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City Land by John Burgman

City Land by John Burgman

Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014

Some time ago, I had my nose broken by a gang of Japanese teenagers. It was the same summer I worked as a copy editor at the English-language magazine, City Land, in Tokyo. I had been at the job a few weeks. I had, by then, traveled to the publisher’s offices in Yokohama and Sapporo, but was settling into the daily groove in Tokyo. The pay was good and the office was nestled within a lively patch of after-hours izakayas.

My wife, Megan, was pregnant that summer with our little boy. Megan could not have been cheerier about the situation, despite occasional bouts of nausea and frustrations dealing with an OB-GYN who spoke limited English. I, on the other hand, was a mess. I was twenty-eight years old and had never considered fatherhood as a reality. I had nothing but a stack of Japanese-American dictionaries, a few suitcases of clothes, and a life back in America; the notion of having to care for a precious child made my head spin and dragged me into a siege of fright and piercing self-doubt.

I was thousands of miles from my home in New York. Once, while waiting for a cab in Shibuya, I bought a vial of hashish oil from a student to temper my anxiety and ease my depression. I never opened it, and when Megan asked about it one morning in our little laundry room, I lied and told her it was a vile of old tea.

I grew increasingly disturbed by the thought of fatherhood. When the agony became too much, I worked more—long hours at City Land, overtime, double-overtime, copy editing additional translations on the side. I translated things whose context I couldn’t even comprehend: brochures for startup businesses, and mergers and acquisition excerpts. I could edit quickly, English and a little Japanese. And I felt that if that was my sole gift in life, a sharp aptitude for agglutinative languages, then some secret force would counter-balance that talent by making me a deplorable father, a type of rotten, existential equipoise.

I ate most of my meals at work—small bowls of beef and rice that I microwaved and nibbled at my cubicle while the other translators went out for Asahi and sushi. I also filled the office refrigerator with cans of iced coffee so I could spend all night at the office if I had to. In a sense, I justified, there was no need to go home.

One night, Megan confronted me. Why are you spending so much time away from me and away from our home? she asked.

I responded, I don’t like you being pregnant. I hadn’t intended to say something so menacing, but the words just surged forth. I don’t like you like thisit scares me, I said, rambling, bumbling, and Megan began to cry.

*

Megan and I lived in a little house on the outskirts of Fuchū, a curl west from the bustle of Tokyo, on a homey avenue within walking distance of a barber shop and a seafood cafe and a grocery store. There was another American couple living down the street who had assimilated long ago after a stint in the Peace Corps. Mostly though, it was just the two of us, Megan and I, reminding ourselves of our past lives back in New York. When we wanted nightlife, we’d take the train to Roppongi Hills and strike up conversations with backpacking expats. Megan would say that she wanted to backpack through Asia too, but I detected insincerity.

The routine of my job helped whenever a rift developed between us. At home in New York, I used to chastise my friends who worked at ad firms for their overblown sense of corporate worth and mindless devotion to their companies. But when Megan and I argued—about small things, like the best fruit for a pregnant woman (blueberries, which were hard to find in Japan), then about things like where to raise the baby—I found surprising solace in the monotony of my office. The ordered sequence of my day: train to sidewalk to desk to bar, repeat the next day.

Late at night, the only other people at the office were the janitors, who arrived at 9 p.m. to empty the cubicle trash bins and clean the restrooms. Each floor of the building had an order in the sequence of cleaning, and since the editorial side of City Land was the busiest and dirtiest department, my floor was often cleaned last. After a week of late nights, the janitors all knew my name, but simply called me gaijen.

One of the janitors was named Yushi. He was young—nineteen years old, pale-skinned with a fascination for pornography. He had a thin frame and acne-pocked cheeks. He blasted loud music on his headphones as he worked, kneeling to trash bins and nodding along to his songs. Gaijen! he’d say to me and smile. I worked diligently as he mulled around the cubicles. He liked punk rock. The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. I could hear the blare of guitars, the thump of the drums in his headphones.

When I needed a break from the fact-checking, I took long walks through the corridors and the offices of the other editors. I sat at desks, looked at little framed family photos—anything to avoid going home and dwelling on my impending parenthood, the true end to any bachelor dreams that I still cherished.

It wasn’t just my reservations about fatherhood that ate at me—it was Megan too. Her focus had changed. It felt strange to witness her donning a new motherly aura. She seemed severed from our past ambitions. I would mention our favorite restaurant in Brooklyn, or remind her of the time we won twenty-five dollars from the New York lottery, and she would laugh like I was making a joke. I didn’t know what to make of it.

Yushi and I became friends. As a result, I was less productive during my nocturnal hours at the office, but regardless, I was able to keep my parental trepidation at bay with our frequent conversations about music and CBGB and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We traded addresses and talked about going to Cigarette Man and Guitar Wolf concerts in Ginza. Yushi had an interest in aspects of punk rock that I had never given much thought to. What kind of shoes are best for skanking? he asked in stunted English. And of the music: How loud is best for punk rock?

I learned of Yushi’s pornography fascination around midnight one evening, after he had finished emptying the trash near my section. He had slipped into one of the conference rooms in the corner of my floor. There were televisions in the conference rooms, which were generally reserved for executive meetings. Wandering the corridor on one of my coffee breaks from editing, I heard light female squeals and moans coming from behind a conference room door.

I didn’t say anything, just approached and stared through the conference room blinds and saw Yushi hunched in his chair, eyes glued to the glossy flashes of skin on the TV screen. His eyes darted to me then, and I could see a wave of fear envelope his face. Kuso! he cursed. Sorry, sorry.

I stared at the acne scars trotting from his nose. One of his eyelids trembled. He stood in shame, gripped by embarrassment. What are you watching? I asked.

He shook his head. Sorry, he said. Free! It’s Free! The TV threw another series of guttural moans into the room.

Yushi went to great lengths to explain, with demonstration, how the TV showed grainy porn channels if you clicked past the regular 20 channels, then clicked past a few dozen more stations of static with the other remote. I was impressed by the precision of his discovery. How did he know this? I told him I didn’t care what he had been watching. He continued to apologize though, not realizing that I had no friends to gossip with even, if I had wanted to.

Just fun, he said, still ashamed. I laughed at the absurd image in my peripheral vision, a man straddling a leggy woman on a boat deck, clothes askew.

*

When I got bored some nights, I ducked into the same conference room for the hell of it and found Yushi sitting in the dark, squinting at the gravelly porn on the screen. I took a seat and kicked back too, laughing at the preposterous boy-meets-girl scenarios and trying to catch recognizable Japanese words in the dialogue. Soon, Yushi and I would both be laughing at the ridiculousness, and it was easy to think that we were the only ones who had ever stumbled upon these low-budget Japanese gems.

I wondered about Megan too, what she was doing at these wee hours of the morning. I began to look at the bodies of the women on the screen and compared them to Megan’s swelled figure. I thought about the slender hips and palm-sized breasts of the porn stars, the wild sex, and then my mind would swing to Megan’s bulging, unwieldy chest, her nausea and vomiting. I felt I was witnessing every glorious, passionate molecule leaving my future. It all seemed elicit and unfair.

One morning, I was called into a meeting with the group publishers. Someone had arrived early at the office, clicked on the conference room TV, and found porn playing on the screen. I knew right away: Yushi had forgotten to change the channel before turning off the TV the previous evening.

The magazine was putting together a Back to School issue at the time. All of the staff members stood around a square table, holding partially edited manuscripts, trying to stomach the glares from the executives. Everyone struggled to wrap their heads around the situation. I could read their confusion. Porn. Conference Room. Middle of the night. It must have all sounded so outlandish.

This is deplorably unacceptable, the publisher said. She was a sharp-featured woman I had talked to once before, when I was first hired. Her name was Momo. She had spotless, translucent skin and graying hair, and spoke flawless English.

When people began to trickle out of the office for lunch, she approached my desk and shot me a knowing nod. She tilted her head and adjusted her wire-rimmed reading glasses from the tip of your nose. You, she said to me. I understand you work here late at night.

I do. Sometimes, I said.

Then you’re the main person of interest, she said.

I glanced around at the other cubicles. In the desks near mine, two girls were scribbling in manuscript margins with red pens. They were aloof.

I needed to find Yushi, confront him about his pinheaded oversight. I was hit with a galling sensation then, the realization that I would be fired. Momo glared at me. I watched her chest rise and lower in a steady cadence of angry breathing. I wanted to find Yushi and, whatever the outcome, separate my name from his stupidity.

I felt enraged, but not particularly at Yushi or Momo or the sensation that things were crashing around me. It was rampage against all of it, against the collective design. I felt an entire foreign world, internally and externally, bending viciously against me.

*

I took a train out to Yushi’s neighborhood that evening. He lived in Shinjuku. It was dark by the time I arrived. The lights of Kabukicho shimmered around the train station, a glowing smear of bright reds and yellows and greens. I walked from the station down the main drag. People were swarming in the streets. Cars inched and shuddered through the groups. Alleys teemed with loud drunks and nightlife. I had come so far on an impulse, but suddenly, I felt my energy ebbing in the throngs. I clamored through more bustle, more lights. I passed a Mr. Donut and a Rice Burger and felt tired in the false glow of the evening.

I considered what I would say to Yushi. I would use simple phrases, and make him understand that I didn’t want an apology; I wanted him to explain the situation to the executives at City Land. That was all.

I showed Yushi’s address to a group of boys and followed their directions, ducking down a walkway and into the grid of side streets. More than anything, I thought, I wanted to tell Yushi he was an idiot to leave the TV on the porn channel like that, and that he should be smarter about that shit.

I remember I lost track of my direction and sequence of the street signs sometime then, and soon my perception of my route was twisted.

I showed Yushi’s address to more people but just got blank stares and furrowed brows. Eego? I asked, but couldn’t find a soul who spoke English.

I cut through an alleyway and jogged when I saw the sign for Rice Burger, but it was a different restaurant; Mr. Donut was nowhere in sight. There were fewer bright lights. The passageways between buildings grew wider and dimmer. After a minute of indecision, I crumpled the paper with Yushi’s address.

At first, I didn’t notice the group of teenagers—four of them—approaching me from my angled left. But I saw their shadows, and then they lunged for me like an explosion, pummeling my cheeks and neck with fists. I yelled for help, and felt a galaxy of pain in my testicles, a kick that shot up to my stomach. The figures hovered above me then, vague shapes in the night. They shouted in Japanese. I dropped to my hands and knees. I felt the weight of a fist sinking into my kidneys, then my wallet being taken from my pocket. Please, I shouted. I covered my neck from more fists, but couldn’t isolate where I was hurting. More punches and kicks. My muscles throbbed. I struggled to lift my head at one point, one final plea for the beating to stop, and then there was the heft of a fist against my nose. I felt the cartilage crunch. My throat tightened and I tasted blood. My head spun for a moment.

Then suddenly, I was alone on the quiet ground, the chaos seemingly finished.

*

I took a small breath and rolled over onto my back. Silence. I stared at the sky. Everything stung. I spit blood and rolled my tongue across my teeth. I had no thoughts initially, just a space, my mind at an unavoidable end. Cautiously, I took deeper breaths—more stinging—and thought of Megan. I saw her face and her image gained more detail. I imagined her standing and walking. She was in this city, somewhere, and that was comforting.

I knew I looked horrible. The skin on my face felt swollen. There was blood on my jacket and hands. I pulled myself to my knees, then stood. My thoughts never turned to the teenagers. How much money they had taken? I didn’t care. My limbs were heavy. My palms were scraped from the concrete.

I tried to think sensibly, and reason told me I should feel bitter, or thankful that I hadn’t been slain. I rubbed my fingers together, feeling my pulse throbbing at my fingertips. I felt no animosity or gratefulness though. I was so exhausted, even my mind felt too bruised and fatigued to reason in the alleyway.

I hobbled out to a busier street. The izakaya signs and the neon restaurant symbols glowed. People stared at me. I took off my blood-slicked jacket and scrunched it into a sewage drain.

I continued walking, more busy streets. Where was Yushi? I no longer cared. Eventually some professor and his wife, God bless them, asked if I was sick. Their English was halting, but they gave me a ride to the train station, paid for my ride, and the whole time I was wincing from my crushed nose and thinking about Megan. Megan’s skin. Megan’s rounded hips. Megan’s scent.

When I arrived home, Megan was asleep in the bed, curled like a ballerina. The room was dark. I climbed in beside her and when she stirred, she turned on the light and saw my nose. Oh Jesus, she said. Her voice trembled. She clicked on the light.

I think I’ll be OK, I said.

Megan took a wet handkerchief to the bridge of my nose, gently patted the symmetry, and got some ice.

We sat on the bed together. She folded her arms around me and I told her about the teenagers. About Yushi. My face grew numb. I felt the bulge of Megan’s pregnant skin against me—the strange and wonderful phenomenon of her swelled midsection.

I’m sorry I woke you, I said to her. So sorry. I had to form the words deep in my throat. I wanted to tell her more, but she told me not to talk.

It’s OK, she said. It’s OK. She placed a warm hand on my cheek, cupped my face and bent her magnificent, glowing body against mine.

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