by Sakura Nakashima
[adapted from a collection of short stories named after each of the six flowers of Higo]
April 2021. I moved back to this prefecture a year ago and am living in a small urban rental in the central ward with Shinya.
The earthquake that flattened major areas of the city years ago led to a massive public housing campaign that sprouted a competitive condominium market. Tragic natural disasters and construction; in this world, it seems that one begets the other. I always wanted to live in Ōe, along the old canal, but when we were looking for a new home together we found a newer development near the university. Ironically, we ended up in Kuhonji, where he grew up, just around the corner from our friends and my favorite coffee stand. I can walk to my classes, teach for a few hours, and take care of everything else on the way home. The neighborhood florist and I already know each other by name, and once or twice a month I go to the popular Indian restaurant a block away for take-out curry.
Somehow, after all these years of wondering if I were doing things right – if I would eventually feel peace – it finally materialized. I moved around the world from a young age, always in-between and carrying an air of confusion in the way I struggled to explain the sharp lines of my eyes and the spelling of my name. What my parents are like. Why I eat natto on grilled cheese. Being a painfully meticulous person, I always second-guess my decisions and worry about following the incomprehensible expectations of others, but this time everything feels quite all right. Coming back to this city made all the years before now feel like moments; as though my life has finally begun. I’m not perfect, but I’m happy, damn it.
I’m sitting at the walnut dining table, a heavy piece of furniture we found at a local yard sale several months ago, composing notes in the margins of the novel I’m reading. I keep glancing at Shinya, who’s standing across the room. In a patch of sunlight, he playfully grins at me and makes a selection from the rows of vinyl records lining our living room wall. A peek at the jacket cover shows a woman’s legs and red open-toed heels with a cable car in the background; he picked San Francisco Moods this morning and I smile because he’s gotten hooked on Cal Tjader.
Our collection of books, music and my dozens of journals in various colors, sizes, and shiny plastic covers decorate the southernmost wall of our east-facing apartment. It’s almost exactly like the prophesied home I had secretly envisioned one night at our favorite bar in 2018. I wouldn’t have dared to talk – or even think – about things like marriage at that point in time, but cerebrally toying with the unknown was a dangerous game that I have always played.
2018. Only three years ago. I look around at the life we’ve suddenly found ourselves in together: a one-bedroom flat in a perfect location, solid jobs, un-monetized pastimes that we can still call hobbies, friends, and family abound. Over the past year, we put together a decent bed on a frame – no longer the large futon we used to share – and hung a red and white painting above it, cleared floor space enough for a few friends after a night out at an event, lined the big window with a few windowsill plants in glazed pottery my grandfather fired decades ago. My colorful jars of pickles and kimchis ferment on a low shelf in the kitchen.
I look at Shinya, standing tall with just a whisper of grey in his dark hair, and clearly remember the season when an inkling of this future first came to me.
Three years ago, we met at a time when I was still exploring a number of urban pastimes in Japan that never quite suited me in the American style: social drinking and dining, window-shopping, music events, and getting to know locals as deeply as I knew the streets. One Sunday, about a week after an awkward date with an acquaintance, I was hanging around in town and came into my favorite CD store on a whim to chat with the store owner. As I came up the short steps to the lounge space, he was conversing at the counter there with a tall, quirky man. Balancing a lit cigarette in his left hand, this interesting young man introduced himself as Shinya.
Since February, I’d been coming back to this establishment. I initially walked in while hunting for a very specific Wes Montgomery vinyl record for a friend; if not this place, then it was less likely that the other three stores in town might have it. After bonding with the owner over travel stories, I came back to discover more and more music – disco, jazz, soul – as well as interesting locals who had tasted life in distant places. For the first time in Japan, I found myself in an environment where my identity as a multiracial Japanese American became salient enough not to warrant explanation.
As soon as we exchanged introductions, Shinya was looking through the playlists on my outdated phone and evaluating whether my musical fandom was of the same caliber as his. Praising my eclectic taste in a range of genres, and knowledge of several lesser-known artists, he handed my phone back to me and casually asked for a reggae recommendation. Within hours, we had become friends. All thanks to music.
Days and weeks passed. Here and there, the wintered trees grew new leaves, and half-a-dozen varieties of cherry blossoms had bloomed early. I went on more bad dates. Pretty soon, after long hours and unpaid overtime at our day jobs faithfully accumulated on our way into spring, I heard from him one day and we started contacting each other again.
At first, we met only once or twice a month, when our friends from the CD store got together for an izakaya crawl. A few times I came through to dance at hip-hop events and stayed way later than expected, until taking a taxi home became the unquestioned norm. After this happened, we seemed to find time to meet each other downtown at least a couple times a week at different venues. Similar in our disregard for the flashiness of mainstream culture, we felt more comfortable when sporting thrifted clothing and riding bicycles, indulging in our preference for lowbrow simplicity. This part of me had not changed from childhood; it only magnified alongside a person who lived the same lifestyle.
Personal tastes aside, for some reason Shinya gravitated to me unpretentiously and made me laugh, unlike so many of the men I had met here. His laid-back physicality, in particular, fascinated me as we moved through a world founded upon the maintenance of tight posture and reserved composure. What is his sexual orientation anyway? I used to wonder, watching him nurse a drink with a cigarette in one hand, long legs gently but carelessly knocking against his seated neighbors. His friends told me on multiple occasions that he was single if I cared to know (truthfully, I did). He had a way with respect, especially towards the women in his life, and much to our surprise this natural chemistry quickly grew into a compulsion to spend more time together. This rhythm and language were our own, mixing Japanese and English as we leaned into each other everywhere we went. My own lingering insecurities about using a grammar that was still unnatural in my mouth started to fade.
I got accustomed to seeing his slender frame in profile since we were usually seated beside each other, and soon felt no burn in my cheeks when our own legs or arms brushed together. Whether we were jumping to music in a packed room, quietly scrolling through our iPhones, ordering the exact same thing as each other off every menu, or discussing the weirder points of cult American films, we were purely ourselves.
But after a few times of going out together alone, around the final lingering weeks of summer I noticed a change in the way he looked at me. When we were sitting across from each other, or when I crossed a room to share my lewd humor with a girlfriend, I caught his gaze. He had unmistakable eyes for me.
The evening in September when I came to meet him on a narrow side street in heels and a less-than-conservative dress, I felt his eyes following my movements, tracing the dark border of the fabric against my pale skin. He looked at me more intently while drinking a glass of autumn beer and listening to a story about my day. There was no full moon that night, but I, too, began to see him differently. Something about his thick eyebrows, deep eyes, and quick-changing expressions addressed me as clearly as his bright voice did. After sharing seasoned hokke and cold beer, and embarking on a hysterical comic contest that traveled to a neighboring bar, he stubbornly agreed on a dare to kiss me.
At the end of the day, we were still us. We brought out something in each other that no one else could, I realized, having spent so much time beside him on all days of the week. The seasons were passing by as spring winds and summer typhoons blew through the island, and the new flavor at Starbucks arrived like clockwork. The World Cup fever came and went, as did the raucous annual horse festival. Most of my life did not revolve around Shinya, but the more I thought about it, it was clear that he was one of the few constants in my day-to-day world. In only five months we had begun falling in love, and everyone around us could see it before we could admit it to ourselves. Yet, Shinya refused to risk our friendship and so we went on, as usual, meeting as often as possible after work.
Around this time, I started to make peace with the other aspects of my life here: frustrations with living in a foreign language subsided, the spare solitary days off were now brimming with social engagements. The secondhand guitar languishing in my living room was collecting dust but I had instead learned to train for a marathon. My lavender plant was growing. Most of all, I was constantly surprised as meaning continued to emerge from words I struggled to decipher a week earlier; I was irrevocably becoming fluent in the language my late grandparents once spoke. I wanted more from my disjointed 20s, yet it seemed that all the selfish ambition I had built up over the years, like an existential wall between myself and others, was shape-shifting. I was becoming Japanese, more fully, and making peace with an identity that had never quite fit before. I had a life.
But all of this changed one day.
In dazed disbelief nearly parallel to what I experienced the morning after the November election two years before, I woke up on a Saturday in October to an email that I could not conveniently ignore (I had grown accustomed to doing this while residing abroad).
It was an invitation from a former mentor. She had become a representative of the organization I had dreamt of working with since university. And she wanted me to apply for a position in their linguistic preservation department. Something like sunshine flooded my arteries as I made a strange, high-pitched shriek.
Not just any opportunity, this was a major turn. The missing component of my dream. The dream. Perusing the timeframe and responsibilities listed in her message, there was actually a strong chance that I could acquire this post. It’s in Geneva. Shoots den.
Coming more fully to my senses now, I realized that, of course, it meant sacrificing the life I had cultivated here; give up the luxury of having neighbors like family, a beautiful apartment, a reasonable day job, unparalleled safety, language skills, racial fluidity. Give up Shinya.
So would I leave this all behind?