この世、あの世

In the gray light of very early evening, the cherry blossoms along the river glow like clusters of tiny moons. A brisk, unseasonably cold wind hums pleasantly through the street. Its voice mingles with the rumbling of cars and the pitter-patter of soft rain, generating a misty, muffled soundscape that feels like standing with toes in the ocean. A half-dozen private security guards stand, in plastic raincoats, at each intersection. One holds a posterboard encouraging would-be flower-gazers to return home.

We walk to Tokyo Tower, a smaller Eiffel Tower-style monument painted in vivid neon red-orange, now surpassed in popularity by many taller, newer, more glamorous buildings. A few people wander idly around the entrance, but I don’t see anyone cross the silver cylinders of the ticket turnstile. Tokyo Tower weeps soundlessly. A vermillion has-been, tucked into a nondescript office district, nestled inconsequentially into the dense sprawl. It’s east to be lost here. Tokyo is formed, like an insect’s gem-colored, segmented eye, into a million corners, blind alleys, broken-down storefronts, rooms seeking tenants, concrete bridges, glittering skyscapers, bustling avenues, cavernous sewers, and secretive, dark-doored basement bars. Anonymity is a staple of identity. Living alone, you can go years yearning for company, without knowing that, just around the corner, not twenty feet away, a man makes the most delicious coffee and the most engaging conversation in all of Tokyo.

A few subway stops from Tokyo Tower, we ascend three flights of stairs to a temple complex. A elderly cat sits on a step, so completely still I am not initially sure if it’s a real animal. A wounded koi fish, gouged flesh protruding like foam from a cut along its back, swims briskly through dark water freckled with lily pads. The temple is located dizzingly high above the road below; I look down the steep steeps, lined in stone lanterns, my pulse shooting through my body in a flood of vertigo. Below us, Tokyo unfolds, the ultimate in urban ugliness. Reinforced concrete, glass, asphalt, and steel: the four twisting strands of its DNA. Daylight seems to bring out the absolute worst in the city’s features: heat-exuding four-laned roads, frantic intersections, blocky, glass-walled department stores, squareish buildings clothed in endless banner ads.

A paradise of commerce, a den of inaccessible subculture, a froth of traditional symbolism, 90’s holdovers, and cyberpunk aspirations. It’s strange to think that Tokyo is where I will have spent the bulk of my twenties. It’s not my home, per se, but it is where I cycle through sleep, dream, wakefulness, and where I live out the days from within my catalog of moods. Each day starts out the same way. I open my eyes in a four-story apartment building at the base of a concrete hill, located by the hip of a canal that snakes through the city before draining into the glassy waters of Tokyo Bay. I open the curtains onto my skinny street, where even small cars manage to skim my sleeves as they inch past. Chunky telephone cables thread the air above, like strands loosed from a tapestry. Crows hop from roof to roof. A few hours after dawn, they swoop down, yelling as vociferously as roosters, their pebble-like eyes catching and scattering the light like cheap rhinestones. When I leave the apartment, I notice where the flowers have fallen and gathered on the dimples in the sidewalk, in depressions leading to the storm drains. Their tiny pink thumbprints studding, for a few more days, Tokyo’s vast, intricate urban body. As the hours pass, the edges of their petals yellow, like old newsprint.

Eggs of Leda

I brush out my braid and rip apart the plastic packaging of a pregnancy test. Plum blossoms grow in scattered patterns of pinky purple along the dark, twisted, mottled branches of the tree outside. I sweat, in chalice-shaped patches, onto the torso and sleeves of my polyester shirt. The dye on the test runs suggestively flame-red, but the oracular square that contains my fate is empty. The relief feels like passion; it overwhelms my mind, bowls me over, saturates my mouth and chest like a fistful of sugar cubes. No part of me wants motherhood, or the maroon-tinted, lab-made prediction of motherhood, or the dreamy possibility of it — not even a little bit. Why? All the usual reasons apply here, plus a few of my own, informed by troubled relationships to family, body, and self. Do I want to be convinced otherwise? Not at this time. I don’t object to feeling differently in the future, but I will resist every attempt to reject my present views simply because they don’t align with the desires of others.

Is it wrong to say that I like life (mostly), but I wouldn’t wish it on another? Living a human life is as pleasurable as a blood draw; distressing, eye-averting, but when the results arrive I read them avidly, contemplatively. Every year, I open another red envelope and receive another revelation. Sometimes, the revelations are howlingly sad. Other times, they are like a splash of coral-pink flowers growing along the split between sidewalk and gutter. Neither type of missive is enough to cancel out the other, but they have allowed me to acquire a range of tastes: bitter disappointment, cloying joy and love, rancid terror, chalky grief. Life is something I have come to tolerate. Via exposure therapy, the tolerance might one day morph into hesitant affection.

My geneaology is freckled with cancerous seeds of indulgent, paralyzing melancholy, and I know perfectly well that I’ve grown into that worldview, the way a daughter might inherit her mother’s body, clothes, and mood. I’ve grown into a woman who is cheerfully sad. Don’t think I haven’t considered how that affects my choices. After all, the only comfort in overthinking is the chance to indulge in the power of honest self-reflection, self-flagellation.

Did I have a bad childhood? Did I read too many maudlin books at too young an age? Was I seduced by nihilism before the age of reason? No, yes, maybe. Don’t I want to feel the total, all-encompassing, love-with-abandon that a mother feels for her offspring? Not necessarily. Aren’t I afraid of being alone in my old age? Of course. Can’t I admit to that fear without fearing judgment? Don’t I want to experience all life has to offer? Definitely not. Life has a lot of evil to offer. Good fortune is rare, but pain is everywhere. There are many belief systems that twist that pain into something worth beholding, like rending an old rag into ribbons, and that idolize pain as necessary, prized, intrinsic to meaning. I understand why these beliefs exist, even if I don’t share them. All I know is that pain is everywhere. In the water, on land, and in the recesses of my body, clotted into flesh and bloody discharge. I can’t protect anyone from it.

Death of the Blogger

My workplace is about an hour from home on foot. As the day swivels into evening, I button up my jacket and exit the building, my hands jammed in my pockets. My thoughts pour from my mind and drain away into the frigid air. The sky is blue-black and dotted with wispy clouds, like white splotches on frayed denim. Cowgirl pants, I think dreamily. I imagine riding a horse through Tokyo streets; the pink neon of nearby signs reflecting off a sleek, dark equine coat.

Midway through February, another year of web hosting for Conscience Round comes due. I have held onto this domain for thirteen years now. As an online diary, Conscience Round has proven to be arable land, though not always fertile. Mostly, it has helped to keep myself accountable to both myself and my desire to write. I didn’t start with the expectation or hope of readership, though I do treasure the handful of emails from readers who have come upon the blog serendipitously, spontaneously, after plugging in a few keywords (a tender offering from a once-upon-a-time generously-optimized search engine).

In 2008, I was a young teenager mesmerized by the huge expanse of the Web. The ready availability of minds and their words, rendered onto the digital canvas, made me feel like I lived in the Age of Discovery. Now, my impression is that old-school blogging has been largely replaced by monetizable spaces, where any hobby, interest, or cottage industry can be strip-mined for readership. My language there is prickly, but I truly don’t take issue with this new world; I’m resigned to the inevitability of change, and I don’t begrudge the instinct to head to greener pastures. And, anyway, the Web is still so vast that I suspect old-school blogging does remain, somewhere, in some nostalgic, tree-lined corner. The fact that I haven’t found it is not proof that it doesn’t exist.

But these transformations in the blogosphere do mean that I have reason to get existential with this blog. Every year, I toy with the idea of ending it all; I can’t really justify the luxury of paying for server space and a unique domain name for such a tiny, tiny blog, though inertia and sunk cost fallacy feel like enough to prop it up. Come February 1st, I stare at the invoice from my hosting provider and wonder idly: Why do I keep this site up? Why do I continue to post? What do I hope to gain?

This blog has been an anchor, a good luck charm, and a scrapbook of times heartless, tender, depressive, joyful, cruel, loving. I only very rarely show it to others; I’ve always liked that only strangers come upon it. Just recently, after nearly five years of dating, I showed Strawberry a post and he said reading it was like “being in another body.” I was surprised at how much I understood; writing and reading really are like experiencing another body. Running, breathing, expelling; all from within another body. An escape, a confession, a conjuring. That’s enough reason for Conscience Round to exist; because it helps me write, and sometimes writing is the only way I can take in a deep breath.

Flood the Rubicon

Winter approaches like a hook angling through cloudy water. But the temperature stays just tepid enough that the leaves can keep their grip on the branches, resisting that final, funereal change. They move in the trees like a whirling, upturned skirt of orange, coral, and amber, and I almost believe they’ll outlast the snow. When they finally fall to the ground, they do it in style: A yellow ginkgo leaf pirouetting slowly from the top of a thirty-foot tree. A troop of a hundred leaves rushing through the street, clinging to the bite of the breeze as one plural form. Leaves shimmering like gems, clogging the stream. Leaves cupping flowers, both slowly greying together. It feels not like decay, but like defiance.

Set adrift by the conclusion of my graduate program and the collapse of my vision of the near-future, I feel feral. I wish to grow wings, scales, claws. I fantasize about vanishing. I watch reviews of videogames in which protagonists inhabit the Wyoming woods, the Alaskan tundra, the outermost reaches of deep space, dense, richly rendered billion-pixels worlds. I begin to take Strawberry’s wilder ideas more seriously. He’s the type to dream profoundly, naively, earnestly. Let’s travel the Pacific on a fixer-upper, he says, and I picture myself yelling into a squall, a thick braided rope tied around my waist, hair slicked down by unbroken sheets of rain. Let’s live on a mountaintop, he says, and I picture him carrying a bundle of lumber up a tree-lined incline, the copper in his beard catching the early morning sunlight, pausing to exhale deeply into frigid air. When I shoot these ideas down, which I must do, it’s not without a pang of longing.

What can the future hold? I wish I could know if my life must be lived within a set of possibilities and if so, how much power I hold over the levers. It’s a desire motivated not by a belief in determinism but by pure fear, because I don’t want to hope for more than what I can achieve. I can’t explain why this is. I’m not afraid of hard work, disappointment, or rejection. I’m not afraid of an ordinary life. The cynic in me, who hates heartbreak, reminds me that storms at sea and mountain lodges likely won’t be in the cards. Evading the banality of everyday pain and high-diving into escapism seems laughable, implausible, gauchely Hollywood. But I find myself feeling jealous of Strawberry’s ability to dream with no restraints. I find myself wanting to protect that starry-eyed inclination from the sting of pragmatism. When I look for jobs, it’s always distractedly. I sit at my desk and stare at the wall as though a portal might open there. I’m waiting for a miracle to happen. I’m looking for that sudden, out-of-the-blue change that will set me on a different course.

「人間は恋と革命のために生れて来たのだ」

I wake from dreamless, cloudless, uninterrupted, nourishing sleep. My brain feels like a freshly swept room. The neurons threaded like purple silk strands through my mind hum pleasantly, soothingly, each synapse on beat with my footfall on the hardwood, the rainfall out the window, the fireball blazing across a face on the diamond eye of the universe, visible from Tokyo in the last week of November.

The burnished, blushing sun makes its exit off the stage. The seasons change. The pattern breaks. Blistered leaves, stripping wind, cloud cover. The dark orange coat my father bought me returns to the closet.

I come into the kitchen to find Strawberry has bought flowers on a whim. In the beige milk jug that serves as an ersatz vase, the bouquet leans heavily to one side, tied up with twine. Is this a desire for spring made manifest, I wonder idly, carding my fingers through the big tufts of bulbous green fuzz, the reedy, soft-touch stems, the microscopically small, starlike yellow blooms, the dazzling burgundy flowers with petals like intricate pleats, folded onto and into one another over and over, the thumb-sized red chalices shaped like artichoke hearts, their heads bowed, the drooping leaves, the thick strip of white buds curved like a scythe, a waxing crescent.

As I touch, one of the tiny yellow flowers drops off. In the center of the palm of my hand, it rests like a thorn. I bring it up to my face to peer inside: at that scale, the smallest details take up the whole of my vision, becoming vaguely unrecognizable, unreal. My fingernail grazes the edge of a petal and the stigma and ovule pop out easily, immediately, as though spring-loaded. The petals crumple and disintegrate. The shape collapses entirely. I arrange the pieces on my desk into a circle, a line; in this condition, what was once a flower could now be anything.

Peace of Mind

A typhoon approaches. Its outer rain bands encircle western Japan, bathing the city of Tokyo for 72 hours in constant, irrepressible rain. At three in the morning, I am awoken by the sound of water gurgling loudly in the drain outside.

Sun for two straight weeks. Working from home in a groundfloor apartment shrouded by trees, I don’t see the light at all until I step outside to run errands. Then, it’s a pure revelation of breezy, gold fantasy: the sunshine pouring out and drenching my senses in warm, hearty waves.

I dream of forests, which I so rarely encounter in my life in a city of tar, concrete, and muddy cement. I go up forty floors in a tower in Ebisu to see the city draped over the land. A labyrinthe of silky-smooth billboards, skinny alleys, and oyster gray high-rises, gleaming like seashells in the sun. The trains snaking through the zippered tracks. The horizon, a magnet for the eye. The mountains, under a crowd of clouds, standing watch.

My attention slips off focus like rain off a flat surface. I work hard to do only the “good” things: I stay off social media, I read more books, I eliminate fructose from my diet, I try to force my mind into healthy patterns. Still, everything about me resists. Desire fractures my willpower, and the ensuing shame splits my motivation down the middle, like a kitchen knife through a perfectly round orange. The fibrous, fleshy veins part and juice beads onto my fingers. Nihilism, gestated not by real philosophical exploration but from maladjusted personal pain, takes control, and I tell myself that it doesn’t matter what I do. The cosmic deck is stacked against me, the stars have fallen out of alignment and into disarray, and other such self-serving rationalizing pretenses. But ever a devil’s advocate, I cannot tell myself anything without immediately flipping to the counterargument. The problem sits in the palm of my hands like a multi-colored puzzle cube, and I analyze every side despondently. What’s so wrong, I think, with spending an afternoon on a website, or wiling away the hours by exploring the richly rendered heaven of a videogame? What’s so wrong with pushing away my responsibilities for thirty minutes, with occasionally ignoring my Pomodoro timer? What’s so wrong with polishing off a box of cognac filled bonbons, and staring at the stripped garden past my window, cradled by the soapy, oil-slick light coming through the dirty panes and slipping onto the grimy sofa, lost in my own cloudy, spiralling mood?

But then again: how transgressive can it be to just have my own way? I think, for the millionth time, about Le Guin’s Omelas, and I sink, for the millionth time, into the horror of knowing I live at Omelas’ sweet center, where I can indulge my arrogance by obsessing idly over my flaws, where I can enjoy luxury, and the cloying desire for more luxury, frivolously, foolishly. Meanwhile, sustaining my life continues to cripple the world entire. My existence makes me complicit in an ample, blue-maroon ocean of horrors, in which each pearl-shaped drop of water captures an instant of grotesque, baffling, extraordinary suffering. Suddenly, the needs of the one are subsumed by reality as a hyper-beastial Omelas is revealed, and I want to rip into my own self-importance, my own voluminous ego, with an animal’s teeth.

It’s painful to know that I am important to my family, my friends, my partner, because these relationships, and the small amounts of good I try to do within them, allow me, perversely, to justify the harms my life–its incidentals, its petalling aftereffects, slung thousands of miles away by an innocent Zephyr–inflicts on others faraway.

Inevitably, I become despondent at the thought of causing pain, and so, in some cynical attempt to resolve the unresolvable, I hurt myself (not physically, unless the mind is a physical thing, which–maybe). I do the things I said I wouldn’t. I relapse into self-loathing and I lounge in it, as though neck-high in filthy bathwater. What good does it do? Nothing. What wound does it heal? None. Do I forgive myself for this? Never. But when I snap out of it, the pieces of my mind fold back into one another, hiding a new scar in their paper-thin creases, and I get back up, because I have to keep moving through the day. The rain and the sun, I know, are interlocked, cyclical, pair-bonded. Both will come again and again. The forest opens. We go there, my mind and I, together.

Softcore Sad

The life of a lie can last a millisecond or a million years. The life of a lie can belong to a pauper or a prince. In the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, the lie is about extreme moneymaking, personal prosperity, individuality, brokering power, cheating death, and the meaning of freedom.

In me, several lies exist at once. They blink in and out of existence, being replaced by other lies, or truths, or semi-truths in quick succession, like droplets entering and exiting a storm system as it moves and changes form. In this way, a woman can be an assortment of beliefs and expectations, not always fair, nor always true, sometimes crude, but usually diligently assembled, like a story from long ago, unearthed and remembered with passionate fidelity.

When I wake up and run through the checklist that is my body flowering into consciousness, I ask myself how I feel today and the answer tumbles out clumsily, hesitatingly, like a bear, newly emerged from hibernation, plodding into a burning forest: I’m OK today. I look at my hands, turn them over and back as though controlling my body remotely, and adopt the depersonalized authority of the second-person plural: You’re OK, you’re OK. I look into the void and find not emptiness, but a reflective surface. The Emma in the mirror smiles back sadly.

I’m not entirely in control of my own life. I never have been; a million forces shape me. Like a heather gray pebble on the shore, I am one of very many. Pounded by the surf, scattered by the wind, I can do nothing but make the best of my place, and try to remember my good fortune. Like a raindrop blending into a flooded field, I bleed resolutely, irrevocably, on my path to the drainage ditch, and then through the sewer, and then to the open sea.

Iphigenia in pieces

On my way home from graduation, I brake too abruptly at a stoplight, causing the front tire on my bicycle to turn and skid. Something in the weave of reality contorts too far and snaps, and I tip over onto the asphalt. My right thigh takes most of the impact, and two nights later, like a foregrounded flower in a darkroom as it sinks into a tepid bath of photo-developing liquid, a purple-yellow bruise appears, sudden, complete, and firmly fixed. My elbow and hand, painfully abraded, leak wet patches of blood onto my clothes. Taking in weak, shallow breaths, I make a point of not looking at my wounds as I push the bicycle the rest of the way home.

The mornings are cooler now. When I wake up, Strawberry has left the warm moka pot on the countertop, still half-full with dark, soupy, silty coffee. I change my band-aids and listen to the American news from the other side of the ocean. The headlines–vivid, heady, satanically sad–drift past me like a chunky crowd of sleepy, slo-mo arrows. Sometimes, as I prepare breakfast, an arrow splits off from the mass and, finding me off-guard, pierces me deeply. Hearing, for example, the story of a woman separated from her dementia-afflicted mother, unable to see her in the flesh, unable to stop the flow of her forgetfulness through the laggy connection of a Zoom call, was enough to knock the breath out of me. I clutch the cutting board, fingering the soggy, droopy, flimsy wood until I can force down that blue, leaden lump of secondhand sadness stuck in my throat. Afterwards, I feel angry at myself. I am filled with horror at myself. My emotions are low, lousy, suffered only briefly, felt only cheaply compared to the nighttime river in spate of that daughter’s pain. The worst possible kind of voyeurism.

The bruise fades irregularly. The yellow goes first, but a mangled smattering of dark red splatters remain for days. Disaffected, estranged, I examine at my leg and the bloodied quilt made by a dozen veins splitting open. I am meat and bones. I am fat tissues and frayed keratin. It fascinates me: how my body heals itself, mindlessly, devotedly. Even though there’s always a scar left behind, I am charmed by the earnest attempt by bubbly platelets, stretchy collagen, and fighter cells, to turn the page, soften the blow, and keep me going. A humble, calloused vessel that, though continually emptied, fills and refills itself with warm blood and green breath, trying again to renew, recover, reawaken, and, when that proves impossible, to simply stay alive.

The Nightmare

Summer has edges that feel so defined. The horizon looks like a chiseled corner fold; a thin gold-green edge balancing against forget-me-not blue. I close my eyes and imagine that we live inside a handmade paper dodecahedron, its faces cutting into the atmosphere, scarring the sky in vertical stripes. I imagine that, if I reach for a cloud, I can trace its limits, isolate the blurriness from the substrate, and pull it clean from the sky like a puffy, 3-D sticker.

I remember being a kindergartner on my way home from school, flipping through my collection of sparkly, textured stickers with Titanic’s Rose and Jack printed on them, gingerly sealing and unsealing them from wax paper to share with the girl sitting across the aisle. Now, I do much of the same, in both smaller and grander ways. I collect beliefs, sources of faith and despair, strategically located wounds, and affix them to the walls of my psyche like glistening, overwrought posters of flowers, blood, and crying models in an adolescent bedroom.

In the pantheon that lives in the dodecahedron of my mind, there is no greater god than the one glued to the ceiling, a woman I glare at nightly while resisting sleep. She looks down at me, many-armed, many-eyed, curly-haired, wearing a crown of thorny red, blue, and yellow blooms. I try to pull her down, tear her into pieces, but I can’t reach high enough to strip her from the surface of my own mind. So we stare in silence at each other, deadlocked, constant, like the moon and Earth, like lion and canary, like heaven and hell, like sickness and health, like sense and absence.

In the Shadow of the Rain

On her way to collect a secondhand bedside table from a Craigslist user, Emma looks up at the sky above Setagaya to find the most beautiful cloud in memory. A mass of corpulent, slow-moving, baby pink sweetness, it hovers in the center of the firmament like a nude Renaissance courtier pillowed in rose-colored velvet, or a bulbous mountain of huge, bruised, tumbling peaches. Caught halfway into a crosswalk, she stops and stares spellbound until a car horn yelps at her and she jumps, half-bows in apology, and hurries over to the other side. The buildings immediately eclipse her view of the cloud, and she puts it out of mind, turning instead to the vibrating, navy blue arrow on her phone screen orienting her towards Setagaya 1-chome.

There is an awkward exchange of greetings and the Craigslist user–a young woman much like Emma–unceremoniously presents her with the little bedside table, made of flimsy plywood and seafoam-green fabric and just light enough, Emma thinks, to carry back to the station. However, having seriously overestimated both her strength and her stamina, she is forced to stop a few times on her return, huffing and puffing under the street lights that are now blinking on. She ducks into a drugstore, bedside table and all, to buy a bottle of sour-tasting, violet-colored sports drink, and chugs it in the shade of the store’s awning.

Even in the evening, summer is woundingly hot, and her undershirt sticks to her skin as closely and as suffocatingly as glossy protective shrink-wrapping. Around her, commuters are walking the last mile home, and the air buzzes with snippets of phone calls and crows cawing. She wipes her mouth and tucks the bottle into her bag. As she looks about her, she spots the cloud again. It feels closer now, somehow, as well as larger and more beautiful. Dominating the darkening sky, it moves, serenely, entrancingly, like a carnation-pink whale swimming in the bluest waters. Emma smiles, saturated in the feeling of wonder that only the natural world’s sudden, unexpected pleasures can provide.

She goes to pick up the dresser again but, as she heaves it up into her arms, she notices something strange and new. An alleyway spirals perpendicularly from the main road where she stands, and, at its end, a soft, strange light flickers. Maybe it’s the cloud, its cool-toned shadow casting far into her mind, leaving her drunken, mystified, sopoforic, and all too eager to participate in the world’s hidden secrets, but she is instantly, overwhelming fascinated. She quickly tucks the chest of drawers against the wall of a nearby apartment building where it can remain temporarily undisturbed, and sets out to investigate the source of the light.

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