog, grey and over-sized, she thinks. There are hundreds of people in the square holding umbrellas waiting to meet people. It is already seven minutes past twelve and she wonders why her father is late. She sees him walking quickly towards Hachiko, holding a dark blue umbrella, and he waves when he sees her.
You’re soaking, Shiro, did you forget your umbrella again.
It broke, she says, I didn’t forget it.
He holds the umbrella over her as they choose where to have lunch. They settle on a ramen place and as soon as they sit down he orders two teas. So cold out there today, he says, rubbing his fingers.
Hugo finds an envelope on the kitchen table. Inside is a note from his mother saying she has gone for a few days to the mountains and will be back soon. She’s left him 10, 000 Yen folded in a slip of paper. Hugo thinks of his mother, she’s still young, thirty-eight and that’s not so bad for the mother of a university student. He re-reads the note but there is no mention of which mountains she’s going to, he wonders if she’s all the way up north or just an hour from Tokyo. Outside the weather is dry and the sky white, it’ll be snowing soon, and as Hugo closes the blinds he knows she will be gone for a few weeks. He watches TV until it is dark outside and then looks in the fridge for dinner. There’s nothing to eat so he goes to the 7-11 down the street. It’s almost empty but the lights are still incredibly bright and he feels his eyes squint as he walks through the aisles. There are some freshly packed meals, he tries to find something without MSG and finally he picks up three onigiri. Outside the weather isn’t too cold even though it’s almost the middle of December, maybe it won’t snow after all. Hugo gets a beer from the vending machine and decides to eat at the park. It’s not really a park, more a small playground where children come during the day after school. The swings are empty and he sits at the bottom of a slide, leaning back on the plastic frame. The ground is a hard, beaten earth, there are no trees and he laughs out loud at the dismal surroundings. No crows even, he thinks. Looking up the sky is now a blackish grey and he can hear the highway nearby. He cranes his neck to an opening between two tall houses and sees the thick columns of lighted buildings. The onigiri are individually wrapped, the rice is soft and he eats them between gulps of beer. He thinks of Shiro and how he doesn’t know how to speak to her. Maybe she would like his mother, he can see them traveling together to the mountains. He’ll take her on a train ride tomorrow he decides. It was a stupid idea, the bathing. He doesn’t know what went through his mind, of course the thought of seeing her naked. Though he’d been so embarrassed of his own nakedness that he’d kept the towel wrapped around his waist as he washed her hair. She had held her towel against her chest, covering the front of her body. He thought anyone would have found it ridiculous, the whole situation, them with their towels in an onsen. When Shiro was rinsing her hands, her back turned to him, Hugo had slipped into the water where the steam was so heavy you could barely see. He’d looked down when he saw her legs close to the edge.
He falls asleep on the slide and is woken up around five in the morning because of the cold and the sky is already a light grey. When he sits up a homeless man is crouching on the far side of the playground looking at Hugo. The man is small and sits quietly on the ground with a few plastic bags and a backpack. Hugo gets up and instinctively bows his head to the man, throwing his beer can in a bin on his way out. Back at the apartment he washes his teeth and wonders if it’s too early to call Shiro.
Do you want to get breakfast? He asks her, at six am. Her voice is very small but she has picked up after four rings.
He doesn’t respond and she quickly picks up the conversation.
Yes ok, where do you want to go?
My mother’s not home, do you want to come over, I could make you something?
He gives her the address and she says she’ll be there in a half hour.
Hugo buys eggs, milk although he rarely drinks it, spring onions, salmon and daikon radish pickles. He’s preparing a rolled omelet and grilled salmon when Shiro rings the bell downstairs.
How come you’re awake so early yet you always sleep in class? Shiro asks.
Your head is flat on the desk! Well, most of the class is asleep in French.
Because the professor hardly speaks in French. I swear if the class actually was in French I’d be wide awake.
Hugo, is your mother nice?
She’s so-so. It depends, most of the time she’s not at home.
Oh. What does she do?
She’s a hostess, though you know, she won’t tell me. She smells of cigarettes but I know she doesn’t smoke and she also practices Karaoke singing when she thinks I’m sleeping. Well, she’s not so good of a singer but she’s improving her skills.
Mine doesn’t sing but she doesn’t go out either. She had me so late, who gets pregnant at the age of forty-five?
She doesn’t look so old though, from the photos you showed me.
Well, she does have very little white hair and she’s small.
Hugo and Shiro don’t speak for a while, Hugo doesn’t know what to say next, now that he’s sitting beside her and they’re alone, it is not like outside of the common baths, where there was the light and sound of shifting bodies.
Hugo is talking to a Mexican exchange student, her name is Perla, Pearl, Shiro mutters, and looks at Perla’s dark skin and brown hair. Sometimes Shiro thinks her own skin is yellow but then she realizes it is just the lighting, and she doesn’t want to bleach her skin white like the other Japanese girls with their whitening toners. Perla is short, but at least her legs are long and she smiles at Hugo while he waves goodbye as he walks away from the table.
Shiro! Hugo says, stopping next to her. She stands up and feels her legs are short, she hopes the black pants will lengthen them and passes her hands over the orange cotton shirt to feel her stomach.
I have to go to class in a few minutes, Shiro says as she pulls a bag onto her shoulder. She has to hold it there because her shoulders are too small and the strap slips along her arm.
Hugo asks what class and when she tells him it is the Genji and Heike one, he laughs and says what a waste of time, yet he decides to walk with her. Shiro is a little embarrassed to walk with Hugo, he bounces and with each step his body seems to reach upward, to then fall in rhythm. They walk in silence because Hugo’s eyes are facing the sky and Shiro looks around making sure there are no obstacles in his way.
Where’s your backpack? Shiro asks.
I don’t have one. It’s at home but I never use it.
You don’t take notes?
Nope! Here, I have a pen and small notepad. But I prefer not taking notes, helps me remember if I just listen, and he taps at his head looking over at her before going back to the sky.
You don’t want to spend time with your mother anymore, do you? You’ve met a girl, Hugo, haven’t you?
Hugo doesn’t respond and sits at the table looking at his mother.
You’re like your father. Well can I at least meet her?
No. Hugo stands up. I’ll be back later, I won’t eat dinner here.
What are you going to eat? I made soba! I thought it was your favorite.
I prefer ramen.
Going to see the girl? Do you know what your father did to me, how he humiliated me in front of his friends and coworkers, the way he spoke about me and how he made our private life a public affair?
Yes, and see, I don’t speak to him.
An hour later he returns and apologizes, blushing as his mother accepts.
Hello Shiro, I’m Keiko. Hugo’s mother bends forward and Shiro bows with her hands folded below her abdomen.
Thank you for having me to dinner, Keiko.
It’s about time! Hugo hardly ever talks about his friends. I don’t know about them until he brings them home.
Hugo gets orange juice and he sits at the table with Shiro while his mother starts dishing out food onto ceramic plates.
These have been in the family for years, she tells Shiro, holding a plate. Some of them have broken but they’re irreplaceable. We had to fix them with gold and she points at the dark yellow specks in the cracks.
There is beef, rice, cucumber pickles and broccoli. I have also azuki beans for dessert, you like sweets yes?
What are you studying, Shiro?
I see. Oh you must have heard of Yoshimoto Banana.
Yes, I’ve read a few of her books.
Funny name isn’t it. And your father is a Comparative Religion professor, right?
Yes, Shiro says surprised.
I looked up your family name in the University website, Keiko smiles.
Shiro feels Hugo’s hand under the table touch hers.
Did you have to go to such an extreme? He asks his mother.
I’m sorry, I was curious, the name sounded familiar. Okuma. Such a nice ring to it. Three syllables. I wonder, I don’t mean to be indiscreet, is Okuma the same Okuma Shigenobu?
Shiro bows her head and her hair falls in a fringe hiding her eyes.
Oh my goodness! Why he was a prime minister! Oh, Hugo, you could have told me! You always leave out the details. It must be incredible having parents like yours, how lucky of you, having such brilliance in the family.
In her last year of high school Shiro goes to Happoen Garden early in the morning. It used to be her grandfather’s home before the war, now it is a museum and park. She takes food for the fish and feeds the koi. She crouches down on a stone by the edge of the pond and pokes her finger in the water, but because there is moss on the stones she loses her balance. Just as she feels her feet slip she tries to hold on but her fingers close on water. Only her legs and arms are wet, the pond is shallow, yet the wind is so cold that her bare legs are numb. She has to go home and change but then feels tired and decides to skip school. Her parents aren’t home so she takes omochi and toasts it in the oven until the rice dumpling is soft. She chews on it and sits in the temple looking at the shrine her father cleans every morning. The room is dark but the gold and red are brilliant and she leans back spreading her body on the tatami floor. When she wakes up she feels rubbed in incense.
Hugo looks at the people on the train and sees that most of the passengers are asleep. He can feel the hot air blow on his legs, nobody smells, he thinks. An old lady walks in holding two shopping bags, they look heavy and she is breathing hard so he stands up offering his seat. She scowls at Hugo and asks him if she really looks that old. He sits back when she doesn’t move and instead clutches a metal bar next to the doors.
He gets off and switches to the Yamanote line to Meguro station. He hasn’t seen Shiro in two months, first she was sick and then his mother asked him to spend the month of his holidays in Kobe, and he hasn’t spoken to her since his return.
It is five in the morning when he goes to the communal baths, a little too late he thinks, some of the early risers will be arriving in a half hour or so. If he is lucky no one will be there until six am. The sun is rising and Tokyo is grey, but the air is dry and he likes that for once he’s not wiping his face from the humidity. Shiro is not in the men’s changing room, why should she be, he remembers she is a girl after all and is ashamed of their bath. It seems childish now, but he senses a slight intoxication at the thought of it, and then quickly undresses.
She calls him around midday and apologizes for not speaking to him earlier. He apologizes, I should have called you when I got home. He knows she is quiet and will not respond to this.
When Shiro goes to the public baths there are four Australian exchange students who have arrived in the morning. Three are girls and they stand in the changing room dressed, unsure of how to proceed. Two strip down to bathing suits and walk into the onsen holding towels to their chest, the third girl goes back to her room saying she’s clean and doesn’t feel the need to wash just yet.