A night out in Tokyo never fails to leave me feeling like an oyster without its shell. At around 5am, when I’m trying not to fall asleep on the heavily shochu-sedated salaryman beside me, the train station’s empty tracks slick across my hazy vision like a smear of grease and saliva on dusty concrete. When the first train finally pulls in, I muster the last of the resolve I’m holding down from bursting out of my throat to get back home.
Exiting the station is an act of God in itself. My heels must carry the weight of each drink bought that night because I sink into each step before I’m released to see the rising sun. When I’m finally absolved from the subway, the creek running alongside my street and I murmur about the places we’ve seen and the people we’ve doused that evening. I let myself sleepwalk up to my room as soon as my key turns the lock to the building.
Here’s the thing about the time I’ve spent in Tokyo so far: my heart never fails to find a reason to quicken its rhythm, but it can never hold this beat for long. It’s autumn now, my favorite season. My cheeks flush and grow heavy in between bites of roasted chestnuts. Leaves spin gold into fire, licking the tip of my nose as they sink down to smell the damp soil underneath us both. The newborn wind and I rub cheeks, gently encouraging the summer to be on its way with the edges of our persimmon-sticky fingers. The autumn chill nudges at the hairs on the nape of my neck like it wants to wrap itself around me forever. What can I do but hold on to it before it falls in love with a much more brooding winter?
A few evenings ago, I found myself sunk in against the brick wall of a club in Aoyama, trying to convince myself that I didn’t need a cigarette. The negotiations didn’t last for very long after I retched my most recent tequila shot onto the sidewalk. Some guy whose name I will surely never remember, but whose pawnshop-blonde dyed hair will always brand itself into my memories, pulled me up for a walk around the block. This of course (as it happens in my experience in Tokyo) only lasted as long as to the nearest convenience store. Seven Eleven’s fluorescent haven belched another delicious beer and probably something fried into my unkempt hands. My new friend with the bleached head led me up to his apartment above the store (how convenient for him!), watched me throw up again in his bathroom sink and sat me down on the couch. As my vision finally caught up to the stale taste underneath my tongue, his unabashed hands wandered around my waist and into my belt-loops. Before I had a chance to take a breath, his tongue groped the insides of my sticky cheeks. I quickly threw him off, grabbed my beer, and ran out of the place. Nine flights of stairs later, that beer was the very thing I needed to finally catch my breath.
For the most part, I’ve never really understood the shamelessness some men must harbor to continue to pursue a woman they’ve just witnessed vomit. The enthusiasm can’t possibly sustain itself by a mouth that smells like a thousand damp cigarettes and a handful of expired yogurt. Seriously, if I don’t even want to be inside my body after I’ve thrown up, why is there a creepy dude still following me?
Just as well, the first time I read Tolstoy’s, “The Devil,” I expected to turn to look over my shoulder and meet a pair of eyes peeping at me from between the library shelves. Tolstoy’s choice of sin snuck in down the collar of my shirt through the open window of seduction plots I have never been able to close. In “The Devil,” dear Stepanida does nothing wrong but wear a red dress and take long walks to feel the velvet touch of autumn leaves against her bare skin. The gallant Eugene takes a bite from the wrong cherry and brightens Tolstoy’s chastity belt like a brand-new Gideon bible in a dusty motel drawer. After reading both endings to the story, I had no remorse for Eugene’s incessant whining and wished I could hear about Stepanida’s far less monotonous existence. Tolstoy’s “devil” is just another allegory for the heroes and characters we blame and exalt. The evil will always seduce us, the good will always show us the way back home. Christian monogamy lets the naughty always shine with a silver lining, and white sheets to be perpetually stained with a few drops of blood. The bleak distance between a person and an idol continues to ride on our shoulders.
Not too long ago, as a high school student in California, I experienced my first naïve brushes with this kind of intimacy. Too often, I would step outside of a house party to spend a private moment with the asphalt of a stranger’s driveway. Shaken and blurred, but with a weight lifted off my chest, I’d stand up and turn to see a male friend’s concerned eyes glaze over me. I learned to sweep my callow movements aside with a self-deprecating joke (or two) and accept an invitation for a sip of water. Inevitably, one of these friends would drive me home and show me that they only wanted me as a baby bird with a broken wing. One they could tuck away into a shoebox, swaddled in their own lust and over-inflated sense of power. The night always culminated in a series of clumsy limbs closely knocking into misunderstandings of each other.
When I’m not running from misplaced decisions, I’m falling for people who treat me like a plant they hope will bloom the more it’s spoken to. Just enough distance, but close enough to feel their breath, something vibrates in me for the short time I concede to them. Like everyone else, I’ve been taught to visit the local commercial-brand quarry and pick up a freshly sweat-shop-produced pedestal and matching glass case to house my most recent infatuation. It’s nothing new, but it feels new every time I do it. I think most people want to be the muse for someone else’s change in character, even if they won’t admit it.
Since my move to Tokyo was a fairly recent change in my life, I assumed the new scenery would immediately alter me as a human being. As it happens, I’m still dealing with the same questions. Will there come a day when I won’t have to worry about being picked up by a man with ulterior motives after I’ve just borne my soul to the pavement? Should I always expect to be branded with someone else’s scarlet infatuations? How do I let myself see other people as they are? What creations of my own unfulfilled desires am I chasing?
Recently, I found out that the Japanese word for “tenderness” translates to a word similar to “ease.” I had never considered tenderness to be necessarily endowed with ease, but the translation led me to reconsider tenderness as a movement rather than state of being. Perhaps tenderness is a circuit between systems. In this circuit, we rely neither on memory, nor desire as anchors. It’s a touch that’s sculpted between passing moments. Of course, people don’t want people to be real. We fear the tactility of our bodies at the moment our idealized images become just like us. As painful as it is, a person should never forget the feeling of their skin puckering from the stench of a semi-digested meal falling to the dusty concrete beside a marble pedestal. I can’t expect anyone to change for me. At the same time, if someone else finds themselves disappointed with their imagined sketch of me, then so be it. I am not drawn by other’s interpretations.
There’s a C.P. Cafavy poem I read on one of those 5am trains that goes, “Body, remember not only how deeply you were loved… but also those desires that flashed openly in their eyes.” Cavafy urges not to succumb to the simple reiteration of a memory. Rather than tell stories over and over again, memory should root itself in the corporeal. We must notice our own reflections in people’s eyes, not the monuments built to an idea of us. Cavafy writes, “all of them are locked away in the past,” a reminder to be conscious of the body at a given moment. Rather than sift memory through a sieve, wash yourself with temporality like a cold shower and let go of the stains. Point to the vomit puddled around your feet and claim it.