Tuesday, April 17th, 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, two entries in Nara, two in Kyoto, and a return to Tokyo.
The pod place is on the 7th floor in a building full of arcades and noise-making Pachinko machines. We step off the elevator and take off our shoes and hand them to the front desk guy, who takes a good minute to stab out his cigarette before taking them. The reception desk is cracked up and down the sides and repaired with silver duct tape. The walls behind the desk are peeling like bark.
“Where are the pods?” I ask, and the cashier points around the corner. Todd checks out a video game, and we walk past manga magazine racks and dingy stacks of pornographic posters. We weave through a grid of cubicles that remind me of the B floor of my college library, where I spent most of my time hiding from the people I’d gotten drunk with the night before for fear they would expect me to be as friendly sober as I was drunk, which was a silly thing for me to fear, because no one ever is.
So many people are smoking in the pod area that we quite literally wade through fog. It would have been romantic if it weren’t for the carbon monoxide. Todd sneezes.
“This is the place in that article?” Todd says, and sneezes again. “Where are the milkshakes? The make-out rooms? Didn’t they mention a butler?”
“I’m terrible at choosing venues,” I say.
“I’m going to write a rebuttal article and force the Times to publish it.”
The very suggestion that the Times would publish Todd’s rebuttal article when they have ignored every pitch I’ve sent them thus far deeply annoys me.
Once we find an open two-person pod station, Todd sets up his video game and starts playing. I’m having problems. First I can’t figure out how to turn the computer on, then I can’t find the English option, and when I do, it’s broken. I leave to find help and by the time I return with a nice lady who fixes my computer, Todd’s nose is running, and his skin is a slimy shade of green.
“I need to get out of here, soon.”
“Wait just a couple minutes.”
Todd looks over and notices that, instead of watching a manga slide show or playing nudie Pac Man, I am reworking a travel pitch.
He slams his fists down on the table, and the keyboard jumps. “You’re working? Why are we here getting emphysema if you’re just doing what you were doing in the hotel room?”
“Because I thought it would be nice to work in a different environment.”
“But you’re not supposed to be working. We’re supposed to be getting our Japanese freak on.”
“But I hate myself when I’m not working.”
“You look for reasons to hate yourself.” He stands. “I’ll wait for you in the clean air section up front.”
That night I figure fuck it and decide to blow through another wad of cash at the five-star sushi restaurant on the 40th floor.
We are given a corner table, one with panoramic views. Todd and I are both clean with presentable hair and I’m wearing contacts even though my tear ducts are scratched from the gritty air in the pod place. The setting is endlessly romantic, and Todd and I are endlessly uncomfortable.
“I’m working on a new story,” Todd says. “Very Saunders-ish,”
“Yeah. Actually, it doesn’t remind me of Saunders. But I think it will remind other people of Saunders.”
I don’t say anything.
“What are you working on?”
“Can we talk about something besides writing for once?”
The waitress comes by and takes our order. I order sake.
“You may select from our drink menu,” she says, and points to the drink menu.
“I’ll just have a dry sake.”
She looks confused.
“Any kind is fine, so long as it’s mild.”
“Elizabeth,” Todd says. “We’ve been over this. In Japan, sake means ‘alcohol.’”
“I don’t remember you telling me that. When did you tell me that?”
“I did. Multiple times.”
“That makes no sense. Then how do I order the clear stuff that tastes like teriyaki sauce?”
Todd’s cheeks are turning pink. He rips the menu from my fingers and orders a nihonshu sampler for each of us. The waitress bows, and leaves.
He sits back in his chair. “It’s really infuriating that you never believe me.”
“Would you stop overreacting?”
“Would you just trust me for once?”
“I don’t think of it as a trust issue.”
“What would you call it? ‘My boyfriend’s an idiot?’”
I say nothing.
When the sake sampler arrives, I toss back three.
We look at the view until the food arrives.
Todd picks at his fatty maguro. “I’d like to go to the technology museum tomorrow, since it’s our last day here,” he says.
“Whatever you want,” I say. I am bored, and depressed that I am bored. I want to eat in silence. Todd and I have absolutely nothing to talk about. Todd doesn’t even read the paper. How am I supposed to date someone who doesn’t read the paper?
Todd takes out the camera and raises it to his face. “Look at me like you love me,” he says, which breaks my heart a little.
I try to smile. The picture is hideous and I erase it. I erase most of the pictures of us in this hotel, and feel a tiny bit better for it.
After dinner we go up to the 52nd floor to the New York Bar. The host leads us to our table, and on the way I spot a fruit plate big enough to cater a Bar Mitzvah. Perhaps it is also big enough to distract me from feeling spoiled and disgusted with myself. But I’m too full to eat.
I know how to fix this problem.
“I have to go to the bathroom,”
Todd looks alarmed. “We haven’t even sat down yet. Don’t leave me sitting here all alone.”
“Are you afraid of being robbed?”
“I feel stupid.”
“I’ll be quick. You sit,” I say.
He rolls his eyes and flops down in his chair and picks up a menu.
I go to the bathroom and stand over the toilet. Perhaps if I were a little less drunk I’d remember the bulimic girls in college with their receding hairlines and puffy faces, the toilets they’d leave in their wake, clogged and stinking of animal decay and dead flowers, and I’d stop to ask myself if I really want to become one of those. But the thing about alcohol is it numbs you just enough to not care about the future. In this moment, what matters to me most is feeling better, and if I don’t throw up I will most likely tear all my skin off, then go back to the table and tear Todd’s off, too.
I throw up, and feel immediately better.
By the time I get back at the table, our drinks and a large bottle of water have arrived. I pick up the bottle and put it to my lips and chug like I’ve just emerged from the spa sauna. Todd watches in silence. When I’m finished, I put down the bottle and walk to the window and observe the view, which is spectacular. The lights are dazzling and blanket the entire city with a sort of Christmas light hysteria. This is the sort of view that makes a person believe she could fly.
There’s a tap on my shoulder and I reach back to take Todd’s hand. I feel a little more affectionate now that my stomach is no longer stretched beyond oblivion. Only the hand doesn’t belong to Todd. It belongs to our waiter.
“Excuse me, you’ll have to sit down.”
He frowns and shakes his head gravely, as if the secret were buried deep beneath a shinto temple back in Kyoto. I take my seat.
“He made you sit down?” Todd asks.
“Yeah. Like I’m going to reach inside the folds of my skirt and whip out a pick-ax and start hacking at the window.”
“I think you were blocking someone’s view.”
“Whose view? Do I really take up that much space?”
“You will after you finish that fruit bowl,” he says.
So many secrets between us.
That night Todd is dead set on watching both of the World Cup knock-out matches—England vs Portugal and Brazil vs France—which take place at 2 am and 4 am.
“I can’t wait to tell everyone about this,” he says, and grabs two pillows. “May I borrow your headphones so I don’t wake you up?”
“Of course. You can’t wait to tell everyone about what?”
“About staying up all night to watch World Cup soccer,” he says, “in this place.” He casts wide arm gestures to the room, like a game show assistant.
“So you’re less excited about the actual experience than about telling everyone about it.”
“I like inspiring people.”
“Right, bragging is very inspirational.”
He leaves the room with my headphones. I can hear him dismantle the stereo system so as not to interrupt my sleep, which annoys me, because I’d prefer to have a reason to be mad at him.
In silent acknowledgement of my abominable behavior, I put on Todd’s Bully t-shirt and stand in front of the two shoved-together king-sized beds. I have no clue how to approach getting inside. The beds are like a giant block of ice with a crack in the middle. A draft flutters the pillow case edges. I want to pile all the pillows in the corner like a bean bag and sleep there, the way I did in college.
I wake up two hours later with my shoulder lodged in the crack. Light from the other room is pouring through the half wall, and Todd is making raspy screaming noises, as if he were cheerleading with laryngitis.
“What the hell are you doing in there?!”
Silence. Then, “How can you hear me?”
“You sound like you’re having a gas leak!”
The phone rings. Todd answers. “Viva la France!” he whisper-shouts. I throw a pillow across the room. Down goes a potted plant.
“Hey, Ben,” he says in a low voice. “I have to whisper. E-beth just woke up, and she’s pissed.”
I wonder how this happened, how I went from a bouncy-haired teen prone to leaping off of rooftops into leaf piles and strutting around classrooms in thigh-highs and mini-skirts to what I am now: a grumpy old woman waiting for her pain medication.
The next morning we wake up around 11 a.m. The sheets around me are cool, almost icy. Todd scoots up behind me, which takes a while considering the size of the beds, and his hand reaches up beneath my Bully t-shirt. Right now sex interests me a little less than putting my head through the television, but I desperately want to feel connected, to feel normal, so I cave to his advances.
For the record, sex has never made me feel closer to anyone. Sex has always made me feel like a mutant.
When we are finished, I start to cry.
Todd pulls me close to him and kisses my forehead. “Oh, shhh, just talk to me.”
“I’m just…I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
“I’m sorry. You must be so sick of this.”
“It’s not fun.”
“I just can’t figure out what to do to feel better about myself.”
Todd sighs. “You know what the problem is,” he says. “You’re too smart. Your brain is constantly working, constantly trying to figure things out, so you pick apart every little thing until you make yourself crazy.”
“Something like that,” I mumble.
“I used to be like you,” he goes on, “but I learned to dumb myself down a long time ago. I’m much happier dumbed down a little.”
I cannot believe what I am hearing. Todd the wise old sage is giving me advice on how to dumb myself down. Todd the 31-year-old video-game aficionado who has no idea what’s going on in the world because he’d rather memorize soccer stats than read the paper.
“There are so many levels of condescension in that comment I don’t know where to begin.” I throw back the sheets and stand.
“Oh good, here we go again. I say something imperfectly and you get to push me away. Any excuse will do.”
“I’m going to the gym,” I say, and put on my gym clothes and head for the door.
“You are addicted to your own shitty thinking,” he shouts after me.
I slam the door and leave him.
Three hours later I return to the room. Todd is on the computer. I know he must be seething—he wanted to be on a train to the museum by noon. I say nothing. I get into the shower and get out and put on my clothes and drink water and still say I say nothing.
“If you still want to go to the Miraikan, we have to leave now. It closes in two hours.” His voice is eerily calm.
It takes two long train rides and a shuttle to get to Tokyo’s Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. On the shuttle we sit side by side, but Todd is turned toward the aisle. No part of him is touching me. I’m afraid to say anything, to apologize, even, for fear that addressing the tension will make it bigger. Because even if I apologized, I’d have to remind him that the reason I was late is because he thinks it’s okay to say things like, “I’m so smart I have to dumb myself down.”
I try to tell myself that intolerance is a good character trait.
“That’s it,” Todd says, and points to a building that looks like Saturn on a needle. When the shuttle stops we get off and Todd tears up the stairs, the two hundred steps that lead to an open patio and a lobby with posters of animated television shows. My thighs are burning from two hours on the elliptical, but I do what it takes to keep up with him.
“Shit!” Todd shouts, and bounced his water bottle off the sidewalk. “We got off a stop too early!” He kicks the water bottle so hard it sails over the railing and lands in the bushes below. I’ve never seen Todd throw such a tantrum. It both scares me and strikes me as tremendously funny. He runs back down the stairs and back around the ramp that leads to the shuttle, and I chase after him.
One stop and a short sprint later, we arrive at the Miraikan doorway. It’s 4:45, and the place closes at 5:00.
A young woman with pigtails and a Miraikan t-shirt holds the door open, as if she were expecting us. She bows and says, “I’m sorry, we are…”
“Two tickets,” Todd says, half breathless.
“We are closing,” she says.
“No, you’re closing in 15 minutes. See?” He points to the clock behind her.
Her eyes widen, and she glances back at her friend, who is standing near the ticket stub depository by the escalator. “We cannot let you in this late,” she says. “It’s policy.”
Todd swats the air, as if the policy were a gnat. “Oh, it’s fine,” he says.
“Come back on Monday?” she suggests brightly.
“We’ll be in Munich on Monday!” Todd says. “This is our only chance!”
“It’s my fault,” I blurt out. “I made us late.”
“Elizabeth,” Todd says, “don’t help.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out 1000 yen and stuffs the money in her hand. “We’ll be quick,” he says, and darts off to the escalator.
“You may go only in open area!” she shouts behind him. “The rest closed!”
Todd glances over his shoulder at me. “You coming?”
Todd gets off on the 7th floor and races up and down the hallway, rattling handles on all the closed doors. Everything is locked. Same goes for one flight down. I stop and take a picture of the yellow rubber lanes that keep the Japanese people from bumping into one another, and I wonder if later, when we are back home in New York or San Francisco, I’ll show him this picture and we’ll fight again over the reason behind these narrow yellow lanes, or if I will be looking at the pictures alone.
On the fifth floor, the doors to the exhibits are still open, and no one is patrolling the area. We slip inside and part ways. I inspect a few pieces of technology and wish that the National Museum for Science and Innovation didn’t remind me so much of Hammacher Schlemmer. I hold a sweater over my chest to hide the visitor’s badge I’m not wearing, and approach a wide screen that records the history of Japanese earthquakes in orange, heart-monitor-like lines.
An old man with a Miraikan badge approaches me. I clutch my sweater.
“You’re from America?”
“Yes, from New York. But we’re moving to San Francisco,” I say, with an amount of conviction that surprises me.
“Ah, San Francisco,” he says. “Very bad earthquakes there. You not afraid?”
I want to tell this nice Miraikan attendant that natural disasters don’t scare me nearly as much as I scare me. But Todd is at my side. He’s seething.
“Jesus, Todd. You scared me.”
“Come with me. I want us to experience this place together.” He grabs my wrist and drags me away from the nice man and towards a giant globe that hangs from a domed window like an enormous blue disco ball. The globe displays weather patterns as it turns. “Take a picture,” he commands. I take a picture, and before I’ve removed the camera from my face, Todd yanks me to a magnet display, then to a podium of copper plates, then to a series of tiny bells.
“You’re hurting my wrist.”
“This one’s my favorite,” he says, and points to an incubator with a heat-sensing stuffed seal trapped inside. “Put your hand in there,” Todd commands, and points to the opening up top.
Pigtails from the entrance appears behind Todd. “You cannot be here,” she says.
“Oh, it’s fine.” Todd says. “Where’s the camera?” he asks me.
“You must leave,” the girl says.
“Let’s just go,” I say.
“We’re not leaving until I take a picture of you and that seal!”
Todd is acting like a maniac. He’s acting like me. And I’m scared.
Where will it end?