3,700 words

Tonight you fell asleep on the loop line again.

You didn’t mean to do it but the rumble of the train stretched around your shoulders like an arm, spiraled deliciously down your spine. You were alone in the car and your reflection flickered in the window across the aisle. The city lights on the other side of the glass sparkled like stray glitter dusted over your face.

The sky was a deep blue that looked soft somehow, like your favorite pajamas you’d had in high school. You wanted to be wrapped up in it, wanted to lie down in a quilt as heartbreakingly soft and blue as that sky.

You were exhausted, Nagiko.

You closed your eyes for just a moment.

「次は代々木、代々木。お出口は左側です。中央線の各駅停車千駄ヶ谷、四ツ谷方面と都営地下鉄大江戸線はお乗り換えです。」

“The next station is Yoyogi, Yoyogi. The exit is on the left side. Transfer here for the Chūō line local service to Sendagaya and Yotsuya, and the Metropolitan Subway Ōedo line.”

You woke up cold and clean and still alone when the recording called your station. You love that voice a little—its lightness, its cheer, its unflagging politeness. You could be in love with someone who spoke that way, but not even I am that pleasant all the time.

But you know that. You are not always happy with me, Nagiko, but you love me.

As you walked home from the station I made sure every streetlight above you was lit.

This is how I say, “I love you, too.”

§

Your address is technically in Sendagaya 5-chōme, but it might as well be in Shinjuku, and your station is Yoyogi. If you leave the window open you can hear the intercom in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in the daytime. Every night I lull you to sleep with the humming song of the power lines running along the street.

When you open the door your apartment looks just as you left it this morning. You narrow your eyes, trying to fight down the pinched hollow feeling in your sinuses that always foreshadows tears.

Tonight the whole world is different and you don’t know why. You wonder if you drank too much at dinner, if maybe you should have refused the fifth round of beers that your professor called for.

You take your shoes off and leave them by the door. You put your purse down on the floor. The futon is still on the veranda where you left it, and when you drag it inside it smells faintly of the sunlight it’s been soaking up all day.

The thin cardigan goes back onto its hanger; the dress goes into the hamper. As you wash your face and brush your teeth you are struck by your own reflection, and reach out to rub the mirror with the corner of your towel. The faint haze around your face doesn’t dissipate.

You tell yourself that you have certainly drunk too much. You turn away from the mirror, pad to the kitchen, chug a glass of water.

When you lie down at last you realize that you are shaking. The wind rustles a sutra in the tall trees of the Imperial Gardens. You ball yourself up but you feel exposed.

It’s been a thoroughly ordinary day; every day has been easy in a way that makes you feel cradled in my great palm. But all this time I have been tuning you, refining you, and you are finally beginning to feel it.

Three years have passed since you came to live in me, and from the moment I first felt your step reverberate on my ground I recognized the reverence in your tread, the step of someone who has dreamed of me for years.

I’m always tender to your type, so I opened my heart for you. There is always enough space for you at the standing noodle counters and a sweet head of foam on your nama-beer. You never wait more than a moment for any train. In every library the books you need fall into your hands by my divine grace, and the flash of gratitude radiating off you feeds me. You knew, somewhere deep inside, where your luck was coming from.

You tremble in time with the trains running through and under me, and shake yourself to sleep.

§

「次は渋谷、渋谷。お出口は右側です。東急東横線、東急田園都市線、京王井の頭線、地下鉄銀座線、地下鉄半蔵門線、地下鉄副都心線はお乗換えです。電車とホームの間が開いている所がありますので足元にご注意ください。この電車は、山手線内回り、品川、東京方面行きです。」

“The next station is Shibuya, Shibuya. The exit is on the right. Change here for the Tōkyū Tōyoko line, the Tōkyū Den-en-toshi line, the Keio Inokashira line, the Ginza subway line, the Hanzōmon subway line, or the Fukutoshin subway line. There is a gap between the train and the platform, so please watch your step. This train is the Yamanote line, inner circle, bound for Shinagawa and Tokyo.”

It’s rush hour and I’m pumping people through my steely veins, but I still see you, sense you, out of all those millions. You can feel it in the way I carry you through the crowds, through the ticket gate where you tap your Suica card, out into my blindingly bright morning.

You blink up at the Resona Bank’s green sign and start the hike up foot-dragging Miyamasuzaka towards the university, past the post office, the Doutor on the corner, turning left onto wide Aoyama-doori and crossing the street on the footbridge. You stop in the conbini and buy a half-dozen onigiri; it’s your turn today.

When I deliver you safely onto the bricks of campus you find yourself sighing, as if returning has eased some knot deep inside you. You ride the elevator to the tenth floor and your professor’s office. Sharp-eyed Miss Himuro is already there, with two steaming mugs of sencha on the long worktable and a map spread out in front of her. It’s not even nine, but her bun is already beginning to droop, wisps of hair falling around her face.

“Professor Komazawa has a department meeting, so we won’t see him until lunch at earliest,” she says as you unload your bag of onigiri onto the blue pottery plate kept on the table. Without looking, she reaches out and takes a tarako one. Her clever fingers zip the plastic wrapping away. You sit down next to her, choosing an onigiri with a salty-sour pickled plum inside. Your tongue prickles under the sharp taste.

“Thank you for the tea,” you say as you reach for your mug.

“Thank you for breakfast,” she replies. For a second she glances up at you and the smile suspended between you turns conspiratorial. The two of you get along well; her spiky edges and yours fit into each other.

The map on the table is of my sister, a thousand years ago. Miss Himuro has an array of colored pens scattered atop it, a book open next to it. Bright dots and trails of ink mark the Heian Palace, a scattering of shrines and private houses in the city around it, probable paths connecting them.

What Professor Komazawa specializes in, what he is training you and Miss Himuro and a handful of graduate students to do, is something he calls “literary geography.” He maps stories. He is enthralled by “place,” by fixing scenes and lines and emotions against their backdrops. You took his Survey of Local Literature in your first semester; instead of a midterm, Professor Komazawa took the class on a walking tour of Aramata Hiroshi’s Tale of the Imperial Capital. Gazing at the me-that-is and imagining the me-that-might-have-been, thinking about “place,” you found yours. You wanted this work that would give you an excuse to wear your soles thin pacing my streets. You loved me in every incarnation—past, present, and all my possible futures—and I loved you back.

You finish your onigiri and take your own maps and books from your oversized tote purse. What you’re doing now is for Professor Komazawa’s graduate seminar, which you’re participating in by special permission; you intend to use this work as the foundation of your senior thesis.

The book is a modern one: Amano Rei’s Capital Collection, her first volume of tanka poetry. She’s organized each section of the work in the style of the old imperial anthologies, tracing the seasons from spring to winter and then a love affair as it progresses from its initial pangs of longing to the final break, with a chapter of religious poems and one of miscellany slipped in at the end. She’s as dear to me as you are, and it delights me to see you together this way.

You’re using headnotes and context clues to mark each poem on a map of me. #63, from the Summer chapter, at a Honey’s Bar in Ikebukuro Station. #158, from “Love I,” at the Nepalese restaurant on Heiwa-doori. #290, from the book of Miscellany, at Takashimaya Shinjuku. You want to reorder the poems by neighborhood, recontextualize them through sense of place.

It’s still two hours before your first class. You have time to nurse your hangover, to drink your tea, careful not to spill on my map. In the last few years, your breathing has fallen into sync with mine. I’ll give you just the slightest nudge to tell you when it’s time to go.

§

The rocking of the train lulls you to sleep on the way home. It’s been a long day, but every day is long. You’re in lectures from eleven to four-thirty, with less than an hour stolen for lunch after the first class. After that it’s back to Professor Komazawa’s office to join the rest of the seminar, working on individual projects or mapping a text together until six. On Tuesdays and Fridays he takes you all out to dinner, but today is a Wednesday, so you’re headed straight home.

I rattle you awake as the recorded announcement calls out Yoyogi and the train pulls to a stop. You lift your glasses to rub sleep from one eye and shuffle onto the platform. Trudging to the top of the stairs sets your heart beating a bit faster, waking you up enough to cross into the conbini across the street. You don’t notice that your reflection in the glass door glows faint and fuzzy.

You pick up a pasta carbonara to microwave at home, a montblanc and a canned highball. The girl behind the counter smiles as she rings you up and sends you on your way. When you step outside again into the pink glory of my springtime you lose your breath for a moment.

This scenery is my gift to you, and you feel the whole world trembling around you. I wrap you in a wind like a blanket, a wind that smells like the summer that won’t be here for weeks yet. Five minutes’ walk, past the Yudetarō, the Fukutoshin line rumbling deep under your feet, turning right at the southern wall of Shinjuku Gyoen, brings you to your door, but you can’t shake off the tight buzzing feeling, like a cicada has thrummed to life somewhere deep in you.

You eat your dinner, more conscious than you’ve ever been of the hum of the microwave, the lights, your cell phone charger. You can’t stop hearing them. You unplug everything you can. Frustrated, you throw the breaker to cut the electricity entirely but the soft static whine is still there.

You sit on the floor in front of the fusebox with your highball in hand and cry, pressing the cold can against your forehead when your sinuses clog up. The buzzing is in you; it’s in your teeth and in your bones, vibrating at your core.

I’m sorry, Nagiko. I don’t know how to make this part easy. But someday that humming will be a comfort to you, and you will be one more pair of my hands.

§

You don’t know what is happening to you so you throw yourself deeper into your routine. You go to school and you smile at your classmates like nothing is wrong. Miss Himuro, seeing the tightness in your face, brings you a canned coffee from the hanbaiki. You warm your hands on it and drink the whole thing under her watchful eyes, narrowed behind silver wire frames. But she doesn’t ask, and even if she did you wouldn’t have the words to tell her. You’re grateful regardless.

You glance away from mirrors now when you catch the hint of neon fuzzing around your outlines. You don’t realize that even though the cherry blossom petals carpet the ground they never stick to your shoes.

When the weekend comes you push yourself into my streets to run your errands. You brush past the busker singing the world into being at the west exit of Shinjuku station. All my crossings glow with the “Walk” sign exactly as you reach them and you move unstoppably forward, one foot in front of the other with never a hesitation, as though it’s utterly natural. But the feeling in your chest grows tighter and tighter, and the only thing that eases it is the rocking of the trains.

You sleep late Monday, every muscle sore from tension. When you wake up it’s already half past ten, too late to make it to your first class even if you rush.

I watch you stretch your slender arms over your head, yawning, and whisper in your ear. Spend the day with me, Nagiko.

§

With your worn copy of Capital Collection and your notebook in hand, you hop on my loop line. Not every setting can be identified by the headnotes, but you’re sure they can all be mapped. There’s no such thing as something that doesn’t have a place it belongs. Believing that has brought you this far.

The poem troubling you today is #131. It’s still the early stages of the sketched affair, the second in the five chapters of love. You can place it in time; the poem says “the spring day” and the plum blossoms put it in late February, early March.

ゑびすに住むをとこにつかはしける

今日だにも色濃き梅は散りにけり 春の日通ふ香にかをる風

Sent to a man who lives in Ebisu

Only just today, the deep-colored plum blossoms have scattered; traversing the spring day, the breeze scented with their fragrance

You haven’t been able to locate it, and it frustrates you. There are thousands of plum trees all over the city. The only thing working in your favor is the timing. It’s keichitsu now, when the insects wake from hibernation, by the solar calendar’s reckoning, and the plum blossoms are beginning to fall from the trees in threes and fours and twos.

You spent a day in Ebisu last week but nothing in the scenery struck you. Today you give in and trust me, heading north. The majority of the poems you’ve placed are along the west side of the loop line, with the northmost clustered in Ōtsuka and the furthest south around Ebisu.

If there is one place in the world that can make a convincing case for the existence of ley lines, it’s me. If you follow my currents I may not take you to the right place but I will always, always take you to a right place.

Trust me, Nagiko. I’ll get you where you’re going.

You murmur the poem over and over as the train hurtles north, the whine of the tracks echoing low in your ears and teeth.

§

Staircase after staircase, an escalator, a moving walkway, and finally I spit you out into Sunshine City. You climb past shops full of sparkling baubles. The summer collections are already decorating the mannequins and you slow as you pass the kimono shop where you rented a furisode last year. The yukata on display are stiff with their newness, spangled with fireworks and flowers.

The automatic doors part before you. You step onto brick worn smooth with age. The sky is pale and overcast, just cool enough to make you grateful for your long coat. A shop attendant dressed as a butler waves at you from outside the Animate across the street.

You smile back—a tight, polite grimace communicating your disinterest. You turn away, to the right, and let me push you northeast.

Nagiko, I know you can feel me tugging at your eyes. If you’d just let me, I could show you what you’re looking for. You stop at the intersection, staring blankly at the scrawny young plum trees lining the sidewalk. You’re mumbling the poem under your breath now, trying to keep it all in your head at once, and a passing obasan gives you a wide berth.

Frustrated, you pull a pen from your purse and scribble the poem on the back of your hand. You can’t write small enough to fit it all in one line, as is the convention; you break it into its five units, stacked on top of each other, and that’s what makes you see it.

今日だにも

色濃き梅は

散りにけり

春の日通ふ

香にかをる風

春の日通ふ。

春日通。

You look up at the sign hanging from the streetlight across from you and can’t help laughing. When you pull all the hiragana away from the kanji in the fourth line, the location is right there. Kasuga-doori, the spring-day road.

My laughter and yours spiral around each other, shaking the petals from the plum trees. The wind swirls between the tall buildings like the living thing it is and you understand at last. She wasn’t writing about Ebisu for that man. She was asking him to come see Ikebukuro.

You burst into a run southeast down Kasuga-doori, turning left when you reach the Toden Arakawa streetcar tracks, and follow them all the way to the Ōtsuka JR station. You get on the counterclockwise loop, southbound. Your blood echoes in your ears in time with the thrum of the wheels and you are glowing, glowing, glowing with triumph.

§

「次は渋谷、渋谷。お出口は右側です。東急東横線、東急田園都市線、京王井の頭線、地下鉄銀座線、地下鉄半蔵門線、地下鉄副都心線はお乗換えです。電車とホームの間が開いている所がありますので足元にご注意ください。この電車は、山手線内回り、品川、東京方面行きです。」

“The next station is Shibuya, Shibuya. The exit is on the right. Change here for the Tōkyū Tōyoko line, the Tōkyū Den-en-toshi line, the Keio Inokashira line, the Ginza subway line, the Hanzōmon subway line, or the Fukutoshin subway line. There is a gap between the train and the platform, so please watch your step. This train is the Yamanote line, inner circle, bound for Shinagawa and Tokyo.”

But you don’t get off the train. You keep riding, counting off the stations in your head along with that sweet, lilting voice on the intercom. Shibuya, Ebisu, Meguro, Gotanda, Ōsaki. The names take on a rhythm as you silently chant them. Your mouth goes dry with a sharp ashy taste that pierces your sinuses like you’ve just smoked one of Miss Himuro’s menthols. And you feel the tremble and sway of the train on its rails, and something is welling up inside you but you can’t put a name to it—

It is my power, Nagiko.

It is my power, and now it is yours, too. Stone and steel below you and you are safe in my heart, my loop line, coursing through me.

§

You keep riding that day until you’ve come full circle around the loop line, and when you step off you know that you are my hands now. You can feel the hum of electricity in the marrow of your bones and in the roots of your teeth clutching into your gums, and now you know it for my blessing. A song bursts from your throat as you walk down the silent street, and the air ripples around you, bending with the force of your melody.

Tonight you will sleep more soundly than you have in months, understanding at last that I was always what waited for you on the other end of that invisible red string. I will catch you, in my streets and my wind and my neon. I will show you the sun rising and setting between skyscrapers in Ginza, and the midnight moon over 109 in Shibuya. I will watch you hold hands and dance with my other lovers, and we will knit the world together.

You are not alone. Never alone, as long as you stand on my ground.

Iori Kusano is an Asian American writer and itinerant grad student specializing in classical Japanese literature. Find her on Twitter @IoriKusano and Instagram as iori_stagram, or on her blog.

1 Comment

  1. What a great way to start off a year of SF. There was a real subtlety to this story that I enjoyed, even if the ending was kind of unclear. Having really enjoyed my time in Tokyo I appreciated returning there in this way, and it’s clear that you know the city very well.

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