“This excerpt drew me in with its darkly poetic sensibility, each sentence a glimmering, ominous jewel,” writes guest judge Dan Chaon about “Hakuri” by Jessica Cavero, his 2nd place selection in our debut Novel Excerpt Contest. “We are plunged into the life of a Peruvian sex worker in Japan, told in brief, vivid snapshots that are both beautifully rendered and heartbreaking, disturbing. The narration is carefully wrought, evoking a palpable sense of the numbness and dissociation of trauma, while at the same time building a character whose intelligent, clear-eyed observations and sparks of rage make us feel a strong, empathetic connection.” Read the excerpt below.
In the bathroom, I rub the makeup covering my shoulder tattoo with an oil-based cleanser. I press a wet cotton pad to my eyelids and push the mascara around, then do the same for my lipstick, smearing red until my mouth is pink and swollen. I am a blank slate, sharp and clear. Of all my rituals, this one makes me feel closest to myself.
In the spring, I learned to walk through Japanese as through a revolving door. I was in constant, violent translation. Hands bored through the holes of my undressed form, struggling to make me legible. Eyes studied the margins of my face. Legs crossed. Sit straight. By the end of my third year as a hostess, my mother tongue was ink on my shoulders that I rubbed clean. My mother tongue was a shiver of bones. It lay dislocated in Peruvian villages where the roads coughed red dust, where dogs fought and bayed through the night, and I fell asleep to their wailing.
* * *
We are posed silent, a figure study. Ribcages pried open. Rattling knobs of spine. I hold this position for every year of my life.
In the VIP room, I let the salarymen pluck the chords of my body.
In the VIP room, they sink their teeth below my collarbone, where the indents swell blue and yellow, like wings.
Afterwards, they flick 1,000 yen at my shoes.
* * *
Off-hours I walk around Shinjuku Station. If I concentrate very hard, I can hear the dull roar of the trains on the platform above me. How far they could lead me from Tokyo. I touch the one-hundred-yen coins in my pocket, adding up the few thousand tucked in the drawers of my nightstand. It is never enough. A phone rings over the loudspeaker. Then that familiar sing-song chime that means a train is arriving. Some days, I come here just to listen for it.
* * *
The Executive says anyone would be lucky to have me. If only he didn’t work so much. If only he wasn’t married. He pulls me into his lap, snaps the black band of my stockings. After he leaves, the smell of Newport Menthols and spiced cologne wraps around me and I fear I will never wash it out. I vomit shōchū, clear as water, into the sink. The muscles in my throat swell and contract.
“I hope they don’t take you away from me,” The Retired Cab Driver says, when I mention the Executive or the Widow in passing. They relish in my compliance to orders like Drink slowly and Look at me and Pour.
What they really mean is this: Don’t forget that I own you.
* * *
My mother said: Las mujeres nazcan para sufrir. Your job description is sacrifice. Tell yourself until it is enough.
* * *
Sometimes after work, Elena and I watch American crime films like Kill Bill, where women have their arms cut off, get spat on, and choked. We are still nauseous from last night’s champagne call and agree it isn’t worth finishing, but when Elena falls asleep beside me, I watch the rest of it in the dark of our room. I watch the Bride crying in a coffin, the Bride stepping on an eyeball, soft as a turtle’s egg, the Bride pierced in the knee with a poisoned dart. I pinch the skin on my wrist. Tap the ridge of bone in my knuckles in a steady beat. Evidence that I am real. Breathing.