Chapter 1


The biting wind stings Megumi’s exposed skin, and the lingering dampness from the March storm chills her inner core such that she shivers and trembles uncontrollably. She steadies herself against the elements by furiously rubbing her hands on her bare shoulders, but it’s little use as her legs also go unprotected. In her backpack she has a comfortable sweater and jeans, but can’t wear them now—no one will notice her. So Megumi endures with a micro tank-top and miniskirt, knowing the suffering will pay off soon. Regardless of where she stands under the building’s overhang, raindrops pluck her hair and numb her skin. She’d be better off ducking into the alley, where the wind is less direct, but she needs to face pedestrians on the street and see who might amble by. Hunger gnaws at her stomach, that afternoon’s tea and cookies long since digested. Worse still, her vagina burns with an unknown infection. When foot traffic slows, she reaches down under her skirt and desperately scratches her underwear, so hard that the skin underneath chafes, and nearly bleeds. Unable to take it anymore, Megumi forces her hand away and bites her knuckles as light tears stream down her face.

Quickly, she composes herself, knowing that if her make-up streaks she’ll look hideous and be assured of spending the night on the street. Taking deep breaths, Megumi thinks back to her last class on female health. How quaint—she remembers the dour, grandmotherly health teacher using enough euphemisms to easily mistake the class for a gardening lesson. Memories of placid walks on the seashore with her parents dominate Megumi’s thoughts, and she can hardly believe how much things have changed. The burning reignites, and Megumi agitatedly rifles through her purse in search of her last cigarette. She had wanted to save it for later, but now needs anything available to refocus her attention.

Yes, Megumi knows something’s wrong—seriously wrong. She should have insisted on her dozens of partners using condoms, but what was she supposed to do if the guy offered ¥10,000 at the last moment to go all natural, or simply raped her? This isn’t enjo kosai— “compensated dating”—it’s survival.

Megumi finds her men as she prowls the back alleys of Shibuya, a rank tangle of streets far removed from the glitz and glam of the 109 store. Strip clubs abut adult video boutiques, with the ubiquitous love hotels interspersed—inns with rooms for rent by the hour with one singular purpose. Men of all circumstances and temperaments reach her through the telephone club—telekura—or simply show up; Megumi never knew most of her clients’ names, and has forgotten most of their faces. Of this she’s neither proud nor ashamed—indifferent, really, as sex has become so mechanical and rote that she views it in simple terms: Men are so desperate for it they’ll pay her thousands of yen. For her—the woman—there is nothing, except the money.

Foot traffic on the dark street picks up as drunken men hurry to catch the last train, and Megumi moves into the neon glow of an electric sign to stand out a little more. A brief lull will soon follow, but then those who missed the train will wander back and Megumi will find her sanctuary for the night.

She thinks back to the comfortable bed in her parents’ house, and how warm it must feel on a night like this. Part of her wants to give up and go back—turn one more trick and earn enough for a ticket home. But tonight she endures, braving the weather and the streets, clinging to the promise of tomorrow.

It’s not like this for the real hostesses, she knows. A few rookies might stand on the posh street corners of Ginza luring men to their clubs. Megumi used to go over and watch them sometimes, until one of their minders—a greasy man in a cheap suit—chased her away. They looked so elegant in their tailored Chanel skirt-suits, Louis-Vuitton handbags, manicured nails, and perfect hair. Black, chauffeur-driven cars would line up two- and three-deep and stay late into the night. One day, Megumi thinks, when I’m just a little bit older, a little more sophisticated, the richest and most powerful men in Tokyo will value more than just my body. One day.

Now, a daughter of the streets, Megumi can only stand and wait. She smokes her cigarette until it’s practically ashes, then flicks it into the street. The infection smolders and she shivers and bites her lip. Things have been tough lately, as an influx of girls to Shibuya has forced her to cut her rates. Consequently, she’s had to settle for men she wouldn’t normally take—men who beat her or stiff her. Her yakuza friends can only recover so much—minus their take—provided she gets word to them in time. If she gets beaten but paid, she usually lets it go. Megumi derives little satisfaction from seeing deadbeats end up in a pile of blood—all she wants is what she’s owed. After sniffling, then emitting a weary, pitiful sigh, Megumi remarks on how callous and hardened she’s become.

A few men wander by, and Megumi preens and poses, calls out gently to them, but fails to elicit a reaction. For her, this is really the most humiliating part of the ritual. A group of three businessmen in their early thirties approach; one wears his tie wrapped around his head like a bandana, while another’s shirt is unbuttoned all the way. The stench of stale alcohol surrounds them, and Megumi scowls, but tries her best to avoid an outright grimace. “No groups,” she says preemptively.

“Got any friends,” asks the third member, still properly dressed and reasonably sober.

“Maybe,” Megumi answers coolly. “Got a cigarette?”

The man smirks and retorts, “And waste it on a whore?”

“Screw you!”

“No, I want to screw you!” His friends howl with laughter at the trite response, but Megumi stands firm, impatient and indignant.

“Just one damn cigarette, and I’ll tell you where you can find some more girls.”

“Hope they’re not bitches like you,” he says while rifling through his pockets for a cigarette.

Without thanking him, Megumi lights up and takes a long, satisfying drag. “See that 7-11 down there? Turn left, walk about three blocks, turn right again at a small cemetery, then walk down to the end of the road.” The men stagger off singing their company theme song. Megumi laughs deviously, having directed them to a yakuza hangout.

At least the cigarette helps take the edge off, allowing Megumi to withstand the cold and suffer through her distress. Half-way through the cigarette, Megumi’s cellphone chirps—she recognizes the number and answers, “Moshi moshi!” Two minutes later she catches a man out of the corner of her eye tentatively navigating the street. Middle-aged and slightly portly, he wears a black suit and white shirt, the classic uniform of a generation of Japan’s corporate warriors. Megumi quickly inhales the last of the cigarette and tosses it aside as she approaches him.

“Hey Daddy,” she calls softly, almost cooing. “You came to take care of me? I’m so glad you called.”

The man approaches, running his fingers nervously through his thick, floppy hair. His jowls are beginning to sag a little, and the skin on his cheeks droops with age. Big, square glasses frame his eyes, and he removes them momentarily to wipe away accumulated moisture with his shirt.

She wraps both of her hands around his right hand, pausing to let him lead the way. “Are we going to the usual place tonight?”

Hai,” he answers, finally relaxing.

As they walk, Megumi caresses his hands, running her fingers over his wedding band, then petting the cheap fabric of his suit. Whispering in his ear, Megumi inhales the scent of his nervous perspiration, which nearly abolishes his cheap cologne. “Buy me some cigarettes?” Megumi proposes as they approach a Mini-Stop.

The man pauses in the street and eyes the door apprehensively.

“Please?” Megumi begs, looking up at him, eyelashes fluttering, trying to look as helpless as possible.

“You don’t have any more?”

“No. Come on, it’ll help us relax,” she runs he fingers seductively down his chest.

“They’re expensive.”

“Please?” she purrs, directing the man’s hands to her hips.

“Fine,” he relents with an airy sigh, noticeably reluctant.

“Whisky too?”

He doesn’t reply, but returns from the convenience store with both. They continue in silence to the normal love hotel, a squalid white-tiled building. A quaint sign out front reads “Rest: ¥4,000; Stay: ¥8,000.” As the man opens his wallet, Megumi asks, “Stay? Please?” He hesitates, and Megumi playfully snatches a ¥10,000 bill. She slips it into the machine, selects a room from a floor chart, and keys pop out—just like a soda vending machine.

Simple, rickety furniture fills out the room; dingy, peeling white paint adorns the walls. “Just a minute,” Megumi says, ducking into the bathroom. First, she vigorously washes her hands, then turns and looks at the tub, eager for her first bath in days. She removes her clothes and leaves them neatly folded on the counter.

Naked, she stands in front of the bathroom mirror inspecting herself; no longer Megumi, she’s a creation of the streets. Oh my God, how I’ve changed, she realizes. Would anyone even recognize me? Her hand trembling, Megumi reaches up and gently strokes her long hair, now died a burnt golden orange. Parted down the middle and feathered, the long strands hide most of her face. Remembering how her mother used to comb it after taking a bath, Megumi pulls her hair taught in a ponytail. 

What have I done? she wonders, staring at her dark skin, artificially tanned so brown she no longer even looks Japanese. The rouge on her cheeks; flush, full red lipstick; ink-black fake eyelashes; glittery silver mascara—she’s more painted doll than human being. Megumi sighs deeply with regret, and averts her gaze down to her frail upper body. Her shoulder blades protrude at sharp, jaunty angles; the outline of a few of her ribs poke through her skin; her meager breasts sag helplessly, devoid of life. “I can’t go on like this,” she mouths to herself.

Determined, she spills the contents of her bag and sifts through the rubble for make-up remover. Starting with her eyes, she delicately removes the fake lashes, then carefully and diligently wipes away the mascara. Toilet paper restores her lips to a more natural color, and she forcefully scrubs away the rouge on her cheeks. The orange hair and skin remain, but beneath the veneer she can almost see the little girl she left back home.

Megumi unzips her backpack and sifts through her belongings before finding an envelope. She looks inside, just to make sure everything’s there: a few pages of notes and a computer disc. No more delays, she concludes—she’ll play her card tomorrow, knowing the information could lead to her salvation…or get her killed. Either would be an improvement. 

The man’s voice echoing through the walls brings Megumi out of her introspection. She sees him lying on the bed, naked; he stands upon seeing her. Megumi clears her mind as she approaches him. Her first time, her mind raced, wondering how it would feel and if she would satisfy him. Sometimes, she’s shivered in fear when the man was drunk and too violent, opting for rough, unpleasant sex over a frustrated beating. In most cases, like this one, she only stares ahead blankly and unfocused, her body no longer her temple, merely an occupational tool—a cab driver’s taxi, a musician’s guitar, a carpenter’s hammer.

When he places his palm on top of her head and lightly pushes down, Megumi knows what to do. Experienced now, Megumi teases him. What would her former health teacher think about this, she wonders: I’m so talented I can tell when a man is about to go. Megumi concentrates as she methodically works; neither turned on or repulsed, she focuses on the task before her.

At just the right moment, she pulls away, leaving the man shuddering and thirsting for more. He picks Megumi up and flings her onto the bed before straddling her. Megumi reaches toward a box of condoms on the nightstand, but the man grabs her wrist. It burns and stings worse than ever when he enters her unprotected, and she violently grinds her teeth into her knuckle, gnawing harder and harder, even as it bleeds. Making no pretext at enjoyment, she lies back in agony, sometimes repeating, “Come on, baby,” to encourage him to a climax.

Thrusting and grunting ever harder, he rocks back and forth passionless and mechanically. His grubby hands slide across her body, and Megumi steers them toward her throat. “Be gentle,” she orders, “and not more than a few seconds at a time.” The man obediently squeezes; Megumi grins to signal it’s working. Eyes closed, a dreamy, existential sensation overtakes her. She’s drifting, or floating, or something else entirely indescribable—it’s the best she’s felt in months, maybe years, maybe ever.




© Mark Hersberger All Rights Reserved