An unfortunate tattoo curling its discolored tendrils out from under her faded racerback like a wave, like a come-hither gesture, beckoning me backward in time to when she was carefree, when she smoked more and thanked less. Memories brimming with the scent of cigarettes extinguished in the last swallows of beer, stagnating in their discarded glass bottles, filling the corners of the room and balanced on the edges of standing furniture as if daring the room’s occupants to give their homes just the slightest bump, so that they might tumble to the dirty carpet below and add to the stains there. The smells of old sex and dirty clothes, a nest-like odor that was as comfortable as it was repellent. That was where she’d come from, where she’d been bludgeoned into adulthood by her womanhood and learned what it meant to be someone else’s doormat.
All that remained of those dark days now waved at me from below her shoulder, waved hello from across the years, a true scar with meaning far deeper than the one she’d first assigned to it, to justify the permanent ink.
I remember what it was like to be anonymous, and I miss it in the way that lovers miss each other.
Anonymity in Tokyo was a bipolar experience. On the one side there was very little chance of anyone knowing who I was, yet on the other my gleaming white skin attracted nearly every pair of eyes wherever I went, outside of the foreign enclaves. In the ten years of taking the trains and running up and down hundreds of side-streets, stairwells, and escalators not once did I hear someone call my name, tap me on the shoulder with a “hey, Jack”, or later remark that they’d seen me going somewhere in a hurry and hadn’t bothered to stop me on my way.
I was also bereft of my own ego, crippled in positive ways. I learned the numbing pain of non-competition, for how could I ever even dream of competing there? The things I worked for I got, certainly, but so much more was walled off, out of sight and out of reach to all but the native inhabitants. My skin was wrong, my voice was wrong, my culture and behaviour all wrong, and I was fine with that. You had to be, to survive. To keep your faculties intact you had to adopt the position you were forced into from all sides: that of the foreigner. The gaijin, or gaikokujin if you’re fancy.
I’d spent the prior 23 years of my life pushing myself to the outskirts of the society I’d been born into and yet there in Tokyo I’d found myself forcibly placed there by the simple virtue of being born an outsider. I revelled in it, I played the part to the hilt, and now all I have is the memory, like the fading and blurry after-image of a crowd that’s been obliterated by a flashbulb.
Such is the way with old glory.