Sunday, January 28th, 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, Tokyo, a little more Tokyo, and the beginning of Nara.
The next day I wake up hot and dry-mouthed, my mood wholly uncivilized, so I quietly get out of bed to go on walk. Todd sits up as I’m trying to find my shorts. “I’ll go with you,” he says.
“No, I want to be alone.”
“I thought we were going over Opium deadlines this morning.”
“Elizabeth, we’re way behind…”
“I know, I know, I fucked up the Vik Muniz interview, I don’t know how to manage my time—can we go over my flaws later?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Sure it is,” I say with my hand on the doorknob.
“Please don’t walk away like that. What if you die?”
I turn around prepared to apologize for being pissy, and to confess that I’m looking for things to be mad about. But he’s chewing on his cuticles like a nervous child. I do not want my boyfriend to behave like a nervous child. I don’t want to mother and scold my boyfriend. I want my boyfriend to be strong and confident and, when I’m behaving badly, to verbally knock me around a little.
The heat is so oppressive that within ten minutes I see red spots. I return to our hotel. Todd is sitting on the bed, waiting for me.
We walk to see the temples in silence. He takes my hand firmly and with intention. I know what’s coming. We pass a group of school children in uniform, and I let go of his hand to take pictures. We pass a life-sized bicycle made of twigs, and I take a picture of that, too. I worry that I’m becoming one of those people who takes pictures to avoid experiencing things.
Todd stops walking. “I need to talk to you,” he says. He steps in front of me, removes the camera from my hand and puts it in his pocket. He laces his fingers through mine. “Do you want to be in a relationship with me? Really, do you? Because I feel like I’m the only one working on improving things between us.”
I want to remove my hands from his. When Todd’s upset with me, he wants to touch me. When I’m upset with Todd, I want him to fall down a well.
“I have to sit down,” I say. He walks me to a wooden stump.
A few mangy deer mill around beside us. “The sacred deer,” Todd says sadly. One jams its nose in the back of his knee. He pushes it away gently, and turns back to me.
The pressure for me to respond, to say what I don’t know, fills my head with grit. I open my mouth and have no idea what will come out. “I love you,” I say carefully, “it’s just hard for me to feel it when I’m trapped in my head, ticking off all the things I need to do to earn my existence.”
His face looks ashen. “Please let me be part of the solution, not the problem. Don’t make me one of your problems.”
Todd’s little belly is pouting out behind his Green Arrow superhero T-shirt. I pull him towards me so I can sink my nose in his skinny boy bloat. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I hate how selfish I am.”
He runs his fingers through my hair. “Don’t,” he says. “Don’t hate. Just let me in.”
We stand on the steps of the Todai-Ji Temple, a wooden structure that houses the biggest bronze Buddha in the world. We’d been looking forward to this moment ever since reading a description on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, in a series called Kevin Dolgin Tells You About Places You Should Go In Europe. We’d imagined a colossal multi-floored structure with enlightened monks and holy people wandering around in their hair shirts, blessing things. That was the picture painted by Kevin Dolgin—another friend of Todd’s. “Climb through Buddha’s nose,” he wrote, “and you are destined for heaven.”
Todd and I circle the interior of the Todai-Ji Temple three times looking for the world’s biggest Buddha, and all we find is a tin, paint-chipped, medium-sized Buddha that appears to have sat outside during a hailstorm.
“His nostrils are tiny,” Todd says.
“And closed,” I say.
We hear giggling around the corner, and again walk behind the pathetic Buddha. A kid is shimmying through a hole in the bottom of a wooden pillar while half a dozen friends cheer him on. We hadn’t noticed this hole before.
“That?” Todd says, astonished. “Buddha’s nostril is a hole in pillar?”
“I don’t get it.”
Todd stares at the hole. “I’m writing a response article on McSweeney’s called, ‘Kevin Dolgin Lies to the World.’”
I start to walk away, but Todd shrugs. “Well, we’re here,” he says. He drops to his knees and puts his head and shoulders through the hole. “Take a picture!” he yells from the ground as he struggles through.
I take a picture. Then I give him the camera and go through, too.
We stand and dust ourselves off. “Well, I certainly feel better about myself,” I say.
“You should, you’re going to heaven.” He glances longingly at the schoolchildren who shove one another on their way out the temple. “I wish those kids had stayed to watch me.”
I give him a look.
“What? At least then the experience would’ve been memorable. How funny to get a video of a bunch of Japanese school kids cheering me on?”
“Can you enjoy anything without an audience?”
“You’re missing the point. On purpose.”
Maybe I am. Maybe I’m replaying the past, when Todd would walk into a room and announce that he was the founding editor of a literary magazine and a Pushcart Prize nominee and start handing out Opium buttons. I told him on our third date that his narcissism and need for public strokes would be our downfall. He worked on it immediately—really worked on it. He worked on it so hard that I began to wonder if what I’d pegged as egotism was in fact simple excitement— some kind of a primal, urgent obligation to infect everyone with the bursting joy he felt. It’s Todd’s way to take a disappointing situation and do everything in his power to transform it. It’s my way to get ticked off and find something better to do—or at least something different.
Either way, it gets old, always feeling like the wrong one.
On the way out we stop by a row of knick-knack booths that display paper dolls, fan-shaped cards, and cell phone baubles. We buy geisha cards for Todd’s mom.
“Let’s try that,” Todd says, and points to a sign over a booth that says Read your fortune, 600 yen.
I nod. “I could use a $5 rip-off.” The booth attendant has a wispy Fu Manchu moustache. He holds out a wooden vase stuffed with wooden sticks and motions for me to take one. I pull one out, and he hands me a piece of paper.
I read it. “Things aren’t that great for you.”
Todd laughs. “How rude!” He picks a stick.
“Lemme guess,” I say.
“Things are pretty good for you, and looking up!”
We look at one other. “Unbelievable,” I say. How ridiculous that a $5 tourist stunt mind-read our situation so simply. It’s so ridiculous, and so true, that I can’t even be pissed. I find the dirt speck in an otherwise spotless room, and stare at it until dirt is all I see. Todd could be buried to his neck in mud and half-strangled by weeds, and consider himself special for the attention. I call him deluded. He calls me a misery-monger. These are the fortunes we’ve chosen, the circumstances we’ve willed with our attitudes. I wish I could remember this, do something about it, but I’m no damn good at conning myself into positive thinking.
I wrinkle my nose.
“Come on, nature hater—they’re sacred!”
“I don’t hate nature. I hate animals.”
Todd goes to buy biscuits and I wait near a tree, where a deer with red antlers is sniffing around the grass. I shut my eyes, let the sun warm my face. Todd tugs on the plastic bag full of the cards we just bought, and I hold on tight—Todd’s chivalry verges on aggressive. But he keeps yanking so I open my eyes and there’s the sacred deer, eating my plastic card bag. I try to push him away and my fingers catch on his antler, which gives like a sponge and leaks some sort of varmint ooze on my hand.
“Jesus!” I shout. He looks at me hard, the deer, then goes back to eating grass.
“You’re going to scare all the nice deer,” Todd says, suddenly at my side. He hands me a bag of crunchy waffles crisps that look too good to feed the deer—especially this antlered asshole.
I open the waffle bag, and six deer rush out from behind trees and oversized wooden carts like a pack of gang rapists.
“Haha, they love you!”
“Get them the fuck away from me!”
“Here!” he says, and I toss him the food. He tosses me the camera. “Film me!” he shouts, so I film him giggling like a ticklish maniac while the rabid deer nuzzle and maul him.
“Meek and defenseless my ass,” I say when Todd’s finished. “Those are attack deer.”
“No kidding. There should be deer rings here. For deer fight clubs.”
“That’s what happens when too many people tell you you’re sacred. You get greedy and spoiled.”
“Oh, how sweet,” Todd says, and pulls me to him. “You want to teach the deer humility, just like you did with me.” He kisses my cheek.
We exit the park and walk through an underpass that doubles as a mall of sorts. Dime stores and pet shops and stands of tourist kitsch form a chain on both sides, but we’re looking for food. We step over a large “Please Don’t Litter” sign painted directly on the walkway.
“Have you seen a single trash can since we’ve been here?” I ask Todd.
“Nope. But right there is an old man watering his rock.”
He points to an old man in violet pajamas watering a rock, just outside a tackle shop. This observation makes me endlessly happy.
When I come out the other side of the mall, the sun is blinding. It bounces off the sidewalk and bleaches the calligraphy off of signs and objects hanging in windows. I shield my eyes with the chewed up card bag, and find a noodle shop with air conditioning. I order Udon soup with chicken, then walk outside to see if I can find Todd. I spot him coming down the hill we’d dragged our bags up the day before. His head is hanging, his shoulders slump forward, and he’s tripping on his feet, as if he’d been walking though a desert for fourteen days. I wave, and run up to him. A white crust has formed in the corner of his lips.
“Thirsty,” he says.
“Oh!” I hug him, and give him my water bottle. “Why didn’t you go buy water?”
“You left me.”
“You need me to tell you when you’re thirsty?”
“You left me,” he moans again.
I take him to the restaurant where my noodle soup is waiting. I push it across the table.
“Eat,” I say.
“Nasty,” he says. “Smells like dirty underwear.” He scowls at me.
I know he’s punishing me, and I know I am on thin ice. “Okay, goddammit, let’s go to Mos Burger,” I say because he’s right. I did leave him. I’m always leaving him— a preemptive measure, I think, to show him that the power is in my hands. Again and again I test him, push his loyalty to the snapping point, perhaps to force him to see what I’ve known all along: that he’s kidding himself with his love for me. It’s not real; it can’t be real. It’s a childish fantasy, a little boy challenge to relieve me of my suffering, to break me of my wild aggressive streak. Either way, I know damn well that one day he’ll get sick of my tests. Part of me looks forward to this.
On the way home we walk back through the mall and stop by a hat place. I look for the face-shielding Darth Vader visors I’d seen in Beijing, but instead find a woven cap with a bill long enough to touch a mirror two feet away.
“I’m getting this for my mother,” I say. My mom lives in the California desert and plays tennis six days a week in spite of a wrecked rotator cuff and a skin disease that chews up her pigment when exposed to direct sunlight. On the tennis court she wears long-sleeve shirts and Amelia Earhart goggles and hats like this one.
The shopkeeper pressed her cheek to Todd’s shoulder and pets him. “He affectionate,” she says to me, meaning either Todd or the dog; I can’t tell.
I buy the hat, and Todd fakes putting the dog in the bag and sneaking out with it. The shopkeeper slaps Todd on the back and giggles wildly.
Tonight we eat dinner in the hotel restaurant, which turns out to be Japanese fine dining. Only one other table is occupied. A jowly woman sits across from a gray-haired lady with roller marks in her hair. They don’t talk much.
Our waitress is severely underweight with Tales from the Crypt teeth and a clavicle that pushes through her white lace collar like a handlebar. She hands us menus and disappears for half an hour.
“What in God’s name is this stuff?” I ask.
Todd closes his menu and nods at the jowly woman and her mother. “Check out what they’re having,” he says. I can’t see over the bronze crock pot between them.
The waitress returns with two cubes of clear jello. Tentacles jut out the top like a small tuft of hair.
I glance at the menu. I don’t want anything. “I’ll get this sea cucumber.”
Todd grabs my arm. “Are you kidding?” he gasps. “That’s seriously the grossest food on the planet.”
“Your hero,” I say, mad all over again about Todd’s frat-boy grandstanding with John in Beijing.
“Have you SEEN a sea cucumber? It looks like,” he glances up at the waitress, then whispers, “a big wet green dick. . . with hair.”
Of course that makes me want to order it, but I don’t.
I ask the waitress if they have anything like tuna or shrimp. She looks distressed and leaves to go see if there’s anything normal in the kitchen.
“Do you want to go?”
“We can’t, now,” I say, and gesture to the radish jello.
“Fine. We’ll find something.”
He scans the menu, and I stare at the tentacles so hard they begin to twitch. “I’m getting hives,” I say.
He slaps his menu closed. “We’re leaving.”
We find a sushi restaurant that’s still open, and I’m so relieved I order two plates of grilled vegetables and three rows of sashimi even though I’ve lost my appetite. I feel horrible for leaving the other restaurant after mashing up our appetizers to make it look like we ate them. Sure, we apologized and left a tip, but I don’t want to be the sort of person who makes nice waiters and waitresses feel bad. I want to be okay with things not turning out the way I’d planned.
When I’m finished with my plate, I pick at Todd’s. I don’t want what he has. I just want to feel close to him. He stabs at my hand with a chopstick.
When we get back to the hotel Todd races upstairs to see what he missed of the game.
“I’ll meet you up there!” I shout, and walk through the lobby to the bathroom, where I get to choose between Japanese style toilets (a hole in the ground) and American style toilets (the pot). I don’t want to go back to that tiny room while Todd gets worked up over the game just to stare at the ceiling and feel bad about myself all night. I want someone to put in a straightjacket and read me lullabies until I sleep. I lift up the American style toilet seat and, for the first time in my life, make myself throw up.
I hardly think twice about it.
This could become a problem.
Find out what happens…in Kyoto.