“Do you think animals can talk?” Tomoko asked.“I’m not sure,” I said, “What do you think?”White canine teeth glinted in the 3 p.m. sunlight reflected off the glass windows of the stationery shop next door. We were sitting under an orange umbrella at the Doutour coffee shop near the train station closest to my apartment with her three standard poodles. Actually, not hers specifically, but the way she treated them, you might think they were her own children. Until she invited me on a “doggie date” a couple of months back, I’d never even known such big poodles existed. At the time, I’d thought, “Why invite a non-dog owner on such an outing?” but with three enormous poofsters in tow, there was certainly no lack of canine companionship.“You can talk, can’t you?” she bent down and asked Blue, the gray poodle. The dog looked up at her, eyes earnest. Tomoko leaned back in her chair lazily.“Well,” she said, “I bet the moment that we’re out of earshot, you’d never get a word in edgewise.” Her long hair fell down her back, forming an uncannily straight line. As usual, she had on too much mascara, but the rest of her face was bare as a bone. The only trace of her fragility was the two crooked teeth. The first time I met her, she strutted like a peacock into the group meeting (where I happened to be at the time), sat down with the iciest glare south of the South Pole and didn’t say a word. The group’s leader, a boisterous woman with a red mohawk, looked to be at a loss for words for the very first time in her life. A hollow stone dropped to the bottom of a dry well. Our throats were as dry and scratchy as ancient LP players. Finally, she spoke. “Hello. I’m Tomoko.” Her face showed no trace of a smile, but seeing those crooked front teeth, those pearls of joy, set our hearts alight. Everyone in the room breathed a collective sigh of relief.Now I didn’t go to the meetings anymore. My twice a week dropped off to once a week and then once in a while. I liked the people there alright, but oddly enough, since I’d met Tomoko, I didn’t feel the need for transmission anymore. The day that Tomoko had come, and the session was over, everyone was standing around chatting. As we were sipping coffee out of paper cups, she took my arm and in a low voice said, “No offense, but to be honest, I came here tonight for work, not for personal reasons.”“Work?” I said.She told me that she was a researcher, but not in the normal sense. She was interested in various phenomenon, and she thought that this meeting might be an example of a phenomenon.“Did you think it was interesting?” I asked.“I’m not going to lie. It was incredibly dull,” she said. I smiled. Her comment caught me off guard, but her words rang like a clear bell in the middle of the night. I felt a vague sense of boredom at the meetings, too, but I thought I should keep going for some reason. Whatever that was eluded me now. She suggested that we go for a real cup of coffee elsewhere, and we found ourselves wasting away the last few hours of the day, talking about all kinds of strange topics. Now, we went out for a bite to eat once a week usually, sometimes around where she lived in Nishi-Ogikubo, and sometimes closer to my apartment. We both lived on the Chuo line, so it was really convenient to meet up. The best part was that we never found ourselves at a loss for words. Things that I’d thought about in my head for years were now all coming out, like water melting off the top of a mountain. On one of those days, we found ourselves at a Thai restaurant in Inokashira Park. She was sipping some kind of bright blue concoction with pineapple slices out of a twisty straw, and I had a buzz from some unusually potent Thai iced tea, thick with condensed milk. We had been talking about the usual: strange things that’d happened that week, places we’d gone, people we’d seen. Then like a twister touching down on a small town in the Midwest, she said something off-kilter. She had a completely serious look on her face, and her hands were clasped tightly, resting on the table.“I don’t know why, but it feels like we’re going 50 million miles an hour, doesn’t it? I mean, you and I, we’re around the same age, not interested in marriage and kids the way other people are, we live independently from our parents, and we both like our coffee the exact same way. I wonder if you aren’t my long lost twin from another planet.”I almost laughed, but the seriousness in her eyes stopped me. In that fraction of a second, the world transported me to a different place—a barren white landscape, dust swirling in a colorful kaleidoscope of a vortex. Looking into her eyes, I was being sucked into two powerful whirlpools. And then, as soon as the moment came, it was gone.For whatever reason, that one moment stuck with me, followed me around like a misty shadow, into my dreams.She fished a plastic bag of doggie treats out of her purse. The poodles sat poised, silently. “Those have to be the best trained dogs I’ve ever seen,” I said.“Well, poodles are naturally intelligent.”“Do you think they can understand our conversation?”“Maybe . . .” she shrugged off-handedly and took a sip from her cup. “Hey, what do you say. . .how about taking a long walk? You don’t have anything else to do today, right?” she asked.“Umm. . .”“Hey!” she said, “Don’t wrinkle your brow like that. It’s not attractive.” Her perfect visage glowed with Estee Lauder radiance.“What about these guys?” I patted Blondie (the apricot colored poodle) on the head gently.She smiled knowingly. “I was thinking of them, too, you know.”‘Well, ok,” I said, “but I do have some stuff I have to do. . .” I hadn’t finished my sentence and we were off, two girls and three canines. We walked along the main street until we got to the station and then took a thru-pass to get out on the North side. It wasn’t easy maneuvering three large animals through the crowds of people coming off the trains. Tomoko didn’t seem to mind at all, though, completely oblivious to the stony salarymen and sour-faced housewives toting large shopping bags. The dogs really seemed to enjoy themselves, too; heads turned and kids seemed to come out of the woodwork. It was like being bodyguards for fluffy starlets. After exiting the station, we kept walking straight and then turned right at the steep hill. I watched her out of the corner of my eye. Her long hair shone like a shampoo commercial. How did she think that she and I were so similar? Her, the queen of Sheba and a messy looking orphan like myself? Sure I was about the exact same height and weight as she was, but the way she carried herself, she looked at least three inches taller. My hair was long, too, but it was a virtual rats nest; I could hardly get a brush through the stuff. Walking next to her now, leash in hand, I felt more like a dog myself.“I wanted to talk to you about something,” she said, looking straight ahead. I couldn’t tell if it was something good or hideous, her expression like a Noh mask.“It’s about a guy,” she said quietly.“Oh?” I said. We had never really talked about men, at least, not about men who were love interests. Not that I got the feeling that she liked women or anything, but I never got the impression that she liked men, either. She seemed ambivalent about anything having to do with love.“Well,” she started, “He’s a musician, and plays in a band that I’ve liked for a long time. He’s a little older than me-- well, to be honest, he’s more than ten years older, but when we talked for the first time it was like coffee pouring into your favorite mug. It was nice, just right. Like the sound of a furin when you’re lounging on the tatami on a lazy summer day, know what I mean?”I nodded.“Well, we started hanging out—nothing serious, at first. Mostly, I’d go to see his band play, and after, we’d go for a drink, usually with the other band members—and I got really close with the whole group.”She tripped suddenly on a tiny stone laying on the sidewalk and went sprawling. Luckily she was able to catch herself before the "Kersplat!" but the dogs went nuts. The leashes were all wrapped around her ankles. Butter, especially, had a tendency to go in circles when something stressful happened. Trying not to laugh, I helped her get out of the bind. She looked like Joan of Arc, ankles bound, eyes wide. After we finished laughing, her face looked suddenly somber. We started up the hill again.“Well, suddenly,” she continued, “he stopped calling me. Nothing happened, I thought, we didn’t have a fight or anything. After a couple of days, I tried calling him, and got his machine. I left a couple of messages, but he didn’t call back. It was strange, really.”She turned to look me straight in the eye. I was surprised at what I saw. Her eyes, usually solid like volcanic rocks, looked clear and limpid, two balloons deflating.I nodded. “So, what did you do?” I asked.“I waited and waited for him to call. I thought that he might be busy or out of town for a gig, and then, after three weeks I finally gave up. I figured that the most likely scenario is that he found someone else that he liked more than me.”“So, you haven’t seen him since?”She took a deep breath. “Well, that’s why I wanted to talk to you.” She paused for a moment. “I don’t really have anyone else I can talk to about something so personal, and really, you and I don’t even talk about this kind of thing normally.”“That’s okay,” I said. “When did you see him?”“A few days ago.”My eyes searched her face, for a hint of something, but her expression was like a sheet of legal paper coming out of an inkless printer.“A couple of weeks ago,” she said, “I heard from a friend of mine that his band was going to be playing at a place nearby. She said that they hadn’t played for a while, so there were probably going to be a lot of people there. The name of the venue was Maxwell’s Silver Hammer in Kunitachi. I’d never heard of that bar, and I know pretty much all of the bars in the area, so I figured it must be a pretty obscure place.”“So you decided to go?”“Yes. Part of me wanted to see him, no matter what. Even if he ignored me, or I saw him with a new girlfriend, that part of me that needed to see his face fought and won. So I went. There were a lot of people there, more than I had remembered going to his shows. I guess that the place was so small, too, that it seemed more crowded than any show I’d ever been to. I was familiar with a few of the fans and friends of the band in the past but I didn’t see any of them there. At first, I just was thinking how crowded it was, but once I got used to it, I started realizing that the whole scene was altogether strange, including the types of people that were there. I would say the majority of people were typical salarymen in suits, not really the types you’d expect to see at this kind of a live show. I started to wonder if I’d heard my friend wrong and came on the wrong day or maybe my friend had purposely given me misinformation, though I wasn’t sure why she would do that, especially as she thought that he and I made a good couple.I opened my mouth to ask her a question, but changed my mind. She seemed to be on a roll now, and I didn’t think I should interrupt.“So, I went to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. I thought the bartender gave me a funny look, but it was probably just my imagination. I paid for my drink and went and had a seat. That was the weird thing, too. They had chairs set up as if it were a violin recital. His band plays reggae! At the end of their shows, usually everyone is up and dancing their heads off, so those chairs lined up in rows didn’t seem right. So, anyway, there I was, just sitting and waiting. I would have tried to strike up a conversation if someone sat next to me, but no one did. Even though it was super crowded, all of the chairs right next to mine remained unoccupied. All of those businessmen reminded me of unsmiling frogs, and they kept their distance.Finally, the band came out on stage, and I saw him. I didn’t want him to see me, though, so I pulled the brim of my hat down as low as possible. Anyway, he was busy tuning his djembe, and he hardly looked up. The band tuned the instruments for a while. . . and I DO mean a while. If there is such a thing as over-tuning, I witnessed it that night. Usually the band isn’t so serious when they’re onstage together, but that night, they weren’t talking to each other and joking around as they usually did. I kind of chalked it up to the strange crowd that was there. Maybe they just wanted to play their set and get it over and done with. But, then, I thought, if they wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, why were they taking so long with the tuning?I nodded. “Yeah, that does seem odd.”“Odd doesn’t really describe what was to come,” she said, then gulped a big mouthful of air. “I don’t know if I should even be telling you this.”“Why?”“I don’t know.”“Well, I think at least part of you wants to tell me, right?” I said. My curiosity was starting to take over. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have started telling me the story at all.”“I know, but once I tell you. . . “ she said slowly.“There’s no use in turning back at this point.”“Right.” Tomoko shook out her mane of hair. “Well, once they finally stopped tuning the instruments, that’s when the real three-ring circus started.I must have had a puzzled look on my face; Tomoko nodded slowly like reassuring a child on the first day of school.“A circus,” she said. “So, I was just sitting there waiting for the never-ending tuning session to be over, and suddenly I felt a really strange feeling like the wind on a freezing day. It wasn’t like I was making myself feel that way or imagining things. No, it was more like two minutes ago, there had been an empty space, and then, now there was definitely something there. She paused for a moment. “Have you ever had that feeling?”In that second, I remembered something, an incident from my childhood, something I’d tried to forget about. “Actually, yes,” I said reluctantly.“What was it?” she asked.“It’s kind of a long story.”“That’s okay, I want to hear it.” She nodded for me to go on.I took a deep breath. “Well, my family went to visit relatives on the Izu Peninsula in the summer and the whole group of us were staying at this cottage. I was only about seven at the time, but I remember distinctly feeling that something felt strange about the cottage. For reasons that I didn’t understand myself and certainly couldn’t explain to adults, I simply didn’t want to stay there. The feeling of aversion was so strong that after the first night, I finally broke down and told my mom. She said I was being silly; what was I worried about? ‘Go have fun, play on the beach,’ she told me. Well, I did, along with my other cousins. That day was especially hot, so everyone decided to go enjoy the summer weather. Some of the adults went snorkeling in a nearby cove, and since everyone went out, we locked the place up, shut all the windows, you know, as you would normally do just to be safe. Well, the morning was brutal, a real scorcher, but around noon, when we were unwrapping our bentos for lunch, we looked up and noticed that the sky looked considerably darker. We could see clouds of pitch black in the distance, and the wind had really picked up. Sand was blowing around now and getting into the food, and my cousin Ema who was the littlest started crying. We decided to go back to the cottage and starting packing up all of our stuff. Now the wind was howling and Ema was nearly hysterical. I was holding her hand and saying, “Don’t worry,” but my voice couldn’t have sounded very convincing. All of the cousins and I walked what seemed like miles and miles with the beach trees zipping this way and that and sand blowing everywhere. When we finally got back to the cottage, nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to see. All of the windows and doors were wide open. We stood rooted to the ground for a good five minutes, then the thought occurred to me that maybe the adults had already back from snorkeling. Ema was screaming into my ear, “No!! Please don’t!” but I pushed through the wind and up the porch stairs. “Hello!” I called out, “Is anyone home?” Slowly, I crept into the house; two of my cousins were following behind me. Things were flying around in the air, papers and other small objects, and then it struck me that the house was completely empty. That’s when the fear seized me. I started to scream and my cousins behind me did, too, and we ran out of the house and back down to the beach carrying the littler ones. It was raining now, so we took shelter under the awnings of the beach’s public bathrooms. No one said a word. When the adults found us, they thought that something was wrong with all of us, since we didn’t want to go back to the cottage. Finally, my dad and two uncles went back to see if what we told them was true. The three men came back about twenty minutes later. They looked worried and whispered into the women’s ears. We didn’t go back to the cottage after that; instead, we went directly to a motel closer to the main town.“Wow,” she said. She tilted her head to the side, and brushed her bangs back from her face. It was another side of her I’d never seen. She looked vulnerable.“Are you okay?” I asked.She gave me a strange look and laughed showing her teeth. “Yeah, that’s a really strange story.” She shivered suddenly. “I. . .um. . . have something to show you from that night I went to see the band.” She handed the two leashes she was holding to me and rummaged down deep in her bag. “And there’s something else I need to tell you. That night at the bar, I have kind of, well, a gap in my memory.”“What do you mean?”“Well, as I was saying, I was just sitting there in the bar, waiting for the band to play, and the next thing I knew, I woke up in my bed and looked over at the clock. It was a little before five in the morning.”“What do you mean?”“I have no idea what happened. I don’t think I was drugged or anything, since I didn’t feel groggy at all when I woke up. It’s bizarre to say the least. But what’s even weirder was what was lying next to my pillow.”Out of her bag, she pulled out a small red book.“What’s this?” I asked.“I don’t know exactly. But I . . .”“What?”“Ah, nothing. I just feel a little strange,” she said. She put her shoulder bag down on the pavement and the book on top of it. “Do you mind . . . I think I’m a little dehydrated. We passed a vending machine a couple of streets back. I’m just going to go get a bottle of water, okay?”“Yeah, sure.”As soon as she left, the dogs crowded around the book on top of her bag, sniffing it profusely.“Whatcha doing?” I asked them, putting all of the leashes into my left hand. With my right, I reached down and grabbed the book.As quickly as you could say jackrabbit, I was in the bar.I can honestly say, I’ve never felt so disoriented. One minute I was out in the baking sun with a bunch of poodles, and then suddenly I was in a dark underground bar. The bar was just as she’d described it: so smoky that inhaling was out of the question. The walls were garish and the ceiling looked like it’d never been cleaned. There was that famous poster of the Beatles crossing the road on the wall cornering the stage, but the poster had smudges on it and was tattered around the edges. I saw a tiny stage with a band tuning instruments. Then, I saw a spindly man in a suit standing off to the side. I couldn’t see what his face looked like; it was covered in shadow.“Hey! Earth to Space Cadet! What’s going on?” I suddenly snapped out of it. Tomoko was standing in front of me and slipping the book back in her bag. “I have no idea,” I said. “I really don’t know what just happened. I could picture the room that you were talking about. It was like I was actually there.”Her expression went from one of irritation to worry. “Uh-oh,” she said. She put one hand on my forehead. “You feel hot. Maybe you should sit down.”“Yeah, I think so,” I said and sat down on the curb.“You’re probably dehydrated, too. You’d never believe it, but that stupid vending machine was out of water! There’s a convenience store a few blocks ahead, though. You stay here, okay? I don’t want you to faint on me or anything.”I nodded. What I wanted to do was lie down, but I didn’t want her to worry. “You’re right. Forgot to drink water,” I managed to say.“Ok, I’ll be right back,” she said.As soon as she was out of sight, my hand reached into her bag and pulled out the book. The moment I extracted it, I was right back in the bar. I looked around, took several deep breaths to try to clear my head, but the more I tried to understand what was happening, the more mixed up I felt. It was like witnessing a runaway train in a broken down graveyard.Finally, since I realized I had no choice in the matter, I let my mind go.