Someone came up to me in Shibuya and asked me an English grammar question. They often do this to foreigners in Japan; just ask a question off the cuff, maybe about sentence structure, or gerunds or something, as if you are bound to have the answer. Most of us do. Most of us are teachers, or have been at one time or another. He thanked me politely for my answer, bowed a few times, and then thanked me again, continually bowing as he walked backwards.
I was used to all this, been coping with it for years. I told him that he was welcome, in Japanese. I was about to depart myself and go about my busi-ness when I saw someone standing, looking at me, or through me, from the other side of the street. He wore an orange T- shirt with the number thirteen in black, in a circle, large print, covering his chest and belly. Number thir-teen. It reminded me of a song, ‘No.13 Baby’, which was maybe its point. When I started to hum it, he smiled, as if he had been reading my thoughts. How could he have heard my soft hum from across the busy street? I didn’t think I was at all audible.
I stood watching him for some time, as cars whizzed by, their windscreens glaring in the summer sun. He must have known I was staring; maybe he enjoyed having an audience because then, suddenly, he started to dance. The song continued in my head, drums, guitars, the whole lot going, and he gyrated along with it. I wasn’t humming now. The only hum was from the flow of traffic. But his timing was perfect; the way he swung his arms and moved his legs, perfectly in accordance with the music that was in my head.
I didn’t go to him then. I am a cautious man.
Instead I watched the cars whiz by some more and I watched a candidate with a loudspeaker rattle on about the changes she was going to make should she be the chosen one in the forthcoming elections. My Japanese was good enough to follow her, I think, or maybe I was getting more from her gesticulations. I didn’t go to No.13 Baby then. I watched him. A little afraid. A little in awe.
The second day was the same thing. He wore a different coloured T-shirt, red this time, but the same number. I tried to pretend I wasn’t watching, but maybe he knew. There were a lot of people going by, the middle of the after-noon; everybody looking like they had somewhere to go. I didn’t. I didn’t have anywhere to go, not until I worked out what this guy was all about. I had thought about him all night long, his dancing, his oscillations to the music in my head, but the more I lay on my futon trying to remember his fea-tures, the more they slipped away; I knew I’d have to go and take a closer look.
That was why I found myself there again, after my sleepless night, across from him, pretending not to be staring, my eyes peering over the Japan Times, him standing still outside the convenience store, unblinking, like a statue. I crossed to his side. I wanted details. I edged closer and closer and he stood, motionless. I decided to crank up a song in my head, not ‘No.13 Baby’, but maybe another song by the same band, see if I’d get any reaction. So the opening bass lines of ‘Debaser’ started off—in my head only, I refused to hum—and the moment it did, the moment Kim Deal’s bass throbbed into action, off he went, dancing right there in the street, in the afternoon sun, and no one cared one whit, except for me, loving it, loving the alien, and his vivaciousness.
On close inspection he grew even more intriguing and wonderful. His hair was scraggy but in a designed-to-be-that-way look. His eyebrows were dark and bushy, inviting a finger to brush them perhaps, to smooth them out. His eyes had a thin, fox-like peer, but his mouth, his lips, bee-stung, and practically dripping with sensuality. I had never felt such a stir watching a man dance this way before. I wondered what my girlfriend would have thought. He danced as long as the music played in my head. This went on for days.
Everyday a different colour and everyday the same number emblazoned on his chest. It probably all meant something. Or maybe it didn’t. But it was enthralling nevertheless. After a week or so I decided I’d have to muster up the courage to talk to him. I thought long and hard about how I’d go about it. I wondered what I’d say. Finally I decided that a music conversation was the only way to go; it was all that he seemed to know. When he wasn’t dancing in front of that convenience store he seemed pretty much catatonic. And I only ever saw him there, outside that Circle K. When I grew tired and finally went home to Asami, to her what-happened-in-the -office chat, and her per-fumes, and her puerile TV shows, he was probably still there; young people reading manga from the shelves inside the store, and him, alone, outside. I don’t know if he ever left his post.
So I braved it. I walked right up to him, no Japan Times, no music in my head, ready to speak to him in Japanese, as best I could.
I said: You are a terrific dancer; do you like the music I play for you?
Religion is a beautiful delusion, he said, looking blankly ahead.
The statement had nothing to do with what I had offered. I questioned my interpretive skills. Still, I’d try again.
Number thirteen, eh?
The Lolita Goths are a-plenty, he said, especially in this neighborhood. Nothing I said had any bearing on anything he said, and vice versa. It’s a good day for a walk!
Teenage lobotomy, he said. I sighed.
This seemed to set him off. He warmed up considerably, a monologue if you will, expounding:
The T-shirt is the true garment, nothing reveals more about its wearer, no other item comes close. The T-shirt is the modern world’s single most impor-tant item, the real window to the soul.
He also said he had a taste for cartoon girls, their fine lines, their lack of blemish, mostly their lack of smell, and wasn’t that comforting, a lack of smell? Surely the most wonderful creature had no smell.
Some male youths flicked through manga inside the shop, their eyes get-ting wider, their lips quivering.
I was a little disappointed to hear all this from him, especially his mention of girls. I don’t why I thought he was gay. I don’t know why I thought I was gay. I wasn’t. Asami.
He continued on then, with his non sequiturs. If I said something about the weather he told me that the scarecrow was only scaring himself, and that some were old men with broken teeth, stranded without love.
I searched the files in my head and found that these were lines from vari-ous songs that I knew. Some titles came back to me, some didn’t; we had a lot in common then I supposed, and how, how I wanted him.
I said: Do you like to dance? He said: Waxy flexibility.
I said I liked the Pixies.
He said: Limbic system, frontal cortex.
I said: Santiago.
He said: Basal ganglia.
I said: Schizophrenia.
He said: Repaid with scorn.
I said I thought catatonia was the name of a place in Spain. At that he smiled.
I looked deep into his eyes. Eyes like a devil’s or an angel’s, I couldn’t decide.
The devil was once an angel, he told me, though I hadn’t actually said a word.
I had forgotten that, I said.
We forget lots of things, he almost uttered, but didn’t, just the hum of his brain, in the afternoon, the glare of the sun beating off the cars going by, reflected light haemorrhaging.
That night I left Asami. I should have done it a long time ago. She didn’t seem at all surprised, had been expecting it, she said. I wasn’t long in pack-ing up. There wasn’t much to take with me: bathroom stuff, a few old sweat-ers, T-shirts with no numbers on them, and some CDs.
The next day there was no one outside the convenience store, the city eerily subdued, no glares on car windows, hardly any cars at all, hardly any sun. It would be easy to think that he was never really there at all, no No.13 Baby, but he was there, and still is, in the humming in my head, he was there, he was, one, two, three, four…