My last evening, I walked until my left foot was cramped, thinking about why I had come to Tokyo. Every neon lit alley was filled with my internal chatter, conversations where I kept replaying him in my mind. Intrusively our dialogue looped until I couldn’t remember which parts came first. He seemed to be a master of ease, despite the chaos that surrounded him. When he sounded her name, everything seemed to fold into one another.
“Donna?” he asked.
I looked up, being the only non-Japanese man around, I knew it had to be him. Smiling, yet seemingly shy, he didn’t look like what I had imagined in my mind. Based on Jeff’s description, I pictured someone more stout, maybe bigger? He was slightly shorter than average, lean, with thick curly brown locks, and be-speckled. His smile was warm, open, like he hadn’t been pressured to spend time with me.
A week prior, we both received a text from our mutual friend Jeff, You’re gonna get along great. Ivan is from the Bronx and has lived in Tokyo for a few years— he’s a programmer who also likes to dance Bachata. Donna is my childhood friend from NJ and used to work in tech in SF, she’ll be my boss one day and her dog is the fucking worst.
“So where do you want to eat?” he asked, while I shoved my embarrassing YA novel into my bag. It had been raining all day, so my hair was matted to my head and I realized the jetlag was hitting me, something that still droned on, despite three days into my trip.
I tried to appear lively, despite what I must have looked like, “anywhere but American food,” replying with an energy I mustered, but was borrowing.
“There’s a Mexican place right around the corner?” he said, nearly serious.
“Or.. that,” I quickly replied, “I should have been more specific, anything Asian would be great, since Jersey doesn’t do Asian food very well.”
“After living in Japan a while I actually love getting food that’s not Asian.”
“What do you miss most about food back home?” I asked. What a cliche question, I thought.
“Goat or I don’t know, pizza? So many things to choose from,” he said, smiling and waking, pointing me towards a basement restaurant on the corner, “Let’s go here, I’ve been here once before, you like Japanese BBQ?”
“Sounds good to me!” answering cheerfully that he compromised.
As we entered the basement, a thin man with a weathered face opened the door and asked us something in Japanese. Ivan held up two fingers, immediately the the man showed us to a booth. The restaurant smelled of charcoal with hints of yuzu, reminiscent of a candle one might purchase in a boutique. One that I’d never even use because I tended to do that with fancy candles. Let them just remain with the wick, their full potential ahead of them.
We tucked into a booth where we exchanged typical, slightly boring questions that people ask when they first meet. What we studied, where we went to college, how we knew Jeff, etc.
“So, wait, why did you move to Japan? What did you do when you first moved here?” I asked.
“I worked as a teacher, teaching English to adults, I hated it,” he explained.
“Did you live anywhere else or just Tokyo?” I continued on.
“Well, I lived in Shanghai for a year, for graduate school. I loved China, it was amazing. Then I moved back to the Bronx, then back here to teach English. Then the boot camp where I met Jeff, and now I work as an engineer.”
“I’ve always wanted to live abroad,” I half stated, half asked.
“I don’t think you should if it’s to teach, it’s totally different if you’re doing that, it’s stressful and crazy and you get paid horribly.”
“Makes sense,’ I nodded, realizing when I dreamt at work of escaping the suburban sprawl for an exciting year abroad, that I hadn't thought about all that came with it. That there would be stress there too, wherever there would be. There would be bosses and deadlines and long days. I mean, I knew that would exist, but I somehow thought it would be different, less real, more self-discovery in a new place than a 9-7 situation, like the reality I already lived.
“I guess I just always wanted to get out of the States, escape everyday life, but you’re making me second guess,” I explained, he nodded. We sipped our drinks in silence. Mine was a plum alcohol, thick and syrupy.
“So, Jeff was ripping you on the pictures you took, tell me more, always liked photography?”
I impersonated Jeff, laughing in between words, “Yeah. . ‘here she goes again with the professional pictures’. . .” we shook jocosely, shoulders rising up and down, at who Jeff was. He was that friend that made you love him not because he demanded it, but because he ruthlessly cared about people, and equally disarmed them with his sharp words, his uniqueness was palpable to anyone who met him. People either loved Jeff or they feared him, avoiding him at all costs, scared they would be unveiled as less intelligent or less amusing in comparison.
“He once called a guy ‘v-neck’ at our demo day because he was too bothered to ask his name,” Ivan explained as we laughed at the image of Jeff embarrassing an innocently curious person who had little inclination on what he was getting into when he raised his hand.
“Jeff man. . .he’s a character. . .” I trailed, “to answer your question though, yeah, I’ve been into photography, well art really my whole life, but it’s always been a hobby,” I explained, realizing, I hadn’t talked about art in such a long time, “It got me through some complex experiences, so it’s always been something I’ve gone back to.” I pulled up pictures of sketches I did in charcoal of anatomical structures, revealing details of muscle fibers and bone spurs.
Drawings were from when I thought I was going to work in medicine, but my paintings are much more vague,” pointing to my phone, I scrolled to a painting of a brightly colored faced holding her eye. Then to an older man. Then a young woman solemnly staring outwardly to the viewer.
“You’re really good, like actually, good. These are great,” he said, deeply curious, but I began to laugh it off, dismissing my efforts, but he continued, “no really, you have talent. Your photos as well, you’re talented.”
“I never thought of them as a potential for my work, but I really love doing them, they’re an escape, get me through a lot,” I said, “the photos always look better than real life though, that’s often the issue. Just like my job I suppose, it sounds so much better on paper.” I smiled, to hide my fickle depression.
“It’s never too late to start over. Look at me, I became a developer at 31,” convincing me time isn’t an excuse.
“Do you like developing?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
“I do, it’s complicated, I like my job a lot, it’s the people here I don’t. The culture. It’s so hard to connect,” He explained, in between grilling meat on the brick based fire between us.
“Why don’t you head back to the states? The Bay Area pays engineers so well. You’ve worked long enough as a developer that you should be fine,” I assured.
“It’s complicated. . . I want to go back, but I’d want to be close to my family in New York.”
“How long have you been here?”
“On and off since 2013,” he said, without further explanation.
“Damn,” I inhaled, what a long time I thought.
“Yup,'' he agreed, almost in dismay of his own answer.
I nodded, understanding that something was making his choice to leave very difficult, whether it be fear or a job search, or something else, it seemed to be pulling, not pushing him. Ivan was interesting, he was honest, quiet, intelligent, seemingly gritty, overcoming a new career change from educator to computer programmer. Despite what seemed like a positive change, it became obvious that he hated Japan. He hated the food and the inefficiencies of a culture that mandated respect over everything. He seemingly wanted to trade this metropolis for the one he grew up in.
During the course of cooking beef tongue and slices of belly, the chef removed the tendon for us based on appearing as tourists, I let one piece get incredibly cooked, I peeled it off the metal, slowly ripping each fiber back from the hot surface, fighting me.
“Whoops,” I said, “I let this one get way too cooked,” I plopped it onto my plate, cutting a piece off and chewing it.
“Wow, tongue is better than I remember,” I said, Ivan nodded and chimed in agreement, “seriously good tongue in Japan.” We paused, unsure of how that landed to one another and burst into laughter. Then, smiling, eye contact, pauses that last too long; things that happen when you suddenly find solace in someone else that you barely know. Like we were friends for longer than forty minutes.
It had been the first time I laughed in four days. I came to Japan to walk around, to reflect on my career, and most importantly, take pictures. I had always found relief in photography, but the last few years I started booking solo trips to capture places through my lens. It was a form of expression that no longer required me to draw them. I had grown up drawing and sketching, like walking, I did it all the time, it had once been a part of who I was. To study, I drew. To express, I painted. Art ran through my father’s blood, but he could never quit his two jobs to pursue it. I had abandoned it a few years back after work began to overtake my time, energy and identity, pushing me to continue as it paid me more and more. So what was left of art in my life was a mere few weeks a year when I could escape the life I participated in. I had become privileged and angry, a combination that was deathly self-involved and stifling to be around.
“Want to go bachata dancing?” he asked, as we paid the bill.
“I mean, sure?” I replied, unsure of how participatory it would be.
We grabbed our coats, slid out of the booth, bowing to the server on our way out.
He led me a few blocks away where we took an elevator to the third floor. An Eastern European man asked Ivan for money, sliding us two tickets for drinks and then gave us a third, saying something about ladies.
“Ladies night,” Ivan said, as he handed me the second ticket.
“Nice,” I replied, the host smirked and opened a thick black velvet curtain to the room behind him.
We entered what seemed to be a hookah bar with mood lighting of a 90s bedroom, blue and purple lights filtered the ceiling, with black pleather benches along the walls.
“This place plays pop music with bachata beats over it,” he leaned to tell me, as the music grew louder.
“Interesting. . . like this Backstreet Boys song?” I said, pointing out that we were watching an older couple dance bachata to the 90s band, poetically matching the decor .
“Exactly like that,” he laughed, “what do you want to drink?”
“Tequila soda, I am going to run to the bathroom, be right back.”
When I walked back out, he was sitting at a high top table talking to a young guy sat behind a hookah pipe.
“Donna, this is my friend, Arnel, from the Philippines, he is an in demand dancer,” he explained as Arnel puffed the hookah pipe with one hand and shook mine with the other. He was a petite man, donning cargo pants and top knot bun.
We sat at the table as the two of them explained to me how it worked at this particular bachata club. That the DJ was a friend of theirs, who was half Dominican and half Japanese, and that he played an equal mix of traditional songs and pop songs. They pointed out that there were always more women than men, making it hard to turn down a dance.
It felt like it was a movie set, not because of the decor or people, but the community of the place, it was rare for large transient cities; where people knew each other, talked, danced and seemingly led normal lives, but were somehow connected all at the same time.
A traditional bachata song came on and Ivan looked from across the table, “Wanna dance?”
I knew he had to be good, I knew I was bad, I froze, “Umm, I don’t think so. . .but you go!” I immediately regretted my answer, because I always back out when I know I suck at things, a close minded strategy I had for so long; if I wasn’t good, I wouldn’t do it.
He started dancing with an older woman, she was slender and wore a black tank top, it grazed over her frame as she rolled her body from hip to neck. She was mesmerizing. He moved at the same time she would, as if they’d been practicing all day. I wanted to keep watching them, but I feared I’d look strange, so I then looked up at the screen across from me that showed professional bachata dancers competing. Every few seconds, I’d look over to Ivan and the woman, seeing them was like watching an installation of art, perfectly configured for spectation.
The DJ walked over at the same time as Ivan, the song fading into a Beiber cover. They said a few words in Spanish to each other and then Ivan turned, “Donna this is Kaito. Kaito this is Donna— she’s visiting from the States.”
“It’s so nice to meet you!” I said, shaking his hand. He was warm and tall.
“You as well! Welcome to Tokyo!” He said joyously, then whispered something once more to Ivan and spun around to head back to his stand, waving in departure. He had a contentment to his demeanor, the way he peered into one's eyes intently even to meet them for a minute.
“What a cool guy— he has that thing.” Ivan looked at me a little confused, raising an eyebrow, “he just seems happy and lively, also, what a cool mix of cultures,” I added, “what did he say?”
Ivan smiled, “He said it was nice to see me, and then he called me his brother in Spanish.”
“Just let me know when you want to head out,” Ivan added as my face must have shown the jet lag fully setting in.
I tapped my phone screen: 11:02 pm — “I guess I better head out soon, I’m so sorry I’m lame, I just can’t seem to stay awake here.”
“No, no problem,” He said as he unrumpled his coat to put on.
I don’t remember what we discussed as we walked towards the station, but I remember the air, it was cold after the rainfall, it smelled of faint laundry detergent, sweet, clean and slightly floral. The lights as we entered the station were bright, jarring to my eyes.
“I’m on this line, you’re on the Yamanote line, you know how to get back?” He asked.
“I think so,” I said, “I’ll be fine.”
We embraced, hugging a little longer and tighter than strangers do, when we pulled away, I had to try for one more encounter, “So, you should really think about Friday, I don’t know anyone and it might be fun . . .”
“I’ll let you know, but it was so nice,” Ivan said, smiling with his eyes, wrinkling at the corners, “really.”
“Same,” I walked backwards waving, turning towards the stairs leading me towards Shibuya.
I thought about his face on the train, as people silently shuffled in, pressing against each other, without an air of resentment or verbal assault that one may face on a New York subway. When taking a picture or sketching a face, people think it is salient to study angles. The shape of their face, eyes, lips, wrinkles etc, all the lines that make them unique. But, I study people to understand their movement. How they talk, where they make eye contact, involuntary tics, because these things make up the lines and shapes. Ivan was hard to study. His face was both hard and soft. When he smiled, he was light and young, but when his jaw and cheeks rested he reminded me of a statue; stoicism of a soul much older than the face he wore. He was consistent in these two dichotomous expressions, which made it hard for me to see if he was hiding happiness or jadedness, or perhaps living between the two simultaneously.
Two days passed and I caved, “please come to this thing, I won’t know anyone.” Jeff was on the thread as well, “Go dude, it’ll be fun, you can send pictures of all the guys.”
I was slightly irritated that I agreed to attend myself. I had to download an app to get a free ticket. Stupid. Last thing one wants to do on vacation, but I did it. Jeff had told me to go— demo day was an event throwing by the coding Bootcamp where Jeff and Ivan attended. It’s a night where “soon to be programmers” prepared and showed their final project to prove their marketability after graduation.
How many people would go? Was it casual? What do people pitch exactly? Do I need to ask a question? Fuck. This is why I stay home when in the States— the build up of social engagements are far too exhausting.
Ivan caved as well, “I’ll get there around 6:30”.
“Let’s meet for drinks before it starts,” I replied, ensuring I’d have a social lubricant of sorts before committing to the Shark Tank meets Tokyo experience. I had that perpetual feeling that it couldn’t have been the last time we’d ever see each other, I wanted more time and it wasn’t clear why. He was interesting, like a painting still undone. I felt like I had known him and that familiarity bothered me to a state of curiosity that was deeply foreign and uncomfortable.
As I walked out of the Meguro station, I spotted Ivan against a wall, simultaneously, my phone calling to find him.
“Whoops, thought it would have been hard to find out where you were, these stations are so big,” I explained, while hitting the red button to stop dialing.
He smiled and hugged me, “where do you want to go?”
Dejavu, I thought. ‘Anywhere will do, just drinks, yeah?”
We had to nearly tilt our bodies, arms and legs scaling the wall to fit into the bar. Reminiscent of a London pub, dark oak trim covered the walls, narrow stairs led us to the seating area, where it only served craft beer and a small selection of cocktails.
We chose an embarrassing cliche for an appetizer, “onegaishimasu, 6 chicken wings, please,” Ivan ordered, bowing his head to the server politely and passing back the menu with two hands.
Picking up from the other night, quickly we paced, skipping the niceties. We discussed places we’ve traveled. We talked about our parents and their religious preferences. Talked about our hobbies, the things that got us through the day. We also talked about less socially acceptable topics — is paying for sex a crazy idea? I mean, professionals . . .and guaranteed cleanliness? We talked about how romantic relationships always lead to dread and resentment, which I firmly believed.
When he spoke, he was honest, careless of how it sounded. I too, seemed to not care, though I found myself feeling too free, too open; maybe I was sounding reckless with my life, but I couldn't control it. His demeanor coursed between honesty and groundedness — maybe it’s because I hadn’t felt either of those things in so long that I wanted to be around it, an osmotic process of sorts.
“I normally don’t get to talk like this with people. Actually, I never have conversations like these,” he said, almost heavily, revealing how lonely life can be on this big island, between cleaning his fingers with a wet wipe.
“I mean to be fair, I don’t either. But it’s nice to just go deep fast in a conversation. It’s less exhausting than ‘so tell me about how your job sucks’,” I said, sipping my Moscow mule the top floating with an orange froth. I couldn’t decipher the taste of the foam, but the rest seemed familiar enough to keep sipping.
“Totally,” he replied, “It’s refreshing
We smiled, then I looked around at the place. I was unsure why I had wanted him to come so badly, but I was glad he did. He looked down at this phone, “Shit. We gotta go, the demo starts in ten minutes.”
Ivan led me down dark allies to get to the location in under ten minutes, “Here it is”.
A normal looking building, I likely would have missed it a few times before circling back alone. Inside, the demo was in a space seemingly for co-working and it had a makeshift bar with craft beers sitting on the plywood surface. The seats were filled, so we stood against the back wall, near the wobbly bar. I pretended to rest my arm on it, but never actually put any pressure on it since it appeared to be collapsible by light touch. The temperature in the room was abnormally high, even for Japan, Ivan began to woft air into his sweater and I attempted to blot the sweat coming from my face with a napkin. Each demo was interesting, yet unoriginal. Travel apps, education apps and even debate apps. Everything was a platform and nothing integrated well, except for a food label reader, which seemed the most promising. Half way through the demos, Ivan leaned over and whispered, “I gotta go take care of something for work in the other room, so I can get online, I’ll be back.”
I nodded, suddenly more nervous that I was really alone in this place, knowing no one and quite frankly, bored. As the last pitch wrapped up, Ivan was back, next to me. He turned with widened his eyes and dismay smeared over his face that the event wasn’t over yet. I opened mine wider, similarly peeved.
Once the drinking began, and the chairs were folded, Ivan brought me to meet Jeff’s friends. One after the other, each was nice, but uninteresting. Each I would shake their hand, explain how I knew Jeff and attempt to explain that I recently met Ivan and made him my friend. Ivan would laugh, nod and smile, sometimes touching my arm playfully, making me feel that maybe I knew him longer than 72 hours, like we had built years of openness into a tightly cornered space— delicate and solid all at once.
We laughed with Jeff’s friends, all of them surprised at who I was and why I was there.
“So you’re here for what exactly?”
“Vacation, just a short trip alone,” almost exhausted repeating the lame explanation.
Heads nodded. Slightly twisted eyebrows. They didn't seem to get it. That escaping one's life for a week was abnormal in some way. But maybe, it was that I came to this demo night on my vacation, likely the latter reason. Regardless, it was clear my showing up was a bit unorthodox.
After a few more awkward introductions, Ivan went to go get more beers and came back towards me walking in lock step with a tall round faced Japanese man, with a slight bowl cut parted in the middle named Junki. He whispered, “this is whom Jeff really wants you to meet, he’s Jeff’s favorite.”
I looked down at my phone where Jeff had sent a list, “Doug, Junki, James. . “
“Must be Junk-i?’” I asked ignorantly only to Ivan.
“Haha yeah it’s JUNK-ee” he said, realizing I believed him and was nearly about to mispronounce it, “haha! No, ‘Jyu-nki’ is how you pronounce it.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” thankfully he seemed distracted by the noise of the crowded room to notice I didn’t say his name.
And then as we each made our small talk, Ivan explained his job and how he was searching for a new one. Then he turned, sounding out words no one had ever said about me, “Donna here is an artist and a photographer.”
I thought I misheard. I nearly snapped, no I’m not, he’s kidding. It felt like an exposure. I hadn’t said that. It wasn’t even true. I was a corporate slave, not an artist. I didn’t deserve a creative title. I didn’t earn it. But when he said it— he meant it. He seemed proud, as if he discovered my talents and knew they were somehow worth more than I ever eluded to. He said slowly and deliberately, reading my face, “she’s really talented”. And it felt satisfying in ways I couldn’t fully capture. As if he knew me, but not the me I had cultivated in everyday life, he saw that I wasn’t just who I forced myself to be, but someone more capable and spirited. Someone less depressed by their life, someone trying to figure it out and maybe even someone who will.
“Want to go out with them after?” I asked, expecting him to want to hang with his old cohort.
“I didn’t really like it here, so I’m happy to just go out, just the two of us,” He said.
“Done,” I replied, happy we were not extending the awkward conversations with people I’d never see again.
We walked along a semi-busy street in the frigid air— the first of many evenings that it wasn’t raining, “have your parents ever visited you here?” I asked.
“No, they haven’t, probably never will,” he replied, unbothered in his response.
I jumped behind him suddenly, to miss a bike that appeared to be aiming directly towards us on the sidewalk.
“You okay?” He asked.
“I have this thing with bikes on sidewalks, don’t mind me,” I said laughing, “I’m just a tad neurotic.”
He laughed at me. After a few seconds, I picked back up again, “I guess it’s far from the Bronx” in an attempt to make him feel better, “my dad never wanted to come to San Francisco, but he did once he knew I was leaving for good.” I felt stupid, for comparing, why had I always needed to fill silence when I was nervous. Why was I nervous? I trailed, he smiled at me, seemingly wanting to say something, but uncomfortable in the silence, I filled it, “so when you go home, we should take Jeff out to cheer him post-break up.”
“Yeah, but . .,” he paused, slowing his pace, “it’s going to be hard”, I waited for it, the thing that was pulling him, “I’m coming to New York with my daughter.
I didn’t say any particular word or phrase, I just let out some air and opened my jaw ajar, before I had time to cover up my reaction, relaxing my mouth.
“I assumed Jeff told you?” he asked, “I figured he may have.” His eyes were seemingly sad to mutter the words aloud, with a twinge of surprise that I hadn’t known this whole time.
“No, Jeff is pretty good with secrets, or not saying that is a secret, but if he feels someone should explain something, he’ll let them. . .is she here or there?”
“Here, she’s why I’m here— why do you think I’m here?”
“I figured, had to ask,” I nodded, looking down, “are you with her mom?” I asked, disregarding social etiquettes of people you’ve just met.
“No, well on paper. I’m so much happier this way.” He told me, looking away as we entered the station, “her and I don’t even talk anymore, it’s complicated.”
“It's good that you know that about yourself. Ugh, I’m sorry, I still don’t know what to say. That’s a hard thing to respond to. A part of me is wanting to both give you congratulations and condolences, I get it a bit more now,’ I said, genuinely meaning that his disdain of this place made more sense, he was tied it, bonded to it in a way that’s inescapable, even if he left.
“It’s okay, I’m okay with it all,” I believed him. His face, the lines.
When we got to the station, I began messing up the ticket machine, then Ivan went to help me, but a Japanese woman perceived him helping me as if we both were tourists in Tokyo. She began asking us questions in English. She appeared proud of her capability, smiling between each question. Politely he answered. I was baffled, I’d be annoyed. But he just smiled and answered as if he were an outsider like me.
We ran down the stairs to the train and once we got on, he said, “oh shit, we got on the wrong train.”
“Are you fucking with me?” I tried to read his eyes, they seemed to be smiling at the edges, wrinkled with joy, suggesting a lie, but I wasn’t sure enough to call him out.
“No, I swear, next station we gotta switch.”
As we sat side by side, shoulders nearly touching, I turned to him continuing our conversation. But then he spoke first, “I just really hope you do something you want to do with your life”. Hitting me like a slap, I felt my face grow red. Admitting that I wasn’t doing what I want to do with my life felt hard to face as I still hadn’t figured it out. I don’t know if I replied, maybe a nod, or words, but I felt nauseous inside, ill and guilty from the difference between us. He had less choice, and I abused the freedom of mine, blaming it on fake strings and red tape held by my guilt of capitalistic progress, that my parents never made.
“I’ve had my share of shit things like an alcoholic mother, still is, and once a terribly manipulative and cheating boyfriend. But somehow I’ve never really thought about what I want to do. I’ve just thought about my career— success. All that stuff. Surviving it all I suppose.”
He looked at me, I could feel his eyes on my face, but I kept looking away. Like he could see that I was indeed scared of my life, of my choices. I could feel the heat rising into my cheeks.
We pulled to our stop and shot up, I went to walk across the platform to get the train back in the direction we came from and he pulled me back, “I was messing with you, we’re at the right place.”
In a reflex, I shoved him. Laughing, I said, “Ivan, you will cause me to get kicked out of Japan, there is a low tolerance for violence here,” I said, feeling safe again in a mask of humor.
He laughed and touched my arm, cackling at this own prank. “You have that Asian glow right now.”
“Yeah it’s called beer and embarrassment.”
“You have no idea how nice this was, it was so fun hanging out. I don’t get this, ever. You probably know a dozen Ivan’s — but I don’t get to do this.” he told me as we sat down at the table of our final stop, an American themed bar. It seemed ironic, we finally went to an American place, just as he missed.
What he didn’t know is that I don’t get to do whatever it is he was describing either. I used to, I thought. I had it speckled in my life, here and there, but I didn’t really. I spent most of my time alone, in a place I didn’t feel fully myself, definitely far from what people describe as happiness or contentment. I was sure of myself; but my life, seemed to be hobbled by occurrences of luck, nothing planned exactly right.
I knew at that moment I was someone who reminded him of all that he didn’t have on a regular basis. People who were like him. People whom he could talk to about things like sex, work, dreams, jokes — everything we do to feel connected as human beings. And while I think I brought some happiness in those few hours, I think I was a representation of something that was faded and distant for so long. It wasn’t me, as much as what I represented. But to me, he was similar to everyone I met and knew at home, but somehow not at all. He was better, but also fading.
With an hour until his last train, I absorbed as much of Ivan as I could. I asked him question after question. We laughed. We contemplated how weird life can be. We flowed in and out of conversation like we had done it time and time again, like a dance we had practiced. Until we couldn’t anymore — the reality that we barely knew each other started to weigh in, and that we were in a city only one of us inhabited. We grabbed our coats and walked together one last time to the train that awaited us with bustling people who didn’t yell or clamor, but simply pushed their way, orderly and politely.
In that walk, I kept thinking about how our lives were different because of a few choices. Some choices chose us and others we were lucky enough to own and manipulate. Some choices came in the form of a fleshy tiny human and others were merely avoiding the thinly veiled universal ultimatum of choosing a life of mundanity. Maybe being understood has nothing to do with someone’s soul, fears or deeply set insecurities, it has to do with unveiling the things they’ve always been but never tied to their identity, too scared to ever make claim to what was theirs all along.
“Can I see a picture of her?” I asked, nervous he’d be offended as we approached the ticket gates.
“Of course, she’s all I have pictures of,” he pulled out his phone to show me a picture of them smiling together, sitting on the same side of a teal dining booth. Her hair was shiny and thick, her eyes bright and excited, her head cocked to the side, giddy with happiness as she sat next to her father.
“She’s perfect,” I looked up at him and saw everything I hadn’t before— every particle of regret disappeared, replaced with purpose, “what’s her name?” I asked.
“Alma,” he replied, smiling, “in Japanese they say, Al-Yu-Ma.”
I nodded, smiling at one another once more. We hugged, sharing an unexpected truth, suspended between us.