“This and Everything Around Us” pt. 3 by Michael Koh

3.
I told my mother the salad wasn’t going to fill me up, so I had the usual rye bread with guacamole with the salad. She tells me I need more variety in my diet but so far I’ve been fairly healthy. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve had a cold since February. Or six months ago – whichever comes first. I’ve been taking vitamins ever since. It’s done me good.

This memory of mine, I’m sure it’ll become a part of yours too. After all, I’m sharing it with you aren’t I? Was it Rimbaud who said, “Mes pensées est ton pensées aussi?” Or was it Poulet? “Les idées sont putains!” Either way, you get the message. You’re reading my words, the words become your thoughts, but still, they are my words, my memories, all a part of my life then and now. Okay, some may be false but that’s how I remember them. Someone recently told me that every time you recall a memory, it is reconstructed bottom up, so basically, everything you remember is a construction. Mind. Fucked. Sideways. I’m not lying. Well, at least my mind seems to be telling the truth. I did feel honest when I told you that just now. Maybe it’s for recalling distant memories, not the immediate past, since, after all, it did just happen and fresh in your mind. This, however, took place a little more than three years ago around this time, when it was hot, humid, and just about boiling.


Part 1 | 2
Profile: Michael Koh

“This and Everything Around Us” pt. 2 by Michael Koh

2.
These are selections from a transcript of a memory between Despina Koutromanos and Keith Burke at a coffee chain on the corner of an intersection somewhere in New York City around lunchtime.

. . .
DK: Try this coffee, it’s not half bad.
KB: I had coffee this morning.
DK: Aw come on, try it Keith, I promise I don’t have herpes.
. . .
KB: Look at that guy at that table by the door. Looks like he’s got alopecia.
DK: I think he just shaves his head all the time.
KB: You think so?
DK: No, I don’t know.
KB: Let me have some of your coffee.
. . .
DK: Are you really serious about this?
KB: Yeah, I am. Stop leaning in so close to my face, I can smell the garlic on your breath.
DK: Asshole.
KB: It’s bleached.
DK: Mine are too. I guess we’re the perfect couple.
[a moment of silence]
KB: I guess you just answered my question.
DK: Yeah, I guess I did.
. . .
KB: Are you still talking to your ex?
DK: Sometimes. He calls me though.
KB: Why do you pick up?
DK: To make him feel like shit.
KB: I think you should stop talking to him.
DK: Maybe. Are you still talking to your ex?
KB: No. Why would I?
DK: Just wondering.
KB: And emotionally abuse myself?
DK: So you think talking to someone you’ve had a relationship with is emotional abuse?
KB: An intimate sexual relationship.
DK: You know what I mean.
KB: To myself yes.
. . .
DK: Keith, I like you.
KB: I like you too.
DK: Do you think we’ll remember this ten years from now?
KB: Remember this?
DK: Yeah. This and everything around us.
KB: I won’t forget.
DK: Me neither.


Part 1 | 3
Profile: Michael Koh

“This and Everything Around Us” by Michael Koh

1.
They say that memories fade over time. That much is true. What they don’t tell you is what happens to the faded memories and what happens when we do remember them. Do we remember false details? Do we add anything to the memory? How faded must the memory be for us to start adding our own details to it? The clothes she wore that night: either a black racy dress or a black lacy dress. The words that revolved in my head while standing at her door: anywhere from “I hope my breath smells alright,” to “I should’ve taken a piss before I got here,” to “Am I at the right place?” The smell of her perfume: Dior or Chanel or Old Spice. The number of stars visible at that time sometime mid-summer in either 2008 or 2009: anywhere between 999 to over 9,000. The clicking of her heels against the soft thuds of my shoes on the crowded sidewalk somewhere in the heart of Manhattan. Was I really able to hear that over the voluminous noise that is New York City? So, as you can see, I’ve forgotten some of these once-considered important details over time. Hold on just a moment – my mother is knocking on my door asking me what I want for dinner.

My mother says I shouldn’t be thinking about this and instead focusing on studying for upcoming post-graduate exams, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. I told her I’ve gone over the materials twice already, but as with most mothers, they are insistent that you get a near-perfect score to brag to her friends. How she’d be able to boast about your 25-year-old son still living at home getting an above average score on some aptitude test is beyond me. She wanted to make salad with kale and spinach for dinner. Why didn’t she go ahead and make it, I have no idea. Maybe I should’ve asked her for a fruit bowl. That sounds pretty good right now – it’s been a hot and humid, mercury-boiling kind of a day. Would she have objected to that? Probably not. She loves fruit almost as much as she loves me. But first, a question: is a fruit bowl enough to be dinner? I’m not one to say a dinner is a square meal with family, you know the drill, meat, carbs, and vegetables with a glass of milk. After all, my meals usually consist of 2 slices of rye bread, a quarter of an avocado, and dashes of hot sauce on the avocado spread, so a fruit bowl for dinner is obviously a welcome addition to what you would consider a banal, if not extremely ordinary meal. My friends think it’s disgusting, especially when I eat it in front of them. But this isn’t about them. It’s about me and a memory of how I met a person who thought it was an absolutely genius idea to put hot sauce on guacamole with toasted rye bread.

The memory of her has been fluttering about in my head for about three years now. I couldn’t find the right time to string words together; rather, I couldn’t find the right words at the time to string about. But now that there’s a fairly large distance between the past and now, I’m able to see a beginning and an end: how it all came to be and how it all came apart. Now, some of the things I’m going to tell you are true, and some are fabricated. I can’t tell the fabrications apart from the truths, so you’re going to have to believe me or not. Take the entire thing and tear it apart, I don’t care. Actually, I do care, but it’s really your role as the reader to discern what’s real and what’s not. Don’t worry; I too will be doing so as I write. I find that as I keep writing, the memory becomes clearer yet also further distant, as if I’m taking a dry towel and wiping away the steam from the bathroom mirror, only to have the steam return to where the towel had wiped the surface clean. Maybe as I write this, I’ll start to remember details, both minor and significant to me, but arbitrary to you, the reader.

My mother says the salad is ready.


Part 2 | 3
Profile: Michael Koh

“sometimes when I see people eating alone I want to sit down next to them” (part 6) by Michael Koh

Hideo said something in Japanese and she could not understand the translation in her head. He kicked the covers off of him.

“What does that mean?” she asked, lying on his bed.

He repeated the phrase again.

“Tell me what that means.”

“It means what it means.”

Maya sighed.

They lay in silence for a moment. Everything looked bleak to Maya for a moment. She sat up, rubbed her eyes and observed her surroundings. Her eyes wandered from cobwebs to cobwebs dangling from the cracked ceiling, and her eyes rested on a white wooden desk, where a picture of three smiling people greeted Maya.

“Is that your family?” Maya asked.

Hideo looked over at the picture. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s my mom, my dad, and me. Back when everything was good.”

Maya raised an eyebrow quizzically.

“Back when I was still in middle school.”

“That was a while ago.”

“About ten years back. My dad was, well, still my dad. We used to play baseball together. Not so much anymore. He’s gone run off with another woman and gets drunk every night. My poor mom, she couldn’t take it anymore and divorced him. She’s all alone, and I can’t do anything to help her. Every time I visit, she tells me I remind her of my father, so I can’t stay long.”

Maya buried her face into his chest.

Hideo took a deep breath.

“We’re both pained creatures,” he said.

“Yes, we are.”

Hideo hugged her with one arm, and both fell silent, adding nothing to the immediate conversation, instead sharing their warmth with one another.

Feeling comfortable, Maya slipped into sleep, falling into the dark abyss of her consciousness.

*          *          *

Maya found herself to be in a hallway of an office. Dim lights lit the passageway as doors lined up the walls. At the far end, she saw a flight of stairs, leading up to another floor. Maya walked, holding herself in fright. As she neared the stairwell, she felt someone not far behind her, following her every movement. Maya began running. As she reached the end of the hallway, the scene changed to a roof of an apartment building, and with it, the presence of someone following her disappeared. Maya saw, to her left, a large rustic couch, just like the one from her home, and a small, blond figure, in a white floral dress sitting in the middle. Maya walked over to the young girl and sat down next to her. The young girl looked straight, watching something in the distance. Maya turned to see what the girl was watching. She saw a single, solitary light solidly shining past the darkness. Maya motioned to the little girl and pointed at the light. The girl nodded and kept silent. They watched the light for some time, until Maya decided she had enough. She stood up, but felt something caught on her shirt.

“You can’t go yet.”

Maya looked down to see the girl holding the shirt, watching the light in the distance.

“Let me go,” Maya said.

“You can’t go yet,” the girl repeated. Her lips did not move, but Maya was able to hear her voice.

“Why not?”

“You have to keep watching.”

“The light?”

The girl nodded.

“What for?”

The girl tugged on Maya’s shirt once more and Maya sat down.

“What do you want me to do, just stare at that thing?” She asked.

The girl shook her head and cupped her hands to her eyes, as if to imitate binoculars.

Maya looked at the light once more and mimicked the girl’s movements. She was astonished to find that she was able to see directly into the light, and that there were two figures sitting in a similar couch as the two observers. They seemed to be watching something flickering beyond her field of vision.

“Who are they?” Maya asked the girl.

There was no response.

Maya turned to look at her, but found herself to be alone on the couch. She blinked in dismay and turned her eyes back to the figures in the distance. She observed the figures for a moment until she realized it was a younger Judy and her younger self, together on a couch on top of a building watching something on a screen. Maya rubbed her eyes and momentarily lost sight of the light. She looked for the light again, but could not find it. She removed her hands from her eyes and sighed. A movement to her right caught her off guard and Maya flinched. Momentarily stunned, Maya stared at the figure next to her. It was Judy. Judy had flicked her hair behind her shoulders as she watched a Western on a screen. Maya realized she was transported to where the light had once been.

“I like Clint Eastwood in this movie,” Judy said.

“What?”

“I like him in this movie.”

“Who?”

“Clint Eastwood.”

Maya felt confused.

“Why aren’t you in bed?”

“I love this part,” Judy said. She flicked her hair back again.

“Answer me,” Maya demanded.

“I like Clint Eastwood in this movie.”

“What?”

Judy repeated the sentence and flicked her hair.

Maya remembered she had played this game before. Judy repeats a sentence to answer Maya’s questions. Maya usually stormed off when Judy started it, but she played along this time.

“Are you kidding? He’s nothing without Eli Wallach,” Maya said.

“You’re wrong,” Judy said.

“So what? I know more things than you.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes I do, I go to school; you don’t.”

“What does that have to do with the movie?”

“Everything.”

“Fuck you,” Judy said, hitting Maya on the shoulder.

Maya hit back and Judy hit Maya even harder. They began to tussle on the couch and on the floor. The movie wasn’t on anymore. The screen moaned static and filled the roof with black and white lines. Judy’s face was fading. Judy stood up. She threw pillows at Maya’s face. Maya could not remember Judy’s face. She pushed Judy, and Judy stumbled backwards, losing her footing at the edge of the roof. For a brief moment, Maya thought she remembered Judy’s face. She slipped off the edge and fell off the building.

Maya woke up before Judy hit the ground.

*          *          *

Tears soaked the pillow Maya had been sleeping on. A single light from the electric lamp outside shone through the window, illuminating her face. She looked to see if Hideo was awake. He wasn’t. She put her hand on her forehead. The sequence of images of Judy replayed themselves in her head. A steady hum of electricity from the lamppost accompanied her thoughts. 5:20. Maya sighed and closed her eyes.

“This fucking sucks,” she said in English.

Peeling the blanket off of her, Maya sat up slowly, to not wake Hideo, who was still sound asleep. The light from the window had not moved; it shone on the empty side, where Maya had lain. She tiptoed her way in the darkness to the bathroom. Once inside, she switched on the lights and felt her eyes adjust to the light. Temporarily blinded, Maya felt around for the faucet. The handle felt cold in contrast to her warm skin. She turned the handle and splashed water on to her face.

“Judy,” she said softly.

She wanted to scream, but bit her lip to quiet herself. She hoped Hideo was deep asleep. Maya sat on the toilet and took deep breaths, enveloped in silence.

“Judy might be still alive,” she said to herself. “She’ll be waiting for me when I get back.”

Maya thought she saw someone in the mirror. Her body tensed up and her pupils dilated. She turned to look at the entrance of the bathroom. No one was there. She turned to the mirror to see a reflection of herself.

“I look tired,” she said, touching the bags under her eyes.

“Maya,” a voice rang through the darkness.

Startled, Maya poked herself in the eye.

“Maya,” the voice said again. “I know you’re there.”

Holding her tearing eye, Maya carefully maneuvered her way back to the bedroom.

“Hideo?” She whispered.

Her question was met with silence. Hideo was sleeping.

“Maya,” the voice, this time, came from out the window.

She climbed on to the bed, and on her knees, looked out, to see a lone figure standing below, waving. The figure, slender and tall, called out for Maya again.

Maya tried to open the window, shaking the bed in the process. She looked down to see if Hideo woke up, and when she was confident that she had not woken him up, she commenced working on opening the window again. The window, stubborn after years of neglect, finally opened on the fourth attempt, opening Maya’s scabbed knees in the process. Blood trickled out from the reopened wound on to the pillow.

“Maya,” the figure called out to her. “Maya, it’s me. It’s your sister.”

“Judy?”

“Where have you been? I miss you so much, come back to me, please.”

“How,” Maya stammered. “How are you here? Why are you here?”

“Don’t worry about me. Come here, come to me; jump. I’ll catch you.”

Maya reached out to Judy. Maya could see the whites of her sister’s teeth. She climbed over the bed and placed her foot on the windowsill. The cold surface reverberated up her leg. Momentarily distraught, Maya let out a whimper. She thought she heard something rustle behind her and stood still. Certain that it was nothing, and excited at the prospect of being suspended in air for a few moments, Maya got ready to leap into Judy’s arms.

“Are you ready?” She cried.

“Maya, what the fuck are you doing?”

Maya looked back to see Hideo’s shocked face. He sprang to his feet, and before she could fling herself out the window, he grabbed Maya’s torso and dragged her away from the window.

She kicked and screamed at Hideo. She slapped him across the face and shouted, “Fuck you,” only to feel her head begin to throb. Her legs wobbled from the blood rushing from her head, and immediately felt light-headed.

“What the hell are you doing, sticking half your body out the window?” He asked.

Maya began to shiver. Hideo moved to the window, peered outside, and closed it. He saw the bloodstained pillow and threw it on the ground. He grabbed the blanket and draped it over Maya’s trembling body.

“Who were you talking to outside?”

Maya remained silent.

“Maya, was someone out there?”

“Judy,” she said, almost inaudible.

“Who?”

“Judy.”

“How could she be here if she is sick in bed?”

“I don’t know, but that was her. I’m sure of it.”

“So what, you were going to jump three stories and have her catch you or something?”

She hung her head.

“You’re crazy. You’re nuts. How could you think that your sister would find you here, or have the strength to get out of bed to look for you?” Hideo said, taking the bloody pillowcase off from the ground.

“No, you’re wrong.”

Hideo stopped what he was doing and stared at Maya.

“You’re wrong.” She stood up, her legs trembling, blood trickling down her calves. “She’s dead.”

Maya could hear Hideo say something and briefly saw him walk over to his kitchen. She sat down and placed her arms on her head to support herself. A cold object pressed against her shoulder. Maya looked up to see Hideo with a glass of water. He turned his gaze from her.

“Drink this,” he said, looking at something to the right.

She took the glass from his hand. “What is it?”

“Water.”

His voice echoed in her head. She shivered. The boy’s skin looked smooth as the day he was born, and she had run her fingers over him back when they were in bed. Smile at him, smile. She bared a toothy grin. He looked down at her, and away, with a look of disgust on his face. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He turned around and walked into the bathroom. She could hear him turn the faucet on.

“You should go now,” Hideo said, loud enough for Maya to hear in the other room. She imagined him splashing water on his face, the right side; tender from where she had hit him. Maya gathered her things and dressed herself. “What did I tell you,” she heard Judy sing. “Why don’t you believe in me?”

“It’s your fault,” Maya said. “It’s all because of you I’m like this.” She felt tears come down her face and pepper her chest. “Why are you doing this to me?” She saw Judy smile in the reflection of the window. Maya shouted. She saw Hideo, his brows furrowed, looking out from the doorway. He seemed to understand what was going on.

“Get out of my house,” he said. “I don’t want you here. Get out now.”

Maya grabbed her bag and left. Out on the street, life began to emerge one by one out of the shadows. Maya, standing on a corner, rummaged through her bag for her anti-depression medication, tears streaming from her face. She didn’t know why she felt this way even with the prescription in her system. Judy wrapped her arms around her and whispered something into her ear. Within the haze of the morning fog, the sun peeked out just over the horizon, the buildings engulfed in its flames.

*          *          *

For the next few days, Maya spent her time locked away in her hotel room. The only times she spoke was to turn housekeeping away and to receive food that she had ordered over the phone. She observed crowds gathering at opposite ends of the street every morning and afternoon at peak rush hour. She could never see their faces, and they could never see her. She slept for a few hours, four at most, and took less than frequent showers. Her time to leave finally came in the form of a phone call, where the receptionist reminded Maya that she was to checkout in the morning the next day. Maya did not sleep that night. She was too pre-occupied with Judy and had begun to find some of her behavior to resemble that of her sister’s. A distant memory sprang itself on Maya, taking her by surprise. It was a summer afternoon a decade ago.

“You need to shower,” Judy said, her hands over her eyes to block the sun. “You’re smelly.”

Maya, in overalls, feet caked with mud, tossed pebbles in Judy’s direction.

“No, I don’t. Make me,” Maya dared.

“I’m your older sister, you need to listen to what I say.”

“You’re not my real sister, so I don’t need to listen to you.”

Maya remembered Judy shouting.

She threw a piece of stone at Judy and hit her on the leg. Judy crumpled to the ground, holding her leg, crying.

Maya thought Judy was acting, but it had hit her on the shin. Maya did not apologize. She remembered lying to her parents that Judy had tripped on her own accord, that Judy was lying when she told them it was Maya who had caused the wound. Her parents believed Maya. Judy became distant after and was later diagnosed with cancer of the heart.

“I am the reason why she is dead,” Maya said out loud. “I killed my sister.”

Her voice echoed, bouncing off corners of the moldings, the surface of a reproduction of Rothko, the glossy surface of the coffee table, finally absorbed in the cotton sheets of her bed; and her lone self, the center of it all.

*          *          *

Maya was packed. She smoothed her lips and fixed her hair in the mirror.

Ready

She went to the door and looked back at the room. Rain beat on the windows. The bed was neat. She had slept on the floor. There was a nest of blankets where she had slept. Empty take-out containers were stacked on top of one another in a corner. A pile of clothing she decided she didn’t want was in the trash. Her sundress, along with her cardigan and a pill container were among some of the items in the garbage.

A knock on the door How long have I been here

She felt nothing. Judy was part of her. She accepted it.

A knock on the door Ready

A young man said Hi and walked in.

Hideo No He is too short

He took her bags from her and directed her into the hallway.

How was your stay?

Nice thank you

The man said nothing more after that.

Now there is silence Is this awkward Time seems to have run away How could it have been a week already What did I do Think Yes I was in the room Scared I cried There is nothing here for me There is nothing for me anywhere Judy you are all I have Yes

The two entered the elevator. The man looked at the ground.

No one wants to speak to me I am nothing He doesn’t know my name I will be faceless to him I am faceless Only Judy knows who I am She is the exogenesis of my being I am Judy and she is me I am wearing her clothes I feel impertinent I am excited

The elevator stopped and the doors opened. They left the elevator and the man took them to the entrance of the building.

The surface of the sidewalk is planar Why do I feel disoriented

Rain pelted the windows. The percussive sound reminded her of the train. She remembered the night she went out for dinner.

Judy was there Wasn’t she Yes I think she was Were you there Judy It’s not important

Maya stepped outside. There was a song playing over the loudspeaker. It was too faint for her to hear. The fronds had wilted from the constant bombardment of precipitation.

The ground is wet Where do I go from here This man doesn’t want to talk to me No one does I am packed Ready Judy Yes Come let us go Where Home possibly I have no home but Judy

A voice in the distance.

Taxi is here thank you The seats are not comfortable I would like to be home The car accelerates and the city passes me We are going to the airport I see

Maya brushed her hands on the rough exterior of the chair.

Please don’t shout Judy it makes me queasy We can try to stay I know you like the grass but I don’t know I really don’t

Maya pointed to a large domed building not far off from the highway.

Judy look the airport is in the distance It looks massive Oh Judy stop it Stop looking so distraught I am not feeling okay Judy We need to drive faster Judy stop crying Stop it right now

Maya silently heaved. Judy bawled. The car stopped. The terminal stared at the car.

Okay okay okay I am getting out can’t you see me How much is it That can’t be right I know it’s cheaper than that Okay fine here you go please give me my bag Judy where are you Did you go in already

The entrance looked like a mouth. Cars honked behind her. A bell sounded and Maya covered her ears.

It will eat us up and rip me to shreds Judy is shaking I can feel her do it I want to console her There is a large board with letters and numbers on it It is directing the crowd It is telling us what to do The letters are big and bold and green

Maya looked below the board to see a woman standing there. She was leaning on a table. Her hair was long and straight. A blond. She looked like Judy and Maya felt calm. There were rows and rows of chairs by a window. A voice rang though the atrium. It sounded mechanical and hollow. Maya felt cold and abrupt. It reminded her of herself. She saw a gift shop beyond the information desk.

Lets go to the shop I want something sweet Judy come on I want candy I’ll buy you something nice too don’t you worry

Maya walked to the shop, dragging her bag behind her. She entered the store and wandered through the aisles. She stopped in front of a rotating display of postcards.

Look at these Should we send one to mom

She poked a picture of Tokyo at night.

The city looks like something from a movie

A woman standing by Maya furrowed her brows and stared at her. The sight of Maya talking to herself seemed to have disturbed the woman to a great deal.

Judy what do you think of this

Maya held up a postcard of the Edo Castle.

You are right this is not very pretty

Maya placed it back on the display case.

Maya turned to see the woman staring. The woman, startled, gave a quick, forced smile and walked swiftly away and out of the store. Maya smiled at the retreating figure and returned her gaze to the display.

People are so nice here Yes I know you want to stay but we need to go back home

Maya reached for a postcard replica of a famous Japanese painting of Mount Fuji and decided that she wanted it. She walked to the register with the postcard in her hand and placed it gently on the counter. As the cashier rang her up, Maya remembered that she wanted sweets, and she walked away wordlessly to the candy aisle to pick out a couple of candy bars that looked enticing. Maya returned to the counter with three bars of candy. The cashier raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, and ran the candy bars under the price gun. Maya left the store, candy bar in mouth, and stood watching the crowd pass her by.

Please Judy stop begging My legs are hurting too

She sat down and looked around. Not one face was discernable. She did not recognize anybody. The young woman was gone and Maya felt terribly alone.

Maya remembered the day when their mother passed away.

“Where’s mommy?” Maya remembered asking.

Her father drove in silence, as her sister sat next to him, arms folded, fury clouding her face. They were driving past a field.

Maya asked the question again.

Judy turned to look at Maya. “Fucking shut up, you dumb bitch,” she shouted. The sun was high, past the clouds, and filled the car with its vibrant rays.

“Judy,” their father yelled. “That’s no way to talk to your sister.”

“She’s not my sister. Mom never gave birth to her.”

Her father hit Judy behind the head. Judy screamed and cried, flailing her arms and Maya cried because of what Judy said, because her father hit Judy, and because Judy was crying.

“Daddy,” Maya said, in between sobs. “Daddy, why’d you hit her?”

“Judy,” he said, ignoring Maya. “Apologize to your sister.”

“No.”

“Daddy, it’s okay,” Maya said. “I know she doesn’t mean it.”

“Maya, be quiet.” He tapped Judy on the shoulder. “Apologize. Now.”

Judy reluctantly turned to Maya and mouthed an apology.

“I can’t hear you say it.”

“I’m sorry,” Judy said.

“Say it like you mean it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

Her father, pleased with the apology, fell silent. Judy stopped crying, but tears still streamed down her face and she trembled holding in her sobs. Maya too, stopped crying, and remembered feeling incredible sympathy towards her sister. She reached out to Judy and touched her shoulder. Judy swiped her hand away. The brief contact of Judy’s skin on hers took her breath away. The sun, she remembered, looked auburn gold.

I felt so alone that day It still bothers me I am abandoned

Judy did not answer and Maya felt scared.

Judy where are you Where is mother

Maya just go to sleep let me take care of you Close your eyes Let me take care of you my baby sister

Maya smiled.

Yes Judy yes It is about time we finally get to sleep    I trust no one but you

She looked around, absorbing the unfamiliar surroundings.

Everyone else is a liar  You are the truth Thank you It has been a long time since I felt like this Warm and loved You are everything to me dear sister

She could see Judy put her arms around her, and noticed Judy’s hair, blond as ever, shift to a darker shade as the flurry of passengers around them became nothing but blurs. A mechanical voice skirted around their embrace.

You are my sister yes I love you very much so

Judy oh Judy you are cute I missed you too

Judy wiped away Maya’s tears.

Profile: Michael Koh
Read Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

“sometimes when I see people eating alone I want to sit down next to them” (part 5) by Michael Koh

The two entered the building and Maya marveled at the interior. A horseshoe shaped counter served as an open kitchen, where four chefs worked as a production line, one breading and frying the pork, the second cutting it, the third preparing the plate, and the final fourth chef overseeing the entire operation. Above, dangling overhead lights decorated the finished wood ceiling, and panels of wood sidings adorned the walls around the restaurant. Soft, traditional Japanese music surrounded businessmen in western attire and students in baseball caps and sweatshirts. In the left corner, she noticed stairs leading to the second story, but Hideo motioned her to sit down at the counter, where the overseeing chef attended to them immediately.

“Hideo! How are you doing?” asked the chef, donning a fatherly smile.

“Ojisan, I’m hungry as hell,” replied Hideo.

“You always are. You always are.” He looked at Maya and back at him. Her face did not register in his mind. “Who is this pretty girl?” He asked Hideo. “You finally find a girl for yourself?”

Hideo blushed. “What are you talking about, ojisan? I just met her tonight.”

“I’m just kidding with you,” the chef said. He looked at Maya. “What will you be having tonight?”

Maya looked at Hideo. He tapped his forehead as if remembering that she had never been to Tonki’s before. “It’s her first time here, ojisan,” he said.

“Oh, is that so?” said the chef looking at Maya.

She nodded and felt embarrassed. She brushed her hands on her knees and felt the wound had already clotted.

“Well, I’ll make yours especially good then,” he said, shuffling off and rolling his sleeves up to prepare Maya’s dish.

“Look at that,” Hideo said. “He’s making your tonkatsu. He usually never touches the food, only makes sure things are running smooth…”

Hideo’s voice changed to Judy’s, but the mouth and the words that came out were not in sync. “That fat chef is going to put sleeping pills in your food. They’re all going to take turns fucking you. Look at what he’s putting in your rice now.” Judy pointed at the chef preparing the rice. “It’s all poison. All of it.”

Maya closed her eyes.

“Just look, look at him, there goes a couple of blue pills…”

“Are you alright?” Hideo asked, in his voice.

Startled, Maya looked over at Hideo, who looked worried.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, feigning a smile.

“It’s just…” He shrugged and resumed talking about how he became acquainted with the employees at Tonki.

Maya massaged the side of her head. Judy sat in a booth watching the two interact. Maya felt her presence and instinctively looked behind her. Hideo turned his head to see what Maya was looking at.

“Are you waiting for someone?” He asked Maya.

Maya did not answer him. She looked through the crowd for Judy. She thought she was able to see her blond hair anywhere in this land of black, but she could not pick Judy’s exact location.

“Hey, here comes your food,” Hideo said, tapping Maya’s shoulder.

She turned around to see the chef walking over with a plate.

“Here you go,” said the chef, handing Maya the first plate. Hideo looked at the platter and Maya saw his eyes widen.

“Ojisan, that looks amazing,” he said.

“It’ll taste amazing too,” said the chef with a wink.

“Thank you,” Maya said, giving the chef a little bow.

“My pleasure, my pleasure,” he said.

Maya looked at Hideo, who handed her a fork and asked to go ahead. “Are you sure?” Hideo nodded. Maya eyed the fried pork, and felt her stomach grumble. “Ittadekimatsu,” she said and brought the fork into her mouth. The pork was surprisingly un-greasy and the crisp texture of the breaded outside contrasting with the juicy meat inside blended with the tangy, vinegar-like syrup of the tonkatsu sauce. “This is amazing,” she said, in between chewing.

“I can’t wait for mine,” he said, eying every morsel of food on her plate.

“It’ll come out soon,” the chef said. He turned to Maya and gave her a little bow. “Enjoy the meal,” he said, winking and walked back to his station.

Judy’s warning rang through Maya’s head. She could hear Judy say, “I was right, what did I tell you?” Enjoy the meal, he said. Winked at that boy. “He’ll enjoy you after,” Judy would say. Maya felt sick. She put her fork down and felt queasy.

“Maya?” Hideo wore a pained expression on his face. “Are you okay?” He asked, putting his hand on her shoulder. She felt his grip tighten as he repeated his question.

Judy was right. She put her hands up to her mouth. Hideo let go of her shoulder as if he had gotten a shock.

“Why would I lie to you,” said Judy, standing behind Hideo. “I love you,” she said. She watched Judy walk around Hideo and stand between the two of them.

“Maya, you don’t look so good,” he said. “Maybe I should take you home.”

Judy pointed to Hideo. “He wants to take you home, Maya.” She pointed at the food. “Finish it.” Maya closed her eyes. “Finish the fucking food, Maya,” Judy screamed in her ear. Maya grabbed the fork and resumed eating again.

“What’s wrong,” Hideo asked. “If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t eat it.” He looked at her pale, sweating face. “Are you sick?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, she began to shovel tonkatsu in her mouth, as if to say she was enjoying the food, as if to say that the pace at which she was eating represented the amount of her satisfaction with the taste of the food, that the amount of food in her mouth at any moment in time demonstrated her affinity of the quality of the food. Maya looked for Judy standing behind the counter. She could see Judy nodding in approval and she could feel herself becoming satiated with every bite.

“You are a weird girl,” he mumbled.

Maya pretended not to hear him as she took another bite. They ate in subdued silence, as the clinking of forks, the soft sound of glass on finished wood; the hollow crashes of knives through fried meat, the buzz of nearby patrons, filled the empty void that stood above their heads.

*          *          *

Maya and Hideo stepped out into the sunless, dark sky. The stars were hidden, covered, blocked by the bright lights of the city. The moon was dim, its light, unable to light pathways, unable to contribute, now seemed to serve no purpose in the starless sky of Tokyo.

Hideo spoke first. “Can I walk you home?”

Maya looked at the pavement and its dark surface, where a single white line ran down the middle, parting it in two. She did not answer Hideo.

“Well,” he added, “so that you don’t get attacked like before.”

She looked at him. He could see that her sundress complemented her slender figure, and her jet-black hair ran down past her shoulders. Hideo took a step back. “It’s just a suggestion,” he said.

“I wasn’t attacked,” she said, as if remembering a distant memory.

“Then what happened?”

Maya turned her head towards the street to see Judy walking towards them. “I wasn’t attacked,” she said to Hideo. “It’s nothing like that at all.”

Confused, Hideo pressed Maya for an answer. “What do you mean?” He asked. “I heard you screaming at someone before.”

Maya felt something heavy press down her shoulders. “You heard wrong,” she said. “I wasn’t attacked.”

“But,” he began, but thought better of it and let go of the issue. “I’ll walk you home anyway.”

“Thank you.”

The two walked, led by Maya, to Meguro station.

*          *          *

Maya passed streetlamp after streetlamp, and felt as if she was being watched from between the cold darkness that eluded the reach of the light. Hideo walked next to her, hands in pockets. She could hear Judy say something about his silence. “He’s measuring the level of intimacy of this night.” She would say. “Look at him, he’s watching you from the corner of his eye, it’s disgusting.”

“Where are you headed?” Hideo asked, breaking the silence.

“Train station.”

“Your hotel isn’t around here?”

“Ginza.”

“I can’t believe you came all the way out here for food,” Hideo said, surprise in his voice.

“I needed to go somewhere, somewhere far away to get my mind off of things,” she said.

“I know what you mean.” He lit a cigarette. “I want to just go somewhere for a week or two and come back refreshed and new.”

They walked by a park and Maya asked if they could sit for a while.

“Sure, I’m not in a hurry,” Hideo said, blowing smoke out of his nose.

Maya sat down on a bench and crossed her legs. She watched the traffic beyond the park. The distant lights looked like orbs floating between the thickets of brush and towering trees. Hideo sat down next to her, cigarette in mouth, and offered Maya a cigarette, which she gingerly took.

“Interesting how there’s a park in the middle of all of this chaos,” he said.

Maya nodded and the high-rises beyond the trees, illuminated by distant white lights, offered a faint halo to the branches. The braking lights of cars reverberated throughout the air, and Maya could smell diesel as a breeze kissed her neck. A man and a woman jogged by Maya and Hideo, briefly casting a shadow on their faces. In between the shadows, Hideo’s face was illuminated by the angry-red, burning end of his cigarette.

“Need a light?” Hideo handed Maya a lighter and she brought it to her cigarette, lighting it after a couple of tries.

“My hands are slippery,” she said.

“So,” he said. “What brings you to Japan? Didn’t you say you were from America? I’ve been to New York once, it was just like Tokyo.”

Maya was silent.

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” he said.

From underneath the shrubbery, Maya could see furry tails moving lazily about. She clicked her tongue, to which two lean cats emerged, and she leaned over, waving her hand, signaling them to come to her. The cats looked her up and down, examining her hand from a distance. They cautiously sniffed the air and slowly walked to her open palm, where they rubbed their bodies over Maya’s hand. She scratched their heads and tore her eyes away from the cats to look for food in her purse. There was nothing. She was disappointed that she would not be able to see them eat. She looked to see where they had gone. The cats had moved on to Hideo, brushing their bodies against his legs, leaving traces of themselves behind in the form of white hairs stuck on his pants.

“They won’t starve, right?” She asked Hideo.

He looked down to see the cats sitting and watching them intently.

“I doubt it,” he said, unsure of their future. “People come here all the time to feed cats.”

The two cats, realizing that food was nowhere to be found, mewed at Maya and Hideo, and left their immediate presence, bounding back into the shrubbery, softly rustling the leaves.

Maya observed the brush for a few moments before opening her mouth to speak.

“I hope they don’t starve.”

“They’ll be okay.”

“It’s just,” she paused for a bit before resuming talking. “I know how it feels to go without food for a while.”

Hideo’s ears moved slightly.

“I mean, my family was never poor, but, after my mother died, my father was never around, and my sister was always sick.”

Hideo looked at the star-sparse sky.

Maya gave a little cough. ” I ran away from home.”

Maya looked at Hideo’s face. He moved to reciprocate her actions. Her eyes were dark, yet soft, subtly expressing undulating guilt, and a hint of regret.

“My sister, she’s all alone right now, and I’m here, selfishly looking for my real parents while she’s back home, dying.” Maya looked straight into Hideo’s eyes. “Am I a bad person, Hideo?”

Hideo was silent for a while, absorbing what Maya had said, attempting to discern whether she was a bad person or not, for leaving her sick sister behind.

“I don’t think I know you well enough to distinguish that,” he said.

“Distinguish?” Maya did not know that word.

“Yeah, decide.”

Maya nodded to let him know that she understood.

The two fell silent for a bit as the sky became darker, dulling the already faint stars. Hideo tossed his cigarette on to the ground, letting it burn itself out. Maya saw the embers flicker and finally die as the smoke dissipated in the cold night air.

“She didn’t like me very much,” Maya said. “I think, in a way, she thought I was her replacement. She was thrown off her, how would you say it, royal chair?”

“Throne.”

“Yes, throne. My mother spent a lot of time looking after me, and I guess over time, she became jealous and that became anger towards me. I wish she wasn’t so angry at me. Maybe then, just maybe, she would not be so sick. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking but, I can’t help but think that if I weren’t in her life, she would be better off. She wouldn’t be sick because of me.”

Maya thought of Judy’s body in bed, back in Ohio. Judy, consumed by a high fever, slept precariously on the edge of sleep and coma; her arms, thin and frail, penetrated by a variety of intravenous needles, lay almost lifeless beside her. Her shallow breathing, almost indiscernible without close inspection, hinted at her still-alive figure. Maya thought of when Judy had whispered into Maya’s ear, “Fuck off,” and spit on her face. That was the last time Maya had seen Judy.

“Sometimes, I wish that I had never been adopted by my mother. I wonder, ‘What if I had never been put into an orphanage?’ I guess that’s why I’m here. To find out why.” Maya dropped the half-smoked cigarette on the ground and stepped on it.

“Do you know where you were born?”

“No, I never had the chance to ask my mother. She died before I had the courage to ask, and my father, he disappeared soon after.”

“So you’re here with no direction, nothing to work with.”

“I left in such a hurry, I didn’t pause to think about anything. I wanted to leave Ohio. I wanted to leave my sister. Now, I feel like I’ve done something awful.”

“You’ve killed me.” Judy’s voice rang in her head. “You left me for dead. You’re a murderer.”

“I can’t help but think I’ve killed my sister for leaving her behind,” Maya said, bringing her hands to her face.

“Is she in the hospital?”

“No, she’s back at home,” she said.

“Is there a nurse?”

Maya shook her head.

Hideo was silent.

“Have you tried calling home?”

“No, the phone lines are cut.” Maya spoke as if she had ice on the tip of her tongue.

Hideo took out another cigarette and lit it. He inhaled the tobacco and exhaled grey smoke.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?”

“For what you’re going through right now.”

“I’m sorry too,” she said.

Maya thought of her sister.

“Maybe I should go back.”

“Home?”

“Back home, yes.”

“Maybe. But aren’t you here right now?” Hideo said.

Maya nodded. “I’m just regretting leaving her at home. I don’t know what to do.”

“Is she really sick?”

“She’s dying.”

“I’m dead,” Judy said. “All because of you.”

“She’s dead because of me,” Maya corrected herself.

“How do you know that? You shouldn’t say stuff like that.”

Judy’s voice meandered through Maya’s ears. “You left me; how could you do that? No one loved me, not even mother; she threw me aside for you, and now you’ve done the same. You left me for dead when I need you the most.”

Ignoring her voice, Maya took Hideo’s hand and examined it. Her eyes followed his arms up to his face and she could see that he was embarrassed and surprised. Judy, I deserve this. She leaned in and kissed his lips. She felt him tense up, but he gave in to her and she thought she heard someone stifle a cry.

Maya looked away, blushing, and pretending to fix her dress. Hideo cleared his throat and turned his gaze towards Maya.

“Do you want to come to my place?” He asked.

Maya suppressed a smile.

“For coffee,” he added.

“Is it original coffee?” She asked.

“Original coffee?”

“Nevermind.”

“So is that a yes?”

“Yes.”

Maya took Hideo by the hand and stood up to leave.

Profile: Michael Koh
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“sometimes when I see people eating alone I want to sit down next to them” (part 4) by Michael Koh

The doors opened to a brightly lit station, immaculate as Shinbashi, perhaps even more so, and Maya stepped out on to tiled flooring laid out parallel to one another, achieving the sensation of fervent orderliness. Yellow lines accentuated the floor to give passengers a sense of movement towards the entrance and exit. Maya followed the line and ended up outside of the station, where she noticed an advertisement for “the best tonkatsu in town.” She stood by the entrance, deciphering the language, wondering which way it was to the restaurant. A loud voice behind her caught her attention.

“I just want to make sure that you turned the T.V. off.”

A heavy set man lumbered past her, as a small device was pressed to his ear, and stopped to wiped the sweat from his neck with a handkerchief.

“No, listen, if no one is watching it, turn it off. What do you mean you like the sound in the background… Speak up; I can’t hear you. Stop wasting electricity and turn it off. What? I pay the bills, you don’t. Go get a job then. Did you make dinner yet? Okay, okay, good. I’ll see you soon. Hello? You want what? Ordinary coffee? What the hell is that? Why don’t you just ask for coffee? What? Okay, goodbye. I love you too.” He placed the phone into his pocket. “Dumbass,” he muttered, and sauntered away.

Maya, amused at the one-way conversation she had heard, wondered what ordinary coffee meant. She remembered drinking weak, bland coffee at a cafe in Ohio and Judy complaining that her drink was too cold. Maya remembered reminding Judy that she ordered iced coffee, and that it was supposed to be cold. Judy made a face at Maya. The memory ended with the two of them smiling at one another. Maya was hit with a heavy longing for her sister, a familiar face within the welcoming facade of Japanese society, but she stood alone, her cardigan wrapped loose around her body. Emptiness slashed at the walls of her stomach. Maya was drowning in a crippling wave of hunger. Forgetting about her wanting of familiarity, she focused her attention on her starving self and looked for a sign, a landmark, a building, anything that would hint at Maya’s location. She scanned the area, decoding the words one by one, until she saw a road sign depicting directions to a highway. The arrows pointed west and east. She turned westward and crossed the street.

Maya smelled faint, but the distinct scent of fried food. Her mouth watered and her stomach reminded her how hungry she was. Skyscrapers towered over her as she made her way to the restaurant. She looked back at the station, to remember what it looked like, only to notice a 17-story building in place of the train station from where she had exited. The stylistically simple building reminded her of the hospital in downtown Columbus. The sharp angles gave way to a towering glass panel, reflecting the city lights proving only to exacerbate the lack of ornaments on the building. Lost in the mesmerizing minimalism of the building, Maya temporarily forgot her hunger, and felt a longing for her room, the familiar pale white paint of the walls, her pillow, the solitary desk, and a single light hanging from the ceiling. She remembered the dimly-lit stairwell, leading down to the sparsely furnished den, the faint smell of breakfast still lingering in the air, the smudge on the carpet from Judy spilling a bottle of paint, and thought of her sister, who would have reprimanded her about the apathetic attitudes of the Japanese.  Maya could hear her voice in her ear. She turned away, hoping to leave the nostalgia behind, only to find a familiar face stand before her.

“Judy,” Maya exclaimed.

“Are you lost?” Judy asked.

“What are you doing here?”

“Are you lost,” she asked again.

“What? No, I’m not; are you okay?”

“What did I tell you before? Be aware. Are you aware right now?”

“Judy?”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

Judy’s face replaced the faces of the crowd. The faces asked Maya the same question in unison. She reached for Judy, but she swiped at air. People stared at Maya and some of them pointed at her. She could hear them ask questions amongst themselves in Japanese.

“Mommy, is she an actor?”

“You mean an actress.”

“Yes, actress.”

Maya turned away from the crowd and walked around a corner, away from their view. She could hear them talk about her.

“People even talk shit about you here,” Judy said.

Maya ignored her.

“Do you want to know what they’re saying?”

Maya looked at Judy. Judy was smiling. She felt anxious. “What?”

“They’re wondering if you’re fucking nuts.” Judy laughed.

“Stop it, stop doing this to me,” Maya said.

Judy looked Maya in the eyes. “Stop what? Is this not enjoyable?”

“No, I didn’t do anything. No, go away. Please, stop.” Maya fell to her knees and buried her face in her hands. “I didn’t do anything Judy, why are you doing this to me?”

Judy watched her. “You’re pathetic, I hope you know that.”

“No, I’m not,” Maya shouted. She picked up a rock and threw it at Judy. The rock sailed past Judy’s head and landed harmlessly on concrete.

“No one’s here for you. No one.” Judy said as a silhouette figure approached Maya.

“Hey,” the figure shouted in Japanese. “Are you alright?”

Maya looked up at the silhouette and tried to stand up. A man ran over from across the street.

“Here, let me help you,” he said, lending a hand.

“Thank you,” Maya said.

“Did someone hurt you?” He asked.

She shook her head as she grabbed his hand. He pulled her up and Maya looked down to see her knees bleeding.

“Are you sure?” He asked.

“I am alright,” she said, and let go of his hands, embarrassed.

He asked the same question again, as if Maya would answer him in a different way. She repeated herself.

“Listen, if you want, I can call the police for you,” he said.

“No, it’s fine. Really.”

“Where are you going? Maybe I can escort you so you don’t get attacked.”

Maya didn’t answer and brushed at her knees in an attempt to clear dirt from her nascent wound. Judy whispered in her ear.

“He just wants to sleep with you. Just look at how he’s looking at you. He wants to run his dirty hands over your dirty body. You’re just a whore, a fucking -”

Maya swatted at the air as if to clear away flies from her head. She looked at the man who looked at her knees, now streaked with blood. The man offered her a handkerchief. It was white and with a picture of a duck on one corner, facing east.

“Here,” he said. “Use it, I have another one in my pocket.”

She took it and dabbed at her hands and her knees. She looked at him occasionally as she was cleaning blood off of her legs. He had short hair dyed blonde, glasses, sharp chin, effeminate shoulders, relatively thin body, long arms complimenting his long legs. His mellow eyes met hers and he put his hands in his pockets.

“Oh,” he said. “I’m Hideo.”

“Don’t tell him your name,” Judy whispered into her ear.

Ignoring Judy, she thanked him. “I’m Maya,” she said.

“Maya?” Hideo looked confused. “Where are you from?”

She patted her dress and placed the handkerchief into her bag. She hesitated before answering. “America,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“America? Really, I thought you were Japanese,” he said with a smile. “When did you get here? You speak pretty good Japanese for a foreigner.” He scratched his head.

Maya flinched at his words. Foreigner. “I was born here,” she started. “I was adopted by my new parents in America.” She kicked at a pebble on the ground.

“Have you met your parents – your Japanese parents?”

Maya shook her head. “I’ve never met them. In fact,” she put a finger to her lips. “I’ve never seen a picture of them.”

“What a shame, Japanese parents are the best,” he said, and laughed. “I’m just kidding, I hated being home. My father, he was a pretty mean bastard. Beat me every chance he got.”

Maya’s eyes widened and apologized for his experience.

“You really do sound Japanese,” Hideo joked.

Maya laughed.

“Hey,” he pointed to a restaurant nearby. “Have you been there? I’ve had their tonkatsu and it’s pretty good. You know what a tonkatsu is, don’t you?”

Maya looked at the direction he pointed at and realized he was pointing to Tonki’s. She began laughing, to which Hideo, self-conscious of his opinion backed off.

“It’s not that great, we can go somewhere else if you want,” he said.

“No, no,” she said, wiping her brows. “It’s okay, I was actually heading there. I’ve heard they have the best tonkatsu in town.”

Hideo’s chest swelled at her comment. “They do,” he exclaimed. “They have the best. I go there every chance I get. I know the guys who work there; they’re great.” He saw Maya’s smiling face and realized his overzealous excitement.

“Let’s go,” she said, and they, together, walked to the tonkatsu restaurant. They turned the corner where Maya had first seen Judy. The crowd had dispersed, but Maya felt wary and nervous, fearing that someone might recognize her. Fortunately, no one did.

“I heard you shouting before I turned the corner,” Hideo said. “I got to you as fast as I could.” He turned to look at Maya.

“Thank you,” she said.

“I just wish I had gotten there sooner,” his eyes strayed to her knees. “Then maybe your knees wouldn’t be as cut up.”

Maya smiled.

“You look nice when you smile,” he said.

“What did I tell you,” Judy said. Maya could feel Judy grabbing on to her forearms. “He wants to take you home.”

“Fuck,” Maya said.

“What?” Hideo stopped walking. He looked at her intensely.

Maya too, stopped walking. She stared at the ground and was silent for a moment. “I think I stepped on a puddle,” she lied, raising her foot to pretend-inspect it.

“You should watch where you’re going.”

The two resumed walking and Hideo pointed to puddles and potholes to help Maya avoid stepping in one, not realizing that her shoes were completely dry to begin with.

Hideo began whistling and Maya listened to the tune.

“Do you know this song?” He asked.

Maya shook her head.

Hideo stopped to let a bicycle pass them. The bicycle receded into the maze of pedestrians. He pointed to a building to his right.

“Look over there,” he said.

A low building, two stories high, met Maya’s eyes, and the building, emanating a delicious smell, seemed to welcome her, enticing her body, her mind, and she walked towards the building, leaving Hideo behind.

“Hey, wait up,” he shouted, and ran after her.

Profile: Michael Koh
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“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.

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“sometimes when I see people eating alone I want to sit down next to them” (part 2) by Michael Koh

The sun colored the sky rosy pink as crowds waited to cross the intersection below the hotel. Maya heard the distant sound of cars honking, eleven floors down from where she was. Still groggy from the plane ride, Maya tried to stretch but felt the blanket wrapped around her. She unfurled herself, sat up, rubbed her eyes and looked around the room to find the sun lighting the room a vivid mixture of orange and red. The light lit up her bed, and it was as if Maya was engulfed in flames. She leaned over the edge of the bed to grab her suitcase and glanced at the clock on the bedside table. 5:15. She placed the suitcase in front of her to open it. As she placed her hands on the lock, her vision darkened, replacing the bright colors of the room with a single black entity. Maya pressed her fingers on her temples to attempt to restore her eyesight. She felt her insides tighten as panic rose deep from the recesses of her mind, prompting her to stumble into the bathroom and retch into the toilet. She collapsed on to her knees and began a series of breathing exercises she had seen on an early morning television program a number of years ago. 1, 2, 3, 4… she counted and felt marginally better, enough to the point where she was able to stand up without her vision darkening. She went and sat back on the bed, her extremities feeling numb. Her fingers and toes felt especially cold and her head, heavy. Maya scanned the room for her cardigan, where she had left the all-too familiar orange bottle in its pocket. She reached for her cardigan on the floor, held it in the air to fish for the bottle, and felt the hard plastic weasel its way into her hand. Maya removed it and threw her cardigan back on the floor. She angled the bottle perpendicular to her outstretched palm, on which a green and white pill fell out, landing on the palm without much noise. She brought her hand to her lips, placed the pill on her tongue, and swallowed it without difficulty. Still feeling numb, she decided to lie down, and stared out the window. The calm and beautiful sky vibrant, juxtaposed with the busy, grey, disorienting crowded city landscape saturated her view as she was bathed with a soothing sensation trickling from the nape of her neck, down her spine, and out to her arms and legs. Maya sighed in relief and reached for her cardigan to put the bottle away. She got up from the bed and walked to the bathroom, where she looked at herself in the mirror and ran her hands through her hair, deciding she needed to shower. Maya ran the water, adjusting the faucets until it was just near scalding and took her clothes off, socks first, underwear last, scattering them in the direction of the bathtub.

*          *          *

Bathed by the cold, constant blue light of the television, Maya felt a sharp pain in her stomach followed by a loud growl. She felt her face blush and instinctively looked around although no one was there. Maya, embarrassed because she was embarrassed that her stomach had growled, and particularly because she looked around as if she was in public, realized that she had not eaten since midway across the Pacific, where they gave her wilted salad and a soggy turkey sandwich. She remembered playing around with the food, contemplating whether to eat it or not, but ended up forcing it down with a juice box and a little bit of vodka on the side. After the meal, she felt nauseous and sat motionless for the remainder of the trip, her seat reclined to a pseudo-supine position. Pushing that memory aside, she counted back the hours and realized this was almost a day ago. Maya slowly stood up as she held on to the bedside table for support, feeling hunger eating away at her insides, and looked for her bag, where she put away a map of Tokyo in preparation for occasions such as this. Maya found her bag next to the leather chair by the large window where she sat earlier in the day reciting conversational Japanese. She reached for it, took out the map, and spread it out on the floor where she amused herself wondering about where she should eat as her eyes followed roads around the city.

She followed the Hibiya Line, starting from the nearest subway station from the hotel down over and across Tokyo prefecture. South of Tokyo, her eyes lingered on Meguro station, remembering that someone on the Internet had suggested she try Tonki, rumored to have the best tonkatsu in all of Japan. Maya remembered she had a plateful of it back in Ohio, at a Japanese-Korean restaurant with her friends. She had thought it delicious. Her stomach growled at the thought of tonkatsu, a dish of breaded pork, fried in oil, served crisp, cut into thin slices, topped with usuta sosu – essentially thick Worcestershire sauce – and a side of rice and shredded cabbage. She rummaged through her bag for her wallet and saw to it that she had enough money for her trip to Meguro, a trip that would take about half an hour and another to get back home. Maya wrote down the stations she would need to get on or off the subway and the streets she needed to take to get Tonki’s famous tonkatsu. She glanced at the time. 6:30. She left her place on the floor to get dressed. The sunset carpeted the room a fiery pink, and Maya, inspired by the colors, decided to wear a flowing orange and white sundress and her dark blue cardigan, just in case she got cold. Maya felt lightheaded and decided to drink some water before she left for dinner.

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“sometimes when I see people eating alone I want to sit down next to them” (part 1) by Michael Koh

Maya looked down at the crowd waiting for the signal to change. She sipped on her canned coffee from a vending machine not too far from her hotel room. The crowd began to move, a shift en masse, from both sides of the avenue. Maya traced the unfamiliar Japanese letters on the can with her index finger. The two swarms crashed in the middle of the road; a temporary obstruction in space; a violent gathering of sentient yet sedated beings all culminating into a giant mass, passing through one another, every single being within the crowd passing through life. Maya thought of two galaxies colliding together, two separate clouds of tear gas joining at the close, hands coming together, and she tried to discern faces within the crowd, but from her position, they were all faceless. She mindlessly gazed at the neon signs blinking on and off, oblivious of the midday sun, until a knock on the door brought her thoughts back, back to the eleventh floor of the Courtyard Hotel, in the heart of Tokyo. Startled, she tiptoed over to the door and peered out the peephole to see a distorted, cartoonlike face enter her view. His eyes and nose were far too wide to be considered normal. His forehead took up half of the portrait and his lips were disproportionately small, finished off by his almost nonexistent chin. Maya wondered what her sister, if she were here, would have done. She imagined Judy laughing out loud at the man as she hid her face from having been embarrassed. Judy would have pretended to speak Japanese to offend him, leaving her to deal with the situation. Maya massaged the side of her head, as if chasing a headache away. The man knocked on the door again. She unlocked the latches, but left the chain on.

“Can I help you?” Maya asked through the door in Japanese. She saw him pick up something from the floor.

“Maya Crisare?”

Curious, Maya opened the door only to see the concierge standing with her bags. He bowed.

“Ohaiyo-gozaimasu,” said the concierge. “Welcome to Japan.” His thick Japanese accent toyed with the American accent Maya had been used to hearing all her life. The way he pronounced “to” sounded like “tzu”.

“Arigato-gozaimasu,” said Maya, bowing slightly. “Put the bags over there,” she said, pointing to the table by the window.

The concierge smiled, nodding, as if he understood and placed her bags beside the bed. “Have a great stay,” he said, bowing as he moved across the room, closing the door, and disappearing silently behind the perfectly cut thick, rectangular wood.

Maya felt overwhelmed at the social etiquette and politeness exercised by the Japanese. She was a bit taken aback to see smiles everywhere when she had disembarked from her plane. Stewardesses bowed, the pilot bowed, and even security guards bowed as she walked to the arrivals gate. The taxi driver had even refused a tip, remarking, “tips are meant for brothels.” She recalled the taxi doors opening and closing on their own, controlled by a remote on the dashboard by the driver. She had made a remark about the efficiency and technological facilitation present in Japanese culture. The driver had raised his eyebrows at her comment and questioned Maya’s background, to which she immediately changed topics.

Maya looked at the closed door, wondering if the concierge, now probably at the elevators, felt the same way about tips the way the taxi driver had expressed before. Maya noticed the pristine white canvas that surrounded her and forgetting about the concierge, moved to the middle of the room where she looked up at the whiteness of the ceiling, raised her arms and fell backwards on the bed. Maya closed her eyes and felt fatigue wash over her body. She half-dreamt of her real parents and what she would do when she met them, but awoke startled, when her legs jerked from sleep. She had always felt angry at her parents for putting her in an orphanage, and especially at her foster parents, who in turn grew tired of Maya’s reluctance of becoming a scholastically astute student and her run ins with the police. Her sister, Judy, asked her one afternoon why she was making life difficult for herself to which Maya shrugged and said, “I just wanted to be like everyone else,” explaining, to be like everyone else, she needed to do more to close the gap between her and her peers. “Go back to where you came from,” Judy said indignant at her response, and hit Maya across the face, leaving a cut just below Maya’s left eye. Judy called Maya an idiot and that she was tired of having to get her from the police station, and that maybe it was time for her to leave. “My mother should have never adopted you,” she yelled at Maya. “It’s your fault she’s dead.”

Maya rolled the blanket over her and instead, immersed herself in the pleasant sensation of staying awake while falling asleep. She felt herself lurch forward as sleep gradually enveloped her conscious brain. Her eyes rolled back, briefly exposing white underside of the sclera. With each breath, her beating heart slowed to preserve her metabolism. Maya fell asleep, arms supporting her head, the blanket rolled around her, the whiteness of the room momentarily forgotten.

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