He is braiding your hair by the blood-red light of a lantern. You are surprised how deft his hands are. He tells you he used to do this for his little sister all the time. There is a tiger moth gloriously dying in the candle flame, half a wing already ashes scattered at its base. Wax, pooling round this tiny graveyard. His fingers are covered in ashes too. He is braiding them into your hair. You do not mind at all.
He is on his third pack for the day and you don’t bother telling him how bad it is for him, how his lungs are a battleground; he knows all that. He is spoiling for a fight, one leg jittering restlessly as he leans by the wall, and stares out the barren streets of Shinjuku. The noon air so stale it’s coming off the asphalt in waves that press close to the window, hot and silent. He’s pressing back. His arm against the glass, his mouth the frontline of this war.
He is not a patient to be wrestled into a straitjacket. He is not a patient at all, for all that he calls you sensei, sensei, voice rasping like a trap for a wounded animal, nails scraping across the surface of a worn-out highway, rough and rocky. You have seen the surface of his spine. It makes the same sound when you follow it to its end. He never asks you to set him right. He never asks you to light his cigarettes either. He never asks you for anything, only hands you your coat when you leave for the day, tilts his chin to meet your gaze, and holds it.
He is changing the water in your vase. He is plucking out the wilted flowers, one by one; how fragile they look between his fingers, how he lays them down on the marble countertop so they do not break. He could break a thing just by breathing on it. You know his breathing on the nape of your neck. He holds you like he holds those dead flowers, and he tells you he kills everything he touches, that you are beautiful but in his hands you will turn to bone and dust. You do not mind. You do not mind at all.