Tuesday, June 26, 2007

One Way To Tokyo

As she unwrapped the white pantyhose from the cardboard and plastic wrapper, Leah had to give her aching head a shake. White pantyhose. Size extra-small. “I can’t fucking believe this.” Pulling the hose out of the wrapper, she gave them quick little back and forth stretches, pulling the waistband away from the toes with the flourish of a polka-playing accordion player. “Come on, stretch!” As the elastic began to give, her arms reached out in wider and wider arcs until she couldn’t reach any further. Satisfied, she set them on the floor beside her and looked at the nurse’s uniform hanging on the hook in front of her. With a sigh, she pulled the white polyester one-piece off its wire hanger, causing the metal to clang against the mirror behind it.

Looking into the mirror, Leah could take in not only her nearly naked self, but the whole of the small space she was in as well. The empty sake bottles on the floor behind her were lined up neatly against the wall. The flimsy cloth “privacy” curtain in the doorway was embroidered with an ukiyo-e print she had seen many times before. The one with the Japanese courtesan being taken from behind by a warrior with an incredibly oversized penis. Eighteenth century Japanese porn. She took a closer look at the courtesan’s face, noticing how her eyes were squeezed tightly shut forming two downward crescent moons. Her bright red lips were pinched, creating a cherry pout. The warrior’s greased jet-black hair was pulled into a ponytail so tight his angular face was caught in a permanent grimace of pain. Or was it ecstasy?

The thought of ecstasy brought Leah out of her art appreciation mode and back to the change room. Her linen pants were in a rolled ball under the small wooden stool to her left. Bending down, she grabbed them and dug through the pockets, searching for the small wad of tissue she was certain Suzanne had passed her late last night after her shift was over. “You look like shit. Smarten up and take one of these before you start your shift.” She pulled out a yellow bottle and tapped out six or seven pills, and wrapped them in white tissue. Leah had been exhausted and was now questioning if Suzanne had in fact given her anything. She groped through both front pockets of the soft linen pants. Empty. “Shit.” The nurse’s uniform was still draped over her arm. She threw it to the floor and got down onto her knees, her hands scrambling past the sake bottles and over to her Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. Yuji had given her the bag three weeks ago, a “thank you” for time spent over dinner and drinks in Ginza.

The dinner. The dinner she couldn’t get out of her head. Raw fish so fresh it was still squirming on its bed of rice. Sake, chilled and fragrant. She sipped the drink in the traditional way, from a small square cedar box with a touch of salt on the side. Leah thought that if cherry blossom petals were edible, this is what they would taste like. There was cod roe, glistening orange and pearl in a nest of soft white grated radish, looking more like children’s glass marbles than something she could eat. It was edible art. Leah had been told by the other girls about this restaurant. She knew the meal would total more than she made in a week. She consumed the small fortune without guilt. She felt she’d earned it. She felt the same way about the Vuitton bag presented to her at the end of the meal as she was finishing off her green tea.

Yuji had excused himself and pushed his stool away from the sushi counter, presumably to go to the restroom. He came back moments later carrying a large box bearing the unmistakable LV insignia. “No more backpack style for Leah-chan. This is lady’s bag to suit Leah-chan’s lady style.” He looked pleased, leaning back, grinning. He took an extra deep draw on his cigarette before crossing his arms in front of his chest. He was watching, waiting for her reaction. She gave him what he wanted. Leah pulled the brown and gold leather bag from the box and held it up in front of her. “Yuji san, it’s gorgeous. Just perfect for me.” And with that, she began to transfer her backpack belongings into their posh new leather home.

Now, kneeling on the worn tatami floor of the makeshift change room, she had taken most of the contents out of her expensive bag and spread them out in front of her. She returned to digging through the remaining bits still hidden in zipped side pockets, past the plastic bottle of hairspray and the butane curling iron. Tobacco crumbs and lint caught under her fingernails as she dug even deeper into the folds of decadent Vuitton cloth. Leah was rewarded for her diligence. She found it. She unfolded the tissue, picking up one of the tablets and inspecting it more closely. Light pink, the size of an aspirin, a smiley face etched into its surface. She ripped off a small piece of tissue and wrapped the pill into it. She then tucked it safely in her bra. The remaining pills she placed back into the bag. Leah picked up the white pantyhose and nurse’s uniform from the floor and started getting dressed for work. She glanced again at the image of the courtesan, frozen forever in her erotic pose. As she pulled the nylons up and over her hips she shook her head and sighed. Yuji would be arriving soon.


This scene was not what Leah had in mind when she boarded a plane to Japan nearly a year ago. Tokyo and Kyoto were only supposed to take up a week or so of her three-month “mental health” break from what she had begun referring to as “the hell that is my life.” She watched as friend after friend paired off to become a couple, a part of a “we” that seemed to elude Leah. At twenty-seven, she had never had a relationship that lasted longer than three months. She knew she had to get away for awhile when she started resenting some of her closest friends because they seemed to be moving forward, following some sort of innate compass that directed them to follow a path that led from being student to girlfriend to wife to mother. She used to pride herself on not fitting in, being the odd one out. Not anymore. With thirty on the horizon, and her best friend informing her that a baby was on the way, Leah pulled a suitcase out from under her bed and started throwing things in. Then she called a travel agency. And then she quit her job. She was as determined about detaching herself from the life she was leading as her friends were about their decision to settle into their own.

She’d kept in touch with Suzanne, her roommate in university through sporadic e-mails over the past few years. The last she’d heard, almost a year ago, she was in Tokyo, teaching English. When Leah wrote to her a week before leaving Vancouver, Suzanne had written back with her telephone number and an offer to meet her at the airport. Her brief note ended with; “Can’t wait to see you. Are you ready for some fun?” It may have been only two short sentences, but for Leah it was exactly what she needed to take away the uncertainty she was feeling about her decision to leave.

The Suzanne who met her at the airport was in no way similar to the Suzanne she had last seen at graduation six years ago. Gone were the ripped Levis, Birkenstock sandals and ever-present ponytail. This Suzanne standing at the arrivals gate oozed glamour. Her hair was golden, shoulder length, wavy. Her makeup wasn’t overdone, applied expertly to show off high-cut cheekbones and deep set blue eyes. When she leaned in to give Leah a hug, she smelled rich, all subtle Chanel and salon-scented hair. On the train ride into the city, Leah had to ask. “You look like a fashion model, Suzanne. How are you doing that on a teacher’s salary? Is the pay that good?” Suzanne laughed, but didn’t answer immediately. “When we get off the train, I’ll be able to explain it better.” Leah watched the scenery flash by as the train made its way to Tokyo Station. Neon lights, Statue of Liberty replicas and flashing signs were everywhere. It felt like riding down a never-ending Vegas avenue, kitsch everywhere she looked, an electric buzz hanging in the air. “Welcome to Wonderland, kiddo. Are you ready for that fun I mentioned?” Suzanne had linked her arm through hers and led her out of the crowded train, through the station maze and out onto the streets of Tokyo. Dusk was giving way to night, but there was no sky to be seen, no stars or moon to indicate time or place. Neon reds, whites and yellows had taken over the firmament and again, Leah thought of Las Vegas, city of no clocks. She wondered if Tokyo’s inhabitants were as oblivious to day and night as the dwellers of Vegas casinos.

Leaving the main roads, they made their way to Suzanne’s apartment, crisscrossing through roads so small they would be considered alleys back home. As Leah’s eyes adjusted to the sudden dark of the narrow streets, it appeared to her as if they had stepped back years in time from the scene they had just left behind. These roads were pitch black, illuminated here and there by the soft red glow of paper and bamboo lamps outside curtained doorways. The smell of barbecue chicken wafted out of metal grates in puffs of pale smoke, reminding Leah she hadn’t eaten since the tasteless pasta lunch on the airplane.

“Almost there, just down this road a bit.” Suzanne directed them down one last alley and stopped in front of the doorway of a wooden two-storey house. She opened the front sliding door with a flourish and gestured Leah to enter. “Welcome! Oh, and don’t forget to take your shoes off. There are house slippers right here.” They were standing in a small foyer totally taken over by all manner of women’s shoes. High heels, sling backs, glittery sandals. It looked like the remnants of a bargain basement shoe sale. She handed Leah a pair of worn cloth slippers that appeared to be made for a child. Suzanne laughed as she said; “One size fits all.”

The first room they stepped into had wall-to-wall mattresses on the floor. Suzanne pulled on a string hanging from a ceiling lamp. After a few hesitant flickers, the room was completely illuminated. The overhead fluorescent light created a stark contrast to the dimly lit foyer they had just stepped out of. “Just step over the bedding. We’ll go into the kitchen.” Leah hitched her backpack over her shoulders and was about to step over one mound of bedclothes when it suddenly moved. She jumped back, almost falling over another mountain of sheets and blankets. “Suzanne! Something's in here!” She pointed at the still moving lump in front of her. Suzanne came back, and with no hesitation, pulled back the top cover. A woman lay in a curled foetus position, sucking her thumb and moaning softly. She was wearing a schoolgirl blue and white sailor uniform, complete with cotton white knee socks and Hello Kitty hair clips. She appeared to be about twenty-five years old.

“ Jesus Christ. Joanne, get up! You’re not supposed to wear the costume out of the club. And you should be at the club. It’s almost eight.” Suzanne pulled the covers completely away from the mattress. This was met with even louder moans from the semi-conscious Joanne. “Just a few more minutes…” She rolled over onto her stomach and dug her face deeply into her pillow. Her schoolgirl uniform was now tangled up around her waist, revealing a lacy pink and white pair of Hello Kitty underpants to match the hair clips. “Joanne. Get. Up. Now.” Suzanne didn’t raise her voice to make her demand clear. Her words had an edge, a coolness that didn’t need volume to convey that she ought to be obeyed. Joanne rolled over, sat up for a moment, and then stood up straight, stretching her arms above her head and grazing the low ceiling with her fingertips. Yawning, she started to make her way towards the doorway. “Joanne, Mama-san will kill you if she sees you in costume outside the club. Change now and put Sailor Moon into a bag.” Joanne nodded and continued yawing as she left the room.

Suzanne turned towards Leah. “Come on. Don't mind her. Let's get you some food.” They walked down a short hallway, past a room where Leah caught sight of Joanne. She was wearing a lace push-up bra and still had on the Hello Kitty panties. She was standing in front of a mirror applying make-up. Leah knew Joanne could see her reflected in the mirror and was about to look away when Joanne spoke, brushing mascara onto her lashes as she did so. “You new? You taking Sherri's shifts?” Her flat vowels gave away her Boston upbringing. Leah wasn’t sure what to say. “Um, yeah, I guess I'm new. I just got off the plane a couple of hours ago.” Joanne nodded, putting down the mascara wand. “Well, when Sherri turns up, you’ll be out of a job. She's the best.” She picked up a blush brush, and ran it along her cheekbones, never taking her eyes off of Leah’s reflection. “Leah? Come in to the kitchen.” Suzanne’s voice carried down the hall, and Leah moved on, ending the short conversation with Joanne.

The fluorescent lighting in the kitchen was just as bright as in the front bedroom. It was hard on Leah’s jet-lagged senses. Since she’d walked off the plane, everything she’d encountered seemed a little off, out of kilter. Surreal. “Suzanne, you’re not really a teacher, are you?” Suzanne had her back turned to her, standing at the small gas stove and stirring something in a pot. “Well, can’t pull the wool over your eyes, eh?” She turned around, holding a bowl of rice and a smaller bowl of soup. “Here, eat this. I’ll explain.” And she proceeded to tell Leah her story. She’d arrived in Tokyo and had landed a teaching job at a small language school, Joyful Apple, right in the middle of the city. Her boss was nice enough, the pay reasonable. It just didn’t suit her image of what she thought Tokyo had to offer her. She wanted excitement, and dancing around with three year olds just wasn’t cutting it. She’d answered an ad on an Internet site looking for Western foreign women to “engage in conversation with established mature gentlemen in the comfort of a private club”. So she’d thought, what the hell, and gave it a shot on a Saturday night.

She quickly learned the real terminology after a few Saturdays spent in the private club called Seventh Heaven. It was a hostess bar, and the gentlemen were in fact middle-aged married businessmen who spent wads of cash on bourbon bottle-keeps and the opportunity to have a Western woman in a cheesy costume light their cigarette and stroke their egos. But it wasn’t the typical salaryman that intrigued Suzanne. They were boring. They paid their monthly membership fees to Mama-san, the owner, and it was those fees that paid all the hostess’s salaries. Not a huge wage by any stretch, but enough to get by and still buy a few nice things. The hostesses didn’t have to pay rent either. At any given time, six to eight women were living dorm style in the house Leah was sitting in now. None of that is what kept Suzanne in her signature maid’s costume. It was the one or two regulars she kept during the week, outside Seventh Heaven working hours, who kept her going.

As Leah’s jet-lagged brain tried to absorb the information Suzanne was giving her, she had a few questions, waiting for the right time to interject. She finally asked; “What’s the difference between a regular and just a normal customer in the club?” A regular, Joanne explained, made your income double, sometimes triple. That was the difference. A regular took you out for expensive meals before your shift started. A regular bought you fancy gifts. A regular paid Mama-san extra membership fees, ensuring you would be their exclusive hostess whenever they came to the club.

At this point, Joanne walked into the kitchen, her auburn hair no longer in pigtails but pinned into a simple bun. A classic orange and white Gucci print dress clung to her long frame. Why a man would want this beauty transformed into a Sailor Moon schoolgirl was beyond Leah. She was too tired to ask. Joanne glanced at Leah and then addressed Suzanne. “I’m going to need a little… assistance to get through tonight.” The glare Suzanne shot Joanne made it quite clear this wasn’t good timing. Suzanne stood up and went into a small room off the kitchen, gesturing Joanne to follow. Joanne shot a withering look towards Leah and went into the room behind Suzanne.

There was no door between the room and the kitchen, so even though they kept their voices low, Leah could still hear the exchange. She could distinguish the nasal Boston vowels in Joanne’s voice. “How could Mama-san replace Sherri so quickly? It’s been only a week. She’ll be back. Yuji’s her regular.” Suzanne responded in a low, even tone; “She’s not replacing Sherri. Now take this, but only take half. You obviously messed up yesterday if you were sleeping in so late today.” They came out of the room a few moments later. Suzanne kissed Joanne on the cheek and told her she’d see her later that evening at the club. Joanne picked up her handbag and left without saying goodbye.

Suzanne turned her attention back to Leah. “Are you weirded out by this? Should I have told you before you got here?” The whole scene had indeed caught her off guard. Suzanne’s transformation to chic city girl, the circus atmosphere in Tokyo, the dark alleys just beyond the mayhem, and of course, Joanne. Was her mundane Vancouver reality just a plane ride away or had she landed in another universe? There was really only one thing she could think of saying that would suit the moment; “Will you introduce me to Mama-san?”


Mama-san took care of all the bureaucratic details that would allow Leah to work for her, and within days of arriving, Leah became a nurse at Seventh Heaven. It all seemed so easy in the beginning. The men were like children, little boys who needed to be indulged after a tough day on the playground. She didn’t have a regular, so she’d would sit with up to seven different groups of men over the course of an evening. Each man had to have a bottle of bourbon kept at the bar. Each bottle cost thirty thousand yen. Converting to dollars, Leah couldn’t believe the close to three hundred dollar price tag for one bottle of booze. Each member also paid the equivalent of ten thousand dollars per year to have the privilege of carrying a Seventh Heaven membership card. That was basic. There were also gold cards for exclusive customers who received such perks as champagne on their birthday, or “two-girl service days”, when a man could have his pick of two costumed hostesses pouring drinks at his table. A gold card cost fifty thousand dollars a year. There was occasional talk of a platinum card, but none of the girls had ever seen one.

The routine rarely varied. The customer would arrive, and if the evening was slow, he could choose from the menu of hostesses available; “Nurse Leah”, “School Girl Joanne”, “Maid Suzanne” “Cheerleader Nadia”. Mama-san would always try to keep ten options on the list. But sometimes, a girl wouldn’t show up. And she would never return, swallowed up, it would seem, into the Tokyo nightlife. Anonymous. Gone. Her name would be whispered in the change room or back at the house for a while, but there were always others to replace her. And her name would be a vague memory of those girls who would stay on for a while longer.

The girls who had regulars would be reserved, off-limits for the time paid in advance. Time was indeed money, and at Seventh Heaven, regulars paid three hundred dollars an hour to have the privilege of reserving a hostess. These are the customers Mama-san adored, and she rewarded the girls who had regulars with small perks. They could come in later, leave earlier, and, if she were feeling particularly generous, even have a night “off”. The night off would be spent with the regular, just in another location. A fancy restaurant, a burlesque show. A hotel. The girls didn’t talk about that part. Leah tried to get Suzanne to open up about it after she had been hostessing for nearly four months.

“Where do you go with Yamada-san on Wednesday nights?” They were sitting at the kitchen table, under the fluorescent light. “Oh, dinner, sake bar… bloody expensive places.” Suzanne tried to change the subject. “Let’s go shopping tomorrow. New shoes. We need new shoes…” She stared off into the distance. Leah noticed the bags under Suzanne’s eyes, and the fact that she was using heavier makeup to conceal them. “Come on, Suzanne. I might have a regular soon. I need to know what to expect.” Suzanne lit a cigarette, blowing the match out with an exaggerated breath. “Look, you do what you’ve got to do. You’ll know when the time comes.” Discussion closed.

As month six closed in, so did the fatigue. Most evenings, by the time midnight rolled around and she’d already poured at least a thousand dollars worth of Seventh Heaven bourbon, she was exhausted. It seemed that as her novelty wore off, the men felt free to graduate from little boy curiosity to adolescent hands-on exploration of Leah’s nurse’s uniform. Light taps on her leg became full-on gropes of her thighs. What were once polite comments on “beautiful Leah-chan’s hair” gravitated towards “Leah-chan’s bosom is great” followed by lurching attempts at copping a quick feel. She became quite adept at dodging their hands, but it was getting increasingly difficult to maintain a smile. Mama-san took Leah aside one evening at close to one a.m. She may have been close to seventy years old, but she had the energy and quick reflexes of someone much younger. She could spot an empty bottle from across the bar, unscrew a new one and have it at the customer’s table before they were aware they had even finished off their first.

“Leah-chan. Smile is important. Only one a.m. Still three more hour. Smile a happy nurse smile.” Leah went back to her table, a fake grin pasted on her face, and braced herself for the rest of the evening.

Inside, she felt dread building in the form of acid bile in her stomach. Mama-san was waiting for her at the door that evening as she left. “Leah-chan. I talk to Suzanne-san about smile problem. She help you. Talk to her.” As Leah walked home through the pre-dawn Tokyo streets, a slow panic was creeping over her. After three months in Tokyo, she’d arranged for her apartment in Vancouver to be let go, the contents sold by the landlord for a somewhat inflated fee. She’d been spending money on clothes beyond her means, borrowing against future pay cheques to keep up with the other girls in the house. They all had regulars keeping them afloat and clothed in Gucci and Chanel. Mama-san kept her debt sheet up-to-date, and included a copy of it in Leah’s pay packet. In six months, Leah was three pay cheques behind in payments to Mama-san. By the time she arrived back at the house that early morning, she had worked herself into a full frenzy. Suzanne was waiting for her.

“Mama-san said you need a little help.” She sat her down at the kitchen table. She had a yellow prescription pill bottle set out in front of her. “This will get you through the night. Don’t take it until close to midnight, and only take half.” She put one of the pink tablets on the table, smiley face up, and cut it in two perfect halves using a razor box cutter. “This is two night’s worth right here. You can get another in two days.” And that was that. Suzanne went upstairs to her bedroom, and Leah went into the mattress room, stripped down to her underwear and fell into a dreamless sleep.

It wasn’t so long after she started taking her nightly half tablet that Yuji-san expressed an interest in the happy nurse. He started reserving a table for himself and Leah at least once a week, much to Mama-san’s delight. The hostesses thought Seventh Heaven had lost Yuji after Sherri took off. Nurse Sherri had been his favourite. It looked like Leah might be able to fill her nurse’s shoes. She could keep Yuji entertained for hours, refilling his drink, lighting his cigarette, and laughing hysterically at his attempts at jokes in English. Her pink tablet made it all so easy. And she was actually starting to see some income in her pay packet rather than a debit note. Yuji-san had arrived just in time.


After the nurse’s costume was zipped tightly over her breasts, the white panty hose adjusted and her nurse’s cap firmly in place, Leah bent down to pick up the white linen pants she had almost ripped apart when trying to find her tablet. She folded them and placed them on top of her Vuitton bag. She put the lot in her locker against the wall and secured it with the small padlock Suzanne had given her. “You never know when one of the girls might be a little down on her luck…” She always made sure to lock it up before starting her shift. It was only seven p.m., but Yuji had asked for an early reservation.

Leah was already contemplating the pill in her bra. She unzipped the top of her uniform, and fished out the rolled up tissue. She unwrapped it, surveyed the tablet for only a moment before popping it into her mouth. She zipped her uniform back up. Before lifting up the curtain to step out into the bar, she gave her courtesan one last smile. She offered the Japanese words of courage given to someone off to perform a difficult task; “Ganbatte ne”. She saw Yuji waiting for her at his reserved table and gave him an enthusiastic wave. He was the only customer in the bar. The other hostesses hadn’t arrived yet. Leah smiled, grabbed the bourbon bottle and two glasses, and made her way over to him. He looked pleased, but shook his head no when she went to pour him a drink. He had his car keys on the table. “We have reservation tonight. Famous place. Go now.” They waved to Mama-san and left the bar. Leah was still in her uniform.


It was Joanne who notified the police when Leah hadn’t returned to the mattress room for the third straight day. She’d been asking Mama-san why Leah wasn’t coming in, but Mama-san wouldn’t answer. She’d only shake her head and say; “No problem. No problem. Don’t talk about that. Upset other girl.” Joanne wanted to talk to Suzanne, but she had left on vacation in Thailand, promising souvenirs from the islands for the hostesses. The other girls in the house were too new or too self-absorbed to notice that Leah hadn’t been back for three days. When the police questioned Mama-san about Leah’s behaviour, she talked about the debts Leah had rung up, how she’d had a hard time keeping herself afloat. When her locker was pried open, and the six tablets of ecstasy were found in her bag, that ended the investigation for good. Leah, if she did return to Seventh Heaven, would be arrested. So much the better for her if she didn’t come back at all. Mama-san said Leah had made a bad reputation for the bar. It would take months to lose the stigma of a drug-taking hostess who skipped town.

When Suzanne returned from Thailand, Mama-san scolded her in front of all the other girls. For appearances sake, it seemed the right thing to do. “Leah-san recommended by you. Why you recommend such a girl?” Suzanne looked down at the floor, but could feel Joanne’s eyes staring at her. She wouldn’t look up until all the girls left the room and she was alone with Mama-san. Mama-san coughed gently as she lay a manila envelope on the bar counter. She walked silently past Suzanne, and gave her a nod and tacit smile. She continued walking and entered into the change room, pushing past the curtain in front of her. The warrior and the courtesan swayed momentarily in the breeze created by Mama-san’s entrance. And then they returned to their pose, the courtesan’s eyes still closed, the warrior’s face forever frozen in its pose of pain and ecstasy. Mama-san turned the lights off and returned to the front bar.

Suzanne and the manila envelope were gone. Mama-san knew she could count on Suzanne to be there promptly at eight that evening. They were, after all, one hostess down. Surveying the room one last time, she locked the door and walked out into the cool Tokyo dawn. She could get in a few hours sleep before getting down to the business of hiring another hostess. And then she remembered something. She clucked her tongue in disgust as the image of Leah leaving the bar came back to her. She realized was going to have to buy another nurse’s uniform. She shuffled down the street, shaking her head slowly back and forth as she did so.