To Mark, who spoke to the lonely foreigner on the train.
The Foreigner’s Loneliness
Maybe it was because of the chocolates, the Valentine’s chocolates, scattered everywhere across my apartment. The ones from my mom and sisters, the chocolates from the girl next door who thinks I’m her dream man, and a dozen other sources, wrapped and purchased and thrust into my hands. I could smell them through their wrappers, sharp and too-sugary. The cheap kind, the kind you can buy five for one at the supermarket. Obligation chocolates.
They pissed me off as much as they made me feel guilty. I should’ve thrown them out, but food is food, can’t waste food, no, no we can’t.
I left them in a heap on a bench in the park. Some kids would find them in the morning and feast on them until they were sick. Or an old woman would see them and call the police in case they were drugs, fine, whatever. I didn’t care so long as I didn’t have to deal with them.
It was midnight when I left that pile of pink and red glittering in the dark. God, what a relief, what a fucking waste. All that sugar and no one to eat it. Maybe some animal would carry them off in the night and choke on the wrappers.
A swing creaked as I turned to go. Someone was watching, long-haired and lanky. Too dark to see more than that.
“Those for me?”
The voice curled into my ears, deep and rough, like cigarette coughs, like the bottom of a cup of coffee.
“I don’t care,” I said, my voice too-high. “Take them.”
“Maybe I will.”
Then he laughed, and the sound crept up my spine. It was too knowing and too mocking. Look at you, it said, all big, bad and grown up, dumping your junk in the park. Aren’t you tough.
It was night, and the cold was getting to me. I ran.
Sense came back to me as I turned on my lights. I ran away from the park because I’d had maybe a drink too many that night, and that guy would creep out anyone. Add that leaving candy in a park is probably illegal here…
I had work the next day, needed to get my bag together. I was actually going to teach something in the morning at that god-forsaken school, believe it or not. Well, maybe. If the schedule didn’t change.
Sleep beckoned but I ignored it long enough to tidy up a little. I put the dishes in the cabinet, broke down some cardboard boxes, hung up my tie instead of leaving it flung over the couch where it usually lived.
I laid on my futon, turned off the light, and stared at the ceiling. Outside, a car went by, and my eyes refused to close. I wondered if someone, somewhere, was eating my obligation chocolates.
My job was one of those pointless positions created by the government of Japan to give them an excuse to pat themselves on the back. I did next to nothing, and for the trouble of showing up in a button-down shirt every day I got a rent-free apartment and more than the average national salary. Not a bad deal, if you don’t mind trading your soul for cash.
The class I was supposed to teach the next day was cancelled, and instead of trying out the worksheet I’d made for the fourth graders, I was recruited as a human CD-player for the older kids. It was almost better than the game of toss-the-pen I’d been playing in the staffroom, but not by much. By the time I finished reciting and then explaining the difference between
must and should it was time to eat my tasteless school lunch. Last, but not least, I settled down with my textbook to pretend to study Japanese until it was time to go home.
Every day was the same, every day a little less than the one before. I was the last to get to work in the morning and the first to leave in the evening. Not because I wasn’t a team player, but because it has been made very clear to me that I wasn’t on the team at all.
Every day it bothered me a little less.
The Valentine’s card from my mom was a day late. Pink hearts on a purple background, with two sad-eyed puppies. “Missing you on Valentine’s Day!!” it proclaimed. XOXO love Mom and the dogs.
I left it on the kitchen table, opened up the other piece of mail: an A-4 sized envelope addressed to Foreigner in English. Lovely. The contents crunched under my fingertips. I pulled out a handful of—
Candy wrappers. Empty candy wrappers with English writing all over them, from a box that sat on this very table yesterday night.
I shook out the envelope, the brightly-colored papers flying everywhere. Among them, a single post-it note with some stupid little comic book character in the corner. One word hand-written on it in English.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the week. I avoided walking by the park. Went to work, came home, ate my bland meal from the convenience store, stared at the computer for hours and hours. If I did more, it didn’t register. And all week, I watched, wondering: who knew where I lived?
That question was answered on Friday. We were teaching the sixth graders how to give directions and the teacher asked, “Where do you live?”
A couple kids answered using the vocabulary. Next to the park, next to the supermarket, across from the bank, yeah, sure.
“Okay, where does Mr. Brian live?”
Ten hands shot up, identical grins on their faces. “Next to the convenience store!”
Another added, in Japanese so they thought I couldn’t understand, “In the top apartment, number 408. He always puts his trash out late.”
Well. That put me in my place.
After three days I stopped jumping at shadows and obsessing over my curtains. After a week I could even bring myself to pass by the park, half-expecting to see dark eyes peering at me from behind the trashcan, leering at me from the swings.
All that I saw were some girls playing jump rope. Students of mine. They waved, I waved back. Then I went home.
It’s easy to go crazy in a place like this. All those lives happening around you, and there you are, stasis exemplified, a perfect glass preservation of foreign life. You can’t read, you can’t make real friends, and you can’t go home. Not yet. Not quite.
There’s something about this country. It draws you in, soothes your misgivings. Even as you curse it you know you’ll never give it up. There’s always one more corner unexplored, another sight you’ve yet to see, still another mountain to climb. Nevermind that they all look the same, maybe this one won’t.
You have to be careful, when you live like this. You have to live life in a normal way. Otherwise, it’ll get to you.
I was leaning against the bar, a beer in my hand, some girl on the stool next to me. She was drunk, or she wouldn’t have wanted to speak English. Not that she actually could speak English, but she was at the stage where she was willing to point a lot and giggle, and that was fine too.
“You…like…Japan?” She burst out laughing, like this was the best joke ever. “Yes?”
“Sure, yeah. Yes, I like,” I added, when the first two words don’t seem to get through. “I like Japan.”
“You…like…music?” This must have been hilarious, really, it must.
“Yes. Yes, I do, ha.”
“You…like…girlfriend?” Do you like, for god’s sake. It’s do you like, not “you like.”
Her words registered. I weighed them. One-night stand, or for real? Like that’s actually a question.
My apartment opened up in my mind, sterile and clean, mine and mine alone. The thought of this sloppy girl invading it with her “herros” and “you like” actually turned my stomach.
“Sorry, I just spotted someone,” I hedged. “I gotta go.”
I was way out of her depth, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to get away. I raised my voice. “That means no. I no like girlfriend.”
The night was freezing, washing over my face like a bath, much too cold to be a relief. Instead, my skin felt prickly. I didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to take a girl there, didn’t want to do anything but find another bar and someone who didn’t see me as their perfect opportunity for internationalism. For once in my life, I wanted to blend in.
Another red lantern beckoned, and I was wandering towards it when a different sign caught my eye. Heaven Lounge, seventh floor, with a little cartoon character in the corner.
The character from the candy wrapper note.
Before I had time to think, I was pushing the button on the elevator, going straight up. It was probably just another bar, same as the last, full of made-up girls and tight-pants boys and enough smoke to choke an elephant, but I needed to see. Needed to know.
The doors opened on a typical scene. Deep blue walls, black furniture, black floor. Swanky lighting with a shiny black bar. It looked to be about half-full, men and women, and I use those words deliberately because this crowd seemed a little older than the one I just left. In the background, some sort of piano played on the speakers, lively and a little off-beat.
I sat at the bar, picked up a menu. It looked like a thousand-yen-note a drink sort of place, but maybe that’s what I needed right then. Some high-class whiskey and a chat with someone who might see me as a human being. Just maybe. Possibly. And if I didn’t like it, I could leave. At least it was calmer than the last place.
The bartender didn’t smile, just raised his eyebrows. “Something for you?” he asked in accented English.
“Whiskey, on the rocks. Glennfiddich.”
I slid my money across the bar and waited with ill grace. Now that I got a better look, most people seemed to be in groups, scattered among the booths. Aside from the dedicated drinker on the other end, I was the only one seated at the bar, and the only young person alone.
The drink was placed in front me of me, a paper napkin underneath with something scrawled on it in pen. I read it through bottom of my glass, between the melting ice cubes.
Thanks for the chocolates.
My blood froze, cold paranoia clenching my stomach into a knot.
In front of me the bartender smiled with the corner of his mouth. He was tall, I noticed now, long-haired and lean, the hint of a shadow on his jaw. He smirked as he polished a glass, laughing at me. In his eyes, I could see what he expected. He was waiting for me to run.
Like hell I would.
I sipped my whiskey, letting it run down my throat, smooth and intense. I didn’t think I could manage a smile, but I could avoid looking like a trapped rabbit.
“You liked them?” I asked.
“I did,” he replied noncommittally, and there it was, that deep voice tinged with a hint of accent I hadn’t noticed before. “You didn’t?”
“No.” I didn’t elaborate. If he wanted to know he could ask, and to hide my nerves I took another drink. The cool glass against my lips was a welcome relief.
“Let me know if you need another drink.”
And that was all he wanted. I finished my drink and he didn’t return to pick up my glass. After a minute or two, I put my coat on and left, walking back to my empty apartment. I’d thought maybe there would be something more to it, something different to change my life. That someone was watching. Even if they were a stalker, it’d have been nice to think that somebody had seen me and wondered. That somebody cared.
The bolt sliding home echoed through my stark rooms. An empty apartment for an empty life.
A spate of snow covered the streets in the night, turning the relentless concrete into something softer. My jog to the convenience store for dinner became a jaunt around the block, which turned into a few blocks, until finally I found myself wandering midnights. I’d come home from work and sleep for four, five hours before getting up to roam like some restless spirit. Dawn would find me asleep again, only to be up for work an hour later, brushed and dressed, on duty for another day.
My thoughts were few and far between during those long rambles, but they were my own. Whatever strange waters they strayed to, worlds they ventured in, I told no one and no one asked. They were mine to keep, and I hoarded them like gold.
I was not happy when a voice spoke out of the dark. “Aren’t you cold?”
English. I almost ignored it, almost kept going without a second thought. Only common courtesy stopped me. “No, I’m not,” I replied to the air. “Who are you?”
A lighter flared, briefly illuminating a face. “I’m the bartender.”
Him again, leaning against a wall, buried deep in a PVC jacket. Footsteps in the snow led backwards to Heaven Lounge’s elevator. He must have been closing down.
I had nothing to say to this stranger, to anyone. Already I was leaving when he spoke. “I’ve seen you walking. When do you sleep?”
A shrug that I knew he could see in the streetlight. “In the afternoon. When I go home. When do you sleep?”
He laughed. “I don’t. I am a bartender. None of us sleep. Why do you walk?”
“Because I like to.”
Smoke curled up to wrap around his head, a stinking fog in the pure night air. “People who like to walk do their walking before two AM. Those who walk after have other reasons.”
“So? What’s it to you?” I knew I was being rude, and a part of me reveled in it. Take that, society, you and your ridiculous rules. Take that for buttoning us in and hammering us down until we can’t breathe anymore. “Does it matter?”
“Not really.” Another stream of smoke, this one directed at me. “The chocolate was good. It reminded me of home.”
“It was foreign.”
“So?” That belligerent attitude, aimed straight back at me. “You got a problem you’re working out, or trying to get up the nerve to do it?”
His words jarred me out of my private reverie. “Do what?”
I stared at him, this stranger in black, smoking a cigarette as he examined me out of the corner of his eye.
“What the fuck. Seriously.”
He shrugged, threw his smoke on the snow where it hissed. “Just wondering. Don’t sue me for asking.”
With that, he started walking away, like nothing had happened at all. Walking the way I’d been going, so I’d have to turn around or walk with him. Instead I stood in the snow, mouth open, watching him go.
After about ten steps he turned. “Hey, you should have coffee with me tomorrow. You’re an interesting guy.”
He didn’t answer, and his footsteps crunched in the snow long after he turned the corner.
A minute passed before I noticed he’d dropped something. A piece of that same notepaper, wrapped around a cigarette to weigh it down.
Okaya Café, 3 o’clock.
With a start, I realized that it was Friday. Tomorrow was Saturday. No work. Which meant…
I could go.
I didn’t admit why I went, not even to myself. Someone had seen me, someone had cared. Or not cared, but maybe. He’d written the note ahead of time, thought about this beforehand. Had he really been closing the bar, or had he been waiting for me? How many times had he seen me, trudging down those same streets, head in the clouds? Heaven Lounge wasn’t far from my apartment—how often had my wanderings taken me past that bar, an easy target for anyone watching? Not that anyone was watching. Except him, of course.
Someone had noticed me.
Okaya Café was a dim room with a counter straight off the door. It took me an hour of internet searches before I found the coffee shop, and another half hour to walk there. Not exactly close to home, but it wasn’t like I hated walking. I was a pro walker.
I ordered a coffee and stared at the faded décor. Someone had put effort into that fade; it was a fade with style. I didn’t see him on the first floor, so I went up to the second. Would I even recognize him? I never seemed to until he spoke. Something about that voice, rough like it meant something, lower than most. Here and there people read books or chatted. The smell of cigarettes was heavy in the air, and kerosene heaters dotted the landscape. I found an empty couch by a slightly sticky table and sat myself down. I wished I’d brought a book. Or something.
My drink arrived before the bartender did, and idly I realized I didn’t even know this guy’s name. Probably he knew mine; everybody in this entire country seemed to some days. I could go to Tokyo and someone would shout ‘Brian Sensei’ on the street and then ask to take my photo. Or take it anyway, whichever. Then I could be part of their vacation memory, a wonderful adventure to remark upon to their friends.
I didn’t see him until the leather chair across from me creaked and he sat down. I was right, I wouldn’t have recognized him. Faded jeans and an old canvas bag, with only the jacket the same, the jacket everyone was wearing that winter. There was a headache brewing behind my ears, and I knew that if I let it out it’d take all day to soothe back down.
“Sorry about the wait; I ran into someone.”
I shrugged, sipped my too-sweet coffee. Mocha; what possessed me. “Was it interesting?”
He laughed, a short sound. “Does it matter?”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Shin.” He didn’t ask mine, which answered that question nicely. “So tell me. Why do you walk?”
The coffee went back on the table, its taste a stain on my tongue. “Because I like to. Why do you watch me?”
“Yeah, I thought you’d ask that.” Which wasn’t an answer. He toed off his shoes, tucking his feet under his body. “You teach, I take it.”
“So you have been watching me. Right. Good to know.”
“You’re an American; foreigners teach English. Don’t worry, I don’t peer in your curtains at night.”
That annoyed me more than it should have, maybe because I’d assumed he did and closed them accordingly. “Alright, then. What else do you know about me?”
“You walk,” he said, cupping his hands under his chin. “Every night. I see you when I’m going home. You don’t like your job. You live alone. You don’t like chocolate, and you don’t like whiskey. You think I’m a crazy stalker.”
“Well. Aren’t you?”
“No.” He smiled, and it was oddly sweet. “I’m not crazy.”
His drink arrived, a simple cup of black coffee. Nearby somebody laughed, somebody exclaimed, somebody turned a page. He sipped and made a face. “Trade me?”
What the hell. “Sure.”
Black coffee, strong and solid, bitter, the perfect remedy for my headache. Shin slid it over and lifted my drink in a neat gesture. Shin, yes. That was his name. Shin.
When he tasted the mocha he laughed, and that laugh changed something inside of me.
He was always there come three in the morning, leaning against the building and smoking. Always smoking. He had a hat, something dark with a puff on top, and it made him look slightly odd. We talked about everything. We talked about nothing. Walking in the snow, what did it matter what the rest of the world thought? They were asleep and we were not, two restless souls in the night.
It was love. I knew it before I knew it, deep down where I don’t ever go, a thought that coiled and gnawed and took bitter bites. It made me treasure the seconds, savor the moments. The way he smiled, corner of his mouth lifting, or scowled when we argued about politics.
He was a foreigner too, a returnee. Born in Japan but lived abroad too long. Too different to fit in, not quite literate enough to get into the best universities. He’d returned because to work in Japan demands a Japanese degree, but that was the only reason. I could feel it, frayed ribbons around him drifting in the wind, a soul no more tethered than mine.
Shin, that was his name. Shin, and it fit. He was always in the moment, he was that kind of guy. Kept himself to himself except around me, where himself was whatever he wanted it to be. Like a flower, I felt it. He opened up, never pried. He talked, and if I wanted to join in, I did, but he’d talk anyway, like a dam was ready to burst in him, and I was the only one keeping the floodgates open.
I began finding excuses to see him during the day, on weekends at the café. No activities, because what would have been the point? There wasn’t a point. There wasn’t anything. There was only everything, and I could feel it growing behind my eyes, under my soul, devouring, ever hungry. It couldn’t last. It could never last.
The night was bitter cold when he dropped his lighter, in a dark alley too narrow for any car to fit through. Our hands jostled in the dark, noses bumped. He tasted like sugar, like chocolate, like cigarette smoke and a hunger so real I could drink it in, tongue sliding against mine, another soul in the abyss. I wanted, god, I needed, clutched him so hard my fingers ached, pulled him close and wanted more.
He kissed me back, and hard. We kissed until we ran out of breath. We kissed like there was no tomorrow.
Work was eight hours of torture by boredom and I hai’d my way through it every day anew. Don’t ask me what we did, I don’t know, didn’t know then, couldn’t say now. Something English, hello hello goodbye. I stared at my textbooks until my eyes crossed, until my co-workers congratulated me on studying so hard when I hadn’t read a word in weeks. And at night I walked, paced obsessively. Waiting. Waiting for two AM when I’d press Shin against that wall, trap the lighter between our hands, kiss him until I couldn’t breathe.
For three nights that was all we did, a relentless exploration, no words, none needed. Only that, splayed out where anybody could see us, two dark shapes against painted white holding on for dear life. Holding on to more than I knew.
We stumbled to my apartment, my empty apartment, furniture and helplessness the only occupants inside. My futon was made up because I never put it away, the floors clean because I didn’t walk on them. I pushed him down and he didn’t resist, just unzipped his coat and reached for mine. I could feel something I’d never felt before: his skin on mine, more than hands or faces or necks. I’d never done it with a guy, didn’t care, didn’t want to care. How could I care? I needed this, and so did he. Sweat-slicked shaking and gasping needed him so much.
We lay together after, bits of tissue sticking to skin, holding onto each other under my white, white ceiling with the ugly wallpaper on it. He lit up a cigarette, and I stroked his hair.
“Did you ever wonder what life would be like, when you were a kid?” I asked. “Did you ever think it’d be like this?”
“I didn’t wonder.”
I didn’t ask him what he meant. I didn’t need to.
That’s a lie. I didn’t want to.
He was a student, studying something that he might have cared about but probably didn’t. He never talked about the classes he went to, the people he saw. That was the one thing he never brought up, not more than once or twice in passing. I saw his student ID once, a grim photo of an unsmiling teen, hair tugged back into a high ponytail, angry father all but reflected in his eyes. That hurt him, I’m sure. Everything hurt him. He was so frail, a stalk of grass blown by the wind here and there, bending but never quite breaking, deceptive in his spindly form.
When we walked, he was quick, long bouncing strides for ten paces before he’d spin around to tell me something dramatic, waving his hands in the air. That low aggression I’d felt on the playground seemingly years ago was never in evidence. Maybe he had a twin. Maybe he’d had a bad night.
I asked him once what he’d been doing there. What he’d thought when he saw me.
Shin stroked a slow hand down my hip, took a drag off his cigarette. “It was weird, but I didn’t think anything. You weren’t a person then. You were just someone I saw.”
“When did I become a person?” I asked, drawing patterns on his neck.
“When you read the note.”
“How do you know I read it?”
Another pause, this one longer as he shifted to lie on his back. “Because I watched you through your curtains.”
Shin’s student schedule meant he always slept after I had to be up for work, gone by the time I got home. Two AM came with a low chuckle from the wall in front of the bar. I could hardly believe it because something in me always thought it was a dream. Fairy dust, that I’d wake up from and know it wasn’t real.
Our hands met, the cigarette left his mouth. Smoke and alcohol, and the hint of something that was only him. That deep voice in my ear telling me all about his day when all I could say was, “I missed you, I missed you.” I had, too. The world wasn’t the same without Shin. Nothing was. Not a single breath.
It was real, and I know because he was there that night. And the next. And the next. He was real when I woke, huddled on the side of the bed, tucked into the curve of his neck. I was afraid to touch him in case he disappeared, so I couldn’t stop touching him because what if he did? Now was here, and now was all I had.
“Do you want me?” he asked every night, his words so fragile I could’ve crushed them in my hand.
Want, no, I didn’t want him. What I felt wasn’t want, it was obsession, a deep pit of terror telling me this was the night he wouldn’t be there, he’d be gone because he was so fragile. So delicate, in a way I can’t describe. A snow-blossom, used to harsh conditions, isolated and perilous but anchored for now, only for now.
I brought him chocolates to watch him laugh, tasted them on his tongue, licked them from the hollow of his collarbone. He’d roll over and tell me about his boss, about his childhood friends, about what he thought of cosmic theory. Shin never probed, only gave.
And me, I only took. Couldn’t shake the thought of him, not for a moment. Drifted through my days, to the store, to the park, looking for something that couldn’t be found. Stopped answering my emails, because everyone I needed was there every night, wanting me, loving me.
Love, oh god, was it love? Did Shin love me?
I never answered his question with words, just pulled him closer to find his mouth with mine and inhale his breaths. Yes, I wanted him. Loved him. With the whole of my being, the devotion of a slave, the obsession of the greatest fan. He could do no wrong in my eyes. He could do nothing but be himself.
I never told him that I loved him. Never even meant to kiss him, or sleep with him, or murmur sweet nothings in his ear until we both drifted to sleep. How could I have? How could I have burdened him with that?
I’m lying again. I’m ever so selfish.
I didn’t tell him I loved him because I didn’t know if he’d say it back. That was the one thing I kept back, I swear to god.
“Why are your fingers brown?” a student asked, when I was marking his paper.
“From holding cigarettes,” I said.
“Do you smoke?”
“No. I hold them for a friend.”
I handed the paper back, took up another. And another. Was there any bigger waste of time than this?
My neighbors never complained about the noise we made, which I was grateful for. We were never loud, we didn’t need to be. I’d hear him low in his throat, right in my ear, and that was enough. Shin didn’t need to bring the roof down to make me understand what he wanted, needed.
Me, he needed me.
“Brian Sensei, are you okay? You’ve lost a lot of weight lately. Are you on a diet?”
I brushed it off, and when they still watched me, finished my disgusting school lunch with gusto. That kept them away, for a while at least. Shin didn’t make those kinds of remarks. That’s part of what I loved about him.
The principal asked if I was feeling well. There were dark circles under my eyes, I’d best see a doctor, he said. Better not to catch the flu so late in the season, he said. The snow was melting outside, closing and opening ceremonies upon us. Cherry blossoms soon, wasn’t I excited? Wouldn’t I be sorry if I missed them?
I didn’t care. My convenience store food was going the way of the dinosaurs as home-cooked meals started appearing on plates in my refrigerator. Gifts of love, to be reheated while I waited for the moment to come, that first sight of him. I lived for that time, savored it. Brought steaming thermoses of tea to keep our hands warm even as spring drew near. I felt dizzy and giddy. My fingers shook sometimes with the excitement of what was going to happen. I would see Shin and we would go to my apartment, every night nearly the same. He was mine, and I was his, and I did not tell him I loved him because I didn’t need to. We were ours.
Every night was as sweet as the last. A never-ending dream, blurred at the edges because one night met the next in an endless chain. His black hair on my white sheets, fingers groping at the gaps in my floor, gasping into my ear. I couldn’t keep one day straight from the next because they were all the same, the parts that mattered, anyway. A curl of a smile, smoke in my face, a silvery touch on my skin.
“Brian Sensei, I had an email from someone who says she’s your mother. She says you haven’t replied to her in a month. Is everything fine?”
Why did they keep asking? Everything beyond fine, wonderful, amazing, more than anything I could ever have hoped for. The doubt had long been pushed away, hidden under the feel of the sheets against my knees, the wall against my heels, bracing me. I was fine, and I didn’t understand why they were asking.
“I’ll email her; she’s just always a bit anxious. Don’t worry about it.”
But they did worry, and it invaded my peace, left a little charred corner at the edge of my life. And somewhere, from where they were buried deep inside, my fears woke up.
I grew more impatient. Some days I’d walk four, five hours before meeting Shin, only to take him back to my place and spend all night kissing and touching. I didn’t want to talk, I wanted to feel, and now. Get as much as I could while I could, because why would Shin stay with a guy like me? Surely he would leave, surely I wasn’t enough for him. I wanted to hold him, thrust deep inside because I might not get another chance. Something was impermanent, I could feel it. He felt like paper under my touch, not quite there, the look on his face a little distant.
He still asked if I wanted him, but his voice has changed. Before, he’d wanted me to say yes. Now, he spoke as if he already knew the answer.
“Do you want me?” came the whisper one night after only silence.
I pulled him close, mouthed my lips over his hair. “So much.”
I couldn’t see his face, but I felt his fingernail scrape over my ribs as he didn’t reply.
Because he didn’t want an answer; he never had. I would do anything for him, and he know it.
I was losing him, and I knew it. I was losing him, and I couldn’t do anything.
“You didn’t need to yell at the students. They don’t like it.”
I glared at the reproachful teacher in front of me. “You asked me to make a game. I made one. It would have worked if they’d have tried.”
“They’re kids. They can be difficult.”
“Then they can get yelled at.”
“Brian Sensei, please do not speak to me that way. I want to help. I want to make a good game.” She looked deep into my eyes, trying to ferret out whatever she could grab. “Is there something wrong? Do you get enough sleep?”
No, no I didn’t, I wasn’t getting enough sleep because Shin was withdrawing, shying away. He was still there, still smiling, but now it was a lie, I could see. A lie that he was glad to see me, a lie that he wanted to be there. The playful way he used to talk about his life was gone, and I couldn’t make it come back. No matter what I did, it wasn’t there anymore.
“Do you need anything?”
“No. I don’t. I’m fine. Thank you.”
They didn’t believe me, and it wasn’t true, I know that, knew it then. But there was nothing they could do. Nothing I could do. It was far too late for that.
“Shin, do you want to see the cherry blossoms tomorrow?”
He was quiet a moment too long. “I have a test. I need to study during the day.”
It had been weeks since we’d been able to meet at the café. The words caught in my throat, tore at my chest. “You don’t want to go.”
The silence stretched to breaking.
“No, I don’t.”
There was a high pitched sound in my ears. The bottom had dropped out of my stomach and was still falling. Maybe it’s still falling today.
“I can’t come back here, Brian. I didn’t know how to say.”
No, no, no…
I kissed him, stroked his hair, touched him until he came shuddering in my arms, trying to make it last forever, or at least long enough.
He was gone when I woke up.
He was not there when I went on my walk that night.
Or the next.
Or the next.
Three days after I last saw Shin, I passed out in the middle of teaching prepositions. I woke up in a hospital ten hours later, tied to the bed. They couldn’t stop my screaming.
I told my mother not to come to Japan, yelled at the principal until he lied for me and said it had been nothing, it had been sunstroke, it had been anything that didn’t sound serious. The drips fed me the food I hadn’t been getting until the blue of my veins faded from my wrists. The doctors would not listen to me, would not take my notes, the ones I wrote with cheap hospital paper. To Shin, my only Shin, who I could not tell I loved because he loved me back but couldn’t stay. Could never have stayed. Never in a thousand hundred lifetimes have stayed.
They let me out on a stark day, into the custody of my school. The principal drove me to my apartment, escorted me up the stairs, and waited as I stuck my key in the door.
There was the futon, his scent bled out of it. The ashtrays overflowing from the cigarettes the doctors said I’d been holding and smoking, smoking until I got the shakes. The refrigerator with nothing in it but a Valentine’s card from all those months ago.
Not a hint of Shin remained. The principal did not speak as he emptied the ash trays into a garbage bag, as he helped me pack my things into suitcases. There wasn’t a lost shirt, a forgotten sock, nothing. No sign he’d ever been there. Not even a single lighter left in the place.
The principal drove me down the street where Heaven Lounge had stood, and the sign for the seventh floor was empty like it’d never even been there.
I was put on this train by the principal like so much extra baggage, sent home as damaged goods. Thank you for playing, do not return. No one thought to clean out my desk at school and I didn’t care. Don’t care, how could I care? How can I care about anything on this stupid train, going nowhere, clickity clack. Stare out the windows as gray concrete flashes by on my way to the airport.
We stop at the university and the train doors open. A face looks up in front of me.
Please, yes, oh god please let it really be him standing there waiting for me with just a hint of smile at the corner of his mouth.
The train leaves the station holding one passenger less because I’m sprinting down the platform to take him in my arms, hold him close, hold him forever. Shin, my one and only, pressed to my chest where I can feel his heartbeat at last, at last.
“I knew you’d come,” he whispers in my ear, and god how I’ve missed that voice. “I knew you’d come.”
“I love you,” I tell him, stroking his hair. So soft, so warm. “I love you so much.”
“I know, Brian, I know.” So delicate, Shin, hardly even there, but here he is, a lighter in his hand. Like he never even left at all. “That’s why I knew you’d come for me.”
“I’m here and I’ll never leave,” I say. There’s no one but us, here on this empty platform, in this empty station. We are the only things that matter because I have him, I have him back, forever and ever and ever.
“I’m sorry I had to go before. I have something for you,” he says.
He kisses me again, and it’s better than anything I could’ve imagined. Better than it was in front of the bar, better than in my apartment. It’s everything, and I can barely even breathe but that’s okay because I don’t need to. I’m not alone. Shin is here and he loves me, only me.
I can only just feel his hand in mine, playing with his lighter, restless like he’s always been. He tastes like chocolate and cigarettes and something burning hot.
The lighter clicks in his hand and I can feel a tingling on my arm. A warmth. A glow. He’s glowing in my arms. A flame is growing on my arm, creeping up, up my sleeve, and I can’t feel anything but a gentle heat and the press of his chest against mine, rising and falling, heart beating just for me.
“You won’t leave me?” I ask. I have to know, have to know so bad it hurts, oh god it hurts so much.
Shin leans his head against my shoulder, pulls me so close we’re nearly one person. I can hear something, sounds like someone’s screaming, someone’s running, but Shin is here stroking my hair and I feel like I’m burning, I’m so happy. It’s all been worth it, to have him back in my arms. Mine again at last.
“Don’t worry,” he whispers, his words licking my ear, his voice crackling with heat. “Don’t worry, Brian, I won’t leave you. We’ll never be parted again.”
“The Foreigner’s Loneliness” was first published in Latchkey Tales: The Darkest Hour, by Solarwyrm press in 2015.
S. Hunter Nisbet wrote this piece in 2012, while living and teaching English in Japan.
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