I took the train into downtown Osaka on a Tuesday afternoon to get my alien registration card. I was going to school at a university in one of Osaka’s suburbs and living with a family in one of the suburb’s suburbs—in a neighborhood where the houses were packed so tightly you could go for blocks across the rooftops without ever having to jump. I spent an hour in a government building, in various offices, waiting in lines with other foreigners—who are identifiable on sight in Japan—for my card. It was the first truly grungy place I had encountered in the country. It wouldn’t be the last. When I finally received my card, I took the subway back to the train station where I caught the mostly empty express. It stopped at the first four stations in Osaka before blasting out to the suburbs, and I was looking absently at the photo on my I.D., in which I looked fatter than I liked to imagine myself, when the conductor, in his flat, garbled way, announced Kyobashi, the last of the four.
I had been there before with my friend Kathleen—that I had made any friends, a rare occurrence for someone as shy as me, I attributed solely to the fact that none of the foreign students knew anybody when they arrived and were actively trying to meet people—and we had wandered, lost, into the red-light district, where the sky disappeared behind awnings and clusters of wires and where pedestrians, bicycles and cars wove around each other in the narrow canyons of the neon buildings at terrifying speeds, with an incredible calm and indifference. Signs propped on the sidewalks and posters hung in electric frames on the walls advertised gentlemen’s establishments from the 10th floors to the third basements, with an equivalent range in apparent quality. They showed women in bikinis or topless, with one hand covering their breasts and the other always covering their faces. Kathleen suggested these were topless-dancing bars, but the signs said that 30 minutes cost 6,000 yen; an hour, 10,000.Japan is an expensive place, but no just-to-watch nudie bar—anywhere, ever—is going to cost $55 for a half-hour. These clubs were something more.
When the conductor, in his flat, garbled way, said, “Kyobashi,” a whispering began deep inside my head, reminding me of the signs and the mostly nude women they promised. Determined to lose my virginity during my freshman year in college, I’d hired a prostitute once, from an escort listing in the phonebook, so that when one of the general losers or social rejects who occasionally condescended to spend an hour with me—usually because I had beer or weed and a willingness to trade it for a phony friend—inevitably turned the conversation to sex, I could say, “Why, yes, I have been with a woman,” I had been saying that anyway but always felt it was somehow transparent. And I thought it would help me with girls, as if I would gain some confidence or knowledge I’d been lacking. I sat in my Denver hotel room for an hour, more terrified as time passed that it was some kind of sting: Any moment, the cops would burst in, the cameras right behind them. The girl who showed up was entirely bored with me, and I was so shy and embarrassed that when she asked what I wanted, my “I don’t know” netted me a $300, five-minute strip show, and she left, laughing, as she said, “Have a good night,” to which I responded, “You, too.”
Almost four years later, I sat on the train pulling into Kyobashi, more or less the same person I’d been in that room: too shy to ask a girl out, too fat to be asked, too lonely to ever be happy and having listened too long only to what echoed around inside my own head to believe I could ever be different. I spent my adolescence alone, replacing people with food, and every pound I gained weighed heavier on my self-esteem. Fantasies had long ago shifted from sex to love or just closeness. From middle school, I had resented couples for illuminating what I lacked, what I was somehow incapable of. I stayed at home or worked at the grocery store on prom nights and homecomings, and I went to a big university where anonymity allowed me to cultivate isolation virtually uninterrupted. My own life became my largest barrier and provided the easiest excuse not to change; five or eight or 10 years after most people started dating, I hadn’t. I had missed a step somewhere. I was permanently behind and would never catch up. But as much as I accepted this; as much as I convinced myself of its finality; as much time as I spent filling the void with the trivial, the flickering, the fattening, there were moments when emptiness and loneliness spilled over and drowned me.
One of those moments came on that train, pulling into Kyobashi. In one of the most densely populated nations on the planet, in a city of tens of millions, I was suddenly very aware that I was very alone. It was a given that I would never be loved—I was as sure of this as I was that the sky is blue—but if I couldn’t achieve love, I could buy a half-hour’s approximation and maybe feel it for a moment.
I walked rapidly through a narrow Kyobashi street, passing shot bars and restaurants with curtained entrances and paper lanterns just now being lit as the dusk was slowly losing its color. I kept pace with a young Japanese man, his hair cropped short and spiked with gel, his suit off the rack and wrinkled.
I’d been in Kyobashi 20 minutes and had wandered up to several places where the men at the doors had said, “Japanese only,” or, “No foreigners,” or simply crossed their arms into an X. Eventually, I found a tiny store, 6 feet deep and 20 feet wide, with an automatic sliding door. It was filled, floor-to-ceiling, with little billboards for these places. The same face-covered pictures decorated each one, along with phone numbers, price lists and hours. One had a piece of paper taped over it that read, Foreigners OK, in English. I peeled the flyer off the pad that hung below and took it to the attendant. He spoke on a cell phone for a moment, and the young man that I was now following had appeared out of the ever-bustling street traffic.
I’d already been to the building we approached—a modern, sleek, glass and steel thing, eight stories high, with red writing scrolling up the sides—and had been rejected. Now I entered unmolested, moving with my pimp to the elevator. It ran up a glass tube outside the building like an architectural afterthought, and I felt more and more visible to the shrinking people on the street, who knew what this building was and where this elevator was taking me. The spiky-haired man seemed to recognize this and made a point of avoiding eye contact, and I was simultaneously grateful for the gesture and angry that he knew so well what was running through my head. We stepped into a narrow hallway, and a middle-aged man, who wore a tuxedo but had the rough face and tired eyes of a life gone the wrong direction, met us there. My walking companion handed him the slip, said something, stepped back and was gone. I was motioned to the only door I could see, at the far end of the hallway, where a younger man with greasy hair in a pony tail waited. Florescent bulbs hung naked from rusty mounts on the ceiling. The plaster on the walls was cracking and chipped. The greasy man directed me to a list of rules, written in English and Japanese, posted outside the door. One said, Condom must be used, and another said, Sex is prohibited. He emphasized a few and asked if I understood, and I said I did, a lie, and he allowed me to enter.
The room was dark. Loud music was being strangled somewhere, and all that was coming from the speakers in the ceiling was the victim’s squeals and thrashing against a bass drum. Fake ferns and potted trees obscured what little view the dim red light allowed in the depths of the room. Just inside the door was a small booth, clearly not a part of the building’s original construction. It was wooden, and the wall facing the door was a screen made from a Crosshatch of skinny, wooden planks. From a waist-high slot, two heavily manicured hands emerged, and a tobacco-hardened voice from behind the screen asked for my money in Japanese. I paid and was handed off to another man, a big one by Japanese standards, who listed my beverage choices: whisky, beer or cola. I wanted cola, but I said beer. I’d be damned if I was going to look like some kid.
The big one led me through the plants and curtains, shining a flashlight behind him, down at his feet for me to follow. I caught a glimpse of four women slumped on sagging couches in a little alcove. After several turns, we went down a row of curtained booths, past one with an overturned loafer and a black-socked foot sticking halfway out. We passed several more and stopped at a booth where the man pulled back the curtain and motioned me in. One side was a two-person bench; the other, a table with four small glasses turned upside down in a rack. He thumped down a big bottle of beer I didn’t know he was carrying, bowed, shut the curtain and left. I sat there and waited a couple of minutes. Waited without any idea what I was waiting for. Tried to twist the beer open, searched the table for a bottle-opener, didn’t find one, put the bottle down. Waited, with butterflies in my stomach and the same whispering in my head; now, it was asking me what I was doing here.
There was a mirror over the table, and I watched myself waiting and wondered what normal people were doing. They weren’t doing this.
I waited. I rocked my feet against the floor. Picked up the beer, wedged the cap against the table’s edge, moved to hit it. Decided not to. Put it back. Looked at the curtain and its floral print. Looked at the wall ahead of me: carpeted, three-quarter wall. Cubicle waU. It looked red. Everything did. I wondered if I’d get one of the women I had seen. I wondered if they were arguing over who should go. I waited and tried to avoid catching my own eyes in the mirror. I thought about trying to fix my hair.
Little feet scuffled to the curtain and stopped. They wore little slippers that looked pink, with little bows on them. A moment later, a woman, taller than I thought she’d be, in a tube top and miniskirt of indeterminate color, slipped through as though trying to enter without being seen by someone outside. I couldn’t really see her. One moment, she looked 20; the next, 40. If she were 20, though, they probably wouldn’t light the place so dimly as to allow for that kind of confusion. She put a square, plastic basket, filled with things I couldn’t see, on the floor and motioned for me to scoot over on the bench. I did, and she sat next to me, threw her leg over me and stuck her tongue in my ear.
I hadn’t been waiting for that.
While she slobbered the side of my face for a bit, my hands remained in my lap, my head facing forward, because I was too nervous to move. Then she leaned forward, grabbed my penis through my pants and asked me something in Japanese. What little of the language I’d learned—Would you like to play tennis tomorrow? Does this bus go downtown?—was probably not going to help. She squeezed, repeated her question and laughed.
She asked, speaking slowly and simply, if I spoke any Japanese. I didn’t want a language lesson here, so I cocked my head and smiled a little and gave an innocent, confused shrug, probably overdoing it.
in English, she said, “What name?’’
“Tom.” There was no harm in being honest about my name.
“Tom,” she repeated. “What family name?”
“Barkley.” A grade-school friends. Honesty was gone—what kind of hooker asks that?
She nodded, pulled a bottle-opener from her basket, popped the beer and poured us each a glass. Then she pushed her tube top and bra down around her waist, grabbed my hand and jammed the palm onto her breast. It wasn’t as sexy a moment as I would have imagined. For all the adolescent boob-fixating I’d done, now that I had this one, I wanted more than anything to be rid of it.
“You come Japan—” She thought for a second, holding my hand firmly in place, “—go school?”
The sudden fear that this would go public—that this woman would care enough to follow up on me, manage to find me in the endless city and spread among my peers the insidious news of this entirely legal transaction at the expense of her own exposure— erupted inside me.
“No,” I said. “I’m here to … visit … a friend.”
“He lives in Osaka.”
In Japanese:”! see.”
“He’s … at work now.”
“You have girlfriend?”
I didn’t. “Yes.” And then I wondered if the points won for having a girlfriend were outweighed by going to brothels behind her imaginary back.
“Jennifer.” The first name I could think of.
“Jennifer Lopez?” She laughed.
“Yeah—ha, ha, ha. No.”
We sat there a moment: she smiling at me, me trying to keep respectfully still with my handful of bosom. Always afraid of doing something wrong, saying something wrong; of accidentally exposing the inferior, undesirable true-self that existed beneath the always-cracking facade of Everything’s fine, I spent most of my life doing as little as possible to rock the boat, and now, afraid of screwing this— whatever it was—up, afraid of violating some breast-rule I had never learned, I just smiled back at her and hung on.
The music had changed. It wasn’t thumping as much now. The strange and still terrifying woman next to me pushed her chest forward and smiled, and I smiled and pushed back. She laughed and pointed at my crotch and said, “My job.”
She got off the bench, allowing me to let go of her, and knelt on the floor between my legs. Her own legs and butt were stuffed beneath the little table. She pulled my pants and boxers to my ankles, rolled a condom on and did her job with so much teeth-scraping I began to worry that I’d just have to stop her or that my time would run out.
When she mercifully managed to finish things off, she cleaned me up with a cloth from her basket, rearranged her clothes and slipped out, leaving the basket at my feet, tangled with my pants, and saying, “Fun…. Thank you.”
Her job. That’s a nice way to think about giving a fat, nervous, sweaty stranger a blowjob.
Sitting there, with my pants draped over my shoes, I was suddenly aware of the thick cigarette smoke filling the air and of the faint sounds, over the music, of a woman squealing with more emphasis than her client probably believed. I was glad to be alone. It wasn’t fun—not for me, anyway, and I couldn’t imagine it had been for her. I thought, for the first time, about the bench I was in direct contact with, and what it would look like if they kicked on the actual lights. I was sitting bare-assed on the accumulated drippings of how many men, on a bench stared at by the vacant eyes of how many women while they sucked strangers off for $50 a pop? I wished they hadn’t hung a mirror in there so I didn’t have to look at myself—naked below the waist, flabby and ugly, and pale pink in the red light. I wished I’d gone home, to my host-mother and her nonstop, almost-manic sweetness, always eager to talk to me in her hyper, broken English about whatever I wanted to talk about. I didn’t belong in this booth. I had never felt like I belonged or was wanted anywhere, but I usually managed to find an equilibrium, a nothing-ness in my presence that allowed me to be in the places I didn’t belong, on the fringes, in the back, quiet and unnoticed and fiercely uncomfortable—terrified of what people were thinking about me, sweating even in the cold at the thought of what I must look like to everyone, of what they must whisper when I couldn’t hear, of how they would laugh when I was gone and of how easily they could see through me to all the flaws and deficiencies I was made of—and I would leave as soon as was possible without drawing attention and go back into myself alone.
But that didn’t exist in my little booth. I was half naked, and my presence was loud, screaming in my ears, visible to everyone, and I couldn’t stand it. The place felt gross. I felt gross. I wanted to shower and change my clothes. I wanted to be gone, but I didn’t want to leave: I wasn’t sure I could find my way out, and just the thought of pulling the curtain open and stepping out where everyone could see me knotted my stomach. I simply wanted to shrink out of existence.
After several minutes sitting there, frozen in indecision about which would be worse—getting up and wandering out (which might not be allowed) or waiting there (which also might not be allowed) for one of the tuxedo-men to find me and yell at me to leave—I decided to go. I moved the little basket to the table and stood to re-pant myself and realized the place was built to accommodate the average, 5-foot-6-inch Japanese man: I could see right over the partition into the next booth. There was a girl or, probably, a woman in a schoolgirl outfit, sitting on a Japanese businessman’s lap, his hands inside her shirt, her mouth whispering at his ear. Five minutes earlier, I’d been that man—maybe he looked in at me—and still I thought he was a pervert. I wouldn’t want anything to do with him, and a sudden thought hit me harder than any I had ever had: I had become that man. I had become the kind of man who patronizes prostitutes.
I thought of the Monday morning in November, nearly a decade earlier, after my dog died. She was arthritic, blind, prone to seizures and senile, but I had regretted, almost violently, my decision to put her down when I heard her stop breathing; when I saw her tail curl under her as the injection crept through her; and when her pathetic, little, pink tongue fell out when it stopped her heart. I thought about walking into school that Monday morning, about how every dented, red locker and shiny silver padlock; every stain on the carpet and stray fiber sticking out of it; every stone in the pebbly, concrete walls—everything stood out and screamed its differentness. It was not the same place I’d left the previous Friday I had done something I couldn’t undo. I had lost something valuable that I couldn’t recapture or gained something unwanted, something permanent, that I would never shake. I should have considered myself lucky that, for my first 15 years, the only major loss I’d suffered was my dog, but I didn’t. The world changed the weekend I killed her, and it never changed back. I just got used to it.
And I wondered now if it had changed again.
I was cinching my belt when the woman came back through the curtain, holding another big bottle of beer. The first was still mostly full on the table. “Sit,” she said, and too timid to tell her that I just wanted to leave, that I was humiliated to be with myself much less anyone else, least of all her, I obeyed. She sat next to me, opened the beer, pulled from her basket a little watch that lit up for her and said, “Six minute have more.”
Until then, I had loved the initially disquieting and almost disorienting customer service in Japan. From every clerk at 7-Eleven screarrúng, “Welcorne!’’whenever anyone entered to the McDonald’s employees practically hurdling the counter to open the door and bow their thanks for anyone about to leave, Japan is obsessively formal and disturbingly honest. And here, because I bought this woman for a half-hour, she was going to give me my full 30 minutes. Where the hooker in Denver couldn’t wait to get out with my money, the woman here wouldn’t think of it.
I resigned myself to the fact that I’d sit there with her, staring down at my shoes in the mirror, for another six minutes, because getting up or telling her I wanted to go might be the wrong thing, might offend her, might make me look bad and get people angry at me when what I wanted more than anything was to be accepted by somebody And while I knew now that I wasn’t going to fool myself into thinking I’d found that kind of acceptance there, this empty, uncomfortable nothing from her was still better than the alternative. It wasn’t the outright rejection that I assumed was always waiting for me. She handed me a little glass of beer, and I was grateful for it, so I could pretend that the tiny bubbles struggling up the inside of it fascinated me and give it all my attention. It felt like a long time that we sat there, me barely moving, her sitting with one leg bent under her and the other swinging a little.
I didn’t even sip my beer, afraid that anything might break this fragile peace between us, this stalemate.
She broke it. She leaned against me, trying, I think, to give me what I’d come in looking for, but I remained tense and motionless. The epiphanic moment had evaded me: The confidence, or ease with girls or just the slight lessening of fear and insecurity, which I had thought would appear in the Denver hotel room and which I had held out hope for in Kyobashi, wasn’t coming. This was exactly what I’d wanted getting off the train: a woman feigning affection so I could close my eyes and try to believe her. But this wasn’t what I wanted at all. I was still just as nervous and awed and totally terrified of this woman as I had been before; only now, the thought that I’d become the kind of man who would be in a place like this also scraped across my mind, a sandstorm inside my skull. It left in its wake, naked and exposed, the bottom, where I could go no deeper, a place I’d seen only once before, in my apartment in Fort Collins the previous summer, cleaning at 3:00 in the morning—scrubbing for hours the oven, the bathtub, the floors and walls, the undersides of kitchen drawers and the ceilings of closets; vacuuming everywhere, in the cracks between the walls and the floor, and around the neatly stacked boxes of everything I owned—and then sitting on my sofa for almost an hour, telling myself to squeeze, to just squeeze down, and I would be removed forever from the places I didn’t belong. I would remedy the wrong turn I’d made somewhere that had brought me to what my life had become. I told myself to just squeeze and I wouldn’t even feel it click.
And like then, when I finally admitted to myself my own weakness, when I felt myself straddling the edge of existence, where I just couldn’t imagine this continued but also couldn’t imagine a way to change it other than by doing what ì couldn’t will myself to do, I just wanted to cry. But ashamed and afraid of what the woman would think, I didn’t.
Her watch beeped softly, and she said, “Three minute.”
I nodded. The first three had lasted forever. I didn’t want the next three.
She set her empty glass down and said, “Now. Where go?”
Still afraid this encounter could come back to haunt me, I lied, giving the name of one of downtown Osaka’s hubs, pretending for a moment to search for the word.
“Mmm… “ She took my glass, still full, and set it next to hers on the table; then she put her hand on my knee and held it there until I looked up.”! hope,” she said,”you are lost child. …You understand?”
I didn’t and shook my head no.
“I hope,” she said, pointing softly at my chest, “you are … lost … child.”
And I nodded, though still unsure what she meant, thinking that maybe the wrong word had surfaced, that she was trying to say something else.
“OK,” she said· and smiled, standing and picking up her basket, and she stepped out, holding the curtain for me.
I’d hoped to burrow into my sweatshirt and slink away unseen, but she led me by the hand back to the front, where two of the men in tuxedos bowed and thanked me, and one directed me to a small podium, just inside the door, where I filled out a survey card, rating the excellence and enjoyment of my experience, with all three of them watching me. Another man, who was waiting in the hallway to hand me a 10-percent discount card for my next visit, bowed and thanked me, and another, who stood at the elevator, holding it for me, also bowed and thanked me, and I wondered how so many people could think that someone who’d just been with a prostitute would want to be seen by those who knew—and were actually acknowledging to his face that they knew—that he’d just been with a prostitute.
Out in the pulsating city, between the walls of light, I began walking back to the train station. I wondered if most of the customers who came out of there didn’t care about all those men in the hallway. I wondered if they looked them in the eye. I wondered if they didn’t care that everyone in the crowded, jostling street who saw them emerge from that bunding knew where they’d been and what they’d done. I wondered if most of them were numb to it—or indifferent or even proud.
Outside the station, there were dancing polar bears on the screaming, building-high video screens, selling space-saving, rollaway dishwashers. Outside the turnstiles, there were people handing out flyers I couldn’t read and little packs of Kleenex with cell phone and magazine ads on them. There were 10,000 black-haired people, all a head shorter than me, moving in all directions, a randomness that left all available space full at all times, like snow on a television tuned to a dead channel, like human white noise, like I remembered it.
Kyobashi hadn’t changed. The world hadn’t changed.
it was the same as it had been when I’d stepped off the train, before I’d gone into the building with the man with the overturned loafer, with the businessman and his schoolgirl fantasy, with all the others who went in and spent their money behind those curtains for a half-hour of whatever it was they were after. I had gone in with them, but I hadn’t come out one. I had done something I couldn’t undo, but it had not done something permanent to me. I didn’t know why. Maybe because I hadn’t found what I had gone in looking for. Maybe because I didn’t belong there and I knew it.
I would get on the train and go home and pretend that my day had been normal. I’d pretend to laugh with everybody at the horrible picture on my registration card and pretend, like I always did, that everything was fine. I would get up tomorrow, fat and depressed and tremendously lonely, and I wouldn’t come back here. And riding up one of the eight side-by-side escalators to the platform, I felt, for a moment, a little bit happy that I hadn’t found what I’d been looking for; that the world hadn’t changed; that I was still a fat, depressed, tremendously lonely child; and that I was still—and had been for as long as I could remember—lost.