Voice One: Rudy
A young woman’s behind presses into my crotch; a businessman’s shoulder cuts into my armpit. Her coarse hair, smelling of shampoo, brushes across my face; his breath, reeking of sour milk, creeps up my neck. Meanwhile, my freckled cheek is flattened against the foggy, fingerprinted window of the train door, unable to tell whether the condensation is water or sweat.
Then the train stops at Urayasu, and even more suited businessmen get on, the last few reaching inside the doorframe to get enough leverage to wedge themselves in. A bell on the platform signals the door is about to close, and a guy wearing white gloves and a blue Tokyo Metro windbreaker pushes the last passenger into the cabin. Shoes scrape and heels click as people inch deeper into the car. There’s a platform announcement in Japanese, the doors slide shut, the train accelerates with a hum and then there’s no sound but clacking tracks, sniffling and someone else’s iPod.
Now I can feel my cheekbone against the glass, and a strand of the woman’s hair makes my nose itch. I can’t push it away since my hands are pinned at my sides, but that’s okay – I like it.
In the shuffle, my right thigh has somehow found its way between both of hers. They’re warm. I shift my weight a little bit, and my right arm presses between her breasts. They’re warm, too. Then the train hits a bump, and she presses up against me so hard I can feel the underwire of her bra.
Times like this are why I get to the station at 7:15 A.M., when the cars are the most packed. I ride from the suburbs all the way into Tokyo Station, then turn right around and ride back to my apartment to get ready for work in the afternoon. Sometimes I get caught in the middle of the car and hoisted up, pinned between backs and shoulders and bags, and my toes barely touch the floor. I like those times too, especially after the train’s gone underground – then I’m floating, anonymous, in a small steamy world, close to people I can imagine would like me if I spoke the language.
If this were back in Boston, the woman pressed against me now might chuckle and ask, “So, what do you do in the city?” And I couldn’t lie or pretend I didn’t speak English. After hearing the truth she would squirm, scowl and get off at the next stop, even if it wasn’t hers. But here no one asks, because no one thinks I can understand, and so everyone leaves me alone.
Voice Two: Andrew
At Tokyo Station most of the passengers push their way off the train, and the girl pressed up against the freckle-faced foreigner scowls and darts to the empty seat next to me. She takes out a Nintendo DS and starts playing Tetris. On the screen she fits one-two-three-four pieces into a line, which flashes and disappears into the background. On her DS is a sticker with some Japanese characters I don’t understand. (Right now I only know about 200 out of 2000.)
I reach into the book bag between my feet and get my notebook and new kanji dictionary, which still smells like a National Geographic or a videogame manual. A photo falls out of the dictionary, lands upside-down and slides to the feet of the girl beside me. She pauses her game to pick it up, glances at the Japanese writing on the back and hands it to me.
“Gaafrendo?” she asks, smirking.
“Thank you,” I say in Japanese. “Yes, she’s my girlfriend.”
Reiko and I have been dating for almost a month now. My Japanese isn’t good enough yet to figure out what she wrote on the back of the photo, except for the “Happy time Anjuru!” in English.
I dab the dust off the picture with my shirt and put it in my coat pocket. I stare at a shaving cream advertisement hanging from the ceiling, and then my eyes drift back to the sticker on the girl’s DS.
It has four kanji. The first looks like an arrow pointing to a box on a stick. That’s one I learned last week; it means “god.” The next is easy – two flat U’s on top of each other, connected by a vertical line: “exit.” The third is a box with legs, meaning “ghost” or “demon.” The last I’ve never seen – it’s divided into left and right parts, which makes it a pattern one kanji, with three strokes on the left, and one-two-three-four strokes on the right. So I look up 1-3-4, and my dictionary says it means “disappear.” Together, the four kanji mean “unexpected appearance,” or “phantom.”
With the dictionary on my stomach and the notebook folded open on my knees, I scribble down the word, trying not to grind my elbow any deeper into the girl’s ribs. I started carrying the notebook with me when I came to Tokyo three months ago, and everyday I write down pieces of the language I don’t understand, slowly putting together more of the puzzle. My girlfriend’s part of that puzzle. Whenever we talk I understand a little more about her and her country. It’s so much more exciting than dating girls back in Seattle, because really, what’s interesting about someone who grew up in the same place?
Voice Three: Giorgio
The train pulls into Kagurazaka, and from the platform I see a foreign guy shove a big-ass kanji dictionary into his backpack and stand up. He was sitting next to this Japanese girl playing Game Boy – she’s wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans so tight they follow the tops of her thighs down before heading up her waist. The old Japanese man in front of me moves to the side to let the foreigner off the train, but I don’t. I edge forward, brush past both of them, and snag the seat next to the girl. I glance over – her rack is huge for an Asian – and I notice she’s playing Tetris. Awesome. I can talk Tetris, even in Japanese.
I lean back and hope she’s going to the end of the subway line. I wait till after the next stop, when she’s in between levels, then smile and say, “Tetris wa sugoi ne?”
She glances up, startled, her bangs flying to the side of her face. Then she laughs nervously, nods and says, “So ne.” She has perfect teeth and cheeks like porcelain.
In the corner of my eye, I see her pause the game. I lean my head to the side, look at the ceiling, and say in Japanese, “When I was a kid, I played Tetris all the time.”
“Honto?” she says. Then she tilts her head and tries to speak English. “Ah … where … your hometown?”
“Cincinnati. In America, near New York.” I trace a map on my hand.
“Reary? New Yoku? Ah, my brother do … did homestay there. Four years … eto … Four years …”
She nods and smiles. “Ago, so.”
“Did he like it?” I say, and we have a banal conversation about America just the same as the ones I have everyday at my English conversation school. I ask the questions I know she can answer and correct enough of her speech to make her grateful but not frustrated. Then, when she’s leaned the Game Boy against her belly and put her hands on her lap, I go for the finisher.
“By the way, your English is very good.”
She laughs, shakes her head, and waves a hand in front of her face. “No, no, no. I need study more Engrish.”
“Ah, well, please teach me Japanese, and I will teach you English.”
And, before she gets off at Takadanobaba, I have her cell phone number and a date for me and my buddies to meet her and her friends: Friday at 9:30 in Shinjuku. With any luck she’ll be staying over at my apartment within the month.
Getting girls is so much easier when you don’t share a language. Back home it doesn’t really matter what you say – the girls already know you just want to sleep with them, even when you don’t. (But what can a guy really offer besides sex, anyhow? Girls can talk all they want with their girlfriends.) Here, though, they give you a chance, because you can teach them something, and so they trust your words are as good as your smile.
Voice Four: Hitomi
I get off the subway at Takadanobaba, and as I walk toward the ticket gate I flip open my cell phone and begin composing an email my girlfriends: “3 Rox on train.” “Rox” is short for Night at the Roxbury, and it’s become our code word for slimy, Asian-playin’ foreign guys. They only have three or four different scripts, and – just like in New York – they’re too busy following them to notice the grins at the edges of our lips.
I still have my Brooklyn accent, but after living here for two years I’ve learned to mimic Japanese pronunciation. My parents were both full-blooded second-generation Japanese-Americans, so it didn’t quite come naturally. But it’s a fun skill, and useful. My friends here are natives; they can speak English pretty well, but sometimes when we run across Roxburys we pretend to be naïve and English-hungry. We get some laughs by helping karma along.
Like this morning. That sleaze isn’t really going to meet me for a drink – he’s going to show up at the place with his buddies and realize, a half-hour later, that he’s brought them to one of the busiest gay bars in Tokyo. And the kid before that, Anjuru … I didn’t see the point in telling him that his girlfriend had written “Let’s just be friends” on the back of her photograph. A foreigner like him just wants a girl to fill that role in his Japanese adventure; he doesn’t really care who it is.
And as for the pervert who wedged himself into me … hopefully his Japanese is good enough to talk with the Metro lost and found, because that’s where I’m taking the wallet I slipped out of his back pocket.
As I hit “send” on the email, my train leaves the station heading west. The underground whirlwind blows my hair across my face and my cell phone charms into my fingernails. Sometimes I think all the creepy foreign guys should just live on the Metro, riding back and forth through the tunnels. They can spend all day pressing their crotches into women’s backs, or pretending they have real relationships, or reciting their only pick-up line over and over. Then, if someone spooks them by understanding them or simply by being understandable, they can just hop on another line and disappear into the dark.
Brandon Carper is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.