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We fell to speaking of our time in Kyoto, as perfect strangers do. We spoke of monasteries built from trees, ancient women in black who fed us breakfast in tiny dishes, and moss-green silent mazes.

And geisha.

I believed in geisha until I arrived in Japan, when they started to feel like a hoax perpetuated to attract gaijin. You can busy yourself with the myriad splendours of Japan, centuries-old temple floors built to squeak as burglar alarms, toilet-paper hawkers who won't give you any of their wares because they know you can't read the advertisements on the packaging, and $400 cantaloupes, but in the back of your mind you're always today the day I see a geisha?

Over time wonder turns to worry. Is it ever going to happen to me? Am I just not lucky enough? Did I leave my butterfly net at home?

Then more time goes by and you catch fleeting glimpses of half-imagined sylphs, hiding in the folds of urban fabric. A kimono-clad shadow behind a shuttered window. In another far-distant window, sleek salarymen unfolding hand-dyed indigo cloth costing thousands of dollars a yard, and the flash of one white hand. Perhaps the corner of a silk sleeve, gone before it was even there. Could you be sure? Could you swear that was what you saw?

I'm around all the time, whether I want to be or not. My meat and bones are relentlessly corporeal. But geisha make their presence felt by their absence. Omnipresent ordinary women disappear into the mental spam folder, but geisha flit past your consciousness and burn their afterimage into your heart's retina forever.

Finally I decided geisha were like the Aurora Borealis. It was highly unlikely that I would ever see them for myself, so I gave up looking. And then...I saw one!

I was in a narrow winding back street, hemmed in on either side with wood walls. I don't remember why I was alone, why I was sitting down, or why I was staring into my lap. I just remember looking up and suddenly there she was, out of reach yet tantalizingly close. I wanted to chase her. I froze and stared. Don't move, I thought. Just stand there forever and let me love you.

She was a perfect study in optimally heightened contrast. I had never seen anything so designed, so controlled, so excruciatingly the product of conscious artifice, in my life. On the outside. Dead white skin; jet black hair shellacked into geometric perfection; and white, black, red, and gold kimono and obi. She could have been made out of origami. On the outside.

On the inside, I had never felt someone so sensitive and perceptive in my life! She looked like a faun caught by surprise on her way through the woods, instantly and totally aware of every aspect of me. On the inside, she was pure instinct. She looked down at me and I stared at her. I felt her see everything inside me, all at once, and my heart caught in my throat. I felt grave compassion in her as she listened to everything inside me with her whole spirit. I love you, I thought. Stay with me forever.

She bowed slightly. I bowed more, so she instantly bowed more too. And then she was gone. How she disappeared so quickly in a street that I thought had no exits was just one more geisha mystery.

How could she have left me? After what we had just been through? I needed to pursue her, run after her, chase her through all of Japan so I could lay a kingdom, two kingdoms, three kingdoms at her feet. Just so she would look at me one more time and see me. I would give her anything, the world, for one more moment of being so heard and held.

….That was ten years ago. I would still give her the world, although I saw her for that one moment and then never again.

That one moment explained everything I ever needed to know about dance, and love. The critical buildup of suspense and desire. The mythos. The unavailability. And then, the little game of being real! Oh, you caught me! Perhaps she allowed me to catch her, a little bit, so I would have the thrill of seeing her with her defences down. And when I did, I saw the extreme artifice on the outside. The relentless imposition of the rational mind, down to the nanometer. Was it hiding, or was it framing the art inside?

For after all that anticipation, her great art lay in artlessness. Her most masterful contribution to civilization lay in total, animal uncivilization. I understood the heart of why millionaires spend fortunes on geisha. Underneath the contrasting origami exterior, inside was a feral, naked mammal who felt and perceived with every iota of herself. Within the unbelievably elaborate frame, she saw and allowed herself to be seen.

After the romance and seduction of everything it took to get to her, in that one moment, I felt everything we dream of in long-term, solid relationships of any kind. After all that excitement, for that one moment I felt stability, relief, and freedom.

We may never know what dance is. We may never know what love is. But we all know...we just want to hear and be heard.

Becoming a Geisha. Memoirs of a Geisha. John Williams.