The Kawasaki Rose – Sam Buntz
November 5, 2023
“O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
“Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.”
– William Blake
I believe in hobbies. “Idle hands are the devil’s plaything” might be a Victorian-sounding truism, but in my experience, it is apt. My entire life has been defined by a search for effective time killers. That is why I am going to tell you this story: to illustrate the critically significant need for hobbies and the importance of killing time in ways that are not personally or socially destructive.
Didactic literature is, admittedly, not in fashion, and thus I am begging the reader not to assume that my avowedly instructive and uplifting intention will thereby render this story boring or a mere Aesop’s Fable. As a dedicated hobbyist, I have made a thorough investigation of the principles of good fiction, which state that it is best to allow the facts to speak for themselves. Ernest Hemingway, the great American writer, is often held up as a model of this “show, don’t tell” mantra. His story “Hills like White Elephants” offers a particularly fine example of this principle. However, there are certain allowances permitted in the field – no rule is completely solid, as it were, especially in an era of postmodern experimentation – and a personal introduction, such as this one, expressing something of the author’s own feelings, is perfectly acceptable. One might think of such prominent examples and classroom staples as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. These books have thus far “stood the test of time” (forgive the cliché) thereby verifying, to some extent, the author’s methods.
Throughout my life, I have noticed that people often find certain hobbies “pointless” or, at best, a quirky affectation. For example, I once mentioned to an acquaintance the existence of a man who has made it his goal to visit all the Starbucks coffee shops on Planet Earth. Now, this goal is clearly impossible, as this fellow readily admits, given that there are over 32,660 Starbucks coffeehouses currently existing in the world. Furthermore, a new Starbucks opens every 15 hours. Without further elaboration, you can easily surmise how difficult it would be for a hobbyist to achieve this end. My acquaintance expressed disgust and contempt at this individual’s hobby, referring to it as (if I am remembering accurately) a “dumb fucking waste of time.” I held my tongue and changed the conversation toward more general topics, as I make it a principle to avoid unnecessary conflicts.
But I wanted to say that this Starbucks hobbyist’s attitude toward coffeehouses is likely akin to that of the deceased explorer George Mallory’s attitude toward Mount Everest. He wanted to climb it, he said, “because it is there.” This in my view is as good a reason as any. The cultivation of the “useless” is a definitive human trait, one not often found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. “Useless,” of course, is often merely a term used by the unappreciative for the beautiful.
I do not personally engage in such expensive and financially taxing hobbies as Starbucks hopping. In fact, my primary hobby is origami, which requires little more than special paper (known in Japan as Washi) and patience.
In any case, as our story begins –
I was busy folding a Kawasaki Rose when someone knocked on my door. This was in my dorm room during my sophomore year at Wilbur College, an “elite” liberal arts college deep in the woods of northern New England. I was the RA in a freshman dorm at Wilbur, a role that I had found enjoyable and one of the effective time-killers I had previously mentioned. Given my role in the community, unexpected knocks on my door were not entirely unusual. In fact, I had invited the students on the floor to knock on my door “at absolutely anytime, with whatever concerns they might have.” I meant this sincerely, but I was ever so slightly irritated to be interrupted on this occasion.
The Kawasaki Rose is a geometrically intricate shape, requiring a specific twisting maneuver that adds an especially pleasing quality to the four-fold symmetry of the flower. The design was invented and perfected by Toshikazu Kawasaki, a major origami theorist, who we are lucky is still living today.
Nonetheless, I reined in my attention, readying myself to lend my full presence to whoever was knocking on my door. “Please come in,” I said.
George Werther entered the room. Early on, I had identified him as a student who had seemed well-intentioned but socially awkward, prone to voicing all his thoughts out loud, no matter how potentially offensive or inappropriate to the setting or to mixed company. Having had this habit myself (though without the “crude” dimension often added by George) and having gradually learned to restrain it, I decided to introduce George to social settings that would perhaps model for him appropriate modes of conduct. For instance, I invited him to attend a meeting of the Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) club, which he did not attend. I also invited him to have dinner with myself and members of the College Beekeeping Enthusiasts, which he also did not attend. I had decided that George was free to chart his own course in life and reasoned that I should stop gently attempting to nudge him in more socially beneficial directions.
George slouched down on a bean bag chair in the corner of the room. “You having a party in here?” he asked. “You about to crush puss’ in here? Should I leave?”
After a moment, I realized George was being ironic and that his vulgarity was an attempt at a humorous quip rather than an overtly misogynistic remark or a statement speculating on a likely occurrence. I reasoned that George thought it was unlikely I would be having sexual intercourse with a lady in my room at this time and was alluding to that fact. In considering why George would make such a comment, after a further moment, I realized that he was likely drunk. I had been so immersed in my Kawasaki rose, that I had forgotten it was a Saturday on the big spring weekend, when many alumni returned to campus, fraternities and sororities opened their doors wide, and all manner of merry-making commenced. Virtually all the students in our dormitory would soon be out drinking at Fraternity Row. By some fortuitous quirk of campus design, the freshman dormitories – the “hamster cages,” as they were called due to their Brutalist architecture – constituted a sort of annex to Fraternity Row.
“So, George,” I said, making sure to keep my tone warm and informal in order to ameliorate any surliness George might express in his drunken condition, “how has your afternoon been?”
“How has my afternoon been? The same as every other fucking Saturday at this school. You ever hear that song, the Smiths’ song, where it’s like – ‘You go to the club on your own and then you go home and you want to die’? – you ever hear that? I’m not saying I want to die, but I’m just saying – fuck, man. I dunno, I dunno what the fuck is wrong with me.”
I considered that bantering with George regarding the pop culture reference he had just made might put him at ease. “Yes, George,” I said. “I’m familiar with the lyrics to that song. I believe it’s entitled ‘How Soon is Now?,’ boasting a guitar part by Johnny Marr that has proven nearly impossible to accurately recreate in concert. Only rough approximations have sufficed. Your memory of the lyrics is near the mark, covering their substance, but not their precise wording.”
“Yeah,” he said and belched. “Yeah, that sounds right.”
He was quiet for a moment. I took the brief pause to try to give him my full attention, to understand the exact sense of what he might say next.
“You know Stephanie, right?” he asked. “Stephanie Chalmers?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve taken the opportunity to be familiar with all the students who live on this floor.”
“Well, Stephanie is, like, a nerd, right? And I’m a nerd, right?”
“Modes of social categorization are arbitrary,” I said. “They are known to vary culturally. But on this campus, at this specific time? I believe you would be categorized that way. Stephanie to a large extent shares the interests of a ‘nerd,’ though I believe she also socializes with people who do not share that identity.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to talk about,” said George. “Like, Stephanie and I are the same kind of person. The same species. But she’s trying to, like… how to put this… cross-pollinate.”
I was not entirely sure what George meant by this, so I asked him to elaborate.
“She’s hanging out with Jason Waller, for instance,” he said. “I imagine those are interesting conversations. Like, I have no idea what they would even talk about. What does Jason have to talk about? You know, I listened in on a conversation he had once with this girl from the next dorm over, Alicia something. And it was completely retarded! He just asked her basic questions about what she was majoring in and stuff, and she acted like he was the fucking Count of Monte Cristo or whatever. I’d had virtually the same conversation with her ten minutes earlier and she wasn’t interested in it at all! But she kept leaning into him the whole time. I’m pretty sure they smashed.”
I could tell George felt his merits as a man were not gaining their due recognition. I’ve read this is, in fact, a crisis in our society and throughout developed nations. Many have suggested that Japan was the first polity struck by the forces of heightened technologization and domestication. There, young men would frequently drop out of society and begin to spend inordinate amounts of time on their computers. They became known as “herbivore men” or “grass-eating men.” Fortunately, George had not fallen completely out of the social world. He was, after all, a college student. I decided to offer him some words of encouragement – and also of caution.
“George,” I said, “when confronted by a man of superior height and athletic ability like Jason Waller, it is easy for one to become resentful. However, in this direction lies ruin. As bitter of a pill as this may be to swallow, there is only one way out of this predicament. You need to commit yourself to a hobby of some kind. This can be a hobby that is meaningful to you or, in the best of ways, abundantly meaningless. The choice is yours. Unfortunately, to cite a cliché, life is unfair. But you will find that, in comparison to Jason, to whom much comes easily, you will find yourself growing in depth. Your inner life will become like a carefully tended garden, boasting many exotic and brilliant blooms. I faced such a decision at an earlier time in my life, and I can confirm that my decision to cultivate my own garden,” – I nodded to the Kawasaki Rose – “was unquestionably the most productive one. It has been a source of consolation to me for many years.”
“Look, dude. That just sounds like you’re telling me to give up. Plus, I have hobbies.”
“Oh? What kind of hobbies?”
“Well, I post. I’m very online… Listen. Have you ever heard of this book called The Game?”
As he talked and explained The Game to me, I realized that this was a manual of seduction. It outlined a series of techniques by which the opposite sex might be either psychologically manipulated or merely set at ease, depending on one’s hermeneutic, in order to eventually engage in coitus.
“But I’m not doing it just to fuck. I’m using these tactics to find, you know…”
I stared at him, inquiring with my eyebrows alone.
“Like, love and shit,” he said.
“Well,” I said. “You came to me assuming that I am an expert in matters such as these?”
“No, I just – you’re just someone who’s always here to talk to, y’know? It’s like I always know where you’ll be… It’s nice.”
“So you do not wish to hear my advice on this subject? The subject of wooing a young woman?”
“I mean, hey man, if you’ve got some thoughts on this, why not.”
“Well, from what I understand, when approaching a woman, one wishes to make an impression on her – and not a neutral impression.”
I paused to see if George understood or had any immediate questions. He blinked at me and then said, “Yeah, okay. That’s obvious.”
“Well,” I said, “Have you made an impression on Stephanie?”
George buried his head in his hands in the manner of one sorely aggrieved. “No!” he wailed.
“And what impression have you been trying to make?”
“What impression…? Like, a good one. Duh.”
“But this hasn’t worked?”
“No. I tried to make her think I was smart by talking about Faust and stuff, but I don’t think she likes German literature. I got bad information. I think she’s studying French.”
“Yes,” I said. “Faust and the tale of Gretchen…” I paused for a moment, pondering the allusion. “I have not tried this myself, so I lack practical experience. But the French mage, Eliphas Levi, gave the following advice. He said that if one cannot make a positive impression on a woman, one should leave – not precisely a negative impression, but one of a certain… awe at your personal majesty, your darkness and severity, as though you are an aristocrat upon whose soul lies a particularly heavy burden of sin. I’m not saying to strike fear into her heart, but just a hint of – well, fear is not the wrong word, precisely. You want her to maybe catch her breath slightly and experience other physiological sensations that, with time, can be converted into those of attraction with relatively little adjustment. Of course, I am amateur in these matters. This advice is certainly book advice and not, shall we say, a matter of ‘street smarts.’ But I do trust the wisdom of Eliphas Levi, who did possess such street smarts, in addition to a deep store of esoteric book learning.”
George seemed to ponder this for a moment. “Strike fear into her heart…” he finally said out loud. “I like that.”
“Well, not precisely –” I began to offer a qualification.
“It’s not bad!” George stood up. “Kinda makes sense.”
“I wouldn’t put it exactly in those terms though.”
“Yeah, yeah…” said George, his eyes distant. He shook himself, returning from wherever his mind had roved. At this point, as he was about to leave, he noticed the rose I was folding.
“Be careful,” he said. “Every rose has its thorn.” This, I believe, is a quotation from the 1980s rock band Poison. He shook his head with a certain amount of exasperated bemusement at (I can only assume) the confused spectacle of human sexual longing. George then exited my dorm room, leaving it to me and my rose.
I continued my exceptionally minute and careful folding of the rose petals for some time. One needs to attain a certain deft and fluid folding, as it were. There is an especially organic feeling one needs to have for this method.
Then, I was interrupted once more. This was not an unhappy occurrence, as I was quite concerned for George and was wondering if he might return. But it was Stephanie Chalmers who had decided to grace my humble dorm room with her presence.
Stephanie always appeared to – well, reader, the first cliché that leapt into my mind was “light up a room.” I merely relay the impression that she had on the public, on the student body at large, what to leave my own perceptions aside. It was commonly agreed that she was radiative. But when she entered my dorm room, she looked pale, shaken, perhaps food poisoned. I could tell at a glance that some deep anxiety had been festering within her, practically rumbling her viscera. I, of course, did not say all of this for tact’s sake, but my furrowed brow expressed the whole of my concern.
“Stephanie,” I said, “how pleasant of you to stop by. I seem to be a magnet for unexpected but by no means unwelcome guests this evening.”
She slumped down immediately in the same chair George had just occupied.
“I feel weird,” she said. “And something just happened that… I don’t know. It’s probably nothing… But…”
“Perhaps verbalizing it as exactly as possible will render its plausibility clearly.” As she sat in the relatively mellow illumination of my desk lamp, I could better see how ill she looked. It was disconcerting to see the proverbial “bloom of youth” in such – I won’t say “peril.” But its petals were no doubt being nipped by a particularly ill wind.
“Well,” she said. “It’s like this… I feel like there are a bunch of guys, two in particular, who are vying with each other over me. Which you think would make me happy, but I actually find it a bit stressful. I don’t entirely know how to feel about it, and I don’t enjoy hurting anyone’s feelings. In fact, I’d rather have my own feelings hurt than hurt someone else’s… Anyway, I have all this going through my mind. Trying to gauge the… sincerity of these idiots. And I’m planning on going to a get together where a few of these guys are going to all be present. So I decide to take a shower beforehand. I’m sure that I was the only person in the bathroom. The door usually creaks when it opens, and it’s right next to the shower stall. When I left the shower, with my towel wrapped around me, I noticed that someone had drawn a heart on the condensation covering the mirror. But I’m positive that no one else was in the bathroom. I don’t know. I’m probably wrong, it’s obviously an insane thing to think about… But somehow on top of everything else… It threw me off. You know?”
She could tell that I had perked up, as it were, at the mention of the heart on the mirror. My eyebrows had certainly arched at this particular point in the narrative.
“Well,” I said. “There is a certain folkloric resonance in the history of this college – indeed, in the history of this very dorm.”
“What are you talking about?” she said.
I paused for a moment to prepare my narration.
“It is what is popularly called an urban legend – or, given that this is not an urban area, a bucolic legend I suppose. Despite its mythic aspect, it appears to have a basis in an actual event. In 1995, this dormitory nearly burned down. However, the praiseworthy efforts of the local fire department succeeded in containing the fire to the fourth floor. Nonetheless, there was one death, a student named Phil Grout. The legend has it that Phil was a ‘nerd’ who was overcome with lovelornness. He would make overtures to all the girls on the second floor – the dorm floors were still sex-segregated at that time – and would be summarily cast out and rejected. Clearly, he was a man who had not learned to take refuge in hobbies, a favorite subject of mine – one of my ‘soap boxes’ if you will – which I will not risk digressing upon at this time. At any rate, the tale says that he returned home late from a lovesick drinking binge to pass out blacked out in his bed. He apparently lit a cigarette just before doing so. It is somewhat unclear, but it is still widely surmised that an errant ember from this cigarette caused the inferno. All the other students in the dorm were duly evacuated in time, leaving Phil as the sole fatality. This is the point in the story in which the supernatural intrudes into what had previously been a naturalistic narrative. It is said that, in the wake of this tragedy, young women living in this dormitory would experience strange phenomena – a mysterious pinch on the behind, say, or a strange shadow hovering near one’s bedside. And I do recall an anecdote about a love missive drawn on a fogged bathroom mirror.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Stephanie. “Like it’s not bad enough just dealing with normal flesh and blood people trying to fuck you.” She laughed and then placed her hand on her forehead in a gesture of exhaustion and bemused defeat. When she took her hand away, she noticed the Kawasaki Rose. She had been so immersed, as it were, in her private drama that she had not seen the veritable art object laying on my desk.
“That’s beautiful,” she said. “I didn’t know you did origami.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a hobby of mine.” I resisted again, at this moment, the impulse to expound on my hobbies at greater length.
Since it seemed to bring her such delight, I thought for a moment of offering her the rose. But then I reconsidered, given the venerable romantic associations pertaining to the rose. It struck me that she might not take it in the spirit in which it was offered, as a friendly gesture to a fellow appreciator of the craft of origami. If she were, for instance, to develop a romantic attachment to me – in that case, my own equilibrium, so carefully maintained over so many years, would likely become unsettled. So I remained silent and nodded with a certain formality when she murmured again, “It’s really lovely. Wow.”
“So,” I said. “Has this chat been helpful?”
“I mean… Well, it’s been informative, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with the information. So, like, a ghost might be trying to… hit on me or something?”
“Well,” I said, “the problem here is really related to –” I was about to say “the need for hobbies.” But I was worried that, while correct, this statement would come off as too evangelical, too committed to my own ideology and indifferent to the human particularity of her plight.
Uncharacteristically, I fumbled. The proper solution to her problem, or a Socratic line of questioning that would elicit a solution from her, eluded me. I have to admit that I sank a bit in my seat, feeling that I was in uncharted territory. How could I give advice to a young woman in, as I said, the proverbial bloom of youth, whose situation – contending with male suitors, one of whom was possibly supernatural – was foreign and extraneous to my own life circumstances?
I thought for a moment. “Well,” I said, “…who do you like?”
“I… don’t know,” said Stephanie. “Some of these guys seem plausible, but somehow not quite—I don’t know what’s missing. Something that makes you feel at home maybe.”
I nodded. “Origami,” I said, “makes me feel at home.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, maybe I should do origami…” She paused for around thirty seconds, before abruptly rising from her seat and saying, “Anyway, this has been a nice chat!”
I stood and made a slight bow. “Glad I could be of service,” I said, despite the fact that I was probably of very little service. Saying such a thing, when it was manifestly untrue, struck me as uncharacteristic.
When she had left, I returned to my rose, which was almost completed. But a heavy, thick exhaustion was rapidly overtaking me. With the rose not quite finished, I crawled into bed without even undergoing the normal bedtime preparations of toothbrushing, flossing, etc. I fell asleep quickly, immediately, like one who has been drugged with some dark, soul-obscuring opiate.
I had a dream, which proved somewhat unsettling. I was walking down the pathway back to the dormitory, where I planned to finish my Kawasaki Rose, when I noticed it was snowing. Upon closer inspection, what I had first taken for snowflakes were actually rose petals. However, they were not the petals of a healthy flower but were rotting, withered, or riddled with holes. They started to pile up around me, as in a blizzard, so that I could not see the dormitory nor indeed anything but the storm of rotting rose petals. I trudged along as best I could, but the petals were up to my waist, and soon my chest. They were reaching my mouth when I woke up…
The quality of my sleep was such to have altered my perception of time. I could not tell you whether I had slept for twelve hours or – as it turned out – merely five, when a loud knock disturbed my slumbers. Filled with a strange, causeless fear, I pulled myself out of bed and wrenched myself into pajamas, crying out, “I’ll be right there!” The knocking, insistent and urgent, continued.
It was a student, Perry Maylock. “It’s awful!” he said. Tears were running down his cheeks. “Something horrible happened. To Jason. He… Come on, downstairs!” I followed him down the stairs and out to the front of the dormitory, where Jason Waller’s body was lying on the ground. A few other students were standing nearby and, looking up, I noticed that the dorm windows were filled with onlookers.
I also noticed that the screen of Jason’s own window had been torn asunder. Apparently, Jason had fallen through the screen, landing face first on the ground. As I was later to learn, some of his teeth were embedded in the walkway pavement. The EMTs were already there, but the atmosphere was completely somber and still. The only sound was the sobbing of a few girls. I noticed George, standing near the main group, his face pale, drained of blood, and clearly beset with nausea.
At first, I did not see Stephanie. Then, I noticed she was standing outside the dormitory’s front door, alone. She seemed to have just stepped outside. She too, to risk yet another cliché, “looked as if she had seen a ghost.” At that point, the EMTs were already loading Jason’s body into an ambulance. He would not be revived.
Later, whispers rapidly proliferated through the dormitory. They brought the news that Jason, after a long evening of imbibing alcoholic beverages and flirting with the object of his desire at a fraternity, had deflowered Stephanie at some point soon after midnight. He had fallen asleep beside her in her bed, but then, for some obscure and unguessable reason, had gone back to his own room. It was there that he then inadvertently hurled himself with great velocity through his window screen. It is unclear why or how this occurred. There was no suicide note, and it is assumed that this was some sort of bizarre, freak accident, possibly—as one investigator speculated—the result of a particularly unusual case of somnambulism. The notion that Jason had been pushed through the window screen might have been plausible, were it not for the fact that Jason’s room had been locked from the inside. The police questioned George on this matter, since it turned out that George had exchanged words with Jason earlier in the evening. He had attempted to butt into Jason’s conversation with Stephanie, before arguing with Jason, hurling a full beer can against the wall of the fraternity basement and—adding a further dimension of (to my mind) needless self-humiliation—angrily throwing a packaged condom at Jason. The members of this fraternity proceeded to forcibly eject George from the premises. Fortunately for George, the locked room proved exonerating.
After I returned to my room, I sat with the lights off, pressing the heels of my hands into my eyes. I reviewed the events of the evening, including the conversations with George and Stephanie, and the advice I had given. After satisfying myself that these conversations had proceeded in accordance with reason, and that I had offered insights to the best of my ability, I turned on my desk lamp. In another twenty minutes, I had finished folding my rose.
It did briefly occur to me that I had no one to whom I might offer my rose, as a token of either love or friendship. Yet, reflecting upon the night, I felt more vindicated than ever in my commitment to the life of a dedicated hobbyist. I knew that by turning to fresh tasks I would eliminate whatever sadness or, indeed, curious emptiness might linger after my short project’s completion.
I gently inserted the green paper stem into the base of the flower, fixed it to a base, and placed it under a glass lid. It stood there, the Kawasaki Rose: beautiful, pristine, and without a thorn.