Dominic Manzini had buckteeth and a penchant for cunnilingus.
His girlfriend of three months offered to pay for braces one night, and all the next day he wasn’t able to text her. That morning, he’d pinched his index finger in the medicine cabinet and later sliced his thumb open on the lip of a manila envelope he was stuffing with a report card. He’d drawn his thumb instinctively to his mouth just as a student walked through the door to the classroom and stared at him wide-eyed. “I used to do that, too,” she said, trying to sound chipper. “Then my mom painted my thumb with something that tasted so bad, I stopped.”
“Thanks, Nikki,” he said, forcing a smile. “I’ll see if my mom has some of that stuff.” More alarmed, Dominic’s student took her seat and started rifling through her backpack for a long time until the rest of the fifth graders straggled in.
A couple of fingertip bandages had made digital communication near impossible, so Dominic decided to call his girlfriend from the staff room on his lunch break as he sat waiting for the weekly meeting to begin.
“You know I can’t accept calls at work,” she said under her breath. “Why haven’t you texted me?”
When he realized there was nothing but silence to follow, Dominic slid his phone into his pocket. Then he peeled back his Band Aid to see if his thumb had healed and examined how the gaping slice of skin had already reknit itself into an almost imperceptible line.
Once when he was a young boy, Dominic took a sharp stick in the backyard and, squeezing his eyes shut, forced a gash in his shin. His mother had been sitting all morning in that dark room, rocking with the pillow against her stomach again, and he knew a line of dark red blood pooling on the top of his foot would be enough to get her up. She struggled to lift him like a baby in her arms and placed him on the counter next to the kitchen sink. After turning on the faucet, she held her fingers under the stream of water until it was just the right temperature to wash his cut. “How did this happen?” she asked in her kind voice and he shrugged, silently counting up the many scars he’d been accumulating that summer while she gently rubbed the blood from his skin.
Dominic wadded up the bandage and pushed it into the back pocket of his jeans, next to his phone. Then he began stroking his thumb up and down his pant leg to remove the old adhesive before checking the healing cut again. “Snake bite?” an unfamiliar woman’s voice asked. Dominic looked up and saw that a bespectacled redhead had appeared on the chair next to him. He felt a nervous smile stretching across his face and drew his lips tightly over his protruding teeth. “I had to suck out the poison,” he said, “like an old cowboy.” He pretended to spit on the floor.
“I’m Colleen,” she said and stuck out her hand, “the new art teacher.”
They had lunch together that day, and each day over the following week. Dominic was falling in love, and in the weeks and months that followed he carried his phone charger with him everywhere.
One Sunday afternoon, Dominic sat on the end of his twin bed by his apartment window and clicked on his phone to take a photo of Colleen sleeping there, tangled in his sheets. The autumn breeze carried the scent of roses from his landlady’s trellis into his room, which turned his thoughts to his little sister. She had been named after the flower—her mother’s favorite—because her lips came together like a little peach bloom on her round face. During the summer of his seventh birthday, Dominic’s parents left him with a neighbor, Mrs. Foote, for two months while they went to Japan to meet their new baby girl at the orphanage. They wanted to experience her culture of origin and toured the country together, but didn’t have enough money to bring Dominic over as well. On his birthday, Mrs. Foote used his mother’s recipe to make Dominic his favorite fudge cake, but it tasted different like she’d used margarine instead of butter.
“Are you taking my picture,” Colleen said and reached for her glasses. Dominic lay down next to her and showed her the image.
“You are a redheaded angel,” he said and kissed her cheek.
“Better than a redheaded stranger,” she said, taking the phone. “Here, I want to show you something I saw the other day.” Colleen searched for ‘self-aware elephant’ and clicked onto a link. Dominic nestled his nose into her hair as they watched an elephant approach a wall of high polished steel to examine his reflection. His eye roved the areas above and below it, those places just out of sight without the aid of a mirror. He opened his mouth and palpated his teeth with the end of his nimble trunk. He looked deeply into his mouth and lifted his tongue, searching, staring. “He does just what a person would,” said Colleen, surprised by the way her throat closed off as she said the words. She turned over and buried her head in Dominic’s chest. “I don’t know why it always gets me like that,” she said.
Dominic raised her chin with his fingers until their eyes met, and he kissed away her tears. When he smiled, she reached up and put a finger on his lips, gently opening his mouth and peering inside. Colleen ran her finger along the pointed crest of his teeth and kissed them. He opened his mouth further and she touched each tooth with her finger, feeling the smoothness and contours. “Dom, why didn’t your parents ever get you braces,” she asked?
He lay back against the pillow and sighed. “Because they got me a sister instead,” he said.
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“As far back as I can remember, they’d wanted another baby,” he said, remembering the nursery frozen in time with a bear in the crib and little rolls of socks in the dresser drawers. “My mother kept miscarrying, and there were medical bills,” he said. The word Clomid rushed back into his mind, the subject of so many hushed late night conversations he’d overheard down the hall. The sound of his mother running in desperation to the bathroom early in the mornings, followed by her retching into the toilet. Her fatigue made the whole house feel drowsy: shades drooped half way down the windows during the day, and it became so quiet at night he believed he could hear his parents breathing into their pillows after his mother’s sobbing had subsided.
There were brief moments of ecstasy: the announcement of her first pregnancy, getting picked up early from school for trips to the hospital to see the baby’s heart beat and, later, to find out if Dominic would be gaining a brother or sister. All this followed by a flood of condolences and foil trays of lasagnas that engulfed their home like a tsunami. Eventually his mother’s body would recover and their new family culture of secrecy sprouted up. There was the whispering, the joking about mom just getting fat again. They were a trio, colluding to hide the possibilities of a different kind of family, to grasp onto a dream that remained perpetually out of reach. If no one knew about the next pregnancy, there would be no one else to disappoint if it failed, no intimate funerals followed by a rare dinner out. And it did fail, five or six times that Dominic knew about, but on those occasions he and his father ate cereal at the dinner table in silence.
When his parents turned to adoption, the disappointment simply took on a different form. There were photographs that arrived in the mail of different babies: most were wrinkled and brown with protruding bellies and dull eyes, the images of which his mother would put in a frame on the nursery dresser. She’d sit and rock with the pillow against her stomach, gazing dreamily in the direction of the photo while Dominic played with trains around her feet. The object of her affection changed over the course of a year when the far-away country closed its adoption program to American couples due to political conflict or the day Dominic’s father lost his job after the company folded and he began the weary search of an older candidate. “Stay in school and get a good job someday, Dom,” he’d said one night. “You could be a dentist. Everyone has to go to the dentist.”
But by the time Dominic’s adult teeth dropped into his overcrowded mouth like a pile of cast off shoes, it was clear that there would be no braces and no shining career as a dentist. The photo of the baby who would become Rose was lovingly placed in the frame on the nursery dresser. Dominic visited it when his parents were occupied, and searched her face for answers. Her eyes were spritely, and she was swaddled in a bright white blanket. Wisps of hair rimmed her round head like a dark halo. “Come soon,” he’d whisper to her image, knowing that she had the power to change everything.
By the time she’d arrived, Rose was almost a year old. She brought with her more noise than Dominic thought possible for their small house on the outskirts of town. When she threw her head back to cry, he peered in catching a glimpse of two lower front teeth emerging from a pink horseshoe of smooth gum. They shone like pearls, rare in their perfection.
Colleen withdrew her finger from Dominic’s mouth and he nipped at it playfully. “Are you close with your sister?” she asked.
“We’re pretty typical,” he said. “We don’t talk that much anymore,” he said.
Colleen got up and stretched, threaded her legs through a pair of underwear, and began walking around Dominic’s apartment. She trailed her fingers across a shelf of books and let them settle on a papier-mâché toy that looked like a painted egg with a face. “Is this some sort of Japanese weeble?” she asked, tipping it over and watching it wobble back to its upright position.
“It’s an Okiagari-kobōshi doll,” he said.
“What does that mean?” she said.
“Something like ‘getting-up little priest,’” he said. “It’s a good luck charm: the symbol for perseverance and resilience.”
“Was it your sister’s?” Colleen asked.
“No, I got it on a trip I took to Japan,” he said.
“Did you go with your sister?” she said.
“I went with my mother,” he said. Dominic liked watching Colleen’s hair slip around her shoulders as she moved. He came up and wrapped his arms around her. “You’re like a mermaid,” he said.
She turned into him and they kissed for a while before his mouth traveled across to her ear, nipping gently down her neck, sucking her tender shoulder muscle in between his teeth, and trailing over her collar bones—which rose to meet each pluck of his lips—to her chest. He caressed her breasts with both hands and mouth, and slid his palms along her waist, coming down onto his knees before her. Slipping her underwear down to the floor and parting her lips with his tongue, Dominic hungrily pulled Colleen closer to him.
She moaned, and sank to the floor like a drunk. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to work,” she said, circling her mouth with a lazy finger, “with the teeth and all, but you figured out how to do it. So well.”
* * *
During brunch at a café down the road, Dominic searched for elephant videos on his phone. “Here’s one for you,” he said to Colleen, showing her a young pachyderm that was painting what appeared to be her own likeness on a canvas. The elephant paused and dipped the brush on the palette, choosing a dark pigment for the eye. Her handler offered her a fresh brush and she dipped it again, this time in red. Then she painted a rose, held in the spiral of her subject’s trunk.
“It’s amazing,” said Colleen.
“I know why you cried earlier,” said Dominic quietly. “It’s because you can see that elephants are just like us: sentient beings simply wearing a different body. You recognize their humanity.”
“Their elephanity,” said Colleen, “except that sounds more like profanity.”
“The sacred and the profane can both be good,” Dominic said. “There is no true distinction. It’s all in our perception of things.”
“Dom, you are different from other guys I’ve met,” said Colleen, sitting back in her chair.
“Really? How so?” he asked.
“Most guys I’ve met recently seem like the chaff from all the good guys who’ve been snapped up already,” she said. “Things will be going along well, and then after a few dates, they sext you or ask you to send them a naughty photo.”
“Really?” he said.
“I’m not a prude, but that just tells me there’s a disconnect between who I am and what I have in terms of what they are trying to get to know.”
“I want to know all of you,” said Dominic reaching across the table to hold her hand.
“That’s what I mean. You seem different,” she said. “You haven’t played any games, you call me when you say you will, you’re doing this good work with a hard group of kids, you have a clean apartment, you can cook, you really listen when I talk, and you’ve—at the very least—shown me that you can take a deeper look at the crappy things that shaped you in childhood,” said Colleen. “Plus, you’re saving up for some braces.”
“True,” he said.
“So what’s your dark secret,” she said.
“I appear to just be a school teacher, but I’m really an international spy,” he said.
“Are you on assignment right now?” she asked.
“No, this . . . this is strictly personal,” he said and took a sip of his cappuccino. When he was in Tokyo nearly ten years ago, Dominic walked around Kabukichō all night showing people at nightclubs and 24-hour restaurants photos scanned into his phone of Rose, asking if they’d seen her. “She might go by the name Misayo,” he’d say, looking into the empty eyes of hundreds of sex workers, each appearing younger than the one before, until he stood before a girl who looked to be the age of one of his students. “How old are you?” he asked, incredulous.
“You like young girl?” she said with an exaggerated wink.
“No, no,” he shook his head sadly, and she reached out to hug him around the waist. Dominic returned her embrace and kissed the top of her perfumed head, wishing he could restore her to innocence with that simple gesture. Instead, she slid her hands down over his ass and he stiffened at her brazen confidence, pushing her away. “Go home,” he said, and darted away through the throngs of dark haired men in business suits like a fish swimming upstream, overwhelmed by the flashing lights and slick images of half naked girls pasted everywhere, and his body—vibrating with desire—that had so easily betrayed his solemn heart.
He stopped in for a coffee at a smoky café and found a seat at the counter. An older American man seated nearby snapped his newspaper down and stared at Dominic.
“On vacation, are you?” he asked.
“I’m looking for my sister,” he said, showing the man her picture. “Do you recognize her?” He dreaded the answer.
“They all look the same to me,” the man said and laughed at his joke, and Dominic felt both a twinge of disgust and relief.
“You look worn out, man,” said the ex-pat. “What are you? Thirty?”
“I’m 23,” said Dominic.
“You should be having the time of your life here,” the man said, and lit a cigarette. He offered one to Dominic who waved him away and stood up.
“Hold on, hold on,” he said. “I’ll take you to see Mr. Haruto. He knows all the girls. All the best girls.” He put down enough yen to cover both their tabs, and Dominic followed him out the door and back into the chaos of the street. “Can you believe this all used to be a swamp?” the man asked fishing a flask from his pocket and taking a swig. “That’s right, the Japs turned it into a duck sanctuary and then filled it all in to build a girls’ school. Ain’t that the thing!” he said shaking his head, offering the hooch to Dominic like an old war buddy.
Dominic waved him off and gritted his teeth, staying silent.
“You think Hiroshima and Nagasaki got it bad? Hell, we razed this place to the ground in ‘45.” He stopped walking and held up his hands and Dominic noticed that he was missing the first knuckle on every finger like a declawed cat. “And look what the nips did with the blank canvas,” he said. “They built up this playground, dedicated to the pleasure of man. Pussy here’s better than anything you could get stateside.”
Dominic kept his hands deep in his pockets as he walked, making a cocoon around his phone that held Rose’s photos. It was all he could do to restrain himself from sucker punching the old vet. Soon they came to the Yasakuni House, a function space for karaoke parties. The ex-pat led Dominic through a door to the kitchen and exchanged words with the chef, who kept looking up at Dominic with a scowl, before pointing to a service elevator.
The old man motioned for Dominic to follow him into the lift and, when the doors closed, he said, “Don’t fuck around now. Mr. H is the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi.” When Dominic gave him a blank stare, he said, “Oh, come on. You’re out here playing private detective and you don’t even know about the yazuka?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it,” said Dominic. “Like the mafia, right?”
“Right, and Mr. H is the like the understudy for the mob boss; the oyabun,” said the old man. “Under his clothing, they say every inch of his body is covered in tattoos by the most talented artists in Asia. And when I say every inch, I mean every inch,” he said, pulling up his shirtsleeve to show off a set of black inked characters on his waning bicep. “I got this, see? It means Eternal Youth. It was hand poked, man, and it hurt like a mother fucker.”
“What did you say to the chef down there?” asked Dominic.
“I told him you’ve got a story that will move Mr. H to tears,” he said.
“What are you talking about,” snapped Dominic. “You don’t even know me.”
“You are a fucking bag of sadness, dude. Anyone can see that,” he said. “Mr. H likes a good sob story. It’s his thing, you know.”
“What happened to your fingers,” Dominic asked staring at the unopened doors.
“You get straight to the point, don’t you?” the old man said, his face going slack. “When you fuck up, Mr. H requires a certain kind of apology,” he said.
The elevator opened to two men standing with their hands clasped behind their backs. “Too late to turn back now,” said the old man, sensing Dominic’s hesitation.
“This way,” one of the men said, and Dominic and the old man followed them down to the end of a long corridor where everyone removed his shoes. The escort rapped sharply on the simple door, and then opened it to reveal a Spartan room with a floor of gleaming marble tile and shoji screens on all four walls. There was a man bent over a modern desk in the center of the room, with a laptop in front of a large monitor. He slid his fingers across the monitor and it became a transparent rectangle of glass beyond which Dominic could see an opening in the shoji screen in the distance.
The man at the desk got up and called out through the opening, then disappeared within. Dominic’s ears strained to hear familiar words to no avail as he waited in silence with the others. Soon, the man from the desk returned and opened the screen wider, motioning for the guests to come forward. They entered a living room with a white sectional sofa that extended the entire length of three walls. There in the corner, by a floor to ceiling window overlooking the brightly lit Rainbow Bridge and the shadowy bay beyond, sat a grim-faced Mr. Haruto in a dark suit. Introductions were made, and the oyabun slowly nodded his greetings.
The old man pressed his foreshortened fingers together in front of his chest and bowed before the oyabun. “Sir, I have brought you a present to ask for forgiveness,” he said. “This young man has a story for you.” He leaned closer and whispered, “I guarantee it will transform your heart.”
Jesus Christ, thought Dominic, his heart pounding beneath his thin shirt, as he bowed deeply before Mr. H.
After a painfully long period of silence, the oyabun said, “Jim, why do you not wear the finger extensions I gave you?”
“They kept falling off, sir,” the old man said. “I’ve lost them all on the street.”
“Very well,” said Mr. H curtly. “Michio,” he said, and waved his hand at one of the men who bowed and led the old vet from the room immediately. The others departed as well, and the man from the desk drew the shoji screen closed so that only Dominic and the oyabun remained in the room.
“Have a seat, Dominic,” he said. “Tell me your story.”
Dominic swallowed hard and began, “My mother—,” he said.
“Good, good,” said Mr. H. “I like a story about mothers. My mother is still alive at 98, you know. I love her very much,” he said. “Very much.”
“And my sister,” said Dominic slowly, waiting for an interruption. “This is really their story.”
“Dominic, a good story stirs the soul, does it not?” Mr. H said.
“And one that shows compassion increases the flow of yin in one’s constitution.”
Dominic nodded, uncertain.
“My doctor tells me I have an imbalance, you see,” said Mr. H. “This yakuza business is far too yang.” He said with a strained smile. “Let’s see if your story has the power to transform,” said Mr. H and leaned forward, squeezing his fists with enthusiasm.
Dominic smiled in return, nodded, and began again, “My parents adopted—“
“Young man, you’ll have to tell your story facing away from me,” interrupted Mr. H. “I am too distracted by your unusual teeth.”
Dominic’s chest tightened, and he knew that Mr. H had chosen discreet words to express the disgust written across his face. “Yes, sir,” Dominic said, and positioned himself to face the window. He took a deep breath and began talking, and somewhere along the way he decided that telling a really good story was more important than telling the truth when sitting in a room alone with someone to become Tokyo’s next mob boss who might just have the power to bring Rose home for a second time.
As he delved deeper into the family’s embellished suffering, Dominic heard a noise like a cat choking and thought that perhaps his dramatic tale had caused the oyabun to laugh, mocking his pain. Soon, however, Dominic heard sniffling and realized that these were the sounds of a man attempting to control his sadness and he felt emboldened in his storytelling. When he came to the end of his tale, Dominic added, “The outcome, sir, is now in your hands.”
There was a long period of silence during which Dominic dared not turn around and show his ungainly teeth, but Mr. H said, “Come, Dominic, share a glass of sake with me.” By that, Dominic soon learned that they were to take turns drinking from the same cup, sealing the oyabun-kobun relationship in which Dominic had now become Mr. H’s symbolic foster child. “If she is in Tokyo,” said Mr. H, “I will find your wayward Misayo Rose.”
Three days later, there was a knock on the Dominic’s hotel room door nearing midnight. He stumbled out of bed without waking his mother and peered through the scope into the hallway. Two people stood waiting: one of Mr. H’s men from the Karaoke house and one whose face was obscured by a bowed head. Dominic opened the door with the chain in place and gasped. He immediately recognized his sister and struggled to loose the chain from its slot. “Rose,” he cried and embraced her stiff body while the man bowed and walked swiftly away down the hall. The smell of nicotine and alcohol clung to her skin and permeated her breath.
“What the hell are you doing here,” she said, not returning the hug.
Dominic stood and held her shoulders. “Come in, come in,” he said. “Mom is going to freak out.”
“Don’t wake her,” she hissed. When Dominic let go of her, she stumbled against him.
“Rose, we’ve been here for two months searching for you,” he said. “We’ve been so worried.”
“Do you know who you’re playing with here?” she asked, straightening up and tucking her plain white shirt back into a dark blue miniskirt. She leaned over at the waist and pulled up her knee socks like a schoolgirl. “You got the yazuki on my tail? You know what happens when one of the kobuns walks in on a deai-kei?”
“It’s okay now,” said Dominic. “You have everything you need right here.”
“Really, Dom?” she said. “Because what I need is a john with a big appetite and deep pockets. Seriously, bro, the one thing mom and dad never had was money,” she said and started to walk unevenly down the hallway.
“Wait, Rose,” he said. “I have money.”
She threw her head back and laughed, just as she’d always done. “That’s fucked up, Dom,” she said. “You’re still my brother, but whatever.”
“Not like that, Rose,” he said, exasperated. “I can set you up. Come in for a while. You can rest here tonight.”
She stood for a while and then shook her head, “What the fuck,” she said. “You, I always had a soft spot for you. Mom—her love is a fucking cage.”
“Tell me about it,” he said. “Come on, now, let’s go rattle it.”
After what seemed like hours of tears, hugs, and endless questions, Rose lay down in the bed with her head against their mother’s chest, and allowed herself to be tied up in her arms for the night. Dominic stayed awake until dawn, watching his mother and sister sleep on the double bed in the hotel room, curled tightly together like cooked prawns.
* * *
Colleen came back up into Dominic’s apartment to use the bathroom before their bike ride. She sat on the toilet and stared at the framed photo of a tight pod of koi, their bodies alongside one another forming a colorful river. Then she noticed the empty toilet paper roll. Leaning forward, she could just reach the door to the vanity where a pile of magazines came half way up the interior. In the back, she saw the stacked rolls of toilet paper, but had to pull some magazines out of the way to reach them. National Geographic, Men’s Health, and Sierra slid to the floor to reveal a stack of glossy Japanese pornography beneath. Colleen froze with her arm outstretched.
Dominic’s voice broke her trance; “Are you almost ready?” he called from the lawn below.
“One minute,” she yelled, took a fresh roll of toilet paper to clean up, and kneeled beside the magazines. She took the top one and flipped through it, seeing scores of young Asian girls with their legs and torsos bound up so tightly with black twine that what little flesh they had was squeezed out between it. There were school girls sucking on the cocks of business men, a white man in cowboy boots riding a naked girl like a filly, hundreds of slim Japanese bodies with shaved pussies and grotesquely large, rounded breasts. Colleen closed the cover and piled the magazines up again. She replaced the Sierra, Men’s Health, and National Geographic in order on top. Everything was as it should be.
Colleen’s heart was pounding when she mounted her bike. Her legs were shaking, and she did not know what to do, what to say.
“Let’s go around the lake today,” said Dominic and, without a word, Colleen sped off in that direction. “Wait up!” he yelled.
Colleen pumped her pedals like a steam engine, and they got to the lake path in record time. Dominic rode up beside her. “Why were you trying to lose me back there?” he said.
“I wasn’t,” she said and spit. He fell in behind her again when some people came from the opposite direction, then he caught up as they leaned into a curve.
“No,” he said breathlessly. “You’re angry about something. I can tell.”
“Everything’s fine,” she said. “To be expected.”
“What does that mean?” he panted.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Let’s pull over up there,” he called, pointing to a beach in the distance. “We can take a water break.” Dominic followed Colleen into the clearing and when she stopped her bike abruptly in front of him, he had to skid to the side to avoid hitting her. “I know something’s up, but I can’t know what it is if you don’t tell me,” he said, his voice choked. “I had imagined this day differently. I was going to bring you down here and tell you … I’m falling in love with you, Colleen.”
She look at him briefly and then sent her gaze out over the lake. “I didn’t think I was your type,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” he said. “You are the very definition of my type. Before I met you, I had an idea of what I was truly looking for in a person, but you made it all concrete,” he said, taking her hand, limp in his. “You are the person I’ve been looking for all my life.”
“You know when I asked you about having a secret,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “I don’t think you told me the real secret.”
“Being an international spy?” he laughed. “It’s true, I’m not really a spy.”
“But you have a thing for Japan,” she said.
“Because my sister’s Japanese?” he probed.
“Did you have a normal relationship with her,” she asked, not meeting his eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said. “She wasn’t really a normal kid. The social worker finally diagnosed her with a reactive attachment disorder.”
“She was like the puppy that goes up to everyone, but a lot less cheerful, and has no loyalty to her own family,” he said. “She’d get in cars with strangers.”
“Really?” she asked, looking back at him.
“A couple of times,” he said.
“Are you attracted to Asian women?” Colleen asked, searching his face with the question.
“Not excessively,” he said, waiting for her response.
“I found your porn,” she said, “while I was getting more toilet paper.”
“Oh God,” he said. “It’s not for what you think.”
“I know,” she said sardonically. “It’s for the articles.”
“No,” he said. “Colleen, sometime after my sister disappeared, I was in a bookstore and I swear I saw her on a cover of one of those smut magazines in the men’s section,” he said. “To have those issues with her in them means I know what she’s doing, where she is. Somehow, I could keep her safe. Well, not anymore, but back then, for a while, I did.”
Dominic got off his bike and walked over, standing close to Colleen but respecting her nonverbal message not to touch. “I’m not a jerk. I teach social studies to fifth graders because I like to think spending all day with them—when their parents can’t or don’t even want to spend ten minutes—makes them feel real and important even if they’re calling me names and throwing things at me behind my back,” he said. “Look, I don’t do drugs, I’m not bad to women, I call my parents each week, and I have this wicked overbite that prevents me from getting the things all regular guys have too easily.”
“Your teeth have made you real,” she said, shaking her head.
“And almost gotten me killed, too,” he said, receiving her hand. “Back when I was an international spy.”
* * *
“Where are you going?” Dominic whispered to Rose as she slipped out of her mother’s embrace and gathered her things from the foot of the bed. She shook her head at him and pulled on her boots. “You’ll break her heart, you know,” he said quietly. “You’ll break everyone’s heart.”
“Dom, all you ever wanted was to have them to yourself,” Rose said. “Now, you can have what you want. Consider it my special gift to you.” She threaded her arms into a dark blue cardigan.
“You don’t get it, Rose,” he said. “They want what they want. They see what they see,” he said, standing openly before her. “You already have them to yourself. You did long before you arrived. They had been waiting for you.” Then, pushing a finger into her shoulder with each word, he said, “Not. Anyone. Else. You.”
“Look, I’m not up for this,” she said. “ I am not starting my day with a guilt trip. I’ve got a long enough commute.”
“Come back here at 3:00 this afternoon,” he said. “I’ll have money for you and a ticket home.”
“I wasn’t even born into this world with a family,” she said, “and I sure as hell am not leaving with one.”
Not long after the door closed, their mother awoke. “Where’s Rose?” she said, sitting up in bed, her clothes and hair rumpled.
“She had to go pack her things,” he said.
“She’s not coming back, is she?” she said.
Dominic sat back down in the desk chair and held his head in his hands.
“I dreamed I was blind,” said his mother. “I was feeling my way through Tokyo, dragging my fingers along the sides of buildings, begging people to let me touch their faces,” she said. “How many times I held Rose’s cheeks in my hands when she was growing up, kissed her on the forehead.” Dominic’s mother looked down at her hands and took a deep breath. “I was only ever feeling my own palms, my own lips on her skin. Rose has always been like the wind, never staying still for long. She was just a child passing through on her way to something else, like all the babies who came and left,” she said and looked up, clear-eyed. “Dominic, you were the only one who ever stayed.”
At 3:00 PM, Dominic waited in the lobby. The hotel doors opened with a whoosh many times, but it was never Rose who came through.
On their last night in Tokyo, Dominic went out to a bar to get wasted while his mother packed. He sat alone at the counter, with his head down, praying to avoid young girls and old vets, anyone from the yazuki. The sake burned a hot trail down his throat, dragging down his feelings of being inconsequential and unwanted and transforming them into dull, deep longings in his belly. As he stumbled back to the subway, two girls from a nearby love hotel walked silently alongside him, snaking their sinuous arms through his. What the fuck, Dominic thought, and let them steer him around, leading him back to their room. They giggled like his students with one another on the street and in the lobby, making fun of his teeth. They called him papa rabbit as they unbuttoned his clothes and pushed him down on the bed, clamoring on top of him like sticks from a collapsing lean to. Dominic squeezed his eyes shut tight the whole time, tearing himself open again and again on their sharp limbs.
* * *
Dominic sat in the center of the porn rags, spread around him like a nest. He cut out Rose’s photos with a pair of scissors and handed them to Colleen. “She looks strong in this one,” she said. “There’s defiance in her eyes.”
“The one thing Rose never lacked was strength,” he said.
“How about we give her some wings,” she said, and offered him a bag of colorful feathers.
“And a heart,” he said, reaching for a bowl of plastic jewels.
They worked all afternoon sliding the collage along a beam of sunlight that crossed the floor, morphing from a golden swath to a thinning white stripe. Dominic covered Rose’s naked body in bits of silk and feathers, softening her sharp edges with a pinch of embellishing dust. He kept working intently while Colleen went out to pick up some sandwiches from the deli down the road. When she returned, she handed him a small package of sparkling bindis.
“It goes over the third eye,” she said, “to activate wisdom.”
Dominic picked up his phone and searched for more information. “The person who wears a bindi works to overcome Ahamkar, the ego,” he read aloud. “Releasing this sense of individuality is the last hurdle on the journey to enlightenment, in which we share a single consciousness.” He peeled a red bindi from the package and placed it on Rose’s forehead in a photo where she kneeled like a cat, staring into the camera with her chin tucked and teeth bared. With Colleen’s help, Dominic turned Rose’s slight body into a tiger’s with muscular haunches and a lightning bolt for a tail. He transformed the raw images of his sister long into the evening, under the soft light of a table lamp brought down to their level. When none of the white paper beneath the collage remained visible, Dominic leaned back against the foot of the bed. “I think that’s it,” he said. “There’s just no room for more.”
“Look at what you’ve created,” Colleen said, holding the collage up for him to view.
“I made what I see inside her,” he said. “I made that real today.”
Colleen put the collage down, clicked off the light, and walked over to the bed. She sat down and pulled off her socks, then got under the covers. “Come here,” she said and held the blanket open for him. Dominic tucked himself inside, and they lay there together, holding on to each other and looking out the window at the stars far beyond the birch leaves fluttering darkly in the breeze. Colleen turned her gaze back to Dominic, trailed a finger down his cheek and whispered, “I can still see you in the dark.” A smile stretched across his face, and he allowed it to pull his lips back from his teeth, revealing everything.