Thick in a handsome way, Greg from customs makes forceful eye contact and doesn’t smile. His voice is a well trod boot. ‘Anything to declare?’ He says. I had a great time, I tell him. I’m not sure how I’m going to go back. ‘I can have you detained,’ he tells me. ‘Searched and otherwise inconvenienced, right?’ Worn leather pressed liberally. Sorry, I say, you don’t get much chance to be funny when nobody speaks your language. Greg chews the skin of his inner cheek and arrives at a grimace. ‘Seems to me you didn’t miss much being away.’
I like watching the old men smoke on the Shinkansen, there’s a certain furtive elegance to it. Not quite nonchalance but something akin to devil may care. ‘Nationality doesn’t matter,’ Tanaeda-San says, ‘culture is only the tiniest artefact, it’s a trait that grows over time or is embedded in youth.’ I’m not so sure, I tell him, our elderly carry themselves differently, almost fearfully at times, their retirement seems almost a gamble. ‘So so so so so,’ he says, and turns to watch his country sliding by the cabin window. ‘Then perhaps they need to consider not stopping.’
Kaori looks at me with abject innocence and something wistful I can’t pin down. I wish I knew how to talk to you, I tell her. I wish I could share something of myself with you and you with me. ‘Wakarimasen,’ she says, but I don’t understand. We listen to the cicadas chirrup for a while and I can’t help laughing at their joke. She smiles and pats my hand, a gestural lament that carries something I still can’t grasp. I want to speak, but Kaori presses a finger to my lips and opens her palm beneath the horizon.
It’s a strange expanse of introspection, but I get bummed sometimes that I haven’t killed myself yet, like it’s just another unrealised dream. Problem is, I was born with the ambition of a much more talented person, somewhere out there is a should be physicist blissfully calculating tax returns and enjoying my ignorance. I feel indentured to an amorphous personal dissatisfaction, a sense that whatever I accomplish will never be as good as I know it could be were I not me. Not that I want to be someone else, just that I’m not the me I never am.
The gap is insurmountable. I don’t even speak, knowing the space is too thick and vast to carry meaning, all she might hear is some mewling that won’t even carry the conscious fidelity of echo. I lay a hand sometimes, in opportune occasions, upon bared skin betrayed by movement, always so soft and impenetrable. I’m allowed to feel then and the joy of it is dark enough to lose myself inside. I would cry out, to be chastised for my childishness, but it would only bother and I love her too much to dare disturb the wall she’s built.
Lilly came barreling up and threw herself on my lap. I had to start tickling her, it’s in the mandate, so I got right in under her armpits and made her squeal. It’s a gorgeously ugly sound, giggles and gasps mixed with abridged shrieks, the most pure thing I’ve ever experience. I recorded it on my phone once, so I could keep her close. It used to be that I would listen to it whenever I was down, but I don’t have to anymore, it’s enough knowing that she’s in there, her innocence digitised and protected from the future.
I wish my skin were hers. I pry beneath her wrist, slipping my nails into subdermal territory. She doesn’t flinch. I think I’m not there so I squirm. The pain she notices, an irritation. ‘What are you doing,’ she says. Love, I say, love, over and over until the words are in her veins. Love, love, love, love. ‘Stop,’ she says, ‘you’re full of shit.’ And I let her say it because of smiles, but she doesn’t realise how much I give away and what flows in to fill the void. Love, I say, and listen for a pulse.
‘Nah, man,’ Jessie says, ‘it’s not like that. She still loves you, of course she does, she just wants you to love you too.’ He rubs at his nose idly and watches the other patrons mill. ‘It’s gotta be hard for her,’ he says, ‘I mean you’re pretty fucking annoying.’ Anyone else might have gotten under my skin, but I know what he means and how he means it. I’m told loving me is like living with an unscratchable itch. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ he tells me, ‘I’ll always love you, just ease up on the torment and so will she.’
I’m terrified I’ll never be anything, I tell him, that I’m not capable or special or anything and I’ll destroy my life pining after somebody I’ll never be. Damien puts his hand up, a palm out pause, and starts rummaging through his desk, overturning papers, shuffling drawers, and rifling with a bandit’s abandon. I let it last long enough to appreciate the theatrics before asking for the punchline. ‘I’m looking for fucks,’ he says, ‘I swear I had some for you but it looks like I’m fresh out.’ His words sound sincere but I listen to his eyes instead.
I’m on my knees at the foot of the bed staring at a point above Shelly’s head where the window moulding’s loose. ‘I don’t understand why you’re so fucked up,’ she says. ‘You’re too smart to be so fucked.’ Her voice sounds like pressed flowers. I tell her, being able to describe a hole doesn’t mean you can climb out of it. ‘But why’d you have to tell me,’ she says, ‘we were doing great.’ Inside the crack is a darkness that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the room, I crawl towards it until there’s nothing of me left.
He looks at me with an almost destitute seriousness and sighs longer than lungs have a right. ‘I want to fuck them all,’ he says, almost aquiver. ‘I can’t help it.’ Tense to the point of pain. ‘It’s killing me. It’s destroying me. I can’t see them as people anymore. I can’t see people, just fuck things and the rotting blackness inside me.’ And after, I ask, when you’ve fucked a thing? ‘Nothing,’ he says, ‘beautiful nothing for long enough to notice, then horrors again.’ He closes his eyes and looks at something I’ll never see. ‘I feel monstrous.’
Caleb doesn’t look at me while he talks, it’s like he can’t spare the processing power. ‘I’ve automated my relationships,’ he tells me. ‘I started by scheduling updates, you know, cute little memes and shit, fluff. So I designed a chatbot that integrates with all my mail and social media. It’s got to the point now that the thing is even picking out gifts for me. It’s got better taste than I do.’ I ask him what happens when he goes out on dates and he just shakes his head. ‘I’m not doing this to meet people,’ he says.
The lily’s leaves are browning. I don’t know how to help. I’ve moved it in and out of sunlight and watered it more or less. It doesn’t want to thrive. I understand. It’s old now, half a decade at least, the roots must be knotted and cramped against the terracotta hull. Does it imagine there’s more to be had while it curls against its cage and feeds upon itself? Does it know open fields and boundless soil? I’ve never said anything, but the knowledge must be inside it, the pent potential of all living things trying to live more.
I’m not even human anymore, I’m just a composite of anxiety and idiom being dragged through a series of haggard experiences, collated daily and draped on chronology like a string of shitty pearls. I found out consciousness doesn’t exist and that was the end of it. It’s just data on slides with a discernible delay that puts the I into irrelevance. I mean, I didn’t need much convincing of something I already suspected, but it still hurt, you know. All my hope took away and replaced with determinist programming. There’s no purpose in it, I think, therefore I’m meaningless.
My girlfriend’s girlfriend is a cunt. I’m not allowed to say that, of course, but here we are. She’s archetypically composed and wields bias like small arms fire. The whiff of anything remotely heteronormative makes her rabid, even the shape of my masculinity, vague as it is, enables her to hate me for being something I never had say in. Sometimes we stay up drinking wine and yelling at each other while we wait for Katie to finish work. ‘You’ll never understand us,’ she says, but I do, I love them for it, it’s her ignorance I’ll never get.