Category: Life

Flood the Rubicon

Winter approaches like a hook angling through cloudy water. But the temperature stays just tepid enough that the leaves can keep their grip on the branches, resisting that final, funereal change. They move in the trees like a whirling, upturned skirt of orange, coral, and amber, and I almost believe they’ll outlast the snow. When they finally fall to the ground, they do it in style: A yellow ginkgo leaf pirouetting slowly from the top of a thirty-foot tree. A troop of a hundred leaves rushing through the street, clinging to the bite of the breeze as one plural form. Leaves shimmering like gems, clogging the stream. Leaves cupping flowers, both slowly greying together. It feels not like decay, but like defiance.

Set adrift by the conclusion of my graduate program and the collapse of my vision of the near-future, I feel feral. I wish to grow wings, scales, claws. I fantasize about vanishing. I watch reviews of videogames in which protagonists inhabit the Wyoming woods, the Alaskan tundra, the outermost reaches of deep space, dense, richly rendered billion-pixels worlds. I begin to take Strawberry’s wilder ideas more seriously. He’s the type to dream profoundly, naively, earnestly. Let’s travel the Pacific on a fixer-upper, he says, and I picture myself yelling into a squall, a thick braided rope tied around my waist, hair slicked down by unbroken sheets of rain. Let’s live on a mountaintop, he says, and I picture him carrying a bundle of lumber up a tree-lined incline, the copper in his beard catching the early morning sunlight, pausing to exhale deeply into frigid air. When I shoot these ideas down, which I must do, it’s not without a pang of longing.

What can the future hold? I wish I could know if my life must be lived within a set of possibilities and if so, how much power I hold over the levers. It’s a desire motivated not by a belief in determinism but by pure fear, because I don’t want to hope for more than what I can achieve. I can’t explain why this is. I’m not afraid of hard work, disappointment, or rejection. I’m not afraid of an ordinary life. The cynic in me, who hates heartbreak, reminds me that storms at sea and mountain lodges likely won’t be in the cards. Evading the banality of everyday pain and high-diving into escapism seems laughable, implausible, gauchely Hollywood. But I find myself feeling jealous of Strawberry’s ability to dream with no restraints. I find myself wanting to protect that starry-eyed inclination from the sting of pragmatism. When I look for jobs, it’s always distractedly. I sit at my desk and stare at the wall as though a portal might open there. I’m waiting for a miracle to happen. I’m looking for that sudden, out-of-the-blue change that will set me on a different course.


I wake from dreamless, cloudless, uninterrupted, nourishing sleep. My brain feels like a freshly swept room. The neurons threaded like purple silk strands through my mind hum pleasantly, soothingly, each synapse on beat with my footfall on the hardwood, the rainfall out the window, the fireball blazing across a face on the diamond eye of the universe, visible from Tokyo in the last week of November.

The burnished, blushing sun makes its exit off the stage. The seasons change. The pattern breaks. Blistered leaves, stripping wind, cloud cover. The dark orange coat my father bought me returns to the closet.

I come into the kitchen to find Strawberry has bought flowers on a whim. In the beige milk jug that serves as an ersatz vase, the bouquet leans heavily to one side, tied up with twine. Is this a desire for spring made manifest, I wonder idly, carding my fingers through the big tufts of bulbous green fuzz, the reedy, soft-touch stems, the microscopically small, starlike yellow blooms, the dazzling burgundy flowers with petals like intricate pleats, folded onto and into one another over and over, the thumb-sized red chalices shaped like artichoke hearts, their heads bowed, the drooping leaves, the thick strip of white buds curved like a scythe, a waxing crescent.

As I touch, one of the tiny yellow flowers drops off. In the center of the palm of my hand, it rests like a thorn. I bring it up to my face to peer inside: at that scale, the smallest details take up the whole of my vision, becoming vaguely unrecognizable, unreal. My fingernail grazes the edge of a petal and the stigma and ovule pop out easily, immediately, as though spring-loaded. The petals crumple and disintegrate. The shape collapses entirely. I arrange the pieces on my desk into a circle, a line; in this condition, what was once a flower could now be anything.

Peace of Mind

A typhoon approaches. Its outer rain bands encircle western Japan, bathing the city of Tokyo for 72 hours in constant, irrepressible rain. At three in the morning, I am awoken by the sound of water gurgling loudly in the drain outside.

Sun for two straight weeks. Working from home in a groundfloor apartment shrouded by trees, I don’t see the light at all until I step outside to run errands. Then, it’s a pure revelation of breezy, gold fantasy: the sunshine pouring out and drenching my senses in warm, hearty waves.

I dream of forests, which I so rarely encounter in my life in a city of tar, concrete, and muddy cement. I go up forty floors in a tower in Ebisu to see the city draped over the land. A labyrinthe of silky-smooth billboards, skinny alleys, and oyster gray high-rises, gleaming like seashells in the sun. The trains snaking through the zippered tracks. The horizon, a magnet for the eye. The mountains, under a crowd of clouds, standing watch.

My attention slips off focus like rain off a flat surface. I work hard to do only the “good” things: I stay off social media, I read more books, I eliminate fructose from my diet, I try to force my mind into healthy patterns. Still, everything about me resists. Desire fractures my willpower, and the ensuing shame splits my motivation down the middle, like a kitchen knife through a perfectly round orange. The fibrous, fleshy veins part and juice beads onto my fingers. Nihilism, gestated not by real philosophical exploration but from maladjusted personal pain, takes control, and I tell myself that it doesn’t matter what I do. The cosmic deck is stacked against me, the stars have fallen out of alignment and into disarray, and other such self-serving rationalizing pretenses. But ever a devil’s advocate, I cannot tell myself anything without immediately flipping to the counterargument. The problem sits in the palm of my hands like a multi-colored puzzle cube, and I analyze every side despondently. What’s so wrong, I think, with spending an afternoon on a website, or wiling away the hours by exploring the richly rendered heaven of a videogame? What’s so wrong with pushing away my responsibilities for thirty minutes, with occasionally ignoring my Pomodoro timer? What’s so wrong with polishing off a box of cognac filled bonbons, and staring at the stripped garden past my window, cradled by the soapy, oil-slick light coming through the dirty panes and slipping onto the grimy sofa, lost in my own cloudy, spiralling mood?

But then again: how transgressive can it be to just have my own way? I think, for the millionth time, about Le Guin’s Omelas, and I sink, for the millionth time, into the horror of knowing I live at Omelas’ sweet center, where I can indulge my arrogance by obsessing idly over my flaws, where I can enjoy luxury, and the cloying desire for more luxury, frivolously, foolishly. Meanwhile, sustaining my life continues to cripple the world entire. My existence makes me complicit in an ample, blue-maroon ocean of horrors, in which each pearl-shaped drop of water captures an instant of grotesque, baffling, extraordinary suffering. Suddenly, the needs of the one are subsumed by reality as a hyper-beastial Omelas is revealed, and I want to rip into my own self-importance, my own voluminous ego, with an animal’s teeth.

It’s painful to know that I am important to my family, my friends, my partner, because these relationships, and the small amounts of good I try to do within them, allow me, perversely, to justify the harms my life–its incidentals, its petalling aftereffects, slung thousands of miles away by an innocent Zephyr–inflicts on others faraway.

Inevitably, I become despondent at the thought of causing pain, and so, in some cynical attempt to resolve the unresolvable, I hurt myself (not physically, unless the mind is a physical thing, which–maybe). I do the things I said I wouldn’t. I relapse into self-loathing and I lounge in it, as though neck-high in filthy bathwater. What good does it do? Nothing. What wound does it heal? None. Do I forgive myself for this? Never. But when I snap out of it, the pieces of my mind fold back into one another, hiding a new scar in their paper-thin creases, and I get back up, because I have to keep moving through the day. The rain and the sun, I know, are interlocked, cyclical, pair-bonded. Both will come again and again. The forest opens. We go there, my mind and I, together.

Softcore Sad

The life of a lie can last a millisecond or a million years. The life of a lie can belong to a pauper or a prince. In the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, the lie is about extreme moneymaking, personal prosperity, individuality, brokering power, cheating death, and the meaning of freedom.

In me, several lies exist at once. They blink in and out of existence, being replaced by other lies, or truths, or semi-truths in quick succession, like droplets entering and exiting a storm system as it moves and changes form. In this way, a woman can be an assortment of beliefs and expectations, not always fair, nor always true, sometimes crude, but usually diligently assembled, like a story from long ago, unearthed and remembered with passionate fidelity.

When I wake up and run through the checklist that is my body flowering into consciousness, I ask myself how I feel today and the answer tumbles out clumsily, hesitatingly, like a bear, newly emerged from hibernation, plodding into a burning forest: I’m OK today. I look at my hands, turn them over and back as though controlling my body remotely, and adopt the depersonalized authority of the second-person plural: You’re OK, you’re OK. I look into the void and find not emptiness, but a reflective surface. The Emma in the mirror smiles back sadly.

I’m not entirely in control of my own life. I never have been; a million forces shape me. Like a heather gray pebble on the shore, I am one of very many. Pounded by the surf, scattered by the wind, I can do nothing but make the best of my place, and try to remember my good fortune. Like a raindrop blending into a flooded field, I bleed resolutely, irrevocably, on my path to the drainage ditch, and then through the sewer, and then to the open sea.

Iphigenia in pieces

On my way home from graduation, I brake too abruptly at a stoplight, causing the front tire on my bicycle to turn and skid. Something in the weave of reality contorts too far and snaps, and I tip over onto the asphalt. My right thigh takes most of the impact, and two nights later, like a foregrounded flower in a darkroom as it sinks into a tepid bath of photo-developing liquid, a purple-yellow bruise appears, sudden, complete, and firmly fixed. My elbow and hand, painfully abraded, leak wet patches of blood onto my clothes. Taking in weak, shallow breaths, I make a point of not looking at my wounds as I push the bicycle the rest of the way home.

The mornings are cooler now. When I wake up, Strawberry has left the warm moka pot on the countertop, still half-full with dark, soupy, silty coffee. I change my band-aids and listen to the American news from the other side of the ocean. The headlines–vivid, heady, satanically sad–drift past me like a chunky crowd of sleepy, slo-mo arrows. Sometimes, as I prepare breakfast, an arrow splits off from the mass and, finding me off-guard, pierces me deeply. Hearing, for example, the story of a woman separated from her dementia-afflicted mother, unable to see her in the flesh, unable to stop the flow of her forgetfulness through the laggy connection of a Zoom call, was enough to knock the breath out of me. I clutch the cutting board, fingering the soggy, droopy, flimsy wood until I can force down that blue, leaden lump of secondhand sadness stuck in my throat. Afterwards, I feel angry at myself. I am filled with horror at myself. My emotions are low, lousy, suffered only briefly, felt only cheaply compared to the nighttime river in spate of that daughter’s pain. The worst possible kind of voyeurism.

The bruise fades irregularly. The yellow goes first, but a mangled smattering of dark red splatters remain for days. Disaffected, estranged, I examine at my leg and the bloodied quilt made by a dozen veins splitting open. I am meat and bones. I am fat tissues and frayed keratin. It fascinates me: how my body heals itself, mindlessly, devotedly. Even though there’s always a scar left behind, I am charmed by the earnest attempt by bubbly platelets, stretchy collagen, and fighter cells, to turn the page, soften the blow, and keep me going. A humble, calloused vessel that, though continually emptied, fills and refills itself with warm blood and green breath, trying again to renew, recover, reawaken, and, when that proves impossible, to simply stay alive.

The Nightmare

Summer has edges that feel so defined. The horizon looks like a chiseled corner fold; a thin gold-green edge balancing against forget-me-not blue. I close my eyes and imagine that we live inside a handmade paper dodecahedron, its faces cutting into the atmosphere, scarring the sky in vertical stripes. I imagine that, if I reach for a cloud, I can trace its limits, isolate the blurriness from the substrate, and pull it clean from the sky like a puffy, 3-D sticker.

I remember being a kindergartner on my way home from school, flipping through my collection of sparkly, textured stickers with Titanic’s Rose and Jack printed on them, gingerly sealing and unsealing them from wax paper to share with the girl sitting across the aisle. Now, I do much of the same, in both smaller and grander ways. I collect beliefs, sources of faith and despair, strategically located wounds, and affix them to the walls of my psyche like glistening, overwrought posters of flowers, blood, and crying models in an adolescent bedroom.

In the pantheon that lives in the dodecahedron of my mind, there is no greater god than the one glued to the ceiling, a woman I glare at nightly while resisting sleep. She looks down at me, many-armed, many-eyed, curly-haired, wearing a crown of thorny red, blue, and yellow blooms. I try to pull her down, tear her into pieces, but I can’t reach high enough to strip her from the surface of my own mind. So we stare in silence at each other, deadlocked, constant, like the moon and Earth, like lion and canary, like heaven and hell, like sickness and health, like sense and absence.

In the Shadow of the Rain

On her way to collect a secondhand bedside table from a Craigslist user, Emma looks up at the sky above Setagaya to find the most beautiful cloud in memory. A mass of corpulent, slow-moving, baby pink sweetness, it hovers in the center of the firmament like a nude Renaissance courtier pillowed in rose-colored velvet, or a bulbous mountain of huge, bruised, tumbling peaches. Caught halfway into a crosswalk, she stops and stares spellbound until a car horn yelps at her and she jumps, half-bows in apology, and hurries over to the other side. The buildings immediately eclipse her view of the cloud, and she puts it out of mind, turning instead to the vibrating, navy blue arrow on her phone screen orienting her towards Setagaya 1-chome.

There is an awkward exchange of greetings and the Craigslist user–a young woman much like Emma–unceremoniously presents her with the little bedside table, made of flimsy plywood and seafoam-green fabric and just light enough, Emma thinks, to carry back to the station. However, having seriously overestimated both her strength and her stamina, she is forced to stop a few times on her return, huffing and puffing under the street lights that are now blinking on. She ducks into a drugstore, bedside table and all, to buy a bottle of sour-tasting, violet-colored sports drink, and chugs it in the shade of the store’s awning.

Even in the evening, summer is woundingly hot, and her undershirt sticks to her skin as closely and as suffocatingly as glossy protective shrink-wrapping. Around her, commuters are walking the last mile home, and the air buzzes with snippets of phone calls and crows cawing. She wipes her mouth and tucks the bottle into her bag. As she looks about her, she spots the cloud again. It feels closer now, somehow, as well as larger and more beautiful. Dominating the darkening sky, it moves, serenely, entrancingly, like a carnation-pink whale swimming in the bluest waters. Emma smiles, saturated in the feeling of wonder that only the natural world’s sudden, unexpected pleasures can provide.

She goes to pick up the dresser again but, as she heaves it up into her arms, she notices something strange and new. An alleyway spirals perpendicularly from the main road where she stands, and, at its end, a soft, strange light flickers. Maybe it’s the cloud, its cool-toned shadow casting far into her mind, leaving her drunken, mystified, sopoforic, and all too eager to participate in the world’s hidden secrets, but she is instantly, overwhelming fascinated. She quickly tucks the chest of drawers against the wall of a nearby apartment building where it can remain temporarily undisturbed, and sets out to investigate the source of the light.


Fons et Origo

I sit in the bathtub with my hair braided into a loop and pinned to my head. In two weeks, Strawberry and I will be moving out of the dorm and into our first real place together. Now, when I run errands, I try to be intentional about where I look. This neighborhood will soon become another silvery scale in my armor, another scalloped edge in the closed book of my past, and, before I go, I want to notice everything.

The ginkgo leaves like tiny open fans, the setting sun herniating over chrome buildings in a torrent of blue, pink, and orange. The corner greengrocer with its plywood walls and gold-and-purple stacks of fermented radishes and pitted plums. Moving downhill through the red, saturated air, my breath hot inside an ice-blue surgical mask. Eyes darting. The butcher’s display. Styrofoam trays of eggs and dangling cuts of meat (I stare, disgusted and mesmerized, at the florid fat swirls surrounded by ribbed tissue, swaying on a hook: the colors and textures remind me of a ruffled cream-and-crimson underskirt in a Rococo-era painting). The dilapidated double doors leading to the dormitory’s underground passage. The old cork bulletin board with its evolving sequence of neatly-typed notices about the pandemic. The dark mouth of a sprawling garden.

Jumping across stepping stones. Climbing up a ladder and then sliding down several rungs. A cicada struggling on its back. The perennially empty flower store with the striking, blue-veined blown-glass vase in the window. Rain smacking the pavement with the flat of its hand. Waking up fully rested and clear-eyed, like a woman newly escaped from an enchantment. A stray phrase catching on an edge of my mind like unraveled thread on a thorn.

Sarushima Summer

Every year, during the summer months, I develop a taste for pickled fruit and vegetables. I eat pickled plums in bowls of rice: they are round, soft, and purple-red, like gluey, zombified eyes. I buy trays of kimchi from the supermarket: lasagna-like layers of briny cabbage and chili spice. I think longingly of my year in south India, during which time I ate pounds upon pounds of chunky, fragrant Andhra-style mango aachar. Though I’ve always had a sweet tooth, sourness manages to linger more indelibly on my palate and in my gustatory memories. It makes me wonder what types of sensory experiences overpower others in my mind, and quickly I draw up a classification: Darkness over brightness, sharpness over softness, silence over sound, foul and fecal over faint and flowery. I don’t enjoy many of these experiences, but they resonate deeply enough to end up splashing onto the timeline of my life. When I recall a day I’ll fill it in with its strongest sensory impressions, as though possessed by a single-minded algorithm designed to prioritize attention-grabbing content. But that is likely too simplistic; maybe what I consciously remember is not all that has left its mark on me. I have never been the best curator of my own feelings and memories.

I think of my life immersed in brine, or preserved in resin. I think of my life as a terrarium: A miniature, individualized world encased in a glass globe, featuring a mismatched assortment of color palettes, textures, and shapes. Clay figurines of friends and family cast into different poses. Striped-and-spotted flora and fauna rustling in the underbrush. Decorations handmade out of styrofoam, yarn, and tinfoil hanging from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments. A fully formed climate system inside, defined by cloudbursts punctured by glossy sunlight. All of this hidden underneath a thick veil of vines, because I’ve always been secretive.

Sarushima, a tiny island located in Tokyo Bay, also holds its secrets close to its chest. Though the island’s main purpose–to serve as a military battery for various wars–is clearly described on the many explanatory placards placed alongside the main path, the general atmosphere is one of mystery, not clarity. We wander around, from the moss-covered stone fort to the frothy, rocky coastline. I circle the remains of a massive artillery unit constructed on the island’s high point, situated at the perfect angle, I am informed, to shoot enemies at sea. Unexpectedly, the glass terrarium that holds my life fractures ever so slightly, and I cup my hands around it to contain the sudden tide of confused, sad anger. There’s many facts about our world that fill me with a brew of dark, quiet, sharp, sour emotions but I feel that blend press against me acutely as I stand there, in a place that locked and loaded meaningless death, that mounted devices to strip breath from bone, now overrun with tree stumps and bathed in sea spray.

Jungle Body Horror

Clicking through online clips of documentaries, I find myself entranced by the lusty, dynamic collaboration between danger and nature. Springing from a tree like Aphrodite through the foam, a bird cuts through the reddish air to escape a dusky-eyed jaguar just behind. A velvety penguin zooms through crystalline, pale blue seawater while a dove-gray seal awaits him on a chunk of ice. In a viral video, a scaly iguana evades a wave of lithe snakes, while a lively voice-over narrates his brush with death. I watch a mantis crawl delicately over a leaf, only to be promptly devoured whole by another mantis.

The camera pans over the savanna, under the ocean, and into the desert, grasping at anything bright, textured, and high-contrast. My human eyes track all over the screen, energized by that insatiable desire to be everywhere, to capture and contain everything, to see the natural world open up like a flower and release its mysteries. Many of the mysteries, once revealed, are painful to watch. Prey caught by the nape and dragged through the underbrush: its life immediately pacified in a single stroke of oxblood. Eyes bulging out like lotus bulbs poking through pond water. Flesh glimmering juicily in the grass. A limb parted dispassionately from a razed torso. Elephants walking miles to arrange themselves into a funereal semi-circle around a rotting body. Their eyes, ringed with flies, huge, wide, and scarlet-tinged. I freeze the frame and search for a flicker of understanding within me; but it is not possible for me to really understand their sorrow. Grief hits differently in the kingdom Animalia.

The painterly hands of evolution have produced a terrestrial environment that blushes in a million different colors. But in the city I live in, that palette is reduced to a few sad hues: sidewalk-gray (peppered with dark, gluey stains), tar-black hot from the sun, and the occasional blot of dirty green from a malnourished tree growing out of concrete. Walking to a friend’s house in a bordering neighborhood, I try to find the other colors, and sometimes succeed: cherry red and ocean blue looped around a barber’s pole, muted yellow emanating from inside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. On the pedestrian bridge over the train tracks, I find, to my surprise, that the glass barriers are covered in coiling, royal purple and bright orange graffiti.

I scan the Yamanote trains as they pass below; their final destinations flash by, written in glittering kanji above the sliding doors, and I remember what it felt like to learn to read them for the first time. The mystery contained within that introductory encounter no longer exists. I now regard many Japanese characters with the same mechanical familiarity that I do my native alphabet. The replacement of naivete with knowledge is expertise gained, but it also means recognizing that something–maybe ignorance, maybe innocence–has been lost. Many kinds of loss have been personally useful; they have led to the scabbing over of pain, the vital life lesson. But other kinds of loss are so cruel so as to serve no meaningful purpose. I don’t know how to manage the realization that there are so many experiences I can see no reason for, and that I wish I had never had, or never inflicted upon others. Life might be just a protracted, melodramatic, gamified maze in which I keep secrets, process anger, leverage meager talents to collect paychecks, and struggle to locate enough luck to avoid the gory dead-ends with the biggest predators and the truest horrors.

Evening has fallen over this year’s first true summer day, and my body buzzes with a bitter cocktail of apprehension, contemplation, and longing. While waiting for the lights to change, I pull my unkempt hair up into a ponytail and roll up my sleeves. The breeze is a balm, but still my mind resists the calming effects of the cool air and wan moonlight. I walk under the underpass thinking of death and grief. I know that, one day, the opportunity to know both these intimately will arrive on my doorstep. If I focus, I can see them in the distance, twin blurry mirages in lustrous, rainbow colors. They are always two steps ahead, waiting along the path of the jungle.