Amy Yamada takes notes as a young woman recalls an early lesson
Every one of our bodies gives off some sexual scent. Whether you are beautiful or ugly, it doesn’t matter. There is no denying it. But whether or not you make others aware of it, it changes how you appear. What's more, whether or not you see it as a useful tool changes how often you pause for others. And how often others do for you. At what age does a woman, if she is sexually attracted to men, for example, first experience the bodily sensation of it? I already knew when I was ten. I wasn’t able to express the feeling in words until after a long while, though. When I encountered the word coquet in a French novel, I thought I’d already learned about it through my experience in childhood. A major female character in a Mishima story learned about it so late that she was led to her ruin. I was a high school student then. As an adult now, I’ve learned to chuckle to myself at how the pretense of ignorance can enhance the pleasure of committing a sweet sin wrapped in a lie called sophistication. I still remember from time to time, that if love is a serious game to play, what was it that he and I were doing together twenty years ago? We were playing a serious game. Not on a bench in a park or at a table in a hamburger shop. Our playground was a desk in the social studies resource room at a junior high school.
After work, I was waiting for Hitomi in a café and, after a while, saw her running in with a magazine in her hand. Out of breath.
“What happened?" I said. “You look upset.”
“Yumiko, have a look at this.”
No sooner had Hitomi sat at the table than she opened the magazine. There I recognized a middle-aged man in close-up and held my breath.
“Yumiko, this is Yamamoto, isn’t it? Our junior high school teacher… You remember, right?”
“Indecent assault on a junior high school girl. He’s been doing the same damn thing for twenty years. Bastard!”
“Everybody always said that he was doing obscene things to girls just before we graduated. I remember someone went to talk to the principal, but he wouldn’t take her seriously, saying that Mr. Yamamoto was so nice and gentle that he was just popular with the girls. They’re always good at hiding things. But he wasn’t like that when we just entered the school, was he? He was actually popular. I wonder what on earth changed him into a lecherous old man. Hey, are you listening to me?”
As my eyes were fixed on the magazine, Hitomi looked into my face and asked.
“He did something to you, too?”
I shook my head.
“Then, why are you staring at his picture so hard?”
“Well, back then, Yamamoto was about the same age as we and Shunsuke are now. It feels kind of strange.”
“Don’t put him in the same class as your boyfriend. Shunsuke’s absolutely gorgeous! Aren’t you going to get married? If you don’t do it sooner, someone else will come and steal him from you.”
“Our relationship is not that shaky.”
“How confident you are. Well, you’ve been always the kind of woman who knows how to make a man chase after you. I envy you. I’m always chasing guys and then I get dumped.”
I looked Hitomi, who was taking a sip of her espresso, full in the face. She was a good-natured girlfriend, easy to hang around with. Relaxing. Good-looking. But somehow, I could tell that she, perhaps, just didn’t arouse men’s interest. She didn’t know about the existence of something that floats out of a bottle which lies deep within our bodies, and whose lid is always slightly ajar. The odor secretly rises and sits just beneath our skin, and gets distilled by a particular man. Perfume, which is worn on the surface of our skin and stimulates everybody equally, is too open, in contrast.
“Over thirty and still single. No boyfriend. I’m not like you, Yumiko. I really need somebody to help me out.”
Back then, Yamamoto was thirty-five years old, if I remember right. Married. He was a social-studies teacher. He filled our ears with the basic terms of national and world history, politics, and economics. But the only things that still remain in my memory are the geography lessons. I would open my atlas and daydream. I found the names of countries fascinating. Names of unknown countries are much closer to designs than people’s names. A sequence of names of countries looks like a strange pattern. Flat mountains, still rivers, waveless seas, the world God created made much smaller and deprived of its life. Humans do funny things, I thought every time I opened my atlas. Silly. I was easily distracted—not only in social studies class but also other subjects. I was not leading the kind of school life centered around after-school activities. Surrounded by bland friends, I passed each day without belonging anywhere. I was thirteen. Looking back now, I’m amused. Why was I so bored? Perhaps I was proud of myself for being able to feel bored as I started reading novels, like those of Sagan.
I would spend my time in the library after school every day. Beyond the window, I could see a basketball court. Tall boys were running around, practicing. They would work up a sweat just to put a ball in the basket, which made me think that they were rather cute. Some girls, apparent fans of the captain, cheered him on with their shrill voices. I didn’t understand. They couldn’t all have him. I hated those girls who fancied senior boys and made a fuss about it. Always acting in groups. One boy only has two hands. I already knew love had a significant relation with our bodies. My first love came early. We would walk back home from an English conversation lesson, holding hands. My hand grew sweaty in his hand. We hand-fed each other potato chips. I couldn’t taste the salty flavor at all and thought my tongue was numb. Something new was being born, very different from what I had felt toward boys before. It felt like I’d made an amazing discovery. Someone of a different sex can cause a change in a certain part of our body tied to our hearts. Like the diagram illustrating the sets I’d learned in math class. With that intersection, where two circles overlap. Suddenly things take on a new weight. Mathematics can be cool. I can see the same diagram in those girls cheering and yelling, though they are not aware of its existence at all.
It happened when I tired of looking out of the window, randomly picked up a thick book of painting, and opened it. There I saw an indescribable painting occupying a two-page spread. An abstract painting. I couldn’t tell whether it was angry or sad or smiling. Probably all of these things. Such an overwhelming impression I found stylish. I looked at the picture for quite a while.
“Do you like Picasso?”
I came to myself and looked up. There, I found Yamamoto standing by me and looking into the book.
“Yes. You didn’t know that? This one is called Guernica,” he said and sat down next to me. Turning pages, he explained each painting. I stole a glance at him as he continued his passionate explanations. The setting sun reflected off his glasses and dazzled my eyes. “The Blue Period,” he said. A strand of hair that fell across his forehead was gilded with the evening sun. “The Blue Period” slipped out of my Picasso.
“Where is he from?” I said.
Yamamoto looked confused by my sudden question.
In the world map in my mind, this country name suddenly rose up from the page. This country—Spain—had given birth to this magnificent painter.
When I came back home, I found Shunsuke relaxing, reading on the sofa. Two years earlier we had exchanged spare keys so that we could see each other whenever we liked. He asked for reassurance that he needed to make no appointment to see me.
“Why didn’t you let me know you were coming? I could have come back much earlier.”
Shunsuke looked up from a book he was reading and laughed.
“If I’d asked you to come back early, you definitely wouldn’t do so. I know that.”
“You may be right.”
I held him close and kissed him. Whenever he feels my breath on his face, his lips instantly wander around looking for mine. Having a key to my place never makes him take things for granted. A rare kind of man.
“Do you know much about law?”
“What kind of question is that for a lawyer?”
“Say, if someone assaults a junior high school girl and gets arrested, how many years in jail would it be?”
“Charged with assault, or indecent assault?”
“Well, it’s usually from six months to seven years of imprisonment, but in most cases, they prefer to settle. If a victim doesn’t want to go to court, nothing can be done. A school would keep it quiet. But why do you . . . ah, this is about the teacher in the magazine. That one is awful, and so many victims.”
“He was my teacher in junior high.”
“Oh. Did he do anything to you?” he asked in a humorous tone. I shrugged my shoulders in disbelief. Did HE do anything to me? No way. I’ve never been passive in any relationship. The same was true when I was thirteen.
“He was as old as you are when he taught us. Have you ever been sexually attracted to teenagers?”
He said this and then gently pushed me onto the sofa.
“But I might have been attracted to you in your teens. After all, what matters to me is not age, if you’re a girl or an adult, but only if it’s you or not.”
“Don’t make me cry.”
“Cry for me.” he sighed. His body seemed programmed to recline toward me. He is crazy about making love to me. “Only if it’s you or not.” His words made me cry. A man who makes me feel I’m special. Adorable. The teacher told me the same thing. Yumiko, you are different from other students. You’re special.
“Shunsuke, do you like making love to me?”
“I love it.”
He stared back at me, perplexed. How was it he could look so vulnerable? I can’t believe it when I think of how guarded he is when he’s off to work. When he is with me, however, he always lets his guard down. His public face seems to melt and float away. What remains is a man who wags his tail out of sheer joy. I have the key to the room where his reason lies. When the door opens, reason flees. This key is useful. Different from spare apartment keys. I can undo his tie without using my hands. I can make him unbutton my shirt, too.
He was the one who locked the social studies resource room, and I made him do it. I knew that Yamamoto prepared for classes in the resource room after school. I would pass by the room as often as possible with no particular purpose, waiting for a chance to bump into him. When the idea hit me that I had taken on the role of a girl who had a crush on a teacher, I almost burst into laughter. I just wanted to look at him. And I wanted him to look at me, too. But not in the way he looked at many other students in the classroom.
My chance finally came. When Yamamoto was about to leave his office, he saw me just outside the door. I gave him a polite nod and looked him in the eye.
“Hi . . . haven’t you gone home yet?” I peeped in through the door.
“Is there anything you need?”
“Could I have a look around inside?”
Yamamoto nodded. Documents were scattered around the tiny room. I could smell dust amid the orderly bookshelves. Spinning a globe on the desk in the corner, I cast my gaze out the window.
“You can see the outside from here, too. From outside, nobody can even tell this room exists.
“Why was it you wanted to have a look around? You never seemed especially interested in my social studies class.”
I turned around and looked into his eyes. He gave me a questioning look.
“I want to be your favorite.”
“What? What did you just say?”
He didn’t seem to have understood what I’d said. He didn’t know what to do. He just stood there, as though glued to that spot, and I liked it. If he had burst into laughter, I would have hated him.
“You’re Miss Shimizu, right? Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes, please. And you can just call me Yumiko.”
“Yes, that way it sounds more like I’m your favorite.”
With a wry smile on his face, Yamamoto switched on an electronic kettle and put some instant coffee and sugar in a mug. He left out the milk. I murmured to myself and kept looking at his hands.
“I was happy to learn that Picasso is a Spanish painter.”
“But it was France that made him what he became.”
“I see. Countries can do a lot of things, like people.”
“Well, people make countries.”
He handed me the mug. A bitter and sweet taste spread across my mouth.
“To tell you the truth, this is my first time drinking coffee. My father loves coffee, but he never allows us to have it.”
“Oh, then, you’ll get it if he finds out.”
“Probably. So let’s just keep this between us.”
“Is that also part of being my favorite?”
I smiled at him. He took off his glasses and wiped the lenses with his handkerchief. I had made an impression, I was certain, because the coffee wasn’t hot enough to cloud the glasses.
“Desire reflects desire, doesn’t it? That’s why I like you so much.”
Shunsuke’s eyes looked as though he were deep in thought. Even more so than when they were scanning though legal briefs, which I found funny. In such a situation, thought and reason shouldn’t really come into play. But come to think of it, even animals’ gazes often look pensive. But it’s likely they’re not contemplating anything. Does pure instinct always give us a pensive look?
“What do you mean by reflect? It’s unusual that you use such an abstract word.”
Shunsuke flashed a shy smile. When we first met, he seemed like a square who wanted nothing to do with romance, but I feel he has been changing since he met me. An unromantic type can be sexy just as he is, but when a guy like that casts an undisguised gaze of desire on me alone, I can feel my skin burning, as though by rays of the sun refracted by a magnifying glass. These burns nearly go unnoticed, but they’re serious. It’s a real talent to be able to focus on one woman. I also want to possess such talent. So I focus on one man. I focus my gaze of fervent desire on a single man, my eyes burning his skin.
“I don’t know why,” Shunsuke whispered as he kissed me, “but I’m attracted to you, and you’re attracted to me in the same way. I know that. I don’t know why this happened to you and me, but I sure do love this combination.”
There’s a uniquely special atmosphere between us. We gaze at each other and breathe in. Oxygen only two of us can inhale.
I stopped being absentminded in social studies class and began to pay attention, sitting up straight, which of course flustered Yamamoto. He knew that I wasn’t interested in what was being taught but who was teaching it.
I stared at him constantly. I probably even felt desire for him. Of course, it wasn’t that my thirteen-year-old self wanted to sleep with him. I was just starving to get involved. I craved a different kind of treatment from other teacher’s pets. I refused to simply be one of the favored. I longed to be his favorite. Like a charm attached to your keyring that makes you restless if you leave it behind.
Going to the resource room after school became part of my daily routine. The atmosphere escaping the room each time he opened the door grew increasingly confidential. The door made a secretive sound, intended only to welcome in his favorite student. He didn’t want anybody to know, I could tell, and I liked that. I’ve always loved secrets.
At the beginning, we made small talk over coffee. He maintained a certain distance between us to keep me away from him, which only drew me closer to him. Like a toy air gun that makes a popping sound. It felt like my feelings for him were bundled into a tiny projectile that flew straight toward him.
One day, he offered me another cup of coffee. I said I’d make it myself and stood up.
“Mr. Yamamoto, how much sugar do you take?”
I knew he took two spoonfuls of sugar, but feigned ignorance. And I didn’t put any in the coffee I made for him. He took a sip and immediately frowned. He looked like a child after being forced to take bitter medicine. I suddenly felt a sort of kindness grow within me. This was the moment I learned that evil thoughts can make bring about acts of kindness.
“Here. You can have some sugar.”
I brought a heaping spoonful of sugar to his mouth. He blankly opened his mouth. When someone brings a spoon to your mouth, you don’t ask questions, you open it.
“Syrup for a patient who can’t stand bitter medicine.”
I pulled the spoon out of his mouth. On his lips were a few remaining grains of sugar. I held out the sugar bowl to him and said, “Give me some, too.”
So he did. Sweet. The moment I felt so, I heard the spoon drop on the floor. Being kissed by him, I realized that a kiss is to get things started.
He pulled his lips from mine and said, “Go home now.”
I obeyed. I didn’t mind going. Because things had already begun. I calmed down. I thought about his lips. They were drawn to mine like magnets. I wondered if he wanted another spoonful of sugar. The idea made me laugh. The next time he started talking about the Taika Reform, I didn’t know what to do. I could hardly stifle my laughter.
“What did you talk about with Hitomi today?” Sunsuke asked, urging me into the bedroom. I followed him with a cigarette in one hand and an unfinished bottle of wine in the other.
“Nothing really. She was recounting the sorrows of a thirty-three-old single woman’s life.”
“You’re no different, are you?”
“Well, she doesn’t see it that way, because I have a lawyer boyfriend,” I said and gave a very sarcastic smile.
“I find her hard to deal with. Do you remember when we went out together for a meal, you left the table for a while? She repeated how much she envied you and dared to ask me to introduce some lawyer to her. If I have some doctor friends, she wouldn’t mind them, either, she said. I just don’t understand.”
“Well, perhaps she’s aroused by the letters L and R in ‘lawyer.’”
Our eyes met, and we burst into laughter.
“I don’t find that type of woman sexy. There are so many of them out there who choose men according to their professions, but they don’t arouse me. My Law.”
“Perhaps, they make good wives. A lot of men like that kind of woman, too.”
“I don’t. Because I’ve got to know the type of women who are like you, Yumiko. It’s addictive.”
“If we break up, you’ll look for someone like me?”
Shunsuke fell down on his back in the bed with both his hands on his heart.
“Don’t say such a thing. But maybe I will. And then I’ll end up finding no such woman and give up on my life. That’d be really sad. Yumiko, don’t leave me, please.”
“I won’t. You’re so sweet. Your value lies in the fact that you’re rare: a sexy lawyer who's wild in bed.”
“Am I really? I guess so… I can never wait to go to bed.”
I sit down beside Shunsuke, who is lying down on the bed, and caress his hair over wine. I won’t leave you, and you won’t leave me. If we ever break up, it will be when one of us has completely used the other up. When either of us feels the other has taken everything we had to give. We have a long way to go before such a feeling might come around. And I’ve learned how to control this as an adult. I want to be his magnet always.
What was it that thirteen-year-old me wished to have? To make adults forget what they’ve learned. Or to turn a grown man into a child. Many people would consider a thirteen-year-old a child. Then is a thirty-five really grown-up? It’s easy to cast off your age. Like a coat you throw off when you can’t bear the heat of your body. I’ll pick it up and put it on. And wait impatiently for myself to grow into it.
It didn’t take much time before word spread that I was Yamamoto’s favorite. I found it amusing when I felt a jealous girl’s eyes on me. His favorite? Much more than that. You’d die if you knew what he did to me in the resource room.
Yamamoto would sit me on the desk in the room. The first time he unbuttoned my white uniform shirt, his fingers trembled. Day by day, more buttons came undone. Button by button, he let out a deep sigh. He sat down on the chair and buried his face in my knees.
“Yumiko, tell me to stop and this will all come to an end.”
That kiss had started everything, I thought. But I was wrong. A kiss somewhere beside the lips was the real beginning. I didn’t resist. Because it was him, not anybody else. I didn’t realize that I was stepping into a sexual world. It came as a surprise to know how a man touched my body. It was unthinkable that he was committing a crime. Because there was no pain in any part of my body.
Once he held me up and sat me on a world map that was open on the desk. I felt the cool paper through my underwear.
“Am I sitting on Spain?”
He laughed at my words.
“Farther north. Around France.”
“So I’m coming of age in France? Just like Picasso.”
He took my shirt off and laid me down.
“With you, Mister, I can be a world traveler even on paper.”
It wasn’t that I knew how to play the coquette. I was simply using what was effective. I don’t think I was exceptional for my age. Any woman knows more or less how to sweetly peck away at a man. I didn’t think I was too young to be there. Female animals attract male ones within a few years of birth. Insects can do it within several days. I was somewhat closer to them than others. The more we deviate from human behavior, the more people like to call it crime. For which we’ve created something concrete called punishment. However, have crime and punishment ever been of equal weight? A child with no judgment, people would have called me. However, I was able to judge which man to let through. I let him kiss me. I let him embrace me. I let him take my shirt off and lay me down on a world map. His eyes looked as if he were conducting a science experiment. His lips drew circles like those in math sets. His sighs and deep breaths taught me how our bodies worked. The grammar of sweet words. Sentences required no subject. Even without it, it was clear who was praising whom. The hours allotted for our private lessons left no time to fill. He would murmur “Why,” “how come we . . . ?” I didn’t know the answer. All I knew was that people repeatedly ask themselves their own question after, but not before they commit a crime.
Shunsuke held my hand, which was caressing his hair, and took it to his lips. Why do we place our lips on things we like?
“It’s nice to feel aroused and at peace at the same time. You make me feel that way. No ploys or games to play. I like women who never lie about what they want.”
“Aroused and at peace? Sounds like a kid playing with his toys.”
I kissed him on the back. I could feel the smell of my own body. Adorable. He is like a little boy with his shirt hanging out.
“Shall we do it again?” he said.
“Yes. You have no right to say no.”
I burst out laughing. I liked the feeling of having my right taken away by a man I love. The moment I feel I have surrendered to one human being, I have an orgasm. When I handed him a spare key, I felt the satisfaction of giving something up.
After-school hours spent with Yamamoto came to an end after a year. I stopped going to the resource room. It was just that simple. When we passed each other, he looked at me with longing. Every time I felt repulsion welling up deep inside and wondered why. I had felt so attracted to him. He didn’t force me into anything. He knew that if he took me to the room, then this time I would scream. I started going out with a boy, one of the classmates I had thought little of until then. It was fun. A kiss made it special the same way as it had with him. Then, I locked the resource room of my own accord.
“I won’t be able to get away from the world with you, Yumiko,” he says and pushes me down again. I recall having heard the same words a long time ago. I try to retrieve the memories, but then I seal them up. Whenever a cold sheet absorbs the heat of my body and becomes warm, the world still suddenly becomes mine.
© Amy Yamada. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Yuri Komuro. All rights reserved.