On a steaming summer’s day in New York City, a man would drop dead in the street. Fairly young, anonymous, a minimal addition to the statistics of men who also had dropped dead in the street. No sweat-drenched, underpaid coroner would ever fathom that the most esoteric secrets of the universe, beauty, and truth died along with this indistinct person. Here is how the tragedy came to pass.
Enter a man, Asian, mid-to-late twenties into a sparse studio apartment from the post-shower fog of his bathroom. He is frantic, clearly pressed for time, as he towels the last of his ablution from his neck and eases his dewy, mottled legs into his jeans. A slick of deodorant under each arm—clubs always had their own private ecologies that consisted almost exclusively of humidity—a cheap striped button-down shirt completed his dressing. Stuffing his bloated feet into a pair of degrading loafers, he snatched his phone and wallet with a flailing hand before leaving his apartment and thundering down some flights of stairs that called back in hollow echoes to a car that was waiting for him outside. He entered; a young man and woman moved aside in the backseat to accommodate him. Another man occupied the driver’s seat, another woman in the passenger’s.
“You’re almost late.” The man in the backseat—James—complained.
“It’s not my fault you’re early. Besides, the real action only starts picking up around eleven, anyway, so I don’t see what the rush is,” replied the recently-entered Asian man. We will call him Martin.
“Have you called Joanna yet?”
“No, didn’t have time. Everyone be quiet.” Martin found his phone in his pocket, and dialed. His friends silenced themselves accordingly. “Jo? Hey, what’s up?...Oh, you’re sleeping? I’m sorry...No, don’t worry about it; we can talk tomorrow. I was about to sleep myself...okay...sounds good...yeah, I love you too. I’ll call you tomorrow...sounds good, goodnight.” Martin replaced his phone to his pocket. The car pulled into the street and began its journey.
“I’m glad I’m not your girlfriend,” Maggie, the girl in the passenger seat, said once it was clear to speak again.
“I bet she does the same fuckin’ thing,” snapped Martin.
“Joanna? You really think so?”
“Probably. I mean, women get lonely too.”
“Well some women stay lonely and don’t pick up women in clubs,” Maggie said with her hands spread in examination of her newly varnished nails.
“Let him have his fun,” interrupted Tara, the other woman. “It’s only until the end of the summer when she moves back to New York. That’s in a month. After that, nobody needs to look elsewhere to be satisfied.”
“Thank you, Tara,” Martin said with a head bowed in gratitude.
The car arrived at an establishment that imbibed and vomited people by the masses from its dimly lit belly. A brash marquee above the door identified it as the Empire.
“Just go,” Matthias, the driver said. “I’ll park and catch up with you later.” The remaining four slid out onto the pavement and proceeded to fight their way through the fray of comings and goings. Martin made it to the doorway first despite his average stature and was greeted by the familiar assault of music, sweat, and heat. Strobe lights pounded the occupants on a packed dance floor with a hypnotic shutter, revealing flashes of human bodies in blink-like snapshots that slipped back into the crowd as quickly as they came. Martin felt the slightest pang of guilt as his lust began to stir over the peep-show shots of the women’s bodies as they swayed to the bass that rattled the floorboards, which he quickly shed as he made his way to the bar. He and James, who had arrived a moment or so later, promptly began the night’s festivities with whiskeys.
Martin and James were about three whiskeys in when Matthias arrived, completely sober, but with not one, but two women in tow.
“This is Mandy,” he screamed over the music, placing a hand on a busty blonde’s shoulder. “And this,” he placed his hand on the other woman’s shoulder, “is Maria. One for you,” He gave Maria a push towards Martin, who awkwardly caught her by her waist as she stumbled in her stilettos. “And one for me,” he said, hooking his own arm around the blonde’s waist, who giggled in her drunkenness.
Martin steadied Maria and let go as they nodded to each other in respect of the space he was giving her. Her skin was a rich olive shade, curtained by rich billows of black hair. Her yellow strapless dress revealed the warm brown half-moons of areolas.
“What did you say your name was?” she said over the rhythmic growl of the bass.
“Martin what? Like your last name.”
“Oh! Martin Takahashi.” She opened a cheap rhinestone clutch and removed a business card with a ‘T’ scrawled on the back.
“Perfect! The lady who reads my palm said I’d be going home with a guy whose name starts with ‘T.’ I guess that’s you.”
“I guess so,” Martin shrugged, unoffended by the prospect.
In about an hour which passed in the span of five minutes, Martin and Maria found themselves in a cab back to his apartment in Greenwich Village.
“So what do you do?” Martin asked blandly.
“I’m a writer. Poetry, mostly, but also prose,” she said.
“Oh, how funny, me too.”
“You are?” She leaned in excitedly.
“Well, perhaps not. I wish I were a writer. I’m in an MFA program at NYU for writing, but I haven’t published anything and right now, I’m teaching a poetry elective in a summer program for middle schoolers, so I suppose I’m a teacher now more than anything else.”
“Do you like it?”
“Well what do you like?”
“I write haibuns and tankas, mostly. Sometimes haikus, but only if I have something to say. And the occasional katauta to my girlfriend…” he trailed off.
They rode in silence for the rest of the ten-minute trip. Martin paid the cab and ushered her into his building. He lived on the third floor of a fifteen story building, though the sloth of the elevator compelled his use of the stairs. However, Martin took care this time to summon the elevator, having watched Maria amble away the evening on quaking stilettoed legs.
They found themselves in his apartment, from which Martin took care to remove temporarily all vestiges of Joanna. Maria was looking particularly radiant at the night’s end. Her hair had puffed up with the club’s mugginess into a becoming fullness that traced the contours of her back, and she had not yet lost the heated blush from her honey-toned face.
“You’re beautiful.” Martin told her shyly.
“Divine,” he offered in correction. He meant it, and collapsed onto his back across the edge of his bed. She leaned over him, allowing her dress to slip entirely below her nipples.
“Let’s make love,” she suggested. “Making love” was not an expression Martin was inclined to use, repulsed by its cloying cliche. However, Maria’s body seemed to be imbued with the soft glow of love in a body ripe with sensuality, and Martin craved a share of her warmth; to “make love” were the correct words exactly.
She removed her dress entirely and stepped out of her thong, both of which puddled on the floor about her illuminated body. She was perfectly symmetrical, balanced, rhythmical. Her breasts were apostrophes, odes to the gods that shaped them; her waist, cinched as a nonet. The composition of her physique distracted Martin as he slowed to remove his own clothes, a hesitation that was soon hurried along by Maria as she finished unbuttoning his shirt for him, casting it off and leaving him naked on the bed. He was usually inclined to dominate, but this time, he took his rightful place beneath her as he submitted to the perfect loveliness descending upon him. What Martin Takahashi did not know was that Maria was not named Maria at all, nor was she strictly human—she was really Euterpe, descended in human form, about to bestow upon Martin the most sacred of gifts that would devastate him.
Once upon him, it did not take him long to realized that she had sex in iambic pentameter: i-AM i-AM i-AM i-AM, with each thrust on an AM. He placed a hand on the small of her back and the other cupped her breast, evoking pantheons as he let the soft flesh spill over the edges of his palm. He lowered his eyelids, catching scintilla and dancing satyrs in the shadows of his eyelashes, his pulse thundering through his body in time to their rumpus. His hands found the meeting between her thighs and buttocks, and in a bacchic frenzy, hoisted her further up his penis. It took only a few more thrusts before he exploded entirely into a hot white light, a quiet liminal space far from his apartment in Greenwich Village. There, every emotion he had ever known materialized before him in a kaleidoscope of almost-tangible forms, whispering to him as he felt each one simultaneously, equally deeply. The most profound first love commingled with the impossible pain of first loss in a heart momentarily exceeding the capacities of a mere human. Grief, joy, suffering, relief, all touching him equally, evoking fragments of memories that ebbed and flowed as an ocean tide.
“Fool,” said Maria, her voice echoing within his momentary amnion. “Look in thy heart, and write.” The kaleidoscope evaporated, leaving behind vivid imprints in his memory. Martin opened his eyes to Maria’s gentle gaze and vague smile, panting in time with him. The volta was spectacular.
“Who are you?” he asked softly.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied. She fell to his side. They were asleep within minutes.
Martin awoke fairly early the next morning with the obvious knowledge that she was gone, even before opening his eyes. He felt acutely uncomfortable, in the same sort of haste as an urge to defecate without any corporeal attachments. Akathesia stirred him as his eyes darted about his room in search of an antidote to his discomfort, finally resting with realization on his desk—he had to write.
He rose from the bed, barely tripping on his discarded shirt from the night before, and took his place at his desk. His frantic hands thrust open his laptop, and he began to write. His imagination overtook him with a wild abandon as he spouted a steady stream of words. The imprints of his orgasm the night before left him with an overwhelming urge to describe the phenomenon of being assaulted with every emotion he could experience. He allowed the flow of narrative to take its direction before changing course with delicious capricity, dancing between ideas and around them as he found more and more words for a sensation that was eternally wanting of his description. He wrote for about fifteen minutes before the screen of his laptop darkened in need of charge. Without even a moment’s hesitation, Martin snatched a wad of computer paper from his adjacent printer before continuing by hand in a scrawl, beginning mid-sentence from where he left off. It must have been another fifteen minutes before Martin was interrupted yet again by an intrusion.
“Martin, what the hell are you doing?” Matthias had entered the apartment (as Martin had, of course, forgotten to lock the door the night before in the throes of his libido) and found, with great shock, Martin naked at his desk, scribbling furiously.
“Shit!” Martin realized his nakedness and fumbled for his jeans with a meager hand over his nether region. “What time is it?”
“Five o’clock exactly. What, did you forget about sake Sunday?” he brandished a bottle of sake as a reminder. Martin looked confusedly at the clock to confirm that it was, indeed, five o’clock, post meridian.
“Yeah, sake Sunday…” he trailed off as he turned his head to check his progress before turning back towards Matthias. “Can we do it another time? I’ve got something going on.”
“C’mon, sake Sunday is on Sunday. I’ve loaded extra onto my metrocard for my trip here today, and I don’t want that to go to waste,” Matthias said, taking a seat at Martin’s kitchen table in defiance and setting the sake on the tabletop.
“Okay, okay,” conceded Martin, straightening the papers on his desk before joining Matthias, appropriately clothed. He rubbed his fingertips together in a failing attempt to silence their itching; he would have to get Matthias in and out as quickly as possible.
Matthias produced two ochoko and some paper cocktail napkins before filling them with sake. Its light, flowery aroma of white blossoms began to excite Martin as an allusion to his parents in Japan. He took a sip.
“It’s good.” It was, in fact, so good that it was transformative. He patted his chest before finding a fortunately placed pen in his shirt pocket, with which he began to write on an unfurled cocktail napkin in a scrawling cacography.
“What are you doing, Martin?” pressed Matthias with frustration.
“It’s just—I have to. Sorry.” He moved back to his desk and continued his everflowing string of words on a half-filled sheet of paper. Matthias leaned back in his chair, throwing his hands up in defeat.
“Fine, fine, you’re busy, I get it. Just—could you Venmo me for the metrocard? I’m a starving artist as much as you are.”
“Yeah sure,” replied Martin absently with the clear indication that he would most certainly forget. Matthias downed the sake that remained in the ochoko and packed up his lot before slipping out of the apartment without a goodbye. Martin continued to write effortlessly despite the swelling calluses and the cramps in his hand. The sun dipped and rose again, casting light about his room as it ascended. His mouth smacked of halitosis and a gruff fring was beginning to line his cheeks and upper lip, none of which deterred him from his mission to create. His phone rang for a moment, silenced, and rang again. Martin pulled his attention away for a moment to address his phone.
“Hullo,” he grumbled.
“Martin? Martin Takahashi?”
“Yeah, where are you?”
“In—in my, my apartment?”
“Well what are you doing? All your students are here waiting for you.”
“Oh!” He had totally forgotten about his classes entirely. “I’m—I’m sick today. I’m not coming in.”
“Well next time, give us a call,” chastised the other line.
“Yeah.” he hung up, silenced his phone, and took his place back at his desk. He made a silent promise to himself that he would take a shower and change his clothes as soon as he was done with that paragraph.
But, of course, it couldn’t be done. The paragraph would fall from his hands like the slick body of a waterfall, splashing out upon the page in verbs that bit and sang, nesting among the diaphanous gems that were his nouns. The more furiously he wrote, the tauter stretched his tension, teetering on the brink of artistic orgasm. To pause would be uncomfortable, to stop, unbearable. His creativity pulsed through his body with his blood, rendering the intellectual work entirely corporeal. Every ounce of his body was entirely invested in making love to his poetry, and each thrust brought him closer to the heart of his truth, buried beneath the sheer skins of an onion.
An indiscriminate amount of time passed before he heard a few frantic knocks on his apartment door.
“It’s unlocked, come in,” Martin called blandly. A woman entered tentatively, propped up on kitten heels that silenced on his carpet, with a navy umbrella studded with droplets from the late summer drizzle Martin hadn’t looked up to notice.
“Martin,” she said, getting his attention.
“Joanna, what are you doing here?”
“Aren’t you even a little glad to see me?”
“Of course,” he assured her, unconvincingly.
“What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?” she replied incredulously. “What’s all of this?” Trash lay scattered about his desk—a box of stale Cheez-Its, the plastic vestiges of frozen dinners, tissues, cigarettes floating in a half-drunk bottle of Snapple.
“Just some food. What day is it?”
“But yesterday was Monday.”
“When was the last time you had something to drink?” she asked. Martin considered this. The layer of congealed blood that coated his lower lip shattered with dehydration. He began panting. His tongue was impossibly dry.
“Martin, you were unreachable for a week!” she cried out suddenly. “You haven’t showed up for work—they’ve fired you, of course—so they called me, your emergency contact. Matthias called, too, saying that you haven’t been picking up, and so has Tara. And, Lord, the number of times I’ve tried to reach you myself! Martin, we were worried you overdosed or something. Now you better tell me what the hell is happening, or I will walk out of here right now. Is it drugs?”
Martin was silent. The discomfort at the pit of his stomach was rousing him to continue, and he strained to pay attention to Joanna despite the fact that she was beginning to cry softly.
“No drugs,” he managed to say. “It was...she...she...a woman did this,” he stammered.
“A woman?” she asked with raised eyebrows, filling a glass of water at his sink.
“A pretty woman. Nice tits, great sex. She’s going to make me great, I know it, I know it.” Martin rattled, half to himself. He descended into a whisper. “They can’t make me stop, can’t make me. I’ve found the words I’ve been looking for all this time. All this time. In my body. In my head. She put the water at his desk.
“Martin,” she said worriedly. “You’re delirious.”
“No!” he knocked it to the floor with a dramatic slap with the back of his hand. “I mustn’t waste time. Now what is it that you want?” Joanna found his eyes, and slowly turned around, leaving the way she came.
Silence began to fill the cavities of Martin's body, turned leaden as the guilt set in. Guilt and loss; he wanted her, yet he could vaguely realize that he would never have her along with this gift of poetic voice. He would have to write about this. He found a pencil rolling about his desk that had been sharpened to a nub.
Gentle friend, come back
I await your reply to
my foolish heart’s folly.
Blood trickled down his split lip and chin dimpled from malnourishment. He clutched the paper between quaking hands before stumbling up from his desk.
“Johanna...must see…” he whispered. He thundered recklessly down the stairs, back hunched, knees knocked. He tumbled out upon the street in just enough time to see Joanna stepping into a New York City cab, which pulled away into traffic on the other end of the block.
“Johanna!” He called to her, even though she was deeply entrenched in traffic now a block and a half away. He fell to his knees in involuntary exhaustion. The steady stream of people perambulating down the block parted around him as he collapsed. With a ragged terminal breath, he coughed out some of the blood that had found its way into his mouth from his lips, and died shamefully—half-dressed and haggard—on the gum-studded sidewalk, an artist that quite literally starved for his art. The muses would sing of his broken heart, but the Japanese community would call it karoshi; though, little difference remains between the two these days.