Monday, January 8th, 2007
by Elizabeth Koch
Part travelogue and part convoluted love story, The World Tour Compatibility Test is a series of true stories set in exotic locales, as two American writers decide whether to break up or move in together. Click to catch up on Shanghai, Beijing, and part one of Tokyo.
The next morning we head to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The room is empty but for a group of women in slashed-up T-shirts at the far table. They drink tea and flip through a design portfolio. We sit next to the window and Todd orders French Toast, which arrives in two triangular towers beneath a puff of powdered sugar. My fruit cocktail comes in a porcelain teacup, and every cherry, every tangerine wedge and kiwi cube, is without blemish, perfect as refrigerator magnets. The meal is so pretty I cannot imagine eating it. Instead I take pictures.
Todd is watching me. He reaches across the table and takes my hand, and my eyes begin to water. Something inside me is coming unglued, and for once I don’t want to stop it.
“It’s just the people are so nice here,” I say, these strange tears splashing on my teacup dish. “I feel so weird.”
He laughs. “What—happy?”
The question threatens to ruin my mood, so I ignore it. I pick up my chopsticks and eat the fruit piece by piece, delicately and deliberately. How oddly powerful things can taste when you really pay attention. I want to always pay attention. I will not let anyone stop me from paying attention.
When we are finished, the mess we leave also looks perfect, so I take pictures of that, too.
After breakfast we take the subway into Harajuku, an edgy shopping center and weekend hang-out for trend-setting teens. The kids here dress like gothic storybook characters, Heavy Metal Strawberry Shortcake and Little Bo Peep on Crystal Meth. Todd leads me by the hand from the crowded subway down a winding alley that drops us off at La Foret, a 7-floor shopping center crammed with small boutiques.
We step into a shop stocked with baby doll dresses and studded muscle shirts priced at 35,000 yen, which we calculate is a shocking $300. Still, Todd picks up a sky blue dress and hands it to me.
I try it on behind a silk curtain the size of a pillowcase and feel magnificent, light and floaty—a peacock feather of a person.
“That’s beautiful,” Todd says, and from the way he looks at me, I can see he means it. I buy it. Next we go to a men’s store, and Todd tries on a pair of sunglasses that make him look like a bug. I buy those, too. I want to buy everything in sight to make this feeling last, this butterfly rush of breathlessness in my chest, this sparkly wide-eyed gratitude. I try on a green trucker hat with pins all over it, which I want because it reminds me of Todd.
The two boys behind the cash register have spiky hair and chains hanging from their belt buckles.
“Shibui!” they say when they see me in the green hat.
“What’s that mean?” I ask.
“Oh,” I say to them. “Armando!”
The boys appear confused.
“You mean, arigato,” Todd says.
“Then what’s Armando?” I ask.
“Armando is our concierge. Please, dear, we need to go now.”
“But I want to learn more Japanese. Don’t you want to learn more Japanese?”
“I want to not starve to death.”
For once I have forgotten about food.
We find a busy, open-air restaurant and share a chair by the register. We eat dumplings and hold hands beneath the spotless wooden countertop.
“I think I want to move here,” I say as we leave. “I’m going to look into Japanese immersion classes when we get back.”
We walk by a Western store filled with cowboy hats. There is something unnatural about Japanese men in cowboy hats. I half expect them to break into showtunes. Todd drops my hand and starts chewing on his fingers. He always chews on his fingers even though I tell him it will give him Cancer.
“Well,” he says after a moment, “I guess I could live in Tokyo for a year. You mean after we try San Francisco for a while, right?”
I say nothing. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I hadn’t thought about when, or how, or to what end. I’d merely thought: Me happy. In truth, I hadn’t thought of Todd at all. The future doesn’t seem to have anything to do with us.
Todd is grumpy and tired, but he agrees to walk from Harajuku to Shibuya, a major subway stop mobbed with wealthy teenagers. The buildings are neck-breakingly high. Monster globes and Saturn-like orbs rotate on towering metal poles. Mammoth flat screen TVs flicker overhead.
“Oh look, a 7-11,” I say and drop Todd’s hand. A white Lamborghini guns through the cross walk. Dozens of kids float past.
I turn around. Todd is stopped in the middle of the street, pale and helpless with our pink and black La Foret bags in the crook of his elbow, like a little old lady. I have to laugh.
“Come on, little one, let’s get you some water,” I say, and wave him over.
The 7-11 is my toy store. Inside are dozens of rows of plastic candy bags: purple rice paper treats with cartoon puppy logos, Coca Cola flavored chewing gum and lime green Kit Kats, pudding marshmallows you can hold in your hand. Stacked on shelves are vacuum-sealed bags of Sashimi, seaweed salad in cupcake holders, red bean paste rolled into balls.
Todd walks up to me and butts his head against my shoulder. “I want to take a nap,” he whines. His lips are wet, slobbery against my neck.
“Look!” I squeal. “Hard boiled eggs with teriyaki dipping sauce! In a 7-11!”
Todd pushes off me and drops our shopping bags. “I’m leaving,” he says.
“Don’t you want to learn about Japanese junk food?” I shout after him.
Todd and I stand side by side in the Shibuya subway station, waiting for the train. I hand him a water bottle, and he snatches it.
I notice a rubber strip across the floor near the subway pit. I’d noticed the same thing in La Foret, and in the middle of the crosswalk overhead.
“What’s that rubber lane for? To keep people on their own side of the walkway?”
“I think it’s for blind people. You know, so they don’t walk into the pit.”
“That’s idiotic. Have you seen any blind people in Japan?”
“It’s not idiotic. It’s nice.” His tone is sharp, defensive.
“Nice? How is it nice to spend tens of millions of dollars to put rubberized lanes on every walkable portion of the city as a favor to the three blind people here? Where do you think that money comes from?”
“Stop yelling at me!”
“Don’t act like you know what you’re talking about when you don’t!”
And here we are again.
That night I put on my new powder blue dress and we walk to a nearby sushi bar, an off the map local favorite, according to Armando. It’s late when we arrive, past 10 p.m. We sit at the bar and point to the fish we want. I’m craving ebi, but it only comes raw, which means see-through. I pick up a piece and dangle it in front of Todd’s nose.
The sushi chef gives us small bowls of cucumber and ginger and I eat Todd’s and mine both. Then I ask for three orders of grilled mushrooms, and four sides of daikon.
“Are you going to stop ordering anytime soon?” Todd asks.
“Small girl, big appetite,” the sushi chef says. “Where you from? Milwaukee?”
“New York,” I say.
“Ah,” he says. “My brother in Milwaukee.”
I laugh, and toss back another shot of sake. I raise the empty cup. “Could we get more?”
Todd slaps his hand on the bar, and a chopstick flips in the air. “I don’t want any more sake!”
“What’s your problem?”
“It’s 11 p.m., I finished my food twenty minutes ago, I’m tired and you know it. I’m sick of you being so fucking inconsiderate.”
“You can leave whenever you want.”
The sushi chef moves away from us.
We wrap up the bill and I hurry ahead of Todd. I find myself in an alley strung with Christmas lights—another small shopping area. Even at midnight, several clothing boutiques are still open. I try on a cheap dress and buy it. I wander past giant wagons overflowing with produce, and run my fingers over the white plums, apples, and pears before buying a bunch of those, too. I would buy anything—a wig, a rice steamer, a whole new Japanese wardrobe—to get back the feeling I had today, the feeling of stillness and rightness and being so utterly at home.
Todd is sleeping when I get back. I open the New Yorker I brought with me and eat an apple. My chewing barrels through my head and ears.
Todd doesn’t stir.
The next day when I wake up Todd is on the computer. I put on my jeans and a T-shirt and say nothing, hoping that he’s researching things to do without me.
“Do you want to see museums?” he asks with his back towards me. “We could walk around the Ueno park area.”
“I think we need to spend a day away from each other,” I say.
“It’s not normal to spend so much time together.”
“I know you think it isn’t.”
“Please don’t tell me what your friends think. It’s fine, I’m leaving.”
Outside the window, the sky is dark, smoky gray but for a ribbon of blue shivering across the horizon. Todd is gone, the room is empty, and I need to be outside. I ask Armando where to go on a walk.
“Here, by the Naka-Meguro area, there is a river with a walking path. Only area in Tokyo with no McDonald’s!” He is thrilled with this tidbit and assumes I will be, too. But I could use something as familiar and grotesque as McDonald’s right now.
A block into my walk the sky opens and rain pours down, but I can’t go back to the hotel. I know myself. Back in the room I would crawl into bed like a hysteric, pull the sheets up to my nose and watch winged monsters creep out of the wallpaper. I keep walking. Rain seeps through my shirt.
Two blocks later I hear footsteps slapping the sidewalk behind me. I don’t turn around.
“Ms. Elizabeth, please!” Armando has chased me down the sidewalk with an umbrella.
“Oh my god, Armando, thank you.”
He bows, and rain drips from his chin. His smile is as wide as ever. Again he refuses a tip.
I find the river and take pictures of funny squat birds on rooftops. It is quickly becoming an obsession of mine, spying on these big-bellied birds. I stop grammar school boys on their way home from soccer practice and make them pose for me. The farther I walk, the more introspective I become—the more concerned with how little I have done to earn my thirty years. I map out a plan of action in my head, an outline of steps I can take to feel better about myself. Shortly after Todd and I started dating, I had a meltdown about my lack of achievement. Todd drew me a graph of my expectations versus reality, an ink drawing along an X/Y axis. “Your expectation line is way out of whack,” he’d said. I think that’s when I fell in love with him.
By the time I look up, forty-five minutes have passed and I realize that I’m lost. This is what always happens when I spend too much time thinking about myself. I get lost.
I stop three cabbies and ask them to take me to Claska. I give them the address and show them a map and still they don’t know what I’m talking about. “Gomen-nasai,” they say, I’m sorry, and the automatic taxi door swings open to let me out. I feel like sitting down on the sidewalk and waiting for Todd to find me, proof that I am stupid and reckless and need to be taken care of. But I know this is the opposite of what I want.
I find a gas station and approach an older man with one eyelid dripping like wax down his face. He shakes his head and points to the younger guys outside. “Know English,” he says, and he’s right, they do. Tokyo has left the older generations behind, the transportation workers, the antique shopkeepers and their traditional lifestyles. Tokyo belongs to the tech kids, whose brains were trained from birth to think at warped speeds. I wonder how many people live in the gap between. Seems like a lonely place to be.
On the way home I stop by The Royal Host, the Japanese version of Denny’s, and take a picture of the heated toilets. I unload my change into the red vending machine on the street corner and guzzle two fizzy coffee drinks. I buy a tiny pink cake and eat it in front of the doggy beauty shop next to our hotel. I hate animals, I think.
I worry that Tokyo has lost its charm on me.
When I arrive home, Todd isn’t back yet. I decide to make myself useful and do the laundry. I find the machines on the third floor and press a bunch of buttons I cannot read.
When Todd gets back we go to Shinjuku, home of the busiest subway station in the world. We stroll around the area, not really looking, and make polite conversation about the day, which was pretty miserable for us both.
We stop at a crosswalk and I point to a sign. “Why is it that the crosswalk figures on Japanese signs are fat, when most Japanese people are skinny?” I ask to fill the silence. “And the figures on American signs are skinny, when most Americans are fat?”
“Look,” Todd interrupts, “a chicken.” He points to a poster of a cartoon chicken in a chef’s hat holding a spatula in front of a barbecue.
I love chicken. Our first few months together, Todd and I frequented a silly bistro near my apartment called The French Roast. I’d make him go with me around midnight to attend to my cravings for chicken breasts and steamed spinach, even though Todd hates eating late. I’d get very excited at the prospect of midnight chicken runs, and Todd would get very excited at the prospect of me being very excited.
We walk down a narrow stairwell to the chicken place. The menu is crammed with exciting new dishes. We have trouble choosing between the “gizzard of chicken ear” and the “thin skin of chicken diaphragm.”
“Sashimi of brain?” I ask Todd.
Todd smiles faintly, and picks at his cuticles, which are mangled and bleeding. “I won’t bother you much in Nara,” he says. “There are lots of World Cup games in the next few days.”
“You’re not bothering me,” I say.
“Well, in any case.”
His hand is in his mouth again, and I want to reach across the table and save him from himself. But I don’t.
Outside, men in pimp suits and slicked-back hair with ducktail swirls try to coax us inside. One approaches us.
“Where you two from?”
“New York City,” I say.
“Ah, you boogie boogie?” He shakes his ass.
Todd mutters something and wanders ahead of me.
“You very pretty. Come inside for a minute.” He takes me by the elbow and drags me towards his friends, two men in skinny neckties and 50s mobster hats who sit on stools in front of a darkened doorway.
“I can’t. I’m with him,” I say, and point to Todd, whose face is pressed to a window half a block away. He glances back at the pimp and me, then turns his back on us. He keeps walking.
The pimp laughs and shakes his head. “You need new boyfriend,” he says.
Next, Elizabeth and Todd in Nara…