I don’t remember when or how, but somewhere during the pupa phase between child and woman, I became a gloomy girl. Ama once told me that at this age I would be most beautiful — like a flower in full bloom or a sweet, ripened fruit. I felt the opposite. I felt like I was rotting as the days passed. An overgrazed pasture. I became a shadow of a once flourishing potential, stripped bare with nothing left to offer the future.
If I could live life backwards that would be splendid. At least I would be sure of where I’ll end up. I’ll end up at home. I’ll end up swaddled in the tender arms of my Ama and Aba, and then the peaceful womb, before withering away into nonexistence.
That is what I wrote in my journal the week prior to my trip. In fact, all my entries were sad. I wrote about how empty I felt, how I felt alone especially in the company of others, and how much I missed childhood. I worried that I was paying the price for all the intense happiness I felt back then. Maybe intense sadness was what I owed. Childhood was the last place that I could remember feeling safe, but it seemed so far away from me — as if it were a blissful past life.
One day I stumbled upon the jarring realization that I was seen as a woman. How unfair it was that I was given no choice or warning! If only someone had told me that being a girl had an expiration date in the eyes of the world — I would have cherished that time with all of my heart. I would have clutched those memories against my chest with all my might so that I could still imagine a time when the world seemed glorious and full of promise. A world that was astonishingly beautiful.
After my Aba died, the world looked astonishingly ugly to me. By the time I reached 20 years old, I was already devoid of lust, passion and all the things I imagined young womanhood would bestow upon me. Instead, I felt weakness all the time and fear of others. I became a coward who loathed the idea of anyone knowing me. Every morning I woke up with an intense urge to escape something, but I didn’t know what. And every night I laid awake with an intense desire to be held by someone, I just didn’t know who.
I felt shame. I was no stranger to shame of course, we had brushed shoulders before, but it was my first time being around shame so often. Shame was once like a childhood blanket to me. Attached as I was, I didn’t parade it around with me everywhere. It remained hidden in my closet, but I never dared to get rid of it either. This shame felt different, though. This shame became a part of me, something I could no longer separate from my body. A pesticide that had permeated deep into my skin and blood — I couldn’t cut ties with it no matter how much I wished to divorce.
I resolved that being a lonely woman was the only way that I could protect myself and others from spreading the virus of life’s dreadful feelings. I began to have fantasies about running away somewhere far, not telling a single soul, and losing touch with everyone I had ever known. I wanted to become a memory.
So I turned to books to escape into other worlds. My favorite authors and characters happened to be utterly pathetic and weak, but somehow I respected and loved them. They too, were consumed by shame like me. The difference was that they had learned to befriend shame, something I couldn’t bring myself to do just yet. They too, were plagued with so many inner termites that nibbled away at their core. But no matter how rotten these people were, once they died and became memories, they magically turned into angels in the eyes of the world. I too, wanted to become an angel.
Last week, in an effort to alleviate dismal thoughts, I decided to get fresh air and go to the park to read. The humidity announced that Tokyo was on the cusp of summer, so I put away my winter clothes and took out my flowy skirts and thin-strapped tops. As I walked to the park, I was reminded of what Ama said about being 20. It was true. I collected hungry glances from eager men on the street. Having already mastered the role of a demure young girl quite well, I always looked down while walking past, pretending to be charmingly oblivious to the fact that this infatuation from others also came with an expiration date. I wondered if I would yearn for this attention when I was older. Despite how ugly I felt inside, I still saved the glances I received in a mental piggy bank, to feed my flimsy ego. But the satisfaction from flattery would only be enough to sustain me for a fleeting moment.
A crowded park on a Sunday was the scene I arrived at. All the benches were taken by families, couples, friends and I couldn’t help but feel as if I didn’t exist in that particular scene, I was merely watching as an audience member.
“Great. I got dressed and left my room for this,” I murmured to myself.
I went back and forth in my mind, debating whether to go home defeated or to stay for a bit. I scanned the area and located a ledge nearby the entrance of the park, where I sat down, turned up the volume of Chopin on loop, and began reading.
I was engrossed in my book when someone sat down on the ledge adjacent to me. The legs and cane of an elderly person made an appearance in the corner of my eyes, but I didn’t bother to look. I just continued to read — until faint, mini-clouds of smoke traveled their way behind the cover of my book. I gave in and looked up. An old woman crouched down smoking a cigarette. I still don’t know how to explain the feeling that erupted in me the moment I saw her. I wonder if it was love — or was it a synthesis of pity, intrigue and infatuation? All I know is that I wanted to know everything about her. I wanted to hold her and be held by her. She was an ugly creature if I’d ever seen one — hunched back, dirty clothes, with eyes just as insipid as mine. She had pain and shame like mine that permeated through her skin and oozed out to form a foggy, dark cloud of an aura.
I resonated with her, we were both lonely women.
A jolt of excitement rushed through me, knowing that there was someone in the world who was as ugly as I was. But, I also couldn’t shake the disturbed feeling that I might end up like her. I might not change, I might stay like this forever. In that moment though, we were lonely women together and that offered me a bit of solace. We were the lonely women of Ohanajaya Park.
Anxiously searching my mind for an excuse to begin a conversation with her, I imagined myself closing my book, sitting next to her and asking her for a cigarette. I couldn’t bring my body or mouth to move though, I was paralyzed.
I watched her for some time, glancing up from my book every few seconds. Even when my eyes tried to follow the words, it was a hopeless case, my concentration had been wrecked. I continued scouring my brain, but my next glance was met with the scene of her putting out her cigarette. I watched her in slow motion — crushing the butt in the dirt next to a flower, grabbing her stained tote bag, standing up with the help of her wobbly cane, and plodding away. She left as “Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15, no. 2” played through my headphones. The scent of her cigarette smoke clung to the air around me. The image of her left a snow-angel imprint in my mind. I thought of her some more, before returning to my home-base of emptiness again.
The very next day, I went back to the park at the same time in hopes of seeing her. 2:15 PM on the dot. I had planned to read but got distracted watching young children play with their parents. Again, I longed for the past. I began to picture my 5 year old self on the swing, with my Aba pushing me as I exclaimed, “Higher!! Aba, go higher! I want to go higher!!”
My throat grew tense as I realized I was stuck in another scene that I didn’t see my present self in. I was already a ghost, watching my own life as a bystander. The tears that wanted to leave my eyes were blocked by a dam that was too sturdy for them to escape.
I hated that my first heartbreak was the loss of my father, it was just too significant. Lovers come and go. You can have many partners and friends in life. Wasn’t I supposed to experience an epic love before an epic loss? I sat and stared at my book, paying no attention because my mind had gone on a tangent, mulling over life’s overwhelming possibilities.
I may become a girlfriend one day, or a wife, maybe a mother. Perhaps even a mistress or a second wife. But I’ll never be a daughter again.
I found myself staring at the same spot where she sat the previous day, her image was still vivid in my mind and I didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she was the embodiment of my biggest fear — my fear of remaining a lonely woman until I became wrinkly and old. I feared that my sadness would one day sweat out my pores and people around me would take notice the way I did her. Before I knew it, my legs took me to the convenience store across the street where I bought a pack of Camel Blues. Upon returning I was disappointed, not surprised, to find that she still wasn’t there despite my desperate wish for her to be. I sat in her spot and lit up a cigarette, smoked while thinking of her and her face, wondering if we bore any resemblance to each other besides our melancholic air.
The following days were met with a lot of existential sadness, I couldn’t sleep at night. My feelings of disorientation grew stronger. When the city became tranquil and bustling streets had fallen asleep, my inner demons and termites would wake up. Nocturnal shame. Nocturnal pain. Nocturnal longing. I felt detached from my body, as if my spirit had been evicted and relocated to a place far, far away. Suddenly, I was struck with a craving to be by a beautiful sea. I had a feeling that I would either be able to find my missing spirit there, or at least envision myself in that scene, surrounded by beautiful blue waters before withering away in the womb of earth.
I packed my bags that night and headed to Izu Peninsula the next morning.
It took more than a couple hours by way of local trains to get there. I pondered, read, and pondered some more. While transferring at Atami station, I waited at the platform while listening to “Prelude in E minor Op. 28 No. 4”. On the platform across from me, a young couple in their school uniforms hid behind a vending machine, sharing kisses and giggles with one another. Envy boiled in me as I thought of all the beautiful moments that life had robbed of me — although deep down inside, I knew that I was the real culprit.
Fickle people like myself cannot love. We avoid it because we don’t trust ourselves or others to perform such a sacred ritual. We can’t be cured by love, even though we desperately want to.
The Jogasaki coastline was an exceptional scene. The further I walked, the less people there were and I found myself still unable to shake the feeling that I didn’t belong in the scene I was living in. It was like a painting I wanted to climb into. Still, the profound beauty of the ocean waves was enough to stroke my troubled heart. In those moments of solitude, I tried my hardest to savour the view, wishing to myself that I could turn the scene into a snow globe to escape into whenever times were hard and trying.
After hours of walking aimlessly, I sat myself on a cliff with my feet hanging and stared at the endless ocean. Like timid lovers, I wanted to drown myself in her embrace but I hoped that she would make the first move and crawl up to my legs and caress me, before engulfing me whole. When the wind became forceful, I studied the 30 meters that lived between my toes and the point where the waves and rocks collided. I wondered if my misery would be put to an end at the bottom of the ocean floor. Maybe, my spirit that I was earnestly searching for had taken refuge there.
My deep contemplation was interrupted by some fishermen a few cliffs to my right.
“Miss! Miss, are you alright?”
“Yes!” I shouted back. “I’m fine.” I gave them a thumbs-up and a hollow smile, not that they could even see it from that far.
I spent the rest of my time in Izu-Kogen healing little by little. I stayed at a cozy ryokan, took a long bath every night, and dressed myself in a yukata with pink flowers on it. My meals were enjoyed in the company of films and cheap alcohol. I cried a lot. I wrote a lot. As a specialist in the art of reminiscing, I let myself feel with all of my heart’s capabilities in the privacy of my tiny tatami room. I extracted the shame in me, ounce by ounce. Each cry was a release, getting rid of the toxins in my body.
Yesterday, I wandered around a neighborhood in search of a cafe to read at. The one I had planned to go to was closed, so I walked down a nearby path in hopes that I might come across a place to sit. My eyes darted towards someone walking their dog in the distance, the only other person in the vicinity. As I walked, she grew in size — from the size of my thumb, then a bottle, until we met face to face.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “do you know of any cafes nearby?”
“Hmmmm, cafes…” she turned her head left, and then right, in search of one.
“Yeah I just want to sit and read, that’s all.”
“Well… would you like to come to my place for some coffee? I can let you read there.”
“Oh, sure. Thank you so much. Are you sure that’s all right?
“Of course, I have no plans.”
“Me too, I have no plans.”
Her name was Yamanaka. We walked alongside her limpy dog for about 10 minutes before we reached her home. “It’s this one right here.” she said, pointing to a small cottage. The architecture wasn’t anything special, but the greenery surrounding the house somehow gave it an elegant feel. She unlocked the door, and told me to take a seat at the small round table in her living area. “I’ll make coffee. Be right back.” she said with a warm grin. I looked around and observed the space. There was a grand piano, a cabinet filled with antique tea-cups, and a wooden table covered by a pile of hand-woven quilts. My favorite part was the windows — big, rectangular windows — four of them. They all revealed the same enchanting view, tall trees adorned with effervescent green leaves.
“It’s pretty right? The ocean, the mountains, all the greenery.” said Yamanaka, as she brought out the freshly dripped coffee.
“Yeah, especially the greenery.” I thanked her for the coffee before taking a sip.
“There’s not much greenery in Tokyo, right?”
“There’s some, but nothing in this bright of a hue.” I paused for another sip. “I only see this bright of a green on Yamanote line signs.”
She chuckled, and I was satisfied knowing that I made her laugh.
When I asked her about her family, she told me that she lived alone. Fate had brought me to another encounter with a fellow lonely woman.
“I want to be like you.” I said, shocked at the candid words that escaped my mouth,
“I think I won’t marry. I’d like to live alone in a house like this, surrounded by nature… with books to read and some nice music to listen to.” I didn’t care that I sounded like a foolish child.
“You should have children, though.”
“Oh, you have children?”
“Yes, two of them. One is in Osaka and the other is in Kamakura, but they’re all grown up now. I was married once… I moved here around 28 years ago after we divorced.”
“I see.” I tried to think of what to say next, but she went on.
“You know, being a mother is more rewarding than being a wife…” she spoke as she looked straight ahead, as if talking to the trees outside her window, “but one led me to the other, so I guess I have no regrets.”
I admired her collected attitude and I wanted to be like her even more.
Yamanaka told me about her life, how she studied philosophy while in university, got married right after graduation, divorced her husband after she learned of his affair, and how she spent most of her time making quilts. Her best friend was her dog, a stray that survived a car accident, hence the limp.
She began to ask about me — why I moved to Japan, do I always travel alone, do I feel homesick, etc. Since she had already revealed her cards and been vulnerable with me, I answered them all and told her more. I told her how lonely I felt in Tokyo. I told her how much I longed for the past sometimes. I told her how I never imagined feeling so tired of life and dreadful at 20 years old. I even permitted a few teardrops to escape the ducts and swim down my cheek — one by one, extracting a little bit more shame.
We sat in a comfortable silence for a few minutes before she randomly said,
“You know, Aristotle said that the only ones who can live alone are beasts and gods.” She took a long, pensive sip right after.
I thought about it for a moment before asking, “Which one do you think you are? A beast or a god?”
“I don’t really live alone, I live with my dog.” She said matter-of-factly. “How about you? A beast or a god?”
“I don’t know… it feels like my emotions live on a pendulum that swings from one side to the other. I only know things in extremes. Sometimes I feel like a god and other times I feel like a beast, but either way I always feel misunderstood.”
Yamanaka grinned again, not with her teeth, but with her narrow eyes and crow’s feet wrinkles.
“You’re a charming little girl, you know that? You just have so much going on in here,” she pointed to her forehead, “and here” she said as she rested her palm above her heart.
My chest fluttered in elation when I heard those words delivered by her gentle, nurturing voice. I was like a toddler again, pining for the attention of my parents. Nothing I said felt stupid anymore, I had revealed it all. There was barely a trace of shame left in my body at that moment.
Yamanaka left me alone to read while she went to give her dog a bath. After about two hours, I went upstairs to let her know that I should start heading back to the inn.
“Let me get my keys, I’ll drive you back there.”
“Are you sure? It’s not too far of a walk…”
“Of course! I need to run some errands anyway.”
In the car I thought about our encounter and for the first time in a while, I felt I belonged in the scene I was living in. Yamanaka and I caught glimpses of the coastline and mountains while she drove.
“It’s so beautiful and peaceful here.” I said, after releasing a deep exhale.
“It is, isn’t it? You should move here one day.”
I smiled back in agreement.
Just like my memories of childhood, I wanted the car ride to last forever. By the time we reached the ryokan parking lot, I found myself begging the goddess of fate to allow Yamanaka and I to ride around for the rest of our lives. She stopped the car and I realized our scene was coming to an end.
“Thank you so much for everything. Really, I mean it,” I said to her.
“No problem at all, have a safe trip back to Tokyo tomorrow.”
I knew she was being genuine, but her calmness made me feel like I had imagined the deep bond we formed at her house.
She unlocked the car door for me, and I tried to hide the disappointed look on my face as I turned the handle and stepped out. I secretly desired to keep in touch, but couldn’t bring myself to suggest it.
The thought occurred to me that maybe she was insinuating that we, as lonely women, should remain so. Maybe Yamanaka was proud to be a lonely woman. Maybe she had already made a precious home out of her seclusion, a warm cocoon that she enjoyed living in and perhaps she wanted me to do the same. As she backed her car out of the driveway, I waved goodbye longingly, thinking about how I would never see her again. But I knew that she would become a frequent visitor to my mind and I prayed that she would let me visit hers from time to time.
This morning I had some spare time before my train arrived, but not enough to sit and eat, so I bought an Asahi Superdry in place of a nutritious breakfast.
“The train will be departing in 3 minutes.” said the monotone announcement voice.
I plugged in my headphones and played “Waltz in A Flat major, Op. 69 No. 1” while staring out the window. My fingers played along on my lap and I caught myself smiling, thinking about all that I had experienced in the last five days — replaying scenes on a projector screen in my mind. While I enjoyed relishing in my own mental souvenirs, I snapped out of it when an old lady came running to catch the train in time.
In my once empty train-car, she sat herself diagonal from me and began reading a book. As I stared at her, a brand new feeling arose in me. This time, it was definitely some sort of love — a synthesis of awe, wonderment and adoration. It could’ve been the warm buzz from my breakfast beer, or the moving melody of Chopin, but she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. The light that shone from the window and onto her back, made her look like a glowing angel. I couldn’t shake the passionate feeling that I aspired to be her. I continued to sit and admire her from afar, thinking about how I wanted to grow up to become self-assured and grateful to live. I opened up my journal while thinking of her and her face, wondering if someone would one day find my aura as beautiful as I did hers.
I know I’ll feel shame again. I’ll probably meet shame as soon as tomorrow. But in this moment, I don’t fear shame anymore. Life’s beautiful scenes are to be graced with the courageous deed of living. I vow from now on, to build bridges between my solitude and my peace, my shame and my pride, and to refurbish them everyday.
Us lonely women are shape-shifters, taking turns being glorified and demonized by ourselves and by others. We strive to love like gods even when we cry like beasts, and inside us there lies a haven for all the world’s ugliness and beauty to coexist.