The first time I saw her, she was wearing a long, golden, tight-fitting gown, the type of gown a woman would wear at an upscale dinner party. She looked beautiful, and I didn’t realize until much later that she had worn that dress to seduce a western man at the school. Who exactly? At the time, she didn’t know.
It was June, and I was teaching English as a second language at a private school in Tokyo. My first six months there had been uneventful, filled with the tediousness and mild satisfactions of the job. I met the other foreign teachers—Americans, Canadians, Irishmen, Brits—and a few of us would hang out at bars after work, sucking on beers until late, telling stories about the kids in our classes, and making jokes about how our Japanese boss cursed freely in English. We drank until the road home began to seem too long, too circuitous to navigate in that inebriated state. And we’d finally stand up, sometimes leaning on each other for balance, and make our way home, not always knowing how we’d actually made it back to our apartments.
This lasted a few months, but that scene grew old quick, and I eventually found myself turning down invitations to go out and became, unintendedly, the loner, spending most of my free time in the company of books or watching Japanese television despite my absurdly limited knowledge of the language. I guess I was biding my time, simply waiting for the end of my year long contract so that I could return to Cincinnati and figure out what I wanted to do next.
And then I met her—the new teacher. She walked into my classroom looking like a model walking the red carpet at the Oscars and introduced herself.
“Hi, I’m Aiko,” she said casually, as though she was used to coming up to, and meeting, complete strangers.
“Dennis,” I said, rising from my chair and offering my hand.
We slid easily into conversation. She’d been a journalist in Europe for a few years, writing mostly about music and upcoming bands.
“But I grew tired of the deadlines, you know? I was always on edge to complete an article by such or such date. Stressful as hell. So, back to Japan I went.”
“It sounds exciting,” I answered, “being around all that music, living in Europe. I mean, wow.”
“I guess it was, for a while, but some things you can’t do forever. You have to change.” And there she paused for a moment, as if remembering that past. “Or that way of life consumes you.”
* * *
After that first meeting, Aiko stopped in between classes and visited me in my classroom, but she dressed professionally now. She had, in fact, been reprimanded for her attire that first day, and I never saw that gown or anything like it again. It didn’t matter, however, because I was already hooked. Soon I was walking her to her subway stop after school, pining for her despite the obvious attention she was giving me.
“Your eyes,” she told me. “They’re fertile.”
When I told her I didn’t know what that meant, she said, “They’re like freshly plowed earth, open to receive.”
And if I didn’t always understand her observations, I did notice something curious about her, that there were two sides to her, ones that—when placed one beside the other—exposed an incongruence. On one side was the Born Again Christian, often aiming to please, and ostensibly innocent; on the other was an edgy woman, one who seemed like she’d lived a lot. She had a look in her eyes at times, something dark, something sorrowful; her mannerisms changed, and a remarkable intelligence, as well as an unassailable self-confidence, emerged. I asked her about this, but she shrugged it off.
“I’ve found my way,” she said, “and that way is God. I hadn’t been a good person until I discovered Him.” This she offered as a way of explanation, though I found that it didn’t explain nearly enough. But her devotion to God was clear, and she did try to “save” me. She gave me Christian movies to watch, magazines to read, and talked about how the world changed once you became born again.
“It’s like a filter is removed from your sight,” she said, “and, as if by magic, you see the world as it really is: full of beauty and purity, bursting with the glory of God. The veil of lies and deception surrounding us suddenly vanishing to reveal the splendor of a reality that only He could have created.”
I didn’t really know what to say when she went on like that. There was a lot of God-this and God-that, and though I wasn’t a religious person, the enthusiasm with which she spoke of Him was alluring—though it wasn’t so much alluring because of the zeal she conveyed. It was something else: the contrast of this faith with the more somber self she sometimes showed. That juxtaposition was baffling and intriguing.
We went out together and it was refreshing. Refreshing to have someone to hold, to cuddle with, to make love to—for though she was devoted to God, she wasn’t altogether pious. We would take long aimless walks at night, watch the life of the city untangle itself from the activity of the day, randomly hop on a subway and discover a new neighborhood. And when we were done with our walk, we would return home, undress, and slip under the covers and revel in our bodies touching.
But it soon grew strange. She would appear in my apartment—my roommate always letting her in—without notice. I would come back from work, open my apartment door, and I would see her, in my living room, standing there facing me as if she’d been waiting for me for hours.
“How long have you been waiting?” I once asked.
“Not long,” she said.
Later I found out from my roommate that she’d been there nearly two hours.
Another day, I came home, and my entire bedroom had been rearranged; bed, dresser, desk, even the comforter was different. I didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t you like it better, Dennis?”
“It’s fine,” I said, “but why the change?”
And her eyes grew distant, staring far beyond me, beyond the wall, perhaps to Europe, and she answered, “Your room, as it was, reminded me of the room of a bad man I once knew.”
“A bad man?” I asked, wanting to know more.
“Yes, but those days are gone. They’re gone,” she said, her eyes still far away, and I could tell that for her, those days weren’t entirely gone.
At times, while we were sitting in my bedroom, she talked about how her mother, or a friend of hers, would want to set her up with a rich businessman.
“What do you think, Dennis?” she’d ask. “Do you think I should go on a date with him?”
Given our increasing closeness, I was shocked by this question. But I wouldn’t let myself be lured into that kind of conversation. I decided that I would let her make her own decisions, let her figure things out for herself. She was simply testing me, I told myself, testing the fabric of our relationship. So I would just say, “I’d rather you not,” and walk out of the room.
Despite her erratic behavior, I was content with where we stood as a couple and willing to put up with her eccentricities to see if an even deeper bond would form. Increasingly, it was her dark side that drew me to her. Once in a while, she would pull out a cigarette from her purse—she seldom smoked—pin it loosely in between her lips, light it, and, with that unexpected self-confident, almost arrogant, air, she would talk to me as though I didn’t mean anything to her. She’d say things like: “I could be with someone a lot more attractive than you, Dennis. I have loads of guys lining up at my door—men with better looks, more money, so don’t get used to having me here.”
In these instances, there was no joy in her voice, no words of God guarding the entrance to her psyche—she was plainly the person she had been before her rebirth. But these moments were scarce, and she would promptly return to that happy and kind Born Again Christian woman I’d first met and who adored me. I noticed, however, that the less I saw this other her—the less I saw that dark side—the more a distrust began to seep into my affection for her. I had grown too curious about her other life to let it disappear. She was keeping something hidden from me, and I wanted to know what.
When I asked her about it, she was evasive at first. But then, one night, while I pressed her, she pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
“I used to make a lot of money,” she said.
I stayed silent, waiting for her to continue.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how?”
I was surprised at the tone of her voice—it was smirking, mocking.
“How?” I asked.
She exhaled a plume of smoke into my face.
“I used to be a call girl, Dennis. A high-class whore.”
I stared at her and, gradually, the pieces began falling into place. The gown she’d worn that day she first walked into my classroom must have been part of her old wardrobe. Journalism was a cover, a lie. Her conversion to Born Again Christianity—her reset button.
I didn’t know how to react. I had strong feelings for her, but I wondered if this admission of hers was more than I could take. I sat down and ran my hands over my head, finally grabbing handfuls of hair and pulling hard to make myself feel something other than disgust. And, all along, I could feel her blow smoke directly at me, as if to goad me into yelling at her, into cursing her, ultimately into breaking up with her. We stayed this way for about fifteen minutes, me holding on to my hair, and her smoking cigarettes, until finally I realized that no matter what she had done in her past, no matter who she once had been, I didn’t want to lose her. So I looked up at her, and I saw her smiling, a smile at once cocky and sad, as though she expected me not to be able to take this revelation.
“Aiko,” I said, “it doesn’t matter to me.”
As she blew another plume of smoke in my direction, she said, “Sure it does.”
Of course it did. She and I both knew it. And yet, I had wanted to excavate her past, and she had been willing to risk it all by being straight with me.
“Listen, I wanted the truth, and now I have it.”
I took her hand in mine and gazed into her eyes, and what I said surprised me in a way that only once uttered did the words really hit me.
“I love you,” I said.
And, for the first time that evening, she didn’t blow smoke into my face, merely letting it sail out of her nostrils.
“You’re just saying that,” she answered, pulling away from me.
Maybe I was. The picture in my mind of all those johns fucking her made me want to barf. But at the same time, I didn’t hesitate.
“You don’t have to hide from me anymore, Aiko. We can be happy together.”
I said it, and I meant it. There was no breakup that evening. No giving up on either side. The next day, neither one of us mentioned the events of the prior night. Nor the following day, or the one after that, until days turned into weeks and weeks into months, and it seemed as though that day had never occurred at all.
Then one morning, I noticed she was humming contentedly over the stove as she was preparing eggs for us. And it wasn’t that she had never hummed before—she had—but what amazed me was how effortlessly the music was rising out of her. In the past, her singing had always seemed forced, as though she were telling herself that she ought to be happy, that she ought to be singing, rather than simply being content in the moment. Well, not this morning. And upon hearing her hum this tune that was unfamiliar to me but quite lovely, I was filled with hope—hope that this was an indication that the two separate and distinct sides of her were fading, somehow merging into one stronger, better whole; hope that the devout Aiko, the one that aimed to do no wrong and atone for her past, was vanishing; hope that the darkness and the sorrow of regret were gone; hope that what stood now before me was a person clear of her past, a person I could genuinely make a life with.
The reality, however, was that this scene playing out before me was just a moment, and though it had the feeling of permanence, in truth I didn’t know, couldn’t tell, if she had put her past behind her. But even if she hadn’t, as she emptied the contents of the frying pan on two plates, still humming that lovely tune and her back to me so that I couldn’t see her face, I couldn’t help feeling that in that precise moment, for once, she was at peace.
Amar Benchikha is an American writer born and raised in western Europe whose short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Carolina Quarterly, The MacGuffin, New Plains Review and in genre journals Nightscript and Vastarien. He currently lives in northern Italy and can be found at www.amarbenchikha.com.