Naomi’s client tonight was a businessman. Naomi dressed for work in a button-up white blouse and black linen slacks. She might have been an office girl in his building and he wouldn’t shoot her a second glance.
Naomi turned down the bed: its thick, white coverlet, the sheets that were washed in-between every client, the plump down pillows. Her client removed his jacket and tie, unbuttoning his sleeves at the wrist. Some clients brought their own sleepwear. Some stripped to their undergarments, though no farther than that.
Naomi drew back the covers and the man settled into bed. He was quite stout and his gestures in undressing were almost forceful, but he still drifted into the white of the bedding like a child.
Naomi quickly slipped into the other side of the bed and lay face-to-face with the client, matching breaths until he fell asleep.
“It’s not as if you’re a call girl, now is it?” her boss, Takahata grunted. “It’s not as if you have to dirty your hands to make money.”
He forked over that night’s stack of cash.
No. There was no physical touching, nothing sexual of any kind. But the intimacy of the job felt…obscene somehow.
“I fell asleep again,” she said, looking down at her shoes. She brought it up with increasing frequency, hoping Takahata would get sick of her lack of discipline.
But instead he just scratched his chin. “As long as you’re there with them, it doesn’t really matter. You sure complain a lot about a job that requires nothing of you.”
Naomi took her pay and left without comment.
The job required nothing. Was that true?
More and more, Naomi considered quitting the job. To hell with her apartment, to hell with the steep rental prices in the city. She could live in all-night internet cafes like her friend Chiwako, showering at the gym and subsisting on instant noodles.
….but no. That would leave Kurotsugumi out in the cold, wouldn’t it? No matter how resolved, she could not abandon her cat, who came winding in-between her legs as soon as she stepped in the door. Kurotsugumi was her only family in the city.
Naomi began brewing the first of what would be many cups of coffee throughout the day. The job had done something insidious to her sleep cycle. Now, even on days when she didn’t work, she was constantly tired. The strain of attempting to stay awake all night crept into her body. Even the brightest of days had soft, blurred edges as if she was only partly present in the waking world.
“Of course you’re tired,” her friend Fumi said, “you’re not just prostituting your body. You’re prostituting your mind as well.”
Fumi worked at a bar. Naomi loved her for her bluntness. Thus, she was the only friend who knew anything about Naomi’s real profession.
“I know,” Naomi confessed, “it doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re lying across from a person all night, mixing your breath with theirs, it’s a terrible weight to take on.”
Naomi poured her a shot of apricot liqueur. “Most people don’t even realize what an effort it is, do they? To go with someone all the way to the edge of sleep.”
Naomi disliked that phrase. It sounded terrible and final as “edge of the world.” The edge of anything was not a suitable place to live. And yet here she was.
Fumi tossed her close-cropped hair behind an ear. “Of course,” she said mischievously, “if you quit, I won’t get to tell all my friends that I know a baku.”
Naomi swallowed. There was a vague, frightening familiarity to that phrase. “Baku?”
“You know? The dream-eating tapir.”
Naomi repressed a shudder. “That’s not me. I don’t eat people’s dreams.”
“But you absorb something negative from them, don’t you?” Fumi’s gaze pierced right through her. “If you sleep next to someone you know, it gets normalized. You get used to one another’s energy. But a different person every night? Must be like a fish collecting small amounts of mercury with every mouthful.”
Naomi felt sick. But also, that it must be true. Even at the bar, with its neon lighting and sharp, angular furniture she felt insubstantial.
Going out with friends later that same evening, Naomi pondered what it would truly cost to quit. The cost of living in the city was certainly high, but could she work around it?
Naomi chewed over that phrase. Cost of living. Like people were composed of bits and pieces that cost X amount. To maintain a healthy leg, you must make so-and-so money. And what if you default on your payments? Did they repossess your body and sell it for parts?
Naomi laughed a little at the image. Then she looked over to the bridge, where the tent city was.
…no. That was what happened when the cost of living exceeded your means. You became invisible.
So what would need to happen for Naomi to become invisible? First she’d have to lose her job, then her flat, then she’d probably have to start prostitution…Naomi imagined the path of her life then, like a pachinko ball bouncing on a series of lower and lower pegs until settling into a slot at the bottom. And what would that slot be for her?
Her friend Nobu grabbed her scarf and jerked her to the left. “Naomi-chan? You were about to walk into that telephone pole.”
Naomi started. She had been drifting again. She yawned.
“Your job working you too hard?”
“Yeah. I’m thinking about quitting,” Naomi said.
“What, is the art gallery keeping you up late?” Chise joked.
Naomi blinked and went silent. All she wanted was to confess, for someone to give her that shot of courage that would let her quit. Instead she walked on as if she were a normal young career woman, each step sinking deeper and deeper in the snow.
“This next guy is another businessman,” Takahata said, “he came recommended.”
“I’ll try to stay awake this time.”
Naomi was beginning to suspect that staying awake, though part of the job description, was not actually what was required. That Takahata’s casual nature was just a smokescreen for his real motivation.
The businessman had an angry, pockmarked face. He was probably a patron of regular prostitutes as well, taking out his frustration on their bodies. A man like that had an aura like a bad odor.
Naomi tried to keep her manner crisp and professional, stressing that there would be no sexual contact. She wanted to trust Takahata’s vetting process, but could not rely on anything the man said.
Once in bed, she concentrated anywhere but her client’s ugly face. She focused on his breathing, trying to sync them up. It was a meditative exercise. She imagined she could see his breath, his sleep-energy flowing out from his nose, a violet against the snow white of the covers.
Naomi did not fall asleep. She wandered through the man’s slumber, imagining his journey. Perhaps he took a walk he took in everyday waking life. Across a bridge, through a business park. Naomi ambled through that thought, imagining his path. Here was a little landscaped area, with hexagonal sculptures and creeping moss trained to grow like a forest. Here was a bike path that ambled along the seaside.
It was almost an accident that Naomi looked up and saw it.
The black shape in front of her was only vaguely shaped like a tapir. It had no features, no, it was more like a living shadow, a hole in the world that looked onto somewhere much worse. Its color was the color of nightmares, a black that showed violet on your eyelids. Its movements were epileptic.
Naomi froze. She was suddenly aware of herself, of how she stood vulnerable on this plane and yet sprawled out on the bed. Was there a path quickly back to her body?
The thing vibrated like tv static. And then, even without a face, she wasn’t at all sure how, but somehow the thing looked right at her!
Naomi gasped as if surfacing from a cold lake. She pushed out of the covers and scooted until her back was against the wall, wrapping her arms around her knees.
Her client lay asleep, no visible change on his face. Would he notice if she never went back to bed?
Naomi spent the night sitting on the floor. When the alarm went off, she was already waiting with his suit jacket. The man did not seem very rested and grumbled through his morning preparations. Naomi did not care. She was filled with sudden revulsion for people who went for work like hers. People who walked around with dirt clinging to their souls, people who sought to wipe it off on someone else.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
Takahata barely nodded, marking off a receipt. He probably went through girls like most people go through socks.
“I can’t force you to stay, but there is one qualification.”
Takahata looked at her, setting a fat stack of cash on his desk. It was a generous amount.
“This is your severance. If you want it, you have to spend a night with me.”
“With you? How? You mean…in that bed?”
Takahata nodded, gaze suddenly sharp. She was right, his casual demeanor was a put-on. He knew exactly what he was asking.
Naomi looked at her last payment blearily. The client had complained and gotten a bit knocked off his price. It was only enough to last a week at most. How quickly could she find a job?
Takahata’s eyes were dark. They held a tinge of violet, only there when she squeezed her eyelids closed.
Naomi stared back, not blinking “…okay.”
Takahata did not undress. He did not even kick off his shoes before getting into bed. She found that, of all things, very obscene. Takahata was very obscene, the more she thought about it. What dirt did his soul have clinging to it?
Naomi got into bed ramrod-straight, holding her body carefully away from Takahata’s. The man’s gaze was like a deep ravine, something that threatened to suck her in.
Naomi matched their breaths. Takahata had an odd breathing pattern: two rapid inhales, then a long exhale. Naomi adjusted her own breathing, trying to influence his. Gradually, Takahata’s eyes drooped.
Naomi imagined she could see his sleep-breath, a deep, hateful black-violet pluming from his nostrils. She imagined its smell, something chemical and citrus-y, sharp and oddly sweet.
She plugged his nose.
Takahata’s mouth immediately began blowing out air, but it was colorless. Naomi waited.
Takahata’s face flushed violet. His eyes danced behind closed lids. Naomi kept the seal on his nose airtight.
Now his face began to swell. Takahata’s cheeks blew up, his eyes bulged,his nose expanded under her hand.
But he didn’t wake.
Soon Takahata’s breaths began to taper off. His face darkened until it was almost black.
He exhaled and never took another breath.
Naomi removed herself from the bed. She slipped on her coat and shoes. The money she tucked into her clutch purse.
Now wide awake and on the edge of nothing, Naomi left.