The Knock on the Wall
by Reed Venrick
by Reed Venrick
Imagine renting a flat in Tokyo, just
An ordinary building on the third floor,
Long and narrow in design, a kind
Known as a railroad car, where
Walking in from the landing, you unlock
The door, step into the petite entrance,
Leave your shoes, of course. With two
Steps more, you enter the kitchen, just
A meter and half wide. There you look
Over the dining area, containing only
A “kotatsu” table standing low against
The left wall, where crushed cushions
Rest on the floor for you and guests.
To the right, a tiny bathroom, just
Wide enough for a sink and toilet,
And a square tub only big enough
For one to bathe or shower. You step
Further into the railroad car: a sliding
“Shoji” paper door allows you to enter
Your “tatami” sleeping room, a raised
Floor made of smooth, woven reeds.
Three steps across the tatami
And you slide open the glass door
To a balcony not larger than
The space of a caboose, and
Standing there, you look across
The blue-tied roofs of suburban
Shinjuku—you gaze up and over
The skyscrapers of downtown.
On clear days and sometimes
Waxing moon nights, you can see
Across the 105 kilometers to
The snow crown of Mt. Fuji. You
Look around: a cozy, petite flat,
Just a 5 minute walk to the local
Train, then a 5 minute ride onto
Your much-traveled Yamanote
Loop train that circles downtown
And makes all Tokyo accessible.
But imagine: the second night in
Your new flat. You have just fallen
asleep—jarred awake by the noise
Of water gushing from your bathroom.
You leap from the sheets, fearing
The water pipe in the tub has broken,
You run into the bathroom, you flick
On the ceiling light, then realize
The running water is coming
From the other side of the wall--
Someone is drawing a bath. You
Tap lightly on the wall to check the
Wall—must be made of material
Hardly thicker than paper board.
Your first Sunday morning there,
You lean on your balcony railing,
Sipping your Kona coffee, you see
That this petite balcony is barely
Big enough to stretch out your
Legs; still you are glad to rent
This “pied a Terre,” but as you
Look back around, you realize
This small flat was originally
Double this size, but at some point,
Partitioned into equal halves.
Now you understand why the width
Is so narrow, excepting the tatami
Room, you can stand most places--
Stretch your arms and touch both
Walls with your fingers. But you
Think: ah, no problem, You are
Single again. Half a railroad
Car is all the space a bachelor
Needs, because the grand city
Of Tokyo contains plenty of room
To roam ‘round ,as you daily wheel
Your “mamasan” bicycle about
The streets of Takadanobaba, and
Grocery stores in Ikebukuro, and
Catch trains nearby, when you
Go to your university classes.
You hear the phone ringing from
Your kotatsu table, and you hurry
To get it, but when you hear a female
Voice answer “moshi moshi,” you
Laugh to realize that again you
Were fooled—standing by
The thin wall, you hear a melodic
Voice of a woman speaking in
“Nihongo,” and you think: this is
Uncanny. Her voice is so close,
So clear, she could be speaking
Inside your own flat. Later, that
Afternoon, you again hear water
Being drawn from the tub, but this
Time you hear the slapping and
Flapping of wet clothes, and
A while later later, as you are
Reading Tanizaki’s “In Praise of
Shadows,” you sit up in your tatami
Room. Suddenly you hear footsteps
On the balcony, and as you step
Over, you see female clothes
Hung out on a spiderweb clothesline.
And in the early evening, the delicious
Scent of someone cooking ginger
Chicken wafts through your flat, and
When someone clinks the dishes,
When someone vacuums the floor,
When someone watches Japanese
Tv, and when someone takes another
Bath, its not too much to imagine
That the two of you are flatmates.
People in Tokyo work long hours,
Often not returning home until
10 p.m., depending on trains.
You, as well, in addition to your
Day job, work some evenings,
Tutoring English to executives
In corporate offices. Imagine
One Tuesday night, you arrive
At your building to see the back
Of a slim woman with long hair;
She wears a formal blue suit with skirt,
With long hair, walking up the stairs
In front of you, and as you come
Onto your third floor landing, you
See her unlocking the door, just
Two meters away from your own,
But her back is turned, and you
Cannot see her face.
When you say “konban wa,”: she
Repeats the greeting, but she
Turns only partially, as she politely
Nods, but her dark hair hangs so
Long, her face is hidden, and as
She opens her door, all you see
Are elegant fingers, polished nails.
—Watashi no namae—you begin.
—No Eng-lish, no Eng-lish—she says,
Waving a nervous, minimal hand,
Then swift as a dancer, she enters
Her flat, closes the door, but opens
It again so that you see one lovely,
Long-lashed eye behind the door slit.
—Gomen Nasai, she says, then
Not waiting for an answer, she
Shuts the door, clicks the lock.
Then, imagine a few evenings later,
A Friday night, you come home
About 9:30, feeling tired after
A long work day and a corporate
Tutoring job you have in Shibuya,
And as you are undressing in the tatami
Room you hear a gentle knocking
On the wall. You hesitate. Was she
Knocking for you? Or just slapping
A mosquito? What the hell, you think
And knock back. With an increasing
Heart beat, you wait until you hear her
Footsteps crossing her room and again
A knock-on-the-wall. You smile and
Shake your head, and knock once again.
How strange yet how charming. Two
People living separately but existing
So closely that if there were no wall,
You could reach and touch her arm.
So a habit begins that autumn night.
When you came home you knew
Within minutes if she were at home.
But usually she arrived later, around
10 p.m., so you would wait until she
Entered her tatami bedroom, and then
You would knock twice, and she would
Respond in kind. Similarly, when she
Arrived home before, she would knock
First on the wall.
Once your knocking becomes a ritual,
You think it will be inevitable that
You would meet. You compose a note
In your feeble Japanese, which says
To the effect: “Do you catch the local
Train at “Shimo-Ochiai” Station? You
know the Mikan Kissaten” there? Care
To meet on the weekend for coffee?
Say 3 or 4 pm?” You rewrite the note to
Get the syntax better, according to
The Japanese course you took at
Sophia University over in Ichigaya.
But as you are slipping the note
Into an envelope, you hear voices
From her side. One voice was hers,
And one, a man’s, who clearly did not
Know how thin the wall was—he
Spoke so loudly in Japanese that he
Might have been talking in your kitchen.
You stare at the written note and shake
Your head. You go to the kitchen and
Prepare your evening meal—soba pasta,
A tub of tofu and a can of tuna, then
You spend the evening, sitting back
On your tatami wall, doing exercises
In the book “Japanese for Busy People.”
But you find it difficult to study, for all
You hear for two hours is the exchange
Of a Loud male and a quiet female voice
Next door. You feel angst of knowing
They are intimate—further chagrined
To be woken when he exits the door at 12: 17.
You grab up the note from the kotatsu, the
One you’d written in your labored “Nihongo,”
And throw it in the trash, and in the days
And weeks that follow, you no longer
Knock on the wall, and neither does she.
The partition that divides the balcony
The two of you share is no more than
A few plastic boards wired together.
If you had a bucket to stand on, you
Could jump over with just a hop. Since
Neither of you have washing machines,
She hangs out her clothes to dry.
The dividing boards are high enough
That from where you sit in your tatami
Room, you can see her bare feet and
Toned calves. You notice her “yukata”
Changes from a summer green to a
Crimson autumn color. But Imagine
That one Wednesday morning, a storm
Blows through Tokyo. You arrive home
And find her clothes and intimates
And the clothes-line strewn on your
Balcony side. You debate what to do.
You put them into a plastic bag and
Hang them on her side. But you write
Another note in your roman-lettered
Japanese—tape it to the bag.
You expect a note in return, but all
You get back that night was an
Extended-four-knocks. That evening
Was cold, almost freezing, You lay
Under your futon with the winter
Moonlight lighting up your room and
You ponder: how is it that a woman
Of her good looks is living alone
And not married at 30 years? More
Or less, your own age.
You remind yourself of the pattern.
Apparently the same man visits her
Every two weeks, usually on Fridays.
Always he arrives late, and soon you
Hear him engaging in loud talk and
Even louder sex, then he leaves
Around midnight, but he never spends
The night, so you ask: is she “a second
Woman?” The next time he leaves,
You check your front door’s eyehole,
And see a man with diamond earrings,
Dark, curled hair, and as you watch,
He rolls down his sleeves over full
Tattoos on both arms—so you know.
Imagine how, you, a divorced man,
Living alone, can become obsessed
With a woman you are virtually
Co-habiting with. You soon know
Her daily habits, almost as well as
You know your own, yet you still
Don’t know her name, so one day,
You check her letters in her open
Mailbox and copy down the writing
You see on her electric bill, a mix
Of “hiragana” and “kanji.” You then
Show the writing to a colleague
At work. “Her name is Ogawa,”
He says. “No,” I say, “just her first
Name,” He grins, “Komako, but
Why do you ask? Who is she?”
Months pass with few changes.
But imagine that one Friday Evening
During “hanami,” those blossoming
Weeks in April, you realize that
You have not heard a man inside her
Flat for several weeks. Had they
Broken up? At that time, you are
Studying calligraphy in Roppongi
At the International House, so you
Write a note, using brush and ink
On fine parchment paper:
“Genki desu Ka! Do you drink tea or
Coffee? Sometimes I go to the “Kissaten”
Near the 7-Eleven in Takadanobaba.
Care to stop by on Saturday or
Sunday afternoon?” You take a deep
Breath and slip it under her door.
But the only response you get that
Evening, when she returns, is a feeble
Tap on your tatami wall. So you pass
Another night hearing her every
Movement: when she goes to bed,
When she goes to the bathroom,
When she rises in the morning, when
She slides open her balcony door,
When she locks her front door and
Goes to work, when she returns,
When she speaks on the phone.
And you imagine: how simple to just
Remove the boards that separate
The balcony—the two of you then
Could sit together on the shared space
And watch the moon fly over Mt Fuji.
Warm days of summer arrive, but
you are reading Kawabata’s “Snow
Country.” Easy to imagine that
You and Komako are living together
In Niigata, Akita, or in Aomori, where
On snowy weekends you ski
Trails with the “Friends of the Earth”
And soak in hot springs afterwards.
And yes, you imagine you are hiding out
From the infamous “Yakuza,” who throw
A net over Japan to seize you, but you
Imagine that you are the newest James
Bond, so you smack the bad guys down
The nearest stairs, then you and
Komako hike up through the foothills
Of Mt. Fuji and sojourn long winter nights
Above the timber line in a peasant’s hut,
Where the rice cooking is tastily done
In a cast-iron pot hanging from a rusty
Chain over a hearth, but alas, the bliss
Does not last. One overcast day the yakuza
Find you and the razor-sharp swords
Slash down the shoji doors. You, and
The love of your life, Komako, leap
Through the paper window and ski down
The snow-covered Mt. Fuji, later flagging
Down a bullet train “Shinkansen” to zip
Over to the Izu Peninsula, where with
Help of Komako’s uncle, a “wasabi”
Farmer—neighbor to a sea captain
Of a trans-Pacific freighter—and he
Allows you to stowaway to Los Angeles.
You continue your academic career,
Teaching in a community college, but
You miss your life in Japan, and there
In Long Beach, you never find a place
That has the charm and uniqueness
Of that little railroad flat in Shinjuku.
So a dream begins that often repeats:
One Friday evening, you walk up
The stairs to the third-floor landing.
Again you enter your tiny kitchen,
Of the old railroad flat, you peer
Down the long length of the rooms
To see Hokusai’s woodcut of “Boy
Viewing Mt Fuji” facing you there
on the balcony much like Rene
Magritte’s “The Human Condition.”
Now your dream grows more
Surreal, even incomprehensible,
As dreams will. Your Japanese wife,
Komako, has arrived home earlier
Than you, and, as you remove
Your shoes, next to hers, you
Hear her drawing you a bath, just
As she usually does. But when
You call out the familiar “tadaima,”
She does not answer. You are
Alarmed—you hurry into the bath.
But, as you enter, you hear the knock
on the wall, and you know all is well.