Last Nights

I worked on this essay after leaving Hokkaido. This feels connected to pride in both the longing to connect to place and the elation of deep friendship.

Writing, nonfiction

We had a lot of last nights together.

The sunset on the beach in Rumoi. A four-year-old boy named Kazen wants to be our friend. He warns us of seagulls eating our food. He tells us to be careful getting home.

The night at Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima. We drink cans of local IPA and muddy our feet in the sand when we walk to the gate. Lanterns illuminate the shrine from within. July heat has dissipated in the rain, and it looks like something from a Ghibli movie with its vermillion, its rain-soaked wood, its iron lanterns. Deer walk streets abandoned by tourists, picking between damp cobblestones for morsels of momiji-manju. I hit my head on the threshold of our ryokan when we return for the night. We make ocha and read manga in our futons before falling asleep.

The next night at the restaurant in Hiroshima, where the floor is made of mattresses so you lie down and eat. She makes us laugh so hard, shameless self-deprecation that she does so well. People we’ve seen at the restaurant move away from us when we board the same streetcar.

Or the actual last night. I’ve taken the train to the airport to leave Japan. An hour later, she meets me at the only bar that stays open until nine. I treat her to a drink because she’s just won a scholarship for grad school and I need someone to drink with before flying to Boston the next day. The bartender makes us paper cranes when I tell her it’s my last night. We go to the onsen in the airport, and after sampling each bath I worry into my journal about the goodbyes I’ve said, worrying about all the goodbyes everyone in town has had to say whenever anyone leaves, which is the same everywhere, maybe.

 

***

Lynn’s first significant interactions with Marina and me are steeped in controversy. She and our friend Marina came to Japan a year before me, from Singapore and DC. Jetlagged, Marina tried talking with Lynn the whole hour-long flight from Tokyo to Sapporo. Hungover, Lynn put on headphones and slept.

Lynn and I first meet a year later when I arrive. She finds me at my apartment to translate for my supervisor and me. At dinner, the English teacher who brought us out for sushi calls her hageshi, and violent becomes one of the first words I learn upon arriving. She helps me set up a phone and bank account. I can’t get by without her. A couple weeks later, a group of us goes on a camping trip and I ride with her to the lake. We talk about the ethnic ratio in Singapore (7-2-1: Chinese-Malay-Indian, government maintained), studying in Europe (Lynn: Germany, me: Italy), her research project in Costa Rica (she likes bugs). I’m all in. In the morning, I unzip the flap of my one-person tent and watch fog lift off the volcanic lake. We visit an onsen, and it’s my first time shedding layers of clothes and dipping into the different hot baths with young and old Japanese men. On our way home we stop for soup curry, a Hokkaido favorite. We feel sleep pooling in our pores. I vow to stay awake the whole drive back with Lynn. A few months later, she’s forgotten I’d been on that trip.

Neither of us lets her live these moments down. She pretends to defend herself. Lynn is a fireball. Sometimes we play Pokemon Go. She’s named her best Vaporeon “Fantabulynn.” Lynn is singular. Lynn is famous among my friends and family back home. In every picture, she contorts her face into something odd or exaggerated or scary.

We work together for a year. Both of us foreign assistant English teachers at a high school in Hokkaido. Though we’ve spent every day together, she now exists as flashes. Flashes on my phone–notifications from Line when the time of day allows us to communicate from across the world–and flashes of light from my year there.

 

We’ve established a friendship before ski season, before winter when it becomes really necessary. In that car ride to Lake Shikotsu, through fields and mountains as we journeyed south past Sapporo to the lakes, I learned a lot about Lynn. A fearlessness but also fear. Honesty and cynicism but a deeper level of care I’d never see replicated. Lynn might be the first to ridicule people on our fellowship program, but she’s also the first to help one of them learn to ski so that she too can make the most of winter. In our car rides, I see hints of the depths I’ll never be able to fully reach, patches of ocean that make me wonder if I can descend, if I can explore what lies below. I learn about Singapore, which I’ve never learned about before. I learn how much more I’ll want to learn from now on.

In December we sit at Beer Inn in Sapporo. It is the Skills Development Conference, a mid-year training for all the foreign English teachers in the prefecture. By day, we sit through keynote speakers who talk about introducing diversity through English lessons. We listen to peers tell us about motivating our students or making high-powered lesson plans. Beer Inn lines their walls with cans of foreign beer. The lights are dim and beer signs refract neon off the aluminum. Other foreigners from the US and Canada and Australia chat nearby. The bar has “sexually explicit chocolate.” They’re vaginas and come with jelly condoms and are overpriced. When I bite in, I wonder if my teeth will break. The two of us are in a corner and soon we’re in a tunnel and only see the other person. She tells me about home life, and I tell her about mine.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she says at some point.

We go home for Christmas and reconvene in January.

***

In April, we make a last minute road trip. Four hours east to Obihiro where we will eat pork bowls, visit the horse tracks and the imaginatively named Green Park. The drive there is long, and we get lunch immediately when we’re in the city. People cram around small tables, and old ladies welcome guests in polite and accented Japanese. The waitress looks at Lynn when we order because she’s Chinese Singaporean and I’m white. Obihiro is small. Its hospitals and hotels, banks and convenience stores look like Playmobil or Lego play sets.

In the evening we drive farm-flanked roads to Love Station. An old TV drama featured the train that traveled from Love to Happiness Station. Like many Hokkaido towns, Obihiro couldn’t sustain whimsical, unused train lines, so they closed down. This happens a lot in Hokkaido. During Japan’s economic boom, foreign theme parks opened their doors for people to peek into other cultures. Canada Land, Swedish Hills, Gluck Kingdom down the road from Love Station, the forgotten romantic quarter among Obihiro’s plains.

The station has become a tourist destination for couples. At Love Station, Lynn meets a dog and finds her partner. We drive through fields to Happiness. The sun begins to set pink. Cluttering the station walls are kitschy, sun-bleached, pink paper tickets couples hang to ensure love (and happiness) in the future. Open doors to an old train car invite us in, and we climb inside. The light comes in soft angles through the windows.

“It’s like Train to Busan,” Lynn says.

We watch couples ring the happiness bell, and then we drive back to the city. That night we eat amazing bacon Camembert skewers and wonder where all the people out at the bars and on the streets of this toy city have come from.

On our drive back, we stop at the Ikeda Wine Castle–a forlorn, industrial wine fortress–and Happiness Dairy next door where we eat ice cream and grilled sausages. I start to burp in the car and it smells. Then we drive through manured fields and it smells more. We stretch our legs at a rest area. I get a vending machine coffee and burp and it smells again.

Over the course of the year, Lynn’s blue Passo has taken a beating from our adventures--my burps only add to its battle wounds. Marina spills coffee on the floor during ski season, during one of our bathroom breaks at the 7-Eleven in Fukagawa en route to the mountain. And for all the times she chauffeured us, all the times her car weathered our battering, Lynn has still gotten the short end of the stick–a speeding ticket while driving us to our Japanese proficiency exam in July. One time last year, she spun out in a tunnel in winter and has since driven with a caution common in Hokkaido. The foreigners all use her driving speed as a point of reference. If you’re with Lynn, budget extra time.

Before I leave, she talks about selling her car. I imagine if the burps and the coffee stains, the gas station memorabilia from our road trips will impact the selling price. I wonder how much will be wiped away.

 

In March, once the school year has ended, we move our desks in the teachers’ room. Teachers don’t move their things from one desk to another. They move their desk from one space to another. In the shuffling, Lynn and I end up across from each other. Now when we’re sending messages online at work, it’s harder not to laugh. Now when I need to borrow her glue stick, she can just reach over and hand it to me.

Our baseball team qualifies for the Hokkaido championship, and this puts a lot of paper on our desks. If they win, they’ll go to the national tournament, Koshien, in Osaka. In the days leading up to the game, we receive several pieces of paper with bus assignments and game day procedures. Every update necessitates a new info sheet, distributed to everyone in school. We hear about the rules. The game will be televised so we must look professional and polite so that people have a positive impression of our school.

Lynn and I sit together on the bus. Our students greet us in English as they file into their seats. At the game, we find a group of our favorite students to sit with. Students air themselves with paper fans and ogle my Nalgene, drawn in by its clunking ice.

We win. Everyone is feeling good. On our bus ride back, we look out the window at the fields of Fukagawa, fields that we’ve driven past in winter when they were buried by snowfall, when the shrines stood sentry in white fields. Now it is summer. Lynn and I talk about travel, all the places we have yet to live. She wonders about being the oldest, about having to take care of her parents one day. What if she’s far? I don’t have a good answer that she doesn’t already know. We both have the same feeling about friends, peers who have houses, spouses, kids, dogs. We talk about being rootless. Because the more homes you acquire, how at home are you in any of them?

 

In Singapore, Lynn researches the Lyssa zampa, the tropical swallowtail moth–a palm-sized curtain of flesh with a milky vein streaking its wings, a species that swarms and copulates in Singapore’s isles. In Costa Rica, she studied neotropical biodiversity. In Germany, she studied, drank beer, got fined twice for not paying for train tickets. Now in Japan, she teaches. She works with students in the commercial track who will go to trade school or will apply to jobs in their final year at our school. In Japanese, she can relate to them. She can be their pal.

And soon, she’ll study again. Grad school. Tokyo. Lynn has known all these places longer than I’ve known anywhere else I’ve lived. She talks about being rootless, but I see her just having roots in many grounds. They’re firm and will remain so long as she tends to them.

 

At night during Golden Week, we walk around cities. We’ve booked our flights as round trip tickets to save money, and our week is frantic as a result. One night, Lynn makes us eat stinky tofu in Raohe, the next we’re sleeping at Changi Airport in comfy chairs. Armed security guards check our passports and tickets. We’re sleeping next to a koi pond, and people have been stealing the fish. Then we’re at Pre Rup in Siem Reap. We watch the sunset and glimpse conversations in Chinese and Japanese. The three of us watch the sun descend over the jungle. The rays refract and create rainbow hues in the clouds. A tour guide tells a nearby group that it’s good luck. The last night of our trip, we climb Elephant Mountain and look over Taipei. I’ll leave in a few months, they’ll stay, this moment seems to matter, like last nights always seem to.       

 

A couple next to us starts making out. Marina and I share stories of awkward middle school dances until they stop, until we race down the mountain for mango shaved ice, until we return to our hotel to go to bed. Maybe this is good luck too.