hermiones: (nanowrimo)
Cat ([personal profile] hermiones) wrote2010-03-06 11:38 am
Entry tags:

"Southend" (2), Part One.

Title: Southend (2)
Pairing: Jin/OC
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: AU. Sex, history/supernatural, disturbing content.
Summary: I wrote this both for [livejournal.com profile] je_ficgames and Nanowrimo 2008 and have just realised that I never posted it. It's, er, historical AU het Jin fic. Enjoy? XD

Part Two

March, 2008

When the alarm goes off, Emiko is already awake. That's normal for people these days, to lie and worry about things that stop them from sleeping. To indulge fears greater than the monster under the bed that plagued them as a child. Nowadays there are so many monsters – so many worries. When she gets out of bed, the floor is cold under her feet but it doesn't shake her out of her concerns.

She showers quickly and walks around the apartment as she towels off her hair. The rubbing is soothing and rhythmic. Once, twice, four dozen times. The apartment isn't big so it allows for pacing, useful for mornings like this. She lives on the rougher side of the city, where the rental prices are cheaper. It compromises on view and on quality neighbours, but it's one less thing to worry about when the bills come in. While she paces, she looks out at the tatty buildings, neglected and lovable. The small inches of sky pressed between them. Occasionally her apartment gets a slant of the sunrise but not this morning.

This wasn't how she expected her life to pan out. When she was younger, girls she knew had concrete plans. Her mother and grandmother, they had concrete plans too. Emiko didn't have a concrete plan, she never set a timeline for her unfolding life. Her dreams never involved a rich husband, two children, a house with a view of the mountains. Fulfillment in repetition and infant smiles, sex every Sunday if she and her husband remembered. Those thoughts never filled her head, but she longed and planned for more than this.

All the girls she used to know are married. They probably had those dreams as children. She sees them every so often at the combini, proudly pregnant and full of cheer despite the economic struggle of a writhing population. They're full of strange cohabiting pride, like they've taken on another identity. Their lives are now represented by their husbands. Emiko is jealous of their security but not of their lostness. She feels she wants to make her own way, that she wants to be known for being Emiko, not Kenji. Not Inoue. Not Masahiro. Right now, she's Emiko with the shitty apartment. With the total lack of financial prospects. Oh well.

She smooths on her tights, careful of ladders. The financial crisis worries everybody, from the bankers to single women who can't afford new hosiery. For all the old girls have lost themselves, they never have ladders in their tights. Perhaps it's a worthy trade-off, having silky legs. She isn't sure - hates wearing tights anyway, but the weather still isn't warm enough to justify going without. Wrapping her coat around her, she picks up the bento box she made the night before, slides it into her bag. It's an old and battered tin which some of her co-workers pinchingly call vintage.

Emiko tends to reject the modern. Tokyo is full of cartoons, disgustingly bright and surreal. Some of the women in her office have pink boxes tied with ribbons and lace, some have ones branded with Pikachu or Sailor Moon. Some have ones shaped like hearts or clouds. The world, she thinks, has somewhere gone off-course. It's part of why Japan is the way it is – bright and plastic-shiny, people accept what they shouldn't. If nothing seems real then perhaps nothing is. The world has changed somewhere and Emiko feels that she's lived through that change, if not literally then emotionally. A feeling of disjointedness, of not understanding things around her. Of not buying into the dream. Of wanting more than lurid yellow cartoons, of more than women fighting with star-topped wands. Of more than those who live inside their computers. Of more than those who stop in Shibuya all day to watch the adverts on the big screens, sky high and as powerful as God. Of wanting more, period.

Work is the same as it always is, a reassuring scene of stability. Emiko works for an online cosmetic company. Her background in linguistics has led to translating maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline into Japanese for its website. It's rather ironic given that she doesn't wear any, but her boss doesn't seem to care. The job pays the bills and satisfies her well enough. She left a job that paid more because it didn't feel right. In this office, the women outweigh the men. It may be because of the nature of the company or that Japan's superior sex have been drafted into saving the economy, Emiko doesn't know. What she does know is that she's thankful for not having to make coffee all day, to have to bear the hungry looks of her superiors. The other women may be shallow but she likes their naivety after so much masculine cunning.

“Hi,” Kiko says when she walks into the office. Kiko is her best friend, a somewhat startling fact since she understands make-up and carries a bento box with sakura petals on it. Kiko plays Pokemon and insists on talking about it – about leveling up and type matching, ice versus fire, grass versus something or another. Emiko hadn't expected to like Kiko so much but she's just, well, Kiko.

“Hi,” she says, sinking into her chair. The sky is cloudy outside and the office is dimmer than it usually is. “Good weekend?”

Kiko taps her mouth with her pen. She's in charge of customer complaints and she often uses stalling gestures when she's thinking. Her patient nature makes her ideal for the job – and probably for being Emiko's friend, too. “Mm,” she says. “Not bad. Stayed in, though, what a waste. I guess it's hard for everybody, not having any money. I just wish I could afford to go out.”

“Yeah,” Emiko says. Pay day seems a long way off. “Yeah, it's rough. You should've come over. I wasn't doing anything.”

“I had dinner with my mother,” Kiko says, pulling a face and swiftly undoing it when she catches the attention of older women in the office. “I mean,” she leans in, conspiratorially. “You know how it is, right? Your brother's younger, I know. But you should be glad you don't have a younger sister.”

“I am,” Emiko laughs. “You have no idea. My mother probably is, too. I'm quite enough daughters all on my own.”

“There just isn't the same pressure,” Kiko says. “On men as women, you know. Your brother won't have to get married for a while yet – but my sister, urgh. She's won my mother's heart now, that's the truth. 'Oh, Kiko' is all my mother says. 'When will you be getting married?'”

“You're twenty six,” Emiko says. “It's not like you're thirty sex. Cut yourself a break. How old's your sister?”

“Twenty two,” Kiko says. “Not young, either, my mother says. My dad, he just wants to stop talking about weddings. It's hell for him with her still living at home and my mother only wanting to talk about dresses and flower arrangements. I guess he'll be glad to get her out.”

“Men don't have to think about things like this until they're older,” Emiko says. “I'm just twenty seven and my mother asks me every time I call her, whether I've met a nice man yet. My brother's not much younger and yet she couldn't care less about him.”

“Weddings are happy occasions,” Maki says from her corner of the office. She processes orders and little else. “Or at least, they should be. Younger girls don't seem to understand that anymore. Why do you think that is?”

Emiko shrugs. “Maybe because younger girls are starting to realise that they can have other things, too.”

“Not me,” Kiko says. “I'm so jealous of my sister I can't breathe.”

“Oh, Kiko,” Emiko begins, but she's interrupted by Maki.

“I think it's a sad day when girls care less and less about choosing a life partner. It'll only have negative consequences in the end, with a divorce rate heading through the roof. Look at the US – that's what happens there, because women decided that finding a man wasn't their top priority anymore.”

“Yet men have always managed to balance their career and their love lives,” Emiko says. “Because they do the former and women manage the latter. If we stopped chasing and making decisions, they'd struggle just as much, don't you think? It's because younger girls are trying to work and play.”

“You think men should do the chasing, then?”

“I think they should make more of an effort,” Emiko says. “At the moment, it's up to the girl to decide whether a man is suitable marriage material, the guy just goes along with it. I think things should be more equal.”

Maki smiles, indulgently. “I hope you're prepared to wait. I suppose you young girls have time to wait.”

“Tell our mothers that,” Kiko says. “The way mine goes on, you'd think I was drying up. Thing is, the more she worries about it, the more I worry about it.”

Emiko smiles. “I'd rather have a guy I loved than a guy who was convenient,” she says. “And I'd rather he came out with it. That he contributed somehow rather than just deciding that I was worth settling for. Don't you think it's giving up?”

“I think men just know what they know and nothing more,” Kiko says. “We have to lead them or nothing gets done.”

“Oh, God,” Emiko says. “I'd rather find myself accidentally landing with the right guy than settle knowing that my husband was wrong for me. Even if accidentally means it doesn't happen for a while, or not at all. I'd rather be alone.”

“She's normally so serious,” Maki says. “What a view on love!”

Frowning, Emiko says, “Marriage shouldn't be a business transaction. Finding love isn't certain, it isn't predictable. People seem to think it's a done deal, that it can be settled on like business.”

“There was once a time when men used to write poetry,” Maki says. “And on the strength of that poetry and his presentation of it, he would find a good woman. What do you think about that?”

Emiko sits and thinks, logging into her e-mail and casting an eye over her inbox as she formulates a response. “I don't know,” she says. “I think that it was unequal back then, too. Poetry is romantic, sure, but at that point women couldn't leave the house. Her role was to sit in and receive poetry. Maybe some of the girls wanted to write poetry in response. Maybe they wanted to get out and see the world. Men were contributing but they were bidding on women, women who couldn't refuse them. Both parties should be bringing something to the table, weighing each other up. Both should be writing poetry.”

“Some of the women did write poetry,” Maki says. “Are you a woman who likes to write poetry, Emiko?”

“No,” Emiko laughs. “It's not my style. Remember my last boyfriend – his idea of poetry was leaving me a shopping list before he went to work.”

“Oh, yes,” Kiko giggles. “Socks – I need socks. Argyle. Blue or black, never green. Check the cotton content – 90% or above only!”

“Like an order,” Maki says. “I get orders like that right here! Be glad you didn't marry him. You'd be better off waiting forever than marrying a man like that. And I say that as a lifetime romantic.”

“That's what I mean,” Emiko says. “Imagine the wedding. One tux, long leg length, finest material only. Shoes, polished properly. Corsage, rose only, red never pink. And under no circumstances a cravat!”

“Ah, sometimes it'd be nice to have a man who paid attention to things like that, wouldn't it?” Kiko says. “My last boyfriend – I would cut half my hair off and he wouldn't notice it unless I asked what he thought.”

“And then he'd say, 'yeah, yeah, it's nice, striking', as if he hadn't completely missed it,” Emiko says.

“Hey,” Maki says. “There are some good men left, you know. Yoshiko, for one-”

“Oh,” Kiko says. “Here we go. The chronicles of good husbandry. Episode 68.”

“Breakfast in bed?” Emiko says. “A foot rub? Pancakes in the shape of hearts?”

Maki just glares at them both. “Flowers,” she says. “Picked from the garden.”

Kiko tilts her head to one side. “See,” she says. “Why can't I find a man like that?”

“They were lost in the seventies,” Maki says. “You two were born too late.”

“That's what my grandmother says,” Emiko says. “That all the good men were born in the twenties. That there'll never again be men as good as those.”

“It's all pretty bleak,” Kiko says. “I don't think it can possibly work like that, can it? When the millennium happened, all the good men ran out? It sounds like a sci-fi movie...”

The two women walk to the train station together. Once there they go in different directions but they like to walk together, letting the office leave their minds. If they were married, things would be different. Emiko is glad that they're not and things aren't. It means that she's noticed that Kiko has spent the entire day itching for its end. Emiko has wanted to confront her alone since the morning.

“You're going on a date,” she says.

Kiko looks at her. “No, I'm not,” she says. “What makes you think that?”

“You're wearing your best dress,” Emiko says. “And your good coat. Your mother's jewelry. You've done your hair. Either you like somebody in the office or you've got a date.”

“I hate that you notice everything,” Kiko says, scowling. “It's weird that somebody who does that is so self-unaware.”

“That's not a word,” Emiko says. “And if it were, it wouldn't apply to me.”

“Sure it does,” Kiko says. “Even if it's not a word. You don't have a clue about yourself. About me, sure. But not about you. You don't know who you are.”

“I do,” Emiko says.

“No,” Kiko says. “I don't think you dress like that to please yourself. You're stuck between being a feminist, this weird unpatriotic creature, and just being yourself. You know, beneath the seriousness. You have a personality, too. You should let people get to know you more.”

“You're saying that I'm not a set of principles.”

“Yeah,” Kiko says. “You don't have to take life so seriously. I mean, fuck, the world is crazy, right? No point in trying to see logic in it. Not everything reflects on you. Sometimes things just are. People don't notice stuff as much as you do. Nobody really cares what your bento box looks like, or whether you want to date Kenji from-”

“You're dating Kenji?” Emiko says.

“It's just a date,” Kiko says. “A few dates. This is our fourth. I haven't made up my mind yet.”

“Wow,” Emiko says. “Kenji the Serial Train Groper.”

“Those reports were never confirmed,” Kiko says, stubbornly. “And anyway, he's really nice. I prefer to give people a chance.”

Emiko laughs. “You always did,” she says. “And then another, if they wasted their first.”

“Better than no chance at all,” Kiko laughs. “Cut people a little slack. Just because they can't meet your ridiculous standards, doesn't mean they're not worth it.”

“I don't have ridiculous standards,” Emiko says. “Do I?”

“A bit,” Kiko says. “The world isn't ready for you yet and if you keep trying to force it to be what you want, you're going to miss out. Men aren't ready to be the man you want. You're setting yourself up for failure. You gotta give men a bit of slack – they didn't ask for this hierarchy. They don't realise things, not the way you do.”

“I'm not giving up on what's important,” Emiko says. “Too many girls do that and it's why things haven't moved on. I'm not saying everybody has to believe but if those who do give up then when will it change? When will the world progress?”

“Not saying that,” Kiko says. “Just – it's a hard message, so you need to be soft delivering it. Or you'll only hurt more than you heal.”

“Softly, softly,” Emiko muses. “I like that.”

“Yep,” Kiko says. “And for the record – your grandmother was wrong. So's Maki. There are good men around. I need to believe that, because wars don't breed good men. Mothers breed good men. Women do. So if you have faith in women, have faith in the men, right?”

Emiko takes the train home from work. It's busy in the evenings but she doesn't mind. Watching the salarymen, the bankers and the teachers, it's reassuring to feel that she's part of something. A great group of people who take it upon themselves to attend a workplace, work hard, take home money to survive. A great collection of bees all buzzing together. She couldn't stay at home and raise children. She'd miss the taste of honey.

Sometimes the odd character gets on the train. Most days six is too late so when they do, it's a bit of a treat. Emiko's part of the city caters well to strange people and their distinction makes those travelling from the city centre baulk. The strange people are as disgustingly bright and surreal as Tokyo itself but their very existence is subversive. They bridge fantasy and reality. They take down the colours from the great screens in Shibuya and smother themselves in them. In doing so, they remind everybody of the humanity around them.

Most people don't like them, because they're shocking, too different not to be made out of pixels. Most people don't want to touch different – except in their dreams, except through their screens.

After four stops, such a character boards the train. He pauses for a moment before shuffling to the nearest seat, diagonally placed to Emiko. She makes no bones about looking at him, drinking in the colours. He's young with long hair on one side on his head and no hair on the other. He looks as though he should be in school and from his nervous glances, she assumes that she's right. When he catches her eye he looks straight down at the floor, then up once more when he thinks she might have looked away. His eyes are huge, exaggeratedly because he's wearing coloured contact lenses. Her gaze remains solid and he slowly starts to smile. He's young enough not to realise how obvious he is and the smile is disturbingly flirtatious. Emiko realises that he's used to women looking bashfully or irritably away.

The woman sitting beside Emiko looks up from her book with an alarmed expression. Out of the corner of her eye, Emiko watches her look left, right, down at the floor, then back at the boy opposite. She opens and closes her mouth as if she wants to say something but doesn't feel able to. Eventually, she catches Emiko's eye.

“Don't you feel that teenagers are getting too brazen?” she says.

Emiko looks at her. “I think we all have to start somewhere,” she says.

“Hm,” the woman says. “You think so?”

“Presumably your...” she looks down at the woman's hand. “Husband had to start somewhere. The big romantic journey. He probably started by smiling at women on trains.”

“Well,” the woman says. “I think he would have done it without looking so...creepy. Look at his teeth.”

“Now you're being rude,” Emiko says. The boy's teeth aren't in the best condition, granted, but it's not something he could help. Smiling despite poor dental health seems to her something rather brave.

“He started it,” the woman says. “I really wish I didn't have to take the train.”

Emiko looks down, nothing more to say. As she does, she notes that the woman is reading a translated DH Lawrence. It makes her smile and when she looks again at the boy, he's looking into space with a strange expression. She struggles to comprehend it as she studies him. He has white plastic strands hanging down, typical of a clueless kid attending to his music and not much else. He bobs his head in time with the music, completely unaware of what the two women are saying about him. Despite his obvious oddities, Emiko feels a strange fondness for him – he reminds her of her brother. Short and rumpled, as if he's slept in his clothes. Smiling and naïve and still feeling that life is joyful. That's her brother, to a tee. She imagines that at grad school, he smiles at older women all the time.

The woman gets to her feet as the train pulls into its fifth stop. She stuffs her book into her bag and unites Emiko and the boy with a hard glare. Outside, the world is still downcast, full of evening clouds. It looks like it might rain and Emiko hasn't brought her umbrella. Typical. The boy watches the woman disembark without expression or comment. He shrugs, almost to himself. As the train doors slam shut with a testy beep and the train rolls off, Emiko continues to watch him as he scrolls through his music. He has a neon t-shirt on with a phrase in English plastered across the chest, mistranslated.

As he's making a music selection, he looks up at her again, now full of confidence. He doesn't drop his gaze. His hand slows down on the scroll-wheel as he takes her in, slowly, head to foot. She likes the way he pays her attention. The way he seems to see through her, the way other people just don't try to. When he cocks his head at her, nods her over, she only takes a second to pause. On the one hand, she shouldn't talk to strangers on the train. On the other, he's just a child. Decidedly reckless, she rises to her feet, crosses the train and sits down beside him. He yanks his headphones out of his ears.

“Reio,” he says. He doesn't hold out his hand. Teenagers don't these days.

“Emiko,” she returns. “How old are you?”

“Older than you think,” he says.

“I bet,” she says.

“How old are you?”

She looks at him, wearily. “Older than you think,” she says.

“Hey, I thought you were twenty one,” he says.

“Stop hitting on me,” she says. “You don't have a chance.”

“Why not?”

“Because you're not old enough to drive.”

“Maybe I just like the train.”

She gives him a look. “You have a car on your bag,” she says. “A Ferrari 355. You don't like the train.”

“You're right,” he says. “And smart. And you know about cars. That means I like you already. Here, help me pick some music.”

She leans over, trying not to get too close as she struggles to read the small text on his iPod screen. She'd been expecting a host of terrible music but in reality, she recognises many of the songs he scrolls through. Songs from her teenage years, from the moments of casual happiness, fleeting regret. Sex and drink and the kisses of men.

“You have good taste,” she says.

“I like music,” he says. “And cars. My two passions.”

“Hm,” she says. “That one.”

“Gotta love a girl who appreciates U2,” he says, obligingly. “What are your passions?”

She crosses one leg over the other and thinks for a moment. “I like to read,” she says. “And I like politics. Debating. I'm trying to start a debating society for women at the moment.”

“Fuck,” he says. “You're one serious girl. I'm starting to think you're forty one. Isn't there one already?”

“That includes women? Sure. It's illegal not to, right? But in reality, men don't seem to keen to let women join. They'll find an excuse.”

“So it's okay to exclude men from your society?”

“Not exclude men,” she says. “I just don't think many men will want to join a society run and populated by women. It's majority rule. The male societies get away with intimidating women because there are more of them present. In my society, I guess the same will happen in reverse.”

“You should let me join,” he says.

“You like women, huh,” she says. “That's hardly a surprise.”

“Nah, I'm a good debater,” he says. “Look, we're debating now. Don't you think I'm a good debater?”

“You're alright,” she says, smiling. “We could try you out.”

“That sounds good,” he says. “Being tried out by a lot of women.”

“It's not that kind of society,” she says.

“In my head, it-”

“Hey,” she says. “I have a kid brother, I know enough about how your mind works already.”

“I wish I had an older sister like you.”

“That's wrong on so many levels.”

“No, it's not,” he says. “Unless you like wrong.”

“Not that kind of wrong.”

“Tough crowd,” he says. “I'm the youngest in my family. Everybody says my jokes suck.”

“Let me guess,” she says. “The black sheep.”

“Nah, we're all black sheep,” he says. “Eccentric family. What about yours?”

“We're pretty normal,” she says. “High fliers, I guess. My brother is training to be a lawyer, like my father.”

“What about your mother?”

“She keeps the house.”

“Mine too.”

“It's what mothers do here,” she says. “Houses do need a lot of keeping.”

“I guess,” he says. So why are you on a train? Shouldn't you be keeping house?”

“Please,” she says. “We're heading for the same stop. You know how little house there is to keep around there.”

“True,” he says. “So you're a career girl?” Most people say that like they'd say martian but he says it like he's used to hearing it, to saying it.

“I'm just a woman,” she says. “I don't like labels.”

“Oh,” he says. “You're that girl.”

“Shut up,” she says, wondering exactly what that means. Whether a girl who shirks labels just wins another one altogether. “So what's your dream?”

“Music,” he says. “I work in a record shop. One day I wanna sell what people put out, if you get what I mean.”

“So your aspiration is to own your own shop?”

“Yeah, maybe,” he says. “I've always wanted my own little square of something. I can't sing, so. Have to make money where I can, make my passions work for me. My own little earner. So I can buy a Ferrari, like the one on my bag. Maybe I'd need more than one shop, I dunno. I don't spend much money though so I figure I'd be able to afford one in ten years or so. At the rate the economy's going, maybe sooner.”

“Material,” she says. “The kids today, they're material. Don't you think?”

“Everything's about money,” he says. “Especially now. With everything going to pot and all. And hey, you seem to be as bad as anybody else with your briefcase and your suit on. Do you think the world will run out of money?”

“It might,” she says. “My father says it might. He's pretty pessimistic, though. I prefer to think that they'll sort it out. They're paid enough, the people in charge, to be able to do something. Though money doesn't always equal competence.”

“I hope so,” he says. “I mean, you're right, but I prefer optimism myself. It'd be nice if there were still musicians around when I get to having my own shop. It'd be nice if there were still people wanting to buy music. Maybe by then people will just have music injected into them.”


“Yeah,” he says. “Like botox. People get their wrinkles injected right out. People even get liquid diets that way, or so I read. People get all sorts of stuff put right into their bodies. Maybe in the future, music will just get implanted into the brain. We won't have iPods, we'll just walk around with music in our heads.”

“You are very strange,” she says.

“You don't sound like that's a bad thing. Y'know, strangeness.”

“It's not,” she says. “But I hope that day never comes.”

“Me too,” he says. “Me too.”

As she leaves the train at the ninth stop, she presses her business card into his hand. His palm is warm unlike her own and she finds herself asking him to call her sometime.

The apartment isn't any messier than it was when she left it that morning. It doesn't need keeping. Through the window, the trains continue to roll past. She thinks about Reio, on his way somewhere else – he didn't live in her district, after all, and it was with sadness that she left him behind. He didn't have a business card so she left him her own, not really understanding why. She's not exactly in the habit of talking to young boys on trains.

She hangs up her coat and stands, hands on hips, surveying the apartment. She could pick up some cushions and fluff them, the way her mother used to do when she was dissatisfied with life. She decides that she's not in the mood. Instead, she logs into her inbox, not tired after an entire day of online communication. She's been communicating with men in different countries for months now. The advantage of speaking English is that it widens up your love life – perhaps they should tell you that at school.

The other advantage of speaking to men all around the world is their incomprehension of Japanese social structures. Plenty of men are capable of accepting her for what she is and she's grateful for that indulgence. She thinks about Kiko, all trussed up for a man's appreciation, and can't find a way of relating to it. All of her relationships have been looser, less structured, less comprehensible. She's dated a string of serious men who regarded her as an equal, somebody to confide in. With some of them, she'd play the serious career woman they loved to nod to at corporate parties. At weekends, they'd smoke pot and listen to Billie Holliday and fuck for hours. Get all the aggression out. Maybe Kiko is right. She doesn't know herself except in flashes of the past, in small moments with other people. The only way to see yourself, some say, but for Emiko it's like looking at a Picasso painting of yourself. Fragmented and unsure, the pieces not fitting together to make a whole.

Sometimes she considers just shooting out of here, finding something elsewhere. She could travel abroad and try to find pieces of herself, spread around the globe. Impossible to get to know herself here, when every day involves a certain amount of gritting one's teeth. But then, her mother always says that you can't get to know yourself by running away. Instead, Emiko writes messages to men she'll never meet and she goes to bed unhappy.

Sometimes, she shows them indecent pictures. She knows that if she were caught doing this by anybody she knew, she'd be mortified. She understands how much of a hypocrite it makes her. On the one hand she protests that men should like women for themselves. And on the other, she places her breasts at the forefront. The bow of the ship. Proud of them and their devastating effect on men. She luxuriate in the compliments these trinkets afford her. It all feels fractured and wrong and she wants, more than anything, to understand why she does things so opposed to her beliefs.

Gorgeous pic, one of the men has replied. A geographer. She's had vague hopes that he might end up in Japan studying rock faces or sea changes or something. That's one valley I'd like to ramble into.

She makes a face and logs out, without replying.

For the thirteenth time that week, she logs onto the website and studies its pictures. The women on it are about as attractive as she is, with breasts of a similar size, hips with similar curve. If men would pay to see those pictures, no doubt they'd pay to see hers. It makes sense. And she's already letting some men see things, men she talks to, men who the more she gets to know, the less she wants to. What's the harm in letting some men she'll never speak to see, if they're prepared to pay for the pleasure? In a lot of ways, it's more convenient because of its anonymity.

It's just that first step that's troublesome. The knowing that the moment she uploads her first picture, she'll officially be moving from a vaguely defensible position into something different, something directly at odds with what she believes in. At the moment she's in some sort of relationship with these men, albeit solely online. Sending one or two pictures could be considered romantic or sexy, committed. Plenty of women do that all the time. Offering up naked pictures to men she isn't dating, for a profit, puts her in the position of being a sex worker. The ultimate in ironic vocations for a practicing feminist. She thinks about what her mother would say.

Her mother would stop saying anything. Would stop speaking, altogether. This isn't the world she was born into.

Emiko closes down the browser and goes to make a cup of tea. She sits on the windowsill and looks out at the grey sky and the rusted buildings. Listening to the rattle of the train, she swallows and leans her face against the glass. She thinks about Kiko's sister, trying on dresses and veils and practicing holding flowers in her hands. How two women could be so different – one a vision of white twirl in front of the mirror, the other a vision of white skin on the Internet.

People make generalizations about this country's women all the time but it seems to her that Japan has always produced and continues to produce a wealth of extraordinary women. From the court ladies who flouted social boundaries by publishing novels to the modern girls, the ones who want to marry and the ones who want to fuck. The women who cheat, the women who spend tens of thousands in the host cafes. The women who take their clothes off online and the ones who continue to old tradition of binding themselves in with fabric. The women who like to be told they're beautiful and the women who like to know for certain. There's no simple formula for the construction of a Japanese woman. In a way, she's proud of that. In another, she wishes she could be Kiko's sister, turning in front of her mirror like a doll in a music box.

She doesn't want to get married. She doesn't want to settle. She just wants what most women want – to be loved, so completely and securely so as to know herself and give it to somebody else without thought, without boundaries, without question. She wants not to think, if only for a moment. If only for one blissful second.

She wonders how Kiko is doing on her date as she drinks her tea.

June, 2008

Jin says goodbye to the guys he plays with, wishes them luck with patching up their beat-up trainers and their beat-up hearts. The advance of summer means that they can stay out well after eleven but nobody is interested. Hardly anybody hits the streets at night because of the financial markets and, well. Everybody has bigger fish to fry than to stop and listen to some street buskers. Jin gets that – it's just that he worries now, about things that never concerned him before. He lugs his guitar along after him and decides to walk it, rather than catch the train. A few yen saved here and there could make all the difference, next time the landlord comes after him. Other reasons for the decision too, but they're less savory.

The walk is thirty, maybe forty minutes at most but it allows him to see things that he otherwise wouldn't. The couple who regularly fight, at ten thirty each night there's always something going on inside their house. Usually it's about money but sometimes they yell and shriek about this girl and that girl. Then there's the couple whose windows are lined with enormous frilly curtains. They call themselves Charles and Edina. Jin thinks he could watch them all day, the man in his top hat and tails and the woman in her giant skirts. Like something out of a film. Like the posters he saw in Roppongi for the upcoming ballet about Nazi Germany. Men in the Gestapo uniform, finished off with tights and pointe shoes. The world is crazy. He thinks he'll write a song about it all someday.

There's a woman who undresses in front of her window and Jin wishes he could say he was the type of guy who doesn't look. He does slow down as he passes her apartment and he does observe out of the corner of his eye. She takes her time with it and he rarely gets more than a glimpse – he'd have to stop for more and, well, that's what the Internet is for, he tells himself. On the really good nights walking home, he gets to see all of these strange people once after the other. First, the arguing couple discussing divorce and the organisation of assets. What's left of their life together being torn apart across the table like Sunday dinner. Then the couple from a different era – Dickensian with an awkward Asian slant. Uninhibited and unashamed, he'd like to live like that.

And then the girl he doesn't know by the window, her body like a streetlight in the dark.

One day he knows that she'll look down and see him in the street. He wonders what she'll do – hurry to cover herself up or perhaps she'll watch him right back. He isn't sure which one he'd prefer and that's why he never walks too slowly. A part of him doesn't ever want to be caught. So as she's standing by the window with her hands on her body he forces himself to keep walking, not out of respect or dignity but out of a childish need not be caught. He could be a better man than this, he thinks, but he doesn't yet want to be.

Still, it puts him in a bit of tailspin, as it always does. As normal when he gets home he regards the mess and then just as quickly disregards it. He feeds the cat who sneaks in through the window, the stray he doesn't want to take ownership of but feels guilty about nonetheless. Cats are easier than people and this one especially so – she's rotund and loud with enormous paws and a scrutinizing look. As she eats, he turns on his computer. He eats the half of a turkey sandwich he finds in the fridge (the cat gets the best of his leftovers, typical) as he waits for it to boot up. He's in the mood for something voyeuristic. The glimpse of the woman by the window has left him in the mood for something coy, something that wants to hide from him. American isn't going to do it this time.

He's spoken to the other guys in the band about the website but they don't get it. Nobody else seems to. His brother just laughs at him when he brings it up – what's fun about not seeing the whole picture, he asks. What's the point in paying to see a body and only getting one part? Reio likes faces, like eyes and mouths and really explicit stuff. Stuff that would've shocked Jin when he was his age. And Ryo – Ryo likes the kinky stuff. He always did, introduced Jin to some of the strangest magazines when they were at school. Jin's open-minded but really, he likes what he likes and a big part of that is the hidden treasures he finds on the website. Sometimes it's just sexier not to know. To just imagine.

He's always had a big imagination.

When he logs on, there have been plenty of updates. The site never seems to lack people like him and he's glad for that, because the more people arrive the more the site seems to grow. It's pathetic but Jin doesn't know what he'd do if this place went down in flames. He wonders whether porn is affected by the economic climate. Doesn't seem to be around here – that's the amateur market for you. The worse the economy gets, the more people are willing to sell what they have. And it pays good money, a site like this. All of the clips are available at first at the same price and once bought, must be rated. The higher the user rating, the higher the price rises to download the clips. It's a simple concept but it works, an erotic stock market.

The highest-rated girls, known as Northerners, are out of Jin's price-range so he dismisses them outright. Prefers the mid-range. Some of these girls are clumsy and shy, too, which he likes. The awkwardness lends itself to true voyeurism whereas the Northern girls are too practiced, too considered. The further South the ratings go, the shyer and less secure the girls get. Really far South, the Southerners, it feels wrong to watch those clips. The price goes down daily as men turn their noses up and their wallets away. The girls in those videos are prim and dismissive. That's not Jin's thing and he doesn't go there unless he's seriously out of pocket. Yet the Northerners aren't amateur anymore and their confidence is off-putting. The mid-range works. It's good value for money, too. Jin scrolls down the daily ratings and notes that some of the girls that were mid-range last night are rising up, hour by hour. A lot of guys like the middle, which means that eventually the middle becomes the top. C'est la vie.

Comepass dot com, the site is called. Not particularly clever or original but Jin's always liked puns.

He has a range of girls that he keeps an eye on, because they cater particularly to his tastes. Some of them are especially coy – they know how to use their bodies and just off-screen, you can see the movement of their wrists. Some of them go all out and show everything but most don't. One girl in particular, you never see her face. You see most of her body in her pictures and her videos but never her face. Jin likes that. He likes that he knows how her body curves, that he knows where her birthmarks are, but he doesn't know the most basic thing about her. He wouldn't recognise her in the street.

Knowledge but not knowledge.

She has beautiful breasts, full and firm in her hands. She holds them well, she knows what she wants. Her hair is long and she's tall. There's no particular grace to her but Jin finds it sexy, the awkward placement of her limbs.

Confidence but not confidence.

She's just started releasing clips recently. She started with pictures, growing slowly more and more explicit. Never showing her face. Her profile is uncharacteristically blank – the other girls use theirs to link to more pictures, more clips, to online donation. Some post their intimate measurements for temptation. Some have a comment box, others a request poll. This girl has nothing. No profile picture. No data. No nothing.

She's always touching herself. Just with her hands, never anything else. Never anything inside her that isn't real. Always and always just the length of her fingers, deep and soft inside. She's surprisingly noisy. He likes that about her – his ex was, too. But unlike his ex she has the confidence of anonymity. She shows little self-consciousness when sometimes you catch the base of her chin on the camera. Attentive to it the way she'd attend to an onlooker, maybe, coolly, indifferently. It seems to make a judgment about him and he likes that. Her fingers tremble when she's close, because they're numb with movement, he supposes. She likes it really hard, really fast.

Maybe she fakes it. He's considered that – and whether it really matters, anyway.

She rates in the middle ground and hasn't moved much. Other guys don't show much interest. Maybe that's why she's started on the clips, Jin thinks. He watches them, day to day to day. She's not like the girl in the window, she's not real. And it's better. He can put anything he wants onto her. Any projection, any mood. She could be anybody and he could be anyone, too. He hopes she never goes further North. If he couldn't afford her, he feels it'd really impact on him.

Reio says that he needs a life. There may be some truth in that statement but Jin figures it's better, slightly, than visiting prostitutes.

When he goes to bed at night he dreams about her – soft and plummy and rich and maybe, just maybe, what her face looks like. What her eyes would look like, up at him, eyelids moving with every last thrust. What her face would look like as thunder broke out over it.

He wakes at intervals, his skin on fire.

Emiko wakes up in the morning. She's started sleeping since finally signing up to the website that preoccupied her thoughts. It's odd, that – she had thought that she'd feel worse after each picture and each clip. In reality, she feels less and less of anything. The financial pay-off helps her to sleep. Maybe the shame, too. She hasn't regretted it. She wishes she could say she has. It'd make her a better person.

Reio hasn't been on the train in over two months. She hadn't expected to see him again but it would have been nice. In her heart, she knows it can't have anything to do with Comepass – the kid was sixteen or so, wouldn't have had a credit card. And besides, she never shows her face in the videos. Not a soul could know who she was and yet. And yet. The anonymity that the men can indulge in doesn't extend to her. Everywhere she goes, she expects to be recognised. She expects people to be able to identify her just looking at her. Like having a secret. Like being eleven and having periods – so aware of you think everybody else must know. That's why you're paid to do it, she supposes. Men pay for anonymity, women are paid to give it up.

She feels as though she's losing great dollops of time. She used to pore over her concerns in the morning, drying her hair. Now she feels the moment her feet touch the floor, she's walking out the door. She doesn't worry anymore. The train journey passes in a blink. She no longer remembers the unique softness of putting on her tights – she's so used to touching her own skin that it feels odd to do it without tilting her chin, without putting on an act. Everything feels different. Her own body feels different – no longer her property. Yet she doesn't regret it. She can't regret how good it feels to earn money on her body, to tease and to torment. To imagine that she's worth something physical, like money. Like a future.

When she walks into the office, she has no idea she's about to receive the news she's dreaded for weeks. There isn't anything about the morning that would've tipped her off – no uneasy feelings, no clouds in the sky. A beautiful summer day, a day of financial prosperity, a day of leaving worries behind. When she opens the door, she sees instantly that Kiko's desk is littered with magazines and photographs. Maki is standing around, assuming the role of the proud mother, the harbinger of romance, the eternal optimist. Emiko stops still. The world is slowly shifting and she is always staying still. If Maki is the eternal optimist, Emiko must take on the role of the harbinger of gloom.

“Emi,” Kiko says. “You need to help me. I can't believe it. You won't believe it – he asked me last night. I'm getting married. Before my sister!”

Emiko picks up her feet and takes her first step. Her kneecap feels as though it's made of lead weights.

“God,” she says. “Well – are you happy?”

“Of course I'm happy, idiot,” Kiko says, stepping around the heaps of shiny paper to embrace Emiko in a hug. “Be happy for me.”

“Of course,” Emiko says. “Congratulations.”

“Translation can wait today, can't it? You need to help me pick a dress. I know you'll tell me the right things, help me make the right decision. Right? I can rely on you.”

Emiko looks at the bridal catalogues, at the women on the front twirling white satin in their bedroom mirrors. Pushes away the thoughts of Kenji on the train, leering at underage girls and reaching out his scrawny hand to their skirts.

“Sure,” she says. “Of course I will. You know I will.”

The weather turns warmer by the day and the people stay out longer to listen to Jin and his amateur band. The money isn't great but it's enough with the other odd jobs for him to keep paying his rent. For the moment. And summer is their best time – all in all, he feels positive about the future. There's a mood of joy and sunshine in the air despite the financial meltdown and he's determined to tap into that. The women who walk by each get their own separate smile as he tempts them to stop for a song or two. He's upstaging everybody else, he knows that, but he's the singer – it's what's expected of him. Ryo makes disgruntled noises between songs and when Jin looks over his shoulder, he receives a sardonic look in return. It makes him laugh.

They play songs they remember from their childhoods, songs that tap into something in people – it's what Jin loves about this job. It's the memories he ignites, it's the sense of mood he can create. It's performance art. It's theatre. And people listen to him, in a way they never do anywhere else. He can be anything he wants to be and people acknowledge it, they're receptive to it. Japan so often defines people without making any effort to understand and music transcends that. Transcends all sorts of boundaries. Jin appreciates that.

Sometimes, Jin's brother Reio bunks off school and comes to watch. It's not something Jin approves of but then he barely went to school, either. Neither of them are academic and sometimes it feels as though all they have is each other. All anybody has is the love they find in their life – everything else is tenuous. Education, money, skills – all of those rest on having a suitable arena in which to deploy them. Love is there from the moment somebody is born and never runs out. Like music.

He wants to write a song about this too someday.

Reio does his bit to support the fledging band, by drumming up interest and stopping people who walk by, inviting them to listen to a song or two. Reio is very into the idea of positive change through music – still so young and so optimistic. He believes that music can heal the whole world, wants to own a shop to sell sunshine, to sell hope and glory and wisecracks. He makes Jin believe in it all too. If nothing else, Reio is a great communicator, a great ray of sunshine. He draws people to him and so also to Jin. Jin thinks about hiring him as a manager. What their mother would say.

They sing three or four songs per set and when Jin looks down into the guitar case, the takings are up on yesterday. He smiles to himself and puts his thumb up behind his back at Ryo. Ryo plays guitar and writes songs that Jin refuses to play, they're too rude and too twisted and it isn't the sort of image he wants for the band. But Ryo above anybody else shares Jin's ambition. Shares his drive to be better and recognises the impact of money on the situation. For the other guys this is just a dream. For Ryo and Jin, it's real. It has to be. They have little else between them. Just love and music.

Emiko leaves the office at lunchtime, having spent most of the morning discussing the length of Kiko's veil. Kiko knows that she's pulled something of a coup in upstaging her sister. Emiko wonders whether she's just doing it in order to silence her mother but it'd be rude to ask and ruder still to expect an answer. Kiko has short black hair so Maki suggests a short veil, something that'll soften the contours of her hexagonal face. Something graceful, something archaic and timeless and lost. Maki is a creature of another time. Maybe they all are.

“I want one so long it trails out behind me,” Kiko had said. “So long behind me. I want to go all out. I want to be the girl people talk about years later – do you remember the girl with that dress?”

A wedding more memorable than a marriage is Emiko's worst nightmare.

She leaves to get lunch for everybody, claiming to need air. Once walking she finds that doesn't want to turn around and go back. The weather is warm enough to justify leaving her coat behind and just going home but she'd almost certainly get written up and, well. People would ask questions, questions she can't answer. She can't work out what the problem is. Why she sees this situation and just wants to run. Why the thought of the calendar turning to August and to white white dresses just makes her want to be sick. She pushes onwards, past the crazed shoppers, the drunken unemployed and the impatient salarymen on their only break of the day. Women carrying coffee piled high, men on 'cell phones. Teenagers squawking at each other and the high bright sound of the adverts on the television screens. A cacophony of sound, a circus of lights. She crosses the street to get away from it, to escape the snappy sentences, the scream of jingles.

Across the street, the world is a bit calmer. The shops are mainly on the right side so on the left there are less people, less adverts, less everything. A more neglected fragment of the city. With the ringing in her ears toning down, she can take a breath and hear it clear her lungs out. She looks across at Starbucks and decides against sandwiches. She has forty minutes to work out what to buy everybody for lunch – first she just wants to calm her own stomach. As she walks slowly along she starts to hear the sound of music. It's soft and warm like sunshine in spring, when winter has gone on so long that its first touches are magical. She slows down curiously, turning her head left and right.

Buskers, she thinks. It's amateur and hopeful, not too slick or too practiced. She listens for a moment, letting the music drift over her. She's not used to listening to music, barely has any at home except jazz. This isn't jazz, it isn't rock, it isn't anything she knows how to categorize. It's just full to the brim of feeling. Of heart. Of something that she can't touch, sense, feel. It has rhythm, it has life, it has everything she imagines a good song should have. Every ingredient. Only it's more than that. She's surprised that they're just busking. They seem more talented than that.

When she walks past, she fishes into her bag for her purse and drops a note into the guitar case. It's not her intention to stop and to stay – she should get on with it. Be a better friend. A better person for Kiko, who deserves the best. Always has, always will. Only the closer she gets, the more the music feels as though it's water in her bones. In her blood. Flooding her heart and her brain – the less ill she feels. The less tired, the less incapable. The calmer her stomach feels. When she looks up, she's looking right into the face of the lead singer.

When he looks down past the microphone, past the guitar he's playing, she finds herself looking right back into his eyes. She forgets that some find this confrontational. She forgets that some find it unpleasant. He has the warmest eyes she's ever seen and she can't help but stare, not whilst the music he's playing is flooding through her body like warm air. He stares back, apparently astonished at the tenacity of her stare.

The song ends or stops somewhat abruptly, one or the other. The man behind the singer steps forward. He's short, stubborn looking. Black hair, dark eyes.

“You still with us,” he says. “Or are you writing a song? Come on, man.”

“Sorry,” the singer says, suddenly realising himself. She stands, startled, blinking the connection broken. Looking around herself, she's suddenly self-conscious. Not a feeling she has very often.

“I was just-” she says, but can't finish the sentence.

“Thanks,” the man says. “For the money. But we have a set to get on with. Come on, Jin.”

“You're being-” the singer, Jin, says.

She moves on, frowning, puzzled. The eyes of the band, of the crowd, are on her back. When she looks back, they seem as perturbed by it as she does. As Jin does. Only a moment seemed to pass and yet. And yet.

“That was fucking rude,” Jin says, to Ryo.

“Hey, so's staring,” Ryo says. “So's letting the crowd down. Where the fuck did you go?”

“Nowhere,” Jin says. “What do you mean?”

“You were staring for five minutes,” Ryo says. “You forgot the words. How can you forget what you just did? It just happened. What the fuck, man. Have you been smoking again?”

“No,” Jin says. “I don't – fuck. Leave it. Let's keep going.”

Emiko walks, searching her mind for anything that would rationalize the moment. She's sure that she hasn't seen that man before but everything about him seemed familiar. Everything about him seemed right. She has the feeling often that she's lived before, but this time it's so strong she can't push it aside. Everybody thinks they've lived before when they're unhappy with the life they're currently leading. It's a form of escapism. It can't be that. Perhaps he's the kind of man she thought of when she was little and other girls planned for the husbands they were going to have. Perhaps he's something she dreamt up, come to life. Perhaps he's just the kind of man she'd like to be with. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Then as if the universe is conspiring to conjure up the strangest day, she sees Reio coming towards her. A smile spreads across her face.

“Emiko,” he says, surprised. He doesn't look awkward as if he wants to be somewhere else, as if he wishes he hadn't seen her. He looks warm as he moves to stand beside her.

“Hi,” she says. “Shouldn't you be in school?”

He grins, sheepishly. “Bunking off,” he says. “Bet you don't approve.”

“Not at all,” she says, laughing. “I guess now I'm enabling you. I'm playing my part just standing here talking to you. I should tell you to go to school this instant.”

“Not likely,” he says. “I said I was a good debater. We can debate it. I'm not going just because you tell me to.”

“I suppose that's smart,” she says. “Not doing what people say, just because they say it. What are you doing instead of school?”

“All sorts,” he says. “Trying to earn some money.”

She looks at him, his soft eyes now minus colour and his strange hair. Suddenly, it clicks. Jin reminds her of Reio, or maybe it's the other way around. Reio's face has been in her mind since that train journey, when she uncharacteristically gave him her telephone number. He made an impression and Jin's uncanny resemblance to Reio is what made her stop. Made her stay. Now it feels as though seeing Jin has brought Reio to life – as though imagining Reio through Jin has made him appear.

“How's your dream going,” she asks. “To own your own shop?”

“Eh,” he says. “Coming along. You're probably wondering why I don't take the train anymore.”

“It had occurred to me,” she says. “Not that – you know. You know what I mean. I don't want you to think I'm interested. You're too young for me. I gave you my card-”

“I didn't call, I know,” he says. “I don't have a 'phone. My folks – we don't have a line. They don't believe in it. And a 'cell, too expensive. Doesn't fit in with my dreams. My first pay-packet, I bought an iPod. I'm just about the music. I don't care for anything else.”

“That's alright,” she says. “I know what you mean.”

“So, the train,” he says. “My parents made me move school. Thought it might help – the last one was too close to my brother's place and I kept staying there. He doesn't live near my parents – it's why I wanted to go there, you know. It felt far away. So they changed my schools and I go home instead, I don't take that train. I still don't go to school, though.”

“I understand,” she says. “Sometimes, family life can be stressful. It might be less so if you went to school. Mothers worry about that sort of thing.”

He makes a face. “I want to learn about business,” he says. “About life. All you learn about at school is what's happened over the course of everything. About history. You just learn about what other people have done. Doesn't exactly encourage you to do anything yourself, you know? Sort of makes you live vicariously.”

“I don't know,” she says. “I liked science as a kid. When I watched the chemistry teacher doing experiments, I wanted to copy them. To change variables, to see if it altered the outcome. Copying helped me. Living vicariously isn't always a bad thing. It all depends on how you use the information you've got.”

“Women are better at that,” he says. “They're used to having to watch and learn. Men are expected to be innovative. To lead.”

“I guess so,” she says. “But plenty of women want to be innovative and lead, and can't.”

“It's a bind whichever way you look at it,” he says.

“Are you a leader?” she asks.

“No,” he says. “I'm a follower. I listen to music and identify trends and every so often, something comes along that's so good it surprises me. That's what I do. I watch musicians change the face of music and I break a bit off and try and sell it to everybody. There's plenty of good music around here. You have good taste – you'd probably like it.”

He's slowly turning away. Trying to show her clumsily that he has other concerns, places to be, maybe she'd like to come too? There's an anxiety in his face that she didn't see on the train. He's worried about letting somebody down. And she should be too. Besides of which - today, today has been surreal enough already.

“I have to get back to work,” she says. “Sorry. Look, I'm not saying go to school but don't stress out your mother. It's hard, being a parent.”

“Are you one?”

“God, no,” she says. “No. But I've got two so I know something about this.”

“Very serious,” he says, and he's mocking her, obviously. “Come and listen to some music with me. You'll like it.”

“No,” she says. “I need to get back. Come on the train sometime, okay?”

“I'll try,” he says. “Gotta convince my brother to let me hang around his place. Not as easy as it seems.”

“Mm,” she says. “Guess not. Call me, then, if you ever get a 'cell phone.”

“For you, anything,” he says, turning around and walking away. She watches him go with a faint sense of discomfort, until he's just a tiny figure in the distance. He stops by the band, whose music she can no longer hear. She wonders whether they'll be the trend he identifies today. Whether that'll be the last she hears from this Jin. Whether her life is ever going to make sense.

Continue to (2), Part Two.

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