Blossoms and Ashes: The Swordsman, Part 4

The Swordsman

Kyoto’s a steam room with a broiler for a celling. I’ve been to Arashiyama and somehow beat the crowds to bury Franny’s kerchief amongst the tall bars of bamboo. Sweat dripped off my brow and when I was finished I felt like I was one step closer to Franny’s death. I sat by a gem green river for a while wishing I had more control over what’s going to happen. I feel powerless and it’s distressing to know things beyond my control are on a collision course. I avoid a small Shinto shrine near me by the water’s edge because I’m not sure what to believe anymore. I decide to leave the forest and find food and air conditioning.

I’m still in Arashiyama, near the bamboo forest, at a small sushi restaurant. It’s a square shop barricaded with gridded paper screens. I’m sitting at a bar and next to me is a Japanese man wearing traditional Japanese clothing, which I assume means he works in the tourist industry. He’s pushing fifty. Freckles are chained underneath his eyes. His hair is greying. He’s lean and fit, and also oddly content to not have his food yet. He’s not reading on his phone, nor checking on a social media update. He’s simply staring forward, lost in his thoughts. Then, without turning to me he says, “Ahi tuna sushi is very popular in the States, but have you tried Yellow Tail? Now that’s a treat.”

            “I have once,” I say. “But I’d had too much sake beforehand to properly taste it.”

            “And today, too many cigarettes and Oi Ocha,” he says.

            “He turns to face me and I see that he’s blind.”

            “You’re right, can you smell it on me?” I say.

            “As soon as the door opened and you entered. American. Smoker. Iced tea.”

            “I hope it’ll not spoil your taste,” I say.

            “No, but thank you.”

            He remains turned towards me and seemingly hyperaware of my movements. As though, he can hear my eyes move and my facial expressions crane. He chuckles and turns back. He says something to the sushi chef in front of us and the chef looks at me briefly before continuing his work.

            “I told him to not service you with the best fish because you’ve spoiled your tongue today,” he says, chuckling again.

            I’m a little confused about how to receive this news, but I remain a keen participant.

            “Maybe, that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t want him to waste his best product.”

            Now, the blind man laughs.

            “You’re not your average American,” he says. “Somewhere close to Canada, but with a Westcoast accent. Seattle, it must be. Yes, your restraint matches there as well.”

            “Good guess,” I say.

            His smile snaps shut and he says gruffly, “It is no guess.”

            “My apologies.”

            He loosens up again and smiles.

            “Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”

            “Yeah, sure.”

            The tokkuri soon arrives and we clink plates.

            There’s an awareness to this man that defies explanation. He’s the one who grasped the tokkuri, he’s the one who pours the sake, he’s the one who clinked his sake plate onto mine. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can see his eyes rolled back inside his head, I’d have said he was a liar. Both of our meals come at the same time and we eat.

            I mash a mound of wasabi into a pool of soy sauce and separate the leaves of pickled ginger from one another.

“That’s a lot of wasabi,” he says. “You like intense tasting things.”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“People who like intense tasting things are intense thinkers.”

“My thoughts are usually quite loud, can you hear them?”

“Yes,” he says, but then looks away and continues to eat.

“I hope I didn’t offend you?” I say.

“I was sure I had offended you.”

“No, I’m just unsure of your intensions, that’s all.”

He laughs and says, “My name is Akira.”

I introduce myself and we shake hands.

“Tell me, what tragedy brings you to Japan,” he says.

“How do you know that?”

“Because your demeanor is heavy and I’ve been around it enough to know when I sense it.”

“I wouldn’t want to bother you with it,” I say.

“You’re right, I’ve been rude,” he says, “it’s just that I don’t speak to many people, especially Americans from Seattle.”

I hesitate, something’s strange about this man, but to his defense, something has been strange with me since I arrived to Japan. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to humor him—what’s the worst that could come of it?

“My brother is dying in Nagoya,” I say. “And, my mother is dying in Seattle.”

“I’m very sorry,” he says. “Is there anything I can do?”

“If you can ease their suffering and make it quick, I’d be much obliged,” I say.

“Of course,” he says and lifts his plate to toast.

“Well, that was easy,” I joke.

“You never know who you’ll run into at a sushi bar in Kyoto,” he says, chuckling.

The sushi chef looks up at me, then to the strange blind man, and then back to his fillet of tuna.

“Do you believe if two family members are dying at the same time they can bind to each other, and one feel the pain of the other?” I ask.

“It would take strong feelings to make something like that happen, but people don’t think like that anymore,” he says. “In old times if one person was showing the symptoms of another patient and visa versa, that’s what they’d think. Why do you ask?”

“It’s nothing,” I say.

“You find yourself thinking things you’ve never thought of before,” he says.

“Perhaps,” I say.

The man brushes his hand across the thick black cane resting beside him on the bar and  smiles.

“We seek answers when there are none.”

“I’m just confused about what’s happening to me,” I say.

“Intense thinking leads to intense emotions,” he says, with his mouth full.

“Are both your mother and brother intense thinkers?”

“I’d say so.”

“Then the idea of their connection will be intensified by their legacy.”

“I don’t follow?” I say.

“When you ponder one, it will match their intensity, but if you ponder both the intensity is quadrupled. It sounds like they might be working out their past with each other. You must figure this is more important than their deaths.”

“So you do believe they might be bonded?”

“They are mother and son, of course they are, this isn’t magic.”

“I know, I—”

“You must sleep more,” he says. “Things won’t be as confusing if you sleep.”

I nod feeling as though this man is reading my thoughts. 

We eat some more in silence, joke around a bit, and Akira tells me of some of his favorite shrines in the city. “From the train station you must walk to Fushimi Inari-Taisha,” he says. “When you arrive you must then walk through every gate.”

“I will,” I say. 

He comes in close to my face.

“I mean it,” he says. “Inari is fickle and quick to anger. Every gate.”

“I understand.”

“You seem like a good person, let the shrines cleanse you.” He turns his head around as if he’s hearing something far off and trying to identify where it’s coming from. “The rest of this sake is for you,” he says. He stands up, slips on a red yukata and grabs his cane, which looks more like a katana sword’s saya, and says, “I have a tour group to lead, I need to be sharp.”

“Of course you do,” I say, “Arrigato. Thank you for the advice.”

He bows and says, “It was a blessed chance encounter.”

He leaves. When I’m finished I ask for the bill. Akira’s meal is on the ticket. The extra sake softens the blow.

***

I could have taken the train to Fushimi Inari-Taisha, but instead I stabbed the hot concrete for an hour to get there because I didn’t want to deviate from Akira’s directions. I’m sweating profusely and out of Oi Ocha. I arrive to the great shrine of Inari and find that it’s a mountain. The old man made me walk all this way to the foot of a mountain and now I’m supposed to climb it. I begin snaking my way through crowds of tourists until I arrive at the first gate. It’s a large red gate comprised of two thick pillars called hashira holding up a two pieced lintel made up of a lower beam called the nuki and the crown called kasagi. I know this because I read the sign below it. Passing through it, there’s no other way to go, but up, so I remain with a large mass of hikers and climb the pathway.

Every several feet there’s another red gate. I turn a corner and look up to see a long train of gates stapled in a row up the mountainside. Like a dog, I want to run through all of them, but I’m frustrated because there are too many people in my way. However, the further I climb the thinner the masses become, but the more exposed I am to the hot sun. My shirt is soaked now, and my legs are beginning to burn. My pack is barely full, but it weighs a ton.

With each gate I begin to feel weaker, but I’m too hard-headed to stop. I feel as though I’ve been summoned to the shrine because there’s some meaning up there for me. I continue up. Soon, I pass through each gate alone. In between, tourists pass me and give strange looks. I ignore them. I’m weak and thirsty, uncharacteristically so, more than I should be and I wonder if something else is the matter with me. I tell myself, the struggle is part of the process, that this is a test of spirit. Akira told me to do it this way to challenge me. I accepted the challenge and I intend to finish it. I trudge on, the sweat on my skin makes it appear oily and iridescent. My mouth is as dry as a desert. My skin feels like it’s cracking like baked mud.

After an hour and a half I stumble to the top of Mt. Inari and I’m greeted with statues of foxes. I find a bench and sit. I feel as though I might be sick, but I concentrate on my breathing. I concentrate for so long that I stop thinking, and no longer thinking I stop remembering, and not remembering, I feel groggy. I fall asleep on the bench and remain there for some time. When I awake it’s night. Someone set a bottle of water by my head. I sit up and my head drains an ocean out from it and it feels as though all my hair could fall out. There are other people up here, so I’m not alone; I’m just surprised I wasn’t bothered by anyone. I drink the bottle of water in one go and try to stand up. I totter a little and realize the sun baked the energy out of my body. A group of University kids are laughing. One asks, if I’m alright, and I say too much sun, and they laugh some more. I’m not offended, because I’d think it’s funny too. I begin my descent, knees knocking all the way down, each gate reminding me I accepted a strange challenge with zero benefit. That’s yet to be determined, and all I should concentrate on is getting off this mountain to buy food and water.

I reach the streets and I have just enough phone battery to find my hostel. When I arrive I’m so happy to find Midori booked me a private room. I go to the bar and people from all over the world are partying. I order a hamburger and eat the whole thing in two minutes. I drink only water and I keep drinking glass after glass. During this whole process of recovery, from the foot of the mountain to the hostel bar, I’m not thinking and still not remembering. I just want food and water. I’m a machine for once and I’m happy. I eat and drink, resting in the total present, not taking on any responsibility, not administering guilt, nothing. That is until I receive a message from Midori.

“No time to discuss, you need to come home now. I’ve purchased a new train ticket for you. Can you be at the station in fifty minutes? Only answer if you cannot. Attached is your ticket.” [Text Message, Midori]

***

I get lost trying to locate the Kyoto train station in the dark, but I follow the Kyoto Tower and eventually find my way. I have a little time to spare so I order an iced coffee at Starbucks, and the teller can’t understand me. Finally I say, aisukōhī and she says, ohhhhhh, aisukōhī. Go fucking figure, if it’s not one way, it’s the other. I take out my change purse to pay her and I swear the coins pass though my hand. They splash across the counter and go everywhere. I pick up what I can and leave what I can’t see. I get to the train deck and step onto the Nozumi headed for Nagoya. It’s late, but there are still people on board. I have the isle to myself though, or at least an empty seat for Inari.

Something is following me or at least playing tricks on me. I have no proof, but ever since I nearly broke Franny’s feet, I’ve felt distressed. I’m losing it and I know it, but I’ve got no other choice than to remain on the road I’m on. I know it’s leading me to Franny’s death bed. It’s happening so fast, too fast. Franny’s never been the same since the seizure. I should have known then that he’d die while I was here. Even if I did know, nothing can prepare you. Soon, a brother I never really knew is going to die. I’ll be left putting together a puzzle of his image for years to come. But, the more I try to rebuild him, the farther away his true image will get.

I suppose that’s why I came here, to give it one last try to understand Franny and why he was the man he was. I figured if I put myself in his shoes, met his friends, and went to his haunts I’d know who he was. But, I’m no closer. Perhaps I’ve put too much into it, and pushed too hard to come to grips with a man that was rarely available, and certainly always gone. Selfishly, I’ve wanted more, too much, more than one life can give another. Still, I wish Franny was capable of being there for me because I’ve known this whole time he has what I have in my head. When his friends speak about his intensity, his creativity, his insatiable hunger for mood altering substances, I feel a profound force of empathy rumble though me. It makes me afraid to watch how he’s dying because I can’t shake the feeling I’ll succumb to the same fate. If not worse. I want to be more than that, but who I am won’t let me. Stability is a dream I’ll never acquire. Happiness is a fox hiding within a shrine.

Franny never found it, but he was so focused on his pain, how could he be? It’s such a shame mom and him are going to die together without seeing each other a last time. I wish Franny could have forgiven mom for her mistakes and that mom could have had a chance to ask for forgiveness. But, I hate Franny for hanging that over mom’s head, Aja too. At least Aja came to help out, but Franny did the Franny thing and went ahead and died.

Soon, I arrive at Nagoya Station and take the subway to Nagoya City University Hospital. There are barely any commuters, all is still and calm. I arrive Inside the hospital and a young man wearing a red Adidas track coat sits on a bench muttering to himself. He sees me and begins to speak in Japanese. He’s drunk and unhappy. I can’t understand him. I ignore him the best I can the take the elevator up to oncology.

Midori sits next to Franny’s bed holding his hand.

“Robbie, You’re brother is dying,” she says with tears down her face.

“I know,” I say and I sit on the other side of the bed and grasp her hand from across Franny body. 

“I shouldn’t have gone to Kyoto,” I say.

“You couldn’t have known.”

“I feel so badly about what happened, I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I say. “If he was going to die I didn’t want our last words to be angry.”

I felt Franny’s hand squeeze mine and my whole body reacts.

“He squeezed my hand,” I say.

“Now your last words aren’t angry words. He talked to me about you last night,” Midori says, wiping her face. “He said he was worried that you dislike him,” she says.

“Of course I don’t. I love you, Franny,” I say to him.

“He said, he wishes you two talked more, that he had things to tell you.”

“I think I know what they are,” I say. “They’re things I have a hard time talking about too.”

“Robbie,” Midori says. “I’m sorry I took Franny away to Japan. I took him away from your family.”

“No, don’t think that, he needed to leave,” I say.

“I think he was happy here,” she says.

“He was happier here than he ever would have been in Seattle.”

“I hope so.”

We hold on as long as we can, but both of us fall asleep beside Franny’s bed. My dreams are troubled. Dying dogs, a Shinto figurine laying waste to the city. A homeless man set on fire. My mouth propped open with a dental gag and fish dropped in. Headstones regurgitating living skeletons like a bellowing smoke stack. An empty bed frozen solid. These images repeat themselves.

I’m roused by sobbing, and when I open my eyes I see Midori looking at Franny and by the pain in her voice I know my brother is dead. His mouth is open, his skin is yellowish grey, he’s more emaciated than before, he will be cremated soon.

“I love you, brother,” I say, and console Midori.

I look up, and behind her stands Franny.

“I’ll explain later,” he says, in usual fashion. “Just help Midori as much as you can before we leave for Seattle. In the meantime, I have a blind man to thank.”

My heart sinks because I know now this is all inside of me.

“I will, brother,” I say.

Blossoms and Ashes: Human +1, Part 2

Human +1

My shoes are off and I’m seated at a low standing table on a raised bench with aching knees smoldering underneath. There are framed impressions of red hand prints covering the walls—they’re the hands of sumo wrestlers who have come to eat chicken wings At Fry Bo in Gokiso. I’m with two of Franny’s film director friends and we’re drunk. The college kids around us are also drunk. The grandma who owns the restaurant is wrapped in an orange kimono and pegged with wooden sandals, and she might also be drunk. She sees me fussing with a chicken wing and begins to tell me off in Japanese. Franny’s friend George begins to laugh and says, “She says you’re too apprehensive and must treat the wing more like your girlfriend.”

“That’s a pretty weird thing to say,” I say.

She grabs a wing from my plate and holds one end in front of my mouth. She says bite it and I do. She turns the wing around and says to George, tell this silly man to put the whole wing in his mouth and slurp it clean. George tells me what she wants me to do and I do as I am told with most of the restaurant watching and laughing as I do. She does one more with me and together we throw the empty bones down on my plate like we’re rolling dice on a concrete stoop.

“Sake,” I say, and everyone laughs. My new grandmother yells for sake and then leaves us.

George is about my size, late 40s, kind-faced and gentle. Ryan’s a bit larger, African American, hairline as even as a fence line. He shaves every day and looks up from the sink to a set of grey eyes. He says to me, “Some people wait for years and never receive a Japanese grandma, but you got yours in your first week.”

            “The ignorant shall always win your treasure,” I say.

            “Sounds like a proverb,” George says.

            “I just made it up.”

            The sake arrives and we fill our plates with the chilled liquid and drink. I love the feeling I have right now. Despite not sleeping the past three nights, I’m great. Being somewhere else has me on a high. Being drunk with English speakers in a foreign land reminds me of my traveling days and I don’t want to stop.

            “What are you writing right now?” George asks.

            “How do you know I write?”

            “Franny says you’re published.”

            “I’m not writing right now,” I say, feeling that George is ruining my reprieve from worry. “I’ve been blocked up the past year.”

            “I hate that,” Ryan says. “When I get writer’s block I get depressed. Then I’m stuck in a vicious uncreative loop.”

            “I know what you mean,” I say. “Better than you know.” I add, inaudibly.

            A university student approaches our table and in English he asks if he can speak to us for a few minutes. He begins to tell us that he went to college in Georgetown and Cambridge. How he’s back in Japan to become a doctor. He tells us how much he loves the States and how thankful he is for letting him practice English with us. I find the whole exchange remarkable. He speaks to us with a reverence I don’t feel we at all deserve. That being said, and despite his over use of respect, I can’t help but to reciprocate respect for him in exchange because his journey abroad must have been a difficult one. He asks for a picture with us and then departs to rejoin his friends.

            “That happens a lot,” Ryan says, slurping down another hot wing.

            “Strangers asking you to speak English?”

            “Yeah, It’s pretty cool but can get a bit tiring.”

            George switches the subject.

            “What’s up with your brother, something felt off at the hospital today.”

            “He had a seizure a couple days back,” I say.

            “shit,” Ryan says.

            “Since you guys are his friends and I know how hard it is to get the truth in terms of his condition, I’ll let you know that I heard from the doctor that his case is terminal and the cancer has spread throughout his entire body. He’s tanking.”

            Grandma approaches with another tokkuri of sake and fresh plates. It doesn’t escape her that the mood of the table has changed. She sets down our sake and silently departs.

            “It’s bad luck to say bad things out loud because they might come true,” George says.

“I know it feels wrong, like it’s lying, but try and get used to it.”

            “I get it,” I say. “There’s a ton of shit I’ve said to myself that’s come true only because I said it.”

            “Like what?”

            “You’re a piece of shit. You’re a bad writer. You’re a fraud—entertaining that kind of poison gives it legs. In short, I get how rejecting the assertion that you’re going to die is essential to focus on healing.”

            “But, do you believe that?” Ryan asks.

            “I can entertain it, but in terms of myself, I doubt I could ever keep things civil with myself for that long—I’m always at my own throat.”

            George laughs. “For having writers block you sure have entertaining stuff to say.”

            “We’re all drunk,” I say. “It’s an illusion.”

            “Your brother’s the same way,” George continues.

            “Man, he can be the funniest guy in the room with enough energy to go all night,” Ryan says.

            “But sometimes, he could be the angriest drunk at the bar,” George adds.

            Ryan looks slightly surprised George went there, but I seize the chance to ask.

            “Was he up and down a lot, like you never knew which Fran you were going to get?”

            “I’d say so,” George says. “But, usually, once he was intoxicated, he’d perk up. He could be cruel though, but he could also be passionately gregarious, it really all depended on the day.”

            “He’s a man of excess,” Ryan added. “But, the fucker can act and hold a room.”

            “Excellent actor, carries his lines well, knows how to act outside the spotlight. His joy and confidence on stage makes other actors feel comfortable. He was guilty of stealing scenes early on, but he learned quickly,” George adds. “Very much meant for the stage; film was touch and go for him, but he got a high acting on stage.”

            There’s a pause and Ryan has a look in his eye like he knows why I’m asking about Franny.

“Your brother’s definitely bi-polar, he even told me so,” Ryan says.

            “I’ve heard that too, but I’ve never spoken with him about it,” I say.

            “He has his secrets doesn’t he?” George says.

            “More than any of us can know.”

            “You must yourself though? Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” George says.

            I’m not taken aback by George’s assertiveness; in fact, he’s giving me an excuse to talk about myself, which when drunk, I love to do.  But, for some unknown reason I can’t tell them the most obvious, that I’m bi-polar too. The words form a brick in my mouth and all I can say is that it runs in my family.

            “My brother’s schizophrenic,” George says.

            “My father used to disappear for days at a time,” Ryan says. “Turns out he’d go for these massive walks around Minneapolis and stay in motels. He later said, once he got on lithium, that he was trying to out run the bug.”

            I think about the bug and want more sake and another cigarette.

            “Is he better now?” I ask.

            “He killed himself a few years back when I was away at college,” he says.

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

            “Don’t be, I’m only direct about it because it’s not an illness to tiptoe around,” he says, examining my body language.

            “Some bad baggage comes our way,” George says.  

“What do you mean, George?” Ryan asks.

“Well, look, two of us are directors and all three of us are writers. Franny’s an actor and writer. We’ve all come clean about our family history, so it’s more or less obvious we have our own beef with mental illness. Countless other creative people I know have the bug as you say. It’s hard to not think that creativity and mental illness are linked, like you can’t have one without the other.”

            “Creating stories is the process of unpacking, that is, if we’re to continue using the baggage metaphor,” I say.

            “I like it,” says George.

            “And the craft is in the details of how you re-fold it and put it away,” says Ryan.

            “I can drink to that,” I say.

            We polish off another tokkuri of sake and order another. It arrives and we make a toast, this time to mental illness. It feels stupid though, or maybe I just feel dumb for not talking about my diagnosis. Maybe it’s because I feel so good right now, so confident and inspired to go wherever and stay up as long as I want. I rarely feel this good, rarely do I have energy like this. I feel like I’m a normal human being for once, but a smidgen more so, like a human +1. It’s hard to admit I’m supposedly bi-polar at a time like this. Not when I feel invincible.

            “Are you alright?” George asks me.

            “I’m great, why?” I ask.

            “Nothing, you just seem a bit agitated.”

            “I’m just feeling the alcohol,” I say.

            “Do you want to go to Fran’s favorite bar after this?”

            “Yeah, I would,” I say.

***

            I’ve vomited already, but luckily brought a travel tooth brush and toothpaste in my bag. I look in the mirror and see a sick clown struggling to keep the show going. I’m at an ex-pat bar called the Black Rock. It’s very much in the English Pub style, but adorned with Australian flags, photos of the Aussie rugby team, and several posters of Crocodile Dundee. I splash my face with water but the room is still moving. Eventually, I find my footing and rejoin the crowd.

            I’m at a table with a group of directors, actors, postgrad students, and random English speakers who come here to take a break from the Japan outside. They all know my brother for better or worse. No better than George.

            “I remember when Franny first moved here and picked up his first acting gig as Captain Morgan. It was perfect for him because he got paid to dress like a pirate and drink. He’d walk into bars with a group of models, pose for pictures with people and take shots with them. It was always mayhem.”

            “Until he fell down a flight of stairs and broke his leg,” Meikko says. She’s American born, but grew up in both worlds. Her hair is dyed platinum blond, she’s nearly as tall as me, and an illustrator here in Nagoya. She’s married to Ryan, but older than him. It’s impossible to decipher how old she is, but I’m guessing early 40s.

            “He went to go pee,” she laughs, “and his peg leg went out from under him and he ate it down the stairs.”

            “He broke his leg,” George cut in, “which was terrible. A couple of days after the incident though Franny showed up at the bar on crutches and wanted to continue playing Captain Morgan. He tried to convince the reps he could act the part while sitting down, but they didn’t go for it and neither did Midori.”

            “I remember,” Ryan reminisces, “the time he showed up to the bar with a pair of Japanese newlyweds wearing Western wedding garb. White dress, veil, tuxedo, the whole nine yards. He’d just gotten a job as a western wedding officiator and had such a good time with these newlyweds he invited them, and their friends back to the bar. The bar owner here, Al was trying to get out early that night, but instead hosted a wedding party all by himself. He made a killing that night, but told Fran off for it. Franny just smiled at him and said he wanted half the profit. Fucking priceless.”

             They continue laughing and telling stories about Fran and I’m trying my hardest to concentrate, but I cant. I excuse myself to have a cigarette and walk out into the warm night air and neon lights. I’m not seeing double, which is good. I look at my phone to catch up on some messages.

            “Hey brother, I’m with your friend Dana. We’ve been going to Goth bars and talking about Super Hero movies. Anyway, you’re cats are fed and in good hands, enjoy Japan and get a hand job, I mean Kimono for me lol.” [Message from Kimono Greg]

“Hey dumb ass, how’re things going? How’s your brother doing? Your other brother is losing his shit because Ronda bought a horse out from under him for Kayleigh. Their relationship is so fucked up, no way I’d be involved with your brother now, not after seeing how ugly those two are. WOW. Poor Kayleigh. Anyway, I’ve been worried about you. I know you’re a world away, but you seem distant. I know the situation with Shannon, on top of everything else is a lot, but you can pull through it. Just get back to me when you can… Asshole ;)” [Message from Margo]

“Are you ignoring me? I still care about you and I’m worried. You’ve never been the type to stay silent, it’s actually one of the things I like about you. Where are you? Are you okay?” [Message from Shannon)

“You’ll never guess what Ronda did but it’s totally cool I’m doing great. How’s our brother?” [Message from Liam]

“Ifffffds foundnnd tt .” [Text message from Franny]

“Your brother tried to smoke in the bathroom again and when we took the rest of his cigarettes away he had to be retrained because he was so upset. I know you have a night off, but can you come here whenever you’re finished with George and Ryan? Thank you, brother.”  [Text message from Midori]

I have to sober up and get to the hospital. I text Midori and let her know I’ll be there when I can. George comes outside and stands next to me with his hands in his pocket. Scores of evening pedestrians holding smart phones flow past us like we’re two reeds in a digital river. I see a stream of taxis roll past and they look like a fleet of ’89 Toyota Corollas. The buildings make me think of the 1980s too.

“There’s so much about this city that’s hyper modern, but built beside a bed of ‘80s ruble,” I say.

“And by ‘80s ruble you mean a blanket of well-maintained structures built in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.”

“Yeah, I guess so, didn’t mean to sound rude.”

“I see it too. Buildings with an excessive amount of glass didn’t arrive until the 2000s.”

“So many of the structures here are white, I guess that’s what’s different.”

“Uniformity plays a different role here than in the States.”

I ponder George’s words while he reloads.

“I’m sorry about your brother,” he says.

“Me too,” I say.

“He not a bad guy, by the way,” George says. “I know some of our stories make him sound like a fuck up, but he’s a good friend. He’s practically a legend in Nagoya. Every ex-pat here knows him, and every repatriated traveler who called Nagoya home knew Franny. He was just that electric.”

Was, is the sad bit,” I say.

“I’m sorry.”

“Please, don’t be. But, yes I don’t see him surviving this too much longer.”

“The one thing about Franny,” George says, “is he was always reckless. The chain smoking, the drinking at all hours, he lived like he didn’t want to sometimes. And now that he’s sick it’s the same, like he’s punishing himself. I just wish I knew why?”

“It’s a routine for him,” I say. “A constant intake of shit he believes he needs to feel good.”

“And it’s going to kill him,” he says.

“It already has.”

“It’s good you’re here for him—I know Nagoya makes him feel lonely sometimes.”

“I wanted to see his life here, I felt like I owed him that much,” I say.

“Why owe him anything?”

“Because he never thought anyone in the family cared about him enough to visit.”

“Is that true?”

“Most of the people in my immediate family are so wrapped up in their own bullshit they miss some of the more important features of life—empathy being one of them. Fran’s far from perfect but he can at least be honest to himself about his flaws.”

“Franny can be an asshole but he cares about people and is good at making people feel a part of something. He can tap into a strangers’ interests within minutes and find common ground. He’s so intelligent. That said, I don’t totally agree with you. Fran can maybe be privately honest about his flaws, but publicly he did little to change them.”

“I guess I’ve built him up a bit,” I say.

“You’re his little brother and he’s been away, what else would you do?”

“Did he at least look like he was trying to gain control over himself?” I ask.

“More like he was at war with control,” George says. “Sometimes he’d get down because he couldn’t control himself, and other times he tipped the needle so far in the other direction it was as if he was trying to break the meter. There’s no other way to put it, Franny’s either a man distressed or a man possessed.”

“I’m sure it drove him crazy never knowing calm,” I say.

“That’s what the heroin was for,” George says. “Yes, he told me.”

“I’m not surprised,” I say. “I just feel so badly for him, that this was his life.”

“What Japan?”

“No, the whole thing. From 0 to 56. His life as it is.”

“You don’t have to go back in you know, I’ll say you’re sick.”

“I feel sick,” I say.

I say goodbye and begin my walk towards the subway station when I hear Ryan asking me to hold up. He ran to catch up and is breathing heavily.

“I just wanted to say I don’t talk about what I have either,” he says. “I also wanted to properly say goodbye and that you’re always welcome here. Lastly, I’m not sure what you’re trying to write, but write about this, about the Fry Bo in Gokiso, about the bar and your brother’s friends. About him dying, man.”

I thank him and take the stairs down to the Sakura-dōri Line, beginning to feel a glimmer of a story form in my mind.  

***

The station is like the others, a maze with clues to solve the mystery home. Each tile is clean, each light is on, all passengers are aboard, but I’m the only one on the platform. It’s an eerie feeling for this is the first time outside the apartment I’ve felt alone in this city. I sit down on a bench and consider what Ryan said. He figured me out, which tells me others have too. More importantly though, he gave me a road map to find my way out of the blockade I’ve made for myself. I don’t feel so unique and it’s a relief. My problems don’t feel unequivocal to what others have experienced. Ryan let me know I’m just caught up right now, and I have to distance myself, while at the same time engage with my life and reckon with it. Joy overtakes me, but it’s mixed with a feeling of loss. My eyes begin to fill with tears. It’s the first time I’ve had someone say they understand me in a long time and it’s meaningful. My train arrives and I board, a leaf.

  I contemplate if I’ve been thinking about things the wrong way, but I let it pass; I want music instead of the voices in my head. I put my headphones on and get lost in The Cure, Just Like Heaven. I’m sitting across from a young couple holding hands. The feeling I have is a reprieve from the self-inflicted violence I wage on myself every day. Robert Smith is telling me to just believe in something even if it goes wrong and to love on something even if it’ll leave. The sentiment is nice, but it scares me. I push the bad thoughts out of my head and try to breath all the way in and out. I realize I haven’t been breathing the past few days, maybe even longer. I miss a lot of things about myself, probably the things Shannon misses to, and the things my friends have held onto. I breath in and out. In and out. Let it pass.

I want to sleep tonight, but I know I can’t. I’ll be up watching my brother’s chest push up and down like a broken hand is trying to punch through it. I’ll be there when he calls for a rescue. I’ll tell him everything’s fine and he’s not alone. I’ll repeat the words, Just Like Heaven, and he’ll know what I’m talking about and the thought of The Cure will calm him. There’s something about the baseline, how it bumbles about like a pink basketball full of hope; something about how it expresses positive tension, which is such a unique feeling to have squeezing you, unique because it’s void of anxiety and so there’s nothing negative to dye the feeling black. He’ll be dying, but also not at the same time because he won’t be thinking about it.

I’m going to try and not think about Fran dying, and not think about mom dying too, and not think about my other brother, Liam’s endless war with his ex, Ronda and how it makes his daughter want to die, or of all the things I could have done differently to protect Shannon from wanting to die. Even on a personal level, I’ll forgive myself for being in my 20s, for being a teenager with a flaming brick and a syringe in his hands, a child holding a candle that keeps blowing out. I’ll try and forgive my past selves even though my old identities strive to deface my present. I must forget them. —I switch to the Higashiyama Line and my cynical self is left to keep traveling on the Sakura-dōri. I feel like several metals of dishonor have been unpinned from my shirt. Let it pass.

Though I know that things are only going to get worse, I know it for certain and so I have a chance to prepare. I’ll go see Franny and have a talk with him because there are not many opportunities left and I should make the most of them. Like I said, I’ll keep holding his hand as many times as he needs and play music for him as often as necessary to make him feel better. I can make the most of what time I have left here and hope it’s enough. All the while, I’ll try and heal a bit before the dying begins. I mean that in the best possible way, but death can’t come soon enough. I’m drunk though, and all these good ideas won’t feel applicable in the morning when the anxiety returns. Until then, I’ll just shut up and listen to The Cure.