We met in Tokyo in 2002. I wore platform sneakers and glitter in the daytime. It was just you, me, and forty thousand people at a design fair. My two year stay was coming to an end – I braced for grief.
I slid my paintings into the back of Kentaro’s station wagon. Tōhoku expressway. Hot tea in slim cans, soft sky. At the exhibition centre, Kentaro pulled a neat reverse park while Chihiro and I grinned. At booth C-216 we unfolded the camping table and pinned our works. Our neighbours were dressmakers and painters, an industrial designer and a photographer. I wasn’t sure where to stand.
“Miki, it’s okay. Everyone’s friendly,” said Kentaro.
Three women in plastic sun visors paused in front of our display and Chihiro bowed. Thousands followed – my cheeks were sore from smiling.
“Chihiro, can I get you a drink?”
“I’m okay, thanks, Miki.”
“I might go for a walk.”
I found Shinobu Otsuka in her booth, painting.
“Hi, I’m Miki.”
“Hi, I’m Shinobu.”
The joy of meeting a hero. Her booth was crowded. I couldn’t afford anything. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Here, my business card,” said Shinobu.
She held it neatly, both thumbs on top.
“Thank you,” my face felt hot.
A papier-mache octopus rolled past, its driver a slim figure in green Lycra. End Day 1. Repeat Day 2.
It was an hour before closing, and others had already packed up. I looked up the aisle the moment you and your friend rounded the corner. I recognised you, somehow.
You didn’t see me and walked past. I leant sideways to keep you in sight. Juvenile behaviour. You seemed attentive as your friend spoke – no sneer of machismo – and I knew I could introduce myself. But you turned and caught me looking. I stood up and you grinned, paused. Unhurried, the two of you retraced your steps.
You held out your hand.
“My name is Joaquín.”
“I’m Micaela. My friends call me Miki. Good to meet you, Joaquín.”
“And this is my friend, Luis.”
“Hello, Luis,” I encased his hands. “It’s good to meet you both.”
I directed my attention to your friend.
“Did you see much of the exhibition?”
In the bathroom of a Shin-Okubo love hotel, you laughed, said, “Go on, then.” I pressed my knees together and sank into the bowl like a kid, and peed. I felt giddy and brave. You brought me down from a ledge.
We only had a few months together before I left Japan.
“Chau, Miki,” you said, leaning in to kiss me.
“See you,” I let my hand slide from your forearm.
“I’m not gonna turn around,” you said.
“Me neither,” I wanted to sound tough, too.
The traffic paused on a red. I turned and stepped out onto the city’s busiest pedestrian crossing. When I glanced back, I couldn’t see you. I hadn’t anticipated the finality. With only seconds to cross, the momentum of all that flesh nudged me onward.
I boarded a JAL flight to Melbourne. The hostess had tiny hands and feathery sideburns. I adored those sideburns. I stared at the ice cubes in my tiny cup of umeshu. The plane hit the tarmac. I shuffled out.
“Hello, love, got yer passport?” The officer’s hair was dyed a purplish-red and sweat had flattened the hairs on her top lip.
“Yes, here it is.”
“You home or visiting?” she asked, taking my passport.
“Home,” I said.
She adjusted her shorts. “That’s nice for you, then.”
“Yes.” I felt my jaw tighten.
In Melbourne, I tried to let go of longing. I slept poorly, grew weary of eye-contact and noticed that the ground was littered with all sorts of things.
You phoned me and the line was clear. There was no sense that the Pacific separated us. It was too much – I wouldn’t speak with you again. I laced my trainers and walked down to the river. From my back pocket, I retrieved a creased subway map. I shook your memory out of the folds, and threw it out across the water. A gust of wind tossed you skyward – you looked lovely, suspended there. I drew a deep breath and inadvertently inhaled the warmth of your delicious skin and easy laughter. My chest ached as it expanded.
You had crawled inside my ribcage and were nestled there, like a cat.
For years afterwards, you would sneak into my daydreams; every email or phone call with you felt charged. We arranged to meet up in Spain. On the evening I arrived, Salamanca’s town square generated a languid murmur of castellano wrapped in cigarette smoke. I was early. I ordered and the barman corrected my grammar.
I looked up from my book and admired the small white dishes. I could make friends with all the olives. You strode into view. You looked the same. You draped an arm over my shoulder; your thumb brushed my cheek.
“This way, Miki.”
We rested our elbows on the wooden table and I tried to ignore your hand close to mine. We hurried home from the bar, in the rain. Our wet clothes hung together in the bathroom. You conjured another bottle, then stopped.
“What is it, Joaquín?”
“I just realised we didn’t pay.”
You looked at me with that half smile. I held your face in both hands and kissed you. Heat. Afterwards you wandered down the hallway and returned with a pillow.
“Here, Miki,” you smiled.
I took it, noted the faded floral case, and smiled back.
I felt my throat constrict. I retrieved my toothbrush from my backpack; I wondered about your flatmate.
“¡hasta maῆana!” you called out.
“‘Night,” I replied.
I finished up in the bathroom and switched off the lights. I lay awake for hours in the musty apartment. In the morning you woke me up with a squeeze on the shoulder. I pulled a t-shirt on. We shared maté on the couch.
“Do you think you could walk me to the bus station later?” I asked.
You reached for the thermos. “I thought we had a few days, Miki?”
“Yeah, I know. I should go.”
“Sure, of course. I’ll check the timetable,” you said.
Adrenalin had pooled in my stomach. It was unrelated to the hangover but it had something to do with words. I should have gone for a run.
Years later, a dark-haired waiter in New Zealand shared easy banter.
“From Melbourne?” he said. His accent was enticingly familiar.
“We’re here to get married,” said my partner.
“Congratulations!” said our waiter, his arms outstretched. Then patiently, “No, not Spain – I’m from Argentina.”
Your home country. I sat back in my chair.
The cafe balcony overlooked a tangle of rainforest ferns. You would have loved this view. A tui landed on a thin, high branch, his tuft of throat feathers quivered. He swivelled his shiny head, unblinking.
That night the rain was a gentle tak tak against twenty-first floor windows. I checked my email – there was one from you. Things are good, you said. I’ve moved – closer to the mountains. The photos showed a bedroom overlooking treetops. There’s plenty of room – come stay…a bit different to that awful single bed in Salamanca!
Salamanca. I stood up and rested my forehead against the cool glass. The city was shrouded in glimmering light – I imagined myself the sole observer. I would wake to a changed landscape.
Isobel Hodges has a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art, and a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in Bareknuckle Poet (formerly Retort Magazine). To read more of her work visit https://longingletters.wordpress.com/