I wrote about the seven Christmases I spent away from America. Included in this story are two Christmases I spent in America during the same time period.
I have spent every Christmas between 2009 and 2014 in the United States of America — in Indianapolis, Indiana, to be specific. However, after Christmas of 2009, I left the country again. When I returned to the United States in 2010, I did so for an indefinite term. I do not imagine I will spend Christmas 2015 not in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Someday, I will write about Christmas in Indianapolis, Indiana. That “someday” might have been last year.
Today, I will present you with nine Christmases. None of them are particularly lighthearted. I have spared any insinuations toward The True Meaning Of Christmas. If you want a summary, I’ll tell you: I consider Christmas as good an excuse as any for a ritual self-evaluation. For one thing, it comes a whole week before the end of the year. You have time to finish your self-evaluation before the year ends.
Maybe my true feelings are more or less spiritual than what I’ve summarized above. I won’t spoil it. That would be a boring conversation.
“nine different christmases”
It is past midnight on Wednesday, December 24th, 2014. It is on the side of midnight that makes today technically Thursday, December 25th, 2014. For the fifth year in a row, I’ve gone to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass with my father at St. Pius X catholic church in Indianapolis, Indiana. I am not religious. I will never be religious.
No one else in my family goes to church anymore. My father goes alone. He sits on the bench in the back of the church. My father divorced my biological mother when I was a newborn. My father received full custody of me because my biological mother was, among other things, an alcoholic. Because he had divorced one wife, my father took upon himself the burden of excommunication from the catholic church. The church welcomes even non-members, so my father still attends church. He does not, however, partake of communion.
The priest says “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his feast.”
The congregation responds with “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; only say the word and I shall be healed”, making signs of the cross on their forehead, lips, and hearts.
While speaking the words, my father makes a fist of his right hand. He touches the bottoms of the knuckles to his heart.
I saw him make this gesture hundreds of times throughout my childhood and adolescence. I always figured it had something to do with his excommunication from the church: rather than perform holy gestures while proclaiming unworthiness, he makes an unworthy gesture while proclaiming unworthiness. It’s a moment of honesty. My father knows the rules of the game.
I stopped going to church when I was sixteen.
I went again on Christmas Eve, 2002, when I was twenty-three.
The next time I went to a church, it was not a catholic church. It was a Korean methodist church in Seoul, Korea, on Christmas Eve 2004.
The next time I went to church after that was with my father in Indianapolis, Indiana on Christmas Eve, 2009. The Green-Haired Girl came with us.
On Christmas Eve, 2010, I went to church again with my father. We were alone this time. This established what, tonight, with its fifth sequential year, now feels like a tradition.
On Christmas Eve, 2010, my father said to me, before mass, “Your mother doesn’t come to church anymore.”
“She hasn’t been feeling well.”
On Christmas Eve, 2014, my father said to me, before church, “Your mother doesn’t come to church anymore.”
“She hasn’t been feeling well.”
For five years, my Christmas has not changed.
I’m now going to tell you about the seven years before five years ago, in which Christmas changed every year.
I walked fifteen minutes from Fujimino Station to the closest branch of the Nova English conversation school. I was wearing a knit cap and a hoodie. I wasn’t wearing gloves. I was in a hurry. I wanted to get inside. I was walking so fast I was going to be ten minutes early. “Ten minutes early”, at the English conversation school, meant I’d be showing up an hour and ten minutes before my shift started.
The receptionist barred me from entering the door. She shoved a letter at me.
“You go to Shinjuku!”
“Shinjuku! You are go there!”
“What do you mean?”
She held the letter up with two hands.
I tried to step around her. She jumped to the side to prevent me from passing. I shuffled to the other side. She jumped by again. Another teacher and the branch manager were standing by the reception desk, watching me. Their eyes were open. Their mouths were closed. Their hands were immobile.
“Hey,” I said. I waved to the branch manager.
The receptionist slapped me in the face.
I looked her in the eye. Her mouth fell open. Her eyes bulged. She dropped the letter. She ran off to the front desk. She picked up the phone. She dialed a number. I picked up the letter. I stepped into the teacher’s lounge. A guy I had never seen was in there. His hair was worse than mine. He was drinking a little can of coffee. One of the older teachers was drinking an identical can of coffee. They were talking. I looked at the schedule. My name was gone.
“I think you got fired, mate,” the older teacher said.
“Yeah,” I said. I looked at the letter in my hand. It wasn’t sealed. It wasn’t a letter. It was an envelope: the receptionist had printed out a page, folded it, and put it in there. I removed the page.
It was a map. Above the map were the words “Report to the 42nd floor of the building on this map. Show this to a taxi driver.” Below the map was the address of the building in Japanese.
I walked out of the teacher’s lounge. My face was heating up.
I flapped the letter.
The receptionist who had slapped me averted her eyes. She cupped a hand around the side of her mouth. She was hunching over halfway. She was speaking into the phone receiver.
The other receptionist stepped around the desk. She hovered her hand an inch from my shoulder.
“You need to go Shinjuku now okay?”
“Look, am I getting fired? Is that was this is? Can’t we sign some papers here — can I talk to Jerry?”
Jerry rolled back on his chair. He shook his head. He slid an index finger over his throat.
“Jerry?” the other receptionist said. She turned around halfway.
Jerry sighed. He stood up. He had his coat in his hand. He stepped across the lobby. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Let’s go outside. You got all your stuff?”
“Yeah, I do.”
We went outside. Jerry bought a can of coffee. I bought a Sprite.
“Are they firing me?”
“Yeah,” Jerry said.
“How the heck should I know?”
I drank my ice-cold Sprite against a brick wall. Freezing rain began falling. Jerry rubbed his coffee can on his hands.
“Like, do I really have to go all the way to Shinjuku to do this? That seems like a pain in the butt. Can’t we just fill out some papers here?”
“They got all the forms down there,” Jerry said.
“Can’t they just fax them to you?”
“Do I look like I have any authority?”
I shrugged. “Yeah?”
Jerry shook his head.
“You’re a good kid,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
I walked fifteen minutes to the train station. I waited twelve minutes for a train. I took the Tobu-Tojo Line to Ikebukuro. It was a long ride. I took the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku. I studied the map. I didn’t take a taxi. I walked ten minutes to the building.
A man in the lobby strode to meet me. He spoke a dark English greeting. He asked what floor I was going to. I said I was going to the forty-second floor. He took me to a glass elevator. I got in the elevator. I faced the doors. I got off at the forty-second floor. I found the Nova head office. I presented my letter to the receptionist. The receptionist told me to have a seat. I waited ten minutes. A tan Japanese man in a gray suit and a pink shirt came to meet me. He led me to a meeting room with glass walls. He was wearing house slippers. He sat me at one side of a long table. A shaved-bald man with a goatee entered the room minutes later. He presented me a paper. The paper was hot from the photocopier. The paper said my employment was terminated. I had seventy-two hours to vacate my company-provided apartment.
“We need you to sign this.”
I signed the paper.
“Do you have any questions?”
“Why are you firing me?”
“We can’t answer that question.”
We stood up at the same time. The tanned man extended his right hand. I thought maybe he wanted me to shake his hand. He was too far away. The bald man with the goatee opened the door. The tanned man walked toward and through me.
“We’ll escort you to the elevator.”
“I remember where the elevator is,” I said, with a sudden snap in my voice.
“We’ll escort you to the elevator.”
I followed them to the elevator. The bald man pressed the down button. When the elevator came, the tanned man held his hand out to stop the doors from closing. The bald man stepped inside the elevator with me. He pressed the “Lobby” button. He stepped out of the elevator. The men stood side-by-side. They looked me in the center of my neck. I turned my back on them. The elevator doors closed. The glass elevator descended. I looked down into the lobby. A tall green Christmas tree stood. The tree was alive with champagne-colored lights.
“So this is Christmas,” I said, aloud.
It was Christmas Eve.
I went back to my company-provided apartment. My things were already packed. I’d put my PlayStation 2 and my DVDs and all my clothes into my single suitcase. I retrieved my toothbrush, shampoo, and conditioner from the bathroom. I took my sweatshirt from the clothesline. I put my shampoo and conditioner into the cardboard box full of Christmas cookies my mom had sent me. I opened up my suitcase. I threw the sweatshirt on top. I tried to zip it up again. I didn’t have the energy. I sat on my futon. I put the back of my head against the wall. I closed my eyes. I fell asleep for a few hours with all of my clothes on. I woke up in a darkness. My roommates were playing cards in the living room. The white light of a pachinko parlor found its way in through the horizontal frosted glass blinds of my tiny bedroom window. My stomach was empty. I was so tired.
I took my clothes off. I got under the blanket.
Toes nudged my ribs. I woke up. A man in a suit was standing over me. Two other men were standing behind him. One of the men was zipping up my suitcase.
“You need to get up,” the man who’d kicked me was saying. “You need to get out of here.” He was speaking Japanese. He was wearing sunglasses. The sun wasn’t up all the way yet.
One of the men stood up my suitcase. The other man picked up a cardboard box from the floor.
“Get up. Get up!”
I got up. I put on my slacks. I put on my shirt. I put on a hoodie. I put on my knit cap. I put on my backpack.
The man who’d kicked me awake took me to the entryway. He put his shoes on. He opened the door. One of the men rolled my suitcase out the door. The other man hefted the cardboard box full of Christmas cookies.
I saw the little Christmas tree in the corner. My mom had sent me a little Christmas tree. It took two AA batteries, and lit up with weird fiber-optic light. I held it in one hand. I went to the entryway.
The three men were waiting for me. They had all put their shoes on. I put on my skate shoes. I grabbed my dress shoes in my other hand.
The man who’d awakened me handed me an enveloped. He pointed at it.
“Key,” he said.
He held the envelope in two hands. He stabbed air with the envelope.
“Mailbox,” he said.
The roommate who hated me was standing in the doorway. He was wearing a white T-shirt and crimson boxers. He was scowling.
I dug in my pockets for my key.
“Here — here,” I said. I tried to hand it to the man who’d awakened me.
He made an “X” with his arms.
“No. No.” He pointed at me. “You.”
He gave me the envelope. I held it between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. Between the index and middle fingers of that same hand, I gripped my dress shoes.
Now the larger man put down the cardboard box full of cookies. The other man rotated my suitcase around so its handle was facing me.
The roommate who didn’t hate me was now standing next to the roommate who hated me. His face was in the middle of chewing breakfast.
The roommate who hated me looked me right in the eye.
“See you in hell, faggot,” he said. He slammed the door in my face.
The man who’d awakened me produced a key from his pocket. He locked the door.
He motioned to his two companions. They went to the elevator.
I stood on the walkway in the freezing air. That walkway smelled like old water and sometimes laundry detergent. It never felt like home. I’d lived there two months. My suitcase had been opened on the floor the whole time. I laid the suitcase on its side. I crammed my shoes inside the suitcase. I slid the key into the envelope. I put the envelope into my hoodie pocket.
The elevator came. The men got in the elevator. The elevator doors closed. The men were gone. I lugged my suitcase, my backpack, that cardboard box, and that little baby fiber-optic Christmas tree to the elevator. I pressed the “down” button.
The elevator came a minute later. I got inside it. I held the door open with my foot. I slid in my suitcase. I kicked the cardboard box in. The doors closed behind me. I let out a long, slow sigh. The elevator didn’t move. I didn’t feel it not moving. I only felt this sensation that I was anywhere. Not that I “could have been” anywhere — that I really was anywhere at all. I was at the bottom of the ocean in a watertight box. I was orbiting a moon in space. I was on top of Mount Everest.
I realized the elevator wasn’t moving. I had to press a button. I’d never taken so long getting into the elevator.
Here’s where I’ll copy a phrase from a novel I tried to write about this situation:
For the length and width of a silent moment, I was the stupidest monster in the universe.
An hour and a half later, I was sitting on a park bench near my old school. It was Christmas Day. People were running in the park. The sky was gray. The air was ice. The wind wasn’t moving. The sun was barely up. I rubbed my hands together. My throat stung with the stench of stomach acid. I wasn’t healthy. I’d been eating unhealthy garbage for weeks. My job had been terrible. Well, I didn’t have that job anymore. I felt my cheeks burning red. I kept looking at my watch. When it struck eight AM, I went to the nearest payphone. I dropped a hundred yen. I called Max.
“Hello, uh, Max?”
“Hello. Who is this?”
“This is, uh, this is Will, from the English school. I told you I was quitting, and you gave me your number. I just, well, I don’t work there anymore, so I was wondering . . .”
“You said you were quitting at the end of the New Year’s Holiday. It is not the end of the New Year’s Holiday. It is Christmas Day. Did you get fired?”
“Aha! It is as I had forecasted.” I still love her use of the word “forecasted”. “I knew they would not appreciate your cleverness. How can I help you?”
“Well, you had said, uh, that if I needed a place to stay, I could stay with you?”
“Yes! You could stay with me! How soon would you like to stay with me?”
“I’m in Fujimino right now. They — they made me leave my house. They came in in the morning and they forced me out and I didn’t know where to go so I just came here . . .”
“When you say ‘here’ do you mean you are at the English conversation school?”
“Say no more. I will come and find you. I will guide you to my house and we will enjoy tea.”
I waited a half an hour. The sun came up. Many runners passed me. I watched the English conversation school, a football-field’s-length away. I didn’t see the receptionist go inside. I only saw the lights come on. The lights came on first in the lobby, and then behind the frosted glass of the teacher’s lounge. I was freezing. My throat was freezing.
Max appeared before me in a huge kangaroo-leather hat and a small pair of black sunglass-goggles. She was wearing a big puffy tan trenchcoat.
“I can assist you with one of those items.”
“You can take the suitcase. This box is, uh, the heaviest thing.”
“I’ll take the box.”
She took the box.
It was a half an hour’s walk to Max’s condo. Her condo was beautiful and full of hard wood. She showed me a bedroom. I put my suitcase into it. She took a book off the shelf. It was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”.
“Look here,” she said. “A native of your home town.” She opened the book. Kurt Vonnegut’s signature was on the front page. “I met him many years ago.”
“Mom, where did you go?”
A Japanese boy about my age was calling to his mother from the dining room.
“I needed to help a friend,” she said, in Japanese. She entered her bedroom. She swept out in a big men’s kimono. She introduced me to her son. “Will, this is Tasuku. He is my son. I raised him in Los Angeles and Australia. He speaks English better than me.”
“Hey,” I said.
“Hi,” he said.
“This is his girlfriend,” Max said. A pretty Japanese girl waved at me. “They will be married soon.”
Hours later, everyone was drunk except me.
“So, you quit your job without having another job lined up?” Tasuku asked me.
“That’s stupid, man. Like, the company paid your apartment? You didn’t have a plan to live after that?”
“I . . . well, I thought I had until New Year’s.”
“They really fired you because you tried to quit? You sure?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
Max gave her son and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law presents. One of Tasuku’s presents was a copy of the screenplay from the film “Jackie Brown”, with Japanese translations and cultural annotations on the facing pages.
Tasuku and his girlfriend had to leave before ten PM if they wanted to catch the last trains toward where they lived.
Max showed me the manga she was writing. She showed me her collection of manga artist signatures. She had every volume of “Akira” signed by Katsuhiro Otomo. I unpacked my suitcase. She let me use the dresser in the spare room. She saw the Super Famicom I’d bought. She saw my Dragon Quest VI cartridge.
“You may connect this Super Famicom to the television and play Dragon Quest Six on the television if you’d like.”
Max intimidated me. I couldn’t say no.
I plugged in the Super Famicom. I played Dragon Quest VI. Max sat at her drawing table, behind me. She angled the table downward so that she could see the television. She poured a glass of brandy. She “Hmm”ed at the television. She commented on some story details.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Y-yeah,” I said.
“Do you have a photograph of her?”
I opened my laptop. I called up a photo of my girlfriend in London. She was looking backward on a down escalator.
Max “Hmm”ed at the photo. This was the first of many times, over the following months, that Max asked to see that photo.
“I feel like I have met her before,” Max said. “Is she from London?”
“Y-yeah, she is.”
Weeks later, Max would say, “I’ve met her before.” This would surprise me. Then I’d remember Christmas night.
Max drank brandy. I played Dragon Quest. Max’s cats made noise. The lights were dim. The tiny Christmas tree twinkled.
After many minutes of silence, Max’s dark voice came out of the blackness of the drawing room. “What did you think of my son?”
“Oh. Oh, he was alright.”
“He no doubt presumes the nature of our relationship to be sexual.”
“Oh. Oh, maybe he — maybe he does.”
Max was quiet for a moment.
“I wanted to abort my son. When my husband discovered my plans to abort my son, he beat me almost to death.”
“I divorced him. I raised my son alone.”
This would not be the darkest story Max told me during our many months together.
Furthermore, it was not the darkest Christmas I would ever experience.
Christmas 2002 was the darkest and worst Christmas I would ever experience.
I spent Christmas of 2002 at my parents’ house in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I had returned from Japan some months before. Memories of my life in Japan dripped away from me as weeks turned into months. Max had disappeared from my life. I corresponded with my best friend Murasaki via letters. The letters came each week. Murasaki refused to touch technology. She loathed computers. Each week’s letter from Murasaki was a response to a letter I wrote two weeks earlier. Murasaki and I looked at one another’s faraway lives with long, bent telescopes. Our letters wallowed in minutiae for many weeks. In November the letters veered into surreality. A fear kindled in me. The fear was that Mursaki was going to die. I did not speak this fear. I never spoke this fear to anyone until now. For many years, whenever I remembered Murasaki’s suicide, I pictured it as an event I had not been able to foresee. I’ve been disingenuous to myself in remembering her this way. Her letters indicated to me that she did not believe I existed. I tried to tell myself then that I thought she was playing a character or participating in a fiction-writing exercise. Yet I knew without confessing to myself that a dark badness lurked behind her words. The letter I received from her the week of Christmas scared me. I was busy preparing myself for a return to Japan. I would be in Japan two weeks after Christmas. Murasaki would kill herself not three weeks after that.
My girlfriend from England was studying at a university near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We had become a couple after she applied to the university, and after I applied to a job in Japan in 2001. I got the job, and she got the scholarship. After five years of penpalship on opposite sides of an ocean, we lived a four-hour bus ride apart for one month before I moved to Japan. She stayed in the United States for eighteen months. When I was in Indianapolis, Indiana for two months at the end of 2002, she came to visit me four times. One of those times was Christmas.
She was readying to return to England. I was readying to return to Japan. One ocean hadn’t been enough. We were putting two oceans between us. It was a strange love. I’ve never felt anything like it. That’s probably because I shut out everything like it.
We all went to evening mass. My girlfriend was silent the whole time. When the congregation held hands and recited The Lord’s Prayer, she kept her hands in her pockets.
My parents went to bed on Christmas Eve. My girlfriend was sleeping in my old bedroom. My parents wanted me to sleep in the spare bed in my big brother’s room. They wouldn’t stand for funny business. My girlfriend and I watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on VHS in my parents’ living room after midnight. We had sex on a sleeping bag in the middle of the living floor starting at around the minute Indiana Jones and Marian Ravenwood are kissing in a bed on a boat. We were quiet. We took our time. We finished during the end credits. Maybe the Indiana Jones theme music got me too excited.
It was long past midnight. It was two in the morning. My girlfriend called her mother in England. It was Christmas morning there. My girlfriend was Muslim. My girlfriend’s mom was Muslim. My girlfriend used a prepaid phone card to call her mother. She sat in my old bedroom. She talked in a quiet voice on a cordless phone. I sat on the floor by the Christmas tree. My parents had stacked many presents for my little brother. They’d stacked some presents for me. Mostly they were clothing boxes. They’d contain scarves and gloves and socks and knit caps. I’d wear them through the harsh Tokyo winter of 2003.
My girlfriend carried the phone out into the kitchen. She hung it up. She went into my bedroom. She left the door open. I went into the bedroom. I sat on the bed with her. She was crying.
“He hit her again,” she said.
“Fuck that guy. Just . . . fuck that guy.”
She took her glasses off. She wiped her eye with the front of her hand.
“Fucking Sam,” she said. “I wish a bus would turn that cunt’s lights out.”
“I need this to be over. Just four more months.”
She and her brother had the same birthday — April 20th.
Her brother was going to be eighteen.
“I need this to be over. I just need to be able to live my life. I just need to be able to live my own life.”
Her hand was on her knee. I put my hand on her hand. She put her other hand on my hand. I put my other hand on her other hand.
“I just need to be alone.”
“I know,” I said.
“I mean, I just need to be alone right now.”
Her crying grew in earnestness.
“I’m sorry. I’m just — I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I stood up.
“Fucking Christmas,” my girlfriend said.
My parents gave her a scarf. Her mom divorced her dad on April 21st, 2003. She broke up with me in May. I came back to the US briefly. I went back to Japan in September of 2003. I would not come back to the US for six years.
I arrived at Narita Airport at four in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. My flight was at seven. The flight left at eight. My flight arrived at Incheon Airport outside Seoul, Korea at eight-forty-eight.
A sign by the customs counter said to decline taxi rides from drivers who approached you inside the airport.
A middle-aged Korean man in baggy slacks and a button-down shirt and a puffy coat with a cigarette behind his ear rotated on his heel to face me as I exited the arrivals area.
“Taxi?” he said to me.
“Sure,” I said. I followed him to the curb. It was freezing outside. He pointed to a tiny green Daewoo car parked illegally with its blinkers on. I turned around. I walked back inside. An old man in a little hat approached me.
I removed a piece of paper from my coat pocket. I’d written down bus numbers. I bought a ticket for a bus to Gangnam. I waited for the bus in the cold. The bus was late. I went back inside. I watched the bus stop through the window. A man with gray teeth approached me.
I gave him a dismissive little wave. The bus came. I went outside. I got on the bus. Several Japanese ladies got on the bus. The bus rode into Seoul. I watched big square neon-wearing buildings beyond tall highways. Rain fell. The rain froze on the bus windows. The bus stopped at Gangnam. The bus moved again. The bus stopped again. I got off the bus three stops later. I walked into a shopping district. Tall rectangular buildings stood on either side of a football-field-wide concrete-brick arcade courtyard. Hundreds of pedestrians were walking in big coats. Men and women were holding hands. Women and women were holding hands. Old men were holding hands with old men. I went to a PC room. The lights inside the PC room were an electric shade of blue. I checked my email. I drank a Coca-Cola. I checked my email. My friend told me she had been at the shopping center an hour earlier. She had waited for me for fifteen minutes. Then she had gone home. She gave me her phone number. She told me to call her. I paid my bill. I went outside. I found a payphone. I called my friend. A man picked up the phone.
He hung up.
I sat on a bench. The bench was one side of a square. In the middle of the square was a tall wavy shiny metal sculpture. I was alone. I was cold. Everyone was holding hands with everyone else around me.
I went into a convenient store. It wasn’t warm in the convenient store. It was freezing cold. I bought a chocolate bar. I sat on the bench outside. I ate the chocolate bar. I watched couples enter and exit a big glowing barbecue restaurant. Patrons were grilling meat at their own tables inside. My breath made big clouds in the air. I went to the payphone again. I dialed my friend’s number. No one picked up. I sat back down on the bench. I put my hands in my pockets. I watched people holding hands. Two children rolled a wheelbarrow into the plaza. In the wheelbarrow was a karaoke machine and a car battery. They sang “Silent Night” in Korean. I made another call. No one picked up the phone. The two children sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in Korean. I went to make another phone call. I had run out of change. I bought a Coca-Cola. I drank the Coca-Cola. I made another phone call. No one picked up the phone. I sat back down on the bench. I took a deep breath. The kids were singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” in Korean.
Someone stood in front of me.
I looked up. A leathery-skinned middle-aged woman with ragged hair was smiling in a puffy ankle-length silver coat. In one hand she held a piece of cardboard. On the piece of cardboard were many tiny Korean letters. In the other hand she held a tray chocolate bars. They were chocolate bars from the convenient store. I’d already eaten two of those chocolate bars. Those chocolate bars were 1,000 Won each. On her sign I could see the number “1,100”.
She smiled. She nodded. She smiled. She nodded. I gave her a little wave. She smiled. She nodded. I gave a little shrug. She smiled. She nodded.
I reached into my pocket. I removed an empty hand. I showed her an empty palm. She put the sign atop her tray of chocolates. She set her gloved right palm atop my upturned bare right palm. She removed her hand. I stood up. I shrugged. I bowed halfway to her. I walked away. I went to the phone. I called my friend’s number. A man picked up the phone.
“Hello. I’m calling for Choong-Hee?”
He hung up.
I sat back down on the bench. The woman in the long puffy silver coat shuffled over to me. She waved her sign at me. She squatted halfway. She gave a little jump. She smiled wide. She opened her mouth. Her teeth were white. A big white cloud of breath popped out in front of her face. The kids with the karaoke machine in the wheelbarrow were singing “Angels We Have Heard On High” in Korean. I reached into my pocket. I found a 10,000-won bill. It was all I had. I showed it to her. I shrugged. She took a chocolate bar. She laid it atop the 10,000-won bill in my hand. She smiled. Her mouth was a huge triangle. She turned her back. She ran away at a full sprint. I watched her disappear. I was alone again. I ate the chocolate bar. I went to the payphone. I called my friend’s phone number. My friend picked up the phone. She told me her address. She made me repeat it back to her five times.
“Your Korean accent is good,” she said. “Good luck getting a taxi.”
She was about to hang up.
“Hey, where were you?” I said.
She put the phone back up to her face.
“Where was I when?”
“When I called you earlier about nine hundred times?”
“Oh,” she said. “I was at church.”
“Oh,” I said. The kids with the karaoke machine and the car battery in the wheelbarrow were singing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” in the plaza. “So was I,” I said.
I rolled my little suitcase out to the main street. I flagged cabs for an hour. Every taxi slowed to ten miles per hour. The drivers looked me in the eye. They sped up and drove away. I repeated my friend’s address maybe a hundred times. One cab finally stopped.
I buzzed my friend’s condo.
A man answered.
“Hello?” I said.
The intercom clicked. The door didn’t buzz. I counted to thirty. I dialed the room number again.
A man answered.
“Hey, hi, I’m. . .”
The intercom clicked.
I dialed the number again. The intercom clicked on.
“Hey, it’s me,” my friend said. “Come in.”
The door buzzed.
I went upstairs. I knocked on my friend’s door. My friend answered. She was wearing her Indiana University running shorts and an Indiana University tank top. She had pulled her hair back in a tight ponytail. Her forehead was shiny with some moisturizer. She had white acne-removal patches under her eyes and over her nose.
“I’m going to bed,” she said. “Take your shoes off.”
I took my shoes off. The floor was hot. It was a heated floor.
I put my suitcase in the spare bedroom. My friend’s mom came in. She rolled out a futon. She guided me into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator. She opened the closet.
I sat at the dining room table. I ate a bowl of Kellogg’s Almond Flake cereal with whole milk. I took my time. My friend’s mom sat across from me. She had big glasses and curly hair. She smiled. It was so hot in that kitchen. I was sweating. I finished the bowl of cereal. My friend’s mom gestured to the box. I gave a little nod. She poured another bowl. She smiled at me as I ate a second bowl of cereal. She poured me a glass of orange juice. She smiled as I drank orange juice and ate a third bowl of cereal. I finished the third bowl. She pointed at the box. I showed her my palm. I pushed my chair back. I stood up. She took my hand. She took me to the bedroom. She gave me a hug. She told me good night.
I woke up. I went to church with my friend.
“You should have brought some better clothes.”
“I didn’t know I’d be going to church.”
“If you stay in our house you have to go to church.”
“I’ll remember that for next time.”
“Next time you should remember to have enough money for a hotel. Also, you should shave. You look disgusting.”
My friend sang in the choir. They ended the mass with “Joy to the World”.
We had breakfast in the cafeteria downstairs. I ate rice. My friend ate kimchee and rice. The pastor came by. He spoke some nice words to her. He shook my hand. He said some words. My friend giggled. She pointed at me. She said some words. The pastor patted me on the back.
“No,” he said, in smooth English. “I know another good man who did not shave or cut his hair.”
My friend frowned. She narrowed her eyes at me.
“Do you mean Jesus?” I said to the pastor. He laughed. He patted me on the back.
My friend narrowed her eyes at me. She bit sticky rice off metal chopsticks. Her teeth against metal made a sound I could feel.
“You’re not Jesus, oppa,” she said to me.
We went back to her house. Her parents gave her a Burberry coat. They gave me a brown hat and a pair of brown gloves. I thanked them. My friend’s mom said something to my friend. My friend said, “She says your hands were very cold last night.”
“I forgot my gloves,” I said.
I asked if I could use the internet. My friend’s dad turned on the computer in the guest room. I sat at the computer. I opened up my email. The internet was blindingly fast.
“We’re going to church,” my friend said.
“Didn’t you just go?”
“I have to sing in the choir again.”
My friend’s parents were smiling.
“Well, okay,” I said.
“You’re going to stay here?”
“I’ll stay here.”
I wrote emails. I wrote a magazine column. I worked on another magazine column for an hour. The phone on the desk rang. I picked it up.
“Yobuseyo?” I said.
My friend spoke a few words of fast Korean.
“Oh, hey, wait, whoa, it’s me,” I said.
My friend uttered a single angry Korean word.
“Don’t do that to me! Don’t you dare ever speak Korean to me again unless you have taken the time to actually learn how to carry a full conversation.”
“Is my dad not there?”
“Uh, no, he’s not.”
“Hmm. That’s funny.”
“Wait, where are you?”
“Is my mom there?”
“No, I’m — I’m here all alone.”
“That’s funny. Well, hey, I should be back in an hour or so.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Don’t answer the phone again, okay?”
I hung up. I typed a few words. The phone rang again thirty seconds later.
“Yobuseyo?” I said.
My friend spoke a few words of Korean.
I cut her off. “No, hey, sorry, it’s me again.”
“You big jerk! I said don’t answer the phone again!”
“Why did you go on talking to me if you were just testing me?”
“I thought maybe my dad had come home.”
“Do I sound just like your dad?”
“Don’t answer the phone again, okay, oppa?”
“Okay, okay,” I said. I hung up. I typed a few words. The phone rang again thirty seconds later.
A woman spoke a long sentence of clear, energetic Korean.
“Uh, hey, uh, sorry, uh, Choong-Hee?”
A silence transpired.
A woman’s voice spoke in shiny English.
“I’m not Choong-Hee! I’m her aunt! You must be her friend. My sister said you’re a nice boy.”
“Oh, you’re Choong-Hee’s mom’s sister?”
“Hee hee; she’s my big sister.”
“Your big sister.”
“She’s my very big sister.”
“Oh, well, did you want to talk to her?”
“Hee hee; yes, please.”
“Oh, well, she’s not here.”
“Well, that’s too bad! Is Choong-Hee there?”
“She’s not here, either.”
“Did they leave you all alone there?”
“You’re all alone in their house on Christmas!”
I talked to Choong-Hee’s aunt Oon-Mo for a half an hour. She taught computer classes at a school for adults.
“They’re still not back yet?”
“Well. I was going to come over for dinner tonight. Hey, what if I just come over now?”
“That sounds great.”
“Well, alright. Okay. I’ll leave right now. I’ll put my shoes on and walk right over. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
I stood up. I went to the bathroom. I won’t lie: I jerked halfway off. I was jerking my penis with bent knees and hot bare foot-soles against a heated floor in my friend’s Korean condo on Christmas. I didn’t finish jerking off. I couldn’t. Everything around me was too Christian. I wondered if my friend’s aunt was attractive. I imagined she was. I fixed my hair. I wished I’d shaved. At least I’d showered that morning.
I went into the cozy and beautiful living room. I poured a teacup of cold corn tea. I stood by the champagne-colored-light-illuminated simple Christmas tree. I looked out the picture windows. I saw my reflection. I was wearing sweatpants and an old Army sweater. I was holding a mug of corn tea. I needed a shave. I looked out at the Lego-brick condo buildings across the parking lot. In a plaza in the middle of the parking lot, two kids were kicking a soccer ball. A woman in a turtleneck was walking across the lot. She was walking at a high speed. The soccer ball crossed her path. She stopped for a moment. She kicked it to one of the kids. She kept walking. I wondered if that was Choong-Hee’s aunt.
Several minutes passed.
Someone rang the doorbell.
I went to the door. I looked out the peephole. The lady in the turtleneck who had kicked the kids’ soccer ball was standing there. She had clean skin and a cute face. She must have been in her late thirties. She wore big granny glasses. She had a white smile. I pressed the speaker button.
“Oon-Mo, is that you?”
“It is! Hello, and merry Christmas!”
I turned the doorknob. The door wouldn’t open. I tried to undo the locks. I couldn’t.
I pressed the speaker button again.
“I don’t — I can’t unlock the door.”
“Oh no. They must have locked you in.”
“They — they can do that?”
We talked through the speaker for five minutes.
“I’m going to go back home! I’ll call later.”
I watched her cross the parking lot again.
Several minutes passed.
The phone rang. I picked it up.
“Look, I know it’s you. I’m with my dad. We’ll be home in ten minutes. They wanted me to ask you something. Okay? Don’t get mad, oppa.”
“They wanted to ask if maybe you’d make an exception and eat some meat tonight?”
“I’m not going to eat some meat tonight.”
She muttered something in Korean away from the phone mouthpiece.
“Okay,” she said. “We’re coming back. We’ll be back in maybe an hour.”
“I thought you said ten minutes?”
“We’ll be back in an hour. My mom is asking if you want some more cereal.”
“I — I guess I’d like some more cereal.”
“Hey, oppa, you shouldn’t eat so much cereal, okay? It’s empty calories.”
An hour passed. My friend and her parents brought back meat. They cooked meat on an indoor grill. My friend’s aunt came over. My friend’s brother came over. They all ate meat. I ate tangerines and cereal. When dinner was over, my friend’s brother offered to walk his aunt home. My friend said she’d go, too. I said I’d go, too. I walked back with them. We went inside her building. We went up to her door. My friend’s aunt hugged me. I’d see her again the next day. She’d ask me if I believed in God. I’d say no.
My friend gave me a key to her parents’ house. I walked down to the shopping arcade. I went into a movie theater. I walked into a ten-thirty-PM showing of “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”. I ate a big bucket of popcorn. Halfway through the movie, a phone rang. An old woman answered.
I wandered into an internet cafe at two in the morning. I booted up my email. The internet speed in Korea really was blazing fast. I had an email from the woman I was seeing. It was brief.
“I want to just start fucking at eleven PM. We turn the TV off. We don’t turn it on. We’re just fucking right through to the new year. Fucking hell I hate my job. Don’t even reply to this.”
I didn’t even reply to that. I played StarCraft.
I’d been homeless for a year. I sometimes slept on the sofa in my friends’ house up north of Tokyo. I sometimes slept with a young lady who lived in Akabane. I sometimes slept on park benches. I sometimes slept in internet cafes. I sometimes slept in karaoke boxes. Sometimes I slept in a cheap hotel with a well-off older woman. Every once in a while, I slept in a fancy hotel with a rich older woman. Maybe one night a week, I slept on my friend’s kitchen floor. My friend was a woman. She was Japanese. She had an old-Japanese name. My future girlfriend would never be able to remember my friend’s name. She’d call her “Funako”. “Funako” is what I’d call this friend in all writing after that.
The rich older woman was busy on Christmas. The well-off older woman was busy on Christmas. I called Funako. I asked what she was doing on Christmas.
“I’m going to see my parents in Tsukuba for Christmas,” she said.
“Oh. I thought you’d be going for New Years?”
“They’re going to Kyushu for New Years. I’m going to see them while I can.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, I just thought, maybe we could hang out on Christmas. I guess you’re not going to be here, so—”
“Oh! I know! You can use my house! Yes, yes, I’ll be gone from the 23rd to the 27th. I’m taking personal days. You can stay in my house if you’d like!”
“Oh, hey, sure, I’ll do that.”
We had dinner in Ginza on the 22nd. She handed me her key. I slept in her kitchen.
It was the morning of the 23rd. Funako was putting on her long coat. Her kitchen was crammed with bottles and jars. The floor was brown. The air was gray. It was humid-cold. The kitchen was as wide as my shoulders plus my shoulders. She kicked me with a slipper foot.
“Good morning! I’m leaving now.”
Funako was wearing a French hat. She had a tiny suitcase in her hand. Her suitcase didn’t have wheels.
“I’ll be back first thing in the morning on the 27th.”
“Okay,” I told her. “Can I go sleep in your bed now?”
“I put my bed away, though yes, if you would like to remove it from the closet, yes, you may sleep in my bed!”
I worked all day. I wrote two magazine columns. I translated a hundred pages of a direly awful Japanese girls’ comic into English. I translated sixty pages of a less awful girls’ comic into English. I went to the convenient store. It was raining. The rain was freezing. I wasn’t wearing a coat. The girl at the convenient store was cute. She was nice to me. I bought two bottles of grape soda. That stuff was making me fat. I went back to Funako’s apartment. I drank the grape soda. I played Metal Gear Solid 3 on Funako’s PlayStation 2. “Blade 2” was on TV. I watched all of it. It sure is a stupid movie. I made a big omelet with cheese and baby tomatoes and rice. I poured Tabasco on the omelet. I set the table in Funako’s tiny living room / bedroom / office / dining room. I ate the omelet. I drank the second bottle of grape soda. I watched music shows until late at night. The video for Going Under Ground’s song “Heartbeat” played twice. It made me sad. It sounded like Christmas in an alternate universe. I read a comic book. I liked living in that tiny room. I fell asleep at five in the morning.
My phone buzzed. I woke up. It was two in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. I looked at the text.
“I would like to learn some English today, if you are free.”
I parted the curtains. The rain was hard. The streets below were black mirrors.
I didn’t reply to the text. The rain swelled and calmed.
My phone buzzed again.
I drank a cup of tea.
I looked at the text. It was from the same English student as before.
“My daughter has a Christmas pageant at school at five. I’d like to have sex with you if you can get to my house before three. We can order a pizza.”
I went to the woman’s house. She lived in a towering condo building. We had sex on the hard living room floor. She mopped the floor. She made two cups of tea. We drank the tea. The rain outside was hard. The air outside was a dark blue. Night was early. She turned on the television. One celebrity on a reality show was showing another celebrity what sort of apartment he could afford in Shinjuku for under 100,000 yen a month.
We went to her daughter’s Christmas pageant. It was an international school. They sang Christmas carols. Her daughter wore reindeer antlers.
We went back to her house. She ordered two pizzas. One of them was vegetarian. It was just for me. Her daughter colored a coloring book. She was coloring a kangaroo. The pizzas came. I ate half of the vegetable pizza. I drank a Coke. She drank a glass of red wine. I drank a cup of tea. She drank another glass of red wine. Some Christmas special was on on the television. A roundtable of celebrities were reacting to pop stars singing Christmas songs in Japanese.
I looked at the clock. It was almost eight.
“Well,” I said, “it’s almost eight.”
“Did you get a place yet?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”
“Oh! Maybe we should have a party at Billy’s house sometime!” she said to her daughter.
“Hah, hah, yeah, come on over!”
“You’ll have to invite me,” she said. She swirled her red wine.
“You’re . . . you’re invited.”
“Maybe I’ll come by tomorrow morning.”
“Oh. Oh, maybe tomorrow morning is no good.”
She looked into her glass of wine.
She looked at her daughter.
“It’s time for bed,” she said.
She looked at me.
“I’m going to put her to bed. Do you just want to wait here a minute?”
I looked at the clock. It was after eight o’clock.
She put her daughter to bed.
I watched the Christmas special. I watched the clock. It was nearly nine.
She emerged from her daughter’s bedroom. She closed the door. It made a quiet click.
She sat next to me on the sofa.
She put her head on my shoulder.
She put her hand on my knee.
I looked at the clock. It was after ten.
One Christmas special ended. Another Christmas special began.
I looked at the clock. It was eleven-thirty.
“It’s getting late,” I said.
“It’s not late,” she said.
Her phone rang. She answered it. She stood in the kitchen with the phone against her head. Her other hand was on her hip.
“Okay,” she said.
She snapped the phone shut. She put the phone on the countertop.
She sat next to me.
“It’s getting late,” I started to say.
“He’s not coming home,” she said.
I watched the clock. It inched toward midnight. She had her hand on my crotch. She was sucking on my neck.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey.”
She stood up. She went into the bathroom.
I put my hands on my knees. I turned off the television. I put my hands on the sides of my head. The smaller-human-shaped core of my body was melting with liquid heat.
She came out of the bathroom.
“You’re going home, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Alright,” she said. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
I stood up. She approached me. She put her hands on my back. She kissed my chin.
“That’s a good idea.”
I left. I got on the train. I rode into Shinbashi. I missed the last train for Ueno. I walked from Ginza to Ueno in the freezing rain. I walked from Ueno to Minowa in screaming sleet. I bought a hot can of tea from the cute girl at the convenient store. I was careful when I unlocked Funako’s door. I didn’t want Funako’s aunt to hear. I stripped nude. I dried myself with a bath towel. It was four in the morning. I looked at pornography on the internet. I tried jerking off into Funako’s toilet. I couldn’t finish it. My bones were cold. My ears were frozen. I spread out the futon. I fell asleep. I woke up at five in the evening on Christmas day. I texted my English student. I told her merry Christmas. She didn’t reply. I worked for six hours. I slept again. I woke up on the day after Christmas.
I had a job at Sony. I had fifty thousand dollars in the bank. I still didn’t have a home. No landlord would let me sign a lease. I’d told Sony that I had a home. They wouldn’t have let a homeless person interview for a job. I had been showering at the office or friends’ houses for more than six months.
In December, I’d had enough. I began looking at apartments in earnest. I found a great place. I had more than enough money in the bank to front the move-in costs. They needed a letter of salary guarantee from my company.
I told my section chief that I was looking into moving. He said the company couldn’t sponsor an employee’s housing if the employee hadn’t been working there for at least two years. I told him that the place where I was living was no longer available. I said I absolutely had to move. He asked who had guaranteed my apartment before. He asked why that person wasn’t still available. I said I was living with friends. He made a sound in his throat. He said he’d see what he could do.
The next day, he told me he couldn’t do anything. The landlord called me. I had to turn the apartment down.
The day after that, my section chief told me maybe he could in fact do something to help me move in.
I called the landlord of the building I’d liked. He told me he’d already rented the place.
I found another place. It was in the perfect location. I went and looked at it. The door was frosted glass.
“I can’t live here,” I told the real estate agent.
“Is something the matter?”
“I’m looking to rent an apartment,” I said, “not a private detective’s office.”
No apartments lived up to the one I’d liked, until one far surpassed the one I’d liked. It was in the perfect location. Strangely, this perfect location was different from the previous perfect location. The price was right. I told the real estate agent I loved it. I said I wanted to move in right away. He said he had to clear it with the landlord.
One day later, the real estate agent called. The landlord had, unfortunately, told me that he did not want any foreigners living in the building. I asked why. The answer was that foreigners are loud and have parties every night. I marched over to my section chief’s desk. I told him that some guy was being a racist. He picked up his phone. He called the real estate agent. I walked away. I don’t know what he said to the guy. The real estate agent called me a day later. I’d slept in an Italian-themed family restaurant next to a rainy suburban highway the night before that. The real estate agent said I could come in and fill out the paperwork.
I went in and filled out the paperwork. I brought a stack of cash. I paid for the first and last month’s rent. I paid the two-month deposit. I paid the two months’ rent-worth of “key money”. I gave this guy a big fat stack of money. Hard rain was falling on the tin roof of this claustrophobic office. It smelled like old paper and new paper. I filled out the forms. I gave him my employer’s guarantee letter.
“Now,” the real estate agent said, “just in case something happens, I need you to sign here to acknowledge that you understand the deposit is non-refundable.”
“Like, what could happen?”
“Say, maybe you’re convicted of a crime the day before we hand over the keys.”
“What? Okay. Hey, I’m not going to commit any crimes, okay?”
“Oh, no, no, no, I’m not saying you are! I’m just giving you a for-example-talk.”
“Okay. Alright. Here you go. I’ll sign that.”
I signed the papers.
The next day, I screamed at my desk.
“I’m sorry — I’m really sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”
The Chinese lady who worked in the cubicle across from mine stood up. She was muting her phone mouthpiece with the palm of her hand. She had a big angry look on her face. She widened her eyes at me.
The section chief strode over. He had a little mustache. He never wore ties. His pants were always tan. He had a thin belt on. He put his hands on his hips.
I was in the middle of the conversation.
I was standing up in front of my cubicle.
“I’m sorry,” the real estate agent said again. “This was not my decision. We’ll refund you the rent and the key money. I’m sorry: we cannot refund the deposit.”
“Can you just tell me what happened? Seriously, I’d like to know what happened.”
“The landlord — I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I forgot to tell you this. The landlord, you see, sir — he’s not friends with many foreigners. He . . . he thought ‘William’ was a woman’s name.”
“He . . .”
“I’m sorry. Oh my, sir, sir, I am so sorry.”
“How — how did he find out I’m not a woman?”
“It — I’m sorry. It happened to come up in conversation.”
I hung up. I sat down at my desk.
“What’s the matter?” the section chief asked.
I said, “Apparently the landlord was only willing to let me live in that apartment if I were a foreign woman, and not a foreign man.”
The section chief put his hands on his hips. He “Hmm”ed.
“Should I call him?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
He went back to his desk. I sat at my desk.
The section chief called to me.
“Can you bring me the phone number?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. I went over to his desk. I read him the phone number off my phone.
He entered the number on his phone. He was about to press send.
He looked me in the eye.
“I’m going to tell him you have a girlfriend,” he said to me.
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m going to tell him you’re serious about this girlfriend.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m going to tell him that you and your girlfriend are planning to get married and you’ll probably be renting a larger apartment together in a year.”
“Okay,” I said.
He pressed send.
“You really should get a girlfriend, by the way,” he said. “Like, just one of them.”
“Okay,” I said.
The sun fell like an axe. The outdoors went dark. The usually clear windows turned into mirrors. The section chief swiveled his chair around. I could see the section chief’s computer monitor reflected in the window behind his desk. He was searching Yahoo! Auctions Japan for “Eric Clapton Stratocaster”.
I went back to my desk. My phone rang an hour later.
“We’ve spoken to your superior,” the real estate agent said. “We’re willing to honor the agreement. Please come by my office to pick up the key after nine AM on Monday.”
This was Friday, December 23rd, 2005.
Monday was December 27th, 2005.
The night of Friday, December 23rd, 2005, my section had a mandatory year-end party. A boy who had graduated from Tokyo University ordered a beer for me. He set it in front of my place at the table while I was in the bathroom.
I got back to the table after using the bathroom.
“Did you order this beer for me?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. We spoke English to one another. His English was about as good as my Japanese.
“I don’t want it.”
“Just keep it.”
“I don’t want to keep it. I don’t want it.”
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t want it. This is our culture, man.”
After a round of fast toasts, I stood up. I picked up the tiny beer. I held it up.
“I’d like to salute our section chief, for all the help he’s given me. I’d like to offer him my drink.”
I put the beer on the table. I slid it over to the section chief.
“Look, I speak enough English to have overheard that that’s a pretend beer,” the section-chief said. “If you want me to drink it, I’ll drink it.”
“Please,” I said.
Everyone drank and became morose. I drank a barley tea.
“Her father is sick.”
“Chin-san bought another Macintosh computer.”
“How can she afford all of them! She buys every new one that comes out!”
“Her family is loaded.”
A woman I knew texted me. She asked if I wanted to meet at a hotel. I didn’t say no. I met her at the hotel at nine PM. I left the party at eight. I met the woman in the hotel. We had a lot of sex. At around four in the morning, she woke me up for more sex. She got on top. She punched me in the face six times. She judge-gavel-banged the meat of her hard fist against my ribs.
I woke up with apple-sized black rib-welts on Christmas Eve morning. I had a date with the girl I liked. It was Saturday. She had to work. I met her outside her office in Asakusa after seven. We walked. She never talked. When we’d met, I was her English teacher. I probably wasn’t her English teacher anymore. We held hands. We walked by the canal. We walked down the old streets, toward older streets. We walked beyond the great big Sensoji temple. We walked down an old covered shop street. We walked down an old street. We walked toward older streets. We walked through the Yoshiwara. It was cold. My hand was cold. Her hand was cold. The air was damp and cold. We walked for an hour. We walked to my new apartment. I put my hands on the back wall. I peered down onto the patio.
“It looks nice,” she said. We went to her house. We went to her house. We ate convenient store ice creams. We watched television performers react to Christmas songs. We didn’t talk. We had sex. She screamed like she was on fire. Bicycles streaked with caution down the hill outside her window. Their brakes squealed.
It was Christmas morning. It was also Sunday. We slept until noon. We had sex until three. The girl I liked went to Harajuku with her high school friend.
I met my friend in Ueno. We walked in the park. We bought bad sweaters by the side of the road. It was cold. The air was crisp. The sky was bright as ice. We put on our bad sweaters. We walked under the highways up toward Minami-Senju. It was a long walk. We arrived at my front door. I showed him the door.
“Nice,” he said.
The sun was down. We went to the Saizeriya Italian-themed family restaurant the overlooked the Minami-Senju freight yard. We ordered bad pizzas. We sat in there until ten in the evening. Two more friends came by. We talked about our jobs. We ate little bad pizzas and big plates of potatoes. One of our friends drank a beer. I drank eight Cokes.
Four of us walked toward Ueno again. Two of us got on southbound trains in Ueno. My friend Stabo and I got on trains going north. Stabo’s girlfriend texted him while we were on the train. Stabo got off at Akabane with me. I showed Stabo where a good internet cafe was. We walked to the house of the girl I like. I walked up the hill. Stabo stayed at the bottom of the hill. Someone on a bicycle came wobbling down the hill, drunk and blank-faced and maybe happy, on a bike whose brakes directly squeezed the metal rims of its wheels.
The girl I like was sitting alone in the television-dark in a thong and a big cashmere sweater. She was eating granola in whole milk. She was listening to Yuji Oda’s cover of “Last Christmas” on her tiny CD-cassette-radio. She looked at me. She smiled. It was one o’clock on the morning of Monday, December 26th, 2005. They were cooking Mongolian beef on television.
I got a girlfriend in 2006. She was a model. I broke up with the girl I liked. When my friend Funako found out about my dating the model, she slapped me in the face. Two weeks after she slapped me in the face, Funako said she still wanted to be my friend. We met for dinner. On the train back to the neighborhood where both she and I lived, Funako saw me looking at my calendar on my phone. She saw a birthday cake on a particular day.
“Oh! Whose birthday is that?”
She snatched my phone. She cursored over to the birthday cake. She pressed the button. It was my girlfriend’s name.
It was Funako’s birthday, too.
In all the years I knew her, I asked Funako her birthday three times. Three times she refused to tell me.
I never saw Funako after that night.
I only saw my girlfriend two more times after that night. We had a date planned for her birthday. She stood me up. I had bought her a nice leather jacket. The jacket stayed in my closet until Christmas. I took it back to the store on Christmas Eve Eve. I had a long conversation with the clerk. I promised no one had ever worn it. She didn’t believe me. I said, look, I bought this for my girlfriend, and now she’s disappeared. The clerk told me that if I’d bought her this leather jacket, she wouldn’t have disappeared. I got her phone number. I never called her. She was so hot. I wonder if she would have called me back.
It was raining. I went to Akihabara. I met my friend Stabo. We ate terrible french fries. We drank a dozen hot cocoas each. We were wearing the bad sweaters we’d bought the year before.
“Where’s that girlfriend of yours?”
“We broke up like two months ago.”
“Why didn’t you say anything about it?”
I sighed. “I did.”
“I thought you and her were engaged?”
“Huh. Can I call her?”
I groaned. “God. Man. Man. Man, I don’t know. I am pretty sure she is with some serious rich dude now.”
A hot cocoa transpired.
“I know,” I said. I snapped my fingers. “Just go ahead and text her. Just do it.”
“Sure. Wait, why?”
“She just — she just stopped answering my texts or phone calls. I just want to see if she will talk to you. I just — I just want to know how she is.”
My hands were shaking. Cold air kept whipping into the fever-hot restaurant.
“I don’t know what to say. Here, you do it.”
“No,” I said. “It has to obviously have come from you.” This was my way of saying his Japanese was different from mine.
Stabo texted her. We waited. We ordered another plate of fries. The rude waiter gave us a tiny thumbprint-sized dab of ketchup.
“Can we have more ketchup?”
Stabo’s phone buzzed.
“She wants to know how I got her address?”
“Tell her you gave it to her. Tell her, uh, tell her Brendan told you that she and I aren’t dating anymore and you want to know if she wants to hang out.”
“Why do I have to mention Brendan?”
“Man, just do it.”
The waiter brought more ketchup. Stabo’s phone buzzed.
“She says she’s . . . studying at a driving school in Yokohama. She says she doesn’t have much free time these days.”
My phone buzzed. It was from my ex-girlfriend.
“Look, you’re poor, okay? I’m sorry.”
I replied immediately.
“Does your sister still like me? Give her my number.”
She replied immediately.
“Go fuck yourself.”
She gave her sister my number two months later. I went on a date with her sister on Valentine’s Day, 2007. It was one of the worst days of my life. Maybe it’s in the top five. I’m afraid to sit down and catalog those worst days of my life.
Stabo and I walked to my house. It was misty and freezing. We played Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter on my big TV. We ordered two Dominos Pizzas. We watched all of “Seinfeld” seasons one, two, and three. We didn’t sleep. Christmas Eve came and went. We ordered two more pizzas. We stayed up all night. We watched all of “Seinfeld” season four.
Stabo slept on my sofa. I slept on my futon with my guitar on my chest. I woke up at six AM. It was Monday. It was Christmas Day. I woke up Stabo. He put on a tie. He went to work. I took a shower. I went to work.
I worked until eight in the evening. I went home. I ate a bowl of Ciscorn cereal. My phone buzzed. I opened it. It was a text from The Green-Haired Girl.
“Merry Christmas. I’m lonely. I love you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Merry Christmas to you, too.”
“What are you doing right now?” she asked.
“I’m eating cereal. Do you want to hang out?”
She didn’t reply.
I fell asleep.
I woke up. I went to the bathroom. I went back into my bedroom. My phone was blinking. I flipped it open. It was a text from The Green-Haired Girl.
“Hey,” she said. “Tell me your address.”
Another text popped in just as I looked at that one.
“Come on; hurry.”
I texted her my address.
“No,” she replied. “Text me your address in Indianapolis, Indiana. That’s where you’re from, right?”
“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t say I’m ‘from’ there. My parents live there.”
“Just give me the address, OK?”
I gave her the address.
She replied five minutes later.
“Oh, wow. Okay, hold on about a five minutes. Okay? Don’t go to bed or anything.”
I sat on the toilet in the dark. I dripped drops into the pot. I breathed. I sweated. I waited.
The phone buzzed.
The Green-Haired Girl was standing in front of my parents’ mailbox. Her left hand hovered two inches above the mailbox. Her grin spanned her face. The lawn I’d mowed so many dozens of times stretched out like an ocean behind her.
“Go knock on the door,” I said.
“No way,” the Green-Haired Girl said.
“Okay,” I said.
I fell asleep.
On April 8th, 2008, someone sent me an email with the subject line “Disappointment”. Here it is:
“I think you don’t make choices because you don’t want to be responsible for anything that happens.
“I think you’ve disappointed people before, and hated it. I think it hurt.
“And now, you refuse to disappoint people. Your Insight is that all actions lead to misery. Inaction leaves you blameless. So you let other people disappoint you because it’s easier.
“Thing is, you can’t live like that. It’s not living. It’s the path of least resistance. You’ve got a lot of stuff welled up inside you, and you should let it get out once in a while, in a real, fearless way.
“That’s what I think.”
She was talking about Christmas, 2007. Well, she was talking about other things, too.
I starred this email immediately.
Today, going on seven years later, is a draft of a message I began on my 29th birthday, June 7th, 2008. Gmail does not keep track of the date I began the draft. I have to remember that myself.
Sorry for the late response”
At Christmas, 2007, I had a new job and a new, bigger apartment in a fancier neighborhood. I had crossed a threshold. I was finally more adult than child. I loved somebody. I think she loved me. I went to see her in November. She came to see me in December. I don’t know what happened after that. I wanted to move to where she was and be with her for the time being.
I didn’t love her more than I hated myself. She made me feel like I had to do more and I had to be better. Between November and December, I made an effort. When I saw her again, I knew how far ahead of me she was. I let her let me disappoint myself. I’m sorry about that. I’m a ghost now.
I worked on Christmas. She wandered Tokyo all day. She emailed me. We arranged to meet. We had dinner. We walked around Kichijoji. We went to my apartment. My new bed hadn’t arrived yet. We had sex on a futon on the floor. She stayed until New Year’s. She left. I never saw her again.
The CEO came by my desk.
“Hey, can I see you in the little meeting room in a couple of minutes?”
“Uh, yeah — what’s up?”
“Nothing much is up. We just want to talk to you about a tiny thing.”
I had been working at my cool job for a year. I was working directly with videogames. I had weird hair. I had huge glasses. I came to work in pretty much my pajamas.
I went into the little meeting room. The CEO and the music composer were waiting there. They were empty-handed.
“Just, if you could close the door.”
I closed the door. I sat down. The small meeting room was full of vintage Transformers toys. They stood in a line on the windowsill. Outside the window and across a highway, the three-, four-, and five-story office buildings of Shin-Koenji stood against periwinkle sky behind a gray curtain of mist.
The music composer spoke up.
“We got a call from your landlord today.”
“What? Really? What did he say?”
“He says you haven’t paid your rent this month.”
“What — what? Whoa. Really?”
“That’s what he said,” the CEO said. He folded his hands.
“That’s what he said,” the music composer repeated.
“Why — why did they call you? I don’t understand this.”
“Look, we can’t have this happen again,” the CEO said.
“We can’t have our company looking like a bunch of deadbeats. Our name is on that lease.”
“Deadbeats — you’re not the ones looking like deadbeats. You signed a salary guarantee letter. If I’m not paying, it looks like I’m gambling all the money away.”
“We’re not making any insinuations.”
“You need to pay your rent,” the music composer said.
“More importantly,” the CEO said, “you need to assure that you have enough money in your bank account at all times to pay the rent.”
I shook my head.
“Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I have been to the bank three times to fill out the direct debit forms. They keep telling me, next month’s rent is going to come directly out of your bank account. They keep telling me I need to pay one more month manually. So I pay one more month. Then they send me the little postcard the next month. They say I need to pay manually again. I don’t know why the paperwork isn’t taking.”
“Hmm,” the CEO said.
“Hmm,” the music composer said.
“What? Don’t tell me you don’t believe me.”
“I find it hard to imagine you wouldn’t notice 100,000 yen isn’t missing from your bank account each month.”
“Hey, I do a lot of work on the side, man. I’m not looking at my bank account every day.”
“Hmm, yeah,” the CEO said. “Heh, sometimes I forget this guy’s the only guy in this office who isn’t married.”
The music composer chuckled. (The music composer wasn’t married either.)
I shook my head.
“Anyway, you’ve got to hear me out here. Think about my pride—”
“Your pride? You’re not the one getting phone calls about your employee not paying the rent.”
“Exactly!” I said. “I’m not getting the phone calls about myself not paying the rent either. They didn’t even bother calling me. They just called straight to you. How do you think that makes me feel? How do you think it makes me feel to have to walk to a convenient store, withdraw 100,000 yen, and hand it over to some punk kid at the register to pay my rent every month?”
“I’m not really sure what you want me to say, here,” the CEO said.
“I’m just saying, hey, I feel bad and weird about the attitude with which you came at me about this phone call from my landlord business. I feel like I’m being treated like a nine-year-old by both you and my landlord. I’d just like a little sympathy.”
“They . . . they didn’t notify you at all about your rent?”
“Are you sure they didn’t?”
The CEO let out a low sigh.
“Look, I’m sorry, then. I’m just — you know. Man, you know. They just sounded really serious and angry on the phone.”
“I know, I know. It’s not your fault. It could just be it’s been a whole year of me not getting the direct debit paperwork through, and they’re fed up.”
“Yeah, that’s probably it.”
“That’s probably it,” the music composer said.
“They still should be talking to me, and not to you,” I said.
“That’s probably it,” the CEO said.
“That’s probably it,” the music composer said.
I left the little meeting room. I went to my desk. I worked through my emails until six PM. I grabbed my gym bag. I waved to the CEO. I got in the elevator. I went down to the train station. I rode two stops to Ogikubo. I went to the gym. I ran three miles. I swam. I sat in the sauna. I rinsed off in the shower. I took a long, hot bath.
I got dressed. I stepped outside. I felt invincible to the cold.
I walked to the Starbucks inside the Parco department store. I walked up to the girl at the counter. She had a fresh face. I slapped a thousand-yen bill on the counter.
“Shot of whiskey,” I said.
She looked me in the forehead. She blinked.
“We only serve coffees and teas here, sir.”
“Oh, yeah, I know. I’ll take a, uh, I’ll take a Christmas thing.”
“We’re out of the Christmas syrups,” she said. “I present you our sincerest apologies.”
“I’ll have a chai latte.”
“That’s one chai tea latte.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I paid. I took my change.
“Please step over to the table under the red lamp. We will be serving your drink there shortly.”
“Okay,” I said. “And hey — I didn’t, uh, actually want to order a whiskey.”
“Yes sir.” She gave a little bow.
“No, I really mean it. I really, really didn’t think that you had whiskey here.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. She gave another little bow.
I stood by the table under the red lamp. It was almost nine PM. The Starbucks would be closing soon. It was hot. The automatic doors opened twice. Icy wind and rain droplets gushed in. Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song” was playing over the stereo.
It was Christmas Eve.
“One chai tea latte, here.”
The chai latte arrived on the table. I picked it up. I turned around.
No seats were open.
The Starbucks inside the Parco department store in Ogikubo had only fourteen seats at seven tables. They were all two-seater tables. Half of the seats were individual chairs. Half of the seats were part of a long bench against the wall. The bench had padding. Everyone wanted to sit in the bench.
Seven people sat side by side by side on the bench. The seven seats opposite them were empty.
Each of the seven customers had a small coffee. Each coffee had a lid on it. On each table was a notebook, a book, or a newspaper. One of the customers was a man in a business suit. One of the customers was a girl in a high school uniform. One of the customers was an old lady. One of the customers was a woman in her thirties. One of the customers was a man in his twenties. I’ll let you imagine what the other two customers were.
All seven customers were asleep. Two of their heads were on the tables. The other five heads were leaning against the padded back of the booth.
I took my chai latte. I drank it in the freezing rain and wind. I did not open my umbrella. I finished my chai latte before I got home. I stuffed my umbrella into the closet. I flopped off my shoes. I dabbed my rain-wet shower-wet hair with a big towel. I put on my pajamas. I popped open a bag of shredded cabbage. I poured it into a wooden bowl. I mixed the cabbage with some salt and pepper. I sliced some tofu. I threw in some spinach. I sat on my sofa on the floor of my living room. I put on “Casino Royale” on Blu-Ray. I looked into the bowl of cabbage. I sighed. I stabbed my chopsticks into the bowl. I began eating. I ate until I was asleep.
I woke up. The salad bowl was on the cushion next to me. The film was over. The room was dark and silent.
I had goosebumps.
I stood up. I went into the kitchen. I stood in the dark and silent kitchen. I could hear nothing. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. My jaw was shaking. My fist clenched. I dropped my salad bowl into the sink. I ran some water over it. I turned off the sink. I turned my head. My gaze reached the front door. I strode to the door. I stabbed my feet into my flip flops. I threw the door open. I stepped out into the icy air.
I left my front door wide open. I walked twenty feet around to the side of the building. I rounded the fence. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk-wide suburban street. I looked west. I looked east. I put my hands on my hips. I listened. I heard a scooter skid around a turn a block away. I heard drops drip. I heard a woman moan.
“Stop,” she moaned.
“Please, stop. Please. Please, stop. Stop it.”
I’d seen enough Japanese pornography to know that women in pornography often tell men to stop.
I looked up. I rotated. I was looking for a flicker in a window.
“No! No! Stop! Please!”
On a moment of molecular diameter, her voice rotated into a figment of the real.
“Someone! Please! Help me! Help!”
She was shrieking.
I strode five steps west. I looked up. I looked around. I looked at windows and doors. I gazed into the darkness of the park. My eyes followed the road until the black termination where the streetlights’ influences ended.
“Please! Someone help me! Someone help me!”
I turned and strode fourteen steps to the east. I looked up and around. I looked at doors. I looked at windows. I looked for fluttering curtains. I looked for flickering shadows.
The shrieks grew closer. The shrieks grew quieter. The shrieks became screams. The screams became sobs. I stood in the street. I looked at my feet. They were wet with rain and dirt. I could feel my heartbeat in the top of my skull.
“Please, stop,” she said. She was sobbing.
I ran back into my house. I slammed the door. I locked the door. I clenched both hands to my chest. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. I stared at my own eyes. I was weeping. I was shaking. My lungs and ribs were hot. My breaths were big. I touched my fingertips with my fingertips in the mirror. I looked horrible. My hair was a mess. I was hideous. I hated the way I looked. I looked terrible. I was sweaty. I was rain-wet. My eyes were glassy. I was vibrating with breath. I was twenty-nine years old. I was terrified. Everything is terrifying. Nothing ever goes away.
The building manager brought me a rent-due notice. I took it to the convenient store. I withdrew 100,000 yen. I handed the rent notice to the kid at the counter. He scanned the barcode. He took my money. He gave me a receipt. He stamped the receipt. It was Christmas morning. I’d presented myself the right to stay where I was.
“Look at me,” The Green-Haired Girl said.
I looked up at her. She was lying on my childhood bed. Her face and hands were pointing at me. I was lying on a mattress on the floor.
“You’ve known me a long time,” she said. “Would you say I’ve ever struck you as the complaining type?”
“About, like, anything?”
“I’d say, no. You don’t complain.”
She shot me two little finger pistols.
“Right? That’s me. I don’t complain. I am an optimist.”
“So I just want to say, and you’ll know how much I really mean it: this place sucks.”
“Oh. Yeah, tell me about it.”
“You could have been more specific when you invited me to come here.”
“Well, I moved halfway around the world to get away from this place. Isn’t that specific enough?”
The Green-Haired Girl rolled her bottom lip downward. She stabbed her top lip inside her bottom lip. It was her Goblin Face. She made a low sound.
“You know what? I come to America four times a year. Usually I’m in a car. I’m moving around. You know? I’ve been through this town five or six times. Remember that time I sent you a picture of myself in front of your parents’ mailbox?”
“Of course I remember that. You didn’t want to knock and say hi.”
“Oh come on. What was I supposed to say?”
“I don’t know. You could have said you were my friend.”
“Anyway, what I’m saying is, I never stopped and . . . appreciated any of these places. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how people can live here. I don’t know why you’d live here and not anywhere else.”
“Anywhere else, huh?”
“I don’t know. Hey, I’m Japanese, right?”
“I want to eat sushi. Can you believe that? Every time I’m in America, I want to eat sushi. Is there somewhere to eat sushi around here?”
“There’s a little sushi bar near my parents’ church.”
“How is there a sushi bar near a church?”
“Hey, look, I don’t write the rulebook on where you can locate a sushi bar.”
“Is it any good?”
“I don’t eat sushi,” I said.
“Do you think they’re open today?”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “Everywhere is probably closed.”
“Well, what about the Japanese community who don’t celebrate Christmas?”
“I don’t think they have a Japanese community here.”
I called the sushi bar. They didn’t pick up the phone.
The Green-Haired Girl slept all day on my childhood bed. My mom made pizza for dinner. The Green-Haired Girl ate a slice of pizza.
My dad was putting on a suit. He came into my room. The Green-Haired Girl was lying face-up on the bed. I was sitting at the desk. I was writing an email.
“Son, if you want to come to church with us, you can come to church with us.”
“I already told you I’d go to church with you.”
“You’re going to church?” the Green-Haired Girl asked me, in Japanese.
“Can I go? Or do they, like, not let non-Christians in there?”
“Are you kidding? They’re always looking to expand. They’ll take anybody.”
“May I go to the church with . . . you?” the Green-Haired Girl asked my dad.
“Yes, you can come to church with us.”
“What should I wear?” the Green-Haired Girl asked.
She’d packed tutus and jeans.
“Maybe put on some jeans.”
I put on a sweater and jeans.
My dad was putting on his bowtie. My mom was in my parents’ bedroom.
“Dear, we’re leaving in five minutes.”
My dad went outside to warm up the car.
“You kids can get in the car. Your mother and I will be out in five minutes.”
The Green-Haired Girl and I got into the car. The Green-Haired Girl rubbed her new mittens together.
“Do you think we’ll drive past the sushi bar?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s midnight. They’ll be closed.”
She gave a little smile.
“I know. I just want to see it. Just for one—” she held up one finger “—tiny second.”
My dad came outside. He got into the car. He buckled his seatbelt. He put the car into reverse.
“Your mother’s staying home,” he said.
“She hasn’t been feeling well,” he said.
We drove by the sushi bar. It’s called “Sakura”.
“There’s the sushi bar,” I said.
The Green-Haired Girl was asleep alone against the window in the backseat of the car.