The Lance of Achilles

The apartment shakes; I can’t immediately tell if it’s another earthquake, or if the downstairs neighbor is running her manically energetic washing machine again. I lie perfectly still, limbs pressed close to my body, preferring to remain immobile amid the jostling of the sheets rather than prepare for the worst. Later, I’ll wonder at the idiocy of that: remaining in a certain mood rather than reacting to imminent danger. Fortunately, after a few seconds, the shaking comes to a sudden stop, and I get up and move to the kitchen; I put the kettle on and examine the state of my nails as the water boils. In the background, NPR plays stories about algae farming, the opium epidemic, and election recounts in Palm Beach, Florida.

Strawberry is at work, and my head aches. I focus on everything, and nothing. I cook elaborate recipes involving seasonally-appropriate vegetables, French sauces, and spices sourced from the burning tropics. Caramelizing onions requires just enough focus that it keeps the mind engaged while still pacifying me like a meditative trance. I think of myself escaping to an astral plane, wooden spoon still in hand, wading knee-deep through the shallows of a world adjacent to our own. Moving farther and farther into the absolute darkness, with my everyday life still preserved behind me, visible through a sheet of cloudy, trembling glass.

We spend 36 hours in Northern Kyoto. The mountains in November are painted in washes of plush, prodigal green, splashed with varying shades of yellowing orange, from apricot to amber. The foliage, its colors dispersed throughout the forest in mottled patches, reminds me of the fur of a tortoiseshell cat. I think of this cat, massive and languorous, extended lazily over the natural landscape like the feline protagonist of a creation myth. Just imagine that cosmology: a fanged predator camouflaged between sea and clouds, ready to swallow the Earth whole, Cronos-style. Imagine venturing outside at night as she stretches, and mistaking her movement for the wind on the mountain, and her reflective eyes for stars and streetlights.

We encounter a spectacular maple, positioned in front of a temple for maximum effect. Its leaves are an uncommon red; too yellow-toned for a crimson, too neon to be blood-red. I smile awkwardly for the camera. I imagine myself later, scrolling through the stream of photos with an inevitable combination of love and disgust for my body immortalized through image, immersed in that wave of confused, eerie melancholy that floods the heart when I look at my face and don’t recognize myself. I feel that wave at other times, too; for instance, I feel it while navigating the digital trove of my writings, that chest of textual keepsakes suspended and preserved in the immortal fluid of the Internet. Intimately identifiable to me, but also hideously foreign, because it was created by an iteration of Emma that no longer exists. I click through Tumblr, Twitter, and other horsemen. My presence on the web, filtered through the prism of social media, feels scattered, desperate, and needy, but also sincere, lucid, and magical. Diaristic entries of the thoughtful and thoughtless varieties. Dialectic cocooned within 140 characters. Soulless, but occasionally soulful, shitposting. The Emma of 201X surprises, horrifies, and enchants. She is utterly pathetic. Oftentimes I believe she does not deserve to live. My cursor hovers, tantalizingly, over the garnet-red “delete” buttons at the corner of every post. But eventually I let her go. 201X Emma is a freak of nature. She is a lamb of God.

Angel with a Destructive Personality

The circular grab handles on the Kyoto rail are made of glazed, lemon-yellow plastic; they hang from thick, sturdy fabric straps of the same color. I watch them sway back and forth with the movement of the train, like burnished, distracted leaves caught in the gentle stirring of an incoming storm.

Next to me, Strawberry sighs audibly. Between us, our relationship comes to life as an emergent property of our combined feelings; I imagine it suddenly externalized as a ring of citrine, like one of the train grab handles, dangled within my reach by a god of love and melodrama. “Take it,” he calls fervently, and the ring, as though suspended on an invisible string held by this god, shakes violently with enthusiasm.

I look up at the train’s ceiling; dark, forest green metal buckled together with fist-sized rivets, but curved like the inside of a church. The observation spirals, and a religion begins inside the train car. A statue of David shrouded in the the red, blue, and yellow of the route maps. A priest in a school uniform, playing Tetris on a cracked, gold Apple product. The gospel ringing out as we approach the station. Joan of Arc, dissolute, and drunk as a skunk. Lambs, leopards, and other sacrificial animals sitting mutely in the fetid, plush seats. I look back at the ring hung between me and Strawberry. Is it a flotation device, or an eject button?

It’s nighttime when we pull into the last stop. The laminated plastic is peeling at the corners of my train card, which I finger obsessively in my pocket. Outside, I am seized by a vision of summer in the depths of this autumn as tears well in Strawberry’s eyes. The yellow ring has followed us from the train, and it bobs expectantly in the air behind him, inside my line of vision. The temptation to curl a fist around it and yank it down reaches its apex. To be lifted up and carried away like a soul at the end point of a linear cosmology. The great escape. The ultimate fate. Instead, I fold up like a dried flower, and place myself in his arms. The righteousness of this decision I will never know; but at least, it is healing.

The House of Being

What’s most striking about the campus is that its buildings are tremendously, fascinatingly ugly. My new favorite activity is walking along the main promenade, red backpack in tow, and taking it all in, leisurely, comfortably, like I’m wandering through a museum of the grotesque. Muted black steeples and clouded cement blocks densely veined with moisture damage. Off-white tiles lining the indoor walls and flooring. Carpeted elevators. Flat roofs unattractively combined with harsh angles. There’s a touch of Brutalist chic in the squat, rectangular, dark brick structures that are distinguished from one another not by name, but by number.

Thankfully, I’ve always been the type to enjoy ugliness; mismatched clothes, uncoordinated colors. But even if I wasn’t, the campus would be fully redeemed in my eyes by the fleet of cypress trees that shroud the area in an immense, touchable green. The tiny nubs of moss threaded through softened bark. Opalescent pools of rainwater like scattered mirrors of divination. The sky through the trees, dotted with constellations of sea green leaves. Tropical rain thudding against the dome of a hastily borrowed umbrella. The dusky shadow cast by my body onto damp, verdant tree trunks, moving to a rhythm dictated by nature.

I read a headline recently about the several degree rise in temperature the planet will experience by the end of this century. I don’t know how to deal with my existence, and therefore my participation, however innocent and involuntary, in this plot to kill and consume Gaia. But, if I am as ashamed I claim, it’s a million times worse to pay lip service by admitting the guilt without committing to action. I find myself discussing how every form of being is a form of violence, and in vain I look for a way to live like a pacifist. And yet, there can be no such thing as a peaceful Anthropocene. To examine the solution to the damage I’ve inflicted on the Earth is to also, necessarily, to envision a world without me in it.

No and Yes

On my way to the train station, I drag an olive green duffel bag through the red light district of Kabukicho. I haven’t slept in nearly three days, and the street scene moves past me at a speed both fast and slow. Today, memories of that morning come to me in chunks. The light of the incoming dawn. Pooling in the gutters, urine like goldenrod. Rainbow-colored dunes of garbage. Departing club-goers in lustrous, jewel-toned wigs. Sensory experience frothing and glittering, like sea foam lapping at the heart, as I watched the sun crest, like a crown of yellow diamonds, over the mountains.

On my way to school, an unexpected rain alights upon my bare shoulders, and my emotions swell to colossal size. A blue and ruby rush of clouds start their prowl, and in their presence the whole of the landscape takes in a shuddering breath. A thing wild, and secretive, this rain. It falls like snow, and clings to my clothes in delicate individual droplets. Its touch is not a true embrace, but its airy precursor, and thick with the anticipation of a sensual downpour. In this weather, my body too has become an artifact of passion. I imagine myself as a sword hidden in a chest. A rusted blade. A scabbard of silver thread. Imagine the stillness of the temple where I lay, shrouded in vines with velvet-like blooms.

On my way to the door to answer the sudden ringing of the bell, time stills as I button my blouse, make myself presentable, and then buckles hard under the pressure of a rapidly forking forever. My minds travels to the people I adore, across dark cliffs and cherry red deserts, to the thyme and lavender bushes of a childhood street. My mother lighting a candle. Alexander, asleep. Strawberry by the ocean, the soles of his feet skimming the water. Every bit of real love I know will meet its end, someday. It takes everything in me to hold that pain against me, like an infant animal with its rosy eyes half-closed, and then set it gently aside. Imagine waiting all spring in fear for a message from faraway, only to forget it, and then find it unexpectedly on your doorstep, unassuming but unmistakable, and cradled by moonlight.

Big Cat

Strawberries are transitioning out of the supermarket displays, being replaced by watermelon, the more summertime-appropriate fruit. It’s June; plump clouds crowd the sky, butterflies fly in and out of glassy curtains of rain. Half of this year has already disappeared into the mirage. I will be leaving my current job in two months, and going back to school in the fall.

This future is something leonine. Powerfully attractive, shimmering provocatively against the amber of a setting sun, but still forbidding in its stature, and capable of a great terror. When I cannot sleep, I imagine what would happen if a lion were suddenly teleported into my apartment in the nighttime. Stolen away from the red and tangerine dream of the plains, its knee-high sea of honey and cherry-colored grass, and plunged into the shadow of my bedroom. A 200-kilogram king of beasts versus a twenty-four year-old and a scruffy polyester rabbit.

On the phone, my mother tells me that I’m not “una cría” anymore. Una cría: a cub, a foal. I imagine a young wolf awakening in a den, and sleepily emerging into a pool of moonlight. The night and the forest moving to encompass her in their mossy, fecund odor. Her longing visible in the exhalation of her breath. Her eyes conspicuous as bloodstains against the dusky fur of her broad, gently tapered head. I think of her glancing around slowly, pawing at the soft peaty ground, before then padding forward, and disappearing soundlessly into the unmarked darkness between the trees.

In my neighborhood, there is no shortage of strikingly beautiful stray cats. They are well-fed by local retirees, and if they suffer injury during the course of their lives, their silken pelts and clear eyes reveal nothing of this. I bicycle past a white cat, its back turned to me, sitting motionless underneath the train tracks. To experience a day in this cat’s eyes. To disappear under fences and through foliage. To race down a hill carpeted in flowers. To join the 24-karat covenant with the birds, the bees, and nature in summer. To be led only by desire. To be somewhere else.

Low Tide

In the middle of the day, carried away by a wave of drowsiness, Strawberry falls asleep wearing his sweatpants and white undershirt. There’s a pillow arranged around his face to shield his eyes from the sunlight splashing over his chest. It’s difficult to describe what happens when I glance over at his sleeping form. Let’s just say: My mind registers his presence and is swept off into the ocean.

The cherries are blooming in Japan, a two-week event which alters the tenor of life across the islands as millions awaken to petals unfurling in one continuous wave. When the blossoms eventually do come apart, disassembled by the wind, they erupt over the roads in a manner not quite like snowfall, but something isomorphic to it. At times, the results can be spectacular. On one particularly memorable occasion, we drive straight into a gust of petals. The mountains adjacent to us appear almost a pixelation of mottled green, cinnamon-brown, and bursts of pink.

To celebrate my birthday, Strawberry and I do dinner and movie in Kyoto. The flowering cherry trees under the full moon are the visual equivalent of a song you can dance to: sultry, magnetic, but with a tang of sweetness that makes repeated tasting palatable. The movie ends right before midnight, and we have to sprint through the Gion district to make the last train. My skirt is hiked up around my thighs so my legs can move unobstructed. The soles of my sneakers strike the pavement like blows. Running like this reminds of how much I rely on my body, and on its trillion interacting parts. Eyes blinking in the darkness of night. The tension between muscle, bone, and tendons. Nerves aflame. Oxygen suspended in the blood. My hands, held against my sides and balled into fists.

In the mornings, we make coffee so thick and so strong that it reminds me of the Spanish hot chocolate of my childhood. Among other things, Strawberry has converted me to the worship of brewed coffee, and as a lifelong tea drinker I am less abashed by this than expected. Maybe adulthood starts when you begin to seriously configure your identity based on your beverage of choice. (This is tongue-in-cheek. Mostly.) Though he’s agreeable to most Japanese traditions, Strawberry has always been averse to tea ceremony, conducted with finely powdered green tea. He tells me, in his shy, charming way, that he thinks ceremonial matcha tastes like seawater (“like when the tide is low.”) It’s a comparison that would never have occurred to me. I imagine getting up from the bed, opening the door to his second-floor apartment, and feeling the froth of gentle, verdant waves lap against my ankles. A seabird carving a slow, wide arc over the surface of the water. Not quite holy ground, but something isomorphic to it.

Nikujaga, or Aphrodite

I write when I’m pain mostly because writing is what cools the pain. It does not cure nor resolve it, but it does cool it; it brings its temperature down into the world of the bearable. But the unintentional result of writing-as-healing, repeated over the course of years, is that the posts on this blog are, in their majority, sad to the point of histrionics. This August, “Conscience Round” will be ten years old. I began writing here when I was fourteen, an age that can be forgiven for sentimentality, but I will readily confess that, even as I’ve aged, I’ve never lost that taste for unpalatable, indigestible melodrama. I will confess too something most of us know already: writing about the bad is usually more fun, and somehow easier, than writing about the good.

But the map is not the territory. I don’t want to reach my twenty-fourth birthday in possession of an online diary that is textual misery. I promise, there’s plenty about life that I enjoy. Really. For instance, not too long ago I fell in love with Olympic figure skating, and especially, specifically, in the nature of physical strength and physical beauty. How a single movement can be a hybrid of that which is strenuous, and that which is sensuous. It was not so long ago that I practiced martial arts and felt that same energy enter my body as I crouched into fighting stance, and I remember, with the same tenderness that one recalls a first love, how immediately explosive, charismatic, and powerful just that motion could make me feel. I have decided to reform my now sedentary living habits, and maybe build up to a standard of athleticism that would permit me to comfortably practice karate again. I have bought a bicycle, which is still lacking a name (I’m debating between “Aphrodite” and “Nikujaga,” a Japanese meal of beef and potatoes) but which has expanded my radius of exploration several kilometers in every direction. The countryside to the north is dominated by inclines and traditionally-constructed houses veiled in bamboo and cypress. My calves ache as I crest the hills, and I’m suddenly aware of how blood moves underneath my skin, its speed and sound.

I’ve been trying to rediscover my love for fiction, both the consumption and production of it. It’s been years now since I wrote a story, but last night I dreamed of a thick, dusty manuscript which could be mine. What a tragedy it would be, if I gave up that dream entirely. I’m doing my best to reconnect with the muscle in me that commands the urge to write; if that sounds as esoteric as holy communion, know that the ghost of God and the writer’s muse are never far apart. I’ve started reading fantasy novels again, which return to me the three relics of childhood: imagination, curiosity, and the instinct for adventure. I had almost forgotten the pleasures of a magical playground, which lies outside human realms but is still familiar enough that I can reenact the theater of human emotions there. There’s something so fulfilling in rejoining its vision now. While I suspect I’ll never return to writing pure fantasy, I think I’ll always gravitate towards stories that contain its elements, and resurrect its flavor and mood. Threads of gossamer, dragon scales, spells of healing. A heroine’s journey. The soft gray mist around a castle moat, the last of three trials. A sorceress in a grove of willows, turning to face an approaching visitor.

I’ve taken to listening to music from the cheesy, indulgent 2000’s, and it transports me, for at least a brief moment, through the fine mesh strainer of youthful, gem-flecked optimism. Nostalgia is almost the sister of romance in how thoroughly and universally she bewitches. I’ve also been exploring music as an art form that warrants response; I’ve never been a sophisticated or scholarly listener of music, but I love reading critical reviews of performances and albums. The literature of music is peppered with fascinatingly textured onomatopoeia and technical language that manages to convey, with startling specificity, the ethos and engine of a song. When a writer can ground the experience of sound in a relatable world, but still leave a degree of the mysterious, the mystical, what was once abstract takes on a second life in the text.

I know this has been a meandering laundry list of what I love, but I’ll finish soon, and I’ll leave you with something important. The last month of winter is rupturing over the Japanese landscape. I’m a voyeur to its departure, which despite representing an end to the season, feels like triumphant performance by nature. Snowflakes collect in my hair during sudden daytime storms. I walk through the neighborhood wearing a checkered scarf bought for me by my father. The cold wind feels like something supernatural. Slowly poking through the trees, spring arrives in bashful, pink-plum blooms, like a bruise spreading through the forests. The world is changing like a mind in transition. Gradually, but powerfully. Eventually, I will wake up one morning to find the view from my window totally transformed.

A Bouquet of Spoiled Fruit

At the discount supermarket beside the station, a mounted television screen plays the video of Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic on repeat. A shopping basket made of peach-colored plastic looped around my elbow, I pause to contemplate the image for a moment. A 90’s Mariah in red velvet plays in snow while I watch her almost twenty years later, on a dark Saturday afternoon in suburban Tokyo. There’s something about this instant: shopping for groceries by myself, a girl in tennis shoes with no weekend plans and no future goals, that feels like a revelation midwifed by loneliness. I buy toilet paper, oranges from Ehime, and instant miso soup containing dehydrated pork and a foil packet of monosodium glutamate. As I’m leaving, I suddenly hear and feel thunder, so close and so physical my mind leaps from my body. It takes me a second to recognize that the sound is not coming from outside, but from the thudding of bowling balls against the synthetic wood lanes of the alley on the second floor above the supermarket.

Lately, out of a desire to occupy my thoughts with something other than fear, I’ve been reading the books left on my living room shelf by previous tenants. At least one left behind required reading from an art history course, a fact revealed by the content of the texts: The thoughts of W.H. Auden, the letters of Van Gogh, and several dense analyses on art itself. On the train into Tokyo, I read thinkpieces about the purpose of art, the nature of its operations, and the effect of its manipulations on the mind and the emotions. I am not sure if I can comment meaningfully on such pieces without engaging with, and thus succumbing to, their trap: that any one person can dissect the feeling of feeling.

The feeling of feeling. If I overthink this, I start to panic. Perhaps panic isn’t the right word; “unravel” might be a better one. A human in a human world, I know I feel every animal sensation: disgust, hunger, pain. What does it feel like to feel the loftier, cortical emotions? I have never been sure I understand love, spirituality, or art, which may be the three vertices that make up the geometry of truly higher-order apes.

Across from me in the subway car sits a young man in heeled boots, an alpaca wool shawl in blue, red, and mustard, and a silver necklace with a flat, round pendant, in the style of a saint’s medallion. I think of an illustrator friend, and how her descriptions were submerged in the language of art, suggesting an alternate way of seeing: a woman’s head “shaped like a hot air balloon,” the skin on the cheek shaded in “pinky-purple.” I try to recast the young man in her eyes and come up with a poor, but honest, imitation of her vision: uncommon colors, unusual lighting. A prophet from the era of fast fashion, scrolling through a chat screen. Though I’ve long since lost touch with my artist friend, in these instances, her mode of perception still manages to echo through my mind. It comforts me to finally understand that she, like every individual to enter and momentarily wander through my life, has sewn a thread through me that can never fray thin. A drop of rain always remembers the ocean from whence it came.

In the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, I watch as Strawberry witnesses snowfall for the first time. On the eighth floor of a department store, he pulls out his phone to film the snow coming down on the unremarkable street below. His movements as he walks along the window, gently angling the camera to capture the fullest extent of the scenery below, are full of a natural, breathless tenderness, like the beats of a winged insect settling on a flower. We play outside in the snow, and, with total absorption and entirely no embarrassment, he builds a tiny snowman with mouse ears made from dry leaves. I am reminded of the undisguised rapture of childhood games, but filtered through a new layer of adult consciousness. The wind feels like it could pick me up from off the ground. Snow, piled up against the curbs, glows like a halo. The day progresses into soft blue and golden apricot, littered by an arc of reflective clouds.

The Surrender

Walking home at night, alone in a suburban neighborhood, I am seized by something that could be a fugue state, clinical depression, or Byronic infatuation with a mood of dark, plummy blue. Potentially, probably, a simultaneous blending of all three. It’s barely past six in the afternoon, but the sun set hours ago; the cul-de-sacs parting from the main road are soaked through in nighttime, and occupied solely by ornamental plants and silver-plated bicycles propped up against fences. Once in a blue moon, I spot a young man in a suit, briefcase in hand, or the sweeping headlights of a minivan circling the gardens that will be mute until spring. But mostly I am fiercely conscious of being alone. In this isolation, I draw comfort from the small things that will accompany my body in perpetuity: the sensation of my winter coat around me, brushing against the backs of my knees, the sound of my breath and footsteps on the gravel. Beside a driveway, a Christmas tree glows faintly.

On the last turn before home, I spot something I’ve never seen on this commute before. A few feet to my left, a rectangular hole lies deep in the ground, enclosed by tall wire fencing on all sides. It is easily fifteen feet across, as many deep, and paved in concrete. My heart leaps in confusion, and for a moment I stand in the glassy pause between the end of peace and the beginning of horror. I feel like I am standing in front a painting depicting an act of extreme bloodshed, or watching a video on loop of lions feasting after the kill. But soon enough my vision adjusts to the darkness, and my rational brain kicks in, and I recognize, with a breath of relief, what I am looking at: the community pool, emptied in preparation for the winter. There’s the ladder extending into the shadows of the deep end, and posters with red-lettered warnings about the dangers of jumping. In the cool night, with the wind softly shaking trees that shed their fragile crescent leaves into the pool bottom, it looks so misplaced. Like an entrance to another world, too hastily camouflaged to be perfectly disguised.

Felix Culpa

Strawberry comments that Japanese chashu ramen tastes like a pig sty, and immediately I understand what he means: there’s something delectable, but undeniably disgusting, about the braised, slimy pork belly suspended alongside billows of flavored oil and shoestring noodles, in a slow-boiled broth that is fatty, sticky, and as richly gold as saturated urine.

I am nonetheless glad he makes the pig sty comment after we’ve finished our meal and are sitting lazily on the restaurant floor cushions. While he serves us both lukewarm water from a textured plastic jug on the low tabletop, my mind goes to a farmstead swathed in amber ears of corn, the porcine mewling coming from the muted red barn in the corner of “American Gothic.” I think about the scatological, the vulgar embedded in human lifestyle: underarm sweat trapped underneath my nylon rain jacket, pig lard emulsified in soup.

Outside, the first typhoon of the season announces its approach. We walk to the station in a rain like dust falling. I think of how cinematic this time of year can be: the leaves like August’s sarcophagus, the sudden darkness collapsing upon afternoons at five o’clock, a final, blazing amen from the fall. If I were a girl in a movie, this is where I’d rely on film-making’s deftness to produce feeling: the arrangement of a piano-heavy score, each note like velvet, coinciding with our steps against the pavement, the panning over the fragrant, lushly orange landscape. Cutting a take the way a gardener might labor over a delicately manicured hothouse flower.

Even when I find that the beauty created by the fine articulations of directorial input feels a touch too manufactured, I still am in love with it. Hopelessly, indulgently, and totally. For better or worse, I am a devoted patron of the manufacture of emotion. It’s the affectation encased in the part of me that wishes the replay of my first kiss came with artfully curated music, a shot of my face shrouded in airbrushed moonlight. Maybe the violins emerging in crescendo.

But kisses are, in fact, much more delectable, and infinitely more disgusting. The tongue trembling in your mouth. Sweat, glossy and acrid, building above the Cupid’s bow. The fleshiness of lips, slightly sweet and tender, like horse meat. Absolutely obscene. And that’s not even getting into the amount of saliva involved. But, truthfully, there may be nothing better than kissing in the mortal realm.