“sometimes when I see people eating alone I want to sit down next to them” (part 3) by Michael Koh

Maya, holding her bag, stepped out into the dimming sunset and saw the bright lights of Ginza district begin to light up the sky. Lights changed from green to red, cars accelerated and stopped, pedestrians streamed up and down the streets, stopping only momentarily to cross the crowded streets. She noted that the traffic looked as if they were on a production line, all of the cars lined up, their movement indicated by the color of the traffic lights. Maya looked up, the sun completely hidden behind shopping malls and high-rise buildings, to see the street lamps turn on, and a large advertisement for men’s cologne change into an advertisement for women’s clothing.

She walked south, towards Shinbashi station; walking past high rises, one after another. She peered into, standing on the granite tiles that composed the Tokyo sidewalks, the Abercrombie & Fitch flagship store, and noted that it resembled the one in Ohio, albeit larger. Maya walked across the 6-lane Sotobori-dori Avenue, looking for an American made vehicle. She found none. Maya turned left and looked for the station, all the while taking in the neon lights and billboards for beer, clothes, and cell phones. The sounds of Tokyo reminded her of her visit to New York City, but the differences were clear: no yellow taxis, rarity of foreigners, effervescent smiles, and of course, the prevalence of Japanese, as opposed to English. For the first time in her life, Maya felt like she was part of a crowd. She felt like she blended in, unlike in Ohio, where people had called her out on her heritage, her hair, her nose, her height, and especially her eyes. Maya looked at the constantly changing advertisements above, affixed to steel skyscrapers, cascading series of images at bystanders below. She noticed one of the jumbotrons flickering on and off, images bleeding into one another; a temporary disturbance in the immaculate sphere of its immediate surroundings. She tore her eyes away from the deformed images and focused on walking towards the right direction.

Down the avenue, a breeze brushed against Maya’s cheeks, revealing a scar that formed as a result of her behavior many months ago. Brushing her hair behind her ears, she felt warranted that she had taught herself some Japanese for three consecutive summers. She thought she would feel exposed and out-of-place if she did not understand her mother tongue. Judy had wanted Maya to learn Spanish, and went as far as to sign her up for summer courses, but Maya did not go and instead opted for Japanese classes, paid with her own money.

“What the fuck are you going to do with Japanese?” Judy demanded during dinner one night. Maya said nothing and excused herself from the table, locking herself in her room and pouring her eyes over Japanese texts. In reading the foreign texts, she felt as if she was relearning her past, her own identity, and felt empowered to have control of her own self.

A group of women passed Maya, all holding bags from department stores that towered above them. They seemed to be jaded of the sights that surrounded them. Advertisements did not faze their concentration, as if they had learned to ignore them as an everyday occurrence.

“Where were you going to meet him?” The woman on the left said.

“I think Shiodome.” Answered the woman on the far right.

“You’re going to get laid tonight, aren’t you?” The woman in the middle said.

The women laughed amongst themselves, unaware of their immediate surroundings as one of their bags hit Maya on the leg, causing her to break from her thoughts. The group walked, as if nothing had happened, leaving Maya in their wake, who in turn glared at the retreating figures. Rubbing her leg, she wondered how it felt to be involved in a relationship. She wondered about how it would feel to have sex with a man, or a woman. She blushed at the fragmented images that planted themselves within the folds of her brain. Maya squealed, attracting the attention of passersby. Realizing what she had done, Maya kept her head low, which had turned a dark shade of red from embarrassment, and wrapped the cardigan around her. She quickened her pace and approached a corner of an intersection. A brick building, four stories high, surrounded on all sides by modern buildings stood before her. A sign for the station burned green as an elevated train ran past, coloring itself in a sick, pale shade of green, the clacking of its iron hooves tickling Maya’s ears. The entrance to the subway, paved with concrete painted maroon, weathered white plastic pipes visibly hanging from walls, the rusting steel girders shuddering with every passing train was nothing extravagant compared to the buildings that she saw on her way to the station. The entrance of the building provided no cover, no obstacles, presenting a fallacious space of openness. People walked around Maya as she contemplated the depth of the subway. She noticed most of the pedestrians watching the sidewalk, not the air above, perhaps too focused on their destination. She weaved her way through the crowd towards the subway. A sheeted metal sign dulled the reflecting light of the city and Maya thought she saw a familiar figure standing behind her, distorted by the reflection, and she turned around, to see nothing but unfamiliar faces avoid her gaze. Maya looked back at the reflection and could not find what she had seen before. Anxiety crept up into the pit of her stomach and she felt it claw itself up her back. She hurried into the station and felt the lingering warmth of the sun disappear as the cold, mechanical air of the station took over.

*          *          *

Maya descended into the Shinbashi station for the Yamanote Line. Concrete turned into waxy marble and green tiles plastered onto walls as rows and rows of advertisements greeted passengers, and non-descript light fixtures hung from the ceiling in rows, bathing everything from trash receptacles to transit workers in bright fluorescent light. Maya walked down the entryway, made her way to the state-of-the-art ticket machines and stood in a line. She looked down at the waxy surface of the station, comparing it to the concrete surfaces of the New York City subway and remarked at the cleanliness of the interior. The lines dwindled quickly and before she knew it, she was in front of one of the machines. Wary of her surroundings, she cautiously pressed “Begin” on the machine, which gave her an option of proceeding in English or in Japanese. Confident in her fluency, Maya picked Japanese and immediately regretted her decision. There were words that she did not understand and she fumbled with phrases while looking for a way to change the language. Someone behind her asked if she needed help. Maya shook her head and felt embarrassed and exposed. She pressed more buttons until she came to a word she understood: “Kyanseru.” Cancel. Maya pressed it, prompting the machine to ask, “Are you sure?” to which she pressed, “Yes.” The screen reverted to the beginning. Maya sighed in relief and proceeded the transaction in English. In a few moments, she was able to purchase her ticket and silently leave the area, swiftly moving to the platform where she was to board the subway. She was uncomfortable knowing, had Judy been next to her, that she would have let her know her lessons in Japanese were a complete and total waste of time. “You couldn’t even buy that ticket,” Judy would have taunted. “I told you it would be a waste of time. Why do you always fuck up? Think about the future for once.” Maya tried to block out Judy’s voice from her head. “You left before we could find you Maya. You left in such a hurry.”

The escalator took her down farther into the subterranean cove lit by sterile, white florescent lights hung from the polished surface of the ceiling. She looked around, watching individuals waiting for the line that would take them to their destination, to resume their lives above ground. Maya settled down on a cold metal bench and looked down at the tracks covered with grime from years of use. She felt a breeze pick up within the station and saw people move behind the yellow line drawn by the edges of the platform. A female voice rang from the loudspeakers installed on every other pillar. “Welcome to Shinbashi Station. Please stand behind the yellow line,” it said in Japanese. “This is the train heading south to Shinagawa Station, Minato. Please stand behind the yellow line. Thank you.” The breeze picked up as a lone bright light emerged from the tunnel, and from it, a train, six cars long, colored green with ivory white highlights decelerated into the station. The train gradually stopped and the doors opened to a crowd of people milling out, pushing away other passengers gathered at the entrances of the cars. Maya stood up and joined the crowd, pushing while getting pushed, finally entering the train with much effort, squeezing past men and women still leaving the train. She made her way to the end of the car and sat down. Sitting at the back of the car, she saw mostly businessmen in Western attire, a group of girls and boys in school uniforms, and men and women in casual clothing. The loudspeaker announced the list of stations it would stop at. Meguro was to be the fifth station from Shinbashi. The train accelerated forward, entering the dark tunnels below the city of Tokyo.

Maya watched shadows of pillars and the occasional dim light pass her window. She was taken aback when the train entered another station, temporarily blinding her with sterile florescent lights. She heard the train doors open, and caught a glimpse of men, women, and children, old and young alike enter and exit the train. Before she knew it, the train was filled with people. She heard the door close and the loudspeaker announced once again, the list of the stations. She turned her head to watch the people outside waiting for another train, blur and fade away in the distance. The train was again enveloped by the darkness of the tunnels, but bathed its passengers in the filmy, dim, translucent light from its overhead lighting.

The train stopped and opened its doors, replacing bodies with other unfamiliar bodies. Maya observed the crowd and focused on a young man, sleeping, as an old man looked on, shaking his head.

“Whatever happened to teaching kids manners?” The old man said, loud enough for everyone to hear him.

He stood next to another man, perhaps in his fifties, who was balding and Maya could see sweat running down the back of his head. She wondered what Judy would have done if she were here. Maya remembered Judy in New York City, a hat covering her head, hiding her new haircut. She had gone up to a woman who had no hair on her head and asked if she was a cancer patient.  The woman said something to Judy and Judy came back to Maya, with a grimace. Maya asked her what the woman said, but Judy forced a smile and took Maya by the hand and led her back to the hotel. Maya later found out, by going through Judy’s old journals, that the woman had threatened to snap them both in half.

“You know,” said the old man to no one in particular, “back ten years ago, people would give up their seats for the elderly.”

No one responded to him. Maya felt pity for the man and wanted to help him, but she was concerned that her Japanese would falter, that the crowd of people would laugh at her inability to construct sentences or her slightly mispronounced words.

The train stopped and the young man, sitting below the old man stood up and shouted, “Fuck you, ojichan,” in Japanese and ran out of the train. Maya heard him shout something right before the doors closed. She held her bag closer to her chest and pretended to look out the window, involved in her thoughts, in hopes that no one would talk to her. By the next station, the man left, tut-tutting the despairing condition of youth and Maya relaxed.

“Meguro Station is next,” said the loudspeaker.

Maya stood up from her seat and walked to the door, holding on to bars for support. She waited for the train to enter the station and looked down at the floor, in an attempt to avoid eye contact.

Profile: Michael Koh
Read Part 1 Part 2 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

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