Read More: A brief interview with S. P. Tenhoff
Daiji was a college student when he first began to receive specific and more or less reliable information about the night world. On Monday morning his classmates would recount for him their weekend exploits in Tokyo’s neon labyrinth: he heard about soaplands, where you were bathed in bubbly mountains of suds, then treated to sex right there on the slippery mat; and image clubs, where your chosen partner came to you as a stewardess, or as a nurse, or as a bride, or in any other costume you could imagine. And he heard about hostess clubs, where women as beautiful as TV actresses drank with you at your own private table. He heard about all these places, his friends educating him with a smirking, embarrassed bravado that he secretly despised. But Daiji couldn’t afford to experience the night world firsthand. That, at least, was what he would tell his classmates when they invited him along on one of their heroic drunken adventures.
After college he was too busy with work to let himself think about the pleasures available to him now that he had a good salary. He didn’t want to be distracted. Then also there was the habit of self-denial he had learned in all the years he had spent studying for high school and college entrance exams. He had taught himself that rewards were things to be postponed. (Once he got as far as the mirrored door of “The Shining Empire”, but then, confronted by his own earnestly frowning reflection, spun around and hurried away.)
It wasn’t until after he was married that Daiji started to explore Tokyo’s night world for himself. He would patiently set aside money from the small allowance given to him by his wife, practicing every possible austerity, exercising nearly ascetic restraint, to create another, even smaller allowance, with which he awarded himself a clandestine monthly visit to a pleasure palace. What he discovered was this: he didn’t like sex clubs. They made him feel exposed and ugly. Taking off his clothes in front of the girl was bad enough; but some insisted on helping him, smilingly unbuttoning his dress shirt (the last button was the worst), to reveal a quivering expanse of flab, like some awful present that never should have been opened. They might not have cared – anyway if they did they were always tactful enough not to show it – but he cared. Also, something about sex with a stranger felt wrong. Maybe it was because there was no flirtation, no pretense of romantic interest. Anyway he left these places feeling worse than when he had entered.
He found, to his surprise, that he preferred the hostess clubs, although there was no sex on offer at all. Instead, a seemingly endless parade of women joined him, one at a time, in a secluded booth. They knew how to talk to him. If he disparaged himself because of his weight or appearance, he was told that a heavy build and “frank” features were “signs of a real man”; and the hostess would go on to make fun of the angular, effeminate pretty boys so common in Japan today, the kind who spent their free time at the tanning salon or in front of the mirror plucking eyebrows. If, when asked his age, he sheepishly replied that he was thirty-five (“Basically over the hill, right?”), his partner would tell him she preferred older men: they were more mature and experienced. He knew, of course, that they were flattering him, and he soon realized that the women had all been taught the same soothing repertoire. It didn’t matter. Every time Daiji went to one of these clubs a stylized and abbreviated courtship was enacted. But, unlike a real courtship, it was rendered stress-free – by the professional skills of the women, and by the knowledge that they were, after all, only pretending.
If there was one thing that bothered him, it was the anxious wait at the table before the hostess arrived. He sat there, inert, helpless. The club’s invisible manager – like some fickle god who spoke only through his emissaries, the waiters – sent you a partner, and there was never any way to predict what sort of woman he would elect to confer upon you. For another five thousand yen you could, it was true, request the partner of your choice; but Daiji was on a strict budget, and he had never found anyone he liked so much that he was willing to exceed his allowance just to have her sit beside him again.
When, one night, he did finally make a request, it was for a woman he had never even met.
He was being shown to his seat when she swept past, a graceful figure in a silk cocktail dress. He caught only a glimpse: black hair, a pale throat, a face in profile. But it was enough. He thought: I hope someone like that comes to my table. Send me a good one tonight. And at first, when a hostess approached – his eyes registering a cascade of bronze curls and a skirt slit practically to the waist – he believed the manager had in fact favored him this evening. But then she sat down beside him, coming within the effective range of his vision, and he saw a plain face, coated with a layer of makeup which didn’t quite hide the furious red pimple on her chin. . .
The girl wouldn’t stop talking. She was a cheerfully self-absorbed monologuist, jabbering on obliviously in some rustic dialect that she made no effort to correct.
“How about you?” she asked.
“What?” When he had stopped listening, about five minutes before, she had been fondly complaining about her hometown.
“Do you live in Tokyo?”
“No, in Saitama. I commute.”
“Me too!” she shrieked, grabbing his arm. “I commute too! It’s terrible, isn’t it?” She beamed at him with grateful fellow feeling, as if she had at long last found the one other person capable of understanding the trials of commuting to Tokyo every day.
He thought of the money he was wasting, and of the month-long wait before he would be able to come here again. When were they going to bring him someone new? He looked around the room, trying to make out the other prospects. Without his glasses, though, their faces were smudged featureless ovals. He always kept his glasses in his briefcase when he was at one of these clubs. They destroyed the fun-loving, carefree image he wanted to project.
“Who is that over there?”
“Hmm? Which one?”
“Second from the right. In the purple dress.”
The figure was hazy, but he thought it might be the woman he had glimpsed earlier.
“Purple dress? Oh. With her hair up? That’s Reina. Our Number One.”
Number One. He refused to feel awe at the words. Tokyo’s most popular hostesses enjoyed a special status. If TV dramas were to be believed, they led glamorous lives, vacationing on yachts and island resorts and sometimes bringing in more, between their salary and the gifts they received, than their wealthiest customers. Not that he bought into all that nonsense. In the end, they were just girls, after all, fundamentally no different than the one beside him right now.
“Is she your type?” the girl teased, giggling to show him she felt no jealousy or rivalry.
“I don’t know. I mean, I can’t really see from over here. I passed her when I came in and she looked. . . What’s she like?”
“Reina? She’s. . . very pretty. Do you want to invite her over?”
Invite her over? “No! Well. If – Would I be able to spend much time with her? Or would she be so busy. . ?”
“Well, she might have to come and go, you know, if other customers request her. But tonight’s pretty quiet, so probably. . .”
And then, without really being sure what he was doing, he had gotten another five thousand yen tacked onto his bill for the privilege of having the club’s Number One sit next to him.
“It’s very brave,” the girl said after she put in his request with one of the waiters.
“Calling her over without ever having talked to her.”
“By ‘brave’ you mean ‘strange’?”
“No.” She patted his hand reassuringly. “It’s not strange. Just a little unusual. Because, you know, most men only request girls they’ve talked to before. That way they’re sure they’ll get along.”
“I hope I haven’t made a mistake. . .”
“Are you nervous?” She giggled again.
“A little, maybe. . .”
“But it’s exciting, isn’t it?”
And then a waiter came and called her away, and a moment later the club’s Number One stood over him.
“May I?” She gestured to the space beside him.
“Oh. Yes. Please.”
She sat down. From her purse she produced a card case. From the case she produced a business card. She presented it to him with both hands, bowing. “My name is Reina Aihara. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
As he accepted the card and stuck it in his breast pocket he looked her over.
Certainly she was pretty. She had sharp features set precisely in a pale round face. And there was what he had noticed when she passed him earlier: a slender, long-necked elegance, accentuated by the way her black hair was swept up into a perfect bun shaped like a seashell. Also, she had lovely, apparently poreless skin; if she wore makeup it was applied so subtly he couldn’t see it. Still, he felt faintly disappointed. For example, take that perfect skin. In a world where the women hid themselves behind a camouflage of dye jobs and hair extensions, color contacts and false eyelashes (not to mention the multihued splotches painted across their faces), her willingness to lay herself bare could be seen as courageous, but it could also imply an arrogant indifference to presentation. She might not need to wear makeup, but shouldn’t she put it on anyway, as a sign of respect to the customer? Then there was her smile. It happened on only one side of her face. The effect was so extreme that at first he suspected partial paralysis: one corner of her mouth rose up cooperatively enough; the other seemed to strain a little, but stayed right where it was.
She asked the typical questions about his life. Was he married? Yes. Did he have any children? No: not yet. What kind of work did he do? He worked in the dividend reinvestment department of a bank. She nodded with equal emphasis to every reply. He found himself mentioning, as if in passing, that he was a Tokyo University graduate. She made appropriate little awed sounds, and told him he must be very bright; but she didn’t look awed, and she didn’t treat him differently, the way people usually did. . . He even pulled back his sleeve, ostensibly to check the time, displaying the silver Rolex his parents had given as a college graduation present. But she only said:
“Do you have to go now? Should I call for the check?”
Her cool formality started to bother him. The more he drank, the more it bothered him. He switched to plain Japanese, hoping it would encourage her to follow suit. She kept right on using honorific language, her words, like her manner, dignified and aloof. He sounded like a brute by comparison. But it was too late to go back to formal Japanese now. He soldiered on. He was drinking too much, he knew; he would be drunk soon. If he wasn’t already. It was all making him nervous, which made him drink more. And she kept obligingly refilling his glass from the decanter on the table.
And another thing: she didn’t touch his knee or his hand or his arm when she talked. She wasn’t flirting with him at all! How could this be the Number One?
Or maybe it was him. Maybe she just didn’t like him.
This thought had a temporarily sobering effect. His scalp went cold and seemed to shrink around his skull. Still, he was paying, wasn’t he? He was the customer here. There was no need to fawn all over her.
The man at the next table was giving his hostess a neck massage; her ecstatic moans suggested he was an expert masseur. At another table a guy was clasping the wrist of his partner and playing some sort of game with her fingers while she laughed hysterically. All around him, it seemed, paired figures nestled closer, inclining heads, merging fuzzily as they murmured to each other in the secretive voices that lovers use.
“So,” he heard himself blurt, cutting her off in mid-sentence, “tell me: do you have a boyfriend or what?”
“No.” She dabbed daintily with her handkerchief at the condensation on his glass. “Not anymore.”
He instantly regretted the question. He must really be drunk, to ask something like that. What an idiot he was. Reverting to formal Japanese, he said: “I’m terribly sorry. I shouldn’t have asked that. It was – please forgive me.”
“No, it’s all right.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just, well, you’re very pretty and it seems odd, no, not odd, but surprising that you –”
“Really, it’s all right.” She paused. “We broke up last year. He couldn’t stand not being able to see me more. With this kind of work, it’s hard to have a relationship. And for me, now, my job comes first. I’m trying to save money, so I’m putting all my energy into it.”
“I respect that. I think that’s wonderful.”
He was about to ask her what she was saving for, but the waiter had come. He knelt and held out the leather folder containing the check. Daiji’s time was up.
In the past, after he paid, the girl beside him would always ask for his cell phone number and e-mail address. But now the Number One was escorting him to the door, and she still hadn’t said a word. He couldn’t wait any longer.
“Do you think we could exchange contact information?” he asked.
The lights were all off in his apartment. He closed the door quietly, in case his wife had gone to bed. Then he slipped out of his shoes, and moved tentatively forward in the darkness.
A silvery light pulsed in the living room. His wife was sitting on the floor in her enormous pajamas. Hunched there in the dark before the TV screen, she looked to him for an instant like some nocturnal animal gazing up at the light of the moon.
“I’m home,” he said.
A sharp hand shot out of her sleeve and silenced him with a wave. On the TV a woman was giving a tearful account of some domestic nightmare or other. To conceal her identity, her face had been blurred and her voice electronically altered to sound like Minnie Mouse.
He stood there awkwardly, briefcase in hand, waiting for the commercial. They had been married for more than three years now, but she was still able to make him feel like an unwelcome visitor in his own home.
Courtship and marriage had not come easily to him. It had all been an ordeal that he had miraculously survived. After college, he had thought he might meet someone in his office. He was, after all, the assistant to the submanager, and well known to everyone as “that guy from Tokyo University.” But the women he worked with showed no interest in him. He watched them pair off with men in the office who had lower salaries and mediocre educational backgrounds. At twenty-seven he started to attend special parties organized for Tokyo University graduates and the women hoping to marry them. These were always ritzy affairs held in the banquet halls of the best hotels. The graduates mingled with stewardesses, models and executive secretaries. Daiji marveled at the screening that must have been necessary to get only the best-educated and most beautiful prospective wives. But, while his fellow graduates swooped down on their prey, bragging about jobs and cars and vacations abroad until the moment when, with a triumphant flourish, they could flip open their cell phones and deftly enter the women’s contact information, Daiji stood alone at a table munching forlornly on hors d’oeuvres and wondering what he could possibly use as an opening line. He knew he shouldn’t have to worry about this: he was a Tokyo University graduate, one of the elite, and these women were here to shop for men just like him. He had nothing to prove. But the end of these events always found him slumping home alone, dreading the inevitable inquiring call from his mother.
Finally, after his thirty-second birthday, his mother made it clear that she and his father didn’t intend to wait any longer. A matchmaker was arranged for. She was a friend of his mother, a squat ruddy woman who had known Daiji since he was a boy, although he couldn’t recall ever having spoken to her. Now she spread the forms out on the table with ceremonial care, as if laying out tarot cards. Her face, too, had the hokey solemnity of a soothsayer. Each form had a photo pasted into a space in the upper right corner. He scanned the pieces of paper, pretending to scrutinize the educational histories and work backgrounds of his potential future wives, while secretly letting his eyes stray to the little color photos. They were serious-faced women, all of them, staring back at him with the blank composed look that people have when their pictures are taken at the Department of Motor Vehicles. He had expected better candidates. He was a graduate of Japan’s number one university, wasn’t he? Not that they were ugly, but he couldn’t help thinking of the wives of his former classmates (all of whom were married by now); they seemed to be of a different class. Could it have something to do with the gap between high school and college on his curriculum vitae? Daiji had, it was true, failed the National Exam the first time. And as a result, he had spent twelve months in limbo, studying and worrying and waiting until he could try again the following winter. But did that one failure mean he wasn’t entitled to the best? The matchmaker wouldn’t say this in so many words. But he started to feel in her frustrated insistence that these were perfectly nice girls who would make wonderful wives a hint that he shouldn’t be aiming any higher, that his year in limbo effectively barred his entry to a better world. He became convinced that there were higher-class candidates – more beautiful, more sophisticated – that she was keeping from him. Accept reality, she seemed to be saying. Finally he agreed to meet one of the women in the photos. . .
The matchmaker, who had been pushy and maternal throughout the selection process, telling him authoritatively who would be best for him and why, seemed now to have lost her voice. She sat anxiously in her kimono at the end of the table while they all took perfunctory sips of green tea, he and the girl and both of their mothers. He had to admit it: the girl was, as the matchmaker had promised, better than her picture. Not beautiful, but above average, definitely. Her face was pleasant, and she came from a good family, and she was talkative, which annoyed him at first, but certainly made things easier for him on their dates, since he didn’t have to endure awkward silences: she would always fill those spaces with some kind of small talk. There was nothing at all wrong with her. On their fifth date, they went to a love hotel – she suggested it matter-of-factly as they drove past the fairytale-castle spire of the HappyTime Inn – and she was sweetly understanding when he got overexcited and spurted all over her thigh before anything had even really begun. He felt that he loved her then – for accepting him, for not making him feel ridiculous.
His proposal set into motion a complex and mysterious machine, and before he knew it he and his new bride were bowing together in the dark wooden gleam of a shrine, gold panels dancing around them, while the priest, a young man with the face of a predatory bird, intoned blessings in a whining voice and shook zigzags of the purest white paper over their heads.
“Dinner’s in the fridge,” his wife said when the commercial finally came. “You can heat it in the microwave.”
He went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and then realized he was still holding his briefcase. He set it down and gazed into the cheerily lit box at bowls shrouded in translucent plastic wrap. He wasn’t hungry, really; in fact his stomach felt a little upset.
What he really needed was a bath to calm him down. As he undressed and started the bath water, he remembered the way his mother always had dinner and a hot bath ready for his father when he came home. His mother might not have been the sweetest wife, but she was a dutiful one. No one could take that away from her. Speaking of duties, he hadn’t called his parents in over a month. His mother would be feeling neglected. But he could already imagine the first words out of her mouth (after scolding him for not calling more). They were the same words she said every time he called: “Is she pregnant yet?” Producing a child: the next test for him to pass. There was no way to tell his mother that his present relationship with her daughter-in-law made it physically impossible to give her the grandchild she kept demanding.
When he thought of his mother he often felt annoyance. Annoyance, and an obscure guilt. But now another feeling came over him – or maybe it had been there all along and he was just now noticing it – and it was so unfamiliar that at first he didn’t recognize the feeling for what it was.
He sat on the tub’s edge listening to the roar of the water and gazing at his soft white legs splayed on the tile. It had never occurred to him that he was unhappy. If someone had asked him if he was satisfied with his life he would have said, “Sure, I’m as happy as anyone, I guess.” He never would have thought he had anything to be especially unhappy about. But now it seemed to him that the things that filled his life fell short.
The tub was nearly overflowing. He turned off the faucet. Gingerly he dipped a foot into the steaming water (he had made it almost too hot), then stepped inside, one leg after the other, bracing himself against the rim of the tub and cautioning himself that he was still a little drunk. Cupping his hands over his crotch he slowly lowered himself to a squat.
He had hoped for more when he was young. Everyone did. There was nothing special in that. But not everyone graduated at the top of his high school class. Not everyone got into the nation’s best university. Hadn’t he earned the right to hope for more?
The fact was, he had settled for second best. In his job, certainly: it was the kind of work his mother had called “dependable.” And his marriage? His marriage was like his job: it had seemed challenging and hopeful in the beginning, but had turned out to be neither; instead, it was a routine that maintained itself as long as he put in the effort of showing up every day.
He had settled for second-best in his life.
But should he be blaming himself? Hadn’t he been led to believe that, with hard work and a good education, something more would be waiting for him? He scooped up a handful of water and splashed it over his clenched face. How could he blame himself when he had done everything that he was supposed to do?
By the time he climbed out of the tub he wasn’t sad anymore. Instead, he felt. . . outraged. As if he had been wronged. As if he were the victim of a broken promise.
This feeling remained as he dried himself off and walked through the dark apartment. The television was off. His wife had gone to bed without saying “good night.” In the bedroom he heard her snoring wheezily from under a mound of covers. He crawled in beside her, making the bed shake more than was necessary and rustling the sheets. But she slept on, snored on.
For a long time he lay on his back, unable to shake the sense that a promise had been broken. He felt almost sick. The main thing was to keep everything from moving. He lay very still. His mind, too, needed to be stilled. But the thought was there. A promise had been broken. The words seemed to turn and turn above him like the chirping birds that crown the injured heads of characters in children’s cartoons. They circled dizzyingly, accompanied by the music of his wife’s snoring.
Daiji stared at his phone’s empty square, his thumb poised above the keypad. Occasionally the thumb twitched nervously, but otherwise it didn’t move. He had started and erased two text messages. Now he couldn’t decide what to write. He couldn’t decide whether he should be writing anything at all.
When he checked his mail the morning after going to the club, he had expected a message from the Number One. In the past, when he gave a hostess his e-mail address, she could always be counted on to compose for him a cute little text message right after she finished her shift, thanking him in a cryptic baby talk interspersed with the hearts and stars and smiley faces teenage girls put in as if in some new system of punctuation. But this time there was nothing. He waited another day. Nothing. He told himself he would wait one more day and then forget about her. She had said she would contact him; he may have been drunk, but he remembered that clearly. Still, she was Number One. Maybe she expected the customer to do the contacting. Maybe it was a kind of test. If so, what arrogance! What made her so different from the other women? The answer was simple: she was the most popular one in the club. If she had come to expect special treatment, there was nothing he could do about that. He either accommodated her, or. . . And if she was waiting for a message, he should send it soon. He had let three days slip by already. She might think he was rude. Or uninterested.
He went into the office bathroom and locked himself in a stall. Hello Reina. All right: but what next? It was best to keep it simple: just thank her for the other evening. He keyed in and immediately erased this message. The point was this: he was the customer. Shouldn’t she be thanking him? In his second message he asked her how she was; he said he was worried, since he hadn’t heard. . . No. It sounded angry and desperate.
His thumb twitched. He stared at the display.
He had been in here on the stool for too long; people would start to wonder what had happened to him. All right. His thumb came down onto the pad decisively. Hello Reina. Sorry to be so late in writing to you. Thank you for the other night. I had a wonderful time. I hope I can see you again. And without giving himself a chance to change his mind, he selected SEND.
Two days later she sent him a brief and very polite message thanking him for his e-mail and for visiting the club. He read it five times, then sent a reply, thanking her for thanking him for his e-mail, and asking if he might have the honor of inviting her to his table again the next time he visited the club. This time she answered almost immediately, telling him she was the one who would be honored. And then, attached to the end of the message, came the inconsequential personal comment that passed through him like a tremor, leaving everything in its wake gaping and shattered: I’m so tired. . . After I finish this message I’m going to take a nice long bath.
He started to check for messages five or six times a day. Although everyone in the office sent and checked mail during work hours, he found himself hiding his cell phone under the desk like a schoolboy using it to cheat on an exam. . . When, in one message, she warned him to take care because a typhoon was coming, he was touched at her concern, although he knew perfectly well that what she had written was nothing more than a formulaic expression. And when, in another message, she mentioned attending a friend’s wedding, and wondered whether she would ever get married herself, he felt his chest constrict with a horrible mixture of desire and regret.
At the door he requested Reina. The doorman bowed and ushered him inside.
The place was busier than it had been the time before, and almost half of his one hour set passed before the Number One was able to come to his table. Daiji kept squinting, craning his neck, trying to distinguish her blurry shape from all of the others. After an initial attempt at conversation, the girl beside him had given up and, stiffening, primly withdrawn the knee that had been touching his. She gazed silently into her lap, where she clutched a damp flowered handkerchief. Every thirty seconds or so, the girl used the handkerchief to wipe away nonexistent condensation from his glass. Finally she was called away and the Number One took her place.
“Thank you so much for asking to see me,” she said, bowing.
The first time he met her this cool formality had unnerved him; this time, though, he had the memory of her text messages, and this changed everything: her most banal words seemed now to be perfumed with a secret meaning that only he could detect. . .
“I’m glad you remembered me,” she said.
“How could I forget?” he said, smiling. The way these words came to his service impressed him (where had they come from?). The result was impressive too: she blushed and shyly averted her eyes.
“Are you surprised to see me?” he said in an intimate tone, leaning toward her. He wasn’t nervous at all! For the first time in his life he felt suave and masterful.
“Yes, very! Surprised and happy.”
“I brought you something.” He opened his briefcase. “It’s nothing special; just a little thing, but. . .”
She looked gravely at the package in his hand before accepting it. The look on her face made him feel like a messenger delivering bad news rather than a suitor offering a token of affection.
She slowly unwrapped the package. Then she opened the box and took out his gift by its loop of chain, her fingers spread starfish-fashion. A gold pendant in the shape of a heart dangled from the chain. She set it gently on her other hand. Imbedded in the heart was a diamond. It had seemed larger in the store; now it resembled a stray speck of glitter, something that could be wiped away with a stroke of her thumb. On her face was a look of pity – she might have been looking at a tiny wounded creature that had landed on her palm.
He felt humiliated. The pendant was cheap. He had been assured that it was real gold – 14 karat – and that the diamond was real too. But it was a poor man’s present, bought on sale at a discount department store. He couldn’t afford anything more with his allowance. He had overextended himself as it was.
She returned it to the box and quietly put the box in her purse.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know your taste, so I–”
“It’s very nice. Thank you.”
“But you don’t like it. I can take it back and get something else if you prefer. . .”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Was I wrong to give you a present?”
“It’s just that, well, to be honest, when men give me things, I feel like they’re expecting something in return.”
“. . .Oh! No! No, I’m not expecting anything. I just gave it because I wanted to, because I wanted to express. . . So no, you know, no strings attached.”
“Then thank you.”
“So, is it all right? For me to have given you that. I know it wasn’t anything much. The problem is, I really don’t know what would make you happiest. If you would tell me. . .”
She set an extra ice cube in his drink and stirred it meditatively before answering. “The easiest thing,” she said, “would be for us to go shopping together. We can have dinner afterward, and then you can come with me to the club. It’ll be a shopping date.”
“Really? Yes! Yes, definitely.”
A date! Then he thought of something.
“Does it bother you that I’m married?”
She seemed surprised by the question.
“Not at all. I prefer married men. It makes everything less complicated.” […]
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S. P. Tenhoff’s writing has appeared in Conjunctions, The Antioch Review, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of Columbia University’s Bennett Cerf Memorial Prize for fiction, and is a recent finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize, the Calvino Prize, and the Autumn House Fiction Prize, among other awards.
“Ichiban” was the fiction/nonfiction winner of the 2017 Editor’s Reprint Award and originally appeared in Confrontation.
Read More: A brief interview with S. P. Tenhoff