Snow falls as I walk to the neighborhood sentō, two blocks and a hundred yen for a hot bath. I remove my shoes, pay, and slip through the noren patterned with white cherry blossoms against red, a red so vivid it reminds me of the drop of blood that splashed into the bathroom sink when you cut yourself shaving this morning. I strip and fold my clothes, stacking them in a basket. Pushing open a heavy glass door, I enter the bath.
I choose a bathing station. Sitting on a stool, I shower and wash my hair. An older Japanese woman places her stool behind me. She motions for me to lift my hair. She soaps my scrubbing cloth and begins to wash my back. The rough cloth scrapes up and down my skin. She scolds me as if she were my grandmother. Her lecture covers me like warm regard and under the protection of her words my heart opens and I become her granddaughter. She knows me and divines my troubles, my disloyal thoughts toward you.
She applies more pressure as she scrubs, and I think of what you said to me this morning. You are going home, you said. You are tired of Japan, you said. Grandmother hands me my scrubbing cloth and stands. She has no English and I no Japanese, but I tell her anyway. He wants to take me away, I say. She shakes her head at me. I wanted to grab the razor from his hand, Grandmother, and slash it across his throat. She picks up her stool and returns to her bathing station. Sobo, I whisper, the blood.
I turn on the shower tap and rinse the soap from my back. I stand and walk to the large soaking pool. The hot water stings my skin as I submerge to my chin. This is a daily ritual. I see this same collection of women. I imagine them moving through my neighborhood just as I do. The sureness of their presence usually comforts me as does the intense heat of the water, but not today. I cannot forget your words, your dead stare. I decide to try even more heat and head for the sauna.
Sometimes the sauna is crowded, but only one woman lies on the bench. She looks me up and down and turns over her egg timer. Her legs are long and her curves delicate. She has little need of an egg timer. The slight hook at the end of her nose lends her face mystery. A single hashi secures her hair on the top of her head. Her hair is black and thick, and I suppress a moment of envy. I permed my thin hair to add body, but it was a home perm. You said it made me look like a scarecrow. She watches me and says, you have beautiful body, you have boyfriend? I am thrilled she thinks me beautiful.
You never say this. You say my hips are too narrow for the size of my feet and my ears are too big. When I told you that I thought the reason some Japanese women spend so much time in the sauna was to lose weight, you laughed. You said that no sauna would melt away the dimples in my thighs and that I should take up jogging instead.
In response to the woman’s question, I say, husband. He lucky, she says. I want to tell her what you said to me, not about my body but about leaving Japan, about taking me away. I want to tell her that your blood spray across the mirror was like animal tracks in snow, a fox maybe but not a rabbit, and definitely not a deer. Yes, a fox that had escaped a cruel trap. Red animal tracks across a pristine field of fresh, white snow. I want to tell her that you are not so lucky and that the fox followed me when I walked to the sentō this morning, its tracks indistinguishable from mine. I want to tell her she is the lovely one and I the one in need of an egg timer. But she is not Grandmother, and I say nothing.
The woman ladles water over hot coals and steam floats across our bodies. I repeat to myself that you are not so lucky. I think of white cherry blossoms falling on my skin, falling on the fox until its withers are covered as if it were wearing a stole. I relax against the warm wooden slats of the bench. The fox barks, low and only once, before releasing a loud, human-like scream. My body trembles but not enough to disturb the condensation pooled in my navel. The fox trots away. Cherry blossoms litter the sauna floor.
You have no power here in this my community, a world where women bathe in pools of likeness, a world where small feet slap wetly across tile, a world where women thrive between beautiful lights of flesh.
Natalie Troy lives near a beautiful lake in the wilds of northern New Jersey where she recently completed her first novel. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Firewords Magazine and Montana Mouthful. Connect with her on Twitter @_natalietroy.