She Wore Her Hair Up

When we first met, Sumire struck me like a woman from the old world. I pictured her in the works of Mishima and Kawabata — I saw her in mountain towns staring at falling snow, and sitting in rickety old trains watching the passing scenery.

She struck me like a woman out of time.


When she first left for a week-long business trip, she told me to be careful. “Don’t do anything dangerous,” she said, “and don’t die while I’m away. Okay?”

I didn’t know how to answer, so at first I simply nodded. I stared up at the fresh greenery in the trees, and through to a backdrop of clear blue sky.

The air felt hopeful and light, and vibrant with potential.

“Okay,” I said.


I liked to watch her in the morning, drying her hair by the window. I liked the play of light and shadow on her naked white back, and the smooth curves of her body, seated at the edge of the mattress. I liked listening to the drone of the old hair-dryer, and the blending echoes of passing traffic from the open windows.

One morning, I told her she should wear her hair up.

“Oh?” she said.

“You have a thin face,” I said. “Everything looks like it fits when you wear your hair up. You’re like a painting.”

“A painting?”

I nodded.

“An old one, but a good one.”

I knew she didn’t like to do it, and I knew it was a hassle, but she made me think of a woman on the platform of a lonely train station, watching the last train fade into the distance, and hoping it would someday return.

I never pictured that woman with her hair down.

“I see,” she said. “Maybe I will.”

But she didn’t.


Over summer, we sometimes went for long walks in old parts of the city, and left Tokyo for neighboring onsen towns. We followed our hot spring baths with small bottles of vending machine milk, and lazy naps on open tatami flooring.

When I started going broke, we spent the afternoons at my apartment, where she slept in an old Death Cab for Cutie shirt while I typed at an old computer, occasionally stopping to listen to the rhythmical hum of a portable fan, and the ceaseless buzz of cicadas through open windows.

We sometimes talked vaguely of the future, but it was hard to picture her there. I preferred her as part of an imagined literary past; one that could have been but never was.

I wanted her to be a timeless void around which the rest of the world moved and changed.

It was a peculiar kind of affection.


When the air began to cool, and the leaves showed the tiniest hint of red on their edges, we walked Shinjuku streets towards Yoyogi, and sat outside with whiskey highballs. We watched the sky turn from blue, to orange, to black, as the world grew hazy around the edges.

“I’m going to be gone again,” she said. “Two weeks.”

I nodded.

“Don’t do anything dangerous, okay?” she said. “And don’t die while I’m away.”

I smiled.

“Okay,” I said.

These were my favorite evenings, when the oppressive summer days gave way to gentle, easy-going nights. It felt like we’d survived the worst, and now we could do anything we wanted.


Akiko was a poet and a drunk. She wore her heart on her sleeve and her desire in her eyes. She was an open book of big dreams and great hopes, filled with long flowing sentences for the lives she might yet live, and the lovers she might yet love.

I wanted to read that book.

When she first kissed me, I thought momentarily of a woman on the platform of a lonely train station, watching the last train fade into the distance, and hoping it would someday return.

But I knew in that moment, that it never would.

Later, I stared out of Akiko’s window at a few leaves rustling on an autumn breeze, and I wondered how long before they simply let go.


I thought of Akiko like a wandering wind, and myself like a leaf on one of the maple trees lining the road by her apartment; soon to wither, and fade, and carry on the breeze into the great beyond.

She had sent me adrift, and I felt myself float aimlessly through the rest of the season.


We celebrated Sumire’s return with a trip to the Kabuki theater. We lined up to buy tickets, and waited on wooden benches, shivering and huddled together as a cold wind whispered to the coming of a long winter.

During the show, I watched her lean forward, entranced by a slice of fictional history portrayed in vibrant colors and spirited voices. I saw a woman lost in time, now lost in a moment, absorbed in an experience that meant more to her than I could ever completely comprehend.

It was a moment of history and culture that I was only the smallest part of, and it was there, in that moment of knowing there was something between us we would never completely share, that I loved her most.

She was distant from me in that moment in a way that was intoxicating.

And it saddened me to know she would only grow more distant.


I bought her a scarf, and gave it to her at the airport.

“Don’t do anything dangerous, okay?” she said. “And don’t die while I’m away.”

But I knew there was a part of me that wanted to do the first, and hoped it would lead to the second.

“Okay,” I said.


It seemed somehow fitting that we spent the new year apart. I imagined Sumire in a mountain ryokan, serving drinks to rowdy businessmen and playing off their advances, and later retiring to a quiet room where she dreamed of a lover who did not deserve her.

I spent sleepless nights with coffee and jazz, staring out the window as snow piled up on the rooftops around my apartment. The days were cold and disheartening, and the season stretched like the ocean into the horizon; as if into eternity.

Akiko had long since vanished, but her memory lingered like a winter wind through the trees, singing songs of sorrow and regret.

I came to know those songs too well.


When Sumire returned, I spent a weekend at her hometown in the mountains. Snow covered the rooftops and piled by the side of the road. I walked mountain paths with her gloved hand in my own, and felt as though the season — and perhaps time with it — had rewound ever so slightly.

I hoped it might still go back further.

That night, she saw me off at the station; a desolate, concrete platform with a small room containing a lamp and a single kerosene heater, a steel kettle on its top. We watched steam dance in the air, and listened for the arrival of the train.

“The snow will melt soon,” she said. “And then it’ll be warm again.”

“I hope so,” I said.

“Spring is coming,” she said. “Let’s do something fun.”

I nodded.

“I think that’s my train,” I said.

We shared a kiss like a sliver of warmth. As the train left, I watched her from the window, watching me go. She was bundled in a coat, and hidden under a beanie, but she was right there; a woman on the platform of a lonely train station, watching the last train fade into the distance.

But the hope in that image, and the color that gave it warmth, had long since faded, also.

And a part of my heart along with it.


“I wish you were dead,” she said.

We sat on a quiet bench at the park, surrounded by trees that stretched skyward like a series of green spears. I watched her cry angry tears and thought of the light and shadow that once played on her naked white back; how I would never see it again.

“So we’re over then,” she said, finally. “It’s over, isn’t it?”

I didn’t know how to answer, so at first I simply nodded. I stared up at the fresh greenery in the trees, and through to a backdrop of clear blue sky.

The air was hopeful and light, and vibrant with potential, but now weighted with a heavy heart, broken by a lie kept too long, and crushed under unkept promises.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

We talked more after those words, and dug holes that created chasms between us, but I don’t remember much of the rest of that conversation.

I just remember she wore her hair up.

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