The following is an essay I wrote on February 26, 2014. I was somewhat ill with strep throat when I wrote it. I read it aloud on YouTube the day I wrote it. You can listen to the reading here.
“soup and soup and noodles and sumo” (also, “cam’s masturbation”)
by tim rogers
26 february 2014
When I am sick I prefer to suffer alone. I don’t want a relative or a caregiver close by. I don’t want a girlfriend to make me soup.
I realize I’ve never been so ill as to die without constant care. I’m sure in that case I’d appreciate having someone else in the room or the building.
The sickest time of my life was when I had a kidney infection in the summer of 2004. I didn’t have constant care during this period. I got along by myself. At the time I was homeless in Tokyo. I had a good friend my attempts at literature would later name “Funako”. Funako let me use her apartment to do something with my life while she was at work for the greater part of the 2004 calendar year. At this time, I was translating Japanese girls’ comics into English for a small company that DC Comics would later buy. DC Comics would also buy this company’s debt to me, meaning that I’d finally get a paycheck. Funako was letting me squat in her tiny apartment for an entire year before DC Comics had even noticed this little publisher existed.
Most of the work I did in the office corner of Funako’s bedroom-living-room-dining-room happened alongside existential dread. Each task was real, and large. When I finished a script, I proofread it. When I finished proofreading a script, I punched it up. I threaded in jokes. When I felt the script was good enough, I sent it to an editor. The editor replied with immediacy. I replied again, with an invoice. He never replied to the email with the invoice. I emailed a few days later to ask if he’d received the invoice. He replied to tell me they were going to get me paid “any day now”. A month later, I’d mention the invoice I sent the previous month. He’d ask, “Are you sure you sent an invoice?” This went on for a couple of years.
One day I got a kidney infection. I woke up in a girl’s bed in Saitama. I could already feel the kidney infection. I was covered with welts. I was scared they were hickeys. I thought Funako would hate me if she saw the hickeys. This was a bad feeling to finally put into nebulous thought-words mere minutes after realizing I possessed a grave illness. I knew Funako and I weren’t dating. Funako definitely knew she and I weren’t dating. She knew it better than I did: I mean, I was sure she liked me. I let her like me.
The girl had to go to work. She rushed me out of her house. I went to an internet cafe in Ueno. I ate some complimentary fried sesame-ball pastries. My stomach freaked out. I’ve barely been able to look at sweet foods containing sesame since then. My hickey-welts hadn’t faded even by mid-afternoon. I was outside in the summer glow. The sun was hot. My clothes were burning. I walked two miles to Funako’s building. I took the paper plate off the top of the tiny garbage can by Funako’s front door. Right there was a huge dust bunny with a big hard dead cockroach inside it. Funako’s aunt must have dumped it in there. It was a gross thing to look at with that much kidney infection sprinting through my system. I picked the little plastic garbage bin up and shifted the dust bunny to one side. There was Funako’s one house key on the bottom of the garbage can.
I fell asleep in the middle of Funako’s straw mat floor. I don’t remember taking my shirt and jeans off. I didn’t roll out a futon or a blanket. I slept in my boxers, on my back, arms wide. Buckets of sweat left me and entered that floor.
Funako was irate when she got back.
“You know you’re not supposed to be here when I get back!”
“I almost touched a cockroach!”
“You have no idea what sort of prank I thought you were playing on me! I thought you replaced my key with a cockroach! I was thinking, why would he do that? Why would he hate me that much?”
“You left the door unlocked!”
“These tatami mats are sixty years old!”
“You could at least keep your shirt on!”
She had thrown my shirt onto the top of my torso. It landed in such a way as to hide my nipples from the ceiling.
“If you want to stay for dinner you could say something!”
“You’re going to need to at least sit up if you want to stay for dinner.”
“Put your shirt on. Sit up and help me set up the table.”
I didn’t plan to do any of these things. Funako left the room. She made some noise in the kitchen. She came back into the room. She had a stone pot in her hands.
“Are you being serious with me? Are you done joking with me, and are you being serious with me? What is this? Tell me what this is.”
“I think I’m going to die,” I said.
“You’re not going to die.”
I sat up. I felt my blood splash and fall into my pelvis. I felt the hot smoke of my life rise from the middle of my stomach to the top of my throat. Water rushed in front of my eyes.
Funako shrieked. I’d left a ghost of sweat on her floor. That sweat-ghost would be on that floor until, I presume, long after she started to hate me and stopped talking to me.
I just looked up Funako on Facebook. She always hated computers. She worked with computers every day; she had no time for computers in her personal life. Back then, MySpace was her perfect example of everything that was wrong with the world. I looked her up on Facebook three years ago, while I was writing a book in which she is a central character. She wasn’t on Facebook then.
She’s on Facebook now. She has so many privacy features enabled that her “Add Friend” and “Send Message” buttons are invisible. I don’t need to message her to know that it’s definitely her: there’s that old-fashioned, old-world, old-Japanese given name and otherworldly, other-fashioned Japanese surname of hers. She challenged me, once, to ever find another human with either of her real names. This was during one of our first dinners together: “You will never find another person in this country with my first name; you will never find another person outside of my family with my last name.” Now I’m thinking about the day we met. I have so much shame for the day we met and the reason we met. From early on in our friendship Funako loved me, and I was afraid of her loving me. Years passed, and neither of us ended up happy with one another or ourselves.
We’d been confused about one another for just over a year when I had a kidney infection on Funako’s floor. She yelled at me. She told me to sit up and put my shirt on. I didn’t or couldn’t listen. She came into the living-room-bedroom-office-dining-room with a stone pot full of soup in her hands, and also with the expectation that I’d have stopped messing around and put on my shirt and sat up and unfolded the dinner table already. I hadn’t done those things. Only when my eyes rolled open and I saw the stone pot in Funako’s hands did I feel guilty and bad. Funako had made me dinner. Despite her daily warnings that I had to be gone before she got home from work, she was always ready to make me a careful vegetarian dinner and complain to me about the state of pop music while I ate it.
I just barely managed to sit up. Funako went into the kitchen to put the stone pot down on the kitchen counter. I slipped on my polyester button-down dress shirt. I considered the weight of my nausea as I looked at the buttons. A curtain of sweat fell into my eyebrows and crouched. It broke and fell behind my glasses while Funako set the table. She went back into the kitchen. She came back into the dining room with the bowl of vegetable soup. She went back into the kitchen. She came back into the dining room with a plate of buttered, toasted wheat bread. She sat down. She nodded at her food. She spoke a customary word. She looked me in the eye. “Okay?”
I went into the bathroom. I threw up until I couldn’t remember what color shirt I was wearing.
Funako let me sleep in the spare futon alongside her on her bedroom floor, on the condition that I wear a shirt and cover myself with a blanket. The heat of that summer was a living legend. Somewhere between the molten core of my body and the hornet sting of the summer air in that stuffy room whose windows looked out on concrete walls an arm’s length away, a shell of cold glaze materialized and was a palpable ghost. I wanted so badly to take my shirt off, or to lie atop the futon blanket. I wanted so badly for it to be raining hard outside. So I remember this moment, and I take this sensation with me; I’ve carried it for a decade whenever I consider illness, and I’m certain (today) that I’ll carry it for the rest of my life: the back of my right forearm touching my forehead, the sweat of each surface buttering the other, a phantom the temperature of ice in the back of my throat, my eyes sliding open, my skull falling to the left, and my eyes meeting Funako’s, wide open, her lips pursed in concern. I slid backward into another fever dream just then — I was in an instant with a friend who was dead, and she and I were rushing to an arena in Yokohama in this same mutt dog of a heat, feverish about the possibility of making it in time to see our favorite band reunited For One Night Only. We needed to hurry. The light changed at an intersection. I dashed into the street. I realized I’d lost her. I spun around. I could feel hot vomit and orange juice in my throat and sweat all over my eyeballs. I realized I’d lost her. Then I realized she was behind me again. She slipped up behind me and slid a short knife between two of my ribs without a word. She murdered me without a catchphrase of any literary significance. This was a dream ending from which you’d suppose you’d wake with a shriek; in my state, I woke with a crack in the back of my throat and a deep exhale and a hot settlement in the front of my nostrils.
Two days later, Funako’s criticisms of my illness came to resemble her criticisms of my career.
“You need to do something; you need to get up and do something.”
I’d be dying on her floor for two of her workdays and two of her weeknights.
The second night, my fever dream was horrifying. I was drifting in and out of sleep with such ferocious epilepsy, my consciousness rubber-ball-bouncing between two states with such urgency, that it was only natural when I began to feel a realer-than-real sensation that my body and bones and skin were melting into a puddle. I found my tiny, old, prepaid cellular phone under my pillow. One thing about phones, back in those days, is that they sure held their battery charge. I hadn’t plugged the thing in in weeks and it was still at eighty percent. I composed a text to Rina — the girl I’d been with the night before I woke up suffering from my kidney infection. I told her, “I don’t have much in this world, though I want you to know that if I die, it’s all yours. Some publishers owe me something like fifty thousand US Dollars. They’re going to have to pay me sooner or later. I want you to know that if I die in the next few days, it’s yours. This is my friend Drew’s phone number. Get in touch with him if you don’t hear from me in forty-eight hours. Hopefully, if I’m about to die, one of the last things I’ll do is email Drew my email password. I’d get up and change my email password to something I’m comfortable sharing while alive, though I literally have not the energy to stand up, much less approach a computer. I apologize if it sounds like I am being theatrical: I am not being theatrical. I literally am mindful of my own death, right now.”
This is when I thought about The Green-Haired Girl. I’d met her for not a second in her shop in Koenji a year earlier. She’d asked me, “Have we met before?” I replied immediately: “No.” I was burning up with a fever; I was wondering what would have happened if I’d said “Yes”. I was lying on my back, breathing in hot air and breathing out hotter air, fantasizing that that small woman with the quirky hair color and the excellent taste in pastel colors could possibly already be my best friend in the universe. This is a sort of shame that I or most people won’t admit to in casual conversation with even the best of their friends more than zero times in their lives: sometimes, I fantasize about what it would be like to be best friends with a person I’ve barely met. Illness, to me, is an occasion to languish inside such feelings until the feelings become real urges: at the tail-end of my fever, I’d find The Green-Haired Girl on mixi — Japan’s then-time Facebook contender — and I’d visit her profile enough times for her to see me in her “visitors” section and visit me back. She’d message me, asking, “Have we met before?” This time, literally, I would reply with “Yes”. Not six months later, The Green-Haired Girl and I would be the best friends in the world. It would be the best friendship I’ve ever had with anyone. Now that I am on the verge of being thirty-five years old, I can understand that it was probably the greatest friendship I will ever have with anyone.
This was a fever dream. It was a fever wish. For long enough, as I melted in and out of substance and ethereality that dark, hot, night, I fever-wished that fever wish with such intensity that it blossomed into a fever-eventuality. When the fever ended and I in fact did not die, my tiny seed of a plan to visit The Green-Haired Girl’s page on mixi went like clockwork. We did in fact become best friends. I remember that friendship every day. That best-friendship has a tremendous dark side to it. It is sad and lovely to think of that tremendous dark side. It will be so sad and lovely until the end of my life.
The third morning of my kidney infection, Funako called a taxi. I could hear her talking to the taxi driver in her kitchen. It was not yet seven in the AM. I was yet feverish, and nauseous, and sweating, and broken-brained. For all I could tell, Funako was talking to the police.
“He’s very sick,” she was saying. “I’m scared. No, I’m scared for him. You’ll need to be understanding. I’ll need to apologize in advance.”
I’m not a big enough jerk to have resisted Funako’s instructions to walk downstairs and wait for the taxi. She waited alongside me in her pajama sweatpants. She had a wad of ten-thousand-yen bills in her hands. I sat down in the perfect taxi and heaved a sweaty sigh that resounded of vomit-bubbles. At the last second, Funako stuffed the bills into her pocket. She got into the taxi alongside me.
“We need to go to Asakusa Memorial Hospital, please. To the emergency room.”
Asakusa Memorial Hospital is a perfect cube. It’s perfectly clean. I’d been here a year before — Funako took me to get my ears drained because I was going deaf from an ear infection, and also throwing up pink fluid. I barely remember that experience. However, I remember that the doctor was the same old bushy-eyebrowed Japanese dude who’d talked me through the kidney infection.
The doctor took my temperature. He drew blood. He took a urine sample. He folded his hands on his knee.
“Look,” he said.
“What?” I couldn’t even look the guy in the eye. My brain was in space.
“You have a fever of 41.1 degrees celsius.”
“Okay,” I said.
Funako gasped. She covered her mouth. I now realized that Funako was in the room with me.
“That comes out to roughly 105.98 degrees Fahrenheit,” the doctor said. “You are a hair below hyperpyrexia.”
“Oh,” I said.
“What I’m saying is, you are on the cusp of the absolute limit of acceptable human body temperatures. If you let this go another twenty-four hours, you might suffer irreversible brain damage. Or worse: you could die.”
“Well, I didn’t die,” I said. I immediately regretted saying that. I’m thinking about saying that right now, and I feel stupid for having said it. I could have phrased it differently. I could have said, “Thank goodness I came to the hospital before it was too late”. No, that diminishes Funako’s involvement. I could have said, “Thank goodness my dear friend took me to the hospital before it was too late!” I’d have needed that exclamation point. This was impossible for me to say, back in those days, because I was a jerk and I didn’t care for Funako nearly as much as I now care for her in retrospect.
The doctor narrowed his big eyebrows.
Funako clenched her lips and blew golfballs of air out of her nose. Without words, Funako was calling me an ingrate, and the doctor was calling me a ne’er-do-well: where were they getting these old words?
“You have a kidney infection,” the doctor said. “This likely started as a urinary tract infection–”
“Ew,” Funako said.
“You might have worn the same pair of underwear too many days in a row, or–”
The doctor’s lips wrestled a moment. I watched his big pompadour of salt-and-pepper hair tumble for a barely-perceptible instant. With my fever, everything was moving like water in a Hayao Miyazaki cartoon.
“The point is, we need to start you on medicine immediately. I’m having your prescription brought to this examination room so as to speed up the process of delivering the medicine to your system.”
A nurse knuckle-rapped on the door.
“Come in,” the doctor said.
“You wanted this medicine brought to this examination room, doctor?” the nurse said.
The doctor took the medicine. He handed the medicine to me. I dropped the medicine. Funako picked up the medicine.
“Take one of those with a meal twice a day.”
The doctor rotated his chair around. He rotated back to face me. He had a banana in his hand.
“This is a banana. Consider this your first meal of the day.”
Funako had extracted a pill. The doctor handed me a glass of water. I took the pill. I took a bite of the banana. I watched these two older people stare at me. I could feel their stares. I didn’t know then that I was feeling the future: I was feeling the judgments I would later pass on to my philosophical descendents. Older people are right about more things than young people are ever right about.
Funako’s eyes were wide and glassy and quivering. She looked so tired. Worrying about me all night had made her tired. Funako loved me as much as anyone ever has. In silence and without shame, I seized every opportunity to prohibit her from liking the experience of loving me. I was horrible to her. I remembered Rina just then; I remembered my fantasy that I would contact The Green-Haired Girl. My soul was made of garbage: I knew that I’d built a dark sandcastle rampart of mistrust between myself and Funako. Time would make her hate me more than anyone ever has. I didn’t want to fix anything. Rather than accept that Rome wasn’t built in a day, I was ready to sail off for fresh ground and try to build a new Rome on a new day.
“Alright, you two go on and get out of here,” the doctor said, when the banana was inside me.
“Where do we –” Funako started to say.
“This one’s on us.” He pointed an index finger at me. “Next time you’re in here, you bring an insurance card.” That was his way of telling me to get a job.
“That doctor was amazing,” Funako said when we were in the taxi. “The thing he did with the medicine and the banana. He was like a cop in a TV show.”
“He was like a detective in a movie,” I said.
“He was like a boxing coach in a stage play.”
Funako nudged me with her elbow. “You’re going to feel better. Hey, sleep it off while I’m at work. Don’t forget to eat. I have bananas.”
I felt mostly better in six hours. Whatever was in those pills had probably also helped Japan defeat Godzilla in 1954. I checked my email. It turned out that the publishers of the comics I’d been translating were in the middle of being bought out. They’d sent a check for fifty thousand dollars to my dad’s address in Indiana. I didn’t have a bank account. My dad wanted to know what I wanted him to do with my money.
Now I wondered: was I healed, or was I dead? I visited The Green-Haired Girl’s mixi profile. She visited mine. She messaged me. She sent me a message. She asked if we’d met before. I immediately replied: I said that we had. Now I knew that I was definitely dead.
It turns out I wasn’t dead. I’m still not. I was twenty-five then. I’m now just about thirty-five years old.
When I was twenty-seven-and-a-half years old and The Green-Haired Girl was my best friend, I became sick again.
I had a job at this time. Funako had realized I was a hateful jerk. She had disappeared from my life. So had the girlfriend who had made Funako realize I was a hateful jerk. Now I had a job and a nice apartment in Minami-Senju, and a weird, beautiful, interesting, impish, genius of a best friend in The Green-Haired Girl.
I’m not sure what the illness was. It was nothing major. It was definitely a flu of some kind. It’s one of the three illnesses that stands out in my mind as formative to my experience living in Japan for a decade. The first one was my awful ear infection of 2003. The second was my kidney infection in the too-hot late summer of 2004. This third one was my nondescript nauseated, high-fevered flu of 2007.
I had a job at Sony Computer Entertainment at this time. My job at Sony was such that if I was a minute late more than twice in a month, I forfeited half of that day’s salary. If I was a minute late more than three times in a month, I forfeited half of the month’s salary. This was harsh. This scared all of the employees in my section (and other similar sections) into showing up to work a minimum of an hour early. Some people showed up four hours early. Some people stayed all night because of that fear of losing their salary.
I worked a whole week despite that psychedelic fever. One thing you might not know about me is that I have a heck of a work ethic. It’s one thing I try not to brag about. I was grateful for my job and for the paychecks. That job transformed me from a bum (with a good amount in my savings account) to a respectable participant in Japanese society. As a grateful participant in society and economy, I did not want to miss work. Besides, my duties there were easy enough that I could do them in my sleep, so why not do them with a fever?
That week of work destroyed me.
I was supposed to go see a band with The Green-Haired Girl that Friday night. I couldn’t do it. I texted her to say that I wouldn’t be able to make it. She asked why not. I said I was sick. She asked what my symptoms were. My reply was “I’ve been sick all week.”
I went home. I went to bed. This was in the springtime. I had the typhoon shutter up and the veranda door wide open. I was on the first floor. There was a karaoke bar across the narrow street. A cat was meowing and digging in the gravel in the lot behind my little building. This was a building with four units — two on each of its two floors. I was asleep inside a delicious breeze with a horrible fever and a torrent of nausea.
The Green-Haired Girl rang my doorbell at after one in the morning. I answered the door looking probably like a zombie. I was topless in boxers. The Green-Haired Girl averted her eyes from every part of my skin. I asked her what she was doing there. She had a big paper bag of groceries.
“I’ve come to make soup.”
“I don’t know if I can eat soup,” I said.
“I’m going to make soup. If you don’t want some I will eat it all.”
I fell asleep again. The Green-Haired Girl was in the kitchen making soup in my stone pot on the single burner of my stove when I got up to vomit into the toilet.
“Are you feeling better?”
“Do you have a fever?”
“Feel your forehead for me.”
I felt my own forehead.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure it’s hot.”
“I mean, like, maybe your hand is hot.”
“My hand is hot and my forehead is also hot. Do you want to feel it?”
She looked at the center of my neck. She bit her lips together.
“Look, you don’t have to be here,” I started to say.
“I know,” she said. “I’m here because I want to help you.”
“Well — I mean — what I mean is that I’d seriously rather be alone.”
“I’m sure you mean that,” The Green-Haired Girl said. She gave a chirpy little smile. The smile disappeared. “Just as surely, I mean that I am happy to be here — and just as surely, I mean that I want to be here.”
I took a breath deep enough to cause a quiver in my stomach.
“I’m going to go back to sleep.”
“The soup will be ready in a little while,” The Green-Haired Girl said. “If you’d like to eat some, I’ll place it by your pillow. I’m being careful to go light on the seasonings, so that the scent of the soup does not further nauseate you. You don’t even need to eat it. It has healing powers which transcend the prerequisite of digestion.”
She gave a little smile.
I immediately appreciated her thoughtfulness, despite the melting haze of my fever. Here was a tiny woman with a Care Bear’s head sewn onto the back of her jean jacket, with a big bun of dark green hair, who stank of the cigarette-smoke density of a late-night Japanese rock and roll music club, being ready for subtlety.
I laid in my futon on the floor. I closed my eyes. I felt my cold sweat. I felt the cool breeze through the open window. I smelled orange-juicy acid in my throat. I heard cars passing on a road a block away. I bathed in the white noise of boiling water and chopping vegetables.
I fell back asleep. When I woke up, a big stone bowl of soup was lying inches from my face. I looked it over. I smelled it. I picked up the wooden spoon. I ate a spoonful. I could feel magma vibrating in my digestive system. The karaoke bar outside was still bubbling. The cat was still in heat. I groaned. I looked at The Green-Haired Girl. She was sitting on my sofa in her pink footy pajamas with strawberries printed all over them. She had her fancy new cellular phone plugged into the wall outlet. She had her back against the arm of the sofa. Her phone lit up her tiny face. She was typing a text in the darkness of the living room. She didn’t see me being awake. She was running a business while I failed to eat soup.
I fell back asleep.
A day later, The Green-Haired Girl was still in my house. She was still in her pink footy pajamas. She was still beautiful; she was still my best friend. She was still running her business on the sofa. She had dumped the remains of one bowl of her special lightly seasoned soup and had prepared me another from the great stone pot in the kitchen. It was Saturday night. She had a party to go to; she didn’t go. She sent her assistants to represent her fashion brand so that she could watch me do nothing. I felt horrible for her. I didn’t want someone to sit there and see me be the worst and most boring person anyone could ever want to see do anything.
I’m sick today, as I write this. I haven’t been sick in a while. I’ve had one significant sickness here in Oakland, California. I spent it taking showers, drinking alcohol-free NyQuil, eating Progresso Minestrone, drinking lemonade-flavored Vitamin Water Zero, and watching the just-released Netflix Original Series “House of Cards”, which stars Kevin Spacey delivering his lines in a cartoon southern accent.
During that significant sickness, I also remembered this moment in that spring of 2007, when The Green-Haired Girl was in my house on a Saturday night when I would rather have been alone, when I’d told her I’d rather be alone.
I think of this moment every time I ever consider sickness — either belonging to me or belonging to others — and the consideration of this moment makes me remember that I failed to build Rome in a day with The Green-Haired Girl, and that now she is as much of a ghost to me as so many other people.
Here’s the moment I remember. It’s the reason I started writing this. I’ve had it in my head forever. I feel like I won’t be able to get it out even by writing about it. I don’t necessarily want to get it out of my head. Let’s see if I can find out what I want, by writing about it:
I woke up in the middle of the night. The curtain was open. The veranda door was open. The typhoon shutter was up. Some patrons of the karaoke bar were mumbling and urinating in the street. The karaoke bar didn’t have a bathroom. A cat was meowing and digging in the gravel of the lot behind my building. A bowl of warm vegetable soup sat on the floor by my pillow. My stomach felt like a stab wound. My throat was all lumps. My face was wet with a cold sweat. My lips were paper-dry. Something was pulling me by the feet into healthy consciousness. Maybe it was the soup I wasn’t eating? Maybe, as The Green-Haired Girl had insinuated, it had healing powers which transcended the prerequisite for digestion? I felt magma and rocks tumbling in my stomach again. I thought of all the rock stars who had died at age twenty-seven. I thought about how I had started seriously trying to learn how to play the guitar on my twenty-seventh birthday. I thought about all the rock stars who had died because they’d vomited while sleeping on their back. I didn’t want to drown in my own vomit: I’d only just started playing the guitar.
I rolled onto my left side. My apartment was small. My “bedroom” was the far wall, against which I situated my futon, which I rolled up in the morning, turning the area into a guitar rehearsal zone. Half of the room was a “living room”, which included a sofa, a coffee table, and a forty-inch high-definition television, which had cost magnitudes more in 2007 than it would cost now.
A hard rain began to fall. I’d say it began to fall “out of nowhere”, though something about that moment told me the truth: rain always falls out of somewhere.
I saw The Green-Haired Girl sitting on my sofa. She was still wearing her pink strawberry-patterned footy pajamas. She was facing the television. Her knees were pulled up to her chest. The television was on. The television volume was at zero. The television was lighting her up. On the coffee table in front of her was her phone. Her phone’s power adapter was plugged in. The phone was chained to the wall. The Green-Haired Girl was asleep. On her knees was a big styrofoam bowl of instant noodles, with chopsticks tucked under the foil-paper lid. On the television was sumo highlights: it was the time of the big tournament in Ryogoku. It was the season of beautiful weather and late-night sumo replays. I realize now what an honor it was to live through peaceful seasons like that. The hard rain fell; its white noise blended everything into silence.
The Green-Haired Girl’s phone buzzed on the table. She awoke with a microscopic start. She gripped the noodle bowl. She slipped her feet off of the sofa. She put her feet onto the ground. She balanced the noodle bowl in her lap. She picked up her phone. She hammered out a text. She clicked the phone shut. She put the phone down onto the table. She gripped the noodle bowl. She lifted it up to face level. She kicked her knees up together. She slid back into the sofa. She put her feet flat on the sofa. She peeled back the foil-paper lid of the noodle bowl. She commanded the chopsticks. She dug in. She extracted a chunk of noodle-flesh. She popped it into her mouth. She had her eyes on the sumo replays inside the television. It was the scoreboard. She was eyeing the standings. She cared a lot about sumo. We talked about sumo a lot. We talked about it being the perfect sport. I felt good — and also like a voyeur — to glimpse her actually caring about sumo. She hadn’t been pretending to care. I loved knowing that. I felt good knowing that. She was my best friend.
She knew I hate eating sounds. She knew I could barely stand to hear myself eat — I still can’t. I have to listen to music or watch television every time I eat, or I’ll go insane. Hearing myself eat is worse than hearing other people eat, because the sound is inside my head. She knew that the food I most hated to hear others eat was an apple. She knew my second-most hated food to hear people eat was a banana, though only if they were breathing through their nose while eating it and also if they had a clicking jaw. She knew that noodle-slurping was my third-most-hated food-eating sound.
She had never, ever eaten food in front of me. We’d be best friends for years, and I’d never see her eat anything aside from this one time, this one night.
She sucked the noodles into her mouth with slow precision. It was amazing to see, given her history of hiding food-ingestion from me. It was like watching a muppet swallow cookies instead of crash them into crumbs.
Here’s the moment I remember: this memory occupies a tiny fragment of the time I will ultimately have spent on earth. Yet in repetition, that fragment grows huge: as the noodles entered her mouth, her eyes darted to the right, diving immediately into full contact with my eyes. Her eyes quizzed mine for a scarce moment.
The Green-Haired Girl knew that I sleep with my eyes open.
Now on the verge of the age of thirty-five, I have figured out a system: I keep two eye masks and a hair dryer by my bed. The eye masks are cotton. I get them at Muji in San Francisco. I wear eye masks because I sleep with my eyes open, and it helps deepen my sleep to have my eyes covered. I didn’t need eye masks in my apartment in Minami Senju, because I had a typhoon shutter, which kept my room perfectly dark.
These days, I have a prostate problem, so I have to wake up ten or so times a night to urinate. At these times, I take off my eye mask and switch it for the other eye mask.
I don’t have a tear duct in my right eye. (I was in a car accident when I was four years old.) My right eye waters all night. It’s uncomfortable to sleep with a wet eye mask. That’s why I switch to the other one in the middle of the night.
In the event that I wake up to urinate and find that the starting eye mask is still wet, I use the blow dryer to dry it. I put it back on, and I go back to sleep. I’m convinced I’ll live with some variety of this system for the rest of my life.
That night in 2007, The Green-Haired Girl stared into my eyes for not one second. She was asking me, without words, if I was awake, or if I was sleeping. All I had to do was not blink. By not blinking during that silent second, I convinced her I was asleep. She trusted that I was asleep. She looked away. She looked back to the sumo highlights. Her phone buzzed again. She answered another text. She put another ball of noodle into her mouth. She looked into my eyes again: the exact same moment repeated. This repeated fever-reality was mysterious punctuation between two fever dreams. I’d wake up feeling better: I’d wake up never able to forget the two moments that, today, are fused into one.
With a loud soul, in those seconds I observed thousands of sequential photographs which proved her care for me. My heart was alive with phrases such as “love under glass”, and other phrases such as “picture frame”, which made less poetry.
The Green-Haired Girl loved me. I loved The Green-Haired Girl. I think of her whenever I think of illness — either belonging to me or to someone else — or death — either mine or someone else’s. In my memories, she is the most important person to ever have lived. There she is in a lousy hour. There’s everyone. There’s me and everyone, failing to build Rome in a day. This is why I’d rather be sick alone.
I will close this piece with the following anecdote.
In 1993, when I was mute and obese and thirteen, my mother turned me in to friendship with her friend’s son and his brother. We were looking at a preview of Super Metroid in Electronic Gaming Monthly. My friend and his little brother were drawing fan art. They were drawing Samus Aran in her cool robot suit. The older son — My Friend — was talking about sex. He was doing this because his parents weren’t around. They’d gone to Taco Bell to get food for us.
“Hey Evan,” my friend said. His brother’s name was Evan. Evan is a comic book artist, now. “Did you tell him about Cam’s Masturbation?”
He made it sound like some scientific theory. He also made it sound like his brother was in charge of telling me things. He also made it sound like Cam’s Masturbation was the sort of thing that I had always needed to know about.
“There’s this speddo who was in Evan’s kindergarten class. They put him in special ed later. His name was Cameron. They called him Cam. He was a real sped! Tell him about what Cam did, Evan?”
Evan shrugged. My friend rolled his eyes. He continued.
“The teacher was asking all the kids, hey, what do you like to do when you’re at home? And kids were like I like painting or I like playing with blocks and they got to Cam. The teacher was like, Cam, what do you like doing when you’re at home? And Cam just reached right for his junk and started beating it, like this.”
Here my friend stood up and beat the dull side of his fist into the top of his jeans’ pubic region.
“Except he went under the pants, like, he actually grabbed onto his wiener. Can you believe that!”
I was thirteen years old, and I could believe it. I could believe many things.
I’ve carried this anecdote inside my brain ever since then. It bubbles into my conscious mind whenever I am sick, lying in bed with a fever and shower-wet hair and a stomach full of minestrone and alcohol-free NyQuil and the peace of knowing I have informed my associates I will be off the grid all day tomorrow and the readiness to sleep for twenty hours, thinking about Funako calling the taxi and The Green-Haired Girl eating noodles and watching sumo. I am sleepy and full of soup and remembering soup, soup, soup with noodles, sumo, the white noise of a hard rain, and Cam’s Masturbation. These things weave together and apart like a fever dream, between actual fever dreams. Alone and sick, I am ashamed of myself and I am ashamed for others. I will not build Rome in a day during any one of the weeks to come in my life. I will die someday in silence. I have known love, and I own love, and I possess beautiful memories of people and weather, and I will keep them, and I will look at them from time-to-time whenever it pleases me, or whenever I am tired enough, or whenever the world is quiet enough. Goodnight.