Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Joy of Wrong

Tokyo, 2006
(an earlier version was published in the anthology Jungle Crows)

Farrah Fawcett has cancer, he’d read in the paper that day.  She is 59 now, though in the photo she looked the same as ever, with her suntan and her feathered hair.  The type of cancer is not disclosed—only that it is fast-growing.  “I believe in the power of positive thinking,” says the former Charlie’s Angel.  She will now undergo “six weeks of cutting edge, state-of-the-art treatment.”  And adds, “I should be able to return to my life as it was before.”

Seldom, he thinks, is terror given such absolute and pure expression.

He thinks of the story of Ambapali from the sutras: the haggard nun reveals that she was once a woman of legendary beauty, aglow with lust, pursued by princes and kings.  Now she is very old, her breasts shriveled, her face ruined, but she has become a pure seeker and been liberated by the truth.

Black was my hair
-- the color of bees --
& curled at the tips;
   with age, it looked like coarse hemp.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words
      doesn't change.

The idea being that you must not waste time being gorgeous and lustful, but instead hurry on to the ultimate truth.  (As a very young man he’d tried to be entirely holy—but he dropped out of holiness early and utterly.)

He knew the story.  He just wasn’t convinced.  He still thought it was worthwhile, somehow, being Farrah Fawcett.

For example, this young soccer player wandering now onto the train with his flimsy shorts and hairy legs.  When he looks at him—try not to stare—he doesn’t think, “You’re frittering away your precious human rebirth!” but rather, “Thank you for restoring my will to live.”

His state of delusion is terrible.  He is in favor of the world.

These were the kind of playful and nonsensical thoughts he entertained himself with, past midnight on the Namboku line, headed off to the baths on the very last train.

Why, he wanted to know, was it always so cheering to be full-speed ahead in the wrong direction?  Virtuous days wore a grim expression and clung to that righteous clean teeth feeling.  Virtue lacked sincerity overall.

Indulgence, on the other hand, was thoroughly zombified and regrettable.

But this time in-between, this time in the middle, when he’d given in but hadn’t yet arrived: this time was heavenly.

He seemed to float and found that he approved of everything, felt warm and comradely toward the strangers all around him, many no doubt pursuing wrong directions of their own, heading away from home on the last train out.

The soccer player was sitting with his legs spread.  (He looked again; he couldn’t help it.)  Maybe he wasn’t such a young man, actually.  He was definitely a smoker; note the lines around his eyes.  As well as the big green panther tattooed on the inside of his thigh.

Anyway, he was still downright commendable, even if he wasn’t so young or so innocent.  You’ve got to have a real appreciation for decay, if you’re ever going to love human beings.

And he loved everyone tonight. Why, he wondered, had he ever found living so hard?  Why did he struggle so much and torture himself?  The radiance of everything seemed to bubble up so naturally now — just by giving in.

Was this feeling, as he’d been told, only addiction’s poison dart?  Greed’s anesthetic?  If this was so, then he wanted to know: who gave the Devil such pure elixir?

Today he’d done his work, every bit of it, from the moment he got up at six until eleven at night.  There was nothing left to do then but lie down beside his handsome long-term boyfriend, already snoring gently, and begin a seven-and-a-half hour virtuous rest.

His eyes refused to close.

What was the force--when he’d done the right thing seventeen times in a row—that absolutely forbade him to continue?  Why was goodness finally so intolerable?

Addiction’s dart.  In a moment he had everything he needed in a bag; his shoes leapt onto his feet and he was out the door.
There is a special surge of joy that only comes in the moment when you surrender to doing absolutely the wrong thing.  The relentless undead dogs of morality, conscience and reason were barking up a storm, (dammit, one starts barking, they all start barking!) keeping you awake in the middle of the night, and then-- KABOOM!  No idea how it happened, your Honor, those dogs’ heads just exploded.

All at once the hubbub’s finished.  The delicious peace of the perfectly wrong descends.

During the day Tokyo is impossibly narrow, barely shoulder-width, but at night it expands—air rushes in and it becomes a place where a person might actually live.

People were more visible at night with space around them.  For example, the woman across from him now.  Her tight sleeveless camouflage t-shirt revealed her aging navel.  She was a bad girl past fifty, racing across town to be with her bad boy--who was doubtless still pretty hot, even if his beer consumption did sometimes get in the way of regular erections.  The woman looked perfectly thin but not fit.  He wondered if she had bad teeth, if she vomited a lot.

He worried about her but when her eyes opened he looked away.  Of course he did.  There’s no way to tell strangers you care for them.  No way that he had ever found.

The train glided on; the warm recorded voice recited the stops like it was the most natural thing in the world to be stopping at such places at this hour of night.

The train door opened at Shirokanedai and the man with the face of a wild pig got on.  In loose gray sweatpants and sneakers, he shuffled across the train to the handicapped section, where he sat staring straight ahead.

He’d seen the man several times before.  Even in the biggest city in the world, it’s not a face you forget.  His head was a tall wedge and his forehead was vast with a tuft of dull black hair at the top.  Way down low, on opposite sides of his head, were two tiny eyes.  Two dull pig eyes, bored and hungry.

The man with the face of a wild pig was riding the train alone late at night.  He got around on his own.  Someone was home in that head.  What would it be like to look more like an animal than a man? he wondered.  Then: for me it would only be fair disclosure.

He thought he’d like to go and talk to the man with the face of a wild pig.  But only crazy people speak to strangers on the train—that was the rule.  Only crazy people and salarymen rode the train this late--and the salarymen were passed out drunk.

He’d stared too long.  The wild pig man cringed and it seemed fear came into his little eyes.  From his sweatpants the wild pig man pulled a bright red phone with a silken tassel.  He bent his head over the phone and started pushing buttons fast.

As usual, he’d made someone uncomfortable with his staring.  The last thing the poor pig-faced man needed.  He’d scared him already; now he’d never talk.  He’d spoiled his chance.  The pig-faced man would never consent to be loved.  Anyway, this was no time to talk to strangers--not with whiskey on his breath.

The whiskey was a bad idea, probably.  Whiskey was a new addition to the routine.  Used to be he was the only one in the family who didn’t drink.  So much for that.

At Yotsuya he had to change trains.  The train stations were cavernous, especially late night or running late for an interview, when they quadrupled in size and sometimes grew as large as stadiums.  Every inch of the floor, wall, and ceiling was covered in tiny white tiles like a hospital.  It wouldn’t make any difference, he thought, if he walked on the ceiling or the floor.

He hurried through the station and up the escalator toward the Marunouchi Line.  He loved every person in Tokyo, both individually and as a collective, even though not one person in the entire city knew how to walk.  Now, for example: everyone was walking in exaggerated slow-motion, as if escorting an elderly water buffalo down a muddy village path.  You just can’t hurry a water buffalo.  He darted around people, left, right and up, until he very nearly knocked a stroller with an infant down the escalator.  Yes, the whiskey was definitely a bad idea.

The Marunouchi train was already in the station as he leapt down the stairs and in through the doors.  He fell into the open seat and it was ten seconds before he noticed the person sitting, rigid, beside him.

Oh fuck, he thought. I’m sitting next to the organist.

The organist kept his eyes pinned on a banner hanging from the center of the train.  New delicious coffee in a can, this season only!  The organist was an old man but immaculately slim and well-groomed and as wrinkle-free as a flower kept flat in a bible.  Aging punctiliously, as some gay men insist on doing.

He looked like the sort of man who only grew hair on the top of his head: a perfect patch of silver.  This was not the case, however.  He knew for a fact that the organist also had a dark and unexpectedly lush mane of pubic hair.

Tonight the organist was no doubt headed the same place he was--to the baths, where he’d seen him several times before.  How embarrassing.  He was not a church-goer himself--but his boyfriend was.  The handsome entirely first-rate boyfriend he’d take the first train home to in the morning.  The boyfriend to whom he’d apologize all day tomorrow.  The boyfriend who’d heard it all many, many times before.

The organist did not look at him.  He wished he would at least shrug and grin.  But his boyfriend had said he was a very strict gentleman.  He’d been church organist for a generation or more, but still insisted on having the hymns set six weeks in advance.  

When he felt love for the world he wanted to blast the room with it, like a gleeful housemaid with giant cans of peppermint air freshener in both hands.  That’s totally wrong.  To actually love you must bend to peer at and decipher that tricky, nearly microscopic text: the arduous legend of how each person might consent to be loved.  Even then, of course, you may well fail.

The organist kept his eyes on the coffee ad.  Only a fool believes those ads.  Every season, every coffee company comes out with a new variety and they all taste exactly the same, like coffee in a can.  When the train arrived four minutes later he lagged behind and waited until he lost sight of the organist.  He’d see him again later.  They could ignore each other some more.

He stopped at a convenience store to buy two tall silver Asahi, then walked a little further until he saw the yellow and black sign for the baths.

Instead of going right in, however, he went instead to the seedy little park across the way where homeless men sometimes slept on the slide of a rusty playground.  He sat down on a low concrete wall near an open public toilet.  He liked this place very much.  There were so few places in Tokyo where you could just go ahead and fall apart.  A few pale hustler boys loitered nearby, looking they’d lived way too long on Cup Noodle.  

Most of the men were older and sat slumped beside beer cans and sandwich wrappers.  He could have talked to them; they wouldn’t have minded the liquor on his breath.  But he was busy now, on the way to the baths, and he wasn’t entirely thrilled when a man sat down on the wall across from him and started to leer and rub his crotch.

There ought to be more places like this awful little park, he thought.  Where else can you go and be publicly, honestly desperate?  There ought to be more places like this, where we can go and admit we are starving.  Like on the computer, the private chat message box that opens in the corner of the screen:

hey man
im so fuckin

Wouldn’t that be a relief?

The man across from him wasn’t handsome, not even this late at night.  An older married salaryman, perhaps not quite sure how to go about it all.  Yes, he was wearing a wedding ring.  The man cupped his crotch with his hand and squeezed.  Honestly his bulge seemed rather meager.  Nothing really aggressive about him, not compared to some.  Like he didn’t really expect anything to happen.

Still, the man came over now and sat beside him.  The man reached over, put a hand on his thigh.  The hand moved quickly up.

Not right now.  He smiled at the man and shook his head.  The man moved away, but only a little.  

The man didn’t seem bothered.  He reached into the brown paper bag he was carrying and pulled out an enormous book wrapped in plastic, which he proceeded to tear off.  It was a very beautiful and expensive book.  No dust jacket, just an embossed dark cover.  He moved back a little closer.

It was a dictionary, English-Japanese, the biggest he’d ever seen.  The man opened the book and together they looked down at the pages, though it was too dark to read the tiny letters.

Still, it was nice to sit there with the stranger and the beautiful dictionary.  The man gestured as if pointing out a word, and for a minute or two they sat there together, their hands clasped beneath the dictionary.  Then the dictionary man must have gotten hopeful again: the hand went back on his thigh.

Time for the baths.  He smiled, nodded and apologized.  Time to go.

He walked across the street now toward the black and yellow sign.  He was drunk.  He was happy even though he knew what came next.

Indulgence was entirely zombified and regrettable.

Still, he thought, I love you.  I love every person in Tokyo and I love you, Farrah Fawcett.  I hope you don’t die.  I hope you don’t lose your beautiful hair, your legendary breasts, but even if you do, I’ll still love you, Farrah Fawcett.  I am so sorry that you cannot have your wish.  Nothing in the world is entirely impossible, nothing but this, your wish: “to return to my life as it was before.”

I am so very sorry, Farrah Fawcett.

He climbed up the narrow stairs then and pushed open the door to the baths.    

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