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.

Queen of the Edgelords

Aliens take off from a field circumscribed within cool blue mountains. Adam Adams and Jeremy Renner watch their departure, and their detached expressions, coupled with the vision of daybreak flooding the grass, results in a scene equal parts intimate and cinematic. In the background, the soundtrack’s violins churn expertly, and their sound is pure, precise, crystalline, but also, somehow, impossibly soft, like icicles that fracture the air before exploding into cascades of velvet on impact.

It’s a final scene that marries absolute visual and acoustic splendor with the inescapable, inscrutable sensation of grief. It reminds me of the multitudes of a word like “haunting,” which can suggest not just plain “scary,” but “unforgettable,” too. I should be enamored, and the biggest part of me wants to be; this scene, and Arrival itself, hit all the right notes. A larger-than-life epic with themes that traverse space-time, but that also acknowledge and defend the microcosms entombed in human plight, and human passion. (Interstellar, a film that I found grander in some ways, still failed in this essential regard.) And yet, though I can recognize that the scene performs exactly as intended, and pulls at the heartstrings with pinpoint accuracy, I can’t help but roll my eyes.

When Renner turns to Adams and tells her that extraterrestrials surprised him less than meeting her, I laugh unkindly at that predictable payload of emotion (“You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”) I imagine the screenwriter, the director, and the actor, pouring their energy into the line, and I respect the effort; but for me, a woman of evergreen jadedness, it somehow doesn’t land. I’m perversely proud of it; I regard my cynicism not as armor, but as the spear that shatters the emotional fraudulence of the world.

I look at my seventeen-year-old brother, Alex, expecting him be laughing too at the goofy expediency of it all–elegantly coiffed, impeccably dressed Hollywood artists confessing their love via perfectly delivered lines, all in a time of space aliens. But his eyes are glued to the screen. He is transfixed.

I watch him for a few moments, surprised both at his response to the scene and his apparent obliviousness to everything outside it. He is at an age known for various, occasionally contradictory traits: what I and others might summarize as “edginess.” Alex is reserved, but not uncommunicative; aloof, but not apathetic. At times, he can be dogmatic. His personality is known for periods of impenetrable silence, but also periods of blinding discursive passion. It is not always easy for him to apologize. His commitment to personal truth brushes shoulders occasionally with arrogance. He does not divulge his thoughts easily. He does not cede ground. He wields sarcasm expertly. He is at the center of a lush, private world.

I was recently seventeen, and I’ve known my brother his entire life. We are similar in that eerie, arcane way that siblings sometimes are. I presumed that these facts suggested at an inherited ability to intuit Alex’s inner nature. But today I finally understand that it was vanity on my part to believe that I understand Alex. I can’t predict his behavior, I can’t read his thoughts. My supposed intuition is just a shadow that cannot probe mystery, only project expectation. This myth–that an older sibling has a direct line into the heart of a younger sibling–has trailed me since childhood. We’re not four and eleven anymore. We’re no longer elementary school students sleepily watching the landscape from the bus together. In a flash, the veil is parted to reveal colossal castle in the sand. Now all that is left is to allow the warm, finely milled sand to fall through my slowly parting fingers.

Alex doesn’t find it cloyingly absurd that Arrival ends with an expression of love. Adolescence hasn’t embittered him. He doesn’t conceal his feelings with hard-edged cynicism. His heart does not require armor. He is capable of recognizing and honoring the vulnerable earnestness of human emotion without falling prey to the instinct to wound it. If there are any edgelords here, he isn’t one of them.

A Winter’s Tale

At six in the evening on Monday, a woman in a blood red taffeta gown and a tiny white faux fur jacket sings “Ave Maria” with tears in her eyes. I’m sitting a few feet from the stage, in an underground music venue in Shibuya. Including me, there are four people in the audience. It’s two weeks before Christmas.

On New Year’s day, Strawberry and I go to the neighborhood shrine. Eggplant purple banners are draped over the eaves, moving slowly, but voluptuously, in the frigid breeze. I imagine the priests teetering on stepladders, arranging the banners with the same deftness as a young woman in front of a mirror, carefully parting her bangs to one side with a wide-toothed comb. We eat fried noodles, and then wait our turn to throw our five-yen coins into the wide, slatted donation box. 2019 is the Year of the Pig, and the wooden trapezoidal plaques that last year featured cherubic Shiba Inus are today decorated with boars snuffling through grass.

The colors of Japanese shrine iconography are painted in flat, matte tones, but the ultra-saturation of the pigments elevates the effect of their impression on me, achieving impossible divinity. So clearly unreal, but so carnally present: Imagine the Annunciation, and the young Mary dancing at midnight with a winged and haloed stranger. I could pray, I think, to any god if they came to me clothed in these colors: red as spilled blood, and white as the driven snow.

I don’t consciously choose resolutions anymore (other than the perennial “write more”), not out any disdain for the tradition, but due to chronic indecisiveness. I tend to hover so long on the precipice of a choice that the cliff crumbles artlessly into the turgid sea, leaving me suspended in the air, at a loss. But I’ve been reflecting recently on something Strawberry told me: though we are often instructed to envision “goals” for our future lives, sometimes it’s easier to re-channel that energy into imagining solutions to present “problems.” As an uncommonly anxious individual, I was immediately attracted to this approach; the melodrama of my mind is usually dominated by “problems” that haunt and never inspire. Maybe this is the family therapy talking, but even at this advanced stage, can I change the nature of the relationship between myself and the cascade of issues that follow me around? The cynical part of me wants to roll her eyes. But this year, I think I’ll avoid cynicism, and choose compassion.

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.