She decided to take the train on a whim. She asked me if I would like to tag along.
“It’s only forty-five minutes and you don’t need to change lines,” she told me.
Her voice sounded strange and unfamiliar, like she was entombed in a Turkish bath house as I listened to her in real-time on my pre-paid flip phone – the cheapest model available. Apparently, they didn’t even sell them anymore.
We met at a large metropolitan station mid-morning. I don’t recall the name. All one and the same. I drank a can of iced coffee from a hole-in-the-wall convenience store while I waited. People walked by – faceless, nameless people. Some people did wear expressions where the faces should have been, but the expressions were smudged, deliberately obscuring whatever intent lay underneath.
Others wore ill-fitting masks, smeared or pasted on the skin and left to dry, like split eggplants basted with miso paste left in the intense summer sun. Their features slowly congealing into a new entity – like a stop-motion leaking of time. A select few were unable to hide. Their true colours on display for all to see. These misfits were ceremoniously ignored and consistently seen as ‘not fit for society’, rejected by the orderly imposters that were approved to move seamlessly through the interzone. I ensured I played my role and did not bring attention to these non-beings. Their presence always felt though, like a hard lump in the throat that prevents one from swallowing.
Amongst these proud yet confused tribes of twenty-first century ideals, she emerged from the chittering crowds.
“Do you need a ticket?”
“Icoca,” I repeated softly, a lack of confidence setting in, uncertain of my pronunciation of this alien set of letters bundled together. Not an acronym, nor part of any ‘real’ language – a word one shouldn’t utter aloud. A word best left for the ‘void’.
“Icoca,” I said again with more certainty, in a tone that belied my bemusement at the sequence of verbal utterances we were currently exchanging. I held up the blue-silver plastic travel card in recognition, gesturing to the cartoon penguin emblazoned on the surface.
“Oh,” she said. “Icoca.”
“I thought it was called something else.” She added after some time had passed.
♦ ♦ ♦
On the train, we talked about trivial things – different flavoured mints, why we found people who were fascinated by cars utterly incomprehensible, her extremely overweight cat that I met last time I was at her 1DK apartment. The cat’s name was Yukio Mishima, named after the Japanese writer and I was particularly fascinated by it. I recalled observing it as it sat on the compact foldout sofa, attempting to lick its genitals, yet failing to do so successfully due to the girth that inhibited its daily cat rituals.
While observing it during this miserable moment, I remembered that I couldn’t stop thinking if I traded souls with the cat, perhaps the first, and best thing, I could do was to commit seppuku in honour of its given name. Observing this fat cat at her apartment made me feel how sad and absurd the world was. To be an overweight cat owned by a foreigner in Japan.
But the cat didn’t know any of this. It couldn’t comprehend concepts like alienation or international travel or boredom. It just was. Not fathoming how a series of intertwined events could lead to its current bed of roses. Despite the relatively carefree life it led (weight issues aside) it had no autonomy, nor freedom, to make its own choices. Everything it had, or did, dictated by the decisions of another. All outcomes pre-determined.
I often wondered if it could understand concepts like envy or jealousy would it yearn to be transformed into a more agile feline, like the ones I often viewed from the balcony of my apartment? The indistinct forms of black and mottled grey sitting patiently next to disorderly makeshift gardens at dusk, waiting for the next meme of their lives to unfold. Or would Yukio Mishima choose to stay as he was, content in his hedonistic ways, satisfied with the food and shelter provided so ‘generously’, willing to make this trade-off for any real ability to clean himself efficiently?
♦ ♦ ♦
“Touch your pass again.” She says as she attempts to exit the station.
Touching my pass again to the sensor at the station gates, I am greeted by the intermittent flashing of red and white lights indicating there is a problem with my fare. The red and white lights are not menacing – more thoughtful, like a reminder to complete some semi-important task. An embellished mash-up of hieroglyphs encoded within. A semiotic fugue only introduced upon the first touch, then, recurring frequently throughout the duration of the composition, somewhat soothing in tone. Silently, without thinking, I turn my body on a 180-degree angle and withdraw from the erect barrier to accommodate the mass of my virtually empty shoulder bag, automatically shuttling myself to the ticket machine nearby.
The mixture of the heat in the underground concrete space and the slight acrid smell of chemicals mollify as I glide effortlessly to a set of four adjoined somewhat chunky ticket machines. I mechanically insert my shiny blue-silver pass and deposit the change needed to gain access to the human world above, to legally comply with my obligation as a public transport using person. I find it astounding that a machine of such girth is necessary to complete this menial task. Like one of those ‘super computers’ from the ‘60s you see images of on Wikipedia with a cacophony of jovial professors standing around, beaming smiles as they consider the previously unfathomable possibilities of a thousand-kilogram machine playing a game of chess. A complete contrast to the recently recharged touchless smart card that I hold in my palm.
She is waiting for me patiently at the gates. Not being able to tell how much time has passed, I touch my pass to the sensor once more, a feeling of dread setting in, my thought pattern ‘Kafkaesque’ as I ponder what I can possibly do if my card is rejected again – no man can ‘afford’ to be thrown back into the throes of the red and white semiotic abyss. The sensor beams green though, a chime dings, the barriers stand to attention and part, free passage to the very different hemisphere on the other side awaits.
As I ascend the stairs with her, hand in hand, all I can feel is something vacant settle in.