This is an essay I wrote, which I titled “should you see blood on the last day of travel”, based on a translation of a sentence someone spoke to me a few hours before I got on a train to an airport, where I would board a plane back home. At the time I heard the sentence, it was in another language, and it did not strike me as an interesting group of words. On a train to the airport, with a view of a skyscraping, godly, white tower looking over the city of Tokyo, I recalled the sentence, translated it, and felt immediately, again, aware of that darkness we will never understand. I can’t expect you to understand, right now, what darkness it is I will soon be in the process of saying we will never understand. I only want you to know that the title of this piece represents a little sleepy thought that moved me as I sat on a high-speed train at the sun-hot height of a sleep-deprived Sunday early afternoon far away from home, pointed at last toward home.
I had been on a two-week business trip to Japan.
Two days before I left for a two-week business trip to Japan, I became sad about a particular thing. I am not going to talk about that particular thing. I am going to talk about many other things. It is not my explicit intention that the many other things I talk about triangulate the location of the other particular thing.
Chapter One: “Just A Minute”
LinkedIn Dot Com sent me an email in early 2013. The email said “Congratulations”: my profile on that particular job search website was one of the top ten percent most-viewed profiles on that particular website in all of 2012. The flattery felt like horror. A less realistic individual could spin this notification into an optimism: people are interested in me. At my most natural, I can guess that everyone looking at my profile, like me, simply wants to discern what it is exactly that I do for a living.
I had jury duty the day before I left for my two-week business trip to Japan. I got to the courthouse on time. I filled out the paperwork with speed. The final blank remaining was “occupation”. I hesitated for a minute that felt like a half an hour. I wrote “CEO”.
It’s true: all you have to do is fill out a sheet of paper and fax it to the city of Sacramento, along with a check for something like eight hundred dollars, and you’re a CEO in so much as you can write “CEO” in the “occupation” blank of a government form and the FBI isn’t going to chew you out about it.
It still didn’t feel right: maybe it didn’t feel right because, four days before this, I’d sat through what might have been the defining moment of my adult life.
Here it was: three days before the defining moment of my adult life, I received an email from an executive recruiter. The recruiter’s client was looking for a CEO for a technology start-up located in the San Francisco Bay Area — probably in San Francisco. This recruiter said he had my resume and thought I would be “a good fit”. I looked myself up and down, in my mind’s eye, when he said I’d be “a good fit”. I imagined the office: a stark white-walled room with oak floors and only a single desk, at which a single androgynous individual sat, staring at three monitors, while thirty or so other androgynous individuals in outfits resembling a cross between an Adidas track suit and a Starfleet uniform stood, arms crossed, silent. I imagined a company full of employees who had all, of their own accord, devoted themselves into a nonalcoholic lifestyle of almond-butter subsistence.
The first recruiter mail wasn’t the last. A different recruiter emailed me two hours later. A third email came an hour after that. They each said I was “a good fit”.
The next day, six more recruitment mails came. All of them were hiring for “an executive position”.
I didn’t answer any of these emails.
On the third day, the first recruiter acquired persistence. He emailed me four more times, saying that this was an opportunity I should have an interest in. He mentioned “other” opportunities which had no doubt approached me. He said that his was the opportunity I should focus on. So I replied to one of his emails. I said, “I’m sorry for not getting back to you sooner. I could do a call at one PM Pacific today.” He replied to tell me that one-thirty PM Pacific was better. Like me, he’d spelled the numbers out. Maybe I’d had a subtle effect on him.
One-thirty PM lurked nearby. I put on my telephone headphones, dialed the recruiter’s number, grabbed my mailbox key, and stepped outside.
I checked my mailbox as the phone rang. Inside was a 23andMe DNA sample kit. I’d been waiting for that: I’d be sure to take it inside later, dribble my saliva into the enclosed test-tube, and drop it in the nearest mailbox before four PM. I was well on my way to knowing to what diseases I am most susceptible. I was mere weeks away from having a clearer idea of what cancer flavor was my by-destiny favorite.
My apartment building has an outdoor basketball court next to its parking lot. Kids of all ages and adults of young ages are playing basketball there at any sunlit hour of any usual day. It was overcast. No one was playing. I sat on a wooden bench. I held my 23andMe DNA sample kit box in my right hand. I balanced it on my knee. I held my old iPhone 4 in my left hand. I was sitting there with my big helicopter commander headphones on. The microphone was in front of my mouth. The phone was ringing. It was ringing in my ears. I exhaled into the microphone. I could hear my breath.
The phone clicked.
“He-llo,” said the voice on the other end. His was a voice that knew how to talk to people.
“Hi,” I said. I stated my name. “We had a call scheduled for one-thirty PM.”
“Ah, right, right,” he said. He hesitated. He made a hesitation vocalization that indicated to me that he almost always backs into parking spaces. “I’m — I’m just pulling up your resume.”
“I’ll — so you’re . . .”
He said my name.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
Darkness seeped into his voice.
“Is something the matter?” I asked.
A large, tall kid came into the basketball court. He had a basketball in his hands. He was wearing an Oakland A’s baseball cap. He walked up to the free throw line. He threw the ball. It jammed against the rim and bounced back directly into his fingers. He looked at the ball for a second. He looked at his feet. He walked over toward the bench corresponding to the opposite goal. His bench was my bench’s opponent.
“Nothing — nothing. Hey.”
“I’m having some trouble pulling up your resume. Can I call you back in a minute?”
“Sure thing,” I said.
“It’ll be just a minute,” the recruiter said.
“Just a minute,” I said. “Sure.”
“Just a minute. Hold tight over there, okay?”
I looked at the brown cardboard box containing my 23andMe DNA sample kit.
“Holding tight,” I said, as he hung up.
The kid on the other bench sat and stared at the basketball between his fingertips for ten consecutive minutes. I stared at this kid for almost the entire ten minutes. The weather was my favorite kind of weather. I’d call it “benevolently overcast”. The temperature was perfect. Autumn was on its way to Oakland, California, a city of perpetual autumn.
The kid bounced his basketball once against the pavement between his feet. The sound awakened me. I remembered that I was holding a cardboard box containing a DNA sample kit that, if I filled it and submitted it, would tell me what diseases I might die from, and I was also wearing headphones that made me look like a helicopter pilot, and that I was also wearing my pajamas, and that I was waiting for a phone call from a man trying to offer me a high-ranking job in a technology company whose identity was a mystery, and that the phone in my hand was a thing that, ten years earlier, I would have only been able to believe as an artifact in a cyberpunk novel.
I flipped the phone over. I checked my email. I had two emails. One was from a recruiter I hadn’t talked to yet. The other was from the recruiter who told me he’d call me back in “Just a minute”.
“It turns out I had a resume from someone else with the same first name as you,” it read.
The next sentence chilled me: “Why don’t you send over your resume and I’ll see if I have anything for you?”
At the nanosecond my eyes axe-fell unto the dot beneath the question mark at the end of that sentence, the kid dribbled his basketball one more time against the pavement.
The kid got up. Alone, I watched him walk away. He turned a corner and was gone.
Weeks later, I am able to connect the gavel-thunder of that basketball thump to the exact instant The Sadness Which Will Never Leave entered my soul.
Two weeks later, I would experience a life-changing moment of darkness and silence.
Chapter Two: “Tower Beholding Tower”
Two weeks after my recruiter meeting and two days after my life-changing moment of sadness, my best friend Maiko and I went to the top of the Tokyo Sky Tree, currently the tallest tower in the world.
Tokyo Sky Tree had been on my mind since before I arrived in the country, nine days earlier. When I left Japan three years earlier, after living in the country for nine years, Tokyo Sky Tree still felt like a rumor. During what would become my last trip to the Sumida Ward, in May of 2010, I was surprised to see the skeleton of the tower, completed up to its first landing. The steel stump stood tall over the city. It was a powerful sight. Somehow, it frightened me. Then again, stopped escalators frighten me: they can only ever die in one position, and I’ve seen a video on YouTube of the world’s tallest escalator during a stoppage in its central moving section. The terror of the riders is thick and silent.
On my first day in Japan in 2013, nine days before I would ascend to the top of the Tokyo Sky Tree, I could see the tower between buildings from the Narita Express window as the train neared Tokyo. It was already night. The tower gleamed with counter-clockwise, upward-spiraling waves of champagne-colored illumination. I allowed myself a tiny gasp when I first glimpsed it. The tower was finished. This place that had once been my home had moved on without me.
I’d wanted to purchase a ticket online, though a few minutes of internet research revealed that Tokyo Sky Tree only accepts credit cards issued in Japan. I hadn’t even had one of those during my many years as a legal resident in Japan — not that I hadn’t applied several times. Though my research in the tower was at first purely to the purpose of purchasing tickets, somehow I ended up reading foreign tourists’ “reviews” of the tower. A recurring sentiment was that the lines were too long and that it wasn’t worth the wait. Many reviews pointed out that you can save 2,000 yen by going to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which is of similar height and has a similar view. The more of these reviews I read, the older and more tired I felt. One review implored me, the person reading it, “Please, if you’re reading this — please! Just go to Tokyo Tower instead.”
I told Maiko about this review, and it confused her as much as it confused me. The review-writer’s purpose had been to inform us that the lines were shorter and the experience was smoother overall at Tokyo Tower.
My theory was that the person writing that review only had time to visit one tower during their stay in Tokyo, and ended up visiting both anyway. Maiko asked me if I’d been to Tokyo Tower.
“I’ve been to Tokyo Tower. I need to go to the bigger tower. This tower is 100 meters taller than the very top of Tokyo Tower. That’s a whole thirty-three percent more tower.”
We discussed meeting at the tower at eight in the morning, immediately as it opened. We decided that would be a silly idea. We met at the tower at ten. Meeting at eight hadn’t been a silly idea after all. We stood in a brief line and received a ticket that entitled us to purchase an actual ticket at twelve-thirty. We killed two hours in the nice shopping mall attached to the base of the tower.
Tokyo Tower doesn’t have a shopping mall in its base, I tell you what.
Maiko wanted to eat some noodles, so she bought some udon. I alternately watched her eat udon and talked about whatever nonsense it is I talk about to people I’ve known for ten years.
I first met Maiko at a party in 2003.
My friend Kazue had invited me to the party. Kazue was an artist. I’d met Kazue in 2002 at a dormitory for kooks where she and I had both been renting beds in coffin-sized capsules. Kazue had more money than I did, for whatever the reason, and she’d been renting the space next door to build a mockup art gallery for the purpose of planning her next exhibition. Kazue’s art was neat and cute. Kazue was a neat and cute person. Over a period of three ice-cold months, she and I had huddled indoors, eaten many omelettes, and learned every detail of the other’s life. I’ve never talked with such reciprocal speed as I did with Kazue. We were each alive with the other’s desperation. My life had crumbled two weeks before I met her. She’s the only person to date I’ve ever given my email password. I gave it to her so she could spelunk into the depths of the email conversations I’d had leading up to my life-crumble, while I slept off the disease that had been ailing me. My friend Murasaki had killed herself just two weeks before I found myself in that dormitory. Before killing herself, Murasaki exacted a bizarre prank on me — one I can’t help remembering in its full, sad, molasses-slow realization at least twice every day of my life since. I thank her and I hate her, every day, for giving me that sort of history. To think — the day Murasaki had killed herself, I’d made a decision: I’d go back to America, I’d go to law school, I’d get back together with my old girlfriend . . . I was going to do everything right. I knew what to do. I finally knew who I was. And then less than an hour later it was over. Two weeks later, it was even more over. I needed someone to know what I was feeling, and Kazue was there, and she was real, and she herself was very sad, and so she and I poisoned and healed each other in a spiral for three cold months.
Kazue was still living in the dormitory when I went back to America to try to do something with myself.
The something I ended up trying to do with myself ended with my coming back to Japan. I saw Kazue only three more times after that. The first time, she introduced me to some friends of hers who were looking for a singer for their band. Their band sucked at playing music I liked about as much as I sucked at singing along to the music they liked. The third time, she and I had dinner, and she appeared terribly sad. What would have been the fourth time was: I went to an art gallery exhibition of hers on the day after the opening night party I’d missed due to my work with Sony. She’d said she’d be there. She wasn’t there. The second time I saw Kazue after returning to Japan (after leaving Japan and Kazue) was the party she’d invited me to. It was a party at someone’s house in Takadanobaba. I had to walk a mile from the station, away from the bright lights of a university town full of bars and toward the fluorescent and concrete of residential Tokyo. Kazue was one of the five people closest to the door. She said hello to me. She hugged me, touching her wineglass to my back. She was as neat and cute and clean as ever. She introduced me to two of her best friends. They were radiant ladies. One of them was a fashion designer; the other owned a flower shop in Roppongi Hills. The friend of Kazue’s who owned a flower shop introduced me to her friend, who had brought Maiko with her. Maiko did not speak to me. I looked at her. She was impish and boyish. She had naturally curly short hair. Her skin was cleaner than Styrofoam. She wore a black turtleneck sweater and a pair of straight-legged jeans. I instantly thought both that she was impossibly sexy and that she was definitely a lesbian. She looked me in the eye. Her friend said a few kind words. She laughed a few kind laughs. I went to get a glass of water. I was standing by a bookshelf. Maiko walked over to me. She handed me a piece of paper. It was a printout of a scan of a photograph of a painting of an animal-like-person-like-animal-like minimalist figure with a noncommittal facial expression and a somewhat provocative posture. She introduced herself: she was Maiko, and she was an artist. “I think you would like my paintings,” she said. Before she could start speaking the words, she was right.
Seven years later, I’d experience a terrible and gorgeous situation in Hawaii, and then I’d decide to write a seamless collection of anecdotes about my life up until that point. The collection would be titled “the new adult’s guide to sweating and breathing in the twenty-first century”. In that novel-length sequence of writing, I mention Maiko only for a sentence: “Unlike many of the beautiful and interesting people I’m going to continue telling you about, Maiko is so beautiful and interesting that I will tell you nothing else about her.”
I’ll tell you about her today.
Maiko and I went on what I think was one date. We met in Ikebukuro, where my failed band had just had a practice. Maiko and I sat in a cafe. We drank coffees. We talked for an hour. We ate some Indian food. I shook her hand at the station. We went on what I think was another date, though it was less of a date than the previous date, and probably not a date at all. This second maybe-date was in Yokohama. We walked through the Chinatown. We went to a restaurant, where I asked if anything on their menu was vegetarian. The man replied that they had plenty of fish dishes. I said that fish is a meat. The man put his hands on his hips and said, “As a matter of fact, fish is not meat.” I then asked him, “Do you have anything on your menu that contains no materials which did not originally possess a direct or indirect biological connection to eyeballs?” This was maybe the last time Maiko touched me for what would proceed to be a decade: she clamped her hand around my upper arm and pulled me sharply away. “Okay now,” she said. “You’re going to freak that guy out.” I looked her in the eye. Her eyes widened. Her eyeballs bugged out. Her look of worry was intense.
From that point on, Maiko and I met with regularity and texted with superregularity. We talked about our days, though never about our years or months. I never alluded to a social presence in my life outside her, and she did the same. At the time, I was dating a woman who kept me secret; she liked having sex with me as much as I liked her having sex with me; this woman sometimes brought dresses for me to wear and once bruised my bladder with such gravity I was urinating blood for a week. This woman disappeared from my life after I changed her father’s dog’s name. The woman was a deep well of anecdote fuel. Yet I never mentioned her — or anyone else — to Maiko. Maiko was my opportunity to behold the world with a freshness. For a time — a time that became ten years — I feel as though she saw the same opportunity in me. We were true to ourselves when we were with each other. It was only this past month that I came to realize Maiko and I had been having a ten-year-long First Date. Shortly after realizing this, I realized that Maiko and I were both grown-up enough and confident enough in our own tastes that the idea of a ten-year-long First Date neither surprised, bored, nor saddened us. The immediate conclusion, when I consider whether I as a “mature” adult am prepared to, now self-aware, continue a Perpetual First Date with a Certifiable Lovely Person, is “Why The Heck Not?”
In those days when I first met Maiko, I’d had the habit of telling anyone who was willing to breathe the same air as me that I was an aspiring writer. Truly, Kazue had introduced me at that party as an “up-and-coming novelist”. Maiko had wanted to read one of my novels; I told her they were all in English. After our second date and our third, fourth, and twentieth meetings, I began to write a novel in Japanese for Maiko. I wrote the novel as a series of texts to myself, and I collected and edited the texts in an email to Maiko. I suggest this exercise for any aspiring novelist: write a novel in a second language. The best fiction-writing practices will see the writer discovering a love of words. Either you’ve loved these words all along, or you will learn to love them. With a second language, you discover a love of the concept of words. You let go, and focus only on what you can say; eventually, you say what you can say with a flair that involves you. Finally, the structure of the story is so real and true, because a second language comes from your instincts for learning. You can discover your true persona. I wrote the novel. I sent it to Maiko. She read it and she praised it. She raised a few concerns. I decided I wasn’t a novelist after all. Though I have written many dozens of novels since then, I have ceased showing them to anyone, and I have not once since then told a single inquirer that I am a “writer”.
For a few years, Maiko and I only met under pretenses: she wanted to learn English, so hey! We’re friends, so we can just hang out naturally and every once in a while she could speak some English to me and I could correct her. After a while, the regular English lessons came around to embody their routine: the two of us in a coffee shop in Omotesando. I was working for Sony and she was working as a designer; we were busy adults. At this time, my social schedule was a list of coffeeshops and weeknight hours. Every Friday, for example, was my dinner with my weird internet friends. One of those days undoubtedly became a conversation, a dinner, a coffee, a film, a play, an art gallery, or a walk with Maiko. Maiko never met any of my friends. I never met any of Maiko’s friends.
Thanks to Maiko, if I started right now, I could write, from memory, a coffee-table book of ancient Tokyo cafes. (I’d put a chapter on this website and open a Kickstarter for $10,000, which I’d use to take my gold 64GB iPhone 5s (and the Instagram app inside it) to Tokyo for three months.)
Eventually, Maiko decided to go professionally all in on art. She wanted to earn a Master of Fine Arts in painting at a university in Newcastle, England. For the application process, she needed to learn English. So she and I devised a curriculum. She learned English with my help. She moved to England. She was there for two years. I met her shortly after she came back. At this time I was living with a green-haired girl I’d known for seven years. I had never mentioned her to Maiko, just as Maiko had never mentioned any of her own friends. Maiko and I resumed our conversations as usual.
Shortly after Maiko returned from her two years in England, the Japanese government denied my working visa extension request. I had to quit my job, leave my home, and move back to America. Shortly after returning to America, a thing happened wherein I ended up not having any money at all anymore. With no business contacts whatsoever in the United States, with no credit history, with no history whatsoever as an adult in this country, I set about building a history. This meant that I spent three terrible years. The first year was the most terrible. I had no idea where I was. I accidentally acquired a girlfriend — she was a perfect person, and I was a perfect jerk to her, and so she became not my girlfriend anymore. Things got worse: I did some work for Zynga, for example. Then, things got better. I have my own company now, and recruiters regularly call me, talk to me for a minute, and then hang up. Sooner or later I’ll be President of the United States. (That was a joke.)
Maiko came to visit the San Francisco Bay Area in April of 2013. Her primary purpose was to visit art galleries and set wheels into motion for doing exhibitions here. Maiko hadn’t aged an hour in three years. Our relationship hadn’t aged, either. Maiko stayed in the Bay Area for a week. I ate dinner with her and her wealthy benefactor — a middle-aged expatriated Japanese woman named Mimi — one night at a nice Italian restaurant in the city. Maiko drank a glass of wine and was very quiet. Her benefactor coached me on health insurance. The day before she left America for Japan again, Maiko and I had coffee at Philz in Berkeley and talked about what we always talk about: the way we see the world. Our single precious conversation topic had turned into such an adult thing over this decade. To quote Gene Hackman’s character Joe in David Mamet’s film “Heist”, “We’re getting good at this conversation”.
On the eve of my business trip to Japan, just three weeks ago, I sat shower-damp and internetting. I chatted with my friend Amy — the first person I had emailed when suddenly I found myself confused and in Hawaii after an attempt to return to Japan three years earlier. I told Amy I was finally going back to Japan, and on business, the very next day. Amy’s in San Francisco now. She asked me — just making conversation — “What is the thing you miss most about Japan?” I immediately told her I missed my apartment in Ogikubo. It had been just spacious enough. It was of minimalist designer aesthetic. It had been full of MUJI furniture. It was brand new when I moved in. It was in a beautiful location in a quiet neighborhood with a lovely little tiny vegetarian supermarket a minute’s walking distance away, with a lovely and friendly little old lady who worked at that tiny vegetarian supermarket. Remembering living there reminded me of a time when I had ended the phase of my life wherein triumphing over great odds by forgetting the past was a daily chore; in Ogikubo, I was a person with a promising career and a future that did not scare me.
In Ogikubo, I was a person who had previously been homeless, with no promises, with no career, and only thousands of possible futures, all of them terrifying.
Thinking about Ogikubo, and the person I was when I moved there, and the person I had been before moving there had ever been a possibility, I formed the sentence “I miss talking to my friend Maiko.” Maiko had been the second person I emailed after I found myself confused and in Hawaii following a failed attempt to return to my home in Japan in July of 2010. (I’d emailed Amy first to apologize for missing our dinner the previous night. I emailed Maiko second to apologize for having to miss our dinner the following night.)
I opened a chat window to Maiko. She usually isn’t online. Usually, we send email letters to one another. I told Maiko that my friend had just asked me what I miss most about Japan, and that I’d immediately considered that the thing I missed most was my friend Maiko.
I explained my reasoning in great detail: though sometimes a month would pass with no correspondence between us, somewhere in my heart is the shadow of considering Maiko many times daily for all of the most important years of my life. Maiko replied with few words, and I could feel her quiet charm. She said, “I feel the same way.” It is nice to know a person feels the same way about you as you feel about them, except in a few awful hypothetical situations I have just unfortunately imagined.
I saw Maiko on my third night in Japan in September of 2013. It was a Saturday night. Maiko and I walked to Daikanyama from Shibuya. We’d met outside the koban at Shibuya Station. Our conversation began as if it had never ended. We looked at a few clothing boutiques in Daikanyama. I was looking for a specific sort of pants. I couldn’t find any that satisfied me. We ended up drinking tapioca tea out of parfait glasses in a popular cafe. The parfait glasses were of such a thickness that I did not notice condensation growing on my glass. The glass slipped out of my hand as I picked it up. It scattered a brain-stain of tapioca tea against the wall. I laughed at it; the staff lady smiled. She moved us to another table. She cleaned up the wall. To my surprise, the staff brought me another tea. On the walk back to Shibuya, Maiko and I stopped into a drugstore to buy some heat patches to treat my twisted ankle. I’d twisted my ankle the night before. The walk back was painful. Maiko and I talked to one another like adults talk to one another. I don’t think we’ve ever been children to one another. I invited Maiko to see the final film of director Hayao Miyazaki at my favorite theater in Shinjuku on Monday night. Maiko accepted the invitation.
I worked all day on Sunday. I worked all day on Monday. Monday night, my friend Brandon and I met Maiko in Shinjuku. We saw the film. Brandon headed back to his hotel. Maiko and I walked a long lap around Shinjuku, talking like adults. She talked about her ultimate understanding of the art business. She talked about her upcoming gallery shows. She talked about the business opportunities her benefactor Mimi had presented, and the good discussions she’d been having with galleries in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. I told her about my games, and about the work I was doing in Japan. We kept the conversation professional. I didn’t tell her anything about my personal life. It started to rain. We shared Maiko’s umbrella. It rained hard. In the train station, I gave Maiko a hug. It was the first time I’d hugged her. It seemed like a good thing to do.
On the walk down the hill from Yotsuya Station to the New Otani Hotel in Akasaka, the final scene of Hayao Miyazaki’s film occurred to me: an airplane designer whose only wish was to make something beautiful had just arrived at a metaphorical expression of the end of his life, as the man whose creations were used as weapons of war. His childhood hero, an Italian engineer, meets him in a field of a metaphor. They discuss beauty and sadness. The Italian engineer speaks succinct words on the meaning of life. He then tells the protagonist to come with him to the bottom of the hill. “There’s good wine there,” he says, as the film suddenly ends. Considering this final scene, I remembered the great sadness I’d glimpsed just a glimmer of the other day on the basketball court.
I made a fast decision to do something different. I texted Maiko: “Hey,” I said, “I feel really, really sad right now.” She replied immediately. “Let’s have dinner tomorrow night.” My mind felt warm with the realization that such a possibility had probably always existed: Maiko had always been a person I could talk to about how sad I am.
The next night, I’d gotten two clients to show up at a restaurant and begin getting drunk in front of the head of the company I was representing. My role grew fuzzier by the moment. Alcohol blurred the language barrier into oblivion. No one needed a translator anymore. I set the evening in motion — they’d move on to a particular, quaint, weird, personality-rich Japanese-style restaurant and bar in Shinjuku, before heading to karaoke at a nearby karaoke box joint of which I approved. If I were to step out for three hours, I told myself, the business would likely do itself.
I met Maiko at Yotsuya Station. We walked to a restaurant she knew about. It was a tiny and lively Japanese-style vegan place, all wood and stone and warm lights inside, whose special that day was a gluten-free pizza. The pizza didn’t exactly make sense amid the rest of their menu; we ordered it anyway. We ordered everything. We ate for two hours. Maiko’s cheeks turned pink after one sip of her first glass of wine. The food was wonderful. It was simple and rustic. Maiko’s and my conversation was rich with excellent weirdness. We played the game wherein two people who’ve known each other for ten years try to tell one another things they don’t know about each other. Maiko was winning: once she’d worked as the house singer in a “snack” bar. “People who hear me sing can’t believe it’s me singing,” she said, “even when they’re looking right at me.” Also, Maiko can play the trumpet, and the drums, and the guitar, and the bass guitar. In high school she was in several bands, playing a different instrument in each one. Her father is a retired designer of furniture. Her mother is a masseuse. Her brother is a corporate employee for one of the largest, oldest hotels in Tokyo. Maiko drank three glasses of wine. I liked watching her hands on the stem of the wineglass. She’s an effortlessly elegant human. For the first time in a long time, looking at her, I forgot her art, and remembered only the things she’d just told me. We had a wonderful dinner until they started to close the place. The owner invited us to come back on October 24th. They’d be debuting a new menu, and we’d be sure to like it. We told him we’d think about it. I felt a little bad to be lying to him: I’d be back in Oakland.
We walked back toward Shinjuku Station in a drizzling rain. For fifteen minutes the city was dark and hot. The screech of cicadas and the cold green light of the sides of stone buildings reflected the tiny silences between our micro conversations. I took her to the train platform at Shinjuku Station. We made plans to meet and ascend the Tokyo Sky Tree tower before I left the country. Maiko removed a blue parrot pin from her backpack. It was made of tin. She flipped it around. “Look,” she said. “It says ‘JAPAN’ on it.” She was right. She pinned it onto my jacket. Hours later, I’d realize she’d pinned it through both my jacket and my T-shirt. I walked out of the other end of Shinjuku Station and through the rain straight into the karaoke parlor, right up to room 417, and I sang The Yellow Monkey’s “NAI” in the hardest voice I could manage. The first tentative and accidental collision of my rain-wet lip with the hot wireless microphone produced an audible-only-to-me electric snap in the air between my teeth and my tongue. In the bathroom later I saw that my shocked lip had been bleeding into my mouth. The rain was like a hurricane when we finished. We took a taxi through what felt like a waterfall. I fell into my king-sized hotel bed and considered my life in such a trance a doctor might have pronounced it sleep.
The next day, my business partners were leaving. I had to move my suitcase to another hotel — the Monterey — down the street. I did this in the morning. I met my business partners in the New Otani lobby. I showed them to the shuttle bus to the airport. My day was free after that. I texted my friend Brandon, who’d been staying in Shinjuku. We were going to Nakano-Sakaue to talk with our game developer friend Yoshiro Kimura that afternoon, regarding a business prospect. On the way to that meeting, I’d end up experiencing the saddest moment of my entire life up to this point. I’ll tell you about that in the next chapter.
For now, I want to tell you about the Tokyo Sky Tree: several days after the saddest moment in my life, Maiko and I went to the Tokyo Sky Tree. At 12:30pm we were able to purchase tickets. We took the elevator to the first landing. The view is instantly impressive. We’d feared that a day so overcast as the day we went might not yield the optimum view, however, the clouds were spectacular and fluffy. I could see them moving in the wind. I could see their shadows darkening sections of the city. It was fantastic and dream-like.
A half an hour later, I was looking out over a river and toward the center of the city at Tokyo Tower, next to an old, hat-wearing man who had been standing silently for some five minutes. An old woman approached. She put her hand on his back. She was his wife. He pointed out toward the city: “Is that Tokyo Tower?” he asked. His wife didn’t answer. “No,” he said, having just made up his mind. “It can’t be.”
It most certainly was Tokyo Tower — so far away and silent beneath the moving clouds, so tiny despite its history.
The man and his wife walked away toward somewhere else. I found Maiko on the other side of the deck, observing traffic through and around bridges, her mouth closed tightly.
She and I shared a few words about the experience design of the tower. It was clearly better than the one in Shanghai, we agreed. Tokyo has a way of being user-friendly about its tourism. If Tokyo weren’t as user-friendly as it was, the city would have burned down ages ago. Perhaps related is the way you can tell, walking into a structure like Tokyo Sky Tree, that you’re in a country where the economy works: just look at the wood they use for the front of the reception desk.
Maiko asked me, “Are you ready to go to the top deck?” I told her I was.
We paid an extra thousand yen each to go to the top deck. It was a hundred meters higher. We’d paid ten yen per extra meter. When you’re already 350 meters up, an extra 100 meters is a big deal. The top deck of Tokyo Sky Tree possesses an interesting curvature. When you exit the elevator, signs usher you in the direction of an incline. You walk up and around the tower, eventually reaching a point that a sign marks as the precise highest point of the tower.
I stood at the highest point of the tower for some time, thinking about what it meant. Then I heard several gasps.
People gathered nearby were pointing upward and out the windows. I looked out and up. A mechanical cart was moving at glacier speed down the side of the tower, from above the tops of the windows. In it were two men wearing hard hats and jumpsuits. Were they washing the windows? What were they doing? Whatever the case may have been, I realized that where I was standing was, in fact, not the highest point on the tower. There’s always a taller window-washing cart, mountain, airplane, satellite . . .
Maiko found me. We walked around the top deck for a while. I took out my phone and Instagrammed a few landmarks. The pamphlet they’d given us downstairs at the ticket counter had told us that the antenna atop Tokyo Sky Tree was designed as an homage to the ringed spire atop the Five-Storied Pagoda in the nearby ancient neighborhood of Asakusa. I took a picture of the Asakusa Five-Storied Pagoda from the top observation deck of Tokyo Sky Tree.
Maiko and I went down to the lower observation deck. I ordered a cappuccino at the cafe there. Maiko ordered a lychee-ginger soda.
We sat and watched the fast clouds move over the hot city. I looked at my photo of the Five-Storied Pagoda.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s go to Asakusa.”
We went to Asakusa. On even a weekday afternoon, it’s as full of foreign tourists as it is of Japanese tourists and Tokyo residents who just feel like visiting Asakusa again. As far as tourist attractions go, Asakusa is cheap. The temples are religious structures. You can walk up and feel like you’re someplace, without spending any more money than it takes to buy a train ticket. We got out of the Ginza Line Asakusa Station on the far corner of the temple complex. We traversed a few backstreets. Our usual conversations continued this whole time. I was talking about how I used to live near Asakusa — in Minami-Senju — and that I’d often walk to Asakusa just to feel like I was someplace interesting. I didn’t mention that I used to take long walks around Asakusa with a girl with whom I had nothing in common. We just walked, and she listened to me talk. Sometimes, I’d be so afraid that she would never say anything in return that the words would catch in my throat. In the present, Maiko and I exited a backstreet into a rare area alive with dark green trees. Down an alley and up in the sky above the endearing junky clutter-jumble of restaurant signs and banners and advertisements and bicycles, behind criss-crossing power lines and smoke-like gathering rain clouds was Tokyo Sky Tree, the exterior of its curved upper observation deck alive with champagne-colored illumination. We were quiet as we looked at it. I snapped a picture. We continued up the street. A cinder-block wall erased the tower for a walking distance of fifty meters. Next came a covered shopping arcade. I thought that if we exited the arcade and turned left and then right, we’d see the tower again: there it was. It turned out I’d forgotten nothing about the city; my quickly-becoming-ancient memories of another self in this same place were perfectly compatible with the sudden modern presence of a tower watching over all.
After a lazy zig-zag, we arrived at the temple complex, and the Five-Storied Pagoda. I looked up at Tokyo Sky Tree. I took a photograph that showed both the Five-Storied Pagoda and Tokyo Sky Tree. I alternately looked between the photo in my hand and the reality around my body. Right away, the photo seemed to resemble a fantasy. “Here I am, able to see this thing for real”, I thought. “Anyone else who sees this has no proof it’s real”, I thought.
I watched the distant upper observation deck for some time. Its exterior curved upward along with its interior. I could see the edge of the highest point, just barely facing away from the historic temples. I watched the lights gleam.
A tiny rain began to fall. I took Maiko to the train station. I took her to Shinjuku. I accompanied her to her train home. I went back to my hotel. The sun was down now. I looked out the window. The rain had stopped. Deep in the distance, I could see Tokyo Sky Tree’s champagne lights gleaming.
My friend Stabo came by later that night. He and I walked several miles to Roppongi. I’d lived in Tokyo for nine years, and gone to Roppongi on a Friday night fewer times than I needed one hand to count. Stabo attracted two girls outside a bar. A man was following them.
“Is this guy your friend?” Stabo asked.
One of the girls — we’d find out she was the older sister (they were sisters) — looked the man up and down, and said, “Yeah.”
Stabo asked, “Want to be our friends instead?”
The older sister looked us up and down. “Yeah.”
“I know a bar,” Stabo said. “It’s not a sleazy place. It’s a laid-back place. They have this crazy treehouse loft thing. Come on; let’s go.”
We went to this crazy treehouse loft thing bar. Stabo bought the younger sister a drink. I bought the older sister a drink. I talked to her for a while. She was nice. I noticed a tattoo of someone’s name on the back of her neck. I asked, “Who’s Luca?” She said, “He’s my son.” Her son had been born in 2011. Stabo talked to the younger sister in gentlemanly tones. The older sister proceeded to become corpse-like in drunkenness. She asked me what I did. I was honest with her: I told her I have no idea. I told her my LinkedIn Dot Com profile was one of the top ten-percent most-viewed profiles of 2012. I told her I got phone calls from people offering me jobs all the time, and that I was too much of a child to take any of them. She told me I was funny. She had gone to college, and then a guy from New York made her pregnant before he disappeared. She asked me if I wanted to get out of that bar. She asked if I wanted to go someplace else. Stabo interjected: “This guy’s hotel is amazing! The lobby is just like the Tower Of Terror at Disneyland.” Stabo took the younger sister upstairs to see the crazy treehouse loft thing. The older sister asked me if I wanted to go to my hotel. I told her I didn’t feel like going back to my hotel. She told me she was tired. I told her the trains would be running in a half an hour and that she could get home. She asked me to friend her on Facebook. I friended her on Facebook. It turned out she owned a Sony Xperia Z phone. I told her, “Hey, I made a game for this. You might like it.” I spent twenty minutes trying to find my own game on this girl’s phone. She seemed really disappointed that I couldn’t find it. Maybe she was just being nice. She reiterated that she was tired and that maybe we could take a taxi to my hotel. She asked if I didn’t mind if she slept there. I looked at her. She really was a great-looking girl. She had big wild bleached-blonde hair and a gorgeous, weird face. I told her, “Hey, I think you’re really cool. Like, if I lived in Japan, you would be my girlfriend for real. You know? It’s just, you’re drunk, you’re like, really, really drunk, and that’s weird. How about you go home and sober up and then give me a call tomorrow?” The girl’s phone buzzed. It was still in my hand.
“This guy is creeping me out. We need to get out of here.”
The younger sister climbed down the ladder from the treehouse loft thing place just then. She called to her sister. “We need to get home to make dad his breakfast.”
“Oh — that’s right,” the older sister said. “We need to make dad his breakfast.”
“Alright,” I said. I accompanied them to the door. “Have a safe trip home. The trains will be running very soon.”
“Goodnight,” the younger sister said to me.
“Goodnight,” the older sister said to me.
“Goodnight,” I said.
I climbed the ladder to the treehouse loft-thing place. Stabo was lying on his back, smoking a cigarette under orange and blue lights, talking about electronic music with a thirtysomething guy who hadn’t learned how to take off his little hat.
Stabo sat up. “Man, what the heck? Where’s the girl?”
“She and her sister went home to cook breakfast for their dad.”
“You moron! You Rain Man moron! That girl was in the bag! Do you not understand how easy it is to get a drunk girl inside a taxi?”
The guy in the hat was guffawing despite his probably microscopic understanding of our language.
“This guy –” Stabo said, pointing at me. “This guy had a girl completely into him, and — and, see, he’s been living in America for what, like, three years?”
“Yeah, three years,” I told him.
“Three years! Women are different over there. They’re — women are like men, over there. It’s amazing. He doesn’t realize that things are different over here. Women expect the man to be a little more forceful, you know? It’s not like that in America.”
“I want to go to America,” the guy said. “Just let some blonde-haired blue-eyed beauty push me into her limo.”
“Dude! You should go there! I swear to god that is exactly what will happen if you go there.”
“I could go in a couple of months, once this money comes in,” the guy was saying.
“You Rain Man son of a bitch!” Stabo exclaimed. “You toothpick-counting nuthugger! I did you a solid! I did you a solid! Get them to sign on the line which is dotted! For fuck’s sake!” Stabo fell backward onto the plush carpet. The man in the hat cackled. I sighed. I thought about Tokyo Sky Tree gleaming far beyond my hotel room window. I thought about Maiko. I thought about the incident of a few days prior.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Stabo.
“No! No! We’re not getting out of here until I finish my drink, and this cigarette, and the next cigarette.”
“Let’s go get a drink somewhere else.”
“I like it here. I like the music and I like how I don’t have to talk to anybody.”
“I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
“That girl would have fucked you until you had a heart attack,” the bartender downstairs told me when I got out of the bathroom.
I shot him a look. “What? What?”
“She would have killed you and your dad would have been proud,” a mustached fiftysomething jazzy man sitting on a barstool said.
“She would have broken every bone in your body.”
“You’d have been coughing up blood for months.”
“Are any of these even actual colloquialisms?” I asked. No one answered.
I climbed the ladder. Stabo and the guy were still cackling.
“This guy used to be a mute in high school! This guy doesn’t know jack or shit about girls! This guy wouldn’t know sex if it chopped his hand off with a hatchet!”
“Haw haw haw,” said the man in the hat.
“I tell you what, this guy — this guy thinks just because he can count two hundred and forty-six toothpicks –”
“Hey Stabo, let’s get out of here.”
Stabo sat upright.
“You’re right! We’re going to get out of here! We’re going to stand in the street and watch the decrepit tired black-eyed night-turds drip out of the drinking houses, and one of them is going to take pity on you! Let’s make it happen! We’re going to make it happen!”
At this point, I hadn’t slept in three days. It’d be two more before I was on the airplane drooling propolis-lozenge-thick saliva all over myself. The sun was coming up over Roppongi. The sky was yellow and pink. We stood outside a bar. Two ladies tried to get us to let them give us massages. “Five thousand yen,” one lady said.
“That’s a bit steep,” Stabo said. “Are you a licensed professional?”
The other lady made a jerking off motion. Two girls popped out of a nearby bar, big sunglasses on.
“I like your bag!” Stabo yelled at one of the girls. “Try telling girls you like their bags,” Stabo said.
“You’ve already given me that tip like two hundred times,” I told him. “Let’s get out of here.”
“This is fun!” Stabo said. “I’m having fun doing this. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this. Let’s keep doing this.”
We kept doing it. Stabo kept telling girls he liked their bags. I kept saying nothing. Eventually Stabo decided we should go into the Wendy’s across the street. I ordered a large fry and a large chocolate Frosty. We sat upstairs. It stank of cigarette smoke. The place was full of three-quarters-asleep club-quitters with seven-eighths uneaten fries and burgers. Stabo came out of the bathroom and started in on his Frosty.
“So how’s it feel to be back in Japan!” he said, clearly putting an exclamation point onto the sentence. It most definitely wasn’t a question.
I remembered the bulk of my twenties.
“I had a conversation with a prostitute about Barry Obama last night before going back to my hotel before you came by,” I told Stabo.
“Oh yeah? How did that go?”
“Well, I’d just gotten back to Akasaka after hanging out with my friend Maiko. And I was out of the station for about thirty seconds when a Chinese lady in a long coat made a drinking motion with her hand. This happened just as I was about to go into the nearby Daily Yamazaki and buy myself a god darned Coke. Not a Coke Zero. A real Coke — because I am traveling and I deserve it. I took the headphones out of my ears. She was saying, ‘Want drink?’ And I reached right for my wallet, and pulled out a hundred and twenty yen. I said, ‘Yeah, do you have a Coke?'”
Stabo slapped the table.
“She was like, ‘No, want drink with me?’ And I was like, ‘I am allergic to alcohol.’ And she was like, ‘How about massage? Sex, can have sex with beautiful girl.’ And I was like, oh god, how did I manage to avoid this exact interaction for all those years that I lived in this city? I used to work in an office building not two blocks away from where I was just standing . . .
“This lady started following me. She followed me into the god darn convenient store! She locked her arm in my arm. It was so filthy. She starts pulling me down the street. She says ‘Fifteen thousand yen,’ and then ‘Thirteen thousand yen,’ and then ‘Ten thousand yen,’ and I’m like, god, I’ve never let this happen before? What is wrong with me? I felt horrible and sad and weird. And I was like, let’s have a new experience. I let her drag me all the way down the street. She was like, ‘You are America, yes? You like Obama?’ I said, ‘Obama’s alright.’ She was like, ‘Obama is the leader of the world! I love Obama! He is going to kill all of the Iranians and heal the world!’ And I — I don’t even know how it made me feel to know that lady’s opinion. It made me stupid. I let her drag me into this alley where five ladies just like her were waiting. Two of them put their hands on my back and led me into the alley.”
“Oh Jesus Christ.”
“They took me into an elevator. They told me to take off my shoes. It was some sad den. The lights were all red. It smelled like a drugstore. I kept explaining that this wasn’t right. The one lady who’d led me there was like, ‘What’s not right? Of course it’s right. You let me lead you here.’ She was speaking Japanese at this point. And I was like, ‘I was just — I was just’ and she was like, ‘You were just what?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know’. All of a sudden there are three prostitutes in front of me. They were all wearing identical little white nighties. God, Stabo, their breasts were so bizarre. They were so surreal and fake and pointing in the wrong directions. They all had tough faces and big teeth. It was weird. I was so dizzy — I was scared! I tell you what: I was actually scared. It was god darn real-life Silent Hill in that sad den. The lady in the coat put her hand on the girls’ shoulders, one by one. ‘Very pretty? You like her? You like this one?’ And I was like, ‘I have to go.’ I was like, ‘I need to get out of here.’ I can’t lie to you: I had about two-thirds of a boner. It was the most evil boner. I was a horrible feeling. The lady in the coat was like, ‘Why? Why? Eight thousand yen. Eight thousand yen.’ And I was like, ‘Look, I can’t.’ And she was like, ‘Why can’t you?’ And I was like, ‘Because . . . because I have a girlfriend.’ Man! I told her I had a girlfriend. I felt really gross. And she laughed and she was like, ‘Every guy has a girlfriend. Everything here is a secret! We’re all secrets here!’ And I looked each of the girls in the eye, one at a time, and I said I couldn’t do it. I apologized like a warrior who’d failed his shogun. The lady asked me one last time. She said, ‘Seven thousand yen’, and I . . . well. I told them the story.”
“The story of the saddest moment that has ever transpired in my life.”
“Oh god. Oh god.”
“How did that turn out?”
“The lady looked at me and was like, ‘You should go.’ So I left.”
Stabo slapped the table. “Excellent story, Rogers!”
“And as I was walking away, the lady ran up behind me. She put her arm in my arm. She said, ‘Okay — how about three thousand yen.’ And I was like, ‘Three thousand yen for what?’ And she was like, ‘I’ll come to your hotel and I’ll have sex with you.’ And I was like, ‘God, really?’ I stopped walking. I looked her right in the eye. And I was like, ‘How about free?’ And then — well, she slapped me in the face.”
“She slapped me really hard. And then I kept walking. She came up behind me. She was like, ‘You have a lot of nerve,’ and I was like, ‘I know’. And she was like, ‘What’s wrong with me? Huh? What don’t you like about me?’ And I looked her right in the eye and I squeezed her hand and I said, ‘Your teeth.’ And she was like, ‘What about them?’ And I was like, ‘They’re disgusting’. And then — well, uh, she slapped me again.”
“Seriously, her teeth look like cat-chewed fish bones. So I took a few more steps away, and she stayed back there. And then she came running after me. She said, ‘I’m thirsty — at least get me a drink from the vending machine’. I swear I am not making this up.”
“Did you get her a drink?”
I sighed. “I should have! I figure I wasted a lot of her time.”
I really did feel bad about wasting so much of her time. For her, time is money. I feel worse and worse as I think and write about it. There’s another “thing I wished I hadn’t done” to this particular list.
“What did you do?”
“I said to her, ‘If I turn and run away from you as fast as I can, will you think I’m a loser?’ And she said, ‘Go on and let me see you run!’ So I sprinted down to the end of the block and stopped and turned around and she was still looking at me. I waved at her. She waved back. She turned around and left.”
“So how’s it feel to be back in Japan!” Stabo exclaimed again.
“Five minutes after that I turned a corner and smiled at a lady in a suit outside a convenience store and she looked me in the eye and said ‘I’ll give you a blowjob for eight thousand yen’ in perfect English. I sprinted away from her as fast as I could.”
“So how’s it feel to be back in Japan!”
“You’re making me miserable. Let’s get out of here.”
On the train platform I told Stabo I’d call him again later in the day. I ended up not seeing him again before I left. My last full day in Japan I went to Hachioji to watch Maiko’s childhood friends perform a flamenco dance. Maiko had made these friends through a study group in middle school. One of their friends had died of cancer. The eldest of the friends, she’d met at the funeral. That eldest friend went on to become a successful architect who did flamenco dancing on the side. She was a radiant and happy woman. I spoke a few words to her after the show, and I could tell from the smallest nuances of the movements of her face that I had every reason to envy her. She had a tiny silver filling on the tip of one of her lower canines. It was interesting. Maiko told me she’d been in a visual kei band in high school. I wonder if she’d had the silver filling while she was in the visual kei band. I used the bathroom down a long hallway of the suburban shopping mall where the Flamenco dance had happened. It was late at night. The mall was empty. When I got out of the bathroom, metal shutters were down all over the mall. I couldn’t take the same path back. The bright white fluorescent lights were still on. I had to take a different path. It was cold with air-conditioning. Around one corner, two kids were playing soccer in the hall. Maybe their mom worked there. I thought about the flamenco dance. I thought about Spain. I felt very tired. I thought I wouldn’t find the place where the dancers had danced. I found it just as I was about to give up and dig out my phone. The dead-tiredness didn’t fade. I was tired from a lifetime of tiring things.
Maiko and I rode the train back to Tokyo in mutually sleepy silence. I could barely stay awake. It had been days since the saddest moment of my life, and I couldn’t put back together the mental impulses to feel real again.
I thanked Maiko for everything.
“You’re welcome,” Maiko said.
I had tears in my eyes. I hugged her. I put my chin on her shoulder.
“You’re so, so important to me,” I told her.
“You’re so, so important to me,” she said. She said it in a real way. She said it in the politest way: she copied my sentence word for word, purposely affecting all the same inflections. She spoke my exact sentence and intonation as though it were her original. There at last I understood the long, subtle respect between us. I felt tired. I felt sad. I was and am glad to know her.
I looked her in the eye. She was smiling. I was smiling.
Later, the girl from the bar the night before texted me. She said she was at home, sober, watching television with her sister and her dad and her mom and her baby son. She wanted to know if I wanted to get together and have dinner, and talk. I told her, “I’m sorry — I was so busy today. I am so tired. I am dying of sleepiness. I can’t do it. I have to go back to America tomorrow. I’m so sorry I didn’t get to see you again.”
“Tomorrow! I thought you were staying until the end of October.”
It turned out Stabo had told her sister that I was staying until the end of October.
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out. Let me know if you ever visit the San Francisco Bay Area!”
Hours later, I was still awake, head still buzzing with sleeplessness, throat still burning with the acid of aliveness. Outside the windows, the champagne illumination of Tokyo Sky Tree continued to flicker in and out of my recognition. Sitting on the toilet, relieving my pained bladder, late at night, I texted the girl.
“How about this? I have to check out of my hotel super early tomorrow. I have a whole day to kill. I was thinking I’d kill it in Ueno. How about you come out to Ueno at eight in the morning and we have a nice little sober sleepy morning walk.”
She replied immediately: “I’ll be there.”
In the morning, I checked out of my hotel at six AM. I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t breathe in the place. I drank a Hawaiian coffee at a nearby cafe. I went to Ueno with my eighty-pound suitcase. I lugged that thing up eight flights of stairs to the coin lockers at Keisei Ueno Station. Then I realized that I didn’t have six hundred yen to rent the coin locker. So I hauled my suitcase down and around those eight flights of stairs in search of an ATM that would take my American Visa card. The old post office ATM near the MUJI store had, in the last three years, turned into a different sort of ATM. So I had to haul that suitcase up eight more flights of stairs. Ueno doesn’t have enough escalators. I found a post-office ATM. I got ten thousand yen — the withdraw minimum — and I broke the bill on a one-hundred-and-forty-seven-yen bottle of Kirin Afternoon Tea Lemon Tea at the Family Mart at Keisei Ueno Station. I put my suitcase into a coin locker.
I had the whole morning ahead of me. It was a hot and bright summer morning. I was already dripping with sweat. I feel comfortable saying I had never felt more comfortable in my life. I was wearing a pair of loose, soft Adidas basketball shorts and a short-sleeved gray sweatshirt from MUJI. The sweat under the shirt invigorated me. The air-conditioning of the Family Mart had glazed my skin. I was over the mountain of sleepiness and well into the feeling of shocking aliveness.
I went into the Starbucks at Ueno Station. I ordered a chai latte. I sat in my old usual seat. Sitting five feet in front of me was Funako, a lady who I’d met ten years ago and unforgivably wronged eight years ago. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever known. She didn’t look a week older. Her hair was shorter. She was wearing ballet flats instead of her usual Converse. Other than that, she was the exact same person. I was as terrified then that she would notice me as I am terrified now that she certainly did notice me. I looked so different that day, compared to how I’d looked before. I wanted to say something. I ached to say something. I didn’t say anything. I considered the conversation, over and over again. I considered the saddest moment of my life, now receding days into the past. I felt new and real. I was growing up, just like Maiko had said I was, just like I had said Maiko was.
A friend met me in the Starbucks. He brought along another friend who was interested in a business opportunity — so interested they were willing to meet me on short notice at six in the morning on a Sunday. I talked to them for a half an hour. Not three minutes into the conversation, Funako got up and hurried out of the Starbucks. She didn’t look back at me once. Maybe she hadn’t noticed me. She probably had.
The girl from the bar texted me. She was closing in on Ueno Station. I met her and I walked with her around Ueno. She was so lovely and polite. I was ten years older than her. She’d thought I was her age. I told her about the old days. It turned out she was interested in the old days. She was studying graphic design at a night school, hoping for a career in advertising.
“Once, I had a penpal on the internet,” I said. “I met her through a website about videogames! We both liked videogames. I talked to this girl for literally three years. We had no idea what the other looked like. This was way before Facebook or even MySpace.”
“Don’t worry about it. Back when I was in college, we had to run a telnet program to access an FTP to upload a file, and then point the email recipient to a remote location — it took like an hour to send someone a photo. And we didn’t have digital cameras, so we had to take a real photo, and then get it developed, and then scan it, and then do that whole horrible process to upload the photo.”
“So you never saw what your penpal looked like?”
“I didn’t! Until the day I met her.”
“Oh, you met her.”
“She was in England. I was in England with my girlfriend. Suddenly, I saw this girl, and I was like, wow, this girl is beautiful, and I’m already such good friends with her.”
“Did you fall in love with her?”
“I did,” I said.
“How was it?”
“It was terrible! It was horrible.”
“That’s too bad. Did you break up with your girlfriend and date your internet friend?”
“And it didn’t work.”
“It sure didn’t,” I said. “Here I am. Here I am right now.”
“What do you want to do?” she asked. “Right here and right now?”
“We can either walk around the park, go to a karaoke box, or go to a love hotel and have sex.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“It’s your choice,” I said. “I can’t choose anything. I’ve never chosen anything in my life. I am not about to start now.”
I looked her in the eye. She made a curious grin. One of her canines was made of silver. It left a striking impression. What a curious and interesting addition to a human smile. I wondered if it had a story.
She made a choice.
Three hours passed in varying degrees of silence and noise.
Then the girl had to go to Omotesando to shop with her sister. I bid her goodbye. She gave me a little tiny kiss on the cheek. She told me my lip was bleeding. I put my hand up to my lip. She was right. She made a pouty face.
“That’s a bad omen,” she said. “‘Should you see blood on the last day of travel . . .'”
She was quiet. I was quiet. I expected more words.
I wanted to ask her to finish the proverb. I’d never heard it before. The silence continued. Dread crept in as we looked in each other’s eyes. Maybe this proverb has no other words.
I spoke: I told her she had better go. I didn’t want to know.
I put my rental phone into the provided envelope and dropped it into a mailbox in front of a love hotel. I felt like James Bond for an instant. I walked into my favorite eyeglass shop and purchased a pair of solid gold frames. I walked the city of Ueno with the greatest feeling of lightness and forgetfulness. The temperature turned on a one-yen coin; autumn trickled into the breeze. The breeze dried my sweat. I felt light and alive. I walked up and down the street beneath the hot sun of a noontime. I walked into the park and stared at the fountain. I walked to Akihabara and back. I drank two Japanese cane-sugar Coca-Colas. I drank a Kirin Afternoon Tea Lemon Tea. I ate a bag of chocolate chip cookies. I walked Ameyayokocho and watched shoppers fight over footstep real estate. The sun pulled up higher and grew hotter. I didn’t have a phone anymore: my old American iPhone was in the coin locker. I didn’t know what time it was. I figured it was time to go.
I retrieved my suitcase. I got onto the Keisei Skyliner headed to Narita Airport. The sky was clear as ice. The sun was hard and bright. The train tracks curved. I saw Tokyo Sky Tree over everything. I looked at it. I remembered the whole experience in sparkling clarity.
There was the night of the saddest moment of my entire life. Myself, Maiko, and another artist I respect, Christine Love, were in a cafe called L’ambre. L’ambre is essential Shinjuku. The dirty sign outside says they have “200 seats” inside. The place looks like a hole in the wall. If you go in, the attendant ushers you downstairs, into a stone and wooden cavern of velvet chairs and mahogany tables. On the brick wall facing the seating area is a wooden engraving of Beethoven. Excellent recordings of excellent performances of timeless music play out of peerless, hidden speakers. That night, it was Beethoven. I ordered a cafe au lait; Maiko ordered a hot chocolate.
“It seems like something is on your mind,” Maiko said.
“Something is on my mind,” I said. “Something terrible is on my mind. It fills me with terror and also with optimism.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“It is a story that might take some time to tell,” I said.
I turned to Christine Love. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m about to tell a story that I have to tell in Japanese. I’ll translate it later, and write something about it. For now, I’m going to have to speak Japanese for a few minutes.”
Maiko heard my story with a concerned face.
I told her that I had been, for the moment I’d just described in great detail, sadder than I had ever been in my entire life. She nodded.
“It’s mysterious,” she offered. “I perfectly understand.”
I do believe Maiko perfectly understood my story.
I don’t believe you’ll be able to perfectly understand my story. That is because these are printed words. I only have so much power with printed words and an audience the size of which I do not understand. I cannot guarantee you that I will be able to communicate with perfection the gravity with which the moment descended into me. I can only describe the scene and the objects in the scene. You may have to imagine your own similar scene, and your own similar objects, and even then I cannot guarantee a faithful translation of my feelings.
However, I can hope that I have, in the words up until these, given you a majority of the tools which empathy requires.
Chapter Three: My Collection Of Ghosts
I woke up early on the morning on which I’d experience the saddest moment of my entire life. I’d been away from my home of nine years for three years; my biological clock might have wanted to make every minute count.
I emailed Brandon to say that I was going to go to Koenji. I took the Marunouchi Line from Akasaka-Mitsuke to Shin-Koenji. I walked up the arcade street toward JR Koenji Station as the shops lazily opened. I listened to Happy End on my iPhone. I took several Instagram photos. I drank a coffee at Precious Coffee Moments. It really was a perfect day with perfect weather, in my beautiful, mostly unchanged home town of many years. Being there before shops opened was maybe the best way for me to experience it. What better way is there to experience a town you loved having the privilege of living in? To be able to experience all the interiors would be too emotional.
Brandon and I were going to Nakano Sakaue at three PM that day, and that was on the Marunouchi Line. I was at JR Koenji Station. I could walk twenty minutes back to the Marunouchi, or — I devised a plan. I could take the JR Sobu Line to Ogikubo, the neighboring town where I’d lived before I moved to Koenji. In Ogikubo, the JR and Marunouchi Lines are in the same station. Also in Ogikubo is a vegan cafe that serves Japanese-style vegan food. I told Brandon we should meet in Ogikubo. He replied that he’d be able to get there in an hour. I told him I would take the train and be there in five minutes. I’d meet him at the station. I had fifty-five minutes to kill. I wandered the backstreets for a bit, and eventually ended up at the massive Book-Off used book store. I’d wasted many hours of my life in that Book-Off, on my way home from work. The place was open until midnight. Being there in the middle of a weekday afternoon felt different and exciting.
A weird idea came to me. I had stopped in at a number of small grocery stores since arriving in the country, in vain search for a particular brand of propolis lozenge. The lozenges are one of my favorite things in the world. They’re excellently soothing to the throat. I used to take them all the time when I was more frequently screaming in a band. They’d been my favorite lozenge for many of my years in Tokyo. And one of the places I could always count on to stock them was the tiny vegetarian supermarket in Ogikubo.
The funny thing about the tiny vegetarian supermarket in Ogikubo is that it was located less than a minute’s walking distance from the wonderful designer apartment I’d rented there for a time. I didn’t know that before I moved into the place: Ogikubo’s suburban backstreets are a deep and fascinating labyrinth of residences and businesses. It turned out to be a happy bonus that a vegetarian supermarket existed so close to my home, back then.
I left the Book-Off and walked directly down Church Street, in the direction of the tiny vegetarian supermarket which sat on the corner of a zig-zagging cross street that led eventually to my old apartment. I went into the tiny supermarket, noticing right away that it was no longer a “vegetarian” supermarket, and was now more of a “supermarket that stocked a few vegetarian items”. I couldn’t find the lozenges. This place, more than the skeleton of Tokyo, at least, had changed in the last six years since I’d been there.
“Excuse me,” I said to a woman who was crouching in the corner, affixing price tags to items with a pricing gun.
“Just a moment,” she said, balancing herself on her haunches. She stood up. She dusted her hands on her apron. She turned around.
“Nii-san!” she exclaimed, fulfilling one of my oldest fantasies: that a woman old enough to be my aunt would someday turn around and exclaim, “Big brother!” to me in a voice befitting a Japanese soap opera actress.
I’d known this lady for the duration of my time in Ogikubo. We always had excellent small talk, in a city that just plain didn’t do small talk. Once she offered to come over to my house and cook me a vegetarian soup. I should have eaten that soup. The schedules didn’t line up. I am not even talking about sex: I’m saying she was a sexy old lady who would have then, post-soup-cooking, become my only Japanese Vegetarian Friend. I would have loved to have such a friend.
“I thought you’d never be back!” she said.
“I moved to Koenji,” I said.
“You came back a few times after that,” she said.
“You still had that gym membership here in Ogikubo. What happened after that?”
She remembered my gym membership! Every time I’d ever come in the store after moving, I’d certainly had my gym bag on me.
“They just didn’t extend my visa.”
“So you had to leave the country?”
“You poor thing! Did you move back to America? You look so healthy.” I was relieved for an instant that she hadn’t told me I looked skinny.
“I moved to San Francisco,” I said, instantly hating myself a tiny bit for saying “San Francisco” when I really lived in and preferred Oakland.
“What are you doing here? Are you on vacation?”
“It’s a business trip.”
“Oh! Oh, that’s wonderful.”
“I have my own company,” I bragged to the woman.
“That’s splendid. Did you come by just to say hi to me?”
“I . . . I did! And I also thought I would get some of those propolis lozenges.”
She smiled. She was so old. She’d aged a decade in those three years.
“They’re right up here by the register.”
“The bag looks different.”
They’d ditched the white bag with the cartoon bee and honeycomb pattern for a dark, serious green with a design of more realistic bees.
“Yeah, they changed it. They taste the same!”
“I’ll take a whole bunch of these,” I said. I grabbed a bunch.
“Get some of these new ginger-daikon ones, too,” she said.
She grabbed two bags of ginger-daikon lozenges.
She rang up the lozenges.
“So what brings you to this neighborhood?” she asked.
“Well, I have a meeting in Nakano-Sakaue in a couple hours and, you know — I figured I’d stop by.”
“Y–. . . yes.”
I hadn’t been reminiscing until she suggested it. My brain had been cold. Now, reminiscence began to warm the inside of my skull.
An old friend had informed me he was coming to Tokyo to study as a graduate student at Tokyo University for a semester. He asked where he should live. I told him that Minami-Senju was a good area: he could pay cheap rent for a decent, newish studio apartment, and if he bought a cheap bicycle, he could ride that bike straight down the road to school every day. Furthermore, it was a quaint old area that felt like being someplace to live in. Finally, if he lived in Minami-Senju, he could come hang out at my house literally whenever he wanted.
My friend took every bit of my advice. He popped in to my place every other day. One of his pop-in texts, which I recall to this day, was: “hey dude do you want to chill out real soon”. And I replied, “How soon is real soon?” His reply to my reply: “like thirty seconds from now”. I replied, “Let’s do it.” He knocked on my door. We’d sit around my living room drinking ice tea and laughing at popular culture.
Eventually, when his semester was up, he popped in to ask if I wanted his bicycle.
“Do you want my bicycle?”
I shrugged. It wasn’t a literal shrug. It was a figurative shrug. “Sure,” I said.
“Because, if you want it, it’s right outside your house. I’ll walk home tonight.”
He walked home that night. I went out to behold the bicycle. It was green and sturdy and very new. Its seat was a plush light-brown leather. I poked the leather with my finger. Satisfied with its softness, I went back inside.
I didn’t actually need the bicycle. I was working at Sony in Akasaka at the time. I lived less than a three-minute walk from the train station. I rode the train into the city, transferred at Ueno, and was at work in under a half an hour.
After a few months, a weekend day of beautiful weather appeared. It had been so dreary and rainy until then. I figured I’d ride the bike to Asakusa. I went out to the bike garage and lifted the bike from its slot. Then I noticed that the back wheel was locked with a combination lock. I went inside, opened up my chat client, and asked my friend what the combination was to the lock. He said he wasn’t sure. He’d just always kept the right numbers all one number away. I tried a few variations. I couldn’t get the lock off. “I’m sure you can call somebody,” he said. “You can get them to cut the lock off. I gave you the papers.” He had, in fact, given me the papers. I didn’t want to bother with it that day. I walked to Asakusa instead. I stood by the Five-Storied Pagoda and looked at tourists and at the blank sky over the river in the distance.
Eventually, I decided to move. I wanted to move to Koenji, though Ogikubo was more practically appealing — what with the Metro and JR Lines in one station, and all the conveniences and amenities surrounding that station, and the cheap rent, and the fancy new apartments. I was in a financial position, at this point, to hire movers to deal with my things. The movers were prompt and swift. After they boxed and removed everything from the inside of my house in less than ten minutes, one of the movers asked “Do you have a bicycle outside?” For the first time in nearly a year, I remembered the bicycle. “Yes,” I said. I took the guy around back. He asked which bike was mine. I said, “It’s that green one with the brown seat.”
He loaded it onto the truck.
The movers arrived at my new place in Ogikubo before I did. I walked up and their truck was idling in the narrow street beside my building. I waved to them. I opened the gate. I unlocked my front door. They hauled everything out of the truck and into the apartment. My new apartment looked so much bigger than my old one. My television that had looked so big in Minami-Senju looked so tiny in Ogikubo. The ceilings were higher, the wood was whiter — . . . I was standing in the center of the living room with my hands on my hips, my arms akimbo, surveying the boxes and considering the fastest path to a moved-into house. I texted Maiko: “My new house makes my TV look so tiny.”
A mover cleared his throat behind me.
“Sir? We didn’t see any bikes parked outside. We put your bike atop the pavement behind the building.”
“Oh — alright. Thanks a lot.”
“We need you to sign this form.”
I signed the form.
The lady at the tiny vegetarian supermarket told me “Take care in your travels,” and I told her I would be sure to. “I’ll try to be back much more often from now on,” I said. She smiled at me. I left the supermarket and turned right, toward the zig-zagging backstreet of that suburban labyrinth. I followed the path past the Sun-Kus convenient store and past “Studio Ten”, which I’d always wondered if it was a music studio or what. The air was hot. The sun was invisible. The clouds were fast. I was sweating. The sweat was cold. My throat was scratchy. An innocent remembrance introduced itself to my mind: the movers who moved my things from Ogikubo to Koenji hadn’t asked if I owned a bike.
I’d left the bike in Ogikubo.
Halfway through the one-minute walk to my house, I allowed myself to wonder: What if the bike is still there?
When the building was in sight, I remembered: after pointing to my bike that morning in Minami-Senju and telling the mover it was the green one with the brown seat, I’d never seen my bike ever again. I’d lived in that building for over a year, and I’d never once gone around the back of the building to look at the bike parking garage.
I reached through the gate and undid the inner latch. I pulled the gate open. I walked around the back of the building.
There, parked on the pavement adjacent to the windowless side of the building, were three bicycles. The one in the middle was green with a tattered brown seat and a red-rusted chain. Around its tires and beneath its kickstand were fingertip-size dried orange pools of exhaled rust.
This sight entered my eyes and chilled my skin simultaneously. I let out a low, sudden, sharp, silent, vomit-velocity groan. In the space of that groan, I remembered everything. I first remembered my friend who had killed herself. I remembered her vicious, weird prank from beyond the grave. I remembered Funako and why she would always hate me. I remembered my internet penpal from England and the girl whose heart I broke because of my internet penpal from England. I remembered the wretch I was when I first met Maiko; I remembered the childish person I continued to be for many years after that. I remembered and understood my failure to commit emotionally or professionally to anyone or anything. I remembered my bands. I remembered the green-haired girl. I remembered how much I had loved Heather. I remembered the unmistakably perfect woman I’d met in Hawaii: all I had to do was say yes to her just once. I understood myself as a self-saboteur. I understood that if I used mathematics to analyze my history, I could only conclude I was a bad person. I knew for once that I liked having an “interesting” life. I finally knew that I had ruined myself again and again on purpose. I understood the impossible depth of my hatred for myself.
My bicycle had not moved a millimeter in seven years. The rust breaths on the pavement were perfect in their situation. No one had touched or moved this bicycle. In fact, the other two bicycles — shiny, new, well-loved, and often-used — had been aligned on either side of my bicycle, in the same twenty-two-point-five-degree angle with the side of the building.
Here was a thing two people who did not know one another saw every day. Its details did not occur to them. They did not consider it a thing with a purpose. They did not consider it an object with an owner. Furthermore, they did not consider the owner.
They had respected it.
What they did not know was that it was an object someone had placed with no care, never intending it to become the foundational template by which they aligned their similar objects. The bicycle had never been a theory, and now it was a law.
With a careful mind, I weighed the shame of every opportunity I had ever missed. I did this for a time that felt like eternity. In reality, one second passed by and then was gone.
Simply put: something I had left behind had stayed where I had left it, untouched, unmoved, unchallenged, unignored, and respected for galactically exponential magnitudes more time than I had ever devoted to its consideration or memory. Meanwhile I, as an adult, had no thing I had done on purpose to point to and be proud of.
Another groan of horror escaped me. I could not move. I took my phone out of my pocket. I photographed the bicycle. It would be hours later, when recounting the story to the first of a few select friends, that I realized I did not touch the bicycle. I did not kick its tires. I did not poke its seat. I did not pick it up and carry it to a place where the police would haul it away. (I’d later consider a hypothetical conversation: “Hello? Officer? I left this bike here seven years ago and then erased it from my memory on accident; can you please destroy it?”) I simply snapped a photograph and left, internalizing the turgid fear that I had satisfied a curiosity I should have left alone, and the fear that if I came back in ten years and that bicycle was still there, I would surely die on the spot, of History’s Hardest And Weirdest Heart Attack.
Here was a perfect metaphor. It was mine. I had caught it in a jar. It would never leave that jar. I was atop my own tower, peering into the gleaming windows of a distant tower of similar height: inside was myself, sitting on a bench beside a basketball court.
The horror and beauty and sadness sunk in with the speed of a sniper’s bullet. At the deepest bottom of this was the somewhat-freedom of knowing that, for better or for worse, I would be alive to understand this — later.
The hard silence of a slow moment slid by like a fast cloud. I was sick for that moment. I am better now. I will be better for as long as I continue to live.
I feel no need to cite the name of any French philosophers when I say that the animal fear of death is behind and above every human thought. Likewise, I won’t dwell that it is “possible” to see darkness in any mundane thing. I feel like we should not dwell on darkness for its own sake; as a matter of tired fact, it is everywhere. I saw darkness, evil, and death in my bicycle. This is no complex problem: this is nature.
I am nature.
With a heavy heart which became in an instant a lighter heart than I have ever known, I turned my back on the ancient object and led my collection of ghosts elsewhere.
—tim rogers, oakland, california, 22 october 2013