One guy at a bar who was still there after Akemi left offered me advice. Akemi and I had stopped in with friends for a quick meal at that spot popular with artists who'd settled in that neighborhood from all over the country, abroad too (look at Akemi). We'd been to her studio and she went back there to do something with friends. I didn't know the man on the stool beside us. He was a "conceptual artist," he said. He'd spoken to Akemi and me about a "piece" he was working on that consisted of videoing visitors to a gallery without their knowledge and projecting their images on the walls as an exhibit. How they behaved when they believed they were unobserved. "Some got angry," he said with a laugh.
Akemi told him her name because he asked for it and then for her to show the Chinese characters, though they couldn't have meant much to him. Maybe this was his way of drawing her out- or in.
"What's your name?" she asked in turn.
"Dimitri," he said.
"What kind of name is that?"
"Well, it's American." And it was, in the sense this is a country of mixed backgrounds, all nationalities represented. He looked offended, as if Akemi had made fun of him. An as-yet unseen side of his character showed then. He was, I saw, touchy, for want of a better word.
The name didn't sound real, by the way. Was it a stage name- that is, one he used for his art work, to wow art world people, who are really pretty unsophisticated, only pretend otherwise. Americans in general- I include myself here- stand in awe of anything foreign (as I did of Akemi!), their arrogance toward the rest of the world betraying a sense of themselves as dumb yokels, at least half accurately. Foreign was art. Art is Europe. Dimitri sounded European. Not so much, actually. Russian. Or Greek?
I spotted him as a type good at finding humor in others but quick to anger if the tables were turned- and well-armored against any assault on his dignity. He'd built his life around making sure he wasn't humiliated by figuring out ways to humiliate others.
In fact, he said that as a conceptual (performance?) artist his credo was, "Do unto others as they would do unto you. But do it first."
A creep, in other words. Why couldn't Akemi see that? Maybe because she's not American and doesn't know the types here as I do, can't recognize evil as she might in her own country. Sometimes I feared for her safety following from her decision to come live here. Much as I wanted her to stay!
After Akemi took off, the bar fly named Dimitri asked about us, how long had we been married, how was it, etc.
I really think this conversation wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been drunk.
Why drunk? Because I'd been waiting too long for Akemi and her friends to finish the work they were doing. They didn't want me at her studio before then. Drinking was my pastime.
They left. I stayed. Akemi said my presence would be a distraction. They were choosing paintings of hers for a show, needed to concentrate fully. She apologized.
Dimitri was amused increasingly as his questions became more personal.
"You got some string at home?"
He wore the artist's uniform, all-black de rigueur, shirt buttoned all the way to the collar, black framed glasses that looked thick, made his eyes hard to see.
"Of course." In the kitchen utility drawer there were always things like that.
"You tie her up by the legs."
"Then you hoist her."
I got the idea: He was suggesting I fuck Akemi suspended above me. It sounded like something from a classic porn film about a virgin's initiation into sex.
He clarified, probably noting my reaction, that I'd taken some umbrage, let's say, explained he had in mind a string net for her to hang in at ease.
"No, it wouldn't be uncomfortable for her," he added. I wonder if he said that only because I hadn't responded as enthusiastically as he'd hoped to the idea of trussing Akemi up.
"Closed at the top, enfolding her. She could swing." The net, he was talking about.
This man named Dimitri grinned.
I answered, "I'm not that good at making knots." Trying to deflect.
The effort didn't succeed. No surprise there.
Akemi wasn't a virgin and I didn't want to put her through some dumb ritual directed by that stranger or anyone else. I was possessive but that didn't mean I would treat her as an object.
"She has a great ass." Akemi was wearing crushed velvet that night, corduroy pants, dark violet. At the bar they looked black.
"Imagine that imprinted with a grid."
"Dimitri, you're really going too far."
He really was. But I said it with a laugh. Avoiding confrontation. I felt like punching him, but who wants a fight. What's more, the whole thing was my fault.
Seeing I hadn't drawing a line, he advanced.
Backtrack. I was drunk, missed Akemi off with friends, and had started talking when encouraged, said things I would later regret, about my deep feeling for her. An anecdote.
"There was a black dog like a panther outside the window. Beautiful but dangerous. Couldn't let it in. I showed Akemi when she got home. Couldn't let it in."
Dimitri had stared at me quizzically as I explained that I didn't know why but there'd been a pall on the afternoon in question, sense she and I would be lost to each other.
"Because of the dog?"
"I just felt something."
"Come on," He acted like an old friend with my best interests at heart. Not the case.
"Why?" Genuinely curious as well as digging for information he could use for some end known only to him.
Why not tell him? Drink had loosened my tongue.
"I'd been at the college and stayed late with students. Came back and said to Akemi, 'I miss you.' She was ready to accept that. Eight hours I'd been gone. We embraced. Pressed together. We kissed. The impulse to kiss came naturally with contact. I thought of the black dog then, sensed Akemi did too."
"The one that looked like a- what was it?"
"Beautiful like a panther. I know this sounds stupid."
"Hell, you're some kind of poet."
Why should I care what he thought? Should have thought of that before speaking.
"No. Or maybe yes." I shook my head, snorted a laugh at myself for his benefit, conceding that his comments might have merit, I was listening.
"Akemi and I were newly living together and sometimes things seemed fragile, like a beautiful illusion that could fall apart."
"She's beautiful, all right." Dimitri smiled indulgently.
"She is. And I'm lucky. I know. I know."
"I see the precarious now and then, is all."
"What's that about, do you think?"
Playing the counselor. Good listener. Yeah, he had social skills but was an idiot out for no one but himself, his own gratification.
Dimitri released a breath slowly, sat back on his stool preparing to listen patiently to a long story.
I wanted to keep it short. Why did I blab like that? Because lonely, insecure?
"I'd been seeing others, enjoying their company. Pulling away from Akemi."
"At the college?"
"You mean hanging out with coworkers?"
He scrutinized me again, turning his face to the side as if that enabled him to see me better. Sitting too close. He could smell my whiskey breath.
"I can't blame you. Nothing wrong in that, man. You were just doing your job, doing it well, above and beyond the call of duty. Ha ha."
"Some attractive women there, let me tell you. It was late. Suddenly we were- you know- just people to each other."
"I get it." He nodded, his eyes half-closed as if to show respect, acknowledge the point I made was serious.
"You felt you could go off with one of them and leave your marriage in the dust."
"I'd forgotten the time and didn't even call her."
"She didn't mind, though, right?"
I shot him a look, saying "That's not the issue. My behavior was."
He put his hands up, saying, "Whoah. Easy. Easy. Just want to be sure. Because you said-"
"Yeah. I did. She welcomed me back eight hours late no questions asked."
"Maybe she's wiser than you, sees the bigger picture, knows things happen. I think she would have understood if you developed some feelings for students."
He talked as if he understood Akemi, whom he had met for all of ten minutes before she and friends departed.
I scanned his face for answers. What was I thinking? Of course none were there. Drinking will make you see the world as a place where problems solve themselves. Not that Akemi and I had many. I thought we didn't until that night. Somehow talking to this guy- to Dimitri- was pulling doubt out of me, up to the surface. Ever met someone like that?
I took another sip of my drink, whiskey I'd turned to, and said, "Thank you, doctor."
Keep things light.
And sipped again.
"What's the guilt about?"
"My wife. she's innocent," I said.
"I remember her name."
"It's a nice one."
"It means something about light. I'm not sure what, ha ha."
"You say she's innocent?"
"I didn't get that impression. She seems savvy."
"Trusting, I mean."
Dimitri mulled over the difference, apparently saw none.
"She wouldn't have married you if she didn't believe in you."
"I want to be good enough for her."
I began to feel bogged down, felt myself sinking into the bar stool. My shoulders had hunched. I was more or less talking to my drink now.
"But that thing about the dog sounds intense."
"It looked like a panther?"
"Yeah. That rolling gait, like pacing in its cage."
"Outside your window?"
"Yeah. We were at a friend's. First floor apartment. Half-basement really. Right at ground level. So you saw the people passing by. And the animals. Ha ha."
"Sometimes there's not much difference."
"Yeah, well. You saw people's feet, of animals you saw the whole thing."
"But the dog made an impression on you, on both of you."
"It felt kind of significant, like an omen."
"You were having a vision, man."
"Ha ha. Yeah. Of days ahead. It suddenly occurred to me, you know, in a flash, that you can't predict what will happen. Sometimes you get an insight, as if the world were opening and letting you see your life in the round."
He stared at me. "Are you for real?" I read in his eyes. That and deep sympathy. He was the type who can mock and sympathize simultaneously.
I looked at him, bleary through the alcoholic haze, trying to focus. Maybe he thought I was asking if he might somehow be involved in that unforeseeable future. He peered right back
"The dog made you see your whole life.."
I slumped deeper, managed a nod. This had become embarrassing.
"There was something sad about having to keep the beauty at a distance."
"You couldn't open the window and welcome the dog in."
"Of course not."
"Because it was dangerous, you said." His intonation made the statement a question. I didn't answer, saw no reason to repeat the information I'd given before. Also, the exchange had gone on long enough.
He clapped his hand on my shoulder. "A poet!"
I shook him off. Too damned familiar.
"Look. No one knows what'll happen tomorrow. And you've got a fucking beautiful wife."
I glared at him.
"You said it yourself. And lucky you."
I nodded, sat upright again.
I thought of phoning Akemi to see if she and her friends were finished with their work on her painting.
"Hang on," I said to our new acquaintance.
The call confirmed they would be at her studio a while yet. I said I'd head home rather than wait at the bar longer.
But Dimitri wasn't done.
"Come off it. Things between you and her are good."
"Knock on wood."
"You looked fine together. And I saw love in her eyes. Believe me."
I raised my eyes from my glass to look at him directly, wondering what he'd seen.
"Tell me more," he said.
"Everything's interesting to me."
"Because you're an artist?"
"Now you're beginning to understand."
"You like knowing about other people's lives."
"Just some people's."
"To use for your art." I said it again.
"That's right. We don't bullshit around. Good taste doesn't interest us. I tell you I think your wife is a good fuck and see how you react. Now that's interesting."
"I say I'd like to fuck her, to have her suck me. And what do you say? What words come from you?"
At the moment I couldn't find any at all.
"Remember, she'd have a say," I finally managed, sounding meek enough I was really annoyed at myself.
"Yeah, of course I'd like that," he said, really eagerly now, as if I'd just agreed to something.
And I kept going in spite of myself, like a man running downhill who finds continuing is the only way not to lose his balance and land hard.
"We were making love in our apartment the other afternoon when the landlord came over. We knew he was visiting but thought he'd arrive later- he had something to talk to us about- but the guy came early, and Akemi made the transition without skipping a beat. So casual. And while she and he were talking I went to the bathroom and I saw I still had Panache lipstick on my pubic hair or whatever the brand is called. And I was so turned on finding that. And when the landlord left we took up right where we'd left off."
"She sounds really cool," Dimitri said.
"Cool like smoke," I said- yeah, proudly.
"Was her lipstick deranged on her face too, so the landlord could see? You know, smeared a little?"
He always pushed too far. Like a street beggar who asks for a dollar and when you give him one demands ten or twenty he saw in your wallet.
I moved forward, morphed away from that subject.
"We've moved to a new place."
"She told me."
"Said it's near her studio, where she paints."
I hadn't realized she'd told him anything about herself. I put aside my unease.
"And it's funny how perspective shifts with circumstances. The city has become so expensive- lot of new people moving here- we chose a place I wouldn't have before, on the outskirts, not a good neighborhood- and we're happy there because the rent is affordable."
"If you're happy, any place is good," Dimitri said. And he was right again.
"Though it's a pretty dicey area," I added.
"You don't want her going home alone late at night."
"No." He really seemed to take pleasure in making me uneasy.
"What floor do you live on?"
"The third. Why?"
"I'm just trying to picture it."
"One good thing is there's a basketball court nearby. It even has stands for people to watch games."
"Do you play?"
"It's good exercise."
The conversation combined the banal and the toxic.
"An artist.." I wasn't drunk enough to slur my words. My mood had darkened and affected how I spoke, thought. One idea tangled with another.
"Conceptual artist," Dimitri corrected, leaning close to look at my eyes turned down again toward the dark wood of the bar, as if I were hiding them from him.
It was beginning to feel like I would never get rid of him. He was a slug slung around my neck permanently, one that would follow me home. I couldn't escape from him into my private life with Akemi.
"What else have you got for me?" he said.
"About your life."
"Material for your conceptual art?" I sounded positively bitter and he didn't mind at all. Came with the territory, in his view.
"I'd like to know more about your marriage."
"About my marriage?"
"Or just about your wife. About Akemi."
"Yeah. That's her name."
"I know. I told you."
"It means something to do with light but you're not sure what, you said."
"See? I've got a good memory."
"For things that interest me."
"You and she travel a lot?"
"She likes seeing the country."
"What about hiking?"
There's a place upstate I'd like to bring you two if you've got time. It's got a campsite on cliffs overlooking the river. Akemi'd love it."
"She seen much- of the country, I mean? Where've you taken her?"
"She traveled plenty on her own before we met."
"Okay, but you wouldn't be able to talk about that. Where'd you go together?"
"Last trip was to a place called Two Gorges. I don't know if you've heard about it. Funny- humiliating- incident took place. We were outside walking on a scenic lookout- you've reminded me. I had my camera. An old woman at the bench got to her feet when she saw us.
"'Sit down,' she said. She was addressing me. Did I look that old, tired? She insisted.
"'It's okay. We like standing,' I told her."
Here I paused the narrative to make sure Dimitri understood. He kept silent, waited for me to go on.
"I wanted to look over the ravine- the gorge- to take pictures of the view. Tree tops from above. Green filigree."
Dimitri's expectant gaze, which had something carnivorous about it, was getting on my nerves and I stopped the anecdote there.
"Pretty much." What had made the story stick in my mind and surface then was the way the woman treated me, as if I were a senior citizen who needed a rest. She herself was past middle age. Maybe it was seeing me with Akemi that made me look old.
I chose not to go into this with Dimitri.
"Tell me how you two met."
A welcome shift of focus, as far as I was concerned.
"At the college. Actually, outside it."
"Where she studies? What, painting?
"And English. And I work there?"
"Love at first sight? Ha ha."
I was remembering.
At the beginning I couldn't believe she didn't know I was interested in her."
"It felt obvious to you, huh?"
"Each time we met I was surprised she was still there, hadn't run away from me."
"You thought she was out of your league."
"I thought she was friendly, open, and more so each time we met. I probably could have made a move earlier."
"Probably." Dimitri looked at me, as if to say, "You dumb fuck."
But I got her in the end. If he'd been in my shoes he would have been gloating. Some people are just assholes, competing, always trying to put the other guy down because they feel they themselves aren't much. Was Dimitri that type? On the surface, he actually seemed pretty self-assured. If it was an act, it was a convincing one.
"What about Japan?"
"What about it?"
"You've visited with her, haven't you? That must have been-"
"Like another world. Starting from the airport here."
"As the plane turned the corner on the runway at high speed and began taxiing to takeoff- the weather was overcast; I hadn't noticed; view from the window looked white; even a light rain looks like a torrent, threatening, from a plane hurtling through it- Akemi said to me, "Why does every flight feel like the most important in your life?
"In mine, in hers, whosever, she meant.
"She answered her own question. "Because it is. You've got your life in your lap."
"Flying is always a risk, especially at takeoff and landing, she meant. She thinks deeply that way."
"Is that deep?" Dimitri asked, barely controlling a smirk; he knew my high opinion of my wife.
But he couldn't contain himself.
"Does she have a squawky Chinese voice?"
He'd had enough of my poetic reverie about her anyway.
"She's Japanese," I reminded him. Getting annoyed for real now, trying to shut the guy down without directly criticizing him for pushing forward a conversation I could have stopped at any time earlier but hadn't.