If I think back to our lives ten to fifteen years ago; before The Black Narcissus ( inconceivable!), before I started writing, before we found our cat, Mori, in a forest; before the internet – which didn’t really exist for me until around 2008 or so – I see my life then in Japan as much darker, limiting, and lost.
We were still creative – costume parties, music recitals, but not in the same way. It was more like a reaction to a constant sense of uncertainty and on my part, cultural fatigue and alienation as I got further mired in the life of a Japanese company and its rituals; its constant, unfailingly pleasant sadomasochisms.
Around this time, on Sundays, once a month or so, I would walk down the hill to the Fue cafe, a lovely wooden baroque music little place that serves excellent coffee, with an impressive selection of woodwind instruments mounted on its walls ( ‘fue’ means flute), an oasis of calm and pleasingly Japanese-European mania: bamboo and irises beyond the windows, Bach music ensembles on the inside.
Learning that the owner, Mr Y, was a flute player ( as was I, of sorts, though in truth I was never particularly good ), as a way of expressing something differently to the everyday, we started doing flute duets and would occasionally perform at ‘hapyokai’, or mass recitals, where half the citizens of Kamakura and their children, seemingly, would play their hard practiced instruments on a huge stage at the municipal auditorium to the metronomed reactions of the audience ( comprising their relatives and some old down and outs enjoying the comfortable seats).
Although I would often find it an incredible hassle to drag myself from the soporific drowse of a Sunday afternoon; gather up all the photocopied sheet music that would inevitably have gone astray, pack up the silver flute that my parents gave me when I was nine years old, and leave the confines of our previous apartment ( much smaller : we moved to our present place after the Earthquake) to be polite and play obscure old classical pieces by Telemann or Vivaldi, for the most part, as we played and got in sync with each other ( he was a renegade ‘salaryman’ of the seventies who had rejected the conventional office life to follow his dream of teaching the ocarina and running his own coffeehouse; and now something of a bandana’d, gentleman hippie), I would find myself passing through the membrane into an alternate, twilighted reality; changed, as though passing through glass into a more timeless stratum, the transformational act of the transcribed notes on the pages coming alive in the cosily timbered, familiar atmosphere.
One day, Mr Y announced that we were now a trio. A violinist, a woman around my age who I shall call S, was joining us and we would henceforth ( rather pretentiously I thought ) be known as Primavera. Sweet, coy, if curiously indefinable facially – always somehow a little puffy, or sunken, her round eyes strangely hidden despite her big, open face curtained with wavy long black hair – she would float in late dressed in summery floral chiffon dresses, pretty in her way; gentle, if suppressed in a particular way I couldn’t quite put my finger on; troubled, perhaps – but then aren’t we all. Working as a kindergarten teacher, music was her emotional outlet, and despite my initial reservations and slight indignation that I hadn’t been informed of the sudden change in lineup, I got used to our new, amateurish, woozy sound in which we were never entirely in tune with each other but which in itself had a slightly charming, rural, almost Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe that was quite enjoyable to be part of : we performed a few times together and got into our own, idiosyncratic, groove.
S knew my good friend Yoko ( real name ), who I still do piano duets with, and we all belonged to the same musical circle who congregate every November for the ‘Autumn Concert’ at one family’s house. In later years, Duncan also started coming as well, playing recorder music with Mr Y, so She knew full well that we were together. I had never pretended otherwise. I would have no reason to. Once, she even came to a dinner party at our house with Yoko’s family, though I immediately regretted it : her intensely dark brown eyes were almost black that evening; inchoate, and she moved about like a wounded coyote, moody and expressionless, childishly, embarrassingly so; and it began to then dawn on me what was probably happening. To my knowledge, I hadn’t been consciously flirtatious, just friendly; jokey and sociable, which is my teacher persona default switch when I go from solitude to daytime; nothing special, but perhaps she had got the wrong idea. In any case, she had kept going on, rather ostentatiously, about a boyfriend, or possibly fiancé, of hers living in Florence – she had yearly or more frequent trips to Italy – and although later Yoko and I speculated that this fidanzato was just a figment of her imagination ( or a fictitious ploy to make me ‘jealous’), at the time I was merely pleased for her. She was a nice person who didn’t quite fit into Japanese life; was slightly estranged from her family, and who deserved happiness.
One day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from her. It was peak hydrangea (‘ajisai’) season, when the valley is a mass of them, and throngs of tourists come to play prescribed homage to the officially christened finest hydrangea temple in the country, the beautiful Meigetsuin, queuing up from the early morning to get in, nudging along in packs taking pictures of themselves with the flowers ….. ….
Initially quite enchanted by the sight, when I first moved to the area two decades ago, particularly of an evening when there was no one about; alone, the road that led to the temple, by a stream, boughed down with dapples of green and mystical blue, I had eventually grown quite sick of it, all those people, year after year – there was something quite dreadfully unimaginative about it all. Plus, I had no inclination whatsoever to go out with this girl on a ‘date’ ( which I immediately knew this was ) – I had been through enough tedious window dressing of my real romantic self as a teenager, and had no intention of starting all that again now. The idea was simply laughable to me. She knew that the D and I were together, and I couldn’t quite work out what she was thinking. I said sorry, I was busy, and didn’t even especially like hydrangeas, but she was very insistent: nichiyobi, nichiyobi, on Sunday, on Sunday- it’s going to be sunny and the flowers will be in full bloom! We have to go ! We can go to Fue as well and see Mr Y! Why not?!
I relented. What harm could it do? I just had to walk down the hill, pass a pleasant, traditional time with the hydrangeas, chat a while, and then leave. It couldn’t hurt – after all, we were in the same music ensemble, and soon she might be leaving for Florence to get married. I put on some clothes and went.
I realized straight away that I had made a mistake. She had driven to our meeting point in some fancy ( borrowed?) sports car and was dressed and made up to the nines, all straw boater hat, tight fitting, summery cotton dress, and I could see in her carefully lowered or fluttering eyes what this was all about. Oh god, I thought, what have I let myself in for…
We went around the shrine, where, knowing I loved perfume, she had presented me with a scent she had got for me in Italy, a green floral ‘Magnolia’ by L’Erbolario which was actually quite nice, especially when just sprayed into a room ( and I just love being given fragrance as a gift – it is the ultimate for me), so assuaged somewhat, I suppose I let down my guard.
But I wasn’t expecting her to suddenly, without any warning, just grab my hand and tightly not let go of it as we went across the railtracks, despite my protestations and my eventually yanking my hand away from her; quite exasperated by her lack of realism and the physical repulsion I could not help feeling ( the smell of phlegm is one of my ultimate olfactory bete noires : surely if you were going to try and seduce the object of your affections and you knew that he was so smell-sensitive you would consider these things : her obliviousness in multiple regards infuriated me and I was DYING just to get away from her.)
You know that I am with Duncan.
What are you doing ?
What were you thinking ?
All that is over with now. It was fine, but now you are with me. We can be together. That isn’t real.
What the fuck are you talking about.
Are you insane?
You can be with me. We can be together.
That isn’t real.
I can’t remember all the exact words that happened then or afterward precisely, but this was the essence of our exchange as I sat her down on a bench near the railtracks and aggressively opened her willfully ignorant eyes. I didn’t mince my words, as I am sure you can imagine. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I had to kill dead whatever she thought was real and shake her into reality. I told her that I liked men, not women, at least in that sense; that she knew I was in a relationship, that I felt sorry if I had misled her in any way but that her thought process was very insulting to me, and as she sat there, crying inconsolably, I just thought Christ get me away from this situation. I can’t stand it. It is utterly ridiculous. Comical, almost, except for the obvious pain that she was going through (in retrospect , I realized that it must have taken a lot of courage for her to make her declaration of love, even if it ENRAGED me that she could have been so bigoted to imagine that she could just dismiss my entire sexuality with one clasp of her pale, tight-gripping hand and the life that I had built for myself) and think that I would then, among the extreme tedium of the flora, take up with some bloated fey adult rag doll with featureless sultanas for eyes). This person simply begged to be enlightened. So sternly making her realize that she had to let go of this fantasy and get on with her life, I made up some untrue excuse about having to go to work, and first, naturally, making sure that she was alright, I walked ahead into the distance towards the railway station; and left her alone with her heartbreak.
It was not long after this that the phone calls began.
Late, or in the middle of the night.
I suffer. I am suffering.
A disconsolate, disembodied, voice in the dark amidst the sound of crying. Sniffling: somewhere.
I knew it was her, and I tried to console her. I felt for her. I am a fiery, but not a cruel person, and I know what unrequited, or unfulfilled love ( or the rage of unsanctioned love) feels like. I had empathy, I didn’t want to hurt the poor creature, apart from when it kept happening; disturbing our lives, waking us in the early hours – ‘kurushii’, yes, but it got to the point where her delusional infatuation was impingeing too much on my reality ; the phone calls, there may even have been a letter, I can’t remember. I had to sever it. I put our trio on indefinite hiatus. I told the cafe owner. Duncan was furious. Get rid of that stupid cow. And I eventually did.
I saw her a couple of times after that. Once, at the Autumn concert. Wow, dressed to kill, whispered Yoko to me when she walked in, that time, all tight black mini dress and overly kohl-smudged eyes, as if in revenge. And then another time when she was pudgier and more fragile-looking. I don’t think we ever spoke, and it was hard for her to look at me. And I felt for her. I hope she is happy. Her heart is good. But to this day, that thick, black long hair; those flowers; that stillness and heaviness in the air, that awkwardness, it still lives inside of me as a memory of hurt and unwilling pain; misunderstanding, melancholy……….and at this time of year specifically : a particularly shadowy, mournful, shade of blue.
30 responses to “Me and the hydrangea girl”
Wow, what a story! I see why you are not fond of hydrangeas.
Writing that more ambiguous thing the other day unleashed this. I actually wrote about this a few years ago, and it was longer, better, creepier, but I felt guilty and decided to delete it ( I might even have used her real name). It felt a bit vindictive. But last night the memories surfaced again and I felt like I wanted to revisit it. So I started writing it on the bus and on the train and pressed publish just before I entered my workplace ( in a city quite far from Kamakura). I felt calm and contented when I sat down but then when I entered the classroom I realized that I was in this blue, subterranean world and couldn’t connect with the students.
That day was just so awkward for me and for her, and it was so annoying to be put in that position ( surrounded by those fucking flowers).But I suppose it’s part of life: things get messy, she felt the way she did: but it was her easy dismissal of my relationship that galled me so much – that I couldn’t accept.
I am amazed that you have persevered with your life in Japan so many years, despite the cultural fatigue and alienation, as you describe. What is it that keeps you there? There must be some profoundly compelling reason that keeps you going through the difficulties. I really admire you for this, I’m quite sure I would have packed up and gone back home years ago, lacking in fortitude.
As for the hydrangea woman, I can definitely relate. I had an unsavoury incident with a man who was quite obsessed with me and even tried to break into my bedroom one night. One hates to be cruel but in the face of deranged emotions it’s sometimes necessary.
This is an interesting perspective, and as you are gleaning everything only from what I have written on here, that means I must have represented Japan overly negatively over the years.
In truth though, I absolutely feel that Japan has been the making of me. I think I am a person who is destined not to be completely part of any one culture : I instinctively resist any kind of herd mentality ( which all cultures have ) and have the fortunate/unfortunate ability to see through everything. I was very unhappy in London post university( a place I still don’t like at ALL) and was desperate just to go SOMEWHERE: at first it was actually going to be Brazil ( ! a childhood dream, but that’s another story in itself)
and yes, this country, which is a fascinating, exquisite mindfuck in many ways, has had its difficulties for me – because in so many ways I am its polar opposite, but at the same time, the Buddhist/Shintoist/permissive liberalism of the place plus its sheer aesthetic beauty on a daily basis – which Duncan and I literally need more than anything else to spiritually survive – we both found England so grotesquely dull and uninspiring in many ways when we last went back despite the pleasures of seeing our families – meant that the second we got back to the electric energy of Japan ( which I obviously haven’t put across sufficiently ) we were both completely in love with the place again. It is INCREDIBLY addictive : but then perhaps I thrive on some kind of oppositional contrarian impulse at heart ( like my ultra Sagittarianness vs D’s Virgoan core)….. sometimes it really feels like it was my destiny to come here.
PLUS, it was the fact of having a three day weekend, actually three and a half ( at the time, my only life’s ambition ), that gave me the space and the time to start The Black Narcissus – and thus the book – in the first place.
This country is now resolutely in my blood.
Perhaps I’ve honed in too much on the negative aspects, especially after reading Amélie Nothomb’s book about her experience in Japan. It sounds like a difficult culture to fit in to as a European. But I actually love the esthetics of Japanese language and art, enough to actually study Japanese at university just for fun, and I’ve always wanted to visit there.
Like you, I have never felt completely part of any one culture either; I hold three passports and I am a mosaic of my different parts. The question, « Where are you from? » is a confounding one – people want to categorize you and decide who you are based on where you were born. But where I lived as an adult has had a far greater influence on who I am now than that one fact.
Rereading this I realize I totally failed to address the man trying to break into your bedroom. I think that is my ultimate nightmare.
Plus I do envy your multiple passports…
What an ordeal, seriously. And you’re right — the interactions show this weird combination of vulnerability and arrogance/bigotry. I’m relieved for you that it ended relatively benignly. I suspect most of us have had to “let down” someone who had romantic feelings that we did not reciprocate, but you were put in an awful position of also having to refute any interest not just in this woman, but any women, and have her deny that reality. As it seems you concluded long ago, it was probably not just your reality she had trouble grasping, which at the end of the day is very sad. Actually, it’s lucky for you that hydrangeas have no smell, because think of the flashbacks THAT would unleash!
I hadn’t thought of that. Imagine if she had lunged towards me amid the smell of jasmine….. no, you know what, my love of flowers and their scent would have transcended this mucoid and grotesque little episode.
The danger of this piece I suppose is that it might come across as misogynistic. My sexuality is not so rigid that I am completely immune to the charms of women, but she herself was definitely weird and to me quite offputting, even if to a lot of other people she would have been quite sexually attractive. She was just totally barking up the wrong tree and then trying to rename the species. I felt extremely put upon. And then emotionally responsible for her, which then felt like a burden.
Also, in this age of #MeToo, I think it is quite interesting from a gender perspective to show a different side of the story. I was also once put in a very uncomfortable position by a woman at a language school in Cambridge – which I found repellent. Obviously, the power dynamics are different – if it had been necessary I could have fought her off or worse if need be, which often isn’t the case the other way round, but despite the absolute necessity of the current movement, which I think feels like a palpably important moment in history; lots of things are happening in Japan right now as well, there is a danger of women being made to look like these saintly creatures utterly devoid of depravity or predatory urges, which I think is total bullshit. Women can be total ****s. Just like men.
I completely agree! And your post was not misogynistic, in my view.
In mine neither. But thank you for saying so !
This is such a great story. Really great writing, Neil. Your frustration, her desperate loneliness and infatuation come across with a full poignant impact. This should be in the book!
Tora, thanks. I am glad I don’t come across as totally heartless. It definitely is a poignant story ( and one, incidentally, that I had to write on here as it could never be in the book, which is going to be far more commercial and practical). The Black Narcissus will remain the repository for the more personal, extreme side of my writing, the book more a pop culture bijou.
For a guy who very recently apologized for not “giving” enough on The Black Narcissus, this is extravagantly generous stuff!
I can’t describe the feeling of seeing that you’ve written quite a lot, and then settling in for a delicious read of Neil first thing in the morning. (You really delivered today.) God, it’s so damn pleasurable, and so few contemporary writers do this to me. Of course, you won’t be writing this way for your book, so it must be a nice antidote to that kind of prose to be able to access this darker, more personal side.
I actually got worried for you mid-story. That is one very ill human being. I’ve had a couple of similar experiences. One man mailed me a cassette tape (shows you how long ago it was) recorded on both sides — a 90-minute tape! — with his voice, alternately desperate, pleading, devastated, then frustrated, then calm, sultry, manipulative, coaxing. The crazy thing was, I’d dated him all of exactly twice. The mitigating factor that saved the whole thing from being completely sociopathic was that he was obviously intoxicated.
I love the description of your life ten or fifteen years ago. I’m glad it’s different now.
“But to this day, that thick, black long hair; those flowers; that stillness and heaviness in the air, that awkwardness, it still lives inside of me as a memory of hurt and unwilling pain; misunderstanding, melancholy, and at this time of year specifically a particularly shadowy, mournful, shade of blue.” I’ll never look at hydrangeas now without thinking of this.
And the photo. That is one of the most beautiful examples I’ve ever seen. The antithesis of those oversize, clownish blue pompoms. Almost melancholy.
For me, dredged in it.
I hate them !
What writing! I can relate to your situation. There is a man at the gym that I go to that has been pursuing me for five years and is relentless even though I turn him down constantly. I haven’t had anyone in my life romantically for quite a long time but I have no interest in this man. He completely turns me off and I walk into the gym with trepidation hoping he will not be there. One time I agreed to meet him for a drink and I could not wait to get away from him…but that was when I first knew him. One would think that to be turned down time after time after five years, he would get the picture but he doesn’t.
It is BIZARRE what everyone is saying here. I don’ t know – I am just so thin-skinned : I completely can’t imagine pursuing something that is obviously unpursuable… it just seems so undignified and embarrassing. I realize that if someone finds an ideal person, as you seem to be to this man, that you hope beyond hope that with persistance they will eventually fall for you, but to ignore all the cues just seems like total madness. You only mention that one solitary drink but I am practically gasping in claustrophobia at the thought of it. It demonstrates profoundly that we all live in different realities.
This is probably my favourite thing you’ve ever written. And oh so relateable after so many years of living here. I’ve had similar experiences of heartbreaking delusion from female friends (although certainly not as cinematically framed and memorable, usually much more mundane and occuring in an awful suburban cafe or something) and always wondered what series of events had led to such a badly thought out course of action. This is such beautiful writing, hilarious and horrific and so very you. I would devour a book of this kind of stuff, heaven to read. It is crazy sometimes to add up all the strange, alien experiences that have occured over the years here, events and situations that seem to make no sense in the retelling but made perfect sense in the moment.
I would love to hear about some of them.. and thankyou
I agree with icarryaflower, except there have been many things (actually most things) that you have written that are my favorite…I truly could not pick just one, but while reading this one it immediately brought to mind the gym rat who has been pursuing me for years. Yes, that one drink I had with him was the one and only and I couldn’t wait to get out of there (the meeting lasted no more than 8 minutes but seemed liked hours). Like you, I never want to be mean to anyone and try not to, but then sometimes with people like you and I have encountered, the only way to discourage them is to not try to be so nice and tell them the truth.
She jarred your senses; can’t be helped; soft doctors leave stinking wounds.
And stink is not your cup of tea at all, neither is destructive clinging , I imagine.
But those last few lines are redemption itself, be it literate but not literal.
Go on and write … awake, delight us
I love how you write. Your English is exquisite and intriguing.
Oh god Neil, I can smell the mucus.
I mean it is cruel of me to write about that, but this is a place primarily devoted to smell and what leads from that and it is my main memory. We all stink sometimes, but to have a cold and be so UNAWARE while attempting to steal someone’s man just boggles the mind. At that moment, in those circumstances, the smell INFURIATED me.
and now completely understand your problem with hydrangeas. I feel a little queazy.
I would have grown tired of hydrangeas in any case, even if this hadn’t happened, just because there are SO MANY of them here in June that they start to get on your wick after a while ( plus they are so dowdy and weighed down somehow and I don’t like the name either ). But they do also somehow absorb everything into their roots, including atmospheres and feelings, so I suppose I associate them with my early years here and, walking up the hill past them in the rain; and then this incident, which was mortifying, was just the death knell.
I sometimes used to wish I was straight when i lived in Japan (just for nanoseconds). i had a few experiences like your hydrangea girl (i had a sakura girl!) and it was a drag to shake them off. But it must be done. I think in Japan it’s still not so common to be just friends with someone of the opposite sex.
Here in Brazil it’s common to have friends of the opposite sex. And there is a lot of sexual fluidity here, lots of sexual experimentation. If anyone is into that, Sao Paulo at 3:30am on the dance floor is the place to be.
I can totally imagine, and I like the idea of that openness. Healthy flirtation, just fun appreciation of a person’s charms no matter their gender or sexuality, is just life affirming.
I still do feel guilty writing this though. And yet I felt that I had to