I crossed the turnstiles and emerged from the rail station into the salty air. The beachfront was the image of some enormous celebration that had broken up years ago. Empty stretches of sand, here and there bits of plastic and rubber, discarded clothing, a broken bottle half-buried in the sand. Jutting up from the ground, naked wooden poles that had once pegged huge, neon tents, beneath which the last tatters of my generation had crowded to dance the night away before succumbing to oblivion. Very few of them were left. Anything of value had disappeared a long time ago. I wasn’t much better off. I was here to pay for sex. I was as desperate as anyone else.
A hundred meters out on the water, the beach’s only current attraction blotted the skyline: the three floating Japanese theatres. Three enormous, creaking rafts, tethered together and elaborately anchored to the sea floor, pitched imperceptibly back and forth with the waves, each bearing a theatre of a different size. The largest, the Loew, sat in the middle, yet tonight was the only one not illuminated. All three theatres shared a similar, lopsided character-the seating for the audience was all outdoors, but the stage was covered, the rafters hidden by an imposing proscenium arch that loomed over the first few rows. Beneath it, a walkway thrust out from the main stage like a tongue, upon which the climactic battles of feudal Japan were played out by kabuki actors in the thick of the audience. The wings, the dressing rooms, the riggings of it all were packed behind the stage, may even have descended into the underworks of the raft itself. What marvel of engineering kept these monstrosities afloat and mostly operational, no casual observer could say.
Walking the beach, it was best to follow the light. A little avenue of electric torches formed a path to the assortment of shacks on the waterfront, housing for the cast and crew. A tiny jetty stuck out into the shallows, to which several small boats were moored, meant to carry theatre patrons out to the rafts. A bald, heavyset Japanese man stood before the jetty, the guide to the stygian waters between me and the three floating theatres.
“You’re here for the performance, then?â€ he said.
“Only in the most carnal, backstage sense,â€ I replied.
He chuckled. “I see. Well.â€ A long pause, filled with sea breeze, while he came up with a rejoinder. He licked his lips. ”Mind you’re delicate with our ingénues. They’ve three shows a night, you know.â€
“I’m actually looking for someone with variation in their twenty-third chromosome,â€ I said.
It took him a few seconds to work this out. Then he smiled broadly. “Of course, sir. We would be only too happy to oblige your discerning taste. Might I recommend Shoji? One of the freshest additions to our cast. I believe he has this next performance free.â€
“Shoji sounds perfect,â€ I said.
“And am I correct to assume, sir, that you’ll be purchasing services for eight minutes?â€
“Let’s make it twelve. For the sake of romance.â€
He smiled again, put out his hand. “I am Mr. Ageda.â€
I shook it. Money changed hands. “Jones,â€ I said.
“A true pleasure, Mr. Jones.â€
The configuration of theatre-rafts we called-pun absolutely intended-the “Theatre of the Floating World,â€ after the urban, pleasure-seeker lifestyle of Edo Period Japan, during which kabuki first flourished. And for the Pacific, of course.
Mr. Ageda used a carabiner to hook our boat to a cable trolley, which ran along one of several cables leading from the end of the jetty to the first theatre, the Cameo. I sat in the back, the only passenger, as Mr. Ageda rowed. A bell hung off the front end of the boat, clanging dimly through the sea fog.
“If I may say so, it’s not many of your age that we get around here,â€ Mr. Ageda said.
I looked out at the water, suddenly not in the mood for conversation, although these days there wasn’t much to do besides talk. “No?â€
“No,â€ he said, and then, as if I didn’t understand the implication, “hardly any as young as you.â€ Unable to resist, he turned to look at me, all pretense gone. “Mr. Jones, if you don’t mindâ€¦ exactly how old are you?â€
“Twenty-six,â€ I lied. “And I would appreciate at least a semblance of discretion about this on your part, Mr. Ageda.â€
He turned back around, spoke to the sea. “It’s just that people tend to notice, is all.â€
He rowed on.
Why did the theatres exist? Who knew. Some “brilliantâ€ engineer’s idea of what to do with an empty, liquid horizon. If one of the rafts detached and floated out to sea, taking its cast and crew with it-well, that might be kind of romantic. Bidding farewell to your mates on the shore. Members of your cast leaping from the deck floorboards sleeves trailing into the black sea.
“Shoji performs in the Roxie, our most modestly-sized venue,â€ Mr. Ageda said after a while. “That’s the third one.” He pointed.
When our boat arrived at the Cameo, a performance was in full swing. A gargantuan, elaborately costumed man in drooping red and white sleeves strutted down the stage’s walkway, his white face striped with red, his severe features exaggerated in black outline. Wooden blocks clapped together in the background, the rhythm for his movements. The tempo increased, added the frantic plucking of a shamisen; my heartbeat quickened. The actor on stage stomped his foot once and struck a pose.
A voice from the crowd bellowed, “Yamashita!â€
Cheering, applause erupted from the audience. Most were on their feet, waving their fists and hats in the air.
Mr. Ageda unlatched the carabiner and transferred it to an adjacent cable. In a few seconds, the stage had drifted from view and we were on our way towards the second theatre.
“That was Shibaraku,â€ he said. “It has always been one of our most popular performances. Have you ever seen a kabuki play before, Mr. Jones?â€
“Yes. Several times.â€
“Really? At what venue? In this day and age there must not be many.â€
This caught him up. “Ah. I’m sorry. I thought I would have remembered you.â€
The Loew was the largest of the three theatres. A landing where the boat could dock led at an incline up to the platform, empty and silent in the moonlight, the area beneath the proscenium black like a gaping mouth, threatening to engulf everything around it. A glimmer near the top where, true to the theatre’s old Broadway namesake, a buddha sat in the arch above the stage, watching benignly over the nonexistent audience. The entire structure groaned. I thought I could see it sway. Water lapped at the edges of the landing, itching to take it back.
“Temporarily closed for repairs,â€ Mr. Ageda said.
He switched the carabiner to another cable. This one was slick from the fog, and the trolley moved erratically, sliding back and forth as our boat progressed across the water.
“Would you ever consider joining our coterie, Mr. Jones?â€ Mr. Ageda asked.
“I’m not Japanese.â€
He just chuckled.
At the Roxie, the last theatre in line, young men carried painted and varnished wooden backdrops into place and adjusted lighting on the stage. A few spectators had arrived early for the next performance and were catcalling at the stagehands. Mr. Ageda docked our boat. We climbed onto the platform. “I’ll take you to the back, then,â€ he said.
I followed him backstage, through a watertight aluminum door, down a short staircase and into a dense, transforming maze of sliding translucent dividers and narrow corridors that connected to the wings and dressing rooms. Pipes ran along the wood paneling, but even following them I lost all sense of direction. We stopped suddenly, and Mr. Ageda knocked once on an unlabeled door before pushing it aside. We stepped into a tiny dressing room.
The young man I presumed to be Shoji sat on his knees on a pillow, facing a half-length mirror. Jars of powders and makeup were scattered around it. Garishly colored fabric was piled in a corner, the night’s costume. His head was shaved, and he wore an off-white t-shirt and shorts. He turned when he heard the door. I knew, then, that this would not be just an anonymous encounter. He looked younger than I was.
“Shoji? This is Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones, Shoji. He has twelve minutes.â€
Standing, Shoji was a head shorter than me. He came over and shook my hand. “Nice to meet you.â€
Mr. Ageda jerked his head to the right.
Shoji nodded once. “I’ll go and get ready.â€ He stepped through a door on the righthand wall and shut it behind him.
Mr. Ageda looked at the clock above the mirror. “I will return for you at 9:38, Mr. Jones.â€
“Wait-do his preparations count against my time?â€
He shrugged and backed out through the door we’d come through. I took off my shirt and belt, then paused, unsure of what to do.
Shoji returned a minute later, his hairless chest bare, holding a small tube. He knelt on his knees in front of me, undid the front of my pants and slid down my boxers. He squeezed a little lubricant onto his index finger and rubbed it down the length of my penis.
A wordless exchange, and we had fallen to the floor. I grabbed his head with one hand, felt the bristle of a day’s growth of hair. Ran my fingers down the back of his neck, then took hold of both shoulders. The beginnings of sweat on his back. Pores opening. His body beginning to shine. I eased myself into him from behind. Began the motion of the hips and the penis for which I had paid so substantially. Only here, in this dressing room, this was the only place where there wasn’t enough time. While others gathered a few meters or miles away to sit through a five-hour kabuki performance, I fucked for five minutes as if fighting for my life.
Our position allowed me to see Shoji’s face in the mirror. His eyes were shut, his lips tight in a grimace. I paused, out of breath. “Are you all right?â€ I panted.
Shoji opened his eyes. “I’m okay.â€
“Are you sure?â€
“Yes. Go.â€ His rear gave a little bump backwards, as in: Get it over with.
“Could you spread your legs out a little further, please?â€
“Yes.â€ He scooted outwards with his knees; I wondered if they were bruised.
“Thanks.â€ I pushed myself further into him as I continued. The seconds ticked on. There on the floor, as I fucked him, a warmth came over me. Mentally, I crossed some sort of threshold, and I wrapped one arm around Shoji’s waist and began to jerk him off. I glanced in the mirror, and wished we’d readjusted to somewhere I couldn’t see him. He was biting his lip, looking fixedly at the floor. I imagined it rocking up and down in his vision. I kept up the pace until I came, but after I did, I stayed inside of him, continued to masturbate Shoji until he came as well, after another minute or so. He was very quiet. I didn’t even notice that he’d come until I felt it on my hand.
We lay naked on the floor afterwards, pressed together, my hands clasped at his chest. Facing away from me, he’d said nothing. I kissed his neck. One more minute passed. He said he had to start dressing for his next performance, made motions to leave me. I held him tighter.
“No, wait-stay here. Mr. Ageda told me you had the next performance off.â€
“I don’t. I have to get ready.â€
“Let me help.â€
“You should go,â€ he said.
“What play are you doing?â€
“The love suicides. That’s my favorite.â€
“Then you should buy a ticket to see it.â€
“I will.â€ I squeezed him. “Can I see you after?â€
“I don’t think so.â€
“I don’t think so.â€
“Even if I pay?â€ My voice wavered.
“Talk to Mr. Ageda.â€
Then, perhaps because in reality I was only twenty years old, and as much as I tried to deny it still felt everything, I said to Shoji, with an aching intensity that threatened to trickle over the edge, “Come back with me.â€
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jones,â€ he replied to the floor.
“No, don’t call me that-it’s Justin. Call me Justin.â€
“I’m sorry, Justin. I can’t.â€
“You can’t or you don’t want to?â€
He didn’t answer.
A shuddering intake of breath. I felt dangerously close to tears, and it scared me. “I live inland, Shoji. You know, LA, the empire. We could still-â€
A sharp knock on the door jarred me. “Your time is up, Mr. Jones.â€ The door slid open and Mr. Ageda stepped in. ”Come along now.â€
I leaned in close, kissed Shoji’s cheek. “Come with me,â€ I whispered.
“That’s enough, Mr. Jones.â€
I held him for one more second.
“Mr. Jones.â€ I felt the sharpness of his voice in my stomach.
I let Shoji go, collected my clothes, and got to my feet. Mr. Ageda averted his eyes as I pulled my pants on. “I’ll take you back. Shoji, clean up and get dressed. Akiko will come to help with your makeup.â€
I looked at Shoji, lying on his side, his legs pulled up to his chest. “Bye,â€ I said, and stepped into the hallway. Mr. Ageda shut the door, and seeing Shoji vanish behind it I thought that something had just irrevocably ended, and that I had missed it.
As Mr. Ageda led me brusquely down unfamiliar corridors back to the deck, I swallowed to keep my voice even and said, “I’d like to buy a ticket to the next performance.â€
“I don’t think so, Mr. Jones. I think it’s time for you to leave.â€
“No-I’ll pay you extra, I’ll-â€ Frantic, I reached into my pocket and withdrew a roll of bills, held them up.
Mr. Ageda swatted my hand away. “Theatre tickets cost more than sex out here, Mr. Jones. And I would strongly advise you against trying to elope with any more of our actors. I could’ve told you this would happen. You’re too young. You don’t understand these things.â€
Mr. Ageda cranked open the watertight door leading to the deck, and I was hit with a gust of cold air. Other boats had arrived since we’d gone backstage, and the seats were almost full.
“Just let me watch the first scene,â€ I pleaded.
“He’s not in the first scene.â€
“I don’t care. Please.â€ A part of me imagined Shoji taking the stage early, in his pure white makeup, seeing me, reaching out to me. A bigger part-the part that had been exactly here so many times before-knew better, knew that they’d never stray from the script, that the play would be exactly the same tonight as it was last night and would be the night after. The part of me that wanted everyone to keep acting, to stave off something horrible.
Mr. Ageda led me along the edge of the platform, towards the dock. People eyed us from their seats. A man stepped into our path and held out an arm. “Been back visiting with the cast, eh? A little pre-show tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte?â€ He laughed, a gruff, seen-it-all laugh. “It’s a contextual pleasure, innit? Backstage?â€ He laughed and clapped me jovially on the back.
I jerked away, as if he sought to infect me. “Keep your fucking hands off me.â€
He raised his hands, took a step back. “Whoa. Keep a calm head, boy. Shit.â€
I turned desperately to Mr. Ageda, grabbed his hand. The smaller, younger part of me took over. “Please, Mr. Ageda. Just one scene. I’ll stand off to the side. And then I’ll go. I promise. Please.â€
“Wants to see his girlfriend onstage, eh?â€ the man said. “Come on, Ageda. Let the boy live. It’ll be his only chance.â€
Mr. Ageda sighed. “Follow me.â€
He took me to the back, behind the last row of seats, at the edge of the raft. “You may observe from here,â€ he said. ”During the first intermission, I take you back to the shore. No arguments. Got it?â€
I nodded. “Yes. I understand.â€
I swear I felt the raft shift beneath my feet. Fifteen minutes later, the lanterns on the edge of the platform dimmed and the stage lit up. Woodblocks collided rhythmically, building slowly. Growing in volume as the audience joined in, clapping, whooping. A spotlight centered on the stage. The banging reached an anguished frenzy; a final, emphatic clack-and it’s gone. I bite my lip. A curtain withdraws. The play begins.