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The Sea Came in at Midnight
By Steve Erickson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Steve Erickson
All rights reserved.
I want you at the end of your rope, lashed to the mast of my dreams.
Now she laughs when she reads it. She's trying to remember if she thought it was as ridiculous four months ago, back in L.A. Maybe not; she was a little more desperate then. But now she's almost eighteen, and it just seems very funny to her. That's what a little age and wisdom and perspective will do for you.CHAPTER 2
It's the first line from a personals ad that ran in the newspaper just after the New Year. Crumpled and yellowed as though much older, the ad is now tacked to her hotel room wall.
Also tacked to the wall are articles from travel magazines about mysterious cities such as Budapest, Dublin, Reykjavik and San Sebastian, cities she's always assumed she will never see. But then she never thought she would see Tokyo either. There are also articles from literary journals and art magazines about Flannery O'Connor and Uumm Kulthum and Ida Lupino and Sujata Bhatt and Hannah Höch and Big Mama Thornton and Hedy Lamarr and Kathy Acker and Asia Carrera.
There's also, along with the ad that ran in the personals, a piece from the same day's newspaper that tells how exactly two thousand women and children marched off a cliff in Northern California on New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight. Or anyway, the piece says it was the stroke of midnight, although the paper isn't quite right about this, and some other things. It wasn't, for instance, quite the orderly mass suicide the newspaper suggests. It also wasn't exactly two thousand. The seventeen-year-old American girl who lives in this hotel room knows this because she was there, number two thousand herself; and now she's here in Tokyo, and, well, anyone can do the math.CHAPTER 3
A month ago, after arriving in Tokyo but before she moved into this room on the top floor of the Hotel Ryu, Kristin lived for a couple of weeks in a ryokan over near the water.
In her little room in the ryokan, she would tack her news clippings and articles to the wall much like she does here, above the little tea table in the corner. Every day the maid would take them down. The maid never said a word to her, nor did Kristin to the maid, the two of them just locked in a silent battle of wills over the articles tacked to the wall. The maid clearly considered the decor unseemly, but Kristin hadn't come all the way from California so someone could tell her what she could or couldn't put on the walls.
Then Kristin moved into the Ryu, one of the revolving memory hotels of Tokyo's Kabuki-cho section, amid the surrounding bars and brothels and strip joints and massage parlors and porn shops. Since she never dreams, she's particularly aware in her sleep of the hum of the hotel's revolution. It's not exactly the hum of machinery or clockwork, it feels and sounds more like the vibration of a tuning fork, in the walls of her room and in the floor beneath her tatami mat. When the revolving cylindrical hotel slides into alignment with one of the outer exits, it opens up into one of the passages that lead to random neighborhoods of the city. Depending on the time of day, the long pulsing blue corridors sometimes deposit Kristin on the Ginza, and from there she walks to the bay not far from the outdoor market where the boats bring in fresh tuna in the early-morning hours.CHAPTER 4
Her first couple of weeks in Tokyo, when Kristin was living at the ryokan, she would go down to the market every morning and breakfast on fresh sushi with extra wasabi, the strong green horseradish she prefers to the fish. Now that she lives at the Ryu she still sometimes goes down to the wharves, like this morning when, realizing the vendor was out of wasabi, she gravely rejected the sushi and pushed it back across the stall counter uneaten. Sorry, she shook her head, and the seething vendor exploded in highly indignant Japanese. They got into a heated argument despite the fact that neither actually understood anything the other was saying. "But don't you see that the whole point of the sushi is the wasabi?" she kept trying to tell him; he was what Kristin, back in the States, used to call a point-misser.
In the gray day, the gray city disappears. It's possible an empirical investigation would reveal that, during the day, there in fact is no Tokyo, only people wandering an empty plain overgrown with tufts of fog that take the shape of shops, homes, hotels, temples. But at night the city blazes like an aquatic arcade surfacing up through black water, and in the most labyrinthine city in the world, Kristin fixes herself to the cityscape by humming a song, any song, since Tokyo exists in a vibrating lull—a maelstrom of frantic motion in complete silence, no honking cars, no hawkers of goods, no obscenity-screaming pedestrians, just the hum of the Yamanote subway like the sonic spine of Tokyo consciousness, or a hum in the air like the whirring revolution of the Hotel Ryu that Kristin hears in her sleep. The song Kristin sings to herself these days is "April Skies," by an English band from the 1980s. Maybe she sings this particular song because it happens to be April now: Hand in hand in a violent life, making love on the edge of a knife, and the world comes tumbling down. At the shores of Tokyo Bay she watches on the other side of the water the bright beacon of light that attracted her attention the first night she was here; she has no idea what makes this light, or where it comes from. At night it's too bright to be a window, too close to be a star. In the daylight neither the light nor its source can be seen at all.CHAPTER 5
Of course it's very strange to Kristin that, having been hardly anywhere in her seventeen years—having never even left until four months ago the little Northern California town where she grew up—she should have wound up here in Tokyo working as a memory girl in the Hotel Ryu. In her off hours she writes her memoirs in a notebook, saying to herself, Well now Kristin, this is a little presumptuous, don't you think? To be writing your memoirs at age seventeen? But she concludes that, after all, the months since she left home have been interesting, and if she herself isn't worthy of a memoir, maybe they are.
This evening she doesn't feel so well. Lately she's constantly fatigued and her stomach is queasy. But she lays down her notebook and rises from the mat to prepare for her rendezvous with the old Japanese doctor who is her most important client; she puts on the single dress that she brought with her from L.A., a light blue one. In her early weeks in Tokyo she lost enough weight that it finally fit her, but now it's become tight again. She hasn't yet told the hotel madam why.
As Kristin strains to fasten the buttons of the dress, she notes that the number written on her body has now almost completely faded. It's located right above her hip and it says 29.4.85. To anyone else seeing this number on Kristin's body, it might be a secret code, or a combination; it's even something of a mystery to Kristin. She knows what it is but she doesn't know what it means. The man who wrote it there in indelible black marker ink two months ago didn't know what it meant either, but then, like the vendor selling sushi without wasabi, he always was just a big point-misser. Kristin can still remember the look on his face when he did it, though.CHAPTER 6
The old doctor always insists on seeing Kristin and no one else, and his visits have become more frequent, five or six times a week.
The clients of the hotel often establish relationships with certain girls in particular. Unlike the surrounding love hotels of the neighborhood, this is a memory hotel, where girls and clients trade in memory rather than sex, and by nature, memory is more monogamous than desire. A big girl verging on slightly overweight, around five feet eight inches and towering over many of the men who come to see her, Kristin isn't beautiful, though the Tokyo men find attractive the short dirty-blond hair that seemed so undistinguished back in the States. But she's popular because she listens well, and she's smart; much of her young life she's been maybe a little too smart, which she realizes as well as anyone. Sometimes she's thought to herself it's just as well there's a language barrier. She's always had a smart mouth that's gotten her into trouble.
Besides her intelligence and empathy, being American also makes Kristin more valuable to the hotel's clients. As an American, she's considered by Japanese men a natural conduit of modern memory. As a daughter of America, Kristin represents the Western annihilation of ancient Japanese memory and therefore its master and possessor, a red bomb in one hand, a red bottle of soda pop in the other.CHAPTER 7
At ten-forty Kristin goes downstairs to the hotel lobby on the main floor, where the girls usually greet the customers.
She finds the old doctor has already retired to the tiny booth where, on the other side of a small table for two, he now sits neatly dressed as always in coat and tie, dozing in the dark. On the table in front of him, before the love seat where he rests leaning against the wall, is a small vase with a single white rose. Watching over the tiny booth from above the doorway is the serene porcelain mask of a woman's face, placed there to transfix the customer and arouse old, impotent recollections.
The old doctor has been telling Kristin his memories of his life, and she's promised that when he finishes, she'll tell him hers in return. To Kristin it seems an obviously one-sided bargain, her paltry seventeen years for the old doctor's eighty. The old doctor's English is excellent; born in Japan, he in fact spent most of his life in the United States, having returned only in the past ten years. It may account, as well as other things, for the bond he's formed with the American girl.
But tonight when Kristin enters the dark booth, he doesn't say hello. Feeling particularly fatigued this evening, she's momentarily irritated, hoping he doesn't expect too much from her this session. Then she admonishes herself to remember that he's a sad old man, with a sad life and sad memories, and that her kindness is especially important to him. "Hello," she says, not yet having determined whether by custom she's supposed to address him as "Doctor" or "Kaisan." Only after she's sat for a moment next to him on the love seat, looking at his peaceful face with his eyes restfully closed, and only when he remains absolutely silent, does she finally realize he's dead.CHAPTER 8
Keeping her composure, Kristin gets up from the love seat and sticks her head through the curtain of the booth out into the lobby and calls Mika, the hotel madam. When Mika comes into the booth and sees the old doctor, her face turns as white as in her Kyoto geisha days. The two women look at each other; turning her back on the body, Mika pulls a tiny cell phone from her robe and makes a phone call. She draws the curtain of the booth closed behind her.CHAPTER 9
Kristin wants to go back up to her room, but can't bring herself to leave the old man alone. Waiting for someone to come for the body, she sits back down next to the old doctor in the dark.
In death he seems less sad than she ever saw him in life. Is he now simply and completely empty of all his memories, or is he afloat somewhere on one in particular that's brought him some peace? As he sat here in the hotel waiting for Kristin, did his thoughts drift and then, stumbling on a memory that would save him, and making a moment's split decision, did he cast his lot, running alongside like a traveler jumping on a passing train, seizing his last and best chance to escape forever?CHAPTER 10
Several minutes later Kristin is still waiting. She makes small talk in order to break the awkward silence. Thinking of the ongoing account of his life that he's been relating to her, she says, "Well, Doctor," playfully feigning annoyance, "now I'll never know how it all turned out, will I?" and then she realizes that this is how it all turned out. Who would have thought, she wonders to herself, that one's life would run out before his memories? A couple of times she gets up from the seat and sticks her head back out through the curtain into the hotel lobby; Mika is on the other side of the room, still on the phone. A few of the other girls seem to have caught on that something's amiss, and gather around the booth's drawn curtain looking at Kristin. A couple say something to her in Japanese. She shakes her head and pulls it back inside.
After all, she simply can't just leave him here, even if no one has asked her to stay. She remembers how she promised that when he finished telling his story, she would tell him hers; and for all the promises of his life that were broken, none more devastating than the ones he made to himself, she can't bear to break this last one. So as they wait, and as the minutes pass, the west of midnight slowly shifting to the east of it, she begins to speak, and it makes sense to start four months ago, on her last night in the little town called Davenhall, in the Sacramento Delta where she grew up. "Since I've never had a dream," she begins, "one night I woke and went looking for one."CHAPTER 11
But though she'd heard a man has an erection when he dreams, she certainly hadn't wanted the dreams of any of Davenhall's chinamen, old wrinkled dried-up dreams. As she tells her story to the old Japanese doctor now, Kristin sort of glosses over this part, because she doesn't want to shock him, even if he is dead.
"After all," she says to the old doctor, "a dream's only a memory of the future, right? And there I was living in this little town on this little island in the middle of this delta that had no future at all," and so that night she quietly stole from her room in back of the town tavern and into the back alley, after first determining that her uncle wouldn't stir from his drunken stupor behind the bar. Above her, the bare branches of the trees had scraped the moonlight. The dark had hummed with the buzz of mosquitoes.
Soundlessly she had moved down mainstreet past the houses to the town hotel, through the old wooden lobby and up the stairs, from room to room, looking for any random stranger passing through. She knew that the one she found in the shadows was drunk on his back by the way he snored: "I could smell the vodka," she tells the dead doctor in the Hotel Ryu, "I mean, you're not supposed to be able to smell vodka, but remember, I'd been living in back of a bar my whole life," and so she had pulled off her jeans and touched herself for a few minutes until she was wet. Then, straddling the sleeping man, she slipped him inside her.CHAPTER 12
Impatient for the flash of his dream in her mind, she'd had him faster and faster. As he stirred from his sleep, his erection collapsing in confusion before climax, he murmured a strange woman's name, half desperately and half with hope. "Angie?"
A thousand years ago, in the last moments of the Tenth Century, in an ancient Celtic village twelve kilometers from the coast of Brittany, exactly one thousand men, women and children waited in their wooden boats for an apocalyptic tide to come rolling in at midnight. In the light of the moon one could see across the valley all the boats perched high above the landscape on stilts, which the villagers expected to be washed away by the tide, setting them adrift in the millennial deluge. It was only just before midnight that the leaders of the village realized to their dismay they were missing someone, that in fact they didn't number exactly one thousand, but 999—the name of the year that was about to expire. Since the village didn't wish to expire with it, it seemed an ominous miscalculation. From the vantage points of their landlocked boats, the villagers could see the one-thousandth in the village tower to the northwest, in the direction of the sea, watching from the highest window.
Waving frantically to the villagers, trapped and unable to bear the thought of a colossal ocean wall advancing across the countryside and smashing her and the tower into smithereens, the young girl climbed into the tower window, gazed at the night, spread out her arms, and dove to her death.
Excerpted from The Sea Came in at Midnight by Steve Erickson. Copyright © 1999 Steve Erickson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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