Time horizon

A gulf yawns between the past and the future. Supposedly, this space is meant to be filled with the present, but I’m not confident I know what this means nor entails. A wide view of the present contains yesterday, today, and tomorrow. A narrower view contains only a single fleeting, blistered millisecond: the now. The now is capricious. Sometimes she hovers above and below me, a current of gilded roses, rippling forward and saturating my perspective in optimistic golden tones. But at other times she is brattier and less eager to please, sticking to my soles and palms like dark, rapidly solidifying lava and pulling me deep into the Earth’s soft, burning-hot mantle. Either way, the now cannot be trusted, though irrevocably I am swept up into its deviousness, which has the same effect on me as impossible, fantastical dreaming.

I am always trying to pierce the waves of shifting transitions. I am always looking for the anchor that reaches from my heart (located so perilously in the now) into the securest version of the future. But I look at my life and can’t detect where now and present become past and future. Instead, I feel like I am swimming at the mouth of a river, unable to comprehend where I am located in the stream, and unable to see how to get out the sea.

I’m repeatedly told to “plan for your future” but, at what point, in “the future,” will I know the planning is done? When I try to settle on a personal deadline, the time horizon in my mind moves and smears like dragging a hand through a still-wet stripe of thick oil paint. There will always be something yet to plan, and something yet to decide. Past and future disappear, replaced by a constantly vacillating, wounding present.

I walk past the shuttered nature conservatory, the empty coffee shop, the quiet, sunlit park, and take two trains to campus, where I discover that the school library has been closed to avoid the spread of disease. On my way back home, I wait on the platform and stand underneath the Japan Rail digital announcement panel. In oddly spaced, blinking green 8-bit letters, the panel reminds me to wash my hands, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. Later, I read online that “for the time being,” public facilities will remain closed. Two weeks later, my brother flees his college dorm and returns home, to a country that closes its land borders only days after his arrival. A sense of dread shoulders into my apartment and watches as I line the walls of my kitchen cabinet with canned red kidney beans, “just in case.” My father texts me to tell me he isn’t busy during the day anymore, which is his way of asking me to call to check up on him. I think of the fish in its struggle to reach the sea, its scales like gold coins, surfacing, belly-up, on the shores of the river delta. The future immediately twisted into nothing as the present eats itself.

Tokyo gold rush

I often say that life in Tokyo is fantastically lonely. That description isn’t fully accurate; for one, I should really specify “my life,” to avoid immediate objections regarding generalization. I should also qualify the use of “lonely,” which, despite the aura of negative connotations, deserves, in my mind, a long-awaited re-branding. When I flesh out the world of loneliness, my mind moves to empty parking lots, tightly-packed library aisles, trees bathed in shade. Tiny treasures found on midnight excursions. Sometimes, this world is inhabited by others: strangers, friends. Lovers, too. Loneliness is possible in the company of the many. I imagine living as an android, interfacing with real, full-blooded humans without knowledge of their supremacy, as though they were a museum display of glittering objects. I turn inwards, like a night-blooming flower faced with sunlight.

I struggle to word this issue of loneliness without falling deeply into alternating pools of narcissism and self-pity. “What does ‘a pool of narcissism’ look like? Glad you asked: I imagine it to be perfectly circular, as though inscribed upon the Earth with an art compass. The surface is littered in wax lilies in impossible colors. Their fragrance is vaguely fungal, cadaverous, and clings to the air like a swipe of oily residue on a dirty pan. The pool of self-pity, in contrast, smells divine. Alcoholic on the palate, even; like a sweet, nutty cognac. To consistently avoid both traps requires more patience, maturity, and thoughtfulness than I think I will ever possess.

But back to loneliness. This is the ultimate banal leitmotif, but at my loneliest, I see most clearly. I think of my own life, totally unremarkable in the cosmic sense of things, weaved into a period of human history that is sensationally sad, powerfully narcotized, and desperately hopeful. Here sit I, on a grassy knoll on the periphery, caught in a microcosm of personal dysfunction.

How to abide the limp truths of mortal living, which render us fragile, transient, and easily submerged in dark sands of time. How to sustain the memories of every past hurt, every present joy, every future aspiration for myself, for you, for humans, as a biological whole and concept, all nonhuman life, dogwood flowers, millennial pink salmon fish, shiny lavender acrylic rhinestones, 23 billion chickens, pale green jade peeled from the riverbed, starving beasts, bloodied jaguars, domesticated tabby cats, houseplants. How to artfully curate an aesthetic of deep, constant loneliness. How to embrace that sweet swell of affection that you feel for yourself at your weakest. The colors of passion on the palette as I crest the hill and notice the cherries in hypnotically early bloom. The buckling of the knees. Taking the elevator to the top of a seaside viewing tower and gauging, out of simple-minded, morbid curiosity, the impact of a fall. How to exorcise the instinct to mash and tenderize my mind with every bad feeling. How to withstand the pressure to be better than the worst I’ve ever been.

I think of it all, walking alone to the station as I have almost every day for two years. I feel my emotions rise feverishly, then fade. Hunger, thunder, envy, neediness, all filling that negative space between reality and expectation. The loneliness I hold too close to my heart. The funny part is that I’ve never been this secure and well-loved in my entire life. I have my health and my happiness; they sit like two perfect peaches in each of my outstretched palms. It’s easily how confident I feel in this love that allows my loneliness to be so thoughtlessly self-indulgent. Like a young poet in a Hollywood production, or a nymph gazing at a sailor from a supersized aquamarine clam shell, I delight in channeling melodrama from a place of safety. This is the earnest, foolish, dramatic, complicated pain that has accompanied me all throughout my early twenties.

Yearn tonight

In a near-empty library, I sit at a computer and type away, smacking at the keyboard as though breaking a fast. I’m listening to an ambient music album recommended to me this morning by my brother, who now lives almost 11,000 kilometers away in an arboreal industrial city. The music has cracked something inside me. I feel re-energized, but also, importantly, depressurized; the urge to write is here again, but it hovers behind me gently, peacefully, uncritically, and I am able to write freely and shamelessly, without the need to compulsively self-edit at every turn.

Lately I’ve realized that all I want out of life is the ability to exercise flexibility in thought. That is, I want to observe with an eye that knows precision and humility, that can search for angles other than the one immediately presented. I want to speak with a mind that is malleable, soft, but diamond-tough. I want to comprehend the multitude and richness of what is possible without losing sight of specificity, locality, and exactitude. What I want, I fear, is not within my capacity: This is a statement made not out of self-deprecation nor self-loathing but intimate understanding.

If my desires had a physical manifestation, they would arrive into the world in the shape of a fat, bulbous virus. It would live inside my body and attach itself to the cells of my heart, lungs, and brain. It would play me like a virtuoso slaughters the piano. Meanwhile, I would write everything that has resided for years, like a sticky, ancient splatter on the stove, in my imagination. It would be ideal if I could channel this energy into an explosion of output but I find my motivation comes in irregular fits and bursts, while desire bubbles, a kettle brimming with blood, just underneath. The end result is like being submerged in a constantly mounting crisis; a wave that climbs into the air, higher and higher and higher, but never breaks onto the shore.

I walk outside to have something to do. I waste time so stupidly, so luxuriously. I get older. I become a vessel of constant, irrepressible sensation. I scroll through a newsfeed that will generate material forever, but bring me no closer to truth or absolution. I turn to another channel, or another YouTube video. I feel my attention span being drawn away and filled, until it is as distended and misshapen as a sponge dropped into water. The album my brother recommended continues to play in the background, with occasional silences punctuating the end of one song and the beginning of another.

The Fisher Princess

At about half-past nine in the evening, a red-orange square appears over the lake. It ripples against the water like a vast impermeable sheet, or the reflection of a bloodied, disfigured moon. The square itself is invisible from the dirt path, but Maxine, bicycling back to camp, immediately notices its light, which appears as a wash of color that bathes the dark treeline in orange. Her body reacts before her mind does, and she clamps down hard on the hand brakes, skidding to a halt.

Her weight shifts, and one foot comes down to rest against the path. Between the dense boughs of pine, Maxine watches as the bright red-orange light flickers, intensifying and deepening in color. Her eyes track the color as it projects itself, a wave of dark orange, onto first the dusty path, then the front bicycle wheel, and her old sneakers. The effect reminds her of Venetian blinds against a window, blocking the rich sunlight and scattering it into bars against the floor. For a moment, she is convinced she’s lost track of time somehow and passed out on a bed of pine needles. What she’s seeing now must be the reflection of the dawn on the path. But it is almost completely dark out, and the red-orange is too impossible, suggesting an artificial, rather than a natural, origin. Max frowns as she examines the treeline more closely. The light looks almost like neon of a searchlight, or a particularly strong flashlight, and she imagines a lost camper in a canoe whirling one around in terror. In her mind’s eye, the canoe tips over and the anonymous camper sinks wordlessly into the lake, arms akimbo, the tendrils of her hair coloring the surface of the clear water like an ink stain. Panic rising, Max quickly gets off the bicycle; it tumbles into the dirt as she pushes past the foliage.

Maxine’s sneakers, scuffed up after two months of summertime, sink softly into the sand. Catching her breath, she stares at the square. It lays, rippling but unmoved by the tide, a few meters from the shore. She cannot make sense of it rationally, but still her mind tries on different interpretations: A bright orange mainsail, ripped from a pleasure boat during a squall, a waterproof picnic cloth, a strip of shimmering industrial plastic, brought by the west wind. Which could it be?

She’s still lost in thought when the square suddenly erupts, doubling in size in a matter of seconds. Its sides quiver and shatter, blossoming into smaller geometric forms that group and reform into the original square. Despite this frantic activity, the rest of the lake water remains undisturbed. Max watches, perfectly still, her gaze fixed to the image as it decomposes and recomposes, over and over. She blinks a few times. The panic she felt earlier has gone. Her mind is instead dominated by a peculiar wave of calm. With barely any realization of what she’s doing, she rolls up her pant legs and sheds her shoes to wade into the water.

It doesn’t occur to her that something so paranormal, so explicitly removed from nature, could pose a danger to her. Later, when she tries to recall the setting, she remembers only the water, cool to the touch. A clouding of her mind, as though each of her senses were filled with white noise, bars any other possible memory. She is almost knee-deep into the water when the stranger emerges from the dead center of the square.

And death shall have no dominion

Flying over Siberia, I press my face to the tiny cabin window and stare down at the landscape. The tundra at night is a frigid blue-white veined with darker depressions; arctic tones, though the flashing light on the airplane wing occasionally tinges the snowbanks 30,000 feet below with strawberry-pink. Everything I can see has a delicate, painterly quality, as though crafted by sentient, perfectionist powers of wind and precipitation. In the distance, a bright orange spot structured like a miniature skyline is sewn into the tundra, and the light around it bubbles and bleeds out, red-hot. I can’t tell precisely what it is, though I keep my eyes on it for as long as it remains in view: Maybe an industrial plant, maybe a den of witches. The effect, against the polar terrain and soot-black sky, is otherworldly. I think to myself: “I could be parachuted here right now and never found.” My body forever frozen in time and place, among the polar bears. The thought is strangely freeing.

From such heights, the planet feels neatly and safely contained; I watch it flow past me, circumscribed within the hard plastic and titanium of the airplane window frame. But at the same time I know it is a false comfort and a false expectation. The biophysical world resists easy comprehension and easy containment. I have heard human life characterized as no different from wildlife; Homo sapiens in the same network and made of the same bloodied pulp as Panthera tigris and Formicidae. I have also heard of “the Anthropocene,” in which humans are demigods, creating and destroying in a constant, technicolor cycle. I believe both visions hold some truth, which makes the conflict between them inevitable and interminable. But, flying above the quiet world in a shaking tin can, I forget my humanness. I look out at an Earth of chiaroscuro and suddenly remember autumn, when the light strikes leaves on trees rendered gold and plentiful by the passing time. Diamond-like, their brilliance; like veils made of string and broken CDs, hung up in backyard gardens to distract the animals.

後悔後悔後悔

The memory of the wounded look on his face waits for me quietly. I am always perpetually on the cusp of forgetting it exists. But laying in bed at midnight, my heart twisted into ribbons of flesh, I reach in and purposefully prod it awake. Though I know the memory will hurt me, it also, paradoxically, has the power to console me, as piercing as the lance but as soothing as an imagined embrace. Both the poison and the antidote, and I relive it again: the split-second where he turned away from me, heavy-lidded, tight-lipped, holding a glass between both hands too tenderly, as though afraid it might shatter at any moment.

I remember we sat there in silence. Around us, the party continued. His eyes were dry, but something about the low light made them seem dark with tears. His body was still, but his mood was obvious; the truth of unsaid feelings, very carefully restrained, began rapidly and painfully filling my mind like a wave rushing into the caves of a pockmarked and slate-colored cliff side. His gaze was trained on a place so far away from here. In the memory, his silhouette is smeared, blurred, but impossibly vibrant, like a distant star I cannot reach but that remains fixed in the firmament.

I would like to apologize to him in the same way that I would like to travel to the moon. I know it cannot happen because I am limited by my choices and my cowardice, but I lay in bed at midnight and I imagine how it could happen. When I fall asleep, I dream of his face, broken into shards, and I wake with the earnest and frustrated desire to know my deficiencies less well, so that then I could pretend they did not exist.

Fish Owl and Ruddy Kingfisher

The day after the typhoon, the sky shines like a freshly painted wall. I walk through the puddles of dry, yellowing leaves; for once, my mind feels clear as a diamond. My plans for the afternoon open up before me like huge-petaled and cream-colored flowers. I am wearing the too-big burnt orange coat and checkered scarf my father bought me two winters ago; at the door, Strawberry had stopped to knot the scarf carefully around my neck. In such armor, in such sunlight, I am immediately king-sized.

I ripple through the people clustered around the station, boarding the green train line just seconds before it swings away. I stand by rows of commuters lost in the rich, singular worlds generated by their sleek mobile phones. Through the windows, I see smears of the city after rain: the gray concrete glittering like a gemstone. I imagine leaping drunkenly from my body, my arms swinging forward like the wings of a ruddy kingfisher. Joyous and unashamed. Too often, if I am a bird, I am not the kingfisher, but the fish owl. Alone, encased in the rotting tree trunk of a faraway forest. My mind self-flagellated into a bloody pulp. It feels good, for one spell-binding day, to escape the confines of such dark philosophy.

Hate myself, but really love you

Strawberry and I move in together. He finds a job in central Tokyo, and I start my third semester of graduate school. The new apartment is filled to the brim with cockroach nymphs. Over the phone, Strawberry takes pains to warn me about the infestation: “Don’t freak out, okay?” he says, in his gentlest voice. I spend the better part of a day furiously Googling insect life-cycles and laying down glossy black bait traps stuffed with toxic hydramethylnon.

During the first week, we subsist on blackcurrant-and-orange alcohol and prepared meals from the supermarket. I take two daily pills recommended by my parents, both vile-tasting but prescribed out of love. The building is ancient, and the communal rooms on its lower floors–a dark, dusty library, an empty, grey-walled lobby, a three-legged table with a splayed-open and dog-eared copy of Time magazine, circa 2003–re-appear in my dreams, contorted into a set of horrors where my imagination eats itself alive. But the apartments are heavily subsidized by my university, and so in the interest of avoiding financial ruin I learn to cheerfully accept the terrifying aesthetic. How would a director frame me? Born in the Lost Decade, a wild-haired nihilist walking through neon-lit Shibuya with a mind full of rapidly darkening thoughts on the brink of explosion: the heroine of a banal J-horror about human life in all its insipid, boring, sad, loving glory.

I open the silverware drawer and am greeted by a chocolate-colored cockroach that reaches forward to feel the air with twin, twitching antennae, only to draw back rapidly at the first sign of light.

Amor fati

June 16th was the most flawless night. I remember looking at the moon from my second-floor balcony. When I stepped out, I placed my bare feet carefully on the white planks, so as not to touch the bird shit stains. It had rained the previous day. The contours of the fluttering leaves seemed impossibly clear against the purple evening. As vivid as the cry of a plucked guitar string. I leaned over the railing, impossibly tempted to reach out and trace the shapes in the sky with a lazy fingertip.

Ten days disappear in the blink of an eye, and then twenty. It’s been tough to write. Is that due to a scarcity of emotions, or their abundance? Some days I do not distinguish a difference between the two. I don’t think of myself as depressed, or even sad. Instead, I see things more clearly, and that has altered everything.

To be young and afraid. To then go from afraid to amazed, and then to afraid again. To be in free-fall. To be more in love with the mystery of fate than with real life.

Next year it’ll be 2020. Easily the most flawless calendar year in my lifespan. The way it rolls off the tongue: twentytwenty. The year of the disaster movie. I’m worried about me and the kids of my generation. Sometimes we behave like victims of a cult, too wounded to ever truly quit and return to something normal (if that can be said to exist.) Have you been online and seen what we do to each other? This isn’t a think piece. I’m not going anywhere with this opinion. I’m just presenting the question for your consideration: Have you seen what we do to each other?

From afraid to amazed to afraid again. A third act that never quite ends, but instead ripples out indefinitely.

Girl of your dreams

At the start of the spring thaw, my mother, brother, and I go on a road trip up to the snow-capped Pyrenees. The family lapis lazuli Toyota ferries us resolutely up the incline, and at that altitude, each turn on the road reveals a new vista. Mountains jutting out into the sky, roughly pyramidal, mottled, and incandescent. It is nighttime when we arrive, and the wan glow of the stars reflected in the snow holds me in thrall.

We stay at a small local hotel, and at breakfast we toddle sleepily into the dining room amidst a crowd of skiers in bright, Pepsi-blue salopettes. The hotel owner–a small, elderly man with imperial bearing–cooks half a dozen (obscenely delicious) potato omelettes for the buffet before pausing to hobnob with the guests. He balks visibly when my mother asks if he is French or Spanish. Neither, he replies haughtily, clarifying for us instead that he is from Occitania, a historical nation associated with ancient Gaul, and whose modern borders are hemmed imprecisely into northern Spain and southern France. Later, I search for the region on Wikipedia and wonder about history and heritage. What does it mean to belong to a place, and people? I can define it only in the endlessly abstract: The accretion of time and imagination over the eternal landscape; those cumulative sensations of living (hearth, heart) pooling into a kaleidoscopic realization of individual, and communal, homeland. But, truly: what does it mean to belong to a place, the way the bee belongs to the honeycomb?

In Tokyo, lightning smears over the clouds, and submerges the day in sudden rain. I walk to the station; the rain droplets, sweetly saline as tears, collect on my eyelashes. Usually during this commute my gaze wanders to my smartphone, but today I try to pass the time by impressing the fragile aesthetic of my neighborhood in a storm onto my memory: the wet, crushed velvet red petals behind the chain-link fence, the cherry blossom trees stripped of flowers. Most of what I can recall about Japan, when I describe it to others, is based on images and colors: sunset-red, calcimine-white, gem-green. Flowers, kanji characters, and insects. Is there any substance to remembering a place purely for its appearance? Can the surface values–the RGB color codes, the indexes of light and shadow hovering over each pixel of the world–have significance beyond pure superficiality? Can this country be my home when I understand only how it looks, but not how it feels to move within it?

Surely, the home of my dreams must be something more than colors, chiaroscuro, and the occasional blossoming tree. The effect home has on my body chemistry must be something else entirely. But perhaps what I imagine does not exist. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been swept away by fantasy, and wound up smashed against the shores of desert of the real. When I imagine home, I think of awaking suddenly from eerily deep sleep, and hearing, in the impassive dark, the tiny noises Strawberry makes while he dreams. The comfort and joy rippling out from my heart to encompass my whole body. A chain of mountains, dappled with trees in bloom, arriving to shelter me.