They'd warped, like old wood; there was no fit anymore. As Ash knocked on the door of room 124, it pained him that Eiji wouldn't recognize his rapping. They'd never had a secret knock; back then, they'd walked in and out like family.
But Eiji was expecting him, and the door swung in at once.
He'd shrunk. Or maybe Ash just hadn't remembered how short he'd always been. No, he'd shrunk, this thin, little man with sparse white hair and wrinkles like furrows, pulling down on his eyes. The eyes were the same, though, and the eyebrows: the soft, serious look of Eiji. He was smiling his crooked smile (the amused one), probably from force of habit.
"Hey, Eiji." Ash was suddenly keenly aware of being in Japan--like he'd teleported from their old, New York apartment.
"Come in." Eiji hurried him in as if the police were after them.
Ash stepped into the Western-style room. Eiji closed the door, and they stood stupidly in the curtained, hotel plush.
"Hey," said Ash again. He felt fat next to Eiji, though prison and TB had kept him thin. He felt old, though Kira had made him twelve years Eiji's junior.
"You made it. Set down your stuff."
Ash set his backpack on the floor. He flinched at Eiji's accent: it was almost American, almost New York, almost Ash... almost Sing. And it came to Ash that all these years, he'd been reading Eiji's mails in the old (young) Eiji's voice, even after the English had improved, even when it was almost native.
Ash caught Eiji's eyes on his hands, the index finger sliced from each. He told himself--he'd told Eiji--it wasn't a big deal, but right now, he felt disfigured, ogre-ish.
"It's good to see you," said Eiji.
Ash nodded. "You too."
With an odd forward jerk, Eiji took a step and reached out to him. Ash leaned in slightly to let himself be hugged, like he had in the old days, like a half-tame wild cat not quite springing away. (People had often told him that.)
He was so short, Eiji. Had hugging him always been like this? With a certain amount of hunching, Ash managed to almost rest his chin on Eiji's shoulder. He expected him to feel brittler, but he felt solid, almost young. Almost eighty-two, but that might give him another twenty years. Please give him another twenty. They'd missed so much already. Twenty-four years in a Federal penitentiary, another six in a Russian prison camp, almost twenty-two camped out in Russia and Ukraine, pretending he didn't have the power to get a fake ID to Japan. A life wasted.
He wrapped his arms around Eiji and held him tight, half expecting bones to crack, but nothing did.
"You are my sunshine...." The tune twittered randomly through Ash's head.
"I'm really tired," said Ash. Jet lag was the penalty of having friends rich enough for air travel.
"Go to bed." Eiji's voice came muffled against his shoulder.
Ash stepped back. "How long can you stay?"
Eiji grinned. "I'm retired; I have no schedule. You said day after tomorrow your friends expect you?" When had he stopped wearing glasses?
Ash nodded. "Then, can I go to sleep?" He asked it like a child.
"I always liked to see you sleep, I mean, when you were peaceful."
Two full-sized beds: Ash sat on one, kicked off his shoes, stripped his jacket and tossed it on the table, crashed into the impersonal sheets all in one motion. His eyelids fell like the doors of a storage unit, preserving the outside from all the junk within.
He awoke fuzzy, like when you've been drugged or are on too little sleep. Hotel, he thought, for a moment assuming it was one of the several they'd stayed in since their escape from Russia. Then, he remembered.
Where was Eiji?
Six feet away, in the other bed, asleep. Ash lay on his elbow and watched him, a little old man, like a patient tucked up in a nursing home bed. But with Eiji's eyebrows...
He got up, suppressing a holdover cough from the TB, and cracked the curtain on a featureless street, Japanese signs: still daylight. Watch said 2:38. He got a glass of water, taking refuge in details as he often did. Life went from the start to the finish, step by step.
When he got back from the bathroom, Eiji was sitting up, rubbing his face. He wore a wedding ring, Ash noted with surprise and displeasure. He knew that Eiji and Sing were close, but Eiji had presented their marriage in such utilitarian terms--all deportation hearings and spousal privilege. The ring exposed the lie.
Ash leaned against the dresser. "I interrupt your nap time?"
"You are the sleepy-head," said Eiji in Sing's accent. "Am I supposed to just watch you for hours?"
The humor, on both sides, fell a little flat. You used to, thought Ash. Then, the mood lowered further as a coughing fit seized him. He hacked and cleared his throat and made dismissive gestures at Eiji's pained expression.
"It's just--" Cough, cough. "It's just a reflex, left over from the TB."
"You had it bad?"
"No, not really, just a low-grade, chronic thing."
Eiji peered at him as if to peel off a lie, then got up and shuffled into his sweater--slowly, almost comically working his arms into the sleeves and the neck over his head.
Ash got his shoes. "Let's pick up some food. I'm kind of hungry now, but if you're not, we can just grab stuff and each eat whenever." Too many words.
"Okay, but I give you fair warning, there are not so many wieners in Japan."
The joke was so terrible Ash had to smile.
They walked to a grocery store; Eiji was still a good walker. The streets were strangely uncrowded for a major city in the afternoon, like a lot of depopulated places in Russia. Yet in so many parts of the world, city streets teemed with bodies pressed shoulder to shoulder. A funny world.
They squabbled nostalgically over what to buy, settling on a couple of bento, tea, and shiogama for dessert. In the checkout line, Eiji mercilessly engaged him in a conversation in Japanese, criticizing every linguistic misstep, while the checkout clerk smiled broadly and kept repeating how excellent Ash's Japanese was. Eiji clearly got a kick out of claiming the old man's license to say what the hell he pleased. And really, for Eiji, that wasn't surprising.
Ash toting the grocery bag, they walked around for a few blocks, while Eiji pointed out various stores and evaluated their quality.
"Sendai has many beautiful parts," he said. "Temples and parks and statues, and this is none of it. This is the cheap place to stay."
"Near where she used to live till about twenty years ago."
He talked about two decades ago as if it were last week. The acceleration of the days dizzied Ash for a moment--like an airplane taking flight.
In the hotel, they spread out their lunches and almost immediately discovered a difficulty.
"Damn," said Ash as the daikon slipped his grasp for the third time. "I should've been practicing."
He did his best to avoid Eiji's aghast expression and focus on balancing his chopsticks between his thumb and middle and ring fingers. He could sort of get them to open and close, but he couldn't keep a solid grip. It was stupid. Every day, he made little adjustments around his missing fingers. He'd taught himself a whole new fingering to type with. But somehow he'd managed to plan a trip to Japan and not thought for a second about eating there. It was just the sort of sloppy thinking that had let the XC grab his cell in Russia back in '41, another little sign of age corroding his brain.
"We can go buy a fork," said Eiji.
"I'm not making a whole 'nother shopping trip for a fork. I can eat with my fingers. It's not like it's the first time." He downed the piece of daikon.
After an awkward moment, Eiji said, "I also ate with fingers before. My mother said I was very messy, but I think I enjoyed it."
They both smiled, conspiring to pretend the joke the funny. Then, they quibbled some more about food, Ash taking offense at the number of roots and greens, Eiji defending their wholesome, Japanese goodness.
"What will your work be like?" said Eiji, then, without so much as a break in the conversation.
"My work? Don't know yet. Right now I'm just living on my friends' dime and doing some research, kind of a probationary thing."
"So they will have work for you?"
"Let's say I'd be surprised if they didn't have something."
Eiji turned his attention to a rice ball. "In America?"
"I don't know, Eiji. Why does it matter?"
A flash of anger in Eiji's eyes was replaced by that faint, crooked smile. "Gee, I wonder why?"
Ash licked his fingers. "You want me to work in Japan?"
"Of course, if it was just for me, I want you close."
"Tea?" Ash took out the package.
"Sure. But it's about where is best for you first. This is your new chance."
"Yeah--" Ash croaked and cleared his throat. "Yeah, I guess it is." He busied himself heating water in the hotel's minuscule percolator. Everything in Japan was small, made for birdlike people.
"Ash?" said Eiji from behind him. "We are too old to play games."
Ash turned to look at him. "Okay."
The hotel chair fit Eiji wrong. He belonged in a recliner, not in a concave crouch, unchanged eyes gazing out of a slumped body. "Do you want to see me again, after this? Or is it too difficult?"
Ash paused a second over the obvious answers, then retreated. "Whatever happened to living in the moment? Did we get together just to discuss the next time we're going to get together?" He felt immediately ashamed of his gamesmanship, but Eiji didn't call him on it.
Instead, he followed the lead. "We aren't living in this moment. We're living in moments from sixty years ago. We are telling old jokes. We are having old conversation. Maybe you are worried this is all we have. But this is not inevitable. It's just, of course, we need time together to find our new way of talking. So yes, Ash, I plan if we'll have more time together."
Ash stared at him. "You know you talk just like you write." The percolator whistled. Ash made tea--completely incorrectly according to Eiji.
Tea in hand, Ash sat on the bed across from Eiji's chair. "Of course, I want to see you again, Eiji. But you tell me, how's that going to work? Even if I ended up living in Japan, where exactly would that fit in your life?"
Eiji shrugged. "It will fit where it will fit, Ash. What's the alternative? It won't fit? Whatever we can do, we'll make it work. For all these years, we only had mail, and we made that work. Now, if we can see each other sometimes, isn't that much better?"
"Did we make it work?" Ash held his hot teacup between his palms; in the past few years, he'd come to cherish hot cups. "All that mail, did it save our friendship? Back in New York, we used to... we used to inhabit the same soul. Now, I'm looking at a stranger. No, I'm looking at a friend. Just a friend."
Eiji watched him with that thoughtfulness he'd had in New York when Ash had shared his stories. Yet it coursed deeper now, magnetic eyes sucking in the words.
"The easiest thing in the world," said Ash, "is to be magnanimous when you're happy. I cheered for you and Sing when you got together. I cheered for you for years. Because a long time ago, you told me you loved me more than him. That was a terrible thing to say, Eiji, to quantify love like that. But it's true: we do love people to different degrees; that's as obvious as saying there are some we love and some we don't. It was easy to want you two to be happy when I knew we were together, you and me--in spirit; you know what I mean. For a long time, even after it all changed, I could still feel your love--your old love. For a long time, I never dreamed I could ever lose you to him."
He sipped his bitter tea, and Eiji mirrored the action. "Now, I feel such self-righteous fury over losing you," Ash went on. "But underneath all that, I feel fury at myself 'cause I let it happen. I retired from the field. I should have tried my best to get out of prison. When I did, I should have used every skill and every stroke of luck to get to you. I don't even know why I didn't. Because, in some sense, from the time I was eight or ten, I never believed I could have a real life? Because I wanted to keep you safe? Because it truly would have been a logistical nightmare to try to be part of your life and keep you safe and still do anything meaningful with my life? Because I didn't want to get in the way of you and Sing? Because I didn't want to hear you say there was no way I could? Why did Sydney Carton go to the guillotine? There are too many answers to tell if it was noble or selfish."
Into the silence that fell, Eiji said, "Do you like Sing?"
It was the wrong response, calculatedly so: Eiji refusing to salve self-pity. On the heels of his anger, Ash felt admiration. "Of course, I like Sing. I've always liked him. But we're not friends anymore. We haven't been friends since I went to prison, since he stopped being in my life. That was the biggest mistake, Eiji. I should have been writing him too all these years. If it was the three of us, maybe it could have worked, like it did when the three of us all hung out in New York. But it's not the three of us. We're just playing at a tug of war with you at the center. That's what me coming back amounts to. And it's like, you know in the Iliad there's a book where Hector and Ajax fight. And they really like each other; at the end of the day, they call off the fight and exchange gifts and everything. But they still have to fight 'cause they're on opposite sides of the war. Sing and I are on opposite sides, that's all."
Eiji cocked his head. "And I'm a war?"
"Yep. I'm sure that sounds demeaning, like it objectifies you. Like you can't choose for yourself. But that brings us back to the original question: where do I fit? You're married to Sing; you have a family with him. You spend every day of your life with him. What am I going to do? See you a couple of times a year and send you lots of messages while I spend the rest of my life watching you slip further away?"
"And what are you saying is the alternative?"
Ash laughed. "There is no alternative, Eiji. God, this whole situation is so stupid. We have nothing but the status quo, and of course, that's better than nothing, so I don't know why we even bothered to get together. It only serves to highlight the fact that it would have been much easier if we'd just skipped all this shit and kept mailing."
Eiji shifted, a little like waking from his nap. He straightened in his chair. "Ash, would you be okay if I took a little walk? I want to clear my head."
Ash laughed again. "You kidding? Would I survive two minutes without you?"
Eiji smiled faintly and creaked to his feet. "I won't be long, okay?"
But sitting alone in the shadowed room was surprisingly hard. After a minute or so, Ash went out too, leaving a quick note for Eiji in case he got back first.
He spotted Eiji at once, walking slowly a block or so ahead in the face of a crisp wind. Pulling his coat close, Ash turned off and went a different way. The act brought to mind that time in New York: Eiji searching for him, calling to him, while Ash had watched from a car a few feet away, justifying the absurd ease of bruising Eiji's heart by the need to protect his body. Nothing had changed, except now he offered no rationalizations.
His brain was tired. Having spilled out its thoughts, it threw up sights and sentences spastically, like afterimages from a camera's flash. This city was impossibly big, even here, far from downtown. Street led to street led to street; the buildings towered grayly. It seemed that Ash had been set down in some alternate universe New York, in a different language with a different smell and a different quality to the people. For an instant, he had a terrifying sense of being stranded there forever. After all, what could be farther from home than a parallel universe? You ask, "Which way to New York?" and they say, "You're standing in it. Didn't you know?"
But it was true, he reflected. There was no way home. The nearest he'd ever had to one was New York in the '80s. He could go back to the city now, but he couldn't go back to that place, couldn't go back to the self who'd belonged there. All his other homes had been people, and they were equally gone. He could feel a fist settling inside his throat and walked faster, zigzagging several blocks.
When he got back to the hotel half an hour later, Eiji was on the phone.
"... back Thursday," he was saying. He eyed Ash as he came in but didn't break his conversation. "Yeah, let's plan that then. Look, Ash is back. I should be going. Yeah, love you too. Bye."
It kind of added insult to injury in that worst of all possible ways: when there was no insult and the injury was self-inflicted. This is why the human heart invented vengeance, Ash thought: to align two selves so that they knew the same feeling.
"Didn't he know you'd be back Thursday?" He sat on the bed next to Eiji.
"He's going to meet me in Sendai. You can say hi if you want."
"How was your walk?"
"You're pissed, aren't you?" The clipped sentences could only mean one thing.
Eiji sighed. "I am a little angry that you are testing me." When Ash said nothing, he continued, "You are... baiting?... 'daring.' You are daring me to leave you. For the record, I am not going to do it. I never have, and I have no intention to start now."
Ash could almost feel tears, but none fell. He wanted to hug him but found himself refraining. "Thank you." At least, he could hear the sincerity in his voice.
"I really am tired of your self-pity." As if to take back the words, Eiji rested a hand on his shoulder, but the gesture came out wrong; he let his hand fall quickly. "It's not that you don't deserve it. You've suffered many times more than what any human being should, and you have survived better--stronger--than almost anyone could. It's just that it doesn't help you, or me, or anybody. I'm tired of the way you hurt us all--mostly yourself--over and over."
Ash nodded. This wasn't news. "It's easier said than done to get rid of it."
In the short silence that followed, Ash caught himself wondering how they would ever fill up the next day and a half. In New York, they had never been swallowed in silence.
"Would you like coffee?" Ash fished in his backpack. "I brought some, just in case."
Eiji laughed. "Your inner clock really is messed up, isn't it? It's almost evening."
"Is that a 'no'?"
"Sure, I'll have some."
Ash set it percolating. "I'm glad you lost the glasses. They used to make you look grown up; now you look younger without, more like you."
"I was surprised the surgery was really easy. Did you get eyes corrected too?"
"It never quite seemed a priority." Ash fought the urge to bustle over the coffee and faced him. "Besides being farsighted is pretty helpful for my line of work, well, what was my line of work. Didn't have glasses in the prison, of course. Now, I just have a cheap, pre-fab pair. Actually, not that cheap; glasses are getting hard to find."
That topic exhausted, Ash did bustle with the coffee, handed Eiji a cup. "Can I ask you something? Do you read out your grandson like that?"
"Like you did to me, with all that stuff about not wallowing in self-pity?"
Eiji smiled a little stiffly. "Sometimes. I try to encourage him not to dwell on bad things."
Ash sat beside him again. "You've really changed. You used to be so sweet."
"I am still sweet; I just have less time for BS." He sipped his coffee.
They drank their coffee in silence.
"Is there anything to do around here in the evening?" asked Ash.
"It's Sendai. That is a silly question."
"Well, show me the sights then or something."
Since it was getting cold and dark, they skipped the outdoor attractions and ended up in an international bar, watching a performance of Indian dance. Eiji said he thought he might have been to that bar before but was a little vague about it. Ash found the dancing good, the beer okay, and the cheese sandwich a relief after finger-picking his way through bits of daikon and rice balls. The music, if a little too upbeat for his taste, provided an excellent excuse not to try to talk to Eiji.
They got back to the hotel three and half hours after they left, around 8:30 p.m. It was cold; they cranked the heat. Thanks to coffee and jet lag, Ash was wide awake, yet there seemed to be nothing to do but go to bed.
Eiji asked him some questions about his new friends. He gave perfunctory answers, annoyed to be spending these few hours together discussing other people.
"They're really my only friends," he said, then, much to his own surprise. "I mean besides you and Sing and a handful of very old people in I'm peripheral contact with from the old days. And a few online research colleagues. The rest of my circle was in Russia. Most of them got killed when the XC hauled us in." He pronounced it "Khah Es," but Eiji seemed to follow. "The rest are still in prison or still in Russia; I pretty much can't contact any of them, not for a long time anyway. Sorry, self-pity again."
As if embarrassed, Eiji shook his head.
"Worse for Lev, though. He really doesn't have any friends outside of Russia, except us. It's amazing how totally everything blows away."
"It is." Eiji stared at his hands in his lap. "Ash, I didn't mean to make you afraid to say honest things to me. I know everything you said was very hard to say, and I know it was mostly true too, even if it had some self-pity."
"Yeah." Ash found a sad smile. "It's still kind of hanging out there: that where-do-I-fit question. It may be self-pitying, but I can't figure out a way to make it go away."
After a moment, Eiji put a tentative hand to Ash's head and brushed a thumb through his hair as you might with a child. His hand slipped down Ash's neck to his shoulder again, and this time it was a better gesture. Ash put an arm around him and leaned in, somewhat awkwardly, till his head pressed Eiji's neck.
"Ash, you underestimate your own importance. You always did. I remember when you were willing to enslave your life to Golzine for a promise they wouldn't kill me. How could you think this would be okay? How could you not even look at another way?"
They were rhetorical questions, and Ash treated them as such.
"You're right when you said it was terrible to say I loved you more than Sing. You are also right it was true then; there are different degrees of love. But there are also different qualities of love, like having two children, who can be totally different yet can be loved the same degree. You think someone can replace you. No one can replace you; that idea is absurd."
The words comforted Ash. They could hardly fail to. But the comfort was superficial. He knew it wasn't a lie, but it was a deflection of the fact that Ash had been not replaced but displaced, which was very nearly the same thing.
"Eiji, sitting in this position is fucking up my back." It was also squishing his chest and making him want to cough again.
"Thank God." Eiji pulled back. "That was really starting to hurt my shoulder."
"Jesus, we're in sorry shape."
They both smiled, but it got Ash thinking of mortality, never far now his seventies loomed. Here they were, two old men barely able to hug without pulling a muscle, discussing qualities of love. Sooner rather than later now, that love would find its peace in death; that comfort at least couldn't be taken away. It brought up snatches of a poem he hadn't heard in years.
"Hang on a second." He dug out his reader and fished through the feeds. Yes, there it was, by Flecker. "This helps me, you know? When I think about getting old." He read out a few of the last words:
"And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;
"When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone."
Eiji listened and then sat pensively. "It's very pretty. Ash, why do you always talk about death? You say you're not suicidal. But you talk about death like most people talk about going on vacation."
"I guess it's 'cause I know there are so many worse things." It was an old answer, rattled off by rote. He paused and tried again: "Death is... my whole life has made up of planning or waiting. Soon as I left my dad's house, I learned I had to be a damn good planner to survive. I planned my way into Golzine's family and out again, planned all through the Banana Fish thing. Then, I went to prison, and I waited and planned appeals. I planned my way through Russia, straight into prison again, where I waited again. I can't get away from tomorrows. And tomorrows wreck your fucking life. They sap the present moment of every ounce of beauty and replace it with a billion worries about who's going to shoot you next or how many of your friends will die if you make the wrong move. Death is the only concept I've ever found that short-circuits all of that. In those moments before death, with nothing left to plan for, you're free. I love death, Eiji, the idea of breaking the chains. It's the most beautiful idea I've ever known. I love stories about endings, how people become their best selves when faced with nothing more. Like I loved the finale of Mina, when the space ship fell into the sun."
Eiji was frowning. "I didn't like that ending at all."
"But it's a long way from loving the idea to taking a knife to my throat. So no, I'm not suicidal. Don't worry about that."
Eiji pressed his hand. "Let's go to bed."
"It's a little early."
"I said to bed, not to sleep. Can I get in bed with you, and we can go on talking?"
"What, in the same bed?"
"Yeah. Is it okay?"
"I guess." It had been over sixty years since he'd lain side by side with Eiji. The thought of doing so again filled him, unexpectedly, with relief.
The bed was small for two. In the jaundiced lamplight in soft sweatpants and t-shirts, they lay a bit stiffly, shoulder to shoulder. They hadn't used to dress that way. In the old days, Ash had been warm enough, and confident enough, just to sleep in his underwear. Eiji, on the other hand, had worn old-fashioned pajamas, the kind you'd expect on an eighty year old, not a kid under twenty. It didn't mean anything that their sleepwear had changed. Except the refrain that everything had changed.
In the uncomfortable quiet, Eiji found his hand and squeezed it. Ash almost flinched to feel Eiji's fingers on his mangled flesh.
"Your hand is cold," said Eiji.
"I'm pretty much always cold; it's the vitamin deficiency thing."
Eiji rubbed warmth into his hand. "Do you get your vitamins now you're out of prison?"
"You look really skinny."
"Prison does that." On his release, Ash had weighed in at 66 kilograms, which his old American brain translated as 145 pounds. He understood, too, that this was on the light side for a man his height. But when he looked in the mirror, all he could see was flab. The last time he and Eiji had lain pillow to pillow, they'd been hard and compact, proud of their athletes' bodies. Now, their skin stretched like webbing over spongy muscle. It didn't bother Ash most days, not a lot. But it bothered him now. The waste of years seemed too egregious to be possible.
Again, Eiji brushed a hand across his brow, then kissed his forehead.
"What're you doing?"
Eiji drew back a little. "Is it okay?"
Was it? "I guess. I just..."
"Sorry." Eiji backed off a little more.
In a confused instant, Ash mixed up his retreat with Slava's leaving and then the XC. Feeling naked and alone, he got an arm around Eiji and pulled him down against his chest. They wriggled briefly, till Eiji settled with a hand across Ash's middle.
"Is this okay?" Ash asked in turn. "What would Sing say?"
"He'd say, 'I had a feeling.'" He could hear the laugh in Eiji's voice. "This is okay with Sing. We talked about all this before I left."
The thought made Ash feel fragile, and a little grateful. After a moment, he asked, "Does he still worry he can't compete with me?" It was a terrible, horrible, no-win question. No, and all the fears Ash expressed were true. Yes, and they hurt Sing just by being here.
"I think, in some ways, he'll always feel he can't compete." As decent a save as the question allowed, which made Ash wonder if it was the truth--or just a save. "But it's silly; you are too different to be compared."
They lay quietly a while, sunk in soft light and warm breathing, enough that Ash almost dipped into sleep. Once again, his thoughts slipped back. "I used to love this with Slava."
"Boris. Sorry. His real name was Bolislav. Funny, I wrote you code names all those years just to make us a tiny bit safer, and it didn't save him. Of course, it didn't."
Eiji gave him a little squeeze. "He died right after you broke up, right? I always thought, if that didn't happen, maybe you'd get back together. You seemed good together."
"I've thought that too." Ash sighed. "I used to fantasize that he'd been thrown in the prison with me, and being locked up together, we'd find each other again. Eiji, I have unconventional fantasies."
Eiji chuckled. "You are an unconventional guy."
"I loved this with him, quiet moments like this. I felt so loved. I've very rarely felt loved. Admired, idolized, lusted after, obsessed over... respected, liked, all that. But loved? I felt loved by Griff and Shorter and you and Slava. When he left me, I felt like my skin got ripped off. And then they shot him, and all those years in prison, it was like a cold wind on my bleeding flesh. Sorry, that image is way over... but whatever."
Eiji held him.
"I really loved him. And he left me because he thought I didn't."
"You said it was because the sex wasn't... didn't feel right?"
"Pretty much." Ash worked to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"Well, I wasn't there, but I think maybe he got scared because he felt like he was using you in a way you didn't like. So he left because he didn't like to hurt you."
"Well... yeah. Didn't I write you that?"
Eiji shifted a little to look him. "But maybe that's not so serious; it just needed a little more talk."
Ash nodded, wanting this conversation to stop.
Eiji kept on watching him, which made him uncomfortable. "I think you've really missed being touched?"
"Didn't I just say that?" Ash looked away, trying not to feel pitiful.
Eiji kissed his forehead again, then his cheek, then his lips.
"Sing--" Ash began.
Eiji kissed him again, and Ash kissed Eiji back, remembering the last time he'd touched those lips, sixty-three years ago. He'd liked them then too, in the abrupt, barely realized space he'd had to register anything besides the fake-out he'd been working. Eiji tasted of mouthwash and smelled of some aloe-ish joint cream, and skin and sweat. It reminded him of nothing; all those months they'd shared a bedroom, and he'd never learned how Eiji smelled. Their cheeks scratched against each other.
Ash put a hand to his face to nudge him back, feeling slightly out of control. "You bring a condom?" he asked to break the mood.
Eiji smiled. "I brought a box."
Ash stared, unable to work out if he was joking.
"Not 'cause I thought you want to have sex with me. It just seemed good to be ready for anything."
"You mean to tell me you still have sex at your age?"
"With chemical help."
Ash returned a small smile that faded quickly. "Do you want to have sex with me?"
Eiji tucked his hand behind his head, as if settling in for a heart-to-heart. "Ash, I have dreamed of having sex with you for many years." When Ash made no response, he added, "I'm sorry. Maybe that feels like betrayal."
"You told me once you were so tired of everybody wanting you. You trusted to exclude me." The corners of his mouth drooped forlornly, an expression of pure "Eiji" guilt he hadn't seen yet in this visit.
As for Ash, he wasn't sure how he felt.
"But please understand," said Eiji, "it wasn't from the beginning, not when we were friends in New York. It never occurred to me; I just thought, 'I am straight,' even though I did like how you kissed. It wasn't something I thought about till after Sing and I got together, years after, when I was pretty used to being in a gay relationship. It let me think of you that way."
Calm, that was how he felt, weirdly peaceful. Just absorbing.
Into the receptive silence, Eiji said, "But please let me be clear. I wanted you because I love you, not because you are so good looking."
"Wait. I'm not?" said Ash, because it was easy.
Eiji laid a hand on his arm. "I dreamed of making love to you because I love you; that's all. And I never expected it to happen."
"Well, it's a bit tough when you're on different continents."
"I don't expect it to happen now."
Ash faced him, leaning elbow to leaning elbow. "Eiji, I'm not really prepared to have sex."
"But I don't feel betrayed."
Eiji found his hand again and squeezed it. "Thank you." The sincerity of his smile was Ash's first indication of how worried he'd been.
"Come here." Ash opened his arms and with some slight, confused maneuvering, pulled Eiji's back against his chest. His head buried against Eiji's coarse, white hair, he drifted to sleep.
He awoke happy, like in the first few days after busting out of the Russian prison, when everything seemed a dream come true. Morning grayed the room, but it was a peaceful gray. During the night, Eiji had managed to push Ash almost out of bed so that his ass was now hanging, slightly cold, off the edge. Ash pushed back, waking Eiji.
The act of scooting Eiji back into his place set off the morning cough. He hacked for a couple minutes, assuring Eiji between coughs that it was just residual while Eiji looked on with concern.
When the cough had settled, leaving only a ragged throat, Eiji leaned over him and kissed him, a very brief, light touch. Ash took his face between both hands and kissed him back deeper.
"You are very good at it," said Eiji.
"Damn straight. I used to be a pro."
Eiji's eyes didn't like that joke, and Ash regretted it, but only a little.
For a while, they lay side by side, still half-sleepy. Outside the window, rain began pattering. Ash had a slight dehydration headache: too much beer and coffee. Should make tea. It seemed strange to lie here with no reason to get up. Even in prison, there had always been a reason.
After a while, Eiji sat up and scratched at his hair. The back of his t-shirt said "Coach" in English. Eiji had had a full life, he thought, a full life of doing good things.
"Would you shower with me?" Eiji said, derailing Ash's thoughts completely.
"I--'kay." Ash had no desire to, yet he could only say yes. Any other answer would break their momentum, and it was that momentum, he realized, that kept him lofted above the realities, like a plane sweeping down the clouds.
He didn't like being naked in the steamy spray with Eiji, not because they were naked per se: Eiji had seen him almost naked many times in New York; adding in his genitals didn't mean much. It was the rest of their bodies that bothered him. He didn't like being treated to an up-close display of the folds upon folds of Eiji's skin, his potbelly and liver spots. It just reiterated how close Eiji was to the end. As for himself, he looked younger but just as bad in his way.
In kindergarten his poor, misguided teacher had terrorized the kids with a cartoon about aging. It presented the body as a battlefield in an escalating war, microbes and cells slaughtering each other, until the young man at the beginning hobbled off stooped and purple-stained. Sixty-five years later, Ash still remembered pieces of it vividly. He and Eiji had fought that battle, and they'd lost, like everyone.
While Ash was pretending to be engaged in soaping himself, Eiji touched his shoulder. "Damn, you have a lot of scars." Ash went on soaping. "And I know some of them."
"I know some of yours too," said Ash, not looking at him.
Eiji touched his side. "This was Arthur. And this was Lao." His voice was very quiet.
"Other way around," said Ash.
Eiji hugged him. It was abrupt and irrefutable, wet skin to wet skin, sticky except where Ash was soapy. Ash hugged him back awkwardly, soap bottle in hand, until it became less awkward. Then, they finished showering.
At breakfast in the lobby, Eiji's eagle eye watched Ash pop his pills.
"Nope, that's just once a month. These are just my vitamins and iron. How about you? What were you taking upstairs?"
"Just blood thinner."
Ash nodded, trying not to over-read the "just."
"So what do you want to do today?"
The question washed away his worries. He became like a feather; it didn't matter what they did, as long as they did it together. "Show me the sights?"
"Yeah, well, we can't help that it's November."
They bought Ash an umbrella (Eiji had one) and went to visit Rinno Temple. It made Ash uncomfortable, as if it called him to be sanctified. They didn't stay there long, but went on to the ruins of the Date Clan's castle. Ash liked it there with the rain glowering. It felt more real than it would in the sun. He could almost see the 17th-century people, scurrying to and fro through the mud in their geta, nothing romantic about their lives: lives filled with disease and hunger and violence, over by fifty most likely, yet lives not to so different really from those of their descendants milling around in jeans and raincoats.
The intrusion of modernity reminded him of the work he had waiting: some light hacking and research. He wasn't on a timeline exactly, but he was hoping for a job and he wanted to impress.
Around 1:30, Eiji said, "We should get lunch. I want to take you to McDonald's: you need some kilocalories."
So while Eiji ate a salad, Ash ate a cheeseburger. And cheeseburgers not being the fat-fest they'd been before the reforms, Eiji foisted some fries on him as well. It made him miss America.
"Eiji, after this, I should head back to the hotel. There's some work I should get done: should just take a couple hours."
"This is your probationary work? Yeah, you definitely should."
Back at the hotel by 2:30, dripping below the thigh, they changed into dry clothes and, again, pushed up the heat. They each claimed a bed, Ash with his reader, Eiji with a book, first time he'd seen someone read a print book in years (except the old copy of the Bible in the prison).
After a few minutes, Ash was lost in tracing financial records and political forums.
Eiji's voice jarred him: "It's just like New York."
Ash looked back at his screen. The records of pseudonymous conversations seemed suddenly insubstantial. "I'm slower now." He looked down at his eight-fingered hands.
"What are you reading?"
"You've read it before."
Eiji looked at the cover as if to verify he had the right book. "It's still good."
"It's about suicide. You don't like suicide."
"I don't mind reading about it," said Eiji, pointedly resuming his read. After a moment, he added, "But I feel really sorry for the guy's wife."
"Me too." Ash went back to his research.
Eiji got out his phone and sent a message to Sing (it could only be Sing), which made Ash disproportionately sour.
After Ash had sent off a redaction of his research, Eiji read to him from Kokoro. The Japanese was a revelation to Ash, who had only read it in English. He couldn't follow it word for word, but knowing the story helped: the friend you drive to death with your carelessness, the impossibility of finding the way back.
Though I had resolved to live as if I were dead, my heart would at times respond to the activity of the outside world, and seem almost to dance with pent-up energy. But as soon as I tried to break through the cloud that surrounded me, a frighteningly powerful force would rush upon me from I know not where and grip my heart tight until I could not move. A voice would say to me, "You have no right to do anything. Stay where you are."
Eiji broke off. "We should get dinner."
Though they were just a couple of pages from the end, Ash acquiesced.
They went to a mid-priced restaurant, where Ash tackled the chopsticks again with slightly more success. He was glad of the private room that would give him some warning before pitying waiters wandered in and offered forks.
After dinner, they returned to the hotel and went straight to bed, the rain still drumming. They turned off the lights and held each other, Ash's head in the crook of Eiji's arm.
Finally, Eiji said, "I liked such times in New York, when we had time to just be at home together."
After another space, Eiji said, "This is killing my shoulder." They readjusted, ending up on their sides, almost forehead to forehead. Eiji caressed his cheek. "You are so beautiful, Ash. More than you were then."
"You can't even see me in this light."
Eiji tweaked his nose. Ash tweaked Eiji's back. It lightened his mood, even though he couldn't see in himself that weathered beauty Eiji spoke of.
"I hate that they hurt your hands," said Eiji.
"I'm not crazy about it either. But worse things have happened. Worse things could have happened." His throat tickled, and he coughed.
When the coughing stopped, they lay quiet again, the rain softer now, which troubled Ash; it felt like a loss of shelter.
Eiji kissed his forehead. "Is it okay if I kiss you?"
"I wish you would." Ash pulled him closer till Eiji lay half on top of him. It surprised Ash how easy it was to sink into Eiji's caresses, to rub against his face, his neck, his "Coach"-t-shirted shoulder. Even with Slava, he'd very rarely felt at ease like this.
"I am usually bottom--"
"You surprise me."
"Oh, be quiet. I feel a little off my balance." Eiji leaned on his elbow and looked down on Ash. "You are usually bottom too?"
"Because you see sex as something done to you?"
Ash raised an eyebrow. "Is that why you're on the bottom?"
Eiji laid gentle fingers on his face. "I'm not you."
"Then why? Seriously, you're asking me, I get to ask you."
Eiji shrugged. "Sing likes to be on top. It's okay with me either way."
Ash wrapped an arm around him. "Doesn't leaning in that position hurt your shoulder?"
"Yes, like hell."
"Then come here." He drew Eiji fully on top of him. With an arm around Eiji's back, he massaged the place where the shoulder met the neck. "I guess I feel like it's something that's given to me, at its best, I mean."
Eiji gave him a lingering kiss. They kissed a long time. "Is it okay if I hump you a little?" said Eiji into his ear.
The question struck Ash as very quaint--but reasonable and appropriate given all Eiji knew of his background. "Sure."
They did it a few minutes, a weird mix of awkward and pleasant, cloth rubbing cloth. After a while, they spun down into stillness, neither of them remotely erect. Ash held Eiji against his chest, and once again, there was quiet, hearts beating, and rain.
The next day, they rose businesslike and performed their tasks. They showered separately, shaved, dressed, took their pills, packed their bags. Eiji checked his messages.
"When are you expecting Sing?"
"He's arriving on the 8:34, so he should be here before 9:00."
Ash stuffed his sweatshirt in his pack and zipped it. "Cool. We can catch up for about an hour before I have to catch my train." He glanced at his watch: already 8:43.
Eiji folded his arms, self-encased and thoughtful. "It's not a long visit."
"Eiji, it may be best if Sing and I get a small dose of each other."
"I meant you and me."
"Us too," said Ash, not looking at him.
They stood in silence a moment. "Do you think there's much chance you could work in Japan?"
"I don't know, Eiji. Sure, there's a chance. That's what I'm going to Niigata to find out. Will it pan out? I don't know."
Eiji put a hand on his arm. "Try. If there's a chance you could stay in the country, don't let go of it. It would be so convenient; we could see each other pretty often."
"Which brings us back to the question..."
"I will see you." Eiji's hand tightened. "If I have to take a ship to San Francisco and a train to Washington D.C. or whatever, I will see you. But if you could stay in the country, it would be so much easier."
"Yeah, but, Eiji, what will we do?"
"I don't know. We could rent a cabin or something. Spend weekends sometimes." Eiji drew him down to sit on the bed. "There's this place in the forest about an hour from my house with cabins with fireplaces; they are very small and cozy. It would be very nice for us, two or three days in a cabin like that."
Ash imagined himself curled up by a fire with Eiji. The image got snagged on a memory of a fireplace and Slava, but the pain, though keen and abrupt, couldn't rob the idea of its appeal. Ash kissed his forehead.
"We don't need much time," said Eiji. "As long as we have--"
They both jumped at the knock at the door.
Eiji answered it, Ash behind him. He barely heard the pleasantries coming out of his mouth so stunned he was by the sight of Sing. He'd seen photos, of course, but that couldn't prepare him for the bulk of the man Eiji seemed to levitate into the room. He towered over Ash, heavy and gray, laugh lines thick around his eyes. Ash felt bludgeoned by the years, realizing that Sing, till that moment, had still been a child to him, that quick, smart, scrawny pipsqueak he suddenly missed intensely.
"It's good to see you," Sing was saying--to him? To him.
"Good to see you too."
Sing held out a hand. The gesture seemed utterly foreign. After staring a moment, Ash grasped it, but somewhere, midway, Sing changed plans and pulled him into a rough hug. They stood apart, embarrassed, Eiji incongruously hanging back from both.
"You look good," said Sing, lying plausibly.
"You too," said Ash, also partly a lie. He looked ruddy and healthy for a man of seventy-six, overweight. He looked happy (all those laugh lines). "Being a grandpa suits you." Sing lit up. That much was true.
"We should grab breakfast," said Eiji.
They went to a bakery down the street and sat at a wobbly table, Ash asking questions about Sing's teaching career because he couldn't think of anything else. They got into an involved discussion of the floods in Bangladesh, while Eiji looked on with something bordering on disapproval.
I won't even get a chance to say goodbye to him, thought Ash. He and Sing will be standing there and see me on train. I'll ride off, and they'll go home.
He heard himself say, "So Sing, are you still in touch with Akira?"
It was a stupid question: she was the mother of his child. But Sing said merely, "Yeah, we get together for New Year's sometimes and for Fei-Cui's birthday, sometimes Ming's."
"Sounds nice," said Ash, at a loss. He checked the time. "I should be heading for my train."
"You know, you're one of the only people I know who still uses a wrist watch."
"Tell me about it. I practically had to special order the thing."
Why hadn't it struck him earlier that their accents were the same? It was like coming across a long-lost brother.
They went out into the rain-washed street and ambled toward the station.
"You're awfully quiet," said Sing to Eiji, breaking what seemed to Ash an inviolate code.
"Yeah," sighed Eiji with an inscrutable remove that was very Japanese but not Eiji.
Sing seemed to get it though. He gripped his shoulder, the sore one, Ash noted. Maybe he was accustomed to massaging it.
As they waited at the station, Sing asked him questions about Russian politics. In the midst of a rote answer, Ash panicked. "I'm sorry," he said, "I've got to talk to Eiji," and dragged him to a corner behind a veil of echoing Japanese voices. "Please don't tell Sing anything I said."
"Yeah, okay." Eiji squeezed his arm.
"Except that I like him." Ash forced a smile. "Thanks. That is all." He led Eiji back to where Sing was waiting, watching a couple of little kids darting around their parents' legs.
The train came on time, unlike in Russia. Ash hefted his pack. Sing seized him in a hurried hug. Then, Eiji gave him a similar one. "Tell me as soon as you know," he said. "About the job."
"Will do." Ash turned to board.
"I love you," Eiji blurted.
Ash looked back, trying not quite successfully to avoid Sing's face, but Sing's eyes were on the tracks. "I love you too," he said helplessly.
"I'll see you soon," said Eiji. "If you leave Japan, I'll see you before you leave."
"I'll try to stay."
"I'll do everything I can," Conviction crept into his voice. Though he might be old and broken, history verified his capabilities. It had to be done, and step by step he would do it. "I'll make it happen, Eiji." He boarded the train.