It starts with her talking about her astronomy class.
She is an astronomy student. She studies astronomy because, as a little girl, she could only ever sleep on the veranda outside of the bedroom she shared with her sister in her parent's home, her arms and legs spread-eagled, an earth starfish, looking up into the night. Some people count sheep - she joined up the stars in the sky, the night and the vast fathom of white needlework easing the passage into sleep for her. So she studies the stars now, spends her days within a big telescope drawing pencil scratches on enormous rolls of rice paper with maybe ten other students.
She starts talking, introducing new elements into the conversation: books I know she has not read, films she would never have normally have wanted to see. She begins to make borrowed comparisons. I take special care. I fuss. I let her know what she means to me. Unfortunately, this invariably leads to a discussion of that which I am not sure I am sure about. Which - I don't know - hurts her or upsets her or at any rate leads to me leaving the room or acting funny to the extent that we have to fight.
A month passes. It's May-time. It's pretty. There are pretty gardens. We take lots of walks together. It is very warm. A month passes before she has the confidence to mention the name of her brilliant new friend: Akio. I remember reading something in the newspaper about a guy called Akio who was part of Aum, the people responsible for that awful thing on the underground a few years ago. In my head, Akio is not a good person. Akio is the worst of me. I didn't say anything, of course. Just made a mental note to count up the number of references to Akio each day. We played the counting game, my jealousy and I. Week by week, a change came over the both of us. We avoided the marriage conversation less because it came up less. In point of fact, the marriage conversations decreased in direct proportion to the increase of Akio stories. Akio is so funny. Akio said. Akio, today. I meant to say. Akio. At school, Akio. It could be that she was trying to provoke me, but I would not let myself be provoked. It could be that she wanted me to throw myself at her feet and say please don't leave me, I need you, I love you, I will do anything it takes to stop you talking about Akio any more in the way that you are. But I did not throw myself at her feet and I did not tell her as often as she wanted to hear.
2. I've lived in Japan a little over three years now. I arrived here as a tourist, intending to see the city, travel around a little, do the tourist thing (you know, climb Fujisan, visit a love hotel, eat noodles at night and imagine myself to be taking part in some virtual recreation of Bladerunner, all that) and split to Australia or New Zealand or something.
I was travelling with my girlfriend of the time, Rachel. Whatever romance we had thought we were having sort of died a death as we travelled across Europe. It was funny. Or not funny. I mean, I had known Rachel for about seven years. She lived right down the street from me. Her folks knew my folks. I even suppose some people - not me, but maybe Rachel - would describe us as childhood sweethearts. Which means that people had expectations, expectations that everybody but me appeared to share.
Rachel spoke - frequently - about the future. Each experienced moment took on a nostalgiac significance for her. Everything we did, she couldn't wait to tell her kids - our kids, I suppose - about. This tree, that hotel room, those people, that time. The thing. I had this awful I don't know what you would call it. A vision. Only that sounds dumb. Not a vision. Say a glimpse of the future. Rachel would be fifty and looking like her mother. It would be some kind of fourth of July. Some barbecue. Rachel would be sitting at the end of a white wooden table, drink keeling wildly in one hand, her awful voice saying Tully, Tully, tell everybody about that thing, and all of our friends - who I would just despise - would turn their metal heads and the whole thing would be like The fucking Stepford Wives and I would look at all our perfectly cloned friends and think this is the point where I wake up, only I don't wake up and this is my life.
I think that Rachel and me were probably together in Tokyo for about three weeks. The whole time just depressed the living shit out of me. I didn't truly listen when she spoke, I didn't really look at anything. My first three weeks in Tokyo, I think I probably acted more like a resident than a tourist: I got annoyed by people being in the way, I kept my eyes trained on the floor, I felt tired all the time, didn't really want to get out of the hostel bed in the morning. I was shitty to Rachel and she took it all. There was no sense of tension building, either. There was just tension like dirt or blood beneath your fingernails. I imagine Rachel probably tried pretty hard to get through to me. I can't really remember. I just know that it had got so that I couldn't bear the sight of her. I couldn't bear her voice, I thought the things she said were just so fucking phoney and lame, I hated the sounds she made in bed, what she did with her hands, her skin, the clothes she wore, the things she wanted to do. I remember this one day, some time during those three weeks, visiting the temples in Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens, and her going on (the way I imagine people go on when they visit shanty towns in India, oh look at the poverty, how exquisite). There are 20,000 trees here, she said. I walked off, just left her there, walked in the rain among the trees, weaving in and out, on the grass, on the footpath, on the grass, on the footpath. She caught up with me sitting by the lily ponds. I'm sitting there, watching the rain disturb the lilies and thinking sourly about Monet. She was so perky, like I hadn't stormed off, or like she hadn't noticed anything. I just wanted to force her head under the water. (I could feel the back of her head pushing up against the palm of my hand, her not wanting to drown, me being stronger than her. The red meat satisfaction of her death.) She cuddled into my arm. I didn't say anything and pretty soon after that we left.
The last day I saw Rachel - and the start of all this, what I'm going to tell you - we planned to visit the Imperial Plaza in Ueno. Which we did. She was chipper, as ever. I was sour. Afterwards, we walked for a while in the rain. It rained every day of the three weeks Rachel stayed in Japan. It wasn't planned. I don't suppose these things ever are. I know that we stopped on Nijubashi Bridge, and looked down into the water and I was reminded of my desire to drown her and I felt shit: none of this was Rachel's fault. Which was all it took. Suddenly, the back was off the clock and the cogs and the wheels spilled out all over everywhere. It was all over in a matter of seconds. It wasn't a drowning, after all, it was a shotgun beneath the chin, a big toe on the trigger. I know she asked me if I loved her and I said no, fucking no, like that, and she reeled as if I'd punched her in her belly, as if she'd been pregnant. She said I thought we would be together forever, and two tears fell from her eyes to the ground. It was amazing and beautiful, really. There we were on the Nijubashi Bridge, the rain thundering down, the pair of us soaked to the skin because we didn't pack for bad weather when we left the States, and these two tears jump from her eyes to the ground where they promptly disappeared. Part of me would like to go back to that place and save them somehow, those tears. I would preserve them, feeling as I do that they say something important about me that one day I might understand.
I first met Shiina that same day.
I didn't leave the bridge for a while. I stood, soaked through to my bones, watching the surface of the water below, watching the rain concuss whatever fish were down there. I wandered, not really taking anything in. I didn't have any plans. There was nothing I wanted to see. You should know: I don't explore cities, not in the conventional sense. I have my base, which in this case was a hostel, a short walk from Asakusa subway station. Wherever I went, I knew I had to get back to Asakusa. You only need a rudimentary understanding of the subway system (and subway systems are the same all over the world - subway is subway) to find your way home.
The rest of the day is a blank until I find myself in a bar so full of people I may as well be crammed in the bullet train during rush hour. There was a terrible 80s soundtrack (Pat Benatar screaming Love is a Battlefield), and a movie screen that stretched the length of the bar showing what turned out to be La Dolce Vita. I drank beer from a bottle, watching the movie sandwiched between great rafts of people, none of whom were taller than my shoulder. I found myself adopted by a bunch of young Japanese girls who called me quiet american, even after I told them my name. They talked at me, surrounding me, introducing clipped words like odd-shaped broken pieces of brittle toffee. I could hardly hear them over the noise.
Saying all of that: Shiina was immediately distinctive to some part of me. It was like when somebody says something to you and you miss it, whatever it was they were saying, only to catch it, the meaning of their words, just as you say what? Shiina. I noticed Shiina. The volume and the screen over my head and all of the Japanese faces so close to my own. I made excuses and attempted to find the toilets, thinking if I can just find a cubicle and breathe, if I can just get my head above water. I wasn't really thinking. Pat Benatar gave way to the Lotus Eaters and I wondered who the DJ was and told myself to stop drinking sake. And I'm singing that Ramones' song Sheena is . . . a punk rocker, Shee-na is . . . a punk rocker, Sheena is . . . a punk rocker now-ow-ow . . .
I lose time here. I couldn't tell you if I found the toilet, I couldn't tell you if I stopped drinking (although I rather think the opposite must be true), I couldn't tell you if I perked up, took drugs, danced, laughed, sang, or fell over. The next thing I know, I'm talking to Shiina, or she is talking to me, and we are in a corner, or more specifically I am in a corner and she is facing me. You'll have to forgive me. My memory is like some boozy stranger, interrupting jokes at the punchline. I know that I talk and I know that she appears to listen, and I know that I liked her face. The talking and the knowing are vivid. Her hair was shoulder length and the extreme so black it's almost blue of most Japanese hair, and her eyes remained fixed to mine even as mine skirted about her.
Shiina was slight. She had a tendency to withdraw. Take a picture of any crowded room and you will glimpse Shiina obscured by the shoulders of others. Every photo of her I have, there are shoulders. She is one who hides. But, importantly, she has the intensity of those who wait for their moment, who think carefully before speaking and only say that which they think you should hear. In contrast to Rachel. The mouth that produced those words, I remember looking at that mouth the way a kitten looks at milk. Later, outside in the cool air and the neon lights (me wondering whether these lights ever go out, me wondering what would happen if there was a power cut), Shiina edged toward something but not sex. She said that I could stay at hers until I got my act together, she had a futon, I shouldn't get the wrong idea. I said I didn't I didn't, I won't. Months later, in bed, Shiina told me that I sounded like a fairy nursery rhyme she had learned at school, the cat and the fiddle, did I know it? The hey-diddle-diddle of my attempt to not sound like a man who was attracted to her.
4. The next three years are kind of like that first night in the bar.
There are times we have spent together that are inked like dragon tattoos on the back of my eyes. Similarly, there are periods of weeks and months when nothing hugely significant happened. Significant things don't happen in real real life. You get together with somebody and - however that happens - that is your story to be rolled out at weddings and parties and Christmas and when you meet new people for the first time. Wherever you are, whatever kind of life you are living, you establish and then settle into a routine. Which isn't to say that there have not been problems. There were problems with my visa, there were problems with Shiina's family, what they thought about me, being a Gijin and all. There were problems with the landlord and the neighbours the first place we rented together. For a while, money was a little tricky. There were three or four pointless no-money jobs, before I got a position teaching English for a guy called Tanaka in Shinjuku.
My family write and tell me they miss me. My kid sister is growing up, sending me poems, and I love her and wish I was there to see. Still, she can visit in a couple of years, so. I tell my family about Shiina. They choose not to mention Rachel and I don't ask. We have wisely chosen to adopt that universal family sign posting that indicates subjects we do talk about and subjects we don't.
So I live in Japan with my Japanese girlfriend. You live in any city long enough, you get to know it inside and out. (You get to settle into a routine as comfortable as that which you share with your lover.) I know where to shop for food and clothes. I know where I can find comics and books and music. I know where to eat out, where to avoid, where is cool. There are days when this city is a migraine and weeks when the place treats me like a royal bitch. Royal bitch weeks, Shiina and me tend to split and drive out into the mountains.
As far as Shiina and me are concerned, we reached a certain point and relaxed into an even stride. We had the family conversation - you know, how many children we both wanted, all that - but I got the impression we both approached the topic from a long way off. Like, hell, we're happy now and, perhaps, maybe, one day we would want to think about the idea of being happier by sculpting some new person from the wild thing we had. We did the married conversation. She didn't want the whole rosewood thing. Neither did I. The two of us sort of looked across this ravine at the obscure imperfectly patterned geometric shape we took the ceremony of marriage to be, and shrugged, as if to say that is okay for some people but I don't quite figure out why.
I know her and she knows me. That is how I feel. Or rather: that is how I felt. The view from here has changed somewhat. The abstract shape across the ravine has puddled, grew muddy as if seen through fog. One minute we were here, side by side, trying to work that thing out, that thing other people wanted, and then I'm alone: or rather, I'm alone here. Shiina is over there, running her hands along the wood of it, the metal of it, the curves of it, the points of it. She is standing back and leaning in close. She is underneath looking up, she is on top her legs either side, kicking the way a baby kicks a hobby horse. She is over there. She wants something different from me. Or rather: she is sure about something that I am not altogether sure I am sure about.
6. The next thing, she is telling and not asking me whether I minded if she take a field trip with her class to the foot of Mount Fuji to watch a meteor shower.
This would be November time. I said what meteor shower? I said what meteor shower? like a baby. Shiina said the Leonids. The Leonids are a meteor shower. I asked her when? When did she want to see the meteor shower? She said at the end of the week, like three days from when she put it to me. I asked her who else was going. She said oh lots of people are going, Tull. Lots of people in this breezy singsong doesn't-matter-to-me voice. How many lots of people I said. Shiina said hunnert, hunnert-fifty. They were going to travel out and camp and watch the meteors fall and drink and eat and sleep and stay up all night and everything.
Then we had this dumb conversation about meteors and she told me a whole load of stories about Leonid and Temple-Tuttle and trains and brightness and ice and dust, and how the Leonids are called the Leonids because they appear to shoot from Leo and blah blah fucking blah. I tell you: I wanted to scream in her face. I wanted to take her happiness and crush it like a flower. I didn't, though. Not right then. I said hey, whatever (and I only ever say hey whatever when something is wrong) and she chose to ignore it like Rachel would have done, only Rachel ignored things because she wanted everything to be okay and Shiina ignored my hey whatever because she just wanted to go camp out at the foot of Mount Fuji with the minimum fuss please thankyou, and maybe Akio was going and maybe that was why the minimum of fuss helped her gear herself up for whatever it was that she was thinking about doing. Rest of the week, she packed her little rucksack and rolled up her sleeping bag and bought a thermos which I filled with rum for her. We ate out. I was reasonable. On the outside at least. Inside I was seething. I started to hate her for having the power to make me feel so - whatever the word is for frightened and angry all at once. We discussed what food she should take. I bought her three rolls of film, asked her to shoot it for me.
It wasn't until we started to kick around whether I should tag along that the fireworks started. Why did I want to come along, Sheen said. I'd never shown any interest before, in any of that stuff. Why now, what was it now, could I explain? I yelled. I said terrible things. I think the first thing I said was just: you bitch. You bitch, with full stops in-between. Her face (that Rachel face again - the shock of my apparently reasonless anger). I didn't mention Akio. I didn't even hint that I thought we had a problem that Akio could very possibly exploit if he chose to. We just fought about nothing, for the sake of it, because I wanted to.
Sheen stormed out. It must have been about ten thirty at night but she stormed out. I said the two-syllable version of her name - she-een – as she blurred through the door a waltzer made of skin and angry bone. She didn't stop. The bag was gone also, I noticed later, the bag she had packed for the trip to Mount Fuji, and I hadn't even noticed. I couldn't decide whether she had picked up her bag as she stormed out, or whether the bag had been missing earlier. If the bag was missing earlier, had she already left it somewhere else? If the bag was somewhere else, the bag was at Akio's. That was logical. If she was storming out of our place it was because she could go to Akio's place. If she was going to Akio's place, she was sleeping with him.
I didn't sleep. I took a shower and slipped into bed because - one – I wanted to be close to the smell of Shiina and - two - if she returned, I wanted her to think that I did not give a shit about the fact that she had stormed off. Look at me, I wanted to say, I don't give a shit. Did you storm off? I can't say I noticed. I'm asleep.
Of course she didn't come home. Of course she didn't call.
I called in sick to my classes the next day. I was punctual and conscientious so Mr Tanaka believed me when I said I was ill. We had a good relationship Tanaka and I, and it helped that I sounded bad: I hadn't slept after all. Mr Tanaka said that he would take the classes himself, and wished me a speedy recovery.
It all seemed perfectly straightforward. I would go out to Fuji. Find her. Tell her I loved her. Ask her to marry me. Everything would be okay. Everything would be all right. I made the journey Shiina and I had made countless times before when neither of us felt like driving: the train from Shinjuko to Kawaguchiko, the bus from Kawaguchiko along the Fuji Subaru line. I spent the three hours journey time sitting in different seats on the train and the bus, pacing along the walkway between the seats and staring out of the window.
Fuji was closed. Fuji is pretty much always closed. From the Fire Festival of Fujiyoshida in late August onwards, they try to deter people making their way up because of the climate changes between the varying slopes and because of the dangerous weather. I presumed that Shiina and Akio, if he was with her, and the rest of the class, and whoever else, the hunnert, hunnert-fifty, would be around the Five Lakes.
Of course, the Five Lakes were all but empty. There were people around (there are always people around somewhere in and around Tokyo, it's one of those things), but no astronomers. I had a pretty clear image in my head of what all non-Shiina astronomers looked like. I wandered around, the way I wandered three years before in the hours between Rachel and Shiina. I tried raising the issue of astronomers and meteors with one or two people in various disparate clusters but they couldn't help.
I bought coffee in a cancer-plastic cup and sat out at a table in the dark maybe three miles from the base of the mountain. I was an idiot. I drank the coffee and thought: you are an idiot. The size of Fuji imposed itself on me for the first time, as did the various ideal locations from which to witness a meteor shower. I wished that I had a book, as I had wished throughout the train journey, something to occupy myself with, something to cling to as a distraction from Shiina. Instead, I sat and gazed unhappily up the shadow Fuji left within the darkening night.
It must have been getting on for eleven when the first meteors appeared, as brief streaks of light moving a short distance across the sky. They occurred to me like something grand and numinous I had forgotten, like an obvious fact. The meteors streaked like 2 + 2 + 2 + 2. From where I stood, a peach smudge like a pastel thumb obscured the peak of Fuji. I was taken with the enormity of the sky: if I tilted my head back as far as it would go, the enormous sky was full of silver rain, silver rain that grazed the edge of what I could see for seconds and minutes variously before disappearing.
I sat, sat and rested my coffee on the ground beside me, not really looking to see where I put it, awed and stilled before the vertiginous green and mercury gashes, ignorant of the cold, made dizzy by the fact that each meteor looked like a star that had slipped. I thought again, in a detached way, of Shiina as a little girl, watching the stars, fixed points that could be joined in a night sky, and this, what I could see before me now: the stars unbolted, the stars loose to pinwheel and careen around above the holy mountain.
I barely moved after a while, just sat with my hands flat against the earth behind me, the sky awash with woolly red and enamel white and magnesium blue and witch-smoke green meteors, a mess of pretty needles, fucked-up cosmic acupuncture. I felt stilled and flushed.
Nothing matters, I thought, nothing matters besides this glorious thing. If I find Shiina, if I don't find Shiina. If I tell her I love her, if I don't tell her I love her. There are no real rights and no real wrongs. There are just things that happen and reasons we use to explain to ourselves why we did what we did. Tull, I thought, Tull: if you lose Shiina, that is sad, but it will not be the end: there is always life, and the world is full of people who do not know anything about any of the mistakes you have made before. If you leave Japan, if you go back home, if you take a trip on a ship and fall overboard. All of it. There is no right and no wrong. There is just the feeling on a given day. You can always put off confrontation.
I took a series of deep breaths and thought about Shiina watching what I was watching. Hours passed, and still the dust and the ice drifted across the gradually paling expanse of sky.
About the author:
Peter Wild is the editor of Perverted by Language: Fiction inspired by The Fall, which will be published by Serpent's Tail in 2007. His writing has appeared in NOO Journal, The Big Issue, Nude Magazine, Alt Sounds, City Life, 3AM magazine and Eyeballkid. He also does the Bookmunch website.
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