Lost in Japan
Never in my life did I expect to be surrounded by so many naked old men, but most surprisingly was how insignificant that environment was compared to Sean stripping right next to me.
Luckily, he chose a locker on my left side, so the door opened and protected me like a censor from any accidental exposure. The lockers were stacked against the back wall nearby the shower stations. Water splashed across titles as wet skin smacked against it as people rushed to the baths after rinsing out their lavender shampoos.
I started unbuttoning my inconsequential shirt when I snuck a peep at Sean not to look but to check if he was looking, which he was not. Although, what I would have normally interpreted as his aloof and resigned gaze I could then understand was embarrassment. He caught me peeking. I glanced away too quickly. “Wow, I’m actually kind of nervous,” I said not exactly a lie. “You know, in the locker room, we tend to keep our underwear on, ha ha.”
“Are you uncomfortable? We don't have to go in. We can wait for my grandma to be done.”
“Here, I’ll put my clothes back on.”
“Really, it’s fine,” I said, then stripped buck. “I wanna try.”
“Okay,” he said and I closed the locker door. “Wow, I’m impressed.”
“No, like, you know, you’re insecure but are willing to give it a chance. It’s brave. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to if I wasn’t used to it already.”
It didn’t sound like we were talking about skinny dipping.
“Oh, right!” I said. “Yeah, I’m so insecure about my body. But you know sometimes you just gotta, you know, uh, you just gotta dive right in.”
After we cleaned ourselves in the shower station we sat in a hot bath. We were silent at first being mindful of others, but all it took was one echo of a conversation and Sean started chatting me up. “Not so bad, right? You’re handling it like a champ.” I nodded and sank deeper into the tub, unsure where my eyes were supposed to look. I could see that some of the men were glancing our way, though most probably because we were so much younger than the rest of them.
“Man, I think the last time I came to an onsen was almost a year ago.” He continued on, his elbows resting on the tile floor as his fingers dangled in the water. “It was up in Tsukuba. I came with Francis since my mom and sisters were at some mother-daughter thing in town. We were supposed to hang out with our dad, but he was too busy."
"It was more like a spa, really, I think they even had a massage room. Well, I had to use the restroom after the bath so I told him to wait for me at the cafe they had, but when I went, he wasn’t there. I had to ask the staff if they saw him, and of course, they hadn’t, so we were running around the place, me and, like, three other staff members, but none of us could find him. I was worried he had tried to go home on his own. It was far. We had to take the train to the other side of town and then walk along the highway for, like, half a mile, but when we checked his locker all his stuff was still there. No one had seen him leave, either. It turned out he was taking a nap.” He paused and I blew some bubbles in the water. He brought his arms back into the water. “There was a sleeping room where they kept the lights off and provided blankets and stuff, so we didn’t see him when we checked the first time. He still sleeps like that: wrapped up like a mummy.”
“What’d your mom say?”
“Well, I never exactly told her. I think she'd just freak out.”
“So it’s better not to say anything?”
“Yeah? Sometimes. Nothing bad happened, it was just kind of funny.”
“Funny? Your brother was probably worried sick,” I said and stood up dramatically in the pool which surely brought more attention to myself, “and you just laughed it off?”
“He was sleeping. He didn’t even know we were looking for him. Plus, I was the one who was worried.” He waited for me to sit back in the water, but I felt so stupid. I wasn’t listening to him. All his words were like an allegory. “Alex, is something wrong? You’ve been acting strange all morning.”
It would be better if everything were out in the open, regardless of how awkward things might be over the next few days. I almost told him the truth, “Sorry, I’m tired,” I said, again not exactly a lie but not the truth. Sean doubted that answer, but standing buck naked surrounded by a bunch of strangers didn't seem like the appropriate context to speak candidly. I stepped out. “Looks like there’s a sauna over there. I’ve always wanted to try one.”
The sauna was made from light brown wood save a clock on the wall with a warning about staying too long. A large balding man sat with legs spread wide open, resting his head against the back wall, napping. I took a seat in the furthest corner. Why? I’m not even that attractive or interesting of a person. The coolest thing I’ve done is come here to visit. Wait, that wasn't the reason he invited me? To confess? No, that’s crazy. That’d mean that all this time…
Sean sat next to me. I scooted aside. It was awkward. I thought I’d make amends for my outburst with a joke. “Man, it’s like a sauna in here.” The only response I got was from the man in the corner who opened one eye, grunted, then shut it. My perspiration mixed with the humidity. “It’s hotter than hell in here,” I said, stressing an ironic tone. “Makes you wanna pray a rosary or something.”
“Like Pascal’s Wager,” Sean said and took in a deep breath of the air infused with wood like whiskey in a barrel.
“I thought Pascal was a painter, not a gambler.”
“That’s Picasso,” Sean said, “Pascal’s--”
“I know. I was making a joke.”
“Oh. My bad. I couldn’t tell.”
The clock had moved only five minutes, though would have sworn it was fifteen. We left, much to the pleasure of the old man. Our spots were taken in the bath and, after meandering in different pools, we decided we were clean enough. We clothed and passed under the blue noren for the men into what seemed a relaxation center full of vending machines where middle-aged women giggled like school girls, massage chairs with snoring men, and kotatsu with kimono-clad couples.
We bought bottled milk from the vending machine. I thought I had chosen chocolate-flavored milk, but upon taking a sip, realized my mistake. “This taste kind of funny,” I told Sean. “Do you think it’s gone bad?”
“Really? Lemme try,” without hesitating he took a sip and handed it back. “Taste like coffee to me.”
“Do you not like it?” He asked.
“I thought it was chocolate,” I said, not as though I weren’t in the mood for an iced latte, but kept thinking of his saliva on the rim.
“You can take mine,” he said. “It’s strawberry.” It was unopened, so we switched.
After we chugged our bottles and put them in the recycling bin, we parted ways for a moment. Sean took a seat on the massage chair and I decided to leave him with his moanings. The kotatsu were stacked on a section of tatami mat flooring separated from the hardwood. There was a shelf with magazines and manga and, although I had my backpack with me including my book, I grabbed a manga off the shelf and brought it to an empty table.
The sleepless night. The bath water’s lingering warmth. My rhythmic turning of illegible pages. The kotatsu’s blanket and cool surface. I rested my cheek and fell asleep.
I knew not how long, but when I awoke the pages were still turning not by my hands but by Sean’s. There was a small puddle of drool and two cups of hot green tea gone cool. Another flip. He hadn’t noticed I’d woken.
“Sean,” I said with that croaking morning voice, “do you like me?”
“Well, yeah," he said, turning another page, "like I said I wouldn’t have invited you if--”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
He let the book close itself then reached for the cup of green tea and slid it to himself. He never raised it to his lips but scratched the foam side like a bad itch. “Yeah. I do.”
I brought my arms from under the blanket and wrapped them around my shoulders. “Why?”
“Because," he said, pausing not from needing to think but from the delicate texture of his words, like tuna. "You remembered me.”
My eyes fell heavy. “I remembered you.”