Lost in Japan
We waited on a bench by a Starbucks. It was near an escalator up to the platform. I thought about getting some coffee to make up for my lack of sleep, but Sean had insisted on carrying my bento and milk tea because my hands were full with my suitcase and souvenir umbrella. Sean was on his phone playing a rhythm game, so I followed suit and took advantage of the free wifi. I hadn’t been keeping tabs on home because I had been spending most of my time with Sean. I opened our class group chat and learned there would be a group project due when I returned. Julian was complaining he’d have to make up for my work, so I felt I could postpone boasting about the maid cafe (he didn’t have to know that I didn’t like it, what mattered was that he did) until later. My mother had sent me an email asking for updates since I’d forgotten to sign up for a temporary international plan. I was attaching the pictures I took to a reply when Sean stood up saying it was time to go.
Most of the platform was beneath a canopy except the space above the tracks where small cracks of Tokyo broke through like light beneath a lampshade. Electric wires and high-risers of steel and sky blue. A salaryman could have been walking to his desk and, by happenstance, look into his peripheral view and for a moment see my small dot of a head looking back at him. Would he jolt back around to his paperwork or would he cherish the chance encounter, resisting the urge to blink lest I vanish like a ghost?
The train pulled into the station. Men in conductor uniforms walked alongside as if pushing against the train to haul it to a stop. The doors opened and some passengers got off. I had never had so much as a model train as a toy, yet despite this, trains held a nostalgic place in my heart. Lemonade and club sandwiches in the dining car. Sleeping on bunks while rocked by the tracks. The whistle. The bullet train was the epitome of trains. Protagonists rushed home in major storms on the bullet train. Video essays dissected every historical, aesthetic, and metaphysical dimension of the bullet train. People enjoyed their bentos on the bullet train. I would be one of them.
We boarded. I took the window seat. The train departed.
We unwrapped our bentos together like siblings on Christmas. Sean’s main dish was karaage, his favorite. I had chosen mine based on which packaging was prettiest--a chic navy blue. I opened mine to a plethora of different and unrecognizable foods, save a lump of rice or two. “Ooo, you got a very Japanese one,” Sean congratulated. I felt a deep sense of patriotism and accomplishment until I interpreted that comment as to meaning there was mostly fish and no meat. Not that I hated seafood, but the aroma of spices from Sean’s fried chicken had succumbed me to envy. I wouldn’t dare ask for some because the portion was so small, and I knew it was his favorite. It would be wrong to deprive him of that simple pleasure.
I decided to drown my tears with a drink. Specifically, a different brand of milk tea that Sean had recommended. When I reached for it, he began to watch me with his cheeks plump with chicken. I twisted the cap. The bottle gave a slight breath of a released vacuum. Then, the raising of a grail to the lips--disappointment.
“You don’t like it?” Sean asked, too happy from his chicken to be bummed by my differing opinion.
“No. Or, like, maybe I had too high of expectations? It says, ‘Royal’ on it, so I was expecting something more flavorful. This taste watered-down compared to the other brand.”
“Oh,” he said, “I guess I like mine less strong.” Sean went back to his food, then flinched and looked nervously at me. “If you don’t like it,” he began to say. It seemed that I had unintentionally insulted Sean, or had shown a lack of trust in his recommendations. I wish I didn’t say anything! Wait, he’s the one who said…huh, am I that easy to read?
“Then,” he continued. “Could I…have it?”
This seemed to be another challenge to my capacity for politeness. If I gave it to him, then it would be the vanquishing blow to Sean’s self-regard for his opinion and its influence over me. Then again, I had already admitted it wasn’t to my liking, and Sean had seemed to disregard that matter entirely, until that moment, and if I refused that would seem like needless possessiveness. Ghaa! If only I knew about the Starbucks I could’ve had a coffee and avoided all of this!
“Oh, yeah, sure, do whatever. Knock yourself out.” I handed it to Sean as indifferently as I could, though my hand was shaking.
He chugged it.
“Wow,” I said as he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Someone’s thirsty.” He started coughing, turning towards the aisle. “You okay?” I asked. He nodded, coughing a few more times before the fit was over. “You sure?” He nodded again but didn’t go back to eating. “Alright then.”
My bento was refreshing, more than the milk tea could have been. The fish was still cold and had a soft delicate texture and mild flavor that is often over-fried or seasoned at home. The rice was filling and I was blessed with a few bits of pickled vegetables like radish and ginger. Sean seemed back to normal and began eating his.
His phone rang. He dug it out of his pocket. “Hello? Obaasan?” As an old woman’s voice flowed from his phone, he flowed naturally into Japanese. I knew he could speak it, he had done so not too long before but never in such a sustained conversation. No matter how much I tried to pay attention, it was too fast and varied for me to recognize any distinguishable patterns, phrases, or words I felt I had learned. I wished I had been so lucky to have a relative who could teach me the language I so longed to know at that young infant age when one could learn any forever.
What of my own grandmother? My father’s mother. She lived in California--too far to visit more than once or twice a year if chance hadn’t escaped either my parents or her, which frequently did. Yet it was quite close compared to the ocean I had traveled to be with Sean. Close compared to the distance Sean must’ve traveled all those summers as a child to visit his grandmother. Yet, despite this comparative proximity, I had never learned her Spanish, nor had I learned to desire her national character as much as the character of the nation I was then in. How many snowfalls had I seen depicted beneath the lights of Tokyo Tower where a young couple resolves the first strife in their relationship? How many shows had I seen with Mount Fuji slowly escaping a train window as the characters sat in contemplation? I had seen Akihabara. I was doing the best with my time but the stay would be an inevitable abridgment. A mere dub of what was a full nation, a full world, with endless complexities I could only sample in fractions, delegated to outside observation and minimal participation.
“My grandma says she still has some guests,” Sean said, having hung up his phone and returning to his lunch. “So it would be better if we stuck around Shizuoka for a while once we get there.”
“Sounds good,” I said, then reclined in my seat and rest my head against the window to a nation rolling by.
I would have fallen asleep but was too afraid to stop looking even when we went through a tunnel as we’d always shoot out at some other end. Sean put on music. I followed suit, putting on my headphones and put on my downloaded playlist of lofi beats to study/relax/chill/listen to. He dozed off.
I had forgotten until now, writing this, that on that train, I had thought of another haiku. The words were not too particular and, all these years later, it seems that having put that same playlist on I can remember.
City. Rice. Tunnel. Grass. / Bullet train, gotta go fast. / Sun. Clouds… Mount Fuji.I should have written it down or awoken Sean, but he looked too peaceful like an overfed cat. It’s fine. I’ll remember. I’ll tell him when we get there. Of course, I never did.