I hadn’t been listening, and Charles looked at me searchingly as he finished his monologue: “And anyway, with the markets this crowded, there’s more cash floating around than there is demand – so we’re looking into alternative investments pretty heavily. Distressed debt, art, that sort of thing. And so here I am. What will you be doing down here?”
“Starting over,” I said. “Goldman hired me this spring, and over the summer I worked and trained in New York, and now I’ll be analyzing Japanese stocks for them. Based out of Tokyo with plenty of travel.” And I explained that I was just getting back into the field after a five-year hiatus.
“You’ve done it all,” he said, “and you are free – I have a wife and three kids, a home in upstate New York. And you, you just up and went.”
Yes, I just up and went. I can take some comfort in that. I am independent, solitary, anonymous, a man-upon-the-earth, a wanderer who answered the call to adventure and rejected the comforts of home. Alone and free against the madness of great cities.
I watched the plane window and waited for the appearance of coastline, but we remained shrouded in clouds even as we began our descent into Narita. Narita Kokusai Kuukou, I thought, and tried to shift my thoughts into Japanese. My heart was excited, and I waited in expectant watch. Charles continued his sound sleep in the seat beside me. I remembered how it had been at seventeen, my first time abroad and in Japan: the sun rose, Japan appeared, and I watched the apparition of the foggy coast and the first farms and houses with a girl in my arms – who knew we had twenty minutes until landing and then would never kiss or fool beneath an airplane blanket again, but we didn’t care and were focused on the moment. They don’t make moments like that anymore, not at thirty.
We landed and I walked into the new chapter of my life.
At customs: “Passport, please.” I handed it over and said something, and a raised eyebrow: Japanese OK? OK, I affirmed. He doubled his talking-speed to test me, and I said I was coming to work, here are my papers, staying initially with a friend in Tokyo until I find my own room. Tokyo where? Asagaya. Luggage? Carry-on only.
I moved quickly through the airport, still familiar in recognition if not recall. My eyes darted across the signs and my feet moved, thoughts suspended, and I smiled and bowed slightly to the workers and felt happy to be alive. And after changing money I arrived at the Narita Express, the train to the city center, and had time to buy an umbrella and pretzels before boarding.
As I waited, a conductor’s voice announced: several lines out of Shinjuku Station are closed, there is a typhoon approaching Tokyo. I’ve never seen a typhoon and look around the train-car, half-expecting to see my own excitement, or anything else, on the Japanese faces around me – but no one has turned their eyes from their newspapers.
The train leaves the station and is buffeted by rain. I open my journal and begin to write: This is my life made anew, this is my renaissance. I can go anywhere, do anything, and the cities of the world await me. And first, I’ll see Reiko – Reiko is meeting me at the station. I can’t wait to see her, it has been eight years and still she lives in Asagaya and will again meet me at Shinjuku Station. She is my window to this world, and I am ungrateful and a poor correspondent: she sent letters, and I responded months or years later.
We have to keep living, though the sets and actors change: such has been my attitude as long as I can remember, and it is difficult to keep in touch. Yes, the senior year of high school when she was an exchange student, and all those evenings we spent together speeding around West Michigan with her wearing my sweatshirts – and I sat on the dewy grass and cried when her plane lifted from the runway and slipped into the open sky, and didn’t see her again for four years – and then we had two weeks in Japan, with cigarettes in pubs, and dinners with actors and guitar-playing in parks – but then I was in New York, and no time to write. And then I met Rachel, and old memories tied to women faded and were lost for a time.
The train crossed rivers and the lights of love-motels and convenience stores began to appear in the window, and for a long time I sat and tapped a pen on the paper of my wide-open journal, and rain streaked the city as we burrowed further and further and the buildings began to grow beyond my sight. A red dot moved surely across an electronic screen and indicated our approach.
I arrived at Shinjuku Station, and my breath caught as I stepped onto the platform; everywhere the homebound remnants of a Friday night were moving to and from their trains. Lights – that is the image of Tokyo that burns into your mind, the childlike amazement that you never outgrow. The lights never go out in Tokyo. May they be a landing-strip that points my way to a home and happiness, and perhaps love. So many roads, grids of light – Again and again the paths branch, but no road is mine. Not this time, there is reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.
I paced and paced the station and was lost inside it, and was pleased to have to ask directions and loosen my throat; I feared, as always, that over the years my Japanese had packed up and went in protest against my failure to study and keep up with correspondence. I was pointed to a row of payphones, fumbled with the piece of paper, and called – the bright tone three times, and then a voice: Moshi moshi, Hello. And it was back, my speech and my memories. So many memories, inseparable from the language in which I lived them.
“Hey! It has been a long time–”
“A long time, a long time. Too long.”
“I have no idea where I am. Near the south entrance, the sign says – where are you?”
“Stay put, I’ll be right there.”
And in fact she was there, almost the same as always, and dressed in a raindrenched coat she ran forward and hugged me, and warmness flooded over me and I closed my eyes. And then opened them, and found that I was being inconsiderate – there was another there as well, a man. And my momentary heaven went suddenly cold, and unvoiced and unadmitted hopes rose suddenly to the surface and fled. But I blinked and admonished myself, and the vacuum was quickly filled with light and friendship.
We talked and I was led down a long hallway and up an escalator, and tried to take in the noise and the faces as we talked. Some moments are unembraceably large, but they too pass, almost unnoticed.
It is August, and some weeks since I started my job. I’ve found a rhythm: the train into the city, a day of work interrupted only by a lunch-hour of reading and writing, and then back to my tiny flat: an entryway with stove and sink, an adjacent closet-sized bathroom, and the two-mat room beyond that tripled as living room, bedroom, and office. Far better this way than last time I lived alone, in Manhattan – all that empty space, the tall ceilings where no heat could reach, the open floors where I paced. Here I need only rotate, pivot on a point, to find the things I need, and the space is full and not empty.
As every evening, I am exhausted and my eyelids are heavy, and I hurriedly drink a bottle of water and tie my running shoes, hoping to catch the final hour of day. I close the door behind me and stretch for a moment on the concrete balcony before bounding down the steps to the courtyard. The landlady was there – we had never met – and she stared at me in evident shock. I saw myself as she must see me: the first non-Japanese to ever set foot in this compound in Asagaya, far from the Irish Pubs of Shinjuku and the tourist marches of Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine, ten minutes’ walk from a minor station on a minor line of the rail system, a part of Tokyo never mentioned in guidebooks, nonexistent to the foreign mind. There I am – lost? An intruder?
I bowed and explained that I lived upstairs and was pleased to meet her, and there would be no trouble and I apologize for the surprise. And while she stood agape I slipped through the gate, and opened my stride quickly as I began the newly-familiar route. Now circling around bicyclers, now huddling against a wall to allow a car to pass along the narrow street. Past the cemetery, with traditional music playing softly from speakers mounted on the streetlamps. It’s comforting, the music, I had said; it’s annoying, Reiko had replied.
To my right the sun was setting. I ran, and ran, and with the passage of time my sense of alienation – the stares of the landlady and so many others, the universal assumption of strangers that we must communicate with grunts and points, began to relax and slip from me, and with it the accumulated stresses of my day in the office. Of late I’ve managed to resist my fears about work, about whether I am doing the right thing and fulfilling my potential, using what gifts I’ve been given. I treat such doubts as unwelcome, puddles to be jumped over. The flicker of a doubt, and I turn away.
And so with my doubts about Rachel: they arise, the could-have-beens, and I close my eyes and hold on to my grain of faith in the future. Freedom, I think; hard work; success. The surest path to happiness is the single-minded pursuit of accomplishment – I repeat that prayer to myself. Anxiety rises in me, cropping up at uncontrollable instances, but I wait for the day’s end and the run that awaits me. When I run, all of this is left behind, and for forty blessed minutes I am a being-in-the-world, entirely present, and my breath maps the heartbeat of eternity.
A Saturday morning, and I am walking the streets of Shibuya, taking pictures. I reach an intersection and turn each way, and follow whichever has the most activity. No destination, a traveler and his camera. Two months since I arrived, and still I have a sense of wonder and awe at my surroundings, and at the fact that somehow I among my people am the one who was selected for this life and its rapid changes of scene. I take hundreds of pictures, seeing the beautiful and new everywhere I turn.
With time I find myself returning to a familiar place, the third-floor Starbucks overlooking Shibuya Station. I sit on a barstool by the window, and below the lights of six intersections change at once and from all directions people wash into the open road, moving and scattering before another change and the cars and motorcycles replace them.
I think upon these things with music in my ear and my pen upon the paper, a stack of books advertising my interests before me. On either side are couples and groups: German girls on vacation, Japanese in school-uniforms, Americans consulting a Lonely Planet guide. Lonely planet, indeed. Again the lights change, again a mass of limbs and faces, an instant of emptiness and then the cars.
Reiko has turned out to be far busier than I had hoped – with her family, with her work. It has been two weeks since I saw her, since she and Kentaro had me over for a sashimi dinner. My coworkers remain distant: the Americans are utterly separate from their surroundings and make no effort to adjust, and the Japanese are submerged in their work at work and their home at home, and seem reluctant to admit me to their familiar company. I am part of neither world.
The major disadvantage separating now and the past is the introduction of distance. Before, alone in New York or Chicago or Ann Arbor, on long walks or during long silences I could pick up my phone and call home – my grandparents or parents, brother or sister. Now I must go to an international phone-booth, choose one among a row of pexiglass boxes to sit in, neither home nor in the city. It can’t be done on the move; elsewhere I could be, in a sense, with my family and also a part of the movement around me. Now such calls feel like a retreat, a giving-up in the face of what is difficult.
This is a dangerous line of thought, to be sure, and particularly so when one is in the midst of a major city, an undifferentiated mass of people, when who we are is lost in the noise and anonymity. And soon enough my thoughts, as always in these moods, turn to Rachel, the one who got away, the drug I cannot quit and the idol no creed can save me from worshipping.
It is true, as others have reminded me, that things were never perfect and were in fact deeply flawed, but this is reason and reason fails me. I look upon that time and remember fragments, no bird’s-eye view; fragments, in particular the tightness of embraces, my face in her hair and mouth upon her neck, the jigsaw fit of our hands which seemed cut from the human cloth by God himself. The elevator kisses and the reading-aloud of books, the reunions after time apart. My mind made of her a home on earth, a shelter against the elements. I struggle to remember the failures and the disappointments, to retain a balanced view, but reason fails me and is no guardrail against the abyss of loss.
One weekend morning in the fall I went to Kyoto by Shinkansen, the bullet-train. And I tried to focus on the characters of the Soseki novel open before me, tracing their vertical march along the page, but we were passing mountains and rivers. Finally I submitted, put the book away, and opened my journal. Again I was traveling, and the sense of adventure overcame my doubts. Japan in the window – Japan! And so on when I reached Kyoto Station, and the light of the early afternoon was bursting through the curving beams of the ceiling.
The day passed, and I found myself at Kinkakuji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. And there stood I between the temple and the gate, and the sky was reflected in the lily-filled pool beneath the bridge. All was much as I had left it a decade ago, on my last trip to Kyoto. Here I am, one and the same – and with me, my solitude. And the ever-present companion of my solitude: the face of a love lost, a face losing the immediacy of a recent memory and taking on instead the outlines of an idea, an unrealized dream. Enough time has passed that I can no longer recall her scent; I must travel with open sinuses and hope to chance upon it again, if it exists outside of her.
This place is unspeakably beautiful – remember that, focus on it. There is only now, this moment: and yet this moment contains all those that have gone before, and I am the story of my past. Kyoto – the temples, the mountains, the bridges over rivers, the shops and the Kansai dialect – it is beautiful, as was Bergen, as was Pisa. But the space between I and this place is not empty, nor free of troubles. There is no blank space left upon which to scrawl youthful dreams of mobility and cities and women. And there is ever a distance between here and where I wish to be.
February 14th, and the days were at last beginning to lengthen. Soon the day would arrive when I could leave the office and walk beneath the still-alive sun to the station. It has been a long winter: my eyes forced open every morning by an alarm, and then the lying still and seeing the dullness of the street-lamp in the space between the blinds. And knowing I must not be still, I must rise and take my place among the moving millions. At the end of the day, again, it is dark – and though, as before, I spend my lunch hour scouring novels and poems for meaning, looking up regularly to smile at a woman who passes, still the whiteness of the walls substitutes for the day, and when I leave at six night has fallen upon the city. Thus my winter: save for lunch, a life lived under artificial light.
It was an anxious morning, and I struggled to focus and keep my mind in the cells of the spreadsheet. The markets are quiet but my mind is awake and roaring. Again: there sits the fact of aloneness, and the fact of a love that is lost. The fact gapes naked before me, and I clench my mouth and look away, anywhere away. The undertow of office-noise leaves a film of disgust upon my tongue, and with driest eyes I cannot convince my lips to smile. The conversations are terse and I am gone before anyone can ask – to the bathroom, on a striding walk about the trading floor, to the window in the corner overlooking the haze and endless buildings.
Eleven came, and I moved quickly to the elevator. Early, but not inexcusably so. I could take it no more and had to leave – the charts and lines were leaping from the monitors and blurring in my eyes. I requested the ground, and the elevator began to fall and the screen flashed its neon ads. I was sick with myself, and knew in my heart what was coming. I felt what I was to do before I did it, the thought grew in my unconscious, and the sickness of guilt arose with bile in my throat.
Anxiety: more than fear. Fear has an object, something to which it can point and therefore embrace. Fear can be faced with courage. Anxiety is another thing altogether, for it has no object and is something faceless that will never meet your gaze and be stared down. Anxiety is directed toward the non-object, the nothing, the zero that waits between lines of text and threatens to rise and swallow everything. What nothing? The nothing that, perhaps, I am; the might-have-been; the hours passing while I write this, the nothing of failure, the nothing into which our minds spin myths and gods to fill the great gaps between the stars, the space between a man and woman where love may take up residence, and then leave and again be nothing.
I knew what I was to do, and hated myself for it. And I hate myself for it to this day. Vainly the arguments rose in my mind: this is a new life, a life began anew at thirty, a break with the past and the future remade. A ray, a ray. There is no time for these old sadnesses. Life passes, winter passes and soon it will be spring.
Nevertheless, I walked with downcast eyes two blocks to McDonald’s, grabbed a fistful of napkins and a pen, and wrote:
It’s Valentine’s Day, and almost a year since you left. And even longer than a year, considering that love exists only until the moment that one or the other person for a moment ceases to believe, and the bubble pops – or even entertains the notion: I could be alone, I could be with another, the future is not yet written. One day in the aftermath of an argument you looked with fresh eyes upon another, and thought: I could be his, and problems x, y, and z would go away. And then you were lost.
Our belief in each other was absolute. Within weeks we fell in love – do you remember? We agreed to fully give ourselves to each other, to push off from shore and allow the oars to sink beside our boat. There can be no love without a leap of faith. But we are human beings and not God, and time can turn our hearts elsewhere and make us forget the feelings that brought us to where we are.
It is only human to build our houses upon the shifting sand of another’s love. The lesson of Gatsby: we found the rock of our world securely on a fairy’s wing, we attach our eternal dreams to another’s perishable breath, and it cannot be otherwise. God wears no human skin, and the comfort of religion is a cold comfort, an over-the-counter salve upon bursting wounds. God is love and love has gone. The God-shaped hole in my life is a love-shaped hole, and I peer into those depths and see us walking in tandem, hand-in-hand, or standing close and smiling upon a bridge against the river and the city while strangers take our happy picture, and the same picture so many times over four long years.
I am ashamed to be writing this after so much time has passed. But I’ve forgotten nothing and moved no further forward, and even as the linear trail of time charges into the future, my heart will not follow in its blazing wake, and stands stubborn and immobile where we left it a year ago this April.
I do not wish to disturb you – no, that isn’t true. Once, once, you would stay up late and read my writing, and you understood, and it stirred something in you. Writing that does not touch ripples upon the flatness of our comfort is not worth the page it occupies. I am ashamed and made into a beggar tugging upon your coat, but the things in our hearts will manifest themselves whether we wish them to or not, and these are things that must be written, it could be no other way.
And I shuddered and closed the folds of the napkin-stack before I had to suffer again to look upon my sickness. And I dumped the tray of food-wrappings into the trash, and the flap flapped and creaked and I walked quickly through the revolving door and spun upon the city, and the coldness of February closed unto my skin. Walking, I affixed with trembling hands a few international stamps upon the envelope and dropped it in a postbox, and moved quickly away. Hot tears came upon my eyes, and I felt the deepest depths of shame.
The sky trembled behind buildings, Tokyo went about its business, and I burned and burned as I entered again the Goldman building and tapped my name-stained ID card against the watchful glass.
I check the mailbox, expecting emptiness; but no, a letter from Greg. Greg, a college roommate and now psychologist in Chicago. I had explained in my last letter my fears: that things are going well, that money is rolling in and my accounts are something to write home about for the first time in my life, that the job is satisfactory and I am in demand for my Japanese, but that I remain alone and cannot shake the feeling that my moment has passed, that I have seen the climax of my life and watched it pass.
And when I go off, evenings, into the neon districts of Shinjuku or Shibuya, to no end less innocent than a coffee and books, the temptations of the side-streets claw at me, the crowds blur together into waves and waves that beat upon my shore, I am superfluous and no one would know if I left tomorrow for Seoul or Budapest, and there would be no mail to forward to my new address.
I remain alone: and these thoughts are accompanied by other, yet sadder thoughts. Where is she? I see her name everywhere: Reiko, Ray Charles, reach, ray, lay, latch. In Japan the ls become rs, and the painful reminders are doubled. And her hair, her shape, a movement, but never she herself. I wrote all this in a letter to Greg, and said: it has been over a year, and I am afraid. Will I always carry these regrets? I once believed with all my heart that she and I were literally made for each other, our souls separated by the gods and our search for the other half was the engine of all our wandering and accomplishments. Our meeting could not have been otherwise. A part of the lex eterna, written in the stars. As in Plato’s Symposium: two halves, each aching for the other and unaware that the other walks and breathes across a lake, an ocean, a crowded room or street. And some lucky pairs find each other. But Plato had no word on what happens to those who find each other and then separate again.
I said all this, and this was his reply: First, it is understandable. A year isn’t such a long time. And second, what is happening is that you have not fully metabolized the experience. You experience what happened with Rachel as a tragedy, and there is no redemption at the end of the story. You loved her with all your heart, and she left – and the curtain falls, the end, and the moviegoers wait pissed off and disbelieving while the credits roll and no good comes of it all. Remember when we saw No Country For Old Men in college? We waited for something good to happen, something to make us believe in humanity again – and it never came. All well and good for a movie. But in life you want a happy ending.
After all, I am a solitary man. In my earphones, in fact, is a lonely song. I am given to moments of self-pity, as now: looking out the train window at the flashing, wire-laden Tokyo streets, music too loud. I allow my eyes to see the city as a blur, and I am a rock in the middle of the rapids – and as this moment goes, so goes my life, a scream followed by silence, and the doubting of whether one in fact heard anything at all.
The guitars pick none-too-gently at the defenses I’ve struggled to erect around my heart. Loneliness and solitude are no synonyms, but the line between them has always been fine. I look upon the crowded station at Yoyogi: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.
And just then the doors of the train-car opened, and more kids in their uniforms and salarymen in their suits crowded on. And then: a woman. American, but no tourist – alone and dressed in a suit. With long, brown hair, and brown eyes which she proceeded to turn upon me. And my reverie passed as quickly as it had begun, and I came back to life. Smiled, turned away, and after a moment removed my headphones. There must be that intervening moment between the connection and the opening; it must appear as though each were its own, independent event.
There she stood, beautiful. And I willed my voice to speak, confidence to rise up through my body. And fiercely I thought, and trembled, and then the next station was announced and she turned decisively for the door – and left, wholly unaware of the emptiness behind her. I watched her leave, and looked at my hands, and replaced the headphones.
There was no time, after all, there had been no real window, no opportunity-.
My fingertip moved and chose the saddest song I know, and I could not will it to do otherwise: You belong with me, not swallowed in the sea. You belong with me, not swallowed in the sea.
Spring began to arrive, and letters. My articles and poems were being accepted quickly and reliably for the first time in my life – I’d been given a steady stream of creativity in this difficult year, and the things I wrote were thought to be worth reading. And on today’s run the air felt lighter, and I ran faster and longer than I had in weeks. Everyone on the boardwalk was a competitor, a singlet from races past, and I was flying past them, full of life and fire.
And my thoughts turned again to the future, and I knew my mistakes in my heart of hearts.
For too long I have wandered, and my feet are weary. The hills of Michigan rise to the surface of my mind; and the high school track beneath stadium lights, with my sister waving cardboard signs emblazoned proudly with my name; and the first appearances of my words in the hometown paper; and the evenings with my grandfather on the pier at Grand Haven, photographing the ever-new setting of the sun upon the lake; and that old house for sale in Fruitport, nine acres with a barn, shrouded by trees.