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Post Road Magazine #35

The First Time

Jason Villemez

Daigo checks his watch when he arrives. The building stands on a typical Osaka block filled with ramen joints and thrift clothing shops. A dim neon sign hangs above a black wooden door. There are no windows, and the only thing on the front wall is a dirty banner with the words Beer, Wine, Spirits. Nobody is loitering outside. It’s midnight, and he wishes he were anyplace else.

The first person he sees is a man dressed in black, arms crossed, leaning against the bar. Daigo nods in his direction. There will be no disturbances here tonight, at least on Daigo’s end. The bouncer can rest easy. Half the tables in the main room are occupied. Most of the customers are men sitting alone, sake glasses in hand, staring vacantly at the TV in the corner. Daigo recognizes none of them, though he feels a sort of kinship, a camaraderie fueled by loneliness. He doesn’t go out much, especially to downtown places like this. Sometimes his younger colleagues will invite him to a bachelor party or end-of-semester gathering. They tell him that he should loosen up and have a few drinks with them, sing some karaoke and ogle the pretty girls, but he declines every time. Such scenes make him uncomfortable. He fears that he’ll embarrass himself, that he’ll lose track of his inhibitions and offend someone.

He spots a woman standing at a podium. She seems unfazed by the noise; her eyes remain fixed on the end of the bar, on the waitresses who come and go and the drinks they take with them. She’s wearing black pants and a pink blouse with her name stitched onto the collar. Mama. Lady of the house.

“I'd like a private room,” Daigo says.

“You have to buy a whole bottle of something.”

“That’s fine.”

She types into a computer and motions for him to follow. They make their way down a hallway flanked by opaque glass doors with red privacy lights mounted atop each. At the end of the corridor is a shoji screen with a plaque that reads Staff Only. They turn into one of the small, carpeted rooms. The furnishings are meager: a glass table and black leather couch against the wall, a TV and karaoke machine mounted in front. Mirrors line the sides. The air reeks of disinfectant and the carpet holds a history of stains.

Daigo removes his coat and bag and hangs them on the back of the door. Under the room lights he can see the woman more clearly. She’s not wearing any makeup and her skin looks pale, as if she hasn’t been outside in weeks or hails from somewhere far up north. Her lips are pursed, taut. She makes no effort to smile.

“What’s your order?” she asks.

“Something local.”

“We have plenty of sake and barley wine.” She opens up the menu for him and he quickly points to the first thing she suggests. He tells her that he’ll order more as the night progresses.She writes down his selection on a small notepad. “And your name?”

“Akira,” Daigo says.

She explains the rules of the house. “The private room charge is four thousand yen an hour. Girls will come in and talk to you. The talking's free, to a point. This is not a therapy session. Everything else costs money. You want her to sing or dance, you pay. You want to touch her over her clothes, you pay. Anything else and you have to come talk to me directly.” She pauses for a moment to give him time to catch up, to let him comprehend what she has said. “If a girl gets bored with you, or you don't make it worth her while, she'll leave. Maybe she'll come back. Probably not. There are peppermints in every room. Those are free, so your breath can smell nice for the girls. You pay for any other food you order.”

Daigo nods and says he understands. She dims the lights before exiting. A few minutes later a younger woman comes in carrying a bottle and an ice bucket. She's wearing the same outfit as Mama, but it fits better on her, accentuating her hips, legs, chest. Her eyelashes have something shiny on them and her cheeks are caked with foundation. She closes the door, slinks over to the table, and pours a glass of his wine.

“So what's going on tonight, Akira?”

Daigo takes a sip and grimaces. The wine tastes like piss. He should have ordered sake instead.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” he asks.

“What are you thinking?”

He stares at the fabric on the floor. When he finally remakes eye contact with the woman, she slides up to him and straddles one of his legs. She stands there for a moment, her chest two feet away from his face, and takes a seat on his knee. He turns his head to the side. Her perfume makes him cough.

“Stop.”

“A lot of people say that.” She pulls the neckline of her shirt down to reveal a bit of her bra. “But I don’t think you want me to.”

“I’m not lying. I just want to relax. It was a rough day.”

“Tell me about it. What happened?” She turns his head back towards her chest and pushes him against the wall. He squirms, trying to break free. “You’re a big man,” she says, cupping his bicep. She lets him go and sits on the other end of the couch.

“I spent too long at work,” he says. “I just left an hour ago.”

The girl looks at him pitifully and inquires further. Was he finishing a big project? Was he trying to impress his boss? His lover? Shall she help him work through his troubles? She’s good at telling jokes, she says. Daigo remains calm and detached through the onslaught. Her coquetry does nothing for him. He knows that she is having trouble figuring him out, what he’s all about, what he does for a living. He is not as large as a sumo wrestler but is built more generously than most Japanese men. Sometimes people guess that he’s a gym teacher. They’re close. Right profession, wrong subject. The girl has made no such connection. When she probes him about his job he fakes a story about an office lined with cubicles and walls of paperwork. He says he runs numbers for a large corporation and that the work is without end. She asks what sort of company it is and if he likes it there. “Doesn’t matter,” is his answer to both.

“Why doesn’t anything matter to you? Are you depressed? Dying?”

“No, I’m not,” Daigo says.

He tries to conjure something more to say. It would have been easier for him to make empty conversation a decade ago, when he was still a university student. But now he has much more to worry about. He can’t picture what a normal guy in this position would do. Maybe talk about how hard he works, how underappreciated he feels, then segue to her hobbies and what the two of them might have in common. The shy ones would probably skip the talk and ask the girl to do karaoke for them. The crude ones might forgo both the talk and singing, inch closer to her and paw at her inner thigh. But Daigo won’t do any of those things.

“Want to go play darts in the big room?” she asks.

“It’s dangerous to have drunk people throwing darts.”

“There are worse things, aren’t there?”

He tries to move farther away from her, but the couch is only so long. He looks at their distorted reflections in the mirror: hers looks normal, but his is barely visible, cut off partway by the corner of the wall. His stomach tightens. He holds his hands in his lap and remains motionless, heart pounding as if he were waiting for a doctor to deliver some bad news. The girl takes one of the peppermints and rolls it around her hand, then chucks it back in the dish. She smooths the folds of her pants. Several pairs of footsteps clomp down the hall and she turns to the doorway as the sound moves past. Daigo prays for an interruption: a rowdy customer perhaps, or a power outage, or an earthquake, if he were supremely lucky. The girl slides nearer to him and puts her hand on his knee.

“What’s the one thing you want most in the world?” she asks. He smiles at her but does not answer. She shakes her head and rises from her seat. He looks up at her.

“I'll be back,” she says. “Got some other things to attend to.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t misbehave now.” She wags her finger at him as she exits the room.

Daigo reaches for his drink and looks at his coat on the wall. He could leave now, catch the train and get six hours of sleep before work, but he reminds himself why he is here and stays put. He retrieves his bag and grabs a packet of ungraded lab reports. He stares at the one on top. The handwriting is sloppy and the results are all wrong. He skips to one in the middle of the pile, and then another near the bottom. All three are mediocre. Perhaps his hopes for this group of kids are too high. He decides to throw out their scores and repeat the lesson next week.

He has been a science teacher for nine years at a middle school on the edge of the city. A few years back his most faithful students drew a series of cartoons about him. Super Science Man. A few of their sketches hang on his living room wall. At the end of each school day he supervises the eighth-grade boys as they help clean the bathrooms and sweep the hallways. He shows them how to remove lint from the brooms and tells them that a little dust won’t kill anyone. He is gentle with each of them and his soft voice surprises the new students. He pays close attention to the few who remind him of himself at that age: clumsy, temperamental, always a target for ridicule. Those are the ones he dotes on the most.

He finishes his drink. It isn’t as bitter now that he has grown immune to the smell, so he pours himself another and plunks a few ice cubes for good measure. A droplet falls onto his pants and he tries unsuccessfully to wipe it away before it seeps through. He always hates to dirty his pants, but decides that it’ll dry soon enough, and nobody here would care much anyway.

There’s a rustle outside. In the corner of his vision he sees someone pass, but when he turns to the door they are gone; the hallway is empty. Back in his seat he thumbs through the reports again, paying attention to the names written on the left hand corners, until he spots the one he wants to see. This student did well. Choppy handwriting, sure, but the numbers are correct and the conclusion elegant. Thank god one of them figured it out.

“Gotten anything good tonight?”

The voice is only a touch above a whisper, but still rips Daigo from his reverie. He looks over.

“Just kidding. Most of the girls are strict. I’ve never seen anyone get more than a kiss.”

The boy stands in the doorway. He looks different now than he did at school eight hours ago. He has shed the black and white uniform for a gray t-shirt and blue jeans frayed near the pockets. He isn’t smiling at everything the way he normally does. Instead he surveys the room cautiously, like an appraiser who doesn’t know what to expect. He is of average height and weight for his age. His name is Keita.

“Good evening,” Daigo says. “I heard from one of your classmates that you would be here. I wish it wasn’t true.”

“I always wondered how it would be, seeing somebody I know in this place. It's kind of nice.”

“You keep falling asleep in class.”

“Although I wish one of my friends were here instead of you, Sensei.”

“Did you hear what I said?”

“You already told me at school. I didn’t forget.”

“I’ve been concerned. You should be in bed right now.”

The boy rolls his eyes. “Do you think anyone can sleep in this dump? Mom's office has two chairs. It's not even carpeted like this room. She's being cheap. There aren't as many customers as before. I can tell by the pace of the girls’ steps. They used to walk like they were in a hurry.”

“You’ve got the same mouth as your mother, you know.”

Keita sticks his tongue out at him, then looks up and down the hallway and enters the room. He closes the door and stands against the wall. He giggles. “I think your girl is busy right now.”

Daigo sits up straight, hands still. He watches the boy hang his backpack on the doorknob. It’s green and has his initials stitched onto the front. Drawings line the sides along the zipper. They’re skillful. One of them is of the Super Science Man. He has never noticed it before.

“Can't you go someplace else after school?” Daigo asks.

“Mom doesn't want me in the apartment without her. She's afraid someone will come.”

“Who?”

“Men. She pays them every month.”

“Gangsters?”

“Yes,” Keita says. “They told her they'd burn this place down if she doesn't give them protection money. They do it all over the ward.”

He knows that it’s common in this part of Osaka, but Daigo is still surprised. The Yakuza usually target the more popular businesses, the ones with a lot to lose. There are nicer snack bars in the neighborhood: ones furnished more fully, their novelties newer, their menus more comprehensive. Then again, you can’t put a price tag on a child. Perhaps they threatened to harm him.

“How do they know where you two live?” Daigo asks.

“Really, are you that dense? Besides, Mom knows them personally. Some of them come here. It’s the only time she puts on lipstick. She always handles them herself. They’re dangerous.”

The boy walks over to the couch and sits down on the opposite end, sinking into the cushion. He stretches his arms out and puts his feet up as if he owns it all, the couch, the table, the room.

"What are you drinking?"

"Barley wine," Daigo says. The boy reaches over and brings the glass to his nose. He immediately puts it back.

"The local stuff smells like shit. Makes sense I guess. The river is dirty. When I was a kid the water was a lot clearer."

“You’re still a kid.”

The boy laughs, then the two of them don’t speak for a while. Daigo hears footsteps again and again in the hallway. He is unsure how this would look to someone from the outside. Certainly not good.

“It’s probably another customer,” Keita says. “Don’t worry. They’re pretty respectful of privacy here. That’s what people pay for.”

Daigo puts his hands on his knees and tells himself that he is doing the right thing. Someone needed to check in on Keita, to make sure he didn’t slip away. High school placement exams are coming up next month. He needs to do well. It would be a shame if he wound up managing a grocery store his whole life.

 “You know, you really don't belong here, Sensei.”

“Why is that?”

“You're kind.”

Daigo smiles, then shakes his head. He tries to plot out what to say next and how to say it gently. This is not an interrogation.

“I wondered if I would get here too late and you'd be gone,” he says.

“But you must have heard that I'm here until closing.”

“Yes, but I didn’t believe it until now.”

“Well?” Keita says, waving his hands impatiently. “Here I am. Every night. Forever.”

“You know, you and I aren’t that different,” Daigo says. “My family lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Nagoya. We ate nothing but lukewarm rice most nights. My father would get home reeking of grease, and we didn’t even have a working shower. He had to go to the communal bath. My mother had to work too, so I sat in our neighbor’s kitchen until one of them got home. I didn’t have many friends.”

“What’s your point?”

“It’s not that difficult. You could stay with someone else in the evenings rather than here. Your mother could arrange that. You’re not going to be here forever. You’ll get through.”

“I’ve thought of running away.” Keita pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “But I don’t have any money. Plus, Mom would miss me.”

“You shouldn't smoke.”

“Secondhand smoke is worse. Plus, I don't light up. I just like to suck on them. They keep me awake.” Keita puts the cylinder in his mouth and holds it there like a toothpick.

“Would you really run away?” Daigo asks.

 “I don’t know. Sometimes I hate this place. Why do you stay in your job? Students harp on you all day long, call you things behind your back. Then they forget your name the next year. Though people remember you, because you’re—” He does not finish. He blushes.

“It's not good for you to be here, Keita.”

“You could have just brought this up at school. I’m in the math club, remember?”

“I know. Speaking of school, here. Your lab report.” Daigo hands over the sheet. The boy gives it a cursory look over. He smiles, then folds the paper up.

“Do you show those to your mother?”

“Sometimes, if she’s in the right mood. She doesn’t worry about my school stuff. She knows I’m good.”

Keita yawns. He tries, pathetically, to blink the sleep away.

 “I’m sorry about this morning,” Daigo says. “I shouldn’t have singled you out.”

“I’ll stay awake tomorrow, I promise.”

“It’s not your fault.” Daigo puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He wishes he could comfort him more, tell him that things will be all right, that he’s on his side. But he stops himself from doing anything else.

“I should go,” Keita says. “She'll smack me if she sees I’m messing with customers.”He gets up from the couch and lingers by the door. He grabs the karaoke brochure and flips through the pages. He hums. Daigo listens to him for a few seconds and recalls that the song is about a kind of paradise. The kids sing it during lunchtime. They make faces at each other as they receive bowls of rice and ladlefuls of fish stew or curry; they talk about anything that will take them away from their schoolwork. They goof around, slap each other on the back, make faces. Keita laughs with the group; he eats heartily with the group. When he finishes his meal he brings his bowl to the bin and places it down, always gently, and walks off to wash his hands. Sometimes before skipping out he’ll flash a smile that makes Daigo feel light, as if he has been dosed a tonic, given a lifeline for the long and weary days, days that pile up and never seem to end.

“This is no place for children,” Daigo says.

“Do you like freshwater eels?” Keita asks. “The shop down the street has great ones. My mom and I get them sometimes.” He picks up the remote control and fidgets with it, then puts his hands in his pockets. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “Please don't tell anybody I’m here.”

“Unless something changes, I have to tell the principal, Keita. It’s not safe.”

“There's nowhere else for me to go.”

“Your father’s not around?” Daigo realizes the stupidity of the question and wishes he could swallow the words back up. What could he possibly know about parenthood? What could he possibly know from one hour a day?

“My father lives in Sapporo. Mom and I left when I was two. Though I wouldn't mind going back there on my own. I could eat king crabs all day long.”

“It's colder up there. Would you want to live with him?” Another ridiculous notion. Daigo’s thoughts are muddled. This conversation has not gone the way he hoped. Of course he won’t tell the principal. The school wouldn’t help. They’d ignore the boy. It seems an easy thing for adults to do.

“I haven’t spoken to my father in years,” Keita says. “I doubt that he’d want me.” He stares at the table between him and Daigo. “Umm, Sensei?”

Daigo leans forward. He wants to help in any way possible. He’s desperate to do so. A thought comes to mind, of Keita staying with him, in the spare bedroom off the kitchen, no questions asked, but Daigo knows—even before the image is complete—that such a situation would be impossible, the challenges improbable and risky, the losses outstripping any potential good. But if Keita asked, Daigo would have a hard time saying no.

The words don’t come easily. Keita opens his mouth, closes it. His eyes flit around the room. He looks at everything but Daigo. Just say it, Daigo wants to tell him, it’s all right. Anything is all right for you.

“Well, my friends and I, we think, you know, with the way you act and all…” His breathing grows rapid, his body tense. “We’ve always thought you were gay.”

 Daigo tries to impassively stare Keita down, but he does a poor job of it. His eyes drop. He’s never had to deal with rumors, and yet a familiar fear washes over him. In this moment he wants more than anything to be rid of everything in the room. The thought of blackmail runs through his mind, though he thinks the boy is too good to do something like that.

“Sometimes you stare at us in the hallways,” Keita says. “And you do that prissy thumbs-up when someone answers correctly. And I saw you in here with Yumi earlier. You looked really uncomfortable.”

“You were spying on me?”

“Come on, it’s not like you were doing anything with her. You had your hands up the whole time! That’s why she left. She’s an impatient one. Some of the other girls might have stayed with you longer.”

“Do you know everyone here?”

Keita nods. “A few of the girls are really nice. Sometimes they’ll give me the candies and chocolates the customers buy for them. They don’t like sweets. They prefer cash.”

“Are you hungry now?” Daigo reaches for his wallet. He isn’t sure how it would work, though. Keita would have to leave the room while he orders food. Perhaps he could leave it outside the door and Keita could pick it up. Or maybe he could just give him money. There’s a 24-hour convenience store down the street.

“You don’t need to buy me anything, Sensei. But thanks.”

Keita looks tired. He needs sleep, real food. He needs to not be here. Daigo needs those things too.

“So, you never answered my question,” Keita says. “If you are, it's all right with me. I’ve seen a lot of people here, including gays. There isn’t much difference between anybody. Everyone has the same reason for coming.” He shrugs as if there’s nothing more to be said, then grabs his backpack.

“What reason is that?” Daigo asks.

“To forget.”

“Not to feel better?”

“Nobody feels better when they leave here.” Keita looks him in the eye. “How do you feel, now that you’ve talked to me? You feel better?”

“I just want to help you.”

Keita laughs, but he quickly stops himself. His lips shudder. He brings his backpack to his face, hiding his eyes, then slings it around his shoulder. “I'm going to play video games in the back. Bye, Sensei.”

Daigo gets up from his chair and rushes to the hallway. He looks down towards the end and sees the shoji screen gently shutting. Their encounter is over. He wonders if people will find out, if the gossip will flower throughout the school and he’ll eventually be fired for inappropriate contact. It’s not out of the question; parents have gotten faculty sacked for much less. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first offense. But it’s no longer in his control. He goes back inside the room and returns to the wine bottle floating in the bucket. He picks it up and drinks until he gets warm, until his face becomes flushed and he has to take a breath. He thinks of Keita, and as the alcohol takes over, knows what he should have said.

He spends a few more aimless moments. Now that he is alone and has no more reason to stay he begins to enjoy the room. He considers doing something brazen. Perhaps he will check if the girl from before is available and ask her to sit with him once more, to keep him company. He could put his hand on her shoulder, feel the curves of her back, slip some cash down her skirt. The idea sounds ridiculous to him as soon as it enters his mind. He knows that he can’t stay here. He gathers his things and returns to the podium where Mama is standing. The crowd has grown sparse. He announces that he's ready for the check.

“You're supposed to get the bill from one of the girls,” Mama says.

“They're fine. I’m just in a hurry.”

“You still have ten minutes left on your room. Sure you want to leave early?”

“Yes.”

“Fine then,” she says. “I hope you enjoyed yourself.”

She goes over and types on the keyboard, then returns with the receipt, which totals eight thousand yen for an hour of room time and the bottle, tip not included. Daigo hands her a wad of bills.

“Just a moment,” she says.

“No, keep it all.”

She nods and heads back to the podium, but he interrupts her before she gets far.

“Your son came to see me, in my room.”

She makes a slow turn back around, leans against the bar and looks directly at him.“Not sure what you're talking about.” She steps forward, scanning his shoes, clothes, face. “Who are you, anyway? Never seen you in here before, and then you start babbling about some phantom son of mine. I should call the cops.”

“I doubt that would be wise,” Daigo says. He looks around at the other customers, at the variety show flickering on the TV, then, finally, back to Mama.“My boss says you need to stop keeping him here.” He tries to sound tough, guttural, an octave deeper than normal. He puts his hand to his chest and bows slightly. He saw that in a movie once. “Keep him somewhere else. A friend’s house. Otherwise we'll charge you double each month.”

He looks the part. Maybe she believes him. Even if she doesn’t it is probably best for her to be cautious. She has much to lose. She saunters over, closing the gap between them. She takes a lipstick out of her pocket and applies it slowly. She purses her lips and gives him a cordial smile. She has wiped clean all emotion from her face.

“Have a nice night,” she says. Daigo feels the money thrust back into his hand. Mama returns to the podium and begins to organize receipts from the evening. He waits for her to say something more, to give him a last look, but she doesn’t flinch, even when he says goodbye.

It’s cool and clear outside. The city lights on the sky make it seem earlier than the actual time; the last train of the night has already departed. He hails a taxi to take him back to his house. He does not know how tomorrow's school day will play out. Perhaps if the time is right he’ll pull Keita aside and give him the answer to his question: Yes, I am. I’ve never told anyone before.

When he looks out the cab window he sees only a blur of buildings. He rests his head on the back of the seat and closes his eyes, his mind light, light as he has ever felt in his life.



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