Lost in Japan
We were on our way back to the convenience store, even though we had just eaten. We didn’t know what else to do. The station was up the road. An old man sat on a chair outside his door. He had a cigarette in one hand and the other in his pocket. Our voices lightened as we bowed and passed him. Another person approached him and began talking. I listened carefully to my fame spread from ear to ear.
When I heard the lighter click and the affirming grunts, I turned to Sean and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were talking about us? Like, the first guy says, ‘Woah, did you see that? A foreigner! Since when were they in town?’ That would be cool. ”
“Actually, they were talking about us,” Sean confirmed without a hint of teasing. If they were talking about me, then that meant my sighting was unusual and who knows how long since in that town’s history there had been a foreigner and who knows how long after. I could be a myth that’d last a decade. Never mind any accidental aggression toward their property or children. Sean explained, “One of them said, ‘Woah, that guy’s wearing shorts.’ Then the other guy said, ‘In this weather? He’ll catch a cold.’ Then he asked for a cigarette.”
“Right, ‘cause a cold will kill ya,” I said, a little disappointed that I had been excluded from their conversation. “It’s not even that cold out. I’d wear shorts, too, but I’m too patriotic to wear anything besides jeans.”
We passed the station. A banging sound was growing as we passed the spot I’d gotten scared that morning and turned around, and before we got to the road leading to the riverbed, we saw a truck with some kanji on the sides and the back doors open. It was full of roof tiles. I couldn’t bear to look at that house as we passed it. Had our roles been reversed, I would have made sure to flaunt the mistake like a winning lottery ticket, insist that I would not have been so intellectually deficient to have not realized the different house, and assured him that in due time another tragedy would inevitably befall him. Sean gave no comment like the story from the morning was something simply to laugh at together. “You know Sean,” I said as we climbed up the stairs to the bridge. “You’re really nice.”
“Huh? N-not really.”
“Why do you sound like you don’t believe me?” I said with a slight chuckle to shroud that I was worried I had garnered a reputation to take everything I said as a joke.
“I do,” Sean said, “I mean, I do believe that that’s what you think about me. I’m just, not used to being complimented. I don’t know what to say.”
We found ourselves at the bridge once more. A bus passed from the other end, leaving in its place the figure of a person. He walked towards us, wearing a black turtleneck and slacks with a chain wallet sticking out of his pocket. It was the first time we had seen someone our age. It was like Goldilocks. First, the people were too young and the next were too old. Here was someone right in the center with whom I could share some kind of remarkable and impactful words. I hadn’t seen anyone try to hide their smile as much as him. It slipped through in small cracks which made it evident there was something larger lurking there. Yet, at the same time, he maintained consistent eye contact, that I knew he would speak to me before he had. “Konnnichi wa,” He said with a slight bow.
“Kon-” I began to say, bowing as well, but he passed, “-nichi-” he picked up the pace like he was sprinting while trying to look like he was walking. “-wa?” I waved bye to him but he never saw. Sean was looking out towards the riverbed, as though occupying himself with a childhood memory of playing in the stream with his siblings. He knew he’d be excluded.
I tapped his shoulder. “Hazukashii," I said, as he turned back.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “That was. I’m sure it took a lot from him to-”
“No, I mean, that’s what you should say. Since I complimented you.” I said, then faced away from him and pretended to give an aside. “Hazukashii.”
He smiled. “Sure.”
At the convenience store, we were surprised to see the same clerk and she was surprised to see us buying the same stuff. During that time back across, our conversation had switched from compliments to our grievances with society to what we wanted to study in college and where we would be going.
“I don’t know what I want to study,” I was telling Sean between sips of milk tea. “I’m gonna go to this state school with, like, a million majors and I’m sure I’ll find myself in one department or another.”
“Oh yeah?” Sean was leading me back down towards the riverbed.
“Yeah, I mean, I’ll still get a job. Probably.”
“At least you’re going,” he said, not in a parental way but with a slight hint of envy. We had begun walking across a park bordering bare trees and comprised of dead yellow grass. “I still have to wait a year.”
“What? But you’re older than me.”
“Yeah, it got complicated when we moved. There was something wrong with the credits transferring over, I think since I didn’t technically finish that year or something, so I had to redo eighth grade.”
“Nope,” He shrugged. “And high school’s only three years here, which meant that I had to do four years of middle school and only get three years of high school. Got reversed, heh.” Sean started to laugh, not out of self-pity, but from acceptance of this inescapable suffering known as life.
“Dude, I’m sorry,” I said, patting his shoulder as though he were a cat to console him. “I had no idea. That’s awful.”
“It’s not too bad,” he said. “People pretty much leave me alone, now.” He smiled but whatever meaning that had with those words was incomprehensible.
The end of the park was scattered with trees and one or two small ponds enclosed by large rocks as koi swam about in circles. It was getting dark and one could only look at nature so many times before inadvertently becoming a monk.
A noise echoed through the air. It started softly, like a quiet bell on the collar of a cat, but as we approached it sounded less like a chime than a chant. As we walked over a hill, there was a baseball field. We had passed it but hadn’t noticed people had been there, though now these ‘lil leaguers lined up against the fence, jumping, waving, and shouting, “Hello!”
I waved back, then called out, “Hello!” They cheered. How wonderful was it that something as minuscule as my unexpected presence could fill them with that much excitement; how lucky we could exchange such a simple phrase and with it a complete understanding of each other both words and feeling; and how exciting it felt to share that moment! Finally. It happened. No longer would Japan be a distant country that produced my preferred media, but a land of people who might wonder why this foreigner had taken an interest in their town, much like I would if someone ever claimed to be visiting, and who might go on to remember this encounter as “that time a foreigner was at practice,” much as I would go on to remember it as, “That time I interrupted a baseball practice…in another world!!! (figuratively)” It already sounds like an anime!
“Sean,” I cheered, “Sean! Can you believe that? Can you? I don’t believe it. It’s like, wow, what’s up with that? Wasn’t that so cool?”
“Children play on mud / long since dried like maroon grass/ by a lepered sun.” He recited it unprompted and as though he hadn’t composed it. His smile wasn’t forced nor natural. His eyes bore exhaustion. “Alex?” He asked. “What’s wrong? You look like you’re going to cry.”
“Do I? I wonder…” I rubbed my eyes on my jacket sleeve. Whatever was there I had dried but it was hard to look at him. “That haikyuu. When you said son, is that supposed to be you?”
He didn’t immediately answer, as though he had no idea what haiku I could be referring to. “I think you misheard me,” he said. “I said sun, like the thing in the sky, not son.” He said it like an obvious fact, as though no one in the world had ever made a connection between the two.
“Yeah. Because the mandarines.”
“To link the verses. You used mandarines, which are orange like the sun. Are you feeling okay?”
“Me, yeah, I’m fine.” I rubbed my eyes again.
He tugged my arm away from my face by my jacket sleeve. “Maybe we should go back. Take our baths and eat,” he said, then let my arm drop. “All that walking worked up an appetite, right?” He chuckled with a smile, though that’s not the right term for nothing about his tone suggested anything jovial. It wasn’t a grin for it wasn’t creepy or malicious. It wasn’t even a smirk for there wasn’t an ounce of pride in those words. It was more like a plea to go and not think about it any longer.