VAL! The dark abundant curls, the delectably rich and lightning-quick almond eyes. One foot crossed over the other, keeping time in the air. . . the laughing voice, the square jaw.
VAL! The elegant thighs, the slender waist, the hands like catcher's mitts, the full and maddening lips, the hint of stubble, the hint of breasts.
The day we met, for an hour after Val donned a rainbow-colored cap and jaunted off, I sat stunned at my table, Starbucks abandoned, and among my love-crazed musings was the question: "Is it a problem that I've just become desperately infatuated with someone about whom I cannot begin to determine whether he is a woman or she is a man?"
At last I decided: not a problem. I had a name and a phone number. Either of which were drastically more useful than being able shout, "Hey, woman!" or "Hey, man!"
This all happened at Tsutaya, the Roppongi branch, where it's always crowded and even the most deluxe art books are free from plastic wrap and available to browse. Tsutaya at Roppongi Hills, where the dogs outside are among the most expensive in the world.
Here in Tokyo, where people may ride the train every day and not speak to a stranger even once in their lives, there nonetheless exist these semi-permeable quasi-miraculous zones, such as the symbiotic Starbucks that lives within the glass-walled belly of Tsutaya, where money goes on parade with its new handbag, dog and love.
Without apology, without introduction, Val slipped into the chair across from mine. "I noticed you don't speak," he* said. "I think that's smart."
(* Like a Unitarian hymnal, I am just going to switch from she to he as suits the music or the mood. Gender is spectacularly ill-served by language. We might as well allow the fact to lurch into the open.)
Since I had lost my voice eight weeks before -- and good riddance! -- I wrote little notes, which I passed to her across the table. "Where are you from?" I wrote.
"Is a question," she agreed. "Another question is: does life continue after death?"
I was in no state to oppose her. Never in my life had I seen such a delectable mouth.
"Are you Japanese?" I wrote.
"What I think is that consciousness has many interesting properties and we have not even begun to explore them."
In other words, he went right on having the conversation he felt like having. And I was happy just to watch.
Val looked Japanese, I was fairly sure. That kind of Japanese that also looks exactly like Cherokee. Her English was fluent, with a slight French accent. French-Swiss? I knew exactly where her rainbow-colored cap was from: I'd seen that cap a million years before, at a bazaar in Kathmandu.
Val didn't dodge all questions, just the basic ones. She had plenty to say about climate change and the Palestinians, about fractals and monitor lizards. Whereas, if I wrote a question like, "What do you do for a living?" she looked at me as if I were clothed entirely in olive loaf.
After that afternoon, we met every other day or so. Always at Tsutaya, Roppongi branch. We never made plans. (Val said, Schedules are boring, don't you think?) Didn't matter to me -- I was free all the time since I'd lost my voice eight weeks before. Flickered a few times and went out entirely, with no sign of return. Losing my voice was damned inconvenient, but mostly I just felt relieved.
Prior to losing my voice, I had been a teacher of conversation. To almost entirely silent students. Actually, I'd thought it would be a highly worthwhile experiment: for a silent teacher and silent students to practice conversation together -- but this had proven unnecessary.
My blue-blooded American family had shown itself to be, for the first time since the Mayflower, astonishingly generous. My living expenses were provided for without me even needing to open my (silent) mouth.
Doubtless they were trying to finesse the guilt of feeling like all their dreams had come true at once: I had no voice! Also, it was in their best interest to ensure that I remained forever in Tokyo which was, from their vantage point, virtually the afterlife.
Admittedly, Tokyo sometimes seemed like the afterlife even while sitting in the middle of it, at my table in Tsutaya, looking through the glass wall, past the skyscrapers and the electric wires to the splinter of sky.
Tokyo: who was it for? The temporary billboard across the street was seven storeys high. Someone was trying to flag down God.
"What are you exactly?" I wrote and passed the note across the table.
To my relief, Val didn't seem offended at all. Nodded her head, wrote an answer.
"I'm innovative," the note read.
"What are you doing here?" I wrote.
"I'm waiting for an egg," she said.
Usually Val spoke, but sometimes he liked to pass notes back and forth, as students do. Val loved to gossip about the people around us, about whom he appeared, conveniently, to know absolutely everything.
"This is the very first day of her life," Val whispered, nodding toward a matron with henna-dyed hair: "She packed a declaration of divorce into her husband's lunchbox and checked herself into the Shin-takanawa Prince Hotel. 'Can I really do that?' she asked me. I told her to charge him a night for every year she didn't get even an anniversary dinner. She paid in advance for a month."
About a boy with pimples: "Today his best friend suddenly kissed him. And he punched the poor boy right in the head!" Val smiled. "In another ten minutes he's going to figure it out. He'll find his friend in an alley near Azabujuban station. And he'll apologize very nicely."
Tsutaya, it appeared, was an exceedingly fortuitous location: everyone was breaking loose in one way or another. Even the pedigreed purebreds chained up at the door, I suspected, would soon be having puppies that weren't purebreds at all.
"And what's your story, mister?" Val demanded. "How did you get so everlastingly bitter?"
She saw, of course.
"No one thinks much of me." I wrote. "I tend to agree with them."
Across this note Val scrawled: CHEAP.
"Sweetheart, really." Val said. "We are not the children anyone had in mind."
I shouldn't make it sound like all we did was have clever and laborious conversations. Or that I admired her chastely, like some super-deluxe art book. On the contrary. I begged her more or less continuously for sex.
Val was unimpressed. "You don't get a name usually, do you, before you fuck someone? Dust off your social skills, dear. You'll find it laborious, but also more satisfying. Like baking bread."
If Val would at last consent to sleep with me, I thought, the nagging gender question could be put likewise to bed. My narrative could perch, exhausted, on one pronoun or the other. In the meantime, not only did I now know about Val, I didn't even know which team I was on.
Then again, the assumption that gender has been established because genitals have been located is -- well, it's moronic. And this is very much my own deplorable tendency: I tend to act as if all my questions have been answered, just because a dick has been shoved in my mouth.
Day after day for weeks, Val spoke and I wrote. One day she said, "You don't have to write if you don't want to."
I must have looked surprised.
"You're just not that complicated, sweetheart. I can guess."
Val wasn't always pleased with me. Of course not. Nonetheless she remained at all times painstakingly gracious, like a movie star giving an interview to the cub reporter of a grade school paper.
When Val listed my faults he did so matter-of-factly, with no room for appeal, like an engineer reporting on faulty pipes or untrustworthy bridges.
I was self-pitying, self-dramatizing, sex-obsessed, and also somehow frozen. My fashion sense was non-existent. I was cowardly. I was comprehensively embittered.
Some days when he got up I'd think, that's it, I won't see him again. But a few days later, there she was again. I don't know what she saw in me. I am reliably underwhelming.
Then again, we were residents of the loneliest city in the world. And one kind of beauty at a time is all most people know how to handle. Perhaps it is difficult to make friends, if you are an unclassifiable marvel.
Sometimes I tried to defend myself, pushed one note after another across the table. Val barely glanced at them. A few she balled up and threw deftly toward the can marked 'burnable'. Most she ignored. "All you write are lies."
When he was gone I gathered up the remaining scraps of paper and tried to determine for myself. Maybe he was right. Maybe all I knew how to do was write lies.
"Who are you anyway?" Val asked. She spoke as if I, too, were manifold and various.
I had no way of prove to her that I was just the same sad fool, day after day after day.
"Lonely man sits in coffee shop". I held the paper up to myself like a name tag.
"What happened to your voice?" Val demanded.
"I don't care," I wrote. "I don't want it back."
"It's good living. People like me better this way."
"Such self-pity! That's the best you can come up with, huh? The people I hoped would love me, did not!"
"As good a motto as any," I wrote.
"Cheap!" Val declared.
It was all very frustrating, much of the time. And I would have happily gone on forever.
The last day, Val was decrying the idiocy of the dam project on the Narmada -- when the egg landed on our table. I jumped back expecting, I don't know, a bomb. But it was just an egg. An unusual egg. Intact.
The egg had landed, with a very loud smack, in the middle of the scraps I used to write on. It seemed to have fallen from directly above us. Which was impossible. The glass wall was two storeys tall. The ceiling was cement. No sign of anything. No opening.
The egg was speckled blue and white. Like a planet as seen from space, but without the continents. I couldn't imagine how an egg could have fallen from such a height without cracking. Unless it was petrified. Hard-boiled at least.
The entire staff of Starbucks stood around our table. Not sure if this was something they needed to apologize for or not.
Val smiled radiantly at them. "It's for me," she said. They all bowed and went back to work.
Val looked again at the egg, then placed it in her bag.
"Sorry, this means I have to go."
He started to pack up his things.
"That's it?" I scribbled. "Just that? I never get to understand anything?"
"What is it you don't understand?" And for once, Val looked just a little tired.
"You never answered my questions!!"
"I answered lots of your questions."
Val sighed. Sat back down. "Fine. One direct question. One direct answer. Shoot."
I looked into Val's eyes. The eyes of the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. The eyes of the very best-looking man.
The question was obvious. Carefully I wrote it down. Handed it to her across the table.
Val read. She smiled a little, and looked tenderly at me across the table.
She reached out to me. For a moment, my face was allowed to rest in that smooth and immense hand.
How do I get to the end of bitterness? I had written.
"Accept defeat," she said.
Then I received, from those incomparable and astonishing lips, one lingering kiss.
Val picked up his bag, swung it over his shoulder and walked out the door.
Since then I haven't seen him. Not since that afternoon with the kiss, the answer, and the egg.
I continue to sit every afternoon at Tsutaya in Roppongi. Drinking my coffee and writing notes among the rich Tokyoites. Who have so many devices they must hold their magazines in their laps. Whose dogs are so dressed-up that, if you ever saw them otherwise you'd shout, My god, that dog is naked!
I hope that I am maturing somehow, amid notes and art books and coffee shop chatter, between the magazine rack and the new releases.
I still have no voice. For which I remain grateful. With Val, I think, it was better to be silent.
In fact, I often wonder if he would have appeared in my life at all, if I had not first prepared the way for him in silence.
Talking would have only been a hindrance, made all too clear how infinitely I lag behind her, in all her infinite transformations.