FICTION | Kodama
Years later, he met her again. When he first saw her he couldn’t believe his eyes. In his mind she was a ghost, and had been for many years. It was never in his power to hold on to people, make them stay if they didn’t want to. And once people had gone they never came back.
He approached her, without her noticing, and when he stood an armspan away he said her name. She looked. Her expression barely changed, and he wondered if she even recognized him. There were times he didn’t feel like the same person he had been when he’d known her. The continuity of a single mind across years of dissolution and fragmentation was a mystery he didn’t comprehend. And yet she knew him as well, because she said his name in return.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“The curator is a friend of mine,” he said. “I didn’t realize when I read your name in the catalogue—I thought it must just be a coincidence.”
She smiled. “Well,” she said, “here I am.”
What remains, he thought, after the passage of these years? She isn’t the same, and I’m not the same. What might have been has already gone by without being seized. Can I hope to do anything now?
“What have you been doing?” she asked.
“This and that,” he said. “Odd jobs. Keeping myself alive. It’s disappointing, you know—seeing everyone else move on up, and I feel like I’m still where I’ve always been.”
“Am I one of those moving up?”
“Somewhat,” he said. “Congratulations. Sorry I didn’t say it earlier. I was so surprised to see you.”
“Thank you,” she said. She took a sip of her wine, as did he, mirroring her without meaning to. Gesturing towards a print on the nearest wall, she said, “I’m pleased with how it turned out. I wasn’t confident at first if it would stand up in comparison to the others.”
Again he looked at the photograph. A woman—her, he thought, it must be her—face hidden behind a large primitive-looking mask, made of papier-mâché or something of the kind. The face was neutral, ethereal, like a medieval sculpture. One could see a few strands of black hair on her shoulders. She was nude from the neck down, but her breasts and pubic region were obscured by some thick viscous material that might have been paint or might have been tar. The whole thing was in black and white.
“When did you make it?” he asked.
“Around a year ago,” she said. “I have a few different prints, but this is the one I’m most fond of. Are you free this week? You could come to my studio and see for yourself.”
An unexpected invitation. Images of desire long-suppressed and now fulfilled—the redemption of wasted years. He hadn’t been held hostage by her memory, at least not consciously, even if the reflection of her in the faces of other women had on occasion enticed him: and yet the thought that those memories might gain a purpose was enough of a seduction in itself.
“Nothing could please me more,” he said. “Thursday?”
He lived modestly, though enviably in the comfort of his surroundings. He shunned screens. In the evenings he read or put on music and dozed off in the canvas armchair he’d brought with him from his childhood home. When he woke at six he’d spend an hour at the drafting table before breakfast, then off to work: at the moment, tutoring wealthy, unmotivated children, because it paid well and left him free to do what he pleased the rest of the time. On occasion he considered going back and finishing his degree.
She lived within her means, though she surrounded herself with people who didn’t: people who thought they were going to live forever. She wanted to preserve her life in a chemical solution that wouldn’t damage it, make it fade and yellow over the centuries, but keep it just the same as it was now. Not because things were perfect, but at least her life was, for the first time, truly her own. At the moment she was living on a fellowship supplemented by work for magazines. That was fine: it was enough.
Her roommate, Nadia, told her: “Life begins when you reject necessity.” That, in the midst of a marijuana-fueled evening in which they’d both broken down crying at several points, in which she’d called her parents twice only to think better when she heard the click and “Hello?” on the other end. Necessity, that things had to follow, that certain things were simply unavoidable. No, she’d rejected that already, she thought. Life was slow to wake all the same. It was a perpetual hour before dawn.
At the age of twenty-five she learned to drive for the first time. Seemed like the kind of thing she should know how to do. Now she could drive out to the beach for a weekend if she wanted, stay with her grandparents in their retirement villa, forget what she’d left behind and the obligations that were waiting for her when she returned. Often she found herself thinking of the past. It all appeared to her, now, as a series of sepia-tinged vignettes, tied together by free association more than by any causal link. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood: her past selves were like different people. How was she herself?
Why she’d made the offer to him: she had no idea. It was something to say, in the moment. There was no agenda, only the glimmering of interest, of possibility. It was a way of passing the afternoon. An older photographer working with her on a spread asked her, quite abruptly, if she had plans Thursday night. She smiled crooked and said: “Sorry, I kind of do.” And it was true. The older woman looked disappointed, but was courteous. They exchanged cards in case anything changed. This, she thought, is what a career is, and a career is what being an adult is.
“I’d like you to model for me,” she said. “I’m doing a series on the male form in agony.”
“You want to cause me pain?”
“I want to see you in pain, that’s all.”
He was in her studio, admiring negatives and prints hung from strings, flipping through her pad of compositions and admiring the old slide projector she’d bought at a flea market for $2 and hacked back into working order. She showed him a series she’d worked on last year, focusing on what she called “childhood traumas”: being sent to bed hungry, vomiting into a bucket, being spanked, that sort of thing. It was suffused with both eroticism and horror, in equal measure. The model appeared very much like a child, but she assured him that it was in fact a five-foot-tall adult woman.
“I didn’t know people could be so short,” he said. “Except dwarfs.” It was intended as a kind of joke, but she didn’t laugh, and he wondered if it was more insensitive than he realized. Stupid, stupid, he told himself. Hopefully she’d forget about it.
But she didn’t even seem to be paying attention. She had her camera out and pointed it at him. He grinned, struck a pose, held it for a few seconds before she started laughing. “This isn’t a Polaroid,” she said. “This film stock is expensive. When it’s time for your close-up, you’ll know well in advance.” She set it down and picked up her phone instead. One, two, three: quick portraits of the moment before, for the sake of remembering. For the sake of knowing what came before the disjunction.
And then she came over to him. They were separated by only a few inches of space. He thought: I should kiss her, right now. I should at least touch her. His fingers hesitantly brushed against her arm.
“Take off your shirt,” she said softly. He withdrew his hand, raised it to his collar, slipped one button after the other, then slid it off. He stood before her, unsure of how she regarded him, unsure how to regard himself even. He kept in shape—he liked to think he did—but he didn’t have a classical physique, to say the least.
“Fair’s fair,” he said. He pointed to the black chemise which hung loosely on her slight frame. “Take off your blouse.”
She wore white underwear, the color of bandages, like in an old movie. Without his asking, without his doing the same, she slipped out of her jeans. Similar thoughts raced through both their minds: Here? Now? But they didn’t let it show, and each made more confident by the seeming resolve of the other, they allowed things to progress.
He felt a twinge of pride when he first entered her, as if he had really gained back the lost years. But while they made love, she refused to kiss him. For some reason that was more painful than if it had been the other way around. When they met he was still a child, hadn’t been with even one woman. Because she was beautiful he thought that she must be experienced, and he assumed that sex came naturally to her. All he wanted was to be held, caressed, kissed—infantile desires, really, but they would have been enough. This was both the consummation and another frustration of his longstanding desire.
She was surprised by him. She’d expected an inept lover, less considerate, physically unremarkable. Even if he wasn’t a virgin—she knew he wasn’t—she thought he’d be the sort poorly equipped to pleasure a woman. But he was good, receptive, he listened to her. The way he looked at her, like she was the goddess of love given flesh, stirred her loins and made her want to kiss him. And yet she turned away when he brought his face close to hers. It would have been undignified, she thought. One thing for a photographer to fuck their model: another thing to kiss them.
He emptied himself on her stomach. Thankfully she had a roll of paper towel in the studio in case she spilled developer. After they’d both patted themselves down he lay beside her, let her rest her head on his chest, stared into the middle distance. He couldn’t believe what had just happened.
“I always had a thing for you,” he said. “I never thought you might feel the same way.”
“Silly boy,” she whispered.
“What would people say if they knew about this?”
“You know. People from school.” He looked down at her. She had closed her eyes, and was running her fingers through the scant hair on his chest. “Do you keep in touch with anyone?”
“No,” she said. “For a while I kept in touch with Jess and Milana and those guys, but it’s hard when you’re so far away. Eventually I gave up.”
“It’s the same with me,” he said. “Once in a while I hear from someone, but not often. It’s like an entirely different world, and I’m the only one who made it over. Until I saw you.”
And then he was quiet. She pushed herself up, picked up her underwear, began to fix herself. He stayed where he was.
“Can I take a picture of you?” she asked, after a moment. For the first time she sounded nervous. “Just for myself, I mean. I won’t show anyone else.”
“I want to remember. I want to be able to see you, the way you are now, whenever I want.”
“Whenever,” he said dreamily. He closed his eyes, heard her footfalls, felt her standing over him. Then, the click of the shutter.
Afterwards he went back to his apartment and put on the White Album. He skipped to the song that always made him think of her. Lying back in his armchair he closed his eyes and tried to summon up the memory, to hold onto it a little bit longer. He felt he still had something of hers with him.
Once she’d cleaned up the studio she took a cab home and showered off. She didn’t want to wear his smell. Tomorrow, she thought, I’ll call up that photographer and we’ll make a lunch date for the weekend. And…
The card said “Annette”, but she preferred to go by Nettie, which was fine. She paid for the pad thai and talked about a fellowship for artists in Alaska that she’d helped to found.
“What you need,” she said, “is a large-scale project. Something substantial, that you could publish as a book, say. But you need an idea sufficient for that kind of volume.”
“I think I have one,” she said. “It’s more of an inkling than anything else. Have you heard Lafcadio Hearn’s story ‘The Black Hair’?”
“No, I can’t say I have.”
“It’s a Japanese ghost story,” she said. “A samurai lived in the south with his wife. They were desperately poor. Finally one day he grew tired of their lot and left her. He traveled north and joined the retinue of a wealthy lord. He served so faithfully that the lord permitted him to marry one of his daughters. Within a few years he was comfortable and honored.
“But he grew discontent. His thoughts turned again to the woman he had left behind. One night he couldn’t bear it any longer, and while his noble wife was asleep he mounted his horse and rode south. He arrived back in the town he had left. It was empty and decayed. He searched for the house in which he had lived, when he was younger and poorer, and he found it.
“There was his wife, with her long black hair, glinting in the moonlight. He went to her and held her in his arms, begging her forgiveness. She told him she had waited for him faithfully all the years, that she had loved no one else in her life. He looked at her and saw that he was not holding a living woman but a corpse, a skeleton, all the flesh eaten away—but still her black hair grew long, and wrapped around him, and he couldn’t escape.”
He had waited outside her studio every night for a week, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Around eight or nine in the evening he drove over and parked on the opposite side of the street. She’d never seen his car, so far as he knew, so he thought he’d be inconspicuous.
He didn’t think of what he was doing as stalking, if only because he didn’t think of himself as a stalker. Anyway he didn’t want anything more: just to see her would be enough. And yet every night, however long he waited—until three or four in the morning—he didn’t see her. Maybe she was never there, he thought. He wondered if she’d noticed him, and had stopped coming to the studio for that reason. A month had passed since their tryst, and she hadn’t contacted him once.
If he could have asked her something, he would simply have asked why. Why would she seduce him, take him into her sanctum and bare herself to him, then never speak to him again? He dreamed about receiving messages from her, deeply apologetic, asking him to come to her immediately, but before the fantasy could go any further he woke up. When he checked his phone, nothing had changed: she hadn’t responded to his last message, sent two weeks previous. So he sat and waited in the one place he thought she was sure to go.
The notion entered his mind that he could go up, if she wasn’t there, and look around, see what she was hiding. A grotesque violation, of course—but if he was careful, if she never knew, if he didn’t take or leave anything, it couldn’t do any harm. The trouble was knowing if she really wasn’t there. He didn’t know, from the outside, which windows were hers. From what he remembered they might have been on the other side of the building entirely.
After the act itself was done the memories had vanished almost overnight. He remembered individual sensations, visions, which came to him as arbitrarily as dreams. Her face—the feel of her skin—her smell. But he couldn’t assemble these fragments into a coherent memory, as if he’d imagined the whole thing, although he knew he hadn’t.
Three in the morning. Hidden in his car, he stared across the street to the old factory and the empty parking lot. She couldn’t be there. Of course she wasn’t there. He made a decision.
No one there as he crossed the street. No one there as he climbed the iron stairs to the second level, around the back. Her initials by the door: J.K. Light coming out from the crack underneath. She was there, meaning he couldn’t be, meaning he ought to turn around and go back to the car and drive home. But instead he tried the doorknob. It wasn’t locked, but as he turned it there was a groan, and he stopped. The door had opened half an inch, just enough for him to see inside.
She lay on the floor, legs spread, surrounded by photographs. Technically she wasn’t naked: she wore a robe, but it was undone, revealing her chest and pubis to the ceiling. Her hands lay at her sides, as if she were crucified. He looked for a camera, an explanation. There was none. He perceived that there was someone else in the room with her, someone he couldn’t see, whose breathing may as well have been the wheezing of industrial machinery. He couldn’t stand it, and pushed the door open.
In the full-length mirror he saw himself. He needed a moment to recognize his own reflection. She didn’t react to his entrance, though a faint grimace crossed her face. What would he do? He felt and saw the bulge in his pants, and although it shamed him he didn’t lose his arousal. Seeing her lie there, carelessly exposed, he wanted her desperately, violently. What he would do, he didn’t know. He took a step forward, treading on the photographs scattered across the floor.
Instantly her eyes flew open, and she screamed. For a moment he stood still. He wanted to explain himself, to excuse himself. But he couldn’t speak. Words wouldn’t come. He stepped back, stumbled and fell against the wall, as she rose to her feet and stood above him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, at last. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I don’t know,” he said again. “I have no idea.” He was talking fast, saying nothing, desperate to grab onto some means of escape. She was somehow so terrifying. “Please, don’t call the police.”
She stared at him, shrinking him down in her sight until he felt like a paper doll. His erection had vanished when she screamed.
“Go,” she said. “Get out.”
He was out the door before he was even on his feet. She heard him running along the outside staircase, heard the engine start and the screech of tires on pavement. Then she knelt down, picked up the photograph he’d stepped on. It was ruined. She tore it in half, then into quarters, and threw the pieces into the wastebasket.
Grischa Menz attended Columbia University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut. His writing has previously appeared in Small Craft Warnings, Surgam, and the Washington Square Review.
Photograph by Zoya Loonohod