From Kobe, Japan to New York City (and Back Again)

by

04/11/2008

East Village, St, Mark's Street, at East Village Books; Columbia University, 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

I watched it from a high floor of our apartment building: a confusion of spotlights, protesters, and riot police. Some two thousand people that night were lunging toward our compound wall, shouting “Yankee, Go home!” Through a bullhorn, someone called us gaijin, which technically meant foreigner, but was in actuality, closer to “gringo.”

While the police beat back the crowds, my father and the other grownups on that balcony said that the outer wall of the compound was a strong one–it was at least a foot thick. Don’t worry, my father said, These people are just trying to stir things up. He then told us to go back inside because he wanted to record a cassette tape of us singing carols in front of our mail-order tree. It was Christmas Eve, 1969.

We sang songs into the microphone while the protests went on outside. The Americans were in Vietnam. B-52s flew overhead, on the way to the war. My father was consul-general to Japan’s industrial center, the combined cities of Osaka and Kobe. He worked behind a Sixties-modern desk. It was wide and long, made of steel, and behind it was the American flag. I rarely went to his office, though. The American consulate was in a sterile building with lots of glass and marble and it was on the other end of the compound. I only went into that place when my monthly order of American cereal arrived. I always asked for Frosted Flakes. They always substituted my order with Fruit Loops. That whole building meant perpetual disappointment.

Aside from the consulate and our living quarters, there wasn’t much else in the compound: a parking lot, a few cherry blossoms, and a pond with decorative fish. Towering over us was a glass office building that everyday blared an instrumental version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” when it was time to begin the day.

I had friends, two girls at the compound. Usually, the three of us went to the storage room where we dropped our pants and examined each other gravely. Later, we listened to the Monkees while we flipped through the dirty magazines we found in the closets of our parents.

Friends had come and gone very quickly back then–already, I had lived in South Korea, and several different cities in Japan. People had seemed replaceable. Friendships seemed to last about six months, and that was fine. Almost everyone was a blur. Everyone, that is, except for John.

In the only photograph that I have of him, John is spindly, blond-haired, pale, and white. He’s squinting in the sun and using his hand to shade his eyes. His thin white legs are akimbo in short pants. Back then, my basis for friendship was simple: his building, located on the outskirts of Kobe, was far away from the bullhorns and the spotlights and the riot police of the diplomatic compound. Even more important, he had a swimming pool. He had American toys. He was a connection to that country that I was technically from, but didn’t know at all. As John and I sat in his bedroom, he told me about G.I. Joe, Kirk, and Spock. America seemed like paradise then, a place full of the best toys and the best TV.

John was mysterious to me because his sister and mother had died in an American hurricane. In his apartment, there was an extra bedroom for his deceased sister. Its door was always closed. John would tell me about America, and then I would sit with him in his living room while his father read the newspaper. I remember John’s father as red-faced and balding, with chaotic sideburns, and a preference for wildly patterned shirts. His father, if I remember right, was one of those entertainer types with an ever-present cocktail, bourbon probably. He laughed a lot. He used to play American songs for us on the shortwave radio. He liked chrome furniture and artwork made up of bright, swirling patterns. The living room had one of those glass window-walls. One entire wall was a window, from top to bottom, but the view was dismal–highways and chalk-white apartment buildings spread into the distance. What surprised me was that you couldn’t tell by looking at him that his wife and daughter were dead. He didn’t seem permanently marked, as I’d thought he would be.

By first grade, I had known people who died. My great-grandmother died, and my best friend, when I was living in Tokyo, hanged himself. I think his name was Danny. He tied one end of the rope to his bedstead and the other he put around his neck. He then crawled to the other side of the room until he had strangled himself. When he died, the adults were shocked. They tried a primitive form of grief counseling for the diplomatic children, but none of us seemed to care very much: that kid was one more person who needed to be replaced.

But John’s loss, death by a Gulf Coast hurricane, seemed enormous; it was godlike. I never asked him about it and he never told me anything, either. Sometimes, when I was over at his apartment, though, I snuck down the hall to touch the doorknob of his sister’s closed-off room.

Once my nanny took John and me to an ancient Buddhist temple. As we walked there, we passed endlessly long apartment blocks. Each building was chalk-white, and the same as the one before. Seemingly every balcony was loaded with laundry drying in the sun. I remember eating banana Popsicles on the way. We passed factories and vacant lots until we were finally at the temple. Later, we watched Where Eagles Dare in some screening room in his building. That was my first violent, American movie. I loved it. John, however, found it disturbing. He especially didn’t like the fight scene high atop a moving cable car. While a Nazi villain hung by his hands off the side of the car hundreds of feet over a snowbound mountain pass, Richard Burton’s character took out a hatchet to cut off the man’s fingers. The villain fell, screaming, to the snowy ground far below.

Eventually we moved to Second Street in Brooklyn, right off the park, after my father left the Foreign Service. I didn’t think too much about my past because I was busy hating my life in America. I thought Americans were too loud and that the Japanese were right: Americans were gaijin. I stayed in my room and thought of ways to become rich so I wouldn’t have to live in this country anymore. Meanwhile, my sister entertained herself by pretending that she was a twin. She would dress in two sets of clothes, everyday. While no one on Second Street had ever seen both she and her supposed twin together, most people seemed to believe she had one. She kept that up for almost a year.

We then moved again, to a small town in South Carolina while my parents got divorced. I don’t remember that much of this period; I’ve mostly blocked it out. I only remember first hearing yonder, y’all, and nigger. Again, we moved–to Charleston, South Carolina. Summers, I spent with my father in Washington, D.C. As Japan faded farther into the past, I began having dreams I couldn’t place. I was in a large swimming pool. Occasionally, I saw a laughing, red-faced man amongst a jumble of chrome furniture.

Years passed into more years. I went to graduate film school at Columbia. I bragged about myself in bars, showed my films at festivals, and dealt with the screenplay-optioning process. I went back to Japan for a few weeks–I was able to find my way around Tokyo as long as I used Kiddie Land, the giant toy store, as my starting point. I couldn’t find out about such childhood friends as John, though. Too much time had gone by.

Then more years passed: I fell in love. I lived with her for six years. She and I broke up. Then still more years. I found out that John had committed suicide. He had been going to Columbia at about the same time I had. It seems John was getting a graduate degree in East Asian studies when his father died. The loss of his last-remaining family member, and probably along with the shock of living in America had been too much. If anyone could have helped him, it would have been me. I knew his father. I knew Japan.

Then still more years passed: My screenplays never got out of development. I was stuck with massive student loans. I started working in magazines because the checks came regularly and they didn’t bounce.

Then it was Mother’s Day in 1999. It’d been raining continuously some two or three days, and I’d grown tired of umbrellas and all of that umbrella nonsense: the navigation through the wind and the crowded streets; the inevitable umbrella blowout, with you standing there like some idiot with a useless stick. So I walked in the rain.

At East Village Books on St. Marks Street, I scanned the various titles. I hated the sight of all of those books though. For some reason, however, I picked up one book, Tea Life, Tea Mind. Even though the last thing I felt like reading was a book about tea, I pulled it out of its slipcase. Out fell a business card. It was for John’s father, dead some ten years. I was holding something that must have belonged to John. That book brought it all back: walking to a temple past chalk-white apartment blocks filled with laundry; Star Trek and Where Eagles Dare; the protests in front of my apartment building; the hanging death of my friend whose name I can no longer remember.

I showed the shopkeeper the business card and told him the story; I told him how it belonged to someone I’d known years before, on the other side of the world. I told him how John had killed himself while up at Columbia, and how this book must have belonged to him.

But this just seemed frighten the man. He didn’t seem to understand how it made me happy to have the book, how for some reason it brought me home to a place where there were there were fewer gaijin. He backed toward the wall and said, “but you still have to pay for that book.”

Perhaps the shopkeeper was worried that I would say annoying and spooky things, that I would construct an allegorical equivalent of that fort we had had in Tokyo. That maybe I would say that worst of phrases, “It’s a small world.”

I believe in the mysterious, but I don’t believe in the easy answer. I don’t believe in messages from beyond the grave. But I know this: These incidents, the protests and the suicides, and even the Fruit Loops I’d gotten instead of Frosted Flakes, are all somehow connected. Exactly how though, I’m not too sure.

In any case, I own that book. That’s the only thing I can take away from this: Things can end up with others in erratic ways. Even after thousands of miles. Even after years. And even after death.

 

MEAKIN ARMSTRONG is the fiction editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Art and Politics (guernicamag.com). In 2007, he received a waitership for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He is working on his first novel.

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§ 3 Responses to “From Kobe, Japan to New York City (and Back Again)”

  • David Harlow says:

    A beautiful story. Really is.

  • Carmela Giordano Jackson says:

    Whoa…..provokes such feeling, I am wanting to mail ya some Frosted Flakes!

  • Kara Krauze says:

    A wonderful piece. Your minimalism gains momentum through all the specific and (belatedly) meaningful details you have pulled back up, and by the end your story is powerful and haunting. I write/blog about memory and suicide, a subject which certainly re-shapes and infuses memory with unexpected depths. You have reminded me again of the beautiful short book, The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster, another author accustomed to the prevalence of coincidence (and possible meaning imbued therein). Thanks for the great read.

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