Her smell was totally new to me, yet somehow the most familiar thing in the world. We were sleeping on a mat on the floor, and I felt like I had never gotten such a good night’s sleep. I blinked at the soft light coming through the paper window. Afraid to turn over and see who was next to me, I listened to the strange woman stir and stand wordlessly. A little while later, I heard the sound of pouring. I finally sat up and saw her there, squatting with a teapot, steaming green tea in two cups. She looked up and smiled. My stomach burned, and I half coughed, half yelped. She laughed, putting her palms flat on the floor and showing her teeth. She looked like a broken pot that had been mended beautifully with veins of gold. Sometimes I got a sense of who I was with just by being in the person’s body, and I could tell that she had overcome a lot and that I was proud of her.
“Surprised I woke you,” she said. She walked over and set a cup of tea on the floor next to my bed. “I usually can listen to a whole podcast before you get up.”
I sat up straighter and readied myself. I had done this so many times, but I never knew how they would react. I was numb to what would either be total disbelief or anger. Very occasionally, they humored me. Somehow, I felt nervous to tell her.
“I’m not who you think I am,” I said. I didn’t even bother to read the expression I knew that statement would elicit. “Every time I go to sleep, I wake up in a new place as someone new. When I go to sleep, I will disappear and your…husband?” I looked at my own body for a clue about their relationship. No ring. “Or whatever — he will come back and I’ll be gone.”
She blinked and her head tilted. Again, my stomach twisted. “Ira, is this a joke? I’m not getting this one yet.” She touched my hand. I pulled it away, feeling like it was a violation.
“Most people don’t believe me. If you want me to go for the day, I will. Ira will come back tomorrow. Just tell me where to go.”
She sat on the bed and took a while to answer, blowing her tea. The steam was bright white in a beam of sunlight. She squinted at me, apparently waiting to understand a game. She finally shrugged. “I’ll play along. Tell me about some other lives you’ve lived.”
I was taken aback for a moment. Her expression was an exaggeration of nonchalance. “Ok. Once, a few people back, I woke up as a truck driver.”
She looked bored as if she thought Ira was doing a bit and he was not impressing her with his imagination. “That’s it?”
“Well, he had been driving when he fell asleep. I was in him just long enough to drive off the side of the road to my death.”
“Ok, that’s pretty good,” she said. “Tell me another one.”
I nodded. I took the tea and began to blow as well to gather my thoughts. “What is your name?” I asked. My heart rate rose so high that I was genuinely concerned. Did this Ira guy have a heart murmur or something?
She smiled and appeared to get lost in thought for a few seconds. “I’m Kai. You’re my American boyfriend Ira. We are living in the mountains of Japan for a year. Come look.” She stood and I followed her to the window. Outside was a hillside composed of even steps — rice, I realized — that culminated in an untouched peak. Birds sang, rain pattered, and the only visible human touch was the gentle farming on the slopes. My skin tightened with pleasure at the sight. Kai was watching me closely.
“I didn’t know you could act,” she whispered.
My eyes shot to her unconsciously and then away again quickly. After a pause, she touched my arm. “Ok, I wanna keep playing. What’s your name?” she asked.
“I can’t remember my first one if that’s what you mean.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“As far back as I can remember. Maybe forever.”
She considered this. “And you’ll be gone as soon as you fall asleep?”
“How long have you ever stayed up?”
“A few days. I doze off eventually. That’s all it takes.”
“Tell me about your other lives,” she said. She was watching me very closely, eyes unblinking. I rubbed my throbbing chest. I told her about being a woman in an abusive relationship and how I tried to use my time to tell someone and get her help, but that I was afraid that I might have made it worse and that I never stop thinking about that. And the time in 2003 that I woke up as Leonardo DiCaprio and spent the day doing crazy amounts of drugs on a yacht. I told her that I was worried I killed him, so I checked the news in the next person and was relieved that I didn’t. Almost no one ever believes me. I only tell people if I wake up in a clearly intimate situation and I don’t want to take advantage of the partner.
“You’re oddly moral for a bodiless entity,” she said, still as if she were testing Ira. But maybe a little less now.
“I feel like a person,” I said, hearing a tone of defensiveness in my own voice. “I feel like I am a little of each of the people I live in. I think that if I had a body, it would be a little of each.”
“That would be the most average human body in existence, probably,” she said.
I shrugged. “I am pretty average in some ways.”
“You don’t seem average.”
“Neither do you,” I said. It came out before I had time to reconsider. I was glad it did.
She looked at the floor finally. They shared a silence. “It’s probably just because you’re in my boyfriend’s body,” she said.
She looked up. “Oh, I guess half of that thought was in my head. Not to be too forward, but you’re the expert here. Is it cheating on Ira if we have sex?”
I expected the question, but I still felt my stomach flip. “Uh, well I don’t really know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Have you ever done it before?”
I looked away. “Yeah, I mean it’s bound to happen sometimes. Like I said, I try not to take advantage.”
She didn’t seem to hear me. “Ira, this game is working.”
I didn’t answer. She kissed me, and my concern went away.
The rest of the day was spent drinking tea on the porch and talking. We went quiet when an old Japanese couple walked by. Kai smiled broadly at them and offered them tea. They declined with a kind gesture. When they disappeared around the corner, Kai turned quickly to catch me staring at her, as if she knew.
She asked me what felt like a thousand questions about the lives I had lived. We sat closer and closer to one another. Eventually, she reached up and grabbed my face. “I wish I knew your name,” she said, looking hard into my eyes as if it might be written in them. Weirdly, I could bear to just sit there and look back. I had never felt so comfortable.
Kai took off work the next few days. “We’re going to keep you awake as long as we can.” I was already tired from the one day and I doubted I could last days. I smiled anyway. We talked and laughed and drank green tea until we were vibrating. I actually hoped this guy didn’t have a heart murmur. I didn’t ask.
We watched the sun rise and set over the beautiful hills both times. The elderly neighbors came over and offered us some cooked rice. Kai accepted graciously. They seemed to understand that we didn’t want to leave each other for even a second because they brought us two meals of rice a day after that.
“I wish I didn’t have to go,” I said, looking out over the sky.
“Me either,” she said. She gripped my hand tighter. “Is it a bad life?”
I considered. “It’s the only one I’ve known. What’s it like to stay in one body?”
She shrugged. “It’s the only thing I ever was in.”
“I can’t imagine living a whole life in just one body. There is so much to see out there. And so many ways to see it.”
“Believe it or not, I thought about that before I met you.”
“I believe it,” I said.
I lasted longer than I ever did before. After the sixth day, we entered a state of constant delirium. We mostly just looked at each other. On the eleventh day, my eyes couldn’t stay open anymore.
“Don’t go,” she murmured, laying on my chest.
“I’m here,” I said.
She sat up and dragged me upright. “You’ll fall asleep,” she said drunkenly.
I nodded, digging in an eye.
“I love you,” she said. She laughed as if it was just meant to be a shock to my system. As if it were just the craziest thing she could think of to keep me awake. But her fading smile told me that it was real. Her eyes gazed into mine, and I knew what it meant to be human.
It was a soothing thing. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I was looking at white sheets, my body in a new position. I felt hot tears. I closed my eyes again, still tired, and dozed. I woke up on a beach, a book on my nose. I was an old woman. The tears were still on my face. “I love you, too,” I said to myself. I closed my eyes and I fell asleep again. This time I slept for what must have been half a day.
When I awoke, I was in New York City. I was a stockbroker or something. The guy lived alone in his giant apartment. I went to the airport and got on a plane to Japan. I used the guy’s phone to google the name of the little village where she was. When I found the village, it was around noon. I went looking for the little house we had shared. I had never seen it from the outside. Eventually, I saw the elderly couple and knew I had the right place. I looked up and to my right and saw her there, looking out the window.
“Kai!” I called. She looked down. “It’s me.” I realized for the first time what I was wearing. Business formal. My patent leather shoes were muddy. How old was I anyway? Despite that, her eyes widened with recognition. For the first time in my entire, endless life, I was recognized.