Summary: ‘Beached Self’ is a short fiction that explores the profound depths of loneliness by Ben Freeman, a writer and author based in Japan.
A sea of people flooded past me, between me, and around me. In an instant, I had been swallowed up. I didn’t have a chance to blink.
I had been born into crowds and knew wild people–daring to invade my personal space every chance they got.
I knew hot summers where the narrow streets forced you to rub, mingle sweat, and exchange body heat with every passerby.
Entering a crowd is like submerging beneath a crashing wave–for a moment you sink beneath its tremendous force–and you’re weightless, lying in a cytoplasm, impressed by the sheer magnitude of the thing.
I think–no you think–I could get lost, my whole self might just vanish in this human organism. But you have to come up for air, and once you do, your skin is crawling, sticky and abrasive with salt–human perspirant. You’re covered in it–in them–if only you could see.
The morning rush included tourists, leaning heavily on roller-bag handles, and cosplayers in frilly dresses and thigh-high socks.
I brushed by men in suit jackets to board the train and managed to squeeze into a seat between an older woman and a girl in a school uniform.
As the train got going, I pulled out Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour from my bag, and was about to read, when I caught sight out of the train window of an old shiba inu leashed to a moss eaten fence.
It was one of those strange moments when you got everything from a single glance: an old dog, too frail to move, too bored to stay.
I broke away from the window, turning my attention back to my book, but I couldn’t get the dog out of my head–his weak legs straining against the rope, uselessly bumping up against his limits.
I wanted to escape into my book, but I found myself instead, studying shades of pink on my thumbnails. I put the book back in my bag.
How had today become so rotten already? I saw the old dog give-up and burry his nose into his paws.
It’s not rotten, I assured myself. Who cares about an old dog anyway?
Isolation happens gradually, I heard Z whisper into my ear. The lies we tell our friends and our family, she said as her breath tickled the small hairs on my lobe–sting more than saying the truths we don’t permit ourselves to admit.
If only you could say what you mean, Z. This day was rotten; it felt like I was deep inside a shell–a terrible one constructed from a heap of junkyard scraps.
There was no light and there was definitely no way out.
I mean that a shell’s a pretty tired metaphor, don’t you think? said Z. Even constructed from junk yard scraps, it’s pretty lazy.
Get out of your shell, I heard Z muse. Poke your head from the shadows and let the light in, she said with a smile. I guess it could be interesting, even if more than a bit cliched.
But what if the people around aren’t interested in what comes out of my shell? What if they’d rather I remain behind?
And with a tired metaphor like mine, no wonder people aren’t interested. No one can sympathize with me–no one wants to sympathize with me, even if I tell them the whole truth.
But you’ve never tried that, have you? So you wouldn’t know, Z said.
I walked down a long corridor in Kikukawa station–passing gray tiles and white walls–Z’s breath still lingering on my ear.
The station was well-lit with air-brushed ads. Rosy cheeks and sleek buildings were displayed on electronic boards.
My eyes were drawn easily to the beautiful people in the ads, but the faces of every real person were somehow obscured.
It was like everyone was beneath the shadow of a large current whose murky waters were enough to make your heart wilt from loneliness.
I considered that there are ways around loneliness. For example, if you play a person’s voice in your head enough times, you can create a whole other universe with that person.
The key is to change something small: a comment they made, a story they told. That way, no one can contradict your new universe, nor would they care enough to.
I would never see Z again, that much I knew, so, our conversations now felt more real to me–especially more real than the grainy film that would play in my head from time to time: bare feet sinking into wet sand, red hair whipping my cheeks, and a neat row of scars on her thigh like a notches in a prison wall.
I rode eight stops until Koto City station. I headed there to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art. I was alone, like I often was, trying to find a way to fill time–to make it meaningful.
I went to the reception to buy tickets. The visiting exhibitions were too expensive, so I settled on their permanent collection.
On the first floor, I examined a Japanese performance artist. His write-up prefaced his work by explaining that he had been born during the year of the Water Ox under the astrological month of Cancer. He reasoned that his deep connection to the ocean came from the auspicious timing of his birth.
I examined large, black and white photos of him lying nude, chest down, on exposed rocks. The photos were cropped so that no other land could be seen.
It was as if he was on an island in the middle of the pacific, having severed his ties to all other countries besides the nation of the rock that he lay on. But I wasn’t fooled. I knew the look of those rocks, dark grains and rough barnacles.
They couldn’t have been far from shore. For all I knew, the rocks were no more than 25 meters from shore. He was never alone. Famous artists have an entourage of photographers, followers, and patrons.
They’re always being talked to and asked about. What does this mean? Why’d you do it this way? But they never have any answers. What could he possibly know about loneliness?
I walked down the corridor, observing large photos on either side. With each passing photo, I grew more irritated, and I saw the ocean cover more and more of the artist’s body, until finally the rocks and the artist disappeared under the sea.
The next room was a time lapse video, playing in reverse. The water receded slowly and at first the artist’s bare back was exposed–his butt and his legs came next, and finally a crescent of an expressionless face.
Once the entire island was in view, the artist sprang to a crouched position and his clothes enveloped his body as if imbued by a sorcerer’s wyrd spell. The film’s title, 無人島に流れ着いた(Beached Self), faded in.
I felt something on my thigh and looked down. My pointer finger had been mindlessly tapping against my leg. I clenched my fist tight to stop it. The exhibit felt flat and I felt hollow.
As I turned to exit the museum, a beam of light struck my eye from somewhere above. My neck immediately straightened, and I followed the dazzling ray up a flight of stairs to a collection of taxidermied deer.
The deer were frozen in these spheres of glass like they were wearing a coat of bubbles. I stared at these bizarre creatures and felt amazed, then sickened, and then amazed again.
There weren’t many of them, but they captured my attention more than Beached-Self. I could have stared into those glass orbs for hours and still seen something new. Each orb was a window into the true thing: the deer–it’s fur–stretched and squished as you angled your head.
I left the museum decidedly in a better mood. I walked towards the station but stopped for black-sesame bubble tea. The shopkeeper was surprised that I spoke Japanese, and his praise made me grin a wide grin that he returned with a crooked but exceptionally white set of teeth.
I saw the picture of his crooked smile in my mind’s eye as I left that shop. I wondered how far I had walked before his lip softened and the smile dissolved away completely, like foam in a forgotten glass of beer.
I walked as if in a hurry, but I had no where to be. I passed small shops with blue shingled roofs, pencil-thin apartment buildings, molasses moving bikers–their tires sinking ever deeper into hot asphalt.
Everything around me seemed to be slowing down but not me. My stride lengthened and my arms pumped, and suddenly, I had covered a kilometer in distance and arrived at the station.
My shirt was soaked through and my heart was thumping like kettle corn. My hand was doing that tapping thing again even when I tried to clench my fingers tight into a fist.
On the train, the air conditioner hit my damp body. To take my mind off the chill, I looked around at other people, and landed on a girl’s t-shirt that read: STARE in red and black lettering.
The girl nervously shifted in her seat, and I realized that I had absent-mindedly obeyed the t-shirt’s command. My face felt flushed, and I wished that I could get off the train, but my stop wasn’t for another thirty minutes.
Without a place to put my eyes, I decided to look out the window as the train clacked on. I saw the landscape morph from skyscrapers to rice paddies and back to skyscrapers again. I lost interest and pulled out my book.
I lost interest and closed my eyes to sleep, but I couldn’t rid myself of that deep sinking feeling.
I saw the saw artist drowning in the sea. I saw the shopkeeper’s crooked smile. I saw the old dog tugging on his leash.
Why do you spend so much time down there–in your shell?–Z asked.
I got off at Shibuya station because it’s busy Tokyo and there’s always something to look at, but as I stepped into the wave of people, I knew that I had fallen into the same trap that I always do.
I passed Izakaya after Izakaya. Laughter rang through the air like alarm bells. Voices carried snippets of conversation to my ears and I replayed them in my head, trying to catch the Japanese.
Baka danaa . . . tanoshi sou, ikitai ikitai . . . atama okashi janai . . . kampai . . .
I wanted to be a part of it all, but I felt my confidence plummeting by the minute. Every place seemed to grow livelier, brighter even as I slumped along, but no place invited me, so I walked on. After an hour of this I gave up.
The night had defeated me, and I decided to throw my restless body onto a hard futon in my hotel room and try to sleep.
I awoke to the entire hotel shaking.
I felt a train passing through my right ear and out my left. I fell asleep again but woke up two more times due to the thunderous sound of the trains. Aaaguhfff, escaped from my throat as I blinked my cloudy eyes.
I woke up in a haze, squinted at my phone and saw four new messages from Natsuki–a girl I had seen off and on over the past year.
I had let her know that I’d be in Tokyo for the weekend but didn’t have much hope that she’d respond. But she had. She had asked me about my weekend and asked me what I was doing this afternoon. It felt good to be asked. Life was better with someone to talk to. I reminded myself of this.
I left my hotel after showering, and even though I was walking in a humid soup, my body felt refreshed, rejuvenated. I popped into a café and ordered a latte.
A sleepy looking cashier asked if I wanted single origin or a blend. I said a blend was fine and realized that until then, I hadn’t spoken more than a few sentences to anyone in over twenty-four hours.
I was uncomfortable with that discovery, but I reminded myself that some monks go on vows of silence for decades. I drank my coffee, glanced at a few sentences in my book, and then left for Tokyo station.
As I walked the corridor of the train station, I remembered the girl in the STARE t-shirt and was momentarily agitated but I recovered.
I found it easier to look at people without feeling embarrassed. I managed to steal glances at many types of people.
Splotchy skin, freckled cheeks, sweeping bangs, foreigners and Japanese, lots of people wearing baggy jeans and flowy shirts, women wearing spaghetti straps and joggers, yankee caps and converses, all in their own way interesting–sexy even, everyone I mean.
I wanted to be them, I wanted to see into them. I didn’t want to wear this shell anymore. Get out, I told myself. You can get out if you try. But the shell wouldn’t budge.
The air was a little cooler and breezier. This coolness was a solid thing which coated my shell but failed to contact my skin. Even so, I could just make out the feeling–for the first time in a while–of what the world outside was all about.
Even sea-turtles, I thought, had nerves on their shells. They weren’t unfeeling, private creatures, like hermit crabs were; they could actually glide through the sea and know the world above them and below them without looking up or down.
Maybe, the problem wasn’t so much that I had a shell but the kind of shell I wore.
You’re going to be late, Z said.
I could feel her leaning on my left shoulder. And she was right, so I sped-walked down the stairs to my next train. I heard the closing-door-jingle play over the loud speaker.
I don’t believe in absolute truths, but nothing can better capture the suspense of arriving late for your train like the tune that played over the loudspeakers on the Yamonote line.
It was like the Phantom of the Opera himself was hiding within those loudspeakers, banging away on an organ. I just managed to slip onto the train with the final note.
It hadn’t been for nothing. Natsuki was still waiting outside of the Izakaya when I arrived. I waved and she smiled as I approached. I hoped she hadn’t waited long.
Shall we go inside, she said.
Aww, you’ve been practicing, I said. I couldn’t help smiling because of how formal she sounded when she spoke English. Shall we this? Shall we that? I knew I also sounded pretty rigid in Japanese.
Osuseme wa nan desuka? I asked.
Ginhikari–eeto–fish, fish, recommendation, she said excitedly.
Oh, Really? I said a bit too sarcastically. I knew she could speak better English than fish-fish, so I gave her a hard time.
Her eyes narrowed. She had really played it up this time, and for a moment I thought I had really offended her.
Baaka, she said slapping my arm. Baaka, she said with a smile this time.
I feigned hurt.
We both had a habit of falling back on middle school English when communicating. Me, because I taught middle school English, and her, because that’s what she remembered.
Middle school English meant speaking in a sort of katakana-English. Japan had a surprisingly large amount of loan words and an entire writing system dedicated just to these words.
Change was chénji and chance, chansu, for example. But loan words almost always had bizarre twists on their original meanings, sometimes entirely contradicting the use all together.
So, I kept a separate list in my head, that I called safe-words. These were the loan words that never failed me. They perfectly translated over from English to Japanese.
Communication was one of those unlikely safe-words. It was a word Natsuki and I could both fall back on. When a silence came over us, inevitably one of us would say, communication, and the other would nod and then repeat, communication.
It was our signal that something there wanted to be said, but that one of us just couldn’t get there right now. On this date, though, on more than one occasion a silence fell over us, but neither one of us acknowledged it. We both sat with it.
Natsuki seemed withdrawn, sad even. I had been surprised that she contacted me in the first place. It had been three weeks since we last met up, and I had believed that things were ending.
After we drank a couple of beers in the Izakaya and shared ginhikari, Natsuki suggested we go to the street festival. I was surprised because Natsuki had mentioned that she hated crowds before, but now she was the one urging us to walk through one.
The smells of pickles, fried squid, and monster-sized okonomiyaki hit us 40 meters out. As we got closer, the frenzy of shopkeepers’ hands, flipping, pressing and packaging the food to be consumed on sight by thousands of eager costumers, looked to me like the jaws of angry sharks snapping away at limp fish.
The street festival was unison and chaos in one. We sifted through it all, circling around a promising yakisoba stand. As we approached, my hand accidentally grazed against Natsuki’s thigh. Her body went rigor mortis, and her eyes were like bright shining moons. She stared at my face and then abruptly ran.
She ran so hard that I grew scared. I looked for the tsunami in the distance, assuming the end was here, and we’d be swallowed up by a great flood any moment. But all I saw was a cloudless, blue sky.
A family watched with me as Natsuki fled, her body shrinking in the distance with each stride she took. When she had vanished entirely, the family–a mom, a dad, and a little girl chewing squid on a stick–turned to gawk at me. The little girl tugged on a squid tentacle with her teeth, but her eyes didn’t look away from me for a moment.
I had no way of explaining myself, so I closed my eyes and took a step towards the tsunami. For a moment, I could feel the waves crashing down on me, pulling me to the ground, washing over my entire body–there one moment and ripped from sight the next.
My one hope was that the whole world would be under water when I opened my eyes. I opened my eyes and found my hand in Natsuki’s. My pointer finger was absolutely still resting against her knuckles.
The little girl managed to bite off a squid tentacle and was happily chewing on it. The shopkeepers were still working away like sharks. I began to ask where Natsuki had gone, why she had ran? But she stopped me.
Communication, she said softly into my ear, and then I felt my head slumping into her shoulder. She leaned in and we became one big standing heap. Where Natsuki began and I ended, I couldn’t say.
Cover image by Evgeny Matveev/ Unsplash. The copyright of ‘Beached Self ’ belongs to Ben Freeman.