Idyll

Chiyo needs some time to herself now. She’ll get a drink at one of Kyoto’s tiny family-run cafes, forget about the whole thing, and write in her journal while in the city’s timeless embrace. Then she’ll be able to rejoin her father. 

It’s funny. When it all started, she was forced into loneliness, and she resisted with Zooming and Skyping and LINEing and anything that would distract her from herself. But now she actually sometimes can’t bear not being alone with Kyoto. Just the two of them. That’s all she needs, that’s her true love, she’s realized: her city, full of aromas of incense and the buzz of cicadas and whispers of the past, and that special way Kyoto smiles at her with temples, gardens, rivers and mountains.

Part of her connection to the city is rooted in survival. Japan has been through wars, famines, political uprisings, floods, earthquakes… And Chiyo feels she’s been through something similar. Yet Kyoto has remained an island of resilience – after all, it’s been through, it remains as peaceful and calm as a gentle Buddha statue. The strength of the city and its serenity is what Chiyo clings to when she feels she’s about to break into pieces.

She’s trying to reach that state of mind at this precise moment. After the ritual of the hatsumōde, she’s about to crumble. For her first visit of the year to the Shinto temple, she went with her father, as is their tradition. After praying for the best of luck and prosperity in the new year, it was time for the fortune-telling custom of omikuji.

She tried her luck with her usual cheerful expression —her perennial smile, her eyes sparkling— really hoping for daikichi. However, her little strip of paper turned out to be the worst of all, kyo, a curse that appears rarely, especially on new year’s day. “You must be careful about your health”, “Behave yourself”, “Be patient”, “Don’t expect too much”. The past two years of the pandemic have been terrible for her mental health, so this prediction hardly helped. It made her feel lonelier than ever and deeply sad — the last thing she was hoping for was another challenging year. 

Kyo”, she muttered, near tears.

Her dad looked at her and laughed, trying to play it down: “It is just a game!”

That was not what she was hoping to hear. She really needed comforting, but neither her father nor her fortune nor the new year had been willing to grant it. She certainly could find no comfort in the state of the world. Nor in her luck with love. Her only faithful companion during all this time has been Kyoto, and that’s why she asked her dad to separate for a few hours, promising she’d contact him to meet up again.

It’s a windy day in Kyoto, and the gingkos and the maples dance on a distant hill. Chiyo thinks that when a storm hits a mountain, it’s the exposed, vulnerable trees that fall first. Before, being on her own made her vulnerable, just like one of those trees, but now she needs to be alone to feel strong. It is just a game. It is just a game. Her father’s words sound like pure mockery, like emptiness. Why have they been doing this together since she was a little girl if it is just a game? She’s in her thirties now, it should have stopped years ago if it’s so meaningless.

She walks, surrounded by her beautiful city, who enfolds her. Always enfolds her. It is just a game… It is just… The words start to fade away, and she falls into a meditative state on her stroll, feeling the cobblestones alter her gait and fixating her gaze on the beautifully imperfect wood of the doors and the pure gray of the roof tiles. Breathe in, breathe out.

If being single wasn’t already hard enough for her, the pandemic has only worsened matters. She hasn’t been able to hang out with friends, have a drink with her colleagues, or chat casually with strangers. Most of her face-to-face interactions have been replaced by a laptop or a phone — her entire world reduced to a 15-inch monitor. She’s long sick of that.

Kyoto was sad too at the beginning. Used to eighty million visits a year, the city was left bewildered by its empty streets. When the first state of emergency was declared in the spring of 2020, Chiyo walked through an arcade in Kawaramachi to find everything closed except convenience stores and pharmacies. It was depressing. 

Chiyo felt like a character in a post-apocalyptic movie — how could the city be so empty on this sunny day of clear skies and warm breezes? Day after day after week after month, there was nobody in the street. She felt befuddled. Absolutely no one. She would have never imagined seeing Kyoto like this.

Then the signs started popping up all over the city — “closing down” became the new motto of souvenir shops, of coffee houses, of restaurants, and of the hotels newly-built for the 2020 Olympics. This was not merely a financial debacle, but also people’s drive and purpose and dreams going down the drain.

On her stroll to avoid her father and her fate, she stops by Bukkoji temple and watches the smoke rising from an incense urn. She can’t help but think of all the people over the centuries who have sought solace here after losing their loved ones, of the days when prayers and quarantine were the only weapons against disease. At least we now have vaccines, and we understand everything better. At the very beginning, Chiyo had felt hopeless seeing the empty temples. Lonely in her apartment, she went out only to feel the loneliness of Kyoto. And then the two of them, the woman and the city, found each other. Chiyo had visited over seventy cities around the world, so she felt great sympathy for the people who rely on tourism for a living. That’s when she realized she could be a traveler in her own city.

Ever since that realization, she hops on her bicycle every weekend and rides to one or two cafes she really wants to support. The cafes have a soul, Kyoto has a soul, and that is its people, so Chiyo always makes sure to let them know how thankful she is to have places like theirs that make people feel part of a community. She tells them “がんばって”, Ganbatte, to stay strong, and they reply, with a smile, that they will. And then Kyoto breathes in and breathes out, and feels so beautiful, untrampled by milling flocks of gawpers. It hasn’t felt this in a very long time.

And Chiyo feels less lonely when she’s alone with Kyoto. The city has no neon signs or loud advertising to create a simulacrum of life and activity. Silence has driven Chiyo to find a center within herself, and she has gotten to greatly enjoy her own company. Their relationship has been, in a way, a healing process. 

She feels like she’s talking to her city by pedaling her bike: “Hey, thanks for having me. I really like you. I would like to know more about you, and I want to spend more time with you.” And Kyoto murmurs back in the wind and tells her stories about the empress Go-Sakuramachi Tennō, and about the monk Shinran, and long-vanished figures who have faced tribulations like those she faces. “Back in 869, there was a pandemic, and the people held a festival to pray for purification…”. Listening to her city over and over again, walking back and forth in the same places, back and forth, she has become a traveler of time.

Today, those stories of Kyoto’s past seem more soothing than the ones about her future. But she’s not thinking about it, not thinking about it, she won’t fall back into that spiral of loneliness and self-sabotage. She just stirs the matcha tea she ordered to go and savors its herbal fragrance. The palm readers have returned to the streets. That’s a good sign, that gives her hope, but today she ignores them. She sits on the riverbank, watching the surface of the water, wondering how many typhoons have riled this placid ribbon, how many times it has risen in anger to flood the city. She can picture all the people placing sandbags across history to preserve the landscape that unfolds in front of her in the present. She feels grateful for what she has —a roof over her head, health, fulfillment at work, wonderful relatives and friends. She can still enjoy reading, writing, cooking and doing crosswords. Covid can’t take it all from her. The zen garden and the sounds of the cicadas and of a stream remind her that they will get through this pandemic, just like the people of this city always have. This city and its culture have survived. It will do so once again.

Her dad sits by her side. He’s been looking for her. “It is just a game, you’re worrying too much,” he insists.

She feels like getting up and walking away from him again. Their relationship has not always been easy. They’ve never quite gotten each other. But she tells herself she must try to stay.

“I do worry. The last two years were very tough for me. I’ve had enough of it.” 

After thinking for a moment, her dad pulls out his wallet and tucks a bill in her hand. “Go and try again.”

“What? No, it is a waste of money,” she objects.

“No, it’s not. Just go and get another one!”

She goes to a nearby temple and pays for another fortune. She isn’t quite sure if this one really counts. The miko hands her a bamboo cylinder filled with lots to draw. Chiyo prays for better luck and then pulls out a new omikuji. She gets a different number. Phew!

“Here is your fortune. Good luck with your new year,” the miko smiles, handing her a folded strip of paper. 

She opens the strip and reads the fortune.

“I got daikichi!” she excitedly tells her dad, who’s where she left him by the river.

“Ah, ‘great fortune!’ What luck!” her dad says. “It is always better to have a hopeful start to a new year.”

She gazes at the riverbank and thinks that her dad has placed sandbags around her today to stop her from being flooded. The hopeful landscape she is today will live into the future because she’ll just remember to try and try again, until she gets the daikichi she’s seeking.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Pseudonym

[Leer cuento en español]

Lana solicitously offers Vladimir some of her edamame guacamole to soothe his throat. He claimed to be a vegetarian who loves spicy food, but she has learned never to take white people’s word for it on spice tolerance. A scant few minutes after his bold claims, the old man is practically heaving over a tiny slice of red chili.

She’s not surprised. She’s seen this a thousand times back in Malaysia. So she calmly chows down on little pieces of teriyaki chicken, turmeric cauliflower, and a radish while gazing at the kids falling and getting back up and rolling on in the skate park by the Waterloo Bridge. She’d love to light another cigarette to make this moment a perfect one, but smoking is not allowed in London restaurants. She’ll have to feel content about the blue sky, and the soup, and the kids falling and getting back up, falling and getting back up, a cheap metaphor for her own life. She’ll wait until Vladimir’s face fades to a less inflamed tone to rip the silence away, but for now she’s enjoying the noisy tranquility of the city.

They are in the middle of talking about Albert Camus, after Lana nonchalantly mentioned a quote of his she had stumbled upon in an art exhibition the other day, “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” They’ve been chatting over lunch about philosophy, Leninism, Beauvoir, communism, Butler, and Chomsky. Why not discuss another light topic like mental illness?

They haven’t limited themselves to such impersonal matters though. He’s told her about his efforts to avoid going stir-crazy by keeping himself occupied, which is why he’s been focusing on photography, about his deep loneliness during the pandemic, about how his whole family is back in Slovakia, and he barely talks to them.

She tells him she also has a complicated relationship with her family but opts not to go into detail. She leaves unmentioned the part where they wanted her not to be herself because of what the neighbors would think, the part where they disavowed and disowned her, the part where her mom recently called her “Lana” for the first time… while contacting her to ask for money, the part where she has given up caring what happens to her mom. Her mom… There’s a Malay saying — “Look at your mother’s face, and you’ll see heaven.” Deep inside, Lana longs to be able to feel that again. Instead, she just adds without any real context: “Sometimes you help someone who hurt you deeply because life is about being the bigger person, right? And that brings some closure.”

She does feel better since she sent the money back to her family in Malaysia. It is almost as if she paid them off for her escape, and she can now completely walk away from them and from the country that birthed her and then punished her for who she is, that vilifies people like her, that throws them into prison. Because of her status as a political refugee, she won’t be able to go back for at least three more years, but that’s fine with her, because England has been her home now for a couple of years — it has given her the chance to be herself, and what’s more home than freely inhabiting your own body? All this inspired her to volunteer for a housing shelter — she wants to help other asylum seekers and refugees to also feel like themselves here. She knows how important it is for one’s body to become one’s home.

Vladimir’s kind, but he probably wouldn’t understand all this. And he’s not keen on the arts of psychology. He seems to believe in the darkness of the mind about as much as he does in spicy food, and, not knowing how much the woman in front of him has been suffering, he replies to Camus’s quote with a somewhat scornful joke about suicide.

Lana doesn’t take it personally because she’s proud of the progress she’s made with her healing. If anything, she feels sorry for people who are so unaware of their own minds and their harmful patterns, oblivious of others and themselves. Also, she reads him and concludes he is devoid of any hostility or malice. However, just to see how he would react, because sometimes she kind of enjoys pushing limits, Lana considered replying to his jokes by telling him about the thirty-six Paracetamol pills she lined up, about her desperate call to the suicide line, about the cops who have entered her place twice to check on her, about the mental wards, about the diazepam to help her calm down, about her various suicide attempts spurred by pandemic isolation. But then he ate that stupid chili, and now Lana feels like she shouldn’t make him even redder than he already looks.

Immersed in the lack of conversation, Lana transports herself to the first morning she woke up in the mental ward, when the snow was coming down heavily, something she’d never seen before, tropical creature that she is. A sudden desperate need to feel the snow on her face overcame her. But by the time the doctors had finished their evaluations and given her permission to go out, the snow had stopped, and only a trace of dirty brown ice remained on the road and pavement. Just her fucking luck. Never mind — she ran and ran and ran like a child until she was exhausted. When she finally came to a rest, she decided this time would be different. Eight months later, that longing for snow lingers with visceral clarity.

Vladimir seems calmer now. His gray messy hair, his squinty brown eyes, his well-trimmed beard — all of it seems calmer now. Lana won’t tell him anything about her suicide attempts. Everybody else in her life knows she’s struggling, but not Vladimir. She wants him to see her at her lightest, at her wittiest, to see that part of her untouched by borderline personality disorder. As the kids fall and get up again, fall and get up again at the edge of her vision, she thinks of Camus’ quote — “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” —, and then chuckles and remarks as Vladimir takes another gulp of his water: “Since we ran out of milk, I guess killing myself is the better option.”

Vladimir looks at her slightly bemused, then laughs, but she can tell he doesn’t quite follow. Then they are both laughing. There’s mutual understanding between them. It’s almost like father-daughter complicity, but she doesn’t want to see it that way, because she recognizes her pattern of eternally trying to find a healthy paternal figure, and then she’d confront once again that this is something she never had from her own dad and never will.

“I like you, girl, your bluntness, your deep voice, your knowledge of philosophy,” he states. “What was your name again?”

She now feels over the moon. She’s glowing. He definitely hasn’t misgendered her! She’s been on hormone replacement therapy for over four years, and she sometimes still doesn’t pass. But Vlad — I can call you Vlad, right? — just assumed she was a she, and, girl, that feels like heaven. She wants to scream, “Hello, customer service, is this what gender euphoria looks like? ‘Cuz I want moarrr of it! Can I make a bulk order, plz?” But she would give herself away, so she just replies, “My name is Lana Isa”.

These small things are so huge. So huge. And she values them even more since she had an out-of-body experience not too long ago after smoking some pot. That trip changed how she feels about life forever. Her soul got sucked in into a vacuum at an atomic level, hurled into a different realm, and she kept getting sucked in, traveling at the speed of light. Terrified, she realized how small she was, an entity of particles like any other, and she felt the meaninglessness of her existence on the earth. Somehow, feeling so tiny made her feel enormous, and she became a totally different person, valuing all of these small things in life that mean nothing but mean so much.

“Listen, Lana. I’m also a painter. I’d love to paint a portrait of you reading Camus. Would you let me paint you?”

She looks at him, shining in his green sweater, with that kind little mouth of his, and decides not to answer that question. She asks for the check and wants to pay, because it was her idea to have lunch together in the first place, but Vlad insists and insists, and she eventually just gives in. After all, she’s used to men paying for things. Recently she’s been revealing to people that she’s been living a double life as a sex worker for years, because doing it hush-hush has done her mental-health no good whatsoever, and because she’s so fucking talented, but she won’t confess this to Vlad either. Lana keeps it to herself because she doesn’t think she and Vlad are at that point yet, even if this is part of who she is and of her present life. The pandemic didn’t stop her from making extra cash — all these platforms offering video services saved her ass. She’s now putting the sex money away to fund her gender affirmation surgery, because her salary as a programmer is just not enough. This city is damn expensive, girl.

She’s not ready to say goodbye, and she takes him to her favorite alternative gift shop, a place she normally never shares with anyone, because it is her own Hidden Gem in London for buying unconventional gifts. She thinks it is funny how she’s told all of her friends now about her more dramatic experiences but not about this gift shop, but in Vlad’s case, it is the other way around. Today she’s another version of herself. Why did she always keep this store such a secret, but now suddenly she takes this guy? Maybe because she feels sorry for Vlad’s loneliness — she knows that feeling very well. Or is it because they have bonded for real? Or because he laughed at her Camus comment?

After all, they met only six cigarettes ago. She had been taking a stroll in South Bank along the Thames, heading west towards the National Theater, enjoying this increasingly rare warm and sunny day, most certainly one of the last of the year. The sun was just bright enough that she could close her eyes facing straight into it and feel a warm breeze through her eyelids.

She was taking deep breaths to soak it all in and listening to music when a man in his sixties asked her if he could take her picture holding her cigarette with a backdrop of St Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames. She asked why. He replied that he liked taking pictures of strangers. She wondered if he liked to take pictures of sad strangers, if he could even see her sadness, or if she hid it well.

She had actually woken up feeling very sexy. Maybe that was it. Sexy is photogenic. She left her studio after renaming her plants with female and queer names because men are trash: Miss Lolita, Adura, Rapunzel, August, Lil-Cupcake, Farina, Lily, Durjana and Sembilu. She put on a gray over-the-knee skirt and matching jacket with a hot pink top underneath, wearing her hair down and wild. This walk would be her first time venturing out of her apartment after that wanker broke her heart four days ago.

She left the studio where she was supposed to live with the previous wanker (are they trash or whaAaAat?) with no destination in mind, determined only to leave the house so as not to fall into a spiral of depression again. Now that she has finished her master’s degree and is taking some time off from her day job to focus on therapy and recovery, she has more free time to wander around the city. That randomness gave her the room to meet Vlad and agree to pose for him, and to have lunch together.

And now they don’t want to say goodbye because they have both felt damned lonely during the multiple lockdowns, and this warmth is a big deal. She needed a day like this. She’s so glad she wasn’t afraid to talk to a stranger. She tells him, grabbing his arm, “You know, we are so focused on ourselves that we forget the humanity of strangers that we come across in our everyday lives.”

Lana is choosing to be sassy and cheerful and not to tell him all the horrors she’s been through. It suddenly hits her: what has he been through? We all go through shit, and he’s old-ish — he must have been through shitshitshit. Does he also have self destructive patterns? Has he lost someone he loves? What happened to his relationship with his family? What is it, Vlad? Let’s be honest. Or not. Maybe another day. Let’s enjoy each other’s company without digging up our traumas. If only for today, Vlad, let’s keep being strangers, let’s keep talking about Tolstoy and Wollstonecraft, let’s keep it simple, Vlad, let’s look at trinkets, let’s ignore all the shitshishit to create an illusion of perfection only for today.

She’s determined not to ask him about his shitshishit, nor tell him about hers, so she holds a figurine of the Queen and admires how well it is made. The small things, you know? After describing it thoughtfully, she tells him, just in case he’s never thought about it — and because she often needs to convince herself — “Don’t these little details make life worth living?”

Vlad smiles back at her. He seems so serene and good-natured. She wouldn’t like to spoil what they have right now. She thinks maybe it would be better to part forever, to keep it small, to remain eternal strangers, to crystallize this idealized encounter for good. Or would it? This damn pandemic has been so harsh for both of them, their solitudes will retreat at least once more if he paints her portrait. Plus, that would give her yet another reason to stick around here one more day. With Elizabeth II, also dressed in pink and gray, still in her hand, Lana looks directly into Vlad’s eyes and says, “I want to wear this exact same outfit when you paint me.”

{Painting credit: @morganico_com}

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.