A friend invited me to participate in a unique opportunity: pick any photo from a group of about twenty, write a thousand word story based on it and the whole thing would be distributed online via PDF under a creative-commons license. This was my contribution.

The couple seated two tables over is breaking up.

I‘m too far away to overhear, and I doubt my limited Japanese would decipher
much, but it’s all there in the bodies: seated opposite, holding hands under the table, each turned away from the other. He strokes the top of her hand with his thumb; she closes her eyes and mouths the word baka. It‘s his fault. It will not end well.

I came here because my contract’s up in three months and I don’t think it‘s getting renewed. Not because of anything I’ve done; my students like me and my coworkers respect me as a colleague. But neither of that goes very far in this job. No matter how well you perform, you‘re just another dime-a-dozen foreigner teaching verb conjugation to a roomful of night schoolers. And English-teaching foreigners are a renewable resource in this country. At 29 with two years already under my belt, I think the school will probably try its luck on a younger, shinier, more female model and send me on the first plane back to Gaijin-land.

So I cashed in all my unused holidays, hopped the train to Tokyo and reserved a single table at one of the city’s trendiest jazz clubs. Hirono recommended it, she said it would be foreigner-friendly, and she was right. Staff and patron alike think I‘m some tourist, a genuine step up for a foreign resident and one worth all the yen I’m tossing out to maintain this charade. The club‘s one of those out of the way, basement types.

Down an alley a single neon sign marks a flight of stairs down to an unmarked door. The interior is long and narrow with an ultra-modern decor: all hard angles, stainless steel and blue lights beating “cool” into “sterile” with ruthless efficiency. I’m seated at a table near the back, dressed in my only suit. I don‘t know why I bothered; everyone here is dressed better than me anyway. Even the bartender. I order another Manhattan I don’t want and listen to the quartet play another song I don‘t know. I figure if I’m going to play Sinatra, I should go all in.

My cell phone begins to buzz. I hope it‘s her, but know it’s my mother.
“Hi, mom.”
“Hi, sweetie. How are you? Where are you? Why is it so loud?”
“I‘m at a bar, mom. It’s my holiday, remember? I‘m at some jazz club Hirono
said I should check out. The band’s on right now, that‘s why it’s noisy. Hold on, let me move into the hall.”
“But you hate jazz.”
“I don‘t hate it, Mom.”
“You’re not spending all your money, are you?”
“No, Mom.”

She pauses. “Hon, I– I‘m sorry, but I don’t think your father and I will be able to visit next month like we talked about.”
“What? Why? We‘ve been planning it forever!”
“I know, but flying that long, I just don’t think we can do it. It‘s begging for panic attacks.”
Panic attacks. My mother was diagnosed agoraphobic when I was a child. My earliest memory of her is in the kitchen, with her back turned and trembling as she wept and vomited into the sink. She improved with therapy, and was later re-diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, so they put her on Paxil.
About then my father began developing his own anxiety issues: stammering when telling stories to more than three people, puking as he cleaned the house before company came over, that sort of thing. By the time I left for Japan, he was on Paxil, too.

I don’t resent the drugs. I mean, they‘re happy, in their little narcotic partnership. But I find myself wondering, when’s my turn? I know one day I’ll be doing groceries and feel a tiny click from somewhere behind my eyes and I won‘t know how to leave the dry goods aisle and that’s it, cowboy. Welcome to Team Pillpop. My only hope is that it happens after I leave here. Japan would not be the best place to burst into tears on the subway, only to collapse out on the platform as the herd thumps past me, barely masking their annoyance at the Gaijin delaying them.

“I don‘t know how I could make it on a plane for that long, Jacob. And my legs are getting worse all the time–.” Her voice begins to crack.
“It’s-it‘s okay, Mom. I’m disappointed, but I understand.”
“I never thought my life would end up this way, Jake. Some useless cripple at fifty-five…”
I try to console her but she‘s already sobbing. She says she loves me, but has
to go. Then silence. The doorman sees the look on my face. He lights two cigarettes and offers me one. Anything for the tourist. I don’t even smoke, but accept it anyway. I step outside into the stairway. I watch the smoke spiral up from my fingertips, craning and twisting into disproportioned shapes; polygons from some undiscovered geometry. The sign buzzes above me, dousing the stairway a nauseous pink.

Funny, up until recently, I never thought about death. Not that I was the picture of fitness, but it just wasn‘t a consideration. People didn’t die at my age, that was the rule.

But then one day I woke up and found myself staring down the barrel of thirty, and my teeth feel weak and my knees are noisy when I get out of bed, and my parents spend more time in doctors’ offices and suddenly death is making its way through my neighbourhood, going door-to-door announcing his arrival with a friendly hello like a sex offender out on parole. And I know life is precious, but I also know I’d rather live it in a place where I can never really belong. The racism keeps everybody honest, and there‘s never any question where you stand.

I walk back inside the club, check my wallet, and decide to drink until I’m not afraid to fall asleep.