Hot Spring

Hoshi Onsen

"Is that snow?" Lisa leans toward the window to ease the weight from her tingling feet. She can sit with her legs tucked properly beneath her for quite a while now, given a few short breaks to restore the circulation.

Yuji only smiles. Of course it's snow.

In Tokyo, the cherries were in full leaf, but as the train brought them north into the mountains, the year folded back on itself. Beyond the concrete clutter of the suburban towns, blossoms lingered, airy brush strokes of pink scattered over pale green mountains. On the bus winding up to the hot spring inn, new foliage gave way to a forest of cedars, rising sharp and straight into the cold air. And now it is snowing. The delicate flakes disappear in the vapors of steam around the bath house across the river before they even hit the water.

The rattle of the sliding door at the entryway announces the maid's return with a thermos of hot water for their tea. Kneeling at the table, she measures tea leaves and water into the brown clay pot, then sets out tea bowls and plates of the local sweet bean pastry wrapped in cellophane. Lisa knows Yuji will grudgingly buy a box as a souvenir for his office before they leave tomorrow.

Their maid is chatty, with the broad features and cold-reddened cheeks of a country woman. Exclaiming about the late snowfall, she pulls woolen haori jackets from the closet for them to wear down to the bath and inquires with a smile if the gaijin-san might prefer a larger cotton robe, although the one Lisa wears obviously fits her short, slender body perfectly.

Lisa lets Yuji reply. She enjoys the low, gruff confidence his voice takes on when he speaks his own language. Sometimes—now, for example—she abandons the effort of understanding and lets the conversation flow around her like music.

Suddenly Yuji reaches over and rests his fingers on her sleeve. The starched coolness of her robe softens beneath his touch. Yes, she eats Japanese food, he assures the woman patiently, even raw fish. To Lisa's surprise, he leaves his hand there, stroking her forearm absently with his thumb. The maid pretends not to notice, bowing as she backs out of the room.

This is what it would be like if we were married, Lisa thinks. It isn't true, of course—such self-indulgent displays of affection are more suited to a mistress than a wife—but this rare gesture of possessiveness makes her light-hearted, even . In Tokyo Yuji always maintains a careful distance between them, even in front of their friends.

It used to be so easy to reach for his hand across the table in the Berkeley cafe where they met for their language exchange, she a college senior with a late-blooming interest in Japanese, he an engineering grad student with a job waiting at an elite company. And it was easy to agree when he suggested, with charming indirection, that living in Japan would be the best way to improve her vocabulary. He took her hand then. Surely she didn't imagine it--that slight, but unmistakeable pressure on the ring finger of her left hand?

It hasn't been easy spending long evenings in their tiny apartment waiting for him to come home from work. And it took months to persuade him to take a whole weekend off so they could come to this place deep in the mountains, "an inn with the charm of bygone days," her guidebook said, in the hope that they could recapture the sweetness of the past.

They are crossing the enclosed passageway over the river to the bath when Yuji warns her about the kappa, water goblins that lurk under bridges waiting for pretty young women to walk by. He tells her this in the mock professorial tone he always used in the early days to explain quaint Japanese customs and beliefs. It is another good sign.

Lisa pauses to look down at the river rushing beneath them. "I'll have to be careful," she says, playing along. "What does a kappa look like?"

"Like an ordinary salaryman, except he always wears green. But if you look carefully, you can see a small saucer on the top of his head. It's filled with a liquid that gives him magical powers."

Holding back a smile, she tilts her head to inspect Yuji's rich black hair.

"What happens if he catches me?"

"It's too shocking for a young maiden's ears."

They both laugh. Their shoulders touch as they gaze out into the mountain dusk. The snow is still falling, settling in thin patches of white on the rocks along the riverbank.

At the sound of footsteps behind them, Lisa turns. A mournful-looking maid is leading a group of middle-aged men to the guest rooms. Obviously business colleagues, the men talk quietly among themselves, though, predictably, each glances first at Lisa, then with more interest and a touch of envy at Yuji. All of this happens discreetly, a mere flicker of the eye. It is understood that couples come to such places to disappear.

The last man, strolling behind with an unhurried, patrician air, doesn't even look up. He is wearing a dark green raincoat.

Lisa and Yuji exchange an amused glance.

"I wonder where this kappa story came from?" she asks.

His smile fades as he looks back out over the river. "Probably some unmarried village girl who got pregnant," he replies slowly as if he somehow shares in that girl's sad fate.

The main bath is everything the guidebook promised. Constructed entirely of wood, the room is grand in scale. A pool-sized sunken bath, divided into four by narrow walkways, stretches out beneath the vaulted ceiling, and the arched, wooden-slatted windows facing the river glow with the milky light of a past century.

Only one thing is different. In the guidebook, a lone young woman draped in a blue towel sits dangling her feet into the water, her expression dreamy and complacent, as if she has just gotten out of bed with a man. But today, the bath is teeming with guests, clusters of men mostly, but entire families as well. A girl is chasing her younger brother back and forth across the walkways, completely unconscious of her nakedness, and two plump middle-aged women chat together in the far corner, holding small white towels over their breasts.

"This is just like old Japan," Lisa whispers.

"Yes, it is," Yuji says. He seems pleased.

She steps into the room and starts unfastening her sash.

Yuji catches her elbow and pulls her back. He no longer looks pleased.

"I thought you were looking forward to the mixed bathing," she protests. The naked girl runs past them, giggling.

"I'm sure the women's bath is nice, too."

Lisa looks away. Yuji once told her a Japanese couple needs no words between them. Imagining their quarrel before it happens, Lisa thinks, must surely count as a step in the right direction.

She feels his lips at her ear. "We'll come back again late tonight."

The promise in his voice makes it easier. As she expected, the women's bath is much smaller, an ordinary room with a round wooden tub in one corner, a single narrow window set high in the wall. But an old-fashioned lantern casts a soft golden light, and all at once this woman's space seems less an exile than a refuge, the moist air soothing the tightness in her shoulders like a reassuring hand.

She rinses off with one of the wooden buckets stacked by the doorway, then sits on the edge of the bath. Dipping her feet in the steaming, faintly sulphurous water, she tilts her face towards an imaginary camera to practice that languid smile.

Dinner is a feast of carp and trout from the river and sober-hued mountain vegetables. Again Lisa takes secret pleasure in playing the wife, sculpting each bowlful of rice she serves Yuji into a perfect mound, the way his mother does. After the maid clears away the dinner dishes and lays out two thick futons, Yuji takes spring water and a miniature bottle of whiskey from the mini-bar. They have already shared three flasks of sake, but Lisa says nothing. Instead she suggests they watch a pay-per-view movie.

He lifts his eyebrows. "I didn't know you liked that kind of thing."

"Didn't you tell me the Japanese come to hot springs to enjoy all the physical pleasures?"

He smiles.

The inn's antiquated charms extend to its porno movies, and first Lisa must collect hundred-yen coins from her purse to feed into the slot in a box next to the television. The first vignette is about a skinny, limp-wristed man who kidnaps two school girls, trusses them up from the ceiling beams in his secret lair and drips candle wax on their naked bodies. The girls twist and moan in apparent ecstasy. Yuji watches impassively, then returns to the mini-bar to get another whiskey.

Lisa's mind begins to wander. She remembers a conversation they had back in school on one of those endlessly delicious cafe afternoons. Yuji was explaining that S and M porn was so popular in Japan because it reflected the strict hierarchical organization of the society as a whole. "After all," he said with a thin smile, "we have an entire verb tense called the 'suffering passive.'"

She drops more coins into the box. In the next episode, a flirtatious secretary offers to stay late to help her boss with an important project. Before long, the older man is taking the woman from behind on the carpet, his glasses fogging, her unusually large breasts jiggling with each thrust as she cries, "Harder, harder Honorable Mr. Section Chief." Yuji turns off the television, although they have a few more minutes on the last coin.

"Reminds me of work," he says.

Then she suggests they go down to the bath again, but he tells her he's not in the mood.

"I'll go by myself then," Lisa teases. "Maybe I'll get lucky and catch a kappa."

He grabs her hand as she passes and pulls her down next to him. She can smell the whiskey on his breath. "The kappa catches you," he reminds her. His eyes glitter.

In one quick motion he pulls her robe from her shoulders. She wonders if those silly movies affected him more than he let on.

"Too bad I didn't save any of the sashimi from dinner," she murmurs, her eyelids heavy with the pleasure of his lips on her skin.

"Hmm?"

"I'd lay it out all over my naked body like a sushi bar."

"You Americans think all Japanese men are perverts," he says between kisses.

But then he begins moving his tongue in delicate strokes over her right breast as if he is indeed savoring the flavor of her flesh. Yuji is thorough in all he does. It keeps him late at the office, but serves him well as a lover. He turns his attention to her left nipple, which he knows is more sensitive, tugging gently with his lips, brushing his tongue over the tip.

He coaxes her forward onto her hands and knees. She collapses, legs tucked under, forehead resting on her hands. A strange memory glimmers behind her eyelids: Yuji's tiny grandmother kneeling on the tatami floor, her head bobbing over her hands in greeting, a blotchy scalp showing through wisps of white hair. It was the first time Lisa had ever seen a formal bow.

Yuji lifts her hips and pushes her robe up to her waist. She hears a rustle of cloth as he loosens his own sash, slides into her wetness. This is the way they fit together best. When she's ready, as she is tonight, he doesn't even have to reach around to caress her. She gives herself up to the sensations fanning out over her back and belly to images of bobbing heads and heavy, brown-tipped breasts swaying, the music of her own moans intermingled with dark, distant laughter. "Harder, harder, Honorable Mr. Section Chief" she almost cries as she comes, bracing herself as he does indeed move harder and faster, then collapses over her, covered with a fine sweat.

They rest there a moment in silence.

"That was so good. It's still good, isn't it?" she whispers, ashamed of the lingering need in her voice.

He murmurs something into her hair. It sounds like "yes." But then he rolls onto his back and lies staring at the ceiling. A few minutes later he gets up and takes out another bottle of whiskey—the big one.

By eleven o'clock he is curled up on his futon, asleep. He looks like a child, his eyelashes thick and dark, his mouth a touch petulant. Lisa replaces the cap on the half-empty bottle of whiskey. It strikes her that while they both came here to escape, he has done so without her.

The corridors are silent except for a faint chorus of drunken singing from a faraway room. The main bath is empty, too, dimly lit by the pedestal lanterns in each corner. She undresses quickly and places her robe and towel on one of the wooden shelves at the entrance. Defiantly she slips into the water without washing first.

The heat soon goes to her head like sweet liquor. With the bleary, skeptical eyes of a drunk, she stares down at her own white breasts floating just below the water line, her pubic hair swaying idly like an exotic red seaweed. Alone, she can even imagine she belongs here. The water dissolves all difference—her femaleness, her foreignness.

When she looks up again, an older man is there. She is too drowsy to feel alarm, only wonder that he managed to come into the bath so quietly. He sits in the far corner about ten feet away, gazing casually over her left shoulder, not-seeing her, in keeping with the etiquette of mixed bathing.

Her eyes carefully averted, Lisa studies him in return. In spite of his age—late fifties at least—his shoulders are still muscular, the skin burnished in the amber shadows. Beneath the small white towel, which he wears folded on top of his head the way Japanese men often do in the bath, she glimpses thick salt and pepper hair.

"You look like someone I know." He speaks first in flawless English, his voice soft, courtly. She recognizes the type: a cultivated man, usually a teacher or a scholar, who can quote obscure passages from Shakespeare.

She smiles without meeting his eyes. She's often been told by Japanese that she looks like Marilyn Monroe or Brooke Shields.

"No, you really do," he says.

Lisa glances at him, startled. He can't possibly know what she's thinking. And she certainly doesn't know him. To her he looks much like any other attractive older man she's seen on the streets of Tokyo, with that same square-shouldered confidence that comes from a lifetime of male privilege.

The man smiles, showing healthy white teeth with a twinkling of gold. He seems closer now. "She was my English teacher in my last year of middle school. A few years after the war. Miss Anne Davison. She was a very beautiful lady. Hair just your color. I thought she was an angel."

Lisa smiles again, politely. No doubt he's been drinking, too. She doesn't really mind his reminiscences, but out of habit, she begins to fashion an excuse to go back upstairs and slip into bed beside Yuji's warm body.

"Now the angels have come down from heaven to marry our young men," he says. "Is your husband asleep?"

She frowns, unsure how to answer. He must have seen her earlier this evening with Yuji. If he really were reading her thoughts, though, he would know they weren't married. "Yes, he is," she says. It's the easiest thing to say.

The man raises one eyebrow slightly as if amused by her lie. "Ah, yes, he is very tired. A Japanese salaryman must work very hard. He has no time for playing. No time for dreams."

"No, he doesn't. You're right." Her voice sounds too eager, but she is grateful for the sympathy. Her own friends have grown impatient with her American complaints. Take on more English conversation students, they say, study the tea ceremony. A busy life is best.

He narrows his eyes, still smiling. "But a young woman who travels very far from her home has many dreams, I think. Do you like—how do you say it—'adventure?'"

Again she pauses. Is this a come-on or an English lesson? Still, she enjoys the attention, the compliments. It's been a long time.

"Yes, that's what we say," she replies, unable to restrain a smile of her own. "'Adventure.'"

He only smiles and says nothing, gazing steadily at her. She thinks of leaving, but hesitates. With a towel she could make a modest exit, but she left hers back at the entrance. A foreigner's mistake.

"You must drink the water before you go. Have you tried it?" The man gestures behind him to a small faucet at the edge of the tub, several tin cups neatly stacked beside it. She hadn't noticed it before.

She shakes her head.

He turns and fills two cups from the tap, then glides across the bath with barely a ripple in the water.

"The water here is very healing," he says, offering her a cup and raising his own in a toast.

Lisa takes a sip. Beneath the rotten egg of the sulfur, she tastes minerals, a hint of earth. It takes an effort to swallow, but her throat does feel pleasantly warm. The man drains his cup in three gulps, sets it on the ledge and sinks down into the water a few feet away. Oddly she feels comfortable sitting beside him. It reminds her of the fleeting intimacy of fellow passengers chatting on a train.

"A Japanese salaryman must work hard," the man says, nodding to his own words. "But I think it is hard for the woman, too. She is waiting. Always waiting."

"Sometimes it seems that's all I do," she admits.

"To Americans, a Japanese wife is weak, but you know well, I think, that inside she is strong."

"Actually Yuji and I aren't married." The words slip out. Her tongue seems looser since she drank the water.

He inclines his head toward her. "Yes. But you want to be his wife. To me that is the same."

She meets his eyes for the first time. Their color is odd, a very light, almost amber, brown. "We'll never get married," she replies. It is, she realizes, the truth.

The eyes flicker, with sympathy, a touch of sadness, as if he already knows this, too. "But, you see, a dream is very powerful. In Japan long ago, a lady could not go out to meet her lover. She had to wait for him behind a screen of beautiful cloth, away from the eyes of the world. But she could visit him in her dream. If the feeling in her heart was strong." He touches his chest with his fingertips, a tender gesture.

Lisa agrees the Japanese way, a low humming sound. It was indeed a feeling in her heart that brought her to this foreign place, but now her chest feels hollow, washed clean of passion or pain. She tries to remember Yuji's face, but the features blur and fade.

"It seems like yesterday to me," the man continues in a low, confiding tone. "Miss Davison came from the American school twice a week to teach us English. But she also came to me once in my dream. I was so young, I knew nothing of women. We were in a bath, wide as a river. She took me in her arms. They were slippery like molasses syrup, and she pulled me under the water. Down, down. When I awoke I was still wet."

It takes a moment to understand the meaning of his words. Suddenly her lips feel tight, frozen in their smile.

"For years I had my wife and children, a mistress or two to occupy my time, but now that I'm older she visits me again." His voice softens to a murmur, his eyes close.

I'll go now, she thinks. If I get out of the water, everything will be the way it was before.

"Please." He opens his eyes and leans toward her, one hand outstretched. "I know you must return to your own country soon, but I would be honored if you let me be your humble servant for this night."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she laughs, although she does. She's found humor—and a quick getaway—the best way to fend off a drunk Japanese man. But when she tries to get up, the water suddenly takes on more substance, like flesh.

"I know how to make love to you now," he whispers.

The contraction low in her belly suggests her body believes him.

"I'm not your Miss Davison," she protests, but her voice is weaker, uncertain.

"Excuse me, I forgot myself. You want to be a Japanese wife. And that is different."

Something smooth glides over her leg. Instinctively she twists away, but fingers tighten around her thigh, pulling her back and down. Panic numbs her body, but clears her head. She sees, with perfect clarity, the lines of wood grain at the edge of the tub dip and swell like waves, hears a single drop of condensed steam fall from the ceiling above. And she feels, within the clutch of fear, a stirring: the cooler lust of curiosity. Could this be what she came here to find? It's a simple exchange, one dream for another. And from there she knows it's not far to that other, boundless world where it doesn't matter who it is or what it means.

With a long, slow breath, she relaxes into his grip.

"That's right," he says softly, "You must gaman, gaman—endure—but soon you will find pleasure in it."

She glances up at his face. The towel has slipped to his shoulders.

"Will I?" she asks.

He tilts his head forward, half nod, half bow. The crown of his head is bare, like a monk's tonsure, and moist. In the semi-darkness, it shimmers like crystal, and Lisa can see there a strange and fractured image of her own face.

Snow still falls as she makes her way back to the room. Only the slow tapping of her slippers on the wooden floor disturbs the deep mountain silence. She is cold now, and sore, but she lingers in the corridor. She did find pleasure in the end. A wife's duty, the man said with his twinkling smile, though Yuji would surely call it something else.

And what will she call it? An adventure? A departure? A dream strong enough to reach out with a smooth, slippery hand? Like the village girl with the faint smell of the river on her skin, she must find her own way to tell the tale imprinted on her body. Before the enchantment disappears.

Published in Prairie Schooner Winter 2002