Friday, January 31, 2014

Imperial Palace

When I awake it's still dark with not even the hints of light cracking the stout shadows cast down on my building by neighboring skyscrapers. My apartment smells stale, like medicine and sweat, and I throw open the window over my bed, which pops with an audible suction gasp as bad air escapes.

I shower and dress in near-darkness, only allowing for yellowed light from the bulbous lamp on the dresser across from my bed. It doesn't adequately do the job, but I don't want to let my neighbors or passers-by on the street that I'm already awake. That sort of knowledge breeds questions that I'd rather not have asked in silence while people stare at the door to my complex. The man in 302 was up before the sun, they think, playing detective in their minds. What does that gaijin do while others sleep?

While I peel on clothes I boil water for my instant coffee, and when it's done I sip it on my unmade bed and listen to the garbage trucks begin their runs on nearby alleys, the cracking of metal on metal serving as an alarm clock for anyone within earshot. The coffee tastes like wet dirt, so I add some Suntory Yellow from the bottle conveniently kept next to my bed. The sickly sweetness evens things out, the mix of caffeine and alcohol holding hands as they slide down my throat and shoot into my veins.

Sunrise means Saturday. Saturday means I go to the Imperial Palace. I leave my apartment and descend into Bakurocho station just as streaks of sun first reflect off the glass of the apartment buildings behind me. In my backpack I have a thermos of more instant coffee mixed with Suntory, a cap for when the sun rises high enough to beat on my thinned hairline, and a notepad with several ball-point pens if I decide I want to take notes. I hop the JR Line and the air's just as stale as in my apartment, only this is a prolonged staleness, pushed around by trains to the point where it smells and tastes normal while you huddle between salarymen leaving for another day in the office.

I get off the train about a mile from the Palace. Although I could end up closer, I like the brisk walk; it helps me wake up and gives the sun time to fully take its place -- although, as usual, the financial district skyscrapers adjacent to the Palace grounds snatch daylight and give everything a sickly pallor. The salarymen who got off the JR Line with me push their coats together and lean into the breeze funneled between pillars of glass and stone, their briefcases held behind them, lugged like it's cuffed to their hands and weighs more than they can manage.

Water encases the Palace grounds in an old-fashioned moat. I sit on a stone guardrail on one of the many bridges over the water and picture a scenario involving the financial salarymen banding together and retreating into the palace for safety in the case of some ineffable disaster or a stock market collapse. In either case, I sit on the stone as they rush along, drinking my coffee mixture. As they pass I'm sure one Samaritan stops and shouts something at me in hurried Japanese that I don't understand. His tie is undone and he never quite stops moving away from whatever terror sets out against him. I wave him off and light a Seven Stars cigarette. He runs off as I blow smoke and the sun finally crests one of their monoliths and embraces my face in warmth.

I eventually continue into the Palace, and that's when I hear it. Beginning as a dull whir not unlike a low-flying airplane, the noise gets louder the farther I walk. I light a cigarette and inhale deeply. A colored blur between the trees and my smoke catches my eyes; my pace quickens.

The road before the Imperial Palace is a a long, narrow oval loop of more than a mile filled with men and women on bicycles of every conceivable shape and size. Many are sporty and fast, piloted expertly by individuals forcing bodies into stretchy spandex clothes and hunched over handlebars, leaning into turns trying to gather as much speed as possible and show off for each other. Others are unwieldy, steered by wobbly-handed children on training wheels while their doting parents amble behind and laugh. Together they are a harmony of color and noise that you can't see during the week because the road's open to normal traffic.

I close my eyes and lay on the grass under a massive zelkova tree and nothing's in my mind. Not salarymen fleeing unknown horror. Not the garbage trucks banging around outside my apartment. Not any judgments against a gaijin cramped away. I just smoke and sip my coffee mix and listen to the sound of the bikes as they blaze past, the chorus of shifting gears and spinning wheels on asphalt.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The elevator

The sun sets. Shinjuku is bright but only selectively, a flashlight flicking on and off between spots you're not supposed to see at night. I wander until I look up and the Kinokuniya bookstore shoots out of the ground before me, a hive of brick and soft shoes plodding fixed lines in and out. I bite my nails and watch the people come and go like ants as I prepare to join them.

I enter the store and make straight for the elevator. I go inside and count the buttons from the bottom until I get to number five. I take a deep breath, hold it, and press the button. An amber bulb flicks to light and off I go.

Elevators are curious. Each time the door closes and opens, I wonder if I've left behind my reality. Have I stepped into an alternative universe where things are mostly identical except for one critical component I don't realize has changed? The thought makes me anxious and I bite at my thumbnail.

I'm alone for four seconds until the elevator shudders to a stop and the doors swing outward on the third floor. A mother and a child enter wearing matching salmon-colored skirts. The elevator is narrow, little more than a phone booth, so the woman and I are nearly touching without trying.

The door shuts. Reaching past me to press the eighth, top button, the woman's hand brushes against my arm. My head snaps up instinctively. Sumimasen, she says. I nod but don't look away and we stare at each other. Her high cheekbones are painted with touches of foundation to cover any blemishes and her lips shine with gloss that smells faintly of lychee, all offset by obsidian hair. She finally has the decency to blush and that's my cue to realize how absurd I must appear staring at her in an elevator.

The door opens once more on the fifth floor and I rush off. I look back and the girl waves at me with one hand while clutching her mother's salmon skirt with the other. I scrunch my face. Am I smiling? The mother and I make eye contact once more. I think I might be blushing now.

The girl waves until the door slides shut and the elevator and the elevator continues its journey without me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The platform

The platform at Tsukiji is a knit mass of humanity, a collection both perfectly still but also humming with tiny, insect-like movements. There's a way people stand in anticipation, leaning slightly forward and peering out of the corners of their eyes, waiting for something to change but not wanting to delay its onset. A watched pot, and all.

The woman in front of me has long black hair that shines dully under the fluorescent lights and runs down to her back. Wind from the coming train down the tunnel buffets her hair and pushes it to the right, into the arm and shoulders of a man who loosely holds her hand.

A man's at my side. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder. He tries to hide his cough beneath his gauze mask, but his whole body shudders, rattling down his body, from his pressed three-piece charcoal suit to the black umbrella with its brown faux-leather tip.

The train arrives. More wind carries across the platform and we all sway like wildflowers in a breeze, hair, suits, and coats. I can't see the man behind me, but I hear him shift his folded newspaper from his left armpit to his right armpit and huff a short sigh.

The train is six cars long and when it comes to rest before us is when the frenzy begins. I face the fourth car from the front, the doors open, and out spill the salarymen, shoppers, and even a couple gaijin like me. Stuffed into the packed compartment, they flood out like a wave crashes on a breaker, finding cracks between waiting passengers to move, brushing aside me in spaces I didn't know could fit them.

For a few seconds the train is only part-full, a vacuum about to be filled. There's a silence that lasts for the time it takes to check my watch to see how long it will last. This is the only moment where everything is completely still and I hold my breath because I couldn't breathe even if I want to.

Then the train's speakers chime and I surge forward, and the water that just flowed out ebbs back, carrying me into the train and out and away from the station, no longer one in a densely packed mass. Suits stitch together, umbrellas interlace, and hair and skin become a tangle of flesh and mass where one person is indistinguishable from the next.

I'm the sagging-faced salaryman commuting an hour each way to work and unable to get a seat, clutching my briefcase lest it be torn from my hands and carried off beyond my grasp. I'm the young mother burying her child's face in her purple blouse while I bury my face in his shoulder and rock back and forth, held up by larger men who also can't move.

I'm the woman from the platform with the long hair who has lost the hand of her companion. I'm the man whose newspaper has fallen to the ground and is unrecoverable. I'm the man in the dapper suit with a cough that shakes the train starting at the tip of his umbrella. I'm the young white gaijin with the nonetheless receding hair and a burgeoning beer gut clinging to a hanging hand-hold, eyes wide.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Super Dry

Asahi Super Dry tastes like I imagine I look when I'm done drinking it: Spent and unpalatable yet somehow still managing to allure.

I remove the packet of cold tempura from the plastic 7-11 bag and shove it past my balled up gloves into my coat pocket. All that's left is the can and a sloshing, bubble-burning noxiousness.

The bag's for modesty. Opaque and green and white, it covers all but the metallic can top. Who are we fooling? Anyone bothering a glance would know I'm sitting on a low stone wall in an alley adjacent to the store; it doesn't hide anything.

They don't look; they never do. Eyes-to-shoes so polished you could lose a staring contest with yourself. Any that do happen a glance see through me, just another part of the alley, blending back into stained rock and leftover puddles from overnight rain.

I drink the Super Dry slowly, savoring each disgusting, tinny sip until only a few mouthfuls remain.

I can't remember what my goal was when I first got to Tokyo. Sure, I know what I tell people, about research and immersion and interviews that generate hours of materials I've failed to transcribe. But that was ages ago, back up a churning series of train transfers and cold nights where the rain seeps into the cracks and begins to dissolve anything it touches.

Across from my at the alley's mouth there's a tomato red post office box. People trickle up to it almost haphazardly with a look of bemusement on their faces. like depositing the paper in their hands is a confusing afterthought. One man approaches and dumps dozens of small envelopes in the box. He's as red as it is, and his fat face looks like it has invisible hands squeezing it from every conceivable direction.

Once fat face plods off, I finish my Super Dry and walk to the post box. I pull back the metal lid and shove it inside, bag and all, watching it disappear and hearing the satisfying clink as it settles on the heap of freshly-deposited letters.

I take one of my Seven Stars from my pocket and light it up as I return to my perch in the alley.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The nurse

The woman on the Ginza Line wears a surgical mask that covers her nose, mouth, and most of her chin. She could be a nurse, with that eggshell jacket over grey pants. I bet she has a cute mouth under that nickel's worth of filtration fabric, the kind that curves up a little even when she's not smiling.

I should introduce myself. Maybe I wink and tell her I have an illness. That probably earns me a slap, or she pulls the emergency stop lever, sending the train into a lurch a few hundred yards shy of the station. The people on the platform would lean over the cautionary yellow lines and gawk at the train that stopped short. That is, if she understands me at all and my words win more than a puzzled glance.

We're alone in the car. She reads a glossy, crumpled copy of Vogue. An airbrushed vixen as pale as the moon's on the cover. I don't recognize her.

The train stops at Shinjuku station and she gets off. It's not my stop, but for some reason I get off too. I think I'm bored. I could use a drink.

I follow my nurse at a distance. Pachinko parlor lights shine like stars in my eyes because in the city there are no stars and sometimes no sky. When she stops to poke around a newstand I buy a pack of Seven Stars from a vending machine and light one. The smoke burns and dances down the back of my throat.

She descends down a random stairway. The back-lit sign above reads "BAR: Second Chances" with what I guess are the appropriate characters beneath in angular faux brush-strokes painted in thick black lines. It's too perfect. I leisurely finish my cigarette, flick it away, and follow her down.

I emerge into the bar. What does she do? Scream? I might scream if I realized someone was following me. Then I'd probably get perplexed looks from a hive of salarymen that would rather watch their shoes or follow precise lines from home to work and back again. That lanky white man, they'd think in words I don't know. Does lanky even translate? Baka gaijin.

The room would be better lit if not for the smoke like a veil on the lights. It's sterile otherwise, with white walls accented by red and blue lights that take turns going on and off through the haze. Of course this a place a nurse would come.

My nurse doesn't scream or even notice me. She sits at the end of the bar. There are a few others in the narrow bar, but they're no concern. Her mask is off and she's smoking a cigarette and rotating a pack of Camels in her hand. She even already has a drink, a full glass of pale amber, maybe umeshu.

I sit three stools away from her. Why risk it? I raise my hand and order an Asahi, dropping a 500 yen coin that rumbles and settles on the opaque plastic bartop.

"Weren't you on the train?" I only turn my head at the slightest angle when I speak. Her posture stiffens. She heard me but doesn't respond.

My drink arrives and I nod to the bartender. He's small and twitchy. Like me. Only his hair's luxurious and nearly draped over his eyes.

"The Ginza Line?" I try again, still not looking at her. "Don't worry, I'm not following you or anything like that." I laugh a little too hard, and when I realize it I pull another Seven Stars and light up. She's inching away, leaning into the wall on her left like she's hoping it will swallow her up and take her away. Sometimes I wish the same thing for myself.

Sumimasen, she mumbles.

"Gotcha," I say. Can't press my luck. My Asahi's barely cold and I drink it in ten straight gulps. Each tastes like smoke. The bartender and my nurse both watch. He's astonished and I can't see her eyes which are hiding behind the smoke wafting from her Camel. Sumimasen, I tell her.

I stumble back from my stool and leave without looking back. Her cigarette hangs limply from her mouth. It's beautiful, by the way, just a bit upturned. Like I always imagined.

Friday, January 24, 2014


I wake up like I never slept. The fluorescent lights above me flicker to life one at a time over several seconds. It's not quite dark outside, but it's not morning.

I sit on the edge of my bed and open a rainbow can of coffee that I bought last night from the vending machine in anticipation of this exact moment. Cold and sweet syrup runs down my chin with the first, awkward sip.

There's a lowball glass on the bedside table next to a half-full, face-down flask bottle of Suntory yellow. I pour the glass halfway full of gold and dump in enough coffee drink to put the liquid line just below the rim, stirring with my right index finger as I go. I suck on my finger and get a hint of what's to come.

The mix is astringent and sweet, but the coffee cuts the burn of that first 6 a.m. drink going down rough. I down somewhere between a third and half the glass in one big gulp and refill it with more Suntory.

At this point the color's not too far from the yellow label on the bottle, a creamy, washed-out dandelion. Half of the glass disappears in the next surge, but with the pump primed it all goes down so easy.

I sit for long minutes staring down into the glass. The sun's only just clawing its way out from behind the blockade of buildings outside my window above my bed. Come to think of it, the first wisps look like the bottle, too.

One more surge and the glass is empty. I drop it sideways onto the nightstand and stumble to my feet. I feel a power slosh down to my feet and up to my head for a moment before finally settling in my stomach.

I wipe my mouth on my bare arm, pull on my jeans, and grab my wallet and keys from on the nightstand. The rainbow coffee can's still in my hands, so I take a final slug to even things out and drop the can on the carpet.

By then the sun's earnestly peeking above the buildings and has found its way to my window.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Seven Stars

I removed the last Seven Stars stick from its package and shoved it between my lips. "Never enough," I mumbled to no one in particular as I took out a faded baby blue lighter from my green and white flannel shirt pocket and lit the cigarette. Although the Seven Starts container was empty, I bundled it with the lighter and put both back in my shirt pocket.

I sat on a splintering bench next to a lime green vending machine emblazoned with Tommy Lee Jones' stern, wrinkled face over the word BOSS. The marketing always worked on me, and I scrounged 180 yen among ten small coins and fed them one-by-one into a slot just below the face. The slot clicked receipt of each coin until they were all deposited and I pushed the button for a Rainbow Mountain Blend, whereupon the machine hummed to life and spat out my drink with an appreciative thunk.

The can warmed my hand and my face as I took turns sipping the coffee and inhaling small drags of my cigarette. Each action brought pain to my cracked lips, but I didn't care about that or the spots of blood on the Seven Stars filter.

"Man got a quick spot for me?" A voice said in perfect English. I looked up into an ancient face full of so many bends and divots it seemed more a series of used up riverbeds running through steep, pock-marked canyons. Was this the man talking? Had Tommy Lee Jones peeled himself off the machine to ask me for some change?

"I'm all out," I replied, shaking my rainbow can at him.

"Then how about a smoke." His eyes were big and black; in them I saw my reflection in miniature, from balding head with wisps of hair to the pinprick of light on the tip of my cigarette. "One little pick-me-up?"

I laughed and tapped ash. "Just lit my last one."

He grunted with each movement as he sat down next to me on the bench. "Never enough," he said.

I took a big drag on the cigarette, tapped the ash one more time, and stuck it out to him as I exhaled a thick cloud. There was no wind, so the smoke hung in the air before us.

"Thanks son," the old man said, taking the cigarette and shoving it roughly between his lips. He leaned back and blew smoke above us. "Seven Stars?" I nodded and sipped my coffee. "Always my favorite."

"Glad to hear it."

"Why do you think they call it Seven Stars, anyway?" he asked with a smile that stretched the lines on his face to the point where he looked less like hardened stone and more the man he might have once been.

"It's just a name."

"So's Kaito," he said tapping his chest. "My name. My father gave it to me. But it's meaning also varies depending on how you write it out." He inhaled more smoke until the cigarette was reduced to just a filter, which he dropped at his feet while pushing out a rush of smoke from his lungs. "I always sort of thought it meant soaring over the ocean."

"Soaring over the ocean?" I finished the coffee and continued to cradle the rainbow can in my hands. The colors were reflective like abalone, shooting pearly metallic patches of reds, greens, and blues on my hands where any light connected.

"It makes me feel free."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


"Your lips are as red and juicy as this limp fish," I said.

"Really?" Janice stared at me down the bridge of her nose but above her tortoiseshell glasses.

"Gorgeous." Holding the headless, gutted fish close to my face so the brown wax paper that held it brushed against my cheek, I puckered my lips and moved them rapidly.

"Cut it out Benjamin." She tried to suppress a giggle but failed. Her hair was the color of creamed coffee and bounced on her shoulders as she laughed.

"My darling," I said as I held the fish out to her. Between my squeezed-together lips, the words sounded vaguely tinged with a bad French accent.

"Get it done with already," she blurted between laughs.

I handed the unwrapped carcass back to the woman with purple hair behind the glass counter. Her ivory name tag said "Vanessa" in blocky crimson letters the same-color as the snaking veins in her bloodshot eyes. I guessed she was more tired than annoyed with my antics.

"Will that be all," Vanessa sighed out, more a statement than a question. Her hair was dyed a light purple the color of children's cough medicine. The too-cold, recirculated air in the market tasted faintly of the thin, sticky syrup my parents would give me with the slightest sign of almost any illness.

"Sure thing," I said.

Vanessa weighed the fish, wrapped it with more of the brown wax paper, and stuck it with a price tag from a little machine that spat sticker price-tags. She handed me the completed package. I nodded to her and turned my head to Janice.

"I believe this is yours?" I handed the wrapped fish to Janice, who used it to smack the back of my head before dropping it into the blue carrying bin that sat by her feet.

"Now that you're done, let's get some beer and get out of here," she said.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Jamison lay on the ground and spread dead leaves like a quilt across his legs and stomach. Once candy red mixed with pale yellow, the leaves were now were uniformly brown as the year pushed deeper into winter. Each day colored the ground another, darker shade as no new leaves fell and the ones on the ground faded.

The leaves were dry and each gust of wind pushed around the top layer. To his eyes it seemed like his blanket was alive and moving. The olive-colored tips of his boots stuck out from under the leaves, and when he tried to wiggle his toes he found it difficult given how the boots were a little too tight on his feet.

Above Jamison was the only visible tree with any foliage left, a striking pine that jutted toward the sky as if challenging wind and cold. He imagined it was strident about how the rest of its neighbors were taken apart one bright leaf at a time. A few thick green-to-brown needles were interspersed between the other leaves on the ground, but they must be inconsequential to such a mighty tree, single skirmishes lost in an endless war it was winning.

With the sun filtering down through the needles and branches, Jamison curled into a ball under the leaves and slept.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The waterfall

I couldn't see more than a dozen feet ahead as I forced my way past branches like massive claws that raked my face. The light from my pen flashlight hit up against the fog between trees that settled in as the temperature dropped. It could have been a harbinger of coming rain, but my bald spot was cold and cracked and always the first to know when rain arrived.

As I walked, I began to hear a hum. From afar it was gentle, like the earth exhaling a never-ending sigh. Forging ahead, I soon recognized the noise of a waterfall, relentless water pounding on stone. Stumbling between tricky rocks that jutted out suddenly like a prankster's leg, the sound grew into a rumbling roar, a shout in the dark both beckoning and warning.

Then the world gave way, feet under mossy boulders, down an endless slope, face to earth. Wet dirt shot up my nose and forged its way between the cracks in my teeth. There was a momentary ringing in my ears that soon blended the deafening sound that blocked all others.

My flashlight was lost. I groped in the dark, but each movement of my hand was like a limb pushing through water. Instinct drove the search, as I could barely think over the noise of the falls. My face and the top of my head were wet with chilled, beaded drops that banded together and found their way to my face's grooves and rushed down like fast tears.

The waterfall was unyielding. Each movement was met by angry shouts drilling holes in my eardrums. I think I screamed, but it was impossible to hear whether or not that actually was the case.

I shook my head in an attempt to think clearly. I looked down at my watch only to realize that, without light, the dial would be impossible to read. It was supposed to be only hours from sunrise, but that felt like a lie told by my memory so I could remember there were places in this world not made of darkness and sound.

Abandoning my search for the flashlight, I clutched my knees, curled into a ball, and tried to fight thoughts through the waterfall's blockade one thought at a time.