I woke up this morning to a call from R. He called on LINE, the most popular communication app in Japan. It’s a charming app, more customizable than Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, with a vast array of candy-cute stickers and backgrounds. I don’t use it anymore, as I’ve lost what little Japanese I knew and mostly interact with old friends by reacting to their Instagram stories with pink hearts and kirakira, glitter emojis. We say 愛してる and 会いたい and leave it at that. Still, I haven’t deleted the app. It’s my only remaining way to contact R, not that I plan to.
I didn’t answer the call. I was in bed, nestled between my boyfriend and our dog in our rural mountain town, and I knew it was late at night in Tokyo, which meant R was probably drunk or stoned and would either want to talk about depression or initiate phone sex. It was always one or the other with him, off or on. I thought about sneaking out of bed to answer but didn’t get up; the sight of his name floating at the top of my screen unsettled me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what he had to say. I waited for my phone to stop buzzing, then clicked on his profile. The cover photo was of lush, mountainous scenery, probably from when he’d traveled to Peru in his early 20s on a spiritual quest and psychedelic binge. His default icon was an animated gif of a pulsating void, laughably appropriate for R.
Now, when I look at his Instagram, it’s hard to imagine the depth of feeling R once elicited in me. His pictures look posed and artificial, carefully curated to achieve a cheap impression of mystique. He holds up props and flirts with the camera, refusing to smile. In his bio, he claims to be a tarot reader, a shaman, a model. He’s 31 now, though he could still pass for much younger. I’m still a year younger than he was when we met.
The last time R called, which must have been three years ago, I did answer. I was on my way to an ill-fated job interview in Center City, wearing a borrowed blazer and clutching an inadequate, generously spaced resume in my fist. I paced the sidewalk under glassy skyscrapers as R told me about selling textiles and LSD in Thailand. He was thinking of starting his own company. For what? I asked. Textiles or acid? No response. He told me I should book a flight back to Japan, that I could stay with him and we could travel the countryside together. He’d been disappointed that, in the four months I spent there, I’d barely ventured beyond Tokyo. I didn’t have the language to explain that I could spend a lifetime there and there would still be too much to see. The idea of leaving the city had been out of the question.
I had a relationship, I told R—a job interview, a lease. I was working toward something real, some shapeless beacon of stability. Although I was only 22, a fundamental part of me had already begun to splinter and draw inward. I was no longer the type of person to empty my bank account for one-way flights across the globe or to see people as potential plotlines in stories that were mine to tell. I was no longer the type of person to see my life as a story at all.
R’s response was detached and indifferent. Maybe he’d already expected me to say no. Maybe he thought I’d become dull and complacent in the two years since he knew me. Maybe he didn’t care at all. Congratulations on the boyfriend, he said, and I searched his tone for a trace of sarcasm. His voice, as I recall it, was always laced with a bit of coldness. But it can be difficult to distinguish between R as he was and R as I remember him. I often feel I am describing a color that does not exist. Even when I knew him, I couldn’t help turning him into something other than what he was.
I first met R on Tinder, a week after arriving in Tokyo, where I was completing my fall semester on a scholarship which fully covered my tuition and housing and even most of the alcohol I couldn’t seem to stop drinking. I was 20 and he was 26. I’d later find out our birthdays were only a day apart. His bio said Looking for something mellow and I was charmed by the peculiar use of the word mellow. He looked so delicate and strange in his photos, I thought he could’ve been part elf or alien. We exchanged a few messages and he sent me the link to his band’s recent music video, which had come out a month prior and had already garnered over 100,000 views. He was the lead singer and guitarist, with sleepy eyes and dark hair cropped just above his shoulders. I briefly wondered if I was being catfished but agreed to go on a date against my better judgment.
We arranged to meet at Ueno Station in the evening, from where we would walk to Ueno Park to drink on a bench. I would never have gone on a first date like that back home in Philadelphia or, at the very least, I would have first shared my location with a friend. But Tokyo was the safest city on Earth, according to Google, and public drinking was perfectly legal. I gathered my pink hair into a loose bun, stepped into a short skirt, and powdered my nose and cheeks. Before heading out, I glanced at the mirror and thought I will never be this young again.
I got off at Ueno, scanning dense crowds of harried commuters for my Tinder alien, and found him leaning against a wall by the exit, wearing jeans and a gray hoodie. R was around my height—shorter than I’d hoped—but then again, most everyone was smaller in Japan. Standing at 5’7, I often towered over the businessmen on the metro. We walked to the park, where we sat on a bench and passed a bottle of drugstore sake back and forth. He spoke in a monotone and, when he laughed, it didn’t reach his eyes. He said he had learned English by watching Girl, Interrupted over and over and, true to form, communicated mostly in morbid 90s idioms. The first question he asked me was, Are you depressed, too? I shook my head, then realized this was the wrong answer when he broke eye contact to check his phone.
Maybe, I said. Sometimes I think I might be.
From the park, R took me to a nearby izakaya, where we ordered a few more rounds of sake. I can’t remember who paid—although I had little money, I was usually hesitant to let men pay for meals or drinks. It wasn’t an assertion of independence so much as it was an anxiety of debt. I didn’t want to feel like I owed anything to anyone, especially not some stranger from a dating app.
It was my idea to bring him home with me. We took the last train back to Takadanobaba, the neighborhood where my little one-room apartment was located. We passed winding alleys and tall buildings with dimly lit windows, stealing kisses along the way. I led us past the corner 7-Eleven, and we arrived outside my building. Miraculously, I remembered the key code. Although it was 1 or 2 in the morning, I texted my best friend, whose room was on the second floor, and asked her to open her door and look down the hallway. I was drunk, embarrassingly so, and wanted her to see my date so we could talk about him in the morning. She peered out the crack of her door as he and I climbed the stairs and gave me a wordless thumbs up.
R began to roll a cigarette almost immediately after stepping through the door of my apartment, and we smoked it together on my small balcony. It was my first cigarette and I tried very hard not to cough. I was too drunk to remember any details about sleeping with him, but I know it was good. I was so physically attracted to him that he could have done anything to me and I would have liked it. I do remember that he would not kiss me during sex. He never said anything to indicate his aversion, but I somehow sensed—very strongly—that it was off limits.
We lay in the dark, and he asked if I was looking for a relationship. The question took me off guard. I could hear in his voice that he wanted and expected me to say no, so I did, believing it to be true. The word became a bright wound on my tongue.
In the morning, I woke up first and spent a whole hour reacclimating to his beauty. His body was soft and almost completely hairless. He had silver cartilage hoops in both of his ears and a detailed tattoo of some plant or herb just above his ankle. His neck was long, with precise little tendons peeking through like branches blanketed in snow.
I assumed I would not see him again. I was comfortable with fleeting encounters and preferred to sleep with other travelers, with whom I shared a mutual, unspoken understanding that anything more than sex would be unsustainable and unrealistic. But with R, realistic didn’t seem to matter.
Can I spit on you?
R was staring down at my face. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I nodded.
It was our second time meeting, a Wednesday afternoon. We hadn’t bothered to go on a real date; instead, he came right to my apartment where, after a few minutes of slow, cagey conversation, we undressed. I liked our bodies together. R and I were around the same height and weight, and sex with him felt perfectly nullifying. I was interested in doing things to people and letting them do things to me. It didn’t matter if those things were good or bad, wanted or unwanted. Everything canceled out and amounted to an easy nothing.
R asked if it was okay for him to come. I nodded again, idiotically pleased at the thought that he had a stake in my pleasure. After we cleaned up, I tucked my head in the notch between his chin and shoulder and asked him to tell me stories.
I like to write, I said. I might write about this one day, so I need to know more about you.
He made a face, then told me he was thinking about getting a pet blowfish.
Animals in water are better, he explained. It is good to have a glass between you so you can’t touch.
That’s not a story, I said. Tell me something else.
He told me about tripping on shrooms while traveling in Amsterdam years ago: he’d been too high to get out of his seat and go to the bathroom, so he pissed himself at the bar. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the image, then we fell silent. He took out his phone and began typing in characters I was too slow to even attempt to translate. I tried to picture R in Amsterdam and felt silly and transparent. I was not fluent in his world, I realized. I was not even a part of it, really. I was just sex and static in the body of a 20-year-old girl, a fish behind the glass. We could not know each other.
A pixelated image of a graveyard appeared on R’s screen.
This is where I will go, he said matter-of-factly, when I die.
A graveyard? I rolled my eyes. Yeah, me too.
This graveyard, he said, a touch of irritation in his tone. My parents bought the—what is the word? He made a square with his fingers.
I don’t know. Yes. Bought the plot when I was born. Tokyo is running out of space for bodies, and it is getting very expensive to be dead. So my parents reserved the plot next to theirs. I will be buried here.
I stared at the image, unsure of what to say. R talked about death often, and I never knew how to react. He told me he’d been depressed his whole life, but that he had learned to navigate it by going on long runs and eating lots of nattō, a meal made from fermented soybeans which he claimed had antidepressant properties. He said depression was just brain catching a cold. Whenever I told him I felt sad, he told me to eat more nattō and dismissed the conversation.
If I was unhappy, it was because I wanted what I couldn’t have. I didn’t think soybeans would make a difference. I had real needs.
The city seemed to want, very badly, for everyone to be happy. I saw the word everywhere I went: on the train, the t-shirts of strangers, packages of bread, and even on my HappyTime™ shampoo bottle. A plastic sheen of happiness covered the whole city. Happy, happy, happy.
Most of the people I encountered there, however, did not seem very happy. Kanae, who had grown up in Osaka, complained about the quiet and emotionally repressed Tokyoites and claimed that drinking was the only way to make friends in the city. She took me to underground clubs on the weekends, where we would scream and cry under smoke and strobe lights. Sho, a friend I sometimes kissed and ate pasta with on weekends, told me he hoped never to stay in Tokyo, where he was certain he’d end up becoming another boring, uncherished salaryman. My friend Yves, a digital artist from Thailand, said it was the loneliest place on Earth.
I don’t know if Tokyo is any more or less lonely than other cities, having formed all my impressions as a lovesick young foreigner, barely out of my teenage years. Of course, there are countless articles about hikikomori, Japanese recluses who withdraw from society and spend years confined in their houses. There are the maid cafes where desperate men shell out money just to have conversations with friendly women, where basic human interaction becomes commodified. There’s SHIBUYAMELTDOWN, a popular Instagram account dedicated to documenting the ubiquitous sights of drunk salarymen in business suits slumped against metro doors, sprawled across public benches, and fast asleep on the sidewalks. In a city as safe as Tokyo, friends don’t need to take each other home. You can pass out almost anywhere and expect to wake up untouched, with your wallet secure in your pocket.
When I talk about my life there, I often say Tokyo when I really mean R. I confuse them in my head, the place and the person. I only saw R a few times in my four months abroad, but I thought of him as the nucleus of my experiences there, which would undoubtedly have troubled him had I made it known. His band was touring that fall and, whenever he was away, I filled my nights with ghosts and shadows. I dated a Romanian runway model, a Japanese-Canadian businesswoman, a Polish college student, and a Belgian filmmaker. I flirted with unhappily married older women at Goldfinger, the lesbian bar in Ni-Chome I frequented most weekends. I hooked up with strangers in public parks and on rooftops. I went out almost every night, relying on nomihodai all-you-can-drink deals to black out my brain. Everything I did, I did in the absence of R. My phone was a magic object that could reach R or show me his face whenever I wished to see it, though I tried not to contact him too often—he belonged to an older generation of millennials who were not prone to constant messaging, and I didn’t want him to know how much time I spent staring at my phone, thinking of him. I was sure he rarely thought of me.
The sex positivity movement of the mid-2010s had reached its peak that year and, like many other girls my age, I believed there was empowerment to be found in casual sex. One-night stands did not make me feel cheated, but rather liberated and alive. I wanted to be as detached as a man. I pursued only eccentrically attractive people, proudly folding my lovers’ pictures into a mental scrapbook I could show off to anyone who objected to my promiscuity. If my partners demonstrated too much emotional investment, I stopped responding to their messages. I was becoming something that could be wanted, something unrecognizable.
I had one rule. I had to be the one to initiate any intimacy; it had to be my idea. I would never let myself be coerced. This, I told myself, would prevent me from ever feeling like a victim.
R texted me late one night in mid-October to let me know he was in Takadanobaba, and could he come over? I was out clubbing in Shibuya, where I had just bought a self-piercing kit from a street vendor. If I got the train home, would he wait for me and help me pierce my ear? I’m scared, he replied. I can’t see someone’s blood.
I’m serious, I said. Pierce it.
I said a quick, careless goodbye to my friends and raced to catch the last train before he even wrote back.
R was uncharacteristically talkative when I met him outside my building. There was laughter in his eyes. You changed again, he said, reaching to touch my hair with his fingers. It looks good.
It was purple now, and three inches shorter. It hadn’t stopped falling out, so I’d cropped it to my chin to make it appear thicker. I wanted to feel new.
You’re drunk, I said. I plucked his hand from my hair and tugged him toward the stairs and through the door to my apartment. I wondered for a moment if he’d brought a condom, but we were stumbling and laughing and I didn’t want to break the spell. It had been weeks since we last saw each other. I’d forgotten his voice, the icy flatness of it. R sat on my bed and began rolling a cigarette in his lap. I poured the dredges of a bottle of red wine into a plastic cup and downed it to dull my nerves.
I didn’t know you were back, I said. He didn’t look up from his cigarette.
He had a gig in Osaka earlier that morning, he explained, and had driven to Tokyo after. Then there had been a party in Takadanobaba, and he thought he’d find me after.
He hadn’t come to see me; he just needed a place to crash. I tried not to let this detail dampen my spirits. Of course he had not come to my neighborhood in the middle of the night for me. He was not a romantic person and he was not in love with me. I was just the foreigner he was fucking who lived conveniently close to his prior engagement, and that was that. My feelings for him were not his responsibility.
He took his socks off first and placed them at the foot of the bed. The rest of his clothing followed, piece by meticulous piece. I wanted to laugh—even his undressing was practical and lethargic. I tossed my sweater to the floor and joined him on the bed. I told him to take my clothes off. I wouldn’t do it myself.
I asked if he had brought protection.
No, he said. I’ll pull out. It’s okay?
He took my face in his hands. My brain spilled itself empty and for a moment, I was happy, happy, happy.
Before we went to sleep, I asked R what the name of his band meant. I’d already run the characters through a translator, but there was no English equivalent. A Google search yielded a panoply of fan art, manga-style drawings of R and his bandmates. I hadn’t known the band was big enough to warrant fan art, and I didn’t know how to feel about it.
It doesn’t mean anything, he said. I don’t like things with meaning.
I do, I said.
It doesn’t matter to make sense, he said, and I scowled in the dark.
We fell quiet and he dropped off beside me, the soft early morning light catering to his sleeping profile. When I awoke a few hours later, he’d already gone to work, leaving behind a pack of mints as the sole testimony to his visit. I climbed out of bed, shook the last two mints into my mouth, and tucked the empty container in the front pocket of my suitcase for safekeeping—it felt important to have some physical evidence of his existence. I fumbled in my purse for the piercing kit I’d bought in Shibuya, then stood in front of the bathroom mirror, held the plastic gun to my cartilage, and squeezed.
A small drop of blood pearled around the gem. I’d chosen garnet—my birthstone, and his.
A week later, R was back on tour. According to the screenshots I have from that night, it was 1:41 a.m. on the morning of October 27th. We were both drunk and texting fast. I asked how his show went and his reply appeared at the top of my screen within seconds: Last night was crazy but sort of funny. Our keyboardist fought with vocalist of guest band. We were so drunk. I don’t remember why but I was sucking a dick of their bassist.
So R was attracted to both men and women, like me. That we had this in common was an odd, bitter thrill. I was not surprised R was having sex with other people—I was, too—but it stung to have it confirmed so abruptly. It felt almost as if he was testing me to see how I’d react.
Were you any good at it? I wrote back, hoping I sounded offhand and indifferent.
His typing bubble appeared after a beat.
I’m actually really good at sucking dick. A pause, then more typing. Did I tell you that I used to be a prostitute for gay people.
I stared at his last message until my eyes blurred. I assumed he was joking but couldn’t imagine why he would say something like that so out of the blue. R had a dark, confusing sense of humor, and the language barrier only muddied his delivery further. I had learned not to take anything he said too seriously.
It was a joke, I decided—a crude, irresponsible joke. I went to bed without responding.
When I woke up the next morning, I opened the chat and reviewed our messages. Now sober, I thought of how we hadn’t used a condom the last time I’d seen him and began to feel blurry and light-headed. I thought of unwanted pregnancies, of incurable STDs. I didn’t even know where to get tested, or how I could possibly find an English-speaking doctor. Were abortions even legal in Japan, I wondered, feeling stupid for never having checked. I Googled it, but was unable to understand the results, which were all in Japanese.
Wait are you serious, I wrote. Because if you’re joking that isn’t funny.
R did not text me back all morning. I got ready for class and took two trains to Azabu-Jūban, the closest stop to campus. My data cut out halfway through the commute, which I was grateful for, as it gave me an excuse to stop checking my phone. I sat through my video editing course, then failed a pop quiz in Japanese II. It was not until around 3 p.m., in the middle of a Japanese Lit lecture on Sei Shōnagan’s Pillow Book, that R’s name lit up my screen. I peeked at my phone under my desk, blood rushing in my ears.
The details of our correspondence from this point on are lost to me. Though I almost always took screenshots of R’s infrequent messages, I preserved little else from that day, humiliated both by the emotionally charged messages I sent him and the short, apathetic responses they elicited. I asked why he hadn’t told me prior to having unprotected sex with me, deleting and retyping the phrase “unprotected sex” several times before sending it. It didn’t sound like me; it sounded clinical and impersonal. He told me he’d been having sex with lots of other people, and that none of them had complained of STDs. These were not the reassuring words I was after.
We exchanged several more heated messages, each failing to acknowledge the other’s perspective. R could not understand my distress and was offended by my reaction, assuming that I suspected him of having HIV, though I’d never mentioned it. I could not find the words to communicate that I was not angry about his past, but rather the way in which he had chosen to share it with me. I was angry at my own innocence, my prudish reaction to what I did not understand. I sent a series of accusatory messages that I regretted immediately.
If I had slowed down and taken the time to interrogate my emotional reaction, I might have realized that I wasn’t upset about the idea of R having done sex work, nor was I truly concerned about my health (though there certainly was reason to be, given our mutual penchant for promiscuity). I’d spent the past three months flitting in and out of ill-defined relationships with strangers from across the world, convincing myself that I was completely invulnerable to anything they could say or do to me. This blunt encounter with R’s history had forced me to recontextualize everything I thought I knew about him, which I realized was very little, the fragile construction of my own projections. He was six years older than me and had gone places I’d never been. I felt stupid and young and in over my head. I didn’t know what I was allowed to feel. All I knew was that I was hurting, finally, and had nowhere to put it.
I wanted to be absolved for my naivety. I was in love with him, I told myself, and he had proven himself to be completely unknowable. I felt vulnerable and betrayed and guilty, horribly guilty, though I didn’t allow myself to sit with the feeling long enough to figure out why.
We resolved things that night over LINE, after we’d both had time to cool down. Sorry, R said, I went bananas a bit cause being suspected I’ve got HIV. But looking back on it, you were right. You have every right to get angry. Anyway I’m perfectly clean. I smiled at “bananas a bit” and something softened in me. I’m not sure what I said back. My response was not visible in the screenshot, which leads me to believe it was either shamefully long or shamefully insufficient.
Later that week, Kanae offered to take me to a women’s clinic, where she translated for me and told the doctor I needed to get tested. In Tokyo, you have to pay separately for each sexually transmitted disease or infection you want to be tested for, as if you can predict what your partners might be carrying. I spent the last of my scholarship funds on every test I could afford. They all came back negative, which only made me feel worse.
R and I messaged a few times after that day, but our texts were stiff and inexpressive. Neither of us spoke about seeing each other again before I left Tokyo, though I still wanted to. I was ashamed of the way I had reacted, and angry that it seemed to matter so much to me and so little to him. I began earnestly dating the businesswoman I’d been seeing and spent most of my time in lesbian spaces, drawn to the refuge of female company. I started drinking less and began exploring the countryside with friends, sojourning to nearby mountains and onsens to escape the city’s intoxicating glow. Sho took me to Hakone, where we ate black eggs boiled in Owakudani’s natural hot springs, each of which supposedly added seven years to one’s lifespan. Kanae and I climbed Mt. Takao in heels and made our way back down the mountain in the dark on all fours, laughing uncontrollably. I began wandering the streets of my neighborhood late at night and realized too late that there was a whole other Tokyo I had missed, one which appeared only when I was radiantly alone, a quiet city with private streets and dense pink skies.
December arrived. Shiny neon Christmas decorations littered the windows of every shopping district, despite the fact that only a small percent of the population were practicing Christians. I spent the last of my yen on presents to bring home, little plastic trinkets from Donki, a popular chain store that sold everything imaginable and stayed open almost all night. I cleaned my apartment, washed the sheets, and carried a giant plastic bag of empty wine bottles down to the recycling room.
My hair stopped falling out. I gave up on coloring the roots and let my dishwater brown grow in beneath the faded purple. I apologized to my friends for being absent and unreliable and resolved to stop blacking out every week, realizing that I had not been in control of myself in what felt like a long time. I passed my classes, packed my belongings, and boarded a flight back to Philadelphia, where I sank into the familiar routines of my old, unremarkable life.
Today—this morning—I closed out of R’s Instagram, turned on Do Not Disturb, and tucked my phone back under the pillow. My boyfriend was still asleep, lying on his back with his arms crossed over his chest like a mummy. I buried my face in the dog’s neck, breathing in his warm scent, then crept out of bed. Soft country light shone in through the curtains, clean and gray. Here in Virginia, the sky is empty of electricity. There are no streetlights in our neighborhood and at night, you can always see the stars.
The dog huffed out a tired sigh from his corner of the bed. He opened his eyes and watched as I pulled on my clothes. The house was silent and complete. I motioned for him to follow, and we stumbled downstairs to the kitchen, his eager nose brushing the back of my legs. It was time to feed him, fill his water bowl, and attend to his very real needs.
It’s October now. A full five years have passed since I lived in Tokyo. Remembering those four months is like playing back the memories of a stranger. If it wasn’t for the comprehensive journal I kept there, I might think I made it all up. I still have the piercing I gave myself, though I’ve replaced the garnet stud with a small, silver hoop. I kept R’s empty container of mints, too. It’s tucked inside the drawer to my nightstand, where I store little tokens of all the people who ever wanted me, no matter how little or how briefly.
How strange that someone you knew in another life can reach out at any time, can travel across oceans through radio waves and buzz you awake. How strange that you can simply ignore the call and burrow back into the nest of your new life, where it is morning and not night.