Last train. Bodies packed thick and deep around her. If Mina hadn’t survived it so many times before, she might have wondered how it was possible to breathe. Her date had promised it would be a short trip, three stops on the local, so she closed her eyes, felt him expand himself behind her to keep other late night groping hands away, and counted down to herself waiting for the doors to close.
There was no place to go, but deeper into the night.
The doors hissed shut as the train stumbled from the station. Positioned so tight, no one moved. Hot air blew over her head. She could smell the drinking and the cigarettes and the sweat on everyone around her.
“Almost there,” he whispered to her.
“Left or right?” She asked.
“Left.” He said.
Of course it seemed, from their location, the most difficult of doors to get out of.
“I think we’re gonna have to push,” he said.
The train slowed. She prepared herself for the crush. The greatest force always came from behind, someone on the wrong side of the car needing to escape. They bound out of the doors with a dozen others. The train crammed on their replacements and left the station for the final time that night.
Mina breathed free.
He smiled at her. “Always an adventure,” he said.
It was after one. The streets of the small town west of Shibuya where he lived were quiet, the narrow alleys of used clothes stores, trendy boutiques, and rows of cafes, closed, but still the neighborhood felt more alive than her bed town in the eastern part of Tokyo. Past the convenience store a group of salary men stumbled noticeably in a zig zag from one side of the street to the other. Mina’s date placed his hand behind her and steered her around the trouble, as though she wouldn’t have known which way to walk. His hand on her lower back felt light and caring, but still she was suspicious. She was tired and drank more than she wanted to, and felt that delicate time of night coming when conversation was drying up. He was starting to push towards her more, closing the distances between them when he could as they walked. On turns, when she let her hands drop from her pockets, he would allow his hands to swing and swipe the tips of her fingers, testing her willingness to hold. There was something in the dance that she loved, but was unwilling to commit to. Still she was sure that if it came to him wanting more, she could easily, with a flash of anger, push him back. He had small hands that she imagined could never be brought to do harm. He was that sort of man, she thought, too kind not to be easily tamed.
Mina followed him up two flights of stairs. He pressed his finger against his lips and smiled. Roommate. He had light eyes and thick brownish blonde hair. They had met in Daikanyama at a CD release party. At four AM as the DJ’s changed and the club began to thin out, he danced next to her for an hour without saying anything. Of course there were his eyes, moving at her in secret as she made room for herself on the dance floor, pushing out with elbows and long rhythmic steps to the pulsing techno. Once they found themselves looking at each other and smiling. It might have been a mistake, a rare naked moment. The minute she sat down, he found her and asked her, in broken Japanese, if she wanted a drink. When she responded in English he was clearly surprised. She had been studying since she was eight and spent a year on her own in London. Their conversation was brief. She pretended at misunderstanding more than she did. His name was Ryan. He was from Pennsylvania. He worked as a recruiter for a firm in Tamachi.
They took their shoes off and stepped up onto the hardwood floors that led down a narrow hallway. The air inside felt stilted. She could smell bananas ripening in the kitchen. Winter had closed everything in. They walked into a common living space. Worrying about the noise and his roommate down the hall, he closed the door behind them.
“It’s so new to me,” he said, “doors everywhere. The apartments are like bentos…every room it’s own, small compartment.”
Mina smiled at the idea, apartments like bentos. “So desu ne…That’s right…I am sure you’re used to big homes, that’s all the Americans ever talk about.”
“I like it,” he said, “every room feels intimate. I grew up in a very rural part of Pennsylvania. Nothing there but farms. So much open land, but it all seemed dead to me.”
The combination dining room and kitchen was cramped, at best a six mat room. They had a miniature couch pushed against one wall and a square table resting near the sliding glass doors on the opposite side. Above the table there were taped up pages copied from a Japanese textbook. Hiragana, Katakana, the various counters for everything from people to flat and round objects. Laid out, the information, though basic, the task of school children, seemed daunting.
“Nihongo muzukashi ne?” she said.
He played music from his computer. The sound filtered out through speakers on the floor. She sat on the couch and peered into the next room.
“Is it your room?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said while working at making tea.
She got up and walked inside. It was the only tatami room in the apartment. She hated tatami, the smell, the memories of her room in Nagano as a child, how careful she always had to be, the microscopic bugs that would bite at her during the summer. When she left her home and moved to the city, she refused every place with tatami. Finally being forced to pay more so she could have the dark hardwood she wanted. But she had forgotten how it felt on bare feet, how soft, how it gave slightly when you walked. The walls in his room were supple, but bare. There were a series of pictures lined up on a wood border on one wall, the faces, she thought, of his family and friends. There was no furniture, only a futon, a few books, some neatly arranged piles of clothes. The only color was a red lamp hanging from the ceiling. It seemed like no one lived there. A room for ghosts, but she knew it clearly.
“I had the same room,” she said back to him, “when I lived in London.”
She sat back down. He handed her tea. She blew at the surface and sipped carefully. She made no place for him on the couch. He stood patiently as he talked to her.
“What do you mean?” He wanted to know.
“My room in London. All I had was a bed and some books and some clothes. My friends said it was like I didn’t live there.”
“I have more than that.” He sounded insulted.
“Really, where?” Mina asked.
“Everything is in the closet.”
“Show me…I want to see.”
“Not a chance. Too soon to show you my mess.” His voice was soft, but strong.
“Maybe you won’t get another chance.”
“Really?” His head moved in a mock shocked circle, and then stopped suddenly realizing she wasn’t kidding. Humor continued to be difficult between them. Once or twice already he had misunderstood her directness for sarcasm, what did they call it smart-ass remarks that pretended at being stronger than they were.
“Sorry, it’s my bad English.” Mina said, though it was a lie.
“I don’t believe you…I just think…in any language, you’re the same.”
She was quick to confirm it. “Yes. My friends complain about the same thing. They tell me I’m not Japanese. Sometimes I try to pretend at all the politeness, but sometimes I just can’t.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me.”
“I really, really hope that’s true.” She dragged out every word, even though the series of r’s and l’s made her accent thick.
He bowed and motioned her to one side like the old men on the trains who spot a slight opening between two people that they can wedge themselves into. Reluctantly she slid to one side. For a moment they said nothing. He had on sweet smelling cologne. He took up no more space than he needed, not drifting his hands towards her, not searching out contact, like she assumed he might. Still she vigilantly maintained the inches between them.
She checked her phone for messages in plain sight. He watched her and looked away, as though she was changing in front of him.
“Are those your family?” She asked nodding up in the directions of the pictures in his room.
“Family and friends.”
“You don’t miss them?”
“Of course I miss them, but…”
“I’m here now. For now my life is here.”
Mina understood exactly. “I know,” she said, “when I lived in London, it was the same.”
“Why did you come back?”
“My father…he got sick.” She could see he thought the worst. She put up her hands, “He’s okay, now, but then…we didn’t know…by the time he was better, there didn’t seem any way to go back.”
“But you wanted to?”
“For a time it was all I wanted…what about your home, do you miss it?”
He laughed. “Pennsylvania? I don’t miss that place.”
“Nothing. Except maybe snow…I mean I never loved those cold winters, always up to our necks in snow, but one or two good storms a season, just for the color…But here, this year, nothing.”
“It’s been very mild,” she said.
“This will be the first year in my life that I haven’t seen snow.” His voice leaned towards longing.
“It’s very unusual,” she said. “We always get a little.”
“It’s the middle of March. Probably too late for that now.”
“Though tonight, so cold.” And as she said it she could feel that desire to bring him closer, but instead she gripped her phone tightly.
“Do you usually miss last train?”
“I used to every weekend,” she said, “I live so far from everything that if I want to go out it’s either on the train by midnight or find something to do.”
“And what do you usually do?”
“Dance. Always dancing.” The words made her feel warmer.
“Alone like the night I met you?”
“Alone. Mostly alone.”
“But not for long?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know…” He yawned and slid back into the couch. Though he had hardly moved she felt herself forced further to one side.
“I like dancing alone,” she said, “even if I am with someone, I like dancing by myself. I don’t know how to say it in English or even Japanese. In the clubs…it’s the only time I can live the way I want to live.”
“I know what you mean.”
“So what changed?”
“You said used to…”
She flipped open her phone and glanced down. There was only the picture saved on the screen she had taken in front of the giant bronze Buddha in Kamakura, but no mention of a message from anyone.
“Yes…three months ago things changed.”
He angled himself towards her, his legs almost touching hers.
“How did things change?”
He stayed still, but the questions felt like hands on her. She tried to spread herself out, but there wasn’t any room to be found.
“Could you,” she said, “could you give me some space, please. I need some more space.” Her words were strident. She felt completely herself, speaking at the same time as feeling.
He stared at her. His face was bright with surprise. His thick eyebrows rose, wounded. How perfect he looked, how beautiful, even in pain, how tight his face became, how sculpted his expression. For the first time she wanted to kiss him. He moved from the couch to the floor, pressing his back against the black refrigerator for support. He stared out the sliding glass door, for a moment she thought he was waiting for her to leave, which she might have if there was anywhere to go, if the trains were running.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I know this is a small place…I know…”
He looked back at her and then again looked away. “Everyone here is a little cold…”
“Of course…Of course you feel that way…”
“It doesn’t mean anything…”
“I know…that’s what everyone says, especially the westerners. Touching, it’s like talking to you, desho? But what am I supposed to do, pretend?” She pushed her body to the middle of the couch, and brought her knees up under her white beaded dress.
“I don’t want you to pretend…”
“Of course you do…of course you do…”
“Don’t say that…”
“I’m so tired of it…so many people. Crowds and more crowds. On the streets, in the stores, on the trains, especially on the trains, there are always these hands, some strangers fingers, their elbows up against you and I’m not supposed to mind all the ways I get touched and none of it is supposed to mean anything and my body is supposed to know the difference between my boyfriend’s fingers touching me from behind and some stranger’s hand in a crowded train pressing into me, when you know even if it’s crowded, the person behind you could, if they wanted to, stop themselves from touching you that way…and I’m not supposed to care…and that’s why I could only ever feel more some night with a stranger I met at a club, both of us drunk or on something, back at their home that feeling of your skin totally exposed to the air…and I thought in this city, so many of us, it was the only way…to feel anything personal, something I didn’t share with all those men out there…” It felt the longest she had ever said anything without interruption or embarrassment.
He shivered a bit. She couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or the affect of what she said.
“Are you cold?” She asked.
“A little, but daijobu. It’s okay.”
“Daijobu jenai. Tonight it’s so cold…you should put on the heat.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is he tonight?” His mouth moved with caution at the question.
“His wife was supposed to be away, but she came back early.”
“Is that what he said when you spoke to him at dinner?”
“He was going to try and get away, but didn’t know if he could.”
“And if he could have? Where would you be right now?”
She tried, but couldn’t stop herself from a guilty smile.
“He’s what changed three months ago?”
He closed his eyes. It was as though he was pulling a shade over himself. His dark features bled into the refrigerator as he moved slowly to the guitar line playing.
“And his hands?”
“What about them? What should I say?” She felt her voice become louder.
“The truth…why hide? Isn’t that what you said, the first time we went out, why you liked being out with a westerner, you could be honest? You didn’t have to pretend.”
Mina wanted him to look at her, but he wouldn’t. “His hands…is this what you want…I’ve never been touched that way.”
“But they don’t belong to you.”
“What do you mean?” She tried to position herself to see his face.
“His hands aren’t yours,” he said. “They’re hers’…the wife. You’re like a stranger he gets to touch on the train. She comes back, the doors open, he’s gone.”
The anger, sharp and sudden, cut deep into her lungs. She had never wanted to slap a man until now. She pressed her nails into her palms to test her strength. The experience of having been told the truth so plainly felt like bones growing. There had always been men, even other women’s men, but still, men. She left home for university when she was eighteen. Her father was strict, her mother never offered anything in her defense. Finding herself alone in the city, she found friendships hard, but men were easy. What they wanted complicated but obvious. Many were like her. They left their hometowns first for school and then to work in Tokyo. They hated the crowds, they dreamed of living near the sea. In bed she could always keep their attention, but outside they drifted away from her, like small lingering storms. After the last disaster a friend told her that love had been hard on her. Her heart took to the idea like a polluted vaccine, she might always be symptomatic, but she would survive.
He pulled himself up off the floor. Above the refrigerator there were bottles of liquor. He unscrewed a cap of Okinawa shouchu and took an extended drink from the bottle. He opened up a drawer and took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and went outside. She had never seen him smoke before. The cold air filled the room. She went to him without wanting to. He stood on the balcony smoking artfully, dragging toxic pulls from the edge of the cigarette before blowing the smoke from his body.
It was nearly morning. A dim brightness forced its way in.
“I’ve been trying to quit.” He offered her what was left.
She wasn’t a smoker, but took it anyway.
“It’s so cold. We should go inside.”
“You can sleep if you want…I’ll sit in the living room for a while and then leave when the trains start again.” Nothing she said was right. His face reacted to her words like hairs being plucked from his body one at a time. He put his hands on the railing and looked out across the town. Below them was a science store, across was a dress shop, on the corners were cafes with names written in Romanji. Soon Sunday would choke the streets with people. Crowds and more crowds. She would be gone by then, she would be back in her new bed, above those dark hardwood floors, deciding how to rearrange her room. His number would stay in her phone for a while, maybe months. She could let go, but she couldn’t erase.
They went back inside. He went right for his bed. It was either a punishment or an invitation, she couldn’t tell. His body dropped dead into the center. Behind him, he left the door opened but she stayed in the living room. The computer ran out of songs. In the place of music she heard heavy heeled footsteps in the street outside, the pressure of water passing through pipes above her, his sentences repeating themselves in her head. Everything he said was close to being true, but far away from mattering. There were dishes in the sink, not many, but enough. She wet a sponge and turned on the water and began to scrub at the white plates. She believed deeply that there was penance in cleaning.
The wind picked up. Mina looked outside. The air stirred about the window and for a second seemed to take shape, tiny flakes materialized, and then it was all she saw, the beginnings of snow.
Quickly, into the bedroom, standing over him, she called out to him. He slept drunk and deep with conviction. She kneeled down next to him, searching for some way to wake him, some way to move him. The light was everywhere. Her hands passed over the frame of his body, his long arms, his too straight nose, the beginnings of a belly, as though forgetting the ways to touch another person, and then re-learning again. She held his head, kissed him awake. “Ryan…look,” she said and pointed. She kissed him again. His lips were rough from the weather. He blinked. “Look…”
“What?” he asked.
Even in the ten minutes he had been asleep he had managed to wrinkle himself, twist his hair about his face into strange impossible knots. “Ryan…you missed it…”
“No way…no fucking way.” He pushed past her and went for the window, but by the time he could see, whatever had been there, was gone. He stared outside as though waiting for a second showing.
“You missed it,” she said.
“I don’t believe you.”
She liked that, not being trusted. It felt right.
He stood tall against the window and looked back at her as though to beg her to make it happen again.
It was almost within her power.
The bed was warm. His smell was everywhere. She looked at the clock. First trains could feel as desperate as last. She lay down in his bed and began to undress. She pressed her hand against the soft tatami and imagined she could feel all the way back to her bag on the floor in the living room. Any beckoning vibrations from her phone and she would leave, it couldn’t be helped. She thought of London, Oxford Street and Regents Park, the name of the first westerner she had ever slept with, that year living free.