The kitten-shaped egg timer on the corner of the mattress beeps and they switch positions. Now she is cradling him. His head rests on her slender left arm; her right arm she drapes around his waist. This is done wordlessly, and the only communication they have now, without the connection of their eyes, is the steady rise and fall of their breathing.
“You can do so much more with yourself, Aya.” Her father sits cross-legged on the tatami. He uses her secret name, the one only they know. Age has spared his face, but his eyes are those of an old dog who knows the world has passed him by.
She wants to tell him there is honor in what she does, but instead she keeps her head bowed and her eyes low. She is not deferring to him, nor is she practicing humility, but she knows that is how he will choose to interpret it. She just doesn’t have the energy to have this conversation: a conversation that amounts to nothing.
“Perhaps other families, from the lower classes, can expect their daughters to attend to tables. But such work is an insult to our name. Your mother and your grandmother... look at their hands.” He implores her to see things through his sad dog eyes. “Their hands have not known such harshness. I have not worked my life away only to have my daughter’s hands grow rough and coarse.”
He thinks she waits tables. That is the extent of his disappointment. Imagine if he really knew. She is tempted to tell him. She is tempted to be truthful and lay bare the agony beneath her father’s placid surface. But she cannot. He is stooped and tired and she has looked into enough men’s eyes to know when they are almost broken.
Her client’s irises are mirrored obsidian. She cannot feel the man behind them. Is he sad? Lonely? Is he protecting some deep hurt that he wishes she could heal? She doesn’t know. It is not her business to know these things.
The egg timer beeps and they switch positions. They are scheduled to lie like this, her cradling him, as she does every Tuesday and Friday, for another 10 minutes. She can smell the product in his hair, some cheap konbini store brand designed for maximum hold. She imagines it is sold in a clear, plastic bottle, bubbles suspended in green paste. It smells of stale eucalyptus and cooking oil. She angles her face away from him and breathes in the fresh baby powdered air of their curtained-off corner.
Standing on the station platform in a white hoodie three times too large, she feels invisible. The world moves around her and without her while she watches. Men in thin suits and women in pencil skirts bend around her huddled form: water flowing around a rock.
Her earbuds buzz like crickets and her tongue taps out a pop tune along the back of her imperfect teeth. In this chrysalis state, smothered in her hoodie, the world around her muted and small, she is changing from the timid girl who riots with anxiety in the presence of her father, to the cool, confident women who cuddles strange men in the center of Tokyo’s shopping district.
Her train arrives with a pneumatic hiss and she boards a car. She avoids sitting next to the couple. The sight of couples out in public makes her sick. Instead, she sits next to a Western man. His musk is sour, his beard a shade, his skin the color of a peeled peach. He has been in Japan before and he knows to look straight ahead. She studies his ear. Sometimes, her clients will pay for her to take their head into her lap and gently clean their ear canals, just like their mothers used to do. She has heard that Westerners have yellow, waxy sediment and she wonders if this man does. She wonders why that differs from the dry, white flakes of her countrymen’s ears. If the core of a person is housed in the brain, what does it say about someone’s essence when it leaks out wet and waxy? What does it say when it is just dried crust?
Her client arrives on time. He has never been late nor has he missed one of his appointments. He is just one of her regulars. Up to 24 men a day. This is all routine. She guesses he is in his mid-20s, not much older than her, and has a decent job. He always removes his blazer and rolls up his sleeves, but he never loosens his tie.
The egg timer signals for her to hold him and after some time, his breathing slows and the weight of his head settles into the soft muscle of her arm. She can feel it cutting off her circulation so she allows the nursery atmosphere of the Cuddle Cafe to take her mind away.
There is a frosted window, at street level, to allow some sunlight in. On its sill sits a collection of music boxes, their inner workings delicate and precise. Light from the window filters through a flower-shaped crystal on top of one of the boxes, spilling pink-tinged droplets of color down on the mattress. From inside the clockwork music box, a spring expands in the sun’s heat, its gears slip, and it bleeds out three little notes.
Her client mumbles something she cannot hear. She raises her head off the pillow to listen; to see if he will speak again. He stutters, and then with a breath that she can feel swelling like a bellows against her nightgown, he says:
“We are ghosts long before we die.”
She can hear him crying then. She waits an extra minute after the timer concludes their session. He is still weeping when she slips her arm out from under his head and consults the price menu: ¥5,000 for their 15-minute session.
She pats him to let him know their time is up. With great embarrassment and many bowed apologies, he rises to his knees and fishes for his wallet in his now wrinkled suit pants.
After he leaves, when the salt of his tears has dried on her arm, she will wipe away the chalky residue with a sterilized towelette.