Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Seat on the Train

for Skip, Aruna and Giaccomo

The young woman had perhaps slept past her stop.  She got up suddenly and hurried from the train and, because Takashi was standing right there, in front of the seat she had left, he sat down. 

He sat and was aware of the young woman's lingering warmth, which floated up, from his thighs to his chest and his neck, all the way to his ears.  A seat on the train: a small and significant pleasure.  He rode the same rush hour train six days a week – he could not remember the last time he’d gotten a seat.

And this was, in Takashi’s opinion, the very best seat on the train.  At the very end of the car, across from the seats reserved for the elderly, disabled and pregnant, with a six inch wide ledge on one side where you could rest your arm, a small space which, it seemed to Takashi, made all the difference between feeling comfortable or cramped. 

Glancing at the digital screen above the door, he saw that Nagatacho was next – his stop.  He was surprised.  It seemed to him the train had just passed Meguro.  He’d thought he might have four or five stops left.

But no, his stop was next – just two or three minutes away.  Still, he did not complain, but resolved to enjoy the time as much as he could, because he almost never got a seat, and work would last ten hours at least, and also because he’d been reading a book on Zen, translated from English, written by a Japanese who’d run away to California, and that book claimed it was possible to enjoy your life just five seconds at a time.

The book also said you should not compare yourself to other people.  Takashi often wondered if he was happier than other people, or less happy.  He sometimes considered himself a dissatisfied person, even a little depressed, but then he thought about how we tend to hide our sorrows from each other and nearly always appear more cheerful and competent than we feel – as if we have endorsed life when really we’ve just shown up for it.  It was even possible that he was somewhat more cheerful than most people – poor Tokyo!

In this way, Takashi fell into comparisons and forgot to enjoy the small and significant pleasure of getting a seat on a rush hour train.

When the train doors opened at Nagatacho, Takashi discovered that he could not move.  He’d never even had to think about it before.  The doors opened at 7:23 and out he went, to Exit #5 and up the steps to work. 

But now the train doors had opened and Takashi did not more.  Open, still open: there he sat.  It seemed to him that the train doors stayed open an extra second, as if surprised.  Then they closed and the train began to move.

Takashi felt a little surprised at himself.  Here was another small malfunction – just as he’d recently found that he needed to get up at night to pee.  Still, it wasn’t a problem --he could get off the train at the next stop, at Yotsuya.  He wouldn’t even need to catch the train back – he could walk.

He did not get off at Yotsuya however, nor Ichigaya or Iidashbashi – which was as far as he could reasonably walk.  He just sat, as if glued to his seat, and the further the train went, the harder it was to give up his seat because the crowd was gradually dispersing and it seemed to him that, for the first time in years, he had space and could breathe.

He was surprised.  Not quite disapproving.  Just surprised, as he was whenever he made discoveries about his co-workers after years of working with them.  Like when he realized that Mr. Tanaka kept a jar of shochu in his desk, or that Mr. Sato was almost certainly a homosexual, or that Miss Endo – who seemed so sedate – was in fact addicted to gambling.

He discovered that, despite years of being reliable, he was actually the kind of man who suddenly does not turn up for work -- the kind of man who does not even call in.

He wondered if he was suffering from a mental breakdown, if he was not actually such a trustworthy or even moral person.  To his further surprise, he found that all these possibilities were acceptable – as long as he did not have to give up his seat, get on another train, and go to work.

He rested on the industrial velveteen seat and watched the tunnel pass outside the darkened window.  The passenger to his right was gone – now he had room for both arms. 

The train arrived at Oji.  And still he did not get off.  He really was a reprobate, apparently.  The train stations went past, all alike.  The Namboku line merged and continued as the Saitama Rapid.  Why, he wondered, was it necessary to tile every inch of every station as if it were a public toilet?  If the economy depended on government projects – why couldn’t the government employ 13,000 muralists?

Takashi had been entertaining thoughts like this for some time.  Anyone could have seen he was bound to be a troublemaker.

He looked around him.  A few seats had opened up, but mostly it was still businessmen in suits and middle-aged women with bags.  There were young people too, peering into their phones.  They all looked as if they hadn’t used their faces for a long time, almost as if they’d had a stroke.  But this was normal, yes, it was very normal.  Their faces would work when they needed them next.  Their recovery would be almost complete.

Outside of a hospital, refugee camp or prison – were there people who looked anywhere who looked as unhappy as on the train in Tokyo?  And this was the Namboku/Saitama line, which passed through the very best neighborhoods: these people were doing well.

Takashi experimented with putting a smile on his face.  Just a little smile.  The Japanese Zen master who ran away to California had suggested this.  Takashi tried it.  He did not wish to alarm anyone.  It was an extremely small smile.  Still, the smile stayed on his face.  He felt pleasantly subversive. 

There were fewer people on the train.  It was no longer a crowd.  Then a few more stations passed and Takashi found that there was less of him as well.

How it could it be?  How could he be less or more?  He was either here or he was not.  Still, it seemed to him that there was less than there had been before, at Oji, or Iidabashi or Nagatacho.  As the Saitama Rapid Line progressed, he was gradually becoming less.

He saw his reflection in the glass across the way: it seemed his face had lost the bit of the curve it had, the last bit of youth it had held until now.  His teeth were loosening as well, he was sure.  Whatever it was he’d meant to do with his life – he hadn’t gotten around to it.

He thought he ought to be upset.  He was not upset.  A coolness had overtaken him, as if he’d sunk to the bottom of a swimming pool.  It was not all sad, though it was all loss.

As the train continued on, Takashi felt his family rise up off of him, like ghosts.  They went up in the sky along with their narrow house and the laundry line and the persimmon tree in the yard.  His grandparents first, then his siblings, followed by his mother.  Finally even his poisonous father peeled off.

Takashi had missed his station.  He’d missed his chance.  It was somewhere, far in the past.  He missed his goal.  He forgot why it mattered.  He forgot what it was.

Takashi forgot his job, his co-workers, his girlfriends, his schoolmates.  Takashi forgot the people who loved him.  The next thing that happened was even more amazing: he forgot the people who didn’t love him. 

He was alone in the world.  He forgot he was alone in the world.  The train continued through the tunnel, the announcements went on and on.  There was no one left but an almost middle-aged businessman, sitting upright in the corner at the end of the car.  This man, and a forgotten umbrella, left hanging on a bar.

How astonishing – the thought came – that he had once entertained the notion that it was possible to get off of the train.  An optical illusion obviously, based on an entirely false understanding.

He moved smoothly through space now, with no impediments.  He felt he’d lost so much that needed desperately to be lost.  If someone could have found him then, and asked him if he was happy or sad, he could not have answered. 

But if he had been found, and someone had asked, “Are you having a good time?”  He would have said, “Yes.”  Though at that point, it’s true, he would have said Yes to everything. 

He looked across the way to the window, to his reflection, to the tunnel.  There was only an unemployed man riding the train all the way to the terminal.  And then there was only the tunnel, and the umbrella left behind.  


Guttersnipe Das said...
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Patrick said...