Bystander

The fourth article in Ariell G.’s Train Stories series arrives just in time.

Tokyo Joe

By Ariell G.

HE ALWAYS THOUGHT TOO HIGHLY OF HIMSELF. Since a very early age he has been afflicted with an indestructible ego. As time passed, it evolved into a skin so thick that even wielding the sharpest knife against it would be in vain. Yet, hiding behind a cocky attitude and cold disposition he remains merely a caricature of himself, reflecting an imaginary role from within of who he ought to be.

The fresh cigarette precariously balancing between his upper ear and wild, black Robert Smith-esque hair could fall at any sudden jerking motion of the train, but he doesn’t give it a thought, he knows that it will stay exactly where he has placed it, effortlessly confident of that and most other things in life. His persona demands that there is always a fresh cigarette perched at his ear. This one replaced the former within seconds of the burnt filter gently gliding from his fingers as it fell to the ground. He had inhaled the last vestige of nicotine in the Metro smoking booth just before running to board this train, resulting in the unpleasant smell of smoke mixed with sweat. It’s the afternoon in Tokyo, but time is just as irrelevant to him as daylight, for he would rather remain underground away from the sunlight as a squatter in life, walking within a labyrinth of dark alleyways, eating stale vending machine food and always wearing an unmistakable aura of dolor. I left the drizzling rain and scorching heat behind aboveground at Jimbocho station to travel to Shinjuku, and boarded this train alongside him.

The young man seated next to me, 25 years old at most, is reading Hentai porn from a book wrapped in innocuous brown recycled paper that is standard in Tokyo bookstores. Unfortunately, the bulge in his tight fitting navy trousers, upon which he has unashamedly rested the book, is far less inconspicuous than the subject matter and draws the attention of the middle-aged woman seated opposite. She appears to be watching him and the bulge in his trousers expectantly, urging it to grow with her eyes and thoughts of loving encouragement befitting of a parent to a child. She’s wearing a wedding band, likely married to a man who works far too much (as seems to be the norm in Japan) – he will not be there when she returns home. He typically spends his time at the office until the early morning hours, followed by a quick round of drinks with his colleagues and perhaps a lap dance or two should it suit his mood, returning to work when the sun rises. He’s a good man who lives a stable, ordinary life with his attractive, not beautiful, obliging wife whom he rarely sees, preferring instead the company of male colleagues, strippers and Geishas. Her husband is incomparably less virile and well endowed than this young man half his age, and so her thoughts stir to romantic entanglements to quell the loneliness of an evening that she will spend alone. I momentarily consider turning to him to ask what book he is reading, as if unaware. He likely wouldn’t understand a word that I had said, but his expression and jolt of surprise would be priceless. This idea causes a slight curvature of my lips to take shape, and then disappears just as quickly as it arrived. I’ve lost my train of thought, so I board the next to come along.

He’s slick, like oil – the man standing at the end of the train car despite ample available seating, and in a moment he will spontaneously combust. He shouldn’t be a smoker… A match lit and thrown into a barrel of oil ends in an explosive death, but it would be contrary to his role if he were not carrying the cigarette either between his lips or above his ear as a badge of honor. A simple cigarette telling the world of his laissez faire, lackadaisical attitude toward life and all its worries and woes including, but not limited to, death. He dons a battered leather jacket and black skintight jeans, worn with the expected attitude of James Dean and the panache of Don Juan, making him appear as though he is the long lost Japanese cousin of the lead singer of The Horrors.

The cartoon of a bright pink rabbit being ‘zapped’ by lemon yellow comic style lightening bolts affixed to the wall behind him, cheerfully warning of death by electrocution, stands in contrast to his overall demeanor of serious melancholy and his all black attire. Death is inevitable, especially if you should happen to miss your step and fall onto the tracks, so the sugarcoated version depicted by a wide-eyed cartoon rabbit makes the entire notion seem tolerable, perhaps even enjoyable. So he dies either engulfed in flames or electrocuted, both appropriate for a man who buys women’s used panties from the vending machines in those all too familiar back alleyways. “You should have tucked the neon pink panties all the way down the outer pocket of your black leather satchel,” I say silently, admonishing this obvious faux pas. “To your benefit, at least you attempted to hide it,” I think while tilting my head slightly to the left in consideration for the minor effort. The man seated next to me, who has suddenly begun turning pages faster, it must be a compelling plotline, truly believes that a brown piece of paper will prevent each person in this car from knowing the contents of the book and his mind.

The young man is pale and thin, even by Japanese standards. Like a shape shifter he has morphed into the gangly, elastic Ramen noodles that he subsists on, and has adopted the neon white glow of the brightly illuminated 24 hour Pachinko arcades that he frequents between the exact hours of 10pm and 3am. He’s diverted his attention away from the book that now rests several centimeters higher in his lap than a few moments ago to stare at the group of girls who have just boarded the train. They’re dressed in blue and white school uniforms with navy pussy bows, and wear between 6 and12 feet long knit socks that are gathered downward to land just below the knee. The longer the socks the better according to the Japanese school fashion trend – an opinion shared by the middle-aged woman opposite who has now uncrossed her legs and sits with them slightly parted, still staring at the young man next to me.

The girls are talking amongst themselves, giggling and covering their lips with their hand at the slightest glance toward the young man staring at them, and the man dressed in all black perched at the end of the train car wearing a calm expression and turbulent soul. “But no,” I think as I follow his eye line, “he is only staring at one girl in particular.” She’s pretty, with finer features than the others. The delicate hand that covers her mouth for every laugh or giggle is the only gesture that she makes and although her conversation is limited, she possesses a pleasantly melodious way of speaking. She is glancing at the man in black quite often while the young man next to me admires her with a look of wondrous curiosity. As if by instinct, the man at the end of the train car peeks his eyes through the mass of black hair that grows downward and out, giving him a distinctly untamed appearance, and stares at her with intensity. Her eyes meet his as her lips part slightly as if wanting to say something. “I hate that there is space to fill between us, perhaps I’ll say it for her,” I mutter under my breath. Sadly, his now ponderous heart has slowed its once vibrantly rhythmic beat beneath the weight of numerous heartbreaks, so he’s unable to fully recognise this type of idiosyncratic love should he be so lucky to have it magically appear yet again. Luck plays a role in fortuitous meetings, yet why should he be the sole recipient of special love. Of the two men, one is not more deserving than the other. Of course, one is more caricatured with a larger role to play, seemingly wild with a palpable sex appeal, and the other more typical, average in his daily routine, devoid of a costume and quiet by nature – both are equally interesting, merely in different ways as though two sides of the same coin. Perhaps the man in black and this girl have met before, at a time when he was still a dreamer. He allowed himself to succumb to the smallest, most memorable facets of her character, those that cannot and will not be replicated by anyone else ever again. The way that she eats with one hand if possible, while resting her left arm casually over her crossed leg, or how she fans herself in this debilitating heat wave with the slightest, delicate flicker of her Japanese fan. Perhaps it is the manner by which she happily fusses over inconsequential things like the arrangement of her scarf and hair, or the placement of her trinkets in amongst his, all pieces of her that join together to create a corporeal picture that is nearly tangible in his minds eye so that he might reach out and touch her. They parted shortly after a briefly consuming interlude and have reunited in the Metro to stand 20 feet apart – enough space to fit many people who would all serve as perfect distractions from their shared desire to close this gap.

Tokyo Joe“You think you know someone…” he must have thought when she left. You allot yourself a certain amount of time to affirm, yes, indeed, I do know them. After this long, I can say with certainty that I know 80% of them (everyone always keeps at least 20% hidden, at times more), only to uncover one small quirk, one facet that they possess of which you were previously unaware and suddenly, as if your relationship were a sweater, a thread is pulled to unravel it, leaving you confused, disoriented and sitting in a puddle of knitting yarn. You have two choices: the knitting needles can be used to put it back together as a new sweater, or as deadly weapons stabbed into the jugular vein to end it all.

* * *

And – STOP.

It could have ended here… the moment when the jugular is drained and the story ends in a climactic crescendo of nothingness, culminating in a puddle of yarn and blood. The man in all black standing alone at the end of the train car would have preferred that the story end here to prevent anyone from learning anything more about his character that he has not already vetted as part of his persona. I thought that I knew him when I first saw him walking ahead of me in the crowd, weaving in and out of the people moving hurriedly in all directions with steadfast determination. I noticed him casually sucking at his cigarette inside of the glass smoking booth like a fish in a bowl pursing its lips for water as I waited for my change after buying an ‘aisu moka’ to allow me some reprieve from the heavy heat. He looked like an arrogant man with a slimy exterior, the type that goes out to clubs and lies through their teeth to get a woman into bed, any woman. You know the ones… the men that think using women is okay as long as it’s consensual. However his eyes spoke a different monologue, possibly his only redeeming quality – they ached with a fragility that I empathised with, one that results from the final disillusionment of the dreamer, or rather the single instance that breaks their spirit and leaves them forever jaded, never to dream again. It happened to him. That day came and went, perhaps he can’t even recall the exact incident that caused the loss of his hopes, desires and dreams, but it happened all the same and now it’s etched into his eyes as an utter betrayal of his haughty façade.

* * *

The train stops and the doors open at the next station. An elderly Japanese woman sitting in her wheelchair clasping her brown leather handbag has just boarded this particular train car, pushed onward by her middle-aged daughter. She is among the afternoon rush of commuters desperately trying to avoid being pushed, shoved and groped during the peak hours on the Tokyo Metro. The group of young schoolgirls is forced to move inward, relinquishing their space to the elderly woman, her daughter and the wheelchair. The man dressed in all black with the gentle face, reminding me of a Japanese Frank Zappa, has also moved inward due to the sudden influx of small children crowding around him whom he watches in his periphery with a look of squeamish suspicion.

The gap has now narrowed to 10 feet. The spaces we create between ourselves and others are bound to narrow eventually. Slowly the pull of the changing tides, the yearning for cohesion draws the [de]parted back together again in reverence of time and with love in their hearts. Love is not his strong suit though… neither is foreplay, a vulnerability that does not suit his epithet. The young man next to me has begun to notice the girls’ reticent glances toward the illusive older man, visibly agitating him. He gathers the courage to speak to the pretty girl with finer features, calmly closing his porn and placing it inside a plastic bag before standing to move toward her.

The language barrier is an inconsequential impediment to understanding the demure dance between the pale, thin young man and the pretty girl much younger than he. The man in all black and I watch the two carefully, waiting for the slightest indication of what may happen next. I can’t help noticing the forlorn look that has somehow superseded the air of superciliousness that he normally exudes, a look that is now hung across his face like a neon billboard as he watches the pretty girl quietly laugh as the young man speaks to her. “Is he capable of the outward expression of sadness?” I wonder as I watch him looking at the girl from a 10-foot distance. “Will he intervene? Surely he knows that he is a better match for her,” I think as I watch him attempt to hide the pained expression on his face under his wild black hair. Do something… I whisper to myself. The young man has been speaking with the pretty girl for several minutes and is now softly touching her arm excitedly. Darting my eyes from the young man to the man wearing all black, I wait for a sudden movement, but the man standing at the end of the train car has grown weary watching the young man steal away the one who could make him dream again.

The next station calls at Ginza. The young man gently places his hand in the small of her back as he guides her forward to exit at this station, the plastic bag containing his porn held in the other hand. The man dressed in black watches as the two walk past the window of the train on their way out of the underground tunnels, and into the sunlight. His eyes glimmer with moisture from tears that will never come to fruition as he stares out of the window while the train begins to move. He chose to stay in the labyrinth, hidden from the sunlight, from the world above and most of all from his own dreams. I leave the train and the man dressed in black at Shinjuku station to meander down side streets and navigate crowds, while fruitlessly fanning myself to ease the weight of this heat. “Did he even notice me?” I wonder as I walk the long tunnel toward the light. We pass people everyday as we move about within our lives, never truly noticing the look in their eye, the expression on their face, their mannerisms, gait or the individual quirks that they possess, those that make them like no other person in existence.

A kind Japanese woman who speaks broken English translates the announcement just heard over the loud speaker at Shinjuku station: There will be a slight delay on the Ginza line. There has been an unfortunate accident. A man has fallen onto the train tracks. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused. Thank You.

www.theariellgspot.blogspot.co.uk

(Article I) I Dream of an Empty Train Car…

(Article II) Restantes

(Article III) Anti-Hero vs. The World

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