If I were a hostess in Japan, I’d be the favorite of an overweight salaryman. His wisps of hair would be spread across the top of his skull. He would smell sweet, like ginger and molasses.
Before our shift started, the other girls and I would get ready together. We’d tease our hair and fix our makeup. We’d pucker our lips and check our teeth. We’d admire our reflections in the mirror.
Do I look pretty? we’d say. Am I beautiful?
If I were a hostess in Japan, my overweight salaryman would buy me glasses of orange fluffy drinks. I would suck on them with a twisty green straw. I would smile when he smiled. I would imitate his gestures. He wouldn’t realize I was doing it on purpose. He would think it was just our connection.
He would call me by my genji-na, which would be Sakura, for cherry blossom.
It’s such a common name, he’d say.
I’d laugh like he’d made a very funny joke. I’d put my hand on his arm.
If I were a hostess in Japan, I wouldn’t let my Japanese boyfriend visit me at the kyabakura. Because I would have one: a Japanese boyfriend. He’d have black hair and eyes that were so dark it would be like gazing into nighttime.
The other girls wouldn’t have boyfriends.
Who’s got time for that, they’d say.
They’d take me along with them after work to the host clubs. Everyone’s favorite would be Tanigawa, with his bleached hair and Armani suit.
He’s so authentic, the other girls would say, and fix their makeup again before we left for the host clubs.
They’d say: How do I look?
If I were a hostess in Japan, the other girls would tell me to beware of the Kuchisake-onna.
She used to be a hostess like us, they’d say, but one of her clients disfigured and murdered her, and now she’s a terrifying yokai.
She hides her slitted mouth under a surgical mask so you’d never know it’s there. And if she asks you am I pretty and you say yes, she rips the mask off and says how about now, and then she cuts your face like hers.
If you say no, she’s not pretty, she cuts your face.
They’d say: There’s no escaping her.
If I were a hostess in Japan, I would know they weren’t supposed to employ me. I would know about the hostesses who had been murdered, girls like me, foreign. I would know their names. I would have copies of the newspaper articles. But it wouldn’t matter. I would be American and invulnerable and take my payment under the table.
If anyone asks, you do the cleaning, the manager would say.
If I were a hostess in Japan, I wouldn’t do the cleaning. I would let the wrappers from the twisty green straws in my orange fluffy drinks flutter to the floor, and leave them there. I would touch my overweight salaryman on his arm and laugh at his jokes. I would tell my Japanese boyfriend: I don’t want you coming here. Please. I would follow the other girls to the host clubs when our shift was done.
It’s much easier this way, don’t you think? they’d say, while we shared a bottle of champagne with the tanned hosts. No strings.
No strings, I’d agree, but I would excuse myself early, before Tanigawa sang Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki. I would leave alone, to hail a cab back to my twelve-tatami apartment and my Japanese boyfriend.
On the street, looking for a cab, I would hear a voice: Watashi kirei? Am I pretty?
And I wouldn’t know if it was the Kuchisake-onna, or one of the dead foreign girls, or one of the other hostesses, or if it was even myself.
I would close my eyes and cross my fingers.
I’d say: Hai. You’re beautiful.