A cold winter gust brought him a familiar smell of perfume. He dropped his cigarette and softly pressed a finger against his nose. The smoke from his fingertips mingled with the fading scent of the woman. He turned, but the woman was lost in the crowd. He stood still in the busy winter street and lit another cigarette. The ashes fell, scattering over his shadow as he walked through the knotted streets of Tokyo, memories of memories whispered towards the past.
He was in Tokyo because of Izumi Nakamura.
Izumi wore a perfume with the soft smell of jasmine, and had a slight hint of smoke lingering about her. It was winter when he first met Izumi, but she had been wearing a simple, long, flowery red dress that revealed her shoulders. Her movements had been elegant, with nothing unnecessary. Her legs were the type that you wouldn’t pay much attention to. They weren’t especially long, but rather just right — the kind of legs that look perfect in heels. Her slightest movements, the tone of her voice, and the way she looked when she was listening, all came together to form a sense of inherent beauty. She had the kind of beauty that’s in everyone’s blood, but that is slowly fading more and more with each generation.
After the day they first met, they had started seeing each other every day. One day when they were straightening up his apartment, he found a black wooden box. He tended to throw out anything that he hadn’t used in a while, but he had no memory of having this black box in his cupboard. Izumi opened it, and found that inside there were photographs of caves filled with light. After some research, they found out that these were photographs of mountain caves in New Zealand, called the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, where thousands of tiny larvae hung from the cave’s ceiling, creating a luminescent effect. These natural living lights had been glowing for centuries. She had always wanted to go to New Zealand. Since she was little, she had been fascinated with a huge extinct bird called the Moa, which had last been seen in New Zealand. He found it strange that she could have such a passionate wish to visit somewhere simply because of something so long gone.
They worked hard throughout the summer, hoping to save enough money to go see the caves together. In the end, they made the money, but the trip was still impossible. They were both students from overseas. He was about to graduate, and was planning to return to Hong Kong to start his career. At their young age, establishing a place in society had seemed more important than any love they might encounter along the way. But, they thought, things are not supposed to end just like that. So they promised each other that they would meet ten years later at the caves.
Over that summer, they used the money that they had earned to visit each other. Then she returned to Tokyo and devoted herself to her career. He did the same in Hong Kong. They met new people and sought new opportunities with something like desperation. Things were never as they had once been. Life wore them out, and the passion they had both felt for their love slowly faded away, as if their passion had been locked up in the cave by their promise… just like the cave lights. Today he still hasn’t been to New Zealand. He almost went once, a year and a half ago when he and his wife were on their honeymoon. They stayed at a friend’s place in Sydney for a month, and his wife had suggested that they take a short trip to New Zealand together. She knew that he was interested in the place. He just told her that he’d rather spend more time in Australia, though.
Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie is showing on the art-house film channel he subscribes to, precisely one week before the day the two are to meet. Izumi and he used to watch avant-garde films together all the time, and they would have long discussions about them afterwards. He hasn’t watched many since. Now, ten years later, he’s watching this one with his third scotch. Drinking as the film plays, he closes his eyes. With the bit of French he learned in college, and having watched the film a couple of times, he still knows what’s happening on the screen. It’s the part where Anna Karina is being told what a little girl in a professor’s class wrote to describe her favorite animal. “A bird is an animal with an outside and an inside. Take away the outside, the inside is left. Take away the inside, and you see the soul.” He uttered the lines to himself a couple times. He was never fond of his own voice, and had found it to be rather dull. But for some reason, he liked how his voice sounded when he spoke those lines. As his voice echoed in the empty living room, he started to sense a vague presence of Izumi, echoes of echoes surrounded him.
Drunk on the couch, he starts thinking about Izumi. When they went out they would always find small restaurants. To them, the music that restaurants played was more important than whether the seats were comfortable, the smell of the coffee more important than the taste of the wine, and the small entrées fascinated them more than the main course. When you’re young, you feel like you’ll meet lots of people with whom you will truly connect, but as you get older, you realize that this only happens a few times.
That being said, his married life now isn’t bad. His wife has a good job, and they have a decent-sized apartment in the heart of Hong Kong with a great view of the vast harbor.
They met in their mid-twenties and got married at thirty. He has never been unfaithful to her before — but not for lack of opportunity, or because the women he’s met haven’t been attractive. He and his wife get along well, and they simply haven’t felt the need or desire to have affairs. He looks around the living room; everything in the apartment looks fine. The living room is nice and clean, but its white designer couch and its stylish, open-concept kitchen suddenly give him a chill. He walks onto the balcony with his glass of scotch and stares across the water at the lights of the International Finance Centre slowly turning off, one after another.
Do places have souls?
Suddenly, the phone started ringing. He didn’t want it to wake his wife, so he ran to pick it up. A man’s voice greeted him by his last name. The man asked him to meet at a nearby bar. He wasn’t at all surprised. He just thought it was his boss’s new assistant. His boss changes assistants all the time, so he assumed that his boss wanted to try something new by hiring a man this time around. With a simple “Ok!” he put on his jacket and headed out without thinking about why he was getting such a call at this hour. He locked the door, walked to the lift, and pressed the button. The elevator’s walls were made of glass, and as he dropped from the 47th floor, he saw the lights from all the other nearby buildings flashing by. He is always freest when he’s on that lift, truly himself, although he has never realized it. Instead, when he’s in there, he obliterates the present, as he is always trying to go somewhere else or to return to his apartment. He can always see his own reflection in its glass, so different from how he imagines himself. Walking outside that night, he saw his shadow and thought that it resembled the vision of himself that he kept in his mind’s eye much more closely than it resembled the reality. Nothing exists beyond the surface of a shadow. At that moment, his reflection was shared with the thousand shining lights of the city… He had stepped out of the lift, and kept walking while his shadow led the way.
When he got to the bar, he saw a handsome young man in a perfectly pressed white shirt, blue chinos, and a shiny watch, sitting on the patio with an espresso. He was almost certain that this was the man who had called. The man seemed to have been waiting there for quite some time. He walked over to him; the man stood up to greet him and asked him to sit down.
“I see you’re living well here, Isaiah. Nice apartment, nice area.”
“It’s all right, I guess” he answered. He was starting to realize that this man might not be his boss’s assistant. A slight look of confusion appeared on his face.
There was a moment of silence.
The young man sipped his espresso. Then he looked at Isaiah and finally said,
“Pardon me, for not introducing myself. I just assumed that you would recognize me.”
Isaiah looked at the young man’s eyes. They were large and brown, with a little mole under the corner of the right one. These eyes looked familiar, but he could not recall where he had seen them. After a moment, the man said with a smile, “We’ve met before, around ten years ago”.
After a couple of seconds, Isaiah was finally able to recognize him. The man was Izumi’s brother, Arata. They had met ten years ago, but back then Arata had been just nine. He had grown up to have the same aura as his sister. Arata had come to Hong Kong for the summer to visit his girlfriend.
“How are you?” Arata asked. “Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married?”
“I’m married,” he said. “My wife is sleeping upstairs in our apartment right now.”
Arata looked up at his apartment building; it was ninety-seven stories high.
“Hong Kong is so different from Tokyo,” Arata said. “I wish I had more time here, but I’ll be leaving soon.”
“Is this your first time here?”
“Yes, I always wanted to come. My sister told me it was a place worth visiting, but I never bothered to visit until I met this girl. Maybe it’s because Hong Kong is so close. When I travel, I always like to go somewhere far, away from big cities.” Arata smiled.
After a short silence, and a deep breath, Isaiah finally asked, “So. How’s your sister, by the way?”
Arata smiled again, looked down at his espresso, and stirred it a little before taking out a cigarette. Just before Arata could take out his lighter, Isaiah lit it for him with a match. Arata gave him another smile. This time the smile was a little less genuine. Arata then took a deep breath and told him that his sister had died last month.
“She was in a car accident, and that was it. It was fast. She didn’t suffer at all.”
Isaiah stared with the blank face of a shadow. She’s not dead. He was almost sure that it wasn’t true, yet he had no proof — nor did he have a choice but to believe what her brother was telling him. From the look on Arata’s face, he could tell that Arata didn’t think that he was convinced either. Before he left, Arata asked him,
“Isaiah, do you know what Izumi’s name meant?”
Isaiah shook his head.
“Izumi means ‘spring’ in Japanese, which also means the ‘source of water’…”
The manager came over with the bill. He knew Isaiah, and would always give him a discount.
“It comes to $44.30, Isaiah. On credit card?”
Isaiah paid the bill. He then asked the departing Arata for a cigarette, but he didn’t smoke it. Instead, he left it on the edge of the table and slowly let it burn…
He never knew if Izumi had been planning on going to Australia or not, nor did he ask her brother. None of that mattered to him anymore. He thought about their promise, and about her. He wondered whether she was really gone, or if she had just sent her brother to see if he was married before deciding whether or not she should go to the caves. Perhaps she had simply decided that letting him believe she had died would be better than presenting him with the realities of her life. But again, none of that mattered. In society, reality and truth are never the same thing, anyway.
He thought about her outside and her inside. He thought about what it might be like to see her soul, but what does a soul mean? He reckoned that there should be something between her inside and her soul. Before the soul, there should be life — so that if you take away Izumi, inside you’d see life itself. If she were really dead, it’d be a life that was once lived, that had once existed. This would mean that it was a life that was once true, and that had been at the same time part of reality — actual physical reality. During her existence, he had had the fortune to meet her, to experience some of her life, and to live some part of the true reality with her. Wouldn’t at least that much always be true? But that place has been swept away by time itself, to somewhere so far away that he will never be able to go back.
On his way up, he saw her brother leaving with a woman through the glass doors of the lift. It might have been his girlfriend.
He returned to his apartment, poured another scotch, and stood on his balcony. He checked the time, but for some reason his watch had stopped moving at precisely 20:47. He was sure that it was now much later than that. Maybe the battery had died. But why did it matter? Time is something marked with a system created by men; that’s the only reason that time is represented by numbers. In that sense, numbers were outside of time. Then what would happen, if you took away the outside? If there were no system for telling time, what would differentiate past from present? Time would start when life started, and end when life ended. In that sense, time is just a metaphor for life.
Take away the truth, and time would be stopped at 20:47. If time is a metaphor for life, then from this point onwards all that would be left would be the soul.
From that night on, he lived with a blank face and did his job. At night he would return to his apartment. When he saw his neighbours he would greet them with a nod. He did well at work, maybe even better than ever now. However, since that night, all of his emotions have been swept to a place very far away. Now he wakes up in the middle of the night and finds himself staring across the Hong Kong harbor as the lights turn off, one after another. One night he came back home from work and his wife was nowhere to be found. He searched the apartment and called her: invalid number.
Without longing, there is nothing to return to.
He looked at his watch and the time read 20:47. He was sure that it was much later than that.
Aaron Tang was born in Vancouver, and went to Hong Kong at the age of five, where he attended school for nine years before returning to Canada to attend High School and University. After graduating from Queen’s University in the summer of 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, he decided to attend the University of Guelph for a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
Animated Illustration by Konstantin Steshenko